107 – Xploquest, Dragon Warrior, and The Iconic

Screen Shot 2017-12-11 at 8.38.09 AMXploquest bills itself as “perfect for a break between two game sessions” and that’s exactly where I am right now: Regalia is very enjoyable and hitting the “tactical RPG” part of my brain, but it’s not really suited for marathon play–it’s the kind of game you chip away at for an hour or two and then put away for a few days until you feel like making a little more progress at it. Throne of Bhaal is…well, it’s crappy, and you’ll get my thoughts on that, don’t worry. I need a palate cleanser; Xploquest fit the bill.

I love RPGs–you all know that, it’s obvious going through my blog that RPGs are 90% of what I play. There’s a lot going into that love–I tend to like playing fantasy games, I like games that are a little more story focused, and I love all the numbers and shit. I fell hard for the genre back when I was about 7, when I ended up with a copy of Dragon Warrior; that it was the kind of game that the jockier kids in my class hated only sweetened the deal. Dragon Warrior was a slow game, a game with a lot of reading, a game with numbers, a game you had to think about–a game that you wouldn’t do well in if you were stupid. Now granted, I was still a little kid, I was only able to play the game with the help of the hint guide, but I was drawn to it, it was the exact game I wanted to play. It still is.

And, particularly as a kid, the trappings of RPGs were what sold me on them: I liked the idea of a large, sprawling world that the adventures took place in; Super Mario was still fun, was still a game I loved to play, but “here’s a level, and when you’re done with that here’s another level, and when you’re done with that here’s another level” seemed kind of shallow compared to “explore this land and figure out, or read in the hintbook, where you’re supposed to go next”. And I’ve always loved wizards, and magic, and dragons, and I loved a game that was basically reading a story about wizards, and magic, and dragons. As an adult, Dragon Warrior has relatively little text, but as a kid, that little text was all I needed in order to fill in the blanks. I remember Alefgard as this living, breathing world with people going about their days, with secrets hidden in nooks and crannies, as this large thing where I was this tiny hero. If there is one thing from childhood that I wish I were still able to tap into–that, as a writer, I try to tap into, and sometimes vaguely succeed–it is this ability to be overwhelmed by a story.

I read Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud in college and what’s stuck with me from that is his discussion of “the iconic” in comics. He describes a continuum with two dots and a line forming a smiley face — pure iconography — on one end and a photograph — pure realism — on the other.. The photograph represents one and only one person; the smiley face can represent just about every person. Drawings somewhere in the middle of that continuum have a weird power where they have enough details to narrow down the field a bit but they’re abstract enough to still have a wide range. This allows us, McCloud argues, to project ourselves into the comic more easily than you can with a more realistic drawing style–more people recognize themselves in Charlie Brown than Mark Trail.

But I know I don’t always project myself into a comic, even if the drawing style does lean heavily into the iconic. My enjoyment of Persepolis does not come from my identification with the Marjane Satrapi character–even as I might recognize character traits we have in common. Perhaps the iconic style helps mitigate what is a very specific, personal story–it cracks the door open a bit and makes it more accessible. But I find the iconic’s true power to be related to something else McCloud talks about. Comics are, after all, static images often broken up by panels. McCloud uses the example of a comic about someone committing an ax murder (!) — one panel of the killer holding the ax above his head, the next of a shot of the cityscape with a scream ringing out. The actual murder is not depicted–it takes place in our minds, suggested by the scene transition. We essentially animate the scenes in our heads.

And just so, drawings that take place on the more iconic end of the scale require a little more work on our end–we fill in more details in our minds. Persepolis is describing real events which happened in real places to real people–when I read it, I cannot help but use the pictures as a guide to imagine what it all “really” looked like. Comics become one of those mediums which exist in a weird sort of collaboration between the cartoonist and my imagination, and as a result, they end up becoming weirdly personal to their readers*. My impression of Persepolis or Cerebus or The Sandman will have a lot in common with yours, but they won’t be exactly the same–and, most poignantly, we won’t ever be able to access each other’s.

For me, Dragon Warrior hit that sweet spot on the iconic-realistic continuum–it was enough that it gave me the strokes of the world, but it was just sketchy enough that it encouraged me to fill in the blanks myself. Super Mario was a challenge, and a lot of fun, but Dragon Warrior? You know, when Betty Crocker introduced boxed cake mixes, they initially contained powdered eggs–it was a “just add water” thing–and the cakes still tasted as good as a boxed cake mix can taste, but people hated them until they came up with the idea to make you add your own egg in. The simple act of having people actually crack open an egg and stir it in gave a feeling of participation–just adding water wasn’t doing any work, but if you added an egg, you felt like you actually baked something. Dragon Warrior was the first game I ever played that made me feel like I baked. You could do far worse to determine a necessary facet of role-playing games. It’s right there in the name: You need to add yourself into the mix to give the game some ruach.

But Xploquest–the game I’m ostensibly writing about–is much, much further on the scale of the iconic, and I would suggest that it doesn’t invite us to add an egg, so to speak–it is a pure plotless RPG and it doesn’t need one. The game could be simple colored squares, or ASCII symbols, although the art is simple, boldly-colored, and, to my eyes, really pleasing. You’re in a generic fantasy kingdom–or maybe not even a kingdom, as there is no castle–with several towns, all alike, and some generic terrains. You can buy some generic potions or some generic spells, purchase and upgrade some generic weapons, and whap some generic monsters in order to get XP and gold. The dungeons are literally all 10 fights, all the same. There’s some caves with different layouts, but they’re not mazelike in anyway. It is as stripped down of an RPG as you can get: Try to make a set of numbers–representing monsters–go down while trying to keep a different set of numbers–representing you–up; every so often, the numbers representing you become higher and you know you’re progressing. An RPG stripped to its bare ludic bones.

And Xploquest was absolutely fascinating to me. I played for two straight hours one night, and three the next–at which point I was finished, and I don’t think I could have taken it for much longer–but it was exactly the kind of numbery exercise that I liked. See, Throne of Bhaal is wearing on me, and the whole Baldur’s Gate saga, my whole “let’s beat every Infinity Engine game again” thing, it’s a huge project and I am weary. And, as Ben Chandler pointed out in the comments (please comment, I love comments!), that weariness is part and parcel of playing epic games, and maybe even a nice bit of ludonarrative consonance–every hero is tempted to give up in the face of the enormity of the task, heroism is only meaningful if you push past it and win–but it still kind of sucks. I don’t know why I do it sometimes.

But Xploquest reminded me that sometimes I just like to see a bunch of numbers go up in order to see how much fun I’m having. I’ve said that the big joy of RPGs is going back to the early areas and wiping the floor with the monsters, and Xploquest not only gives you that, it scales encounters to your level, and even does this nice thing where it decides certain encounters are beneath you, and also lets you face them anyway if you’re feeling impish. It’s balanced excellently. It even avoids the temptation to be a roguelike–it avoids the urge to bullshit us by pretending to have “infinite replay value because everything is random”–and features one and only one overworld map. The map is the way it is out of pure challenge–easier areas are here, and the harder areas are here, and you explore everything in vaguely this order, and oh man, why don’t roguelikes understand that I’m probably not going to play their game 50 times, I’m just going to play it the once, so just figure out what the best map design is and just give me that?

Listen, Xploquest is a little free game I found on Steam, I believe it’s a port of a mobile game, it is not necessarily the kind of game that earns philosophical ramblings–but I’m still damn glad I played it, and I love RPGs, and I love talking about RPGs and all–and you know what? I said the game was iconic, meaning that I get to see a lot in it. This is, simply, what I saw when I was playing it. I baked.

* I’m flashing back to Existentialism and Literature by Jean-Paul Sartre which I read something like 10, 15 years ago and so don’t have the fluency to discuss that well, but there’s a bit where he’s talking about literature in these terms: A book is just black marks on a page without a reader to understand and interpret them, and so, this blog post you’re reading does not exist in itself unless someone is reading it–a tree does not make a sound if it falls in the forest without anyone to hear it. Contrast that to a movie–you put a movie or a TV show and you walk out of the room, it is still going to exist even if it does not have an observer. And now I’m also getting a flashback to a philosophy class I took where the professor began the very first class by asking “How do you read?”, and every single answer anyone gave–“I look at the words on the page and I understand what they mean”–lead to another question–“How do you understand them?”–and every answer to the followup lead to another followup, and half of the class dropped out the next day. I miss philosophy classes but man, am I glad I’m out of school.


93 – Baldur’s Gate: Siege of Dragonspear (and some other rambly shit)

It’s perhaps overstating the case to say that Baldur’s Gate: Siege of Dragonspear feels like a fangame–every review you read about it takes pains to remind us that Beamdog is made of some ex-Bioware employees who actually worked on the original game–but man, does it feel inessential like a fangame. I’ve been playing for close to two weeks now, which is a lot of playtime compared to the amount of content in the game. It’s all fine. There’s nothing wrong with it. But I don’t know why I’m playing it. I’m close enough to the end that I could just export my character and be in fine form for Baldur’s Gate II, but also close enough to the end that I should just put the thing on Story Mode and muddle through, but when “put the game on Story Mode and just muddle through” is an option you’re seriously considering, that’s a sign that someone’s done something wrong along the way.

Like–there’s oh-so-much written about Story Mode, and it’s one thing if you’re enjoying it and are finding it tough going–it’s another if you’re doing Story Mode just to get it over with. I can’t say the challenge is too tough, I can’t say the encounters are poorly designed–with some caveats I’ll get to in a minute–but it’s just–

Oh, Siege of Dragonspear is fine. It doesn’t have the fucked up and janky character of Baldur’s Gate I, it doesn’t have the refined expansiveness of II, it’s just kind of there. It’s–well, it’s very Bioware-y. I in general find Bioware games to be fine. Their lore is well-thought-out, they’re appealing games, they’re well-designed, they’re maybe a little too internetty in their humor and their insistence on romance subplots everywhere, but they’re–you know, Bioware games just Aren’t For Me.

I think the word I’m looking for is “normcore”.

I’ve bought a shitload of Dungeons and Dragons books lately because I’m trying to get some inspiration and ideas for some of my own writing, and while plenty of people will point out problems in the rulebooks that may or may not be legit, the thing is that Dungeons and Dragons is huge. Everybody knows about it. This is not a niche hobby like it was in the 70s, when it was solely the provenance of isolated nerds; it isn’t the dangerous conduit to Hell that it was accused of being in the 80s; it’s, you know, a popular game that’s made a lot of people a lot of money. It’s part of our pop culture. If it isn’t quite Lord of the Rings or Star Wars, well, it’s in the same breath. There’s a familiarity to it that comes through sheer exposure. It’s a game like any other–maybe a bit more complex and time-consuming than most people are willing to buy into, but just a game nonetheless.

I’ve talked about this a bit with videogames in general: We can’t pretend that playing videogames is a niche hobby anymore. We can’t pretend that geek culture is subaltern. It is front and center. It is capitalism. It is oppression. An asshole who’s GamerGate in spirit if not in aesthetic is in the White House. There are versions of videogames that are bigger than others, surely–I tell so-called gamers at the college I work at that I’m playing through Baldur’s Gate and they get fuzzy looks (which, to be fair, Baldur’s Gate might have even come out before they were born), but they’ll know Dark Souls intimately. They’ll talk excitedly about Overwatch. Jocks play videogames. (Is “Jock” as a category meaningful anymore? I am out of touch with student cliques.) And let’s face it, Siege of Dragonspear is even more obscure than the Gate itself.

But I guess what I’m saying is as simple as, Baldur’s Gate came out at a time when its audience was, you know, people who might not have been able to find the three friends necessary to play “real” Dungeons and Dragons–hence why I’m fond of it now at this time in my life–but Dragonspear came out after, you know, 15 years of game design evolution and a sea change in pop culture. Fantasy and superheroes are fucking everywhere and people look at you funny–like you’re some kind of antisocial rebel–if you don’t give a shit about what Marvel is putting out. Baldur’s Gate is what it is. Dragonspear tries to shine itself up for a larger audience. And for the most part, it acquits itself so well that it’s a really, really boring game to play.

Like, it takes few risks. The biggest risk it takes is a couple of large-scale setpiece battles with dozens of combatants, and when you’re on a shitty Macbook like I am, everything slows down to a crawl, the area effect spells you throw down end up slowing down everything further–but I’m not quite sure a proper speed would help matters.

I feel like I’m talking around some points I’m trying to make, and that’s okay–there’s something I’m trying to get at about all of this that I’m chipping away at.

I guess it’s like this:

I was a child in the 80s, one who was very aware of and very interested in geeky nerdy culture, in the RPGs of the time, who desperately wanted to play Dungeons and Dragons, but who was, frankly, too young for all of it at the time, and who, frankly, wasn’t able to explain this stuff to other kids when I got to be the beginnings of old enough for it. I think about childhood and I think about how much I loved Dragon Warrior and how friends found all the text boring. Friends who hated reading. Stuff like that. All of this stuff was out of my reach, and as such it developed a cache of being–you know, a little dangerous. Playing Dungeons and Dragons or Might and Magic or whatever had some of the resonances of, for example, playing with power tools, or crossing the street by yourself–it was dangerous, and that danger was helped along with, you know, the darkness of a dungeon. The idea of it all–spurred on by my tiny child mind–was kind of fucked up and scary.

There is nothing fucked up or scary about Siege of Dragonspear.

Fantasy can and should effect a sense of wonder and awe–but there should be something creepy about it too. There is something Out Of This World about it. Going through the fifth edition Monster Manual, everything feels oddly safe. Here are some blandly-written descriptions and stat blocks–all of this is categorized and collated, it’s the product of 40 years of solidification. There isn’t the sense that–let’s face it, if you met anything from that book in real life, even a lowly goblin, it’d scare the everloving fuck out of you. Even a benign being would be a little horrific because of how uncanny, how unnatural it is. An aboleth should induce dread. You look at its statistics and it’s something you can comprehend.

There is no sense of the slip, of the overwhelming, of the pure cosmic horror of the thing. I think about how even Darkest Dungeon was trying to give a sense of the brutal madness of a dungeon crawl, but it was just Another Damn Cthulhu Game where your insanity effects are just different buffs and debuffs. Motherfucking Cthulhu! A creature who, in real life, would cause anyone’s mind to snap, but at this point we’ve seen so many different permutations of that brand of horror that it’s just kind of, you know, there. Background. It’s like being afraid of Dracula.

I know, I know, Siege of Dragonspear isn’t trying to be a horror game. It’s an expansion of world, an attempt at bridging two games, and as such it acquits itself well. I’m spitballing incomprehensibly about a desire to experience or write something that’s a lot more outre, and something that I can’t really figure out how to talk about. What I’m really doing is simply trying to figure out the edges of what I’m looking to do–the feeling I’d like to give to a dungeon I’d like to create–with the understanding that feeling out those edges might even be the beginning of that collation and categorization and understanding. And maybe it’s a loss that’s simply happened because I’ve gotten older and I’ve read a lot of shit. In the beginner’s mind are many possibilities; in the Zen mind, there are few. If I’m being honest, what I’m looking for is a path back to that beginner’s mind, and a way to evoke the absolute terror all of those possibilities evoke.

92 – Baldur’s Gate

Baldur’s Gate is probably one of the finest bad RPGs I’ve ever played. It does so many things weird or wrong, its structure is a goddamn mess, but it’s beloved by pretty much everybody, myself included. Hell, I’m in the middle of my third full playthrough of it, and I’m a fellow who rarely replays games.

It is, in many ways, your favorite shitty pair of jeans. It took a while to break the game in for me, so to speak–the first few times I found myself fighting the engine, then the structure, then a bunch of boredom, and finally I broke through and achieved some kind of enlightenment. There’s something very comfortable about bumming through Candlekeep, about wandering through the game’s endless forests, about attempting to play with Garrick in your party this time and giving up yet again because man Garrick sucks. I didn’t have Baldur’s Gate in high school–I was more into JRPGs at the time, but it’s one of those titles I very much regret not playing until I was an adult.

It’s one of those games that feels like a lot more than it is. There is a strong appeal, for me, of games that suggest a whole large, living, breathing world. That’s half of the fun of the Soulsborne series, really–the game is a sketch, an outline, and one which lets you fill in the rest in your head. For me, the epitome of that game was Dragon Warrior I, which I got when I was something like 7 years old, the perfect age to imagine the game out into being a detailed fantasy kingdom. Alefgard is, of course, a very small map, its NPCs the kind who spout off one tiny line, its monsters goofy if beautiful cartoons, but to my childhood self, it was a world. It hits many of the same impulses that spur on fanfic.

I can imagine my 16-year-old self, in 1999, playing Baldur’s Gate and getting that same feeling, and I think it partially has something to do with how much bigger it was than many of the games that were out around the time. The game features what, in many ways, is a lot of unnecessary crap: Towns with three taverns, all of who provide the same services; people milling about the city saying their line that has nothing to do with your quest or you–I mean, that’s really it: While there’s certainly a tightness to games which understand that you, the player, are the most important character in them and where every detail is related to it, there’s a lot to be said for characters and places that don’t really give a shit about your quest. Someone hanging out in the tavern in Beregost might be annoyed at the iron crisis, but the mechanics of it don’t interest him, it only affects him to the degree that it affects him.

I don’t love Skyrim–I find the world of The Elder Scrolls to be generally drab and boring–but I guess that’s a lot of its appeal. Baldur’s Gate hits that same point–when it transcends being a game and becomes a little fantasy world you can hang out in and live in for a while. It doesn’t matter if, in terms of the text itself, there’s a half dozen identical inns and shops–what matters is the game is totally cool with it if you pretend. That’s been one of the draws of Dungeons and Dragons in general, that it’s an imaginative tool.

Baldur’s Gate does suffer from being the first outing of the Infinity Engine, of being Bioware’s first RPG, of an attempt to stretch the paradigm of the genre and revive it from a relatively fallow period in its history, and yet its failures are interesting. I mentioned structure–the game’s content isn’t evenly distributed among its chapters. The first companions you meet yell at you and eventually leave you to fend for yourself if you don’t complete the first proper chapter as quickly as you can; once you set foot in the town and begin Chapter 2, you need to slow way down and explore the game’s near-endless woods looking for stuff to do, because Chapter 2’s goal is way too high-level for you. Later chapters go quickly…until you get to the town of Baldur’s Gate itself, at which point you’re given a bumper crop of sidequests that’ll keep you busy until you get bored. At some point late-game you can go through the DLC. Character growth is slow, slow, and many of your magic users kind of suck for a while. Classes aren’t mechanically distinct–I’m playing as a ranger for the first time, and other than the option to charm an animal (which I rarely need) and cast Find Familiar (a tiny dragon who dies quickly and removes a point of CON when it does so), I’m finding little difference between it and a fighter. Combat is just kind of there–as opposed to Icewind Dale’s more crafted content, the game drops a little puddle of kobolds or gnolls or whatever from time to time–it doesn’t even feature D&D’s more interesting monsters!–and hopes for the best. Its dungeons universally suck.

And yet–and yet. I might not have the visceral reaction to Baldur’s Gate that I would have were I younger, there may be long stretches of it that are genuinely boring, I wouldn’t call it fun–but it is that rare RPG that’s so much bigger than the sum of its parts. I’m playing it for the third time, and while I’m trying to tease out the why, exactly, I’m doing this, it feels so comfortable. The best thing I can say about Baldur’s Gate is that it is one of those gigantic blocks of fantasy cheese and that it just feels good to play.

54 – Bloodlines, Pt 2

Combat is mentioned, and rightly so, as one of the weakest parts of Bloodlines. It obviously wasn’t the team’s priority–which, I must say, was the right decision. From what I’ve read, the game was given a release date while the game was still super unfinished, and the team had to scramble to get it as done as they could–that it’s as playable as it is today is largely due to ten years of patching. It was absolutely the right call to put more concentration onto the atmosphere, the environment, the storyline, the quest structure than it was to focus on the action, which generally hovers around “good enough”.

I’m playing a brawler assassin–I’m more interested in sneaking up on people and biting them on the neck until they are dead as my method of fighting than I am in being a gunsmith or anything. The sneaking up is satisfying; the actual brawling consists of clicking the mouse button to throw a punch, twiddling the movement keys because the game says that’ll do different punches, and hoping for the best. Maybe throwing up your buff spell or something. I’ve got a few options for my character as far as spells go–you start off equipped with a magic bullet which, if you hang out for a second, replenishes your MP more than it costs to cast, and further spells I’m saving up for include the ability to make surrounding enemies vomit blood, explode, attack each other, etc. Partially due to the less-detailed graphics, partially due to me playing a fucking vampire, partially due to the game making a point of treating the separation of “innocents that you should not kill lest you actually turn into a monster” and “people who are trying to kill you and so you’re able to slake your predatory urges in the name of self-defense” as a theme, it comes across as, oddly enough, less horrifying.

While I am admittedly not feeling any real-world guilt for anything I’ve done in the game–it is, after all, Only A Videogame and killing a videogame character is not at all like killing someone in real life (sorry Keogh!)–there is a bit of weight to more than a few situations you find yourself in. One of the major concepts–it’s right there in the title–is the Masquerade, the agreement among supernaturals that it would be Very Bad if humans were to know the truth about what’s going on around them and therefore the need to keep predations secret. There are more than a few instances where an innocent human has Seen Too Much and you have to choose between killing them before they can convince the authorities that there’s something going on in that abandoned hospital–slaughtering them for simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time–or letting them live but threatening the integrity of the Masquerade. In all cases, I have decided to uphold the Masquerade–that’s the kinda character I’m playing–and it’s nice that in certain circumstances, there’s an alternative, nonlethal solution, like telling a bum, in an extremely scary and monstrous voice, that he had better forget what he’s seen.

But when it does come down to fighting–there is a deal of fighting in this game–it’s all bop-bop-bop and hope for the best (and if I do replay, I’m going to play a gunsmith character because why not). RPGs have always had, at their core, the problem of making combat meaningful, and they more than other genres manage to make encounters have a kind of dual role. If we think about a game as simple as Dragon Warrior, the enemies serve as both obstacles and resources. That game paces its exploration by tying groups of monsters to areas of the world map, and at any point in the game there are going to be areas which the monsters are extremely easy, where they’re a fair fight, and where you’re hopelessly outclassed by them. You’d be able to walk almost anywhere in the game from the get-go if it weren’t for the enemies being too strong for you when you wander too far. This is mitigated by the fact that combat has a direct hand in making your character stronger–fighting monsters gives you both XP and gold, the former increasing your stats and giving you abilities each time you get enough, the latter allowing you to buy better equipment. You stay in an area, fighting and getting equipment until the monsters become too easy, you wander into a new area where the monsters had previously been too strong for you and you set up camp there. The germ is grinding, and while in a game with a poor battle system it becomes a slog, in a well-designed game, it’s part of the fun.

Well, Bloodlines kind of does away with leveling–in a way it cuts out the middleman. It has a fairly standard skill point system, where you can purchase levels in skills for a number of them. Most games which have this kind of a system give you skill points at level up–when you’ve got 3,000 XP, you get to level 5 and you’re given 3 skill points to do what you want. Bloodlines gives you the skill points directly for finishing quests or otherwise doing significant things. (It does still call them XP–which led to a moment at the beginning when I was given 2 XP for a quest and was almost insulted—Might and Magic gives you tens of thousands of XP every few minutes, and even Wizardry 7 was dumping hundreds and hundreds of XP on me for simple encounters–until I realized that 2 XP is actually a really good haul in this game.)

Because of its focus on storyline, you don’t get any direct reward for fighting enemies–similar to Mass Effect 2, when you complete a quest your progress is evaluated and you’re given XP based on your performance, with some quests giving a higher reward if you did a no-kill run. It’s actually kind of nice to see a game which actively discourages grinding–because there’s no advantage to fighting aimlessly, you don’t have to spend your time on that–but at the same time, there’s no advantage to fighting and yet there are a large number of situations where fighting is required. Enemies don’t even have a pacing function–while I’m not sure if any level scaling is done, I’ve never been in a situation my character couldn’t handle with a couple of reload. And so the takeaway ends up, almost, being that there’s no point in fighting. (That’s kind of my issue with Zelda, particularly with entries like Skyward Sword which were focused on inaccurate, irritating, carpal-tunnel inducing waggle–enemies drop rupees which you very quickly max out on, and hearts which you usually don’t need, and otherwise form a bunch of tedious busywork.)

So it’s weird–the game wants to take the focus off of generic combat, of having rooms full of mooks you’ve got to punch your way through, but it doesn’t quite make the leap that it could probably make a really good game with fewer, more deliberate encounters. Given its budgeting problems and its release date, I can’t necessarily fault it. I can fault all of the games that have come out in the past ten years which haven’t quite managed to figure out this lesson yet. Dishonored is one of the few that’s run with having two very different games possible–one which involves combat with a lot of enemies, and one which requires avoiding all encounters except about a half dozen major characters; and of course there’s Shadow of the Colossus, which was wonderful but whose shine dulls a tiny bit each year.


I’ve had murder on my mind since, oh, let’s just call it March, let’s trace everything to Bioshock Infinite, that’s a fine narrative. Dishonored was kind of a first step: I distinctly remember a moment in which I got to see the spine of a guard whose head I’d chopped off, and that wasn’t something I particularly wanted to see, but DIshonored had some merit to it. Bioshock Infinite was Extruded Videogame Product, and while I can’t say “murder simulator” with a straight face, the story seemed like a half-assed act of self-aggrandizement designed to give a lame veneer–to pretend that the game was something classier than an opportunity to control a dude who gets to slaughter people by the hundredfold.

Look–Killing is Harmless is overwritten–its endless summaries and half-baked analysis seem more like a term paper written the night before, it’s padded using tricks that every sophomore knows, and one of its main theses–that one can be held as morally culpable for a videogame action as one can be for a real-life action–isn’t one I agree with at all–but it’s certainly one of the few pieces of game criticism to come out of that particular scene that’s remotely worth a damn: Whatever your opinion of Spec Ops The Line, Keogh’s question–why are you playing a game whose basic actions can be boiled down to “repeatedly murdering dudes”?–was posed prominently enough that it’s worth attempting to answer, and the realization that we might not necessarily be able to do so satisfactorily is significant, yeah.

I’ve been playing RPGs of one form or another for most of my life: Combat has always existed, for me, more as a series of numbers hitting up against other numbers rather than anything more visceral. It can’t be insignificant that I was such a Dragon Warrior guy–still am. Thanks to Akira Toriyama, Dragon Warrior has always had wonderful monster designs–many of which, especially the Slime, are iconic of the series–and so I almost get the sense that a game where you fight primarily humans, especially in a fantasy scenario, is evidence of laziness on the part of the developers. (The so-frequent zombie, really, is usually a way of avoiding the moral questions surrounding killing humans–zombies are soulless monsters and therefore “safe” to kill–without having to do pesky things such as using your imagination to come up with creatures.)

Monsters, not wild animals–there’s something as equally odious about killing a pack of wolves defending their territory as there is killing a guard who simply took the job because it had good insurance and would let him retire early with a good pension. Games have been experimenting with making enemies feel like people for years, as simple things like a wider variety of voice clips became possible; in the effort of games to embrace realism, you don’t necessarily want a bunch of enemies which feel like ducks in a shooting gallery.

I’m not sure I’m leading up to anything more profound than, I’m just bored of games which make an effort to bring the experience of combat into further realism. Anvil of Dawn is hitting this: The enemies are all gruesome and cool-looking monsters–a good motivator to move on to the next dungeon is to see what they’re gonna come up with next, which is something that’s entirely lost in the likes of Skyrim. The combat is extremely simple: You shuffle up to enemies, bop them on the head, shuffle back, let them miss you, then go back and bop them on the head again until they die. It’s not as quick as the fights in the earlier Lands of Lore, and its descendant Legend of Grimrock all but perfects the bop-and-shuffle–but I think it’s satisfying enough. The timing is different for each of the enemies, and there’s some basic strategy to learn, some of that certain-weapons-or-spells-damage-certain-enemies-better thing, but not that much more than that. You don’t even have to aim.

I guess it puts combat in a secondary role, and I like that. It works as a pacing device, as a way of creating an atmosphere of danger and dread, and as a way of worldbuilding, in a way: This isn’t generic Tolkien orcs and shit; Tempest is a fairly alien world, and its enemies are likewise alien. But the game is not about the experience of combat: It’s about the experience of navigating mazes. The mazes contain monsters, just as they contain treasures and they contain puzzles. And I love mazes.

I like abstraction, I guess. I want to look at cool stuff. One of the main reasons AAA has completely left me cold is it isn’t giving me cool stuff to look at, it isn’t giving me cool stuff to fight, but it’s asking me to pretend to be soldiers and murderers and, again, it’s not that I feel guilty about it, but I think it’s time to start being more careful about who I pretend to be. Maybe it’s as simple as I think it’s just nicer to pretend to be a hero sometimes.