Monthly Archives: January 2012

A Gaming Education: Dungeons of Dredmor

The problem with writing about videogames is that sometimes you meet people to whom you have to explain that you write about videogames. Visiting my sister recently in London — a bizarre fantasy realm of rooftop-terrace bars and bohemian homes, where you’re never more than two metres from a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc, and everyone has their own personal assistant, even personal assistants, which leads down an infinite regression that’s best not to think too hard about — I encountered just such an issue.

We were in my cousin’s underground bohemian kitchen, marble work surfaces awash with Latin American travel guides and bowls of rare Picholine olives, and a party began to happen. Not like the parties we have Up North, brimming with recreational drugs and regret, but one with home-made salsa and chit-chat.

After a glass of wine or two, the conversation turned to careers. One girl was a personal assistant at an influential banking firm. Another worked for a major publishing house, as a personal assistant. A third helped fundraise for a charity, though she confessed her personal assistant did most of the real work.

Heads turned towards me. Now I know you should never be ashamed of who you are, as Willem Dafoe tells the Oscar-nominated actor, sex-symbol and Yale PhD student James Franco in the film Spider-Man … but this was one tricky predicament I found myself in. Because the truth I wanted these Oyster-Card-toting, Sauvignon-swilling fashionistas to comprehend, was that when I went home I would be working on an article about Dungeons of Dredmor, a videogame literally about creating an axe-wielding fire mage and leading him down into catacombs to battle monsters in turn-based combat.

I shifted my feet around, and coughed. “I work in a pub,” I said.

Videogame designers worry about many things. How budding games journalists will validate their chosen profession to girls at sophisticated London parties does not, sadly, appear to be one of them. Fire mages are about as suitable a topic for light party conversation as DIY enemas. Probably worse actually, as you can’t make ice-breaking jokes about the time you had a fire mage.

I don’t blame the fashionistas. Everyone who writes about games, if they’re even remotely self-reflective, will have had nights when they’ve lain awake questioning their basic sanity. I could be spending my twenties pitching articles to the Guardian about links between Eastern philosophy and current theories on hemisphere-competition in the brain, or blogging about Terrence Malick films, or penning short stories about sophisticated personal assistants who leave their native London and fall in love with bearded northern writers. But instead I’m working on an article about Dungeons of Dredmor, a game, as I’ve said, literally about creating a fire mage and leading him down into catacombs to battle monsters in turn-based combat.

Identity plays a part in it. Gaming has contributed to my sense of self since childhood, and I owe it a lot. And critiquing something I enjoy, among like-minded individuals, is always pleasurable.

Yet there’s more to it than this. I may currently write within the milieu of videogames, but ultimately I don’t think it matters where you plant your flag. What matters is what you do on the terrain you’ve claimed.

Any subject can be fascinating, can yield truth, if explored deeply. It is as if all facts exist on the surface of a great sphere. Like … a grapefruit. And whichever point you choose to dig in, so long as you burrow down far enough, will eventually lead to a delicious core of truth, which is shared and constant.

Take Dungeons of Dredmor, for example. There’s lots I could say about it to my gaming friends — that it’s a colourful, exuberant dungeon-crawler; that the visual style pays homage to classic LucasArts adventures; that a rich vein of parody runs through the game, with motivation posters for the monsters “brought to you by Lord Dredmor”, and a recent patch that has given the little bats you fight the ability to occasionally shout the battlecry from Skyrim at you as they attack.

But keep digging, and you get to analysis that is, I think, more universal. Dungeons of Dredmor is a “roguelike” — a member of a sub-set of roleplaying game both ancient and staunchly uncommercial, focusing on the two key mechanics of procedural level generation, and permanent death.

Here’s what that means. In a roguelike you custom-build a unique character and set off to explore a unique environment, partially constructed by the computer to ensure its individuality. On your travels you encounter many obstacles, and when one finally gets the better of you — and it will — your character dies. Not dies like “goes back to the last checkpoint”. Not dies like “forces you to reload your save game”. Dies like oblivion.

And okay, these roguelikes are the product of inarguably nerdy minds. The characters you build will be fire mages, or hobbit archers, or cyber-punk ninjas. The environments will be medieval dungeons or ninja lairs. But the bodywork isn’t important. It’s what’s happening under the hood that matters.

You’re deep inside a dungeon, right? Creeping down a torch-lit corridor. You come to a door. No idea what’s on the other side. Could be piles of gold. Could be that enchanted breastplate you’ve heard about. Could be a fucking menagerie of mutant beasties, ready to jam their tentacles down your throat and rip your pantaloons off through your colon. And if it’s that last one — well it’s goodbye to brave Bertie the Barbarian, and goodbye to this funny world that’s become your home, your existence, for the last three hours. All vanishes into the black-lacquered mystery that is not ours to comprehend.

Yet what you feel, poised by this door, not knowing what’s coming next, is the thrill of living. The liberation of the present moment. You feel the conflicting tug of two of our most fundamental, primeval emotions — shared memories passed down to us from ancestors who huddled by dying fires and looked out into worlds wild and hostile and free. The very fabric of your DNA vibrates in recognition. You feel fear, and you feel curiosity.

This is a valuable experience. We’re a society that has lost its roots to the earth that grows us. We feel ourselves to be these mighty, immutable beings — protected from the brutalities of life by our central heating and our Sky+ boxes and the number of Likes on our Facebook status updates. We’re saturated with knowledge — what time the 97 bus arrives, how long Tesco ready-meals take in the microwave, the reasons Rihanna is so lusted-over (because her bland-yet-overt sexuality appeals to the aspirational model of symmetrical perfection shoved down our throats by companies who want us to buy more magazines and hygiene products, thanks for asking!)

But this sense of dominion over chaos, over nature, is misguided. We will all still die. Worms will pick out our eyeballs. And as our bodies decompose and our bones fall to dust, it’s going to matter not one jot whether the iPhones still clasped in our skeletal hands, their screens flickering out a backlit display to the rocks and lonely winds, broadcast the final message: “7 billion people like this status.”

And I lied before. Dungeons of Dredmor isn’t really a game about fire mages. It’s a game about facing the great unknown, and measuring yourself against it. It allows you to reconnect with the sense of wonder and terror felt from an existence where you don’t know what will happen next. And that’s pretty cool, I reckon.

Though if you meet any sophisticated personal assistants, just tell them it’s about Javier Bardem or something. It’ll be easier.

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One Toke Over the Line: How I Passed Through Skyrim and Lived to Tell the Tale

Cannabis is a drug that feeds off misery and elation with indiscriminate zeal. It cares not whether it carries you to Elysian fields or infernal caverns of the soul, so long as it carries you somewhere.

As the more perspicacious among you will no doubt be aware, I have not published a blog post since September. With the months preceding this drought filled with links to my blog from larger websites, words of praise and encouragement from my journalistic idols, emails of thanks from an increased readership, you would be forgiven for assuming I’ve simply been busy working on exciting projects for outlets other than this one.

But you would be wrong. I have spent much of the last four months in a private hell, struggling to find reason for leaving my bed. I have frequently slept until four in the afternoon. I have subsisted on take-aways and supermarket pizzas. I have written sporadically, and been filled with revulsion at the words produced. Evenings have been killed watching Channel Five documentaries about truckers, and drinking wine until the world has gone glassy and underwater, the edges have softened, and life has become blurry enough to deal with.

The days I have spent smoking weed. I am liberal and inquisitive, fascinated by the nature of being and the self-discovery afforded by explorations to the antipodes of the mind (to borrow Huxley’s phrase) — clearly I have always smoked weed. But this drug that was once a companion leading me on cheery Zen-like wanderings, gradually became instead a partner in crime — an all too-willing-accomplice entering with me into a pact of mutual-immolation. We slashed palms, mingled blood, then I incinerated the weed and the weed incinerated me, until I was no more than an automaton, shuffling on because I had always shuffled on.

So, inexorably, in a daze of habitual spliff-smoking, the winter months churned by. Then, halfway through my convalescence, I discovered a new element to add to my languorous routine — a discovery that would eventually lead to the writing of this article. One cold day in November I walked into town and bought a newly-released videogame by the name of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

***

The Elder Scrolls is a series of fantasy roleplaying games, its roots sprouting from that mist-enshrouded quagmire known as the 80s PC gaming scene. If you have a friend with a D&D rulebook and sets of Lego Star Wars figurines displayed prominently in his bedroom, he’ll tell you all about the early Elder Scrolls games — how the first two struggled to find their identity, that third game Morrowind was the series’ high point. But for the rest of the world (or at least the subset of it that owns Xbox 360s), it was The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion that brought the franchise into public consciousness.

Oblivion was sublime, and sublimely flawed. At turns gargantuan, restrictive, overwhelming, bloated, intricate and bland, it was an open-world sandbox experience offering seemingly-boundless vistas and ornate medieval towns to explore, filled with some of the most tedious quests and generic, clichéd characters imaginable.

I appreciated Oblivion, but could never fully give myself to it. There was too much else on my plate. The effort it required to burrow beneath the high fantasy drivel, to the freeform mechanical richness in its crust, was more than I could muster.

And then, five years later, arriving to expectations as high as for any RPG before, came Skyrim. And this time, I had countless hours of dead time that needed eating up. This time I’d cast off or lost all other commitments and responsibilities. This time I was stoned. This time I was ready.

Skyrim is, first and foremost, sumptuous. Set among the pine forests and snow-capped peaks of the Elder Scroll‘s far north, it is filled with vicariously-experienced waterfalls you can almost believe are wetting your face, snow-drifts that cause you to shiver and stamp your feet in solidarity with your hardy avatar.

Exiting its tutorial dungeon — an opening-section, it must be said, remarkably belligerent in its desire to emphasise none of the game’s strengths — you emerge into a crisp, undisturbed forest, the thrill of discovery hanging palpably in the air. You can wind your way down to the nearest village and continue the “main story” (I use this phrase out of convention, though within Skyrim the linear progression of the central quest-line is far from its raison d’etre); you can stalk off into the woods to hunt bears and fall off cliffs and get attacked by giant crabs; you can pick any point on the map — say the furthest city from you — and try to get there; or you can simply amble to and fro, picking flowers, watching sunlight dapple through trees, listening to water bubble along a distant brook.

The sense of freedom is intoxicating. My first ten or so hours were spent roaming the countryside wide-eyed — creeping through caves, my body stiff with dread and foreboding — pinballing between buildings in the town I regularly returned to, trying to remember which one belonged to the blacksmith I needed. This was another world, devoid of the self-loathing and anxiety that coloured my own, and I wanted not just to visit it, but to relocate there.

Gradually, however, a creeping dissatisfaction arose in me. Clouds of frustration began to darken the game’s blue skies. For, slowly, disorganised rambling gives way to routine, and you realise Skyrim‘s world is not as wild or spontaneous as first appears. The dungeons — be they spider-infested grotto, underground dwarvern city or drauger crypt — all follow the same template, with one route looping back on itself, a combination of light and medium enemies, culminating in a boss battle, and finally a chest containing appropriate recompense. Likewise, after a few encounters with the dragons so central to the game’s marketing, their defeat becomes rote, as you watch them circle, land and attack the way they always do. Villagers, you soon realise, play out their lives and spout their pre-programmed dialogue with a mechanical deadness.

This is not really another world, with all its myriad, breathtaking permutations, but a rudimentary simulacrum of one. It is a system not chaotic but neatly ordered — and it isn’t long before you map out this order, and so gain dominion over the system.

Of course, all videogames are simulacra. You can’t reason with the enemy soldiers of Call of Duty, they can’t write letters home, or desert the battlefield to buy a small farm and live out their days with a newfound respect for life. But as players we accept this simplified model because the systems it does simulate are well-implemented, don’t have to be constrained by the laws of our own world, and allow a space to experiment, to play. War-games get my adrenalin pumping, force me to make split-second decisions that feel as if my life depends on them … and ultimately contain none of the troublesome ethical-ickiness that sullies real-world conflict.

Call of Duty is a simplification, but it still expertly simulates the thrill of combat. Portal simulates puzzle-solving. GTA simulates being allowed to go flipping mental in a massive city.

Yet, with Skyrim, it’s tricky to identify where the appeal lies. Fighting is adequate but hardly electrifying. The writing is woeful. Puzzles are unfathomable. The “humour” I’ve had to put in quotation marks there to designate as such, because you’d be hard-pressed to notice otherwise.

Rather, I feel, what Skyrim is supposed to engender is the sense of existing as a small cog in a larger world. Yet, for all its environmental and architectural beauty, this world desperately lacks the spark necessary to bring it alive.

Bethesda, developers of Skyrim, have always struck me as a company heavy on engineers and light on artists. This game does little to change my mind. Dialogue is flat. Story is splurged over your face rather than revealed gradually and cunningly. The drama as a whole unfolds with all the verisimilitude of a school play enacted by marionettes, controlled via those robotic arms that weld doors onto assembly-line cars.

It’s tempting to say Bethesda’s approach simply isn’t suited to rendering dramatic tension — put simply, if you let players go where they want, it’s inevitable they’ll be looking the wrong way when the King is murdered and the pivotal argument plays out — but I think this is making excuses. A deftness of touch, a filmmaker’s acumen for visual storytelling, could make all the difference. Let players loose on Romeo and Juliet‘s balcony scene and they may run off to tea-bag the bushes, but act out some decent Shakespeare and those that care will know where to watch. Timing matters, vocal performance matters, mise-en-scene matters.

Yet for all this, Skyrim is an addictive piece of work. I played for over forty hours. My housemate — who has no nagging sense of writing he’s failing to complete — has clocked up hundreds of hours so far with the game. If so many of its systems are so dissatisfactory, what is its draw?

Worryingly, I believe a large part of it comes down to that oldest of RPG tricks: a web of abstract numbers shrewdly misappropriated to stand as a gauge for your sense of self. Or, to put it in terms relatable within the parlance of our field, it comes down to levelling-up.

Start a player in a world and tell them they are represented by a label that reads “Level 1″. Let them click buttons for a while, then — accompanied by a euphonious little jingle — tell them they’ve ascended to Level 2. That gaping chasm in the centre of their hearts will momentarily fill up, the aching of their lives will fade into the background, and they will become what, in their injured and consumerism-warped brains, they have learned to identify as “happy”. Pretty soon, of course, they’ll start to feel miserable again. Except now they’re aware Level 3 is just round the corner, then Levels 4, 5 and 6. No matter how monotonous the actual activities, how lacking in intrinsic merit, you’ll have them hooked.

In its worst moments, Skyrim can feel like little more than a framing mechanism for this kind of insidious player-manipulation, a grandiose, blockbuster version of the insipid social games Ian Bogost so successfully satirised with his Facebook application Cow Clicker. For a long time I wasn’t playing Skyrim because I enjoyed it, but because playing Skyrim had become what I did.

***

On the train down to visit my family this Christmas, watching out of the window as geese flew in the clear air, and the red in the sky dissolved into the horizon, I decided to stop smoking weed. That was a month ago. So far, so good.

Cannabis is, I shouldn’t need to point out, a plant. And plants are — to the best of my knowledge — morally-neutral beings. Weed isn’t a great evil thrust upon the world, nor is it a saviour to heal all our ills. It’s just an aspect of life, and, like everything else, it can be used or abused. It can enliven creativity, help you wind down after a rough day, or it can ruin your life.

I don’t hate weed. My relationship with it will no doubt grow and mature, ebb and flow, as I sail down the tributaries and rivers of life, back towards the great ocean at the centre of all things. But, for the moment, it is taking me only into dead-end pools and swampy marshes, and it is time to let it go.

And Skyrim? It is not a game devoid of enjoyment, or of beauty. Much pleasure can be gained from getting lost in its voluminous world, from exploring this way and that, fighting giants, riding horses, catching butterflies — losing track of time and realising another evening has passed in the company of insane gods, wooly mammoths and blood dragons.

Nevertheless, I don’t feel I can recommend it any more than I can recommend smoking weed. Initially I plunged into Skyrim with an insatiable appetite, but, as the days passed, I began to feel my time with it was becoming less and less enriching. Maybe your experience will be different. It has many problems — an arrogant disregard for the importance of skillful storytelling, a deep-routed belief that the destination is more significant than the journey — but it is still a fascinating and curious beast, an influential landmark on the vista of gaming. I am confident that I will continue to visit it for years to come.

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