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.