So the other day for some reason I decided to start playing Dungeons of Dredmor. I didn’t really know anything about it, and I was not at all in the mood to invest a lot of hours in the wiki upfront, so I decided that I would just let the game kick my ass until I got enough of a sense of what was going on to decide if I should play it “for real”.
So I played on the hardest difficulty, hard randomed all my skills, swore not to look a single thing up, and (obviously) died twice before I figured out the controls.
By the time I was starting game 3, I had the keyboard set up more to my liking (as little mouse control as possible — auugh why are there chests you have to click to open alongside crates that you don’t?!). I was starting to understand the character screen. I was starting to really abuse my level one raise dead spell. Before I knew it, I had been playing for six hours, and I was determined to be utterly careful, apply all my Nethack and Brogue experience to the fullest, and get further than anyone would believe was possible for a third-timer with no spoilers.
I kept it up for three long sessions, probably clocking in at around fifteen hours, until I made the truly awful decision to trust my certainty that a Thermoblobby couldn’t do 11 damage to me in one hit. I had about six thousand outs, if I hadn’t decided to try to eke out some marginal advantage by waiting a turn to use them. Bleah.
So, I guess, here are some thoughts on the game itself that I posted in reply to a friend’s question on facebook. It’s prolly a really awful decision to put this first because it’s totally boring, and later I’m going to actually talk about interesting facets of my subjective experience of the game. So like, feel free to skip this:
I honestly don’t know if I recommend it, though. I may well never play it again. It’s a.. I want to say “hardcore”, but it’s really more like “middle-core” compared to what’s out there… graphical roguelike, and if you haven’t played any roguelikes before, I definitely wouldn’t start here. If you want my recommendation for the hands-down best roguelike experience you can get right now, it is Brogue.
If you have played some roguelikes and want to try this one out, that’s fine. It’s not a bad game. I managed to have an incredible amount of fun by playing it in a particular, constrained way that worked really well for me, but might not for anyone else, and perhaps you will find a different way to play it that is similarly awesome. But it does suffer from some glaring flaws.
There are bazillions of items. Like, imagine the most ridiculously cluttered jrpg you’ve ever played, and then imagine that there are six versions of everything, and they drop constantly. If that sounds horrible, don’t play this game.
The levels are about twice as large as they need to be for how much variety is in them. There is a setting that fixes this, but it makes the game much harder, since it doesn’t increase your xp gain (I didn’t try it). [Note - this is actually not true. The setting does double your XP, as noted by troacctid in the comments.] If grinding a bunch of repetitive, not-terribly-challenging monsters sounds horrible, don’t play this game.
One really weird thing is that, at least early on, there’s almost no downward pressure. Only roguelike I’ve played without a hunger system. Combined with infinitely spawning monsters, I’m pretty sure you *could* grind to max level on dlvl 1 if you really wanted to. Not sure what’s up with that.
What’s good about it? Lots of awesome spell-tree choices. Interesting armor and weapon stat combinations. As you get a bit further down, more legitimately interesting tactical decisions in fights. A crafting system that looks awesome, and might be, but I didn’t have the right skills to fully explore it. At least in that run, it ended up feeling like I got tons of ingredients for things I couldn’t make yet, but which were nevertheless mostly worse than the equipment I was just finding. So.. I dunno. Undecided on that one.
Um. That was probably more words than you were expecting ^__^ Seriously though, just go play Brogue instead, it’s amazing.
Right. So why, in the face of such glaring flaws, and such modest, bog-standard successes, did I love playing it so much? I really did feel tears begin to well up when I realized that I had fucked it up. That’s.. not really a thing that happens to me in games. I’ve been pretty upset about Brogue fuck-ups before, but never like this.
To answer this, I think I need to explain in a bit more depth just exactly how obsessively I was playing the game. I had my eye on the prize: I wanted to win on my third game, with no spoilers. The tedious, grindy game mechanics had nothing on what I was willing to do to achieve that goal. I kept every item (except duplicates past 2 of really crappy equipment, and a few other truly useless things, which became Lutefisk). As mentioned, that is a lot of items. My pocket dimension had a stack of items in every square i didn’t need to walk on. I probably spent as much time organizing and maintaining it as I did walking around hitting things.
I tried out various pieces of equipment, paying careful attention to how their stats affected my character sheet, and in turn how those numbers translated into combat results. The text log is woefully incomplete in terms of explaining how damage calculations, so there was a lot of reverse engineering to do.
I kept a text file with the results of all my wands and fungi, and referred to it frequently. If I felt remotely in danger, I backed off and abused the lack of a hunger system, waiting til my overpowered slime friend was off cooldown. Learning how best to position that little guy was one of the most fun parts of the run – e makes a big confusion cloud that hurts you too, but e’s most valuable when distracting monsters so that you can hit them too, which makes an interesting tension. You want to try to place em where e’ll walk towards a monster, leaving it at the edge of the cloud so that you can attack from safety.
So I think what made this run a valuable experience for me was a really precise combination of factors:
A) The game is huge. This is a flaw in many ways, but it gave me the room to play it how I wanted. Most people aren’t going to go to the extreme of item stockpiling that I wanted to, but it let me go ahead and do that. This is honestly terrible design from the perspective of people who play frequently – letting you do slightly advantageous but nearly useless things just makes you feel bad for not wanting to spend the time to maximize your advantage. But for someone determined to do well at all costs, giving me an endless supply of “right decisions” to make at the cost of time was perfect.
B) The game is surprisingly lenient for a roguelike. The fact that there is basically no downward pressure from hunger means that I had the breathing room to experiment, back off, heal, and try again in a way that most roguelikes wouldn’t allow. (Later on, monster spawns do become a slight source of downward pressure – you don’t want to waste all your resources wandering back and forth across level 4 for ages before you head to level 5. But earlier on, they take so few resources to defeat that you can pretty much stick around indefinitely. I did have a rule for myself that once I’d fully explored a level I would descend – I wanted to beat the game, not grind to level 99 on floor 1 and then one-shot everything.)
C) I came into it with the perfect mental state. Just the right amount of roguelike experience to feel competent but not expert, just the right amount of boredom and free time to tackle a large, self-imposed challenge. Just the right personality to be interested enough in exploring the systems for their own sake that the fact that they kind of suck didn’t matter too much – it was the learning I was after.
I don’t feel like I’ve conveyed this sufficiently thus far: basically the whole time I was playing, I was having fun. Not because the game was fun, but because the game gave me the tools to impose my will on a complex environment in the manner of my choosing. I’m really sad that I messed up when I still had so many resources left not because I feel like I’ve failed to demonstrate my superiority or something, but because I know I won’t have another experience like this one for a long time, and it could have lasted so much longer.
I’ve always liked taking on personal challenges in games, but it’s never worked so well as this. Games are usually full of things that I wish I could do, but can’t. I don’t think I ever felt that in DoD – whatever I set my mind to in the game, there was a way forward towards that goal, even if it was unreasonably inefficient.
I don’t know when I’ll find another game so perfectly suited to whatever emotional state I happen to be in, but I’ll be keeping my eye out for games with a high degree of freedom to play in nonstandard ways.
Because I obviously haven’t typed enough words yet, let me think out loud for a moment about how one might possibly go about designing games to enable experiences like mine. I don’t think it’s a goal that many people should strive for – a lot of the stuff that goes into it is highly correlated with the game being generally awful. But it is nonetheless powerful stuff, and worth thinking about.
I think the vital factor is having a alternate method of play hidden in plain sight. The sort of thing that most people wouldn’t think of right off the bat, but if you mentioned it, they would go, “oh, well, you could do that, but who on earth would want to?”. Sure, you could beat a Zelda game without picking up any of the heart containers – isn’t it interesting how they don’t just award them to you after boss battles? Sure, you could try to see how far you could get in Mario 64 without ever pressing the A button – isn’t it cool how many other ways besides jumping there are to gain height?
In the first case, I suspect that the decision was conscious, or at the very least, the popularity of 3-heart runs factored into the decision to continue the tradition. In the latter, I’m sure it wasn’t – but it’s an emergent property of a system designed around the sheer joy of moving around a 3d space in as many different was as possible.
Another design element that played a huge role in how invested I became was the traditional roguelike pairing of procedural dungeons and permadeath. The former makes this game uniquely yours, and the latter makes it uniquely now. Not only will no one else play the same game as you, you’ll never get to play it again either, so you’d better make it count. My take on the game took that notion to the extreme, and while I didn’t realize it while I was playing, I took the idea of permadeath to an extreme too – after I died once (those first two abortive runs notwithstanding), I (probably) quit playing the game entirely.
Designing a game that is both procedurally generated and yet can only be played once is .. a bit of a stumper. It’s not clear why anyone would want to invest the resources into making such a game, or why anyone would pay money for one, especially if it was as easy to lose at as most roguelikes. But maybe from the player perspective, there’s value here – maybe a cool way to engage with games you happen to have access to but aren’t really interested in getting into long term is to set that limit for yourself: “I’m going to turn this game on, play until I game over, and then give it to someone else.” You might die quickly, in which case it’s kinda like you never played it all, which you weren’t going to anyway. You might make it a ways in, dislike it, screw up or kill yourself on purpose, and get that crappy game out of your house at last. And you might have a once-in-a-lifetime battle against the unknown, pouring everything you have into the only life you’ve got, and come away from a mediocre game with a memorable story.