Slay the Spire

It’s been a good few weeks since I’ve done any regular posting, and before IFComp season begins, I’d like to say at least a little something about what I’ve been playing during those weeks. The chief thing, definitely the one I’ve put the most hours into, is Slay the Spire. That’s because it’s a very compelling game: it’s a hybrid of roguelike and deck-building game, which is an unexpectedly synergetic combination. The roguelike part gives it a rhythm of periodically failing and restarting, which wipes your deck and makes you start afresh, the better to make you experiment with different deck-building strategies.

Most of the game is spent fighting. Cards represent various combat moves, offensive and defensive, and are mostly acquired by winning fights, although there’s some opportunity to buy them from in-game shops as well. There are three player character classes (and a fourth coming), each with its own card set specializing in different force multipliers. The three classes more or less correspond to the classical Fighter, Thief, and Wizard, although the Wizard is a little bit of a stretch — it’s based on summoning an array of “orbs”, each of which automatically performs a simple action each turn, like attacking or defending, or can be spent to perform the same action harder. Call it a summoner, then.

In fiction, though, that summoner is a rogue security android. And that’s a good example of the kind of world-building this game does: offhand and ambient, made of suggestive details rather than lore dumps. The player has no idea that this is a setting with security androids until you see it in the character select screen. The title screen has an image of an impossibly tall and slender spire with an organic-seeming irregularity, but that’s all it tells you about the setting. There’s a bird cult of some sort inhabiting the spire, which seems appropriate for a structure reaching into the sky. Every human in the game wears a mask, usually made from an animal skull. Why? Probably, at root, it’s so the developers don’t have to make facial animations, but it comes off as suggestive and enigmatic all the same. The one exception to this is the special events found in some rooms in place of a combat encounter or a shop. These are storylets that usually culminate in a choice, which may be constrained by your available resources. Steal a treasure at the cost of putting a Curse card into your deck? Give up a relic you found earlier in order to upgrade all your basic attacks into vampire-style life-draining bites? The choices tend to be dark ones, and the text that precedes and explains them is similarly dark. This is the closest the game comes to providing an explicit story.

But the bigger story is the implicit one, of a hierarchy of successes and failures. It’s broadly implied that this isn’t a story of a succession of random heroes attempting to ascend the spire, but that in some sense it’s all the same person, repeatedly dying and being resurrected at the bottom by some kind of three-eyed whale god. Sometimes you’re resurrected as a rogue security android, is all. And when I call it a “hierarchy”, what I mean is this: Within a game, there are three chapters, each ending in a fight against a boss. Beating the third boss with each of the three character classes for the first time results in a little cutscene of a gem lighting up in a sort of three-part key. Once you’ve beaten the game with all three classes, the pieces of that key become available to pick up within the spire. Going for them makes the game a little harder, but if you manage to get them all in a single run and then beat the third boss — which is something I’ve managed only once so far — you get to advance to a short but tough fourth chapter, with an even tougher boss. And each level of this hierarchy feels like victory, at least until you actually attain it and discover that it’s just a piece of a larger whole. It isn’t just the low-level gameplay that makes this game as compelling as it is. It’s also this structure, that makes victory seem close at hand such a large portion of the time.

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