Archive for the 'Roguelike' Category

Dungeons of Dredmor: Jokeyness

I haven’t even mentioned the jokey aspects of Dredmor yet, which is a substantial oversight on my part. Usually I’d excuse this by saying that the jokes are superficial, and don’t intrude into the realm of gameplay, where the player’s attention is. But that’s just not true here. The jokes are pervasive at every level, and impossible to ignore. Take damage types: in addition to traditional things like fire damage and electrical damage (which tend to have higher-faluting names within the game, such as “conflagatory” and “voltaic”), there’s existential damage. Crafting skills let you make weapons and armor not just from bronze and steel, but from aluminum and plastic, both of which come in ingots. Randomized magic items have names pieced together out of random words, with madlibs-like results. There’s a magic item that can turn any object into lutefisk, which is more useful than it sounds, because of the various altars to the Lutefisk God scattered around waiting for suitable offerings. There’s one other deity represented in shrines throughout the dungeon: Inconsequentia, goddess of side-quests. who can send you to take on special monster teams with more jovially-randomized names.

In short, it’s a lot like Kingdom of Loathing, but more offhand about it. Which should increase the humor value. The thing is, I’m not really finding the game funny. The death message, “Congratulations! You have died”, always provokes a chuckle, which takes a bit of the sting off the death, but other than that, I don’t think I’ve laughed once while playing this game. The humor more works to set a tone, to establish a particular kind of rapport with the player. It’s not funny, it’s jokey.

And really, this is something that’s traditional in CRPGs. Nethack is quite jokey, providing cream pies as missile weapons and suchlike. The original Wizardry had a jokey heart. Dredmor is unusually dense with jokeyness, but it’s just a difference of degree. Perhaps there’s something about the mechanics of an RPG that invites such an attitude, an absurdity to the whole business of gaining levels that makes the author want to reassure the players that they shouldn’t be taking it too seriously, that it should be treated as something more like a tall tale than a believable simulation of a world.

Dungeons of Dredmor: Patch and Crafting

Right after my last post, Dungeons of Dredmor got a pretty major patch, which Steam downloaded for me automatically. It always feels a little strange when a game spontaneously changes in significant ways just a few days after I start playing it, particularly an offline, single-player game. And it is a pretty major update: there are three entirely new equipment slots (for gloves, belt, and trousers), an entire skill specialization has been removed and its component skills shuffled into other specializations (apparently rendering one of the Steam achievements unachievable), new varieties of trap and vending machine have sprouted. Before the patch, wands used a strange and experimental system of “entropy” and “burn rate” to determine at random when they would become useless; after, they use a more conventional system of charges, which is a little disappointing to me, as I was looking forward to mastering the less-familiar system.

The single most intrusive change is the new crafting interface: the changelog states “we stole the old one from Minecraft, we stole the new one from Terraria”. What this means is that instead of putting items into slots in a special interface and hitting a button to put a combined item in another slot, with an optional recipe list to expedite the process, the recipe list is now all there is. You scroll this list until the recipe is under an unmoving pointer, then hit a button to execute it, using items from your inventory. This means it’s no longer possible to abuse the crafting interface to extend your carrying capacity, which is probably a good thing all told.

I find the new system unsatisfactory in a number of ways, however. The icons representing the recipe targets no longer have tooltips, leaving me guessing a little about what I’m creating. The scrolling list, unlike other scrolling lists in the game, doesn’t recognize the mouse scrollwheel, and the interface itself, unlike all other pop-up interfaces in the game, can’t be closed by pressing ESC. These are obviously bugs, though, and will probably be addressed in further revisions — indeed, I notice that Steam has downloaded another patch as I write this, so they may even be addressed already. But the interface is by its nature less convenient for certain things, like making ingots out of ore. Ingots are the basic ingredients for most smithing recipes, and ore is the basic ingredient for ingots. It doesn’t have a lot of other uses, so in most cases, you want to smelt your ore the moment you find it. In the old interface, you’d do this by picking up the ore off the ground and throwing it into your portable ingot-making tool, then hitting the “smelt” button. In the new interface, you have to find the appropriate recipe in the scrolling list, which slows the process down considerably. To make matters worse, you can’t just click on the recipe when it comes into view. You have to scroll it to the center, the spot pointed to by that pointer.

But again, maybe they’ve improved this already. And if they haven’t, they probably will. It may feel a little strange to play a game that’s being frequently patched, but it has advantages.

Dungeons of Dredmor: First Death

Actually what I’m reporting is my second death. My first game was over quickly enough that I don’t think it counts. My second lasted long enough for me to explore the first six floors of the dungeon quite thoroughly, and start on the seventh. A modicum of care and caution is all it takes to keep a game going for hours, it turns out, because there’s no hunger factor or anything forcing you to keep moving downward faster than you’d like. (Food exists, but is pretty much optional. It just gives you a buff that temporarily increases your healing rate to one hit point per turn.) And that care really should have carried me longer than it did. My death, as is traditional in roguelikes, was a stupid one.

It started with a treasure zoo. This is a blatant nethackism: on most levels (possibly all; I didn’t really keep track), there is a room completely full of monsters, which typically come flooding out the moment you open the door, accompanied by frantic zoo music. I pretty much knew how to handle zoos by this point, of course. I was playing a melee specialist, having chosen this for its simplicity so I could get used to the basics of the game, so I didn’t have a lot of power to kill multiple monsters at once. Taking on a zoo meant fighting more monsters than I could comfortably handle, and periodically falling back to heal and recover. In extreme cases, it meant retreating all the way to the stairs to the previous level.

The problem here was that the zoo was extremely close to those stairs. I managed to retreat to it once, but the monsters mobbed around me so close that I was completely surrounded when I came back down. And that created a problem I wasn’t anticipating when I went back down. The way you go up a staircase in this game is by moving onto it. Thus, in order to go back up a staircase you just came down, you have to move off it and back on again. But if you can’t move due to all the monsters crowded around you, you can’t do that.

Now, if all that had happened was that I got surrounded and killed because stairs don’t work right, I would call it a cheap shot. But I managed to make a pretty good go of it. The monsters whittled me down to near death, but I had some emergency supplies that helped me to survive: buff potions, healing supplies, food. The food effect may not sound like much, but I’m finding that, for a heavily-armored melee fighter, this is a game of margins. Most monsters’ attacks weren’t doing me a lot of damage; I just had to make sure that I was regaining health at an overall faster rate than I was losing it. Elemental resistance also seems to be a big part of this. On most of the dungeon floors that I’ve seen, there’s a dominant elemental damage type, and donning an item that grants even one point of resistance to that type can be a big win.

Also, at one point during this fight, I gained an experience level, which heals you instantly to your new maximum health. But I couldn’t count on that happening again, and I was running out of useful potions, so I looked for other options. My best bet seemed to be that Knightly Leap skill that I mentioned in my last post. There was one spot that it looked like I could jump to, just past the mob, and from there I could possibly make a break for a side chamber that was a little farther away from the zoo, possibly far enough away that I’d stop attracting fresh monsters to replace every kill. Alternately, perhaps I could wait for the cooldown on the Leap to expire and leap back to the stairs, hopefully triggering them.

Neither of those things happened. The spot I was aiming for was not in fact one I could leap to — I think a corner of irregularly-shaped wall was keeping it out of direct line-of-sight. Discovering this on selecting the Leap action, I, like a fool, just poked around with it until I found a spot I could leap to, heedless of whether it was a spot that exposed me to more monster attacks. And that was that. I had put up a valiant fight that lasted a lot longer than I was expecting, and it’s conceivable that I could have pulled through if I hadn’t made that mistake. But that’s far from certain.

The thing is, I’m not even all that disappointed in my stupid death. You have to take this sort of thing in stride if you play roguelikes. And besides, it gives me an opportunity to try out a new character, with a different set of skills. I was thinking at first that once this game was over, one way or another, I’d take a break and play a different game for a while. But I’m honestly impatient to try out more of Dredmor possibilities.

Dungeons of Dredmor

Now, here’s a game I’ve been hearing good things about lately. Dungeons of Dredmor is a roguelike. I’ve commented before about the looseness with which this term is bandied about lately, but Dredmor really means it. We’re talking not just random maps and permadeath here. Dredmor fits the classical roguelike descriptor in every way except two, those being the shuffling of item effects from game to game and the graphics made of text characters. I could imagine a character-graphics version of the game. It would wind up losing much of the UI slickness, like the tooltips, but it wouldn’t play fundamentally differently.

Other than that, it’s so roguelike that it can steal some of Nethack‘s gameplay gags. For example, there’s the Knightly Leap skill, learnable by characters who specialize in dodging. At first I couldn’t figure out how to make this work, but then I realized that it’s just like the Knight class’s #jump command in Nethack — which is to say, it only lets you jump like a knight in chess. The game doesn’t explain this, which effectively makes it into a puzzle, albeit one that’s easier for people who have played other roguelikes. And that seems to be a major factor in the game as a whole. At least at the early stages, it’s not so much about fighting monsters as exploring your options and figuring out what’s possible.

The thing is, after investing a few hours into a game, I’ve become reluctant to try things that might be unsafe. I should note that the permadeath is optional: when you start a game, you get a menu of difficulty settings and other options, prominently including a big checkbox for permadeath. But it’s checked by default, and besides, as an experienced player of roguelikes, it just seems proper to me. But I’m not even talking just about death. This is a game with a major crafting element, with recipes for potions and armor and whatnot learnable from bookshelves you find in the dungeon. I’ve started finding equipment recipes that require items I’ve previously found and wasted, either by consuming them to find out what they do (some of the more exotic magic items take potions as ingredients), or by selling them to shops. So now I’m reluctant to throw anything out in case I find a use for it later. But your inventory is painfully limited — the block of slots looks nicely large when you first see it, but you can easily fill up entire rows just with different kinds of cheese. (And yes, cheese can be a crafting ingredient.) Crafting tools can extend your carrying capacity a little by holding items in their ingredient slots, but this is awkward when you actually want to craft something. So I’ve been spending a great deal of time just managing objects. There’s a large room on one level that I’ve made into my dump and warehouse, with items sorted by type, and I go back there whenever my inventory is full or I need to spend some time healing. If I die now, it’ll seem like wasted effort.

IFComp 2011: Kerkerkruip

Spoilers follow the break.

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The Binding of Isaac

In Ultima IV, the is a dungeon room where a mob of children attacks you. To most players, this was just an interesting repurposing of a tile not normally used for monsters to produce a things-are-different-here vibe. (The previous game in the series famously has floor tiles attack you toward the end.) But some found it upsetting, and at least one even claimed that it promoted child abuse. Richard Garriott, Ultima‘s auteur, had intended this scene as a kind of ethical challenge, and has pointed out various solutions that don’t involve killing children in self-defense, such as using charm or sleep spells. 1One of his proposed non-lethal solutions was to unwield your sword and punch them with your bare hands until they run away, but that doesn’t really help much with the child abuse allegation. But players tend to be in kill-everything-that-moves mode at that point in the game, and forget about these options, and feel like they have no choices but atrocity or quitting in disgust.

Garriott considered this little controversy to be one of the game’s biggest successes, and he included a “child room” somewhere in every subsequent Ultima. But he had better taste than to push the idea further, to take it to its logical extreme. Enter Edmud McMillen and Florian Himsl, of Meat Boy fame. This pair once created a shooter about fighting diseased vaginas. Taste is no obstacle to these guys. Their latest work, The Binding of Isaac, is the story of a horrifically abused little boy trapped alone in a basement, naked and with no weapons other than his tears, forced to fight grotesque abominations. And he really is forced: unlike the child rooms in Ultima, the game doesn’t let you leave a room until Isaac is the only thing alive. 2Actually, there are exceptions to this. There are certain items that let you teleport away, and an explosion in the right place will reveal a secret passage regardless of whether the the room is in lockdown. But these are just exceptions. Many of the enemies, particularly the early ones, appear to be deformed children, variations on Isaac’s character design. There’s one sort that doesn’t even attack you, but just runs away, sobbing piteously. You still have to kill it to continue.

In a sense, though, that one type does attack you: it occasionally emits hostile flies, like guided missiles that you have to shoot down. Monsters that flee from direct confrontation and birth more monsters are not without precedent — see the Roach Queens in DROD, for example — but the way it’s presented here makes it seem like the guy you’re trying to kill is even more a victim of the flies than Isaac: his face is a mass of lumps presumably full of insect eggs. More advanced versions of this creature are only recognizable as once-human because of the legs supporting the bulging fleshy mass.

Yes, this is a truly repulsive game. There’s blood and feces all over the place, a synergetic combination that’s far grosser than the sum of its parts, and the monsters all look like things you really, really don’t want to touch. And to survive in this world, Isaac has to make himself as monstrous and grotesque as the things he fights. There are a great many upgrades to be found (a random assortment available in any session), and most of them physically alter Isaac in some way, usually for the worse: a permanent snarl, a bent coathanger through the head, a third eye. They stack, too, which can look ridiculous even when the components aren’t ridiculous individually (which many are). All this is overlaid on a style of exaggerated simplicity and sarcastic neoteny, like the Powerpuff Girls. It’s a dead-baby-joke-like juxtaposition that’s at times troubling and at times merely puerile. And sometimes it pulls out a bit of Satanic imagery for cheap shock value.

So I really can’t blame anyone for simply being turned off by the style and unwilling to play it. The problem is, such people will miss out on a really good game based on the gradual mastery of a complex system and the endless variability provided by combinations of randomly-selected game-changers.

The gameplay is a surprisingly harmonious combination of blatantly swiped elements. The basic design of the dungeon, the use of bombs to open secret passages, the appearance of the shopkeeper rooms, and the way that bosses show up later as ordinary encounters all hail from The Legend of Zelda. The horrific imagery owes a little to Silent Hill, as does the questionable reality of the whole experience, which is implied to be all a dream or hallucination that Isaac experiences while locked in his room waiting to be murdered; the cutscene after you win the game the first time shows a much more prosaic ending than the boss battle you just endured. The shooting mechanic, with its dual eight-direction controls for shooting and moving in independent directions 3Accomplished here entirely through the keyboard, WASD for movement and arrow keys for shooting, which is a curious choice for the people who were so adamant that you use a gamepad in Super Meat Boy. The fact that the entire game is in Flash might have something to do with this., are pure Robotron, down to the effectiveness of circling around the edges of the room while shooting inward, although with the twist that your movement affects the trajectory of your bullet/tears, making most of your shots somewhat diagonal. And there are sundry minor references, like a miniboss based on Bomberman.

And then there’s the rougelike elements. Other commenters seem to have mostly focused on this, and on debates over whether it really qualifies as a roguelike; the comment threads at rockpapershotgun coined the term “roguelike-like” to describe it. It seems to me that it’s got a better claim to the genre than some other things that have been described as roguelikes, such as Spelunky, whose only roguelike attributes as far as I can tell are randomly-generated levels and inability to go back to earlier saves. Isaac has these attributes too, but it also has other pointed rogueisms like randomized items: where Rogue randomly assigned colors to different potion types, expecting you to learn what each color does by drinking it, Isaac does the same with scavenging Mom’s pills, putting the mechanic in a new perspective that makes you realize just how awful it is underneath.

For that matter, the whole setting is something of a subversion of the dungeons-of-doom cliché, or perhaps a reinforcement of it, giving the idea some of the power it loses by being set in a pure fantasy environment. I’ve seen it argued that the intrinsic unfairness of the luck factor in roguelikes, where your ability to win is largely determined by what items the random number generator picks, complements the utter unfairness of the underlying story, of a little boy unfortunate to be under the power of a psycho who thinks God talks to her. For these and similar reasons, I think it would actually be a worse game if you reskinned it to be less horrible.

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1. One of his proposed non-lethal solutions was to unwield your sword and punch them with your bare hands until they run away, but that doesn’t really help much with the child abuse allegation.
2. Actually, there are exceptions to this. There are certain items that let you teleport away, and an explosion in the right place will reveal a secret passage regardless of whether the the room is in lockdown. But these are just exceptions.
3. Accomplished here entirely through the keyboard, WASD for movement and arrow keys for shooting, which is a curious choice for the people who were so adamant that you use a gamepad in Super Meat Boy. The fact that the entire game is in Flash might have something to do with this.

Desktop Dungeons

I’m several days late now at posting about my initial experiences with the next game on the Stack. I do in fact have experiences to post about, but that’s not what I’m talking about today. Instead, an interlude. 1Literally, something played between I’ve been spending a lot of time this week on Desktop Dungeons, and have a few things to get off my chest before moving on.

DD seems to be most commonly described as a “ten-minute Nethack“, but I disagree on both counts. First of all, I find that my typical session takes about a half an hour. At first I thought that I was taking so long because I was unfamiliar with the game mechanics. But honestly, that’s going to be the case in most sessions here, at least if you play it like I do. Completing a session successfully tends to change the game enough that I have to relearn it, whether by unleashing new monsters or map types that require new tactics, or by unlocking new character classes that also require new tactics. And some of those unlockable classes defy anticipation. Yes, you start off with the D&D-standard four choices (fighter, thief, priest, wizard), but then you get a class that specializes in destroying walls, or one that regains health from the bloodsplots left behind when you kill a monster (something that had been purely cosmetic up to that point). It reminds me a lot of the Final Fantasy V “Jobs” system, in that I’m constantly trying out new character abilities without any sense of prolonged commitment. I find there’s not much point in revisiting a class/map combination that I’ve already completed successfully, so I’m pretty much always playing from a new angle.

Secondly, the Nethack influence is pretty slim. It’s a dungeon crawl with a randomly-generated map which starts off dark and gets filled in as you explore it. This puts it into the same general category of games as Nethack, but that’s a pretty big category — with just those criteria, we probably haven’t even narrowed it down to roguelikes. A couple of stronger influences are mentioned on the game’s download page: Tower of the Sorcer and Oasis.

From Tower of the Sorcerer, we get the stationary monsters and deterministic combat mechanics, also seen in DROD RPG. (Actually, there can be a certain amount of randomness in combat: one of the special abilities of the Rogue class is a random chance of dodging and avoiding a blow completely. But most of the time, it’s deterministic.) This scheme is done in the context of randomized maps rather than authored puzzles here, but it still has the same effect on gameplay: it lets you choose your battles carefully. Also like those other games, the UI provides you with some help: hovering the cursor over a monster gives a report of its stats and what the outcome will be if you hit it — usually “Victory”, “Death”, or “Safe” (which means that neither you nor the monster will die). This is valuable information in special conditions where the math isn’t entirely obvious — for example, when playing a Berserker, you do 30% extra damage when fighting a monster of a nominally greater experience level than your character, but it’s not obvious how that fraction gets rounded, and a single point can make the difference between victory and defeat, so it’s good that the UI confirms this. It would be nice if it went further, though: the hover text only covers the next blow, and doesn’t cover things like the fireballs you plan on throwing in beforehand (and which you don’t want to waste if they’re not going to do enough damage). So I still spent a lot of the game doing mental arithmetic.

Oasis provided some basic overall inspiration for the game: it occupies a similar niche, being the “ten-minute Civilization“. It also clearly inspired the mechanics behind exploring the dungeon. To start with, movement is instantaneous — it’s exploration that takes time. You move to a spot simply by clicking on it, and if you don’t reveal any new territory in the process, no time passes. Mind you, “time” means something different here than in Oasis. Oasis had a limit on the number of turns you could take, and repositioning yourself on the map didn’t take a turn, because it basically didn’t do anything — the whole notion that you occupied a location on the map at all was purely aesthetic, with no effect on gameplay. In DD, your location is sometimes significant: if you use the teleport spell, you can wind up with multiple explored patches, islands in the unrevealed darkness, and you can’t move directly from one such island to another until you’ve explored enough to find a route.

Now, when you add newly-revealed tiles to the map, the time spent lets you (and any wounded monsters) heal and regain mana. This is very similar in feel to the way that exploring new area harvests resources in Oasis, right down to the graphical effects that illustrate the resources floating from the revealed tile to the appropriate bins in the UI. But it’s very different strategically. In Oasis, your only motivation for leaving things unexplored is time contraints. DD has no time limit, but does limit how much health and mana you can have at any given time. You can only reap an unexplored tile’s bounty once, so if you’re already at max, exploring new territory is a waste. Darkness is a resource to be hoarded.

And that’s in tension with the player’s need to explore for upgrades and, more importantly, for information. Getting a spell glyph can be important enough to burn some darkness. On encountering a shop, you want to know if it’s worth spending all your cash immediately or if there’s a better shop somewhere, and the only way to find out is to go and look for another shop. Finding an altar can be of paramount importance, and is probably the single biggest thing behind the early push to explore. Once you find one, you can declare allegiance to its god, who then rewards you with additional power of some sort in exchange for accepting some kind of limitation. For example, there’s a god of magic that increases your mana limit, but forbids you to use melee attacks — which is not a bad tradeoff if you’re playing a primary spellcaster. Typically, the reward for worshiping a god increases with the number of monsters you fight by the god’s rules, while the limitation remains constant. Thus, you ideally want to find an altar before starting to fight monsters at all. But you can waste a lot of darkness looking for one — there are typically about three per dungeon, but they’re selected at random from a larger set, and you don’t always get an opportunity to worship the god you want.

All of which is to say that this is a game that, despite its familiar framework, has interesting rules that create varied gameplay, in which I have to keep learning and figuring things out. It’s so nice to see something like this after what I’ve been playing for the last month and a half.

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1. Literally, something played between