Dungeons of Dreading Nostalgia. Also the undead.

So this one is pretty odd. I can’t say I know where it’ll end up by the time we’re finished. But it’s about Dungeons of Dredmor, and that should excite you right? But it’s about what the game produces in me as I play it, more than the game itself. It produces a nostalgia that, probably, I shouldn’t have any right to feel.

Yeah, that’s a weird intro. So I’ve been playing Dungeons of Dredmor for the past few weeks. Kind of a lot. I beat it on Elvishly Easy, and am now two levels into the medium difficulty, whatever it’s called. Some would say I have to play with permadeath turned on, but I enjoy playing games, not proving my dick is bigger than everyone else’s, so I’m not. Therefore, I beat Dredmor, eventually, on my first character, who rocked Axe power, Armor power, crossbows, and blood magic. That’s important, as I used the fear spell on Dredmor, silenced his magic, and then shot him with crossbow bolts until he died. Nice, I know.

But I said this was about how it made me feel. That is more intangible, but here it is: this game makes me feel like I’m doing something from my childhood. I don’t know why. I didn’t play a rogue-like of any kind until I was 18 (it was Nethack, naturally). So as I play critters will die, I will use a spell – I will feel, from that, like I was a kid in some way, and then I will promptly be mystified. I have no idea exactly why I have this response. It is peculiar, and weird, and one of the strongest emotional responses I have had to anything in a while.

Sharing time, I suppose? I am in the throes of job searching and dissertation writing, both of which do leave me time to myself in the day, but leave me wrung out, like chewing gum with no flavor left. So I’m afraid I have begun to default to games with no devotion or dedication, like TF2 or L4D, where there may be a great story, but it’s removed enough from the gameplay that I can play it like many other people watch TV – with one brain tied behind their back. Dredmor functions that way, but I keep having these spikes of feels. What’s up with that?

Well, like I said, I never played rogue-likes when I was young. I didn’t even play DnD until I was 16 or 17, so that shouldn’t even be it. It is a grand mystery, what is happening in my head. Who knows what I’m thinking? Certainly not me.

But sometimes I wonder if the mystery is why. I don’t want to claim that things bore me now – they don’t. We all know Dredmor isn’t exactly surprising in anything but its far-reaching and obsessive intertextuality (you better believe we’ll talk about that at a future date). But it creates a kind of world where nothing follows from anything else. I know I will have to kill dudes, and that I have many skills to do so – but I have no idea what I might encounter next.

SPOILER

I mean, I stumbled into Diggle Hell far enough in to beat it, and the huge muscular Diggle Demons scared the shit out of me still. They weren’t what I was expecting. So the game uses its own bestiary to craft a sense of chaotic life at the player.

SPOILER END

I have to think that’s it. The feeling that everything could be new, even when I know it isn’t. There are incredible possibilities here, even if I can only have so many in each character. They include a random skill button – there has to be a feeling that all this is crazy, new, fun, even if they’re all based on things we know already (the hack and slash, the morally ambiguous RPG hero, so on).

Is it just the idea that there’s something new around the corner? I mean, eventually that’s not really true of the game. You get reskins of monsters, new abilities that are powerful but not fascinating (you being long familiar with the skill tree), and so on. But there is a little of that, I think.

So, what the hell? I think Most rogue-likes are joyless things. Sure, the originals are about a kind of exploratory joy, but eventually they became about how well you could do – how much you could remember about the unexplained system from your earlier playthroughs. Dredmor doesn’t care too much about that. There are plenty of settings to make sure you know enough about what you’re doing – a walkthrough (even though I didn’t use it and had to be told how to use my crossbow). It removes all the joyless bullshit from a game that has to be about exploration, since everything is random. And so, even though the system becomes familiar quickly, and is certainly familiar now that I’m playing through a second time, it still feels fresh in a way many things don’t, simply because it tried to be as simple as possible, with as many options as that would allow, and that said simplicity would lead to more engagement, even when there are two characters with no story, no dialogue, no nothing.

It’s an odd beast, a game with no real main character or plot. Many of us worry that will discredit us gamers before the other nerds, the other people who love movies or books. But it’s one of the unique attributes of games, that if a system can function on its own, and sufficient love is put into the backgrounds, the incidental setting, the backdrops, monsters, powers, and so on – that there isn’t a plot or character necessary. We’re capable of filling in, if we’re given the building blocks.

And so we’ve ended up in a similar place compared to my Skyrim post from last week. I guess that’s what’s on my mind. I didn’t even talk about the magic, or the monsters, of the 4th Doctor’s scarf that I wore when I fought Dredmor. Huh…

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