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Roguehate

Do you know the worst part about a roguelike? You can’t even rage-quit! “Oh, I just died? Well… fine! I’ll just delete my saves and… oh.”

Last known photo of my Adventure Mode hero.

Last known photo of my Adventure Mode hero.

The roguelike genre is one I had avoided for years, rebuffed by the mere word “permadeath.” Is that supposed to be an appealing characteristic? It’s like, I don’t need to know anything more about scrotum piercing to understand, at a fundamental level, that it’s just not for me. And so I happily carried on in my non-permadeath gaming, leaving behind the empty husks of my peers who had just lost their 60+ hour Diablo 2 Hardcore characters.

The Binding of Isaac changed all that for me. And then FTL cemented it. I don’t seek out roguelikes, but it is an exotic flavor I am willing to sample now and again.

The problem I am having though, is with all these roguelikes that choose to, well, bend the (unwritten) rules. For me, it started with Dungeons of Dredmor. After dying a few times getting a feel for the game, I went full optimize-the-fun-out-of-the-game mode. Explored every floor, room by room, while collecting and refining every resource. It was pretty clear that I had vaulted over the difficulty curve and would be coasting my way to the very end. That’s the point of permadeath though, right? To encourage conservative play?

Regardless of the answer to that question, the fact remains that I was on hour 22 of my roguelike save. To me, that is starting to border on obscene. I feel like the roguelike structure works perfectly for games that can conceivably be won within a few hours or a single (marathon) session. Anything longer is simply suspect – what useful purpose does permadeath serve then? I have 52 hours /played on FTL and 27 hours on Binding of Isaac, both of which can be finished within 2-3 hours. Permadeath in this scenario, and procedurally-generated encounters generally, thus increase the play-time of an otherwise short game. But if you are already spending 20+ hours on a single life only to die in some asinine way… well, what’s the point of trying again?

If you can’t tell, I’m writing this post because I’m pissed at dying in Don’t Starve. I made it all the way to the final world in Adventure Mode, which I could not even start until I found the doorway on Day 30+ in Survival Mode. You have no idea how close to the end I was. I had collected all four Things and was on my way to the Wooden Thing to assemble them. The last world is exceedingly harsh though, and my sanity was leaking out at a precipitous rate (it didn’t help that I was traversing a swamp). I stopped to pick a Blue Mushroom in the hopes of regaining just enough sanity to push me over the finish line.

Alas, a tentacle I couldn’t even see spawned and spanked me twice. Dead. I resurrected at my Meat Effigy in total darkness, and was one-shot a few seconds later. Dead again. Spawned back at the Adventure Door portal, and would have to go through everything all over again.

…except I don’t think I am. I have 35 hours into Don’t Starve, and was relishing the thought of being “done” with the game once Adventure Mode was beaten. “Done” in the sense of achieving sufficient mental satisfaction to allow me to move on to another game. Now? I just feel so goddamn empty. Dying to the last boss in Binding of Isaac feels terrible, but you are only really out an hour or so. Same with FTL. With Don’t Starve, I just saw 7-10 hours of my life evaporate into the ether. While that is technically how all leisurely pursuits end, I don’t usually end a gaming session feeling, well, like an empty husk.

It’s not really Don’t Starve’s fault – if the game were easier, even a tiny bit, it wouldn’t be the same game on a fundamental level. I like that a harsh game like this exists, as it pushes you into uncomfortable scenarios in which inaction is punished. I just don’t know if I want to be playing “long-form” roguelikes like this anymore. Permadeath is fine in the proper contexts, and said context is always in short games, IMO. Putting roguelike qualities into a game that simultaneously demands X amount of investment just strikes me as cruel and unusual. Some people like that sort of thing, sure. But I doubt that the end reward for our valiant efforts will be sweet enough to cover the acrid, bitter bile that is seeing so many hours go up in smoke.

Fake Edit: I tried again anyway. Died a few times, tried some more. Got the insanely difficult “forever winter” stage as my first level, but persisted anyway. Somehow made it even farther. Got to the 4th stage, and was feeling pretty good about myself. Run into a field of killer bees looking for a Thing, and died. Now at 48 hours /played. FML.

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Uninstalling is Hard

Although it shouldn’t be, I found it somewhat emotionally difficult to uninstall Mass Effect 3 this weekend. I haven’t played the game in more than five months, and I had not planned to start again either. All the extra DLC feels moot to me after the endings, and while the multiplayer was surprisingly good, I got my fill of it after a few weeks.

There is no particular reason for me to feel this way.

And yet… uninstalling may as well be the kiss of death. I can always reinstall later, of course, but the mere knowledge of a 5-6 hour download is enough to send my thoughts elsewhere. For a while, I had entertained a fantasy that I would replay the entire series again, start to finish, this time as Renegade FemShep. The whole ending debacle stymied that fantasy, but there always seemed to be a spark of hope that I would come back around and just do it.

But… not anymore. I need the hard drive space. And I probably need to move on for real, like I thought I already had. No reason to keep holding onto those old pictures of your exes.

In other news, I uninstalled Diablo 3 this weekend and felt relief. Of course, I did so after cashing out my gold, although the exchange rate is a whopping $0.52 per million gold right now. I did not talk about it, but I booted D3 up two weeks ago and went ahead and beat Diablo on Inferno, just to say I did so. The gear inflation/power creep/nerfs made it feel like a completely different game.

But then again, I am not sure I enjoyed the game that it had been all that much anyway.

Reviews: Torchlight, Orcs Must Die!

Game: Torchlight
Recommended price: $0
Metacritic Score: 83
Completion Time: ~17 hours
Buy If You Like: Bad, bad dungeon crawlers

Four enemy types, 20 different skins. *Yawn*

According to Wikipedia, the Uncanny Valley is a hypothesis in robotics and 3D animation which holds that when human replicas look and act almost, but not perfectly, like actual human beings, it causes a response of revulsion among human observers. In other words, humans respond positively to human-like robots up to a point, after which our reaction to its failings is far more negative than would be towards a clearly non-human machine. Based on my overall experience with Torchlight, I firmly believe there is an Uncanny Valley of Game Design, which Torchlight cratered into face-first.

To call Torchlight a Diablo-clone is misleading; I would term it more a Diablo-mockery, although that implies Torchlight was intentional in its failings rather than simply being a cheap knockoff, like Chinese powdered milk laced with industrial solvents.

At first, everything is classical Diablo in a Warcraft 3 skin: isometric, dungeon-delving gameplay, hordes of monsters, loads of loot. There even appears to be a lot of improvements to the formula. The dog/cat companion makes the delving feel more homely. The three classes are actually modular archetypes, such as being able to make the “archer” into a rogue, the “mage” into a tank, and even the “barbarian” into a ranged magic-user. Four generic spell slots for your character and two for the pet let you do some interesting things to complement your own class abilities. I thought the Fame mechanic (Fame is like a second XP bar that only gives you extra talent points) was a clever way of making the killing of named mobs important without necessarily making you overpowered.

It was around hour six though, that I realized that Torchlight had not yet blinked its glassy, vacuous eyes.

There is no real gear progression in Torchlight. Let that sink in for a moment. I received an orange-text Unique neck item around level 4 that I was unable to replace for the duration of the entire game. Random stats are random, but when a random level 10 green is as powerful as a random level 30 green, the entire loot-centric nature of this particular genre collapses. The consolation prize mechanic is Enchanting, where you put an item in a box and have about even-odds that you paid someone 10% of your wealth to destroy said item. No, seriously. Find a decent weapon, put it in a box, pay ~1200 gold for a chance to add a random stat upgrade on it, a chance that nothing happens other than your gold evaporating, or an increasing chance your item gets disenchanted, completely wiping all its stats. The first item I tested this on got disenchanted on a 4% chance, and the second was an Unique-quality bow that was disenchanted on the first, 2% attempt.

I got an achievement for it. No, seriously.

Bum Luck: You installed this game.

Now it did occur to me that perhaps they were attempting something novel, a kind of re-imagining of the transitory nature of loot in Diablo-esque games. An upgrade isn’t an upgrade off the ground, but only after you “win it” from the Enchanter, or something. The problem is that whoever balanced this garbage was a goddamn moron. Enchanting costs gold. A lot of gold. The items you pick up off the ground never really increase in value the deeper you dungeon delve, such that each time you unload your haul in town you get the same ~2500g at level 10 that you do at level 30. Even Epic or Unique items sell for complete peanuts; the highest price I got for a sale was 1,809g for the level 4 Unique necklace I mentioned earlier, which the vendor turned around and was trying to sell for 82,432g. That’s right, instead of the typical 1/3rd or 1/5th cut you see in normal games, Torchlight is operating on GameStop levels of Fuck You resale value. If something could be worse than selling at 1/45th value, it would have to be the necessity of Transmuting four pieces of magic gear to turn into a random crappy gem, which needs to be transmuted with ~12 more crappy gems to get a mildly useful gem, to have something to put into the sockets of the level 8 shoulders you are otherwise never going to replace.

I am spending all this time talking about loot because loot matters in these games. Once you cease expecting any upgrades, the endless, nondescript corridors are filled not with opportunity or excitement, but are instead arteries clogged with the fatty plaque deposits of meaningless mobs. The original Diablo did not have much of a plot beyond “save us from evil” that I can recall, but the setting of gritty evil provided its own sense of gravitas. Conversely, Torchlight does not even bother. “Sidequests” are perversions of the term, and amount to simply killing mobs you were going to kill anyway slogging towards the stairs. Even worse, the “quest rewards” for these things are randomized green items. Look at this shit:

Equipped item on right, "Quest Reward" on left. Note the Required Levels.

The thing I kept hearing regarding Torchlight was that former Diablo 1 & Diablo 2 designers worked on it. If their contribution to that series is at all representative of what I experienced in Torchlight, then all I can say is good goddamn riddance.

Well, that, and I have never looked forward to Diablo 3 more than I have now.

Game: Orcs Must Die! + DLC
Recommended price: $10 (DLC included)
Metacritic Score: 84
Completion Time: ~11 hours
Buy If You Like: More trap-based Sanctum tower defense

Few things feel better than killing orcs. Maybe Nazis. Or maybe Nazi zombie orcs.

Orcs Must Die (hereafter OMD) is one of the best, purest non-Tower Defense… Tower Defense games I have played. The premise is simple: the orcs are at the gates, and you must stop them. The rest of the game follows a simple elegance undermined only by the limitations of genre conventions.

To be honest, OMD felt like it had more in common with the brilliant PS1 Deception series than it does with Tower Defense. You start off each level by choosing a limited number of traps from your collection, in addition to personal weapons/spells that you will be using to kill the orcs. Traps range from spikes that impale from the the floor, to arrows that shoot from the wall, to mechanized swinging maces from the ceiling, to archer guardians; weapons include Fire/Ice/Lightning/Wind rings, to melee battlemage staves, to your trusty magic repeating crossbow. Later on, you can further select from 1 of 3 “Weavers” for that level, whom act as mini-talent trees that boost your effectiveness in different ways. Once your arsenal is selected, setting up traps costs a set amount of currency from a limited pool that grows between waves and from your merciless slaughter of orcish hordes.

And yet OMD deviates from the standard Tower Defense genre in many key, innovative ways. The most obvious is the fact that your Ash-from-Evil-Dead character can (and must!) get down and dirty in the fighting himself. While certain trap setups essentially make victory guaranteed, you typically won’t have enough currency to set them up in the early waves, and certain levels contain too many chokepoints to trust to traps alone. The standard orcs will actually chase you around if you are nearby, which can buy you some time for allow for traps to reset. Moreover, there are some enemy types like the ogres (fire, ice, and armored varieties) whom are too tough for typical traps to kill outright, and the downright scary Gnoll Hunters who leap over your orc-stopping waist-high barriers and hunt specifically for you.

Ain't no one going home tonight.

The other area in which OMD forges ahead is in its rather brilliant, non-standard level design. In typical Tower Defense, everything is gridded out in neat, orderly squares. While traps require certain precise placement, I never got the impression from any of the levels that they were build specifically to place your traps “just so.” Fluted columns and flying buttresses foil wall and ceiling traps respectively, while floor traps cannot be placed on stairs. Any time I actually saw a 2-3 “square-trap-wide” corridor, I would get excited, like I won the goddamn architectural lottery rather than feeling this was exactly where the designers wanted my traps to go.

While there are some additional innovations like permanently upgrading traps by spending the orc skulls you earn based on level performance, OMD is unfortunately limited by genre conventions. I applaud OMD for not falling into the Tower Defense trap (har har) of simply increasing the HP of the enemies as a crutch for increased difficulty among waves, but after a while you will come up with trap setups that are essentially unbeatable. Much like in every Tower Defense game I have ever played, the slow traps (e.g. Sticky Tar Trap) are fairly overpowered; similarly, some traps and weapons feel too good, especially compared to others that don’t seem to have a place. I almost feel as though the game would have been improved if there was a mode or option to where you get a randomized list of traps, rather than entirely relying on level design to inform your decision. Or if there was some kind of incentive to utilize the “bad traps” in unique ways – since the Leaderboards are based entirely on points, I could imagine some kind of score multiplier for trying to use the Steam Trap or Push Wall Trap effectively.

Ultimately, OMD provides for some very enjoyable orc-killing and trap-setting Tower Defense gameplay. There is a Nightmare mode available for the masochists out there that hate more than 3 seconds inbetween waves, or you can try and top the Leaderboards on the traditional levels; the latter is actually fairly addicting when you have Steam friends who have the game, since their scores are highlighted in comparison to your own. Even if you are not interesting in replay value, the general play value of OMD is exceptionally high for what amounts to an inexpensive indie game.

DLC – Artifacts of Power

This pack comes with two weapons and two traps. The Alchemist Satchel lets you toss down a sort of glass caltrop which you can detonate at any time with a right-click, by shooting it, or letting a trap trigger it for you; the explosion is huge and will one-shot every orc in range, making this a fairly overpowered weapon for the early game (before the later rings). The Vampiric Gauntlets essentially lets you drain health from whomever you are aiming at, while the right-click turns your own health into mana; overall, the effect is pretty weak compared to your other options. The Shock Zapper ceiling trap is ostensively for killing flying enemies, but considering it only triggers from enemies flying directly beneath it and the fact that flyers usually path nowhere near ceilings (nevermind that even if they did, there would be better traps for that) makes this damn near the most useless trap in the game. Finally, the Floor Scorcher is a combination mini-springboard/flamethrower that has made itself a staple of all of my setups. If you set a Floor Scorcher near a ledge but facing away, it will burn everyone in a horizontal line while launching whoever is standing on top off the edge. More importantly though, it is a floor trap with a ~3-square range, which allows you to layer on the pain.

I would never buy this DLC for the $2.49 normal price, but on a deep discount the Floor Scorcher alone might make it worth a purchase.

DLC – Lost Adventures

This pack gives you 5 new levels, at least one of which is a remake of a prior level (just in reverse), and the Mana Well. The Mana Well is a fairly expensive “trap” that essentially recharges your own mana bar when you get close to it. The extra levels allows you to get additional skulls if you want to upgrade more of your traps, but overall I was not entirely impressed with them. There is no additional story behind the levels or extra dialog, which kind of makes them feel extraneous. With a default price of $3.99, or over 25% of the cost of the entire game, you would have to be crazy to purchase this DLC outside of a 75% off Steam sale.

Butchered

If you want to read a 4,079 word essay on the decline of WoW from the standpoint of two members of the sub-10% of raiders, you cannot go wrong with Failure, Challenge, and the Decline of WoW. If, instead, you were looking for a well-written, relevant essay on WoW’s “decline” exploring actual issues, don’t bother reading it at all. Stede in particular eviscerates the entire argument in a single comment.

What interested me about the essay is how so completely it falls into that utterly bizarre MMO difficulty trap – the sort of notion that MMOs should be social engineering experiments to create a generation of better gamers. The part that struck me the most was when they were talking about The Butcher from the original Diablo:

The best piece of low-level content ever created by Blizzard is found not in current WoW, nor even in old WoW, but 15 years ago in Diablo. The Butcher.

Every NPC in town warns you about The Butcher before your first trip into the dungeon. In case you didn’t bother talking to them, just outside the dungeon entrance you find the previous adventurer who tried to delve in, bloody and dying. Before killing your first mob, a villain is set up. The first half hour of dungeon crawling goes by uneventfully. But somewhere on the second level down, starting to get a little comfortable with your level 4 character, you come upon a small square room completely covered with blood. Maybe you remember the warning, maybe you didn’t, but in either case, it’s your first time playing and you want to know what’s in there, so you open the door. And you get Butchered.

This experience is hard to convey in text to people who’ve never played Diablo. Ask anyone who has if they remember their first time being killed by him. It’s sudden, surprising, and scary. It’s probably your first character death. He does a huge amount of damage, stuns you, and holds you in melee range. He has a loud yell the moment you open the door, an elaborate bloody apron, and a ridiculously-sized cleaver. You’re mostly likely dead before you take in everything that’s happening. And for some reason, it’s the one moment that makes everyone’s eyes briefly glass over in nostalgia.

Having played the original Diablo, I had the same experience of being mercilessly slaughtered by The Butcher. The essay goes on from this point to talk about Hogger, trying to tie both the experiences together while lamenting that Cataclysm and WoW in general has lost this dangerous feeling. The ironic part of these examples is that each were precisely designed to not be difficult. The Butcher was not supposed to be a difficult encounter, it was supposed to kill you. As the author(s) note, you probably had not died yet at this point in Diablo, so it behooves the game designers to set up unwinnable scenario to demonstrate what will happen when you overextend in the game proper. Same exact deal with Hogger: his purpose was demonstrate the difference between non-elite and Elite mobs. You were supposed to die. Neither were difficult in any meaningful sense of the term, and both simply encouraged you to grind mobs until you outleveled them as content.

The original Hogger.

Even Nils has recently demonstrated that the early game is designed to still kill you, Hogger or no Hogger. What gets confused by these challenge-seekers is that leveling was never designed to be challenging. The “kill you” moments or outdoor Elites that could be defeated through skillful actions were not designed to challenge your skill, they were to organically demonstrate how death and resurrection worked without resorting to instant-kill mechanics. And yet people lament the removal of the outdoor Elites near dungeons as if they were designed to spice up gameplay instead of marking territory out-of-bounds for solo players.

It is fine to desire content tailored to your skill level, as those authors so obviously want. But it always strikes me as bizarrely pompous to place said desire on a pedestal as if gamers becoming better at games is some kind of righteous calling, a form of high art compared to the Jersey Shore-ness of current WoW leveling. First, they were wrong about the purpose of early difficulty. But secondly, and more importantly, a high-difficulty paradigm actively destroys the social aspect of MMOs. If I want to experience hard raiding content but the friends that I made leveling up do not, I must abandon them. Read the comments from that article. For every “exclusive content through difficulty” proponent, there are at least two more people grateful that they can finally raid with their friends (until Firelands anyway).

In any event, the other half of the article talks about loot structures in MMOs, which is another post entirely. Suffice it to say, I disagree with them on that point as well.