I’ve been playing a cute little indie RPG dungeon-crawler called Dungeons of Dredmor. It’s a $5 game on Steam, with a charmingly retro look and some clever writing. At first glance it does not appear to be the type of game that would suck away great swaths of your life. But it is.
Dungeons of Dredmor is what professional game writers call a “Roguelike” and what unprofessional game writers call a “Roguelike” once they’ve gone to Wikipedia and looked up what a “Roguelike” is. Basically, it means that the game world is randomly generated, the combat is turn-based, and when you die, you die for good and have to start over from scratch.
Initially, starting over from scratch is great fun. You build your character by picking a number of skills from a fairly large list. There are skills for using weapons like axes and swords, skills for wands and potions, skills for defense like armor and dodging, skills for the massive crafting system like smithing and tinkering, and a bunch of magic skills for casting spells. You can be a vampire and suck health out of your enemies, you can study the fungal arts or summon golems to fight for you, you can be a berserker warrior or a stealthy sneaker. Trying out all these skills is a lot of fun, and sometimes it’s great to die quickly just so you can try out some new ones.
Thing is, you’ll eventually stumble on a great combination of skills that work well for you. Add to that a little bit of luck: you find some great loot, craft, find, or buy some handy weapons, armor ,or magic items, and easily tear your way through the early collection of monsters you find. Hey, I’m doing pretty well! you’ll think. That’s when the trouble starts.
What was initially a carefree stumble through the dungeon becomes something else. An idea creeps into your head like one of those tiny barbed fish that swim up people’s urethras in the Amazon. It can’t be dislodged: it just sticks there. Suddenly, instead of haphazardly kicking open doors and wading into combat, you’re thinking, I can beat this game. This build is great, my luck has been great. If I’m careful, I can win.
You grow attached to your character. You scrutinize your map and scour every corner, pick up every bit of loot, make long trips back to the shop to sell what you don’t need and buy something you do need. Every time you find an ingot or mushroom or ingredient, you scan your crafting recipes to see what you can make. Everything slows to a crawl. You are being careful. You are in it to win it.
You don’t win it. You eventually die. It could take a few hours or a few minutes, but the randomness of the game means you’ll eventually run into some scandalously bad luck. Maybe it’s a monster zoo, a huge room filled with wall to wall monsters (the first time I found a monster zoo, I fled, opened the nearest door, and ran into a second monster zoo). Maybe it’ll be a horribly over-powered boss monster. Maybe you’ll down the wrong potion at the wrong time (many potions don’t list their effects), or set off a trap, or just get backed into a corner, run low on health and mana, and die. But something will kill you. It’s inevitable.
When you do lose a character you’ve grown fond of, it can be pretty rough. The idea of starting over after a long successful run doesn’t seem fun at all. Luckily, though, once you’ve started over with some new skills, you can pretty easily get back into the game and get obsessed all over again.
The writing in DoD is just great. Every monster, every potion or food item, every wand, sword, axe, mace, helmet — every single item, and there are hundreds of items — has a little bit of text attached to it, and every little bit of text is great fun to read. Just look over the sheer number of helmets, or throwing weapons, or wands, or mushrooms, and you’ll have some idea of the scope of this game and how much attention has been paid to each item.
Anyhoo. Tread carefully with this game. It appears cute and silly, but its gameplay is surprisingly deep. What begins as some wandering around reading cute descriptions of sandwiches and cheese might end with you obsessively reading forums for tips and talking to your friends about what builds they are using and scanning the Wiki to learn all you can about monsters and magic. You may begin to wonder if you can install it at your job and wind up staying late at work to play it. You may start a new game, thinking you’ll invest fifteen or twenty minutes but then look up blearily and realize hours have passed. The price tag is cheap but you’ll pay for this game a million-fold with your time. Beware!