[This article has been adapted from a post I wrote at Medium, years ago. It was revised and published here on 2020-11-21]
For Christmas 2015 I got a new PlayStation 4, which was pretty damn awesome. It has amazing graphics, and with it came this really sweet open world game, Fallout 4, where you play as a survivor in this post-apocalyptic world that people probably spent years painstakingly creating detail after detail. Its pretty fun and impressive. But I barely played it in the weeks following recieving it.
Instead, I spent most of my time playing this Free/Open Source game first released 20 years ago (in some form). The game’s graphics (at their best) look like this:
It’s called Dungeon Crawl: Stone Soup, and I’ve been a little obsessed. Why? In this game you can actually die. Just now, I played the game for 2 hours, took a misstep and my character died. And that was it. I couldn’t be regenerated. I couldn’t restart from a save point. I couldn’t even play again and be faced with the same maps and enemies again armed with my newly acquired knowledge of what to find where, because the levels in this game are randomly generated each time you play. This very likely sounds awful but it’s not. As far as I can tell, there are two reasons for this being awesome instead of horrible.
First, this kind of “permadeath” really ratchets up the intensity of the game. When you’re staring down a giant ogre with a spiked club he looks like something my cat could draw on the screen. But when he has the power to wipe out hours of effort in a single turn he becomes incredibly scary in your mind’s eye. And if you’re otherwise doing well you’ll do anything in your power to survive. In my recent game, I felt this kind of thrilling moment over and over again. I stumbled upon a very powerful weapon called a Dark Maul. This thing was several times more powerful than any normal weapon in the game, but had the disadvantage of being extremely slow. I could take out almost any enemy in a single hefty hit of this beast of a hammer, but then I’d be left at the mercy of any other enemies as I worked to lift it over my head to attack again. Despite the disadvantage I was doing well, carefully luring enemies into hallways where I could take them on one by one, acting as a one man Spartain Army in my personal Pass of Thermopylae. If things got to be too much, I could run up stairs, kill off any close enemies that followed and head back down to the waiting horde. If I got into a bind, I could use a scroll of teleportation to wisk myself away to a random location in the dungeon. Of course, this is what ended up doing me in. I teleported away from some enemies while at deaths door into a gauntlet of still more enemies and before I could move I was hit by a fireball from an otherwise weak and typically harmless orcish wizard. The moments leading up to that death were some of the most thrilling I’ve experienced in a game.
My Final Moments:
And this leads me to the second reason I really like this particular game. I could have done better. I could have used an ability called “Berserk” to send my character into an inferno of adrenaline fueled rage that maybe, just maybe would have given me enough speed and energy to get away to a more defensible position. DCSS is just one in a long line of “Roguelikes” games that share it’s randomly generated dungeons and permanent death. The thing for me that sets it apart from other Roguelikes I’ve played is every time I die, I feel like I could have done better. I feel like if I’d just thought about my last move a little bit longer, or used a better strategy to avoid getting in such a tight spot, but I didn’t. My death was my fault, not due to just an unfortunate roll of the dice. Other rogue likes seem to spring surprises on you that with your limited resources are simply too weak to deal with. In classics of the genere like Nethack or the original rogue, people spend sometimes years between wins, waiting for that perfect game to come along.
DCSS keeps driving me to play again and again. It has a small enough complexity to be easy enough to wrap my mind around, yet a large enough variety to keep me coming back and trying new things. Big polished AAA games have their appeal and I certainly returned to them over the lifetime of the PS4. But then I'd find myself drawn back into the lofi dungeon to see if this time I might survive just a little while longer this time...