Creativity

Darkest Dungeon doesn’t give a fuck whether you live or die

Darkest Dungeon. | Promotional image courtesy of Red Hook Games.


There was something about the oldest computer roleplaying games – I’m talking obtuse slogs like Ultima I or Darklands or even Fallout – that was just callous. You got the impression that you were a small person amidst a massive world that didn’t care about you. It wasn’t so much that it wanted you to die as it didn’t care whether you lived.

One day, maybe, I will defeat some of those titles. Darklands in particular is an inspiration for my own attempt at game design, one which is progressing as well as it can while I juggle a full-time job, ramping up responsibilities as a freelance writer, and, yes, a serious relationship. In the meantime, damn it, I refuse to give up in my quest to defeat Darkest Dungeon.

I want to talk about Darkest Dungeon because it’s a game that has systems. You will come to know those systems, or you will fucking die. I am somebody who plays more video games than some. It is the rare video game, even today, that asks anything of me beyond going from Point A to Point B or memorizing a pattern or two. Games, sadly, don’t do as much as they used to.

It’s a long read, but check out this article about the 1992 game Dune, based on the movie that was based on the book. Dune did all sorts of things. You needed to progress through a story, explore a whole planet, build an army, balance your need to mine the land for resources with your need to terraform it to win the loyalty of your rebel troops. Oh, and you also needed to fight a war and become a messiah to an entire people. The grandest console games are not remotely as expansive as this 25-year-old, VGA graphics game.

This is a lot of fucking shit. | Promotional image courtesy of Red Hook Games.

Darkest Dungeon kind of isn’t, either. But I give it points for making me think, making me agonize, making me strategize. The game’s story is not remotely important, but it’s a great framing device: One of your older family members has gone bumping about the family mansion and succeeded in waking up fucking Cthulhu. The entire countryside is overrun by hideous creatures and a pack of mostly interchangeable adventurers are volunteering to come in and stop it. You build parties, outfit and equip them, train them in new skills, and send them into the caves, forests, ruins and eventually the demonic mansion itself.

All death is permadeath (that is to say, no raising anybody from the dead). There is a harsh sanity mechanic that degrades as the party moves through the dungeon. And if a party member should reach the end of his or her mental rope, he or she will snap and become afflicted with some type of insanity. Characters who have gone loony will take actions without your say-so, pilfer treasure to keep it for themselves, heap abuse on their fellow teammates, or run toward or from danger precisely when you don’t want them to.

Each character is his own freaking spreadsheet. | Promotional image courtesy of Red Hook Games.

The systems within systems within systems keep you thinking at all parts of the game. Here are all the things I can think of, off the top of my head, that you need to keep track of:

  • The level and gear of each character
  • Each character’s “relics” or “charms” or whatever you call his or her stat-buffing accessories
  • Where you are placing each character in your party formation (as there are four slots)
  • Which of each character’s attacks will strike which parts of the enemy formation (this matters a lot)
  • What personality quirks each character has (which can affect gameplay in unpredictable ways)
  • What diseases might be afflicting a character
  • How many torches, rations, keys, excavation shovels, antidotes, and vials of holy water you can afford to bring with you
  • Which shop in town you are going to upgrade with the loot you scrape off the dungeon floor
  • Which character you are going to bench for the next foray into the dungeon so they can recover their freaking sanity
  • Which characters won’t abide together in a party because of their judgmental nature toward, say, your party’s lycanthrope or demon summoner
  • Which party members are so high in level that they refuse to dirty their blades on a low-level dungeon
  • How long a particular foray into the dungeon will be and therefore which campfire skills your party has and how they compliment one another’s
  • Should you press on through a hallway, not knowing what lurks beyond the door, or stay back and make camp?
  • Should you stun the enemy at the front of the formation to stop him from acting, or poison the enemy at the back of the formation so his life bleeds down?
  • Should you heal a comrade or attack an enemy?
  • Should you light another torch and increase visibility now, or save it for when you are more likely to get an easier fight in a room coming up?

There are more I’m not thinking of, I’m sure. That is, to put it mildly, a lot of stuff to be thinking about. And I do not exaggerate when I say that to ignore or fail to understand any of these questions will result in catastrophic death and the loss of progress.

Because of these interlocking systems, because life is fleeting and any of your hard work can be undone by intellectual laziness or carelessness in how you proceed through a dungeon, a session is addicting, exhausting, and has the potential to either be rewarding or utterly deflating. But here’s the thing: You learn. And if you learn, you get measurably better at it. And for all the complexity, the game graphically presents all of this to you as clearly and cleanly as can be asked. You will, before long, know how each part of this mad machine works.

I can’t hope to build a game so complex as all that, but it does inspire me. Or drive me mad. It’s hard to tell while you’re playing the thing.

The Great Tragedy

Soldats Inconnus. | Promotional image courtesy of Ubisoft.

Life’s been a roller coaster, first off.

Like a lot of my friends, coworkers, and relations, I am – well, it’d be an understatement to say “disappointed with” but melodramatic to say “horrified by” our latest presidential election here in the U.S.A. Yet, on that very same night I became official with the most wonderful girlfriend I’ve ever been with.

My job, here in state government in Illinois, is a daily horror show of political gridlock. Yet, I am more comfortable, more confident, and more easygoing in my job and with my personal finances than I have ever been in a decade of living independently.

Incidentally, I’m also getting published more frequently in Paste Magazine, which has been gracious enough to let me write about movies for the past year, including a major trip to Colombia to talk about the nation’s beleaguered image and, just recently, another about the absurd output (and absurdly low quality) of Steven Seagal’s latter-day… art.

Point is, I’m stressed, jubilant, and/or wistful on a daily basis now. And I find that my time is a bit more divided in ways that are equal parts ponderous and joyous. It’s serendipitous that as I try to get a foot into the door with my own game design, I played Valiant Hearts: The Great War.

I lost it, folks. I haven’t cried at anything – film, play, book, or game – in close to ten years. I shed a few manly tears for this one. It is a celebration of fellowship and devotion in the midst of great chaos. War, the game is saying, is callous and absurd. It treats individual life as disposable. The rest of us would just prefer to live without it, but it comes for us and try as we might, we can’t escape.

I have also been playing Darkest Dungeon, whose similarities basically begin and end at the cartoon styling of the characters and the fact that death is so pervasive and inescapable in it that it becomes almost a dark joke. Valiant Hearts and Darkest Dungeon both know how nutty are their central premises. Valiant Hearts’ premise just so happens to also have actually happened.

I hope to write a bit more about my game design ambitions. I’ve made some programming headway and done some illuminating research on the time period I hope to portray. In the meantime, I’ll leave it to the professionals at Extra Credits to talk a bit about why I found Valiant Hearts so bittersweet.

Branching pathways

So, my quest to create this samurai game continues. I recently plunged in again, this time designing an inn in the first town players are likely to discover if they approach the game carefully.

And man, is it demanding. As I said, I’m designing the game around a strict Choose Your Own Adventure limitation. In practice, this presents some programming hurdles, most prominently that I am unaware of any way in which players will be able to save their progress if they aren’t 1.) on the world map, or 2.) specifically prompted to do so by the game.

RPG Maker VX Ace simply doesn’t have a built-in way to save mid-event. I tried a solution somebody posted online and it promptly fried my save files in what was among the most hilariously disastrous bugs I have ever uncovered while designing a game.

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Too much creativity

World map

I’m not even touching procedural world map generation. | 2015. Kenneth Lowe via RPG Maker VX Ace.

 

My job duties officially come to an end just this week, and it looked as if I would have some time to contemplate the future and wander the earth again.

Alas, no. I was just finished with a great workout session with a friend when I realized I had at some point gotten a call with a job offer. It’ll mean a move down to Springfield, but it’s some stability after years without it. Debts will be paid off. I’ll have ready access to friends I hardly ever see anymore. The savings account will grow.

So: Better focus on getting some real writing done, or it won’t ever get done. Fortunately, I have plenty of stuff I actually care about that I’m working on.

The past week, in between job apps and lying in a fetal position consumed with fear over continuing to write my loathsome novel, I have been tinkering with RPG Maker VX Ace. It’s a program that essentially provides you the ability to create a cooker-cutter JRPG. Unless, of course, you get creative with coding. Then you can pretty much make it do whatever the hell you like.

In messing around with another game idea, I discovered, to my great delight, that I possessed enough know-how to make the game become a rudimentary text Choose Your Own Adventure-type game in the tradition of the superb Lone Wolf books. I discovered this while I was down in Colombia (if I remember right), but I never did very much with it. The game I designed began to get too cluttered, and my inspirations for it competed with one another. Ultimately, I had an idea for the story and the execution of it, but I was making it too big: Six character classes, a sprawling story, dungeon after dungeon, nearly a dozen weapon and equipment categories, dozens of spells and abilities for the characters, and on and on.

It was with a ludicrous amount of enthusiasm that I came up with my current idea: A focused adventure game set in Japan’s Warring States period (late 16th century – a favorite setting for Kurosawa’s films). The player takes control of a party of four adventurers – a samurai, a monk, a ninja, and a Shinto priestess – who return to find the castle of their lord sacked and everybody dead. One of the daimyo competing for leadership of Japan is surely to blame, but which?

The object of the game is simple:

  1. Find your lord’s killer.
  2. Kill him.
  3. Commit seppuku to join your lord in death.

If you fail, you of course commit seppuku out of shame. To be clear: Victory = Seppuku, Defeat = Seppuku. It’s the fine distinctions that truly matter in life.

Besides the obvious Lone Wolf books, the game has a couple of strong influences, ones I think I’ll be able to incorporate while keeping the overall scope of the game fairly narrow. The first is Darklands, a ’90s computer RPG that takes quite a while to fully describe. In it, you control a four-person party of Germans in 15th Century Germany as they pretty much wander around and sword-stab or magic the shit out of people who look at them funny. I think you can kill some demon lord to beat the game, but it’s so aimless that it feels like Skyrim but without a main quest. It is, to be as fair to it as I can be, fucking impenetrable: Stats so hair-split that you can have a character who can speak Latin but not German, a randomly-generated map, no clear indication of what derived stats are derived from and how any of them allow you to cast spells, &c.

But man, that choice-based navigation! It essentially cuts down on a bunch of development. Rather than stress over creating environments the game put up illustrations with text and gave you choices. In battle, you went to a turn-based sort of environment and you saw the fights play out, and moving on the world map was also animated, but that’s because those two actions really couldn’t work in the same text-and-image-based environment as simple adventuring. It’s that approach I want to take with this game.

Another major influence is The Consuming Shadow, a game by Ben Croshaw, widely known as Yahtzee for his hilarious video game reviews. Croshaw also programs on the side, and his game, beta stage though it may be in, is a solid concept. You play as a paranoid British shut-in who has determined that fucking C’thulu is about to invade our reality. You must drive throughout an England enveloped in Lovecraftian evil as your sanity decreases, using scarce resources and quick thinking to try to gather enough clues to perform a banishing ritual. But what if you banish the wrong C’thulu?

The game is notable not just for its unsettling aesthetic, but also because it has an underlying logic structure the player must investigate. Each C’thulu is associated with a color, a rune, and a divine duty. As you rove around fighting evil, you discover clues like “[Some C’Thulu] is NOT associated with the color red” or “[Other C’thulu] is NOT the invading god.” I have played through to the end and reasoned the incorrect C’thulu, thus damning my dimension to eternal tentacle-rape.

It’s this logic-web I’d like to apply to the adventure of the four dishonored ronin as they try to figure out which of three daimyo had their lord killed and his damn house burned down. I’ve even figured out how to populate each of these fiendish lords with the variables that determine which castle, battle, and province they are associated with. The difficulty, of course, will be figuring out how in the bloody stool of Vishnu to get those clues spread out across the world. It seems like using arrays or matrices could help, but I have no effing clue how to write such code, since I am only using the editor that comes with RMVXA.

I plan to show off some more cool parts of this game. I’ve already designed the first area, including random item pick ups, a randomly-timed event, and even *gasp* a moral choice. What will I think of next?

The Revelation of Kung Fu

“Seconds Cover” by Bryan Lee O’Malley. Original image here. | Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia.

 


Thanks to my brother and his wife for their Christmas/birthday gift of Seconds by Bryan Lee O’Malley, he of Scott Pilgrim fame. It’s not nearly as epic a read (in the sense of length), but it had things to say that resonated with me. Sometimes you need that more than another paperback about dragons and magic. (Which I’m also currently reading, guiltily.)

I needed a break from writing about stuff for the past month, since it has been pretty crazy. I have work-coming-to-an-end-stress, family stress, holiday stress, and creative stress, so the blog just needed to not happen for a bit. I plan to unveil a bit more about what I wrote about my grandfather in the near future, but for right now, I am much more excited to be embarking upon a new project with somebody who has been a great help to me in crafting a keepsake for friends. I have to mention something about it here, because it is just plain ludicrous the degree of labor I’ve put into it.

A great long while ago, I ran a Dungeons & Dragons campaign with some good friends downstate. We had a ridiculous amount of fun, and I even met several new people through it. Since it came to an end a couple of years ago, I have felt nostalgia like no other. In part to give a keepsake to my badass party members and in part to assuage these yearnings, I slowly set about creating a book of the campaign. Key to this was the addition of some art. Sadly, none of our players really drew any of us while we were playing, so in addition to sketches of maps and notes I’d made about the adventure already, I figured I should commission some art revealing our characters.

I’d love to reveal some of the art I used, but the fact is I paid for single-use for it and I don’t want to make it available to anybody on the internet who can Google Image search. The point, however, is that I partnered with a few great artists to illustrate the work, including one who I am pleased to say I will be working with on an upcoming project.

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Taking advantage of the grind

image

Second readings. Chicago Orange Line | Kenneth Lowe


Heading into the Loop each morning and leaving it each evening can get pretty tedious, but it does afford somebody the opportunity to do something you can’t do while driving; read a book.

The Talisman is my latest recreational read. I selected it because it is a big influence on Long September, and I am doing my best to get back in that mindset. Funny, though, I like it much less this time around.

Is it just because I read it a decade ago? Hard to say. Perhaps a question to answer later.

Well, here’s my stop (not even kidding).

Experience

"Rebellion is justice." | A protest demanding the reinstatement of the mayor of Bogotá, 10 January 2014.

“Rebellion is justice.” | A protest demanding the reinstatement of the mayor of Bogotá, 10 January 2014.

I didn’t have a very coherent plan when I left for Colombia last year. We don’t tend to make very good decisions when we’re reacting to a bad situation, or at least I don’t.

You could write a whole book on what I didn’t know, but what I didn’t anticipate that I didn’t know going in was that a trip out of the country would be great for my creativity, and not just because of a sudden lack of responsibilities. It opened up new pathways in my head that hadn’t been active before. I think that for a lot of people, learning really does end in school, and that this is a result of our biology. As a species, we sort of don’t believe we need to be discovering and retaining new things as we age. At some point, we think we’ve got it all figured out, even though intellectually we must know that we haven’t.

Except for “grown-ups,” of course; they don’t intellectually suspect there is anything to know that they haven’t already deemed tiresome.

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On the agony of editing

I long for greener places. | Valle de Cocora, Colombia, January 2014.

I long for greener places. | Valle de Cocora, Colombia, January 2014.



I was going to write a much longer and more florid post, and in fact I did, but then OmmWriter Dana II fucking ate it after assuring me it had just saved it.

I am taking a sick day today to combat a malady and to avoid public transit when I can very well write press releases from home, and am unwilling to compromise any more time blogging when I could be working further on my current neck-albatross: The Autumn Sword, the next tale about my detective character set in a fantasy, Victorian-coded world where magic and feudalism are jealously guarding against technology and democracy.

I let this story get away from me. It is now at novella length, and this post is merely me complaining about having to keep fucking editing it when I long ago lost any passion for doing so. This is the part of writing that is work, my children.

Picture above is for inspiration on this, the laziest of days.

The ideal writing space

There isn’t much secret to writing beyond just doing it, but that doesn’t mean people can’t still get hung up on the little things. One of the problems I seem perennially to have is not having an ideal setup; that is, not having everything just exactly the way I would absolutely love it to be for me to compose what it is I’m writing.

Part of the problem there is quite simply that I tend to write things that play around with format. As readers of the short story I currently have up and the novel excerpts I have posted will note, I like to play around with footnotes in particular, something I have messed with on recent projects. The friends who have read those works have railed against those formatting things and claimed that they distract or that people won’t read them, which may or may not be true. (I am of the opinion that if they don’t, they won’t get the full story, and will fail any quizzes on the work, so.)

It stands to reason, then, that I need a program that will allow me to insert footnotes, but I need other things, too:

  • A program that includes an automatic first-line indent.
  • A program that will spell-check in a way that doesn’t slow everything down.
  • Something that allows the file to be portable – the ability to transfer off the machine I am writing to the web, where I can have my friend-editors look at it.
  • Optional but appreciated: Browser-based so I can just log into it anywhere and access my stuff cloudishly.
  • Something that doesn’t slow down to a latency-induced crawl when the size of the work approaches 10,000 words or greater.
  • Does not become a brick the second your internet connection is interrupted

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On the Ecstasy of Editing

One of my friends asked me to write a little bit about the editing process. Since it’s the hardest part of writing, you’d think I have some deep philosophy about it, but you are about to find that no, I don’t.

But I’ll talk about what I know about it all the same.
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