Archive for March, 2017

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.

Apparently people like reading about Starship Troopers

Starship Troopers, pinball machine illustration by Morgan Weistling, 1997 | by Tom Simpson. Labeled for noncommercial reuse by Google Image Search.

20 Years Ago, Starship Troopers Showed Us What Happens When Fascism Wins
Paste Magazine – March 2, 2017
Article link |

This little fellow tore up Reddit the other day. According to Paste’s site traffic, it got something like 232K unique views. So, good for me, I guess. It might actually be the most widely-read piece of writing I’ve ever written, ever. I doubt I ever got that many views writing for the Herald & Review of Decatur, Illinois (2010 census population: 76,000). I’ve certainly had way more fun writing other pieces – this one was a rougher go of it, mostly because I wanted to keep things focused on the film adaptation and not wander into the weeds on the book.

I’m careful not to shove in too much apocrypha when I write these articles for Paste, and my editors have been really gracious about letting me write in a way that might seem a little quotidian or overly academic when I dive into some of this stuff. I do it, though, because standards at a lot of entertainment websites are just Not Very Stringent, and you can make a lot of ridiculous-ass claims without backing anything up. Approaching this one, though, was almost too easy: It seems like every damn reviewer has circled back at some point and put on a whole big production about how this silly movie was swinging for the satirical fences and just didn’t quite get a hit.

I mean, look at what the A.V. Club wrote like, years ago now. Check out Rotten Tomatoes, where you can see that its score is buoyed, as I mention in this article, by reviews from the middle of the last decade. I felt a sort of intimidation at knowing I was tackling pretty well-trod territory already, and I had to resist just linking to about half a dozen other (let’s face it, better) articles.

And also, god fuck it, I just don’t want to write about the current political climate at all. I know it’s whining, but I spent a good half a decade writing about what I now regard to be a pretty much inexorable decline in society. It is exhausting to have to drag all of that into my fun writing, but what other choice did I have? How can you watch this movie these days and not marvel at how creepily plausible it is?

Published: Nobody’s Son

The Glass Key, by Dashiell Hammett. | By kristykay22, from Flickr. Labeled for non-commercial reuse on Google Image Search.

Nobody’s Son: The Legacy of Dashiell Hammett
Paste Monthly – May 2016
Article link |

Dashiell Hammett is one of those proto-artists few people actually know. I say “few,” but the truth is that anybody with an unhealthy enough obsession with Honorably Manly Cinema probably knows him by reputation at least.

I had a few incorrect notions about Hammett’s life, which the research I conducted dispelled. This was another article that was enlightening to me. And how about that first epigraph from Akira Kurosawa?

“Here we are, weakly caught in the middle, and it is impossible to choose between evils. Myself, I’ve always wanted to somehow or other stop these senseless battles of bad against bad, but we’re all more or less weak – I’ve never been able to. And that is why the hero of this picture is different from us. He is able to stand squarely in the middle and stop the fight.”

That right there describes everything I desire out of heroic fiction. The outside world is harsh and callous, but Beowulf can punch it in the fucking face. Crime cuts down the innocent, but Superman can stride through bullets like a light winter flurry. It’s rare something that primal makes its debut.

Published: Superman is not Jesus


You know his name. | By mayantimegod. Labeled for non-commercial reuse on Google Image Search.

Superman is not Jesus
Paste Magazine – 16 April 2016
Article link |

This was one of the more well-received articles I’ve written for Paste in the last year. Lots of people have dumped on Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice for all sorts of different reasons. I hadn’t watched it prior to writing this article (and maintain I didn’t need to), but I’ve since seen it and I wouldn’t change a word of this piece. For me, the biggest tragedy is that Superman is a total sourpuss, no longer invested with mythic righteousness.

I drew on a lot of character history to write this one, and it’s got to be just about the most fun I’ve had writing for Paste. I loaded up on books and learned a lot of things I hadn’t known about Superman and his creators.


This will be on my library record forever.

This was an important one for me, silly as it may sound. I hope Superman comes out of whatever his next inevitable adventure is looking much better than he looked in this last one. We need a moral Superman now more than ever, God knows.

Yeah, yeah, I haven’t posted in a year

I’m rectifying that. It’s been quite a long story, and one I promise to tell soon. Stay tuned.