Electron Dance
4Sep/1950

Go the Distance

I am a skillful operator in the field of self-deception. I said I was going to give my mobile gaming a rest. I needed to do other things on my daily commute instead of playing games, like look out of the window. That might sound like a joke to you, but I haven't seen a train window since I acquired a smartphone six years ago.

I uninstalled all the puzzle games I had been working on but there were a few evergreen titles that had to stay. There’s Dissembler (Ian MacLarty, 2018) for example, whose daily challenges can easily suck me in for weeks. But there’s also the roguelike Hoplite (Doug Crowley, 2013).

The last time I was on a Hoplite roll, I stopped playing because, after hours of commuting hours sacrificed to the sweaty swipe, I couldn’t earn the “Speed Run” achievement.

Cards on the table. 2019 has not been kind to me. I needed not merely a distraction, but a small victory.

I decided to take on Hoplite again. And this time... I would win.

*   *   *

For those who are not au fait with Hoplite’s magnificence, let me give you the lowdown.

Hoplite is a hex-tiled roguelike in which you play a hoplite, descending through the levels of Hades in search of the Golden Fleece of Yendor. Each level involves a short turn-based sprint to the exit, obstructed by lava and a number of demons whose intention is to convert you to corpse. Each demon has a different attack and style of movement. The footman is the pawn of the game, trudging relentlessly towards you until they get close enough to strike. The demolitionist hovers at a safe distance while throwing bombs in your general direction.

You have a number of actions at your disposal. You can bash a demon back with your helmet, leap across a couple of hexes or also throw your spear. Attacks are connected to movement and rather than explain all the variations, I’ll offer just one example: if you step forward, you’ll charge at the enemy directly ahead with your spear. Well, provided you haven’t already thrown it into another hex.

You can also select a single “prayer” from each level's altar, which upgrades your abilities, such as reducing your bashing “cooldown” time, increasing your leap energy or being able to teleport to your spear. I reckon your hoplite took a prayer catalogue with them into the underworld because there are a lot of prayers, some of which require a health sacrifice.

To actually win takes some practice but it is not difficult. Basic Hoplite is forgiving and will tolerate sloppy play. If you reach depth 16 alive you’ll find the fleece. Grab it, head to the exit, win the game. Glory be to you.

Time to uninstall.

*   *   *

Once I reach a game’s ending, I usually pack up my stuff and move on to something else. This can apply to roguelikes. After the valiant effort I made to complete Zaga-33 (Michael Brough, 2013) I never opened that little treasure box again. But while I was cheered by my Hoplite victory, it was... a tad on the easy side. I could see there was so much more depth to the game beyond the fleece. And I mean that literally. You don’t have to stop at depth 16; you can keep descending into the dark. There are no more altars to be found down there, although you will receive one point of healing from the fleece each time you descend. However, my hoplite was a whisker away from death when I first recovered the fleece, so going deeper seemed a fool's errand.

While Hoplite was content to award me a gold star for this inelegant victory, it did care about performance. The real Hoplite is about adaptability, knowing your tools, facing greater odds. Becoming an athlete.

Hoplite will award you a score for each session, depending if you got back alive, how many turns you used, yadda yadda yadda. But for contemporary videogames, score is not just a number - we live in the Age of the Achievement.

I am no fan of achievements because there are too many crappy ones which put my teeth on edge. From the soft backrubs of “well done, you started the fucking game, kiss kiss” to the entrenched misery of filling your boots with collectibles. I don't enjoy watching a developer desperately trying to resusciate a videogame after the player has finished with it, delivering it an unfun, undead existence that says little about the player.

But developers can design achievements to demonstrate player athleticism. You don’t earn any of these medals unless you know what you’re fucking doing. I don’t usually opt for black belt play; I am not interested in devoting the time to athlete myself up for some a random game. But Hoplite, my friend, Hoplite was too easy.

Some of the achievements are pretty easy to claim such as knocking demons into lava or killing a demon each turn for seven consecutive turns. I went through the motions but these felt meaningless, more like padding. If you scroll down the achievement list you will find the real deal, stuff which will give you the chills. “The Depths” achievement, for example, is earned if you make it down to depth 27 and get out alive. What? That’s even possible?

I set my sights on an achievement which seemed like the baby of the challenges. The “Speed Run” achievement: retrieve the fleece in 150 turns. I really wanted to finish the Speed Run, because you can unlock a prayer called “Swift Leap”. I didn’t know what Swift Leap was, but it sounded cool and potentially useful in other runs.

So what went wrong?

If you want to go the distance in Hoplite, you visit every altar, play it safe and avoid damage. This all costs turns, nudging you to into longer routes to the exit or performing short jigs with demons to coax them into the right spot for the killing. The Speed Run achievement laughs at that. All that careful play will burn up 150 moves well before you get to the fleece. Speed Run asks you one question: what can you give up?

I knew I needed to be nimble and efficient and this was why I kept failing. Trying to stay out of harm’s way seemed too costly for the Speed Run and by the time I reached level 10, I was frequently one accident away from death. And there was always an accident.

I eventually surrendered.

I might have “beaten” the game but I couldn’t claim I was any good at it. I stopped talking about Hoplite but left it on my phone. Now and then, I’d pop it out, have a crack at the standard game and realise I’d forgotten all of my skills. Making it to the fleece was a miracle.

Time passed.

*   *   *

With my phone free of new games this year, the spotlight fell on Hoplite again. The hours of Speed Run self-harm were a memory from a different life. Surely I could crack that achievement today, I thought. Surely.

The beautiful thing about roguelikes is how they force you to overdose on system analysis. What variables you can control, what variables you can predict and what variables are out for your blood. And, boy, Speed Run sent me down a lava-scarred rabbit hole of Hoplite’s systems.

First I practiced just making it to the fleece safely to reboot my Hoplite brainbank. Once I was reaquainted with the rules of play, I embarked on my new Speed Run quest. My initial strategy focused on beefing up my young hoplite’s energy. More energy, more leaps. More leaps, fewer turns. So I would chase down prayers like Greater Energy and Bloodlust - which improves the energy boost on every demon kill.

Then I guessed I was spending too many turns reaching out for every altar. I refined my strategy to only visit altars which were closer to the centre; if they were at the extremes of the level, I would ignore them unless combat forced me into their neighbourhood.

Each attempt to beat the Speed Run sharpened my toolset a little more. I realised I could survive without prayers, take damage purposefully and, Hell, I was getting better at avoiding the lethal rogue rush. You know, where you click a bit too quickly without looking as if trying to move faster than your enemies… in a turn-based game, you idiot.

I was pressed into finding approaches I don’t normally think of, such as throwing the spear. And it was nice to start remembering that demon wizards won’t blast you if there’s another demon behind you in the line of fire. Hoplite has a lot of tiny details like this, some of which will save your armoured arse on a rainy day. It makes a lawyer of you, well-versed in every single clause and paragraph of the game's rulebook.

It took over three weeks of careful dedicated play but eventually, yes, I earned the achievement. There was a definite sense that luck was involved because a bad lava layout can be disastrous for your turn count. But you don’t earn the Speed Run without effort; my skills were crucial to boosting the probability of success.

*   *   *

I was gripped with a sudden madness. I wanted more.

The other Achievements had become less ridiculous, more possible. The “Atheist” achievement, for example, means grabbing the fleece without taking any prayers. After plenty of practice with the prayer-lite Speed Run, I was good for that. And I swiped that “Flawless” achievement too, where you must take no damage whatsoever.

Final moves before claiming Speed Run achievement.

I dabbled with the “Demon Partisan” challenge, where you must not kill any demolitionists or wizards and that shit was brutally intense yo. There are plenty of ways you can kill by accident - Hoplite takes note if you were responsible for a death, even if it’s a secondary effect like bashing a demon backwards who then knocks the demon bro behind him into lava. As it was too easy to foul up by accident, I quit the achievement. This didn’t feel like it was about skill but about reconfiguring my Hoplite brain.

Of course, once you start rabbiting on about tackling a Hoplite achievement, Hoplite enthusiasts crawl out of the woodwork and someone has to mention “thanks for the reminder, just got that Hoplite Master achievement” (I love you all really). I had nooooo intention of putting myself through that insanity.

Here's why. The “Hoplite Master” achievement requires you to:

  • Take the fleece to depth 27 and escape alive
  • Three fucking times in a row
  • And not using the same prayer build each time, you know, definitely not the one you’ve got really fucking good at

This was not the sort of drama I was seeking. I counted myself lucky to make it beyond depth 20. Still, while travelling up north to film the new Side by Side series, I decided to see if I could make it to depth 27 at all. I mean, I’d earn that achievement “The Depths”, I reckoned, so it wouldn't be wasted effort. Turned out it wasn't so bad: I pulled it off after just a few attempts.

But come on, that’s a world away from being a Hoplite Master.

No, sir.

No, thank you.

That’s a hard nope.

Don’t look at me like that, Joel. Some lines are not meant to be crossed.

No, no, no, don’t you dare.

*sigh*

FINE.

There are two key altars in Hoplite. First, the one on depth 6 which offers the “triple kill” prayers. That is, If you pull off three consecutive kills you can heal one heart, get an extra move, or recall the spear and boost your energy, depending on which prayer you choose. Then there’s the altar on depth 11 which offers some incredible and expensive leap enhancement prayers such as "Staggering Leap" (stun nearby demons on landing), "Leap Strike" (crush a demon and bash its neighbours) and "Winged Sandals" (increase leap distance). My favourite prayer was the one Speed Run unlocked, the "Swift Leap": get an extra move after every leap.

Hoplite Master means you cannot call upon any of these more than once in your three descents to level 27. Instead of focusing on my “favourite build” I’d need three different builds and become adept at each one. Maybe a leap-focused build, a bash-focused build and... groan... a spear-focused build? Look, I didn’t do the spear. The spear was hard work. Once you’d thrown the spear you could no longer do lunge attacks until you retrieved it. And if you exited the level without it… well, it’s no more spear for Bobby Hoplite. Fabulous.

It was time to learn the way of the spear. And, as if by magic, a whole new game suddenly appeared.

I’d unlocked a prayer known as “Sword Lunge” which meant I could still lunge even after throwing the spear. I then noted how useful it could be to extend your spear range and combine it with the “Follow” prayer which transformed your spear into an enormous leap that didn’t cost energy! My Hoplite lawyer-brain was transfixed. A spear-build could be very effective in the right hands. I now had the right hands.

Depth 27.

I was so proud when I made it to depth 27 using the spear for the first time but I kept quiet on Twitter. I didn’t want to reveal I was working on Hoplite Master. It wasn't the playing or even the winning I was enjoying. It was the study. Much time was spent unravelling the implications of the Hoplite rules, stumbling upon tricks or thinking up strategies that would keep me alive a few turns longer. I didn’t want hints, Jesus, that's like fucking spoilers man. I didn’t Google a single thing. It was going to be a victory that I owned.

Having become so focused on spear play, it was almost preordained that I would fail the next run. I knew I had to keep practicing three different approaches before I could earn the ultimate achievement. If I wanted to be called Hoplite Master, I was going to have to work for it.

Today, you can call me Hoplite Master.

Yeah, I got my small 2019 victory. I got a few of them, in fact.

* * *

The achievements are contexts that the player, not the game, must enforce. They are ultimately more interesting than get in, get out and being optional means they reach out of the game and become something more like a personal commitment to be better. They insist we play on a completely different level and compel us to embrace different skills and ideas that standard play doesn't even scratch the surface of. Anyone can beat Hoplite. But it takes a real athlete to make an Atheist run. I'm now the kind of player who starts again if they sustain an injury before reaching the fleece.

And that’s my Hoplite story. It’s taken all my energy not to waffle on about all the tiny nuances in the rules. I guess the game is done now. There are a few more achievements on the table - I still haven’t claimed “Pacifist” or “Demon Partisan” - and there is also the daily challenge mode. I don’t know. I feel like I’ve got what I needed from Hoplite.

I mean, why would anyone keep going beyond depth 27?

Because they’ve got nothing better to do?

I’ve got nothing better to do.

I could keep going.

I wonder how far I could descend.

I wonder--

Down there, things get serious. Blink and you are dead. With the builds I’ve used, I find I need to keep a chain of attacks going, so as to renew leap energy or keep charging up triple kill abilities. A single turn gap in your killing spree can be lethal. The demons close in as you flail helplessly.

Down there, Hoplite becomes parkour violence, where the player impales, slashes, leaps and tears through the hordes. I can’t stop killing. To stop killing is to stop living.

I got as far as depth 46 last time. I hear that if you make it to depth 66, the fleece stops working.

And, you know, I think I’d like to see that for myself.

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Comments (50) Trackbacks (1)
  1. I never really got into hoplite when I first got it. My next class isn’t for another few hours. This won’t have any negative consequences, right?

  2. Dude, you’re preposterous. Your writing is so satisfying. Getting the game now.

  3. Hello again, Dan! I think it’s a really neat roguelike, but it’s depth doesn’t really show itself initially. It just seems too… simple. It was mentioned to me on Twitter that the design is great because it’s restrained – there aren’t tons of different enemies and environments. That simplicity is quite deceptive though. I hope you were good for your next class. :)

    Howdy, Brendan. Preposterous is a great description! I’ve been working on this piece on and off for two months. I hadn’t even got myself the Speed Run achievement when I started writing it! The ending was meant to be “I’m sure I’ll crack it soon” or some such. Surprised myself. It’s a wonderful game that, as I just said above, seems just too simple at first glance.

  4. Achievements eh? I could swear I had a relevant link for that.

    No, it’s gone.

    Your descent into Hoplite athleticism reminds me of a similar undertaking I made in Crypt of the Necrodancer. Where achievements lay out the requirements and leave the ‘giving up’ to the player, necrodancer instead offers new characters wholesale, formalising the ruleset, the giving and the taking away. Enforcing contexts as you aptly put it. Oh, you were luxuriating in the afterglow of an all-floors run? Now do it again with two hit points, no healing and no weapons beyond the starting dagger. Oh, and take damage if you fail to play to the beat.

    I certainly recognise that feeling of trying and trying and failing and failing, straining against an elastic pull, until through exhaustion the frequency of the trying falters and the skills you’ve been honing dull – with an alarming rapidity – and the goal snaps back into the darkness.

    For all I’ve raved about the enmeshing of roguelite with real-time rhythm-action, it very significantly hampers this deliberative, learn-refine-apply process by which you can strategise for success. While the same sort of gamestate- (and brainstate-) changing powerups can be obtained in Crypt there’s no foreknowledge of what you will find, and barely any time to think about what you *do*. It’s a game about reaction and improvisation; a different beast with the same DNA.

    One day though. One day.

  5. CA

    Yep, no idea what link you were struggling for either. Beats me.

    I want to respond with something more considered but as I’ve not played necrodancer aside from that Side by Side episode, I feel like I don’t have the knowledge. But I can see how the delight of rhythm-play could be antithetical to living-on-the-edge achievements.

    It reminds me of some achievements that come over like “hey one lucky soul in the world will achieve this and he’ll feel brilliant”. That they aren’t so much rewarding dedicated, deeper play, but outliers, natural born talent. Nex Machina has a ton of achievements and I took one look at them and thought – nope, nope, nope. (I’m also sad two of the levels are not available unless you play the harder difficulties.) I may be unfair here to Nex because I’m not the world’s best player of arena shooters. I love them but I never seem to get really good. I made it to the sixth level of Everyday Shooter but never made it any further.

  6. Not to anyone particular, but I wanted to leave extra some notes here because I like talking about Hoplite law. What I like about many of the rule nuances is that Doug Crowley obviously sat down and had to think about each one, so here are some of the nuances that are IMPORTANT but aren’t explained:

    Altar to Portal: The altars act as a shield which is really helpful at times. Wizards and archers cannot penetrate them. When you reach level 16, the altar is effectively replaced with a portal. The portal is like the stairs – it’s really OPEN SPACE. Demons can fire through it and be bashed onto it. This will screw you up in early runs when you think you’re protected. The overall effect is to increase player vulnerability as you descend to the deepest depths.

    Wizard Fire: It’s so, so important to remember that wizards will not fire on you if there’s another demon in the line of fire behind you. This doesn’t affect archers, because the arrow they fire is stopped by your body, but the wizard’s beam lights up a line of hexes. This is frequently the only way to stay alive when the wizard count shoots up.

    Bash Crush: If you bash a demon against the boundary, they’ll die because they cannot move. This is unfortunately not true for bombs which will still blow up in your face…

    Murder vs Misadventure: Hoplite takes notice if you were instrumental in a death. Bashing a demon who then knocks another demon into lava counts as a murder for you. If a demon is going to get blown up a bomb, it won’t. But if you bash the bomb into that demon before it goes off… it will count as murder. This determination is critical for the triple kill abilities, bloodlust and negatively for the demon partisan achievement.

    Upgrade/Downgrade: Abilities are also liabilities. For example, you can’t leap immediately again after a Swift Leap (normally) which restricts your movement on landing. Another one, Deep Lunge kills two demons in a row, but you will experience occasions where doing this will expose you to attack – but there’s no way to not kill two demons in a row.

    Agility/Swift Leap: Both Agility and Swift Leap net you an extra move and there are some interesting consequences which are important to learn for making it down to depth 27. This move does not freeze bombs, they will still go off. However, it does preserve your shield for a second move. A really interesting facet is normally you can’t use your Swift Leap extra move to Swift Leap a second time, but if your Swift Leap causes a kill and triggers the Agility extra move, you can.

    En passant: The tutorial teaches you that if you leap forward over a demon, you can not just lunge forward where you land but also strike back at the demon you leapfrogged. Something I still forget is that this isn’t the actual rule: the rule is a leap will kill a demon if you leap from one adjacent hex to another adjacent hex. I’m bad at remembering this one and still feels unfamiliar; it saved them me from game-ending death once. I think of the “leap to the side” kill as en passant in chess because I equally never remember how to use that properly.

    Use of pawns: It’s really not clear on early levels, but once you get quite deep, it becomes critically important not to kill off demon footmen too quickly. They are the only thing protecting you from the billions of archers and wizards on the map.

  7. The idea of murder culpability – as something the game and enemies take account of – is fascinating. Typically it’s left to solely the player to care (‘does this game allows pacifist runs?’), or if the game does care, it’s because it’s looking to deliver A Message About Violence (Undertale, Spec Ops).

    Players often like it when enemies can kill each other in a game because that suggests emergence. The default is that enemies don’t react to the existence of anything in the world except the player, which is one of those things that you don’t usually think about but does make game worlds feel rather artificial, solipsistic.

    Something as simple as enemies actively trying to avoid hurting one another adds an immediate sense of verisimilitude, a greater network of connections suggestive of a living, organic space. And here has added a lot of mechanical depth/mastery potential, which is a bonus (quite probably I’m inverting things, and was 100% the intentional part of the design choice.)

  8. I beat the basic quest earlier today. You’re right that it’s a bit deflatingly easy once you learn how things work. The achievements here are quite good, as you pointed out, with a good mix of plausible-seeming and not. I’m a little torn, though. I’m generally a fan of permanent progression through unlocks, upgrades, and the like, even though it somewhat cheapens your eventual victory. Big deal, you were hitting twice as hard and taking half as much damage. But as you point out, done right (and for the right game) they can give a little (but not too much) extra form to the play and really breathe new life into a game, taking it to the next level. FTL is an example that comes to mind and I’m sure there are others I’m just forgetting

    And yet! It seems like for Hoplite the achievement unlocks are necessary (but not remotely sufficient it sounds) for real victory (hoplite master or nothing!). I’m not really sure how I feel about that. I mean, if this were rogue legacy or dead cells where the progression currency grind is transparent, then I wouldn’t really care. But you’ve laid out such a strong case for Hoplite mastery being about learning and excellence, that something just feels off about the unlock progression mattering. Or maybe I’m just overthinking this because no one would be able to attain those later achievements without acquiring the necessary skills and getting the other essential achievements along the way.

    Or maybe it’s fancy show-not-tell game design that pushes you to learn how to play a certain way with a little carrot instead of gating you more explicitly and/or leaving you to flounder. Hm.

  9. CA

    This mechanic of identifying who was responsible for a death is a frequent presence in multiplayer games and I feel like surely we must have seen it in single-player experiences before where you get score for shooting something done rather than it getting blown up by some accident.

    However, you might argue I’m blowing it out of proportion. There aren’t millions of ways for demons to die by accident in Hoplite – the only way is through bombs. I can see, coding wise, the game makes a distinction between a “neutral” bomb and one which the player has touched and I wonder if that was all there was to it. But I *noticed* and I factored it into my strategy. An individual minor rule like this will not bring about victory. But knowing and respecting all of them are vital.

    Dan

    Oh, this is issue of the achievement unlocks and how they contribute to future achievements was definitely something at the back of my mind. But it’s a big issue in itself, one which our very own Matt W has mentioned here in the comments. So I skated around it!

    Some of the achievement like Speed Run and Atheist, don’t really rely on Unlocks. But I think any time you’re expected to descend below Level 16 definitely does get you into murky waters. Can you complete Hoplite Master without all the unlocks? I don’t know. Do we know who has done it without unlocks? No, we don’t.

    Regardless, it was no cakewalk getting up to Hoplite Master level – and I don’t necessarily relish doing it again!

  10. Absolutely terrific read! This has to be one of your best articles ever, seriously.

    I’ve been giggling all the way through it, seeing how it mirrors many of my thought processes when playing a certain kind of game (the lawyer-like mind hehe, great metaphor). I also think that hints are spoilers and it’s always better to go in blind, whatever that takes (and my faith in the approach has recently been tested by Stellaris, no less).

    Thanks a lot for your insights

  11. Hi Carlos,

    Glad you really enjoyed this! I was not expecting it to turn out this well as the stop/start writing process over the past couple of months was a real pain…

    I guess I hit my “wall” with Hoplite when I gave up in the Speed Run first time. Coming back to much later, I was able to find the determination and wits, somehow, to push through. That probably wouldn’t have happened if I’d started looking up tips…

  12. Ah, the wall… I sometimes toy with the idea of coming back to games in which I hit “the wall” and never pushed through it, but I rarely do it. This mortifies me somehow. At least the very good ones probably deserve a second chance, and I never get around to reinstall them. Invisible Inc immediately springs to mind, I never got to beat it and that thing’s design was brilliant enough to warrant an epic, years-long obsession with its systems, its elegance, its emergence (have you tried it, btw?)

    But there is something so deterring about reconnecting with a game whose nooks and crannies you’ve long forgotten… Plus take a look at the Steam wishlist… Oh boy.

    Regarding tips, guides and such, I think it was one of your posts that introduced me to the idea of “mechanics spoilers”, which resonated with me to the point that I can hardly read game reviews these days haha!

  13. The Wall and the Graveyard. A moment of silence please, for Dark Souls 2, Xenoblade Chronicles, Card Hunter…

    Carlos, you post got me thinking. With all this wonderful data the platform holders have sloshing around – about the way we play our games, which ones we begin but never complete… couldn’t they use that somehow? Release ‘get over the wall’ DLC which expedites some thorny section? Or more subtly, release a new, shiny HD remaster, so we think, ‘oh, yes! This is the perfect opportunity for me to actually beat Goblin Grinder 3!’ as we (re-) open our wallets.

  14. Beautiful article as always, and talking about something I struggle with a lot – with a lot less success than you, I’m afraid. High-level Hoplite has long eluded me, probably because I never actually tried to get all achievements. Also, I believe, because I can’t get into the mindset of completely “mastering” this kind of game.

    It’s weird. I very much enjoy both score-chasing games and roguelikes/lites, but I have completed very few of the latter, and I never get very good at the former. But there they stay, on my phone mainly but on my PC as well (Spelunky has *never* not been installed for years, and I have never beat it). NecroDancer has been mentioned a couple of times, and that game is one of my few regrets. I absolutely adore it, and even bought it twice – on steam and iOS – but for the life of me I can’t do Aria, never ever ever. I can’t even finish the first floor with her, because the first time I miss a beat, I miss another, and I’m dead. The gimmick with that character, for the uninitiated, is that you can only use the starting weapon, the dagger, and you take damage if you miss a beat. Also, you die in one hit (you have a reviving potion, but it works once). I can’t see myself getting good enough to beat the game with Aria, and it’s frustrating because every time I pick the game up and start from scratch, I hit the same wall, again and again, and eventually give up.

    @CA: I like what they did with some of the Final Fantasy remakes (at least on iOS). They have always been “comfort games” for me, and I wanted to replay them, but the grind put me off for years. Then I played the re-release of IX, and they added a lot of quality-of-life features for those who want to skip the grind (and, basically, break the game), and it was so much what I wanted that I’m not sure I’ll be able to play another JRPG again without them

  15. @CA: the DLC idea… I don’t see it much, but to see a “graveyarded” game remastered? That would get me moving. Xenoblade Chronicles is in my list too, btw (it was a boredom wall that I hit in the later stages of that one, though).

    @Lorenzo: JRPG design tics have never been easy to live with, no sir. I’ve played fewer and fewer as I got older, charming as I usually find the tropes, the wackiness and such. Which lately has me thinking that I might be missing some recent gems wirth playing. Have you tried Persona 5?

    Sorry about the offtopic drift.

  16. @Carlos: I’d say I’m in the same boat, I have played less and less JRPGs, but I still kinda love them, or rather, I feel I’m in a love/hate relationship with them. I’m not sure I have the time and energy to commit to a big JRPG (maybe, RPG in general) anymore, though sometimes I stumble on something that I fall in love with and lose 50 hours to. But I’m very, very far from the 125 hours I spent 100%ing Final Fantasy XII. I get tired and lose interest, most of the time. With long games in general, but RPGs are usually very long so this problem is particularly evident. Maybe this is why I like roguelikes and score-chasing games.

    About Persona: unfortunately, I can’t play P5 because PS4, but I have played and replayed P3 and P4, and they are *so good*. You need a mid-to-high tolerance for anime (especially high school anime), but if that’s your jam, or even if you think you can stomach the drama and camp, I absolutely recommend them. Persona 4 is still one of my favourites, but I hear 5 is also very very good. Still a JRPG, with that kind of turn-based combat, but with the added incentive to socialise and discover characters there’s often enough plot and setting to keep things interesting

  17. It’s so interesting that you’ve drifted to JRPGs, because they evoke something similar to my feelings about Hoplite. On the one hand, I really crave the “flow state” associated with obsessing over a game and slowly overcoming its challenges. On the other, I really fear finding more games that have that and want to suck up sosososo much of the gaming time I don’t really have to give. I gave up on FF12 when I started trying to get the ultimate weapons (dodging lightning strikes, so much other crap, right?) and I’m pretty sure that general giving-up led me to not even finish the game, 100% or not.

    It’s weird how those really tough achievements make it easy to feel like you’ve failed a game.

    And now I think I’m even more brutal with the cost v. benefit analysis of playing games and/or chasing achievements. Why dedicate precious motivation and time to a mere shiny badge? It’s tough not to let the nihilism set in completely (what’s the point of any games!) when I get too meta about it. But given that on most days if I have some free time, I’d still prefer to just play a game, that nihilism (I think some people call it being a responsible member of society) never really wins. It just often keeps me from really throwing myself into mastering a game (see also: options, far too many of), and that feels kind of suboptimal.

  18. @Dan: I often feel the same. I suffer from backlog paralysis, so much that sometimes I’m afraid to start a long game because I’m not sure I’ll be able to finish it, and since I don’t have as much time to dedicate to games, I feel I need to be careful with what I choose. Which is why I tend to go for shorter games, or games I can drop with few regrets. At the same time, I still find that for some genres, narrative is a big draw for me, and it’s the reason I stumble into the occasional 50-to-70-hour RPG that manages to keep me involved to the end. Never to 100%, though. I can’t. Even with shorter games, sometimes I want to, but hit “the wall” and I stop. I’m trying to work on that feeling of “failing a game” that you talked about, ‘cause I feel it too with some games.

    Sorry if I derailed the thread

  19. Gosh, I agree with so many of these thoughts!

    The JRPG bug is something I constantly struggle with. There are a lot of things I don’t like about JRPGs. Their extravagant time-sucking length. Random encounters, and repetitive turn-based combat in general. Stories that are so often trope-driven, predictable and cliché. And yet somehow I’m addicted to the concept, the promise of these games. Which leads to a great deal of buying and not a lot of playing…

    It’s encouraging to see I’m not the only one who suffers from backlog paralysis. I have loads of games I at some point wanted to play, still want to have played some day, but sit in this weird space where the possibility of playing doesn’t even seem to occur to my brain. They are trapped in the negative plane of the backlog. Sitting down of an evening, I know I have all these games I want and can play but so often drift back to something familiar. The thought of beginning a game and enduring the tutorials, the onslaught of world-building proper nouns.. the whole 5-10 hour acclimatisation process fills me with dread.

    I played a lot of smaller games in 2019, 4-8 hour affairs, and it felt like a blessing. I have my thousands-hours obsessions and my rinky-dink indie wonders. The traditional 20-100 hour offering looks less and less like what I’m after.

    Which is why I view the coming overhaul to the Steam library interface with a mixture of hope and fear. People rightly point out that its rather drab, utilitarian design does a poor job of encouraging people to play the games they own. It would be nice to feel encouraged to begin more games, because at least some of them would stick, right?

    But a too-attractive menu carries its own dangers. Take the recently launched SNES online catalogue on the Switch. I think there’s something about the way those games are arrayed, smart panels full of gorgeous cover art, which encourages too *many* beginnings. I find myself unable to stick with a single game, flitting around, only engaging with these venerable classics in a profoundly shallow way, as if they were passing confections rather than some of the finest games of the ’90s.

    In this sense the drabness of a UI becomes toutable as a feature: a set of blinkers that helps a player stay on the track, give a game enough time to find value, instead of listless desultory channel-hopping.

  20. @Lorenzo: Thanks for your Persona insights, hm I have to think about this. I’d say the whole high-school-anime thing could be a little too much for me. There are tropes and then there are TROPES. This brings to mind a comparison: As an avid reader, I come across novels that I wouldn’t read based on their synopsis, but end up blowing my mind because of their style, voice, structure and other literary qualities. Because its form lifts its content to unexpected heights, so to speak. Maybe this could apply to games too, maybe P5’s style, systems and mechanics are good enough to make it worth enduring a few too many JRPG tropes. Offtopic level 99 now… :-)

  21. a ROGUELIKE POST, oh my

    I haven’t played Hoplite but it seems like it might scratch a certain itch for me as a short roguelike. OTOH it seems like it’s what Raigan Burns called a Broughlike–small map, more about tactics than strategy in that most turns are about placing yourself in exactly the right step turn by turn.

    The classic roguelike I’m playing these days is Brogue, in a couple of variations. In some ways I feel like it’s solved the classic roguelike interface problem–I tried Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup again briefly and I just could not get with the fiddliness of the various controls, and having to keep track of chopping things up and cooking them and whatever may be going on with praying and various alternate commands. For similar reasons was not able to get into Cataclysm (Dark Days Ahead) and I just can’t play nethack at all anymore. Brogue has this elegant mouse movement/everything can be applied with a or equipped with e scheme that takes away all of the cruft.

    Also Brogue in its latest versions has feats, which are achievements, but they’re very well hidden. I didn’t know I had achieved the Dragonslayer feat (kill a dragon in melee) until the end of that game, and it doesn’t show up on any feat list or even on the high score list. Roguelike achievements are kind of a tradition–nethack tracks a ton of them. HOWEVER the feats for Brogue are almost all ridiculous things that require repeated dying till you find a congenial seed–like “never eat anything,” which seems to require either a health charm with a giant bonus or an ally that will heal you when you starve, both of which are to say the least not guaranteed. A nice thing about Hoplite Master is that, since you have to do it three times in a row, you can’t just luck your way into it.

    OK the thing I really wanted to say was that in the game where I got the Dragonslayer feat, I retrieved the amulet and then STARVED TO DEATH ON THE WAY BACK UP, which was bullshit. Mostly because I was at best doomed-if-I-didn’t-do-something-extraordinary (find food I had missed in the dungeon, or maybe go a level deeper and find food there, or get a heal somehow), but I had no way of knowing it. Then not to long after I ascended for the first time in the latest Brogue (which has a tighter food timer than the other ones) by a truly cheesy means, getting a teleportation charm that I enchanted so high I could teleport every turn, so I could escape any monster. Which I was kind of forced to do by not finding a decent weapon the entire game, or an attack staff until level 20.

    I feel like one of the things I like about classicish roguelikes and not so much about Broughlikes is discovering new environments. Maybe I’d like Below?

  22. Reconnecting with Graveyard gamesOur graveyard contains both gems and garbage fires and it’s not easy to tell which they will be. I’ve been working on Stephen’s Sausage Souls for the last few weeks, started again from scratch, and it’s going well. I’m in. But Event[0] almost become a Graveyard game after playing it for an hour. An hour! Took an effort to go back in – was it worth it? Tune in to this month’s newsletter to find out…

    Invisible Inc. I don’t even have a copy of this…

    Roguelike/lite EnduranceI am like Lorenzo… I have a tendency to walk away from Roguelikes when they get tough. Not intentionally, but I have plenty of games which I will make progress on faster, so the Rogueli*e ends up Graveyarded. Sometimes stuff breaks through – like my return to Hoplite, for example. Another case: I’ve still been meaning to go back to 868-HACK as I seemed to reach a fairly low skill ceiling. Definitely need a lot more play there, but I’ve never conjured up enough enthusiasm.

    JRPGs OMIGOSH. I have developed a resistance to JRPGs over the years just because they so bloody slow. Click dialogue. Click dialogue. Someone inevitably says “…..”. Walk around town. Dialogue like “huh, I love living here, every day is fun” you’ve never seen before. And yet, to some extent this is a monstrous stereotype in my head and they’re never as bad as this. But, God, it’s difficult to get over that “burning away my valuable life” feeling and that’s before you get to combat. I’m playing the original Anodyne right now, after it got Graveyarded after 5 minutes of play (I’ll come back to this tomorrow! YEARS PASS…) which is very tropey thus far but there’s something very non-threatening about it.

    Thread Derailment. Enshrined in the unwritten Electron Dance Comment Constitution is the Right to Derail. There is a small subclause, however, that indicates this Right is withheld from Matt W.

    Backlog I hate that I love buying games but STARTING THEM UP is full of anxiety. How long is the tutorial going to be? Will I see any “game” before I go to bed? Being stuck in a long tutorial before the first session is up can end up Graveyarding the game. See: AI War.

    Matt. I was wondering why you hadn’t popped up to say something and, well, now we know. There was Ye Traditionale Commentessay in the making.

    That’s an interesting tale about Rogueish achievements, which is why I’m wary that achievements are not about your skills but about how long you’ve played. They say: wow, you’ve played this so many times, you’ve seen this incredibly unlikely scenario! But they are interpreted as a badge of honour– whether it applies to skills or endurance doesn’t matter. It’s a high-five all round.

    Warning! Below has been Graveyarded! I love the sense of unknown systems and adventure inside it, but there was this pondering sense, sometimes, that it’s all about: fight through (I don’t remember) six not exactly dissimilar rooms to get to “the next level”. When I was making progress, I found it interesting. When I wasn’t, it was “hello Graveyard”. I was getting the sense that deaths were making it harder to move forward than when I started and that was enough to put me off. I intend to go back because the game looks and sounds lovely. Except for the goddamn opening.

  23. Graveyard etc.: I fear that Hollow Knight is inching toward the Graveyard. I have a boss fight which I need to clear to get anywhere else (I think), and I’m just… not that good at it? And it takes a longish time to retry it because of the checkpoint design (I mean, not that long, but it takes me longer to get to the fight than it does to lose it.) Though it might be just a question of finding a time when I get into the groove. Also I’m guessing this is mostly a preliminary area and things will get more complicated and lots harder.

    Current status: Giving (un)Brogue a rest except when my kids want to play it with me (but I got my son’s game killed in a pretty stupid way, by both miscalculating that a fire turret would burn us to death and forgetting we had a scroll of overriding turrets that is basically designed FOR THAT EXACT SITUATION. He was surprisingly chill about it).
    Picked up The Curious Expedition again which is like the most problematic game ever. But fun if you close your eyes willfully enough. One of those permadeath/procedural/but not much else from roguelikes IMO games, in particular the combat is a turn-based parties-take-turns-attacking thing which is completely separate from the movement (which makes sense given the respective scales). But combat is a small enough portion of the game that spatial maneuvering on the map is still super important (as opposed to say FTL or Binding of Isaac).
    Should probably buy: Into the Breach and Gorogoa. (Aw man, the latest Into the Breach sale is over.) ItB seems like something I’m almost certain to like and Gorogoa I *know* I’ll like. Gorogoa is not a roguelike or even roguelite-adjacent-adjacent-adjacent-adjacent.

    I see you’ve been playing Stephen’s Sausage Roll again! I had an awful hard time in Crunchy Leaves too which was a little bit down to the graphics–wasn’t sure that there was a floor you could put sausages on in the gap between the islands on the east side–but also not. Then I saw a solution which was not the one I had come up with which was like “you what? you can do that?” A little surprised that you solved Baby Rock first, that was one that gave me a pretty hard time IIRC. Nyfb V guvax vg’f bar bs pbzcnengviryl srj yriryf jvgu n erq ureevat; V qba’g guvax V jnf rire noyr gb pbzr hc jvgu n fbyhgvba gung hfrq nyy gur ynqqref va gur fbhgujrfg. Pbyq Tngr fvzvyneyl unq na hahfrq ynqqre, gubhtu znlor vs vg jnfa’g gurer vg jbhyq’ir orra gbb boivbhf jung gb qb jvgu gur ovt fnhfntr fgnpx.

    Dead End, lol.

  24. Wait I forgot Celeste in the current status! Finished Chapter 6 after something like 14 hours of play (one of the reviewers said something about finishing the whole game in five hours, so yeah, I’m not gud). The game remains the good stuff thought sometimes a biiiit frustrating.

    There’s a bit of gameplay-gameplay dissonance. There are some parts where you are driven headlong by some external enemy, and some relatively calm parts where you often have a chance to stop and rest. I often chew through the calm parts in huge chunks, but in the chase parts I can go through somewhere between zero and three checkpoints in a session before I have to take a break, because they’re so draining. Also the calm parts are often meant as things to decompress you after an extended chase, but I have to break the end of the chases up into tiny pieces so I only have a bit of it in the session before I reach the calm stuff. Frex, I spent about an hour this morning beating the next-to-last stage of Rock Bottom in Chapter 6, then this afternoon spent slightly less time on the last stage, and then there was this extensive sequence where I think you literally can’t die. But in a way I’d only had to work through one stage to get it!

  25. Out of curiosity: what’s the oldest game you’ve currently (or ever) graveyarded?

    I’m not sure about the first game I ever interred; technically just about every game I ever owned for the NES qualifies because I only managed to beat a handful. But the first one I remember was Baldur’s Gate 2, which is also one of my favourite games of all time – I’ve played 99% of the way through at least thrice, but I’ve never seen the ending. Now partly it’s because I was really struggling to beat the final encounter (which is a pretty brutal multi-stage affair in which instadeath BS abounds). But there’s another graveyard next to the main plot, a much smaller one, which contains all sorts of fictional worlds I simply loved too dearly to bring myself to the end of. BG belongs to both, so I guess it’s buried under the fence or something.

    The oldest game by release that I’ve graveyarded is Pool of Radiance. (RPGs are very strongly represented.) It’s an exciting and very fresh-feeling game in some senses, which is why I managed to sink a couple of dozen hours into it: certain things, like the way you can progressively clear out and reclaim sections of the city from the monsters, are tricks that modern gaming should really steal (opprobrious comparisons to colonialism notwithstanding.) But the fiddly interface is a constant chore, combats take about as long to finish as they did to resolve (as you chase one fleeing enemy across all corners of the map), and then you find enemies that *thunder peels* level-drain you, and for some reason that particular brand of player hostility is enough to kill any game stone dead in the water for me.

  26. @matt: Hollow Knight was a hard one for me. I loved it, but the road to the best ending is SO BORING, not to mention 100%. But I kept at it – the shift in wins/losses ratio came when I started to focus more on dodging than doing damage, which is kinda the opposite of what I usually do in sidescrollers. Then the DLCs happened and crushed my dreams. If you’re struggling, I’d advise to go for the “normal” ending first, and limit the side stuff at a minimum. Which is a shame, because the harder areas are some of the most beautiful, but a couple of bosses were a brick wall to smash my head on.

    Celeste, however, is probably the game that most encourages me to push my skill level beyond what I thought possible. I’ve heard it described as “the hardest game anyone can beat”, and even discounting assist mode I think it’s quite fitting.

    SPOILERS I guess, but not story spoilers

    The main game ends at chapter 7, there’s a chapter 8 immediately unlocked, but you need collectibles to enter. I saw some gameplay and said “no way I’m beating that one”. Five hours later, chapter 8 beat. You can also find cassette tapes in all levels that unlock a B-Side, shorter but MUCH harder. I tried the first B-Side, and noped out quickly. Then, a couple of days later, I tried again and got to the first checkpoint. Now I’m on the second checkpoint of B-Side chapter 4, and I think I’m going to try the C-Sides as well, which unlock after you beat all the B-Sides, and are even harder.

    END SPOILERS

    The game is paced very well – except for the sudden spike of chapter 3, I’d say – and the thing I love is that most of the tricks you see speedrunners do are actually intended and taught in the game when you need them, at a steady pace that keeps up the whole game. It’s frustrating but I feel the end of each level is always JUST out of reach, to keep you going. I think the last time I was so taken with a precision platformer was Super Meat Boy, and that game has not aged well for me; Celeste, I feel, has more staying power, and I can see myself picking it up periodically when I get the platformer itch.

    @CA: I have my graveyard full of RPGs as well. I never finished Planescape Torment, and got almost to the end of Xenogears (the infamous “text adventure” disc 2) before losing steam completely. Other RPGs are represented, but I think those two are the most notable.

    For the SNES era, I had very few games, and played them to the ground, but now that I think about it, I never actually finished Super Mario Bros 2, the reskinned Doki Doki Panic version, which I had on the Super Mario All Stars cartridge. That’s probably the first. Now that I noticed, I feel weird.

  27. Matt: V jbaqre vs vg n erq ureevat be jurgure Fgrcura whfg unq n qvssrerag fbyhgvba naq fbzrubj, ng gur gvzr bs eryrnfr, qvqa’g frr gur zber bcgvzvfrq irefvba. V jnf rkpvgrq gb qvfpbire gur evccvat-bss-gur-sbex znarhire qhevat Pbyq Tngr, naq vg unq orra ba zl zvaq nyy guvf gvzr. V gevrq n sbex qebc fgengrtl sbe Pehapul Yrnirf – vg jnf cresrpg, ncneg sebz gur snpg lbh arrq gb unir gur sbex nggnpurq jura lbh rkvg nal yriry. Jura V tbg gb Onol Ebpx, V jnf chzcrq sbe sbex qebccvat.

    CA: Many, may games from the Atari 8-bit era. I can’t tell you the “first one” Graveyarded but there were so many I just gave up on. Completing something was a rare event. Got to the end of Jumpman once, but never did the Grand Loop. Miner 2049er. Boulder Dash. Tell you what, we never did finish Colossal Cave, which was a family event with all of us sitting down to work through it for an hour at a time.

  28. Joel: V pna’g svaq n fvatyr fbyhgvba gung rira hfrf gung cneg. Gurer ner n pbhcyr yriryf jvgu zhygvcyr fbyhgvbaf jurer V pna frr gur bar gung hfrf gur jubyr yriry naq gur bar gung fubeg-pvephvgf cneg bs vg, ohg ba guvf bar abguvat. V rira unir na nygreangr fbyhgvba ohg gung qbrfa’g hfr vg rvgure. Znlor vg’f fbzr xvaq bs qvfzbhag va pnfr lbh nppvqragnyyl trg fghpx ba n qbhoyr-fnhfntr fgnpx? Ohg V pna’g rira svther bhg ubj gb qb gung.

    V qebccrq zl sbex va Pbyq Sehfgengvba naq qhr gb fbzr pbzzragf sebz Pney Zhpxraubhcg nobhg nppvqragnyyl qbvat fbzrguvat gung ur svtherq jbhyq pbzr onpx nebhaq, V svtherq vg jbhyq pbzr onpx nebhaq. Ohg Gur Tbetr, juvpu V guvax lbh nyzbfg unir gb tb guebhtu svefg, qbrf n irel tbbq wbo bs grnpuvat lbh gung sbex-qebccvat vf cbffvoyr, rira vs lbh unira’g fghzoyrq npebff vg lrg.

    Lorenzo: Ha ha don’t worry I have absolutely no intention of going for the best ending in Hollow Knight on my first try. I’m not much of a go-for-everything type–I have a few strawberries but am not going for collectibles, the hardest I’m being on myself is avoiding assist mode (and it was VERY TEMPTING for that stage of Reflection). I did unlock the B-side for The Old Site and then I couldn’t even figure out how to activate the special move you have to do at the beginning.

    CA–Probably the oldest game that I’ve ever graveyarded is some interactive fiction thing. Other than that, I think maybe Aquaria? I thought it was a chill exploration/puzzle game at first and, picking it up after some time, I got to a particular battle and thought that maybe it was going to be a game about combat that I’m not particularly good at. Like how you spend a lot of time exploring the Mimiga Village in Cave Story and then you get to a part that’s running and gunning, and that’s what the game is mostly.

    The only console I owned was an Atari 2600 and the graveyard concept doesn’t really apply to that.

    First by release is probably Ultima IV, or maybe another IF thing. But I only tried it a few years ago. It’s not much fun if you don’t like drawing maps on graph paper, and getting poison from a chest really messes with your game.

  29. Lorenzo: I’d never heard about Xenogears’ disc 2; that’s fascinating. Talk about taking a genre to its logical endpoint! Although, I wonder if I wouldn’t prefer to consume all JRPGs this way. Infinitely less random encounters sounds like a pretty good deal.

    Joel: Cave, Boulder, Miner… why does it seem developers in the ’80s were obsessed with the idea of hanging out underground?

    Matt: Interesting – I also gave up on Aquaria, and I don’t think I even made it as far as the combat. The impression I got of a game that combined underwater movement with lots of mandatory backtracking was enough to put me off pretty much immediately.

    I wouldn’t even call that a graveyarding. I dumped the body by the side of the road and never looked back!

    Also, thanks for making me think about Cave Story. I got to start the day with a smile!

  30. @CA: Unfortunately, it was more of a “we ran out of money” problem, dramatically. A good half, maybe more, of disc 2 is just static conversations in which characters tell you how hard it was to climb that tower full of monsters, peppered by (I think scripted, I’m not 100% sure though) encounters. So, you know, the very worst parts of a typical JRPG.

  31. Joel–After the last batch of SSR levels you tweeted about, you can now read my comment here, should you be so inclined!

    Crater is… yeah.

  32. My first comment in that thread discusses very late parts of Stephen’s Sausage Roll, do NOT read it until you have finished the game.

  33. Matt

    The Gorge: I getcha. The new mechanic falls out readily but actually completing the level is not at all straightforward. Didn’t hold me back for too long, however. I am quite driven right now. I feel like a sausage powerhouse.

    Crater: I was quite surprised at the actual solution, which I figured out by starting at my own screenshot on Twitter. I have now, of course, completed Dead End, which is unbelievably incredible.

  34. FRIENDSHIP ENDED WITH CELESTE

  35. I’m surprised, Matt! I’ve been having a grand time with it, but I’m only at the beginning of the 7th level (summit I think?). Work and life are conspiring to keep me from finishing the game – is there something dastardly and treacherous waiting for me (besides the heinously tough b-sides)?

  36. Well, a little overreaction there, but I really hate Golden Feather levels and there was a very nasty one near the end that made the game stop being fun for a while. Maybe an hour or two. It was very nasty. Golden Feathers are hard to deal with without a gamepad, or at least lack of gamepad is my story. And it was much too close to the end for me to turn on assist mode! You also may be a little less short-fused than me. Asif and Mudasir became friends again too. [reposting sans link ‘cos I think I got spamfiltered]

    Finished the main story, though, in less than 24 hours of gameplay! I don’t think I’m very gud at games but I’m stubborn. I allow myself not to be frustrated by B-sides and strawberries too much, because I know they’re optional. I even went back to early levels and picked up a few extra strawberries and other stuff. Most of level 7 is great, and I have a theory about the levels that I find unfair hard instead of good hard, which is that they’re ones with a fairly long sequence where you can doom yourself in a nonobvious way near the beginning. Which is the same thing that grumped me off about the Brogue game I mentioned in the first post on the way up, where I starved to death. But somehow does not tend to frustrate me when I hit a turn one dick move in a sausagelike.

    Joel–Dead End was why I’ve been bugging you about this game all this time!

    Some dude mentioned Backbone on your Twitter, which I’m not ashamed to say is one of the levels I used a hint for. (Also Cold Frustration, mostly a question of failing to count squares properly, and I think I saw a little bit about the solution for Crater before I reached it.) Also I didn’t think the first hint in the set was good, so I wound up spoiling myself more than I maybe needed to. Fun stuff awaits, anyway.

    What I like about the post-Dead End turn is it has that “the game comes alive and starts shooting back at you” sense that I get from Corrypt and Promesst, in that suddenly there are way more possibilities than there were before, but there are still levels instead of everything becoming one giant combinatoric explosion.

    Hey I should talk about Desktop Dungeons a bit which is very relevant to the OP!

  37. FRIENDSHIP REGAIN WITH CELESTE

    CELESTE MATT AND SAUSAGE ROLL BEST FRIENDS FOREVER

    So the Desktop Dungeons Alpha has a culminating challenge called Lothlorien, which involves beating three consecutive specialty dungeons (they’re still procedurally generated, but have certain monster populations and one guaranteed present boss) with particular characters that are designed to be unsuitable for the dungeon. For example, in the first one you play an elven rogue, which has low health but always hits first except against monsters with the first strike ability–so the boss is a goblin with first strike, whose damage is always greater than your health if you level up normally.

    So there’s this “you have to succeed three consecutive times instead of lucking out” aspect. BUT the dungeons can be cheesed by particular strategies that depend on getting the right randomly generated item. (My method: In the first dungeon, I found an altar to the god of magic who can power up your fireballs, which lets you avoid ever getting hit; in the second, which has a damage-sponge boss, I found a poison weapon that prevented it from regenerating; in the third, whose boss can always one-shot you, I found the “protect yourself from one death blow” spell and the challenge was to keep casting it.)

    So it’s not like Hoplite Master forcing you to think of new strategies, but there’s a fair amount of startscumming to get the right random drops. Which is not as tedious as it sounds–the right god has a decent chance of generating in the first level, the second level is probably doable without that particular cheese strategy which was really overkill, and I’m pretty sure there’s over half a chance of the right spell generating in the final dungeon. But it still felt less satisfying than a challenge that forced me to adapt.

    Desktop Dungeon is interesting in the roguelike conversation, because the alpha was an early harbinger of the roguelike revival and especially the mini-roguelike revival, but it’s not like most miniroguelikes at all. Where Broughlikes like Hoplite are all about careful space-by-space maneuvering, Desktop Dungeon has instantaneous travel; except for some rare effects monsters never move so you just click on a revealed space to go there. DD is all about carefully balancing hit points and damage and the like, where you’re doing a lot of mental arithmetic like “I can hit this monster three times and have enough HP left to defeat these two weaker monsters which gives me enough XP to level up which refills my health so I can finish taking that monster down.” [Carl Muckenhoupt calls this a Tower-of-the-sorcerer-like, though not all of them have randomized dungeons.] This was very influential on the text roguelike Kerkerkruip but it doesn’t seem to me have taken off elsewhere!

    DDAlpha also has some persistent elements which raise questions about when the Tru Roglike Fanatix get mad about rogueliteness. Like I think from least to most annoying it’s something like new dungeons > new character classes > new enemies unlocked > new potential items unlocked > [RAGE INTENSIFYING here] money/resources being retained across games > character stat increases/levels retained across games. DDAlpha has all but the last, but the item unlocks wound up having a bigger effect than retaining gold, because I pretty much was always getting more gold than I spent (I guess it kinda had stat increases in that you could increase your max gold). The left end of the scale is more like opening new gameplay modes, the right side is more making your game easier without gaining skill, with the most extreme cases allowing you to grind across games like in any old RPG. I think the full version of Desktop Dungeons went all the way roguelite.

  38. Oh, right, Desktop Dungeons exists. Well I’m sure there wasn’t anything I needed to do this morning anyway.

    So the version I have installed says it’s 0.051. I really, REALLY ought to pony up and get a retail version for all the hours it’s given me, but I get weirdly possessive/hipsterish about early version of games (I refuse to play any Spelunky newer than 0.99.5) and am scared of opening the lid of the new and improved. I can’t do Early Access for these’um reasons.

    Maybe I’ll just buy a copy of the new and keep playing the old, as per Cave Story + (look how they massacred my s̶o̶u̶n̶d̶t̶r̶a̶c̶k boy.)

    00 Everyone’s played Cave Story, yes?

    01 If no go to 00

    The last unlock I need is the one for beating the Crypt as the Assassin. I’m pretty sure you need some God Roll combination of items and deity. As ever Matt we share grievance re: meta-unlocks, especially where success is directly conditional. Don’t make me grind runs for gold, please, DD; for I love you. Oh, but I see that you *did*. *grimaces, clutches heart*

    … what’s a Tower of the Sorcerer?

  39. My comment on Cave Story+ from an earlier post, with special attention to the last sentence:

    I’d never been able to get through the penultimate boss on regular old Cave Story. On easy I made it after a few tries, and then I was fighting the final boss and I was like WOW THIS IS EPIC fire fire fire jump jump jump wait I’ve been fighting for five minutes and I’m about two points below max health. But this inspired me to go back to regular old Cave Story and pretty soon I beat it on regular old difficulty, so it was all worth it. And I still have a project to try to get the real good ending on easy mode. Plus I like the new graphics, though if you didn’t immediately go into the options to set Cave Story+ to the old music you’re a bad person and you should feel bad.

    Also that was the eighth of nine footnotes in the second of four main posts in a multi-part rant, in case you were ever wondering why Joel is sometimes salty about me derailing comment threads.

    From the bit of demo I played, you could consider the commercial Desktop Dungeons to be a completely different game than the alpha. Basically a sequel. There was a lot of different stuff besides the greater meta-unlocks; like, conversion fills up a pool instead of going all at once, there’s an inventory limit, things that aren’t glyphs can be converted, there’s lots of weird plant monsters, many of the spells are revamped, there’s more knockback etc. I somehow don’t have Desktop Dungeons around anymore but I’m pretty sure I did clear the Crypt as an Assassin–the wiki has some suggestions (poison is conversion bait but you can use first strikes to take out high-level low-health monsters) but the wiki has also led me wrong, like they said in Lothlorien you couldn’t take out the first boss with a Mystera Annur-aided fireball storm but that was the only strategy I ever found effective at all.

    Tower of the Sorcerer: Carl Muckenhoupt discusses it here. It was the original game built around stationary monsters you trade blows with where each blow takes a deterministic amount off each of your hit points. Others are DROD RPG and DungeonUp (which is also randomly generated). If you search his site for Tower of the Sorcerer he has more discussion in relation to the later Desktop Dungeons–sorry I can’t link as I will almost surely get spam-filtered!

  40. Very dangerous of you to link me to a completionist’s stack-clearing blog. It has taken me six years to get through the first two years of the CRPG Addict’s The CRPG Addict. I have very casually dipped in and out of The Adventure Gamer. I really do not need an unfinished stack of unfinished stack-clearing game blogs to go with my unfinished stack of games.

  41. (But thanks muchly for the info!)

  42. https://imgur.com/a/Akym8A2

    Feels effin’ (and indeed jeffin’) good.

    On the one hand, I got it within a few hours, which suggests the criteria were not all that stringent.

    On the other hand, I was right – I needed to find one specific shrine (Golden Guardian) relatively early on to get the 30% max attack bonus. I also needed his one-time death-protection. As you can see I bought two of three items, one was a health potion (which I needed), the other was a mana trinket (less useful than it looked) and the third unbought item was a pair of gloves that offer a 20% (!!) attack bonus but cost 60gp (gold, the meta currency, is capped at 75) which had me tearing my hair out.

    I didn’t need it in the end thanks to the two (and specifically these two) spells I found. It’s very rare that you don’t get fireball but bisseps is a different matter. The bosses are a pair of absolute brutes – one is just a mountain of HP while the other has mana burn and 60% physical resistance. I’d recommend being an Orc for this challenge as binning the poison spell puts you straight to level 2 which definitely makes the early game a lot easier.

    All in all I needed a big slice of luck and still had to play near optimally for the win. But it *is* the final challenge of the game, so I guess not really that grave a design sin.

  43. Congrats! I think fireball is absolutely guaranteed. And I do think there are a few different ways to do that one, but they do require some combination of things that works.

    I just restarted on the HTML version (is this the best use of my time? not really). Not only is the original version gone from my hard drive, but when I downloaded the available one the Mac paternalistically refused to play it, which I usually can work around but not this time. Anyway, one thing about the unlocks is it seems a bit like an extended tutorial. You start out with some of the simplest monsters and spells (which is to say, except for fireball, first strike, and BYSSEPS the starting spells are mostly useless), and then more complicated strategies unlock. But this also gives things a bit of an RPG progression, because the unlocks make you more powerful as do shop unlocks, and this puts you on a treadmill somewhat with the nastier monsters but more so by preparing you for the challenge dungeons.

    Anyway that tutorial aspect makes it a bit less offensive to people’s roguelike sensibilities maybe? Whereas “nethack but scrolls of earth don’t generate in the dungeon until the first time you clear the Big Room” would be pretty annoying.

  44. Types of metaprogression:

    Teaching (tutorial, limiting features not to overwhelm the new player, layering on new mechanics)
    Content (playstyles, classes, items, challenges, new levels/dungeons/locations, story progression including cutscenes)
    Empowerment (universal stat increases, classes, items, shortcuts, meta-currencies and pre-run purchasing)

    There’s scope for overlap between any and all categories.

    Trying to pin down my feelings on this.. on goodness/badness, rightness/wrongness, the desirability of meta unlocks.. I’m struggling. It’s very tempting to take an extreme position (roguelike purism or anything goes) because they offer so much more certainty than trying to draw lines in the sand.

  45. Hey Joel you made it to Apex! Yeah, I wasn’t sure whether you wanted to know how close you were to finishing the game when you said you were hoping to polish it off by teatime. (Sometime you might want to go to the farthest right point in the overworld by Emerson Jetty.)

    Out of curiosity, how would you describe the way you solved Crunchy Leaves?

    Sea Dragon is a bit of an unusual level va gung vg’f xvaq bs n genqvgvbany ghgbevny yriry, juvpu grnpurf lbh nobhg n zrpunavp gung’f tbvat gb or erhfrq n ybg (fjvgpuvat bhg n fnhfntr gung’f ubyqvat hc n zbinoyr ryrzrag), va n snveyl fgenvtugsbejneq jnl. FFE vf snzbhf sbe abg qbvat gung–vg jbhyq or rnfl sbe gur arkg yriry nsgre Pbyq Ynqqre gb or fbzrguvat yvxr “Urer’f n yriry jurer lbh unir gb qb fbzrguvat fvzvyne ohg jbex nebhaq na bofgnpyr,” ohg vg qbrfa’g qb gung. Ohg lbh’er tbvat gb qb gur Frn Qentba gevpx nyy gur gvzr. Gur pybfrfg bgure yriry V pna guvax bs vf Fbhguwnhag, n svefg-vfynaq yriry jurer lbh unir gb hfr bar fnhfntr gb ohzc nabgure bar gung’f bgurejvfr pbzcyrgryl vanpprffvoyr, ohg gung’f nyfb juvyr lbh’er fgvyy yrneavat lbhe jnl nebhaq onfvp fnhfntr znavchyngvba.

    Ratyvfu Pbhagel Ghar unf fbzrguvat fvzvyne ohg qvssrerag, jurer gurer’f n yriry gung grnpurf lbh gur onfvp gevpx gung lbh’yy hfr va n uhtr ahzore bs yngre yriryf–ohg gur gevpx vf irel ababoivbhf naq n ybg bs crbcyr trg fghpx ng gung yriry!

  46. SO YAH MATT THAT SAUSAGE GAME

    After Dead End, I spend every level getting really scared that some hyper-intensive solution using everything we know so far is going to turn up. God damn, I’m sure it is. But is it this level? Apparently not. Is it the next level? Apparently not. It’s the someday level.

    Crunchy Leaves, yes lrf fb gur shaal guvat V qvq abg hfr jung V pnyy gur “unggvat” zbir va guvf bar, jurer lbh pneel gur fnhfntr ba lbhe urnq. Rirel bgure chmmyr va guvf frpgvba arrqrq vg. V sryy sbe nabgure fbyhgvba vaibyivat fhvpvqnyyl fgvpxvat gur sbex vagb gur raq bs n fnhfntr naq evccvat vg bss – trggvat nurnq bs gur tnzr urer – ohg gung qvqa’g jbex orpnhfr lbh arrq gur sbex ba gur jnl bhg naq V pbhyqa’g trg vg onpx bhg bs gur fnhfntr. (Guvf fbyhgvba jbhyq riraghnyyl orpbzr ivgny sbe Pengre.) Guvf jnf dhvgr n uneq bar ohg jura gur fbyhgvba pnzr gbtrgure V pbhyqa’g oryvrir ubj “fvzcyr” vg jnf. V unq zvffrq n snveyl fvzcyr znavchyngvba juvpu nyybjrq zr gb zbir n fnhfntr gbjneqf gur tevyyf jvgubhg oheavat.

    V nterr gung Frn Qentba vf na hahfnyyl fgenvtugsbejneq yriry – gurer’f n ovg bs gevpxl znavchyngvba, ohg gur yriry vf cerggl ybpxrq qbja. Fgvyy, cebterff unf abg orra rnfl, rfcrpvnyyl jvgu zbivat cyngsbezf. V qb abg xabj ubj V fbyirq Sbyxyber. V tbg nyy gur cyngsbezf nebhaq gur fvqr gbtrgure, ohg oevqtvat npebff gb gur tevyyf jnf fbzr njshy fbyhgvba vaibyivat zbivat n cyngsbez onpx naq sbegu yvxr n obng.

    Fbzrgvzrf V jvfu vg jnf cbffvoyr gb zbir gur pnzren. Bppnfvbanyyl, gur 3Q vf qvssvphyg gb ernq. Guvf vzcnpgrq Pehapul Yrnirf n srj gvzrf.

  47. Ohhh you found the smart solution to Crunchy Leaves! I did not. I would describe my solution thus:

    Chfu gur iregvpny fnhfntr vagb gur tnc. Pebff naq oevat onpx gur bgure iregvpny fnhfntr. Fcrne vg sebz gur evtug. Oevat vg gb gur cvyyne naq trg vg bagb lbhe urnq va gur hfhny jnl. Tb qbja naq onat vg ba gur jnyy fb vg’f ubevmbagny, qebc vg bss unysjnl haqre gur bgure ubevmbagny fnhfntr, naq xabpx gung bar bhg bs gur jnl fb lbh unir gjb ubevmbagny fnhfntrf. Fcrne bar, chyy vg bss ba gur gbc evtug vfynaq, chfu vg fb vg’f unys ba gur tevyyf, naq evqr vg onpx gb gur znvaynaq fb bar raq vf tevyyrq. Fcrne vg ntnva, chyy vg bss ba gur evtug vfynaq ntnva, chfu vg onpx gb gur evtugzbfg cyngsbez, naq jvgu n yvggyr pbzcyvpngrq ynqqre znarhirevat trg vg bagb lbhe urnq. Ebgngr vg bar uhaqerq rvtugl qrterrf naq trg vg onpx qbja jvgu gur nvq bs gur bgure ubevmbagny fnhfntr. Fcrne vg, gnxr vg gb gur vfynaq, naq evqr vg onpx, tevyyvat gur bgure raq. Ercrng sbe gur bgure ubevmbagny fnhfntr. Yvar hc gur gjb ubevmbagny fnhfntrf fb rnpu unf na raq arkg gb gur tevyyf. Fgnaq ba gur iregvpny fnhfntr, ebyy vg npebff gur tevyyf, qvfzbhag bagb gur ubevmbagny fnhfntrf naq pebff gurz gb gur evtugzbfg cyngsbez. Zhpu yngre, jngpu n ivqrb jvgu gur pbzzrag “Gur gevpxl guvat urer vf gb svther bhg ubj gb fcrne n fnhfntr sebz gur yrsg” naq tb H JBG?

    I hope it’s not spoily to assure you that, while you are going to get messed with pretty hard in various ways, IMO there isn’t going to be a level that exactly goes all Nova 7 on you. The Great Tower was probably closest to that, but where Nova 7 hits you with all the mechanics you’ve learned so far, The Great Tower hits you with all the mechanics that you haven’t learned yet. (Repeating myself.)

    Concur about the 3D. Also when I say it’s not going to go all Nova 7, I don’t mean that it’s not going to be eye-wateringly hard! Fortunately there’s not a straight upslope in difficulty.

  48. CELESTE: I have been going through some levels grabbing strawberries. I also worked all the way through the Old Site B-Side, got completely buffaloed on the last level, and turned on assist mode for that one level. I am not ashamed of this and indeed would argue that it is a mark of great maturity, that when it was not fun and not rewarding I just noped out of it.–Seriously, though, gameplay mode change from the entire rest of the chapter to “It’s a rhythm game but you don’t actually get to move in time with the rhythm,” phooey.

    I also started the B-Side to the Summit and HA HA NO. Though I did find out that if you quit out to the map it saves your progress in that B-Side, which I hadn’t realized and was one reason why I did what I did (was afraid that if I tried another level without finishing the world I’d lose all my progress).

    Sausage: The Ancient Dam is a complex enough object that it creates all kinds of unexpected things! I was a bit surprised that you had trouble tevyyvat gur frpbaq fnhfntr because fjvgpuvat fnhfntrf was the first thing I figured out, even before I figured out how to get at all started with the level. The first time I played through I did the elegant solution and then the second time I forgot that lbh pna unat gur qnz ba gur evtug-unaq jnyy naq chfu n fnhfntr guebhtu jvgubhg fvaxvat gur qnz and came up with a horrible jury-rigged thing that was a lot of fun to work out because it involved painstakingly pacing through a lot of steps. (It involved wnzzvat obgu fnhfntrf ntnvafg gur yrsg-unaq fvqr, jvgu gur qnz jrqtrq hc ntnvafg gur evtug-unaq jnyy, fb gur fnhfntrf jrer fghpx naq lbh pbhyq jnyx npebff gurz gb gur yrsg-unaq qvfzbhag. Frggvat vg hc fb lbh pna rkgenpg gur fnhfntrf vf aba-gevivny!)

    Some more about some levels you’ve done:
    Apex: Did you notice that, as I believe, guvf vf gur svefg gvzr lbh’ir qbar gur Gjvfgl Snez znarhire jurer lbh hfr n sbexrq fnhfntr gb chyy fbzrguvat onpxjneqf fvapr Gjvfgl Snez, V guvax? Lbh unir gb qb guvf gb ergevrir gur ynqqre sebz gur rqtr ba gur hccre-evtug cyngsbez, orpnhfr vs lbh gel gb fjvat vg onpx jvgu gur sbex, gung zbir fraqf lbh hc gur ynqqre vafgrnq.
    Curious Dragons: Fvzvyneyl, lbh unir gb qb n yvggyr Pbyq Ynqqre ba gur evtug-unaq fvqr. Nf V fnvq vg’q or rnfl gb sbyybj hc Pbyq Ynqqre jvgu Pbyq Ynqqre ohg n gjvfg, naq gurl qba’g qb gung, fb vg’f xvaq bs shaal gb unir vg fubj hc ntnva nsgre fb ybat.

    Backbone, yeah, as I said it beat me. I can form a support group if you want. (Or even offer an oblique hint or two. I *don’t* feel like getting a hint ruined the game for me.)

  49. DESKTOP DUNGEONS ALPHA METAPROGRESSION:

    OK, I went back to DD Alpha a bit–then my browser did something that ate the storage and I lost my progression and gave up, which is fine, because I don’t really need this in my life right now (then I got back into UnBrogue again which is another story), and it feels more metaprogressiony than I remembered, because of the spells. Poison is sooooo overpowered when you’re not specifically dealing with undead that it changes the game a lot when you unlock it. IIRC something similar with the Death Proteciton spell.

    I think the commercial version changed this somewhat by making the starting spells less useless, but it’s way more roguelitey anyway.

  50. Sorry I’m all sausages in these comments. Hello Matt.

    Pehapul Yrnirf: Tbq qnza gung jnf n qvssvphyg yriry. V jbaqre vs ybbxvat onpx V’q svaq vg rnfvre abj. V pna’g ernyyl nccerpvngr lbhe fbyhgvba hayrff V fvg va sebag bs gur tnzr naq ernq vg. Ohg V’z fvggvat ng jbex nf V glcr guvf.

    Napvrag Qnz: Guvf vf fhpu na vagevpngr pybpxjbex zrpunavfz. Vg ybbxf yvxr lbh’er fhccbfrq “plpyr” gur qnz onpx naq sbegu hfvat n fnhfntr nf n jurry, ohg guvf qbrfa’g fhttrfg ubj lbh trg n fnhfntr sebz bar fvqr gb nabgure. V ybir ubj gur qvssvphygl pbzcryyrq zr gb nanylfr pybfryl jung V jnf qbvat – guvf vf n qvssvphyg bar gb fbyir guebhtu oehgr sbepr. Ubjrire, gur 3Q nfcrpg ernyyl yrgf vg qbja urer. Gur zbzrag V “jnyxrq guebhtu” gur qnz gb gur bgure fvqr jnf ol nppvqrag naq V unq gb fgbc sbe n zbzrag naq fnl: jung whfg unccrarq. V unq gb vzntvar jung jnf tbvat ba engure guna frr. V qba’g xabj, va n yriry guvf vagevpngr, jurgure gung ivfhny boshfpngvba vf snve. V vavgvnyyl sbphfrq ba gur znva ceboyrz bs ubj gb trg n fnhfntr bire naq onpx; bapr V qvq gung gura V ybbxrq ng fjvgpuvat fnhfntrf. Gebhoyr jnf V jnf gverq naq pbhyqa’g frr gur boivbhf jnl bs qbvat guvf. Vg ernyyl vfa’g uneq. Ohg gung fubjf lbh V jnf cynlvat cnfg orqgvzr.

    Ncrk: V qba’g erpnyy gur fgrc va gur pbyq yvtug bs qnl. Ncrk jnf n jrveq chmmyr orpnhfr vg’f ernyyl n frevrf bs zvav-punyyratrf, juvpu vavgvnyyl pbasbhaqf lbh jvgu “hu jung nz V fhccbfrq gb qb?” V jnf noyr gb jbex rnpu bar bhg va ghea hfvat xabja fxvyyf ohg V qba’g erzrzore gur fcrpvsvp fgrcf. Gurer jnf fhpu n ybg gb qb urer.

    Phevbhf Qentbaf: Nf zl tnzr vf fgergpurq bhg bire fhpu n ybat crevbq, V’z svaqvat vg uneq gb erzrzore nyy gur byq yriryf hayrff V unir gur tnzr va sebag bs zr. Ohg V jnf hcfrg ng ubj V tbg vagb n ubeevoyr cvpxyr gelvat gb fbeg bhg gur fnhfntrf ba gur evtug fvqr. V qvqa’g znxr gur yvax gb Pbyq Ynqqre ng nyy naq jnf whfg tynq gb or fubg bs vg! Gung’f unccravat n yvggyr gbb bsgra sbe zl yvxvat, jurer V’z abg fher V’z haqrefgnaqvat jung V’z qbvat. Gung’f jul Napvrag Qnz jnf ernyyl pbby, orpnhfr V unq gb haqrefgnaq.

    Gur Onpxobar: Abg ernql gb tvir hc lrg. V unir orra rkcrevzragvat jvgu unggvat, gheavat gur fnhfntrf nebhaq naq sbexvat ntnvafg gur fgehg gb gur fbhgu. Evtug abj, V unir ab vqrn ubj V trg bhg bs gurer jvgubhg guebjvat n fnhfntr va n ubyr naq lbh jba’g or noyr gb trg vg onpx bhg. V boivbhfyl arrq gb pynzore bhg bs gurer fbzrubj, ohg gur zrpunavfz rfpncrf zr.

    Pna jr nyy whfg nterr gung gur zrpunavp gung pyvzo n ynqqre vafgrnq bs gelvat gb ghea naq chfu vg vf gur zbfg naablvat zrpunavp?


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