Electron Dance
4Sep/1921

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 (21) 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?


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