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.
* * *
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.
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, 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.
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.
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.
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.