You’re not strong enough to fight us on this one. You should go pick on some little guys to train up first.
On the third day of Christmas, some dudes from South Africa who’ve previously fallen prey to cloning gave to me…. Desktop Dungeons.
I’m surprised at myself, for being so determined to include a game that I’m so appallingly bad at in this Advent Calendar. Surely this is for the games we feel we’ve beaten, mastered, fully understood? Perhaps, but it’s precisely because I’m still on the journey to understanding Desktop Dungeons that I’m so fond of it. It’s doing much more to me, exercising my withered brain so much more than any game I simply ‘enjoyed.’
Very much a wolf in sheep’s clothing, this one. It wears a lopsided cartoon smile, and sidles up to me with a cheerful greeting: “hey, guy, let’s have some fun! Let’s kill some monsters, let’s explore a dungeon, it’ll be a hoot, yeah?” It’s impossible to resist the invitation. But once I’m in the desktop dungeon, it Venusian aikido-chops me on the back of the neck, strips off all my clothes, paints a bell-end on my forehead in Tippex and runs off into the darkness, cackling “come get me, sucker!”
Many times, I’ve been tempted to cry and stumble home instead of trying to chase down and recover my dignity and self-respect, but I always come to my senses in time and remember that Desktop Dungeons is a confident proponent of tough love. I will suffer as I play, but I will learn. Wits will be sharpened. Strategies and a growing archive of knowledge will form and lodge in my mind. I will become, in some nebulous manner, Better.
It took a long time to get Better. I breezed through the game’s early stages, then hit a brick wall still far too soon. After a period of futilely hacking away it, I regrouped and reconsidered. I watched and I read and I agonised, and I fought to quell The Hunger, the RPG mainstay of pursuing bigger and better weapons and powers; that doesn’t help here. Increasingly, I can think about the game in the way it requires, and while my rewards for this remain rare, I’m now certain I will in time be able to attain them.
Those dawning, golden moments of understanding, whether gleaned from the quietly vital optional puzzle challenges or from minute observation of the smaller side-effects of superficially obvious spells and abilities, haven’t been matched by much else this year. For the longest time I thought success in Desktop Dungeons was based mostly on luck, that I just needed the right dungeon seed to bless me with the perfect combination of spells or a raft of powerful loot.
I treated it as turn-based Diablo, basically. Not a bit of it. It’s deadly chess, where every move counts and any moment of impatience or recklessness sows the seeds of your own later doom. I saw someone say on Twitter yesterday that they can tell when someone’s playing Desktop Dungeons badly just by looking at a single screenshot, and that’s no exaggeration. I reckon I could too, even though I’m well aware I’m still very early on in my journey to understand this devilish thing. What their list of abilities is, how many low-level foes they’ve deliberately left alive, how many fog of war squares they’ve uncovered, whether any higher-level foes have been tagged with certain spells, whether I can see anyone turned to stone… This is a game with its own, heavily encrypted language, and I’m proud of myself for every new word I manage to learn.
As my death-strewn journey to Better continues, I’m still being regularly amazed by just how much is underneath DD’s nonchalant hood, how supremely honed its impeccably-oiled clockwork cogs of effect and counter-effect are. While the new meta-map and unlocks are understandably where people have differentiated this commercial Desktop Dungeons from its freeware precursor, the true difference is in the massively heightened complexity and challenge of the core game.
This isn’t like driving a car, it’s like building one. On your own soon-to-be-severed head if you miss out even a single nut or screw.