Party Games: From Dungeon Master To Grimrock 2

I rearranged all of my furniture yesterday so that I could play a game and it’s not even a game with a stonking great dancemat or waving and waggling control scheme. I’ve been dungeon crawling.

This weekend, the stars aligned and I finally sank around fifteen hours into one of the big games waiting in my backlog. If I’m being honest, I shouldn’t look to the stars – I spent fifteen hours or thereabouts with Legend of Grimrock 2 because of the flurries of sleet that kept me huddled beneath a duvet, grimacing at the outside world.

There are dark, cold dungeons in Grimrock 2 but the opening scenes – shipwreck aside – have the beauty of a holiday in the sun. Those splashes of verdant scenery and inviting waters are the first surprise in a game that is packed with them. Removed from the linear downward trajectory of a single dungeon, Grimrock 2 is a splendid example of the use of envronment and theme. The outdoor areas are as tightly designed as any dungeon, but the glimpses of monuments and mysteries between trees, and the reveal of towering structures, provides a sense of scale that makes the surface more than a reskinned oubliette.

I’m not going to spend a hundred words telling you how much I’m enjoying Grimrock 2 though, instead I’m going to write about the maps that I’ve made over years of dungeon crawling, and how Grimrock 2 reawakened my love of co-op gaming and made me rearrange all the furniture in my flat.

Since I started writing for RPS in 2011, the way that I play games has changed. I’ve always been a grazer to an extent, sampling as many things as possible rather than playing one game almost exclusively for months at a time. That partly explains my inability to see the quality in MMOs and competitive multiplayer games – I generally don’t put in the time to reach the good stuff, or to understand how exquisitely balanced a game about people shooting at each other can be.

As I’ve mentioned before, last year I skimmed across the surface of a hundred different games and didn’t settle on many for more than a couple of days. Games were in danger of becoming little more than computational input – things to be experienced in an attempt to fit their slight deviations from the norm into various theories about genres or single mechanics. A new tendency to play alone, shut away with furrowed brow and tar-like coffe, was one side effect of this approach.

Even though I tend toward solo play, gaming has always been a social practice in my various homes. I like having an audience if I’m playing something flashy and I’m always happy to cede control to anyone who shows an interest. If I’m playing a strategy game, as I tend to be, it might to be too much to expect onlookers to get sucked in, but I’ll share my stories with them afterwards. I’ve told many a Crusader Kings II tale down the pub to people who wouldn’t touch a grand strategy sim with a toilet brush. They’re enthralled! Or at the very least they finish their pints before leaving.

Games are for sharing and last year I did most of my sharing by writing words on this here website. That’s going to change in 2015. I’ll still be writing here, of course, but my PC is taking centre stage in the living room again. It won’t always drown out the telly but it’s attracting an audience again and that’s mostly thanks to Grimrock 2.

It wouldn’t have felt right to play a game that is so obviously indebted to Eye of the Beholder and Dungeon Master on my own. John has written about the power of Dungeon Master before. Considering that I aspire to be Strategy God and John is incapable of playing strategy games AT ALL due to some terrible trauma in his past, wherein he mistook his father’s cheque book for a game, it’s remarkable how similar our formative experiences with games were. Just look what he said about Dungeon Master: “I don’t think there’s any game that immediately evokes memories of a period of my life as vividly as Dungeon Master.”

If we can ignore Ultima VII for a moment, that sentence applies to me as much as it does to John. I played Dungeon Master and Eye of the Beholder with my sister, and we’d sit side by side, one of us at the controls and the other drawing maps and making notes. Everytime our party rested, we’d write short diary entries for each character. They’d say things like – “haven’t seen light for days and am living on a diet of wormflesh. How long until WE are wormflesh?” and “cornered by an animated rock piles – I am the last surviving member of the party. Send help.”

I don’t know why somebody would write “send help” while trapped hundreds of feet underground with no access to a postbox or wifi, but it seemed like a very dramatic thing to write at the time. We ‘controlled’ two characters each and had a strange system whereby everytime we found loot – whether it were a key, a torch or a stack of treasure and equipment – we’d collect it in sequence. Say my sister’s rogue was character number 3 of 4, if she had taken the last item from the previous stash, character number 4 would get first pick from the next pile. Obviously, this meant that sometimes a warrior would end up with an item that should have been in the hands of a magic user, and sometimes a starving party member would keep getting shortchanged on food pickups. That led to bartering.

Yes. Staring doom in the face, trapped in the dark, our characters haggled over pieces of cheese. It made the game much more difficult, because we’d really screw each other over if we were feeling particularly stubborn or had decided to roleplay a bunch of bastards, but it was incredibly involving. Occasionally a selfless character would give up every potion and morsel of nourishment to someone more needy, only to be left in the lurch when the tables turned.

Partly this was an attempt to tell many stories with a single scenario. We weren’t blessed with friends who played tabletop RPGs so we allowed the computer to play the role of Dungeon Master – whether that were the name of the specific game we were playing or not – and brought as much of ourselves to the tale as we could.

And so it went with Grimrock 2. My sister lives on the other side of the country now so I needed a new accomplice. Sitting in my corner, with my back to the room, I started playing on Saturday and named one of my characters (an insectoid alchemist) after my girlfriend.

“Look! It’s you!” I said, pointing at the bug-eyed bug. “You have a pestle and mortar.”

“What can I do with it? I want to be a chef.”

“Potions are a bit like meals. Yes. You’re a chef. We’re on a beach and you’re the chef.”

“Kill that crab and put it in a pot.”

“I can’t kill the little crabs but I can kill this giant turtle and we can eat that.”

“Cook it first.”

“I can’t. We just eat it raw. It’s fine.”

“I am a rubbish chef.”

And so it went on. Before long, we were solving puzzles together, or failing to solve puzzles together and having a cup of tea while we thought about levers, pits and teleporters for a while. Without making a fuss about it, we started to give our characters silly little voices – I do a great minotaur barbarian – and I was genuinely distressed when I drowned everybody by forgetting that adventurers can’t breathe underwater.

By Sunday morning I’d dragged my desk out of the corner and planted it in the middle of the room.

“We should move it so that we can fit both chairs by it. Play more Grimrock later.”

We did. And not just Grimrock. We’ve been playing Darkwood, Lifeless Planet and Lucius as well. I’ve been meaning to play Lucius since it came out around Halloween 2012, and I’m glad I waited. It’s the perfect collaborative game, packed with obscure logic that requires the guesswork of two minds, and hilariously wobbly. It’s the gaming equivalent of a trashy horror film that you’d never sit through alone but can reliably guffaw and grimace at in company.

Grimrock 2 links happily to the way I played in the past as well as the games that I played. Now, with my PC back where it belongs with lots of attention directed toward it, I’m hoping to have a year of collaborative, cooperative experiences, and thanks to Grimrock 2, my rearranged furniture and my constant companion, I’m as happy and excited about games as I have been in a long time.

This article was originally published as part of, and thanks to, the RPS Supporter Program.

31 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    Dorga says:

    Bha “girlfriend”, as if they existed

    • rodan32 says:

      My girlfriend turned out to be a cylon. Now she’s my wife. We worked it out.

  2. Premium User Badge

    SuddenSight says:

    This puts me in mind of the many fun hours I spent playing Nemesis of the Roman Empire “mutliplayer” with my friends as a kid (really one person plays while the other two made jokes). We would pause the game and draw on maps like this over lunch. It was great fun.

    But I must admit I find the whole “watch someone else play” thing a little weird. I enjoy let’s plays on Youtube, but I can’t shake the “bad host” feeling whenever my girlfriend watches me play (which she seems to enjoy doing).

    But I will admit I have also always been “that game guy.” Even as a kid – when I had 0 budget – I sought out demos so I could dip into every game I could find. Now that I have adult(-ish) money to spend wastefully, I do the same thing with full games. It’s so ingrained that I didn’t even realize I do it until my friends told me that I always have some new game I’m playing whenever they see me – and it’s always a game they’ve never heard of.

    Still, I think the future is looking bright for games criticism. In recent years my mother has been recommending iphone games to me! She was on the receiving end of years of my own enthusiasm, so it is nice to see interest in games growing.

    Who knows, maybe “co-oping” singleplayer games will become a popular paste time in the years to come.

  3. Premium User Badge

    Skabooga says:

    Nice! I’ve found that one way to curb my habit of jumping from one game to another without ever stopping to finish one is to get a friend involved in playing it with me. That way, I get to fulfill my need to be sociable with my desire to play games. And it sounds like the same dynamic is working for you!

  4. TheApologist says:

    My friend and I have two or three weekends a year when we sit beside each other and play through a single player game, pass the controller style. Our wives are baffled but basically tolerant. And they’re some of my favourite times of the year.

    It’s a great way to play.

  5. bonuswavepilot says:

    Playing through the first Playstation’s Crash Bandicoot games this way with a friend remains one of my favourite gaming memories – we developed specialisations (I was better at the ruins levels, he at the dark ones), mythologies (at particular points, loudly swearing at the screen was empirically helpful), and possibly apocryphal observations about level timings (often ‘impatient style’ was the way to go – just running hell-for-leather without considering the timing of obstacles and jumps worked surprisingly often).

    A lovely way to play.

  6. maicus says:

    This is basically the only way my friends and I ever played games – single player, passing the controller back and forth on single player games. Played everything from crash bandicoot to far cry 4 like that.

  7. Dingbatwhirr says:

    I’m a bit late to this party I realise (just catching up with missed supporter posts), but these are some excellent words. They really capture a lot of how I feel about gaming. I’ve never really managed to get into any kind of competitive multiplayer title, and I have a terrible track record at finishing games. I’d always thought this was through some deficiency of mine, so it’s refreshing to find someone else who seems to be the same.

    In a similar vein, I’ve recently been playing a few games with my girlfriend. I’d forgotten how much fun ‘singleplayer co-op’ (for lack of a better term) can be. We’ve played a bit of Civ 5 together, jointly making decisions, with my peaceful, culture loving tendencies being tempered by her inclination towards warmongering. We’ve also played some Project Zomboid together, which works surprisingly well.

    A great article – thanks Adam.

  8. orionite says:

    I wish I could have some of those moments back today! I remember playing Dungeon Master at a friend’s house on an Atari ST, drawing maps on our little notebooks listening to Michael Jackson’s “Bad” album. Later, at college we would huddle in our dormroom after a night out (Surrey represent!) and play Resident Evil together. Four (somewhat) grownups squealing like little girls when the bats crash through the windows. It was epic. The time, when I watched in awe as my friend played online poker on 4-8 tables simultaneously, earning enough money in a few weeks to buy a Wii, so we could play Mario Kart. Good man! Solving absurd puzzles in Zork: Grand Inquisitor together is also a very fond recollection.

    Thank you for bringing back those memories! You are blessed in having a girlfriend who not only understands but takes part in your passion for games.

  9. PancakeWizard says:

    Reminds me of the days when PCs weren’t as affordable as they are now. This is how me and my friends played PC games when we weren’t on the SNES multiplaying. One time me and a friend took it in turns playing a mission each (for opposite campaigns) for C&C. Great memories.

    • Bernardo says:

      Same here, only I’m fucking old, so it was Lemmings for us.

      • PancakeWizard says:

        you know what with Steam Links/Steampads etc I think we might see a resurgence of this kind of play. Non-gamer significant others tend to be more receptive to couch/tv play.

  10. Bernardo says:

    My girlfriend and I did the same thing with Legend of Grimrock II last year. We live far apart and don’t see each other often, so we usually take some days off and travel, but this time she had thrown her back out and had to lie down. She told me not to come, because we couldn’t do anything, but of course I visited. She had to lie on her back, and there was basically one painless position, so I took my laptop, sat next to her, and we walked the island for a weekend. We’ve played adventures together before, but this was better. We keep returning to Grimrock, it’s just a fantastic game.

  11. TheAngriestHobo says:

    “If we can ignore Ultima VII for a moment”

    Sorry, we can’t.

    But that back-and-forth with your girlfriend was pretty cute.

  12. mgardner says:

    I love how all the examples everyone is giving spans all genres of single player gaming. For me and my childhood friend, it was F15 Strike Eagle. One player got the joystick and was the pilot, the other got the keyboard and was the weapons officer – trading roles every mission.

  13. Premium User Badge

    Dorga says:

    Most of my infancy, untill both my brothers and I were old enough to have friends over or be over at friends, we played all manners of game together, mostly demoes. We had those cds full of them. One of the best was Warcraft II, in english non the less! (Not our first language). We had the mac version of descent, wich if put in a music player became an amazing soundtrack, sadly never to be found again, not even on gog. We would play tandem, one would move the ship and the other would shooyt, in Descent! Without vomiting! I, too little to do anything, would just watch. Without vomiting!
    This was our way of playing any first person game.
    Eventually one of us grew bored of games, but me and my eldest brother are basically doing the same things as when we were kids.

  14. DeepFried says:

    Reminds me of playing single player games with friends, before the days of internet multiplayer, stuff like warlords 2, mechwarrior 2, x-wing, and god knows what else that I cant remember. There was something special about sharing a single player game with someone and swapping seats occasionally…. not done that for a long time.

  15. Kefren says:

    Great article. I did that in Dungeon Master too – even when playing alone. So many stories.

    UFU Enemy Unknown was great for this too. A friend and I would get in from a nightclub and play until it got light, waking each other when we fell asleep. We had one base each. Every soldier was renamed so they had a final letter showing who it belonged to. That way we could transfer them to our friend’s base, and away teams would include soldiers owned by both players. Obviously we controlled our own. Every mission was tense and exciting. Some soldiers did what you wanted; but there were others where you gave orders, or made suggestions, but it was up to the other player if they followef them. A big loss of a team and Skyranger affected us both, and we’d have a shared desire for payback. How we’d laugh when the alien menace attacked the other player’s base. Relief, I think. Then we’d realise some of our own best soldiers were in the base and at risk, abd find we had so many unsold guns in the store that the game generated a base full of plasma rifles but no clips. The only hope of survival was to kill some aliens with a grenade and plunder their corpses for clips that you could throw down the hall to waiting, desperate comrades. So much room for impromptu heroism and memorials. Survivors were often renamed. John Smith became Sectoid Killer; Mike Jones became Last Man. Or we’d include their number of kills at the end of their names, so we could see at a glance who we most wanted to keep alive. Money was recorded on paper, a total for each player. If I sold weapons from my base the money was added to my spending column. Monthly income split 50/50. Then we could trade. “Send me 10 suits of power armour and I’ll give you $10,000.”
    “Will you pay the postage too? It’s expensive sending things to the arctic.
    Cue muttering about wishing they’d built a base in Europe instead.
    The accounting wasn’t a chore, it was a key fun mechanic. And we’d sometimes give presents of equipment, money, or things to research. Or, if the other base was struggling, send our best soldier with all their advanced equipment, imagining them arriving at the beleaguered base to awe and whisperings, immediately boosting the morale of the rookies and injured.
    “It’s … him. The Barn Burner. We’re saved. Make sure he gets the best quarters.”
    Happy times. A great game made better by turning a solitary activity into shared experiences.

    • Premium User Badge

      Adam Smith says:

      Love this comment.

      • Kefren says:

        Thanks for bringing it all back to me! I was on the Kindle typing that up, it took forever on the slow touchscreen (delete seems to pause for a second in between deleting each letter), but I suddenly wanted to write about the UFO days! I played through UFO with my nephew a few years ago, and that was a nice – but different – experience too.

  16. Fnord73 says:

    That was a standard procedure between me and my mate as well. Bards Tale 3, one mapping, the other controlling. Oh gods, the fucking spinners and teleportation traps.

    Having read the four “What games made me”, I take it you have no old C64 heads in your staff at RPS? Because then somebody would write about Lazer Squad, the precursor to UFO a lot more.

  17. Fnord73 says:

    Edit: Laser Squad, not “lazer”.

    • Kefren says:

      I’d never seen that DOS version – I always saw the Amiga one as being definitive, followed by Spectrum, then C64/Amstrad. Will have to rethink.

      Such a fun 2-player game, especially the first mission, rocket launchers and wrecking Sterner Regnix’s home.

      • Fnord73 says:

        It was fantastic, using the rocketlauncher in the mines for covering fire, etc.

        • Kefren says:

          Damn the mines! The number of times I’d blow a door, and splatter the soldier I was trying to free… I preferred Moonbase Assault. Once I opened a door, left it open, then sent my men all the way round the moon to another entrance. It took half my turns (though did confuse the other player as he stayed covering that wing in overwatch and wondering when I’d appear).

    • Mr_Blastman says:

      The MT-32 music on Laser Squad is wonderful. The controls… not so much. It’s pretty obscure, even for a DOS game.

  18. Munin says:

    It’s a bit of a shame Portal 2 has no split screen for the coop. Tackling that was the best coop experience I’ve had in a game.

  19. binkbenc says:

    I’m hoping the Steam Link will bring back a bit of co-op/shared experience for me. The living room is a no PC zone, so I’m hoping the Link will allow me stealth it in there – primarily so I can play through all those Lego games with my son that have been sitting in my Steam library for years, but also to maybe get a little games interest from my partner…just a little…