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.