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The Games Of Christmas ’11: Day 20

Going Deeper

The 20th day of Advent is of course traditionally marked by tying a t-shirt around your head and screaming in the face of a stranger's baby. But ever flying in the face of society's mores, RPS instead simply peels back a door on the festive calendar to reveal another game that's made our 2011 lovely. By Great Yarmouth's testes, what could today's be?

It's... Dungeons Of Dredmor!

John: I'm often late to the party. This is usually because I'm faffing around, checking my email, finding a thing I need to post on RPS, or refusing to stop playing Skyrim. But I'm also one who can avoid a game that everyone's raving about, because it usually means it's some sort of Rogue-like that I'll never fathom, or tiresome space shopping. It's for this reason that I missed out on precious months I could have spent with Minecraft, weeks with Terraria, and I almost missed Dungeons Of Dredmor altogether. Not least because it's some sort of Rogue-like. Although clearly in the most player-friendly, un-Rogue-like way imaginable.

I do tend to bounce off the idea of a game that's about seeing how far you can get before an inevitable death bounces you back to the very start. That's what arcade games are for, with high score charts. I want progress, I want inferred narrative. I don't want... oh shut up John, you wrong-faced idiot. Because blimey, it turns out I don't want those things all the time after all, because what I do want is to be playing Dredmor all the time instead of doing anything else.

That doesn't stop me from investing every time. I can't help it. And I'm fairly sure my experience is richer for it. It's agony when I die. It's super-double-mega agony when it's because the bloody close door mechanic is so horribly programmed. Each time I think, "This will be the one!" The one to do what I have no idea. I've never made it past the fourth floor (because I'm pathologically incapable of using down-stairs until I've explored every inch of the floor I'm on) so it could all be kittens below there for all I know.

I've never even touched the crafting, because really that would slow things down. I really love the simplicity of this, the ludicrous desire for progress, and the constant heartbreak of failure. Because next time, next time I'll make it! It'll be the one! I'll get to... I don't know? The bottom? Is there a bottom? I'm never likely to reach one, such is my obsessive need to make progress as difficult as possible. And yet I will keep playing. Until the day I die. Or they release a sequel.

Alec: RPS comrade Dan Griliopoulos came to visit me in Brighton a few months back. Such grand plans we had for drinking and merriment and moaning about the state of humanity! Instead, we stayed in, clustered around my laptop andplayed a slapdash Knightmare with Dungeons of Dredmor. One of us controlling, the other watching and proffering the finest advice he could conjure. I, of course, was reckless and doomed. He, however, built an able and, soon, rich hero whose amazing survival lasted until a wee small hour, eventually requiring that the game was saved and left until the morrow. Alas, I took it upon myself to continue the game and the character the next day. The hero was dead within 10 minutes. Gril was not best pleased.

That is Dredmor: forever encouraging a false sense of security then bringing despair upon you in an instant. Nothing new in that, not in terms of roguelikes, but it twins its cold cruelty with a tone that suggests it’s definitely going to give you a break. All those silly-named skill trees sound like they’re there for a laugh. They’re not. They’re there to be studied, understood, mastered, chosen carefully and then unleashed cooly upon the Diggles and their dungeon chums.

So I will never be truly good at Dungeons of Dredmor, because I am forever convinced the game likes me. It doesn’t. It hates me. It wants me to die. It wants to laugh at my stupidity. Which is, of course, why I can’t help but go back to it: this time I’ll be on top form, and this time it’ll be in a good mood, and the fun we’ll both have.

Oh, another gas trap. Clumsy old me. Here we go again. It’s the approachable face of roguelikes, but nonetheless it has no truck with idiots.

Adam: John has already summed up a lot of what I love about Dungeons of Dredmor so much simply by accepting and revelling in its challenge. It’s a roguelike that even he can enjoy and that in itself is cause for cheer. That it manages to appeal to people who have previously fled screaming from the sometimes punishing nature of the genre is no small achievement and the graphics are at least partly responsible for that. It’s not about the quality of the visual design, but rather the fact that it doesn’t require an eye familiar with decoding particular symbols and words, or the patience to sift through tilesets.

Gaslamp have obliterated many of the barriers to entry, with those giant eyebrows and tiny diggles, as well as a user interface that while far from perfect, is accessible at the very least. In doing so, they could have alienated those who like their roguelikes complex, tough and packed with content. That’s not the case.

Dredmor is another roguelike. It’s not an attempt to make a replacement for those that exist or an entity apart from the rest. It certainly hasn’t been stripped of features, with entire systems that it’s easy to ignore on any given playthrough. If anything, I’d argue that it suffers from having too much in certain regards, having spent far too long crafting things for soon-to-be-dead characters.

The sheer amount of things to do and be leads to a lack of balance, but I’ve never gone into a roguelike looking for an egalitarian adventure. Sometimes it’s fun to roll up a random character and see how doomed it’s possible to be. Very is the answer. Very doomed.

It’s not my most played roguelike of the year but it’s as worthy a member of the tribe as any other. Take away the graphics and you still have something with its own unique style – it’s the silly one with lots of odd skills, only a few types of monster, a crafting system, constant attempts of humour and relatively few dungeon levels.

I haven’t even had a chance to try the Realm of the Diggle Gods content yet. Alec just reminded me that it exists and that I have it, but I’m too afraid to click ‘play’ because that’d be me done for the day. That probably sums up Dredmor better than anything else I’ve said. Like The Binding of Isaac, it can seem like the perfect game to indulge in during a short break from work. But I’ve had to ban myself from loading either of them when I don’t have an entire evening or weekend ahead of me.

Now that he’s on the slippery slope, I am determined to convince John that a great roguelike can be a wonderful story-machine. I'm giving him Brogue for Christmas.

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Dungeons of Dredmor

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The all-seeing eye of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, the voice of many-as-one.