Posted by: seanmalstrom | July 30, 2014

Email: Dungeons of Dredmor

Hello Malstrom,

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I usually don’t write game recommendations, but Dungeons of Dredmor (DoD) is one of those games I have kept coming back to every time I was wondering what to play next and I just had to share.
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DoD is a true roguelike, unlike for example FTL, which is often described as a rogue-lite or roguelike-like or whatever. You have a randomly generated multilevel dungeon, movement is turn-based and when you die you die. You can turn permadeath off if you like, but that ruins the point; I’ll go into that later.
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However, instead of being this really hardcore, all serious RPG for elite players with ASCII graphics, they decided to make it fun and inviting with a good measure of geeky humour. Take character creation for example: instead of allocating stat points you just pick seven skills you want to use and that’s it. The skills themselves range from typical skills like swords, axes, crossbows and various schools of magic, to some really weird ones like vampirism, piracy, economy, mathematics, veganism, hunting, archeology or communism. So yes, you can play a communist sword dual-wielding vampire mathematician fire & blood mage. Does that make sense? Who cares, it’s fun, you can even randomise your starting skills.
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The game itself is fairly straight-forward, you move, you attack, use skills and try not to die. You can play for five minutes or for five hours if you want to. The fun comes from the depth of what you can do with these simple tools, there is almost always a way out of a tricky situation if you are careful and think. The humour is a bit silly with all the pop- and geek culture references, but it is still charming in its own way. I have died countless times and I always find myself coming back, trying to make it a little bit further than the previous time, trying a different build or trying to play my previous build in a better way. Picking a skill like vampirism or veganism for example changes completely how you approach the game: vampires cannot eat food and must instead drink corpses and vegans must not hurt animal-type monsters or eat meat, not even accidentally, or they suffer penalties.
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Here is a WTF episode from TotalBiscuit where you can see it in action. He loves it as well:
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Of course like all roguelikes it can sometimes be unfair or frustrating, but that’s part of what makes the genre. Sometimes dying is fun. You can clearly see that this is an indy game where actual effort when into making it. The game is not on GOG (yet?), but you can buy it DRM-free on the developer’s website for Windows, OS X and Linux for just 5$. There is also a free expansion and two paid expansions, they add some nice extra content on top of it all. For some reason the Mac version of the expansions cannot be bought from the developer’s website, but the Linux version works on OS X as well.
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Now I’d like to explain why this type of game is fun. Most modern games are meant to be beaten: you press buttons and as you keep pressing buttons you slowly move forward until you eventually beat it. This is especially true for RPGs with their stories. As long as you keep playing your stats will keep improving until eventually they are high enough for you to overcome the end boss and win.
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Roguelikes are different, they are not meant to be beaten. It reminds me of arcade-style games where you aren’t really meant to beat it, you just play and see how far you can make it before the eventual Game Over. Every time you make it slightly farther and one day you might beat it. Or not.
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While this may sound frustrating to a modern gamer I find it strangely relaxing. Knowing that I am supposed to beat a game puts a sort of “stress” on me, like I have to beat the game. Knowing I’m not supposed to beat it removes the stress. It’s like playing a card game or a sports game: sometimes I win, sometimes I don’t. The focus is no longer on finishing it like a sort of duty, it’s on enjoying the process of playing instead of the result.
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Making such a game puts certain requirements on the design. First and foremost it has to be accessible and fast. With a 20 hour AAA game no one would want to have to start all over. All those *hours* would be wasted. Dying in Super Mario Bros. is not that bad, because getting to where you lost can be done in a few minutes, but imagine dying in Mario 64 and having to do every star all over again.
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This type of game design requires the game to be distilled and refined to its purest core. You have already written more than I could on the topic of arcade games. When it comes to RPGs then roguelikes are their arcade equivalent. Character generation is blazing fast, progress is made instantly, there is no fetch-questing, no cutscenes, no stupid NPCs. When I die it is not just a loss, it is also a new opportunity to learn from my mistake. Next time I can play better, or I can play differently. It’s like a board game, every time the pieces are re-shuffled and every time you have the same chance to make it to the end and win, or die in the process. This is also where I feel that rogue legacy made a mistake; in RL you use your gold to buy permanent upgrades, thus making every run easier than the previous. Rogue legacy is impossible to beat at first, but eventually your stats will allow you to win. Some runs even only serve to grind money and then fail hopelessly at the boss, just so the next generation could have an easier time. What Rogue Legacy does is not necessarily bad, but it goes agains the spirit of roguelikes and their board game design. The same also goes for FTL and its stupid unlocking of ships through random events. In DoD I don’t have to unlock and classes, it’s all there from the start. The player’s odds of beating the game on the first attempt are the same as on the thousandth attempt. The only variable is your personal skill and experience.
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With games becoming more and more like endless hamster wheels with all their “experience”, achievements, unlocks, tiers, ranks, ladders and whatever they come up next it’s nice to see game that’s all about just having fun with the *process* of playing. That’s the reason I play in the first place, I can’t get any sense of satisfaction from artificial shiny stickers. Thanks for reading through my rambling this far.
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And this is our advertisement for the day!
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Just joking. I haven’t played it yet. Maybe I should do so.

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