Dragon’s Dogma (**)

Two stars.

The concept of the ‘underworld’ permeates fantasy roleplaying games, and has since the earliest games as conceived by Dave Arneson. Greg Svenson, one of Arneson’s original players, describes going down into the dungeon under the castle, ‘apparently… abandoned for years by the normal denizens of the castle’. The first area of the castle, a ‘huge irregularly shaped room’, was ‘the only area… that was secure for us good guys.’ After which all logic and sense was abandoned for endless hallways, staircases, improbable creatures with no comprehensible reason for existence, and absurd magical devices and traps.

The adventure ended in failure; the players did not manage to foil the evil wizard, and ended up becoming lost and fleeing the dungeon as best they could. As the game continued into further sessions, Arneson expanded his original designs, and the dungeons grew deeper and more complex. Gygax followed the same pattern; his game featured an endlessly expansive underworld called ‘Castle Greyhawk’, and he suggests in the earliest rules for Dungeons and Dragons that his world had at least two new dungeon levels under construction in the bottom of Greyhawk at any given moment.

These dungeons don’t make sense, practically; both in the world’s setting, where there’s no plausible excuse for their existence, and as settings for a game, where the fiction being emulated had no such physical locale. Conan might go into a cave, but the notion of returning week after week to the same cave, going a little further each time, then retreating to safety: that was entirely alien to Conan, or any of his contemporary fantasy heroes. The ultimate such dungeon in fantasy fiction, Tolkein’s Moria, was still nothing more than a pathway, a temporary side-trek through a particular flavor of danger before returning to the surface world.

But there’s something compelling about them, isn’t there? If the world weren’t in desperate peril, we kind of wish the Fellowship could thoroughly explore Moria, don’t we? And when we hear the phrase ‘delved too greedily and too deep’, we want to know what’s down there, what they found, what the dwarves discovered, don’t we?

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Star Wars: The Old Republic (**)

Two stars.

My first memory of role playing games is a dim and confused afternoon, in the after-school day care, when I was eight years old. The big kids had gotten a new game out of the boardgame cupboard, and had laid out a complex-looking game board, blue and white with little squares everywhere, and little metal game pieces carefully positioned around the board. I had no idea what I was looking at, and when I worked up the courage to ask one of the big kids what it was, he said, ‘Dungeons and Dragons.’

I was playing — or trying to play, with what few opportunities I could muster at age 9 — from then onwards, with very little comprehension of the rules, the goal of the game, the format, the source material, or any of what makes D&D actually work as a game. I read and re-read the example of play in my increasingly battered Moldvay edition of the Basic book. I had this sense of what a role playing game should be, and could be, and I wanted to make that happen somehow, with no real friends and no opportunities to play with interested strangers.

In those early days, a role playing game was an attempt to simulate the world. Your destiny was largely in your hands, and your adventures were the natural result of whatever action you happened to take. That map I saw the big kids (incorrectly) using as a game-board was the Caves of Chaos, from the Keep On The Borderland game supplement. The Caves were just a place, which happened to be full of monsters and loot. You could find them and go there, or you could go to a different cave system, or you could go somewhere else and do something else. Take over the keep. Set up your own competing keep. Conquer the region. “I want to try X,” you’d say, and if X was something your character might reasonably be able to do, your gamemaster would let you know the results. Your ultimate goals? Whatever you wanted them to be. Amass wealth. Conquer the world. Open a school. Build a castle.

Story, in the sense we now think of it, was a much later addition to the genre. I’ve seen arguments that place its birth in the work of Weis and Hickman, in Ravenloft and Dragonlance. In the new ‘story style’ of role playing game, the first thing you learn is your ultimate goal. Defeat the vampire lord. Recover the magic weapon to save the kingdom. Find the treasure, but not to keep it or use it yourself for your own ends; instead, return the treasure to the Queen so she can use it to protect her land from the Evil Darkness.

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Dark Souls (***)

Three stars.

Pulp Fiction may have been the defining movie of my generation.

I saw it in the theater in 1994, which seems like yesterday but it was actually literally a lifetime ago; there are people on the streets right now who are legally able to vote who were not born when I saw Pulp Fiction for the first time. Maybe to those people, it seems like a quaint artifact of a bygone era, the way Taxi Driver seems to me. To me, Pulp Fiction seems as timeless and perfectly-executed a movie experience as the first time I saw it. I think it’s the best movie Tarantino and Avary have ever written (Jackie Brown’s a better movie, but it was written by Elmore Leonard so that’s really not surprising).

Pulp Fiction didn’t win the Best Picture award that year. This wouldn’t be surprising if its competitor, Shawshank Redemption, had won instead; I think SR is a bit maudlin but I love the story on which it’s based so I’d have cheered for it to win. Instead, the flaccid Baby Boomer nostalgia circle-jerk Forrest Gump won, which is all the evidence you’ll ever need that the Academy Awards are a useless relic of a necrotic studio system.

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Monster Hunter Tri (*)

One star.

I am not a big fan of the Bioware single player RPGs. It’s not through lack of trying; the only one I can think of offhand that I haven’t played is Mass Effect 3 (because fuck you, EA, I don’t buy PC games except through Steam). I want to like them, because I want to believe their marketing hype, their claims to be the ultimate storytelling RPGs. I’d like to play that game. Instead, I’ve played a lot of flabby mass-produced RPG-flavored visual novels.

Leaving aside the unreconstructed racism, the awkward dialogue, the clumsy setting design and the sluggish pacing, the thing that really drives me away from Bioware’s games is the lack of system play.

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The Stanley Parable (**)

Two stars.

I love Hellraiser. It’s always stood apart from other stalking-horror teen scream movies of the 1980s, and not just for its heavy emphasis on revolting gore effects. There was something going on in Hellraiser, and to some extent its sequel, that movies like the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise entries just didn’t have.

When I finally read The Hellbound Heart, the novella on which the movie was based, I finally figured out what it was. It was the Lemarchand Box. Or rather, it was the implication of the Lemarchand Box, as presented in the opening pages of The Hellbound Heart, and some parts of Hellraiser 2.

It’s not a magic box. It’s a pathway through obsession. It’s one of a variety of techniques that the compulsively dedicated can use to contact the Order of the Gash. It’s suggested that there are others — both other boxes, constructed by Lemarchand, and other means of contact, not puzzle boxes at all. In a memorable eyeblink of a scene in Hellraiser 2, we see a variety of different boxes arranged under glass in the house of the movie’s villain; that scene captured my imagination like nothing else — except perhaps the Wood Between The World in Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew — ever had. It was a promise of a thousand untold stories.

Solving the box isn’t so much using a key to unlock a door, as using the box to find the key you had all along. The movies, in particular, elide the solving of the box; Kirsty solves it by accident, and even the obsessive Frank seems to solve it in just moments of effort. The novella implies a much longer, more difficult path to contacting the Cenobites, a spiritual journey enabled by the box’s difficulty. I always imagined the boxes to be Rubik’s Cubes executed in four dimensions, a kind of meta-puzzle that only the very (un)lucky could ever hope to overcome. You’d spend days, if not months or years, exploring the topology of the box, and still it would mystify you.

The Stanley Parable is a Lemarchand Box in game form.

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Red Dead Redemption (0)

Zero stars.

I was, as a kid, very aggressive in my consumption of fantasy novels. There was very little I wouldn’t read, and if there was even the slightest promise of swords n’ sorcery, I was all over that. There was one exception, a series that to this day I can’t manage to read, a series that had all the critical acclaim and all the requisite magic and monsters I looked for.

I fucking hate the Thomas Covenant books. By the middle of the first one, I was pushing myself to keep going, reading each page with grim determination.

Much later, looking back, I realized that while I can read stories about protagonists who start out awesome and stay awesome, and I can read stories about protagonists who start out awful and end up awesome, and I can even read stories about protagonists who start out awesome and fall from awesomeness… I have no use for stories about people who start out shitty and stay shitty.

I’ve since tried to re-read Thomas Covenant, because honestly I liked Piers fucking Anthony as a kid, and so it was possible I just didn’t have the context of age and experience needed to appreciate a whining, useless sack of shit as a protagonist. It turns out that as questionable as younger me’s taste was, in this he and I are in total agreement: Thomas Covenant is crap.

I don’t need every protagonist to be a super-hero. I’m fine with reading about people of average capabilities. I’m a huge fan of The Curse of Chalion, featuring a middle-aged guy who’s sort of physically crippled and suffering from a kind of supernatural cancer. It’s the unrelenting incapacity, the inability of Covenant to ever surprise me with a moment of competence, that leaves me cold.

Red Dead Redemption is the Thomas Covenant of modern gaming.

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Gone Home (**)

Two stars.

I’ve been avoiding Gone Home, because I wasn’t sure that twenty dollars was a reasonable price for what seemed, from the various descriptions I’d read, like a virtual real-estate agent. ‘Tour this amazing house! See the newly remodeled kitchen!’ is a hard sell at $20. And the game absolutely requires that you have no spoilers whatsoever when you begin playing, so you can’t turn to a summary of the game to make the decision for you.

Eventually, feeling like I was missing something important, I bought the game. I was basically correct: $20 is too much. It was only $10 worth of experience. I finished the whole thing in one sitting of about three hours, and the only real replay value it has is wandering the environments noticing all the little clever details. If you’re looking for renewable gameplay, this isn’t it.

I’m going to pretend, then, that I paid $10 for it, and then contributed another $10 to the game’s creators to encourage them to develop more games like Gone Home.

I mentioned that it’s important that you have absolutely no spoilers when you start playing Gone Home, so I’m going to cut here and continue afterwards. Seriously, if you think you might like a game where you explore a creepy house and gradually reveal a story, and you think $20 is within your price range, don’t read any further; just go play it.

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Nuke the entire site from orbit.

My previous install of WP was apparently vulnerable, and hacked. To hell with it; I just purged it and started over.

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