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?

It’s probably instructive to think about what dungeons really are. The best discussion of this is from a blog post, ‘The Dungeon as a Mythic Underworld’, now only available as part of a PDF collection. The author calls out some key pieces of text from the original ‘little brown book’ edition of Dungeons and Dragons, so let’s look at those.

On page 9 of the third book, ‘The Underworld and Wilderness Adventures’, Gygax says something odd about the dungeon environment. “Generally, doors will not open by turning the handle or by a push. Doors must be forced open by strength.” Then he tells us that “doors will automatically close, despite the difficulty in opening them.” And then, “Doors will automatically open for monsters.”

On the topic of light in the underworld, he says that “some light source or an infravision spell must be used.” (Infravision is his word for the ability to see infrared: to perceive heat sources.) Oddly, though, “monsters are assumed to have permanent infravision as long as they” — and this is key — “are not serving some character.”

Residents of the dungeon can see in the dark. Player characters cannot. Dungeon residents, who might include humans, have the magical ability to see, unless they change sides and join the player group. At that moment, their inexplicable ability to see in the dark, and one presumes their ability to open the otherwise inoperable doors in the dungeon, vanishes.

The later Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide takes this idea even further; on page 59, Gygax suggests that “most monsters inhabiting underground areas” have a form of night-vision where they literally shoot rays of infrared energy out of their eyes, and see in the reflected heat. “The eyes of all such creatures will appear as very brightly glowing red” when seen by other creatures with infravision.

So we have enemies wandering a limitless underground space, with no need for food or water or light or sleep, eyes glowing red, at whose barest touch the seemingly sentient doors of the place spring open. Imagine fleeing from one of these creatures, every door stuck until you wrench it desperately open, and as you run, every door between you and your pursuer springs open of its own accord, revealing utter darkness except for hot, burning red eyes.

That sounds an awful lot like a nightmare, to me. Literally: it sounds like the sort of logic one might expect in a dream. You’re dreaming and you think, ‘I hope this door opens so I can escape’, but of course it doesn’t. You think, ‘I hope the door I slammed shut will lock behind me’, but of course it doesn’t.

I posit that this seems like a nightmare because that’s exactly what it is. The dungeon, as presented in fantasy roleplaying games and all their descendants that followed, is not a real place at all. It’s an expression, in stone, of a nightmare. It’s the unconscious mind turned loose and allowed to sprawl out into a dreamworld edifice.

Carl Jung, from whom a lot of our more mythic ideas about dreams, the unconscious, and the human experience are derived, once tried an experiment in which he basically gave free rein to his unconscious mind, put himself intentionally into a state much like madness, and let his imagination go wherever it liked. (‘Once’ is probably understating his effort; he did this for three solid years.)

The result of this inward journey is what’s now called the Red Book, or the Liber Novus. He wrote it over the course of fifteen years, with careful illustration and calligraphy, compiled into a four-hundred page personal travelogue through his own mind. And then he put it away, letting only very close and trusted friends read it.

It wasn’t until about five years ago that his estate finally allowed the Red Book to be published. That’s an important point to keep in mind: in 1970, when Arneson was just starting to explore the dungeons under his fictional castle, the Red Book was basically unknown, and certainly unread by anyone Arneson might have encountered. It’s equally important to remember that when Campbell wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces in 1949, he also hadn’t read the Red Book. And while James Joyce had probably heard of the Red Book, he hadn’t read it in 1939 when he published Finnegans Wake — and when he started writing it in 1922, Jung hadn’t even finished transcribing his waking dreams.

But here’s the strange coincidence: the Red Book reads like an account of the early dungeon crawls. Compare, for instance, this summary of one part of the Red Book:

“Let’s be even more clear: Jung goes through hell. He converses with a Red Devil. He battles with a Bull God and shrinks him to the size of an egg he can fit in his pocket, then raises up the old horned god again again. He howls to a dead moon and a dark sea about combining good and evil, but he doesn’t trust his own shouting.

“He comes to a library that may be a place of sanctuary and reflection. When the librarian asks him to choose the book that he wants, to their mutual surprise he names The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis, a medieval favorite. He debates with the librarian what it would mean to imitate Christ today. He decides that since Christ imitated no one, this would mean going his own way, and paying the full price for creating that way that no one before him has mapped or trodden.”

(http://www.beliefnet.com/columnists/dreamgates/2010/10/jungs-underworld-journey-not-for-the-timid.html)

Now read this recounting by Svenson of Arneson’s earliest dungeon adventure:

“After wandering more corridors we entered a room where we were attacked by giant spiders. Another fierce battle ensued and we overcame them, losing a couple of men in the process. We found some copper coins and broken weapons in the room along with a bunch of bones, including human bones.

“Then we found another staircase going down, so down we went. We wandered for a while on this level. Then we came to a room with the fallen statue of Poseidon with trident in his hand. From the room there was a staircase going down. At the bottom of the stairs we entered a triangular room with a smoking pot in the center of it. It shot balls of fire at us. It took us a while to figure out how to get safely past it.

“We found a magic sword on the ground. I am not sure which room we were in when we found it. Probably, either where the statue was or where the smoking pot was. Anyway, one of the players tried to pick it up. He received a shock and was thrown across the room. The same thing happened to the second player to try. When Bill tried to pick it up he was successful. We were all impressed and Dave, declared Bill our leader and elevated him to ‘hero’ status.”

(http://blackmoor.mystara.net/greg01.html)

It strikes me as uncanny, the resemblance between Jung’s account of his journey into his own mind, and Svenson’s account of his journey into Arneson’s mind.

I mentioned Campbell back there, so let’s talk about Campbell. Campbell has written what is either the definitive theory of storytelling, or a horrible culturally-insensitive oversimplification, depending on who you ask. It’s called the ‘monomyth’, or ‘the hero’s journey’; even if those aren’t familiar terms to you, you’ve probably seen the purest expression of his ideas, Star Wars Episode 4. (Lucas has said as much, and corresponded with Campbell while creating Star Wars, so this isn’t much of a stretch.)

The monomyth offers a structure through which to understand how traditional stories are assembled. In this structure, someone ordinary is called on to perform some great deed, goes through a series of symbolic trials, emerges from those trials with a token of her victory, and returns to her ordinary life having been transformed by the process into a cultural hero.

The important part for this discussion is the ‘symbolic trials’. In the classic monomyth story, the hero crosses a threshold into an underworld, a labyrinth of dangers, and within that underworld she faces death. Overcoming death, she gains whatever treasure she’d entered the underworld to find, and emerges with the treasure a new person. In Star Wars, this portion is the middle section aboard the Death Star: a literal labyrinth, complete with a treasure (the secret plans and the Princess to unlock them) and Death (in the reaper-like figure of Vader, with his blood-red sword). Luke emerges fully on the path to becoming a Jedi; arguably this is the real ‘treasure’ of the experience, as it’s far more critical to the triumph of good, in the long run, than the destruction of the Death Star.

But look where we are again: we’ve encountered a strange and unreal world, a dark underworld with maze-like passages, filled with unreasoning enemies, strange monsters, implausible traps; the labyrinth is not defeated, only escaped; the doors open for the villains but must be forced by the heroes; and not everyone who enters survives to emerge once more.

What we’re seeing here seems to be an archetype; let’s go ahead and call it the Underworld. In the Underworld, the normal rules of the world no longer apply. Space itself is against you; passages radiate out in apparently random directions, vast chasms and endless voids open beneath you without any reason or sense, enemies lurk everywhere and might appear with no notice to strike you down. And, perhaps most importantly, the Underworld is far larger than you could ever hope to explore. Consider how little of the Death Star we actually see; consider the implied endless levels above and below the tiny fraction of the world the heroes actually manage to explore. The Death Star is, wrapped in science fiction tropes, a world that Arneson or Gygax could have sketched out on reams of graph paper.

I’m a big fan of the side-scrolling Castlevania games. I borrowed Symphony of the Night from my then-girlfriend’s brother; he’d finished it and I’d watched him play a bit of it, and I wanted more. It was a point in my history of game consumption that, if you slapped hit points and an inventory onto just about anything, I’d happily play it forever. I beat the old NES game Rygar repeatedly, despite its many-hour playtime and total lack of a save feature; you could grind monsters and level up in it! And so it was with Castlevania: SotN.

But there was something more to it than that (and, now that I think about it, to Rygar as well). The world of Dracula’s castle was inherently compelling, even aside from the process of leveling up and becoming a vampiric murder-machine. I think it’s encapsulated by a certain moment in the early-mid game, when you’re exploring an area called the Marble Gallery, and you unlock a passage that goes down. It’s a massive drop; you plunge ten screen heights down into a new and unexpected place, the Underground Caverns. It feels like you’ve left the world of the rational and sane — or as rational as the Baroque absurdity of Dracula’s castle can be, in a Castlevania game — and fallen into Hell.

The descent doesn’t stop there, though. Through a series of implausible events, you smash open a new passage into a new area, the Abandoned Mine. It leads down even further, and you find yourself passing through a door shaped like the head of a giant dog, and battling Cerberos, the guardian of the Gates of Hell. And beyond him, there’s another passage, leading (once more) down. This ends in the Catacombs, an ancient graveyard.

There’s a sense of possibility at this point. What if things just keep… going down? What would happen if you just kept descending? What would a game have to do in order to realize that idea, of an endless descent? (And later events in Symphony of the Night seem about to do just that; it’s an old enough game now that most people interested in it are already aware of the Big Reveal, when the game is suddenly much larger and longer than you’d realized, but at the time? It was revelatory. It was a moment of almost religious character, the sudden knowledge that things were much darker and deeper than I’d expected.)

Other games teased that same sense of endless, bottomless depth; I can remember heated discussions about the original Legend of Zelda with friends at school, after we learned about the Second Quest; what if there was a Third Quest? What if there were no limits to the number of Quests? What if they just kept going forever? It’s present in Minecraft, when you first come across one of the gaping voids of Minecraft’s cave systems, and far below, impossibly distant, you see a gleam of red: lava, at the bottom of the world. It’s apparently the key design concept behind Terraria, where as you dig down into the world, you pass through ever-darkening strata of underworld, until you reach what seems very much like Hell itself.

But I don’t think I’ve ever had precisely the experience of Symphony of the Night, of a depth that seems endless, where I could easily imagine every floor being a hidden, breakable portal to even further darkness. It seemed very much like Gygax and Arneson’s dungeons, where you could never reasonably think you’d reach the bottom, explore all the level, find all the treasure, defeat all the monsters. You’d never do that, and that was by design; to do its job, to be an Underworld, it had to unroll below your feet forever.

It’s a powerful sense; it taps into something primal in our unconscious minds, in the same way it did for the storytelling ancestors whose myth cycles gave Campbell his thesis, and in the same way it did for Jung, wandering in the howling madness of his own psyche. It’s a belief that any darkness we see is an eternal darkness; the depths of the cave are infinite depths, and the blackness of night is an endless night.

Castlevania expressed it best, as far as I’m concerned. As part of thinking about this review, I’ve replayed Symphony of the Night, Order of Ecclesia, and Portrait of Ruin, and in every one of them (least so in Ecclesia, but still there) was the sense of unexplored possibilities. I think it’s no surprise that every attempt to translate the Castlevania formula into three dimensions has resulted in failure. Not necessarily that 3d Castlevania games are bad; I’ve heard good things about the latest attempt. But I’ve also heard that it doesn’t feel like Castlevania.

I’ve always assumed that this failure was just a matter of familiarity; 2d ‘feels like’ Castlevania in a way that 3d doesn’t. But now I have a new thesis: 3d games are too constrained, too narrow and linear, too careful with their environment design, to feel bottomless. And being bottomless is critical to capturing Castlevania — it’s a game about the Underworld, and how do you make a 3d game about that?

Dragon’s Dogma is the best 3d Castlevania game ever made.

I came to Dragon’s Dogma in a strange way, and for all the wrong reasons. I finished playing Dark Souls, and I wanted more. Dark Souls 2 wasn’t out yet. But the PS3 was cheap (relatively, of course), so I bought one for the sole purpose of playing Demon’s Souls. Years after its release, Demon’s Souls was a system-seller for a console that, even after owning it, I still loathe; it’s a godawful piece of hardware, full of all the kinds of user experience fuckups I’ve come to expect from Sony.

I played Demon’s Souls (it’s a two star game, good in all the ways Dark Souls is good, but less refined), beat it, and bought Dark Souls 2 on Steam. And just about that time my computer died.

I wasn’t about to buy Dark Souls 2 a second time; I’m not destitute but there are limits to what I’ll spend casually. But I wanted more Souls action. And Dragon’s Dogma looked like a Souls game. Hell with it, it was on sale for cheap, so I bought it. At the worst it would be good for a middling review.

It is not a Souls game. The only real resemblance is that they’re both third-person fantasy action games, with some commonality of color palette — but frankly ‘dark brown’ isn’t so much a point of resemblance as the defining trait of the AAA videogame industry for the past 2 decades. My initial reaction to it was to sneer: this game is so much less committed to its premise than any of the Souls games. Where’s the crushing, brutal encounter with the first enemy? Where’s the boss fight designed as a trial-by-fire and introduction to the death mechanics? You can win the first boss fight. It isn’t even that hard; you’d have to fall asleep at the controller to lose.

Gradually, I learned what Dragon’s Dogma was trying to get me to do. Here’s the first hint: the very first thing the tutorial asks you to do, before telling you how to fight, before telling you how to run or block, is to get your lantern out and attach it to your belt. Light and darkness are the first nouns the game wants you to be aware of, and lighting your lantern in the first verb the game wants you to use with it.

After the tutorial, in the traditional home-village-devastated-by-plot, you’ll be tempted to run around for a while, exploring and maybe even completing some basic quests, before you set out on your adventure. You do that, and then you go outside, and on the road to the next encampment, night falls.

Nighttime in Dragon’s Dogma does not fuck around.

I remember realizing that night in World of Warcraft was a palette-swap for day; visibility was unaffected, but everything was blue. That’s nice, I remember thinking, particularly because the world clock was tied to the real-world clock, and I could only ever expect to play at night.

Dragon’s Dogma’s nights are not a palette swap. When it gets dark, it’s stygian. You can see your immediate vicinity, but shapes will loom at you out of the black, and distant lights will turn out to be the fires of cavorting goblins or bandits. As the sun sets in Dragon’s Dogma, you know things are about to get worse. I sprinted for the gates of town more than once, not because I was being chased, but because anything could be out there. Undead. Ghosts. Anything.

Staying at the inn until morning stopped being a response to low hit points, and quickly became a response to the pressing darkness. I’d schedule my gameplay; how far can I make it if I leave at dawn? Will I need to turn back to find a bed? I don’t want to spend too long on this fight, I still need to make it to the next town by sunset. Better deal with these monsters fast.

The darkness, and the lantern, define the early Dragon’s Dogma experiences far more than the plot (something about a dragon; it’s comprehensible only in the context of vast quantities of exposition and a novella’s worth of spoilers). The world isn’t endless, but the limitations of your vision and your ability to travel by daytime make it feel endless. The surface of the world becomes, in that way, an Underworld.

The next defining moment is the first real plot-related quest of the game, when you enter a place called the Everfall. Let me see if this sounds familiar to you: underneath the city, known only to a few, is a vast pit, a shaft that drops out of sight, with a spiraling path winding along its outside, leading deep into black dungeons of unknown purpose, filled with undead monsters, strange traps and odd mechanisms.

And then, when you get to the bottom, you discover two things: first, the light shining up from the cracked floor is coming from more dungeon below, another even deeper place that you can’t access. Second, the things that live in that place are a whole lot more powerful and terrifying than the goblins and skeletons you’ve been fighting up to that point. Hideous red tentacles with fanged mouths on the end burst out of every surface, and there’s only one thing you can do: run. You sprint out, as your NPC allies fall and die, and barely make it out with your life.

So we’re talking about the Underworld, the Arneson/Gygax mythic underworld as expressed in dungeon form. You enter, you gain knowledge, you face death and then you flee back to the surface.

The realization that there’s more down there reminded me of House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski. I won’t try to explain or summarize it, because I couldn’t do it justice (and you should really read it yourself, if you haven’t; it is also an exploration of underworlds, both in the story and using the text itself as a labyrinth), but there’s a point in the story where the protagonists discover a shaft leading down, and a stair, and there’s no bottom. It was chilling, because how far down could it go? How far into the world could this shaft penetrate? (The clue’s in the name: it’s called Everfall for a reason.)

Dragon’s Dogma is a game about darkness and light, and it’s a game about unexplored and unexplorable depths. The story follows a similar pattern; you believe you’ve found the extents of the story, but then you reach the borders and, just like that moment deep under Dracula’s castle in Symphony of the Night, you break through a wall and find a whole new and unexpected area to explore. It’s a story about fighting a dragon, but would you be surprised if, at this point, I told you that I beat the dragon at about a quarter of the way through my play time? The dragon was a wall, and past that wall was more, and more, and more.

The ultimate form of the Everfall is about as close to a mythic underworld as can be imagined: a bottomless shaft that, should you fall through it for long enough, you’ll loop back to the top again and fall from the sky back into it. As close as can be imagined, that is, except for the actual finale of the game.

It’s a running joke among Souls players that any arbitrary point in the game can be said to be where ‘the real Dark Souls begins’. Including, for instance, the final boss of the game. The title of the final episode of Geop’s definitive Let’s Play of Dark Souls is ‘The Real LP Begins Here’ (http://lparchive.org/Dark-Souls/). In this case, though, I think it’s warranted:

Bitterblack Isle, the location of the expansion to Dragon’s Dogma, is where the Real Dragon’s Dogma Begins. Everything up to that point has been training for the actual game.

Bitterblack Isle is a nonsensical space, a dungeon and nothing but a dungeon, level after improbable level of strangely similar rooms filled with inexplicable enemies. Your companions and other NPCs comment on the insanity of the whole place, repeatedly. You find trees in a vast arena hundreds of feet underground, and your follower says ‘Roots? At such a depth?’

Barroch, a merchant who provides a rationally detached point of view, spells it out for you:

“Ever stopped to ponder just what kind of place this is, friend? I say it certain that no such island existed off the land I came from. No record names it. Though you need look no further than the links between this cavern and the halls to know aught is amiss.”

There’s very little logic to how the levels connect to one another. Barroch notices it, and (in the parlance of TvTropes) he lampshades it. He calls it to your attention: how can you go as deep as you do, and then find a door leading directly out to the surface? How can a short flight of stairs put you above an endless abyss, and another put you below the same abyss? How can you find a whole abandoned town somehow beneath a previous level’s dark lake?

And even more direct and to the point: “You can feel it, can’t you? This place is wrought from the will of some creator. I don’t mean the Maker, mind. I keep no truck with the Faith. No, this place is like a memory given form. We’re guests in someone’s imaginary world, you and I… else rabbits caught in their snare.”

(http://dragonsdogma.wikia.com/wiki/Barroch)

Bitterblack is self-consciously a mythic underworld. It’s a nightmare, and it tries to be a nightmare, in the same way that the laws of Gygax’s dungeon world try. Monsters see in the dark with no trouble, while you’re struggling to fight within the dim pool of your lantern’s light (and god help you if you tumble into water; better get that lantern re-lit!).

And it’s really, really goddamn dark. At first, your companions make comments about the otherworldly moonlight, but descend a bit into the depths of the place and the darkness closes in. It’s all the more noticeable because of how frequently the game re-uses environments; a safe corridor becomes a stygian hole when you see it next. The lantern was useful in the main portion of the game, but it’s a critical necessity in Bitterblack. There are areas that are simply not navigable without it.

The nightmarishness extends to the place’s inhabitants. Up until this point, you could come up with some sort of justification for the creatures in the places you’ve been. The characters mention that, in the main game world, the dragon’s arrival has driven monsters out of the mountains, and that seems plausible. And there are skeletons in the ancient catacombs near the city, but why wouldn’t there be? Skeletons and ancient crypts is a fine and logical connection. Even the endless chambers of the Everfall have a sort of explanation in the world’s metaphysics, with the handwaved excuse that the Everfall is somehow linked to an infinity of worlds.

But then, in Bitterblack, you face Death for the first time. No, seriously; huge floating guy enveloped in a tattered black cloak, with a massive scythe and a lantern he uses to search you out and hunt you down. You face Death, just as though the writers were ticking off items from the Joseph Campbell Guide To The Hero’s Journey, and the first thing he does is break the rules of the game.

See, you have companions, called Pawns. And throughout the game, when one dies, you rush over to her and with a quick button tap you revive her and send her back into the fight. You summon them, they’re yours for as long as you need them. They’re basically immortal.

Death attacks, and any pawn he hits is dead. Gone.

You can go recover them by leaving the dungeon (that’s a simplification, but I’m not going to explain the convoluted metaphysics behind the Pawns), but otherwise you’re down one pawn. If he kills all three, you’re going solo for a while.

He’s the worst of the nightmare monsters, but there are others. Garms, huge wolves the size of elephants. Elder ogres, giant walls of hit points with the ability to murder your whole party without much more than a few swings and a shrug. And the Cursed Dragons, that can bellow and instantly turn all your allies against you until you, or they, die. All these creatures share one trait: they arrive in a level unannounced and unexpectedly, just when you’re finishing up a fight or exploring for treasure. They’re not part of the area’s normal population. The screen goes blurry and dark, time seems to slow for a moment, and the Necrophage appears, whatever it happens to be. In most cases, the only real option is to flee — towards an exit, any exit — and hope your allies make it out with you.

When Death appears with his scythe, it’s like Darth Vader stepping into the corridor to block Obi-Wan’s escape. It’s a physical manifestation of what you already suspected: this place is not friendly. You do not set up camp here. You don’t live here. You make a quick foray into the darkness, and then you retreat to the relative sanity of the surface. Every trip into the dungeon, your companions suggest that this might be a good time to leave, that perhaps you shouldn’t let your ambition lead to your death. And every time, in your little pool of light, you think ‘yeah, maybe that’s not a bad idea. Maybe it is time to go. I have some loot to sell, I suppose, and I could probably use some more healing supplies. Maybe we should just leave.’

I had those thoughts on arrival, more than once. Maybe I didn’t bring enough healing items. I should go back out. Anything to escape the nightmare for a little longer.

It’s not frightening, exactly. Just… oppresive. A constant, pervasive sense that you Do Not Belong, and the very geography around you hates you. It is a nightmare place. It is, like Jung’s inner world of the Red Book, not a comfortable place to stay for long.

Look at some of these names, though. The Bloodless Stockade. Rotunda of Dread. Tower of Treasons Repaid. Shrine of Futile Truths. Sparyard of Scant Mercy. Compare to Symphony of the Night: Black Marble Gallery. Floating Catacombs. Forbidden Library.

And like the Castlevania locations, you explore deeper and deeper, finding new places just as you suspected you were nearing the end of what the game had to offer. It’s huge. It’s much, much bigger than you’d think a single expansion for a middling-success fantasy action RPG would be. I spent easily as much time in Bitterblack as in the whole rest of the game: a hundred hours or more spent crawling through that dark and hostile place.

Would it surprise you, at this point, to learn that defeating the ‘final’ boss of Bitterblack is, like reaching the pinnacle of Dracula’s castle, just a checkpoint at the halfway mark of the dungeon?

It feels endless, and it was a nearly physical shock when I realized I was actually done. I didn’t do a final count of time spent, but I know that when I last checked, somewhere in the second run through Bitterblack, the clock was north of 175 hours. I didn’t entirely know what to do next. Surely, somewhere, there was a level I’d overlooked, some extraordinary enemy of absurd difficulty that I could still challenge?

By this time, you cannot be surprised to learn that yes, there was.

What Dragon’s Dogma teaches is that Castlevania isn’t a game about fighting Dracula with a whip. It isn’t even a sidescrolling action platformer. Castlevania is a game about depths. It’s a game about exploring, thinking you’ve found all there is to find, and being wrong.

Dragon’s Dogma captures that feeling of vast and yawning underworlds, of entering a nightmare world devised by Jung, or Gygax, or Campbell by way of Lucas. It represents a perfect physical manifestation of the dread of falling forever in a dream.

When I was 6 or 7 years old, I had a fever of 104F. I don’t remember the sickness or the fever, and I only dimly remember being plunged into an icy bathtub. What I remember is the hallucination: my world was filled with twitching, writhing, chitinous and glistening black worms. They were everywhere; my whole field of vision was in motion. Sometimes, when I’m really tired, I can close my eyes and see them again. They define horror for me, now; when I want to imagine something particularly horrible and Lovecraftian, it’s the incomprehensible field of writhing glistening black worms.

This many years later, I’ve put my finger on what bothers me about that hallucination. It’s the sense that my mind cannot encompass everything it’s seeing. There’s too much of it; it’s everywhere and there’s no possibility of being able to stretch my vision to see it all.

At its best, that’s what Dragon’s Dogma feels like.

I’m giving it two stars because for all that, it’s a flawed game — flawed in its mechanics, flawed in its systems of progression, flawed in the clumsiness of some of its storytelling. It is never a perfect experience, but it sidles right up to the edge of perfection and flirts with it a bit.

I recommend it highly, but only if you’re the sort of person who will not quit a game while there are still horrifyingly difficult optional dungeons waiting to be tackled. Alone, Dragon’s Dogma might be a one or even zero star game. With the Bitterblack expansion, it’s the best 3d Castlevania game that never was.

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2 Responses to Dragon’s Dogma (**)

  1. Neil

    Thought-provoking review! This is not a game that had crossed my radar before you dove into it post-Souls, but now I’m very interested. For me, the comparable game series to Castlevania was Ultima IV-V-VI, all of which were defined personally by the moment where they opened up and showed unexpected depths.

    Ultima IV, in fact, is what I’d credit with making me a gamer: watching a friend rob blind shopkeepers when haggling for garlic and ginseng, and thinking, “I could be better than this.” Finding the Abyss was amazing. I still have my notebook.

  2. Gretchen

    That sounds amazing. The darkness and depths are characters in the game in their own right. I don’t know if I want to play it, because I usually _have_ to explore every last thing, and the gameplay might aggravate me while I’m doing that, but just reading about it is a pleasure.

    Reading about the never-ending descent made me think of the story “Descending”, which gave me the horrors as a kid: http://web.archive.org/web/20070213072942/www.scifi.com/scifiction/classics/classics_archive/disch/disch1.html

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