An Evening With Oregon Trail

My first time on the trail was a comedy of tragic events. At the first river crossing one of my party members drowned when my wagon tipped over in less than four feet of water. Tragic, but one less mouth to feed meant my food would last longer for the living travelers. People got sick. Limbs were broken. We got lost. There was fog. There were measles. Then a thief stole some of my oxen. And not just some of them, but most of them. As in, eight out of my ten. Who steals eight oxen?

An Evening With… Is a series of posts featuring games that are relatively small in scale or can be experienced in a short period of time.

Even people who don’t know a thing about video games know about Oregon Trail. Part video game, part learning experience, it’s hard to separate the game itself from its status as a cultural icon. Many people from my generation have memories of playing through the game in school, back when software developers tried to combine education experiences with video games. Perhaps their parents even bought the game for the family computer under the impression their kids would learn a few things from it. My wife has stories about how she and her sister used to play the game together “back in the day”. I was never a part of that crowd, at least not that I can remember. When a cleanup of the home office yielded the game’s discovery on a dusty bookshelf, my wife insisted I play through it.

Starting ShopOregon Trail tries to be a historical simulator. You are the leader of a party that is traveling across the continental United States with the aim of settling in Oregon. You start your journey in Independence, Missouri by picking your profession. Certain vocations lend bonuses that may be helpful over the course of the dangerous journey. A banker, naturally, can afford to buy more supplies at the start of the game. Doctors are more likely to keep their party healthy. Carpenters and blacksmiths have significantly less money to work with, but they can potentially fix their wagon should it break and they will receive a significant score bonus at the end of the game. You can determine how many people you’re taking to Oregon with you. Forewarning: Your party members possess no skills and exist only to fall ill and consume your precious resources out in the wilderness. Once your profession and party members are set, it’s off to the general store to load up on supplies for your wagon. Oxen, nonperishable food, and bullets are the only things you are guaranteed to use; most other things you’re buying as insurance against disaster. The shopkeeper offers advice on what you should buy, but only the trail will show you what you actually need.

My first time on the trail was a comedy of tragic events. At the first river crossing one of my party members drowned when my wagon tipped over in less than four feet of water. Tragic, but one less mouth to feed meant my food would last longer for the living travelers. People got sick. Limbs were broken. We got lost. There was fog. There were measles. Then a thief stole some of my oxen. And not just some of them, but most of them. As in, eight out of my ten. Who steals eight oxen? How could my party even allow such a thing? Did they not notice our only means of transportation mooing as they were led away by someone they’ve never seen before? I’m still mad at that band of traveling idiots. Just after reaching the halfway point of the journey the most tragic thing of all happened: A program crash. Fifty minutes of progress down the drain because I forgot to save my game. I’m not sure what caused the crash; it was the result of either my constant task-switching for the sake of getting screenshots or the fact that I’d been running the game in Windows 95 compatibility mode. I later discovered that I didn’t really need to be running the game in compatibility mode, so lesson learned.

15
No shopkeeper could have prepared me for this.

For my second attempt on the trail I ensured the game was running flawlessly, including my ability to save both the game and its text log. What follows is a selection of the more interesting highlights from the transcript of my trail journal.

My First Second Journey

March 1, 1848
We started down the trail with:
10 oxen
15 sets of clothing
400 bullets
3 wagon wheels
3 wagon axles
3 wagon tongues
800 pounds of food

Oregon, ho! So we endeavor to leave the wastelands of the Great Plains to endure two thousand miles and many months of hardships for a bette- wait. Why are we going to Oregon again? No, really. I got so caught up in the journey itself that I have no idea why we’re making the journey in the first place.

March 6, 1848
We have arrived at the Kansas River Crossing.

The river makes me afraid. 666 feet across and 10.6 feet deep. Evil lurks here.

March 12, 1848
We have arrived at the Big Blue River Crossing.

At this river I am presented with only two options: ford or float. Neither one appeals to me, and there’s no ferry. At 9.4 feet deep, this river is nothing more than a wet death trap. I’ll wait a day to see if the river drops any. It does. Not knowing how far it’s going to drop, I’ll wait until it starts rising again before heading across.

16 days later, the river is down to 3.4 feet. I think it might be safe to try floating the wagon over.

March 28, 1848
We had no trouble floating the wagon across.
Heavy fog. Lost 1 day.
Mandy has a fever.

My party ate a LOT of food in 16 days. Time to hunt.

March 30, 1848
We shot 1 pound of meat.

13 bullets and all I have to show for it is a pound of… squirrel? Is that what that is?

April 8, 1848
We have reached Fort Kearney.

An old dude said this should be the easiest part of the trail, so I’m opting to pick up the pace in hopes of making up for lost time.

We will now travel at a more strenuous pace.

April 19, 1848
Heavy fog. Lost 1 day.

My overall health indicator has dropped to “fair”, what with a broken leg and the measles and all. A hunting trip and a day’s rest are in store.

April 21, 1848
We shot 5 pounds of meat.

I managed to bag three rabbits as they gleefully bounded towards a beautiful stream. Serves ’em right.
We decided to rest for a day.

April 25, 1848
An ox is sick. Poor Fluffernutter.

Sick Ox

Why is it that the image announcing that an ox is sick makes it look like our only option is to put the thing out of its misery? Seriously, I’m getting some serious Napoleon Dynamite vibes here.

Napoleon Cow

April 26, 1848
We shot 71 pounds of meat. I’m pretty sure this didn’t come from the sick ox. I hope.

May 1, 1848
Mandy is well again.
Woo, we’re all in “fair” health again! Pretty soon we can celebrate by decreasing food intake to scarce rations and increasing to a grueling pace!

May 6, 1848
We have reached Independence Rock.
Aww, they’re circling their wagons under the giant circular rock. How quaint.

Independence Rock

May 7, 1848
An ox died. Good, I guess we didn’t eat him, then.
We decided to rest for 2 days to mourn Fluffernutter the ox.

Dead Ox

May 14, 1848
A thief stole 9 sets of clothing.
A thief stole 9 of my 15 sets of clothing? In a wagon full of food and bullets and spare parts, this dolt goes for sets of clothing? This type of seemingly petty nighttime thievery is what to led to things like the Great Train Robbery. I do declare society is preparing to unravel!

Thief

May 17, 1848
We shot 22 pounds of meat.
Why are my bullets so slooow!?!

May 19, 1848
We lost the trail for 5 days.
Ha! Poor guy looks pretty desperate standing in the middle of a field a few paces ahead of his wagon! Oh wait, that’s me. Hmm, I just made myself sad.

Lost Trail

May 24, 1848
We have arrived at the South Pass.
My food stores are a bit on the low side, but I can’t hunt at landmarks because there are “too many people around”? What that really means is this is the only hunting ground where you’re guaranteed to bring something home.

That sounded way more creepy than I intended it to.

Spoiled Food
That looks like way more than 20 pounds of meat.

From here my two options are to go to Fort Bridger for trading or use the shortcut to the Green-River crossing. Since I’m low on food and don’t have much to trade with I’d prefer to try and keep up with a good traveling pace. Time to apply a little math to my dwindling food reserves. 226 pounds of non-perishable food left. Five people eating generous portions eat a pound of food per meal or a total of 15 pounds per day. That’ll last me two weeks. Looking at the hunting limit of 200 pounds of food per hunt, I need to bag at least that much game every four days. Assuming a minimum of four more months of travel time, that’s a total of 1,800 pounds of food I need between now and Oregon. These people eat too much.

May 28, 1848
We shot 1865 pounds of meat but were able to carry back only 200 pounds of meat.

Bison. Slow and huge. A hunter’s best friend. Odd that so many people warned me against hunting them.

Overview

June 5, 1848
We decided to rest for a day. These poor people’s health keeps declining to “fair”. Generous portions, steady pace, what more do these wimps want?

June 15, 1848
Mandy is well again. Yay! Let’s have a party with extra rations all around! Wait, we’re already on “generous” portions! What took you so long to get well?

June 17, 1848
Mandy has a fever.
Why are you so sickly, woman?

June 29, 1848
We have reached Soda Springs. This appears to be a meeting place and trading grounds for fellow trail goers. Do I dare try and trade any of my wagon parts for nonperishable food?

We traded 2 wagon axles for 80 pounds of food. Thos axles were worth $20 each, meaning I just paid fifty cents per pound of nonperishable food. The price seems a bit steep, but what’s the cost of starving to death? You know, other than death?

July 2, 1848
We have reached Fort Hall.

There’s a fort with a general store here and it’s literally three days away from Soda Springs? I lost money on that food for axles trade. If I can find that twerp again I’ll shoot him in the leg.

We visited the store and bought:
1 wagon axle
80 pounds of food
1 set of clothing
We decided to rest for 2 days.

July 7, 1848
No grass for the oxen.

Why the heck does everyone’s health drop randomly from “good” to “fair”? Besides the fact that there’s no water and no grass. I haven’t noticed any pattern or cause and effect to it. Where are we anyway?

July 19, 1848
No water.
We have arrived at the Snake River Crossing.

No water at the Snake River Crossing…so does that mean Snake River is dry? How high is Snake River? That’ll be a test of this game’s continuity. 12 feet deep and 1000 feet across. That’s a big river. This game makes no sense.

July 20, 1848
We had no trouble floating the wagon across. Help from an Indian cost us two sets of clothing. That’s the equivalent of forty bucks. I miss the five dollar ferry.

July 24, 1848
We shot 111 pounds of meat.
Look ma, I just bagged a bear!

Hunting

July 25, 1848
No grass for the oxen.

July 26, 1848
No water.

July 27, 1848
No water.

July 28, 1848
No water.
Why does Idaho not have any water? Maybe potatoes are the cause of all the world’s problems.

We have reached Fort Boise.

August 2, 1848
Kathy has the measles.
“The measles can lead to death, especially among the elderly”. Sigh. If it’s not Mandy it’s someone else. I guess it’s time to take a rest for a few days.

We decided to rest for 3 days.

August 3, 1848
A thief stole 85 pounds of food.

People: this is why we don’t rest.

August 13, 1848
Everyone is in poor health, rather suddenly. What the what. Time to try resting again. If another thief comes I’m going to flip my lid.
We decided to rest for 3 days.

August 21, 1848
We have arrived at the Grande Ronde in the Blue Mountains.
Grande Ronde is quite breathtakingly beautiful in real life. It’s too bad the render in this game makes it look like a pile of irradiated blueberry marshmallow Peeps twinkling in the distance.

Purple Peep Mountains

I’m presented with a choice: Either I can go to Fort Walla Walla to buy supplies or I can take the shortcut to The Dalles. Buying supplies costs money, and I’ll need money to start life in Oregon. Shortcut it is.

August 23, 1848
We lost 41 pounds of food due to spoilage.
Tony is suffering from exhaustion.
We’re all exhausted, Tony.

September 3, 1848
Tony is well again.
Tony looks like a little girl.

TonyGirl

We have reached The Dalles. After talking to the locals, it appears I’ll have the choice of floating down the river on a barge or traveling over the mountain. Pixar movies and my first crashed attempt at Oregon Trail have taught me that rivers are nothing more than wet deathtraps, so we’ll be going over the mountains via the Barlow Toll Road.

September 4, 1848
The trail is impassable. Lost 7 days.
This is just another way of saying “we got lost”. That’s how it looks from the picture, anyway.

Impassable Lost

September 14, 1848
The trail is impassable. Lost 2 days.

This toll road sucks. Whatever I paid to take this route, it was too much.

September 20, 1848
We’re approaching the Willamette Valley, which is rather gloriously rendered by Oregon Trail as two lumpy rocks surrounded by some miniature pine trees. I’d hope it’s more impressive in real life.

WV puny thumbnail

September 25, 1848
VICTORY! I conquered the Oregon Trail after 6 months and 25 days of carrying a wagon full of supplies and several other party members of dead weight!

Willamette Valley

What’s this? I get a score screen? Something tells me the original travelers of the trail didn’t have such a luxury after their journey. 
ScoreScreen

Remember kids, you don’t need to be a doctor or a banker to succeed in life. At least, you don’t need to be one to win in Oregon Trail. No fatalities other than the ox and I get a 2x bonus at the end of it. Think you can beat my score? I’d like to see you try.

How to Play Oregon Trail

Sure it’s an iconic piece of software, but is it a fun game? It can be, depending on your expectations. It’s not what you’d call an easy game, though the game’s developers have tried to make it more accessible over the years. As much as I wanted to see some statistics about the health of my party and how much things like bad water and lack of grass affected them, such statistics wouldn’t make sense in the game world. The game requires you to think through your circumstances and how they would potentially affect your party. I guess it makes sense that people’s health will decline when they’ve had access to nothing but bad water for five days, but I’m still at a loss to explain how and why people break bones so frequently. Considering the base game was programmed in the seventies the depth of the game’s options are still a bit impressive. There are a lot of contributing factors here, and branching paths offer some interesting complexity that makes me want to try playing the game again. I do plan to play some more; partly to see if I can make it to Oregon in less than six months, and partly to see just how catastrophically wrong this trip can go.

I played Oregon Trail version 1.2 for Windows. My wife owns a physical copy of the game, so I copied the contents of the disc to my hard drive and ran the game straight from Windows Explorer. There are multiple copies of the game .exe. The location of the file varies depending on where you copy it, but within the game’s directory it was located in Oregon Trail/OTWIN32/OREGON32.EXE. As I learned the hard way, no compatibility mode is necessary. It is possible to find multiple versions of the game on sites that host abandonware (what is abandonware?), but there are some potential legal and moral implications to this. If gaming with a clear conscience is important to you, consider reading Abandoning Abandonware (Or: How Do You Like Your Piracy?).  To get around any potential issues, you could play the game for free in your browser from the Internet Archive: The Oregon Trail Deluxe 1992 Edition at The Internet Archive.

Doom 3

I’ve had an epiphany. Doom 3 just isn’t a fun game. It’s a sad realization to make since various aspects of the game had so much potential. In the end, none of them really mattered because they just didn’t contribute to an enjoyable experience.

Note: I played through the original release of Doom 3 with one slight tweak: I used a mod that combines Wulfen’s hi-res texture pack and Sikkmod 1.2. It makes the game look a whole lot prettier and offers a lot of optional gameplay tweaks. The only gameplay change I went with was increased run speed because the default run speed is just the worst. 

It’s been said that familiarity breeds contempt. While I can’t vouch for the original context of the saying I can tell you from personal experience that this statement can apply to video games. For me, it applies to Doom 3. After spending at least sixteen hours on a playthrough, many hours of deep and thoughtful analysis, and vainly writing and rewriting thousands of words in an attempt to convey my thoughts on the experience; I’ve had an epiphany. Doom 3 just isn’t a fun game. It’s a sad realization to make since various aspects of the game had so much potential. In the end, none of them really mattered because they just didn’t contribute to an enjoyable experience. Progressing through the game became a chore; a joyless trudge through an unrealized vision. “Playing” felt a lot more like “tolerating”. The breaking point came in a level called Recycling Sector 2, which is less than halfway through the game. There all of Doom 3’s flaws coalesced into a mess of frustration which had me checking my progress to see how much longer I had to suffer through it; but more on that later. Ultimately, Doom 3 falls flat because it tries to be multiple things but doesn’t really nail any of them. It makes a valiant effort to combine story-driven narrative, a tense atmosphere, and frenzied shooting action; but just can’t quite deliver any of those things.

A company-branded PDA that exists solely for exposition? Yup, that’s Doom!

Doom 3 is the first game in the series to make the story a primary focus. As such, the game begins with a combat-free playable introduction to set the events of the game and introduce the player to the world. You arrive on Mars via shuttle and are free to explore portions of the game’s opening environment: Mars City. While your character is nameless and silent, he is still able to interact with other characters and objects in the game world. Walking up to another inhabitant of Mars City will prompt them to deliver a line of dialog, usually one that has to do about how spooked everyone is by the “secret experiments” going on. Select computers and other equipment will allow you use their interfaces to open doors, turn on lights, or perform other ultimately trivial actions. The primary vehicle for delivering the story is through the use of the PDA. In-game PDAs are what we might call tablets or iPads today; they function exactly the same way. Used to store emails, audio logs, and other personal information, you can pick up and access the information contained in any device you happen to come across. It’s an effective way to build the atmosphere of the game, even if there are some clunky aspects to its implementation.

Audio logs can’t be paused, nor do they have a seek function. Since there’s no text transcript you’ll almost always have to remain at a standstill or stare at the PDA until the log finishes playing to be sure gameplay sounds don’t overlap the audio recording and cause you to miss something by accident. Quite frequently audio logs will contain access codes for storage lockers which contain ammo or other items, which is handy, but it highlights another limitation of the PDA. Since all of the information is all stored according to the names of the characters who owned the device, there’s no way to filter or search for specific content within these logs. For example: If you encounter a given storage locker, the only way for you to know if you have the access code for it is if you remember that specific locker being mentioned in one of the PDAs you previously picked up. The game seems to realize this kind of information would be cumbersome to keep track of, and the end result is that most PDAs will be discovered ridiculously short distances away from whatever thing the PDA would provide access to. Even with their shortcomings I actually love how using the PDAs builds the world within the game. It makes you stop and imagine what the “normal” game world might have been like before things went terribly wrong.

What's the point of the access code? Why not just give me the ammo?
They may as well have just left the locker open…

Contributing to the sense of world-building, the visuals do more than their part to immerse you in Doom 3’s version of Mars. While the original release of the game looks pretty good overall, there are some downright muddy or chunky-looking spots. The more you focus on those spots the worse they look, with many detailed surfaces looking downright terrible when you get close enough to them. If you play the game now, you need the texture mod I linked to at the top of the post. Thankfully, Doom 3’s lighting effects are truly timeless and serve as the major source of the game’s atmosphere. Now when I say “lighting effects” what I really mean is “shadow effects”. Make no mistake: Doom 3 is dark. There’s a reason UAC space marines are given flashlights as a standard issue: their bases apparently have a low lighting budget.

Notice the updated textures are less "chunky", and that there's more depth to the surfaces.
Notice the updated textures are less “chunky”, and that there’s more depth to the surfaces.

Quite frequently the only option available to help you find your way is to holster your weapon, pull out the trusty flashlight, and navigate through the darkness. Yes, you read that correctly: You can’t use your gun and the flashlight at the same time. This intentional design decision has been almost universally panned by reviewers and gamers ever since the game’s release. The year is 2145, surely the capability exists to outfit soldiers with some kind of hands-free lighting device? Sure it’s possible, but it just wouldn’t fit the game. The developers must have felt, and I agree, that giving the player both a flashlight and a gun at the same time was too empowering. Darkness is used as a method to control the player; something to maximize the feeling of helplessness and thus emphasizing the tension.

And tension, really, is the focus of this game. Doom 3 does everything it can to create a horrifying experience for its players, even though its legendary predecessors consisted of nothing but over the top action. All of the members of the demon horde you remember from the first two games are present here, though now they are presented with the objective of instilling fear in the player. Most new enemies are introduced via a dramatic scripted cinematic, which attempts to highlight the specific, unique threats each enemy introduces rather than lumping them all into the category of “mindless cannon fodder.” You’ll rarely engage more than three or four enemies simultaneously, and one could interpret this as an intentional decision designed to reinforce each demon’s perceived threat. It may sound like sacrilege to diehard Doom fans who are used to running full-tilt and firing thousands of bullets at legions of enemies in a single level, but the new approach of Doom 3 actually works. For a while. The first few hours of the game are unforgettable. You’ll genuinely feel tense as you explore Mars base, searching for whichever route will let you progress forward. For a while demons seemingly pop up out of nowhere, sending your heart racing. And then after a few hours of gameplay the realization hits: the demons do literally pop up out of nowhere!

MonsterClosetThe term “monster closet” was coined to describe a room or space in a game’s environment that serves no other purpose than to hide an enemy and put the player at a disadvantage when it is revealed. Monster closets are Doom 3’s mantra. Demons behind doors, demons behind walls, demons under the floor, demons in the ceiling, demons in the shadows, and sometimes for good measure demons will just appear from a spontaneously generated and conspicuous haze of orange plasma. It’s an element that works well in the opening stages of the game to generate heart-stopping scares before the player learns to expect them. There are some genuinely frightening moments there, but the more frequently they occur the more you notice just how scripted these once-scary moments are. These aren’t organic encounters; the result of a player being put in a “genuinely” scary environment with monsters that have their own agenda. No, this is a virtual haunted house where every scare and every surprise is carefully designed in an attempt to elicit a response of fear from the player.  Eventually you’ll learn to recognize the warning signs of these scripted scares, at which point you’ll loathe the moment and fear will be replaced by annoyance.

Monster closets and surprise encounters worked in the early 90s with the original Doom because the game was abstract enough that none of these tricks felt out of place. Sure there were alcoves and hidden enemies galore, but they were fitting considering you were essentially running through a virtual haunted house – with guns. Doom took a certain pride in its cheap scares and traps because they never proclaimed to be anything other than that. In Doom 3, where the player is supposed to be traversing a cohesive and coherent world, every scripted encounter feels like a cheap shot. This scripting ultimately chips away at the established atmosphere and takes you out of the game’s world. Mars Base turns into one boring corridor after another where your only thing tested is your ability to guess which door the monster is hiding behind and how fast you can get your finger on the trigger. Due to the understandably claustrophobic level design, your only option in a firefight is to backpedal slightly and hope you’re spraying enough ammo forward that the enemies die before you do. There are no tactical options available here. There’s no room to run and gun, especially since the game will repeatedly lock you in the same enclosed area as the newly spawned enemies. With no room to maneuver, even two measly imps can kill you in about 20 seconds flat. If it doesn’t sound fun, that’s because it isn’t.

"Here we see a Revenant far outside of its natural corridor-dwelling habitat"
“Here we see a Revenant far outside of its natural corridor-dwelling habitat”

Games are supposed to be fun, and I couldn’t deny that Doom 3 was starting to become quite wearisome about a third of the way through. Wearisome, but not intolerable. I kept telling myself that any moment now, some new mechanic or monster or element would be introduced to add some enjoyment back into the game. When I got to what I thought was going to be the monorail sky bridge, the corridor collapsed in front of me and dumped me on the martian surface. What’s this? Is the game really going to let me freely walk around a wide-open space? And blast enemies that are more than ten feet away? Is this the change I was hoping for? Hoping against hope, I began to believe the game was going to open up a bit and offer some more spacious encounters. My oxygen supply is finite and rapidly running out, but at least there’s a certain freedom of movement here. All too soon I had vanquished the few enemies present in the outdoor arena and was left furiously hunting for air canisters so I don’t suffocate. After a few more moments I make my way to an airlock and return to the claustrophobic corridors I’d begun to loathe. But surely this first experience in a larger area was a sign of things to come!

Doom3 2016-04-10 18-59-23-14
Oh look, poisonous gas. Too bad I don’t have a self-contained air supply. Wait a minute, I do! Why is this a problem?

No. No it wasn’t. Turns out my trip to the great martian outdoors was just an inconvenient detour before traversing back to more deadly enclosed spaces. I had just entered Recycling Sector 2, where it all falls apart. A scripted sequence in the opening moments of the level reveals that Malcom Betruger, the game’s main villain, has been endowed with some sort of evil powers and is now directing the legion of hell to find and destroy you. He has apparently realized that you, the unnamed marine, are the only potential threat to his nefarious plans and wants you dead immediately. He somehow causes the environmental controls of the Recycling Sector to fill the air with toxic gasses in an attempt to suffocate you. Yes, you read that right. Less than ten minutes of game time after your combat suit with its supply of fresh air allows you to battle hellspawn on the surface of Mars, the game’s main villain tries to poison you with gas. Why didn’t our major villain know this, and why can’t I now use my independent air supply to survive indoors? Just as my mind is trying to find the explanation for this logical error, the old man starts yelling into my headphones. Apparently one of Betruger’s super demonic powers gives him the ability to project his voice anywhere on Mars because he now talks to you, hurling insults or other scary phrases at you in random moments. Here’s a sampling of the supposedly menacing dialog:

“Your soul will be MINE!”

“Making progress marine? Your journey is futile. You will die, and your soul will be MINE!”

“My patience with you is wearing thin.”

“Look around you marine, everyone is dead! And soon you will join them.”

“Your friends are with me now. Soon, you will join them.” 

The meaning lurking underneath the surface of these quotes brings two surprisingly relevant questions to my mind. The first one is: Who are these friends of mine that Betruger has supposedly already claimed? The character you play has no name and no backstory. He’s a new transfer to Mars Base and knows nobody on the entire planet. Why on earth would they include a line like this in the game? Am I supposed to have felt some kind of connection with one of the other characters introduced by the game? Or is this a subliminal attempt to get the player thinking about his own friends in real life, and project the fear of loss onto them? Unless the developers were extremely certain their psychological experiment would work, I really can’t understand how these lines made it into the game. From what I can figure, the best case scenario is that this was the result of some horribly sloppy writing that nobody fully thought through.

The other question is: what exactly is hell in the world of Doom 3? Obviously it would have to exist as some sort of literal, physical place, but what is it? What are the demons doing in hell? Who is in charge? Why does the leader of hell need to give Betruger any authority or control of invading Mars? Why do the residents of hell need a human-made teleporter to get to Mars? If the demons can flood Mars via some sort of portal, why do they need to take spaceships to get to earth? (Using spaceships to get to earth was supposed to be a major plot point prior to the Recycling Center). Why can’t they just use the teleporters to get there? Considering the human world of Mars is rather meticulously mapped and planned out, it’s rather jarring that hell exists just for the sake of existing. Some of these questions may be answered in the PDAs scattered about the later levels, but considering how much impact the answers to these questions would have on creating a cohesive story I’m surprised they wouldn’t be more overt.

Doom3 2016-04-17 18-08-21-70
At least hell has interesting art direction.
Apparently in the ancient martian language, "cube" meant horribly spiky murdery thing".
Apparently in the ancient martian language, “cube” meant “horribly spiky murdery thing”.

Coming into the game too late to make much of a difference, is a genuinely interesting story thread about archeological ruins found on Mars. As it turns out, there was an advanced alien civilization that used to reside on Mars. This civilization used a combination of their sciences and religions to use portals for traveling to the different planets in our solar system. At some point in their history this alien species also accidentally opened a portal to hell. Various PDAs and computer terminals will provide details unearthed about this society and how they struggled against the demons. Eventually, this race sacrificed itself to create a weapon capable of killing the demons and closing the portal to hell. Say hello to the Soul Cube. The alien weapon may actually be the most interesting gameplay mechanic in all of Doom 3. In order to use it, you must first “charge” it by killing five other demons. Once it’s charged you can use it to instantly kill any other enemy and transfer its health directly to you. It brings a sorely needed element of strategy to the close-quarters firefights. No longer are you just pressing the fire key, you’re actively picking out the weakest targets first so you can use a charged Soul Cube to take out the more powerful foes. It’s a shame neither the alien backstory nor the Soul Cube is introduced until the last quarter of the game.

There’s a lot I could still say about the gameplay of Doom 3, but I feel like it would just be a waste of words. The story had potential, but it unfolds too slowly for you to really care about it. The atmosphere is, up to a point, incredible. There are plenty of fun and entertaining elements present, but you’ll experience almost all of them before the game is a quarter finished. If Doom 3 got anything right, you would expect it to be the shooty bits, but that’s not the case. There’s a reason I didn’t talk about the game’s weapons; nearly all of them are pathetic, and none of them are fun to use. The gameplay might be passable in small doses, but the thematic and story miscues really put the nail in the coffin for me. If it’s horror and action your looking for, there are other games to spend your time and money on. Doom 3 does have an expansion called Resurrection of Evil which contains new content and supposedly remedies a lot of the issues I have with the original game, but it will be quite some time before I’m ready to step into the world of Doom 3 again. Until then, I’m going to spend some time on games that are actually enjoyable.

 

Dark Souls Journal #01 – What Have I Done?

Dark Souls – A Journal is a running series chronicling my experience in a blind playthrough of Dark Souls

Why did I sign up for this? No, really: What did I get into? Or the more accurate question would be: Who got me into this? […] “Try it”, they said. “You’ll love it”, they said. Of course I’d heard of Dark Souls before, I just never had a reason to care.

Dark Souls – A Journal is a running series chronicling my experience in a blind playthrough* of Dark Souls

*Blind playthough means I’m not consulting any external guides or tutorials for hints or tips about how to play the game. All I have is the game and its manual.

Why did I sign up for this? No, really: What did I get into? Or the more accurate question would be: Who got me into this? I blame Zachery and Brandon from the Facebook group I’m a part of, Theology Gaming University. “Try it”, they said. “You’ll love it”, they said. Of course I’d heard of Dark Souls before, I just never had a reason to care. Anyone who has been around gaming even a little but over the past few years has heard of Dark Souls. It’s a game made by a Japanese developer and released to consoles in 2011, and later made its way to the PC in 2012. So what exactly is it? Over the years I’d seen a lot of coverage of the game but never really paid it any mind because it just didn’t seem like it was my thing. Big guys in armor swinging swords. Torches and castles. No lasers or spaceships. No humor. Supposedly punishing difficulty. Story and background history told in an overt manner. The impression I got is that it was difficult hack ‘n’ slash game made to punish anyone brave enough to give it a try.

Turns out I may not have been too far off the mark on that assessment.

20160509203333_1I got the game for $5 during a recent sale at the Humble Store, donating my 5% Humble Tip to the Wounded Warrior Project. After doing a bit of research I found an excellent  guide to configuring the game at the Dark Souls subReddit. While you don’t have to do everything recommended there, DSfix is an absolute must to get the game running properly. I also went for an HD texture pack and font upgrades.

The first time I started the game I got some weird graphical glitches where the HUD was fullscreen, but the gameplay was only showing in the top left corner of the screen. Turns out that was a result of me not fully reading the instructions for DSfix. I didn’t disable Anti-Aliasing from the in-game menu like I was supposed to. Who knew it would make that much difference?

Starting a new game brings you to a character creation screen where you can choose your class, talents, gifts, and a few other attributes. Not having any idea what differences any of these would really make I went with the Wanderer. If I’m given the option I usually try to pick something that might approximately apply to me, and I certainly don’t have the traits of a soldier or a magician. Picking a “Large” physique character who walks around a lot and carries a cool-looking curved sword seemed to make the most sense to me.

20160510064341_1There is an impressive opening cinematic that lays out some interesting-looking history from the world of Dark Souls, but as far as I could tell there wasn’t any context for how my character fit into the grand scheme of things. When I took control of the game my character was locked in a cell, and someone tossed me a key to allow my escape. The only tool afforded me to help in my escape was the hilt of a sword. Not the sword’s blade, or a knife, or anything sharp, but a handle. Why do I get the impression this is a sign of things to come? For some reason I’m a prisoner in the Northern Undead Asylum and I look decidedly less than human. Am I dead? How did I get to the asylum? Why am I escaping? I didn’t grab any screenshots of this opening level because I was too busy mashing buttons on my controller and trying to stay alive. Things didn’t seem to difficult at first; I think I only died once in the tutorial level. After beating the tutorial’s boss a giant raven grabbed me and flew me to what I assume is the main game’s world.

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Hints and other messages are littered throughout the game in the form of glowing scratch marks.

The raven dropped me in Firelink Shrine, an interesting-looking little place. There are ruins strewn about. There’s a guy loitering near the fire who tells me about two bells; one in a high place and the other someplace down below. The implication is that I’m supposed to go to one of or both of those places and ring some bells. So there’s death, darkness, undead, demons, and now bells are involved. Great. I hate bells.

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You’ll see this screen an awful lot.


There may be multiple paths of progression from here, but nothing really stands out. The most obvious one to me involves some stairs that make a winding descent, eventually leading to an elevator that goes down even further. Eventually I wind up at a place called New Londo Ruins. Visually, it’s a pretty place as far as ruins go. Crumbled structres loom in front of a dark blue haze, backlight by a far-off light source. There are some apparently distracted and quite weak zombie dudes, and so far the ruins don’t seem too bad or too hard to go through. After slicing and dicing my way through a dozen or so brain-dead undead I notice that each enemy I kill makes a counter in the bottom-right of the screen go up. Each enemy has a value or something. Come to find out that somehow I’m collecting “souls” from my slain enemies and this is some kind of in-game currency. Morbid, but I guess that’s why the game is called Dark Souls, and not Happy Fun Souls.

Eventually I make my way to the edge of a giant subterranean pond with wood walkways sprawling out before me. Just before the first walkway is one of those helpful glowing hints that says something like: “Bravery: 1 Required”. I check my stats to see if I have any bravery. …no, it doesn’t look like it. Well, let’s go forward anyway; I’m sure it’s just a suggestion! A few steps down the path I encounter two ghosts. How hard can this be? Whoa! They can reach out like the creepy ghost that stole the baby in Ghostbusters 2! I wonder if I can try to mo-YOU DIED.

Well crud. Brutally throttled in the back by an undead vapor. I don’t think I even landed one hit on those guys. I respawn at the bonfire at the top of Firelink Shrine and do the same thing again. Once I hit the ground floor it quite literally hits me: enemies don’t stay dead. Every time I respawn, either from death or resuming a saved game, every enemy respawns back in the game world no matter how many times you’ve already mowed through them. That’s just rough.

Searching through my inventory I find a curse or something that says it allows me to engage in fights against ghosts, and I just so happened to be carrying two of them. Armed with this new knowledge I rush back to the depths only to find out they don’t help, I still died. Twice. Though those last two times I didn’t die quite so quickly. That’s progress, right? I think the game is trying to tell me that progressing through the New Londo Ruins is not what I’m supposed to be doing. Surely there must be some other avenue to take? We’ll find out.

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Those glowing orange marks contain helpful game wisdom and encouragement. It gives me the warm fuzzies inside.