Enter the Gungeon Makes Failing Fun!

Most of your enemies are bullets, and I mean that literally. Enemies are sentient bullets that move and fire guns. Which, in turn, send actual bullets in your direction. I couldn’t make this stuff up.

I don’t know if I have what it takes to beat Enter the Gungeon. It’s possible for skilled players to complete a run through the game’s six levels in under an hour. I am not a skilled player, at least not yet. A few moments ago, my sixtieth run at the game ended once again in failure. This time I was killed by the Bullet King, who I consider to be the easiest first-level boss. After reading the details on the game-over screen, I unconsciously tapped the button to immediately begin again. It’s a strange thing, because repeated failure doesn’t typically make games fun to play. And yet, after sixty attempts and twelve hours of play time I want to keep playing.

This is the end of attempt #60. I died after 6 minutes and 38 seconds, with 53 kills in this attempt.

Gungeon is a deceptively simple game. It’s easy to play, especially with a controller. Left stick to move, right stick to aim. Different buttons fire, reload, dodge, and use items. Your objective: fight through an enemy-filled fortress in pursuit of a powerful artifact. Every level of the fortress is filled to the brim with those who would do you harm. They all protect the treasure contained within: a gun that can kill the past. This relic can be used to make what was done, undone. Simply put, this gun gives the one who wields it the ability to erase their failures from the past. You control any of four characters, the Marine, the Convict, the Pilot, or the Hunter. Each of them has a past that must be erased; tragedies and failures that must be set right. Only the most haunting of pasts can possibly be motivation enough to face what lies inside the Gungeon.

I absolutely love the pixel art style of the game.

Most of your enemies are bullets, and I mean that literally. Enemies are sentient bullets that move and fire guns. Which, in turn, send actual bullets in your direction. I couldn’t make this stuff up. The simple controls allow you to devote your focus on the delicate and frenetic combat. Different classes of enemies have their own types of weapons and movement patterns. Some fire single, slow-moving projectiles. Others wind up and unleash a wall of bullets. My least favorite charge directly towards you and explode spectacularly. The hazards of the Gungeon prove that situational awareness is just as important as your reflexes. It’s a bad idea to be in corner when a Gun Nut unleashes a barrages of angry red projectiles in your direction.

Shooting at bullets is ridiculously fun thanks to the lighthearted tone of the game as well as the varied and frequently tongue-in-cheek weapon design. Every gun, and there are a lot, has different strengths and weaknesses. Many of them are utterly entertaining to use, even if they aren’t entirely effective. For instance, The Bullet is a bullet. It fires guns. That also fire bullets. It’s asinine in the most entertaining of ways. My favorite weapon so far has to be the Lower Case r. Instead of firing bullets, it fires out letters that spell out the word “bullet”. Score a hit on an enemy, and instead of an explosion you’ll see the word “BLAM!” in glowing orange text. The Wind Up Gun is a homage to Futurama. It’s a blue rifle that shoots green projectiles and plays “Pop Goes the Weasel” as you wind the crank to reload it. I’ve also come across weapons such as a camera, a garbage gun, an M1, a mer-shotgun (a shotgun with a mermaid tail that shoots deadly water), a dripping barrel that fires deadly fish, the Thompson Machine Gun, shotguns, and the Klobbe; a fantastically useless weapon.The glee of using some of these more than makes up for the untimely deaths I suffer when wielding them.

Look carefully. I’m not firing off bullets, I’m shooting off letters.

Knowing when not to shoot is just as important as accurately unloading a magazine of bullets, rockets, letters, or fish. Your primary defense against the enemy onslaught is the dodge roll. Timed correctly, it will vault you safely over nearly any glowing red orb of death. Used recklessly, it’s just as effective at placing you in harm’s way. Boss encounters are usually a battle against one large enemy that can literally fill a room with unfriendly fire. These encounters are slowly teaching me that it’s okay not to be firing at enemies all the time. Sometimes the best thing to do is stop pulling the trigger and focus on not getting hit.

This is what they call “bullet heck”.

Gungeon is a punishing roguelike experience. This means that each level is procedurally generated. While every floor of the Gungeon will contain similar elements, the level layout, enemy makeup, and item drops will be different every time. Roguelike also means that permadeath is the name of the game. Die on level three, and you start again on level one. Though I must note that you don’t start completely from scratch after every death. Through the course of the game, you encounter other characters in the fortress. Setting them free allows them to set up shop in the game’s central hub so you can interact with them before starting a run. They offer special items or other quests to complete in return for rewards. Defeating bosses will give you a glowing green currency that survives permadeath. This currency can then be used to unlock new weapons and equipment that will show up as drops in the Gungeon in future attempts.

This is not a game that’s meant to be rushed through. Nobody will sit down and breeze through to the final boss in an hour or two. Instead, Gungeon will sit installed on my hard drive for weeks and months. Over time I’ll chip away at it bit by bit, making one hard-earned step of progress at a time. I don’t know how long it will take for me to kill the past, but I know I’m going to have fun trying.

I’m dead. Doesn’t this look fun??

Exploding Gracefully in Multiplayer Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak

Thinking I had a decent grasp of the basics, I loaded up the game and headed over to the multiplayer lobby. After a short wait the matchmaking service drops me into an arena with a foe named Sinistro. He begins the match with some friendly chat, “So how many online games have you played?” Knowing that my newness to the game will be exhibited in how poorly I play, I tell him, “Including this one… One.” He responds with a greeting of welcome, capped off with a smiley face. I take the gesture of politeness to mean I won’t be destroyed instantly.

While it can be intimidating to play any game online against real people for the first time, real-time strategy (RTS) games have a reputation for being more intimidating than most. This is partly because the difference between victory and defeat in an online RTS match comes down to efficiency. Knowing what to do and when to do it are the keys to victory. There is little margin for error, and mistakes are punished. Despite all of this I decided Friday evening to play my first ever online match of Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak (DoK). The game’s developers were celebrating its one-year anniversary and broadcast an open invitation for people to come and play the game with them.

If you’re not familiar with it, DoK is a RTS game developed by Blackbird Interactive. It’s a ground-based prequel to 1999’s legendary space-bound Homeworld. The core elements of multiplayer matches are much like that of other RTS games, with a few special twists. Multiplayer consists of you and your army versus your opponent and their army. Each army has a “hero” unit called a carrier. The carrier houses resource processing, production facilities, and research labs. From it you construct new units and run your war campaign. Build an army and annihilate your enemy’s carrier to win the game. One of the fun twists of DoK is that games can also be won by what’s called artifact retrieval. On each map there are three central locations that house artifacts, glowing purple orbs of special significance that appear after a time limit is reached. If either player can retrieve five artifacts and transfer them to a designated extraction zone, that player wins the game. This is easier said than done since there’s only one type of unit, a Baserunner, that can pick up an artifact and carry it to the extraction zone. Baserunners are slow and fragile, and don’t offer any significant offensive or defensive capabilities. It takes skill and cunning to retrieve artifacts, but it can be done. To me, the thing that sets DoK apart from other games is its smaller-scale battles and highly strategic gameplay.

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My home base is at the bottom in blue, my enemy up top in red. The artifacts are the three blue icons in a row across the center of the map. The two extraction zones are the right and left sides of the map.

Thinking I had a decent grasp of the basics, I loaded up the game and headed over to the multiplayer lobby. After a short wait the matchmaking service drops me into an arena with a foe named Sinistro. He begins the match with some friendly chat, “So how many online games have you played?” Knowing that my newness to the game will be exhibited in how well poorly I play, I tell him, “Including this one… One.” He responds with a greeting of welcome, capped off with a smiley face. I take the gesture of politeness to mean I won’t be destroyed instantly. Knowing that it’s my first online game ever, my opponent chats to check in on me a few minutes into our match. “Have you expanded yet?,” he asks. Expanded? Expanded what? I respond to confirm my ignorance, fully embracing the fact that I have no clue what I’m doing. Graciously, my opponent relays concise instructions about how to expand my resource gathering operation. More resources means I can build more units, and more units means I may be able to put up a fight. That makes sense. I do what he says. For the next couple of minutes I make a few groups of units and send them around the map to do their thing. None of them return to base. Each of them destroyed by my well-prepared adversary. For each mistake I make, Sinistro shares tips about how to do things better next time. He even lets me steal an artifact and blow up a few of his units so my pride has a chance to recover. But like the helpless mouse being played with by a hungry cat, I know my demise is coming. My expanded resourcing operation radios in a distress call, “Enemy units spotted!” I pan the camera over to it and see three dozen enemy land and air units pop into the edge of my sensor range. Explosions burst from every direction and my resourcing operation is laid to waste. Ninety seconds later my carrier explodes in a flash of white light, transformed into a smoldering pile of rubble. Game over.

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See all of those ships with the red bars above them? Enemies! See the big ship with a giant explosion coming out of it? That’s mine… It’s not in good shape.

So went my introduction to the world of online play in DoK. My first match ever lasted twenty-three minutes and fifty seconds, though my opponent could have easily laid waste to me in half that time. Many thanks for Sinistro to being a class act and showing me the ropes!

My second and third matches of online DoK went much better than the first. I was able to play in team matches with employees from both Blackbird Interactive and Gearbox Software, as well as other gamers in the community. I blew up some enemy units. I recovered some artifacts. I didn’t die instantly. It was a good night. While my experience confirmed to me that the game is a blast to play, the bigger impression was left by the helpful and friendly community. They’re enthusiastic about a great game and very welcoming towards newcomers. Check out the links below if you’d like to check things out for yourself. If you’re looking for a smaller-scale RTS game to play online against some friendly folks, DoK might be the game for you.

NOTE: DoK has an excellent single-player campaign that shouldn’t be missed. I’ll be writing a feature about that sometime in the near future. 

Where to buy:

Steam – $49.99

Community Involvement:

Deserts of Kharak Subreddit

Unofficial Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak Discord

Screenshot Mini-Gallery

Giving Peace a Chance

[…] I’m going to try and avoid “video game violence” for a month. It’s not my goal to make any kind of a statement by avoiding any particular games. Rather my pledge is simply a response to an observation that most of my preferred games focus on destruction. I want to go a month focused on construction. I want to build some worlds instead of tearing them down.

In my previous article, I pledged to go the month of September avoiding games where “acting as an agent of violence is not the main focus.” As August rapidly draws to a close I now have to figure out what exactly I meant. Working off the assumptions most people make, avoiding violent video games should be a pretty straightforward affair. Especially after some informal polling revealed the common perception of what constitutes a violent video game: guns, explosions, blood, and guts. Four things I love in in a video game and I’ve got to go a month without them. But perhaps it’s more complicated than that. Before I can go a month without something, I have to define exactly what it is I’m supposed to avoid. My pledge is to avoid violence, not just shooters. To help in my quest I turn to the ever-present Google to help me define what, exactly, violence is:


Violence
vi·o·lence
ˈvī(ə)ləns
noun

  1. behavior involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something


So as it turns out, virtual violence can involve quite a bit more than pulling the trigger of a virtual gun. There are scores of games that not only allow, but require and encourage the player to engage in willful acts of violence in order to progress through the game. The majority of games which I tend to play operate off some setup where the player is directly responsible for violent actions within a game. That is to say, the player exhibits control of an in-game entity to inflict some kind of action at a one to one ratio with the control scheme. First-person shooters are a good example of this, where specific control inputs from the player result in weapon discharges. Controls in fighting games result in various kicks, punches, or other methods of attack. The same principle applies to games where the player controls a vehicle, be it a combat simulation or an aggressive racing event. Defined as such, Burnout: Paradise qualifies as violent since the player is actively encouraged to use his vehicle to damage, disable, and destroy his opponents. But what about games where the player doesn’t directly carry out violent acts? Is a first-person shooter any more or less violent than strategy games which allow you to control scores of troops in large-scale battles? Is it still violence when clicks of a mouse order dozens or hundreds of digital soldiers to go and wipe out dozens or hundreds of enemy troops? If violence can be simply defined as willful intent to cause damage to something, then the vast majority of video games can be classified as violent.

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“Virtual men, go blow some stuff up!”

Perhaps player intent, and not just the intent of the game developers, can make the difference between certain games being violent or not. When I was a teenager I used to play a licensed NASCAR racing game. NASCAR done right is about as non-violent as you could get. Big blocky cars get on a track and make left-hand turns for hours. No violence there! My teenage brain grew bored of such things very quickly and soon demanded that I drive against the flow of traffic and try to wreck as many cars as possible before my own was battered beyond repair. Because I abused the intention of the game, I turned a non-violent racing game into a carnage simulator. Kerbal Space Program is a sandbox universe where you build giant rockets to explore. Sometimes, you just want to see what happens when you crash a rocket ship into a building! Instruments of science become vehicles of destruction. Even the bright and cheery Roller Coaster Tycoon, one of the more joyous games I’ve ever played, contains death and destruction. Roller coaster crashes, resulting either from poor design or malevolence, fill your screen with large explosions and numerous deaths.

And I’m going to try and avoid all that for a month. Not only am I going to shun games which encourage violence, I’m going to play non-violent games properly in order avoid causing violent events if at all possible. It’s not my goal to make any kind of a statement by avoiding any particular games. Rather my pledge is simply a response to an observation that most of my preferred games focus on destruction. I want to go a month focused on construction. I want to build some worlds instead of tearing them down. I want to discover a story, not shoot my way through it. After many years of training my brain to know that video games are all about blowing stuff up, I’m giving myself a reminder that gaming is also about creating and exploring wonders.

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Building a roller coaster with a jump in the tracks and naming it “Death Trap!” does not qualify as an act of non-violent creation.

More Than Violence?

Blowing stuff up in video games makes me happy. To put it another more controversial way, I enjoy the virtual violence in video games. This revelation came to me about the same time I noticed I’d spent fifty-three hours in id Software’s best shooter, RAGE. Fifty-three hours is a significant amount of time to devote to any game and so I began to wonder just what it was about this one that’s kept my attention for so many hours. Simply put, It’s just fun to shoot stuff. Not only do I get to play with pistols, shotguns, crossbows, and rocket launchers; each with their own sets of alternate ammo; the game also gives me three-bladed boomerangs of death called wingsticks! RAGE contains a myriad of ways to make things die, but that in itself isn’t anything unique. It’s how your enemies bite the bullet that makes the combat or RAGE satisfying. Shoot them in the leg and they’ll stumble as their momentum carries them. Hit their arm and their torso will twist as they absorb the impact. Shoot them in the face and they’ll drop their weapons as they clutch their head with their hands. Violent, but oh so much fun!

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See how much fun we’re having?

My subconscious, realizing it had spent fifty-three hours in this particular bloodthirsty environment, triggered my brain to ask a question: Why do these kinds of action-packed games have such a strong appeal to me? A large part of it is the “action hero fantasy”, wherein I’m given the poise and ability to save the day in impossible situations I’d never encounter otherwise. But on a simpler level I think I can say that action games count as a form of recreational problem solving. This is especially true, if not a bit abstract, in the genre of first-person shooters. “Problems” in these games usually consist of heavily armed bad guys / robots / aliens that need “solving” with copious amounts of gunplay and explosions. It’s a simple way to look at it, but it really does appeal to the aspect of my personality that wants an immediate solution to every problem. Enemy? Boom! Save the world? Boom! I’ve been presented with both a problem and an explode-y way of solving it. What’s wrong with that?

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Got a problem? Yo, I’ll solve it. Here, have some lead from my Magnum revolver.  (Apologies to Vanilla Ice).

Playing as a one-man army to save the world is all well and good, however I often wonder if I’m missing out on other great gaming experiences that maybe aren’t so explosive. Over the years I’ve trained my mind to associate the phrase “video game” with “shooter”. It’s time for me to branch out and challenge myself a little bit. I’m going to retrain my mind and reclaim the phrase “video games” so it means simply “video games”. Therefore during month of September in the year two-thousand sixteen, I vow to go the entire month playing games where acting as an agent of violence is not the main focus. Disallowed are any games where the player takes control of a character or vehicle(s) for the sole purpose of discharging weapons or causing destruction. Games which feature incidental destruction as a result of gameplay mechanics are allowed.

Will I make it the entire month without slipping up? Will I end up playing Kerbal Space Program for the sole purpose of trying to explode those little green space frogs? Perhaps I’ll discover and fall in love with an entire genre of games I had previously never given a second thought to.

I hope my gaming library has enough nonviolent games to last me a whole month…

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Don’t you worry, little space frog; I won’t explode you! Maybe.

Dark Souls Journal #02 – Losing Battles but Controlling Myself

Dark Souls 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.

Read previous entries in this series: Part 1

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At first glance, Undead Burg doesn’t appear to be anywhere near as dreary as its name would suggest. First impressions can be deceiving. The bright and cheery skyline visible in the screenshot above quickly become obscured by dark stone walls, forcing me into conflict with the permanent residents of this particular burg. I can only assume that this is the path I’m supposed to take early in the game, seeing as every other avenue I tried saw me skewered in a matter of moments. If my assumptions are correct, then this twisted medieval version of suburbia is the player’s “real” initiation into the world of Dark Souls. If you can survive here, then you just might have what it takes to survive farther into the game.

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I don’t know if I have what it takes to survive farther into the game.

After a half dozen enemy encounters with results ranging from limping victory to terrible bloodbath, I realize that I still have no clue what I’m doing. Let me give you an example: Undead Burg has a shopkeeper where you can trade items and buy supplies. I accidentally killed him. In the fifteen to twenty minutes it took me to battle from the burg’s entrance to his shop my mind was in a state of combat readiness. When I stumbled into his shop, hidden behind a mess of crates and barrels I was on edge and ready to respond to the slightest stimuli with a flurry of violence. That poor shopkeeper thought the best thing he could to do a well-armed traveler that bursts through the door is start talking. I had to respond somehow. I pressed a button that I thought was supposed to initiate interaction, but I pressed the wrong one and whipped a throwing knife at his face. He doesn’t want to sell me things anymore. In one enraged motion, he came crashing through his table and lunged towards me. I’m forced to defend myself against who I assume is the only one able to sell me supplies in this location. This shop is now closed permanently. No friends do I have in Undead Burg. All because I pressed the wrong button.

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Controls, controls, I must learn the controls. If you ever want to play the PC version Dark Souls for yourself be forewarned that using the mouse and keyboard is horrible and clunky. That’s why I’m playing with a wireless Xbox 360 controller. For the most part, the default layout seems pretty intuitive. The left stick moves my character. the right rotates the camera. Clicking the right stick will snap the camera to face the same direction as my character. Clicking the right stick in close proximity to an enemy will “lock on” to that particular foe, making them easier to track in the heat of combat. The front bumpers and triggers correspond somewhat to the left and right sides of my character’s body. My character’s left arm holds a shield. The left bumper brings up the shield for a block, left trigger swipes the shield in an attack. My character’s right arm is used for offense. Press the right bumper for a light attack that you can recover from quickly, use the right trigger launches a heavy attack appropriate for the type of weapon currently wielded. The D-pad corresponds to four inventory slots. Pressing a given direction allows you to equip or unequip items in that slot.

Moving on to the face buttons: Y will switch between a one-handed or a two-handed combat stance. When using a two-handed stance pressing either the left trigger or left bumper will allow you to use your sword to block. Pressing B while motionless allows you to jump backward, or roll in whichever direction you happen to be moving. Holding B down allows me to sprint. While sprinting, press B again to jump. X uses whatever item is currently equipped. A. What does A do? Aside from using it to confirm selections in the menu I haven’t stumbled upon any use for the A button. I hope I haven’t missed anything important.

Select brings up the gesture menu, allowing me to trigger various poses that I can’t quite understand the use for:

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Pressing Start brings up the standard in-game menu. Not so standard is the realization that bringing up the start menu does not pause the game. On more than one occasion I’ve brought up the menu to change a setting or check the options, only to have an enemy wander towards me from off camera and start pounding me. I vainly start mashing my attack and defend buttons only for my character to stand motionless and take his punishment. Lesson to be learned: Combat does not work with the menu is open. I can’t tell why the game was developed this way. Probably to punish poor saps like me who just have trouble figuring things out.

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Hopefully, familiarizing myself more with the control scheme will make me ever so slightly more efficient in combat. I’ve been stuck in Undead Burg for a while now and have only managed to light one bonfire at what I presume to be the halfway point. By now I’ve tried to progress through the city about a dozen times, dying with alarming frequency. For a while I manage to hold my own against the undead masses. Each battle may be hard and furious, but I can usually take out a few groups of enemies and restore myself to nearly full health with a drink from my Estus Flask. My confidence starts to wane when I approach an unsettling trio of skeletons, each armed with a long pike and shields that look like they’ve been carved from solid granite. They’re different from the mindless drones I’ve had to plow through until now. Backing slowly away from the group, one follows me up a stairwell and paces side to side slowly. He’s taunting me, waiting for me to make the first move.

Patrol

I make the first move. I die.

Thinking that maybe I ought to try a weapon other than my light but fast curved scimitar, I try to equip a broadsword.

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Nope, can’t use that one with only one hand. My strength stats are too low so this is something I have to use with both arms. I’m going to have to step out of my comfort zone and forget about using a shield for a while. The first dozen or so enemies I run into die with a pleasing lack of resistance. Even the trio of spear-laden, granite shielded skeletons can’t hold me back. I make my way up a stairwell and down a few more corridors. I try passing through a doorway shrouded in white fog, “Traverse the white light”, it says. That can’t possibly lead to anything bad, could it?

Yes. Yes it could.

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Taurus Demon? TAURUS DEMON? There’s a boss fight on a freaking parapet walk? And there are snipers firing at me from behind? And I don’t have any healing juice left in my Estus Flask?

YOU DIED

I need a break.

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.

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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.

20160507072737_1
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.

20160509203604_1
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.

DARKSOULS 2016-05-09 20-43-29-66
Those glowing orange marks contain helpful game wisdom and encouragement. It gives me the warm fuzzies inside.