Not Just the Plot

It’s not the plot, it’s how you put everything together.

I have heaps upon heaps of unfinished stories in my cupboards. Some of them are only ever a scene, an idea laid out. Some others, I’ve tried to stretch. I gave the characters goals to work on, a mystery to solve, a world they can explore. But at the end of the day, they all end up being stretches. All the stories you’ve read with all their grand plot, they seem effortless, but I’m sure they aren’t. I don’t know how anybody manage to finish writing any story at all. It’s like pulling life out of thin air.

Most of my failure, I attribute to my inability to plot, to make a story. I can set the stage, can set the actor, but can’t decide on what they’re going to do, what all these interesting mechanics are going to do to them.

Maybe I ought to try doing narrative games?

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I’ve only recently had a chance to try out The Lion’s Song, an episodic, narrative-based, adventure game by Mipumi Games. Every episode is self-contained, with a small overarching narrative. Episode 1, the only one I’ve tried, is available for free. It’s short and charming and I very much like it, but if you break it down, it doesn’t really have an interesting plot going on.

(I guess I should say, spoiler warning for the first episode, but there’s not a lot happening that can be spoiled.) Continue reading “Not Just the Plot”

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Darkest Dungeon, a dungeon-crawler I’ll happily grind through

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I just recently got my hand on Darkest Dungeon, a 2D-visual and 1D-exploring dungeon-crawling game with striking Gothic atmosphere. I can write an entire thing on its atmosphere alone, how it reverberates on feeling of hopelessness, how it exemplifies the air of madness and decay through its visual and narration and integrated game design. But I suspect what really got me to come back to it, to keep on trudging through the same old passages, is really because of its battle system.

Darkest Dungeon at its core uses stats-based turn-based battle system. Your party on the left, enemy on the right, four possible moves by your party members. But unlike most battle system, it doesn’t rely solely on just dealing damage. A majority of your possible moves deal damage, yes, but only few of them do that in a straightforward manner. Most have additional effects, like poisoning or debuffing, with a penalty to the damage that can be dealt. Occasionally there’d be more complicated affairs, like “Protect another character while Fortifying yourself” or “Stun enemy, and afterwards you move backwards while getting a buff to Dodge”.

In addition, positioning matters in the game. Some moves only work if the character is in the right position, and some move can only reach enemies at specific positions. So you can’t just lob your highest-hitter together; you gotta pay attention to what they can do and to what.

The enemies are as varied as your party. Some deal damage, some protect others. Some buffs themselves, some (ugh) heal. Some will try to Bleed you dry, some will deal no damage whatsoever, but will Stress your characters out. Any one of them can pop out, although some more than others according to their location, so it’s your job too to decide what to bring on each run to the dungeon.
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The game then, become not just a random rush, but carefully arranging your decisions to make the most long-term good for your team. It could be as easy as just using the same move twice, but there’s still the processing of information. Every decision you make is a decision, not a button mash.

Darkest Dungeon also, somehow, escapes the old roleplaying game stigma of too many, hard-to-swallow numbers, at least as far as I’ve encountered it. During battles, all stats of any units are clearly visible in a tooltip-sized box at the bottom, and any buffs and debuffs or other ailments are clearly marked. None of those stats are vaguely shaped either (INT? DEX? What does that do?). For example, the DMG stat shows the exact (possible) number of damages you can do, barring other modifiers. It might take a bit to get used to it all, but when you do, everything will look gloriously organised.

But of course, random chance is still a thing, and in this game, a very big thing. You could say it’s a shame that such a tightly-made mechanic has to bow to the whim of the Random Number God, I’d say it’s unavoidable for the kind of game it’s aiming for. Darkest Dungeon tells itself as a game about “making the best of a bad situation”. Nothing is certain, and going down the dungeon is always a risky affair. Having everything so cleanly cut would destroy most of the suspense.
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It’s not so much preparing for the worst as managing your probabilities, although I sure hope you have some backup plan for when the worst comes. Critical Hits are a thing, on both side of the playing field. And on the rare occasions that you encounter enemies far above your grade, well, at least your party will die in glory, right?

The only problem with it, which may or may not be a problem for you, is how time-consuming it is. Your party roster will come and go as heroes come and die, possibly taking out the character you’ve spent time and resource training up. Meanwhile there’s no other way to get your upgrades but plain effort traversing the dungeon. Progress, beyond the individual dungeon runs, is hard to see. Its battle system saves it from being old or grindy, as you’re always making decisions, but it can gets old.

Darkest Dungeon is really more about the moments of battles, then, instead of the long-term outlook. The journey, not the end, et cetera. It’s the *perfect* game if you need to unwind your day with some thoughtful turn-based thing, instead of unwinding it with yet another grindy, button-mashing JRPG.

You might even aspire to reach the hardest dungeons yourself, but myself personally, I’ll enjoy it for what it is. I can’t bear another emotional outbreak over losing my hard-wrought heroes, ok.