The introduction of recorded audio and video media, with movie theaters and radios and all that, is like a new UNIX epoch for culture. It ended on December 31, 1999, and nobody has patched in a new one yet.
In the 90s, our variety radio station used the tagline "the best music of the 70s, 80s, and 90s." After 2000, they switched to "the best music of the 80s, 90s, and today." I figured they'd change again in 2010, but it's 2017 and they're still saying "80s, 90s, and today." I hope radio survives long enough for us to find out how they deal with the 2020s.
If you were asked to point to the trench that housed the first Death Star’s exhaust port, where would you point? If you pointed at the big obvious seam running along the Death Star’s equator, I am sorry, but you are wrong. But don’t feel too bad—it turns out even the people at Industrial Light & Magic thought that was…
Lake Kittamaqundi originally featured an island known as Nomanisan Island, named by Columbia resident Alan Levine in a 1980 contest held by the Columbia Association. The island's name came from the phrase "No Man Is an Island" by John Donne. The gap between the island and the east bank of the lake was filled, creating a peninsula, during the dredging of the lake in 2010. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lake_Kittamaqundi)
I'm bored of killing people. Not necessarily bored of having people killed, but certainly of doing my own dirty work. After a couple of years of great RPGs—The Witcher 3, Dragon Age: Inquisition, Pillars of Eternity, Fallout 4, and even South Park: The Stick of Truth—I need a break from fighting. This isn't a hot take: I'm not about to decry RPG combat in its entirety. This is my problem, and it's up to me—not the industry at large—to find a solution.
The solution, it turns out, is Age of Decadence. Officially released last year after a time in early access, it's a wilfully uncompromising RPG. There is combat, and it's extremely difficult, but, depending on the choices that you make, engaging in it can be optional.
In Age of Decadence, you're given a choice of professions, each promising a markedly different experience. A mercenary is going to get hilt deep in some jerks—it's a part of the job description. But other builds promise other ways to play. I chose a merchant, partly because it's a non-combat option, but also because, if this is truly an age of decadence, I assume having a lot of money will help.
It works because the setting favours politics and greed, rather than sword-'n'-board heroism. Because of this, I go for an extremely specific, high-risk build. My combat fatigue manifests in a character with no points in any of the combat skills. Of my dagger ability, the game bluntly states that I should "put it down before you poke an eye out." (Wouldn't poking someone's eye out be an extremely effective use of a dagger? I suppose it depends whose eye.)
Instead, I'm a master at doing words at people—more so than this sentence would imply. My primary stats are trading, persuasion and 'streetwise,' and it's interesting just how much these skills matter. I've played for a few hours, and, so far, Age of Decadence has mitigated its early linearity through contextual events and dialogue. At multiple points I'm given the option for actions that rely on my (appalling) dexterity, or conversation choices that require my (amazing) persuasion. But these options don't magically solve problems.
In one instance, a man tries to lure me into an abandoned house. This feels dodgy, and, thanks to my streetwise skill, I'm informed in-game that something suspicious is afoot. I decide to follow anyway, and am immediately set upon by muggers. This triggers a combat encounter and I die almost instantly. Even in the merchant campaign, combat can happen. As the player, it's my job to recognise dangerous scenarios and avoid them. I'd say it's a lot like life in that regards, but nobody has ever attempted to lure me through a mystical Roman-esque town into a run-down house full of jerks. Not that it couldn't happen. I live in Bath, after all.
I'm not far into Age of Decadence, certainly not enough to make any strong pronouncements of its overall quality. But the resolution to my last mission did fill me with hope. The merchants guild are a political organisation, and a recurring theme has been negotiating tactical murders through the assassin's guild. In the latest instance, our organisation's desired target was deemed too hot to handle, and so it's up to me to find a solution. That means seeing the town's ruling lord, but getting an audience requires solving some problems with two enemy camps outside of town.
One of these camps, filled with bandits, lets me stroll right in. My job is to negotiate the release of a hostage they've kidnapped. I talk them down to half their original price, and, returning to the lord's house, persuade the steward to pay full price. The difference? It goes straight in my pocket. It was a satisfying and profitable solution to a problem with many potential outcomes.
It's notable that the lack of combat hasn't stopped the tension. There's always the risk that I'll say the wrong thing or make a stupid decision that will get me killed. It's happened to me twice so far, either because I wasn't paying attention, or because I was overconfident in my abilities. It's a dangerous world, and the non-combat option requires to me carefully negotiate a deadly path. That in itself is satisfying—it feels like I'm profiting from this world despite its hostility.
It's something I'd like to see more RPGs tackle, because it feels like roleplaying in a more fundamental sense than we often mean when we invoke the genre. In Age of Decadence the only number that matters is the amount of money I have. Beyond that, it's a game about actually playing a role. My character is so weak that he'd be killed by an inn's basement rats. And yet, despite—perhaps even because of his deficiencies—it's a role that I'm starting to enjoy.
What is it? Party-management dungeon explorer
Reviewed on: Windows 10, i5 4690k, 8GB RAM, GTX 970
Price: $20 / £15
Release date: Out now
Publisher: Red Hook Studios
Developer: Red Hook Studios
The first one to lose his mind is the plague doctor. His crow-faced mask wobbles as his sanity snaps, and he starts to pour abuse on his comrades. As the party fights unholy monsters in the crypts beneath a swamp, the chaos and his shouting break the rest. An armored paladin falls dead from a heart attack. Another chokes on a cloud of spores thrown by a monstrous, sentient fungus. The mad plague doctor runs alone out of the dark. He’s sent to the sanitarium. Like all veterans of bloody conflict, he’ll never be the person he was before.
In Darkest Dungeon, this disaster is known as “Week 3.” Every week goes about as well. Dungeon diving and tomb raiding have been staples of PC gaming for decades, but Darkest Dungeon is the first time I felt how awful this quest must be for the people involved. In Darkest Dungeon, explorers don’t just have to bandage their wounds and sharpen their axes—their biggest vulnerability is their minds.
Turn by turn
After getting bored drinking and fornicating his way through the family fortune, your dear father decided to investigate rumors of wondrous magic buried deep beneath the ancestral home. But he and his workmen dug too greedily and awoke an ancient evil, sending the countryside into ruin. Just before he sends a musket ball through his brain, dear old dad sends you a letter: come home, rebuild the local village, and defeat the evil. Bang. Splat.
Once the road to town is reopened, you recruit heroes and send them into the dungeons four at a time. When (if) they return, they are damaged, stressed out, and hopefully a bit richer. While in town they can drink, gamble, pray—whatever they need to get their heads sorted out so they can walk back into the long dark. One half of Darkest Dungeon is managing this growing town, opening and upgrading blacksmith shops and taverns to give your heroes an edge in the fight.
The other half is the real meat and potatoes: leading sidescrolling parties of four heroes in turn-based combat against otherworldly horrors. Entering a dungeon brings up a map showing a simple floorplan: a few rooms connected by hallways. There’s no need to explore, and most levels ask you to explore the entire level anyway. The map’s real purpose is to show you how much of the level remains. If things are going poorly and you still have half a dozen rooms to clear, it’s probably time to wave the white flag and get out.
When your party of maniacs runs up against a squad of horrors, a short, turn-based battle starts. Combatants take turns using abilities to attack, heal, or cast spells. Especially at the beginning of the game, I found the few characters and abilities available made these battles more of a slog. Combat gets more fun as more character types arrive in town and new abilities get unlocked. Battles are always tense, though, and I found myself dreading them as expeditions grew longer and more dangerous.
It’s hard enough keeping everyone alive, but battles put adventurers under a lot of stress, too. Seeing a friend die or barely surviving a critical attack has a tendency to make people freak out. When characters crack, they take on random debilitating traits like “abusive” or “afraid.” This is the well-executed balancing act of Darkest Dungeon: I love trying to keep people healthy and sane. It’s easy to do one or the other, but that’s not enough. Your heroes can die just as easily from a heart attack as from a sword.
I also enjoyed tinkering with character classes in different party positions. The order of the heroes is important, with heavily armored tanks taking the front spot and spell-casters, archers, and healers holding in the back. Most melee attacks can only be aimed at the front ranks, and some spells can only be cast from the middle of a group. The most interesting classes are those in the middle. I enjoyed experimenting with characters who could fight in a melee role from one spot, but a support role from another.
During one of my early expeditions, I had poured through character sheets to find the perfect set of four heroes and assigned them in the perfect order. In the team’s first battle, an enemy summoner opened a portal to hell. A massive tentacle reached through it and grabbed my healer, shoving her to the front of the party and flipping my careful plan right on its ass. Darkest Dungeon’s greatest delight is finding new ways to screw you.
Calling Darkest Dungeon merely “Lovecraftian” is a disservice to the mythology developer Red Hook has built here. (It’s also an undue compliment to H. P. Lovecraft’s one-note writing.) Both the heroes (occultists, Amazonians, thieves, paladins, plague doctors, lepers, bounty hunters, rogues) and the enemies (skeletons, zombies, ghosts, enthralled souls, fish-people, mushroom-monsters, spiders, maggots) draw from a huge sampling of source material, and I love its unexpected variety.
Darkest Dungeon is exceptional for how carefully-built and deliberate all its parts are. Every sound effect, every splash of color, and every character and ability all work to create an environment inspired by low fantasy novels and pulpy weird-horror magazines. When the Vestal, an acolyte of a Roman goddess of purifying fire, became racked with fear, she would cry out for her god’s protection in the darkness. When the hound master lost his mind to stress, he became bitter and withdrawn, commenting that his bumbling companions lacked proper training. I love that Darkest Dungeon takes inspiration from so many sources, yet uses all of those pieces to create character classes that serve a clever, foreboding fiction.
There’s an important distinction, though, between the character classes and the individuals. The classes are interesting and unique, but the individuals are just meat for the grinder. The worst thing about Darkest Dungeon is coming to grips with the idea that there can be no perfection. As a habitual save-scummer, this was hard for me. The auto-save feature is always on, so every mistake, every critical hit or critical miss, is permanent. Every death is permadeath.
This can be especially frustrating in early missions, when the slow trickle of heroes and their low-level abilities don’t always give you the tools you need to handle the pain coming your way. After an easy first mission, I consistently lost people, abandoned missions, or wrote off entire expeditions in the early weeks. During one very frustrating expedition, my healer kept everyone in tip-top health, but I had no way to manage stress. The mission ended in disgrace when four completely able-bodied adventurers died in an unprecedented quadruple heart attack. I’ve played a lot of permadeath strategy games, but I’ve never experienced a squad wipe due to acute mental distress before.
One of the reasons I love Darkest Dungeon is that measuring the mental toll of adventuring feels so overdue. Game violence has been consequence-free for a long time, but that’s changing. The new Tomb Raider games show Lara Croft dealing with profound mental trauma, for example, and games like Viscera Cleanup Detail poke at shooters’ carefree bodycount.
Maybe it’s even part of a growing cultural awareness of the cost of violence. With thousands of new veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, PTSD has become a household word. I think it’s fine to avoid the complex topic in a videogame, but walking into the subject directly is gripping where an artful evasion is the norm. This isn’t to say that Darkest Dungeon makes any kind of statement about veteran care or the cost of real war, but I do think these themes are engaging. Battling demons in a dungeon would really mess people up, and that’s not often acknowledged through game design in such a pronounced way.
The more I played, the more I grew detached from the heroes in my roster. I even refused to rename or invest in the veterans of multiple tours—exactly the opposite of my squads in XCOM, which were all customized and named for family and friends. Becoming attached would make it more stressful to send them on another ill-conceived quest for trinkets and coin, and even more disappointing when they came back broken and despondent. When the cost is measured in sanity and blood, the most powerful lesson Darkest Dungeon taught me about adventuring is that it isn’t always worth doing.