Culture

Bit Slap: It’s a good week (to die horribly in a dungeon)

etrian

Every week in Bit Slap, Joe Anderson brings you the latest in gaming culture and bon mots.

These are exciting times for first-person dungeon crawling. Last week, Finnish developer Almost Human revealed that a sequel to the critically-acclaimed Legend of Grimrock is in the works, and on Tuesday, Etrian Odyssey 4 was released stateside for the 3DS. I preordered EO4 through Amazon, so it came with the soundtrack and an art book. The latter is filled mostly with anime girls. I don’t know where to put it. If I stuff it in a drawer somewhere, I am admitting to myself that it’s something I should hide. After all, well-adjusted adults shouldn’t feel weird about free things that come with things they enjoy and paid for, right? Why is it, then, when my phone rang while flipping through it, I instinctively threw it across the room?

It’s hard to explain the appeal of the genre to people who aren’t already onboard. Whereas other games have players performing Herculean feats of murder and/or honor, Grimrock and EO4 do the opposite. Instead, the most basic things like walking down a hall or going down stairs—things you do all the time without a second thought—are infused with so much meaning. And this meaning occurs because surviving, the mere act of continuing to exist, is an accomplishment. Think if Tom Hanks survived the island in Cast Away by crafting punch-daggers out of minotaur horns instead of finding food and stuff. What I’m trying to say here is that these games offer an infinitely better version of Cast Away.

But even accomplishments are felt with reluctance. Every discovery of a descending staircase in EO4 is bittersweet. On one hand, I feel good because I’ve arrived at the next area on account of not getting my team crushed by giant armadillos. On the other, I know that giant armadillos are going to feel like child’s play in about 15 minutes.

The most frustrating enemies are those that don’t look particularly threatening. Like these sons of bitches:

These dudes? They’re call jig lizards. They are so named because 1) they are lizards and 2) they never stop dancing. Once, one shot icicles that killed my medic. This alone wasn’t a full-blown disaster, but it did set me up for failure. Shortly thereafter, the rest of my party was paralyzed and subsequently tail-shanked by scorpions, because no one was able to treat the venom because of the aforementioned icicle-ing. It was my fault for trying to conserve resources instead of healing my medic, and it was definitely my fault for thinking frozen missiles were off the table. Expecting dancing reptiles to not shoot deadly ice is a scrub mistake and I am a better man for having learned otherwise.

For these dungeon crawlers, the player is his own worst enemy. Sure, the giant spiders trying to lay eggs in your stomach don’t exactly have your back. But enemies aren’t antagonists in the traditional sense. Instead, they represent a potential bad decision. You don’t always see the consequences of a decision immediately but, compared to traditional RPGs, these games are gauntlets that reward the long-view.

When you get down to it, calling Grimrock and EO4 or Wizardry and Might and Magic, their genre predecessorsdungeon crawler is a misnomer. They are Small-Group Decision Making Simulators. You shouldn’t be awarded your MBA until you can lead two warriors, a rogue, and a wizard (who is a giant praying mantis) out of a mountain dungeon.

I have. And I think it qualifies me for a job where I get to wear a suit everyday and tell Kathy to hold my calls.