Things aren’t going as planned. The digital corpses of my bushy-eyebrowed avatar are piling up around me. They have different names – the mighty, high-score-owning paladin Steve, Ted the vampire, Dumbledore, the short-lived wizard. I am sleepless and restless, hurling adventurer after adventurer into the cavernous depths of Lord Dredmor’s dungeon. Surrounded by this binary carnage, I am reluctant to again enter the fray – but I can’t resist. I click New Game without trepidation, the sweet smell of bloodshed and loot making my stomach rumble.
I am asked to choose a difficulty – moderate – and choose whether or not I want to be subjected to permadeath. To play Dungeons of Dredmor without permadeath is sacrilege, and honestly I’m not sure it would even be fun without it. The next screen presents me with a bevy of skills and character traits – from the banal sword mastery to more exotic things like Viking Magic and Fleshsmithing. This character, I decide, will be a bloodthirsty warmonger, wielding two axes and hurling throwing weapons in a beserko-fugue state. His name? Hank.
"Dungeons of Dredmor makes you respect death, where many games simply laugh in its face.."
With this most preliminary of setup, I find myself standing in the confines of the Dungeons of Dredmor. It doesn’t feel like home, and there is no warm feeling of familiarity. This two-dimensional, randomly-generated hellhole has no love for me, and I do not love it either, but I do respect it. Respect in these dungeons in what keeps you alive – one false move, one careless step will mean death. Permanent death. Dungeons of Dredmor makes you respect death, where many games simply laugh in its face.
Hank the Axeman sets forth towards the dark lord himself – but it’ll be a while before they meet, if they ever do. This particular iteration of the dungeon hurls me into a room full of bats – not the dreaded monster zoo, but close enough – and I panic, retreating. The bats pursue. Hank’s dual axes loose themselves, Fleshsmithing buffs are hurled, but it is in vain.
Hank is dead. Not videogame dead – actually dead. There is finality in Hank’s death, if nothing else.
And so is the way of Dungeons of Dredmor. Death can come quickly and unexpectedly. It is not a fair game, and it doesn’t pretend to be. As an experience wrapped in absurdist humor, the randomness of death is almost a thematic element.
Staring at the game over screen, I realize that Hank is a new low, the quickest death yet. I am once again staring at the main menu.
I click New Game without hesitation.
Dungeons of Dredmor is, if you couldn’t tell, addictive. It is wrought with the same kind of neurotic compulsion that makes the Civilization series so life-ending. One more turn, one more character, one more city, one more death. Both are simple-seeming at first, but underneath their grid-based design and pleasant presentations is a spider-web framework of intricacy. Both are simultaneously directed and sand-boxy. Both will bring you crawling back for more.
I set out to make a new character. Alfred is a spry archer who sports a fedora hat. We hurl ourselves into the dungeon together, and I devote myself to being especially attentive this time. I scrutinize the game’s gorgeous-cum-nostalgic graphics, parsing them for traps, predicting enemy movement patterns. I am no roguelike veteran, but I’m learning. Alfred, or Al, as I call him, hurls arrows into bats and robots and Grim Reapers from a far, baiting them into the Lord of Dredmor’s own traps. He backpedals relentlessly, hurling softballs and bombs as he goes, effortlessly disarming traps that he can’t avoid.
It is also with Alfred that I discover my first monster zoo.
He was minding his own business, making sure all the loot was mopped out on the current floor. We were inspecting the far eastern wing, having just visited the shop (run by a Pig-faced, checkered-suit wearing demon thing, nonetheless) and with a pocketful of cash and an empty inventory. Alfred found an unopened door and flung it open with glee – only to find forty monsters waiting to eat me alive. Genies, zombies, weird gooey things; a whole cavalcade. I was grossly outnumbered, slightly short on food and potions – but resolved to fight. I loosed arrows, raining holy death down on the army in front of me. Dodging traps, ducking this way and that – Alfred became death incarnate.
Five breathless minutes later, I was rewarded with my first cleared zoo, a shit-ton of loot, and a level up. The Lord of Dredmor’s vast horde had suffered significant losses at the hands of Alfred’s crossbow. I had braved the game’s too-small text, its usable-but-still clunky UI. I had killed and killed. I was victorious.
It was time to plunge deeper. I move calmly down the steps into the dark reaches of floor three.
The third floor is tense. A genie stares me down, some terrible named creature stalks awkwardly beside me. Alfred, I imagine, is sweating. “They’re too close!”, he’s screaming. But I, the cruelest of puppeteers, do not care. We can do this, Al. We just conquered a monster zoo. I am high on blood, feeling unconquerable. Al and I, we can kill anything.
Two minutes later, I am staring at the Game Over screen. Alfred is dead; dead and gone. He had back-pedaled too far – right into a trap I chose not to disable in my bloody haste.
My hard work, my triumphs, erased. Only I remain, and that fateful New Game button.
I click it without hesitation.