Memento Mori 02: Chocolate or Vanilla, Choose

Posted on: October 11th, 2014 by Aleks Samoylov

“Who wants a library full of books you’ve already read?”

– Harlan Ellison (Paladin of the Lost Hour)

“A Man Chooses”

If you’re a PC gamer with an adequate rig and a modicum of disposable income, you’re probably familiar with what I’ve termed the “Steam Daze.” With all the sales, and the deals, and the special offers, it doesn’t take long to amass something of a collection, a neat and ever expanding line of cheaply acquired titles just waiting for you in that lovely sidebar to the left. There are so many games to play, so many worlds to adventure in, so many virtual experience to sample. It’s nice, at first. It’s exciting.

Then it comes time to actually sit down and play something. You’ve been waiting for this moment for hours, perhaps at school, perhaps at work, perhaps at your cousin’s wedding: finally, it’s “you-time.” You settle in. You boot up. You crack your fingers. You open up Steam. And suddenly you become aware of your own mortality, more than you ever have been before. In stark white on gray are etched the lines of a dire prophesy. Never before have you known finitude so completely. Never before have you felt so utterly limited, so utterly dazzled and confused by the terrifying specter of Cronos, with his scythe, with his uncaring stare.


It’s true what they say about choice: having too much of it can often feel like having none at all. Unlike the kid in a candy store, who, we would presume, will gorge himself until he is hopelessly sick, you are more akin to the scholar standing in the midst of a vast library. It could take you days, sometimes months, to consume just one of the items on offering. And the very act of your having bought a game, even at eighty percent off an already reduced price, serves, by default, as an implied contract, stipulating that you do intend to play it…at some point.

But how much time do you really have? Even if you live to a ripe old age, and the world doesn’t end in catastrophe, and your income remains steady, and your leisure time is plentiful, will you ever be able to get through everything you’ve ever wanted to get through. Will you even be able try out everything you’ve wanted to try out?

“And that has made all the difference”

I realize that the philosophical problem at hand is a great deal bigger than games, and that this is an extremely privileged manifestation of said problem. It comes down, much more universally, to the sometimes terrifying question of how to best spend one’s extremely finite allotment of moments among the living. The issue is a great deal more profound than whether you’re feeling like a first person shooter or a point and click adventure game on any given evening. Nevertheless, one’s solitary leisure time (which is something that even extroverts benefit from, and introverts absolutely require), one’s time away from work (both meaningful and meaningless) and from social obligations (both happy and unhappy), is a significant part of life, and should, in my opinion, be factored fully into any discussion of said question.

On your death bed, in your death throes, will you regret those five hours you’d spent farming gold in your favorite MMO, or those ten hours it took you to finally defeat Ornstein and Smough in Dark Souls, or the twenty hours you’d spent on Assassin’s Creed 2, or the eighty hours you’d spent on Assassin’s Creed 4? I should probably avoid dwelling on games like Skyrim, lest I suffer a full on existential meltdown. Could you have spent that time better? Could you have spent it more wisely? Might you have had more fun playing something else?

Note that this isn’t a matter of “games” versus real life. I have firmly established elsewhere that I believe engagement with interactive art to be as valid and potentially meaningful as engagement with any other medium. It’s not a question of whether or not you’d regret having a virtual experience when you could have been merrily skipping through a dewy meadow with your significant other (while giggling ecstatically, of course), or working hard on finding the cure for cancer, or making your way through Ulysses. It is assumed, for the purposes of this discussion, that you already do those things, or something along those lines, in their own assigned time, and that you’ve already carved out a part of your day, or your week, for recreation anyway. This is a simple matter of choice. We know that one experience can easily be more enjoyable and more meaningful than another, simply because we, as human beings, have tastes and preferences. But, just as someone browsing in the aisles of a book store or a record shop, just like someone surfing the channels or compulsively reading the summaries on Netflix, we don’t always know what is what.

As a result, it’s easy to simply seize up, to freeze, to gloss over. You stare at the screen, at all the treasures you’ve accrued in your vault, and you fail to choose, to enjoy, a single one of them. Paradoxically, you find yourself procrastinating. You watch a video, or read an article, or (god forbid!) do some work. Before you know it, your coveted alone time has melted away, and you haven’t played anything at all.

“I Choose Vanilla”

In college, my roommates and I used to go to this meditation class on Wednesday evenings. It was held in one of the dorm buildings, in the fitness center down in the basement. The building used to be a small women’s hospital, and the basement was rumored to have served as the morgue. You wouldn’t really know it to look at it, though. The room was brightly lit, with exposed brick walls, lacquered wooden floors, and mirrors everywhere.

One Wednesday night, seemingly out of the blue, our instructor turned to the student at the far end of the room, made fists with her hands, and held them up as though she were presenting the student with two ice cream cones.

“Chocolate or vanilla, choose,” she said.

“Umm…chocolate?” said the student.

“Why?” she said.

“Because I like chocolate?” said the student.

“Wrong!” she said. The teacher focused her attention on the next person in line, and asked her the very same question. She chose vanilla, and claimed that she chose it because vanilla tasted better to her, as an individual. “Wrong!” said the teacher, and focused on the next student. And every student, in turn, was wrong, whether he or she chose chocolate or vanilla.

“Do you want to know the answer?” asked the teacher, after every single one of her pupils, including myself, had apparently failed the cryptic test. We nodded in assent. She paused meaningfully and surveyed the room with something like triumph.

“I choose vanilla,” she said, and paused again, “because I choose vanilla.” She grinned excitedly.

“Isn’t that a mindfuck?” she continued.

We agreed. It was, indeed, a mindfuck.


Choosing to Choose

Most people overcome the “Steam Daze”, or whatever other gaming or non-gaming equivalent they might be most familiar with. It’s intermittent. We can’t keep falling victim to it night after night, even if we can’t hope to become completely immune. We understand that the daze is unproductive, that it ultimately prevents us from living. It becomes difficult to enjoy anything if you’re constantly second guessing yourself, constantly wondering if you might not have been better off having chosen something else. The grass is always greener and so forth. The ability to choose, and to stand by your choice, is a skill, and a very powerful one. In the end, that which you didn’t choose, for whatever reason, you simply didn’t choose. There is no inherent value to any such choices. All value is perceived.

But I’ve no right to wax philosophical. There is actually no great lesson here and I can’t claim to know the true answer to my meditation teacher’s koan, nor do I have the definitive solution to the problem of indecision. I suppose what tends to work for me is either picking up something short and sweet (or something that can be played for a short period of time) and going from there, or committing myself to something sweeping and epic, something I can play from one evening to another for a while, without having to think too hard about it. Sometimes I concede, and do something conventionally perceived as productive. Ultimately, the meaning we make, and take, from both our lives and our hobbies needs to be determined on an individual level.

I’m only publishing this because it’s been a rough couple of months, on oh so many fronts, and because my other articles are still in the shop and because, wracked with fear and dread, I can’t seem to decide which one of them to finish.


Metaverse Reverie, Episode 8 – Blow the Candles Out

Posted on: September 20th, 2014 by Aleks Samoylov

Okay, so this one is late…and great…and number eight, and it’s about gamer gate. The lateness is all Aleks’ fault. He got a little too wound up in the Twine, and his amazing, next gen Ruin Jam Game (shameless self promotion, but hey, Aleks is the one who writes this copy, so he does what he wants). Most of this week’s episode is taken up by discussion on the most recent wave of harassment and controversy (this one refuses to completely die, although Zoe Quinn did give it a rather stiff kick in the gut on the morning of the day of our recording), but Aleks does lapse into a  one sided “what are you playing” type of deal about half way through…except he can’t seem to remember the actual games he’d been playing, so it’s a bit of an extended, delayed roll. Listen to him grapple with his own mind. Listen to him confront the specter of his own encroaching decrepitude and mortality. Also, he sings at one point. Then the two podcast personalities run off to get burritos because the burrito store (which they shall not buzz-market) was to close within the hour.

The music for this episode was provided by the fantastic Holographic Sticker Club. The intro is taken from Gravitational Collapse, and the outro from Drop 5. Pick up “This is not a Tset” (pay what you want).

We apologize for Aleks’ coughing, and the more than occasional table bump, which should only make your ears bleed a little bit (we’re sorry Boris), and the noise of people walking upstairs. We’re looking into ways to stabilize the microphone, but it’s currently a bit of a puzzle, considering our ad hoc setup.

Metaverse Reverie is Supported by Listeners Like You.

Maybe you patronize us on Patreon, and we maybe get a cool swivel thingy? Eh? Why not Zoidberg? Patronage should allow us (or rather encourage us) to record more often, and, if we meet our first milestone someday, get some sexier, more professional kit. It will also encourage us to love you, and inextricably bind a small shard of our twin soul to yours. Pretty nifty, huh?

List of Some Games Aleks Has Played Recently, but Forgot the Names Of During Recording:

Myriad by Porpentine
How to Speak Atlantean by Porpentine
Quing’s Quest VII by Deidre “Squinky” Kai
Gingiva by John Clowder
Brooklyn Trash King by Ben Esposito and Sarah Johnson
3x3x3 by Kayla Overkill

Other Links of Interest:

Payola: I Sleep Beneath the Golden Hill by Lana Polansky

Metaverse Reverie, Episode 7 – Shermed Out, or Tears of the Dome-Beast

Posted on: August 28th, 2014 by Aleks Samoylov

In the immortal words of Doctor Sam Beckett, oh boy! Do we have a treat for you this week, lovers and dreamers. For a second episode in a row, we have a guest, and, once again, we’re not worthy! The luminary, artist, and friend Dominick Rabrun (@CountBlackula on the Twitter) joins us for a sit down session of gab. Dom’s known for his work on Dom’s Sketchcast and, most recently, on Hip Hop RPG, an ongoing animated series about rappers battling the Illuminati in a post apocalyptic near future (yes, it’s exactly as cool as it sounds). When Aleks and Arie let him get a word in edgewise between their customary ranting, Dom shares some excellent thoughts, insights, recommendations and scoops.

The music for this episode was provided by the fantastic Holographic Sticker Club. The intro is taken from Gravitational Collapse, and the outro from Drop 5. Pick up “This is not a Tset” (pay what you want). Aleks didn’t put any robot voices into the podcast this week, so you can listen to the sweet jams without as much interference.

Stuff We Need to Clarify and Whatever:

– The full cast list of the British comedy Spaced is on IMDB. Aleks likes this program.
– Here’s a dry University lecture by a UVA professor (Ian Stevenson) about reincarnation research.
Expeditions:Conquistador was developed by Logic Artists. (Aleks says: “Buy this game!” – it’s available on Steam)
Sunless Sea is being developed by Failbetter Games (Aleks says: “Looking coooool!” – currently in early access)
-Here’s Leigh Alexander writing about, playing, and talking about Jason Rubin and Andy Gavin (of Naughty Dog fame) early game, the Dream Zone


Remember, Thou Art Mortal

Posted on: August 21st, 2014 by Aleks Samoylov

I first became aware of my own mortality, not merely as a possibility but as an inevitability, when faced with a game over screen in a mediocre licensed game for the Sega Genesis. That much I know for sure. That much I remember. I don’t, however, remember my thought process. I don’t know how or why I arrived at that precipice, only that I did, and that it sucked. I was six or seven years old. It was a quiet, peaceful, unremarkable evening. The game, in case you’re wondering, was Tom and Jerry: Frantic Antics. It was colorful, cartoony, a little bland in retrospect (although I was enthralled at the time, mainly because it was what passed for “next gen” back then). I’d seen hundreds of game over screens before, and I already knew, intellectually, what death was. It was nearly bedtime. I was allowed one more try. I fell into a pit.

That’s when it struck me. Someday, after a certain amount of time had passed (and nobody could predict exactly how much), I, along with every single person alive, will die. For good. Game over. No continues. No save games. I’d had a fairly secular upbringing, so my thoughts didn’t turn to celestial palaces, eternal country clubs, or eventual resurrection. In fact, the concept of an afterlife didn’t occur to me until years later, and even then in the purely theoretical sense. To be frank, I didn’t really know how to process it at the time. And I basically still don’t.

I remember going to bed and staring at the darkness. It was the inevitability part, I think, that was new to me, the concrete understanding that just as my birthday, no matter how far away it would sometimes seem, eventually came around, just as the summers and the winters eventually came around, so too would the moment of my own death.

I wish I could remember what it was about that particular game over screen that did the trick. But, unfortunately, I can only speculate. And my speculations on the matter aren’t especially interesting. Since then, I’d torn through more avatars than napkins (most of them in Dark Souls, though Hotline Miami is probably close behind), and I like to pretend, like most adults, that I’ve come to terms with the reality of death, so unlike the common fictions and conceits of the medium.


The panic attack I’d experienced while grinding my way, death by death, through Heide’s Tower of Flame and the Lost Bastille and simultaneously listening to the recent This American Life segment on hospice care is surely nothing to be alarmed about. It was just incongruous, confronting the permanent and inescapable nature of actual death while thoughtlessly eating lance after lance, while watching the words “you have died” flash on the screen again and again, and knowing that no, I actually haven’t, not just yet.

When I hear accounts of actual war, it is not uncommon for me to feel guilty about occasionally enjoying simulated violence. Sometimes (too often), I feel guilty about writing in such serious tones on a medium that is still often conflated with child’s play, while all kinds of awful and serious things are happening all across the globe. But this, well, it’s different. For a moment there, I did feel a twinge of guilt. Where do I get off, resurrecting at the nearest bonfire like it’s nothing while real people are suffering through painful, and irreversible, endings!? Then I realized how stupid that sentiment was. It assumed, once again, that I was somehow exempt, that I wasn’t going to end up on one of those hospice beds sooner or later, without any power ups or magical rings to save me, just as surely as taxes are due every April. This was a problem that my several layers of privilege can’t protect me from. Some people die old, and some people die young, but all people die (transhumanist fantasies aside).

I once lived next door to an elderly artist. He’d take walks around the neighborhood sometimes. As I passed him on the street one bright, spring day, I smiled, said hello, and asked him how he was doing. “I am over ninety years old,” he answered. “Just yesterday, I looked young. I looked like you.” He didn’t bother asking how I was doing in turn. He sort of just kept walking. And while his demeanor might have been outwardly cantankerous, he’d earned the right to say what he wanted, and he exercised it when it suited him. I liked him for that. He died in hospice about a year later.

I had no reason to feel guilty. Yesterday, he looked like me. Tomorrow, I would look like him, and that’s only if I’m very lucky. I’m fairly sure that he ate more conscientiously than I do, and exercised to boot. I, on the other hand, have been playing fast and loose with my future corpse (shudder, shudder, shudder) since a fairly early age.

Ornstein…umm…the Old Dragon slayer, ran me through again. I rose to my feet beside the bonfire, on the edge of a vast sea, among the sunken ruins of a once thriving, now long dead, civilization. Unreasonable guilt gave way to perfectly reasonable existential dread. But, in the end, I kept listening, and I kept playing. What can you do? So it goes.

Metaverse Reverie, Episode 6 – Puppies and Unicorns

Posted on: August 20th, 2014 by Aleks Samoylov

We’ve been on a bit of a hiatus, but now we’re back (one half of us, at least), and with something of a vengeance. While Arie continues on his adventure junket (he should be back for the next episode, folks), Aleks has a lovely fireside chat with artist Jack Cooke, formerly of Firaxis games. That’s right! We’ve netted us a proper industry insider! We discuss his experiences working at the venerable game studio, game jams, project scope, growing up with and without technology, and all sorts of other stuff. This one’s really not to be missed (mostly thanks to Jack, who is a fantastic guest). So don’t miss it.

The music for this episode was provided by the fantastic Holographic Sticker Club. The intro is taken from Gravitational Collapse, and the outro from Drop 5. Pick up “This is not a Tset” (pay what you want).

Impressions: Roguelight (Down, Down, Down I Go…)

Posted on: August 12th, 2014 by Aleks Samoylov

The Greatest Crawl of All

When a friend of mine showed me a prototype for a rogue-like he was working on, a good old fashioned rogue-like, with ASCII symbols in place of graphics, I remember being sufficiently impressed by his prowess and acumen, and utterly unimpressed by the format itself. His computations were complex and well out of my reach (he has since put childish things aside and gone on to master philosophy, physics, and the philosophy of physics in the academic arena), and there was no arguing with the fact that his game worked. But, and I am now somewhat ashamed to admit this, I simply failed to understand the appeal.

The archaic visuals, if you could call them visuals, seemed senseless (why not something a bit more showy, like on my spanking new Playstation 2), but I understood why he’d employed them, and why others continued to do so for years to come. Custom assets, even for someone with proper training, are a pain in the butt. Just as I was a layperson when it came to science and mathematics, he was a layperson when it came to visual art. This limitation, I could forgive. The rogue-like favored the programmer over the artist. Very few people can be both.

The slow pace of exploration and the deliberately inflicted sense of disempowerment were, on the other hand, truly beyond my understanding. I loved my role playing games, of course, but I loved them partly because I could build up my characters in the way that I wanted to, and partly because they did provide me with a fantasy of power and, more importantly, of progress. I got to advance the story, and I got to keep my avatars. They’d wait for me, strange, magical costumes that I could slip into after school, costumes through which I could be someone and somewhere else. Rogue-likes, while ostensibly RPGs by every true criterion, seemed to purposefully exclude the very aspects of the genre that I was drawn to the most.

I was, in my defense, in high school at the time, and this was well before the indie revolution, well before a game’s perceived quality became (at least in the eyes of serious critics) mostly divorced from its position on the generational time-line (yesterday was fine, but today is better, and tomorrow will be the best). I was also dealing with my first major bout with depression (or at least the first one that I recognized as such). I had an inkling even then, as I know now, that a depressive needs to be careful about what they consume, what they come in contact with. The flat blackness of a dungeon I couldn’t even see didn’t seem like a welcoming place for someone who had just begun a lifelong, or so it would seem, struggle with darkness, blindness, the sense of being hopelessly weighed down and boxed in. And, to be fair, I was right. At least at the time, it was easier, safer, to retreat to fantasies of power, of saving the world (or destroying it), of being, mostly, okay.

A bit over a decade later, however, and I’m on something of rogue-like kick. I can’t seem to get enough of dungeons and dungeon crawls. While depression remains an issue, there is just something so compelling, powerful, evocative about the concept. Something draws me in, perhaps in spite of myself. Down, down, down I go. And although I can’t quite hack Nethack (the advent of the rogue-lite, of more eye catching graphics, of more readable and user friendly interfaces, had a lot to do with my conversion), I do, indeed, “get it” now. I see the light, or maybe the darkness. I see what the fuss was about. It’s an acquired taste, I suppose, like coffee, or cigarettes, or beer (I still don’t, and probably never will, “get” beer). And that’s okay. Sometimes it just takes time, and growth, and experience. Sometimes it takes a tougher shell, the understanding that virtual things can’t, or at least shouldn’t, cause real pain. Ten years have passed, and I can finally understand that challenge can be its own reward, that defeat can be the best teacher, and so on and so forth. I can understand the joys and terrors of getting lost, the thrill of a record run, the wonder of discovering a new world every single time (there are chambers and passageways that the neither I nor anyone will ever see again). Plus, rogue-likes go well with podcasts. I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts. Comedy, mostly, especially when things get tough. So I’ve been playing a lot of rogue-likes.

Yesterday’s Jam

I’ve also been playing a lot of indie games. As a budding, no-name games critic, I’ve been making a point of delving further, and deeper, into the independent scene than I have before, of investigating (or attempting to) the true grass roots of the form. And it is by virtue of this confluence that I discovered, and played, Daniel Linssen’s Roguelight. It seemed a perfect point of intersection: two birds, one stone.

Roguelight is a small game, a modest game, a simple game. It was developed for the recently concluded GBjam3 (Game Boy Jam Three) and, as is the case with the very best jam games, it uses its limitations as its primary building blocks.


If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of a jam, it is, quite simply, a time limited, community-powered game development challenge, similar to National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo), but for video games. Unlike NaNoWriMo, jams happen all the time, and vary widely in length and ruleset. Some, like the One Game a Month jam, have a very loose set of guidelines. One Game a Month runs continually, and while there’s a new optional theme every month, the only real rule is that there are no rules, and the core of the challenge is simply to release a new game, of whatever length or quality, every month.

The Game Boy Jam is a great deal more limited, a great deal more specific. It is also a great deal shorter. As the name implies, participating entrants must make an original game in the style and format of the Game Boy. That means a limited resolution(160 x 144 pixels), and, perhaps most importantly, a limited color scheme. It also means, or at least strongly implies, pixel art (which I personally rather love in general). GBjam3 ran from August 1st to August 10th. All assets used in eligible games had to have been made during that ten day period.

Alone in the Dark

Daniel Linssen’s entry is not the only notable or impressive game in this year’s crop. In fact, the amount of talent, artistry, and ingenuity on display is heartening. If the majority of the entries are representative of what individuals and small teams can do in just over a week, the future of the medium looks bright indeed. Small, simple, and modest though it may be, there is no question that Roguelight is exceptionally well crafted, with striking pixel art that truly makes a strength out of the four color limitation, decently responsive controls, and clean, professional looking animations. But that’s not why I felt compelled to single it out and dedicate an article to it. There is a wealth of gems out there, all of them worth a discussion. It’s just that Roguelight, as a game, as a simple, interactive work of art, as an experience in its own right, well outside of the festive jam context, managed to strike me on a very visceral, very personal level.

In part, this game is compelling in precisely the way that a good game should be. Its narrative and its mechanics are tightly, inextricably bound. It is a perfect coupling. One cannot exist without the other. And the result of that coupling, in this particular case, got me (as a very specific individual) right where it hurt, mostly in a good way. It is, in a sense, one of the most interesting games I’ve played in a very long while, and one of the most elegantly affecting. Roguelight isn’t the first game to utilize, and investigate, lighting as a core mechanic, and it certainly isn’t the first procedurally generated game set in an archetypal dungeon. But it is the first rogue-like (or rogue-lite) that’s actually made me feel, and understand, the very concept of “the dungeon,” of what it is, what it means, what it represents.

I enjoy Rogue Legacy and Spelunky quite a bit (like the game in question, they are both side-view platformers with procedurally generated levels), but they have, for the most part, been welcome, pulpy distractions. Roguelight on the other hand, is a harrowing, emotionally challenging journey through oppressive darkness. The weight and depth of the dungeon is palpable, and it is suffocating.

On a formal level, it is clear that Linssen has not merely embraced but mastered the restrictions of the challenge. There is a sort of alchemy at work here, a subtle transmutation. In a work of art, every component has its own read, independent from the whole. At least that’s what I’d been taught. Sometimes the artist seeks harmony, and sometimes the artist seeks dissonance. Just about every artist has had the experience of seeking one and stumbling onto the other, whether for good or for ill. In the case of Roguelight, every component, from the pervasive darkness, to the elegantly stylized blocks and character sprites (the protagonist oddly innocent, doomed, determined, the enemies alien and mindless), to the core mechanics themselves (shoot flaming arrows both to kill enemies and illuminate a small area, collect more arrows when possible, negotiate the shadows, try not to die, find the pit that leads you to the next level…deeper down), serves to reinforce a singular, powerful effect. The only externally imposed limit that doesn’t quite serve the piece is, I suppose, the lack of a full screen option. But even with my desktop and browser in full view, the bleak atmosphere of the game’s world seemed to smother and overwhelm me.


As I played on (and I felt compelled to play on), I found myself both immersed and terrified. It reminded me of a recurring night terror I used to have as a child, wherein I was trapped, sometime in the inscrutable, wild wee hours, on some unknown landing of an endlessly sprawling Moscow tenement (there were no carpeted lobbies in most Moscow tenements, just tile, and cement, and filth encrusted garbage disposal chutes), and no matter what I did, I couldn’t find my way either to my family’s apartment or to the outside world (we lived in building 50, unit 50, an accidental literary in-joke). At one point in the nightmare, I realized that I was deep underground. I remember experiencing a primal fear, not of any particular monster or consequence, but simply of being alone in the dark and the filth, alone with no hope of rescue, no hope of escape. That, I suppose, is what dungeons, real dungeons, outside of the cartoonified and romanticized fantasy paradigm, are like. That’s what dungeons are about.

To advance from one level to the next, Roguelight’s nameless heroine must plunge into a long, dark pit. An oubliette, I realize. Oubliette after oubliette. There was no cutscene to explain my situation. The very fact of my being down there was story enough. It was me against the darkness…and the traps, and the flying skeletons, and the pacing hooded figures, none of whom seemed especially interested in me. There was no indication of how far below the earth I was, or even if I was below the earth at all (I could, perhaps, have been descending a tower). Not since the original Prince of Persia has a video game made me feel quite so claustrophobic, quite so weighted down and oppressed by architecture and infrastructure. The effect was downright brutal, at least in my personal engagement with the game, but it was also powerful, evocative. It didn’t merely speak to my childhood fears. It spoke to the uncertainty and pain of being, or trying to be (to become?) an adult.

Monsters and Mazes

A little while ago, I’d played through Depression Quest (by Zoe Quinn, Patrick Lindsey, and Isaac Schankler, now available on Steam)  and then spent the remainder of my night staring at the ceiling in an agonized stupor. The game was a candid, straight forward, and painfully realistic depiction of depression. I probably shouldn’t have played it. It came with a trigger warning, and the website even suggested that the game was meant primarily for non-sufferers, as an educational tool, as a way to demonstrate a very difficult to convey state of mind. I really appreciate Depression Quest for what it manages to accomplish, which, I think, is just that (assuming the non-sufferer comes to it with an open mind). And I think it was worth the bad memories, the choking fear of long term relapse, the heavy breathing and darkening that sometimes comes with an especially powerful trigger, to experience it. But I’d have to agree with the warning. I don’t think Depression Quest is for people who suffer from depression. Not really. They don’t need the simulation. They have the real thing.

A game like Roguelight, on the other hand – firmly based in fantasy and nightmare as it is, set in that Jungian dream space, that phenomenological memory construct – might be a bit more appropriate. For me, it became a sort of symbolic Depression Quest, a simplified parable that helped me make sense of those troubled, oppressive states of mind, those seemingly impossible slogs through the dark. It was all so familiar: the monsters, the shadows, the limited supply of deployable light sources, the risk of proceeding without illumination, without knowing what’s out there, without knowing if there’s an end to it at all, and whether it’s an end worth reaching in the first place. That’s what dungeons are really like. That’s what dungeons are about. Dungeons are bleak, deep, and all pervasive. Dungeons are about entrapment, about a loss of control.


Sometimes, of course, a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes a small, simple, modest game is just a small, simple, modest game. It is possible that I’m reading too much into it. It’s possible that the clearly talented Mr. Linssen had merely set out to do exactly that, to make an engaging, interesting rogue-like platformer in the time available to him and with the resources available to him. He has, of course, succeeded on that account.  But it is very unlikely that he didn’t consider the implications of what he was making or had made. Every formal aspect of his creation is simply too well considered, too thoughtfully executed. I strongly suspect that the conceptual aspects of the game received similar consideration. Ultimately, however, the reading takes precedence over authorial intent, each and every time. And I cannot shake, cannot see my way past, my own reading.

Roguelight is a great little game, but it’s also melancholic and, in some ways, punishing. I am not absolutely sure why I kept playing as long as I did. Perhaps it had something to do with games being theoretically winnable. By practicing, by learning its dangers and quirks, I could, and did, do better and better each time. There is hope of beating the darkness, isn’t there?  That’s not something that ordinary life, where years of effort could come to nothing, where you might be fine one day and broken the next, can guarantee. Perhaps it had something to do with the dungeon itself, the pitch black, truly stifling, truly frightening dungeon, the dungeon as effective metaphor, the dungeon as the centerpiece of an ever changing artwork, the dungeon as symbol, and the symbol as catharsis.


Don’t Look Back: Choice, Consequence, Unrest

Posted on: August 2nd, 2014 by Aleks Samoylov

The Next Leap…

The mission prompt informs me that I am now Tanya, an introverted, intelligent peasant girl of fifteen, but it doesn’t really insist on it. Following the introductory sentence, the narration shifts to the third person. And that’s just as well, I figure. From my experience with the two preceding vignettes, short but potent, I know that I ought not become too attached, lest heartbreak follow. Pyrodactyl’s Unrest, with its heady mix of fictional politics and human drama and its cast worthy of a Tolstoy novel, is not, after all, Tanya’s story. Not exclusively, in any case. I have a god’s eye view (paradoxically both detached and focused) of her drought stricken village, but I have already learned that my power is limited. I am not God. I am not even Doctor Sam Beckett. According to the description on the tin: “…there are no heroes of legend, there is no mystical quest, and fate has not chosen you.” Foreboding words, but the proof is in the pudding.


From the very beginning, it was clear to me that Pyrodactyl’s promises of deep interactivity and role playing freedom have, in fact, been fulfilled, but what the player can and can’t actually accomplish is really a matter of scope and scale. As Chitra, a seasoned ambassador from the Naga Empire (a prosperous nation of sentient and comparatively enlightened serpent beings that serves, in large part, as a convenient means to address xenophobia), I had full reign over my words and actions, if little else. I decided that Chitra was to be a paragon of diplomatic virtues, cordial, sensitive to cultural differences, quick with a joke when it suited him, and, above all, dedicated to his mission, one of peace, security, and mutual profit. I could, however, have easily turned him into an arrogant, demanding hard liner, or a cold and calculating manipulator. I couldn’t predict or avert the inevitable disasters to follow (there wouldn’t have been much of a plot otherwise), nor could I leave the confines of the royal gardens, where the controversial treaty between the Naga Empire and the humans of Bhitra was to be negotiated and signed, but I was free to do my best, free to choose how my character, my charge, responded to the limiting circumstances at hand.


Metaverse Reverie, Episode 5 – Everyone in Philly Is a Serial Killer

Posted on: July 29th, 2014 by Aleks Samoylov

Better late than never, and this episode makes up for the delay (which was precipitated by a mixture of ennui and a series of white knuckle adventure junkets) by being extra long. It also includes an amazing and edifying segment on the high cost of living, and what you, yes you, can do about it! Also, talking robots, as always. On we float. This week, we begin the discussion with Heavy Rain and episodic vs. long form experiences, continue on to more L.A. Noire and Assassin’s Creed, and then transition into some dark and soulfully confessional Dark Souls confessions. It gets pretty real.

The music for this episode was provided by the fantastic Holographic Sticker Club. The intro is taken from Gravitational Collapse, and the outro from Drop 5.
Pick up “This is not a Tset” (pay what you want).

Links and Things We Screwed Up

– Rebecca’s new face was introduced in Assassin’s Creed 3.
– The original leader of the Assassins (in the real world) was Hassan-i Sabbah (Aleks got him confused with the fictional author of the Necronomicon).
– On Scrubs, the character of Elliot Reid was portrayed by Sarah Chalke. She also played Becky on Roseanne, which is actually a pretty decent sitcom.
– Probably other stuff (“I’m really not as thorough about this, as I probably should be.” — Aleks)

The End of Something: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love The Secret World

Posted on: July 23rd, 2014 by Aleks Samoylov

“They finally immanentized the Eschaton”
The Eye and the Pyramid (from the Illuminatus Trilogy),
by Robert Shea & Robert Anton Wilson

“…Mountains sit in a line, Leonard Bernstein…”

Unlike most roleplaying games, Funcom’s The Secret World doesn’t hide the apocalypse behind vague prophesy or in a pocket dimension at the terminus of time. The End isn’t couched in the endgame, something to anticipate and prevent. It isn’t a matter of a final showdown, or a final revelation. In The Secret World, the eschatalogical event is the main floor show and the opening act. Even the lowliest lowbies, fresh from their faction hubs, quickly learn that what they’ve been made privy to is, quite literally, the end of the world as we know it.

Zombies and sea beasts have all but overrun the once sleepy (now feverishly tossing) town of Kingsmouth. The small Egyptian settlement of Al’Merayah is besieged by a legion of Filth infected cultists and the Biblical plagues (those are some big goddamn bugs) seem to have returned in full force. The Transylvanian village of Har’baburesti stands on the front line of a vicious vampire crusade as the monstrous legacies of Soviet experimentation emerge from their former obscurity and stomp across the frozen ground of the Carpathians. In Tokyo, the dark, viscous substance known mainly as “The Filth” (that same mysterious abomination that lies at the root of the global conflagration) pours out of the subway tunnels and snakes up the sides of skyscrapers. A massive Quarantine wall has been erected around the affected area, but while it does appear imposing, even oppressive, to the fleshy human observer, some of the Filth monsters can fly. The Filth is infectious, virulent. It overtakes and corrupts any ordinary life form it comes in contact with. It’s only a matter of time.


Strangely enough, the power remains on in Kaidan (the epicenter of the Tokyo disaster). The streets are well lit. The billboards and neon signs wink at their surroundings. But the sidewalks and the roads are eerily empty, eerily quiet. What remains of the citizenry has long been transformed by the squirming blackness.

These recently infected once-people are the most disturbing of all, worse than the giant locusts, or the vampiric soldiers, or the ravening undead. You encounter them in every corner of the world, humanoid husks (many wearing the clothes they were “caught” in) with blackened skin and glowing eyes. They don’t merely growl, or snarl, or chitter. They speak, they rant. The ones in Kingsmouth rant in English, one moment pleading for some unmentioned entity to leave them alone, to get out of their head, the next obsessing over their misplaced keys. The ones in Kaidan speak mostly in Japanese (which I don’t understand), but a few of them, on spotting an investigator, have been known to utter a hearty “fuck you” as they pull their target toward them (at least I think that’s what they’re saying).

While the Bees, Gaia’s Chosen, (the players) have the enviable benefit of functional immortality, and the heads of the Illuminati, the Dragon, and the Knights Templar do their best to put on a confident facade, there is no permanent safety in this new world. Even as you relax over a pint in Ealdwick (the Diagon Alley of The Secret World), or watch the rain from a Karaoke bar in Seoul, or rub shoulders with the occulted hipsters of Brooklyn, you understand that all too often a haven is, in fact, merely the eye of the hurricane. Somewhere out there, the darkness isn’t waiting. It’s tearing the world apart, slowly but surely, molecule by molecule.


Metaverse Reverie, Episode 4 – Gaia’s Wrath

Posted on: July 15th, 2014 by Aleks Samoylov

Gaia is angry, and Aleks becomes her prophet, preaching destruction and revelation. Fires, plagues, hail and thunder. Mighty winds that can move mountains. The feathered serpent Quetzalcoatl is poised to return to the mortal plane. All the world is a cheap snow globe, and we’ve shook it up one time too many, goddamn it. Aside from all of that, Aleks and Arie celebrate their fourth episode (making for a full month’s worth of delicious content), and discuss replaying old classics, and exploring new ones. They also spend a fair chunk of the podcast gushing about Divinity: Original Sin.

The music for this episode was provided by the fantastic Holographic Sticker Club. The intro is taken from Gravitational Collapse, and the outro from Drop 5.
Pick up “This is not a Tset” (pay what you want).

Links and Things We Screwed Up

– Simon Templeton voiced Kain in the Legacy of Kain series.
– The Art of Video Games exhibit was, and possibly still is, housed at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.