Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Atroxity's Progress Meter

The progress meter for chapter 1.2--the next installment of our online graphic novel Atroxity--has been updated to 27%.  Fair enough, but what exactly does this mean?

Our online progress meter.
Way back when snow coated the ground, mammoths roamed the earth, and Team Atroxity was studiously working away on the beginning of chapter one, we made the decision to eschew publishing new material one page at a time in favor of waiting until we had 10-14 page scenes ready to share as a whole.  Weekly single page publishing schemes work well for almost everyone else out there, so why not head in the other direction, eh?

None of us felt that releasing Atroxity in page-sized drips made much sense.  Atroxity was written to be read as a book, and it's paced accordingly.  Reading Atroxity in single-page intervals would place too much emphasis on any one page and disrupt the flow of the story.

Of course, want to know what else disrupts the flow of the story?  A nine month wait between updates.

But, uh, we're working on that. Our page rate is slowly but surely increasing, and each scene has gone more smoothly than the previous one (believe it or not).  We've also starting sharing behind-the-scenes art on our Facebook page in an attempt to tide fans over during the wait.

Behind-the-scenes prologue shot shared
on our Facebook page.
At the center of this all, of course, is the new progress meter on the Atroxity website, which is an attempt to make progress toward the next Atroxity installment more transparent and reduce the feeling of Atroxity being this rash-like thing that rears its head every few months and then fades back away into nothing.  Writing isn't represented in the progress meter because the script has been more or less complete for awhile, but the entire visual process is: roughs, pencils, inks, digital layouts, and colors are all in there somewhere.

The progress meter may not communicate much more beyond a simple percentage amount, but it does kinda sorta allow readers to follow progress and see that Atroxity is very much an active and ongoing project, even if the activity is currently below the surface.  New material might not be available on a weekly basis, but an updated visual representing the ever-closing distance toward new material is.

And let's be honest: nothing quite constitutes gripping entertainment like seeing an online progress meter jump from 20% to 27%.

Well, it'll all pay off once that meter reaches 100%.  I promise.

And until then: more progress information is available on our Twitter feed, and sketches and behind-the-scenes goodies are appearing on our Facebook page.

See you kids there.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Atroxity: the Online Graphic Novel

"Bad things happen to bad people in dark locales."

Sound appealing?

Maybe not, but that's the sorta-joking shorthand description I've adopted for my current creative project.

Well, calling it my current creative project is rather misleading, seeing as how it is the creative project in my life right now, the creative project I've been working on for so long that I don't remember what life was like before it began to infect my brain.

The project is a graphic novel.  Hell, the project is a series of graphic novels, because I hate genre fiction's tendency to sprawl and I am a raging hypocrite.  Nothing quite earns an eye roll from me like the words "part one of an epic series," and yet the book we are working on is part one of an epic series.  Sorry, my fault!

The epic series is called Atroxity, and the first book is being unveiled as we speak, piece by labored piece.

And when I say labored, I mean it.  Each and every finished page is a veritable time-sucking black hole, from the writing--which is now more or less done--to the roughs to the pencils to the inks to the digital layouts to the colors.  If "bad things happening to bad people in dark locales" doesn't sound like the most compelling grounds upon which to invest minutes of time reading, imagine spending months upon years on it.

Fortunately, I'm not carrying the load alone.  A team has grown to handle the staggering task of bringing Atroxity to life.  I'm the writer and general project lead, Luke Master is handling pencils and inks, and Mike Barczak is on colors and tones.

I may have started Atroxity but it is no longer entirely mine, and I couldn't be happier about it.  Atroxity is now an equal partnership that is growing and mutating out of my sole control, which gives me that new dad grin as I watch my baby waddle out of my protective embrace and off toward the first day of school.  Atroxity will probably turn out to be a paste-eating troublemaker that pees down the playground slide, but that would be rather fitting for something easily summed up as "bad things happen to bad people in dark locales."

Okay, so it is admittedly more than the whole "bad people" thing, and in fact the story eventually includes a lot of humor and action sequences and scenes where people say important things and cry.  The tale starts dark and gets darker, true, but there will be a lot more places visited along the way than might be immediately obvious.

And so my actual, serious, trying-to-sum-up-Atroxity-so-that-you-might-consider-reading-it-spiel is as follows:

"Atroxity is character-driven urban fantasy noir graphic novel in which one man attempts to unravel the secrets of the dark and dizzying city in which he finds himself."

Does that sound better?  Find out for yourself: over twenty pages are currently live at the Atroxity website with more coming soon.

Check it out, follow us on facebook, climb on board for the ride.

Atroxity: The Online Graphic Novel

Monday, June 25, 2012

Snow White and the Huntsman: A Review

On Friday, June 22nd, 2012, my fiancée and I engaged in an activity that we had yet to do in our twenty months together, an activity that most couples knock out within the first few dates.

This activity we did--our first time together ever, my first time in two years--was the following: we went to see a movie in a theater.

What the hell, right?  One of the core perks of dating someone is having a movie partner, so how is it possible that we made it this far without slapping down twenty dollars and sitting in a massive air-conditioned chamber of complete strangers while images flickered across a screen as large as our living room?

It was pretty weird, actually.


Not just a clever title.
The movie was Snow White and the Huntsman, a film that didn't really possess any quality to justify being our first movie together, except that (1) we knew it was time to finally do this going-to-a-movie-thing, and (2) we were both willing to see it.

Besides, a certain perverse part of me kind of liked the idea of ending our cinematic drought with a movie that neither of us quite felt a burning need to see.  Why add the pressure?

Gritty remake of a fairy tale that happens to have mediocre-at-best reviews?

Let's do it.


It isn't as if we haven't seen any movies, of course, we've just watched them in our basement on our big ass television.  As such, home always had the following advantages over theaters: convenience, price, the ability to pause for a whoa-did-I-drink-all-that pee break.

On the other hand, theaters have the advantage of not being directly adjacent to three cat boxes.


I was expecting Snow White and the Huntsman to be watchable but lackluster, both of which the movie is.  I was not expecting it to be a Lord of the Rings knock off, which the movie also is.   Snow White and the Huntsman features a fated hero on a quest to topple an evil and godlike overlord, a journey that transforms the hero from a sheltered babe in the woods to a knife-swinging unlikely warrior.

The Huntsman, i.e. "Strider-on-the-sauce."
Assisting on this journey is a dirty, sweaty ranger-type of initially questionable character, and the party is later joined by a lithe, pretty boy archer and a gang of wisecracking dwarves.  All of this culminates in a climactic battle with armored armies clashing with as much clanging intensity as a PG-13 rating allows.

Add to this a heavy dollop of Guillermo del Toro-ish fairy tale visual detail, a Pan's Labyrinth-like inspired combination of fantasy and horror.

Unfortunately, any movie imagined at the words "Lord of the Rings with Guillermo del Toro" is far better than the one that actually made it to the screen as Snow White and the Huntsman.


As the theater initially dimmed and the first trailer whirred to life in front of us, I had this enormous sense of getting reacquainted with something that once was incredibly familiar.  The entire ritual of watching a movie in a theater was suddenly novel, and the fact that it was novel was also, well, novel.

"I know this," I thought.  "I can do this."


It isn't that Snow White and the Huntsman is a bad movie, of course.  It holds together just fine and delivers a solid three acts.  If I find the concept of a serious and dark retelling of a fairy tale not exactly fresh, well that's just my fault for going to see a movie clearly advertised as such, right?

Sometimes Snow White wears armor.
The acting is pretty solid, if you ignore the parts where people shout real loud.  Kristen Stewart is far more convincing as Snow White than I'd heard, although she lacks the weight to make the third act transition into a warrior general--her attempt at shouting an inspirational speech conveys all the charm of a teen having a tantrum over a confiscated iPhone.

Charlize Theron steals the show as the evil queen, a woman whose facial expression alone conveys fathomless depths of icy menace.  Well, except for the few instances where she unconvincingly shouts and momentarily drag the movie into the territory of Sci Fi Channel originals.

Chris Hemsworth as the Huntsman, though, can shout pretty well.


Charlize Theron: in no real danger of being upstaged by Kristen Stewart
in this whole "fairest of all" business.
Things my fiancée and I have done together instead of watching movies in theaters:
  • Cooking
  • Dancing
  • Gardening
  • Painting
  • Geocaching
  • Hiking
  • Cleaning (unglamorous but sometimes necessary)
  • Travelling
  • Swimming
  • Enjoying a beer outside at a micro brewery
  • Perusing farmer's markets
  • Attending local festivals
  • Going to art fairs
  • Drinking spiked hot chocolate while doing crossword puzzles
  • Purchasing a giant ceramic white deer head
  • Driving to a soapbox derby that was held on the previous day
  • Other things

Snow White and the Huntsman was directed by someone I've never heard of before named Rupert Sanders, and the new kid gets a bit of a mixed grade.

Rupert clearly did his homework studying the Battle of Helm's Deep, but he never quite gets the hang of battlefield choreography in Snow White and the Huntsman.  There is no escalation of tension before the fighting breaks, and the violent mayhem itself lacks rhythm.  Perhaps most odd in a $170 million dollar movie, there is also frequent breaking of the 180 degree rule, rendering the battle a confused mess.  There are still some decent bits, but aping Peter Jackson isn't the best idea if Peter Jackson is a lot better at this sort of thing than you.  Grade: C

An evil witch taking a milk bath is but one of the
splendors Rupert has up his sleeve.
Outside of battles, scenes mostly unfold without truly engaging, remaining entertaining but lacking the structure and timing to really invite us in.  It takes time to establish why we should care about anything that happens on screen, and Rupert doesn't quite have the innate sense yet of when it isn't all coalescing together, even if he's close.  Grade: B

Where Rupert truly excels, however, is in imagining crazy-ass fantasy shit and bringing it to the screen intact. Ravens fly together to form a woman, hands melt like wax, fairies pop out of the feathery chests of birds like benevolent parasites.  Rupert has the skill to visualize a heady blend of magic and nightmare, and he's not afraid to toe the line between awe-inspiring and disturbing.  Even better, most of his CGI creations have presence and weight--I could almost smell the fetid breath of a lumbering and snuffing forest troll.  Grade: A

Final Verdict: the new kid's first film is a bit of a mixed bag but he's definitely got some skill.  Grade: B


When we were driving to dinner before the movie--classic date business, folks--I turned to my fiancée and said, "I hope this movie has dinosaurs in it."

She paused, thinking, and said, "What movie are we seeing again?"

We both laughed at this.

The movie does deliver on fantastic and eye popping visuals.
Two hours later, the forest troll suddenly appeared on screen in all its massive otherworldly glory.

"I thought I was being funny," I thought.  "But this movie could very well actually have dinosaurs in it."

It didn't, but this all underlined just how little we had invested in Snow White and the Huntsman.  But we were long past due to finally see a movie together, and sometimes you just go see one particular film because hey, it's Friday night and why not?

Snow White and the Huntsman most definitely isn't a great movie, but it was an enjoyable enough way to step back into the world of seeing movies in theaters.  Rupert Sanders may not have constructed a masterpiece, but he's talented enough to possibly have one in him.

And you know who just might head out to see it in the theaters?

Me and my fiancée.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Returning to Dungeon Master, Pt. 6: All Tales Must End

This is a series about my recent attempt to play the classic CRPG Dungeon Master, and it will contain minor spoilers regarding this game.  I can't imagine they won't be common knowledge to anyone who cares--the game is 25 years old, after all--but consider yourself forewarned.  You also might want to first read Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, and Part Five.

Zed and his intrepid companions were clearly staring down the barrel of the end game, and as such we knew it was time to get any remaining affairs in order--stock up on potions, fill our waterskins, sign each others' yearbooks, that sort of things.

I also decided to take a break and finally reread the backstory that came with the original manual.  I summarized it back in part two, but I figured now was the time to fully get back up to speed so that I was launching into the final battles with a full perspective on what was at stake.  Plus, the story had captivated my imagination as a kid to such a degree that I spent an afternoon drawing a comic book adaptation, complete with "EXCITING FIRST ISSUE" cover art.

Yes, you read that correctly: creating comic book adaptations of video games is what I did instead of actually making progress in said video games.

So I now found the backstory online.  I settled into a comfortable position and opened the first page, ready to be transported to an imaginary world of magic and mystery.

This didn't really happen.  The story wasn't very good.

I lamented the poor choices I made as a kid and reloaded Dungeon Master.

It took me 25 years to see these words firsthand.
Grim with firsthand knowledge of the foe we faced, Zed and company trekked back up to level seven--the Tomb of the Firestaff--and unlocked the last sealed RA door blocking access to the inner chambers. We used our one blue key to gain a fourth pair of boots of speed--thus giving my party a complete set, as the tale of acquiring the other three pairs met the "Returning to Dungeon Master" cutting room floor--and we opened some other doors to meet the guardians of the Firestaff: massive, dead-eyed stone golems.

"Now that's a whole lot of gravel," said Zed.

In a lot of ways Dungeon Master is the perfect stat-based RPG. Use skills and they improve. Use skills and stats go up. Use skills and better attacks and spell powers are unlocked.  Use skills and your party is able to take and deal more damage.  All from using skills.

When I first stumbled across level seven, had I somehow managed get past the locked barriers the stone golems would no doubt have whack-a-moled my party clear through the stone floor, but returning now meant that my party could stand face-to-face with these hulking beasts and emerge victorious.

Well, as long as there was a door handy to slam against them repeatedly and no shortage of healing potions, but the point still stands: Zed and company were getting powerful, and it was very satisfying.

Once all the stone golems were dispatched I liberated the Firestaff from its resting place, pausing first to catch up on the required reading left sitting around that revealed the late game plot twist.  As common knowledge as this twist is--I've known it since my buddy spilled the beans during that fateful aborted playthrough 25 years ago--it's still ridiculously cool.

See, the manual is essentially one big overwritten fake-out, and various notes around the Firestaff chambers drop hints that you might want to think twice before completing the stated goal of the game and returning the Firestaff to the order half of fantasy world Jesus.  Instead, the scattered notes indicate that something called a power gem can be fused to the Firestaff and then used to defeat a being of pure alignment (i.e., Chaos).

It's actually a pretty cool idea, and I can only imagine what is was like to uncover all this back when the game was an unexplored frontier.  As is, Zed was confused, Elija let out a dumbfounded "whoooaaah, mon," and Boris just tossed the Firestaff in his backpack so that we could start the long slog back to level one.

That's right, why miss out on an opportunity to witness some crazy shit?  A journey through Dungeon Master isn't complete until you've returned to the front doors to present the Firestaff to law dude from the overwritten backstory, so return we did.

This is what happens if you play Dungeon Master as
outlined in the manual.
Sure enough, the front doors flew open to reveal Captain Order with his arms spread like a sheet-wearing ghost in a community haunted house, and after a few terse words the asshole incinerated my party and urinated on the ashes.

(the urination part was implied via the words "The End")

"There is no way I'm going out with my last meal being a cross section of dead worm," thought Boris the dead wizard, and so he whipped up a quick Reload Save Game spell and we were back in the Tomb of the Firestaff, everyone shaken but very much alive.

Our party cleared out the remainder of the Tomb of the Firestaff, and Zed snagged the most powerful sword available for his skill set, a gleaming beauty named Inquisitor that ended up never seeing so much as one second of battle.

"I can probably use this to slice grapefruit," Zed said.

Anyway, my four champions were now armed with the Firestaff and, crucially, a key that unlocked level fourteen, the deepest level of the dungeon that contained the power gem needed to convert the Firestaff into a utensil of Chaos defeat.

You can technically avoid fighting the dragon if
you want, but who could walk away from this face?
Level fourteen also contained a dragon.

Dragons are murder on security deposits.
Facing off against the dragon was a somewhat tense skirmish in which the entire party finally used some of the time-freezing magic boxes that they had spent the rest of the game hoarding.  Each champion member tossed poison cloud spells and ven bombs at the dragon, until we finally just said "fuck it" and launched a shitload of cranked fireballs up its wingless reptilian ass. You wouldn't think a monster that launches fire from within would be vulnerable to fire from without, but before long there was nothing more than a smoking crater where once was a giant lizard nursing impossible dreams of flight.

"Dragon steak time, everyone!" Zed shouted, and then everyone ate dragon steak.

After a brief break to crack the window open in my computer room and turn on a fan because Christ it was getting hot in here, I fused the power gem to the Firestaff and headed up the stairs to take on Lord Chaos.

We stood in that familiar hallway again, steeling out nerves.

"This is it, the moment of truth," said Zed.  "Time to find out if we are men.  Or ladies, like Wu Tse."

"I guess I'll take that," said Wu Tse.

 We headed into the chamber for our one final rematch with Chaos.

Pictured: Lord Chaos.  Not pictured: the surrounding
demons, my soiled shorts.
Well, I wouldn't exactly say "one final rematch," as Lord Chaos was one slippery fucker. The climactic battle of Dungeon Master doesn't involve the slow whittling away of hitpoints from some enormous boss like most games, but instead a reflex-heavy attempt to trap the guy via the Firestaff and then "fuse" him once cornered. It's a somewhat inspired design choice, but it played out a bit like Elmer Fudd vs. Bugs Bunny, with us most definitely not representing long eared wiseacre.

Remember me calling the dragon battle somewhat tense? Squaring off against Lord Chaos was incredibly tense, and as I loaded and reloaded the battle I found myself wishing my computer room had more windows to open. This was due partially to the fact that this evil-herding end fight was the culmination of fourteen tough levels of dungeon, but the weight of 25 years' worth of gaming baggage also hung hot and heavy as my heart rolled like a machine gun and I pounded on the keyboard. My fiancée yelled upstairs at me to call my mother about our impending wedding, which had FUCK ALL to do with SAVING THE GODDAMN WORLD.

And then, suddenly, me and my four Elmer Fudds apparently did things just right and Chaos unexpectedly exploded in a prism of pride parade fireworks. He wobbled back and forth between various forms before suddenly turning into a beaming white-bearded old man, whom Elija no doubt recognized as a fellow reluctant super-warrior and ganja enthusiast.

Thanks, fantasy world Jesus!
Then some text scrolled by slowly--all of which was more succinct than the miserable backstory--and the game reduced my four champions to their final stats before proceeded to hang on this final screen.  Maybe there was a non-obvious way to exit out of it, or maybe the developers just figured winners of the game would want their monitors permanently rendered a Dungeon Master victory trophy, but whatever the case I force closed the program and sat there staring at my desktop, drinking in the adrenaline rush of victory.

Dungeon Master was the big, bad, unbeatable game of my youth, and it now lay sprawled out at my feet in defeat.

I picked up the phone and called my mom to talk about the wedding.

Final party stats:

Zed Duke of Banville
  • << Master Fighter
  • Craftsman Ninja
  • Expert Priest
  • Expert Wizard

Wu Tse Son of Heaven
  • Artisan Fighter
  • Artisan Ninja
  • Expert Priest
  • << Master Wizard

Elija Lion of Yaitopya
  • << Master Fighter
  • Craftsman Ninja
  • Expert Priest
  • Expert Wizard

Boris Wizard of Baldor
  • Artisan Fighter
  • Artisan Ninja
  • Adept Priest
  • Expert Wizard

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Returning to Dungeon Master, Pt. 5: Stairway to Hell

This is a series about my recent attempt to play the classic CRPG Dungeon Master, and it will contain minor spoilers regarding this game.  I can't imagine they won't be common knowledge to anyone who cares--the game is 25 years old, after all--but consider yourself forewarned.  You also might want to first read Part One, Part Two, Part Three, and Part Four.

Look, I'm not even going to try to dress this one up: there is something incredibly cool going on at the center of the lower levels of Dungeon Master, and I am about to spoil it utterly.

That's right, if you've also got unfinished business with this game and you're eyeing up a potential run, you might want to avoid this next bit entirely.

All clear?  Good.

Because that skeleton key Zed found unlocked a secret staircase that plunged right down through the remaining six levels of the dungeon.  Like a stone drainage tube cutting through the meat and heading straight for the bottom.  Along the way was a landing for each descending level, landings that were blocked off but could eventually be unlocked and connected to their respective level as a whole.

See, I kinda sorta knew there was some sort of connecting staircase that minimized backtracking in the lower levels of the dungeon, but for some reason the reality of this skeleton stairway caught me completely surprised.  I expected a useful series of stairs, yeah, but what I didn't expect was the feeling of finding a hidden maintenance door and stumbling into a behind-the-scenes stretch of dungeon.  It felt like I had gained privileged employee access behind the walls and discovered a stairway intended for shift breaks and emergency fire drills.

Question: how cool is this keyhole for the skeleton staircase?
Answer: 80's  hair metal cool.
Add to this the fact that this stairway was always unlocked by sticking a key in a badass grinning skull, and you've got one seriously cool feature blowing my jaded gaming brain a good 25 years after it was implemented.

This skeleton staircase also changed the way the game was played, as the dungeon suddenly went from a fairly linear progression of levels--descend to a new level, find the stairs down to the next one, rinse and repeat--to a series of individual levels that could be opened and revisited.  Dungeon Master was reaching new heights of openness with the discovery of this skeleton staircase, a discovery tellingly made on Dungeon Master's most literally open level.

And as I mentioned before, the skeleton staircase managed to surprise me, which ushered in the third phase of my Dungeon Master playthrough: I was officially off the map of what I had ever known and instead fully immersed in the unfamiliar. I had heard of pain rats and the knight dudes, yeah, and I was aware of the general structure of the last two levels, but I hadn't witnessed any of it firsthand. What had started as a nostalgic romp through the game of my youth had transitioned into a late-game experience that was new and unexpected.  Dungeon Master was turning out to simply be an amazing and fun game, even when detached from childhood baggage.

Home sweet home.
There was one final benefit of the skeleton staircase and it was this: the hidden and locked off series of landings provided a new safe camp spot for my party of wandering nomads left homeless by the abandonment of the screamer room.  We had a new base and it was at a nexus that spanned all of the remaining levels.

Once Zed and company finished unpacking their moving boxes and decorating the walls of their new home--"I've been carrying around that mounted beholder head since "I Hate Cowards," whined Zed--they took in a solid night of sleep, enjoyed a big breakfast, and punched in their time cards at the start of level nine.

Which, for the most part, was uneventful but enjoyable.  There were nasty Orko-looking motherfuckers who launched various spells at Zed and company, spells which mostly functioned as justification for the slaughter of Orko-looking motherfuckers that inevitably followed.  I think there were some rust monsters in there too, but they seemed like a rough idea that the developers never got around to deleting from subsequent drafts.

I forced my party into a small amount of food farming and training with the pain rat in their generating den, only to discover that pain rats are far too aptly named to ever be used for something as mundane as training. Zed and friends emerged battered, bloody, and in strong need of a drink.

Pain rats want to kill you more than you want to kill them.
They also escaped from this skirmish with multiple KFC buckets of drumsticks, which they hauled back to their new camp spot to drop next to three chests full of food, all of which is undoubtedly still rotting on that staircase landing next to discarded flasks, ninja stars, magic boxes, special swords, various necklaces, extra rings, and additional capes.

It was like the world's nerdiest episode of Hoarders.

On we trudged, each level increasingly blending together into one big blur.  Level ten wasn't too difficult, despite Zed repeatedly wandering over a monster trigger that resulted in a veritable army of giant scorpions. The return of beholders was like a reunion with old friends, albeit one in which you kill said friends and raid their corpses.

Level eleven's clockwise/turn back circular hallways stumped even our diminutive wizard Boris--"not so short now, are you?" taunted Zed, which Boris pointed out didn't even make sense--but we eventually passed it due to a level of just-fucking-around that I'm not entirely comfortable with when puzzle solving.  It was also good to see Trolins return, especially as it gave me an opportunity to toss the back row up to the front to gain some fighting experience.

At least I think the Trolins were on level eleven.

"As we get older the years just keep passing faster and faster," said Zed.

Giant scorpions, one of the more visually impressive monsters in the game.
I actually had a decent strategy with my party at this point, a solid mix of ranged spellcasting by all four members and toe-to-toe combat with my (sometimes rotated) front row. Each party member would brew their own healing and buffing potions, which meant that for the most part everyone was gaining experience in everything (except for the now-languishing Ninja skill, which seemed like more trouble than it was worth).

One side effect of this even distribution of action was a certain strong willed independent-mindedness of the skills that leveled up, the results of which were often surprising. Wu Tse, our party's ninja, wound up surpassing our designated wizard Boris in the art of magic, and good old Elija Lion of Yaitopya, the game's tribute to Rastafarianism, managed to somehow overcome his pacifism and intended priest role to first achieve the level of &lt;&lt; Master Fighter.

Elija shook his head and sighed, white dreaded beard partially covering his full suit of Darc armor, as he carved a bloody path of destruction with Hardcleave and wondered where, exactly, he had gone wrong.

"I'll catch up soon," Zed said.  "I had a sprained finger that set me back a bit."

Level twelve was a bit more of a challenge, with the magic-impervious knights and the Oitu-generating room that warned that cowards would be "hunted down and killed." Believe me, I had to reload that one a few times to prove those words wrong. Zed and company eventually found the final necessary RA key to unlock the Firestaff from level seven, but opted to clear out the remainder of level twelve before heading back.

For the most part all of this was a blur, but at the end of level twelve my party did have one experience worth mentioning, and that one experience is this:

Elija, reluctant Rastafarian warrior.
Zed and his companions fell through a pit in the floor; a normal enough event in the game of Dungeon Master, and in true normal event fashion we decided to explore the area in which we had landed.

They killed one of those black fire things and found some stairs up, presumably back to the tail end of level twelve. Deciding to explore on, we turned a corner, walked down a hallway, and entered a room large enough to extend into darkness. The entrance was lined with more black fire guys, and Zed and Boris were debating just what to do about them when Wu Tse spotted two giant demon things with arm tentacles lurking in the distance.

Opting for the relative safety of the hallway, we backed out of the room and waited for the demons to approach to attempt fighting them on our terms. We saw a black shape framed against the darkness of the room--"Funny, that doesn't look like a demon," remarked Zed--and then blood drained from my face and fingers when out of the darkness and flanked by black fire stepped the unmistakable form of Lord Chaos, endgame boss and master of the entire dungeon.

"Holy shit, mon!" shouted Elija.

"Well would you look at that," marveled Zed.

I, for my part, released a startled shout of terror that frankly doesn't happen very often when playing video games.  We frantically backed out and ran up the stairs, leaving behind a trail of "OH SHIT"s in our wake.

"Everything okay up there?" my fiancée asked from downstairs.

"Uh, more or less," I replied.

Zed and company returned to our camp spot on the skeleton staircase landings and caught their breath, knowing more than ever that the end was near for our trip through this massive, sprawling dungeon.

It was time to head back up to the Tomb of the Firestaff and free the one and only weapon that could take this fucker on.

Up next:  golems and dragons and prayers, oh my!

Monday, June 11, 2012

Returning to Dungeon Master, Pt. 4: To Have and Behold

This is a series about my recent attempt to play the classic CRPG Dungeon Master, and it will contain minor spoilers regarding this game.  I can't imagine they won't be common knowledge to anyone who cares--the game is 25 years old, after all--but consider yourself forewarned.  You also might want to first read Part One, Part Two, and Part Three.

Now that I'm leaning back in my study chair while stroking my chin and making deep thought faces, I can see that my Dungeon Master playthrough attempt consisted of three distinct stages.

The first stage is more or less what I've documented so far: the somewhat inept early-game revisiting of the first few levels that carried the most nostalgic baggage from my youth. I was basically a tourist in an aspect of my childhood, an aspect that also happened to contain horrible monsters that wanted nothing more than to rip off my head. This was the section of the game that is Dungeon Master to me.  This is what I talk about when I talk bout Dungeon Master.

Nothing like a room full of teleportation fields to test one's
 policy of avoiding online walkthroughs.
Once Zed and his companions entered level five--another branching level--I entered phase two, which consisted of me somewhat easily knocking out several levels that I still had some familiarity with, due to the map studying I did as a kid and the playthrough to level six that I witnessed back in 1987.  The challenges on these levels weren't exactly well known to me, but they still contained roots that traced back to my youth, however tenuously.

"Oh look, the teleportation room!" I said, as I encountered the teleportation room.

"Oh wow, flying snake things!" I said, as flying snake things killed all four of my champions.

Phase two also featured some backtracking to the screamer room on level four for training and food restocking. Oddly enough, though, once I had easy access to food I no longer found myself needed it, as my party somehow stopped burning through the stuff like a Japanese kid in a hotdog-eating contest.  Not even the enticing prospect of more screamer slices or dungeon floor apples could rouse up the appetite of Zed and company.

Rethinking occupational hazards while fighting a
 flying snake in a room full of pits.
Level five didn't throw up any excessively difficult barriers and my party made reasonably quick work of it. I remembered the pit room from my youth, and I also remembered my buddy fighting flying snakes in the middle of the fucking thing, a memory I was able to revisit multiple times when accidentally triggering a monster spawn point repeatedly.

"Do you men ever feel like we're slogging through the same fight over and over?"  Zed asked.

"I'm not a man," Wu Tse said.  "My character pic clearly has breasts."

"Sorry," Zed said.

"And fighting poisonous flying snakes is my favorite thing."

They reached level six, which contained beholders and skeletons, both of which were enjoyable monsters to fight (especially as neither poisons the party, a welcome relief after the party-poisoning poison party that was level five). Level six also held some personal nostalgic weight, as it was the last level I personally saw any of as a kid, as my buddy's playthrough was abandoned when we suffered a total party wipeout on level six and were then called to come upstairs and wash up for dinner.

My friend went on to eventually beat the game on his own, whereas I went on to keep playing the first couple levels over and over.

Until now.

It's odd revisiting a game nestled a good 25 years deep in my past. A child's developing brain tends to blow things cartoonishly out of proportion, and then the passing of time distorts things even further.

Taking on beholders in the odd-shaped pillared room.  The beholder's
open eye means something bad is about to happen.
A few years ago I visited San Francisco for the first time since my youth and it was a constant stream of uncovering memories long dormant and then finding reality smaller and more normal in comparison (although not exactly in a bad way). Oddly enough, returning to Dungeon Master as an adult provided a similar experience--this massive challenge from my youth was incredible and playable, but at the end of the day it was just a game. In much the same way that Chinatown is an (awesome) thin sliver of streets as opposed to the vast empire I perceived it to be as a kid, the open, odd-shaped pillared room on level six that killed my buddy's party proved to be just an (awesome) open, odd-shaped pillared room, as opposed to the mystery-shrouded chamber of genocide that I pored over on those BBS maps.

Now the room was an (awesome) open, odd-shaped pillared room that Zed and friends used as beholder target practice.  16 bit high-fives all around!

I really love what the dead skeletons have done with the place.
Anyway, we beat level six and quickly tracked back to the level four screamer room for a training session, at which point I discovered that training at the level four screamer room was no longer a worthwhile endeavor. My party had outgrown any real benefits the room granted, and so we said one final farewell to our first safe camping spot.

"There were too many screamer slices on the floor to find a good place to sleep, anyway," said Zed.

Level seven was mostly closed off, due to being the motherfukkin TOMB OF THE FIRESTAFF. I winked it a saucy "see you later" and descended to level eight, i.e. "The Arena."

Or, at least, it was called "The Arena" on those maps I studied as a kid, although the nickname doesn't seem to have survived the passage of time. Level eight originally held a lot of fascination for me due to its vast, open nature, despite (or due to) the fact that I never actually saw any of it firsthand. When flipping through the level maps as a kid it immediately jumped out at me, a massive, cavernous odd-level-out in a dungeon that otherwise seemed to be all snaking hallways and chambers.

"How can anyone even play this?" I wondered as a kid. "You're open on all sides!"

Party at the Arena, everyone is invited!
Well, as it turned out I can play this, and being open on all sides isn't that big a deal. The Arena was another Chinatown, with the staggeringly huge stadium of stone from my youth replaced with just one damn big room. The ghosts that wandered the level were dispatched easily enough with Zed and Elija's two vorpal blades, and the one giggler we encountered didn't steal a damn thing before death (which meant that I didn't yet really understand what an annoying plague they would soon come to be).

It was also on level eight that I noticed that monsters appear to scale up a bit, as we encountered some mummies--remember those?--that could take a fully juiced fireball and still shamble on toward us.

"Oh look at you!" Zed said. "All grown up and tough!"

"Not that tough," the mummies replied as they died.

It was also on level eight that I began to realize just what a monster Dungeon Master actually is, as opposed to the monster I perceived it to be as a kid.  The more I saw of the dungeon, the more I was impressed with the sheer size of the gauntlet that was thrown down when this game came out in 1987.

Dungeon Master was surprisingly well-realized for a first game in a series.  Often times it takes a sequel or two for developers to really figure out how far they can take things (e.g. Baldur's Gate), but Dungeon Master knocked it out of the park from the start. If you look at the other games that were current in 1987, DM could easily have cranked out a five hour experience and coasted by on the graphics and quasi-3D engine alone, and yet they crafted a deep, challenging dungeon that got increasingly weirder and less linear with each deeper floor.

Damage from the left, giggler in the front.
Despite a childhood spent poring over maps and an adulthood that featured no small amount of reminiscing online over a game that has been in discussion for 25 years, my current playthrough attempt still surprised me from time to time with moments of discovery.  It's pretty rare to revisit a thing loved in childhood and have it stand up, it's even more rare to go back and discover that the damn thing was even better than ever suspected.

Back in the heart of the dungeon, Zed and company made short work of level eight and found the stairs down. More importantly, though, they found a certain special key.

"My god," Zed said.  "It's--it's shaped like a skull."

"Maybe it goes in the skull carving over there with the keyhole in it," volunteered Boris, our diminutive, hobbit-like wizard..

"Oh gross," Zed replied.

Little did we know that this unassuming skeleton key would launch me into the third and final phase of my Dungeon Master playthrough attempt while simultaneously forever changing the game.

Up next: when Chaos drops by.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Returning to Dungeon Master, Pt. 3: Down and Out in Worm Town

This is a series about my recent attempt to play the classic CRPG Dungeon Master, and it will contain minor spoilers regarding this game.  I can't imagine they won't be common knowledge to anyone who cares--the game is 25 years old, after all--but consider yourself forewarned.  You also might want to first read Part One and Part Two.

Work with me here: imagine being three levels deep in a hostile underground complex and finding the winding and claustrophobic hallways unexpectedly opening into a large central chamber flanked by rusty gates, each of which leads to a passageway that disappears into darkness.  Now imagine approaching one of these gates and seeing letters etched into the adjacent wall, letters that your flickering torch reveal to spell "Creature Cavern."

The pixelated intimidation of the Creature Cavern
Okay, now imagine all that again through the eyes of a preteen boy too chicken to handle a tame PG horror flick like Poltergeist.

Creature Cavern: the terrifying words upon which one personal playthrough attempt after another once clashed and crashed.

As a kid, my approach to the branching "Choose Your Door, Choose Your Fate" third level of Dungeon Master could be summed up as follows: knock out the various monster-light segments and then approach the "Creature Cavern" gate as apprehension welled up within me.

"Creature Cavern, time to do this," I would think, at which point I would promptly restart back in the comforting safety of the Hall of Champions.

Well, I was now a little older with significantly more computer gaming under my belt, so I decided to change tactics and approach level three--my previous breaking point--slightly differently.  Zed and company turned first toward the Creature Cavern, opened the portcullis, and headed in.

As a kid I dubbed these monsters "Blue Drippy Guys."
As it turns out, the Creature Cavern was a perfectly doable slice of dungeon, intimidating name notwithstanding.  I took out a slew of monsters that are apparently called Trolins--who knew in 1987?--although I did grind through a few healing potions in the process due to the fact that they swung their clubs with the power of a homerun hitter on the horns of doping charges.

Once I bested my personal embodiment of childhood anxiety, I continued on to the other branching segments of level three.  While fun, this is where Dungeon Master started to feel slightly broken.

To be fair, I don't know if the problem was with Dungeon Master itself or a setting that the port had, or even the very real possibility that I was making head-smackingly poor gaming decisions, but level three was where my party started to feel incredibly underpowered in a way that just didn't seem right. The mummies and, uh, Trolins were fine, but the rockpiles were something else entirely. As a kid I'd just drop them in pits or close doors on them, but now I was determined to beat them with my actual party to not to pass up opportunities for XP.

And so each rockpile battle was a non-fun extended battle of attrition, Zed and company wiping sweat from their brows as they slowly chipped away with workmanlike rhythm.  Fireballs seemed to barely dent the rockpiles and weapons weren't doing much more than a point or two of damage with each hit. Something felt wrong and unbalanced.  I eventually said, "screw it," and started just slamming doors on their asses, but due to this resource-intensive series of marathon battles, I found myself descending to level four without any food.

Should've chosen a moderation in diet.
Yeah, I somehow completely burned through my food supply on level three. That didn't feel right.

Let's backtrack a bit: years of gaming have taught me many things, but at the center of it all is the fact that I just don't enjoy games that feature some sort of long-term resource limit that must be managed. This is a strictly personal thing, of course, but I'm far too paranoid about early actions in the game creating a later pass-blocking barrier. Place a fire under my ass and I can't help but focus on the fire instead of just playing. I know this pressure is sort of the point, but there's just something about it that doesn't mix well with me.

Because of this, the food-and-water management mechanic of Dungeon Master didn't exactly jibe well with my brain, despite it being a perfectly valid gameplay mechanic. I didn't handle it well as a kid trying to play Dungeon Master, and I still don't handle it well as an adult. And so it was a monstrous personal anxiety come true when I found my party of champions four levels deep in the dungeon and starving to death.

I decided to soldier on as I knew that level four contained a lot of magenta worms, and they dropped food upon death.

"We can make it," I said.

"This wall has 'Prepare to meet your doom' carved on it," Zed replied.

 It was as if the people who designed this level knew what was coming next.

The Magenta Worm Experience: Part One
The Magenta Worm Experience: Part Two
The Magenta Worm Experience: Part Three
What was coming next was this: the magenta worms were tough beasts that could take a beating and dish out poison for everyone.  Each battled turned into yet another extended war in which I used up far more resources that the slain worms replenished.  I quickly found myself in the gaming equivalent of a dead end, as all four of my champions were bottoming out on stats and starving. If they proceeded on they would be ill-equipped in their low-stat state and find nothing but worm-inflicted magenta death. If they slept to top off their stats they would die from hunger.

I knew restarting the game wasn't really an option, as it was unlikely I'd ever invest another couple hours just to starve to death again on level four. Something felt off, with my party an underpowered mess that operated mostly as an ever-consuming furnace for food, but I didn't know where the problem was or how to fix it.

In other words, this was it. If I was ever going to beat Dungeon Master, it had to be now.

And so Zed and company tightened their belts, gripped their weapons, and waited patiently while I cheated by looking up the level map online.

Here's the thing:  I knew there was a room on this level with a screamer generator, which amounted to a constantly replenishing supply of food.

I also knew there was a way of unlocking a teleportation shortcut that enabled skipping a decent portion of the level.

Finally, I also knew I could use what meager magical resources I had remaining to brew stamina potions, which could possibly help me stave off hunger damage just long enough to run through the level, ride the teleportation fields, and reach the regenerating screamer room.


I gave my champions a quick inspirational speech--"do it for the food, you voracious assholes!"--and a swift kick in the ass, and once they realized that neither were starvation-induced hallucinations they were off.

What ensued was a mad dash in which they avoided anything and everything not critical to reaching the screamer room.  They danced around monsters, to the degree that they'd lure them out of hallways and into larger rooms where they could then maneuver past and race on, closing available doors behind.  In other words, at this point I played level four by not playing as much of level four as possible.  It was a tense experience, one in which I was quite literally fighting for my character's lives with no safety net to speak of. I couldn't restart and I couldn't reload.  If I failed I failed Dungeon Master.

Fifteen nerve-wracking minutes later a thoroughly emaciated Zed and company managed to reach the screamer room and somehow secure the surroundings.  Somewhat safe at last, what commenced was a murderous feast in which one replenishing roomful of screamers after another was killed and devoured. I filled the food bars out of the red, gloriously past yellow, and full on through green until they couldn't be filled any further, a perfect depiction of my champions' once-empty bellies swelling in gluttonous celebration.

It was honestly one of the most satisfying gaming experiences of my life. The thrill of beating the endboss of most games didn't hold a candle to that feeling of finally reaching that screamer room and snatching my characters back from the precipice of starvation.

Sometimes the comforts of home look like this.
As rewarding as it all was, though, I again wondered if the game was fundamentally broken or if I was doing something wrong. The DMcore might smugly grin and say that Dungeon Master is just from a bygone era where games refused to hold your hand, but I can't help but think that the developers of the game probably didn't intend a cheat-map-checking mad dash to avoid starvation on the third real level of their video game.

Whatever the case, my characters had carved out their first base within the dungeon, a home where they could eat, rest, and--perhaps most importantly due to how underpowered my party felt--a place where they could train.

"We dudes are back in business," Zed remarked to the rest of the party.

"I'm actually a woman, not a dude," said Wu Tse, Son of Heaven.

"The whole 'Son of Heaven' thing threw me off," said Zed.

After filling up on food and practicing skills enough to achieve something resembling proficiency, my party tracked their way back through level four to kill all the worms they, erm, initially frantically ran past while shrieking. It was a surprisingly less burdensome task than I had anticipated, as it turns out a party with something resembling proficient skill can actually dispatch the beasts without too much sweat.

I remember as a kid watching my buddy play this level. I followed along with the maps that my dad had downloaded from a BBS; I had printed out the maps and stapled them together, with a front page on which I'd record each new spell we learned and sketch a drawing of each new monster we encountered.  The maps were pretty thorough and arguably took some of the fun out of the game, but they didn't show everything--monsters weren't listed and items were only distinguished by an all-purpose "x" that didn't actually indicate what the item was.

Dungeon Master might only have one tileset but it still manages to
occasionally present new eye candy.
I remember my friend taking the teleportation shortcut that enabled skipping a portion of level four, and I remember looking at the map and seeing that this meant missing out on at least one "x" of indeterminate item identity.

"But we'll miss out on this item." I said.

"You saw the monsters up in that hallway, it can't possibly be worth it," my friend said.

"Are you sure?"

"It can't possibly be worth it."

I don't even know now what the "x" was (so it probably wasn't worth it) but as an adult I tackled this passage that my childhood brain had amplified into some sort of hallway of instant death, and I found it to contain a minimum of trauma.  With relative ease I reached the second teleportaton field that marked the end of the passage, meaning I had managed to complete it.

"Huh," I thought.

Zed and friends took the shortcut back and returned to our home base.  With the level as clear as a monster-generating level can get, they approached the stairway to level five.

Well, first they had to dispatch the massive fuck-off flood of magenta worms that tenaciously guarded the stairs, but by this point said worms were little more than excuses for spell-slinging, sword-swinging exercise amidst worm-derogatory inter-party japery.

And then down we went, level five stretched out before us.

Postscript: Before the DM sourdoughs start schooling me on food rationing, let me say that I eventually figured out that the starvation issue was partially due to me moving around too much (coming off Grimrock probably had me conditioned to think that dancing around monsters was more necessary than it really was) and also partially due to having a poorly optimized party (which resulted in battles eating up more of my health and stamina than was intended). Low health and low stamina is replenished from food and water, so it sort of makes sense that the above mistakes would result in starvation.

Up next: the Chamber of Genocide and the lonely, windswept plains of the Arena.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Returning to Dungeon Master, Pt. 2: Exposition and Inventory

This is a series about my recent attempt to play the classic CRPG Dungeon Master, and it will contain minor spoilers regarding this game.  I can't imagine they won't be common knowledge to anyone who cares--the game is 25 years old, after all--but consider yourself forewarned.  You also might want to first read Part One.

Most would agree that a massive underground dungeon full of lethal monsters and ventilation issues wouldn't be the most compelling environment for exploration--I personally find woodland trails to be a delight--and as such a back story was provided to grant Dungeon Master's concept something resembling justification.

At this point in my playthrough attempt I hadn't yet revisited the manual to refresh my memory, but such was my childhood obsession that I didn't need it.  The story is as follows:
  1. The Gray Lord--some kind of benevolent Christ-like figure--attempts a tricky move with something called a Firestaff, a tricky move that would bring world peace if successful.  
  2. The tricky move doesn't go so hot and fantasy world Jesus is torn into two separate beings, one representing his law-abiding impulses and one representing the chaotic.
  3. The latter, Lord Chaos, takes up residence in fantasy world Jesus's underground complex and warps it into a death trap full of monsters and puzzles, which makes a lot of sense when you think about it.
  4. The lawful manifestation sends his formless apprentice--represented by us, the players--into the death trap dungeon to revive four fallen champions, use them to retrieve the Firestaff which enabled this mess, and then return the Firestaff to the lawful manifestation so that he can defeat Lord Chaos.
  5. Oh yeah, this must be done because the fuck up with the staff also resulted in the world being thrown into a PERPETUAL NIGHTMARE where war ravages the land and soldiers chase crying children in the streets.  This is an important motivating detail.
Without the manual or the magic of google, the author of the
backstory shall remain forever unknown.
This was compelling stuff in the seventh grade.

Well, my party of champions didn't have a Firestaff--hell, we didn't yet have more than pairs of pants--and so on we marched.

Zed and company descended to level two, the level most well-worn in my mind from the constant replaying  I did as a kid as an alternative to the whole actually-making-progress-in-the-game thing.  I took one look at the small stock of torches we carried, sneered, and spiked them all right into the trash.

See, Dungeon Master was unusual in that it pioneered a classless skill system in which experience was gained in skills by using them, and class ranks were earned by earning experience in related skills.  Start waving around a sword and your character will get better at using a sword and eventually level up as a fighter.  Throw weapons at monsters and improve as a ninja.  Mix healing potions and improve as a priest.  Cast certain spells and improve as a wizard.

Or, as anyone past the training wheels portion of Dungeon Master knows, do all four simultaneously and constantly if you want to survive.

And so I chucked the torches.

"But we need torches to see!" Zed complained, at which point I commented that nobody needs to get better at holding a torch and this light spell wasn't going to improve itself.

The first monster of the dungeon and the first skirmish with true danger.  
It was no apprehensive, pasty pre-teen boy at the helm, I can tell you.  It was time for these once-failed "champions" to start earning their keep.

We started making our way through level two. I was a little apprehensive about the lack of an automap because there's no way in hell I'm cranking out the graph paper and mechanical pencils--it's 2012, for god's sake--but I found things reasonably straightforward.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that gameplay generally hadn't aged a day, and once I got comfortable with the controls I was impressed with how much the game sucked me in. Playing Dungeon Master stopped being a nostalgia exercise and turned instead into an addicting, fun experience in and of itself.

Well, except for the aspects that hadn't aged well. The graphics were quite impressive in their own right and easily held their own--at least as far as this sort of thing went--but there were certain aspects of presentation and user interface that have rightly been excised from games during the 25 years since.

The slightly clunky inventory screen.  This screenshot was taken
from far later in the game; Boris didn't start the game with the Firestaff
and a Health of 295.
Inventory management, for example, was unnecessarily convoluted and leaned too heavily on dragging items around in a virtual approximation of the physical act being simulated--drag items to the eye icon to look at them, drag chests to the hand icon to open them, drag food to the mouth icon to eat it, etc. I recognize that Dungeon Master was a pioneering game and as such didn't quite have everything yet worked out, but all of this functionality could have been replaced by a simple left or right mouse click.

I mean, I get it: you see with your eyes, hold with your hand, and eat with your mouth, but I give thanks with all of my body that subsequent games recognized all this dragging as the the ballast it was.

Less forgivable was the fact that the game didn't actually ever give stats (beyond weight) of any gear, so deciding what armor to wear or what weapons to use was largely guesswork based on trial and error. I know some of the DMcore will defend this as a more realistic system that didn't coddle players, but I found it to be a needlessly complicated design choice that got in the way of fun.  It didn't take long for me to adopt the "looking spoilers up online" approach to gear management.

These monsters are considerate enough to impart edible food upon
death.  Screamer slice?  I'd eat that.
As I can already sense legacy gamers everywhere sharpening their vorpal blades with violent promise at my words, let me clarify that these issues were minor and Dungeon Master still otherwise played brilliantly.  The past 25 years hadn't rendered the game any less compelling.

Back in the dungeon, Zed and company managed to knock out level two in less than an hour.  We had a close call with a few sets of aggressive sentient mushroom-things called screamers, but we squeaked through and reached the stairs down to level three, the first branching level of the dungeon and the one on which the younger me repeatedly met his personal barrier of no passage.

It was also the level on which the fuses were lit in such a way that the current me almost met my match as well, but I'll save that story for a subsequent installment.

We descended down.

Up next: choose your door, choose your fate, choose burial by worms.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Returning to Dungeon Master, Pt. 1: Unfinished Business

Look: you were either there when the shit went down with Lord Chaos and the Firestaff or you weren't.

Sure, anyone can go back and see what they missed, but unless you were going toe-to-toe with mummies and trolins back when dungeon maps were downloadable only via GEnie, you really can't understand the full impact of the game.

Muscle-y dude in a loincloth?  Check.
Frustratingly generic game title?  Check.
The game, of course, was Dungeon Master, which was released by FTL Games for the Atari ST in 1987.  It wasn't important because of its cool magic system, although its magic system was cool.  It wasn't important because of its skill-based experience model, even though that would later be adopted and expanded upon in the Elder Scrolls games.  And even though over half of the people who owned Atari STs purchased the game--an impressive market penetration by any standard--even that isn't why the game was important.

No, Dungeon Master was important because it was the first realtime 3D action roleplaying video game, providing previously unknown levels of "you-are-fucking-there" gaming immersion.  Instead of a reduced game world with thick boxes demarcating rooms and icons representing threats and treasures, Dungeon Master provided long atmospheric chambers that disappeared off into darkness populated by monsters that could creep up from behind and scare the shit out of you.  Food and water were necessary for survival, and the dungeon itself was enshrouded in ominous darkness unless you provided a light source.

Dungeon Master was a groundbreaking experience of unparalleled virtual dungeon crawling.

And as a kid it was that game for me.  All gamers have them: those games that loom large in our past, those heavy hitters from our childhoods that somehow put on weight and grow muscle in our memories. Games that take root and spread out and become more than just games.  No game embodies this for me more than Dungeon Master.

I remember watching the teaser "demo" when I was 11, a non-interactive video that was almost nothing but scrolling text followed by the merest glimpse of a working navigation prototype; no monsters, no traps, no interactivity.  Yeah, that was what we were dealing with back in 1986, and that was all it took for me to plunk down thirty-plus dollars of my allowance money when the game finally came out a year later, my first video game purchase ever.

This is what terror looked like to a boy not yet a man.
I'd love to say that I played the shit out of Dungeon Master, but I really didn't. I never made much progress despite spending a fair amount of time with the game, so what the hell was I doing?  Starting and restarting, I seem to remember, and yet somehow never getting comfortable enough to make progress beyond the top few levels.  Gameplay is now pretty linear for me--face a challenge and conquer it, move on to the next challenge--but back then I just wasn't very good at breaking down and playing video games.  I did spend an afternoon watching a buddy play through the sixth level, but I personally never managed to pass the halfway point of the "Choose Your Door Choose Your Fate" branching level three.

In other words, the BIG GAME of my childhood is also one giant fucking manifestation of unfinished business. I thought playing the recently-released (and excellent) Dungeon Master homage The Legend of Grimrock would set my gaming soul free, but it only reinforced the fact that there's really no excuse to not put on my man pants and wrap up what I started a good 25 years ago. That's right, it was time to stop being a failure and play some goddamn Dungeon Master. Would my ability to actually play a video game properly now render the dungeon a sweat-free breeze, or would I someone wind up starving to death in a forlorn corner of level four as a nearby purple worm brainstormed new uses for my corpse?

The sight of this still does something to me.
This would turn out to be an eerily prescient concern.

For now, though, my first decision regarded what port to play. The most modern and user-friendly was Return to Chaos, which is a rough port in that it is a close approximation of Dungeon Master using its graphics. I wanted the true experience from my childhood, though, so the clear choice was Chaos Strikes Back for Windows, which is an exact translation of the Atari ST version of the game.

After a five second download followed by a torturous hour of untangling a config file while sobbing, I was off and running with a Dungeon Master that played remarkably well.

I took a moment to savor the dungeon entrance launch screen of the game, all 256000 pixels of which are seared deep within a formative alley in my brain.  I clicked enter, and the gates opened with the grainy CRINKCRINKCRINK that marked the cutting edge of sound circa 1987.

At twelve I lacked the worldliness to fully appreciate Zed's mustache.
Then followed one brief loading period shrunk to nothing by the progress of technology and I was within the Hall of Champions.

Drunk off rampant nostalgia, I decided to throw caution to the wind and select the exact same party I used as a kid. This decision would come back to haunt me, but it made a certain amount of sense at the time. As such, I resurrected (as my first mistake) the following four (as my second mistake):

  • Zed Duke of Banville as my fighter/jack of all trades
  • Wu Tse Son Of Heaven as my ninja
  • Elija Lion Of Yaitopya as my priest
  • Boris Wizard of Baldor as my wizard

With the four familiar faces gathered around me, I collected the few available items on the very first small, harmless level and then descended down that first set of stairs into the darkness of level two.

First glimpse into danger.
Postscript 1:  How to properly count the Dungeon Master levels is a matter of some debate as the first level is small and contains no threats, and is therefore sometimes considered Level 0. To hell with that, it's a level and the maps I downloaded as a kid called it Level 1, so Level 1 it is.

Postscript 2: This is a series about my recent attempt to play the classic CRPG Dungeon Master, and it will contain minor spoilers regarding this game.  I can't imagine they won't be common knowledge to anyone who cares--the game is 25 years old, after all--but consider yourself forewarned.

Up next: just what exactly is going on in this dungeon, anyway, and how does it hold up after 25 years?