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.

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