Consider a video game, in the abstract. Knowing nothing of it, save for that it is, in fact, a video game, what inference can be made about the player’s objective? At this level, the constant is, approximately, invert some transistors somewhere. Nothing between the player and those transistors is yet implied; the imposition of artistic will or complex structure is not yet given. What we can say, however, is that a game implies play, and we do happen to be dealing with a game. To quote:
The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct acting from inner necessity. The creative mind plays with the objects it loves.Carl Jung, Psychological Types, CW vol 6. #197
This is as good a place to mention it as any: This piece is really best read after Part 1, so feel free to click here if you need to catch up.
“Inner necessity”, or intrinsic value, is inherently subjective. A sport can be a lifelong calling to one, or a sorry spectacle of fools crying and running after a ball to another. A video game may be compelling to one, or a pointless slog to another. Mechanically, DROD is a pure puzzle game, determinism and all. In fact, in the early days, DROD simply was a pure puzzle game, as the majority of user-made holds continue to be. This was and is all well and good for those already attuned to the enjoyment of puzzles. From Journey to Rooted Hold onward, however, DROD is far greater than the sum of its parts. By way of all that surrounds the puzzles, DROD is a puzzle game that makes you like it.
What I certainly do not mean is that DROD simply strings the player along through puzzle after puzzle with a carrot of exposition on a stick. Well, all right, it did in fact do that for the majority of classic DROD, what with Beethro happening upon scroll after cheeky scroll on the ground for the only storytelling besides the title cards at the start of each level. In all fairness, even hold architecture was still a young craft. However, over the years, as hold architects settled on what lent a room a rewarding difficulty rather than a tedious one, so too did Caravel, (forgive me) flagship amongst architects, figure out what differentiated a compelling story from a cheap exposition dump.
As conjectured by folk wisdom, and supposedly confirmed by the psychological literature (if stories from beyond the paywall are to be believed), giving a student money for good grades will let a monetary incentive displace an intrinsic valuation of learning; it follows that, if it constitutes work for some separate reward, the act of solving a puzzle may not be fun in and of itself. Here is the crux of DROD’s genius: the story serves immersion. It is not separate from the levels; it is interleaved to the extent that it could not be separated. It is not the reward for solving a level; it is the level. In spite of the top-down perspective, and of Beethro being far from a silent protagonist, you nonetheless find yourself filling his tattered boots and taking his Really Big Sword in your hands. Welcome to Part 2. Join me as I lay bare the primary ingredient of immersion in DROD.
Writing a silent protagonist is easy mode for immersion. Add first-person perspective to the mix, and the result is a fantastic demonstration of the Pareto principle. The player can project just about any personality onto the protagonist. Immersion has been eighty-twentied, if you will permit me to verb.
DROD has neither of these. How, then, did Caravel do it? How does this face possibly compel us to solve?
Tactical genius though he may be, Beethro is far from an intellectual. As the series opens, Beethro is in his element as a swordsman. Hired to clear the infestation from King Dugan’s Dungeon, his most natural mode of being sees him through: “See a roach and smite it”. All the while, he takes immense pleasure in his bloody trade, a victory laugh capping each room cleared. For the first game in the series, this is a fitting enough mood: just as one may strike a pose of confidence in the hope that the feeling will follow, so too does Beethro chuckle, that the player may in turn revel in the bloodshed.
Then, his nephew runs off with a goblin. A strange bureaucracy looms, drawing liberally from satires and dystopias all across the literary canon. Shortly thereafter, a voice from the pits below begins to speak in chants and riddles. In a twist of irony, a pompous, clownlike, genetically engineered supersoldier is sent to remove Budkin from the Beneath, just as a smitemaster may chase down a dungeon pest. Beethro is now a fish out of water; “see a roach and smite it” no longer (forgive me) cuts it. His reaction, however, is not one of fear. Nor, indeed, is it one of anger. Rather, as Beethro is thrown the first of many absolute curveballs, he reacts in annoyance. He doesn’t have time for this. All Beethro knows is that everything around him is swiftly growing ridiculous. And in saying so, he says what the player is already thinking.
Crucially, however, in his annoyance, Beethro is not refusing the call. No, curiosity is what got him into this mess in the first place, and his stubbornness is borne of determination, not stagnation. Smitemasters are known, at least to some, as delvers. That is, indeed, what Beethro does. He delves and delves, deeper than any surfacer was ever meant to. Just as, in Beethro’s simpler times, the player could join him in his love for his job, the player now receives a compelling invitation to join him in his curiosity.
There comes a point at which the drollery of the situation cannot be further escalated in good taste. Cryptic advice from a voice in a pit begins to seem normal, and Beethro gets used to navigating all these silly institutions where everyone is named First Archivist or Seventy-Third Tar Technician. It is at this point that Beethro, knowing what he must yet uncover, takes it upon himself to, when in Rome, do as the Romans do. Once the monsters thin out and give way to queues and running back and forth, the impatient swordsman must become a seeker of knowledge. He does, however, yearn for his journey to just set him once more to the task of some good old-fashioned smiting.
Then again, by this point, so too wishes the player.
I would go over the story in greater depth, but I don’t want to spoil anything major. It’s still my hope that you give DROD a spin, and I wouldn’t want to detract from the experience.
We’ve gone over how DROD slowly warms you up to an intrinsic enjoyment of solving its puzzles; now, make sure to join me in Part Three as we discuss the community of the similarly initiated, and tie up loose ends.
Yestin Harrison is a dilettante fascinated by anything from games to graphic design to planetary-scale distributed systems. When not performing his duties as webmaster at Rebind or kicking the site an occasional article, he's found anywhere there's a lark to chase. Reach him on the Web at ylh.io, and on twitter @yestinharrison.