Companions in Grimrock

Legend of Grimrock, by Finnish developer Almost Human, puts you in control of four criminals trying to escape a mountain prison. Though rendered in full 3D, the gameplay uses grid movement and owes a lot to classic dungeon crawlers like Eye of the Beholder. At a glance, it’s easy to see Just-Another-Dungeon-Crawl. Don’t be fooled. Grimrock is playful, self-aware, and earnest. It is a heartfelt triumph by a small, passionate team.

I played Grimrock in February and March of 2013. I’m only now managing to write about it because it’s been hard to capture how it made me feel. Now, with a sequel approaching, I think I’ve got it: Rarely have I felt so accompanied while playing a game. That company (both real and fictional) transformed my experience.

Warning: This post contains spoilers for Legend of Grimrock.

THE PEN-PAL

My only real company was my friend Yotam, who was playing the game at the same time. My Grimrock correspondence with Yotam began when he gifted me a copy of the game. It had been recommended by a few friends, and with the title waiting in my Steam library I at last relented. I had no idea that the game would consume so much of our conversation, and most of my train rides, for the next month: A feast consumed in 30-minute bites.

Yotam had a natural head-start, so for the first several floors I would write enthusiastically about the puzzles I encountered, the enemies I fought. He wrote back with his own impressions, and hints for puzzles I was stuck on, and expressed anticipation for some reveal or other. We dialogued about how well-crafted the game was, how it did so much with few elements, how the design seemed so refined.

It’s been a long time since a game inspired me to so much writing and dialogue. The play-along experience called back to trying to solve Riven with my dad, or playing through Pok√©mon with friends at school. It’s something I rarely get to do, and it was essential to my time with Grimrock

THE MENAGERIE

Somewhere around the sixth floor the dinosaurs showed up, and I wrote to Yotam that I was playing inside the mind of a twelve-year-old.

I mean it as a compliment. I admire the absurd and fantastic in games. I grew up with blue rodents battling egg-machines and plumbers in kingdoms of fungi. As I’ve aged and developed an appetite for more serious work, I’m still charmed by the bizarre. I’m delighted to find Grimrock‘s giant snails and crabs beside dark hooded figures and hulking trolls. I did a double-take the first time I saw a bright blue dinosaur cross my path. It’s how Legend of Grimrock first won me over: Its dark and gritty atmosphere hides an unexpected spirit of playfulness.

Then the dinosaur ate my party. Twice. And there’s the other part of Grimrock‘s magic – it manages to be playful and serious at the same time.

Leigh Alexander posted a great article on Gamasutra which discusses how A Link to the Past cleanly sidesteps ludonarrative dissonance. How does it let us laugh at absurd enemies (dog-people, walking octopodes, etc.) and make us take them seriously at the same time? In the past I thought they got away with it because of the simple pixelated representation, but that’s not it at all. It works because the mechanics force us take them seriously – these enemies, silly as they are, become real threats in the context of the game. It’s a wonderful example of how mechanics shape meaning.

Likewise, each new enemy in Grimrock presents a serious challenge. After a moment of laughter at my discovery I must absorb them into my model of the world to survive. Those tiny T-Rexes are fast and deadly when you first encounter them. Likewise for the spiders and crabs and every other creature built to fit this grid-locked world. In the midst of the silliness, the game respects the player through its mechanics, and the player respects the game in return.

At one point Yotam commented that I seemed fixated on the combat. It surprised both of us, since everybody who recommended the game explained that I would love it for the puzzles (I am a typical Myst fan). I responded that for me, the combat had been the most interesting puzzle in the game. It was an obvious gating mechanism, with each enemy testing a different set of skills and forcing me to change my play style. Multi-directional attacks, ranged magic, sidestepping and charging enemies – each challenge chiseled away at my tactics until I was playing the way the designers intended, the way they needed me to play for their final challenge. The puzzle experience is great, but the design really shines through in the evolution of the creatures and their combat styles.

THE BETA TESTER

Another funny feature of Grimrock is how it creates a false correspondence with Toorum, a character who has traveled the dungeon before you and left notes throughout with hints, jokes, and commentary on your situation. It’s a nice conceit, but how strange! Where did Toorum so much paper and ink, and who did he think he was writing to? He has no companions. How did he make his way so far into the dungeon by himself? And (per one of his final notes) how did he revive himself with the healing crystals if nobody was there to carry his remains back? In fact you find Toorum’s remains just before the endgame, and there’s a special achievement for bringing him to a crystal – but he doesn’t revive, as you might expect.

I started to think of Toorum was a “beta tester” for the dungeon. He’s jumped down every pit, uncovered every secret room, and somebody (the designers? Their minions?) revived him every time he died, just so that he could continue to search through every corner of Grimrock. It seems he died while testing. He wonders in one note if there’s a limit to how many times the crystals will revive him – perhaps he found it.

THE DESIGNERS

Speaking of designers, Grimrock bears their fourth-wall fingerprints throughout. They wrote their names on the walls of an area called the “Tomb of the Designers.” The game designers and dungeon guardians are one, and the subtle narrative is loaded with the implications of that double meaning. Their mountain is a great mechanism that resists your progress toward its base and yet, as Toorum wryly points out in one of his notes, it’s a maze that couldn’t be solved backwards. You’re meant to reach the end. That the designers are entombed within seems like a subtle reference to the era when a released game was beyond bugfixes and redesigns. The mechanism must stand on its own or fail. Of course, this isn’t the case anymore with digital distribution and hotfixes – but maybe it’s just another nod to old-school games.

And what is the dungeon’s ultimate purpose? To lock away a large mechanical cube. A box. One which you foolishly repair, then dismantle once again with the designers’ aid. In some ways this was the funniest and most unexpected monster of all, and I can’t help but wonder what it represents. Is it a joke that your most powerful opponent is perhaps the simplest ‘primitive’ in 3D games? Or maybe the fact that it’s a machine buried in a machine is a statement about the designers burying their obsession with mechanics, abandoning simple mechanisms to do more creative work. Perhaps it’s a comment that by playing through their game and understanding it you have effectively both constructed and deconstructed it; in Koster’s terms, it’s fallen below your lower game complexity threshold. Or perhaps I’m looking for meaning in all the wrong places.

THE SONG

The game’s first charm is that its introduction ends so soon, dropping your party (literally) into its world with little instruction. The difficulty is commensurate with the source material, and the game comes complete with an “old-school mode” that disables quick-save and auto-mapping. Careful design renders the game hard-but-fair, and produces a real sense of accomplishment as each challenge is overcome.

All told, Grimrock plays like a love letter to those old dungeon-crawls. No, not like a letter – more like a love song, written not to the object of affection but to anyone who will listen. It says that the romance is over, but we will never regret it. In the words of Karen Carpenter, “the best love songs are written with a broken heart.” Grimrock knows that it’s part of a dying breed, and it’s the more beautiful for it.

I eventually passed Yotam in the game. I started writing less to avoid spoilers, but like Toorum I couldn’t resist dropping hints and impressions. Maybe that’s what this game is about. We write and create just for the chance – the hope – that somebody will see our creation, and share an experience, and even if they never write back it’s worth it for that possible moment of empathy. Maybe that’s all Grimrock is – a note, about an experience, and a hope that we’ll share it.

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