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.

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It came down to this realization: When I won it felt like I was lucky, but when I lost it felt like I had played poorly.

Let me back up. Not long ago we were blessed with some visiting family, and my little brother (age 14) is going through a serious TCG (Trading Card Game) phase. He’s been playing Magic: The Gathering for more than a year, and recently picked up Yu-Gi-Oh again at the behest of his church friends. Naturally, knowing I was the #1 gaming geek in the family, he brought along his cards so we could play.

I’m not exactly a stranger to TCGs. I had a few years where I was completely taken with Decipher’s complex Star Wars CCG. I won’t claim I was ever any good, though – SW:CCG being what it was, I never had anyone to play with. I just liked the cards. I’d also played MTG a few times with my brother before, but Yu-Gi-Oh was completely new to me.

Now, playing a TCG with somebody else’s deck is already a half-baked experience. Much of the game consists of building your deck, finding the killer combinations and tweaking the odds that they’ll show up. Going into a match, you’re supposed to pretty much know what’s in your deck – and hopefully your opponent does not. So when playing Magic with my brother’s deck I felt like I was running an engine, but not necessarily making decisions. Honestly, this is fine – it’s like playing “War” or “Rock Paper Scissors.” You win some, you lose some, it’s mostly luck. At least, that’s the feeling that makes it tolerable.

But Yu-Gi-Oh with another player’s deck is a different experience. Oh boy is it a different experience. And now I hate Yu-Gi-Oh.

See, MTG has a lot of cards and a lot of rules, but most strategies are built on the same core engine: You need land and creatures. Lots of land and creatures, or good land and creatures,and there are a lot of ways to get land and creatures, but it all comes back to – say it with me – land and creatures. While playing with an unfamiliar deck wasn’t great, I could at least understand my moment-to-moment options and put up a fight.

In Yu-Gi-Oh, on the other hand, I never identified a true core mechanic. My brother would play tons of monsters, and every time it would be through a different method: summon, special summon, tune, fuse, morph, XYZ, crystal, repair, whatever. The cards all had such specific uses and requirements, often referring to totally different systems. Even worse, he had “extra decks” of 20-odd monsters just sitting face-up, that he could summon at any time if he met the special requirements on the card. That’s like having twenty extra cards in your hand. That’s twenty sets of special requirements and effects that he’d memorized, that were totally crucial to playing that deck. I’m going in totally blind – that deck is utterly unplayable for me. The particular scenario requires such intimate foreknowledge of the cards that it’s virtually unteachable. I couldn’t just “run the engine” in Yu-Gi-Oh; I was lucky when the engine didn’t fall apart entirely.

I understand that this is exactly the appeal of Yu-Gi-Oh to some. My brother openly admitted that he loved the fact that his decks were unique – that even if he gave his cards away to his friends they wouldn’t be able to run them, because they didn’t understand the way they interact.

There’s a special magic to that, a game that lets you carve out your own secret unique niche but still play against other people. Lots of games have this appeal to a degree; it’s the power of mechanical customization, and it can foster deep investment. But the tradeoff seems to be a steeper learning curve, and a seriousness that not everybody finds appealing; when your deck loses in Yu-Gi-Oh you kind of take it personally.

Which wasn’t my issue, of course – I just felt incompetent. Oh well, I guess I’ll go back to Dominion.