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When I wrapped up the 50 Book Challenge at the end of 2008(!), I blamed my decline in reading over the previous few years partly on video games. That may or may not have been true, but in the many years since then, I’ve definitely rehabilitated my reading habits, getting through 50 novels a year and (because part of reading is honing the craft) having over a dozen short stories published. But at the same time I’ve come to see reading as something to be quantified – so-and-so number of books a year, classic and literary icons struck off the list, even a bad book read to the finish because I know it has worth to me as a review; a practice of writing.

As I approach my late twenties I begin to feel more and more guilty about time not spent attempting to better my lot in life: jobhunting for a better career, writing fiction, reading to polish those fiction skills, or (more recently) trying to tap into the freelance writer’s market. I miss those days in my late teens and early twenties when like any young man I assumed that modest success, at the very least, was a birthright and would happen as a matter of course. I miss, therefore, being able to happily entrance myself in a game for hours or days.

I played and loved a few well-acclaimed games over the past couple of years – Skyrim, Dishonored, The Walking Dead – but never wrote anything about them. Grub Street is a literary blog which almost solely serves to host my book reviews with a sideline into political opinions, fiction writing and my meandering life, but video games are worthy of discussion and criticism and evaluation as well. I’m just not in the habit of talking about them the same way I am about books. That’s a habit I want to develop.

Steam does an annual winter sale which run for about two weeks over Christmas and New Year, during which time it’s possible to snap up games for insanely cheap prices. (I wish I’d known about this last year, as I began a four month sabbatical expressly aimed at chilling out, but what can you do?) I bought over a dozen of them, old and new, indie-developed or major titles, across all kinds of different genres. Stuff I was interested in, stuff I was going to buy anyway, but also stuff that happened to be on sale and caught my interest. So I’m going to review all of them, for better or worse.

I wrote this review a while ago but I’ve been sitting on it to coincide with the release of the universal app for iPad and iPhone. That day has arrived, and you can now buy the remastered version of King of Dragon Pass from the App Store for $10.49 for iPad and iPhone; or, if you don’t have either of those, you can download the original from Good Old Games for $4.99.

I called this a review just then, which isn’t quite right. It’s more of a gushing love letter, so you’ve been warned in advance.

The isolation ended when a stranger tried to take over the land. His name was Belintar. We knew that he had powerful magic, because he swam ashore from the ocean, which was closed and utterly impassable. Belintar, who did not worship gods anyone knew of, claimed sacral kingship. He declared Kethaela to be a place called the Holy Country.

It was holy, he said, because he ruled it.

We refused to acknowledge him as king. We were attacked, persecuted and robbed. We faced a difficult choice. We could submit to Belintar and remain in Heortland, but as little more than thralls. Or we could strike out for haunted Dragon Pass, risking our lives but retaining our freedom.

Since I am telling you this in our clan hall in Dragon Pass, you know what choice we made.

King of Dragon Pass is one of the best video games ever made. I came across it probably more than twelve years ago, on a pirate disc from South-East Asia, and at that time I must have poured hundreds upon hundreds of hours into it. I still leave it for years at a time and then wander back to it for another run-through, and, even though I now know it better than that episode of the Simpsons with the teacher’s strike, I still find it entertaining.

King of Dragon Pass is part strategy, part RPG, and part simulation. There are no moving graphics; the game is conveyed through text and illustrations, both of which are immensely rich. The writing is on par with the best of fantasy novels, and the story is the by far the game’s biggest drawcard. I can say hands down I’ve never played a video game with a deeper and more engaging world and story.

King of Dragon Pass takes place amongst a culture known as Orlanthi (named after their god, Orlanth) who roughly resemble land-borne Vikings of the Dark Ages: they’re brash and burly and have an economy based and cattle and raid each other without thinking much of it. The Orlanthi live in Heortland, a rich and prosperous country – at least until Belintar the Usurper shows up. In the persecution that follows, many of them flee to Dragon Pass, a dangerous and forbidden land to the north. You take control of a clan that chose freedom over servitude, and fled north to eke out a living on the wild frontier, where about twenty other Orlanthi clans are simultaneously squabbling for turf and fighting off the legion of other inhuman threats.

And so, from day one, you take control of a clan of refugees in a frightening and dangerous new land. You’re in charge of every aspect of their lives: agriculture, livestock, raids on other clans, feuds and alliances, internal politics, exploration of Dragon Pass, fortifications, sacrifices to the gods, the management of their magic, trade relations, the accumulation of wealth, their leadership struggles, and much, much more. And with every passing season, you’re given a random event to deal with, drawn from a pool of something like 500, often influenced by choices you’ve made in the past. They range from events as mundane as a raid by an enemy clan or a high-ranking noble caught sleeping with someone he shouldn’t, all the way up to completely off-the-wall shit like a zombie plague or a rampaging chaos snail.

The beauty of King of Dragon Pass is how richly realised the game world is – as I mentioned earlier, I think it’s on par with well-regarded fantasy novels like Game of Thrones or video games like The Elder Scrolls series. The level of detail makes it one of the most immersive games I’ve ever experienced, and the culture of the Orlanthi is what grants the game its RPG aspect. If you try to play like a 21st century latte-sipping Guardian-reading empathic civilised human being, you will fail. Put yourself in the mind of a bloodthirsty Viking chief and you may do a little better. But, as one slightly grumpy review in the app store says:

The outcome of the game seems to be determined by 90% the random cruelty of an insane hostile world, and 10% by your actual decisions.

This game is easy once you know the ins and outs of it, but that takes time. I would love to go back to when I didn’t know anything about it, rather than when I knew it off by heart and simply clicked the best option when I saw the picture. Note that I said “best.” There are no right answers or wrong answers in this game; every option is influenced by your clan’s reputation, the skill of your leaders, your magic, your wealth, luck, and a dozen other hidden factors. You are not given a “likelihood of success” percentage, and the game is richer for it. You’re as blind and helpless as an actual frontier clan would be.

This is not a fantasy world based on Tolkien derived tropes. Elves are literally plant people, made of vegetable material (if one of your lumberjacks gets shot by a green arrow, don’t bother hunting for the culprit.) Dwarves are strange little men in thrall to a machine god and an unimpeachable schedule. Magic comes from the gods, not from anywhere else, and many things are inexplicable. The pass is swarming with horrible monsters – minotaurs and walktapuses (walktapi?) and dinosaurs and horrible zombie creatures that burst out the stomachs of your cattle.

Every event gives you five or six different options encompassing a number of reactions. For example, a tribe of weird duck people live nearby, who are a source of jokes for both the player and the Orlanthi. When a warrior duck storms into your clan hall, says he’s tired of being the butt of jokes, and demands to fight your finest warrior to the death in single combat, you can either refuse him; or accept, to first blood; or accept, to the death; or apologise for making fun of the ducks; or refuse, and make a joke to his face. Most recently, I accepted, and sent out my battle-scarred war-leader. The duck cut him in half.

Which was shame, because you come to know and love your clan’s leaders. There are seven slots at the bottom of the screen, which comprise your clan ring, selected by you from about 20 or 25 potential nobles. The makeup of the clan ring has a number of effects on the game – having worshippers of seven different gods makes heroquesting easier, having more women than men makes the clan more fertile, having a chief with a weak leadership score can result in a coup. But mostly they act as advisors to an uncertain player: giving their advice, explaining certain laws and customs, suggesting repercussions to situations that might not be immediately obvious.

As the visible face of your clan, the clan ring are effectively the game’s characters. They have quirks and foibles and eventually die, and if you’ve grown attached to them, it can be quite sad. Because you have seven ring members, they’ll come and go, arriving as fresh-faced youngsters and departing as grey-bearded old-timers… if they’re lucky. More likely, they will meet a brutish and nasty early death. Playing on Hard on the iPhone version, without ever save-scumming, I’ve lost eight chiefs in about thirty years – in battle, while heroquesting, to assassinations from other clans, to snakebite, to whatever. When one of your nobles steps up to the plate and successfully completes a heroquest (a re-enactment of a god legend, which can bring either great boons or terrible curses), it feels good. When one of them goes missing while exploring the area and their bones are discovered a year later, it feels bad. When a feuding clan offers to make peace, and then double-crosses you at the meeting and assassinates half your clan ring, it makes you furious.

And these people have minds of their own; they may challenge the chief for power, or turn out to be a secret Chaos worshipper, or go and murder the children of another chieftain “to start a war… we’re getting soft.” Sometimes they can be useful, sometimes they can be infuriating, and sometimes they’re racists with a chip on their shoulder who won’t stop banging on about elves.

It’s possible to forge a narrative in this game, to nurture potential heroes and send them on quests and missions you think is appropriate to their character. But it’s also possible that the young, handsome Elmali with a gift for leadership that you’re grooming to become king in the endgame sequence gets randomly killed in a botched cattle raid at age 21.

King of Dragon Pass isn’t for everyone. Not having moving graphics is probably a major point against it in our Flash-driven world, and it’s most definitely not a typical ten-minute timekiller that you play while sitting on the train or waiting to pick up Chinese takeaway. If the idea of a slow-paced strategy game with more depth than the average 12-part fantasy series isn’t appealing to you, then it’s probably not your bag. If, on the other hand, you want to play a game where you manage a Viking village, ride dinosaurs into battle, negotiate with dragons, forge a kingdom out of wilderness and do combat with the gods themselves in an alternate dimension, then, yes, buy this game.

I know ten bucks is a lot of money for an iOS game, but it’s not a lot of money in general. It’s less than what you’d spend on a sandwich and coffee in a cafe (in this country, anyway). Pretend it’s on Steam. It’s definitely worth it.

I’m climbing up a steep mountain path, rough steps half-buried in snow, a cliff face to my right and a valley to my left. At the top of the mountain is a jumbled stone ruin: an archway, a broken tower, a low wall with an enormous statue of a dragon perched atop it. Out of breath from the climb, I turn left to survey the view, a gorgeous sunset sinking below the clouds above a landscape of peaks and forested valleys. As I turn, movement catches the corner of my eye – something rising, unfolding. I turn to look.

It’s not a statue.

There are a few moments in my personal video gaming history that are crystallised in my memory as truly awesome, and that was one of them. I’d been playing Skyrim for sixty hours at that point, at had probably killed a dozen randomly generated dragons, yet still hadn’t realised that there are a couple of high eyries scattered across the map where you’re guaranteed to find one. I thought I’d just stumbled across another random ruin, and the dragon was so motionless, so slate-grey, that I genuinely mistook it for a statue.

These are the moments where Skyrim succeeds – moments where it takes your breath away with something wholly unexpected. Every player is impressed the first time they encounter giants in the game, or when they first catch a glimpse of Whiterun down on the plains, or when they first see the northern lights. Skyrim’s greatest achievement, by far, is the beautiful world it has created for the player to explore. I find the debate about whether video games can be art tiresome, since they so clearly can be, and the creation of gorgeous landscapes in games like Skyrim clearly proves that.

What I find frustrating is that, despite having crafted one of the most fantastic wilderness settings ever seen in a video game, Skyrim continually forces you into dungeons. This is a hangover not just from old Elder Scrolls games, but from the origins of the RPG genre itself, the 1970s-era tabletop games like Dungeons & Dragons. The reason dungeons appeal to game designers is the same now as it was then – they’re easy. They’re linear, enclosed environments, simple to design and control.

I think that’s lazy. It doesn’t matter whether you’re in a bandit cave or an ice cavern or a sunken Dwemer city; dungeons are intrinsically less interesting than fighting out in the open air, in the weather, with a view. There are a number of aboveground locales in Skyrim, which follow the same formula (kill everyone) as the dungeons do, but which are at least more interesting places to be: hilltop forts, valleys, camps, islands. I don’t think it would be much harder for the programmers to put a heavier emphasis on these locations, and trim dungeons to a minimum. Nor do I believe there are many gamers who care about dungeons in purely traditional terms. Much was made of Skyrim’s “radiant” system, which – when you are randomly assigned a quest – will try to send you to a dungeon you haven’t visited before, so that you travel across fresh landscapes to get there. The irony that upon arrival you’ll be forced into another repetitive dungeon was apparently lost to the developers.

I don’t find the dungeons boring. They’re as addictive and compelling as anything else in Skyrim (to a point, anyway – as with any video game addiction, I’ve had mine abruptly wear off, and now I’m pushing myself to finish the main quest). I just think it could be better. Skyrim, for all its overwhelming beauty and post-game hype, is fundamentally the same game as Morrowind or Oblivion – just with a better combat system and much, much better graphics. You’re still venturing out into the wilderness, clearing out caves and ruins, and staggering back to town laden down with jewels and riches to fob off to merchants who must dread seeing you walk in the door every other day. Aside from the main storyline quests, which dabble in originality, there’s really very little variety in a game like Skyrim. Well over 95% of quests involve fetching an item from a dungeon for someone who’s too much of a pussywillow to do it themselves.

As I said before, this is still somehow compelling (for a while), and I can’t blame the development team for wanting to stick with a winning formula. Maybe that’s why I chose to focus on the intrinsically dull nature of dungeons, and urged them to create more above-ground quest locales. Skyrim has other problems, after all – Tom Bissell has a particularly good review in which he singles out how the game terribly delivers what’s actually a very rich and detailed story. Until I read that, I hadn’t realised I felt vaguely guilty about skipping through endless lines of dialogue because I’d already read the subtitles.

The point he concludes with, about imagination, is also worth considering. Skyrim exists in an unhappy gap of realism – not realistic enough to feel like a truly immersive world, but too realistic to use your imagination. My favourite fantasy games, when I was growing up, were the three Playstation iterations of the Final Fantasy series, because they deliberately funnel you through certain segments of the world and let your imagination do the rest. This is an entirely separate thing from the difference between a sandbox RPG and a traditional RPG. The city of Lindblum, in Final Fantasy IX, is really only a few different neighbourhoods with a pre-rendered backdrop of thousands of buildings – but it works. It feels like a busy, bustling fantasy city. Solitude, on the other hand – the largest city in Skyrim – is quite plainly a “city” with about two dozen citizens and a handful of buildings, all of which you can enter, and all of which are basically the same. Much was made of the fact that in Skyrim, if you see a place, you can go there. That’s not necessarily a good thing. If there’s an Uncanny Valley for fictional worlds, Skyrim firmly sits in it.

Skyrim is still a good game – even a great game. But none of that has to do with the dungeon-spelunking, merchant-hassling, dialogue-skipping leftovers from two games ago. When I remember playing Skyrim, I’m going to remember riding my horse across the snowy plains beneath the northern lights, rotating the camera to take in the view, hearing the distant rumble and seeing a dragon fly across the moon – knowing, above all else, that I was free to go anywhere, see anything, and explore my heart out. I’m going to remember swimming between icebergs in a lonely, frozen sea, hearing a growl and looking up to see a polar bear rearing up at the lip of a berg. I’m going to remember glimpsing a distant campfire in a snowy forest at night, and approaching it to find that it wasn’t a group of welcome travellers who would take me in, freezing and injured as I was, but instead a camp of violent giants herding mammoths. I’m going to remember seeing a redwood trunk fallen across the edge of a colossal waterfall, and deciding to ride my horse across it, only to encounter a hidden bandit archer halfway that I had to gallop down upon, and knock off the edge, into the misty depths.

All of these things involve random exploration of the surface world. It feels wrong to criticise Bethesda when they’ve created such an amazing world, but I can’t help but feel that there’s a better potential game in the Elder Scrolls series, somewhere down the line – one where they stop resting on their laurels and giving each game a facelift, and instead tear up the rulebook and create something fresh, fun and new.

Despite the fact that I now deeply dislike the zombie horror genre, what with having been chained to a neverending piece of it for three and a half years, I nevertheless have an association with it and am dutifully compelled to inform you, the reader, of new developments in the field. Or I just waste a lot of time on Flash games. Whatever.

The point is that the entertaining time-killer The Last Stand now has a sequel, the Last Stand 2, in which you continue the adventures of a scruffy, bearded survivalist in a nation overrun with the living dead. While the first game gave you the simple objective of staying alive for 20 days, the second game requires you to reach an evacuation point within forty days. And so you head off across the quintessential American State, through farms and towns and cities, spending your days recruiting fellow survivors and gathering supplies, and spending your nights defending hastily constructed barricades from hordes of slavering monsters. There are a number of improvements on the last game; you can now search specific buildings, set traps like landmines or gas cylinders, and distribute your spare weapons amongst your fellow survivors.

use your BRAINS to help us!

For Flash timewasters, these games are unusually atmospheric and well-presented. I certainly recommend them if you have a looming deadline you want to ignore.

Resistance: Fall Of Man has the best video game cover ever:

Look closely.

After the relentless tsunami of bleakly brown World War II games that have been the lifeblood of the video game industry for the last few years, this image gives a subtle twist to the typical “netted helmet/bombed out buildings/everything is grey and brown” cover image that we usually see. And I really like it. It’s clever and creative, as opposed to the usual SHOW SOLDIER OR CAR covers that we usually see.

The game itself is actually quite mediocre, but you can’t have everything. I’m writing about this partly because Chris got a PS3 for his 18th and I spent a good four and a half hours sitting in front of it today, and partly to experiment with how images work on WordPress. Truly a monumental post.

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June 2023