Monday, March 25, 2013

Be Silly

On an off-handed recommendation from Chris Gardiner, the creator of Below, I've recently gotten into Sil, an ASCII RPG strongly based on the First Age as depicted in Tolkien's Silmarillion. Echoing a major section of The Lay of Beren and Luthien, your goal is to enter the depths of Angband, cut a Silmaril loose from Morgoth's crown, and then escape with it. It's an incredibly addictive, difficult, punishing, evocative, fascinating game that is causing me to recall my very earliest games, and also reflect on the interplay of technology and imagination.

Sil belongs to a category of game known as Roguelikes. Descending from the game Rogue, which was created in 1980, dozens of games have evolved that tweak various aspects while retaining certain core fundamentals. The most immediately obvious of these is the interface: a true Roguelike will use only ASCII characters. That means no bitmapped pictures: every creature and item will be represented by a letter, number, or character. So an orc scout will be represented with o, while Gorgol the Butcher is represented with o, a longsword is |, a staircase is >, and so on. Everything is laid out on a simple grid, and as you move from space to space, you gradually discover more of Angband, and encounter more of its denizens.

It takes a while to get into it, but I've been surprised by just how powerful some of the situations can become. Even though there are no images, and, frankly, not even any dialog (although there are a few beautiful phrases from or inspired by Tolkien), I find myself becoming uncomfortably tense while playing the game. When I'm backed up in a corner, desperately hacking away at white worm masses swarming around me, and then I see a brigade of Orc soldiers march into the room, then spot me, raise the alarm, and rush in… well, I feel true despair, in a way I rarely do when playing modern RPGs. When I stumble into a darkened room, I quietly close the door behind me, then creep forward, with a lump of expectation in my throat… and then, if I'm very lucky, when I stumble across the Forge I've been looking for, a wave of relief washes over me, as I realize that I will likely survive to descend further into the depths.

There are a couple of factors that go into this. The big one is how, by minimizing the in-game presentation, the game prompts your mind to create the visuals yourself. That's not too surprising: after all, it's how the novel works. All games used to be like this: whether a text adventure or Rogue, games would provide the plot and structure, and your brain would fill in the sound, music, faces, speech, and atmosphere. And once they get buy-in, games can do incredible things through text. It's fascinating to read stories from people who have beaten Sil, who report with nearly breathless wonder how they fled from Morgoth's mighty hammer Grond, and escaped from the webs of Ungoliant, and slew Lungorthin, the Balrog of White Fire, in desperately frenzied combat. Even today, I don't think any AAA title would be able to do justice to how I would imagine any one of those conflicts playing out, let alone all those and more in a single level. And yet, two guys who forked an open-source ASCII dungeon crawler were able to make it in their spare time. Incredible stuff.

As a side note: I do find it encouraging that many developers are echoing similar conclusions. In a recent update to the Shadowrun Kickstarter, when explaining why they would be using text for story-related material, Jordan explained their plan: "The first of these powerful weapons is what I call 'The Infinite Resolution Rendering Engine' an incredible piece of biotechnology developed over millions of years, capable of presenting the audience such vivid imagery so real they can smell and even taste it. Yes you guessed it, it’s the gray stuff between your ears and the imagination it is capable of. We can’t afford to put everything in our imaginations onto the screen, so instead we decided to put it into your imagination via 'theater of the mind'. By combining beautiful environments and characters with cleverly-integrated text, we hope to inspire you to 'see' and 'hear' things that we could never afford to put on your screen or out of your speakers." That actually seems like a reactionary statement coming so soon after the Playstation 4 media event, which basically equated superior technology with superior storytelling. But I think Jordan's right, and we're hearing the same message in the very thoughtful pitches being made by inXile for Torment.

The other thing that adds to the effective impact of the game is permadeath. This is another aspect that's common to most roguelikes. Unlike most RPGs, where you are encouraged to save your game frequently and re-load if something goes wrong, in almost any roguelike you get exactly one death per character. Once someone dies, there's nothing to do but create another character and start it over again. If they died on the first few levels, you may have only invested a few minutes; if they died in the depths, you might have spent hours and held high hopes for them. Personally, I've seen nearly two dozen of my characters die. It leads to an entirely different style of gameplay. Obviously, it encourages more caution: I'm less likely to take risks, and try to constantly remain aware of my surroundings and have an escape route in mind. It also adds to the sense of reward. For a long time, I could never get below 200' deep. Once I finally did, I felt a surge of pride. Finally, it keeps the game consistently challenging and interesting. I'm actually playing Sil during breaks with my other RPG project, Neverwinter Nights (about which a post will no doubt be made). I recently had a frustrating fight in that game against a Dire Spider. I probably died about ten times in a row, usually getting it down to Near Death before my companion and I succumbed. Each time I died, I would reload, slightly alter my tactics, and then attack again, with the same results. After a while, I started to get annoyed that I had spent close to twenty minutes doing the same thing without making any progress. (Eventually, I had to swap out my companion.) Well, in Sil, that never happens. If a spider kills you, you're gone. And, next time, you'll be VERY careful and VERY prepared before you fight that spider again. Sil forces you to learn, and adapt, and grow. I enjoy playing my RPGs tactically, but I also find that the ability to re-load makes me a bit too much of a perfectionist: if I don't like how an encounter ends, I'll keep trying it until I get it right. I'm weirdly grateful to Sil for breaking me of that habit. (I felt a similar reaction to The Binding of Isaac; while it's a real-time game and uses actual graphics, it's otherwise extremely similar to a Roguelike.)

In some ways, playing Sil makes me hearken back to my very first experiences with a computer. The first computer I ever had access to had two 5 1/4" floppy disks with games. One disk was labeled "Great Adventures II", and had a set of text adventure games. One was set on a nuclear submarine that suffered an accident; another started in a video game arcade in a small town; another saw you marooned on a mysterious island; another had you infiltrating a secret military installment hidden deep beneath the snow. I never beat any of them, but spend so much time in those worlds that I developed vivid images of their contents. The second disk was "Castle Adventure", and it featured ASCII graphics not unlike Sil. The setting of that game was quite different, though: it had much more space, and far fewer enemies, and was much more puzzle-focused and not as punishingly difficult.

Oh, yeah: and it wasn't random. That's the other huge thing about roguelikes: they feature procedurally-generated dungeons, so they're different every time you play. The coding helps guide the layout and the difficulty so the overall progression will feel familiar: you'll mostly be traveling through rooms, which are sometimes adjacent but often connected by corridors; upper levels mostly contain weaker enemies like orc scouts and bats, and have less valuable items like Curved Swords and Pairs of Gloves; occasionally you'll find a particularly powerful enemy wandering the upper levels, or a rare artifact like Orcrist.  Modern gamers are probably familiar with the concept as exemplified by Diablo, which essentially took Rogue's procedurally-generated-dungeon idea and applied it to modern graphics.

So, how is Sil different from other roguelikes? I have to admit that I don't have a ton of experience with the genre; I played around a little with NetHack back in college, but at the time didn't get into it. Most Rogue/NetHack games are a kind of grab-bag of fantasy tropes, frequently taking an everything-plus-the-kitchen-sink approach: you can pick from a variety of races, and dozens of classes (I remember a Tourist class, inspired by Twoflower from Discworld!), and encounter hundreds of monsters, learn hundreds of spells, and find thousands of items. Later on, Moria was more explicitly tied to Tolkien's mythos (the goal was to slay a Balrog in the depths of Moria), but had a very loose interpretation of that mythos, allowing for D&D-style elements like gnomes and paladins. A further descendent, Angband, took action back in time to the First Age and changed the setting to Angband, but added even more elements to an already overstuffed game, and operated under a fundamentally flimsy premise (that a mere mortal could slay the Black Foe of the World).

Sil is based on yet another descendent of Angband (in case you're curious about the full genealogy: Rogue begat Moria begat Umoria begat Angband begat NPPAngband begat Sil), and makes two crucial innovations, in my mind of equal importance: it remade the game as a faithful adaptation of Tolkien's world and works, and it significantly simplified the game's mechanics in order to draw out more interesting tactical considerations. These two factors actually affect one another to a certain degree. Tolkien had a very well thought-out world, which doesn't have a lot of the detritus that litters most latter fantasy novels and games. The most noticeable change may be that of magic. Middle-earth is an example of what's often called a low-magic world: there are some magic forces at work, but it is very rare and generally subtle. Even an incredibly powerful wizard like Gandalf does not shoot forth enormous fireballs from his hands, or give life to inanimate objects, or telepathically communicate with others. And Gandalf is very unusual: as one of only five Istari, he is one of the rare entities with access to any magic at all. Unlike a setting such as Dungeons & Dragons, where any human or elf who wants to can learn magic, mortals in Middle-earth must do without.

So, Sil doesn't have any spells, or any magic scrolls, or familiar summons. It does, however, draw on Tolkien's legendarium to fill out the range of possibilities. Poetry and song play a major role in his works: the very world was sung into existence by Eru, and many of his books describe the power of song wielded by the free peoples: orcs fleeing in terror before the song of warriors, or allies feeling strengthened and emboldened by the songs of friends. Sil uses Song, but it isn't just a re-name of magic: songs work in ways appropriate to the setting. All songs are essentially "sustains": you can only sing one song at a time, and continue it until you decide to stop or until your voice gives out. The Song of Elbereth will fill the hearts of Morgoth's minions with terror. The Song of Slaying will boost your skill at combat, growing stronger with each foe you slay. And, drawing directly from the Lay of Beren and Luthien, there are also subtle songs, like the Song of Lorien that can lull enemies to sleep, and the Song of Silence that can muffle the sound of your passing.

As you may have deduced, the mission here is a bit more nuanced than that found in most Roguelikes. NetHack has you searching for a MacGuffin called the Amulet of Yendor. The original Angband required you to kill Morgoth. Well... that's a bit of a tall order, don't you think? I mean, if the twelve Valar couldn't kill Morgoth, what hope would a single mortal have? Instead, your goal is to accomplish the same feat as Beren and Luthien, and escape Angband with a Silmaril cut from Morgoth's crown. So (and here's where the gameplay gets interesting) there are a LOT of ways to accomplish this. You don't need to buff up a super-powerful warrior who can slay Morgoth in single combat. You could try to follow the path of Luthien, and make your way quietly with stealth and the aid of the Valar. Or you could seek to emulate the great craftsmen like Feanor and design powerful artifacts to help in your quest.

The game seems pretty well balanced in how it allows you to play. Like a standard RPG, you can gain experience by killing monsters. However, you also gain a lesser (but still respectable) amount of experience by simply observing a monster. So, if you are quiet and patient, you can make a great deal of physical progress into the depths of the Iron Mountains and improve your character without needing to fight at all! You can also gain experience by finding and identifying artifacts you encounter. So there are some really interesting trade-offs to consider: should you avoid combat, which is generally safer but will result in a weaker character? Or do you take on your enemies, potentially increasing your skills rapidly, but risking (permanent) death?

I'm still struggling with the answer to that. You find pretty early on that you simply CANNOT prevail in every fight. When you come across a lone orc scout, it can be worthwhile to kill it to gain experience and remove a potential threat. However, if it survives your initial blow, it may yell for help, and before you know it, you're trapped in a narrow corridor, stuck between a half-dozen heavily-armored orc warriors beating you to (permanent) death. So... sometimes it's best just to let the scout go. In particular, the game diminishes the amount of XP you receive for each subsequent sighting and kill of the same enemy type, so you don't even gain anything from grinding out combat against the same weaker creatures. You're inexorably drawn deeper and deeper into the pit, ever further into danger and ever closer to Morgoth's grasp.

As another example of the creators' fidelity to Tolkien, the various races are depicted accurately. In most fantasy games, like D&D, Shadowrun, or Dragon Age, creators try to keep races balanced. Certain races are stronger in some areas and weaker in others: for example, elves are often depicted as more charismatic and magically inclined, but weaker, whereas dwarves are sturdy but less nimble. This is desirable for game-creation purposes, since it gives players more freedom to pick an appropriate flavor for their character without handicapping themselves. However, Tolkien's own lore was very clear: elves are simply superior. Compared to humans, they're immortal, and stronger, and more graceful, and more beautiful, and better craftsmen, and more aligned with the wishes of the Valar... they're simply superior, full stop. So, when playing Sil, if you want the strongest character, you should choose a Noldor elf. The other choices offer different flavor but clearly greater difficulty. The Sindar elves have a slight advantage in archery. The Naugrim (dwarves) are strong and talented smiths. The Edain (high men)... well, they try hard. That's about it.

(As a side note: I was reminded of how Iron Crown Enterprises handled the issue of racial balance in Middle-earth Role Playing [MERP]. They also sought to remain faithful to Tolkien, and you would get the best attribute bonuses by playing as an elf. In their case, they balanced it with the idea of "background points." The concept was that, the more mundane your physical background, the more interesting your childhood and young adulthood must have been to inspire you to turn to a life of adventuring. So, a Noldor Elf would get only a single Background Point to spend, while a Dorwinian man from the shores of Rhun would get five. A background point might give you a larger-than-normal starting supply of gold [perhaps from an inheritance or a youthful caper], or a physical peculiarity like ambidexterity, or a magical artifact. I thought that was a good solution to the conflicting desires to remain faithful to Tolkien and encourage diversity among player characters.)

Sil also does away with the concept of "classes": you don't create a Cleric or Ranger or Rogue. Instead, you have four primary stats (Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, and Grace) and eight skills. Your stats are basically innate, set at character creation. You start with a pool of XP that you can use to buy advances in the eight skills, starting you off on the path you envision for your character. A cautious player might invest heavily in Evasion and Stealth, while a more aggressive character would dump a lot into Melee or Archery. Skills like Perception can help anyone, but there's always a tradeoff: with the limited XP available, you'll never be able to raise every skill in the game. Finally, you can also use XP to purchase Abilities. These are cool: they grant a specific power to your character. If you learn Lore Master, you'll be able to immediately identify items you encounter without needing to use them first. If you learn Precision, you'll more easily get critical hits from bow attacks. Enchantment will let you craft items imbued with special powers. However, the price for subsequent Abilities in the same skill rises rapidly, so most players will need to pick only a couple from each branch before they grow prohibitively expensive.

The final major innovation that caught my attention was the use of small numbers. That might sound like a silly thing: surely small numbers are less interesting than big numbers? I'm used to playing RPGs where I might have a Stealth skill of 67, wield a magical sword that deals a base damage of 83 points, and cast from a pool of 200 mana. In Sil, almost all numbers are single-digit. The first sword you pick up deals between 1 and 4 points of damage; the most powerful two-handed axe I've found so far can yield between 3 and 12 points. I have not yet been able to raise any of my Skills above level 7. I'm currently wearing a Cloak that gives me +2 to Evasion... and I'm ECSTATIC to have it.

Having small numbers makes every single point matter. An RPG like Dragon Age typically features a smooth and gradual improvement in your character's abilities and equipment. Each new weapon you find might be 5-10% better than the one you were wielding before. Each new level up will give you 5-10% more hit points and a similar increase in skills. You feel a bit more powerful, but it doesn't make a huge impact in the progress of the game.

In contrast, in Sil, an increase of a single point means a lot. You can survive noticeably longer, or kill noticeably more easily. I'd initially scoffed when I saw that Precision lowered the critical hit requirement from 7 to 6. Now, it's the first ability I take whenever I play an archer: that one point is huge.

The ultimate effect is to keep things exciting. Finding a single artifact can drastically affect your survivability; depending on the type of artifact, it might even change your strategy. (Again, there are similarities to be found here with the Binding of Isaac.) It also prompts you to think very, very carefully about where to spend your limited XP, since buying a single point in a skill can have such a big effect.

I definitely can't claim to be a good player. It took me a few days of playing to even make it below 200'. Lately I've been getting down to about 300-350' before succumbing, so I think I'm getting better. One major factor is just getting more acquainted with the monsters and mechanics so I know what to do. For example, I now know to kill worms very quickly if I run into them, before they have a chance to multiply. But, I also know to keep a healthy distance from green worms, since they can damage my equipment. Orc patrols used to always be the bane of me; I'm much more patient now, and generally lurk in the corners while they pass.

I've lurked on a few Sil pages - there doesn't seem to be an organized community, but there are some Roguelike forums with occasional Sil threads - and have been really impressed by the intelligence and variety of Sil players. Some of the best players focus on Melee/Stealth builds, while others eschew Stealth entirely. Personally, I started off with a stealth Archer build suggested in a YouTube video, though I've had better luck switching it up since then. In particular, I now only put 2 points into Smithing so I can take Weaponsmith; this frees up a LOT of XP to distribute elsewhere. My general, vague strategy now is to give a minimal amount into Archery, Evasion, and Stealth to improve survivability, then dump everything else into Perception. I can usually get this up to 7 and buy the two Lore abilities by about 250'. Lore Master gives an immediate boost in XP from your un-identified items, which I then roll into Evasion so I can get Sprint. And then... well, then I typically die. But I'm getting further every time, so I feel like I'm on the right track. Long-term, I plan to re-invest in Archery and Stealth again, and operate as a sniper from the shadows, with the ability to flee and vanish when things get too hot.  But, again, I love the variety of paths Sil offers, and sometime I'd love to try with Song-heavy build or something similar.

The balance of the game is really impressive. It's consistently challenging, but so far has not felt impossible. Every single time I've died, I've been able to clearly identify the reason why. Typically, it's either "Oh, I guess monster X has effect Y. Well, next time I should use archery on them from a distance!" or "I should not have attacked that monster until after making sure no other creatures were within earshot." I guess the game is teaching me caution and patience... what a strange idea from a video game!

Into the vast and echoing gloom,
more dread than many-tunnelled tomb
  down awful corridors that wind
    down to a menace dark enshrined;
      down to the mountain's roots profound,
devoured, tormented, bored and ground
by seething vermin spawned of stone;
  down to the depths he went alone...

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