“I’m curious: Has anyone beaten this demo?”
The man I’m speaking to, a developer on Jotun whose name I didn’t catch (most of the exhibitors at SXSW Gaming Expo have “exhibitor” slips obtrusively in the front of their badges), but who I suspect is William Dubé, the game’s creator, chuckles and says, that, yes, three people as of Saturday afternoon. As you may have guessed, I wasn’t one of them.
Jotun, or, at least, the sampling I took of it, plays masterfully with scale. When the demo starts, there’s a viking with an axe at the ready, waiting on a frozen astral plane. That’s you. As you take your viking—a dead warrior given one final chance to prove herself worthy of Valhalla—toward doors at the end, the camera zooms out. Out. Further than is entirely comfortable, rendering your hero awkwardly tiny, just on the edge of what would be too small to track and control. Your small stature is a concern that only grows in direct proportion to the size of the giant angry ice giant you encounter a minute later.
And oh, boy, is that one angry goddamn ice giant. The combat is clearly Dark Souls inspired, with a light and heavy attack, the heavy one doing much more damage but with an excruciatingly long delay between the button press and the actual attack. According to the developers, the game will be entirely built around encounters with monsters this intimidating and massive, all boss battles and no regular encounters, taking a cue from Shadow of the Colossus. It’s a neat idea, though with enemies like the ice giant, that absorb massive amounts of damage—by my estimation, each of my light attacks took off roughly one thirty-sixth of its health—I worry it might become a bit overly brutal and redundant.
“It’s not easy to impress the gods, my friend,” the developer tells me in his Nordic accent. He laughs again. No, I suppose not. I fail at my task, falling to the giant’s garbage truck feet and skyscraper arms.
I got its health halfway down, though. I feel pretty good about that, so far as an eternity of shame goes.
When I set up shop at the SXSW Gaming Expo last Saturday afternoon, I spent most of my time in the Indie Corner. So far as I’m concerned, it’s where all the interesting stuff happens here. Last year, it was a pretty small corner, two rows of booths and some small stands, a little boat of independence in a corporate sea. This year, it felt considerably larger, with a lot cooler stuff going on, and a lot more games to play. Humble (of the Bundle) was there, with a huge host of recently released Steam games, including the controversial Hotline Miami 2 (I didn’t play it, so I have no thoughts except, man, that’s a lot of blood, innit?), keeping a healthy sea of people buzzing around the outlying booths of unreleased and new titles shown off by their creators.
I’m not well suited to conventions. I have a messed-up knee, which makes walking around for long periods of time a somewhat painful affair, and I tend to be quiet and slow in my appreciation of things. So my time spent on convention floors is typically spent watching, listening, wandering for a while, latching onto the things that capture my interest most, and then quietly flitting away.
As I watched, there were a few trends I noticed on the show floor. There’s a lot of retro love in the indie space right now, particularly a fond affection for pixel art and isometric or 2D displays. People are also really into the handpainted look.
Gameplay wise, the operating word seems to be hard. Inspired partially by the unexpected popularity of self-described brutal titles like Dark Souls and nostalgia for old games, which used to be inherently unfair by design, a lot of what I saw at SXSW was designed to put you on your toes or knock you off of them. They’re angling for a more even, reasonable harshness than, say, Ghouls n Goblins, which I refuse to believe anyone has ever beaten without cheating, but the result is the same. You’re gonna have a rough time.
The first game to kill me at SX, before I failed to impress Jotun’s gods, was called The Flame and the Flood. I died of dehydration. I was a young woman, stranded on a river. My dog and I had taken shelter near an abandoned church, hoping to find some water, some food, and somewhere to wait out the storm. Instead we found a wolf. I wasn’t able to get water in time.
The thing that attracted me to The Flame and the Flood was its setting. It takes place in a lushly painted post-cataclysmic American South. Long-time readers might know that I have a bit of an obsession with art about the South, the dark mysticism of a land dominated by a harsh, often harmful form of Christianity and the complicated, ugly relationship the South has with its own history. It’s a setting that games have, frankly, neglected. There are a lot of good stories to tell here.
This one: a young person on a river, just trying to get from one side to the other—is a classic. The Flame and the Flood wants to wear those influences; Huckleberry Finn, The Road, Flannery O’Connor. But the version I played was early enough, and lacking in enough narrative, that I wasn’t able to get a feel for any of that. This was pre-Alpha code, and didn’t feel quite ready to show to the public. I think there’s potential here, and I’ll be following the project closely, but what I saw didn’t quite realize it.
What I saw: I slammed into a river bank, trying to moor my makeshift raft to get out of the rain without knowing how. I was able to fix it with a stick I found, tying it into the boat’s floor as it careens terribly forward. Out of the corner of my eye, somewhere unreal, I saw all the relevant data. My thirst, my hunger, my cold. It was all getting worse. I wasn’t going to make it.
The one game I was certain was going to kill me, though, didn’t. It was also a game I didn’t expect to be playing at SXSW. It’s called Darkest Dungeon, and I had no idea it was going to be in Austin last weekend. It’s been out on Steam Early Access for a while, and I’d read extensively about it, but I had no intention of getting it before it came out in its full version. As I explained to the people at the booth, I have no problem with Early Access—for the uninitiated: a system whereby developers can release games onto Steam before they’re finished, getting player feedback and the financial support needed to finish the game, at least, in theory—but I generally tend to abstain. I want to get a game while the getting’s good, when the game is the best it’s going to be, and that usually isn’t Early Access. I don’t think Darkest Dungeon is an exception to that rule, which is why it’s so impressive that it’s already enthralling.
The task laid out for me in the show version of the game was pretty simple. Lead a group of adventurers-for-hire into an awful, dank helltunnel under my uncle’s old mansion. Survive long enough to get a good piece of treasure. Then bail. Easy, yeah? The developers put my play session up on the big screen, so passersby could watch, and I was sure a bunch of strangers were about to watch me get creamed.
The folks running the booth help me pick my party of four. A tank, a healer, a jester, with twin sickles, because, uh, sickles are hilarious? and a “plague doctor”, who throws poison and wears one of those terrifying Renaissance-era doctor masks. And thus we descend. The dungeon we explore is Lovecraftian in a deliberate way, filled with raiders of mysterious provenance and monsters strange enough to be a little unspeakable. The combat is typical, though desperate, turn-based RPG combat, with a few wrinkles. You can choose to position your party in certain ways, dictating who and how they can attack and who can attack them. You also need to make sure to use torches regularly to keep the area lit, less your party suffer some serious debuffs.
And then there’s the stress meter. In true Lovecraft fashion, the things your party members see traumatize them in various ways. As the meter fills, your treasure hunters develop hangups and coping mechanisms. Maybe they become deathly afraid of the dark, unable to fight properly unless the light is of a certain level. Maybe they begin to feel like hoarding makes them feel safer, and so they become a kleptomaniac, obsessed with searching every nook and cranny for anything not nailed down.
Things got tight pretty quickly. The horrors I found did a ton of damage, and my party was struggling to stay alive by the second room. It’s possible I was bad at this, but I suspect that’s the way it’s designed to play; an inch from death. Everyone’s stress went up at a precipitous, worrying rate, and we limped from room to room.
The moment of truth came when my jester nearly lost her life. Her stress was maxed, and I was a couple turns away from healing her. I thought I was about to lose her for good. The enemy attacked—some beast with magic squid arms that looked like it was made out of wax left outside in a swamp for too long—and the jester… survived. She not only survived, she triumphed. She hadn’t developed an illness. She had developed something else. She was more resilient, more defiant, stronger. Instead of becoming a nervous wreck, she had become a champion. Out of adversity, she became greater, drew on strength she didn’t know she had. It was like watching a superhero origin story.
We made it out of that scrape. Then another, and another. We got out alive, all of us alive. Just barely. I threw up my hands in triumph.
I sauntered out of the booth with my head held high, and not long after, I flitted out of the expo before I could get killed again.
Jake Muncy is a freelance writer, editor, and poet living in Austin, TX. In addition to functioning as Loser City’s Games Editor, his writing appears on The AV Club, Ovrld, and anywhere else he can convince people to post it. You can contact him by email or twitter, where he tweets regularly about video games, the Mountain Goats, and sandwiches. He has very strong feelings about Kanye West.