Games Without Stories

As always, you can click on images to see larger versions.

After finishing The Witcher 2, with its epic and dark tale full of twists, betrayals, and monsters — human and otherwise — I decided I needed a break from games with strong stories. I love story-focused games, as any longtime reader will know, but such games require something of an investment every time I play. I need to remind myself of everything that’s happened so far, and let myself get absorbed by the events unfolding before me. This makes it hard to play such games in short spurts. Normally, when I only have a little time to play, I favor roguelikes or other games with shorter play sessions, but even these involve stories, although they are written in large part by the player. The time investment may be smaller, but the investment in the unfolding story is not.

So I decided to seek out games without any stories. I’ve played some games like this before, but tired of them before I was finished. I think that’s because I tried to play them the way I play story-heavy games: all at once, to the exclusion of most other games, until I’ve finished. This time, I thought I’d tackle a few of these games simultaneously, returning to them occasionally when I’m in the mood, alongside whatever else I decide to play. I’ve written about three of them here.

If I’m fully honest, I didn’t realize that I wanted a break from stories until after I started the first of the games I’m writing about today, In Ruins (pictured at the top of this post). I picked it out of my extensive backlog of games, thinking it was a short exploration game that probably featured nothing but a story. Only after I fired it up did I realize that it’s more of a tech demo than a game, showing off the procedural generation algorithms that are used in the game Sir, You Are Being Hunted (which was not yet released at the time In Ruins was made). In Ruins creates a small island full of ruined structures for the player to explore, collecting shafts of light to open the path to the central tower. Once the player reaches the tower, the game’s procedural generation tools are unlocked, letting the player create and explore new islands with certain specifications, by tweaking the number and size of the plateaus, towers and pathways.

And that’s it. A tool to play around with, creating landscapes to explore. No story whatsoever. That’s when I realized that a story wasn’t what I wanted right now. I wanted to play around with systems and interactions without getting invested in a narrative.

Coinciding with this realization was the (late) news that Dustforce had recently received a major update, called Dustforce DX. Regular readers may remember that Dustforce was the first game featured in my Indie Platformer Marathon, and is a game about kung fu janitors, cleaning levels with an acrobat’s grace. I liked it a lot, but back then I truly was playing it as a marathon, steadily working through every level until I was finished, then moving on to the next game on my list. I was often frustrated by some of the toughest levels in the game, but stubbornly persisted instead of taking a break. When I found that the prize for earning a perfect rating (a subjective term, since my performance was still clumsy) on every level was access to more, even harder levels, I gave up. But I did regret that I never learned to master the game, as watching the top players’ expert runs made high-level play look amazingly fun. Now, learning that the DX update included several new easy levels and a redesigned hub in an effort to make it friendlier to new players, I decided I should return, and try to make my way back to those super-tough extra levels while actually learning to master the game’s more advanced maneuvers. And this time, I’d take breaks, playing a level or two on the side when the mood struck me.

I decided to focus on the character known as Dustgirl, because she has the coolest hair. I took her through a few of the easier levels to reacquaint myself with the controls, and I watched a few tutorial videos demonstrating the game’s more advanced moves. The new, easy levels provided a great place to practice these moves, and after many tries I found I could sometimes, even if just for a moment, reach the transcendental speeds of the top players. My ranking for these levels rocketed upwards from somewhere the thousands to somewhere in the hundreds, just by learning a few tricks for gaining speed. It’s clear that mastering Dustforce is no simple feat, but since even the perfect ratings on most levels are relatively forgiving, I’ve been able to focus on levels that interest me while just putting in an adequate performance for those that don’t. I’m slowly improving. And I’m taking breaks, so I don’t get burned out. One day I may even take a stab at those ultra-hard levels.

Still, even with my more relaxed approach to the game, it requires timing and precision, and is not always relaxing. When I need to take things more slowly, I decided to turn to Deadly Rooms of Death: King Dugan’s Dungeon. It’s the first game in a series that is commonly referred to by the acronym DROD, and would be a good subject for a History Lesson post, since the series was an indie success long before the recent boom in indie games — the original was released in 1997. Maybe I’ll write that post when I’m finished. But finishing is the hard part; I’ve tried to play the DROD games before, but always ended up giving up, probably because — again — I was trying to play them all at once, without taking breaks. That is an exercise in frustration.

You see, the DROD games are puzzle games masquerading as roguelikes. Like a roguelike, the player controls a character in a top-down view, exploring a tiled dungeon in a turn-based manner and slaying monsters. But instead of being full of stats and items and other roguelike staples, it’s just the player, a set of monsters, and a tricky layout of each screen-sized room, with the challenge to clear all the monsters while still being able to escape the room. The genius of the design is that the protagonist Beethro Budkin — a Smitemaster, or professional dungeon exterminator, who descends into the crazy dungeons of kings and other lords to kill the vermin infesting them — holds his Really Big Sword out in front of him, occupying its own space on the screen. On any given turn, Beethro can either move one space, or rotate his sword by 45 degrees. He must keep his sword between himself and any monsters he finds, or the monsters can pounce on him and kill him. To kill a monster, he simply moves his sword onto the monster’s space, either by rotating it or by moving himself. From these simple mechanics, developers Caravel Games create a huge array of puzzles, many of them incredibly difficult.

Which is, of course, why the game is best played in short spurts rather than in one marathon session. This has worked out much better for me so far, although part of that might be the fact that it’s the first time I’ve tried the first game in the series, rather than starting with a later (and likely tougher) incarnation. Those later games add a story on top of the puzzling, which was part of why I felt compelled to press ever onwards, but the first game is free of any real narrative, simply pitting Beethro against a dungeon full of monsters and devious puzzles. Technically speaking, I’m actually playing a remake of the original game, ported into the sequel’s engine, which makes it look a little nicer, although the graphics are still very simple. It also adds the series’ signature lighthearted voice acting, with Beethro occasionally commenting on the challenges he faces, or noting that I could have been more efficient or solved a room with some additional restriction, “just to be skillful!”. I’ve made it to the sixth floor of the dungeon so far, but was somewhat terrified to learn there are twenty-five floors in total. This may take me a while, but I’ll have plenty of breaks. One word of warning: the remake has a “story” option on the help screen, but it actually gives the story for the second game, and spoils the ending of the first (such that it is). Fortunately for me, I’d already tried the second game so there was no harm done, but new players should steer clear of any story-related things until they start the second game.

I’m sure I’ll return to games with stories soon, but I’m going to keep playing these other games on the side, for those times when I just want to play without losing myself in a tale. I hope to have more to write about them soon. And, of course, I’ll be writing about all the games I play, story-driven or otherwise, right here.

Do you have any favorite story-free games? Share them in the comments!

In Ruins can be downloaded for free here. Dustforce is available from Steam, GOG or the Humble Store, and possibly other online retailers. DROD is available directly from Caravel Games as well as on GOG, and possibly elsewhere.

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2 Responses to Games Without Stories

  1. Aaron Jean says:

    I call them my “zone games”, where I’ll just forget the outside world and superfocus on what’s happening on the screen.

    Geometry Wars 3 is my go-to lately. Pure, unadulterated systemic shooter goodness. Its scoring system is super risk-reward, since staying close to enemies (more dangerous) means you collect more of the score multipliers they drop. I’m always pushing those limits, and I die often, but when my risks pay off, I can get nearer to the top of those leaderboards.

    The Lumines games are great for zoning out too, specifically Electronic Symphony. It’s a straightforward falling-block puzzler, but the way the soundtrack interacts and meshes with gameplay events is mesmerizing. The block-clearing system is fairly minimalist design-wise, but so complex and beautiful in execution.

    • waltorious says:

      I’ve actually never played any of the Geometry Wars games… I really should. But you did remind me that there are a few other games that I play in a similar way, like Super Crate Box. I should probably check out some more Vlambeer games too.

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