Stuff. Acquisition of things, and skills, is the driving force behind many games. Whether the Pavlovian chime of gold dropping to the ground or the triumphant music as Link holds aloft his new shield, so may games reinforce the desirability of fighting for awesome new stuff and abilities. We rely on the familiar play of wanting and getting to drive us through some games as surely as we sometimes find ourselves living life from one big purchase to the next.
What happens when the levels and the stuff are still in a game, but I'm forced to sweep my avatar away like a Mandala sand painting every time I fail? I’ve been discovering this as I make my first real plunge into the world of Roguelikes with Mystery Dungeon: Shiren The Wanderer.
I rarely replay games. By the time I’m done, the sense of discovery and newness that drives me has faded, so there's really no point. Maybe some random new items or some small story tidbit will crop up again, but that’s never been enough of a draw for me to relive an experience. After I’ve run the track once, I’d rather hit the showers and start fresh on something else the next day than keep going round and round the same course. At least, that’s usually how it works.
Shiren The Wanderer on the Nintendo DS has put my own assumptions of how I play to the test. Not only do I lose everything when I die, the game boots me back to level one, and dumps me back to the starting village every time. If this wasn't punishment enough, the lady at the Inn - an evil NPC in good NPC clothing - mocks me as I drag my naked, half-starved avatar back out into the world to start anew.
“I should quit.” I think this every time I’m forced to start over and reacquaint myself with the first randomly generated forest. The archetypal woods-of-beginning.
But I don’t quit; I keep playing. I fight and claw my way up to level 12 with a Katana +5, a sweet golden shield and enough magic scrolls to build a fort, only to die when a monster randomly warps me into a cluster of baby dragons. Back to level one, all items but for whatever I may have stored in a warehouse eight levels ago are gone. Bereft of everything but my wits and my pet weasel, I try again. And again. And again.
There are a few reasons I’m willing to forgo my usual play style. For one, the dungeon areas themselves are randomly generated every time with new NPCs, items and level layouts; so each new adventure is actually a reasonably new experience. The developers have also created a world where there is at least some persistence to the NPC stories, even if my own personal journey is a never-ending cycle of "Crap, here I go again." A party member I managed to recruit through questing in one life will be willing to join up with me if I run into them in a dungeon on the next attempt.
Considering I’m back to a blank slate every time I die, the only real persistence is my own skill as a player and my understanding of the game world. The rules of engagement demand the strategic use of consumables: a liberal application of magic scrolls, a near fanatical hording of rice balls. I may lose everything when I die, but I retain the lessons learned from my countless deaths. That progress, outside the confines of new items and in-game abilities, transcends the old ruts in my thinking and gives me some insight into why some people can play the same game half a dozen times, or max out multiple characters in WoW. That kind of achievement being unlocked won't ever register on the screen, but it's there.
Like the Tibetan Buddhist monks who spend days painstakingly creating works of art before sweeping them away in a beautiful display of non-attachment, I too try to see the journey as the most important part of the experience.
After all, there will always be another sword.