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Below: A StoryNexus Dungeon Crawl

The Bellringer's Tomb

For the past few weeks, I've gotten back into Below and Fallen London (formerly known as Echo Bazaar), two browser-based choose-your-own-adventure games. I've mentioned Echo Bazaar reasonably often in this blog, though it's been awhile; I think my hiatus from the game ran nearly two years. I had a "first round" with Below as well; it impressed me at the time, but I've gotten a much deeper sense for it this time around. It's still in Beta; I've been admitted to the Closed Beta (all it takes is asking, because the creator seems pretty relaxed and groovy), and with permission, I'm commenting on it here. I want to emphasize that its Closed-Beta state and, apparently, some of the StoryNexus engine limitations are a full and sufficient answer to the criticisms I have of the game.

The general structure of Below's conditions and items has a certain sympathy - not 1:1, but sympathy - with the rules of Mouse Guard and Torchbearer; more distantly, also a modest connection to Dungeon World. Its tone is probably closer to Mouse Guard than anything else; it decisively does not share Torchbearer's sense of inevitable failure. The game has an interesting approach to achievement-based advancement: experience points come from a variety of sources (especially failure), while achievements in the game grant the right to purchase benefits. Most of these purchases don't improve ability scores at all, but reduce the cost of various actions or grant benefits under certain conditions. Character class advancement is a bit more of a direct upgrade, though the ability score increases are punishingly expensive.

The Good

Let's see. Well, the price is right, that's for sure. Like all StoryNexus games, the game is free-to-play, with the option to purchase "Nex" and spend it on extra actions. The pressure to spend, such as it is, comes from 20-minute action timer (but in a lot of cases one "action" is actually three separate events). I appreciate free-to-play games that take a casual approach to their sales drive; if your content is worth my money and you haven't ruined the experience with badgering me for my precious lucre, I will part with it and thank you for the privilege.

Below is a game about dungeon-crawling, but not about combat. The world is a dangerous place - there are creatures that might kill you, among other problems - but there are no random combat encounters, and it's generally easier to solve the major quests without violence. Paradoxically, this makes the dungeon more frightening - the tension-release of victory over an enemy is rare, and I found the whole approach surprisingly immersive. Ultimately, your life and death are determined not by injury, but by courage - this lets the writers phrase failures as something other than injury, and recovery as something other than physical healing.

The game's setting, though, is what has grabbed my attention by the throat. It is strongly realized with bold strokes: a fantasy setting closely modeled on Saxon England (but touching on all of the parts of Saxon England that Tolkien didn't), under the threat of Danish raiders. There are monsters as well: talking wolves who love riddle-games, the Morlock-like scarrow who crave the scent of gold and steal memories from the marrow of bones they consume, giants in the earth. There is a deity called the Lord of Tolls, a pastiche of medieval Christianity; the first dungeon (there will be several someday, but right now there's only the one) focuses on the story of the god and his most notable saint, the Bellringer. A "pagan" god also features centrally in the tale, a bull-of-kingship type that creates, let's say, an awkward situation for one of the playable characters (a young priest of the Lord of Tolls). The setting is a well-rendered pastiche that establishes its own idioms, in the way that Astro City is a pastiche of comics.

As a dungeon crawl, the action obviously takes place in the dungeon, with occasional withdrawals to the nearby village to recover from conditions and spend experience. At the same time, the character recovers from loss of Spirit (courage, that is) by experiencing flashbacks of home and childhood, recalling bonds with family and a tutor. These flashbacks allow the broader setting threat to advance, as the passage of time allows the Sea-Kings (the aforementioned Vikings) to demand tribute, creating complications in the tale. The character can also attend an althing, celebrate at a summer fair, or visit the witch that Harrow's Hill, all of which can affect the character's statistics after the fact. In itself, it is an interesting non-linear story; for the game as a whole it provides emotional contrast and explores what the character is struggling to save.

The two characters currently available for play are very cool: a male priest (or maybe a monk, I'm a little hazy on that) and a smith's daughter who has learned her father's trade (in some contravention of social norms, apparently). The two characters have their individual strengths, and thanks to the game's card-driven exploration mechanics, a number of cards open up options unique to one or the other. Thus far I've only played the cleric, but Kainenchen has been playing the smith and I've gotten to hear about some of her escapades.

The thing that kind of blew my mind might be common in tabletop games, but if it is, I haven't heard about it: there are fixed points in the dungeon that the player can modify and upgrade. The sense of player ownership is something new and different to me, especially powerful for its contrast with the foreign, unknowable, uncontrolled nature of the rest of the dungeon. This is the number-one point that other games should explore; if you're interested in Philotomy's ideas on the dungeon as a mythic underworld and wellspring of chaos, this emphasizes the explorer as an agent of order, creating definition from the void. Returning to a place you've been before extends its feeling of objective reality.

Even bad things are still indirectly good in the game, because there's no such thing as bad content if the point is to explore. Dropping to 1 Spirit is good for you, if you can escape the dungeon, because it unlocks a useful Reputation; dropping below 1 Spirit kills you, but death is an interesting state and doesn't lock you out of playing the game, even if it does make the game a little harder. Letting the Sea-Kings advance and do terrible things to your home village causes Complications in your quest, so it slows down your completion of the game... but this is not a good game to try to speed-run, and it seems like it also unlocks alternate and better versions of some Surface cards. I've had a hard time learning this lesson in the game, because twenty-one years of gaming has taught me to look for "optimal" play and to assume bad things happening will spoil my fun - but that's just not how it works here.

It is a social game, but in a very laid-back way: Surface cards and map cooperation let you and a friend benefit equally (if not identically). Its only problem is the same in Fallen London - there's no way within the game to meet people you don't already know. Below works perfectly well without any interaction with other players; the content that you miss is minor. Having played a lot of games that put hard barriers in your way that can only be resolved by pestering your friends, I appreciate this immensely - and no matter what Marketing says, don't underestimate the power of players feeling genuine goodwill toward the game. Think of all the games whose praises I have not sung in this blog! (It should be obvious enough that mention in this blog is the best and highest goal of game developers everywhere. It's not "barely known," it's "rarefied.")

The Bad

Go back and re-read the disclaimer at the end of the first paragraph before continuing.

The bad things about Below are, on one level, inevitable: there aren't a vast variety of dungeon-exploration cards or flashbacks. Your depth in the dungeon changes that up considerably, and it is cool to see the same card but discover that it offer something completely different (the Pit is an especially creepy example). The good part of this is that establishing a very clear state of normalcy makes it mean more when things change. The bad part is that it's repetitive and grindy: you need huge amounts of Gear, Secrets, and Treasure to take on the later quests, and the safer parts hand out only three to one of those per card. If the grindy parts of Fallen London were a turn-off for you (and that's totally valid), Below is only somewhat better.

The classes don't feel well-balanced; talking to Kainenchen about her smith, it seems like the smith's itemization is objectively much better than the cleric's. The cleric's class-specific item slot is the Relic, which gets automatically unequipped whenever Sanctity falls below 5 - that is to say, just about any time the cleric uses his miraculous abilities. The relic only grants +2 to the Holy stat, and there's very little transparency as to what purpose the Holy stat might serve. The smith, on the other hand, gets a Warfare slot; I don't know the stats on the things the smith makes, but just from looking at the Treasure cards, it's clear that Warfare items are exceptionally powerful. The cleric is very good at removing conditions, but the Sanctity that powers such abilities costs actions, or actions and Treasure, to replenish. It's better than having to retreat to one of your established Waypoints to purge the condition, at least. In terms of class balance, though, there may be a lot going on that I don't see - if I'm wrong about this, no big deal.

There are still a few bugs in the game, which is part of that Closed Beta thing; there's one that K and I can't quite nail down that causes cards to vanish from your hand when click Perhaps Not (which should just back out and return to viewing your normal play area). Hardly a deal-breaker!

I would love just a little more transparency on advancing Reputations. Getting to level 2 in a Reputation is usually all that is required to unlock the purchasable benefits - I think. Are there benefits for reaching the absurdly-high totals for rank 3 in the Gear/Secrets/Treasure Reputations? Frankly, I'll probably never find out. That's okay, but if they were really going to be "worth" it, I wish I knew so that I could mentally prepare myself for the death-march grind of doing so. (Once the game launches, this will be handled by the player-side wiki, of course.)

A Little Armchair Design

With the caveat that I don't know all that much about what's possible in StoryNexus and what isn't, the kind of item I'd most like to see is a limited-duration stat buff, possibly with the additional caveat that you can't use more than one at a time and you can't own more than one for each stat at a time. It seems to me that it would be cool to activate an item that increased one of your three core stats for, say, 10 stat checks. You'd use this to get the really difficult challenges of the deepest Depths dialed down to something more achievable. The Second Chance items for each stat do this to some degree, but two chances at something with a 20% success rate isn't that big of a help. The deepest Depths are punishingly difficult for even a pretty "high-level" - well, highly experienced - adventurer, and a temporary bump to one out of three stats seems pretty reasonable. (I might be wrong - I haven't worked in this particular design sandbox enough to have the greatest confidence in my ideas here.)

I'd love to see a crafting system in the game that is open to all characters, preferably not repeating the system used in Fallen London (if only for the sake of difference). All characters can gain and improve gear from Memories of Home, but I'd like to see more. Since there's already minor interaction between characters, some way to send items or clerical blessings back and forth would be cool, though there's a danger of cheapening the whole experience when some players just create two accounts. I'm not sure what the answer to this would be - I just know that Kainenchen and I would enjoy having other ways to interact and help one another. So I guess my actual advice here would be to tread softly... exactly as they have done to date.

In conclusion, I really like what I've seen so far. The writing really shines, and the game's design enhances its themes. I think that if other dungeon-crawling games (I haven't played Torchbearer or Dungeon World, and this isn't a knock on them) took more of a page from its low-violence, high-environmental-danger approach, they would find that it paid dividends in the game's mood, emphasizing pure courage in the face of dangers over the savage thuggery of the classic "invade their homes, take their stuff" dungeon. The danger you haven't seen is the most fearsome. The game has left me wanting more, in the best way possible.

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