Arena Reboot, Part I: Returning to the Arena and starting out in Reich Parkeep

I see no reason to recap the introductory materials of the game. Those descriptions, and my thoughts related to them, are still available through my older series of Arena posts. Please do consider taking a look.

For this time around, you’ll see I went with the same name and image for the character, but already the adventure’s been different, not just from a stats perspective but from a flow perspective, and I think that boils down to my choice of Spellsword this time around.

This suits my apparent playstyle quite readily, and I had a fun and easy time mopping up rats and goblins in the sewers. I’m tentatively optimistic about this attempt–I haven’t been bored or frustrated at all yet. For now, I think that to the extent that I write posts about the game, I’ll present them as an ongoing narrative, an extended fan fiction chronicling my character’s exploits, cutting out some of the more nuts-and-bolts discussion of the game that my previous series had. To the extent I engage with that out-of-universe stuff, I think I’ll keep to separate posts from the main series.

Now with that said, I’ll just jump right into Aizen’s adventures.


Imperial Battlemage Jagar Tharn’s coup had been quick and overwhelmingly successful. Emperor Uriel Septim VII and Talin, leader of the Imperial Guards, were transported to a pocket dimension. Tharn assumed the visage of the Emperor and surrounded himself with his own loyal followers. He killed his own apprentice, Ria Silmane, when she learned the truth and refused to cooperate with his scheme. With a few careful and covert imprisonments and executions, his power was cemented, and he felt confident that no one could uncover his scheme or stop his plans.

Aizen awoke from his dream vision of his old friend, Ria, in the moldy depths of the abandoned Imperial prison, realizing he might be the only one left able to thwart Jagar Tharn. It was a matter of simple luck that he had been provided an imprisonment instead of execution, as a minor member of the Imperial court, a Dunmer in the Imperial capital and thus an outsider among Imperials and Dark Elves alike, who had known nothing of the actual coup until Ria’s ghostly appearance. He presumed he had been left to die in here, surely, but now it seemed this was merely the first chapter in a greater story. The first problem was determining whether he could actually escape from his cell. He found a ruby key sequestered away, just as Dream-Ria had promised, and he was quickly able to make his way through the labyrinth of this old, abandoned section of the Imperial prison, following half-remembered instructions from his vision to escape. Arming himself and equipping a buckler and some magic items hidden among the refuse and rot to aid in his defense, he stepped through the portal Ria had told him of and found himself in the town of Reich Parkeep, in northwestern Morrowind, in the middle of the night. The jump had successfully gotten him away from the heart of the Empire and out into the provinces, it was true, but this was a less-than-ideal time and place.

He spent way too much time wandering the dark, empty streets and alleys of the town, noting the excess of churches and apparent lack of stores and inns. He did not find undead, but he did encounter plenty of goblins and rats, a couple thugs, and a lizard-man, fighting more perhaps on the town’s streets than in the depths of Tharn’s dungeon.

He came across a few good-hearted people who still found a reason to be out in the night–an unusual jester, a prostitute, some devout monks on their temple grounds–and eventually found his way, with the help of their vague directions, to an inn hidden away behind a hedge wall: the Gold Griffin.

Ria had suggested that only Aizen could stop Jagar Tharn, but she had also promised that he could safely set himself up in the provinces. The messages were somewhat contradictory, unless of course she intended him to train and equip himself in comparable security until he was ready to take on the Imperial usurper. While he planned to simply take a room for the night to think things over, an “aggressive” figure cornered him and asked him to retrieve a lock of ghoul’s hair from someone at the Mages’ Guild within one day. He pushed himself back into the night, figuring perhaps he could discover this knick-knack on his own within the sleeping Guild hall. No luck–upon breaking in, he found a couple small bags of gold, not worth the break-in if that had been the goal, and the shock of another thief who eventually cornered him and forced him to fight to the death. On his retreat from the guild, he came across yet another thief in a nearby snowy square, perhaps the partner of the former, and once more defeated his human foe.

Aizen returned to the Gold Griffin at last, for a final time that night, a little past four in the morning. He drank some ale–allegedly the best in the city–and rented a room, waking not-quite-fully refreshed but eager to complete the task bestowed upon him. He set back out into the city, not straight for the guild but rather heading to a weapons store he’d passed and marked accordingly on his map the night before. Once there, he offloaded the goods he’d acquired on his journeys so far, save for the weapons, magic items, buckler, and leather armor that he’d looted from his foes and procured from heaps of old treasures in the dungeon. He’d managed to collect a silver helm, ill-suited to him, but that went for over 300 gold, and he bought a few cheap leather pieces, including a helm, to complete his set.

Returning to the Mages’ Guild at last, still nearly vacant, he encountered a mage hidden away among a stack of books who offered him the lock of hair. He collected the hair and returned to the aggressive fellow at the inn, receiving a measly 45 gold for his troubles but the gratitude of this stranger.

Life fell into a comfortable routine for Aizen for a few days after that, handling basic fetch quests–back to the Mages’ Guild to deliver a note, for instance–and exploring the countryside surrounding Reich Parkeep. To the south, there were open fields and farmlands, and winding country roads, all coated in snow. The city itself had a series of canals running through it, and to the east and north was a large lake with an island set out in the middle of it. Aizen found dungeons to explore in both these places.

The south fields were interrupted at one point by a small inn and at another by an isolated fortress. No soldiers appeared to staff it, and the interior was barren. Aizen found some loot, but also quite a number of thieves and scoundrels just as willing to slit his throat and take what he found. When he’d had enough of exploring the crumbling stone corridors, he would take a brief break to try to infiltrate a low-slung, newer building, but he never succeeded, inexplicably drawing the presence of armed guards. It was a mystery to him, but he wasn’t sure it was worth finding the answer.

The lake’s island had a strange earthen den with a wooden door set into it. That door led down into narrow, dimly lit tunnels set into the bare soil, with strange open gaps suggesting precipitous falls into darkness, frequent patches of blood staining the ground, and wooden doors set off at seemingly random locations that occasionally had some bit of loot left behind. This warren was crawling with burglars and beasts, and Aizen fought off his fair share of thieves, rival spellswords, minotaurs, orcs, rats, and even a couple of mages. Aizen’s curiosity got the better of him, and he pushed too far and too fast, unnecessarily risking his life, but he eventually got out with several valuable odds and ends.

Aizen found himself in the magic trade after that, briefly. He had already discovered that several trinkets were protective when worn, but he had them and several strange potions identified. What he couldn’t wear, or what didn’t seem clearly useful to save to drink, he sold off. And he bought himself a couple spells: a better healing spell and an Open spell to improve his future chances with locked doors. By the end of his trading, he had a full set of chain armor to supplant his still-fresh leather gear.

There were two inns in Reich Parkeep. The Screaming Helm was good for the odd job, but it was the Gold Griffin, Aizen’s first sanctuary, that became something of a home. Whether he had simply been out and about town or delving deep into a dungeon, he always welcomed the moment he could enter the cozy inn, stamp the snow from his boots, and rub warmth into his fingers. Yet he felt oddly detached from those who also seemed to make the inn their home. He talked little, and when he did, he found most disinterested in him. The barkeeper was friendly enough, but seldom had anything to say. The arrangement worked for the short term, but Aizen knew that Reich Parkeep would not be his home forever.

On one of his first nights of freedom, Aizen dreamt of Ria again, who told him to seek out Fang Lair, where he should find the first piece of a broken relic of power, the Staff of Chaos, that could undo Tharn’s plot. According to legend, Fang Lair was built by the Dwarves of Kragen, who were driven out by a Great Wyrm. But Ria could not say where Fang Lair could be found. If Aizen had not already had tangible proof of the reality of the visions, with the manifestation of the ruby key and the portal that had dumped him in Reich Parkeep, he would have questioned whether he was simply going mad. In truth, he did anyway. But for the sake of Ria’s spirit, he knew he would follow this lead in time. While he adventured and quested, he did take time to ask the local residents for any information about this lost locale. Some believed it was simply a legend. Others suggested the temple for information, but the temple knew nothing. Still others suggested the Mages’ Guild for information, but the guild knew nothing too. One person Aizen spoke with suggested that Fang Lair could be found in Hammerfell, and then another, and another still. Aizen knew that if the place was regarded as a legend by most, his best chance of tracking down more information would be Hammerfell–if that was even the right part of the continent. So he squirreled the piece of information away, until he felt ready for a trial of that nature, and a journey that would take him to the other side of Tamriel.

On his next adventure out into the wilderness, Aizen found the small inn again but couldn’t locate the old fortress. He did, however, stumble onto a remote, small graveyard with a single mausoleum.

Exploring the mausoleum.

He crept into the funereal chambers within, expecting perhaps his first encounter with the undead, but the rooms were barren, save for a few valuables. To enter those rooms was its own challenge, as they were locked, and his first Open spell failed while nearly depleting his magic reserves. But in frustration, he swung his sword at the old wood, and the locks on each door yielded to his onslaught.

Pressing on further, he came across a small, unnamed settlement with a temple, an inn, several houses, and bustling residents in the snowfields outside.

After strolling through the woods outside the settlement, Aizen found a low-slung, oddly angled compound with a massive barred wood door. He crept inside, finding a winding maze with sheer drops and halls that led to nothing. And, as expected, he found his share of monsters and men eager to try to slay him. He even encountered a couple skeletons, and just as he was about to leave, a zombie set upon him, nearly pummeling him to death before he could flee into the frozen overworld.

On return to the small settlement, he rested up at the local inn. The local innkeeper told him that the “prophet” he spoke with said that Hammerfell would be decimated by plague early the next year. Aizen didn’t know the “prophet,” presumably some sort of simple soothsayer, and he had already heard many spurious rumors about suspected plagues and poor or rich harvests, but the news was dismaying given his likely final destination. In that moment, he made a decision. It was time to move on, to leave the region of Reich Parkeep behind. It was time to begin his trek across Tamriel to determine if the legendary Fang Lair was real–as his vision insisted–and could be truly located. He set off on the main road toward the adjoining state of Skyrim, stopping in the border town of Cormar View.

Here, the news of Fang Lair was fresher–couriers had arrived just the day before, speaking of the locale. Aizen could not ascertain further details, but it seemed that Fang Lair was real, in Hammerfell, and somehow making its presence felt once more.

He knew he was on the right path, and his journey seemed increasingly urgent. He would press on soon.

Bethesda Launcher

Hey, did you know that Arena and Daggerfall are both available through the Bethesda.net Launcher? And that when you install them through the launcher, they also install a DOS emulator? And that you can smoothly launch the games from the launcher? Hm…hm

Well, I’m still playing Jurassic World Evolution 2‘s challenge mode (and capturing some novel-inspired images in sandbox mode that I plan to eventually share here–fun little side project), and I’ve been playing co-op with a buddy in old Halo games from The Master Chief Collection (Infinite? Come on, I’m typically years behind the times, no way I’m touching that soon), and it’s been a little while since I played Book of Travels despite regular updates so I want to get back to that, and god do I need to get back into Ring Fit Adventure, and then there’s my larger backlog of games that’s not getting any smaller any time soon, and that of course is just discussing games

All that said, I can’t imagine that I’ll actually get back into Arena any time soon. But the convenience of it makes it more plausible, makes it a little bit of a glimmer in my mind’s eye once more. And hey, maybe you didn’t know about its availability through the launcher, and maybe you’ll give it a try.


UPDATE: Oh, why not.

Aizen 2.0

New experiences on a new computer

I do sometimes have reason to work from home, and I’d reached a point where my desktop computer simply wasn’t all that reliable for that task. It was the final straw for me, and so I purchased a new (well, refurbished) computer and a new monitor. That ends a ten-year reign for my last desktop. I built that computer, and I upgraded it at least a couple times over the years, and it served me well. I have nothing but fondness for that machine, though I’ve now set it aside.

With a new computer came opportunities to test games and graphic settings that would have taxed–or entirely overwhelmed–its predecessor. Look, it’s not like I went out and bought a top-of-the-line computer. But it could at least comfortably handle current-gen titles!

The first thing I tried out was, perhaps unsurprisingly, Jurassic World: Evolution. I’d played the hell out of that game, but always on lower graphics settings, and I still experienced frequent frame-rate drops, lag, and crashes. It now looks incredible running on the higher-end graphics settings, and the game loads quicker and runs smoothly without any perceived technical issues. The lighting, the vegetation, the building and people textures, and even the already-lovely dinosaurs were all vastly improved!

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Notice the details within the Explorer itself, with sharper resolutions and more clearly defined textures. You don’t get the best part of the experience with a still image, though; the movement of individual blades of grass in the wind and the dynamic lighting and shadows make me feel like I’m really there.

I mostly play games that are older or from mid-sized or smaller studios, so consequently I can typically get away with fairly limited or outdated tech. I actually struggled to think of another game that I wanted to play that would actually test out the computer’s abilities a bit more. I ended up purchasing the second Star Wars: Battlefront II (which really seems like it should just be Battlefront IV). I didn’t push things that hard, opting for medium graphics, but the game played smoothly, and I had a lot of fun with it.

Interestingly, the gameplay itself was incredibly smooth and I don’t think I ever had any noticeable framerate drops or weird pop-ins or anything to disrupt the experience, but the cutscenes, which all looked incredible, often had little hiccups of drops in performance in between scene transitions, especially for those scenes following the end of a level. This isn’t going to mark the shift of my attention to a greater number of AAA titles (not that that was ever very likely, given my interests), but it at least means I have a computer I think can safely handle the occasional newer Star Wars game, like Fallen Order or the upcoming Squadrons.

Also, while I’m not interested in “reviewing” the newer Battlefront II, I do want to talk about its story. That story is surprisingly short; I’ve played less than 10 hours in the game so far, including in some of the Arcade and Instant Action modes, and yet I’ve already completed both “campaigns” with the middle difficulty setting. That said, I think it’s clear enough what one of my future blog post topics will be about…

A final thought for this post, though. My Arena save file is on the old machine. Maybe I’ll transfer it at some point. Maybe I’ll start a new one. But I’m betting that my attempt to play through Arena might have truly met its end (an end that admittedly came months ago). I actually feel okay with that.

Arena, Part XIV: Exiting the Labyrinth

It may be hard–even nearly impossible–to believe, but I’ve at last returned to Arena. I never really intended to be away for that long. Days turned to weeks and then months. In the back of my mind, I always felt compelled to return, but I always found something else to do when I had enough free time to get back to it.

I returned to find myself completely lost in the middle of Labyrinthian. Before long, I’d adjusted settings back to how I liked them, and I was plowing through all sorts of monsters and getting more and more lost and genuinely having fun.

Arena can be a tedious experience. There are a lot of narrow streets in towns, and there are a lot of narrow halls in dungeons. Responsiveness to your player actions isn’t great. The visuals and sound effects and music quickly become repetitious–as do the random fetch quests and the general experiences to be found in any particular dungeon. The open world outside of cities and dungeons stretches on endlessly and pointlessly. Arena is tedious because it tried to offer a world of possibilities but then didn’t have all that much to do. It was ahead of its time, with ideas about first-person open-world gaming that couldn’t be matched in implementation yet. So you could do a lot but it all boils down to the same sort of experiences repeated over and over. This can be freeing or frustrating, and I keep swinging back and forth between the two mental states.

I always have a lot of fun after a break from the game, though, because I’m coming back to it fresher. The game can’t feel so tedious if taken in little chunks with distance in between.

My play session on return felt productive, even though I didn’t really do anything to advance the story. I guess I advanced my story, and I was able to check off my own personal objectives.

My last check-in with the game was over six months ago (wow), so as a reminder, I’d planned to escape the dungeon of Labyrinthian and return to town to rest, restock potions, repair/replace equipment, and learn a new spell. I accomplished those simple objectives. It felt like a bigger deal because Labyrinthian is so winding, and I’d been away so long that I had no idea of the general direction to even start heading in to get out.

The enemies on my escape were varied but not too challenging. I ran into a wraith over a lava pit, but because I was at an elevation, I could snipe it with fire spells until it was defeated.

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I slew several spiders, goblins, wolves, and hell hounds with my trusty saber. I took out ghouls from range with magic and bow.

And I discovered another new enemy! As I was walking down a hall, this message appeared:

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Troll is regenerating? I didn’t even know that there was a troll around at all! Then, as I turned down another hallway, I heard a bloodthirsty saurian roar. I tried to get away, but the roar repeated, again and again. I hoped I could just run away, but I took a wrong turn and failed to make a jump to a higher passage. I was hit from behind and turned to defend myself. And there stood the troll!

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Much to my joy and relief, I was able to subdue the beast fairly easily. I do appreciate the increasing variety of monsters in the game, and I still love how you can tell what type of monsters you might be facing soon based on their unique calls.

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Eventually, I found a way to a green mark on my map–which I vaguely remembered indicated not just a door but an exit, either to another floor or to the outside world. The first exit I came across took me to the main floor. And once on the main floor, I was able to easily find my way back to the main entrance.

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I headed to the town of Dunpar Wall. In town, I went to an inn (the Haunted Wolf, a somewhat perplexing name) and tried to get a room for the night, but I was approached with a small fetch quest.

Since it wasn’t due until the following day, I still rented a room and slept until morning. Once done, I tracked down the Order of the Knights of Hope with the holy item.

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Since that took me near the Mages Guild and an equipment store, I went ahead and identified magic items and purchased potions at the Guild, then sold off all my gear and purchased fresh armor and a couple new weapons at the equipment store. While at the Guild, I also bought a couple new spells, including Lightning, so I feel a little more prepared to deal with any iron golems I might come across next time.

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Finally, I returned to the inn to complete the quest.

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While exploring Dunpar Wall, I found a homeless beggar who initially greeted me by saying he was too busy to talk. When I pushed him for more details, he answered:

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Is he delusional or sarcastic? Hard to say.

I also got some juicy (though vague) gossip from the bartender at the Haunted Wolf:

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And that same barkeep sold me a beverage with a pretty ridiculous name:

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It’s obviously just a fantasy-themed version of the gin and tonic! Gin by itself is already a juniper-flavored drink (we’ll learn in game five, of course, that juniper berries are found in Skyrim and used to flavor mead), it’s been enjoyed since the Middle Ages, and it’s associated with the Europeans! It would’ve been pretty appropriate to just have gin present, right? And djinn are genies, associated with Arabian folklore, so what’s this doing in a Nordic-influenced country? So many questions! And no answers (I suspect the answer truly is that whoever named the drinks was trying to be cute).

I’ve returned to the village gates. The next session will find me back in Labyrinthian. We’ll see when that happens…but this time around was fun, and I was glad to return to the game after all.

Things I’m Into Right Now

For this evening’s post, a short recap of Things I’m Into Right Now.

First, I’m still playing Skyward Sword. I’ve held Arena on pause for a while now, but I feel more like I owe something to finishing up that game. I don’t really feel like I owe anything to Skyward Sword. Visuals are sometimes pretty, and sometimes fall short. Game’s quirky, though sometimes the characters are more annoying than silly. Plot’s falling into some generic Legendary Hero bullshit, which I guess it has to as a Zelda game, but it’s not anything to keep me around. Game path still feels really railroaded, and while it seems there are a lot of things I could be doing, a lot of arbitrary Secret Places in each zone and a lot of dumb item collection things like bug catching, very little actually seems interesting or fun to do. And oh my god, the motion controls are killing me. Things that should be intuitive are difficult to replicate. Trying to get my sword to arc a repetitive circle is a nightmare that usually translates to Link spastically jerking about–and that’s a required task to get through several sealed doors. I’m now through the Faron region and, having held off the demon Lord Ghirahim, I’ve finished my first true dungeon in the game.

Second, I’ve intermittently been playing Sonic Mania. It’s another game I don’t feel driven to complete, but it’s a fun diversion at times. You can play it a lot or a little. It feels like the original side-scrolling Sonic titles in the best possible way. It’s fun, it’s light, it’s challenging–sometimes, for me, very challenging–yet seldom frustrating. Bright colors, imaginative reinterpretations of old levels, and a sense of smooth direction over the course of every level to keep encouraging just one more level of play make for good times.

While it’s not really a Thing I’m Into Right Now, I’ve been excited to see the return of many songbirds this week, especially several red-winged blackbirds. Robins come so early, but it really feels like spring when I start to see (and hear) those red-winged blackbirds! And we still have two days until the spring equinox. On the subject of birds, anyone have any idea as to an identification of the birds up-top? Larger version of the image below:

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Also, I’m on a bit of a 1930’s true crime kick right now. I recently finished John Toland’s The Dillinger Days, which was fascinating mostly because I’d known very little at all about those 1930’s bank-robbing and kidnapping gangs. Toland’s book is well-researched, and it was written in the 1960’s so benefited from interviews with many of the surviving actors. Apparently some of the information’s now viewed as inaccurate, but I enjoyed the book. Toland did a good job of keeping criminals and cops alike as human, resisting the impulse to romanticize or villainize anyone (it’s hard to say I really liked anyone, though, what with the criminals murdering innocents and kidnapping people and often being sort of stupid and cruel, while the cops were often willing to shoot first and ask questions later and seemed a little too zealous in stopping the Bad Guys without due process concerns, except for a few who were often just outright corrupt).

Relatedly, I’m reading Al Capone: His Life, Legacy, and Legend by Deirdre Bair. I’d never read a biography of Capone before, and this was a very interesting one to start with. Bair has extensively interviewed family members and shares a more personal, intimate take on the famed gangster, often relating family stories and breaking down which ones are false and which ones have grains of truth. She also references other existent biographies. If you wanted a just-the-facts narrative focusing on Capone’s criminal operations and efforts to take him down, it seems like you might want another biography. But this one is beautifully written and thoughtful and engaging–the writing alone truly makes this book worth it.

Finally, I watched the 2011 biopic J. Edgar earlier today (directed by Clint Eastwood; written by Dustin Lance Black, who’s credited with writing a few other biopics; and starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Hoover, Naomi Watts as Helen Gandy, and Armie Hammer as Clyde Tolson, with an excellent supporting cast including a single-scene appearance by Adam Driver as an overly earnest gas station attendant). The original FBI director is such a ridiculous, legally empowered super-villain, and yet the film managed to portray him sympathetically by (1) presenting him as a true-believer law enforcement reformer who bought into his own myth, and by (2) spending significant screen time carefully building up the allegedly romantic relationship between Hoover and Tolson. Hoover’s fear of his own sexuality and his deep (yet apparently platonic) love for Tolson are elements that may or may not be true, but without them it would be hard to salvage a likeable man out of this. Tolson also conveniently serves as a very soft conscience, who challenges Hoover at his most disgusting and grandiose, though he unfortunately always backs down to the director. We are left without hard answers about who Hoover was–just one particularly artful interpretation. Aside from the pretty bad Old Person makeup for later-in-life Hoover and Tolson, this film was quite good.

And now, sadly, it’s time for my weekend to end.

Arena, Part XIII: Lost in the Labyrinth

I’ve made progress through Labyrinthian, albeit in intermittent bursts.

I encountered zombies for the first time, and in several groups. After one hit, which was not lethal but was nonetheless quite damaging, I learned to keep my distance. There are plenty of little tunnels weaving just above the floor line, which I can jump up to but which monsters can’t get into; it’s easy to rain down spells and arrows on my enemies. I’ve also made better use of my invisibility spell to set up attacks and evade enemies; the extra magic reserves over several level increases since whenever it was I learned the spell have certainly helped.

With the combination of tactics, I was able to get through a good portion of the dungeon with very little risk, even when facing off against tougher enemies. The raised passages are often long enough stretches, and the labyrinth is well-lit enough, that I can even use the very dangerous Fireball spell; it takes down enemies quick, and it has a broad area of effect, but the problem is that its area of effect is so broad that I used to get caught in it often (and its magic drain used to hurt me more in the past).

In addition to zombies, there have been several hell hounds, of all things, some ghouls, and lots and lots of spiders, among other low-level enemies. I’m getting used to dealing with the powerful but often self-destructive hell hounds.

My major progress in the dungeon was finding and clearing the path for Kanen the Elder. A riddle was of course involved.

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Arena is obsessed with riddles. It feels very much so like a product of the renewed interest in LOTR with the surge in popularity of D&D. At least none of the riddles are as bad as “What have I got in my pocket?” I guessed “hourglass” for this riddle, which was apparently correct.

There was a wraith or ghost behind a locked door, and I suspect I’d have to have fought it if I guessed incorrectly. It’s likely that the ghost is intended to be Kanen’s spirit, as indicated by the game text.

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But while my dungeon map had been filled in enough for me to know where to go next, I hit a bit of a wall in exploring the second area. The enemies were a lot tougher down this other area, for one thing; whereas I escaped death for the entire first part, I wasn’t nearly as lucky in the other portion. I wasted a lot of resources trying to take down some new type of atronach, but I didn’t make a dent. I’m guessing I might need a lightning spell, something I don’t have, to penetrate its metal armor and hide. (I’ve since looked this up; it’s an iron golem, with a large amount of health, and while I didn’t see any mention of weakness to electricity, a new spell and more potions won’t hurt.)

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While I could escape with the aid of invisibility and side tunnels, I was soon after eliminated by a ghost.

And that’s where I’m at, stuck in the labyrinth, dreading ghosts and atronachs. My plan to move forward is another run to town to rest, restock, repair and replace, and (probably most importantly) learn a new spell.

In-Universe Detective Fiction

When I was younger, my favorite type of game was the open-world RPG. I could play those for dozens or hundreds of hours. I still do, at times: my Steam version of Morrowind, for instance, has racked up 260 hours of play time since purchase in 2012. And there are other exceptions, of course, like Arena and Shadow of Mordor.

But as I’ve gotten older, and I’ve had less time to play video games, and I’ve wanted my time with video games to be more meaningful even in that smaller amount of time, I’ve gravitated more toward shorter, narrative-rich experiences. For instance, while I was never a big adventure game fan, adventure games have taken up more and more of my time. I’m okay with a game that does not require a lot of skill or reactivity, but it’s still important to me that the game offer a sense of choice and diverging paths. There should be a sense of personal investment and consequence.

As a result, I’ve played a few of the Telltale games, though certainly not all. My favorite was The Walking Dead, with an emotionally gripping story and rich character drama. I only played season one, though; the first season alone was so emotionally draining that I am in no hurry to engage with the title further, and I’m not a huge fan of the nihilistic death and violence and gore of zombie stories in the first place. I played the Jurassic Park game, because I’m a huge fan of the original book and film, but that story offered very little sense of real consequences for most of the game, and it was too dependent upon annoying quick-time events. And I played most of the Batman game, which definitely offered the feeling of real choice and consequence, and it had excellent detective scenes that were fitting for the character and excellent character interactions. But I never finished that game, after encountering a persistent game-crashing bug in around the third or fourth episode. It was frustrating to have to give up on the game; I know that a lot of people complained about bugs and glitches and unplayability for the initial releases of each episode, and I suspect that the problem may since have been resolved, but I’m not too eager to get back into that story now.

My favorite contemporary adventure game was Life Is Strange, by Dontnod Entertainment. I was heavily invested in the choice and consequence of that game. The story was mystical and bizarre. And the time-looping powers of the protagonist resulted in interesting gameplay moments and were fully integrated into the game’s narrative. Narrative and game mechanics fed into each other. The weirdo teens and their interactions with the weirdo adults, and the snapshot of the Northwest, were great (I only really understood the comparisons to Twin Peaks after playing, as I only started watching the cult classic show months after finishing the game). Not that this is much of a feat, given that the achievements involved completing episodes and taking optional photos, but Life Is Strange is one of two games in which I reached 100% achievement completion on Steam (I stand by my final decision in that game, saving the town and reversing everything that happened, even though it is emotionally devastating; the other choice seemed too selfish to me, and I’m glad that 100% completion did not require playing both endings).

I tried Dontnod’s Remember Me, which felt like a fairly conventional action-adventure title although with the fairly interesting gimmick of memory alteration (memory and the past are obviously important themes in Dontnod’s body of work). I look forward to Vampyr, which seems to be quite a different game for Dontnod, and I’m curious to see how memory and the past might influence that experience.

But I’m discovering that there is a very specific form of typically short, narrative-rich game that I especially love. It sits somewhere between adventure game and visual novel. It often, though not always, has some level of consequence due to choice; at the very least, players’ investigative skills and growing familiarity with in-game systems are critical to advancement. And it involves the use of some sort of in-game software, often an operating system. I don’t know that this particular type of game warrants having its own genre, and I don’t know if there is already a genre descriptor, but I’m going to call these sorts of games In-Universe Detective games.

What I love most about these games is that they use the limitations of the genre to actually build a greater sense of immersion. Instead of remotely playing as another character, the game operates under the assumption that you are you. You may have a particular role or function within the game, and “you” can be defined by the player out-of-game. But who “you” are is built out of direct interaction with the game. The game itself, by acting like a software program, allows for easy suspension of disbelief. The world of the game is your world.

I know of three entries in this genre: Analogue: A Hate Story (and its sequel, Hate Plus), Her Story, and Orwell.

In Analogue: A Hate Story (designed by Christine Love), you are a spacer on a salvage operation to investigate an old, abandoned colony ship; the entire game involves reading through archives and interacting with one of two AI programs. You attempt to discover what exactly went wrong with the ship, and in the process uncover a feudal Korean-inspired culture that developed after a regressive societal change aboard the ship. The game has interesting things to say about misogyny and the myth of the forward march of cultural progress. And it has just as many interesting things to say about identity, rebellion, and forgiveness. It’s a short game, but I played the hell out of it; it’s my other 100% Steam achievement completion title. If you’re into anime or visual novels, it’ll be an easy game to get into. If not for some favorable coverage, though, I would have passed; the cutesy anime girl avatars of the AI were a little obnoxious for me to deal with at first, but they prove to be quite interesting quite quickly.

In Her Story (designed by Sam Barlow), you use an old police computer to review archived clips of interviews with a suspect in a murder investigation. You slowly piece together what happened as you find new videos. You have to find ways to draw connections to other videos, as you cannot simply review them all at once. There’s a fun amount of searching and browsing and deduction involved. Even though the case is closed, you feel like you’re doing a lot of detective work in the searching. Plus, there’s very little interaction outside of this searching role–just an occasional text conversation with a third party–so that a lot of the investigation work you do is off-screen, out-of-game, implicit, personal. I took notes on paper as I worked my way through. It was engaging, and the ending resulted in an interesting shift in perspective for me. This is a game that I would have 100% completion in, if I’d ever bothered to play more of the computer application game on the in-game desktop background.

Lastly, there’s Orwell (designed by Osmotic Studios), which I just reviewed on Sunday. Of the three, I found this the least rewarding to play, although it maybe had the most to say. I’d point you to my review if you want more insight there.

You could say that all of the above are basically games from other genres, and that I’m just reorienting them around a gimmick. But if it’s a “gimmick,” it’s holding up rather well for me and inviting a very particular type of immersive experience. I’ll gladly keep playing games like that.

If you know of any games that fit the bill, please let me know. I’m certainly not tired of them yet.

Arena, Part XII: Beginning the Labyrinth

Well, I do have an update, though a small one. I’ve entered Labyrinthian.

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The entry halls prompted some interesting though so far rather vague flavor text in the form of clues etched into the walls and floors:

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I haven’t even solved the mysteries of door number one yet, though. I’ve only been slowly probing Labyrinthian. It’ll probably continue to be slow going–I might plug away a little bit at a time, and even a month from now I might not have a huge update. But it’s going. So far the enemies haven’t been too challenging for the most part–mostly spiders and wolves. I did encounter a room with snow wolves, and one room with hell hounds. The snow wolf room was challenging. The hell hound room was laughably easy: I fell from a high space into a hole, the hell hounds were in the room above the hole, and one of the hell hounds fired a fireball spell that eradicated them both. I didn’t have to do anything at all.

I’ve also encountered an interesting glitch. I used Passwall to get through to some stairs leading to another level. I could go through the wall and go up the stairs, but at that point I could not move except to turn around and go back down the stairs. Once back downstairs, I could not move except to turn around and go back up the stairs. I could not break free even with jumping and levitating. I lost some progress loading an earlier save. I won’t try to break a shortcut into stairs again. They basically function as a portal to take me to another dungeon layout, after all. Maybe entering backwards breaks something.

This reminds me that I encountered another big glitch back in August. I don’t think I mentioned it then. It was the Insufficient Memory error, which forced a crash to desktop. Loading resolved the issue. It’s not exactly an unknown issue with the game, either. Game-crashing bugs: now that’s classic Elder Scrolls.