Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup Analysis by Jeremy Wildberger

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February 8, 2012 by jwildberger

The amount of time I spent playing video games dropped off dramatically when I started college. In order to prepare for this class, I felt I should make a conscious effort to play more games. I looked for an inexpensive game, free if possible, that I could play on my severely obsolete desktop computer. During that search, I discovered Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup, a variant of Dungeon Crawl, developed in 2006. It had both of the qualities I was looking for.  The game starts off like most Dungeons and Dragons inspired fantasy role-playing games. You are asked to create a character, choosing from several possible species and background.  Species options, twenty-four in total, include standard fantasy races, like elves, dwarves and halflings, bird and fish men, undead creatures, and the felid (a magical housecat).  Each species has different attributes and skills. The twenty-seven backgrounds are organized into archetypes like warrior, mage, and zealot. Backgrounds determine your characters starting skills and items. After picking a species and background you are thrown into a dungeon.

You win the game by descending further and further into the dungeon, retrieving the Orb of Zot, and then returning to the surface. This constitutes the entirety of the Dungeon Crawl’s narrative. The Orb of Zot functions as a MacGuffin; it directs the players minimally, putting a focus on the gameplay. Similarly, the graphics are simple. While the game can be played in ASCII mode, wherein letters and symbols represent in-game objects (@ represents the player character for example), I choose the graphical tiles option, which replaces the letters and symbols with recognizable images. Movement maps onto the numberpad. Other controls, and there are many, map onto the letter keys. The game screen is split into parts, the largest being the graphic dungeon space. Below this is a text report of in-game actions. The right side of the game screen displays character stats, inventory, commands, and a mini-map. An in-game cursor allows you to interact with these game displays using a mouse.

Dungeon Crawl belongs to the roguelike sub-genre. This sub-genre derives its name from the PC game Rogue released in 1980. Rogue differentiated itself from other fantasy-based computer games by using procedural generation to create dungeons. The dungeons you explore during each game are different, because the game’s algorithms create new ones every time you restart. The same applies to the monsters and items placed within the dungeons. All of these aspects of the game are randomized. In addition, Rogue features permadeath, or permanent death, meaning that if the player character dies, then a new character must be created. Both of these mechanics increase the difficulty of roguelike games as well as their replayability.

Dungeon Crawl implements both of these mechanics. Other than that, Dungeon Crawl is like most other fantasy RPGs. It is turn-based, with each character action constituting a turn for the most part. Movement, attacks, eating, and resting all count as actions. As you move through the game, the other creatures in the dungeon, most of which are hostile, also move. Your character kills these monsters in order to gain levels and obtain better equipment. Throughout the dungeon you also find items like potions, magical staffs, and weapons.

In Dungeon Crawl and most roguelikes, none of these items are identified when the player character acquires them. Identifying these items can be quite dangerous. For instance, quaffing a potion is the easiest way to identify it, but this could mean self-poisoning, or worse. Even though this might seem like just another piece of randomization, it forces the player think strategically. You must make decisions about the level of risk you are willing to take to identify some items. More importantly, it can also lead to some funny deaths.

While playing as a mummy wizard, I found myself in a bad situation. Low on health and pursued by an orc, my character ran down a hallway to try to escape. Near the end of the hallway a giant ant (more threatening than the name suggests) came into view. At this point, monsters surrounded my near-death character, who could not survive a fight with either of them. Looking at my inventory, I saw that I had an unidentified magical staff. Hoping for the best, I unleashed the unknown spell from the staff. The staff shot a fireball at the orc, moderately damaging him. However, the fireball also did splash damage, and given my character’s close proximity to the orc, the flames hit him as well. Being covered in bandages and filled with embalming fluid, my mummy wizard was incinerated.

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2 thoughts on “Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup Analysis by Jeremy Wildberger

  1. boudadi says:

    Being a huge fan of the roguelike genre, and Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup in particular, I can definitely relate. What I find most interesting, which you touch on briefly, is the balance between ludology and narratology within the game. As you said, the plot is barebones at best (get the orb and get out) with no cut-scenes, dialogue, or anything like that to flesh it out any further. Layer ontop of that the sheer abstraction of the core graphics (ignoring the tiles version which you mention), the base game’s use of ASCII for all its graphical representations puts on multiple layers of abstraction. The enemies, items, player, and everything are literally just letters, numbers, and symbols. All of that considered, one would think this is a purely ludological game with focus purely on gameplay and everything else stripped away, even graphics. Yet, the abstraction of the symbols forces the player to “fill in the gaps.” Coming across a lower-case brown r doesn’t mean anything until you mentally start replacing those lower-case brown r’s with “rat.” Ontop of that, the permadeath feature and procedurally-generated randomness creates a level of tension that, by its very nature, creates memorable and compelling narrative moments for the player, much like the experience recounted by Tom Bissell in Extra Lives from when he played Left 4 Dead. If anything, the abstraction and lack of narrative just open up opportunities for far more compelling narrative moments created by the player and the randomness than anything a hard-set, cut-scene driven plot could do.

  2. […] Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup Analysis by Jeremy Wildberger […]

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