a weapon to surpass blaming yourself or god while knee-deep in the dead

writing on video games, by chuck sebian-lander

I have many thoughts about hellblade 2: senua’s saga, a sequel I had awaited with much trepidation considering what I thought were the key strengths of the original. (short, vague answer to that: I think hellblade 2 dances an even finer, more thoughtful line in forcing senua to contend with other people and other lived realities, in addition to her own inner tumult. it expands her psychological framing and raises questions about individual vs collective subjectivities that fit well into the first game’s themes while expanding beyond them. it walks the cliffside down to the failings of flattening senua into a simple savior or superhero, but somehow never quite falls. I see where yussef cole for polygon is coming from, but I disagree on almost every point.)

but here’s a simpler thought I’ve been having as I read some critical thoughts re: the gameplay mechanics—hellblade 2 is not an action-adventure game (contra wikipedia), it is not a souls-like, it is not a AAA third-person RPG like god of war. it’s not failing to be enough of a video game; it is not a tech demo.

it’s an (extremely expensive) walking sim.

the gameplay mechanics of hellblade 2 are, in sum:

  • walking around
  • solving very simple puzzles that mostly require walking around and looking at things
  • very short, simple combat sequences that blend themselves into bursts of un-interactive cutscene

combat is even simpler than in the first game. enemy animations are universally slow and easy to read, so parries are near-trivial to execute. senua’s mirror power is an auto-kill on everything right up until the final fight of the game. if battle ever feels difficult, it’s because of hellblade’s choking, frantic narrative atmosphere: the sound design and visual language tip you into a constant fear of the violence and death that are inevitable in this game’s world. there’s no difficulty except in how you’re meant to feel like senua, for whom all of this is near-impossibly difficult.

outside of this, the game’s immaculate and clearly expensive visual design may fool you into thinking you’re playing an AAA in the vein of the latest assassin’s creed or, again, god of war. but then note the total lack of UI, of progression mechanics, of inventory screens. the most complex menu-ing in hellblade 2 comes only if you a) tweak your subtitles to best capture the game’s binaural sound design, or b) play in the photo mode. both cases emphasize drawing you into its pre-baked narrative and aesthetic experience; neither give you freedom to explore the game qua game.

“genre” does double work in the video game medium: there is a genre to a game’s game-ness, and a genre to its story-ness. (the ludo and the narrative, as it were.) for the latter we use appellations of cinema, or novel: science fiction, post-apocalypse, high fantasy, slice of life, romantic comedy. but the former often blends into the latter. metroidvanias usually take place in sci-fi (metroid-) or gothic fantasy (-vania) worlds. you’d expect a game set in the distant future of 20XX, starring a robot that acquires powers from defeated enemies, to play a lot like mega man.

certainly plenty of games play around with these associations, but the ties are there and strong in the imagination. so, in short: a game that looks like hellblade does not seem like it should play like firewatch. but if you come into it with that expectation, suddenly much of what the game is doing makes sense and feels less like a disappointment or betrayal. mechanics exist to increase immersion into the protagonist’s psyche, and go no further; when a gameplay mechanic is unnecessary for this singular narrative interest, control is simply wrested from the player (fitting for a game about a person for whom self-directive is fleeting and haphazard).

this is just a long way, really, of saying that I think hellblade 2 knows exactly what it is and accomplishes exactly what it wants, and if you think the game is a lesser version of some other game or genre trapping than you might reconsider whether the game was ever actually interested in being a part of such a genre. which is an even longer way of saying: meet a piece of art where it is, not where you think it should be going, and even if you still dislike it you get a lot closer to digging meaning out of what it’s trying to do.

this is why the game works as well as it does. at its core are mechanics that are familiar at a near-universal level for the game’s audience: a deck of 52 cards, deuce low and ace high, four suits; you draw cards and assemble a blend of those cards that ranges from high-card to royal flush. the game does not and does not need to explain any of this.

what this means is that you can fully ignore the game’s actual rules — the joker interactions, the tarot and planet cards, the assorted points and caveats of the blinds — and still stumble into a semblance of rhythm and consonance with the gameplay. it is still satisfying on some level to discard your way to a straight flush, even if your deck is not built to make that straight flush any more useful than a two pair.



so much of this game’s design hinges on creating length via arbitrary time-wasting. it’s like the meanest, most disrespectful 32-bit JRPG condensed into a rudimentary platform with near-nil opportunity to create a reasonable veneer of pacing. it is tedious and same-y to a wild, should-be-unacceptable degree.

yet there’s such charm and gravity to the central mechanics and monster designs, enough that I can almost tolerate the utter grind of it all in order to get my team (Raichu, Charizard, and whoever else I feel like bringing along) high enough level to cut through the late game. almost. I still had to move this game off my analogue pocket and onto my steam deck because the AP’s fast-forward wasn’t forwarding fast enough for my needs

it’s a shame game freak seems to have stumbled onto the hookiness so entirely by accident that they’ve failed to evolve or expand on it in any interesting ways since 1996! (don’t @ me)


there is less to these games (meaning this and its predecessor THE NEW ORDER, which I played immediately before this) than I expected. they’re very linear and almost tunnel-visioned in their storytelling and gameplay, even moreso than something like the new DOOM games.

BJ’s strong characterization, as the duology goes on, starts to feel more like the cumulative effort of computer-generated expression and voice acting more than the writing, which hammers a few repetitive trauma and ambivalence beats over top a guy whose whole deal, really and finally, is “I want to kill nazis and/or be on my way towards killing nazis”. a fine philosophy! but a tad hollow when representing the emotional near-entirety of your protagonist.

I hadn’t felt this negatively, really, until somewhere past the midway point of NEW COLOSSUS, which takes a big (and predictable, but no less effective for being so) swerve in a climactic mission — but then takes a much bigger, wilder swing that is both mechanically necessary and sucks the air out of the emotional framework teh game had tried to build up to that point. it was disappointing enough to make me wonder if the reboot wouldn’t have been better off just being THE NEW ORDER and nothing else, but, nah, there’s enough weird and fun stuff with its shifting setting to be worthwhile even if it peters out sooner than I’d hoped.


kudos to ol’ sid for being one of Name in the Title folks, but I really wish Steam would sort these games under “C” and not “S” because it confuses the shit out of me every time I’m trying to pull this game up on the deck

I’m not any good at Civ games but I feel particularly lost and hopeless playing this one. something about its particular soup of mechanics and trees makes my relative success or failure feel both entirely out of my control and like something I needed to have deliberately set in motion ~100 turns ago, sorry, too late all gone. the nice thing about playing asynchronous games, though, is that I’m very distant from that inevitable loss, so I still get some satisfaction in popping in and moving my lil’ toy soldiers around.

city districts make no sense to me!


i have played and continue to play too much of this game to truly dislike it, but it definitely misunderstands the appeal and strength of the mega man x franchise in several ways. at its best it’s like one of the post-x4 titles: fun enough from a pure mechanical-control perspective, but fatally sloppy and loose with level design and sense of progression.

to be clear, while linear progression and power curve are near-central to the X games’ appeal and strength, they’re not the only things the games are good at. notably, MMX brought something to megaman that it didn’t have previously, which was a player character that was actually in any way fun or satisfying to move around! 30xx and 20xx before it both capture this pretty well even just at the base level, and do a nice job filtering in the X franchise’s bevy of movement upgrades, though the satisfaction is fleeting when the game’s randomized setup means that levels can’t be built to showcase or demand any particular move set beyond the defaults.

the spelunky of it all matters far less to me than these games’ total failure of tonal control. they have what reads to me as a very newgrounds-y sense of humor; they steadfastly refuse to take any of the proceedings seriously. but the X franchise is built on self-seriousness; the reason X4’s dubbed cutscenes are so fucking funny is because they want so badly not to be funny. X games all tell the same fundamentally sad story: robot utopia failed, the ‘bots can’t help but get corrupted and evil, X wants to live a quiet life but must instead continually baptize himself in violence and power in order to kill his kin. this story is then laid, straight-facedly, into wildly goofy bad guy concepts and glam-rock guitar soundtracks.

the xx games have none of that layering, nothing particularly interesting going on from a storytelling or tone standpoint (and yet: so many dumb lore-dump pickups), and it drains a surprising amount out from the overall experience irrespective of the game’s level-design quality or difficulty or whatever.


christ why do these people look like this? this game grafts extreme cutting-edge facial capture tech onto the skeletal rigs of PS2-era-ass human models, with table tennis paddles for hands and swerving drunk-attempting-a-business-interview animations.

I think this is why the acting in the game ends up so corny, or at least part of it. some part is just the genre the game steeps in, that arch-retro-noir vibe requiring a certain over-enunciation of hard-boiled emotion — but another part is that the gestures and movements cannot capture any emotion effectively, and so the actors’ faces must do all the work. so, the game pauses to let you guess if someone’s lying, and if they are they make the goofiest-ass faces because there is nothing to get out of the body language of rigid action figures.

also the game looks weirdly terrible on the steam deck (seems like an aliasing problem to me, even with the settings cranked as far as the framerate allows) and some of the mechanics are fuck-you tedious. I’m a couple hours in but not sure I’ll be coming back for much more, at least not in extended doses.


more games like this please: a motion-picture-length, lovely and subdued story about a specific emotional and cultural point of view. more games like this and like WOLFENSTEIN II, sure, but more of this in particular.


is this game actually hostile? nah. it goes out of its way to warn you about the impossibility of some/many situations, and it’s tremendously forgiving considering there’s no lives or consequences for failure. it’s less an exercise in hostile game design and more giving players the opportunity to participate in something like pre-alpha game testing: “we half-baked the mechanics, now here’s some also-half-baked levels, let’s fuck around and see what works.”

the result can satisfy but is also very clunky and even perfunctory, in the ways that I imagine studio game testing to be. you’re swapping around components and brute-forcing until a circle fits into the circle-shaped hole.

also i definitely do not understand what the gun that shoots guns is ever supposed to be used for, in any context. also also the frogs are cute and i hate using them because i don’t want them to die!!


i hate this game. i hate the intentionally shitty third-person time-limited camera, i hate the overlong and unreasonably convoluted levels, i hate how much it’s clearly built for streamers and competitive types and all the other sorts of people who play a single putt-putt game far too much, i hate how it’s clearly also built to be “funny” in a social-media-meme fashion by way of deliberate frustration, i hate how (at least with an xbox controller) the power meter lacks all sense of granular control, i hate that i will still play this game if others want to because “oh it’s putt putt that’ll be fun” and it never fucking is

talk about hostile game design! fuck.


this game is just “the climb” but not in VR and therefore with much less engaging and floatier mechanical design. the apparent desire to create a cozy game turned this game’s whole control mechanic into something that feels like it’s playing the game for you half the time. maybe I’m the wrong person to receive “meditative and chill” as a game state because this game just reads to me as slow and uninterested in capturing my attention. fair enough I guess!

it’s a shame because it’s lovely to look at and seems to be aiming at some interesting ideas, but I just cannot get on with it as a game, and isn’t that just the weird caveat threatening to cave in on the whole enterprise of trying to intellectually assess these art objects

ok first of all: obviously there are many robust emulators available that run games released for the Nintendo DS. drastic is the one I know of for Android; there’s desmume on PC; there are surely others.

speaking of Android: I recently got the Android-powered Anbernic RG405V, a 4:3-screen retro handheld with big DMG vibes:

(the wood grain looks as silly in person as it does in a photo. it’s a clever way to ensure that scuffs and scratches are never too visible, but it worked better when it was as a vinyl cover over my Guitar Hero III guitar controller many years ago.)

for the most part, the 405V is a fabulous emulation tool. its 4:3, 480p screen is pixel-perfect for home consoles predating widescreen television (GameCube or thereabouts), and it’s just performant enough to emulate all of those systems (though you’re pushing it if you try PS2 or GameCube). the hand-feel and controller layout blend retro and modern nicely, all things considered.

however: when playing around with this thing on a flight earlier this year, I decided to start playing 999: 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors, a visual novel originally released on the Nintendo DS and later rereleased on PC and home consoles (we’ll get to that).

relevant tech specs: the Nintendo DS has dual screens each sporting a resolution of 256 x 192. that’s two 4:3 screens, one perched atop the other. the lower screen is a resistive touchscreen, designed in the pre-smartphone days. (you can mash your finger on it if you need to, but it’s meant for precise interaction via the included stylus.)

my primary issue when playing 999 on my 405V was that getting screen text readable on one of those screens too severely compromised the other. 999 takes advantage of its dual screens in non-gameplay segments by placing non-player character dialogue and portraits along the top screen, while third-person narration (including the protagonist’s dialogue and inner thoughts, as well as external action) plays out in tandem below:

this means there’s (pretty small to begin with!) text that needs to be read across both screens simultaneously. my options were a) map a button to drastic’s “switch screen” button and swap often to read each screen in full, or b) use a weird overlay with the “secondary” screen shrunken down to fit within the aspect ratio:

this works a bit better on the 405V than it looks here, because its higher resolution allows it to display the smaller screen more clearly, but it’s still an eyesore. the overlay also creates problems when you need to see or interact with something on your current “primary” screen while it’s covered by the “secondary” screen.

interaction creates whole other problems. the screen’s still not ideal, for one, as the game clearly often expects you to be able to see both screens during gameplay:

…but even if you manage to find a comfortable compromise there, you run into the other major issue: the DS’s touchscreen.

this hardware feature creates two problems for android gaming handhelds like the 405V. one is that, though these devices usually have a touchscreen, they’re not designed with touch as a primary interaction. imagine having to take a hand off your classic Game Boy to prod at the screen. it’s not great.

the other issue is that, again, the DS screen was resistive and more-or-less required the use of a stylus. 999 knows this and demands corresponding precision that’s hard to replicate with a finger. the DS stylus also covered much less of the screen than a finger; your visibility was not supposed to be compromised while you played.

the result is clunky even after you sort out these issues. ultimately I sought other means to play the game. soon I realized that every option outside of native hardware was going to run into the issues I outlined above to some degree or another, no matter what.

the shame is that I have, in theory, the perfect type of device to emulate DS and 3DS alike: a foldable phone. ever since the advent of these too-expensive, too-delicate pieces of tech, people have made drastic skins to transform their foldables into a surprisingly convincing simulacrum of the real deal:

I can confirm this is as cool to behold in person and in your hands as it is in the photograph! unfortunately I must also confirm that pressing touchable zones on a phone screen remains an awful replacement for real buttons when playing games designed for the latter. note too the conspicuous absence of shoulder buttons: you’re forced to drop those in unnaturally around the facade (I put mine basically just below the hinge).

what you get is a closer visual cousin to the original experience, but still something definitively worse to play. visual novels like 999 work OK in this set up, but game-ier games like, say, mario kart DS are a nonstarter.

there are plenty of devices that can more than ably output the software experience of a DS — properly rendered graphics, responsive input/output, and so on — but software emulation definitionally cannot replicate hardware and input methods, and the DS is one of the most unique gaming hardware designs in history.

nintendo has a long history of such designs — hell, you can go back as far as the Virtual Boy. dolphin, a longstanding and well-polished GameCube and Wii emulator, can run near any Wii game flawlessly (even upscaled to 1080p or 4k), but if you haven’t connected a Wiimote to your PC emulator box, you’ll struggle with any game that took any advantage of the unique control possibilities.

(this is a real problem I’ve dealt with a few times — not with games like Resident Evil 4, where the then-revolutionary pointing precision can be mapped well to a mouse or even a gyro-assisted right analog, but with Super Mario Galaxy 2. that’s a game in the rarefied air of Games I’ve 100% Completed, but I haven’t gone back to it since I played it on a Wii over a decade ago. most of its controls work fine, but its star collection-and-use mechanics are intolerable without real IR-pointer controls. you just end up with this stupid blue star stuck on the center of your screen every moment you aren’t using the right stick or some other imprecise and frustrating controller input to move it. yoshi’s a pain in the ass, too. one of the most purely fun games I remember playing isn’t fun anymore, when played this way.)

again, dolphin is maybe the most polished and impressive emulator ever built. it absolutely can emulate Wii games, most of them perfectly even on an older PC, but it cannot replicate the experience of sticking an IR sensor onto the top of a dorm room’s 20-inch CRT unless you happen to also own those things.

for now there are relatively cheap hardware solutions for that, and Wiimotes are still in relative abundance. you can see this landscape shifting as time passes, though. I switched to playing 999 on my old DS Lite but soon found it too small and cramped for comfort, and it was a huge pain sifting through listings to find a DSi XL in decent enough shape to be worth picking up that didn’t cost extra hundreds of dollars—simply because hardware like this is now a collector’s item, transitioning from obsolescence into scarcity.

the hardware-software mind meld is a vital piece of the home console and handheld gaming experience, and it’s a lot harder to preserve over time than the software, which already struggles with proper preservation due to the ongoing efforts of companies like nintendo, for whom IP control supersedes the historical record.

this is the flip side of what I was talking about with romhacks. community preservation efforts can often create something more modern and playable than most studios’ own remasters and remakes, but they’re much less able to capture the authentic and holistic experience of playing those games for the first time in their original context.

context is crucial for understanding art! it also decays over time for all media. fascinating debates abound regarding appreciation of works with decayed contexts. like, what should it mean to how we perceive ancient Roman statues that in their time they probably looked more like carnival clowns? how do you balance an analysis of beowulf’s storytelling or thematic power against its status a work that comes to us incomplete and heavily reworked by the Christian monks who recorded it?

and since interaction is core to the videogame medium, hardware “context” is essential. even as a simple work of human effort, it’d be much harder to appreciate the statue of david if you had to view it through a foggy mirror, or the divine comedy if no translated existed in your language.

if you tried to play devil may cry on your phone using touch controls, and you thought that was the intended way to play devil may cry, you’re going to think that devil may cry is a very bad game designed by idiots. actually, trying to play dmc that way feels closer to viewing a statue while altogether blind.

perhaps this doesn’t need to be framed as dire, though. maybe it is a phenomenon closer to marble Roman statues, where for one thing new beauty and worthwhile strangeness can arise in half-preserved experiences overlaid upon new, modern forms of interaction or perception. that’s a nice idea. for example, I like playing emulated SNES games on a modern controller, where quality-of-life features like fast forward or save states are easily mappable to otherwise-unused buttons. old software and new hardware create something new that can inform and articulates something about each. all well and good.

but then again, mass-released games aren’t just art, are they? they’re commodities, compromised at every turn by corporate considerations. the easiest way to play 999 now is through a steam remake/rerelease that by necessity collapses the dual screens, and essentially loses half of the game’s intended visual information, creating an intended experience similar to my severely compromised 405V one:

from what I’ve heard, the rewriting and reworking done as part of making this feasible does real damage to the game’s writing and storytelling. what I’ve heard is also enough to leave me uninterested in buying the remake; doing so knowing of the original experience would feel too much like trying to play devil may cry blindfolded.

(POSTSCRIPT, WITH VAGUE 999 SPOILERS: having now finished 999, I simply cannot believe I wrote this whole thing before completing the game. if I work this script into a youtube video at some point, it’ll probably have a spoiler-heavy section on just how much 999’s whole narrative structure relies on the DS hardware.)

caveat emptor: I’m not a rom hacker, I don’t distribute pirated shit, and I have no idea what I’m talking about

I’m doing my millionth replay of the original Mega Man X trilogy. (halfway through 2 at the moment, thanks for asking, I wish I ever remembered powerup locations and proper sequencing in the latter games as well as I do in X1)

these games, even the first one, pushed the SNES to its limits, and the seams show. there’s slowdown on every level if more than two or three enemies are on screen. entire levels—underwater sequences, or anything with full-screen effects like X2’s weather weirdness on Wire Sponge’s stage—drag and struggle to maintain playable framerates. this wasn’t uncommon on the SNES—and to be clear, the amount of times I’ve still beaten these games demonstrates that they still function fine in spite of the limitations.

but for this most recent playthrough, I’m using SA1/fastROM versions of every game, plus enhanced romhacks for X2 and X3.


the usefulness of a silent protagonist is, I think, fairly clear. it’s a direct line to player-avatar connection. Link never says anything you wouldn’t say; Crono never insults a character you like; Mario in Super Mario RPG never says something that ends up problematic a few decades down the line so you’re uncomfortable cheering as he jumps on a turtle until it dies. these protagonists are simplified to the point of literal avatar; any characterization derives from player expression. it’s the simpler alternative having enormous dialogue trees, but it’s also limited by the means by which the game allows for individual expression through play.

put another way: silent protagonists are ciphers and struggle to shape the plot of otherwise dialogue-heavy games. non-player characters in such games often have to be self-motivated enough to move the plot on their own, which runs counter to how narratives work in “traditional” non-interactive media. it can and does work; it’s just a little odd.

in fromsoft games, a silent protagonist often matches well with the abstract, dissociative narrative design. these worlds are long-dead and moldering. your allies are often only so out of desperation, ulterior motive, or necessity. human connection doesn’t really exist, which is part of the existential trauma and tragedy. your character in demon’s souls does not have a “relationship” with the Maiden in Black; she is a character, with strange and half-spoken motivations and feelings of her own, but she’s in no way informed by her relationship to you except how she provides you, a vessel for power, the means to be filled.

lies of p, the latest soulslike I’ve encountered and thus far easily my favorite not developed by from, has you play as public-domain Badass Twink Pinocchio, who as you may have guessed is silent.

now, lies of p does something that’s not uncommon among games with silent protagonists, which is to have moments where pinocchio clearly communicates to fellow characters even though it’s not spoken or animated. how else to explain how Hot Dad Geppetto always knows what’s happened in your latest boss encounter? someone’s told him his favorite church has gone a little rotten, and the only other candidates seem to want to keep a wide berth from the old sadsack.

the implication seems to be that pinocchio is not actually a mute—the game is suggesting that his silence is a mechanical choice for player-avatar synchronicity and not a choice of characterization. Link’s charades-style communication in tears of the kingdom, similarly, is so complex and clear to everyone he meets that you really have to be taking it as a given that he’s talking, and you just don’t get to hear it — all the better for you to insert your own voice in the margins.

but lies of p does have protagonist dialogue, too, sort of! lying is a mechanic in the game (of course it is). the moments where you’re asked to lie are almost always given an emotional valence; the lies are rarely “claim to be someone you’re not to access to a locked door.” instead you lie to protect others from shame or guilt, to offer them grace instead of forcing them up against an awful truth. sometimes it’s clear they know you’ve lied to them, but they appreciate it all the same, because the lie means you care about their feelings.

it works well enough in those moments, I think (so far, at least; I’m only about halfway through the game), but these half-steps create some weird dissonance. principally, the reason I thought to write this: there’s at least one moment where you’re made to fight a character I did not want to fight, whose reason for wanting pinocchio dead is misguided in more than one way. the character in question traps you in an arena where, given your silence and the lack of dialogue choices, killing is your only option.

it’s not that I wanted to be able to talk my way out of the fight—this isn’t a fallout game and I don’t want it to be—but the scene lacks characterization for both pinocchio and his opponent. the character talks plenty during your fight; pinocchio says nothing. am I meant to intuit that he’s trying to respond? is his opponent so far gone that attempts to console or bargain are futile?

there’s also the fact that pinocchio’s whole deal, in terms of character arc, is traditionally his quest to be a “real boy.” the lying (and listening to music, a cute way to show off the game’s great musical direction) feel like steps on the path towards a “good ending” where this, or something like it, happens. but in practice, pinocchio’s such a cipher that the journey means nothing beyond any gameplay benefits it may offer.

soulsborne games with silent player-characters use them to emphasize how their worlds refuse connection and trap individuals into cycles of despair and violence. lies of p, though it cribs heavily from those games in play and aesthetic, is ostensibly telling a story about trying to connect to the world, broken but not lost, and to discover what it means to be human. the narrative’s not a failure, but it’s hamstrung by this opposition.


addendum: I said at the top that lies of p is probably my favorite game in this milieu that wasn’t developed by from, and it probably outpaces a few of their games, too. that comes down, ultimately, to polish. mortal shell had some interesting ideas but was a clunky mess to actually play, with wildly unbalanced difficulty and janky animation. lies of p by contrast is tweaked to near-perfection. it can be maddeningly difficult, and I think some enemies have too much health, but my mistakes always feel like my own failures to read animation cycles (my own or my enemy’s), which is the kind of tough-but-fair balance you need to make it feel satisfying to get your ass kicked a dozen-plus times by one boss only to finally triumph.

it’s a cool game, it’s on game pass, it’s worth a look

the horse is fine.

pictured: boudicca (me) atop her beautiful steed (not me)

no, it is not as versatile as the horse in elden ring with its double jump. it’s not as fast as link’s horse of choice in the latest zelda joints, and its burst of speed is more limited in use-cases and cooldown. this is all fine, though, because it is intentional, and because diablo 4 is not elden ring or zelda and doesn’t want you to play it like those games, or even to play it like diablo 2 or 3.

the horse in diablo 4 is an opt-in movement speed buff that, while used, locks you out of combat. it is given to you close to campaign end-game, after you’ve already unlocked most of the major waypoints on the enormous map. it does not prevent you from getting sandbagged by a nasty pack of enemies along your route, nor does it prevent you from getting blockaded or forced to jump a cliff on your own.

this is because diablo 4 is built around you walking little trails for questlines and exploration, and the horse is meant not to skip but instead to encourage those activities. you’re supposed to hop on it for little clearings and then hop off for a bit of sustained combat before traveling on. hence the lengthy cooldowns.

a different thing about diablo 4 that I do find annoying: you can’t have multiple quest objectives visible on your HUD at once. I’m often playing the game such that I have 3 to 4 quests active within a certain region, and it would be convenient and efficient for me to be able to track and knock out quest objectives in parallel. the map menu gives you this, but it’s not efficient and it’s not a pause menu so it’s not without danger while in the middle of hostile territory.

again, though, I think this is intentional: the quest design encourages getting invested in the little side stories, which often have multiple acts and pivots within them before you get your chunk of reward XP. a rescue mission to bring a sick woman back home ends up going awry and getting the whole town infested, so now you’re on another trek to collect stuff for a soup, but then the soup doesn’t quite work, so now you’re going over here. a woman with magical powers is ostracized by family and community, repeatedly, and you keep having to pluck her from distress or help her find a new path forward.

if you’re playing this game like a checklist — like your standard baal runs in diablo 2 or the “friction-less” postgame quest design of diablo 3: reaper of souls — you’ll skip the atmosphere, the consistent and strong voice acting and writing, the ways so many of the questlines attempts to weave its own beginning, middle, and end within your larger journey. they’re not all successful, of course, but they can’t work unless the game forces you to give them a chance.

we’ve all had this conversation before, haven’t we? friction in games is not negative. game design choices are almost always deliberate, and even if they’re cash grabs they’re also thematic. I find it pretty easy to ignore diablo 4’s monetization, built as it is around a small helping of cosmetics. yes, the menu item is always marked with an obnoxious exclamation point that claws at my desire to have all checkboxes ticket, but it’s a quick thing to pass by, which once again feels intentional on the part of the many game designers involved who didn’t care how blizzard-activision wanted to live-service this game to oblivion.

diablo 4 wants you to ruminate within the decay of a world now running through its fourth apocalyptic scenario. (some plot spoilers follow; skip the paragraph if you’re not interested.) those who know more about the never-ending theological sparring have grown either tired or manic, clinging to cynicism and alcohol or else to extraordinarily tenuous faith in absent or explicitly dismissive deities. even the deities themselves are done with this crap — lilith wants to kill her dad and end the eternal conflict for good, damn the rest; meanwhile inarius just wants to go home, that poor stupid guy.

the way the game uses its legacy to this effect is interesting. you see locations from the first pair of games in passing visions or nightmares. one (non-demon) character returns in a way that let’s just say keeps with the themes. there’s a notable use of a location from diablo 3 but the place is a crumbled waste; you end up walking through entire chunks of the same map as that previous game, but all your former destinations, merchants, and traveling partners are dust.

you walk (or trot) through a half-dead world, and there are all these people still trying to make it into a place worth living, whether through delirious faith or little familial comforts or whatever vices are available. it’s a compelling space while also going for a different vibe than the previous games’ claustrophobic corridors and souped-up character tropes (the wizened guide, the eastern mystic, the booming archangel).

it still feels like diablo but I find it harder to play for sustained periods, which I think is to the game design’s credit. do a quest or two, fight a helltide, then get out for the day (or for the next few hours, at least). I haven’t even started a second character yet. the game seems to discourage the “end game is when you’ve unlocked everything and are grinding forever” mindset locked into veteran series gamers, which is good, because that mindset and approach came out of the absence of proper endgame in previous games. I might one day see everything in diablo 4, but it’s the first of its franchise’s worlds where that feels like a distant end goal rather than a first step to the “true” game.

the horse is both a concession to this game’s “open world” billing and yet a statement of semi-defiant intent. yes, there are many checklists in this game, but there’s also a lot of aesthetic and thematic work happening within each detail, so the game’s been built to slow you down—and aggravate you, if necessary—to keep paying attention to those details.

once the game’s seasonal content comes most of this thoughtful approach goes in the bin, but that’s the way of a game being corporate-engineered into everlasting life, yes? I’ll avoid that, and I think many of the game’s designers would hope you’d do the same, in some secret part of themselves. diablo 4’s heart, to me, will always arise from its depiction of the sluggishness and insanity that come from being too aware of your doom. you can’t gallop your way past the grim scenes or skip the fact that every inch of good you bring back to this place is just an inch, one at a time, against an ever-rising tide.

[7/10, though, because it retains those flying bugs from 3 that spit out smaller poison bugs? or something? they’re less monstrous here than they were during diablo 3’s original release when they could one-shot you but they still evoke sour memories]

Watch this essay on YouTube:

Memories are rotten, and memories rot. Entropy and age take their toll on our brains. We forget that we had ever remembered some fond glance, some summer's favorite song. Memories that remain form a stain upon the present: nostalgia, regret, and frustration boil out of the same misremembering. We clutch our past so tight that we squeeze its life away, and then the corpse shambles along behind us. It's bi-directional: the present moment, corrupted by decayed memory, itself falls into memory and decays as well.

This is a grim way to introduce a Doom WAD, isn't it.


surely, this topic — or at least the more general “hey john wick is like a video game” — has been covered ad nauseum by now. if nothing else, the fourth movie (which I just saw in the theater — god I missed movie theaters) has triggered some takes regarding certain scenes’ clear video-game influences.

still, because it’s fun and before we get into the meaty bits, let’s delight in some the mechanical and aesthetic respects in which john wick is a particular kind of video game franchise:


there’s a scene in the campaign of diablo 4’s open beta period, which ran this past weekend, where you revisit Tristram, the setting of the first diablo. (this marks four out of four mainline Diablo games to feature this extremely damned town.) upon this visit, though, you find Tristram now literally in hell, having been so deeply ruined and damned by residents both terranean and sub-terranean that its best real estate now lies along shores of lava.

yet here I am again, visiting those shorelines, gawking at the weird rattling cage the skeletons stuck deckard cain in, fondly reminiscing beside the now-dry well at the town center. still gets me, even now, with the nightmare fully on display.

there’s a metaphor in there somewhere.