I have to admit, the rogue like games such as Diablo have never quite appealed to me. The games don’t really involve skill as much as button mashing and a rather annoying bit of inventory management. Skyrim is a similar species of loot and power. Neither game type has quite appealed to me, but Torchlight (unlike Diablo) has always had that indie sheen to it. It is the work of programmers and designers genuinely in love with the form. It also eschews the more serious tone of Diablo for cartoony graphics which is necessary when making a fantasy game about loot, after all part of Diablo or Torchlight (or even Skyrim) is how you dress. The serious fantasy tone doesn’t go down to well when you put on fairy wings and punch chickens to death for an hour. The game has essentially no strategy, if you pick a certain ability and it go awry, you can generally just blast your way away, heal a little, then pick off the enemies one by one. What Torchlight, Diablo, and Skyrim excel at is power. The games are consistent realms of challenge, but also consistent realms of ability. You are always leveling up in these games, and a high level character is powerful. Creeps don’t run away from you, they still attack in droves, and your high level dude or dudette mows through them like a new gigabytes on an ipad on a restricted data plan. Torchlight is essentially a mall. The game’s architecture is captivating, holds one in place, the game is social now (up to 6 player co-op is required in the beta) and you can even trade items now. You share space with other players, frag with them, and loot with them. In other words Torchlight has become what many games increasingly are: a place to socialize. It’s relaxed game play (you only really struggle on elite difficultly and even then in dungeons with lots of creeps) and emphasis on collection means that in multiplayer games there are often pauses while another hero unburdens his or her loot on an unsuspecting pet. Pets are your backpack / minor weapon of war in the game. Each character comes with a pet and the pet in turn holds loot, sells loot, and attacks enemies. Pets can also be fed fish to turn into even more dangerous denizens when needed. The pauses give you time to rearrange things, fuss with the latest Armour styles (I seriously have trouble giving up my short skirts for long unappealing pants) and possibly engage in some type of Chaucerian sub-plots in the game. Sadly, the later is ignored as an option, but could become part of the culture of the game. The game makes for an excellent place for chit-chat and showing off new abilities and loot. That said, Torchlight is also a runway. What the co-op really does is allow you to share your creation with others. Heavy ability use becomes the norm, special attacks role out, you strut your stuff on the dungeon floor.
I have yet to really grasp what these games are about. Loot perhaps? But I see high-level players just ignore it. Socializing? but many of my raiding parties are silent. In fact I find myself digging into the game play in order to find challenges. Yet, the game is addictive. I have played the beta so much that I have two maxed out accounts and comrades to the gills. Rogue likes are waves of power trips, once you’re up you find enemies more challenging and you’re down again, challenge sets in and for awhile you have to run and gun and dash and heal and then another level comes up and you’re on top again. It is my conjecture that Skyrim, Torchlight, are essentially hallucinations that appease a consistent need for power. They provide (primarily male) egos with a needed sense of control of their environment while also providing tons of opportunism for consumption. They are regulated environments (like malls) that lack the unpredictably of games or the events of cities, they are fantasies, a collective dream scape of steam punk selves, a place of becoming, they’re like the little fantasies you have while reading fantasy novels, you as a hobbit, you as a necromancer, an alien, a rabbit, a dream eating butterfly. Literature has produced a million dreams in its readers, it’s only that just now have all these fantasies popped in CAD systems, formalized into rule systems, made their way into code. Games such as these are essentially boyhood fantasies put into systems, screens, the flesh of pixels. They don’t work as games, but as a hallucination, they can induce prolonged periods of game play. What they lack though the is instability, the possibility, our own imagination places in literature’s memetic off shoots. As a self driven narrative Torchlight falters, you make rare decisions and have no real ability to speak, but it can let you become something. A fragment of an imaginary self, and your friends can come along too. One day we’ll figure out the mathematics of stories, and then games like this will shine.
p.s. I am enjoying torchlight a lot more than Diablo 3.