Simple Machines: Legend of Grimrock and the Joys of Coherent Design

This fresco tells the tale of Gear Mountain. It's not a very good story.

By Joseph Hilgard

“Video games are one of the few remaining artforms where there is an empirical positive correlation between budget and quality.”

– The single dumbest thing anybody said to me about video games, ever.

Legend of Grimrock is a party-based dungeon-crawler RPG made by a crack team of four experienced Finns in just ten months.  It is also one of the finest, best thought-out games I’ve played in a long time.  Here is a game defined by limitations – small budget, small team, goofy 2D tile-based movement – and yet it is a stunning success because it respects those limits and uses them to do more with less.  There is a lesson here for studios both starving and bloated.

Legend of Grimrock shines by virtue of its remarkable internal consistency.  Nothing happens in Grimrock except in the ways controlled by its robust ludological machinery.  Scripts are visible because they are only activated through machines – a lever here, a pressure plate there, a booby-trapped altar.  Thus, a locked door always implies a way to open it yet undiscovered, rather than a plot-point yet untriggered.

This internal consistency does wonders for the quality of the puzzles.  For several puzzles, I had briefly wanted to give up and ask a friend for the solution.  However, the game’s consistency means that everything you require is always there – you just haven’t figured it out yet.  This knowledge empowers players to experiment until they find the solution, rather than collapsing in learned helplessness, despairing that they forgot to throw the boot at the cat two hours ago.  This is what makes puzzles in games like Spacechem and Portal 2 more satisfying and fair than the kind found in games like King’s Quest: solutions to the former come from a coherent and logical body of rules, while the solutions to the latter are born of the tortured fever dreams of Roberta Williams.

This mechanical consistency does wonders for the sense of immersion, as well.  Grimrock understands exactly what the game engine can and cannot do.  Like a good actor, the game never breaks character. You won’t find yourself yanked out the controls to watch a cinematic sequence or quick-time event.  Snips of world-building and exposition are delivered to you only through the notes of previous adventurers, scriptures left by the sinister caretakers of the dungeon, and in dreams while resting.  To have friendly NPCs milling around on the rigid square tiles of the world would look strange – to have them hanging around where they could be maimed by an ogre (or the player) would be even worse.

The game also looks fantastic.  Animations are flawless, thanks to the rigid movement system.  When monsters only have half a dozen animations each, those animations can be perfect.  There are no weird motions as enemies try to run backwards and sideways whilst swinging a sword.  Monsters will never get stuck on a rock, jogging helplessly in place.  Simple is easier to do well.

From its simple building blocks, Grimrock is still able to create subtle and nuanced affects.  You may hear a spider chitter and whirl around in a panic.  You may see something shadowy pacing behind a grate, not able to tell what it is, but dreading having to fight it.  You will pump your fist with satisfaction when following a hunch reveals a juicy secret.  You will even laugh.  Combining these simple building blocks to make an evocative and thrilling dungeon is nothing less than the lost ancient art of “level design,” long thought dead and replaced by its inferior corrupt cousins “set-piece design” and “scripting”.

I can see this game being the start of an epidemic of crab phobias.

Whatever this thing is, you’re going to have to fight it.

To play Grimrock is to experience the joy of experimentation and learning.  This is the rare and precious game that stands out of the way and allows the player to play and learn autonomously.  Each new area teaches you about a new element or prompts you to make one new discovery.  There is a pleasant alternation between of adversity and triumph.  “I’ve got these spiders all figured out,” I said to myself, five minutes before I was surrounded by spiders and killed.

The game is tough, but very fair.  While party-building would be much improved by a more clear and flexible system of stats and skills, your starting party will probably manage just fine.  While not perfectly balanced, most parties are viable and all skills are at least useful.  Players who find themselves wishing for a better axe know that they have only themselves to blame for not finding it.  Players who cringe that they have not learned how to cast their next spell have failed to properly consider the simple, coherent syntax of the rune-based spell system.

The combat is also much more engaging than many of the classic RPGs it imitates. (The ones I’ve played, at least.  World of Xeen, I love you, but your combat is boring beyond belief.)  While I was initially skeptical about the real-time combat system, it actually works marvelously.  Slugging it out toe-to-toe with monsters is a recipe for a world of hurt, so you’ll quickly learn to kite and circle-strafe enemies whenever possible.

Fights with individual monsters aren’t very thrilling, but combat becomes hair-raising when you are dumped into an arena with several enemies at once.  Managing your position relative to the crowd around you as you try to circle-strafe enemies to death without getting nailed by ranged attacks or pinned in a corner is challenging and exciting.  More than anything, the combat reminds me of Doom 2, as the player dodges and kites enemies while trying not to get backed into a dead-end or fall down a pit.

In a few moments, an undead Asterix and Obelix ruin their shit.

In case you were wondering what the four of you look like to everyone else.

Players have complained about the mouse-only interface for managing inventory, making attacks, and especially casting spells, which requires punching in a series of runes by hand.  Honestly, these are all fine because they work so well in the context of the real-time combat.  In old RPGs using turn-based or real-time-with-pause systems, you would have to spend action points or time units or spend some amount of time to open the inventory or cast a spell.  In Grimrock, it’s you, the player fumbling your spear out of your pack once you’ve run out of arrows, struggling to find enough time to quaff a potion, or trying to get enough breathing room to prepare your next fireball.  To automate these actions with a row of hotkeys would lose a lot of the tension and the sometimes frantic feeling behind combat.

Grimrock has settled at the predictable 80 Metacritic that awaits all good, no-bullshit games. We tend to get hyped for big-budget games that shoot for the moon and fail, running out of fuel halfway there. Grimrock instead aims lower, settling modestly but perfectly into low orbit.  In many ways, it’s the most successful game I’ve played in years.  It doesn’t try to do everything, but what it does, it performs with effortless, fluid grace.  Instead of the 300 hours of being barely-entertained promised by some RPGs, Grimrock lasts a lean, thrilling 12-15 hours, and there isn’t a minute I would cut.

Forget big-budget bells and whistles, prepackaged cinematics, and preview promises that never deliver.  This is the real beauty of elegant game design – simple, effective mechanisms that combine to make rich, varied dynamics and provide satisfying feelings of challenge, immersion, and triumph.  Grimrock doesn’t innovate with new gimmicks or cinematics or by trying to redefine “games”.  It does something much more daring and rare: making a fantastic, complete game.

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