On Wastes of Time

The other day, Metafilter pointed me to DROD (see also and especially also), a marvelous old-school puzzle game.

It’s rarely that I see a game that has what I consider a genuinely innovative set of gameplay mechanics that are actually fun and remain so for longer than the first fifteen minutes of poking around with the demo. DROD (short for “Deadly Rooms of Death,” which gives you an idea of the mock-hack-n-slash attitude of the game itself) is a turn-based grid-based game in the Theseus-Minotaur (see e.g.) family. DROD takes the inspired step of giving your character a sword which takes up a grid square of its own. If a monster hits you, you die; but if your sword hits a monster, the monster dies. Each turn, you can either move in one of the eight (!) cardinal directions or rotate your sword 45 degrees to the left or right.

It may not sound like much, but these tweaks turn out to put the game in a sweet spot for satisfying complexity. Pure Theseus-Minotaur mazes are a little too insistent on precise move-by-move correctness and get more complex without ever really requiring you to learn new kinds of clever. But the hero+sword system, when combined with a few basic kinds of monsters, creates a remarkable variety of puzzles. The richness of the system reminds me a bit of ZZT (no links; none of the sites really give you the right flavor), which is, for those who know how ZZT worked, really saying something. The game engine can be used effectively to simulate a lot of other genres of puzzle games (e.g. the use of mimics recalls some of the Heaven and Earth subgames), but the core new dynamic of DROD—learning when to engage in close-in “swordplay” and when to seek safer ground—is effective in its own right.

There also appears to be an extensive DROD community in place, complete with loads of do-it-yourself shared level designs. Would this be an example of Long Tail gaming?