On Unbeatable Video Games
The meaningless challenges that matter
Like most people, I had a long period where I felt somewhat underutilized at work (and, to a lesser extent, in my life). I had long, easy hours of completely meaningless paperwork to do at low pay and very little in the way of socio-economic status rewards. Whatever was keeping me going wasn’t work, except perhaps on the days I’d make myself “best secretary ever” certificates using company-owned printers and paper.
Now, at the same time, I had good friends and family, but I’ve found that most people aren’t satisfied with any single good aspect in their lives; they need a stack of things, some permutation of family, work, hobbies, faith, friends and giving eventually gaining enough diversion-mass to fill their days. To the extent my work left a void, I filled it with a video game.
Tales of Maj E’yal (TOME, for short) is a punishingly hard top-down dungeon crawling affair once called Tales of Middle Earth before the Tolkien family proved itself not above getting litigious with a small-time one-man-show video game developer. It’s in the Roguelike genre, which for those who aren’t familiar basically means there’s minimal safety nets and high stakes by video game standards. If you die in TOME, your character stays dead; no matter how close to victory you were, you are restarting from the very beginning.
Note that as weeby as it might be to some for me to write articles about playing video games, knowing more about TOME would likely raise whatever mental image of my nerdiness you might have about me an order of a magnitude. For one, despite being for the most part a combat-and-exploration affair, TOME is a slow-paced, turn based and surprisingly tactical type of game of the sort where you make (hopefully thoughtful) choices about your next move based on the cooldowns of a dozen slightly different attacks and often spend at least as much time fleeing like a coward as you do filling monsters with arrows (or whatever; not everyone plays archer).
Oh, and if you were expecting the graphics to prop the thing up, know that it looks like this:
This is a hard, hard game with few bells and whistles; one of the major appeals or demerits of the experience is that it’s punishingly difficult, to the extent that it’s a matter of much debate among friends I’ve browbeat into playing the game whether or not TOME is even fun. I’d like to forcefully disagree with them, but that’s hard; half the time, I’m not sure if I enjoy it myself. It’s clunky. There’s hardly any plot and exactly zero compelling characters. The game itself isn’t incredibly long, and the gameplay is fairly repetitive. There’s a lot to hate.
With all that said, I have owned this game for seven years, and during that time I have logged more than a fulltime work-year playing it.
When I first bought TOME, I was a gigantic failure. I had tried and failed to be a small businessman, and was several additional failures deep into finding anything resembling good-paying or meaningful work. In fact, that’s probably part of why I bought it; TOME is ~$7 now; at the time it was under $5. It was very likely all I could afford at the time.
Having limited options was actually probably a good thing as far as TOME/me relations went, because it’s the kind of game you start and hit rage-quit levels of dying in almost immediately. It has a steep learning curve; it was, as I recall, months and dozens of perma-deaths before I managed to claw my way to the end and keep the bad guys from destroying the world, or whatever they were up to. But I found that barely squeaking out that particular victory simulated something I was missing from my life at the time. The victory didn’t matter, but it felt like it did.
One thing that TOME is not short of is difficulty levels, so I started working my way through them. For whatever reason, the particular ways I’m not entirely neurotypical demand that I play the game as a skeleton archer; it was as a skeleton archer that I made my way through normal, nightmare, and insane difficulty levels. Only madness remains.
Yes, “Madness” is the name of the difficulty level. And yes, it’s appropriate. The way TOME difficulty levels work is that they both increase enemy buffs (think taking twice as many hits to kill a bear) and by increasing randomness (some bears are now named enemies who can shoot fireballs, basically mini-bosses). The flavor text is not exaggerating when it describes the last difficulty level as an “absolutely unfair game setting”; by the time you reach madness, any given bear has a chance of appearing as a unique demi-god skilled in the use of time magic who can’t be harmed with physical weapons.
Winning at the game I’m describing isn’t just a matter of skill or dedication; winning on madness shares more in common with hitting a $50,000 jackpot on a slot machine than it does with skill or making wise gameplay decisions. This is a game where sometimes you run into enemies you can’t hurt. There are whole bonus levels that would be necessary for you to clear in order to be strong enough to kill the end bosses on normal difficulty that you can’t actually enter without dying on madness (I’m officially sorry to TOME’s lame love interest character for not actually trying to save her from optional-dungeon cultists for the last four years, by the way). Sometimes you walk around a corner and an invisible enemy you had no chance of even knowing was there kills you in a single shot - no mistakes made, but you are starting from scratch anyway.
Lest you think I’m just really really bad at this game, know that what I’m trying to do is hard enough that nobody has ever actually done it; there’s an official archive in which one can look up game wins, and across the nearly a decade TOME has existed nobody has beat a madness run with a skeleton archer. If I was to do it, I’d be the only person in history to have done it; I’d have a gold medal in something nobody cares about, the champion of a thing nobody does.
I actually checked in with some people in the TOME discord involved in the development of the game to see if I was reading the archive correctly, and they confirmed a few things I had suspected; Not only has nobody ever beaten the game as a madness skeleton archer, but madness wins themselves are rare. The majority of them are considered to be hacks of some kind or another. But more importantly, beating the game as a skeleton archer probably isn’t doable in any conventional sense. It’s one of several builds that isn’t considered “viable” at the upper levels of the game; it’s more weird that I’ve even gotten as far as I have.
The makers of the game basically consider what I’m trying to do impossible. I’m still not sure I will ever stop trying to do it.
In trying to find comparisons to what I’m trying to do, this video jumped to mind:
That video is 20 minutes long, so don’t feel like you have to watch it. The quick summary is this: in 1998, a Doom speedrunner set a record for beating the very first level of the game in just under ten seconds. This record was so insanely near frame-for-frame perfection, adhering so closely to what’s even possible, that it stood for 20 years before it was broken by almost a full second, which doesn’t sound like much until you remember that’s a >10% improvement.
The guy who beat the record says what he did is beatable, but before you hold your breath waiting for someone to get to sub-8-second times, understand that it’s not as easy as it sounds. Not only does it require frame-perfect play of the bouncing off of doors as you wait for them to open so you can build momentum before you scrape through with a hair’s clearance variety, there’s also a lot of random elements in play; enemy movement is random, so they may or may not be in the way of any given run.
Worse than that, part of beating the level in record time is the enemies failing to shoot you in the face (which is random) as you run towards them but succeeding in shooting you in the back as you run away from them with frame-perfect randomly-determined timing (still random, and also supremely unlikely). So it’s no wonder it took the record-breaker tens of thousands of tries to do what he did, and that only two people have gotten close to the same performance since. But - and I mean this, no matter how nerdy it sounds - can you imagine how good breaking that record must have felt?
I used to think about the concept of being really good at tying one’s shoes. Everybody can do it; most people can do it pretty well. Some people have seen this TED talk and can do it correctly. But somewhere in the world there’s a guy who is the best at it; he can tie his shoes quicker than any other living person, better than anybody else in the history of mankind. And yes, probably nobody cares. But isn’t it something? Even if it doesn’t matter to anybody, doesn’t it still matter in some spiritual, universal sense, like Plato is somewhere appreciating that particular ideal?
Some of you will remember this commercial for Yoohoo, the ultra-gross chocolate milk analogue nobody likes that somehow still exists:
Somewhere in the persistent fantasy universe of 90’s beverage commercials, this kid’s brother still exists, and there’s no way he’s successful. This isn’t the kind of guy who goes to college or gets marketable skills; this is a guy who unwittingly gets too close to a ponzi scheme and is subsequently used as a scapegoat when everything comes crashing down, whose resultant criminal record means he’s in the pay-by-the-week apartment class of living, barely scraping by, wearing the same outfit to the family Christmas party every year because it’s the only button-down shirt he owns.
But you know what? The kid is right; he can nail a cross-room no-net Yoohoo cap shot into a fishbowl he uses exclusively for that purpose at will. And that’s not nothing. Nobody cares about it, but it actually is something; the kid isn’t wrong to appreciate it. With the eyes of youth, he has accurately assessed the beauty of the accomplishment. I sound like I’m kidding; I’m not.
I spent something like a decade drowning in unsuccess; anything I tried to do wilted like a poisoned weed. The jobs I wanted I couldn’t get; the jobs that seemed like they were leading into something better didn’t. This is the dumbest and truest thing I will say all week: there were a lot of times when trying to do this stupid, nothing thing was the only thing that gave me enough of an illusion of progress that I could keep going. It doesn’t matter, but it mattered so much.
I once asked my dad why people would spend their whole lives (up to a point, at least) doing things like discus and shot put; they are objectively boring to watch, and seemed an awful lot like they were objectively boring to do. He told me that Olympic sports were supposed to be things like that; the point wasn’t that it was incredible to watch, but instead that it was something you could work on making perfect. That records in those sports were still being improved on after however many centuries. Later in my life I met an Olympic gold medalist, and I understood; the dude had a presence. Here was a guy who had brushed so close to perfection that he could smell it, who had approached the limits of what was possible.
And then there’s competitive long-distance dry casters:
And, yes, it’s a very different kind of guy than an Olympic shot-put medalist. But they are actually still doing the same thing - they’ve picked something, and they are working on making it better, on doing better at it than anyone has ever done. It’s fundamentally the same, even if nobody thinks so.
There’s a story about a guy who stops to ask a stoneworker why he’s spending so much time carving details into the top of a pillar since top of the pillar would end up so far off the ground that nobody would ever see the intricacy. The stoneworker looks up at the guy and says “God will see."
I’m realistically never going to beat this video game. I’m not sure I even want to at this point. It’s possible some power-gamer will read this and go “I’ll show him!” and go beat it before I can - I think if that happened I’d find another unbeatable class and start grinding that. I’m not sure it’s about winning; I think I just want to feel like I’m brushing up against some human limit, stretching some corner of what we can do out a little further, even if it’s in an objectively dumb way.
Someone reading this probably has something similar - there’s certainly enough guys I’ve known who were proud of being able to really tie a tie or pack a bowl or whatever that I know there has to be some guy out there who is putting some amount of self-worth on how well he tills his garden or fries an egg, or something. I have a friend who plays an obscure puzzle game, and he’s the best guy in the world at it. He’s proud of it, but I’m not sure he’s proud enough - that matters, right? He found this thing and made it better; no human has ever gone so far in that realm. It’s something.
To that guy: I get it. I may not understand what you are doing, but I think I understand why it’s important to you. More than that, I think I understand why it’s important in general; it’s the expression of an abstractly good human impulse to push on limits and to move towards excellence. So keep doing it, especially if, like me, you need to to get through your days. But know it’s not just you; there’s at least one other person who understands that it matters.