I’ve been staring at my 3DS a lot lately. It sits on a shelf in front of my TV, not because I use it often but because I might pick it up again sometime. I do the same thing with books, leaving them out in sight so I remember to maybe try and read them. After coming back from a holiday weekend, I saw my old bud just chillin’ in his usual spot, and, perhaps out of guilt for not bringing him along, I flipped open my 3DS to noodle around in Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey Redux.
Strange Journey is one of the many hardcore dungeon crawlers you can play on the 3DS. The game still holds up despite originally being released on the original DS almost 10 years ago. All these years later, it’s still got one of the most compelling, distinct hooks in the genre, best described as “what if the film/novel Annihilation but with demons?” I like it a lot, but there’s a problem. It’s a hardcore dungeon crawler. And hardcore dungeon crawlers make me spiral out in some weird ways, man.
I was reminded of this about an hour into my return to Strange Journey. My old save was about seven hours in. I stopped cold and thought, what am I even doing here? Of course, there was a plot reason—my expedition was stranded in hostile demon-filled territory, and we were picking up some strange signals that I, Captain Adam Scott (I name a lot of my video game characters after actors) had to go investigate. But what was I doing here? You know?
Hardcore dungeon crawlers are meant to be challenging affairs—not insurmountable, but consistently dangerous. They’re not like, say, Diablo, where figuring out how to turn your character into a finely tuned machine for grinding up monsters and spitting out numbers is the primary pleasure. Dungeon crawlers are about doing the best with what you have—which often isn’t great. You grind out what you need to feel a little bit safer for a little bit longer.
The problem for me is that it’s all so claustrophobic. Even story-rich dungeon crawlers like Strange Journey aren’t really about a story unfolding. They’re about the dungeons, and surviving, forever. That slowly, quietly, starts to wear on me.
I once joked to a colleague that games like this are great because they merge anime and math. I really believe this—melodrama is a great hook for a game, and dense-yet-parseable systems are a great way to keep you there—but I also need oxygen. Space. Corners to poke around in and find weird stuff without the constant threat of danger. The grind is fine—fun, even—but when it’s all there is, I lose my bearings and start to feel listless. I don’t so much see the game in front of me as much as I just see the numbers moving back and forth, like I’m playing a spreadsheet with occasional stops to talk to demons before they rob me.
This is probably the point. Dungeons in games are supposed to be dangerous, bleak, oppressive. Overcoming the challenge they present is supposed to be rewarding, and it can’t be if they’re easy. And I agree! I can even buy into—and have bought into—the idea that it’s rewarding to take on a dungeon that is so sprawling it is The Whole Damn Game. The idea of being clever and resourceful enough to handle it is a cool fantasy to sell me on, like, what if Conan was a mathlete?
I suppose my real problem isn’t the dungeons of Strange Journey, but my time away from them. As sprawling and long as these games can be, urgency is strangely integral to what makes them work. Dungeons in games often exist because they’re anomalies: something is wrong with the world, and you must figure out what. With that in mind, delving forward is compelling; exploration is a constant reward.
Spend enough time away from the game, from the dungeon, and you won’t necessarily forget why you’re there—but you might forget what gave you that rewarding feeling. Then the dungeon you’re in melts together in your mind with others you’ve seen, and you become less of an explorer and more of a prisoner. But who am I kidding? Math and anime are still the peanut butter and jelly of hardcore dungeon crawlers. Maybe next time I won’t play through one right after I get back from the beach, though.