A Postcard From... is a column by Jack de Quidt about the people, and the places, and the stories in the games we play.
I am extremely clever, and I have put together a flawless plan that will kill me in about ten or fifteen minutes. It is going to kill me in the corridor of a cave. The various components of this plan have all been thought out very carefully, and I have smiled at my inventory screen. In the actual moment of my death, one aspect of my plan will mean that I won't actually be able to see what is happening to me, and this will be entirely my fault. I am on the third floor of one of Unexplored's procedurally generated dungeons, and everything is about to fall apart.
Not quite yet, though. Not quite yet.
The seeds of the plan begin to form in my head when I stumble across the library on the first floor. A turret watches me suspiciously from a corner, but it comes undone with tools I found in a nearby chest and I can walk between the shelves undisturbed. There are scrolls containing incantations I can't read, and I put them in my pockets for later. My hope is that I'll find something later that will let me identify them—deploy them carefully and effectively in situations that will suit them best. Of course, down on the third floor, I will do something very different with these scrolls, and the words "carefully" or "effectively" will not apply.
More interesting than the scrolls, though, are the books left behind by previous adventurers. One of them gives me a clue about what the god of this dungeon appreciates as offerings, and I make a mental note to keep an eye out for an altar.
Above: the author streaming Unexplored.
Another book mentions a Hulking Rat that stalks the halls, and I feel pretty good about that one, because I flung a dagger across a room at that rat a few minutes ago and while I can't call that fight graceful I can call it successful.
The third book gives me pause. It mentions a kobold fire mage on the level below, a real nasty piece of work, and clearly one of the game's bosses. Along with the book, though, is what will become the cornerstone of my plan: a potion of fire resistance. The book's author is particularly proud of discovering the mage's weakness, and so am I. Perhaps I should be given pause by the fact that the author doesn't seem to be around, and, as far as I know, the fire mage still walks the halls below.
On my way to the stairs, I pass by an altar to the goddess Sophie. I leave her some rations, and in return she wishes me well and gifts me a second potion of fire resistance. I take this as a sign that Sophie's on board with my plan. A nearby lever opens a door that I passed earlier, and inside I find a chest containing a key. This unlocks a door on the other side of the level, behind which is a chest containing another potion of fire resistance and a set of stairs leading downward.
Unexplored generates its dungeons in a way that I have never seen before. The difference is immediately striking: Gone are the boxy layouts and predictable routes that so often define procedural levels; Unexplored's halls and caves and galleries twist around themselves and double back and lead you into blind alleys. A little building will open out into a warren of rocky tunnels, and then back into a building again. Thin rope bridges span sunken pools. Yesterday, I discovered for the first time a floor of the dungeon broken up by perilous chasms. Enchanted floor panels nearby allowed me to glide from rock to rock.
Unexplored generates its dungeons in a way that I have never seen before.
This would only be limitedly impressive if it was all just for show, but as well as generating visually interesting levels the game ensures that every floor is mechanically interesting as well.
Often, playing similar roguelikes, I will find that my passage through its floors is marked simply by hunting for the exit or killing its inhabitants. There is little exploration to be done. Here, though, the dungeons are filled with locks and keys. Pathways loop back up with each other, opening shortcuts. Levers open and close barred doors. One-way passages funnel you in a particular direction, pulling you away from the obvious route. Playing Unexplored, you are constantly asking questions of its levels. Where does that door go? Does the key I picked up in the chapel fit its lock?
Once, I trapped myself in a room because I wasn't paying attention to the timed door that acted as its only entrance. As the room slowly filled with gas, I prayed desperately to Sophie, who promptly teleported me back outside again.
Arriving on the second floor, I pass down a corridor lined with bushes and see the kobold fire mage immediately. He is behind a locked door, but I peer through a nearby window and watch him. He wears a white robe, and is surrounded by bookshelves. He paces, nervously. I set off to hunt for the key.
When I return, I pause for a moment outside the door, and take stock. I'm now carrying three potions of fire resistance, which I'm fairly sure gives me an edge, but I'm not sure quite how resistant these potions will make me. It's one thing to be able to swan into the room, absorbing fireballs left and right, and quite another to catch light, but slightly less than I would otherwise. I decide against swallowing all three potions. One will do. I open the door.
I make quick work of the kobold mage, and that's about all I can tell you about the fight. Combat in Unexplored is frantic and busy, all thrown knives and explosions of particle effects. The controls are simple and responsive and fire blossoms around me as I step through unhurt. The mage wields a scimitar with a red stripe along it, and occasionally fire will arc along it as he swings. He has half health, and then a quarter, and then he's dead. His robe and scimitar lie on the floor, and I feel on top of the world.
It's a little strange that, in the kobold's room, I find another potion of fire resistance. Perhaps it was intended for players who hadn't found the potions earlier, I figure. Something to reach for, panicked, in the middle of the fight. Standing among the mage's things, I picture very briefly the creature's life before my arrival. They must have been down here for years, working away in their library. How do you become a kobold fire mage, I wonder, and then I pick up the scimitar and a curse binds it to my hand eternally.
At first, this doesn't bother me. If I'm honest, I'm thrilled that I've gained an enchanted weapon, especially one that lets me wield the fire I saw the mage use during our encounter. Up until this point, I'd been making do with short swords and daggers, the occasional spear. Now, with the scimitar bound to my hand, fire arcing along its blade, I feel like an actual adventurer. I leave the room, and swing the sword experimentally. One of the bushes catches fire. I step back from the flames, cautiously. As I pass down the leafy corridor, I am careful not to swing my sword again. That could get nasty. Fire spreads quickly, down underground.
It is when I descend to the third level that Unexplored finally reveals its hand. On top of its intricate, lock-and-key method of making its dungeon floors, the generator has one overarching, brilliant trick. See, when the loading bar moves across the screen before we begin, the game isn't just generating the first floor.
It's drafting up all of them.
Mechanically this allows the game to create a neat difficulty curve, providing players with tools on the first floors that they can use to beat the later ones. Narratively, it allows for something so striking that the first time I encountered it, I thought it was coincidence: Unexplored can create dungeons filled with foreshadowing.
I had believed that the fire resistance potions were foreshadowing the fire mage, and in defeating them I would finish that particular story. But, stepping onto the third floor and finding myself surrounded on all sides by highly flammable trees and bushes, I realise that the purpose of the fire mage was very simple. It was to ensure I am carrying a weapon that arcs with fire, and that I cannot for the life of me get rid of.
Things start to go badly during my first encounter with a large rat, when the tree to my right catches light along with the grasses next to it. Smoke pours off them, and I hastily swallow one of my fire resistance potions to stop myself going up in flames. The rat burns up almost instantly.
I'm playing a new game now: One in which my two remaining fire resistance potions act as a sort of timer as the dungeon begins to burn around me. An encounter with a Hulking Rat expends another one, and I'm not really exploring now so much as desperately trying to find the stairs that will take me out of this deathtrap. For a while I try using the dagger in my other hand, but the more things catch light around me, the harder it becomes to keep track of which button the scimitar is assigned to, and the fire spreads.
It's the smoke that marks the end. I should have seen that coming. A shrub catches light too close to me, and the smoke rushes into my eyes and nose and the screen goes black. The word "blinded" appears in small letters in the middle of the screen. Panicked, I begin to read the scrolls I picked up in the library earlier. One restores my health, and I feel a moment of relief before another makes the sound of something fizzling and I catch light again. Another scroll seems to do nothing at all, but I learn just too late that it would have allowed me to uncurse my scimitar, but it's too late. It's too late. The smoke clears and I have died.
In the dungeon above me, the body of the kobold mage lies on the floor surrounded by their library. One floor above that, the book that told me of his location sits on a shelf, watched carefully by the turret I hacked.
I cannot tell you what lies below me, because I never saw it, but I can tell you that there are chasms and libraries and catacombs. Cursed and enchanted weapons lie in chests. Unexplored's dungeon plumbs deep into the earth, and it is filled with keys and locks.
Some are more obvious than others.