It’s dark and I reach out to the wall to steady myself. I feel my way forward, the muscles in my neck twitching occasionally whenever I touch something particularly slimy. This whole place smells like rotting vegetables; I’ll never eat a salad again. I want to use my electric lantern to chase away the darkness but perhaps it’s best that I don’t. I probably don’t want to fully see the creature that lays dead behind me, its crumpled body finally still after far too many swings of my hatchet. I rub my bruised forearm where my jacket somehow stopped its bite. I’m lucky the creature’s teeth didn’t break through, its viscous, foul-smelling saliva surely would have done unkind things to a wound.
I halt after hearing a wisp of sound carried from the room ahead, a slow, grating scrape that I can’t place. I wait a few minutes trying to identify the sound but I can’t open my eyes any wider, I can’t further expand my ears to catch more sound; nothing I do can give me more information about what’s making that noise in the room at the end of the hall. My breath held, my body’s tendons creaking from the stress of being so tense, I creep forward and slowly shift my body so one of my eyes can see around the corner.
At the far end of the room stands a ragged figure, swaying, chin resting on its chest, the top of its head scraping against the rough brick wall. Scrape, it grinds its scalp. A closed door stands just to the right of the figure. Scrape.
Before I can make a decision about what to do next, the figure snarls, a wet, nasally sound directed not at me, but at the door. A howl replies as the door swings on its hinges and two figures push into the room, with glaring, unlidded eyes, their necks flopping inappropriately, their arms rigid with grasping hands. The first figure spins in place and steps toward the two newcomers, its limbs jerking as if controlled by some nervous puppeteer, its jaw snapping angrily at the air.
The trio marches from the room through the open door and soon I can no longer hear their rasping breath and shuffling feet. I follow, rubbing the grip of the revolver hanging from my hip, its rough metal a talisman against whatever waits beyond the doorway. They moved faster than I expected and I follow faster than is likely prudent. I’m not sure how far they’ve gone.
I hear a voice, a call out into the darkness speaking words I either don’t know or can’t fully put together.
The speaker’s loud and bassy voice carries through the passage, echoing through my ears and bouncing off the walls. The syllables of his repeated phrases swim and crash in my mind and just when I think I understand what he’s saying, his voice slips away and slides back down the hall again.
The hall opens into a dimly-lit room ahead and I creep forward to peer around the corner of the entrance’s frame: there they are. The trio of ragged figures stand in an arc facing the center of the room, swaying in place to the rhythm of the speaker’s chant. The speaker stands in front of them, clad in a hooded robe, surrounded by candles flickering with red flame that strobe jerking shadows of the grotesque audience.
There was no way I was going to come to these catacombs and steal an artifact from the Church of Starry Wisdom without facing at least one of their acolytes. I, perhaps foolishly, had hoped an encounter would be on more even terms.
“Crowd control,” my brain quotes.
“I am prepared,” I assure. I pull my haversack to my side and lift the flap.
The corner of the acolyte’s lips subtly rise into a smile.
I pull out a bottle of the worst grain alcohol you’ve ever tasted and trade its cap for a rag, stuffing the cloth down the bottle’s neck. I review my future motions step by step for I’ll only get one shot:
- Take out my lighter.
- Flip its lid.
- Spin the flint.
- Light the rag.
- Let it catch.
“Marana malax,” whispers the acolyte as I wheel around the corner, bottle raised, arm winding back. I stop running, forced to dynamically pose in place. I can’t move. I can’t breath. The flames eat the rag. My arm is stuck mid-air with the bottle giving a bright salute. The acolyte snorts, my fingers uncurl, the bottle falls from my grasp and shatters on the stone floor at my feet, grain alcohol flooding my boots.
At least the flames burn quickly.
The video game Infra Arcana has quickly become my favorite roguelike, its creepy atmosphere and emergent systems regularly evoking tragically-ending tales woven by my imagination (as you might have deduced from the above story). The game is loosely inspired by H.P. Lovecraft’s writing and the borrowed style lends itself well to the brutal and unforgiving gameplay typical of traditional roguelikes– they’ll surely drive you mad.
I like Infra Arcana for many reasons but the headliner is how the game begins. In so many video games, roguelikes in particular, your character starts their adventure with nothing; maybe they’ll carry a dagger at best. Who does that?! The adventurer in Infra Arcana instead said, “I’m heading into the lair of an evil cult so I’m gonna bring some gosh-darned DYNAMITE like a sane person.” I appreciate that.
Thematically on-point, Infra Arcana replaces the standard roguelike “hunger clock” with a “madness meter” where everything you encounter slowly drives your character insane– forcing you to explore the dungeon efficiently for your sanity can only bear so much. Certain areas like dark, muck-filled rooms cause your madness levels to spike appropriately. “You want me to go in THERE?”
One bit of incongruity I occasionally wrestle with while playing Infra Arcana is how your character gains experience points from killing monsters. It’s vital to success since gaining character levels awards new skills (like being able to shoot more accurately or carry more items) as well as an increased health point maximum. This game system, however, is often in direct conflict with what I feel is the spirit of the fiction, that this place you’re exploring is pure evil and much of it is too horrific to face. Instead of hurriedly heading for my goal, too often, I find myself hunting down every stupid little rat just to earn a few more precious experience points.
I’ve played enough roguelikes at this point to know that this is a design problem many game developers have wrestled with; my other favorite roguelike, Brogue, for instance, did away with its experience system altogether:
“Removed experience from the game to reward exploration instead of combat, in part to avoid discouraging character builds that survive by avoiding or incapacitating monsters instead of killing them.”
Brogue operates a little differently though, as its player upgrading system isn’t via new skills like Infra Arcana but by the discovery and use of equipment. Your reward for confronting monsters is that you might discover shiny new, magical items hiding in their rooms. Ultimately it’s not a big sticking point for me and Infra Arcana’s developer continues to be very active, semi-regularly issuing updates and fairly substantive redesigns that have kept me hooked on the game. The character leveling system has already undergone multiple improvements and I expect that more will come.
Infra Arcana is impossible–it’s a true roguelike after all– but I’ve had some really great finishes. Down to one bullet, down to one point of health, backing into a room with no exit, tossing lit dynamite into a crowd of those interminable resurrecting-zombies and then closing and barring the door. Infra Arcana always goes downhill REAL fast. I love it.