Arkham Horror – the card game

If the amount of posts in the last years haven’t been an indicator: I’ve been busy. Between an incredibly demanding but rewarding job, a family with children and a global fucking pandemic, there’s been way too little time for fun. Not because there is no time – worse: when the time is there, I have no energy for it.

And yet, over the last year, I’ve always been able to squeeze in a round of Arkham on Sunday nights.

For those wondering: Arkham Horror is a board game universe, set in the roaring twenties, that loosely draws on an indiana jonesized version of the infamous horror stories by H.P. Lovecraft. They usually involve archetypes (the mobster! the street urchin! the millionaire!) battling against cosmic beings that are very hard to spell. Arkham Horror has three boardgame versions (I’ll probably write something about the excellent third edition sometime) and the reason I’m writing this: a card game.

Now I’ve been burnt by card games. Summer of 2000, fifteen year-old me spent all his hard-earned money on Magic: The Gathering cards. So let’s just say I was a bit hesitant. But one argument swayed me: the cards in these packs are fixed. You know what you’re going to get.

And what you get is quite amazing. You get an interactive story in multiple parts, where the first session might have you start in a local town investigating a disappearance – and then eight sessions later you’re in outer space fighting witches and a cosmic fucking being. Things go delightfully off the rails, all the odds are stacked against you, but even if you lose, the story somehow goes on. It’s choose your own adventure meets deckbuilding and it’s delicious. And how’s the deckbuilding, you say? Well it’s quite the thing. One campaign, I took the millionaire – whose special power is, you guessed it, having a small fortune – and turned him into a philanthropist. Another campaigned, I played a boxer that could draw cards whenever he punched a monster – cards that of course lead to more punches being dealt.

It’s storytelling times three through cardboard, and it’s completely my thing. Firstly, every Sunday evening, we experience a story simply by arranging cards on the table and reading some texts, like a form of D&D lite. Secondly, we choose characters and build them using cards that enhance their innate traits, as if we were equipping them in an RPG. And thirdly, we play those cards, battling hordes of enemies, in an order that causes stories to emerge out of nowhere. In one turn, I shoot at a monster and miss, but then I play a card and suddenly my bullet ricochets into the cultist next to him. It’s so much fun.

So yeah, Sunday nights are for battling ancient ones now. If anyone wants to join, grab your tommygun and join the fun!

Hades

There’s this theory in gaming that the reason people like video games is because, when everything comes together, inputs become automatic, like clockwork. You lose track of your surroundings and see nothing but the screen. You’re completely in the flow.

Now, I like video games, but I rarely get this. Usually, after half an hour, I get antsy and feel the need to get up and do something useful. Games have to really click to consume me.

Then I played Hades!

Hades is a roguelike – a game in which you keep on repeating an arduous and difficult “run” through a semi-randomized set of levels. In Hades, you play as Zagreus, the titular god’s son, and the run is escaping the underworld. The semi-randomized part is a meticulously crafted set of variables: Not only do enemies change, but your uncles and aunts on Mount Olympus give you certain boons to help you in your escape attempt. For instance, Poseidon might imbue my attacks with tidal waves, whereas Zeus has the power of lightning. Every ability interacts, making sure that no two runs are alike.

I think roguelikes are okay. I’m not a huge fan of the time investment involved in mastering and finishing one – often times, I get bored by the second or third run. But Hades has a hook: Every time you die, you end up with your father, and the story continues. This game is filled to the brim with beautifully recorded dialogue and superb characters, making sure you go for one more run, just so you know how the story unfolds.

This narrative is a brilliant idea, no surprise coming from Supergiant, the makers of Bastion, Transistor and Pyre, who’ve always been strong storytellers. Bastion and Transistor exist on pretty much every computer, tablet or smart fridge, you should try them out, if only for the art style and the story. Or better yet:

Hades. It’s on switch, so you can play it on the toilet.

Marvel’s Avengers

If you know me, you know I love to gripe about video game stories. More often than not, the emotions they try to convey fall flat, as if they feel forced and faked for some reason. Video game characters just don’t feel like real people, and most of the games I’ve played this year suffer from this. Control. Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. Even The Last of Us II seems to miss the mark, be it by design: This game constantly veers away from humanity on purpose.

Then why is it that a loot-based, mindless games as a service superhero brawler is the one to pull it off?

For those not in the know: Avengers is a newly released videogame banking on the success of the Marvel universe. It’s basically got six superheroes that can punch, kick and shoot their way through wastelands filled with robots. As they do this, they level up and get stronger. Over time, more superheroes will join the cast, which can also be leveled up endlessly.

These games are usually quite complex, so they need a sort of tutorial, usually in the form of a single player campaign. And funnily enough, this campaign is one of the most humane video game experiences I’ve played the last months. You are Kamala, a teenager given superpowers by a freak accident which caused the Avengers to split up. As she gets the crew back together, she grows into a superhero of her own. She’s also an insecure teen, an overexcited fangirl and a Pakistani-American Muslim.

Kamala is one of the better realized characters in video game fiction. She is human through and through, and never gets lost in the wildly escalating videogame plot. Whenever something crazy happens (and crazy things happen, this is the Avengers after all), there’s an important emotional question to back it up. It comes as no surprise that this story stems from Crystal Dynamics, who succeeded in humanizing Lara Croft in their Tomb Raider reboot. But it’s a breath of fresh air nonetheless.

Now if anyone wants to do some mindless superhero brawlin’, let me know!

(Do people still do blogs nowadays?)