Diluvium seems to have spawned from the old schoolyard “who would win in a fight between a bear and a whale” conversation, but at some point in its 56-hour development it turned into a typing game in the guise of an RPG/strategy type thing. More importantly, it has all the benefits of visiting a zoo without any of the unpleasant smells or small children.
In the beginning, two totem-like summoners face off in a town square, resembling a black and white, Final Fantasy Tactics level. Your summoner peers at you curiously, through its portrait at the bottom of the screen. A monkey, an antelope and a lion materialize around the enemy summoner and begin a menacing staccato shuffle towards your side of the screen. In response, you type every animal you can think of into the text box next to your summoner’s portrait. The two summoners throw their animal armies at one another until the balance shifts, and a totem falls. Don’t worry, no animals were harmed in the making of this game. With its blocky, stylized presentation, the combat doesn’t in any way resemble real animals fighting one another.
Part of the fun in Diluvium is in figuring out what you can get away with. The creatures stack, both visually and statistically, if you type two or three in the same entry. After this discovery, I began to frenetically test hypotheses. Can I stack a moose on top of an elephant? YES. Can I conjure a human, the most dangerous animal? YES. Can I summon a generic bird and an ostrich and a falcon simultaneously? YES. If you can think of an animal, you can probably play it (try typing “Pikachu”). If you get rejected, you probably spelled something wrong. Also, Diluvium doesn’t do bugs.
Much of the challenge is internal, almost self-inflicted. You’ve gotta think on the fly. Battles move quickly, and when one accelerates to a fever pitch, and your summoner is surrounded by cat-dogs and bear-giraffes, you might be hard pressed to conjure even the most common of creatures in your mind’s eye. One of the biggest mid-game hurdles is simply thinking of an animal that isn’t already on the screen. The game doesn’t allow two of the same animal to be onscreen at a time, but it allows separate entries for broad and specific descriptors like “bird” and “eagle.” The limited size of the text box demands the juxtaposition of short and long words, which creates satisfying, rhythmic phrases like “armadillo snake.” In this way, the player develops stylistic aspirations which compliment the practical goal of victory.
When I play Diluvium, I’m not being told a story that makes any sense. Nor am I weaving a clear, emergent narrative that I would relate to others. I’m basically just poking and prodding the game to see what it comes up with. There are win and lose conditions that control pacing and frame the mechanics, but I’m not sure they make up the crux of the experience. Victory is not anywhere near the most exhilarating part of Diluvium.
Last week, Eurogamer’s Christian Donlan wondered “at what point does a game become a toy?” in a discussion of titles like Eric Chahi’s god game, From Dust. One of the implied arguments of Donlan’s piece is that there’s a blurry line between simulations and the toys we played with as children. A win/lose condition isn’t all that relevant to experiences that inspire spontaneous, imaginative qualities. An experience like From Dust defies rigid structure, yet is simultaneously contained within a structured system of rules. On a similar note, I’m still uncertain whether dressings like hit points are an inherent necessity of a game like Diluvium, or simply a constraint that continues to be enforced by cultural expectations, as Donlan suggests.
It’s interesting that each animal has different stats, but Diluvium itself would be less interesting if you had more of an idea of what’s going on. Stats aren’t displayed, and you have no control over specific combat interactions. Much is left up to the imagination. Considering the possible strengths and weaknesses of each animal adds another layer of enjoyment, and observing those ambiguous strengths and weaknesses in action adds a kind of spectator appeal to the entire affair. The system is left to do its work, and the player is allowed to imagine and interpret.
Similarly, Diluvium would be less engaging if it asked you to choose from a list of animals. I’m generalizing here, but I prefer the system of interactive fiction that makes you type out instructions. I like telling the player character to “go north” or “pick this up” or “look at this” or “throw this at that person” because it adds another layer of interaction. Sure, it can be clumsy and disruptive when the computer doesn’t understand what you’re trying to do, but I prefer this clumsiness to the more streamlined, but less personal method of choosing from a list of options, which is an approach taken by a lot of modern IF pieces. For me, it’s the difference between multiple choice and short answer. Sure, the multiple choice quiz is easier and doesn’t take as long, but your interaction with the subject matter is less significant. That’s not to say that the other sort of interactive fiction doesn’t have value, I just think it’s good for a different kind of engagement. By allowing you to simply type out any animal you can think of and see if it works. Diluvium creates a kind of synergy.
When Tom Bissell wrote about L.A. Noire, he said (I’m paraphrasing) that it fails as a videogame, but he loves it, so maybe we’re not calling it the right thing. Now, I’m not saying Diluvium fails at anything, and it’s about as similar to L.A. Noire as a rabbit is to a rattlesnake, but what impresses and delights me about Diluvium has nothing to do with quintessential videogamey stuff like victory or failure or objectives. It taps into a different part of my brain. And I thought of Bissell’s piece from last year because, in trying to write about these things, I’m becoming increasingly unsatisfied with the connotations of the term “videogame” and my own expectations of how a videogame is supposed to engage me.