Torchlight is like a job you don’t get paid for

Attention universe! I have completed the primary Torchlight campaign! Why did it take me three months of halfhearted, intermittent play? I will tell you. It is because there is no point to Torchlight.

See, unless clicking on colorful enemies is what you enjoy most in life, there’s almost no reason to ‘finish’ playing the game. Because Torchlight has an Endless Dungeon mode, finishing the primary plot only enables more and more of the same-old same-old: you get to go further down, and you get to click on baddies and receive loot. Nothing new there. There’s also no emotional or narrative reward to finishing the plot itself. Quite a lot has been said about the skeletal nature of the game’s plot, about how tepid, uncommitted, and unclear it is.  Not only does it provide no resolution—the dungeon continues—but it makes no sense. The final boss-fight is a tedious and largely-unfair low-framerate ass-raping in which the game’s evil mastermind—a badly-explained, overpowered something called ‘Ordrak’—spams mobs at you for twenty minutes. When you’re done you get a shit-ton of worthless loot.

So why did I keep at it? Frankly, I’m a sucker for numbers that go up. Preferably, numbers that go up very high, and very quickly. It’s why I bothered finishing Infectionator: World Dominator, even though I broke the game, balance-wise, while still in Africa. In Torchlight, the numbers never stop going up. It is impossible to play for an hour without leveling up twice. You are presented with improved gear so frequently that it is hard to keep track of how fast those numbers are rising. There’s not too much need for strategic assessment: each weapon has a tooltip detailing its DPS and bonuses and providing a side-by-side comparison with your current loadout. You simply look at the numbers and choose whatever has the bigger ones. At times, this kind of constant reward feels very sinister, as if the game is trying to keep you sated with numerals while it simultaneously performs a subliminal and evil reconstruction of your brain. You stagger away from the computer, a lizardlike numbness reigning in your mind, and all night long digits scroll before your eyes while the clink of gold rattles in your ears. This is Torchlight. It’s addictive like a Facebook game, but with all the garish stupidity of that genre replaced by Diablo nostalgia. It is a powerful and scientific designer drug.

But the habit is relatively easy to break. Like I said, it quickly becomes clear that there’s no higher reward to playing the game. No dramatic conclusion, no ultimate weapon, no satisfying plot twist. Just more and more of the same. This was apparently the aim of the design team, and by gum, they seem to have accomplished it. If ‘the same’ isn’t enough for you, I can’t see why you’d bother finishing the game, unless it’s for street-cred-related reasons. Instead of dragging me onward, it only left me exhausted.

This raises questions for me, though: do I play games because I want a continuing experience, or because I want a story or a progression that eventually comes to an end, the way a book or a movie does? For me, I’ve discovered that it’s the latter. I don’t want to play the same thing for ever and ever; it’s only human that our tales come to ends. If a game doesn’t want to tell me a serious story, fine, but it’s at least got to resolve itself somehow, because that, too, is human. Currently, my conception of a ‘good game’—and I understand that, with social games, casual games, DLC and so on, this isn’t the way the industry is heading—is something with a beginning, a middle, and a proper, conclusive end. A death. A max level. A final challenge that unlocks extras, maybe. Anything but an infinite perpetuation of identical play experiences. I don’t need to be able to win it—I just need to be able to feel a sense of closure, or to have a chance to find my own kind of closure. Me, personally. Any thoughts on this, guys?

Here’s a secret about me and Torchlight: I almost didn’t quit. Apparently, there’s a secret level filled with horses for characters in the 40s level range, based on the cow level in Diablo II. I consider this idea incredibly attractive. But you have to grind the incredibly dull fishing minigame to get there, so I’ve decided that I won’t be bothering.

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6 Comments

  1. I can’t hate on Torchlight.

    I like Torchlight. I like it a lot, actually. It sets out exactly what it wants to do, which is be a plotless lootfest. And on quite a decent number of days, that’s exactly what I want. I don’t know why that arouses some desire in me, though I have a few guesses. Maybe it’s because it’s the no-need-to-think, single-player version of Dungeons and Dragons, which is (obviously) another (very different) game I enjoy very much. Maybe it’s because I grew up poor and thus I love getting stuff. I feel like Torchlight would have been a disappointment if it had an ending. I would have seriously felt betrayed, because that’s not really what Torchlight is to me.

    As far as your last paragraph goes though, are you sure that’s what you really think? From what I remember of our few conversations, you were as much of a fan of Team Fortress 2 as I was — and that is absolutely a game that does not have an ending progression. Arguably though, that’s something completely different — the experience is the enjoyment of the game with friends, and the ending experience is that wonderful feeling of victory (or horrible feeling of defeat) at the end of every round.

    Reply
    • lauramichet

       /  March 28, 2010

      That is exactly why I like Team Fortress 2: it comes in manageable chunks, and the chunks are diverse enough– I can play as any class I want– that every play experience is a unique and wrapped bundle.
      Torchlight, on the other hand, tries with every bleeding inch of its soul to encourage you into galloping onward, down down down down down. During the campaign, the floor tile styles change too infrequently to make this a diverse experience: you have to slog through too many identical floors in a row to make it seem varied and interesting. At the end of each level, there’s the stairs leading down… most of the time, to more of the same. The designers are hoping you’ll soldier on, do another level– and since it’s only very rarely that I feel any significant power change between levels, this feels very tedious, despite the constant level progression. It’s a very different experience than the experience of online matches in TF2, or UT, or any other game where the play is fresh, variable, with other people, and divided into discrete chunks. I feel a sense of closure when I finish a match in TF2, whether or not I’m about to play another one. I don’t feel any kind of closure when I finish a floor in Torchlight.

      Reply
  2. Anonymous

     /  November 7, 2010

    well, i don’t know what a game looks like, but somehow i agree with you. for me a good story is essential.well, it doesn’t mean that i don’t like torchlight, it’s a good game, with a good graphic, but it’s missing something. you see. for an offline game, the story is very -i’d say- absurd. i don’t feel any grudge in playing that game. for the first time i played torchlight, i got bored, because the gameplay is very monoton. the only passion i have in playing that is trying every combination of skills in the three classes, but, it’s just not enough..

    Reply
  3. Max

     /  March 28, 2011

    How is it work? it is a fun game and the only thing here that is like work is this review!

    Reply
  4. Ki

     /  January 6, 2012

    I just completed the game, or rather decided that I completed, that there is no point in continuing after the Lair is beated… And I couldn’t agree with you more.

    Reply
  5. LOL, actually couldn’t disagree more :) Torchlight is one of the best games I’ve played all year, and I play around 100 games or so every year. I’ve just finished killing the big boss, which was very satisfying, and now I’m about ready to head down into the Shadowlands to see my numbers go up even more (my character is currently a level 47 — 100 will be nice :)

    What I see is so satisfying about the game is that I can keep going back to it for 30 minutes at a time if I just feel like ‘grinding’ without having to commit a lot of time. Meanwhile, I’ll start another game for more in-depth satisfaction.

    Overall, I’d have to say Torchlight is a far better game than any of the Diablos, including the latest one which is appalling.

    Reply

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