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.