Equally cursed and blessed: the endless cycle of videogame death in Unexplored

Note (for the sake of continuity): I wrote this back in the middle of December, since then I abandoned Unexplored to play through Gris. I’ve now moved on to Dark Souls Remastered.

Rodney the 48th cuts a dashing figure. His forest green cloak sets off the deep amber of his curly fur; his single eye peers listlessly from the top of his head, ever alert to myriad dangers. He died last night - a mundane death in a panicked spiral of biting fish and freezing water. I mourned the loss with a frustrated sigh and a 15 second pause before I sent his successor into the dungeon behind him. His life will doubtless be sold off just as cheaply.

Unexplored is the latest in a long line of roguelikes that have been my commuting companions - games that I can play for the 40 minute bus journeys that bookend my working day. Before it came Hoplite, PIxel Dungeon (until I got too good at it and couldn’t fit a game into a single journey), card based crawlers Dungeon Cards and Card Thief.

It’s the brevity of existence that makes roguelikes perfect bus fodder, but it also spells their eventual demise. The wheel of dungeon samsara gets old eventually; the permadeath gameplay loop must tire - it’s baked into the genre conventions (as outlined in the Berlin interpretation). I hope Unexplored lasts a while longer. It’s taken me long enough to get accustomed to its weirdly smooth flowing control style that I’d feel like I’d short-changed myself if I packed it in now. But… Gris comes out next week, and after reading Hannah Nicklin’s piece in A Profound Waste of Time I’m itching to give Abzû a try as well.

I think of my cycle with these games like that bit in CSI - an extended “enhance image” moment, where the game’s nature comes into focus over time. I’m hooked by the gradual unveiling, and games that do this gatekeeping well will always keep me replaying - the new ability unlocked, the weapon that works so differently, the boss you finally beat by such a narrow margin. Equally though, that’s where they all eventually fail. All roads lead to Metroidvania, and it’s hard to see how else a game like this can keep the player interested. Sooner or later, one proc-gen dungeon starts to look very much like another.

I don’t yet know how far down the timeline I am with Unexplored. Maybe the next character class I unlock will shake up play for another dozen hours, or maybe I’ll be diving into some meditative scuba before the week is out. Right now, though, Rodney the 53rd looks like a sly character - let’s see how this far beady eyed explorer makes it.