Tuesday, 21 December 2010

ALEX’s Best Of 2010: A Pee-Pee Soaked Heckhole

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Looking back at the end of a year, it’s always music that takes the lion’s share of attention. That’s because it’s easy to look back on a period soundtracked by a single album; it’s easy to hear a single so much it’s driven deep into your brain. (More or less the same way that books monopolise places: that beach where I finally read The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier & Klay. Train journeys and road trips easily become monuments to favourite reads, and re-reads... But that’s a story for another time.)
Point is: Films, and especially games, don’t get the same treatment. That’s a lot to do with their inherent nature (similar to my conclusions after a Summer With No Games). They are, respectively, a quick burst/an extended period of sitting in a dark room. There’s not much to hold onto, memory-wise.
The name of the game
Except: Solium Infernum was the soundtrack to my spring. For a good three months, it permeated the majority of my thoughts as I slipped off to sleep. It dominated living-room conversation (and so, like the album your neighbour constantly turns up to obnoxious volume, probably seeped into defining that period for the annoyed non-players in my house too).
There are a lot of reasons for this. To help explain them, I should probably lay out exactly what Solium Infernum is. A multiplayer board game, except with computers and mice instead of dice and sunshine-faded cardboard. To look over someone’s shoulder, the game appears completely harmless. Just some pieces, dragged across a map, and a lot of numbers. Except that it’s a game about politics and in-fighting, which makes it even more fitting for the time it defines, probably. It’s a game set in Hell.
Home, home on the raaaange
Solium Infernum gives you very little story. It gives you a beginning, one familiar to any player versed in our cultural past, from Milton's Paradise Lost to Dante’s L’Inferno; Gaiman's Sandman to... er, Sandler's Little Nicky. Over in Hell, Satan got bored, decided he was about due a holiday, and abdicated the throne. You’re cast as one of the many demon lords who’ve decided they'd like a piece of this pie for themselves.
From there, you have to make it up yourself. Which you do in turns, slowly gathering resources, moving units, and threatening your fellow demons in an attempt to gather as much prestige as possible. So you advance across empty wastelands, take fortresses and monuments by force and carve up the Unholy Land between yourselves.
It’s an incredibly slow game, especially when played with others. It relies on email, meaning the progress of a Solium Infernum game can be agonising. On a good day, you’ll get to play twenty evenly-spaced three-minute turns, in which you can perform two actions. More realistically, on a day where at least one player actually has a social life, it’s more like one turn the moment you wake up, fifty impatient checks of your email, and one in the early hours when the last player finally gets in and thinks to check their inbox.
This is literally as exciting as it gets
This can be absolutely agonising. It’s also the defining feature of the game. Because it undermines the rules of what a game is, in terms of time. Those twenty three-minute bursts replace one two-hour session. This moves it closer to the territory of pop music, the repetition that gets the listener hooked. And Solium Infernum is all hooks.
Because, ultimately, the game relies on one universally appealing thing: the opportunity to screw your friends over in increasingly torturous way. Everything is carefully placed so you have to be – at best – mean, or – more likely – incredibly sneaky to win.
This isn’t a game about battles: to get into a scrap with your neighbour, you have to initiate a Vendetta, either by provoking them with insults, or forcing them to provoke you by refusing your perfectly reasonable requests for half their resources. Which sounds very complex, and to certain extent it is.
But quickly the desire to succeed drives you into the rhythm of covert diplomacy, dodgy deals, and mind-games. Not success as in winning, but as in scoring another hit. The moment that, in the game, you pull out of a deal, leave your ‘ally’ suddenly alone with four other rivals, and run off with all the equipment they lent you. The moment that, at your computer, you laugh maniacally until you catch yourself and think, am I actually evil?
Victory!
Which is unique, as far as I can tell: Milton might have used the epic form to create sympathy for the devil, but Solium Infernum borrows from the tradition of Theme Hospital to really force you into that pantomime-villain role. I’ve never been one for role-playing games: it all feels too much like silly play-acting, whether you’ve got a controller in your hand or are sitting round a table in a cloak. Solium Infernum pushes role-playing into your life. The game doesn’t really exist in those three-minute bursts. The game lives in the moments between: the scheming emails and texts, guessing at plans over a drink and, best of all, seeing the friend that you completely irreversibly screwed over last night weeping into his breakfast cereal.
It’s not unreasonable to say that Solium Infernum made me a worse person for those three months. I’d suggest it gave me a harmless medium to enact my cruel pranks and be really hilariously mean to my friends. But, then again, that would imply Solium Infernum is totally harmless, wouldn’t it?
About The Author: Alex

About the author:
Alex Spencer isn't evil. Honest. Just ask his mom.
He may have punted a kitten off a
bridge that once,
but there were mitigating circumstances. He bears the
badge of being the least cool person writing for this
website right now not as a burden, but with pride.
...Ooh, shiny badge!

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London, United Kingdom
Videogames, film, music, comics: feed them into the Alex-Spencer machine and out come neat little articles. Like the ones you're looking at here.