Pixel Dungeon: A Gateway Game

A casual game to me means two things- easy to pick up and play and just as easy to put down. A casual game should be able to be played by any person, no matter the level of gaming experience. It should also be easy to quit at any time, without penalty to the player. I chose a mobile game that I classify as “intermediate” casual. Pixel Dungeon is a dungeon crawler, fantasy, role playing game that challenges that player to manage their inventory, time, and make conscious decisions on how to tackle each floor of the dungeon. I am interested on how this game can help novice gamers become more experienced in playing games more seriously; one may call this game a gateway game.

There are four characters to choose from (one must be unlocked), each with their own playing style and specialties. For example, the warrior begins the game with much more strength and can identify strength potions while the rogue can survive longer without food and identify found rings to equip. After choosing a player, you begin on Floor 1 of the dungeon with a scroll of text reading:

“The Dungeon lies right beneath the City, its upper levels actually constitute the City’s sewer system. Being nominally a part of the City, these levels are not that dangerous. No one will call it a safe place, but at least you won’t need to deal with evil magic here.”

There is no more backstory or narrative directly told (as far as I know, I haven’t gotten past Floor 5). The game utilizes pre-existing narrative associations and some embedded narrative information, in other words, immersing the player in the world not through dialogue, but through previous connotations and graphical design. The goal of the game is to make it to the bottom floor of the dungeon. Since I have not made it so far into the game, I went to the Wiki page and learned that there are five stages, each with five floors. At the end of each stage you battle a boss. Defeat each boss and you win the game.

To the novice gamer, one who has never or rarely played games, this game may seem daunting at first. You explore each floor killing monsters to gain experience to level up and become stronger. You can also pick up loot and coins but you must manage space in your inventory since it is finite. When I first started playing, I carelessly went to Floor 2 without being strong enough. I lasted no more than a minute until a gnoll scout wiped me out. The game will punish you for not progressing at a correct pace. This reminds me of Final Fantasy games. You have to often “grind” or purposefully encounter weaker enemies to level up slowly. This game teaches you to not over estimate your strength and to take your time. The challenge lies in also not spending too long in the dungeon as to go hungry and eventually reach starvation, where you lose Health Points every few steps. The game actually encourages grinding since enemies will also sometimes drop loot that will help you in various ways whether that be health, armor, weapons, potions/scrolls/seeds with magical abilities (good or bad), and coins to buy items in the shop. This game also teaches you the basics of inventory management; you only have 23 spaces in your inventory so make sure you throw away items that you don’t need. An interesting mechanic that the game uses is that some of the potions and scrolls you get cannot be deciphered, so it is a shot in the dark if you want to use them. Sometimes you get a weapon boost, sometimes you get poisoned; it is really just the flip of a coin. More risky players may have more reward but also more failure. I have opened up scrolls that have set me on fire a few too many times. Pixel Dungeon also encourages exploration through the search mechanic. There are often hidden doors and pathways that lead to treasure rooms that contain coins and rare items. You cannot normally see these doors, but if you go up to a wall and hit the search button, there may be a chance that you find a hidden room.

A basic treasure room.

Even though there are many elements to Pixel Dungeon, it only takes one or two playthroughs to pick up the main idea of the game. It is easy to understand once you realize that all you must do is be a smart decision maker. One aspect that draws me back to the game is the fact that each playthrough is random. No two floors are alike and the loot you find will always be different. This encourages new players to keep coming back in order to get to one more floor, even if their last playthrough was bad. Another interesting aspect is that players have to find what strategy works for their character. With the warrior, you have to focus on close combat as opposed to the mage where long range combat is preferred. Each playthrough is an experiment to see what weapons and armor boost your specialties and help your weaknesses. For example, getting better armor helped my warrior since I was prone to close range combat and would receive more hits from enemies. Once the game is learned, it is a matter of trial and error until a winning strategy and item set is acquired. But let’s say you only have a few minutes to spare and you want to play a quick session, no problem. The game allows players to exit the game at any time and save their progress with no penalty. I can play the game when I have some time between class and then resume once I get back to my room. This allows any player, no matter the time constraint, to try their hand at a new dungeon and a new playthrough, thus encouraging more play time. Pixel Dungeon slowly introduces more complex mechanics and more challenge the farther you get into the dungeons. This keeps players coming back for more and also helps new players become more familiar with strategy in games. Pixel Dungeon could be compared to gambling in a way since it entices you to keep coming back to see if you can get a little bit farther each time (or closer and closer to the jackpot). I believe that playing casual games is important for new gamers to understand the intricacies of complex games, like a stepping stone in a way. Imagine having to try and understand Calculus without understanding Algebra! Pixel Dungeon uses easy to learn mechanics alongside pick up and play gaming that encourages new players to sink more time into the game and eventually become a real gamer.

Seeing all your acquired loot encourages you to try again and get even more.

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