Thursday, 14 April 2016

The Hexen Wars

It begins

I've written about my obsession with the game Doom. After another nostalgic visit to my gaming past this week I ended up writing about another PC game I used to play: Hexen.

Just as I had created an almost-impossible challenge for Doom, I did the same with Hexen. I had to complete the whole game in one go; no saves; on the fourth (hard) difficulty level. This was back in the happy days when I had few games, so tended to play one to exhaustion before moving to another.

It was also the days before "achievements" were given to gamers as arbitrary collect-'em-all metagames; the days when you made up your own challenges. If you did so it was because you felt like it, not because they were pushed on you. I usually created them to add immersion; tied in to the story world, rather than "survive x minutes", "kill x baddies".

It was also the days before video playthroughs and easy advice; bear in mind that Hexen is a game with traps that can kill you instantly, with no warning. There was lots of trial and error, because if I died I wasn't allowed to continue, to find out how to avoid the trap: I just restarted the game. Which seems ridiculous in one way, but on the other hand it created emotions I rarely feel in games any more, one of them being genuine fear when I approached that area on my next playthrough (if I made it that far). I would reach the point where I'd died and skirt around it; try and observe it from a distance; spend time looking for any obvious triggers, or other ways round, or creatures that could trigger the trap for me; if that failed I'd try and remember how far it extended, and work out whether it was one I could sprint through, of if it was one you were meant to trigger then step back as the rock crushed down. Finally I would put my new, cautious plan into action; if it worked I would always follow that pattern in future, but also always feel fear (later weakened to trepidation, but I still felt something) whenever I reached that area. I didn't need blood smears to warn me that it was a place of pain and regret.

I hated this centaur level

Nowadays you just reset at the previous checkpoint, or quickload, and carry on. More efficient use of time, but it loses in other areas, such as challenge, and emotion, and real-time continuity (if I felt tired it was an extension of my character's weariness), and immersion.

Eventually I got to the point where I could reach the final level most times. Usually I died quickly there. Each time I restarted I would use the next character - fighter, cleric, mage - to keep variety. I became ultra-efficient at moving and killing and knowing when to use special items. It could have been so perfect.

But the game occasionally self-destructed. Twice I got to the final level and was doing well, then the game crashed and I had to reboot and start again. Now that did make me angry. My computer wasn't playing by "the rules".

I was determined not to be beaten.

Then one bright spring day I got to the final level. Took deep breaths. Played it as cautiously as I could, whilst still getting caught up in health-sapping panic fights. But I kept going, and ... won. Despite all the odds, I had achieved this ridiculous challenge.

Then I uninstalled the game and never played it again.

It was a perfect moment, a perfect gaming memory, a real epic challenge that stayed in my mind like the greatest stories of victory. It could never be sullied or taken from me, or weakened by later disastrous playthroughs. The demon was dead, forever.

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2 comments:

  1. so intense, though I did similar with Hexen II

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  2. I only ever had the demo of Hexen 2, but played it again and again. I loved the differences in the three characters, and the feeling that you really were breaching a castle (the water squid terrified me). I also liked the more one-on-one feel, though I think I missed the massed battles you got in Hexen.

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