Caves of Qud is Crazy

Boy howdy do we have a strange one this week.  I was turned on to Caves of Qud recently by listening to this episode of Waypoint’s semiweekly podcast.  The game, made by Freehold games (which as far as I can tell is just two guys with an additional 5 artists contributing art and music), is mentioned only briefly, but the few words spoken on it were utterly captivating.  I can’t place the sentences exactly, but I do remember Austin Walker, host of the show, mentioning a conversation with an albino gorilla and a few other odd-sounding situation.  At the same time, I believe he mentioned that the reason he’d yet to even play it was that the game required a significant amount of preparation, research, and trial and error to understand, but that should you put in the work, you would be rewarded with an incredibly rich experience.  As the narrative design conversations I find myself in revolve more and more around emergent storytelling, I was more than curious.

Instead of buying the game outright I instead did what Austin suggested and began doing a bit of homework.  I quickly found the game’s forums on the developer’s site and found that not only were they still quite active but that they went all the way back to 2010.  I should probably mention here that the game is currently in Early Access on Steam, meaning that while playable and full of content, Caves of Qud is as of early November 2017 unfinished.  After skimming through some of the discussions on the forums, from 2010 to now, it’s clear that Early Access has been a crucial part of the game’s development.  To clarify,  Caves of Cud is a surreal rogue like reminiscent of the ASCII game the genre gets its name from.  Obviously we have with this game many modern affordances, but the obtuse and mysterious design of the game is clearly a big part if what makes it interesting.  Designing with those qualities as goals, however, must be a huge challenge, especially when they relate not only to the systems of the game but to its narrative elements as well.  Early access then makes sense for this type of experience as consistent feedback from a wide audience of dedicated players allows the game to be constantly refined.  This, at least, is my understanding from the comments others have made about developing in early access, I’d be curious to hear what Freehold games has to say about it.

The message boards and screenshots and trailers for the game all work to create a certain amount of fascination and wonder, I mean look at this excerpt from a thread on getting stuck in the early mid-game:

I'm a novice Qud player and love the lore and atmosphere of the game. I finally got over the hump of being able to keep early game characters alive and can fairly reliably get to talking to the Barathrumites and getting to the village of Kyakukya. That's where I hit a bit of a bump, right around level 12 or so. 

At this point I can crush everything in the plains/hills/canyon areas, but the jungles are still a huge risk, much less trying to do the goatfolk village quest.

It seems like at this point a lot of grinding is involved. I can wander around and try and find ruins and lairs, but there's a lot of wandering around without a clear short term goal to work towards.

I can get great equipment, but then sooner or later I accidentally get hit by some spores and have glowcrust in my primary hand or something and I'm fucked. I have NEVER successfully found the whole cure for a fungal infection before I get at least one other and it cripples me enough to make playing very difficult. Why are fungal infections SO easy to get and hard to cure?!?!!? 

Any cool mid-early game stuff to do? Should be be quicker to do the post-grit-gate quest? I'm intimidated by dropping down those metal chutes. Do magnetic boots help for that?

C'mon pros... hook me up.

To which a veteran player replies:

Sounds more like you're an intermediate than a novice  You're describing the beginning of the middle game. It's a tough spot. Don't despair, because it won't take you long before you feel more secure traversing the jungles, clearing Golgotha and drinking the blood of that pesky goatfolk prophet down the river.

Your main goal at this point, is to do Golgatha, but that is going to kill several characters before you are comfortable with it, so buckle in. It's the only way to learn how to handle the middle to late game. You have to go down those chutes! If you have some trickeries up your sleeve (like Domination to do scouting), the fire chutes are probably the easiest to get through. Pay attention to the vents, which change their color right before exhaling the nasty stuff. A blaze injector is not a bad thing to use here. Going down the chutes, play defensive: use sprinting, force fields, grenades, whatever you got. After some runthroughs, you won't find it so intimidating. As an exercise, try leaving the assembly line and exploring the cavernous parts of those levels. It may give you more confidence, a sense of what's going on. 

To get some more muscle/xp on your characters, try to clear the historic site-quest from the shrine in Joppa and visit the Six Day Stilt (delivering all books you found at the historic site to the librarian). This should make you (theoretically) more than capable of handling Golgotha, and afterwards the Raising Indrix Quest. Until you feel confident taking out the evil goat shaman, it's better to save that quest until after Golgotha, I think (that may be debatable). Indrix provides a useful hint regarding that quest, which is not to engage the boss in melee. I often pick force field as a starting mutation, and this is a good place to use it. Trap that bastard and pepper him with all you've got. Good luck, and have fun dying 

As always,

It’s so deep.  The frustrations the player was running into seemed pretty legitimate at first, but this is clearly a part of the game others have to contend with, so the first player turns to help online.  They clearly understand that there is a community of players here, otherwise why bother writing such an in-depth description of their problem, not to mention the note at the bottom of their missive asking the “pros” to help them out.  And of course the pros come through.  The second player understands the situation well, and provides a number of solutions and tips.  During the process of reading this dialogue I became utterly enraptured, and I don’t even play the game.  What the hell is this “goatfolk village quest,” and what are these metal chutes they keep talking about?  Is the Six Day Stilt some kind of ritual? What even are you?  Curiosity burning, I had one option: convince my friend who actually plays games to buy it and tell me about it.

Convincing my friend didn’t actually require that much work.  All I did was tell him that it was a rogue-like with sentient plants and goat folk prophets and he was in.  A few days later sends me this: 

Got to level 10 in Caves Of Qud, subsequently befriended a giant murder rabbit who murdered everything until he himself was murdered by a pack of swamp assassin creatures and I was run through by a robot saw being … There was some pyrokinesis in there somewhere I'm sure.

Which is exactly what I wanted. Naturally the developers know that there are swamp assassins and murmurous rabbits (I mean hopefully at least), but would they also know that you would team up with it until it met its match in the swamp and that someone would control fire with their mind!? Well maybe. But maybe not!  And certainly few players will experience that situation exactly.  That’s emergent storytelling. And why I’m going to do us all a favor and stop writing to actually play this game.