Games of 2009: Solium Infernum

Playing for keeps. And towers. And thrones.

It's about picking your fights.

In September I met my girlfriend's dad. Let's call him Kevin (because that's his name). When I told Kevin I was a games journalist he did that look, the one where the mouth opens, the face folds and a spoken "Oh" rides a motorcycle across this chasm that's sprung up between you. Kevin offered the only thing he could say on the subject, which was that some of these "violent games" he'd read about "were getting a bit out of line", then offered the name of one of the offending titles - Modern Warcraft 2.

It was a bit like coming over for dinner and being offered the lone, hardened turd to be found in an otherwise bare cupboard. (Although in Kevin's defence, I'm not sure there's a gamer alive today who wouldn't slap down 40 immediately to play Modern Warcraft 2. Blizzard should probably hire him as a project manager.)

Stumbling across rich caches of ignorance like this is traditionally the games journalist's time to shine, and it's true that at that moment I could have said anything to try and polish this image of games in Kevin's mind. The thing is, I didn't. I just agreed with him while peering into my drink. Yep, games are morally corrupt. I apologise on behalf of games and us greasy individuals who play them. Is there any more wine?

It wasn't about cowardice, even though Kevin looked big enough to treat my head like so much pizza dough. This was about how the more you love something, the more you hate it. Everything I'd played for five months prior to this September had seemed frustratingly derivative, games so desperate to recoup the terrifying investment of cash they represented that mingled in with the sound effects you could almost hear the producers dry-heaving in the company toilets.

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This September, I was tired. And you know what? Arguing that games are a fascinating, brilliant medium is exhausting when the games industry itself doesn't seem to be on your side. Sometimes you run out of juice, and the fight's not worth it any more. Sometimes the time comes to unclench your fists, close your eyes and admit that yes, games suck. Yes, they are toys for children. Yes, they're too violent. Yes, if we're talking ways to efficiently waste both time and money they're up there with foxhunting and divorce.

But sometimes a game comes along that gets you perspective. Solium Infernum, then, is the beautiful game that's letting me spend my Christmas break looking forward to everything we've got coming in 2010. And it's a game about picking your fights.

In case it slipped past you [cough - Ed], Solium Infernum is a play-by-email indie strategy game set in Hell, which came out this November. Between two and six players each control a powerful Archfiend, and the lot of you are squabbling over who's going to be voted the next Prince of Darkness. You win the game either by having the best reputation (the most Prestige points) at the end of the game, or by claiming the throne by force (marching an army over to the impossibly well-protected city of Pandemonium, capturing it and then holding it for five turns).

In a year where almost everything felt predictable, Solium Infernum kicked my knees out from under me. It's not just that it's unlike anything I've ever played, it's that in a year where every other game had me wishing I could skip their 60-second tutorials, this game took my past experience with strategy games and threw it, like a pro basketball player, into a bin eighty feet away.

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