I've been playing a lot of Torchlight 2 recently, which always has its dangers. For one thing, these ARPGs are so moreish that you can sort of chug through them forever while the rest of the world withers around you. But there's another danger, too. If I play any ARPG for too long in one go I start to think purely in terms of the trade-offs. It's sort of RPG thermodynamics, I guess. I cease to see health potions as little bottles of liquid that will help me out on my heroic journey. I start to think of them as a way of trading money and time for experience.
So I stock up and go, well, this will see me through a few floors, which means a level and a half if I kill absolutely everything. That's 2000 gold in potions, 10 minutes of grind, for two levels.
The game sort of falls apart at this stage. Worse still, this thermodynamic thinking, this heat-exchange approach to games, can transfer from ARPGs. The morning fossil walk in Animal Crossing becomes five minutes of wandering for 15k or so, because inevitably Blathers will have everything by now. I might start to ponder the value of helping Gulliver or Wisp. This way leads to misery.
Except it doesn't, of course. I say "The game sort of falls apart at this stage", but that's never actually happened with Torchlight 2. Torchlight 2, like a lot of ARPGs, has a secret weapon. The writing.
Not all the writing. I admit I rarely read the quest stuff, so I never really know why I'm going where I'm going, who I'm helping, and who the great threat is that casts a shadow over the land that I haven't really bothered to read about in the first place. Nope. The best writing in ARPGs is reserved - and rightly, I think - for the parades of creatures that you hit with your sword or mace or magic missiles from one moment to the next.
These names are brilliant. Just going through the images I've captured on my Switch, what have we got? Thiss (a dragon), Varkolyn Hunter, Tutara Hunter, Aruk's Retainer (an elite), Deadreaper - Deadreaper! Dune Burrower! Mana Spectre! Lost Crewman! Skeletal Marksman! Oathhammer! Bleak Spirit! Stormclaw!
Beautiful stuff. So evocative! Bleak Spirit! Lost Crewman! Suddenly we're off with the Bronte sisters, with Stevenson, with Lord Dunsany and all that lot. Names are where these games become expansive and romantic, where they become properly transporting. The right creature name can land you on the moors, can thrust you into the creepy curlicued woods of Sleepy Hollow, can take you to the Arabia of the 1001 nights.
I'm probably thinking of this more than unusual because I'm playing on the Switch and my eyes aren't brilliant. In terms of what I'm actually doing in Torchlight 2 at the moment, I'm basically using fireworks to attack a bunch of rim-lighting.
Or I would be if not for the names! I need to remember this stuff because it reminds me of the width and depth of writing, about all the forms that it takes, and all the skills that it requires, and all the jobs that it can do. I wonder if there was a room somewhere where a bunch of people and a coffee machine came up with the names for all the creatures in Torchlight 2. And I wonder if there's a room where people are doing the same for Torchlight 3. Time and coffee equals bestiary. That's an exchange I can get behind.