A Lament for Spiral Knights

Fourteen years into my filthy, unglamorous, jaded career in the game industry, there are still days when I can’t handle news of layoffs.  I remember good friends I spent months, sometimes years, bunkered and crunching with and imagine them walking through their apartments turning off all the lights, one by one, telling their spouses the news, not being able to buy whatever they damn well want at the supermarket, and I want to crawl into my Slanket with a cup of coffee, draw the blinds, close my eyes and shut out the Internet.  (I never call.  I assume someone else will, someone who’s kept in touch more diligently.  I hope that’s true.)

I’ve been there– who hasn’t, at this point?  My day in the layoff rain consisted of wandering into the FasTrak office in Irvine, dazed, to get a refund for my transmitter, trying generic soup and cancelling four video game pre-orders.  I turned off all the lights, too.  The phone never rang.

The news that Three Rings Design had been shuttered by SEGA two weeks ago hit me in the same spot; I don’t know anyone on the team, but they seem like really cool people and they’re in San Francisco, and getting laid off in the most expensive city on the planet can’t be fun.  Three Rings was established in 2001, which makes this particular instance of a AAA studio acquiring and shutting a smaller one down feel especially abhorrent.

Ready Room

Also, I’ll never know how the only online game I have ever loved ends.

In 2011, I was in the mood to play a game with other people but had resigned myself to Not Being An Online Gamer.  MMORPGs, despite my firsthand familiarity with their inner workings, were too much of a time sink; MOBAs were too mean, and I like a story that doesn’t feel tacked on.  I don’t like playing games I worked on.  Torchlight was about right, but I’d played it to death at that point.  I didn’t own a tablet and couldn’t find a single phone game that interested me.  What I craved was something in between– something for the PC that was fast and active, casual enough to pick up, take a juicy bite and put down, but more like a video game than a lifestyle.  Something gratifying, beautiful, charming, fun and not embarrassing.  Something I could have a lot of fun with in one hour a day.

A banner on Steam heralded the release of Three Rings’ Java-based free-to-play dungeon-stomper, Spiral Knights.  It didn’t sound like my cup of tea, but the visual style caught my eye (the aesthetics are pure, classic, adorable SEGA) and I liked the studio’s Puzzle Pirates many years prior, so I installed and launched it.  I didn’t expect to fall in love.  Does anyone?

In the game, you are not civilization’s last hope.  You are an ordinary Knight of the Spiral Order, part of an army from the planet Isora.  Years of war brought your people to the brink of extinction, and the surviving Knights set off in a spaceship called the Skylark in search of a power source to save their homeland.

Eventually the Skylark crashed into a strange “planet” called Cradle, a giant machine fueled by a mysterious, unknown type of energy.  You wake, dazed, beside your smoking escape pod.  From the game’s only town, Haven, you and your fellow knights can journey into the ever-changing Clockworks below in search of energy, answers and maybe, someday, a way home.

Bang Bang Into the Rooooom

Each floor (level) takes roughly 10-15 minutes to complete, and they switch out in real time– in arcade mode, it’s almost impossible to have the exact same adventure twice.  Progress comes in the form of equipment upgrades, as well as your army Rank.  It never feels like level grinding, because it isn’t.  Each type of weapon encourages a drastically different type of gameplay, and they all feel terrific. According to Steam, this game has been my guilty pleasure for 286 hours.  More than Witcher 3.  More than Skyrim.  I have the fantastic soundtrack by composer Harry Mack on my iPod.

The team has continually tweaked and redesigned to improve players’ experience of the game; rarely have they added a ton of new content at once (notable exception: the game’s only expansion, 2012’s excellent and deliciously difficult Operation Crimson Hammer mission), but they’ve kept it in unusually good shape.  Holiday events are done right, with fun items and changes in the game world. The only microtransaction I’ve ever made in my life: a 30-day elevator pass, prior to resource improvements that made elevator tolls unnecessary.

As you work your way up through the Ranks, you get closer to Cradle’s Core, the planet’s central engine. Eventually you get to enter the Core (by way of a fallen, displaced, ancient fortress) and discover that evil black pixels called The Swarm are leeching energy from it.

We’ll need to pass this on to Spiral HQ immediately. I’ll round everyone up and send you a mission to accept when you’re ready.

– Intel Agent Kora, via comlink upon finishing
Rank 10-2 mission Delved Too Deep

That, at present, is the last line of Spiral Knights.

My comlink will never send me on that mission.
I’ll never get to help the other Knights exterminate the Swarm.
We’ll never know if those poor little Knights made it home; they’ll probably be stuck on that strange planet forever.

To whoever made this decision: may your sleeves and socks be slightly damp until the end of your days.  May your every pizza be soggy.  May every Uber you ever take be REALLY into whatever genre of music you absolutely can’t stand.  May the bagel shop be out of your favorite bagel. Every. Single. Time.