Caves of Qud

You arrive at the oasis-hamlet of Joppa, along the far rim of Moghra’yi, the Great Salt Desert. All around you, moisture farmers tend to groves of viridian watervine. There are huts wrought from rock salt and brinestalk. On the horizon, Qud’s jungles strangle chrome steeples and rusted archways to the earth. Further and beyond, the fabled Spindle rises above the fray and pierces the cloud-ribboned sky.

If you ever choose to play Caves of Qud, you ought to get used to reading the quote above. It starts the story of many a character that will die in a multitude of ways: whether it be being sawed into pieces by an ancient saw bot in a mushroom cave, eaten alive by a chitinous puma, consumed by a gelatinous wedge that surrounds your body and rapidly digests you..the amount of ways you could (and will) die in the rogue-like is enormous, but it never stops you from loading the game back up and starting again, precisely because of the game’s fascinating world and story telling power.

To briefly summarize Caves of Qud – it’s a top-down traditional roguelike set in the far, far future where humans are no longer the only rational beings. Sentient plants, goat people, dog people, bird people, hypnotized goats, angry boar tribes; angry robots all exist in Qud, and are either your best friend based on your faction rep, or your worst enemy. It’s a rich and very bizarre game where you choose how you want to play it and create your own stories through exploring randomly generated locations, including randomly generated societies and villages, too (though there are hand crafted ones in there).

I’ve encountered villages full of sentient bird people who sold me extremely powerful high tech weaponry. A sentient plant in the middle of the jungle who gave me information on locations and sold advanced armour. I’ve been chased by my evil twin through a cave filled with temporally gifted spiders. I’ve also broken a sword on examining it, because I didn’t know what it does. It’s a game full of unique and bizarre stories – but very enjoyable all the way through.

Procedural Storytelling

What makes Caves of Qud such a remarkable and interesting game to play is the fact that much of its lore and story telling is randomly generated. There is an overarching foundation that this story telling runs on – in that (from my understanding) you are a human on Earth that is millions or billions of years in the future, and currency used for trading is fresh water. There are ancient ruins spanning thousands of years scattered across the world, ranging from primitive tribes to ultra-advanced high tech societies with sentient robots and talking birds.

It’s…bizarre, and unlike any other kind of world I’ve immersed myself in. In fact it is difficult to write about the experiences I’ve had in Qud because of their other worldliness. The foundations aside, lore notes that you pick up with a fresh character in Qud will be completely different each playthrough, alongside almost all the names of people you encounter, random cities in the jungles, ruins, engraved items telling stories about locations and sultans of old, etc. It is unique every time you play, and it builds a world where you piece events and history together to get some idea of what happened, why things are the way they are, and the cultures that exist in it.

The lore can be shared via a water drinking ritual with NPC’s around the world too, both to build reputation with them and their factions, and get information or even learn skills from them with those reputation points. The info they have could lead you to new areas in the world, so you can continue exploring old ruins that are filled with unknown dangers. I think it’s really awesome that you can even do that, too. Inspecting a sword that provides a quest for an ancient artifact as well as a location for it – I can’t think of any game off the top of my head that has that kind of detail.

And that’s not even scratching the surface of Caves of Qud. If you decide to build a character that is something of a scholar or cave diver, you can do what I’ve described – or you can be a plunderer that cares not for the history of the ruins but rather the treasures that lay in wait – or you can roleplay a fugitive paradox tinkerer that is being chased by a different version of you from another dimension.

It is utter insanity and all of it, somehow, fits into the world, with each character you make being a completely different story. It’s a shining example of emergent gameplay and story telling, where actions and roles you choose to take impact the experiences and make them deeply personal – and adding on top of that is a procedurally generated layer of lore, which is ultra immersive. I’ve told some intense and frankly unbelievable stories to friends about my playthroughs in Qud, and it is the main selling point behind the game.

Rogue like Brutality and Character Building

While the selling point is its story telling, some people may not enjoy the gameplay or its visual aesthetic. Qud is a roguelike in the classical sense, where each step you take is a turn taken in the game, and it’s a top down view with ASCII style aesthetics that decade old PC’s can run. It’s not much to look at (though I really quite like it), but beyond its appearance lies an extraordinarily deep and interesting gameplay system with complex character building mechanics.

Characters can be built as either mutant humans or “True Kin”. Mutated humans are exactly that – humans whose genomes have destabilized and evolved them in some way, which gives them access to an enormous amount of different mutations. True Kin on the other hand are “pure” humans who lack any mutations, which gives them a different kind of lore setting, higher starting attributes, cybernetic implants and a few other goodies.

True Kin is actually the best way to go when you are beginning the game, as it’s a lot more straightforward in its character building and plays more like a traditional roguelike. Once you put points in attributes, you select a cybernetic implant you want and a starting “caste”, which is something like a faction that comes with particular loadouts. You can think of it as a class system. Implants include things like night vision, stabilizer implants in your arms for accuracy, bioscanners to help identify creatures better, etc. There’s a metric tonne of different implants you can get and which I can barely remember, and they can be put in pretty much any body part. To add to body parts, you can also get them hacked or sawed off, and regrow them… As I mentioned previously, it’s difficult writing about Qud because there’s so much going on in it.

Over the course of the game, True Kin also have the ability to install more implants through exploration and scouring ruins. You can also argue with murderous robots by rebuking their arguments, thus befriending them. True Kin are quite different to mutated humans and even come with their own reputations that are vastly different, which can change around who you can converse and deal with. I haven’t really played much True Kin though, as I really enjoy being a mutated human, which I think is where the real meat of the gameplay and character creation lies.

Mutated humans don’t have cybernetic implants and don’t start with high stats like the True Kin do, but they make up for it with utterly insane variety and a snowball effect if they survive long enough. Do you want to play as a literal spider man who can spit webs out, has multiple arms and legs and has a birds beak? You can do that, as all of those things are mutation choices when building your character. You can also be a furry human (which makes you friendly with apes) that bends light and turns it into a laser beam, while simultaneously having a mutation defect that causes you to spontaneously combust for no reason. You can spit slime, cause enemy brains to literally explode from your own psychic mind powers, rapidly vibrate to summon alternate dimension clones of yourself to help in a fight, have hands that are on fire, have hooks for feet, be an albino bird man with wings…and that’s not even half of the character choices you can make.

Mutations can be both extremely positive and extremely negative, and throughout the course of the game as you level, you can spend points to further destabilize your genome and get a new mutation. You’re presented with three random mutations that you can pick from when you do this, so sometimes through the dice roll you get absolutely killer mutations, while other times you get duds that cause some major problems.

But the ultimate outcome is a lot of fun and a very unique experience. Qud is somewhat difficult to get into at first, because the UI and visual style is quite different and its initial learning curve is quite steep (pro tip: don’t do the starting quests straight away, explore first – otherwise you die fast), but its complex systems and storytelling dynamics allow for a very immersive and personal experience with wildly different results for everyone playing.

Immersion with Imagination

Caves of Qud – and many other roguelikes that I enjoy – is a great example of a game that doesn’t rely on high end production values and modern graphics to immerse the player into their game. This is a game that will run on very old systems and can be taken with you on a cheap laptop. It is really not much to look at if you look at it superficially.

But what it does well is it makes up for that with vivid writing and character building that puts you into a genuine role that you choose. It sucks you right into the world and you quickly forget what it looks like – you instead drift off into your own mind and visualize what your character looks like, what others sound like, what the jungles and salt desserts of Qud inhabit, what language goat people speak…etc.

This isn’t to dismiss what the developers have done with the game, mind you. Programming and game development is really difficult, and it is utterly amazing what they’ve done with gameplay and emergence in this title. I don’t think people give enough credit to developers for how hard their work is to do well, so I have massive praise for their achievement here.

Likewise, that praise goes to the artists behind the high-tier, high fidelity graphical showcases out there, too. It’s a tonne of work. But what Qud does over a good bunch of those games is it sucks you into its world through story telling and gameplay, not through how real it looks – and that is a remarkable achievement.

Go check it out.

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