Originals

10/04/2012

Dissonant Reviews: Torchlight II

Unpacking Torchlight II's critical reception, the Occupy Wall Street movement, and incessant rewards.

By: Drew Dixon

Filed Under: Action Adventure Editorial Review

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On September 17th, 2011, thousands flocked to Zuccotti Park in New York City’s Wall Street financial district to protest the growing income inequality between the wealthiest 1% of Americans and the rest of the country. While the jury is still out on the success of the Occupy movement, the demonstration certainly revealed much about our culture. Zuccotti Park was not occupied by merely lazy and entitled young people looking for handouts. There were Ivy League graduates, people with Master’s and doctoral degrees. There were doctors, lawyers, and engineers, each of whom felt that America had failed them—their education and hard work had not provided the security and personal freedom it promised.

If we learned anything from the Occupy Wall Street, we learned that many people in our country feel betrayed by the American dream.

Perhaps that is a prime reason for why we love video games, because our efforts are almost always rewarded.

I have never played a game that rewards players more handsomely than Torchlight II. When I accept quests from villagers, I get a preview of my rewards for completing them—money, experience points, and my choice of one of three items. When I go out questing, monsters bleed gold and spew enchanted armor and swords. And when I run out room in my backpack, I can send my pet dog to town to sell them. Two minutes later, no matter where I venture, my pet returns having fetched a fair sum for my loot. I can even ask my pet to pick up some much needed potions for me while in town.

The items I keep can be enchanted to be made better. If I don’t like the results, I can reverse the process. I can add enchanted gems to items and even combine gems to make stronger ones.

My “hard work” in the game’s many dungeons always pays off. Torchlight II is the American Dream realized.

In Torchlight II, I am the 1%.

Torchlight II’s loot system has been received very well by game critics and yet as I read reviews of the game, I kept coming across little complaints:

Mike Schramm of Joystick said:

Finding a great piece of gear that you are not specced for can be a problem …

Jonathan Ross of Destructoid said:

Whereas Diablo III was criticized for the scarcity of powerful items and upgrades, Torchlight II almost suffers from the opposite issue, with uniques dropping at a pace of roughly one every half hour or so . . . I will admit to being a bit annoyed after getting three of the exact same unique helmets in the span of thirty minutes. I’ve yet to find a legendary though.

Suzie Ford of MMORPG said:

. . .  my only complaint about Torchlight II is that there is almost too much to think about when it comes to equipping loot found. Items drop so plentifully that there is a major time sink to go through each piece looking for tiny improvements to damage, armor, or class.

These are small complaints and they illustrate just how well balanced Torchlight II is. However, they also illustrate a pernicious aspect of our relationship to virtual economies: no matter how carefully they are catered to our needs, we will never be satisfied.

Consider the following economic moves that can be made in Zeryphesh:

I can sell one health potion or one hundred, it doesn’t matter, I will get the same price for each one I sell. I can sell any item I find in the game to any vendor. Each vendor will offer me the exact same price. No one tries to low ball me in Zeryphesh, even my dog gets fair treatment. If I want to, I can sell every single piece of loot I find to the same vendor and she or he will always pay me full price. If my character’s level is too low to equip an item, I can stash it for later use or sell it to any vendor. And apparently vendors honor a no question return policy. I sell things back to vendors for the same price I bought them. And if I accidentally sell something, I can just buy it back for the same price.

Literally everything and nearly everyone in Torchlight is useful. No one is trying to make a living in Zeryphesh—they exist to make me happy.

I realize the economy of Torchlight is fantastic. I also recognize that video games rarely present us with anything resembling a realistic economy. The economy of Zeryphesh is how buying and selling would work in a world that revolved around me. It’s a constant dopamine drip–an economy that almost always rewards players and rarely, if ever, punishes them.

This isn’t to say that Torchlight 2 is a bad game, I think it’s a wonderfully addictive and entertaining game. What I hoped to see in the critical reception of the game was not less praise but more self-awareness. It is, after all a game about getting stuff, lots and lots of stuff.

When game critics go to its magical me-centered marketplace and complain about its restraints, I have to wonder if that says something about the world that we live in. At the very least it provides an interesting contrast to something like Occupy Wall Street. The protestors were fueled, in part, by frustration with an economy that shut them out. The economy in Torchlight II gives us everything we want and then some and we still aren’t satisfied. Perhaps we play games like Torchlight II because in it, the American Dream is a reality and we want so badly for it to be true.

Filed Under: Action Adventure Editorial Review

About the Author:
Drew Dixon is editor-in-chief of Game Church. He also edits for Christ and Pop Culture and writes about video games for Paste Magazine and Think Christian.