The torturous tragedy of Solium Infernum

, | Game reviews

You can tell a diver whose mask doesn’t fit by the ring pressed into his face after a dive.  The angry red crease along the shallow skin of the forehead, then down around the outer edges of his eyes, into a furrow through the soft flesh of the cheek, and finally cupping the nose to bisect the philtrum.  If it’s a guy, and he shaved that morning, and you’re all on a salt water dive, he’s really feeling it.  He’s feeling the burn on his upper lip even when the mask is off, and especially when it’s back on. That maddening chafe, and more maddening still that the water kept getting in, up his nose, into his eyes, no matter how tightly he pulled the band at the back of his head.

Nine tenths of diving well is being comfortable while you’re down there.  Every moment you spend fussing with your gear is a moment stolen from your limited time in another world.  Probably the biggest difference between an experienced diver and a new diver is that an experienced diver doesn’t think about his gear, because he doesn’t have to.  An experienced diver has freed 100% of his time, energy, and attention to appreciate that he is descending into an extraordinary place.

Playing Solium Infernum is like diving with a mask that doesn’t fit.  I’m tugging the band at the back of my head, even though I know that’s not what keeps water out of the mask.  A good mask will seal against my face when I inhale gently through my nose.  A good mask will want to fit, with just the encouragement of a gentle pull from within.  It will do its job without being forcibly jammed back by a strap that’s now digging into the back of my skull while the rubber rim of the mask chafes against where I shaved this morning, and oh that goddamnable salt water, which is now getting in my eyes.

The creator of the extraordinary place into which I’ve descended — I’m talking now about Solium Infernum and not the ocean — is Vic Davis, accompanied by an insidious cackling little Salacious Crumb of game design called Adobe Director.  Director was the foundation for those multimedia boondoggles crammed onto innumerable CD-ROMs in the 90s.  That’s why playing Davis’ games feels dated.  Sure, the game design is in there.  Boy, is it in there.  But Adobe Director is its gatekeeper.  Imagine going back to Encarta in a post-Wikipedia world.  That’s how it feels when you play Vic Davis’ games, all four of which are good and all four of which are behind Adobe Director.

Solium Infernum is easily Davis’ most ambitious game.  It’s the Vic Davis design with the most interlocking systems, the most need for balance and tuning, and therefore the least amenable to playing against AI players.  Which is why it’s also Davis’ only game that supports multiplayer.  In fact, I’d argue it demands multiplayer, because it relies on interaction, deception, and negotiation, none of which are present in AI opponents.  It’s a game about playing other people, in both senses of the word.  

Consider perks called King Maker and Power Behind the Throne.  King Maker recalls the Bene Gesserit in Avalon Hill’s Dune, a 1979 boardgame about playing other people.  This faction of psychic ladies starts every game by picking another player and sealing their name inside an envelope.  At the end of the game, if the named player wins, the Bene Gesserit player wins instead.  King Maker in Solium Infernum does the same thing, except that perks are secret.  No one knows if there’s a King Maker at the table.  Unless a player’s demon has the intellect and therefore access to prophecy to perform the ritual to see other players’ perks.  

This is game design based on psychology as much as rules.  It’s an element of Solium Infernum wasted against the calculations of a dumb, mute, deterministic, uninterested AI.  The Behind the Throne perk works similarly.  A player with Behind the Throne wins by making himself vassal to the player who would have otherwise won.  In a game of Solium Infernum against actual people, is that player willing to be your vassal because he’s hoping to come in second place, or is he hoping to be your vassal so he can usurp your win?  These are only questions worth asking when there are actual psychologies at work.  

Like Dominions, another indie strategy game from the same pre-indie period as Vic Davis’ titles, a lot of the game is decided before the first turn.  In Dominions, you choose a faction and build a god.  Then you play a wonderfully crunchy stat-based wargame.  But in Solium Infernum, you build a demon.  Then you fight, negotiate, and deceive.  In both games, the pre-game building is fundamental to how the game actually plays.  In both games, the game starts well before the game starts.

A Solium Infernum character might include perks, but you mostly spend points on attributes: martial prowess, cunning, intellect, wickedness, and charisma (charisma is the opposite of a dump stat here, because it’s the basis for your economy!).  You’ll also raise these attributes as you play.  Sure, you’ll hire armies, buy magic items, pay for rituals, and craft combat cards.  But you’ll also buy higher attributes, because these determine where you stand on this grid of powers:

Each column is one of the attributes, and each point in an attribute moves you one square up the grid.  Which squares you’ve unlocked determines what you can do, how well your units fight, which tricks you can use against other players, how much information you can see, how many resources you earn, that sort of thing.  Here is where many of Solium Infernum’s rules live.  

This screen was especially striking when I revisited Solium Infernum because it reminds me of something a game would do years later.  When the boardgame Terra Mystica was iterated into a science fiction version called Gaia Project in 2017, a lot of the gameplay systems were shifted onto a tech tree.  Who could do what, and how much of it they could do, and how far they could do it are a simple matter of where they are on the tech tree.  And that tech tree looms over the playing area because it’s important enough to belong there:

If you haven’t played Gaia Project — maybe even if you have — it might look like icon soup.  But as with many Euros, when you learn the icons, you’ll almost magically Matrix-see the gameplay.  That’s how the Gaia Project tech tree works.  The position of each player’s colored cubes gives you an overview of the state of the galaxy.  You can see who’s got a strong economy, who’s going heavy on research, who has better space travel, and who can most easily terraform planets.  It’s not the whole picture, of course, but it’s a lot of it.  For the rest of the picture, just shift your gaze around the table.  It’s all there in front of you.  That’s how boardgames work.

But in Solium Infernum, the grid is at the far end of a list of windows, then two clicks down, and it only shows your character.  The scope of your view is limited to stubbornly fixed windows that refuse to cooperate with other windows.  There will be no shifting your gaze around the table, because Adobe Director doesn’t believe in the concept of a table.  Just as Encarta wouldn’t lay open every volume of an encyclopedia, Adobe Director has no interest in overviews.  It’s about drilling down to specific places.  It is only ever whatever single small window you clicked forth at any given moment.

This is a constant in Solium Infernum.  So rich in detail, so full of interlocking systems and interdependent numbers.  But the relationships among them are a casualty of the interface.  Pieces of important information are scattered far and wide, often a few screens removed from where they relate to each other, often chopped and diced and relegated to stingy plots of too-small screen real estate.

Even when you run Solium Infernum fullscreen, Adobe Director squeezes it into a fixed resolution suspended in an expanse of wasted grey across the rest of your monitor.  It doesn’t let you move open windows.  It doesn’t allow multiple windows opened at once.  It doesn’t do tooltips.  You can’t scroll with a mousewheel.  Rightclicks almost never do what rightclicks should do.  An open window locks you out of the rest of the game.  Down in this interface hellscape, the buttons are tiny, but at least some of them are bright.  The text and numbers are also tiny, and sometimes tangled in ornamentation. You can only ever see too little of the map, which wraps around itself north, south, east, and west, so it’s not clear which too little of the map you’re seeing.  All of a player’s pieces on the board use the same art, so it takes mousework to tell a lowly throwaway brawler from a mighty demon commanded by an infernal lieutenant weilding a powerful artifact.  

In Solium Infernum, demons have wallets and hell has currency.  You accumulate resources in denominations, and when you pay for something, you open your demon wallet and consider your slips of currency.  You only have so many slots to plug in your payment.  If you’ve accumulated a bunch of 1s of ichor, and you need to pay 15 ichor, you can’t because there are only eight slots to put your money.  You’re going to have to spend an action consolidating your ichor bills.  Similarly, if you have to pay 1 ichor, and you’ve only got 3s in your pocket, you don’t get change.  You just wasted 2 ichor.

As a game design choice, this works.  It’s a smart idea.  Just as you have to manage armies and leaders and spells and magic items, of course you have to manage wealth.  But Adobe Director piles on a turn too many and more than a few clicks too many, and some awkward dragging, to boot.  It’s interface tax for what you really want to do.  You’re going to raise your cunning by a point to unlock the Lies and Rumors ritual, or buy a Horn of Doom for your Infernal Engineers, or install the Necronomicon in the Temple of Pain.  But first, wait, you have to compare the cost to what’s in your pocket, and then you have to determine whether you’re going to have to cash in your ichor bills before you can spend them at the bazaar.  It’s torturous.  It might even be Kafkaesque.  What kind of wealthy hellprince has to scrape through pocket change like some schmoe standing in line at the 7-11 to get quarters for the dryer in the laundromat next door?  Oh, wait, I finally have the ichor, but I need 4 darkness for the Horn of Doom and I’ve only got 3 darkness.  On a tabletop, this would be game design, played by shifting your gaze around the table.  In Adobe Director, it’s salt water in your eyes.

Another element of diving is that once you’re out of the water, each successive dive takes more commitment.  Getting out of the cold water onto the warm boat is a wonderful feeling.  Stripping out of the wetsuit and feeling the sun on your skin is heaven.  The prospect of sliding back into the cling of cold wet neoprene, and then slipping into the even colder and wetter water, can be daunting.  So it is with Solium Infernum.  I’ve closed the game on my desktop for now.  You can’t minimize an Adobe Director window.  It’s either open or closed.  I can drag other windows in front of it, but it’s always there in the background, petulantly yawning at me as soon as I quit out of my browser or shut down Steam or minimize my media player.  “Yaaaaawn,” it gapes dumbly.  “Are you coming back in?”

There’s so much to like in Solium Infernum.  So much to admire.  So much to savor and appreciate.  But I can’t.  I just can’t.  I can’t make it more than a few turns without coming up for air and shaking feeling back into my numb hands.  Will I take another deep breath to get a glimpse of that intricately assembled clockwork diorama of infernal war, magic, and statecraft?  How long will I endure the chafe against my face to see the tiny text, to click through windows, to sift the bits and pieces and disparate panels, to lean in to see the artwork, to wait for the AI turns to process — why are they taking so long? — to stand in line to trade in five 1 ichors for a 5 ichor?

Because Solium Infernum is Vic Davis’ most ambitious and imaginative game, it’s also his game most hurt by the limitations of Adobe Director.  And because it demands multiplayer, you’ll have to talk your friends into playing asynchronously, which means further chopping it into tiny slices of time, just as the windows chop it into tiny panels of information.  It’s a lot to ask.

Davis’ other games are less mangled by Adobe Director.  They’re all designs before their time.  Armageddon Empires came out in 2007.  Imagine if it were released now, given the popularity of indie deck-builders.  Imagine if Occult Chronicles were fitted into a rogue-like metagame.  Imagine if Six Gun Saga had some sort of persistent collecting like Hand of Fate.  Imagine if these games had been available through established digital distribution on different platforms. Imagine if Vic Davis had waited ten years.

Davis has since abandoned Adobe Director as a conduit for his imagination.  He’s taken up a word processor that doesn’t impose itself on what he’s doing.  Send Us Your Armies is the first in a series of science fiction novels called Pilgrim’s Path, self-published here.  And he still posts on his site’s blog, where you can also buy his games and test your tolerance for Adobe Director.  I recommend Armageddon Empires as the easiest to appreciate and the one that applies the least Adobe Director pressure to your face.

(Why am I reviewing a game from 2007? Because sometimes old games win the Patreon Review Request drawing! If you’d like a chance to assign me a review, check out my Patreon campaign here.)

  • Solium Infernum

  • Rating:

  • PC
  • Vic Davis' most ambitious game also happens to be my least favorite, and I blame Adobe Inc.