Serotonin: Working together to beat that one level

September 26, 2014


My very first Serotonin was about how good games make failure fun. The concept was, through good design, it would encourage players to switch strategies and try again, rather than frustrate them to the point of quitting. I seem to have come full circle with this edition; the latest triumph my group had over Dungeon Defenders was an arduous, brutal journey of frustration, death and Game Overs. This went beyond a game making failure fun. This was an exercise in constant futility, humiliation and bewilderment. I would never have gotten through this one level had it not been for the excellent group dynamic of which I was lucky to be a part. Sometimes good game design isn’t enough.

Dungeon Defenders is one of the best multiplayer experiences I’ve ever had. To say it’s addicting wouldn’t begin to scratch the surface; it’s engrossing. The combination of strategies, character builds and player personalities open the possibilities beyond what most tower defense games can dream of. The concept of fighting alongside your carefully placed defenses works extremely well and forces you to prioritize your upgrades carefully. What kind of fighter do I want to be? Do I want my towers to decimate the oncoming hordes of goblins? Do I want to be a rogue slayer and go beyond the safety of the home base? You can try to be both, but a jack-of-all-trades is a master of none, and you will need to be beyond masterful to survive Dungeon Defenders’ later levels and difficulties.


My girlfriend, Kyla, and I had played through nearly the entire game before inviting a third party, David, to the fray. He was only in town for the summer and eagerly joined our ranks, despite initial reservations. He’d never played a tower defense game, but soon the chaos of multiplayer hilarity swept over him and he was as addicted as we were. It’s inevitable with a game like this. The constant feedback, the tongue-in-cheek humor, the pleasing cel-shaded graphics and the amount of content is impossibly endearing, all for $15.

Failing a level didn’t dampen our spirits. We always encouraged each other. Did this tower placement work? Was this fire trap effective? We kept losing barricades; how do we make them stronger? Dave, can you spend more points in leveling them up? Let’s pull back this choke point so we have an easier time repairing it. There’s a lot going on in each level, so it’s easy to find areas to improve. You keep all experience and loot you pick up, so the failures don’t amount to too much frustration.

After clearing the regular levels on medium difficulty, our hunger wasn’t satiated. We quickly purchased the DLC levels, starting with Mistymire Forest. It was a challenging, beautiful level, but after eight or nine attempts, we were able to defeat the Spider Queen boss and move on. Our camaraderie shoved aside any doubts. If one of us was feeling drained, the other two would pick them up mentally and persuade them to join us for (just!) one more round. Maybe two more rounds if it was a Friday or Saturday night. The amount of satisfaction gained far outweighed any reminders that we’d spent hours failing a particular level.


Ah, Moraggo, the Desert Town. The second in the long line of DLC options available to the Dungeon Defenders initiates. The map is huge, easily one of the biggest in the game. The sandy dunes in the background provide a unique backdrop to a game focused mostly on indoor, medieval locations. One could easily imagine busy Arabian markets, streets covered with dust and heat, and the rare source of water flowing through the town. Gorgeous.

Each new level brings a new challenge: Moraggo is home to Djinns, who have taken their place among my least favorite enemies ever. They show up on the map and, after a quick channeling attack, completely remove one of your defenses.

It doesn’t matter how upgraded the tower is, or how damaged it is. If a Djinn is left unchecked, he’ll swoop in from behind your defenses and take them all out, one by one.

All of a sudden, it didn’t really matter where we place our defenses. We weren’t good enough at killing Djinns. We couldn’t chase them quickly enough. We couldn’t kill them quickly enough. If we changed directions of our towers, the waves of enemies overwhelmed our front walls. We were losing at wave eight or nine of Moraggo’s 12.


Did we give up? Of course not. Levels were gained, tactics were quickly brought up, attempted and tossed aside all within a few hours. What works? What doesn’t? The group dynamic, unperturbed, was positively malleable. Each of us had a different perspective on events that transpired. We had to trust each other; the map was too large to stick together the entire time.

Frustration started to set in. Making it to the end of wave 12 took about an hour and 15 minutes each time. We started watching movies on the side while we built our defenses, seeking sources of distraction to the inevitable – we were probably going to fail this mission, and fail it hard.

Stages of optimism began to dwindle. Months (months!) of real time went by. Dave was only a few weeks away from leaving for his cruise ship gig. The team had a countdown, and we would not let this level beat us. We hit self-appointed benchmarks, but they didn’t seem to matter.

We hit max levels on our characters.

We decided to grind like crazy on previous levels to upgrade our gear.

We researched the best way to find matching sets of armor, giving massive stat bonuses.

We read potential solutions on the forums.

We tried to memorize every inch of the map.

We created additional characters, specifically designed to kill Djinns.


We got further each time, but it was becoming pathetic. How many times had we tried, and failed, this one mission? 30? 40? 50? Remember, each plunge into the desert depths takes well over an hour, and that doesn’t include the fallout of selling and upgrading gear post-level. Oh, we should probably have been cooking dinner at some point too.

There’s no chance that I could tackle this alone. The game doesn’t lend itself all that well to solo play anyway, but my mental persistence can take only so much. Text notifications of our defenses going down were a visual punch that something had gone terribly wrong, and often led to frantic screams and panicked movements.

Miraculously, we got to the boss. It’s one of my least favorite bosses ever, so at least the level is consistently annoying. The Genie King, a giant floating head, emerges. He hides in one of thirty one tiny magic lamps scattered across the level. To access him, we had to find him in one of the lamps, attack him and follow him to the next lamp. Rinse and repeat.

All the while, hundreds of enemies, including Djinns, were ravaging our defenses. “Should we team up as three and hunt the boss? Where did he go? I think he went this way.” Panic set in. We thought we had a good handle on the level, but there was just too much going on. To compound the difficulty, we were playing split-screen on the same TV – Dave and Kyla had very tiny portions of the screen to find the lamps, and we failed the first time. And the second. And the third.

Need I remind you each session takes more than an hour?


The level was creeping dangerously into territory that wouldn’t be labeled “fun.” Every trick we tried, every strategy we employed… disaster. There wasn’t a set order to the Genie switching lamps on the map, it was difficult to hear the chime indicating where he is, and Djinns shut down our defenses faster than we could build them.

The countdown was nearly over. Our trio would soon be a duo. The only desert Dave would be seeing afterward would be from the cruise ship he’s now working on. Would our final Dungeon Defenders memory be tarnished by a level that has taken over more than 40 hours of our lives? Was it even worth another attempt?

By myself, I very likely would have moved on. But the collective optimism (championed by Kyla) burst through and we attempted the fight one last time. We upgraded our last set of gear, we turned the music off so we could hear the chime, we perfected our placement of towers and we communicated like air traffic controllers. We were on full Djinn alert. We played with a combination of anger, fatigue and obsession.


The Genie King ran, but he couldn’t hide (for long). “Finally” isn’t appropriate. It felt like years since we’d first stepped foot in Moraggo, and here we were. Millions of experience points later, tens of thousands of enemies slaughtered, the persistence to emerge through countless defeats made the final result all the sweeter. Hugs and high fives accompanied a lot of happy expletives. We couldn’t believe it. Months of hard “work” later, and we were able to share this amazing victory together. Moraggo will live on in our memories for a very long time, a reminder of how our friendship and teamwork pushed us to new, greater heights. There’s nothing like it, and it’s another example of why couch co-op is hard to beat.

But you couldn’t pay us to play that one level ever again.