I’m mostly enjoying Arcanum–this is about the fifth or sixth time I’ve attempted it and I think it’s more or less sticking. I’m happy with Witzfilliam, my disenfranchised gnome who’s a heavy tanky melee fighter with light buffing skills, and if I can’t quite see the use of all of the spells, well, everyone tells me Arcanum is a delight for roleplayers.
I guess if I have to describe Arcanum, it’s Troika-y, which means that it’s got bugginess to it, an underbakedness to it, one which is married to a huge amount of potential, a rich skill system which lets you poke fairly deeply into the world, a series of sidequests and hidden content that leaves a lot of resolutions, a general sense of freedom for the player that Troika was never quite able to one hundred percent accomplish. The Temple of Elemental Evil is one I’ve never gotten more than a couple minutes in, and Vampire the Masquerade Bloodlines was an amazing game that had way too many unfinished levels. Bloodlines is famous for, among other things, the tension between The Sewer Level That Lasts Forever, which is about as enjoyable as it sounds, and for the Ocean House Hotel, which is one of the finest haunted houses in gaming and a legit masterpiece of scripted scares.
Arcanum is making it clear where Troika loses me–I tend to think the flaws outweigh the great bits and find their games to be more fascinating failures than successes–and is helping to clarify a lot of thoughts I’ve had on RPGs and length. RPGs–JRPGs in particular–have a very impressionistic sense to them. In other words, you’re on a continent with a town, a castle, a cave, and a tower. You’re in a village that consists of four houses and a half dozen people. Even when the land’s isolation is part of the plot–see Dragon Quest VII, which starts you off on that size island and tells you, explicitly, that “in this world, only this island is”–there’s the understanding that this isn’t a literal depiction of the world: It’s a standin. Even in the smallest village, those four houses represent a few dozen, maybe; those half dozen-people, let’s say they speak for about a hundred. RPGs tend to abstract everything–this is a genre that, in its classic form, represents combat by menu clicks and subtraction–and the physical environment is no difference.
The other day a friend of mine asked me what the first RPG I played that really got to me in terms of story, and I said, well, I got Dragon Warrior in that Nintendo contest back in 1989, when I was about seven years old: I’ve been there since the beginning, really. Now, Dragon Warrior has the barest skeleton of a plot: The evil Dragonlord attacked and kidnapped the princess and is somehow menacing the land; you level grind and grab a bunch of macguffins; you save the princess, defeat the Dragonlord, and return peace to the land. Playing it as an adult, I’m surprised by how lean the story is, largely because I remember living this game as a kid. Being seven had a lot to do with it, obviously–it’s not exactly hard to get a seven-year-old’s imagine to run away with something–but Dragon Warrior does earn a lot of the credit because it’s a hell of a skeleton.
Dragon Warrior dealt with a lot of space limitations, the patience of an audience that didn’t quite know what RPGs were, that was used to games with even less plot, and it chose its skeleton well. If a town can fit a half dozen residents, each of whom can do a couple of lines of dialogue, you have to make all of that dialogue count. Every word in Dragon Warrior–like in Might and Magic–has to carry a lot of weight. And so you get a decent outline that you’re encouraged to color in yourself. If “let’s tell a story together” is the best definition of interactive fiction I’ve encountered, well Dragon Warrior does exactly that: Where Might and Magic lets you work in collaboration with the designer in order to reconstruct the physical environment, Dragon Warrior lets you work in collaboration to reconstruct the narrative.
There’s a term that comes up from time to time in old school CRPG manuals–Might and Magic and Wizardry 6 are the two that spring to mind–and that term is “fantasy simulation”. This term describes the likes of Skyrim much better than role-playing-game does, at least to me: I’ve never played an Elder Scrolls game for the plot and I’m still shocked and confused when people talk about the story elements in Skyrim. Elder Scrolls games are less about exploring a narrative, less about charting a world, and more about a simulation of the experience of being an adventurer. There’s an element of simulated realism–the way encumberance is handled, the way everyone keeps a paranoid eye on their possessions, the way character development tends towards minutiae–that takes the center stage. There’s a certain soullessness to Elder Scrolls–the personalities of the various NPCs tumble headfirst into the uncanny valley because we’re expected to take everything so seriously and representational: The Holy Grail of The Elder Scrolls is a game which would exactly match the experience of actually being there.
So I guess I feel like Arcanum squanders its narrative potential–its plot is pretty good and compelling, its structure sprawling and free–by edging towards that simulation aspect. It doesn’t quite get off on its own size the way that Skyrim does, but there cities–during which you spend most of the game–are much larger than they need to be. The experience of Arcanum has been entering every door in a block and talking to everyone I meet; half of the houses are empty, most of the citizens have nothing to say beyond a few generic lines. This is completely unnecessary: Exploring a city is miserable enough, trying to find a specific person to receive a quest reward an exercise in tedium. I’ve started looking everything up on a map I found online–which wouldn’t happen if all of the buildings had something useful in them.