101 – Baldur’s Gate 2: Both Sides Now

iuDavid Gaider goes to a restaurant and orders a steak. “Would you like fries or a salad with that?” Gaider thinks for a moment and finally says, “Neither. Both sides are equally bad.”

—–

As a nice contrast to the 50 hours spent over a two-week period on Chapter 2, Chapter 3 of Baldur’s Gate 2 took roughly two hours. It’s a tying-up of loose ends and a farewell–for now–to Athkatla. Your contact in the Shadow Thieves–or your vampire friend if you made that choice–gives you a couple of tasks, makes a couple of light revelations, and then offers you a boat to the next part of the game.

It’s, of course, my choice to have the structure of the game be this uneven–you can certainly split up your sidequesting between chapters 2, 3, and 6 as you like; but given that the next couple of chapters are going to be a journey to far-off places that I’d like to be leveled up for, and given that Chapter 6 is largely a bit of “okay, you’re back in the city, let us know when you’re ready for the endgame”, it made sense for me to frontload everything this way.

The feeling is of events moving quickly. You’ve been spending all of this time getting to know the city and the world while your contacts have been searching for info on Imoen and Irenicus, and now they’ve figured out where they are and it’s time for you to move. It’s a little bit of pretense: You can afford to do all of that sidequesting and spend all of those months because there really isn’t anything else you can do but prepare. Now that you have your goal, it’s time to move. I’m not one to take timeframes and chronologies strictly in RPGs–I’m not going to complain that Imoen and Irenicus will wait as long as it takes for you to get around to finding them–but it does feel a little silly to stick around the city when everything you’ve worked for is a boat ride away.

The game could do a better job of making your choice seem like an actual choice, honestly. On the one side, you’ve got a bunch of thieves, yes, but they’re all friendly and helpful to you; on the other hand, you’ve got shady vampires which are somehow working with Irenicus. “The Shadow Thieves haven’t told you everything,” your vampire friend tells you, “and haven’t you noticed that they’re just stringing you along?” And it’s true, once you give them the money they do give you a few quests before finally sending you off. But they do send you off, and their explanations–that they needed to check your references, that they needed to find out some seriously-hidden information, that they needed to hire a trustworthy crew–all pass the sniff test. The Shadow Thieves have done nothing to lose my trust, either as a player or as a character.

The question of Evil in a game like this is a fiddly one. I know a lot of Dungeon Masters refuse to let their players play Evil characters, and even when they do, and in the Baldur’s Gate series, they generally lean that more towards “selfish, nasty, and lazy”. Part of it is, simply, that even a Good-aligned party has to kill a lot of things over the course of the game–you are, after all, a child of the God of Murder–and so killing is just kind of oddly relegated into a grey area where there are a lot of acceptable people to kill, and you’re simply kind of a dick for killing anyone not on the list. In a lot of cases, you’ve got a situation where someone has an item you need–you can either do the quest they ask you to do and get some more XP and treasure, or you can just slaughter them and take it. And who in their right mind would ever pass up XP? Only Dorn in the Enhanced Edition has a quest which forces you to go beyond the pale–I ducked out after accompanying him on a quest to murder everyone at a wedding, which honestly didn’t offend my moral sensibilities as much as it just seemed unnecessary–the rest are just, you know–unpleasant. Edwin is vain and arrogant and happy Dynahier is dead–but that’s about the worst of it. I’m keeping the dwarf Korgan in my party, and even though he’s listed as evil, he’s more accurately just simply an asshole–and a good enough fighter that it doesn’t matter.

And he doesn’t like the vampires!

—–

Bioware would revisit this kind of territory in Dragon Age 2–which also took place largely in a single city and a few environs–with its mages-or-templars focus. In the Dragon Age setting, mages are seen as ticking time bombs waiting to explode and so are heavily guarded by special knights. During the entire game, you’re thrust into situation after situation in which you have to choose between the two, and unlike Baldur’s 2, you’re given a lot more characterization of the two sides. The mages feel restricted and oppressed; the Templars are trying to protect innocent citizens from people who genuinely have destructive power. It’s a nuanced and difficult argument…which loses coherence in the endgame, when both the head templar and the head mage bust out their One Winged Angel forms and rampage. It’s of a piece with Bioshock Infinite which also had two sides whose names I don’t remember accurately but boil down to Racist Cops and People of Color; and if the choice seems obvious to you, don’t worry, Ken Levine has you covered because at one point the leader of the People of Color murders or threatens to murder a child or something. I’m sorry. I don’t remember it well. Bioshock Infinite was not a good game.

It’s easy to fall into this very South Park trap–that when you have any controversial issue, there are two sides, both extreme in their opinions and both wrong in their extremeness, and you, the rational player, the only one who’s able to look at both sides and recognize that the true way, the rational way, the right way, lies somewhere in the middle–a very milquetoast centrism which doesn’t believe in getting one’s hands dirty because any upset to the status quo is a bad thing, any change is a bad change. It’s a hilariously, pathetically dated theme–the kind of thinking which looked at Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton and said, welp, both sides are equally bad.

In that respect, Shadow Thieves vs. Vampires is, you know, kind of quaint–because the Shadow Thieves might not be the nicest people, but at least they’re not fucking vampires. And there aren’t really any explicit political resonances to the choice–although, to be fair, “a bunch of crooks who, once they get what they want, are willing to help you out a bit” vs. “a bunch of undead monstrous abominations who feed off the blood of the innocent, murdering them and desecrating their corpses” does kind of resemble Democrats vs Republicans. Mods–third party mods–exist which apparently let you make other choices–you can align with the Paladins (which, ugh, fuck Paladins) or with a fellow who gives you a “screw you guys, I’m going home” route (that railroads you back into the plot eventually because I think he’s working with Irenicus or something, I’m just going from skimming TVTropes), but I think I like my two options. Baldur’s Gate 2 comes from the days before we wrung our hands about whether or not we were able to Make A Choice In A Videogame. I mean, of course we’re just navigating pre-written dialogue trees. Of course we’re experiencing content that somebody thought up and wrote. Not everything needs to be, you know, an expression of ultimate freedom. I’m playing a story about a lady who’s the daughter of a murder god. I mean, come on.

Off to Spellhold!

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65 – Might and Magic, Wizardry 6, Ishar and mapping

There’s a term–I learned it from The CRPG Addict–called lawnmowing. We’re going to need a couple of shots of some Might and Magic maps to understand. Here’s the area surrounding the first town in Might and Magic Book 1:

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And here’s an equivalent section in Might and Magic 4:

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There’s some obvious aesthetic differences–there was something like nine months in between playing the two games, and so I’ve gotten a bit more relaxed and loose with mapping; 4 also contains an automap, and so while mapping out 1 is essential in order to complete it, hand-mapping 4 was more for the enjoyment, and so I felt freer to use bolder colors and go for look more than practicality. But what I want to draw your attention to the pencil lines all over the place in the 1 map. These are the literal walls of the game–they’re represented as mountains and trees too dense to move through. In Might and Magic, you’re ultimately able to step on every single square–every area in the game is a 16X16 square–but it takes a long time to be able to do so. The challenge lies largely in growing strong enough to fight the enemies in each area and in actually winding your way from Point A to Point B. Very late in the game you get a series of spells which allow you to bypass walls and teleport around the map, and there are some areas where you need them in order to navigate, but for the most part, when you’ve finally gotten them, you’ve probably charted most of the area anyway and they end up becoming ways of speeding up travel and creating shortcuts.

4 has no such walls. There are a lot more terrain types–in my screenshot, it’s fairly obvious what’s what: Light green is grass, dark green is forest, blue is water, brown is a dirt path, grey a road, dark brown mountains, black the edge of the world. And while you start off being unable to traverse forest, water, or mountains, you end up getting skills in order to cross them fairly quickly and cheaply. You can still step in every square, and you *should*, but since all obstacles become removed and the gameworld becomes extremely flat.

And hence the term lawnmowning: Mapping out Might and Magic games becomes a case of going down every square in one row, going to the next row and going UP every square in that, ping-ponging back and forth till you’ve revealed every square. This is, perhaps, the biggest flaw of 2-5: Exploration feels a little less immersive because of the flatness: These aren’t trees and mountains, they’re icons of trees and mountains.

Usually walls solve this problem. Here’s the first location of Wizardry 6, a game that, looking at the maps a year later, I’m shocked I beat:

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I have stepped in every square of this location–a castle–but look at the layout: it’s a maze of doors and walls. Half of those doors are locked when you begin the game, and the initial stages of the game consist on going around the various rooms and floors and slowly unlocking more areas. The challenge is in mapping out these locks, in making your way through the maze, in figuring out the layout of this place and its connection to the other regions of the game–part of my love for the game is its insistence on regularity: It features five or six different locations, all of which are distinct in their layouts, all interconnected and snapped tightly and perfectly together. Think of Dark Souls’s map made in Legos and you’ve got the idea.

And so we’ve got this very simple and slightly cheesy lesson that we can learn: Restrictions make challenge and challenge brings enjoyment. And we can all walk away from this lesson nodding our heads and drawing Gordian dungeons…

…but for the fact that right now I’m playing Ishar, and this is the first area of Ishar.

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Again, light green is grass, dark green is impassable trees, blue is water–and if you’re playing along at home that means that we’ve essentially got a gigantic sprawling field with only minor areas, mostly the borders, where we cannot walk.

And it is one of the more fascinating Mapping Experiences of my time! In many ways it’s a dungeon in reverse. With no automap, with no way of seeing the game from a bird’s eye view, you’re often cast in a void of grass having to count paces as you make your way to the next landmark, which is, like, a bush. It’s an agoraphobic method of getting lost.

But Ishar also avoids the lawnmowing problem partially by not hiding random goodies in every square. I’m hoping I don’t end up eating these words, but the game depicts everything onscreen with enough peripheral and distance that you can see the major things from a few squares away as long as you’re facing the general direction.

And so instead of mowing the lawn, you end up mapping by scouting the area. I’ve been filling out the edges of the map and the hedges and things by the old fashioned move one square, draw the walls, move one square, draw the walls method. But for the inner part of the land, I’m picking a general direction, walking, and coloring in squares in a way not too different from a fog of war reveal, veering off when I see something cool.

And while in practice, that and mowing the lawn aren’t *that* different, it changes the scale of the maps. Might and Magic is exhaustive: You need to uncover and discover what might be hiding behind every single tile in the game. Wizardry 6 is almost a tangle of wires which has you focus in on every tiny detail in order to unknot. Ishar is about the big picture. About putting large islands in your grasp. The area of the gameis huge. This is why I love these games and why I get bored with roguelikes and corridor after arena after corridor level design and why I love this shit: I love the idea of kind of communicating with a level designer who I can see cackling as I try to figure out the cartography puzzle they’ve constructed. For as pretty as Columbia is, as impressively large as Skyrim is, their terrain didn’t communicate anything to me. These old-school dungeon crawlers are all about communicating things just through their layout.

 

 

 

 

59 – Gothic II

I end up talking about Skyrim a lot, just like I end up talking about Final Fantasy VII a lot, and BioShock a lot, and it’s obvious why: Everybody’s fucking played them. And it’s obvious why everybody’s fucking played them, and, oh, let’s be honest with ourselves, most of these games deserve their position–they do what they do very well and in a way that a lot of people like, and if BioShock isn’t quite as deep as its press releases say it is, it’s deep enough. (We’ll leave the subject of Infinite closed indefinitely.)

Skyrim is one of those games that I love in theory, because let’s face it: I do very well with games where you’re placed in a land and you have to bum around and figure it out and maybe you fight dragons. But Skyrim is an extremely flat and homogenous game. In its effort to be all things to all people, in its efforts to be so large and so sprawling and so massive, the game simply doesn’t have enough tricks up its sleeve. Cast your net at a section of gameplay–dip in and pick a dozen quests and dungeons and maybe every one will be different. Dip in and pick another dozen, and another dozen, and there are going to be a few too many similarities in each packet. Skyrim is the kind of game which doesn’t want to leave any players unsatisfied. Oh, sure, there’s more to do if you’re Cheevo-hunting, and there are enough variants in the quests to make things interesting, but I’m a dungeons guy, I’m an exploration guy, and the dungeons are all samey and the exploration is so brief–it’s traversing rather than discovering.

Gothic II is the kind of game where I had to start over after about ten hours of playing because I squandered a few resources and built my character in an unproductive direction and wanted to do it right this time. In those ten hours I explored a relatively small area–the initial city and the surrounding woodlands–and in the entirety of that time I was able to chart only about two thirds of the entirety of that area and I certainly didn’t feel safe at all. Rather than large, Gothic II is going deep and intimate. There’s shit hidden in different corners, some shortcuts–it’s not as much of an intertwined cartography maze as Dark Souls is, it’s rather a single large island rather than a selection of interconnected areas which loop upon themselves in surprising ways. But it’s a hell of an island.

I find I like games which invite an intimacy with the land, which are based on developing a familiarity with the environment. It’s why I love Might and Magic so much: VARN is a world that you chart and become familiar with and eventually learn to navigate on your own. Same with the Wizardry Cosmic Forge trilogy. It’s why people love Dark Souls and why I loved ICO–hell, it’s why people love Ocarina of Time. I have never been able to have that intimacy with an Elder Scrolls game–although I’ve never played Morrowind which I’m told is one of the finest in the series.

Gothic is doing a great job at balancing some tight reins with an extreme degree of freedom; the monsters are hard, and the point–that your character is, right now, a supreme wuss–gets very strongly made when two flies kick your ass. Combat is sporadic and fixed–there aren’t too many enemies around, but all of them are legitimate threats and every combat feels very meaningful. But skill plays a part as much as your stats; restarting the game, the initial bits were much, much easier because I understand the timing underlining the combat a tiny bit better than when I first played. (Those flies are still really difficult though.) Everything has these really stringent requirements–half of the weapons I’ve picked up require strength 40, strength 80, strength 100 when my 10-hour character only had strength 10 (part of the reason I restarted was because I put some points into the wrong stats.) It’s a game where you chip and chip and chip away and every bit of progress feels like a rush, and the density of stuff and the rarity of stuff and the importance of stuff–finding two arrows and a healing herb has not stopped being a good find–means that every time you find stuff it’s rewarding. Skyrim threw crap at you, it gave you more treasures than you knew what to do with and gave merchants too little gold for you to sell everything and gave you weight requirements that meant you simply couldn’t take everything–and I don’t know about you, but it breaks my heart to have to sort through the items in a chest and have my decisions very easy to make because half of that shit is absolutely useless. Sure, it’s possible that the early game of Gothic requires gold in a way the late game does not, but all I know is that I’ve got to get 1000 gold pieces in order to do one quest, 500 to do another, and a good 200-300 to buy a couple spells I need to buy, and I’ve been scrimping and saving to capture 200.

I speak as if this is my character in the present tense, of course–this is all from that abandoned 10 hour playthrough, again, part of the reason I want to restart is because I want to manage my money better. I’ve loved the density of the world so far, and I’ve been told that it stays that way for the whole game, and I’m so excited to see more on the island and find more stuff out. All of the quests I’ve been given have been very meaningful and different–again, so far–and I just want to be able to play more of it. It’s just an immensely satisfying game in a way that Skyrim never was.

46

I have been playing Might and Magic to the exclusion of everything else for about two weeks now. Several bundles have happened, both GoG and Steam have had sales, and I’ve spent a few bucks on them, but it’s all counting as backlog. Half of the reason I haven’t written a word about it is because that’s time away from playing the game: The only reason I’m writing now is because I’m in New Jersey for Christmas and I didn’t bring my computer.

It’s, you know, funny that this year I got really into first-person draw-your-own-map games–if you were around during the summer, you probably read me rambling about Wizardry 6 and how much I absolutely loved that game. This is actually kind of a new territory for me. Other than Lands of Lore, I never got into first-person maze games–I always had trouble *seeing* it, and the discipline that Might and Magic requires would have been totally beyond me as a kid. My only experience with the series was a very little bit of time spent with Might and Magic II, which came with my family computer, and I think I played it once or twice and decided that it was boring.

Success in Might and Magic, more than anything else, requires absolute meticulousness. There are, apparently, a total of 55 separate 16X16 maps in the game. I’m being very organized with them–I’ve got separate paper-clipped sheaves with town maps, dungeon maps, overworld maps, and another with notes. There’s very little NPC interaction, which means that the scraps you do get–notes written on walls, cryptic lines occasional characters spout out–are all meaningful. Every single map square I have has a lot of cross-referenced notes. It comes in handy.

I decided to play Might and Magic because of the coverage in the blog The CRPG Addict, which I just started reading; it made the game seem somehow amazing, and since I already own the entire series–I picked it up at the GoG summer sale–I figured it was high time I give it a proper try. I’ve found almost a surprised note in most of everything I’ve read about the game–like, in forums and other blogs, so many people approach the game almost surprised that it’s held up: That Might and Magic is not only a playable but a quite good game seems almost unexpected.

But it’s an intensely respectful game, and in a year whose notable games included Bioshock Infinite (which was a series of vaguely-interactive cutscenes separated by hyperviolent dull shooty bits), Gone Home (which was a series of overwrought narrations in an environment which wasn’t quite interactive enough, and Proteus, which had no point whatsoever–in a year where those are some of the more talked-about games, it’s really nice and almost really sad that I’m going back to 1987 to find a game which likes me.

I mean in many ways Might and Magic is one of the few games I’ve ever played that doesn’t have a beginning–it has a middle and an ending, but once you create your characters you’re just dumped into the first town without any motivation or guidance. That first town isn’t even particularly special–a little easier monsters than the rest, maybe, but beyond that, I mean I’m a good 40 hours into the game and I still hang around that town a lot since it’s such a central area. Your motivation for questing, for playing the game, is the game itself–if you don’t see 55 blank maps and immediately feel the strongest desire to explore and fill all of them out, then you’re playing the wrong game. The manual notes that “combat is at the heart of Might and Magic”, but that’s a lie: Combat is fine (and, other than a crude drawing of one of the monsters at the beginning of combat, is handled exclusively through text, it’s a fairly distilled form of RPG combat), and there’s certainly a lot of it, but more than anything, it’s a cartography simulation.

You know, Wizardry 6 was more about inventory and key puzzles, and it was certainly about mapping out intricate structures; Might and Magic is more about its overworld–20 of those 55 maps are dedicated to the main world map, which is laid out in a very specific grid pattern, and for the most part, you’re just an explorer. You have very few explicit goals–a couple of quests given to you by various kings and things like that–but the rest of the game is so open and sprawling that the only way to avoid agoraphobia is to make up your own series of constantly shifting goals. I’m going to map this one square. I’m going to level up one character. I’m going to find this character that a note mentioned. What sticks out is that both Wizardry 6 and Might and Magic use the phrase “fantasy simulation” in their paratext. I think that’s pretty important. Might and Magic really is a computer system which is running this little world, and experimenting with it is the heat of the game. You think about how games like Sim City, beyond a couple of explicit scenario goals, are about poking around and figuring out stuff you want to do and then doing it. And while there’s a main quest, and he game does have an ending, for the most part it’s about going around, finding interesting stuff, and enjoying it. Rather than something like Skyrim, which was a cross between a Skinner box and a to-do list masquerading as a fantasy epic, Might and Magic ships with no goals and therefore manages to be a very personal experience. Playing Might and Magic becomes its own reward–I find it to be a very absorbing, mindful, intimate game and its genuine lack of impatience helps it to be a beautiful game.

God damn; I really want it to be Thursday so I can get back to playing it.

40

I’ve had murder on my mind since, oh, let’s just call it March, let’s trace everything to Bioshock Infinite, that’s a fine narrative. Dishonored was kind of a first step: I distinctly remember a moment in which I got to see the spine of a guard whose head I’d chopped off, and that wasn’t something I particularly wanted to see, but DIshonored had some merit to it. Bioshock Infinite was Extruded Videogame Product, and while I can’t say “murder simulator” with a straight face, the story seemed like a half-assed act of self-aggrandizement designed to give a lame veneer–to pretend that the game was something classier than an opportunity to control a dude who gets to slaughter people by the hundredfold.

Look–Killing is Harmless is overwritten–its endless summaries and half-baked analysis seem more like a term paper written the night before, it’s padded using tricks that every sophomore knows, and one of its main theses–that one can be held as morally culpable for a videogame action as one can be for a real-life action–isn’t one I agree with at all–but it’s certainly one of the few pieces of game criticism to come out of that particular scene that’s remotely worth a damn: Whatever your opinion of Spec Ops The Line, Keogh’s question–why are you playing a game whose basic actions can be boiled down to “repeatedly murdering dudes”?–was posed prominently enough that it’s worth attempting to answer, and the realization that we might not necessarily be able to do so satisfactorily is significant, yeah.

I’ve been playing RPGs of one form or another for most of my life: Combat has always existed, for me, more as a series of numbers hitting up against other numbers rather than anything more visceral. It can’t be insignificant that I was such a Dragon Warrior guy–still am. Thanks to Akira Toriyama, Dragon Warrior has always had wonderful monster designs–many of which, especially the Slime, are iconic of the series–and so I almost get the sense that a game where you fight primarily humans, especially in a fantasy scenario, is evidence of laziness on the part of the developers. (The so-frequent zombie, really, is usually a way of avoiding the moral questions surrounding killing humans–zombies are soulless monsters and therefore “safe” to kill–without having to do pesky things such as using your imagination to come up with creatures.)

Monsters, not wild animals–there’s something as equally odious about killing a pack of wolves defending their territory as there is killing a guard who simply took the job because it had good insurance and would let him retire early with a good pension. Games have been experimenting with making enemies feel like people for years, as simple things like a wider variety of voice clips became possible; in the effort of games to embrace realism, you don’t necessarily want a bunch of enemies which feel like ducks in a shooting gallery.

I’m not sure I’m leading up to anything more profound than, I’m just bored of games which make an effort to bring the experience of combat into further realism. Anvil of Dawn is hitting this: The enemies are all gruesome and cool-looking monsters–a good motivator to move on to the next dungeon is to see what they’re gonna come up with next, which is something that’s entirely lost in the likes of Skyrim. The combat is extremely simple: You shuffle up to enemies, bop them on the head, shuffle back, let them miss you, then go back and bop them on the head again until they die. It’s not as quick as the fights in the earlier Lands of Lore, and its descendant Legend of Grimrock all but perfects the bop-and-shuffle–but I think it’s satisfying enough. The timing is different for each of the enemies, and there’s some basic strategy to learn, some of that certain-weapons-or-spells-damage-certain-enemies-better thing, but not that much more than that. You don’t even have to aim.

I guess it puts combat in a secondary role, and I like that. It works as a pacing device, as a way of creating an atmosphere of danger and dread, and as a way of worldbuilding, in a way: This isn’t generic Tolkien orcs and shit; Tempest is a fairly alien world, and its enemies are likewise alien. But the game is not about the experience of combat: It’s about the experience of navigating mazes. The mazes contain monsters, just as they contain treasures and they contain puzzles. And I love mazes.

I like abstraction, I guess. I want to look at cool stuff. One of the main reasons AAA has completely left me cold is it isn’t giving me cool stuff to look at, it isn’t giving me cool stuff to fight, but it’s asking me to pretend to be soldiers and murderers and, again, it’s not that I feel guilty about it, but I think it’s time to start being more careful about who I pretend to be. Maybe it’s as simple as I think it’s just nicer to pretend to be a hero sometimes.

34 – Release: Does The Sneaker Have To Matter

This is mostly me making some experiments on a dialogue tree, but it also serves as me finally saying something about Bioshock Infinite. It doesn’t exactly contain spoilers–it’s more of a response than a critique–but it probably won’t make much sense without having played the game.

The title is swiped from Bissell; special thanks to Alex Young for letting me know what button melee is.

Play “Does The Sneaker Have To Matter”

29 – Etrian Odyssey II Is Not As Good As Wizardry 6, But Duh

Wizardry 6 might have been one of the most significant gaming experiences I’ve ever had. I do not exaggerate. Yes: It was a great game, but it was also a Symbolic game. 2013 is the year of Bioshock Infinite and Bioshock Infinite was the game of me finally deciding it was time to tell console videogames to fuck off and die; 2013 is the year I began to become a PC gamer. Declaring this intention is all well and good but it takes a trial in order to join a brotherhood and I have decided that my trial will be the successful completion of the Cosmic Forge Trilogy.

I’m not quite ready for Wizardry 7, but the “grindy game where you make your own maps” itch still needs scratching, and to this end I dug out Etrian Odyssey II which I bought four years ago but have never played for more than an hour or two, finding it a little too grindy. This time I’m more or less loving the grind–I’m a little past the halfway mark right now, and I’m sloooooowly running out of steam. I’m still going strong, but the end is still nowhere in sight, and that’s not even beginning to count the post-game content, so I don’t know how far my stamina will hold up.

It’s pretty good. Much more of a Videogame than Wizardry 6 is, particularly with the levels: EOII is just a series of mazes. You’re explicitly exploring a Labyrinth, and while there’s more visual diversity to the levels–you completely change environments every few floors or so–there’s never any pretense that you’re doing anything more than simply exploring a maze that’s there for the sake of being a maze. Wizardry 6 takes you through temples and castles and forests and mines, and every single level is navigated differently, and the entire thing holds together in a architecturally logical and consistent way.

But EOII is much less interested in giving a world to explore; it’s much more of a firehose, a series of levels and a ton of battles in between them and very, very little bullshit. In some respects, it’s even more bare-bones than W6. Its story is certainly less interesting–and to its credit, its story is never treated as anything more than set dressing. There’s a maze; there’s a bunch of people interested in exploring the maze; there’s a few quests designed to pace exploration and a few lines of text giving context for each; and then it’s just you, the maze, and a shitload of monsters. Wizardry 6 had more of a backstory than an actual plot, and its era led to some extremely skeletal writing, but its altogether more meaningful.

It’s all forward motion–you have no home base but trudge forward, crossing and recrossing occasional areas as needed. You rest where you can. Wizardry 6 is the long, epic, arduous journey of six people that you can have up to two more adventures with and probably end up getting fairly close to. Etrian Odyssey II is more cyclical–you trudge a bit through the dungeon until you have too much loot or not enough mana and then you warp back to the town where you stock up on supplies and flirt with the cute shopkeeper and bullshit with the bartender and get some quests and sleep at the inn and go to the Duke’s Palace in the morning to report the stuff you found the day before and then it’s back to more trudging. It’s altogether more comfortable–it allows you to set up a routine in the game.

And an unexpected bit of emotion: I named my characters after my Wizardry 6 party–unfortunately unable to take Urghula because EOII only allows parties of five characters–because I figured, okay, even though I don’t want to take them into Wizardry 7 quite yet it would be fun to take them on another adventure. But In Etrian Odyssey, the focus isn’t on creating a party–it gives the conceit of managing a guild of adventurers. And to force that, the level cap is at 70–as I said, I’m about the halfway point and my characters are in their 60s. After I think level 30, you can let a character retire–they’re gone forever, but a new recruit steps in their place at half their level, with higher-than-natural stats and a higher level cap. Retiring characters becomes the key to letting your characters grind further and it becomes necessary after a while. And the last few levels before retirement suddenly become strikingly sad. The skills you pick for them become even more meaningful; you begin to regret skill trees you didn’t go down; you begin to wonder if you should create a character of the same class.

And you miss them. I just parted with Frunk the Ronin in return for Hank the Beast, and I don’t trust Hank. I miss Frunk. Fucker did like 300 damage every hit.

Look, it’s not a philosophically deep game. Its various systems work with each other well; it’s sophisticated in its way, but it’s also a grindfest. Long as you can mark up a graph and persist in doing random encounters, you can beat the game. But the character development is nice–there are a lot of possible party combinations and I appreciate that the game forces you to try out a lot of them–and it is a Rewarding game.

Still. I don’t doubt that Wizardry 7 will be the more Meaningful experience.