106 – Baldur’s Gate 2 – Watcher’s Keep

iuIncluded with your purchase of the Baldur’s Gate 2 expansion Throne of Bhaal is a towering dungeon called Watcher’s Keep. Continuing with Baldur’s Gate 2’s theme of “Bioware becoming Bioware”, it’s a very modern DLC-style dungeon in that it’s unconnected to the main plot and you can get to it at any time–as soon as Baldur’s Gate 2 gives you map access, you can visit it.

You are, of course, not quite intended to–it’s a decidedly high-level dungeon, with tricksy and difficult enemies–but it’s also the kind of thing where each floor is harder than the last, and so you can and are encouraged to duck into it from time to time, clear out a floor, and revel in bonus treasure and XP. I cleared out the first two floors during Chapter 2–got a couple of awesome weapons and some quivers that gave me infinite arrows–did the third as part of Chapter 6, and finished the rest of the thing as part of Throne of Bhaal.

It’s not quite an old-school megadungeon–depending on your definition, Watcher’s Keep is missing some screwjobs, missing dead ends, missing floors connecting to other floors, missing size (it’s big but not Castle Greyhawk big)–but it’s close. It’s certainly the purest Baldur’s Gate 2 comes to good old-fashioned dungeon crawling, and dungeon crawling is something I am fond of. I admire Icewind Dale’s purity–that it’s a huge bucket of monsters and caves and you’ve got to hack your way through–and Watcher’s Keep seems to be Bioware showing off a bit, one-upping it. Baldur’s Gate 1’s dungeons pretty much suck–the corridors are too tight, the puzzles fiddly–and the developer, perhaps worried that Black Isle showed in Icewind Dale that it understood the Infinity Engine a bit better than they did, stepped up their game for the sequel. I have no idea how much friendly competition led to Watcher’s Keep, but I like to think it set the stage for Icewind Dale 2 which, as I’ve said, i remember as a series of mostly wonderful gimmick dungeons. I love gimmick dungeons. We’ll eventually get to Icewind Dale 2.

Each of the floors of Watcher’s Keep has its own twist, its own style of play. The first has you finding items for a ritual. The second is a series of elemental wizard laboratories that you have to turn on each other to exploit weaknesses. There’s a maze that you have to interpret a poem to navigate. The best one focuses on a gigantic magical machine that summons monsters and the creature war this has inadvertently caused. Combat in all of these is tough but very fair, very balanced–assuming your party is, you know, appropriately leveled. There are a lot of enemies, but it’s an appropriate amount. One of my problems with Icewind Dale’s DLC dungeon Trials of the Luremaster, if you remember, was that it confused “challenge” for “throw a dozen enemies at you and hope you survive, good luck!”, and it was the worst part of the game. I don’t claim to be the finest gamer out there, but I’ve been playing RPGs for 30 years, and I’m very familiar with the Infinity Engine, and I’m not bad at playing games made in it. Luremaster was beyond my abilities, and even as I’ve noticed a lot of improvements in my own skills after playing through the Baldur’s Gate saga–one thing this replay of the Infinity Engine series has done has massively improve my ability to play Infinity Engine games–I still don’t know how one would deal with the swarms of spectral knights in the higher levels of the castle. At no point in Watcher’s Keep did I feel that I was above my pay grade.

Well, save for one of the final dungeon battles–there’s one swarm that’s maybe two combatants too many–and the final boss.

I’m generally a fellow who likes boss monsters, but I know plenty of people who hate them, and most of those people cut their teeth on Infinity Engine games. Bosses in Infinity Engine games are generally terrible–other than Irenicus, there aren’t many that I’ve actually liked. A boss can be a challenge, a test of your skills, a final exam, an opportunity for new attack patterns that don’t fit anywhere else. Games like Zelda are known for their bosses because they’re puzzles as much as they’re combats–you can’t beat a Zelda boss unless you’ve mastered the use of the tool that their dungeon has spent its time teaching you. Dark Souls’s bosses are notable for their size, for the opportunity for the design team to visually just go balls-out and create something elaborate, and for their extreme challenge.

Much less beloved are the boss monsters who just have, you know, super high HP and defense and attack. I remember, in fifth grade, a friend used to draw out videogames in his notebook–little platformer levels where he’d tear off a tiny scrap of paper and draw a character on it and you’d physically move the character through the level, stomping other scraps of paper with enemies on it. And whenever he wanted to give a real challenge, he’d create a boss–what he called a Big Monster, which now that I think of it is a much less capitalist way of referring to it so in true Socialist fashion I’m going to just steal the term–and write “99999 HP” over it and punch your character twice and say “oh you’re dead now”.

For the most part, that’s how Big Monsters in Infinity Engine RPGs feel to me. The Infinity Engine’s greatest trick–seen with Sarevok and Belifet–is to give their Big Monsters a few flunkies and string a bunch of (possibly impossible-to-disarm) traps around them and laugh as they slaughter your party. The Big Monster at the end of Watcher’s Keep–Demogorgon, making a cameo from his appearance in Stranger Things, although with a radically different design that makes me wonder if the makers of Watchers Keep even watched Stranger Things or, if they did, they just thought the name sounded cool and swiped it without worrying whether or not their monster shared any properties with the Duffer Brothers’–doesn’t have any traps in his room, but otherwise he fits the pattern. He hits hard, he soaks up a bunch of damage, he’s resistant to most magic–and given the choice between casting a bunch of my debuffing spells in the hopes that they’ll chip away at his defenses so I can chip away at his health while I buff the hell out of my own characters and hope no one debuffs me and keeping my characters healthy–given the choice between that and just clicking the little button that says “story mode” and just throwing my pikmin at it while I just sit back and watch–

Well, as Andrew Plotkin once said, “I am a player; therefore, I am lazy.”

Defeating Demogorgon gives you a couple of lines of the DLC’s storyline finishing and a bunch of XP–enough to gain a single level around the time I beat him–and nothing else. You don’t get any magic items or any equipment that I could figure–the Steam version doesn’t even give you a cheevo for your efforts. It’s a huge amount of challenge for little reward. I guess Demogorgon is intended to be an optional Super-Big Monster that only the most challenge-hungry players will face, and maybe that’s how he was received Back In The Day–certainly I didn’t get upset that I couldn’t defeat Kangaxx the Lich, figuring, okay, he’s for the really hardcore. Maybe I’m just playing it with a 2017 mindset, where I think that you should be able to beat the final boss if you were fine to beat the rest of the game. I have this weird, weird notion that an impossible challenge is less satisfying than a mild challenge if you have enough fanfare. The joy of RPGs is the joy of taking your level 1 character who got slaughtered by a pack of gibberlings, leveling her up to the cap, and wiping the floor with them. And certainly strategy has a major place in these games. But whatever strategy it took to beat Demogorgon, I couldn’t click onto it, and it was in no way a satisfying fight for me.

I’m about 2/3rds of the way through Throne of Bhaal at the moment, and all I’ll say about it so far is that the Demogorgon fight is a really good introduction to the design philosophies behind ToB. Watcher’s Keep was an excellent dungeon and I recommend it wholeheartedly; if you don’t feel like finishing the thing, though, I won’t blame you at all.

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93 – Baldur’s Gate: Siege of Dragonspear (and some other rambly shit)

It’s perhaps overstating the case to say that Baldur’s Gate: Siege of Dragonspear feels like a fangame–every review you read about it takes pains to remind us that Beamdog is made of some ex-Bioware employees who actually worked on the original game–but man, does it feel inessential like a fangame. I’ve been playing for close to two weeks now, which is a lot of playtime compared to the amount of content in the game. It’s all fine. There’s nothing wrong with it. But I don’t know why I’m playing it. I’m close enough to the end that I could just export my character and be in fine form for Baldur’s Gate II, but also close enough to the end that I should just put the thing on Story Mode and muddle through, but when “put the game on Story Mode and just muddle through” is an option you’re seriously considering, that’s a sign that someone’s done something wrong along the way.

Like–there’s oh-so-much written about Story Mode, and it’s one thing if you’re enjoying it and are finding it tough going–it’s another if you’re doing Story Mode just to get it over with. I can’t say the challenge is too tough, I can’t say the encounters are poorly designed–with some caveats I’ll get to in a minute–but it’s just–

Oh, Siege of Dragonspear is fine. It doesn’t have the fucked up and janky character of Baldur’s Gate I, it doesn’t have the refined expansiveness of II, it’s just kind of there. It’s–well, it’s very Bioware-y. I in general find Bioware games to be fine. Their lore is well-thought-out, they’re appealing games, they’re well-designed, they’re maybe a little too internetty in their humor and their insistence on romance subplots everywhere, but they’re–you know, Bioware games just Aren’t For Me.

I think the word I’m looking for is “normcore”.

I’ve bought a shitload of Dungeons and Dragons books lately because I’m trying to get some inspiration and ideas for some of my own writing, and while plenty of people will point out problems in the rulebooks that may or may not be legit, the thing is that Dungeons and Dragons is huge. Everybody knows about it. This is not a niche hobby like it was in the 70s, when it was solely the provenance of isolated nerds; it isn’t the dangerous conduit to Hell that it was accused of being in the 80s; it’s, you know, a popular game that’s made a lot of people a lot of money. It’s part of our pop culture. If it isn’t quite Lord of the Rings or Star Wars, well, it’s in the same breath. There’s a familiarity to it that comes through sheer exposure. It’s a game like any other–maybe a bit more complex and time-consuming than most people are willing to buy into, but just a game nonetheless.

I’ve talked about this a bit with videogames in general: We can’t pretend that playing videogames is a niche hobby anymore. We can’t pretend that geek culture is subaltern. It is front and center. It is capitalism. It is oppression. An asshole who’s GamerGate in spirit if not in aesthetic is in the White House. There are versions of videogames that are bigger than others, surely–I tell so-called gamers at the college I work at that I’m playing through Baldur’s Gate and they get fuzzy looks (which, to be fair, Baldur’s Gate might have even come out before they were born), but they’ll know Dark Souls intimately. They’ll talk excitedly about Overwatch. Jocks play videogames. (Is “Jock” as a category meaningful anymore? I am out of touch with student cliques.) And let’s face it, Siege of Dragonspear is even more obscure than the Gate itself.

But I guess what I’m saying is as simple as, Baldur’s Gate came out at a time when its audience was, you know, people who might not have been able to find the three friends necessary to play “real” Dungeons and Dragons–hence why I’m fond of it now at this time in my life–but Dragonspear came out after, you know, 15 years of game design evolution and a sea change in pop culture. Fantasy and superheroes are fucking everywhere and people look at you funny–like you’re some kind of antisocial rebel–if you don’t give a shit about what Marvel is putting out. Baldur’s Gate is what it is. Dragonspear tries to shine itself up for a larger audience. And for the most part, it acquits itself so well that it’s a really, really boring game to play.

Like, it takes few risks. The biggest risk it takes is a couple of large-scale setpiece battles with dozens of combatants, and when you’re on a shitty Macbook like I am, everything slows down to a crawl, the area effect spells you throw down end up slowing down everything further–but I’m not quite sure a proper speed would help matters.

I feel like I’m talking around some points I’m trying to make, and that’s okay–there’s something I’m trying to get at about all of this that I’m chipping away at.

I guess it’s like this:

I was a child in the 80s, one who was very aware of and very interested in geeky nerdy culture, in the RPGs of the time, who desperately wanted to play Dungeons and Dragons, but who was, frankly, too young for all of it at the time, and who, frankly, wasn’t able to explain this stuff to other kids when I got to be the beginnings of old enough for it. I think about childhood and I think about how much I loved Dragon Warrior and how friends found all the text boring. Friends who hated reading. Stuff like that. All of this stuff was out of my reach, and as such it developed a cache of being–you know, a little dangerous. Playing Dungeons and Dragons or Might and Magic or whatever had some of the resonances of, for example, playing with power tools, or crossing the street by yourself–it was dangerous, and that danger was helped along with, you know, the darkness of a dungeon. The idea of it all–spurred on by my tiny child mind–was kind of fucked up and scary.

There is nothing fucked up or scary about Siege of Dragonspear.

Fantasy can and should effect a sense of wonder and awe–but there should be something creepy about it too. There is something Out Of This World about it. Going through the fifth edition Monster Manual, everything feels oddly safe. Here are some blandly-written descriptions and stat blocks–all of this is categorized and collated, it’s the product of 40 years of solidification. There isn’t the sense that–let’s face it, if you met anything from that book in real life, even a lowly goblin, it’d scare the everloving fuck out of you. Even a benign being would be a little horrific because of how uncanny, how unnatural it is. An aboleth should induce dread. You look at its statistics and it’s something you can comprehend.

There is no sense of the slip, of the overwhelming, of the pure cosmic horror of the thing. I think about how even Darkest Dungeon was trying to give a sense of the brutal madness of a dungeon crawl, but it was just Another Damn Cthulhu Game where your insanity effects are just different buffs and debuffs. Motherfucking Cthulhu! A creature who, in real life, would cause anyone’s mind to snap, but at this point we’ve seen so many different permutations of that brand of horror that it’s just kind of, you know, there. Background. It’s like being afraid of Dracula.

I know, I know, Siege of Dragonspear isn’t trying to be a horror game. It’s an expansion of world, an attempt at bridging two games, and as such it acquits itself well. I’m spitballing incomprehensibly about a desire to experience or write something that’s a lot more outre, and something that I can’t really figure out how to talk about. What I’m really doing is simply trying to figure out the edges of what I’m looking to do–the feeling I’d like to give to a dungeon I’d like to create–with the understanding that feeling out those edges might even be the beginning of that collation and categorization and understanding. And maybe it’s a loss that’s simply happened because I’ve gotten older and I’ve read a lot of shit. In the beginner’s mind are many possibilities; in the Zen mind, there are few. If I’m being honest, what I’m looking for is a path back to that beginner’s mind, and a way to evoke the absolute terror all of those possibilities evoke.

92 – Baldur’s Gate

Baldur’s Gate is probably one of the finest bad RPGs I’ve ever played. It does so many things weird or wrong, its structure is a goddamn mess, but it’s beloved by pretty much everybody, myself included. Hell, I’m in the middle of my third full playthrough of it, and I’m a fellow who rarely replays games.

It is, in many ways, your favorite shitty pair of jeans. It took a while to break the game in for me, so to speak–the first few times I found myself fighting the engine, then the structure, then a bunch of boredom, and finally I broke through and achieved some kind of enlightenment. There’s something very comfortable about bumming through Candlekeep, about wandering through the game’s endless forests, about attempting to play with Garrick in your party this time and giving up yet again because man Garrick sucks. I didn’t have Baldur’s Gate in high school–I was more into JRPGs at the time, but it’s one of those titles I very much regret not playing until I was an adult.

It’s one of those games that feels like a lot more than it is. There is a strong appeal, for me, of games that suggest a whole large, living, breathing world. That’s half of the fun of the Soulsborne series, really–the game is a sketch, an outline, and one which lets you fill in the rest in your head. For me, the epitome of that game was Dragon Warrior I, which I got when I was something like 7 years old, the perfect age to imagine the game out into being a detailed fantasy kingdom. Alefgard is, of course, a very small map, its NPCs the kind who spout off one tiny line, its monsters goofy if beautiful cartoons, but to my childhood self, it was a world. It hits many of the same impulses that spur on fanfic.

I can imagine my 16-year-old self, in 1999, playing Baldur’s Gate and getting that same feeling, and I think it partially has something to do with how much bigger it was than many of the games that were out around the time. The game features what, in many ways, is a lot of unnecessary crap: Towns with three taverns, all of who provide the same services; people milling about the city saying their line that has nothing to do with your quest or you–I mean, that’s really it: While there’s certainly a tightness to games which understand that you, the player, are the most important character in them and where every detail is related to it, there’s a lot to be said for characters and places that don’t really give a shit about your quest. Someone hanging out in the tavern in Beregost might be annoyed at the iron crisis, but the mechanics of it don’t interest him, it only affects him to the degree that it affects him.

I don’t love Skyrim–I find the world of The Elder Scrolls to be generally drab and boring–but I guess that’s a lot of its appeal. Baldur’s Gate hits that same point–when it transcends being a game and becomes a little fantasy world you can hang out in and live in for a while. It doesn’t matter if, in terms of the text itself, there’s a half dozen identical inns and shops–what matters is the game is totally cool with it if you pretend. That’s been one of the draws of Dungeons and Dragons in general, that it’s an imaginative tool.

Baldur’s Gate does suffer from being the first outing of the Infinity Engine, of being Bioware’s first RPG, of an attempt to stretch the paradigm of the genre and revive it from a relatively fallow period in its history, and yet its failures are interesting. I mentioned structure–the game’s content isn’t evenly distributed among its chapters. The first companions you meet yell at you and eventually leave you to fend for yourself if you don’t complete the first proper chapter as quickly as you can; once you set foot in the town and begin Chapter 2, you need to slow way down and explore the game’s near-endless woods looking for stuff to do, because Chapter 2’s goal is way too high-level for you. Later chapters go quickly…until you get to the town of Baldur’s Gate itself, at which point you’re given a bumper crop of sidequests that’ll keep you busy until you get bored. At some point late-game you can go through the DLC. Character growth is slow, slow, and many of your magic users kind of suck for a while. Classes aren’t mechanically distinct–I’m playing as a ranger for the first time, and other than the option to charm an animal (which I rarely need) and cast Find Familiar (a tiny dragon who dies quickly and removes a point of CON when it does so), I’m finding little difference between it and a fighter. Combat is just kind of there–as opposed to Icewind Dale’s more crafted content, the game drops a little puddle of kobolds or gnolls or whatever from time to time–it doesn’t even feature D&D’s more interesting monsters!–and hopes for the best. Its dungeons universally suck.

And yet–and yet. I might not have the visceral reaction to Baldur’s Gate that I would have were I younger, there may be long stretches of it that are genuinely boring, I wouldn’t call it fun–but it is that rare RPG that’s so much bigger than the sum of its parts. I’m playing it for the third time, and while I’m trying to tease out the why, exactly, I’m doing this, it feels so comfortable. The best thing I can say about Baldur’s Gate is that it is one of those gigantic blocks of fantasy cheese and that it just feels good to play.

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.

 

 

 

 

61 – Planescape Torment club?, Zest update, Gothic II

So I’ve never played Planescape Torment because I’m obviously a terrible person. I didn’t play a lot of CRPGs growing up–missed Ultima entirely, played and hated Might and Magic II, didn’t play Fallout till college, have never gotten past chapter 1 in Baldur’s Gate. Weird, because I can tell you pretty much everything about every JRPG released in the states till about two years ago. Torment is one of those big holes in my gaming life: I’ve played through a chunk of it, but it’s such a big Thing in some ways that I’m nervous to approach it.

Well, I’ve reinstalled the game and I’m going to be playing it in the next couple of months, and based on some preliminary talk on Twitter, it seems like there’s a lot of people who’d be interested in some kind of Book Club thing. Now, I don’t know quite what form this should take. I don’t want to do the “okay let’s all play this much of the game this week and all discuss it”, particularly because it seems like one of those sprawling RPGs that isn’t conducive to that sort of thing. Maybe it would be enough to just encourage a ton of people to play and write about this game on their own blogs and we can link each other. Perhaps Joel Goodwin of Electron Dance could be convinced to give up some real estate in his forum for discussion.

Either way, if you’re interested–let’s say July-ish?–let me know, and if you’ve got an idea about how this thing could work, please, I’m all ears!

–In Zest news, the basic flow of the game has been outlined. The flow of the game is going to consist of  about a half dozen “time blocks”, each of which essentially has a different “deck” associated with it. The player’s stats influence a degree of randomness–we’ve actually been throwing out the tern “narrative roguelike” to describe the basic feel. My current goal is to come up with a couple dozen basic cards in all the separate categories; once that’s done, I’m handing it off to Lectronice and PaperBlurt who will respectively finish programming the card system and come up with some preliminary CSS. I’m shooting for a hundred cards int he final version–like TWEEZER, I want it to be a game that encourages many very short play sessions. We’re targeting an early July release–that’s part of the reason I’d like to do Planescape around them–so watch this space.

–Again, for a game with comparatively few verbs and stats, there’s a lot to learn in Gothic II. I keep learning new tricks for playing it–where I need to stand in order to pull certain enemies, the timing on how to chain certain attacks, what stats I need to increase to effectively kill things–and there’s plenty more. I still haven’t begun to figure out whether there’s a more efficient way to buy and sell things.

At this point I’ve done a broad survey of the bulk of the island–there’s a lot of stuff I certainly haven’t found, and I’ve only really seen the surface of most of it, but I’ve been, at some point, on every corner of the map, even if there’s only about a quarter of the game I’m able to navigate without trouble. What keeps striking me is I’m just on the first *chapter*.  There’s a lot to see and do in this game, and not all of it consists of doing quests–again, it’s the kind of game that’s rewarding just to poke around in.

–My save–which I’m going to get to as soon as I finish typing this post and will play until it’s time to go to work, I love this fucking game–has me in the middle of an area I have never been to in the middle of the night. Night is scary–or, rather, it’s more threatening than the rest of the game is, and the rest of the game is pretty threatening. While I wouldn’t say Gothic ever becomes a horror game, the sense of vulnerability never quite goes away. The game is like Dark Souls–I’m sorry, I’m sorry!–in that even beginning-of-game enemies can kill you at any point if you’re being too cocky. ANd while Dark Souls has much better creature design, there’s something hilarious about how my Gothic II character ran, panicked, from two chickens–who never fucking give up pursuing and who run fast–and accidentally pulled aggro from two boars, only to run headfirst into a lizard who killed him instantly. Props to the sound department, too: Each enemy has its own cry, and usually–there are a ton of trees–you end up hearing them long before you see them, and so it’s one of those games where the second you hear an animal howling at you, you either relax, though not completely, and maneuver into a position where you can be at the advantage, or you realize there’s two of them and you can’t take on two of them, or it’s something you’ve never heard before and you just run the fuck away.

50 – OKAY FINE I’M PLAYING WIZARDRY 7

I think I reeeeeally wanted to get out of playing Wizardry 7 for some reason. Look. I loved, loved, loved Wizardry 6. If it isn’t quite one of my favorite games, it’s certainly one of the five most important games I’ve ever played. I’ll spare you the gory details, but let’s just say that I started playing Wizardry 6 around a point in my life where the only other viable option was “commit suicide”, and that I could write an amazing Personal Essay about how crawling through the Bane Castle and the surrounding dungeons represented the dark, sludgy, smokey, fly-infested basement where I played the game and how my ending decision to take the Cosmic Forge represented my decision to become a writer of Twines and all of that Chicken Soup for the Dark Souls crap.

But, I mean, my darling, my darling, my life and my groom is Might and Magic. I love mapping, and it was Wizardry 6 which made me realize that fact. The moment that I fell hard for Wizardry 6 was the moment that I realized that the entire map was artfully and perfectly arranged to scale. Oh, let’s not compare everything to Dark Souls, but it’s got a similar enough structure. There’s a central area which connects to a bunch of side dungeons, and you’re constantly discovering new shortcuts and connections between the areas. I mean, at that point I had regularly been using the phrase “It’s not a world, it’s a series of videogame levels”. As primitive even for its time as Wizardry 6 was, as much as it was a maze full of questionably-designed monsters–there are a number of naked lady enemies with large bosoms, so you have to have a veeeeeeeeeeeery healthy sense of camp–it was a world. You could build the thing–if I ever get a larger apartment and go completely insane I’m going to build a model of Wizardry 6 entirely out of Lego(s).

But Might and Magic’s mathematical regularity just happens to be more aesthetically appealing to me–certainly it’s easier for me to get that game in my head than Wizardry 6’s sprawl. Might and Magic consists of 55 interconnected maps, each of which is 16 X 16 squares. It is organized in a regular fashion as well: The overworld is four rows of five columns–each designated by a letter and number. Coordinates are very important in the game, and you learn the system very quickly. They’re even referred to in-game. The effect this has on notetaking is astounding–a lot of Might and Magic is focused around knowing the precise location of a lot of stuff. For example, at E4 8,5 is a fountain which temporarily increases your Might by 20–a VERY helpful gameplay bonus. And of course I made plenty of notes on my Wizardry 6 map itself–noting locations of locked doors, unsolved puzzles, etc.

But while Might and Magic 3-5’s level design discourages graph paper mapping–their levels are larger and more sprawling, not tightly curled in on themselves like 1 and 2’s were but given the freedom to sprawl out a bit and–my experience with 3 so far–be a little less interesting–while Might and Magic 3-5’s level design discourages graph paper mapping, every square still has a coordinate. Notes are so easy.

I have a smaller apartment this year, and I don’t really have the space to graph out a gigantic map–from what I know about W7’s structure, it’s a lot larger. Having played for a couple days now, it appears to be a large interconnected forest type area with cities and dungeons peppered throughout–in other words, a Might and Magic-style structure without Might and Magic’s regularity. Wizardry 7 has an automap, and it’s actually one of the more interesting automaps I’ve seen–the quality of the map increases as you increase the character’s map skill at levelups, so it starts off shitty and useless without even walls drawn in, just a blob of floor tiles, and gradually fills in walls and, I assume, doors and probably hidden shit.

The issue is it’s still not fantastic yet–and there’s so much the automap can’t do. There’s, you know, locked doors and puzzles I have to return to, and I need to know the relationship of certain locations to each other, and that the automap just can’t do. I probably should buy the largest pad of graph paper I can find, because that’s probably going to be the only way around this. Yeah, fuck, I’m going to have to end up mapping Wizardry 7. I’ll go to Staples.

You know, I’d created a new party for Wizardry 8, and i started that, and it’s awesome so far–but Ben Chandler and a very sincere “thank you” addressed to players who imported their characters through the whole trilogy in the Wizardry 8 manual guilted me. It’s actually a little hard to go back. 7 is pretty much a facelift and a restructuring of 6, but in terms of interface and mechanics it’s the same as 6. 8 revamps everything–refines the skill system into a much less punishing and esoteric one, automates so much of the repetitive nature of turn-based games and takes away a ton of micromanagement–and, well, yeah, 7 is a step back. So I don’t know. 7 is very good. It’s a beautiful-looking game, particularly in the monster designs, but there are problems.

Like, it feels a lot more narrative based, and yet there are large and strange gaps in the game that make me feel like I missed something vital. From what I know from reading the manual and stuff about the game online, the game is structured like a giant free-for-all treasure hunt. You and a bunch of other factions are all on the same planet hunting for the pieces of a map that’s going to lead to an ultimate treasure. As you move through the game, you can find out rumors about where the pieces of the map are and if any of the factions have them. So from what I can gather, you’re supposed to be able to align with different groups, and certain ones can obtain pieces of the map and then you have to get it back from them.

I’m a little unclear so far as to how this works in practice, largely because I haven’t gotten that far and because I’m not sure how advanced this game was in ’92. I can see that being impressive and really difficult and really cool if it has a bit of proceduralness to it. I’m having the usual difficulty I have with keyword conversation systems…and I’m not sure how much this is integral to the plot or if it’s mostly window dressing. Is talking to people going to provide clues to where to go, or do I just need to bum around and explore and that’s how I’ll get most of it done? So far no one’s been able to tell me anything that seems that crucial–it’s all nice bits of worldbuilding and stuff, and there are a few recurring characters that are starting to appear–but I don’t know if I’m just not asking the right questions. One of the factions has given me a couple of quests in a chain–I’m on some sort of a spiritual journey and I’m learning little bits of a poem–so far I’ve got “Slay not he that cannot hear/Be thankful ye that hath an ear” which should give you an idea of the atmosphere of the game–but I don’t know if that means that I’m aligned with the faction or not.

You know, the general view of designer DW Bradley is kind of an ass, that his writing is a little purple–but also that it kinda works. Wizardry 6 had a decent amount of flavor text throughout–descriptions of rooms, evocative enough to supplement the minimal graphics–but it’s all over the place in 7, and yeah, there’s a really odd feeling that comes through. We are on a decaying planet, and an end of world prophecy is going around, and different alien factions are going to war over the planet’s great secret, and there is a feeling of faded glory throughout; it’s very Shelley’s “Ozymandius”. Every shop I’ve gone into has a couple of lines about how everything is broken down and cobweb-filled and how you see a strange shopkeeper who’s desperately selling his few items. The empty cities are actually abandoned cities. Ugh, let’s go back to Dark Souls again–Wizardry 7 is about abandoned glory where Dark Souls is about decaying glory, but the lands you’re exploring in both have been long since dead. You think this is cool now? You shoulda seen it in the gold old days. They’re elegies for places that were never quite appreciated in their time, and there’s no going back. The past is the past.

43

Anvil of Dawn ended for me, alas, not with a bang but with an invisible maze that I just couldn’t goddamn figure out. There’s some kind of connection between pressure plates and the walls and for whatever reason I just can’t get my head around the exact nature of it–even with a walkthrough I’m stumped. It’s pretty much the last puzzle in the game–I’m at the end of it, but I just can’t get through and I’m not sure it matters enough.

I’m not sure if this diminishes how much I enjoyed playing the game–certainly there’s a bit of frustration in something which you just can’t beat. I’m thinking as much of Knock-Knock, which I owe Robb Sherwin a review of (guess that’s what I’m doing when I’m commuting today) and Eric Brasure’s tribulations with Dark Souls–he all but breezed through the game only to find the final boss impossible.

In the case of Anvil–in the case of all three games I’ve mentioned, come to think about it–there’s some thematic irony in leaving it unfinished. While Anvil isn’t going to go down in history as one of the great unsung game narratives of all time, the writing staff actually understands a little bit about Theme, and there’s a strong undercurrent of determination in the face of the evil–okay, sure, not the most original theme ever, but the game handles it well. Your land is on its last legs, essentially–you’re on the mission in a desperate attempt to stop the Evil Dude on an all-but-hopeless mission, and every encounter is a response to this, with your character often having to convince everyone else that the cause is not hopeless.

And there’s some unexpectedly dark shit: You pick your character out of a party of five possible adventurers, intending to set off as a group, but another character conspires to delay you for a few hours, the old “distract the enemy force with a small army and let one guy slip through unnoticed” trick. As the game progresses, you come upon the other adventurers, and they all pretty much die in front of you. You come upon one–a character that I’d picked in my first attempt–tortured and hanging on a St Andrew’s cross for fuck’s sake. It’s horrible.

And that horror leads to a very dramatic effect, an interesting one: While you also come across a few NPCs who’ve been brutalized by the enemy forces, you had the opportunity to play–maybe even did play if it’s your second or third time through–one of these other characters, and there’s a palpable feeling of there but for the grace of God go I. It also adds a not unwelcome note of fear to the proceedings: The character on the cross, for example, was caught and tortured in and is warning you away from the very next dungeon that you have to go through in order to continue your quest–and yes, it’s a fucking tough one. Without being overwhelmingly difficult–except for the final bit, it’s somewhere around Lands of Lore level–it manages to create a very brutal, very oppressive, very desperate atmosphere.

Yeah, I really liked Anvil of Dawn and I’m sad I couldn’t manage to beat it.