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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.

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I have been merrily hitting up GOG sale after GOG sale because that’s how they get you. Replaying Lands of Lore put me in the fuzziest of moods–it was one of my favorites when I played it in middle school. And yet something about games where you, first-person, navigate a dank dungeon has always left me cold. PC RPGs in general have always been daunting. I’ve never liked Ultima, had a lot of trouble with one of the Might and Magic games that came with my computer in fifth grade, and I’m absolutely hopeless at playing Infinity Engine-style stuff.

So I’ve been taking this opportunity to educate myself–I’m still eyeing that Might and Magic 6-pack to complete the pagkage, and I’ll eventually be writing about a lot of what I’ve purchased from the sale–but the one that’s hooked me the most has been Wizardry 6, which is actually not a sale item and which I picked up because my silly head told me to.

Knowing me, you would think that my initial impression of the game would be I’d get hopelessly lost in the character creator, wander around for about ten minutes, then get myself killed by a bat and turn off the game and go to sleep, and that’s exactly what happened. Shit, I thought, well that was a waste of six bucks.

The next day I bought a pad of graph paper and colored pencils, sat down, began to map, and didn’t look up till about three hours later when I had to go to band practice. After practice, I played the game until I passed out, woke up early, played some more, and guess what I’m going to do once I finish this piece of writing.

I’ve actually never played a game where I’ve had to make my own maps. Any first-person games I’ve played have always had an automap feature. And yet this is what’s fascinating me about it the most. The game takes place not solely in the screen but in a weird hybrid of the pad of paper on my table and the screen. I’ve played plenty of games which require taking notes, of course, but few which have required such a dedication to its level design. And so far, the game has been extraordinarily rewarding on that front. The very first level is huge–I’ve logged eight separate floors so far and I’m not even finished–but what’s particularly striking about it is how logically laid out it is. You could build this–stacking the map pages together almost makes a 3-d model. The manual mapping forces an intimacy with the level design that an automap simply doesn’t have. And particularly coming off of Lands of Lore and Legend of Grimrock which, while both wonderful games are mazes first and buildings second, it’s one of those games that breaks your fucking heart when you realize that Skyrim is its descendant.

I’m playing in Easy mode, but I’m finding the combat at least to be very straightforward. One of the reasons I was interested in Wizardry was because it’s generally credited, along with Ultima, with inspiring Dragon Quest, and I am a huge Dragon Quest fan. While Dragon Quest has always featured third-person dungeons, its battle system and Wizardry’s are almost exactly the same. There’s some divergent evolution going on–I can discuss, from memory, the development of Dragon Quest’s battle system from the first through the ninth, and if there’s anyone who can do that for the Wizardry series, please let me know so we can have a hopelessly pathetic conversation together that both of us will find fascinating–but they’re brothers.

I fully expect the game to get very difficult soon.

And yet the game is giving an extreme sense of freedom. I’m very slowly discovering more and more features. I’ve just figured out how to pick locks. Suddenly entire areas of the castle are opening up to me. I still don’t know where the hell to go right now, but I feel very at ease sifting through map pages.

I kind of missed this era of computing–I was just too young for it—but have always felt like it was something special. I’ve read posts by people who imported their characters from game to game over a decade. People who still hold on to yellowed Ultima maps. It’s funny; Wizardry 6’s manual bills the game as a “fantasy role-playing simulation” rather than simply as a game, and there’s all this nonsense in the first pages about how the game’s actually a magic portal to another land. It’s cheesy as shit but I totally get it. There’s a richness to the game’s systems, even now and especially for the time, a complexity which I find very respectful. Really, the game is providing further context to the maps, which are mitigated in my head in the form of a working picture of the castle which is more detailed than either could be on their own. Most of the things you see in the castle’s rooms are text descriptions. I don’t need to go into the role of the imagination and the Iconic again.

Anyway, I feel that this is a journey I would like to complete because, in many ways, it symbolizes a particular resolve to become a particular sort of gamer. I’m tired of gaming like a little kid; Wizardry 6 is serious shit.