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.

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.