88 – Might and Magic 3, Black Watchmen, Dragon Age Inquisition

–Stuck, as has always been the case, in Might and Magic III, this time on the lever puzzle in the Fortress of Fear. I hate lever puzzles. Yes, it’s optional, yes, I have a half-dozen other dungeons I could be going in at the moment. I am not quitting; I am Taking A Break. Because, dammit, I do want the map of the Isles of Terra on the wall to join VARN, XEEN, and Lost Guardia. (And I swear, one day Ishar is going to join them!)

But what is it about MM3 that just loses me? The exploration isn’t as satisfying–the biggest mistake of the series came with II, where you get the ability, very quickly, to traverse every square on the map and it becomes a game of lawnmowing. Might and Magic I is an impeccably designed maze. You can, eventually, go on every square if you find the way to do it; Might and Magic II gives you skills which allows you to, essentially, cross through walls in the outside. A line of trees or mountains that blocks your way in I becomes simply another square to pass through in II and that continues. III is a flat game paced only by enemy difficulty and keys to certain dungeons. And I love exploration and mazes, poking at a maze to find the spot that I haven’t gone into yet.

I mean, I did make it all the way through IV and V, so obviously the style got refined. III is excellent in many ways–it’s a beautiful game, it keeps and refines the manic energy of the series which is one of its hallmarks, and it’s hard–though a lot of the difficulty does come from riddles and puzzles. But really, Might and Magic I captured me in a way few other games have, and 6 did a good job of having that wonderful sense of expansive purpose; the other games in the series have been diminishing returns.

–Ducked into The Black Watchmen because a paranoid conspiracy ARG-style game is probably what we as a society need right now? It’s fun. Total cheese. You’re given a series of puzzles with all of this window dressing about secret experiments and agents with thick overdone Russian accents planting bugs and occult organizations–I’m totally blanking on the name but what was that webpage game a bunch of years back that started you off with searching pixels of images for text written in and moved to cracking codes and image manipulation and–do you know what I’m talking about? It’s one of those kinds of games. If you’re in the right mindset, and you can solve the puzzles, it’s great. Hard to do by yourself, I guess–it’s always more fun to do these things with a friend. I’ve recently gone through a breakup and so, you know, maybe I should have gotten Black Watchmen six months ago.

It reminds me of Missing Since January–anyone remember that lost little gem? An old boyfriend and I played that through a few years ago–we were the type to play adventure games together–and it was fun. The kayfabe of that was a little more complex–where Black Watchmen is simply “You’re a member of a cryptic organization solving crimes, have fun”, Missing tells the story of a serial killer and the two journalists who disappear investigating the murders. The killer sends a CD full of clues to the police, you get your hands on a copy, and you get to solving.

Missing took the ARG thing to some pretty nice heights, particularly for the time, particularly for someone like me who didn’t have much experience with ARGs. Its major gimmick was integrating itself with your email–you’d get messages from various characters, including the killer–the most notable one being several days after you’ve solved everything and moving on to something else, getting a gloating email from the killer promising to be back in the sequel because he’s always watching. Great shit. Black Watchmen has sections where you can add your phone number and address–locked for me at the moment, perhaps for later seasons.

The two biggest issues with ARGs from my sights, though, are that they’re usually too commercial and too hard, which at first glance seems a little paradoxical. Most of the big ARGs–I Love Bees, for example–are made to promote other things, aren’t a story in and of themselves; and if you’re not interested in the thing they’re promoted, it feels a little cheap. And these things are often designed to require that group participation. I like that such tools are available–there’s forums for Black Watchmen (that had absolutely no hints or discussion for a couple of puzzles I was stuck on) and a Discord server (whatever that is, sorry, kids, but I’m 35 and it’s getting hard for me to learn new shit unless forced, which by the way I’ve gotten the fuck rid of my Twitter and am richardgoodness@mastodon.social now and I fucking refuse to learn about instances)–but, you know, videogames have always been a largely solitary activity for me. I don’t like to play games against other people, and I don’t like to play with strangers. It’s nice to have another head next to mine to work together, but that’s about it. And so when you get into ARGs that require specialized esoteric knowledge that everyone has a piece of, where a community is required–I get a little leery of that.

I guess it takes me out of the experience a bit. Spells like these are very difficult. I’m the guy who hates Twine games made in the default, who hates Choice of Games for their fucking refusal to even change font colors, who can’t play a game if it’s not fullscreen. Seeing that this is on a computer with the Finder and the charge icon for my battery, that reminds me that I’m playing a game at home. The suspension of disbelief is difficult. Now, if I’m looking into the dark underbelly of organizations, if I’m pretending to hack into servers, if I’m doing research, doing it from the comfort of my own web browser adds to the experience. That’s how I’d do it “in real life”. But when I’m going to a forum that the company who made the game has created specifically to help people connect so they can discuss the game, that’s a little…silly.

I will say Black Watchmen does a little more online than perhaps they ought. The shell program, that you run from Steam or whatever, contains the navigator where you choose the puzzles you’re going to solve, is the spot where you enter the puzzle solutions, contains some basic documents. For the rest, most puzzles involve the site http://archive.blackwatchmen.com where you enter certain codes/passwords to access particular documents. It’s effective in its way, it gates your progress nicely, but I don’t quite understand why it’s a separate webpage that you can get to–why it isn’t a feature of the program itself. There could very easily be a database module within it that could serve the same exact purpose. And there’s some UI shit in the program–copying and pasting isn’t great, for example, little things like that–but it’s about as cute of an experience as it can be. I mean, I mean, I run an X-Files podcast. I’m a 90s kid. This kind of conspiracy cheese, I can’t take it completely seriously at the same time that I’m able to take it completely seriously. It’s funny, and creepy as hell to play at night.

–Speaking of breakups and big blocks of cheese, immediately after my breakup, a friend of mine suggested I get some kind of overwhelming videogame to take my mind off my shit–she got lost for a few weeks in Fallout 3 after a similar situation. Fallout isn’t my thing, particularly in such chaotic times, but fantasy is, and since I hate Elder Scrolls I picked up Dragon Age Inquisition. I don’t quite love Dragon Age–I don’t quite love Bioware. There’s always something pretty internetty about it, if you know what I mean, and I really hated the first two games as games. Dragon Age Origins I played before I had played any of the Infinity Engine games that it was hearkening back to, and so didn’t quite get the experience, but after I’d played them its faults and flaws began to become a little more apparent, and frankly, the XBox controls are kind of terrible. Dragon Age II was a really great attempt at telling a story in a small space, in showing social change over time, but while I’m not the kind of guy who gets hung up on plot holes, being an illegal mage openly running around with a flaming staff while people say “It’s the hero of Kirkwall, the guy who killed the biggest Qunari of all time, we’re low level bandits, let’s get him” began to wear on me, the quests which randomly solved themselves because you pick up an item as a random drop began to wear on me; and while I am okay knowing that I have made a choice in a videogame, Dragon Age II really wanted me to think that I was, and when it was all over and I realized that it was a series of magician’s choices and morton’s forks, it just felt–oh, god, I’m going to say pretentious–pretentious. It didn’t help that there’s a fuckton of really bad queer games crit about the game.

I mean maybe it just is a case where if I’d been five years younger when I’d played it, it would have blown my mind.

What I really wanted to play was The Witcher 3–I really like The Witcher’s world–but as I only have a 360 and a POS Macbook, Inquisition it was–and I think I’m pretty okay with the decision. As a Pile Of Content, it’s great–part of the reason I put it aside was simple fatigue. I actually like the much-memed Hinterlands, would have honestly been satisfied if that was the bulk of the game–and while I don’t quite love Dragon Age’s world, I don’t mind it. It certainly has more character than The Elder Scrolls, which you can tell very badly wants to be a fantasy world with a lot of character but just can’t help but be generic. I mean, I rolled a Skyrim character, thinking, okay, maybe this time it won’t be so bad–and here I am wandering through generic dungeons and fighting bandits after bandits after bandits and I just don’t give a shit. Dragon Age Inquisition is simple enough that when I want to get back to it, I’ll be able to pick up where I left off because it’s not exactly that complex of a plot, but it at least has a little bit of character. And, I mean, you know what a sucker I am for Catholic Shit.

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72

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.