62 – Blood and Laurels, You Were Made For Loneliness, Spellforce

–I’ve written a review of Emily Short’s new work Blood and Laurels for Storycade. Check it out. I liked it very much–some quirks with the engine but otherwise an excellently written work. Hell, it’s about intrigue and stuff in Ancient Rome–what could be better?

–How about…The Future? I’ve contributed a passage to a collaborative Twine thing called You Were Made For Loneliness. A bunch of people contributed to this Thing, and you may enjoy it! If you can guess which passage is mine, you will get a free copy of Zest when it’s done!

(Zest is, incidentally, going to be PWYW, so there was a good chance you could have gotten it for free anyway, but come on, it’s a contest, have fun with it.)

–The most experience I’ve had with RTS is a few abortive attempts at StarCraft, which while undoubtedly an excellent experience, didn’t particularly seem geared towards the novice who sucks at videogames–all right, fine, I just plain sucked at it. It wasn’t the kind of game I was into at the time anyway.

Spellforce is one of those GoG summer sale impulse purchases–a $5 bundle. I actually bought it half by mistake–I was confusing it for Sacrifice, which I’ve always had a mild interest in. Both games focus on their “hybrid RTS/RPG” nature, and since that’s where my main interest was, it wasn’t a problematic mistake at all.

I’m not sure quite why I’m so into Spellforce–the pack I bought includes the original and all expansions, as well as the second one and its first expansion and I’m playing the first. I can see some issues–the graphics aren’t always the most distinct, there’s no way of selecting units of a particular type beyond the basic worker units–you can’t select all melee units, for example–and probably plenty of other issues that hardcore fans of the genre would point out, but I think it’s pitched at exactly the right level for me.

I’m about a quarter of the way through the first campaign, playing on normal difficulty, and while it’s not a breeze I’m getting the handle of the basic techniques. It’s always a fun thing getting into a genre for the first time. There’s things that I’m finding extremely charming  about it–I really *like* that there’s a degree to which I can set my little dudes out to do whatever little resource gathering thing I need them to do, grab a cup of coffee, and come back to Progress.  I am, of course, playing on Easy Mode.

Which, that’s of course part of why I’m finding Spellforce more accessible–it’s not as dicky. One of the reasons I don’t play multiplayer stuff is because I’m actually fairly bad at most videogames. Single player modes don’t make me feel that way–I am perfectly content to run up against a wall chipping away at a level until it’s done–Spellforce has been particularly forgiving in this regard and does allow for some do-0vers–you can escape to another map, which wipes away any buildings and units you’ve created, but enemy bases stay destroyed and any gear or experience you’ve gained stay with your character. Even when I’m playing with someone with the best of intentions, I feel like I suck way too much in multiplayer to a degree that just isn’t fun.

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.

41

Anvil of Dawn seems to have inspired deep but not widespread love; there’s not very much written about it and even the GoG forum page has only one page worth of topics. GameFAQs’s message board has four topics, all of which are barely going through the motions, and one FAQ written by comic book writer James Hudnall, whose name I did not know until today. (Given Anvil’s focus on interesting monster designs, I can very easily see how a comic writer could become a fan.)

One of the more salient pieces comes to us from Abandonia, and it’s breathless as hell, hilariously so:

Now, where should one start to describe a masterpiece? I can’t think of anything about the game that could have been done better. If you don’t understand it by now, the game will receive a score of 5 – without ANY doubts whatsoever!… could go on all week about this game and its greatness, but I won’t. Look at the screens and download it at once. It is without a doubt THE best RPG I have ever played!

One gets the impression that the review was written by a small dog, and it’s so tempting to be the cynical bastard and point to a lot of things the game could have done better–Character leveling is almost an afterthought, casting spells is cumbersome, the inventory is unnecessarily complicated–but it’s the kind of review I can understand completely because, shit, if I had played this in ’95, when I was thirteen, I probably would have felt the same way about it. Many of the issues with the game come from it being 2013, come from the fact that, again, I’ve played Legend of Grimrock. I can see flawed if valid reasoning behind everything–the missteps seem made out of a sense of experimentalism that just didn’t quite work out.

I guess why I am enjoying Anvil of Dawn so much is that it seems to have been created with great love and care–it very much loves its player. The rhetoric surrounding AAA and indie these days seems to be that AAA is focus-grouped out of any teeth, and that indie is abrasive personalitites arrogantly calling for the death of the player. Both cases are expressions of an unabashed contempt for the audience–in the case of the former, that the player only deserves soothing pabulum and in the latter that the author is wiser and cruel. I’m punk rock enough to be equally disgusted with both attitudes.

And so to a real degree Anvil of Dawn reminds me that another, and–when you get honest about it–more prevalent attitude exists: Picking an audience you like and spending your time making things they’ll think are cool. Anvil of Dawn‘s 1995 release date–on Hallowe’en, we just missed its 18th birthday!–isn’t insignificant. It was released almost simultaneously with Interplay’s StonekeepStonekeep‘s 18th birthday is tomorrow, so perhaps we’ll just take both of them out for dinner over the weekend. They’re considered to be two of the last traditional grid-based dungeon crawlers ever made before the transition to full 3D free movement; Stonekeep and Anvil are the swan songs of an era that games like Grimrock and the upcoming Might and Magic X are deliberate throwbacks to–and god damn am I glad we’re exploring these concepts again. But they’re beautiful swan songs: They cap off the period beautifully.

I don’t know where the Anvil of Dawn team’s head was at. The game was apparently reviewed well at the time–but it’s not one that you hear a lot about. I have to feel like they knew, even at the time, that they were making one of the last examples in a subgenre beloved by an increasingly small number of people. You know, everyone who painstakingly mapped out every Wizardry game. People who’d cleared out World of XEENAnvil of Dawn feels very strongly like a gift.

 

38

Here’s how much I’m liking Anvil of Dawn: I’ve played through the beginning three separate times. I don’t do this: There’s a billion games out there and if I’m finding a game troublesome in any particular way, I’ll usually just move on from it if it hasn’t hooked me. Anvil is–oh, I think flawed gem is the best term for it. So far I’ve found a dozen things the game does wrong; it’s wonderful regardless.

First time I made it halfway through the first dungeon before deciding I wanted to rebuild my character. I traditionally like playing magic-based builds–although in my old age I’m usually opting for something a little beefier–and the magic system is…not great. In-universe, spells are cast with a series of arcane gestures; in practice, this means that when you click the spell icon, you get to slowly watch your character draw the glyph, then you see the spell effect slowly form, and then it misses because the enemy moved. In addition, the spell icons live in an area which takes up most of the real estate for the “turn right” hotspot, and so time after time instead of turning I end up casting a spell. There’s an option in the menu to hide the spell icons (and, in an awesome display of flexibility, all of the separate elements of the interface!), and that’s what I end up doing with a strength build. It’s much less frustrating to go into options and reshow them every time I want to cast something. (Allegedly, hitting V shows and hides the interface on the fly; I can’t seem to get it to work.) Playing as a strength build, it’s a much less tedious proposition.

Second time I encountered a glitch. There are a fair share of moving parts–perpetually rolling boulders which toggle pressure switches or just form traps–one of those boulders got stuck, and because I wasn’t staggering my saves, I had to start over. It’s the rare glitch which feels slightly like my fault: Anvil is fairly late, 1995, it’s considered one of the last great sprite based grid dungeon crawlers, and so maybe it’s not quite forgivable that there aren’t autosaves or checkpoints, but it IS an old-school game. The typical advice I’m seeing is to create a backup save at the beginning of each dungeon, just in case.

But for all of this, there’s a lot of charm and love to the game: For one, it’s beautiful. Corridors are fairly simple CG, and the outdoor areas in particular are artifacts from the mid-90s, which was the beginning of one of the ugliest eras of computer graphics in history, but creatures and characters are all done in gorgeous sprites. I cannot stress how much I am loving the monster design. I’ve talked about this before: Skyrim is a fantasy epic in which the team could not have been bothered to come up with any interesting monsters and so throws bandits, bears, giant spiders. One of the things I love about older fantasy games is that they’re not concerned with being realistic–more likely, the servant of the King WOULD be slaughtering poor citizens who, in their desperation, have turned to banditry–but are concerned with giving us Cool Shit To Look At. The second dungeon contains the most interesting snake monster I’ve ever seen: It looks like a regular rattlesnake, except instead of a head, it’s got a human hand holding a knife that it slashes at you. When you kill it, it immediately turns into an ouroborical circle and dissolves. It’s the kind of game that I bought because of the screenshots, which GoG chose wisely to showcase some of the stranger monster designs.

But two steps back: That first dungeon, the one I’ve played three times, your only enemy is a soldier. A very well-designed soldier, but there’s only one enemy in the entire dungeon. Strange decision. You’ve got to work for a while before you can begin to see the cool stuff the game has in store.

One of the oddest and most consistent areas of praise is the automap; it’s one of the finest examples of the form. It’s a very clear and elegantly-designed one; most importantly it loads instantly. There’s plenty of games like these which pair the map with a soundclip of taking out the map and maybe a little animation. In dungeon crawlers like this, looking at the map is something you do CONSTANTLY: Taking the second gets irritating. I’ve quoted this bit before, but let’s check in with Plotkin on the subject of interface animations:

…if you go to the inventory screen, the “cancel” button (returning to the game) runs an animation. The animation is about a second and a half long. This is about a second and a half too long. Quick, name an operation which the player is going to perform seven hundred times during your adventure game. Now, for twenty dollars: is the player (1) desperate to keep playing this game, or (2) desperate to see the same minor animation which he’s seen six hundred and ninety-nine times before? Think hard!

I know some of this has to do with the time it takes to load the interface elements, but that doesn’t make it less annoying–and particularly when games do that today, it feels like an irrelevant bit of eye candy. That the map–and all interface elements–in Anvil load instantly is wonderful–it’s a sign of care for the player.

Which is not to say that the interface is all great: The inventory is…odd. One of the reasons I haven’t been able to get too far into Ultima VII–besides my general distaste for the series which has as much as anything to do with being too young for the majority of the series and not imprinting on it at all–is because of its terrible inventory system, which basically gives you a series of non-grid-based containers and lets you dump all your loot in. I’m not sure if Anvil is directly influenced by it, but it’s the same basic thing, and it suffers greatly for not having a very organized grid. Looty as the game is, I haven’t found a major problem with encumbrance yet, but you do have to babysit what you’ve got. When you pick stuff up, right-clicking will drop it in your inventory, but it’ll just kind of dump it wherever it feels like; picking up only a couple items reduces your bag to a confusing state of clutter, and so every few minutes you will need to stop and just shove the healing potions to the side, put the weapons in your weapons bag, toss out any spell figurines you’re never gonna use, collate all of your amulets. Now, I don’t mind this. To a degree I like reorganizing an inventory, and a couple of odd choices aside–you can’t just open a bag, you have to place it in your hand and temporarily store whatever was in that hand in the inventory, which adds nothing–moving everything around is fairly quick and easy to do. Come up with a system of organization and just run with it–I guess you just have to accept that one of the aspects of Anvil is inventory management.

I’m not adequately conveying why I’m liking this game so much; maybe I haven’t quite figured it out yet. I love its genre: I respond very well to a maze filled with Kobolds that I have to best. It’s nice to look at, the mazes are cool, and I guess there’s the sense so far of discovery. It’s mentioned in the same breath as Lands of Lore, which, unfortunate as that series quickly became, has a near-perfect first installment; Stonekeep, which in many ways is kind of terrible but so goddamn goofy and exuberant that it’s hard not to love; and Eye of the Beholder, which I’ve never played but badly want GoG to offer. As far as these things go, that’s excellent company to keep.

 

 

18

Wizardry 6 continues to be wonderful, if extremely claustrophobic. It’s part and parcel of the greyness–a beach looks like a mountain looks like a tomb and all of them are stone walls closing you in. I’ve gotten to the River Styx, which features blue water tiles instead of grey floor tiles, and it’s almost a completely different game. As I’ve said: The game exists not as software but as a combination of itself, the maps I’m drawing, and my imagination, and it’s interested in being brutal, which I’m loving–it respects the fuck out of me as a player. CF something like Skyward Sword which is Very Proud Of You For Figuring Out How To Open A Chest And Gives You Fanfare Every Time. I think it’s quite possible that Nintendo thinks its audience is mentally disabled. CF Dark Souls which doesn’t give a fuck whether you beat it or not and which is considered one of the finest games of this generation. Makes you think.

But brutality, lovely as it is, needs to be tempered every so often, and solely to give myself a break for an evening after a particularly tough bit of maze, I broke open that Might and Magic pack I bought from GOG. There are, I believe, 9 separate games in the pack–M&M 1-9, the fangame Swords of Xeen, and something called Crusaders of Might and Magic which I have been told is a bit of a letdown.

I’d played one of the M&M games years ago as a kid–it came with our new computer–and I remember playing it but not getting very far, mostly because I was 10 and I was too lazy for it. I was attempting to get through it without mapping, which worked hilariously, and I wasn’t used to such an open game as it was. Breaking open the seal on the six-pack–games 1-6 are sold together on GOG with the rest separately outside of bundle sales–I played the first, found it too punishingly old school for my mood–it’s not very different from what I’m dealing with with Wizardry. I’ll get to it later. Might and Magic 2 turns out to be the game I’d played all those years ago–I remembered it immediately from the title screen–but again, very old-school, and the draw distance is a little annoying.

I’d really been interested in World of Xeen (M&M 4&5), but I played 3 and it immediately hooked me.

Well…not immediately. It took a little while to figure out how to fight and how to explore, but boy howdy!

There is precious little in the way of setup. In the intro, the series antagonist appears and babbles some threats at you, and then the next thing you know you’re in a town and given pretty free reign. Opening your journal, you’ll get some notes about Moose Rats attacking the town, and dealing with that will probably be the first major quest that you do, but beyond that, the game doesn’t really care. Eventually a set of goals appear–the bulk of the game appears to be collecting a series of macguffins for three kings representing the various alignments, and then you get to pick which one you think is the best–but the structure of the game is plain and simple adventuring. You dick around towns, buying stuff and finding quests; you dick around the map, finding secrets and fighting monsters; you dick around dungeons, finding treasure and navigating mazes. Some of these get you closer to the endgame; the rest just give you treasure or fun little experiences.

I’ve just described Skyrim, essentially. Skyrim, like Final Fantasy VII before it, is such a product of its era, so representative of The State Of Gaming At The Time that it can be used as representative example of What Gaming Was Like in 2011. Skyrim is a more elaborate Dickaround Game, featuring many many more quests and many many more square miles and many many more enemies–

Well, no, because this is one of the first reasons I disliked Skyrim–there’s no fucking monsters. There’s a couple of ones, but for the most part you’re fighting wild animals and generic bandits. By Hour 10, you’ve pretty much seen all of the basics of what the game has to offer, in monster design and environment design and character design and puzzle design. Skyrim is less fast food and less a buffet and more a gigantic tub of gruel that you’re allowed to eat as much or as little as you want. The more you play Skyrim, the blander it gets.

I think there’s a point of diminishing returns, especially when you’ve got such a big budget game like Skyrim that’s so desperately terrified that someone’s not going to like it. Skyrim is made not for the person who is going to drop hundreds and hundreds of hours on it but for someone who’s going to spend maybe 20 on it. The philosophy seems to work like this: That 20 hours can be picked up pretty much anywhere in the game and will be fairly representative of what the game has to offer. If you drop a hundred hours on it, you’ve seen those 20 hours five separate times. Dwemer Ruins may be interesting the first few times, and if you’ve only seen a couple you’ll probably enjoy it; by the time you’ve hit the dozenth, well, everything kind of blurs. Spread this over the towns. Over the overworld. Over the battles. Over the spells. After a distressingly short period of time, Skyrim forgets to include new content, and you’ve got 80-100 hours left to go.

For a game named after its location, Skyrim itself isn’t the kind of place you’re ever going to navigate by memory because it’s simply too big. The map is good for giving you an idea of what direction you need to go in–although the arrow, taking the place of the guy who owns the game who’s watching you play, makes a need for orienteering almost COMPLETELY nonexistent–but it’s not going to help you remember where anything is beyond a few landmarks. There was that meh article going around a little while ago about whether or not Skyrim is “impressionistic”–which is a concept I can’t necessarily disagree with. I don’t really remember explicit Events or Dungeons or anything from the game–I remember mountains, and giant spiders, and cheevos popping up.

By contrast, Might and Magic 3, colorful, vibrant Might and Magic 3, where all the enemy designs are goofy and cool and I’ve seen more so far than in Oblivion and Skyrim put together, although I may be exaggerating, gives you a lot more in the way of engagement for the world you’re saving. It’s a lot smaller, for one. I’ve mapped out the first island already, although I certainly haven’t done all of its secrets–and based on a map I glimpsed at, there’s maybe five or six major ones. With the automap skill–which you can learn within the first few minutes of play–mapping islands becomes a fairly easy experience, monsters aside. Finding all of the Stuff in Skyrim is impossible and absolutely unrewarding. Each secret you discover in M&M is a larger percentage of the whole. Some more initial direction and focus might not be a bad thing–apparently World of Xeen addresses that as well–but given the game’s focus on random questing over an intricate storyline, that’s not a problem. You’ll figure out quickly enough if monsters are too strong for you, and if there’s a riddle you can’t solve, well, enough of the game is optional and there’s enough stuff to do that you can always come back to it later.

Coming back to it later: Are there any dungeons in Skyrim that are too difficult for the moment you find them that you have to put them aside? I never found one. The game is constant progress, constant conquering, and it’s absolutely lame.

Now, particularly when the dungeons are concerned–M&M is in first-person although it’s constructed like a classic RPG with squares representing entrances to towns and dungeons–there is a notion of Completed. You finish a dungeon, you’re done with it; you never need to come back. Once you’ve solved a town’s dungeon–there’s usually only one–the towns are only good for supplies and leveling up. As far as supplies go, you sell a LOT more than you buy–there are enough good treasures in the dungeons that I don’t spend much money in the stores. Leveling up is done by trainers, and that each town has a different level cap for how high they can train you is one of the main reasons to spend time in any other town. In ANY case, each town has a portal that, once you’ve discovered the password, allows you to quick travel between them.

Contrast this to Wizardry 6, one huge dungeon, which is crossed and recrossed, sometimes because you missed something but other times because you’ve found a key to unlock a door. The game, like Dark Souls, is a complete whole–my maps are becoming multi-page for each floor and every single one lines up EXACTLY with the floors above and below–and the better you know it, the more shortcuts you’ll discover. Keeping the game in your head is practically a survival tactic. Because I’m making my own maps, keeping the game in my head is extremely easy; I have a very strong working knowledge of that first continent in M&M3, but beyond that I need to look at the automap a lot. (And the automap cannot scroll; I hope THAT is something they fix in the fourth game as well but I’ll find out soon enough.)

But given the self-contained nature of the dungeons and towns, keeping the entire game in your head isn’t necessary, and frankly it’s nice. Might and Magic 3 is certainly more difficult and sophisticated than Skyrim–heh, think about that, Skyrim as an unsophisticated game, and you know what, it is–but compared to Wizardry 6 it’s a fun romp.

Okay, fun romp over, time to break out the graph paper again.