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.

 

 

31 – Preparations For A Trip To Kyrandia

I probably still have the original CDs–frankly, I hope I do, given that my appetite to play Hand of Fate has been awakened–somewhere at my parents’ house back in Jersey. I know for a fact that I’ve got my copy of the third game, because I happened to find it the last time I visited; it’s still there, but the back of the case blurb: “Remember that you’re one small trickster in a very large world.” Book Three: Malcolm’s Revenge, in which the primary antagonist, the mad jester, becomes the playable character in a chance to prove his innocence–

I am getting ahead of myself. But it feels unfair, to me, that Good Old Games–I am about to speak ill of Good Old Games and it kills me, fucking kills me to–should only be releasing the first Kyrandia game, because when I bought them, oh, let’s say I was thirteen, I bought them in the trilogy rerelease, that is, all three games on CD-rom. And there was no way, no way I’d play the games in order, from start to finish. And so I ended up experiencing the Legend of Kyrandia as three time periods, three distinct voices, three distinct characters, all at once. The first, where you play as the unwitting heir to the throne and the most traditional of the three, a good and heroic, if slightly bland and clumsy, character who goes on a quest. The second, where you play Zanthia, one of the greatest adventure game heroines of all time (no mean feat considering the sheer number of excellent female leads that adventure gaming, as a whole, featured in the 80s and 90s), in a comic epic. And the third, where you’re Malcolm, and where you’re now suddenly the only sane man in a world which is demented and hypocritical, and in retrospect a fairly bitter social satire.

Well, the rumor is that releases of the next games will be impending, and so either way, I think it’s time I take a trip back to Kyrandia.

Because I fucking loved these games. Hand of Fate, Book 2, that was by far my favorite. Malcolm’s Revenge had some finicky bits, some pixel hunting bits, but I remember the game allegedly had its share of alternate paths and endings.

Book one had death.

Death in adventure games–ooh, it was totally a controversial subject by the time I grew old enough to appear on the scene in ’94-ish. Sierra, in particular, was so famous for its many, many deaths and unwinnable situations that it’s still a byword for overly-unfair games. My favorite example, because it is one of the cruelest jokes ever played on a player by a developer, occurs in Space Quest II. Making your way through a series of mazes–oh, yeah, mazes, there used to be a shitload of mazes, mappable mazes, blind mazes, gimmick mazes, oh boy were there mazes!–you could come across a Xenomorph-looking thing. Oh ho, you say, because this is a Sierra game and you know what’s up, if I touch it it’s gonna kill me. So you save, and you walk right up to the Xenomorph–one of the reasons players not only tolerated but sought out Sierra’s many, many deaths was because they were often somehow ironic or funny or dark or in any case perversely rewarding–and, instead of killing you, a text box pops up describing how the creature simply gives you a big, sloppy wet kiss. Ha ha–and here you thought it was gonna kill you. And you go on your merry way, solving puzzles and getting through mazes and finally, a bit later, the egg that the creature implanted in you when it kissed you hatches and burst through your chest and you die. Hope you still have a save file from before you met the creature.

In the 80s, this kind of shit went unquestioned. Again, remember that Back In The Day, the simple economics surrounding a computer meant that if you had one in your home, you were probably Into Computers–which meant that you probably programmed. The frustrations of programming–spending time and effort to produce something which, as it turns out, contains some sort of flaw which causes the entire thing to break–are reflected in the unwinnable videogame state. Neglecting to pick up a key in the first room and needing that at the end of the game–is that any different from forgetting a semicolon in line 50 and seeing ramifications in line 500?

And so while early gamers got immense pleasure from untangling the particular sequence needed to beat King’s Quest and all of that, when the 90s started to hit, computers became more widespread. This is when we got Lucasarts Style–that is, games which had no death and which had no unwinnable situations. Look: All I’m saying is, if we had had Twitter back at this time, entire covens of friendships would have been fucking ended over Sierra Style vs. Lucasarts Style. Is including unwinnable situations too cruel to the player? Isn’t taking out death the equivalent of rounding off the corners and taking the stakes out of gaming?

These questions have been pretty much resolved–even the most hardcore adventure game nowadays is not nearly as cruel as Sierra enjoyed being, and in fact it will most likely use its extreme difficulty as a selling point. When I think back on Kyrandia, however, I think of its three games as detailing three very specific snapshots of evolving design. Book One has death, Book One has a maze, Book One has a death maze. Book Two broadens its world and, recognizing that its audience is also broader, takes out death. Book Three involves an obsession with morality. In fact, the series–I hope I am not reading too much into my memories–is extraordinarily socially aware. It may begin with a traditional foundling narrative–a normal boy finding out he’s Special and eventually growing to claim his birthright from its usurper–but it’s also savvy enough to give the distaff a much more interesting and much more fun game, and to abruptly shatter the games’ moral compass entirely for the finale.

But that’s where the series goes, and how it can be read as a whole. Right now, we’ve just got access to the first game. I’m going to be very interested to see how my memories dovetail with what the game actually is.

16

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.