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.

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43

Anvil of Dawn ended for me, alas, not with a bang but with an invisible maze that I just couldn’t goddamn figure out. There’s some kind of connection between pressure plates and the walls and for whatever reason I just can’t get my head around the exact nature of it–even with a walkthrough I’m stumped. It’s pretty much the last puzzle in the game–I’m at the end of it, but I just can’t get through and I’m not sure it matters enough.

I’m not sure if this diminishes how much I enjoyed playing the game–certainly there’s a bit of frustration in something which you just can’t beat. I’m thinking as much of Knock-Knock, which I owe Robb Sherwin a review of (guess that’s what I’m doing when I’m commuting today) and Eric Brasure’s tribulations with Dark Souls–he all but breezed through the game only to find the final boss impossible.

In the case of Anvil–in the case of all three games I’ve mentioned, come to think about it–there’s some thematic irony in leaving it unfinished. While Anvil isn’t going to go down in history as one of the great unsung game narratives of all time, the writing staff actually understands a little bit about Theme, and there’s a strong undercurrent of determination in the face of the evil–okay, sure, not the most original theme ever, but the game handles it well. Your land is on its last legs, essentially–you’re on the mission in a desperate attempt to stop the Evil Dude on an all-but-hopeless mission, and every encounter is a response to this, with your character often having to convince everyone else that the cause is not hopeless.

And there’s some unexpectedly dark shit: You pick your character out of a party of five possible adventurers, intending to set off as a group, but another character conspires to delay you for a few hours, the old “distract the enemy force with a small army and let one guy slip through unnoticed” trick. As the game progresses, you come upon the other adventurers, and they all pretty much die in front of you. You come upon one–a character that I’d picked in my first attempt–tortured and hanging on a St Andrew’s cross for fuck’s sake. It’s horrible.

And that horror leads to a very dramatic effect, an interesting one: While you also come across a few NPCs who’ve been brutalized by the enemy forces, you had the opportunity to play–maybe even did play if it’s your second or third time through–one of these other characters, and there’s a palpable feeling of there but for the grace of God go I. It also adds a not unwelcome note of fear to the proceedings: The character on the cross, for example, was caught and tortured in and is warning you away from the very next dungeon that you have to go through in order to continue your quest–and yes, it’s a fucking tough one. Without being overwhelmingly difficult–except for the final bit, it’s somewhere around Lands of Lore level–it manages to create a very brutal, very oppressive, very desperate atmosphere.

Yeah, I really liked Anvil of Dawn and I’m sad I couldn’t manage to beat it.

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.

 

 

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.

14

Fuck nostalgia, though. I live with 24 year olds and not a day goes by that one of them doesn’t whine, “Oh, man, I hate being a grownup.” I see all these Internet things like, wasn’t life better when we were kids, and I think, no, it wasn’t. It really fucking wasn’t.

I’m more or less content with my adulthood, and if my life is small and simple well I like it that way. I have little urge to travel back to, say, the age of 12. Would I really want to go through puberty again? Having bedtime? Middle school? Jesus.

I first played Lands of Lore when I was about 12, and replaying it, I mean obviously I’m getting some resonances. I can’t tell you why I have such a soft spot for it–it’s a tough, frustrating little game, I’m not traditionally into first-person maze RPGs, it’s an unabashed dungeon crawler–and yet it’s such a beautifully-done one that I guess it’s one of those games where quality trumps. Its got some great art, some lovely monster design, and while the story isn’t anything to write home about, it’s got a decent share of twists. The evil witch Scotia is one of my favorite villains–if nothing else because, by the end of the game, she manages to cause a LOT of damage, going so far as to completely destroy the castle and kidnap the King, nearly killing him in the process. She’s a credible threat.

We talk about levels that we remember–the Mines and the White Tower, in particular, are brutal now, with a good almost 20-years of gaming experience under my belt more than I had the first time I played the game.

I remember Lands of Lore as being an overwhelmingly long experience; I beat it in about three or four days. And if the quest to beat Scotia is a little easier now with the diligence and discipline I’ve developed, we have to think about how, in those nostalgia-tinged days, I had homework and a bedtime and a dinnertime and all of that. Last night, because I wanted to, I stayed up super late grinding through Castle Cimmeria because, you know, what I fucking can.

And so I’m glad I don’t have much of a sense of nostalgia. I love that Lands of Lore is holding up–it takes some getting used to, certainly; the control system isn’t the best, the hit rate is much too low, there’s a little too much backtracking, it’s a product of its time in a lot of ways–but it’s holding up not because I was an overweight, smelly 12 year old when I played it but because it’s a good game.

Life ain’t that bad. I’m much more interested in playing an old game as an adult than I am going back to childhood to play something. Hell–Lands of Lore 1 and 2 sells for $6 on Good Old Games; slapping in my credit card and a five minute download got it onto my computer. We didn’t have that in ’95.