112 – The Bard’s Tale 4 Has 350 Characters And They Will Not Shut Up

Some 10 years ago I made the mistake of kicking off a long weekend by rooting through a bargain bin and buying the PS2 game The Bard’s Tale. A shining example of the style of shoddy action-adventures that spawned, like mildew, during the console’s height, The Bard’s Tale featured a very confused Cary Elwes and a bunch of community theatre players gamely making their way through a third-rate Monty Python ripoff of a script that insisted that its fourth-wall breaking and gentle ribbing of RPG conventions was absolutely hilarious. As a particularly sadistic touch, the game actually shuts up and lets you play for as many as 15 consecutive minutes, and then, just as you’re lulled into a false sense of security, it grabs your head and forces you to watch as its characters burst into songs–comic songs, at that, with the first one being a rousing celebration of beer and the second one being about how I took the game out of my console and promptly, deliberately misplaced it.

I could not tell you a single thing about the humor or the quality of the writing in The Bard’s Tale 4. Well, I could tell you about two early dialogues–a Hodor-style farmer who responds to every query with a list of vegetables, and a soup merchant who rambles on for a couple paragraphs about how great his soup is before deciding not to sell you the soup. If you are reading a review of Bard’s Tale 4 that praises the writing, you are reading a review by someone who has never played a well-written game, seen a good movie, or read a halfway decent book; you are reading a book by a geek with poor taste. I have skipped and skimmed my way through every single other dialogue. I have been given quests and completed them without knowing who my guest party members are or why I’m helping them. I don’t want to know these people. They’re extras from Holy Grail and Life of Brian and it is twenty-goddamn-eighteen.

One of the game’s marketing bullets is the more-than-350 characters with speaking parts. Like all voice acting in RPGs, it is utterly pointless here. As is standard, you are presented with a character’s talking head, reading the paragraph of backstory that they are spouting off, that you are supposed to politely pretend to be interested in, the voice acting redundant in the face of the text you can make your way through in half the time. Some 10 years ago, when I used to kick off long weekends by buying bad bargain bin PS2 games, I found myself working a heavy corporate job. (Neither I nor my boss had any clue what I was doing there, who hired me, what I was hired to do, but the pay was so good I showed up for three years until they finally fired me.) As part of this job, I would regularly have to sit through Powerpoint presentations which consisted of slides with dense text on them and the presenter reading, verbatim, the words on each slide. And in addition, to make sure we were all following along, the presentation would not begun until we were each handed a printout of the text of the slides. Entire hours of my week would be sucked up by this nonsense. It could have been an email. But a presentation on a screen feels more important, and a voiced character feels that much more cinematic.

But God, I mean I had the same exact problem with Pillars of Eternity 2, the presentation was about as engaging as a corporate powerpoint and the characters would not. shut. up. P2 might have even been worse–the game expects you to be able to tell the difference between several factions enough to choose one to ally with, and you get to choose between the one who goes on for paragraphs and paragraphs; the one who goes on for paragraphs and paragraphs; the one who goes on for paragraphs and paragraphs; and the one who goes on for paragraphs and paragraphs. Lord help me, I’ve become an RPG gamer who doesn’t read. I hope that BT4 doesn’t have any choices, doesn’t expect me to have paid attention in any way. Multiple endings and consequences only matter when you give a shit about the world you’re playing in.

Because as a game, Bard’s Tale 4 is pretty great! (Something which it does not have in common with Pillars 2, which was a deathless, joyless slog.) So far I’ve encountered two hubs and one proper dungeon. The hubs are large and sprawling, secrets for return trips hidden around, and they’re clearly areas you’re intended to unlock more and more of as things progress. This is Good Dungeon Crawling–where navigating the environment is itself a challenge and not simply a series of hallways where challenges (i.e. combats) happen. Different abilities and items unlock puzzles, which are liberally scattered around the environment. All dungeon crawling, these days, happens under the shadow of Legend of Grimrock, which spawned a handful of successors that all missed what, exactly, was good about it; what, exactly, Grimrock saw in the old games and recontextualized for a new generation. BT4 is the first dungeon crawler post-Grimrock that I think is remotely worth a damn.

Grimrock is not a plot-heavy series. The sequel has a bit more going on, but both confine their plot almost exclusively to notes and books. That’s not surprising, given its roots in Dungeon Master which was also uninterested in NPCs; I appreciate BT4’s attempt at giving its world more character. But I guess I’m just over NPC interaction. I don’t want to deal with keywords, or with Bioware-style conversation trees–I’m not a horny 20-year-old who wants to fuck videogame characters by picking the right options , and I’m fucking tired of developers trying to trick me into thinking a conversation is interactive just because I had to pick every beat of the conversation one-by-one instead of, you know, just sitting back and watching the conversation. I am happy to just sit back and watch a conversation.

I’m playing Dragon Quest 11, and when I’m talking to a nobody NPC in the field, their dialogue is not voiced but merely rendered as a series of very pleasant beeps–the same beeps the NPCs in the series have been making for 30 years–and when there’s a major event, the characters voice their lines, and I can gamely skip through it since I’m usually done reading by the time the character has spoken their fourth word, and they only speak a couple sentences at a time, and the conversation happens on its own without me prodding them about every element of their backstory–like I’m fucking interested–and the only choice anyone asks me to make is whether or not to help with whatever predicament we’re in, and if I answer no, they scold me and make me do it anyway, and there’s no choice and there’s no consequences and what I do in this videogame doesn’t matter and it’s not up to me and I’m just along for the ride and I’m not getting any deep phil osophical meaning out of the ludonarrative dissonance and it is fucking wonderful.

You know, like, The Bard’s Tale 4 is probably a very good game, I am enjoying it, but it will not shut up and there is something off-putting about it whenever it tries to introduce us to one of it’s 7,000 voiced characters. I’ve talked to a couple dozen people so far and I haven’t found a single character I like. That’s not BT4’s fault; but–like Pillars of Eternity–it’s not clever enough to do anything interesting with conversation so it just spouts out pointless exposition that would have been cut out of even a mediocre fantasy novel. You know, it’s just–games are so loud, and they talk so much, and they try so hard to be funny and wacky and quirky and jovial, and, like, let’s just all fucking relax, okay? Because when Bard’s Tale 4 relaxes, it’s really great, and then an NPC comes on the horizon, and it realizes with a wave of terror that it’s going to have to be social for a minute, and it says, it’s okay, I got this, I’m cool, I’m relaxed, and it opens its mouth and a fucking joke comes out, and it’s all downhill from there.

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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.

 

40

I’ve had murder on my mind since, oh, let’s just call it March, let’s trace everything to Bioshock Infinite, that’s a fine narrative. Dishonored was kind of a first step: I distinctly remember a moment in which I got to see the spine of a guard whose head I’d chopped off, and that wasn’t something I particularly wanted to see, but DIshonored had some merit to it. Bioshock Infinite was Extruded Videogame Product, and while I can’t say “murder simulator” with a straight face, the story seemed like a half-assed act of self-aggrandizement designed to give a lame veneer–to pretend that the game was something classier than an opportunity to control a dude who gets to slaughter people by the hundredfold.

Look–Killing is Harmless is overwritten–its endless summaries and half-baked analysis seem more like a term paper written the night before, it’s padded using tricks that every sophomore knows, and one of its main theses–that one can be held as morally culpable for a videogame action as one can be for a real-life action–isn’t one I agree with at all–but it’s certainly one of the few pieces of game criticism to come out of that particular scene that’s remotely worth a damn: Whatever your opinion of Spec Ops The Line, Keogh’s question–why are you playing a game whose basic actions can be boiled down to “repeatedly murdering dudes”?–was posed prominently enough that it’s worth attempting to answer, and the realization that we might not necessarily be able to do so satisfactorily is significant, yeah.

I’ve been playing RPGs of one form or another for most of my life: Combat has always existed, for me, more as a series of numbers hitting up against other numbers rather than anything more visceral. It can’t be insignificant that I was such a Dragon Warrior guy–still am. Thanks to Akira Toriyama, Dragon Warrior has always had wonderful monster designs–many of which, especially the Slime, are iconic of the series–and so I almost get the sense that a game where you fight primarily humans, especially in a fantasy scenario, is evidence of laziness on the part of the developers. (The so-frequent zombie, really, is usually a way of avoiding the moral questions surrounding killing humans–zombies are soulless monsters and therefore “safe” to kill–without having to do pesky things such as using your imagination to come up with creatures.)

Monsters, not wild animals–there’s something as equally odious about killing a pack of wolves defending their territory as there is killing a guard who simply took the job because it had good insurance and would let him retire early with a good pension. Games have been experimenting with making enemies feel like people for years, as simple things like a wider variety of voice clips became possible; in the effort of games to embrace realism, you don’t necessarily want a bunch of enemies which feel like ducks in a shooting gallery.

I’m not sure I’m leading up to anything more profound than, I’m just bored of games which make an effort to bring the experience of combat into further realism. Anvil of Dawn is hitting this: The enemies are all gruesome and cool-looking monsters–a good motivator to move on to the next dungeon is to see what they’re gonna come up with next, which is something that’s entirely lost in the likes of Skyrim. The combat is extremely simple: You shuffle up to enemies, bop them on the head, shuffle back, let them miss you, then go back and bop them on the head again until they die. It’s not as quick as the fights in the earlier Lands of Lore, and its descendant Legend of Grimrock all but perfects the bop-and-shuffle–but I think it’s satisfying enough. The timing is different for each of the enemies, and there’s some basic strategy to learn, some of that certain-weapons-or-spells-damage-certain-enemies-better thing, but not that much more than that. You don’t even have to aim.

I guess it puts combat in a secondary role, and I like that. It works as a pacing device, as a way of creating an atmosphere of danger and dread, and as a way of worldbuilding, in a way: This isn’t generic Tolkien orcs and shit; Tempest is a fairly alien world, and its enemies are likewise alien. But the game is not about the experience of combat: It’s about the experience of navigating mazes. The mazes contain monsters, just as they contain treasures and they contain puzzles. And I love mazes.

I like abstraction, I guess. I want to look at cool stuff. One of the main reasons AAA has completely left me cold is it isn’t giving me cool stuff to look at, it isn’t giving me cool stuff to fight, but it’s asking me to pretend to be soldiers and murderers and, again, it’s not that I feel guilty about it, but I think it’s time to start being more careful about who I pretend to be. Maybe it’s as simple as I think it’s just nicer to pretend to be a hero sometimes.

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.