53 – Taking a break from Wizardry 7; VTM:Bloodlines

Perhaps that was a little obvious if you follow the path of my posts on it: I’m putting Wizardry 7 to the side because I was stuck in a level called the Dane Tower which took forgoddamnever to get through, which I realized I was underleveled for somewhere around floor 648, and which was full of so many cruel traps as to pass challenging and move right on through frustrating. It took me the better part of three days to explore a lot of the tower and escape it; more wandering through endless forest finally got me back to where the game started–much of the map is essentially constructed as a giant loop, which I’ve just finished; I have also found out that I made some sort of error along the way with my mapping and things aren’t matching up by, like, a square or two, and while that’s not at all damaging to my game–it’s not an error that will cause me to get lost–it’s a little disheartening considering that I like to display these things on my wall because, you know, I’m That Guy. So I needed a little break, anyway, so I’m putting it to the side for now. Writing about it right now is making me feel a slight itch, actually, so maybe that’s a sign I’m not going to give up on it forever and ever, just for a little while.

Well, in the meantime I picked up Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines, and mentioning this on Twitter got me, like, all of these responses from people who were all telling me what a great time I’m going to have. Bloodlines is one of Those Games, it seems: Played by a few people, all of whom fell in love with it immediately, one of those cult classic RPGs–and, dammit, so far I’m finding them all to be right. Even EricĀ Brasure, who hates just about every game he plays except for a handful which are all near-perfect, admitted that Bloodlines is “that kind of good, solid RPG that they don’t make any more.”

So many of these things are based on whether or not the atmosphere hooks you. If I don’t want to play in the world a game sets up, I’m probably not going to like it. There’s no formula for this–either a game’s world casts its spell or it doesn’t. Bloodlines hit me right from the beginning–that it’s based on a decade and a half of pen-and-paper RPG sourcebooks is very noticeable and goes a very long way. There is something extraordinarily satisfying about playing a game where you get to stalk around, pop up behind people, and bite them on the neck.

The game hits a particular sweet spot in terms of the amount of *work* it is. After Wizardry 7 and all of the Might and Magic I’ve been playing, I genuinely could use something a little less cerebral and obfuscated, but at the same time I don’t want Ken Levine grabbing me by the head, forcing me to look at shit that he thinks is important, and intoning a very stupid story into my ear, making sure he doesn’t use any big words. Everything feelsĀ just enough–there is no blinking arrow showing you exactly where to go, enough flexibility in each goal that you can figure it out in a way which suits you, enough exploration that it feels like you’re exploring a detailed world with lots of secrets, enough to do that you’re never without at least an immediate goal. And by the same token, your goals are always extremely clear. The hub worlds take up a few city blocks and are easy to pick up in terms of layout, and because they’re dense rather than broad, you end up crossing them enough times that you learn the routes quickly enough. Mostly, I am, so far, finding Bloodlines to be very respectful of my time. It’s never so esoteric that I find myself lost or stuck–Wizardry 7’s puzzles just aren’t clicking for me for some reason, and prior to that I was playing Might and Magic 3 which is very heavy on the riddles–but it’s never so broad that it’s insulting my intelligence. It knows how to reward the player, and it’s got a nice story–trashy enough to be salacious, philosophical enough to be interesting. I’m not sure I’m going to have that much to say about this one–I’d much rather play than write about it–but I’m glad I picked it up.

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.