88 – Might and Magic 3, Black Watchmen, Dragon Age Inquisition

–Stuck, as has always been the case, in Might and Magic III, this time on the lever puzzle in the Fortress of Fear. I hate lever puzzles. Yes, it’s optional, yes, I have a half-dozen other dungeons I could be going in at the moment. I am not quitting; I am Taking A Break. Because, dammit, I do want the map of the Isles of Terra on the wall to join VARN, XEEN, and Lost Guardia. (And I swear, one day Ishar is going to join them!)

But what is it about MM3 that just loses me? The exploration isn’t as satisfying–the biggest mistake of the series came with II, where you get the ability, very quickly, to traverse every square on the map and it becomes a game of lawnmowing. Might and Magic I is an impeccably designed maze. You can, eventually, go on every square if you find the way to do it; Might and Magic II gives you skills which allows you to, essentially, cross through walls in the outside. A line of trees or mountains that blocks your way in I becomes simply another square to pass through in II and that continues. III is a flat game paced only by enemy difficulty and keys to certain dungeons. And I love exploration and mazes, poking at a maze to find the spot that I haven’t gone into yet.

I mean, I did make it all the way through IV and V, so obviously the style got refined. III is excellent in many ways–it’s a beautiful game, it keeps and refines the manic energy of the series which is one of its hallmarks, and it’s hard–though a lot of the difficulty does come from riddles and puzzles. But really, Might and Magic I captured me in a way few other games have, and 6 did a good job of having that wonderful sense of expansive purpose; the other games in the series have been diminishing returns.

–Ducked into The Black Watchmen because a paranoid conspiracy ARG-style game is probably what we as a society need right now? It’s fun. Total cheese. You’re given a series of puzzles with all of this window dressing about secret experiments and agents with thick overdone Russian accents planting bugs and occult organizations–I’m totally blanking on the name but what was that webpage game a bunch of years back that started you off with searching pixels of images for text written in and moved to cracking codes and image manipulation and–do you know what I’m talking about? It’s one of those kinds of games. If you’re in the right mindset, and you can solve the puzzles, it’s great. Hard to do by yourself, I guess–it’s always more fun to do these things with a friend. I’ve recently gone through a breakup and so, you know, maybe I should have gotten Black Watchmen six months ago.

It reminds me of Missing Since January–anyone remember that lost little gem? An old boyfriend and I played that through a few years ago–we were the type to play adventure games together–and it was fun. The kayfabe of that was a little more complex–where Black Watchmen is simply “You’re a member of a cryptic organization solving crimes, have fun”, Missing tells the story of a serial killer and the two journalists who disappear investigating the murders. The killer sends a CD full of clues to the police, you get your hands on a copy, and you get to solving.

Missing took the ARG thing to some pretty nice heights, particularly for the time, particularly for someone like me who didn’t have much experience with ARGs. Its major gimmick was integrating itself with your email–you’d get messages from various characters, including the killer–the most notable one being several days after you’ve solved everything and moving on to something else, getting a gloating email from the killer promising to be back in the sequel because he’s always watching. Great shit. Black Watchmen has sections where you can add your phone number and address–locked for me at the moment, perhaps for later seasons.

The two biggest issues with ARGs from my sights, though, are that they’re usually too commercial and too hard, which at first glance seems a little paradoxical. Most of the big ARGs–I Love Bees, for example–are made to promote other things, aren’t a story in and of themselves; and if you’re not interested in the thing they’re promoted, it feels a little cheap. And these things are often designed to require that group participation. I like that such tools are available–there’s forums for Black Watchmen (that had absolutely no hints or discussion for a couple of puzzles I was stuck on) and a Discord server (whatever that is, sorry, kids, but I’m 35 and it’s getting hard for me to learn new shit unless forced, which by the way I’ve gotten the fuck rid of my Twitter and am richardgoodness@mastodon.social now and I fucking refuse to learn about instances)–but, you know, videogames have always been a largely solitary activity for me. I don’t like to play games against other people, and I don’t like to play with strangers. It’s nice to have another head next to mine to work together, but that’s about it. And so when you get into ARGs that require specialized esoteric knowledge that everyone has a piece of, where a community is required–I get a little leery of that.

I guess it takes me out of the experience a bit. Spells like these are very difficult. I’m the guy who hates Twine games made in the default, who hates Choice of Games for their fucking refusal to even change font colors, who can’t play a game if it’s not fullscreen. Seeing that this is on a computer with the Finder and the charge icon for my battery, that reminds me that I’m playing a game at home. The suspension of disbelief is difficult. Now, if I’m looking into the dark underbelly of organizations, if I’m pretending to hack into servers, if I’m doing research, doing it from the comfort of my own web browser adds to the experience. That’s how I’d do it “in real life”. But when I’m going to a forum that the company who made the game has created specifically to help people connect so they can discuss the game, that’s a little…silly.

I will say Black Watchmen does a little more online than perhaps they ought. The shell program, that you run from Steam or whatever, contains the navigator where you choose the puzzles you’re going to solve, is the spot where you enter the puzzle solutions, contains some basic documents. For the rest, most puzzles involve the site http://archive.blackwatchmen.com where you enter certain codes/passwords to access particular documents. It’s effective in its way, it gates your progress nicely, but I don’t quite understand why it’s a separate webpage that you can get to–why it isn’t a feature of the program itself. There could very easily be a database module within it that could serve the same exact purpose. And there’s some UI shit in the program–copying and pasting isn’t great, for example, little things like that–but it’s about as cute of an experience as it can be. I mean, I mean, I run an X-Files podcast. I’m a 90s kid. This kind of conspiracy cheese, I can’t take it completely seriously at the same time that I’m able to take it completely seriously. It’s funny, and creepy as hell to play at night.

–Speaking of breakups and big blocks of cheese, immediately after my breakup, a friend of mine suggested I get some kind of overwhelming videogame to take my mind off my shit–she got lost for a few weeks in Fallout 3 after a similar situation. Fallout isn’t my thing, particularly in such chaotic times, but fantasy is, and since I hate Elder Scrolls I picked up Dragon Age Inquisition. I don’t quite love Dragon Age–I don’t quite love Bioware. There’s always something pretty internetty about it, if you know what I mean, and I really hated the first two games as games. Dragon Age Origins I played before I had played any of the Infinity Engine games that it was hearkening back to, and so didn’t quite get the experience, but after I’d played them its faults and flaws began to become a little more apparent, and frankly, the XBox controls are kind of terrible. Dragon Age II was a really great attempt at telling a story in a small space, in showing social change over time, but while I’m not the kind of guy who gets hung up on plot holes, being an illegal mage openly running around with a flaming staff while people say “It’s the hero of Kirkwall, the guy who killed the biggest Qunari of all time, we’re low level bandits, let’s get him” began to wear on me, the quests which randomly solved themselves because you pick up an item as a random drop began to wear on me; and while I am okay knowing that I have made a choice in a videogame, Dragon Age II really wanted me to think that I was, and when it was all over and I realized that it was a series of magician’s choices and morton’s forks, it just felt–oh, god, I’m going to say pretentious–pretentious. It didn’t help that there’s a fuckton of really bad queer games crit about the game.

I mean maybe it just is a case where if I’d been five years younger when I’d played it, it would have blown my mind.

What I really wanted to play was The Witcher 3–I really like The Witcher’s world–but as I only have a 360 and a POS Macbook, Inquisition it was–and I think I’m pretty okay with the decision. As a Pile Of Content, it’s great–part of the reason I put it aside was simple fatigue. I actually like the much-memed Hinterlands, would have honestly been satisfied if that was the bulk of the game–and while I don’t quite love Dragon Age’s world, I don’t mind it. It certainly has more character than The Elder Scrolls, which you can tell very badly wants to be a fantasy world with a lot of character but just can’t help but be generic. I mean, I rolled a Skyrim character, thinking, okay, maybe this time it won’t be so bad–and here I am wandering through generic dungeons and fighting bandits after bandits after bandits and I just don’t give a shit. Dragon Age Inquisition is simple enough that when I want to get back to it, I’ll be able to pick up where I left off because it’s not exactly that complex of a plot, but it at least has a little bit of character. And, I mean, you know what a sucker I am for Catholic Shit.

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61 – Planescape Torment club?, Zest update, Gothic II

So I’ve never played Planescape Torment because I’m obviously a terrible person. I didn’t play a lot of CRPGs growing up–missed Ultima entirely, played and hated Might and Magic II, didn’t play Fallout till college, have never gotten past chapter 1 in Baldur’s Gate. Weird, because I can tell you pretty much everything about every JRPG released in the states till about two years ago. Torment is one of those big holes in my gaming life: I’ve played through a chunk of it, but it’s such a big Thing in some ways that I’m nervous to approach it.

Well, I’ve reinstalled the game and I’m going to be playing it in the next couple of months, and based on some preliminary talk on Twitter, it seems like there’s a lot of people who’d be interested in some kind of Book Club thing. Now, I don’t know quite what form this should take. I don’t want to do the “okay let’s all play this much of the game this week and all discuss it”, particularly because it seems like one of those sprawling RPGs that isn’t conducive to that sort of thing. Maybe it would be enough to just encourage a ton of people to play and write about this game on their own blogs and we can link each other. Perhaps Joel Goodwin of Electron Dance could be convinced to give up some real estate in his forum for discussion.

Either way, if you’re interested–let’s say July-ish?–let me know, and if you’ve got an idea about how this thing could work, please, I’m all ears!

–In Zest news, the basic flow of the game has been outlined. The flow of the game is going to consist of  about a half dozen “time blocks”, each of which essentially has a different “deck” associated with it. The player’s stats influence a degree of randomness–we’ve actually been throwing out the tern “narrative roguelike” to describe the basic feel. My current goal is to come up with a couple dozen basic cards in all the separate categories; once that’s done, I’m handing it off to Lectronice and PaperBlurt who will respectively finish programming the card system and come up with some preliminary CSS. I’m shooting for a hundred cards int he final version–like TWEEZER, I want it to be a game that encourages many very short play sessions. We’re targeting an early July release–that’s part of the reason I’d like to do Planescape around them–so watch this space.

–Again, for a game with comparatively few verbs and stats, there’s a lot to learn in Gothic II. I keep learning new tricks for playing it–where I need to stand in order to pull certain enemies, the timing on how to chain certain attacks, what stats I need to increase to effectively kill things–and there’s plenty more. I still haven’t begun to figure out whether there’s a more efficient way to buy and sell things.

At this point I’ve done a broad survey of the bulk of the island–there’s a lot of stuff I certainly haven’t found, and I’ve only really seen the surface of most of it, but I’ve been, at some point, on every corner of the map, even if there’s only about a quarter of the game I’m able to navigate without trouble. What keeps striking me is I’m just on the first *chapter*.  There’s a lot to see and do in this game, and not all of it consists of doing quests–again, it’s the kind of game that’s rewarding just to poke around in.

–My save–which I’m going to get to as soon as I finish typing this post and will play until it’s time to go to work, I love this fucking game–has me in the middle of an area I have never been to in the middle of the night. Night is scary–or, rather, it’s more threatening than the rest of the game is, and the rest of the game is pretty threatening. While I wouldn’t say Gothic ever becomes a horror game, the sense of vulnerability never quite goes away. The game is like Dark Souls–I’m sorry, I’m sorry!–in that even beginning-of-game enemies can kill you at any point if you’re being too cocky. ANd while Dark Souls has much better creature design, there’s something hilarious about how my Gothic II character ran, panicked, from two chickens–who never fucking give up pursuing and who run fast–and accidentally pulled aggro from two boars, only to run headfirst into a lizard who killed him instantly. Props to the sound department, too: Each enemy has its own cry, and usually–there are a ton of trees–you end up hearing them long before you see them, and so it’s one of those games where the second you hear an animal howling at you, you either relax, though not completely, and maneuver into a position where you can be at the advantage, or you realize there’s two of them and you can’t take on two of them, or it’s something you’ve never heard before and you just run the fuck away.

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.