93 – Baldur’s Gate: Siege of Dragonspear (and some other rambly shit)

It’s perhaps overstating the case to say that Baldur’s Gate: Siege of Dragonspear feels like a fangame–every review you read about it takes pains to remind us that Beamdog is made of some ex-Bioware employees who actually worked on the original game–but man, does it feel inessential like a fangame. I’ve been playing for close to two weeks now, which is a lot of playtime compared to the amount of content in the game. It’s all fine. There’s nothing wrong with it. But I don’t know why I’m playing it. I’m close enough to the end that I could just export my character and be in fine form for Baldur’s Gate II, but also close enough to the end that I should just put the thing on Story Mode and muddle through, but when “put the game on Story Mode and just muddle through” is an option you’re seriously considering, that’s a sign that someone’s done something wrong along the way.

Like–there’s oh-so-much written about Story Mode, and it’s one thing if you’re enjoying it and are finding it tough going–it’s another if you’re doing Story Mode just to get it over with. I can’t say the challenge is too tough, I can’t say the encounters are poorly designed–with some caveats I’ll get to in a minute–but it’s just–

Oh, Siege of Dragonspear is fine. It doesn’t have the fucked up and janky character of Baldur’s Gate I, it doesn’t have the refined expansiveness of II, it’s just kind of there. It’s–well, it’s very Bioware-y. I in general find Bioware games to be fine. Their lore is well-thought-out, they’re appealing games, they’re well-designed, they’re maybe a little too internetty in their humor and their insistence on romance subplots everywhere, but they’re–you know, Bioware games just Aren’t For Me.

I think the word I’m looking for is “normcore”.

I’ve bought a shitload of Dungeons and Dragons books lately because I’m trying to get some inspiration and ideas for some of my own writing, and while plenty of people will point out problems in the rulebooks that may or may not be legit, the thing is that Dungeons and Dragons is huge. Everybody knows about it. This is not a niche hobby like it was in the 70s, when it was solely the provenance of isolated nerds; it isn’t the dangerous conduit to Hell that it was accused of being in the 80s; it’s, you know, a popular game that’s made a lot of people a lot of money. It’s part of our pop culture. If it isn’t quite Lord of the Rings or Star Wars, well, it’s in the same breath. There’s a familiarity to it that comes through sheer exposure. It’s a game like any other–maybe a bit more complex and time-consuming than most people are willing to buy into, but just a game nonetheless.

I’ve talked about this a bit with videogames in general: We can’t pretend that playing videogames is a niche hobby anymore. We can’t pretend that geek culture is subaltern. It is front and center. It is capitalism. It is oppression. An asshole who’s GamerGate in spirit if not in aesthetic is in the White House. There are versions of videogames that are bigger than others, surely–I tell so-called gamers at the college I work at that I’m playing through Baldur’s Gate and they get fuzzy looks (which, to be fair, Baldur’s Gate might have even come out before they were born), but they’ll know Dark Souls intimately. They’ll talk excitedly about Overwatch. Jocks play videogames. (Is “Jock” as a category meaningful anymore? I am out of touch with student cliques.) And let’s face it, Siege of Dragonspear is even more obscure than the Gate itself.

But I guess what I’m saying is as simple as, Baldur’s Gate came out at a time when its audience was, you know, people who might not have been able to find the three friends necessary to play “real” Dungeons and Dragons–hence why I’m fond of it now at this time in my life–but Dragonspear came out after, you know, 15 years of game design evolution and a sea change in pop culture. Fantasy and superheroes are fucking everywhere and people look at you funny–like you’re some kind of antisocial rebel–if you don’t give a shit about what Marvel is putting out. Baldur’s Gate is what it is. Dragonspear tries to shine itself up for a larger audience. And for the most part, it acquits itself so well that it’s a really, really boring game to play.

Like, it takes few risks. The biggest risk it takes is a couple of large-scale setpiece battles with dozens of combatants, and when you’re on a shitty Macbook like I am, everything slows down to a crawl, the area effect spells you throw down end up slowing down everything further–but I’m not quite sure a proper speed would help matters.

I feel like I’m talking around some points I’m trying to make, and that’s okay–there’s something I’m trying to get at about all of this that I’m chipping away at.

I guess it’s like this:

I was a child in the 80s, one who was very aware of and very interested in geeky nerdy culture, in the RPGs of the time, who desperately wanted to play Dungeons and Dragons, but who was, frankly, too young for all of it at the time, and who, frankly, wasn’t able to explain this stuff to other kids when I got to be the beginnings of old enough for it. I think about childhood and I think about how much I loved Dragon Warrior and how friends found all the text boring. Friends who hated reading. Stuff like that. All of this stuff was out of my reach, and as such it developed a cache of being–you know, a little dangerous. Playing Dungeons and Dragons or Might and Magic or whatever had some of the resonances of, for example, playing with power tools, or crossing the street by yourself–it was dangerous, and that danger was helped along with, you know, the darkness of a dungeon. The idea of it all–spurred on by my tiny child mind–was kind of fucked up and scary.

There is nothing fucked up or scary about Siege of Dragonspear.

Fantasy can and should effect a sense of wonder and awe–but there should be something creepy about it too. There is something Out Of This World about it. Going through the fifth edition Monster Manual, everything feels oddly safe. Here are some blandly-written descriptions and stat blocks–all of this is categorized and collated, it’s the product of 40 years of solidification. There isn’t the sense that–let’s face it, if you met anything from that book in real life, even a lowly goblin, it’d scare the everloving fuck out of you. Even a benign being would be a little horrific because of how uncanny, how unnatural it is. An aboleth should induce dread. You look at its statistics and it’s something you can comprehend.

There is no sense of the slip, of the overwhelming, of the pure cosmic horror of the thing. I think about how even Darkest Dungeon was trying to give a sense of the brutal madness of a dungeon crawl, but it was just Another Damn Cthulhu Game where your insanity effects are just different buffs and debuffs. Motherfucking Cthulhu! A creature who, in real life, would cause anyone’s mind to snap, but at this point we’ve seen so many different permutations of that brand of horror that it’s just kind of, you know, there. Background. It’s like being afraid of Dracula.

I know, I know, Siege of Dragonspear isn’t trying to be a horror game. It’s an expansion of world, an attempt at bridging two games, and as such it acquits itself well. I’m spitballing incomprehensibly about a desire to experience or write something that’s a lot more outre, and something that I can’t really figure out how to talk about. What I’m really doing is simply trying to figure out the edges of what I’m looking to do–the feeling I’d like to give to a dungeon I’d like to create–with the understanding that feeling out those edges might even be the beginning of that collation and categorization and understanding. And maybe it’s a loss that’s simply happened because I’ve gotten older and I’ve read a lot of shit. In the beginner’s mind are many possibilities; in the Zen mind, there are few. If I’m being honest, what I’m looking for is a path back to that beginner’s mind, and a way to evoke the absolute terror all of those possibilities evoke.

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76 – Elminage Gothic

The Big Three of 80s RPGs–Ultima, Might & Magic, and Wizardry–all finished up in different states circa 2000. Ultima 9 is spoken of bitterly if at all–even if it weren’t a bug-ridden mess it still goes against a lot of thematic and tonal things that were long established in the series; at least Ultima Online was popular in its day. Might and Magic 9 isn’t an inherently *bad* game, and it is very much a Might and Magic game in spirit, but it’s underdone: Every single element feels like a rough draft that needed another year to refine and pare down; as it is, we get gigantic, aimless areas with nothing in them. Wizardry ended up the best–6 and 7 were and are very well-received, and if Wizardry 8 is not without its flaws, it features some frankly heroic direction on the part of Brenda Garno-Brathwaite-Romero–one of the most interesting takes on a turn based battle system I’ve seen, with this weird real time system that I haven’t seen any other game pick up on. The stats–which, frankly, in 6 and 7 were confusing and slightly convoluted–were also completely revamped, and for the first time, character classes had distinct abilities and passives, as opposed to the earlier games which mostly affected stats and equipment. I read that one of the first design-related things she ever did, as a teenager, was rewriting the encumbrance rules for a game she’d been playing with her friends, and I guess what I love about Wizardry 8 is how it takes a set of mechanics that had worked fairly well and makes a few tweaks here and there and suddenly they’re that much better.

Wizardry is, however, Big In Japan–it’s one of the inspirations behind Dragon Quest–and there’s been a fairly solid base of dungeon crawler fans over there; not only are there tons of clones, but due to a quirk of rights or licensing or something, there’ve been a *bunch* of Wizardry sequels developed in and for Japan–one or two have been released in the US, but that’s only been in the past few years. The Nintendo DS was (is?) a pretty good time for these kinds of games–stuff like The Dark Spire and Etrian Odyssey had a natural home on there (and there’s probably an essay or two about how the Nintendo DS exposed a lot of people to things like roguelikes and more avant-garde RPGs, and man, I’m gonna start waxing nostalgic for the PS2 days if I continue on this way). They’re usually, oh, about as hardcore as a niche genre of Japanese-developed RPGs can be, which is to say, you’re gonna be grinding, you’re gonna be bashing your teeth against it, it’s gonna be hard. If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen–masochism is half the fun.

Elminage Gothic is one of these such games; it’s the kind of game that I spent some time mapping the first level, looked up, and realized two hours had passed: If you’re the kind of person who likes drawing graph paper maps, it’s got you covered. I can’t say I understand the mechanics as far as character stats are concerned, but I’m playing with the default party, and it’s the kind of game that, you can tell is going to encourage you to swap your party in and out. (One of my favorite parts of Etrian Odyssey, in fact, was its extremely low level caps; when your character hits it, you can “retire” them and swap them out with a character with higher starting stats and a higher cap. By the end of the game, I’d cycled my entire party out a good two or three times, each incarnation stronger than the previous one, and a completely different party than I’d started the game with–giving the feeling of managing a guild of adventurers rather than actually role-playing as one.)

In some ways it’s a few step back from Wizardry 6. Wiz 6 begins with your party trapped inside a ruined castle they’re exploring, and throughout you get short messages talking about the abandoned decay. DW Bradley writes, frankly, fairly purple, but it kind of works–it has a melodramatic tone of elegance corrupted into decadence and finally rot. And the very substance of the level propels you through–it’s shaped like you’d imagine the floor plan of a castle to be, and you’re restricted to certain sections that you gradually unlock, Resident-Evil style. The castle also serves as a sort of hub–you branch out into other areas which lead back to the castle through different ways, unlocking deeper areas of the castle. Even the endgame takes place behind what is more or less the last door you couldn’t get through.

“There’s monsters in the cave,” a messenger says at the beginning of Elminage Gothic, and by golly, you’re gonna solve it–and that’s about as basic as you can get and fine for a game of this type. But there is nothing to the cave beyond it being a cave–there’s no flavor text, and I guess that’s what I’m missing. There’s a couple of bits where it basically says, oh, a bloodstain! or oh, some bones!, but it’s very flat and matter-of fact. A couple of NPCs give gameplay tips to you. That’s about it.

You know, it’s clear that this is just the first level, and it is enjoyably twisty to map. I’m also finding the game surprisingly easy, to the degree that I double-checked to make sure I didn’t have a setting on. Again, I’m playing with a default party, which may simply be stronger than a created one, but I also do have the feeling I’m gonna eat my words soon enough. The monster design is very good.

The equipment also feels a few steps back: In the shop screen, there doesn’t appear to be any way to compare a prospective piece of equipment against your current one. I can forgive Wizardry 6 for not having that–even though by 1990 when W6 came out, there was beginning to be no excuse, Wizardry was necessarily foot-dragging in that regard–but as old-school as Elminage wants to be, that’s not not so much a convenience anymore as it is a requirement.

I am looking forward to defeating the monsters n the cave, though.

72

I’m mostly enjoying Arcanum–this is about the fifth or sixth time I’ve attempted it and I think it’s more or less sticking. I’m happy with Witzfilliam, my disenfranchised gnome who’s a heavy tanky melee fighter with light buffing skills, and if I can’t quite see the use of all of the spells, well, everyone tells me Arcanum is a delight for roleplayers.

I guess if I have to describe Arcanum, it’s Troika-y, which means that it’s got bugginess to it, an underbakedness to it, one which is married to a huge amount of potential, a rich skill system which lets you poke fairly deeply into the world, a series of sidequests and hidden content that leaves a lot of resolutions, a general sense of freedom for the player that Troika was never quite able to one hundred percent accomplish. The Temple of Elemental Evil is one I’ve never gotten more than a couple minutes in, and Vampire the Masquerade Bloodlines was an amazing game that had way too many unfinished levels. Bloodlines is famous for, among other things, the tension between The Sewer Level That Lasts Forever, which is about as enjoyable as it sounds, and for the Ocean House Hotel, which is one of the finest haunted houses in gaming and a legit masterpiece of scripted scares.

Arcanum is making it clear where Troika loses me–I tend to think the flaws outweigh the great bits and find their games to be more fascinating failures than successes–and is helping to clarify a lot of thoughts I’ve had on RPGs and length. RPGs–JRPGs in particular–have a very impressionistic sense to them. In other words, you’re on a continent with a town, a castle, a cave, and a tower. You’re in a village that consists of four houses and a half dozen people. Even when the land’s isolation is part of the plot–see Dragon Quest VII, which starts you off on that size island and tells you, explicitly, that “in this world, only this island is”–there’s the understanding that this isn’t a literal depiction of the world: It’s a standin. Even in the smallest village, those four houses represent a few dozen, maybe; those half dozen-people, let’s say they speak for about a hundred. RPGs tend to abstract everything–this is a genre that, in its classic form, represents combat by menu clicks and subtraction–and the physical environment is no difference.

The other day a friend of mine asked me what the first RPG I played that really got to me in terms of story, and I said, well, I got Dragon Warrior in that Nintendo contest back in 1989, when I was about seven years old: I’ve been there since the beginning, really. Now, Dragon Warrior has the barest skeleton of a plot: The evil Dragonlord attacked and kidnapped the princess and is somehow menacing the land; you level grind and grab a bunch of macguffins; you save the princess, defeat the Dragonlord, and return peace to the land. Playing it as an adult, I’m surprised by how lean the story is, largely because I remember living this game as a kid. Being seven had a lot to do with it, obviously–it’s not exactly hard to get a seven-year-old’s imagine to run away with something–but Dragon Warrior does earn a lot of the credit because it’s a hell of a skeleton.

Dragon Warrior dealt with a lot of space limitations, the patience of an audience that didn’t quite know what RPGs were, that was used to games with even less plot, and it chose its skeleton well. If a town can fit a half dozen residents, each of whom can do a couple of lines of dialogue, you have to make all of that dialogue count. Every word in Dragon Warrior–like in Might and Magic–has to carry a lot of weight. And so you get a decent outline that you’re encouraged to color in yourself. If “let’s tell a story together” is the best definition of interactive fiction I’ve encountered, well Dragon Warrior does exactly that: Where Might and Magic lets you work in collaboration with the designer in order to reconstruct the physical environment, Dragon Warrior lets you work in collaboration to reconstruct the narrative.

There’s a term that comes up from time to time in old school CRPG manuals–Might and Magic and Wizardry 6 are the two that spring to mind–and that term is “fantasy simulation”. This term describes the likes of Skyrim much better than role-playing-game does, at least to me: I’ve never played an Elder Scrolls game for the plot and I’m still shocked and confused when people talk about the story elements in Skyrim. Elder Scrolls games are less about exploring a narrative, less about charting a world, and more about a simulation of the experience of being an adventurer. There’s an element of simulated realism–the way encumberance is handled, the way everyone keeps a paranoid eye on their possessions, the way character development tends towards minutiae–that takes the center stage. There’s a certain soullessness to Elder Scrolls–the personalities of the various NPCs tumble headfirst into the uncanny valley because we’re expected to take everything so seriously and representational: The Holy Grail of The Elder Scrolls is a game which would exactly match the experience of actually being there.

So I guess I feel like Arcanum squanders its narrative potential–its plot is pretty good and compelling, its structure sprawling and free–by edging towards that simulation aspect. It doesn’t quite get off on its own size the way that Skyrim does, but there cities–during which you spend most of the game–are much larger than they need to be. The experience of Arcanum has been entering every door in a block and talking to everyone I meet; half of the houses are empty, most of the citizens have nothing to say beyond a few generic lines. This is completely unnecessary: Exploring a city is miserable enough, trying to find a specific person to receive a quest reward an exercise in tedium. I’ve started looking everything up on a map I found online–which wouldn’t happen if all of the buildings had something useful in them.

65 – Might and Magic, Wizardry 6, Ishar and mapping

There’s a term–I learned it from The CRPG Addict–called lawnmowing. We’re going to need a couple of shots of some Might and Magic maps to understand. Here’s the area surrounding the first town in Might and Magic Book 1:

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And here’s an equivalent section in Might and Magic 4:

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There’s some obvious aesthetic differences–there was something like nine months in between playing the two games, and so I’ve gotten a bit more relaxed and loose with mapping; 4 also contains an automap, and so while mapping out 1 is essential in order to complete it, hand-mapping 4 was more for the enjoyment, and so I felt freer to use bolder colors and go for look more than practicality. But what I want to draw your attention to the pencil lines all over the place in the 1 map. These are the literal walls of the game–they’re represented as mountains and trees too dense to move through. In Might and Magic, you’re ultimately able to step on every single square–every area in the game is a 16X16 square–but it takes a long time to be able to do so. The challenge lies largely in growing strong enough to fight the enemies in each area and in actually winding your way from Point A to Point B. Very late in the game you get a series of spells which allow you to bypass walls and teleport around the map, and there are some areas where you need them in order to navigate, but for the most part, when you’ve finally gotten them, you’ve probably charted most of the area anyway and they end up becoming ways of speeding up travel and creating shortcuts.

4 has no such walls. There are a lot more terrain types–in my screenshot, it’s fairly obvious what’s what: Light green is grass, dark green is forest, blue is water, brown is a dirt path, grey a road, dark brown mountains, black the edge of the world. And while you start off being unable to traverse forest, water, or mountains, you end up getting skills in order to cross them fairly quickly and cheaply. You can still step in every square, and you *should*, but since all obstacles become removed and the gameworld becomes extremely flat.

And hence the term lawnmowning: Mapping out Might and Magic games becomes a case of going down every square in one row, going to the next row and going UP every square in that, ping-ponging back and forth till you’ve revealed every square. This is, perhaps, the biggest flaw of 2-5: Exploration feels a little less immersive because of the flatness: These aren’t trees and mountains, they’re icons of trees and mountains.

Usually walls solve this problem. Here’s the first location of Wizardry 6, a game that, looking at the maps a year later, I’m shocked I beat:

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I have stepped in every square of this location–a castle–but look at the layout: it’s a maze of doors and walls. Half of those doors are locked when you begin the game, and the initial stages of the game consist on going around the various rooms and floors and slowly unlocking more areas. The challenge is in mapping out these locks, in making your way through the maze, in figuring out the layout of this place and its connection to the other regions of the game–part of my love for the game is its insistence on regularity: It features five or six different locations, all of which are distinct in their layouts, all interconnected and snapped tightly and perfectly together. Think of Dark Souls’s map made in Legos and you’ve got the idea.

And so we’ve got this very simple and slightly cheesy lesson that we can learn: Restrictions make challenge and challenge brings enjoyment. And we can all walk away from this lesson nodding our heads and drawing Gordian dungeons…

…but for the fact that right now I’m playing Ishar, and this is the first area of Ishar.

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Again, light green is grass, dark green is impassable trees, blue is water–and if you’re playing along at home that means that we’ve essentially got a gigantic sprawling field with only minor areas, mostly the borders, where we cannot walk.

And it is one of the more fascinating Mapping Experiences of my time! In many ways it’s a dungeon in reverse. With no automap, with no way of seeing the game from a bird’s eye view, you’re often cast in a void of grass having to count paces as you make your way to the next landmark, which is, like, a bush. It’s an agoraphobic method of getting lost.

But Ishar also avoids the lawnmowing problem partially by not hiding random goodies in every square. I’m hoping I don’t end up eating these words, but the game depicts everything onscreen with enough peripheral and distance that you can see the major things from a few squares away as long as you’re facing the general direction.

And so instead of mowing the lawn, you end up mapping by scouting the area. I’ve been filling out the edges of the map and the hedges and things by the old fashioned move one square, draw the walls, move one square, draw the walls method. But for the inner part of the land, I’m picking a general direction, walking, and coloring in squares in a way not too different from a fog of war reveal, veering off when I see something cool.

And while in practice, that and mowing the lawn aren’t *that* different, it changes the scale of the maps. Might and Magic is exhaustive: You need to uncover and discover what might be hiding behind every single tile in the game. Wizardry 6 is almost a tangle of wires which has you focus in on every tiny detail in order to unknot. Ishar is about the big picture. About putting large islands in your grasp. The area of the gameis huge. This is why I love these games and why I get bored with roguelikes and corridor after arena after corridor level design and why I love this shit: I love the idea of kind of communicating with a level designer who I can see cackling as I try to figure out the cartography puzzle they’ve constructed. For as pretty as Columbia is, as impressively large as Skyrim is, their terrain didn’t communicate anything to me. These old-school dungeon crawlers are all about communicating things just through their layout.

 

 

 

 

59 – Gothic II

I end up talking about Skyrim a lot, just like I end up talking about Final Fantasy VII a lot, and BioShock a lot, and it’s obvious why: Everybody’s fucking played them. And it’s obvious why everybody’s fucking played them, and, oh, let’s be honest with ourselves, most of these games deserve their position–they do what they do very well and in a way that a lot of people like, and if BioShock isn’t quite as deep as its press releases say it is, it’s deep enough. (We’ll leave the subject of Infinite closed indefinitely.)

Skyrim is one of those games that I love in theory, because let’s face it: I do very well with games where you’re placed in a land and you have to bum around and figure it out and maybe you fight dragons. But Skyrim is an extremely flat and homogenous game. In its effort to be all things to all people, in its efforts to be so large and so sprawling and so massive, the game simply doesn’t have enough tricks up its sleeve. Cast your net at a section of gameplay–dip in and pick a dozen quests and dungeons and maybe every one will be different. Dip in and pick another dozen, and another dozen, and there are going to be a few too many similarities in each packet. Skyrim is the kind of game which doesn’t want to leave any players unsatisfied. Oh, sure, there’s more to do if you’re Cheevo-hunting, and there are enough variants in the quests to make things interesting, but I’m a dungeons guy, I’m an exploration guy, and the dungeons are all samey and the exploration is so brief–it’s traversing rather than discovering.

Gothic II is the kind of game where I had to start over after about ten hours of playing because I squandered a few resources and built my character in an unproductive direction and wanted to do it right this time. In those ten hours I explored a relatively small area–the initial city and the surrounding woodlands–and in the entirety of that time I was able to chart only about two thirds of the entirety of that area and I certainly didn’t feel safe at all. Rather than large, Gothic II is going deep and intimate. There’s shit hidden in different corners, some shortcuts–it’s not as much of an intertwined cartography maze as Dark Souls is, it’s rather a single large island rather than a selection of interconnected areas which loop upon themselves in surprising ways. But it’s a hell of an island.

I find I like games which invite an intimacy with the land, which are based on developing a familiarity with the environment. It’s why I love Might and Magic so much: VARN is a world that you chart and become familiar with and eventually learn to navigate on your own. Same with the Wizardry Cosmic Forge trilogy. It’s why people love Dark Souls and why I loved ICO–hell, it’s why people love Ocarina of Time. I have never been able to have that intimacy with an Elder Scrolls game–although I’ve never played Morrowind which I’m told is one of the finest in the series.

Gothic is doing a great job at balancing some tight reins with an extreme degree of freedom; the monsters are hard, and the point–that your character is, right now, a supreme wuss–gets very strongly made when two flies kick your ass. Combat is sporadic and fixed–there aren’t too many enemies around, but all of them are legitimate threats and every combat feels very meaningful. But skill plays a part as much as your stats; restarting the game, the initial bits were much, much easier because I understand the timing underlining the combat a tiny bit better than when I first played. (Those flies are still really difficult though.) Everything has these really stringent requirements–half of the weapons I’ve picked up require strength 40, strength 80, strength 100 when my 10-hour character only had strength 10 (part of the reason I restarted was because I put some points into the wrong stats.) It’s a game where you chip and chip and chip away and every bit of progress feels like a rush, and the density of stuff and the rarity of stuff and the importance of stuff–finding two arrows and a healing herb has not stopped being a good find–means that every time you find stuff it’s rewarding. Skyrim threw crap at you, it gave you more treasures than you knew what to do with and gave merchants too little gold for you to sell everything and gave you weight requirements that meant you simply couldn’t take everything–and I don’t know about you, but it breaks my heart to have to sort through the items in a chest and have my decisions very easy to make because half of that shit is absolutely useless. Sure, it’s possible that the early game of Gothic requires gold in a way the late game does not, but all I know is that I’ve got to get 1000 gold pieces in order to do one quest, 500 to do another, and a good 200-300 to buy a couple spells I need to buy, and I’ve been scrimping and saving to capture 200.

I speak as if this is my character in the present tense, of course–this is all from that abandoned 10 hour playthrough, again, part of the reason I want to restart is because I want to manage my money better. I’ve loved the density of the world so far, and I’ve been told that it stays that way for the whole game, and I’m so excited to see more on the island and find more stuff out. All of the quests I’ve been given have been very meaningful and different–again, so far–and I just want to be able to play more of it. It’s just an immensely satisfying game in a way that Skyrim never was.

54 – Bloodlines, Pt 2

Combat is mentioned, and rightly so, as one of the weakest parts of Bloodlines. It obviously wasn’t the team’s priority–which, I must say, was the right decision. From what I’ve read, the game was given a release date while the game was still super unfinished, and the team had to scramble to get it as done as they could–that it’s as playable as it is today is largely due to ten years of patching. It was absolutely the right call to put more concentration onto the atmosphere, the environment, the storyline, the quest structure than it was to focus on the action, which generally hovers around “good enough”.

I’m playing a brawler assassin–I’m more interested in sneaking up on people and biting them on the neck until they are dead as my method of fighting than I am in being a gunsmith or anything. The sneaking up is satisfying; the actual brawling consists of clicking the mouse button to throw a punch, twiddling the movement keys because the game says that’ll do different punches, and hoping for the best. Maybe throwing up your buff spell or something. I’ve got a few options for my character as far as spells go–you start off equipped with a magic bullet which, if you hang out for a second, replenishes your MP more than it costs to cast, and further spells I’m saving up for include the ability to make surrounding enemies vomit blood, explode, attack each other, etc. Partially due to the less-detailed graphics, partially due to me playing a fucking vampire, partially due to the game making a point of treating the separation of “innocents that you should not kill lest you actually turn into a monster” and “people who are trying to kill you and so you’re able to slake your predatory urges in the name of self-defense” as a theme, it comes across as, oddly enough, less horrifying.

While I am admittedly not feeling any real-world guilt for anything I’ve done in the game–it is, after all, Only A Videogame and killing a videogame character is not at all like killing someone in real life (sorry Keogh!)–there is a bit of weight to more than a few situations you find yourself in. One of the major concepts–it’s right there in the title–is the Masquerade, the agreement among supernaturals that it would be Very Bad if humans were to know the truth about what’s going on around them and therefore the need to keep predations secret. There are more than a few instances where an innocent human has Seen Too Much and you have to choose between killing them before they can convince the authorities that there’s something going on in that abandoned hospital–slaughtering them for simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time–or letting them live but threatening the integrity of the Masquerade. In all cases, I have decided to uphold the Masquerade–that’s the kinda character I’m playing–and it’s nice that in certain circumstances, there’s an alternative, nonlethal solution, like telling a bum, in an extremely scary and monstrous voice, that he had better forget what he’s seen.

But when it does come down to fighting–there is a deal of fighting in this game–it’s all bop-bop-bop and hope for the best (and if I do replay, I’m going to play a gunsmith character because why not). RPGs have always had, at their core, the problem of making combat meaningful, and they more than other genres manage to make encounters have a kind of dual role. If we think about a game as simple as Dragon Warrior, the enemies serve as both obstacles and resources. That game paces its exploration by tying groups of monsters to areas of the world map, and at any point in the game there are going to be areas which the monsters are extremely easy, where they’re a fair fight, and where you’re hopelessly outclassed by them. You’d be able to walk almost anywhere in the game from the get-go if it weren’t for the enemies being too strong for you when you wander too far. This is mitigated by the fact that combat has a direct hand in making your character stronger–fighting monsters gives you both XP and gold, the former increasing your stats and giving you abilities each time you get enough, the latter allowing you to buy better equipment. You stay in an area, fighting and getting equipment until the monsters become too easy, you wander into a new area where the monsters had previously been too strong for you and you set up camp there. The germ is grinding, and while in a game with a poor battle system it becomes a slog, in a well-designed game, it’s part of the fun.

Well, Bloodlines kind of does away with leveling–in a way it cuts out the middleman. It has a fairly standard skill point system, where you can purchase levels in skills for a number of them. Most games which have this kind of a system give you skill points at level up–when you’ve got 3,000 XP, you get to level 5 and you’re given 3 skill points to do what you want. Bloodlines gives you the skill points directly for finishing quests or otherwise doing significant things. (It does still call them XP–which led to a moment at the beginning when I was given 2 XP for a quest and was almost insulted—Might and Magic gives you tens of thousands of XP every few minutes, and even Wizardry 7 was dumping hundreds and hundreds of XP on me for simple encounters–until I realized that 2 XP is actually a really good haul in this game.)

Because of its focus on storyline, you don’t get any direct reward for fighting enemies–similar to Mass Effect 2, when you complete a quest your progress is evaluated and you’re given XP based on your performance, with some quests giving a higher reward if you did a no-kill run. It’s actually kind of nice to see a game which actively discourages grinding–because there’s no advantage to fighting aimlessly, you don’t have to spend your time on that–but at the same time, there’s no advantage to fighting and yet there are a large number of situations where fighting is required. Enemies don’t even have a pacing function–while I’m not sure if any level scaling is done, I’ve never been in a situation my character couldn’t handle with a couple of reload. And so the takeaway ends up, almost, being that there’s no point in fighting. (That’s kind of my issue with Zelda, particularly with entries like Skyward Sword which were focused on inaccurate, irritating, carpal-tunnel inducing waggle–enemies drop rupees which you very quickly max out on, and hearts which you usually don’t need, and otherwise form a bunch of tedious busywork.)

So it’s weird–the game wants to take the focus off of generic combat, of having rooms full of mooks you’ve got to punch your way through, but it doesn’t quite make the leap that it could probably make a really good game with fewer, more deliberate encounters. Given its budgeting problems and its release date, I can’t necessarily fault it. I can fault all of the games that have come out in the past ten years which haven’t quite managed to figure out this lesson yet. Dishonored is one of the few that’s run with having two very different games possible–one which involves combat with a lot of enemies, and one which requires avoiding all encounters except about a half dozen major characters; and of course there’s Shadow of the Colossus, which was wonderful but whose shine dulls a tiny bit each year.

52 – Wizardry 7, pt 3

So, Wizardry 7 in a world where I’ve played Might and Magic. I’m not enjoying Wiz 7 quite as much as I enjoyed 6–which is as much situational as anything else–but I guess the best way to explain this is by going to the map. Here’s the result of a couple of hours of mapping:

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This is a forest. Roughly south is another, similar forest area which contains an entrance to the Gorn Castle I mentioned last time; to the east appears to be the area belonging to the Rattkin who look exactly how you’d picture them to, and to the west is a city inhabited by these buglike aliens called the T’Rang. In the middle, if you squint and see the phrase “sacred grove” is something, but when I approach a bunch of high-level encounters kick my ass.

The rest of this area is completely empty. There’s maybe four squares where anything happens.

Now let’s look at a similar area from Might and Magic I, another transitional-type forest place:BlX7xzZCYAA-T85

 

The two S’s you see here are at the top and bottom represent the edges of this particular square–I think I’ve mentioned that Might and Magic’s overworld is composed of 20 16×16 squares. To give you an idea of what you can do in this square, on the left, behind the shiny tape is a dude who gives you a quest: Climb all of the trees in his grove and come back to him. The green arrowish things north of that, concentrated on the left sthird of the square, are all the different trees–when you land in a square, you have the option to climb up, and there are some brief encounters–mostly combats, but a couple of treasures or spots where you fall down and take some damage–that might be based on some stats, I’m not sure. On the right side of the screen, definitely where I’ve marked off Xs  are a series of fixed battles. (There are random encounters in the game, and plenty of them, of course, surprisingly fewer than you’d expect.) You basically fall into a pit and have a fight.  In the top of the middle section, labeled “cave” is one of the more famous dungeons in the game–it’s called the Cave of Square Magic, and the walls, once mapped out, form a magic square that you need to solve in order to get some treasure.

A final point about the scale of these two maps–I used 8 1/2X11 inch paper for the Might and Magic maps and used four squares of graph paper for each “step”; Wizardry 7 is scaled larger, so I’m using 11X17 piece of graph paper and using one graph paper per step. In terms of filled-in area–because nearly all of that whitespace in the Wiz 7 map is going to remain whitespace while every single square in Might and Magic is filled up–this Might and Magic square–which is representative of any square in the game–takes up about a third of the space of that Wizardry map. And compared to it, it’s positively crammed with stuff to do. And varied stuff–this was a battle-heavy square, but others contain mazes, trivia challenges, environmental hazards…and Might and Magic came out about 5 years before Wiz7.

There is a beauty to the shape of Wizardry 7’s maps that isn’t quite there in Might and Magic–as regular and as mathematically pleasant as Might and Magic is, there’s something that’s really nice to Wizardry 7’s undulations. I mean look at that forest. That is a sexy fucking forest. There is a physicality to its maps, and a palpable difference in the construction of each area–the way it expands in a sprawling forest, or contracts in a dense city, or squares off in a dungeon. And all of Might and Magic’s maps feel different, yes, but they all do have the same shape.

But in terms of play, there’s something extraordinarily satisfying about Might and Magic. I guess its’ because your mapping goal is clear from the start in terms of the overworld: You know exactly how large everything, and you know immediately if you’re missing something secret. There’s a neatness and a completeness to Might and Magic–there’s a feeling of solving the map when you complete it–a feeling of locking everything into place. Might and Magic is a puzzle, and one of the most well-constructed puzzles I’ve ever seen in a videogame. Of course, Wizardry 7 is a little more like a world.

I just wish it was a bit less empty.