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.

68 – Planescape Torment

–This is like my 6th attempt at Planescape: Torment. I’ve only been able to get out of the mortuary once before; I’ve just gotten past the part I stopped at during that play through.

There’s no particular reason for this: Im not the hugest fan of the Infinity Engine or this incarnation of DND mechanics–is this second or third?–but it’s largely been a case of, not the right game for this time in my life.

I’m not the kind of person who gets hung up on these kinds of things. I used to. If a canonical work didn’t grab me, well I would blame myself, or act snobbish, or pretend I had played/read it. I’m over that, largely because I’ve gotten to that age where I’ve discovered and fallen in love with some stuff I previously dismissed–Might and Magic being the most obvious example.

I think it’s the right time for Planescape: Torment now.

–One of the first things everyone will tell you that the great thing about Torment is there’s no combat, or combat is optional, or whatever. That’s not entirely true. In the sewers, rats and monsters will jump out at you. You’ll pull aggro from bandits as you stroll through town. While I suppose it’s possible to run from everything, it’s not particularly fun or rewarding to do so. Let’s face it: Puzzles and exploration and narrative are awesome, and they’re the reason I love RPGs, but dammit, I want to bop a Kobold in the face from time to time.

So there is combat in Planescape, yes, but it’s not the focus. You really don’t have Kill the Foozle quests. It’s possible–and encouraging, and rewarding–to talk your way out of confrontations, and the majority of encounters are going to end that way.

What combat does is pace the game pretty well. Most of the XP you get in the game is from quests–monster XP is a drop in the bucket–and if you’re not doing many quests, if you’re not talking to people, if you’re not hunting for stuff to do, you’re gonna get slaughtered by the enemies the game does throw at you. Combat is never difficult–I’ve gotten through nearly all of it by throwing all my dudes at the monsters, tossing off the occasional spell, and praying.

There’s literally no penalty for death–for plot reasons, your character wakes up none the worse for wear after death, it’s the whole crux of the plot after all, and you’ve got a more or less free spell that can resurrect dead characters with no loss that I can tell. The game is comfortable with you taking down a swarm of enemies by killing them one at a time, resting and recovering after each death, and trying again. It’s not the most strategic or fascinating method, but who cares? The plot stuff is much better.

–There’s a remarkable amount of stuff hidden in the game. The early stages, at least, take place in a neighborhood of a city, and then you spend some time in the catacombs underneath–that’s the area I’m in now. There is enough to discover in each area that I’ve found new things in the third, fourth, fifth time I’ve crossed it. And it’s not simple loot–it’s quests, it’s characters. Planescape really does have a vibrant world, and the characters are all–oh, “interesting” seems a lame word but there it is.

See, it’s difficult to get me invested in Tolkein-esque fantasy. I can *enjoy* it, or at least find it transparent and background if the game itself is fine enough. But generally I really can’t give a shit about the conflict between elves and dwarves, I don’t always want to spend my time traipsing through the same forest, and I just want to go through a fantasy land that doesn’t feel beholden to the same old tropes.

Planescape is definitely this: It’s an extremely syncretic world. The name comes from the conception of the world as a multiverse with gates to infinite planes of existence. There’s a ton of weird shit in Planescape because the environment not only supports but encourages it, and there’s enough talk about even weirder shit out there that it really does feel like a game where everything’s possible. Skyrim–my favorite whipping boy!–feels so staid and dull by comparison.

–A problem: The game silently lets you sell certain quest items; now that I’ve realized this, I’ve stopped selling as much, but that doesn’t stop certain quests from being uncompletable. They’re largely side quests, but I would like the XP and I don’t like unfinished shit if I can help it. More importantly, the main quest I need now requires a crowbar. (I’m fixing the alley where my body was found, for those familiar with the game.) A crowbar was the first weapon I got, and I sold it a long time ago and I goddamn can’t find another one–and a shop list I found suggests that none of the shops I have access to sell it. I found a save game editor which lets me add certain items–but apparently not a crowbar.

So basically, if anyone can recommend some help–a save editor, an alternate route–I would appreciate it!! I don’t want to give up again–this game is too goddamn good.

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.

 

 

 

 

60 – Gothic II, Daemonica, Always Sometimes Monsters

–I’m absolutely in love, for some reason, with Gothic II’s inclusion of a creature called a meatbug, which, when killed, gives 10 XP and an item called Bug Meat, which refreshes 10 HP. With regard to food in general, most creatures–from wolves to rats to chickenlike beings–can be harvested for a generic meat item which refills 6HP; if you get a frying pan, you can cook the meat into an item called Fried Meat which refills 12. There’s no hunger or fullness meters of any kind, and so there’s the wonderful situation of chowing down on five or six fried rat parts after every battle.

And you know, I could not be happier about this shit because I don’t really like when a fantasy videogame becomes too realistic. Some games can make really interesting systems out of stamina bars and hunger meters and weight limits and all of that, but I like that Gothic II is, mechanically, a relatively simple game. There aren’t very many skills or special attacks, there aren’t piles of statistics, and you don’t have that much equipment. A melee weapon, a ranged weapon, and a couple of spells or spell scrolls (and since I’m not playing a magic character I’m only using spells as high-damage fallbacks), a complete set of armor, and a trinket. At this point I think I’ve learned nearly every single one of the game’s verbs, and while there’s room for them to develop (right now, for example, I can only skin furred animals but other characters have assured me I”ll eventually learn to extract claws and remove wings and all of that), I’m admiring the way they’re balanced against each other.

–I’ve just passed the part I was at at my original playthrough; most notably I’ve gotten past a couple of very specific areas I was unable to, so this is a sign that I’ve built my character and learned how to play the game a little better. Still discovering shit in the first city. Looking at the city map, I know every single building and how to find my way around. Gothic II is one of those games that’s almost a Medieval Questing Dude Simulator, and if Skyrim was one of those too, it’s a lot less concerned with–well, let me think about this.

Because for all of Gothic II’s lack of realistic mechanics, the narrative feels a lot more coherent and consistent–maybe contiguous is the word I’m looking for. Like Skyrim, Gothic II begins with a very broad set of goals–coincidentally enough, the plot of both can be one-line summarized as “a bunch of dragons are about to attack and you’ve got to figure it out”, but while both have a large degree of freedom, Gothic ties itself more closely to the main plot. The goal of this current chapter, as far as I can tell, involves meeting with the head of the Paladins to tell him of the coming danger. To do that, you’ve got to align with one of the game’s principal factions; to do that, you’ve got to fulfill certain questlike requirements. The lion’s share of the quests at this point are tied, in some way, to one of these three goals. Some characters are involved in more than one quest. You’re attempting to make connections and move within the bureaucracy of a city that’s had too many strangers in it. Everything I’ve done has been for a specific reason: The game is very clear about who the questgiver is, why they want this favor done, why you’re doing it, and more importantly, you have a reason for doing it beyond simply it being there: And, hell, even from a metagame standpoint, experience and gold are rare enough that 50 XP and 25 gold is a pretty decent reward.

–Picked up Daemonica from a Gamer’s Gate sale–it’s one of those games that has cult classic written all over it, a moody adventure game wearing the clothes of a CRPG, contrast to Quest for Glory which is a CRPG wearing the clothes of an adventure game. It’s got awful voice acting, writing poorly translated from Czech, a drab, unpolished presentation, and an interface which isn’t quite as good as it should be–but it’s doing something right. Sometimes a decent enough premise can work wonders, and that’s the case here: You’re essentially a Medieval Dude who’s acting as a forensic psychologist and solving brutal murders by brewing up potions which allow you to communicate with the dead. So far so good–although the game lets you drop every inventory item and I completely lost something I needed, so here’s another game I had to start again.

–I’ve started Always Sometimes Monsters and gotten through Day 1; to a degree, I’m having trouble getting into it because I absolutely hate the main character, who’s pining over an ex and unable to write that book that he’s already spent all of the advance on.

I’ve written my share of pining-for-the-ex fiction and songs, and I will definitely cop that me at my most insecure and depressive was probably a horrible person to be around–c.f. “The Depressed Person” by David Foster Wallace–and part of me is extremely leery at the prospect of spending 30 days of game time with this guy. I’ve paid my dues.

(My character is male–the ambiguously dark-skinned dude with the hat and vest, if you’re curious, and my ex was the scrawny white dude who looks a little like he works for a tech startup–but the game features a bunch of different characters to pick for your main character and the ex; characters will react different based on your race or orientation, I’m told–one character discreetly referred to my “friend” that I was living with–but I’m not sure how deeply this affects things.)

I mean, I can already tell that it’s an excellent version of this–and perhaps the best version of this sort of thing possible. There’s some branching already, and I love that–scenes I’m not going to see because I made a specific choice. I think this might be a case where I end up admiring the artistry very much but rolling my eyes a little as the theme. But this is just an hour into the game, of course. It is hard to come up with sympathy for your protagonist when they’re a genuinely unlovable loser–this is a character who, after all, ended up Day One by sleeping on a shitty stained mattress in the alley outside the apartment he just got evicted from (without even attempting to bring up tenant laws to his landlord, who–if he was living in New York City, at least–would not have been able to kick him out so easily).

The game, it’s fair, doesn’t quite agree that pining for the ex is the best thing to do, and maybe it does kind of imply that this guy is in a shitty situation because he’s a shitty guy who doesn’t deserve anything really better. As I mentioned, he’s a writer who’s spent all of his advance but who hasn’t produced anything, and while there will certainly be Dark Things Revealed which go deeper into why he hasn’t written a word, it’s hard to see the character freaking out when his editor informs him he’s being dropped; He’s shocked that he’d be expected to abide by the terms of his contract, that his advance wasn’t free money, and that all the potential in the world don’t mean shit when you’re not following through. It’s hard not to feel for the editor when he informs our hero that he was a bad bet who cost the company a good chunk of money, when the editor informs him that he’s got a wife and family to support and he can’t afford another screwup.

Well, that’s certainly an interesting choice if that’s the case–most games genuinely don’t have the stones to give us an unlikeable protagonist. Even something like Actual Sunlight, while repeatedly reminding us that Evan is a fat drunk who’s terrible in bed, at least makes us feel sorry for the guy because of the scope of the tragedy–Evan is an inevitable result of the system he’s in–and because we do see him as squandered potential. It’s helped, certainly, by the fact that writer Will O’Neill’s is particularly skilled at writing pithy interludes, but the fantasies that permeate the entirety of the game show a man who does have a rich fantasy life which, in the absence of any real, authentic possibilities, is turned itself and set to permanently drain itself. Depression is, after all, anger turned inward. If Evan is paralyzed from too much introspection, Always Sometimes Monster’s guy suffers from the kind of depression which is caused by an utter lack of self-awareness–the kind which has painfully repressed any self-critical instincts and, as a result, has become pathologically incapable of realizing how his many faults have led to the same fucking problems happening again and again and again. Evan’s problem is that, in growing up, he forgot how to hope; the Always Sometimes Monster is too deluded by dreams to figure out the first step towards becoming an adult.

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.

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.

38

Here’s how much I’m liking Anvil of Dawn: I’ve played through the beginning three separate times. I don’t do this: There’s a billion games out there and if I’m finding a game troublesome in any particular way, I’ll usually just move on from it if it hasn’t hooked me. Anvil is–oh, I think flawed gem is the best term for it. So far I’ve found a dozen things the game does wrong; it’s wonderful regardless.

First time I made it halfway through the first dungeon before deciding I wanted to rebuild my character. I traditionally like playing magic-based builds–although in my old age I’m usually opting for something a little beefier–and the magic system is…not great. In-universe, spells are cast with a series of arcane gestures; in practice, this means that when you click the spell icon, you get to slowly watch your character draw the glyph, then you see the spell effect slowly form, and then it misses because the enemy moved. In addition, the spell icons live in an area which takes up most of the real estate for the “turn right” hotspot, and so time after time instead of turning I end up casting a spell. There’s an option in the menu to hide the spell icons (and, in an awesome display of flexibility, all of the separate elements of the interface!), and that’s what I end up doing with a strength build. It’s much less frustrating to go into options and reshow them every time I want to cast something. (Allegedly, hitting V shows and hides the interface on the fly; I can’t seem to get it to work.) Playing as a strength build, it’s a much less tedious proposition.

Second time I encountered a glitch. There are a fair share of moving parts–perpetually rolling boulders which toggle pressure switches or just form traps–one of those boulders got stuck, and because I wasn’t staggering my saves, I had to start over. It’s the rare glitch which feels slightly like my fault: Anvil is fairly late, 1995, it’s considered one of the last great sprite based grid dungeon crawlers, and so maybe it’s not quite forgivable that there aren’t autosaves or checkpoints, but it IS an old-school game. The typical advice I’m seeing is to create a backup save at the beginning of each dungeon, just in case.

But for all of this, there’s a lot of charm and love to the game: For one, it’s beautiful. Corridors are fairly simple CG, and the outdoor areas in particular are artifacts from the mid-90s, which was the beginning of one of the ugliest eras of computer graphics in history, but creatures and characters are all done in gorgeous sprites. I cannot stress how much I am loving the monster design. I’ve talked about this before: Skyrim is a fantasy epic in which the team could not have been bothered to come up with any interesting monsters and so throws bandits, bears, giant spiders. One of the things I love about older fantasy games is that they’re not concerned with being realistic–more likely, the servant of the King WOULD be slaughtering poor citizens who, in their desperation, have turned to banditry–but are concerned with giving us Cool Shit To Look At. The second dungeon contains the most interesting snake monster I’ve ever seen: It looks like a regular rattlesnake, except instead of a head, it’s got a human hand holding a knife that it slashes at you. When you kill it, it immediately turns into an ouroborical circle and dissolves. It’s the kind of game that I bought because of the screenshots, which GoG chose wisely to showcase some of the stranger monster designs.

But two steps back: That first dungeon, the one I’ve played three times, your only enemy is a soldier. A very well-designed soldier, but there’s only one enemy in the entire dungeon. Strange decision. You’ve got to work for a while before you can begin to see the cool stuff the game has in store.

One of the oddest and most consistent areas of praise is the automap; it’s one of the finest examples of the form. It’s a very clear and elegantly-designed one; most importantly it loads instantly. There’s plenty of games like these which pair the map with a soundclip of taking out the map and maybe a little animation. In dungeon crawlers like this, looking at the map is something you do CONSTANTLY: Taking the second gets irritating. I’ve quoted this bit before, but let’s check in with Plotkin on the subject of interface animations:

…if you go to the inventory screen, the “cancel” button (returning to the game) runs an animation. The animation is about a second and a half long. This is about a second and a half too long. Quick, name an operation which the player is going to perform seven hundred times during your adventure game. Now, for twenty dollars: is the player (1) desperate to keep playing this game, or (2) desperate to see the same minor animation which he’s seen six hundred and ninety-nine times before? Think hard!

I know some of this has to do with the time it takes to load the interface elements, but that doesn’t make it less annoying–and particularly when games do that today, it feels like an irrelevant bit of eye candy. That the map–and all interface elements–in Anvil load instantly is wonderful–it’s a sign of care for the player.

Which is not to say that the interface is all great: The inventory is…odd. One of the reasons I haven’t been able to get too far into Ultima VII–besides my general distaste for the series which has as much as anything to do with being too young for the majority of the series and not imprinting on it at all–is because of its terrible inventory system, which basically gives you a series of non-grid-based containers and lets you dump all your loot in. I’m not sure if Anvil is directly influenced by it, but it’s the same basic thing, and it suffers greatly for not having a very organized grid. Looty as the game is, I haven’t found a major problem with encumbrance yet, but you do have to babysit what you’ve got. When you pick stuff up, right-clicking will drop it in your inventory, but it’ll just kind of dump it wherever it feels like; picking up only a couple items reduces your bag to a confusing state of clutter, and so every few minutes you will need to stop and just shove the healing potions to the side, put the weapons in your weapons bag, toss out any spell figurines you’re never gonna use, collate all of your amulets. Now, I don’t mind this. To a degree I like reorganizing an inventory, and a couple of odd choices aside–you can’t just open a bag, you have to place it in your hand and temporarily store whatever was in that hand in the inventory, which adds nothing–moving everything around is fairly quick and easy to do. Come up with a system of organization and just run with it–I guess you just have to accept that one of the aspects of Anvil is inventory management.

I’m not adequately conveying why I’m liking this game so much; maybe I haven’t quite figured it out yet. I love its genre: I respond very well to a maze filled with Kobolds that I have to best. It’s nice to look at, the mazes are cool, and I guess there’s the sense so far of discovery. It’s mentioned in the same breath as Lands of Lore, which, unfortunate as that series quickly became, has a near-perfect first installment; Stonekeep, which in many ways is kind of terrible but so goddamn goofy and exuberant that it’s hard not to love; and Eye of the Beholder, which I’ve never played but badly want GoG to offer. As far as these things go, that’s excellent company to keep.