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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.

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56 – Bloodlines? More like Donelines!

And that’s a wrap on Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines. I give it three out of four fangs. Three fangs! Ah-ah-ah!

I think that “solid RPG” is the best way to describe this one. Because in many ways, Bloodlines doesn’t do anything that other games haven’t done, and I’m sure if we thought we could find many games that are its equal or have surpassed it, but nearly everything it does, it does well. It’s not insignificant that I have a version that’s been patched by both the original developers and a dedicated fan community, and there are a couple of articles around which pay tribute to the people who’ve made it possible. Bloodlines was almost unplayably buggy upon release, they tell me.

There are problems that no amount of patching will fix. Combat feels like a first draft of itself–while it doesn’t ruin the game, I didn’t enjoy any of it. It is, of course, significant that I enjoyed everything else that I was willing to sit through the combat. Many of the areas feel really empty–which isn’t as much anyone’s fault as it is a condition of 2004 and a low budget. But all of the rest of it genuinely was Exactly What An RPG Needs To Be.

You know, I guess I think what what I loved about Bloodlines is that it reminds me of when an actor gets the opportunity to play a monster, or against type, or a superhero, or you know, just to play the kind of broad role that you pretend you are as a little kid, how actors get really excited about. Hell, RPGs, at their core, do have a lot in common with acting and dancing and playing instruments–you’re given the chance to play a character and romp around in a different skin for a while. There is something childlike–if not bordering on childish–in wanting to pretend to be a knight, or a spaceman, or an army man in space for a while, but when a game does that well, it can be wonderful. I said at the beginning I was enjoying stalking around Los Angeles and biting people on the neck, and that still goes. At its core, when it’s working, Bloodlines isn’t so much a game as it is a vampire simulator. It’s the right length–it ended right as I was ready for it to end–and I really liked stalking those streets.

Now thanks to a Steam sale, I am playing Knights of the Old Republic, a game where you pretend to be a Jedi Person. Mine is going to be a lovable rogue who only looks out for himself.

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.

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

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

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

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

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