There have been a lot of single-company bundles floating around lately–Blendo Games did one, I think, as has Telltale and Double Fine; while the recent Bundle In A Box was not, it did feature all four of Wadjet Eye’s flagship Blackwell series as well as three separate iterations of Hacker.

It’s a mixed bag. I’m not particularly fond of Telltale or Double Fine, and so it does dissuade the biggest incentive to buy a bundle, which is, why the hell not. If you’re an indie gamer, most bundles will have at least one game you already own, or one game that isn’t to your taste. Too many, and yeah, a bundle isn’t a good idea, but even getting three out of five games for five bucks is still a pretty good deal, and you can always give away a code to a friend. It would seem that, particularly for prominent indies such as Double Fine and Telltale, there’s already a pretty good chance of people owning most or all of the games, or having a particular feeling about a company or genre. And hell, while Telltale might be an extremely polarizing company–I and a lot of classic adventure gamers that I’m friends with all actively hate the company’s games–their products are consistent and their fans loyal.

The current Indie Royale is for Arcen Games, and this is a case where I love the company’s games and already own all of them. The only exceptions are the expansion packs for AI war–I own the base game but have never given it a proper try and so getting expansions would be premature. But again: Why the hell not? The bundle cost is still cheaper than getting the expansions separately, and I can always give away the codes to friends. I don’t mind tossing them a couple bucks.

The hell of it is, I’m not sure Arcen has ever made a completely successful game. I picture their games as jalopies piled with dusty Joads, and crates of chickens, and trunks with the hems of light blue dresses, the kind Dorothy Gale wears, and a cousin pickin’ on a banjo, and they’re tryin’ their darnedest to get to California and the whole package is tied up with some tough rope, and there’s a hound dog in there somewhere, and Ma’s in the driver’s seat, solid as America, and they’re ambling down the road, hoping like hell there’s a diner and a gas station somewhere in the next 50 miles, some milk for the baby and maybe even a clean sink where they can wash their faces and hands, and then it hits a bump and the whole thing explodes and goes flying everywhere, valises opening up and spilling long johns and nightgowns over the scrub, the tangled and gangly limbs of children splaying in the air, the dust clearing, Grandpa waking up with a sneeze and searching for a wrench, car parts strewn everywhere except for Ma’s chair, Ma sitting in it, her hand still clutching the gearshift which is no longer attached to anything. At first she is holding it at waist level and it looks like a scepter, but she raises it up and one is immediately struck by her resemblance to the Statue of Liberty.

Arcen games are extremely ambitious, and I think most of their games fail because of difficulties with focus. In many ways, they’re too ambitious. A Valley Without Wind is one of the most obvious examples–it’s a playset with a billion different pieces. But while their games usually fall apart, every single one of them is made with extreme gusto and enthusiasm. A Valley Without Wind is a Frankensteinian Godzilla monstrosity, but goddammit, it really does give the sense of vaguely trying to do things in an almost infinitely vast world. At first, it’s hilarious that it runs at all–but after a while, its drunken gait develops a charm and you begin to get into its rhythm. I have this feeling with all of its games.

In many ways, Arcen is one of those devs like Sid Meier or Mousechief–it’s less making “videogames” than board games that are impossible to physically build, or feature too many unwieldy calculations to be played by humans, or require too many pieces. Its newest, Skyward Collapse, is beginning to be famously described as “Chess you play with yourself”; A Valley Without Wind 2 is like taking a turn in a board game and then having a fight with your action figures; I can easily see a home game version of Shattered Haven with cardboard tokens on a slickly printed grid and some players playing zombies and some humans.

I do wonder, incidentally, if the fact that I’ve actually never played their most popular game, AI War, is coloring my opinion. Based on the number of expansions and its still devoted player base, it’s quite possible that the dev simply knocked that one out of the park and is concentrating its serious efforts into that one while making more wildly experimental games. Skyward Collapse seems to be doing well, and a couple of possible expansions seem almost self-evident–different factions, new types of buildings, campaigns, etc.

There’s a sense of draft–updates to Skyward Collapse came almost daily for about a week after its release, and while obviously there were some bugfixes, a lot of it was balance tweaks suggested by the fan community. (In one case a change was made, found to be wildly unpopular, and changed back the next day.) I like that. Changing games based on fan feedback is kind of a controversial subject after Mass Effect 3. But in that case, the issue was with Bioware’s artistic intent with the original ending. Arcen is very obviously looking to entertain. People play games like AI War for years–it’s clear they’re releasing updates and expansions to it because they want to keep people enjoying it. I find that level of dedication endearing. There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff on their blog, and I really like it. Usually their explanations hit the proper balance between giving a lot of information and realizing they’re speaking to an audience of non-programmers.

So the upshot is one ought to buy the bundle. Why the hell not, right?


For its initial stages, there’s a lot that’s very datedly wretched about Dragonsphere–it has a SCUMM-esque verb list at the bottom, a slightly clunky interface, glacial movement speeds, and what appears to be an extremely, extremely cliche plot: You’re the King, and you’ve got to kill the evil Sorcerer. Go to. You spend the first few screens in a very generic-looking castle, and only nostalgia and patience kept me past them.

But what hooked me was the absolute lushness of the game. Adventure games have always been praised for their advances in the quality of game narratives, but they also deserve a little more credit for their graphics. Given the genre’s slow pace and its tradition of hidden-picture pixel hunting, it’s only natural that adventure games tend towards pretty backgrounds. The game isn’t very good at mundane areas like the castle, but that might be intentional: When you get to the magical areas of the kingdom, and there are a lot, they’re explosions of color and surrealism. Shapeshifters are rampant in the kingdom–and not at all trusted for their abilities to impersonate anyone–and their land is particularly eerie–the rocks and trees have eyes and ears: They’re people partially shifted.

And so an appreciation of the background led me to press on; a nifty little game began to reveal itself. Let’s talk about death for a minute. There was a while where playing adventure games was an extremely punishing, gory experience. Sierra was infamous for being cruel about it: Not only are there many, many ways to die in the average classic Sierra game, there were just as many ways to get irrevocably stuck. Often these two are intertwined: Forget to pick up a sword in the first room and you won’t be able to kill the monster two hours later.

We must remember that while pointing out the unfairness of classic adventure games IS a legitimate criticism…it’s also a selling point. The audience for the early days of interactive fiction and adventure games were frequent computer users–the average person didn’t own a computer in the 80s and early 90s. These games were being played by science-minded people, academics, programmers–people who *enjoy* an intricate, cerebral challenge. The entire process of playing an adventure game is scientific–it largely boils down to trying objects on other objects until the desired result is achieved. Playing a game for hours only to realize that an early, crucial step was missing and needing to start completely over–that may be failure as I see it, but take it from the perspective that it’s simply an unsuccessful experiment.

Lucasarts didn’t invent the deathless adventure game, but it’s the watchword for the forgiving one: Early works like Maniac Mansion aside, Lucasarts very deliberately avoided unwinnable situations and death. The intent was to make games more accessible, and while their games were no less difficult, their worlds feel so much less hostile than Sierra’s. And so, when confronted with a threat, your character will either run away, or the bad guy will just wave some teeth around and make growly noises, but either way Lucasarts obstacles turn out to be more paper tigers than anything else.

Again, not a problem–actual violence doesn’t fit with the aesthetic of Day of the Tentacle or Sam and Max–but games like Dragonsphere manage to split the difference. Sierra’s own King’s Quest VII was released the same year, and both games tie death to a “try again” button. A monster is blocking the path; if you go through, it eats you, a small hint is displayed, and you reappear as if nothing had happened. It’s not uncommon, and a lot of games continue to do that to good effect–Resonance’s staticky rewinds were a particularly striking example–but it’s not the kind of thing you think of a game doing in 1994. Dragonsphere even goes one step further: You begin the game with a ring which immediately transports you to the castle. At first, the game’s stages seem self-contained, but there is an order you’re intended to go through them. The game does not penalize you for trying out different areas before you’re ready. In one notable moment–one of the few one-time areas in the game–if you leave before picking everything up, the game will let you know you notice “something”, and refuse to let you leave until you’ve gotten everything. It’s nice. It’s forgiving.

There’s a twist; the game fucks with player character identity, and somehow manages to do so without the assistance of the Grand Poobah of Twists, Ken Levine! You’re not actually the King; you’re a shapeshifter who’s been enchanted with the King’s form and memories. You’ve been sent to fight the sorcerer as part of a plot by the real King’s brother–using the sorcerer as a way to kill the fake king and take the throne himself. It’s a well-justified twist: There’s enough odd things found here and there that the twist puts in context, and it’s unusual enough that I’m good with it.

What I’m not good with is–well, ultimately, the slow pace and the backtracking just GOT to me. There’s too much in other regions, and it’s too tedious to go from one to the other. There are a few mazes and solving them is too annoying. Ultimately, I got too tired of figuring things out on my own and grabbed a walkthrough; my general rule is if I’m playing from a walkthrough before the halfway mark, and I’m not loving the experience, then it’s time to give up. The art might be gorgeous, but I’d rather look through an art book than play some obscure puzzles.

And yet it was a nice contrast. I’ve been playing a lot of indie adventures later–Wadjet Eye stuff mostly, and while the backgrounds are no less pretty, their games tend to be much more compact, much fewer locations. There used to be a trend towards advertising your game based on how many rooms it had. Painting and scanning backgrounds, Sierra-style, might not be the most expensive thing in the world, but you DO need to pay people to do it, and if you’re doing small teams on a short deadline, well, it’s understandable–and it does avoid Traipsing Syndrome. Still, I miss epic adventure games. There haven’t been that many of those.