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.

 

 

 

 

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.

51 – Wizardry 7, Part 2

Now THIS is a bit more like it.

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Let’s take a tour. The small vertical patch of green in the lower-left is where I started the game. A path leads north from there through a patch of orchids which, Wizard of Oz style, make my party pass out and wake up somewhere else. Going east, that blob is New City; the blob to the far east is a town called Munkharama. North of New City, in a further foresty area,  and underground, is the first “real” dungeon that I’ve spent any amount of time in. This is Castle Orkogre, the castle of an orc-like race called the Gorn. As I mentioned, the main quest of the game concerns a treasure hunt for pieces of a map to the game’s Ultimate MacGuffin, and after getting massively stuck on a puzzle in the castle–one of those where I used the right item but facing the wrong direction–I opened a chest to find one of the map pieces…only to find, as the punchline, that another faction had gotten to it already.

I’m beginning to get a handle on how the game works, a bit. There’s a specific moment in Wizardry 6 I’m thinking of–a character offers to give you information in exchange for the location of a treasure, and if you find the treasure later on, the chest is empty except for a thank-you note from that character. That’s essentially what’s going on here–other factions are searching for the same things as you, and while I’m not sure exactly how the mechanics of THEIR search is going–and why they all apparently decided to reset the puzzles and lock all the doors after they were done–it actually really fucking works. We are all kind of in a race against time.

Wizardry 6 has a lot in common with Resident Evil-style survival horror games, at least structurally. You start off in a gigantic castle full of locked doors, and the entire first quarter-to-third of the game is spent slowly opening it up and getting access to more and more of the castle. As you go, you find passages to other surrounding areas–a mine, a mountain, a temple, a forest–which, while not quite as large as the castle are all different sorts of mapping challenges. But there’s a tightness to Wizardry 6–everything centers around this castle and connects to it in at least two different ways. On a plot level, discovering what went on in the castle is your main goal, and so having the game physically centered around it does one of those location-as-character things: You keep on going back to it and learning a little more about it; the castle is such an important that the very world keeps looping back to it.

Lost Guardia is a little more sprawling–the game seems to consist of self-contained dungeons connected by as large, rambling forest overworld. The world map that comes with the game shows the top half to be a bunch of locations connected by a literal road, and in fact there’s been really little off the beaten path so far: Castle Orkogre is the only real thing I’ve discovered that didn’t have a road leading to it. And so the planet itself begins to become a character; what impresses me is how it uses a lot of the same techniques as Wizardry 6 but to a very different effect. Wizardry 7 is a wandering romp through a large planet, and the factional divisions are almost literally represented by the dungeons’ isolation.

Wizardry 7 is literally a game about the decline brought on by separation due to the lust for power. Meeting the Gorn King is almost heartbreaking. The Gorn are, essentially, poetic Orcs; the King sits on his throne and mutters philosophically about how he’s seen his once-proud race go from a mighty empire to a bunch of warring tribes bent on destroying each other; he views the party’s treasure hunt as insult to injury, almost. Not only is he seeing the end of the Gorn Empire, the very land and territory that’s being fought over isn’t even itself important: It’s simply the site for what’s essentially an arms race between alien invaders. I’ve had brief interactions with the Munks and the Danes, two of the other major factions in the game. The Munks are, as you’d imagine, guys in robes, basically karate friars, and the one I’ve had the most interaction with is a drunk who grumbles pathetically about how he wants to get those rotten Dane; the Dane, as represented by the one member I’ve met so far, are a race of tall, blue-skinned people who ramble ad nauseum about repenting and the end of days.

You know, I like a little bit of ambiguity in games, and I think about my party’s motivation for this quest we’re on. Wizardry 6 is almost a pure example of a “because it’s there” game–you’re explicitly billed as a group of adventurers who discovered this long-lost castle and decide to explore it. Our reason for embarking on Wizardry 7–depending on your ending in 6 you begin 7 in one of several places and with certain alignments and paths suggested–is solely because another character picked us up, tols us to find this treasure, and warned us against someone called the Dark Savant, who’s probably legitimately a bad guy because of his name and because his ship is creepy. But this is all an extension of that original adventurer personality: Your party is, quite literally, a bunch of RPG characters looking for something to do. You have no personal connection to the events–other than the small matter of the events in the trilogy apparently affecting everybody in the entire Cosmos, of course–and are just kind of along for the ride. The planet of Guardia doesn’t stand a chance; it doesn’t have an existence for itself; it’s just a location that a bunch of people are going to fight in and then depart when their adventure’s done. The inhabitants, if there are any left, ar ethe ones who’re going to have to stay behind and clean up the mess that everyone left.

50 – OKAY FINE I’M PLAYING WIZARDRY 7

I think I reeeeeally wanted to get out of playing Wizardry 7 for some reason. Look. I loved, loved, loved Wizardry 6. If it isn’t quite one of my favorite games, it’s certainly one of the five most important games I’ve ever played. I’ll spare you the gory details, but let’s just say that I started playing Wizardry 6 around a point in my life where the only other viable option was “commit suicide”, and that I could write an amazing Personal Essay about how crawling through the Bane Castle and the surrounding dungeons represented the dark, sludgy, smokey, fly-infested basement where I played the game and how my ending decision to take the Cosmic Forge represented my decision to become a writer of Twines and all of that Chicken Soup for the Dark Souls crap.

But, I mean, my darling, my darling, my life and my groom is Might and Magic. I love mapping, and it was Wizardry 6 which made me realize that fact. The moment that I fell hard for Wizardry 6 was the moment that I realized that the entire map was artfully and perfectly arranged to scale. Oh, let’s not compare everything to Dark Souls, but it’s got a similar enough structure. There’s a central area which connects to a bunch of side dungeons, and you’re constantly discovering new shortcuts and connections between the areas. I mean, at that point I had regularly been using the phrase “It’s not a world, it’s a series of videogame levels”. As primitive even for its time as Wizardry 6 was, as much as it was a maze full of questionably-designed monsters–there are a number of naked lady enemies with large bosoms, so you have to have a veeeeeeeeeeeery healthy sense of camp–it was a world. You could build the thing–if I ever get a larger apartment and go completely insane I’m going to build a model of Wizardry 6 entirely out of Lego(s).

But Might and Magic’s mathematical regularity just happens to be more aesthetically appealing to me–certainly it’s easier for me to get that game in my head than Wizardry 6’s sprawl. Might and Magic consists of 55 interconnected maps, each of which is 16 X 16 squares. It is organized in a regular fashion as well: The overworld is four rows of five columns–each designated by a letter and number. Coordinates are very important in the game, and you learn the system very quickly. They’re even referred to in-game. The effect this has on notetaking is astounding–a lot of Might and Magic is focused around knowing the precise location of a lot of stuff. For example, at E4 8,5 is a fountain which temporarily increases your Might by 20–a VERY helpful gameplay bonus. And of course I made plenty of notes on my Wizardry 6 map itself–noting locations of locked doors, unsolved puzzles, etc.

But while Might and Magic 3-5’s level design discourages graph paper mapping–their levels are larger and more sprawling, not tightly curled in on themselves like 1 and 2’s were but given the freedom to sprawl out a bit and–my experience with 3 so far–be a little less interesting–while Might and Magic 3-5’s level design discourages graph paper mapping, every square still has a coordinate. Notes are so easy.

I have a smaller apartment this year, and I don’t really have the space to graph out a gigantic map–from what I know about W7’s structure, it’s a lot larger. Having played for a couple days now, it appears to be a large interconnected forest type area with cities and dungeons peppered throughout–in other words, a Might and Magic-style structure without Might and Magic’s regularity. Wizardry 7 has an automap, and it’s actually one of the more interesting automaps I’ve seen–the quality of the map increases as you increase the character’s map skill at levelups, so it starts off shitty and useless without even walls drawn in, just a blob of floor tiles, and gradually fills in walls and, I assume, doors and probably hidden shit.

The issue is it’s still not fantastic yet–and there’s so much the automap can’t do. There’s, you know, locked doors and puzzles I have to return to, and I need to know the relationship of certain locations to each other, and that the automap just can’t do. I probably should buy the largest pad of graph paper I can find, because that’s probably going to be the only way around this. Yeah, fuck, I’m going to have to end up mapping Wizardry 7. I’ll go to Staples.

You know, I’d created a new party for Wizardry 8, and i started that, and it’s awesome so far–but Ben Chandler and a very sincere “thank you” addressed to players who imported their characters through the whole trilogy in the Wizardry 8 manual guilted me. It’s actually a little hard to go back. 7 is pretty much a facelift and a restructuring of 6, but in terms of interface and mechanics it’s the same as 6. 8 revamps everything–refines the skill system into a much less punishing and esoteric one, automates so much of the repetitive nature of turn-based games and takes away a ton of micromanagement–and, well, yeah, 7 is a step back. So I don’t know. 7 is very good. It’s a beautiful-looking game, particularly in the monster designs, but there are problems.

Like, it feels a lot more narrative based, and yet there are large and strange gaps in the game that make me feel like I missed something vital. From what I know from reading the manual and stuff about the game online, the game is structured like a giant free-for-all treasure hunt. You and a bunch of other factions are all on the same planet hunting for the pieces of a map that’s going to lead to an ultimate treasure. As you move through the game, you can find out rumors about where the pieces of the map are and if any of the factions have them. So from what I can gather, you’re supposed to be able to align with different groups, and certain ones can obtain pieces of the map and then you have to get it back from them.

I’m a little unclear so far as to how this works in practice, largely because I haven’t gotten that far and because I’m not sure how advanced this game was in ’92. I can see that being impressive and really difficult and really cool if it has a bit of proceduralness to it. I’m having the usual difficulty I have with keyword conversation systems…and I’m not sure how much this is integral to the plot or if it’s mostly window dressing. Is talking to people going to provide clues to where to go, or do I just need to bum around and explore and that’s how I’ll get most of it done? So far no one’s been able to tell me anything that seems that crucial–it’s all nice bits of worldbuilding and stuff, and there are a few recurring characters that are starting to appear–but I don’t know if I’m just not asking the right questions. One of the factions has given me a couple of quests in a chain–I’m on some sort of a spiritual journey and I’m learning little bits of a poem–so far I’ve got “Slay not he that cannot hear/Be thankful ye that hath an ear” which should give you an idea of the atmosphere of the game–but I don’t know if that means that I’m aligned with the faction or not.

You know, the general view of designer DW Bradley is kind of an ass, that his writing is a little purple–but also that it kinda works. Wizardry 6 had a decent amount of flavor text throughout–descriptions of rooms, evocative enough to supplement the minimal graphics–but it’s all over the place in 7, and yeah, there’s a really odd feeling that comes through. We are on a decaying planet, and an end of world prophecy is going around, and different alien factions are going to war over the planet’s great secret, and there is a feeling of faded glory throughout; it’s very Shelley’s “Ozymandius”. Every shop I’ve gone into has a couple of lines about how everything is broken down and cobweb-filled and how you see a strange shopkeeper who’s desperately selling his few items. The empty cities are actually abandoned cities. Ugh, let’s go back to Dark Souls again–Wizardry 7 is about abandoned glory where Dark Souls is about decaying glory, but the lands you’re exploring in both have been long since dead. You think this is cool now? You shoulda seen it in the gold old days. They’re elegies for places that were never quite appreciated in their time, and there’s no going back. The past is the past.

46

I have been playing Might and Magic to the exclusion of everything else for about two weeks now. Several bundles have happened, both GoG and Steam have had sales, and I’ve spent a few bucks on them, but it’s all counting as backlog. Half of the reason I haven’t written a word about it is because that’s time away from playing the game: The only reason I’m writing now is because I’m in New Jersey for Christmas and I didn’t bring my computer.

It’s, you know, funny that this year I got really into first-person draw-your-own-map games–if you were around during the summer, you probably read me rambling about Wizardry 6 and how much I absolutely loved that game. This is actually kind of a new territory for me. Other than Lands of Lore, I never got into first-person maze games–I always had trouble *seeing* it, and the discipline that Might and Magic requires would have been totally beyond me as a kid. My only experience with the series was a very little bit of time spent with Might and Magic II, which came with my family computer, and I think I played it once or twice and decided that it was boring.

Success in Might and Magic, more than anything else, requires absolute meticulousness. There are, apparently, a total of 55 separate 16X16 maps in the game. I’m being very organized with them–I’ve got separate paper-clipped sheaves with town maps, dungeon maps, overworld maps, and another with notes. There’s very little NPC interaction, which means that the scraps you do get–notes written on walls, cryptic lines occasional characters spout out–are all meaningful. Every single map square I have has a lot of cross-referenced notes. It comes in handy.

I decided to play Might and Magic because of the coverage in the blog The CRPG Addict, which I just started reading; it made the game seem somehow amazing, and since I already own the entire series–I picked it up at the GoG summer sale–I figured it was high time I give it a proper try. I’ve found almost a surprised note in most of everything I’ve read about the game–like, in forums and other blogs, so many people approach the game almost surprised that it’s held up: That Might and Magic is not only a playable but a quite good game seems almost unexpected.

But it’s an intensely respectful game, and in a year whose notable games included Bioshock Infinite (which was a series of vaguely-interactive cutscenes separated by hyperviolent dull shooty bits), Gone Home (which was a series of overwrought narrations in an environment which wasn’t quite interactive enough, and Proteus, which had no point whatsoever–in a year where those are some of the more talked-about games, it’s really nice and almost really sad that I’m going back to 1987 to find a game which likes me.

I mean in many ways Might and Magic is one of the few games I’ve ever played that doesn’t have a beginning–it has a middle and an ending, but once you create your characters you’re just dumped into the first town without any motivation or guidance. That first town isn’t even particularly special–a little easier monsters than the rest, maybe, but beyond that, I mean I’m a good 40 hours into the game and I still hang around that town a lot since it’s such a central area. Your motivation for questing, for playing the game, is the game itself–if you don’t see 55 blank maps and immediately feel the strongest desire to explore and fill all of them out, then you’re playing the wrong game. The manual notes that “combat is at the heart of Might and Magic”, but that’s a lie: Combat is fine (and, other than a crude drawing of one of the monsters at the beginning of combat, is handled exclusively through text, it’s a fairly distilled form of RPG combat), and there’s certainly a lot of it, but more than anything, it’s a cartography simulation.

You know, Wizardry 6 was more about inventory and key puzzles, and it was certainly about mapping out intricate structures; Might and Magic is more about its overworld–20 of those 55 maps are dedicated to the main world map, which is laid out in a very specific grid pattern, and for the most part, you’re just an explorer. You have very few explicit goals–a couple of quests given to you by various kings and things like that–but the rest of the game is so open and sprawling that the only way to avoid agoraphobia is to make up your own series of constantly shifting goals. I’m going to map this one square. I’m going to level up one character. I’m going to find this character that a note mentioned. What sticks out is that both Wizardry 6 and Might and Magic use the phrase “fantasy simulation” in their paratext. I think that’s pretty important. Might and Magic really is a computer system which is running this little world, and experimenting with it is the heat of the game. You think about how games like Sim City, beyond a couple of explicit scenario goals, are about poking around and figuring out stuff you want to do and then doing it. And while there’s a main quest, and he game does have an ending, for the most part it’s about going around, finding interesting stuff, and enjoying it. Rather than something like Skyrim, which was a cross between a Skinner box and a to-do list masquerading as a fantasy epic, Might and Magic ships with no goals and therefore manages to be a very personal experience. Playing Might and Magic becomes its own reward–I find it to be a very absorbing, mindful, intimate game and its genuine lack of impatience helps it to be a beautiful game.

God damn; I really want it to be Thursday so I can get back to playing it.

29 – Etrian Odyssey II Is Not As Good As Wizardry 6, But Duh

Wizardry 6 might have been one of the most significant gaming experiences I’ve ever had. I do not exaggerate. Yes: It was a great game, but it was also a Symbolic game. 2013 is the year of Bioshock Infinite and Bioshock Infinite was the game of me finally deciding it was time to tell console videogames to fuck off and die; 2013 is the year I began to become a PC gamer. Declaring this intention is all well and good but it takes a trial in order to join a brotherhood and I have decided that my trial will be the successful completion of the Cosmic Forge Trilogy.

I’m not quite ready for Wizardry 7, but the “grindy game where you make your own maps” itch still needs scratching, and to this end I dug out Etrian Odyssey II which I bought four years ago but have never played for more than an hour or two, finding it a little too grindy. This time I’m more or less loving the grind–I’m a little past the halfway mark right now, and I’m sloooooowly running out of steam. I’m still going strong, but the end is still nowhere in sight, and that’s not even beginning to count the post-game content, so I don’t know how far my stamina will hold up.

It’s pretty good. Much more of a Videogame than Wizardry 6 is, particularly with the levels: EOII is just a series of mazes. You’re explicitly exploring a Labyrinth, and while there’s more visual diversity to the levels–you completely change environments every few floors or so–there’s never any pretense that you’re doing anything more than simply exploring a maze that’s there for the sake of being a maze. Wizardry 6 takes you through temples and castles and forests and mines, and every single level is navigated differently, and the entire thing holds together in a architecturally logical and consistent way.

But EOII is much less interested in giving a world to explore; it’s much more of a firehose, a series of levels and a ton of battles in between them and very, very little bullshit. In some respects, it’s even more bare-bones than W6. Its story is certainly less interesting–and to its credit, its story is never treated as anything more than set dressing. There’s a maze; there’s a bunch of people interested in exploring the maze; there’s a few quests designed to pace exploration and a few lines of text giving context for each; and then it’s just you, the maze, and a shitload of monsters. Wizardry 6 had more of a backstory than an actual plot, and its era led to some extremely skeletal writing, but its altogether more meaningful.

It’s all forward motion–you have no home base but trudge forward, crossing and recrossing occasional areas as needed. You rest where you can. Wizardry 6 is the long, epic, arduous journey of six people that you can have up to two more adventures with and probably end up getting fairly close to. Etrian Odyssey II is more cyclical–you trudge a bit through the dungeon until you have too much loot or not enough mana and then you warp back to the town where you stock up on supplies and flirt with the cute shopkeeper and bullshit with the bartender and get some quests and sleep at the inn and go to the Duke’s Palace in the morning to report the stuff you found the day before and then it’s back to more trudging. It’s altogether more comfortable–it allows you to set up a routine in the game.

And an unexpected bit of emotion: I named my characters after my Wizardry 6 party–unfortunately unable to take Urghula because EOII only allows parties of five characters–because I figured, okay, even though I don’t want to take them into Wizardry 7 quite yet it would be fun to take them on another adventure. But In Etrian Odyssey, the focus isn’t on creating a party–it gives the conceit of managing a guild of adventurers. And to force that, the level cap is at 70–as I said, I’m about the halfway point and my characters are in their 60s. After I think level 30, you can let a character retire–they’re gone forever, but a new recruit steps in their place at half their level, with higher-than-natural stats and a higher level cap. Retiring characters becomes the key to letting your characters grind further and it becomes necessary after a while. And the last few levels before retirement suddenly become strikingly sad. The skills you pick for them become even more meaningful; you begin to regret skill trees you didn’t go down; you begin to wonder if you should create a character of the same class.

And you miss them. I just parted with Frunk the Ronin in return for Hank the Beast, and I don’t trust Hank. I miss Frunk. Fucker did like 300 damage every hit.

Look, it’s not a philosophically deep game. Its various systems work with each other well; it’s sophisticated in its way, but it’s also a grindfest. Long as you can mark up a graph and persist in doing random encounters, you can beat the game. But the character development is nice–there are a lot of possible party combinations and I appreciate that the game forces you to try out a lot of them–and it is a Rewarding game.

Still. I don’t doubt that Wizardry 7 will be the more Meaningful experience.