88 – Might and Magic 3, Black Watchmen, Dragon Age Inquisition

–Stuck, as has always been the case, in Might and Magic III, this time on the lever puzzle in the Fortress of Fear. I hate lever puzzles. Yes, it’s optional, yes, I have a half-dozen other dungeons I could be going in at the moment. I am not quitting; I am Taking A Break. Because, dammit, I do want the map of the Isles of Terra on the wall to join VARN, XEEN, and Lost Guardia. (And I swear, one day Ishar is going to join them!)

But what is it about MM3 that just loses me? The exploration isn’t as satisfying–the biggest mistake of the series came with II, where you get the ability, very quickly, to traverse every square on the map and it becomes a game of lawnmowing. Might and Magic I is an impeccably designed maze. You can, eventually, go on every square if you find the way to do it; Might and Magic II gives you skills which allows you to, essentially, cross through walls in the outside. A line of trees or mountains that blocks your way in I becomes simply another square to pass through in II and that continues. III is a flat game paced only by enemy difficulty and keys to certain dungeons. And I love exploration and mazes, poking at a maze to find the spot that I haven’t gone into yet.

I mean, I did make it all the way through IV and V, so obviously the style got refined. III is excellent in many ways–it’s a beautiful game, it keeps and refines the manic energy of the series which is one of its hallmarks, and it’s hard–though a lot of the difficulty does come from riddles and puzzles. But really, Might and Magic I captured me in a way few other games have, and 6 did a good job of having that wonderful sense of expansive purpose; the other games in the series have been diminishing returns.

–Ducked into The Black Watchmen because a paranoid conspiracy ARG-style game is probably what we as a society need right now? It’s fun. Total cheese. You’re given a series of puzzles with all of this window dressing about secret experiments and agents with thick overdone Russian accents planting bugs and occult organizations–I’m totally blanking on the name but what was that webpage game a bunch of years back that started you off with searching pixels of images for text written in and moved to cracking codes and image manipulation and–do you know what I’m talking about? It’s one of those kinds of games. If you’re in the right mindset, and you can solve the puzzles, it’s great. Hard to do by yourself, I guess–it’s always more fun to do these things with a friend. I’ve recently gone through a breakup and so, you know, maybe I should have gotten Black Watchmen six months ago.

It reminds me of Missing Since January–anyone remember that lost little gem? An old boyfriend and I played that through a few years ago–we were the type to play adventure games together–and it was fun. The kayfabe of that was a little more complex–where Black Watchmen is simply “You’re a member of a cryptic organization solving crimes, have fun”, Missing tells the story of a serial killer and the two journalists who disappear investigating the murders. The killer sends a CD full of clues to the police, you get your hands on a copy, and you get to solving.

Missing took the ARG thing to some pretty nice heights, particularly for the time, particularly for someone like me who didn’t have much experience with ARGs. Its major gimmick was integrating itself with your email–you’d get messages from various characters, including the killer–the most notable one being several days after you’ve solved everything and moving on to something else, getting a gloating email from the killer promising to be back in the sequel because he’s always watching. Great shit. Black Watchmen has sections where you can add your phone number and address–locked for me at the moment, perhaps for later seasons.

The two biggest issues with ARGs from my sights, though, are that they’re usually too commercial and too hard, which at first glance seems a little paradoxical. Most of the big ARGs–I Love Bees, for example–are made to promote other things, aren’t a story in and of themselves; and if you’re not interested in the thing they’re promoted, it feels a little cheap. And these things are often designed to require that group participation. I like that such tools are available–there’s forums for Black Watchmen (that had absolutely no hints or discussion for a couple of puzzles I was stuck on) and a Discord server (whatever that is, sorry, kids, but I’m 35 and it’s getting hard for me to learn new shit unless forced, which by the way I’ve gotten the fuck rid of my Twitter and am richardgoodness@mastodon.social now and I fucking refuse to learn about instances)–but, you know, videogames have always been a largely solitary activity for me. I don’t like to play games against other people, and I don’t like to play with strangers. It’s nice to have another head next to mine to work together, but that’s about it. And so when you get into ARGs that require specialized esoteric knowledge that everyone has a piece of, where a community is required–I get a little leery of that.

I guess it takes me out of the experience a bit. Spells like these are very difficult. I’m the guy who hates Twine games made in the default, who hates Choice of Games for their fucking refusal to even change font colors, who can’t play a game if it’s not fullscreen. Seeing that this is on a computer with the Finder and the charge icon for my battery, that reminds me that I’m playing a game at home. The suspension of disbelief is difficult. Now, if I’m looking into the dark underbelly of organizations, if I’m pretending to hack into servers, if I’m doing research, doing it from the comfort of my own web browser adds to the experience. That’s how I’d do it “in real life”. But when I’m going to a forum that the company who made the game has created specifically to help people connect so they can discuss the game, that’s a little…silly.

I will say Black Watchmen does a little more online than perhaps they ought. The shell program, that you run from Steam or whatever, contains the navigator where you choose the puzzles you’re going to solve, is the spot where you enter the puzzle solutions, contains some basic documents. For the rest, most puzzles involve the site http://archive.blackwatchmen.com where you enter certain codes/passwords to access particular documents. It’s effective in its way, it gates your progress nicely, but I don’t quite understand why it’s a separate webpage that you can get to–why it isn’t a feature of the program itself. There could very easily be a database module within it that could serve the same exact purpose. And there’s some UI shit in the program–copying and pasting isn’t great, for example, little things like that–but it’s about as cute of an experience as it can be. I mean, I mean, I run an X-Files podcast. I’m a 90s kid. This kind of conspiracy cheese, I can’t take it completely seriously at the same time that I’m able to take it completely seriously. It’s funny, and creepy as hell to play at night.

–Speaking of breakups and big blocks of cheese, immediately after my breakup, a friend of mine suggested I get some kind of overwhelming videogame to take my mind off my shit–she got lost for a few weeks in Fallout 3 after a similar situation. Fallout isn’t my thing, particularly in such chaotic times, but fantasy is, and since I hate Elder Scrolls I picked up Dragon Age Inquisition. I don’t quite love Dragon Age–I don’t quite love Bioware. There’s always something pretty internetty about it, if you know what I mean, and I really hated the first two games as games. Dragon Age Origins I played before I had played any of the Infinity Engine games that it was hearkening back to, and so didn’t quite get the experience, but after I’d played them its faults and flaws began to become a little more apparent, and frankly, the XBox controls are kind of terrible. Dragon Age II was a really great attempt at telling a story in a small space, in showing social change over time, but while I’m not the kind of guy who gets hung up on plot holes, being an illegal mage openly running around with a flaming staff while people say “It’s the hero of Kirkwall, the guy who killed the biggest Qunari of all time, we’re low level bandits, let’s get him” began to wear on me, the quests which randomly solved themselves because you pick up an item as a random drop began to wear on me; and while I am okay knowing that I have made a choice in a videogame, Dragon Age II really wanted me to think that I was, and when it was all over and I realized that it was a series of magician’s choices and morton’s forks, it just felt–oh, god, I’m going to say pretentious–pretentious. It didn’t help that there’s a fuckton of really bad queer games crit about the game.

I mean maybe it just is a case where if I’d been five years younger when I’d played it, it would have blown my mind.

What I really wanted to play was The Witcher 3–I really like The Witcher’s world–but as I only have a 360 and a POS Macbook, Inquisition it was–and I think I’m pretty okay with the decision. As a Pile Of Content, it’s great–part of the reason I put it aside was simple fatigue. I actually like the much-memed Hinterlands, would have honestly been satisfied if that was the bulk of the game–and while I don’t quite love Dragon Age’s world, I don’t mind it. It certainly has more character than The Elder Scrolls, which you can tell very badly wants to be a fantasy world with a lot of character but just can’t help but be generic. I mean, I rolled a Skyrim character, thinking, okay, maybe this time it won’t be so bad–and here I am wandering through generic dungeons and fighting bandits after bandits after bandits and I just don’t give a shit. Dragon Age Inquisition is simple enough that when I want to get back to it, I’ll be able to pick up where I left off because it’s not exactly that complex of a plot, but it at least has a little bit of character. And, I mean, you know what a sucker I am for Catholic Shit.


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.

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:



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.



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.


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.

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.