The Eye of the Beholder fond mockathon I did a while back started the memories flowing regarding computer RPGs (of the single rather than the MMO (1) variety) that I’ve had fun with. Now Fantasycon’s gone and the Reading and London signings are still coming up, here are a few that I recall having some real fun with back in the day. There will be all sorts of spoilers. The images below are all from the Gamespot reviews, which I hope is in order.
Might and Magic VII
Apparently there is a continuous plot to these Might and Magic games, but as I only played this one, and then one from earlier in the series about a year later, er… ok, it looks about as comprehensible as Final Fantasy when you start to read up about it, but Lord knows (a) I didn’t know any backstory before starting, and (b) I don’t honestly think it was needed. The Might and Magic are the same sort of “four guys in a car” party-based RPGs, so your characters exist only as little portraits of people (2) who all skate about the world in magical unison until they get eaten by one of a variety of 2D monsters in various colours (3). I played this game sort of in tandem with a friend (4) which was lucky, as MM7 has a moral choice moment, and you either end up helping the bad guys take over the world (me) or helping the good guys save it (him). The chief difference is that one region was basically Mexico full of goblins (5) with an underworld of undead, and another area was a floating cloud city full of wizards with an even cloudier upperworld full of angels. Your moral choice dictated where you no longer got invited to… and which place you got to seriously stomp once you’d levelled up. Combat could be either live or turn based, and there was this absurdly dramatic chord when you went into turn by turn, and a similar one for when you finished the fight, and believe me, you would be hearing those sounds in your sleep soon enough.
The MM games were filled to the brim with secret areas, games within games and all sorts of crazy stuff. You could make stuff, mix potions, turn yourself invisible and raid the treasure vaults of your supposed allies, get horribly lost in a teleport-trapped dwarven tomb and decode weird clues so that on one day of the year you could be in the right place to kill a rare monster, and even… guns? And a spaceship? Wait, what…?
You have to remember that the number of fantasy RPGs that are actually pure fantasy RPGs are really very small. If it’s not steampunk, it’s ancient elder civilisation, and if it’s not that it’s out and out SF elements. The MM plotline somehow ended with a bunch of aliens turning up in fantasyland and crashing their spaceship, and the two plots both lead to you teleporting back there and fighting your way through the killer robots to either (a) destroy the ship so that it cannot be used for evil, or (b) use the ship for evil by – wait for it – stealing the photocopier key. Hell yes. Along the way you pick up a selection of laser guns, which do low damage but have an insane rate of fire and no ammo requirement and…
Well, remember you’re four guys in a magic cart? Once your wizard gets spiffy enough, that cart can fly.
In a nutshell, this is why MM7, and its predecessors (I have a feeling the flying thing got actually taken out in later ones) were so much fun) – and especially in this one when your gallant fantasy aviators could zoom over the very simple landscape armed to the teeth with laser rifles and strafing madly at anything in sight – and almost everything could shoot back, so you had epic wheeling dogfights with acid-spitting hydras and the like, and the game just basically said, all that stuff you’ve learned over several hours of gameplay? Throw it out now, for you will never cast another spell or swing a sword again.
The most recent “guys in an invisible cart” game, this was decidedly up on MM7 in the graphics department, although again the story got somewhat lost because I wasn’t paying attention to the opening cinematic and hadn’t played the previous 7 games. However, this game also starts with a spaceship crashing into fantasyland, with the added bewilderment of your band of stock fantasy heroes having been on the spaceship, even though you’re all armed with swords and bows and fireball spells. This becomes a theme relatively quickly when you meet the three other spacegoing races apparently fighting for control of the planet and the high-tech maguffins that have been lost there. One lot are a galactic empire who mostly rely on blunderbuss-level tech, and the Dark Savant (main bad guy) has a legion of robot soldiers who have no ranged weapon capacity at all.
Wizardy 8’s gameplay was further enlivened by a punishingly arbitrary approach to difficulty levels, which played to an insane double standard. Fixed monsters, including the Dark Savant’s aforementioned robots, did not change over time, so that every visit to the conquered main city it became easier and easier to swan through the robot respawns until they – the game’s main threat – were utterly trivial. In contrast, random wandering monsters seemed to scale to a difficulty level somewhere 5-10 levels above that of your party, so that odds on any encounter with bandits or roving wildlife would end with the entire party massacred, especially if they surrounded you. You’d get out of bed, give the Dark Savant’s troops a kicking, and then venture forth with your monster detector on, and hide in a crevice the moment you saw any red dots coming.
Possibly one of the most famous RPGs of all time, and the first in the list where you actually got to see your characters, I won’t go into much detail about what it was like because most people will have played it – and if you haven’t, think Dragon Age, which is very much its spiritual successor (and which I’ll make some notes on at some point). You wander about a 2D landscape that mockingly mimics a 3D landscape by having areas roped off that you can’t get to, and there’s some plot about a… honestly, I can’t remember. It’s another Dungeons and Dragons game, though, and there were plenty of follow ups, including a direct sequel and couple under the Icewind Dale monicker, and they were all good. You start with a single character and pick up others, and then it does something really quite remarkable, because there’s this guy called Minsc. Minsc is a Russian-sounding ranger who has a hamster called Boo that he thinks can talk (and fight – “Go for the eyes, Boo!”) but he’s also one of the handier combat characters in the game, and very useful to have around when he isn’t mind-controlled. The hamster, by the way, is actually an item in his inventory, and he won’t let you take it away. Minsc joins you because there’s this girl he wants rescuing from gnolls, but he’ll happily hack the crap out of anything you point him at, and he has the best lines in the game (“Magic is impressive, but now Minsc leads! Swords for everyone!”). And then, after you’ve blithely ignored his occasional poke about going to rescue this girl of his, he goes berserk and has to be put down. And then you scrabble desperately back through all your save games, and lose untold game progress, in order to find one where you can go rescue her from the gnolls in time, because by that point you really like Minsc (6). This is the first time I ever ran into a character in a computer game that inspired any kind of emotional response. The writers/game creators had made a person, a real NPC that you cared about, and who made you laugh. Again, this presages Dragon Age, where that kind of party interaction is one of the main points, but it was a feat seldom equalled.
Baldur’s Gate is also notable at doing its damndest to bring the D&D rules to the computer and getting it wrong a few times along the way. There was this one point in the plot where some evil doppelgangers were going to gatecrash some royal function and kill the local noble. They were said to be hiding in the sewers, but although I ran into all manner of other nasties down there (7) I could never find them, and whilst I could beat them up, what I couldn’t do was stop them killing the king/duke/whatever before I’d finished them. So I sat my party outside the room they were all in – courtiers and doppelgangers, knowing that nobody would be starting the party without me, and I considered my options. What I did have in hand was an entire bagfull of wands of summoning that would dispense random monsters wherever I pointed. Delightfully, nobody in the duke’s audience chamber batted an eyelid when I dropped a half-dozen gnolls next to the throne. Then some wolves, and hobgoblins, and… basically I filled that room to bursting with monsters of all shapes and sizes, all of them natural foes to mankind if you met them in the wild. Nobody cared. Possibly the servants even offered them drinks. Then I walked in and all hell broke loose. The doppelgangers switched forms, and every summoned monster in the room descended on them with tooth and claw and a sock with a rock in it. My computer slowed down to about one frame a minute. I went and made some tea. About an hour later the doppelgangers were dead, the duke was alive, and everyone had decided never, never to mention the Day the Monsters Came.
Another game that most people will have played (8), and so I won’t bother with the detail. Morrowind didn’t have a Minsc, but what it did have was plot and world in spades – this was the first game I ever really got absorbed in playing to the extent that I was right there in my character’s skull wanting to know what was going on – and when you found out what was going on it was absolutely worth the journey. This carried over into Tribunal, the first sequel (Bloodmoon not so much, as the plot was far more separate) and indeed it sort of made more sense to cut the Morrowind plot in the middle, go do all of Tribunal and then go back. The basic setup was that you had three gods, or godlike beings, and a fallen god bad guy, and a prophecy, all that jazz, but it was a genuinely epic voyage of discovery and (spoilers!) when in Tribunal you find the fate of one of the gods (in whose religion you may actually be quite involved) and when you discover the nature of the others… Also, even though the graphics weren’t a patch on the later Oblivion, the world was awesome, and populated by weird monsters rather than the usual fantasy fare (when I first saw one of the big floating tentacle-monsters it scared the crap out of me – and then I discovered that they were basically farmed like cattle) (9). And, it was a very open world, and you could ignore the plot completely, and there was an extremely skilled and active modding community that the game openly embraced. The bit where I confronted the Big Bad on the gantry of his death rocket (10) after obtaining the two sacred weapons of waaa that were the only things that could defeat him, and he stepped back and fell to his death almost immediately, we’ll chalk up as either anticlamax or extreme realism.
(1) Though you know this chain of posts is going there.
(2) In the earlier part of the game, often little portraits of dead people.
(3) Those old pre-Quake graphics, eh?
(4) Same guy who was getaway driver for Eye of the Beholder.
(5) It was Mexico. It was a desert full of cactus and, I think, even had vaguely hispanic music. It couldn’t have been more Mexico if the goblins had been wearing sombreros.
(6) If you mistakenly rescue the girl before you pick up Minsc then Minsc won’t register it, and in fact will be irreconcilably berserk and merrily kill her, sadly.
(7) The lot of a sewer-worker’s life in fantasyland is well chronicled.
(8) The new one, Skyrim, is out any day now, I think. I did try Oblivion, but honesty never really got into it.
(9) This is one reason that Oblivion put me off – it was wolves, goblins and bandits, and that, frankly, is just dull.
(10) Technology again – there’s a whole elder race/steampunk thing going on in Morrowind.