One of the big buzzwords in the game industry lately is “episodic”. It seems to be an idea born partly from the fact that nearly all gamers, even console gamers, have internet access now, and partly from the success of MMORPGs at getting people to pay monthly fees. Why spend months or even years developing a new engine for an uncertain response, when you can make it easy for people to download new content for the same system? It’s essentially the same logic that drives sequels, although there the concern is more with building a brand than building an engine.
But episodic content doesn’t really require the internet, as New World Computing showed in 2000 when they released the Heroes Chronicles series, four narratively-linked sets of scenarios using the Heroes of Might and Magic 3 turn-based strategy engine, published on CD-ROMs and sold in stores like any other budget title of the time. This was clearly something of an experiment, and apparently not an especially successful one, as they obviously didn’t repeat it.
I personally only heard of the series after all the episodes were remaindered, at which point I picked them all up. I didn’t have Heroes of Might and Magic 3, but the Chronicles discs don’t require it. I may be missing out on some details by not having the manual, but there’s a good tutorial, and the user interface provides loads of help: nearly everything, be it a button in the control panel or a monster on the map, has both a brief description that appears in the game’s status bar when you point the mouse at it, and more detailed information available by right-clicking.
Each episode of the series seems to focus on one of the alignments/teams/whatever in the game. The first episode, Warriors of the Wasteland, tells how the series protagonist, an immortal hero named Tarnum, came to power during his mortal life, and it’s basically the story of Conan the Barbarian: your team is the high-strength/low-magic types (which is a good choice for episode 1, because that’s usually the easiest sort of thing to play), and your chief foes are the evil wizards who have conquered and enslaved your people. The most memorable part of that episode is the part where Tarnum finally reaches his homeland, intending to liberate his folk and raise them into an army to storm the final castle, only to find that they’re not in chains but happily going about their lives as if nothing were wrong. Tarnum immediately decides that anyone who has accepted the wizards’ rule is a traitor, and there follow several “battles” in which you send your assembled monster hordes to slaughter increasing numbers of hapless peasants armed with hoes. It’s one of those narrative-revealed-through-gameplay moments, and it’s in a game where the story was largely just tacked on.
That was clearly the first episode of the series, but since I bought them all at once, It was unclear to me at the time which came next. Mobygames tells me that episode 2 is Conquest of the Underworld, so I’ve started on that. The theme this time is demons. It’s a little bizarre how it works out: you start off with what I can best describe as a Lawful Good settlement, capable of producing knights and whatnot, and the first significant enemy is a rival warlord on Team Evil who’s using minor demons in combat. But once you take over his castle, you can take advantage of the structures there to raise imps and hellhounds of your own. This seems like a major part of how HOMM mechanics work: you use the resources you conquer. But when it’s presented in such a clear good-vs.-evil trappings, it smacks of Nietzche’s warnings about becoming the thing that you fight.
But then, as we know from episode 1, Tarnum is no model citizen to begin with. I’m not yet clear on how he got from where he was at the end of that scenario, Supreme Barbarian Tyrant of the World, to where he is now, undying errand-boy to the gods, but apparently there are going to be some flashbacks. Flashbacks presented in text boxes that spontaneously appear as I hit key points on the map.