CotAB: Story compared to Pool of Radiance

At some point when I was googling for more information about Curse of the Azure Bonds, I saw a review that praised it for having a stronger story than Pool of Radiance. I’m not sure I agree. The two games have different stories, certainly. PoR‘s is like the RPG equivalent of a police procedural. The player characters are just doing a job. That job brings them in contact with a larger story, but the story is not fundamentally about them. The PC’s are no one in particular, just a group of wandering adventurers attracted by the opportunities in the city of Phlan, like many others.

In CotAB, on the other hand, it’s all about the PCs. You are the Chosen Ones! Characters in the game actually use that term, although it’s somewhat inverted from its usual meaning, because it’s the bad guys who did the choosing. And, well, fair enough: your party is at least level 5 now, and that makes them good choices. I recall reading an analysis of the third-edition D&D rules that came to the surprising conclusion that the most skilled people in the real world — the Albert Einsteins and Michael Jordans and whatnot — are the equivalent of fifth-level D&D characters. Beyond that point, we’re in the realm of pure larger-than-life fantasy. At any rate, while the player characters in PoR were special by the end (being chosen to storm the castle and all), they had to earn that position through hard work within the framework of the story. Your special position in CotAB, on the other hand, is unearned. But that’s okay, because it’s also involuntary. (It’s funny how that works.)

The story in PoR is largely backstory; you generally only show at the end of each plot thread, because you’re the one doing the ending. (This adds to the police-procedural-like tone: much of the story is communicated through discoveries about what happened before.) In CotAB, the story is happening to you, as you play it. This doesn’t mean the story is more interactive, though. Quite the contrary. The premise of the Bonds provides the author with not just an excuse to wrest control of the characters away from the player, but an obligation to do so. And this gets into the most peculiar thing about CotAB‘s story: the premise involves villains with schemes, but you can’t actually do anything to stop them. All you can do when a scheme is executed is to read some noninteractive text describing how the scheme went down: the villain took control of your actions, but it all somehow went wrong anyway, due to circumstances beyond your control. And sure, you get to kill them after the fact, but that’s it.

I’ll say this for the CotAB approach, though: because you’re the center of the plot, the villains aren’t necessarily sitting in their lairs oblivious to your approach, as in PoR. They have reason to seek you out, and occasionally do so when you’re not expecting it.

2 Comments so far

  1. Jason Dyer on 22 Feb 2010

    Weird text truncation alert.

    I recall one of the fun things about Ultima V being the villians actively haranguing the party.

    When you say “noninteractive text”, do you mean the paragraphs from the manual? (Incidentally, there is an Appple II version of PoR which I’ve tried and requires massive disk swapping on something like 11 disks, so at least in that game they did still have some technical concerns as far as large blocks of text go.)

  2. Carl Muckenhoupt on 23 Feb 2010

    Actually, the text of the azure-bond-activation scenes tends to be in the game itself. I guess they wanted to keep the really important plot events away from prying eyes.

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