Archive for January, 2010

Wizardry III: Character Creation

So, let’s talk about character creation a little, because that’s something I’ve been doing a lot of. This is something that doesn’t change at all in the first three Wizardry games, because all character creation for the first three games is done in Wizardry 1, even if you’re creating a character to use solely in one of the sequels.

Like most early CRPGs, Wizardry draws heavily from D&D. You’ve got the same four basic character classes (fighter, mage, priest, thief), and a set of six stats that are basically the same as D&D‘s but with different names — the only real difference is that Charisma has been dropped in favor of Luck. In early editions of D&D, stats ranged from 3 to 18 because they were generated by rolling three six-sided dice. Wizardry uses a point-buy system instead, but it still makes 18 the maximum out of sheer conceptual inertia.

The creation process goes like this: First you choose a name, then you choose a race, then you assign points to stats, then you choose a class, then you decide whether to keep the character or throw it away and start over. Aside from the name, which could easily have been made the last step, the mechanics pretty much dictate that it has to go in this order. You need to choose the class after finalizing the stats because the stats determine what classes are available, and you need to assign the stats after choosing the race because the race determines the base stats. Dwarves, for example, always start with Strength 10, IQ 7, Piety 10, Vitality 10, Agility 6, and Luck 6. Hobbits 1Yes, it’s “hobbit” here, not “halfling”. This game was made before the Tolkien estate’s lawyers became the all-seeing eye of flame that they are today. have the highest total initial stats, which you might think would make them an attractive choice, but in fact it’s mostly in Luck, the least-attractive stat.

Every character class has a requirement of at least 11 in some stat: fighters need 11 Strength, priests need 11 Piety, etc. In addition to the base classes, there’s an odd assortment of specialized classes: Bishop, Samurai, Lord, and Ninja. (Yes, this means you can have dwarven and gnomish samurai, which is an entertaining thing to contemplate.) Samurai are fighter/mages, Lords are fighter/priests (in other words, paladins), and Ninjas are unarmed combat specialists who randomly do instant kills. (I have a habit of thinking of Ninjas as fighter/thieves, which would make a nice symmetry, but it isn’t really accurate.) Bishops are combination priest/mages, with the additional ability to identify items. They’re generally considered weaksauce, because they don’t gain higher spell levels as fast as the pure priests and mages, but I’m finding them tremendously useful at level 1, where they can cast four spells before running out of slots, compared to the normal caster’s two. Presumably because of this early usefulness, Bishops are the one special class you can reliably make as a new level 1 character, with stat requirements of just 11 IQ and 11 Piety. Lords and Ninjas are basically impossible to generate at level 1, and can only be produced by changing a character’s class after a number of stat increases from gaining experience levels — in particular, Ninjas require a 17 in every stat.

Samurai, now. Samurai can be produced at initial creation, but only occasionally. This is because the number of points you get to assign to stats is randomized. From the base stats for dwarves, elves, and gnomes, it takes 18 points to meet the Samurai requirements; getting this many points to spend is rare, but it does happen every once in a while. Furthermore, the randomization is oddly irregular; it usually stays between 5 and 11, but occasionally leaps to 18 or 19, and I’ve even seen a 26 come up. This is a design decision that it would be strange to see today. Random factors are all very well for transient events like combat, but for a single dice-roll to affect a character’s options from the very beginning like this is to invite the player to reroll over and over until they get what they want. This is the problem with random generation that point-buy is usually supposed to solve. So it’s very strange to see a point-buy system that goes to extra effort to bring the problem back. Maybe the authors felt that rerolling characters was an important part of the RPG experience.

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1. Yes, it’s “hobbit” here, not “halfling”. This game was made before the Tolkien estate’s lawyers became the all-seeing eye of flame that they are today.

Wizardry III: Legacy of Llylgamyn

Wizardry is one of the foundational CRPGs. There was a time when CRPGs were commonly described as either Ultima-style or Wizardry-style, the former referring to ones with a tile-based movement on a large map (such as Final Fantasy and The Magic Candle), the latter to ones with first-person navigation through grid-based dungeons (such as The Bard’s Tale and Dungeon Master). I myself played the original Wizardry as a child. I remember it took a very long time to complete, and seemed a monumental achievement. (I still have my official certificate of completion tucked away somewhere. I can’t imagine sending off for something like that today.) Of course, back then, the very basics of the genre were yet unfamiliar. Common practices like creating a balanced party and putting the mages in the back row had to be discovered by trial and error.

I didn’t play the immediate sequels when they were new, however. I wound up skipping ahead to Wizardry IV: The Return of Werdna, which is more of a direct sequel to Wizardry I than Wizardry II or III is, and didn’t get to trying the others until they were anthologized in 1998. I made an attempt to play through the entire series in order, but got stuck in the middle of Wizardry III when I seemed to run out of dungeon to explore. (I later learned what my problem was; I’ll go into detail later.)

Wizardry II, it turned out, is more like an expansion pack to I than like what we’d recognize as a sequel today — a symptom of the infant games industry still struggling to figure things out. III altered the mechanics and UI quite a bit, but still can’t be run as a completely standalone game, as it provides no way to create characters. They have to be created in Wizardry I and imported, a process that apparently involved swapping multiple floppy disks in and out. Even just playing Wizardry I involved a fair amount of swapping on a single-floppy system, what with its separate diskettes for character and scenario data. The anthology edition was thoughtfully altered to use disk images on the hard drive instead, and to carry out the swapping automatically.

Now, I still have some of the characters that I used to play Wizardry III ten years ago. But I don’t intend to use them, except as emergency support. To get the full experience, I’m creating a brand new party, with brand new characters. And I’m getting them killed a lot. This is part of the experience. Level 1 characters stand little chance of surviving their first encounter, and it takes at least three or so encounters before they get to level 2. And getting killed doesn’t mean resetting to a save point or anything nicely forgiving like that. If your entire party gets killed, you roll up a new party. You do have the ability to recover bodies from where they fell — this is what I mean by “emergency support” — and you can can take them back to town to resurrect them for an exhorbitant fee, but even the resurrection spell has a significant chance of failing and rendering them lost forever. (And you don’t get a refund when this happens.) Understand that characters are reduced to level 1 when imported; losing a certain number of your characters is simply part of the plan. So, in contrast to most RPGs today, it’s best not to get too attached to them. I gave up long ago on the idea of giving everyone a distinctive and memorable name; I name my guys in batches like “Fitt”, “Mitt”, “Pitt”, etc. (The initial letter indicates the character class, for greater ease in building a party out of the survivors.)

I really haven’t played much yet, though. Most of today’s game time was spent making preparations: digging out the graph paper, printing up a crib sheet with all the spell descriptions on it, deciding where and how to play it — the game uses a CGA graphics mode that my usual gaming rig doesn’t even support, which forced me to use DOSBox, which made me realize that I might as well be playing it on my Macbook. And of course there was the time spent rolling up all the characters, which can take a while if you’re fussy. So there’s a lot of anticipation going into this. It’s a grand thing, and also a memory of a simpler time, with simpler computer systems.

Immortal Defense: Story

The story of Immortal Defense is told through the monologues that introduce each level. At the beginning, these serve as mission briefings, but this function drops off over the course of the game. The story and the gameplay are pretty much separate, as in most games, but few games make a virtue of it the way ID does. If you’re pushing on through the levels regardless of what you’re told is happening in the world, well, the player character is doing the same. Like you, he’s isolated from the in-fiction consequences of his actions. We’re going to be pushing deep into spoiler territory here.

At the beginning of the game, the player character, Subject K, has his mind catapulted into the psychedelic cosmic realm of Pathspace to defeat an imminent alien invasion. The game has six chapters; the invasion by the Bavakh armada is defeated at the end of chapter 1. There’s still no known way to get your mind back into your body at that point, which leaves K isolated from humanity. There’s mention of years passing between levels, time that you’re not aware of. K’s daughter, unborn at the time that he started the mission, grows up and has a daughter of her own. And how do they relate to K? There’s talk of how you’re a hero, a legend. Your alien Pathspace mentor, Pul Wat Aa, is actually worshiped as a god by his people, and it’s not hard to see that down the road. But there’s one thing they never openly acknowledge: they also regard you as a weapon. A weapon that has to be cajoled and manipulated, but still, a highly effective weapon, and one that it would be a waste not to use. And everyone, on multiple sides, wants to use you: for a while, most of the mission briefings seem to be of the form “Why did you do X? Y is more important!” By chapter 5, the granddaughter is asking K to destroy incoming vessels that haven’t been identified yet, just in case they turn out to be hostile. They naturally turn out to be a peaceful scientific expedition by your allies. Even after you learn this, you keep on destroying further expeditions from the same source. The question is raised: why do you keep on doing this?

For the player, the answer is a combination of “because that’s how you advance the plot” and “because there’s nothing else to do”. For K, it’s a bit more complicated, but probably includes the latter. At the end of chapter 2, Aa betrays you and your planet is destroyed, leaving you as a defender with nothing to defend. This begins the revenge-obsessed phase of the game, a phase that lasts for a very long time and involves a number of rash and counterproductive acts on K’s part, as he refuses to let war die down. But what else is there for him to do?

The destruction of your planet also raises a mystery: your body was on that planet. Without it, how is it that you remain in Pathspace? K’s disembodied mind is referred to on multiple occasions as a “ghost”, and that starts to seem literal here. The mystery is in fact quickly solved: a number of your people, including the granddaughter, escaped the destruction, and eventually return to bring new life to the planet through nanotechnology — the same nanotechnology that they’re using to keep themselves alive indefinitely. This gives you something to defend once more, but at the same time, it seems too good, too perfectly wish-fulfilling for K, who regrets never getting a chance to meet his daughter in person. And indeed it all turns out to be a delusion. This is the reason that K destroyed those science fleets: they threatened to discover the truth. But even once this is undeniable, the hallucination of the granddaughter (whose name we’ve never learned) intriguingly argues that the delusions of an immortal are more enduring than mere flesh, and therefore more real. And it’s hard to argue with that from K’s perspective. Everything else around him is going to spend the bulk of eternity dead no matter what he does, including his fellow Pathspace defenders who are still dependent on their physical bodies.

It all reminds me a bit of the second volume of Tezuka’s Phoenix, in which, about halfway through the story, one of the characters is granted immortality. Suddenly the story takes a step back, and all the human conflicts that drove it up to that point fade in importance, as years pass, and millions of years. Something similar happens here, with thousands of years passing between levels, and the old factions and alliances disappearing and being replaced with new things that you’re no longer even given a chance to keep track of. The only thing that remains constant is K’s tenacious and pointless defense of his dead world. By the end, he’s descended into full-bore Jack Torrance insanity, to the point that I have to wonder if the final levels, in which all the boss monsters of the past return in large quantities, are supposed to be “real” at all, or just more hallucinations. (You have to wonder when one of the last ships types introduced is called the “:P”.)

Patrick Dugan wrote of the ending:

“I love you grandpa” is a piece of text that haunted me, leaving me shaken with wonder and existential horror, for hours after I finished the game.

And while I was skeptical on reading that, I have to agree: seen in context, as the last word going into the final mission, it’s devastating. But it isn’t really the last word: at the end of every chapter, there’s a bonus round in a simulation run by Jamesh, the inventor of Pathspace technology, and the final chapter is no exception. Here at the end, his words are a return to rationality, a frank discussion of what you’ve done and his own role in making it possible. And that final step back is the really masterful touch. The author of this game has thought about what it all means, and he wants you to think about it too.

In the official FAQ, the author states:

I put [K’s obsession with goals] into gameplay terms by making the last campaign of the story a direct challenge to the player: the missions are getting harder, K is becoming obviously crazier and crazier, and the player understands that there’s no point in world of the game to what he’s doing. The player can “win” in a perfectly acceptable way by just ceasing to play in those final moments: he can set the game aside, never pick it up again, and that means that K has come to his senses and abandoned his efforts.

I have to say this is wrong-headed. From a player’s perspective, abandoning a pre-scripted story in mid-game doesn’t change what happens in the gameworld any more than stopping reading a novel before the ending changes what happens in the world it describes. Even losing a mission, which in theory could allow the Bavakh invasion to succeed, doesn’t seem like something that happens in the “real” story of the game. There are games where the sense of what really happens is flexible, but this isn’t one of them. But as the same FAQ says, “I’m still on the fence about this–which is why you can also achieve a certain kind of victory by finishing.”

Apparently there’s a seventh chapter, set in “Hellspace”, that only becomes available if you complete every mission with a 100% survival rate. I imagine I’ll try for that eventually, but I’ll be surprised if it adds anything significant to the story. Pleasantly surprised, but surprised.

2009

It’s been a terrible year for shrinking the Stack. I did manage to complete 19 games, thanks to a burst at year’s end, but only four of them were on the Stack before the year started. The rest were, for the most part, purchased in sales on Steam, where I typically bought them in packages of multiple titles. The end result is that the Stack grew by 9 titles (plus a couple that I added because they should have already been on the list but weren’t). I think I’m developing something of a resistance to Steam sales: by now, I’ve seen enough of them pass by to know that anything I want will be put on sale again in the future. But the recent year-end event, with its week of daily special discounts, has been manipulative enough to overcome what little resistance I have.

It’s also the first year of this blog in which I failed to complete a Final Fantasy. I blame the Vintage Game Club for that one, interrupting me in the middle of FF6 by starting a group play-through of Chrono Trigger. With any luck, I’ll be able to finish them both in 2010.

For I have a plan. This is to some extent a retrogaming blog, and I haven’t been giving the older games on the Stack the attention they deserve. So, my pledge this year is to do a run through history. One game from each year on the Stack, from 1986 to the present. That’s 25 years, so if I pull out a new one every two weeks (regardless of whether I finished the last one or not), we’ll all have a new perspective on game history by year’s end.

First, I have to finish writing up Immortal Defense. But after that, we’ll turn to the oldest game currently on the Stack, Wizardry III.

Immortal Defense

immortal-understandingI’ve known since I tried the limited demo of Immortal Defense that I wanted give the full game a try at some point, and with the author putting it on a temporary “pay-what-you-want” sale, now seemed like the time. (The sale seems to have a few more hours left as I write this, although the phrase “until January 1st” is kind of ambiguous.)

The premise is that hostile spaceships travel interstellar distances through “hyperspace”, but that a higher-order space called “pathspace” exists beyond this, in which hyperspace routes are visible as twisting lines. You send your disembodied consciousness into pathspace to place circular “points” (that is, towers) based on different aspects of your personality: Fear points temorarily stun their targets and eliminate their defense, Pride points increase in power as they kill more enemies, Love points don’t attack but increase the range and power of any other points nearby, etc. It’s more continuous than most tower defense games — the path isn’t based on a grid (except to the extent that everything on a computer screen is), and the points can be placed freely, as long as they don’t intersect with the path or each other.

It’s all very abstract. Not many of the spaceships look like spaceships; the most common ones look like organic globules encased in transparent bubbles or polyhedra. The points are glyphs, the weapon fire is a cascade of bright lights. Sometimes, especially in the more advanced levels, there’s so much clutter on the screen that it’s hard to see the cursor — and that’s important, because the cursor is actually one of your weapons. It constantly fires weakly at the nearest target, and can be used to direct the fire of certain of the Points. One of the perennial questions in tower defense games is “What does the player do while waiting to build up enough cash to buy a new tower or upgrade?”, and this is ID‘s answer. But when the cursor is difficult to see, game is played more in the setup phase.

In fact, that’s typical of the gameplay as a whole: any tactic you come to rely on is rendered less useful at some point. Take those Love points. There comes a point when you start relying on them heavily, clustering all of your points together so they can take maximum advantage of the bonuses. Then the enemy starts turning out ships that can disable nearby points. Suddenly putting all your points close to each other is a bad idea. When you get the final point type, the Danmaku point, it seems like the final ultimate invincible thing that will win the rest of the levels for you; at the stage I’m stuck at now, close to the end, I’m using it as a decoy.

Another unusual thing it does: it lets you carry over cash from one level to the next. Not always, mind you — every fifteenth level clears it — but usually. The result is, predictably, positive feedback: once you start doing well, you can afford to do keep on doing well with minimal effort, at least until you reach something that requires new tactics, such as a boss fight. It’s a classic back-and-forth dynamic: things get easy, things get hard.

But the most notable thing is the story. The author claims that it’s “the only tower defense game with a story”. This may or may not have been strictly true when the game was originally released; it certainly isn’t true today. But it’s certainly got the most interesting story I’ve seen in the genre, and one of the more interesting I’ve seen in games at all. I’ll get into that more in my next post.

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