Gemcraft: What Grinding Means

Now, I said before that the shadow demon known as “the Forgotten” appears at random once you’ve made sufficient progress in Chasing Shadows. But I just noticed that it’s been a while since I last saw her. Which makes sense! Once you’ve reached the end of the game’s story, she no longer has any reason to bother you. Her monsters still attack, but we can take that as more or less automatic. It just means she didn’t bother turning off the monster spigot when she moved on to the sequel.

But wait. That means that the post-game here is diegetic. It’s not just the player revisiting earlier parts of the story, it’s the player character, the wizard seeking to contain the Forgotten, continuing to wander the battlefields after he has nothing more to gain. The player has motivations: achievements, completion, finding all the game’s secrets, particularly the secret of the grey trees. I suppose that uncovering secrets is a suitable motivation for a wizard as well. But the rest?

The main thing that the PC gets out of it all is power, in the form of XP from defeating monsters. This has lore implications if we take it seriously. Is all your magic fueled by death? Moreover, the PC isn’t just killing monsters out of necessity in this case. You’re deliberately goading them to attack, setting battle traits to attract more waves, using gems to enrage the waves so there will be more of them to kill. The PC is the aggressor, the instigator of completely unnecessary violence.

And in a lot of games, I’d make comments about ludonarrative dissonance here. But in Gemcraft, it fits the story pretty well! This is a dark fantasy, set in a bleak wasteland, long abandoned by humans. The sole great task of the wizards is to deal with the consequences of a terrible mistake they made long ago — not even to correct that mistake, but just to limit it, keep it from causing any more harm than it already has. And that’s a battle they’re losing. And if the story as a whole is one of punishment for hubris, pushing the PC into morally questionable activities in the pursuit of power is hardly out of place.

TR5: The Frame

I remember, long before there were any Tomb Raider movies, idly musing about how I would approach such an adaptation. (I have no training in film, but why would that stop my musing?) I really liked the idea of framing the story as a tall tale that Lara Croft tells about her own exploits, thus excusing the more fantastic elements, like evil meteors and Atlantean demon-aliens and hidden dinosaur habitats. (It’s sadly been forgotten by this point, but early Tomb Raider seemed to have a rule that every game had to have at least one tyrannosaur fight, if only in a secret area or bonus level. I saw no reason why this rule would not apply to movies as well.) I imagined Princess Bride-like interruptions where skeptical party guests object, and an ending that revealed that not only was everything Lara said true, but there were even crazier things that she left out. What can I say, I was really into unreliable narration at the time.

Tomb Raider: Chronicles reminds me of that a little because it, too, puts a narrative frame around the action. The writers had decided to kill off Lara Croft at the end of the previous game, Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation, and Chronicles is a collection of stories shared by the people attending her memorial service. I’m still in early stages, so the game still might surprise me, but I don’t think it’s taking advantage of the frame in the same way as my hypothetical movie treatment. Mainly it just serves as a way to present several completely unrelated stories, and even that just draws attention to how loosely linked the scenarios in the previous games were. If the writers had wanted to, they could have cooked up a macguffin to link up this game that’s no less arbitrary than the motivations for gallivanting about the globe in the previous ones, but I suppose the way they did it is more honest.

I remember thinking that Lara’s death in The Last Revelation was unconvincing, clearly just a cliffhanger setting up her inevitable return, like the death of Superman. But apparently it was more like the death of Sherlock Holmes: the team at Core Design was tired of Lara and wanted to kill her off for real, but there was too much public demand for the decision to stick. Chronicles is thus Lara Croft’s Hound of the Baskervilles, published out of chronological order after the character’s death, reminding everyone that this is how stories work and that we might as well unkill the character because it’s not like their death accomplishes anything.

One thing I’m not clear on yet: How does the framing affect the gameplay? Will I carry my inventory from story to story, because that’s how the game works, or will it get wiped, because that’s what makes sense narratively? I’m actually kind of hoping for the former, just because that specific kind of ludonarrative dissonace interests me. I guess it’s my new unreliable narration.

Ultimate Spider-Man: Cross-Purposes

I’m pretty sure I’m in the endgame at this point, a longish sequence of set-pieces with no free exploration separating them. Before this point, you’re pretty much playing two separate stories that intersect occasionally: the story of Spider-Man battling various bad guys wreaking havoc in New York City (including Venom), and the story of Venom battling the mercenaries sent by Bolivar Trask to capture him and retrieve the symbiote. These stories merge when Trask figures out that Peter Parker is connected to Venom and sends forces to collect him as well.

There’s a narratively peculiar thing that happens in games sometimes, where the interactive portions make you expend effort towards an end that is then contradicted by a cutscene. Here, Silver Sable attacks Peter with a tranquilizer gun to capture him for Trask — yielding some good comedy as the only immediate visible effect of the darts is his increasing annoyance — and you have to defeat her in combat. But after the fight is over (and after a chase sequence and fight against Venom), Spider-Man winds up falling unconscious and getting captured anyway, because the story needs the action to move to Trask’s laboratory and that’s the easiest way to get all relevant parties there. So why bother fighting, if you’re going to get captured anyway? Because getting captured before the cutscene is failure, and failure ends the game. But there is no real in-story reason for Spider-Man to prefer one outcome over the other.

But then, this isn’t exactly a game about playing a role and advancing a character’s goals. The player’s goal is to advance the plot, whatever that means at any given moment, even if it means acting in contradiction to previous goals. Sometimes you’re Venom, sometimes you’re Spider-Man fighting Venom. At one point, you’re Venom defending Spider-Man from another villain, in a Joker-like “No one is allowed to kill him but me” kind of way. Later, in the endgame sequence in the lab, you’re Venom fighting Spider-Man, although the game hides this from you: you’re attacked by a smaller red symbiote that you might assume to be Carnage, but when you defeat it, it turns out to have Peter Parker inside. Presumably it was considered necessary to trick the player into attacking him. It might have felt weird otherwise.

The point is that the player’s goals vary from scene to scene, even if the means of achieving those goals are generally the same: chasing, fighting, going to checkpoints, a little light puzzle-boss solving. I feel like the interstitial cutscenes often go by too fast and don’t take enough time to make the character motivations comprehensible. Perhaps someone more familiar with the comics wouldn’t have this problem. But it hardly matters, because the game is usually pretty clear about what you’re trying to do, even if you don’t always know why you’re doing it.

A Couple of Good, Short Platformers

refunctRecent comments begging me to play something short and good after my recent experiences put me in mind of Refunct, a very pleasant game I played a while back, and replayed more recently when it got Steam trading cards. I wound up idling to get all the cards, mind you. This is a game that takes about a half an hour to play through even if you have no idea what you’re doing. But it’s a high-quality half hour. It’s a little gem of a puzzle-platformer, and furthermore, it’s study in first-person platformer technique, unencumbered by story.

The whole thing is set on a group of rectangular concrete pillars and slabs in the middle of a calm ocean. Some of them have buttons on top, and standing on a button causes more pillars to rise up from the waters. In fact, you can see them under the surface waiting to be summoned, the entire game lying latent. Also, any platform, whether it’s useful for reaching a button or not, changes color when you stand on it, turning brownish with a grassy green carpet on top. This provides direction, as the places you need to get to are visually distinct from the places you’ve already been, and also an implicit secondary goal of reaching every platform, not just the ones you need.

The really impressive thing about it is the wordless tutorial aspect. It keeps introducing new things you can do, and for the most part, it introduces them simply by giving you a reason to try doing them. For example, at one point there’s a button at the bottom of a narrow pit enclosed by slabs. It’s easy to jump in, but how do you get out? Inevitably, the player tries wall-jumping, if only by accident as a result of flailing around in the game’s first small enclosed space, and discovers that it works. You’ve had the ability to wall-jump all along, but you probably didn’t notice until that moment.

basketbelleAnd now that I put that into words, it reminds me of a moment in another charming little platformer I played some time back and have been meaning to write something about ever since: BasketBelle, a sort of stylized urban-fantasy game about the value of family and the power of basketball. Actually, it’s a little inaccurate to call it a platformer; its mechanics are kind of all-over-the-place, and its last few levels are all about flying forward unstoppably and dodging obstacles. Its best and most memorable parts, however, are basketball-themed platforming, with levels based on the clever conceit of throwing a ball through a hoop to open the door to the next level. Sometimes the level geometry forces you to do this from a considerable distance, and you have to clear the ball’s path of obstacles for it to work.

The father of BasketBelle‘s player character is a retired basketball star. Several times in the story, starting with the opening cutscene, it’s asserted that he had the power of flight. Toward the end, you encounter him, and he reveals that you too can fly, and always could — and then tells you the controls for doing it. Now, when I read those words, my reaction was “Wait, is this true? Did I have this power all along? Could I have used this technique to fly at earlier points in the game?” And so I tried starting the game over, and discovered that it was a lie. Even though I, the player, knew how flight is done, the ability to actually do it was locked until I reached the point in the story where the PC learns that he’s always had this power.

So basically, we have here two games with common element, of discovering that you have an ability that you didn’t know about. But BasketBelle does it entirely at the level of story, while Refunct does it entirely at the level of gameplay. And I have to say, I like it better at the gameplay level. At the story level, the moment is entirely unreal, just part of a story I’m told. At the gameplay level, it’s half-real: wall-jumping is a fictional ability, but in a way, it’s really the case that I had this fictional ability all along.

Dark Fall: Ghosthunter HQ

Okay, the last post may have been overly harsh. The author actually does want the player to exhaustively search the hotel rooms, even the unoccupied ones, which, although less dense in pokable detail, do have a few important things hidden in them. Certainly there doesn’t seem to be any way to identify the door that the key from the teapot unlocks other than by just trying all the doors. And that’s actually a fairly good bit of player-manipulation, if I read the intent correctly, because it means you’ll have done a reasonable amount of exploring before opening it, and be all the more impressed with what you find as a result.

What you find is the room where supernatural investigators Polly and Nigel were staying shortly before the start of the story. Throughout the game, I’ve been finding the remote cameras that this pair stashed around the place, and now I have access to their data hub. This isn’t a surprise if you paid attention to that telephone call from beyond, but it is kind of surprising what a difference it makes to the experience. Up to this point, I had been straining to eke whatever information I could from the environment, trying to glean the various vanished persons’ roles and relationships. Now I have Polly’s files on each of them, confirming what I learned and filling in the gaps. At last, the story is on a solid footing, and I feel like I’m making good progress. I’m even pleased with just Polly and Nigel’s notes on little details of their investigation that tie into what I’ve seen, like how they had placed a thermometer I had found to monitor sudden temperature drops. (But why was it shut in a drawer? They had put it in front of a camera…)

Goggle goggle goggleIn addition, this room contains the game’s neatest gimmick: the goggles. I didn’t notice them at first, because they’re somewhat hidden, but they’re mentioned so often in the ghosthunters’ data that I searched the room again just to find them, and I’m glad I did. They’re some kind of high-tech electromagnetic imaging goggles, and when activated, they surround the cursor with a greenish binoculars-shaped aura that reveals things. With it, you can see the pictures that used to be on the walls, furniture that isn’t there any more, and spectral graffiti from some mad soul. But only a little bit at a time — reading the graffiti means waving the cursor over an entire wall to reveal as much as the aura covers while the rest of the wall stays normal. It’s a nice effect, and gives the scenes an interactivity beyond clicking on hotspots. It only works in certain specific places, though, and those places are hinted by a ghostly voice whispering “Here”. This seems like a cheat on the part of the designer. I know I’ve seen other games with similar mechanisms that can be applied anyplace, but I guess two versions of every single full-screen image was beyond this game’s budget.

Polly and Nigel’s notes on their investigation raise a couple of big questions. One is the matter of the cellar. Nigel in particular seems to have done most of his investigating down there, and it’s where he made some sort of vague but amazing discovery. It’s clearly an important place, but I haven’t seen any sort of cellar entrance at all. Maybe it’s only accessible from one of the few still-locked doors, but it’s also possible that I’ve just missed a hotspot somewhere, and knowledge of that possibility bothers me.

The other thing that puzzles me is the way that the two of them had to work for days to get even the slightest hint of ghost activity. My experience is that the whole place is a thick stew of ghosts, with disembodied voices or other phenomena in nearly every room — heck, the first ghost started talking to me before I even reached the station proper. Maybe this is just one of those ludonarrative dissonance things, with stuff happening more quickly than makes story-sense for game’s sake, like how the hero in a CRPG takes a matter of days to become the greatest warrior in the world and solve problems that baffled the greatest NPC minds for centuries. Or maybe there’s an in-story explanation. Either the player character is unusually sensitive to this stuff for mysterious but probably destined reasons, or there’s just been a sudden spike in manifestations, probably caused by whatever Nigel unearthed in the cellar. We’ll see.

WoW: Capture the Fortress

Let me describe one particular quest in the Outland. It’s a quest that I finished today, but only because I was prevented from completing it yesterday due to the inaction of Alliance players.

In the middle of the Hellfire Peninsula, there are three points arbitrarily designated as places of great strategic importance. Apparently they were one of the developers’ first experiments with putting PVP mechanics into the main map, rather than isolating them in Battleground zones. Like the capture points in Battlegrounds, each of these can belong to either Horde or Alliance, or be neutral. If you stand in one that’s owned by the enemy, and there’s no enemy there to oppose you, it gets slowly converted to your side: a gauge in the quest UI shows your progress towards converting it, and flags draped about the walls show the current winner’s colors.

There is a repeatable quest to participate in capturing all three points (not necessarily all at once). Note that there’s one condition that definitively prevents you from accomplishing this: if one or more of the points is already under your side’s control, you cannot capture it. The premise of the quest is that it’s crucial to control those three points, but simply controlling them isn’t enough to earn your reward. You have to take control of them, even if it means letting the enemy capture them first. (It reminds me of certain Catholic doctrines about sin.) I imagine that when Outland was first opened to visitors, and the zone was flooded with level-60 players, ownership of the capture points must have flipped pretty frequently, making their recapture a convincingly urgent concern. But there aren’t a lot of people in the zone these days, so they can get stuck in one state for a good long while.

And that has interesting and presumably unintended consequences for player behavior. During my first sally at this quest, I found an Alliance member capturing one of the points while two Horde guys hovered overhead on their flying mounts. When I made to land, they asked me not to: they were politely waiting their turn, waiting for the Alliance guy to finish capturing it so they could capture it back. There was no combat here, just polite cooperation that allowed both sides to fulfill their needs. In another game, I might regard this as tantamount to cheating, like using a TF2 “Achievement server” 1Achievement servers are places where people go to collaborate on fulfilling the requirements for TF2 Achievements instead of actually trying to win matches. I think it’s a good thing that they exist, because it keeps that sort of behavior out of the regular servers, but it’s always seemed to me a way to make the game less fun. , but here, it just seemed like a natural and unavoidable consequence of a badly-thought-out mechanic.

In fact, my thoughts on this matter were so firm that I was fairly flabbergasted when I came back the next day and found that someone in the Alliance was actually defending the things. Someone, moreover, powerful enough to kill me in one hit, and therefore probably not getting any Honor points for it. I kept coming back, hoping that he’d get bored of killing me eventually, and eventually it worked. But I was surprised at his persistence. He was probably surprised at mine, too, but at least he presumably understood my motivations, and I don’t understand his. Was he just in a bullying mood, or was he taking the fiction more seriously than I was?

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1. Achievement servers are places where people go to collaborate on fulfilling the requirements for TF2 Achievements instead of actually trying to win matches. I think it’s a good thing that they exist, because it keeps that sort of behavior out of the regular servers, but it’s always seemed to me a way to make the game less fun.

WoW: Orphans

I spent so much time procrastinating about writing up Portal 2 that I completely missed Noblegarden, the week-long Azeroth Easter festival. No matter: it was immediately followed by Children’s Week, when battle-hardened mercenaries with the power to destroy gods are invited to bring orphans to work with them. There’s a whole quest-chain of activities you can do with your orphan, such as flying kites and going for ice cream and going to visit the Banshee Queen in her dank and horrible lair.

Your orphan is treated by the game as the same sort of thing as the various summonable pets you can buy. That is, it follows you wherever you go and does not participate in combat in any way. If you get into your turbo-trike and drive away, the orphan chases after you like an Olympic sprinter. It all seems comically callous: “I’ll just get in my car. No, you stay outside. Cars are for us important hero-types. Just try to keep up, right? The exercise will do you a world of good.” Particularly since, as I noted before, I can drive around on top of lakes. I can see the tyke furiously swimming underwater after me, his location identifiable only by the little quest marker over his head.

Another amusing fact about orphans: they are interchangeable. In a sense, each orphan is all orphans. If you see someone else out walking with an orphan, you can talk to it, and it will respond as if it were yours. I actually took advantage of this during the kite quest, which caused my own orphan to go running around at random, so excited was he by his kite. Rather than chase him down and click on him to complete the quest, I just spoke to a calmer orphan accompanying a stranger.

In short, Children’s Week is exactly the kind of fun I’ve learned to appreciate in WoW: the fun of immersing yourself in incongruity. It’s also a golden opportunity for easy XP (especially for pacifists): each quest in the chain gives the same largish lump of experience as the daily cooking and fishing quests, which means it scales with the questor’s level. As a result, Oleari has finally reached level 60, the level cap for vanilla WoW. I’m disappointed to report that, although I’m now at the right level for a flying mount, I can’t actually obtain one without buying an expansion or two.

It seems like there are three routes I can take from here: I can buy The Burning Crusade and continue leveling Oleari, I can switch to a different character for a while (maybe even try out the Alliance), or I can just drop the whole thing. I’m going to have to decide that I’m done with this game at some point, and reaching the level cap seems like a pretty good time to do that. But I’m told that Burning Crusade is nice — nicer than subsequent expansions, apparently. I’ll take a few days to decide.

WoW: Story and Player Interaction

There’s been some discussion lately about the role of pre-scripted narrative in MMOs. A lot of people see it as a cheat, a gimmick that only provides pseudostory, and desire a story that’s more reflective of what the players are doing in the gameworld. The WoW model is of course the one most familiar to the greatest number of people, and in WoW, the scripted storylines are, in effect, static features of the environment. The unit of plot is the quest, and quests get done over and over by different players, and that takes away from the sense that you’re participating in the story in any meaningful way: can you really say that you’ve defeated an enemy if you can stand there and watch it respawn and get defeated over and over? (In one extreme case, I was doing a quest that involved leading an NPC around, and was startled to realize that there were multiple simultaneous instances of that NPC simultaneously following different players.)

My own take on the question is a little more complicated. First, let me point out that there are really two separate stories going on in WoW. There’s the pre-scripted story, and there’s the story of the players playing the game — call it the mythos layer and the game layer. The mythos story contains events like the betrayal of Lady Sylvanas, the attempts of both Horde and Alliance to gain the support of the centaur tribes, and the defeat of the Lich King at the hands of a large band of heroes. The game story contains events like druids getting nerfed, the auction price of glyphs going up, and the Cthun raid being successfully completed for the first time. The two layers do have some points of intersection: the Cataclysm, for example, was a major event with wide-reaching consequences in both. But they’re mostly independent, and players can only have a permanent effect on the gameworld at the game layer (and usually only in the aggregate, at that).

Secondly, the above is not at all unusual. Most CRPGs have such a split, including single-player ones. This very blog contains numerous posts analyzing mythos in CRPGs, and also numerous posts recounting my particular experiences playing the same CRPGs — my exploration of their terrain, attempts at making the most of their combat systems, etc. — and they are, for the most part, different posts. Furthermore, I’ve made comments about how the two layers contradict each other, so that aspect of WoW isn’t unique to the mechanics of trying to shoehorn a single-player storyline onto a multiplayer environment; it’s something that can happen whenever the mythos and game layers both try to depict the same kinds of events. But perhaps something about the MMO paradigm makes it more obvious when it happens.

Now, you may object that the game layer isn’t a story. And I agree. It’s a story-space, a set of constraints and opportunities in which stories can happen. These stories aren’t entirely fictional, because we’re into the realm of what Jesper Juul calls the “half-real”. If my character gives yours 60 gold pieces in exchange for a piece of armor, neither the gold nor the armor actually exists — but the exchange is nonetheless a real event, something that occurred between two actual human beings, rather than just described by a storyteller, or played out repeatedly by a couple of automated NPCs like figurines on a cuckoo clock. But we do have a notion in our language of “true story”. Arguably, real events only get transformed into stories after the fact, when they’re recounted to others, but some events are more inevitably story-like than others.

Let me tell you a story that happened on Everquest during my time there: the story of the Naked Troll Run. Once upon a time, a bunch of players on the Rallos Zek server decided on a whim to make new level-1 troll characters, ditch their starting equipment, and run from the troll starting zone to the human city of Freeport to see how far they could get before they were killed. On their first attempt, wandering monsters slaughtered them all before they got far, but they just respawned back at their starting zone and tried again. As they did this, more and more troll corpses piled up along the way, and other players took notice and asked what was going on. Some of them joined in. Eventually, there were enough trolls that the combined efforts of the wandering monsters and the Freeport city guard were not enough to kill them all, and a few managed to board the Freeport ferry and continue their run as far as gnome territory. This all happened without the participation of the Everquest developers or mods. All they did was provide an environment in which running a naked level-1 troll all the way to Freeport is difficult, and the players came up with the rest.

Let me tell you another story, which we might call the Gaming of the Marble. This one happened on A Tale in the Desert. In ATitD, a combat-free game, combat is replaced by various “Tests” that increase your rank in the game’s various Disciplines. Some of the Tests had other gameplay benefits, and some of the Tests were competitive, and one Test in particular had both of these properties: a two-player mini-game that affected the player’s ability to detect deposits of valuable stone. The mini-game had a ranking system like Chess or Go, and specific types of stone were tied to specific ranks, the higher tiers being types of rare marble. Months after this system was introduced, there was still no one with sufficient rank to find the highest level of marble, and the players grew frustrated with this. So a bunch of them decided to game the system by means of a rigged tournament. A largish number of people got together to play the minigame, but there was one pre-designated champion, and anyone playing against that person would deliberately lose just to raise her rank. Other people would be chosen to win for a while to get their rank up just to maximize the effect when they lost to the designated champion — people had worked out the ranking formula and knew exactly how to optimize it. The end result was that, for a little while, the player base had access to every kind of stone in the game. But the devs knew what was going on, and they soon responded by moving the goalposts, adding several new types of marble that required even more elevated ranks.

Now, both of these stories involve player-initiated events involving large numbers of people. The Naked Troll Run happened in a game that worked on more or less the WoW model (except less questy and more grindy), and it didn’t have any permanent effect on the gameworld. The Gaming of the Marble took place in a game designed with the explicit goal of involving the players in a larger story that developed over the course of play, and it had a permanent change in the global game-state as a result, both before and after the devs intervened. If you take the people who say they want more meaningful interaction with the gameworld at their word, the latter seems more like what they want. But the Naked Troll Run was far and away the more satisfying experience.

Ultimately, the game doesn’t have to make stories happen. There’s nothing stopping the players from making stories at the game layer if they want to. But a lot of people don’t want to. A lot of WoW players don’t even want to engage the mythos layer, and being part of an ongoing creative process takes a lot more mental effort than being a passive audience to something pre-scripted. With power over the gamestate comes responsibility, and responsibility plus persistence equals obligation, not fun. Perhaps MMOs that seriously attempt to provide a more genuinely interactive world are doomed to be niche things, not because they do a bad job of it, but because that’s not actually what the majority of the players want, even when they say they do.

So what do the players want? As far as I can tell, the main thing is just harmonization of game and mythos. Give us a game where the NPCs don’t lie to us about how we’re having an impact on the world. Stop trying to pretend that every single player is the hero of the story. Find a fictional premise that acknowledges the truth of the situation, that thousands of people are going through the same experiences.

Or, alternately, do away with the mythos altogether. Hey, it worked for Minecraft.

Final Fantasy VI: Preparing for Disaster

There comes a point where the world breaks. Kefka reaches the sacred place where magic is kept in balance, and unbalances it. Continents split apart. The sea changes color. Long cutscenes play. The heroes’ airship is smashed like a bowl of eggs, and by the time the player is given control again, a year of gametime has passed. It’s clear that nothing will be the same from this point on.

So naturally my reaction is to immediately restore my last save. Not because I have any plans to prevent this apocalypse, which is clearly an inevitable part of the plot, but because it seems like a lot of doors are closing, and I want to do things in the world as it was while I still have the opportunity. On the most immediate scale, there’s an object near the breakpoint that I didn’t manage to pick up. (The ground splits under you if you approach it by the direct route; I had managed to work out how to get to it, but slipped up when I tried, owing to the Sprint Shoes I was wearing making it hard to control my movement.) Glancing at an online walkthrough to see if it was actually worth getting, I learned that I needed to do something slightly differently in the same scene if I ever wanted the ninja to rejoin my party again.

But even beyond the immediate situation, there are goals I want to pursue in the world as a whole. And here’s another of those false-urgency bits: even though the entire pre-cataclysm scene is built with a sense that you’re rushing to intervene before Kefka does something monstrously wrong, you’re given the opportunity at the last moment to go back to your ship and spend a week or two taking care of business.

The first thing I want to do is get Gau up to speed on the latest monsters. Gau has a special training area, the Veldt, where monsters that you’ve encountered in the rest of game show up. The in-game excuse is that they migrate there when you drive them out of the places where they live, which doesn’t make a lot of sense for the imperial soldiers and security robots, but there it is. You can spend a long time in the Veldt waiting for a particular monster to show up, and the designers have sensibly made it a no-XP zone, like the final areas in FF5. And, like those areas, although you aren’t getting normal XP that lets you level up, you do get the secondary version, Ability Points or Magic Points, which, in this game, lets you learn spells from your equipped Magicite crystals. Joining Gau this time is Strago, the Blue Mage, in the hope that he can learn some new spells from creatures that he never had a chance to observe the first time around, due to joining the party too late. Unlike FF5, where the Blue Mage (or someone with the Blue Mage’s “Learning” skill) had to be the target of an attack in order to learn it, it seems that Strago simply has to observe it. For that reason, I’m pairing him up with his granddaughter Relm, who has the ability to draw pictures of monsters that come to life just long enough to make a single attack. When the monster has an attack that Strago can learn, that usually seems to be the one that Relm produces. Thus, she’s kind of like the Trainer in FF5, in that she forms a natural complement to the Blue Mage, and making them relatives is a bit of a hint at that.

(Something to try in my next session: Can Relm draw the heroes? I hadn’t even thought of trying until now. Most attacks and spells can be directed either way, and there are situations where directing them the wrong way — healing the monsters or attacking the heroes — is actually helpful.)

There are other quests that need completing before the world is torn asunder. If there are any Espers still to be found, I should try to find them. (I almost missed the ones from the auction house. I wonder if the auctioneers know what Magicite does, and that they’re effectively holding a slave auction?) There were a couple of significant-seeming locations that I haven’t found the significance of yet, and which may be destroyed in a year. A minor quest involving delivering letters, which has yet to reach any sort of conclusion. The manual mentions a playable Moogle character, Mog, who isn’t part of my party yet, even though I’ve been through a Moogle den. He was playable briefly during that one tunnel defense scene, so I know he’s around, but Moogles are hard to tell apart when you can’t look at their stats. Maybe he’ll join when I talk to him if there’s an open slot in my party or something.

In the classic Wizardry IV, at the end of the initial level, there’s a sign just before the stairs that says “Have you forgotten something?” — a question that would become a repeated motif in the game, and work into the ending. Seeing it there for the first time was one of the most frightening experiences I’ve ever had in a RPG. Once the question has been posed, it’s hard to stop thinking about it. Have I forgotten something? Is there something else I’m supposed to have done by now? What if I can’t go back? The Final Fantasy games aren’t so cruel that they’d lock you out of victory for failing to notice a pickup, and they sometimes provide eleventh-hour second chances to complete collections. Still, I’d like to do what I can now, before I go to meet my appointment with the irrevocable.

Heroes Chronicles: Underworld Conquered

And now, a little break from Final Fantasy. With my Windows machine no longer acting as emergency backup server, I decided to finally finish up the last three maps in Heroes Chronicles: Conquest of the Underworld. And, having made that decision, Windows XP gave me a deadline. First, it declared that the hardware had changed enough that I needed to re-activate Windows within three days. Then, when I tried to do this, it refused, telling me that my registration key had been used too many times. I haven’t yet decided what to do about this. Get Vista? Buy another XP license? Dig my windows 98 CD out of the closet and install that? That last possibility has some appeal; a ten-year-old OS could possibly help me play games of the same vintage, provided it can make sense of my futuristic hardware. At any rate, I had three days to either do something about it, or to finish Conquest of the Underworld and consider my options at my leisure. I chose the latter route.

Fortunately, the last two maps are relatively short. I spent the majority of this session finishing up map 6. That map was a bit of an enigma: enemy heroes kept appearing even after I had taken possession of all the castles I could find. It turned out that their home was on the other side of a one-way portal, making them absolutely impossible to eradicate completely. Generally speaking, the way I’ve been playing this game is that I first eliminate all opposition, then I spend some time sending my main heroes around to places with permanent stat increasers that I didn’t get to during phase one. This time, during that final phase, I had to keep popping back to the vicinity of that portal via the Town Portal spell to slay those pesky heroes.

Map 7 was small, and I managed to wipe out the sole free-roaming enemy with my supercharged Tarnum before he could mount anything resembling a threat. There was just one catch: when I finished the mission objectives, I still hadn’t found the sixth and last piece of the Angelic Alliance. Turning to a walkthrough online, I learned that it was sitting more or less right next to Tarnum at the start of the level. I had given it to one of the other heroes; it hadn’t even occurred to me that it might be important. Fortunately, I had saved just before finishing the level, so I could go back and have the hero who had it deliver it to Tarnum. I suppose the level would have been easier if I had the Alliance from the beginning, but it’s not like Tarnum was ever in serious danger of losing a fight.

Map 7 is also significant in that it’s the first time that Queen Allison shows up as a hero, rather than as an unseen presence who’s mentioned in the plot text. This is important to the conclusion of the plot in map 8, where she’s taken captive by the demonic troops lent to her by a traitorous demon lord, who claims to be an enemy of the guys who abducted Rion Gryphonheart, but is in fact in league with them. This gives an excuse for Tarnum to enter the final chapter alone.

Amusingly, level 8, the depths of the abyss, is the only place in the entire episode where you can recruit halflings. Heroes of Might and Magic 3 has eight different city types, each with its own roster of creatures, but only four have shown up until this point: the castles of the knights staging the invasion, and the cities of the native demons, undead, and dungeon-dwelling creatures (troglodytes and beholders and so forth). The designers felt a need to provide an in-plot justification for the halflings’ sudden presence, but when you come right down to it, there’s a lot of non-underworldy stuff in the game that the player has by this point learned to ignore. Every time you pick up an artifact, for example, you get a randomly-selected piece of canned text describing how you found it. These text snippets aren’t at all customized for the environment, and sometimes mention things, such as orcs, that just plain don’t exist in the Underworld we’re shown. Then there’s the way that some levels have both “above-ground” and “underground” areas. You see this sort of thing all the time in fan-made levels and mods: someone wants to use a game engine to tell a story that it isn’t ideally suited for, so they do their best to map things in the game to elements in their story and just kind of ignore the ways that they don’t mesh. Arguably, this happens in commercially-published games as well, what with powerups and health-packs that aren’t plausibly part of the game setting — heck, I’ve commented before about gameplay elements that contradict the fiction in Final Fantasy. I think the difference that makes the ill-fitting elements seem more amateurish here is that they seem so avoidable. The scenario designers here could have easily written new artifact text to suit the Underworld environment, if they had that kind of control over the engine.

Anyway, Rion’s soul is free, as is his daughter. Hundreds of people gave their lives to make this happen, but apparently that’s okay, because they’re just troops and don’t count the way that characters with names do. Tarnum’s internal monologue is full of comments to the effect that he’s different from Tarnum the Tyrant because he’s learned his lesson about not callously disregarding the sanctity of human life, but I dunno.

There are two more episodes of Heroes Chronicles still on the stack. The next one, Masters of the Elements, has Tarnum as a wizard traversing the elemental planes. That should be fun; four-elements stuff is always appealing somehow. But that’s for another time.

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