Orcs Must Die!: Story and Character

Just as the UI in Orcs Must Die! manages to get along without a lot of explanation, so too does the story. You start off in the middle of an emergency that doesn’t require world-building to be intelligible, and most of what you learn about your situation later on comes from offhand comments rather than cutscenes and similar infodumps. The story’s major turn, the revelation that the orcs are being organized by some external force, is foreshadowed by some of the orcs’ random shouts: in addition to expected cries of “Kill the humans!” and such, they occasionally say things like “Yes, mistress!” and “Get out of my head!”. Just as well — when the game does finally does start to provide exposition in the form of psychic dialogue between the PC and the sorceress who’s driving the horde, it’s often drowned out by the background music and the clamor of battle.

Now, the game’s formal properties impose certain things on the story. You’re playing a character who physically exists in the gameworld, who has a location and and has to run around tending to emergencies wherever they crop up. At the same time, you’re basically acting alone. There are guardians and weavers, sure, but you’re the only war mage, and that means you have to both set up and execute the defense of every route to the rift in each and every fortress, even the ones that are clearly set up to be optimally guarded by teams of two or four people. Why it is like this? Because, we learn, all the other war mages who would normally be helping out are already dead at the hands of the orcs. There are a few different ways you could take this story. The creators of this game decided to make it a comedy.

The main way it does this is by making the PC into the war mage least suited for this challenge: young, brash, wisecracking, disrespectful about his recently-dead mentor, and above all, conceited. The sort of person who says “Booyah!” after a kill. It’s the sort of character Nolan North is known for, with a little more fratboy mixed in. In short, he’s a jerk, and the story is the story of a jerk justifying his jerkitude by triumphing where no one else expected he could. Given this, I suppose it’s fitting that the true antagonist is a controlling, manipulative woman. It’s all part of the PC’s world view. We never encounter the sorceress directly — in the end, you defeat her simply by closing the rifts and trapping her in the orcs’ homeworld — but we see her in cutscenes, and she’s exactly the sort of hooker-booted hottie that the PC would go for were she not so haughty and domineering. The orcs who do her bidding are of course exclusively male, the mind control magic being a metaphor for feminine wiles. The PC is of course immune to this magic, being too full of himself to let anyone else in. No woman can tame him. He isn’t just the jerk triumphant, he’s triumphant because he’s a jerk.

I feel like this is a sort of hero that’s been becoming more popular in games lately, which makes me a little worried about the zeitgeist. Games are really good at provoking identification with the protagonist. Is this really the sort of person we want to identify with?

Orcs Must Die

The first round of holiday sales is underway, leaving me scrambling to finish up some games to make room on the Stack for new stuff. Orcs Must Die is in fact among my new acquisitions, but looked like it would probably be quick to finish, due to its structural resemblance to Plants vs Zombies: not only is it essentially a tower defense game, it pulls the same trick of introducing one new game element per level, which means the game ends once it’s reached maximal complexity. And indeed, in a single day of obsessive play, I’m managed to complete every level but the last. So expect a second and final post tomorrow.

I say it’s essentially a tower defense, but it’s really a hybrid of tower defense and shooter. The whole idea is that in each level you’re trying to prevent hordes of orcs and related monsters (kobolds as swarmers, ogres as bosses) from reaching a dimensional rift, which is in the middle of a fortress presumably built around it for the specific purpose of keeping the orcs away. This is a fully 3D structure, and you have an avatar inside it. You can place various sorts of traps on the walls, floors, and ceiling, as well as summon “guardians” who fight with sword or bow, but you can also fight the orcs directly, with a repeating crossbow, bladestaff, and various spells that you acquire over the course of the game. And in fact you pretty much have to do both, picking off orcs manually when they survive the traps. Starting at level 11, you can buy enhancements of various sorts from “weavers”, but you have to choose between “steel weavers”, who enhance your traps and guardians (for example, making the traps reset faster or giving the archers flaming arrows), or “elemental weavers”, who enhance your personal combat abilities (increasing your health, making spells do more damage). I personally want to play this more as a tower defense game than as a shooter, so I’ve pretty much always taken the steel weaver — at least, until the knowledge weavers became available at level 19, with their tempting treats like making the rift itself produce lightning bolts, or occasionally reanimating dead orcs to fight on your side.

But even treating the game as a tower defense, it’s a peculiar tower defense, due to the fact that you’re seeing the whole thing from inside. (Shades of Intelligent Qube!) The game helps minimize this limitation by granting you a great deal of mobility: your traps don’t affect you at all, you can jump off balconies and over any barricades you’ve placed, and there are often teleport gates joining distant parts of the stronghold. (It took me a while to realize that the orcs couldn’t go through the gates. I wasted some cash in the early levels barricading them.) But it offsets this by making you vulnerable. There are types of occasional enemy that ignore the rift, choosing instead to attack you and any guardians you’ve summoned — and for that reason alone, it’s important to have a few guardians around as distractions. For that matter, ordinary orcs will sometimes decide to chase you if you’re close enough, which means that by your presence you can distract them from the rift.

In short, for all its focus on a single sort of dungeon encounter, this is a pretty rich game. The thing that really impresses me, though, is the UI design. Placing objects in three dimensions is a nontrivial task, and there’s basically no explanation, documentation, or tutorial here, other than a few on-screen prompts, such as “Press R to rotate”. And yet it all just works. You choose a trap to place in the same way as you choose a weapon, and you also aim it like a weapon at the surfaces that can support it. When you’re aiming at a valid spot, the trap appears as a transparent model, with, if relevant, another transparency indicating its area of effect, so you know if that arrow trap reaches all the way across the hallway or not. Outside of trap placement, there are a number of little touches like the targeting reticule for the crossbow that widens if you fire rapidly, clearly indicating without words that your aim is becoming less accurate. Perhaps this is stuff that you need to already be familiar with games to understand, but it works for me.