Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Casting at the Darkness (Four AD&D Games)

Because as we all know, A is for Dungeons & Dragons. Or at least, it was in the early 90s. And if you don't know why, this entry may not be for you, if you will.

For my part, D&D is not my role-playing game of choice. I am a White Wolf man, through and through, preferring stories where players are pushed hard emotionally. But I have rolled a d20 here and there in my time, and I know my THAC0 from my Save vs Poison, Paralysis, and Death. I have less patience for RPG video games, however, as they are basically the masturbation of gaming - what you do when you can't get the real thing. But there are four, count them four D&D games to have come out for the NES, and because I am a faithful blogger, I have played all four. For you.

We'll start with the bad - Heroes of the Lance and Pools of Radiance. These are two games that just did not come together for me. Heroes of the Lance had a breathtakingly clunky control scheme that led to a mass of death and a general failure to understand what seemed like they should be basic functions of the game like "how do I switch characters" or "How do I hit this short guy who my sword swings over the head of." In this regard, it was not entirely unlike my experience reading the Dragonlance books on which it was based.

Pools of Radiance, on the other hand, I am actually more or less unable to review in a sensible manner. Because the game is actually, astonishingly, worse than its sequel. This is an impressive feat, because its sequel contained a bug whereby it would delete your entire hard drive when you uninstalled it. I mean, maybe there's a good game in there somewhere. But here's the game I played - first, you spend time rolling a character. Then, you start playing the game, which begins with a several minutes long tour of the city. The city consists of numerous repetitions of the same wall and door, none of which are labeled in any way so as to orient you. Then you are left in front of a dungeon that is crawling with monsters. Being as this is a D&D game, you enter the dungeon.

There you are swiftly cut down in one hit, you get a game over, your character is deleted entirely, and you have to create a new one and sit through the several minutes long tour of the city. Again.

Seriously. In my half hour, I didn't get any further than this.

We should stop here, and note that what interests me about roleplaying games is that they are an emotional medium. The focus on forcing players into using the first-person and thus into a sort of active method acting is interesting to me. Because it creates the opportunity to carefully construct dramatic and powerful emotional moments.

Video games are a fascinating medium, and I love them, but the only emotion they generate with any reliability is white-hot rage. And so they are a poor medium for role-playing. Role-playing is also a fundamentally social experience. It is about creating a narrative that is experienced vividly by a small group of people, and is inaccessible to everyone else. So I should modify, a socially anti-social experience. But it is an intense shared experience, and this is what makes it interesting. It is intimate. One has strong emotional ties to ones gaming buddies. I have friends I rarely talk to except about gaming, and yet those friendships are still some of the most intense and significant friendships I have.

That said, Hillsfar, in its own strange way, does capture the feeling of a D&D game. You run around confused and directionless, get into dungeons, are arbitrarily punished for things you do not entirely understand, and, when things go badly, are kidnapped by bandits and robbed with no chance of defending yourself. It is, in short, an exact clone of D&D when played with an overly sadistic DM. I have to stop short of calling the game fun - I have no desire to go back to it. But playing it, one constantly feels as though one is on the brink of having a really good time.

Finally, there is Dragonstrike - at once the worst and best use of the D&D license. Where the other three games attempt to produce something resembling the D&D experience, in Dragonstrike you are a dragon. You fly over land, and burn shit up. Or freeze it. Or whatever. It's straightforward. It's fun. The first boss is kind of killer, but it leaves me with the feeling that I could get good at the game and enjoy it.

This is perhaps the thing I like most about video games. Even a truly great video game is not, generally speaking, high art. That doesn't make it uninteresting in the slightest, and it doesn't make it a stupid medium. But it is, for better or for worse, about fun.

But it does make it a poor substitute for RPGs.


  1. I shudder to think the amount of time I've invested in Pool of Radiance. I even completed several story events of the game. I think I almost figured out what the game was about.

    You can cheat the brutal character killing to an extent by importing a character you've just made and happened to survive a few fights into a new game with a new party and repeat those fights for experience. That said, my brother must have devoted more time than I ever had patience for because we had a perpetually level 6 fighter with maxed strength stats that somehow made it into every single party, and was still only marginally useful.

  2. Part 1

    I understand I'm late to the party, but frezno brought me here with his relaunch and I'm reading it all from the beginning. I believe I can add a few comments here and there that may be interesting.

    I'm always with the "blind" gamer until I actually run across something I and countless others love. That's when the lack of research, lack of reading the manual can really get to a person reading the thoughts of someone who has never really played the game.

    There are ways to approach a beloved game or any entertainment that you happen to not like. It's actually fairly simple; You just have to do a quick wikipedia search, give a short history of the game and why it's so popular, then give your opinion saying "but I hate it."

    But blood can boil when someone goes into a game that has achievements of being ported to almost every machine at that time, sold tons of copies, was the start of the legendary "Gold Box Games" of which at least 9 games came out with practically the same graphics, is in the CGW hall of fame and places consistently in the top RPG's of all time...

    I understand that the game in its NES form is crap in a sense, though it is still basically the same game. It should not have been ported to a platform for children who don't have attention spans. It was made for the Commodore 64 and ported to the Amiga and DOS, and it's meant to have a keyboard.

    You likened computer D&D to masturbation. When you can't have the real thing, you go there. Well, what do you think caused millions to be absorbed in computer games over the years????

    Console VS. computer gaming are two different beasts. Two different markets. Consoles were for children, computers were for very intelligent adults with some money. You didn't see many platform games on computers for a reason, just as you didn't see too many RPG's on a console.

    I feel extremely lucky in that my father was a computer nerd. I've seen that most people our age were either given an NES or a computer but the parents had no idea what the hell the thing was. This caused children to develop a life long love for games that were easy enough for them to like at the time. This is why games continue to get dumber and dumber as they get more advanced.

    My dad had a C64, which I barely remember. Then he got an Amiga for himself, and an NES for the kids. I got to watch the adult play games that he liked, as well as play games I liked. When it came to the NES, adults never touched it, beneath them. I could watch him play games for hours, and I would get lost in the world watching. I have a very unique perspective in that I understand both the NES and computer worlds of that time, and enjoy them both.

    I feel a need to defend these types of games as they get beat up on far too much these days. The children of that time are now the ones reviewing them on YouTube and blogs. The adults of that time are not doing this kind of stuff, so the history is being told by people that were 5 years old when these games came out and grew to only like games that did not require a manual.

    Some games require a manual and more than a half hour. This game could take months to complete. If you're on a journey to find yourself, I'd think you'd have a much better shot getting into an adventure that gives you lots of time to think rather than games you throw away in a half hour.

    These games were made for nerds, and they cost $80 at the time! They sold for that much because it was 30 times the size of Super Mario (which was huge for the console world) and people loved the stories and adventures these things took you on.

    Now I've only been to a couple "real" D&D sessions, and I could just as easily describe those as a big "circle jerk" to use your sexual metaphors. I'd rather be alone in front of a computer honestly. I'd rather "play" with myself than "play" with a bunch of nerds. lol

  3. Part 2

    I understand the rage you feel with video games... I played Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, I screamed at the TV, I threw the controller. But I could also from a young age find serenity in a game... When I beat Super Mario 3 the first time I listened to the end music for a half hour. Watched my dad play Civilization, Pirates, RailRoad Tycoon, and MANY D&D games, and I always felt I was missing something with the console games. These were worlds he got to play in, I had to play in a basement.

    While I have huge attachments to the NES games I played as a kid, I have greater attachments to the computer games I played, because those were amazing in my eyes. My favorite games of all time is probably Wing Commander because of its story, and Might and Magic 6, as in 1997 being 12 years old it was the first RPG I was intelligent enough to play... And it took me a year of real life to win.

    I'm just pointing out there are games that are "technically" terrible no matter how you look at it, and there are games that are bad only to the beholder. It's good to research everything just a little to understand what you're going into.

    Imagine someone who had never seen a Star Trek movie comes up to a Trekie and starts saying shit about one of the most beloved franchises of all time? Ton's of people hate Star Trek, but they understand tons of people love it and just say "I don't get it" and that's fine. These D&D games on the computer were extremely successful and loved. They are technically good games even if one does not understand them.

    Enough of the criticism... I'm just starting with your blog and have thus far loved reading about the connections you make between the games and your (at the time anyway) broken life. You will probably hear from me again. By the way, what's with this blogspot 4,096 character limit for a reply? Isn't the point to get a long conversation going that twitter and facebook can't compete with? :)