Friday, September 14, 2018

Die Dunkle Dimension: Quest of the Abschreiber

A city of elves has the least elvish name ever.
Die Dunkle Dimension does a decent job evoking the core Ultima IV experience of exploration, learning about the world from NPCs, and slowly assembling a journal of clues and quests. That all the translation makes it a bit frustrating for me isn't the game's fault, though it does affect my ability to play for long periods or in inconvenient locations where I don't have multiple monitors.

But even if the game were in English, I think I'd find it a bit irksome. The primary problem is combat, which is far too frequent, takes far too long, and offers far too few rewards. You can't walk five steps without an enemy appearing and attacking you. Both you and the enemy miss most of your attacks, making every combat drag on for multiple minutes. You get paltry experience and gold rewards from each combat, so you have to fight hundreds of them to level up.
Battling a zombie and something.
But because combat is mechanically easier than town exploration (to fight, I don't need an Internet connection and a separate window for the translation screen), I spent a decent amount of time grinding near the druid's hut (where you can get free healing) as I tentatively explored outward. I rose to Level 4 during this process and amassed enough money for a decent set of equipment when I finally found a town (Trisdic, an obvious reference to Ultima's Trinsic). Then I discovered that no matter how much money I had, my stats were only enough to allow wielding the most basic weapons and armor.
Buying my first weapon.
Meanwhile, enemies scale with your level in number and difficulty. Pretty soon, I started encountering "nettle trees," which of course poison you, in just about every enemy party. Unless I'm near the druid or one of the locations with healing, poisoning is an automatic reload because I have no way to cure it. But fleeing from these trees causes you to lose hard-won experience. It's frustrating as hell.

Animals also suck. I keep getting attacked by snakes, wild horses, and unicorns. They deliver no experience or gold, but you can't flee from them without losing experience. You can't avoid combat by outrunning them because they can move on the diagonal but you can't. You have to beat them until they themselves flee.
Losing 12 experience points because I didn't feel like fighting livestock for no reason.
Leveling up is done at the castle by speaking to the king, just as in Ultima III-IV, and is accompanied by a similar sound and flashing of the screen. You get a few dozen extra hit points per level. Meanwhile, speaking to Cerfax the druid gets you a handful of spell points per level.
Leveling up.
Leveling gives you the ability to speak to trainers and increase your various attributes. The castle has a trainer (Ator) who increases attack and defense scores. Later, in other towns, I found trainers to increase strength and skill. I haven't yet found intelligence (which I really need) or charisma. At first I thought that you could only train one attribute per level, so I was conservative about using too many slots on one attribute, but after I was able to train four times in both strength and skill, now I'm thinking that maybe you can train each attribute every time you level.
"Arnold" trains me in strength. He responds to SCHWARZENEGGER but claims that isn't his last name.
Once I felt strong enough, I began to explore the island in a roughly counter-clockwise manner, using the map as a guide. There's an entire peninsula to the northeast that I can't explore because of swamp squares (which poison you), and of course outlying islands for which I need a boat. Otherwise, I've explored roughly the top half of the main island, finding the king's castle, the towns of Trisdic, Gaht, and Worthal, and the Tower of the Circle of Black Magic.

The towns have all been small enough to make mapping unnecessary, which is refreshing after some of the other Ultima clones lately (Deathlord comes to mind in particular, as well as Nippon until you find the in-town maps). There are generally fewer than 12 NPCs per town, not counting generic guards who all say the same thing. Some NPCs are shopkeepers who only respond to words relevant to what they're selling--although you have to be careful, because some seem that way, but then launch into long speeches from an obscure keyword.
Dunkle also follows the old Ultima trick of hiding key NPCs in dark or hidden areas of town.
I've noted that "translating" has been tough, but it's more than that. I not only have to translate, but then figure out what words in the original German are likely to produce more text. You also have to take care with words with umlauts and eszetts (ß). The game represents these characters but knows that many players won't be able to easily type them, and thus requires phonetic input. So when a character says something about the groß böse ("big evil"), you have to render your follow-up questions as GROSS and BOESE.

(Related language question that this made me think of: I always hear that letters with diacritics like ä and ü are considered distinct letters and not just a and u with extra accents. Does that mean that when Germans recite their alphabet, they include these letters separately? How does it work for alphabetization? Do all a words appear before ä words, or are they mixed together? Where does ß fall alphabetically?)

Then, the game occasionally gets cute with its text, as in the image below, where I'm talking to a drunk guy. The developers added extra words and syllables to simulate the slurred speech of an alcoholic. I've seen this a million times in English games, and it never occurred to me how hard it must make it for someone trying to translate.
This text is tough to interpret.
But I muddled through, and here are some of the key takeaways and "to do" items from my various visits:
  • Every town has a druid who says that the druids want to help me, but then offers no additional keywords, just "ask what you will." If I ask about anything obvious, like the KRISTALL, they just tell me to see Cerfax, who already gave me the rundown. I have no idea how they're supposed to help.
The druid claims that he jut wants to helfen, but then he doesn't helfen.
  • Each town also has a sorcerer who says he or she specializes in a particular spell and then says "Seek the [Black/White] Circle" if I express interest in that spell. These people seem kind of superfluous, since the two circle towers also have sorcerers who a) specialize in those spells, and b) will actually teach them to you.
  • In Gaht, a city of elves, a man named Anatol sells unicorns. He says I'm too clumsy to ride one, but that was before I found the skill trainer. I need to re-visit.
  • Also in Gaht, an elven princes named Thyra told me of the elbenbogen ("Elven Bow"), a magic weapon created by the elven queen Mithra and kept by a weapon-seller named Elrik. Elrik, in an episode I wish more RPGs would follow, said something like, "I'm really supposed to hold on to this bow, but I guess you are on a quest to save the world." But he wants 1,000 gold pieces for it, so I'll have to pick it up later.
The elven weaponsmith cuts the B.S.
  • In Worthal (which, confusingly, is called "Thorwal" when you enter), a retired seaman named Kapt'n Hook offered to sell me his sextant for 340 gold. Another thing I'll have to save up for.
  • A bard in Gaht named Ijale told me of his magic glass flute that had something to do with causing the Crystal to vibrate. It was stolen from him when he was in Mubrak, a town I have not yet discovered.
  • In Trisdic, a sot named Zacharion is hiding in the tavern while his wife, Helena, looks around for him. She tells me to ask him of "treasure" if I want to hear the most ridiculous story ever. Zacharion tells me that after he was attacked by the Pirate of Mubrak, he hid a bunch of treasure on the island of Uyrp, but he can't remember where the island is.
  • I can buy a boat in Worthal for 1,000 gold. I was hoping to capture one instead, but the one time I found a pirate ship on the waters, it was gone after I finished combat.
The next big stage awaits.
All of these items are added to the two quests I got last time: defeat the dragon so that Princess Sheila won't have to be sacrificed, and defeat the thieving band in Mubrak. 

You really can't do anything in towns. Outdoor commands like attack, inventory, ready weapon, wear armor, and cast a spell simply don't work. You can only talk and search. Incidentally, I chose the "search" option in one town when I reached a dead-end in a long path (an obvious place to hide something), and I found a "clay tablet" with a "T" on it.
In Ultima IV, I found the Skull of Mondain the same way.
I have yet to cast a single magic spell, but I understand how it works. First, you have to get the mages in the Tower of the Black and White Circles to teach you the spells, but when I visited the Black Circle tower, they all told me that I was too dumb to learn their spells (my intelligence is only 5). You then have to have the right set of reagents in your pouch to cast the spell, and you also have to have enough spell points. I've been buying handfuls of reagents here and there (they're cheap), so that I'm ready when I finally get smart enough to learn the spells.
May the schwarze be with you.
As for the reagents, the developer again mostly copied Ultima IV. There are eight reagents, and six of them are the same as their Britannian counterparts: schwefel (sulfur), knoblauch (garlic), ginseng (ginseng), blutflechte (blood moss), gift der nacht (nightshade), and alraunewurzel (mandrake). There is no spider silk or black pearl; instead, the game introduces zirbelkraut ("pine herb"?) and totenblume ("death flower").

The copying from Ultima IV unfortunately goes beyond the list of reagents. Here's how the manual describes ginseng, for instance (my translation):
Ginseng has long been praised for its invigorating and medicinal properties. The root of the ginseng plant is particularly notable for its bifurcated shape and its pink color. For a long time, the tea has been prepared to give strength to the sick. For magical purposes, only the particularly strong, black ginseng is used, which is found only in the mountains, but is almost everywhere to buy.
And here's how it's described in Ultima IV's documentation:
Long praised for its strength-giving and medicinal properties, the root of the ginseng plant is immediately recognizable for its forked shape, and to those initiated in the mystic ways, by its overpowering rose-coloured aura. It has been used for centuries by peasants who chew it or brew tea from a powdered preparation of the root in order to gain strength and stamina as they toil in the fields. While commonly found throughout Britannia, the Ginseng used as a component in the casting of spells is generally black in colour and found only on the slopes of the northern mountains.
The Dunkle Dimension one is shorter, but otherwise a near-direct translation. The descriptions of the other herbs are quite similar.

We see lots of other Ultima analogs in my descriptions above, including the need to find a ship and a sextant, and perhaps those clay tablets will turn out to be similar to Ultima IV's runes, of which you find one per town and they spell something. However, the game is starting to feel more notable for the things that it didn't adapt, such as secret doors, multiple indoor levels, lockpicking, torches, gems, and joinable party members. I'm not even sure if it has dungeons. As I said at the beginning, Dunkle evokes some of the best of Ultima, but it lacks a lot of the features that gave its predecessor real character.

Still, I'm happy to see it to the end, and there's lots left to do. When I was looking through my notes to compile this entry, I see that I missed acting on a clue. A bard in the king's castle told me to ask the magicians of the two circles about EVIL to learn more about the name of the Evil One. I guess I'll have to head back to the Black Circle, but maybe I'll wait until I find an intelligence trainer first. Or perhaps I'll grind for enough money for a ship next. Ultima clones always seems to kick to the next level once you have a ship.


Sunday, September 9, 2018

Crusaders of the Dark Savant: Yada Yada Yada

The game is fond of text interludes. Normally I applaud this kind of thing, but Crusaders takes it a bit too far.
It's taken me a while to get going with this one--I've had two entries basically covering the opening minutes--but at last I feel like I'm "in" the game. I find it quite a bit harder than its predecessors, although part of that has to do with the growing length of things. In a simple game like the original Wizardry, a single combat takes far less than a minute. It may have been functionally harder than this seventh entry, but there you could grind a fighter from Level 1 to Level 10 in less time than it takes here to explore the opening wilderness.

As I previously noted, I started over with a new party, and I think it's safe to say that I spent longer analyzing, planning, and creating the new party than I have with any previous RPG. This is what I came up with:
  • Gideon, a male human fighter. I wanted a lord, but I couldn't get quite enough bonus points, so I figured I'd dual to a lord at a later date. I've concentrated his weaponry skills on the sword and shield and his academic skills on mapping.
  • Svava, a female dwarf Valkyrie. All her weapon skills go into the "pole & staff" (which includes spears), and academically I'm having her specialize in mythology.
  • Noctura, a female Dracon thief. I also have vague plans to dual her to something later. Damned 7-character limit on names kept me from putting the second "n" in there. She's also a sword specialist, but academically she's our item-identifier. At least, she will be when she gets good enough. I have too much unidentified stuff sitting around.
  • Bix, a male hobbit bard. He's a third sword specialist (perhaps I'm going to regret not diversifying) and the party's diplomat.
  • Esteban, a male elf priest. He strikes with his staff (and thus specializes in pole & staff) from the rear, and academically I pour his points into theology.
  • Prenele, a female faerie alchemist. I've split her weapon skills into several categories: wand and dagger, throwing, and sling. Basically, whenever I have some cool stuff to shoot or toss, I give it to her (I try to get everyone else into melee range). Her academic points go into alchemy.
One of my new characters.
I thought this setup gave me a decent melee party but with several characters (priest, alchemist, and Valkyrie) capable of casting healing spells in early levels. The bard comes with a lute that provides essentially unlimited "Sleep" spells, which were very handy in the opening area. I'll think about changing classes for some of these characters at some point, particularly since this configuration leaves me impoverished in classic mage spells.

I've been putting physical points mostly into swimming, with the exception of Noctura, who has to build her "skullduggery" skill to disarm traps and open locks, and Bix, who has to master music. I had hoped that I could stop once I got swimming to 10, but now I realize that's just the bare minimum to avoid drowning if you have a full stamina bar. One dip into one water square cuts that bar neatly in half. Unless I want to rest after every breaststroke, I'll need to keep feeding this skill.
My map of the outdoor area. Later, I found that north is to the right. I need to swim and to be able to avoid poppies to explore any more.
With the new party, I set out to fully explore the wilderness area and then to re-do the opening dungeon. The wilderness area is a bit smaller but more irregular than I expected. It's designed to funnel a character adopting a "rightmost path" strategy to the starter dungeon and then to New City. If you follow the left "wall" instead, you end up fighting quite a few battles against forest denizens before finding a skull and a treasure chest near an entrance to the sea. The chest contains an automap. I don't know what the skull does.
Finding a chest can be a wordy experience in Crusaders.
To the north of the starting area, there's a field of poppies that put you to sleep before you have a chance to walk more than a few squares. I mapped as much as I could here, but clearly I need something to avoid the poppies' sleep effect.

The battles in the wilderness were mostly easy enough for my new party, particularly with Bix putting everyone to sleep every round. The most difficult was the ratkin ambush on the way to New City, which I probably should have saved for after the dungeon. It took me about six reloads to win that one.

The starter dungeon proceeded as the first time, greatly assisted by the healing fountain. Bix, who started with no weapon, finally got a sword, although I still don't know what kind it is. By the time I left the dungeon, my characters were only one level lower than their imported counterparts, and with a better allocation of skills.

I had expected New City to be something of a resting point, the way most cities are in most RPGs, with comfortable places like stores, inns, and temples. While it does offer a couple of "shops" (individual characters who sell things) and one quasi-temple, it's more hostile than I expected, the area having recently been conquered by the Dark Savant.

The Dark Savant's soldiers occupy a bunch of buildings and often show up as random encounters. They come in two types--savant guards and savant troopers--and both of them are tough to defeat at this level, particularly since they don't respond to the bard's sleep tunes (I suspect they're automatons). In comparison, a large number of "Gorn spearmean" were much easier to defeat, but I got the impression that they were natives and thus felt bad about killing them. There were also more ratkin.
Killing these guys feels wrong, but it really added to my leveling.
Many times, I had to annotate a building for later return after facing an undefeatable party. Sometimes, I learned, it's worth trying a couple of times, because the fixed encounter that offered three savant troopers and four savant guards the first time might only serve up two savant guards the second time. But in other places, the enemies were just consistently too hard no matter what I tried. I have to say, I'm getting a lot of use out of the "terminate game" button, which thankfully allows you to end a hopeless combat instantly instead of fighting to the bitter end.
This is an unwinnable combat at my level.
The other annoyance I found within New City was an abundance of locked doors. Lockpicking involves the same kind of mini-game as in Wizardry VI, where a series of colors rotate beneath each tumbler, and you have to click when the light is green to trip the tumbler. The proportion of green to other colors is based on the character's "skullduggery" skill. If your skill is high enough, a light might just stay a consistent green, and if it's low enough, it might stay a consistent red. Just as with Wizardry VI, the lights change too quickly to time them (unless you cheat by cranking down the emulator speed), and clicking at the right time is more like taking a chance than playing a true mini-game. Either way, if you screw up, the door can become jammed, which is no good for anyone. There's theoretically a way to force doors, but I'm having less luck with that than lockpicking. I had to annotate a lot of doors for later return.
Even if I could time my click, I can't tell the difference between green and red.
Because of both tough enemies and locked doors, I couldn't explore a lot of the city. In particular, there's a prison with some trapped NPCs (one of them calls out a rear window for us to free him), but I can't fight my way through the enemies just yet.
An NPC asks for help.
There were a few standard NPCs in the buildings, and the game adopts the convention found in Wizardry V and VI for full-text dialogues. You have to type entire sentences and end questions with question marks, or the game doesn't always understand what you mean. Here's a talk I had with Sogheim, someone living in a southern building:

Me: Hello
S: Ahoi!
M: Who are you?
S: I am Sogheim
M: What do you do?
S: I live here, by the sea
M: Why do you live here, by the sea?
S: It is rumored a great monster guards the secret of the seas!
(I tried several questions related to the monster but couldn't get him to add anything.)
M: Do you know the Dark Savant?
S: Dread ruler of Galaxies!
M: What's happening in New City?
S: New City is where everyone eventually ends up!
I didn't cover all his conversation options. 50 gold pieces is a lot.
I met a couple of NPCs that I didn't know what to do with. One, on the road, was named "Ratsputin." Another, in town, was named an Umpani whose name I neglected to write down. Neither responded to my requests for a "truce," and I ultimately just avoided them by hitting "leave" at the initial encounter screen. I hope I wasn't supposed to do something more productive with them.
In case you keep forgetting who the lead developer was, moments like this repeatedly remind you.
A few other encounters worth noting:

  • A copper penny found in an abandoned bank vault bought my way into the "Curio Museum of Amazing Oddities," where I found a chest containing a magic cloak and "deadman's hair." More on this chest in a bit.
The tradition of putting a question mark in front of unknown items goes back to the first Wizardry.
  • A weaponry shop was guarded by a large Umpani who insisted that he was closed, "PERMANENTLY!" However, I later heard that he ran a black market, and when I returned and said "black market" to him, he relented and let me see a selection of weapons.
I think that's supposed to be some kind of gun, not a horn.
  • A statue in the center of a courtyard surrounded by water. My skill isn't good enough to swim to the statue.
More blah-blah-blah.
  • "Thesminster Abbey" held a priest who, with the right dialogue choices, let me go downstairs to a healing fountain. It would have been more useful if it didn't mean passing through so many messages and dialogues to get to it (see below).
These are always handy.
  • Because of my exploration pattern, I reached "Paluke's Armory," the putative reason I was in the city, quite late. It was underwhelming. He had a few armor upgrades to offer, but nothing extraordinary. 
I've made very little money since the game began.
Throughout the gameplay, I began to get annoyed with its unavoidable wordiness. Normally, I like textual encounters and lore, but somehow the way Crusaders presents them gets in my nerves. The first problem is that the text says simple things as if they're profound. Here's a message that you get when you step near New City's docks, for instance:
The great Sea of Sorrows spans before you like a vast and dense space flattened unto the sky, spreading into the far distant horizon as a desolate plain of shimmering ether. Its deep waters chant a thousand silent tales, and its unseen borders but hint of far distant lands. How universal such a compelling motion, as if behind every veil of boundless unknown lay cloaked an invisible beacon, endlessly calling. Such solace these sights bring, as if a reminder that though the trappings of mortal man be forever enshrouded in a sea of passing discords, he has but to open his eyes that he may bear witness to some greater existence of which he is only a momentary traveler.
Beyond the sophomoric wordiness are  couple of problems: Not only that the game is putting sentiments into my own character's minds, but also that they're a bit misplaced. Romanticizing the sea and the boundless lands beyond its horizon is something that you do on your own world, when the sea is a true frontier, not something that you're likely to do after you've just arrived on this planet, having crossed the galaxy in a starship.

Anyway, the game feeds you this text one screen at a time, using a font far larger than necessary, and often not using the entire screen, so that you have to acknowledge six screens of text before you can move on. And if you accidentally return to the square, you have to go through all of the text again. Oh, and there's an annoying delay after the text appears but before you can hit ENTER to move on. I could suffer this rarely, but about a dozen times in New City, the developers felt they needed to hijack my gameplay with some unnecessary twaddle that did more to confuse the plot than to enhance it.
Part of another long description that I have to suffer every time I want to use the healing fountain.
As I finished my first loop through the city, my big problem became the need to cure the disease that my fighter incurred when we opened the chest in the "Curio Museum." The healing fountain in the temple doesn't cure it, and the priest doesn't seem to offer other services. None of the potions I've found are "cure disease" potions. I was hoping that one of the shops might sell them, but no luck there. The game manual warns of an increasing horrible fate, and ultimately death, suffered by a diseased character, and it warns you not to rest if anyone is diseased, so it's affecting my entire party. My best hope is that the "Cure Disease" spell pops up as an option the next time my alchemist or priest level up, but I hate to put all my eggs in that basket. I wonder if the healing fountain in the dungeon will take care of it.

Either way, I feel like I need to grind for a couple more levels before taking on the city again, hopefully exploring more buildings this time. One point in Crusaders' favor is that leveling up feels extremely rewarding. You watch your attributes increase--sometimes three or four per level--and then you can put a bunch of skill points into your chosen skills. So far, each level has a palpable effect on the next few combats.
I have some misgivings about the game, but leveling is as addictive as ever.
I hope to have some more momentum going by the time of the next entry. I've got a lot of work and travel this month, so my posting schedule might continue to be erratic for a few more weeks.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Game 303: Die Dunkle Dimension (1989)

Die Dunkle Dimension
"The Dark Dimension"
German Design Group (developer and publisher)
Released in 1989 for Commodore 64
Date Started: 29 August 2018

When I decided my master list would include foreign games, as long as they were in a language I could easily type into a translator, I expected that I'd be translating a two-paragraph backstory, a one-screen ending, and a bunch of repetitive stuff like "you miss the skeleton!" in between. I wasn't counting on games that were so text-heavy, like Antares, Die Drachen von Laas, or Nippon. Now here comes another one, Die Dunkle Dimension ("The Dark Dimension"), in which I accomplished over four hours what would have taken me 35 minutes in an English title.

Dunkle is a German Ultima IV clone, and unlike the author of most clones, the developer here did a good job retaining most of what makes Ultima IV so special, including the keyword-based dialogue system, the sense of exploring a large world, and the tactical combat screen. It lacks the virtue system, of course, and you control only one party member throughout the game. Still, it's a better clone than most.

The setup even sounds like Ultima IV in its beginning: You, a person in the "real world," decide to take a walk on a warm summer day. You soon stumble upon a crystalline shard in the grass. Picking it up, you quickly learn that it's some kind of portkey, and within a few minutes, you're warped through time and space to another dimension. You splash down into a lake and swim to shore, just avoiding the jaws of a giant serpent. At first, you think you're in the past looking at a dinosaur, but then the dinosaur breathes fire, and you realize you're in another world. (Although: are we sure that dinosaurs didn't breathe fire? That would be pretty rad.) You set out to find out where you are and how to get home.
Character creation sure has a lot of text to translate.
Character creation is a simple and unnecessarily wordy process of specifying a name and then identifying a primary attribute from among four choices: strength, skill, wisdom, and charisma (I chose strength). You get to specify a difficulty level (I chose "medium"), and whether you favor attacking or defense (attacking). The game then determines your final attribute scores.

Gameplay begins where the story left off: on the shores of a lake with a serpent lurking nearby. You have to get away from the shore before he closes and attacks.
Arriving in a new world.
The interface is much like an Ultima title. Movement is with the bracket-semicolon-apostrophe-slash cluster (on a PC keyboard anyway; their analogues on a C64 are a little different), and actions are performed with single letters, such as (A)ttack, (K)ommunicate, (I)nventory, and (R)eady armor. The specific list varies a little depending on whether you're outside, inside, or in combat. In any event, it's relatively easy to master.
The game came with a map. I believe the starting area is at the lake slightly southwest of center.
Near the starting point is a cottage, so naturally I entered it. It turned out to be the home of a druid named Cerfak. Conversation with NPCs proceeds exactly as in Ultima IV except that you only type the first four letters of your keyword. All NPCs respond to NAME (same in both languages), GESUndheit (health), and BERUf (occupation). The rest of their responses are from keywords that they feed you or that other NPCs tell you to ask them. Occasionally, they ask you something that requires a (J)a or (N)ein response.

Cerfak was extremely wordy, and he left me terrified that all NPCs would have as much to say. Fortunately, that isn't the case, because it took me almost an hour just to transcribe his conversation. It was important, because it includes a lot about the backstory and quest.

Name: I am Cerfak
Health: I am exhausted. Are you OK?
Yes: I'm happy for you
Job: I am a druid.
Druid: We druids are wise old magicians, but closer to nature than sorcerers. We see, we heal, and we help.
See: I see how evil conquers our world.
Heal: let me heal you (heals me)
Help: Ask what you want to know. I know a lot.
World: Evil has destroyed the balance of our world.
Balance: Are you from another world?
Yes: Once upon a time, our world was beautiful and bright. The people lived in peace and were happy. But the Evil One brought eternal darkness over us, and the creatures of darkness came out of their holes and overflowed the land. The sun will never rise again, because the crystal is broken.
Crystal: The Crystal of Light that kept the balance of our world. Carried by fire and air, it floats above the lava of the great volcano.  But the Evil One struck with all its cruel power, and the crystal shattered. A splinter broke off. The crystal turned black. With it went the sun [thus explaining the game's name]. The splinter broke out of the upper right corner of the crystal. Remember this point! The Evil One built an impregnable fortress in the form of a huge skull around the crystal. There he lurks and sends out doom. The splinter was cast into another dimension. When you touched it, a spell broke and the splinter and you were teleported here. Do you have the splinter?
No: (At least it's not listed in my inventory.) Go and find it; otherwise our world is lost forever. Go northeast. There you will come to the castle of the king. There, they will help you.
Splinter: The crystal and the splinter must be united!
Bye: My prayers go with you.
The druid has a lot to say.
The bit about the crystal, shard, lava, and mountain seem to be influenced by The Dark Eye tabletop RPG published by Schmidt Spiele in 1984 (on which the later CRPG Realms of Arkania was based). I don't know the game well enough to determine if the developer of Dunkle took any other inspiration.

The character starts with no weapons or armor, and there's no obvious place nearby to obtain any. It's not long before robbers, zombies, forest demons, and goblins come wandering out of the nearby woods and start attacking. Fortunately, the character is capable of beating most of these combatants to death with his bare hands. He takes a large hit point loss doing so, but the druid heals for free.
Attacking a forest demon in forested terrain. A zombie approaches.
Combat is again much like Ultima IV. When it begins, the action transitions to a tactical map based on the terrain you were standing on. You can use environmental obstacles to block and funnel enemies. You and enemies exchange turns, and during your turn you can attack, cast a spell, or switch weapons (I naturally have no spells or weapons yet). When hit, enemies progress from barely scratched (kaum angekratzt) to lightly wounded (leicht verletzt), wounded (verwundet), seriously injured (schwer verletzt), fleeing (auf der flucht), and then death. If an enemy successfully flees (which happens to my weaponless character most of the time), you get his gold but no experience points. If you flee, you lose some experience points. Animals provide no experience, which echoes Ultima IV's system by which it was unvirtuous to kill them.

I made some money hanging around the druid's hut, but I noticed my food depleting (you start with 50 rations) and I figured I'd better stake out for a town or the king's castle, as recommended by Cerfak. It took me a few false starts in which I was killed by an accumulation of combats on the way. Fortunately, you can save anywhere outdoors and reload.
Arriving at the castle.
The king's castle was a small, one-level structure with about a dozen NPCs. Collectively, they had only about as much text as Cerfak by himself, but it still took a long time to translate. Of course, there was a Chuckles analogue (calling himself a "harlequin") waiting for me in the courtyard. This was his joke:

Q: Do you know the difference between a king and a hippopotamus?
A: The hippopotamus bathes more often!

I'm not sure how that's supposed to be any kind of an insult considering a hippopotamus basically lives in water. I mean, you could bathe twice a day and a hippo would probably still bathe more often than you.
Chuckles somehow has the power to annoy me across universes.
Anyway, among the NPCs the king and queen had the most dialogue. King Casiodorus said he'd heard of my exploits even though I haven't done much. After a quick pause, he encouraged me to come back when I had more experience--clearly, I go to him to level up. Between him and the distraught queen, they related that there's a terrible dragon (lindwurm) who lives in the mountains to the east. Twice a year, always at solstice, he gets hungry for human flesh. To avoid him razing the countryside, the nation made a deal with him to supply him with virgins twice a year, their names drawn by lottery from all the eligible young women in the kingdom. Unfortunately, Princess Sheila's name came up in the last drawing and she'll soon have to be sacrificed. The king implored me to find a way to defeat the dragon. Not only is this the plot of 1981's Dragonslayer (in which Peter MacNicol is weirdly miscast as the hero), but the king's name is taken from that film. The forthcoming rescue seems to be what's depicted on the title screen.
The king introduces himself.
Torquill, the king's sheriff, also told me to ask the king about a thieving band that lives in a lair called Mubrak. The king is eager to wipe them out. So I left the castle with two quests which may be side quests or somehow related to the main quest.
Other NPCs included Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who had nothing to say; Dakteon the bard, who told me that no one can pronounce the name of the Evil One without burning alive, but that I'd somehow need to do it; Antonius the priest, who admitted that he doesn't believe in God, but "you have to make a living somehow"; and Theodorus the geographer, who asked if I wanted maps of all the game's dungeons and towns and, when I said yes, told me to send money to the German Design Group and gave me the address.
A random maid asks if I'm there to save the world.
In a corner, a swordmaster named Ator (from the Italian series of Conan-inspired films) said he could train me when I was more experienced. When you level up, you must get the ability to raise your attributes.

Unfortunately, there was no place to buy weapons or armor in the castle, so I left unsure what to do next. I ultimately made my way back to the familiar territory of the druid's hut, and I'll have to explore outward from there.
The druid heals me for free as I slowly build my gold and experience around his hut.
Other notes:

  • Magic, which I haven't had any chance to investigate yet, is apparently divided into white magic (healing and protection spells) and black magic (damage spells), a division that we'll see later in the German Dragonflight (1990). Casting them requires reagents, just like Ultima IV.
  • Also making an appearance from Ultima IV are bridge trolls (they have a random chance of attacking when you cross bridges) and patches of swamp that poison the character. 
Bridge trolls are a little too tough for an unarmed character.
  • Enemies can move and attack on the diagonal but you can't. This makes it impossible to outrun enemies.
  • From the manual's descriptions, horses, ships, and aircraft are due to make appearances.
  • The king's castle has something you don't find in most RPGs: bathrooms.
There's even a toilet paper roll holder and a toilet brush.
The primary author of Die Dunkle Dimension seems to be one Hendrik Belitz, who went by the pseudonyms "Silent Shadow" and "The Dark One." Belitz had a web site dedicated to the game as recently as a few years ago, but he seems to have lost the domain. I was able to retrieve it from the Internet Archive and get the files that were offered on it, including the game manual and map. Scanning the site and the documentation, I found it more than a little irksome that the author didn't provide any credit to Ultima, from which he'd clearly taken so many of the game's concepts. I never criticize clones for being clones, but I sure do criticize them for not acknowledging that they're clones. We'll talk more about the author, company, and legacy of the game in the final entry.

I'm nowhere near having translated the entire manual yet; I'm just consulting bits and pieces as I need it. This one seems like it's going to be slow-going but perhaps enjoyable in its own way.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Plot Continuity Across Sequels (ft. Crusaders of the Dark Savant)

Crusaders of the Dark Savant is the first game for which this import process has implications beyond character attributes and equipment.
If a developer allows meaningful choices in the game, how does he reflect the consequences of those choices in sequels? This question grows more and more pertinent as the years pass, and meaningful choices become a greater expectation among RPG players. Indeed, it is common on today's blogs and discussion forums for players to insist that meaningful choices--affecting the direction of the plot and the ending of the game--are an essential part of a role-playing game. Such a claim ignores most of the history of RPGs, in which the only choice most players had was whether to attack with a sword or an axe, but I'm willing to allow that true role-playing choices might become an essential characteristic of a twenty-first century RPG.

The issue becomes pertinent for essentially the first time in Crusaders of the Dark Savant (1992), a sequel to a game in which the player's choices could produce one of three different endings. This isn't quite the first time this happened, but previous "alternate endings" were either just creative deaths (i.e., ways of not winning the game), such as the "bad" endings of Dungeon Master (1987), Ultima V (1988), Pool of Radiance (1988), or The Magic Candle (1989), or alternate paths that funneled to the same basic ending, as in the Quest for Glory series (1988-1992), Dragon Wars (1989), Sword of Aragon (1989), or Disciples of Steel (1991). Prior to Wizardry VI: Bane of the Cosmic Forge (1990), the only game I can think of that offered true alternate ways of winning the game was the roguelike Omega (1988), and it didn't have a sequel. Slightly earlier, however, Phantasie II (1986) and III (1987) chanced some introductory dialogue depending on whether the party was created or imported, reflecting the player's choice to have finished the previous games at all.

Phantasie III his Filmon say that Nikademus would "never suspect you" if you're a new party. If you're imported, he tells you that he chose you because you'd already defeated his minions before.
I haven't played a lot of games post-1992, but my read is that alternate endings aren't necessarily common even through the modern era. The Elder Scrolls games, excepting Daggerfall, basically just have one. The Infinity Engine games may have offered a lot of roleplaying in between the beginnings and ends, but they all ended basically the same. There are some notable exceptions--Fallout New Vegas, Fallout 4, the Mass Effect series, and the Dragon Age series all come to mind--but I'd be surprised if more than half of modern RPGs, no matter how many branches they offer along the way, end in more than once place.

On the other hand, even games that don't offer multiple endings tend, these days, to include significant player-influenced changes in the world state between the beginning and the end. The main quest of Skyrim might end in the same place for everyone, but along the way either the Empire or the Stormcloaks won the war, the Dark Brotherhood is either destroyed or has just assassinated the Emperor, the Thieves' Guild either revived or hiding in some sewers, the world either plunged into eternal night or not. These are not factors that will be possible to ignore in any sequel just because every player "defeated Alduin."

So now that The Elder Scrolls VI is at least partly announced, what is Bethesda going to do? Based on previous games, there are several options:

1. Adopt one set of possibilities as canon. This option renders many players' choices meaningless, but it's easiest on the developers. It also tends to fit with what most players did by default anyway. So although you can end Baldur's Gate with any of about 20 NPCs in your party, the developers figure at least 50% of us are going to have played with Imoen, Minsc, Jaheira, Khalid, and Dynaheir, and Baldur's Gate II begins accordingly. In a less-obvious use of this option, most sequels assume that the players finished all the side quests and expansions in the course of winning the previous game, and thus have no problem introducing NPCs, enemies, and objects that some players may never have encountered (e.g., the player of Ultima VII Part Two starts with the Black Sword even if he never played the Forge of Virtue expansion to the first part). The developers basically have to choose this option if they want to include the game as part of a larger universe along with films and books.
A line in Skyrim assumes the player finished the Shivering Isles expansion.
2. Set the sequel so far away in time and space that it doesn't matter. Based on player choices, the world state at the end of Oblivion might look quite different from one Hero of Kvatch to the next, but 200 years later, during the events of Skyrim, no one cares who was head of the Fighter's Guild in a different province at the end of the Third Era. Similarly, Fallout IV makes no references to the choices made by the protagonist of Fallout: New Vegas because there's no communication between Nevada and Massachusetts, and both places have their own problems.

3. Account for all the possibilities. This one is pretty rare, and insane when it happens, but it's featured quite notably in Oblivion and Skyrim to explain the events in Daggerfall. Depending on player choices in that game--the only Elder Scrolls game so far to offer multiple endings--the giant golem Numidium is activated in support of one faction (or not) and political boundaries are reconfigured to the favor of one or more factions. To deal with all possibilities, future games feature a book called The Warp in the West that basically says at the end of Daggerfall, time "broke," Numidium was seen at multiple places, all possibilities occurred, and a trio of gods had to intervene to untangle the mess, resulting in a stable political state among four new kingdoms. 

In a less dramatic option, games after Morrowind don't take a stand on whether the Nerevarine killed the gods of the Tribunal. They're gone, sure, but maybe they disappeared on their own.

(As an aside, one of the things I love about the Elder Scrolls lore is how many distant past events can be interpreted as if they were the results of multiple player choices retconned into the same kind of a "warp" that the developers used to explain the end of Daggerfall. Take, for example, the many conflicting characterizations of Tiber Septim. Who was he originally? Where was he from? Was he the noble hero who united an empire or the lecherous villain who seduced Barenziah and then forced her to abort their love child? Did he become a god? What about the events at Red Mountain? Did Vivec kill Nerevar? What happened to the dwarves? The implication is that major characters of Tamriel's past, like Tiber Septim and Vivec, were player characters whose stories could have gone multiple ways. Their games just haven't been developed.)

4. Dynamically adapt the plot and world state of the sequel to reflect the player's choices. This is the rarest and most admirable option, and I can't think of any series that does it better than Dragon Age. The games certainly have their flaws, but attention to player choice isn't one of them. Inquisition is particularly well done. Choices both major and minor in the two previous games determined everything from the leaders of nations to the specific NPCs the player encounters, and where. (If you didn't play the previous games, you just got defaults.) The effects on the world state, the available NPCs in the game, and the direction of the plot are significant enough that players who made different choices in Origins and Dragon Age II face very different games when they get to Inquisition. (I should also note that this dedication to adapting the world state extends to the minor expansions as well as the major titles; both Awakening and Witch Hunt for Origins start very differently depending on choices made during the main campaign.) I understand that the Mass Effect series offers the same attention to this kind of detail.
The "Dragon Age Keep" web site lets you set the world state from the first two games, greatly enhancing continuity as you begin Dragon Age: Inquisition.
While I characterize Option 4 as the most "admirable," it's also somewhat understandable when developers don't take it. It greatly expands the amount of content that they have to create, much of which will never be seen by most players. It's probably unsustainable across more than three games; certainly, it's hard to imagine Bioware accounting for all choices in Inquisition plus the two previous games if they make a fourth one.

On the other hand, it's horribly disappointing for the player to start a sequel and find that his choices in the previous game are ignored. Some games adopt a compromise between Option 1 and Option 4, using player choices in previous games to tweak a few variables (which might affect dialogue options) but otherwise offer the same gameplay experience. I seem to remember Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II going this route, changing a few scenes based on the result of some (clumsy) dialogue options at the beginning, but otherwise making some assumptions about how the first game progressed.

It's easy to think of Option 4 as the most advanced option, and thus the one we expect to see later in the development of RPGs. In fact, if it was going to be commonplace, its best chance was in the 1990s, just as meaningful choices became more common, but before reacting to those choices meant significant chances to graphics and voiced dialogue. A developer can afford to be generous with simple text adaptations.

And thus we begin Crusaders of the Dark Savant with three separate sets of opening scenes, each with different text, but sharing many of the same graphics.
All opening narratives show this scene, but they all use different text depending on whom the party is with.
If the party ended Bane of the Cosmic Forge having rejected the queen, overseeing the suicide of the vampire king, and heading off into space with a friendly dragon named Bela, they soon find that Bela has made friends (over the radio) with the Umpani, a race of intelligent pachyderms. He relates the story of Guardia and the Astral Dominae and warns the party of the other factions seeking to possess it, including the Dark Savant and his T'Rang allies. They arrive at Guardia at the same time as the Dark Savant. Bela drops the party off in the forest to start looking for the Astral Dominae while he himself chases after the Dark Savant to find out what he's up to.
Bela talks about his new friends.
If the party ended Bane by trying to take the Cosmic Forge only to be intercepted by the android Aletheides, Savant begins by having Aletheides explain that he's been sent to retrieve the pen by the Lords of the Cosmic Circle. He relates the threat to the universe now that Guardia has been discovered, and he enlists the party to accompany him so they can find the Astral Dominae before the Dark Savant. Since he has to return to the Lords with the Forge, he drops off the party in the woods on Guardia and then takes off.
Aletheides lays out his plan.
If the party ended Forge by killing everyone and boarding Bela's ship on their own, they're soon swallowed up by the Dark Savant's frigate. The Savant clearly states his intention to challenge the Lords of the Cosmic Circle and "end their stranglehold on the Destiny of the Stars." He demands that the party assist in his search for the Astral Dominae and has them fly to Guardia on a T'Rang ship, where again they land in the woods to begin their adventure.
The Dark Savant offers no chance to object.
Finally, if the player didn't complete Bane at all--or didn't play it--the game assumes that they're treasure-seekers who found the Cosmic Forge in a temple on a random world. Just as in the second option, Aletheides reaches them just before they take the pen and enlists them in his mission. As with everyone else, the party begins in the woods.

Although all parties start in a forest, they're different forests, on different maps, and thus begin the game with quite different experiences. And because my understanding is that Savant is quite nonlinear, they probably continue with different experiences as well. What I don't yet know is whether choices made in Bane affect anything in Savant other than the backstory and starting location. Do the various factions begin predisposed to like or dislike you? Does Bela show up again if you didn't kill him? Those types of adaptations would be admirable, but perhaps a little too much to expect this early in the era.

I was able to download other players' saved games to experience the different beginnings above, but in 1992, I would have been out of luck. Knowing that there were different beginnings to Savant would have made me eager to re-play Bane, independently of what I thought of its replayability as a stand-alone game, the same way that Inquisition has made me want to replay the previous games in the Dragon Age series. Thus, we see that good attention to continuity can increase the replayability of not only the current game but previous ones in the series.

Continuity of character is, of course, a separate consideration from continuity of plot. It is also far more common. We saw it as early as 1979, with the ability to move the same character among multiple Dunjonquest modules, and most classic game series--Wizardry, Ultima, Phantasie, The Bard's Tale, the Gold Box games--have allowed you to continue the same character or party across at least one sequel. There was even a period in the mid-1980s when you could move the same characters between franchises. As a kid, this was far more important to me than it is now. Today, I find that such games either reduce imported characters to the point that they're hardly better than new characters or they're so overpowered that they ruin the game. A few franchises--the Gold Box and Baldur's Gate come to mind--have done a good job achieving balance, but on the whole I like that the modern inclination is to retain the universe but start each game with a new hero.

In that spirit, for my "real" Savant party, I'll be starting over from scratch with a new set of characters, partly because I enjoy the early levels the most, and partly because the game assumed I did that anyway (I must have screwed up something with my saved game in Bane). We'll pick up with the adventures of the new party in New City after a detour to investigate the German Die Dunkle Dimension.

In the meantime, which continuity options do you prefer? What games best exemplify them? What other methods have you seen for reflecting player choices across the game's universe?