Monday, April 11, 2016

Gateway to the Savage Frontier: Summary and Rating

   
Gateway to the Savage Frontier
Beyond Software (developer); SSI (publisher)
Released 1991 for Amiga, Commodore 64, and DOS
Date Started: 18 March 2016
Date Ended: 4 April 2016
Total Hours: 22
Reload Count: 15
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate (2.5/5)
Final Rating: 49
Ranking at Time of Posting: 192/214 (90%)

When the first of the Star Wars prequels came out in 1999, millions of fans joined me in staring at the closing credits with bafflement. "$115 million," we simultaneously thought, "and this was the best you could do?" The special effects were fine, sure, but not the story--and the story ought to be the easiest part to get right.

Right or wrong, I've had this thought a thousand times over the years in various situations. Compared to the part that I have no idea how to do, the part that I could do seems so ridiculously easy that I don't understand how the creators managed to screw it up so bad. I don't have the slightest inkling when it comes to cinematography, sound, film editing, or set design, but could I write better dialogue than Attack of the Clones? Of course I could. So could you. I could never make a living as a composer--I know nothing about the technique--but I'll bet I could take a pretty good turn at being a lyricist. It's hard for me to believe that the job of "lyricist" even exists. Once you've done the hard work of writing the composition, how frigging hard is it to come up with a couple dozen lines that rhyme?

Cleverbot writes more interesting dialog than George Lucas.
   
And so it goes with games. Why-oh-why, I think, given how much work the developers clearly put into the game engine, the interface, the graphics--all the stuff that I have no idea how to do--why couldn't they get the easy part right? Compared to the coding, the story is a cinch. Not having to write a single line of Basic Pasquale Visual Assembly Code++ or whatever, but getting paid to write the on-screen text and journal entries, is my definition of the easiest job in the world. Seriously, someone pay me to do it.

I know that I'm probably wrong and it's harder than it looks, but damn, you have to agree that until about a year and a half ago, CRPG developers just did not know how to tell a story. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, games almost always rely on framing stories rather than integrated stories, and too many of them feature the same old tropes. A distressing number don't bother to tell any story at all. Among the games I've played so far, you could count on your fingers all the games that even try--Ultima IV-VI, both Starflights, Quest for Glory, the Gold Box series--and some of them aren't exactly at the pinnacle of plot development. And don't tell me about JRPGs, supposedly famed for their plots. I don't know when they finally got it together, but it was definitely after Xanadu. The earliest game I can think of that tells a better story than I could devise on my own is probably Baldur's Gate, and after that the Bioware/Black Isle lines do a solid job. I'm in awe at the depth of the Elder Scrolls universe. The rest of you--I won't charge nearly as much as R.A. Salvatore. Call me.

The Gold Box series does best when it embraces minimalism and draws on classic themes. Pool of Radiance gets lost when it tries to talk about the Pool of Radiance, but it has a solid beginning with a group of adventurers here to clean up this town. Secret of the Silver Blades evokes The Seven Samurai until it gets to the goofy Well of Knowledge. The Krynn games do a decent job tying into the novels--which exist in a more graspable game world than the Forgotten Realms--though you sometimes feel a bit lost if you haven't read them.

So once again I am in a position of needing to commend Gateway to the Savage Frontier for telling any story at all while simultaneously noting that, three weeks from now, I'll have to read all my own entries if I want to remember what the game was actually about. Even writing the entries, a couple days after I played, I had to consult my own screenshots and re-read the journal entries. The Zhentarim were going to invade so I had to find a bunch of statues and bring them to a magic place where they did this Fifth Element thing and killed everyone. Some idiot wizard kept telling me where to go. There were some shambling mounds. Ceptienne who?

Part of the difficulty is with the Forgotten Realms in general. We've talked about it before. It has too much stuff: too many gods, too many monsters, too much ancient history. It is the walking antithesis to Brandon Sanderson's Laws of Magic. You basically have to accept anything as plausible. A bunch of statues caused a pyramid to emit rays of light that instantly summoned enough creatures to destroy hordes of orcs, trolls, and mercenaries? Sure, whatever. That must be a Level 10 spell; I don't have those yet. Then again, Baldur's Gate and Neverwinter Nights managed to tell decent stories set in the Realms by remaining internally-consistent, making the characters feel like the true centerpiece of the stories, and offering a number of interesting plot twists, none of which seem to have occurred to the Gold Box developers.

What's particularly disappointing about Gateway is that it wasn't developed by SSI. With much of their resources invested in the Dark Sun engine, they allowed Beyond (soon to become Stormfront Studios) to develop Gateway, Treasures of the Savage Empire, and Neverwinter Nights. (SSI continued to develop Pools of Darkness and Buck Rogers: Matrix Cubed, however.) This was a chance for a new developer to take the Gold Box engine and put its own twist on it--particularly since Beyond's founder, Don Daglow, has credentials going all the way back to one of the earliest RPGs, Dungeon for the PDP-10 (1975). On the other hand, this was Beyond's first major title, and perhaps they decided to play it safe. I understand they kicked it up a notch for Treasures of the Savage Frontier.

Moving on to other news, did I ever win the final battle against Valgaamon and his forces? Hell, yeah, I did! But I didn't handle such a dirty job myself: I subcontracted it! To who? Why, to the party that defeated the Mulmaster Beholder Corps: my victorious characters from Curse of the Azure Bonds! Thanks to Null Null, I learned that you can import characters from Curse into Gateway. They arrive at around Level 10 (compared to a max of Level 6-7 in Gateway), with spells one level higher--and yet they somehow work. So do all the items of equipment you bring from Curse despite the fact that they don't exist in Gateway. I'm talking about Ioun Stones, Wands of Magic Missile, Long Swords +3 Frost Brand, Girdles of Giant Strength, Wands of Lightning, Wands of Fireball, and Darts of the Hornet's Nest.
  
There was no reason not to spend a "Fireball" on the goblins.
  
I brought over two magic users who together had 9 castings of "Fireball," 6 castings of "Ice Storm," 4 castings of "Haste," and a Wand of Defoliation each (praise be to Moander!). My clerics didn't just turn the undead in Ascore; they destroyed them. This has to be the most bizarre Easter Egg I've ever encountered in an RPG. Why did the developers allow this, and why did they program all these effects that you couldn't find in-game? Are they just inherent to the Gold Box engine?
  
"Did I mention I killed Tyranthraxus twice?"
   
A couple of interesting things happened on the way to the final battle. First, I noted that the encounters were much more difficult: where 6 skeletons had appeared in the previous game, 12 appeared now. They still weren't hard or anything, but the game must do some kind of level-scaling.

Second, I got an extra encounter. Behind a door I previously couldn't access because I didn't have the "Knock" spell, I found a crazy little wizard going on about deciphering the tapestry maps for Vaalgamon. It didn't add a lot to the story, but it was an additional clue to help with the final maze.
  
  
Anyway, I probably could have let the computer control the characters and won the battle, but I played it straight, buffing beforehand with "Haste," "Enlarge," "Bless," "Prayer," and even "Resist Fire" for good measure. I was right that shambling mounds are vulnerable to "Ice Storm," and I had a bunch of spells and a wand. Vaalgamon did his best to cast spells and regenerate, but with fighters capable of four attacks per round, he didn't much stand a chance. I literally hadn't lost a single hit point at the end of the battle.
  
This was a pretty sweet experience reward.
  
Vaalgamon turned out to have a shield +5 a long sword +5, a Ring of Protection +2, and Bracers AC2.

But killing him didn't change the endgame at all! I still got the text about him and his followers being pulled beneath the earth by undead. So that was pretty pathetic. In any event, I now have two potential parties to bring into Treasure of the Savage Frontier: one balanced for the game, and one ridiculously overpowered. It's going to be a tough choice.

Finally, let's have a look at the fake journal entries, which are always a post-game Gold Box highlight. They're pathetic! Accounting for ones that I didn't get but sound real (e.g., I should have gotten them if I hadn't done Everlund-Silverymoon out of order), there only seem to be three: a nonsense set of directions, a fake entry in the word puzzle for the Kraken Fortress, and one (the last in the journal) that suggests Ceptienne was an opponent of the Zhentarim and instead of going after her statue, the party should have gone somewhere in the High Forest. What a let-down.

I don't really feel like spending time on a full GIMLET where I've already done like seven of these for Gold Box games. Let's do the quick bulleted version:

  • 5 points for the game world. Gateway doesn't make horrible use of the Forgotten Realms setting, and I suppose it tries to tell a decent story. It needed to do a better job on the individual maps to make the player feel he's actually accomplishing something as he clears out monsters and undead. I did like the extra textual and graphic touches given to each map to make it feel more like a real place.
  • 5 points for character creation and development. It has the usual D&D advantages, and a few in-game acknowledgements of character race, sex, and class, but advancement is extremely uneven and some of the classes cap way too soon.
  • 5 points for NPC interaction. There are are some memorable NPCs, some of whom can join the party, but the Gold Box series still isn't doing much in the way of dialogue options.
  
This was the biggest plot twist in the game.
   
  • 5 points for encounters and foes. Again, the Gold Box series offers some of the best monster variety out there, with plenty of opportunities for grinding if necessary, but the game has virtually no non-combat encounters. None of the Gold Box games have come close to improving on Pool of Radiance in that area. This one did do a better job with pre-combat encounter text.
  
The pre-encounter text was welcome; the lack of actual options was not.
   
  • 7 points for magic and combat. Still no complaints about the Gold Box engine here.
  • 5 points for equipment. Reasonably good, but nothing new. The game is a little stingier than most until the end. Still no in-game item descriptions, and I've never liked the way that item distribution is fixed.
   
Some of the stuff my imported characters brought in. I still can't believe it all worked.
   
  • 4 points for the economy. It starts better than most games in the lineage and offers a "money sink" in the way of magic arrows and potions, but it's still horribly unbalanced. The series will  never get this right.
  • 3 points for quests. I didn't find the main quest compelling, and I'm disappointed in the lack of side quests along the way. Every city had a "lord" NPC and should have had a couple of quests, too. I give an extra point for a couple of alternate (bad) endings.
  • 6 points for graphics, sound, and interface. Despite a couple of interface flaws, the Gold Box remains unmatched in this area. Some graphics improvements (this is the first in the series to feature VGA graphics) were generally welcome even if I didn't like some of the styles.
  
The game definitely has the most complex graphics of the series so far.
   
  • 4 points for gameplay. It has the illusion of being nonlinear but really isn't. It's also a little too easy, and in general it's not very replayable. But the pacing and length are okay.

That gives us a final score of 49, which I'm afraid is the lowest score I've given so far to a Gold Box title, but only by 1 (Secret of the Silver Blades got 50). Though low for the series, we have to note that it still puts Gateway in the 90th percentile of all the games on my list.
   
   
I can't find any evidence that Computer Gaming World reviewed this one aside from a one-paragrapher from Scorpia (as part of a macro-survey of 90 games) two years later. "A few nice touches have been added to the basic engine," she says, "but otherwise you've played this one many times before." In the same issue, she calls Treasures of the Savage Frontier "a yawner." MobyGames's round-up shows ratings between 45 (Amiga Format) and 73 (Power Play), with lots of comments like "staid" and "shopworn" and "derivative."

I want to make sure that my own criticisms are clear: I've never criticized a game for re-using the same game engine if the engine was good. I could have happily played Pool of Radiance derivatives for the rest of my life. My complaint has always been that SSI came out of the gate with a superb game in Pool of Radiance and then never improved upon it, save for graphics upgrades and a couple of interface improvements. In everything that really matters--story, NPCs, role-playing choices and dialog, quests, and combat, the series has at best stayed the same but for the most part gotten worse. Both SSI and its partners, like Beyond, repeatedly missed opportunities to use an excellent engine for even better stories, deeper role-playing choices, and more interesting quest options.

They still have Neverwinter Nights, Treasures of the Savage Frontier, Dark Queen of Krynn, and Forgotten Realms: Unlimited Adventures to change my mind (and perhaps I should really be putting my hopes in fan-created games for the latter), and I'll hit them all in time. Right now, it's time to see if I can get a Mac emulator working for Shadow Keep.

114 comments:

  1. Not having to write a single line of Basic Pasquale Visual Assembly Code++ or whatever, but getting paid to write the on-screen text and journal entries, is my definition of the easiest job in the world.

    Oh, Chet. As someone who's spent a decade writing game stories for a living, I want to weep with dismay when I read something like this. Drive the knife a little deeper, why don't you?

    That said, thank you as always for the thoughtful series on Gateway. While I'd hardly praise the Gold Box games in general for their storytelling, it's interesting to see what happens when development is handed off to a less experienced party. My understanding is that Pool involved some close collaboration with TSR at the time, which would certainly start SSI out on the right foot (pen-and-paper game writing is vastly different than video game writing, but there's also plenty of overlap); I don't know if later Gold Box games had similar influence from experienced pen-and-paper designers, but at the very least there may have been internal "best practices" SSI figured out that Beyond wasn't privy to or hadn't fully grasped.

    As for the question of why the Azure Bonds import was available, why the equipment worked, etc.--I'd assume that, when Beyond started development, Azure Bonds was SSI's current or most recent project. SSI would've given Beyond that codebase, so it would've been more work to remove all the higher-level spells and such than to just leave them in and not put them in-game. Which does make you wonder about why the low level cap, granted--it was presumably a design choice.

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    1. There are definitely difficult aspects to writing for games (beyond the usual difficulties of being a writer) - the narrative arcs have to be able to withstand all manner of player actions, not in hte least, the player bypassing huge fragments of story in their playthrough. That's one reason making RPGs linear is quite appealing, it lets your writers make assumptions about what the player has and hasn't done, and thus the game world can be far more responsive.

      That said, when we're talking about games of the Goldbox era, the narration should be quite easy - it's mostly absent, bar a few key moments that get a few hundred words of exposition each. Beyond did a confoundingly poor job at what should have been a fairly straightforward task.

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    2. It's interesting to compare Chester's write-up of the game with my own.
      I didn't once mention the story; I think it's pretty irrelevant in the Gold Box games, as long as it gets the job done, which I think it did. Also I think doing things out of order kind of ruined it for you.

      My own main critisism of the game is the very boring encounter design; too easy and not enough variation, with the final battles being the only highlight. In comparison Pool of Radiance is a veritable memory lane of encounter design.

      According to my notes there was no review of the game in CGW, but it was high on the bestseller lists for a long time, so it must have sold well.

      Anyway, look forward to Tresures; it is a definite improvement.

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    3. Hey, Arthur. I hope it was clear that I knew I was talking ragtime out of ignorance, but if not, I apologize to you and anyone else in your field. I'm sure it's a lot harder than it looks. I still feel like I could take a decent stab at it, though, whereas I wouldn't even have any idea where to start with actual programming.

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    4. Possibly in a similar vein, I've made some areas on a text-heavy mud, people often think hey I have this cool idea for an area although I am not sure how to code the special bits. Through trial and error and looking at solutions to similar problems the fiddly bits can be overcome. Trying to find a different way to describe walls in a dungeon of 70+ rooms can drive you to the point of insanity (stop looking at the damn walls and die to my face-melting green slime trap already!).

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    5. Oh, I took no offense, and I know it's all in good humor. It only stings at all because--as Corey Cole mentions below--the attitude of "writing a video game is easy (and requires no medium-specific skills)" really does still exist in some industry circles. It's a frustrating reaction from people who are your peers, bosses, or clients.

      Thankfully, the attitude is less prevalent than it used to be. Every year it feels like there are more writers out there who want to engage with the craft of game narrative and more producers and similar folk who want those writers on their teams. But we've still got a ways to go.

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    6. CRPG addict - of course you could take a stab at writing for a game. You are, after all, a writer and a player of games. I bet the programmers on this game were all thinking- "Wow, I can program all of these complex systems in C or assembly no problem, but I'll be damned if I can come up with some good dialog."

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    7. Cracked ran an article after an in-depth interview with one such writer.
      http://www.cracked.com/personal-experiences-2172-no-trans-characters-6-realities-writing-video-games.html

      Doesn't really sound like a cinch. But I think the earlier developers should have had it easier.

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    8. The big thing is that writing a good story arc and writing a good game engine are two different skillsets, and most game companies took a long time to realise that. The occasional gems you get were often because they'd picked up that rare beast of a computer programmer with a better-than-highschool-level narrative talent.

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    9. Also a writer for games. Also cringed (in good humour). Skiing is basically falling down a slope, right?

      The article linked to above is good, but some more points, just to make myself feel better...

      1) The majority of resources in the development will go towards play and presentation.
      2) Developments change on the fly, usually due to inaccurate scope; a game without strong story is easy to contract when stuff needs cutting, a game with a strong story gets shredded, with no budget for fixes. Determining development scope is so tricky.
      3) No editors in games. Only at a high level, on games with big writing teams. Usually you work with a designer and a producer, maybe a tech lead. They're all busy with something else.
      4) Storytelling limitations - No ensemble scenes for character work; very small budget for visual depiction of events that fall outside the engine's scope; very short screen time per character; limited amount of text allowed, because people don't like to read and won't listen for long (or, in the old days, for memory reasons).
      5) Even then, good dialogue is brutally hard to write. Every line must display character, advance the plot, contain useful exposition in a non-obvious manner, and be entertaining.

      I always say to people who want to write for games, write a short story first. Nobody's gonna give you a game to write for unless you can show some work on paper. And not many people can write a good short story. But! If you can, or if you can write awesome dialogue... good dialogue is gold dust. It's so valuable. It is so in demand. Same with plot construction. There's money in it! Anyone who can write good dialogue needs to consider a writing career, because so very few people can.

      Anyhow, yeah, I feel better now. Love this blog! Best thing on the internet.

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  2. Heh, you missed Pools of Darkness in your last paragraph - ironically the one that IMO might satisfy your hopes the most. :)

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    1. I second this comment. I personally find that Pools of Darkness was one of the highlights of the Gold Box games, at least of the ones I played. It's tied in my mind with Pools of Radiance with respect to world depth and interactivity.

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    2. Also, should we consider the Spelljammer game to be part of the Gold Box series? Wikipedia describes it as using the Gold Box combat engine.

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    4. I wouldn't consider Spelljammer a Gold Box game, but I have not played it thoroughly.

      Agreed on the Pools of Darkness thing, best game of the entire series imo.

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    5. I don't know why I left it out. I'm certainly aware of it and looking forward to it.

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    6. I have my doubts the Addict will enjoy Pools of Darkness--at the very least, he should make all his characters have high DEX. I will say no more. The game is like a PhD exam in Gold Box combat, if Gold Box combat were an intellectually respectable field of study. ;)

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    7. I didn't consider that issue. When I originally played PoD I used pretty much every bug to my advantage, so the difficulty must have been much lower than intended. I can see some of the combats being very difficult played straight.

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    8. Yeah, I always played it with characters imported from SSB, with 18s in everything and max'd HP. Even with that it was a challenge.

      To be honest I exploited the "auto-attack" bug quite a lot. Not sure if anyone is aware of it or mentioned it before but it works like this:

      1) Take a character with high HP, low AC and boots of speed
      2) At the start of their turn, have them walk past every opponent.
      3) As they walk by each opponent, said opponent will automatically get a back attack on the character.
      4) This *supercedes* the planned attack for that opponent. Using this method you can wholly prevent your opponent from casting spells, moving, or attacking the target of their choice.
      5) When the character hits 0 movement points left, hit ESC, which resets them to their starting position.
      6) Rinse repeat until *EVERY* enemy combatant is neutralized.

      Good times. That game is *tough*.

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    9. Pfff! PoD, including final battles, is perfectly doable with regular (mostly) characters and no cheating. All you need is 18 Dex for all characters, and two character that can cast Delayed Blast Fireball.
      With lower Dex chances decreases dramatically, though.
      Amiga version was easier, since the Ring of Lightning Immunity worked, which it doesn't in the DOS version.

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  3. I understand your review, though personally I found the "old school" maps and feel of the game superior to Silver Blades which was just a bloated mess with huge, empty maps.

    I've played Neverwinters Nights now, but regretfully we will never have an original experience.

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    1. Honestly wonder if we can rig up an emulation server somehow and open it for a brief period to CRPG addict readers......

      May have to put on my thinking cap and see if that's possible.

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    2. As someone who was unable to afford (or convince my parents to pay for) AOL access in the early 90s, I think that would be incredibly fun to try out.

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    3. I've been digging around for a few weeks trying to get something put together for this. I've already found at least two games Chet was missing, so hopefully I can keep up the good work.

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  4. It isn't hard to see why the import trick works. The engine would have been ready to use (would have to have been, even if the development hadn't been outsourced)long before the rest of the game was close to finished. Because of this, the complete Advanced Dungeon And Dragons ruleset (or, rather, as much of it as they'd yet converted) would have been provided for, so that the rest of the development had full choice in level ranges, what items to throw in, what kind of monsters to use, and so on. Unused monster data would have to be excised for file space reasons, but character progression, magic items, and even spells would take up too little space to bother with.

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    1. I guess. But in that case, I don't know why they capped clerics and magic-users at Level 6 when everyone else could go to 7-8.

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    2. In this case it's just to remain faithful to the progression available in PoR, from what I've understood.

      Pretty sure they capped those classes in PoR to prevent having to program in 4th level spells. You'd likely need those available on all disks, and I know they had weird memory limitations in the C64 version.

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  5. For anyone interested, there's a good series on YouTube called Extra Credits. It's done by people in the gaming industry and it covers topics like, "Why is it so hard to write a good story for a CRPG?" or,""Why does the dialogue in games suck so badly? and even "How can I get into *doing this* for a game developer because you people seem to be unable to *do it* well?"
    A lot of it seems to boil down to CRPGs have to cover all player actions and all the dev teams tend not to work together or the writing and implementation is done after the game is mostly finished.

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    1. That makes sense. I've heard talks from writers at Bioware describe their process, and (if I'm remembering right) it sounds like the writers work much more closer with the designers and more as the game unfolds than at a lot o companies. And while the writers work on the lore stuff together, dialogue with major characters tends to be handled by one main person. So you get fairly consistent characters, but interactions tend to be more one-on-one with the player or in groups of two than between the group as a whole. That separation plays into covering the player action part too--it's a lot easier to reflect conversation choices between two characters than a half dozen.

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  6. I'd say that a GIMLET that puts this at one point below SotSB is pretty accurate.

    It's nice that it exists, there are some nice UI improvements, economy is nice and all, but it's not very open ended, and character improvement lags out by the first 1/4 of the game or so.

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  7. Other commenters have pretty much covered it, but I'll echo that there is far more to telling a story in a CRPG than, say, telling a story. :-) You write a large number of postage-stamp-sized text entries that players may encounter in a random order, and somehow they have to combine into a sensible story. It's completely different from writing a linear narrative.

    For example, Quest for Glory IV has about 8,000 paragraphs of text, and Hero-U: Rogue to Redemption will have far more. We have essentially unlimited memory now, so we can apply many conditions to each line - "Talk to Joel after a thief has been caught at the school, but before he has talked to Sosi about it. Only allow this line once." In the 1990's, all code and variables in a scene had to fit in a single 64KB memory block because of Intel architecture limitations. We used the same kind of conditional expressions, but we could do far fewer of them. We were constantly fighting memory restrictions, not to mention ridiculous deadlines - "Design, write, and lead development of this game. You have 10 months including QA time."

    That said, the writing in many games is still awful. That is due to a pervasive problem in both the game and film industries. Studio executives (for the most part) know they can't program, but they all think they can write. Therefore writing is easy, and there is no need to hire professional writers. Sometimes the amateurs do a decent job, but many times they demonstrate that writing is not as easy as it looks.

    Other executives think of it a different way - "We don't want game designer/writers. We need *real* writers!" So they hire someone like Stephen King or Douglas Adams to write the game. Sometimes they do a great job, especially if they work closely with a good game designer. Other times, they write stories that aren't games - the story works, but the gameplay doesn't give agency to players.

    Role-playing gamers almost always do something different than what the game master expected. In a live game, the GM adapts. In a CRPG, the game can only react in ways the writers programmed. Sometimes that makes CRPGs seem really stupid.

    Is game writing easy? No. Is it rocket science? Also no. The truth lies somewhere in the middle. Today we have a job category called "narrative designer". That concept didn't exist in the 1990's.

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    1. Obdurate Hater of Rhythm GamesApril 11, 2016 at 3:48 PM

      C.R.P.G.s do tend to copy ideas from Dungeons and Dragons, Lord of the Rings and Star Wars and take shortcuts like having the player determine a character's personality rather than create a real character for him.

      It really give me respect for writers who actually manages to put interesting dialogue throughout games, like the creators of Mother, Little King's Story, most of Sierra, Lucasarts, Legend, Access, Atlus and Origin's games, Hotline Miami 1 and 2 and Dropsy.

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    2. I'd call out the companion and character class story arcs in Star Wars: the Old Republic as excellent writing. Even though SW:tOR is supposed to be a massively-multiplayer game, Lori and I played it mostly single-player just to get to the story segments.

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    3. The SWTOR writing room, of course, loved you and Lori right back!

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    4. Corey, you beat me to many of the points I was going to make. For instance, it's easy to forget how big of a deal size constraints were to the early games. These days text is basically nothing compared to audio or video, but in those days it wasn't too hard to fill an entire storage unit (i.e., a floppy) with just text. Re-using images for multiple monsters/scenes wasn't just laziness, it was efficiency. A game where each section of the game is on a dedicated floppy (per someone's comment from a prior post) and they had to pick and choose a limited selection of monsters for each section doesn't have a ton of room for text, and certainly not multiple takes on the same entry, just reworked for different scenarios or orders.

      From a game design perspective, it can be tough, too. Every time you offer a choice, you've got to either write or code double the results. Nonlinearity is awesome for the player, but if you allow for five quests done in any order, you're potentially juggling as many as 120 different paths the player could take to finish, just to track the main quest. Even a relatively simple side quest needs (potentially) flags to unlock the start, intro text, something to track progress/completion, completion text, a reward, etc.

      Additionally, in cases where you can't really afford to offer a choice, you've got to be creative about how you railroad the player into going the right direction or force the action to meet the programming, and in a lot of cases that ends up feeling odd or, well, forced.

      That's not to excuse this or any other game for points that lack, but there's certainly a chance they dreamed bigger but just couldn't fit it in.

      As for storytelling, the "me speak words good, me do it" issue has been around a long time. I heard the same thing again in the late 90's with web sites: "it's just words and links, I can build a site!"

      I was going to make some arguments about the fantasy market really only picking up steam a few years before the Gold Boxes took off, and that most of the dedicated writers didn't overlap with most computer game developers, but in doing research 1) much of the old fantasy I'm looking up is older than I thought and 2) I keep finding old favorite authors who died in the last decade without my realizing, and now I'm in a funk. Still, I think Corey's point rings true, that at the inception of a game project they were less likely to say "We're telling a story, so let's hire a novelist" and more likely to conclude, "It's a game; better hire some programmers."

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    5. As I pointed out above, I was mostly joking in this section--deliberately oversimplifying for humorous effect--but you're all taking it a little too far in the other direction. I wasn't talking about these concepts using the example of Dragon Age: Inquisition or some other AAA game from the 2000s. All Gateway to the Savage Frontier needed was a reasonably coherent plot, a minimum of spelling errors, and a couple of dependencies so that characters going to Silverymoon before Whatever didn't lose the plot thread. They couldn't even get that right. I don't think it would have taken a true artist to do a passable job with this game, although I am glad that better games do employ people with those talents.

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    6. ...and agree with you that their talents are often under-valued and over-looked, by both executives and players.

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    7. Nah, I wasn't taking you too seriously. It's just a subject I actually know a bit about and also enjoy, and figured I'd wax philosophical while it was remotely on-topic. My experience is relatively recent, so it's interesting to see that Corey's, going way back, isn't all that different.

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    8. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    9. Part of the problem may be that it's a team production and the gameplay developers didn't really convey they essence to the plot/dialogue developers, amd vice versa. Until the tools were there for that, your best bet was a one-man project like Spiderweb games because at least then there was one voice behind everything.

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    10. I think Chet's point still stands (despite the hyperbole!) It's easy for Corey to say game writing is hard... because he actually cares about it! Despite hardware limitations of the time, Corey and Lori managed to create vivid worlds with distinct memorable characters, all while keeping the quality of gameplay in mind. The problem is that people tend to think of the technology first, story later. But without story you've got a tech demo. The Lucas example is particularly relevant, because it shows that he was more interested in Star Wars as a technology showcase than a fantasy world, accounting for the betrayal felt by his fans who were invested in the characters and universe. But what's worse is that Gateway isn't interested in the technology either, they're using a dated engine... if they weren't working on the story, what were they really working on? It's not that the writing is easy, it's that thinking to invest in a competent writer or a writing team is easy, but often game developers don't seems to be interested in that.

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    11. Well, Corey, since we have you commenting here, I suppose you could settle my core point one way or the other. Which do you personally find harder: writing the code, or writing the text? If you were hiring a team for a new game, which talent pool would it be harder to fill?

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  8. Obdurate Hater of Rhythm GamesApril 11, 2016 at 3:55 PM

    Lyrics are pretty important in a song: Do you really want lines like, "Let's get the party started in here, get the party started in here," rather than "Feed my eyes, can you sew them shut? Jesus Christ, deny your maker. He who tries, will be wasted."

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    1. This is all a matter of taste, but lyrics for me are not that important. Look at works like Masses or Requiems - they all use the same formula so there are no lyric surprises there, and the Latin is pretty uninspired. They could be singing "la, la, la" for all I care - it's the music that matters. Of course, it's fine to set great music to great lyrics (that's why Schubert so often turned to Goethe or Schiller for his songs). But each one is judged on its own merits. You can have great music set to crappy lyrics, or great lyrics set to crappy music, or both great music and great lyrics, or both crappy music and crappy lyrics.

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    2. And pace the Addict but, no, I don't think being a (good) lyricist is a walk in the park. Lyrics are poetry, and being a good poet is not as easy as "coming up with a couple dozen of lines that rhyme." We don't know to what music Homer recited his Iliad, but we do have the words, and anyone who has read the original Greek knows it is not the mindless stringing together of phrases. In fact, those lyrics are so expertly crafted that we're reading them 2,700+ years later.

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    3. This is an area where I wasn't really arguing from ignorance, as I've studied the craft of lyric writing fairly extensively. Anyone with my passion for jazz and the Great American Songbook has at least some expertise in lyrics. I know about different forms, rhyming and assonance, meter, emphasis, repetition, and so forth. I'm reasonably good at it. But I still think that, in difficult, it pales in comparison to actually composing music.

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    4. How easy it is depends on your facility with music and poetry, respectively. Beethoven would have a tough time writing a passable poem; Goethe could not write a symphony. But both great composers and great poets are rather hard to find. By my aesthetic standards, I know of no living composer or poet whom I'd call "great." But I'm always open to suggestions.

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    5. Candidly, I prefer the first option.

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    6. There are few things more disappointing than really digging a song until you know what the lyrics are. I try to keep from knowing lyrics due to them being so often intolerable.

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  9. Obdurate Hater of Rhythm GamesApril 11, 2016 at 3:58 PM

    I like to hold Anachronox up as the high point of C.R.P.G. writing: It was clearly horribly unfinished, yet the writing was smart, funny, original and charming, and really developed an interesting world.

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  10. As for the game mechanics allowing spells beyond the maximum level players could get in the game, that's actually pretty awesome. It means that the Gold Box games were designed more as simulations than as canned exercises - "If the player does this, then do that."

    That's essential if you think about it. They have to consistently handle spells and skills throughout the game and in all combats. They might have had monsters higher level than the players who could cast those spells. It also meant the engine could be reused for multiple games, including ones that allowed higher level characters.

    The interesting part is that they allow import of high-level characters. It's hard to say if that was a conscious decision, or if they just made an all-purpose import module - probably the latter.

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    1. At the end of Treasures of the Savage Frontier,

      Serrmrsver pnfgf n Qvfvagrtengr fcryy ng lbhe cnegl, juvpu pna bayl yrnea hc gb yriry 5 fcryyf.

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    2. I hadn't considered the need to program higher-level spells so ENEMIES could use them. I guess that makes sense. I'm not sure it was a conscious decision, though. As other commenters have said, it looks like they just took the code from CotAB, including the file formats for the character files.

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    3. From the looks of it all Goldbox games could had been made with the same engine and data sets which is what that "AD&D construction kit" that came later actually did.

      In this case it was obvious that there was no need to reinvent the wheel so they just took a game from shelf and used it.
      It's not like it's even remotely hard to actually mod text and graphics of any game to your liking if you know what you're doing.

      Frankly I'm more amazed that not all gold box are interchangeable with save files, graphics and data sets then other way around.

      Mainly because that would and did save a ton of money -> just write the story and wrap ti up in a different package -> profit

      Meaning that EA's "golden hen strategy" with CoD, NBA 20XX etc. is actually far older then we think.

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    4. Oh, SSI was cleverer than that--transferring characters between games had been done before (Bard's Tale and Ultima had it if I remember), but you actually got advantaged for doing so as the highest level in the preceding game was higher than the starting level in the new game. As time went on and you could transfer items, there were also items in the old game that didn't exist in the new game--the only way to have a Sword of Stonecutting in Treasures was to import it from Gateway, and (irrelevant spoiler) there are no +5 items in Pools of Darkness, you have to bring them over from Secret.

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    5. Hmmm... I wonder if characters from Forgotten Realms can travel to the Dragonlance and Spelljammer universe? How about Buck Rogers?

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    6. If it were true to game, you wouldn't be able to import straight from DL to FR, but you would be able to import characters to spelljammer from anywhere and from spelljammer to anywhere!

      I think the engines might be sufficiently different to bug out without explicit programming - eg moon phases.

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    7. +Kenny McCormic

      In P&P you can and I think that was the point in spelljammer setting also BG II had some spelljammer (and planes) related stuff as side quests.

      As for gold box games there only one way to find out. ;)

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  11. "[...]until about a year and a half ago, CRPG developers just did not know how to tell a story."

    Huh, what was so dramatic about late 2014 for CRPG stories? And that threshold is quite far after some games generally well-regarded for their stories and dialogue, such as Planescape: Torment and the Mass Effect trilogy.

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    1. I think the Addict probably meant a decade and a half ago.

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    2. Or more likely he was exaggerating for comedic effect.

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    3. How could it be "exaggerating" if he gave a number that was SMALLER than the reality?

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    4. Because by saying "until about a year and a half ago," the Addict was exaggerating the opposite--that it took all the way to 2014 for developers to learn how to tell a good story.

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    5. I read that as if he's speaking from the year 1991. A year and a half from 1991 was when some games started to have decent stories.

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    6. That would make sense if he'd said "a year and a half FROM NOW," not "a year and a half AGO."

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    7. Oh, my god. This thread makes me want to stick my finger through my eye, into my brain, and swirl it around. If I quit my blog and never post another entry, this thread is why.

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    8. Okay, but which of these answers is correct?

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    9. Pedantic troll says what?

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    10. It's a year and a half before 1991, but I admit I initially read it as "until mid-2014". Also it is not a literal statement.

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    11. Doesn't he mean 'a year and a half' of his blogging? I.E., whatever year it 'was' when he was blogging a year and a half ago?

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    12. I think this would be clearer if we had a timeline to refer to. Can someone make a power point? ;P

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  12. Happy to see you enjoyed my trick--I only learned about it from the guys at RPG Codex.

    You actually have a third option for Treasures besides a normal party or an overpowered one transferred from the end of Curse. You can transfer an extremely overpowered party from Pools of Darkness. ;)

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  13. Gateway to the Savage Frontier was directly based off the game engine of Curse of the Azure Bonds, as I previously mentioned on your first post for the game. There was no good reason for still using an older game engine, considering two other gold box games were produced in the meantime.

    Gateway to the Savage Frontier was just poorly developed and rushed out too soon, the ports for other systems were even worse:
    The Amiga port lacked the usual hard drive install option, and included note to save every hour, due to the game failures!
    The Commodore 64 port was literally incomplete, newer features (re-memorization of spells) were not added back, and they re-used a large amount of artwork from previous games (which looked completely out of place, compared to new artwork).

    Spell limitations were not required for older systems, the Commodore 64 port of Death Knights of Krynn offered up to level 7 (Cleric) and level 8 (Mage) spells. The Commodore 64 port of Death Knights of Krynn was very well done, making the final Commodore 64 port (Gateway to the Savage Frontier) rotten in comparison.

    Game wise I found the lack of any real side quests the worst part, as most towns hinted at various problems that could never be solved. Plus the ending battles, where the developers never considered the unexpected. It was bad enough Vaalgamon's defeat was never acknowledged, but I recall the ring of reversal was not even required either.

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    1. Yes, the inability to solve the obvious "quests" introduced by the towns was a major buzzkill. I should have mentioned that above.

      I know this wasn't your intention, but reading the first two paragraphs, all I could think was, "Woo-hoo! DOS was the best version!"

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    2. One reason I'm not above using walkthroughs on some of these old games- I've repeatedly spent hours trying to solve a side quest only to find that it was never finished and never removed... UGH

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  14. Congrats on another successfully completed game! Though I suppose it's also a bummer when it's one so highly regarded, if maybe not in comparison to other Gold Box titles. At least Pools of Darkness can't be too far away, even with the amount of games left in 1991.

    I'm not sure how facetious you were about taking on fan-made FRUA games. Not that it's a bad idea per se, but it might set a precedent that could extend this project indefinitely. Still, the prospect of running out of Gold Box games to cover might be an even worse predicament.

    Odd that we've not seen any (semi-)professional Indie attempts to recreate that particular style of game for modern audiences, like Legend of Grimrock did for Dungeon Master. I sometimes worry that Troika's The Temple of Elemental Evil might've killed off overly-intricate D&D ruleset sims for good.

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    1. For FRUA, I'm going to take on the engine and maybe one or two high-rated fan games. I'm not going overboard with it.

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    2. I could pitch my own Vanilla Dungeon...but if you can figure out how to run hacks you really ought to go with The Sect.

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    3. "New independent video games studio formed by SSI alumni, updates “Gold Box” RPG experience with modern tech and new core gaming system"

      http://www.tsi-games.com/

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    4. Is Divinity: Original Sin not a modern Goldbox game?

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    5. There are plenty of CRPGs coming out again with enough versatility and strategic depth to their turn-based combat engines to keep the Gold Box spirit alive (and thanks for that TSI heads up, void). Just find it odd that none of them seem to use a pre-existing P&P D20 system like D&D 5E or Pathfinder.

      Still, it's not a big deal if the bespoke engines they use instead are better suited for the video game format. I appreciate what ToEE did, but it did get a little nuts at times (and that's ignoring the fact that it was mostly broken at launch and fans had to step in to fix it).

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    6. @Tristan Gall - Nuh uh! It plays more like an Infinity Engine game.

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    7. Obdurate Hater of Rhythm GamesApril 13, 2016 at 12:36 PM

      I can think of some R.P.G.s that came out on P.C. recently which had plenty of depth and imagination: The Real Texas, Half Minute Hero 1 and 2, Dragon's Dogma, The Witcher 3, Citizens of Earth--a far better tribute to Mother than Undertale--Grandia 2, Evoland 2 and Cth'hulhu Save the World" All great for fans of class R.P.G.s.

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    8. I wonder if the cost to license a pen & paper IP (either financial or the risk of having the license revoked) is not worth the additional buyers brought in by the license.

      Back in the day, the D&D branding on the box may have gotten a lot more people to try an SSI game than would have otherwise based on brand familiarity. Today however, on line previews/reviews/video walkthroughs seem to make that need obsolete.

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  15. As a professional writer of fiction I'm frankly insulted by your conclusion that "writing dialogue and plot is easy and any mouth breathing idiot could do the job."

    If writing good fiction were that easy then every single movie, book, comic or poem would be a golden epitome of fluidity, grace, poise and excellence--when in truth, they are not. Good writing is /hard/. It requires bone shredding perseverance and ultimate dedication the craft; it takes willful sacrifice of time to carve the perfect word out of a block of asphalt and make it look as good as the finest of marble sculptures. Good writers might struggle over a single paragraph for hours, just to get the words and structure right. And all that, above, doesn't take into consideration an original plot.

    Perhaps, for a moment, consider that most writing in games sucks (it does!) because the good writers realize they won't get paid squat doing it and more importantly, waste an exemplary idea on a videogame that they both lack full creative control over and breadth of intellectual ownership to leverage.

    As for Bioware... their writing is a mixed bag. The Mass Effect and Dragon Age series are terrible. The first games in each are fun to play, but beyond that, don't count on original ideas.

    As a writer, I try to refrain from being critical of them--as I realize most are slanted towards wooing dollars with pretty art and style--the words are an afterthought. Most of the suits realize chums will cough up good money if the game has tits, gore and action. They don't give the writers due respect--and this you find throughout the entertainment industry as a whole.

    If a game tried to incorporate advanced techniques like stream of consciousness, mixed perspectives and nuanced plot elements, they'd most likely be ignored in all the noise.

    Thus, the good writers stick to mediums they can control and own--books, novellas, short stories, etc. And besides, back in the old days, most of those games weren't written by writers, they were written by the designers doing their best to try and make a buck to keep a roof over their head while they figure out how to design, develop and market the next game.

    And I respect those folks that did that--because creating your own IP is hard. It's a hell of a lot harder to reach out on your own and do it yourself than sitting under some office roof collecting a paycheck.

    So perhaps next time before you go off on writers (and believe me, I love your blog and you routinely bring up good points--I loved how you explained what was wrong with writing in Sentinel Worlds, for example), you'll consider that--that good writing IS hard.

    Thanks for your time. :)

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    1. The irony is that you're claiming that "the only good writers" stick to other mediums, and that the writing in the Mass Effect and Dragon Age series is terrible and slanted towards profit- considering the conversation above that goes into detail about how difficult it is to combine multiple threads, characters and choices into a cohesive whole, those games are exceptional. And if you want to talk about advanced techniques, yes, those games are lacking, but stream of consciousness narratives don't have to account for the direction the reader wants the story to go, which sounds like a pretty advanced, arguably experimental approach to storytelling if you ask me. If anyone is down on game writers... sounds like it's you bro.

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    2. The addict's claim is that achieving a minimum level of coherence and novelty in the story should be achievable, not that writing is easy in general. He even writes, "The earliest game I can think of that tells a better story than I could devise on my own is probably Baldur's Gate, and after that the Bioware/Black Isle lines do a solid job. I'm in awe at the depth of the Elder Scrolls universe. The rest of you--I won't charge nearly as much as R.A. Salvatore. Call me."

      I don't think he meant to offend anyone, and I don't think his writing was offensive. We're talking about games where deus ex machina is the climax of the story.

      I really like the blog, and especially the analysis, even when I don't agree. But that's part of the benefit to me.

      I teach college, and I realized your entire experience of the course is driven by like four students, and it can really make you over-adjust. I hope the addict doesn't take these periodic "controversies" to heart at all. I find the blog super enjoyable, and love seeing how the analysis and narrative develop over the years. I hope he keeps taking risks in his posts and doesn't censor his thoughts.

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    3. Obdurate Hater of Rhythm GamesApril 12, 2016 at 1:18 PM

      Mass Effect has virtually identical plot and characters to Babylon 5: Compare Tali Al Ghul to Suzanne Ivanova, G'Kar and Londo to Wrex Urdnaught and Mordin Solus, the First One to the Illusive Man, the rebellion to Cerberus, the endings, it all become so clear that I am surprised Bioware was never sued.

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    4. Obdurate hater of Rhyth GamesApril 12, 2016 at 1:55 PM

      See Smudboy's videos for a great analysis of how the Mass Effect story falls apart in the last two games. He does not mention the Babylon 5 ripoffs, but he does do well as showing the many plot holes and poorly-considered twists.

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    5. Everyone seems to be replying as if I said "writing a good narrative is easy" instead of what I actually said, which is "writing a good narrative is easy COMPARED TO PROGRAMMING." I'm sorry, but I stand by my statement. Excellence in narrative writing and plotting, whether it's for games, screenplays, or lyrics, is hard and involves a lot of artistry, yes, but I'm willing to bet that more people could do a decent job at it than could do a good job programming the interface and mechanics, write an original composition, or shoot and edit a film. If I'm wrong, I'm wrong, but at least argue THAT point rather than setting up a strawman.

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    6. I meant to add: it doesn't make any sense to bring novel-writing into the discussion because there isn't any other "half" to novel writing to which to compare the act of writing to something that might be more or less difficult. The writing in a novel has to be better than the writing in a game, because a novel is nothing else but it's writing. A game's writing, in contrast, need only be reasonably competent because there are other elements of the game that we enjoy beyond the narrative.

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    7. Well I'm not sure if you can even say that writing good narrative is easier than programming. I programmed over a decade ago--it wasn't too bad once you learned the syntax and how to optimize your code to work for you through functions, variables, objects, libraries, etc. I don't do it any more but I definitely respect those who do slave away creating back-end algorithms or the latest graphics engines--it takes a lot of work, planning and coordination with a team.

      But as a sci-fi novelist, I can look at both sides of the coin. I've done both--and they each have their own share of challenges. With coding you're constantly learning new languages as they are created and adapting to the computing environment... whereas with writing you can literally spend your whole life learning the nuances of the English language.

      I don't think it is fair to say one is easier than the other. They both have their share of challenges and hurdles with one exception... typically writing a novel is a one man show unless you are co-writing it with someone else (Patterson novels, for example), whereas coding is more and more a collaborative effort due to the specialization required for certain parts of a sometimes monolithic program. In coding, one person might be weak but the rest can perhaps carry their load and level things out. In novel writing... if the writer is weak, the reader will know and no editor is going to save them.

      As for game writing being reasonably competent--I can agree with that, as it is only a portion of the experience. But like you, I DO notice when game writing/plotting is bad, and sometimes it is so bad I just have to put the game down.

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    8. I have written both non-fiction and have designed board games. Both have their challenges, but I would say that designing a game is the greater challenge, for me. It comes down to designing a mechanism that will be repeatedly used and yet must repeatedly bring joy, amusement and so forth. Even with any game their is a narrative, but clear it is subordinate to its mechanism. Upon that it stands or falls.

      Gold Box games, for me, stand on their isometric combat screen. I never get tired of moving my pieces like game counters or chess pieces around and directing my attacks and defenses. Naturally I would like the story, economy, and so forth to be equally good, but that is a tall order under even normal circumstances. Time, budgets, bureaucracy, editors and other things can cause many games or novels to be distorted from the author's original intent.

      The plots in Gold Box games have been mostly mediocre, not necessarily bad, though I have my preferences. I agree with Chet that perhaps some more thought could have been given to the stories to make them more compelling. In my view, the technology was just not there. One of the more compelling points of Baldur's Gate was the ability to join different factions and play off them. I do not think this was possible in Gold Box games. On the other hand, combat in Baldur's gate is far inferior to that of Gold Box. And for the record I think that the story writing in all four of the Forgotten Realms Gold Box games set in the Moonsea region is pretty good.

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    9. I think part of the problem comes from conflating a field's difficulty with its barrier to entry. Some things have a high barrier to entry, but are relatively straightforward to do proficiently once you get past that; other things have a low barrier to entry, but very few can do them with true proficiency. In video gaming terms, it's the difference between a game with a high learning curve but that's easily beaten once that's past, vs. a game that's easy to pick up and play but extremely difficult to beat or master.

      If we're comparing apples to apples -- a competent story vs. a competent program interface; an excellent story vs. an excellent program interface -- it's not at all clear to me that writing a strong story for a game is any "easier" than putting together a strong interface. It might be less time-consuming, but that's (again) a different issue: is it "easier" to play like Miles Davis than to build a house? I'm not sure these things can be an apples-to-apples comparison, since you're comparing something where we overtly value genius, inspiration, creativity, and the unexpected, vs. something where being noticed at all is, in a sense, indicative of failure.

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    10. What a great summary of why this topic has obviously hit a lot of nerves, PK! And a good example of why being offended by an obviously off-hand and intentionally simplified comment about a complex (and not all that inflammatory) issue is a bit much...

      As someone who grew up thinking "writing is the true struggle!", after having to live on my own, pay my bills and work crappy difficult jobs for years, I can't help but think the differences in difficulty between tasks isn't really worth trying to quantify. It gets more complex with your Miles/homebuilder example. Regardless of the skills involved, would it really be easy for Miles Davis to stay in the background and avoid leaving his mark? Would it be easy for the subtle, collaborative homebuilder to express his emotions at the center of the stage? Everyone has their own struggles, or as they (not Einstein) say, "everyone's a genius."

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  16. As a professor in the Humanities at a large public university, I can't get enough of this debate. I'm tempted to assign it to my students and see what they think!

    It's obvious that Chester was speaking with tongue very deeply embedded in cheek, but he still managed to touch a nerve. OF COURSE the liberal arts are underappreciated by our employers and even society at large, at least with respect to technical competencies. After all, with respect to our gracious host, everyone's a critic. I'm reminded of Rudy Giuliani's quip back in 1999: "If I could do it, it's not art."

    I'm a linguist, working in the languages of the Middle East (primarily Arabic and related languages). Most Anglophones readily concede that they lack the knowledge base and technical skills to do the sort of work that I do, but whenever I apply those same knowledge and skills to English, suddenly everyone becomes an authority on the English language. After all, if you have grown up speaking a language, that should be enough to make you an authority, right?

    In reality, though, the deleterious effects of this attitude are evident, as Chester himself acknowledges right at the start of his post. Hollywood blockbusters become more and more technically sophisticated every year but lack the fundamental depth of even their source materials. The source materials aren't always masterpieces, either (I'm looking at you, Dan Brown and "E.L. James"). Unfortunately we have the misfortune to live in a society in which technical sophistication is feted and intellectual sophistication is at best underappreciated and at worst ridiculed. Would that it weren't so, but I for one have no idea how to change the situation we have inherited.

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    1. It's hard to pretend to be an expert at math without at least a rudimentary education background in math. The same goes for medicine, IT, automotive mechanics.

      On the other hand, just about everyone speaks authoritatively with regards to matters involving economics, the social sciences and artistic endeavours.

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    2. "Would that it weren't so, but I for one have no idea how to change the situation we have inherited."

      It's simply a money/output game isn't it?

      There's no money in writing because it doesn't drive shareholder value, which is the only "goal" of business in our era.

      A 30k a year writer writing ad copy will likely have a similar ROI as a 100k a year writer doing the same job. If the 100k a year guy was more valuable, they'd pay 100k.

      As a result "writer" is not a desirable career option. Intelligent students with a love of writing (I was one of them) decide to get into something that actually will allow them to support themselves.

      I think Tristan is also correct in the fact that "writer" has a substantially lower barrier to entry than almost any other profession today. Even physical labor involved a prerequisite level of physical. Writing simply does not.

      STEM requires substantial outside knowledge to even begin the early course work. English 101 really does not.

      Like anything else in the world, from gardening, to walking, to painting oil on canvas, there is a difference between "unskilled" "proficient" and "masterful". If the entire world consisted of people that liked to read then the differences in writer quality would matter more, but from my experience they do not.

      So, really, the only way to fix it is to somehow change things so that people that are able to artfully write are again valuable to society in a measurable financial context.

      Welcome to America in 2016 :-)

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    3. "Even physical labor involved a prerequisite level of physical."

      Even physical labor involved a prerequisite level of physical fitness that most creative jobs lack.

      (Clearly I'm not an editor :-) )

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    4. "I think Tristan is also correct in the fact that "writer" has a substantially lower barrier to entry than almost any other profession today."

      See, I find this pretty hilarious, because the overwhelming majority of people out there can't actually write for shit--even among the college educated (who are, what, 40% of the American population at most?). I grade papers for a living at a good school and most of what passes my desk on a daily basis is spectacularly bad.

      It's probably for this reason that undergraduate English majors and Liberal Arts majors pretty consistently have lower unemployment rates upon graduation than undergraduate Business majors, even though Career Services keeps pushing those Business degrees (Foreign Language majors, for example, are extremely marketable).

      "STEM requires substantial outside knowledge to even begin the early course work."

      Year after year, US colleges churn out twice as many STEM graduates as actually find jobs in their chosen fields (they do find work, of course, but in other occupations). In my experience, too, a lot of talented young folks get shoehorned into STEM fields for vocational reasons even though they have no real love or even aptitude for their chosen fields.

      Let's face it, most of the "conventional wisdom" that you hear around the water cooler about the Liberal Arts is just pure baloney. Your Average Joe may not value the Humanities, but that doesn't mean they don't actually have intrinsic value on their own.

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    5. The fact that most people cannot write well (which I am not disputing) does not mean that the barrier to entry for writing is not low. Your students can at least hand something in for you to grade... but I'd be willing to bet a large sum that if you ask them to prove Fatou's lemma or that any Riemann-integrable function is also Lebesgue integrable that you'd get back a blank page, as they don't have the prerequisite knowledge. As someone involved in higher education in STEM, I also see a lot of blatantly wrong things, and this is from students who should have the prerequisite knowledge.

      I think Tristan's point is that the barrier to entry to a profession is more based on one's own perception of their abilities than their actual competence. I know I don't know anything about being a doctor, so I'm not applying to medical practices... but I've bought stuff before so I'll weigh in on economics! The distinction for the average person between good and bad writing can be harder to discern than in quantifiable fields and therefore entice some people into becoming writers who probably shouldn't be.

      Do you have any links for liberal arts having lower unemployment than business majors? The last I heard (which was a few years ago) was that humanities majors still lagged behind in new hires compared to other majors.

      As far as STEM jobs, it's predominantly the T & E that get jobs related to their major... actual science & math jobs generally require a master's or PhD so most undergrads find jobs in technology/engineering instead. There is no doubt a push to get people into STEM for vocational reasons, since those majors tend to graduate with a more quantifiable skill set that employers can evaluate. I would imagine foreign languages is similar in that regard.

      Escalating college costs have really driven people to evaluate the ROI on college tuition which I believe leads to the vocational focus on certain majors. If the labor market doesn't value Humanities, most students will rationally stay away from them regardless of their intrinsic value (which I believe they do... hope I'm not coming across too negative here!)

      Anywho, sorry for the tangent!

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    6. Most of the data I found is not particularly up-to-date. Georgetown did a great study on undergraduate majors back in 2011 (when we were still in the grips of the Great Recession, which will obviously have a major impact on the labor market). They found that the Liberal Arts as an aggregate were not significantly less employable than Business, and there was a wide spectrum within both fields with regard to sub-disciplines (Hospitality Management fares surprisingly low, whereas English Foreign Languages do well). More recently, the Wall Street Journal did a piece on the value of various Liberal Arts degrees, in which they ranked Foreign Languages and English as the two best ROIs in the field. The AACU also has a great article on Liberal Arts ROIs.

      The top search result trending right now is an article by Jay Miletsky in which the Humanities and Liberal Arts are dubiously separated, but each are doing better than Business. I'm not sure where he's getting his data. It makes sense to me; roughly one in five of our students are undergraduate Business majors, and I'm not sure how we can afford to keep employing all the ones we churn out. Ditto for Psychology, which is just as popular as Business (perhaps because it *sounds* vocational) but has some of the worst employment statistics among recent college graduates. For this reason, perhaps, there has been a rash of recent arguments in Forbes and other sources about how top CEOs come from a Liberal Arts background and are looking to hire Liberal Arts majors.

      You're of course right that many undergraduates in the physical sciences and social sciences will go on to graduate degrees before seeking employment (unless their goal is to go into K-12 Education, which *is* hiring). With regard to Business, the degree that "counts" is the MBA, really, not an undergraduate degree. In reality, though, most college graduates are not going to move on to an advanced degree.

      I guess what I'm trying to say is that the labor market actually *does* value Humanities, certainly to a much greater degree than conventional wisdom about the labor market does. I even see this among my students; they will chastise each other on social media for taking "useless" courses (i.e. those that don't tie directly into a vocational track). Of course, this faulty line of thinking leads directly to the results that Chester observes at the beginning of his post.

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    7. There is also a proven study that those who know literally nothing about a given subject or vocational skills are also so ignorant that they don't even realize what they don't know and even worse is that those same people as supervisors couldn't distinguish unskilled from a skilled worker and were also more likely to hire less skilled workers.

      And frankly same goes for modern art I still cannot fathom the idea of having a literal fan and cow dung having been flung to it as an "important piece of modern art" or random blobs of paint on a canvas just because the artist is "famous" and that's what destroys art and other creative professions more then anything.

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    8. Thanks for the reply. I plan on reading the articles that you mentioned.

      You will definitely know the current view of the perceived value of Humanities better than I. It does seem to me that in general we are moving into an era where there are just not enough jobs (for any major) for the current number of employable people, due to automation / increased labor productivity / corporate management squeezing employees (take your pick). Of course, in the long term population will most likely adjust down to the level of jobs, but as Keynes so pithily said, in the long term we're all dead. Let's notch another one for the dismal science!

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    9. I just want to say, I'm really happy with the productive and civil way that this discussion went, and that Charles got the tone of my entry.

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  17. Consider playing the sequel with a freshly created party, finding equipment isn't that fun anymore if you start with magical plate mails and other great stuff.

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  18. You do realize that the important part of that Cleverbot dialogue is a song from a popular Disney movie right? I don't know if you're trying to hold it up as an example of machine intelligence outdoing human mediocrity...

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    1. Yes, I was definitely holding it up as an example of machine intelligence outdoing human mediocrity. That wasn't a joke or anything. Your were supposed to take that 100% seriously.

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  19. So, Chester, how much for a chunk of text of about 2000 lines? I could use some help on my project, I have to admit. Having good writing skills in Russian, I feel like a cripple when it comes to English.

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  20. I think I figured out why Gateway feels so incomplete.

    Lots of times, characters complain about things that can't be helped--barbarians running around in the streets, or the Krakens making the people on the islands miserable. Normally, that's a hint to the player you're supposed to do something. But in Gateway, you can't.

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    1. This got me thinking, real life is full of people complaining about things you can't help. Saving the world is nice and all, but the really sweet moment is seeing the look on their faces when they realize they've got nothing else to gripe about. More seriously, being able to fix anything in a conclusive fashion might be one more reason games are more fun than real life.

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  21. I played through this game not long before you did, and the thing that sticks out in my mind is the economy in lower levels. This is the only gold box game where I remember feeling like there was an opportunity cost associated with the economy.

    I only have enough gold to train 1 character. Do I train a warrior to beef up the front lines, or do I train a mage for that extra sleep spell?

    Is leveling a couple of characters right now worth selling this awesome magic ring I just found?

    For me, it added an interesting dynamic. I can't remember any other game that made me seriously think about how and when I spent gold. Most games provide you with enough treasure to buy the whole world.

    It's a shame game developers don't consider this aspect more in their design.

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    1. I agree. I had the same feelings in my early posts, but the game pretty swiftly screwed up that logistical challenge.

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  22. Now that I've figured out who gave me the transfer trick, I want to give full credit: it was Ruhfuss on RPG Codex.

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