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The RPG Scrollbars: Manual Override

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I miss manuals and their kin. They’re often still provided with games, I suppose; usually PDFs to explain how to play and to give jerks on forums something to insist you RTF if you dare complain that something isn’t clear enough. I’m not really thinking of that side of things though, but the ones that felt like they were part of the overall experience. The in-world documents. The bestiaries that didn’t just list enemies, but breathed life into them in a way that the often simple game you were playing really couldn’t. The snippets that told you that while, yes, you were going to be spending the whole game in a series of dungeons, there was a world somewhere outside them that cared too.

This week, I thought I’d share a few of my favourites, and related bits and pieces, and see which ones struck a chord with you, the person reading this. I have others from other genres too, including Galactic Inquirer from Space Quest V, which was all the funnier for coming in an era when toilet paper like National Enquirer wasn’t eally available in the UK, and Claw Marks, the official magazine of the TCS Tiger’s Claw. But you see the letters RPG up there in the title? They don’t stand for ‘rocket propelled grenade’. Unless you’re dealing with a modern era RPG, in which case I suppose they might. But never mind. Onwards! To the wonderful world of words!

Ultima VII: The Book Of Fellowship

Oh, goodness, what a surprise, Richard’s talking about Ultima again. Well, yes. But while a million words have justifiably been splashed here there and everywhere about the actual game, one thing that’s not often mentioned is the second manual. Ultima VII came with two – the boring one, about how to play, and the in-lore one, written by a certain Batlin of Britain. Or to be more accurate, the villain. Yep, you’re reading through the evil Fellowship’s Bible, and as you’d expect for Ultima, it’s pretty clever.

Much like Fellowship philosophy in the game itself, which hangs on seemingly innocent phrases like ‘Worthiness Precedes Reward’ (easily flipped to say that the poor therefore are unworthy, while the rich are worthy by default), much of the text is written at a distinct slant from the rest of the universe, in a way that vacillates between passive aggressive and misleading. When discussing Ultima 4 for instance, Batlin is rather quick to plant the idea that just maybe, the Avatar was inspired by his quest due to having so comprehensively fucked things up in the earlier games. Uh. No comment. He also invents stuff entirely, like the Avatar only defeating the evil sorceress Minax because s/he had a crush on her, and doesn’t exactly hide his true feelings with comments like “Those who would say that this terrible and destructive war could have been prevented entirely had the Avatar not appropriated the Codex from its true owners are merely dissidents who are grossly misinformed,” before quickly declaring the Avatar’s period as Britannia’s hero over and a new era begun.

Given this and the in-game handling of the Fellowship, it’s a real shame that everything from the very first frame of series baddie The Guardian showing up to gloat completely gives away the fact that they’re more evil than putting mayonnaise on chips. But as an introduction, this was a fantastic introduction to a great enemy – not a religion of evil, exactly, but one run by a master of psychological manipulation who’d managed to weaponise compassion and turn even good people onto the wrong path.

The Bard’s Tale II: The Destiny Knight

This isn’t a manual as such, but the official clue-book. Really, I’m including it for its gimmick. The whole thing is told as a story, of heroes about to undertake the game’s quest, visiting a wizard for guidance. He provides it by putting them on a vision quest, where they see the entire adventure play out in front of them.

…kinda.

The twist is that despite this, it all goes horribly wrong, with the result that by the time they get to the end of the vision, they’ve decided to sod all of it for a game of soldiers and let someone else go on the quest. That’s why it’s still available when your team – the right team – shows up to take care of business. Not much more to say about that one, especially the writing, but a round of applause for a clever idea.

Drakkhen

I’ve mentioned this one before, because while I think it’s honestly a pretty bad game, it’s a bad game that stuck with me. At least part of that was the manual, which in keeping with many novellas that came with games back in the 80s/90s, had pretty much exactly nothing to do with what was going to follow. In this case, it was the tale of a stupid knight killing the last dragon and so dooming the world. The actual game… honestly, your guess is about as good as mine. The only part of the plot worth remembering is this, my favourite Game Over screen ever.

Way to rub it in there, guys.

It was a fancy artifact though, shining in its gold cover in a shiny gold and green box, with the stupid knight’s death sticking with me for its amusing excess – the kind of death that makes Guy Fawkes’ end seem like a few minutes in a comfy chair. A pity that none of it mattered when you started the game and your entire team immediately got eaten by a shark in a castle moat… but hey, it was better than nothing.

Anarchy Online: Prophet Without Honor

I’m cheating here, I know, but I did technically get this book with my copy of Anarchy Online back in the day, so I choose to treat it as similar to the Book of Fellowship et al… mostly because otherwise I’m probably never going to mention what is one of the strangest bits of RPG world-building I’ve ever encountered.

Prophet Without Honor is the Anarchy Online backstory, and to give you some idea of how far that spans – it begins in the modern day, and ends in the game’s timeframe of 29,475AD. By this point, if we haven’t evolved into creatures of pure energy, I think we have to chalk it down to pure laziness. Anyway, much of the plot revolves around the invention of immortality technology and the expansion of humanity into space. It’s not sold any more, but Funcom released it for free years ago on its archive site – you can snag it here if you want to read it. It’s officially “Book One”. There was no Book Two.

The part that stuck with me isn’t the backstory though, but Chapter 18. This is a day in the life of a man named Philip Ross, the man in charge of the evil corporation Omni-Tek, and so at this point in the story, The Baddie. Anarchy Online had a half-hearted attempt to act like the two sides were different, but it wore its politics on its sleeve – Omni-Tek was oppressive, autocratic and dark, while the Clans were democratic, open, and friendly. At least, in theory. In practice, Omni-Tek was pretty liberal for an evil corporation, welcoming newcomers, offering them free housing, a choice of job, training, and starting equipment… but it kept blaring out orders to stop running, so… evil? Probably evil. Certainly a little petty, given the whole civil war thing going on.

Anyway. Philip Ross. This chapter is simultaneously one of my favourite bits of RPG writing and one of the most unfortunate, because it goes out of its way to humanise the villain to the point that it effectively kills the game’s drama. Even more so than when it launched, promising a four year war, and then spent the first of those years on a ceasefire. What happens, in a nutshell, is that he heads out to wander his city, his empire, and almost immediately bumps into a group of new arrivals. He greets them, only to be stunned and amused when they go “Oh, yeah, hi, can you tell us where we go to join the Clans?” No evil CEO has ever come closer to a facepalm.

In short, this is Luke Skywalker asking Darth Vader for directions to Yavin. Making it stronger, in his internal monologue, he outright states he wouldn’t have reported them – he’d have tried talking, but otherwise, wished them well. Now, it all goes wrong when it turns out to be a trap, but still, in my mind his reaction is an issue. The purpose of the scene is supposed to be his realisation that peace is impossible and that there must be much crushing… but instead he comes as a guy smart enough to go home, have a brandy, cool down, and realise that today wasn’t his best day. In that sense, it doesn’t work that well. The writing is ironically too good to support the game world and the needs of the story, at least in the early days before everyone realised nobody cared about that war and Anarchy Online started opening portals to Dante’s Inferno and having aliens pop in for a chat and an invasion instead.

But still, I like it. It was an early case of an MMO trying to go beyond basic good and evil thinking and craft the kind of stories and characters it was worth following and being caught up in, and endearing for that. I know that stories in MMOs are a contentious issue for some, but they’re something I’ve always appreciated – World of Warcraft’s continuing tale and cast of characters, Funcom’s own attempt to go further with The Secret World, and Knights of the Fallen Empire over in The Old Republic both giving the core game a shot in the arm and revamping the original levelling experience to focus entirely on class missions.

Those are some of the RPG reading experiences that stuck in my mind, though I can think of many others – not necessarily whole books, but just flipping through manuals and looking at the monsters I’d be fighting, regretting the inevitable giant spiders of course, and places I’d be visiting. The Famous Adventurer’s Correspondance School with Quest For Glory, including the unforgettable secret of Thief Sign (“This
consists of placing your thumb upon your nose with the hand held perpendicular to the face and the fingers outspread. You then wiggle your fingers while focusing your eyes on your thumb and patting your belly with the other hand.”) Redguard’s guide to the Elder Scrolls universe, all the stranger for the actual game being stuck on the tiniest piece of it thus seen. Wasteland’s Survival Guide, full of snippets of text that wouldn’t fit on the floppy disks and so had to be looked up at the appropriate time – snippets you weren’t meant to read, but totally did. So many fond memories from the back of the car, hoping like hell that the floppy disks in the box would actually work.

Ah, nostalgia. Steam and PDF files will never come close to that.

Though the part about broken floppies? That’s for the best.

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Richard Cobbett

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