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Some Little Things I've Loved In RPGs, Vol 1

In no particular order...

One of the main reasons I got into RPGs back in the day was that if you bought one, you were getting a lot of game for your money. That was important when there was only one birthday and one Christmas a year, and not much chance that some relative might pop their clogs in sync with Ultima VI coming out. Years later I no longer need the Grim Reaper’s help to fill my collection, and other genres have done their best to replace scouring maps for objectives with, y’know, game, but there’s still few that can match it in terms of raw Stuff. It takes a lot of content to fill an RPG.

This week then, I’m turning the spotlight on a few small bits and pieces from various games that I think back on fondly. Not entire games. Just a few ideas and moments from them that stuck with me, whether I liked the actual game they were in at all. Add yours in the comments, yadda yadda, you know the drill. Also, I thought I’d try and pick a few things that aren’t brought up that often, hence the lack of, say, Heather Poe from Vampire: Bloodlines or any of The Witcher III’s awesome stuff. Got that? Cool.

Note: you can browse through the list using the arrows alongside the image at the top of the page, or using the left and right arrows on your very own keyboard.

Champions Online: The Nemesis System

Let’s start with a slightly generous one, as like most of Champions, Nemeses weren’t implemented as well as they could have been before the game slipped into its current F2P state of semi-torpor. The concept though, and at least the early bursts of experimentation with it, were a tragically rare attempt to do something genuinely new with the theme park world. City of Heroes brought us civilian chatter that would respond on your past quests. The Nemesis system let you build your own villain, just like you’d built a hero. Most of these quests were canned affairs that just swapped in your personal Joker or whatever, but the part that stuck with me is that every now and again you’d be ambushed in the open world by your nemesis’ goons without it being part of a quest. That I loved that is a little sad, since it does show how little you needed and still need to create a more responsive world than we’re used to. But never mind. It worked as well as it needed to, adding at least the illusion that somewhere out there was a dreaded foe devoted to taking you down. And then you beat them easily and roll another while they sit in jail waiting for a Nemesis update that never happened.

Lands of Lore II: The Curse

Next, a bit of a controversial one, because I know most people didn’t like it too much. In Lands of Lore 2 you play Luther, son of evil shapeshifting witch Scotia from the first game, who’s been arrested on the grounds that the apple probably doesn’t fall far from the tree. Unfortunately, Luther is cursed to constantly switch between three forms – a giant beast, a rat, and a human, wishing that he had the range of the dude from the long forgotten Shadowcaster instead. People don’t lightly fuck with a guy who can turn into a dragon on a whim. This size-shifting (more scripted than it pretended, incidentally) was a constant pain, but I liked that because it made it all the more satisfying when you, like Luther, finally bring it under control, and for every moment where you turn into a rat just before facing some big dude, there was an unexpected moment of cutting loose as the giant. Wider though, I like mechanics that aren’t afraid to push players a little outside of both their comfort zone and sense of being in charge. Luther’s curse was never annoying enough to really get in the way, but it added the mechanics to let you appreciate his problem rather than just wondering what the hell he was whining about, while still giving you a cool ability that we don’t often get to play with.

The Secret World: Kirsten Geary

If you’ve not played The Secret World since launch, I highly recommend checking it out now. The difficulty curve is much smoother, and you can basically play it as the single-player RPG it was always meant to be – ignoring most of the group content if you want, and just settling in for some of the best quest design and best writing in any MMO.

When it’s time to pick a side, pick Illuminati, because then you get to hang with Kirsten Geary – in every sense, if our own dearly departed Kieron Gillen has a female clone who worked for the Illuminati. Every meeting with her is a snappy mix of pop-culture and conspiracy theory, only slightly veiled threats and a delightful lack of shits being given about any threat to the world. Most missions worth a damn also end with her fired off text-messages that are just as awesome, from complaining that you breaking into a bank and not taking the money reflects poorly on her as an opportunistic bitch, to drunk-texting you from a New Year’s party at the end of one of the game’s later-added holiday missions.

“The only time I’ve ever woken up in a bathtub was when I made the Sultan of Brunei fill a bathtub with diamonds. I wouldn’t recommend it – diamonds are harder than rock salt and they have a way of finding their way into all sorts of cavities. I was nervous in airports for the next 6 months.”

“Well anyway, to cut a long and aggravated assault short-“

“If you can keep up with the bleeding edge of a future-focused organisation, we can use you in our New World Order. If it turns out you can’t, then there’s room in history’s grave for one more fossil. And no one will remember you. Yeah, that would suck. So work for us, and let us work for you, because we’re the conspiracy that’s bringing sexy back. Have you seen other guys’ uniforms?”

Also, fun fact: the Illuminati base? Based on a real place.

Fable: Underwear Boasting

I’ve never been much of a fan of difficulty levels. They’re arbitrary, meaning different things to every person. There’s no way of knowing in advance what you’re signing up for. It’s too easy to regret your choice several hours into a game. That’s why I both like and wish we more often saw things like Fable’s Boast system. The gist – when you get a new quest, you publicly declare that you’ll not only do it, but do it with style. Without taking a single hit. Killing everyone. Or most amusingly, doing the quest ‘naked’ (which actually translates to in underpants, since this isn’t Saints Row.) It’s clever, it’s funny, and it’s a way of showing off both inside and outside the game.

Two Worlds: Most Convenient Boss Ever

There’s an old saying in RPG design/dungeon mastering – if you stat it, they will kill it. This is probably where you’re expecting something about dropping a plaque on Lord British’s head or something, but no. That was intention. Two Worlds however offered one of the funniest game design oopsies in the industry’s history. The plot and set-up doesn’t matter. It was an awful RPG, mostly notable for using Rennaisannce Faire dialogue long after Ultima became the last game allowed to do that without it being part of a joke, and a main character prone to things like jumping in a lake and then declaring in all morbid seriousness “It’s wet.” If you enjoy unintentional comedy, it’s almost worth a play.

Still, nothing is more unintentionally hilarious than the final boss, Gandohar. He’s an evil dark wizard who spends most of the game standing near the first town, pretending to be the main character’s friend. Even at best, you’ve got to feel a bit sorry for him being stuck there soaking to the skin for as long as the game lasts. However, this incarnation of him has all the same scripts as the one you’re supposed to fight at the end of the game, meaning that if you kite him to the nearest town and start a fight, you can be watching the ending within three minutes of starting the game.

Ouch. And unlike other speed-runs for games like Oblivion and Skyrim, the super-speed run isn’t even a matter of abusing some mechanics like alchemy or forcing through walls, but picking a fight that literally any player might try purely for the laughs.

A lesson for the ages.

City of Heroes: Frostfire’s Ramps

Sometimes it’s the smallest things that mean the most. An ice villain who takes over an office building and takes a moment to create two big ice ramps running up and down the interior, just in case the heroes who come after him want to take a moment out of their busy crime-fighting days to ski up and down for a bit. Thanks, Frostfire. This is one of those additions to a game I’ve got a fondness for because there’s just enough wiggle-room to think that you’re being clever by playing around with it, even though it’s obviously something put there by the developers for its specific use. It didn’t hurt that it was a break from the usual indoor locations in a game that badly needed more variety in its missions. There’s only so many office blocks and caves you can save before you start suspecting that you’re not in fact saving a living city, but trapped in a world of procedural generated maps clicked together with basic tilesets and generative ruins. Crazy, I know. At least a quick ski helps put it out of mind for a moment.

Heimdall: Character Creation

Okay. If you were around in the early 90s, this one isn’t that obscure, but that being said, we’re talking 24 years ago now. That creaking you feel is in your old, old bones. Heimdall is the only game I can think of where the character creation was more famous and beloved than the actual game, and not just because the actual game wasn’t all that good. It was an isometric RPG with some cool ideas, including first person cartoon fighting, and some awful ones, like drop-pits and traps everywhere, in which you play hero Heimdall in a quest to find and return the gods’ missing weapons. But almost nobody cared about that. Even the demo instead opted to focus on the character creation system, which involved playing three games to set your stats. The first and most famous was throwing axes at a young maiden’s braids. The second involved catching a greased up pig. The third was fighting against some other vikings. Success determined which characters would be available for the actual quest, which nobody cared about. Likewise, nobody cared about the sequel, simply called Heimdall 2.

The axe-throwing mini-game though became iconic. It was such a pretty scene, such a clever idea, and if you’re looking at it, you’re wondering what everybody desperately wanted to know in the 90s too – what happens if you throw one of the axes right into her face? Sorry to say, or perhaps not, she just ducks out of the way, revealing that the braids aren’t actually hers after all. Development legend says that this wasn’t always the case though, with sloppy play originally leading to a much bloodier outcome.

Eye Of The Beholder III: Inventing The Goatse

I remain a child at heart.

Divinity: Original Sin: Pet Pal

I won’t deny having had a… difficult… relationship with the Divinity games, but the one thing they’ve never lacked is a flair for awesome ideas. Divinity 2 for instance allowed players to perform mindreading in exchange for XP, as well as the big box feature of turning into a dragon. The game was a mess at release for various reasons, but you’ve got to admire that kind of thinking. Luckily, by Divinity: Original Sin, Larian had the resources to make the game it wanted, the firm foundations to make it a great one, and still the same bag of crazy ideas. Any character could now learn the Pet Pal skill and every animal in the world suddenly became a character. Dogs would help in murder investigations. Cats would rudely decline, because cats. Even the lowly rats in dungeons would comment on the dangers to come.

The upcoming sequel, Divinity: Less Original Sin, doubles-down on this in at least a couple of ways that I know of, including letting you murder characters and talk to their ghosts instead. I’ve yet to play much of it because I want to play it at its best, but I can’t wait to see what other cool systems are still on the wishlist for it or future games.

Fallout: New Vegas: The Wrath Of Caesar

I think most players will agree that one of the biggest surprises of Fallout: New Vegas was how it handled its villain, Caesar – initially presenting him as a cruel, thuggish despot, then actually introducing him and revealing him to be a well-spoken, thoughtful individual whose plans are rather more considered than they might initially have seemed. And then spinning right round to say that no, despite all his words, he’s still a hypocritical and even incompetent monster whose legacy is doomed to collapse in on itself. His dialogue is some of Obsidian’s finest writing, on both a technical level, and in terms of how much they considered the philosophy behind what initially come across as just cartoon villains and find both material to acknowledge as more, and even deeper levels to deconstruct and expose as they deserve.

But it’s not Caesar himself that I want to highlight here, but one specific conversation. Mid-way through the game, all the factions acknowledge that you, a nameless Courier, are a piece they want on their side, to the extent that Caesar’s Legion is even willing to put aside their rampant misogyny and treat a female Courier with a measure of respect. And in most cases, it’s a civilised conversation. But what happens if you’ve been causing them real trouble instead of just ambling around?

Yeah, it could definitely do with an awkward silent beat, but still… nice. And I also appreciate that while most RPGs will do things like take away your weapons and deactivate combat mode to prevent you getting into trouble, Caesar will happily unleash his whole army on you for the slightest transgression and you in turn can murder the living shit out of him at any point in the game. In a game of great things, not least the hilarious Old World Blues expansion, it doesn’t get much more satisfying.

Fallout 1/2: Idiot Dialogue

And another Fallout one! This was a last minute switch, I admit. Originally I was going to reference Vampire: Bloodlines’ Malkavian dialogue, which replaces most of your options throughout the game with nonsense and the occasional glimmer of insight. But as with the Heather example, I figured that most people already know that one. So instead, let’s do the original dialogue-switch – Fallout, with a low-Int character. No other game since the originals have devoted itself so thoroughly to letting you play as a moron. All that delicious banter? Gone, swapped with lines like “Erf!”

Sure, later games like New Vegas allows for a few moments if you’re that way inclined, but the originals do it best. Including subverting the whole thing by having at least one moment where you meet a fellow Low Intelligence character and are able to communicate on a level of “Bugmen take moo-moos at night. Torr scared! (Well, as I said, they are nocturnal in their feeding habits. I sure could use some assistance.)’

Jagged Alliance 2: Flowers For Deidranna

Finally, a lovely easter egg. Jagged Alliance 2 is an RPG/strategy hybrid, so I’m claiming it for here. You’re in charge of a team of mercenaries hired to take back the island of Aruclo from the evil Deidranna, managing your mercs’ path through the map, personality quirks, and the regime’s refusal to simply sit back and let you do as you wish. What’s particularly cute though is that to simulate you working as a top black-ops agent, most of your hiring and firing takes place on an early internet browser where personality tests assign stats, online stores sell weapons, and a mortuary site has yet to be completed due to a death in the family. It’s a wonderful start to the game, conveying that sense of sitting in a cafe somewhere and plotting the upcoming action via a whole underworld that only you and fellow experts know about…

…or harness the power of the internet to send the villain some flowers.

It’s not exactly psi-ops. But it’s still great fun.

And that’ll do it for this first batch. I have many, many more. But what are a few of yours? Remember, it can be a great bit in a terrible game, a hilariously awful bit in a great one, or anything in the middle. Some of the worst games have some of the best moments, as anyone who’s ever seen the end of Limbo of the Lost should know.

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