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Epic Lute: Brian Fargo On Bringing Back The Bard's Tale

Tales of the Known

Having successfully brought Wasteland back to life with the help of 61,920 of its closest friends, Brian Fargo and inXile Entertainment are turning their attentions to another classic RPG - The Bard's Tale [official site]. Forget the appalling comedy vacuum from a few years ago, this is The Actual Bard's Tale IV, both a return to and modernisation of dungeon crawling with a few new tricks up its sleeve. The Kickstarter begins June 2nd, but Fargo gave us a quick preview of what to expect.

RPS: So, The Bard's Tale IV. It's been a while!

Fargo: I never would have thought I'd be sitting here in the year 2015, talking about The Bard's Tale. If you remember, back in the day the dungeon crawler used to be the biggest RPG category - Might and Magic and Wizardry and all those - and it's always been near and dear to my heart. I was a big D&D player, so exploring dungeons was right up my alley. I loved it back then, I love it now, I'll love it in the future. I love the tightness of mapping things out, and being teleported and put in dark areas and all that.

RPS: Swearing at the spinners...

Fargo: Yeah, exactly. We like to torture you just a little bit. But you look at something like Demon Souls, people like a little torture! As long as there's a sense of you getting better each time.

In case you're confused, yes, this is the old one.

RPS: And as long as it plays fair. The bad dungeon crawlers were always the 'walk down the corridors, suddenly fall down a pit' type, versus the ones where you see the details and see the designers have made a place rather than just a maze.

Fargo: And the ones where the players can blame themselves are even better - they pushed on, knew they shouldn't, paid the consequence. We're bringing all those elements back. But what we're also trying to do is something much more ambitious than what's been done before.

[You'll need to wait until the start of June to see it in action unfortunately, since inXile still finishing up their presentation for the Kickstarter, but it's a fully 3D world of both indoor and outdoor locations that looks like a 3DMark demo. The closest touchstones are Legend of Grimrock 2 and Might and Magic X, and it makes both of them look as retro as the games they're building on.]

RPS: It definitely looks amazing...

Fargo: One of the great things about the kind of game it is is that we have so much more bandwidth for effects. It's not multiplayer, we don't have 40 things running around at once, combat is phase-based... we can just do a lot more and use everything these cards and these engines can do to make it look great. I think people are going to be really pleasantly surprised; seeing us showing off our visual chops and what we can do. For starters, unlike the traditional approach, where you only get a third of the screen for the movement space, we're going for full immersion.

RPS: It'd be great for the Oculus Rift.

Fargo: Doesn't it just scream VR? You'll be wandering around in this first person mode, and you can either be snapped to a grid, moving ten feet at a time, or click off the grid and wander around more freely. We really get the best of both worlds there.

RPS: Obviously, one of the things I was going to ask was how close it would stick to the original, Wasteland 2 being quite different in style to the original. This one though seems a lot closer to what people remember from the series.

Fargo: Absolutely. It's party based, you'll create your characters - the bard, the thief, the character archetypes from the first ones, and NPCs joining up to add personality. When combat starts, the camera will then pull back and your group will be represented on screen or with portraits...

'99 bandits trying to kill us all, 99 bandits trying to kill us! Stab one dead, cut off his head, 98 bandits trying to kill us all! 98 bandits trying to kill us all, 98 bandits trying to kill us! Stab one dead, cut off his head, 97 bandits trying to kill us all! 97 bandits trying to kill us all, 97 bandits trying to kill us! Stab one dead, cut off his head, 96 bandits trying to kill us all! 96 bandits trying to kill us all, 96 bandits trying to kill us! Stab one dead, cut off his head, 95 bandits trying to kill us all! 95 bandits trying to kill us all, 95 bandits trying to kill us! Stab one dead, cut off his head, 94 bandits trying to- ow! That was my best lute!'

More impressive than "There are 99 bandits in this alley, trust us!"

Fargo: In this day and age, that'd be a bit tough for people, to see one guy and think "He's really 100!" For the combat, I like the flow of something like Hearthstone, where it's phase-based, but it's not just attack-attack-attack. That was in the original, and I don't think that works any more. But the play field is dynamically changing so that things are happening based on each turn. You might see the mage on the other side whipping up a spell that'll take two turns for instance, so figure that you have to take him out.

RPS: I've heard quite a few strategy designers looking at Hearthstone of late for combat systems, not least the simplicity and ease of learning the system.

Fargo: I've used the example before and they went "What? Hearthstone? That's a card game, how does that apply?" What it does though is that you can get into it very quickly, but it's still a very deep game. The original Bard's Tale combat was just attacking and that won't cut it. I want the players to be using their brain throughout the combat.

Cool. So what would you say is The Bard's Tale's niche, like Ultima's morality and Wasteland's setting? What's its 'thing' that you think has helped it hang on?

Fargo: Well, in the beginning, it was bringing sound and graphics to a new level for the dungeon crawl genre. It was really about Wizardry, and that didn't have colour and animations and so on. We were bringing that level of expertise to the table, and in a way, we're kinda doing that again. To me, that was the big breakthrough - making a game that's super deep but still pushes the graphical boundaries.

By the way, it's the 30th anniversary of the first game, so serendipitous in terms of timing. When we shipped Wasteland 2, most people were like "Brian, we love it.... now, Bard's Tale IV?" We're going to do all the things people love about the series. We talk about graphics and some people think we're just focusing our effort on that, but we totally get that this has to be a difficult game and it needs all the trappings. Secret doors, puzzles... have you played The Room?

RPS: On iPad? Yep.

Fargo: I just love the way they handle the physical manipulation of items within the world. Even just opening a chest, turning a knob, feels satisfying. And their puzzle design was extremely clever. I like everything about that, and I'm taking it as it applies to even things like your inventory. You might have a dagger in your inventory that you've been using for hours, but then you spot a latch, flip it, it lights up blue and you realise you've had a magic dagger all along. Or you find a sword hilt and put an item in it and it does one thing, and then you add another later... a really deep physical integration with the environment.

RPS: And presumably you're keeping the original Bard class, drinking and singing...

Fargo: Of course! The bard with his drinking and singing and his buffing. That was a fairly new innovation at the time, that you could do things that would buff the entire party. I'd also be remiss to not mention the singing. I hired one of the top Gallic singers in the world to do original music for us. The heritage of The Bard's Tale is really Scotland, and Skara Brae in the Orkney Islands. I was there a month ago and-

RPS: I've always wondered - with Bard's Tale and Ultima... what do RPG designers have against Skara Brae? It's always being buried or blown up or reduced to ashes. It really does seem to be the whole genre's punching bag at this point.

Fargo: You'll be returning to it, and it's almost a couple of hundred years in the future and both the old Skara Brae and its dungeon have been built over.

RPS: Oh come on! It's an entire city wearing a red shirt!

Fargo: Yes! But we had to return to Skara Brae. It's actually where I filmed my Kickstarter video.

Time for a 'X Days Since Last Obliteration' sign, I think.

RPS: Looking back at the old RPGs, one of the things that popped to mind while playing revival projects is that there seems to be a distinct difference in vibe - the originals tend to be much looser with reality. Bard's Tale for instance has bits where you time travel to Rome and Hiroshima, Wasteland had its strangeness in Highpool... do you think the genre can still support that kind of wackiness?

Fargo: I think people want more tight, coherent universes. In some ways, Bard's Tale 3 went a little off the rails with that kind of craziness, and people want logical explanations for more now. Everyone's watching things like Game of Thrones and getting more of a sense for what a coherent world is, and they like it. You can have some humour, but it serves you well. People like to lose themselves in the worlds and crave the extra immersiveness.

RPS: Do you think people are less tolerant about being surprised though? For instance, Wizardry began as fantasy, but by mid-series was pretty much a sci-fi series.

Fargo: I call those my "Cabin in the Woods' moments. I love it when fiction takes you down a rabbit hole that you never expected. But I don't think you have to take people out of the universe to do it. We did it in Wasteland for instance where you go into Finster's brain, but it's not like we brought Martians into the scene. I think there are ways to go about it without going completely out of the world.

RPS: So, Bard's Tale IV. Is it a direct continuation of the story?

Fargo: When I did the comedy version, I didn't have the rights to the original. Now, I've struck a deal with Electronic Arts, so I can do full-on sequels. It will pick up where they left off, though Mangar and Targen are dead. I'm not going to say you didn't really kill them. But their cults live on, and the reasons for what they did will live on in the next story.

RPS: Obviously, Wasteland 2 becomes very tied to the original game by the end. Is that an active decision to keep things connected for the old base?

Fargo: Well, two parts. I think we have to tell a story that works on its own even if you didn't play the original. But what I like is that if you did play the original trilogy, you'll get a lot more insight. Back then, we didn't explain a lot - it just was what it was. In Wasteland 2, I think we did a great job of making things hold together that probably didn't in the original. We want to do the same things with this. Take something like, when Mangar surrounded Skara Brae in ice in the first game - why? What was the point of that?

RPS: I was just surprised that Wasteland 2 does get so deep into things like the Cochise AI after the first half just seemed to have a few familiar faces.

Fargo: Well... we like to pay off people who played the first games, which could be as simple as talk of being attacked by 99 beserkers.

RPS: The kid in Highpool...

Fargo: ...and his dog, right. If you played the first Wasteland, you're thinking "I don't want to go NEAR that dog", while if you're new, it's just a quest. That experience adds a gravity to the situation that wouldn't have existed otherwise.

RPS: So, it can't really be ignored... that reboot from a few years ago? How does that play into the Bard's Tale series/continuation?

Fargo: It's really in a universe all of itself. I'm still proud of the game. It was a very funny product, and since gone to iOS and Android and become one of their top games. At the time, I didn't have the copyright, and I couldn't get a PC roleplaying game financed - it was impossible. So, it was a console focused approach, we decided to do a parody... there were a lot of factors. But I think you've got to put it over on one side, and now we're doing the real sequel that everyone's been waiting for.

RPS: Do you think there's any clash there, from people expecting this to be a comedy?

Fargo: People all get it. It's been explained, and I don't see that as too confusing. The only thing that's really coming across is that we've dialled up the Scottish mythology we used for it. There's some great folklore for us to draw upon.

Fun fact, Torment was written by the Cochise AI's big brother, Vehrbose.

RPS: With adventures, it's relatively easy to point to them and go 'that's an adventure'. With RPGs though, there's a lot more variance in the genre, especially at the moment - Divinity, Pillars of Eternity, Torment, Wasteland, Fallout, all have such a distinct style to them.

Fargo: Yeah, it's true. Even with something like Torment and Pillars of Eternity, you can say they look similar... but from a gameplay perspective, Torment is about 750,000 words... more words than the Bible and light on combat, and a very different experience.

RPS: Most do seem to have taken a heavy focus towards the narrative, but is Bard's Tale going to be more mechanics focused than some we've seen of late?

Fargo: Well, yeah. We're going to have a fraction of the words that Torment has, but we can't help ourselves when it comes to reactivity and interesting dialogue. It's going to be far more robust than the first three, with different religious factions and a full world to draw upon to feel properly rich.

RPS: Sounds good. (pointedly) How about giant spiders?

Fargo: You can't have enough of them, right?

RPS: (silence) I guess I'm just asking if you want to make the BEST RPG ever, or...

Fargo: You know, I'm not too keen on rats or spiders. We like to have some familiar things, so that people are at home. But the other part is that we want things you haven't seen a lot, so we have the likes of the trow to draw on and avoid the familiar tropes. We've got the Nuckelavee, this horse creature. The selkie, which is a creature that lives half at sea and half at the land... those are the three that jump to my head at the moment. If you remember a lot of the creatures from the Bard's Tale comedy, I think we did a pretty good job of drawing from the lore for that. Discovery is a big part of an RPG, and it's hard to feel like you're discovering anything if all the creatures and dungeons are the same.

RPS: So what are the Kickstarter plans?

Fargo: It's coming up on June 2nd. We're going to be asking for $1.25 million, and we're going to put at least another $1.25 million in on top of that.

RPS: Thank you for your time.

As said just a line or so ago, the Kickstarter begins in June. Sign up for alerts right here.

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The Bard's Tale

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The Bard's Tale IV

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Richard Cobbett