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The Digital Antiquarian on Betrayal at Krondor
Editorial - posted by Infinitron on Fri 4 October 2019, 23:31:26Tags: Betrayal at Krondor; Dynamix; Jeff Tunnell; John Cutter; Neal Hallford; Sierra Entertainment; The Digital Antiquarian
Ah, Betrayal at Krondor. On one hand, it's an undisputed gem of the 1990s, whose development we know much about thanks to the testimony of its writer Neal Hallford over the years. On the other hand, it's hard not to classify it as an obscure title - the only RPG that Dynamix ever released, which failed to spawn any credible sequels or imitators. Yet it's not surprising that the Digital Antiquarian, who is fond of all things literary, chose to focus some of his attention on the game. Like some of his previous pieces, the Antiquarian's article about Betrayal at Krondor can be divided into three parts. The first part tells the story of how the game came to be, the second part is a review of its gameplay, and the third part is a reflection on its legacy. In general, the Antiquarian is a big fan of the game, praising it for its excellent writing and unique gameplay. However, he also criticizes it for not quite coming together as an experience that aimed to combine compelling story with player agency, as well as for being too easy to end up in an unwinnable state if one hasn't sufficiently developed the player characters.
As I’ve described it so far, Betrayal at Krondor sounds more akin to the typical Japanese than the Western CRPG. The former tend to lie much closer to the set-piece-story end of our continuum of design; they provide a set, fairly linear plot to walk through, generally complete with predefined characters, rather than the degree of world simulation and open-ended exploration that marks the Western tradition. (A Japanese CRPG is, many a critic has scoffed, just a linear story in which you have to fight a battle to see each successive scene.) Yet Betrayal at Krondor actually doesn’t fit comfortably with that bunch either. For, as Cutter also notes above, he and his design partner were determined to “give the player plenty of freedom to explore and adventure without being bound to a scripted plot.”
Their means of accomplishing that relies once again on the chapter system. Each chapter begins and ends with a big helping of set-piece plot and exposition. In between, though, you’re free to go your own way and take your time in satisfying the conditions that will lead to the end of the chapter. In the first chapter, for example, your assignment is to escort a prisoner across much of the map to the capital city of Krondor. How and when you do so is up to you. The map is filled with encounters and quests, most of which have nothing to do with your central mission. And when you eventually do finish the chapter and continue on with the next, the same map gets repopulated with new things to do. This is the origin of a claim from Dynamix’s marketing department that Betrayal at Krondor is really nine CRPGs in one. In truth, it doesn’t quite live up to that billing. Only a subsection of the map is actually available to you in most chapters, much of it being walled off by impenetrable obstacles or monsters you can’t possibly kill. Even the repopulation that happens between chapters is far from comprehensive. Still, it’s an impressively earnest attempt to combine the pleasures of set-piece plotting with those of an emergent, persistent virtual world.
And yet the combination between set-piece storytelling and emergent exploration always feels like just that: a combination rather than a seamless whole. Cutter and Hallford didn’t, in other words, truly square this particular circle. There’s one massive block of cognitive dissonance standing at the center of it all.
Consider: you’re told at the beginning of the first chapter that your mission of escorting your prisoner to the capital is urgent. Political crisis is in the air, war clouds on the horizon. The situation demands that you hurry to Krondor by the shortest, most direct path. And yet what do you do, if you want to get the most out of the game? You head off in the opposite direction at a relaxed doddle, poking your nose into every cranny you come across. There’s a tacit agreement between game and player that the “urgent” sense of crisis in the air won’t actually evolve into anything until you decide to make it do so by hitting the next plot trigger. Thus the fundamental artificiality of the story is recognized at some level by both game and player, in a way that cuts against everything Betrayal at Krondor claims to want to be. This isn’t really an interactive storybook; it’s still at bottom a collection of gameplay elements wired together with chunks of story that don’t really need to be taken all that seriously at the end of the day.
The same sense of separation shows itself in those lengthy chapter-beginning and -ending expository scenes. A lot of stuff happens in these, including fights involving the characters ostensibly under your control, that you have no control over whatsoever — that are external to the world simulation. And then the demands of plot are satisfied for a while, and the simulation engine kicks back in. This is no better or worse than the vast majority of games with stories, but it certainly isn’t the revolution some of the designers’ claims might seem to imply.
Of course, one might say that all of these observations are rather more philosophical than practical, of more interest to game designers and scholars than the average player; you can suspend your disbelief easily enough and enjoy the game just as it is. There are places in Betrayal at Krondor, however, where some of the knock-on effects of the designers’ priorities really do impact your enjoyment in more tangible ways. For this is a game which can leave you marooned halfway through, unable to move forward and unable to go back.
[...] This is precisely the problem which the player of Betrayal at Krondor can all too easily run into. Not only does the game allow you to ignore the urgent call of its plot, but it actually forces you to do so in order to be successful. If you take the impetus of the story seriously and rush to fulfill your tasks in the early chapters, you won’t build up your characters sufficiently to survive the later ones. Even if you do take your time and explore, trying to accrue experience, focusing on the wrong skills and spells can leave you in the same boat. By the time you realize your predicament, your “Plan B” is nonexistent. You can’t get back to those encounters you skipped in the earlier, easier chapters, and thus can’t grind your characters out of their difficulties. There actually are no random encounters whatsoever in the game, only the fixed ones placed on the map at the beginning of each chapter. I’m no fan of grinding, so I’d normally be all in favor of such a choice, which Cutter and Hallford doubtless made in order to make the game less tedious and increase its sense of narrative verisimilitude. In practice, though, it means that the pool of available money and experience is finite, meaning you need not only to forget the plot and explore everywhere in the earlier chapters but make the right choices in terms of character development there if you hope to succeed in the later ones.
On the whole, then, Betrayal at Krondor acquits itself better in its earlier chapters than in its later ones. It can be a very immersive experience indeed when you first start out with a huge map to roam, full of monsters to battle and quests to discover. By the time said map has been repopulated three or four times, however, roaming across its familiar landmarks yet again, looking for whatever might be new, has begun to lose some of its appeal.
And then, as Neal Hallford would be the first to admit, Betrayal at Krondor is written above all for Raymond E. Feist fans, which can be a bit problematic if you don’t happen to be among them. This was my experience, at any rate. As an outsider to Feist’s universe, watching characters I didn’t know talk about things I’d never heard of eventually got old. When an “iconic” character like Jimmy the Hand shows up, I’m supposed to be all aflutter with excitement, but instead I’m just wondering who this latest jerk in a terrible costume is and why I should care. In my view, the game peaks in Chapter 3, which takes the form of a surprisingly complex self-contained murder mystery; this is a place where the game does succeed in integrating its set-piece and emergent sides to a greater extent than elsewhere. If you elect to stop playing after that chapter, you really won’t miss that much.