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Editorial The Digital Antiquarian on Betrayal at Krondor

Discussion in 'RPG Codex News & Content Comments' started by Infinitron, Oct 4, 2019.

  1. Infinitron I post news Patron

    Infinitron
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    Grab the Codex by the pussy Serpent in the Staglands Dead State Divinity: Original Sin Project: Eternity Torment: Tides of Numenera Wasteland 2 Shadorwun: Hong Kong Divinity: Original Sin 2 A Beautifully Desolate Campaign Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire Pathfinder: Kingmaker
    Tags: 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.
    This excerpt is the most critical part of the article, which as I said is generally full of praise. It makes note of Neal Hallford's insight in successfully synthesizing the best parts of Raymond Feist's Midkemia setting, and of the fact that the game was playtested for an unusually long nine months and thus was released in a more polished state than many of its contemporaries. Nevertheless, like many RPGs from that period, Betrayal at Krondor sold poorly on launch. Sales picked up when the CD-ROM version was released in 1994, but as we know the game never got a proper sequel or successor. For that, we'll have to wait for Call of Saregnar.
     
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  2. a100167 Literate

    a100167
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    I'm in the middle of a playthrough right now while I reread The Rift War Saga. The game was way ahead of it's time. This is a title that could really use a bit of a remaster in my opinion. While the game is surprisingly usable and has very little of that early 90's jank, I'd love to see a modern take on the game.
     
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  3. Mr. Magniloquent Learned

    Mr. Magniloquent
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    I absolutely loved BaK. I was 10 when I first played it, so my writing demands may have been low, but the story was good enough for me. There was so much to discover. The Mordhel riddle chests became something my entire family got in on.

    Lucikly, Owen was my favorite from the start and I heavily invested in him. That paid massive dividends later in the game. The spell selection and casting mechanics were really good too. To date, the attrition mechanics of having to eat, maintain equipment, and stave off illness were better implemented than any RPG that comes to mind. It really felt like you were exploring--especially in dungeons by consumable torches, dodging traps, and using ropes to traverse pits. The game at times could feel like Oregon Trail with swords and sorcery. To date, one of my top RPGs.
     
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  4. Nutria Savant

    Nutria
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    I don't want to be the guy who says that the game reviewer just needs to git gud but... holy shit, how do you find BaK too hard? I struggled my first time with chapter 1 when I was a kid, but the game's biggest flaw is that once you get to know how it works there's no challenge.
     
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  5. Tweed Learned

    Tweed
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    One of the very best RPGs ever made. Shame that Hallford didn't get a chance to make a true sequel.

    Antara was ok, but Return to Krondor was pretty bad and ridiculously short.
     
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  6. Dehumanizer Educated

    Dehumanizer
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    He didn't say it's too hard (unless I missed or misunderstood something). What he said is that you can find yourself underpowered in a later chapter, and with no way around it, since the fixed, finite enemies/items per chapter mean you can't grind. Similar to a "walking dead" situation in an adventure game, where you didn't bring an essential item from earlier in the game and there's no way to go back for it -- hope you don't mind going back to a much earlier save and replaying half the game.
     
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  7. TalesfromtheCrypt Arcane

    TalesfromtheCrypt
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    Sorry, but 90% percent of that quoted part is just pointless whining. Where is Darth Roxor when you need him?
     
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  8. Darth Roxor Prestigious Gentleman Wielder of the Huegpenis

    Darth Roxor
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    He was reading it before and considered commenting but wasn't really sure whether it warranted as much, cuz that's supposedly the only whiny part of the article (didn't read the rest). However, now that I've been called:

    This is I would say very largely inaccurate, for two reasons:

    1. The situation might demand that you hurry by the shortest path, but if you go the other way, the characters themselves comment that this is the smart approach because the shortest one is bound to be crawling with ambushes. And it is. Even more so, the enemy commander hunting you even spreads notes with disinformation along the alternative path to lure you back into a big ambush. It all clicks very well and has been planned for by the designers. There's no "tacit agreement". The game explicitly commends you on not taking the obvious path.
    2. There are other chapters where time actually is of the essence, and there is an urgency to the unfolding events that is stressed by the lack of side quests and such. The most obvious one is the defence of Northwarden against the coming dark elf army, where you have Locklear, Patrus and James. You're confined to a very small area, and the only things you can do there are related to the task at hand.

    Half of this is FAKE NEWS, because in many chapters you can find 'endless hordes' of enemies. They may not leave corpses for looting, but they surely enough give experience.

    Actually, all of this is FAKE NEWS because high-level barding can net you respectable, and certainly "infinite", gold.

    Also, given that most of the chests and such you find in the world are persistent, if you don't loot them in chapter 1, you can still do it in chapter 6 or whatever. And if you don't loot them by chapter 6, you're a chump and deserve to get kicked in the face.

    And this... is just flat-out stupid.

    First for the reason outlined above, namely that you can still explore the Kingdom side of the map with all its goodies in chapter 6, which is very late into the game all things considered, and if you haven't "realised your predicament" by then, you've got to have issues with cognition.

    Second, I just honestly can't see where this "realisation of the predicament" (tm) could possibly happen. It can't be chapters 2-3, where you can still cruise around the entire map. It's unlikely to be 4, since you can go through it with little combat. It can't be 5, because there you get a new character, Patrus, and both your old ones, Locklear and James, get yuge automatic gear and stat upgrades (actually maybe it's just Locklear, I don't remember, but at least he deffo does, which should be enough). It can hardly be 6, because that still leaves you room for "plan B" for reasons I've stated already. 7 follows from 5. The only possibility is your inferiority hits you in chapter 8 (post-apo alien world), but if you'd managed to get through 6, this should pose you no problem whatsoever, because the final bits of ch6 in the elven forest can be very hard.

    so...

    what the hell is this guy even babbling about?
     
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  9. Infinitron I post news Patron

    Infinitron
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    Grab the Codex by the pussy Serpent in the Staglands Dead State Divinity: Original Sin Project: Eternity Torment: Tides of Numenera Wasteland 2 Shadorwun: Hong Kong Divinity: Original Sin 2 A Beautifully Desolate Campaign Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire Pathfinder: Kingmaker
    TBH I remember fucking up my character builds and getting stuck in the Sar-Sargoth dungeons in Chapter 4 the first time I played the game when I was a kid.
     
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  10. Darth Roxor Prestigious Gentleman Wielder of the Huegpenis

    Darth Roxor
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    i cant imagine getting stuck in chapter 4 after surviving the nighthawk rape mobs of 3
     
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  11. Infinitron I post news Patron

    Infinitron
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    Grab the Codex by the pussy Serpent in the Staglands Dead State Divinity: Original Sin Project: Eternity Torment: Tides of Numenera Wasteland 2 Shadorwun: Hong Kong Divinity: Original Sin 2 A Beautifully Desolate Campaign Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire Pathfinder: Kingmaker
    Those were hard too, but having only two characters in your party makes a big difference (especially if you're a dumb kid who hasn't figured out how to cheese it with his mage).
     
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  12. Strange Fellow The Law Patron

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    Isn't one of the two sequels decently rated around here? I forget if it's Betrayal in Antara or Return to Krondor. Haven't played either, but I've considered giving the less bad one a shot.
     
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  13. commie The Last Marxist Patron

    commie
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    Divinity: Original Sin Project: Eternity Divinity: Original Sin 2
    The Antara one is less shit despite it not being a 'sequel'. I actually found both to be ok...at least by the standards of the mid 00's when we had hardly RPG's of any kind of quality. I found 'return' to be charming in a 90's kid of way, just as people find 80's music now 'cool' for some undefineable reason(myself included), beyond the actual gems of that time. Give both a go actually is my urging, but if you want just one, go for 'Antara'
     
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  14. vonAchdorf Prestigious Gentleman Arcane

    vonAchdorf
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    Yes, it always felt that the game communicated very well to the player that not taking the direct path is the preferred thing to do and if I remember correctly, even game journalists got it and wrote it in their reviews.
     
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  15. Skdursh Educated

    Skdursh
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    Betrayal in Antara is the good one. Personally, I liked Betrayal in Antara even more than Betrayal at Krondor. Return to Krodor is the "shit" one.
     
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  16. grimace Savant

    grimace
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    Are there any worthwile mods for
    Betrayal at Krondor?
     
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  17. felipepepe Prestigious Gentleman Codex's Heretic Patron

    felipepepe
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    LOLWUT? I can't stand Antara, the characters are whinny teenagers out of a lame 90s movies and most of the game is basically just walking down a bunch of empty roads filled with trash mobs... why do you like it so much?
     
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  18. Skdursh Educated

    Skdursh
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    Because fuck you, that's why. :mixedemotions:
     
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  19. Outmind Scholar

    Outmind
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    Ah BaK, one of the best RPGs ever made. I remember playing it in 1999 or thereabouts during spring break. It was so different from the games I used to play since I wasn't aware of stuff like M&M back then and games were hard to come by in my neck of the woods. I vividly remember asking a friend to use his dial-up to get me the game's walkthrough since I was stuck somewhere, maybe at the part where you need to starve yourself to get into that temple...

    I was also pretty stoked to discover the gambling / performance "exploit" on my own early on. Lots of gold and a maxed out music skill or whatever it was called were a real boon. Then there were the tomes... I still chuckle when remembering the one on "R'mour and weapuns". All the descriptions in the game were carefully crafted and reading through it all never felt like a slog. Plus, characters like Gorath and Navon du Sandau remain memorable to this day.

    As for having difficulties in the end, it might be because you had little resources and only one frontline fighter once you entered that alien world of crystals and lizardmen. I remember you had to have a ton of rations and use that chalice thingy to get Owyn and Pug up to speed on their spells to succeed.
     
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  20. Pope Amole II Prestigious Gentleman Nerd Commando Game Studios Developer

    Pope Amole II
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    So why do we care about this cuckold's opinion?
     
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  21. commie The Last Marxist Patron

    commie
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    Felipepepe: the man who thinks Warhammer Dawn of War 2 is an RPG has an opinion on RPG's....

    :M :M
     
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  22. Nutria Savant

    Nutria
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    Yeah, that almost seems like it was designed to fit Sierra's requirement that you can't beat a game without calling in to the tip line.

    Really good question. He writes a lot but I've learned more about him and his insecurities than the games. Every chance he gets he whines about "Middle America" and he's not even from Middle America, he's from goddamn Dallas, the taint below Middle America. I guess people put up with the constant intrusion of his politics and pet peeves because nobody else will do the research on these old games.
     
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  23. oasis789 Arcane

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  24. FeelTheRads Arcane Patron

    FeelTheRads
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    Because Infinitron is a fan for some reason.

    It's without failure always stupid shit.
     
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  25. Fenix Cipher Vatnik

    Fenix
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    Johnny Silverhand?


    Also, I played some game form this series, the beginning was like that - some kind of demon attacks your character on the beach, and got destroyed by the magic that character has and that he knew nothing about.
    What was that game?
     
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