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Editorial The Digital Antiquarian on Darklands

Discussion in 'RPG News & Content' started by Infinitron, Mar 22, 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: Arnold Hendrick; Darklands; Microprose; The Digital Antiquarian

    Darklands, the 1992 historical sandbox RPG by Arnold Hendrick, is a true cult classic - a game beloved by Josh Sawyer and Darth Roxor both. It's the subject of this week's article by the Digital Antiquarian, who is less of a fan. Although the Antiquarian finds the game to be meandering and repetitive, he tries to give it due credit for its authenticity and innovation. Once again, the article is made up of three parts - a history of Darklands' troubled development, impressions of its gameplay, and a reflection on the game's legacy. Here's an excerpt:

    We’ve seen in some of my other recent articles how companies like Sierra and Origin, taking stock of escalating complexity in gameplay and audiovisuals and their inevitable companion of escalating budgets, began to systematize the process of game development around this time. And we’ve at least glimpsed as well how such systematization could be a double-edged sword, leading to creatively unsatisfied team members and final products with something of a cookie-cutter feel.

    MicroProse, suffice to say, didn’t go that route. Stealey took a hands-off approach to all projects apart from his beloved flight simulators, allowing his people to freelance their way through them. For all the drawbacks of rigid hierarchies and strict methodologies, the Darklands project could have used an injection of exactly those things. It was plagued by poor communication and outright confusion from beginning to end, as Arnold Hendrick and his colleagues improvised like mad in the process of making a game that was like nothing any of them had ever tried to make before.

    Hendrick today forthrightly acknowledges that his own performance as project leader was “terrible.” Too often, the right hand didn’t know what the left was doing. An example cited by Hendrik involves Jim Synoski, the team’s first and most important programmer. For some months at the beginning of the project, he believed he was making essentially a real-time fighting game; while that was in fact some of what Darklands was about, it was far from the sum total of the experience. Once made aware at last that his combat code would need to interact with many other modules, he managed to hack the whole mess together, but it certainly wasn’t pretty. It seems there wasn’t so much as a design document for the team to work from — just a bunch of ideas in Hendrick’s head, imperfectly conveyed to everyone else.

    It’s small wonder, then, that Darklands went so awesomely over time and over budget; the fact that MicroProse never cancelled it likely owes as much to the sunk-cost fallacy as anything else. Hendrick claims that the game cost as much as $3 million to make in the end — a flabbergasting number that, if correct, would easily give it the crown of most expensive computer game ever made at the time of its release. Indeed, even a $2 million price tag, the figure typically cited by Stealey, would also qualify it for that honor. (By way of perspective, consider that Origin Systems’s epic CRPG Ultima VII shipped the same year as Darklands with an estimated price tag of $1 million.)

    [...] Combined with the only slightly less disastrous failure of the new point-and-click graphic-adventure line, Darklands was directly responsible for the end of MicroProse as an independent entity. In December of 1993, with the company’s stock now at well under half of its IPO price and the creditors clamoring, a venture-capital firm arranged a deal whereby MicroProse was acquired by Spectrum Holobyte, known virtually exclusively for a truly odd pairing of products: the home-computer version of the casual game Tetris and the ultra-hardcore flight simulator Falcon. The topsy-turvy world of corporate finance being what it was, this happened despite the fact that MicroProse’s total annual sales were still several times that of Spectrum Holobyte.

    Stealey, finding life unpleasant in a merged company where he was no longer top dog, quit six months later. His evaluation of the reasons for MicroProse’s collapse was incisive enough in its fashion:

    You have to be known for something. We were known for two things [military simulators and grand-strategy games], but we tried to do more. I think that was a big mistake. I should have been smarter than that. I should have stuck with what we were good at.
    [...] But then, Darklands has been polarizing its players from the very beginning. Shortly after the game’s release, Scorpia, Computer Gaming World magazine’s famously opinionated adventure-game columnist, wrote a notably harsh review of it, concluding that it “might have been one of the great ones” but instead “turns out to be a game more to be avoided than anything else.” Johnny L. Wilson, the magazine’s editor-in-chief, was so bothered by her verdict that he took the unusual step of publishing a sidebar response of his own. It became something of a template for future Darklands apologies by acknowledging the game’s obvious flaws yet insisting that its sheer uniqueness nevertheless made it worthwhile. (“The game is as repetitive as Scorpia and some of the game’s online critics have noted. One comes across some of the same encounters over and over. Yet only occasionally did I find this disconcerting.”) He noted as well that he personally hadn’t seen many of the bugs and random crashes which Scorpia had described in her review. Perhaps, he mused, his computer was just an “immaculate contraption” — or perhaps Scorpia’s was the opposite. In response to the sidebar, Wilson was castigated by his magazine’s readership, who apparently agreed with Scorpia much more than with him and considered him to have undermined his own acknowledged reviewer.

    The reader response wasn’t the only interesting postscript to this episode. Wilson:

    Later, after 72 hours of playing around with minor quests and avoiding the main plot line of Darklands, I decided it was time to finish the game. I had seven complete system crashes in less than an hour and a half once I decided to jump in and finish the game. I didn’t really have an immaculate contraption, I just hadn’t encountered the worst crashes because I hadn’t filled my upper memory with the system-critical details of the endgame. Scorpia hadn’t overreacted to the crashes. I just hadn’t seen how bad it was because I was fooling around with the game instead of trying to win. Since most players would be trying to win, Scorpia’s review was more valid than my sidebar. Ah, well, that probably isn’t the worst thing I’ve ever done when I thought I was being fair.
    This anecdote reveals what may be a deciding factor — in addition to a tolerance for complexity for its own sake — as to whether one can enjoy Darklands or not. Wilson had been willing to simply inhabit its world, while the more goal-oriented Scorpia approached it as she would any other CRPG — i.e., as a game that she wanted to win. As a rather plot-focused, goal-oriented player myself, I naturally sympathize more with her point of view.
    These days, Arnold Hendrick still haunts his game's Steam forum on occasion, answering questions while dreaming about what it would take to make a big budget sequel. That particular overambition will probably never be realized, but at least the inspiration lives on.
     
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  2. Unorus Janco Lurker

    Unorus Janco
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    So he really thinks pseudo-RPGs like Ultima VII and the Worlds of Adventure non-games are better than Darklands, huh? Freaking adventure gamers, now let's hope he doesn't realize RPGs like Realms of Arkania even exist and were huge successes. No matter, I will keep enjoying masterpieces like Darklands, Ultima IV, and whatnot.

    Edit: Oh, and he never mentioned Sword of the Samurai. Shameful display.
     
    Last edited: Mar 23, 2019
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  3. Zed Duke of Banville Arcane Patron

    Zed Duke of Banville
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    The Digital Antiquarian is too much of a narrativist to appreciate a simulation-focused, semi-historical RPG, where the player-characters are ciphers and there isn't much of a plot. Oddly, he would probably have far more fun with Kingdom Come: Deliverance, due to its pre-generated player-character, narrative arc, and numerous cut-scenes. :M
     
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  4. Nifft Batuff Educated

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    But he is completely right when he says:

    This is something that CRPGs developers could learn from the "Adventure" genre.
     
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  5. Latro Arcane

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    ya, we definitely need more romance in our rpgs
     
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  6. Unorus Janco Lurker

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    That's fairly easy to say from an adventure gamer perspective, but CRPG players expect more than just window dressing when exploring different settings (which is why Martian Dreams failed, and not because we dislike change as Maher already claimed), the whole ruleset should also change, and that's no easy task. Making something like Fallout, Arcanum or Darklands is way more challenging than adventure games with combat like the Worlds of Ultima games, or your usual JRPG with the weirdest of settings but that plays exactly like Wizardry/Dragon Quest with the same systems and fantasy gameplay.
     
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  7. Nifft Batuff Educated

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    Well I agree in general that in a (good) CRPG the setting should be a bit more than a mere window dressing, and this is hard to achieve. However, I certainly would like more variety in CRPG, like it is in the case of adventure games.

    Just for fun I used the database of VideoGameGeek to count how many games have different themes from fantasy in the case of RPG and Adventure. In the case of RPG I found that approximately 67% of them have a fantasy theme. In the case of adventure games I found only 27%. (obviously this is a very qualitative estimate, the "RPG" and "Adventure" genres are very broad definitions, and themes could overlap.)
     
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  8. Grauken Arcane Patron

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    You basically said the same thing as you did before without really addressing UJ's point.
     
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  9. Nazrim Eldrak Learned

    Nazrim Eldrak
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    I never played the game but I own it on GOG.
    I tried it once but stopped immediately after seeing the font.
     
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  10. karnak Arcane Patron

    karnak
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    Grab the Codex by the pussy
    You should definitely give it a go, even if only playing it for a few hours.
    It's worth the effort. Shame that it had no "spiritual followers".
     
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  11. Grotesque ±¼ Patron

    Grotesque
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    Divinity: Original Sin Divinity: Original Sin 2
    [​IMG]
    Don't worry. It's "coming".

    (I love to reuse my old photo posts :smug: )
     
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  12. Nifft Batuff Educated

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    I think he said that variety in RPG is harder to achieve than in adventure games. And I agreed with him. And I replied that this is not making variety in RPG less desirable (this is my point, by the way). Is there anything else?
     
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  13. Grauken Arcane Patron

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    Sure, have you considered the possibility that there just is no market for much else than fantasy and to a lesser degree science fiction cRPGs. Most historical cRPGs haven't done well, except outliers like Kingdom Come. Maybe you and Maher and many on the codex desire more variety, but most people don't.

    And before you say, but they do in adventure games, well, as easy as it to change the setting in an adventure, as easy it is to play them in terms of time investment. That might not be the same when it comes to cRPGs, who are usually much more expansive.
     
    Last edited: Mar 25, 2019
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  14. Nutria Learned

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    The person who said that A Mind Forever Voyaging was a masterpiece and not preachy at all, but somehow Darklands is too religious for them. Because, like, maybe we'll all turn into 1400s Catholics if we're exposed to such dangerous thoughts. Really makes a person think.
     
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  15. Infinitron I post news Patron

    Infinitron
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    No argument about the Antiquarian's general political outlook, but I think you're misinterpreting what he wrote there.
     
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  16. Nifft Batuff Educated

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    Yes, I have considered this possibility. I think that what you saying is probably real, can we call it a sort of "conservatism" in game themes of RPG? But why people don't desire more variety in RPG? It brings some (maybe several) random considerations.

    - I think this could be a "casualization" trend that is common also with other media (movies, music, to a less extend even to books); people are educated to look only for similar shit they have already played/enjoyed, their personal confort food. I think young people are more exposed to this trend since they have less experience of alternative possibilities. For example, speaking with them about movies I realized that many of them use the world "fantasy" and "science-fiction" interchangeably, and basically only to identify Marvel and DC superhero movies.

    - Speaking about conservative trends in RPGs, its reason is still not completely clear to me, since I was assuming that people that play RPGs are on average less casual gamers than Adventure gamers. I though RPG gamers are inherently more dedicated and exigent to be satisfied only by "confort food". Furthermore, the absolute predominance of Fantasy in RPGs was a thing also in the '80s and '90s, maybe even more than today, when almost all the people that played RPG where geeks, nerd, etc., with no reason or overgrown market to justify any "casualization".

    - In this forum I have seen at least a couple of threads in which codexers proposed interesting new setting for new putative RPGs (original, taken from books or oher sources) and I have seen a lot of variety and interesting ideas. So, at least there is some interest laying somewhere for new possibilities in RPGs.

    - I think that Maher has raised an interesting and crucial point that should be properly addressed someday.
     
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  17. Nutria Learned

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    There's definitely some bias here. The claim that Darklands is still unstable is just total bullshit. I've played hundreds of hours since the 1990s and not run into any bugs that I recall. When I see someone making claims like that that are objectively untrue, it kinda makes me thonk about whether they are acting in good faith.
     
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  18. hoothoot Learned Patron

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    Remember keeping a notebook on hand while playing darklands and still having little idea of what i was doing. Cool game though, way underrated. Didnt know it was made in 1992.
     
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  19. RK47 collides like two planets pulled by gravity Patron

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    Dead State Divinity: Original Sin
    It killed Microprose.
     
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  20. CryptRat Prestigious Gentleman Arcane Developer

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    The fun and challenge provided are the important points here.

    What works with classic adventure gameplay and narrative is investigation stories or Looney Toons' stuff and narrative centered around the main characters. You look for and combine various items, everything you'll do can be known in advance, all interactions can be unique and "something cool happens when I finally figure out an interaction" works fine.

    RPGs are about the world reacting to the actions of the player's characters, characters who get stronger, which explains why one thing which works is fighting big furry monsters, during combat there are a lot of things your characters can do with different results which the game acknowledges, combat which can be more fun with spells or super techs.

    Now talking about CRPGs with a big focus on non-combat stuff, which maybe could able to satisfy more settings, creating unique reactions to the player's actions is one thing, but it's not the hard part, the hard part is making that part a challenge. One cool thing in CRPGs is that since you're growing in power there are things you may not be able to do at one moment but you'll be able later, but I don't think it's really enough to make the game fun. To make it more fun you can have a very interactive environment and the skills you must use would rather not be overly obvious (the Quest for glory way), another way is linking the use of a stat to a particular puzzle, looking for information on a computer that the character could access due to its hacking skill, deciphering a riddle that your reading skill allowed a character to read. Various perception checks can be let to the player while the associated skills are either a subsitute or just won't let the characters pass even if the players saw the trick, that sort of things. So it can be done but it's a lot of work. You may also note that what I'm describing may arguably not be considered as stat-intensive as the combat part.

    If your game is just a bad combat game and/or a succession of stat checks then you can get back with your original setting and I'd rather play KOTC any day, especially in this day and age where it's closer to my idea of CRPGs than what basically everyone else has to propose.
     
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  21. Dehumanizer Educated

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    Are we talking about the same blog? He didn't like AMFV that much, and his complaint about Darklands and religion is that including a "real" religion in a videogame is somehow "disrespectful", not that people would convert to it.
     
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  22. commie The Last Marxist Patron

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    Well....how many historical RPG's have there been, really? Fantasy is pretty much 'history' with dragons to the everyday player so that isn't any kind of definitive proof that 'history' doesn't do well. It's more the case that 'realistic' RPG's don't do all that well, not historical ones per se as there is a greater difficulty in creating interesting mechanics based on 'real life' due to not much obvious variety.
     
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  23. Jamma Literate

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    That's not what he said about Darklands. Both of you are wrong. Read the article.
     
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  24. Neanderthal Arcane

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    There's quite a bit of variety in real life. In most rpgs it's simply conversation, kill, loot and repeat.
     
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  25. Grauken Arcane Patron

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    Oh definitely, it's just that I can at least come up with a few historical RPGs, but not at all with any 'realistic cRPGs' that aren't historical, so its hard talking about them in the first place
     
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