Here we have a contribution from Editorial0.
quick long look at designing games, particularly video games.
Today I’m going to discus Arcania: Gothic 4. This isn’t a review, although some reviewing will be involved. Instead, I’m going to look at the game and peel back what makes it the mediocrity it is. In any case, remember that this isn’t going to be some witty, cutting review filled with biting humor. First, I’m not that funny, and second, I’m not that witty. Some people are meant to be witty and social, and they are called journalists. Others are dry and depressed, and these people are called philosophers. Whether or not I am a philosopher, I’m still not funny.
I don’t like bad games, and I don’t like mediocre games. So today I’m going to look at separates the great from the good from the so-so. It’s not hard to explain. Great games are distinguished by a high level of polish, that often vague but easily-seen attention to detail. Polish ultimately boils down to a determination to excel.
I suspect that the ability to actually recognize what’s already good and what still needs improving is just as rare as determination. -Thoth
What, after all, makes Blizzard real-time strategy games bigger sellers than others? If you look at a list of features, they often come up short. Graphic-wise, they’re not much better than other games, and usually fail to use high-end hardware. Their plots are perhaps a little better than average, but they’re mostly focused on distinctive characters rather than on any really original story.
The answer is simply, “polish.” Oh, the games have a good foundation in concept. But what sets them apart is the quality of gameplay. Every aspect is carefully considered, developed, experimented with, tested, tweaked, and perfected. Blizzard makes mistakes, too, but even their mistakes tend to be on a very different level from those of other video-game companies. In World of Warcraft, people often complain that their ability usage isn’t quite interesting enough, or that they feel they aren’t being given *enough* perks to compensate for the disadvantages of playing a certain class. Compare this to past or even present MMO’s, which often had people complaining that their entire class basis had been crippled, often leading to whole swaths of the player base dropping out or even being forced out of the game.
In short, every aspect of that Blizzard game is smooth, helps you understand the nature of the game, and immediately puts you at ease. Look at other top sellers – Blizzard’s own Diablo, Valve’s Half-Life, and Nintendo’s Super Mario, and you see much the same. The gameplay is exceedingly simple, merely variants on a single central theme (click on monster, run and shoot, run to the end of the level). But all are extremely polished in all respects. These games can all be played quite effectively with a couple of action buttons and a direction control. All the complexity comes from the situations and concepts that the player must learn, not from the interface.
Alright, we’ve shown what makes a great game. But what separates the mediocre games from the good ones? Surely, if great games have a high level of polish, good ones must have a decent level of polish, right?
Nope. Oddly enough, a game can be pretty good without much polish, as long as the core gameplay is sturdy. These games tend to be solid and even innovative. Yet, though they may push the boundaries they don’t always create a compelling gameplay experience. Think of games like Knights of the Old Republic 2 or Stalker: Shadow of Chernobyl. Both games sold well for what they were and offered a lot of game for the money. However (and I say this as someone who absolutely loved KotOR2) they both had many, many flaws and even crippling defects, some of which were built into the design from the beginning. The same innovation which made them unique also made them painful. Doing something new doesn’t necessarily mean that you do it well. Alpha Protocol may well be the single most innovative game in history, combining immense flexibility and variety with surprising control over the plot. It’s a game which lets you write your own adventure story. Yet it was also nearly unplayable.
Still, all those games were good, and a certain amount of ambition can often save a game from the bargain bin. With that in mind, let’s break down Arcania: Gothic 4.
As the title obviously suggests, this is the fourth installment in the Gothic series of games, originally made by Piranha Bytes and published by JoWood. Several years ago, JoWood and Piranha Bytes had some serious differences, and went their separate ways, or rather, JoWood did and took the franchise along. Part of those differences may have been over the release of Gothic 3, one of those good-but-unpolished games featuring such awkward controls it was nearly unplayable – along with some… awkward balance issues.
For whatever reason, JoWood officially owned the franchise and kept the Gothic titles. Piranha Bytes went on to make Risen, a game which might as well be called Gothic-And-A-Half, since it’s basically the very first game done up in a different setting. (After the split, JoWood came out with an expansion pack called Forsaken Gods. In my opinion it’s among the most awful things ever created by man.)
Risen was a slow seller because it was thrown onto the market without much fanfare, but it did attract some attention for its punishing but fair gameplay, high-quality core of exploration and combat, and quirky retro style. The design was a little unambitious, but it could be a good fresh start and I’ll at least consider future titles.
Arcania: Gothic 4 is not Risen. In fact, it’s not even Gothic 4. It has almost nothing to do with the previous Gothic titles and – aside from minor, utterly trivial nods – doesn’t keep anything from the old gameplay. Nor do I yet understand why they call it Arcania, whereas Gothic was indeed a pretty gothic world.
Brief Recap: In Gothic, you took on the role of a nameless prisoner condemned to the magic ore mines of Khorinis. A seemingly chance demand from a fire magi, trying to get word to his brethren beyond the magical barrier which seals over the valley of mines, launches you on a quest to ally with a friendly “dark” wizard named Xardas, free the prisoners and destroy a terrible demon. A major part of the game is the punishing initial difficulty, but in its defense it directs you to some allies who help you gain experience and open up the three major settlements. Joining one of these is how you progress through the game, a feature the game would keep in Gothic 2.
Gothic 2 picks up literally a few weeks after Gothic. Xardas saves you and helps you defeat a horde of orcs, a flight of dragons, and then stop the terrible servants of the dark god Beliar. You quickly visit the town of Khorinis, which was one of the largest video game cities of its day and still stands out as being remarkably well-realized. In Gothic they paid a lot of attention to friendships and alliances, and in Gothic 2 your friends came back and your actions were remembered. While you usually couldn’t wall off any quests, people did recall what you did to them and theirs, and this could affect quests and events down the line. Sometimes you could solve quests simply by talking to the right people at the right time, giving the player the feeling that this was a living world with its own backstory and relationships. The cast of memorable characters was huge, and almost every interesting friend from Gothic made an appearance. It was good enough to spawn an expansion, Night of the Raven, which only took about about an eon to hit the English market.
Gothic 3 lets you explore the mainland of Myrtana. Some… odd design choices resulted in a less-than stellar experience. Controls were inelegant at best, and enemies of any level frequently stunlocked you because of the poor combat design and animation work. This, sadly, was almost the only element of difficulty in the entire game because most enemies were utterly trivial. Add in a freakish lack of women, re-used voices everywhere, and a dull and long-winded plot without much direction, and you had all the elements of a bad game. While numerous characters came back, they mostly shared models with about five hundred other NPC’s, which meant it was literally impossible to tell who was who. All in all, the game was mediocre and missing some key features, even though there were good ideas at the core.
In Arcania: Gothic 4 you open (apparently) controlling the hero from previous Gothic games, now crowned King Rhobar the Third. This is actually an interesting opening, even if goes on too long. The use of sound and visuals to suggest madness – and even that someone is controlling him – works very well. But soon that ends and your real character awakens from that fake nightmare into the real nightmare.
Arcania features an entirely new nameless character, one who sadly falls into the “bland hero” category. His voice actor isn’t terrible, but doesn’t put much energy into it. Then again, the script doesn’t either; there’s no personality or flavor. The character simply goes along and does more or less whatever is asked of him. Sometimes you have two or three options instead of one choice in a way to proceed, but your “choices” have no real impact on the plot; all the options wind up looking almost identical. Considering how annoying most of the game’s characters are, I often wanted to pick an evil option, just to finish up. However that doesn’t actually get you anything. You won’t save any time or trouble, so you may as well do things the “long” way around. You face the same nuisances.
And annoying is how the NPC’s come off at best. Most don’t have enough character for me to remember names. What’s sad is that there’s some good material going to waste here. You can almost feel a bond between your hero and Diego at the start of the game. You can almost care about his fiance during the opening, even if she does look like her mom drank too much during pregnancy. But it’s all wasted because both characters more or less vanish and don’t influence things again. The game makes a titanic mistake in killing off said fiance. While in theory this would be the hero’s motive for a roaring rampage of revenge, nobody mentions it again and he has all the emotional depth of a brick.
I can’t help but compare this to the subtly snarky lead of previous Gothic games, who imbued the character with energy and a resigned heroism, willing to help but annoyed at the constant impositions, and willing to bargain and make demands when others were unreasonable. The old voice acting wasn’t any good, either, but it did have heart and energy. Arcania’s voices are technically competent (except for Lyrca, who stands out as hilariously awful) but completely dry. People complained about the voice actors, but they’re overstating it. The actors can read lines, but it’s obvious nobody thought to give them any direction. Ultimately, I personally would rather have bad-but-fun voicework than merely “decent” voices.
The plot actually gets worse as you go along, spiraling increasingly out of control. I think the designers intended for the players to think that it was all a great destined event, but their craftsmanship is so hamfisted that it winds up playing out as a series of random, unrelated nuisances. The script does not help, because it contains all kinds of irrational, random lines and references to things the player does not know or care about, which are not explained, and which don’t make any difference. Worse, even THAT isn’t as bad as the idiotic questing.
The game almost apologizes for throwing up stupid roadblocks. They don’t even make any sense. You simply can’t progress until you do somebody’s annoying fetch quest, when often the only thing standing in your way is a pushy guard or an enemy orc. But they tell you to turn around, because no, we’re not letting you through (for no good reason) and there’s no way around that. That might be tolerable if the quests felt like anything other than useless busywork. But it’s all about fetching leftover junk that the NPC’s are too stupid to go and get. I’m not kidding: you have to get letters, banners, and even a straw hat. I found out why I “had to” get the hat, and it still didn’t make any sense.
Look, it’s not that hard. All you need for your quests is to put the player in charge. Even if the player has to follow along your plot, you have to give him a reason to do it. This means three things:
- Your barriers to simply walking over and completing the game should feel like an organic part of the world. They shouldn’t break any rules, and that includes forcing the player to have a sudden attack of politeness. If the player must work to gain the help he needs to overcome a barrier, fine. But don’t just have the character up and volunteer for random tasks before some annoying, nameless guard will let him through, particularly not when the character is a monster-crushing killing machine. On the other hand, it may make some sense for the character not to wander into the midst of an active ongoing battle. If the character doesn’t have a boat, they may have no option save to pay the ferryman.
- Give the player some choice. Killing eight Rats is fine for an MMO (if tired even there). And it’s not even that bad for a single-player game. However, you have to give the player some options. If you need a Gorgon’s Tear, and the only Gorgon is at the very end of a completely linear dungeon and the the only way to kill the gorgon is with a sword, then you’re not giving the player any choice. You know the one way through is to kill through every enemy and then stab the gorgon. If you want the player to kill eight rats, then give him a bounty for bringing in rat tails. This is an area where Gothic stood out. If you needed to get an item from a character, you could kill the man and take his stuff, steal it, buy another, bribe him or buy his, or see if you couldn’t find another item just like it while adventuring. By making those actions goal-based instead of method-based, it strengthened the player’s interest.
- Give the player an actual reason to care. Arcania almost manages here at the start. But from then on you’re faced with a faceless assortment of tedious NPC’s with nothing of interest about them. They felt plastic and were plastic. Again, I don’t entirely blame the voice acting. Many reviewers hated it, but it’s the bland script which I object to. There’s nothing even to indicate your *character* cares – and when he later seems pleased to meet them again I wondered why he was so excited to meet obnoxious near-strangers, whom he had met once or twice and exchanged a polite greeting. This is bad writing, bad integration, and bad design. Contrast to this to earlier Gothic games. In Gothic 1, they established important secondary characters well. They gave you quests, helped you out, and fought alongside you for common goals.
Look at Alyx Vance from Half-Life 2 or Martin Septim from Oblivion. Quality voice acting, aside, the characters weren’t annoying, they interacted with you a lot, and you got to know their fears and goals. Meanwhile, you weren’t expected to somehow fall in love with many other characters whose role in the story was minimal at best. For an example of a good minor character, look at Dr. Mossman. She interacts with you in a limited way, but she’s still engaging.
Once you finally do get going, you’ll find a game which also fails to live up to another Gothic staple: exploration. Gothic was extremely nonlinear. You could go anywhere provided you managed to survive the trek. It limited player movment by using gatekeeper monsters – in short, you had to prove you were strong enough to get into an area, but once inside the monsters were a bit weaker and you then grabbed all the loot and massacred the pretty chunks of experience. This was a fantastic way of doing things, because you had a lot off tools at your disposal. Taking too much damage? Steal or buy some armor and try again. Mobbed by sheer numbers? Hop on a rock and snipe them. Facing one enemy too strong for you? Use those scrolls. Or simply go to a different area or finish some town quests.
Yes, that was hard to get learn, but on the whole it worked really well. Once you understood how the game played you were encouraged to use your resources wisely and actively plan out your fights. Sure, by the end you’d be rolling money and potions, but you had a long adventure of carefully picking and choosing fights until you got strong enough to stomp your foes. The omnipresent feelings of challenge, advancement, and success mattered.
Arcania throws this out of the window. The game showers you with healing items, useless recipes, and endless loot, as you wander through corridors. This game manages to make open fields feel like corridors. Basically, you can jog along the narrow routes available, but there’s little to find and very little reward for anything. You’re going to go past it all anyway, eventually. No matter where you go, you can be confident knowing you will easily handle the challenge, so there’s never any reason to worry. If you do get hit pretty hard, you’ve got plenty of healing items to recover instantly.
About the midgame I had enough bandages to mummify myself. I have about a dozen recipes, but no reason to use them. Money has essentially no use except to buy more recipes I won’t use. It is nice that you can go out and craft things, but I’d need an actual reason to do so. Thus far, mages can get the odd boost from a crafted item, but I haven’t seen any point in the trouble. You’ll get better gear before you can blink twice.
Getting back to the topic of exploration, the game does offer up an interesting series of collection quests. In short, they’ve scattered a bunch of trinkets about the world, and finding them all nets you a rare and powerful item. I like this idea. It’s the execution which bothers me. First, go get a map online, because otherwise you will not find them. They’re often impossible to see onscreen, so unless you just randomly wander near one and see it highlighted you’ll never notice. Second, there’s not much reason to care. You’re never challenged, so getting more goodies is a pretty thin reason to explore. And I mentioned earlier, you don’t have many optional side areas and they don’t have much to find, so you’re basically looking for relics in the hope of getting a pointless reward way down the line.
I had more interest in completing my world map than anything else, and before I hit the one-quarter mark I began to think of monsters as tedious obstacles rather than interesting challenges.
Perhaps worst of all, in a game which tells you to explore every nook and cranny, you’re faced with something worse than monsters: invisible walls. Yup, our old friend the invisible wall makes a comeback, preventing you from getting onto boulders and cliffs. But only half the time, for no adequately explained reason. Sometimes you just seem to bounce off from things. And that’s still not enough for the developers, who made every rock you can get atop but aren’t “supposed” to climb into a literal slippery slope, which shoves you off at a slow clip. Of course, sometimes they’ll shove you off into the instant-death water.
It’s 2011. We’ve had swimming animations since Super Mario. If you’re game is so cheap that you can’t pay for swimming effects for a game on an island with a long bay in the middle, something is wrong. Risen had sea monsters who would eat you if you went too far from shore and still had different movement once you entered water.
The slow movement speed doesn’t help matters. Your character jogs too slowly. I wouldn’t care except that the teleport system sucks. It just plain sucks. Most games these days have a waypoint or teleport system built-in, so that if you can backtrack, you do so quickly. The idiots who made Arcania’s teleport system instead made it a bunch of linked teleport pairs. This means that when you unlock a teleport you can’t actually use for anything. Once you’ve advanced forward, you unlock just that pair. So you wind up unlocking completely useless teleports, which can’t take where you might want to go. This is among the most hamfisted implementations ever, since Gothic had a simple, effective system for getting around way back in its day. In Arcania, you can get enough magic spells to keep doubling your run speed, but it takes a long while to get to that point. So until then, you just have to suffer the nuisance.
Now that we’ve talked about some of the bad points, I’m going to qualify that. The game has a couple really good aspects, even if the developers didn’t build on them well.
First, combat is nicely fluid. If the enemies weren’t completely weak and stupid, it might even be fun. It’s fast, smooth, and far more controllable than previous Gothic entries, which often felt like trying to maneuver a beached whale than engaging in swordfights. And that’s no small thing in a game of medieval combat.
The design team did too much, however, to make the combat options equal – much too equal. Frankly, it hardly matters which route you specialize in: melee, ranged weapons, or magic. They don’t really distinguish themselves very well, and there’s not much thought in building a character since gear overwhelms your choices. That drastically limits replayability and ultimately makes combat even more shallow. I eventually switched over to throwing fireballs simply so the area effect would kill enemies faster. Furthermore, you gain enough gear to do pretty much whatever you want. I don’t mind being able to change my focus to suit. But the choices I made are almost irrelevant, which is very bad. (About which more later).
The other really great aspect is the scenery. The game is beautiful, and not simply because it has oodles of high-resolution textures. In fact, the graphics as a base are only average for today’s games. What sets them apart is the incredible level of landscaping. Outdoor areas look astoundingly real and dramatic, with green-lit forests, seas meeting white cliffs, and powerful fortresses towering above the land. So in short, the scenery stands out as impressive to wander, plausible to experience, and just plain “real.”
The only nitpick here are that underground areas (including every dungeon in the game) are painfully bland and uninteresting by comparison. The difference is as stark as night and day – a tepid grey mass you rush through to get outdoors again versus a colorful, real world. In fact, the only problem with the outside is that the scenery often doesn’t feel quite lived-in *enough*. The environment stands out so much that I kept looking a level of detail they can’t quite manage.
On a side note, somebody turned up the “waving trees” effect to Keystone Cops levels. You can sometimes see plants bouncing around like rubber. And it is hilarious.
Finally, the game is marketed as an action-RPG. But it doesn’t have much action or much RPG. You interact with the world solely through combat, which as we’ve mentioned comes across as shallow and often tedious. But the RPG elements are, if anything, worse. It’s not bad, but the system is so elegant that it’s irrelevant!
Let me explain. The game’s level-up system simply hands you 3 points when you gain a level, plus a little mana and health and stamina. (Stamina recharges so fast you won’t care abut it.) Each branch of abilities hands you a couple minor abilities, mostly not worth using, and a 1% bonus to two stats per level. So you can get a decent percent bonus to your health and melee damage, or health and stamina, or melee and stamina, or magic power and mana regeneration, or regeneration and maximum mana, and so on.
In a way, this works fine. You simply get better at what you like most. The problem is that the bonuses are so small they’re kinda pointless. The only slight stand-out is mana, because you’ll burn through your pool so fast that a high rate of regeneration is almost required. Still, you can just swap out your gear to get as much of that as you might need. Even a simple piece of gear can be worth many levels. If you dumped all your points into melee and decide you want to throw fireballs, you can manage. Trees mostly serve unlock new abilities, and most of them are neither useful nor interesting.
In short, Arcania is a textbook example of what not to do. Do not start with a mediocre script with uninteresting characters who mostly serve as an excuse for the plot. Do not put obnoxious walls in the player’s path. Do not use railroading to force the player to do things (unless you hide it really well and sensibly). Do not drop uninteresting sidequests in the player’s path with no real reason to exist except handing out pretty chunks of xp. Do not develop a huge assortment of bland dungeons with suspiciously similar design. Do not turn a large, open world into a single, linear stage. Give players some interesting and meaningful choices about what to buy or study. Do not substitute combat for meaningful interaction with that world. Do not make most of that interaction largely irrelevant to the actual plot, so that nearly everything you do in the game makes no difference until the last seventh of the game.
Yes, that is a tough list to manage. And yet, many games have handled it well. Morrowind, Saint’s Row 2, Fallout: New Vegas, Gothic 1, 2, and even 3 for the most part. In many ways, it isn’t even that hard. If you do the early aspects right and set up enough conflict, players tend to choose their own sides and often gloss over any rough spots. If you hand many methods of interaction to the player, they’ll come up with their own solutions. If you give them significant (but not impossible) challenges, they’ll then find their own ways to cope and succeed. In games like this, the very best possibility is for the player to come up with a bright idea, succeed, and walk away feeling pleased and a little guilty, as if they were almost cheating the system.
Because they are cheating – but only their own expectations. They cheat the same-old, same-old standards and gimmicks which create awful games like Arcania. They cheat designers who don’t want to let them really do something amazing. They cheat designers who want to shove everyone along their predetermined path. They cheat the author who put together such a tedious game. It’s not just cheating, it’s the best kind of cheating: the kind where you cheat the rigged game.
Video games really aren’t the focus of this blog, and I don’t play them much – so I fear I can’t say anything about Editorial0’s evaluation of Arcania, or most of the other games he mentions. On the other hand, the basics of adventure design are indeed much the same for both video and tabletop games. -Thoth