Saturday, June 20, 2015

Bard's Tale IV

One of my clearest memories of PC gaming comes from when I was in middle school. I was in the basement playing a PC game called The Bard's Tale. It was one of those games that really made you work. I had a ton of graph paper beside me, with each level of the dungeons carefully mapped out in pencil, with notes for everything I found. The Bard's Tale dungeons were especially devious, with teleporters and spinning squares that left you disoriented and uncertain where you were and what direction you were facing, and many of the pencil lines on the graph paper were erased and redrawn more than once as I struggled to reorient myself. But I did, and I was nearing the end of one of the final dungeons (I think it was Kylearan's Tower, so not the quite the last dungeon).  My mother had already called me up to dinner more than once, and I knew that she was getting impatient with my innaminutes.  Just a little farther, though.  And then, just as I was nearing the end of the dungeon, I ran right into a group of wandering monsters. Only these were new, not anything I'd ever faced before--I looked at the picture, which resembled nothing so much as slimy lizardmen on four legs in the CGA graphics (4 colors! 320x200 pixels!) of my 286 computer. Then I read the name.  Balrogs.  Balrogs?! I had read Tolkien, I knew what balrogs were--they're the things that dragged off your epic-level wizard and sent the rest of your party scrambling for the exit.  And that was just one of them--there were three here. This was going to be a deadly battle.  And then my mother called again, with the dreaded "If you don't get up here right this minute, young man, . . ." attached. There was no way I could finish such a tough fight and be at the dinner table soon enough to satisfy my mom.

So I left the game running--thank goodness for turn-based combat--and hurried up to dinner. I spent the entire dinner bouncing in my seat with delicious anticipation, eagerly telling my family all about the dread creatures I faced, and the very real danger that the party I'd raised from level 1--the dwarf paladin Astar, the half-elven bard Dinorin, the elven wizard Nilotin (nearly 30 years later and I still remember most of their names)--were about to face their doom.  That night, that anticipation, are among my greatest memories of PC gaming.  Of course, the fact that the balrogs happened to be real pushovers unworthy of the name was a bit of a letdown, but I was so close to defeating the evil wizard Mangar that I barely even cared.

I bring this up because The Bard's Tale is back.  Their Kickstarter campaign is already successful, and now they're aiming for the stretch goals. This is a true sequel, picking up 150 years have the last game, The Thief of Fate, and giving it all the beauty that modern gaming is capable of, as seen in this gorgeous video created using the game engine:

I'm hoping they meet some of their stretch goals--I'd especially like a 3rd person perspective on the party during combat, but the fundraising has slowed sufficiently that I doubt I'll see that.

Right now, the one thing I'm disappointed in is the backstory:
Ever since the Church of the Sword Father civilized the land of Caith and chased out the heathen a hundred years ago, the new Skara Brae, built on top of its ruined predecessor, has become a god-fearing town, where it is dangerous to admit to harboring such superstitious notions or knowing anything of the old ways. 
Which is unfortunate, because it's starting to look like the trolls and bloodfiends and hobgoblins from all those fairy stories have returned. Terrible things have been happening in Skara Brae - people slaughtered in their beds by unseen beasts, holy sites desecrated, folk disappearing between field and home, statues of the Mad God found in bloodstained back alleys, and the Song of the Maiden heard again for the first time in a generation. And worse, the people most equipped to deal with these old threats have been made outlaws.
Since the advent of the Fatherites, the practice of magic has been made a sin, and the old races of elf, dwarf, and trow have been banished, with all known ways to their realms smashed and sealed. And now, unable to stop the horrors that have been preying upon Skara Brae, the church has decided to put the blame for them on the Adventurer's Guild, shutting it down and calling its members cultists, witches, and pagans who must be burned at the stake for their unholy crimes.
This sounds like the standard fantasy trope of the evil monotheistic religion oppressing the good, more enlightened polytheists. It's a tired trope, particularly annoying to those of us belonging to one of those monotheistic religions. Aside from being based on more myth than history, the trope gives short shrift to both religions, mythologizing one while vilifying the other. Consider, for example, that witch-hunts predate Christianity. Persecutions of that sort seem to be a constant--if you believe in magic, then reacting violently against those whom you believe are practicing it against you is only natural. I'm hoping that the actual game will handle the religious conflict with a bit more nuance than this backstory implies.

To be honest, this is a small thing. It's one of those things you learn to expect if you play fantasy games or read fantasy books. Christians who want to enjoy fantasy just become inured to it. It was edgy in the seventies or eighties, but now it's so common that hardly anyone notices (though God help the developers if someone decides this is Islamophobic--which, given that I doubt they'll actually describe the Church of the Sword Father in terms of the Trinity or the Incarnation or any doctrine that is recognizably Christian, it may more closely resemble).

I'm still eager for the game and definitely want to play it, and I don't regret giving significantly more than the minimum for their Kickstarter. But I am just a little less eager now.

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