Flicker flames and haunted faces
Shuffling feet find empty spaces
Moving shadows, someone's hurting
Huddle closer, campfire burning.

Tuesday 21 September 2010

NWN: The Art of Adventure

Out of all the games I've played this year, Neverwinter Nights (yes, I'm still playing, and my adoration of it is showing no signs of abating) is the only title that's managed to convey to me the sheer thrill of adventure; that urge to get up and go, to right wrongs, to explore every corner of the world in search of money, power or sense of a job well done. It's the only game I've played where I'll be presented with a hill or a cave and and it'll let me find out what's over it or what's inside for myself. Which is extraordinary because unlike the other games I've played that have let me scratch that explorer's urge, Neverwinter Nights is in many ways extremely limited.

Let me explain.

At the start of Terra Nova: Strike Force Centauri - the forgotten Looking Glass classic about space pirates and class-based, team-based mech-to-mech combat - my squad and I were dropped on moorland a mile or so from a lake and told to sever communications to a rebel pirate base. Once we'd reconoitered the area with a spy drone and found the base in question we could have quelled any pirate resistance we encountered, wired demolition charges to the radio mast, blown it up and waited for our drop ship to come and pick us up. And we did, in time.

But first we went to the beach.

What Terra Nova did that no other game I'd played had was give me the option not to attack the base, but to engage jump jets and bunny-hop down to that faraway lake to frolic in the waves. This fresh sense of freedom was, to put it bluntly, insane. Once I'd become more acquainted with the game I leanred to use it to my tactical advantage. Send my scout-class squadmate out to one side of the base to draw the pirates' attention and have him retreat to the hills, while the heavies attacked with explosives from the rear and I covered from the flank, taking flying pirates out with my tri-laser, frying their skulls inside their power armour helmets and razing their outposts to the ground. But the first time I ran to the beach I hadn't considered any of that. All I was thinking was "There'll be an invisible wall, or something. I'll never get there; the game will never let me". I thought this right up until I took my first tentative steps off-shore, right until I was splashing in the water and power-jumping over the wavelets that welled there.

Liberation: A video game freeing the player from the confines of video games conventions. Remember Morrowind? Remember that agoraphobic urge to stow yourself back down in the ship's hull because there at least you knew you were a prisoner, you knew your purpose in life. Out in the wilds of Vvardenfell you were terrifyingly free to wander a land of dust storms and jelly-fish monsters and towering stiltwalkers. The same was true of Oblivion, and Fallout 3, where Bethesda masterfully turned the scenario on it's head with its post-apocalyptic twist. You leave the vault and you're you're left to fend for yourself in a dead world inhabited by ghouls and mutants. It's do or die - do you curl into a ball, hammer on the vault door and beg your former comrades to let you back in? Or are you an adventurer?

Neverwinter Nights does none of this. Its maps are small and square, and its horizons are ghastly low-res skyboxes that are at their best when mostly obscured by trees and buildings. A lot of the time you can't see anything worth attempting to reach in the distance because there is no distance - there are only skyboxes and cloying fog. Maps flick when you reach the boundaries of an area like in an old Spectrum game.

Yet somehow - in spite of this - it does adventure really, really well.

This is down to the fans who've created the custom content the game is best known for. For the most part they aren't game designers; therefore they're not hampered by concepts of what you can and can't do in a game. They've stretched the engine in new and interesting ways, and, being fantasy fans, one of those ways has been to create epic fantasy experiences the breed of which the game didn't ship with. Longtime fans of the game recommend new players to not touch the original campaign, the one that comes on the game's disc. "If you want a good Neverwinter Nights campaign," they'll say, "play The Aielund Saga."

That's what I'm playing right now. And although it's far from the only NWN mod I've played that has a sense of incredible possibilities and adventure, it's a great series to illustrate exactly what I'm talking about.

Part one of the Aielund Saga beings with the player character arriving in town on - of all things - a dark and stormy night. Rain's been pouring down for so long the town has become waterlogged, and all trade routes and communications with neighbouring towns and villages have been disrupted. To make matters worse there are barbarians holing up somewhere to the east, wolf packs are patrolling the southern roads, and there are strange noises coming from inside the town mausoleum. Obviously there's ample scope for an adventurer to make some coin slaying wolves and barbarians, and running messages along roads no one else will take. But as much as those things might be considered adventuring in a fantasy RPG, that's not where the real adventure comes in.

Exploring the mausoleum under orders from the town priestess I found a trap door which led to a series of recently excavated - and poorly excavated, judging from the close rumblings of falling soil - tunnels. The tunnels were infested with goblins - again, an old, familiar genre trope. But some way into hacking my way through them, the remaining goblins turned tail and fled. I pursued and later found them caught in a cave-in. On one of their bodies I found a note . . .

This jaunt beneath the town of Bracksford had begun like any other quest in the game, but it was actually the start of an epic plotline that took my companions and I to

- a gentlemen's club
- a wyvern nest buried at the bottom of a desert mine
- windswept snowy peaks where we fought ogres
-barbarian forts in tundra so cold we needed fur cloaks just to preserve our body heat

. . . and many other adventure-filled places.

The module ended with us rescuing a kidnapped princess and walking back to town to find it besieged by mercenaries. Finally, I led a band of knights on a downhill charge against mercenary soldiers, trebuchets, and a horse-riding commander who slew three men with one sword blow before he turned his attention upon me and mine.

That was module one. Module two began with me escorting the princess on a sea voyage back to her homeland. Along the way we were attacked by pirates, and had to fend them off with deck-mounted ballista and by swinging across to their ship to light powder kegs buried deep within the hull, escaping by the skin of our teeth as the ship burst to kindling behind us. While we finally made it safely to dock in the princess's home city, we were attacked by assassins while diverted on the way back to her castle. As of my last save I'm on one mission to explore the sewers in search of the thieves' guild (where I'll hopefully find someone who can put me in contact with the assassins' guild and find out who put a contract on the princess's life), and another mission to discover which of the student wizards set up the diversion and if he did it deliberately. Because massive smoking craters in the city's main street - that's not the kind of thing that happens every day.

And all because I was told to investigate some strange sounds.

By rights a single game shouldn't let me do such things. Ship-to-ship combat, swashbuckling, rope-swinging, lighting powderkegs and standing well back - that's a pirate game. Playing gumshoe while trying to unravel the knots of a political assassination? Leading armies into battle? Maybe there are games out there that combine all three into one glorious whole - I haven't played Baldur's Gate 2 yet, so it's possible that does it - but there can't be many of them. I started the year with Mass Effect 2 and for all its gung-ho air-punching action RPG brilliance it didn't have this kind of scale, nor the sense of adventure The Aielund Saga has. With Aielund I genuinely don't know what's going to happen next. For all its bravado Mass Effect 2 was a fairly safe game. Opening with the destruction of the Normandy was a brave move. Presenting the chance for your entire crew to be killed in the finale was interesting. and putting the player in the shoes of Joker, your helpless pilot as he limps his way through corridors filled with rampaging aliens was the highlight of the game for me. I liked Joker's section for a number of reasons, but a big one was because I didn't know it was coming. In a game that might have been hamstrung by its predictable structure - if the content of said structure hadn't been so damned good - stripping away not only your powers but your very identity, and forcing you to hobble through alien terrors as a man who can barely walk was a powerful piece of video game design.

With a game as graphically limited as Neverwinter Nights the module creators have had to push the engine in ways it was never meant to bend in order to make vivid worlds and storylines that engross the player. They engage the player's imagination and show him things other games cannot. I'm a short way into the second part of a story which unfolds over four acts and six modules - I haven't a clue as to where The Aielund Saga will take me next. The only thing I'm sure of is that I want keep playing, and it's in this way that Neverwinter Nights has shown me a hill, shown me a cave, or shown me a glinting lake in the faraway distance, crooked a finger in my direction and said "Come and explore, Campfire. Come and find adventure."

With a request like that, how could I possibly refuse?

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