If you missed Part 1, you can find it here!
Arriving in Arcanum’s first major city, Tarant, is a crash course in what to expect from the game. A cursory tour of town makes it appear huge and empty- a bunch of same-looking buildings on streets that seem to stretch for miles, with generic NPCs standing around pointlessly. To your eye, trained by modern game design, there’s nothing to do. It’s actually a great example of the kinds of things games do to draw your attention. Modern games have overt methods, like giant exclamation marks over a quest givers head, or an NPC calling you over to talk. There are also more subtle tricks in their hands as well, such as carefully putting a light source over something important, because a player’s eyes are drawn to light. Giving an important NPC a visually striking model with distinct clothes or bright colors is also a great way to catch the player’s interest, made popular since Arcanum’s creation. Arcanum uses none of these tricks, and it can make some areas feel desolate when they’re actually incredibly alive.
Once you set aside your expectation of modern attention-directing design, you realize that there are quests every five feet in this town. Storywise, our agreed upon stopping point is really barely past where we stopped last week- but depending on how interested you are in side content, you could take ten minutes to get there, or ten hours. I was somewhere in the three hour range myself, but that’s as someone who has played this part before and already knows where most things are. It was a busy three hours.
Tarant’s size and intricacy is certainly impressive for any game (let alone an isometric RPG from 2001), but the interface once again conspires to sabotage Troika’s ambition. It takes FOREVER to pan from one side of town to the next, and the camera’s close angle makes it even more difficult to find your bearings. And good luck if you’re running Windows 8; even with a GOG-optimized copy, Tarant reduces even the strongest PC into a stuttering, slovenly mess.
Since the simple act of play is an unequivocal nightmare, it’s a testament to the incredible writing that I continue to trudge forward at all. Soon enough, I meet a surly dwarf by a lamppost whose temper flares up after inquiring about his name. It’s the perfect encounter; I learn a slice of dwarven history, hear about his personal struggles and catch up on the shady business he’s stalking over the course of a five minute conversation, and it never once feels like droll exposition. I’m instantly enamored with this fellow, and I’d love to grab him for my party, but he’s not yet convinced of my mettle and I have other business to attend to…
Just very quick mention here, it runs acceptably on Windows 7. I was going to say “well,” but Arcanum is a title that is infamous for its technical… challenges, shall we say. There is not a system on earth that it runs “well” on.
That aside, let’s talk about what you can get up to in Tarant once you’re able to find your way around. There’s a painting theft to investigate, a wedding ring to retrieve from being dropped down the drain, high society folk asking you to raid ancient gravesites, a house of ill repute that could use a man of practical talents, a daring private investigator who needs you to have his back, and so much more that I don’t want to spoil. I can think of two companions you can get in town, the story missions have you roaming all over, and there’s tons of gold to be made.
One thing that I do miss upon playing this classic in modern times is that your companions often don’t have a lot to say. Virgil will comment on what he thinks of Tarant if asked, but neither he nor the massive half-orc drunk (Sogg Mead Mugg, if you were wondering) I’m towing around ever chip in their two cents on conversation, or stop me to talk about something they’ve observed. It’s perfectly standard for the time, but it’s also easy to forget how much life it added to Dragon Age: Origins to have people chiming in with their ideas as to how to solve problems, or telling me I was a shithead for leaving a man to a fate worse than death. Like you’d do any better, Alistair.
It makes me imagine what this game would be like today, and it’s a complicated thought. Obviously a lot of my big issues- companions being too quiet, the terrible UI, the map view, the system stability issues- would be fixed, but a lot of the stuff Arcanum does for the better wouldn’t fly these days either. Trying to create unique assets for all the content in the game would drive a dev team mad, and some of the more intense parts of the lore (there’s a sort of conspiracy that I won’t spoil that’s super dark) would almost certainly get cut before the game launched. Food for thought, I guess.
I don’t have much trouble imagining a modern-day Arcanum because, truth be told, most of these scenarios would feel right at home alongside the rest of the quests in Fallout: New Vegas or Dragon Age: Origins. The quality of writing is certainly sharper than many modern titles, but when you get down to the scenarios themselves and how they play out, it’s clear how much they inspired RPGs of the future.
As I touched on previously, the key difference between the quests in Arcanum and modern western RPGs lies in the way they present choices to the player. At one point, I’m asked to deliver a note to a group, under the condition that I never take a single peak at what the note actually says. Now, Arcanum simply adds the note to your inventory with no further comment. If you simply walk to the recipient and hand over the note, everything proceeds as planned and you’re paid for your participation. Examining the note (as you would examine any other inventory-based scrap of paper) reveals an address, and as soon as your reach your destination, the gang is well aware of your breach in contract and attacks.
How would that be presented in a modern RPG? You would get the quest, and in a “Missions” tab, it would tell you to deliver the note with an optional addendum that suggests you peak. Upon seeing the address, it would be added to your notes with a new, separate mission asking you to investigate. Garrus, Hawke or whoever would likely take the moment to warn you about upcoming repercussions, and the bandits at the drop-off point would deliver a speech acknowledging your “Choices” had “Impacts” and “Consequences.”
I’m not saying that either method of delivery is preferable. Spelling things out for the player is an understandable response when so many older games were so damn obtuse and confusing. How were you supposed to know that Zork’s text parser would let you crack open eggs when it didn’t understand that “Left” meant you were trying to walk west? Modern designers want to avoid those same mistakes by ensuring players know exactly what they can do at all times, but this other extreme means that choices become “CHOICES!” and are all but telegraphed in a patronizing tone.
We have yet to find the middle ground where players feel like they can execute intelligent decisions within the set parameters of a video game. Thankfully, Troika, BioWare and CD Projekt Red have still brought us fantastic worlds and characters within these flawed structures.