Odds & Ends…

Because I’m too lazy to write a dedicated article on any of these things… After the break…

Odds & Ends…

In an alternate universe somewhere, I have plenty of time. Too much time. So much time that I can write daily entries into this blog. Not anymore and, quite honestly, not for the near future.

As a result, instead of taking the time to craft and hone a huge chunk of my opinions into a finely-tuned blog entry, here are my thoughts on some things that, in an alternate universe, would have been presented a lot more artfully than they are right now:

Mazes & Minotaurs

I remember the old internet. The “classic” internet. Heck, I remember the Internet before Mosaic came out. Of elephant-ear floppy disks and VAX computers and… Yeah, that’s a bit too early for a lot of people. Regardless, the morale of that story is… I’ve been around the internet for a long, long, LONG time.

In the early days of the internet, free content was sparse. Very sparse. Free computer games? Hah! You were lucky that some guy took the time to program a clone of some classic arcade game. Have at it… If you could even find it. This was the era before Google and you had to rely upon webrings and lists and .PLAN files and your friend of a friend of a friend found this neat website and he’ll IM the link to you…

“Mazes & Minotaurs” was in the same vein as the “Boilerplate” robot phenomenon & “The Blair Witch Project” film: They were ‘fake real’ items concocted with a fictional background to give them an aura larger than what they really were. “The Blair Witch Project” was a low-budget horror film that only coyly revealed that it was a fictional film instead of really being a found-film about three young adults who get more than they bargain for when they search for a mythical witch. “Boilerplate” was an example of someone using photo-manipulation to put a steampunk-styled bipedal robot into otherwise authentic period photographs.

“Mazes & Minotaurs” had the premise that, what if the creators of the pen-and-paper role-playing game had instead decided to base their game on Greek mythology rather than Tolkien’s European fantasy setting? The result was a real RPG that you could play along with a “modernized” updated version that received periodic updates through a magazine called “Minotaur Quarterly” (much like “Dungeons & Dragons” had the “Dragon” & “Dungeon” magazines).

I always thought that the entire premise was neat and, quite frankly, it was a great thought experiment about what might have been had Gary Gygax & Dave Arneson (the two co-creators of Dungeons & Dragons) really had gone in that bizarre but rationale direction. Even for RPG enthusiasts, it never seemed to gain a great deal of popularity and it had that “cozy little corner that no one knew about” quality to it.

Unfortunately, time is the enemy of all things good and “Mazes & Minotaurs” has recently ground to a halt. The “quarterly” in “Minotaur Quarterly” has been somewhat in jest for the past few years (it stopped being quarterly around 2010) and it’s final edition occurred a few months back.

I’ve been on the Internet long enough to appreciate little projects that succeed with very inspired people behind them. So many projects start with great promise and then they lead absolutely nowhere. We must cherish those projects that not only go somewhere but go somewhere with inspiration and following.

Nothing truly ever dies on the Internet. Yet a lot of projects tend to fall into a deep coma and never recover. Here is hoping that, somehow, Mazes & Minotaurs finds a way to live on and prosper.

Starship Titanic’s Hidden Forum Game

It would be perfectly forgivable if the name “Douglas Adams” conjures up the image in many people’s minds of the man who created the “Dilbert” comic strip. Alas, that person is “Scott Adams”; “Douglas Adams” wrote the very successful “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” book series which was very popular in Europe and, for a lot of people, in North America as well. Unfortunately, Douglas Adams passed away at the quite young age of 49 in 2001. As a result, he would never see the Internet mature as he had so desired (Douglas Adams was quite enamored with the Internet and all things World Wide Web-y).

One of Adams’ final big projects was a computer adventure game called “Starship Titanic” which was released in 1998, just a few years prior to his death. While the game was not a huge financial success, the forum that it spawned did. People on the forum assumed identities of both employees and travelers, leading to many humorous exchanges that rivaled the game’s often subtle, often stinging style of humor.

Alas, this hidden forum game has also ended in the not-to-recent past. This was another example of one of those wonderfully hidden, wonderfully beautiful areas that only the Internet could possibly create. I was fortunate to have seen it at it’s very beginning but, unfortunately, never really followed it beyond that. I know that, though, Douglas Adams would be happy & proud that one of his final artistic endeavors inadvertently created a bizarrely-beautiful narrative that, as some have pointed out, rivaled his own books. Thanks for the fish.

Venetica (2008 game) impressions…

If you ever want to flummox a gamer, ask them what the difference between an adventure game and an RPG game is. Seriously, the two genres are different sides of the exact same coin and whatever answer is given is a chance to peer into that gamer’s soul.

If I had to hazard my own answer, I would write that a classic adventure eschews number-crunching combat for storytelling and that an RPG sacrifices a deep, linear story for the sake of routinely crushing some hapless enemy’s skull. Coming from the pragmatic perspective of Sierra point-and-click adventures versus Origin’s Ultima RPG series, it was a tale of wide & breadth versus small but deep in terms of graphics & disk space.

Venetica may best be described as an RPG-infused 3D adventure game; It has the trappings of an RPG but it’s heart is squarely as a classic (albeit 3D) adventure. You play as the daughter of Death itself (quite the goth gal) who must avenge the death of her lover and unravel a tale of conspiracy that could undermine all of humanity for eternity to come. Can’t an adventure game ever have stakes that don’t involve an entire chunk of the world’s population? Most of your adventure lies in a steampunk version of the city of Venice, Italy (hence the “Venetica” title) where you must follow the main quest while performing side quests as well. Along the way, you’ll channel your undead powers to help you unlock doors & fight otherworldly demons.

I must be honest: There’s a certain appeal to Venetica. At times, I almost gravitate to call it a “gentle RPG” as the combat in the game seems almost clumsily attached to an otherwise serviceable adventure game. The experience reminded me of the subpar combat in “Project: Eden” that otherwise marred a rather excellent subterranean puzzler. Most players will be able to get by with smacking their opponent once or twice with a sword, quickly backing up only to just as quickly move forward to smack the opponent again before repeating the process repeatedly until success is achieved. Only in boss fights and against certain opponents will this type of fighting skill falter in succeeding.

Lockpicking is a “Simon Says” mini-game of two ghostly men swatting at color-coded lockpicks; Depending upon how many locks are on the door or chest is how many times they swat at the lockpicks. You must then press the lockpicks in the exact same order which, even for the most difficult locks, isn’t all that hard if you write the combination down.

The game does have it’s flaws, though. Chief amongst them is some rather poor non-combat AI which can cause the game to outright break. At one point, a guard had become unpositioned as a result of engaging in combat and couldn’t get back to his designated spot in order to push the story forward. That took quite a bit of manipulation to get him back to his spot. In terms of sheer storytelling, the game seems to rely a bit too heavily on your character screaming “NOOOOOO!!!!” one too many times during a dramatic moment to ensure that the player realizes that what they are witnessing is a dramatic moment.

Yet the game also has some fairly nice moments. You are constantly challenged with taking different tacks in how to resolve quests and your choices do come back to “haunt” you, so to speak. The game forces one to constantly go back to earlier areas in order to access no aspects of that area: For instance, the player eventually gets to speak to ghosts attached to skeletons and hunt for buried treasure in prior explored areas.

However, make no mistake – Venetica is an adventure masquerading as an RPG, not an RPG masquerading as an adventure. Anyone looking for an Elder Scrolls alternative will be sorely, deeply disappointed.

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