Sunday, March 4, 2012

Shaping an Ending: A Geneforge Retrospective

Let's start off with a discussion of another game entirely, for comparison's sake: Eschalon Book 1 by Basilisk Games. It looks like this:

(And for those who think this looks somewhat familiar, yes, I have a type.) The game bills itself in providing an old school RPG experience, and as those who suffered through Dragon Age Week or this recent post know, I do like my RPGs old school. And yet, I didn't like Eschalon. First off, either I chose a horrible character skill set, or the game's woefully unbalanced. I went with a mage-type character, but I could barely fight a single enemy before having to go off and rest to recover enough magic to fight the next one. When over half of your game time is spent resting, something has gone wrong. Second, the mouse controls left much to be desired. There was no scrolling within the game box, and no selecting a spot on the screen; clicking in front of the character didn't move them to that spot, but moved them an inch in that direction. Moving across an area map was a long drawn out process. And third, the reason I like my old school RPG is, in large part, for the story. Eschalon didn't have a very good story. It barely had a story at all. The best thing about the game, in fact, was the death scene:
Good thing I liked it, because I saw it a lot. No, if this was old school RPG, I was dropping out.

But then we have Geneforge, by Spiderweb Software, first released in 2002. It may also look very familiar (and a bit worse, in fact):

It is also an old school RPG. And to be fair to Basilisk, whereas Eschalon was the first commercial game by a company of one person, Spiderweb is larger, and already had a good three or four games out. And this type of game is their specialty: there's 3 games in the original Exile series, 6 in the Avernum remake, and 5 in the Geneforge series, and they all follow this basic format to one degree or another. These guys have had some practice at the form, in other words.

But generally, it succeeds where Eschalon failed for me. The movement is a much simpler point and click system. Combat is designed to favor three distinct styles. And the story is, well, existent. Let's focus on the fighting for a moment. The big innovation for Geneforge is that you can play as a Shaper, a being capable of creating monsters to fight for them in battle. So a lot of the game is about managing your team of up to 8 different monsters. I, on the other hand, chose to play a solo game, minimizing the shaping magic in exchange for strength and melee superiority. It worked; the experience system meant that instead of sharing my battle points with a team, I hoarded them all for one character, and was rather godlike by the game's end. There were some epic fights along the that I'll remember and curse fondly: the battle against the spawners in the Dry Wastes, the endless onslaught of monsters in the Shaper Crypts, and the Fight Against Pylons in the mines. But mostly, what I'll remember is the ending. Or endings, plural.

One of the arguments against the JRPG style of game is that meaningful choice only exists on a micro level. You can control an individual fight, but not the course of the story. A game like those of the Elder Scrolls series, the argument goes, offer much more freedom. Geneforge strikes a nice balance between directed storytelling and meaningful player participation. Allow me to demonstrate by thoroughly spoiling its plot and ending. (If you want to play the game, I'd recommend just taking my word that it's good, skip the rest, and go play.) The idea of Geneforge is that in this fantasy world, there is a race named the Shapers, called that because they shape into being a number of creatures of varying intelligence to serve them. The game starts when you wash ashore on a Shaper island that was barred 200 years ago. That means the Shapers got up and left, leaving their creations behind.

In that time, 3 factions of Serviles (the most intelligent of the created races) have formed. There's the Awakened, who want to live with the Shapers as equals. There's the Obeyers, who believe the shapers are coming back some day, and that they should live as they believe the shapers would want. And finally, there's the Takers, who are angered at being abandoned, and plan to wage war against the Shaper people. You wander around, take sides, and gradually learn of a fourth faction: a group of Outsiders, who accidentally landed on the island and now want to reap its mysterious secret, the Geneforge. The game's ending revolves around a number of choices. Do you team up with the Outsiders, and turn against your own people, who have treated sentient beings as slaves for so long? Do you take the Geneforge for yourself, and remake everything in your image? Or do you destroy the forge, so no one can have access to its corrupting power? The choice, combined with choices regarding the factions, determine the game's endings.

It's a good balance. I don't have access to every ending, because some were determined by choices I made much earlier in the game. But I do have access to quite a number of endings, and, having saved at the right time, I got to experience a few. There's basically four parts: what happens to you, and what happens to each of the three sects. There's no single "good" ending either (at least, not among the ones I chose); there's a downside for you in every one. And because of the nature of the factions, there's no perfect ending for all three of them, either. Their differing natures mean that the best case scenario for one is less so for the other two. What I liked most, though, is the balance of the endings. This isn't Deus Ex 2, where the choice comes down to a single button push--you need to make some decisions here. And it's not like Star Ocean 2, where the connection between your actions and the ending you get is so complicated that you can't see how one leads to the other. And it's not like the Fallout series. I love those games, but the endings suffer a bit. In creating a separate ending scene for each area, we often get towns' whose fates seem totally independent from each other: Town Y, for example, is taken over by zombies, but the neighboring town X is prosperous and happy, despite the terrors next door. Not so in Geneforge. Each of the factions endings is very clearly a result (a logical result) both of the actions you took against the faction and of the way you ended the game.

So yes, I quite enjoyed the game. Now, if you'll excuse me, there's another 4 games to the series, so I've got quite a bit of forging ahead.

*EDIT* A quick factual correction.  While Spiderweb Games has a few other people listed for marketing and so forth, the brunt of the designing portion is a single person, Jeff Vogel.  And I should clarify, that when I say the company already had 3 or 4 games at this point, the number is actually much higher than that.  In my defense, fact-checking requires effort.

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