A matter of programming, we'll just be covering the game this time out. I probably have a couple of generalities I'd like to talk about with regards to Arcanum, but I'm anxious to get this "season" wrapped up before PRGE.
SIDE A: Might Solve a Mystery
This section of Arcanum is about mysteries. Where is the author of Horror Among the Dark Elves? Where is T'sen-Ang? Where do half ogres come from? Who's killing prostitutes in Caladon? Why does my game keep crashing? Where did the attack planes that shot down my blimp come from?
This is the first time I've played Arcanum in quite a while and the first time since I started really looking at games and it is paced in a very strange way. It's sort of a bad way too. One of the things I'd like to get to the bottom of with this close read of Arcanum is just why so many people seem to bounce off it. I talked about some interface problems last time, but this stretch (which is a uniformly strong bit of game), really does underline the second major issue. Pacing.
As I said, this stretch is all about looking for clues, following trails, doing detective work. This, on its own, is fan-fucking-tastic. It's a really neat piece of game and a really great change of pace. There are two dungeons here, one small and one skippable. That's really cool. The problem is how these things are distributed. There have been elements of mystery and detective work previous to this, but it was sparing, and separated by large stretches of shitty dungeon. I think a more even distribution of these elements, and cutting down on dungeon content in general, would make for a much more pleasing game experience.
Anyway, onto the trail...
- The Statement of Renford Terwilliger
All we have is a name. Terwilliger wrote a book that might tell us where T'sen-Ang is and it's urgent: T'sen-Ang and I are getting old and we still haven't walked in the glow of each other's majestic presence. Where do we go to research names? The hall of records in Tarant, of course.
Arcanum is so god damn good at this stuff. It's not an adventure to go to the hall of records, it's a task, a chore, but it contributes to a greater sense of grounded reality that permeates the entire game. In Arcanum, records are kept at the Hall of Records. History is kept in libraries. Artifacts are kept in museums. The game tells the story of its world the way we learn the story of our own.
Terwilliger wrote a book called T'sen-Ang: Horror Among the Dark Elves. Off to the library! After paying an hefty fee, we find that they don't carry the book, but they carry a book about the book, called Curse of T'sen-Ang by Kendrick Wales. The book details the meta story around Horror Among The Dark Elves. Stores that sold the book burned down, people who had the book succumbed to mysterious illness. It's a lot like Tutankhamen's Curse, actually, and a lot like how Mythos Tomes are described in Call of Cthulhu. Every copy of The Pnakotic Manuscripts has a story behind it, of translations, insanity, and government cover ups. This is like that.
While here, I read a few other books, including one called The Orcish Question. As we'll see later in this entry, Arcanum definitely has some things to say about race in general but, sadly, I'm unequipped to say it. I would love it if a journalist more versed in those issues would take a crack at it. Between The Orcish Question (likely a play on Occasional Discourse On The Negro Question), and the Half Ogre quest, Arcanum touches on slavery, eugenics, and race in a pretty interesting way. I'm always hesitant to praise stuff like that because I don't feel like I know enough to tell if it's being done respectfully. I like to think so?
Anyway, the book mentions someone who owns Horror Among The Dark Elves and they live in Caladon.
- Caladon, Take Me Away
It's sort of hard to tell where Caladon fits into the world of Arcanum. I'm sure there is a text or tome somewhere that tells me, but all I really know is it's its own kingdom and it seems to be neutral in regards to magic and technology The museum celebrates achievements in both, at least.
In Caladon, I hunt down Victor Misk, the last known person to own a copy of the book. However, he's dead! Remember what I was saying about structure earlier? I'm now at least 5 steps removed from my goal (name, to book, to book, to name, to ??). This is like a Call of Cthulhu tabletop session.
Anyway, I console the widow (leer), and start digging. It seems Victor was acting strangely before his death, and said that he hid the book "somewhere that only he and his old dad would know." She's also distraught about Curse of T'sen-Ang in general. How on earth did anyone know her husband even owned this cursed book? This branches off into a mystery of its own, one which we'll dispatch quickly before doing some desecrating of poor Misk's grave.
Lillian Misk has two servants, one named Wesley (brusque human), and a half orc lady who doesn't speak English very well. Both are reticent to talk, but clues in dialogue lead me to believe Wesley is hiding something, while the half orc is just scared she'll have something pinned on her, given that she's a second class citizen. So, I sniff around for Wesley's address, and find a promissory note signed Elmer Burbottom. A quick jaunt to the Hall of Records (it's actually a huge pain in the dick, even with the teleport spell), and I find his address. When I get there, I find a cloaked figure standing over a corpse!
Before I can question Cloaky Cloakerson, he teleports away and I'm left with the words of a dying man. This fella, Burbottom, is Kendrick Wales. He was using a pen name because "Elmer Burbottom" is dorky af. Publishing is hard all over. Anyway, he bribed Wesley.
I go to confront him but, alas, now he has died. For this book, this thing I'm pursuing. I love the dread created by following a trail of bodies to a cursed object, the sense that you should give up but you can't. Very Lovecraft.
- Desecration Station
Given that so much detective work boils down to digging people up, maybe rather than asking detectives to change, we should just stop respecting graves at all. Ever think of that?
There's two little side bits in the graveyard about Magnus and Virgil, but I'm saving them for NPC roundups later, when their stories climax. As of now, I find an unrelated book (gah!) that happens to a mark identifying it as from the Roseborough Gift Shop. The widow tells us that Victor often visited his father's grave there. On to fucking Roseborough I guess!
Roseborough is a tiny town most known for The Ring of Brodgar, part of a magical...thingie, that's related to a bunch of other quests, including some on the main path. We'll come back here later to get banished to THE VOID. For now, there isn't much to do other than track down Misk's father's grave (after a very, very annoying hunt for a shovel). Inside, the book. Finally.
Horror Among The Dark Elves is actually sort of neat. Part travelogue, part horror story, it tells of Terwilliger, on his quest to research the dark elves, ultimately ended up ambushed by them and their foul nature magics. It has the cadence and tone of a campfire tale, with dark shapes moving just beyond the light. Pretty cool, and it gives us our location. So, next entry, let's talk about T'sen Ang and The First Tanari Temple. Stay tuned for some side quests.
SIDE B: MIGHT REWRITE HISTORY
Let's talk side quests, which, by no mistake I'm sure, are of a piece with the above. We're following clues.
- More like Caladon't (stop side questin')
I want to talk about four side quests here, each with increasing complexity, each interesting in its own way.
In Pieces On The Ground
First, let's tie up some loose ends from the fucking intro, seeds sown forever ago. A man named Hieronymous Maxim (awesome) lives in Caladon and I find him distraught over the ruins of his factor. Some orcs came in, trashed his lab, and stole his air machines. Now, the king thinks he never had them in the first place and he's trying to defraud the crown. It's quite a pickle.
This is a little familiar to us. We were flying to Tarant on a zeppelin, a slow, inefficient, dangerous form of travel, when we were attacked by the future (THEME). The same orcs who crashed our blimp got their weapons from Maxim. And we have proof that the tech works. Why? Because we've been holding onto a broken camera the whole game.
There's not much of a quest here. We either held onto the camera or we sold it and we go buy it back. But what's neat is the sense of continuity. There's something similar in Roseborough, where we can question an inn keep about a matchbook we found at the crash site. The game, after dragging us from town to dungeon to town, is reminding us of our origins. Remember what happened, remember Virgil finding you, remember him telling you that you're the one? This is important.
Tell Him About The Rabbits
David Wit, a simple farmer, raises rabbits. Sad thing is, they're getting slaughtered, one a night, and it's driving him out of business. His daughter might know something, since she's out all night down at Fingerblast Falls, getting hers. Right?
Well, no, because she broke it off with Five Thumb Finny months ago. Now she's having a hard time sleeping because she's dreaming about the rabbits. Hmm. Anyone remotely genre savvy can smell a werewolf story. And it's sort of generic too. But I want to bring it up because it highlights an annoying mechanical flaw in Arcanum.
I waited until midnight, expecting to see the daughter turn into a werewolf, or get a dialogue option. Nope, my followers killed her in one round. Bam. I still "solved the mystery," but I couldn't do it the right way, which involves finding a cure waaaaay later. WTF, followers?
Arcanum doesn't have the robust set of contingencies to its combat system that Baldur's Gate does. There's no "Pause on spotting hostile" or "Pause after attacking." My idiots just attack whatever void snakes and Stillwater Beasts are about. Nine times out of ten, this is just fine. But here, it fucked the quest. Frustrating.
The Whytechurch Murders are the talk of Caladon. Obvious to anyone who knows anything, these are a play on the Jack the Ripper murders. Same MO (prostitutes, lots of cutting). The cool part of this is the amount of actual detective work you need to do. At each crime scene, I find a hatch that is far too heavy to lift. It seems they were here from the old city, remnants of the old sewer system, but they're sealed off. Well, well, well. What could lift these gargantuan slabs of metal?
Fucking demons. This, coupled with a eldritch word written at one of the murder sites suggests getting in touch with Professor Eakins, the Demonologist. I know Eakins, because I was diligent in exploring, so it's a simple matter of wiring him for information. The book he sends back suggests that this particular demon can only be killed by a dagger in The Pit of Fires.
Here's where it gets cool: when I get to the Pit of Fires (very unpleasant place, lots of fire), I find a group of adventurers questing after the same dagger. If my tongue is silver enough, I can convince them that my threat is greater than theirs, and that they should retrieve the dagger for me.
I know Baldur's Gate 2 does something very similar, but it's such a neat idea that I'm always going to call it out when it comes up. Dagger in hand, I go into the lich infested(!) sewers to find a man named Vincent, the host of the demon. Down he goes.
So, finally, here's the coolest thing in Arcanum so far. Waaaaay back in Tarant, I stole the skulls of two conjoined twins from a warehouse. Though someone at the university would have purchased them as a curiosity (and I might have been able to sell them to the PT Barnum stand in), I learned there was another way. Someone told me that there was a guy, Arthur Tyron, in Caladon, who would know more.
Tyron tells me of a grand conspiracy. Ever notice how gnomes always have half ogre body guards? Seems weird, right? Half ogres are the result of rape and pillage. Ogre males with human females, and yet they're everywhere. If these pairings were happening all the time, we'd raise an army and wipe ogres off the face of the planet. So, where do they come from?
This is the sort of question that works perfectly as the seed for a conspiracy because the evidence was there all along, but easy to ignore. There's an added layer, even, because it's a video game, so maybe some designer just liked how half ogres looked in their tuxes. But no, Arcanum doesn't work that way, there's a reason.
It seems that there was a breeding program. Gnomes were kidnapping women to create these slaves. Tyron gives me a location (the unfortunately named "Half Ogre Island." Oh no, another dungeon you say?
No. Half Ogre Island, where no captain wants to go (it's almost 1,000 gold to take my party), is abandoned. There's just a factory, black science equipment, and human bones. And a journal. The journal describes the experiments in sickening detail, refers to the number of harvests a woman might stand up to, of how the ultimate goal is to keep male and female half ogres in a separate breeding facility. Flabbergasted, I head back to Caladon.
Only to find a gnome in his place. Tyron is gone, and the gnome starts pumping me for information. I make him spill first. He says how gnomes were second class citizens, untrusted, weak, and no one wanted to be their body guards. They had no choice, you see. They had to kidnap the women, subject them to horrors, and then, when people found out, they'd kidnap their loved ones, or threaten to.
I say I'll go to the papers and he says, "So?" What do I have? This journal could have been written last week. I just have words. It seems the gnomes leak these details in order to keep people talking about it, because they know that it sounds crazy. They know no one will believe them. Frustrated, I kill this guy (my party doesn't like that, for some reason), and I head to the paper.
Breathlessly, I explain what happened and hand over the journal. The newsman assures me that the story will run tomorrow.
A day later, the newsman is gone, replaced by a fellow who has no idea what I'm talking about. He was sent on a wild goose chase, a tip, from a gentleman he'd never seen before. The story is gone and I sold the only piece of evidence I had for a measly 100 gold.
I think it's evident how cool this quest is, but I want to point out how it does a good job of engaging the player. It's not one of those things where the character is tricked, the character is paranoid, but the player can see right through it and is just going through the motions. Instead, I'm tricked along with the character, I'm disgusted along with the character, and I'm played along with the character. Really, really fantastic stuff.
Anywho, see you guys next time for the next couple townlets, then a few entries on the end game.