SIDE A: Qintarra-o-rama
Welcome to the mystical world of elves, magic, trees, elves, dark elves, and elves. It's time to focus on the second of three fantasy archetypes we get a lot of time with in Arcanum, the elves. We've done our shifts in the coal mines and it's time to get fey. As usual, I'll be tackling the main quest and then the side stuff. I'm also going to mention a few miscellaneous locations in the north half of the continent, just to get them out of the way.
I also want to make a quick note that I did this whole section as an elf, which might change things in my favor. I don't remember how things went last time I played.
- Bitchin Treehouse
Elves in Arcanum, when they don't live in human cities, live in a tree village called Qintarra. Elves naturally live roughly a thousand years but because magic comes so easily to them, they extend their lives as a matter of course. This explains the tiny village they come from, even if it is a video game abstraction: maybe there aren't many elves because elves just don't die. If they reproduced every time they a bit of elf thong peak out of an elf sarong, we'd have elves coming out of our pointy ears.
To refresh your memory, we're here because Loghaire told us that the elven delegation that insisted the Black Mountain Clan be banished might not have been on the up and up. We want to talk to "The Silver Lady" to see if their story checks out. Who was this "M'in Gorad" anyway?
Of course, video games gotta game, so I have to do a task for Raven, The Silver Lady's daughter and major domo, before I get my audience. Luckily, this is easy and sort of neat. Apparently, some loggers have set up camp in the nearby holy ground of Falchon's Ache. My task is to get rid of them but Raven warns me: do not spill blood there. I won't like paying the price.
This turns into a Fallout 2 style dialogue boss battle. William Bench is a surveyor and he's extremely hard to outwit. Every lie you tell to try to get him to move on is rebuked. If you say he's in the wrong spot, he'll remind you of his years of experience as a surveyor. If you tell him that the zoning board didn't approve this logging operation, he'll pull out documents from the board. He has an answer for everything.
The way you get through this is by mixing truth with lies. You invoke the name of Gilbert Bates, say you're working on his behalf, and invite Bench into the fold. Any other option leads to him stonewalling you. If you attack him, that's no good either, because forest spirits will wreck your shit. If you can convince him, you have to bait him into attacking you so the spirits rain down shit on his face. It's a great encounter.
Afterwards, you get in to see The Silver Lady in an encounter that recalls talking to Vivec in Morrowwind. She's an ancient floating elflady, probably played by Tilda Swindon, who speaks entirely in prophecy. This is sort of annoying because your character won't stop saying they don't understand. Afterwards, her daughter, Raven, translates some of the prophecy for you, saying that M'in Gorad might be a dark elf name, and though the elves have no idea where the dark elves hid themselves off to, one human lived among them: Dr. Renford Terwilliger.
It seems the dark elves are the elfish supremacists in this world. They're my next stop.
All in all, this branch of the main quest is no great shakes. It's cool to see a spot of elven culture, but it's really a road bump on my way to the payoff. The Bench dialogue is a great moment, however.
- Qintarra After Dark
The side quests in and around Qintarra are no great shakes, but they're worth talking about for completionism's sake. It's also worth noting that one quest, a cool wizard murder mystery, broke for me. I'm not sure why but when I cast the tea leaves, they spell out Troika.
The best quest in this area is for an elf named Winde (shudder). It appears as if one of his hunters failed to return from an expedition. This is a big deal because there aren't many hunters (lending to my not many elves theory). So off I go exploring!
I more or less combed through this area already, so I'm not sure if the questgiver gives the location or you just have to find it, but regardless of which, I end up at the Bedokaan Village. Bedokaans are lizard men, tall lanky lizard men, who live in a swamp. They captured the hunter (probably named Spyryt or something) and it's up to me to get him out.
I can sneak in, I can fight the village, or I can talk to him. Talking to the chief, Kan Kerai, is pretty enlightening. He's doing the whole "maybe man is the monster after all" thing, but there are some cool twists on it. Human poachers came and skinned some of his people and he wants revenge. But because of the "cold blooded way," he thinks all warm blooded people are a hive mind. It's up to me to not only convince him that humans and elves are different, but that different humans can be different. He talks about how Bodokaan have the same dream and it drives their unified heart. I have to convince him that humans have different hearts, which create individual dreams, and poachers are rare.
There are lots of pitfalls here too. If I try to threaten him, or insinuate that he'd lose the war with humans, he doesn't care. That's something someone warm-blooded would say. You get this sense of a culture that's intelligent but very alien, and the game makes navigating this conflict really satisfying. You can also just offer to kill the poachers. Either way, if you make peace, he offers you one of his warriors, a lizard guy named Waromon (catch'em all). He's an archer. I ditch Chukka and bring on the lizard friend.
The main reason I'm dumping Chukka is he freaks out every time I force combat. On my way to Qintarra, I actually ran into the Stillwater Giant (in blue bunny form, no less), and Chukka complained every time I attacked it. Listen, buddy, if you can't hang with the cool kids who kill bunnies and smoke, then we don't need you. I've got Waromon Green over here.
This bit with the Stillwater Giant rolls into two comedy encounters in this area. First, there's a kite village full of the little buggers dancing around a dead wizard. This is obviously supposed to be Gargamel, the relatable asshole from the Smurfs. Second, there's "Small Pond" that features an ogre named Garbonzo the Monkey Trainer. This is just a combat encounter between the player, an ogre, and like 20 combat monkeys. These are just goofs, and neither are particularly funny, but this sort of light content is necessary because Arcanum is pretty bleak.
- Star Man
There's an awful dungeon up here called K'na Tha, that unfortunately I have to engage with because it's the final piece of the mastery quest for thrown weapons. A while back, some lady asked me to go fetch Azram's Star, a legendary throwing weapon. This is where it's at.
K'na Tha is Arcanum's attempt at a Zelda style dungeon and it totally doesn't work. It's full of long corridors and tedious monsters. And worse than that, these little torch "puzzles." There will be three torches, you hit one with a boomerang, and if it's the right one, you teleport to a new area. If it's the wrong one, you fight a monster or get teleported back. That's it.
This obviously sucks. Puzzles aren't puzzles without complete information. Puzzles are about deduction. This is arbitrary. Guesswork. And it sucks. But it also made me reflect a bit on most Zelda puzzles. Imagine the consequences were worse: these puzzles are just like 70% of the 3D Zelda puzzles. Find an eye on the wall, hit it. Extinguish/light 3 torches. Etc. Zelda puzzles sort of suck.
Anyway, I just wanted to mention this dungeon because it does something different and gets me mastery for throwing weapons, which means that range doesn't apply to me anymore. That's fantastic.
The rest of the miscellaneous areas up here, other than one beefy dungeon we'll visit later, are just world filler. A single landmark with some monsters and treasure. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but you do get the sense that the critical path areas in Arcanum are so fleshed out that they didn't have tons of time to devote to this sort of fluffem.
Our next entry will take us to Caladon, the second to last town we'll be visiting before we get to end game dungeon content. I'll be picking up the pace a bit because, though I'm enjoying myself, I'm eager to move on. I hope you'll join me.
SIDE B: The Tolkien Precedent
Races in fantasy games are weird, right? A big part of growing up is learning that people are different all over, shedding racial stereotypes, etc. But in fantasy gaming and literature, these stereotypes are everywhere. I'm not sure how to feel about this.
I don't mean morally. I'm certainly not drawing a comparison between real life racism and fantasy racism. I mean from a storytelling/world building perspective. When you step into a fantasy world, you know elves are naturey and magicy and either tall or short. Dwarves are beardos who like ale, hate elves, and live underground. Hobbits or halflings are annoying, gnomes are greedy little inventors, etc. It's shorthand and as such, it's predictable.
The obvious "answer" to this would be to subvert these expectations. But I think it's gotten to the point where even that's tired. A hard drinking elf isn't surprising, a wizard dwarf doesn't really say anything, a smart orc isn't daring. Now, you can get some good stories out of those subversions, I think, when you bring the culture clash into focus. A dwarf who is kicked out of his homeland for being into magic can provide a neat story, but the subversion itself isn't enough.
So, I guess the question is: what do these races add, other than tradition? It's not that I don't want multiple cultures in my fantasy fiction, because I do. But this shortcut probably isn't the way to do it. I always hesitate to bring up Game of Thrones as if it's high literature. One thing it does well, however, is differentiate cultures without resorting to elves and dwarves. Each people in that series feel distinct and even when they engage in cliché, it's rarely so familiar as the gnomish tinker or the elvish archer.
Here's where I'm going with this: Arcanum, despite engaging in this practice, successfully uses it because it's about a Tolkienesque world changing to be a more modern one. The dwarfish tropes, the elvish tropes, they represent something in Arcanum. The player might wonder why elves stick to magic and dwarves don't, but the human characters in the world are wondering it as well. To them, why not use both? Let's just progress, try to make the world better. This backfires, of course, but the stereotypes are there for a reason.
And good thing too, because I'm not sure I have time for these tropes if they're not invoked thoughtfully. Characterization is the destination and the journey in storytelling. It's self defeating to try to shortcut past it.