SIDE A: Tarant
Guys, this is where Arcanum gets good.
Arcanum has a ridiculously good reptuation. It's regularly touted as one of the best CRPGs of all time. I remember reading the GOG forums when the service was new and the outpouring of desire to easily play this once rare classic was huge. And Tarant is where Arcanum starts to earn its reputation.
Tarant is the capital of, well, Tarant. The land formerly had a king but is now run by a cadre of gnomish hyper capitalists. The kingdom was driven to economic prosperity due to technology (more on that later) and thus it's huge, dirty, and heavily economically stratified. Last entry we visited Cumbria, the old world, still entrenched in magic. This is the new world.
I think Tarant is one of the best examples of an urban area in games. It's relatively crowded, there's tons to do, and you're forced to navigate by address and cross street, just like you would in real life. Though there are no loading screens, it's easily as big as Baldur's Gate in BG1, possibly as big as the city was in BG2. It's actually so big that the player is giving a fast travel option around the city via subway. Unfortunately, I'm just too dang magical. So I hoof it.
I'm sort of at a loss for how to cover Tarant. Though it has its share of generic "clear my warehouse" quests, there's so much character and detail, so many interesting wrinkles in the questlines that it'll be hard to choose. I'm basically going to cover the main quest and my character build in this entry, then cover my favorite side quests and the outlying areas in the next. This B-side will be about my feelings on Steampunk because this is the moment where Arcanum becomes about something other than gears and blimps.
- Lord of the Ring
There are two things that have brought us to Tarant. First, we have this ring. It has the initials GB and we know it was made by Schuyler and Sons, a jewlery concern headquartered in Tarant. Second, we're here to meet Elder Joachim. Since the latter is a bit of a non starter, let's talk about it first.
Joachim isn't in the city but he has left us a telegram. He essentially says that he's moved on (to Ashbury, I think) but that we can find out more about the religion if we checked the local temple. He says we should follow, but cautions us in a strange manner that suggests stopping the assissins that have been coming after us is even more important than my character's life. Virgil is appropriately sheepish about this, and you can tease him, but it raises the question: just who are these guys, The Molochean Hand? We'll learn a bit more about them today but for now, it's time for a lesson in theology.
The Panarii, the religion to which I am apparently a Jesus figure, is the most popular religion in Arcanum. As fantasy religions go, it's pretty basic. There was a legendary hero, Nasrudin, who once sealed away a dark elf Satan figure named Arronax. I'm apparently the reincarnation of Nasrudin. It's all so basic and the pamphlet is hilariously salesmanlike. Here's the content:
Pretty goofy. Something's up. Let's table that for later. Pursuing Joachim is going to be the most prominent B-plot of the game.
* Don't Ever Kill Me or My Sons Again
Schuyler and Sons is located in a side street off an alley, nested deep in the commercial district. Outside, we find an NPC, Magnus, who is extremely a dwarf. He's classic, super Scottish sounding, and we have a common goal: he has a bracelet that was passed down from his clan that was also made by Schuyler and Sons. I take him into my party, though he's no great shakes mechanically.
What I like about the encounter with Magnus is how it illustrates how fleshed out the demihuman races are in this game. Magnus chides you for asking his name, explaining that in Dwarfish culture, a name has power because it is your history. Remember when we met Sogg Mead Mug? Ogre names describe what you *are*. Dwarven names describe *where you've come from*. We'll keep Magnus around for a while just because he's interesting. I'd like to help him find his clan, if possible.
The guy inside the shop isn't very helpful. The Schuylers aren't around and he doesn't know when they'll be back. I try to persuade him that I'm with the authorities but lacking any ID, I can't sell the ruse. So, I can kill him or get to the chamber behind him through subterfuge. I've been leveling my thieving skills somewhat as well, and Arcanum has a hilarious sneak animation (you look like a cartoon cat walking past a sleeping dog), so I sneak in under cover of night only to find...
A basement full of zombies that leads to a dwarven tomb! And it's four levels deep and it's presided over by a trio of necromancers! Holy shit! When you scratch away at the surface of things in Arcanum, you often find something cool like this. It seems that these jewelers stumbled upon this ancient tomb and have been reanimating dwarves to do their labor for them. There are all thees hints that this clan of dwarves might be outcasts, due to misshapen heads and poor quality work, but I don't care: I'm going to give my new buddy Magnus the blood he desires. So I kill the trio and find out who the ring was for in their files. It should be noted that you can strike a deal with them as well, keeping their secret in exchange for the information you require. A lot of bad guys in this game will bargain with you.
It turns out the G.B. stands for Gilbert bates. This name means something.
* The Smartest Man in the Room
Gilbert Bates is the reason Arcanum is at war with itself. He's the chief industrialist, the inventor of the steam engine, and the largest manufacturer of technology in the realm. His house is the one that blocks the horizon from a mile away. It's guarded 24/7. And I need to talk to him.
There are a *bunch* of ways to do this. I can side with a guy named Appleby, a competing industrialist (I think this might be a riff on Edison/Tesla). Appleby gives me a quest to sabotage Gilbert's pupper sized steam engine. If successful, Appleby will show me a secret passage into Gilbert's house to get incriminating evidence against him. I don't really want to do that because I want to chat with Gilbert, so I go a different route. Now, I could rat out Appleby and get inside, or do an odd job for Master Bates, but actually accidentally stumble upon the secret entrance to his mansion while doing *another* quest. This is cool.
I recently had a friendly discussion with someone on our Slack channel about what open worlds add to a game and I think the "stumble upon" factor is probably the best argument for them. You can achieve non linearity without an open world but it's very difficult to accidentally run into content without one. So, through the secret passage I go, and I come out in a servants quarters. I disguise myself and my whole party, and traipse through like I own the joint.
When I come clean to Gilbert, I get a huuuge exposition dump that I'll summarize here. It seems that the gnome I ran into was actually dwarf who had shaved his beard because he was in hiding. He was part of a clan that Gilbert used to associate with as a boy. When Gilbert was young, being unpopular and with a pair of shitty parents, he spent all his energy trying to join this clan. One day the dwarves showed him a dumb side project of theirs: a steam engine. It was a lousy invention, they said, because why would they want to put themselves out of a job? But Gilbert took the idea, improved upon it, and was noticed. He never invented the steam engine but let everyone believe he did because a shadowy cabal of robed figures told him not to reveal that the technology was dwarven. And ever since, he's lived with the guilt.
What I love about this story beat is that it turns Arcanum into sort of a first contact story. Arcanum isn't our world. It was a fantasy world, a *Cumbrian* world, and due to very advanced technology, everything's been thrown into turmoil. There's huge wealth disparity, which we'll see next entry when we explore the different areas of town. Certain races have been subjugated (ever wealthy human has a half ogre butler and the factories are staffed by orcs and half orcs). By introducing this catalyst, Tarant gained too much power, too quickly, and has had a *disastrous* effect on the world. Not only does this make Arcanum a cautionary tale about the Prime Directive, it's also an environmental parable. You run into an elf later who says something like, "Of course humans did this to the world. They don't live long enough to see the consequences."
And Gilbert is the guy who did it. What a burden to bear. In a neat detail, the reason why the "gnome" says to find the "boy" is because he didn't realize that Gilbert would grow into an old man by now. It's the same twist Fallout 4 did but it doesn't insult your intelligence quite as much.
Anywho, Gilbert sends me off to find out what happened to the clan he worked with, The Black Mountain Clan, as they've gone missing. He feels the answer must be there. Remember, the "gnome" (real name: Stennar Rock Cutter), said to warn the "boy" about a great evil. Hopefully, finding the clan will help us find this evil.
So, that's it for the main quest. Our next stop is the Black Mountain Mines, but before that, we have a quantum fuckton of side quests to do, and they're awesome. Look forward to quests about Phrenology, genetic engineering, con men, and booze wars.
* Build Update
Before that, let's do a quick update on where I'm putting points and how I've been cheating. As I mentioned last entry, I did that respec because summoning wasn't working for me. This entry, I've done a little straight up stat inflation in order to see more of the game. So, I pumped my charisma so I could take new characters with me (to talk about them). I also gave myself enough points to master Conveyance so I could teleport, a major convenience and the only form of fast travel outside of trains. They probably never should have tied that to magic school mastery.
My legit points have been going into mastering time magic and getting better at throwing chakrams. My battle strategy right now is to cast haste on myself and then pummel the enemy with harm spells and chakrams. This is an expensive build, because I need to buy dozens and dozens of mana potions, but it's pretty satisfying. I haven't found much in the way of cool magical equipment yet but that'll come next episode as I go tomb raiding.
**SIDE B: Try Not To Judge Anything By The Worst of Its Fans**
I can't remember where I first heard that, but I try to keep it in mind. I mean, hell, the worst Dark Souls fans suck pretty bad. The worst retro games fans are dickhead gatekeepers who check someone's credentials before they're entitled to think something about Sonic the Hedgehog. So, in general, fandoms suck. And yet...
Steampunk fans have a pretty bad reputation. There are a couple of reasons for this, not least of which because steampunk fans tend towards the performative. If I had a nickel for every time I saw a guy in a top hat and goggles walking around town, well, I'd probably have a couple bucks.
Steampunk is also incredibly white. Someone smarter than me has probably examined the idea of youths escaping to colonial England as problematic on some level. A lot of anglophile aesthetics probably have this problem, so it's hardly unique to steampunk.
Another reason I think steampunk gets shit on is because it doesn't really make sense. I know, fiction doesn't have to make sense, sci fi doesn't have to make sense, but for certain purists, a degree of sensibility is a perk. Sci Fi works by looking to the future to reveal things about the present. Steampunk isn't really concerned with that because steampunk has always been more an *aesthetic* expression than a *mechanical* one. A cyberpunk story might have harsh truths about a potential surveillance state whereas a steampunk tale is more likely to rollick a bit, and invoke a tone rather than an idea (I know exceptions abound, don't @ me). For some fans of genre fiction, this is a deal breaker.
It's not a deal breaker for me but that first bit, the performative bit, sort of is. I actually think a lot of steampunk stuff is pretty cool. I like some of the aesthetics, the color palette. But I think the dress up stuff is pretty dorky, no matter how hot corsets are. And though I'm no sci fi purist (my favorite sci fi is the trippiest shit), I do think there's a tendency towards the Zyborne Clock with steampunk.
The Zyborne Clock is one of my favorite things, and it's a good joke, but it's also a good cautionary tale for creative people. It's bloated, its characters are mary sues, its nonsensical. I've read things and played games that feel Zyborne Clock-like to me, and that's a sign I'm in bad territory.
So, yeah, I don't know. I have mostly stayed away from it, other than Arcanum and a stray few novels and movies. I feel like, for someone more versed, there's a really good essay out there. This isn't that. This is just me talking out my aversion to a pretty huge swath of genre fiction. I sometimes feel like I'm missing out because Boneshaker made me roll my eyes so hard I couldn't keep reading it. Or, you know, maybe it's just a bunch of stupid gears all over everything.