I mentioned last entry how Tarant is where Arcanum comes alive. The central conflict has advanced, yes, and the Prime Directive themed twist of Bates and the steam engine is fascinating. But the flavor, the detail, that's all in the side quests. So, let's go over some favorites.
SIDE A: My god, it's full of quests
Not every sidequest in Tarant is A+. We clear a warehouse of rats. We deliver some messages. But by volume, it's, as they say, a good meatball. Or maybe a good layer dip because Tarant is a heavily stratified city. There's a clear merchant district, ritzy part of town, factory district and slum. This is important because it's almost directly a result of Bates bringing a technological renaissance through his meddling. Let'w work our way down, talking about the best quests in each stratum and saying what they tell us about the world.
- Sex and Dying in High Society
I'm actually going to talk about two quests here, because they're so neat. First, the matter of Cassandra Pettibone. Cassandra waves you down when you get into town and asks if you'd like to meet her at her house for a job opportunity. When you do, she tasks you with stealing an Elven Funerary stone. It seems that elven artifacts have become all the rage and she's trying to one up another high society tart. She gives you the location of a tomb.
Heading there, you find a group of dark elves, the hardline, super xenophobic branch of elvish culture. They're standing around an dead archaeologist. They mean business. Because I'm an elf, however, I can lie and say I'm there to pay my respects(!). Your background choices matter in Arcanum.
I steal the big fucking tombstone, and the elves attack me on my way out. Mechanically very straight forward (go to a minor dungeon, retrieve an object) but the flavor is awesome. Humans are literally grave robbing elvish culture in order to one up each other. It shows just how much the pendulum has swung away from the long sighted, magic attuned elves.
Another pretty great quest is the missing painting of Evelyn Garringsburg. This is a gumshoe quest. You track a series of clues to find the culprit. It seems Mrs. Garringsburg's husband has loose lips and has been blabbing about his painting at the gentleman's club.
The gentleman's club is the interesting part of this quest because it shows how Arcanum models stereotypical Victorian gender politics. Avelle is a lady. She can't just waltz into the cigar-boy club. I can, however, talk to the owner. And get this, the owner wants me to fuck him. That's sorta gross, I have to admit. The redeeming factor is that I can also just explode his head with magic just for asking, and steal a guest pass. There's a slightly nastier version of lady only sex work a bit later. But for now, I give this a pass.
The merchant district is full of fun little touches. I can tell my story to the newspaper, for example, which nets me money and fame but means I can no longer talk my way out of assassination attemps. Assassins literally quote me to my face. But let's focus on two different shops.
HT Parnell is a thinly guised PT Barnum stand in. He has his own "Belive it or Not" set up in Tarant, with shrunken heads and the like. Each museum artifact tells a little tale tale from the world of Arcanum. Of not, however, is Gar, the World's Smartest Orc! In Arcanum, Orcs are pretty much beasts but Gar is different. He can do math, has opinions on politics, etc, all delivered in halting monster speak.
This encounter is funny and charismatic. You can ask Gar the square root of 12,358 and he says, "Gar not genius or anything. Gar just smarter than orc." If you're smart enough, you can challenge Gar on his tea preferences and he breaks character. It turns out, Gar is just a very ugly human who was sold by his parents into indentured servitude. In the real world, he'd be treated like an orc no matter what but here he at least gets 3 hots and a cot.
You can buy Gar but you can also argue the principles of slavery versus indentured servitude with HT Parnell. What's more, you can't win that argument, because in Arcanum, the letter of the law is more important than the spirit. You can, however, threaten to expose him. I take Gar with me.
The other cool quest here, which is very mechanically simple, involves a pair of fueding mystics. You can get this quest by talking to either of the principles, either Delores Beston or Madame Toussaude. Delores wants you to steal a crystal ball from Toussause. Toussaude wants you to deliver the crystal ball to Beston. Hmmm.
I got the quest from Toussaude. When I gave it to Beston, she gloats. She says, "Ha! That hack Toussaude said that the crystal ball would be the death of me but you must have killed her in order to steal it. The ball brought death to her instead!" You respond, "Oh no no. She's still alive. Take the ball." AND BESTON'S SKIN MELTS THE FUCK OFF.
As a reward, you can either find the location of the painting in the quest above or get a permanant stat increase. If you side with Beston, you're actually cursed and lose one point of charisma permanently. Not only is this just metal and cool, it also shows another side of the setting, that of naturual philosophy, seances and mysticism.
I also like how lopsided the rewards are. Arcanum isn't a game that's afraid to punish you for making the wrong choice. It's not a gotcha moment. If you do your research, people will tell you that Toussaude actually seems to have the gift while Beston is just an jumped up hack. Your choices, even when minor, matter in Arcanum. And being smart is rewarded.
- How Can the Laboring Man Find Time for Self Culture?
Not easily. There is one Tarant quest coming later that directly deals with the plight of workers, but I can't access it yet. Instead, I want to talk about the theive's guild and how stealing is done in Arcanum.
In my playthrough, the head of the guild gets in touch with me because I graverobbed those elves. You can also get this contact by siding with the bandits waaaay back in Shrouded Hills. After doing a brief prowl to join them, you're open to thieve's guild quests in most major cities. Even though it's technically immoral, it's hugely beneficial. Gaining access to a fence for freelance theiving is really, really handy.
I don't know what it is about stealing in games, but I fucking love it. I love breaking into houses and shops in Elder Scrolls games and Deus Ex. I loved Neon Struct. I really want to prowl. But not necessarily in a Thief way. I like the Thief games (though I need to play 2), but something about the density of guards and layout frustrates me. I guess I want less resistance and more tension? Arcanum does this pretty well but with one glaring flaw- people just shut down their shops with you in them. You don't even have to hide. It ruins what would otherwise be a pretty fun feature. I still enjoy robbing these merchants blind, and I'm going to continue my chronomancer/cutpurse ways. But it's a good feature that could have been great.
- Friends in Dead Places
The bad part of Tarant is called The Boil and it's dangerous af. Guards straight up tell you they won't help you if you step foot in there and each section of the Boil is guarded by high level bandits. I love fighting above my weight class in CRPGs though, so with some clever use of grenades I was able to pry open this area of town well before sequence, like busting open a quest crab (questacean?).
The Boil is controlled by two gangs, lead by Pollack and Maug. In a refreshing twist, neither is secretly good. No Robin Hoods in this game: they're both bastards. I side with Pollack, a brutish ogre. Maug is more of a brittish gangster type. I'm not sure why I chose Pollack, and his quest isn't great (steal some booze, then assault a mansion) but, because I like to fight outside my weight class, I had great fun managing my supplies to do something I shouldn't be able to do yet.
If this section illustrates anything about Arcanum, other than just more social stratum, it illustrates how the game allows for non linearity. The same way you can technically assault the Catacombs right out of Firelink, you can fight Maug's gang fully ten levels too low.
- The Surrounding Area
There are a couple of cool things nearby. In the Tarant University (a neat area, full of background on the game world), you can find a museum that has a replica skull of the last dragon found in Arcanum. It references where he was found. So you can go and find his last stand.
Bellerogrim's Lair is a tourist attraction, and devoid of monsters at first. Just a huge fucking dragon skeleton. But behind some barrels, you can find a basement that takes you down to a treasure dungeon. Inside, you find the Last Testament of Kraka-Tur and find out how Bellerogrim met his end; it's pretty funny. Kraka-Tur, a blowhard, talks about the people of Arcanum trembling at his name and bemoans that he doesn't have enough time to rain death down on this compromised world. They just didn't understand, you see. They picked on him for being small and weak and cowardly, petty, disloyal and "perjurious."
He stumbled upon a scroll that contained the magic to turn someone into a dragon but it required dragon blood. So he coated a cow in poison(!) and tricked the dragon into eating it. And though it worked, he was driven back into the lair by the elven council, where he was forced to live out his days, smelling the decay of the magnificent beast he slew.
That's so fucking good. And we haven't met the end of Kraka-Tur.
The other neat thing is a combat dungeon to the northeast of Tarant. It's simply called Ancient Temple and it's full of badass undead. You kill all those boney friends only to find Torian Kel, a non hostile skelefriend. He sends you to get a macguffin (more dragon blood, actually, hmmm) and if you use it on him, he grows his flesh back and can join your party. I'm too good for him (morally) but I learn a lot.
Torian Kel was part of something called The Gray Legions of the Derian-Ka, a group of necromatic disciples of a man named Kerghan. It seems the Molochean Hand was part of the Derian-Ka before splintering off. Torian Kel and his Gray Legions were at war with the Molochean Hand and seemingly lost. He mentions that, being undying necromancers, he and his compatriots will live forever. In fact, the piles of bones you've found around the dungeon have been alive, just unable to react. Great!
What's most interesting, however, is that The Molochean Hand is familiar to us: they're the guys who are trying to murder us! So, piece by piece, we find out about our antagonists and right now we know they used to be necromancers and they're a very, very old order.
That's it for now. Next entry covers the first major dungeon of Arcanum (The Black Mountain Mines) and maybe Ashbury. Hope to see you there!
SIDE B: Here's Where the Strings Come In
The Arcanum OST is a top 5 game soundtrack. Performed entirely by string quartet (with some percussion on two tracks), it avoids the common pitfalls of just about every modern big budget video game and I want to talk about how.
Modern big budget game music sucks. In a race to sound like film, games have given up much of their musical identity. I realize it's unrealistic to expect chiptunes and bleepbloops out of AAA blockbusters, but game music composers have largely swung too far in the other direction. Most big budget game soundtracks I hear sound like pale emulations of film scores. It's something Kole and I call The Hans Zimmer Singularity.
I haaaaate it. I hate it when a less established artform takes on the trappings of an older medium because more established is somehow better. When something is unique to a medium, I want it to be embraced rather than rejected. Early video game music sounds like nothing else. Though the melodies might be heroic at times, this is not simply composers trying to make film music with the tools available. They were playing to the strengths of technological restraints. Now that there are no technological restraints, it's a race towards the musical equivalent of gray goo.
The Arcanum soundtrack, despite using the tools of the Hans Zimmer Singularity, manages to avoid being mistaken for anything else, purely through composition. The composer, Ben Houge, specifically avoided modern textures and instead wrote to the phrasing and counterpoint of early phrasing. He did this to evoke the past (those early, simpler melodies) and the Victorian era (a string quartet), and the results are breathtaking.
The songs are memorable and melodic while still being moody. In order to reflect another part of the overall theming, he avoided heroic sounding themes. This is a tough game about a fantastic world with realistic consequences. The protagonist can be a hero or a villain. So rather than choosing heroic or ominous, he choose meloncholy.
I mean, seriously, listen to this, the main theme. It's melodic enough to get stuck in your head. And it's depressing as hell. It evokes the world on the edge of disaster, and more over, it evokes the feeling of tragic nostalgia that comes with moving into a new epoch. You can hear, in those strings, the way that, for a world to be born, another has to die.
This is the music that plays during battles. You can almost hear a bit of melodic influence from older RPGs, right? It doesn't sound so different than Final Fantasy battle music, melodically. It's not dumb God of War bombast but it's also not silly chip tunes. The instrumentation gives it a sense of gravity and depth that is easy to take seriously and yet you wouldn't think of it as a film score. It's too percussive, too dynamic. Not enough swells for dialogue. This is how it is done. It fucking works, man.
And Sierra had immense confidence and pride in the OST. They marketed it, it's available for free here, and they released the sheet music. It's highly regarded by those who know it but I don't know that it gets enough credit for being a perfect merging of melodic game music and modern textures. It's a harmonious marriage of old and new, ironically.
If you're interested in learning more, the composer, Ben Houge, wrote a thing here: http://www.benhouge.com/arcanum.html He's really proud of it. I can't blame him.