Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Greetings From Calradia!

Something happened last week on Halloween (no, I didn't bite anyone, calm down) and it threw me for a little loop. Enough to stop me in my tracks as I was writing here, mid-paragraph. So I've been spending my days since then wrapped in the safety blanket of imaginary worlds. I've lost a couple dozen matches of Civ 4, sliced and diced a few hundred people in TF2, played through the first half of Resonance (more on that later) revisited NWN2 a bit (more on Qara and redundant prestige classes later), read through the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, expanded my Elemental empire, watched a few old Dr. Who episodes, held back the alien menace in Defense Grid... and as though that weren't enough reality-dodging, I started a new campaign of Mount and Blade.

So, hail, traveler. Welcome to my comfort zone!

And really, as escapist fantasies go, M&B sort of takes the cake. Not because of any particular, unique elements but because it does the basics so well as to let you immerse yourself in your own imagination. Choose your own medieval adventure. Do you loot, capture, steal or enslave? Do you sneak or trample? Do you bolt or lance? Who are you, what are you, and where are you going? You decide, without any guidance, with nothing but your internal compass and risk/reward estimates. You want to see what a sandbox MMO should look like? Play through a few years of Calradian time and imagine that every peasant and merchant, every lord and bandit were replaced with players.

"What a scene, man, whoeee! And then they just plop you out here like a naked baby in the woods." - Smiling Jack from VtM: Bloodlines

My next "shifting demographic" post will likely center on the thrill of discovery. I like getting parachuted into a hostile environment to learn everything the hard way. This is adventure, this is a test of personal ability and a brave new world, in which such surprises can exist. Don't game, play. Learn to lose and learn by doing. You discover everything in M&B through interaction. Slave traders tell you how to capture slaves. Troubadours tell you about the land's courtship customs. Merchants and guild masters clue you in as to the best trade routes.
Everything else is subject to the whims of fate. "O, fortuna, velut luna, statu variabilis!" A single crossbow bolt to the face during a crucial battle can cost you weeks' worth of progress and kingdoms rise and fall within a few months. I began this campaign, for instance, with the intent to cozy up to the Kingdom of Vaegirs and then rebel. I was quite happy to see it expanding, thinking what a glorious endgame it would make to shatter this vast abusive monarchy through just revolt. And then three other kingdoms declared war. And then a fourth. Within two months my liege and future victim King Yaroglek's domain fell from five towns to one and from a dozen castles to two.
How dare they take him down before I got a chance to!
And none of this is spoon-fed to you through storylines, through easily discernible good guys and bad guys or giant map markers holding your hand through a linear sequence of events. You choose your targets and your justification. You choose whose tale of right-to-rule to believe, and there's no right answer. Any town might prosper, any kingdom might rule the others.

So here's hoping. Mount&Blade 2 is now in development. Here's hoping they choose to build on this their great strength, the sandbox appeal, minimalist and expansive, direct and complex all at once. Hope they choose to expand the core concept without diluting it. No fireballs, no dwarves with guns, no dragons, no easy answers, no pats on the back, no hand-holding. Just you and an entire brutal medieval world at your fingertips.

The vision of a warrior bold just sets me dancing.

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