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New Words, New Worlds
Artist, Heather Oliver             

The (Game)play’s the Thing: The Retro-RPG Eschalon

Five and twenty years ago, far back in the mists of time, a cyber-aficionado friend invited me to see her new game. Despite the primitive graphics, I liked the game’s feel, the sense of adventure and story, the witty allusions and non-linear play. The game was King’s Quest I. At about the same time, Rogue showed up. Since then, the major reason that I haven’t become a quest game addict is that developers stopped bringing them out for the Apple OS. Among my favorites I count Gabriel Knight, Syberia, Myst, King’s Quest, Circle of Blood, The Journeyman Project, the sui generis System’s Twilight, Christminster and its fellow interactive fictions – and of course that labor of love, Nethack.

The list will tell you something about my gaming tastes. I detest open-ended, multi-player, shooting and arcade games. If given a choice, I play a wizard or rogue and advance many skills rather than specialize. What captivates me is worldbuilding: story, atmospherics and the quality of the quests. That’s why the only Zork game I liked was Nemesis. It had a coherent storyline and context, and you became invested in the fates of its protagonists. And I don’t mind sparse graphics, as long as they’re evocative (System’s Twilight is a prime example).

Fast forward to 2007. Having decided not to buy any playstation, I was glumly contemplating the slim pickings for Mac users when I stumbled on Basilisk Games. They (well, he – it’s a single person who “followed his bliss”) had just launched Eschalon 1, a retro RPG game and the first of a projected trilogy for all major platforms. I looked at screen caps, downloaded the demo… and three years later, here I am in Eschalon 2, Grand Magus hat and Scout sandals on, Warmoth bow and Abyssal Freeze spell readied, facing rift harpies in the windy crags of Mistfell.

Like most games of this kind, Eschalon (henceforth EB) is based on the Dungeons and Dragons concept and is vaguely Tolkienesque. In a devastated world, a champion undertakes a quest upon which the fate of that universe depends. S/he starts with very little, acquiring knowledge, skills and ever more powerful accessories as s/he explores the world, completes quests, solves puzzles and dispatches enemies.

In EB 1, the future champion also starts with the too-common total retrograde declarative amnesia.  In Anglosaxon: she doesn’t even recall her name, let alone past deeds, though she still wields a mean blade. The handicap allows bystanders and texts to fill in the background story in carefully apportioned snippets, but at least here it fits into the story arc.

EB 2 starts where its predecessor ended but is reasonably self-contained. So the two games can be played independently, although playing both makes for a far more satisfying sense of story. Unusually for such a game, at the end of EB 2 what was up till that point solid fantasy veers into science fiction. The twist becomes intriguing after the disorientation of the shift dissipates, and it literally embodies the Clarke precept that sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

EB has the usual player classes, “races” and alignments. Quests can be completed in any relative order until the story funnels into the endgame. Unlike Nethack and its many clones, it unfolds both above and below ground. It’s turn-based, which means you can relax and enjoy its ambience instead of frantically pushing buttons in an adrenaline haze. And though you cannot advance in levels without a good deal of slaughter, Eschalon also requires strategy – especially if you play warlocks, as I do.

The Eschalon games are not perfect. Names are the usual pseudo-epic hodgepodge. Unlike the clever, vital exchanges in Gabriel Knight, interactions with non-player characters are limited and underflavored. The dialogue is by-the-numbers (“Do you want this quest?” Choice 1: “Yes, I will undertake it and gain umpteen experience points!” Choice 2: “No, I’ll just go eat some worms!”). Entire squares of the map are featureless waste through which you must literally trudge. Worse yet, if you meet enemies in such regions you have no recourse but brute-force bashing coupled with fleeing to regroup. In some parts, the enemy throngs are numbingly monotonous. You cannot attain the highest levels unless you resort to the cheat of reloading a previous character into a new game. And unlike Nethack, Eschalon has no class-specific quests.

At the same time, the game has truly wonderful touches. Non-player characters fight enemies if you maneuver them within each other’s range. You can kill enemies by luring them under portcullises or near gunpowder kegs (which you can even place strategically in EB 2, though they’re damnably heavy). There is no respawning of hostiles and containers generate random loot that can be literally marvelous. In EB 2 you also have weather, which affects skill and equipment efficacy; and foraging ability, that gifts you with sacks of alchemy ingredients every time you camp.

The EB universe has beautifully rendered and logically varied environments – mountains, plains and coasts; tundras, forests, prairies, deserts.  Also, this is a water world, like Le Guin’s Earthsea. Rivers, lakes, seas are never too far away and play an active role in the game. During the day, birds sing or frogs peep.  At night, crickets trill and fireflies twinkle.  Then there is the music. It warns you if enemies are nearby, even if you can’t see them. It swells to a paean when you’re engaged in combat. And in EB 2 it has become a beguiling, elegiac Lydian background that is integral to the game’s mood, although it is not linked to quest context as it is in Myst.

Despite its quotidian larger concept, Eschalon is immensely appealing to me because it has a coherent story with context – and because it demands and rewards exploration. Lagniappes abound in the game: a hidden chest in this rocky cove, a skills trainer in that secluded glen. And the fragmentary texts and conversation snippets that you encounter or trigger (especially in EB 2) have echoes, as if there are indeed layers to this world beyond its surface, itself riddled with abandoned buildings and half-completed works that add to the haunting effect.

Given that the Eschalon games are essentially the work of a single person, they are a real achievement, especially in evoking the sense of a rich, lived-in, immersive universe. It comes as no surprise that EB 1 won an indie award and created a devoted word-of-mouth following that awaited the advent of EB 2 with baited breath. It will be a real loss to RPG stalwarts if this devotion does not translate to enough income for Thomas Riegsecker to complete his own quest: finish Eschalon as he dreams – and as we do, along with him.

Images: Benoit Sokal’s Syberia; Nethack, tile version (partial level); Jane Jensen’s Gabriel Knight

Glimpses of my immersive universe (more in the Stories section):

Contra Mundum
Dry Rivers

Note: The article is now also at Huffington Post.

9 Responses to “The (Game)play’s the Thing: The Retro-RPG Eschalon”

  1. ioscode says:

    Yay, they make a Linux version! Might just have to check that out.

  2. Athena says:

    Do — you won’t regret it! The game flows like silk on the Mac. Zero glitches and crashes. I suspect the Linux version is equally smooth.

  3. intrigued_scribe says:

    I had little familiarity with Eschalon (or many other games, truth be told) but it sounds like a rich, multi-layered universe that engages the mind just as much as other senses. Likewise, this incisive article does an excellent job of describing its features. 🙂

  4. Athena says:

    You can play the demos for both games for free. I think they will really appeal to you!

  5. Colin says:

    What occurs to me in reading this is that a lot of the things you enjoy most about Eschalon are the same things I enjoy most about Oblivion (and Fallout 3): it rewards exploration, the freedom to pursue whatever quests and stories you’re interested in, it has a coherent story built within a deep universe. I think I’m going to have to check this out. Good story-driven games are, as I noted, difficult to find.

    PS. One thing I didn’t mention about Oblivion in the entry I wrote: some of the short stories you find in scattered books throughout the game are far and away the best examples of short-form fantasy fiction I’ve read in years, and the fun part is you don’t need to have any prior experience with the universe to enjoy them. If you’re interested in reading some of them (some are vignettes, really), you can find them easily online – has basically all of them. In particular I’d recommend “Withershins,” “The Wolf Queen” series, “Palla,” and possibly my favorite, “Immortal Blood.”

  6. Athena says:

    Very much so. There are a some interesting texts in Eschalon as well, in the random and skill books you encounter. I’ll check out the Oblivion texts, thanks for the recommendation! *puts reader/writer hat on*

  7. David says:

    Have you ever tried the Thief series? There’s a lot of interesting texts in that game.

  8. Athena says:

    I haven’t tried Thief. I’ll take a look — you can play it online now it seems.