Why I Love is a series of guest editorials on GamesIndustry.biz intended to showcase the ways in which game developers appreciate each other's work. This entry was contributed by Gisle Sølvberg, Programmer and Game Designer at Perfectly Paranormal, which is currently developing narrative adventure puzzle game Helheim Hassle.
It was a biting cold winter night in the year of our lord, 2004. The fire was roaring in the living room, and we had just had our daily meal of lutefisk. That was all we ate back then in the before times. I was sitting happily, or so I thought, playing with some sticks on the ground, the national pastime.
Suddenly, the outer door flies open, the freezing air rushing in! What little moisture was in the air immediately froze and fell to the floor as rime. The burst of air nearly put out the fire, my parents both ran towards the door, racing against time and temperature in order to close it! When the dust finally settled, my older brother was standing there with a look on his face I had never seen before: excitement.
"What is it?" I asked as I carefully put away my sticks.
He just smiled and walked decisively into the center of the living room, not even undressing. From within his backpack he pulled out a huge wooden box, engraved with strange markings I had never seen before. I ran my hand along the box, it was warm to the touch, even though it had been outside for several hours.
"Open it," my brother said, encouragingly.
I carefully opened the metal clasps in front, and slowly opened the lid. A soft, warm light emanated from within. Inside, on a red, hand-sewn pillow, lay a Philips DVD+RW disk.
Speaking softly, not taking my eyes off it, I said, "I don't understand, what is it?"
"That," he replied, measuring his words carefully, "is a totally not pirated version of Gothic 2."
(Okay, cards on the table, it was pirated, but stick with me, I'll hopefully redeem myself by the end of this article!)
So the above story is obviously not entirely true. The truth is I can't really remember how or when I got introduced to this game. I have deduced from looking at the North American release date -- October 28th, 2003, English version -- that it must have been sometime between then and spring 2004. What I do remember, however, is that my older brother came home one evening with a pirated version of the game, we installed it on our shared computer, and for me it was the defining game when it came to RPGs.
After booting up the game, my brother started playing first, naturally. I sat next to him and watched when I immediately noticed something different: all the characters talked, all the time! And not only that, you could choose your responses and the other characters would react!
Up until that moment I had only played two types of games: first-person shooters and real-time strategy games, Half-Life and Age of Empires, respectively. Sure, there is some dialogue in Half-Life, and the units in Age of Empires yelled some lines I still remember to this day ("Til vardaga!"), but those games weren't centered around dialogue. This felt completely new to me.
The next thing I noticed was the inventory, you could walk around and pick up almost anything you wanted. Later when I discovered you could buy, sell, and even craft items, my mind was blown! To some experienced RPG gamers, this must seem pretty strange, but this was my absolute first encounter with a game like this.
"I had no frame of reference for this type of game... This was my first encounter with the concept of character levels, experience, stats, and skills"
That first play session, I think we played for perhaps one hour. The day after I started my own game and tried to venture out into the unknown. The first thing I discovered: this game is hard!
The best way I can describe it is like watching a non-gamer try to coordinate the mouse and keyboard for the first time. As an experienced gamer, it is both incredibly fascinating and utterly frustrating to watch. Even though I could use a mouse and keyboard, I had no frame of reference for this type of game, I didn't know how things usually worked. This was my first encounter with the concept of character levels, experience, stats, and skills.
After learning the basics, I started introducing the game to my friends. We played together, and eventually a few of them started playing themselves. We would all have daily meetings discussing our progression, talking about choices we had made and how to complete certain quests or get certain items. Since we were new to this type of game, our understanding of English wasn't great, and we didn't know how to use the internet for help, so progression was slow. I think it took us a good week to gain entry into the city of Khorinis, which should only realistically take about an hour if you know what you're doing. Looking back, I find it absolutely amazing that we had the stamina to keep banging our heads at it.
In retrospect, there are a number of reasons to love Gothic 1 and 2. The series has a simple but in my opinion very fun combat system. The story is good. The world and characters are interesting, and there's lots of environmental storytelling. I think the pacing and progression of the game is especially good. You start out incredibly weak, and very gradually end up incredibly powerful.
Another thing I love is that creatures don't have levels. Some games like to scale up the stats of their creatures as you progress in order to save time on having to design new and more powerful enemies. In Gothic, you're always served with a new type of enemy. This meant that you always memorised where certain types of enemies were hiding out, and the moment you realised you could kill them, you went back to all those places eager to discover what secrets lay there. Enemies don't respawn either -- except some when the story enters a new chapter -- which always made me feel like I made an actual impact on the world. I was cleaning up this mess!
"What made Gothic 2 such an amazing experience for me was the mysterious and unknown. The game had no hints, no map markers or compass"
But I think the real reason why I fell in love with this game only became clear to me a few years ago. I attended a talk by Ste Curran at Nordic Game Conference in Malmö, Sweden. (If you've never seen a talk by Ste, I strongly recommend it, that guy can write - and perform.) The talk was about mysteries, and how they don't exist anymore. You can find the answer to almost any question by Googling it, there is always a hint on-screen, or a marker on a map. In some respects, this is great, but also a little sad.
What made Gothic 2 such an amazing experience for me was the mysterious and unknown. The game had no hints, no map markers or compass. It was relentlessly unforgiving. You had to pay attention to dialogues, if not you could miss a really important detail that may not even end up in the very limited quest journal.
This is also why the social aspect of the game was so important. Because it gave you almost nothing in terms of help, my friends and I had to compare notes and share stories of our misadventures! I still think that the best games today are the games that can find a nice balance between guiding the player and creating a sense of mystery and discovery. Too much hand holding takes away some of the creative play that creates memorable experiences.
There was more than one game that made me want to go into game development, but the one common factor among all of them has been storytelling and discovery. Today I work primarily as a programmer, but what drives me and gives me meaning comes from the stories and worlds I help create.
I think it took me a year to finish Gothic 2 for the first time. I have played it again numerous times after that, discovering all the different branches of the story. Gothic 2 made me a lifelong fan of RPG games in general, and Piranha Bytes games in particular. They have had some hits and misses, like all game developers, but what I love about all of them is that they have a consistent feel. I can feel that this is a Piranha Bytes game; there is a certain character to all of them.
Since then I've bought (yes, bought, to redeem my pirated Gothic 2 introduction) and played all the Gothic games (even Arcania from Spellbound), all Risen games, and their latest game ELEX. I've been a fan of their woefully ambitious RPGs ever since, as they bring something utterly unique and vaguely inscrutable to the table. And that all began with Gothic 2.
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