A diary of sorts, wherein I moonlight as a games writer. Under haphazard construction.
Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magicka Obscura came out 15 years ago today.
This blows my mind because it was (I think?) one of the very first games which I played on a demo disk that really, really got under my skin. I played a lot of demos as a kid, most of which I enjoyed, and then almost entirely forgot about. Game reviews gave me my recommendations of things to play, coverdisk demos were short, disposable free games.
Most demos used to give you a very narrow slice of gameplay to experience in order to tease you with the promise of more. RTS’ would give you a short early mission with just basic units and have a splash screen at the end showing the big crazy impressive ones. Old shareware SHMUPs would let you play one or two stages and only earn enough cash to buy the basic ship upgrades in the store leaving the more impressive ones tantalisingly beyond your reach. FPS’ would give you a mission or two at the start of the game filled with basic grunts and maybe one or two weapons besides the starting pistol and creative re-skinning of a melee attack. Usually they were just enough to have fun with for an hour or two before uninstalling and putting something else on. In rare and special cases however, they provided as much entertainment as full games themselves.
I’m wandering. This isn’t a nostalgia bend on how much I miss magazine cover disks. I’ve still not finished the one about mods and mutators and that’s been overdue for more than a year. I’ll get back to Arcanum in a second.
RPGs would often give you a pre-built character or party to run through a small chunk of the story with. Maybe you’d get to level up a bit and pick an ability or two from limited available options, or find some cool random gear or sidequests hidden away from the beaten path, but for the most part you were given some toys to play with, one or two interesting long-term plot hooks to wonder about, and invited to buy the full game if you wanted to know whether the protagonist ever recovered from their amnesia.
Where Arcanum differed was that it threw the toybox open *wide*. Instead of dropping you into a pre-defined scenario, the devs Troika simply let you start a whole new game, fresh from the beginning, with the entirety of the character creator and the first two areas open to you. You could be whoever you wanted to be, and then the Zeppelin crash site and Shrouded Hills were your oyster. The options available were the sort of thing you’d usually see boasted about on a splash screen as being available if you bought the full game once you’d finished playing. Sixteen Magickal colleges, eight Technological Disciplines, and sixteen [obligatory] skills split between four different [generic] categories. Eight playable races and 26 character backgrounds, which not only affect the six basic ability scores but also bring into play other unique factors such as dialogue limitations.
Nothing was closed off to you, and thanks to the point-based progression system there were no fixed character classes to limit your decisions. So long as you could achieve the prerequisite ability scores required for casting spells and gain enough experience to level up and learn them, you could try the first two or three spells of all the different Colleges of Magick. There was enough junk littered around at the crash site to allow you to craft at least the first if not also the second item of each of the Tech Disciplines. You could max your Strength stat and level your weapon skills up enough to murder everyone in town. You could invest the points required to Sneak and Pick Locks well enough to rob the shopkeeper of all his rarest and most interesting magickal wares and sell anything you didn’t need back to him. You could be Charismatic enough to convince the resident drunk, Sogg Mead-Mug to join your party. Resolve the Toone mystery, stop the bank robbery, mock Lucan the Witless, and do it *however you like*. Then do it again with a completely different selection of skills. Then see whether you can make the Hand Cannon (boo, you can’t). Then see whether you can level up enough to cast third-level spells (yay, you can!). Then cast Summon Undead in the middle of town and what the hell is a Bone Butcher AND WHY IS IT HOSTILE OH DEAR GOD *RUN*!
Thus was many an afternoon spent.
This spirit of experimentation carried through so thoroughly into the full game that it was a struggle to ever commit to one character for long. As in most RPGs, you simply can’t do everything, and the choices you made always left other paths left tantalisingly untravelled. Something you didn’t see in the short term offered by the demo was how investment in Magick destroys your character’s aptitude for technology, and how embracing modern science and invention severs your link to the Universe’s Magickal energies. If you want to play with one, you have to forgo the other. Similarly, mastering all five spells of each of the sixteen Colleges requires so many skillpoints that I’m not entirely sure is even possible, and the same can also be said for the forty technological inventions tied to the eight Disciplines. You have to choose what kind of spellcaster or inventor you want to be (if you want to be either at all), and stick with those decisions over the course of a game that could last you over a hundred hours. Whilst there are an impressive number of recruitable followers who allow you to play with the toys you decided to leave in the box, only the one character is your own to fully customise.
Every time I’ve re-installed Arcanum in these 15 years since it was first released, I have started an entirely fresh game with an entirely new character. If I still had all of my save games, each one would tell a vastly different story of which corner of the game I had decided to explore at the time. Destructive Magicks, Firearms and Explosives, Buffs and Debuffs, pure Melee, pure Social skills, impenetrable defense, mixed Magick and Tech (ew.), low Intelligence. Criss-crossing the character sheet from page to page, visiting archetypes and creating my own, each lasting somewhere in the tens to dozens of hours before my attention wandered away to other builds or other games entirely.
For Arcanum’s 15th anniversary I’m putting it back on again, but for my latest game I’m going to do something different. Or rather, something that isn’t different.
Instead of aiming to cast the best spell of yet another Magick College I’ve only read about in the game manual, or to create some inventions I’ve still never had all the parts for (sword-launching gun, medical arachnid and flamethrow ffs.), I’ve decided to return to a character archetype that has been my go-to default in more different games than I can count for just about as long as I can remember.
I’ve rebuilt Beau Loosefingers, the Halfling Thief.
And I’m going to write a few diary entries about him.
I don’t know whether it will go on for as long as my Wasteland 2 diaries did, and I expect it’ll probably end in a similarly unsatisfying fashion, but I’ve been looking for a new excuse to write here lately, and this is the first thing that’s really inspired me. I’ll aim to do writeups in a similar style to the Wasteland ones, summarising the highlights of one or two play sessions at a time, with looks at the characters’ development and plot progress along the way. They won’t be very frequent, but I’ll work on them whenever I’m not climbing, boardgaming or playing No Man’s Sky. I have a day off tomorrow and a few afternoons of holiday next week before finishing my current job, so at least one should get finished.
I’d still like to get back to nostalgically exploring my love of game mods in the early 00s at some point, but for now, this is an Arcanum diary.