Game design case study: why can’t I stop playing Bard’s Tale?

Game writing trumps game design?

My current crap-game obsession is inXile’s Bard’s Tale for the PS2. An ill-fated classic-game revival, BT has very little in common with its storied predecessor (which I also loved back in the days when I was too young to buy my own computer – can you say “floppy disk swapfest”?). It’s an action-RPG that smells like rotting nipples.

Kind of like this image from the blog of Emmy C.

The main game design problems

  • Lousy visuals – inXile’s engine delivers a chunky, unpalatable picture sure to make children cry and dogs howl.
  • Ridiculous character control – amazingly, the Bard is unable to move and attack at the same time. A mistimed attack starts a damnable anim that gives your enemies enough time to slice you open and decorate their Christmas tree with your entrails.
  • Frustrating stun dynamic – if you’re hit, the Bard is temporarily stunned and vulnerable to more strikes. Of course, the genius game designers thought you’d enjoy it if those strikes also stun you. In other words, if you’re surrounded by cheesy grunts, as you usually are, and you happen to take a hit, the resulting dogpile will escort you right to Hades. As a result, I’ve been forced to play like a 90-pound weakling, cowering behind any obstacle and running in circles to avoid swarms of foes.

Running in circles. An apt description. Did I mention that blocking is temporary, so it’s impossible to block past this problem? Yep.Yet I keep playing. Why would I torture myself?

The game design pluses

  • inXile made a classic mistake — they saved the best game design for last. In the ice levels, they bring the camera in about 15%, and suddenly the game looks kinda nice! Decent water effects, reflections, cool textures… all the stuff that looked like surrealism from a distance.
  • The gameplay’s come up a notch. There’s a series of cool sequences on ice floes where you have to defend your floating ice raft as a steady stream of foes swim aboard and zing you from the shoreline. You can dodge, but you can’t cheese your way along by retreating every time you start to run low on health or mana. There’s a simple exploration puzzle and a funny headcount competition with a forlorn giant Viking.
  • Most importantly, this game’s made me laugh aloud several times. That helped me survive the first half, just barely. Usually game humor only makes me quirk my lips. I grudgingly admit that this might be the funniest game I’ve played since Lucasarts’ Monkey Island. That’s the highest praise I’ve got for game humor. A few examples:
    • The narrator comments dryly on your antisocial behavior if you open a chest in the storage room of the barmaid you’re tasked to help at the beginning of the game.
    • He also finds it surprising it’s taken you that long to try to get your hands on her chest.
    • The treasures are a constant source of absurdity. Druids carry mistletoe and Stonehenge souvenirs. The trow drop trow pants (trow pants, trowsers, get it?). Others are carting snowglobes of the local village. Of course, the attack chickens you encounter on a demented farm drop chicken nuggets. (Conveniently, there’s no voyaging to the local merchant to sell your crap. The game automatically converts these gewgaws into cash immediately — a game design innovation I’d like to see in other RPGs.)
    • Cary Elwes’ inspired, sarcastic voice acting as the Bard and the narrator’s dryly disapproving British persona. One of my favorite lines from the load screen is his “Where were we? Oh yes. The Bard was making an ass of himself.”
    • The hero (you) is such a bonehead that he releases a curse on the world that destroys villages and dogs his own footsteps. He’s working for good, but it’s kind of a two-steps-forward, one-step back thing. And he’s purely motivated by skirt-chasing and gold.
    • I don’t want to spoil too much, but let’s just say there are a few musical numbers that pop up at the most unexpected times. I hate musicals with a passion, but the timing is sublime.
    • There’s more, and of course, like any good joke, it’s easy to suck the humor out in the retelling. Trust me, it’s good game writing.

Game writing carries it?

So I guess I’m saying that this almost unredeemable game has dragged me along, kicking and screaming, just because of the quality of the game writing. Is it possible that good game writing can justify a bad game?

Maybe a good game writer is worth the expense. They’re a lot cheaper than good code, and game writing crashes a lot less frequently.


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  1. Because one of those mornings struggling with the network at RSG, I whacked you on the head with a two floppy set of Bard’s Tale I (with the copy protection removed).

    It’s just working it’s way out. Expect some strange grey and putty coloured goo any day now.


  2. Mmm, putty-colored goo. Maybe it will taste like the goo coming out of this here cheese danish.

    Speaking of old games, I traded for Bard’s Tale PS2. What did I give up?

    A pristine copy of the hoary yet savory PC game Betrayal at Krondor. It wasn’t on floppy, but it was so old the box mentioned that the game was on CD as one of the marketing points. I bought it from the Rocket Science Games library for $1. (RIP, Rocket Science Games.)

    In today’s money, that’s $174.

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