History Lessons: Betrayal At Krondor (part 2)

New readers may wish to read my History Lessons Introduction first. Also be sure to read part 1 before continuing. Later entries are here: part 3, part 4. Other History Lessons posts can be found here.

At the end of part 1, I was marveling at Betrayal at Krondor’s open world, which left me free to wander the length of the Kingdom instead of attending to my rather pressing business. This is certainly not an unfamiliar concept; most recently, Skyrim embraced the same philosophy, and I’ve written about it at length. But in 1993, when Betrayal at Krondor was released, it was a more novel notion. Or at least, providing a world that feels like a real place populated by real people was. Other role-playing games, like Might and Magic: Book One, gave the player a world to wander freely, but these were abstractions — Might and Magic’s tile-based world was a symbolic representation rather than a realistic one, full of random battles with strange beasts and a lot of other things that didn’t really make sense. Today’s games, like Skyrim, instead try to offer a believable place to explore, with a recognizable landscape and culture. I was quite impressed with Skyrim’s achievement in this regard. So playing Betrayal at Krondor, which was one of the first games to try it, has been fascinating.

The most noticeable way that Betrayal at Krondor differs from its predecessors, like Might and Magic, is in its technology. Where the early Might and Magic games used grid-based, step-by-step movement from a first-person perspective, and modern games like Skyrim keep the first-person perspective but add a fully three-dimensional world and smooth real-time movement, Betrayal at Krondor slots neatly between the two. Technology had advanced enough to allow a (admittedly basic) three-dimensional world, and movement is significantly more sophisticated than in the early grid-based games. It’s almost like an early first-person shooter, except movement is still step-based — in fact, the size of both the player party’s steps and the size of turning increments are adjustable from the in-game options menu. These steps are small enough that they simulate smooth movement in certain cases, especially when marching forward, but they are actually discrete in a manner similar to the older grid-based designs. Also, like those games, time only advances when the party is moving. This gives the game a pseudo-turn-based feel that strikes a nice balance between the strategic considerations of its forebears and the smooth response of games to follow.

It was early days for 3D graphics, however, and the technical limitations led to some weaknesses. Control is primarily mouse-based, with on-screen buttons for moving and turning, which is far more awkward than simply using the keyboard for movement. Modern games have standardized this process, with the player’s left hand on the WASD keys for movement and the right hand on the mouse, but Betrayal at Krondor instead uses the arrow keys as movement shortcuts. This is uncomfortable, since the mouse is still used to interact with the world. Also, the 3D world should probably be described as “2.5D“, since the party can only ever traverse a flat plane. There are no stairs or ramps, and the smallest hill is an impassable obstacle. Even worse, running into a hill or other obstacle does not simply stop the party’s movement, it turns the party to the side, so navigating a tight area means getting spun around and disoriented constantly. What was probably an attempt to keep the player from getting stopped dead all the time becomes an especial annoyance because the hills are nearly indistinguishable from the ground due to their bland, green grass coloring.

Which brings up anther issue: the graphics. Early 3D games always look dated by today’s standards, but Betrayal at Krondor looks especially ugly. It’s not just the basic, triangular landscapes and boxy buildings, it’s also the characters — the developers apparently took photographs of actors in (bad) costumes, then digitized them and displayed the pixellated, low-resolution images in the game. Character images during conversations, or even the slightly smaller character portraits, are large enough to discern what the source image must have looked like, but the characters in the combat screens are too small to see clearly. The problem is especially bad for non-humanoid enemies like giant scorpions, which look like a muddy mess of brown pixels. Only the images for inventory items, and the various menu screens in general, actually look good. Despite all this, the overall aesthetic of the game somehow coheres into a consistent whole, and I found myself quickly warming to the silly-looking actors and basic landscapes. It’s definitely something a new player will notice right off, however, so be warned.

The graphical and technical limitations mean that Betrayal at Krondor’s world feels very different from that of a modern open-world role-playing game, but they’re not the only reason; it’s also the result of a different design philosophy. In part 1 I wrote at length about the game’s ties to Raymond E. Feist’s Riftwar novels, and the various ways that the design supports a classic fantasy novel narrative. The most interesting of these is the way in which the game marries a linear, novel-like narrative with an open-world design that emphasizes player freedom. It necessitates a different type of open world than we are used to today, one that cleverly funnels the player into the stories the designers wish to tell without forcing the issue, making them feel emergent and organic.

The world itself consists primarily of roads, leading between the various towns and cities, with only a limited surrounding area bounded by hills or mountains. Here the game benefits greatly from Feist’s books, since the Kingdom is already a well-established setting and its many settlements have their own histories and cultures. The game also uses the same map as the books, so players familiar with the novels will recognize the different routes for travel. Towns are tiny, consisting of only a few buildings, but they match the overall scale of the world, where a day’s travel passes in only a few minutes of real time. The scant few buildings are meant to represent something a little larger, and the buildings usually provide unique encounters when visited (sometimes simply for flavor, other times with actual gameplay effects), which help differentiate the towns from one another. There are also quite a few of them, which keeps travel interesting. Cities, on the other hand, aren’t explored through the game’s 3D engine; a wise decision, since it would be unable to provide a suitable sense of scale. Instead, they are illustrated on separate screens, together with a text description, and have different click-able “hotspots” representing areas of interest. This makes a visit to a city a special event, and does wonders to giving each its own character and culture.

Most of the time, then, the player is traveling along one of the many roads leading between settlements. Limiting the explorable areas to the roads and their immediate surroundings makes sense in the setting, since the Kingdom is an old nation that has long since conquered the wilderness. Travelers use the roads, visit villages, chat with farmers, and generally enjoy the benefits of a lawful and peaceful Kingdom. This alone sets the game apart from the open worlds of modern games like Skyrim, which feature vast expanses of wilds full of monsters in between the cities and towns. Betrayal at Krondor’s story follows from its setting. Rather than packs of monsters roaming around, the player goes up against foreign guerrilla agents who set up ambushes and keep to the shadows.

Much of the game’s first Chapter tasks the player with choosing a route to the city of Krondor. Since the game world is, essentially, a series of linear paths with some room for exploration nearby, the designers knew that the player is likely to pass through certain areas in a certain order, and were able to design the story to fit. Rather than a scripted plot that always plays out the same way, which is probably what a modern game would have, the story is revealed through a series of clues and other tidbits of information gathered by speaking to the locals or exploring the areas around the roads. The enemy agents store items in special chests with magical locks that can only be opened by choosing the right word, with a clue in the form of a riddle provided in case they forget the password. Since the clues are written in their native tongue, they assume these chests are safe from being pilfered by Kingdom residents. Fortunately, one of the party’s members can read the language, making these boxes excellent sources of loot and, occasionally, information. Notes found in these boxes give clues as to the enemies’ plans, and can often alert the player to potential ambushes or other dangers. But the boxes are usually well-hidden, and it’s quite possible to miss them completely (or to be stumped by their riddles). In those cases, players may be able to learn the same information from other sources, be it careful conversation with village residents or simply noting what the party’s members observe as they scout an area.

Side quests, too, follow the same format, with players needing to gather enough clues from various places to glean the solution. There are fewer of these than is common in modern games, but they are (so far) all interesting and well-written. They also lack modern conveniences such as quest journals or other automatic note-taking, which means the player must keep track of everything his- or herself. But that often makes these quests that much more rewarding to solve, especially since they resemble open-ended puzzles more than a linear series of tasks. And for both the main story and the side quests, players might choose a different road and completely miss certain clues while finding others. Eventually it all leads to the same result, in that the end of each Chapter is a predetermined outcome, but each player will get there in his or her own way, making it feel much more personal than a typical scripted narrative. While most players will end up finding the same clues and uncovering the same story, having the various pieces scattered around, able to be discovered in any order, really provides a feeling of player freedom that keeps one invested in the game’s events.

When I wrote part 1 I was nearing the end of Chapter 1. Now I am well into Chapter 2, and I spent some time wandering around some places I’d already been to see how much had changed between Chapters. I had a vague memory from when I played the game long ago that the areas were updated with new enemies and treasure. While I did find some new enemies (although not that many), the various treasure chests were the same, so there was no new loot to find. There were a few differences, however, like an area that was very obviously blocked off in Chapter 1 and was now slightly more open in Chapter 2, and certain important characters who had new conversation options. I actually like the degree of variability; there’s not so much that I feel the need to tediously march through every location again to find new things, and the things that were different made sense and were easy to guess and prioritize. I also went back to Dimwood Forest, which readers may remember I explored in Chapter 1 after the manual taunted me with the possibility. If I returned in Chapter 2, the manual claimed, I would find all new monsters there. Well, I did find a few new monsters, but I’m not sure if they were simply ones I hadn’t encountered in the first Chapter (perhaps it only repopulates if I’ve killed everything?) or if they were actually new. Once again, the treasure chests had not changed, so I’d already looted most of them, but I was able to open a few that I couldn’t before, and I found an area I’d missed the first time that had some more. I was able to scour the forest much faster this time, and while I might take a quick poke around in future chapters I doubt I’ll bother exploring it at length every time. Dimwood Forest is notable, however, as a location that’s not simply made up of linear roads, instead encompassing a huge, open area bounded only by a river and its tributaries. Exploring this wild place was a very different experience from the travel I was engaged in elsewhere.

So then it was on to the actual business of Chapter 2, and I was surprised to find I remembered it much more clearly than the first Chapter from when I first played the game long ago. I encountered a specific side quest with a specific reward that I remember vividly, and another ridiculously difficult side quest that I remember giving up on back then (I gave up on it this time too). I even recalled some of the layout of the map, although I do not remember what is going to happen in the main storyline at the end of the Chapter. I did find that Chapter 2 seems to embrace the non-linear narrative design even more, or perhaps just more obviously, than the first Chapter did. There are fewer possible roads to take this time, which means there’s more ferrying back and forth to find clues, and it seems that everywhere I’ve visited I’ve learned new information that all ties into what’s going to happen. The first Chapter was light on the actual main storyline, instead serving more to set the scene and initial premise, but Chapter 2 is introducing new threads that I’m sure will intertwine in interesting ways. My party is starting to feel more like a group of secret agents on a surreptitious mission, a task appropriate to a small group of three travelers. We’re not going to take on armies by ourselves, but we can gather critical information for the crown. And probably find ourselves in a lot of trouble.

I’m sure I’ll have more to say about how the main story is shaping up in the next installment, and I’ll also discuss the game’s combat and magic systems which I’ve found surprisingly interesting. Stay tuned!

Read the other entries in this series here: part 1, part 3, and part 4.

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2 Responses to History Lessons: Betrayal At Krondor (part 2)

  1. rhuantavan says:

    As an avid fan of BaK, I am really enjoying your reviews. Keep them coming!

    • waltorious says:

      Glad you’re enjoying them! I will definitely keep them coming, hopefully with less of a wait in between than there was for this one. But it’s always dependent on how much time I have to play, of course.

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