Spiderweb Software has been making consistently excellent computer RPGs since 1994, and their work is a major inspiration to me. For readers who enjoy RPGs, I recommend their games highly—if indeed you haven’t played them yet. This post includes significant spoilers for the game’s story, but nothing that should make it any less worth playing for yourself.
Avernum: Escape from the Pit takes place in a vast series of underground caverns (Avernum) where outlaws from the surface world are sent to live, imprisoned by the harsh Empire. The sequel follows the Avernite defense against a brutal Empire invasion, and expands on the universe of the original by introducing a race of powerful alien beings who have been hibernating far beneath the previously known caverns. These aliens, the Vahnatai, revere elder members of their species whose immortal souls are preserved in the form of telepathic crystals.
Human infiltrators from the Empire have stolen three Crystal Souls, provoking the anger of the Vahnatai against all humans, including the Avernites, with whom they share a common enemy. The adventurers controlled by the player are tasked with recovering the Souls in order to prove Avernum’s good intentions toward the Vahnatai. I want to talk specifically about a quest in which players recover a Crystal Soul from an Empire-controlled fort with the aid of Vahnatai soldiers.
Fort Haledon Orders
After being convinced that the Empire is holding a stolen Crystal Soul in the Ornotha Ziggurat west of Vahnatai caves, the Vahnatai Council agrees to aid the adventurers in a raid on the fort. They offer military support from Fort Haledon, a meager outpost on the frontier before Empire territory. The player carries these orders to Fort Haledon, where they can meet, talk, and trade with several Vahnatai before conveying the orders to the commander. Prior to this event, Fort Haledon acts like any other settlement the player has encountered. After giving the order to target the Ziggurat, Haledon becomes a ghost town. The player is still free to walk around, but will find none of the NPCs who were there previously.
The Vahnatai of Fort Haledon only reappear when the player approaches the Ziggurat and faces the mass of Empire soldiers defending the Ornotha Ziggurat. Even with these Vahnatai fighters, the player is significantly outnumbered. The fight is mechanically balanced such that every Vahnatai is likely to die before the player defeats every defender, and with a major boss commanding the defense, the players are meant to flee into the Ziggurat rather then face the combat head-on. Every piece of dialogue corroborates the futility evoked by the combat encounter, casting the Vahnatai defenders as doomed, if not a worthy diversion.
Perhaps surprisingly, I’m not going to focus on the epic sequence in which the player storms the Ziggurat, fighting their way through to the Crystal Soul and escaping the magical firestorm invoked by a flying evil wizard. Like many of the game’s best moments, the harrowing escape from the Ornotha Ziggurat is narrated with paragraphs of rich scripted text that appears in dialog boxes for the player to read. This kind of explicit storytelling is something Spiderweb RPGs excel in superbly. But what shocked and impressed me was the storytelling that happened without any words at all.
After leading my adventurers away from the Ziggurat, I felt a weird curiosity: What would happen if they went back? I tapped my way back to the courtyard and surveyed the spot where so many Vahnatai gave their lives—only to find nothing at all.
No survivors. No reaction. No dialog box. Shouldn’t my adventurers be floored by the noble sacrifice of life that took place here? The futile diversion created by the Vahnatai—so characterized both in explicit narrative, and in actual gameplay—illustrated the huge cultural importance these Crystal Souls hold for the Vahnatai. Wasn’t that worth a dialog box being triggered for adventurers thoughtful enough to return?
Maybe I could find someone to share the tale of their heroism with. I returned to Fort Haledon. No survivors. The place was just as empty as I left it.
And at that moment I was struck with some powerful emotions. These people gave ever last one of their lives so they could return a single item of great significance to their people. That says more than any explicit dialog in the game, any conversation in which a Vahnatai tried to explain the importance of the Crystal Souls. This moment didn’t need a dialog box. The adventurers’ reaction took place in my own gut.
Still, I returned to the Vahnatai Council thinking maybe I’d unlocked some dialog option which would bring word of Fort Haledon’s sacrifice to the people. There was no such dialog option. Almost no more indication in the world that this incident took place.
Am I convinced the emotional impact in this moment was totally intentional on Jeff Vogel’s part? Not really. I could argue that in a better-polished role playing game, the world would at least react to such a major event… somehow. That the game world’s indifference to my curiosity was really just an oversight on the designer’s part. But I don’t think that matters. What matters, is that with explicit dialog missing in what I imagined to be a pivotal scene, I was invited as the player to interpret a powerful narrative moment for myself. And I loved it.
The message I want game designers to take away from this, is that such moments can be carefully planned and utilized to amazing effect in any game with a narrative focus. When planning key scenes, you might ask yourself whether dialog is really necessary, or whether words would get in the way.
Sorry for the long silence since my last post. I’ve been working on my visual novel, The Whisperer in Darkness, which snatches much of the time left by school. If you like my work here, consider following the game on Greenlight or subscribing to the dev log on TIGSource.