Thursday, December 25, 2014

Genericide Holiday Special 2: Yuletide Boogaloo

            In some austere study, in an ancient armchair silhouetted by the moonlight, there sits a man. Or rather, what was once a man.  The ghastly figure that now lingered in this place had clearly left its humanity behind long ago. The figure had a horrible, scarred and stretched visage, complimented by inhumanly pale blue skin, which wavered and flickered in the light with a slight translucence. He – for it had indeed been a he, ages past – was clothed in warped and disfigured rags whose original design was all but lost due not just to their state of disrepair but also due to the chains. The man was covered in giant, rust-ridden chains that crossed this way and that all around his body in incalculable numbers. They rattled constantly, their grim, hellish tones a constant and unceasing reminder of the twisted afterlife this simultaneously terrifying and pitiable creature had unwillingly bought for himself.

            He was currently struggling with the phone.

            “Yes, you heard me correctly” he intoned in an echoing bass. “Yes, it still hasn’t arrived...a large should be under Ghost...yes, full name Herbert C. Ghost...yes...yes, stands for Christmas...yes I’m serious...okay...okay. But I’ll call back again if it isn’t soon...yes, goodbye.”

            With this, the specter sighed and slid the phone back on its hook. He opened up a book he’d left sitting on the coffee table in front of him and read by the light of his fireplace for a while. Before too much time passed, there was a knock on his door. He jangled as he pushed himself up from his armchair and crossed the room over to it.

            “About time,” he grumbled as he opened the door. “It’s been 45 minutes and your policy clearly states...who are you?”

            “Hi there!” I said cheerily, giving the ghost a little wave. “I don’t know if you remember me, but you haunted me about a year back. I mean, it was memorable for me but you probably haunt a lot of people. I dunno, is that racist?”

            “Wha...” mumbled the ghost, leaning in closer to get a look at me. “Oh. Oh you were that internet writer. Video games or something...”

            “That’s right!” I said. “Last year you came to haunt me on Christmas Eve, said I would be visited by the ghosts of three shitty MMOs past.”

            “Right...” he said. “But why are you here now? Actually, more important question, how did you find where I lived?!”

            “Well I’m here now because I’m ready for the second MMO!” I said.

            “Wait,” he said, “what? You only played one MMO? What about the other two?! You were supposed to play them all in one night and learn a valuable lesson transparently ripped off one of the world’s most well-known Christmas stories.” He paused, and waved his hand dismissively. “Well I guess I shouldn’t have spoiled the ending but honestly, everyone knew that. What happened?”

            “Uh...I dunno” I said, hands behind me back and eyes at the ceiling. “I guess the second game just never found its way to me and-“

            “Holiday horsecrap” said the ghost. “It was a supernatural visitation brought by powers beyond mortal imagining, it isn’t like it can take a wrong turn at Albuquerque.”

            “Okay, look,” I said, looking him in the eye. “I may have sorta, kinda...ignored it. And then forgotten about it. And then moved to Canada for a while just in case it could still find me.”

            “Ignoring why you thought moving to Canada would prevent visions of the damned,” the ghost said, “why are you here now? If you avoided the game before why come back and ask for it later?”

            “I’ll be frank”, I said. “My blog has had half the content of each previous year since I started it, and making fun of old games is an easy solution to that. Well, less a solution and more throwing a measly scrap of bone to a starving audience that’s likely indifferent in the first place. The point is I need something to write about. If you want, I can pretend I’m learning the error of my ways or whatever?”

            The spirit sighed, rubbing his temples. “Alright,” he said, “If I give you something, than will you promise to leave me alone?”

            “Definitely forever and with absolutely no caveats” I said.

            “Then fine”, said the ghost. “Go play some online game. Go play...I don’t know, Runescape.”

            “I INSTANTLY REGRET THIS ENTIRE ENTERPRISE!” I screamed as he slammed the door in my face.


            Runescape was an old MMORPG released way back in 2001 where it set itself apart from the pack by being both free and browser-based. These two facts made the game wildly popular despite it being, in my personal opinion, largely terrible. In fact, it later achieved the Guinness World Records for both world’s largest free MMORPG and most-updated game (thanks Wikipedia!). Though I didn’t know this before starting this article, I’m not really surprised. Everyone I knew played or had played Runescape back in the day, and it’s easy to see why. There was absolutely no cost of entry, no sketchy downloads, not even much of a sign-up time. You made your account and you were already there, playing in your web browser with thousands of other people.

            But you may notice I slid in a reference to the game being “largely terrible” in that previous paragraph. You see I, like many of my friends, tried playing Runescape for a time back in the day. I was not impressed by the experience. When I had the idea to play old MMOs for the purpose of blog posts, I checked back to find that Runescape was still around. Not only was it still around, but it was technically on its third iteration! That’s right, there was a Runescape 2 and we’re now on Runescape 3. Runescape 3 has succeeded the previous games, and is now the only one you can play.

The banner on the front page of the site is certainly snazzier.

            Well, that’s not quite true. Enough people actually asked for the original Runescape back that a year ago the site offered the full experience of it again. However, even though that may be the authentic experience, especially if you want me complaining, this is only available to paid members. Were I not playing this for the blog, I would probably rather pay 5 dollars for a punch to the face than another round of original Runescape. The new version intrigued me, and it also offers a better answer to the question of ‘how far have they come’. So, we’re playing the new Runescape.

            But since that’s the case, I should probably spend some time discussing the old one for context. Discussing why it’s horrible. I admit the original Runescape isn’t completely unsalvageable. It had some decent ideas that could have elevated it to a better game if properly executed. They weren’t properly executed, in case that was unclear. There were a lot of flaws in Runescape, but the one people most immediately notice about it is the visuals.

            Think back to the earliest days of 3D graphics, and picture in your mind a particularly grievous example of pointed polygons. For purposes of example, let’s look at, say...the non-combat models of Final Fantasy VII.

These models are some of my go-to examples of early 3D graphics, because, I mean, come on. Restraints of the time and all, but never again would we have literal cubes for hands.

            Alright, got it? Now take those relatively nice hand-drawn backgrounds and throw them away. Instead the environment is all 3D like the character models, except with even fewer colors. Now make the sky an endless black void. Now take away some of the limited artistry you can even expect from such low poly models and make characters that are less appealing and colors that are more garish. Surround the whole thing in an obtrusive, early internet user interface and you have the original Runescape.

Oh yeah, true beauty right here.

            Let’s clear up a couple things. 1. This is the version of Runescape I played, and it actually looks somewhat better than when the game started out. 2. Final Fantasy VII came out in 1997, and the absolute earliest this game was around was in 2001. By 2001 the Final Fantasy series was on Final Fantasy X. Let’s take a look at that game to compare Runescape to its contemporary.

Oh I dunno, we’re neck in neck on visuals here.

            Now this comparison isn’t exactly fair. This is from a pre-rendered cutscene near the start of Final Fantasy X. I’m sure the regular in-game graphics don’t look near as good as this. Yeah, I’m sure if we had a regular screenshot of the game then Runescape would start to look pretty –


            I’m sure people still wish to point out unfair comparisons here. Final Fantasy X, regardless of people’s opinions on it as a game, was generally seen as one of the best games graphically of its day. It was also the latest in a long series of highly acclaimed games, with a tremendous budget and experienced artists. I’m also sure that Runescape had enormous technical hurdles to overcome that hamstrung its art. Keep in mind that not only was this game trying to work in a continuous online environment with tons of players, not only was it a free game made by a smaller team, but it was a game that played in early 2000s browsers. Really, it’s somewhat surprising it managed to exist at all.

            But even though Runescape had all these technical difficulties to deal with, that doesn’t change the fact that these difficulties made it a worse game. That’s kind of the plight of the game in general. We may be able to forgive the developers for these flaws, but objectively speaking the game still has them. I made these comparisons to show that not only was Runescape not near the best game of its time graphically, it wasn’t the best game graphically several years before it was made. Not even just in technical graphics but in aesthetics; in character design, in environment design, in color choice and all sorts of other ways. Long story short, the visuals sucked, and sucked hard. But don’t think I’m unfairly focusing on one aspect of the game. The combat sucked hard too!

Slow down. How could something that looks THIS AMAZING possibly be bad?

            Let me try to explain the highly intricate and complicated way combat works in Runescape. So okay, you want to get to your off-screen enemy. Click the ground to move to that point. Now your enemy is in view. Click the enemy to walk over to them and start attacking them. You may get low health during this fight, so make sure you click your backpack open to be ready to click any food you have to eat it for health. If you managed to follow that, we can get into non-combat activities.

            If you want to fish, you need to have a fishing pole equipped (click it in your inventory), and then you click on a fishing spot. If you want to mine some ore, you click on an ore vein. If you want to chop wood, you click on a tree suitable for chopping. If you want to do some cooking, if you want to do ranged attacks with a bow and arrow, if you want to interact with NPCs, guess what you do? If you said “press the keyboard”, then stop being a smartass. Of course, if you want to do some non-standard action like examining an item or trading with someone it gets more complicated. For that you right-click, then mouse over the correct option

The most shrewd detectives among you may be aware of a running theme here.

            ‘But wait,’ I hear you say. ‘Clicking is simply the way you do most things in online games! These games aren’t about reflexes, the inputs don’t matter so long as the options you get from them are interesting!’ I agree with you, theoretical onlooker! Mainly because you are a temporary construct I’ve foisted on my audience to get my point across. I love plenty of RPGs that are, in pure terms of buttons, merely scrolling through a menu and selecting things. There’s nothing wrong with that, you could still have a game with only clicking that worked. The problem is with all these actions you perform via clicking. Namely, that none of them are at all interesting.

            That scenario earlier where I mentioned clicking on enemies and healing through food? Assuming you keep an appropriate level/group size this can literally cover every single fight you ever have in Runescape. I once saw a video of a group of players taking on a big boss enemy, and recall the person in the video looking exactly like I did when I fought low-level rats and such. The only difference was that he had prepared hundreds of cooked fish to constantly drip feed health to himself. It’s an RPG, so you do get bigger numbers as time goes on, with more attack and health and such. But you’ll be fighting stronger enemies too, so it kind of balances out. And apart from running away, there genuinely aren’t many other options for combat in Runescape.

            Well...there is one. One whose name might cause you to think it’s more important than it really is. Runes. Runes are also a thing in Runescape, surprisingly enough. They’re the way you cast magical spells, and they’re set apart from other games in that regard. You see, every single time you want to cast a spell, you need to have the runes for it. Runes are single use, disappearing when you cast spells with them. Higher level spells take even more runes to cast. There are three ways to get runes in Runescape. You can farm killing monsters, you can spend a good deal of time and effort to craft them yourself...or you can buy them.

            Yes, runes are like reagents from old-school role-playing games, except taken to the extreme in an environment where such a system is much less effective. I admit I’m biased here, because I hate systems like this. Any situation where I have to pay for temporary combat advantages, I try to avoid it. As has been established in the past, I’m not a fan of random chance (man that article feels like a long time ago). When I have the choice between spending resources on a temporary bonus (like a brief stat boost or potion) versus a long-term one (like a permanent stat boost or armor) I will always choose the permanent ones unless the temporary one is massively better or required.

            But even if I wanted to go with temporary systems in this case (which I might if only to make Runescape combat interesting for once), I wouldn’t be able to! Back when I was playing at least, Runes in Runescape were prohibitively expensive. At low levels you couldn’t even afford them in the first place, and were stuck slowly clicking everything to death. Even at high levels, there’s the fact that you can survive more or less everything with high enough stats and enough food on hand. You see, since runes are worth money, and can be sold to other players, you’re effectively pissing away cash to use spells; money that could be spent on better equipment or hideous hats or something. To put the cherry on top of it, there wasn’t an enormous selection of spells and you could see them all at any level.

The ineffable mysteries of the arcane, contained within a list of tiny icons.

            So let’s recap. Runescape had an inaccessible and disappointing magic system; a combat system that was barely passable with that magic system and supremely dull without; a suite of non-combat options that were all essentially just mindlessly clicking things; near-objectively unpleasant visuals; and sound Come to think of it I don’t really remember the music to Runescape. I think it played somewhat sporadically, as can be the case with MMOs (particularly old ones). Maybe it was actually fantastic and I just forgot? Due to, uh, mystic memory genies or something?

            Eeeeeh, yeah no. That music isn’t terrible or anything, but I don’t find it that great either. The melody and composition just leaves me feeling indifferent, and the sound is notably dated. I can handle old-sounding music, but this doesn’t stick with me like other old game music does; it has an unappealingly generic fantasy feel to me. Other songs seem to get about the same reaction, so I think I can conclude that Runescape’s music is okay, but can aspire no higher than that. So a notable improvement on the rest of the game, huh? HEY-OOOOOOO!

            Oh and as a final note, given the time period this was created, everything in the game would be accompanied by lag. Your character would lurch around the world in brief spasms of movement, particularly egregious in cities where players would congregate. So not only were you playing something uninteresting, but most had to play it with some level of jerky unpleasantness.

            I’ve tried to make disclaimers throughout this, but I want to reiterate that I don’t despise the thought of Runescape or the people who enjoyed it. But I do think the game, whether it was due to its circumstances or no, suffered a lot of problems that made it less enjoyable to play. I spent so long introducing this series and rambling about these issues I dug out of my childhood psyche that this post is now over 3,000 words long without even getting into my experiences with new Runescape. And it’s now Christmas Day, so...

            Yup, I’m gonna make this a series. I’ve already played new Runescape and collected screenshots from it, so with any luck this won’t be like last year where I say I’ll continue and completely neglect to do so. Hopefully you enjoyed seeing me spitefully dog pile on a browser game from over a decade ago. Join me next time when I may or may not dog pile on a browser game that’s current!

            And of course, all snide remarks and sarcasm aside: Merry Christmas!

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