Accursed obsession, among other things.
For the past 4 days or so I’ve been rather drowned in a video game. This happens a lot; you can tell. However, I would be lying if I said that was why I wrote about it. First, however, a little background information. Also, I’ll try my best to leave spoilers of significant event out of this one, more information on why later.
Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle (henceforth referred to as Embric’s) is a video game made in 2010 (Deluxe version released in 2011) by Saint Bomber, using the RPG Maker 2003 engine. I’ll get this out of the way: as far as indie games without any professional asset goes, RPG Maker 2003 isn’t the worst thing ever. Could it be improved with more music variety and better art? Definitely. Is it sufficient as-is? Yes.
Being completely honest here, I actually heard about the game a year or two back, but my initial impression was really put off by the whole RPG Maker thing, and how crude the art looked at first. It was not until last Monday that a post from a certain imageboard managed to convince me to at least give the game a chance. Well, I did.
It took about five minutes for me to be completely entranced in the game. No, it wasn’t immersion (god the game needed a walkthrough), nor fanservice (although no one’s complaining about that), nor the fact that the subject matter is extremely relevant to my interest. Instead, it was the writing and the story. Now you may wonder ‘well that’s good, but what’s so special about this one’. Certainly, this isn’t the first game I’ve played with good writing and story (although those aren’t particularly common). The Walking Dead is a good example of this, but I didn’t write an entry for that game. I did sing it praises, but Embric’s is nothing like it. Every other video game with good story I’ve played has either text as its main mechanic, or its story is just attached to the game in a narrative but ultimately un-meaningful way.
Embric’s is a game with a narrative mechanic. It’s a really strange thing to explain, but you can think of it as a multi-layer adventure traditional adventure game. There’s a point to be made for ‘your choice matters’ here, but instead of a story being explored through different paths, it’s actually one story that evolves depending on what you do. It’s something quite unique that I have no idea how to put into words, or draw comparisons for. It’s also hard to explain further without spoilers, so I guess I’ll just have to leave it at that for a moment.
So before we dwell into the meat of the game, let’s speak briefly about the elephant in the room. Since the game is made in RPG Maker, how’s the combat? Well, you’d find out very early on that in this game, combat is not very common at all. It’s in fact quite a rarity and only serve narrative purposes. The idea of cognitive dissonance applies here. While in most video games featuring violence of some sort, players would usually just have to accept the fact that a bald men with an inconspicuous chicken suit is capable of secretly killing just about everyone in the scene, quite a few games have branched from this. Now this isn’t to say that cognitive dissonance is inherently problematic, but it is very ‘gamey’, and feels sometimes out of place when a AAA game takes itself too seriously.
Embric’s, on the other hand, have very little of it that could be claimed as taking itself too seriously. The game is ridden in fourth-wall breaking humour, meta commentary and tropes deconstruction. However, the player is expected to take it in strides, and they do. It’s so light-hearted and actually damn funny at times that it’s impossible to take them as pretension, unlike something akin to, say, the Stanley Parable. At this point, I have to chalk it all up to Saint Bomber’s writing. he has the kind of talent that I cannot say I’ve seen in many. Even though it’s just pixel in text boxes, it’s a kind of experience that one would never be able to find anywhere else. I would love it if I could discuss plot as well, but since the game is entirely narrative mechanic, it’s impossible to speak of without being entirely too spoilerific.
So instead, I’ll talk about charaterisation. I’ll be honest here, one of the initial draw regarding this game was because of the lesbian fanservice. However, you should be rest assured that I have very high standards in the fields of art that I actually understand. God knows I’ve seen, and read many inane examples of terrible niche contents. However, I mentioned this because it plays a lot into the humour (few of them the cheap self-deprecating ones) and the justifications for a lot of the design decisions when it comes to the characters in this game. There are the protagonist, the protagonist’s Band of Convenient Main Characters, and side characters. If one managed to unlock the majority of the game, one’d find a pool of character depth and twists that’s unbelievably vast. Now, I’m a writer myself, though my fictional writing is only a hobby if anyone wants to be particularly snarky. I’m just terribly in awe of how much effort is actually put into this game’s writing, characterisation and plot. Creative contents of many fields don’t usually even get to something like this, as it reads like the kind that you’d write fantasy epics for. While the author’s bias shows quite clearly, not even once did anyone even attempt to hide that fact, and often comments upon it in-character. The story is overarching, quite, but there is also so many shades and folds to a person that you just can’t help but either care about someone, or be extremely interested in what they have to say.
It’s fair enough to say that even from a technical standpoint I’m quite impressed with what he’s managed to accomplish here. Despite story arcs being inherently both interwoven and separative of each other, very few inconsistencies were spotted, and the game only crashed once out ~20 hours of game play. Hell, 20 hours of gameplay for a game with no significant amount of combat is amazing in and of itself. You don’t just read text either. You actually do things.
Naturally, the game isn’t perfect. Even in context of one-man development team (so no art criticism or engine limitation), there are still plenty that could be improved. Since everyone in the world is so damn in-character, the game gets extremely confusing and arc paths sometimes arbitrary. This is the byproduct of good writing (no convenient random exposition nonsense unless relevant) meshed with the fact that Embric’s is a video game. Of course, I’m in no way suggesting that it would work better as anything but. In fact, this only furthers my point that experiences like this are only possible through an interactive medium, something currently exclusive to video games. My other concern would be the equipment system. It’s very nice for commentaries, but it doesn’t work a whole lot when it comes to combat. A lot of statistics are quite arbitrary, and combat really does seem like just a chore at time. It happens very rarely, but when it does you can see why the game doesn’t do it more often.
That said, I have to say that this game has far exceeded my expectations. With all of its low-budget free-to-play fanservice bias, it’s amazing, objectively. It’s one of those very few things that when people ask ‘what were the best moments in your life’, I could point to it and smile, and cry, and laugh, or whatever. All of those emotions were present when I was playing it, and I certainly wouldn’t want to take any of them back. In fact, I might go as far as to say it is one of the best creative content I’ve ever experienced, across all types of art (architecture – painting – music – literature – movies – video games). That’s a seriously tall order, considering how stupidly impractical my standards tend to be sometimes. I know at this point it just seemed like I’m gushing, but that’s exactly what I’m doing.
The game can be played for free from here.