I have an unusual amount of free time on my hands this winter break. So I’ve decided to indulge my old gaming hobby. In particular, I’ve decided to revisit a game from my childhood that utterly frustrated me:
Now this seems to be one of those bizarre cases where some snippet of pop culture from my childhood is actually more in tune with my adult self than my pre-teen self. Child!Josh didn’t think too analytically about games: just give him an interesting experience, some degree of challenge, and we’re good to go. But Vagrant Story, in order to be successfully played, demands that the player understand and master the intricate mechanics behind it. So it didn’t take long for the game to start collecting dust on the shelf.
But Adult!Josh is increasingly fascinated by all the nuts and bolts that go into making a complex game. Having read a lot of good books and watched a lot of good movies, he approaches the storytelling pretensions of video games with a somewhat more jaundiced eye; he’d rather look to games for a fun challenge. He is more willing to be rewarded for careful planning and thought. Thus a baroque, inscrutable dungeon crawler is more up his alley this time around.
But the weird thing is that as an experience this game has aged surprisingly well. Vagrant Story is a Playstation 1 game dating from 2000. 3D polygonal games had only been around for a few years, and the early essays in the format, while impressive at the time, are horrendously ugly to look at now. But Vagrant Story, while rather low res by modern standards, still looks really good.
Not only that; in playing the opening sequence, I was impressed by how well everything was, how shall I say, directed. In spite of all the graphical power that gets pumped into games, the cinematics of your average bestseller tends to fall on a spectrum in between, “B Movie” and “Star Wars prequels”. Lots of eye candy, but little to no grasp of the grammar of movies.
Vagrant Story’s cut-scenes seem to succeed by, oddly enough, not attempting to ape movies. Rather, the positioning of the camera, the blocking of the characters and the art design work to create images that more closely resemble the panels of a comic book.
In an odd way, this makes good use of the technological limitations of the time. To approach the direction as if these polygons were actual actors behind a camera would have resulted in something that would by now just look unnatural. But in treating them as 2D images, the developers have made something which, while showing its age, still has a lot of flair and style to it. During the actual gameplay, the camera is wisely placed in a bird’s-eye-view position, minimizing the risk of the z-axis becoming a blunt instrument.
The story itself is pretty grimdark fantasy stuff involving political intrigue, cults, tragic backstories, a creepy abandoned town, etc. At heart, it’s a complex mystery plot that is successful in large part because of the aforementioned execution of it.
I haven’t discussed much about how the game actually plays. As mentioned, this is a dungeon crawler, which means you spend most of the game exploring ominous rooms and corridors, dispatching monsters and finding loot. At the heart of it is an unusual combat system which is less about you being able to mash the ‘Attack’ button and more about your being able to understand a lot of the number crunching the game is doing and being able to turn it to your advantage. There’s no real way to just coast through the game without making it impossible to beat. Your mileage may vary on how fun all of this actually is.
My thoughts will likely develop if/as this playthrough continues, but so far it has taken hold of me in a way that I didn’t quite expect when curiosity led me to pop the game in this morning.