Adventure Gamers Awards
"It has to be a plot element -- otherwise there'd be a better label."
For most people, British humor (or humour) seems to be a love it or hate it proposition. Maybe it's due to the more highbrow nature of the comedy, or maybe it's just that most people wouldn't know a good curry joke if it jumped up and bit them, but in most cases people are either instantly addicted, or they just don't get it at all. And I feel sorry for the latter, because they will never know the simple joys of Fawlty Towers, The Young Ones, Douglas Adams, and Terry Pratchett, among many others.
Next to Adams and his brilliant Hitchhiker's series, Pratchett has ruled the roost as far as British comedy writing is concerned. His Discworld novels, now numbering around forty books when you count the tour guide manuals, lampoon the fantasy genre with a vengeance, skewering everything from fairy godmothers, to brainless heroes, to wizards, to Death himself (who rides a horse named Binky). And when the time came for Psygnosis to bring Discworld to the gaming community in 1995, Pratchett pulled no punches and left no cliché un-satirized.
For those unfamiliar with the background, the planet of Discworld is a flat plane soaring through space held up by four elephants standing on the back of a giant space turtle. If you think that's bizarre, expect plenty more where that came from. Combining elements from both the Rincewind and Death series of books, the game takes place in Ankh-Morpork, the largest city on the planet. Separated into two parts by the filthiest river imaginable, this is definitely not a place that many people would want to call home; in fact, their motto is, "All roads lead away from Ankh-Morpork."
The game begins with a wonderfully animated, very long (ten-plus minutes) cutscene describing Discworld and setting up our tale. A shadowy group has summoned a dragon against his will to Ankh-Morpork, despite the fact that dragons are not supposed to exist unless you believe in them, and it is now slowly destroying the city and terrorizing the citizens.
You play as Rincewind, a wizard at the magical Unseen University who has been summoned by the chancellor to build a dragon detector and find the location of the terrible lizard -- despite the fact that the detector requires the breath of a dragon. You have been chosen for this mission due to your iron will, fast reflexes, quick thinking... actually you're just the least likely to be missed should something go wrong. You must destroy the dragon before some random hero does; otherwise the city will realize that wizards serve no purpose. So, left to choose between death by dragon or loss of your grant money for the next year, you set off to build your dragon detector. And from those beginnings spans a tale that will include the requisite heroes, heroines, dwarves, dragons, Death, time travel, and even a few ninja assassins for good measure.
This is a great story, and anyone who has read any fantasy literature at all will get a chuckle out of Pratchett’s spoofing of the genre. And on top of that are all of the wonderful touches that most games wouldn't bother to include. For instance, Rincewind will respond to you if you leave him idle for too long, drop items on him, or click him too much. The first time I took a break from the game, I came back to Rincewind tapping on my monitor and asking if I was still there. And I probably spent a good five minutes clicking on him with and without items just to see what he would say... until he took my cursor away for abusing it.
One of the problems with going back and playing older computer games is that, in most cases, the graphics don't really hold up. Luckily this is not the case with Discworld. I remember being wowed by the screenshots when the game first came out, and while they certainly are no longer state of the art, they are still amazingly well done. The game resolution is set to 320x200 pixels, and graphics consist of 2D sprites on hand painted digitized backgrounds. The backgrounds themselves are incredibly detailed and really capture the spirit of the world. Character animations are appropriately cartoony, although a little blocky at times, and show a lot of creativity, even when characters are just standing around. With that being said, however, one area that does cause issues from time to time is that small items are sometimes hard to distinguish amongst the detailed backgrounds, which can lead to bouts of pixel hunting.
Music in Discworld is serviceable at best, and fairly forgettable. I'm not sure if it's due to an issue in DOSBox, but there was also a fair amount of distortion and pitch bending in the MIDI music that became fairly annoying after awhile, and by Act II I had pretty much tuned it out.
As far as voice acting goes, the game really shines. If you are lucky enough to get your hands on the CD-ROM version of the game instead of the floppy version (although you'll be lucky to get your hands on either nowadays), you will be treated to full voiceovers from the cast of characters. And what a cast it is... at least if you're a PBS geek or from Europe. Not only do you get Jon Pertwee (Dr. Who) and Tony Robinson (Baldric from Black Adder), but you're also treated to the great Eric Idle as Rincewind. And while they all voice several characters, they are each handled wonderfully and really add to the game.
Controls are standard for a point & click adventure game. Left clicking on the screen will move Rincewind, double left clicking on an object will allow you to interact with it, and right clicking on a object will give a description of the item.
Traveling and navigation are handled very well, with an overhead map of the entire city when you leave a location. All locations are available on the map as hotspots, and clicking on a location will take you straight to it instead of having to walk from spot to spot. There is one issue with the map, however, as there is some pixel hunting to find some of the smaller locations until you are familiar with where everything is located.
As for the gameplay itself, your enjoyment is going to depend on a few different factors. First off, I have no qualms about calling Discworld one of the most difficult adventures to ever hit the market. In all of the years that I have been playing adventure games, I can count on one hand with fingers left over how many people I've spoken with who have completed this game without a walkthrough. And while, after many runs through the game, I can usually finish it in about eight to ten hours, the first time I played through it took a few months of puzzling before I reached the end, and that was with help from a few rudimentary walkthroughs.
For starters, although the game is split into four acts (well, three acts and a short closer), each act is extremely open-ended, which can be a wonderful thing when used well, or can turn a great game into a nightmare when done poorly.
For example, in the first act, Rincewind must find four objects to create his dragon detector. After being given that little bit of information, you'll do the requisite adventure game wandering, picking up items and talking to characters for clues. But some items cannot be picked up until other items have been gathered. Some items cannot be picked up until you learn a skill from another character. And there are some items that you will need to manipulate a few times before you get the desired result, leaving you to either interact multiple times with every hotspot in the hope that you don't miss something, or take the chance of turning a fairly easy puzzle into something that will make you want to tear your hair out.
Another issue adding to the difficulty is the fact that you are given two inventories to manage in the game -- one for you and one for your walking luggage that dutifully follows you around. Rincewind can only carry a few items with him, but it's never clear when you can use an item from your luggage in a puzzle and when you will need to transfer the item to Rincewind and then interact with the object.
So while there is a great sense of accomplishment when you solve a puzzle or get one of your four items, and though it is certainly fun to engage in conversations with Discworld’s many denizens (who will respond differently to you depending on how far you are through the game), the non-linearity comes with a price. Most of the time, you are just wandering around trying random things with random items in order to attempt to push the plot ahead and wondering if you missed anything, which due to the pixel hunting on smaller items is a good possibility.
Don't get me wrong. This is a wonderful game. The story is top-notch, the voices are a delight to listen to, and the game's jokes are hilarious, with very few clunkers in the bunch. In my opinion (and isn't that the only one that really matters?), Discworld is seriously overlooked, and could easily have taken a place next to some of the best of the genre, though it stops short of being a classic simply due to its sheer difficulty and the unwieldy nature of the game.