Discworld: best adventure game series ever?
First posted on 15 May 2003. Last updated on 28 April 2006.
For people who have never heard of Terry Pratchett or Discworld (do such people exist?), I am going to explain a bit about a fantastic phenomenon called Discworld. Discworld is the creation of Pratchett, an English writer who nowadays lives behind a keyboard in Wiltshire, England. His works are award winning, bestselling, and most of all, brilliantly funny. All of his books take place on a giant disc called Discworld that floats in space on the backs of four elephants, which in turn stands on the back of a giant turtle called Great A'tuin. Many of his books also take place in the city of Ankh-Morpork, which is probably the only city with a river where you can break a leg if you jump into it. Are you confused yet? If not, there is still a lot more to explore in the realm of Discworld.
This piece is not intended to be my "review" of the many games from the Discworld series, but my "view" of the Discworld series of games as a whole. In this piece, I am going to analyze how well the games have adapted from the books and I am going to ponder on the characters, the locations, the stories, and other strange tidbits about the games. I have chosen to write about the games from the Discworld series in the order I have played, so that I can better demonstrate to you my experience with them.
Generally speaking, the first and second games from the Discworld series have more colorful and cartoonish graphics, while the third game from the series has a darker but cooler computer generated look. I find it hard to say which of these that I like the best. The first and second games feature the talented voice acting by Eric Idle and are laden with spectacular jokes, whereas the third game feels more true to the books and has a superior story. Now, if you already feel like you need to kiss the toilet seat I recommend that you stop reading this article or play the games, but I guess you are going to read on.
Discworld encounter of the second kind
My first experience with the Discworld series is with Discworld II: Mortality Bytes!. This game completely blows my head off. I have no idea that you can have such funny jokes in a computer game. Of course, having an ex Python as the lead voice cast makes the experience even better. Even that I now realize it is more Monty Python rather than Pratchett styled humor, I still cannot resist laughing.
The personalities of the characters are of vital importance to an adventure game. This is because if you do not get them right, it can easily destroy the feel of the whole gameplay. Fortunately, the slight mismatch does not affect the overall experience playing this game. You can still play it without bursting into tears and sending hate mails to the developer. On the other hand, some of the characters in the game just feel wrong. The first is Ponder Stibbons, the rather quiet and reserved young wizard, who has been turned into a bearded, smoking, barking, over the top loony. This transformation is strange, since in the original game he is a quiet and reserved character just as in Pratchett's books. Thaum splitting has obviously affected his brain negatively! Strangely enough, Mad Drongo has absorbed some of Ponder' personality, as he now wears a pair of glasses like the glasses Ponder has in the first game. May be their personalities have also switched? You never know, notwithstanding for the fact that his voice sounds like George Harrison. Granny Weatherwax is pictured as a rather stupid character, at least in the epilogue. I think this is an unfair change against an old woman and such a fine character from Pratchett's books. Then again, from Rincewind's own point of view, most people are just stupid and annoying anyway.
There are also not enough locations you can visit in Ankh-Morpork inside the game. Most of the locations you can visit are not the places I like to see the most. The Watch House, Opera House, and Lord Vetinari's Palace are only a few of the locales that any serious Pratchett fan such as myself greatly misses. A credit to the developer, though, is the opportunity to visit Death's Domain, and see the beautiful...black...oh, forget it. Since the main game plot deals with Death, it is a good choice to let the player explore around Death's own backyard. How often do you get to see the stove of Death? Not that often, right?
Pratchett's books have clearly been used as inspiration for the game, seeing that it mixes many scenes from his books with the game plot. Reaperman is the main character inspiration for the plot, but the Moving Pictures (clickie and obviously the ending), Eric (much of the wizard stuff), Pyramids (need I say more than Djelibeybi?), Lords and Ladies (Casanunda, Granny, and Elves), and The Last Continent (XXXX, of course), can also be found. Oddly enough, there is no mention of City Watch in the game, though it makes a big return later in Discworld Noir.
The quest for the holy game
As I develop an increasing interest in Discworld, I want to play the original game of the series. Because the title is no longer available in retail sale, I instead purchase Discworld Noir to temporarily satisfy my craving for Prachett. Knowing that there is no Rincewind or Idle in this game, initially I have been less than hopeful about the sequel. Boy, am I wrong! The biggest difference between Discworld Noir and Discworld II: Mortality Bytes! is a change of the main character, which is no longer the inept Rincewind but the tough and hardboiled private eye Lewton. It is dark. It is rainy. It is noir.
I feel that this title is the game that best captures the true Ankh-Morpork. Pevious games of the series make me feel like I am in a fairy tale world, which does not fit the description in Prachett's books. In this sequel, you can smell the musty air, you can feel the hard rain, and you can walk in the mean streets of Ankh-Morpork. Unlike the previous titles, it is not a sort of happy and jolly world. The strongest element about this game is its dark atmosphere, the grim feeling that makes you feel like a real private eye. You may even say that everything which has represented the previous games has been thrown aside in this sequel. There is no quest based story where you must wander and fetch a whole lot of objects. Instead the story in this game is an old-fashioned detective mystery that captivates you until the very end.
On the other hand, Discworld Noir seems to draw its inspiration only minimally from the Pratchett's books. The story is completely new, though it is said that Pratchett is involved in writing it. Although the story is not directly based on the books, I still find it to be highly complex with multiple plot twists, odd turns, and other elements that you expect from a good detective story. For all of film freaks, an added part of the fun is to find all of the film noir quotes, spoofs, and references inside the game. For example, it is only after I have read The Maltese Falcon by Dashiel Hammet that I realize that the character of Jasper Horst is a spoof. In the earlier games of the series, there are other obvious spoofs, such as Rambo, Dirty Harry, Indiana Jones, Mission Impossible, and Lethal Weapon. In Discworld Noir, however, these spoofs are more sophisticated. You really do not suspect that it is a spoof if you have not seen the original film that has inspired the spoof.
I have no complaint about the main characters in this sequel. They are all very well written. My complaints, instead, are about the characters not featured in the game. What I mean is that the game does not feature enough characters from Pratchett's books. It may be all right to have a whole new story, as it only makes the game fresher and less predictable to play, but I demand back more old characters! There are only a few characters from the books with whom you can converse. Nobby is not always so keen to help, and Death only appears to be interested when somebody is about to die. Death of Rats makes a small cameo appearance, but you can only talk to him once. Then there is Gaspode, who is a very important character in the third act. Other characters from the books also make appearances, but you cannot talk to any of them at your chosing, that is, you cannot just walk up and talk to them anytime you want. Rather, you converse with them only in cut scenes or during an interrogation. Sam Vimes is here, but mostly to pick on you in the cut scenes. Detritus appears exactly once during the interrogation. You can only hear but not see the Patrician.
The character Lewton in the Discworld Noir is similar to Vimes in Prachett's books, as both are at a time hopeless alcoholics and worked as guards in the City Watch. However, in Discworld Noir, Vimes is portrayed as a rather snobby character who is disgusted by Lewton's past. If Vimes is true to his character from the books, he is supposed to understand and sympathize with Lewton. Other characters are only briefly mentioned but are not seen, such as Fred Colon and CMOT Dibbler. The name CMOT can be seen on a note at the Octarine Parrot, among Hwel the Dwarf, Harga (of Harga's House of Ribs), and many more. The Wizards seems to be cowardly creatures who are afraid of everything in Ankh-Morpork. Only a couple of wizards can be seen in the entire game. Characters like Twoflower and Lord Hong are not mentioned by name in the game, but they are described in such a way that makes it hard not to miss their references ("The last time someone from the Agatean Empire visited the town, the whole city got burned down.").
There is a single character, however, who is not from the books but is among the funniest characters ever to appear in adventure games—Malaclypse. He is a rather paranoid prophet, who knows everything that goes on in the city. Well, he thinks that he does anyway. He is the only character from whom you can ask about anything during the game and who answers back. It is not unusual that the answer you get is...um...a little odd? I have never seen any character that does this in any other game. His only match is perhaps Murray from the Monkey Island series. In my opinion, these are very different characters in very different games, so any detailed comparison may not be fair.
Another unavoidable comparison is between Discworld Noir and Grim Fandango. The film noir elements are very obvious in both games. Both games are rendered in 3D graphics. Grim Fandango is released before Discworld Noir, so any claim that Grim Fandango is taking a concept after Discworld Noir is a lie. Nor any claim that Discworld Noir rips off Grim Fandango is true. The main difference between these games is the fact that Grim Fandango actually takes its story seriously but the humor comes unintentionally in its dialog, whereas Discworld Noir has a dark story but the humorous elements are deliberate and intended.
Strange, is it not? Discworld Noir feels more true to Pratchett's Discworld than the other games in the Discworld series, even though there are less familiar characters and locations.
The original Discworld
The original Discworld, the first game in the series, is probably the hardest title to locate a copy. As with the sequels, the characterization in this game is very well done. There is a good mix of book based and brand new characters. There are many hilarious scenes, such as the beggar who goes a bit too far. There is only a single piece of the story that bugs me. Is that Sam Vimes in the Guard Tower by the gate? Nobby says that he is his sergeant, and Rincewind assumes that he is the commander of the watch, but neither of them ever mentions his name. With a white moustache, he does not look like Vimes from Discworld Noir with a black beard.
The inspiration behind this game is obvious. The main quest is to get rid of the fire breathing dragon that is haunting the city of Ankh-Morpork. In this game, there are more wizards and a sort of Pratchett's "The Color of Magic" feel. After all, Rincewind hangs on the edge of the world as you may know. A big difference between this game and the others is that you cannot drink anything in the sequels. In the first game, you can drink the Counterwise wine, beer, and cactus juice. In both sequels, Rincewind and Lewton refuse to drink anything in the game. Is it because Rincewind can be such a drunk in the first game that Lewton has promised himself not to drink (at least anything alcoholic) in the second? May be it is because the original game has been criticized for all the heavy drinking in a computer game that is aimed for family entertainment. Who knows?
What holds in the future for the Discworld series? Is there going to another sequel? Perfect Entertainment, which has been behind the development of all the games in this series, is nowadays bankrupt. Some of the programmers have moved onward to other game companies. Others have disappeared into the cold and harsh game industry jungle. Even if they all get back together again, however unlikely, I doubt that a new Discworld is going to be on their project agenda. Given this, is there any chance for the rest of us, lovers of the Discworld series, who are hoping for another sequel? Who knows, perhaps one day.