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Ruts vs. Battlespire: In Conclusion

By Rutskarn
on Tuesday Nov 8, 2016
Filed under:
Lets Play


The Battlespire experience is bafflement and molar-popping frustration, but you already know that. I’ve been mining these experiences for comedy for thirty-three posts now. You already know exactly how I feel about the game. What you don’t know, because I haven’t made room to talk about it, is what I actually think about it.

So let’s talk about that. Let me begin by sharing this excerpt from the final pages of the Battlespire manual.

“Julian is fond of paraphrasing one of our mutual heroes, Sandy Petersen (designer-developer of Call of Cthulhu, Runequest, Doom, and other light classics), to the effect that the best computer role-playing game experience is far less fun than the weakest pen-and-paper roleplaying game session. Julian has also stated as his Lofty Aim the creation of a computer role-playing game experience as satisfying as a pen-and-paper roleplaying game session. Julian, of course, is mad as a loon, but it is a fine and admirable madness.

Is Battlespire as much fun as a pen-and-paper roleplaying session?

Well, we’ve got your basic persistent power-hungry player characters, and your sprawling, exotic campaign setting, and convoluted plots and quests, and handsome, amazing, otherworldly architecture and landscapes, and perky dialog with obnoxious monsters, and cartloads of magic items, and lots of bad creatures and weapons to whack them with, and heroic high fantasy themes, and overconfident, grasping supervillains with sinister deathtraps, and acres and acres of dark, nasty places to poke around in like rats looking for cheese. All this stimulating, immersive activity takes place in gorgeous environments lovingly crafted by obsessive, sensitive artists in startling THREE-DEE!

Does it get any better than this?

Actually, with the advent of multiplayer gameplay in Battlespire, you also get to accidentally roast those front-line clowns in the tin suits with a fountain of fireballs. Even better, you get to play as competing gangs of Heroic War Wizards who DELIBERATELY roast the meat off their little pals.

So, maybe we’re getting there. Someday soon, when cheap and universally available technology lets us triumphantly shout at our friends as we roast the meat off them, THEN we’ll be able to smugly turn to Sandy and say, ‘Oh, yeah? Sez who?’

In the meantime, we’ll see you on the Net. Wear your asbestos skivvies.”

More than all the backstory, instructions, troubleshooting, and tips, this is the part of Battlespire’s manual that helps you understand it. You can take or leave the Excelsior-styled banter that didn’t quite outlive the 90s, you can certainly take issue with its assessment of the game’s quality, but you can’t deny this is a passionate and meaningful expression of who the developers are and what they want out of gaming. Your mind’s eye dilates when you read it. You take in the pizza boxes, the stack of crusty Manowar CDs, the blobby pewter barbarians rendered by people who didn’t have an internet to teach them how to thin their paints or work with washes. They’re gamers, but there’s not enough of them to call it that. The Golden Age came and went before they came into their own. As 80s and 90s geeks, they’ve set out into the fallout of the Satantic Panic and inherited gaming’s mysterious tools and twilit rituals as eager ash-streaked cavemen. They’ve had to figure a lot of things out themselves, and they’ve learned to play the game their way. Everything about their house rules and campaign styles and narratives are native to their group. How could it be otherwise?

This group is, as far as any of them are concerned, Dungeons and Dragons. And by the same token, their group is Battlespire.

We take for granted how much we expect today’s designers to work iteratively. The community-building capabilities of the internet and the increasing outflow of new games creates a complex intercourse of demographic expectations, mechanical innovation, marketing, and genre that can’t help but be on a designer’s mind. You know what gamers exists out there, you know what they want, and you know what games have most successfully given it to them. And regardless of how avant-garde they care to be, every developer ends up expressing what they’re making in terms of what it is like–whether it draws from the success of Rogue or Skyrim or Ultima or Minecraft.

In today’s climate, deciding to make a game based on how your group likes to play a pen-and-paper game would be a bold and conscious decision. It wouldn’t be the default.

So of course Battlespire‘s earnestly epic fantasy is punctured by comic relief and colloquial snarking and the occasional dumb reference, because six sweaty teens sitting down to play Dungeons and Dragons feel awkward asking each other to take their own narrative too seriously. And of course the women are luridly appointed bosom candy, because that’s what these guys see on all of their paperbacks and movie posters and ninety percent of storytelling, particularly for a journeyman, is recitation. And of course the magic effects are opaque and the story is a buried root network, because that’s how they roll at the table and there’s no stack of market research to tell them people would rather know what they’re doing. Some of it could have been done better, some of it shouldn’t have been done at all, but anyone can see where it came from.

I don’t like Battlespire very much. Out of the forty hours I spent playing it, the time I spent sincerely enjoying it can be measured in minutes. But I don’t hate it, either, because I can’t hate the guys who made it. If it’s dumb, it comes by it honestly. If it’s aggravating, it’s doing it to be fun. If it’s buggy and busted and broken–well, that’s not exactly unique. We can’t always ship the game we want to ship. At least they were making the game they wanted to play.

“A fine and admirable madness.” I don’t hate how that sounds.


Comments (63)

  1. Rutskarn says:

    I’ll take your questions here.

  2. Da Mage says:

    While I’ve never played it myself, I feel there is some interesting ideas in Battlespire, though poorly implemented. I really like the idea of a survival RPG, where there are no shops to sell loot at, so you only pick up things that you will will use. Old stuff gets discarded as you get deeper into the game and replace it with better gear. I have no idea if that would be ‘fun’, but I like the idea, I’ve seen it in some roguelikes, but never in a 3D adventure game.

    • James Porter says:

      Have you heard of the pre-Dark Souls From first person-rpg called Shadow Tower? It sounds a lot like what you described. The game has this super weird system where you fix weapons and armor at the cost of health, and health potions are super rare. You start with one sword, and it doesn’t last very long. You have to basically trade up until you have an assortment of kinda broken swords, up until the mid-game where you reach Morrowind levels of overpowered. Also the leveling is like Morrowind, except instead of lamarckian evolution, its the Pokemon EV system, where enemies have skillpoints in them.

      If anyone is curious, these guys did a deep dive into talking about the whole game and its sequel, Shadow Tower Abyss.

    • Adrian says:

      Ultima Underworld did the “survival RPG” thing first and I still think it’s a better, more functional game. It’s pretty clear that Bethesdat looked at Underworld and thought they could do better if not as well.

      • Raygereio says:

        I don’t know. I never played Ultima Underworld so maybe I’m missing some link, but I think it’s more likely both drew from the same source material: PnP dungeon crawls.

        I mean I look at Battlespire and could totally see it being a TSR published module.

    • Daemian Lucifer says:

      Check out legend of grimrock 1 and 2 then.All throughout this series I kept being reminded of how those games do it better than battlespire.

      In both,you get to start with 4 naked people,and you have to scrounge for clothes,armor,weapons,spells and food that will help you survive and triumph.Definitely worth playing.

  3. Ninety-Three says:

    This entire conclusion article was very well-done.

  4. Leocruta says:

    My opinion of the entire game has been retroactively improved. Well done.

    Not enough to make me want to play it, of course, no matter how noble their cause.

    (and I cannot recall pen-and-paper having quite so cumbersome an inventory system.)

  5. Daemian Lucifer says:

    But I don't hate it, either, because I can't hate the guys who made it. If it's dumb, it comes by it honestly. If it's aggravating, it's doing it to be fun. If it's buggy and busted and broken”“well, that's not exactly unique. We can't always ship the game we want to ship. At least they were making the game they wanted to play.

    That doesnt follow.I love blizzard,but I hate world of warcraft because of the shift it brought to their games.Your feelings towards the author dont have to be reflect your feelings towards the work,and vice versa.The two can be connected,colored by one another,but not necessarily equal.

    Also,just because someone was passionate about a project does not mean the project should automatically be judged more positively.Lucas was passionate about the prequel saga.Spielberg made the ending to ai because of his love and respect for Kubrick.Julia did street fighter because of his love for his kids.Their love and passion dont change the quality of said movies.

  6. Yurika Grant says:

    “At least they were making the game they wanted to play.”

    Now look at Fallout 4 and… yeah, it’s clear they’re no longer making the games they want to play. Sad to see. I suppose when you think about how Morrowind basically only turned out like it did because they thought it would be their last ever game and just went all-out on it… that game was pretty much their swan song. They didn’t end up failing and continued making games, but it feels like the heart was no longer in it from that point forward.

  7. Dmatix says:

    This was a thoroughly entertaining read, Sir Ruts. Kudos to you for finishing this game- I’d say I wish that you next game would be more enjoyable, but frankly? Watching you suffer through this was so great that I kinda hope it’s another one like this.

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