Sunday, June 11, 2017

Anthology of Names: Gemstone III, Tale of the First Name

Gemstone III was a game released in 1996 and available through several popular online portals, including... America Online. Yeah, AOL. That brings back some memories. Within AOL's safe walls, which kept the unruly Internet at bay, there were a few online games, mostly with very pixelated graphics and simple gameplay.  Then there was Gemstone III, which had complex gameplay and... no graphics to speak of.  Here, let me show you... let's type "look" and hit return.

> look
[Town Square Central]
This is the heart of the main square of Wehnimer's Landing.  The impromptu shops of the bazaar are clustered around this central gathering place, where townsfolk, travelers, and adventurers meet to talk, conspire or raise expeditions to the far-flung reaches of Elanith.  At the north end, an old well, with moss-covered stones and a craggy roof, is shaded from the moonlight by a strong, robust tree.  The oak is tall and straight, and it is apparent that the roots run deep.  You also see some manna bread, the Eilyn disk, some ambrominas leaf, the Raissong disk, some aloeas stem, the Carene disk, a large acorn, a handful of white flower petals and some stone benches with some stuff on it.
Also here: Slavacchio, the body of Aeryell who is lying down, Bereg, Lamie, Eilyn, Suitcher who is sitting, Lord Mirlan, Idialiver, Harliquin, Lord Raissong, Grenklin who is lying down, Piriq who is sitting, Ladolets, Lady Faralai who is sitting, Oesia, Apprentice Caels, Carene, Angelique, Cancel
Obvious paths: northeast, east, southeast, southwest, west, northwest

Fully text.  A command prompt RPG, also known as a Text MUD (Multi-user Dungeon).  Perhaps the perfect game for someone who loves to read...

Quarillion, my first character, was born in the North, far from the bustling Wehnemir's Landing.  His biggest fear was slipping on the ice and cracking his skull on the trip south from Icemule Trace.  His biggest achievement was... hmm.  I don't think he accomplished that much. I think got to level 6 or 7, maybe overheard some players talking about important events once.  Ah, there was that time I screwed up his leveling process such that I threw an in-game tantrum the likes of which the world has never seen -- rolling around on the ground, sobbing, the works, all in text.  No one actually noticed, so I dusted myself off and decided to re-roll the exact same class (Ranger) for a fresh start in a new city.

Thus, Keyseth was born in the South, in Wehnemir's Landing.  His biggest fear was running out of resurrections from dying so much.  His greatest achievements were exploring places he probably shouldn't have and hanging out with folks who were likely best avoided.

Keyseth once went out of town armed with a sword and sandwich instead of a shield.  He was killed almost instantly by low level kobolds who knocked him down, stabbed him, and probably stole his lunch money. And his lunch.

Keyseth once joined a very exclusive organization, completing many quests to ascend the ranks.  He felt very accomplished, but then learned that everyone in the organization had been tricked and that the final quest basically said "Congrats, you're evil and totally damned now."

Keyseth once bummed around with a gang of player thieves.  They stole from everyone who passed by and passed the spoils out to the group. Keyseth felt a little ambivalent about this and said as much, so they stole back everything they had given him. And a tip for their trouble.

Keyseth once climbed a mountain, then rode down it.  The mountain was very tall, and at the top, there was a hole in the rock, filled with the sound of rushing water.  Players were invited to jump in. Clearly, this was suicide.

Keyseth jumped in the hole.  You only live several times, right?

The water-tunnel-slide that ensued was one of the most memorable experiences I had in Gemstone III.  It was a maze, a puzzle, a timing game where each fork and turn could mean a choice, and life or death hung on that choice.  Lean to turn. Lie low to avoid overhanging rocks ready to take your head off.  I spent hours navigating the tunnels, getting stuck in eddies, and avoiding decapitation.  Eventually I popped out into free fall -- a vast cavern spread out around me, filled with treasure on all sides, chests and ships and mountains of gold -- but I'm still falling, and there's no way to stop, and you realize halfway down that this is just there to tease you, a tantalizing vision of a goal you'll never reach.  Then, you're back in the slide and sucked down the drain, drenched and cold and rushing toward the end of the ride.

The amusement ride in the mountain taught me that Gemstone III's combination of the written word with active experience had a unique power over me.  My brain was so willing, so ready to conjure images to match the prose, that the "graphics" actually felt better than most games -- completely left to the imagination. 

When I finally finished the ride down the mountain, I took a deep breath and closed the game.  I had completed this experience on a Pentium 90 sitting in my family's living room.  Around me, my mom was vacuuming.  There was a fire in the fireplace.  Life moved on, completely oblivious to the experience I had just been through, unreal and transitory thing that it was. 

I felt that I had just been somewhere very far away, and that I was only now returning.  My family had no idea what I had just experienced. To them, I had just spent several hours glued to a screen watching text scroll past. To me, I had been to a distinct place, and seen something beautiful.  It was immaterial, in more ways than one -- those riches really were just out of reach, as there is no reward for completing the ride other than making it down the mountain alive.  No gold, no experience points, no progress.

And yet, somehow, this made what I had seen even more valuable.  For once it was not the reward structure that gave me such a sense of achievement, event contentedness.  It was that moment, falling through a bizarre room in the middle of the mountain, a little flash of beauty left behind by an anonymous writer who clearly loved this game.

I doubt I'll ever know who wrote it, but I want to say it anyway: thanks for that.  You made the game for me.

Up next, moving further into my teenage years, a truly wretched hive of scum and villainy... SubSpace: Arcade Asteroids & Angst.