Thursday, March 20, 2008

Chivalry is not Dead

Sometimes it’s good to be evil. Sometimes not so much… But it’s always good to have a choice, and this game offers an unprecedented array - for an independent adventure - of such choices. Chivalry is not Dead may look like a run of the mill adventure game, albeit with unique and pleasing graphics, but it’s focus on dialog and multiple endings makes it quite unique.

Deirdra Kiai is an experienced adventure maker. I’ve already enjoyed and reviewed her previous game, The Game That Takes Place on a Cruise Ship, and she’s interned at Telltale Games, the publishers of the Sam & Max series. I was eagerly awaiting her new title, and quickly got into playing once it was released. The author has also written a series of articles about developing the game for Adventure Gamers Underground, but I decided to skip those articles until I finished the game, lest my gaming experience be spoiled.

In Chivalry, you play Phlegmwad, an assassin employed by the villain. You are so ugly that you wear a paper bag over your head, and based on the reaction of people you meet, your awful reputation precedes you. You are tasked with killing the beautiful Queen of Everything. How the story goes from there is up to you...

Well, not exactly. As I mentioned before, the game offers multiple endings, but despite Kiai’s goal to the contrary (as expressed in her articles), the game is very linear. The variance lies mainly in dialog choices, which shape the attitudes of people around you, and which may offer an exit from the storyline prematurely and end the game. There are a few actions, mainly involving the main character’s knife, which can be optionally selected, but how the game plays out depends primarily on how other people see you. In this, Kiai shines.

The author spent two articles explaining how the dialog and attitude adjustments worked on a technical level, but didn’t really touch on the writing of the choices themselves. I found the conversation topics to be more convenient than in any other adventure game I played. Even though they were set in a fantasy word, I felt that I could honestly pick responses that reflected my beliefs, even though at first I didn’t do so. When I first started the game, I played the role of my character, and as the evil assassin I was supposed to be, I disposed of the queen in five minutes. When I realized that I possibly missed a great deal of the game I returned to it, but instead of playing at Phlegmwad I played as myself. Suddenly, the characters around me developed their own personalities, which were ever changing based on what I told them or what I did. As the time went by, I also developed feelings for the non-player characters, which is something I very rarely do. In this case, they were mainly feelings of disgust and frustration, but fortunately the author offered me a way out in the form of a short intermission where Phlegmwad actually met the game developer and was able to stay in her word. I actually felt relieved to take this path and escape from the game, leaving all the others who kept exploiting me behind. Later, I explored other dialog options, but by that time I knew what Kiai strived to achieve, and so they didn’t have such an effect on me anymore.

It’s difficult to understate the importance and genius of the dialog tree in this game. It not only drives the story forward and gives surprisingly deep character to non-player figures, but it also provides for most of the puzzles in the game. Inventory is greatly limited to just a few items, and the cursor only allows for walking, looking and talking. Detailed actions, such as smelling items or eating them, which appeared in the author’s previous game, as missing here. This simplicity further expands into graphics, which are very clear and large. Just as was Kiai’s goal, the player will focus on the dialog.

In her last article on the game, the author mentioned that most players reported to her that choosing more evil courses of action seemed to be easier than selecting good actions. Killing or threatening a non-player character indeed seemed to get the results faster than trying to convince the character to do the player’s bidding. I felt that Kiai named the game as a plea to try a different path to victory, to be more chivalrous to the queen who’s obviously a self-centered bigot. I must admit I enjoyed abandoning or abusing the queen over and over again, but I truly appreciated having a choice in this matter. In this respect, Chivalry is one of the best adventure games out there.

Pigeons in the Park

Later, Kiai released another game, which takes the dialog idea to the extreme. Pigeons isn’t truly an adventure game – it features no puzzles, not even character movement. It only has two strangers having a conversation on a park bench. The author did an incredible job with the dialog, though. Once again, there are many forks the player can take and even more so than in Chivalry, the forks sound very real, and the player may be truly drawn into the dialog. One of the greatest innovations, in my opinion, was to also include a “no answer” option. Keeping silent is a response as well, and I’m surprised I haven’t seen it in other dialog-driven games yet. I thought I’d play this game a few times, to explore the different forks in conversation and their effects. I ended playing it only once, and I won’t be going back to it. I found that I could pick every answer truthfully, based on how I really felt about the conversation. At the end, my conversation partner developed a real personality, and I didn’t want to spoil this by exploring the software behind the two characters anymore. If you have a few minutes, try it out to see what I mean.


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