Darklands

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Once upon a time, a long, long time ago (in computer-terms, anyway), there was a fantasy role-playing game for the PC, called Darklands.

 

It was, to put it simply, extremely cool.

 

Here's what the company who made it, MPS Labs, had to say about it:

 

"Welcome to Darklands, a fantastic land where knights in plate armor rule from soaring, turreted castles; where an ordinary journey becomes a dangerous adventure; and where clerics can command miraculous powers while wizardly alchemists concoct awesome potions.

This realm is chaotic and violent. The roads and rivers are unsafe. Justice is uncertain. Bribery and corruption are commonplace. People's darkest fears are real: awful dragons ravage the countryside, strange creatures infest underground mines, loathsome witches dispense crippling curses, and satanic cults seek to ensnare the unwary.

Darklands is based on a real time and place: Greater Germany in the 15th Century. The strange, miraculous and magical elements simply reflect popular beliefs, superstitions and myths. This is an era before logic or science, a time when anything is possible. In short, if medieval Germans believed something might be true, in Darklands it may actually be true.

Darklands is a fantasy role-playing game. You direct a band of heroes (your "party") in search of immortal fame. You can actually create the type of heroes you desire, using the character generation system, or you can use pre-generated characters.

You travel across the Holy Roman Empire, as the realm was then called. The Emperor is weak, while the Princes constantly war among themselves. You can visit more than 90 different cities, as well as innumerable castles, hamlets and monasteries. You will find unique dangers and surprising terrors. There are many opportunities to perform heroic deeds--actions that people will remember long after you pass. Someday your fame might rival that of Beowulf, Roland, and other great medieval heroes whose stories are still remembered today.

We invite you to enter the Darklands, a place where reality is fantasy, and fantasy reality. Begin now a lifetime of quests and adventures..."

 

Sounds cool already, doesn't it?

Well, here's what the designer, Arnold Hendrick, had to say about it in 1992, when it was first released:

 

"Darklands is an ambitious attempt to expand the "world" of computer fantasy role-playing games. At MicroProse, we have grown tired of "hack and slash" adventures, punctuated by silly puzzles blocking your acquisition of the magic gizmo that dispatches Foobash, the evil wizard. All this happens in a world populated mostly with a random assortment of monsters, sometimes expanded by a similarly random assortment of silly villagers, all of whom sprang from a bad imitation of Lord of the Rings.

Unlike any other game in this genre, Darklands is set in a real time and place. Darklands is fantasy because whatever people of the era imagined was possible, now really is possible. Then we took a few additional liberties for the sake of gaming and playability. However, much care was taken to make this world be the real 15th Century, as perceived by its inhabitants. There are many different adventures in Darklands. Some are interrelated, but many are completely independent of each other. Lots of things are happening in the world. You can be involved in whatever interests you! This "non linear" aspect of Darklands means you can play it almost endlessly, or return to it from time to time, as the inclination strikes."

 

Sounds really cool now, doesn't it?

But wait - Arnold had quite a bit more to say about it. Here's some more excerpts from his "Designer's Notes."

 

"THE GAME SYSTEM: Darklands uses an innovative game system for computer fantasy. Until now, fantasy games almost universally copied the concepts of "Dungeons & Dragons", including various "classes" of characters, who advance through various "levels" via "experience points," acquiring more "hit points" as they go. In such a system, it's quite possible for 20th Level warriors to absorb an entire mercenary company's volley of crossbow fire, simply because the character has so many hit points!

There are alternate and better systems available. They've been used for years in paper role-playing games. Darklands is the first to bring these concepts to computer fantasy games. In Darklands attributes change rarely, while skills improve regularly. This means that you, as a player, must balance the permanent importance of attributes against the desirability of higher and higher skills. Best of all, even the most skillful of adventures cannot survive target practice by a company of crossbowmen!"

 

Oh, and it gets better, too. The game was completely open-ended. There was no set "end" to the game - you could play it as long as you liked, continuing to adventure and have fun until your charachters grew old and gray and eventually died of old age (unless some baddie geeked them first).

Arnold goes on...

 

 

"Most fantasy games have a magic system. Instead, Darklands has religious and alchemical systems."

 

This, in fact, was an understatement. Based on the religious and alchemical beliefs of the time, this particular aspect of the game was completely revolutionary. Saints operated in the pragmatic beliefs of the 15th Century - which meant that the virtuous accumulated "Divine Favor", which they spent to obtain miracles from saints for whom they had learned the proper rituals. Alchemical potions could be concocted that ranged from the annoying (Fleadust - it makes you itch and screws up your ability to hit) to the deadly (Eater-Water - kind of like high-powered acid that not only eats flesh, but destroys weapons and armor). These were gaming ideas completely unique to Darklands - and still are, to this day.

But, let's get back to Arnold...

 

 

"Perhaps the most innovative aspect of Darklands is the extensive use of menus. We choose this approach primarily because the traditional "guess the word" or "hear the canned speech" methods bored us. However, this has a beneficial side effect: Darklands is not constrained by a data base of objects and actions. As designers, we could create any situation, with any options and results, simply by creating a new menu and attached logic. The only limits are design time and imagination! Of course, as a player this means you need to study each new situation. Even an experienced player can be surprised periodically with new situations or results. Best of all, this menu system allows the game size and scale to be quite large. You don't have to deal with endlessly boring details, manipulate specific objects, etc. Instead, you pick a course of action and see what happens!"

"The battle system in Darklands was designed with care. We wanted the realism of real-time fighting, including animated effects, the clash of weapons, the ebb and flow of action. However, we've observed that it's either frustrating or impossible for a player to control four or five characters fighting simultaneously in real time. We think "pause for orders" is a perfect compromise between realism and enjoyable gaming."

 

What Arnold was trying to describe here was how the combat system in the game worked. In fact, it was all in real-time - but you could hit the 'spacebar' at any time to pause the battle, and give new orders. This gave a sense of realism to the combats that simply has never been matched, before or since. Arnold was right - managing multiple units in realtime is, for many people, extremely difficult, if not outright impossible. That's why "Battle Net" is divided into three broad classes of players - those who are lightning fast with mouse and keyboard and win a lot, those who are clumsy as hell and lose a lot, and people who cheat and win all the time.

Let's go back to Arnold one more time...

 

 

"SEQUELS: Darklands was designed to permit sequels. It is possible to have some additional adventures in Germany. More importantly, it is possible to create entirely new games elsewhere in Europe. The system not only allows moving "saved game" files back and forth, but also allows you to load multiple games onto your hard disk and move back and forth between the nations, in a sort of giant adventure. Let us know what you enjoyed in Darklands, what you would like to see in a sequel, and what setting you prefer. There are plenty of possibilities: the Emperor in Germany has many political problems and intrigues, England and France are busy finishing the last half of the Hundred Years War, after which England falls into civil war (the War of the Roses). Meanwhile, Italy is at the peak of its warring city-states era, Vlad the Impaler appears in the Balkans (the historical figure who ultimately became Dracula), Tamerlane is conquering Central Asian, and much more. What's your preference?"

 

Yes, that's right - Arnold had designed a game engine (another first, really - the idea was very new at the time, and the term "engine" for this type of program hadn't yet reached common coinage). By replacing the maps, monster files and the menu logic files, you could conceivably have the same engine running adventures anywhere in Europe at that time period. He intented to have many, many sequels...

 

Alas, that never happened.

 

Perhaps the game was too innovative, really. Perhaps it was too ambitious. Despite the fact that Darklands won several awards for game design, art, music, and many other aspects of the game, despite the fact that it gained MPS Labs international recognition as a leading design-team in the realm of computer-games...

 

It didn't sell well.

 

The real problem was that it came out at a time the market was simply glutted with fantasy roleplaying games - and, in 1992, most were simply AD&D clones, and they all stank. People had become extremely wary of buying anything new, unless it already was a sequel to a game they happened to like.

 

So, due to a bit of poor timing, Darklands never really took off, and MPS Labs stopped producing it about a year later.

 

Ah, but the memories...

 

I played Darklands for years. It was extremely addicting. Oh, certainly I accomplished the "Main Mission" in the game fairly early on - after about a week, I'd managed to defeat Baphomet and delay the Apocalypse, of course. You couldn't really prevent it - just put it off to it's appropriate time (which, back in 1992, everyone was pretty convinced was going to be in 8 years, anyway). But, because the game is "Open Ended", with no fixed end, I continued having my characters wander around, gainining fame and fortune as they righted the various wrongs they encountered in the world. Very enjoyable, really...

 

Ah, but then the dark day came.

 

I upgraded my little machine to Win95. I had to - the little text-editor I had simply wasn't cutting it. I was, after all, trying to be a professional author. I needed a real word processor - and for that, I needed Win95. Win3.1 simply didn't have a word processor that was good enough to do the job. "Windows Write" was little better than using a typewriter, really. I needed something better.

 

Well, it was a long and expensive process, but after I was done, my machine was much more powerful, faster, and better than it ever was before, and was now equipped with the latest Word Processor. Everything was wonderful...

 

Except Darklands didn't run.

 

After much groaning and cursing, it became apparent I'd have to re-install Darklands. So, I uninstalled it, pulled out the ten floppies used to install it (yes, TEN floppies - the game required 2 MEG of HD space, which was a lot in 1992)...

 

And disk 4 was bad.

 

No more Darklands.

 

I was, to say the least, very sad. My little friends, some of whom I had adventured with for three years, were no more. Darling little Gretch, whose wry grin and glib tongue had squeaked the group past many a hostile enemy... Noble Gunther, whose stealth and woodwise kept the party alive early on, and whose strength and daring was sorely challenged in the Castle of the Apocalypse... Brave Hans, whose skills as an alchemist were legendary in and of themselves... Wise Ebhart, whose knowledge of the saints was unsurpassed, and whose favor with Heaven was so high he was almost certain to be Beautified upon death...

 

POOF!

 

All gone.

 

My wife, of course, missed the game just as much as I did. Both of us had started playing RPG's back when we were teenagers. Hell - we met each other because of roleplaying games, really. I was in Albuquerque back in '85, and there was a "Game Master" of an AD&D group who was looking for another player. Terre, my wife, was someone I met at that first game - we married two years later. Darklands was, in many ways, the kind of game we had been wishing to have for many years. To this day, my wife brings up Darklands once or twice a year when we get to chatting about roleplaying games and "The Good Old Days" - a topic I never though I'd be talking about back when I was 18, but now at age 38, I talk about a lot.

 

I hoped and prayed that MPS might, perhaps, create a sequel that would run under Win95 - but they never did. Arnold moved on, leaving MPS, MPS itself left roleplaying games entirely to devote their energies to the "big sellers" (cart and jet-simulation games), Win95 came and went, and now I have Win98 (though my wife's machine still runs on Win95). I've published several books, my career as a writer is just starting to get underway, and it looked like Darklands was far behind us, just a pleasant memory.

 

Yes, life moved on.

 

I compose music for my e-books. One cool, early December morning in the waning days of the year 2000, I remembered that the music for Darklands was very good - and all of it was music from the 13th, 14th, 15th and 16th centuries. I have a project I'm working on that I wanted period Medieval and Early Rennaisance music for - and, in particular, I wanted one of the "Travelling" themes from Darklands. The theme is called L'homme Arme' - it's an old French tune by Guilliame Dufay. But, I couldn't find the sheet music for it (not suprising, really, considering it's several centuries old and not nearly as commonly known as "Greensleeves" and other melodies of similar vintage). I needed the sheet music to be able to sequence it for MIDI - I simply couldn't remember enough of it to do it otherwise. Since sheet music wasn't available, I tried searching for MIDI's of the piece. I can open a MIDI in my editor, print out the score, and then re-sequence it from scratch, just following the score and putting in my own emphasis on the notes. So, being the expert surfer I am (after years of practice at it), I started typing in keywords I thought might narrow down a source for a MIDI version of the music from the game...

 

And what to my wondering eyes did appear, but a magical sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer!

 

Yes, it was a download page for Darklands - totally free, as MPS, the original publisher of the game, no longer supports Darklands in any way, and literally doesn't give a damn about Darklands anymore. Certainly, it was in violation of their copyright - but MPS just doesn't care. Apparently, as far as they're concerned, the game may as well be Public Domain.

 

'Why, this would make a perfect Christmas gift for my wife - as well as for me!' I thought gleefully. Christmas around here has been rather sparse these last few years. Last year, we didn't even bother to put up a tree, to be honest - we had nothing to put beneath it. My wife and I simply had nothing to give each other but our love for each other.

 

So, I downloaded it...

 

And I installed it...

 

And it didn't work.

 

It wouldn't run in my Win98 environment.

 

Not being easily discouraged, I spent two weeks fiddling with my computer to get it to run - and, meanwhile, downloading as many other utilities and interesting things I could find regarding the game on the internet. As it turned out, the problem was simply configuring Win98 properly so as to run the program.

 

Finally, I had it.

 

Darklands worked!

 

Overjoyed (and particularly happy because I had managed to keep this a complete secret from my wife), I transferred the game to her machine...

 

And it didn't work. It wouldn't run in her Win95 environment.

 

Undaunted, I spent a week secretly fiddling with her configuration files, and testing out the game and the utilities. It was quite difficult, actually - I had to do all the work while she was at her job, or asleep. I couldn't screw up - she was playing Diablo-II on the computer every day, and would notice if the damn thing didn't boot up when she turned it on, or if Diablo-II started acting funny. I had to laugh, really - one of Terre's most common comments about Diablo-II is how it would be so much better if it was less like D&D and more like Darklands.

 

Finally, one dark and very chilly night, I had it.

 

Darklands functioned on her Win95 machine perfectly.

 

So now, I sit here, typing this story, and waiting for Christmas. Today's the 23rd - only two more days to go.

 

All I can say is... "Terre, I love you. Merry Christmas."

 

- Jim Farris, 12/23/00

 

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