Saturday, June 26, 2010

Antagonists: Arcanum

Arcanum goes by the full title "Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura". That's one heck of a mouthful, hence it just gets shortened to Arcanum.  It was a great game for its time, and had one heck of a plot. It was long and it was involved, but you never got to see very far ahead in the story. It always felt as though you were trying to piece together the bits of a picture you couldn't quite make out.  Its steampunk setting and myriad of quests made it a complex and interesting game despite some technical issues, and a series of vignettes at the end of the game detailing what happened to certain characters based on your actions really made it feel as though your adventure had made a difference to the world. Spoilers abound in the rest of the post...

The game starts with you in a zeppelin that is shot down by flying machines. You soon find out that your character is supposedly the reincarnation of Nasrudin, a historical figure who long ago defeated a villain named Arronax. Your return is meant to be the portent for an upcoming clash between the two once again.  Yet it takes a long time for the entire picture of the situation to form, and you progress the plot slowly through a series of intermediary steps beforehand.

First you try to find out why assassins want you dead, then discover a plot of a missing dwarf clan, who you eventually discover have been banished to "The Void" in order to weaken the barriers between the world and The Void to facilitate Arronax's return.  Arronax himself even turns up as a magical projection to taunt you that you will be unable to stop him.  It's later revealed the Nasrudin never died... and you even get to meet him.

One dwarf? I don't think you can be called a clan anymore...

Arcanum is a strange game in that throughout the entire you're led to believe that your antagonist is Arronax until the very end, at which point that notion is turned on its head and reveals your enemy is actually Kerghan, a necromancer. During the game, you did find out information about Kerghan and a few other powerful individuals that played a prominent role in Arcanum's history. This meant that despite you being sprung with this turn of events, you still felt as though you knew a little about your ultimate enemy.

Howerver, your supposed antagonist, Arronax, turned out to be quite different from what you expected. He regrets his past misdeeds and offers to assist in defeating Kerghan.  When you meet Kerghan, he states that he believes that death is the natural state of the world; that life is an abomination and souls cannot be at peace unless they are dead.  One of the great aspects of this final encounter was that you could actually convince Kerghan that he was in the wrong. Having the option to defeat the final antagonist of a game through dialogue instead of combat is a fantastic choice in my opinion.

 A bait and switch on the game's main villain...

It terms of antagonists, it's actually hard to judge Arcanum.  You're posed with a greater evil in the background, but your struggles earlier in the game don't appear to have a connection to him, despite the knowledge that there must be one somehow. Unfortunately, the missing information weakens the strength of your dislike for your perceived antagonist somewhat. It can feel like you're moving towards a far-off confrontation, but no real knowledge of why you're doing so except to advance the plot or because it is your supposed destiny.

Overall, the antagonist in Arcanum provides some interesting points. While it does not possess the strongest antagonist in terms of driving you towards the finish, at least not until the later stages of the game, the reveal of the real enemy made the final confrontation an interesting proposition. As such, it's a game that is not really driven by its antagonist, but instead by developing the plot and the history of the world. Kerghan feels less fleshed out as a character than Arronax, and if you're like me, you probably felt a bit confused as to how it tied in with some of the prophecy delivered in the game and what it was describing.

So strangely enough, despite being a great game, Arcanum's antagonists, both the decoy and the real one, are not really that strong. You don't feel terribly driven to finish the game at their behest, mainly because it takes a long time before you actually understand their involvement within the plot. Yet it is that same plot that places all the pieces of a puzzle together in an magnificent landscape of lore to make the ultimate outcome satisfying anyway.

1 comment:

  1. Sweet! Arcanum is probably my second favorite game behind Fallout 1. Even for all its flaws (and it has many), it's really quite amazing when it comes to the roleplaying. It's probably my nr 1 game when it comes to just creating a character concept and running with it.

    I was never a huge fan of Kerghan myself. But, as you point out, I really enjoyed how the story was pieced together. Especially how it at first seems to be the classic "you're the chosen one" story, but then sorta turns it on its head when you meet Nasrudin.

    I also really enjoyed how the main plot got interwoven with the lore of the world. What first seems like background information (on the gods and all that) actually comes to the forefront as the game goes on.