Sunday, 1 April 2012

On Neverwinter Nights

"Fuck it", I type.

"Fuck it, lets do it"

It's something of a relief to type the words, as I've suspected for a few minutes that it's more than I can do to say no. I truly can't resist, not with Harry on the other end of a Steam chat, whispering sweet words about late nights and prestige classes, prison districts and charisma casters.

Excited words flow back.

"Fuck it, this time let's do it properly, let's complete the fucking game"

I have no idea if we will, but for this moment I want to believe nothing more strongly. A triumphant return to our teenage battleground, to the adventure the memories of which still tingle our spines. A long awaited but true denouement to the journey of discovery taken by our younger selves.

More excitement is typed at me and I'm not greatly surprised to find myself typing it right back.

We're going home.


Along with Eve, which I've written about extensively, and Freelancer, which I'll write briefly about in the future, Neverwinter Nights is one of the games that made me. Perhaps not remembered by many as the peak Bioware's RPG prowess, and understandably so from an objective point of view or when judged only for its main campaign played solo, it's nonetheless the single game from the company that I remember most fondly and have ploughed the most hours of my life into.


It's nine years - or thereabouts - previous.

We're entranced. Somewhere in chapter two or three, fighting in a forest or demolishing the denizens of a dungeon; ranger and fighter perhaps, or maybe this was cleric and barbarian. Tim is yet to join us in our escapades at this point: it's just me and Harry, more coffee in our veins than blood.

The outside world has had little say in our affairs for some hours now. Besides providing the necessary environment for our hunched physical forms and supplying caffeinated beverages for said husks, the "real world" outside of the laptop screens we stare at has been little needed and has bothered us less.

That's when I look at the clock.

"Woa, shit, dude, it's like 5am"

"Shit, uh, we better go to bed"


I was a pretty - how should I say this - "square" kid and while I often played computer game for extended periods against my parent's better judgement, as a ~14 year old I don't think I'd ever come close to seeing 5am from that side of a night. It felt like a big deal. I think it was less of a big thing for Harry - I'll ask him and see if he remembers - but I know for a fact we were both utterly shocked at how many coffee fuelled, adventure filled hours had passed since we'd last taken stock. Neverwinter taught me that you could exist in games, and when there's company, you could do so for a scary amount of time and become completely absorbed. It taught me that fun shared is fun multiplied and that gaming with friend can be just flipping marvellous.


Another few months previous.

We've installed, created characters, played tutorials, plugged parent's laptops together and now we hope. That this will work, for a start; that it will be good; that the other will like it too. Before, we've experienced everything from shooter shenanigans to strategic scrapes: we're far from new to gaming, and through various console dabblings multiplayer isn't a novelty either, but this is something different.

Together we set off on an adventure, making the tracks through Neverwinter's prison district that will in time become very well worn indeed. As we will be later, we are entranced.

It's on the second of the four parts of chapter one, in the large undead filled catacombs, that I open my inventory and it happens: we crash.


Other gamers have stories of struggling to play Doom over null modems or wrestling with config.sys and autoexec.bat files in DOS. The game that made me feel like a pioneer, about which I can tell stories of battles with ancient and unwieldy software and sheer bloody minded perseverance to play despite ridiculous obstacles, is Neverwinter. You see, even the "Best of Atari" boxed version of the game we bought a year or two after release didn't see fit to include up to date patches, and was therefore really a rather buggy thing. And these were the days when broadband was yet to reach our rural home in any significant way. Even the seventy meg patch we needed to get the game up to date was a no-no on Mum and Dad's dial-up.

Amongst the networking problems, performance issues and graphical errors, the real piss-taker was a bug that crashed the game when I opened the inventory, about one time in twenty or so. That first crash combined with a corrupted save to put us back to the start, after which a strict regime of auto, quick and back up saves was needed to make progress feasible. It seems an odd way to praise a title, so that's not really what I'm doing when I say this, but I think the experience of fighting so hard against the technical failings of a game is one that every gamer is better for. And it speaks to the fun we were having that we persisted despite the struggle.


Chapter 2, if memory serves: a side quest leads to a tower and culminates in a trademark Bioware moral dilemma. Along the way we realise we can summon a demon far too strong to defeat in normal combat, but that can be banished via a puzzle. Only we don't. We realise we can summon a demon. A very strong demon. And we try to defeat it in normal combat.

At some point realisation dawns that perhaps this isn't how it's meant to be done. But we don't care. We've come so far that we persist. It takes quite a number of hours, but the beast dies.


We still laugh about this now: I can't remember exactly what the tactic was, but I remember one person running around in a circle being chased by the demon while out of attack range. I believe the other would then enter, do a minimal amount of damage and then either run and exit the area or perhaps even die. And repeat. A lot of times. Whatever the details, the thing clearly wasn't meant to be killed that way, but Harry and I decided to set that ridiculous goal, achieved it, and still remember it today.

This story symbolises so much for me: our mad and fervent devotion to the game, the idea that breaking games can be one of the most fun things to do with them, the realisation that games with consistent, fair systems can contain incredibly fun and emergent ways to be broken, the power of co-op and how you can do crazy, stupid, brilliant things when you team up with someone, the compulsion to explore a game's mechanics to their limits and not miss out anything and, most of all, the way that friends can bond and create amazing shared memories from a bunch of on screen pixels.

Later, we were joined by Tim, bought and played expansions, had "fun" networking three PCs and the adventures flowed and the wee hours were visited. Somehow though, between corrupted saves, new campaigns, other games and the folly of youth, we were never to get past chapter three of Neverwinter's main campaign (in coop at least - I did complete the campaign solo) and somewhere in the mists of the actually fairly recent past, my NWN disks broke and Harry's were lost.


A month or two ago.

The band is back together, the team reunited, virtually if not geographically, playing Portal 2's sterling co-op. For various reasons we couldn't do so on release, but Harry and I are tearing through Valve's playground and enjoying ourselves not a little.

Talk takes a turn for the "we don't do enough of this" and "we should play more co-op". Excited musings on the best titles to try turns inevitably to fervent reminiscing about
that game.

A decision is made to get a small but regular group together, to see that we all get the multiplayer medicine and quota of co-op that every growing geek requires, but the talk of Neverwinter itself doesn't seem to be more than nostalgia - this is all about more recent games.

Then we see the complete edition for a fiver on Gamers Gate. Jokes are made and memories shared, but like two paralytic football hooligans at a bar in Dagenham, it's only a matter of time before matters get a whole lot more serious and potentially ugly.

"Fuck it", I type

"Fuck it, lets do it"


Since then we've got Tim on board for a trip back to Neverwinter's familiar haunts. The goal is to actually bloody complete the game at last, and I'm going to try and blog about the whole thing (as well as - arg - do some more Diaries of Dredmor). This will end somewhere between total, glorious success and the buggy piece of crap that is one of my favourite ever games steadfastly refusing to work in any acceptable way. Whatever the outcome, it's going to be a fascinating experiment in delving into our gaming past.


Just now, on Steam:

Zhaine: Writing about the bit with the demon we weren't supposed to kill

Harry: Haha, I genuinely don't think that I have ever, nor will I ever have so much fun in one moment on any computer game...

We're going home

No comments:

Post a Comment