It seems like Dungeons and Dragons is making a comeback of sorts in modern pop culture. Maybe my outlook is just skewed because of my recent viewing habits, but both Stranger Things (with a group of kids playing D&D as the story’s quasi-framing device) and Harmon Quest (featuring Dan Harmon and friends live playing a game of legally not-D&D) made the table-top RPG an indispensible part of their narratives. Combine this with many different shows (not only ones helmed by Harmon) making chance references to Gygax’s brainchild as casually as one might mention a football game, and I want to say that D&D has finally begun to occupy the same cultural subconscious space as the Olympics or… I’m sorry, I’ve run out of sports-I-know. Soccer? Isn’t that just football again?
But while D&D might be reclaiming its space in the national consciousness, it has always been a part of videogame DNA. Final Fantasy 1 clearly owes a lot to the TRPG, up to and including at least one copyright blurring Beholder. I don’t need to remind everyone that Final Fantasy somehow became one of the most resilient pillars of the videogame coliseum, and that all started when a rote D&D campaign comingled with some Miyazaki imagery. And maybe some time travel? That franchise has always disguised plagiarism with convolution. Given games like Final Fantasy and Ultima inspired their own generation(s) of imitators, it’s not hard to draw a line from Wild Arms, Lunar, or even Mass Effect straight back to the days of dual-wielding elf wizards rolling for initiative.
Screw Tolkien, Gygax is the true father of Fantasy Europe.
But this isn’t a blog extolling the virtues of tabletop gaming, it’s a videogaming blog (and, besides, if I wanted to talk about good TRPGs, I’d hit Shadowrun or Paranoia, because I like to watch insanity happen). As such, I’m a lot more likely to elucidate how gaming has greatly diverged from its table top origins, and calling something like Fable a “digital D&D campaign” is reductive at best and outright wrong at worst. In any given videogame there are so many moving parts, so many options for interesting storytelling, and a million flags/tricks that no dungeon master could ever hope to so masterfully control. Even going back to Final Fantasy 1, the sheer volume of random encounters (which many consider to be the true meat of a JRPG) in that game could never be possible outside of a twenty year D&D campaign. So go ahead and toss that whole job system if you think Final Fantasy 5 could be done justice with pencil and paper. In short, D&D and its ilk likes to imagine itself as some be-all, end-all originator of the JRPG and WRPG market, but, in truth, it’s just a springboard, the Neanderthal to (video)gaming’s Modern Man.
Well, except Venetica. Venetica is a D&D campaign. And not a very good one.
Like a lot of lame D&D campaigns, Venetica has a deceptively interesting hook. You play the part of Scarlett, a typical medieval villager who experiences one bad night when raiders burn her hometown to the ground, murder her fiancée, and slightly tear her nightdress. The next morning, she grabs an S&M outfit from the local blacksmith, and sets off to avenge or maybe revive her lost love. Along the way, she finds out she’s the daughter of Death, which is apparently an inherited position, and it’s her job to wield the Venetica blade of doom and save the world from a necromancer that is up to no good. Oh! And she can enter the Realm of the Dead, which… is just an easy way to pass through walls. I mean, it looks kinda cool…
Unfortunately, the cool ends right about there. I purchased Venetica for a whole five bucks at a close-out sale, and I’m pretty sure that price was more than double the budget for this game. Alright, look, I try to be fair with any given videogame that came out past about 1996, because I know nothing happens by accident in the videogame world, and it takes gaggles of people just to get three human models out the door… but… geez this game is bad. Like, the opening cinematic, the first thing you see, involves voice acting and animation that wouldn’t score a passing grade in an Introduction to Game Design course. I mean, a crazy cult leader or whatever shouts, “Silence!” and the previous speaker just goes on gabbing before haphazardly cutting off. It’s… sad. This continues right through the introduction of the game, which involves some of the stiffest animation this side of a retirement home, and sieging soldiers that seem to be only capable of light shuffling. Our heroine can perform limited swordplay and dodge-rolling, but, other than that, she’s stuck in this same brittle-boned world as everyone else, so don’t expect any amazing cartwheels or (God forbid) jumping.
But it’s the clumsy plotting and dialogue that really gets my attention. It’s a game like Venetica that really shows how much effort goes into a Final Fantasy or Fable. Like in those (good) games, there are a number of townspeople milling about, and they’ve got problems and sidequests galore. That’s typical, but what’s atypical is how every sidequest person is… obvious. Even going back to earlier days of JRPGs, you might encounter some fellow who is walking around complaining about a dragon eating his pants or some such thing, and, lo and behold, he’ll give you his last angora sweater if you go and slay that flying lizard. In Venetica land, however, we’ve got that same guy milling about, and he’s just like, “Yo, girl or whatever, you wanna slay a dragon?” like some kind of medieval themed drug dealer. Multiply that by entire towns of the same thing, and, well, I have a hard time saying Venetica is immersive.
And what’s more, there’s a morality system. Now, we’ve all joked about “save the baby or eat the baby” choices in games like Bioshock, but, like the sidequest mechanisms, it’s about as subtle as a 2×4 to the brainpan here. The literal first choice you’re given in this game is “I want to revive my boyfriend” or “I want vengeance.” This continues almost to the point of parody, complete with a choice between giving a house to a man who wants to turn the place into an orphanage, and another man who is going to sell the house for liquor ‘n whores (incidentally, I chose the liquor/whores guy, he had better hair). With nonsense like that, I’d think this game was a farce from moment one (or maybe a deliberate videogame equivalent of a poorly acted/funded school play), but Venetica seems to take its absolute absurdity completely seriously, despite the fact that (presumably) actual human beings made this game. Was this game made on a dare? Was it coded single handedly by some Make a Wish kid? I’m going to feel really bad if that’s the answer!
But, in my head, it all comes back to D&D. I’ve seen this before. I’ve actively participated in this before. Ever play D&D? Okay, ever play D&D with that one friend, and he’s the dungeon master, and he doesn’t care about people having fun in his basement (inevitably his basement), all he cares about are the stats, and the rolls, and making sure the party stays “on point” and doesn’t wander off from this important quest that he put together? And anyone that tries to “distract” from the plan, like, say, by playing an ever-singing bard dwarf who can’t swing his mighty axe (mjwang) without tossing off a little ditty first, is immediately chastised for trying to disturb this grand event? We are fighting for to restore the glory of Death here, people, there’s no time to have stupid little conversations with people that don’t exist! Fight those bugbears, if you want to actually try this “role playing” thing, go play a game with less D20s!
Venetica is the videogame version of that lousy dungeon master. All that matters is that “main quest”, and everything else is just there because it’s gotta be. Gotta have villagers. Gotta have boar monsters. Gotta have random treasure. None of it appears to have been thought out beyond “gotta have it”, and, thus, the seams of the adventure show almost immediately. Venetica is a lousy game because it completely ignores the R & P. It’s just G.
D&D may have influenced a lot of games, but some game designers didn’t learn what’s actually fun about raiding dungeons and slaying dragons. I’d explain this more, but I have to get back to being a transsexual albino elf now, because these orcs aren’t going to slay themselves.
FGC #169 Venetica
- System: Xbox 360, Playstation 3, and PC. I want to say I’ve only ever seen the Xbox 360 box…
- Number of players: Solitary RP’ing with one player.
- Lonely at the bottom: This is one of the few games I’ve ever reviewed that has absolutely nothing on Gamefaqs. No FAQs, no cheats, nothing. Mary-Kate and Ashley: Magical Mystery Mall had a damn FAQ!
- So, did you beat it? No. I apologize if this game “gets good” toward the end, but I am not holding my breath.
- Did you know? Venetica was released in America over a full year after its European release. Wait… this is European? Is this, like, the “modern” version of the weird European platformers of the 16-bit days? Hm…
- Would I play again: Not ever.
What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Castlevania! Yay!… Wait… No… Castlevania Adventure. Dammit. Please look forward to it, so one of us will be!