Monday, May 9, 2011

Analysis: Mount&Blade

"Mount&Blade" is a classic game, and by that I mean that it's old-school as heck. This isn't just a question of style or graphics, but of the intrinsic way that the game treats the player and gives the player opportunities to interact with the world. It dumps you in a setting and says "do what you want", which is the kind of wide-open sandbox that doesn't come up as often anymore. It is an approach that emphasizes interaction, usually at the expense of writing and dialogue. While M&B's world isn't totally believable, the ways in which it's unbelievable are useful in terms of discussing why and how believability is used.

Mount&Blade casts the player as a new immigrant to the land of Calradia, a fairly simplistic and obvious collection of real-world cultures, including France (Swadia), Italy (Rhodok), Mongolia (Khergit), Scandinavia (Nords), Russia (Vaegir), and the Middle East (Sarranid). These nations war with each other in an unending struggle for territory and fame. The player's role in this is to find a logical niche, starting off slaying bandits or harassing caravans to build up the strength and numbers necessary to join a faction (or even start their own).

One of Mount&Blade's major appeals for me is that it is built on a logical universe. Calradia is made up of a series of villages, castles, and towns, and it is these things that define the world. Calradia operates on a highly feudal system; lords own property and use the income to buy troops, and then when the country goes to war they gather together to take enemy territory. Peasants bring their wares to towns, and towns send trading convoys to other countries. Bandits will set up lairs and hideouts to attack groups of peasants or trading caravans, and when the player destroys a lair, the bandits dissipate. Towns that are allowed to trade without disruption will grow richer; towns that are constantly harassed will grow poorer. You can even talk to guildmasters in the towns to see what they need, what they trade, and so on.

Calradia is interesting because it works in a fairly logical way. It's a lot of subsystems connected in a way that makes everything work and keeps the caravans running on time. On the other hand, it's a perpetual system; it's hard to actually make things change in Calradia, and the best you can really hope for is making things switch hands. Lords can't be born or die, castles and villages can't be built or destroyed, and nothing's really permanent. You, the player, make your mark in the world by rising in the ranks according to the system, not by overcoming or subverting it. Even if you lose, the worst that happens is you lose all your troops and have to build up from the bottom again. It's a neat system for interaction, but less useful for emergent story stuff.

The reason for these things is pretty obvious, though: the game is about a world that's perpetually at war so that the player can find something to do. Ergo, if important people could die in battle, the player's interaction would be limited by people constantly dying. It's a reflection of the game's thematic focus; it's not "live in a world", it's "lead a mercenary band". This manifests in other parts of the game, as well; there's a lot of detail on some aspects of the world, and a lot less on other parts.

Interactions with people generally come in two forms. The player has reputations in villages and towns based on tasks done for them; saving them from bandits, helping them get more cattle, or even something as simple as buying everyone in a tavern a round of ale will raise your reputation, while raiding and pillaging will lower it. The former is a question of sacrifice or heroism, while the latter reaps immediate benefits but results in a long-term loathing. Your reputation in villages determines how many villagers you can recruit to your cause; the more highly a village thinks of you, the more numerous (and better-quality) the troops they offer will be. A player who pillages freely may soon find themselves without friends if their army is destroyed.

The other form of interaction is interpersonal. This is done through a fairly bare-bones dialogue system, but the game does manage to capture different personalities and viewpoints reasonably well. Players can talk to lords and nobles to earn their esteem in various ways, and if a player has a good enough relationship with a lord from an enemy nation, they can attempt to convince them to join their side by figuring out their perspective and appealing to it. Some nobles are more kind and generous, while others may be more cruel and bloodthirsty, and hence different actions will influence them in different ways. Building up a good relationship can even lead to possibilities of marriage (daughters and sisters for men, the rare open-minded lord for women).

Interaction, though, is generally another field where the focus rears its head. You can interact with lords in a huge number of strategic ways, such as advising them on courses of action or dealing with political manners. Maintaining good relations has a big impact on your status as a member of the game world and how different factions and characters view you. Yet this detail is largely for its own sake; there's not a lot of dialogue outside of the "professional" problems. You can't really just chat; even the courtship process is fairly brisk and businesslike, and there's basically no interaction once you're actually married.

In the same way, the player will find themselves leading great armies, perhaps even with several named, important companions. Yet the dialogue is minimal; regular troops cannot be talked to at all, and companions only have a few lines for specific occasions. This is a scenario where more emergent things could have been done; status updates on morale (companions have them, but they are very basic), a narrative description of abilities and statistics instead of a direct stat sheet, and so on. Talking conveys information of one form or another, and games should be able to convey information through conversation rather than an awkward, unimmersive character sheet.

The reason that this sort of bothers me is that Mount&Blade is a wide-open sandbox, and hence it is a world for the player to interact with. Yet ultimately there's not enough rewards in terms of intangibles like respect, power, celebrations, and so on. You get things done, and when they're done they're done. It's front-heavy; a lot of effort put into the process of getting there, but not a lot to show for it when you've finally reached your goal. Hence, the game is driven entirely by player motivation, rather than any real rewards. In fact, that's true of a lot of the game; even the more tangible goals of gaining property and leading armies are going to be based on the player finding these things interesting, rather than the game going out of its way to make them seem worthwhile. While that's fine in a limited sense, it would be better to develop the rewards aspect more to make the world seem more rounded.

Mount&Blade's combat system is one of the few systems that really feels like it adheres to a common-sense view of fighting in that period. Everything is pretty much doing what it makes sense to do. Parrying and shields work by being physically interposed between the wielder and a blow or projectile. Armor reduces damage on the covered area, and an uncovered area can be attacked to do more damage (going un-helmeted is basically a death sentence). Weapons have swing arcs rather than simply being intangible, meaning that different weapons have different uses. This leads to intuitive tactics: in tightly packed quarters, swing overhead or thrust. In open areas, slashes are more effective. If you're approaching an archer, raise your shield; if a shield-bearer is approaching you, shoot him in the legs.

What I enjoy about M&B's combat is that it feels logical. When I mess up, I can see why. When I do well, I can see why. When I look at a video of other people playing, I can see why things happened the way they did. It's about physical location and movement, not about meta-gaming. There's a few unrealistic things, naturally, like movement and jumping in general, but overall it's a common-sense platform. Demon's Souls also tried for that sort of combat, but the nature of combat animations made it a bit more quizzical. Mount&Blade is simple: attack from a direction, make sure there's nothing in the way of you and the target. It's also challenging enough reflexively that it's enjoyable on its own, in my opinion. It's really the kind of system that should be emulated by every medieval game, because it's a way to do things that makes reasonable sense while still being engaging.

Artistic Direction
I don't think M&B would be half as immersive without its wonderful illustrations, done by Mongolian illustrator Ganbat Badakhand. These illustrations are used as a sort of reinforcing tool, being subtly connected to different events and occurrences. It depicts the world that the game's representing, and while the graphics are good enough to do that on its own, the presence of these illustrations definitely helps to establish "what we're supposed to be seeing". It's a very down-to-earth style that still manages to look stylized and interesting through positioning and visual direction.

Of course, the game's graphics aren't too bad either. The armor in M&B is some of the most sensible that can be found in any game, because it's all stuff that makes sense; hauberks of mail or jackets of brigandine, with coverage for four major areas of the body (head, arms, legs, and torso) that ensures that characters need to dress sensibly to survive. This doesn't mean that they look boring; there's a wide variety of tabards, surcoats, and tunics worn over or under the armor, but the most important aspect is that the armor itself is normal. Games generally seem to put too much focus on making the armor itself look strange or exotic, rather than having the clothes be the visually interesting part and the armor being more sensible. In addition, lords don't wear their armor all the time, and this too is something I think games tend to miss out on: the fact that, when you're out of battle, you can wear whatever you want. When it comes to armor design, business ought to come before pleasure, at least if you want it to be taken seriously.

Mount&Blade (or Warband, I should say) doesn't really look super-great in comparison to its contemporaries, and while there are some mods to fix it, this tends to detract from immersion. It's a scenario where I feel like the knee-jerk response is "gameplay is more important than graphics", and while that's true I think the presence of graphics can be used well to make the game feel more real to the player. Still, it's hard to fault the design and aesthetic in general; it's only the technical details that fall short.

Mount&Blade is a game that I would say needs to be experienced fresh to really understand the appeal. It's a game that gets boring after you've played it for a long time, but there's a real feeling of accomplishment in going from a low-level nobody to a great general through force of arms and quickness of wit. The first time you've built up enough troops to storm a city and claim ownership of it, it shows how far you've gone in the game world. While the period after that accomplishment is a bit dry and underdeveloped, it's the kind of RPG that really tries to portray the player's rise to power instead of just throwing him at higher-level things as he or she gains strength. It's not exactly a universal game model, but it works well for what it does, and it's easily expanded upon for new games as well.

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