Back in the early days of PlayStation there were huge game cases, tons of horrible early 3D games like Battle Arena Toshinden and Kileak: The DNA Imperative clogging up space at the local rental store. Then there was the weird looking game with magic stuff going on with the cover. There was no YouTube to look up what a game was or how it played. Even if you were big on magazines back then buying one cost the same as renting a game, plus you have no guarantee by looking at your newest GamePro magazine that the cool games you wanted would even be available if you were renting. You were at the whims of Lady Luck if the store carried the game you wanted and it was available. So what you’re left with is a toss of the dice as you judge a book by it’s cover… or in my case of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, a game based on a book’s box art. A wizard riding a chest with feet and the grim reaper, flying away from a planet on a giant turtle’s back in space. Sold.
The game admittedly wasn’t what I was expecting when I took it home and booted it up to discover I was using the controller like a computer mouse. While I was no stranger to PCs back then, I really didn’t play a whole lot of games on them. I was familiar with Space Quest though, and this was all of that. Pointing and clicking around, investigating scenes, chatting with characters, and collecting odd items to solve mysteries and challenges. Sure it wasn’t the reflex driven action fest I was hoping for, but it did have humor in spades. As absurd as the cover of the game was at the rental store, the tone of Discworld was nothing like the other stuff I had rented. Quirky heroes, a sentient foot locker, and an incompetent wizard. I’ll be honest, a lot of the tongue-in-cheek humor I’m sure was lost on me back then. What I did grasp though had me laughing and smirking through out.
What do I mean? Well through the journey to remove the dragon from town you travel through time, prevent it from existing, return to the future, and then recreate the dragon by arguing with some authority figure about being a hero and manifesting a new dragon into existence because you insist that they’re really. Now due to your bafoonery you’re tasked with dealing with the new threat you created sending you (irritated) back into your mission to remove another dragon. Then there’s all sorts of characterization to be had along the way… not just for the key players in the narrative, but the world en whole. I don’t remember many games before that for me that I felt the location was as much of a character as the person I was controlling. A good example that sticks with me years later still is this quote read to you by the narrator when entering the seedy part of town explaining the tone of this borough, complete with visual diagram:
“The Shades, a place where curiosity not only kills the cat, but ties lead weights to it’s feet.. and throws it in the river”
Character driven narrative is pretty prominent these days in triple-A space with stuff like Bioshock, Mass Effect, Uncharted, or even Gears of War. It’s kind of an expectation at this point that not only must your game loop be fun, but you need to justify that fun by swaddling it in a vibrant world and memorable characters. Back in 1996 though it was really an option. I’m glad I took a chance on that bizarre looking game devoid of guns, attitude, or polygonal mascots in favor of something a bit more oddworld’y. Humor is hard to come by in games even to today. Heaven’s know could all use a bit more Discworld, laughter, and planets on the back of space turtles these days, so I leave you with this exchange pulled from the Psychiatrickerist section of this PS1 classic.
(Discworld is unfortunately not available on any digital marketplace or game collections anymore. The only way to play it is on PC where it’s considered abandonware and free if you’re so inclined, but requires DOSbox emulation)