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SummarySSI gets ready for the Renaissance
The GoodSSI needs no introduction to the electronic role-playing community. Gaining official possession of AD&D, the most coveted license for the genre, they developed the so-called Gold Box games, which were quite frequently released during their most prolific era of activity.
Things began to look differently when each subsequent Gold Box game started drawing less and less attention. There was a reason for that, of course: with all their fine qualities, those games were fairly formulaic, and there hardly seemed to be any substantial difference between the first and the last one. I can't say I was too excited by those games - their tiresome interface, dry presentation, and lack of atmosphere bothered me quite a bit. The one I enjoyed most was Buck Rogers, and even that in its more attractive Genesis incarnation.
But SSI proved they were a truly great developer by moving away from old concepts and experimenting with material. Dark Sun, released at the time when their Gold Box fame has long faded, and the RPG world was experiencing an onslaught of new ideas, is probably the purest, most perfect incarnation of everything that made SSI great. It shows vision and inspiration while still being comfortably traditional; it is conservative where it should be, and innovative just enough to make it feel familiar yet fresh.
Dark Sun is the true prototype of Baldur's Gate. Of all the games that preceded that classic, this is the one closest to it in concept and execution. One might argue that late party-based Ultima games were a bigger influence - and spiritually, it is indeed so. But Dark Sun introduced a lot of things we take for granted now because they were picked up, perfected, and popularized by BioWare.
Do you like those funny dialogue choices where you can be ultra-nice or outright nasty to any character you meet? This was presented as an essential gameplay mechanic for the first time in Dark Sun. Do you enjoy the freedom of taking or declining sub-quests, siding with different factions, solving quests in different ways? No other game before Dark Sun did it - at the very least not with the same persistence, making this feature to one of the cornerstones of the entire gameplay system. Is traditional, tactical combat still important to you, but you like to keep it simple and seamless? Dark Sun has fully integrated battles without any changes of perspective and separate screens - battles that can be put on auto or micro-managed, allowing you to go deeper into the game's intricate system of spells and powers.
Dark Sun is, indeed, a real "modern" RPG in that way - but its greatness also lies in its adherence to the legacy. There are only four controllable party members instead of the more traditional six, but that must be the game's only compromise with simplifications and reductions that were becoming more and more common at the time. You can create all your heroes and have a generous variety of races and classes at your disposal. You have access to several magical disciplines, including the familiar mage and cleric spells, but also cool stuff stuff such as kinetic and telepathic psionic powers. There is an assortment of weapons and armor, money to collect and loot to sell, and generally everything you'd expect from an old-school RPG.
There is one advantage Dark Sun has over most modern role-playing games: it is open-ended. It is not as free-roaming as, say, Elder Scrolls games, and there have been party-based RPGs with larger worlds before. But Dark Sun manages to stay non-linear within the confines of a logical, pre-designed, "hand-made" world. The game consists of interconnected areas, which is another thing Baldur's Gate took from it. Each area is therefore a unique location with its own name and thematics. This means that there are no boring "empty" screens that are there simply to connect between "places of interest". In each given area there are things to do and people to meet. Those areas are also quite large, and exploring one to the full, talking to everyone, defeating all the enemies, figuring out which quests needs to be done - all that takes time, as it should in a busy, tasty RPG.
Another thing Dark Sun has in common with modern, "BioWare-style" RPGs is its treatment of dungeon crawling. The dungeons in the game aren't that different from villages in that they, too, contain friendly NPCs and quests they might give to you. You don't have the feeling you are simply there to kill enemies. By the way, the game is also significantly less combat-intensive than, say, contemporary Might and Magic titles - which is surprising, given SSI's reputation as a "battle-focused" diligent interpreter of stale D&D templates. Whether this reduction of overall hostility and dungeon mildness is a good thing or not is debatable - personally, I think these approaches are "neutral", meaning that it's perfectly possible to create a great dungeon crawler and a lousy RPG with few battles, or vice versa. What can't be denied, however, is that the approach of Dark Sun clearly influenced subsequent RPG design philosophy.
Dark Sun also has a pretty cool setting. Its world mostly consists of sparsely populated areas with little to no vegetation - a desert setting indeed, but one that is different both from the common Arabian Nights exotics and the gritty brown-and-gray post-apocalyptic wasteland. Also, despite being set predominantly in a desert, the game displays surprising variety of colors and themes for its locations. You'll travel to scarce fields irrigated by slaves, scorched hot-red cliffs covered by skeletons of giant creatures, serene oases, cozy human settlements with markets and lushly decorated houses, as well as indoor areas such as vast sewers populated by unique races and mysterious deities, ominous castles, and more.
The story is straightforward and formulaic: contact leaders of various tribes so that they unite in their battle against a common enemy. Sounds familiar? Indeed, this has been the template of many later BioWare games, which is yet another proof of what they owe to this game. However, Dark Sun treats this material better in that it gives more freedom of choices to the player. You can theoretically just walk around the game world and kill everyone. You can also reduce the violence to minimum and try to be as polite as possible even to those who aren't polite to you. On several occasions you'll be able to side with different tribes and factions, and have to face the consequences of your decision. Also, after you complete your second area, the game opens up completely - you can go to any village and initiate quests in any place and order. This kind of freedom and flexibility is something I wish later RPGs would preserve more.
The BadIs there a reason why Dark Sun didn't become as popular as it surely deserved to be? Yes, there is. Dark Sun is a game that in many ways sticks to the "middle ground" - it is very moderate and avoids any radical implementation of any of its ideas. Such games are often ignored simply because they don't attract attention right away. The subtle differences between Dark Sun and earlier RPGs are noticeable only if you actually dedicated your time to playing the game beyond the first few areas. Its influence on later games gets downplayed under the pretense that the latter made the first obsolete. In reality, there were plenty of things Dark Sun did that modern RPGs could not accomplish, at least not with the same determination and clarity.
However, there are other things it didn't exactly excel at. In our minds modern Western RPG development is strongly associated with characterization. We are used to having lesbian romances with half-elf archers and exploring the deep subconscious desires of alien races and cyborgs. These are mostly traits modern Western RPGs got from late party-based Ultimas, Thalion legacy, and Japanese RPGs. In that way, Dark Sun cannot even begin to compete with those psychological complexities. Your party is completely monolithic - just like in all those old RPGs, it is only as personal and as active as the player is. There is no distinction between your characters, no humorous banter, no conflicts. That is one of the chief reasons why Dark Sun might seem archaic to some modern players.
Like other SSI games, Dark Sun is also a bit dry in presentation. There is little warmth in the well-written, yet somewhat impersonal dialogue. There are a few interesting NPCs you meet, but don't expect anything too quirky or memorable. It is generally not a particularly emotional game. Even when dramatic events occur, their impact is somewhat lessened by predictable outcomes and lukewarm reaction. Basically, you play it for the gameplay and the overall atmosphere, not for experiencing meaningful situations or anything alike.
While the game's world is quite large, it is not heavily populated. I understand this is part of the setting, but I missed urban lifestyle in this game. The villages in the game are fairly small and all constructed according to the same simple principle: there is the leader's house right in the middle, while everything else is not really important. Even though I took my time exploring those villages, there wasn't much more to do there than in any other location in the game. Actually, the other locations were often more interesting to visit than these meager outposts of civilization.
The Bottom LineThere is a popular misconception among those only vaguely familiar with history that the European Middle Ages had nothing but ignorance, fanaticism, and general "darkness", while the Renaissance brought human dignity and art back. There is a similar misconception among some RPG lovers who state there was nothing worthy created in the genre between the last "true" Ultima and Fallout. In reality, however (in both those examples), there was hardly as much "revolution" as there was "evolution", and without those alleged "Dark Ages" of RPG history not a single new-age RPG would have been created.
Dark Sun is one of those unjustly forgotten foundation stones from that epoch: accumulating the antique wisdom of SSI, streamlining (still in the good sense of that word) the interface, enriching its world with choices and consequences, simple to learn yet hard to master, this game paved the way to the concept of a modern RPG like few others, and for that it deserves even more gratitude and commemoration.