I’ll be in my trailer… watching trailers: Don’t give up the ghost

Join us every week for a trip into the weird and wonderful world of trailers. Whether it’s the first teaser for the latest instalment in your favourite franchise, an obscure preview for a strange indie darling, whether it’s good, bad, ugly or just plain weird – your favourite pop culture baristas are there to tell you what they think.

Do you know how difficult it is to get your hands on trailers for video games before, say, 1995? The short and boring answer is: pretty difficult. If we wanted to present a trailer for one of the Ultima games featuring the Guardian, the series’ long-time antagonist, we’d have to resort to an ultra-low resolution video for Ultima IX, and that’d be in no one’s interest. (Also, we already posted that one last week.) So instead, here’s a very loosely related trailer for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre II, which didn’t just feature one Dennis Hopper, but also Bill Johnson, who would later voice the Guardian. These days, we get the likes of Willem Dafoe and Liam Neeson in video games, but in 1992 we had to make do with the guy who played Leatherface.

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Six Damn Fine Degrees #23: The Guardian

Okay, to get this out of the way first: no, this entry in our weekly Six Damn Fine Degrees feature is not about the centre-left British newspaper famous for its idiosyncratic spelling abilities. Instead, it is about the main antagonist of several instalments of the classic series of computer role-playing games Ultima, a transdimensional being of immense power bent on conquest, a villain to match the likes of Marvel’s Thanos, DC’s Darkseid or the First Evil from Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Or, as some fans of the Ultima series like to call him, the big red muppet.

This was the face that emerged from my screen when I started to play Ultima VII.
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I’ll be in my trailer… watching trailers: Hungover cops can’t jump

Join us every week for a trip into the weird and wonderful world of trailers. Whether it’s the first teaser for the latest instalment in your favourite franchise, an obscure preview for a strange indie darling, whether it’s good, bad, ugly or just plain weird – your favourite pop culture baristas are there to tell you what they think.

1994 saw a great disturbance in computer games, as if thousands of geeks suddenly cried out in disappointment and then fell silent – most likely because their Avatar had just failed to successfully jump from one small rock to another. Back then, reloading a save game wasn’t just a matter of seconds: it was a commitment, and the more time you’d already sunk into a game like Ultima VIII, the less likely you were to stop playing, especially if you’d paid close to a hundred dollars, and doubly so if you were a fan of the Ultima series of computer role-playing games. This week, Eric wrote about his memories of his first big computer game disappointment, and it is a pain that many fellow geeks felt at the time.

This was before computer games received trailers, so instead, let’s start this week’s post with the trailer issued for its sequel, and the final single-player Ultima game – which (wait for it) turned out to be even worse in some ways. But hey, at least it wasn’t quite as much of an active exercise in masochism!

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Six Damn Fine Degrees #22: Ultima VIII

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness.

Imagine a game that set you loose to roam a mediaeval world under the influence of a shadowy religious cult, that let you discover how to bake bread or milk cows while trying to save the world just because you could, a game that was dead serious yet could look upon itself with the wryest of smiles, a game that was shot through with a sense of familiarity and wonder in equal measure.

Now imagine a game that has none of that at all.

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Dungeons and dragons (no bears) – oh my!

I used to love fantasy role-playing games. I’d devour all the Bard’s Tales, Ultimas and Baldur’s Gates I could get my Hands of Great Fingeritude +2 on. Some of my fondest geeky childhood memories are of drawing maps of enormous dungeons (back before the days of wimpy auto-mapping features) and adorning them with clumsy doodles of ringwraiths, dragons and beholders. I got a kick out of reading the rulesets for Dungeons & Dragons and imagining my own (predictably generic) fantasy world, although I never got a successful campaign off the ground – mainly because one of the players was quite mad and better at chewing up PET bottles, skulking off to a corner and rambling incoherently than at role-playing his dwarven fighter. (And no, I don’t think that sort of behaviour qualifies as valid role-playing for a dwarf.)

I still have a weak spot for the Ultima games, mainly because they got two things right: the world and the characters. If I had unlimited time, didn’t have to work and wasn’t worried about my girlfriend thinking I’m even more of a geek than I am, I would try to recreate the series’ Britannia as a huge mod for The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion. And then I’d get a kick out of walking from one end of the continent to the other, stopping every now and then to see the sunset over Brittany Bay or to watch a thunderstorm from some mountain peak. Sad, isn’t it?


Anyway, to get back to the issue at hand: I bought Neverwinter Nights 2 last year, an RPG based on the Dungeons & Dragons ruleset. I’d heard good things about its story and writing. Somehow I never made it past the tutorial when I got started on it last year, but now I’ve started playing it again. And while it’s okay and competently executed, I realise I’m tired of what the 1UP review calls a “wonky fantasy geekfest”. I’m tired of the D&D ruleset. I’m tired of grumpy dwarfs, aloof elves, of slaughtering cheap orc knock-offs (doesn’t matter if they’re called “bladelings”). Yes, the writing is quite good, but not enough so to make the game much less generic. The characters seem fun – but not enough so to make me care much about the world or about what’s going on. Big evil threatening the Forgotten Realms, and only you can save the world? Please. Give me Planescape Torment instead any day, with its hyper-intelligent hive-mind rats, its puritanical succubus, floating skulls, and the best amnesia story this side of Memento. And its enchanted panty-sniffing armoires. Let’s not forget about the panty-sniffing armoires.

Planescape Torment

Anyway, enough of a rant about generic fantasy RPGs. More later, perhaps. And for those of you who tune in for the movie and TV musings, don’t worry – they’ll be back before long. It’s just that watching anything is more fun if my special someone is sitting beside me. And yes, that’s the kind of soppy, sentimental bastard that I am. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.