Role-playing video games have been with us almost as long as we’ve had computers. From the simple games of the 1970s that ran on Mainframe, to the modern day games we play today, games so detailed that we no longer need to fill in the gaps with our imagination. The RPG genre is a staple of gaming. Some gamers will play nothing else, others take on the following normally akin to a rock star, series like the Elder Scrolls, Dragon Age, and Zelda, each entry in the series allows us to travel somewhere else… to travel as someone else.
Love them or hate them, they have a long history and don’t look to be going anywhere soon. Known to be punishing in difficulty and epically long, RPGs are the damn good novels of the gaming world. Impossible to put down and always worth sinking your teeth into.
There was one game in particular that always shone like a beacon when looking back on the corridors of the murky past, a game that was so enthralling and imaginative that there was nothing else quite like it at the time. That game? The Immortal made by Sandcastle.
Taking on the role of an unnamed wizard, the protagonist would find a call for help from the mysterious Mordamir, the old master of our mage, begging for help from the equally unknown Dunric, leading our mysterious hero to journey deep into the heart of the Labyrinth of Eternity to rescue Mordamir from the dungeons below. A labyrinth that was littered with goblins, trolls, and flesh-eating spiders… not to mention what awaited him at the end of the adventure…
But how did a game like The Immortal come to be? With its advanced combat system, intricate puzzles, and multiple endings dependent on actions performed during the game, one would think we’re talking about a game of the current generation, not one released almost thirty years ago.
The game was the brainchild of Will Harvey, a graduate of Stanford University. Harvey was most well-known for writing Music Construction Set for the Apple II, a music composition program that Harvey originally wrote when he was only fifteen years old. The software was published by Electronic Arts, a company Harvey would continue to have dealings with, and the young programmer was touted for great things.
Where does a young programmer go after already achieving so much at such a young age? The answer was into the gaming world.
Gaming wasn’t like the world it is today. There was no online gaming community. No multiplayer. No online services, and the internet was in its commercial infancy. But that didn’t stop young Harvey for aiming for the stars. The original intention of The Immortal was to be an online multiplayer RPG, or role-playing game, where a user would take on the role of a barbarian, a wizard, or an elf and go off on their quests, but after some initial development, Campaign, the game that would go on to become The Immortal, and was turned into a single player-only experience.
Although the game did not reach its lofty multiplayer ambitions, it did incorporate a storyline that had what many games of the time lacked; consequences through story choice. The choices were not as robust and far-fetching as those today, but make a different choice on, say level four, and the impact would be felt in level six and so on. Fantasy role-playing games were no new thing in gaming, they had existed in the world of text-based adventures for quite some time, but The Immortal was one of the first to use a plot-driven story to push the game forward. Slaughter what appears to be sword-fodder could result in alliances being wiped out later down the line. Even something so simple as picking up a ring, an item all fantasy fans should be wary of getting involved with, could result in an entirely different ending to the game.
We have not delved deep enough into the plot of The Immortal yet. The 1990s were an era dominated by platform games and side-scrolling beat ‘em ups. A game like The Immortal had more in common with its text-based cousins than its peers on console. Release at first on the AppleIIGS, the game would be ported over to the Atari ST, the Amiga, the IBM PC, and the Sega Megadrive/Genesis, and even a bloodless port onto the NES.
The game begins with the unnamed wizard standing in a candlelit room. To his right is a circular table that contains a skull and a burning candle. Forming in the smoke of the candle is the face of his former master – Mordamir, thought lost and dead. The image speaks: ‘Dunric, you have come to save me. I am in the dungeons far below. I know I can count on you.’
The wizard then realises his master is not dead and this is where he has ended up, but who is this mysterious Dunric he speaks of? The only way to find out is for him to enter the door to the labyrinth. Behind the door the wizard finds a slain fighter, and after rummaging through the dead man’s possessions he finds a ring with the name ‘Dunric’ etched into it, and a scroll containing the spell for fireballs. A goblin tells you not to interfere and then you are thrust into the first, but not last, taste of combat you will experience lost down here.
The combat in The Immortal stood above and apart from the simple button-mashing games at the time. This was a strategic battle, where the wrong stroke could result in costing you your life. Our wizard protagonist was clearly handy with a sword. Along with an intricate combat system that involved some skill in bobbing and weaving from attacks, there were various execution animations, from a goblin being cut into two, to the frontal part of the goblin’s head being sliced open and the brains falling free of the body. Other times the wizard’s wand would come into play, resulting in the opponent’s head exploding from some magic charm.
After navigating through the first part of the labyrinth, and then finding a bed of hay to sleep on, like any good role-playing game, your internal monologue would be explained onscreen, with your thoughts turning to your missing master.
Then you would descend further into the labyrinth below.
What was so unique about this game was the sheer depths it went to to tell its story. The goblins in the game, although at first appearing to be sword fodder, had consequences for how you interacted with them. Make an enemy of them, it would come back to haunt you, other choices would result in their help. For this wasn’t only your story it was theirs as well. A war with the trolls was happening all around you. Explanations for their actions have The Immortal contain the verisimilitude to make you care about what happened to our hero. It connected you with the protagonist in a way very few games at the time could.
The other piece of the mosaic that made this game so good was the sound design and musical score. Were this game made today it would be treated to a full musical score, but with the limitations of the era, the haunting melodies and ethereal gothic soundtrack were reduced to a midi file, that would sound incredible were it to be remastered and re-recorded using today’s capabilities.
Quite often the game is called the Dark Souls of its day. That wouldn’t be an unfair comparison. The game was punishing and unforgiving. Often the traps could never be predicted, nor would any help be given to navigate them. This game was designed to make you die – a lot. There were very few save points in the game, and at the end of a level you would receive a level code enabling you to pick up where you left off. It was a game of trial and error, a threat around every corner that would brutally kill you, or under your feet. Either way, this game wanted to kill you all the time. It wasn’t an easy ride.
So as the story unfolded and you delved down further into the depths of the labyrinth and you have unravelled the mystery of Mordamir’s disappearance. There is a sense of real achievement that you can taken with you, for you do not play The Immortal, you survive The Immortal…