I admit that I am a quite morose character. I have a chronic existential crisis, and I spend some time every day pondering the purpose of not only my existence, but the existence of existence. Games are a great refuge from that: In games I have a clearly defined purpose which I can accomplish. These ponderings have made me very philosophical.
That is why Eschalon: Book I left me quite engrossed. The game is an isometric, old-school roleplaying game. As I have no real memories of old-school roleplaying games (except Betrayal At Krondor, which I shall finish one day), I did not have my nostalgia glasses on. The game was annoyingly short on explanation of its mechanics, its combat was insanely frustrating due to the random nature of the game and the plot was explained in boring text blocks. But still it had some lure and I completed it.
Let’s get the conventional analysis out of the way first. The game is ingenuously entirely turn-based. Every action or movement takes one turn. But the turns are so speedily calculated that there are no seams between your and the others’ turns. When you take a step the enemy takes a step. And when there are no enemies, you can just hold the mouse button down and run like in Diablo. The system works wonderfully.
I have gotten used to scaling combat. In D&D and many other roleplaying games, your character gets automatically better at fighting at level up. In Eschalon, leveling up gives you three attribute points and three skill points. And the skill points are divided between combat skills and non-combat skills. Whenever I leveled up, I took the skills that were most interesting. Alchemy, Cartography (enables and improves the mini-map), Stealth skills, Mercantile… There are dozens of skills, and more or less every one is useful. But my modern sensibilities led me astray, and soon I was hard pressed to kill even a single enemy with my bow before it attacked me in melee. And as I was specialized in bows, every mistake cost me one arrow. And if there were more than one enemy against me at once, I didn’t have a chance.
In the end, after investing in an armour skill (it takes three skill points to acquire a new skill) and pumping my Bows skill to 15 I became the deadly hunter I had envisioned. But that meant that in order to merely survive the insane combat of the game I had to skip a lot of more interesting skills. And in the end, it did not matter at all: By the end of the game I had more money than I would ever need and the final boss was pretty much a pushover.
On the other hand, Eschalon is pretty much the only game where I could really be a ninja. The enemies rely on two senses: Sight and sound. If they hear the player walking, they will home in to the square they heard the sound coming from. And if they see the player, they attack. There are skills called Hide in Shadows, which makes you invisible in the dark, and Move Silently, which silences your movement. I had one point in Hide in Shadows, which meant that if I were standing next to a wall or a forest in complete darkness, enemies couldn’t see me. Except when I attacked them and hit. Then they would see me. But the kicker is, if I moved to a dark enough square, I would become invisible once more. In effect, this meant that combined with night-vision spell/potion, I could strike from the shadows and hide back without fear of retaliation. While this sounds like it would possibly break the game, it merely gave me a fighting chance against the deadly enemies. And it was insanely awesome. I dare any other rpg to give me as utilitarian stealth mechanic as Eschalon.
And now the thing about philosophy. While I played Eschalon, cursing at the impossible-to-hit-enemies, I realized that the whole game was a statment of sorts. Everything was randomly rolled (except the map, which would have required too much work, I guess). It made the game seem quite fatalistic. ”If you aren’t the master of your field, don’t even try”. As the most probable outcome of a fight is death if you didn’t put all your points in your chosen weapon skill, it feels like the game forces you to conform to its vision of the world. A person who wants to experience something else than combat won’t last past the first game area. Without save/loading, the odds of surviving the experience are nil. And just before the final boss you are given a choice: Stand by your quest to save the kingdom and face an extremely difficult fight, or give in to your greed and apathy and leave the kingdom with a hefty amount of gold. Mechanically, this is one of the most depressive games I have played in a while.
And I understand that I might be reading too much into a light-hearted game riding on nostalgia. But the important thing is, I am reading into it. That means the game experience as a whole can be used to convey ideas and philosophies as readily as a movie or a book.