The year was 2002 and The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind had taken the RPG market by storm. People were praising it left and right for pioneering the modern 3D RPG genre. Meanwhile in an another corner of the world, a 10 year old boy was enjoying the hell out of another 3D open world RPG. No, it wasn’t Bethtesda’s seminal title that went on to win countless awards. The game that had this little kid hooked was relatively unknown and was made by a small team of German developers who called themselves Piranha Bytes. The game was none another than Gothic, a game which is regarded as one of the best RPGs of all time in niche RPG circles, and one which does not hold much impact to the mainstream masses outside that circle. I’m hoping that those who are unfamiliar with Gothic will find this retrospective to be a bit informative, and those that are familiar with the cult classic will get a trip back to memory lane. Without further mumbo-jumbo, let’s take a look at Gothic, an RPG which was truly ahead of its time.
A Gothic Tale
Gothic is an open world role-playing game developed by Piranha Bytes and released in Germany in 2001, followed by a worldwide release. The story of Gothic is set in a prison colony in Myrtana, a world where the humans are fighting a losing battle against the invading orc army. The prison itself is fully autonomous having barely any administrative ties with the kingdom. The prisoners mine magic ore, which they exchange with the king in return for supplies, slaves and all that jazz.
You are put into the shoes of The Nameless hero, a common criminal, a nobody who is dropped off into the prison for crimes unknown to the player, and the first thing our brave hero does is getting punched in the face. That’s right, right from the get-go Piranha Bytes makes sure you know that Gothic isn’t your average high fantasy chosen one RPG. The world of Myrtana is cruel and realistic, but I’d rather use the term organic here. Your player is pretty much an idiot in a world full of assholes. The game makes sure that you’re reminded that every step of the way. You’ll spend a better portion of the game’s story being someone’s errand boy (or bitch, pardon my French). The oppressive atmosphere of the prison is reflected in its hierarchy. Those who have power commands, others obey. The same applies to you too. As with any RPG, you’ll grow stronger in power sooner or later. In the case of Gothic, that sense of progression is portrayed exceptionally well. Aside from kicking the ass of higher level enemies easily, NPCs will start to respond to your character accordingly. I mean I wouldn’t dare to say ‘fuck off’ to a muscular man in scary mail armor and armed to the teeth, would you?
Gothic was truly ahead of its time. In a sense, it succeeded where Ultima IX failed. I’d go on record and say that Gothic is one of the most immersive RPGs ever made, a statement even a lot of modern RPGs can’t live up to. The prison colony feels aunthentic and organic. There are no invisible walls. There’s only a bigass magical shield that separates the colony from the rest of the world. The game pulled off level design and level geography far better than Morrowind ever did. It probably has something to do with the fact that Gothic isn’t as big as Morrowind in terms of sheer scale. But it’s a world that feels genuinely handcrafted in each nook and cranny. The world is populated with NPCs and monsters with some really great AI scripts. The NPCs eat, sleep, work, chat with others, light torches when its dark, react to day, night, weather and your actions accordingly. If they catch you stealing or you act like too much of an asshole, they’ll get down on you…with their clubs. Yet, despite this level of violence, the world of Gothic treats death with gravity. When You or the NPCs hit zero HP, you’ll get knocked out instead of die. If you are on the receiving end, NPCs mock you and take some of your money as compensation for their lost time. Compare it with the plethora of RPGs out there that lets you kill dozens of mooks with hardly any consequence. It’s a trademark Piranha Bytes mechanic that ups the immersion factor and I’m surprised that no other RPG has used it since then.
This mechanic extends to monsters as well. They roam and scavenge when away from the player and will let out a warning sign if you get too close to them. They always give you a chance to walk away. In no way are you forced into a fight with some random critter you didn’t even see wheile roaming the lands. You can also kill pretty much every one in the game and still manage to complete it. Only a handful of games allow this level of freedom, even now. The fast travel system also works in a more grounded and immersive way. There are specific runes that can teleport you to selected few places. But you have to find these runes yourselves and some of them are easily missed. Then there is the amount of interactivity where the Ultima inspirations comes in. In Gothic, almost all edges of the world are climbable. You can cook food in campires, sit on benches, chairs and treeestumps, sleep to pass the time of day, smith weapons and smoke weed freely (an aspect the once-hippie in me appreciated very much).
One other thing Gothic did very well was the faction system. Gothic features three factions with their own motives, beliefs and occupying different parts of the colony. The Old Camp that is the center of commerce and power and follows focused in mining magic ore, The New Camp inhabited by mercernaries looking to free themselves from the barrier, and The Swamp Camp- populated by weed smoking cultists who worship a special someone. The decision to join a faction is a permanent choice with them defining your class and what armor you can wear. Leveling up in Gothic is vastly different compared to other RPGs of the time. You get a few experience points when you level up. You then have to go to the appropriate trainer to level the stat or proficiency you want. This may sound a bit inconvenient on paper, but it really does make sense when you think about it, and complements the other aspects of the immersive gameplay. Don’t forget the brutal difficulty of the game too. You’ll die…a lot. (if anyone says that Gothic is the Dark Souls of open world RPGs, I’ll legit punch you in the face). The sense of progression goes hand in hand with the difficulty. You’ll witness the hero go from being the village idiot to the walking death machine. The progression of your character from gook to god is a smooth one. Each time you improve one of your many stats, the change becomes easily noticeble during combat. Your character moves one step closer to godlike status.
Gothic- 17 Years Down the Line
Gothic is about 17 years old now and may look a bit dated, but it’s nothing a few mods can’t fix. The same goes for getting the game to run on a modern PC. Compared to some other games of the time, it’s not a big hassle. The only thing that you really need to get used to are the controls. It can seem a little complicated and clunky when you fire Gothic up for the first time. All I’m gonna say is you’re going to get used to it. It’s a small price to pay for a wonderful experience. Just buy the Gothic collection from Steam or GOG, download a mod or two, apply some tweaks and you’re all set.
Gothic- The Legacy
Gothic, while a huge succes in Germany, didn’t get the appreciation it deserved outside the region at the time of release. It however garnered a huge cult following. Gothic was succeeded by Gothic II, which improved upon the game in almost every way imaginable. The map was made 10 times the size of Gothic. Hell, even the prison colony from the first game can be visited in Gothic II and that’s just a small portion of the map. An expansion called Night of the Raven was released for Gothic II. Gothic II and Night of the Raven now comes bundled as Gothic Gold. Gothic II was followed by Gothic 3, an ambitious game with a huge open world. Gothic 3 was ridddled with bugs and performance issues and was received poorly back when it came out. But nowadays Gothic 3 is made a pleasant experience thanks to a gigantic community patch. After making Gothic 3, Piranha Bytes lost the licence to JoWood and JoWood would go onto publish an expansion for Gothic 3 titled Forsaken Gods, and Arcania: Gothic 4, a sequel in name only. Both of these games were poorly received. Piranha Bytes then made the Risen series and Elex in the spirit of Gothic. Even though the Gothic licence is back in their hands, it doesn’t seem like Piranha Bytes is doing anything with it at the moment. Maybe we’ll see a remaster or a remake sometime in the future. In my opinion, Gothic is a modern masterpiece that should be played by fans of the RPG genre. It’s just a damn fine game man.
With that being said, its time for me to delve into the piles of games awaiting review. I could have gone on and on about how great Gothic is, but I think I got my point across. I’ll see you next week on Retro Saturdays. Til then, enjoy the weekend and happy gaming.