Though most gamers I know play, or at least have enjoyed, both tabletop games (RPGs, board games, card games, miniatures games, etc.) and video/computer games, there’s definitely a split between primarily video gamers and primarily tabletop gamers. I hear a lot of tabletop gamers insist that video games aren’t “real games”, or that they’re all stupid, lowest common denominator-baiting and artless experiences. Well, I sure can’t argue that most triple-A titles are just that—all of the “gritty” first-person shooters predicated on not-so-subtle racism, for example—but that hasn’t always been the case and there are still exceptions today, without even entering the realm of smaller titles and independent development teams. What’s more, for those of us who grew up playing both kinds of games, influences can cross back and forth fairly fluidly. I’d like to occasionally explore a few of these influences in my own gaming life.
Though in recent years, the series has gone downhill as Konami, the publisher behind it, has gone progressively crazier, the Castlevania video game series can be traced as a major influence on a lot of my personal taste, from visual style to music to overall “flavor”. I’ll probably write something about the handful of especially notable entries into the franchise, but today I’d like to focus on one in particular.
Castlevania: Legacy of Darkness (also known as Castlevania 64, though with an additional story campaign and a shorter bridge campaign linking the two original campaigns from C64 with the new one) is generally one of the least well-liked of Castlevania games. Hell, of all of my old friends with whom I’ve been gaming since middle school or earlier, I’m the only one who doesn’t hate this game. In fact, I love it. I love it so much that I’m currently replaying it on my actual N64 hardware. I love it so much that, since 1999, it has influenced my RPG designs.
This isn’t a review of the game, but I do want to make a few points about why I enjoy it. It definitely has some problems. For example, the controls take a lot of getting used to. It was the first attempt at a 3D Castlevania game and it suffers from some of the same control and camera issues that you find in games like Super Mario 64 before it. 3D platformers had an ugly duckling phase. Though I still can return to many of these games and enjoy them, I can see why some people find them to be frustrating. Another problem that people have is with the visuals of the game: the low polygon count and the low-resolution textures stretched over them don’t make for a gorgeous game, and that’s before dealing with the N64’s need to fog everything over beyond a handful of yards away from the camera to cut down on RAM usage—and that’s all with the RAM expansion cartridge! So, haters: I get it. But let me talk about what’s good.
The graphics aren’t great, but the N64’s graphical fogginess actually help rather than hinder. See, one of the complaints about this game is that it doesn’t “feel” like a Castlevania game—a complaint which puzzles me. It may not feel like one of the post-Symphony of the Night 2D games of the Metroidvania style (which I’ll get into more in a future post), but it wasn’t trying to. It was an attempt at producing a 3D game in the older style of Castlevania games from the 8- and 16-bit eras. It updated the game play enough to make it feel like a larger scale experience while still keeping a fairly linear “get from A to B, jump over pits, avoid traps, kill some monsters, fight a boss” program of advancement. There are no RPG elements, outside of an inventory screen to hold onto health items and the like and a handful of NPCs with whom to interact for purposes of plot advancement or purchasing expendable items for your inventory. That fog worked with rather than against the level design to provide a sense of isolation and of being trapped even within some very large environments (for instance, towers with very high ceilings and corridors so long that you cannot see from one end to the other). The old classic Castlevania games took advantage of the hardware and game play conventions of the day in different ways to produce a similarly isolated feeling with dark environments and monsters which often were not deadly in themselves but which made safe or confident travel impossible. These games are characterized by slow, methodical movement through the environment, with Legacy of Darkness even taking the ways in which secrets were hidden in little alcoves throughout the 2D games into account and turning them into small byways of any given level to be found out through exploration.
This emphasis on traversing an inherently dangerous environment, searching out hidden areas, and making the player feel alone and surrounded by a powerful supernatural force is exactly the feeling I want to evoke when I’m running a Gothic or dark fantasy RPG. I want my players to feel excited to explore, but also to be frightened by the supernatural elements and to feel apprehensive about opening that next door or rounding the next turn. While I make ample use of combat in my games, I want the atmosphere to be the thing, so all of the action is built around building and relieving tension.
I learned, too, from Legacy of Darkness that the feeling of tension is more important than any facts which produce it. There is a scene in one of the earliest levels in which a giant monster’s claw pierces the hull of the ship you are in and water begins to pour into the cargo hold. The music changes from a slow, atmospheric piece to a fast, repetitive tune with more bass. Suddenly, you feel in a hurry and you find yourself making risky jumps and running past enemies and traps rather than dealing with them as methodically as you normally might—despite the fact that the water never actually rises to a dangerous level. You only really convince yourself that the water isn’t rising if you decide to stand around for a while, but the whole situation is designed to make you feel like you can’t afford to do that. That’s not to say that a GM shouldn’t penalize the characters of players who decide to dawdle when things are clearly becoming more urgent, but it is to say that danger can sometimes be only apparent if it serves to drive the build-up of tension, the establishment of an atmosphere of uncertainty, and to push the story forward without making the players feel railroaded or, just as bad, as if you’ve thrown them a bone. As many a GM has learned, the right flavor text at the right time can do a better job of making the players feel fear than the deadliest monster or trap thrown in as a purely mechanical challenge.
Castlevania: Legacy of Darkness continues to inspire my setting and storytelling style in my tabletop RPGs by making me, as a video game player, feel in awe of an environment that dwarfs me, anxious in the face of driving urgency, and alone in a mist-shrouded world in which even nature seems suborned to a supernatural threat. In short, it manages to embody much of the Gothic spirit in an action-oriented game, a feat which deserves recognition alongside the classic Ravenloft campaign setting.