Playing through Skyrim makes me realize how great the Gothic series was (and remains). There's always a void I feel from playing an Elder Scrolls game, and the Gothic games have always been there to remind me of how special a game can be when it's designed properly. I've known this ever since the back-and-forth releases of Gothic in 2001, followed by Morrowind in 2002, followed by Gothic 2 in 2003.
I'll go into more detail about TES in another article. For now, though, I want to take some time to reflect on the Gothic series, to compare each title's relative strengths and weaknesses, and to describe that special Gothic feeling that I often struggle to find in other games. I've written about Gothic before for a "Great Games You Never Played" article, which is worth a read for a more basic overview of the first game. My break-down of the full series comes after the jump.
The Gothic "Feel" and Formula
As it applies to the first two games.
The first thing people praise when it comes to Gothic is the rich quality of its world, which is accomplished by a three-fold combination of its physical design, its quests and quest-givers, and the balancing of its ecosystem. There are a lot of other great elements at work, of course, but it's really these three factors that intertwine and compliment one another to establish the immersive atmosphere that pulls you into the experience. This is the stuff that makes each moment fascinating while constantly compelling you to experience more of it.
|In-game map of Khorinis, 1/4 of the explorable maps in G2.|
Gothic's world is relatively small, at least in comparison to an Elder Scrolls game, but this is actually an advantage because the experience is more tightly focused. Every single inch of Gothic's world is unique and interesting, filled with all kinds of nuances, complexities, and hidden areas --- no space is wasted. It's a world that's actually worth exploring every inch of its terrain. It's exciting just to find cool new areas where you least expect them, but exploration is always rewarded with unique loot and challenges. Find a hidden cave obscured by bushes, and it might be filled with strong enemies guarding a very powerful sword. If you can find a way to get past them, then you feel a strong sense of accomplishment and have a fancy new weapon that will make the rest of the game a little easier.
I've played Gothic 2 at least six times in the past eight years, and I still find exciting new areas. In my most recent playthrough I discovered an area that I'd never seen before, near the starting area. It's a completely un-obvious section of cliffs that you get to by dropping down from a cliff ledge, running along a small ridge, and climbing up onto another set of ledges, with lizards and boars roaming about. For my efforts, I was rewarded with an amulet of +10 dexterity, which is a huge statistical boost early on. And there are dozens and dozens of complex designs like this in the terrain that lure you towards further exploration.
The other great advantage to a smaller world is that you become a lot more familiar with it. Each map has several "hub" areas that you frequently return to, traversing the roads in-between them and learning the environment in intimate detail. The world feels more tangible and permanent because of how involved you become with just the physical details of it, and it adds tremendously to the immersion when you're able to recognize every single rock, path, and tree. It's not just some fleeting fantasy world; it's fully realized and fleshed-out, like any real world might be.
Quests prompt even more exploration, in large part because they don't give you a GPS homing beacon for your next objective. NPCs describe where to go ("leave town through the north gate, follow the road under the bridge, and take a right at the crossroad."), so you have to look around and see if you're really on the right track. Sometimes they don't even give you directions like this, and you get quest objectives like "find the stone circle in the forest" that require you poke around and find things for yourself. Completing these tasks is more satisfying because you found it yourself via your own wits, perception, and input (instead of just "following the dotted line"), and you discover all kinds of interesting things in the process.
The quests are all rooted in the very core of the setting, so that they really contribute to the atmosphere and immersion. They give you good reasons to want to do quests for people, and they make you care about what's happening. Even the most basic fetch quests are developed in a rich and interesting way. A farmer's wife gets sick later in the game; they ask you to go into town to pick up a specific healing potion, you bring it back to her and that's that. But it demonstrates some of the dynamic qualities of this world; a character who fed you and gave you a place to sleep when you were first starting out is now sick and laying in bed all day, and that makes you care for her predicament more because she's a developed character and not just Random NPC #672.
At other times they give you a vague objective like "find out who's been smuggling swampweed into the city," and you have to snoop around looking for evidence and talking to various people. You feel much like a real detective, following clues and connecting the dots on your own. Or in other situations, you get quest objectives like "find a way into the city," and there are ultimately five or six different ways to get in depending on your abilities and your fancy. These quests require actual user input to solve, which makes them engaging to follow and satisfying to complete.
All-the-while you explore and complete quests, you're carving your way up the foodchain in a finely-balanced ecosystem. Every enemy and every item has a fixed level with fixed statistics; nothing scales with you. When you start out, you're a pathetic weakling struggling to kill basic animals and getting killed on sight by bandits. And then you level-up, and it gets a bit easier. Before you know it, those bandits in the starting area are all easy targets, but there's always a stronger opponent out there that keeps you challenged up until the final stretch of the game.
Certain regions are designed to have a consistent body of stronger inhabitants, but for the most part, strong and weak enemies are evenly distributed throughout a given area. You'll be outside of town hunting wolves, and then off in the distance you might spot a pack of velociraptor-like Snappers, which can kill you in two hits. You learn to avoid certain enemies and watch your back, because you're actually quite vulnerable in this world. And it becomes very satisfying to come back and kill tough enemies that used to give you a hard time, because it's a sure sign that you've gotten stronger. It feels good to climb the ranks of a hostile world and it makes you feel a stronger sense of place in it.
Paving the way.
The first Gothic has the most original setting of the series. It's set in a magically-encapsulated prison, where most NPCs are cutthroats who wouldn't think twice about beating up a newcomer just for the clothes off his back. It's a rough setting that feels especially hostile and dangerous, right from the very beginning, with human NPCs often being as much of a threat as the beasts that lurk in the colony. The atmosphere here is unique and original, which is probably its most remarkable aspect.
It also has the best story of the series, what with Gothic 2 being ostensibly a matter of "kill the dragons, save Khorinis," with the bulk of the narrative consisting of preliminary objectives to this end, and Gothic 3 having almost no story altogether. Gothic 2's story does have some good twists and development throughout, but it's not as prominent or interesting as in Gothic 1. There's just a lot more mystery and intrigue with the first game that makes it more engaging to follow.
As a consequence of the greater emphasis on story, unfortunately, the game becomes a lot more linear after the first chapter. There are virtually zero side-quests in later chapters, and if you cleared out all of the wild monsters, then the world is going to seem especially empty in the following chapters. Some stuff respawns at the start of some chapters, but sometimes it's just two wolves here or two scavengers there, and it gets kind of boring just running across the map with not much happening in-between quest events.
Perfecting the formula.
Gothic 2 is the pinnacle of the series. There's far more content to experience, and the quality of that content is even better. The setting is ultimately a little more generic than the first game, but it's even more rich and organic in its details. The design of the world is a lot more complex and interesting with more to see and experience, just in terms of square-footage. Lots more special areas with rewarding loot and challenging encounters, and there's always a constant supply of side-quests in each chapter to keep things interesting.
There are more skills to invest in, like alchemy, and other skills like smithing were expanded and given more uses. The difficulty curve for leveling-up and getting stronger is ultimately more challenging, which makes the progression through the entire game a lot more satisfying. And playing with the expansion, Night of the Raven, makes the difficulty even more challenging, and adds a ton of new content to experience. There's ultimately less landscape and fewer quests in G2, as compared to G3, but G2 has the best ratio of "content per game hour."
It's also really freaking cool that you return to the colony from G1 to find that it's almost an entirely different place. It's been overrun by the orcish armies, who are now laying siege to the castle, and the presence of dragons has altered the landscape in other significant ways. It's a real tribute to nostalgia from the first game, showing you all these familiar places that are just devastated by the new conflict. Returning to the colony for the first time in chapter 2 is sincerely one of my most memorable gaming experiences; I was beside myself with awe and wonder.
Taking a nose-dive.
There were all kinds of horrendous bugs, design problems, and stability issues that plagued the game's launch (anybody remember boars?), most of which have been fixed with extensive work done on the Community Patch, but the overall design of Gothic 3 was a departure from the style and formula of the first two. I could write an entire article on G3, so I'll try to be brief here. The main problem is that G3 suffered from over-ambition. Piranha Bytes wanted to make the game massive, and all they succeeded in doing was stretching their quality ingredients out way too thin.
There are dozens of towns with over 500 quests, but a lot of them are MMO-style quests like "kill 5 aggressive boars" or "fetch me 10 healing potions," and they're just not that exciting. Furthermore, the towns are designed so that you visit each one, completing all of their quests, and then move to the next one. There's never any reason to come back to any of them and so they're all rather fleeting. To top it all off, exploration is kind of tedious because the world is just so large that the landscapes are less detailed, loot is randomized and therefore unrewarding, and it's just enervating after a while.
Gothic 3 also has issues with sort of undermining the lore of the previous games. Orcs, for example, were a fearsome tribal society in the original two games. Ur-Shak was a very rare and unique orc who could speak English. In G3, they look and sound kind of like apes, and every single one of them talks, they wear clothes, and they act just like humans. Kind of lame. Meanwhile, the recurring characters from G1 and G2, whom you know very well, all act a little different than you'd expect them to, and some of their personalities are now completely different, so they don't feel genuine any more.
Gothic in name only.
I'm not going to waste my breath talking about Gothic 4. It was made by a different development team who had no previous experience with RPGs, and who seemingly never played the original Gothics. A couple of characters show up in G4 and there are extremely basic similarities between G4 and the originals, but it's cursory. If Gothic 3 was a disappointment, Gothic 4 is a disgrace, and isn't even considered part of the series by hardcore fans. Because it pretty much sucks.
Because I have to keep the symmetry of this format.
The Gothic games are really special to me. They were unprecedented for their time and have set the standard for my expectations in RPGs. In some ways, this has left me bitter and cynical, because they set the bar so high that few other games have ever come close to matching them. Whereas most people play a game like Skyrim with utter fascination and nothing but the utmost praise for it, I can't help but notice how its gameplay mechanics fail to inspire anything as engaging, rewarding, or stimulating as the original Gothics. Not that I expect Skyrim to be just like Gothic, but I feel like there are some really good lessons that Bethesda could learn from studying the Gothic games.