Looking back at the Discworld video game

The video game of Terry Pratchett's Discworld remains - well, let's go with 'not very easy'...

My first experience of a Discworld computer game came via MacFormat magazine.

Due to reasons relating to editing and layout software, our home computer was the mighty Macintosh Performa 450, and in order to play CDs we bought an external drive larger than the netbook I’m typing this on. No longer were our gaming choices limited to Theme Park (there are worse games to have), we could peruse the demos and freeware options in the free CDs that came with computing magazines.

One of these included a demo of Discworld, and with the processing power at my disposal, the intro scene lasted approximately six minutes. Soon, with the addition of 500 MB extra memory (merely a block about the size of the CD drive), it was down to three. Playing it now, it lasts about 60 seconds. Progress, eh? I’ll have finished the game in about an hour at this rate.

Except that, for various reasons, I’ve never actually finished it before.

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Firstly: I’m not very good at computer games.Secondly: It’s really bloody difficult.

Because it’s so difficult, it invites exploration.

To play without a walkthrough involves either careful and well thought out consideration of your inventory and surroundings, or just going absolutely everywhere on the screen, hovering the mouse over every single object, combining every single object in your inventory together to see what happens, and then clicking on every single object onscreen with every single object in your inventory to see if anything happens.

The downside is that it’s easy to overlook something, because the game developers are always operating at a higher level of inscrutable logic.

You may end up with the perfect disguise and the equipment for eavesdropping all set up, but not realize you have to turn a drainpipe around in order to hear anything. If that doesn’t sound too complicated, you should also know that to get the disguise you have to travel in time to insert a frog in your drunk self’s mouth so you can catch a butterfly (with the net you stole from the psychatrickerist’s waiting room) to release on a street corner so it rains there in the future so you can steal the disguise from a washing line and then head back and forget to turn the drainpipe again.

It’s a game where you can be forgiven for saving before clicking on absolutely anything. Even with half-remembered progress from the late 90s, there’s usually something you’ve forgotten. However, even if the gameplay is a slow and truculent experience, it’s one hell of a challenge, and it’s quite a fun one in small doses.

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Roughly approximating the novel Guards! Guards! but with Rincewind instead of Vimes (plus bits of Moving Pictures thrown in for good measure), the Discworld game is so difficult as to necessitate exploration of first Ankh-Morpork, then the world. You can interact with almost every character and many objects, with quick lectures (featuring Rob Brydon’s impersonation of David Attenborough) filling in the blanks for anyone unfamiliar with the books. The voice cast features Brydon (near the start of his career), Pratchett audiobook helmer Tony Robinson, Spitting Image and Crossroads alumnus Kate Robbins, plus your Jon Actual Pertwee.

While it’s not hilarious (there’s a lot of dialogue, not all of it lands, not all of it feels right, and due to the animation of the mid-90s not being up to it, the timing can be off), the interactions with all the characters – and the design work is great here too – are solidly amusing. The tone is of complete irreverence, gleeful pisstakes and of the game-makers having fun with the project. However, the best jokes are ones you may have already read in the books. There are apparently Easter Eggs I’ve never found, having merely been insulted by the main character for typing this with the game running in the background.

I also can’t say enough good things about the backgrounds and the music in the game. Rob Lord (who has since gone on to score Just Cause 2) does wonders for what is presumably just him and a synthesizer. It’s got the faux-medieval trappings you’d expect, but it’s a jaunty, light score that doesn’t distract you. The style of the animation and backgrounds – with snaking pathways and jutting, oddly angled buildings and hovels – has massively informed my mental image of Ankh-Morpork. Come to think of it, it’s not totally dissimilar to the Old Town of Edinburgh either.

It’s a visually satisfying and initially involving game then, but your tolerance for its difficulty depends on how long the characters, conversations and gags entertain you for. While considering my innate crapness at computer games, it is still worth mentioning that I first played it in the late 90s, and I still haven’t completed it. It’s been a good hour or two since I started trying again, and I’m considering making one of those pins-and-string diagrams that you get in TV murder investigations, just to keep track of everything.

The reason we’re able to play the game now, incidentally, is through the ScummV program, designed for point and click adventure games like Monkey Island, which supports the first two Discworld computer games. All you need are the game files and approximately three years of spare time. If you want to speed things along both hints and walkthroughs are available on the Games section of the lspace.org site.

There. I managed to get through all this without using the word monke-

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