Germany is not well known for a country with a strong game design, indeed Germany is in comparison to Poland, France, Great Britain, USA and Japan actually weak. Not many strong video games were developed and released mainly in Germany. Important titles were the Settlers, Anno 1602, Far Cry, Crysis, Spec Ops, Deponia and many browser games and especially indie games dominate the video game field in Germany. But one important name is missing: Risen.
Risen’s story begins not in the year 2009 when it was published or when the planning phase in 2007 has started. It began with another title which was important for future role-playing-games (RPG) and which has gotten especially in Germany and Eastern Europe a lot of attention. Although in the last years also the international press has covered the newest works of the development team Piranha Bytes, the earliest title Gothic has never received the attention it would have deserved.
An unbeloved break-up
Gothic was released in 2001 and was available only for windows PC. It set standards for RPGs in story-telling, graphics, game play and especially atmosphere. Only one year later the next part was released on which the additional content “Night of the Raven” followed in 2003. Despite minor mistakes, called bugs and problems, the second part was again selling very well in Germany and in Europe. For this reason the publisher JoWood ordered a third part from the same development team Piranha Bytes. And this was the time the problems occurred: Gothic 3 was planned as a huge project. The playable world was highly expanded and so were the questlines, the stories and the characters – and so were the bugs, mistakes, problems. The publisher team insisted on a release on time, while Piranha Bytes was not ready to publish a game full of technical games. And so a patch to solve most problems was released on the day the game was published. Fans and press awaited the game so strongly that they were immediately disappointed. The conflict between development team and publisher became stronger while public, fans and press criticised the game constantly. Invincible boars and wolves, several plot holes, unsolvable quest lines, a total missing of female character, graphic mistakes and unexpected crashes of the game led not just to disappointment, but to low sale numbers. Five patches were published to solve the issues, but most problems remained and therefore a solution was promised.Instead of the solution came the breakup between JoWood and Piranha Bytes. Later the community created with the support of JoWood an own patch which corrected almost all mistakes and made the game playable. The rights belonged to JoWood and they intended to bring the name of Gothic its old glory back. A game was published, which was designed just to close the biggest plot holes of Gothic 3. But even this new game was released unready and the selling numbers didn’t match the expectations at all. Finally in 2011 JoWood was bankrupt and lost the rights to Gothic. The Development team of Piranha Bytes searched for new ways on old paths, and released Risen which could follow the success of Gothic.
An old Witcher 3?
When Gothic was released in 2001 it gave the player the possibility to interact with the environment in ways that were new and exciting. It offered a long ranging view in which it was possible to see even far distant objects. But the most important reason for its success was undoubted the atmosphere and the plot. The game played in a fantastic world with magic, magician and evil hunting creatures. To win the war against hordes of orcs the king and his knights depend on the magical ores which can be found unfortunately just on one island in a cruel, harsh, unfruitful and rocky wasteland – in the mine valley of Khorinis – where prisoners are forced to excavate these ores. To secure the mine the king and the magicians have created a magical barrier which is prohibiting escape attempts, but letting new prisoners enter.
And so all prisoners of the empire are send to the mine valley, where the prisoners have soon established an own society with its own rules and rulers. While the king sends weapons, luxury goods, food and even women, he demands in exchange the magical ore, which soon became the currency inside the barrier. The prisoners themselves split in three different groups with different goals. While the old camp is ruled by the ore barons and controls the most people, the strongest forces and controls the richest mine which gives them the possibility to trade with the world outside of the barrier. In opposite to the old camp the group in the new camp didn’t agree with the situation and searched for ways to blow up the barrier with the help of the magical ore. The last camp is the swamp camp which members’ trade with a plant that gives hallucinations and prey to a god, they call the sleeper. In this situation the player enters the mine valley and is greeted roughly by the other prisoners. The goal from this moment is to escape the prison by destroying the barrier. But first it’s important to survive in this world, which requires patience, smartness, strength, humour and in the beginning definitely good running skills. Already on the road to the first camp many wolves and other dangerous creatures await the player. When the player has arrived at the camp the guards stop the player to ask about his motives. A wrong and funny answer can lead at this early moment already to the immediate death of the player. Already this experience shows that the world is cruel and merciless and so are the most decisions. Knowledge about paths and geography is as crucial as having supporting gear. A wrong taken path may lead easily in a horde of wild wolves, might end in a swamp full of giant warrior lizards or in a camp of orcs. In order to find out more about the roads and the geography of the valley, the player can try to buy a map (for a very high price), bribe the guards to steal the map or just kill the map owner.
Although this decision seems to be cruel and therefore easy to decide, ores are rare and hard to collect, while the map can save your life. The camps have created their own society and especially the old camp is interesting in this sense as the ore barons control everyone by dividing the members in three groups, guards, shadows and diggers. To satisfy all of them they receive their share. While the player gains experience and tries to climb up the ladder of these groups he will meet rivals who will according to the player’s decision lure him into traps. And again the player can decide how he will treat the other characters: Rob them? Kill them to get finally rid of the danger? Threat them? Forgive them? Not just these possibilities can give Gothic the name of an early Witcher 3, but also its explicit language, the cruelty in quests and that failing is not often forgiven. Maybe it served even as an inspirations as Gothic was also very successful in Eastern Europe, where Witcher 3 was mostly designed. Unforgotten and praised by fans was furthermore the integration of life music in the game, as the real life band “IN EXTREMO” performs the song “HERR MANNELIG”. Despite the cruel and harsh world the player will be able to find friends and exactly these friends are met in the second part of the series.
A new meeting
Gothic 2 starts immediately after the first part has ended and shows a bigger world as now other parts of the island are accessable. Additional to the old friends, the old enemies and acquaintances a merchant city, several farms, forests and caves were added to the world. Every time the player meets a friend in these new circumstances the player is reminded about the adventures that were encountered together in the first part. And even the old already well known places of the mine valley can be visited again. This combination of well-known spots and persons mixed with a variety of new places and new characters improved the game and made it to the most favourite game of the series. To keep this part of known faces mixed with new ones, the group of friends around the player sails in the Gothic 3 to the mainland, but the world was too big, the storyline to thin and the known faces too few. Although Risen had to be different from Gothic, several quests, situations and smaller stories were repeated. Maybe it was this step back to the roots which led to the success. Nevertheless also Risen had to adapt to new rules and the explicit language, the cruelty, the darkness and the general gameplay difficulty that defined Gothic was missing in Risen. All these aspects were left to go for a younger and broader audience. In next parts the developers worked also on this issues and were able to keep the good aspect, but gave Risen an own atmosphere of despair and darkness without repeating Gothic.
Although Gothic had never such a strong satirical humour and a criticizing hidden message like Fallout served it, the humour in conversation was very often a crucial part of the game. This was even stressed in a stand-alone modification “Velaya- Tale of a warrior”, which was created by fans and community. And especially this shows the impact of the Gothic series. The community around Gothic has so many devoted fans who release – even after ten years – free modifications and keep the game alive. While some add elements, items, characters or questlines some even invent a whole new story. In the modification of Velaya the playable character is a woman from Gothic 1, who has escaped from the mine valley and works on one of the Khorinis farms, where she decides to finally stand up to her rights. In order to be able to defend herself she encounters adventures, new places and finds out more about the stories of side-characters known from the main game. In a realistic and funny way many open story lines from the main game are continued and connected together. Many references and jokes refer therefore to experiences from the main game. Especially the sarcastic and funny answers by Velaya add a lot of charme to the game.
The atmosphere and the Gothic-feeling
Gothics unique and successful recipe of a dark, authentic and realistic world gave it an authentic atmosphere in which decisions weren’t hyped and obviously showed. The decisions were mostly smaller ones and had sometimes not even an impact on the behaviour of the world, but just on the player in front of the monitor itself. It was especially the brutality, the realism, the dangerous world, the atmosphere, the desire to become fast stronger to wield a better weapon and to wear better armour and the constant feeling of progression are often referred to as the Gothic-feeling. And furthermore Gothic tells us something very important. Nowadays most games are unfinished by release and are published together with a day-one-patch which should fix the biggest problems. But the principle of faster and faster and faster is also seen in other parts of our life. Reports and news tend to publish stories fast and unverified. In the last time it was showed very often that this behaviour is misleading and leads to disinformation. Gothic 3 should be a warning that a reputation can be easily destroyed by an unready product or unverified news. JoWood hasn’t survived while Piranha Bytes has confirmed that it works again on a new Gothic-like adventure which will be released under the name ‘ELEX’ in 2017. Hopefully this time not too early.