It’s no coincidence that the most memorable party-based RPGs feature a fine supporting cast. Titles like Planescape: Torment or Barkley, Shut Up & Jam: Gaiden benefit tremendously from unusual, well-written characters who, in their roles as party sidekicks, serve to expand the plot and provide interaction with the protagonist in a distinctive fashion. There is one title that sticks out as a shining example with its atypical characters and original storytelling but it is not very well known: Anachronox, created by at John Romero’s now-defunct studio Ion Storm.
Like Romero’s own Daikatana, Anachronox was headed by a co-founder of id Software, Tom Hall, and, like Ion Storm’s Deus Ex, it pushed at the boundaries of its genre. Writer Richard Gaubert‘s skill with the digital pen ensured that this splendid sci-fi RPG was both well-written and genuinely funny. Though it never found the same level of popular adulation as Deus Ex, Anachronox still inspires cultish dedication. Given the chance to interview Tom Hall, it was impossible for me to resist blowing a third of my questions on Anachronox. “Millions were spent making it, and upon release, $50K advertising it,” he told me, explaining its semi-obscure status.
Much of the love for Anachronox stems from its characters, which for the most part eschew RPG convention in favour of the gloriously bizarre. Even the one-off NPCs in Anachronox are elevated above quest signpost status, which means encounters with personalities like an artistically-challenged doorman are excuses for great gags, not flat exposition. At a cursory glance, some of Anachronox‘s characters appear to be painted with pretty broad strokes: there’s the wise old man, the talking robot and the mad scientist. Not exactly tradition-busting stuff, but it doesn’t take long for a greater depth of characterization to emerge.
Grumpos, the old codger, is no wise mentor cliché. One of his special skills is “Yammer,” with which he bamboozles enemies in the manner of Grandpa Simpson telling a particularly laboured and tedious story. PAL-18, the talking robot, is loyal to his human “master” up to a point, but also expresses periodic empathy for his robot brethren. There weren’t many credible female characters in videogames from the early ’00s, but Dr. Rho Bowman, a rebellious scientist, is one of them. She’s unhampered by ridiculous (and unexplained) desires to get inside the main character’s trench-coat.
Other plot-crucial characters are even more inventive. Fatima isn’t recruitable in the traditional RPG sense. She is Boots’ secretary, but due to an unfortunate case of ceasing to be alive, is now trapped inside the triangular device that serves as your in-game cursor. This brilliant abstraction explains why a vital game mechanic is continuously present in the world, without the need for the player to suspend disbelief.
Every one of these characters stands head and shoulders above the Tolkien-derived nonsense found in many videogame RPGs (often hampered by their unflinching submission to a single interpretation of what a “fantasy” setting is.) This is vital for a party-based RPG, as the functions of its sidekick characters are essentially limited to providing the main player with additional attacks, dialogue options and quest choices. When a player adds a generic wizard to his party, he is already more than halfway toward knowing the sort of attacks and plot choices it will ultimately unlock. Meeting uniquely written characters throws the player off-guard; it confounds expectations and forces him to make assessments based on the character presented before him, rather than prior genre knowledge. By avoiding cliché and subverting convention, Anachronox greatly enhances these functions.
In so many RPGs of this type, party members are selected by players on the basis of their job or what skills they offer, because that is all that defines their character. In Anachronox, players decide which characters they enjoy spending virtual time with. It’s not a decision based on crude statistics, but one based on empathy.
In Anachronox, one of my choices would always be Democratus.
Democratus is a planet, which is inherently cool because the only other time a planet showed up as a party member in an RPG was … never. Players’ first encounter with this global titan is when Boots and the gang land on its outer ring, an area populated by the upper class who control surface-wide policy via an intricate subversion of the Ancient Greek democratic tradition. Official outer ring policy is, “Everyone Has a Voice,” but people on Democratus are so monumentally moronic that in order to prevent them voting themselves into oblivion, a High Council is in place to offer “gentle” guidance. The Council periodically leaks its opinions to the general population, allowing the people to feel smart and involved when they vote exactly the way those in power want.
This funny (if not hugely subtle) critique of democratic authority also takes a swipe at bureaucratic inaction. Although the High Council has side-stepped the tyranny of the majority, it is still powerless to act in the face of its own blithering incompetence. As missiles fly towards Democratus’ surface from a militant foe, the High Council is unable to react until it has first processed other important votes such as “Shall Cyclical Vomit Torture be abolished as a form of punishment for first degree murder committed by planet-dwellers?” Only the intervention of our plucky gang of heroes (after a lengthy battle with fearsome red tape) saves the day.
By itself, this would be an engaging CRPG quest, an example of interesting, well-written sidekicks playing a crucial role in expanding an engaging narrative. Things get even better, however, when the High Council of Democratus votes to thank Boots by shrinking the planet down to a more manageable size and tag along with him. At this point, Democratus enters your party as a standard RPG character (though in the place of standard weaponry and armour, he is equipped with various planetary defence systems.) One of Democratus’ special attacks is called “stare down,” during which the planet inflates itself to a larger size (much like a bird fluffing itself up to intimidate a rival) and uses a gaze-beam to subdue nearby foes. The absurdity of having a planet float around after you throughout many of the game’s levels can’t really be overstated. It is utterly bonkers, yet brilliant.
The creative madness doesn’t cease there, because, later in the game, Democratus is forced to expand back to its original size in order to get you out of a tight spot on a comic book villain’s spaceship (it’s a long story …) This scatters other members of your party to the planet’s surface, launching several individual mini-levels that literally take place on the body of your party’s most spherical member. Not a situation you encounter all that often in RPGs, and only made possible due to the nature of Democratus’ character.
These mini-quests include a weird, Quantum Leap-style murder mystery in an 18th century Alpine village, and the aforementioned Stiletto level that urges you to murder some near-Ewoks. In playing through these levels, players don’t just get to know Democratus through the rulings and proclamations of its government or party companionship, they actually get to explore surface-cultures that even the planet itself seems to have largely forgotten about. Indeed, certain irradiated areas explored by PAL suggest that the player may be partly responsible for a radioactive catastrophe. (Arming Democratus with nuclear weapons seems like a pragmatic idea on a party level, where the environmental impact on the planet’s inhabitants is not even considered.)
While the best RPG sidekicks are given depth through interesting interactions and a compelling back story, Democratus’ fractured and complex nature is instead shown through literal and ingenious exploration of the planetary surface. Players get to experience this directly, without any convoluted use of flashback. This unique characterization can only work thanks to Democratus’ planetary nature, and contributes to an RPG experience that has rarely been bettered.
As Anachronox fans know all too well, the game concludes with the promise of a sequel which never came. When I badgered Hall about the prospect of ever seeing a return to that universe, he offered this small crumb of comfort: “If I don’t do the game in the next 10 years, I’ll just write up the rest of the story and put it on my website for closure, how about that?” Closure is one thing, but there’s a part of me that dearly hopes he’ll eventually reunite with Richard Gaubert and the rest of the team to give the game a proper send-off. In Hall’s own words, Anachronox was “made for the love of it,” and that’s not a feeling you can simply let go.
Meanwhile, the adventures of these fascinating characters remain unresolved. Democratus is still out there, somewhere, rotating silently on an axis of hilarity and political incompetence.
Peter Parrish would just like to add “Then DIE, little Heinz. Just DIE.”