This is art from Avernum: Escape From The Pit, the remake to Exile (released this week). Beyond the subterranean setting full of fungus and sunless wastelands that I got lost in as a kid, I noticed something a bit impressive– the art focused on a woman (wearing normal, comfortable clothing, sans boob armor!) and a black man. I appreciate the synthesis of indie gaming with thoughtful minority representation, it feels fitting. If one is going to design games out of the mainstream, take the opportunity to dispense with mainstream bigotry as well. I did a breakdown of the 15 character portraits/figures that you can select for party members during character creation:
4 white men
5 white women
2 black women
2 black men
2 men of indeterminate ethnicity, wearing hoods/masks
HOLY SHIT, in this step alone Avernum beats out most mainstream games by a landslide. Moving forward into the actual game, the women in the series are just as world-weary and battle-scarred as the men, frequently found in positions of power and autonomy—captains, mayors, sorceresses. Their dialogue is about their needs, responsibilities, and goals, never veering into the gender cliches exhibited by most fantasy. Even the enemy fantasy races (catpeople and lizardpeople) are shown to be more than fodder after a while, given motivations and dimension. There is a lesbian couple in the second town, knowledge inferred naturally from dialogue. So yay, good job showing you can make old-school games without the usual neckbeardy baggage. As for gameplay, Avernum is a solid rpg with decent writing and satisfying tactical combat. The difficulty is high from the outset, doing away with the slow, dull ramp-up of many RPGS.
The setting itself, as I must have mentioned, has parallels with Legend of Grimrock–your party is composed of criminals thrown through a penal portal that teleports you underground into a kind of subterranean Australia, “with just enough sustenance to enable Avernites to live a miserable, wormlike existence” . It knows what kind of world it is—a hard one, a world of pragmatic people consumed by the daily rigors of survival. There is no prophecy, no destined bloodline, just a gang of misfits trying to survive and dreaming, against hope, of the sun.
To expand on the lonely feeling I was talking about before, the game is free-roaming. You can go anywhere at any time, pursuing any quest in any order, even if this means dying horribly to much more powerful enemies. This also leads to getting lost in a desolate tunnel system far from even the cold comfort of the dour fortress-towns, or wandering too far across the great northern waste and becoming surrounded by missile-hurling cat-people. Without rails, you enter a formless place where your decision to stumble through a barren marsh of toxic slime and cave thorns is purely your own, rather than a set-piece of the designers. It can be lonely when a game permits you to truly wander—but it is infinitely preferable to the AAA tendency to anesthetize the player with cut-scenes, quick-time events, achievements, a thousand little pricks of dopamine. It is a game that permits you the desolation of your own thoughts. As Minecraft, Shadow of the Colossus, and Pathologic have shown us, a side effect of freedom is loneliness.