Saturday, 21 January 2012

Game 7: The Black Cauldron - Won!

Taran Wanderer Journal Entry 2: “What an emotional ride today has been. First I helped Princess Eilonwy escape the prison and found an awesome magic sword, and then I rescued a bard named Fflewddur from another part of the castle. I even managed to save Hen Wen and got her to safety right before the Horned King made her show him where the cauldron was. As if all that wasn’t exciting enough, I then visited a strange underground kingdom where King Eiddileg gave me some magic flying dust. I used it to access a witches’ house across the river and traded my magic sword for the Black Cauldron. Just when I thought I’d finally stopped the Horned King and his wicked scheme, a gwythaint stole the cauldron from me and took it back to the castle. Summoning the little courage I had left, I climbed the mountain back up to the castle, realising that the only way to stop the Horned King was to throw myself into the cauldron, sacrificing myself in the process. Just as I was about to do it, my loyal little furry friend Gurgi jumped into the cauldron instead, destroying the Horned King, his castle, and himself. My devastation at the loss of my friend was short lived, as the witches traded me his life back for the cauldron, meaning everything worked out in the end. Prydain is safe and I’ve got some great new friends!”

If the above rundown sounds convoluted, well you don’t know the half of it (unless you've played it of course). It took me a total of six hours to finish The Black Cauldron and I can’t say I had much idea what was going on half the time. I rescued people who never showed up again, was given items that played no part in the game, was constantly rewarded for counterintuitive decisions, and was left feeling empty during an ending that was supposed to be highly emotional. I don’t think Al Lowe had any idea how challenging it would be to take a movie plot and present it as an adventure game and I think he realised things were not going well when he bailed towards the end of the project. He managed to squeeze in a lot of the characters, items and locations from the movie into the game, but with no controlled plot or linear progression to tie them all together, you end up with a game only really enjoyable by those who already know what happens and can fill in all the gaps on the way.

In other words, the game technology won't allow me to have a companion anymore so you better go

The perfect example of this is the character Gurgi. Gurgi is the little furry creature I met at the beginning of the game. I gave him an apple and he told me he was now my friend. I assume that Gurgi becomes a companion of Taran’s in the books and movie, and that they experience many things together through the course of the story. That would make Gurgi’s presence at the finale make sense and his sacrifice understandable and emotional. In the game, his sudden appearance and sacrifice is completely absurd, and it occurred at a time where the game told me what I was about to do (throw myself into the cauldron), when in fact I had no idea. It’s confusing, forced storytelling, and his sudden reincarnation at the end makes the whole thing meaningless. I was led to believe that the Black Cauldron would be destroyed if a live being got into it, therefore committing suicide in the process. Why then would the three witches bargain his life back (they also offered all sort of other treasures) for a completely non-magical cauldron?

...there was that day I gave him an apple other day where I gave him an apple. I miss him so much!

There is one notable positive to come out of The Black Cauldron and that is the use of a branching storyline. There are numerous ways to “complete” the game, with all of them ranging in satisfaction and points. I first completed the game by sacrificing myself into the cauldron as soon as I got it (therefore making it powerless and not allowing the grythaint to steal it), but that resulted in only 173 points, and the game hinting at the fact this was not the ultimate finish. I then restored and let the gwythaint take it (yet another example of the game rewarding me for counterintuitive actions), and was then able to go to the castle for the big finale (where I apparently just try to sacrifice myself anyway!!!). I’ve since read a walkthrough to see what other ways there are to complete the game, but most of them revolve around which of the witches’ offers you accept on the way. There’s no doubt that the branching storyline merely adds to the confusion in the case of The Black Cauldron, but it should be noted that this is the first true example of a technique that would become popular in the genre and eventually used very successfully.

Seemed like the logical thing to do, but it's not what you wanted me to do is it Mr Dungeon Master

I can’t say I didn’t enjoy The Black Cauldron at all. When I knew what my goal was and could just focus on achieving it, there was much fun to be had. But it has to be said that the game is pretty hard going for someone with no prior knowledge of the story, and the pioneering features (non text parser interface, branching storyline) are not implemented anywhere near as well as they would be down the track. Al Lowe and his crew were on a hiding to nothing with this game. Players who know the story from either the books or the movie would breeze through it. Players who don’t know the story won’t have much idea what’s going on. Either way, it’s not very satisfying, so I now know why it kind of disappeared into obscurity while so many other Sierra games have hung around. I’m happy that I got through it and can move onto something else.

One big happy family of strangers


  1. "Just play the game it was meant to be played." -- this takes on a whole new meaning with this game. The developers indicate exactly how they expect you to play with the score and dialogue.

    I'm glad you got over this one, but if I were you I'd take some time to unwind from this. I'm sensing no fun was had, and I'd hate to see you burn out too.

  2. For the record, the plot of the movie -- which the game seems to follow -- is quite different from the plot of the books. The movie is pretty bad. The books are outstanding, and I recommend them for all readers young or old.

  3. To be fair to the game, there is an alternative solution that does not involve Gurgi, but in which Taran uses a magic mirror to make the Horned King himself run into the Cauldron, thus killing two baddies with one reflection - and this appears to be the most optimal solution considering it rewards the player with most points. Anyone interested can see this happening starting around 4:28 at:

    Furthermore, I think the lack of fleshed-out NPCs in Black Cauldron is explained by the insufficiency of the disk space. This is a lack that is shared by most of the graphical adventure games of the era: usually there are only one-dimensional figures like King Edward of KQ1 (who does little else beyond dying), princess Valanice of KQ2 (a wimp who is afraid to use stairs) or Mannannan of KQ3 (a grumpy and tyrannic wizard who likes porridge). In purely text-based adventure games there were already believable and emotionally engaging characters (A mind forever voyaging might be a good example). But in the graphical adventures so much space had to be used for the graphics and game mechanics that character development and especially dialogue had to be left to the minimum. And because the graphics don't still allow for convincing facial expressions, there's very little drama going on. You need to just compare original PQ1 with its remake to see the point: the love story in the first appears much more unconvincing than the very same story in the latter. I think that's why they did lot more comedic games in the early days (Space Quests and Larrys are an obvious example, but even Kings Quests had some comedic elements), because the visual gags, puns and jokes did not require as much characterisation as proper drama does.

  4. @Zenic: I've taken note of this comment as I really don't want to appear like I'm not having fun, even when I'm criticising a game. I really enjoy the process of playing through and dissecting games, even when they're not that great, so don't worry about that. I'll try not to sound like I'm hating every moment of it though. :)

    I definitely need to learn from what has happened to Chet though (CRPG Addict) as I think there are some valuable lessons to be learned (ie. don't make the task insurmountable, don't spend too much time persevering when you're having no fun at all, listen to the voices in the back of your head).

  5. @Griffin: That seems to be the general thoughts in everything I've looked at. Great books, bad movie! Just like with Below the Root, educating myself on the background of this game has made me want to read the books they're based on. I might get to them one day...

  6. @Ilmari: I'm sure you're absolutely right about disk space being the main issue stopping these games from having true characterisation. I do want to point out though that I'm not so much criticising the game for having next to no character interaction and depth. As you point out, none of the other games of this time have that either.

    As for there being another solution to the game, well I don't think that excuses it from making the solution(s) I experience feel satisfying. It's a real challenge to have branching storylines and I don't think the developers got it quite right with The Black Cauldron.

    Thanks for these comments Ilmari. I hope you'll continue to add them for future posts (I really don't mind if you disagree with me, it makes for interesting discussion). :)

  7. @Trickster: I agree that Black Cauldron is far from perfect, even when measured by the standards of its own time. For instance, Maniac Mansion handled multiple endings far better.

    And thanks for the invitation for comments, I'll try to do my best, as far as familial and other duties let me. I have been silently lurking the CRPG Addict's blog for a while, but since my experience in that area is quite limited, I really had nothing relevant to say there. At least the early adventure games I've experienced more thoroughly in my youth, so I'll probably find something to disagree with you again. ;)

  8. One question: Are you writing the bits of text at the top of the posts, or are they from the game?

  9. I'm writing them. It's my attempt to describe what's happening in the plot, which I wasn't doing in my earlier posts.