This article was a long time coming. Not only have I avoided taking a look at any sort of pure MUD for many years, but I meant to write this up last week but real life interrupted my plans. I just didn't think it was fair to write up a first impressions based on only a few hours of play. I was quite hesitant to take a deeper look at Gemstone IV mainly because I knew that the non-stop reading would surely create more migraines that might derail my work again. I was very worried, actually.
Luckily, the Gemstone IV client is customizable enough to allow me to create a "book-style" experience: black text on a white background. I don't think I'm alone in my inability to view bright, colored text on a dark background comfortably. If I were, popular websites would still look like they were from 1996. We've moved past ugly fonts and horrible color combinations.
Unfortunately it took me most of the time with Gemstone IV just to learn how to play, make the text comfortable to read, and understand what my character was supposed to be doing. Once I got comfortable, though, I honestly had one of the most enchanting times in a game yet.
In case you didn't know, MUDs are Multi-User Dungeons. Sounds cute now, huh? Essentially, MUDs are choose-your-own-adventure books that you play with thousands of other players. Even that description simplifies the experience too much. I guess it would be better to describe the game as similar to a standard, graphical MMO, but 90% of the graphics were in my head. Creatures and a few other items have accompanying pictures -- wonderful, hand-drawn art that does more for me than the latest graphics engine ever could. Otherwise, gameplay is described to you in text form, and you poke your way around the world by using typed commands or clicking hyperlinks. I know it sounds a bit odd or boring, but it's actually neither of those. At all.
I'll give you some examples.
I was lost at one point and found my way into the center of town. I asked the dozens of players around me for aid, and someone responded by taking me by the hand and literally pulling me through scene after scene until we reached the destination, an old well. The player pointed at it and told me to "go down until you find what you need." It was a little disturbing to have another player literally take control of my character to pull me through different areas, but it was very immersive as well. I love feeling a bit out-of-control in an MMO.
As I spent time in public areas more and more, I stopped and read the descriptions passing on my screen. While it quickly became overwhelming in areas that held a lot of players, it was fun to read what was happening around me. One of the coolest mechanics is the roaming NPCs. In a graphical MMO, you might see them moving from one place to another physically, but in Gemstone IV, they appear on the scene, maybe talk or perform an action, and move on. You can even follow them, and they'll be there in the next descriptive scene. At one point I was told to find some guards in a local tavern and went there only to find an empty bar. Within a few minutes, some guards actually wandered in, ordered drinks, and helped me out. There was more interactive action going on in this text-based adventure than I have seen in most graphical MMOs. Heck, in many three-dimensional MMOs, the NPCs just stand there.
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I was given the task to kill some gnomes and asked around until another player showed me where to go. Unfortunately, the challenge of figuring out how to smoothly attack and target the critters detracted from my initial glee, but once I got the hang out it, it was a dynamic experience. The gnomes would scream, limp in pain, and move from scene to scene. Tracking my target gnome when they all carry the same description is tough, but there are shortcuts that helped. Once again, combat in this text world felt more intense than in most MMOs I have played lately.
There are many, many more examples I can give you. Honestly, however, a MUD like Gemstone IV might not wet your whistle. I have found many people in comments sections and even during my livestreams who exclaimed how boring it was or how funny it seemed to read a game. The oddest theory I have come across is that "a MUD is not really an MMO." How snobbish and strange to think that graphics and three-dimensional, literal representations of a player are all that can qualify a game as an MMO. Let me be clear: As far as this MUD is concerned, it is more MMO than most MMOs. There are similar prejudices against MMORTS titles, as though the only thing that qualifies as "MMO" is the action of controlling a single character on the screen.
What strikes me about Gemstone IV the most is the slower pace of the game. Not only does the title come from the very beginnings of multiplayer gaming, but it feels that way as well. Character progression and roleplay are paramount in the game. I loved the fact that I didn't feel pushed around like an idiot; I still had multiple "easy" paths I could take if I wanted. As I write this, my wife is playing Guild Wars 2 behind me. I have played with it myself but immediately felt that I had not only seen that sort of game before but had been through the same experience before. I don't go to bed dreaming about games like Guild Wars 2, RIFT or World of Warcraft. Those games are a conglomeration of mechanics. The text-based interactions I found in Gemstone IV made my brain actually do some heavy lifting. I had to get busy to imagine how my character looks and acts. I might even do something I haven't done in many years and draw a portrait of my character! Heck, I have already printed out a map or two to help me get around, so I might as well go all the way.
"In fact, it's more than a little ridiculous how many new-player issues could be fixed by some basic tweaking of the first few levels. I spent most of my time in this game frustrated. Very frustrated."
If you watch the embedded video in this column, you will see the result of streaming the game for a second time. Watch the first video I filmed and you will see how confusing this game can be. In fact, it's more than a little ridiculous how many new-player issues could be fixed by some basic tweaking of the first few levels. I spent most of my time in this game frustrated. Very frustrated.
But if you choose to try it out, note a few things. First, read the new player guide that is on the home page. I know it sounds ridiculous, but it would help so much if a link to that new-player guide would pop up periodically during the new player experience. Second, use the mentor system (you'll see the link in the client). The community in this game is simply top-notch. Its members have been nothing but friendly, informative, and helpful. Mentors are special players who have the job of helping new players, and they do a great job of it. Third, take that silly, rushed and linear experience of other games and throw it out the window. You're in Gemstone IV to take your time and build a character. You might not even kill anything for the first level or so. Enjoy the experience of telling your character's story. Last, go to the catacombs and kill some rats. Yes, rats. It's a fun and easy way to build experience and to learn about combat.
In another old-school turn, Gemstone IV gives you a 30-day trial if you put a credit card down. I admittedly laughed when I read that the game charges $15 a month, but I completely understand why. It's definitely worth it. Will I be subscribing after I finish this article? Well, I'm a ramblin' MMO writer. I have to move every week, even a few times a week. So I probably will not sub, or if I do, it will be for a month here and there. Luckily, the world of Gemstone IV seems friendly enough to casual play and is worth the price of admission even just for the roleplay and fantastic atmosphere.
What else am I going to spend my money on -- Guild Wars 2?
Next week, I will be recapping my two years writing this column, so there will be no game for us to look at. I'll be back to normal the week after that, jumping into Dark Legends. See you then!
Each week, Rise and Shiny asks you to download and try a different free-to-play, indie or unusual game, chosen by me, Beau Hindman. I welcome any suggestions for games -- drop me a note in the comments or email! You can also follow me on Twitter and Facebook!