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Bringing Back the Old Magic

By Steven Messner on August 07, 2015 | Columns | Comments

Bringing Back the Old Magic

At one point or another, most of us have had that "back in my day" moment. You don't have to go far to find forum threads bursting with nostalgia for a simpler, more enchanting time for online games. A time when it was all about the social elements, when quests didn't hold your hand through each of their tedious steps, when we weren't all jogging on a treadmill, desperate for that next little drip of content to keep us going the distance. Well good news, amidst the revelations of declining World of Warcraft subscription numbers and other omens that MMORPG doomsday prophets inevitably point to, we are finally getting a little sliver of that old magic back. Its name is Project: Gorgon.

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Developed by a team of two, both with an extensive history working on projects like Asheron's Call, Asheron's Call 2, and more, Project: Gorgon is an independent MMORPG currently running a Kickstarter campaign. But the key difference is that, while Kickstarter continues to be a wall for people to throw their half-baked ideas at, Project: Gorgon isn't just a stack of design documents proudly displaying a coffee mug somewhere; it's an actual, playable game.

Though early in development, I have to say, I honestly haven't had this much fun with an MMORPG in quite some time. Project: Gorgon manages to blend nostalgia with more modern sensibilities surprisingly well, and in doing so feels like that timeless classic that, no matter how old it may be, always manages to enchant you.

Abandoning the template popularized by more linear MMORPGs, Project: Gorgon takes your handcuffs off within the first minutes of the game and gently prods you to explore its world unshackled by gated content or shallow quests. Despite being in such an early state, you'll likely be shocked at how playable Project: Gorgon is. In fact, so much of it feels fleshed out that, while you will certainly hit a barrier before long, the free alpha version currently available boasts enough things to do and see that it could be weeks before it all starts to wear thin. In that sense, Project: Gorgon has created the perfect proof of concept: a massive slice of delicious cake to gorge yourself on, just big enough to whet your appetite for when the game finally releases at the tail end of next year.

Exploration is the name of the game, and while certainly daunting at times, Project: Gorgon does a pretty admirable job of helping you come to terms with how it paces itself. A tutorial dungeon might seem like a terrible cliche, but Project: Gorgon uses this familiar setting to instruct you on its layers of exploration-based elements. You're free to skip the dungeon if you wish, but choosing to comb through it will provide you with a delightful insight into the philosophies that guide Gorgon once you're out in its wide world.

I continually felt overwhelmed by my time with Project: Gorgon, but only because I had been so coddled by this generation of MMORPGs that I had forgotten what it was like to have to use many of the muscles (read: brain) that Project: Gorgon requires. Without the crutches of experienced-based progression and quest-based gameplay, it can be hard to find your bearings.

Arguably the most distinct element of Project: Gorgon is how it fleshes out the relationships between you and its various non-player characters that inhabit the world. These aren't the rigid quest machines that we've come to expect, but rather real characters with their own needs, likes, and dislikes. Each of these characters has an opinion of you that you can influence by completing favors or showering them with their favorite gifts. You can even choose to hang out with them when you're logged off to passively gain favor—which really helps you slowly wear down particularly hard to impress characters.

These dynamic NPCs form the basic foundation of Project: Gorgon. You aren't merely currying favor with them because of some compulsive need to be loved by everyone, but rather to gain access to the resources they have to help you grow as a character. Without generic levels to guide your progress, Project: Gorgon relies on an intuitive skill system that rewards you the more you use a given skill. Killing monsters with a sword will increase your swordsmanship the same way cooking increases your culinary abilities. Furthermore, abilities also synergize with one another in interesting ways. Spending an afternoon working on calligraphy will improve hand-eye coordination which also has an effect on how good you can stab things. These NPCs are the gateways to these skills—of which there are dozens to discover and grow in. Other NPCs serve more utilitarian purposes, like giving you access to storage or buying gear at fairer prices once you've won them over.

In a way, Project: Gorgon feels entirely subversive to the whole genre, and in doing so bleeds charm. Unlike many MMORPGs, which handle their various moving parts with a rigid, controlling attitude in a vain attempt to keep things as perfectly balanced as possible, Project: Gorgon embraces chaos—all in the name of fun.

Never is this more apparent than when fighting the terrific boss monsters hidden around Project: Gorgon's dungeons. Powerful monsters aren't just merely a mechanical challenge where failure is a slap on the wrist and a free pass to try again. Rather, each boss also packs a terrible curse that, upon failing to slaughter the beast, will directly impact how you play the game until you either beat the monster or discover an alternate way to cure yourself. These can range from hilarious role-playing prompts, like being unable to say certain words or pretending that you've gone crazy, to curses that will massively impact your game. One early boss monster can even enlarge your head to comedic proportions, which also has the adverse effect of preventing you from protecting that swollen noggin with a helmet.

Ever wondered what it would be like playing a cow or a spider? Just go die to one of Project: Gorgon's bosses and find out. Even better, these curses aren't always inherently negative. Playing as a cow has become a viable strategy that players purposely pursue because of the unique perks that come with the bovine race (including exclusive cow armor).

If this sounds hilariously bizarre, it's because it is. The world of Project: Gorgon is brimming with these types of secrets to discover. While a page in your quest window helps to point you towards certain activities, much of everything can be discovered by just picking a direction and seeing what's out there. Project: Gorgon never feels like it pushes you in a certain direction, but instead invites you to explore and, like an overzealous father on Easter, hides hidden eggs around its environment for you to find.

Of course, being in such an early state, Project: Gorgon has its own set of flaws to weather. For starters, even though the NPC interactions are refreshing, they do ultimately amount to reputation grinding with dozens of characters. The favors they require of you are often tedious, and some of them are so layered it makes completing them daunting. In order to get a knife so I could harvest valuable skins from my prey, I had to get some seeds. The only problem is that the seed lady won't sell them to me until I earn her favor too, which required me making her some hashbrowns. I didn't know how to make hash browns, so I had to learn while also learning how to farm potatoes and onions. You can see how the quest for a simple knife spun wildly out of control. But, in serving Gorgon's nonlinear nature, I was lucky enough to find a knife from one of the many shopkeepers, who thankfully keep a stock of items that other players sold to them.

While so much of Project: Gorgon is a trip back in time to more delightfully creative MMORPGs, it also means dealing with the archaic dark side we forgot many of those games have. You'll spend plenty of time running about on fetch quests, which is always boring. Visually, while Project: Gorgon does have its charms, everything looks several decades old, including the user interface and menus (Editor: This is what the Kickstarter plans to address). And finally, though so much of Project: Gorgon is a lot of fun, there just isn't a whole lot that inspires the type of social activity that really binds these types of games together. You can pursue crafting professions if you like, but without more social structures, I felt like a lot of those pursuits were in vain. You can group up to tackle bosses and dungeons, but outside of that I found Project: Gorgon desperately lacking in features that inspire a sense of community while actually playing the game. This is likely due to being in such an early state of development and focusing on playability over sociability, but it bears mentioning. That said, the community is friendly and helpful. I just wish there were systems in the game that pushed them to interact on a deeper level.

If it weren't already obvious, I'm sold on Project: Gorgon. Kickstarter gives us plenty of reasons to be skeptical of the games looking for crowdfunding, but Project: Gorgon isn't just another far-fetched dream desperately struggling to be made real. Even amid the horde of MMORPGs aiming to tap into your sense of nostalgia, Project: Gorgon is one of the few using that nostalgia to cleverly hide just how refreshingly subversive it is. If you're tired of the same old song and dance that MMORPGs perfected years ago, Project: Gorgon can give you a little taste of its big ideas.

Steven Messner / Steven is a Canadian freelance writer and EVE Online evangelist, spreading the good news of internet spaceships far and wide. In his spare time, he enjoys writing overly ambitious science fiction and retweeting pictures of goats. Speaking of retweeting, you should probably drop everything and go follow him on Twitter @StevenMessner
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