Once Upon a Great A’Tuin – Revisiting Discworld

He entertained millions of readers with his wonderfully satirical, bitingly incisive and always humanistic series of novels. He is greatly missed.

“What does Terry Pratchett have to do with computer games?” you may ask. Well, in 1995, his Discworld novels formed the basis for an adventure game titled simply “Discworld”. The game saw the wizard Rincewind fulfilling a quest set by the pre-eminent centre of wizards, the Unseen University, to rid their city of Ankh-Morpork of a fire-breathing dragon. Were this set in any other fantasy realm, this would have likely been an heroic quest for the mighty Rincewind and his fellow wizards from the Unseen University as they gathered allies and/or magical trinkets and went on to save a grateful city from this terrible threat.

But this is not another fantasy realm: this is the Discworld, and in the Discworld Rincewind is a cowardly wizard with almost no magical powers; Ankh-Morpork is both the greatest and lowest city on the Disc, filled with a populace mostly willing to ignore the dragon terrorising the city so long as it doesn’t affect them personally; the dragon itself is mostly indifferent to the city, only popping down from its perch atop the spires for the occasional snack; and the Unseen University is prompted to act not as an act of goodwill, but as a PR stunt to ensure that Ankh-Morpork continues to fund the wizards’ sedentary lifestyles.

It is in this setting that Rincewind’s quest begins… once he’s figured out how to open the gates to the university so that he can actually leave.

Alas, I can’t start this retrospective without mentioning Discworld’s most glaring issue: it is an infamously difficult game, with long-winded, obtuse puzzles being the order of the day. There’s even some pixel-hunting to be done, just in case you’d missed out on the joy of slowly scanning your cursor across every screen in an adventure game in the hope of finding hidden items. At least developers Perfect Entertainment avoided that other cardinal sin of adventure games, the ability to die or get permanently stuck.

Fortunately, with the rise of the internet (you may have heard of it, it’s this thing that allows you to connect to a vast network of computers and access all sorts of information!), walkthroughs aren’t hard to find, so the worst puzzles can at least be solved without having to root out a printed guide of the game. And, frankly, it’s worth that hassle.

Even the most long-winded puzzles are brightened up by excellent writing and voice acting, provided by the likes of Eric Idle, Rob Brydon, Jon Pertwee and Kate Robbins. The comedy, while not quite up to Pratchett’s standards, comfortably belongs in the upper echelons of computer game humour,* blessed both by excellent comic timing and endearingly daft character design: behold the great warrioress “Red Sorkam”; avatar of the goddess Mothra, destroyer of cardboard cities; who spends most of her time complaining about the ridiculous outfit forced upon her, and the amount of men she has to slay for looking at her in a lecherous manner.

Meanwhile, for players unfamiliar with the novels upon which it is based, the developers included a nature-documentary-style narrator. Said narrator pops up every so often, complete with blackboard and pointer, to excitedly explain the more obscure and interesting trivia about the places, people and general things that you encounter within the game, providing illumination for those unfamiliar with the novels and entertainment for those already au fait.

Of course, the game doesn’t only feature original creations, with Discworld stalwarts dotted across the game, including major turns from the Librarian (a wizard turned into an orangutan by magical accident, and who is highly offended by anybody mistaking him for a monkey) and Death (the Disc’s benign incarnation of the Grim Reaper, who SPEAKS ONLY IN ALL CAPS), not to mention Rincewind’s indestructible, sentient trunk on legs, The Luggage.

While not penned by Terry Pratchett – his involvement with the game was purely editorial, making sure that the characters and storyline met up to series expectations – the game adheres closely to the style of the novels, which works much to its benefit. As much as it delights in poking fun at genre tropes, as much as it plays up to the fact that fantasy worlds really wouldn’t be a nice place to live, the Discworld is really about offering commentary on human society and all its weaknesses… and also its strengths.

You may be playing as a feckless, wimpy sorcerer, but your heart is in the right place. Characters may be selfish and lazy, institutions bureaucratic and incompetent, but they are rarely malicious. And though your quest may be to get rid of a dragon, don’t expect that violence is going to be the answer. For all its fantasy trappings, the Discworld series always extolled the virtues of peace, raising acts of benevolence and intelligence far above those of vengeful heroics, and the game stays true to those ideals.

If you enjoy adventure games, the Discworld novels, or simply like the sound of adventuring your way through a fantastically-executed parody of a fantasy world, you owe it to yourself to seek out and try Discworld. The PC version is completely compatible with the ScummVM environment, making it trivial to get working on PCs, Android devices and pretty much any other modern hardware that can have software installed on it, so you’ve no excuse not to. What better time to get (re)acquainted with this classic adaptation of Terry Pratchett’s most famous series?

*with the possible exception of a running joke involving donkey carts which quickly overstays its welcome… though it does, eventually, have an excellent payoff.

PS – Rincewind would get a second game: the excellently titled “Discworld II: Missing Presumed..?”, in which he set out to restore Death to his rightful place; Death having disappeared and so ceased to carry out his duties, leaving a lot of grumpy undead in his wake.

Discworld II addressed the issues of extreme difficulty that plagued the first game, and gave the player a considerably wider-ranging variety of locales to visit, offering a whistle-stop tour of some of the Disc’s more famous neighbourhoods. It also moved to higher-resolution, cartoon-style graphics, somewhat evoking the style of Lucasarts’ Curse of Monkey Island – or rather the other way around, with Discworld II predating that game by a year.

The trade-off for the sharper graphics and wider range of environments appears to have been a shrinking of the game, with the end in particular feeling rushed, but Discworld II was a worthy sequel, and is well worth of chasing down. Similar to the first Discworld, the PC version is fully compatible with ScummVM.

There was also a third Discworld game made – Discworld Noir – but it’s more of a curio; much darker (literally as well as figuratively) than the first two games, and starring a character invented for the game, it’s enjoyable enough but a lot less Discworld-y than the previous games. It’s also nigh-on impossible to play on a modern PC, and the Playstation conversion was… not great, so you might want to give it a miss.