Ruts vs. Battlespire: In Conclusion

By Rutskarn Posted Tuesday Nov 8, 2016

Filed under: Lets Play 63 comments

The Battlespire experience is bafflement and molar-popping frustration, but you already know that. I’ve been mining these experiences for comedy for thirty-three posts now. You already know exactly how I feel about the game. What you don’t know, because I haven’t made room to talk about it, is what I actually think about it.

So let’s talk about that. Let me begin by sharing this excerpt from the final pages of the Battlespire manual.

“Julian is fond of paraphrasing one of our mutual heroes, Sandy Petersen (designer-developer of Call of Cthulhu, Runequest, Doom, and other light classics), to the effect that the best computer role-playing game experience is far less fun than the weakest pen-and-paper roleplaying game session. Julian has also stated as his Lofty Aim the creation of a computer role-playing game experience as satisfying as a pen-and-paper roleplaying game session. Julian, of course, is mad as a loon, but it is a fine and admirable madness.

Is Battlespire as much fun as a pen-and-paper roleplaying session?

Well, we’ve got your basic persistent power-hungry player characters, and your sprawling, exotic campaign setting, and convoluted plots and quests, and handsome, amazing, otherworldly architecture and landscapes, and perky dialog with obnoxious monsters, and cartloads of magic items, and lots of bad creatures and weapons to whack them with, and heroic high fantasy themes, and overconfident, grasping supervillains with sinister deathtraps, and acres and acres of dark, nasty places to poke around in like rats looking for cheese. All this stimulating, immersive activity takes place in gorgeous environments lovingly crafted by obsessive, sensitive artists in startling THREE-DEE!

Does it get any better than this?

Actually, with the advent of multiplayer gameplay in Battlespire, you also get to accidentally roast those front-line clowns in the tin suits with a fountain of fireballs. Even better, you get to play as competing gangs of Heroic War Wizards who DELIBERATELY roast the meat off their little pals.

So, maybe we’re getting there. Someday soon, when cheap and universally available technology lets us triumphantly shout at our friends as we roast the meat off them, THEN we’ll be able to smugly turn to Sandy and say, ‘Oh, yeah? Sez who?’

In the meantime, we’ll see you on the Net. Wear your asbestos skivvies.”

More than all the backstory, instructions, troubleshooting, and tips, this is the part of Battlespire’s manual that helps you understand it. You can take or leave the Excelsior-styled banter that didn’t quite outlive the 90s, you can certainly take issue with its assessment of the game’s quality, but you can’t deny this is a passionate and meaningful expression of who the developers are and what they want out of gaming. Your mind’s eye dilates when you read it. You take in the pizza boxes, the stack of crusty Manowar CDs, the blobby pewter barbarians rendered by people who didn’t have an internet to teach them how to thin their paints or work with washes. They’re gamers, but there’s not enough of them to call it that. The Golden Age came and went before they came into their own. As 80s and 90s geeks, they’ve set out into the fallout of the Satantic Panic and inherited gaming’s mysterious tools and twilit rituals as eager ash-streaked cavemen. They’ve had to figure a lot of things out themselves, and they’ve learned to play the game their way. Everything about their house rules and campaign styles and narratives are native to their group. How could it be otherwise?

This group is, as far as any of them are concerned, Dungeons and Dragons. And by the same token, their group is Battlespire.

We take for granted how much we expect today’s designers to work iteratively. The community-building capabilities of the internet and the increasing outflow of new games creates a complex intercourse of demographic expectations, mechanical innovation, marketing, and genre that can’t help but be on a designer’s mind. You know what gamers exists out there, you know what they want, and you know what games have most successfully given it to them. And regardless of how avant-garde they care to be, every developer ends up expressing what they’re making in terms of what it is like–whether it draws from the success of Rogue or Skyrim or Ultima or Minecraft.

In today’s climate, deciding to make a game based on how your group likes to play a pen-and-paper game would be a bold and conscious decision. It wouldn’t be the default.

So of course Battlespire‘s earnestly epic fantasy is punctured by comic relief and colloquial snarking and the occasional dumb reference, because six sweaty teens sitting down to play Dungeons and Dragons feel awkward asking each other to take their own narrative too seriously. And of course the women are luridly appointed bosom candy, because that’s what these guys see on all of their paperbacks and movie posters and ninety percent of storytelling, particularly for a journeyman, is recitation. And of course the magic effects are opaque and the story is a buried root network, because that’s how they roll at the table and there’s no stack of market research to tell them people would rather know what they’re doing. Some of it could have been done better, some of it shouldn’t have been done at all, but anyone can see where it came from.

I don’t like Battlespire very much. Out of the forty hours I spent playing it, the time I spent sincerely enjoying it can be measured in minutes. But I don’t hate it, either, because I can’t hate the guys who made it. If it’s dumb, it comes by it honestly. If it’s aggravating, it’s doing it to be fun. If it’s buggy and busted and broken–well, that’s not exactly unique. We can’t always ship the game we want to ship. At least they were making the game they wanted to play.

“A fine and admirable madness.” I don’t hate how that sounds.



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63 thoughts on “Ruts vs. Battlespire: In Conclusion

  1. Rutskarn says:

    I’ll take your questions here.

    1. How scared shitless where you that you’d run into a game breaking bug that either hosed your save game (and would you take the time to replay it all again?), or worse the game just hate your PC and refuse to go further (which you’d realize on your 2nd playthrough with new savegames). Did you have a backup plan? (like get saves from the net that where hopefully past that point? Or just throw up your hands and give up?

    2. Da Mage says:

      Is it possible to point to one, just one, design flaw that caused the most grief in your playthrough, and explain why you think it was that way (aka broken), and how you would have designed it differently.

      Obviously looking for game design problems, not technical ones.

    3. The Right Trousers says:

      How will you torture yourself publicly for our amusement and enlightenment next?

      1. Daemian Lucifer says:

        He will be living in the usa for the next 4 years.

        1. Andrew Blank says:

          I take it that means Trump won?

        2. tmtvl says:

          Where salt prices are crashing as supply rapidly reaches stratospheric levels. Anyway, this is Shamus’ blog, so let’s not talk politics.

          1. Shamus says:

            Hey, hopefully we can sort this out without resorting to politics, but on Twitter you accused (joked?) that I was “salt mining”. I don’t get this idiom. Can you elaborate?

            1. Ninety-Three says:

              To be salty is slang for being bitter about something, just “salt” refers to bitterness in general.

              1. Shamus says:

                I get that, but I don’t get “salt mining”. Is that expressing bitterness yourself, or engendering bitterness in others?

                1. Raygereio says:

                  Basically it’s reveling in other people’s bitterness/sorrow.
                  For example posting things that you know will get a “salty” reaction. Or collecting “salty” reactions from various fora, twitterfeeds, etc, and posting them somewhere for your side to point and laugh at.

                  1. Shamus says:


                    Well then to answer TMTV in more than 140 characters:

                    I certainly wasn’t REVELING in anyone’s misery. I had a lot of people in my feed talking about being angry, afraid, and powerless. People were sharing crisis hotlines and such. I was honestly telling people they were going to be all right. (Remember that regardless of party or the makeup of congress, the president is never as extreme as the candidate.) Anyway. It’s fine if people think I’m wrong, but it was important that they understand I wasn’t MOCKING them. I’d rather be wrong than cruel.

                    Sorry for stepping into politics. Let’s go back to vidja gaems.

            2. Daemian Lucifer says:

              Really?You??Out of all people you are the most calm one about the result.

              1. djw says:

                Well he’s not wrong. Life might get worse, or it might get better, but freaking out about it isn’t going to do anybody any good.

    4. Narkis says:

      What kept you going in the long, tortured, glitchy nights you have endured?

    5. Ander says:

      How was the Battlespire team related to the ones that made the main series entries? I assume the next would have been Morrowind.

      1. TMC_Sherpa says:

        Most of them were gone by the time Morrowind came out. Battlespire and Redguard dang near killed the studio.

        All Your History did a series about Bethesda which I quite enjoyed. Here is the first one

          1. TMC_Sherpa says:

            No problem :)

            I just rewatched and while I feel like the information, on a whole, is interesting it does feel like it was written by the head of the Todd Howard fan club.

        1. Da Mage says:

          It’s how Todd Howard got promoted up the ranks so quickly, from game tester on Arena to Lead Designer for Morrowind.

          Morrowind really was the company’s last rolls of the dice, if it had flopped, then I’m pretty sure the company would have been closed as a failed acquisition.

    6. Neko says:

      If you were brought in to lead this project, saw it in its current state, and had six months before it had to be released, how would you fix it? Or how would you mitigate the worst bits?

    7. Stormthehouse says:

      Do you think if this game was made recently, nothing changed at all, that you would feel less kindly towards the game because many of it’s problems should have been non-existent with modern methods and tech, or more kindly since it would be something even more genuine in what it wanted to be?

    8. Ninety-Three says:

      What is the point at which you realized that this game was no longer an intermission between Bloodbowl and X-COM, and had become your personal Everest?

      1. m0j0l says:

        Does that mean Ruts is doing XCOM next? squeeee

        Which version?

        1. Daemian Lucifer says:

          Half life 3 confirmed!

    9. Chauzuvoy says:

      What’s your take on the goal they had for Battlespire? Is trying to make a computer RPG fun in the same way as a tabletop RPG possible and worthwhile?

    10. Mephane says:

      What is the maximum speed of an unladen swallow?

      1. Daemian Lucifer says:

        In the air or on the ground?

      2. Fade2Gray says:

        More importantly, what is the median time before said swallow becomes trapped on a corner of the geometry somewhere?

        1. LCF says:

          Can the swallow reload from a save?

      3. Blackbird71 says:

        I can’t believe no one has done this yet; I suppose that having noticed, I am now obligated to do so (*sigh*):

        “African, or European?”

    11. Which bits did you enjoy? Is there anything to take from Battlespire other than, “This is how NOT to do it.”?

    12. Raygereio says:

      Any thoughts about Battlespire’s multiplayer?

    13. Daemian Lucifer says:

      When will you finish shogun 2?

      1. Rodyle says:

        That wasn’t Rutskarn.

        1. LCF says:

          Can Rutskarn finish the Shogun2 campaign?

        2. 4th Dimension says:

          That’s the joke

    14. ehlijen says:

      Did our intrepid student graduate from the Battlemage Academy? Was there a fancy diploma? Is he now a certified world saver? What job prospects does this offer in the current market? Or will he have to sell all the magic weapons and retire on that money?
      Is he still staying in touch with his love, the spider demon?

      1. Sunshine says:

        Also, what finally happened to Vatasha Trenelle, given that finding her was one of the main planks of the plot?

        1. Majikkani_Hand says:

          She went back to her day job making artisanal cupcakes.

    15. Halceon says:

      Will the next game you write about have facial expressions that come even remotely close to the artistry in this one?

    16. Christopher says:

      It’s kinda nice that they had a sense of humor in their dialogue, right? Skyrim was completely dry.

    17. Ander says:

      What happened in those minutes you enjoyed? Chargen?

    18. If you had to remake this game into one that’s fun and not an ant colony of bugs, what would you keep from the original? (Normally I’d ask what you’d remove, but I suspect with this one, the keep list is shorter.)

    19. Syal says:

      Do you think the other Bethesda games are less buggy? Is it because the programmers got better at programming, or are Battlespire’s mechanics more ambitious than the other games? I don’t think the others had platforming puzzles, anything else?

      Like, do the enemies get stuck on stuff so often because they move more here than in other games, or because there are tighter spaces with more walls, or because Bethesda didn’t know how to make solid objects yet?

    20. Jarenth says:

      Did you ever figure out that equipment bug?

    21. Tektotherriggen says:

      If Battlespire were remade in a modern engine – fixing the bugs, upgrading the graphics and making a decent interface (e.g. for the inventory) – while keeping an identical script, story, visual design, combat system and gameplay (e.g. jumping works, but there are still a lot of jumping puzzles), would it be a good game? Or is it fundamentally flawed beyond the limitations of age and programmer skill?

    22. evileeyore says:

      How close did you come to resorting to using either alcohol or drugs to get you through a play session (or to recover from one after)?

  2. Munkki says:


  3. Da Mage says:

    While I’ve never played it myself, I feel there is some interesting ideas in Battlespire, though poorly implemented. I really like the idea of a survival RPG, where there are no shops to sell loot at, so you only pick up things that you will will use. Old stuff gets discarded as you get deeper into the game and replace it with better gear. I have no idea if that would be ‘fun’, but I like the idea, I’ve seen it in some roguelikes, but never in a 3D adventure game.

    1. James Porter says:

      Have you heard of the pre-Dark Souls From first person-rpg called Shadow Tower? It sounds a lot like what you described. The game has this super weird system where you fix weapons and armor at the cost of health, and health potions are super rare. You start with one sword, and it doesn’t last very long. You have to basically trade up until you have an assortment of kinda broken swords, up until the mid-game where you reach Morrowind levels of overpowered. Also the leveling is like Morrowind, except instead of lamarckian evolution, its the Pokemon EV system, where enemies have skillpoints in them.

      If anyone is curious, these guys did a deep dive into talking about the whole game and its sequel, Shadow Tower Abyss.

    2. Adrian says:

      Ultima Underworld did the “survival RPG” thing first and I still think it’s a better, more functional game. It’s pretty clear that Bethesdat looked at Underworld and thought they could do better if not as well.

      1. Raygereio says:

        I don’t know. I never played Ultima Underworld so maybe I’m missing some link, but I think it’s more likely both drew from the same source material: PnP dungeon crawls.

        I mean I look at Battlespire and could totally see it being a TSR published module.

    3. Daemian Lucifer says:

      Check out legend of grimrock 1 and 2 then.All throughout this series I kept being reminded of how those games do it better than battlespire.

      In both,you get to start with 4 naked people,and you have to scrounge for clothes,armor,weapons,spells and food that will help you survive and triumph.Definitely worth playing.

  4. Cybron says:

    Well ended.

  5. Ninety-Three says:

    This entire conclusion article was very well-done.

  6. Leocruta says:

    My opinion of the entire game has been retroactively improved. Well done.

    Not enough to make me want to play it, of course, no matter how noble their cause.

    (and I cannot recall pen-and-paper having quite so cumbersome an inventory system.)

  7. Daemian Lucifer says:

    But I don't hate it, either, because I can't hate the guys who made it. If it's dumb, it comes by it honestly. If it's aggravating, it's doing it to be fun. If it's buggy and busted and broken”“well, that's not exactly unique. We can't always ship the game we want to ship. At least they were making the game they wanted to play.

    That doesnt follow.I love blizzard,but I hate world of warcraft because of the shift it brought to their games.Your feelings towards the author dont have to be reflect your feelings towards the work,and vice versa.The two can be connected,colored by one another,but not necessarily equal.

    Also,just because someone was passionate about a project does not mean the project should automatically be judged more positively.Lucas was passionate about the prequel saga.Spielberg made the ending to ai because of his love and respect for Kubrick.Julia did street fighter because of his love for his kids.Their love and passion dont change the quality of said movies.

    1. ehlijen says:

      I think you are using different understandings of the word hate (dislike vs despise).

  8. Yurika Grant says:

    “At least they were making the game they wanted to play.”

    Now look at Fallout 4 and… yeah, it’s clear they’re no longer making the games they want to play. Sad to see. I suppose when you think about how Morrowind basically only turned out like it did because they thought it would be their last ever game and just went all-out on it… that game was pretty much their swan song. They didn’t end up failing and continued making games, but it feels like the heart was no longer in it from that point forward.

    1. Da Mage says:

      It feels once a company is large enough to need a management layer it loses something in its creativity.

    2. Shoeboxjeddy says:

      You’re assuming the “they” of the developers is the same for Battlespire and Fallout 4. That’s silly. I presume the current Bethesda loves shooting and Minecrafting just as much as the original liked D&D and chainmail bikinis.

  9. Dmatix says:

    This was a thoroughly entertaining read, Sir Ruts. Kudos to you for finishing this game- I’d say I wish that you next game would be more enjoyable, but frankly? Watching you suffer through this was so great that I kinda hope it’s another one like this.

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