If history is written by the victors, then games are written by and for the heroes, the fated ones of destiny. Unfortunately, adventurers are…pretty much the worst.
Imagine your typical hero: we’ll call her Victoria in honor of her many victories. She breezes into town on her horse, knocking over only a few peasants on the way—what a marvel of grace and compassion! A quest giver is waiting for her. He salutes her gravely. “Victoria, I have long heard of your many deeds and great—”
“Yeah, absolutely,” she returns quickly, then returns to chatting with the other members of her party.
“And now great danger has come upon us. You, Victoria, are the only one who can—”
“Yup, yup, go somewhere, kill someone—you’ve got a map? And gold, right?”
“Yes, I have gold, but the honor—”
“Fantastic. I’m totally on it.”
The poor fellow may try a little longer, but she continues to blow him off, and then she approaches the local merchant, pulling out a rucksack that smells like zombie vomit. “Hey, I’ve got these rotting bear livers and a rusty sword pommel and these filthy ooze—what will you give me for them?”
The merchant, wrinkling her nose, concludes rightly that Victoria is a psychopath and offers her seventy-five copper for the privilege of putting these items in the trash where they belong. Delighted, Victoria buys a few potions—haggling the merchant down, of course. Do they know who she is? And then she leaves town, causing everyone to breathe a sigh of relief.
It’s easy to see there are more stories than Victoria’s here—maybe even more interesting stories. And thanks to fun indie games like Message Quest and Shoppe Keep, we get to peek behind the veil of the hero’s story to find out what, exactly, is going on for the unfortunate quest giver and merchant.
Message Quest, a point-and-click adventure, is one of those games that feels perfectly proportioned. It’s a modest, but clever, idea: the journey of the lazy herald who has to find a hero to save his land, but would really, really rather be having a snack and a nap. It’s beautifully animated with a stained-glass aesthetic, and the puzzles have just enough to them to feel like you’re actually doing something, but not so much as to stall the flow of the charmingly humorous story beneath.
Feste, the only herald left in the guild, has slept through every lesson—how can he deliver the message to the hero who must save his land? He can’t even remember the difference between addressor and addressee as he tries to deliver his literal call to adventure! The ensuing plot, in which Feste must find the hero within, is predictable to…well, anyone who’s ever seen a Pixar movie, but that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable, and the conceits of battling laziness are well executed.
It’s a wonderful example of turning a classic fantasy trope on its head.
Shoppe Keep, released in May 2016, takes another classic staple of the fantasy genre, the merchant, and explores it with an in-depth management sim. It’s a visually ugly game, there’s no getting around that. It’s designed with Unity Personal, which always feels a little bit like being shown a picture drawn by someone else’s child.
But while the visuals are uninspired and controls take a little getting used to, the rhythm of the game is marvelous once you get the hang of it. Not only do you have to manage the basics of sweeping up the mud those inconsiderate adventurers track in and restocking your potions, swords, and so forth, but the adventurers are also perfectly willing to shoplift.
“Maybe I shouldn’t of done that…” the dolts exclaim as they snatch my fine health potions, leather gloves, or other merchandise (and while that’s probably a typo, it’s so exactly what I imagine a boneheaded, larcenous adventurer as actually saying that I’m totally on board with it).
Delightfully, you can kill them for that and take back your merchandise and, as long as you sweep up their dead bodies, it doesn’t detract from your shop’s appeal. In fact, as I discovered on one unfortunate pursuit, it doesn’t even detract from your shop’s appeal if you accidentally kill multiple innocent bystanders while chasing a shoplifter.
Over time you can order better and more specialized merchandise to appeal to warriors, wizards, druids, et cetera. There’s also a crafting system, and you can unlock a champion who will go on quests to fetch you rare and valuable merchandise. You can also chat up visitors to your shop to see if they have anything interesting on them, and the depth of skills and progression make it a management sim that manages the remarkable feat of feeling more sophisticated than a lot of the traditional adventures that have made the “adventure shop” trope so familiar.
We all want to be the hero, able to knock over peasants and foist rotting bear guts on unhappy shopkeepers with impunity. But it’s also fun to look beyond the adventurer and see what else is going on in the fantasy stories we all know so well. I can tell you there’s at least one terrifying shopkeeper out there with a very bloody broom.