I suck at RPGs. There, I said it. And I’m putting that point right up front because as a gamer who loves playing games steeped in lore with diverse gameplay styles, big decisions are not my forte. Or, more accurately, decisions that adequately account for the potential consequences. Just ask Tarryn about my impulsive choices in Man of Medan that lost us half our cast because I just couldn’t keep focused on keeping one character alive while I was so obsessed with the others [Gareth is the worst. – Ed]. It didn’t end well, obviously, but the narrative flexibility and dynamics in RPGs trip me up every time because I fail to consider all the variables. This is important, and I ‘ll get back to it later.
Greedfall puts you into the boots of De Sardet, newly appointed legate to the recently discovered Teer Fradee, a large, isolated island, lush and rich with resources ripe for the picking. But as legate, your job is not (just) to go and grab what you can while the going is good. Instead, your primary mission is to find a cure to the Malichor, a disease that has spread throughout most of the known civilised world. It kills slowly, with visible signs of the disease on various characters you meet throughout the game like nausea (I almost constantly heard people throwing up in some of the small cities on the island), blindness, and gross skin blemishes. Something that never really made sense to me was why all the mainlanders were so convinced that Teer Fradee would present a cure, but the narrative pushes this from the very beginning, so… I guess we’re off to colonise.
And I do mean colonise. There are native people on the island, but by the time our protagonist get there, there are already established colony cities and towns all over the place, mostly governed by one of the four factions you will find in the game. And almost all the factions seem to give few to no fucks about the natives, only bothering to mention them when friction leads to loss of lives and even then the concern from the colonists is only about the lives of their fellow countrymen.
I didn’t like any of the colonists, even the faction that I belonged to. They all had an issue, for one reason or another, with all the other factions, and ALL the factions had issues with the natives. The only issue I had with the natives was their terrible accents – the voice acting was just fine most of the time, but these accents were bad and varied from person to person in the same village. Initially I thought there was a particular drawl that they were going for but by the end it’s like the voice director just said “like English, but different”. It was cringeworthy.
The factions themselves felt a bit unoriginal. The one faction was pretty much The Spanish Inquisition, complete with side quests that had you rooting out some pretty shady shit and eventually attacking and destroying a conversion camp. I was rolling my eyes at it by the end, but after some lengthy consideration I think it wasn’t really such a bad idea. Because if you’re going to write a story about colonisation, it makes sense to include markers that allow your audience to easily recognise and understand (but in my case, certainly not agree or sympathise with) the motivations of a person or group of people based on real life people or countries. This faction was every bit as horrible as I thought they would be, and it helps the story coalesce into something you can follow much easier that you would have if this was not the case. But it’s still unoriginal.
By far the most interesting aspect of the game for me was how it made me feel. I’m a white dude in Africa, and it doesn’t take much more than a casual glance in any direction to realise that I’m a part of the legacy of colonialism, and the result of centuries of atrocities that took place here in Africa (and almost everywhere else) at the hands of European invaders. Here, it’s a sensitive, half healed wound, not specifically on me, perhaps, but on the country as a whole and I’m very, VERY aware of it. And now, here’s a game that pretty much just changed the narrative of the past while leaving all the horrible things associated with it, slotted it into a new setting, and letting you decide how it plays out. Sort of, because some elements of the story just don’t give you the “do the right thing” option. And while the game acknowledges the problems of colonisation, I felt powerless in my endeavors to minimise its impact on the locals. And here I want to circle back to my earlier point about tripping up – in my attempts to keep focused on purpose and outcomes, I let quite a few things slip. People got hurt. I failed them and I felt like trash.
Voice acting and somewhat disingenuous references to history aside, however, the story itself is still good. It’s an interesting mashup of fantasy and RPG with controls that, though not as intuitive as I would have liked, come together nicely enough. Available dialogue options begin to depend heavily on your stats, combat is fun, and thanks to a dedicated pause button that lets you stop and think first, is never frustrating. If you’re into ranged combat, there are stats for guns and magic that allow you to keep your distance, but if up close and in your enemies’ intestines is more your thing, there are traps, concoctions, and melee weapons at your disposal too, and the levelling system is flexible enough to accommodate almost every play-style without compromising on character effectiveness.
Greedfall has engaged me in ways that make me feel bad, but I also felt good about how it ended and how I was a part of that. It's not a technical marvel by any means, but it has a decent story that it told in a way that hit uncomfortably close to home. I won't be playing it again, but I definitely think that it should be played.