Twenty-five years ago Electronic Arts released the best video game I ever played.
Picking up right after the original The Bard’s Tale — and completely ignoring the tedious sequel, BT2: The Destiny Knight, which was designed under the theory that if the first game was good, the same game a thousand times longer is great — the CRPG Bard’s Tale III: The Thief of Fate offered a number of innovations, including better graphics, automapping, advanced character classes (meaning you had to reach a certain level before you could unlock them), and most of all, an incredible story.
The first BT ended with the destruction of the evil wizard Mangar, servant of the Mad God Tarjan and scourge of the city of Skara Brae. BT3 opened with Skara Brae atomized by Mangar’s vengeful deity. Gone were the shops and taverns; home base became a campsite among the ruins. After conquering the starter dungeon (you could import characters from previous BT games or start with a fresh crew, in which case the starter dungeon would bring them up to speed — I chose a middle road, importing my BT2 team but replacing weak links) and its boss, the Tarjan lackey Brilhasti ap Tarj, you launched across the dimensions in a quest for the assorted mystical thingamajigs necessary to take down the Mad God.
It immediately became clear, however, that your band wasn’t just traveling across space but time as well, and like the Doctor and River Song, you ended up crossing chronologies by encountering total strangers who had met you before or landing in places long after key events had occurred. Upon escaping his magical prison, Tarjan went on a rage bender across the universe slaughtering the gods who had shackled him, and gradually you pieced together the events that led to Tarjan’s release. Spoiler: one of the gods broke a celestial law against creating new life. Double spoiler: it was a blacksmith god who inadvertently made a robot. The robot — who, IIRC, was depicted as a cross between The Thinker and Hamlet, sitting in Alas-Poor-Yorick contemplation of a skull — was hunted by the gods and their minions to rectify this crime of existence but, being more human than human, ultimately helped you on your mission. There was a forest world and an ice world and even a war world, which was actually a schizophrenic tour through besieged Troy, World War II Berlin, and other earthly hellholes. And if you persevered and killed Tarjan, your party ascended to divinity, becoming a new pantheon to replace the corpses you spent all game stepping over.
But this twisty narrative with its unexpected commentary on mankind’s condition was only half the experience.
The summer of 1988 was the summer between my junior and senior years of high school. Usually I hated summertime; my friends went away to relatively glamorous lifeguarding or sandwich-joint jobs down the shore while I was stuck working in the back of the local grocery store or toiling with my old man on the weekends. Unlike, I think, many people who turned misty-eyed at graduation, I chafed at the bit to start life. My hometown was like a waiting room in some municipal building: empty, bland, offering little excitement beyond a few worn and outdated magazines laying on a shaky end table. It was the summer at the boarding gate: still waiting like I had waited every other summer — for friends to return, for a thunderstorm to break the heat, for anything — but knowing that a big change in environment was about to occur. Dumb, cocksure, naive, I had no idea of where I was going or what was needed to arrive there. But it was the first summer I remember where things were beginning to happen.
My besties, Bart and Chris, didn’t disappear that summer. They were also Bard’s Tale fans and when the third title was released, we hit the stores. Bart bought it for his Apple while Chris and I, both Commodore-64 players, pooled our funds to purchase a copy, which Chris ripped for me (the game came with no write-protection, supposedly to make it run faster, but was instead packaged with a special code wheel needed to answer prompts during gameplay; said wheel was immediately dismantled, photocopied, and reassembled). Soon a race developed where the three of us, playing on our own between shifts at various minimum-wage jobs, would meet in the woods at the end of my street, today as flattened as Skara Brae. There we would smoke cigarettes and discuss our individual progressions, offering our theories on the story, trying to unriddle the convoluted timey-wimey plot. What do you think about this? Can you believe that? Got a light?
I don’t recall who finished the game first and certainly I know none of us cared. But I remember that feeling as we each dungeoneered and puzzled our way to Tarjan’s stronghold, the excitement mounting as we stood on the edge, the planes of the multiverse unfolding before us.