It wasn’t until comparatively recently that I realised that the way I even discovered the adventure game genre to begin with — to say nothing of how I discovered the Discworld novel series — was thanks to one of the most gleefully awkward, obtuse and outright confounding examples of the genre ever committed to the humble hard drive.
Discworld has a well earned reputation as one of the adventure game genre’s most vexatiously puzzling entries, with solutions to its headscratchers often so far out of left field they’re arguably not playing in the same stadium. Mixing cartoon logic, Pratchett’s own biting wit and plenty of vocal talent from some of the UK’s finest comedy actors, it’s safe to say that my whole perspective of my beloved adventure game genre has been shaped and tempered by Rincewind and his escapades ever since first playing this game.
“This sodding thing hasn’t got a doorknob.”
I don’t mean to get all Goldbergs on you, but it was sort of mid-autumn-ish 1990-something, and my family had got their very first PC after years of piddling around with Amigas and Commodores and things. It was a big leap, and PCs at the time were huge purchases touted as strange and mysterious gateways to the future.
My dad got a PC magazine with a CD full of various game demos on it, because the 1990s were a strange pre-ubiquitous-internet era indeed. One of those game demos was Discworld, which we played, fell in love with and promptly ended up buying. Again, the 1990s was a strange time, insofar as some of us actually had money sometimes. Remember that?
What was pretty new to us all at the time was that the game had characters with spoken vocal dialogue in them — something we’d never seen in any other games before. Between that and the cartoony visuals, we were pretty blown away and felt like we were playing an animated movie. Discworld became a big part of our family evenings as we huddled around trying to solve the trials, tribulations and sarcastically observed hurdles befalling the hapless wizard, Rincewind.
Voiced here by Eric Idle (and occasionally by Rob Brydon impersonating Eric Idle for certain obscure lines), Rincewind is one of the earliest Discworld novel protagonists, and thus a fine fit for the franchise’s first adventure game. World-weary, cynical, largely disregarded by those around him as a ‘pencil head’ or a ‘man in a dress’ — and a poor excuse for a wizard to boot — Rincewind is nonetheless called up by the Arch-Chancellor of Unseen University to deal with a dragon that’s rampaging around the city.
While we’re discussing things I didn’t realise until later in life, the way in which you get your glowing flash of magical light, which is the cursor for all the pointing and clicking you’ll be doing, is especially ingenious. During the opening cutscene — which I’m embarrassed to admit scared me as a kid because I wasn’t aware of sordid things like hooded cultists summoning a dragon being a thing — the various plot elements playing out are watched by a housefly that’s buzzing around Ankh Morpork, the famous Discworld city.
This same fly, sweeping into Rincewind’s room as dawn breaks on a city now under the predatory eye of a big red dragon nobody knows what to do with, eventually is turned into the cursor by magic and I just… never noticed until playing through the game again with Frankie late last year. Discworld is rich with flourishes like this — ingenious means by which the lore of the world and the game mechanics can interact. As another example, Rincewind’s own inventory is very small, and the bulk of the items he swipes for puzzle solving go into The Luggage, a trunk on dozens of legs that follows him without fail.
Cleverly, this makes your game inventory an actual object in the game in and of itself, and one with its own will. Often, The Luggage will wander off across the screen when you try and click on it, and in some instances it will protect Rincewind from threats thanks to its undying loyalty. However, occasionally it also misbehaves too, and because The Luggage famously cannot be reasoned with, Rincewind himself has to outfox his own inventory trunk in order to progress.
Wandering the Big Wahoonie
Everyone who grew up during the 1980s and 1990s with gaming has a story about “the game that made me realise what games could now be” — and with its scale, its conversation system, its narrative act structure and its laugh out loud funny sense of whimsy, Discworld was that title for my family and I.
Following his discussion with the Arch-Chancellor, Rincewind’s first task in the game’s first chapter is to gather the components for a dragon detecting device. He can’t be killed in the game — even though Death himself sometimes wanders up to him if he’s doing something dangerous to offer his services — so the only thing stopping the player’s progress throughout Discworld is the fiendishness of its puzzles.
Discworld doesn’t use verbs like LucasArts games, nor any really complex or fanciful controls. A left click makes Rincewind walk somewhere, a right click makes him observe what’s in front of him and describe it to you, and a double click will either use or pick up an item in front of him, depending on what’s more appropriate.
There’s a large variety of locales, characters to talk to, items to interact with and things to keep track of even in the first act of the game. Again, because it was my first ever adventure game, I thought this was all normal as a kid. Yet when replaying the game in late 2019 with my girlfriend, I was surprised at how doggedly this game simply doesn’t want to be solved.
Somehow it’s never frustrating though. Yet back in a pre-internet era, and with no online walkthroughs to hand and all avenues of logic exhausted, I fondly remember my mum sidling up to the strategy guide book in PC shops and thumbing through the pages just enough to glean what to do next. The fiendishness was very much part of the fun back then!
Somewhere between buying a drink for a boastful man in a pub so he’ll tell you a story containing the clue you need to progress (but don’t know you need yet), and lathering a snake you found somewhere in fabric starch to create an impromptu wizard’s staff out of it, you come to realise that Discworld revels in making nonsense the norm.
Yet the love with which the game’s been put together is self evident, and even on a more recent replay, the setpieces are structured such that just when you think you’ve resolved a big plot point, something suddenly expands the world and the complexity of what’s expected of you in it. In short, going through this again late last year was a perfectly paced joy.
Adding to the variety of locations, there’s also a time travel mechanic in Discworld too, which enables Rincewind limited access to parts of Ankh Morpork the night before the dragon was summoned. To spoil the story beats this brings up would be a disservice, but it’s safe to say that many of the problems Rincewind faces in the present turn out to be stable time loops caused by his mucking about in the past.
“OHHHH, CHUCKY CHUCKY CHUCKYYYYY!!!”
Of course, the game is not without its issues. The difficult and illogical means of solving many of the puzzles definitely rubs plenty a player the wrong way to this day. On the technical side, Discworld also suffers a few strange glitches than can dampen the experience or cause crashes — and sometimes characters will needlessly say the same line of dialogue twice back to back. There are also several lines strangely unvoiced by Rincewind, spoken only in text — even if you have subtitles switched off.
Yet, flavoured with as much nostalgia as I evidently am, I still can’t help but wholeheartedly recommend the game to anyone yet to experience it. It’s just a shame it’s almost impossible to actually get a hold of, thanks to the collapse of its publisher and the general obscurity that’s befallen the title overall. Discworld does plenty to explain its deep, rich world from the books to newbies, and the dialogue is so riddled with puns and jokes that you might just overlook many of the cunning clues laced throughout it.
Much like the novels it takes so very many cues from, there’s really nothing like it, and there never will be again. Going through Discworld again with my partner, and showing her something from my childhood to fresh eyes, has been an absolute joy. Whether you replay it today or pick it up somehow for the first time, it’s well worth your attention — just remember, dragons only exist if you believe in them… and the average man on the street does believe in them. Or at least, believes in them enough to give Unseen University a big payday if he thinks Rincewind’s got rid of the bloody thing….
Frankie’s Final Fhoughts
Weird, funny and bitch-hard… it was really strange but also pretty fun looking back at the first adventure game Tony played. It’s made me get into the books as a whole too, which I’m loving. I’m excited for us to get onto Discworld II now!