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I Shot the Sheriff: A Diary of Robin Hood

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The Adventures of Robin Hood is a curious little open world adventure game from Millennium. Following my retrospective of it, I thought a diary would be in order. So, away we go!

Day One

Day was going well, until my peasants stopped merrily dancing for my amusement and fled as the evil Sheriff of Nottingham chucked me out of my own castle.

I immediately took drastic action.

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The Adventures of Robin Hood

This post was made possible by my backers on Patreon. Thank you! Backers currently get access to all funded posts one week early. This is a first for me, so please bear with me while I figure out how it’s all going to work. You can back me here.


Still less wooden than Costner.

“Explain why Robin Hood is one of the most enduring European legends, yet most of the Western world is vehemently opposed to communism.”

Thus asked a friend of me in school, and I reply: “Because Robin Hood was a bumbling cretin who robbed a minstrel, drank nine pints of ale, then accidentally shot Maid Marian and got built into a wall.”

Your confusion indicates that you have not played Millennium Interactive’s adventure game, The Adventures of Robin Hood.


Exposition Jim had a problem, and everybody knew it.

Released in 1991 on the PC and Amiga (identical, but the latter version, as usual, has better sound. Less usually, the difference here isn’t vast), it was, like almost all games I played on the Amiga, pirated, and thus there was no manual. I’ve no idea to this day whether the manual gave much away. I hope it didn’t, because figuring out all the hidden secrets of this game was half the fun. The other half is, quite simply, playing with it, in the traditional, much-neglected sense of simply mucking around. It’s a non-linear adventure with RPG elements and AI teammates. That’s a hell of a lot of design to cram onto a single floppy disk.

You are Robin of Loxley castle, and you begin by cavorting with your happy people in a merry courtyard dance. No, really. It’s a nice little tune. Then the sheriff pops up, accompanied by armed guards, and introduces himself. He claims he’s the rightful owner of the castle, and demands that you leave. You refuse, of course, and in a genuinely funny moment, all your people abandon you. They just plain walk away. No conniving uprising while you’re away on a crusade here. No defiant, roaring Brian Blessed nor Alan Rickman drawling a sinister ultimatum. The great folk hero loses everything when some dude just strolls in and tells him to piss off. And he does.


True companions.

“Norman swine!”, shouts Robin, once the guards are safely out of earshot, “You’ve not seen the last of me!”. Then he walks out of the castle and sits on the grass. And that’s his plan. To sit there, in plain sight of his usurpers, moping.

This sets the tone, and reveals a defining feature of the game: its sense of humour. It’s a great aversion of the usual pattern, of the mewling, useless peasants waiting and begging for the Heroic Hero to save them. Here, Robin is a dumbass and the people are cowardly, venal, needlessly sarcastic gits. The only thing they do faster than fleeing or betraying you is slagging you off, shouting abuse at the very sight of you. It’s hard not to root for the Sheriff a little.

You control Robin directly by clicking on arrows (or keyboard shortcuts, which make it more natural and comfortable than you’d think) or directly on the map, and less directly via a string of icons, in typical adventure game fashion. Rather than a string of static screens, the world is cut up into more granular isometric squares that scroll relative to you, giving a stronger feeling of control. There are secret items too, which open up extra abilities ranging from convenient to game-altering, and you’d be ruining the fun if you used the internet to find them.


There’s room for 7 graves. It should be enough, but, well.

It’s pleasant on the senses, despite the jerky animations, with limited but satisfactory sound effects, and occasional event music, such as for the druid who tends a shrine to Herne the Hunter (which doubles as the place for NPCs to enter the world, replacing the dead) and gives out cryptic advice to a curiously disturbing tune. Character models are tiny but distinctive, and go about their routines in a way that puts many later games to shame. Even Robin himself might get into a micro-adventure all on his own if you sit back and relax.

Villagers hunt and forage, guards patrol and chase criminals. The sheriff will occasionally pop out to outlaw something, unless you’ve murdered the guards, at which point he’ll complain about how unreliable they are. The monks will gradually build an entire monastery, stopping only to collect and bury bodies, complete with a funeral service and hymn (“Ashes to ashes, mumble to mumble”). Once or twice, I’ve been captured by a Norman after a prolonged chase, only for him to lie down and die of exhaustion. Better still are the beggars (ordinary villagers with no money – possibly because you robbed them) who gladly accept your charity, then walk around in a circle, sit down, and continue begging. In another game I’d call this a bug.


Our hero.

So why should you help these jerks? Well, fine. Don’t, then. Become a villain instead, robbing and killing and harassing the villagers, guards, and clergy alike. There’s no reason you can’t suck up to the guards, or the sheriff – do it while he’s trying to issue a proclamation for maximum passive-aggressiveness. Or you could wander into the inn for a lovely pint, or try to befriend a deer and watch as Robin runs after them like an eejit, eager to be within earshot for any sign of a response. It could easily be retitled “Robin makes a complete div of himself”, and it pulls this off without raising ire – the people are too funny and Robin too lovably gormless. If he’s not being bullied by the Norman guards or shouting “There is a smell of burning in the air” while staring directly at a bonfire, he’s being threatened by his own merry men, or having robberies thwarted when a victim simply runs away.


The only villainous thing the Sheriff actually does.

Disappointingly, swordfights aren’t much use. The villains are at least as strong as you, so your health will usually give out first unless they’re already exhausted from other fights. That only happens if they’ve just killed one of your merry men, so your main option is to assassinate people with the bow and peg it. Your men can’t do that, so their excursions – you can order them to rob and kill and donate – will often end in either death or capture, which means swift execution unless you happen to be nearby. It means there’s not much use to the ‘attack’ icon, but it does, on balance, contribute to the sense that Robin is less a dashing hero than a bungling, faintly Clouseau-esque figure of fun.


Each season brings new graphics and minute changes to AI.

Naturally, your goal is to kill the sheriff and retake the castle, which it’s possible to do in about 5 minutes by shooting him and sprinting inside before the guards realise what’s happened (there’s often a deadpan pause for a moment when you do something unexpected. Considering how little is scripted, it has remarkable comic timing). Some might complain that they can “beat” the game (urgh, how have we allowed that dreadful phrase to take over?) so soon, but more fool them for trying to win at Lego.

Besides, there’s another step first, unless you want the bad ending, of which there are several. Or more precisely, multiple small variations on two endings, decided based on what friends you’ve made, and where you stand on one of three character scales the game tracks. The other two are mostly for flavour, such as Optimism v Pessimism determining whether an idling Robin will wander off for some target practice, or sit around wailing “Oh woe is me!”. NPCs also have stats, which determine how they treat you (near universal contempt to start with).


Aelfstan the druid is metal. He scared me as a child.

This isn’t a game for winning, it’s a game to be poked around with. It’s a sandbox, really, from long before the concept had a name. And a roguelike too, thanks to the PC version’s save system. It’s playable today via dosbox, although apparently not on sale. If there’s an obstacle it’s the simple animation and sometimes slow pace, and a lack of scripted events after the first few seasons, but those are petty complaints. The Adventures of Robin Hood is a small, simple game brimming with detail and lively, imaginative humour that’s aged far better than its humble production values suggest.


Smooth like brick.

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Just the Way I’m Feline – The Cat Lady

The Cat Lady opens with a woman deliberately ending her own life. It’s a violent and disturbing story about depression, suicide, suffering, and terrible violence.

It’s also a heartfelt and touching story about trust, hope, and friendship. But if you’re in a position where morbid and powerfully emotional stories about death, loss and despair could have an adverse affect on you, it could be a very rough ride.


‘sup.

Back in 1992, there was a game on the Amiga called Dreamweb. A point and click adventure game set in the near future, you played as a man plagued by vivid and disturbing nightmares, which wreck his emotional state and eventually have him convinced that he has to murder seven people to save the world. It was momentarily notorious for showing almost several pixels of sexual activity between two pink creatures, one or more of which may have been a human. It seems quite ridiculous now to think that it caused a minor media stir. After all, today we think little of games depicting graphic murder, and interrupting some frankly workmanlike sex in order to shoot a dude while he clutches a pillow over his tackle seems fairly pedestrian. The game over screen was pretty great, though.

But that’s an aside. My real issue with Dreamweb is that it wasted its potential. An emotionally disturbed man who comes to believe he must murder seven people to save humanity? Who regularly hallucinates, and abuses the trust of people he loves to get closer to his targets? Who despite everything, can never be sure whether he really is the saviour of humankind, or just severely ill?

Well, no. Dreamweb almost immediately made it clear that yes, it’s all real. And you use your girlfriend to get close to one target in the same way you use key on door, and then she might as well never have existed. It was a huge waste of an opportunity.

The Cat Lady came almost 20 years later, and finally took up some of that slack. It’s Dreamweb crossed with Planescape’s deathless protagonist. Dexter via The-Crow-except-not-terrible.

I ought to state my bias here. I’ve written about my life-long depression before. I’ve contemplated suicide. Several people I love very dearly have self harmed and attempted suicide. I am not an expert on mental health, nor on suicide, but let’s maintain some semblance of order and suffice to say that any game about either subjects is one that I will observe with a particularly critical eye, but will also be prone to take very personally.

The protagonist of The Cat Lady, Susan Ashworth, wants to die. She kills herself during the game’s introduction. It pulls no punches.

But death, apparently, is no more fair than life, and no sooner has our Susan left the world of the living than she’s punted straight back into it, only now she’s immortal, and charged with killing five people before she’s allowed to die for good.

These five people are described as “Parasites”, but on hearing their introduction, anyone who’s had a close run-in with a psychopath will find their breath shortening, their pulse quickening, their muscles tensing. It is an emotionally charged game. That opening death is no mere gimmick, nor is it the last suicide you’ll see, nor the last time the threat of the Parasites will set your nerves on edge.

Structurally, TCL is very simple. It’s a work of interactive fiction presented as a fairly basic adventure game, with the player controlling Susan’s movements and actions through seven chapters, solving simple puzzles and picking sometimes-meaningless dialogue options as she goes about her day.

Thematically, well.

Well.

There are many works of fiction that rely on shock value, on borderline voyeurism, or on the simple sadism of ‘torture porn’. On the face of it, The Cat Lady is about serial killers doing awful things and the protagonist killing them. But to lump it in with the Saws and the jump scare ghost trains would do it a grave disservice. Rather, the irredeemible cruelty of these people is used to give them a real, primal sense of tangible threat, and to give a guilt-free sense of triumph when you manage to turn the tables on them. Its gore and grotesquery serve not to titillate but to induce revulsion and anger, and their constant threat and unpredictable appearances (not to mention the nonlinear narrative) aren’t just a plot hook – they also convey the subtext of intrusive thoughts. In some respects, the Parasites are a metaphor. It’s never overt or crude enough to turn them into cartoon avatars of mental illness that you can kill to cure yourself, but it’s there, a faint shadow beneath the surface.

The psychopaths in question are the Hollywood kind – transparently monstrous serial killers, cannibals, bogeymen with carefully ironed shirts. They’re the tiny minority of psychopaths who also happen to be insane sadistic murderers, not the regular, non-lethal emotional manipulators most of us will fall afoul of at some point. I confess that I was hoping to see more of the latter, but that would make it a very different game. Indeed, the opening had my head spinning with the possible directions the story could take. The setup opens up doors for Susan to become the deathseeker, the heroic serial killer, a vigilante fighting cruelty over crime, the cosmic plaything, the supernatural who might just be imagining the whole thing. That it never fully commits to any of these narratives is a double edged sword, but it does manages to bring together elements of all of them into a mostly coherent whole.

For her part, Susan is much more realistic. She doesn’t have Hollywood Depression (symptoms include being a bit sad, complaining a lot, and being an attractive young woman holding her head in her hands) nor does the game suggest her feelings could be vanquished overnight. She is severely depressed, and genuinely wants to die. The news that she’s now immortal, and later, the fact that she’s done brave and impressive things, don’t magically make everything okay. On the face of it this might seem dissonant, but to anyone familiar with depression, it’ll be all too close to home.

Then there are the Parasites-as-concept, and the paranoia their existence brings. If you’ve tangled with a psychopath, you already know that when someone gains your trust and betrays it, you question everything and everyone. Your dearest friends are suddenly cast in the light of suspicion and fear. It drives you to mistrust everyone when you need someone to reach out to the most.

Both these aspects turns the game into two stories – there’s Susan the paranoid, miserable hermit, and Susan the hero, but they’re both the same, and that’s kind of the point. It’s a horribly violent game of death and mutilation, and it’s a sweet and simple game about pain and friendship. Neither would be very interesting on its own. It’s the weird juxtaposition of the two that makes the game interesting, and also hits so painfully home. Depression isn’t consistent. It’s not the same behaviour every day. It’s smiling to hide how terrible you feel, it’s doing great things but hating yourself anyway. It’s feeling emotional equivalence between saving someone’s life and your neighbour being mean to you. It’s Michael Rosen’s Sad Book.

And that’s where TCL is truly great. Susan, openly calling herself The Cat Lady within an hour of playtime, in a scene straight out of superhero fiction, represents an immortal avatar of righteous vengeance, and at the same time, a vulnerable, lonely, desperately unhappy sufferer. She can do something wonderful, and then come home and want to die.

If you’ve been there, you’ve been there. But even if you haven’t, I can see it being pretty powerful, because the game isn’t only about her. From your first interactions, it’ll be clear that Susan’s being dragged into the world she tried to leave, and one way or another is going to have to deal with that. Just because you can’t die, doesn’t mean you can live, and by the end of the game you’ll be past merely trying to stop the Parasites, and faced with the question of what comes after they’re gone, when you’re suddenly mortal again. There’s one long scene in particular, a sudden oasis of calm and slightly dull normality in the middle of all that drama and carnage, that’s the most important scene of the game simply because it presents hope, in a form that requires no magic, superpowers, or unavailable resources.

It’s not without its problems. The story falters in the middle. The animations are crude and repetitive, and the game almost lampshades a few times, deliberately moving the camera away from the action because those animations were too complicated or expensive. A few characters sound like they’re delivering their lines by telephone, and while the voice acting works for the most part, there are a couple of performances that fall woefully short, and even the good ones falter, often at the moments that should be the most dramatic.

I don’t blame the actors, who with one big exception do a decent job – it seems like a simple budget constraint more than anything. In fact, that’s characteristic of most of my complaints about the game. It’s clearly constrained by available resources. There are also scenes and characters who are unconvincing or a little too ambiguous, with one of the Parasites in particular making little sense, and meeting a very dissatisfying end, and some characters’ reactions to events left a lot to be desired. It’s a real test your suspension of disbelief.

Its weird art style sits uncomfortably at first, and its music sometimes feels a tad too dissonant – notably the sudden lyrical pieces, which frankly were a mistake. It shifts abruptly when scripts are triggered, which is most jarring during dramatic scenes. Nonetheless, it achieves a lot with what little it does have available. Both sound and graphics come into their own in establishing the tone, and Susan’s present state of mind, with her monochrome flat a stark contrast to the vivid colours seen when fighting the Parasites, and most of her time at home accompanied by rain on the windows, interspersed with angsty whinge rock and the unwelcome intrusions of telephones and too-loud knocks on the door.

It goes without saying that The Cat Lady isn’t a game for everyone, and may even be divisive among people who’d be interested in its subject matter. Its impact hinges on few characters and sometimes shakey performances, and its inconsistencies and rough edges might be too much for some to swallow. I could definitely understand if either puts you off, but even if I’d given up after the first hour, I’d still rank it as one of the most memorable and emotionally affecting games I’ve ever played.

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