Wrapping up for now, here are some points of miscellany that warrant mention, in no particular order. If this is the first article you’re seeing about DROD, know that this one is best read after Part 1 and Part 2.
Intuitively, puzzle games seem like the perfect vehicle for the “gameplay over graphics” sentiment. While the core of DROD is puzzling, it is also unmistakably driven by its story, and the architecture of its environments, in no small part, tells that story. Rather than a screenful of text about how well the level themes integrate, or how Caravel’s architects create a sense of space, or how clever it is to light rooms with 2D raytracing, presented below is a gallery. A picture paints a thousand words, they say; here, then, are four thousand.
This is, of course, a limited selection. DROD, remember, features hundreds of rooms in each game.
Around the time that Erik met Dana Dominiak, President of Webfoot Technologies, he also found Lars Kristian Aasbrenn, who ended up scoring the entirety of Webfoot DROD. Being a 1996 release, it featured a MIDI soundtrack that laid bare some truly impressive compositional chops. While Webfoot DROD is long out-of-print, the music files can still be found here, including loving audio renders from an AWE32. If you do decide to enjoy them, make sure to respect the terms provided on the page.
Architect’s Edition, the independent open source release, featured a soundtrack by Erik himself. The tracks, while not as flashy or compositionally dense as the Webfoot score, are moody, droning, and a little bit cheeky, a splendid fit for all the dungeon-delving atmosphere that 640×480 can convey. Since AE is a free download, feel free to grab it here and enjoy Erik’s delightful work by tabbing through the level editor’s room styles like some perverse jukebox.
Erik went on to score the entirety of Journey to Rooted Hold and King Dugan’s Dungeon, clearly having grown as a musician just in time to fit the headier, more story-driven bent the series blessedly took. The title screen of JtRH, however, features ominous baroque stylings from Emmett Plant, who later provided thematic tracks for The Second Sky.
Jon Sonnenberg of Travelogue showed up on The City Beneath to chilling effect. It seems absurd that analogue synthesisers would so befit a swordsman chopping up monsters, but DROD is a strange game. Dripping with atmosphere, Sonnenberg’s synth work somehow perfectly evokes the clinical precision of imperial architecture, the yawning chasms below long-forgotten caves, and the desolation of murky dungeons. Simply opening up the TCB demo and hearing the DROD arrangement of Travelogue’s Autonomy at the title screen should make this perfectly clear.
The Less Fun Bits
The heretofore gushing tone notwithstanding, DROD is not without its flaws.
Not every room in the official holds necessarily carries a satisfying difficulty, especially earlier in the series. Again, hold architecture is a craft that evolved over two decades. Whether it’s simply keeping good technique and efficiency as you slash through wave after wave of newborn roaches, or dropping trapdoors hidden under a mass of tar, there are aspects of the DROD experience that may simply frustrate. KDD’s Eight Gates of Bill are a divisive example, as it is not an archetypal DROD puzzle, but a binary combinatorics problem disguised as a room. The rules of DROD are so versatile that one may use them to implement any number of puzzle genres, but deciding whether to do so is, at the end of the day, a matter of taste and judgement. Sokoban, the PC-88 box-pushing classic, is trivial to fully implement with DROD elements, but a looser interpretation of Sokoban is what makes for an ultimately more rewarding and DROD-like experience in Homeward Ascent from The City Beneath.
The voice acting oscillates between charming, immersive performances that sell the story, and those that rapidly un-suspend disbelief, with forum members’ laptop microphones proudly displaying the full range of their creative distortion and reverb. In 2012, Rock Paper Shotgun described Gunthro and the Epic Blunder‘s voice acting as “on the school panto end of the spectrum”. This may be a harsh judgement to pass on the entirety of the voicing, but it’s apt for the worse end.
Not to end on a bitter note, let us discuss the beating heart of DROD. A community was the only reason DROD could see five (!) commercial releases and from 2005 to 2014, after a 1996 commercial flop. Enthusiastic members have contributed architecture, voicing, testing, and more, not only to the myriad user-made holds, but also to official releases, with permission, of course.
The community lives on the Caravel Forums. A great many will catch their first glimpse of the Forums when browsing Hints and Solutions. In fact, these days, now that all the releases have been played backwards and forwards, one only has to locate the appropriate room and read what’s already been posted. However, perhaps one room will really stump you that has no topic yet. Perhaps you will be ready to “uninstall the hard drive DROD is on and smash it”. Then, you might register an account, and pose your question. Quickly thereafter, you will find your relationship with the Forums growing. If they were were simply StackOverflow for the turn of the century, they wouldn’t be that interesting, but the Forums are a treasure trove of resources, art, tools, techniques, level styles, musings, holds, and much, much, more. Well over a decade strong, the Forums have encoded within their boards a history that could fill countless dusty tomes.
And, at the end of the day, if you find yourself hooked, the Caravel forums feature the only reliable source of people on the planet with whom you can discuss your strange new obsession.
There are depths to DROD that could, optimistically, be covered in a year of articles. I don’t intend to do that. In fact, I already find myself blinded by enthusiasm, going over more than is strictly necessary. Part 2 was meant to dig into the later story’s metaphysical themes, but I rightly resisted the urge to spoil too much. It’s much more rewarding to delve into all that surrounds DROD alone on a rainy evening. So, before I ruin the suspense, this is where we’ll leave things for now.
If you’re interested in picking it up, I’m a contrarian: Don’t pick up Gunthro and the Epic Blunder first. Go right for the demo of The City Beneath. I remain adamant that it’s the best introductory experience.
With that, Beethro’s Really Big Sword is yours to take up, if you so choose.
Yestin Harrison is a dilettante fascinated by anything from games to graphic design to planetary-scale distributed systems. When not performing his duties as webmaster at Rebind or kicking the site an occasional article, he's found anywhere there's a lark to chase. Reach him on the Web at ylh.io, and on twitter @yestinharrison.