This morning I want to talk about Heart of Winter – the little known and seldom played expansion pack of the first Icewind Dale game. It’s an unlikely reference point for the location design of No Truce With The Furies’ district of Martinaise.
Why? Because of Lonelywood, Heart of Winter’s central hub. It’s the best late game standalone village I’ve ever played. Late game what? Yeah, you know – like Umar Hills in Baldur’s Gate 2, Dyrford in Pillars of Eternity, Tuchanka in Mass Effect 2, or even the (not equally well executed) Curst in Planescape: Torment.
The late game standalone village is a sweet spot for 10+ level characters. A moments respite, usually a backwater. This allows the story to reboot on a smaller scale. Both the “late game” and “standalone” parts make the village a perfect vertical slice for the main game. It also means they’re in development longer, which gives them extra polish time. The writing tightens up, minor characters become more detailed. Developers like to show these locations to journalists – to avoid spoilers the local mystery is connected to the main story in an easygoing, slightly tangential way.
Of all the late game villages I’ve seen Lonelywood certainly takes the prize. This gem is doomed to obscurity by being hidden in Icewind Dale’s expansion. Personally, I made it to Lonelywood two years ago. Back when Heart or Winter was first released I ignored it. Few played it, or have since.
Coming off Icewind Dale – oh boy is there a change of pace. The hubs in the main game are raw, minimal affairs. The first thing you need to know about Lonelywood is that it’s written by Chris Avellone. And not just “some of it” or “features some MCA writing” like Pillars. No. It’s full speed ahead Avellone mode with inventively structured dialogues, great thigh slapping material, ambitious side quests, level design that fills your path with little nuggets of interconnectedness, you name it! HoW features most, if not all, avellonian tropes. Like: the mysterious simpleton (or is he?) who says weird stuff in an otherwise unremarkable shack; the strikingly well written side character who steals the show in an Inn; an old “woman scorned” with an idiosyncratic speech pattern. Especially her! I found the Seer endearingly formulaic among these types of Avellone characters. It really shows you the nuts and bolts of how he writes his famous women.
It’s all of jarringly high quality after Icewind Dale’s spartan writing. There is this lovely moment where the old lady, in typically inter-connected MCA fashion, comments on all the other female characters in Icewind Dale. One by one. These gals are one note, one line baddies who had an inventory and a name. Now all of a sudden she’s getting all Ravel about them. Exhuding to them in riddles, decrying the fate of the woman in the middle ages.
It’s out of place in the context of the main game, but it fits Heart of Winter’s separate narrative very well. I think it’s the third best thing MCA has written. (After Torment and the Fallout: New Vegas DLCs.)
I played it two months before we began pre-production. Lonelywood prepared me for No Truce With The Furies in a lot of ways. Mainly, it inspired me to write an RPG that’s only the late game standalone village. (Although our Martinaise district is, techically, a city district. But still.)
Heart of Winter itself has it’s flaws – although few – but it’s central hub shares none of them. The best thing about it is how the sidequests are rolled out, foreshadowed, branched into. The guide character – a bored little girl – has some very nifty dialogue. The player gets to exhibit unexpected amounts of character (our main goal with No Truce). The scene with the kid is set up superbly: she lies, you may lie in return, her character slowly reveals. The village also sports a side quest that fakes the passage of time by taking it’s cues from your progression in the main quest. This lets them give the impression of a serial killer on the loose. Events happen that you feel you could have stopped. There’s a ticking clock feeling that I’m dying to emulate in a more complex manner. How the girl introduces the player to the Inn and her bored mother – and how you get to resolve both later – should be systematic touchstones for location design.
And there’s a good poetry moment in there too! I know it’s hard to believe, but there really is. The bard in the Inn conveys his back story in verse and by god I don’t know how, but it doesn’t suck. On the whole the Inn is brilliant. We’ve outright stolen and expanded upon many of it’s tricks. There’s another event cued to coincide with the main quest – an attack on the Inn. This finishes the inn keepers’ story. Lovely stuff.
Anyway, it’s all impeccable really. A shiny little pearl of sunlit snow and creaky log houses, one final parting gift from the Infinity engine. The opaque packaging kept me from opening it for 13 years. Once I did it inspired me to go through with the insanities of game production and financing.
I hope I didn’t waste your time talking about it on this winter’s morning. And I hope I get to outdo it.