"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Greetings, fair reader! I am Denani, a half-elf ranger hailing from the city of Qeynos, slayer of large rats and collector of snake fangs. Let my tales of death, despair and ineptitude in the land of Norrath educate you, O would-be warrior, of the dangers of Everquest. Let the tale of this RPG-newbie’s mortification at the hands of varied digital low-lifes prepare you for this game’s addictive nature. Beware lest it take over your life and turn you into a twitchy-finger, snake-murdering automaton!
Everquest, you see, is the newest, fanciest multiplayer real-time role-playing game (or “RPG”) to hit the Web. Bursting with fancy graphics and mysterious creatures, Everquest hopes to steal the crown from Ultima Online, long the benchmark for massive, networked RPGs. Like most computerized RPGs, Everquest allows tens of thousands of players to simultaneously don swords and spells and roam fantasy lands in search of adventure and conquest, building trade skills and friendships along the way.
Unlike other RPGs, however, Everquest offers a gloriously rendered three-dimensional landscape and a richly complex variety of characters and affiliations. In the RPG community, it is quickly stealing Ultima’s thunder, rising up the charts to become one of the top-selling computer games of recent months and spurring gleeful Everquest fans to (perhaps prematurely) predict Ultima Online’s demise.
Everquest — created by 989 Studios and published via Sony’s Station Web site — is built around a fantasy world called Norrath, formed (according to the game’s mythology) by jealous gods and feuding warlords. The land of Norrath is populated by elves, trolls, barbarians, humans, gnomes and a host of other creatures that wouldn’t surprise any Tolkien reader. Besides the 12 basic characters, which come in male or female versions, you can elect from among 14 classes of occupations (ranging from Bard to Rogue, Wizard to Druid) and 16 religions. The combination affords you special skills and affiliations with other characters — and means that you can’t expect the same behavior from every half-elf you meet. Simply pick a character — you can create up to eight — and set off into that rendered sunset for adventure and companionship!
If only it were that easy. For anyone who has spent hours in Ultima Online or played MUDs (multi-user domains) in the early days of the Net — even those who grew up huddled over Dungeons & Dragons — Everquest should be familiar territory, albeit more complex and fantastic than most. But computer RPG virgins like me quickly discover that this game is challenging and not for the easily frustrated. Regardless of your personal gaming history, learning Everquest is so time-consuming that you may need to quit your job and commit a few months — just to figure the damn thing out.
The Rise of Denani: Character One, Day One: Nindari, the high elf of Norrath
My first attempt at a character is Nindari, a High Elf of Norrath — an enchantress by profession, a foe of Teir ‘Dal and a believer in the Queen of Love. As the introductory screens tell me, “the dream of every follower … is to die in selfless defense of someone or something they love” — how can I resist such romance!
Having spent over an hour puzzling through the practice session and the included guidebook, I plunge into the game as this pointy-breasted babe in a filmy gown. (The rear-view angle of the female characters in Everquest verges on the pornographic — the hardier ladies are generously outfitted with G-strings, and the sight of those gluteus muscles churning as they run makes them understandably popular with other characters.) Wandering aimlessly through the castle where I am born, I have absolutely no idea what I am supposed to be doing, so I attempt conversation with everyone who walks by. Most of them ignore me — including the preprogrammed NPCs (or “non-player characters”) who serve as guards and shopkeepers — until I encounter a kind soul named Majiik who trades me a necklace for a kiss.
The necklace is nice, but I’m still not sure what to do and I’m a bit lost in this castle. So I, Nindari, decide to “camp” — while the real me goes for a snack. When I return and try to reenter the game, my character seems to have disappeared. Drat.
Character Two, Day One: Izzamene, the Erudite Enchantress
This time, I choose to be an Erudite enchantress named Izzamene — the Erudites being Norrath’s equivalent to Ivy League academics. Born in the city of Erudin, I diligently study the two spells I was born to cast — one causes my enemies to experience shortness of breath and another is a shielding spell that protects me from attacks — and venture off into the woods. There are hundreds of characters around me, running in every direction, pouncing upon the myriad creatures that roam the woods and casting beautiful iridescent spells that light up their faces with fireworks of color. Everyone appears to have some purpose and intent, except for me.
Eventually, another dark-skinned Erudite enchantress named Malnord takes me under her wing, explaining some of the rules of the land. “Let’s kill spiderlings,” she says, and we hunt one of these multi-legged creatures down; as a spiderling-slayer, however, I fail completely. My spells fizzle and since it’s nighttime in a forest, I can’t see a damn thing. “Being an enchanter is hard,” sighs Malnord as she slays the spiderling with a smartly cast spell while I revive myself from near-death. “Maybe you should come back as a half-elf ranger? It’s a lot easier.”
I leave her battling some strange monster and venture off on my own, to be promptly torn apart by a boar-like beast called a kobold runt. So much for Izzamene.
Character Three, Days Two and Three: Denani, the Half Elf Ranger
Denani isn’t as glamourous-looking as Izzamene, but she’s still quite a buff babe. This time around, I’ve decided to scrutinize the online Everquest guides more closely, and I catch a little fact I had missed before: In order to get started on the right foot, I must take a note that I received at birth to a guild-master and join a guild. There, they will teach some basic fighting skills that will enable me to slay small creatures — training and “experience” are key to moving up in difficulty levels.
Sure enough, Guild Master Hagar Sureshot, Protector of the Pine, teaches me one-handed slashing and sends me adventuring into the lands beyond Qeynos. After several deaths at the hands of miscellaneous creatures — putrid skeletons, gray wolves and a fire beetle or two — another newbie ranger clues me in that the only creatures I am able to kill in my enfeebled newborn state are “large rats” (not to be confused with “giant rats”) and snakes.
And thus, the next several hours are spent slaying vermin and snakes — I must have killed at least an army of each — slowly gaining experience before I can move up to bats, fire beetles and gnoll pups (the children of my mortal enemy, the gnoll). I slay and slay and slay everything within striking distance, collecting the booty from their corpses — bat wings, snake fangs, pelts and pieces of silver — until I reach Level 2, and finally, after two days of play, Level 3. (Keep in mind that this is out of 50 possible levels)
It is, in a word, utterly tedious, but the beauty of the landscape keeps it interesting. There are moments when the game is breathtaking: This world is built around quickly changing day-cycles, and as the sun rises and sets over the green land, coloring the drifting clouds in purples and pinks and casting black shadows over the yawning trees and ancient ruins, it is easy to forget that this is just a game.
Norrath, in fact, is so vast and varied as to seem infinite — although this makes it occasionally difficult to get around. The only way to navigate is by your “sense heading,” a skill that you develop only as you go along. (There seems to be some kind of coordinate system as well, which several characters mentioned to me, but I couldn’t figure out how to view them and no instructions were included.) This is primarily problematic when you die, since upon rebirth you will want to retrieve the belongings from your old character’s corpse — all those pelts and silver pieces could help buy you better weapons or other improvements in your next life. Finding the exact location of your death in the corpse-strewn landscapes is often a challenge, especially since you will always be reborn in your “home city.” Woe unto the warrior who dies in Erudin and is reborn in Freeport.
The other quality that makes the early levels endurable is the sense of community. The game encourages you to join together in groups with other players of similar levels and compatible skills; in fact, many quests can only be achieved in groups. When I hit Level 3 I am invited by two young warriors named Mender and Humasky to join them in their quest to rid the land of wretched gnolls; their companionship helps me while away several hours and racks up my experience points.
According to veteran RPG players more knowledgeable than I, Everquest does have its flaws: There is the occasional imbalance of power between different kinds of characters, and the expected server lags and glitches (hence the mysterious disappearance of poor Nindari), as well as the inordinate repetitiveness of the first few levels. In fact, several higher-level players I spoke with said that Everquest doesn’t get truly interesting until you hit Level 10 or so — which can take weeks, if not months. But Everquest is an evolving game, and the producers are constantly creating patches to resolve some of these issues.
There is no ultimate goal in Everquest — just, I suppose, as there is no ultimate goal in life — although there are many things that can be achieved beyond simple monster-slaying. There are 50 levels, each providing your characters with greater skills and increasingly complex spells. You can go on quests that are related to the mythology of Norrath; you can learn trades and go into business as a maker of armor, a tailor, a jeweler and so on; you can choose a life of meditation and aid to fellow characters.
One of the fatal flaws of Ultima Online is the rampant player-killing, with hordes of unscrupulous (or simply bored) characters indiscriminately murdering unsuspecting newbies and weaklings. Everquest, in contrast, has turned this problem into a selective feature: You can choose to become a PvP (or “player-vs-player”) character, enabling you to attack and murder other PvP players and creating myriad alliances and wars between feuding groups, but also opening you up to the potential of sudden death. (Blood apparently makes things more interesting: Everquest’s one PvP-only server has proven to be its most popular).
It is clear that there is an astounding variety of depth to this game: On fan sites like Stratics Everquest I have read about slave auctions, group quests, druid council meetings and wars between trolls and humans, dwarves and ogres. There are even concerts and limerick competitions. I have glimpsed high-level wizards, warriors with droid-like “pets” and accomplished tradesmen who do a brisk business. It is this varied potential that makes the game so alluring: There is so much that can be done. I just can’t figure out how I can get to that point, and I suspect that it will require numerous evenings and weekends hunched over my keyboard to figure it out. Certainly, the instruction booklet included in the game box doesn’t offer much in terms of explanation; asking questions of the other players is far more informative.
And that, of course, is the allure of role-playing games. A truly replicated world with all the complexities of society, community and economy is tough to figure out — but anything less wouldn’t be complex enough to engage you on a long-term basis. In Everquest, as in real life, no one is going to tell you all the rules — it’s probably safe to assume that no one even knows all the rules — but you will learn by trial and error. In Everquest, that generally means by death and rebirth, so don’t be afraid to get slain by a kobold runt or 10 along the way.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)