If the above rundown sounds convoluted, well you don’t know the half of it (unless you've played it of course). It took me a total of six hours to finish The Black Cauldron and I can’t say I had much idea what was going on half the time. I rescued people who never showed up again, was given items that played no part in the game, was constantly rewarded for counterintuitive decisions, and was left feeling empty during an ending that was supposed to be highly emotional. I don’t think Al Lowe had any idea how challenging it would be to take a movie plot and present it as an adventure game and I think he realised things were not going well when he bailed towards the end of the project. He managed to squeeze in a lot of the characters, items and locations from the movie into the game, but with no controlled plot or linear progression to tie them all together, you end up with a game only really enjoyable by those who already know what happens and can fill in all the gaps on the way.
In other words, the game technology won't allow me to have a companion anymore so you better go
The perfect example of this is the character Gurgi. Gurgi is the little furry creature I met at the beginning of the game. I gave him an apple and he told me he was now my friend. I assume that Gurgi becomes a companion of Taran’s in the books and movie, and that they experience many things together through the course of the story. That would make Gurgi’s presence at the finale make sense and his sacrifice understandable and emotional. In the game, his sudden appearance and sacrifice is completely absurd, and it occurred at a time where the game told me what I was about to do (throw myself into the cauldron), when in fact I had no idea. It’s confusing, forced storytelling, and his sudden reincarnation at the end makes the whole thing meaningless. I was led to believe that the Black Cauldron would be destroyed if a live being got into it, therefore committing suicide in the process. Why then would the three witches bargain his life back (they also offered all sort of other treasures) for a completely non-magical cauldron?
...there was that day I gave him an apple and...um...that other day where I gave him an apple. I miss him so much!
There is one notable positive to come out of The Black Cauldron and that is the use of a branching storyline. There are numerous ways to “complete” the game, with all of them ranging in satisfaction and points. I first completed the game by sacrificing myself into the cauldron as soon as I got it (therefore making it powerless and not allowing the grythaint to steal it), but that resulted in only 173 points, and the game hinting at the fact this was not the ultimate finish. I then restored and let the gwythaint take it (yet another example of the game rewarding me for counterintuitive actions), and was then able to go to the castle for the big finale (where I apparently just try to sacrifice myself anyway!!!). I’ve since read a walkthrough to see what other ways there are to complete the game, but most of them revolve around which of the witches’ offers you accept on the way. There’s no doubt that the branching storyline merely adds to the confusion in the case of The Black Cauldron, but it should be noted that this is the first true example of a technique that would become popular in the genre and eventually used very successfully.
Seemed like the logical thing to do, but it's not what you wanted me to do is it Mr Dungeon Master
I can’t say I didn’t enjoy The Black Cauldron at all. When I knew what my goal was and could just focus on achieving it, there was much fun to be had. But it has to be said that the game is pretty hard going for someone with no prior knowledge of the story, and the pioneering features (non text parser interface, branching storyline) are not implemented anywhere near as well as they would be down the track. Al Lowe and his crew were on a hiding to nothing with this game. Players who know the story from either the books or the movie would breeze through it. Players who don’t know the story won’t have much idea what’s going on. Either way, it’s not very satisfying, so I now know why it kind of disappeared into obscurity while so many other Sierra games have hung around. I’m happy that I got through it and can move onto something else.
One big happy family of strangers