Video games have acquired a reputation over the years of enabling and encouraging wanton acts of violence or other immorality. The latest target has been the massively fun Grand Theft Auto franchise, but other games such as Postal, Doom, and Mortal Kombat have all taken their turns as the box in the white-knuckled grip of a crusader for video game censorship.
I am most certainly not in the camp of people who wring their hands at violent video games. I mention this because Below the Root, the game that has left the most lasting impression on me, is so wonderfully pacifistic and ethical that I don't want to undersell its qualities by giving the appearance of having only played games with a wholesome agenda. In my world of Carmageddon, Smash TV, and Mutant League Hockey, I still thought Below the Root was the bee's knees.
Released in 1984 for the Commodore 64, Apple II, and IBM PC, Below the Root takes place after the Green Sky Trilogy, a series of fantasy novels by Zilpha Keatley Snyder. Not entirely satisfied with the way she had concluded the series, and after discussing the concept of computer games with a programmer named Dale Disharoon, Snyder collaborated with Disharoon and an artist named Bill Groetzinger to create an adventure game that would serve as the ultimate resolution to the trilogy.
Pac-Man on the Atari 2600, for comparison
It's hard to try to explain how enthralling the graphics on a game were in the 1980s when so many have seen an Xbox 360 in action, but I had only the Atari 2600 to compare it to. The version I played was for the Tandy 1000
(a roughly IBM PC-compatible system sold by Radio Shack; hugely popular at the time).
Although the Tandy 1000 was capable of 16 color output to a TV screen, the monitor connected to the system I was playing on produced only a modest 4-color CGA palette of white, black, cyan and magenta for Below the Root to work with. The game made very effective use of dithering and for the most part it was possible to tell walls apart from tables apart from doors. I found it aesthetically pleasing even though Below the Root was undeniably better looking on the other computer systems to which it was released.
On the Commodore 64, you'd start out like this...
...but this is what it looked like on my computer
Another limitation of the computer I played on was the tinny PC speaker. It offered two choices: silent or blasting, the latter being particularly noticeable when Below the Root would suddenly play fifteen-second musical interludes. The Commodore 64 version was far more versatile with its sound, going so far as to play wooshing wind noises when your player was falling. If you wanted sophisticated noises like that on the PC you had to make them yourself.
Beyond the lush atmosphere Below the Root plunges you into, the plot is rather intriguing. There are two races in Green-sky: Kindar and Erdling. Kindar dwell in trees, have banned emotions such as anger and sorrow, follow vegetarian diets and pacifistic lifestyles, and consume narcotic berries. Erdling tend to live in caves and on the ground, accept their emotions, eat roast rabbit as well as plants and fruit, possess the secret of fire, and are skilled with jewelry and metal -- apparently going so far as to build a steam-powered engine and railway. The engine and railway, sadly, don't show up in the game.
The novels had to do with the discovery of Erdling society by the Kindar, the subsequent lifting of the ban on interaction between the ground and the trees, and the strife between the newly joined peoples. By the time the video game takes place, some Erdling live in the trees and some Kindar on the ground. But there's a problem; many among both the Kindar and the Erdling still oppose reconciliation of the two cultures. Worse still, the man leading the way towards reconciliation is gone and presumed dead. In a vision, a former high priestess of the Kindar hears the words "The Spirit fades, in Darkness lying. A quest proclaim - the Light is dying." With that, your character is sent on his or her way to figure things out.
Heady stuff, especially for a computer game based on a series of young adult novels.
I did try jumping on these, a la
Super Mario Bros. It doesn't work.
The gameplay of Below the Root is quite enjoyable. There are items that can be picked up, purchased, or sold. There are characters to interact with, some who will offer you items or a place to rest, others who will attempt to rob or abduct you to thwart you in your mission. and yet others who help explain your mission and increase the power of your spirit. This spirit power is used to do things like read thoughts (which can uncover useful information or hostility) or teleport -- all of these powers are necessary to complete the game. Most of the skill involved is being able to jump over gaps, or the occasional spider or snake.
The world is large and varied, giving a sense of exploration. An essential item you start out with, called a shuba, permits your character to perform a controlled glide in the air. This game mechanic is used frequently and quickly becomes second nature, whether to prevent taking damage from a fall or to move between trees.
Below the Root allows you to play one of a number of characters: male or female, child or adult, Kindar or Erdling. The reaction of the people in the game changes depending on your character, which can affect how much support you get in the form of free items or places to rest. There are other subtle differences as well, such as the foods available to Kindar characters and Erdling characters. Kindar react poorly to roast rabbit.
I didn't fully appreciate all of the nuances of the game until I completed it.
For example, and to my initial disappointment, you did not receive a sword to cut your way through the game's obstacles. Your character couldn't even really die. If you ran out of health you were returned to your home and would lose some game time (your quest had to be completed in 50 days.)
Interestingly, there comes a time in the game where you DID find a sword, and by that time it wasn't even a thought in my head to use it for anything but cutting brambles. It was apparently possible to take lives with it but doing so would profoundly affect your character's spirit, rendering the game unwinnable.
It is also impossible to steal. Many adventure or role playing games encourage taking anything that isn't tied down. Below the Root encourages you to pay for items in stores, at least when they aren't given to you or found somewhere outdoors. I also somehow discovered that the game disk was copy protected, so the lessons apparently continue outside the game.
I'm sensing... suspicion. I shall need
to go elsewhere for free purple bread.
The telepathy you use (called "pensing" in the game) not only is directly useful to avoiding problems or discovering information, but it gradually uncovers the prejudice and tension between the Kindar and Erdling. Sometimes people don't directly wish you harm, they're just going to withhold help because of how you look. This becomes evident if you had played the game as a Kindar and decided to try as an Erdling character next, or vice-versa; a different set of houses would become useful to you, though there were some folks that would help anybody.
I think this is the reason Below the Root still stands out to me: somehow it didn't cram its messages down my throat even though they were woven throughout the fabric of the game. Rather, it slowly dawned on me that there was something larger the game was trying to convey than simply finishing its quest. Just an amazing piece of work from start to finish.