I’ve talked about it, but never had the time to sit down and write a review. Fortunately, a stubborn cold this week has kept me indoors and away from distractions; and since I was successful in getting one nerd addicted, this nerd better damn well do a write-up.

Bitter Nerd™ Review: Spiderweb Software’s Geneforge

The Geneforge games hold an ineffable attraction for me. As I have said in my reviews for the annual Interactive Fiction Competition, “Alternates are Good.” And if there is one thing Geneforge gives you, it’s alternates. They’re chock-full of alternates: alternate solutions, alternate philosophies, alternate story lines.

Geneforge is an old school RPG. It is reminiscent of the golden age of adventures, the late ’80s. If you remember Wizardry or Bard’s Tale with wistful fondness, you should consider downloading Geneforge and giving it a spin.

Geneforge scene


As a recent inductee to an elite society of magicians, your character finds himself stranded on Sucia Island, a place banned to his people. As he explores the populated island he discovers that trespassers are dangerously close to discovering an ancient secret that can destroy his people.


Geneforge offers:


Unfortunately, Geneforge also offers:


Technically, the goal of the game is to get off the island. But as one quickly discovers, the only real way to get off the island in one piece is to use or destroy the Geneforge.

Creating Characters

Like most RPGs, you start off generating a character. Most of the attributes are common to previous Spiderweb games. “Leadership” and “Mechanics” correspond roughly to Avernum’s “Reputation” and “Tool Use,” in that they allow you to talk rather than fight your way through obstructions. The alternate appearances of characters does not change the shape of the sprite, just its color; this is disappointing in the light of Avernum’s more flexible character graphics.

Character Generation Screen

The classes of characters you can play are:

a shaper
who creates beasts to fight;
a guardian
a heavily armed combatant; or
an agent
who is deftly skilled in magic.

(Collectively all three groups are addressed as “Shapers,” which is confusing to the novice player. I’ll reserve “Shaper” for the culture and “shaper” for the class that creates beasts.) The shaper is the most interesting class to play; the character himself basically becomes a pack mule, while his creations do all the messy work.

Obviously, a shaper should have good shaping skills, and the game emphasizes this by making it cheap to improve shaping skills and expensive to improve combat skills. Similar logic applies to the skill sets of guardians and agents.


Geneforge presents its world as an isometric projection; unlike Avernum, the world is not forced to be aligned to Cartesian coördinates. The characters are fluid in movement and combat.

One of the complaints about Geneforge and other Spiderweb games is that the characters lack distinguishing characteristics: all guards look the same, all monsters look the same, even your characters come from a limited pool of designs. There is an obvious trade-off between file size (the download clocks in at 12.3 MB) and richness of design; since the game was planned with shareware in mind, file size is paramount. All of the sprites are in unencrypted files (PICT resources under MacOS): this could lead to some interesting skinning should some artist set his mind to it.

Dryak Sprite

(Has anyone ever done a Geneforge sprite comic?)

Introduction & Background Story

One of the biggest complaints I have about interactive games is lengthy, textual introductions. People don’t like reading without interacting, especially in graphical RPGs. Geneforge stumbles in this regard, with a three-page wordy introduction explaining Shaper society and how your character became stranded on forbidden Sucia Island. The introduction could have been shortened, especially since most of the information is reiterated through interactions with NPCs later in the game.

Introduction Page


The interface is very simple: point-and-click. Select the party member you want to move, click on the place you want it to be. Clicking on a large object (a jar, a lever, a monster) causes the party member to interact with that object. Smaller objects may be taken (via an inventory dialog) and carried. Weapons and armor are equipped by dragging them onto your character. Certain items, such as keys, are stored in a “Special Items” list and used automatically.

Special Items

The first three levels of the game double as a tutorial, teaching how to move the character and how to pick up items. One of the first problems I encountered was that your character has to be selected before he can be moved. It’s very easy to accidentally deselect a character; I then spent a few frustrating minutes clicking on the screen and not getting any response.


The model view of the world is different as well. In Avernum, the game switched between geographical (in which the characters mostly moved from town to town) and local views (where the characters would interact with NPCs). Geneforge only provides a “local” view. Movement between areas is done when the characters pass through zone barriers, at which point a map of Sucia Island appears with buttons over explored and reachable areas. Areas that have been cleared of obstructions appear in green; areas with monsters appear in red. As long as there exists a path of green between the current location and the destination, movement can be done in a single step. This is a major win: gone are those tedious treks across the continent when you realize you left an important artifact at home. Since inventory management in Spiderweb games tends to be limited, one normally picks an unpopulated area to serve as storage.

Combat is an important part of the game, especially for shapers and guardians. Combat is turn-oriented; each creation has a chance to attack, and the order is dependent on the creation’s dexterity. Each creation also has a number of “action points” which determines how much it can move before it can no longer attack. Some creations such as dryaks and fyoras have ranged attacks; others must move close enough to the target to do damage. In general, the more powerful the attack, the more vulnerable the creation. The instructions suggest that the more experience the creation has, the more powerful it is. My personal experience is that keeping creations alive is not a major concern: it is easier simply to destroy low-level creations and remake them when your character gains new shaping skills. (This is not so true in the sequel, which compensates long-lived creations more generously.)



Geneforge, like its predecessors in the Avernum series, is a goal-oriented game: as you progress through the world, you are given quests to complete. Completing the quests not only guides you to the conclusion of the storyline but also provides experience and magical items necessary to perform subsequent quests. (Those in the artificial intelligence world would call it “heuristic hill-climbing.”) Occasionally the quests are mutually exclusive (e.g., NPC A offers a bounty to kill NPC B, and B will reward you if you kill A), forcing you to make difficult decisions.

Every decision made affects the rest of the game, especially with future interactions with NPCs. The rumor mill is fast and far-reaching on Sucia Island; treachery is both lucrative and expensive. Hypocrisy, especially in the light of Shaper philosophy, often can defuse a delicate situation. Unfortunately, with three conflicting powers dividing the island someone is bound to be offended eventually. Just who that will be is up to you.


In theory it is possible to go to the end of the game without ever lifting a weapon; I’ve never tried. But for every obstacle, there are two ways around it: by stealth and cunning, and by brute force. In my case, I usually used stealth and cunning on the way to the Geneforge, and brute force on the way back. No use raising a sweat, eh?


The demonstration game limits you to the southwest quadrant of the island, including the towns of Vakkiri and Pentil. Even with this artificial limitation, the gameplay is strong. It’s a good marketing trick: no limit on how long you can play, just how far you can get. (Unfortunately, if someone “hits the wall” at 3am in the morning, they may be so desperate for a registration code that they’ll steal one off the Internet. I know that frustration.)


There are a few online guides to solving the riddle of Sucia Island, but by far the best one is the printed hint book from the game’s publisher. Geneforge: Book of Answers contains both a general walk-through and specific hints for getting around certain areas. Sadly, it lacks the Phil Foglio illustrations found in the Avernum 3 hint book, but you can’t have everything.

Available for MacOS 8.1 or later (MacOS X native) and Microsoft Windows 95