111 – The Final Station

Screen Shot 2017-12-20 at 10.23.50 AMI’m not, as a rule, a huge fan of zombie stories. It’s difficult to have come of age in the early 2000s and not be bored by the walking dead, or The Walking Dead: For a while, it seemed that every damn movie or game was about zombies. But our interest in zombies has waned a bit–The Walking Dead, which will never go off the air if AMC is smart, is one of the last major vestiges of zombies in popular culture that I can think of. (It’s a shame: I find the show to be misanthropic trash, but that’s another discussion for another day.) This is as expected: These things come in cycles. I’ve seen at least two periods of vampire fetishism in my lifetime–Anne Rice and Twilight–and I expect I’ll see more.

This is just how things happen. A fresh, new take on a genre appears, people become massively interested in it, works like Shaun of the Dead appear to deconstruct/mock the formula, everything becomes saturated, and we as a society move on. Recently, for my podcast Tuning In, we watched the British series In The Flesh, which was one of the smartest and most oblique takes on the zombie formula that I’ve ever seen. I personally loved it. But I’m not interested in, you know, a gritty take on a bunch of assholes banding together to survive in the face of everything. I’m not interested in the cynical theme that humans are the real monsters. I’m not interested in whatever clever term the work uses instead of “zombies”.

I was into survival horror for a bit when I was in college, in the early 2000s, in the era at the height of zombie fever, which is a funny thing when you consider my aversion to guns. I’m not interested in solving my problems with bullets, and if I don’t have a set of numbers attached to my character that go up at certain intervals, I don’t know how much fun I’m having. I’m not even that into being scared as an emotion–I don’t like to watch horror movies. But I appreciated the likes of the original Silent Hill trilogy for its weirdo storytelling and batshit environments, and I appreciated the puzzle box gameplay of the early Resident Evils. The Spencer Mansion is gigantic knot that you pick apart knot by knot, and your gun is less a channel for visceral violence and more an oddly-shaped key that you can use to open the door that is a zombie in your way. In Resident Evil, you can fuck up: You have such a limited number of resources–you even need to expend a certain resource in order to save your game–that it becomes a very cerebral exercise. The horror, for me, did not come from gigantic ugly creatures shouting “boo” at me. It came from the need to weigh every action, every bullet, and consider whether it could be better spent elsewhere. Resident Evil is called survival horror; it might better be termed economic horror.

That tense guns-or-butter decision making was something I felt while playing The Final Station, which at its face is another zombies-but-we’re-not-calling-them-that game, this time involving a train. You’re a conductor ferrying certain crucial supplies, and the odd survivors you can find, from city to city; periodically, you make stops at various stations and explore the ruins of what’s left of civilization. These segments play relatively traditionally, and are excellently presented in a 2D sidescrolling view–a presentation I normally don’t like!–with areas revealing themselves as you open doors. Sometimes there are not-zombies–they’re drawn in the same diminutive art style as the rest of the cast, but they’re all shadowy, solid black–behind those doors. (Given that American zombie productions often have undertones of a race war, it may or may not be Problematic that you are literally fighting “black people”, but given that The Final Station’s developer is Russian, it’s likely this is a simple stylistic choice. It’s certainly nowhere near as clueless or awkward as Resident Evil 5 was.) You’ve got a limited supply of bullets and med kits, and you’ve got to do your best to avoid using too many of them because you never know when you might really need them. The game is very pretty, it’s got excellent music, it’s atmospheric as hell.

But the game is notable because the action sequences actually become the less tense segments as the game goes on. A few melee whaps and most of the enemies go down, meaning that it’s pretty easy to conserve your bullets for the times you need them, and if you can survive to the end of each level, your character will fully heal himself, meaning you don’t have to use a medkit. And checkpoints are copious in each level–if you die, you don’t lose any significant progress at all. Where the real tension is are in the train sections between levels.

I mentioned rescuing survivors: They fill up the seats in your train, and you drop them off at the major cities that appear between every few levels. They all have health and hunger meters. If the hunger meter goes down to nothing, their health will drop quickly; some of the survivors have bleeding wounds which means they hemorrhage health by the second. Food is a very limited resource which you can only scavenge a little bit of in the levels; medkits can be crafted but are also pretty scarce, and here’s the better use that they can be put to rather than healing yourself. You will lose passengers: You will find yourself in in a situation where you simply have no food or medkits, and they will keel over and die. Worse, the game will subtly make you choose between them. Each passenger gives you a different reward which is listed along with their health/hunger meters–at one point, I let a lady starve to death because all she offered was $20 when another passenger promise $150 and some ammo.

And while this is going on, certain devices on your train will overheat or malfunction, threatening everyone’s life, and God forbid you’ve got to fix something while a particularly lucrative passenger is bleeding to death.

While you’re traveling, and worrying about the welfare of your passengers, they’ll gossip among themselves, spread rumors about what’s going on, talk about the backstory–and this is something you physically cannot read all of: The passengers are in one compartment, with their dialogue presented in little boxes above their heads, and a lot of the things you need to do–fixing the devices, grabbing med kits–is on the other side of the train, meaning that you end up scrolling the passengers off the screen. And so you only end up getting bits and pieces of the conversation–you miss much of it. This puts the backstory in the “scraps of information” category, and every player will get a slightly different experience of it. It’s certainly possible to get a pretty good idea of what’s going on–of why there are Infected people running around trying to kill you, of what the governmental structure of the world is, of the philosophical state of things–but it’s just a sketch.

That’s par for the course with a zombie story. The reason for the dead rising is often pretty irrelevant, and anyway, the people who are capable of figuring it out are often either dead themselves or unable to communicate with the rest of the world because infrastructure has crumbled. What’s more important is how humanity reacts to this threat–the kinds of communities that form from it. It’s easy to put zombie stories into a very conservative theme–that only your little tribe is the good guys, that everybody else is a bunch of bandits that are looking to smash your paradise and let the chaos of the world in, that society is a thin veneer and that we’re incapable of banding together in the face of a larger threat, that we’ve just got to horde our guns because when the race war happens, you can only trust your family. The Final Station, conversely, places much of its blame, as far as I can tell, on a ruling elite interested in screwing over everybody else for its own benefit. That’s a theme I feel more comfortable with–while it’s no less cynical, it fits closer to my own worldview. After all, I’m much more afraid of the President than I am of black people.

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110 – Planescape Torment: Intellectual Lusts

Screen Shot 2017-12-18 at 9.11.07 AM.pngAt some point, no matter what the RPG, you’re going to get to the Obligatory Brothel Level. People joke about start-to-crate time in FPS games–the amount of time it takes in between the beginning of the game and the first crate that you see–RPGs have start-to-hooker. It doesn’t matter how vibrant or magical your fantasy world is; invariably, the game will show its grittiness by letting your characters have sex with women–or, if the game is a particularly progressive one, with men–for money. Most of the time this is a bit of suggestive dialogue and a fade to black. Maybe if you’re lucky, you’ll get a temporary buff; if the developer is being moralistic, you’ll get a debuff. If you’re playing Gothic II, you’ll get the finest videogame sex scene ever made. (If you’re playing a Bioware game, you won’t get a sex scene unless you go through the romance arc, because women are not commodities to be purchased–you’ve got to navigate a quest chain and sacrifice a couple of consumables, because Bioware is the most progressive developer of them all.)

I don’t know why this is. I mean I know why this is, but I don’t know why this is. I don’t know anyone on any point of the sexuality spectrum who actually enjoys the brothel levels in RPGs (or, for that matter, to echo Pauline Kael who voted for Donald Trump). Could it simply be that we’re all too old for that particular brand of wish fulfillment to be simulated? If I want a hooker, I can go out and get a hooker. I don’t play videogames to simulate the possible–I play RPGs so I can pretend to kill monsters with a sword and cast spells and stuff, things that can’t happen in real life. But, I mean, that’s my response to romance quests and sex in games in general. If I want to get laid, I’ll get laid. I don’t need a videogame to do it for me. Is it just a gay thing? Is sex so easy to get that I’m unable to understand why we need depictions of it, why we need the promise of it, because it’s not a commodity for straight guys? Is this the fault of the incels–you know, those fucking assholes who can’t get laid because, they say, women be bitches who only have value by withholding sex, not because they’re, you know, fucking assholes?

I’m edging into being moralistic, and I’m not intending to be. I don’t find Hookers in Games offensive; I find it hilarious. And while, yeah, I like to make fun of straight people, the same goes for queer games. If you want porn, go ahead and look at porn. It’s 2017; no one is stopping you yet. (They’re working on it, though.) One of the reasons I used to mock the queer games movement was the need to make a political point by suffusing queer sexuality into everything. I’ve softened on it somewhat–queer games is, by and large, a bunch of horny kids expressing themselves hornily, and I’m beginning to take an as-long-as-no-one-gets-hurt view of it–but it’s silly. It’s as silly as the Last Rites Bible’s edgy promise of sexy chicks everywhere. (See, this article is indeed about Planescape: Torment!) Is everyone just, you know, really thirsty, and I happen to notice it in RPGs because that’s the lion’s share of what I play?

But, you know, why hookers? Sex in games is one thing, but why sprinkle hookers everywhere? I’ve lived in plenty of seedy neighborhoods in my day, mostly in New York City, and there are a lot fewer hookers on the street than RPGs have led me to expect. (Most of them make appointments online these days.) Is it just equal parts Anita Sarkeesian’s “Women As Background Decoration” and the thought process of developers who haven’t spent much time in the world?

Planescape: Torment has its share of hookers–the preferred term for the street workers you see in its early stages is “harlot”–and it’s definitely attempting edginess. You’re in The Hive, the slums of the city of Sigil where you find yourself, and here it’s grit. You can get a fade-to-black sex scene. It’s all very standard and lurid and–again–silly. And then you get to the better neighborhoods, and you find the Brothel of Slaking Intellectual Lusts, and it’s here that the silliness reaches a peak for me. Because the BoSIL is, in many ways, a pretty funny joke at the expense of every Obligatory Brothel Level that came before or after. In the BoSIL, there are beautiful women in a decadent setting, but none of them will have sex with you–rather, they’re there for conversation, or playing chess, or trading insults, or–well, it’s not clear what some of them do, like the lady who’s some kind of medusa, or the one whose voice has been magically stripped from her. It’s a premise that’s very similar to the Woody Allen short story “The Whore of MENSA”, although we must remember that Allen does exist somewhere on the scale between “utter creep” and “full-on rapist”, so. The women in the BoSIL are referred to as “prostitutes”, incidentally.

The madam, a succubus named Fall-From-Grace, explains that she founded the brothel as a sort of school–she’s a member of the faction of Sensates, which is devoted to understanding the multiverse by experiencing everything it has to offer, and the Brothel is a training ground for the ladies to take their first steps towards becoming Sensates. (You, as the main character, get to join the Sensates simply by describing the opening scene of the game, although you were already a member in a previous incarnation, and you have hundreds and hundreds of lifetimes’ worth of experience under your belt, so maybe it makes sense that it’s easier for you.) And if you can convince Fall-From-Grace that she’ll gain more experiences traveling with you, she will leave her business and join you, and I highly recommend this because she’s the only healer in the game.

The ladies of the Brothel of Intellectual Lusts are more than simple background decoration. You end up spending a bit of time there; Fall-From-Grace insists you get to know all of them before she’ll join you, and you spend your time talking to them, doing their quests–all of the RPG stuff that you’re doing in the rest of the game. They all have different secrets and problems, and whether or not you’re intellectually stimulated by the experience, well, you do get a ton of XP for completing the quest chain, so that’s something.

Brothels in RPGs are the ultimate “roll the dice to see if I’m getting drunk” kind of thing–if the game just fades to black and takes your money, it doesn’t even justify itself by at least giving you a quick softcore clip. But RPGs pretend–or at least they sometimes claim to be–to be a more cerebral experience. Sure, things are changing, everything has RPG elements and every jock loved Fallout 4, but this was, once, a genre where you had to read a lot, where there were a ton of numbers. The Brothel of Intellectual Lusts exists to just utterly make fun of that. It’s a pretty funny bait-and-switch, particularly when you read some of the marketing material which suggested that the game, one of the most text-heavy non-Interactive Fiction games out there, was a titfest. And all of the RPGs which came after and just throw a bunch of hookers here and there come off as lazy. It’s all very–

Well I’ve been saying “silly” this whole time, but maybe “lame” is closer to the word I’m thinking of. I don’t know anyone who’s bought an RPG because there’s a brothel in it; I don’t really know anyone who enjoys them. Everyone I know just, you know, gets through them, does any quests that might happen to be there, and then goes, because come on, we’re adults here. But, you know, people did vote for Donald Trump, even if I don’t know any of them, and somebody must enjoy brothel levels. Feel free to say hello. I love getting comments.

109 – Planescape Torment

Screen Shot 2017-12-13 at 10.39.52 AMHow the fuck do you even begin to talk about Planescape Torment?

The game has, these days, such an outsized reputation. It is THE FINEST RPG EVER MADE. It is THE FINEST STORY EVER TOLD IN A VIDEOGAME. It is CHRIS AVELLONE’S MAGNUM OPUS. It is A MASTERPIECE OF PHILOSOPHICAL FANTASY. And it is all these things and more. It is a legitimately amazing game, a surprising and thrilling and daunting work. It is not perfect, and it is the weirdest use of the Infinity Engine, but I am, of course, damn glad that it exists. PT was the first game I bought on GoG back when it was called Good Old Games, and I picked up the Enhanced Edition when it wasn’t even on sale. That’s how worth it it is.

Contemporary reviews hailed the game as an instant classic–everybody loved it–but apparently nobody played it. Its initial run sold about 75,000 copies, which is a number I would kill for, but compare that to Baldur’s gate which sold 175,000 in its first two weeks, or even Icewind Dale’s first-year sales of 145,000. Planescape: Torment is an odd duck, one that was difficult to sell in its time–and given that its spiritual sequel Tides of Numenera has faced similar challenges, it’s kind of easy to see why.

I think it’s pretty instructive to read the “vision statement” for PT, particularly if you’re familiar with the game, written when the game still had its working title of Last Rites–it’s particularly hilarious if you’ve played PT, because the tone could not be any different. The vision statement is about as late-90s badass edgy as you can get–it swearily promises violence and sex and all of that mom-offending stuff that PC gamers apparently wanted. “This game will have lots of babes that make the player go “wow,'” it promises. “There will be fiendish babes, human babes, angelic babes, asian babes, and even undead babes. These babes will be present without nipple-age and will all regrettably behave within the TSR Code of Ethics.” This, to pitch a final product which includes “The Brothel of Intellectual Lusts,” which oh man, do I have a lot to say about.

For all of that, though, it’s just a tough, posturing skin on a document which describes a game that’s extremely close to the thoughtful, ponderous game that we actually got–difficult moral choices, a complex story, a reactive world, unusual characters and locations–and so I wonder if this had anything to do with Interplay’s difficulty selling the game. Were they trying to capture that sweet, sweet late ’90s meathead gamer dollar? Was it the fault of Fallout, Were they trying to have it both ways–come for the sex and violence, stay for the philosophical musings?

Today, in 2017, with Planescape Torment having that BEST RPG OF ALL TIME reputation, it’s almost an irrelevant question. The meatheads are going to go to the big explosion games–to, uh, Fallout–and Planescape Torment is only going to be played by people looking for something else–but I think about how Tides of Numenera had a poor reception and low sales, and I remember reading the criticism of the game from the meatheads in the Steam boards. And most of the complaints surrounded the perceived lack of combat in the game.

I’ve begun to DM my own games of Dungeons and Dragons, and one of the theories surrounding combat that I’m interested in is that combat isn’t a separate type of encounter: Combat is merely a method for solving an encounter. Periodically, in Numenera, you get into a situation called a Crisis, where everybody’s tensions are high, people are about to start killing each other, and the interface changes slightly. And you can stab your way out of the crises, or if you can, you can figure out other ways to defuse it. You can talk your way out. You can use the environment to stop the fight. It’s a fascinating system, and one that many people who played the game disliked, preferring to have trash mobs running around that they could kill.

The idea of solving problems by methods besides combat is one that comes up in videogames from time to time, and the late ’90s was one of those times. Fallout was a big influence on that–coming out of some of Interplay’s other experiments with the concept, such as Wasteland and Dragon Wars, Fallout famously let you logic your way out of the final boss if your intelligence was high enough–convincing him that his plan was wrong and letting him stop it himself. Planescape Torment is a successor to that. It’s not as sophisticated as Tides of Numenera’s take on it–game design has progressed in the past twenty years, of course–and in practice, there’s a dialogue tree that you can fuck up, encouraging the person to attack you.

See, part of PT’s reputation is saying “there’s no combat”–that’s how it was described to me when I first played it. But I’m not sure if even the more cerebral-minded members of its contemporary audience would have been open to a pure adventure take on Dungeons and Dragons, and honestly, “there’s no combat” is a bit disingenuous. As you wander the streets at night, thugs break off and attack. There’s mobs of rats–interesting rats, cranium rats, which work through a hive mind and so a group of cranium rats is smart enough to cast spells at you–which can’t be reasoned with. Early on, you can gain access to a dungeon where a bunch of animated skeletons, set out by a wannabe lich, are wandering about. You can certainly avoid a lot of these areas–although “ignore major areas and there won’t be any combat” is pretty shitty advice to my mind for playing an RPG–but there are trash mobs running around. Now, the combat isn’t particularly challenging. Most of the thugs will run away after you whap them a couple times and they realize you’re not an easy target. Compared to Icewind Dale and even Baldur’s Gate, the focus is much more heavily on the dialogue. I’d say it’s about 80/20. But it is there. The remaining 80%, though? It’s enough to stake a reputation on.

How the fuck do you begin to talk about Planescape Torment? I guess you just dive in.

108: Baldur’s Gate 2: Throne of Bhaal

Screen Shot 2017-12-10 at 10.13.21 PM.pngThe question is, is Baldur’s Gate: Throne of Bhaal better than nothing? The expansion was apparently initially intended to be a full-on Baldur’s Gate 3, but a lack of time and money meant that everything was relegated to a 15-hour expansion pack to tie up the loose ends.

It shows. At times, Throne of Bhaal feels like the outline of a game rather than an actual game. There’s two tiny, tiny hub cities–Saradush and Amethkran–which are glossed over pretty quickly in-game–there are a couple of very short, cursory sidequests in them, and you can see both of them being an Athkatla in the “real” game. The villains–called The Five, a group of Bhaalspawn determined to do something murdery–are barely characterized–you meet most of them the moment you’re expected to fight them. The eleventh-hour revelations that the lady who’s helping you is really evil come out of nowhere–not because the game doesn’t try to pull it from somewhere, but because there’s nowhere to pull that revelation from.

In the place of everything that we like from Baldur’s Gate–exploration, freedom, a massive quest list–is a series of very high-level dungeons and battles. We are in Icewind Dale’s wheelhouse, and as the journey segments of Baldur’s Gate 2 demonstrated, Baldur’s Gate is not good at being Icewind Dale. The design focus was obviously spent on Watcher’s Keep, and I’m glad it got that attention, because the rest of the expansion is just kind of there.

Its biggest problem is that Dungeons and Dragons, as interpreted by the Infinity Engine, is not very good at low or high levels. In the first few hours of Baldur’s Gate 1, when you’re at level 1, you can vaguely survive a couple of hits, maybe cast a single spell if you’re a wizard, and that’s all you can do. If you’re a new player, you don’t know what your tactical options are–and even if you’re an advanced player, you know you don’t *have* many tactical options. This isn’t unsurmountable by any means: You know, of course, that you won’t stay at level 1 forever and that your options and skills will increase as the game goes on. That you can find new party members and weapons. Baldur’s Gate caps somewhere around level 7. And each level becomes very, very meaningful. I ended its sequel somewhere around level 20, and while that makes each individual level slightly less significant, taken as a whole, you leave the game much, much more powerful than you begin it–and given that you’re spending a good 60, 70 hours in it, leveling up is still an event.

Throne of Bhaal, however, saw my party grow to around level 33 over the course of 15 hours–sometimes after every major battle. And by this point, the returns have diminished greatly. A few HP and maybe a spell–at high levels, that’s meaningless. The damage your enemies are doing now soaks up several levels’ worth of HP as it is. The game tries to compensate by giving you what’s called high-level abilities–special attacks and spells–but you get so many of them that I ended up selecting one at random. When you’ve got 3-4 uses of a bunch of different skills, an extra one doesn’t matter, particularly considering that the game gives no restrictions against rests.

You may have a wealth of tactical options by level 30, but the game does its best to minimize the impact of many of them–most of your options become useless. Enemies have so many resistances and buffs that the majority of your damage spells won’t work. There comes a pattern of throwing up a set of buffs on your own party and launching a bunch of debuffs at the enemy and tossing your fighters on them and hoping for the best, and while there’s probably a much more efficient way than I figured out–a certain combination of debuffs might take down the enemy’s shields more effectively–I just didn’t have the heart to. Because at that point I wasn’t having any fun. The bosses, in particular, have so many hit points and do so much damage and have so many shields up that it’s no longer a challenge, it’s a chore. At the halfway point I switched Story Mode on–thank God for Story Mode–and just muddled my way through to the end.

I have genuinely no clue how one is supposed to beat the final boss honestly: It’s a multi-stage thing which doesn’t allow you to rest in between. Every stage of the boss summons a bunch of monsters and continues summoning them until you beat her, and in between each stage you’ve got to fight a mini-boss and a scattering of elemental monsters. A weird quirk of story mode is that the game handles your invulnerability by automatically healing a chunk of your damage when it gets too low, and during the final boss fight, I was overwhelmed by a bunch of summoned monsters that knocked down my health faster than the game could replenish it, meaning that during the final confrontation I died in story mode. Even the design of the level is tired at this point: You fight air elementals, ice monsters, fire monsters–but the game gives up and gives you the final phase of the boss before bothering to pit you against earth monsters, because this shit has gone on long enough.

In the end, you get to make a choice in a videogame: Do you remain mortal and go on more adventures, presumably getting to level 40 and 50 and beyond, or do you take the Throne of Bhaal and claim your destiny as a god? Whatever your choice, you see the same cutscene with different narration, a bunch of epilogues about your party members, and then the credits roll on the saga of Gorion’s Ward, the Bhaalspawn, on Baldur’s Gate.

So I ask you: Is Baldur’s Gate: Throne of Bhaal better than nothing?

As a game, it sucks. It’s too rushed, too difficult, too sketchy. It is a gigantic case of what might have been–a properly paced third game could have been amazing. One of the pleasures of Baldur’s Gate 2 is its attention to continuity–in having characters reappear, in referring to events from the previous game–and Baldur’s Gate 3 could have done that wonderfully. There’s an amount of fanservice that, as a fan, is a lot of fun, and the couple of references that Throne of Bhaal does throw out make me think that it wishes very badly that it could revel in its continuity. I wish there had been the opportunity for the team to try to create another Athkatla–to create two Athkatlas, really–I feel that RPGs as a genre are poorer for not having the opportunity for the team to build on that foundation. And the game takes the lazy way out with its combat–it’s difficult instead of challenging. It’s a slog.

But gaming has so many unfinished stories. There are so many sequels that never got made, so many conclusions we never saw. It is fairly amazing that we have any epilogue to Baldur’s Gate at all. Baldur’s Gate 2 ends on a cliffhanger–on a shadowy council vowing to kill your character–and the promise of some revelations about your true place in the world. If that shadowy council looks completely different when revealed and ends up not entirely filled in, if those revelations are rushed and half-assed, if the ending is worse instead of better, at least there is an ending. Imagine: If Throne of Bhaal didn’t exist, maybe Beamdog would take it upon themselves to write the epilogue. And if Siege of Dragonspear is any indication, that incarnation of Throne of Bhaal might have really sucked.

But it is a shame to see that degradation. Baldur’s Gate is scruffy and weird but full of promise and charm. Baldur’s Gate 2 is one of the finest RPGs ever made. Throne of Bhall is…better than nothing.

I think I’m going to put together some thoughts on the series as a whole and then be done with Baldur’s Gate for a very long time. It’s been a hell of a journey.

107 – Xploquest, Dragon Warrior, and The Iconic

Screen Shot 2017-12-11 at 8.38.09 AMXploquest bills itself as “perfect for a break between two game sessions” and that’s exactly where I am right now: Regalia is very enjoyable and hitting the “tactical RPG” part of my brain, but it’s not really suited for marathon play–it’s the kind of game you chip away at for an hour or two and then put away for a few days until you feel like making a little more progress at it. Throne of Bhaal is…well, it’s crappy, and you’ll get my thoughts on that, don’t worry. I need a palate cleanser; Xploquest fit the bill.

I love RPGs–you all know that, it’s obvious going through my blog that RPGs are 90% of what I play. There’s a lot going into that love–I tend to like playing fantasy games, I like games that are a little more story focused, and I love all the numbers and shit. I fell hard for the genre back when I was about 7, when I ended up with a copy of Dragon Warrior; that it was the kind of game that the jockier kids in my class hated only sweetened the deal. Dragon Warrior was a slow game, a game with a lot of reading, a game with numbers, a game you had to think about–a game that you wouldn’t do well in if you were stupid. Now granted, I was still a little kid, I was only able to play the game with the help of the hint guide, but I was drawn to it, it was the exact game I wanted to play. It still is.

And, particularly as a kid, the trappings of RPGs were what sold me on them: I liked the idea of a large, sprawling world that the adventures took place in; Super Mario was still fun, was still a game I loved to play, but “here’s a level, and when you’re done with that here’s another level, and when you’re done with that here’s another level” seemed kind of shallow compared to “explore this land and figure out, or read in the hintbook, where you’re supposed to go next”. And I’ve always loved wizards, and magic, and dragons, and I loved a game that was basically reading a story about wizards, and magic, and dragons. As an adult, Dragon Warrior has relatively little text, but as a kid, that little text was all I needed in order to fill in the blanks. I remember Alefgard as this living, breathing world with people going about their days, with secrets hidden in nooks and crannies, as this large thing where I was this tiny hero. If there is one thing from childhood that I wish I were still able to tap into–that, as a writer, I try to tap into, and sometimes vaguely succeed–it is this ability to be overwhelmed by a story.

I read Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud in college and what’s stuck with me from that is his discussion of “the iconic” in comics. He describes a continuum with two dots and a line forming a smiley face — pure iconography — on one end and a photograph — pure realism — on the other.. The photograph represents one and only one person; the smiley face can represent just about every person. Drawings somewhere in the middle of that continuum have a weird power where they have enough details to narrow down the field a bit but they’re abstract enough to still have a wide range. This allows us, McCloud argues, to project ourselves into the comic more easily than you can with a more realistic drawing style–more people recognize themselves in Charlie Brown than Mark Trail.

But I know I don’t always project myself into a comic, even if the drawing style does lean heavily into the iconic. My enjoyment of Persepolis does not come from my identification with the Marjane Satrapi character–even as I might recognize character traits we have in common. Perhaps the iconic style helps mitigate what is a very specific, personal story–it cracks the door open a bit and makes it more accessible. But I find the iconic’s true power to be related to something else McCloud talks about. Comics are, after all, static images often broken up by panels. McCloud uses the example of a comic about someone committing an ax murder (!) — one panel of the killer holding the ax above his head, the next of a shot of the cityscape with a scream ringing out. The actual murder is not depicted–it takes place in our minds, suggested by the scene transition. We essentially animate the scenes in our heads.

And just so, drawings that take place on the more iconic end of the scale require a little more work on our end–we fill in more details in our minds. Persepolis is describing real events which happened in real places to real people–when I read it, I cannot help but use the pictures as a guide to imagine what it all “really” looked like. Comics become one of those mediums which exist in a weird sort of collaboration between the cartoonist and my imagination, and as a result, they end up becoming weirdly personal to their readers*. My impression of Persepolis or Cerebus or The Sandman will have a lot in common with yours, but they won’t be exactly the same–and, most poignantly, we won’t ever be able to access each other’s.

For me, Dragon Warrior hit that sweet spot on the iconic-realistic continuum–it was enough that it gave me the strokes of the world, but it was just sketchy enough that it encouraged me to fill in the blanks myself. Super Mario was a challenge, and a lot of fun, but Dragon Warrior? You know, when Betty Crocker introduced boxed cake mixes, they initially contained powdered eggs–it was a “just add water” thing–and the cakes still tasted as good as a boxed cake mix can taste, but people hated them until they came up with the idea to make you add your own egg in. The simple act of having people actually crack open an egg and stir it in gave a feeling of participation–just adding water wasn’t doing any work, but if you added an egg, you felt like you actually baked something. Dragon Warrior was the first game I ever played that made me feel like I baked. You could do far worse to determine a necessary facet of role-playing games. It’s right there in the name: You need to add yourself into the mix to give the game some ruach.

But Xploquest–the game I’m ostensibly writing about–is much, much further on the scale of the iconic, and I would suggest that it doesn’t invite us to add an egg, so to speak–it is a pure plotless RPG and it doesn’t need one. The game could be simple colored squares, or ASCII symbols, although the art is simple, boldly-colored, and, to my eyes, really pleasing. You’re in a generic fantasy kingdom–or maybe not even a kingdom, as there is no castle–with several towns, all alike, and some generic terrains. You can buy some generic potions or some generic spells, purchase and upgrade some generic weapons, and whap some generic monsters in order to get XP and gold. The dungeons are literally all 10 fights, all the same. There’s some caves with different layouts, but they’re not mazelike in anyway. It is as stripped down of an RPG as you can get: Try to make a set of numbers–representing monsters–go down while trying to keep a different set of numbers–representing you–up; every so often, the numbers representing you become higher and you know you’re progressing. An RPG stripped to its bare ludic bones.

And Xploquest was absolutely fascinating to me. I played for two straight hours one night, and three the next–at which point I was finished, and I don’t think I could have taken it for much longer–but it was exactly the kind of numbery exercise that I liked. See, Throne of Bhaal is wearing on me, and the whole Baldur’s Gate saga, my whole “let’s beat every Infinity Engine game again” thing, it’s a huge project and I am weary. And, as Ben Chandler pointed out in the comments (please comment, I love comments!), that weariness is part and parcel of playing epic games, and maybe even a nice bit of ludonarrative consonance–every hero is tempted to give up in the face of the enormity of the task, heroism is only meaningful if you push past it and win–but it still kind of sucks. I don’t know why I do it sometimes.

But Xploquest reminded me that sometimes I just like to see a bunch of numbers go up in order to see how much fun I’m having. I’ve said that the big joy of RPGs is going back to the early areas and wiping the floor with the monsters, and Xploquest not only gives you that, it scales encounters to your level, and even does this nice thing where it decides certain encounters are beneath you, and also lets you face them anyway if you’re feeling impish. It’s balanced excellently. It even avoids the temptation to be a roguelike–it avoids the urge to bullshit us by pretending to have “infinite replay value because everything is random”–and features one and only one overworld map. The map is the way it is out of pure challenge–easier areas are here, and the harder areas are here, and you explore everything in vaguely this order, and oh man, why don’t roguelikes understand that I’m probably not going to play their game 50 times, I’m just going to play it the once, so just figure out what the best map design is and just give me that?

Listen, Xploquest is a little free game I found on Steam, I believe it’s a port of a mobile game, it is not necessarily the kind of game that earns philosophical ramblings–but I’m still damn glad I played it, and I love RPGs, and I love talking about RPGs and all–and you know what? I said the game was iconic, meaning that I get to see a lot in it. This is, simply, what I saw when I was playing it. I baked.

* I’m flashing back to Existentialism and Literature by Jean-Paul Sartre which I read something like 10, 15 years ago and so don’t have the fluency to discuss that well, but there’s a bit where he’s talking about literature in these terms: A book is just black marks on a page without a reader to understand and interpret them, and so, this blog post you’re reading does not exist in itself unless someone is reading it–a tree does not make a sound if it falls in the forest without anyone to hear it. Contrast that to a movie–you put a movie or a TV show and you walk out of the room, it is still going to exist even if it does not have an observer. And now I’m also getting a flashback to a philosophy class I took where the professor began the very first class by asking “How do you read?”, and every single answer anyone gave–“I look at the words on the page and I understand what they mean”–lead to another question–“How do you understand them?”–and every answer to the followup lead to another followup, and half of the class dropped out the next day. I miss philosophy classes but man, am I glad I’m out of school.

106 – Baldur’s Gate 2 – Watcher’s Keep

iuIncluded with your purchase of the Baldur’s Gate 2 expansion Throne of Bhaal is a towering dungeon called Watcher’s Keep. Continuing with Baldur’s Gate 2’s theme of “Bioware becoming Bioware”, it’s a very modern DLC-style dungeon in that it’s unconnected to the main plot and you can get to it at any time–as soon as Baldur’s Gate 2 gives you map access, you can visit it.

You are, of course, not quite intended to–it’s a decidedly high-level dungeon, with tricksy and difficult enemies–but it’s also the kind of thing where each floor is harder than the last, and so you can and are encouraged to duck into it from time to time, clear out a floor, and revel in bonus treasure and XP. I cleared out the first two floors during Chapter 2–got a couple of awesome weapons and some quivers that gave me infinite arrows–did the third as part of Chapter 6, and finished the rest of the thing as part of Throne of Bhaal.

It’s not quite an old-school megadungeon–depending on your definition, Watcher’s Keep is missing some screwjobs, missing dead ends, missing floors connecting to other floors, missing size (it’s big but not Castle Greyhawk big)–but it’s close. It’s certainly the purest Baldur’s Gate 2 comes to good old-fashioned dungeon crawling, and dungeon crawling is something I am fond of. I admire Icewind Dale’s purity–that it’s a huge bucket of monsters and caves and you’ve got to hack your way through–and Watcher’s Keep seems to be Bioware showing off a bit, one-upping it. Baldur’s Gate 1’s dungeons pretty much suck–the corridors are too tight, the puzzles fiddly–and the developer, perhaps worried that Black Isle showed in Icewind Dale that it understood the Infinity Engine a bit better than they did, stepped up their game for the sequel. I have no idea how much friendly competition led to Watcher’s Keep, but I like to think it set the stage for Icewind Dale 2 which, as I’ve said, i remember as a series of mostly wonderful gimmick dungeons. I love gimmick dungeons. We’ll eventually get to Icewind Dale 2.

Each of the floors of Watcher’s Keep has its own twist, its own style of play. The first has you finding items for a ritual. The second is a series of elemental wizard laboratories that you have to turn on each other to exploit weaknesses. There’s a maze that you have to interpret a poem to navigate. The best one focuses on a gigantic magical machine that summons monsters and the creature war this has inadvertently caused. Combat in all of these is tough but very fair, very balanced–assuming your party is, you know, appropriately leveled. There are a lot of enemies, but it’s an appropriate amount. One of my problems with Icewind Dale’s DLC dungeon Trials of the Luremaster, if you remember, was that it confused “challenge” for “throw a dozen enemies at you and hope you survive, good luck!”, and it was the worst part of the game. I don’t claim to be the finest gamer out there, but I’ve been playing RPGs for 30 years, and I’m very familiar with the Infinity Engine, and I’m not bad at playing games made in it. Luremaster was beyond my abilities, and even as I’ve noticed a lot of improvements in my own skills after playing through the Baldur’s Gate saga–one thing this replay of the Infinity Engine series has done has massively improve my ability to play Infinity Engine games–I still don’t know how one would deal with the swarms of spectral knights in the higher levels of the castle. At no point in Watcher’s Keep did I feel that I was above my pay grade.

Well, save for one of the final dungeon battles–there’s one swarm that’s maybe two combatants too many–and the final boss.

I’m generally a fellow who likes boss monsters, but I know plenty of people who hate them, and most of those people cut their teeth on Infinity Engine games. Bosses in Infinity Engine games are generally terrible–other than Irenicus, there aren’t many that I’ve actually liked. A boss can be a challenge, a test of your skills, a final exam, an opportunity for new attack patterns that don’t fit anywhere else. Games like Zelda are known for their bosses because they’re puzzles as much as they’re combats–you can’t beat a Zelda boss unless you’ve mastered the use of the tool that their dungeon has spent its time teaching you. Dark Souls’s bosses are notable for their size, for the opportunity for the design team to visually just go balls-out and create something elaborate, and for their extreme challenge.

Much less beloved are the boss monsters who just have, you know, super high HP and defense and attack. I remember, in fifth grade, a friend used to draw out videogames in his notebook–little platformer levels where he’d tear off a tiny scrap of paper and draw a character on it and you’d physically move the character through the level, stomping other scraps of paper with enemies on it. And whenever he wanted to give a real challenge, he’d create a boss–what he called a Big Monster, which now that I think of it is a much less capitalist way of referring to it so in true Socialist fashion I’m going to just steal the term–and write “99999 HP” over it and punch your character twice and say “oh you’re dead now”.

For the most part, that’s how Big Monsters in Infinity Engine RPGs feel to me. The Infinity Engine’s greatest trick–seen with Sarevok and Belifet–is to give their Big Monsters a few flunkies and string a bunch of (possibly impossible-to-disarm) traps around them and laugh as they slaughter your party. The Big Monster at the end of Watcher’s Keep–Demogorgon, making a cameo from his appearance in Stranger Things, although with a radically different design that makes me wonder if the makers of Watchers Keep even watched Stranger Things or, if they did, they just thought the name sounded cool and swiped it without worrying whether or not their monster shared any properties with the Duffer Brothers’–doesn’t have any traps in his room, but otherwise he fits the pattern. He hits hard, he soaks up a bunch of damage, he’s resistant to most magic–and given the choice between casting a bunch of my debuffing spells in the hopes that they’ll chip away at his defenses so I can chip away at his health while I buff the hell out of my own characters and hope no one debuffs me and keeping my characters healthy–given the choice between that and just clicking the little button that says “story mode” and just throwing my pikmin at it while I just sit back and watch–

Well, as Andrew Plotkin once said, “I am a player; therefore, I am lazy.”

Defeating Demogorgon gives you a couple of lines of the DLC’s storyline finishing and a bunch of XP–enough to gain a single level around the time I beat him–and nothing else. You don’t get any magic items or any equipment that I could figure–the Steam version doesn’t even give you a cheevo for your efforts. It’s a huge amount of challenge for little reward. I guess Demogorgon is intended to be an optional Super-Big Monster that only the most challenge-hungry players will face, and maybe that’s how he was received Back In The Day–certainly I didn’t get upset that I couldn’t defeat Kangaxx the Lich, figuring, okay, he’s for the really hardcore. Maybe I’m just playing it with a 2017 mindset, where I think that you should be able to beat the final boss if you were fine to beat the rest of the game. I have this weird, weird notion that an impossible challenge is less satisfying than a mild challenge if you have enough fanfare. The joy of RPGs is the joy of taking your level 1 character who got slaughtered by a pack of gibberlings, leveling her up to the cap, and wiping the floor with them. And certainly strategy has a major place in these games. But whatever strategy it took to beat Demogorgon, I couldn’t click onto it, and it was in no way a satisfying fight for me.

I’m about 2/3rds of the way through Throne of Bhaal at the moment, and all I’ll say about it so far is that the Demogorgon fight is a really good introduction to the design philosophies behind ToB. Watcher’s Keep was an excellent dungeon and I recommend it wholeheartedly; if you don’t feel like finishing the thing, though, I won’t blame you at all.

105 – I Have Beaten Baldur’s Gate 2!

Screen Shot 2017-11-26 at 10.42.05 PMThe latter chapters of Baldur’s Gate 2 felt like padding, but man, did the game stick the landing. Chapter 7 takes place in two parts–an elf city that Irenicus is laying waste to, and a hell dimension where you battle his soul once and for all or something. (Metaphysics in these games gets kind of fuzzy for me.)

In practice, there’s not much different between this chapter’s areas and the ones in 4 and 5–a small, linear place, heavy combat focus–but at this point, the tight focus and pace makes sense, feels right. This is endgame: We’re funneling to our goal, and anything left is a distraction. That kind of pace feels restrictive when in midgame chapters, but when we’re approaching the final boss, that acceleration is great.

I don’t normally like Infinity Engine final bosses–Sarevok and Behlifet are difficult beyond what their games warrant, and I seem to remember Icewind Dale 2’s final bosses being way above my party’s pay grade–but I loved the Irenicus fight, largely because I was able to finish it on my first try. Baldur’s Gate 2 does something interesting with its combat in that, for the most part, direct damage spells are irrelevant. Spells like fireball and magic missile and all of that are staples during Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale; in 2, many of the enemies have magic resistance, and in any case your spells only do so much damage.

Buffing and debuffing become the order of the day–enemies throw up different kinds of shields, and you’ve got to put in similar shields to counter their attacks, and you’ve got different kinds of debuffs and penetration spells, and in some cases, it’s sheer attrition–waiting their shields out and keeping your fighters healthy until their shield fizzles away and you can whap away some HP. Irenicus’s first form is a mage battle; his second, he goes into slayer form and has a few friends helping him, and by now I’ve gotten so used to the engine–I have, after all, am working on my second playthrough of the entire franchise–that while I wouldn’t call it easy, man, I’m pretty decent at playing Infinity Engine games.

I’ll probably have some thoughts on my journey as a whole when I’m done, but as for Baldur’s Gate 2, one thing that’s been on my mind throughout this game is a line I half remember from, of all things, the GoG.com installer which, as many of you may know, pops up little advertisements for other games they sell. Their ad for Baldur’s Gate 2 mentions that BG2 is an RPG that’s “considered one of the best ever”. I’ve played so, so many RPGs over the years that I’m pretty qualified to evaluate that statement, and–with some caveats–I’d say it’s fairly accurate. In terms of what it brings to the table as far as breadth and depth, it’s pretty unmatched; its characterization of the world is excellent; it feels like a major adventure, and completing it feels like an accomplishment.

I just wish the game had been a little more even. What makes Baldur’s Gate 2 great is the large nonlinear sections of chapters 2-3 (and the bits of cleanup you do in chapter 6)–not the linear journey of 4-5. It’s a fine line to tread, though–my issue with Skyrim, for example, is its aimlessness, is that there’s too much to do, and that you never really do focus in on your main quest unless you want to. Skyrim is the kind of game that’s too unwilling to make choices for you–this is Your Adventure and You Can Do Whatever You Want In It, even if that means being one of those assholes who writes a blog about ignoring all the quests and hanging out in town farming cabbages. Baldur’s Gate 2 decides, at some point, that the main quest needs to take over, that you’ve bummed around its world long enough, and that it’s time to get down to business. I respect that…but I can’t say I enjoyed it fully.

Like I have said–a shorter midgame would have perfected BG2. But of course I am coming at the game from a particular position–that of it being 2017 and I have so many games to play, because games are really cheap commodities; and I’m 35 and I work for a living so I am not spending a dozen hours every day playing. (I mean, admittedly, the lion’s share of my free time is spent gaming–it’s not like I just duck into these things for a half hour every few days.) Tightness and minimalism are things I value at this point in my life, but that’s not to say I don’t enjoy a large, sprawling game–I wouldn’t be into RPGs if I didn’t–and, honestly, it’s not as if Chapters 4 and 5 take up two dozen hours on their own. Still, less is more, says the fellow who’s written about 10 posts on this game alone. And I do like that BG2 doesn’t quite play it safe. The game comes from a place of both supreme confidence–after BG1, Icewind Dale, and Planescape Torment, the Infinity Engine knows what it’s doing–and heavy experimentation–because RPGs were still a very niche genre at the time, and because in general this period of time, for PC games, was a period of high experimentation.

In a way, it’s making me very excited for Pillars of Eternity 2–you can see a lot of parallels between the Infinity Engine and the Pillars engine–the two franchises mirror each other in many ways. PoE is an obvious standin for Baldur’s Gate, being a sprawling woodsy adventure that sometimes collapses under its own ambitions but remains fascinating even for every time it falters; Tyranny and Icewind Dale are weird side adventures that a lot of people don’t quite like but remain trimmer, more linear, more focused; and Torment: Tides of Numenera is an obvious cousin of Planescape: Torment. 20 years later, PoE2 might be a reincarnation of Baldur’s Gate 2, and I look forward to seeing the improvements it makes on its predecessors.

Ah fuck, every time I mention Pillars of Eternity I remember that I plan on replaying it in time for the sequel to come out. That’s a hundred hours I’ve got to brace myself for.