72

I’m mostly enjoying Arcanum–this is about the fifth or sixth time I’ve attempted it and I think it’s more or less sticking. I’m happy with Witzfilliam, my disenfranchised gnome who’s a heavy tanky melee fighter with light buffing skills, and if I can’t quite see the use of all of the spells, well, everyone tells me Arcanum is a delight for roleplayers.

I guess if I have to describe Arcanum, it’s Troika-y, which means that it’s got bugginess to it, an underbakedness to it, one which is married to a huge amount of potential, a rich skill system which lets you poke fairly deeply into the world, a series of sidequests and hidden content that leaves a lot of resolutions, a general sense of freedom for the player that Troika was never quite able to one hundred percent accomplish. The Temple of Elemental Evil is one I’ve never gotten more than a couple minutes in, and Vampire the Masquerade Bloodlines was an amazing game that had way too many unfinished levels. Bloodlines is famous for, among other things, the tension between The Sewer Level That Lasts Forever, which is about as enjoyable as it sounds, and for the Ocean House Hotel, which is one of the finest haunted houses in gaming and a legit masterpiece of scripted scares.

Arcanum is making it clear where Troika loses me–I tend to think the flaws outweigh the great bits and find their games to be more fascinating failures than successes–and is helping to clarify a lot of thoughts I’ve had on RPGs and length. RPGs–JRPGs in particular–have a very impressionistic sense to them. In other words, you’re on a continent with a town, a castle, a cave, and a tower. You’re in a village that consists of four houses and a half dozen people. Even when the land’s isolation is part of the plot–see Dragon Quest VII, which starts you off on that size island and tells you, explicitly, that “in this world, only this island is”–there’s the understanding that this isn’t a literal depiction of the world: It’s a standin. Even in the smallest village, those four houses represent a few dozen, maybe; those half dozen-people, let’s say they speak for about a hundred. RPGs tend to abstract everything–this is a genre that, in its classic form, represents combat by menu clicks and subtraction–and the physical environment is no difference.

The other day a friend of mine asked me what the first RPG I played that really got to me in terms of story, and I said, well, I got Dragon Warrior in that Nintendo contest back in 1989, when I was about seven years old: I’ve been there since the beginning, really. Now, Dragon Warrior has the barest skeleton of a plot: The evil Dragonlord attacked and kidnapped the princess and is somehow menacing the land; you level grind and grab a bunch of macguffins; you save the princess, defeat the Dragonlord, and return peace to the land. Playing it as an adult, I’m surprised by how lean the story is, largely because I remember living this game as a kid. Being seven had a lot to do with it, obviously–it’s not exactly hard to get a seven-year-old’s imagine to run away with something–but Dragon Warrior does earn a lot of the credit because it’s a hell of a skeleton.

Dragon Warrior dealt with a lot of space limitations, the patience of an audience that didn’t quite know what RPGs were, that was used to games with even less plot, and it chose its skeleton well. If a town can fit a half dozen residents, each of whom can do a couple of lines of dialogue, you have to make all of that dialogue count. Every word in Dragon Warrior–like in Might and Magic–has to carry a lot of weight. And so you get a decent outline that you’re encouraged to color in yourself. If “let’s tell a story together” is the best definition of interactive fiction I’ve encountered, well Dragon Warrior does exactly that: Where Might and Magic lets you work in collaboration with the designer in order to reconstruct the physical environment, Dragon Warrior lets you work in collaboration to reconstruct the narrative.

There’s a term that comes up from time to time in old school CRPG manuals–Might and Magic and Wizardry 6 are the two that spring to mind–and that term is “fantasy simulation”. This term describes the likes of Skyrim much better than role-playing-game does, at least to me: I’ve never played an Elder Scrolls game for the plot and I’m still shocked and confused when people talk about the story elements in Skyrim. Elder Scrolls games are less about exploring a narrative, less about charting a world, and more about a simulation of the experience of being an adventurer. There’s an element of simulated realism–the way encumberance is handled, the way everyone keeps a paranoid eye on their possessions, the way character development tends towards minutiae–that takes the center stage. There’s a certain soullessness to Elder Scrolls–the personalities of the various NPCs tumble headfirst into the uncanny valley because we’re expected to take everything so seriously and representational: The Holy Grail of The Elder Scrolls is a game which would exactly match the experience of actually being there.

So I guess I feel like Arcanum squanders its narrative potential–its plot is pretty good and compelling, its structure sprawling and free–by edging towards that simulation aspect. It doesn’t quite get off on its own size the way that Skyrim does, but there cities–during which you spend most of the game–are much larger than they need to be. The experience of Arcanum has been entering every door in a block and talking to everyone I meet; half of the houses are empty, most of the citizens have nothing to say beyond a few generic lines. This is completely unnecessary: Exploring a city is miserable enough, trying to find a specific person to receive a quest reward an exercise in tedium. I’ve started looking everything up on a map I found online–which wouldn’t happen if all of the buildings had something useful in them.

71 – Planescape Torment

And from the frustration file: So I spent the majority of the day just firehosing Torment, cause I had the day off, and why not? And close to my normal bedtime, I notice that I’m actually about to enter the endgame. Okay, fine, I’ll stay up late, beat this sucker, and go to bed accomplished(?). I finished up my last few sidequests, including retrieving a certain item that, according to Ben Chandler, unlocks a really really cool segment in the endgame.

Now, the last half of the game is *extremely* combat heavy–to its detriment, I might say, but I’ll save that for another post–but the final dungeon is ridiculous. Your party members are taken away from you and you have to make your way through a large room pulling switches and avoiding enemies that, while no particular challenge with a party, can really easily surround your single character. Fortunately, you’re immortal, remember: If these things catch and kill you, the worst thing that happens is you appear in the next screen with full health ready to try again.

And for the first three of four switches, that’s exactly what I did–maybe I died a few more times than necessary, but whatever. Right before the fourth switch, however, the stars aligned and a group of enemies surrounded the entrance to the room; since you basically portal in, there’s no way of retreat or escape. The enemies beat me up, and then a nice little message letting me know that I’m incapacitated pops up, and an actual game over screen appears. My last non autosave was about an hour and a half previous; while I could probably run through that bit fairly quickly, I don’t necessarily want to have to.

Fortunately, I have all of those editors from the crowbar incident the other day. I’ll spare the details–suffice it to say it involved directory switching and renaming files and just all this bullshit–but the easiest solution turned out to be maxing out all my stats, letting my character easily defeat the enemies blocking the way. Okay, so far so good. Go through some more story bits, meet a character who says, hey, remember that item Ben told you to hang onto, well take it out now because here’s what it does–and I look in my pockets and son of a bitch, I gave the fucking thing to one of the other characters who is now God knows where.

My last save file is now about two hours before that point, and I don’t fucking care. The thing that the item turned out to be, it is pretty cool, and I do want to see it, and I guess I’m just gonna have to bite the bullet and redo the endgame. Looks like I won’t be beating the game till the morning or maybe even tomorrow night. But hey, that’s still pretty fuckin’ quick, right? I rule.

70 – Planescape Torment

One faction, the Sensates, believe that the only “real” things in the universe are those that can be directly experienced with the senses. Their goal is, essentially, experiencing as much as possible so one can understand the truth of the Multiverse.

One old Sensate laments this to you: He wishes to still continue to experience new things, but his age is so advanced that he can’t physically travel to the more exotic locations. He tasks you with finding a way for him to lose his memory–that way very basic, every day sensations will be new to him.

So you do, and what follows is the text of a note he wrote to himself to get his bearings: “Congratulations…you’ve begun again,” it says, and he goes off, amiably, to figure out what’s going on and follow the instructions he wrote.

What strikes me about this quest is that the guy now finds himself in the same situation as our protagonist–an amnesiac trying to learn as much as possible about the world. And yet, where your journey is one of angst and melancholy and horror, his appears to be a joyous second chance.

There’s that Nietzche thing–I apologize for referencing Nietzsche!–which talks about a shadowy figure at the foot of your bed telling you that you’re going to relive all of the events of your life, that they’re going to repeat again and again for ever and ever, and an ambiguity over whether this is a blessing from an angel or a curse from a devil. For our sensate, the opportunity to live life over is a consummation devoutly to be wished. For you, every step of your journey is fairly horrific. Everything you find out about your past shows you to be one of the biggest assholes on the Planes. Reliving your past through your rediscovery of it is turning out to be a fairly terrible curse indeed.

69 — Planescape Torment

–Okay! So the puzzle I was stuck on: I needed a crowbar to repair the Alley of Lingering Sighs, which would have been easy if I hadn’t sold the crowbar. I couldn’t find another one–I scoured the world as much as I could, and couldn’t find a merchant who had one. I found a list online of which merchants sold what, but couldn’t find one I had access to who sold it.

This being the PC world, the natural thing to do was to find a save game editor–just slap in a crowbar, I figured, maybe even one or two of the side quest items I sold, and move on–play legitimately for the most part, just undo a small but significant series of mistakes in order to avoid replaying the first 10 hours of the game–because goddammit: I’ve played that Mortuary a half dozen goddamn times and I am not going to do that again.

The first program I found was more or less exactly what I wanted–you can look up your characters and add items to them from a list. Easy: Drop in a crowbar, add some prayer beads and Ulf’s knife, and call it a day. Problem: The particular trainer did not list the crowbar as a potential item, apparently because everyone was too busy adding magic swords and shit. The next two trainers didn’t even work on my computer–something about missing DLLs.

Finally, I found a program that listed every merchant I had talked to, and let me edit their inventory as far as prices and such. I found one who had a crowbar in his inventory–but this program didn’t let me edit my *characters’* inventory. And even moreso, while the merchant had a name in the save game editor, I got no hits from searching for the name online and found no clues for his location. So I went back to the original save game list, found the merchant the editor mentioned–I overlooked him the first time through–and finally was able to traipse over there, buy the damn thing, and move on.

Sometimes cheating is so much effort it’s not cheating at all.

–One of the more badass parts of the game is the NPCs. In many ways, Planescape’s main tale is a frame–while you’ve certainly got an interesting narrative going on, and your story does appear to touch a lot of crucial points in the world, you’re also not the only one who’s got a narrative. Planescape isn’t the only game to do this–but it does it remarkably well.

Many games do this as far as making their side quests interesting and connected to the world, but Planescape is, moreso than any other game I’ve played in a while, really concerned with giving even one-off NPCs a backstory. I just had a conversation with a guy–he’s a doorman/guide, and far as I can tell his entire role in the game is to provide directions for the building you’re in. And if you ask him about himself, you find out he’s the ruler of another dimension who’s spending a few centuries doing guard duty–he’s fascinated by the faction who owns the building and is studying their philosophy. Because of the nature of time in your dimensions, he explains, the centuries amount to a couple of months in his world, and so the Queen is ruling in his place while he essentially studies abroad. There are plenty of copy and paste NPCs running around, certainly, they’re just set dressing to make the city feel crowded, but you have enough characters on every screen with an unusual story or something to say that it gives the feeling of being among people who consider themselves to be their own story’s protagonist, and who have the right to.

–Favorite side quest: At the shop of a talkative, cheery coffin maker, noticing a sickly, quiet looking man hanging around. He just wandered in one day, the coffin maker explains, he’s become a regular–a particular hilarious term considering the business–and though he never buys anything, he’s great to talk to–even calls the man his best friend in a little scrap of chatter.

Talking to the man, you quickly realize he’s a zombie, who explains that the coffin maker is just *so* talkative that he’s starting to annoy everyone in the neighborhood. A magician came up with the solution to create a zombie to be the coffin maker’s friend and keep him from bothering everyone. Which would work fine…except at the point you meet the zombie, he’s grown absolutely sick of the coffin maker; your quest is to find a way to put him out of his misery.

–And nearby, a beggar woman, a member of the Githzerai, a people from the dimension of Limbo. You’ve got a Githzerai in your party, and he talks to her. She’s dying–the neighborhood is plagued by fumes from abyssal dimensions and she’s essentially got Hell Cancer–she’s lost her job, and she’s suffering on the street. By custom, he can kill her and relieve her of her pain. It’s your call–and it’s notable that one of the options is “kill her as painfully as possible”, which I couldn’t even begin to consider.

–And I suppose it’s significant that, in a game whose ultimate goal involves figuring a way to break free of your own inability to die, that there are more than a few quests centered around, meet a suffering person and help them die.

68 – Planescape Torment

–This is like my 6th attempt at Planescape: Torment. I’ve only been able to get out of the mortuary once before; I’ve just gotten past the part I stopped at during that play through.

There’s no particular reason for this: Im not the hugest fan of the Infinity Engine or this incarnation of DND mechanics–is this second or third?–but it’s largely been a case of, not the right game for this time in my life.

I’m not the kind of person who gets hung up on these kinds of things. I used to. If a canonical work didn’t grab me, well I would blame myself, or act snobbish, or pretend I had played/read it. I’m over that, largely because I’ve gotten to that age where I’ve discovered and fallen in love with some stuff I previously dismissed–Might and Magic being the most obvious example.

I think it’s the right time for Planescape: Torment now.

–One of the first things everyone will tell you that the great thing about Torment is there’s no combat, or combat is optional, or whatever. That’s not entirely true. In the sewers, rats and monsters will jump out at you. You’ll pull aggro from bandits as you stroll through town. While I suppose it’s possible to run from everything, it’s not particularly fun or rewarding to do so. Let’s face it: Puzzles and exploration and narrative are awesome, and they’re the reason I love RPGs, but dammit, I want to bop a Kobold in the face from time to time.

So there is combat in Planescape, yes, but it’s not the focus. You really don’t have Kill the Foozle quests. It’s possible–and encouraging, and rewarding–to talk your way out of confrontations, and the majority of encounters are going to end that way.

What combat does is pace the game pretty well. Most of the XP you get in the game is from quests–monster XP is a drop in the bucket–and if you’re not doing many quests, if you’re not talking to people, if you’re not hunting for stuff to do, you’re gonna get slaughtered by the enemies the game does throw at you. Combat is never difficult–I’ve gotten through nearly all of it by throwing all my dudes at the monsters, tossing off the occasional spell, and praying.

There’s literally no penalty for death–for plot reasons, your character wakes up none the worse for wear after death, it’s the whole crux of the plot after all, and you’ve got a more or less free spell that can resurrect dead characters with no loss that I can tell. The game is comfortable with you taking down a swarm of enemies by killing them one at a time, resting and recovering after each death, and trying again. It’s not the most strategic or fascinating method, but who cares? The plot stuff is much better.

–There’s a remarkable amount of stuff hidden in the game. The early stages, at least, take place in a neighborhood of a city, and then you spend some time in the catacombs underneath–that’s the area I’m in now. There is enough to discover in each area that I’ve found new things in the third, fourth, fifth time I’ve crossed it. And it’s not simple loot–it’s quests, it’s characters. Planescape really does have a vibrant world, and the characters are all–oh, “interesting” seems a lame word but there it is.

See, it’s difficult to get me invested in Tolkein-esque fantasy. I can *enjoy* it, or at least find it transparent and background if the game itself is fine enough. But generally I really can’t give a shit about the conflict between elves and dwarves, I don’t always want to spend my time traipsing through the same forest, and I just want to go through a fantasy land that doesn’t feel beholden to the same old tropes.

Planescape is definitely this: It’s an extremely syncretic world. The name comes from the conception of the world as a multiverse with gates to infinite planes of existence. There’s a ton of weird shit in Planescape because the environment not only supports but encourages it, and there’s enough talk about even weirder shit out there that it really does feel like a game where everything’s possible. Skyrim–my favorite whipping boy!–feels so staid and dull by comparison.

–A problem: The game silently lets you sell certain quest items; now that I’ve realized this, I’ve stopped selling as much, but that doesn’t stop certain quests from being uncompletable. They’re largely side quests, but I would like the XP and I don’t like unfinished shit if I can help it. More importantly, the main quest I need now requires a crowbar. (I’m fixing the alley where my body was found, for those familiar with the game.) A crowbar was the first weapon I got, and I sold it a long time ago and I goddamn can’t find another one–and a shop list I found suggests that none of the shops I have access to sell it. I found a save game editor which lets me add certain items–but apparently not a crowbar.

So basically, if anyone can recommend some help–a save editor, an alternate route–I would appreciate it!! I don’t want to give up again–this game is too goddamn good.

67 – Zest

I’m lazy; Zest has been out for months, as part of the Interactive Fiction competition, which has been over for a few weeks now, and I’ve been able to talk about it, but I’ve just let that time go by.

Well anyway! My game Zest, which I worked on with lectronice and PaperBlurt, is now out, and you can go play it here. The reaction was as mixed as I expected; some people really got it, some didn’t, but I think it touched the people it was supposed to touch and pissed off the people it was supposed to piss off, and that’s all I feel like saying about it right now. I hope you enjoy it.

66 – Dysthymia

Capture

Writing Zest is a little bit of a struggle, so to kind of recharge the batteries, I wrote a new game. It’s called Dysthymia. Using a computer is recommended–it does not play at all well with mobile browsers.

Dysthymia is intended to be a continuous, uninterrupted artistic experience. It contains no save state. Please set aside 40 seconds to play through the game, as well as an hour for quiet contemplation afterwards. Turning the lights off and wearing earplugs are also recommended, as is having a degree in comparative literature.