116 – Sekiro: Virtuous Deeds

I need an item called Divine Confetti to be able to damage certain spirit-type bosses, which is a rare drop from Blue Samurai, and there is a checkpoint right in front of one, positioned in a spot where it’s easy to get a one-hit-kill sneak attack on him. A few feet past that is a different enemy, equally easy to sneak, who gives something like 600 XP and change. It is an extremely easy loop to start at the bonfire, sneak kill both enemies, return, rest, and repeat, netting a decent chunk of XP, some useful healing items, and if you’re lucky, some of that Divine Confetti. This is the nature of videogame grinding. It is the type of loop that I have found myself in for something around 30 years when I first played Dragon Warrior, and you can interpret it to be as meditative as you’d like.

 

We are playing Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice–an increasingly inaccurate title considering the hundreds of deaths I’ve certainly racked up by now, and like every other Sekoulsbourne game, it’s about being trapped in a cycle: The meaningless of a cyclical existence compounded by the meaninglessness of an end to that cycle in Dark Souls; the horror of a cycle that’s stagnated due to needs incapable of being met in Bloodbourne; and Sekiro’s weary notion of the bleakness of Buddhism’s cycle of death and reincarnation. Over the course of Sekiro, many characters pray to Buddha for guidance to escape the cycles that they are trapped in, but unfortunately for the Blue Samurai and his friend, I’m going to be grinding until I’ve reached my goal. Having gained enough Divine Confetti, I beat the bosses I need to, which give me certain trinkets that I knew I was going to get going in, and that I knew would not be particularly useful to me, but which might give me a Cheevo.

 

When you die, you lose half of your gold and XP, but there’s a chance that Buddha and the heavens will smile upon you and you’ll receive Unseen Aid–you’ll get to keep them. My boyfriend and I have developed a habit of saying “Thank you, Buddha” every time it happens. We have found ourselves in a point of the game where Unseen Aid isn’t terribly helpful–we usually wait until we’ve gained enough XP and gold to spend it all with very little change and so we’re not risking much. We have found a very efficient and risk-free way to grind, so as to maximize what we gain, although we certainly appreciate Buddha’s regard.

 

Life, according to the Noble Truths taught by Buddha, is suffering, and the cause of that suffering is attachment, desire. Only by ceasing our desire can we escape suffering, and the Eightfold Path outlines the way to do that. Mat does some research on drop percentages and helps me find another area where I can grind: Three easy to slaughter enemies and a fourth that isn’t worth the trouble–it’s more efficient to forgo his XP and reset it. We spend some time at this, the fourth guy in a loop of watching his friends cut down before him until I gain enough to get a skill point.

 

I pick a skill called Virtuous Deed, which increase item drop rate. Its description talks about the monks of Senpou Temple who preached that “One should focus only on the deeds of virtue and forego thoughts of attaining wealth,” but have now been corrupted by the promises of immortality. I find another spot to grind, this right in front of an enemy called a Mist Noble whose attacks suck the vitality of young men, causing your health to drop to maybe a tenth of its normal value while you hobble around using your sword as a cane. He does not steal my life force; he does not avoid death; I deliver it to him and we trap each other in a cycle for a while. I’m not grinding for levels, or money, but for an upgrade item which allows me to purchase stronger prosthetic tools. This morning, I scoffed at an article in Vice which complained about how the use of these tools was resource-limited, because I haven’t found the limit to be remotely a problem. I actually don’t really use the prosthetic tools very much at all. They don’t really fit with my playstyle.

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115 – Sekiro

Oh, just play Sekiro for an hour, my boyfriend Mat said. It’s not the kind of game that you binge anyway, he said. See, I’ve been putting off playing the game because I have A Lot Of Shit On My Plate right now, to wit:

 

–I am 200 pages from the end of Infinite Jest

–I am in the middle of Ghost of a Tale, still entranced

–I have Hypnospace Outlaw that I still need to get to

–I’m working on a board game with some friends and tonight we are having some playtesting sessions

–I’m in the middle of a six-day workweek at the restaurant and, thanks to a delayed order, I have a much larger prep workload in a shorter period of time

–I’ve gotten hooked on Arkham Horror The Card Game, which will be a whole other story that I’ll tell you about at some point

 

I am busy, in short, and so do not need to add a new game to the deck. I’ve hit a wall with it, Mat said. You’ll want to restart it anyway. This was at eight. At one point I looked up from the game and asked what time it was. It’s a quarter after twelve.

 

Oh, thank God, I said. I thought it was closer to 2. And since I had already emotionally accepted the fact that it might be two o’clock already, I figured that gave me permission to actually stay up till 2, and that’s why I went to bed after 3AM last night.

 

You’re good at this game, Mat said at one point, with that slight resignation tone people get when they realize that they are a worm and you are a god.

 

There is something about the combat in Sekiro that clicked almost instantly for me. I like Bloodborne better than the Souls series because it encourages a certain relentlessness. Dark Souls is slow, relentless, methodical because its plot is slow, relentless, and methodical. Countless Undead have gone through this experience only to fail; the setting is literally throwing player characters at a wall until one of them finally sticks, and it has all day. No one is in any rush; the flow of time is distorted, anyway, and everything is just going to decay eventually. It doesn’t matter whether you solve it on Cycle 1 or Cycle 1,000,000: You’re just prolonging the inevitable.

 

Bloodborne is different. Bloodborne is about an attempt to escape a city and then about a night that keeps getting darker and more horrifying, about veils removed. Its combat is much more relentless because the setting is more bloodthirsty. A brutal swath is the only thing that will advance the night, which will cause everyone to finally awaken, and Bloodborne rewards you getting up close and personal and countering the enemy’s attacks. Bloodborne puts you eye to eye with abominations and wants you to get up as close to whatever closest resembles their faces as you can.

 

And Sekiro is about desperation and one-hit kills. Its intro shows a war in the most brutal, inglorious, Private Ryan-kind of fashion, with dismemberments and beheadings and just everything painful that can be done with a sword. Simply getting up close isn’t enough; you need to sneak up on your enemies to slay them instantly. A berserker style works against a lot of enemies–running up right close to them and whaling away before they get a chance to react. The parrying mechanic that’s all but required for Dark Souls’ final boss? Here it’s required for the vast majority of enemies. Deflecting blows and regular attacks damages the enemy’s stance, and once it’s staggered, you can rush in for an instant kill, all shown graphically. More than any other From Software game, most of your enemies are more or less human–they’re not even undead yet, although there is of course plenty of eldritch magic going on and it’s clear that nobody is fully human. Most fights are over in seconds, the result of a desperate struggle which leaves one person gurgling blood out of a giant hole in their neck. Battles with more elite enemies are terrified duels, your time spent deflecting and dodging until you see an opening and can go in for the kill. It is a game of patience and then lightning-fast action. 

 

And it might simply be because of the game’s early stages, but so far the bleakness and just pure existential horror that exists in the Soulsborne series isn’t here. Dark Souls, a videogame series about the heat death of the universe, believes that cycles of death and decay are eternal, that the end can only be delayed and not prevented, and that even changes to the cycle will be swept away given enough time. Bloodborne sees an end to the cycle of horror, sees a dawn to the endless night, but also posits that that the waking light of the morning might not be better, or might be forever corrupted by the events of the night lurking beneath.

 

But Buddha looms large in Sekiro; your first main contact is a sculptor, haunted by sins he has committed, forever carves corrupted Buddha statues. Your XP is halved upon death, but sometimes, a force called Unseen Aid that represents Buddha and other spirits, kicks in and lets you keep everything you’ve earned. Characters constantly talk about Buddha as a figure of salvation. You are a figure of corruption–your respawn powers are tied to having been healed with dragon blood (and I’m sure the theories tying all of the Soulsbornekiro games together are already making their way through the internet), and the more you resurrect, the more those around you are corrupted. Your resurrections slowly start making the NPCs around you physically ill, and every one you infect lowers your chance of Unseen Aid.

 

Bloodborne, I’m told, draws a lot more from Shinto imagery; that religion deals heavily with corruption and purification, and a lot of its imagery is designed to read like a laundry list of everything Shinto finds abject–blood, death, menstruation, birth. My understanding of Buddhism is it is more concerned with the cycle of reincarnation that is existence, and how to escape that cycle. Our souls are trapped in an endless cycle of birth and death, and the religion attempts to provide the path towards spiritual purification and, ultimately, Nirvana. The very religion that serves as Sekiro’s underpinning has a happy ending–or, at least, a contended ending–written into it, and I’m curious to see if that’s where Sekiro ends up. There are plenty of twists to be had, of course. We might end up in some of the many hells that Buddhism recognizes, of course, and there are plenty of Japanese games that end up revealing that the divine figure is evil. If we see the Buddha, we might end up having to kill him.

114 – If I Knew Now What I Knew Then I Would Have Paid Full Price For Ghost Of A Tale

I am making small, successful strides with teaching my boyfriend to be as much of a bargain-hunting cheapskate as I am, and so all by himself he realized that, rather than paying the full $60 for Anthem, he could simply sign up for EA’s ridiculous Origin service, and even if the game took two months to complete he would still pay only $30 total, a move which turned out to be very smart after he completed it, disgusted, after about two weeks. I was so proud of him that I paid full price for Hypnospace Outlaw without even flinching (and because even a tightwad like me will admit that Tholen deserves it.) I am thrifty, I am frugal, and I am not ashamed, because I am not what you would call a man of means, and videogames are goddamn expensive, especially when that game is Anthem.

 

We might as well get some use out of the service, and so I’ve been poking around the library, which contains a lot of games that have been on my radar for a while but which I’ve never bought for one reason or another. Origin’s biggest value has, for me, been a great way to validate my decision to save my money. Ghost of a Tale was one of those that I’d been eying since it was announced but have been so, like, suspicious about. The plan was 20 minutes of it, enough to see that it was shitty, then move onto Hypnospace.

 

I did not expect to fall in love with this game that no one I know has really talked about, that I haven’t seen any discussion of. That was made largely solo by Dreamworks animator Seith Gallat fresh off his time spent on The Lorax, an abomination in my eyes that combines two of my least favorite things: CG movies (I hate CG movies and that includes Pixar and holy shit it feels good to finally admit that) and the defilement of Dr. Seuss’s legacy. That had gorgeous screenshots which obviously foretold style over substance. That had Indiegogo funding and an Early Access release. That had animals who would undoubtedly get some hideous voice acting. That was a stealth game, a very finicky genre to do well.

 

It would, I predict, have an initial area frontloaded with ideas, which would peter out once you got to the rest of the game, and what does it matter, because the Indiegogo campaign was successful and the damn thing got out and people only play the first hour of videogames anyway and no one ever beats them so it doesn’t matter. Reports of massive bugs upon the game’s eventual release seemed to confirm my fears. Gallat, like so many developers before him both indie and AAA, would have undoubtedly found the process of indie developing to be exhausting and and released a pretty, shallow disappointment. It would control like shit, the AI would be all over the place, the story would be longwinded and overwritten–Ghost of a Tale paradoxically looked so cool and yet had so many red flags that there was no way I could not have been disappointed in it; and now that we had Origin and it was on the service, I didn’t even have a financial excuse. So: 20 minutes.

 

And the character controlled smoothly, and the stealth mechanics were logical and simple, and the game looked beautiful, and maybe all of that wasn’t entirely unexpected because anyone can make something hold together with spit and prayer for 20 minutes, enough to get through the Early Access demo and rook people into spending money into your game that you’re never going to really finish. But right around that 20 minute mark, right around the time I realized that the main character wasn’t making little quips or that the guards weren’t spouting threatening lines at me, I met an NPC, and I braced myself for the paragraphs of deathless prose–would it be purple this time, would it be beige, would they reference popular memes or all have verbal tics based on their species–and the inevitable voice acting–would it be a high-pitched squeak, would it be breathlessly eager, would it be impossibly gruff–and I talked to the NPC–

 

–And a couple of sentences of written, silent conversation followed. The tone jocular but not trying to hard, the effect functional, unornamented, egoless. As if it knew that, most of the time in games, I’ll just vaguely skim for the gist and move on from there and that it really just needs to graze my eyes with a few key terms, given with shiny footnoted text that I may only absorb half of but that nobody minds that. I respect that the game follows Jeff Vogel’s first law of videogame storytelling, which is: “Players will forgive your game for having a good story, as long as you allow them to ignore it.” (Vogel’s second law clarifies that, when we’re talking about videogames, “a good story” simply means “a story”.)

 

It should not feel like such a revelation that the game is good–that it’s a real game. The level design does that post-Dark Souls thing where it’s a series of small, compact areas that wrap around each other and where you’re constantly opening shortcuts and revealing the interconnection of the map. The stealth hits the good balance where guards are smart enough to be a threat but are stupid enough to outwit. The areas I’ve discovered so far have a consistent density of stuff, and the game does backtracking in the way that I like. I’m a sucker for good level design. I only have a vague idea why I’m doing what I’m doing–I’m a prisoner because of something related to the political situation between the rats and the mice, and my wife is missing, and something about an evil green flame–but I’m getting very familiar with the prison island.

 

I mean, I’m nervous–this thing can fall apart at any time, just because it’s held for 4 hours doesn’t mean it’s going to hold for the rest. But, like, I trust the game now, and I feel bad that I didn’t. In my defense, it didn’t give me much reason to. If you’re reading this, and you trust me, and you are on the fence about it, please, pick it up, it’s so good. It is, so far, genuinely the game I hoped it would be.

113 – Squinting at Bard’s Tale 4

The solution was obvious: Bard’s Tale 4 becomes a much, much more pleasant experience when you turn the voices off. Sure, there are still pages of dialogue to skip through, but the bad British accents, the screechy goblin voices, the shit-covered peasants, they all calm down and now Bard’s Tale 4 is the quiet, calm dungeon crawler it was meant to be. There are still characters who appear and monologue at me, say nothing interesting, and disappear, and I think the game thinks the encounter is inherently interesting and its own reward, and boy do I disagree–but at least they’re silent.

 

I have no idea what’s going on–or rather, I’ve played so goddamn many RPGs that I know exactly what’s going on, but the game’s done nothing to make me care about the details. The plot so far boils down to [Backstory from the first three games that came out 30 years ago and I didn’t play], and now you’ve got to stop it from returning. That is, essentially, the exact plot of Dragon Quest XI–and every other RPG that’s ever been made–and I’m at a point where I need a lot to get me interested in your plot.

 

But everything that Bard’s Tale 4 is doing, on a surface level at least, is a cliche. Its humor is typical geek fantasy humor, its world is Tolkien filtered through Monty Python. Its humans are the same wizards and peasants that you see in every fantasy game with no interest in style, its creatures unspiring and plasticy. That last is a particular shame considering just how evocative I find the monster portraits in screenshots of the original trilogy. It’s, you know, just an ugly game. Everything I am looking at feels like the first lazy decision, with no encouragement to make it weird or interesting. It is fantasy from people with no narrative or visual imagination.

 

And, Lord, does this game have an inexcusable inventory. It is a multi-page grid inventory with no way to autosort, with crafting ingredients mixed in with armor mixed in with accessories (very powerful in this game) mixed in with potions and hot damn is the thing a mess. If you have a stack of items, and then craft another stack, they will not be combined but rather will take up two spots in your inventory. Its UI in general is bad–no keyboard commands for selecting characters in battle, no way to adjust the way-to-slow mouse sensitivity, ugly text. If you’re an old-school RPG gamer, you’re used to janky inventories and weird controls, but a lot of that can be excused as part of developers experimenting with new technologies and display possibilities, or not yet realizing that certain aspects of tabletop gaming don’t translate well to a single-player experience, to not simply knowing any better because, well, like, Richard Garriott was a scrawny nerd growing up in Texas who affected a British accent because he thought it would make him sound cool and who coded his earliest games from his room. It is almost a miracle that they are playable today, a miracle they existed in the first place, and if you get into the weeds of gaming history you’ll find it littered with the corpses of games that weren’t even that good, that fell up against the technical challenges of essentially creating a genre from scratch.

 

So awkward humor and weird interfaces are something you kind of accept when you play older games. You have to squint a lot to see what’s in Might and Magic I, but there is a wonderfully solid game there. And that is the case with Bard’s Tale 4. I saw it described somewhere as Myst done as an RPG, and that’s kind of the case. Maybe The Witness is a bit better of an example–certainly the game takes a lot more inspiration from puzzle games than most RPGs. Instead of opening doors with that same shitty Bethesda lockpicking minigame that long ago ceased to be challenging for any of us and has simply become the quicktime event of RPG puzzles, doors are opened with various setpieces. There are traditional sliding block-type puzzles (and I’m expecting pressure plates any moment now), and some more elaborate ones like cogs and gears that need to be manipulated or something called Fairy Golf which I am finding a lot of fun. You develop several Metrovania-style abilities which open other paths and reveal treasures. The areas are all large and sprawling and feature shortcuts and backpaths. The environment is its own hook. I am playing Bard’s Tale 4 not because I care about the story, not because it’s nice to look at, not even because I enjoy the combat all that much–although it’s a pretty decent system which I’ll get to at some point–but because it is the kind of large exploratory puzzle that requires you to pick at threads here and there, testing for weak spots, circling around and reconsidering until you’ve unraveled the whole thing.

 

You need to squint a lot to see what’s good about Bard’s Tale 4, and I guess I wonder how excusable that all is. This would be a much better game with a very different skin. And they don’t have the same luxuries to explain away why the wrapping is so bad. I guess that the team does have a long pedigree of games that are well-regarded despite–maybe even because of–their jankiness, but I wish they would have learned more from their and others’ mistakes, because so many of its issues are problems solved by other games. It is an excellent game that is held back because of a lot of very poor aesthetic decisions.

112 – The Bard’s Tale 4 Has 350 Characters And They Will Not Shut Up

Some 10 years ago I made the mistake of kicking off a long weekend by rooting through a bargain bin and buying the PS2 game The Bard’s Tale. A shining example of the style of shoddy action-adventures that spawned, like mildew, during the console’s height, The Bard’s Tale featured a very confused Cary Elwes and a bunch of community theatre players gamely making their way through a third-rate Monty Python ripoff of a script that insisted that its fourth-wall breaking and gentle ribbing of RPG conventions was absolutely hilarious. As a particularly sadistic touch, the game actually shuts up and lets you play for as many as 15 consecutive minutes, and then, just as you’re lulled into a false sense of security, it grabs your head and forces you to watch as its characters burst into songs–comic songs, at that, with the first one being a rousing celebration of beer and the second one being about how I took the game out of my console and promptly, deliberately misplaced it.

I could not tell you a single thing about the humor or the quality of the writing in The Bard’s Tale 4. Well, I could tell you about two early dialogues–a Hodor-style farmer who responds to every query with a list of vegetables, and a soup merchant who rambles on for a couple paragraphs about how great his soup is before deciding not to sell you the soup. If you are reading a review of Bard’s Tale 4 that praises the writing, you are reading a review by someone who has never played a well-written game, seen a good movie, or read a halfway decent book; you are reading a book by a geek with poor taste. I have skipped and skimmed my way through every single other dialogue. I have been given quests and completed them without knowing who my guest party members are or why I’m helping them. I don’t want to know these people. They’re extras from Holy Grail and Life of Brian and it is twenty-goddamn-eighteen.

One of the game’s marketing bullets is the more-than-350 characters with speaking parts. Like all voice acting in RPGs, it is utterly pointless here. As is standard, you are presented with a character’s talking head, reading the paragraph of backstory that they are spouting off, that you are supposed to politely pretend to be interested in, the voice acting redundant in the face of the text you can make your way through in half the time. Some 10 years ago, when I used to kick off long weekends by buying bad bargain bin PS2 games, I found myself working a heavy corporate job. (Neither I nor my boss had any clue what I was doing there, who hired me, what I was hired to do, but the pay was so good I showed up for three years until they finally fired me.) As part of this job, I would regularly have to sit through Powerpoint presentations which consisted of slides with dense text on them and the presenter reading, verbatim, the words on each slide. And in addition, to make sure we were all following along, the presentation would not begun until we were each handed a printout of the text of the slides. Entire hours of my week would be sucked up by this nonsense. It could have been an email. But a presentation on a screen feels more important, and a voiced character feels that much more cinematic.

But God, I mean I had the same exact problem with Pillars of Eternity 2, the presentation was about as engaging as a corporate powerpoint and the characters would not. shut. up. P2 might have even been worse–the game expects you to be able to tell the difference between several factions enough to choose one to ally with, and you get to choose between the one who goes on for paragraphs and paragraphs; the one who goes on for paragraphs and paragraphs; the one who goes on for paragraphs and paragraphs; and the one who goes on for paragraphs and paragraphs. Lord help me, I’ve become an RPG gamer who doesn’t read. I hope that BT4 doesn’t have any choices, doesn’t expect me to have paid attention in any way. Multiple endings and consequences only matter when you give a shit about the world you’re playing in.

Because as a game, Bard’s Tale 4 is pretty great! (Something which it does not have in common with Pillars 2, which was a deathless, joyless slog.) So far I’ve encountered two hubs and one proper dungeon. The hubs are large and sprawling, secrets for return trips hidden around, and they’re clearly areas you’re intended to unlock more and more of as things progress. This is Good Dungeon Crawling–where navigating the environment is itself a challenge and not simply a series of hallways where challenges (i.e. combats) happen. Different abilities and items unlock puzzles, which are liberally scattered around the environment. All dungeon crawling, these days, happens under the shadow of Legend of Grimrock, which spawned a handful of successors that all missed what, exactly, was good about it; what, exactly, Grimrock saw in the old games and recontextualized for a new generation. BT4 is the first dungeon crawler post-Grimrock that I think is remotely worth a damn.

Grimrock is not a plot-heavy series. The sequel has a bit more going on, but both confine their plot almost exclusively to notes and books. That’s not surprising, given its roots in Dungeon Master which was also uninterested in NPCs; I appreciate BT4’s attempt at giving its world more character. But I guess I’m just over NPC interaction. I don’t want to deal with keywords, or with Bioware-style conversation trees–I’m not a horny 20-year-old who wants to fuck videogame characters by picking the right options , and I’m fucking tired of developers trying to trick me into thinking a conversation is interactive just because I had to pick every beat of the conversation one-by-one instead of, you know, just sitting back and watching the conversation. I am happy to just sit back and watch a conversation.

I’m playing Dragon Quest 11, and when I’m talking to a nobody NPC in the field, their dialogue is not voiced but merely rendered as a series of very pleasant beeps–the same beeps the NPCs in the series have been making for 30 years–and when there’s a major event, the characters voice their lines, and I can gamely skip through it since I’m usually done reading by the time the character has spoken their fourth word, and they only speak a couple sentences at a time, and the conversation happens on its own without me prodding them about every element of their backstory–like I’m fucking interested–and the only choice anyone asks me to make is whether or not to help with whatever predicament we’re in, and if I answer no, they scold me and make me do it anyway, and there’s no choice and there’s no consequences and what I do in this videogame doesn’t matter and it’s not up to me and I’m just along for the ride and I’m not getting any deep phil osophical meaning out of the ludonarrative dissonance and it is fucking wonderful.

You know, like, The Bard’s Tale 4 is probably a very good game, I am enjoying it, but it will not shut up and there is something off-putting about it whenever it tries to introduce us to one of it’s 7,000 voiced characters. I’ve talked to a couple dozen people so far and I haven’t found a single character I like. That’s not BT4’s fault; but–like Pillars of Eternity–it’s not clever enough to do anything interesting with conversation so it just spouts out pointless exposition that would have been cut out of even a mediocre fantasy novel. You know, it’s just–games are so loud, and they talk so much, and they try so hard to be funny and wacky and quirky and jovial, and, like, let’s just all fucking relax, okay? Because when Bard’s Tale 4 relaxes, it’s really great, and then an NPC comes on the horizon, and it realizes with a wave of terror that it’s going to have to be social for a minute, and it says, it’s okay, I got this, I’m cool, I’m relaxed, and it opens its mouth and a fucking joke comes out, and it’s all downhill from there.

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.

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.