99 – Massive Disap–I mean, Massive Chalice

image1I was all set to make a point about the battles in Massive Chalice taking way too long; I had set a timer and was about the six-minute mark. The battle I was in was not a particularly significant battle: It was one of the bog-standard random battles that happens periodically throughout the game. Every time I moved my heroes, another few enemies appeared–it’s one of those games that hides its enemies behind fog-of-war until you have line of sight.

This battle introduced an enemy type called Cradles. Each of Massive Chalice’s enemies has a little gimmick–some take away XP; some explode, leaving behind poisoned squares; some give themselves a defensive buff after being attacked. The Cradle’s gimmick is that it spits out other enemies, and they also happen to have high HP. Defeating one of them took several rounds, both to cross the featureless level to the area where it is, and a couple of attacks to take it down. Finally, at about the 7 minute mark of my timer, I defeated the thing, whereupon it added three enemies to the already large pile on my screen before it died.

It was at that point that I uninstalled Massive Chalice.

Double Fine is a wall that I keep hitting myself against, getting more and more disappointed every time, and I think a lot of people feel that way. Remasters of Lucasarts classics aside, I’ve never met anybody who’s loved a Double Fine game. There’s something appealing and likeable about them that’s doesn’t really carry through to the quality of their games. All of their stuff of theirs that I’ve played has a really nifty premise, a confidence of voice, an uncontestable stylishness that just tumbles into bullshit. Psychonauts was hilarious and experimental and varied–and was also a collectathon platformer with finicky jumps that became more and more unpleasant to play as it went out. (Ah, for a Psychonauts that had the balls to be a straight up adventure game.) Brutal Legend was–again–hilarious, looked amazing, was an unabashed love letter to heavy metal–that threw too many ideas at the wall and didn’t do any of them well. The Cave was an interesting experiment that begged you to replay it and then bogged you down with repetitiveness. Hack and Slash had some great ideas but was ultimately incomprehensible. Broken Age was beautiful and eerie until it ran out of funding and didn’t release its lackluster second half until everybody had forgotten about it. Spacebase DF-9 was unfinished. Every one of their games I’ve played starts off shiny, full of promise, and then just crumbles.

In my most cynical moments, I want to say that the only thing that Double Fine is really good at is getting funding for their games. They’re that kind of faux indie giant that feels sorry for itself, tramples over the bedroom developers, gets itself on itch.io, and crowds everybody out of Kickstarter. And that would be unfair. Because the employees of Double Fine fucking love games. Every piece of their copious behind-the-scenes media shows a bunch of people who genuinely believe in what they’re doing, who love what they’re doing, who are living the dream.

There’s just always some issue between the idea and the execution. It always falls flat.

Massive Chalice is a turn-based strategy game in the vein of X-Com, a game that I liked but didn’t love. Its premise is that your kingdom is under attack by something-or-other, and that in 300 years you’ll be able to launch your superweapon, so in the meantime you’ve got to manage your kingdom, build up your armies, do your research, and fight some skirmishes until the final battle. It, like X-Com, is an attempt at marrying grand strategy to squad-based tactics. By and large, the grand strategy sections are very good. I love checking research off a tech tree. You appoint people to be the regents of various keeps and you get to marry them off and have babies, and while I’m not one of those creeps who loves Fire Emblem (seriously, if you’ve ever met a Fire Emblem fan, they’ll always go on, in very disturbing terms, about marrying their characters together, and there’s always a faux-veneer of self-awareness about, ha ha, I’m breeding these people together like cattle, but one which quickly falls apart because oh my god they do not shut up about how they’re breeding these people together like cattle) there’s a depth to that. And it’s all tied to a timeline that scrolls through–the UI is really pretty (everything Double Fine does is really pretty)–in a very satisfying way.

The actual battles fucking suck.

As I said: They all take too long. The grand strategy is where my heart is; every time a battle pops up, it feels like an interruption. They all take place in generic, procgen areas that are too large and have too many enemies hidden in the corners. And they are all exactly the same. Oh, sure, there’s different enemy types–as I said, they all have their gimmicks–but every single one i encountered is a simple, defeat all of the enemies. X-Com had the decency to sprinkle some bespoke setpieces at particular moments, ones which represented major parts of the storyline. Which felt like accomplishments. I know it’s one of my personal bugbears, being down on procgen, but I can see the use of it, when it keeps a game being surprising, it can add to some nice tension. In Massive Chalice, the effect is a flatness–there’s no major strategic difference from battle to battle. There’s some different wallpaper to the environments, but otherwise, you’re just going to be fighting a smattering of too-many enemies in a featureless, boring set of corridors forever. Were the battlefields half the size, were there a third as many enemies, it might be a pretty good game–the battles being quick things you duck into for a minute or two. But every one seems to go on long past the point of being interesting. It all feels like padding.

Massive Chalice has made me aware of the passage of time. As the years go on in the game, people are born, and people die–both in battle and of old age. The baby born in your keep grows up and becomes a fighter so quickly. The scholars you have researching will die of old age. And what it has impressed upon me is this lesson: Life is way too fucking short to waste on the same fucking battles over and over again.

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98 – Baldur’s Gate 2: True (And False) Companions

The Baldur’s Gate games have a huge roster; BG1 boasts 25 (29 in the Extended Edition) companions who can join your journey. Baldur’s Gate 2 has only 16–21 in the EE–and makes up for the lack by giving them all more focus, dialogue, and quests. A few of your companions had things to do, all of which were on strict time limits: Montaron and Xzar need you to get to Nashkel, Kivan needs you to complete Chapter 4 hours before you’re ready to get there, Minsc wants you to rescue Dynahier. If you don’t do what they ask, they’ll leave your party forever. There’s also some characters who come in pairs–once you rescue Dynahier, she and Minsc are joined at the hip, and Jaheira will not join your party unless Khalid is there, which is a shame because Khalid sucks.

But for the most part, your characters are a bunch of barks and incidental dialogue. Baldur’s 2 greatly expands all of their roles. Some characters will refuse to be in the same party as one with opposite alignment, and they’ll even fight each other to the death. Characters can be romanced–as I said, BG2 is Bioware becoming Bioware. (I hate romance subquests, but that’s another story.) And many of the characters have personal quests, ones that are much more detailed than those in the first game.

And Baldur’s Gate 2 is very happy to let you fuck those quests up or otherwise kick the characters out permanently.

Anomen, an irritating fighter/cleric who’s desperate to become a knight, gets charged with avenging the murder of his sister. Complete the quest, and he’ll not get that knighthood and his alignment will change. Keldorn, a Paladin, finds out his wife, lonely from his insistence on going on adventures, is seeking affections from another man; you can encourage him to leave the party for good in order to spend more time at home. Dorn, one of the Extended Edition’s terrible characters, asks you to help out with a series of assassinations, damaging your reputation every time until you finally get sick of him and he leaves in a huff. Jaheira, a Harper and friend of your foster fathers, sees your low reputation from all that time spent with Dorn and leaves rather than vouch for you at a kangaroo court, shutting you out of some later quests with her.

This is what we call “true role-playing”, and it’s a kind that I know upsets some people. All of the mutual exclusivity in party members means it’s difficult or impossible to do an optimal route. Most people consider games with branching paths to have only one “real” route, and anything else is a fuckup. This is a big reason why you’ve never made a choice in a videogame: If games were to let you, why, you might not like the results. Best to have one basic route through, and maybe some light, cosmetic things here and there.

But I find Baldur’s Gate 2’s philosophy to be much more interesting, although, yes, it is slightly disconcerting at times. The game figures there’s so much of itself that you’re still going to have a satisfying amount to eat no matter what. There’s some quests you’re going to simply miss–the triggers for the companion quests, for example, depend on having a party member around for a certain amount of days, or taking one to a certain area–and if you get a bad ending or someone leaves for good, well, that’s life. There’s still more to do, and there’s still other people around you haven’t offended. Maybe your reputation is just so low that you’ve got to fill up your party with Hexxat and Viconia and Edwin and you’ll just run with it.

Losing Jaheira does sting a bit, though.

I earned my 20k gold, spent most of it on spells and supplies, and earned it again. Now I’ve gotten my stronghold–due to class choices, it’s the same exact stronghold (Nalia’s) as I got my first time through, which is kind of a shame–and am exploring the wilderness areas outside of Athkatla. Which by no means means I’ve finished everything I’d like to do in the city. Like I said. There’s so much to do in this game. I am a busy Bhaalspawn.

97 – Baldur’s Gate 2: The City and The City

map1I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the city of Baldur’s Gate feels like an afterthought in its own game, but it’s close. That game, as I’ve said, is so wilderness-focused and you only make it to the city in its closing acts, while Baldur’s Gate 2’s Athkatla is front-and-center. Athkatla has better quests, and comes at a time when you’re fresh for them: Everything you do in Baldur’s Gate comes, for me, at a time when I’m ready to end the thing.

But Athkatla has a much better layout, at least in videogame terms. It’s entirely down to Bioware getting better at its own engine–in general, BG2 has finer dungeon design and benefits from a couple years of Infinity Engine games. Both cities are too large to fit on one screen–not counting underground areas and buildings, Baldur’s Gate needs 9 maps, Athkatla 7. But those 2 extra screens don’t seem to add much–Athkatla does a lot more in terms of structure and density.

Here’s an image of Baldur’s Gate I’m stealing from a walkthrough that’ll help me make my point:

 

baldursgatechapter7

You start your explorations of the city in the middle right. When you leave a section, you’re tossed back to the world map and the districts slowly unlock–so if you go north, you’ve unlocked the upper-right, if you go left, you get the one in the middle, etc. You can travel to any unlocked district. Makes sense. But the problem is, the districts aren’t really differentiated by anything other than their physical position, and that isn’t even related to the physical layout of the city–it’s arbitrary.

Take that upper-right section. You’ll see a wall dividing it into two parts. One is not accessible from the other. To get to the left section, you’ve got to go into the top-middle district and travel east, go to the world map, and click on the upper-right district. To get to the right section, you’ve got to travel north from the middle-right district. This is one of the most egregious bits of the city, but it speaks to one of the general issues with it–namely, that they’re trying to fit a sprawling city into a grid.

Athkatla, meanwhile, is much simpler–all of the seven sections have a name (Temple District, Government District, Slums, Bridge, etc), and each is a complete map unto itself. You’re funnelled into the slums after Irenicus’s Dungeon in order to get a plot event to kick off Chapter 2, but once that’s done, the city is open to you–all you need to do to go into another district is just leave by any exit, and you’ll be given the opportunity to select any section. It’s a much more elegant way of displaying the city, and one which makes traveling it a lot easier.

Now you’re looking at the Athkatla map and you’re noticing that a lot of it is not visitable–the parts you can go to seem to make up maybe half of the map of the whole, while you’re allowed to visit the entirety of Baldur’s Gate. The problem is, most of the Baldur’s Gate you get to visit is utterly irrelevant. There are weapon shops, houses, inns, all of which have absolutely nothing to do with your quest and which are very generic–you can maybe steal a couple of gold from houses, you can buy a couple arrows from a weapon shop, you can rest in the inn–but you don’t need to and it adds nothing. All you get is a couple of lines of generic dialogue–and, of course, by this point, gold means nothing, you’re not doing much weapon shopping, and there are some nicer inns with greater plot relevance in the city. It’s that design philosophy that would reach full flower in the Elder Scrolls series–a “real” city would have a lot of inns and shops, so let’s put them all in, even if they don’t benefit or interest the player in any way.

Athkatla strips it down to the essentials and manages to create a much denser, more vibrant city. There are some unnotable houses, some random weapon stores you won’t visit twice, but there’s far fewer, and the percentage of important locations is a lot higher.

And there’s also the fact that I can count the houses in Baldur’s Gate and get an exact size of the city. By restricting our movements to the only districts of Athkatla that there’s action in, the city feels much, much larger–I know I’m skipping over the sleepy residential parts and the office buildings and the areas that my party has no interest in, and I can imagine a lot of that. Baldur’s Gate depicts a small city; Athkatla suggests a very large one.

This is one thing that Siege of Dragonspear does very right–you spend some time in Baldur’s Gate in an early chapter, and it’s reduced to a couple of notable locations and their immediate surroundings. You only see the sections you need to see, only the important or interesting stuff is available, and the city is much more pleasant to navigate and spend time in. This is one lesson that the team learned that I appreciate.

I’ve currently got about 4k of the 20k I need to finish Chapter 2, but I need 5k to purchase a license in order to use magic in the city because I keep getting into combats, throwing off a magic missile, and then getting attacked by magic cops. Athkatla runs on coin, everybody tells me; this is definitely the case. I’ve explored half the city, unlocked a couple of wilderness locations, and done a couple of quests, but I’ve pretty much just scratched the surface of what’s available. We are in this for the long haul.

96 – Baldur’s Gate 2: The Best Things In Life

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The question of money in Dungeons and Dragons is apparently one that a lot of ink has been spilled over. You buy your starting equipment, it goes, and because of a lack of meaningful purchasable upgrades, you keep that starting equipment until your DM gives you some magical equipment, at which point you keep that. That’s how it’s worked every time I’ve played. I have had the good fortune to have played games DM’d by people who aren’t nitpicky nerds, and that’s how I plan on DMing when I can get a group together: I just don’t want to have to keep track of gold pieces and arrows and encumbrance because, oh, man, I know D&D got its start in wargames and that wargamers love that kind of minutiae, but, well, I don’t. The rules for the RPG Toon specifically say, if you have a set of small items such as thumbtacks or rubberbands or whatever, to assume you have as many as you need at any given moment (unless, of course, it’s funny to run out), which is something I can get behind. Your DM might create some money sinks for you, big-ticket items you can buy, but I’m reading the fifth edition Dungeon Master’s Guide and I’m reading about upkeep costs and how you need to spend a certain amount of gold to keep your lifestyle up and I’m thinking, why would anybody want to deal with that shit? Just, you know, assume that my adventuring is giving me enough gold to keep me installed in the lifestyle to which I have become accustomed, unless you want a reversal in fortunes to be a plot point.

That legacy is, in general, all over most videogame RPGs. Economies are usually hilariously broken. Dragon Quests usually do it the best–they balance their money so that you’re usually saving up for something–but, I mean, how much gil do you have built up in the average Final Fantasy? The Infinity Engine games are no exception–maybe in the early game you can’t afford the big-ticket magic items (incidentally, you’re apparently discouraged from letting players buy magic items from stores in the tabletop version, for Reasons), but after a while there’s nothing much to buy. You’re maybe restocking some special arrows/bullets/etc, you’re buying potions if you’re the kind of person who likes potions (I absolutely do not, potions and scrolls are bullshit in my book), but–like, why even bother charging to stay in an inn? The highest-quality room costs 10 gold. That’s the pocket change that pocket change carries.

After you complete Irenicus’s Dungeon in Baldur’s Gate 2, you get access to a district of the new city in which you find yourself, and you can do some light questing–a nifty little quest involving a gnome illusionist that connects to some of the setting’s larger themes (magic is illegal under most circumstances and mistrusted and looked down upon in all, the city you’re in is in general suspicious and hostile of foreigners and people without money) which nets you a new character–and then you leave the district and begin Chapter 2, at which point someone approaches you and asks you to give him 20,000 gold in order to get to Chapter 3.

It’s not the obscene sum the game makes it out to be–I’d done some shopping and I still have about 10% of the total necessary–and the first time I played the game, I was able to afford the price well before I had all the sidequests done (I’m planning on spending as much time as I humanly can in Chapter 2 this time, because I know you don’t get the opportunity to complete all the sidequests again, and since I know the shape of the game I’m less anxious to see what happens next), but either way: It’s a reason to earn gold in an Infinity Engine game!

I’ve said BG2 is Bioware becoming Bioware, and one of the things they’ve always excelled at is making games made out of sidequests. It’s a difficult thing to do: I’m down on Elder Scrolls games because, you know, there’s a Main Quest that feels urgent and overwhelming–portals to hell are opening up, Dragons are attacking and destroying everything–but the game also very badly wants you to want to simply dick around and live your little life in this fantasy kingdom. There’s a ton of running jokes about the parts of Final Fantasy VII where a meteor is threatening to crash into the planet but you’re just hanging around for dozens of hours breeding chocobos. Bioware generally frames its sidequest-games around “We need to prepare for X” or “we need more information about Y”–whether that’s the assault on the Collector base in Mass Effect 2 or the reason behind the Rifts in Dragon Age Inquisition–and that’s in play here. Imoen and Irenicus are trapped in a wizard prison, but the powers running it are beyond your reach, and the only group willing and powerful enough to help you really wants that money. It’s this open, sprawling meandering that is the finest and best-remembered parts of Baldur’s 2–there’s nothing much else you can do, so you might as well explore and find out what there is to be done. Later sections are more linear–similar to Planescape Torment, once you leave the city you find yourself on a tour of several goal-focused areas.

I like the frontloading of this “content”–while the stakes are high, they’re not as high as they’re going to get, and your major quests are in a kind of stasis right now. And it’s Imoen that we’re dealing with–she really can just hang out in another area of the game because who cares. (I’m sorry, I just don’t like Imoen.) Baldur’s 1 backloads the city sprawl–you don’t get to the titular city until late in the game, at which point you’ve done so much traipsing around the forest that you–well, I, at least–just want to see the thing through to the end. Its deluge of sidequests comes a little too late for me.

But either way, that’s where I’m going to be for the next few dozen hours–running around Akathla and figuring out ways of making money. If only the adventuring lifestyle were feasible in real life–I’d certainly prefer that to going to work every day.

95 – Baldur’s Gate 2: Irenicus’s Dungeon

Screen Shot 2017-11-08 at 8.06.16 AM.pngOf the Infinity Engine games, Baldur’s Gate 2 has the finest introduction. Baldur’s Gate 1 begins with Candlekeep, which is, as I’ve said, comfortable and friendly but not exactly exciting–it’s a tutorial-focused quest where nothing much happens until the end, at which point you’re thrust into a gigantic world with only vague direction. Siege of Dragonspear’s first dungeon has nothing to do with anything. Icewind Dale sets you up in a town where you can either Talk To All These Assholes until you find a couple goblins to fight. Planescape Torment wakes you up in the Morgue, and you’re given all of these cryptic suggestions at the larger story, but there isn’t exactly a time pressure and it did lose me the first time or two I played. Icewind Dale 2 acquits itself well–you land in a city under siege–but it’s a long, extended sequence with many parts. (I’m fond of games that essentially have no intro–that start off and you’re simply playing, and ID2 does that well!)

Baldur’s Gate 2 starts off with you captured and held in the dungeon of Big Bad Jon Irenicus. He appears, says some cryptic things, tortures you a bit, and then leaves to deal with an assault on his dungeon. Imoen appears (he-ya, it’s her!), sets you free, and now the two of you plus any companions you can get have the opportunity to wander around and escape. It’s the best starter dungeon in the franchise, and, frankly, should be taught in schools because it’s actually one of RPGdom’s best starter dungeons. It:

Is not a tutorial: There’s pretty no “how to play this” information given in the section. If you’re here for the second installment, the game assumes, you know what you’re doing, and if not, you’ll read the manual. This frees the dungeon up to be pretty cool–while combats are certainly simpler than they’re going to get, you’re facing bunches of goblins and some new foes and you’re doing some actual puzzle challenges. None of Baldur’s Gate 1’s “Go into the thing behind me and get a thing and then talk to me again.”

Tells you what to expect for characters: Baldur’s Gate 1 has about 500 potential playable characters; 2 trims down the cast while giving those left expanded roles. Khalid and Dynahier are slaughtered between installments. While I could give a tinker’s damn about Khalid, it gives his wife Jaheira a lot of fun emotions to work with and some clear motivation. Dynahier is a loss–one of my favorite characters both mechanically and personality-wise. It’s fridging, but at least it’s equal-opportunity. (Hey, Siege of Dragonspear, when you were busy telling your story about nothing at all interesting, why didn’t you, you know, include these moments? This is something I actually was interested in!) We also get an introduction to Yoshimo, who is going to have a big role in the plot to come, and in addition, he’s of the Bounty Hunter class–a “class kit” (alternate build) for the Thief, so even that’s new!

Shows off the expanded dialogue: Character dialogue was largely reduced to barks in the original Baldur’s Gate–characters don’t really comment on the particular situation you’re in, they only slightly interact with each other, and they’re mostly just people you have along for the ride: There’s little difference between the pregenerated characters in Baldur’s Gate and the people you create in Icewind Dale. In BG2, which is the start of Bioware becoming Bioware, your party members will initiate conversations with you and with each other, ones where you can choose between multiple bits of dialogue. Many of them have personal quests, if I’m remembering correctly. The reduced cast gives everyone left more opportunity to get their personalities fleshed out.

–Characterizes the main villain: Irenicus has very little screen time so far: A minute at the beginning of the dungeon and another minute at the end. During that time, he tortures you, makes cryptic portents about your potential, brutally kills a few fantasy cops, and figures out a way to legally abscond with your friend Imoen–in just a few short strokes, he’s already a more effective villain than Sarevok. If that isn’t enough, his dungeon is spent giving you a lot of clues to who this fellow is: His dungeon has a bunch of denizens, all of whom talk about his cruelty, his lack of emotion. Other characters allude to his past and great changes in the man’s character. There’s a soft bedroom filled with pretty things–a shrine to a lost love that several characters insist is an emotion Irenicus cannot feel–and the moment you enter, a klaxon bursts out and a pair of golems attack. Irenicus is a violent, terrifying figure with a very large plan and a complicated personality and he’s the fellow you’ll be chasing after for the next 50-10- hours.

–Alludes to larger plot developments: The assault on Irenicus’s dungeon has nothing to do with you–it’s the result of a “guild war”, which is something we’ll learn about in the next chapter or two. I love RPGs where your character isn’t the focus of every plot, and that’s the case here–the couple of assassins you talk to don’t even give a shit who you are, they’re just trying to kill everyone in the dungeon. It’s nothing personal. But you are important, too–all of Irenicus’s portents add up to you being even more special than you know. Baldur’s Gate’s closing hours reveal that you’re the child of Bhaal, God of Murder; BG2 promises to go into what, exactly, that means.

Features the weirder shit: Sure, there’s goblins living in the dungeon, but there’s also Dryads, mephits, and a portal to the Elemental Plane of Air and a djinn inside. There’s arcane magic and horrific experiments. We’re going to see a lot of the more outre elements of the Forgotten Realms setting before this game is done. But what I particularly like–especially in contrast to Dragonspear’s random “Well, let’s have Demons! Here’s a Lemure! Isn’t that cool!” in the zero hour, BG2 ties them in. Not only is all of this weird shit living in the dungeon, but it’s under Irenicus’s control. He’s captured that. That’s another characterization of him: He’s playing with some very dangerous things, and he’s contained them very well.

I am expecting to have some fun with this.

94 – Siege of Dragonspear

It’s like this: Very little of Siege of Dragonspear has anything to do with anything.

In the introductory sequence, you’re hunting down some of Sarevok’s last followers in a mediocre dungeon. I’m gonna be talking a lot about introductory dungeons in my next post–I’ve started Baldur’s Gate 2 and boy do I have a bunch to say already–but Dragonspear’s is just kind of there, just like how all of the dungeons in the game are just kind of there. There’s some uninteresting puzzles, some bog-standard Infinity Engine combat–not particularly challenging, not particularly interesting–and none of the story really lines up to anything.

In the main game, you’re dealing with a shaggy dog story about a woman leading a crusade around the Sword Coast in a series of events which don’t really amount to much and–due to the game’s nature as an interquel released over a decade later–are never mentioned again. If you’re on TVTropes, you’ll call it either a Wacky Wayside Tribe or a Big Lipped Alligator Moment.

The finale bridges Baldur’s Gate I and II and is really the major reason we’re here. “You were forced to leave Baldur’s Gate under circumstances darker than anyone would have believed,” the narrator tells us in the intro to Baldur’s Gate II, and that’s all that anybody says about it. I don’t know if anyone at Bioware knew what the circumstances were–it’s possible that they’re working for Beamdog now–but it’s very likely that nobody quite cared. Oh, it’s because of machinations–John Irenicus, the Big Bad of 2, follows you throughout the entirety of Dragonspear and he’s machinationsing the entire time because he’s evil–but you know, we know that. The minute of screen time he gets in 2’s introduction, along with Imoen’s ranting, and the characterization his dungeon gives you–I mean that cements he’s evil in a very elegant, eloquent way. Look, David Warner’s voice is goddamn incredible, and sure, Dragonspear gives us the opportunity to hear him talk, but, you know, the game is just not very good.

I mean, it’s really inessential. The best I can say about it is, your favorite band is going on a reunion tour, and they’ve put out a new album. And sure, it’s got a couple of good songs on it, and when you see the show you will sit dutifully through them and you might even cheer. But man, are you looking forward to them playing songs from their second album.

On to Baldur’s Gate II.

93 – Baldur’s Gate: Siege of Dragonspear (and some other rambly shit)

It’s perhaps overstating the case to say that Baldur’s Gate: Siege of Dragonspear feels like a fangame–every review you read about it takes pains to remind us that Beamdog is made of some ex-Bioware employees who actually worked on the original game–but man, does it feel inessential like a fangame. I’ve been playing for close to two weeks now, which is a lot of playtime compared to the amount of content in the game. It’s all fine. There’s nothing wrong with it. But I don’t know why I’m playing it. I’m close enough to the end that I could just export my character and be in fine form for Baldur’s Gate II, but also close enough to the end that I should just put the thing on Story Mode and muddle through, but when “put the game on Story Mode and just muddle through” is an option you’re seriously considering, that’s a sign that someone’s done something wrong along the way.

Like–there’s oh-so-much written about Story Mode, and it’s one thing if you’re enjoying it and are finding it tough going–it’s another if you’re doing Story Mode just to get it over with. I can’t say the challenge is too tough, I can’t say the encounters are poorly designed–with some caveats I’ll get to in a minute–but it’s just–

Oh, Siege of Dragonspear is fine. It doesn’t have the fucked up and janky character of Baldur’s Gate I, it doesn’t have the refined expansiveness of II, it’s just kind of there. It’s–well, it’s very Bioware-y. I in general find Bioware games to be fine. Their lore is well-thought-out, they’re appealing games, they’re well-designed, they’re maybe a little too internetty in their humor and their insistence on romance subplots everywhere, but they’re–you know, Bioware games just Aren’t For Me.

I think the word I’m looking for is “normcore”.

I’ve bought a shitload of Dungeons and Dragons books lately because I’m trying to get some inspiration and ideas for some of my own writing, and while plenty of people will point out problems in the rulebooks that may or may not be legit, the thing is that Dungeons and Dragons is huge. Everybody knows about it. This is not a niche hobby like it was in the 70s, when it was solely the provenance of isolated nerds; it isn’t the dangerous conduit to Hell that it was accused of being in the 80s; it’s, you know, a popular game that’s made a lot of people a lot of money. It’s part of our pop culture. If it isn’t quite Lord of the Rings or Star Wars, well, it’s in the same breath. There’s a familiarity to it that comes through sheer exposure. It’s a game like any other–maybe a bit more complex and time-consuming than most people are willing to buy into, but just a game nonetheless.

I’ve talked about this a bit with videogames in general: We can’t pretend that playing videogames is a niche hobby anymore. We can’t pretend that geek culture is subaltern. It is front and center. It is capitalism. It is oppression. An asshole who’s GamerGate in spirit if not in aesthetic is in the White House. There are versions of videogames that are bigger than others, surely–I tell so-called gamers at the college I work at that I’m playing through Baldur’s Gate and they get fuzzy looks (which, to be fair, Baldur’s Gate might have even come out before they were born), but they’ll know Dark Souls intimately. They’ll talk excitedly about Overwatch. Jocks play videogames. (Is “Jock” as a category meaningful anymore? I am out of touch with student cliques.) And let’s face it, Siege of Dragonspear is even more obscure than the Gate itself.

But I guess what I’m saying is as simple as, Baldur’s Gate came out at a time when its audience was, you know, people who might not have been able to find the three friends necessary to play “real” Dungeons and Dragons–hence why I’m fond of it now at this time in my life–but Dragonspear came out after, you know, 15 years of game design evolution and a sea change in pop culture. Fantasy and superheroes are fucking everywhere and people look at you funny–like you’re some kind of antisocial rebel–if you don’t give a shit about what Marvel is putting out. Baldur’s Gate is what it is. Dragonspear tries to shine itself up for a larger audience. And for the most part, it acquits itself so well that it’s a really, really boring game to play.

Like, it takes few risks. The biggest risk it takes is a couple of large-scale setpiece battles with dozens of combatants, and when you’re on a shitty Macbook like I am, everything slows down to a crawl, the area effect spells you throw down end up slowing down everything further–but I’m not quite sure a proper speed would help matters.

I feel like I’m talking around some points I’m trying to make, and that’s okay–there’s something I’m trying to get at about all of this that I’m chipping away at.

I guess it’s like this:

I was a child in the 80s, one who was very aware of and very interested in geeky nerdy culture, in the RPGs of the time, who desperately wanted to play Dungeons and Dragons, but who was, frankly, too young for all of it at the time, and who, frankly, wasn’t able to explain this stuff to other kids when I got to be the beginnings of old enough for it. I think about childhood and I think about how much I loved Dragon Warrior and how friends found all the text boring. Friends who hated reading. Stuff like that. All of this stuff was out of my reach, and as such it developed a cache of being–you know, a little dangerous. Playing Dungeons and Dragons or Might and Magic or whatever had some of the resonances of, for example, playing with power tools, or crossing the street by yourself–it was dangerous, and that danger was helped along with, you know, the darkness of a dungeon. The idea of it all–spurred on by my tiny child mind–was kind of fucked up and scary.

There is nothing fucked up or scary about Siege of Dragonspear.

Fantasy can and should effect a sense of wonder and awe–but there should be something creepy about it too. There is something Out Of This World about it. Going through the fifth edition Monster Manual, everything feels oddly safe. Here are some blandly-written descriptions and stat blocks–all of this is categorized and collated, it’s the product of 40 years of solidification. There isn’t the sense that–let’s face it, if you met anything from that book in real life, even a lowly goblin, it’d scare the everloving fuck out of you. Even a benign being would be a little horrific because of how uncanny, how unnatural it is. An aboleth should induce dread. You look at its statistics and it’s something you can comprehend.

There is no sense of the slip, of the overwhelming, of the pure cosmic horror of the thing. I think about how even Darkest Dungeon was trying to give a sense of the brutal madness of a dungeon crawl, but it was just Another Damn Cthulhu Game where your insanity effects are just different buffs and debuffs. Motherfucking Cthulhu! A creature who, in real life, would cause anyone’s mind to snap, but at this point we’ve seen so many different permutations of that brand of horror that it’s just kind of, you know, there. Background. It’s like being afraid of Dracula.

I know, I know, Siege of Dragonspear isn’t trying to be a horror game. It’s an expansion of world, an attempt at bridging two games, and as such it acquits itself well. I’m spitballing incomprehensibly about a desire to experience or write something that’s a lot more outre, and something that I can’t really figure out how to talk about. What I’m really doing is simply trying to figure out the edges of what I’m looking to do–the feeling I’d like to give to a dungeon I’d like to create–with the understanding that feeling out those edges might even be the beginning of that collation and categorization and understanding. And maybe it’s a loss that’s simply happened because I’ve gotten older and I’ve read a lot of shit. In the beginner’s mind are many possibilities; in the Zen mind, there are few. If I’m being honest, what I’m looking for is a path back to that beginner’s mind, and a way to evoke the absolute terror all of those possibilities evoke.