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.

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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.

109 – Planescape Torment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

108: Baldur’s Gate 2: Throne of Bhaal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

107 – Xploquest, Dragon Warrior, and The Iconic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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