60 – Gothic II, Daemonica, Always Sometimes Monsters

–I’m absolutely in love, for some reason, with Gothic II’s inclusion of a creature called a meatbug, which, when killed, gives 10 XP and an item called Bug Meat, which refreshes 10 HP. With regard to food in general, most creatures–from wolves to rats to chickenlike beings–can be harvested for a generic meat item which refills 6HP; if you get a frying pan, you can cook the meat into an item called Fried Meat which refills 12. There’s no hunger or fullness meters of any kind, and so there’s the wonderful situation of chowing down on five or six fried rat parts after every battle.

And you know, I could not be happier about this shit because I don’t really like when a fantasy videogame becomes too realistic. Some games can make really interesting systems out of stamina bars and hunger meters and weight limits and all of that, but I like that Gothic II is, mechanically, a relatively simple game. There aren’t very many skills or special attacks, there aren’t piles of statistics, and you don’t have that much equipment. A melee weapon, a ranged weapon, and a couple of spells or spell scrolls (and since I’m not playing a magic character I’m only using spells as high-damage fallbacks), a complete set of armor, and a trinket. At this point I think I’ve learned nearly every single one of the game’s verbs, and while there’s room for them to develop (right now, for example, I can only skin furred animals but other characters have assured me I”ll eventually learn to extract claws and remove wings and all of that), I’m admiring the way they’re balanced against each other.

–I’ve just passed the part I was at at my original playthrough; most notably I’ve gotten past a couple of very specific areas I was unable to, so this is a sign that I’ve built my character and learned how to play the game a little better. Still discovering shit in the first city. Looking at the city map, I know every single building and how to find my way around. Gothic II is one of those games that’s almost a Medieval Questing Dude Simulator, and if Skyrim was one of those too, it’s a lot less concerned with–well, let me think about this.

Because for all of Gothic II’s lack of realistic mechanics, the narrative feels a lot more coherent and consistent–maybe contiguous is the word I’m looking for. Like Skyrim, Gothic II begins with a very broad set of goals–coincidentally enough, the plot of both can be one-line summarized as “a bunch of dragons are about to attack and you’ve got to figure it out”, but while both have a large degree of freedom, Gothic ties itself more closely to the main plot. The goal of this current chapter, as far as I can tell, involves meeting with the head of the Paladins to tell him of the coming danger. To do that, you’ve got to align with one of the game’s principal factions; to do that, you’ve got to fulfill certain questlike requirements. The lion’s share of the quests at this point are tied, in some way, to one of these three goals. Some characters are involved in more than one quest. You’re attempting to make connections and move within the bureaucracy of a city that’s had too many strangers in it. Everything I’ve done has been for a specific reason: The game is very clear about who the questgiver is, why they want this favor done, why you’re doing it, and more importantly, you have a reason for doing it beyond simply it being there: And, hell, even from a metagame standpoint, experience and gold are rare enough that 50 XP and 25 gold is a pretty decent reward.

–Picked up Daemonica from a Gamer’s Gate sale–it’s one of those games that has cult classic written all over it, a moody adventure game wearing the clothes of a CRPG, contrast to Quest for Glory which is a CRPG wearing the clothes of an adventure game. It’s got awful voice acting, writing poorly translated from Czech, a drab, unpolished presentation, and an interface which isn’t quite as good as it should be–but it’s doing something right. Sometimes a decent enough premise can work wonders, and that’s the case here: You’re essentially a Medieval Dude who’s acting as a forensic psychologist and solving brutal murders by brewing up potions which allow you to communicate with the dead. So far so good–although the game lets you drop every inventory item and I completely lost something I needed, so here’s another game I had to start again.

–I’ve started Always Sometimes Monsters and gotten through Day 1; to a degree, I’m having trouble getting into it because I absolutely hate the main character, who’s pining over an ex and unable to write that book that he’s already spent all of the advance on.

I’ve written my share of pining-for-the-ex fiction and songs, and I will definitely cop that me at my most insecure and depressive was probably a horrible person to be around–c.f. “The Depressed Person” by David Foster Wallace–and part of me is extremely leery at the prospect of spending 30 days of game time with this guy. I’ve paid my dues.

(My character is male–the ambiguously dark-skinned dude with the hat and vest, if you’re curious, and my ex was the scrawny white dude who looks a little like he works for a tech startup–but the game features a bunch of different characters to pick for your main character and the ex; characters will react different based on your race or orientation, I’m told–one character discreetly referred to my “friend” that I was living with–but I’m not sure how deeply this affects things.)

I mean, I can already tell that it’s an excellent version of this–and perhaps the best version of this sort of thing possible. There’s some branching already, and I love that–scenes I’m not going to see because I made a specific choice. I think this might be a case where I end up admiring the artistry very much but rolling my eyes a little as the theme. But this is just an hour into the game, of course. It is hard to come up with sympathy for your protagonist when they’re a genuinely unlovable loser–this is a character who, after all, ended up Day One by sleeping on a shitty stained mattress in the alley outside the apartment he just got evicted from (without even attempting to bring up tenant laws to his landlord, who–if he was living in New York City, at least–would not have been able to kick him out so easily).

The game, it’s fair, doesn’t quite agree that pining for the ex is the best thing to do, and maybe it does kind of imply that this guy is in a shitty situation because he’s a shitty guy who doesn’t deserve anything really better. As I mentioned, he’s a writer who’s spent all of his advance but who hasn’t produced anything, and while there will certainly be Dark Things Revealed which go deeper into why he hasn’t written a word, it’s hard to see the character freaking out when his editor informs him he’s being dropped; He’s shocked that he’d be expected to abide by the terms of his contract, that his advance wasn’t free money, and that all the potential in the world don’t mean shit when you’re not following through. It’s hard not to feel for the editor when he informs our hero that he was a bad bet who cost the company a good chunk of money, when the editor informs him that he’s got a wife and family to support and he can’t afford another screwup.

Well, that’s certainly an interesting choice if that’s the case–most games genuinely don’t have the stones to give us an unlikeable protagonist. Even something like Actual Sunlight, while repeatedly reminding us that Evan is a fat drunk who’s terrible in bed, at least makes us feel sorry for the guy because of the scope of the tragedy–Evan is an inevitable result of the system he’s in–and because we do see him as squandered potential. It’s helped, certainly, by the fact that writer Will O’Neill’s is particularly skilled at writing pithy interludes, but the fantasies that permeate the entirety of the game show a man who does have a rich fantasy life which, in the absence of any real, authentic possibilities, is turned itself and set to permanently drain itself. Depression is, after all, anger turned inward. If Evan is paralyzed from too much introspection, Always Sometimes Monster’s guy suffers from the kind of depression which is caused by an utter lack of self-awareness–the kind which has painfully repressed any self-critical instincts and, as a result, has become pathologically incapable of realizing how his many faults have led to the same fucking problems happening again and again and again. Evan’s problem is that, in growing up, he forgot how to hope; the Always Sometimes Monster is too deluded by dreams to figure out the first step towards becoming an adult.

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