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.


106 – Baldur’s Gate 2 – Watcher’s Keep

iuIncluded with your purchase of the Baldur’s Gate 2 expansion Throne of Bhaal is a towering dungeon called Watcher’s Keep. Continuing with Baldur’s Gate 2’s theme of “Bioware becoming Bioware”, it’s a very modern DLC-style dungeon in that it’s unconnected to the main plot and you can get to it at any time–as soon as Baldur’s Gate 2 gives you map access, you can visit it.

You are, of course, not quite intended to–it’s a decidedly high-level dungeon, with tricksy and difficult enemies–but it’s also the kind of thing where each floor is harder than the last, and so you can and are encouraged to duck into it from time to time, clear out a floor, and revel in bonus treasure and XP. I cleared out the first two floors during Chapter 2–got a couple of awesome weapons and some quivers that gave me infinite arrows–did the third as part of Chapter 6, and finished the rest of the thing as part of Throne of Bhaal.

It’s not quite an old-school megadungeon–depending on your definition, Watcher’s Keep is missing some screwjobs, missing dead ends, missing floors connecting to other floors, missing size (it’s big but not Castle Greyhawk big)–but it’s close. It’s certainly the purest Baldur’s Gate 2 comes to good old-fashioned dungeon crawling, and dungeon crawling is something I am fond of. I admire Icewind Dale’s purity–that it’s a huge bucket of monsters and caves and you’ve got to hack your way through–and Watcher’s Keep seems to be Bioware showing off a bit, one-upping it. Baldur’s Gate 1’s dungeons pretty much suck–the corridors are too tight, the puzzles fiddly–and the developer, perhaps worried that Black Isle showed in Icewind Dale that it understood the Infinity Engine a bit better than they did, stepped up their game for the sequel. I have no idea how much friendly competition led to Watcher’s Keep, but I like to think it set the stage for Icewind Dale 2 which, as I’ve said, i remember as a series of mostly wonderful gimmick dungeons. I love gimmick dungeons. We’ll eventually get to Icewind Dale 2.

Each of the floors of Watcher’s Keep has its own twist, its own style of play. The first has you finding items for a ritual. The second is a series of elemental wizard laboratories that you have to turn on each other to exploit weaknesses. There’s a maze that you have to interpret a poem to navigate. The best one focuses on a gigantic magical machine that summons monsters and the creature war this has inadvertently caused. Combat in all of these is tough but very fair, very balanced–assuming your party is, you know, appropriately leveled. There are a lot of enemies, but it’s an appropriate amount. One of my problems with Icewind Dale’s DLC dungeon Trials of the Luremaster, if you remember, was that it confused “challenge” for “throw a dozen enemies at you and hope you survive, good luck!”, and it was the worst part of the game. I don’t claim to be the finest gamer out there, but I’ve been playing RPGs for 30 years, and I’m very familiar with the Infinity Engine, and I’m not bad at playing games made in it. Luremaster was beyond my abilities, and even as I’ve noticed a lot of improvements in my own skills after playing through the Baldur’s Gate saga–one thing this replay of the Infinity Engine series has done has massively improve my ability to play Infinity Engine games–I still don’t know how one would deal with the swarms of spectral knights in the higher levels of the castle. At no point in Watcher’s Keep did I feel that I was above my pay grade.

Well, save for one of the final dungeon battles–there’s one swarm that’s maybe two combatants too many–and the final boss.

I’m generally a fellow who likes boss monsters, but I know plenty of people who hate them, and most of those people cut their teeth on Infinity Engine games. Bosses in Infinity Engine games are generally terrible–other than Irenicus, there aren’t many that I’ve actually liked. A boss can be a challenge, a test of your skills, a final exam, an opportunity for new attack patterns that don’t fit anywhere else. Games like Zelda are known for their bosses because they’re puzzles as much as they’re combats–you can’t beat a Zelda boss unless you’ve mastered the use of the tool that their dungeon has spent its time teaching you. Dark Souls’s bosses are notable for their size, for the opportunity for the design team to visually just go balls-out and create something elaborate, and for their extreme challenge.

Much less beloved are the boss monsters who just have, you know, super high HP and defense and attack. I remember, in fifth grade, a friend used to draw out videogames in his notebook–little platformer levels where he’d tear off a tiny scrap of paper and draw a character on it and you’d physically move the character through the level, stomping other scraps of paper with enemies on it. And whenever he wanted to give a real challenge, he’d create a boss–what he called a Big Monster, which now that I think of it is a much less capitalist way of referring to it so in true Socialist fashion I’m going to just steal the term–and write “99999 HP” over it and punch your character twice and say “oh you’re dead now”.

For the most part, that’s how Big Monsters in Infinity Engine RPGs feel to me. The Infinity Engine’s greatest trick–seen with Sarevok and Belifet–is to give their Big Monsters a few flunkies and string a bunch of (possibly impossible-to-disarm) traps around them and laugh as they slaughter your party. The Big Monster at the end of Watcher’s Keep–Demogorgon, making a cameo from his appearance in Stranger Things, although with a radically different design that makes me wonder if the makers of Watchers Keep even watched Stranger Things or, if they did, they just thought the name sounded cool and swiped it without worrying whether or not their monster shared any properties with the Duffer Brothers’–doesn’t have any traps in his room, but otherwise he fits the pattern. He hits hard, he soaks up a bunch of damage, he’s resistant to most magic–and given the choice between casting a bunch of my debuffing spells in the hopes that they’ll chip away at his defenses so I can chip away at his health while I buff the hell out of my own characters and hope no one debuffs me and keeping my characters healthy–given the choice between that and just clicking the little button that says “story mode” and just throwing my pikmin at it while I just sit back and watch–

Well, as Andrew Plotkin once said, “I am a player; therefore, I am lazy.”

Defeating Demogorgon gives you a couple of lines of the DLC’s storyline finishing and a bunch of XP–enough to gain a single level around the time I beat him–and nothing else. You don’t get any magic items or any equipment that I could figure–the Steam version doesn’t even give you a cheevo for your efforts. It’s a huge amount of challenge for little reward. I guess Demogorgon is intended to be an optional Super-Big Monster that only the most challenge-hungry players will face, and maybe that’s how he was received Back In The Day–certainly I didn’t get upset that I couldn’t defeat Kangaxx the Lich, figuring, okay, he’s for the really hardcore. Maybe I’m just playing it with a 2017 mindset, where I think that you should be able to beat the final boss if you were fine to beat the rest of the game. I have this weird, weird notion that an impossible challenge is less satisfying than a mild challenge if you have enough fanfare. The joy of RPGs is the joy of taking your level 1 character who got slaughtered by a pack of gibberlings, leveling her up to the cap, and wiping the floor with them. And certainly strategy has a major place in these games. But whatever strategy it took to beat Demogorgon, I couldn’t click onto it, and it was in no way a satisfying fight for me.

I’m about 2/3rds of the way through Throne of Bhaal at the moment, and all I’ll say about it so far is that the Demogorgon fight is a really good introduction to the design philosophies behind ToB. Watcher’s Keep was an excellent dungeon and I recommend it wholeheartedly; if you don’t feel like finishing the thing, though, I won’t blame you at all.

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:



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

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.

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.

92 – Baldur’s Gate

Baldur’s Gate is probably one of the finest bad RPGs I’ve ever played. It does so many things weird or wrong, its structure is a goddamn mess, but it’s beloved by pretty much everybody, myself included. Hell, I’m in the middle of my third full playthrough of it, and I’m a fellow who rarely replays games.

It is, in many ways, your favorite shitty pair of jeans. It took a while to break the game in for me, so to speak–the first few times I found myself fighting the engine, then the structure, then a bunch of boredom, and finally I broke through and achieved some kind of enlightenment. There’s something very comfortable about bumming through Candlekeep, about wandering through the game’s endless forests, about attempting to play with Garrick in your party this time and giving up yet again because man Garrick sucks. I didn’t have Baldur’s Gate in high school–I was more into JRPGs at the time, but it’s one of those titles I very much regret not playing until I was an adult.

It’s one of those games that feels like a lot more than it is. There is a strong appeal, for me, of games that suggest a whole large, living, breathing world. That’s half of the fun of the Soulsborne series, really–the game is a sketch, an outline, and one which lets you fill in the rest in your head. For me, the epitome of that game was Dragon Warrior I, which I got when I was something like 7 years old, the perfect age to imagine the game out into being a detailed fantasy kingdom. Alefgard is, of course, a very small map, its NPCs the kind who spout off one tiny line, its monsters goofy if beautiful cartoons, but to my childhood self, it was a world. It hits many of the same impulses that spur on fanfic.

I can imagine my 16-year-old self, in 1999, playing Baldur’s Gate and getting that same feeling, and I think it partially has something to do with how much bigger it was than many of the games that were out around the time. The game features what, in many ways, is a lot of unnecessary crap: Towns with three taverns, all of who provide the same services; people milling about the city saying their line that has nothing to do with your quest or you–I mean, that’s really it: While there’s certainly a tightness to games which understand that you, the player, are the most important character in them and where every detail is related to it, there’s a lot to be said for characters and places that don’t really give a shit about your quest. Someone hanging out in the tavern in Beregost might be annoyed at the iron crisis, but the mechanics of it don’t interest him, it only affects him to the degree that it affects him.

I don’t love Skyrim–I find the world of The Elder Scrolls to be generally drab and boring–but I guess that’s a lot of its appeal. Baldur’s Gate hits that same point–when it transcends being a game and becomes a little fantasy world you can hang out in and live in for a while. It doesn’t matter if, in terms of the text itself, there’s a half dozen identical inns and shops–what matters is the game is totally cool with it if you pretend. That’s been one of the draws of Dungeons and Dragons in general, that it’s an imaginative tool.

Baldur’s Gate does suffer from being the first outing of the Infinity Engine, of being Bioware’s first RPG, of an attempt to stretch the paradigm of the genre and revive it from a relatively fallow period in its history, and yet its failures are interesting. I mentioned structure–the game’s content isn’t evenly distributed among its chapters. The first companions you meet yell at you and eventually leave you to fend for yourself if you don’t complete the first proper chapter as quickly as you can; once you set foot in the town and begin Chapter 2, you need to slow way down and explore the game’s near-endless woods looking for stuff to do, because Chapter 2’s goal is way too high-level for you. Later chapters go quickly…until you get to the town of Baldur’s Gate itself, at which point you’re given a bumper crop of sidequests that’ll keep you busy until you get bored. At some point late-game you can go through the DLC. Character growth is slow, slow, and many of your magic users kind of suck for a while. Classes aren’t mechanically distinct–I’m playing as a ranger for the first time, and other than the option to charm an animal (which I rarely need) and cast Find Familiar (a tiny dragon who dies quickly and removes a point of CON when it does so), I’m finding little difference between it and a fighter. Combat is just kind of there–as opposed to Icewind Dale’s more crafted content, the game drops a little puddle of kobolds or gnolls or whatever from time to time–it doesn’t even feature D&D’s more interesting monsters!–and hopes for the best. Its dungeons universally suck.

And yet–and yet. I might not have the visceral reaction to Baldur’s Gate that I would have were I younger, there may be long stretches of it that are genuinely boring, I wouldn’t call it fun–but it is that rare RPG that’s so much bigger than the sum of its parts. I’m playing it for the third time, and while I’m trying to tease out the why, exactly, I’m doing this, it feels so comfortable. The best thing I can say about Baldur’s Gate is that it is one of those gigantic blocks of fantasy cheese and that it just feels good to play.

58 – Giving up on KOTOR; Jade Empire and about 30 other games I’m playing

I have given up on KOTOR.

After much wrangling and finagling, I was able to get the damn thing to run vaguely reliably: In only 800×600 resolution, of course, and I was able to have the game maximized, and have it puttering along. Unfortunately, movie sequences required a resolution change, which crashed the game. An option to disable movies also crashed the game. And so my solution became to be to play the game in fullscreen, saving very often, getting to a movie, restarting the game in windowed mode, watching the movie, then maximizing.

One segment, however, involved several cutscenes and movies after a boss battle, and then an immediate cut to a turret sequence, which I immediately died on, and the most recent save file was right before the boss fight. And you know something, I just don’t have the fucking heart to try it again. It’s not KOTOR’s fault that it’s not working on my system, but I still don’t want to deal with how temperamental it is.

I have, in the meantime, been advised that KOTOR II is somewhat better and fine to jump straight into, and that KOTOR II is an even buggier mess that I should stay as far away from as possible.

So I have ended up playing Jade Empire, which I’ve played before and, after a few false starts, ended up loving. In a move which suggests Amanda Lange is right, as usual, I’m playing an evil–er, “Closed Fist”–character, which is a little harder than it seems. Partially it’s because there’s a lot of useful stuff for doing the Good–Open Palm–path, like it looks like more quests go to XP-giving completion–but partially it’s because you really do end up acting like a money-grubbing asshole. In true Bioware tradition, it isn’t quite good and evil, in theory, and the game does stress that it’s competing philosophies of motive rather than of end results: You can sabotage the dam because you’re being paid to, or because the resulting crisis will make the town stronger. But either way, the dam gets destroyed.

Of course, it’s still the early stages of the game: Right now you’re dealing with town disputes and local events, but by the end you’re given the opportunity to slay gods and bind souls, which come to think of it, the game does seem to pan out from the local to the celestial if I remember correctly. In terms of scope, I remember the first two chapters–I’m in chapter two at the moment–being the most open and sprawling, a bit in chapter 3 as well, and then the game becomes progressively linear. I don’t remember that being a bad thing: It’s, frankly, Just Enough Game–my final save file for my previous game is about 20 hours and I’ll probably end this a little closer to 15 or so. There’s been a lot of really long games I haven’t had the heart to finish lately so it’ll be nice to have something quick.

In terms of smaller games, I dug Andrew Shouldice’s Ludum Dare entry Our God Lives Underground, which is a very linear exploration game that I think totally nailed it–it’s basically a five minute trip somewhere claustrophobic, with a few very eerie moments. I had one of those nights last night where I was poking around the more avant corners o the exploration game scene. It’s a genre I always want to like–I love game environments–but I find so many of them to be…way too ponderous. It’s the walking speed, maybe. I’m a very fast walker in real life, and I hate when games walk slower than I do. Maybe it’s just my sense of aesthetics–like I always thought Proteus was extraordinarily ugly–or, I don’t know, I mean these things can get so goddamn pretentious sometimes, you know? OGLU is this streamlined, five-minute experience that more or less hits from the moment it begins, does what it does very intensely, and ends at the exact right moment.

Actually, I also ended up playing 9.03m thanks to indiegamestand, and I can’t say I necessarily liked 9.03m, because memento moris filled with somber piano music aren’t really my thing. But given the game’s subject matter–the victims of the Tsunami in Japan–I mean, it’s a very good memento mori filled with somber piano music. It’s really pretty to look at, and if I wasn’t exactly Overcome with Emotion from it, I Admire Its Technique.

But the reason I got 9.03 was as a tie-in for Space Budgie’s new game Glitchspace, which is goddamn wonderful–and apparently only in Alpha, which surprises me because, the bit I’ve played of it, at least, seems fairly well-done. Having done exactly no research on this–having literally found out it’s in alpha just this moment–I’m not sure how much is left, if this is just a couple of levels that I’ve got or what. But it’s a very…soothing puzzle game. Everything is just blocks and calm. The main gimmick is the ability to “reprogram” objects–each has logic behind it and you have to arrange things like “Collisions: False” to allow you to walk through walls, things like that. Um, I’m explaining it poorly, but I liked it. That it’s in alpha makes me worry they’re going to add a storyline to it, and the last thing I want for this game is to have a wisecracking narrator. Given that 9.03m made the very wise decision to exclude narration, I think I trust it.