116 – Sekiro: Virtuous Deeds

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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115 – Sekiro

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

 

–I am 200 pages from the end of Infinite Jest

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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.

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.

65 – Might and Magic, Wizardry 6, Ishar and mapping

There’s a term–I learned it from The CRPG Addict–called lawnmowing. We’re going to need a couple of shots of some Might and Magic maps to understand. Here’s the area surrounding the first town in Might and Magic Book 1:

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And here’s an equivalent section in Might and Magic 4:

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There’s some obvious aesthetic differences–there was something like nine months in between playing the two games, and so I’ve gotten a bit more relaxed and loose with mapping; 4 also contains an automap, and so while mapping out 1 is essential in order to complete it, hand-mapping 4 was more for the enjoyment, and so I felt freer to use bolder colors and go for look more than practicality. But what I want to draw your attention to the pencil lines all over the place in the 1 map. These are the literal walls of the game–they’re represented as mountains and trees too dense to move through. In Might and Magic, you’re ultimately able to step on every single square–every area in the game is a 16X16 square–but it takes a long time to be able to do so. The challenge lies largely in growing strong enough to fight the enemies in each area and in actually winding your way from Point A to Point B. Very late in the game you get a series of spells which allow you to bypass walls and teleport around the map, and there are some areas where you need them in order to navigate, but for the most part, when you’ve finally gotten them, you’ve probably charted most of the area anyway and they end up becoming ways of speeding up travel and creating shortcuts.

4 has no such walls. There are a lot more terrain types–in my screenshot, it’s fairly obvious what’s what: Light green is grass, dark green is forest, blue is water, brown is a dirt path, grey a road, dark brown mountains, black the edge of the world. And while you start off being unable to traverse forest, water, or mountains, you end up getting skills in order to cross them fairly quickly and cheaply. You can still step in every square, and you *should*, but since all obstacles become removed and the gameworld becomes extremely flat.

And hence the term lawnmowning: Mapping out Might and Magic games becomes a case of going down every square in one row, going to the next row and going UP every square in that, ping-ponging back and forth till you’ve revealed every square. This is, perhaps, the biggest flaw of 2-5: Exploration feels a little less immersive because of the flatness: These aren’t trees and mountains, they’re icons of trees and mountains.

Usually walls solve this problem. Here’s the first location of Wizardry 6, a game that, looking at the maps a year later, I’m shocked I beat:

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I have stepped in every square of this location–a castle–but look at the layout: it’s a maze of doors and walls. Half of those doors are locked when you begin the game, and the initial stages of the game consist on going around the various rooms and floors and slowly unlocking more areas. The challenge is in mapping out these locks, in making your way through the maze, in figuring out the layout of this place and its connection to the other regions of the game–part of my love for the game is its insistence on regularity: It features five or six different locations, all of which are distinct in their layouts, all interconnected and snapped tightly and perfectly together. Think of Dark Souls’s map made in Legos and you’ve got the idea.

And so we’ve got this very simple and slightly cheesy lesson that we can learn: Restrictions make challenge and challenge brings enjoyment. And we can all walk away from this lesson nodding our heads and drawing Gordian dungeons…

…but for the fact that right now I’m playing Ishar, and this is the first area of Ishar.

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Again, light green is grass, dark green is impassable trees, blue is water–and if you’re playing along at home that means that we’ve essentially got a gigantic sprawling field with only minor areas, mostly the borders, where we cannot walk.

And it is one of the more fascinating Mapping Experiences of my time! In many ways it’s a dungeon in reverse. With no automap, with no way of seeing the game from a bird’s eye view, you’re often cast in a void of grass having to count paces as you make your way to the next landmark, which is, like, a bush. It’s an agoraphobic method of getting lost.

But Ishar also avoids the lawnmowing problem partially by not hiding random goodies in every square. I’m hoping I don’t end up eating these words, but the game depicts everything onscreen with enough peripheral and distance that you can see the major things from a few squares away as long as you’re facing the general direction.

And so instead of mowing the lawn, you end up mapping by scouting the area. I’ve been filling out the edges of the map and the hedges and things by the old fashioned move one square, draw the walls, move one square, draw the walls method. But for the inner part of the land, I’m picking a general direction, walking, and coloring in squares in a way not too different from a fog of war reveal, veering off when I see something cool.

And while in practice, that and mowing the lawn aren’t *that* different, it changes the scale of the maps. Might and Magic is exhaustive: You need to uncover and discover what might be hiding behind every single tile in the game. Wizardry 6 is almost a tangle of wires which has you focus in on every tiny detail in order to unknot. Ishar is about the big picture. About putting large islands in your grasp. The area of the gameis huge. This is why I love these games and why I get bored with roguelikes and corridor after arena after corridor level design and why I love this shit: I love the idea of kind of communicating with a level designer who I can see cackling as I try to figure out the cartography puzzle they’ve constructed. For as pretty as Columbia is, as impressively large as Skyrim is, their terrain didn’t communicate anything to me. These old-school dungeon crawlers are all about communicating things just through their layout.