100 – Baldur’s Gate 2: Shut Up And Take My Money

At some point in the middle of collecting my 20k gil for the faction known as the Shadow Thieves, a vampire attempted to give me the opportunity to Make A Choice In A Videogame–for only $15,000, she’d help me on my quest. This is, I believe, intended to be the evil option, but my character is Chaotic Good and so I went with the original offer–last night, before going to bed, I paid my money and entered Chapter 3.

I haven’t done every single sidequest, but–with the help of a handy quest list–I’ve done just about all of them. Oh, there’s plenty to do just stumbling around, and that’s how I handled it the first time I played, but some of the triggers are more obscure than others–going in a certain district with a certain party member in tow, talking to someone with a certain reputation score, things like that. This is not at all a criticism–it’s kind of the opposite. Baldur’s Gate 2 is trying to give the impression of a living, breathing world, and it does a lot to show you that you’re in a city where adventure is around every corner just waiting for you to find it. BG2 is a game where you are rarely bored, where you’re rarely searching for something to do.

And what you get to do is appropriately diverse–along the way, my companions and I investigated a cult, defended a castle, routed a coven of Shadow Druids, infiltrated a thieves’ den, found a home for an orphan, and discovered a shitload of magical items along the way–it’s the kind of quests where each is a little short story, and they do their best to make sure each is interesting, has some kind of twist, or at least some point. This is a team that knows its engine very well–it’s the fourth game in the series, and one coming after the high bar that is Planescape Torment, and it knows very well what the Infinity Engine is capable of.

There is a lot of content, but it doesn’t really feel extraneous. RPGs can feel very padded; for me a lot of it has to do with the dressing around the quests. My lack of passion for Elder Scrolls has to do with how little it engages me; everything boils down to “go to Place and do Thing.” We can’t deny that most RPG quests boil down to, either, “fetch me a Thing” or “kill a Thing”. And while the likes of Skyrim features detailed, intricate lore around everything, its presentation kind of overwhelms the reason you’re doing anything. I’m not questing because I have a connection to the world, to the questgiver, to the dungeon I’m going in–Skyrim is so large and sprawling, its NPCs so numerous, that everything appears to be assembled from a thing of prefab parts and I’m usually looking at Generic NPC #283 rather than a character in the world–what I end up focusing on is the dramatic drumroll accompanying the goal text on my screen, on the big arrow on my compass leading me to my goal. One of the big developments in Skyrim is what’s called the Radiant Quest system. Since Skyrim wants to be something you can play forever, there’s a series of quests which can be infinitely generated according to a framework. “Go to [place] and do [thing]”, an NPC will say, and [place] and [thing] are selected out of a hat from a list, and you can repeat that as many times as you like. It’s questing for questing’s sake.

But I neither want nor need to be playing a game forever–RPGs are long enough that I don’t need to extend them artificially. I’d rather a game that has a manageable, if extensive, set of things to do where all of them have character, have something surprising, where there’s a few well-designed locations than miles and miles of the same basic stuff. I’d rather have one dungeon that someone sat down and created than a hundred that were assembled out of pre-fab parts.

As to what I haven’t done in Baldur’s Gate 2:

Bonus bosses: There’s two I counted, a red dragon and a lich. I’m going to wait until Chapter 6, when you return to the city, to try these–I could use the extra levels. The lich, in partichular, is guarded by other lichs who I wasn’t able to touch when I faced them. I’ve got a bunch more spells that I can use against them at this point, and probably could make some progress, but why strain myself? He’s been buried for a couple hundred years at this point, he can wait a few more months.

Watcher’s Keep: An entire bonus dungeon released with the Throne of Bhaal expansion. I’ve done a couple of floors of it, and will probably duck into a third while doing Chapter 3–it hasn’t been too difficult so far, mostly puzzley, but since it’s technically an expansion pack dungeon I’m going to wait until then to hit the lower floors.

Fucking Mind Flayers: I’ve found an enclave of Mind Flayers in the sewers and I just can’t get past them. I don’t usually let my companions die when I’m playing IE games–even though resurrection options exist, when a character dies, their stuff falls to the ground in a pile, and I unknowingly lost a bunch of stuff in Planescape Torment this way (including the golden ball which, I’m told, gives you something nice if you bring it to the endgame). I don’t want to take any chances any more, and since I’m happy to abuse the Quicksave function, I immediately reload upon a character’s death. These Mind Flayers have an instant-death attack I don’t know how to counter yet and they keep using it. I know I’m going to have a very large Mind Flayer area somewhere around Chapter 5, and so I figure I’ll get to that point, hone my skills against them, and then go back and take care of their friends when I get back to the city.

Extended Edition content: Beamdog has unfairly gotten a lot of flak for their additional content because it’s apparently SJW-y or something–I don’t find it that way, personally, because I’m an adult–but I don’t really find their NPCs useful or pleasant. Dorn’s quest gave my reputation too much of a hit and forced me to miss out on some stuff with Jaheira. Hexxat’s questline refuses to trigger. Rasaad is decent but Minsc and Korgan are taking up my fighter spots in my party and I don’t want to get rid of either of them. And Neera–

Well, both as a person and as a game character, Neera is pretty obnoxious. She’s a Wild Mage, which means that her spells have a chance of getting a Wild Surge, meaning they could either become really powerful or they could zap all of your party’s gold away or whatever random effect gets rolled from the table. Her writing is–the term I’ve been using is “internetty”, which, it’s not that she’s talking in memes exactly, but she has that kind of blithe quirkiness that annoys me and makes me feel old. And her quest–well, I ducked into it and I already fucked it up. It centers around an enclave of Wild Mages that she’s helped start. Each of the members has their own little quest to do. One of them hands you a jar of cat food. “Find my cats!” he says. (Internet.) “There are 8 of them!” I ignored the quest and got to a Point of No Return section in it, and if the walkthrough I checked is right, I think he and all of the other members of the enclave are going to die as a result, because I didn’t feed all eight (eight! why are there eight! why did Beamdog think I wanted to feed eight fucking cats and not a manageable three or four!) or something, because the [thing] a character asked me to get was right near that Point of No Return and I figured I’d have the opportunity to swing back after doing the major quest goal, because the game insists there’s a nonviolent path through one encounter that I can’t navigate the dialogue tree and don’t feel like it–look, I think I can absolve myself from the Extended Edition content. It’s pretty much the same shit they expected me to do in Siege of Dragonspear, and I just don’t want to do that anymore. There was a rumor going around the other day, since denied, that Beamdog might be working on a Planescape Torment sequel, and man, for a couple of days my blood ran fucking cold.

I mean, maybe they weren’t really cats–maybe they were interesting magical creatures or something. We’ll never know.

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

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

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

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

 

baldursgatechapter7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

88 – Might and Magic 3, Black Watchmen, Dragon Age Inquisition

–Stuck, as has always been the case, in Might and Magic III, this time on the lever puzzle in the Fortress of Fear. I hate lever puzzles. Yes, it’s optional, yes, I have a half-dozen other dungeons I could be going in at the moment. I am not quitting; I am Taking A Break. Because, dammit, I do want the map of the Isles of Terra on the wall to join VARN, XEEN, and Lost Guardia. (And I swear, one day Ishar is going to join them!)

But what is it about MM3 that just loses me? The exploration isn’t as satisfying–the biggest mistake of the series came with II, where you get the ability, very quickly, to traverse every square on the map and it becomes a game of lawnmowing. Might and Magic I is an impeccably designed maze. You can, eventually, go on every square if you find the way to do it; Might and Magic II gives you skills which allows you to, essentially, cross through walls in the outside. A line of trees or mountains that blocks your way in I becomes simply another square to pass through in II and that continues. III is a flat game paced only by enemy difficulty and keys to certain dungeons. And I love exploration and mazes, poking at a maze to find the spot that I haven’t gone into yet.

I mean, I did make it all the way through IV and V, so obviously the style got refined. III is excellent in many ways–it’s a beautiful game, it keeps and refines the manic energy of the series which is one of its hallmarks, and it’s hard–though a lot of the difficulty does come from riddles and puzzles. But really, Might and Magic I captured me in a way few other games have, and 6 did a good job of having that wonderful sense of expansive purpose; the other games in the series have been diminishing returns.

–Ducked into The Black Watchmen because a paranoid conspiracy ARG-style game is probably what we as a society need right now? It’s fun. Total cheese. You’re given a series of puzzles with all of this window dressing about secret experiments and agents with thick overdone Russian accents planting bugs and occult organizations–I’m totally blanking on the name but what was that webpage game a bunch of years back that started you off with searching pixels of images for text written in and moved to cracking codes and image manipulation and–do you know what I’m talking about? It’s one of those kinds of games. If you’re in the right mindset, and you can solve the puzzles, it’s great. Hard to do by yourself, I guess–it’s always more fun to do these things with a friend. I’ve recently gone through a breakup and so, you know, maybe I should have gotten Black Watchmen six months ago.

It reminds me of Missing Since January–anyone remember that lost little gem? An old boyfriend and I played that through a few years ago–we were the type to play adventure games together–and it was fun. The kayfabe of that was a little more complex–where Black Watchmen is simply “You’re a member of a cryptic organization solving crimes, have fun”, Missing tells the story of a serial killer and the two journalists who disappear investigating the murders. The killer sends a CD full of clues to the police, you get your hands on a copy, and you get to solving.

Missing took the ARG thing to some pretty nice heights, particularly for the time, particularly for someone like me who didn’t have much experience with ARGs. Its major gimmick was integrating itself with your email–you’d get messages from various characters, including the killer–the most notable one being several days after you’ve solved everything and moving on to something else, getting a gloating email from the killer promising to be back in the sequel because he’s always watching. Great shit. Black Watchmen has sections where you can add your phone number and address–locked for me at the moment, perhaps for later seasons.

The two biggest issues with ARGs from my sights, though, are that they’re usually too commercial and too hard, which at first glance seems a little paradoxical. Most of the big ARGs–I Love Bees, for example–are made to promote other things, aren’t a story in and of themselves; and if you’re not interested in the thing they’re promoted, it feels a little cheap. And these things are often designed to require that group participation. I like that such tools are available–there’s forums for Black Watchmen (that had absolutely no hints or discussion for a couple of puzzles I was stuck on) and a Discord server (whatever that is, sorry, kids, but I’m 35 and it’s getting hard for me to learn new shit unless forced, which by the way I’ve gotten the fuck rid of my Twitter and am richardgoodness@mastodon.social now and I fucking refuse to learn about instances)–but, you know, videogames have always been a largely solitary activity for me. I don’t like to play games against other people, and I don’t like to play with strangers. It’s nice to have another head next to mine to work together, but that’s about it. And so when you get into ARGs that require specialized esoteric knowledge that everyone has a piece of, where a community is required–I get a little leery of that.

I guess it takes me out of the experience a bit. Spells like these are very difficult. I’m the guy who hates Twine games made in the default, who hates Choice of Games for their fucking refusal to even change font colors, who can’t play a game if it’s not fullscreen. Seeing that this is on a computer with the Finder and the charge icon for my battery, that reminds me that I’m playing a game at home. The suspension of disbelief is difficult. Now, if I’m looking into the dark underbelly of organizations, if I’m pretending to hack into servers, if I’m doing research, doing it from the comfort of my own web browser adds to the experience. That’s how I’d do it “in real life”. But when I’m going to a forum that the company who made the game has created specifically to help people connect so they can discuss the game, that’s a little…silly.

I will say Black Watchmen does a little more online than perhaps they ought. The shell program, that you run from Steam or whatever, contains the navigator where you choose the puzzles you’re going to solve, is the spot where you enter the puzzle solutions, contains some basic documents. For the rest, most puzzles involve the site http://archive.blackwatchmen.com where you enter certain codes/passwords to access particular documents. It’s effective in its way, it gates your progress nicely, but I don’t quite understand why it’s a separate webpage that you can get to–why it isn’t a feature of the program itself. There could very easily be a database module within it that could serve the same exact purpose. And there’s some UI shit in the program–copying and pasting isn’t great, for example, little things like that–but it’s about as cute of an experience as it can be. I mean, I mean, I run an X-Files podcast. I’m a 90s kid. This kind of conspiracy cheese, I can’t take it completely seriously at the same time that I’m able to take it completely seriously. It’s funny, and creepy as hell to play at night.

–Speaking of breakups and big blocks of cheese, immediately after my breakup, a friend of mine suggested I get some kind of overwhelming videogame to take my mind off my shit–she got lost for a few weeks in Fallout 3 after a similar situation. Fallout isn’t my thing, particularly in such chaotic times, but fantasy is, and since I hate Elder Scrolls I picked up Dragon Age Inquisition. I don’t quite love Dragon Age–I don’t quite love Bioware. There’s always something pretty internetty about it, if you know what I mean, and I really hated the first two games as games. Dragon Age Origins I played before I had played any of the Infinity Engine games that it was hearkening back to, and so didn’t quite get the experience, but after I’d played them its faults and flaws began to become a little more apparent, and frankly, the XBox controls are kind of terrible. Dragon Age II was a really great attempt at telling a story in a small space, in showing social change over time, but while I’m not the kind of guy who gets hung up on plot holes, being an illegal mage openly running around with a flaming staff while people say “It’s the hero of Kirkwall, the guy who killed the biggest Qunari of all time, we’re low level bandits, let’s get him” began to wear on me, the quests which randomly solved themselves because you pick up an item as a random drop began to wear on me; and while I am okay knowing that I have made a choice in a videogame, Dragon Age II really wanted me to think that I was, and when it was all over and I realized that it was a series of magician’s choices and morton’s forks, it just felt–oh, god, I’m going to say pretentious–pretentious. It didn’t help that there’s a fuckton of really bad queer games crit about the game.

I mean maybe it just is a case where if I’d been five years younger when I’d played it, it would have blown my mind.

What I really wanted to play was The Witcher 3–I really like The Witcher’s world–but as I only have a 360 and a POS Macbook, Inquisition it was–and I think I’m pretty okay with the decision. As a Pile Of Content, it’s great–part of the reason I put it aside was simple fatigue. I actually like the much-memed Hinterlands, would have honestly been satisfied if that was the bulk of the game–and while I don’t quite love Dragon Age’s world, I don’t mind it. It certainly has more character than The Elder Scrolls, which you can tell very badly wants to be a fantasy world with a lot of character but just can’t help but be generic. I mean, I rolled a Skyrim character, thinking, okay, maybe this time it won’t be so bad–and here I am wandering through generic dungeons and fighting bandits after bandits after bandits and I just don’t give a shit. Dragon Age Inquisition is simple enough that when I want to get back to it, I’ll be able to pick up where I left off because it’s not exactly that complex of a plot, but it at least has a little bit of character. And, I mean, you know what a sucker I am for Catholic Shit.

72

I’m mostly enjoying Arcanum–this is about the fifth or sixth time I’ve attempted it and I think it’s more or less sticking. I’m happy with Witzfilliam, my disenfranchised gnome who’s a heavy tanky melee fighter with light buffing skills, and if I can’t quite see the use of all of the spells, well, everyone tells me Arcanum is a delight for roleplayers.

I guess if I have to describe Arcanum, it’s Troika-y, which means that it’s got bugginess to it, an underbakedness to it, one which is married to a huge amount of potential, a rich skill system which lets you poke fairly deeply into the world, a series of sidequests and hidden content that leaves a lot of resolutions, a general sense of freedom for the player that Troika was never quite able to one hundred percent accomplish. The Temple of Elemental Evil is one I’ve never gotten more than a couple minutes in, and Vampire the Masquerade Bloodlines was an amazing game that had way too many unfinished levels. Bloodlines is famous for, among other things, the tension between The Sewer Level That Lasts Forever, which is about as enjoyable as it sounds, and for the Ocean House Hotel, which is one of the finest haunted houses in gaming and a legit masterpiece of scripted scares.

Arcanum is making it clear where Troika loses me–I tend to think the flaws outweigh the great bits and find their games to be more fascinating failures than successes–and is helping to clarify a lot of thoughts I’ve had on RPGs and length. RPGs–JRPGs in particular–have a very impressionistic sense to them. In other words, you’re on a continent with a town, a castle, a cave, and a tower. You’re in a village that consists of four houses and a half dozen people. Even when the land’s isolation is part of the plot–see Dragon Quest VII, which starts you off on that size island and tells you, explicitly, that “in this world, only this island is”–there’s the understanding that this isn’t a literal depiction of the world: It’s a standin. Even in the smallest village, those four houses represent a few dozen, maybe; those half dozen-people, let’s say they speak for about a hundred. RPGs tend to abstract everything–this is a genre that, in its classic form, represents combat by menu clicks and subtraction–and the physical environment is no difference.

The other day a friend of mine asked me what the first RPG I played that really got to me in terms of story, and I said, well, I got Dragon Warrior in that Nintendo contest back in 1989, when I was about seven years old: I’ve been there since the beginning, really. Now, Dragon Warrior has the barest skeleton of a plot: The evil Dragonlord attacked and kidnapped the princess and is somehow menacing the land; you level grind and grab a bunch of macguffins; you save the princess, defeat the Dragonlord, and return peace to the land. Playing it as an adult, I’m surprised by how lean the story is, largely because I remember living this game as a kid. Being seven had a lot to do with it, obviously–it’s not exactly hard to get a seven-year-old’s imagine to run away with something–but Dragon Warrior does earn a lot of the credit because it’s a hell of a skeleton.

Dragon Warrior dealt with a lot of space limitations, the patience of an audience that didn’t quite know what RPGs were, that was used to games with even less plot, and it chose its skeleton well. If a town can fit a half dozen residents, each of whom can do a couple of lines of dialogue, you have to make all of that dialogue count. Every word in Dragon Warrior–like in Might and Magic–has to carry a lot of weight. And so you get a decent outline that you’re encouraged to color in yourself. If “let’s tell a story together” is the best definition of interactive fiction I’ve encountered, well Dragon Warrior does exactly that: Where Might and Magic lets you work in collaboration with the designer in order to reconstruct the physical environment, Dragon Warrior lets you work in collaboration to reconstruct the narrative.

There’s a term that comes up from time to time in old school CRPG manuals–Might and Magic and Wizardry 6 are the two that spring to mind–and that term is “fantasy simulation”. This term describes the likes of Skyrim much better than role-playing-game does, at least to me: I’ve never played an Elder Scrolls game for the plot and I’m still shocked and confused when people talk about the story elements in Skyrim. Elder Scrolls games are less about exploring a narrative, less about charting a world, and more about a simulation of the experience of being an adventurer. There’s an element of simulated realism–the way encumberance is handled, the way everyone keeps a paranoid eye on their possessions, the way character development tends towards minutiae–that takes the center stage. There’s a certain soullessness to Elder Scrolls–the personalities of the various NPCs tumble headfirst into the uncanny valley because we’re expected to take everything so seriously and representational: The Holy Grail of The Elder Scrolls is a game which would exactly match the experience of actually being there.

So I guess I feel like Arcanum squanders its narrative potential–its plot is pretty good and compelling, its structure sprawling and free–by edging towards that simulation aspect. It doesn’t quite get off on its own size the way that Skyrim does, but there cities–during which you spend most of the game–are much larger than they need to be. The experience of Arcanum has been entering every door in a block and talking to everyone I meet; half of the houses are empty, most of the citizens have nothing to say beyond a few generic lines. This is completely unnecessary: Exploring a city is miserable enough, trying to find a specific person to receive a quest reward an exercise in tedium. I’ve started looking everything up on a map I found online–which wouldn’t happen if all of the buildings had something useful in them.

59 – Gothic II

I end up talking about Skyrim a lot, just like I end up talking about Final Fantasy VII a lot, and BioShock a lot, and it’s obvious why: Everybody’s fucking played them. And it’s obvious why everybody’s fucking played them, and, oh, let’s be honest with ourselves, most of these games deserve their position–they do what they do very well and in a way that a lot of people like, and if BioShock isn’t quite as deep as its press releases say it is, it’s deep enough. (We’ll leave the subject of Infinite closed indefinitely.)

Skyrim is one of those games that I love in theory, because let’s face it: I do very well with games where you’re placed in a land and you have to bum around and figure it out and maybe you fight dragons. But Skyrim is an extremely flat and homogenous game. In its effort to be all things to all people, in its efforts to be so large and so sprawling and so massive, the game simply doesn’t have enough tricks up its sleeve. Cast your net at a section of gameplay–dip in and pick a dozen quests and dungeons and maybe every one will be different. Dip in and pick another dozen, and another dozen, and there are going to be a few too many similarities in each packet. Skyrim is the kind of game which doesn’t want to leave any players unsatisfied. Oh, sure, there’s more to do if you’re Cheevo-hunting, and there are enough variants in the quests to make things interesting, but I’m a dungeons guy, I’m an exploration guy, and the dungeons are all samey and the exploration is so brief–it’s traversing rather than discovering.

Gothic II is the kind of game where I had to start over after about ten hours of playing because I squandered a few resources and built my character in an unproductive direction and wanted to do it right this time. In those ten hours I explored a relatively small area–the initial city and the surrounding woodlands–and in the entirety of that time I was able to chart only about two thirds of the entirety of that area and I certainly didn’t feel safe at all. Rather than large, Gothic II is going deep and intimate. There’s shit hidden in different corners, some shortcuts–it’s not as much of an intertwined cartography maze as Dark Souls is, it’s rather a single large island rather than a selection of interconnected areas which loop upon themselves in surprising ways. But it’s a hell of an island.

I find I like games which invite an intimacy with the land, which are based on developing a familiarity with the environment. It’s why I love Might and Magic so much: VARN is a world that you chart and become familiar with and eventually learn to navigate on your own. Same with the Wizardry Cosmic Forge trilogy. It’s why people love Dark Souls and why I loved ICO–hell, it’s why people love Ocarina of Time. I have never been able to have that intimacy with an Elder Scrolls game–although I’ve never played Morrowind which I’m told is one of the finest in the series.

Gothic is doing a great job at balancing some tight reins with an extreme degree of freedom; the monsters are hard, and the point–that your character is, right now, a supreme wuss–gets very strongly made when two flies kick your ass. Combat is sporadic and fixed–there aren’t too many enemies around, but all of them are legitimate threats and every combat feels very meaningful. But skill plays a part as much as your stats; restarting the game, the initial bits were much, much easier because I understand the timing underlining the combat a tiny bit better than when I first played. (Those flies are still really difficult though.) Everything has these really stringent requirements–half of the weapons I’ve picked up require strength 40, strength 80, strength 100 when my 10-hour character only had strength 10 (part of the reason I restarted was because I put some points into the wrong stats.) It’s a game where you chip and chip and chip away and every bit of progress feels like a rush, and the density of stuff and the rarity of stuff and the importance of stuff–finding two arrows and a healing herb has not stopped being a good find–means that every time you find stuff it’s rewarding. Skyrim threw crap at you, it gave you more treasures than you knew what to do with and gave merchants too little gold for you to sell everything and gave you weight requirements that meant you simply couldn’t take everything–and I don’t know about you, but it breaks my heart to have to sort through the items in a chest and have my decisions very easy to make because half of that shit is absolutely useless. Sure, it’s possible that the early game of Gothic requires gold in a way the late game does not, but all I know is that I’ve got to get 1000 gold pieces in order to do one quest, 500 to do another, and a good 200-300 to buy a couple spells I need to buy, and I’ve been scrimping and saving to capture 200.

I speak as if this is my character in the present tense, of course–this is all from that abandoned 10 hour playthrough, again, part of the reason I want to restart is because I want to manage my money better. I’ve loved the density of the world so far, and I’ve been told that it stays that way for the whole game, and I’m so excited to see more on the island and find more stuff out. All of the quests I’ve been given have been very meaningful and different–again, so far–and I just want to be able to play more of it. It’s just an immensely satisfying game in a way that Skyrim never was.