61 – Planescape Torment club?, Zest update, Gothic II

So I’ve never played Planescape Torment because I’m obviously a terrible person. I didn’t play a lot of CRPGs growing up–missed Ultima entirely, played and hated Might and Magic II, didn’t play Fallout till college, have never gotten past chapter 1 in Baldur’s Gate. Weird, because I can tell you pretty much everything about every JRPG released in the states till about two years ago. Torment is one of those big holes in my gaming life: I’ve played through a chunk of it, but it’s such a big Thing in some ways that I’m nervous to approach it.

Well, I’ve reinstalled the game and I’m going to be playing it in the next couple of months, and based on some preliminary talk on Twitter, it seems like there’s a lot of people who’d be interested in some kind of Book Club thing. Now, I don’t know quite what form this should take. I don’t want to do the “okay let’s all play this much of the game this week and all discuss it”, particularly because it seems like one of those sprawling RPGs that isn’t conducive to that sort of thing. Maybe it would be enough to just encourage a ton of people to play and write about this game on their own blogs and we can link each other. Perhaps Joel Goodwin of Electron Dance could be convinced to give up some real estate in his forum for discussion.

Either way, if you’re interested–let’s say July-ish?–let me know, and if you’ve got an idea about how this thing could work, please, I’m all ears!

–In Zest news, the basic flow of the game has been outlined. The flow of the game is going to consist of  about a half dozen “time blocks”, each of which essentially has a different “deck” associated with it. The player’s stats influence a degree of randomness–we’ve actually been throwing out the tern “narrative roguelike” to describe the basic feel. My current goal is to come up with a couple dozen basic cards in all the separate categories; once that’s done, I’m handing it off to Lectronice and PaperBlurt who will respectively finish programming the card system and come up with some preliminary CSS. I’m shooting for a hundred cards int he final version–like TWEEZER, I want it to be a game that encourages many very short play sessions. We’re targeting an early July release–that’s part of the reason I’d like to do Planescape around them–so watch this space.

–Again, for a game with comparatively few verbs and stats, there’s a lot to learn in Gothic II. I keep learning new tricks for playing it–where I need to stand in order to pull certain enemies, the timing on how to chain certain attacks, what stats I need to increase to effectively kill things–and there’s plenty more. I still haven’t begun to figure out whether there’s a more efficient way to buy and sell things.

At this point I’ve done a broad survey of the bulk of the island–there’s a lot of stuff I certainly haven’t found, and I’ve only really seen the surface of most of it, but I’ve been, at some point, on every corner of the map, even if there’s only about a quarter of the game I’m able to navigate without trouble. What keeps striking me is I’m just on the first *chapter*.  There’s a lot to see and do in this game, and not all of it consists of doing quests–again, it’s the kind of game that’s rewarding just to poke around in.

–My save–which I’m going to get to as soon as I finish typing this post and will play until it’s time to go to work, I love this fucking game–has me in the middle of an area I have never been to in the middle of the night. Night is scary–or, rather, it’s more threatening than the rest of the game is, and the rest of the game is pretty threatening. While I wouldn’t say Gothic ever becomes a horror game, the sense of vulnerability never quite goes away. The game is like Dark Souls–I’m sorry, I’m sorry!–in that even beginning-of-game enemies can kill you at any point if you’re being too cocky. ANd while Dark Souls has much better creature design, there’s something hilarious about how my Gothic II character ran, panicked, from two chickens–who never fucking give up pursuing and who run fast–and accidentally pulled aggro from two boars, only to run headfirst into a lizard who killed him instantly. Props to the sound department, too: Each enemy has its own cry, and usually–there are a ton of trees–you end up hearing them long before you see them, and so it’s one of those games where the second you hear an animal howling at you, you either relax, though not completely, and maneuver into a position where you can be at the advantage, or you realize there’s two of them and you can’t take on two of them, or it’s something you’ve never heard before and you just run the fuck away.

60 – Gothic II, Daemonica, Always Sometimes Monsters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.