105 – I Have Beaten Baldur’s Gate 2!

Screen Shot 2017-11-26 at 10.42.05 PMThe latter chapters of Baldur’s Gate 2 felt like padding, but man, did the game stick the landing. Chapter 7 takes place in two parts–an elf city that Irenicus is laying waste to, and a hell dimension where you battle his soul once and for all or something. (Metaphysics in these games gets kind of fuzzy for me.)

In practice, there’s not much different between this chapter’s areas and the ones in 4 and 5–a small, linear place, heavy combat focus–but at this point, the tight focus and pace makes sense, feels right. This is endgame: We’re funneling to our goal, and anything left is a distraction. That kind of pace feels restrictive when in midgame chapters, but when we’re approaching the final boss, that acceleration is great.

I don’t normally like Infinity Engine final bosses–Sarevok and Behlifet are difficult beyond what their games warrant, and I seem to remember Icewind Dale 2’s final bosses being way above my party’s pay grade–but I loved the Irenicus fight, largely because I was able to finish it on my first try. Baldur’s Gate 2 does something interesting with its combat in that, for the most part, direct damage spells are irrelevant. Spells like fireball and magic missile and all of that are staples during Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale; in 2, many of the enemies have magic resistance, and in any case your spells only do so much damage.

Buffing and debuffing become the order of the day–enemies throw up different kinds of shields, and you’ve got to put in similar shields to counter their attacks, and you’ve got different kinds of debuffs and penetration spells, and in some cases, it’s sheer attrition–waiting their shields out and keeping your fighters healthy until their shield fizzles away and you can whap away some HP. Irenicus’s first form is a mage battle; his second, he goes into slayer form and has a few friends helping him, and by now I’ve gotten so used to the engine–I have, after all, am working on my second playthrough of the entire franchise–that while I wouldn’t call it easy, man, I’m pretty decent at playing Infinity Engine games.

I’ll probably have some thoughts on my journey as a whole when I’m done, but as for Baldur’s Gate 2, one thing that’s been on my mind throughout this game is a line I half remember from, of all things, the GoG.com installer which, as many of you may know, pops up little advertisements for other games they sell. Their ad for Baldur’s Gate 2 mentions that BG2 is an RPG that’s “considered one of the best ever”. I’ve played so, so many RPGs over the years that I’m pretty qualified to evaluate that statement, and–with some caveats–I’d say it’s fairly accurate. In terms of what it brings to the table as far as breadth and depth, it’s pretty unmatched; its characterization of the world is excellent; it feels like a major adventure, and completing it feels like an accomplishment.

I just wish the game had been a little more even. What makes Baldur’s Gate 2 great is the large nonlinear sections of chapters 2-3 (and the bits of cleanup you do in chapter 6)–not the linear journey of 4-5. It’s a fine line to tread, though–my issue with Skyrim, for example, is its aimlessness, is that there’s too much to do, and that you never really do focus in on your main quest unless you want to. Skyrim is the kind of game that’s too unwilling to make choices for you–this is Your Adventure and You Can Do Whatever You Want In It, even if that means being one of those assholes who writes a blog about ignoring all the quests and hanging out in town farming cabbages. Baldur’s Gate 2 decides, at some point, that the main quest needs to take over, that you’ve bummed around its world long enough, and that it’s time to get down to business. I respect that…but I can’t say I enjoyed it fully.

Like I have said–a shorter midgame would have perfected BG2. But of course I am coming at the game from a particular position–that of it being 2017 and I have so many games to play, because games are really cheap commodities; and I’m 35 and I work for a living so I am not spending a dozen hours every day playing. (I mean, admittedly, the lion’s share of my free time is spent gaming–it’s not like I just duck into these things for a half hour every few days.) Tightness and minimalism are things I value at this point in my life, but that’s not to say I don’t enjoy a large, sprawling game–I wouldn’t be into RPGs if I didn’t–and, honestly, it’s not as if Chapters 4 and 5 take up two dozen hours on their own. Still, less is more, says the fellow who’s written about 10 posts on this game alone. And I do like that BG2 doesn’t quite play it safe. The game comes from a place of both supreme confidence–after BG1, Icewind Dale, and Planescape Torment, the Infinity Engine knows what it’s doing–and heavy experimentation–because RPGs were still a very niche genre at the time, and because in general this period of time, for PC games, was a period of high experimentation.

In a way, it’s making me very excited for Pillars of Eternity 2–you can see a lot of parallels between the Infinity Engine and the Pillars engine–the two franchises mirror each other in many ways. PoE is an obvious standin for Baldur’s Gate, being a sprawling woodsy adventure that sometimes collapses under its own ambitions but remains fascinating even for every time it falters; Tyranny and Icewind Dale are weird side adventures that a lot of people don’t quite like but remain trimmer, more linear, more focused; and Torment: Tides of Numenera is an obvious cousin of Planescape: Torment. 20 years later, PoE2 might be a reincarnation of Baldur’s Gate 2, and I look forward to seeing the improvements it makes on its predecessors.

Ah fuck, every time I mention Pillars of Eternity I remember that I plan on replaying it in time for the sequel to come out. That’s a hundred hours I’ve got to brace myself for.

Advertisements

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.

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.

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.

68 – Planescape Torment

–This is like my 6th attempt at Planescape: Torment. I’ve only been able to get out of the mortuary once before; I’ve just gotten past the part I stopped at during that play through.

There’s no particular reason for this: Im not the hugest fan of the Infinity Engine or this incarnation of DND mechanics–is this second or third?–but it’s largely been a case of, not the right game for this time in my life.

I’m not the kind of person who gets hung up on these kinds of things. I used to. If a canonical work didn’t grab me, well I would blame myself, or act snobbish, or pretend I had played/read it. I’m over that, largely because I’ve gotten to that age where I’ve discovered and fallen in love with some stuff I previously dismissed–Might and Magic being the most obvious example.

I think it’s the right time for Planescape: Torment now.

–One of the first things everyone will tell you that the great thing about Torment is there’s no combat, or combat is optional, or whatever. That’s not entirely true. In the sewers, rats and monsters will jump out at you. You’ll pull aggro from bandits as you stroll through town. While I suppose it’s possible to run from everything, it’s not particularly fun or rewarding to do so. Let’s face it: Puzzles and exploration and narrative are awesome, and they’re the reason I love RPGs, but dammit, I want to bop a Kobold in the face from time to time.

So there is combat in Planescape, yes, but it’s not the focus. You really don’t have Kill the Foozle quests. It’s possible–and encouraging, and rewarding–to talk your way out of confrontations, and the majority of encounters are going to end that way.

What combat does is pace the game pretty well. Most of the XP you get in the game is from quests–monster XP is a drop in the bucket–and if you’re not doing many quests, if you’re not talking to people, if you’re not hunting for stuff to do, you’re gonna get slaughtered by the enemies the game does throw at you. Combat is never difficult–I’ve gotten through nearly all of it by throwing all my dudes at the monsters, tossing off the occasional spell, and praying.

There’s literally no penalty for death–for plot reasons, your character wakes up none the worse for wear after death, it’s the whole crux of the plot after all, and you’ve got a more or less free spell that can resurrect dead characters with no loss that I can tell. The game is comfortable with you taking down a swarm of enemies by killing them one at a time, resting and recovering after each death, and trying again. It’s not the most strategic or fascinating method, but who cares? The plot stuff is much better.

–There’s a remarkable amount of stuff hidden in the game. The early stages, at least, take place in a neighborhood of a city, and then you spend some time in the catacombs underneath–that’s the area I’m in now. There is enough to discover in each area that I’ve found new things in the third, fourth, fifth time I’ve crossed it. And it’s not simple loot–it’s quests, it’s characters. Planescape really does have a vibrant world, and the characters are all–oh, “interesting” seems a lame word but there it is.

See, it’s difficult to get me invested in Tolkein-esque fantasy. I can *enjoy* it, or at least find it transparent and background if the game itself is fine enough. But generally I really can’t give a shit about the conflict between elves and dwarves, I don’t always want to spend my time traipsing through the same forest, and I just want to go through a fantasy land that doesn’t feel beholden to the same old tropes.

Planescape is definitely this: It’s an extremely syncretic world. The name comes from the conception of the world as a multiverse with gates to infinite planes of existence. There’s a ton of weird shit in Planescape because the environment not only supports but encourages it, and there’s enough talk about even weirder shit out there that it really does feel like a game where everything’s possible. Skyrim–my favorite whipping boy!–feels so staid and dull by comparison.

–A problem: The game silently lets you sell certain quest items; now that I’ve realized this, I’ve stopped selling as much, but that doesn’t stop certain quests from being uncompletable. They’re largely side quests, but I would like the XP and I don’t like unfinished shit if I can help it. More importantly, the main quest I need now requires a crowbar. (I’m fixing the alley where my body was found, for those familiar with the game.) A crowbar was the first weapon I got, and I sold it a long time ago and I goddamn can’t find another one–and a shop list I found suggests that none of the shops I have access to sell it. I found a save game editor which lets me add certain items–but apparently not a crowbar.

So basically, if anyone can recommend some help–a save editor, an alternate route–I would appreciate it!! I don’t want to give up again–this game is too goddamn good.

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:

20140731-091723-33443022.jpg

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

20140731-090636-32796673.jpg

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:

20140731-090637-32797561.jpg

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.

20140731-090638-32798614.jpg

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.

 

 

 

 

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.