93 – Baldur’s Gate: Siege of Dragonspear (and some other rambly shit)

It’s perhaps overstating the case to say that Baldur’s Gate: Siege of Dragonspear feels like a fangame–every review you read about it takes pains to remind us that Beamdog is made of some ex-Bioware employees who actually worked on the original game–but man, does it feel inessential like a fangame. I’ve been playing for close to two weeks now, which is a lot of playtime compared to the amount of content in the game. It’s all fine. There’s nothing wrong with it. But I don’t know why I’m playing it. I’m close enough to the end that I could just export my character and be in fine form for Baldur’s Gate II, but also close enough to the end that I should just put the thing on Story Mode and muddle through, but when “put the game on Story Mode and just muddle through” is an option you’re seriously considering, that’s a sign that someone’s done something wrong along the way.

Like–there’s oh-so-much written about Story Mode, and it’s one thing if you’re enjoying it and are finding it tough going–it’s another if you’re doing Story Mode just to get it over with. I can’t say the challenge is too tough, I can’t say the encounters are poorly designed–with some caveats I’ll get to in a minute–but it’s just–

Oh, Siege of Dragonspear is fine. It doesn’t have the fucked up and janky character of Baldur’s Gate I, it doesn’t have the refined expansiveness of II, it’s just kind of there. It’s–well, it’s very Bioware-y. I in general find Bioware games to be fine. Their lore is well-thought-out, they’re appealing games, they’re well-designed, they’re maybe a little too internetty in their humor and their insistence on romance subplots everywhere, but they’re–you know, Bioware games just Aren’t For Me.

I think the word I’m looking for is “normcore”.

I’ve bought a shitload of Dungeons and Dragons books lately because I’m trying to get some inspiration and ideas for some of my own writing, and while plenty of people will point out problems in the rulebooks that may or may not be legit, the thing is that Dungeons and Dragons is huge. Everybody knows about it. This is not a niche hobby like it was in the 70s, when it was solely the provenance of isolated nerds; it isn’t the dangerous conduit to Hell that it was accused of being in the 80s; it’s, you know, a popular game that’s made a lot of people a lot of money. It’s part of our pop culture. If it isn’t quite Lord of the Rings or Star Wars, well, it’s in the same breath. There’s a familiarity to it that comes through sheer exposure. It’s a game like any other–maybe a bit more complex and time-consuming than most people are willing to buy into, but just a game nonetheless.

I’ve talked about this a bit with videogames in general: We can’t pretend that playing videogames is a niche hobby anymore. We can’t pretend that geek culture is subaltern. It is front and center. It is capitalism. It is oppression. An asshole who’s GamerGate in spirit if not in aesthetic is in the White House. There are versions of videogames that are bigger than others, surely–I tell so-called gamers at the college I work at that I’m playing through Baldur’s Gate and they get fuzzy looks (which, to be fair, Baldur’s Gate might have even come out before they were born), but they’ll know Dark Souls intimately. They’ll talk excitedly about Overwatch. Jocks play videogames. (Is “Jock” as a category meaningful anymore? I am out of touch with student cliques.) And let’s face it, Siege of Dragonspear is even more obscure than the Gate itself.

But I guess what I’m saying is as simple as, Baldur’s Gate came out at a time when its audience was, you know, people who might not have been able to find the three friends necessary to play “real” Dungeons and Dragons–hence why I’m fond of it now at this time in my life–but Dragonspear came out after, you know, 15 years of game design evolution and a sea change in pop culture. Fantasy and superheroes are fucking everywhere and people look at you funny–like you’re some kind of antisocial rebel–if you don’t give a shit about what Marvel is putting out. Baldur’s Gate is what it is. Dragonspear tries to shine itself up for a larger audience. And for the most part, it acquits itself so well that it’s a really, really boring game to play.

Like, it takes few risks. The biggest risk it takes is a couple of large-scale setpiece battles with dozens of combatants, and when you’re on a shitty Macbook like I am, everything slows down to a crawl, the area effect spells you throw down end up slowing down everything further–but I’m not quite sure a proper speed would help matters.

I feel like I’m talking around some points I’m trying to make, and that’s okay–there’s something I’m trying to get at about all of this that I’m chipping away at.

I guess it’s like this:

I was a child in the 80s, one who was very aware of and very interested in geeky nerdy culture, in the RPGs of the time, who desperately wanted to play Dungeons and Dragons, but who was, frankly, too young for all of it at the time, and who, frankly, wasn’t able to explain this stuff to other kids when I got to be the beginnings of old enough for it. I think about childhood and I think about how much I loved Dragon Warrior and how friends found all the text boring. Friends who hated reading. Stuff like that. All of this stuff was out of my reach, and as such it developed a cache of being–you know, a little dangerous. Playing Dungeons and Dragons or Might and Magic or whatever had some of the resonances of, for example, playing with power tools, or crossing the street by yourself–it was dangerous, and that danger was helped along with, you know, the darkness of a dungeon. The idea of it all–spurred on by my tiny child mind–was kind of fucked up and scary.

There is nothing fucked up or scary about Siege of Dragonspear.

Fantasy can and should effect a sense of wonder and awe–but there should be something creepy about it too. There is something Out Of This World about it. Going through the fifth edition Monster Manual, everything feels oddly safe. Here are some blandly-written descriptions and stat blocks–all of this is categorized and collated, it’s the product of 40 years of solidification. There isn’t the sense that–let’s face it, if you met anything from that book in real life, even a lowly goblin, it’d scare the everloving fuck out of you. Even a benign being would be a little horrific because of how uncanny, how unnatural it is. An aboleth should induce dread. You look at its statistics and it’s something you can comprehend.

There is no sense of the slip, of the overwhelming, of the pure cosmic horror of the thing. I think about how even Darkest Dungeon was trying to give a sense of the brutal madness of a dungeon crawl, but it was just Another Damn Cthulhu Game where your insanity effects are just different buffs and debuffs. Motherfucking Cthulhu! A creature who, in real life, would cause anyone’s mind to snap, but at this point we’ve seen so many different permutations of that brand of horror that it’s just kind of, you know, there. Background. It’s like being afraid of Dracula.

I know, I know, Siege of Dragonspear isn’t trying to be a horror game. It’s an expansion of world, an attempt at bridging two games, and as such it acquits itself well. I’m spitballing incomprehensibly about a desire to experience or write something that’s a lot more outre, and something that I can’t really figure out how to talk about. What I’m really doing is simply trying to figure out the edges of what I’m looking to do–the feeling I’d like to give to a dungeon I’d like to create–with the understanding that feeling out those edges might even be the beginning of that collation and categorization and understanding. And maybe it’s a loss that’s simply happened because I’ve gotten older and I’ve read a lot of shit. In the beginner’s mind are many possibilities; in the Zen mind, there are few. If I’m being honest, what I’m looking for is a path back to that beginner’s mind, and a way to evoke the absolute terror all of those possibilities evoke.

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87 — Darkside Detective, Thimbleweed Park, And Obscure Lines From Ghostbusters

There’s a lot of Ace Attorney in Darkside Detective’s DNA, and it’s not only because your sidekick Officer Dooley is a distant cousin of Dick Gumshoe. Ace Attorney is notable, to me, for two things–its episodic structure that adds up to a larger whole, and its huge back cast of recurring characters. All of the installments of the series feel very grandiose because everything seems to be part of a bigger story, pieces of a gigantic puzzle, and it’s really clever in how it reuses its characters.

Darkside Detective doesn’t quite get to that point, but that’s okay: It’s a much smaller game in many ways, and it’s an excellent introduction to this world and these characters. You play Detective McQueen who, along with Officer Dooley solve supernatural mysteries, focusing on the Darkside, a parallel dimension which has its own branch of the police sent to deal with incursions from the real world. It’s an adventure game in the more storytelling mode–puzzles are simple, as logical as they need to be, and more to pace the plot. There are a few setpieces scattered around the episodes, and I’m sorry to inform you there’s a sliding tile puzzle.

What strikes me the most about Darkside Detective is how much better it gets as it goes on. The game consists of six supernatural mysteries, all of the wacky variety, all in that very smart, self-referential, very knowing mode where the characters are vaguely aware of their pop cultural influences–in this case, Twin Peaks, X-Files, Gremlins, Ghostbusters, etc.

You know, geek humor 101. It isn’t quite as bad as it could be–like, the writing restrains itself to only one Doctor Who reference that I caught, and I didn’t notice any Monty Python, thank God, thank God. There’s that very internetty mode of writing that I can’t stand, and Darkside flirts with it in its initial cases and then slowly becomes something pretty good. The game slowly introduces your fellow police officers, some members of the Darkside police force, various characters around town–there’s a world here, and one which begins to break out of its pop culture roots by the end, and if at the end we’re left with the feeling that they’ve just scratched the surface, well, always leave ’em wanting more, right?

I got a few flashes to The Last Door with the graphics–both games are drawn with very large pixels, very stylized, but Darkside features a ton of neon which, as someone whose room is decorated with lava lamps and Christmas lights, I was very fond of. But the game that I really couldn’t get out of my head while playing Darkside Detective was Thimbleweed Park.

Oh, Thimbleweed Park.

I’ve been chatting with a few friends lately about What The Fuck Exactly Went Wrong With Thimbleweed Park, and while everyone did feel a slight bit of acid bubbling in the back of their throats at various moments, the scene that killed the game for just about everyone I know was when a character turns to the player and says, “I want to be a game designer! My favorite company is MMUCASFLEM! They make the best games,” and then goes on to bash Sierra for all of the sins they committed in the games that they made 20-30 years ago.

I mean I guess I’m going to say it outright: Thimbleweed Park was embarrassing.

Right now there’s a lot of back and forth going on about the upcoming Ready Player One movie. I didn’t like the book because I am a fucking lit snob; I say that the six years I spent in Reading School give me the luxury to turn my nose up at any book I please. I know a bunch of people who loved the book, who see it as something affirming, and there is something pure to it. But there’s something very Loot Crate about it.

I guess I think about the underground nature of gay culture a lot because, paradoxically, I live in Portland, which–and I am of course saying this from the perspective of a white cis man who is fairly masculine-presenting and works at an organic grocery store–feels much more comfortable to be gay in than New Jersey or even New York did. LGBTX people are, quite frankly, much more visible here. I see more queer people here. And it’s so much less of a big deal: Mentioning a boyfriend in New York or New Jersey often led to a conversation about me being gay; mentioning it here just leads to further small talk about my relationship. It’s not hard for me to find others like me, and I can do so openly–and that’s a really fucking huge blessing. Another time–or another place–or hell, another family just down the block from me–and I wouldn’t have that luxury. Closet culture has so many tiny signals that you escalate from the subtle to the more overt, each step confirming that, yes, I’m picking up what you’re putting down, I’m throwing out my own references, each checking the other to see that, yes, I’m like you, we can be candid with each other because we’re both safe.

It’s a bit of a stretch to compare the treatment of geeks to the treatment of gays, but I’m all about metaphors and metonyms and analogies or whatever the fuck figure of speech I’m using–I may have gone to reading school for six years but that was ten years and a lot of weed ago–and I don’t think it’s unfair to compare the two. By my reckoning, I actually see both groups as coalescing in the 70s and 80s into a more codified culture. The gays had Stonewall and disco and, more darkly, the advent of HIV; the geeks had Dungeons and Dragons and the birth of personal computers and the beginnings of convention-based fandom. Being a geek or a fag would likely still get you beaten up–more severely if you were the latter, let’s face it–but at least there was a more defined culture. To reference that culture was to mark yourself as part of it. To quote Monty Python was a shibboleth.

But for motherfuck’s sake, it is 2017. Everybody knows Monty Python. To quote Monty Python is to proclaim nothing but the fact that you are tuned into mainstream (capitalist?) culture. Everybody knows Star Wars. Disney owns Star Wars. Steve Bannon likes Star Wars. There’s a scene from the pilot of How I Met Your Mother where the dipshit lead character (whose favorite movie is Star Wars) is listing the reasons he’s fallen in love with a woman. “She can quote obscure lines from Ghostbusters,” he gushes, and we cut to the lady telling Ray that the next time he’s asked whether or not he’s a god, he should say yes.

That’s not an obscure line from Ghostbusters. And do you know why that’s not an obscure line from Ghostbusters? That’s because there is no such fucking thing as an obscure line from Ghostbusters. Everybody has seen Ghostbusters at least once. Men have gone to war over Ghostbusters. Most movie critics agree it’s one of the finest comedies ever made. Ghostbusters is not a tiny underground film that only a few people know about it. It is mainstream pop culture.

And you know what? Mainstream pop culture–oh my god, 14-year-old Richard is going to shit himself when he reads this–is okay. I mean, it’s Problematic as shit, but fuck, enjoy a pop song if you like. I’m one of those guys who agrees about Ghostbusters being a great movie. I’ve seen it more times than I can count. But it’s really churlish to pretend the nerds didn’t win.

I mean, there’s something really sore winner about Thimbleweed Park. Its constant harping about how great its design philosophies are–design philosophies that haven’t changed in 20 years and, as influential as they may have been, don’t translate as well to 2017 as they think, like it doesn’t even seem to recognize that Wadjet Eye or Telltale exists–feels like a mean-spirited O’DOYLE RULES. Thimbleweed Park lightly pretends it’s actually from 1987, and it seems to think that both the feuds and the references are still as fresh as they would have been then. It feels like being in your 30s and writing a piece about shit that happened to you in high school. Every snipe at what other adventure game companies are doing, every crow about how great Maniac Mansion and Monkey Island were back in the day, every stupid bazinga reference–it’s like, you’ve been doing this for how many years? Aren’t you better than this?

But, like, it’s hard to find your people sometimes. And I think the shibboleths of obscure references are a necessary part of growing up, even in this world where movies you would have gotten funny looks for liking are now cash cow franchises that have made a bunch of people very, very wealthy. Because these things are new to people, at some point, and your opinion doesn’t matter to someone who just fell in love with Final Fantasy XV. Maybe Thimbleweed Park doesn’t pass my sniff test for authenticity, because it’s so stuck in its own past. It is a work that comes from a constant self-focus, a turning inward that decides that what it sees is pretty much the greatest thing ever.

That authenticity is there in Darkside Detective. If, in itself, it’s merely “a decent, pretty game with nice music, a few good laughs, and a neat story”, that ain’t bad, and again, I love that the game slowly breaks out of its shell as it progresses, gaining more confidence each episode in the story it’s telling, in the characters it’s introducing us to, in the world it’s building. The ending promises a followup, assuming the game sells enough copies, and I hope it happens. Darkside Detective might be a decent game, but its sequel is going to be awesome.