Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Trailblazer: Queenmaker

Another year, another massive RPG! Thanks to the annual generosity of my brother, I have yet another meaty game to sink my teeth into. I've started playing Pathfinder: Kingmaker and am really enjoying it so far. I'm only a short way into the game, having recently reached Level 3, but I can tell that this will be a massive journey, so I figured it's worth a short post up front to cover my initial impressions.

First, as is clear from the title, this game uses the Pathfinder system and is set in the Pathfinder universe. I was slightly leery about this: as I've whined about before, I've spent much of my life bouncing between various fantasy worlds, re-learning their magic systems, their political systems, their terminology and mythology. I've never played the pen-and-paper Pathfinder and was dreading learning all this stuff all over again. But, as I quickly and happily came to learn, it is extremely similar to the D&D systems that I already know, particularly the Neverwinter Nights incarnation. This makes perfect sense; as I had previously heard, Pathfinder spun off from the "open-sourced" 3.5 edition of D&D, but for some reason I had assumed that they had changed the core rules to differentiate themselves. Instead, I've been pleased to see that the various terms I've learned over the years (flat-footed, flanked, proficiency, combat maneuver, etc.) are still around and mean pretty much the same thing. That's given me a lot more confidence in plunging into a rules-heavy game like this.

As I texted my brother shortly after starting, "I can tell that this is going to be a great RPG because Steam says I've played for 100 minutes, and all I've done so far is roll a character." I am playing as Guchok, a Lawful Neutral half-orc bard. I'm still getting a handle on her personality, but I'm thinking of playing her as a cast-against-type charismatic orc with ambitions of empire. She uses her ferocity (+2 on Intimidate Persuasion checks!) to encourage people to fall in line behind her. She wants to show that half-orcs aren't the violent barbarians that "civilized" people assume they are, and she wants to do that by building a civilization that's better than anyone else's. And if she uses some of her orcish toughness to get that civilization built, well, so much the better.

I mostly selected the bard class because I wanted to build a CHA-heavy character to maximize my Persuasion skill, and Bard and Sorcerer are the two CHA-primary classes. I almost never choose an arcane caster for my first playthrough of a game since the magic system is usually the most complex part of an RPG and it's harder to plan a build; I also had fond thoughts of my very first playthrough of the Baldur's Gate series with a bard and thought it would be fun to take a similar path this time around.

I pretty quickly figured out that this probably wasn't the optimal choice to make. Outside of the very first dialogues, when you are the only person in your party, skill checks are automatically performed by whoever in your party has the highest skill rank; there doesn't seem to be a particular advantage in having your primary character be the face of the party as opposed to someone else. (Other than roleplaying reasons, which are perfectly fine!) And secondly, the very first person to join your party is, yes, another Bard. She seems likely to be the most constant companion of the game, the one character who is guaranteed to always get resurrected.

It definitely isn't disastrous. Pathfinder's class system is similar to the NWN one, but even more flexible. Every time you level up you can choose to advance one of your existing classes or take the first level in a new class. There aren't any dual-classing penalties or skill losses, just the standard warnings against casting arcane spells while wearing heavy armor. All that to say, while Linzi starts as a bard, her stats (decent DEX and INT) give her some flexibility; Guchok's raw CHA is higher, so she may remain focused as the party's primary Bard, while Linzi may become a ranged Eldritch Knight or something, slinging spells and arrows from the back line. It looks like the game does have respec options (at an increasing price), so once I have a better handle on builds I may just get rid of her Bard level altogether.

Hm, let's do a quick initial run-down.

The Good

Tons of build options. They're pretty overwhelming at the moment, but also exciting. If I was the sort of person who replayed RPGs, I'd look forward to trying this game with radically different builds.

Maps. They're really gorgeous, and feel more alive than I think any other RPG I've played: not just green grass and rushing rivers, but also swarms of butterflies fluttering around flowers and rabbits hopping through grass and cats stalking through the bushes. Those are purely cosmetic but add immensely to the atmosphere.

Time limits. I have somewhat mixed feelings about this, but (not having failed one yet) it feels like a fantastic solution for the old "problem" of "Why don't I just rest back to full health after each fight?". There's now some incentive to keep pushing forward after you've taken some damage to health and spell supply. I also like that there's a system around resting, which keeps things interesting and has its own trade-offs. It's giving me warm memories of Iolo strumming his lute while Dupre and Shamino sit around the fire.

Storybook segments. These are exactly like the Meres from Torment: Tides of Numenara, and so far I like the ones in Kingmaker better. They aren't one-off dream sequences: instead, they're directly integrated into your storyline, and they can use the text-heavy format to depict scenarios that would be hard or boring to do with the in-game engine. Rushing through a fiery hall to find safety, or tracking a band of kobolds along a ravine, or whatever. Skillchecks are incorporated very well here, and make much more sense than the associated pools did in Torment.

Music. It's very memorable and pleasant, and I find the tunes running through my head as I go about my day.

Companions. It's still early on, I only recently got a full party (plus one), and I haven't gotten to know them too well yet; but I'm already intrigued, there seem to be some compelling personalities, a nice variety of builds and histories, and, best of all, banters over the fireplace.


The Fine

Player character portraits. They're good, but there are a lot fewer than I would expect. If you have a particular race+gender in mind, there are probably only 1-2 options that would work. But, I do really like how unique each one is, there's a ton of personality evoked from each one. I ended up back-designing my character based on a portrait I liked ("Who is she??"), which was a fun way to approach chargen.

Non-scaling enemies. I'll almost definitely promote this up to "The Good" later in the game, but it can be pretty frustrating at level 2, when a lot of the non-random enemies you encounter feel far overleveled. Unlike Divinity Original Sin, there don't seem to be particular "zones" oriented around levels, and you can easily waste a day of traveling only to find out that you can't do anything at your destination.

Maps and journals. The individual maps feel on the small size compared to other games, but maybe they get bigger. More worryingly, you can't add notes to either your map or your journal! This is a Big Problem for me, since I now need to fall back to old-fashioned pen-and-paper to keep track of which areas still have outstanding tasks that I can't yet tackle at my level. On the plus side, I really enjoy the first-person non-PC-narrated voice of the journal entries, it's been a while since I've seen a game do something innovative and fun with their quest tracking.

The Bad

Various UI glitches. In particular, the number 0 keeps showing up when it shouldn't (like, "You will gather 5 rations. It will take 0 to 0 hours.", which ends up taking 4-20 hours). Pretty surprising to see these after the game's been out for well over a year.

Inventory management. This is probably a lost cause at this point and I ought to stop complaining, but I shan't. It's 2020, who is actually having fun looking through each and every item they're carrying to figure out what they can safely drop in order to reduce their encumbrance? Other games have found creative solutions to this (designating followers to run back to town and sell your stuff while the rest of you keep adventuring, for example. Or just removing encumbrance altogether! Or getting rid of trash loot!), and it feels like such a step backwards to deal with it again.

Weaponry. I had issues with this in NWN and it feels at least as bad here. You have a very limited number of combat feats available, and if you want to specialize in a particular weapon, you need to choose from one of the 50 or so available. Are you going to invest in Estocs, or Sabers, or Scimitars, or Bardiches, or Falchions, or... At this point, I just have a handful of +1 enchanted weapons, and I'm frozen by choice paralysis: What if I take a Weapon Focus in Longsword, then immediately find a +2 Trident, or a Falcata with Freedom of Movement? I really, really miss the old-school BG approach of broad categories, like "Two-Handed Weapons" and "Ranged Weapons", that were still forms of specialization but didn't lock you in as severely.

The End (For Now)

Not much to report so far on the plot or major choices. I'm looking forward to the kingdom-management dimension of the game, but, well, I need to establish my kingdom first! Or queendom, or orcish dominion or whatever. Expect more posts in the future as Guchok's journey continues!

Wednesday, January 08, 2020

Untitled Geese Games

I like games, but it's somewhat rare for me to feel much anticipation for a particular game. I usually try to block out pre-release hype as much as I can, both to cut down on spoilers and to avoid disappointment from underwhelming deliveries. For the rare games that I get hyped on (your Dragon Age, your Failbetter), I'll grab it at launch and start playing almost immediately. So I don't often have a long-simmering unfulfilled urge to play something.

That exception is: Untitled Goose Game! This charming, tiny game from an indie studio burst onto my radar after it launched last year. I avoided any gameplay videos or detailed reviews, but the squeals of glee filling my social media feed made me uncharacteristically excited to try my own hand (wing?) at being a terrible goose.

But: An obstacle! While UGG has been released on multiple platforms, on PC it launched as an Epic Games Store exclusive. For no particular reason other than my inherent orneriness, I've resisted buying any exclusive games on non-Steam platform. I actually have had the Epic Games Store installed for several months now, but just to claim the weekly free games on it, which I then swiftly never download nor play.

As is so often the case for scenarios where I want something but cannot justify purchasing it for myself, my salvation came at Christmastime, when my brother (no, my other brother) bought me the game. Conscience free, I commenced honking.

But: An obstacle! The Epic Games Store is also a launcher, like Steam; but unlike Steam, it doesn't really offer any in-game features or overlay. Most critically, it does not include a screenshot key. And UGG itself does not have an in-game screenshot key. How was I ever going to write a blog post about something if I couldn't take any screenshots of it?! 0/10 game store, would not recommend.

I'd last tangled with this issue while playing Star Wars: The Old Republic, another non-Steam game  lacking screenshot capabilities. In that case I ended up jury-rigging a ridiculous flow where I would launch from Steam into Origin, then from Origin into SWTOR, then use the Steam overlay for screenshots. The alternative I wanted to use was the NVIDIA GeForce Experience, which includes a variety of useful utilities including, yes, a screenshot button. But: An obstacle! For several years now, NVIDIA has bafflingly insisted on creating an account with them before downloading or using their software. It isn't enough to pay hundreds of dollars for their hardware, they want to track our usage data and provide marketing information and store everything in a database that will inevitably get hacked and leaked. I've grimly held the line on creating this dumb account, which means no GeForce Experience, which means no screenshots, which means unhappy Chris.

Yet again, though, I found an excuse to overcome my orneriness and do the thing I wanted to all along. As of January 1st of this year, California's Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) has gone into effect. This gives California residents (including me!) a wide array of rights over how their personal data is collected, stored and used, somewhat analogous to what EU citizens currently enjoy with their GDPR.

So: I made my account, and I play to issue monthly demands for NVIDIA to report all the data it has on me, then to issue monthly demands for it to stop sharing all the data it has on me, then to issue monthly demands for it to delete all the data it has on me. My petty hope is that the cost of compliance gets to be so expensive and painful that NVIDIA throws up their hands and says "This is dumb" and just lets us use their software THAT WE PAID HUNDREDS OF DOLLARS FOR without creating yet another worthless hackable account.

On to the game!

I ran into a game-breaking bug at almost the very start. There's a tutorial-ish section where you learn how to do various goosey things: run around, honk, flap your wings, grab things with your beak. You then move into the first main area, a garden, and encounter the main dynamic of the game: a mischievous sort of "to-do" list that states your goals. This included various tasks like "Enter the Garden", "Steal the Gardener's Keys", "Make the Gardener Hit His Thumb," etc. And... I couldn't do any of them. I could see the garden, locked up tight. I ran around, looking for other entrances; tried to pile up objects into a ramp leading over the wall; honked my little lungs out. Nothing.

I was determined to get through the game without consulting any walkthroughs or FAQs, but after thirty minutes of fruitless endeavor I finally admitted defeat and went online. And found that there was supposed to be a gardener character, who was just entirely missing from my game. Further investigation pointed me to an FAQ on the developer's page advising to choose the "Reset" option to put things back in their right place. Which I did, and the gardener did show up, and the rest of the game was fine. But still, that was an unfortunate start to the game. I have to wonder how many people never even got to really play the game because they ran into that bug at the very start.

Once I could actually play the game, though, it was wonderful! It's one of the most purely fun things I've played recently, joyful and silly and clever. It's a simple game, but all of its elements pull together perfectly. The art style reminds me of my beloved Katamari Damacy, with slightly cartoony people, living in an environment of bold and pastel colors. The "dialogue" is also reminiscent of Katamari Damacy, with characters delivering lines like "?", "!" and "..."; their desires are shown in thought balloons, a la The Sims. The music is subtle and perfect: little piano figures that play to highlight pratfalls and confusion, making you feel like the star of a vaudeville play.

I swapped around the controls partway through the game, initially playing with mouse-and-keyboard and finishing with an xbox controller. Both are perfectly fine. The controller felt slightly better for most tasks, while I think the KBM makes it a little easier for the rare cases where you need to nudge a large round object with your beak. (I don't think the game supports rumble vibration, or at least I don't recall ever feeling that type of feedback.)

The heart of the game is its puzzles, those "To-Dos" of causing chaos. These are extremely clever and well-done. I highly recommend avoiding any walkthroughs and puzzling through them on your own, partly because it's more fun and satisfying to figure them out, but also because the actual game short already, and if you blow through the puzzles it may feel unsatisfyingly brief.

Each individual puzzle is well-crafted. Even though each goal is just a few words long ("Rake in the Lake"), it is also clear. Often the goal will be opposed by a human being who will attempt to thwart you, grabbing things away from you or chasing you off. There are usually several different ways to accomplish a goal: you might create a distraction in another area to lure away the person, or use stealthy movement to avoid being noticed, or rely on speed to outpace them and narrow openings to thwart their movement.

The high-level design is excellent, too. The whole game is one big map, but it's divided into a series of contiguous zones. A given zone may have, say, eight tasks. These tasks will gradually make its inhabitants more and more frustrated. Once you have accomplished seven tasks, they will start taking  anti-goose measures. This will then unlock a ninth task. Completing that ninth task will unblock the egress and allow access to the following zone. What's brilliant about this is that you don't need to 100% each area, so if there's one particular puzzle that's too confusing or that you don't have the dexterity for, it won't block your overall progress through the game. It also means that at any given time you probably have at least two challenges to work on, so if one thing you're trying to do gets too frustrating you can give it a rest and work on something else.

There's... not a whole lot more to write about, honestly, even in spoilerville. This game was really charming and fun, swiftly wiping away the various minor annoyances that preceded it. It was gone quickly, but provided tons of joy during its duration, and it's something I'll think of fondly for a long time to come.

Friday, January 03, 2020


The Enhanced Editions of the Infinity Engine games continue to impress. I recently completed my second playthrough of the seminal RPG Planescape: Torment, this time with Beamdog's Enhanced Edition interpretation of the game. Unlike the Baldur's Gate series, which I've previously played with heavily-modded non-EE editions, my only prior experience with PST was the completely unmodded (but patched) original Black Isle release.

The EE works great out of the box, and I think I'll recommend new players to stick with it. As with the BG EE versions, it has widescreen support, better UI controls, and tons of small quality-of-life improvements. It is unfortunately missing a couple of the current improvements from Siege Of Dragonspear-era EE games; the one I missed much was icons on the character portraits that show each characters' currently queued action, which is extremely helpful for keeping track of spellcasting and ammunition. I suspect this is because the PST UI has always been so unique and custom, and it's probably hard to keep that compelling visual look and feel while also streamlining and improving its functionality.

PST's modding scene has always been significantly smaller than the BG series, likely because its story is so personal and it doesn't have the open world feeling of the Amnish portions of BG2, which gracefully incorporated vast quantities of user-created stories. That said, I did install a few mods for this playthrough. PST:EE fully supports the classic Weidu mod structure, and installation is easy: just download each mod and unzip it into the program folder (easily found on Steam by opening Properties for the game and selecting Browse Local Files), then double-click the mod EXE and follow the prompts.
  1. Unfinished Business. This is a bit smaller than the BG version but still has a lot of "new" quests. Most of these are are things that were written/programmed by Black Isle and shipped with the original PST release, but were inaccessible in the game due to bugs, being incomplete or being intentionally removed. The mod adds them back in, fixes any related bugs, and in some cases adds some original content to fill in any still-missing parts.
  2. Journal Portrait Conversations. PST actually has great, high-resolution images for almost all of the characters and monsters you encounter over the course of the game, but they're buried deep in the Bestiary, which many people never open and nobody views more than once. This mod updates the UI so you can see the portrait of the character you're speaking to instead of, uh, nothing. This makes it much more like the BG games and, in my opinion, adds a lot of atmosphere to the game.
  3. Auto Detect Traps. Fantastic little quality-of-life mod: whenever Annah isn't fighting or in stealth, she automatically starts looking for traps. Traps are one of the most persistent annoyances of the IE game, and this mod makes them a little more bearable.
  4. Banter Accelerator. Unlike the BG games, the banters in vanilla PST have unrealistically short timers; even in a 100% completionist playthrough, most players will only hear a tiny fraction of the available banters, and because they're generally delivered in the same order, even on multiple replays you'll re-hear the same few. Installing this mod (default settings are OK) gives you periodic banters that are still nicely spaced out and lets you hear fantastic voice acting from Jennifer Hale, Keith David, Dan Castellaneta, and the other great talent in your party.
  5. Generalized Biffing. This is very important to install if you are using Unfinished Business, the Tweak Pack or any mods that add or change content in the game (NPCs, items, etc.). There's a relatively new bug that was introduced in a newish EE version that causes previously-visited maps to be reset after visiting the Modron Maze, which can lead to duplicated characters, impassable doors or other game-breaking bugs. Existing PST:EE mod guides won't mention this unless they've been updated recently. It's important to install Generalized Biffing last after all other mods. You can re-install it multiple times if you add more mods afterwards. If you do run into the bug, you will need to install this mod and then reload a save before the Modron Maze.
None of these are essential for a first playthrough, but I think all of them are OK, nothing really spoils the game. The Banter Accelerator was especially nice. I increasingly think that semi-voiced text-heavy RPGs like this may be my favorite style of RPG. It really helps bring the characters to life, giving you a fantastic sense of their personality and style, while keeping the game quick to read and never annoying.

It's been... wow, 13 years since the last time I played this game. PS:T is both less and more replayable than most RPGs. It's notable for having a predefined protagonist: you can't select your gender or race or background, you are always The Nameless One and have the same history. But you have more agency than in most RPGs as you progress through the game, with a large number of choices that impact the evolution of the plot. And not just the plot; PS:T is interesting in that a lot of mechanical aspects of the game are driven by dialogue rather than interface. In Baldur's Gate games, you select your PC's alignment from a drop-down menu when rolling a new chararacter; in PS:T, your alignment is determined based on your actions during the game. In Baldur's Gate you choose a class at chargen and maybe select a dual-class in the Level Up menu; in PS:T, you must complete a series of quests to meet a trainer and decide in conversation with them whether to adopt a new profession.

My memory is understandably fuzzy, but I believe that I stayed a single-class Fighter for my entire original playthrough of PS:T. There are some good reasons for this. Unlike BG games, you can't change your party's formation order, so The Nameless One (henceforth TNO) will usually be in front when you meet enemies, so he will likely be the first party member attacked; he's also vastly more resilient at taking damage and recovering from death than your compatriots, all of which incentivizes you to toss him into the meat grinder with hand-to-hand combat.

This time, I focused on my Mage levels, kind of. This has more synergy with my desired stat allocations: to get the most story out of the game, you want to focus on your mental attributes of Wisdom, Intelligence and Charisma, none of which are useful for fighters; your dump stats end up being Strength, Constitution and Dexterity, all of which are essential for fighters.

Some of your companions in PS:T are multiclass, which behave the same way as in the BG series: XP is evenly distributed between the two classes, leading to slightly slower leveling but more flexibility and utility. One companion is a Fighter/Mage multi, and another is a Thief/Fighter, giving you pretty much everything you need. TNO, though, behaves differently from either dual-classing or multi-classing in BG. After unlocking a new class, you can switch to it in dialogue at pretty much any time by talking with the right party member. You can switch back and forth without any penalty. While a given class, you can use all of that class's skills and none of the other class's. For example, you can only cast spells while you are a Mage, can only pick locks while you're a Thief, and can only wield a battleaxe while you're a Fighter. But, you keep all of the HP, THAC0, saving throws and weapon skills that you've earned in other classes, even after leaving that class.

So, my approach was to take Fighter levels first to beef up my HP and be more resilient, then switch to Mage to get powerful spells for the end-game. My leveling looked like this.
  1. I remained a Fighter up until Level 6. This gives 60+ HP and several weapon skill points. Unlock the Mage class during this time so you can switch out of Fighter at will.
  2. Work with a Trainer to spend your weapon skill points. Edged weapons are best since they can be used by mages; remember to keep enough points in reserve for higher-level trainers, but you can only train up to the third pip without specializing as a Fighter. Extra skills can probably go into Fists.
  3. Level as a Mage up to Level 7. This gives you the first Mage Specialization, which eventually leads to some great stat bonuses. Note that you'll only gain an extra +1 HP for the levels you've previously earned as a Fighter.
  4. It's worth briefly dipping into Thief; don't actually play the game as one, but you'll gain a couple of free levels and gain some XP that wouldn't otherwise be available by chatting with Annah while you're a thief and training with her. This gives a couple more HP.
  5. Switch back to a Fighter and continue leveling to Level 9. This gives you the most bang-for-your-buck HP wise; after level 9 the Fighter gets 3 HP per level instead of 10. A Mage still gets 4 HP at level 10, which is the one level where it out-earns the Fighter.
  6. Switch back to a Mage and play the rest of the game here. It may feel a little slow at first to catch up to your Fighter levels, but the XP scales significantly later in the game so you'll quickly surpass it.

Oh: Why all this focus on hitpoints? Well, because there's a lot of fighting in this game! PS:T has the reputation of an RPG where you can solve all your problems by talking instead of combat, at that's how I've remembered it for years, but that isn't actually how it works. Playing through this again, I thought that it actually felt a lot like Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines. As in that game, the early parts of the game tend to be very talk-heavy and offer a variety of peaceful ways to resolve most (no all) quests, but the later parts of the game are very focused on fighting, so you can't ignore combat build and strategy. That said, fighting is also significantly easier than Baldur's Gate, so you definitely don't need to min-max. But those HP do come in handy.

In that first playthrough, I was Chaotic Good. I didn't have a particular alignment in mind for this game, and was Neutral Good from fairly early on. Maybe around the midpoint of the game, I decided that I wanted to become Lawful Good for mechanical reasons: there are a couple of powerful items that are only usable for characters of that alignment. From that point on, I exclusively chose Lawful options in dialogue: Making and keeping promises, vowing to do things, never lying, etc. This wasn't enough, and I remained Neutral Good through the remainder of the game. I am kind of curious if some of my non-dialogue actions gave me Chaotic points: I never pickpocketed during the whole game, but there were some times I would have Annah pickpocket and loot chests in unoccupied homes. Or maybe I was borderline Chaotic Good before I changed course and there just weren't enough Lawful points left in the second half of the game to get me back on track. It wasn't a huge deal, but was slightly disappointing.

Given the decade-plus between playthroughs, I probably shouldn't be as surprised as I am at just how much I've forgotten. These days, I usually try to do an initial playthrough of an RPG game with as little help as possible; on subsequent replays, I'm much more lenient about consulting walkthroughs and wikis and stuff. I'm a little ambivalent about that. It does feel good to know that I hit all the content that I wanted to see in the game and didn't miss anything interesting or fun, but I am constantly spoiling myself about what's going to happen next, which takes away some of the magic. Once I know the "right" or "best" way to do something, I'll always do it that way, which is mechanically the best but removes the messy drama from the game.

Even with occasional consultations of walkthroughs, there were vast swaths of the game that I have no recollection of at all. It is kind of curious what parts of the game I remember and what I don't. I have pretty strong memories of the Mortuary, and Talks-With-Trees, and the Brothel of Slaking Intellectual Lusts, and the conversation with Ravel, and the Lazy of Pain's mazes, and the Modron Maze; but everything related to Pharod and his bronze sphere felt 100% new to me, as did Trias's arc and Deionarra and the Godsmen and the Sensates.

I do remember being surprised at recruiting Nodrom and Vhailor and being mildly bummed at needing to abandon party members in other planes, so this time around I planned ahead and made a five-person party before heading to the Modron Maze and Curst. I left Ignis behind when picking up Nodrom; he had been in my party through to the end game in my first play-through, and with a TNO Mage and Dakkon I didn't feel like I needed yet another mage. Choosing who to ditch the second time was harder; I was actually tempted to just not recruit Vhailor at all, but ended up leaving Morte behind, planning to pick him back up; this is mostly because he had the most XP at the time of my departure and so would be the quickest to level back up after my return. That said... you gain SO MUCH XP during the Curst / Carceri sojourn that he ended up being completely eclipsed by even my lowest-experienced party members. But, again: this game is pretty easy! So I still swapped him back in for the endgame, just so I could get his dialogue this time around. I'm glad that I did. It turns out that Morte and Dakkon, the two members I had removed during my first playthrough, are probably the two with the most to say in the endgame.

I still have never set foot inside UnderSigil, the bonus dungeon you can reach from the Clerk's Ward. There aren't any plots leading you toward it, and from what I can tell it's mostly a monster-fighting zone, similar to the Modron Maze. I'd intended to include this in a more-completionist playthrough, but I was getting antsy for the endgame so I skipped it yet again. Perhaps next time! From what I've read it scales somewhat to your level, so it might be interesting to check it out both before and after Curst.

My "romance" memories were very fuzzy, but consulting my ancient blog post revealed that I had focused on Annah in my first game, so in this game I chose Fall-From-Grace instead. The romance "content" seemed scarce or missing, and I was curious if I had messed it up, but some cursory Googling indicates that there really is a disparity between the two: neither is as involved as the long arcs in Baldur's Gate 2, but Annah's does at least include a kiss, while FFG's is much more subtle. These relationships have always been pretty intriguing to me; my reaction to video game romance is usually "more, more, more!", but I think these stories and personalities are very evocative with less. Again, I think a lot of it comes down to having a predefined protagonist. One of the things that threw me off in this playthrough was a lot of dialogue indicating that Annah had strong feelings for me, even after I had made the "right" choices to pursue FFG (kissing Ravel while she was in FFG's form, declaring my feelings for her in the maze, etc.). I thought that something had gone "wrong"... but it hadn't, or at least not any more than things do in real life. Annah simply had unrequited feelings for me. I don't think I've seen something like that in the more modern RPG romances I've played: you may flirt with multiple people, but once you select an exclusive partner everyone else gets selective amnesia. Here, things strung out in a really interesting way, with Annah attracted to TNO, TNO pining from FFG, and FFG acknowledging his feelings but not fully reciprocating them. (There are a few lines near the very very end of the "good" ending where she seems to return the romance, but even these are ambiguous and uncertain.) Anyways, this was all interesting to play and makes me think yet again about what types of stories I want to tell. "Traditional" romances are the most satisfying to me, but complicated and incomplete ones can be more thought-provoking.

I'd initially called out PST for being one of the more macabre and gross games that I'd played. It didn't really strike me that way this time around, and I'm not sure whether that's due to me being more desensitized in general or just being mentally prepared for this game. There is a lot of literal viscera in this game: plucking your eyeball out of your socket, digging in your intestines for a key, grabbing a dismembered arm and swinging it like a club. But weirdly enough it doesn't really feel mean-spirited or sinister. It's gross, sure, but I think there are actually fewer scenes of, say, torture or sadism in PST than there are in either Baldur's Gate game.


That sense of viscera is one of a few things that has changed in my mind over the years. Much like how I mis-remember this as being a game without much combat, I also remember it as being a game with tons of choice and consequences. It feels like one, but isn't really, at least not in the sort of branching-storyline sense that we've had for the last decade or so. You do literally select tons of choices during the game, but they're almost always in dialogue; there are relatively few actions that have any sort of meaningful consequences outside of the quest in which they occur. There are many alignment shifts and rewards over the course of the game, but these almost never unlock alternate solutions. Gameplay-wise, the major mechanic is increasing your character stats (on level-up or, occasionally, as a reward for completing a quest a certain way), and then using your higher Intelligence or Wisdom or Charisma to get better solutions to future quests.

There's really just one road that you follow: while you're free to pursue early quests in Sigil in various orders, everything from Curst onward runs more or less on rails. Now that I think about it, there aren't even many of those "This is how I feel / why I'm doing this" dialogue choices that I've gotten used to in games like Dragon Age and Shadowrun. You can still say that, but it will be you the player, not your avatar. (And, again, this feels fine within the game, perhaps because TNO is a predefined character.) The story is still powerful, of course. I had vaguely remembered that late in the game there's a belated in-game explanation of why it actually isn't awesome that you resurrect each time you die. I was right: because you are immortal, every time you are supposed to die, someone else dies in your place. They turn into a shadow, and the shadows you encounter during the game are the shades of those who unwillingly died for you. In the Fortress of Regrets, there are a lot of shadows.

It's all pretty sad. After your party is separated, you see each of them killed off by The Transcendent One (henceforth TTO), and you must step across their corpses to reach your adversary. (I think I was subconsciously stealing from this dynamic in my initial ultra-dark plan for the finale to CalFree in Chains.) An answer is proffered for the game's infamous question: regret can change the nature of a man. (Which, as I've mulled over after finishing the game, feels right to me. Other potential answers like love and anger and hardship can change your behavior; but regret prompts introspection, a desire to change, and the willingness to make those changes). The big-picture story becomes clearer: Your wicked deeds had earned you an eternity in Hell, you wished to avoid your fate so you asked Ravel to remove your mortality, it worked but caused you to lose your memories, your mortality wished to remain separate so it actively sought to keep murdering you and keep you from regaining knowledge, and now at the end you are ready to reclaim or defeat your mortality and accept your fate, freeing the other souls you torment with your existence.

There's a fairly lengthy conversation with TTO, though not as long or complex as the encounter with Ravel. In my first playthrough I had selected the option to sacrifice myself. This time, I selected a dialogue option to resurrect one of my companions, opting for Falls-From-Grace. I hadn't realized that this would directly lead into the final battle. That fight was cool; you get a ridiculous amount of XP right before the endgame, particularly if you bring the Bronze Sphere with you, so I had jumped from, like, Level 16 prior to entering the Fortress to Level 25 before fighting TTO. That brought my spellcasting level all the way up from Sphere 6 to Sphere 9, unlocking the incredibly cool and powerful highest-level spells. These reminded me of the Summons from Final Fantasy games: each plays an FMV showing an elaborate otherworldly force unleashing a gigantic conflagration of pure energy that annihilates the battlefield, often dealing upwards of 10 HP of damage to TTO. The fight mostly consisted of TNO and FFG taking turns kiting TTO around the battlefield while the other casted spells (awesome powerful offensive attacks from TNO or buffs and debuffs from FFG). I'd worked my way all down to, like, Sphere 4 of my TNO spells, then jumped to Magic Missile and finally took down TTO.

I'd beaten the game, but was mildly disappointed with myself, as I'd missed the option to resolve the final confrontation in the dialogue. So I peeked one last time at a walkthrough, reloaded the last autosave and went through it again. There are apparently multiple ways to do this (one high CHA, one high INT, one high WIS); I think I followed the CHA path, first convincing TTO that I was willing to sacrifice myself, then convincing him that the Fortress was actually a prison, and finally compelling him to merge back with me.

This unlocks the "good" ending, which has the same very final video, but quite a bit more content before it: another FMV clip of the merging, and, more significantly, final conversations with all of your companions. This provides some really nice closure, particularly Dakkon's long-deferred freedom; it also includes the closest FFG ever gets to a romance, when she points out that a lifetime is less than forever and promises to find you on the Lower Planes. (I do really, really like the remaining ambiguity and mystery around FFG. You never do find out what she wrote in her diary, and all her statements about you are very carefully constructed.) It's very bittersweet but satisfying to free your companions from their bonds of torment to you and return them safely to Sigil, before you yourself enter the damnation of the endless Blood War.


I like games that make me feel something when they're over. Sometimes that feeling is "Yay, that was awesome!" Sometimes that feeling is wistfulness, or enthusiasm, or curiosity. Planescape: Torment gives me a feeling that's particularly strong and particularly hard to define. There's maybe a sense of awe, of humility, of... well, yeah, regret. I feel contemplative and quiet, with a lingering attachment that's less concerned with what happened than with what it meant. PS:T is a gross game, and also beautiful, violent and quiet, something that sticks in your brain like a steel key in your intestines. I'll wait for my memories to fade, and will play it again a decade from now.

Monday, December 30, 2019

Weapon Of Choice

After a very long wait, I've finally returned to The Culture novels by Iain Banks. A work colleague has long been encouraging me to read Use Of Weapons, and it also appeared on a list of recommendations from China Mieville, prompting me to return to this science fiction world. I had thought that this was the first book in the series, but now that I'm writing this post I'm realizing that it's actually the third, whoops. Fortunately The Culture is more about a universe with more-or-less independent stories, so reading out of order isn't a major problem.


It's been so long since I read Look To Windward that I've forgotten almost all the details of that plot, but I do remember The Culture itself. It's a vast and powerful amalgamation of various humanoid and alien species, including governmental and quasi-military organizations. It is basically run by a large group of powerful artificial intelligences, which are usually loaded onto large starships, which in turn are maintained by organic citizens. The scope of the Culture spans the entire universe, which is far too vast and complex for any biological brain to track, and so they have built these machines to run things. The machines were originally built by people, and the values of the Culture are ostensibly more or less benevolent: they prize peace, prosperity, diversity, nature. But there's definitely a disconnect between the AIs and the people: the attitude of the machines tends to be indulgent, and maybe just a little patronizing, while remaining helpful. It's an odd relationship; I don't know if it's exactly symbiotic, since I suspect that by this point the AIs would be capable of just doing everything themselves; but most of what they're interested in are the messy and irrational situations caused by organic life not yet absorbed into The Culture, and so people remain a useful part of the society.

This book felt oddly difficult to read for the first half or so. Two of the main characters are special agents who change their identity from one mission to the next, which means changing their names, which makes it hard to keep people straight; it took me a while to realize that various characters were actually the same person, and which person in one scene was which person in another scene.

This is compounded by the disordered chronology, which jumps around in time from chapter to chapter. There is what I think of as the "main" storyline, which does proceed linearly, but I think that the other chapters are told in a random order, and even after finishing the book I'm not totally clear on the exact sequence of everything that has happened to Zakalwe. While reading the book I thought that the structure seemed strongly inspired by Catch-22, but to less good of a purpose: where the chaos of Catch-22 led to an eventual dramatic reveal that showed the origins of Yossarian's mental illness, the timeline of Use Of Weapons appeared to be needlessly complex for no good reason.


But, in the end, it does turn out to have a purpose, and a genuinely surprising one at that. Various threads from throughout the book, most notably Zakalwe's aversion to chairs, are finally explained, and everything that has happened before is now recast in a different light. Even my gripes with the confusing character names seem to be justified by the central assumed identity and deliberate confusion around names.

I do kind of wish that we had seem more of Sma in this book; she was such a fun character, and since her scenes were front-loaded I was kind of expecting her to be the protagonist. Her interactions with Skaffen-Amtiskaw were especially funny. And actually, despite the grimly macabre secret buried in the center of the novel, it also has some of the funnier bits I've recently read in science fiction. I think my favorite low-key joke is that one of the strongest intergalactic star cruisers is named the Just Testing, which made me giggle every time it is mentioned.


This was a fun and oddly surprising book. It felt like a slight slog for a stretch, but once everything came together it was nicely satisfying. I don't feel hugely compelled to immediate consume the remaining Culture novels, but am looking forward to picking off some more in the future.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Manuscripts Don't Burn

The Master and Margarita is one of the oddest books I've read. The subject matter itself is somewhat bizarre, a kind of realistic phantasmagoria that plops demonic forces into the literary world of Stalin's Soviet Union. But it's also one of the more unusually structured books I've read; it's easy to read and follow, but has a very unique form and does not play out as you would expect. It was a fully surprising book, and those surprises are just part of the delight of reading it.


The titular heroine Margarita doesn't appear until halfway through the book, and the never-named master only makes a token appearance before then. Most of the action throughout the entire novel instead revolves around Woland, aka the Devil, who appears in 1930s Moscow and leaves a trail of chaos in his wake. Interestingly, Woland spends relatively little time on-page; instead, we mostly see the work of his retinue of demonic followers, most memorably including Behemoth, a man-sized cat who walks around, spars with people (verbally and otherwise), and attempts to hitch a ride on a tram-car.

This novel is thoroughly ridiculous, repeatedly mining comic gold from the juxtaposition of obviously supernatural elements against the thoroughly atheistic Soviet society. Apoplectic people (shopkeepers, critics, waiters, apartment managers, accountants) start out believing in rational norms, only to be confronted and often destroyed by the capricious nihilism of their tormentors. We as readers are startled, too, by shocking dialogue; there's far too much to quote here, but my favorite single line probably is this one spoken by the master on page 138, describing his first meeting with the not-yet-named Margarita: "Love leaped out in front of us like a murderer in an alley leaping out of nowhere, and struck both of us at once. As lightning strikes, as a Finnish knife strikes!"

The book opens with an epigraph from Faust, in which the devil defines himself as "Part of that power which eternally wills evil and eternally works good." The original Faustian tale often fits within a Christian cosmology, where Satan is a force for evil but is fully contained by God's will, and thus ultimately serving a greater good. It's... challenging to apply that reading to this book. There are certain specific scenes where you can see Woland's antics as ironically punishing some sin or making some point; for example, a manager accepts a bribe, and then is immediately reported to the secret police and punished for hoarding foreign currency; or a woman exchanges her practical clothing for flattering foreign fashions, only to have those clothes later disappear and leave her naked. Incidents like that make a certain amount of sense, with the devil offering traditional temptations, people falling prey to sins of greed or vanity or whatever, and then being punished for their sins.

But, those encounters are vastly outnumbered by ones in which people are just trying to get through their day and finish their menial jobs, only to be cruelly (if humorously) humiliated and injured by Woland's posse. There's no sense in the torments visited upon people who seem to have done nothing wrong. The ultimate effect is one of danger, of always looking over your shoulder, never feeling secure. I suspect this is one of many ways in which this was a satire of daily life under Stalin.

For most of the novel, Woland's power seems unmatched, even unopposed. The power of the state is strangely absent, and no beneficial supernatural forces appear to counter his malevolent ones. That said, the novel does acknowledge the devil's adversary... but, again, not in at all the way you would expect.

Interleaved with the Moscow story are occasional chapters from another story: the story of the Procurator of Judea, Pontius Pilate. Following his perspective, we witness the judgment and execution of Jesus - here named Yeshua Ha-Nozri. And... it's odd. The way Ha-Nozri speaks and presents himself isn't at all what we would expect from the Gospel story, or even from popular secular interpretations of the biblical story. He is agitated, ingratiating, worried. Seeming to trip over his own words, he tells Pilate that there's this guy, this tax collector named Matthew, who's been following him around and writing down everything he says, only he's getting it all wrong, and putting words in Ha-Nozri's mouth that he never said, causing a big misunderstanding that Pilate could totally solve if he wanted to. So, it seems like Ha-Nozri is just a man swept up in events that he can't stop, somewhat like Brian Cohen from the Monty Python film.

But, it isn't that simple. As he talks more with Pilate, we learn that Ha-Nozri really does have prophetic powers: he knows things about Pilate that nobody else could possibly know, including his past, future and innermost hopes and fears. And Pilate sees that Ha-Nozri does fervently believe in the value of mens' souls, in their capacity for goodness, in the importance of love.

The end result is intriguing and a little discombobulating, a fine mixture of history, theology and fiction. Ha-Nozri pleads for his life and attempts to deal with Pilate; but he also predicts Pilate's eventual fate, eternally remembered daily by billions of people reciting the Apostle's Creed. Ha-Nozri isn't omniscient, but is prophetic; isn't omnipotent, but seems to be unwittingly propelling broader events. The dynamic between Roman occupiers, the figurehead Herodic state, the caste of priestly elite, rebellious zealot faction and broader Israeli population all feels accurate and authentic, while all of the details are off, not least Pilate ultimately acting as a Godfather-esque potentate carrying out an elaborate revenge plot to assassinate Judas.

The status of this Pilate story morphs and evolves as the Moscow story progresses. Initially it is told by Woland as history: essentially "I was there, I know what was real, your atheism is wrong." But it's presented as a separate standalone chapter, not as dialogue delivered by Woland, and thus seems to carry much more empirical weight: this is narration, not dialogue, something that happened. Returning to the present, his listeners seem dumbfounded, deeply affected by this strange and compelling tale.

As the story continues, we gradually come to learn that the Pilate story is actually the novel that was written by the master, for which he was mocked, stripped of his connections and ultimately sent to an insane asylum. It's the same story that Margarita cherishes. It's both past and future: Margarita dearly wants to see the story finished, to read how it ends, and that yearning is intertwined with her passionate desire to be physically and intellectually reunited with her beloved.


Margarita makes a very late entrance in the book, but it is a stunning one, and within a few chapters Bulgakov somehow manages to outdo the already outstanding zany anarchy of the book. Margarita soars on a broom, witch-like and invisible, through the city streets, smashing windows as she goes, causing a plumbing catastrophe for the magazine editor she despises, chortling and cackling with fearless glee.

I think that at some level I kept trying to impose some framework of morality on this book, or to divine what morality it is trying to espouse, but have been thoroughly thwarted, and Margarita is probably the best example of such. She willingly enters Woland's service, ultimately performing in an astonishingly sinister ball of the damned, warmly greeting the most wicked people of history. And, when asked for her reward, she casually asks for mercy for one particular woman who has been unfairly punished. And then follows that up by asking to rejoin the master. It feels like she's somehow thoroughly inhabiting this evil world while not being thoroughly corrupted by it; and not because she's a good or virtuous person. Much as there's no reason for all the havoc wracked upon the innocent of Moscow, there's no reason for... well, anything that happens with Margarita. But she's thoroughly happy, laughingly shrugging off the indignities she endures, calmly looking the devil in the eye, and content to simply be back in a grubby basement apartment with the man she loves.

And then they both die. The ending is really intriguing, providing few answers but lots of fodder for speculation, as the disparate threads of the Pilate story and the Moscow story are woven together again. Matthew appears: not the serene saint of the church, but the harried fanatic of Ha-Nozri. There's a command, or maybe it's a negotiation, or maybe a statement. It seems like the epigraph was correct after all, and the devil does eternally carry out God's will. Maybe.

"Thus spoke Margarita, walking with the master towards their eternal home, and it seemed to the master that Margarita's words flowed in the same way as the stream they had left behind flowed and whispered, and the master's memory, the master's anxious, needled memory began to fade. Someone was setting the master free, as he himself had just set free the hero he had created." (p. 384)

I mean... that "someone" is Bulgakov, right? The master is a sub-creator, an author who wrote the story of Pontius Pilate, and sets him free at the end of the novel, just as Bulgakov is setting the master free at the end of his own, the book we're reading now. Like nesting dolls.

It sounds as if the master and Margarita are being punished, perhaps. But they seem to be pleased with their fate, more or less. Pilate suffered the gross indignity he feared, but he's spending eternity with a dog who loves him, so maybe that's all right. It's all very detailed and very abstract, spiritual and human, not quite like anything else I've read.


As you might imagine from a Russian-language classic first published behind the Iron Curtain, The Master and Margarita has appeared in a variety of translations over the years. I read the 50th anniversary Penguin edition, translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky; it has a different cover than the one above, but I just couldn't resist putting that bizarre cat in this post.

Literary books like this have a certain degree of detritus they carry with them, forewords and introductions that can be copyrighted, footnotes or endnotes that the translators leave behind. I'm always on the fence about whether to read these or skip over them. I slightly wish that I had opted to skip them this time, as a few delightful surprises of the novel were pre-emptively revealed. But it was utterly fascinating to read about the real-world story of how this book was composed, at the height of Stalin's purges, with Bulgakov fearing for his life and personally pleading with Stalin to either embrace him or exile him. And maybe even more remarkable to hear about the sensation the book made when it was belatedly published thirty years later, astonishing the Russian intelligentsia with its blunt allusions to state-sponsored killings and disappearances.

The end-notes are great, though: brief and focused and illuminating. The chapters are short enough that I would often complete one and then scan through all its endnotes at once, quickly gaining some appreciation for the history or language on display.

The Master and Margarita is a really hard book to categorize: autocratic slapstick, sacrilegious comedy, literary satire, subversive crime novel. The introduction sums it up well by calling it magical realism, but noting that it's significantly funnier than the more widely-known South American school. This is a book with few or no lessons for us, but it demands attention and offers many tempting rewards.