Tuesday, August 20, 2019

That Game You Like Is Going To Come Back In Style

Things have picked up in Divinity: Original Sin 2 (henceforth DOS2). This is more due to me than the game. I felt a bit pokey at first: playing for a little while, then getting frustrated and overwhelmed by the cruft in the game (the ginormous inventories, encumbrances, crafting, and hard-to-compare equipment: do I want a ring that gives +31 Magical Armor, +2 Warfare and +1 Telekinesis, or one that gives +35 Magic Armor, +1 Warfare, +1 Scoundrel and +1 Bartering?). I'd take a break for a week or so, then dive back in again. By now, though, things are clicking: I'm getting invested in the story, in my companions, and have at least a rudimentary system in place for managing the metric tons of crap the game shovels into my pockets.


I think I'm still pretty early in the game; I just reached level 13, and it looks like I've uncovered maybe a bit less than half the map for Act 2. Since I've been playing for so long, though, I wanted to capture some in-progress thoughts, focusing on the things I think this game does very well in comparison to other RPGs I've enjoyed.


One big, obvious thing is the steep power curve. Basically, everything doubles in difficulty every 2 levels: all things being equal, the enemies you face at level 10 are twice as hard as the enemies you face at level 8, and four times as hard as the enemies at level 6; the enemies I face at level 14 will be 4 times as hard as at level 10, etc. Likewise, Level 10 equipment is roughly twice as strong as Level 8 equipment. This has a bunch of secondary implications for gameplay:
  • There are no scaling enemies. If something is too hard, you can come back later and crush them.
  • Virtually the entire game is "soft gated" by enemy difficulty, and not "hard gated" by artificial barriers. You theoretically can go pretty much anywhere, but the risk of being far under-level is extremely high.
  • But conversely, if you do tough it out through a single encounter against much higher-level opponents, you will be richly rewarded: the gear you find could easily be twice as strong as what you'd find for on-level combat.
  • You need to continually upgrade your equipment to stay viable. This can be very frustrating at lower levels, as you'll need to replace cool unique items with great abilities because their raw stats are so poor. By this point in the game, though, the levels have slowed down enough that there's a good cadence.
  • On a related note, money is very useful. Loot is random, but you probably won't get enough to maximize your slots. Springing for Epic/Legendary/Whatever equipment lets you choose great abilities, and will usually remain viable for longer than Uncommon/Rare looted equipment will.
  • The curve isn't just steep: it's very finely tuned. You need to do pretty much everything in an available zone, and will barely get enough experience to be on-level for the following zone. There's no grindable XP, and so far the encounters have remained nicely challenging.

To expand on that final point a little more: one of the coolest things about the DOS series is its encounter design. There are no trash fights: each combat is extremely finely tuned, with a unique setting and enemies and abilities and mechanics. In other RPGs, I dread grinding through combat so I can get to the good story bits. In DOS2, the fights are hands-down my favorite part of the game.


The world design is insanely good, especially when it comes to secrets. There are so many ways to get from Point A to Point B, and it's always worth keeping your eyes open and a high-Wits character in the party so you can find buried treasure, traps, and other unexpected items along the way.


I like the party specialization system. There are no fixed classes, so you can build your party around any concept you like; at the same time, there are limited skill and attribute points available, so you're incentivized to assign specialties.

Speaking of, here's my current party loadout. (I name some characters here, but there's no plot info, hence no spoiler tags.)


My PC is Lohse. She is a dual-wielding-dagger backstabber. She mostly uses Scoundrel abilities, with a few Necromancer skills to occasionally summon corpses for damage and more bodies on the field. She's almost all oriented towards Finesse, with splashes in Memory and a little Constitution and Wits. (Since she usually backstabs for guaranteed crits, Wits' increased critical chance isn't that useful.) As party leader (but not Leader), she focuses on Persuasion, and stacks some Bartering points as well. She has Pet Pal and some other good talents. For combat, she has a lot of Warfare, Scoundrel, and Dual Wielding.

I think Sebille is canonically supposed to be a dual-wielding dagger rogue, but since that slot is filled I respecced her into an Archer. She's also high in Finesse, and is the main Wits character in my party, currently in the low 20s to spot secrets. She's mostly focused on Huntsman skills, with some Polymorph and one or two Scoundrel. She builds on her Elven advantages to be the Loremaster for the party. She has Huntsman, Warfare, and Ranged combat skills. There are more useful Talents for her than anyone else, including ones to expand her range, recover special arrows, inflict deadly status effects, and so on.


Beast is my tank, wielding a single-handed weapon and a massive shield. I don't think he's ever died, other than falling into lava or deathfog. He focuses on Warfare skills, with some Aerothurge as well; initially I took some damage skills there, but now he just has utility ones like Teleportation and Nether Swap. He has a lot of useful-but-not-crucial talents, like Lucky Charm, Leadership and Retribution, but lately I've been focusing on pushing up his damage. His Constitution is probably higher than it needs to be, so now I'm focusing on his Strength.

Finally, Fane is my jack-of-all-trades spellcaster. He uses Pyrokinetic, Geomancer and Hydrosophist, and I'm starting to squeeze in some Summoner as well. He's almost 50:50 between Intelligence and Memory, so his attacks aren't as powerful as they could be but he has a ton of useful buffs and utility spells available. He uses his bony finger to accomplish Thievery tasks with aplomb. Fane and Sebille are both Stinky, helping them avoid some of their foes' personal attentions in combat; he also has many skills that make his status effects more deadly.

Overall, I'm pretty happy with the setup. The one big problem is that Fane doesn't have any teleportation skills, so I'm mulling maybe having him take over Aero from Beast and giving Beast... I dunno, maybe Hydro or something. Sebille can run out of abilities sometimes, but her basic attack is crazy good already, plus she has special arrows to spare; in any case, I just got her Skin Graft, which should help her with those cooldowns in the future.


In combat, Sebille usually goes first in combat, and, especially with her Flesh Sacrifice and Adrenaline skills, she can often take out an enemy before they get a chance to even move. When I can I try to take out the first enemy in the rotation order, which lets me use two characters back-to-back; if they seem too strong, I'll focus on someone further down the chain so a later party member can take them down before their move. I'm very Physical Damage-heavy in my party, but she will use elemental arrows if facing enemies with weak Magic Armor.

Beast usually dives into the fray and tries to use his CC skills. Even if Sebille didn't kill an enemy, it's very likely that she stripped their Physical Armor, in which case Beast can lay them out flat for the turn. The Taunting skill in this game is garbage so I almost never use that, but I do try to position Beast so he's a more tempting target than my squishier members.

Lohse is another single-target damage-dealer. She can inflict some nasty status effects (Bleeding, Ruptured Tendons, Atrophy), but I've come to realize that she usually kills an enemy in a single turn anyways so there isn't much point. When she has an extra action point left over, she'll CC a low-magic enemy with her Chloroform, or buff the rest of the party with Encourage. She and Beast are the only non-Stinky party members, so she does tend to get banged up in tougher fights; in the long run, I'd like to focus on increasing her Dodge to make her more survivable, and/or give her options to duck into Stealth.

Fane has by far the most abilities on the team, but it's often hard to find stuff for him to do. This is mostly because the rest of my party is so focused on Physical damage, so a lot of the stuff Fane could do would be pointless. That said, he is great in AOE scenarios, especially when enemies have weak Physical Armor and environmental vulnerabilities. In practice, he often ends up buffing deadlier teammates with Haste and Clear Minded, and replenishes Physical and Magical Armor as needed. I'm hoping to build out his Summons some more, which may let him indirectly contribute to this Physical Damage Party I've got going.

Hm, as long as I'm writing this post, let's chat about some

MINI SPOILERS

I've escaped Spellhold Fort Joy, and have finished almost all of the Driftwood-area quests, including the long arc to confront Mordus the undead dwarf Sourceror. Perhaps amusingly, I totally failed to find the Blackroot in the basement, so I didn't get my Spirit Vision / Source Vampirism abilities until Level 12. It is kind of cool that the game lets you do so much without it: again, it's a game of soft gates, not hard ones. But what's a little frustrating is that there are a few puzzles that are impossible to solve without Spirit Vision, and the game doesn't make that clear, so I'd still be trying to solve those if I hadn't gone online to search the wiki and found out that I didn't have the ability I needed.


I've earned the "Hero" tag, so I guess I'm mostly doing a "Good Guy" playthrough. I still don't have a totally solid bead yet on my interpretation of Lohse; there are good roleplaying hooks in the dialogue options, especially in the Hall of Echoes when conversing with your demon, but I'm not sure yet whether she's afraid or vengeful or flippant or what. Among my companions, Fane is slightly annoying but bearable (not nearly as offputting as the aristocratic Red Prince was); Beast seems a bit boring in spite of his revolutionary storyline; Sebille has been the most interesting of the four so far, but I think I've gotten less of her story than anyone else's.


After some early promising flirtation dialogue, and a romantic assignation in a Driftwood inn that proves to be a bad idea, I haven't really seen any romance options in the game. I'm very curious to see if there are any more substantial arcs related to that in the future; so far the game doesn't seem to go as in-depth on companion and NPC relationships as BioWare does, but there's enough there that it wouldn't be surprising to see something more pop up.


And let's see, for biggish decisions so far, I've:
  • Convinced Gareth to spare that one dude, and just found out it was a Very Bad Idea.
  • Made peace with Lohar, the dwarven crime boss. I'm ambivalent about that, but he seems to be a far lesser evil than the Magisters or Justinia.
  • Solved the Magister murders, helped the suspect escape, confronted the murderer myself and claimed the reward (reloading after an earlier game where the disbarred elven magister pre-empted my announcement).
  • Defeated Mordus and let him escape; I'm ambivalent about this, too. So far the dialogue in the game doesn't seem to distinguish between you killing him or just defeating him, so I'm hoping there aren't long-term consequences.
  • I'm currently working for Ryker, but have gotten more and more hints that he's a Bad Dude, so I reserve the right to cancel my contract with extreme prejudice. 

END SPOILERS


So, yeah, I feel like I've got a nice bit of momentum going in the game now. There isn't much else on the horizon for me game-wise until 2020, when the next big batch of games begin to drop, so I'm hoping I can continue to hold this huge game inside my head and enjoy the rest of my journey.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Fell

I've gotten out of the habit of grabbing new Neal Stephenson books right at release. For over a decade I would pre-order each book and devour it immediately. That habit got interrupted when he started creating more collaborative books with multiple authors, like The Mongoliad and D.O.D.O. For his newest book, "Fall; or, Dodge in Hell", I ended up putting a hold on the book at the library and waiting more than a month to start reading it.



Now that I've finished, I'm fairly confident that I'll end up buying the hardcover and adding it to my growing shelf of first-edition Stephenson novels. It's really good. It has the hallmarks I've come to appreciate from his books: tons of interesting ideas, which Stephenson doggedly chases down and thoroughly fleshes out; ballsy plotting; plentiful digressions. And it once again avoids feeling like a rehash of any of his earlier books: you can definitely draw comparisons to prior novels, but it's doing its own thing, and it's a lot of fun to discover what it's trying to do.

MINI SPOILERS

As with all books I anticipate reading, I'd avoided any spoilers going in, and so it wasn't until I was about five pages into the book that I finally realized that it's a sequel to REAMDE. I'd greatly enjoyed that book, and I increasingly think that it's the title I'll recommend to people who are wondering if they should get into Stephenson.

That said, it doesn't read like REAMDE much. REAMDE was a fun and fast-paced thriller, with a lot of tech stuff and other nerdy content filling in the cracks, but very much an action-driven book. Fall is not; it's much more a book about ideas, where confrontations happen in board rooms or coffee shops over pointed words and court filings rather than in hotels with gunfire. Over the long run, it actually ends up covering much the same content as Anathem, but it gets there through a vastly more comprehensible path than Anathem's tossing-in-the-deep-end approach. And structurally, Fall reminded me a lot of Seveneves, with a roughly 2/3 build-up and an almost-completely-separate story filling the final act.

As with REAMDE, Fall begins in our near-future; pretty much all of the technology is stuff that exists today or is generally recognized as being on the imminent horizon. The early concern of the book revolves around social media in particular and human knowledge more generally. Stephenson retains his uncanny skill at inventing perfect names for fictional tech companies, and the best example here is "Lyke" as a new social media network.

An early bang in the story comes when the Utah city of Moab is annihilated by a nuclear explosion. That would have caught my attention anyways, but it was even more arresting since I was just there a few months ago on my southwest backpacking trip. We soon learn, though, that this "explosion" was a fraud: a mildly expensive but not terribly difficult hoax that seeded a burst of disinformation, then sat back and watched it spread like wildfire throughout the Internet (very appropriately dubbed the "Miasma" here).

The trouble of sifting out truth from falsehood in the Miasma reminded me strongly of the troubles with the Arkies in Seveneves. Both plotlines deal with the general problem of digital noise: we have easy and instant access to far more information than ever before in human history, and it's now becoming apparent that this is a liability rather than an asset, as the sheer volume makes it nearly impossible to extract the true and useful information from data that is false, manipulative, or useless.

It's cool to see Stephenson returning to this topic and digging into it some more; I'm reminded that the 2016 election happened between Seveneves and Fall, and the reading public is probably more aware today of the ways social networks were exploited and weaponized in that campaign. I've always liked it when Stephenson has gotten interested in concepts and then mulled them over through multiple books, like the bicameral mind in The Big U and Snow Crash, or currencies in Cryptonomicon and The Baroque Cycle.

The trouble of truth and accurate communication is a real problem, but the way it's framed in Seveneves and Fall kind of highlights Stephenson's elitism. His heroes are scientists, engineers, smart people who know better than anyone else. Democracy feels inherently bad in his worldview, mired in mediocrities and only looking out for themselves, unlike an ideal enlightened technocracy. This division is most obvious and pointed in the Ameristan chapters early in the book, but also underlies the conflict in the Land later: does someone who built something deserve more power and influence? It's unsurprising that Stephenson is so popular among us programmers, as his books show a very idealized version of who we are and suggests that creators "like us" are superior.

The ultimate creator is arguably Dodge himself. I was struck by the biblical language used when Richard's mind "wakes up" in the Hole in the Wall. Echoing Genesis, he divides the light from the dark, and decides that "it is good." That same rhythm proceeds throughout the creation process, as he defines the boundary between land and water or sets the cycles of day and night.

The Tower of Babel is one of Neal's oldest preoccupations, dating back at least as far as the Sumerian nam-shub curses of Snow Crash, but Fall has by far the most thorough and powerful presentation of that story yet. It's interesting that we don't get any perspective into what the Blob is thinking; Dodge has essentially ascended to divinity by now, and he and his pantheon are out of touch with the concerns of petty mortals. In the abstract, it is an interesting struggle between a powerful few and the will of the many. I'm honestly not sure if we're meant to be cheering on Dodge during his victory, or if it's a criticism of his pride and egotism, or what; based on his thoughts alone, he seems to be motivated out of a petty desire to have the biggest pole. But anyways, it's really interesting to see the breaking and its effects in real-time: the promise of direct communication between two souls is ended, an artificial barrier has been erected to foment division between people, and as a result the position of the powerful is secured while the many lose the potential for collective action that could have won them a share of resources.

And of course there's the Garden, a clear parallel to Eden, including such hallmarks as Adam and Eve, long walks with "God", the threat of knowledge, angels with fiery swords to guard the entrance. But other biblical elements are the basis of riffs and variations. The apple is the cause of original shit, not original sin: eating apples brings people into a more physical mode of existence, able to feel cold and hunger and other sensations they did not experience as spirits before tasting it. The worm sort of plays the part of the serpent, but in a very different way.

While reading these sections, I was reminded of Philip Pullman's fantastic His Dark Materials: there's an increasing separation between "God" and lesser beings, where a creator who was very hands-on and present in the early times grows more remote and inaccessible over time, only working through intermediaries. In HDM, "God" is an antagonist, and I found it interesting to think of Dodge in the same way. He takes on devilish characteristics after the Fall, with dark wings and lakes of fire and all those accoutrements, but I'm pretty sure he's intended as the protagonist.

As a side note, it makes perfect sense that Richard would become "God", as his background in creating the virtual world of T'Rain for an MMO becomes perfect preparation for creating the world of the afterlife. El may be unhappy with the outsized role Richard plays, but it's hard to think of another person (other than possibly Pluto) who could have done a better job, or even had the instinct to do it. Watching Richard create Bitworld after leaving Earth reminded me of the Mormon concept of the afterlife. I've only heard about this second-hand, and it's very possible I have it wrong, but my understanding is that in Mormon theology every person will become a "God" or "Goddess" of their own world after they die. There's a definite appeal to the idea of being able to be a creator, to spend eternity building things. I did wonder whether consumers on Earth were all happy with being sent to the same afterlife, or if some of them would have preferred to each have their own private server spun up, so they could have the same sort of freedom and influence that Dodge did. If they address that in the book I forget it; it may be that the overhead in running each world is too great and they need to scale a single world for performance reasons, or it might be related to the fact that Bitworld is able to requisition resources and spread throughout multiple networks and data centers anyways, so even if multiple afterlifes are started they would eventually merge as long as each is connected to the Internet.

I was most attuned to the Christian elements of the novel, but it seems like a lot of different belief systems are represented. There's an interesting animism present: from the very earliest days, certain souls choose to inhabit rocks, trees, bodies of water, or other natural objects and forces, rather than taking on humanoid form. It's cool to see how a "soul" can choose to manifest or inhabit, and take on different sorts of purposes. A typical "spawned" soul will live out a human-ish life, spending its days talking with other souls, building a modest house, eating food, and so on; the formless souls, though, will spend all their years making a rock into the best single rock it can be, or inhabit a westerly wind with far more nuance and force than Dodge or even Pluto could create. It's cool to see some of these souls manifest in the later section of the book, but I also really like the idea that many of them are still quietly fulfilling the purpose they have chosen for themselves, imbuing the created world with a greater power.

Of course, religious topics aren't confined to Bitworld. I was fascinated by the Leviticans, an interesting, and horrifying, way to reconcile the contradiction of "Republican Jesus." In our America today, most self-declared Evangelical Christians have aligned themselves with policies that champion the powerful and rich, and both right-wing politicians and religious leaders invoke a vision of Jesus who craves warfare against our enemies, tax cuts for the wealthy, turning away refugees, leaving the sick and poor to fend for themselves. How do you line that up with the actual text of the Gospels clearly presenting the person of Jesus as a friend of the poor who preached radical generosity and peace, even when it harms the giver? Christians are called to turn the other cheek when struck, not to claim another eye; when someone asks you for your coat, you should give him your cloak, too. This disparity has been particularly crazy-making for me since most members of evangelical and fundamentalist churches will also claim that their beliefs are solely derived from the Scripture and not from man's teachings.

In Fall, this tension between what people want their Jesus to be and what the Bible says their Jesus is is resolved by keeping their desired ideology and ditching the literature: this sect declares that the crucifixion itself (the cornerstone of the Christian faith!) was a hoax, that obviously the Son of God couldn't be killed by mere mortal men. They keep the name of Jesus and still claim to worship Him, but freed from the pesky contradictions of the scripture they can mold Him as they desire. They hold on to the elements they like, mostly the vengeful Old Testament teachings: demanding obedience, retributive punishment, enforcing capricious restrictions (no blended fabrics, no touching menstruating women). They've snipped out the sacrifice that's at the heart of 2000 years of Christian theology, returning to a simplistic Bronze Age ideology of "My God can beat up your God."

I'm pretty sure Stephenson is an atheist, or at least agnostic, but he tends to have a pretty sympathetic view of religion in his books. Like a lot of authors, he presents "faith" as a positive thing, but unlike most other people I read he also sees worth in the structure of religious thought. Real theology wrestles with complex issues, questions itself, applies discipline and rigor, honors tradition while still growing: you can see why, even apart from the content, the field would appeal to him. In this book, Jake Forthrast is probably the best positive example of a devout man. He's very different from the scientists and engineers who are Neal's usual heroes, but Jake has many of the same qualities and is admirable in his own way: he's thoughtful, principled, knows what he believes and why, but also does not think that he has all the answers, and works to improve his knowledge.

There is a kind of surprising conservatism that runs throughout Neal's work. For an author best known for his prescient predictions about technology and culture, he has an almost Confucian ideology that crops up in multiple books. I first became aware of this in The Diamond Age, a post-cyberpunk book that depicts a post-scarcity world where incredible technology and limitless resources are available to every person; but most of humanity just wastes it, and are mindless consumers who live in anonymous tenement buildings and spend their entire lives eating and watching entertainment. The people who actually run things in this world are from cultures that have strong family units and social structures: the Victorians, the Nipponese, and the Han. Tradition, respect, and an aversion to the latest technological fads are a pre-requisite for social status and leadership. In a similar vein, Anathem showed the value of discipline and self-sacrifice, with the Autists intellectually and culturally superior to those outside their walls. Seveneves was really interested in bloodlines and the moral values that get passed down though generations. REAMDE and Fall posit that having a clan of heavily-armed libertarians lurking in the woods isn't the worst thing; they may seem scary and anti-government, but they are stable, and form a crucial bulwark against external threats.

MEGA SPOILERS

Reading Fall made me think a lot about different layers of reality. The existence of Dodge and the various Spawned and Sprung is fully "real", but is also a contingent reality of our Earth. It's "real" because they can think, perceive the world around them, act upon that world, communicate with one another... everything that we do in our own reality. And yet, it's also true that they exist as electrons distributed across a vast array of computer servers. As real as their world is, it would vanish in an instant if Earth were obliterated, or if solar flares fried the electronics, or even if someone decided to turn off the simulation.

This reminded me a ton of the Wick from Anathem, and unlike in Anathem, I can more clearly understand how one could move "up the wick" or "down the wick". People from Earth could communicate with Bitworld by inserting information into the cloud to send a message; conversely, Bitworld residents could create a message within the cloud that could be observed by visualization programs on Earth.

And, to extend this (similar to the expansion from simple data to complex commands shown in the Illustrated Primer of The Diamond Age), one could imagine, say, a buffer being created within the cloud that's used to drive a robot on Earth. So, even though Bitworld is a contingent reality, Bitworld residents could theoretically physically manipulate objects and events on Earth, extending their control outside the simulation.

This gets spelled out rather explicitly near the end of the book, on page 844, as Corvus is convincing the Quest party of their treasure's otherworldly origin:

Suppose that the other plane of existence is real, and that it was preexisting. Which is to say that the Land was born out of it, much as you were born out of Eve. It follows that in that other plane are powers or faculties of creation that somehow account for the whole story of the Land's coming into being, and underlie every aspect of what we take to be real. Moreover that plane is populated by souls who know of us and our doings, and who from time to time may for reasons we cannot even speculate on choose to effect changes to the Land - but to do so without violating what makes the Land coherent. If you accept these premises, can you not accept that an object [...] might be brought into existence again? Not by any craft of any soul who dwells here, but by one on the other plane of existence, wielding powers the nature of which we cannot begin to understand?

It's heady, mind-bending stuff, and it puts me in mind of some of my favorite movies, like The Matrix and Inception, where a fully-realized world is nestled within and dependent upon another world. Of course, once you start heading down this road, the obvious question becomes, how do we know that Earth is the "prime" reality, and that it is not a contingent reality of another world? Well... we don't. This is another area where faith is helpful, either to choose to believe that we are an original plane of existence, or to recognize God or an equivalent entity/force as coming from a higher reality. I'm reminded yet again of George Berkeley, whose philosophy I like more and more the older I get: approaching the problem from a religious rather than a technological angle, he concluded that there is no real matter and all of our lives are illusory; but it's OK, because we all exist by being perceived by God.

This all ties in very much with Enoch Root, and it was really fun to retroactively make sense of this odd character who has recurred across the many Waterhouse/Shaftoe books leading up to Fall. And apparently it applies to Solly, too. There's always been something that seemed kind of magical about Enoch; but at last we can see that it isn't exactly magic, it's just that he's a visitor from somewhere else that knows a great deal about us. From page 661:

"You're not erudite?"
"Nope," said Solly, "just wise."
"Mm. What do I have to do to become wise?"
"Die," said Enoch, "and go to the next place."
"Seems like a stiff price to pay."
"We paid it," Solly said.
"You look alive to me."
"We paid it," Solly insisted, "where we came from."

And it's only just now as I'm writing this that I'm connecting the dots and realizing that Solly and Enoch weren't just conveniently hanging around while all this was going on. They came from a higher plane of existence, and caused a new (I should say "lower", though that sounds pejorative and shouldn't be) plane to be created. Whatever world they came from didn't just see value in Earth; they saw value in Earth creating its own contingent reality. Why? We can't know for sure, but it seems likely that they recognize that the Sprung of Earth have their own value and worth, and ought to have a reward after death.


END SPOILERS
 
This post made a lot of comparisons to Stephenson's earlier books, but just to be clear, that's more a result of the way I naturally process new books than a deliberate intention on Stephenson's part. He's on record as saying that he doesn't connect lines between his own books; it isn't that he's been building a vast and intricate David Mitchell-esque shared universe that's reached its apotheosis in Fall, it's more that he's a really bright guy who gets deeply curious about things and you see the results of that curiosity across multiple books. It's tremendously fun to be caught up in that curiosity: Neal's enthusiasm is contagious, and I'm always left reflecting over the systems he lays out and wondering how they can be applied to the world around me. I really enjoyed chewing over all this book had to offer, and am pleased to see it enter the Stephenson canon.

Monday, July 22, 2019

Is It Really "Original" If It Is A Sequel?

One of the more enjoyable traditions of recent years has been receiving a birthday RPG gift from my younger brother. At this stage in my life RPGs have become guilty pleasures: I'm acutely aware of how much time I spend to play through one, and am reluctant to accrue more; but once I have one, I really enjoy the excuse to dive into it.

This year's gift is Divinity: Original Sin 2. I've been interested in this for some time, having enjoyed (albeit never completing) the original original sin, hearing great things about the sequel, and noticing its appearance on lists of RPGs featuring romances. All of which would be more than enough to pique my interest, but that's been accelerated in recent weeks thanks to the fantastic announcement that Larian Studios is working on Baldur's Gate 3! Soooo, I can almost convince myself that playing this game is a research project, vetting the developer's credentials to continue my favorite series of all time.


DOS1 had a really interesting chargen system, where you rolled two player characters. One of my favorite parts of that system was how it encouraged me to develop distinct personalities for each character, which was a nice nudge out of the "It's Nice To Be Good" tendency I have in lots of games: I could designate one character to be selfish or catty without feeling like it was reflective of who I was as a person. And of course there are good mechanical implications to work through as well, as you can select skills that complement each other or balance the others' strengths and weaknesses.

The flip side of that, though, was that the companions felt a bit lacking. At least as far as I got in the game (which was pretty far!), there were only a couple of potential party members. You can control all of their skills after they join, but as with most RPGs they come to you pre-built, and won't necessarily fit into the strategy you initially had in mind while building your player characters.

I think DOS1 was well-regarded for its character creation system, so it's interesting that Larian completely revamped it in the sequel. You are now creating a single player character, with a wrinkle: you can select one of six "origin" characters, or roll your own PC from scratch. The origin characters are somewhat like the concept in Dragon Age: Origins or Dragon Age Inquisition. You have a predefined race, gender, and name, but otherwise have total latitude over your build: you can select a starting class, and have the same sorts of options as in DOS1 for cosmetic customization, including selecting a hairstyle, skin tone (these have fantastic names like "Wheat", "Mahogany", and "Copper"), hair style, etc. One of the more intriguing options is to make your character undead.


I was bummed that I couldn't override my character name, which was "Lohse". After getting further into the game, though, it totally makes sense: the dialogue is fully voiced, and by selecting an origin character, you'll encounter other people who will recognize you and greet you by name. I'm already intrigued by my particular personal story and it's providing a great hook alongside the main plot to continue.


What's more unusual and innovative, though, is that the other origin character options are also potential party members within the game itself. And each of them has their own personal plot and origin story. You can play through those stories as well by having them in your party; ultimately, you're essentially choosing to hear one origin story in the first-person, and up to three other origin stories in the third-person. It's a bit like if in DA:O you could play as a Dalish Elf Warden and make a party with a Dwarf Commoner Warden, a Human Noble Warden, and an Elf Mage Warden, and have personal interactions with Prince Bhelen, Arl Howe, and Jowan during your quest.


Continuing the theme of flexibility, you can also re-roll each character on recruiting. Everyone has a canonical role, which you can guess from the game's loading screen (Fane is a mage, Sebille a rogue, etc.), and you can opt to keep that or swap to another one. In my case, I was playing as Lohse who is designed as a mage, but decided to make her a rogue instead. I was initially bummed that Sebille joined as a dagger rogue when I wanted to make her an archer/huntswoman... but since people join at a relatively low level and you have total control over their advancement, it doesn't end up making a huge difference.

From some light Googling, it looks like you gain access to infinite respec opportunities after you finish the first major zone, so I'll be able to remake Sebille the way I want to... but by that point, I might just keep the Scoundrel ranks she already has, since the extra movement, Pawn and Adrenaline are all very useful to her as an archer. (I'm definitely reassigning that Dual Weapon point, though!) As I'm playing through this, I'm coming to really appreciate having respecs available but not until a later point in the game: I'm adjusting as I play, figuring out what works, exploring different skills, and also coming up with a mental checklist for how I want to realign people once I have the chance. If I could respec from the start I'd probably be doing that almost constantly, and I think this approach helps me keep a consistent focus that ultimately will help me plan through what I want to do.

It's early in the game yet - well, early in terms of how long it will ultimately take - but here are some initial and early reactions.

What's Good


Combat design. Like a lot of items on this list, it's something that was already really strong in DOS1 and feels even better here. There are almost no trash fights in the game: Each combat encounter is a bespoke encounter that's nicely challenging, has unique aspects and mechanics, and almost feels like a puzzle to solve. The closest game that comes to mind is Torment: Tides of Numenara; there is a lot more combat in DOS2, and you don't often have the pacifist options available in Torment, but that sense of each encounter being particularly meaningful endures.

Economy. I have some quibbles, see below; and it's still early in the game so I reserve the right to complain later; but right now it's hitting that sweet spot where money is useful, there's always something I want to buy, and I don't have enough money to buy everything I want. There is definitely a risk of finding loot that outclasses that sweet item you just bought, but one big advantage of a party-based RPG is that you can often hand-me-down your second-best gear to another character.

Map design. It is gorgeous, varied, detailed, interesting. Yeah, you have ominous torch-lit basements, but also white-sand beaches, and carnival tents, and fields of heather filled with blue butterflies. I think DOS2 has some of my favorite uses of verticality I've seen in any game, with natural slopes and man-made structures, and that makes the maps both a delight to explore and really fun to fight on.


Freedom. In some ways this series reminds me of my beloved Ultima, where you could wander pretty much anywhere so long as you could face the consequences. Skills like teleportation seem almost broken in the way that they allow access to areas you shouldn't be able to get to... but that becomes part of the fun of the game, and it's ultimately designed around it.


Deep world. Another way in which the game reminds me of Ultima: You can pick up or move most items in the map, damage doors and chests and random pieces of furniture, just pick up and carry around huge barrels full of poison because you feel like it. The physics and chemistry of DOS are notoriously great: cast Rain to fill a surface with water, then cast a lightning-based spell to electrocute everyone standing within, or an ice spell to freeze it over and make your foes slip and fall. Perhaps you deploy a poison cloud, then set it aflame, then douse it and leave an obscuring mist behind. It's logical and useful and a whole lot of fun.

What's Nice


Quest design. There's a sort of unique feel to the game's pace. You don't get as much story and stuff as in games like Dragon Age or The Witcher, but it ends up feeling really good, a bit lighter and simpler without seeming dumbed-down. Lots of quests are just a single conversation with a memorable character, others are much longer, a few offer an interesting choice or two.

Romance. It's still really early on, and I'm not sure yet if there are full-fledged romances or just light flirting, but there's already definitely more than DOS1 had. More importantly, the writing here is really good.


Skills. There are a lot, and it can feel overwhelming to select from the available options, but I do really like the depth of the system and the really cool synergies within it. I feel like the game is going for something like BG2 more than PoE, with a bigger emphasis on letting you mess around with systems and make unique characters than on being balanced.

Roleplaying. I think I'm spoiled on this front, and I should hold off on evaluating it until I get further into the game. I appreciate having choices, but the ones I've seen have been very binary, like "Do you want to free this creature from their eternal torment, or get some extra money?" Still, as noted above, I really like how you can roleplay multiple characters, and having some choices is better than having none.


On The Other Hand...


Full voiceover. The actual voice actors are quite good, much better than in, say, Wasteland 2, but it gets tedious to read and hear the lines at the same time. I've gotten in the habit of just clicking to advance once I finish reading a dialogue chunk instead of waiting for the speaking to stop, which is better but awkward in its own way. It kind of feels like the line-reading is on par with a AAA game like Dragon Age, but it doesn't have anything close to its cinematics, leaving the overall experience in a weird in-between state.

Inventory. I feel a little less overwhelmed than I did in DOS1, but I'm not sure yet if that's due to a better design or just me not being as far into the game. I do appreciate the fact that there's a deep crafting system and a lot of utility; again, it reminds me in a positive way of the Ultima games. But I do often feel like I'm spending just as long sorting through my inventory as I am playing the damn game, which is, uh, not great.





And... I think that's all I have for now! I'm having a blast. It's still early in the game and I don't totally have a bead on the big-picture plot yet, but the mechanics of this game are so solid and satisfying that I'd be tempted to play for those alone. There's definitely a chance that my experience with DOS1 will repeat itself and I'll bail before finishing, but based on my experiences so far I have a good feeling about this playthrough.

Monday, July 01, 2019

Burning Bright

Just wrapped up Pyre!


I enjoyed it a lot. Let's do a quick run-down.

MEGA SPOILERS

The Good


The characters. I really loved how varied they were, how distinct their voices were, their relations with one another.  You naturally make favorites along the way, which adds to the tension of some choices you have to make, but all of them are appealing in their own way.


Reactivity. It's really pretty astonishing how many permutations the game can go through, based on who stays and who leaves, and everything is coherent and makes sense. This is expressed in some really remarkable ways, too, with my favorite probably being how the lyrics of the final song that plays over the credits change to reflect what happened in your game.


Character creation. Unlike Bastion and Transistor, which had defined and detailed protagonists, Pyre lets you create your own Reader. You can select your gender, your background, your motivations. This is done in a really natural dialogue-driven way as the game unfolds, not on a standalone screen prior to the start. There aren't any visual changes associated with it, but the game honors your selections and it subtly affects the later dialogue.


Romance. Okay, "Romance" is way too strong a word for what this game has; "emotional connections" might be better. There's nothing near the depth or intensity you'd find in a BioWare game or similar. But the range of feelings and relations are really remarkable. As is my wont, I pursued a "Romance All The Things" path, clicking every dialogue option available to express interest in my fellow exiles. And... it's complicated! Jodariel acknowledges your interest and gently makes it clear that she does not reciprocate. Sandra becomes increasingly standoffish as you show interest, and in my case our relationship culminated in a really interesting state that kind of reminded me of my beloved Digital: A Love Story.


Music. I almost forgot to include this, just because I now take it for granted with a Supergiant game! It's really wonderful. As with Transistor, the vocals are especially well-done, both on their own terms and how they're presented in-game, with every voice tied to a specific character.


Art. Again, it's Supergiant so I'm not surprised that it's wonderful. It's a real treat to see how they change and evolve from game to game; the high tech Art Deco of Transistor looks nothing like the storybook cartoonish drawings here, except that they both look fantastic.


Environments. Particularly within the Blackwagon, I was amazed at the sheer quantity of interactable items that you automatically collect over the course of the game and how great they all looked together.


The Mixed


Non-failing defeat. The game really emphasizes that losing a match does not end the game, and that the story will continue, with different consequences, if you lose a regular or liberation Rite. I really appreciate all the work that must have gone into that, but I'm hard-wired to win all my battles in RPGs, so I would invariably reload as soon as my opponents won a match. That's on me! Not the game! But it still wasn't fun.


Themes. More specifically, my confusion over whether the game really has any themes; it probably does, but at the end of the game I was left uncertain whether we were meant to believe that the Rites were valuable, whether it was a noble tradition or not. There's constant talk of the enlightenment one receives from participating in them, and I'm not sure how to square that with the talk of injustice in exiling in the first place.


Talismans. On the one hand, they were really cool, with unique abilities that can drastically change your strategies, or just linearly boost your primary statistics. On the other hand, it felt incredibly limiting to just have a single slot, and I only used a tiny fraction of them over the game.


Economy. The gameplay is a basketball sports game, but everything else about it feels like an RPG, and that includes the frustrating economy. I found myself falling into the trap I do in every RPG: hoarding too many items, not spending money, saving consumables for "later" and never using them. That's on me, for the most part, but I have a particularly fierce love for the rare RPGs that get economies right, and this game didn't rise to that.


The Not-So-Great


Gameplay. I was kind of surprised at how much I was enjoying the Rites early on, but I became less enthusiastic as the game progressed. It's always frustrating when you're trying to do something and it isn't happening; in my case, that was usually me angling into my opponents' pyre from the side or behind, only to run past it and get banished before I could plunge in.


Difficulty. Closely linked to the above; I was playing the game on Normal and enjoying it a lot, and activating each Titan Star as it came online, but beyond a certain point I just stopped being able to do anything against my opponents, who can instantly pass and toss and move more quickly than I. I deactivated the stars, then dropped the difficulty to Normal. Again, this wasn't necessary - the game is designed to let you finish it if you don't win all the time - but I still selfishly resented not being great at the game.


END SPOILERS

I did have a lot of fun playing this, but I doubt I'll return; it does sound like there's a lot of replay potential with the different team configurations and choices you can make, and some really major choices at the end, but the actual matches ended up feeling more like chores to me so I'll likely pass. That said, Pyre does reinforce my impression of the many, many things Supergiant does well, and I'm looking forward to playing Hades and whatever other games they have in the future. To their credit, they dramatically change each game: completely new styles, new mechanics, new stories. It's inevitable that I'd end up enjoying some more than others. Transistor remains the first in my heart, but I'm sure there are many people who will find Pyre the superior of the two games.

Friday, June 28, 2019

Non Stop

I'm addicted!



I got to see Hamilton again this week. This is the third cast that I've seen, and I still enjoy the show dearly: by now I don't think there are many elements that I haven't picked up on before, so I focus more on the individual performances, how each actor's portrayal adds to or changes my impression of a character and the overall show.

This is the new "And Peggy" touring company, which played a series of shows in Puerto Rico to help fund reconstruction from Hurricane Maria and is now focused on a long-term sit-down performance in San Francisco; unlike the first national tour's opening in San Francisco, the next city hasn't been announced yet, so they may continue extending their engagement here while demand remains high. Based on the enthusiasm I've seen for the show and the strength of this performance, I think they may remain for a while yet; there probably isn't the population here to support a run as long as Chicago's, but then again, folks are willing to travel to see the show. I chatted with a family of four who had driven up from San Diego primarily to catch the performance, and talked about how this was the only music all of them could enjoy listening to at the same time in the car.

My literal perspective on the show was different, too. I'd previously seen the first national tour from the center rear of the orchestra and the center front row of the loge, and the Chicago performance from the balcony. This time, I scored tickets in the "F" row, close to the stage right side but only six rows back. It was really cool to be able to see all the facial expressions of the actors in great detail, which adds a great dimension to many encounters; Alexander in particular will often pull a face or perform a little celebration at the end of a conversation. The tradeoff was that I couldn't see the actual floor of the stage and so the turntables were invisible, but of course you can still see their effect; as a result, a lot of the movement seemed more subtle, or else had more of a floating effect.

I mostly want to talk about the actors, so let's do that!

Every cast has a very different Hamilton. Julius Thomas, to me, seemed very relational: You really feel his deep affection for his friends, his love for Eliza, his devotion to Washington. With Michael Luwoye, I kind of felt like Hamilton was sacrificing everything to feed his ambition; not in a manipulative way, but no single relationship was more important to him than achieving his ideal of greatness. With Julius, I felt like it was more reversed: it's his devotion to his newfound friends that thrusts him into the revolutionary cause, his admiration of Washington that convinces him to pursue government. Julius's Hamilton is really appealing as a result, someone I like and don't just admire.

Donald Webber as Burr was amazing, a buttery singer and smooth mover and talker. I should probably stop writing "This actor was good at singing and everything" since that's true for everyone! I felt like this Burr was a little more... hollow, I guess, in a way that was really interesting. It's like he puts up this smooth and charming facade to hide that he doesn't have much going on inside. He emphasized the "Smile More" aspect of Burr, while the other actors I've seen put more focus on "Talk Less"; their Burrs are subtle observers who want to avoid attention, while Webber's Burr is a pleasant participant who skims along the surface and avoids deep entanglements.

The night I went, Morgan Anita Wood was the substitute for Eliza, and I thought she was great. The more I watch this show, the more I feel like Eliza might be the hardest role: as a character she's introverted and deferential, and she doesn't get as many opportunities as Burr to sing to the audience about what's going on inside her mind. She was played with a lot of vulnerability and sweetness, truly helpless under Hamilton's gaze.

As a side note, I think this was the first performance of the show I've seen where the three Schuyler actresses looked like they really could be sisters. I don't think that's at all necessary, obviously; a big part of the show's vision is its reinterpretation of historical people. But I thought that did add a fun visual element to the show, to have a more feasible resemblance among the sisters.

Sabrina Sloan as Angelica was a very different take on the role. I think the other Angelicas I've seen have emphasized the intelligence and independence; they feel emotion, but keep it buried deep. This Angelica does a poorer job at hiding her attraction to Alexander, which was awesome to see: it adds more dramatic tension to his relationship with Eliza, and it was really interesting to see Angelica as a more vulnerable woman with deep longings.

Rounding out the trio, Darilyn Castillo was an almost opposite Peggy/Maria to the one in the first national tour. That Peggy was bold and sassy, while this one is bubbly and sweet: much more the archetypal youngest sister, she's wide-eyed at the world around her and nervous but enthusiastic about participating in it. Likewise, the previous portrayals of Maria had seemed deliberately inscrutable: more sexy, and I was left unsure whether she (the character) was a good actress scamming Hamilton or a desperate woman putting up a strong facade. With Darilyn, though, I didn't doubt that Maria was scared, and needy, and in anguish over the course her life was taken.

(Lots has already been written about this, but the musical's handling of Hamilton's affair really impresses me. It would have been so easy to say "Our hero has been tricked by this wiley woman, what a poor victim he is!" The show doesn't let Hamilton off the hook: it shows the reasons why he did what he did, while making it clear that those reasons don't excuse his action. It really forces the audience to steep in the uncomfortable consequences and avoids giving him a pass.)

One returning face for me was Ruben Carbajal, who reprises his Laurens/Philip role from the first national tour. He was great! Out of all the shows I've seen, this was definitely the best at portraying the unique Hamilton/Laurens relationship; I was looking for it in all of the live performances, and this was the first time I really saw it. I think that's partly because the two actors have great chemistry, and it certainly helps that Ruben has had so many years to hone and perfect the role. His Philip is heartbreaking and sweet, and honestly this was a better physical matchup with Julius than with Luwoye, which visually was kind of funny since that Philip loomed over his dad.

Simon Longnight was also the best Lafayette/Jefferson I've seen yet. Listening to the soundtrack, I thought of this primarily as a role that demanded a fast and talented rapper, but I now think that it demands charisma even more, and Longnight has both in spades. He has a great presence as the Marquis in the first act, and really comes alive as Jefferson, from his splendid entrance through all his comedic business with Madison and his bottled scorn for Burr and his chagrined admiration for Hamilton. Internally, you also get a great sense for the forces driving him; I've previously thought of Jefferson as a dilettante, a guy who enjoys playing the game but doesn't really have any skin in it, but this Jefferson really does care about his home state and his way of life and believes he is battling for a worthy cause.

My visceral favorite character in the show might have been Hercules Mulligan, which is always a fun role but who Brandon Louis Armstrong knocked particularly far out of the park. This version felt especially profane and was a delight to watch, bobbing and bouncing and thrusting, carrying his beat with him wherever he went. (Yet another side note: While the overall lyrics are identical in every performance, there are some vocalizations that vary. In "Right Hand Man," I expect Mulligan to say "B'rah!" in response to Hamilton's statements; here, Armstrong says "Uh!" instead. Very different, and really perfect for this character, who feels simple and direct and fun.) And, like the other Mulligans I've seen, Armstrong manages a complete transformation into Madison in the second act. This version emphasizes the side-kick relationship with Jefferson, which is a fun dynamic; in the first national touring show, Madison almost seemed to outshine Jefferson, and the Chicago version seemed like a toady, so it was great to see yet another possible relationship here.

I'd been looking forward to seeing Isaiah Johnson again. Along with Ruben, he was the other returning actor from the first national tour, and might have been my favorite performer of that cast (alongside Emmy Raver-Lampman). Unfortunately, he was out the night I attended, but his substitute Vincent Jamal Hooper was fantastic. His Washington was more human-sized than the others I've seen; you get the sense of his fear of inadequacy, that he won't be able to accomplish what he needs to do and everything weighing on it. In this show I felt like the Hamilton/Washington relationship was more one of peers, where each man needed what the other offered, than the father/son vibe of other shows. Again, the physical aspect of the actors may have played a part in my impression; I think that in all of the other productions I've seen, Washington has towered over Hamilton, while here they have more similar builds and see eye to eye.

Finally, Rick Negron as King George was a much scarier and more menacing presence than Rory O'Malley had been. Rory's George was mostly comic relief, very expressive and goofy. Negron, though, feels coiled and compressed, dangerous, like an animal about to strike. It's still funny, especially in the later songs, but here the humor cuts the menace rather than the other way around.

Visually, I thought that the ensemble was a lot more varied than before; I'd remarked earlier, how I felt like I was seeing doppelgangers for Betsy Stuxness, Carleigh Bettiol, Thayne Jasperson, and other members of the original Broadway cast. Here, I'm sure the tracks are the same, but the body types and coloring seemed distinct. But I did notice upon reviewing the performance credits that there were quite a few substitutions in the ensemble, so I'm not sure if that's always the case for this cast.

So yeah, I had a great time! When I first saw Hamilton I was mostly concerned about whether the live performance could live up to my sky-high expectations from the original Broadway cast recording. Now, though, I'm going into these shows most interested in seeing all the ways the different casts can pull it off: fresh spins on each character, different moods being projected, reinterpreting their relationships and dynamics. I know this is a big part of what theater is all about, but I'm still astonished at the incredible range of variations you can get while still keeping every word the same. Honestly, I doubt that this will be the last time I see the show, and I think the material is so strong that it will provide even more opportunities for future casts to discover new gems inside.