Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Starveling Cat! The Starveling Cat! Look What It Did to Your Nice New Cravat!

I'm having a blast with Fallen London. I'm regularly surprised and pleased at how much things change as the game progresses. The underlying mechanics stay similar, but are often explored in cool new ways; more importantly, the overarching plot threads are going in unexpected directions that give you a huge variety of cool things to do.


My current general strategy in the game is to focus on activities in a particular area until the associated Menace gets to be too high (generally over 4). I then switch to another location, usually the one that will exercise my lowest major Quality and for which my associated Menace is rather low. Over time, I'll get various Opportunity cards that will bring back down my Menace level, and I'll pick up some Second Chances; eventually, I'll cycle back around to the same location, and the Second Chances will give me enough time to make good progress before my Menace even starts to rise.

I've come to enjoy this approach, since it lets me stay long enough in one location to get a good feeling for its character and the rewards each storylet has to offer.  My other major Qualities will continue to rise, at a slower rate, thanks to the random Opportunity cards that crop up. If something very interesting develops, I'll happily travel to an associated location and pursue that line of inquiry. Again, though, what's impressive about Fallen London is that you really can play it any way you like. I imagine that some people will travel between locations quite frequently to avoid repeating storylets, while others will happily continue to stay in a single spot and find more proactive ways of handling their Menaces.

I now hardly ever sell anything at the Bazaar, and only buy items that I can't acquire through story or crafting; I think in the last several weeks my only purchase has been some Souls that I needed to create Brilliant Souls to pursue the case of the fidgeting writer. (I tend to ally with the Church over Hell, so I don't get many souls.) The crafting system is pretty cool; you can trade in many low-level items to gain some higher-level items, and in some cases, you can trade between different types of items (like exchanging Appalling Secrets for Journals of Infamy). At a very high level, you can even craft items of clothing. In pursuit of a plot-related item, I traded up a ton of Whispered Secrets that I had acquired, eventually ending up with a cache of five (!) Patent Scrutinizers, my first-ever "weapon." When I needed to raise some Echoes to purchase souls, I sold one of the four superfluous scrutinizers, and was shocked to see that each would sell for 12 echoes. Up until then, whenever I'd needed to raise money I would sell Rostygold or Nevercold Brass Silver for a measly 1 penny each, so seeing the result of my crafting was astonishing. I'm currently saving up a lot of wine in the hopes of taking advantage the next time Mr. Wines holds a sale through an opportunity card.


At the moment, I am absolutely obsessed with the University. I'm like a kid in a candy store, I just can't stop sampling everything I see. Getting to the University took a decent amount of effort; it wasn't exactly grinding, but it was a fairly linear if flavorful quest in the Forgotten Quarter. It felt a little like Indiana Jones, I guess, what with the archaeology, but I particularly loved the academic bent that the story takes after you've discovered the Correspondence and start spending time trying to decipher it. I think that's what I love most about Fallen London: it can make a game out of stuff that's interesting in real life but that nobody's made a game of before, like pursuing an academic rivalry or attending a society ball or crafting forgeries.

There's so much I love about the University that it's hard to know where to start. First of all, the sheer variety of opportunities is impressive. There are a couple of other parts in the game where your major Quality level can make it hard to find appropriate activities; sometimes I'll have to choose between a Low-risk challenge, which will only slowly raise my Quality, and a Chancy or High-risk one, which has an increased risk of Menace. When I arrived at the University and completed my initial orientation with Benthic and Summerset colleges, I had almost a half-dozen different storylets available, each perfectly tuned to my preferred Modest challenge level.

Secondly, the way you progress through the University is very unique. In most locations up to this point, your generic Storylets (not the yellow-bordered serial stories or the blue-bordered Ambitions) are tied to your major Quality: they appear once you reach a certain level, and disappear after your level grows too high. The University, though, operates instead on an academic calendar. A new minor quality, "Term progressing..." starts at 1, and gradually increases as you complete academic storylets. The available storylets, in turn, change as time goes on, removing some activities or continuing a longer-running plot thread. For example, you might spend the early part of the term preparing lessons, researching at the library, or mingling with the college; late in the term, you'll deliver lectures, track down particularly rare books in the stacks, participate in inter-college sports, and perhaps attend the great feast.

My favorite ongoing university story, though, has to be the murder mystery. It's a really clever, Agatha Christie-type fiction, where you collect clues, interview witnesses, and, at the end of the term, can make an accusation. I got it wrong on my first attempt, but I think I should be able to try again in my second term. What's most impressive is how they managed to fit this into the repeatable Storylet format, instead of the more obvious yellow serialized story format. That helps make the mystery feel more connected to the general atmosphere of the University, rather than an independent piece that happens to be set there.

In other Fallen London news: I am ascending the ranks of Mr. Pages' Reliables, and after tracking down an Unfinished Man and retrieving some stolen goods, I have gained my first-ever point in Associated with the Masters of the Bazaar! I'm pretty excited about that. I, erm, also happen to be Plotting Against the Masters of the Bazaar (currently at level 2, having committed arson), so I'm guessing those two threads will come to a head at some point. Or maybe not. It's Fallen London, so who knows?


I've recently overturned my self-imposed ban on the "Like" button on Facebook to Like a few of the games I'm into, notably Fallen London, Mass Effect and Ultima Forever. I used to have a whole bunch of "favorites" back in the good days of the old Facebook, but got supremely irritated when they changed to the Fan-based system of today, where you can't select any privacy settings for any of your preferences. I hate needing to think about how random strangers will think about stuff I like; would a potential employee be turned off if he found my religious preferences unsavory, or unsettled that I enjoy a violent TV show like Game of Thrones?

I'm still intellectually opposed to the whole "Fan" system, but time has eroded my rage, so I'll probably gradually resume liking things again.

In other news: I'm not sure how far I'll get, but I recently picked up the Ultimate Edition of Dragon Age: Origins (thanks, Steam Summer Sale!) and have started a second play-through. This game includes all the DLC, and I decided to also go ahead and pick up some of the best/most-famous user-created mods for it. Most of the lists of user-created mods that I found were way too old, from a few months after the game's initial release, but I found some good information on the Bioware Social forums and various random websites. I ended up using a good guide from the Purple Lady as my main source of recommendations, and so far I've been pretty happy with the results.

My biggest complaint so far is with the difficulty of managing mod incompatibilities. This is an endemic problem for modders of any game; if you craft a stand-alone module, you're playing in your own sandbox, but if you're changing stuff about the original game, it's very possible that different mods might be competing for the same resource. For example, there are multiple mods that make changes to Morrigan's appearance, so it makes sense that only one of those mods can succeed in making those changes.

Unfortunately, there isn't a single consistent system for managing Dragon Age mods. Official Bioware-created mods are distributed in .dazip format, which are very modular and will even appear in a menu within the game to let you enable or disable them at will. Apparently, though, dazip files are hard to uninstall, and don't have a good way of resolving conflicts. Instead, most modders provide "raw" modules, which are just collections of files that you can drop into your game's "override" folder. The simplicity of packaging is pretty nice; as far as I can tell, the game just crawls through all the files in "override", including all subdirectories, and uses those instead of the game's built-in files. The problem is that, if two mods include modifications to the same original game file, you'll need to manually delete one of them or accept that the game will just select one of them.

For things like Morrigan's appearance, this is totally acceptable, though I would love it if there was a clear presentation of conflicts: "Two mods are attempting to modify this file. Do you want to use Mod A, Mod B, or the original game version?" What's more frustrating and limiting, though, is that there doesn't seem to be any way to have two mods make compatible changes to the same dialog file. So, if you pick the excellent "Dialogue Tweaks" mod, which makes extensive changes throughout the game, you won't be able to install many romance-related mods that tweak one or two characters. I think this handicap will significantly limit Dragon Age in the long run from having the kind of mod scene that Baldur's Gate has. Dialog modding was a key component of the best Baldur's Gate mods, and I was frequently impressed at how compatible all of the various mods could be. Installing a new NPC mod would add new banter to existing characters, and in some cases even to NPCs created by other mod authors. (Solaufein, for example, was one of the first NPC mods, and many later mods integrate with him as well as they do with the canonical party NPCs.)

The dialog problem, though, is probably ultimately driven by the difficulty of modding a game with fully voice-acted characters. Dragon Age: Origins is kind of in between Mass Effect and Baldur's Gate: like Mass Effect, all your companions' dialog is fully recorded, and like Baldur's Gate, your own character's dialog is mostly textual (in menu-driven dialog choices) with some generic but customizable voicing for ambient speech (stuff like "My spell failed!" and "I'm badly wounded" and "Chaaaaaarge!"). Even if the game engine did let you add new lines for Alistair, it would be very disconcerting to have 98% of a character's dialog voiced by the original actor, and the remaining 2% either silent or with a badly dubbed substitute. An excellent theoretical solution, which would probably be very difficult but impressive, would be to access and re-use snippets of the originally recorded dialog in your new context. Thanks to the sheer volume of recorded dialog, I think you could get at least some reaction-type banter from existing characters that would fit into a mod's new content; imagine Leliana cooing at how cute something is, or Morrigan casually dismissing it, or Alistair saying "Riiiiiiiiight...." Unfortunately, I kind of doubt that the dialog has that kind of granularity available; again, as far as I can tell, you have a single file for a version of a character or a scene, and have to replace it wholesale. Making a Dragon Age equivalent of WeiDU would not only need to decompile, insert, and re-compile scripts and scenes, but also slice up and recombine audio files, which seems like a far tougher problem.

I'm currently using the following mods, with pretty good results.
  • Just Better Textures, version 3. This was actually the very first mod I thought about getting, although it ended up being the last one I installed. The install process is pretty complicated - well, not actually complicated, just not too clearly described on the linked page - so check out the comments if you want the secret second link and a description of what to do with the files. I'm currently running with just the base set of textures and none of the extras; my first attempt had all of the updates and the Armor expansion, but combined with the Improved Atmosphere mod that exceeded the game's memory limits and led to a crash after a minute of playing. This mod is technically incompatible with Improved Atmosphere and Morrigan Restoration, but so far I haven't noticed any problems with having them all installed.
  • Buy Lloyd's Tavern. I don't remember anything about this. Maybe I missed it in my first play-through? If so, this mod should ensure I don't mix it in the current one!
  • Awakenings Silverite Mine Bugfix. This will be my first play-through of Awakenings, which I'm looking forward to. Seems better safe than sorry to have this installed.
  • Advanced Quickbar. I've installed the mod, but haven't enabled it yet; it'll be a while until I start running out of space on my quickbar.
  • Tucked Hair. I installed this since it's a pre-requisite to Dragon Age Redesigned, but I now wish that I had installed it when I was building my character. I'd initially given her long hair, but it was annoying since the hair hid her face in almost all conversation scenes, and made her look kind of like Kurt Cobain or Mitch Hedburg, so I went back and re-made her with a shorter hairstyle. It looks like with this mod, you can keep long hair and just tuck it behind the ears to keep the face visible.
  • Dragon Age Redesigned. I really, really like this mod; it improves the look of many NPCs throughout the game, making them look less bland and more interesting. It also has separate installers for all of your party NPCs and lets you install a new look for each of them. I'm really impressed at what the mod author has done. Have you seen the phenomenal Sacred Ashes trailer? It's basically a CG movie version of a fight that takes place in the game; while the party members in the trailer are recognizable, they have designs that look quite different from the version in the game. Well, one of your options is to replace the in-game versions so they look more like the Sacred Ashes versions. There are some other really cool choices: for example, the author made a new version of Morrigan to make her look like the model who Bioware had hired when they were doing their own characters designs of Morrigan. I'm currently running with a Sacred Ashes-ish version of Morrigan, a version of Sten that looks more like the Qunari of Dragon Age 2 (no horns), and a version of Leliana that gets rid of the braids and has a slightly softer look. (Tangent: I really get the impression that someone at Bioware has a braid fetish. The Baldur's Gate 2 character portraits had braids on literally every single female character, with the sole exception of Viconia. Ferelden has tons of braids everywhere, too. I don't necessarily mind, but it's nice to switch things up occasionally.)
  • Wings of Velvet. I was initially thinking of grabbing Phoenix Armory armor for my new warden, but it looks like that's intended for rogues; Velvet is for mages, I haven't gotten it yet but it will be nice to see some other options, especially since I'll have three mages competing for a limited set of robes.
  • Improved Atmosphere. This changes a whole bunch of mostly subtle stuff throughout the game, generally making the world feel more alive and vibrant. Characters in cities tend to walk around more, instead of standing stiffly in one place forever; there are more animals around; Bodhan and his son have some oxen to drive their cart; etc. There's a ton of stuff in here that you can pick and choose from, but I just dumped it all in, and so far have been happy with the results.
  • Dialogue Tweaks. This makes a bunch of changes to existing dialog throughout the game: generally it's done to restore stuff that got left out or that you could miss, or correcting some characters so they say the right thing at the right time. As I noted above, dialog changes are rarely compatible with one another, so this may require some manual adjustment to work alongside the other mods.
  • Morrigan Restoration Patch.  It's common knowledge by now that when games ship, they often contain a lot of content on the disc that can't actually be accessed within the game. Sometimes this is due to bugs in the final product; sometimes they indicate earlier ideas about the game that were abandoned in later versions without being wholly removed. Morrigan apparently had a lot of such content in DA:O, and given how interested people are in her character, it's inevitable that people would take the effort to "restore" the "lost" parts of her story. This mostly includes several scenes with her, and also adds back in some banters with the party and fixes some bugs that keep parts of her dialog from triggering. (This patch reminds me of an infamous bug with Baldur's Gate 2: Throne of Bhaal, where, due to a coding error, none of Imoen's conversations would ever trigger. Thanks to my mod-filled re-play of ToB, I was able to experience her reactions to our quest, which added a lot to the atmosphere of the game.) I'm looking forward to seeing what this patch adds to the game.
  • Alley of Murders. One of the too-few quest mods for DA:O. It's a shame that there aren't more of these, both because I'm a huge fan of user-created content that extends the life of the game, and because these sorts of mods have the least amount of conflict with each other. I actually remember reading about this one during my initial play-through of DA:O, but I'd never checked it out.
  • Dance Party. Hey, why not?
  • Make Console Commands Visible. I don't use the console much, but when I do, this will help a ton.
It took a little while for me to get the hang of modding the game. I highly recommend installing DAO-ModManager, which lets you handle the, well, management of your mods. If you just dump files into /overrides willy-nilly, it becomes impossible to keep track of what files came from which mod; with ModManager, you can install and uninstall mods as chunks, and have it handle the cleanup for you. It will also alert you to mod conflicts, provided that the mods are installed through ModManager.

Different mods need to be installed differently:
  • A couple of the mods, notably DA Redesigned, come with their own .exe installer. That makes the installation easy, but it does end up with a bunch of raw files in /overrides. 
  • Some of the simple mods that can't conflict with each other are packaged as .dazip files. You can install these using DA:O's own DAUpdater.exe utility, but I prefer to use ModManager to ease uninstallation. These mods can be enabled or disabled within the game itself.
  • A handful of mods come in .override format. You can drag these into ModManager, which will handle the rest.
  • For most of the mods, though, you just download a folder full of files. You could install this by dragging the folder into /overrides, but this creates a risk of conflicts. What I prefer to do is use ModManager's "Override creator" (third tab) to make a new .override file. You can drag the mod's files into this override. This is a great place to take out any files that you don't want to keep in the override - this is where reading each mod's README comes in handy, since it will generally describe any known conflicts with other mods and how to resolve them. Once you create the .override, you can then install and uninstall it within ModManager. It's a great system; I just wish that it would let you know what specific files create conflicts instead of reporting that a conflict exists.
Overall, the whole process took about as long as my modding experience for the BG games took. One night was spent finding, choosing, and downloading mods, and much of the next night was spent managing their installation. Thanks to Purple Lady's guide, I didn't have many conflicts, and I'm now happily slaying Darkspawn looking more stylish than ever!

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