Friday, October 31, 2014

COM Port

Once again, I had the pleasure of meeting one of my literary icons in the flesh. The latest name to strike off my steadily dwindling list of “awesome authors I would like to meet one day” was William Gibson, who came to San Francisco to promote his brand-new book, The Peripheral.

I’ve had a weirdly mediated relationship with Gibson. He is often credited with inventing cyberpunk, and he was a direct influence on some of my most formative creative forces, including Neal Stephenson’s “Snow Crash” and the Shadowrun mythos. I’ve been aware of him for a long time, but it was really only within the last decade that I began reading him directly. I was pleased to see that it still holds up: while reading Neuromancer today seems less like a prophetic glimpse of the future than it did in the 1980s, it’s still a darn fine read, and prone to causing whiplash when you start to realize all the seemingly ordinary things it described that simply did not exist at the time it was written.

His more recent books have drifted closer to our present time, and perhaps a direct result he has gained more acclaim from both the mainstream press and literary critics. The Peripheral seems like a return to form, with him uniting his recent style with his older fascination with the future.

This event was held at The Booksmith, the same independent bookshop that hosted the wonderful David Mitchell last month. Unlike that previous event, which was held in a movie theater, this was in The Booksmith’s own cozy bookstore. I’d been lucky enough to catch an early notice of his appearance, and so had managed to snag a coveted reserved seat by pre-ordering the book. This proved to be even more helpful than I had hoped, as business obligations forced me to race north from Santa Clara in order to arrive at the reading in time, and without the reservation I would have been stuck standing very far back indeed.

Gibson opened with a few brief remarks, then jumped into a reading. He had noticed that this book was “unusually vulnerable to spoilers,” to the extent that he’s been reluctant to retweet positive reviews because of how much they give away. So, he restricted himself to the start of the book, only reading chapters two and four (roughly five pages combined). It’s always really engaging to hear an author read their own words; Gibson doesn’t have a radio voice, but he’s able to place the beats and the intonations so subtly and effectively that they strongly elevate the text. I found myself re-reading these chapters soon after, and got more out of them the second time around.

He also accepted quite a few questions, and his interesting answers are the main reason why I’m writing this up now. In no particular order:

Any time an author (or, I suppose, another creative type) takes audience questions, it’s inevitable that they end up fielding multiple variations on the query “Where do you get your ideas from?” (fortunately at least phrased differently). Gibson is pretty intentionally non-self-reflective about “his process”, and leaves thematic analyses of his works to the critics. He did say, though, that he often feels like, as he goes through life, he accumulates various stray thoughts in the “hopper” of his mind. They stay in there, decomposing over the years, until he’s ready to take them out and try to use them in a novel. By this point, they’ve often changed enough that they may bear little resemblance to what he originally encountered.

Back when he first started writing, he wanted to get a stream of new, strange ideas, and so he would spend hundreds of dollars on magazines. In those pre-Internet days, that was the best way: magazines were (and are) aggregators of different, random thoughts. He’d just absorb them all: gothic Lolita, tons of magazines from Japan, whatever he could get his hands on. Now, of course, rather than spending hundreds of dollars to get a certain amount of strangeness, everyone can get an unlimited amount of strangeness through their web browser. It’s gone from him trying to open a faucet to him having a fire hose.

One person noted the different time spans of his books (Neuromancer set in the future but really about the 1980s, Pattern Recognition and friends are of and about the 2000s, etc.) and inquired about the significance. Gibson mentioned that, while he was very careful to never put information about the year in the book, in his own mind he had thought that Neuromancer took place around the year 2035. But, he said, all science fiction and speculative fiction books are really about the time in which they were written. When you read 19th-century science fiction today, you aren’t learning anything about any sort of possible future: you’re learning about the 19th century. This process happens to all books, including his own.

As for the reason for shifting time periods, he’d felt like his “yardstick of contemporary weirdness” had grown limited. Back when he was first starting to write, he had a strong sense of the strange things happening in society, and could use that to drive his novels. In later years, he felt like he was losing that sense. In some ways, his more recent present-day novels were a chance for him to re-calibrate that sense of contemporary weirdness; and now, armed with a fresh sense of the odd things at the fringes of culture, he’s more confident in writing about the future again.

One person mentioned that he had always thought that Gibson was cautiously optimistic about technology, and asked what he thought about other writers, like Dave Eggers, who seem more deeply pessimistic. Gibson demurred, and clarified that he has always been agnostic about technology. He believes that technology is amoral when it is created; it is only when human beings get their hands on it that it becomes good or evil. I thought that was interesting; it put me in mind of Kurt Vonnegut’s famous commencement speech, in which he implored budding engineers to only pursue positive and not wicked technology.

Another person asked whether Vancouver has had an impact on Gibson’s writing. It hasn’t too directly, only appearing twice across his entire career, once in a short story and again in the climax of Spook Country. He did share a fun anecdote about how, when he was writing the Vancouver scenes, he would clearly visualize visual aspects of Vancouver, then drive out to double-check them, and would flabbergasted at just how severely wrong his ideas had been.

After finishing his questions, he started signing. I appear to have some kind of superpower to always end up near the very tail end of any signing line; fortunately, I always have a brand new book in my arm, so it’s always a pleasant wait. Several other people had brought along some beloved older books for him to sign, but of course I was too dense to bring any of mine. I was really impressed by his stamina: even after signing books for nearly an hour, he was still engaged and pleasant with each person coming through the line, thus reinforcing yet again my belief that authors are some of the nicest people on the planet.

I’m still not much further than chapter four in the book, and honestly I’m backed up enough with other stuff that it will probably be a while before I can focus on it. Still, it’s wonderful to have another great tale to look forward to, and having a brief moment of contact with the man himself makes me all the more excited to dig into it.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Keep On Keepin' On

Now that the Dragon Age Keep is in open beta, I can do something I've wanted to do for months: talk about Dragon Age Keep! I was lucky enough to be a beta tester for the Keep, and it's been a real treat to see it evolve over the months. If there are still any bugs with it, it's all my fault!

I'm kidding, of course. I was just happy to be a tiny cog in the big machine responsible for making the Keep. It was really interesting to get a behind-the-scenes look at things as they came together. It also strongly reinforced my impression of BioWare as a company that's particularly good at listening to its fans and making decisions based on feedback. Some aspects of the Keep changed, dramatically or subtly, in reaction to the experiences we had.

Er... before I get any further along, I should probably offer a précis about what the Keep is. I've previously written about the challenges in continuing an RPG franchise across multiple games, and the different approaches various companies have taken to solve this. So far, there have only been limited continuations in the Dragon Age games: from Origins to the Origins DLC to Dragon Age 2. These have worked by fairly conventional means: you import a saved game, which copies over your character and/or plot flags, and then the next game is updated to reflect what happened in the previous game. This is an idea that players love in theory, as it validates the importance of playing the game and makes them even more excited to see how their upcoming decisions play out in future titles. However, in practice bugs inevitably arise. Perhaps the first game's programmers didn't anticipate a particular action as being significant; as a result, the sequel's developers won't have plot flags available to read. Sometimes information is just stored the wrong way, making it impossible to determine which of several scenarios occurred.

BioWare ended up coming up with a really neat solution to all this: just bypassing the saved game system altogether, and letting players declare for themselves what had happened. I was initially surprised by this approach, but it makes a ton of sense. One major advantage for obsessive players like me is that if, say, you want to try importing a game where all the major NPCs have been killed, you won't need to spend 120 hours replaying through all the games and suffering the emotional trauma of betraying your friends. Instead, you can just declare what happened. Likewise, if you really liked one particular game but wish you had done one thing differently, you don't need to reload an ancient savegame and replay everything from that point: just fudge the record in the Keep, nobody will mind.

Furthermore, the Keep is also far more forgiving to people who wish to game between different platforms (there isn't really any way to transfer a save from an XBox 360 to a PS4), and also to those who may not have gone all the way through. Dragon Age: Origins was extremely popular, DA2 less so, and it's quite conceivable that many players picking up Inquisition will have played the former but not the latter. Thanks to the Keep, they'll be able to accurately portray all of their decisions from the first game, and can just accept a default world state from the second one (which the Keep will automatically make compatible with their actions in the first game). Or, if they want, they can do some extra reading, decide what they would have done if they had played DA2, and then take the time to configure that correctly.

When I first heard of The Keep, I was imagining something that looked like an Excel spreadsheet or Gibbed Save Generator: a set of fields and drop-down boxes, where you would declare things like "Did you kill Zevran?". When I was admitted into the Keep beta, I was blown away by what I saw: something they call the Tapestry, fitting the pseudo-medieval art motif that's become a hallmark of DA's art style, filled with gorgeous representational art of the major events over the course of the first two games.

I didn't have time to feel surprised by the graphics, though, because I was already amazed at just how much information was in there. I'd had a vague idea that the game might track, say, a dozen or so choices from each game; instead, there were easily a dozen choices in Orzammar alone. And these weren't just the big, earth-shattering decisions, either: also seemingly obscure choices, like whether you completed a minor sidequest to find ironbark for a Dalish craftsman, or fed a hungry prisoner.

Reading through the accompanying documentation, I realized that this didn't mean Inquisition was going to track all of these hundred or so plot points. That was a bit reassuring, since it will help maintain the surprise from not knowing which decisions will and will not prove to be significant in Inquisition. BioWare had elected to include as many relevant choices as possible in the Tapestry, hoping that they would not only set people up for the third game, but would also be the basis for continuity over the entire future of the franchise. So, even if Bevan's family doesn't reappear in Inquisition, that choice is recorded in the Keep such that he can reappear in game four or five and pass down the legend of the Warden's actions.

We Dragon Age fans are a passionate lot, and much of our early feedback centered around choices that we had felt were important but weren't included in the Keep. Like I said before, BioWare has been great at paying attention to what people are saying (using actual statistical data rather than hearsay! I love it!) and prioritizing their actions based on that. I felt elated to see a bunch of my suggestions find their way into the tapestry (MINI SPOILERS follow in the bullets):
  • How you dealt with Kitty and Amalia in Honnleath. For me, this was the moment when I fell helplessly in love with the game, with the vast and nuanced range of potential reactions to a chilling situation, and it's one of the best ways to calibrate the moral character of a Warden.
  • Whether the Warden ever accepted the Power of Blood. This provided an immediate gameplay benefit in the game, but the lore around the Power was quite distressing, and I loved the idea that, decades after that choice, profoundly negative impacts might arise.
  • The Warden's dealings with Avernus and Sophia. Much like the Kitty situation, this is another fantastic way to express the particulars of your Warden's moral code.
  • Whether the Warden acquired Flemeth's grimoire, and whether they lied to Morrigan about it.
  • Whether Leliana confronted Marjolaine, and if so, what was the result of their encounter.
  • The fate of Bella in Redcliffe.
  • Whether the Warden assisted the Architect.
  • The fates of Vigil's Keep and Amaranthine.
  • The state of Merrill's clan.
I'm not saying that I'm solely responsible for these! While there was a lot of chatter on the private testing forum, BioWare had a great beta feedback tool set up within the app that they encouraged people to use, and they made it pretty clear that they were looking at the numbers of people who wanted particular plots to determine their priorities, and not just who was noisiest on the forums. I thought that was fantastic! I've heard before from various BioWare representatives about how, uh, unrepresentative we fans can be. Since we're the only ones who bother to take the effort to write about the game online, we're already really invested in the property; and since we are talking with other fans, we walk away with certain impressions like, "Everyone plays these games multiple times! It's very unusual to not recruit all companions! Most people play as female elves who romance Alistair!" when, in fact, the majority of players never finish the game once, several characters like Isabela are often not recruited at all, and (you guessed it) human male warriors who romance Leliana are far more common, despite being under-represented in the online community.

Beyond adding plots (which is no small effort, seeing as bespoke art is necessary for each individual choice), the Keep team also made some much more significant overhauls over the months of beta development. One major change was a massive and gorgeous infusion of color, reversing the generally monochromatic (but still beautiful) style of the early Keep. This was a common request, and one they made happen. There was also a fantastic marketing reveal around the ISS, a really cool interactive story mode (narrated by the dulcet-toned Brian Bloom!) that talks through the major story points of the series, letting you click to select which decisions you wish to make. This has the effect of setting up the "big choices" from your play-through, after which you can use the Tapestry to fine-tune the minutiae to whatever extent you want.

I'll be really curious to see how the Keep is welcomed by the world at large, and Inquisition players in particular. I know that I've paid really close attention to the details, partly because I want to be a good beta tester and partly because that's the sort of player I am. I imagine a lot of other players will be the same way; others will just care that their Warden and Hawke are basically correct and not worry about the rest; and others won't bother with the Keep at all and will dive right in to the game. None of these are bad, and I'm curious how popular each faction will be.

Anyways! The Dragon Age Keep is now in open beta! It isn't completely done yet; they're still fixing a couple of (now mostly minor) bugs, and may add some more stuff before the game goes live, but absolutely anyone with an Origin account can now sign up and start tinkering around with it. I'm sure most fans will be delighted to have something to occupy themselves these last few weeks before Inquisition launches!

Tuesday, October 28, 2014


My recent, lengthy, kinda-ranty post got me thinking about Middle-earth and her video games. I have to confess that I totally am one of the people who is tempted to buy any product with “Tolkien,” “Middle-earth,” “Lord of the Rings” or “Hobbit” in the title, and so over the years I’ve encountered quite a few products. None of them have been exactly amazing, but each has its own charm.

The earliest one I encountered was “War in Middle-earth”, which I played on my ancient IBM 8088 PC with a CGA monitor (colors!). The game basically follows the events of Lord of the Rings, and does so fairly faithfully. You start off in the Shire with Frodo, Sam, and Pippin; you then walk down to Brandywine and pick up Merry, then it’s off to Bree to join Aragorn and so on. Along the way you occasionally bump into friendly people for a chat, who will sometimes share rumors with you; other times you’ll run into a group of hostile enemies, who you must fight or flee to proceed.

It was a surprisingly idyllic game, and my strongest memories of it are just watching those cute, chubby little hobbits gradually walking through screen after screen of background scenery. There didn’t seem to be much in the way of choice, and things would sometimes go horribly if, for instance, I ran into one or more Ringwraiths.

It wasn’t until much later that I realized there was an entirely different mode to the game: you could switch from the side view to a top-down strategic map, which displayed all of Middle-earth including the major fortresses and armies. At this point, it started to feel much more like a game to me. By default, the game will have your characters follow the path laid out by Tolkien in the books: however, you can issue your own orders, which can drastically change how events play out. For example, rather than traveling south to meet Merry, you can have your hobbits start out directly east to beeline towards Bree; this is risky, since there are ringwraiths on the road, but you can spot them and move off the path when necessary.

As I played the game over and over again, I gradually came to discover more of its mechanics. As the game continues, more and more units will activate: either due to you reaching a certain location, or performing a certain act, or after a certain time is reached, or after other events have transpired. Again, by default, events will play out fairly similarly to those of the books. The armies of Rohan will begin to stir after Saruman reveals his hostility. Gondor will react after Sauron’s host begins to march. Sending Merry and/or Pippin into Fangorn may awaken the Ents and Huorns; they aren’t under your control, but will fight on your side, crushing Saruman’s forces at Isengard.

I gradually came to discover, though, that the game was filled with things that weren’t part of the original series. Many of those cryptic statements you heard from people like Radagast and Galadriel were hints about where to find certain items of power. Some obvious ones are useful weapons or armor for your characters, like coats of mithril mail or elven blades. More interesting, though, were artifacts like the Sceptre of Arnor, abandoned in Annuminas, or one of the Dwarven Rings of Power, hidden south of Dol Guldur. If you find one of these items, and return them to their associated faction, then they will activate and join your side, regardless of what’s happening in the timeline. In this way, it’s possible to actually take the initiative: instead of waiting for the forces of darkness to strike, and then scrambling a defense of the free lands, you can organize a more comprehensive strategy.

The goal of “War in Middle-earth” is to destroy the One Ring, which you must do by taking it to Mount Doom; however, you can’t ignore the higher-level strategic picture either, as the game will immediately end if you lose ownership of two of the five major strategic points (which I want to say are Helm’s Deep, Edoras, Minas Tirith, Rivendell, and… maybe Erebor?). So, in the conventional strategy, you will send a small but well-prepared group of individuals into Mordor, while marshaling as many forces as possible and deploying them effectively to hold off destruction until your ring-bearers complete their quest.

Once you get the mechanics down, this isn’t terribly difficult. So, I decided to set a more ambitious task for myself. Would it be possible to actually defeat Sauron militarily? On the surface, this seemed like an absurd goal, as the forces of the enemy vastly outnumber your own. But still, it was something I had to try.

In addition to the hobbits, you also start out the game in control of Faramir and Eomer. There’s a gap of several months after the Council of Elrond during which you can’t issue new orders, but any existing orders will continue to be carried out during this time. So, after a lot of planning and scheming, I worked out an optimal process for recruiting all the Free Folks as soon as possible. I forget all the details, but I think it started by splitting my party and sending Pippin off to Annuminas; Eomer’s swift cavalry raced to Mirkwood, while Faramir went searching for some other artifact (perhaps a palantir?). I made sure they all had the items in their hands and were on their way to their final destinations by the time Frodo arrived in Rivendell. And so, I could immediately start raising the Elves and Dwarves in the North, as well as the Men in the South.

The enemy always follows the same sequence of moves, regardless of what you do, and so I could confidently dispatch my forces. Rivendell is a safe city, and needed only a token guard to stand against the few orc skirmishers sent against it. Erebor needed a slightly stronger defense against the group of Easterlings sent against it, but it could spare a large portion of its levies. And so, I was delighted to create a true Last Alliance, not just of Elves and Men but also of Dwarves, which hasn’t been seen on a large scale since the War of Power.

The Ents and Huorns will single-mindedly crush Saruman’s defenses at Isengard, but even after this he will still send out his new armies of Uruk-hai. So, I assembled a ridiculously huge force and had it camp in Helm’s Deep. You get a significant combat bonus when defending a fortress like this, and so wave after wave of uruk-hai dashed themselves against our wall while inflicting virtually no casualties. We stood against successive waves until Saruman was spent, then sent them racing along the Great West Road to Minas Tirith.

This is, by far, the biggest flash-point in the game. The armies of Mordor are HUGE, and that isn’t even counting all the corsairs, easterlings, and Haradim joining in the fight. That fight was more challenging, even with Minas Tirith’s defenses, but after a seemingly endless series of assaults we emerged, blinking, into the daylight. That was it. We were diminished, but had defeated all of Sauron’s armies!

I was delighted, and stunned. What to do next? The game was still going, but for the first time I wasn’t reacting to anything. The enemy is entirely scripted, and Sauron wasn’t breeding any more orcs for me to fight. I came up with the idea of wiping all the forces of evil off the map: while the mobile armies had been defeated, there were still groups of goblins in Goblin Town, orcs in Moria, and a few other strongholds. So, I took my super-ultra-mega-force on a tour, walking around the entire map and wiping out all the foes. Now I had to fave enemies on their own turf, and so they managed to inflict a good amount of damage, but my own numbers were so overwhelming that I was able to prevail. And then, all that remained was Mordor!

I crashed through Minas Ithil, then marched up to Barad-dur! This is an incredibly difficult fight: not only are a ton of enemies there, but so is Sauron himself; he’s a single unit, but incredibly powerful. Even after all of the other enemies were killed, he still managed to slay thousands of my soldiers before succumbing. And succumb he did, and then… I lost!

Staring at the screen, stunned, I wondered what had gone wrong. Did I break the game by daring to take actions that the creators hadn’t intended? Was it making some meta-commentary about the futility of opposing evil?

Eventually, I realized that I had inadvertently triggered part of the game’s logic. When an enemy kills the Ringbearer, if you win the fight, one of the survivors will pick up the Ring and continue the quest. If you are wiped out or flee, then the enemy will take the Ring, but the game doesn’t instantly end. Instead, they will immediately head out towards Barad-dur. If you have swift units to pursue them, or have forces in the way that can intercept them, then you can defeat them, retake the Ring and continue your quest. If you fail, then the game ends when the Ring reaches Barad-dur.

And so, I realized, since I had added Frodo and Aragorn and all the rest to my Stack of Doom, I was accidentally returning the Ring to the one place it wasn’t supposed to do. I didn’t want to do that, and also didn’t want to attack Mount Doom, since presumably that would end the game in the way I didn’t want. So, instead, I sent Frodo and an honor guard back to Gondor, then had my megaforce wipe out Mount Doom before finally assaulting Barad-dur for a second time. We were once again victorious. I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect; maybe nothing. But I was delighted to actually win the game through my military victory! While highly improbable, our tale-twisting exploits had accomplished what had seemed utterly impossible within the books: we had stood united against Sauron, and managed to defeat his mighty host, tear down the Dark Tower and free Middle-earth of his evil influence. All without doing something so trite as tossing a ring into a volcano.

So, yeah. I have very fond memories of the game, although in all honesty I can’t strongly recommend playing it, especially not now. There’s really no AI to speak of, and the combat system is rather frustrating, particularly at the micro level of individual characters: you can’t order your entire party to flee a hopeless fight, and so must always sacrifice a character when you bump into, say, a Ringwraith or a Balrog. That said, I really like what the game manages to pull off in terms of authentically portraying the background of the novels while allowing you to change the story in some very creative and original ways.

The next big Middle-earth game I remember playing is “Lord of the Rings”, an old Interplay RPG. This played much more like, well, an RPG than the more strategic “War in Middle-earth”. As with WiMe, it covers the same timeline as the books, although it has a bit more in the way of invention. The overall plot arc is the same: you must escape the Shire, evade the Riders, meet with Aragorn in Bree, reach Rivendell, and by the end of the game make your way through Moria. Along the way, though, there some new quests to do, as well as a few new characters.

As with WiMe, things get more interesting the more you deviant from the canonical plot. In one sequence, you are set upon by Ringwraiths; a ranger (not Aragorn) shouts at you to flee, and then sacrifices himself to buy you time to escape. But! As I discovered on a later play-through, you can actually charge back in and save him. Using one of your “Elbereth!” words of power will dispose of the ringwraith; at this point, the ranger will join your party, giving you a crucial human ally who helps you with other obstacles as you make your way towards Bree, and afterwards, you can end up with two Rangers in your party. I seem to vaguely remember there also being some sort of, hm, witch or wise-woman or something who could also join you.

Magic was kind of strange in the game. Middle-earth is a very low-magic world, and they did a good job at representing this: only a few characters like Gandalf are capable of casting spells. Mechanically, though, it was a bit strange, since casting spells will decrease a character’s health rather than a separate “mana” pool. Since healing is pretty rare in this game, you were incentivized to avoid casting spells except in dire circumstances, even when your party members had it available to them.

As a side note, while the game invented a lot of stuff, I was generally happy at its humble attitude towards the source material. I even remember the well-written manual, in which the creators admitted that, if Tolkien were still alive, he probably wouldn’t have approved of the game. Tolkien was notoriously skeptical of technology, and the combination of an adaptation of his beloved work and a diabolical instrument like the computer would have likely dismayed him. Nonetheless, even knowing this, they did what they could to honor his story and his setting.

Sometimes I feel like the major driving force in my life has been a desire to explore Middle-earth. It was such a powerful, formative draw for me in my youth, and a big part of the reason why I started programming computers was a desire to do a similar sort of world-building. Any time I play a new fantasy game, I’m indulging in that ancient compulsion to thoroughly explore, to get to know a place, to immerse myself in the imagined land. Usually the new land (Thedas or the Sword Coast or Nirn or Britannia or whatever) is just a proxy for my first love, but on a few rare and precious occasions I’ve felt like I’m actually in the primary world, getting to know more of Middle-earth.

That’s the sensation that, at its best, the 1990 Lord of the Rings game evoked. You have to go into Moria, because of COURSE you have to go into Moria, because that’s a crucial part of the game. You can stick close to the script, and move through it and get out of that dangerous place as quickly as possible. But, if you’re driven to learn more, you can get off the script. You can, as the dwarves infamously did, dig too deeply. You can haul a pickaxe down into the depths of the mine, and actually mine your own mithril. Foolhardy? Undoubtedly. Non-canonical? Unquestionably! Exhilarating? Certainly. Ever wanted to find Durin’s axe? Well, it’s a video game. It doesn’t have to follow the plot of the game. You can find that axe, and give it to Gimli, and it made me feel so very happy to do so.

And, more recently, I’ve gushed here about Sil, an absolutely fantastic roguelike that evokes the Lay of Beren and Luthien. Tasked with cutting a Silmaril from Morgoth’s iron crown, you venture deep into the fortress of Angband, encountering and outwitting or outmatching a huge host of First Age foes. Again, this isn’t canonical - only Beren was able to reclaim a single Silmaril - but it’s so steeped in the lore, and, more importantly, so respectful to the spirit of Tolkien that it stands out to me as the best video game ever created based on Tolkien’s works.

So, to close the loop back to Shadow of Mordor, I think that’s the aspect of it which distresses me the most. Not creating new creatures, or changing the timelines, or even necessarily messing with the Halls of Mandos. It’s just that, for all the nifty snippets of accurate lore about Numenor and the Blue Wizards and Feanor, it seems set in a moral universe that’s completely alien to every primary work Tolkien wrote. There’s no hint of The Song, no idea that Eru Iluvatar is watching over events. It’s the same crappy world of The Dark Knight and 24 and Hitman and God of War and Mafia and Max Payne. There’s no shortage of franchises out there that want to tell the story about A Badly Damaged Man Must Do Dark Things In Order To Exact Revenge Upon Those Who Have Wronged Him. There’s an alarming lack of franchises built around concepts of grace, of enduring rather than returning oppression, of melancholic nostalgia rather than gloomy angst. I wish they had taken advantage of Tolkien’s unique style and perspective rather than painting it with the same ugly brush of sadism that covers so many game franchises.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

More Doors

This past weekend, I finished playing Shadow of Mordor, an action-adventure game set between the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. I've had a lot of conflicting thoughts while playing it, so I wanted to jot them all down here while it's still fresh in my mind.

I should probably list my biases up front. I am a huge Tolkien nerd; I credit The Hobbit with awakening my love of reading, and have devoured a lot of the lore around Middle-earth, including multiple passes through The Silmarillion and the Book of Lost Tales (although I have made only limited progress in History of Middle-earth). Unlike many of the noisier Tolkien fans, though, I've generally enjoyed the film adaptations (other than a few very specific complaints), and have a fairly broad approval towards people re-interpreting the Middle-earth mythos. Tolkien was originally motivated to create Middle-earth because he wanted England to have its own mythology, something on par with the great Norse/Germanic myths. We don't think of myths as the works of a particular individual: they are a part of the culture, and both shape and are shaped by it. I think it's a huge testament to Tolkien's skill and vast effort that his corpus can support and inspire such creativity in others, and even as classical myths will inspire new works in unexpected ways, I hope that Tolkien's mythology will serve as a source of material for new creators to tell their own stories.

All that said, I must admit that I have a knee-jerk reaction of skepticism whenever I hear about a video game adaptation based on a movie or other established property. There are lots of people like me out there who are willing to buy pretty much anything that carries Tolkien's imprimatur, and video game companies are rather notorious for releasing shoddy tie-ins, particularly when it comes to movies. I did let myself be hopeful about this, though, partly because the LotR movie-based video games have had a surprisingly strong track record: The Two Towers was a really fun hack-and-slash game for PS2 in the style of Golden Axe, and the Battle for Middle-earth games were perfectly good real-time strategy games. Both seemed to nicely pull off the unique challenge for a movie tie-in video game: they felt like they occurred in the same universe as the movie, without retreading the exact same scenes as the films. Rather, you felt as if you were watching (no: creating) scenes that could have been a part of the films, were they allowed to be even longer than they already were.

(Sidebar: Tolkien games are in a particularly strange state because there are two entirely separate licenses. There are "book license" games, which can draw upon the books published by Tolkien, but cannot use any likenesses or visual designs from the movies. These include Lord of the Rings Online and The Hobbit. The more successful games, which used to be published by Electronic Arts and more recently by Warner Bros, have a "movie license", which means that they can include visuals and music from or inspired by the Peter Jackson films. Furthermore, since the movies have the rights to the books, the games can also draw upon any content listed in the books, even those that didn't appear in the movies. Confused yet? It gets better! Games can't use any content from Tolkien's other works, such as The Silmarillion; however, since they technically have rights to the appendices, they can pull in a whole host of material unrelated to the main plot that sheds light on other regions in Middle-earth and the earlier Ages. Additionally, even though they can't use material that only appears in The Silmarillion, they aren't supposed to contradict any information that only exists on those books. Which is, um, difficult, since the books are self-contradictory. But now this sidebar is way too long. Back to the exposition!)

I was highly skeptical of Shadow of Mordor pretty much from the first moment I heard about it. The whole premise just sounded wrong. The protagonist was a human who was killed, and came back from death in a quest for revenge? Tolkien has a very well-defined system of mortality and immortality, and I just couldn't understand how Talion (the protagonist) fit into it. I resolved to studiously ignore all marketing for the game and check it out for myself.

The results were... strange. I can already tell that I'll have trouble organizing this write-up, so let me get the technical stuff out of the way first, before I return to the lore in spoilertown.

First of all, from a purely mechanical standpoint, this is probably the best-feeling action game that I've ever played. The action feels fluid and fun, and looks completely awesome, with your character pulling off a series of totally sweet moves: parrying, ducking, side-stepping, rolling, knocking, stabbing, slashing, slicing, all with your left and right mouse buttons. The gameplay is deep, too, and manages to teach you how to play it at a great pace, keeping the play challenging while never growing (too) frustrating. As your character levels up, you gradually accumulate a wider and wider array of possible moves and attacks. Each player will probably settle on their own personal favorites, all of which seem viable. Personally, I had an overwhelming preference for stealth mechanics, which involves a lot of sneaking; unlike other fantasy games with stealth, though, you aren't just limited to backstabs, but also ledge grabs, pounces, brutal assassinations, etc.

I haven't played any of the Assassin's Creed or Arkham games, which seem to be described as the closest relatives to the gameplay in Shadow or Mordor, but from what I've heard SoM borrows from and improves upon them. I believe it: fighting never felt like a grind, whether I was facing a lone orc or a horde of fifty enemies on the screen at once, it always felt fun and I always thought I looked good doing it.

The game seems really impressive graphically as well. I would have picked up SoM sooner or later anyways due to the Tolkien name, but part of the reason I got it at launch was to try out my new video card (Asus Strix GTX 970, if you're curious). The game looks fantastic and detailed, with wonderful lighting (both day and night) and huge open environments. The game starts out in the blasted wasteland with which we are familiar, which is stark and harsh, not entirely unlike the early desolation of Red Dead Redemption. Later on, you travel to the southern region of Mordor near the Sea of Nurnen, a more fertile area where Sauron grew food to feed his armies. Of course, I much preferred the prettier setting down south. Level design is fantastic throughout, particularly in the fortresses, heavily-guarded orc structures filled with interesting interconnected structures.

One of the most talked-about aspects of SoM has been the Nemesis System, a really cool idea that lives up to its potential. As you would imagine, there are an infinite supply of orc enemies. The orcs organize into a brutal hierarchy, with the more powerful ones ruling those below them with fear and violence. Over the course of the game, your actions will dynamically change the composition of this structure. Kill a Captain of Sauron's Army, and a promising Orc will take his place. Threaten a Warchief, and he will collect more followers to protect himself. If you die, Random Orc #138023 who killed you will grow famous among his peers, earning a promotion into the leadership, and will gather his own protectors. Orcs will remember if you ran away from a fight with them, or if they killed you, and will react appropriately. Each captain has its own strengths and weaknesses, which you can learn by interrogating other captains or suggestible peons, and then use those weaknesses to plan your next move.

Frankly, I found the nemesis system much more interesting and challenging than anything in the main plot. One thing I hadn't realized at first was that it's omni-present: you can go on a mission to kill a Captain, for example, but even if you're in the middle of another mission (say, to rescue some human slaves), a captain might be present, abruptly changing what was seemed like a straightforward quest into a deadly one. And there's nothing to stop two, or even three captains from getting involved! All of this is dynamic and unscripted, and is driven by some solid work in the background. If a particular Captain is your Nemesis, then he will actively hunt for you, and thus might show up at the worst time possible. You might have a plan to deal with a target - for example, maybe you've learned that they're terrified of Caragors, and so have ridden a Caragor into his camp; however, maybe your nemesis is enraged by Caragors, and so that same tactic will backfire on you spectacularly. All of this is solvable, but it requires a very pleasant combination of strategy, tactics, and reflexes.

Okay, let's start digging into some


I'll be honest: I kind of hated the story. I'm not even talking about the lore now, just the main plot arc. It's boring, and derivative, and fairly squicky. It feels a bit like someone was trying to cram as many bad gaming cliches into the shortest story possible. "Okay, so we have a moody white male in his 30s as a protagonist, right? Excellent! Hm, does he have a wife or girlfriend?" "Yes, but don't worry, she's completely passive and only exists so we can murder her five minutes into the game, thus providing Talion with his motivation for revenge." "Great! Let's make sure that Talion has to use dark and unsavory means in order to attain his supposedly-virtuous goals. Remember, if we don't teach our players that torture is the best way to obtain intelligence, then the terrorists have won. Let's see, what do you have in mind for NPCs?" "Oh, you're going to like this! We have two dudes, Hirgon and Torvin, who are tough fighters with a lot to teach Talion. And we also have three women: Eryn, Lithariel, and Marwen, all of whom are rescued by Talion." "I sure don't see anything wrong with that! All right, let's make this game!"

I'm just kind of baffled at how they came up with this. They went to all the bother of inventing a completely new story, which is not tied to any requirements from the LotR setting, and ended up with a total cookie-cutter plot that seems to be trying to be as unoriginal as possible. Is that maybe the point? For as much as I write about video games, I really don't know a whole lot about how the industry works. Maybe it's easier to get a project green-lit if you tell the executives that you're just going to tell the same story that's been told dozens of times before, and so it's less risky than telling a creative and imaginative new story? I dunno.

More than anything, it feels like a massive wasted opportunity. There are so many great, rich archetypes in Tolkien's stories that they could have drawn on for inspiration. If you must do a fighting game, why not make a character in the tradition of Eowyn or Haleth? Or, if you're willing to shake up the gameplay more, consider how Luthien or Tom Bombadil would have accomplished their quests. Or, as long as they're injecting foreign archetypes and themes into Tolkien's universe, why not do something completely out-there, like breaking the fourth wall or a revolutionary uprising of orcs? I think that's my biggest complaint: Talion is an anti-Tolkien archetype, and he's not even a good anti-Tolkien archetype. He makes the universe worse for existing in it.

Pretty much all of modern fantasy descends from Tolkien, and so much of his style has become commonplace that it's easy to lose sight of what's really radical about his books. For all the major battles that take place in Lord of the Rings, at its heart it is secretly a pacifist work. Sauron isn't slain by the hero, and Aragorn isn't able to defeat the host of Mordor. While valor is commendable, it doesn't win the war. Rather, in the end, it is mercy that wins the day. The "good guys" win because Bilbo spared Gollum's life when he could have killed him, and because Frodo took pity upon him even knowing he was untrustworthy. It's a story about persevering under adversity and treating others with kindness even when they don't deserve it.

Ultimately, I had the most success thinking of Talion as a minor villain. This isn't entirely unprecedented: Boromir famously was drawn to dark means in pursuit of his noble agenda, and the First Age is filled with elves doing terrible things in the name of vengeance. That's not the sort of character I want to play as, though, and I'm really disturbed by how the game seems to sum up the impact of your adventures.


Eventually, after killing your way up the Orc ladder, you have the chance to fight Sauron himself. Yeah, I know. It was weird. You (/Celebrimbor) defeat him, and the game seems to say that it's because of this that Sauron wasn't able to take physical form during the events of LotR, being restricted instead to his flaming-eyeball persona. From a pure lore perspective, I'm actually more or less fine with that idea. It's similar to the trauma Sauron experienced after the fall of Numenor or after his defeat at Dagorlad, and it's been well-established that while his immortal spirit can't be destroyed, his form can be restricted. But even if the lore is fine, it rubs me absolutely the wrong way tonally. Within the Tolkien mythos, while good intentions aren't guaranteed to triumph, evil acts will lead to bad outcomes. In the short term they may seem effective, but the ends never justify the means.

Again, for a while as I was playing the game, I thought that this might make more sense if I just consider Talion as a villain. There's a particular section in the main plotline when you speak with Queen Marwen, and realize that she's been possessed by Saruman in the same way Theoden would later be. For a moment, I thought, "Oh, it all makes sense! Saruman is manipulating Talion to raise up an Orc army from the stock within Mordor, selecting the best and strongest; then Saruman will take over, creating the Uruk-hai. So, the stuff I'm doing in this game is directly contributing to Rohan's near-destruction in The Two Towers. That's neat/awful!" But it seems to drop this plot thread after Marwen's possession is overturned, and all of the visual and auditory evidence in the game seems to be reinforcing the idea that we're supposed to think of Talion as the hero, and his mission as being a good one. Ugh.


There's also some nonsense at the end about Talion forging a new Ring of Power. Presumably this will be in some future DLC, where he'll convince Celebrimbor to make a new one, probably forged in the flames of Mount Doom. Surely this will end well.

MINI SPOILERS AGAIN (Lore ones this time)

On a positive note, the pure lore parts of the game are well-researched and well-done. You find various fragments as you explore Mordor, which provide glimpses into some nice deep-cuts topics from Middle-earth, including the fall of Numenor and the Blue Wizards and Elven tales. These don't really relate to anything else in the game, but I still appreciated them.

I was initially going to write a ton here, but more knowledgeable Tolkienites than me have already done the work, so if you want a comprehensive rundown of the major issues, check this out. Instead, here are a few more-or-less random thoughts on what's... not necessarily wrong so much as weird about the lore in this game.

When it comes to adaptations in general, I tend to be fine with omissions. This has been the general approach taken in the Lord of the Rings movies and the Game of Thrones HBO series, and I think it tends to work well: the creators find a few focal through-lines and cut extraneous material, leaving you with a work that, while not as rich as the original, still feels faithful to its spirit. A second approach is addition, such as that used in the Hobbit movies or anything related to Star Wars. This is more challenging, since it risks overwriting the original's essence, but can also be rewarding, if it expands upon the positive aspects of the primary text and grows its universe.  The most difficult, though, is modification, where the adaptation cherry-picks particular things it likes and rewrites them, creating a patchwork work that casts familiar characters in unfamiliar roles, old lines in new scenes, connecting or disconnecting timelines at will. This has been used extensively in the Walking Dead AMC show, and can feel very disorienting to people deeply familiar with the original, since any time they witness a change people tend to ask themselves, "Why is this different, and is it any better this way?"

Wow, that was an incredibly long lead-up to saying that I just plain don't get the point of inventing Caragors and Graugs for this game. Caragors are Wargs, and Graugs are Trolls. So why not just call them Wargs and Trolls, and why slightly (but not significantly) alter their models to look different? It isn't a rights issue; wargs and trolls are both definitely allowed by the "movie license". It doesn't seem to be a lore issue; caragors act just like wargs, and graugs act just like trolls (except, I suppose, for the whole sunlight thing). Was it too hard to render fur in real-time? Or what?

By contrast, while the ghuls are creatures who were only created for the game and not part of the books, I'm not quite as weirded out by them. It does seem a bit weird to have an entire new race of creatures instead of, I dunno, spiders or something, but in general additions like this feel fine to me as long as they don't actively contradict existing lore.

I alluded to this earlier, but one troubling aspect of the game is Talion's relationship with the orcs. You spend a lot of time fighting and killing them, which is more or less to be expected; orcs are by far the main enemy of Lord of the Rings, after all. Things get a little more disturbing later on when you gain the ability to essentially brainwash them, turning them into your slaves who will then fight and kill for you. From a gameplay perspective, this is really fun! You can raise an entire army of grunts, then charge off and kill a whole bunch of other grunts. But, it's another thing that makes it even harder for me to enjoy playing as Talion/Celebrimbor. If orcs are pure evil, then you shouldn't be using them as your tools. If orcs aren't pure evil, then it's even more wrong to mentally enslave them.

But really, the whole problem with orcs goes all the way back to Tolkien himself, who never seems to have been entirely happy with them. For narrative purposes, they served the role of an implacable enemy who must be opposed. But what, exactly, were they? In some stages of his writing, Tolkien wrote of them as corruptions of Elves that Morgoth had twisted awry. But this doesn't fit well into Tolkien's theology: if they were Elves, then presumably they had souls, and thus should be targets for redemption rather than extermination. Were orcs, then, created beings? That's also troubling, since only Eru should be able to create new species. The record in Tolkien is inconsistent, and I think it ultimately points back to a more fundamental question that we face in the real universe: where does evil come from? That's a tough question to answer on planet Earth, so it's unfair for us to expect a satisfying answer in fantasy literature or action/adventure video games.

(Secondary sidebar, even more tangential than the first: While playing this game, I was vividly reminded of a campaign I ran using Iron Crown Enterprise's Middle-earth Roleplaying System back in the 1990s. I set our campaign in the Fourth Age, roughly thirty years after the fall of Sauron. A lot was going on, but one particular plot thread closely involved the orcs. In my adapted Fourth Age chronology, a few Sindar elves elected to remain behind in Arda, and devoted themselves to trying to rehabilitate their erstwhile "cousins" the Orcs, hoping that, in the absence of the actively evil influence of Melkor and Sauron, they could be retrained and redeemed to a more elvish way of life. Out of this effort was born the Free Orc Movement, a society of reformed orcs seeking to form a civil society. They were opposed by the remnants of Sauron's army, led by the Mouth of Sauron, and were viewed with intense suspicion, hostility, or violence by humanfolk who had suffered in the War of the Ring. A major plot dealt with where the FOM would be able to settle, and how they could earn the trust of the Free Peoples. It was, um, really fun. Okay, I'm done.)

That does make me think, though, about how much wasted potential is shown here. I mean, Shadow of Mordor was a very expensive game, and it shows it very well: the graphics, voice work, CGI, environments, gameplay, are all top-notch. So why do we spend much of the game trudging around in a desert, controlling a character who manages to be both boring and annoying, telling a third-rate revenge story that squanders its lore-rich license and manages to pollute the best themes of its source material? There are so many incredibly rich opportunities to tell amazing, new stories that build upon Tolkien's legacy and expand the world! Why not do something with the blue wizards, who have always fascinated readers but were never fully developed by Tolkien? (Granted, they wouldn't be able to use the names Alatar and Pallando with the "movie license".) Or explore the other areas of Middle-earth outside of the well-documented northwest, like Far Harad or the East? You could literally draw the map, create new cultures, make whatever kind of game you wanted, and tie it as loosely or as strongly as you wanted to the events of LotR! Or tell a story about the virtuous Numenoreans attempting to flee the island after the disastrous approach to Aman, or set a battle game during the War of Power, or a Civilization-style game as the newly-awakened Elven tribes in the East,  or anything at all during the Fourth Age... in a universe that seems to be full of exciting possibilities, I'm baffled why we seem to have ended up with the same angsty revenge plot that could have been made with no license at all.


Then again... maybe the plot is the outcome, not the input. I've been very surprised to learn that, in the majority of video game studios, writers are often brought in after the game is created. They're essentially told, "Okay, here are the levels, here are the enemies, here are the characters. Write a story explaining why the player is doing what they're doing. Go." Add to that the fact that, since AAA game development is so hideously expensive, executives are extremely reluctant to fund games that don't appear to follow a proven formula for financial success. For better or worse, action/adventure games with dour white men doing nasty things to nastier men tend to make money, so those are the games that get approved, so those are the stories that people write. And I suppose that I've just reinforced that cycle by spending $60 to buy this game. Ugh!

But, getting back to the contradictory nature of my feelings, the number of minutes I had fun while playing the game vastly outnumbered the number of minutes I hated thinking about the plot. As has become increasingly common for me, I took a whole bunch o' screenshots and put them online. Beware, for this album is filled with spoilers!

I've noticed that far too many of my blog posts end with a statement along the lines of "If you are a Dragon Age fan, you should read this book!" or "If you enjoyed other Telltale Games, you'll really like The Wolf Among Us!" For Shadow of Mordor, my feelings are actually kind of the opposite. If you aren't a huge Tolkien fan, and aren't immersed in his stories or the lore of Middle-earth, odds are excellent that you will enjoy this game. It's fast, the gameplay is fun, it has terrific mechanics and a fluid style and all sorts of nifty graphics. But there's probably an inverse relationship between how invested you are in Tolkien's mythos and how much pleasure you'll get from this game. I'm not even talking about the technical details like when Gondor stopped patrolling Mordor or whether spirits can be recalled from Mandos. There's a sick idea at the core of SoM, an idea that evil can be overcome with evil, which is antithetical to what I love about Tolkien's works. That's not to say that such stories shouldn't be told! Antiheroes can be interesting, and there's lots of great art that comes out of dark thoughts like this. But I don't understand why they would need to set such a rotten story in one of the most beautiful, vibrant settings ever created.

Friday, October 24, 2014

You Gotta Flight For Your Right To (Form A) Party

Thanks to Inquisition’s delayed release, I’ve been able to completely catch up on all of the extant novels. The most recent one, Last Flight, was just released and would have arrived shortly before the game’s original planned debut.

Last Flight is interesting in several ways. Perhaps most obviously, it is the first novel to not have been written by a member of the Dragon Age writing staff. It’s also the first one to not include any characters who have previously appeared in the games (although, granted, it’s possible that some may appear in Inquisition). It also has a unique structure and different voice that set it apart from the others.


I’d been curious about when the novel would be set, and it turns out that this curiosity was well-founded. It actually spans two different time periods. The initial storyline, set in the “present” time during the Dragon Age, is probably roughly contemporary with the timespan of Inquisition. Within this story, a character discovers a journal, and in reading the story therein, we enter into the main plot, set during the Fourth Blight. The structure actually reminds me a lot of 19th-century novels, where the author has to explain how they came into possession of the document that describes the story, although here both stories are told in the third person.

Lore-hounds will find a ton of stuff here to enjoy. We’ve previously learned the broad outlines of the Fourth Blight - where it started, which Archdemon led it, who ended it - but Last Flight closely tracks a Grey Warden who was the sister of the hero who would ultimately end the Blight, and we get a very in-depth look at politics within the Grey Wardens and between the free nations, as well as some original insight into blood magic and the origin of several now-famous locations and families.

The flagship lore treatment, though, covers the griffons. We’ve heard about griffons ever since Origins, when Wynne would dismissively deflect any attempts to discuss these extinct beasts. The mystery of exactly what happened to the griffons has, well, been a mystery, and Last Flight reveals exactly what happened to them. It’s a pretty compelling story, and doesn’t follow the directions I expected it to.

My favorite part of the book, though, is probably the main character, Isseya. It’s not surprising to have an awesome and effective female as the protagonist of the story, as this is the sort of thing we’ve long associated with BioWare. Rather, it’s her nature and the nature of her story that I found particularly compelling. Most tellingly, while there are some romantic entanglements in the book, Isseya herself doesn’t have any sort of romance arc, successful or otherwise, in contrast to the four earlier novels. On the one hand, BioWare is very well-known for doing romances, but I found it pretty refreshing to have a woman who was totally focused on her mission and didn’t “need” to pursue a partner. It fits her character, and also perfectly fits the times: a blight is a catastrophic, world-threatening event, and with all the Wardens making constant sacrifices, it’s very easy to believe that this would not be a priority for her.

I keep feeling tempted to describe Isseya as bad-ass, but she isn’t exactly, not in the same way Leliana or Briala are. She is a mage, and one of the most thoughtful, curious, intelligent characters in this franchise. She doesn’t stride into the center of a battle, hurling giant fireballs from her hands. She studies the situation, she performs reconnaissance, she consults experts, she plans, she executes. Some of the most satisfying passages in the book don’t involve any fighting at all, but rather her figuring out very clever ways to save lives, construct a safehold, or ease another’s burden.

These plans don’t always work, and Isseya feels it keenly when they fail. She’s fairly introspective; she will harshly self-criticize when something goes wrong, and will sometimes fret whether she made the right decision. Of course, this is what humans (or, er, elves) do, and makes her all the more relatable.

In the absence of romantic arcs and battle scenes, this book reads pretty differently from the earlier novels, and for the most part I really enjoyed the change. In one or two instances, it felt like it was trying a bit too hard to be more typical, and generally suffered as a result. Most noticeably, the novel ends with a small skirmish set in the present day; it’s executed well, but I hadn’t spend enough time in that timeline to feel very invested in the characters, and frankly the foes they face were hard to worry too much about. (After slaying numerous dragons and demons in the games, it’s hard to get worked up about a single ash wraith). Still, for the most part the novel does a terrific job at telling its story in an interesting way, while continuing to illuminate more about the history of Thedas and how its institutions work.

Last Flight was a really fun, easy read, and might be one of the better entry points into the franchise. It’s less directly connected to events and characters from the games than the earlier novels, and seems more likely to be something newcomers can dig into and appreciate. Of course, Dragon Age veterans are likely the intended audience, and if you’re looking for something to hold you over until Inquisition comes out next month, this might be the ticket.