Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The Masque of the Final Death

I’ve finally finished my run of “playing games other than RPGs”, and am now entering my new phase of “Okay, let’s play more RPGs again!” The first, and so far only, entry on the list is a throwback. Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines: Hey: Let’s Get More Colons In Here While We’re At It is fairly ancient, having come out in 2004.


V:TM:B was developed in the Source engine simultaneously with Half-Life 2. It was the last entry by Troika Games, and is the first game of theirs that I have played, although I have gotten an impression of their reputation: much like early Obsidian, they made very original and deeply flawed games that acquired rabid cult followings after their unsuccessful releases. Unlike Obsidian, though, which has typically worked in the well-trod genres of fantasy and science-fiction, Troika was a bit more out there. V:TM:B is, as you might imagine, a modern urban horror setting, while Arcanum was a steampunk-flavored entry.

My introduction to V:TM:B reminds me a lot of my intro to Planescape: Torment. I’ve heard about it for years, usually in the context of some online discussion about the “best games”, “best stories”, “most unique settings”, or some such. I’m a bit of a reactionary when it comes to new franchises, and have a knee-jerk reaction to ignore any new game, but after enough superlatives I can be eventually worn down. In this particular case, I was reminded of it after Cannot Be Tamed, one of my favorite YouTubers, started a Let’s Play of the game. I haven’t actually watched any of those videos yet because, y’know, spoilers; but I really like her taste in other games, and the fact that anyone would spend dozens of hours in a twelve-year-old-game is a very encouraging sign of its quality.

I haven’t finished the game yet, but have been loving it so far, and wanted to capture my initial impressions after getting decently far into it. I’ll probably follow this up with one more after-victory post that summarizes my thoughts on the plot and characters. This one will be more focused on the technical aspects, with some nods to the atmosphere and my early thoughts on the setting.


First, some housekeeping. V:TM:B has a very vibrant and active modding community. As per my usual policy, my initial playthrough is fairly light on mods: I’m just using the Unofficial Patch, which seems to be the gold standard for fixing the game’s myriad issues. (It was famously unbeatable on its initial release, and the final path before Troika folded left some serious game-breaking bugs intact.) I opted for the “basic patch”, which attempts to keep the game experience as close as possible to the original while fixing the bugs. I’m enjoying the game enough that I expect I’ll have at least one more play-through in the future, which will probably prompt me to choose the Plus version of the patch, which also restores lost and unfinished content (much like the famous “Unfinished Business” mods for Baldur’s Gate). I’ll probably also pick up at least a couple of cosmetic mods, which seem like they can significantly upgrade the appearance of the player character and others in the game.


With that mod, fortunately, I’ve had a very smooth experience so far: no game-breaking bugs or crashes or anything of the sort. So far I have just a handful of purely cosmetic complaints:
  • The audio sometimes stutters. It seems like this happens when a new sound is playing for the first time, and the game itself will freeze for a fraction of a second.
  • Quicksave is fairly fast, but temporarily stops all sound and freezes the game while in progress.
  • Sound mixing is sometimes bad. In particular, there are a couple of spots where it's very hard to hear an NPC because the ambient audio is so loud.
And… that’s about it! I don’t think any of those are the fault of the patch, it’s just how first-person games from 2004 used to work.


Graphically, I’m pretty happy with how things look. Much like Lord of the Rings Online, the environmental design holds up REALLY well: walking through downtown Los Angeles or on the Santa Monica Pier or other SoCal locales is fantastic, looks amazing and realistic and beautiful. With the patch installed, the game can play in widescreen on my nice huge monitor. Textures are about what you would expect for that era, so if you get up close to those posters on the wall you’ll see some gnarly pixels, but from a distance they’ll look great.



The most interesting aspect is probably character models. On a technical level… well, again, it’s a twelve-year-old game. It doesn’t have as many polygons as we’re used to. However, the art design and the character… I don’t want to say “animation”, but “direction”, is incredible. In some ways, this seems like the best character interaction I’ve seen in a game yet. People will lean in to make a point, quickly glance to the side as they collect their thoughts, cower in fear, or just smoothly and serenely watch your reaction. It’s slightly exaggerated, but in a good way, like… well, like what you would expect in a vampire movie. The individual characters don’t have as many graphical details as you’d see in, say, Dragon Age: Inquisition or The Witcher 3, but they’ll seem much more engaged during your conversations, drawing you in with their body language in a way that other games rarely attempt.


Of course, the character graphics are just an entree to the most famous aspect of V:TM:B: the dialogue and story. It’s a famously sprawling and open-ended game, with a huge level of player agency and latitude. You’ll quickly connect to these NPCs, and be drawn into their stories, and be motivated to shift your own personal story in response.

That sense of personality may actually give this game an edge over the game which it most reminded me of: the original Deus Ex. V:TM:B is the first game I’ve played since then which has captured that same sense of wide-open possibilities, with significantly varied options for approaching and solving the obstacles you encounter. I don’t want to over-exaggerate the point; in particular, it isn’t possible to complete a pacifist run of V:TM:B. But it’s still a wonderful feeling, and makes me feel a sense of loss. After such amazing, ambitious games at the turn of the millennium, it feels like AAA development has taken a step back into safer and, frankly, more boring designs. The Deus Ex sequels are a good example: while Human Revolution was a really fun game (I haven’t yet played Mankind Divided), it largely simplified the game into a series of levels, each of which supported either stealth or combat options. There’s no longer that sense of living in a fully-realized world where your actions are only limited by your imagination.

Okay, again, I’m probably over-exaggerating this… any game can only support the ideas its creators put into it. But still, this one does a fantastic job at giving the impression of freedom, which is what I crave.


Shifting gears slightly, some mechanical notes on my build and strategy so far:

I LOVE the character creation process. It’s like a funhouse mirror version of the awesome system from the mid-to-late Ultima games, where you answered a series of moral quandaries posed to you by a fortune-teller gypsy and received a class as a result. Here, you are posed with some slightly askew scenarios. How do you make your way into an exclusive nightclub: slip in the back door, pose as a Hollywood star’s manager, or bribe the doorman? How do you get rid of a dead body? What do you do when confronted with a lover’s spouse?


As a result of these questions, you are assigned your vampire clan. Each clan has its own unique strengths and weaknesses, and the most immediately visible effect is the allocation of stat points on character creation. However! Their uniqueness goes quite a bit further than that. Each clan has a completely different appearance, from the bestial Gangrel to the deformed Nosferatu to the elegant Ventrue. Male and female player characters will also have different starting outfits to express their look. Other vampires will react to you differently based on your clan’s reputation, and you will have different dialogue options as a result. V:TM:B goes further than most RPGs, though, and your clan doesn’t only affect your stats and dialogue, but can affect your core gameplay as well. The Nosferatu are very powerful and intelligent, but are obviously monsters, and so they cannot walk around in the streets like other vampires lest they attract attention; instead, they move about through the sewers to avoid being seen. Malkavians are completely insane, and speak completely differently from everyone else. You also have access to completely different special powers, which could include things like blood magic or heightened presence or super-speed.

I’m playing as a Toreador, the clan of artists and actors. Unlike most vampires, who tend to shun humans or prey upon them, the Toreador delight in the company and adulation of mankind, and tend to cultivate followers among humanity. I’m enjoying the role-playing that comes along with this, playing as a vaguely decadent and casually benevolent creature.


The game’s stats reflect the glory days of RPGs where non-combat skills got as much attention as fighting ones. I’m primarily pursuing the social skills, boosting attributes like Charisma and Appearance, which helps increase my Persuasion and Seduction abilities. I’m now up to about 8 in both of them, which I think is the effective cap for in-game benefits. I’ve completely abandoned my core physical attributes of Strength, Dexterity, and… the other one, leaving them at my weak starting levels of 1 point each. These are mostly just used in combat, which I generally try to avoid. You can’t COMPLETELY avoid it, and in particular you are forced to fight maybe half of the boss-level characters you encounter; but the “Bloodbuff” ability will immediately set all stats to the max level of 5, so I just activate that ability on the occasions when I need it.

Speaking of abilities: so far I’ve left Celerity at 1, to avoid Masquerade violations. Presence doesn’t seem all that useful, so I’m leaving that at 1 for now. Auspex, though, I’ve taken to 4 and will shortly bring to 5. This will allow a Bloodbuff-style boost, increasing my Wits and… Intelligence, maybe, by 3 each. After crunching the numbers, it’s quite a bit cheaper to bring Auspex to 5 and leave those at 2 each than the other way around. This does require expending some blood power, but so far that hasn’t been a huge problem… I can pretty easily recharge between missions, and I rarely need to use Auspex more than once in a given run.

All in all, I think I’m getting close to nailing down my desired social skills. I think I have a fair amount of game left, and will probably get a fair amount of more XP (along with more skill books). I’ll probably divide any additional points roughly equally between security (lockpicking), computers (hacking), stealth, and melee, with maybe a little unarmed combat.


Speaking of which: I’ve been focusing on hand-to-hand combat, and am quite happy with the knife as a weapon. It’s very fast, does good damage, and seems effective against a range of characters. I avoid fights when I can, but when I can’t, I can still often sneak into range and either stealth-kill (against humans) or initiate combat from close range (against monsters). Against bosses, I’ll often active all 4 of my blood powers, rush in, and can often take them down before the powers expire. Bosses sometimes have unique mechanics that require more strategies, but I can often figure it out during the initial fight; if not, I’ll usually have a handle on it by the second time.

If I can generalize slightly: human opponents tend to be physically rather weak, but very perceptive. Stealth is difficult to pull off: you’ll need to pay attention to their movements, orientation, and your own level of illumination as well as how much noise you’re making. You can easily take down a human in hand-to-hand combat, even if they’re packing heat and you’re using bare hands. However, there tend to be extra rewards for completing missions without killing humans (even enemies), so it can be worth the extra effort to find the pacifist path.


In contrast, monsters tend to be much more physically threatening. They can take a lot of damage, and, more worryingly, they usually deal “aggravated” damage to you, which hits harder and takes longer to naturally heal. However, probably as a balance to this, they are almost ridiculously oblivious to their surroundings. As long as you stay in stealth, you can usually avoid combat, even if they’re staring straight at you from six inches away in direct light. And this is with me just having a measly 2 points in my stealth skill.

Avoiding fights is generally the way to go. As in most well-designed games, you don’t earn XP from defeating enemies, and you can even sometimes earn bonus XP by not killing anyone. Enemies will occasionally drop weapons, but you can’t carry more than one of any kind and so there’s not much of a benefit there.

If you DO fight, though, it tends to be relatively fun. The controls aren’t exactly amazing by modern standards, but they’re much less frustrating than I would expect. I think it’s actually one of the better-feeling melee-combat systems of the era; I would rank it far above Morrowind, for example, or crowbar-combat in HalfLife 2. Selecting a weapon can be a bit awkward - you need to tap F1 multiple times until you cycle to the one that you want - but if you stick with one weapon all the time that doesn’t matter. You attack with the left mouse button, unsurprisingly. What’s kind of cool, though, is that you perform different styles of attacks based on the directional keys you’re pressing while attacking. For example, with the knife, attacking forward will jab; attacking to the side will slash them with the blade; and attacking will pressing back will actually trigger this cool leaping attack where you jump up and then pounce down on them. The animations for these moves are actually pretty impressive (again, for a 12-year-old game), which lends a lot to the stylish feel of the game.


I’m fairly used to the tedious bookkeeping that comes along with many RPGs, like returning home or making camp to heal after every combat, visiting the blacksmith to repair damaged equipment, and so on. V:TM:B has some cool innovations here that tie in well to the lore and also lead to fun gameplay. Health is an obvious one. You are, after all, an immortal being who cannot ordinarily be killed. As such, you naturally and automatically heal all damage done to you over time. This happens at a slow rate, so you can't rely on it during combat; but you also don't need to think about it too much, since usually you will have regenerated by the time the next combat rolls around.

Interestingly, your "blood power" (a rough equivalent to stamina or mana in another game) does not naturally regenerate. I often refill this by visiting compliant humans I have previously seduced, but depending on my location I might just bite the neck of a convenient victim, or suck the blood from some delicious rats. You can also carry around blood packs in your inventory, which can be used instantly at any time, even mid-combat, to regenerate both blood and health. Blood packs, in turn, can be found in the world, provided as rewards, or purchased from disreputable bloodbanks.


I don't have much to say about the economy in the game. So far I've picked up a couple of skill books and bought some better clothing (which gives slightly better armor stats). I've very slowly accumulated a little over a thousand dollars in cash, and not much in the current stores appeals to me much. The next tier of armor starts diminishing my dexterity, so I'll probably stick with the light gear for now. I think that if I was focusing on firearms, I would want to buy at least some ammo from the stores - I've picked up a bit in the world, but depending on how flexible you are with your firearms, you might want to stock up on more of a favored type of bullet.


So, we'll see. I'm hoping that there are more money sinks later in the game. I haven't even bothered selling any of the items I've picked up yet, like watches and rings. There is a "Haggle" skill in the game, which I haven't leveled yet. If it looks like money will be useful, I'll probably raise it a bit before pawning my trade goods. Heh... I only recently discovered that there is a maximum limit to your inventory, but it's a very high limit. I'd been playing for well over a dozen hours by that point, and had, uh, probably at least 20 or 25 items.

In many RPGs, your money sinks are housing or businesses. Neither has really been a factor here, though. You acquire upgraded housing as a reward for progressing through the game. I've loved the one business I'm involved in so far; I acquired a partial share by assisting the owner with some... business, and regularly earn money from it (which, again, I do not have a use for).


I'm getting dangerously close to talking about story, so let's shift gears and talk about the music!

It's awesome! It's very moody and varied. There's a mix of diegetic and non-diegetic music. Walking around in some areas has really fantastic atmospheric music, reinforcing the idea that you are an isolated creature in a dark world, trying to find your way.


Where it really shines, though, is in the club music. Which, first of all: nightclubs! I love them! I think I've mentioned this before, but nightclubs might be the reason I got into Shadowrun in the first place, and I'm constantly longing for nightclubs in more games. I feel delighted whenever I discover that a new game has a club. Well, so far V:TM:B has FOUR distinct clubs, each with its own unique architecture, clientele, mood, proprietor(s), and, most importantly of all, music.


If nothing else, I would love V:TM:B for introducing me to Chiasm, who created the above track. I hadn't heard of her before, but was so struck by that song that I went looking for her other stuff, and was delighted to find that she's produced a lot of awesome albums.

The music in V:TM:B spans multiple genres, but it's particularly strong in industrial music. I haven't historically been a fan of the genre, but have really come around to it in the last couple of years, thanks in large part to Invocation Array's fantastic debut album and a newfound appreciation of Trent Reznor's ouvre. V:TM:B's music belongs to a very specific era, which I love: it feels very grounded in this particular slice of depraved, alienated culture.

Okay! That's graphics, gameplay, and music. I hereby declare this initial post complete. Of course, I have been taking a lot of screenshots as I play, and have a fresh new album up for your perusal. It contains light spoilers for the first, oh, maybe ten hours or so of the game. And now I'm gonna dive right back in. Amongst other things, this is one of the more addictive games I've played lately, to the point where I've been missing my bedtimes. Totally worth it! Even if my dreams turn darker, it's because things are so interesting.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

House of Slades

I've finally reached the point that I've dreaded for so long: exhausting my supply of David Mitchell novels. It's been a long and winding journey, grabbing individual novels as they become available at the library or as opportunity strikes, without much concern for publishing order. Semi-coincidentally, though, the last book I read is also the last one he wrote. Slade House is the most slender volume he's published yet, and is very good.


I often emphasize Mitchell's varied settings and writing styles: on their face, there's very little connecting Black Swan Green to The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet to number9dream. Slade House is a bit of an outlier in that regard since it ties so strongly to the story of the preceding novel, The Bone Clocks, to the point where it almost feels like a companion novel. Still, it's stylistically innovative, like many of his other books: more formal and constrained than I was expecting, but that formalism is put to very good use.

This ended up probably being the most frightening of all of his books. I don't necessarily think of his novels as being "scary," although he's very good at creating disquieting, vaguely sinister scenarios. There are a few times in the past when he's crossed over the line into full-on dread, like Enomoto's shrine in The Thousand Autumns or anything relating to the Blind Cather in The Bone Clocks. But both of those were smaller (albeit important) scenes in larger, adventurous, reflective novels. Slade House captures that feeling of despair and wickedness, and compresses it and repeats it, amplifying and resonating with itself, to the point where you're afraid to see what will happen next.

MEGA SPOILERS

Even beyond the very obvious tie-ins to The Bone Clocks, Slade House has its own connections to other stories in Mitchell's shared universe. Enomoto himself is referenced, as an evil mentor to the Grayer twins. Rita Bishop seems to be a descendant of Vyvyan Ayrs. Much of the specific terminology of the Grayer’s system comes from The Bone Clocks, but I was reminded of the curious etymology of “Orison” to describe a virtual reality, and wondered again whether it has any connection to similar technologies referenced in Cloud Atlas and number9dream. It’s weird to think that a psychic power could somehow turn into a mass-market consumer good… but perhaps that will be shown in a future novel, or perhaps capitalists will create a technological counterpart that’s inspired by stories of this spiritual talent.

From the scene of Nathan’s demise onward, it’s very clear that we’re dealing with some Anchorite-ish situation; the details of the ritual are different from that of the Blind Cathar, but the deal with the chakra eye and the soul and such show that the essence is the same. We don’t get an explicit linking until several stories in, when Sally’s would-be boyfriend Todd starts dropping some very specific terminology: orisons, banjax, lacuna.

One thing that really confused me at the time, and that I still haven’t figured out, is whether Jonah was really playing Todd or not. On the one hand, he says that he was, and we know from the Freya chapter that he’s perfectly willing to share details of their operation with victims once they’re safely enmeshed. On the other hand, though, there doesn’t seem to be any reason for Jonah-as-Todd to say the things that he does say: he uses words without bothering to define them, and many of his actions seem to confuse her more than entice her. On the first hand, though, the most damning thing is that Norah DID point Sally towards the game room, where Todd was waiting. And the twins do seem to particularly enjoy toying with their prey, so they may have thought that it was too easy otherwise.

Still, part of me wants to believe that we were watching an attempt by a Horologist (or some other beneficent ally) to save Sally. After all, this is the one time in the book that someone is able to get back DOWN the stairs once they’ve been lured up, and a lot of the other details of their escape ring true. And even if Todd really was who he said he was, I can still imagine Jonah lying and saying that it was him: he says something to Norah like “We’ll need to tell her or else her spirit will taste funky.” So he crushes her dreams and hopes: not merely of escape, but of feeling loved. I dunno. I’m probably grasping at straws here, but that idea really tempts me.

Oh, as a side note, I almost wish that I was at that party since the music sounded AWESOME. They’re playing Bjork and Massive Attack and The Orb… so many of my favorite groups, all in one horrific haunted house!

Back to Todd - there are significant overlaps between him and Fred Pink. From Sally’s chapter onward, I’d thought that Fred Pink had always been Jonah in disguise, luring victims to the house. It seemed like way too big of a coincidence otherwise, that this one random guy would HAPPEN to draw people who just HAPPENED to be Engifted to their doom on the exact “right” day. During Freya’s chapter, I initially thought that Jonah was Fred, then thought that he wasn’t, then found out that he was after all. But! The way Jonah describes his impersonation makes it sound like this is a fairly recent development - he talks about finding Fred’s notes and research, which makes it sound like Fred was really on his own for a while.

I’m still not sure exactly what happened there. Maybe Fred really was who he said he was, though, again, that feels a little too convenient and coincidental. Although, I suppose that “coincidence” might actually be the Script at work. More likely, maybe Jonah occasionally suassioned him, in a subtle and limited enough way that he didn’t realize the role he was playing. Or maybe he DID later figure it out - I can imagine his horror at reading through the Grayer’s histories and realizing that he himself had been a pawn in their schemes, and wondering whether he was still doing their work.

That’s quite a nasty surprise at the end of Freya’s chapter. After being through the Slade House deception so many times, we as readers have been lulled into a false sense of security: this all seems like it’s taking place outside, perhaps in preparation for an assault on the dwelling. Once it’s revealed, though, it all makes sense and feels like fair game. The earlier victims have spent time in false environments outside the house, like Nathan in Rhodesia.

I was really curious how Mitchell was going to top that, and was astonished by the decision to have Norah narrate the final chapter herself. That was great as well, and also oddly satisfying: of course, we immediately recognize Dr. Marinus-Fenby, even if the Grayers do not, and know that they’ve signed up for more than they bargained. It’s a nice parallel to most chapters of the book, where we also know more than the narrators about the danger they’re about to face.

The ending proper is fantastic, firmly tying everything back in to The Bone Clocks while also casting it out into the broader world. Slade House has been so claustrophobic and inward-looking; now it is destroyed, but its evil is loosed upon the world. Scary stuff!

END SPOILERS

I, um, really liked this book. The Bone Clocks increasingly feels like the single most important key in deciphering David Mitchell’s various novels. Slade House is the simplest lock that it opens, and also helps illuminate its predecessor novel. Granted, it illuminates it with a sinister light, but hey, that definitely fits Mitchell’s overall philosophy. There is true evil in the world, along with a moral need to do good, and we must recognize the evil if we are to stop it.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Mines of the Siege of the Rise of the Riders of Helm’s Deep

I’m occasionally struck by the big disparity between how long I spend with a particular piece of entertainment and how much I write about it on the blog. Particularly with the artsier games I’ve been playing lately, a game might say something really interesting over the course of just an hour or two, which will get a write-up that’s of comparable length to a roleplaying game that I’ve played for dozens of hours.

The biggest example might be Lord of the Rings Online. It’s been my side-game for a while now. I’ll go for months and months without even opening it, but when I’m in the mood to lose myself inside Middle-earth, it’s waiting there for me to dive back into it. It continues to be the most relaxing video-game experience I’ve had. The gameplay itself is rarely challenging… there are tons of activities you can choose between, only some of which require combat, and that combat almost never poses a worrisome threat.


Playing LOTRO may be the most peaceful, rejuvenating experience I regularly have apart from hiking. This may not be coincidental. Both take places in huge, expansive, gorgeous areas, one real and one virtual. Neither requires a whole lot of active thought, so my mind is free to wander while I feel like I’m making progress. I can feel a faint pride in my achievements and improvement without ever feeling like I’m being compared to someone else or need to compete to prove superiority.

Even when I am in the periods where I play a lot of LOTRO, I tend to take my time, which is definitely the best way to approach this. The game probably won’t satisfy people who are looking for intense tactical combat or looking for excitement on the bleeding edge of advancement. It’s at its best when you’re roaming through the landscape, spotting ruined watchtowers atop overgrown hills, spying a flock of doves soaring over Lindon, seeing the sun set from the foggy swamps of Dunland. This is a game where you immerse yourself into the world rather than prove your mastery over it.


As I write this, I’ve finally crossed over the Anduin and into Rohan. In geographic terms, this brings me roughly halfway to Mordor from my start in Ered Luin. In gameplay terms, this is the start of the “Riders of Rohan” expansion, the fourth of the game (after Mines of Moria, Siege of Mirkwood, and Rise of Isengard). My progress has been erratic. I’ll tend to move ahead to new areas that appeal to me, then backtrack and finish epic quest storylines for older zones, then spend some time wandering through areas for crafting materials, then get distracted by seasonal festivals, then catch up on Bingo’s adventures, then get back more or less on track with on-level content.


All that being said, I finally wrapped up the main Mines of Moria epic quest long after leaving the mines proper. In some respects, I really like doing these quests once I’ve overleveled them. Once you are ten levels above the enemies in an area, they turn gray, and will no longer attack you. This makes it much easier and, more importantly, quicker to finish the quests. Between the faster progress of epic quests, and ignoring the standard landscape quests (which I either did long ago or am skipping altogether), I’m able to keep track of the main storyline: who these characters are, what they’re doing, what our goals are. I found, for example, that while I enjoyed the Grey Company plot, I had a really hard time keeping track of the individual rangers. When blowing through the Moria quests, though, I could focus on their particular story, of pride and determination and doom, and it had a pretty powerful impact.


There are narrative advantages to this approach, but the gameplay can suffer a little. In particular, the epic quest line tends to reward the best equipment (well, better than standard quests at least). If you get them on-level, they’ll be the most useful items for quite a while, But, getting capstone items to Level 60 quests when I’m level 74 means a lot of experiences of “Ooooh, that looks awesome!” immediately followed by “Too bad this yellow gear from Dunland is better than that.” But, again, LOTRO isn’t hugely challenging anyways, so it isn’t worth worrying too much about.

I completely skipped the Siege of Mirkwood content, though I’m sure I’ll eventually come back to it. I wanted to get to Rohan so I could pick up my War Steed. These are an advanced type of mount: larger, faster, and more powerful than the standard horses you’ve been able to get before now. I’m not sure how much I’ll enjoy mounted combat proper, but I wanted to get a horse so I could start leveling it and maybe getting cool caparison at future festivals. War steeds are also much faster than normal horses, which could come in handy when I’m backtracking through earlier content again.


Mounted combat was a new mechanic added for Riders of Rohan, many years after the game first launched and many years before now. It’s been very interesting to encounter things like this: new ideas that were added to the game, with a lot of initial excitement, then later refined, then later… not exactly abandoned, but moved on from, with less emphasis as newer features came along.

Playing LOTRO sometimes feels like going on an archeological expedition: not only uncovering the rich history of Tolkien’s world, but also exploring the ten years of active development on the game since it was released. You’re witnessing artifacts crafted by prior developers, edifices constructed by earlier producers.

Or maybe it’s more organic than that. I have very limited experience with MMOs apart from LOTRO, so I’m fascinated by the idea of a game that grows so much after it is released. Single-player games almost always have a single, cohesive vision that guides and shapes them prior to release. Afterwards they may get patches and updates, perhaps some expansions, but always in a relatively short span of time and with the same creative team, and they have a unified feel. MMOs grow, though: not just adding more content, but trying out new systems, changing old ones in response to feedback.

So you end up with things that feel like evolutionary detritus: those weird glands and genes that do not serve any useful function in our human bodies, but are living records that show our evolutionary past. Wandering through the game, you come across characters like class trainers and bards, who used to be crucial elements of the leveling process but have been rendered entirely useless. And there are also things like skirmishes, which clearly had a ton of thought and effort put into them, but were not fully embraced by the community: they still exist, and at certain parts of the game are more prominent, but as a whole seem more like a vestigial appendage than a useful limb.

We’ll see where mounted combat ends up in the grand scheme of things. At a minimum, I’ll have a faster horse, and that will be pretty cool.


I don’t know how long I’ll stick around in Rohan, but so far I’m enjoying it quite a bit. One small thing in particular caught my attention. In the first village you enter, you meet the thane (the local lord) and his family. Speaking with his daughter, she says something like, “I will be Thane after my dad dies, and if I die, my little brother will become Thane after me.” It continues the great, understated and matter-of-fact handling of gender in LOTRO, where women are shown to be just as capable and important as men.


In some respects, that specific example might be considered non-canonical. To the best of my knowledge, Tolkien never wrote about women in leadership roles among the Rohirrim, and I don’t believe any female names are included in the lineage of Rohirric kings. However, I also don’t think it specifically violates canon, either. After all, the game isn’t saying that a woman rules Rohan; they’re saying that a woman can oversee a part of it. There are examples in Earth history where women could hold local titles and power, even if the national sovereign was always male (as in France, with the noblesse uterine). More importantly, it’s very much in keeping with the overall tone of Tolkien: after all, we are now in the land of Eowyn, Shieldmaiden of Rohan. As she says, “The women of this country learned long ago, those without swords can still die upon them.” She didn’t come from out of nowhere; she was part of a proud culture that valued martial strength, and it’s very easy to imagine that women could prove their worth through strength of arms in this land.

This is also a great opportunity to bring up Haleth, one of my favorite characters in the legendarium. In the first age, she was the chieftain of the Haladin: technically an ancestor to the Numenoreans, she and her tribe remind me much more of the Rohirrim: their relationship to the elves is much like that of Rohan towards Gondor. All that to say, I’m delighted to see Turbine drawing on the inspiration in the source material while also creating a world that feels inclusive and welcoming.

MINI SPOILERS

Earlier in Dunland, I ran across an even more extreme example of something that on its surface seemed lore-unfriendly, but tapped into deeper elements of his writings. A Boar-clan settlement at the edge of a swamp is under assault by abominations: orcs and trolls who bear the White Hand. However, they act differently from other monsters you have encountered: they sound genuinely fearful and sad when you attack them. One of the tribal members tells you that Saruman has corrupted them from captured Dunlendings, twisting them into new monstrous forms to serve in his army.

At the capstone of this short quest, after fighting your way to the home of the abominations, you encounter that rarest of all things in Lord of the Rings Online: a choice. Do you listen to the woman who urges you to show mercy and spare her kinsmen who have been led astray? Or to the man who warns you of the dire threat these monsters will pose to him and his family? I was delighted to be able to choose the former course of action, and got almost teary at the goofy, nearly cartoonish animations of happy orcs and trolls cheering for their salvation.


The ultimate impact of this decision feels ambivalent. The tribe is still arguing about it in a later meeting when they decide whether to throw in their lot to oppose Saruman. And the fight that follows that is brutal, when the Boar-clan is almost entirely wiped out. You might be tempted to think, did I make a mistake? Should I have struck when I had the chance, and would it have saved those innocent lives?


The whole idea of “good orcs” seems absurd at first glance: in the Lord of the Rings novels, they’re practically the definition of disposable and purely evil fodder. However, if you read Tolkien’s letters, you’ll see that he grappled with the problem of them. Did orcs have souls? If so, could they be redeemed? He never really resolved those problems before he died, and I think that ambiguity is very fertile ground for exploration and re-interpretation in a medium such as this.

MEGA SPOILERS

This quest was shortly followed by a trip to Isengard, which was also fascinating. That whole arc was unusually bleak: you aren’t triumphing over evil, but becoming aware of evil’s immense power and your relative hopelessness to overcome it. Just the sight of the immensity of Saruman’s armies is stunning, and once you see Isengard itself, it’s hard to be optimistic about your chances.


This is reflected very well in the gameplay: you aren’t fighting endless waves of enemies; instead, you are actually taken prisoner and forced to do menial and humiliating work in the dungeons below Orthanc. (And, side note, Turbine is REALLY GREAT at creating vertical spaces. I feel filled with awe when I look around those unfathomably deep areas, and am amazed when I can actually walk down into them.) You feel relieved once you exit: not filled with the pride of victory, but simple happiness at escaping this dire fate.


Isengard is one of the more dramatic examples of the incredible variety in environmental design and art. It’s shocking to see something so industrial plopped here in the middle of Middle-earth: smokestacks belching foul fumes into the air, giant gears slowly turning below the earth, ironworks pounding out immense quantities of weaponry, machines of war being constructed around the clock. The game does a great job at capturing and conveying Tolkien’s horror at industrialization, the destruction of nature, and the depersonalization of modern society.


While Isengard is one of the most drastic cases of original design, I’m almost more impressed by areas like Dunland, just because it’s amazing that they’ve been able to make a zone that could be described as “rolling hills” look unique and interesting and beautiful after nearly a dozen different zones. I love how, in an instant, you can tell the Lone-lands from the North Downs from the Trollshaws from Eregion from Enedwait from Dunland. Each of them is a grassy, temperate area with hills and occasional rivers, and it’s a remarkable achievement to make each one so distinct.


As I get further into the game, I’m also moving further ahead in time, to zones that were released more recently, and in some cases that also means seeing more advanced technology. While it’s fairly subtle, the landscape can seem more alive now. These are often little touches, like windmills that gently spin in the wind.


A more drastic example came in that first village in Rohan: in keeping with the increasingly dire sense of the plot, after finishing that quest chain, the village is attacked by Easterling raiders under the leadership of a Nazgul, and is destroyed. Coming back to it later, the walls and buildings still stand, but are constantly smoking as the fires within smolder. There used to be children running and playing in the streets, now they stand empty. The merchants who used to trade and repair goods are no longer accessible.


I think there have been a couple of cases before where areas update after a quest, but they’ve been fairly minor. In Angmar, some folks appear in a later area after you’ve beaten an earlier quest. The Rangers will appear or disappear from different villages depending on where you are in the Grey Company quest. And sometimes the interiors of instances (e.g., behind doors) will change. But this is the first time I can think of where actual structures in the landscape seemed to change in response to my actions. It was very impressive!

In a lot of RPGs, like Dragon Age: Inquisition or The Witcher 3, geometry updates are used to convey a sense of power and achievement: “I did this thing, and now I can see this testament to my glory!” It seems very appropriate that LOTRO, a game set in a world of decline, would invert this: good things are fading, happy times are passing, and more of the world is falling under shadow. It isn’t nihilistic, and there are plenty of opportunities for happiness, but that sense of fading-away is core to the setting, and, once again, it’s great to see Turbine embracing Tolkien’s spirit like this.

END SPOILERS

My playing has been irregular, but it’s also been a really long time since I wrote about LOTRO, so I’ve accumulated more screenshots than necessary. I have very poorly organized them into several folders:

Oh That Is Pretty Part 7: 222 photos, starting at the climax of the Angmar epic quest (which I wrote about in my previous LOTRO post but wasn’t included in that album), and continuing into Dunland, with tons of side-excursions and backtracking to earlier epic quests. No captions in this one because, let's be honest, neither of us has time for that.

Oh That Is Pretty Part 8: A pitiful 41 photos, featuring the latter part of the Dunland quests, including some items discussed in this post.

Oh That Is Pretty Part 9: Back up to 126 photos this time. This covers the climax to Rise of Isengard, a very belated climax (?) to Mines of Moria, and the very beginning of Riders of Rohan, including many of the topics discussed in this post. This one does have captions because, um, I guess it turns out that I did have time for that after all.

Festival of the White Lady: My second time at this party, very fun!

Weatherstock: The concert event of the year, also a great social repeat.

So, yeah! LOTRO continues to be an engaging and surprisingly rejuvenating experience. It’s kind of astonishing to think that, for as much as I’ve played it, there are still huge parts of the game that I haven’t even seen: not just what lies ahead, but all the stuff I’ve skipped or ignored along the way. The day will probably come when I finally start playing one of the alts I have sitting at Level 1, and I’m looking forward to seeing even more of this wonderful world that they’ve created.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Your Story

First, a bit of bookkeeping: as I keep saying, I've been making my way through the Humble Narrative Bundle, an excellent collection of story-focused video games that I picked up for Mega Cheap a few months ago. I was planning to play & write about all of them. It looks like I might need to take a flyer on Broken Age - I'd made it several hours in, then encountered a nasty hard crash that seems to have corrupted my save files. I'd been enjoying the game, but as with Wasteland 2 I don't think I have the heart to restart.

Fortunately, that's been the sole technical snafu I've run into on any of those games, and that trend continued with Her Story. This is one of a few games in the bundle that I'd heard about prior to picking it up, and I'd been looking forward to playing it.


It's great. It's an interesting game that feels at one familiar and unique. Certain aspects of it reminded me of a game I played as a teenager called "In The 1st Degree", another game that used full-motion video to tell an interactive story about a murder investigation. However, Her Story is told from a much greater distance: you aren't interviewing live witnesses, you're reviewing archival footage decades after it was recorded.

As such, at first it doesn't feel all that much like gameplay. You're essentially browsing an archive, not asking questions in real-time to elicit a response. The story itself is fixed in the past and unchangeable. However, I quickly got over this, and realized that I was really role-playing as the investigator, making decisions about how to dig and making connections that would open up new topics.

As you watch each video clip, you learn a tiny bit more about the story. This gives you more hooks and lines of inquiry, which gradually and organically fan out. It's one of the most kaleidoscopic experiences I've had playing a video game, which is really cool... the closest analogue (heh) I can think of are Christine Love's games, although Her Story is even less linear, and feels more... formal? Structured?

Gentle reminder not to read the spoilers if you think you might play!

MEGA SPOILERS

One very pleasant jolt came early on, after I'd seen perhaps a dozen interview segments and realized that Hannah and Eve were two different people. Of course, by that point I'd seen both of them, while thinking they were the same person, and it was cool to mentally rewind and sort out my prior information.

That continues to happen multiple times throughout the game. There are very few actual lies, and you can identify them early on. What's much more common is thinking that you know something, and then later acquiring another piece of information that causes you to realize that you don't actually know what you thought you did.

My favorite example may have come from near the very end of the game (at least for me; the non-linear design means that I had a different experience and path than anyone else). Early on, Eve had talked about how she needed to make sure that "our baby" would still be okay. I had assumed, of course, that "our" was referring to Eve and Simon. However, after realizing that Hannah had planned to incorporate Eve into their household, I then realized that "our" was actually referring to Eve and Hannah. It's the child that Hannah wanted, the child that Eve would bear, and they were working together to ensure its safety.


It was shortly after then that I wrapped up my active lines of inquiry and ended the game. I found that some doubts still lingered, though. Did Hannah and Eve still impersonate one another? If so, was it possible that some of the interviews might have been held with the other twin?

Those doubts grew at the very end - in contrast with the video-searching interface that had made up the entire game up until then, there's a very brief IM conversation in which you type yes/no answers to a couple of questions. This includes a bombshell: You are Sarah, the child of Eve and Simon. The final question is, "Do you understand why your mother did what she did?"

Well... I thought that I had understood why Eve did what she did, and why Hannah did what she did, but the fact that I was Eve's child suddenly threw all that into doubt. Why was he asking me about Eve instead of about Hannah? After all, Hannah was the one who murdered Simon. Does this mean that they had switched identities again and Eve (as Hannah) had entered prison? But that doesn't make sense; she was pregnant, and you can't swap out a baby. Or is it possible that Eve really did kill Simon, and lied about it? Possible, but not very likely... I can't see what reason she would have for getting rid of him, and it doesn't make much dramatic sense within the context of the game.

The best guess I have now is that at some point Hannah adopted Sarah. Perhaps Hannah never went to prison: Eve's testimony is damning, but might not have been sufficient to convict, especially if she renounced it in court. Eve herself seems to have been ambivalent about keeping the baby, so she may have decided to share Sarah in the same way they shared so many other things. So, as we play as Sarah, we might not only be finding out what happened to our father, but also learning the true identity of our biological mother.

END SPOILERS

In accordance with tradition, here's an album, though it's simultaneously too short and full of too many spoilers.

The game is terrific, and makes me really curious just how they managed to design it. There's a fairly simple interface: you type in a keyword, and get up to 5 video clips back. If there are more than 5 total results, you can see how many there are, but will only see the first 5. So, in order to discover more information, you need to switch to different keywords or combine your search terms to narrow down the results.

I guess what impresses me the most was how much narrative coherence the story had, considering that you're essentially browsing the Internet. You can learn really key pieces of information in certain videos, but I somehow seemed to stumble across those search terms at logical and dramatically satisfying moments. I don't think there's anything stopping someone from searching for the "right" term near the very beginning and quickly getting to the heart of the story, but somehow, the design of the game gently guides you along this incredibly organic-feeling journey to get there. Anyways, even just on a technical level, I'd love to see what diagrams or structure they would use to plan this sort of experience.

And, heck, there's a good chance that I'm still missing something pretty big! Judging from the Steam achievements, I've actually only seen slightly over half of the video clips available in the game. I feel like I've gotten "her story," but I may still be missing out on some significant aspects of it. I'm not sure yet whether I'll dive back in again or not. A big part of me wants to know all the things and uncover every last bit of mystery. Another part of me enjoys the lingering ambiguities and the bespoke version of the story I've ended up with. No matter what, though, it's been one of the more memorable experiences I've had in a video game.

Friday, September 09, 2016

Someone’s Got To Do It

I almost forgot about Christopher Moore! I stumbled across his new Death book at the library, then realized that I hadn’t read the previous Death book and picked it up. It’s really good!

MINI SPOILERS

One feature that makes it especially easy to like is its setting in San Francisco. As with his vampire novels (You Suck et al), Moore absolutely nails the city in its modern incarnation, down to the mundane elements that locals know but do not think about. The other books famously feature the Marina Safeway; here, we get to see small bookshops in the Mission, live produce on Stockton, boring houses in the Sunset, and similar locales. It isn’t flashy, and definitely doesn’t require preexisting knowledge of the city, but helps it feel nicely grounded without ever feeling like “Oooh, look at us, this city is so cool and important!”

I was delighted to see that he also brought back the Emperor and his troops. Norton is always fun, in any medium or story. He has a small role here, just popping up as an observer from time to time. His insanity allows him to see things that most residents of the city cannot, and his good cheer connects him with the protagonists as they carry out their more deadly missions.

One interesting feature of the book is how much time elapses; I think we get something like five years between the opening and the climax. It isn’t from one or two jumps, either: you get the sensation of time gradually passing, Sophie growing from an infant to a toddler to a child, Charlie processing his grief, Jane sorta maturing and settling down, everyone else getting a little bit older. I guess this is a little like Lamb, which famously covers the time period between Jesus’s childhood and ministry. Most of Moore’s other books, from what I can remember, are more conventionally written, covering the events of a relatively short period of time. Showing time passing like this seems like a bigger challenge, particularly when a baby changes so drastically, and I think Moore did a great job pulling it off.

MEGA SPOILERS

I was a little disappointed by the cover art for the book; at least in my edition, it features a skull baby in a baby carriage. That made it really obvious from too early on that Sophie really was Death/Luminatus, diminishing much of the potential surprise. I think it’s revealed pretty well within the book, with ample evidence given along the way, so it’s a shame that it’s presented so clearly before you start reading.

That said - I’m pretty sure that there were a few times early on when Charlie seemingly killed someone WITHOUT Sophie being present, and I’m not sure if that’s ever explained within the book. This gets more confusing in the epilogue, where Charlie is addressed as Death, making it seem like they are two different entities after all. Fortunately, I’ve already picked up the latest book, and may be able to soon resolve the mystery for myself!

END SPOILERS

This was a really good read. I think the vampire books were a little more fun, and his more recent books like Blue and Fool are more effective at plumbing dark topics, but I enjoyed this more than, say, Lamb or Fluke. It could also serve as a great entry point for someone who hasn’t previously read Moore: it does a great job at showcasing his comedic gifts and his effectiveness at crafting smart, tight horror.

Saturday, September 03, 2016

Witcher? I Barely Know Her!

After finally beating The Witcher 3 and both of its expansions, I can say that I’ve come around to it. Part of this is the result of me adapting to its quirks, and part is the ongoing improvement of the series itself. Like the best expansions, TW3 seems to identify its strengths and weaknesses, and improves on both fronts in its additions.


I can’t say that The Witcher is my favorite franchise; that crown is still held by Dragon Age. I CAN say that The Witcher 3 is the most beautiful video game I’ve played, and is tremendous fun in its own right. The level of craftsmanship on display is astonishing, and it can serve as a model for how open-world RPGs should work.

MEGA SPOILERS

One of the best parts of the latter half of the game is Ciri. She isn't playable as often - maybe not even as often as she was in the flashback sequences of the first half - but she's present for much of the action, and adds a great energy and flavor to the story.


The women in general finally get a chance to shine in the last act. Ciri and all of the sorceresses are a big focus of the late game, and they're shown to be extremely talented. They're not always sympathetic, which is also good - the Lodge of Sorceresses schemes and jockeys for power, not necessarily good or evil but always interesting and useful.


I find that I actually don’t have all that much to say about the conclusion of the main plot itself. It was good, but I think I missed out by not playing the earlier games and not being familiar with the source novels. It makes *sense*, and they do a good job at catching you up on previous plot elements and characters, but I think I just wasn’t as deeply invested in the Wild Hunt and the world in general as I would have been otherwise.


After chatting with my brother and poking around online, it looks like there are several elements of the ending that can vary. I’m mostly happy with how things turned out, with the major exception of having Radovid on the throne in the North. Apparently I missed the quest to depose him near the end of the game; as soon as I located Ciri, I became very focused on driving the story forward to its conclusion and so failed to revisit the various hubs that might have pointed me towards it.


Otherwise, though, things turned out basically as I would have hoped. Cerys is a wise and talented ruler in Skellige. Ciri survived her ordeal and returned, becoming a renowned witcher in her own right. Geralt and Yennefer relax and enjoy one another’s company. Not too bad!


I did kind of love how Ciri’s story is treated near the end. As she’s heading off to face the White Frost, she says something like “This isn’t your story.” And I really liked that. We’ve been mostly playing as Geralt, but the world doesn’t revolve around him, and it doesn’t revolve around us as the player. By forcing us to step back and not participate in the narrative climax, the game becomes much broader: it feels more like a world in its own right, and not just a powerfulness simulator. (At the same time, it also made me wish that we could have played as Ciri, who is so much more interesting to me than Geralt.)

Hearts of Stone was a good, nicely focused expansion. There’s a single shortish side-quest, but pretty much everything is part of a long and well-constructed main plot line. There are several very well-drawn characters, a nice romance option, quite a few fun new non-combat activities, and some really creative new environments.


I didn’t like Olgierd; he was a victim of Gaunter’s manipulations, but was already a bad guy prior to that, leading a band of raiders and practicing black magic. Still, when it came to the end, I decided that Gaunter was worse and fought to get Olgierd back his soul. This led to an incredibly well-designed and nail-bitingly-tense sequence where you have to explore a huge dreamlike area while fighting monsters and solving puzzles before time runs out. I’m still processing the design of that mission, and think that there are elements I can steal for future content.


Blood and Wine was very different from Hearts of Stone: where HoS is narrow and focused, B&W is ridiculously expansive. Toissant, the new zone, is GORGEOUS. I already thought that The Witcher 3 was the most beautiful video game I’ve seen, and Toissant just blew it out of the water. Everything from the design of the landscape to the architecture to the color scheme was astonishing, like a storybook fairy tale.


And that’s before you get to the literal storybook fairy tale, which somehow makes things EVEN MORE PRETTY and left me drooling on the floor. It feels almost unfair that the game is this well crafted.


The world is so great that I wanted to just spend time in it, and so, for the first time since White Orchard, I actually took the time to ride around to random quest markers, clearing out bandit camps and finding hidden treasures. Once again, I was really impressed by how well they create a story for every little thing. It’s never “just” a bandit camp: you can piece together the story of how they became bandits, and who they robbed, and what they planned to do, and what they did with their treasure. Stuff that is mechanically ephemeral becomes narratively intertwined with the larger themes of life in Toissant: the five Virtues, the power of the Duchy, the refugees from other lands.


I was initially mostly impressed by the world-building, but the main plot is also terrific. Duchess Anna Henrietta adds yet another entry to my list of awesome characters in this game: she has much of the determination of Cerys, but acts as one trained from birth to rule, with a supreme confidence in her actions.


And then there’s Regis. I was surprised by how much I liked him, to the point where I started idly wondering why they hadn’t made Regis the main character of these games instead of Geralt. He has some of the same understated quality as Geralt, but I found him far more likeable. His voice acting is wry and generally good-natured, while still remaining healthily skeptical.


I keep harping on Geralt, and I’ll never love him as a protagonist, but as before I found myself becoming more and more fond of him as the game went on. Part of this may be Stockholm syndrome, but I think it’s also due to getting to see him in new situations and seeing his humanizing quirks. He really does love Gwent and is obsessed with playing it. He tells a group of children that the world isn’t fair, but that it’s still important to be good. He develops a minor interest in non-Witcherly topics like viniculture. And, while he continues to get paid for all of the various deeds he does, there are more and more opportunities to express some other motivation for doing them: because they’re right, or because he feels sympathy, or out of curiosity.

END SPOILERS

All that being said: As far as I know, there hasn’t been any announcement yet for The Witcher 4. I’d be happy to see it, but I’ll be even more happy if it switches to a new protagonist. Geralt has ended up more likeable than he started, but if CDPR can somehow combine the quest and environment design of TW3 with a hero who I like (or, better yet, a group of them), then they’ll have a great shot at claiming the top tier of my affection.

Okay, photos! Here are all my albums. During the course of this playthrough, Google shut down Picasa, my favored means of hosting these albums. I’m currently using Google Plus Photos instead, which I kind of hate but is the path of least resistance for now.
Part 1 (previously shared in my initial post)
Part 2 (was linked to in my previous post but may not have been viewable at the time)
Part 3 (end of the main campaign)
Hearts of Stone expansion
Blood & Wine expansion

All contain many spoilers! None contain nudity, but may have some NSFW images.