Tuesday, August 30, 2011


"Welcome to the NHK" may be one of the most discomforting pieces of fiction that I've seen through to completion. It isn't discomforting due to violence, or sex, or ideology, or the other standard levers of edginess. Rather, it's discomforting by shining an unwavering spotlight on the many neuroses and flaws that can make up our lives, and particularly in my own life.

I haven't watched a whole lot of anime lately. I've started a few series since Death Note, but have only made it through two. I stumbled across Welcome to the NHK while reading some online discussions about Serial Experiments Lain. NHK and Lain have almost nothing in common; I suppose that they've both set in modern times, and deal with themes of alienation, but in profoundly different ways. They also have very different sensibilities. Lain felt like a dark, sinister psychological thriller. NHK is... strange. I suppose that it's a psychological drama/comedy? It's a humorous look at a profoundly depressing situation.

Welcome to the NHK stars Satou, a hikikomori in his 20s. "Hikikomori" is a Japanese social phenomenon that has been concerning people for several decades: men (it seems to always be men) become extremely socially isolated. They will retreat to their rooms for years at a time, not emerging for social interaction, or food, or work. A related term is "NEET", based on the English for "Not in Education, Employment, or Training" - that is, someone who isn't a student, in professional school, or working.

When I first heard that description, my immediate thought was of the "slacker" phenomenon that started in America around the same time in the 90's. However, they're quite different. A slacker doesn't have a job and doesn't seem to have any interest in improving their lives, but they can still be quite social; the stereotypical slacker hangs out in coffee shops, or couch-surfs, at the bottom of society but still moving around and making connections. On the other hand, the hikikomori is completely cut off from society. Uncharitable people might think of both as leeches, but the hikikomori seems (at least to me) to be in a sorrier state, devoid of companionship or real connection.


The first few episodes of Welcome to the NHK are probably the funniest. Satou has been living by himself for years, and his mind is starting to become frayed. He hallucinates lightly throughout the day; he talks to his appliances, and they talk back to him; he fantasizes about the characters singing the bishoojo anime that plays loudly next door. His overactive mind also assigns blame for all that's wrong with his life at the feet of the NHK, one of Japan's largest TV networks. He decides that the NHK (which, he realizes, must ACTUALLY stand for Nippon Hikikomori Kyookai) is the leader of a vast conspiracy, all designed to trick Satou into pursuing his miserable life: watching television, eating instant ramen, smoking cigarettes.

It actually would have been interesting to see a whole (though probably shorter) series try to stay locked in that room. Satou is unbalanced, but not really psychotic, just at an elevated state of stir-crazy. And I do love hallucinations. However, the series is actually about Satou gradually working his way outward, reconnecting with old acquaintances and making a few new ones. He isn't ever "cured," which I liked; he's still sad, and angry, and antisocial; but he's far more functional at the end than in the beginning, and it feels worth every agonizing step he took.

And it is agonizing. Usually, when I like a series, I'll start devouring it, watching multiple episodes a day as I try to get through it. Here, even though I liked the show and what it was doing, I often needed to wait for days or a week between episodes, just because of how painful it felt to watch. The show had many, many scenes and themes that uncomfortably resonated with my own life. Now, I don't think I'm Satou; but I recognize a LOT of tendencies that are pretty deeply ingrained within me that constantly tug me in Satou's direction. I'm capable of going out and socializing with friends, or talking with strangers, or visiting a new place; but I also feel a profound comfort on rainy Saturdays when I realize that I can stay inside, turn on the computer, play video games or read books, and not see another person all day. I also know that if I stay in that mode for too long, I'll start to feel really crummy and crabby, which is why I make myself get up and get out; but it takes a fairly constant force of will to do so.

So, in the big perspective, NHK made me uncomfortable because I could see how easily I could fall into exactly Satou's life. Just as bad, though, were the many specific aspects of Satou's life that echoed those from my own. We both have a habit of treasuring memories of awkward events from our past; we can't let them go, and instead will fuss over them for years and years. We both obsess over decisions that we made in the past - or, even more heartbreaking, decisions we DIDN'T make, gestures we didn't make, people we never touched. The longer ago a failure occurred, the more ingrained the memory becomes, so instead of being less affected by distant events, they're the ones that define us most.

Does that sound depressing? It should be, but again, NHK is a weird show, and more often than not it comes across as a comedy. The show sympathizes with Satou, and at the same time it gets as much mileage as it can out of him: his awkwardness, indecision, ignorance, and reactions are all comedy gold to the writers. The show has almost nothing in common with The Office except for that essential link between discomfort and humor.

Also, as noted before, the show starts pushing Satou out into the world. He reconnects with two friends from his school days, which felt very realistic to me; I find that in my own life, it's easiest to restart relationships with people from my childhood. One of the funniest discoveries is that for nearly a year he's been living right next door to an old friend, but since he never left the room they never met. Yamazaki is a good foil to Satou; in any other anime Yamazaki would be the hopeless nerd at the bottom of the social order, but this is the one show where he's paired with someone even lower than himself, which lets him take the lead... and man, that's a scary sight. Yamazaki is hard-core otaku, obsessed with bishoojo anime in general and, in particular, a spectacularly inane piece of fluff called "Pururin." That said, Yamazaki, while a loser, is a loser inside society, while Satou is a loser outside society, and so Yamazaki can induce Satou to crawl a little out of his hole. Eventually, he and Satou start to collaborate on creating a galge, a simple romantic adventure game. Yamazaki is clearly more skilled and capable than Satou at, well, pretty much everything, and he makes sure to let Satou know it.

Yamazaki is the closest thing to a peer that Satou has. The heart of this show, though, unquestionably belongs to Misaki. She's an incredibly sweet, cheerful, giving girl who mysteriously decides to make Satou her project: she will do anything in her power to rescue him from his hikikomori lifestyle. It's very hard to get a bead on just who Misaki is and what she's doing, and Satou puzzles over it just as much as we do.

Misaki provides some much-needed structure to Satou's life, setting up daily "classes" that meet in the park at 9PM - presumably this is to make is as easy as possible for Satou to attend, since it's dark out and he won't need to see any other people in the deserted park. The classes themselves seem odd; she has prepared lectures, and notes, and lesson plans, but she doesn't seem to know the material all that much better than Satou does (her grasp of psychology is enthusiastic but shallow), and the subject matter varies widely from session to session (often explicitly addressing hikikimori, but just as often dealing with topics that seem almost totally unrelated). Now that the show is over, I suspect that her plan wasn't so much to teach Satou through the content of these lessons; rather, just having the lessons themselves were a crucial part of his "recovery." They gave him something to look forward to (or to dread, or to be annoyed at) each day, required him to engage with another human being, and offered a sense of continuity that unfolded outside of his apartment.

While "Welcome to the NHK" is a serial, most of the episodes after the first four, up until the finale, seem more or less interchangeable. Satou's condition gradually improves, as can be seen by the way he leaves his apartment, leaves town, goes on trips, meets with people. It's not a redemption story, and it's filled with setbacks. In one sequence, we learn that a seemingly friendly person is actually trying to financially profit from him, and we worry that this sour experience will drive him back into isolation. There's also a pretty amazing diversion into a FFXI/World of Warcraft-ish MMORPG, which is one of the funniest and most painful things I've seen in a while.


And then there's the ending. Is it just me, or do more things happen in that last episode than in the entire series before it? It was interesting to see Satou finally leave his apartment and get a job; I feel like we got a strong foreshadowing of this in the episode where the class president got arrested and her brother became a bicycle delivery guy. In that earlier episode, the hikikomori seemed totally redeemed by work; in a few days, he was transformed from a sniveling, helpless blob into a cheerful, energetic young man. Satou's own transformation isn't quite as dramatic. I was kind of happy to see him out in the world, but he himself doesn't look particularly happy. Those scenes also made me think a lot about Japan's social compact and economy. One of the things people often notice about Japan is the seemingly useless jobs some people have, and the main example they give is exactly what Satou ends up doing: waving a stick to let people know about road construction. From the outside, this seems like a pure waste; why on earth pay a person (and it's actually often multiple people) to do a job that can be done just as well by a sign? Well, after 23 episodes of NHK, we know why: because people NEED work. Because having a job isn't only about money, it's about having some sort of meaning to your life. Even the worst job is better than nothing, and it's better for the society to subsidize peoples' work than to subsidize their laziness.

This does obliquely get around to addressing the main question people have about hikikomori, and slackers, and NEETs: is it actually a disease? Or is it just something that happens to lazy boys with money? If you're poor, you never have the opportunity to become a hikikomori: you'll find work or you'll starve to death. Only people who can leech off of parents, or the state, have the leisure to become socially withdrawn.

So... what are we to make of that? Should parent cut off their children, and the government implement welfare-to-work programs to achieve 100% employment? I dunno, and I don't think the show does either. We're seeing how these decisions affect Satou's life, but it's hard to say if it should be read as a policy endorsement.

The main point of that final episode, though, is obviously about Misaki and Satou. How sad. How very, very sad. Now, I was never too sure of my own feelings for those two - she's obviously quite a bit younger than him, and I couldn't tell just how young, which would help determine whether their relationship would count as odd or as creepy. That said, there is a certain sense to it; Satou's hikikomori tendencies bloomed in his 20's, but started in his adolescence, and there's a certain case to be made that they're emotionally at the same age - he has arrested development due to his neuroses, and she is dealing with her own trauma. He needs saving, she needs to save. It's asymmetric, but the pieces go together.

The ending doesn't make it totally clear exactly what happened on that day... but I think we can make a very confident educated guess, especially given the last snatches of audio we hear.


Welcome to the NHK is funny, but not exactly fun. I can't really compare it to other fiction I've encountered, anime or not. It's a character study of a profoundly alienated person, who both does and does not want to reconnect with a larger society. It's got a lot of funny stuff, built on top of a very sad backdrop. If that sounds interesting to you, it's worth checking out; I doubt we'll see its like again.

Update: Heh heh... whoops! After I finished writing this, I realized that, um, there are actually 24 episodes in the first season, not 23. And, yeah, the 24th episode does change the overall feel of the series. (As a side note: a really interesting thought experiment is to imagine chopping off the last chapter of a favorite novel, or the last episode of a favorite series, or the last five minutes of a favorite play or movie. I suspect that, more often than we might think, the result would end up being more powerful than the original.)


So, Misaki does not die! That certainly makes the series WAY more cheerful. I was pretty happy with how they unwound everything in the final episode... it didn't feel like they waved a magic wand that made everyone suddenly happy, but it felt like they stayed true to their characters while showing them a way forward. It was touching to get glimpses of Yamazaki and Senpai's lives; again, this was something that resonated with me, as I often feel that mix of affection and wistfulness when I hear about old school friends building happy lives farther away from me.

Did you catch the call-back from the cliff scene to the opening of the first episode? I'm kind of surprised that I remembered it; it's been a LONG time since I started this series.

I also really like the tone on which they leave Satou's and Misaki's relationship. It isn't romantic, which would have been creepy, but it's closer than friendship. They like each other, and they need each other, and simultaneously are helping each other become more independent and diminish that neediness. It's a great note on which to end the series.


Monday, August 29, 2011

The Stupidest Angel

I've returned for more Moore. "The Stupidest Angel" is the shortest and quickest read yet from him, and it's hilarious as always. (Well, as almost always.) It's sort of a stand-alone and very twisted Christmas story, but it's also a kind of celebration of his work up to that point, including characters from quite a few of his previously unconnected novels (some of which I haven't yet read). It's all very silly, and all highly amusing.

I keep trying to figure out the best way to describe Moore's appeal to other people. I'll start sentences like, "It's really about his characters..." or "It's really about his goofy analogies..." or "It's really about the way he makes crazy things happen in real places..." or "It's really about his plotting." The truth, of course, is the sum of all these things. He has a great gift for writing dialog; he's able to quickly establish his characters' personalities and then start playing around with them; he always has just enough plot to make things interesting without overwhelming the jokes; and he's really a very skilled writer who uses his considerable talents to amuse you.


The Stupidest Angel returns to Pine Cove, the scene of Moore's first book, Practical Demonkeeping. It's a fun setting; the bucolic natural surroundings and the quirky town inhabitants provide a nice backdrop to whatever action occurs. In the first two pages, Moore perfectly nails the oddities of California Christmases:  we feel the need for holiday accoutrements, like Santa and reindeer, but it's all just kind of wrong without the weather to back it up.

I don't want to give away the plot, even in a mega spoilers section... but there's a murder pretty early on in the book, and things just kind of go downhill from there. Let's just say that this ends up being a pretty classic parody of a movie genre, but that genre isn't the Christmas movie genre.


More than anything, this book makes me want to go back and read the other books before this one, to get to know the new characters that it introduced: Island of the Sequined Love Nun, the Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove, and Lamb. I just want to be careful to not exhaust this trove of humor too quickly.

Sunday, August 28, 2011


(Imagine the title being said by Mr. Bill.)

My recent reconnection with cycling was really driven by a desire to do more hiking. There's a particular trail that I most often hike these days, starting at Sneath Lane and crossing over Sweeney Ridge, then down to Sharp Park and the Pacific Ocean. It's a great hike, but (I reasoned) it could be even BETTER if I didn't need to drive the ten-fifteen minutes to the trailhead. Walking would technically be feasible, but would require me to devote an entire day to the endeavor. But, what if I could ride my bike there? In fact, since the trail is paved, it would even be possible to ride from my home all the way up to the top of the ridge, to the missile silo site; then, I could stash my bike, and do the dirt trail to the coast and back, then coast all the way home. And, if I started on wheels, then maybe I could even do a true bay-to-ocean thing by working in a brief loop out to Bayview Park or something.

After a few attempts, I decided to give up on it; I just wasn't able to easily scale any of the ascents up to Skyline from here. However, as I kept searching for better ways up the ridge, I eventually discovered Crystal Springs Road in San Mateo and, well, that's been the gateway to everything else I've ridden since then (not counting the commute). My rides each extended on the ones before, taking climbs that I knew I was capable of and had done a few times, and adding on an extension that seemed within my abilities.

The latest iteration of this was my first-ever ride to Pescadero. I'm not sure when the idea first popped into my head, but there's a nice inevitability to it. Pescadero is my favorite place on the San Mateo coast, a small hamlet with an absurdly strong and broad food lineup: world-famous olallieberry pie and cream of artichoke soup at Duarte's Tavern; California's best fish tacos (per the New York Times) at the local gas station (!); and two bakery/groceries that put out great food. Keep in mind, all of this is in a single block that, to the untrained eye, is the entirety of Pescadero. Most times that I have visitors out here, we're able to work a trip to Pescadero in at some point, and despite a dozen journeys by now I've never gotten sick of it.

I love destinations, and there seemed to be more sense in riding to Pescadero than in the more-or-less arbitrary intersection of Old La Honda and 84. From my recent riding, I knew I'd be able to make it to Pescadero - the challenge is getting over the range, which I've done before, and from then on it's primarily downhill. My only concern was getting back home again. Could I climb from sea level to the mountaintop twice in one day?

I poked around a bit online and found some good resources from people who'd previously done the ride, and often had amusing stories to go with it. I played around with Google Maps and tried to visualize the trek. Given the destination, what would be the easiest way to do a first ride there? I'd initially assumed that it would make the most sense to cross over Skyline on Old La Honda, go down to Pescadero, and then return the way I came; the OLH summit is only about 1700 feet above sea level, while Kings Mountain summit is well over 2000 feet, so my net elevation gain would be lower. However, while studying the elevation profiles on one of the web sites, I saw that the descent from Old La Honda actually contained two noticeable peaks. Returning back up Pescadero Road would require climbing, then descending, then climbing again (repeated a few times). In contrast, the ascent I was worried about, Tunitas Creek, was a straight climb - that sounds like a bad thing, but I tend to be attracted to those, since I don't feel like I'm "wasting" a climb by recovering from a descent.

Given that all of the routes I'd seen did it as a loop, and adding the fact that I do love loops, I nervously decided to give it a go. And so, the morning of, I rode out at 7:30 in the morning. I had slightly modified my equipment. In addition to my standard water bottle, water refill, energy bars, spare tube, and tire tools, I also tossed in my Kryptonite lock, only because I couldn't clearly remember what kind of bike facilities were in Pescadero. I knew that I was a bit short on food, but that was the whole point - in Pescadero, I'd get GOOD food, FRESH food, and then I'd eat it!

I rode normally into Woodside, continuing on Canada past Roberts Market. I kept going straight on Mountain Home Road. This is the reverse direction of one of the loops I enjoy doing; I hadn't done the ascent before, but it went well, it has a nice reasonable grade and light traffic. I took this road all the way to the end, where I turned left on Portola, then right on... well, technically, I guess Portola, but I think of it as Sand Hill Road. I was now on uncharted territory. This section of the road didn't have the wide-open expanses of the lower part of Sand Hill, but it's just as bright and wide, which is nice. (Woodside really is a great town to ride in, if for no other reason than the strong variety of environments you get to ride through.) Soon I came to Old La Honda and started climbing.

I was a bit surprised at how much auto traffic was on this road. Granted, it wasn't much - maybe a half-dozen cars over the half-hour or so it took me to ascend - but that far outpaces the total of two cars that I've seen in the six or so times I've ridden the other side of OLH. Fortunately, everyone's pretty careful and calm. You have to be - the road is barely one lane wide. After I got farther up, I started really enjoying the atmosphere. There are more homes on this side than on the ocean side, and some folks were out walking their dogs. Plus, I had finally broken through the clouds and fog, and was enjoying my first direct sunlight of the day. Oh, and this is also where I stopped for my first break. I usually force myself to stop, eat something, and have a drink at regular intervals, starting at about 90 minutes and then repeating every hour. On my standard long trip my first break is usually at the Country Store at Kings Mountain and Tripp; for this, there was an entrance to a youth camp a little ways up from the start of OLH.

The climb was challenging, but probably easier than Kings Mountain. Which, again, makes sense, as it's several hundred feet shorter. At the top I stopped to sip some water and check my stats. I'd gone almost exactly 25 miles from home, in a bit under 2 hours. Not too bad! I crossed Skyline, and did the descent, still in sunshine.

At 84, I took a breath - this was my last chance to turn around and stick to a challenge I knew I could handle. Instead, I turned left, and started spinning down 84. This was a great descent - very fast, but much less curvy than the other side of 84, so I had a better feeling of control. I got passed a few times by both cyclists and cars, but for the most part it was quiet. At one point I ran into construction, where they close down one lane and use signals to control the other lane, and was delighted to finally have an opportunity to press a pedestrian crossing button to ride my bike through.

It took longer than I expected to reach La Honda, which seems to have some nice spots for refueling. I kept going farther and farther down. It was still sunny, but impressive cloud banks farther west were hiding the ocean from me. Still, I was loving the scenery - it's so green!

I finally reached Pescadero Road. It isn't very clearly marked, but there are so few intersections that it isn't hard to figure out what it is. I turned left, then went through a series of climbs and short descents. Finally, after cresting the last peak, I was ready for the race down that awaited me. The auto traffic had thinned out again, and there weren't many turns for me to worry about, just an exhilarating fast-but-not-scary zoom down to the ocean, under the bright morning sun.

I started passing farm houses and cottages as I approached the Pescadero city limits, including one very striking pink-accented home. I eventually re-entered cloud cover as I got near the coast, but there wasn't any fog this low. After riding past the Phipps Farm, I scooted over to North Road for the approach into town. I hadn't previously seen this part of Pescadero, and it was quite nice; this seems to be where everyone actually lives, and it's where some of the more town-oriented businesses are (nurseries and dairies and such). North drops you out on Stage Road just north of the "downtown" block, above the businesses and below the church.

I turned left and pedaled a few yards to Archangeli Grocery Store, where some cyclists were just leaving. I rode out to the back of the store, where there's a very nice picnic area by a creek. I propped my bike up against the fence, then walked (some might say "hobbled") into the store. I'd had in mind a banana and a pastry; they didn't have bananas, but I did pick up a ripe peach and two pastries: a raspberry croissant and a bear claw. (Ever since seeing the last season of Archer, I've been semi-obsessed with bear claws, but rarely have a sufficient reason to indulge. This was one occasion to do so.) I went back, sat at a picnic table, and devoured the peach and half of the croissant. I rarely get hungry during rides, so I wasn't able to finish it, but I knew that I'd be happy for more later, so I wrapped up the bag and stashed it away. I made use of the port-a-potty that they have there - that may not sound exciting, but on these roads, you can ride a LONG time without seeing anything that looks like an opportunity for relief.

I checked my statistics. I had ridden about 45 miles in a bit under three and a half hours. This immensely cheered me - when I'd laid out the route in Google Maps' cycling layer, it had predicted almost five and a half hours, which had seemed long to me but which I had been prepared for. The longer time would have meant getting home sometime around six-thirty - still within the span of daylight, but a really massive commitment. Now, I was on track for something much more reasonable. (I'm not totally sure how Google calculates their cycling times, but it's certainly got to be more challenging than auto times; you can usually assume that people are driving more or less the speed limit on a car, but on a bike, you have a huge range from casual riders on mountain bikes, through serious wannabe racers. Plus, add in extreme elevation gain or loss, and I can imagine their algorithm just throwing up its hands and saying, "I dunno, that seems hard!")

This was my last chance to follow my original plan of retracing my steps up Old La Honda, but by now I was feeling good about this new route, so I pushed onward. As one of the website writers had put it, "Sure, you could ride along Highway One, but why?" This next stretch was along Stage Road, which was just amazing - even with the heavy cloud cover, it was very pretty. This is definitely agricultural land, and I kept seeing snatches of bucolic scenes: a shepherd shearing a flock of sheep, while an Australian Shepherd lay with its head between its paws and watched; cattle grazing in a pasture; fields of hay and other crops.

This section is somewhat hilly; definitely not as severe as the stretches over the mountain, but with some nicely steep climbs. I don't think I passed a single car on the whole ride up to San Gregorio, just a bunch of bicyclists and one motorcycle.

In San Gregorio, I crossed Highway 84 and saw yet another cyclist gathering spot, a grocery store with a dozen or more riders clustered around outside. I kept heading north, and did one final climb before merging into Highway One.

I often drive on Highway One, and always see at least a couple of cyclists. My reactions range from "That looks exciting" to "That looks incredibly dangerous," more often trending towards the latter. However, this is one of the sections of the coast with a nice wide shoulder; even though traffic is doing 55, there's enough separation that it doesn't feel oppressive. Other than one or two parts where trees were overgrowing into the shoulder, I could mostly just relax and go. As a nice bonus, this stretch is entirely downhill, at a good grade (steep enough that you can go fast, but not so steep that pedaling does nothing).

I crossed a bridge, and then immediately turned onto Tunitas Creek - this is another intersection that isn't incredibly well marked, but where it's still fairly obvious. From my earlier research, I knew vaguely what to expect: a flat first third, followed by a very steep and long middle third, followed by an easy final third. The flat portion goes past some farms and houses which all looked quite nice; there was even one farm with a stand that was advertising fresh fruit, drinks, and picnicking. That looked like another nice cycling stop. I kept going inland, eventually leaving the clouds and rejoining the sunshine. It was coming up on 4:30 ride time, so I stopped and devoured the remaining half of my raspberry croissant.

The signs of habitation thinned out, the road met the creek, and the climb started in earnest. It was quite challenging; I think it's as steep as Kings Mountain Road, but since it's much later in the ride I had a bit less energy, plus it goes on for longer. This only makes sense; Kings Mountain Road starts after I've already been climbing for about 90 minutes, gradually working my way up from sea level, eventually reaching 2100 feet. Now, I was reaching that same elevation, but this time starting from sea level. That meant... well, a whole lotta climbing.

That said, other than the steepness it was about as good a road as I could ask for. The page I'd seen online had commented on how long it's been since the road was paved, but the surface seemed fine to me, without real noticeable cracks or potholes. The presence of the creek lent a nice soothing noise and environment. Very few cars were driving along the road. And, the heavy forest was providing some welcome shade now that I was entering the hottest part of the day.

My main goal was simply to make it to the top of the mountain in one go. I didn't care how long it took, and I didn't mind that I'd be in my very lowest gear for pretty much the whole way; I just didn't want to walk my bike or take a break. I felt like pooping out at a few points, but was pretty good at settling into a rhythm - to the untrained ear it might sound like gasping for air, but I was steadily performing and just letting my body go on auto-pilot. Mentally, I was either counting out numbers - "One one thousand, two one thousand, three one thousand..." - or else running through snatches of music in my head; this day's bizarre collection of earworms included "A Prayer for England," the inane "Pururin" theme song from "Welcome to the NHK", and (briefly) Toad the Wet Sprocket's "Walk on the Ocean."

Eventually, I realized that I wasn't working as hard as I needed to before. It was still mostly uphill, but I did get one or two rare flat or downhill stretches, and even the climbs were much more reasonable. I was also getting passed much more often, presumably by riders who had been less damaged by the climbs and could switch their turbo back on. I contentedly pedaled along, happy in the thought that I would accomplish my goal.

Altogether, the climbing portion took me about an hour. I finally emerged at the intersection of Tunitas Creek, Skyline, and Kings Mountain Road. I always see at least one or two groups of cyclists clustered around here when I ascend from Kings Mountain, and I could tell better than ever before why: it's a good stop after Kings Mountain, and a necessary stop after Tunitas Creek. I found a shady spot, got out my bag, and devoured half of my bear claw. Mmmm. Rawr! Bear claws!

I'd felt my phone buzzing a few minutes from the peak, which surprised me, since I had turned it off before starting my ride. (Obviously, my route takes me through a lot of places with poor or no cell signal, which eats up the battery. I always bring along my phone, but keep it turned off so it'll have juice if I need to use it.) I guess the jostling must have powered it on. Anyways, I read texts from my brother and sister (sis had just landed in San Diego at the start of a half-week trip), replied to her, and packed my stuff back up. I was more than halfway done with the trip, and from here on out, it would MOSTLY be downhill.

The first hill to go down: Kings Mountain. This was a total blast. I've climbed up it quite a few times over the last several months, and it's always the most challenging climb of a ride. I see lots of other riders struggling up, and a few lucky ones sprinting down, going by in a flash. It felt great to be a flasher for a change. It's steep, and fast, and curvy, and woodsy, and all in all just a great time.

On the way down, I tried to decide whether I should return back to Woodside so I could stop at Roberts Market and pick up some more supplies, primarily something like gatorade and maybe a banana. I decided that I'd be fine - I had a full water bottle left, and half a pastry, plus an emergency Clif Bar. So I continued on my way, doing the reverse of my normal ride: down to the bottom of Kings Mountain, past Tripp and the Woodside Country Store. I had to keep my eye open for Albion; I'm used to coming out of it, but wasn't used to approaching from this perspective. I managed to spy it, turned left, and worked my way back along Manuella and Olive Hill. It was fascinating to do the ride from this direction, and it felt like I was seeing totally different scenery. This is basically a cutoff to the standard Canada - Woodside intersection that most people take; it's quieter, goes by some really pretty estates, and lets you avoid two stop signs and the attendant Woodside cops.

After a left turn on Canada, I was back on autopilot for the rest of the ride back; even the last couple of climbs I need to do (Ralston Bike Trail, Crystal Springs, and the last mile of Sawyer Camp) breezed by. I reached the southern entrance to Sawyer Camp right around 6:30 riding time and polished off the rest of my bear claw. By the time I made it home, I'd traveled 89.28 miles in 7:17 riding time; counting all my stops, the total clock time was almost exactly eight hours. I can't even begin to guess how much total climbing there was... but it must be many, many thousands of feet. The ride was tiring, thrilling, exhilarating. I'm sure I won't forget it. I can hardly wait to go again.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Better Night

I recently realized that, despite being a Shakespeare nerd, I've never seen nor read one of his most famous plays, A Midsummer Night's Dream. That's kind of a funny oversight. I guess it was never assigned in either of the two high school or the three college classes (including "Shakespeare") where I would have had the opportunity of being forced to read it. I do sometimes pick up his plays on my own, but his comedies are my least favorite part of the oeuvre, so I'd re-read King Lear before picking up Midsummer.

Of course, anyone who's even vaguely tied into the culture will already know the most salient aspects of this play: fairies, Puck, enchantment. I was therefore intrigued when I heard of a new novel, "The Great Night" by Chris Adrian, that re-tells the story of Midsummer and sets it in Buena Vista Park in San Francisco. Intriguing! I love San Francisco, and I love Shakespeare, and I'd finally have a chance to experience one interpretation of the play. Sold!

By a serendipitous coincidence, this is also the year that my friend Erik's Shady Shakespeare troupe decided to perform A Midsummer Night's Dream as part of their annual summer Shakespeare in the Park program. As is our tradition, a bunch of former co-workers made the journey to Sanborn to have a picnic, drink some wine, and enjoy the Bard under the redwoods.

I was surprised by just how much I enjoyed it. Shakespeare is always great, but I am usually underwhelmed by his comedies. It isn't their fault - who would have thought that these jokes would still be told 400 years after they were written? - and it's impressive that they hold up as well as they do (have you tried watching old sitcoms from the mid-century?). This was a blast, though. The relationship stuff at the beginning doesn't occupy too much time, just sets the stage for future action. Once in the woods, Shakespeare's talent for cross-gender insults kicks into high gear as the lovers variously woo and abuse one another. The highlight of the play for me, though, is the Rustic Players, a sort of B-plot that takes over the play. They are, well, very untalented actors, led by a bad playwriter, and starring a deliciously pompous and vain leading man. Throughout Midsummer we see them rehearse, and squabble, and generally be unintentionally hilarious.

The main plot is the magical one, driven by Oberon and Titania, the king and queen of fairieland. Oberon is intrigued by the love triangle of mortals, and peeved at Titania's affection for a boy, so he enlists Puck to meddle in both affairs. Mistakes are made, hijinks ensue, and soon a Bottom with the head of a donkey is snuggling Titania. Oberon and Puck eventually set everything right, young lovers are married off, and we're all treated to the stupendous performance of the rustic players. For me, that final scene was the absolute highlight of the whole play - parody is great, and Shakespeare did a great job at essentially mocking the melodrama of plays like his own Romeo & Juliet.

So, that was awesome. I was glad to have that performance freshly in my mind as I finished reading The Great Night. TGN definitely takes a lot of inspiration and several characters from MND, but it's not at all a retelling.


The most important change here is probably in the nature of the fairies. Adrian uses many of the same fairie names as Shakespeare, most notably Titania and Puck, and they occupy loosely the same roles, but these fairies are kind of scary. These are the OLD fairies - if you've read any of Neil Gaiman's fairies, or Terry Pratchett's "Lords and Ladies," you'll be familiar with the concept. These are the beings feared by the old English, magical beings of great power and no morals, who would steal away children, cast glamours over mortals, and generally torment people for their own pleasure. Sure, they might occasionally help someone, but only when it amuses them to do so.

The fairies live in Buena Vista Park, under the hill. For the most part they isolate themselves from humans, but when the fancy strikes, they will venture out into the city to mess with mortals. Occasionally, they will steal back a human child, leaving a changeling in its place, and amuse themselves with it for a while until it starts to grow too old, at which time they send it back.

The action of the story takes place on, well, Midsummer Night. The main action covers a period of several hours, but most of the book is actually devoted to flashbacks, where you learn about the recent tragedy which had struck the fairie leaders, and the sources of grief in the humans' lives. These are scattered throughout the book, and not told in any chronological order, so there's an interesting kaleidoscopic effect, particularly among the humans, as you discover new aspects of each character. The most tragic is probably Henry, a gay man with OCD who had broken up with his boyfriend a year ago and still hasn't been able to get over him. Casting farther back, we learn about his difficult childhood with a melodramatic mother; eventually, he remembers the original source of his sadness.

The hardest character to track is probably Molly, just because the snapshots we get of her life seem so disparate. We first meet her as a sweet and shy shopgirl who lives a quiet life and is recovering from the suicide of her boyfriend. Later, though, we learn that she previously was practicing as a mainline Protestant clergywoman. And still later, we find out about her childhood, performing in a Brady Bunch-ish fundamentalist Christian family/band. It's all interesting stuff, but for me didn't cohere quite as strongly as Henry's story.

Will is the most likeable, and probably the least interesting, of the mortals. He's a tree specialist and aspiring author who cheated on his girlfriend Christine and got dumped.


Only later in the book do we discover that all three mortals, who had never previously met each other, are all connected. I don't think that they every fully realize it, either.  Molly's dead boyfriend Ryan had been captured by the fairies as a boy. Henry was taken by Puck as his own plaything. After he was cast out by Titania, Henry met with Ryan and a group of other boys under the protection of Mike, the oldest of all those to have been captured. Henry had managed to leave with an acorn, which quickly grew into a fairie tree. However, Henry later notified the police of the house, and all the boys were scattered and gradually forgot about what had happened to them.

Years later, Ryan grew up and bought the house. He was very sad, because he'd never be able to return to fairieland. Molly helped, but she couldn't replace what he'd lost, and he eventually killed himself.

Then, Ryan's sister Christine inherited the house. By now the tree was dying; it wasn't meant to exist in in the mortal land, and it no longer had even the remnants of fairie magic to help its growth. Will and Christine's love helped give the tree some more life.

The large tragedy hanging behind everything is the fairie one. Somehow, Titania and Oberon managed to actually feel true affection for one of their stolen children, The Boy. They don't just amuse themselves, but actually love him. Sadly, The Boy starts dying of leukemia, and while the fairies' magic is powerful, they've never had any experience with human illness or death. The Boy is sent to UCSF Medical, where Henry is the attending physician. He dies over a period of months. Grief-stricken, Titania and Oberon retreat under the hill; eventually, Titania drives Oberon away, and then regrets it. Desperate to bring him back, she finally unleashes Puck, who used to be known as The Beast, one of the most dangerous fairies ever. Puck is ready and capable of destroying the whole world, but Oberon's residual magic leaves him trapped in Buena Vista, along with the mortals who are wandering through on their way to a house party in the Upper Haight. So, everyone's grief comes to a head, and the big question is whether Puck will be stopped.

Hands-down, my favorite part of this book was Adrian's reinterpretation of the Rustic Players. Here, it's a group of homeless people who are putting on a musical based on the movie Soylent Green. Throughout the novel we catch snatches of them blocking out the dance  numbers, rehearsing the songs, rewriting the script, and doing everything they can to make it as powerful as possible. In the book's climax, Titania (who, in a nod to the original play, has been cursed by Puck to love Huff, the bum who started writing the musical) lends her magic to the play, and all the fairies join in, transforming it into a resonant cultural event. "People... people who eat people... are the loneliest people in the world!"


Altogether, Great Night is an intriguing book. Adrian made a good choice in taking inspiration from Midsummer without staying too devoted to it. On balance, it's a much sadder and darker tale than Shakespeare's comedy, but it has some truly inspired funny parts, and the combination of setting and characters makes it a very memorable novel.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Sarevok! Sarevok!

Awesome new games come out every month. So, of course, I've spent the last month or two playing through a game from the 1990s. For the second time. I'm pleased to report that Baldur's Gate is as good as ever.

Periodically, a game comes out that's so good that its fans aren't content to merely play and praise it. Fervent mod communities grow up around these games, with gamers pouring their love back into the game. This makes the game even more fun for others, and drastically extends the shelf life. I kept on playing Civ II and Civ IV long after their respective sequels came out, largely because I had a steady stream of fresh content from other fans to explore. The original Half-Life was infamous for its extended life, which spawned off some other franchises as well.

I'd originally played Baldur's Gate way back in... it was probably the summer of 2001. I think that I had already played Ultima IX: Ascension, which explicitly ended and capped what until then had been my favorite RPG series. I was ready to find another franchise that could fill the void left behind by Ultima, and the two series that were most often mentioned were Baldur's Gate and Elder Scrolls. I'm not sure now why I picked up Baldur's Gate - probably because it was on sale, or perhaps because I still remembered the frightening stories of Daggerfall's bugginess.

I played Baldur's Gate straight-up: just the original game, without the expansion or any of the mods, fix-packs, or other contributions. It took a little while to get into it. While I'd enjoyed playing pencil-and-paper RPGs, I'd never played Dungeons & Dragons, so I didn't come to the game with the specific knowledge of its magic system, THAC0, dual-classing, and other arcana. I did love that wonderfully thick manual, though, and probably read it cover-to-cover (including the spell descriptions) before I started to play. As previously noted, I selected to play as a male half-elf bard named Cirion. I'm pretty sure that I specifically didn't play as a mage or a cleric because the magic system seemed kind of overwhelming, and with the restrictive rules around memorization, I was worried that I'd spend too much time fiddling with my spells, and still not make the right decisions.

I'm pretty sure that I enjoyed playing BG1. I must have, otherwise I wouldn't have kept on going. That said, almost all of my vivid memories of the series, and my unabashed praise for it, are due to Baldur's Gate 2 and the Throne of Bhaal expansion, which built on BG1's foundation and added an incredibly rich social system, including intra-party dynamics that felt truly organic, plus the famous romance storylines, stronghold-centric professional quests... just lots of awesome stuff that made the Sword Coast seem like a fully-realized world with interesting people inside.

So, one of the awesome things that the fans did was take the best aspects of Baldur's Gate 2, and bring them back to the original game. This happened in a couple of ways. First, from the most technical perspective, they actually took the effort to get the Baldur's Gate 1 game to run on the Baldur's Gate 2 engine. BG1 and BG2 were only separated by a few years, but BG2 did have better graphics, a better interface, and a fuller implementation of the D&D rules that added things like specialization kits, dual-wielding weapons, and so on. I found EasyTutu, which wraps up this conversion and some other useful stuff in a single convenient install package. (Incidentally - all this software is great, and I really appreciate that the fans don't show any inclination towards allowing piracy. I'm also really glad that I held on to all my install CDs throughout the six moves since I first played!) There have also been fan-based efforts to fix some of the bugs that Bioware never squashed, or otherwise clean stuff up. I vaguely remembered Baldurdash, which I think I used during my original play through BG2. It seems like this has now been supplanted by the BG2 Fixpack. (Another nice thing about Tutu: pretty much all of the user-provided enhancements for BG2 now can improve your BG1 experience.) It seems like these days, most of the fan activity occurs around the Gibberlings 3 and the Pocket Plane Group web sites (with some notable assistance from sorcerers.net as well - man, I love this kind of competition!).

In addition to the purely technical improvements, fans have also been contributing a wealth of content to fill out the game. From what I've seen so far, it doesn't seem to be quite as extensive as that done for BG2, but it's still an impressive set of stuff. Again, a lot of this is taking good ideas from BG2 and bringing them back to BG1. For example, one of the things I enjoyed best about BG2 was party bantering. Sometimes, while you're just randomly walking around, one of your party members will strike up a conversation with you. How you respond to that conversation will help determine how much that member likes you, or may open up other side-quests. Even better, sometimes party members will just talk amongst themselves, without your involvement. The results are often hilarious, but sometimes are sobering, or intriguing, or deliciously awkward. Anyways, I don't remember that happening very much at all in BG1, but people have now gone back and written a bunch of new banters for your characters.

And really, that's the thing that impresses me the most. I don't know why it would. It takes a relatively rare set of skills in order to, say, be able to convert a FPS game into a mystery whodunit. On the other hand, pretty much anyone can write. And yet, when I find someone who can write well, it makes me unusually happy. Well, here we have a case where dozens - heck, maybe even hundreds - of strangers have collaborated through the Internet to write a novel's worth of text, which isn't only well-written, but which also manages to match the tone of characters who were created by an entirely separate set of people. I mean, wow... that isn't just talent, that isn't just hard work, that's artistry.

Before starting up this new game, I spent... heh, it was probably about two hours, just installing all the software and researching which mods to install and how to best do them. One thing I was already excited about was checking out the Tales of the Sword Coast. I'd skipped the expansion when I first played the game, going straight from BG1 to BG2. I also installed EasyTutu, of course. Then, I layered on the other user-provided content. Fortunately, the community has simplified stuff greatly, combining related items into single mods. The advantage is that there are only a few files that you need to download; the disadvantage is that a single installer might ask you twenty or fifty questions about what kind of mod experience you want to have ("Do you want unlimited stacks of ammo? Do you want unlimited stacks of potions? Do you want full hit points granted on each level up?"). It would have been nice for a simple option like "Pick the most common answers." But, whatever... it took less than an hour, and I've gotten months of pleasure from the results.

Looking back, I think the single most enjoyable mod was the BG1 NPC Project. This mod significantly expands the amount of content related to your NPCs, adding personal side-quests, a lot more banters, and interjections. (It also added romances, but unfortunately I wasn't able to experience any of these.) Again, what's most impressive to me was how all of this was done by enhancing the already-existing BG1 characters. Back what I was playing BG2, I saw a good number of mods that added stand-alone new NPCs. That's cool, but I was never particularly tempted to check them out. Here, though, they've taken the faint outlines of personalities that were shown before, and expanded them into deeper three-dimensional characters. In some cases, this is taking the revelations we got in BG2 and retrofitting them into the prequel - we get to know Minsc and Jaheira VERY well by the end of BG2, for example. However, a lot of these characters' stories end after BG1, which makes me all the more glad that I can get to know them better.

After running through a bunch of installs and offering a silent petition to Tymora, I was ready to set foot back in the Forgotten Realms. Right away, I ran into an interesting quandary. I wanted to make my new play-through a new experience, and so I needed to make different decisions about how to play the game. That meant, for starters, not rolling another bard. However, what to do about alignment? Cirion had been a neutral good character, so for completeness, I really should play as chaotic evil or lawful evil; that would let me pursue a couple of bad-guy quests that I hadn't done before, and also give me a very different experience both in playing the remaining quests and in role-playing the game in general. However, I just really didn't want to play an evil character. It can be fun in little bursts, but for an epic, ongoing stretch over a long period of time and across multiple titles, I knew it would become too dispiriting. I wanted to LIKE my character. I'm pretty much neutral good in real life, so I decided that alignment was one area where I would accept a repeat from the 2001 play-through.

So: my new character was Sebrina, a female elf sorceress. My normal go-to character is a thief, but that felt a bit too close to my previous bard. Having played through the whole saga before, I felt like I now had a good handle on arcane magic, so some sort of mage made sense. I wanted to take advantage of the BG2 kits offered by tutu; I believe that BG1 only offered standard specialist mages (Invokers, Illusionists, Necromancers, etc.). Sorcerers sounded awesome, since they didn't need to memorize spells, by far my least favorite aspect of the D&D magic system. (Being ignorant, I initially thought that this meant that sorcerers can cast an unlimited number of spells per day. Not so: you are still limited to a certain number of spells per circle per day, but you don't need to pre-determine which spells those will be.) You can't dual-class a sorcerer, so I didn't want to play as a human; that left being either an elf or a half-elf, and I decided to play this game as a full elf.

After leaving Candlekeep, I of course joined up with Imoen, then headed out. I soon met Xzar and Montaron; as in my first play-through, I joined them in order to better handle any abuse I encountered. I think that in the first game, I might have headed straight down to Nashkell after they suggested it; here, though, I knew that I wanted to drop those two ASAP, so I went to Friendly Arm and joined with Khalid and Jaheira. I was more comfortable with that party, but I knew that I was already on the wrong track, since my original party had also included Imoen, Khalid, and Jaheira. I resolved to find a sufficient number of good-aligned characters that I could form an at least slightly different group.

Now, in my first game, I had very briefly traveled with Dynaheir. I think that it was almost immediately after rescuing her that I went to the Nashkel mines, where she had perished during the battle with Mulahey. (Whether through the BG2 engine or one of the mods I installed, it looks like permadeath was no longer a problem on this latest play-through, but in the original game, if one of your characters died just the wrong way, they won't just die, but explode into parts, which made resurrection impossible.) At that time I had Xan immediately available to take her place, and had finished the game with him serving as my mage, but I resolved that this time I would keep Dynaheir alive and get to know her better.

That meant I needed to rescue her first. I went to Nashkel, joined with Minsc, booted Montaron and his buddy, then struck out west for the gnoll stronghold. It took me an incredibly long time to find Dynaheir; for some reason, I initially couldn't see her at the bottom of any of the prisoner pits, so I ended up revisiting all of them before I could find her. She and Minsc were gladly reunited. I was already finding the new benefits of the BG1 NPC project, as everyone was more chatty, and I was receiving a new quest related to Dynaheir's missing journal.

Jaheira had traditionally taken care of my healing needs, so if I was going to replace her, I'd need to find a cleric. I knew where Viconia was, and kind of wanted to do more with her this time, but also knew there was no way she'd get along with my nascent good party. Instead, at the Nashkell carnival I found and rescued Branwen, a neutral cleric. I don't think I'd even encountered her in my previous game, or knew how to save her, so that was a plus right there. I gently let Jaheira go, and she and Khalid returned to the Friendly Arm Inn.

BG1 does have an unusually large set of paired characters. Many of the NPCs you find essentially have their own small parties; you can join up with them all at once, or not at all, but you can't split them up (unless one of the characters is dead). Xzar and Montaron go together, as do Jaheira and Khalid, and Minsc and Dynaheir (after you've rescued her). I now needed another warrior type to replace the departed Khalid. Minsc is a great brawler, and Branwen is quite useful especially since she can wear strong armor, but I had two mages and a thief to protect.

Outside High Hedge, I found another character who I didn't remember from my first play-through, an elf ranger named Kivan. I'm not sure if I'd just missed him, or if my party had already been full before I met him. He's a compelling character, though, especially for a good-aligned party. He has very high Strength and Dexterity; I almost always used him as an archer, but he was one of my only characters with over 18 Strength, and later on he got quite deadly at dual-wielding bastard swords. (Weirdly enough, he gets a custom-made magic spear early on that only he can wield, even though he has no proficiency with the weapon.) I was now pretty well set: I could use Branwen to soak up damage, while Minsc dealt heavy blows up front, Kivan ruthlessly attacked from a distance, and my mages did their heavy firepower thing from the rear lines.

I picked the plot back up in the Nashkel mines. All my wandering had led to a lot more experience, and I'm pretty sure that I was heading in at least a few levels higher than before. I made short work of the hordes of kobolds roaming the levels, and even the climactic battle wasn't nearly as difficult as I'd remembered. I was tempted to get Xan, but decided to stick with my guns and keep around Dynaheir.

One of the great things about BG1 is how loose it is. A lot of RPGs start out with a tightly focused plot that sort of guides you through the world for the first part of the game, and then eventually open up to let you explore and do what you want. In BG1, though, not only are you free to go pretty much anywhere almost from the beginning, but you don't even really know what the plot of the game is going to be. You can spend a long time just wandering before you stumble across the major plots that are taking place between Baldur's Gate and Amn, which adds to the sense that this is a full world that you're passing through, not just an excuse for setting a game.

All that is to say, one could very quickly run through all seven chapters in the game, but you'd be missing out on a lot of the world and atmosphere that Bioware created. I took my time after Nashkel, exploring all the various wilderness areas, doing the fun mini-quests and chatting up everyone I met. I knew that a lot of what I was seeing, I was seeing for the first time; but, for any given encounter, I was never entirely sure whether I was seeing "premium" content that was added from Tales of the Sword Coast; or "fan" content that was inserted by the BG1 NPC project and related mods; or stuff from vanilla BG1 that I had missed in my first (FAQ-less) play through this huge world.

I was pretty happy with the course I was charting, but still wondered if I could do more to shake things up. I felt like I needed to have Imoen, since she was the only good-aligned thief in the game; and Minsc just has an awesome personality, plus he's the strongest NPC in the game and a must-have for good parties. Since they had both been in my first game, though, I wanted to try doing something different with them. I couldn't do a whole lot with Minsc; in retrospect, I really should have tried the Level 1 NPC mod to change Minsc into a straight-up fighter or berserker. However, I did decide to have him dual-wield maces, instead of being a two-handed-sword guy like before. That was fun; he was able to deliver a ludicrous number of hits per round.

For Imoen, I realized that I could dual-class her into a mage. This is actually what happens in BG2, and I was realizing the the BG1 NPC mod was already strongly insinuating that Imoen was interested in investigating the arcane arts. Why not indulge her, and get a very versatile spellcaster out of the deal?

I thought that the big question would be when to dual-class her. It should be late enough that she could pull her own weight on thievery without any more levels through the rest of the game; but if I waited too long, either she'd never get back her thief skills, or they would come too late to do me any good. It turns out that the question I should have asked was what activities I should do before leveling her up. I was having such a good time wandering throughout the, um, wilderness, which doesn't exactly have a ton of traps and locked chests lying around. I got so much experience from this that, by the time I dualed her over to a mage, we didn't have much wilderness left to explore, which meant that I could really only advance in levels by advancing the plot, which often meant visiting dungeons and other places where a thief would really come in handy.

I was tempted to pick up another thief to tide me over. There are a few female thieves, whose names I forget, that seemed like likely and likeable candidates. However, that would mean booting one of the other members of my party, and I really liked its composition already. Losing one member while Imoen leveled up seven times would mean that they would never fit back in.

So, I just kind of suffered. As much as possible I delayed visiting dungeon-y locations. I'd once tried to visit Durlag's Tower while Imoen was still actively thieving, and was turned back by my very first fight, with a not very friendly Battle Horror. For the cases where I needed to deal with such issues, I would generally just suffer the traps, and try to get Minsc or someone to force open locked chests (sometimes after drinking an appropriate giant strength potion). It was far from elegant, but I could soak up the abuse well enough.

While hunting through the Iron Throne's secret iron mine in the Cloakwood Forest, I stumbled across Yeslick, who perfectly complemented my party. Branwen had been a great asset, but as the only neutral-aligned character, she was never too pleased at our goody-goody two-shoes image. Plus, I loved the idea of getting a legitimate multiclass fighter to go with my cleric; Branwen had been playing that role herself, but pretty much just because she was one of the few people who could wear decent armor. Yeslick could actually develop strong proficiencies in his weaponry.

Heh... now I can't remember why this is, but for some reason I chose to drop Imoen instead of Branwen when I let Yeslick into the party. In general, Imoen is the safest character to drop - she always likes you, so she'll always rejoin you later. But since he was going to replace her, I should have just dumped her. Anyways. I told Imoen to stay put so I could come back and get her. She refused. I thought that was weird; then I realized that it must be because (spoiler alert) you end up flooding the mines and destroying them, thereby killing everyone left inside and preventing yourself from ever returning. Good save, developers! That would have really sucked. Instead, Imoen decided to head back to the Friendly Arm Inn, which by this point was getting rather crowded from members of Sebrina's Party Rejects.

We unclasped another link in the Iron Throne's chain, found the key to the pumps, and shut down their operations. I gently led Branwen down. She stormed off in a huff, no doubt comparing my unfavorably to Tempus. I went back to Friendly Arm, said hello to my favorite half-elves, and picked Imoen back up.

I was having more and more fun as the game continued and Imoen kept leveling up. In my last game, I'd had several weak magic users, but relied on Xan for all my spellcasting. Now, fully half of my party consisted of advanced spellcasters. Sebrina, who eventually rose to a level 9 sorceress, concentrated on offensive magic; she could call down a crazy number of magic missiles, acid arrows, and other badness. (Sorcerers and sorceresses (sp?) are much more limited in the number of spells they can learn; depending on their intelligence, a mage might be able to learn twelve or so spells per circle, while a sorceress can only learn four, and once she learns them, she won't be able to learn any more from that circle. Because of this, and since I plan on continuing this character in BG2, I avoided spending any slots on spells that would be supplanted by more advanced versions later on; Minor Spell Sequencer is incredibly handy in BG1, but I would never want to cast it after I'd learned regular Spell Sequencer in BG2. Stuff like Magic Missile, that keeps improving as you keep on leveling up, is the best choice.) Dynaheir also had an offensive component, as well as spells which were useful for the whole party, like Knock (when Imoen was in apprentice mode) and Haste. (I also used Dynaheir for any spells that I wanted but didn't want Sebrina to learn, Haste being a perfect example. I'm saving Sebrina for Improved Haste, but it's extremely difficult to beat BG1 without access to regular Haste.) Imoen got some good defensive spells, like Mirror Image, Blur, and Invisibility, that would let her get a bit closer to the battlefield. Imoen also eventually picked up on some more strategic offensive spells, like Greater Maeleson.

When all three of the ladies got going - well, it was amazing to behold. I don't think it's exactly cheating, or even power-gaming, since it takes a bit more strategy to keep your rear line safe when you have so few fighters; but the effort was well worth it, as we could blast our way through any problem with ease. It led to a totally different style of play, which was a lot of fun. Each individual battle was riskier, but they also tended to be over much more quickly; the overall effect is a bit like launching a mortar to take care of your skunk problem.

The team as a whole worked well. Of course, Yeslick had just as many spells to contribute; unfortunately, he didn't often get to use his good offensive spells, like Holy Smite, because he was so busy smiting himself with his Mastery in a +2 electrical warhammer. As before, Kivan rained death from behind, and Minsc tore through enemies like so many fleas on a hamster's back. The boss fights were still nicely challenging, and we could swiftly handle the regular conflicts that headed our way. I remember micromanaging almost every fight the first time I played BG1; now, I was comfortable letting the AI handle the majority of them, once I had a few extra hit points as buffers and had assigned reasonable AI scripts to each member.

After flooding the mine but before entering Baldur's Gate, I headed to Ulgoth's Beard, one of the new areas atted by TotSC. Ulgoth's Beard itself is quite small, a little village with just one inn and no shops. However, it's a jumping-off point to several of the new quests added in the expansion. The first one I tried was a quick but weird one, where you're teleported to a snowy waste (possibly an Icewind Dale crossover?) and explore the caves beneath. You eventually learn that this area is a... kind of a magnet, I guess, that pulls in mages that are teleporting over long distances. Once they arrive, the mages are stuck there. They're free to do what they want (mostly building things and squabbling among themselves), but the most popular pasttime is apparently going crazy and trying to kill adventurers. You cut your way through all of them (well, all but one; one of the craziest was actually pretty nice, and offered to help me), eventually retrieving the Magic Macguffin and emerging from the caves before teleporting back to Ulgoth's Beard.

The next quest is a bit more involved. You meet a reclusive scholar, who speaks with a strange accent, and asks for your help in chasing down the mystery of what happened to Baldur, the legendary founder of Baldur's Gate. You travel to Baldur's Gate proper, where you infiltrate a shipping company and steal some sea charts that the scholar has learned of. (This was a fun mini-quest: you need to get a barrel of grog in order to intoxicate the sea-captain.) Once you have the charts, you board a ship and sail off across the waves, replicating Baldur's ancient last journey. A storm arises, wrecking the ship and casting you on the shores of an island.

At first, I was thinking that this would be like Aldous Huxley's The Island, some utopic vision of a peaceful community which is isolated from the grimness of the real world. You swiftly learn that this isn't the case. The little girl you meet at first is friendly and intelligent (like the little girl at the start of Huxley's book), but the community as a whole is quite suspicious and guarded. You eventually meet with the chieftess, who fills you in on the situation: the peace-loving villagers are descended from a ship that wrecked on the island long ago. They occupy only a small section of the island; the rest is overrun by the "others" or "beasts", who look quite like the villagers but smell different (the villagers are all very big on smell), and who violently attack them whenever they venture beyond the walls of the village. The chieftess knows that there is another ship on the island that you might be able to use to leave, but in order to travel there you will need to help them destroy the beasts.

The rest of the village warms to you after you have met with the chieftess, and several of them have little quests to give you. Another little girl wants her doll back, and graciously gives you permission to play with it after you find it. Several people have family members which have gone missing when they dared enter the wilderness. There's only one course of action open, so you head out.

If the talk of "others" puts you in mind of "Lost"... well, yeah, that's not too far from the truth. Very soon after leaving the safety of the gates, you run across a man who asks for your help. You follow him deeper into the woods, where he reveals that what he really wants is supper. He transforms into a werewolf (well, according to the engine, it's actually a "wolfwere"), and he and several of his budies leap on you. Being wolfweres, they're immune to most weapons, but fortunately I had some fairly highly enchanted items, and spells seemed effective.

You continue exploring the island. Sometimes wolves will simply attack you; other times wolfweres will approach, either trying to deceive you with tales of lost children, or taunting you before they attack. Other dangers fill the island as well, including the Sirene Queen, who has lured males from the village to her lair.

Eventually, in the north of the island, you find an old "cabin" which is actually the forecastle of an ancient ship. Inside, you find a slightly insane mage, the last surviving member of Baldur's crew. He doesn't really have all his faculties, but he does let you know that he has spent all of his energies over the last several hundred years just surviving in this small space, keeping the wolves at bay. He entreats you to enter the main part of the ship to retrieve his spellbook, so he can regain his lost spells and help you cleanse the werewolves.

The battle inside the ship is extremely difficult; this is one of the few places in the game where I resorted to cheap tactics like entering a room, then immediately fleeing, in order to lure away one or two enemies from a larger group of foes. I made much use of my Haste spell and other buffs, and rested extensively after clearing each level. Eventually, at the very top, you encounter the head wolfwere and engage him in a bit of dialog. Typically, I'm all for exploring the peaceful option and seeing if there's a way to resolve conflict without battle, but he was mad and so was I. We accused each other of needless slaughter, I accused him of kidnapping a child, and the battle was joined. The higher-level wolfweres were immune to almost all weapons, and they had some nasty spellcasters as well, including some deadly use of the Confuse spell. We struggled for a while; I eventually started making use of Dynaheir's monster summoning spells just to soak up the wolfweres' attention, tried to get the best position I could in the cramped quarters, started sending Minsc and Yeslick up the stairs first to get their attention and then having my weaker spellcasters follow. At last, after several tries I was able to kill them all.

The chests included the mage's spellbook, but just as intriguing, it included Baldur's diary, my ostensible reason for visiting the island in the first place. The diary explained how Baldur had sailed back across the sea to re-visit a land of immense wealth, where he traded and took on more goods. He also had to fight several battles to resolve grudges from his earlier journey there. He needed to replenish the men lost in combat, and so he took on a combination of captives and hirelings. They seemed weak and passive, but were all Baldur had available. Much later, when they were in the middle of the sea, they showed their true colors, transforming into werewolves. They infected much of Baldur's original crew. Their ship wrecked on the island, and... that's all that history knows of Baldur.

I returned the spellbook to the mage, who unceremoniously Dimension Door'd out of there without even a thank-you. Slightly miffed, I looted his little cabin, then headed back to the village. The villagers were mostly delighted to see me, and repeatedly asked/suggested/implied that I stay. They had taken in at least one other outsider before, and many said that with the beasts all slain, the whole island would become a paradise.

Back at the chieftess's hut, I told her what I'd done, and she filled me in on some more details. I had to re-play the dialog since at first I didn't quite believe what I was reading. She had no intention of letting me leave; my reward for slaying the beasts was to become one of them. She did this by giving me the gift of lycanthropy. Yep, that's right - the villagers were all werewolves. I'd thought all along that it was a little weird that they hadn't just said "werewolves" when describing the Others, instead just saying things like "They're like us, but not like us." For all the violence shown by the Others, they weren't the ones who had attacked Baldur and infected the ship. Instead, the whole situation was inverted from what I had originally surmised. The villagers were the descendents of the werewolves who had betrayed Baldur and wrecked him. The Others were the descendents of Baldur's crew, poor Sword Coasters who had been bitten, infected, and then turned into wolfweres. Yes, they were violently trying to kill the villagers, but the villagers had really started the whole mess.

That was cool, and another example of Bioware's suprior story-telling prowess. It's so rare that I'm actually surprised by a plot twist in a game, even an RPG. Developers seem to be so worried that gamers won't follow what's happening that they fall over themselves to foreshadow the heck out of any upcoming development. Here, they did a good job at seeding some clues, but did an even better job at misdirecting my attention, making the whole experience that much greater.

It turns out that not all the werewolves like the idea of accepting newcomers to their tribe; another village leader transformed and attacked us, while the chieftess cheerfully apologized and made her escape. After killing him, we emerged. Almost all the villagers would now transform and attack us once we got close enough. I was (in character) rather upset at the whole thing, and so went on a long detour through the village, killing all of these abominations. One or two of them stayed kind (and humanoid), one of them directing me to the hut which contained a secret passage to the eastern coast. I also met up with Baldur's old mage, who confirmed my understanding of what was happening, and who advised me to board that ship.

After making my way through an underground tunnel, I emerged and confronted the chieftess. She explained that the reclusive scholar I'd met was actually her husband/mate, who had gone ahead to prepare the way. With the wolfweres all dead, and the sea charts I'd brought, and free access to the repaired ship, the werewolves would now be free to leave the island and spread throughout the world. I felt a bit of sympathy for her, but also didn't like the idea of lycanthropy annihilating all the races, so we attacked, defeated her, seized the ship, and returned home. In the coda, back at Ulgoth's Beard, the scholar became furious when he realized what we'd done. A final fight killed him, the pack leader of all the werewolves, and so the lycanthropy curse was broken.

We had now managed to level up Imoen quite a bit, but not enough to get back her thief skills. Unfortunately, there was nowhere else to explore, so we headed into Baldur's Gate to try and finish Chapter 5. I went ahead and did all the quests here, except for the few that very explicitly required a thief (burglarizing the Hall of Wonders and dealing with the Thieves' Guild). I unmasked the doppelgangers that were piloting the Iron Thrones' rivals into oblivion, and in the Iron Throne building proper I started collecting evidence on the organization's plot. I learned that the leaders were meeting in Candlekeep, and so worked with Scar from the Flaming Fist to head back there and confront them.

Once I finally met up with the Iron Throne leaders, Yeslick started bellowing at Rieltar, who had betrayed and imprisoned Yeslick, and desecrated his clan's land and memory. Yeslick, furious, demanded revenge. I don't much like revenge, but I do like Yeslick, who had been a very loyal and reliable companion, so I decided to stand by him, show my support, and take those SOBs down.

This ended up having wide-ranging ramifications. I'm pretty sure that in my first game, it went down slightly differently - I probably wouldn't have attacked them, so either they struck first, or else doppelgangers finished the job. Fighting is very emphatically not allowed in Candlekeep, so my attack caused a lot of problems and estranged me from old acquaintances. Later on, the party became known as the murderers of the Iron Throne leadership - even though we still had a reputation of 20, we were constantly hearing stories about the bad thing we'd done. And, well, they were right - we HAD attacked and killed a group of admittedly bad people. It just set a really different and slightly unsettling tone for the remainder of the game.

In the meantime - we escaped Candlekeep through the catacombs, which proved to be extremely creepy. In the first place, Imoen had raised her mage level equal to, but not greater than, her thief level, and so we were left thief-less in one of the more trap-filled areas of the game. I could slightly compensate by having Yeslick cast Detect Traps, but nobody was equipped to actually disarm traps, and so I needed to send a sacrificial party member forward to take the hits, and see if what lay beyond the traps was compelling enough to damage the rest of the party as well. I typically used Yeslick to do the scouting as well. Having never before played a long time with a dwarf in my party (!), I was just finding out about his amazing saving throws. Apparently this is a standard thing in 2E D&D: the shorter races like dwarves, halflings, and gnomes all get extra bonuses to their saving throws. And so, Yeslick was often able to duck under fireballs, slip past lightning bolts, and otherwise avoid the high-damage traps that he needed to pass through.

Probably the most challenging part to do without a thief was an optional section with a nice treasure trove. It required walking through a long V-shaped hallway that was filled with traps; then through a room filled with phase spiders; then opening a locked container; then going back again. For this, I used Dynaheir, who consumed more potions and scrolls for this one part than anywhere else in the game. She drank a potion to protect her from magic; since all these traps were magical, that meant she could trigger them and not take damage. She also Haste'd herself and drank invisibility, so she could scoot through the Phase Spiders without them seeing her. Finally, she memorized some Knock to open the container.

She got through the corridor all right, checked to make sure that the spiders were out of sight, then cast Knock... only to get a failure. Dang! I'd forgotten that this was a version of the spell that kept magic from coming in OR out; the same stuff defending Dynaheir from traps would keep her from casting her own spells. I'd need to wait for it to wear off. Turns out, that takes a long time. 10 turns' worth. That's 100 rounds, which is 600 seconds, which is 10 minutes. I went to get some dessert while I was waiting.

Finally, that globe was gone, and Dynaheir could Knock. Fortunately, she'd had the spell memorized twice, otherwise I would have been screwed without the ability to rest. She Knocked, grabbed the stash, drank another few more potions, and high-tailed it back to the group.

Overkill? Arguably. I was glad I did it, though. I ended up with one of the Tomes - I forget which one, but it boosted either my Strength or another stat by 1. In other words, it's one of the only items in the entire game that provides a benefit which will actually carry over to BG2.

By the time we escaped Candlekeep and started Chapter 7, Imoen was just a few thousand XP shy of having her skills restored. I'd already cleared out pretty much everything from the map, so I returned to Durlag's Tower. I was pleased to see that the Battle Horror could now be handled without too much trouble, thanks to my three powerful spellcasters and my wealth of +2 weaponry. We opened up the door and headed inside.

We'd heard many tales of Durlag's Tower, partly from regular commoners but particularly from the folks of Ulgoth's Beard. Several of those villagers knew people who had gone on "tours" of the tower, or gone adventuring there, driven by tales of the wealth inside. From a dwarf who was a relative of Durlag himself, we learned about how Durlag had built the tower from the wealth he'd collected over a lifetime of adventuring. He somehow attracted the attention of a group of doppelgangers, who secretly infiltrated the tower, killed his family members off one by one, taking the form of each one. Durlag eventually figured out what had happened; he was able to escape his death, and destroyed the doppelgangers, but was driven to extreme grief over his loss. He shut himself up in the tower, and nobody's entirely sure what has happened since then.

The tower itself is massive, the biggest single addition offered by Tales of the Sword Coast. We started off by going up, which was pretty easy, with just a few traps and some weak enemies to kill. I helped a succubus escape, which wasn't exactly Neutral Good of me, but seemed like an interesting thing to do. By the time we had finished with the upper floors, Imoen had reached Level 8, and I had my thief back. Cheered, we headed down to the dungeons.

Durlag's Tower is pretty epic. It's pretty common in fantasy RPG franchises (Final Fantasy, Ultima, Elder Scrolls, etc.) to have some sort of "super-dungeon", a completely optional and challenging area where hard-core gamers can experience a set of levels that are often more difficult than anything in the main game, including the final boss. Usually, these dungeons are difficult just by dialing up the factors you would ordinarily encounter. They have more levels than usual, a larger number of enemies, maybe some new and more difficult monsters, fewer healing potions, and so on.

What I loved about Durlag's Tower, in contrast, was how varied and interesting it is. There's something like five levels down the dungeon, and each one is quite different than the rest. The very first one you visit has a bunch of traps scattered around, and some mini-quests to go on. Essentially, you need to locate some items that are used to solve the riddles posed by ghostly specters guarding the way down. You also fight a variety of monsters along the way - slimes, skeletons, doppelgangers. At the end of that level the four specters transform into powerful enemies, which you must defeat in order to proceed. (Have you ever wanted to kill Love? Now's your chance.)

The next level down is completely different. There are almost no traps. Instead, there's a complex system of locked doors. As you make your way through the rooms, they will open and shut behind you, forcing you towards or away from certain areas. You only encounter one type of enemy in this level: doppelgangers. You witness ghostly apparitions of all of Durlag's dead family members: his wife, his sons. You see them re-live their deaths over and over again, before transforming back into the dopelgangers who had killed them. After killing them, another door will open, and you'll push a bit farther into his home.

The level design was pretty disturbing. First of all, the unreliability of your path makes things a bit uncomfortable. Secondly, you really need to watch your step and keep your party together - at one point, Dynaheir got separated from the rest, and I needed to keep playing for nearly half an hour more just to get to a point where she could rejoin me. Mostly, though, it's the look of the rooms themselves that's disturbing. It starts out with fairly domestic sites - a bedroom, a library, the throne room. At one point, though, you come to a torture chamber, and the sight of it pressed up against so many family-oriented locations makes it all the more disturbing.

Eventually, you find a room filled with switches and levers. With some patience, you can use these to open all the doors you want, which makes navigating the level far easier. Near the stairway down are four dwarf guardians. These were another incredibly tough fight, though I don't think it's required - they'll only attack if you try to take the very nice enchanged loot from a nearby treasure chest. I had to re-play this battle about three times; to make matters worse, this was while Dynaheir was MIA, so I couldn't bring as much firepower to bear. I ended up carefully locating my characters so Minsc and Yeslick bottled up a passage, meaning that only two dwarves at a time could hit my front line, and nobody could get around to the back line. I seeded the area with Skull Traps before triggering their hostility, made use of Greater Maeleson, and desperately kept my spellcasters going non-stop until they all went down.

The level below this had just a few fights, but they were all rather interesting. You start off with fighting a great Wyvern. This isn't too hard, but you have an interesting choice to make. You can awaken a number of frozen heroes to join your party and help you slay the wyvern. However, you'll only have their assistance for a short time, and after it expires, they will attack you. I ended up waking all of them and using them as fodder to attack the wyvern, not directly involving any of my people. A few of them died off; the rest turned on me a bit later while I was fighting off some ghasts. I ran away at first, then later on came back and finished them off.

This level also has some elemental-ish fights, which generally require some paritcular strategies. There's a slime that is only affected by fire, and a phoenix warrior that will be reborn if you slay her, and so on.

After defeating all of these, you are instantly transported to the grand attraction, a chess board. Your six party members are now two knights, two bishops, a queen and a king. There are special rules about the movement each can make, and you'll receive damage if you violate them. There are some pawns in front of you, but they don't move and don't help you. On the far side of the board is... well, death.

It's probably getting boring for me to keep writing "this fight was really hard"... but man, this fight was REALLY hard! For starters, you're vastly outnumbered; the other side has everything you have, and also two rooks (very powerful archers), AND eight functional pawns. The pawns aren't too strong, but they can take a couple of hits; worse, if any pawn makes it to your end of the board, they are transformed into a Queen, a powerful enemy who can fight and cast spells. In order to win, you need to defeat the King, but he's very strong, and a few enemies will linger to fight on even after he dies.

The movement restrictions in this battle made it particularly interesting. Since you were teleported here, you can't do many of the standard cheap maneuvers, like advancing and then retreating. It's also WAY harder to protect your vulnerable members; you're stretched out in a horizontal line, and can't position everyone the way you might prefer. In my first few fights, Imoen and Dynaheir would die very quickly from the archers, while Minsc would wander around confused before the rest of us were cut down.

I eventually evened the odds a bit. I seeded the far side of the board with some Skull Traps, then summoned some monsters to form a fleshy screen in front of Dynaheir. Imoen and Dynaheir each took a Wand of Flames, and started tossing fireballs blindly across the board. This blew up a few of the pawns; the rest of the enemies started charging forward. As soon as they came into view, I had everyone target the bishops and the queen. I needed to turn party AI off so Minsc would stay put for this phase, but Kivan could start shooting as the enemies approached. The Skull Traps did a good amount of damage across the board.

Still... stuff moves so quickly. In just a few seconds, Dynaheir and Imoen would be fighting for their lives. I would need to shift my focus to preventing the remaining pawns from finishing their cross-board trek. Meanwhile, the enemy King tends to charge forward. Once he got close, I had Minsc (legally) move to intercept him, and then they started pounding one another. Yeslick (my King) was blocked from his usual melee role, but I finally had a chance to make use of Holy Smite. After the battle was joined, I had to cool it with the fireballs, but whenever a spellcaster fought free of an enemy they could switch over to Flame Arrow or Magic Missile and let the King have it.

FINALLY, the enemies fell, and after a few tries I was able to do it without losing anyone on my side. (I'll usually gladly accept a temporarily-dead party member at the end of a tough fight like this, but wasn't in the mood to trek back to a friendly temple from several levels deep in Durlag's Tower. Speaking of which, one of the things that the mods added which I really appreciated was some Raise Dead scrolls, but I wasn't happy any more once I realized that (1) only Clerics (and I'm guessing maybe Druids and Rangers) can cast these, and (2) they still require INT and not WIS to cast. Who the heck (in BG1) is a Cleric with both high INT and WIS? Argh.)

We now headed down to the next level, the actual mines from which Durlag's tower were built. Part of this area is a dungeon crawl, large sprawling mines filled with undead and crypt crawlers and other uglies. A good chunk of it, though, is devoted to more of a psychological dungeon crawl. For all the stuff I loved about Durlag's Tower, I think this might be my favorite part. You need to take all the information you've learned throughout the quest - all the dialog from the ghosts and dead family members, all the hissing sibilant threats from the doppelgangers, all the anguished words written within Durlag's journals - and piece together the chronology of what happened. It's pretty fascinating. You already know what happened, but why? And when? You can put the events together in different orders as you try to judge which was the cause and which the effect. Did Durlag fill the tower with traps before or after the doppelgangers came? What role did the builders play in the disaster that arrived?

Eventually, you piece the story together. By now it sounds similar to what you heard in Ulgoth's Beard, but with more of the details filled in, and a bit more resonant. Durlag's own father had been a very successful adventurer, but had died far away from home. This is one of the most tragic outcomes possible for a dwarf, since it means that you're cut off from your kin and clan, dying without being part of the dwarf community. So, Durlag tried to oppose his fear of dying alone. He settled down, got married, started a family. He devoted all of his resources to trying to keep them as safe as possible. But his generosity was driven by a fear, fear that something bad would happen to him.

Well, as he dug, his fear piqued the interest of the illithid, mindflayers who also lived deep underground. They smelled prey. They sent their servants, the doppelgangers, to attack and clear the way; after Durlag fell, the mindflayers would be able to claim his great creation for their own. They succeeded in ruining Durlag's life, but couldn't quite get rid of him. A sort of stalemate settled over the tower; even after Durlag died (of grief or of old age), his original intent in protecting the tower prevented anyone else from coming in and getting rid of the doppelgangers that remained; at the same time, the mindflayers couldn't use the tower either while all the traps remained.

Anyways - I just thought that was interesting, and another example of Bioware's excellent devotion to story. In order to beat the quest, you don't just kill everyone in your way, you also need to display good reading comprehension skills!

The very final fight was... good, but honestly a little bit of a letdown; it wasn't nearly as hard as the chess board fight, and wasn't as interesting as the riddling. The final boss you fight is a Demon Knight, who has apparently been orchestrating everything. Before facing him, you learn that he has access to a special mirrior that he uses to create copies of you; those copies then kill you, and he doesn't need to lift a finger.

So, once I got down there, I turned Imoen invisible and had her scout ahead. There was the demon - who didn't see me yet, but was already marked as hostile. I figured that I needed to get the mirror away from him, so I moved Imoen into position behind him and had her try to pickpocket him. Heh - it was the first time in the whole game that I'd tried to pickpocket anything, and I had completely forgotten that you can't pickpocket hostile characters. Imoen was losing her invisibility. Whoops - I realized that I had left Part AI on, and so she was starting to swing at the demon. We can't have that. As she retreated, I suddenly realized that there was a big, full-length mirror near the demon. Well.. maybe that's it? I had Imoen target the mirror. Crack! It shattered. The demon knight freaked out, yelling about how I'd ruined it. Monsters appeared, but they were highly deformed, not copies of me, just creatures like an ogre, xvarts, and other baddies. Minsc and Yeslick hammered the demon knight mercilessly while Sebrina, Kivan, and Imoen fired their respective missiles at him. Several of the minor enemies had picked up Dynaheir's tail, so she used Dimension Door and then her own two feet to lead them on a chase around the room. The battle was exciting, but not too hard, and soon the demon knight fell.

It felt good, but also a bit anticlimactic. There were tons of great items throughout all of Durlag's Tower - I'd had to leave several times just to sell off the loot I'd acquired from previous floors - but all I got from this was the Soultaker's Dagger. It does, um, 1d4 damage. Period. Okaaaaaay...

I said my farewells to the ghosts, made one last stop at the shopkeeper to unload the items I couldn't use, dumped the large number of quest-related objects I'd been carting around, and finally headed back to Ulgoth's Beard. Here I encountered the coda of the whole Durlag's Tower mission: a fanatical cult was desperately seeking the dagger. I said "no." They stole it, and then another quite pitched battle took off. The cult was quite well-rounded, with "guards" (warriors), "assassins" (thieves, with good stealth and backstabbing - which seems to be a huge rarity in BG1, I don't recall being backstabbed at any other point in the game), spellcasters, and archers. We were tired from the road, and I couldn't indulge in my recently rediscovered love of fireballs, thanks to all the Ulgoth's Beard civilians in the vicinity.

After dispatching the crew (but failing to recover the dagger), we headed back for the inn. I spoke with Durlag's relative again, who filled me in on what was happening: the knife is an artifact associated with a demon, and the cult was planning to call him into existence. This demon would probably destroy the world if he was freed. Time to get busy!

Well... okay. Maybe THIS was the hardest fight of the game.

The demon is released, and is extremely powerful. He seems capable of casting at least two spells per round. One of these is Silence. He also can Hold you pretty easily. The creepiest attack is something called Death Gaze. This holds you, and puts a little "dying" indicator on your portrait. Some sort of timer kicks off, and when it's done - poof - you're dead. A shambling ghoul emerges from your body, seeking to kill your friends.

Unlike the chessboard fight, which was tough because of the sheer number of enemies, here there's really only the demon to fear. There's also a cult member spellcaster, but she goes down fairly easily. However, there are also about six or so silent cult members organized around the pentagram. They never attack you, but I think you need to kill them before you can really start to damage the demon.

I kept running into a wall on this fight. I had all of my magic-capable users memorize at least one Dispel Magic, and had Yeslick memorize Free Action; between these I could hopefully unstick at least one or two Held party members. I brought back out the Wands of Flame; Imoen would shoot fire at them while Dynaheir would use Cloudkill to much the same effect. Meanwhile, Minsc and (when free) Yeslick would desperately try to get hits in on the demon. Sebrina would try to support everyone who needed assistance, or use Magic Missile to take down distant cult members. In most of my tries, I could eventually kill all the cult members, but by then at least one of my magic-users would have been killed, and then the other party members would start Dying, and everything would fall apart very quickly. Even my buffs weren't helping, though I was going all-out with Haste, Chant, Bless, Call on Divine Strength, Mirror Image, Stoneskin, and whatever else I could get my hands on.

I finally gave up on doing a straight-forward honorable fight and went for a cheap victory. I turned Imoen invisible and sent her down alone. She snuck around the cult leader, and once out of sight, turned visible and started killing off the cult members, one by one. It took a while, but I had all the time I wanted. Finally, only the leader was left (and no doubt confused about the noise made by Imoen's hundreds of missed thrown daggers over the previous ten minutes). Imoen hopped back up the stairs. I re-buffed, and this time (since I was so sick of the fight) I decided to go all-out, and had Yeslick and Minsc drink not only the Potions of Heroism that the cult had been stockpiling, but also the Potions of Storm Giant Strength that I had been hoarding.

We charged downstairs, swiftly slew the cult leader, then the magic-users and Kivan widely spread out (to minimize the spillover effects of Silence and the other un-buffs) while Yeslick and Minsc charged forward. Wow. Those potions really work! I had thought that the important change would be the dumb invisible-killing strategem, but with Yeslick and Minsc all 'roided up, the demon was quickly faltering. I almost choked when I read in the status bar that Yeslick had dealt a critical hit (yay!) that did 50 damage (whaaaaa?!).  Somehow, I was able to finish killing the demon when he had only managed to put Death Gaze on Kivan. One Dispel Magic later, and even that threat was gone. Hooray!

Having finally exhausted all of the TotSC content, I returned back to Baldur's Gate for the final chapter. I wrapped up Imoen's thief quests first, burglarizing the Hall of Wonders and getting to know the Thieves Guild. Navigating through the city is a bit tricky at this stage; since your party is wanted for murder, the Flaming Fist is likely to find you and try to take you in. As I found out, fighting back against the Fist isn't a good idea; you can win, but it kills your reputation. I think that in my first game, I had gotten around this by moving through the sewers under Baldur's Gate; once you map it out, you can emerge from a sewer grate that's within running distance of pretty much any building that you might want to visit. For this game, I wasn't in the mood for some reason, so instead I would travel to the correct map location, then have my party quickly visit the nearest inn or other building where they could hide out. Imoen, back in the mood for some thievery, would hide in shadows, then head over to do whatever needed doing.

Once all the various side-quests were out of the way, I headed into the end game. I rescued Duke Entar from his deathbed, attended the coronation of Sarevok, defended the other Grand Dukes, then pursued Sarevok into the Undercity. There was some nice extra dialog around this part, which I think may have been added by the BG1 NPC project.

The very very final battle was a good challenge - not as frustrating as the chess board or demon fights had been, but I still needed a few tries to get it right. I'd forgotten that the sigil in the middle of the room was trapped (of COURSE it's trapped!), so my first attack went very poorly. Later on, I started making use of a Demon Summoning scroll that I'd found in the maze above, and was pretty disappointed by how little time it took Sarevok to defeat.

I think that it eventually came down to luck. I just focused on taking out the spellcasters first, then concentrating everything I had on Sarevok, keeping my bruisers up close and personal so the rest of us could do our thing from a safe distance. He took our Minsc and Yeslick (it's hard hard to heal properly in the middle of a fight), but then he was finally defeated. The end - hooray!

The final video was cool; I didn't remember having seen it before. You see this enormous statue crumbling. At first I figured that it was probably the statue of Bhaal from above the temple. Then, the camera pans out, and you can see that there are more statues to either side... and more statues above and below, too. I realized that the statue must have been of Sarevok, not Bhaal. The camera keeps panning out, then tilts down as it slowly zooms out. You realize that you're in a well, and there are... hundreds, possibly even as many as a thousand, of those statues around. Other than Sarevok's nearly all of them are intact. Finally, you have a good view of the very bottom of the pit. It's filled with fire, and inside you can see Bhaal's grinning skull. So... I'm pretty sure that each of those statues represent one of the Bhaalspawn. Wow. There sure are an awful lot of us left!

Speaking of which, I think I'm about to meet a few more of them (at least one of whom is a reveal of someone I already know). I'll probably be hopping directly into BG2. I'd already done at least a few mods in my initial play; I vaguely remember installing Baldurdash, but it looks like the community has come a long way in the decade since. I imagine I'll toss in a few minor quest additions or something, and possibly look into adding a new NPC or two. The stuff I've seen in BG1 has already impressed me, and I know that BG2 is what most modders are really passionate about, so I can hardly wait to see what's in store.