Friday, August 31, 2012

A Lovely Analogy

Hooray for awesome indie games! I've "beaten" two of the great games I gratefully received from Andrew.  In both cases, there are additional endings for me to unlock should I wish to try again. Let's start with Analogue: A Hate Story! This is the sequel to the amazing free Digital: A Love Story, and while it shares some of that game's sensibilities and a few of its interface elements, the overall experience it creates is quite different. Let's consider these….

MINI SPOILERS (for Analogue; mega for Digital):

Where Digital was set about 25 years in the past, during the age of BBS's and the very birth of the Internet, Analogue is set several thousand years in the future. The exact timeline is a little unclear, and the game only gives us the barest outlines of the backstory: mankind has started colonizing new planets, and…. that's about all we know. The game is almost entirely focused on one particular spaceship from Korea which has been inert for many hundreds of years, so you're experiencing a fragment of a fragment of future-history.

The overall approach to the game has some strong similarities to Digital, in that much of your time is spent searching for information and reading messages. In Digital, this meant finding phone numbers and logins for various BBS's, reading and writing messages and posts to various people, and occasionally downloading some files (over a super-sweet 600 baud modem). In Analogue, most of the information is already compiled for you as records on the ship's computer. There's much less typing and more clicking; you browse for data rather than search for it.

The HUGE difference from Digital, though, is the inclusion of a personality that you can interact with. Well, that, and having multiple branches in the story. Digital was terrific, but there was really only one path through the game; you could sometimes do things in a different order, but there was really one outcome you could achieve. In Analogue, your interactions with the computer are mediated by an AI named *Hyun-ae. She/It acts like a guide and a confidante, showing you information, accepting instructions, and offering reactions to particularly interesting messages. She also asks you questions along the way, simple binary Yes/No types of questions, and your reactions help determine the direction of the story and your relationship.

And there is a relationship. That's the thing that's so unique about the Digital/Analogue games: they're practically the only games I know that actually present a case for meaningful emotional interaction between biological and electronic forms of intelligence.  Oh, sure, tons of games out there feature artificial intelligences, and a few even depict them as lovers (most recently Mass Effect 3), but I'm not aware of any other games that put you in the driver's seat like this and actually explore that relationship in a non-plot-focused way.

The other huge difference from Digital: there are graphics! They're kind of simple, but totally gorgeous. Digital MIGHT have had some ASCII art, but pretty much the only thing you'd see in the game was your computer screen, the computer below it (Tandy, I think?), and the text on the screen. Analogue starts with you staring at a BASH prompt (have I mentioned lately how much I LOVE these games?), but soon you are booted into a virtual environment with *Hyun-ae, and spend most of the game there. The graphics are fairly simple but gorgeous: *Hyun-ae is drawn in two dimensions, and adopts different poses and expressions based on how your conversation is going. There's no real animation, just some nice subtle color effects on the white background, but she is so expressive that I quickly found myself feeling protective of her. They also play around with the interface for some humorous effects; *Hyun-ae "speaks" by typing out letters into a speech bubble, but sometimes she'll change her mind about what she wants to say and will quickly backspace and retype something new.

The game changes after you get superuser access…..


… and you meet *Mute, the second AI of the game. *Mute is a VERY different personality from *Hyun-ae: forceful, brash, assertive, and outspoken, in contrast to *Hyun-ae's timidity, soft-spokenness, and reticence. *Mute comes right out and asks you some questions that *Hyun-ae never does: are you a man or a woman? Are you married? She also has some highly negative things to say about *Hyun-ae, and soon the parameters of the game come into focus: you are receiving two interpretations of the ship's disaster from two "survivors" of the incident, and must piece together the truth of what happened.

And that really is where the bulk of your time in the game is spent, at least if you're like me and actually enjoy reading all of the log messages. I suppose that you could just click through the messages and advance the plot, but all of the fun and flavor of the game comes from those messages. It's a bit like Rashomon, but layered through multiple levels. You'll read about an incident from the multiple perspectives of people who participated in that incident or heard about it second-hand; but those reports themselves are controlled by the AIs, who sometimes like to withhold information based on their own agendas.

I had gotten used to the leisurely pace of my investigation - clicking through messages, talking with the AI - and so I was pleasantly startled when the game shifted yet again. The ship's power systems came back online when you made contact, but after hundreds of years without maintenance, the nuclear reactor is shot, and the ship's almost out of power. The AI gives you general instructions on what you need to do, but this segment is pleasingly free of hand-holding. It's mostly just you and a BASH prompt, while an on-screen timer menacingly counts down from 20 minutes as the screen grows increasingly staticky. You essentially read man pages to try and figure out what capabilities are available to you and try to manipulate the environment to make things safe.

In a clever but cruel detail of the game design, you need to get power consumption below 20%, but certain systems (the mainframe computer and communications systems) are necessary in order to keep your session active; shutting those down will end the game. Those together consume nearly 15% of available power, and each AI consumes another 5%. So you can only afford to keep one running. What an awful choice to make! There's a warning when you try to shut one down that warns you it will degrade after 24 hours. I figured that this wouldn't be too big of a problem - I could only keep one running at a time, sure, but I could bring each up or down as necessary.

Sadly, that doesn't seem to work as well as I'd hoped. When first playing the game, I was chatting with *Mute when the power started going down. I tried to switch back to *Hyun-ae before bringing down the reactor, mostly because I wanted to check and see if there was anything I should know that *Mute was holding back. The terminal told me that *Hyun-ae was unavailable, though. Yikes! I tried copying her to another core and bringing that one online, but it didn't work either. I eventually finished the game with *Mute, but never was able to get *Hyun-ae back online.

In a second game, I got superuser access from *Hyun-ae, then talked with *Mute long enough to get her questions for *Hyun-ae, then immediately switched back to *Hyun-ae. The power started going down soon after. I still haven't figured out whether this is based on an actual timer, or the number of documents you read, or triggering certain conversations. This led to a similar problem, but in the opposite direction: I couldn't switch back to *Mute once the power started going down. That makes me think that the power fluctuation will "kill" whichever AI isn't currently enabled.

If and when I play a third time, I think I'm going to try and do the whole power switcheroo thing immediately after getting superuser access. I'm hoping that this will let me keep both of the AIs around. There's a lot of stuff that I'd really like to do, like get *Mute's reaction to the story of what actually happened to the Pale Bride before her introduction to the Emperor. I'm guessing that this will be necessary for the "Harem" ending that's listed as one of the five game endings.

Back to the game itself: it's really good, and keeps getting better. *Hyun-ae is absolutely adorable once you start talking with her about cosplay and her outfits. A lot of the content is pretty out there, and would sound incredibly melodramatic if I wrote it down, but in practice just feels really compelling.

END SPOILERS for Analogue (and Digital, too!)

So, there's that! At the end of the game you can unlock concept art based on the ending you get, which is really wonderful… I love the art in the game, and it's really cool to look at the different things they tried before coming up with their final designs.

And now, moving from a gorgeous and subtle game about love, let's move on to a deliberately ugly game about suffering! I finally managed to beat The Binding of Isaac. Gosh, that's one of the hardest games I've played in a LONG time. It requires both luck and skill to beat… if you don't get good items early on, you're pretty much doomed to fail, and even if you do get good items, just a couple of bad decisions or poor reflexes can quickly kill you later on.

MEGA SPOILERS for Binding of Isaac:

The game starts out depressing and gets more so. You're essentially traveling farther underground: you start off in your basement, then move into the Caves, and then the Depths. Along the way, you're encountering a lot of bad things - flies and worms and so forth - but the most disturbing are the things that look like you. I think one of the implications of the game is that you're not the first person who has been "sacrificed", and many of the creatures you need to "destroy" are, in some figurative or literal sense, your own brothers.

At the bottom of the Depths, you need to defeat the game's boss: Mom! Yup, that's right, the "final" fight is against your own mother. She's pretty tough, too… she'll stomp on you, and if you try to run to the door, her hand will slap you. It's pretty creepy to hear her talk to you, too. I had a hard time understanding her: she sounds really upset, but what is she saying? For a while I thought she was saying, "I saaaaaaaid…….. I SAID!" She killed me. :-( The second time, I finally realized that she was actually saying your name: "Isaaaaaaaaac…. ISAAC!"

Part of why I missed that may have been because, at the time, I wasn't actually playing as Isaac. The game has… I think five different characters you can unlock and play as. Early on I had unlocked Eve, who you get after making two "deals with the devil." She was interesting, and I got farther with her than I did with Isaac, but that's probably more because I got better at playing. I really lucked out, though, and managed to teleport to the I AM ERROR room, which was filled with Health Up pills. I gobbled up a ton, which gave me a total of, like, fourteen hearts, which unlocked Magdalene. Even with fourteen hearts, I STILL managed to die on the first level of The Depths, but I did much better with Magdalene; I think I made it to Mom on my third try with her, and defeated her on my fourth. Magdalene is a bit slower than the others, but still fast enough to evade most enemies. She starts off with a little extra health, which helps a lot for non-awesome players like me. Her special item is the "Yum Heart", which you can use once every six rooms to refill one heart. Perhaps as good or better, it seems like enemies are much more likely to drop hearts when you play as her. This has its downside - I've had some games where I haven't gotten any keys or bombs at all until I reach the Caves, which can mean missing out on some item rooms - but over the course of the game it makes things much better.

Back to Mom. I finally got the rhythm of the fight in my second attempt. As with many fights, you want to keep moving. Look for the shadow that appears under you; that means Mom's heel is coming down. You can scoot just a little up or down to avoid getting stomped, and then you'll get several seconds of good damage in. When the foot isn't down, you can move to one of the walls - far enough from the door to keep from getting slapped, then wait for her eye to appear and unload on it. Keep it up for long enough, and you win!

A few things change after winning. The start screen image changes to show Isaac standing triumphantly - and, for a change, happily - over his mother. It also warns you that "the harbingers have arrived." From now on, some of the boss fights might be replaced with one of the Horsemen - famine, pestilence, war, death. And, most importantly, Mom is no longer the end boss. After defeating her, you need to travel to - gulp - the Womb.

The Womb is super-creepy. The art design is disturbing, the music is minimal and menacing, and there are entirely new classes of enemies to fight. There don't seem to be as many helpful items, either. Fortunately for me, I had acquired the map and compass, so I was able to make a beeline for the boss. On the second level of the Womb, you fight the "real" final boss: Mom's Heart. Yikes!

Once again, it took a while for me to beat, but this time I (eventually) got it on the first try. The heart will drop down, wait for a few seconds, summon two monsters, then pull back up again. You can shoot the heart with your tears, but I had the most luck when I used my bombs - if you time it right, you can drop the bomb just before the heart drops, then the bomb will damage both summons and the heart, and keep the heart in place a while longer. After the heart drops to about 1/3 health, it will stay in place and constantly summon monsters. I found that it was easiest at this stage to just avoid the enemies and focus entirely on the heart, or just kill one and leave the other around so she won't summon fresh ones.

A message from the creator of the game had a great quote that I think perfectly sums up the weird, demented, oddly compelling appeal of this game: "Who would have thought a game about an abused child fighting off his mother with his tears could ever sell 700k copies in less than a year?" Not me. It's an ugly game, but one that I've thoroughly enjoyed playing.


Oh, yeah: and I'm also playing Skyrim. I don't seem to have anywhere near as much time for Elder Scrolls games as I have in the past: I'm currently averaging about two hours a week, and at that rate it will take me YEARS to finish.  It's gorgeous, though! I love the immense sense of freedom that these big, open-world games have. All I've done so far is finish the tutorial, visit two homes in the first town, and I'm currently partway through the first dungeon-ish environment. I'm trying to go for a fairly stealthy thief-type character, which so far is going pretty well. I'm happy by how much better the NPCs look than before - still not up to Bioware standards, but they look vaguely like humans now.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Cleft for Thee Hide in Me. The Walls Are Wrong. The Walls Are Wrong.

It's mini-update-about-games-time! Let's kick off with a kickstarter: the brilliant chaps at Failbetter Games have begun a Kickstarter for "The Silver Tree", a companion game to their amazing Fallen London. The Silver Tree will be more of a stand-alone game - I don't believe that it has the social actions and such that you can get in Fallen London - but it promises to tie in interesting ways to Fallen London's broader mythos. I don't want to inadvertently spoil anything, but if you're at all interested, I do highly recommend checking out the Kickstarter. It looks like there's a lot of good flavor in there.

Like Failbetter's other games, The Silver Tree will be free, so the standard Kickstarter game model of "pay 15 bucks and get a DRM-free downloadable copy" doesn't really work here. Instead, they're creating exclusive content at various tiers that will unlock special storylines, items, etc. for you to explore and enjoy. Intriguingly, some of the tiers also include rewards that will unlock for Fallen London players (like me!) and, judging from the backers, those are the most popular. The upper tiers have some really cool bespoke rewards: creation of purely custom stories that only you can play; making an avatar for yourself; and one lucky person has already paid $500 to become the first mortal ever to sip Hesperidean Cider.

The video for the Silver Tree… isn't as impressive as other Kickstarter videos, in all honesty. But I've still been loving the updates, in particular the recent interview with Yasmeen Khan, the Silver Tree's writer and the mind behind some of Fallen London's best stories.

Speaking of Fallen London: after spending an inordinate amount of time and attention on the game - it's literally the first thing I do after waking up and one of the last things I do before falling asleep - I finally was able to justify to myself spending some money on it. It was as much to support the game's awesome creators for all the great stuff they've done as to reward myself. I'm not at all used to the "free to play" model of casual games, and so it's been interesting to see the "all of the above" model that Fallen London takes to try and make money.

You don't need to pay anything at any level to play, which I think is a brilliant design on their part. Many comparable games will let you play for free up to, say, level 20 or something, and require you to subscribe to go beyond that. I imagine that there's a pretty hard drop-off after reaching that limit where people decide they've had enough and move on. In contrast, Fallen London has no cap at all, but offers the benefits of paid content at any level. You could pay from Day One and get access to some new stories and benefits; or be like me and wait two months and get a character close to level 100 before deciding to do it, and still get useful benefits at that point as well.

Most free-to-play games out there seem to follow one of two models, the subscription model and the microtransaction model. In a subscription model, you pay a certain amount of money for a certain period of time (typically per month) in order to get full access to the game; you can continue playing without subscribing, but in a reduced state (unable to raise your level above a certain amount, or unable to participate in certain activities, etc.). In a microtransaction, the skeleton of the game is entirely playable, but the developers encourage you to spend small sums of money in order to get discrete benefits. Angry Birds is a very successful example of this type of approach: you can pay some money to get a special bird that helps you beat a challenging level, or pay to get access to a new set of levels.

Like I said above, Failbetter uses an all-of-the-above strategy. You purchase an in-game currency using real dollars. (It used to be called Fate when it was just used in Fallen London. Now that they're opening up a wider network of storytelling games using their StoryNexus platform, they're using a new currency called Nex.) You can also earn a few points of Fate here or there by finishing certain plots within the game. You can then use Fate/Nex to either subscribe to the game by becoming an Exceptional Friend, or use it for any of a wide variety of microtransactions. Becoming an Exceptional Friend gives you slightly more Actions, letting you do a little more each day, and also gives you access to an exclusive area, the House of Chimes. I was utterly delighted to see that this subscription is NOT auto-renewing, which makes me extremely happy and very likely to continue supporting it.

A bunch of other stuff can be done with Fate/Nex. One of the most obvious but least helpful is to purchase more Actions, which lets you do stuff without waiting for your Candle to recharge. That's the sort of thing that most free-to-play games would strongly encourage people to do, but Failbetter seems to have deliberately made it so expensive that few players would do it. On the other extreme, there are several long-running, somewhat stand-alone stories that each contain about a dozen storylets and provides some unique rewards. I did one of these, "A Long-Lost Daughter," and was quite impressed. The quality of writing is definitely up to par with the rest of Fallen London, and the story moved along at an especially nice clip. (I imagine that if I'd started it earlier, it would have taken me longer to complete it, but it still felt worth doing at my high level.) Finally, there are several cases where you receive a Storylet or Opportunity card, and some of the specific options to play require spending a small amount of Fate/Nex. I haven't done any of these yet, but it seems like in some cases it opens up another plot thread for you, and in other cases it provides a specific in-game benefit like completely healing your Wounds or letting you more quickly advance in a particular story.

I still haven't made any social connections in the game, but haven't found that playing it solo significantly impairs my progress. I did recently cheese out a little and created a second account specifically for social interactions so I can lower my Menace qualities when they get too high. I'm now participating in a certain… uh, I guess you could call it a form of multiplayer combat, although as experienced in Fallen London it's VERY different from what you might think about when you read those words.

Okay, it's been a little while since I've talked about Fallen London, so here are some of that game's


I really wanted to announce this out loud in this blog post's title: I've become A Person of Some Importance! I'm weirdly, giddily, unexplainably happy about this. It's been a visible goal for a long time, and only arrived yesterday after fairly involved (but mostly entertaining) encounters with the Ambitious Barrister.

There's an ongoing theme in most successful multiplayer games: the nature of the game changes dramatically the farther you advance. Playing Star Wars: The Old Republic at Level 50 is a completely different experience than playing it at level 10 or 40. Something similar is at play in Fallen London. The underlying mechanics are still familiar - you're spending Action points to pursue Storylets or Opportunities - but the number of options available to you literally double. Crafting becomes much more important in this phase of the game, making me extremely glad that I had barely sold anything during my climb up to level 100. Entirely new areas open up as well, and the rhythms of those places are still different and unique from one another, even as The University is very different from Ladybones Road.

Anyways. I think I'm getting closer to the "end" of the game, as least as far as stat advancement goes. According to their FAQ, the major Qualities currently cap out at around 130 points; I now have a "natural" 104 in Persuasive, and am sitting just below 100 without any equipment in the other major Qualities (but rated up to 110 in Watchful when outfitted in my incredibly stylish ensemble of Luminous Neathglass Goggles and an Academic Gown, while carrying a Patent Scrutinizer and accompanied by my faithful Haunted-looking Dog). I'm increasingly getting the feeling, though, that Fallen London is something that I'll just enjoy inhabiting, rather than focus on "beating". I imagine that my playtime will drop off once I reach the cap, but probably not stop altogether, and I'll likely ramp it back up as they continue to expand the game in the future. (The Relickers' Opportunity cards currently list some crazily high-level items like a Rumormonger's Network that would require stats of 200 to acquire, so I imagine that, years from now, that's around where the game will end up.)

All fun, interesting, well-told stuff. They do a great job at parceling out enough goals for you to always have interesting stuff to do, without ever feeling overwhelmed. Color me impressed.


In other game news: my exceedingly awesome brother Andrew gave me a bunch of games for my birthday. The most impressive of these is Skyrim; I'd vaguely been planning on waiting until more mods were out before trying it, but I'm delighted to be playing it now. I was pleasantly surprised to see that my PC can play it at high graphics settings without any slowdown. My computer is several years old, and I'd been worried that I would need another major upgrade cycle in order to make it run.

Amusingly, though, the game from Andrew that I've been pouring most of my time into lately isn't the $60 AAA title, but the $5 indie game The Binding of Isaac. I'd first heard about this game at the AV Club's Gameological Society, where it has developed an intense fan base among the regular commentators.

The game is really well done, and quite addictive, in a matter entirely opposite to that of Fallen London. Fallen London's appeal is based on its longevity: you're taking part in a vast, sprawling, ever-growing story. Each decision you make now has ramifications that will ripple outward and affect the future of your story. You patiently play over time in order to accumulate the wealth, power, and influence to succeed. In contrast, The Binding of Isaac is a short, brutal game. You can't save: once you die, you're dead, and need to start again from the beginning. In Fallen London, you can't die; in The Binding of Isaac, death comes incredibly easily. Over time, you'll come to acquire pretty much every item that Fallen London has to offer. The Binding of Isaac also has hundreds of items, but in any given game you'll only encounter perhaps a half-dozen or so of them.

The mood of the game is very dark and macabre. The story is a loose modern adaptation of Abraham's attempted sacrifice of Isaac. In this version, Isaac's Mom watches Christian television all day long, starts hearing messages from God, begins punishing Isaac, and eventually is ordered to destroy him. Pretty dark, huh! Yeah, it is.

The actual gameplay is pretty retro and fun. It's most accurate to describe it as a clone of the dungeons in the original Legend of Zelda. The rooms, the bombs, the keys, the monsters, the items, the bosses… it's all here. The major changes are, first of all, the theme: while Legend of Zelda's dungeons were darker than its overworld, Isaac's dungeons are vastly more dark. The game is pulling from some pretty twisted psychology here, and there's a bit of an obsession with various bodily fluids, death, sickness, and not a little demonic imagery. The second major change is the use of items. Zelda had just a handful: a boomerang, a bow, a raft. The items you get in Isaac will completely change the game, at least until you die. Many items are power-ups that increase your damage or speed, but there are tons of dramatic transformations as well: companions that protect you from damage, or mimic your shots, or chase down your enemies; wings that let you fly over pits, boulders, and spikes; a kamikaze vest that blows up to damage you and nearby enemies; items that swap around your bombs and keys, or let you see through walls, or magnets that pull nearby items toward you. I've probably played a half-dozen games, and no two games have felt alike.

I have yet to beat the game - it looks like there are six levels, and the farthest I've made it so far is the fifth - but there's a pretty good unlock system that helps me feel like I'm making progress even when I fail. I've unlocked two new characters, "Eve" and "Magdalene", who have different starting stats and items. More importantly, I'm getting a better feel for the game, and in particular getting better at beating the bosses. Annoyingly, I now usually die in the "regular" rooms on the lower levels, which are filled with multiple enemies who hop or shoot in patterns that are difficult to dodge in the closed-in environment.

I'm sure these games will keep me very busy for a while. In an embarrassment of riches, still more awesome games loom on the horizon. One is "Divinity II", which I haven't played yet, but sounds very much up my alley: an open-world fantasy RPG. The other is "Analogue: A Hate Story," a paid follow-up to the phenomenal free "Digital: A Love Story," which I so loved playing years ago. I played the demo for Analogue a few months ago and was pretty impressed. The setting and style are pretty different from Digital, but it has a similar combination of strong personalities, implicit storytelling, and a really innovative way to derive a plot from data-mining activities. I can't wait to plumb a little deeper and see where it leads.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Cloud Atlas: The Trailer

Big thanks to Pat for pointing me to the incredible five-minute trailer for Cloud Atlas. Yup, that's right: it's a movie, and its release is imminent! (The trailer's available in HD, and if your connection supports it I suggest bumping it up to 720p, which looks particularly gorgeous.) The official movie site also has a short clip of the three (!) directors talking about the project.

The movie has quite a pedigree. It comes with some A-list Hollywood talent, including Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, Hugo Weaving, Susan Sarandon, and more. It was directed by Tom Tykwer (who made the amazing Run Lola Run) and the Wachowskis (who I guess are now the Wachowski Siblings?). It was entirely funded by German sources, and mostly shot in Berlin, but should get wide distribution in the States through Warner Brothers. Between the director's commentary and a short interview with Mitchell I just read, I'm getting a better feel for just how a theatrical adaptation could possibly work. I'll be honest: when I first heard there was going to be a movie, my immediate reaction was, "This book is impossible to adapt into a movie!"

After watching the trailer, I generated a few opinions! These are slightly spoilery for both the movie and the book, so let's discuss under


I'll start out with what I don't like: the one part of the (long!) trailer that I have an immediate negative reaction to is the scene where Jim Broadbent's Ayrs talks about recognizing the music from a dream, and describing Sonmi-451's plight in the future. Ugh. I don't want to say anything too dramatic, like "that completely destroys the integrity of the story," but.... well, it takes one of the things I loved most about Mitchell's work and utterly breaks it. As amazing as Cloud Atlas is, there's really nothing supernatural about it. Stories only link backwards in time, to events that were written in the past. There's perhaps some literary foreshadowing between stories, but nothing directly predicted or observed forward in time. Having a character peer forward in time makes the whole tale fantastic, unreal, and thus not applicable to our lives.

Other than that,
I really liked what I saw, and even the things that I initially disapproved of I later came around to. For example, I was pretty bummed when I first watched the trailer when a voice said, "I just met her, and I've fallen in love with Luisa Rey." A big part of why Luisa's story is so enjoyable is because she isn't a love interest: she's a strong, smart, determined, independent and very single woman who gets things done with only occasional help from others. But, the second time I watched the trailer, I realized that the voiceover was coming from a man sitting on a plane, so then I was like, "Aww, yeah! That's AWESOME!" I know exactly how that scene will play out in the theater, and it will be great.

There was almost no dialog at all from the Hawaii scenes of the movie, so I'm left wondering whether they'll attempt to replicate Mitchell's language here. I think the Nea So Corps part would be pretty reasonable dialog as-is; the spelling changes won't be audible on-screen, the vocabulary fits within the kind of changes we expect a sci-fi movie to have, and the grammatic structure is pretty much the same as what we have today. It'll be very brave of them to have Zachry speak in his "real" tongue, but I'll understand if they think they need to tone it down. (The only line I heard from Tom Hanks in here was "If you fall, I'll catch you," which seems to be standard English, but is also purely monosyllabic and thus might qualify as future-speak.)

I still can't tell who Hugo Weaving or Hugh Grant are playing, even after watching the trailer twice. I guess I'm bad at spotting actors.

I'm very curious to see just how they structure the movie. When I'd first heard that they were making a movie, I'd assumed that they'd keep the book's structure, so we'd almost be watching a series of short films. They could do that, and I think it would be pretty effective and might make the story a bit easier to follow. But, after watching the trailer, I'm now wondering if they'll try and intercut the stories together. That would be much harder and more ambitious, but could lead to some really cool synergies and resonances across stories. I think Mitchell's right when he talks about how the movie needs to be more than just an "audiobook with visuals," and there's no reason that the directors need to keep the book's structure in their own vision. (Thinking about this reminded me of my experience watching the movie version of The Two Towers. At the time, I was actually disappointed that Jackson had intercut the three stories in the movie: Aragorn/Legolas/Gimli, Merry/Pippin, and Frodo/Sam. My biggest regret was that this removes the wonderful surprise in the book where Aragorn discovers the hobbits at Isengard; I remember being so shocked and delighted when I'd read this as a kid. Similarly, intercutting the stories of Return of the King removes the dramatic import of the red herring presented when the Mouth of Sauron displays Frodo's mithril shirt. In hindsight, though, I recognize that Jackson absolutely made the right decisions here. Movies just don't work the same way that books do, and it would have been painful to divide each movie in half.)

I was initially bummed that I'd missed out on the reincarnation aspect of the story. "Way to go, Chris! Yet another thing you completely missed when you read the book!" Reading Mitchell's comments made me feel much better, though... it sounds like it's more of an implicit, subtle suggestion in the book that the filmmakers decided to turn into a larger theme in the movie. Which makes total sense, and is a great argument for the multiple casting they do. Still, I'll need to keep my eyes open for that whenever I re-read the book; the only stuff I remember is Zachry's specific comments about his tribe's beliefs in reincarnation, and I don't remember any other linkages in the middle sections of the book. (Middle chronologically. Not literally. This book is complicated!)

Everything in the trailer looks really, really good. The shots of the ship in the sea look great. The sci-fi special effects are really impressive; I'd been worried that a German company wouldn't have the kind of deep pockets that Americans have for effects budgets, but it looks like they pulled it off. The make-up is obviously a huge part of a movie with multiple casting. And all the interiors seem really intricate and authentic and well-crafted.

I'm curious if we'll learn exactly how the directors collaborated on this. Personally, I think it would be great if each director had total control over two of the time periods. That way you'd get a unique visual stamp on each of the stories. I doubt that that Wachowskis split up, though, so either it was 3/3 or they directly collaborated.

Speaking of which, I am impressed that they kept all six stories in here, and specifically that they didn't cut the Timothy Cavendish parts, which are probably the least exciting (though still good) sections of the novel.

Oh, yeah, one other thing I'm a little bummed about: it looks like they might have filmed a scene where Sonmi-451 escapes from captivity. I think that for her story to work effectively, particularly in relation to Zachry's story, she needs to suffer the book's outcome. I'm just reacting to a two-second clip of someone pulling a pistol, though, so I'll cheerfully reserve judgment until I see the movie.


I feel inordinately proud of myself for recognizing every single scene in that entire preview. Well, proud, and optimistic. It looks like they're putting their own stamp on the story while simultaneously remaining mostly faithful to the original story: they're keeping all the major stuff in there, and not introducing new characters or plots. It still could suck, but I like 90% of what I've seen so far, and have high hopes for the film.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Sky Chart

Man. I think Cloud Atlas may be the best book I've read all year.

Well, since January, I mean. The last 12 months have had a LOT of competition, and it's hard to compare this book against the kinetic intellectual drive of REAMDE or the intricate surrealism of 1Q84. Not as hard as you might think, though! Sections of this book read quite a bit like REAMDE's fast-moving thriller prose, and other parts have the lucid dreamlike qualities of 1Q84. It's an incredibly well-constructed book with many facets that link together in interesting ways.

Ever since college, I've been particularly fascinated by novels that include drastic shifts in narrative style. Exhibit A tends to be Ulysses. It starts in the fairly familiar ground of its predecessor "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" by shifting between different narrative voices. As you get further into the book, though, the structure grows increasingly wild, culminating in the Jacobean hallucination of Circe and the quiet catechism of Ithaca. Many people who actually read Moby Dick are surprised to find a similar range of forms on display there: it starts with the relatively familiar tone of a Robert Louis Stevenson adventure, but dives into thoroughly scientific textbook prose for chapters on end, and includes a particularly effective Shakespearean play buried between the other chapters.


Those earlier examples can feel like very talented writers showing off, or doing something interesting for the sake of being interesting. Cloud Atlas's variations, though, are intricately constructed, and a key component of the work itself.

Like Ghostwritten, you could choose to view Cloud Atlas as a series of short stories. Each is told in a different narrative voice, and each is linked in some way to the story that precedes and the story that follows it. Where Ghostwritten was a daisy chain, though, Cloud Atlas is a series of nesting dolls. Each story is contained within the outer story, and contains a new story within it as well.

Mitchell is… my goodness, he's such a GOOD writer. Each of his stories is set in a particular era, and follows a style and form appropriate to that era. It starts with the Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing. It is set in the South Pacific during the mid-1800's, mostly on islands and on ships, and not coincidentally reads very much like a Herman Melville story. Now, I think that all readers will enjoy this novel, but those of us who are English lit nerds will be privy to some really clever meta-jokes, some subtly and some not. Early on, Adam is introduced to us as a "notary" from San Francisco. Only later, in a casual conversation, does he also refer to himself by the synonymous "scrivener". You know, just in case we hadn't already made the connection to Melville's famous protagonist.

Anyways: this part of the book is written as a series of entries in Adam's diaries. There are many peculiarities that feel authentic to the time period and Adam's station: he enjoys the Capitalizing of many Words & the usage of punctuation marks and abbreviations, etc. We also get a really good feeling for the man's emotional character: he is a Christian, very sympathetic towards the plight of the oppressed, but also a polite and somewhat timid man who does not always stand up for his beliefs.

The story is interesting without exactly being exciting; well, there is an escaped slave and the terror of Adam's diagnosis with a rare brain-eating parasite, but all of this is filtered through the form of a diary, and so not terribly shocking. We're lulled into a sense of safety, which is broken when we reach the end of one page, turn it… and find that we're now in the second section of the book. The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing ends in mid-sentence, leaving a profound note of melancholy and unease in the air.

We jump ahead perhaps sixty years in time, to the other side of the world, to a very different narrator writing in a very different style. We now are following the tale of Robert Frobisher, a peripatetic English composer who has been disinherited, absconded to the Continent, and soon starts a new career as the amanuensis for a declining Dutch composer. He could hardly be more different from Adam: he is proud, clever, sarcastic, bisexual, devious, and very ambitious. He's also highly charismatic, able to walk into the wealthy house of a complete stranger and remain employed there for over a year. This part of the book takes the form of a series of letters he writes to Sixsmith, a young friend of his back in England.

This story is quite entertaining. I got chills when the composer describes how he found a book in his employer's library that he has been obsessing over: it's the tale of an American notary who takes a voyage in the south Pacific. Frobisher complains that the end of the book is missing, with the final pages ripped out, so it ends in the middle of a sentence. So, the story that we had just finished reading, is itself a story within this new story. He speculates about the authenticity and the purpose of the journal - is it real? Is it fictional? It seems like an 18th century tale, but if so, who was the author, and why was it written in the form of a diary? He also picks up on some stuff that I had missed, most egregiously that Adam is a huge hypochondriac, and his doctor "friend" has invented the idea of the parasite in order to fleece him.

The tale of the composer continues for a while and comes to a more graceful end than its predecessor. From here, we jump all the way forward to the 1970s, with the adventure of Luisa Rey, a reporter for a National Enquirer-type magazine that stumbles onto a vast and deadly conspiracy. The tone of this part of the book is extremely pulpy: it reads very much like a good Robert Ludlum novel. This section is a delight to read on several levels. First of all, it's a fast-paced and engaging thriller. Secondly, it's not terribly well written, BUT we know by now that Mitchell is capable of great writing, and so it becomes clear that he's deliberately toning down his art here, mimicking what you might expect from a 1970's potboiler. Think of David Wain directing "Wet Hot American Summer" and you'll get the right idea of what Mitchell is up to here.

The Luisa Rey story also contains its own predecessor: she meets an aged Sixsmith, who has now reached retirement age and decides to tip her off about the nefarious plot unfurling around a nearby nuclear power plant. She eventually discovers the letters that Frobisher had written to Sixsmith sixty years ago, and so she reads the same story that we just finished reading. (And, although the book doesn't make this explicit, she also read Frobisher's writing about Adam Ewing's journal.)

Luisa Rey ends very dramatically (the details probably qualify as "mega" so I'll omit them here, but suffice to say that it's as dramatic as Adam Ewing's ending and also much more final). We then hop foreword to the present day and read about the ghastly ordeals of Timothy Cavendish. This story returns us back to first-person narration from Luisa Rey's omniscient narrator, and takes the form of Timothy's memoirs. Cavendish is a kind of hack publisher, not entirely unlike the publishing house in the Umberto Eco book, who makes a lean living by getting authors to pay for publishing and producing very limited print runs. His life is upended when one of his clients becomes a media sensation, and the book he wrote turns into a gargantuan best-seller. This proves to cause more harm than good, and Cavendish goes on the run.

Unlike Luisa Rey, for whom this would be a gripping adventure, for Cavendish it's a ghastly experience. We're treated to the decay of the once-proud British rail system, the shocking decline in English manners, the unpleasantness of Cavendish himself. Cavendish is a pretty fun narrator who recognizes his own faults, and seems to get the most pleasure in life from calling out the corresponding faults in others.

While escaping his pursuers, Cavendish reads a manuscript that was submitted to his office. It is… "The First Luisa Rey Adventure." And so we have yet another part of our nesting doll in place. It's really fun to read Cavendish reading the thriller, and get his editor's reaction to the piece (he thinks it's trashy, but entertaining trash, and will probably sell well).


From here, things start to get strange and wonderful. Much like "Ghostwritten," "Cloud Atlas" starts off in fairly realistic settings, and then evolves into a more science-fiction direction. In "Ghostwritten," that took the form of an alien intelligence who made contact with a Chinese woman who owned a small inn near a holy mountain. In "Cloud Atlas," it takes the form of a peek into the future of our own planet, eventually delving into a post-apocalyptic breakdown of civilization.

What's really amazing about this is how Mitchell's language continues to evolve, into a future that has not yet occurred. Adam Ewing used formal and slightly archaic language; Robert Frobisher was casually eloquent and spoke with an educated mixture of English and French; Luisa Rey's story used simple words, very short paragraphs and chapters, and lots of direct dialog; Timothy Cavendish wrote, well, a lot like you or I would write in our own blogs or journals. This next section is set perhaps a hundred and fifty years in the future (I'm not sure if Mitchell precisely dates it or not), and it's written in English, after it has gone through the sorts of evolution that you might expect the language to make. Some of these are changes in the way certain words are written, most noticeably the way a leading "ex" is transformed to simply "x": "xactly", "xpert", "xecutive". (Yeesh, after writing these out, I hope that Mitchell was able to disable his own spell-checker.) Brand names have come to replace common nouns: people watch disneys, drive fords, wear nikes, read sonys.

This book takes the form of a formal transcript, recording the confession of a being named "Sonmi". It has some of the catechismal pace of "Ithaca", with relatively short questions and relatively long answers that tell a narrative story, but the questioner here is a person with his own personality that becomes a part of the story.

I think what I liked most about this was the way Mitchell just drops us off in the middle of the future and doesn't hold our hand in explaining things. Things that Sonmi and her interrogator take for granted pass without comment, leaving us in the dark: what exactly a "sony" is, what a "dead space" is and what caused it, the significance of "Unity" and "Unification." Over time, we gradually come to understand these things, but our comprehension comes from grasping context and assigning meaning, much like a child would learn. It reminds me of the techniques of my favorite fantasy authors like George R. R. Martin.

By the end of this section, I had gradually pieced together a rough understanding of what had happened. At least, I think so. The story is now taking place in Neo So Corps, which occupies present-day Korea. This is one of the only habitable places left on the planet; most of the remainder has been blighted by catastrophic climate change, nuclear fallout, or the ravages of conventional war. Technology is highly evolved, while morality has devolved. The state is ruled by an amalgamation of political, military, and business concerns. Consumption is mandatory. All citizens are required to spend a certain portion of their income each month in order to keep the economy moving; the state, in turn, helps sanction a virtually limitless supply of labor in the form of fabricants. Fabricants are mass-produced, genetically-engineered humans. They are born, immediately put in service to a corporation, and generally live their entire lives within a single room. Sonmi, the heroine, is a server at the future equivalent of McDonalds (right down to the golden arches and the red-and-gold color scheme). In their contemporary philosophy, the fabricants are "soulless", and thus don't deserve the rights of "pureborn" humans. In reality, they are enslaved: deliberately bred to be servile, and kept in a submissive state by steady ingestion of "soap"; in a cruel detail, their bodies have been engineered to reject all food other than "soap", and that same substance deadens their capabilities.

Sonmi comes under the accidental tutelage of another fabricant who is "ascending": starting to develop a personality and becoming capable of individual thought. She comes to the attention of some influential academics who believe she may help establish the potential of fabricants. There's a really stunning set of scenes where she describes her first-ever exposure to life outside the restaurant; to a college campus; to the city center. While the tone of the narrative is calm and resigned, the content is pretty interesting, with steadily ratcheting tension, an almost Horatio Alger-ish climb for Sonmi, and several intriguing plot twists. Near the end, Sonmi visits a disney where she and her chaperone view one of the movies that have been forbidden in Neo So Corps: "The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish," the cinematic adaptation of the story we just read.

And then… wow, just when I thought the story couldn't get any cooler, we move to the climactic section of the entire book. This casts us several years foreword in time… and several millennia back in civilization. The world of Neo So Corps was already corrupt and rotting, staggering along on fumes while the elite prolonged their existence by ravaging the land and murdering their people. That society has now utterly collapsed, and most of the world has fallen into barbarism. The "primitive" tribes that Adam Ewing so pitied had life much better than even the luckiest of these future humans.

Once again, Mitchell proves to be a master of language, and develops a compelling, utterly believable voice for his narrator. In keeping with the decline of civilization, Zachry speaks in a rough, uncivilized voice. Speech is primitive and filled with misspellings. Ther, all sorts of wonderful and head-shakingly-wrong words.

A few random examples include:
"So the visits was, ev'ry year, since anyun could mem'ry."
"The sun was dead'nin' so high up, yay, it roared an' time streamed from it."
 "Froday o' Lotus Pond Dwellin' an' two-three Valleysmen played goatskin'n'pingwood tom-toms, an' Hilo beardies thumped their flumfy-flumfy drums an' a Honokaa fam'ly beat their sash-krrangers an' Honomu folk got their shell-shakers an' this whoah feastin' o' drums twanged the young uns' joystrings an' mine too, yay, an' blissweed'll lead you b'tween the whack-crack an' boom-doom an' pan-pin-pon till we dancers was hoofs thuddin' an' blood pumpin' an' years passin' an' ev'ry drumbeat one more life shedded off of me, yay, I glimpsed all the lifes my soul ever was till far-far back b'fore the Fall, yay, glimpsed from a gallopin' horse in a hurrycane, but I cudn't describe 'em 'cos there ain't the words no more but well I mem'ry that dark Kolekole girl with her tribe's tattoo, yay, she was a saplin' bendin' an' I was that hurrycane, I blowed her she bent, I blowed harder she bent harder an' closer, then I was Crow's wings beatin' an' she was the flames lickin' an' when the Kolekole saplin' wrapped her willowy fingers around my neck, her eyes was quartzin' and the murmured in my ear, Yay, I will, again, an'yay, we will, again."


Zachry's prose is peppered with near-hallucinations: visions of the Devil (whom he calls Old George, a curious phrase that made me wonder if we're witnessing the last echoes of American hegemony), conversations with dead relatives, and more.

This part of the book was simultaneously depressing and fascinating. I know that there's a long tradition of dystopic sci-fi, but while I'm familiar with the genre in movies I actually haven't read that much in books; I'm more used to cheerfully grimy futures, where the good and bad elements of society have both extended into the future; here, the bad has utterly eclipsed the good.

The action takes place on Big Island: apparently Hawaii was less touched by the nuclear wars that provided the final death blow to civilization. It has still suffered from the social and environmental fallout, though; nobody is expected to reach the age of forty, and someone who has is viewed with suspicion: surely he must have sold his soul to Old George in order to gain such unnatural long life. The narrator's tribe are the Nine Valleys people, and while they're primitive, they are actually much more advanced than any of their island neighbors: they keep history alive through oral traditions, make young ones attend school, grow crops and tend goats, and peaceably trade their goods.

The brightest spot in this dismal landscape are the Prescients, who seem like gods to the narrator's tribe. They sail a giant ship around the ocean, barter goods for supplies, and are tall, black-skinned, seemingly free of the diseases that so plague residents of the Nine Valleys. By the end of this story, we learn that these are the descendants of a group of people who anticipated the cataclysm: they escaped to a secret remote island, deliberately bred their genes and those of their descendants to be more resilient to the harsh conditions of the future (hence the black skin), and have kept alive the technology and knowledge of the ancients. While the narrator thinks that this is wonderful, though, his eventual friend and mentor shares her own caution: all the wisdom of the "ancients" didn't keep them from destroying themselves, and the great advancement of their technology was what led to the total destruction of their species.

At one point, the suspicious narrator roots through the personal effects of his visitor, and stumbles across an "orison"; when he activates it, he sees a vision of a woman, who speaks to an unseen interviewer. Her language is so evolved that he can only understand a handful of words, but what he catches is enough for us to recognize this as the recording made of Sonmi's confession. So: we're hearing the story of Zachry, who watches Sonmi, who saw a movie about Timothy, who read a manuscript about Luisa Rey, who read letters from Robert Frobisher, who read the diary of Adam Ewing. The rabbit hole goes ALL THE WAY DOWN!

Zachry's tale is filled with a lot of despair, but ends on a good-if-melancholy note: he escapes an enslaving tribe that abruptly conquers much of Big Island, but has to abandon his family to do so; he escapes with the other Prescients to a new life on another Hawaiian island. We have learned along the way that we're reading the creation of an oral history: this whole section is being directly narrated from an elderly Zachry to some younger men of his new tribe. And, at the very end, he dies.

We get a few brief sentences of discussion from the other tribe members. Was Zachry's tale true, or was it made up? Well, they figure, most of it was mostly true, based on the pieces of evidence that Zachry brought with him. For example: see, here, he secretly kept the orison which embedded Sonmi's confession. Press it and see it play.

I'd been wondering throughout this fairly long section just where Mitchell could possibly go from here. I was a bit past the halfway point of the book, and what I was reading was already detached enough from my own frame of reference that it seemed impossible for the story to continue along the evolutionary ladder much longer before it became utterly incomprehensible. So, would it try to press further into the future? Would aliens arrive and spend some time with us? Would he find a way to wrap the story back around to the beginning of the novel, or the beginning of time itself? I vaguely thought of a Star Trek-ish plot where the future primitives would travel back in time and become their own ancestors. I also vaguely remembered the curious spot that Adam Ewing found on the island at the beginning of the book, which seemed to have some almost supernatural overtones, and wondered if it was somehow connected to the activities that take place on islands in the book's climax.

Mitchell's actual plan is brilliant: he unwinds the stack, taking the same nesting dolls that he used before and reversing them. This all fits perfectly within the narrative of the book. When Zachry first found Sonmi's orison, he only saw the first part of her confession before he was interrupted, which is why we could only read the first part of her story; after his tribesmen find the orison, they can watch the whole thing, so now we can read the conclusion of her story. Sonmi's initial viewing of The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish was interrupted by the Unification raid on the theater; at the end of her confession, her final request is to see the end of the movie, so now we get to read the end of Timothy's story (which I had thought conclusively ended already!). Cavendish finishes reading through the Luisa Rey manuscript, and also describes how his own story was optioned by Hollywood for the movie that Sonmi will watch in a few centuries. Luisa Rey finishes her adventure, and along the way listens to some pressed LPs of the Cloud Atlas Sextet, and receives the final batch of Robert Frobisher's letters from Sixsmith's daughter. Those letters in turn show Adam Ewing finally learning (too late) of his "doctor"'s deception, and finally finishes the story that we first began.


I have a couple of loose thoughts:

I love the subtle and almost ethereal way that the word "cloud atlas" is introduced to the novel. The first time I consciously noted it was in Zachry's story, where someone describes making an atlas of the clouds. The same metaphor is used, in a slightly different context, in the second part of Sonmi's story. I don't remember it in Cavendish's stories, but in Luisa's and Frobisher's it's the name of his magnum opus. Anyways, the words themselves are very powerful, and acquire a really amazing resonance by being repeated throughout such a great span of time.

I think I'd mentioned before that I had totally missed Adam Ewing's hypochondriac nature in my initial reading of him. Perhaps because of that, I was extra-suspicious when reading his final portion. I found myself wondering about exactly what happened to him: did he make it back to San Francisco safely, reunite with his family, and accomplish his lofty abolitionist goals? Or not? The reason I wonder is: what is his diary doing in Belgium? Well, we know that a Dutchman was on Adam's ship, and hated him. Adam casually mentions at one point that he's giving his diary to the captain so the captain can send it along to San Francisco; he mentions casually that the captain must be doing this because he knows that Adam could make trouble for him in America, and wants to placate him. Well… maybe. I have another theory, though. If the captain disliked Adam, and was worried that he would influence his father-in-law to make life difficult for the captain in San Francisco, wouldn't it make sense to make sure that Adam suffered a fatal "accident" before he returned home? And wouldn't it make sense for the captain to take the diary, which recorded all of the captain's misdeeds, and make sure it never returned to America? Perhaps he could take it with himself, and eventually bring it back home to Europe at the end of his career, where it would eventually become lost within a library, torn in half to support a bed, and eventually be found by Robert Frobisher? I dunno. It seems possible.

Hey, let's talk [more] about post-modernism! Mitchell's style is definitely post-modernist: it's clever, and self-aware, and does interesting stylistic things that comment on the action within the story. And yet, he doesn't feel like any of the most famous most-modernist authors. By the end of the book, I was tentatively ready to offer an explanation as to why: this book is clever and has a good sense of humor, but is refreshingly free of irony. Even more than that, this book has a message! That seems like a minor thing, but really, there are so shockingly few books these days that actually seek to change peoples' minds and behaviors; that kind of writing seemed to go out of fashion in the 1970's, and most books today are proudly art for art's sake.

Mitchell presents his message pretty straight-forwardly, too, mostly through dialog in the unwinding stack at the end of the book. As human beings, we are naturally greedy creatures. We have limited resources and unlimited desires. Throughout history, the strongest people, strongest tribes, strongest nations, strongest races, have taken what they want from weaker people, smaller tribes, poorer nations, technologically inferior races. In the short term, this allows those in power to continue accruing power, increasing their advantage over their rivals. However, over time, this same will to power causes the beast to consume itself. Powerful men in a powerful organization will plot and scheme against one another. Powerful factions in a powerful nation will struggle for more power. As technology advances, the consequences of these struggles grow ever more dangerous. Adam Ewing's nemesis hits the nail on the head: mankind will drive itself to extinction because it's always in the individual's best interest to profit at the expense of the whole.

Who are the bad guys? Anyone who believes that "the weak are meat the strong do eat," anyone who justifies the diminishing of one group so a superior group can become more superior. Who are the good guys? Anyone who opposes that philosophy. Anyone who speaks out in favor of the disenfranchised. Anyone who gladly accepts their portion in life without stealing from another to increase their own. Anyone who empowers those who have no power.

There's a wonderful thread that runs all the way from Adam through to Sonmi and on to the brittle humans of the future. Adam is certainly not a hero; he's far too gullible and fussy to accomplish great things. But he has a kind heart, and that alone made him one of my favorite characters in this book.


I can't say much more about this… it's a phenomenal book, and I highly recommend you read it!

Thursday, August 02, 2012

You Are a True Warrior and Worthy of Respect. (Happy Bark)

Boy... I seem to keep going from epic game to epic game lately. I swear there was a time just a couple of years ago when I was hardly gaming at all, just dropping in for the occasional round of Civ, but I feel like I've been on a non-stop Bioware binge for practically the last year: first a repeat of the Baldur's Gate tetralogy, then a brief (ha!) sojourn in Europa Universalis, then back on the Bioware horse for Star Wars: The Old Republic, then the entire Mass Effect trilogy, and now I'm dipping back into Dragon Age: Origins. They're all great games, so I really shouldn't complain.

I was actually initially thinking of pressing ahead into Dragon Age 2, despite all the bad things I'd heard about the game, but reviewing other gamers' opinions now didn't make me any more inclined to pick it up. DA2 and Civ 5 are two fascinating examples of games that were praised by the gaming press and absolutely hated by fans of their respective franchises. Reading all the criticism for DA2 (and the inevitable praise of DA:O contained therein) made me nostalgic for a game that I played just a few years ago, and so I decided to return to Ferelden. Thanks to the passage of time, you can now buy the Ultimate Edition of DA:O for just $25 on Amazon (was $15 on Steam during their Summer Sale, and $8 during a Flash Sale). In contrast, Dragon Age 2, a newer game, costs a bit over $7 on Amazon, which speaks volumes about the [lack of] demand for the title.

I already owned DA:O and (ahem) some of the DLC, but Ultimate Edition included a lot more DLC that I had never done before: Leliana's Song, Witch Hunt, Darkspawn Chronicles, and Awakening. I had deliberately stayed away from Awakening when it first came out; the general consensus was "good gameplay, but not much story and not worth the cost." Yeah, maybe not worth the $40 it cost when it came out, but I bet I'll like it just fine as a virtual freebie. (Incidentally, I'm much more interested about DLC for DA2 than I am with the game itself; in particular, I've been tempted to pick it up just for Mark of the Assassin. Yep, I'm a nerd!)

So, in this go-round, I decided to roll a new character and do all of the DLC. So far, it's been a total blast. I think that new players should start by playing the main DA:O campaign, but for repeat players like me, here's a pretty good sequence:
  • Start with Darkspawn Chronicles, which is sort of an alternate-universe version of the climax of the main campaign (and thus something I want to establish psychological distance from quickly). Beating this gives you a cool powerful sword.
  • Continue with Leliana's Song, chronologically set several years before the main campaign starts. This would be a small spoiler for the main campaign, but is perfect here if you've already gone through the main game. This should give you a special piece of armor, but I failed to unlock it and am unwilling to replay it just yet.
  • Play Dragon Age: Origins. You can do the in-game DLC in any order you like: Stone Prisoner, Warden's Keep, Return to Ostagar. (Ultimate Edition also gives you a ton of extra items, including paid DLC items like Feastday Gifts / Pranks and also promotional items like the Edge, Memory Band, and Blood Dragon Armor. Some of these show up in your inventory at the start of the game, others can be bought in the camp.)
  • Witch Hunt?
  • Golems of Amgarrak? I hear that this one is really hard, so I'll probably do it after WH so I can be as high-level as possible.
  • Awakening
  • Cry, then try to decide whether to power through DA2 or just wait for the third game
EDIT 1/22/13: After actually doing this, I've since learned that the post-DA:O sequence should actually go like this: Awakening -> Golems -> Witch Hunt.


Darkspawn Chronicles is... a bit disturbing. The AV Club's Gameological Society actually had a really good write-up about the experience recently. Chronicles is a role-reversal game that feels a little like Dungeon Keeper in that it casts you as an evil monster who must stop the goodly heroes from accomplishing their quest. It's very personal, though: you don't just fight nameless helmeted knights, but must do battle against the companions who you've gotten to know and love throughout your previous game. You must slay Wynne, defeat Sten, murder Zevran, and in the climax, beat a whole party of surviving party members (Alistar, Morrigan, Leliana, and Barkspawn [ha!]). The gameplay is exciting - you can make various Darkspawn your thralls, and it's a lot of fun to control Ogres and Shades and other baddies - but I still cringed at the bad stuff it made me do.

In contrast, Leliana's Song has a great (albeit predictable) story, but the gameplay was just OK. Leliana is one of my favorite characters in DA:O, which has possibly the best collection of companions in any game (though I'll eventually need to resolve the question of whether Mass Effect's are better). This mission lets us see the pre-Chantry version of Leliana; she has a recognizable personality, but it's fun to pick out the differences in her character (she's a little more free-spirited, very trusting, and, curiously enough, less secretive than she is when she ceases being a spy). Marjolaine plays a fairly big role in the story too. At every step of the game, I knew what was coming next, but I like these characters so much that I didn't mind. (The one thing I did mind: apparently I missed a Masterwork Leather Piece while playing, so I didn't unlock Battledress of the Provocateur. Nertz!)

For the main game, I decided to follow a path similar to my highly successful and enjoyable re-play of Baldur's Gate, and transition from playing a male rogue to a female elf mage. It definitely helps to have played the game once before rolling a mage; magic tends to be the most complex system in any RPG, so I like it more if I know ahead of time which spells and schools of magic will be most useful to focus on.

My new character is Kiriyon. (I really need to come up with a new set of names for female characters; Kiriyon and Sebrina seem too much like Rule 63 versions of my standard avatars.) Kiriyon is an elf Mage; you don't get to pick your background here since all Mage origin stories are the same, but it comes up a bit in dialog with other characters, and so I came up with an idea that I was from the Alienage in Denerim; parents died when I was young, I was raised by the community, and given to the Circle at a very young age when my magic started to manifest. Kiriyon is roughly Neutral Good whereas Seberin was in between Chaotic Neutral and Chaotic Good. Kiriyon's background makes her sensitive to injustice and suffering, especially those which are institutionalized, and will go out of her way to help the down-trodden. (Much to the continuing irritation of Morrigan, of course.) She's very curious about human culture, and currently has an open-minded view of the Chantry that will likely evolve over the course of the game, guided to no small degree by her relationship with Leliana. She takes pride in her magic, and sees it as primarily a source of responsibility, not of power. She believes in the best of everyone, and will always try to persuade others to see her perspective if she can avoid causing a fight.

DA:O is one of those wonderful Western-style RPGs where you can go pretty much anywhere at any time after completing the introductory quests, and I'm following a very different path on this play-through. In the first game, I had deliberately avoided reading anything whatsoever about the game, and had fun just stumbling around and discovering stuff. For example, I had completed the entire Urn of Sacred Ashes quest prior to setting foot in Redcliffe, just because I wandered into Haven and kept on going forever. For this game, I'm focusing on bringing my party together first. After Ostagar and Lothering, my first destination was the Circle Tower. I wanted to pick up Wynne; for the type of character I wanted to play, she'd be a much more compatible companion than Morrigan would.

The Circle Tower quest plays out a bit differently as a Mage than it did when I was a Dwarf Thief. That's another of the awesome things about this game: the Origin Stories aren't just a source of initial stats, and they aren't even a different set of introductory levels, but they're real character choices that affect the flavor of the rest of the game. When Seberin had arrived in the Circle Tower, he didn't know anyone; Kiriyon is on a first-name basis with almost everyone, and has existing relationships with them all, from the templar with a crush on her to the First Enchanter in her debt.

Oh, yeah: in my origin story, I had decided (after some agonized reflection) to turn down Jowan and Lily's request for aid; I actually thought that Lily was trying to corrupt him, and was lying about seeing that he was destined for tranquility. (I had apparently totally forgotten about Jowan from my first game, and wouldn't realize until reaching Castle Redcliffe that he was the same character - if I had, I would have made my decision much more quickly.) I then went to the First Enchanter and shared my concerns; he asked me to assist them so they could be caught in the act. I hated being put in the middle like this, but felt my duty to the Circle outweighed my friendship with Jowan; especially since I didn't feel too invested in the "friendship." (In contrast, in my dwarf origin story I felt VERY protective of my sister, and that ultimately played an enormous role in my decision to back Prince Bhelan.)

So, anyways... the Knight Commander is always a bit of a prick, but he grudgingly admitted that I was following orders and didn't blame me much for Jowan's escape when I saw him again. Wynne happily joined the party. I made the mistake of replacing Leliana with Wynne for the Circle Tower. Well, a marginal mistake... I've done a lot more reading about DA:O recently, and one of the things I've learned is that people tend to do very well by loading multiple mages into their party. So I was vaguely thinking that my party loadout might be Kiriyon (specializing in entropic magic), Morrigan (specializing in environmental magic), Wynne (healing), and Alistair (tank). For combat, that works out beautifully... but unfortunately, nobody in that party can open locked chests. It's pretty frustrating to pass container after container that you can't open. And, while you can swap out your party in the first part of the Circle, once you encounter the Abominations you're stuck with the group you have.

I think that most of my major decisions in this game will probably be the same at my first; Seberin usually ended up making the "good" choice, he just wanted to steal as much gold as possible while doing it, while Kiriyon will be relatively altruistic in her pursuit of fairness. So, Kiriyon defeated Uldred and spoke out against the Rite of Annulment, ensuring that the Circle would regrow and participate in the fight against the Darkspawn.

After the rogue-less mini-fiasco, I re-juggled my companions. My standard traveling group now is Kiriyon (offensive magic), Leliana (theoretically an archer, though in practice she ends most fights with dual daggers out), Alistair (tank), and Wynne (healing). Other than Alistair, that's a totally different build from my first game, and I love how different the fights feel now. In my first game, Seberin was a Stealth-heavy backstabbing Rogue; Alistair was a poorly-built tank; Sten was a strong offensive warrior; and Morrigan split healing and offensive magic duties. Those fights tended to end successfully, but I used poultices pretty frequently, and they would often take a while, especially when I was fighting a large number of weak enemies. In contrast, in my current game fights are often over VERY quickly - sometimes a single Fireball from Kiriyon is enough to wipe out a little army - but my characters also seem to die more quickly. In particular, when we're ambushed in narrow spaces with AOE attacks, my low-CON characters sometimes go down before (a possibly dazed) Wynne can bring them back up. We're very good against lots of weak enemies (hooray for AOE!) and against bosses (hooray for Crushing Prison!), but fights against multiple mages can turn into a high-stakes quick-draw affair. I'm really looking forward to Wynne learning Cleansing Aura, otherwise I'll be using more Injury Kits than I'd like to admit.

My next stop was Warden's Keep, the cause of so much anguish in my first journey.  I went here mainly because I wanted to get the Power of Blood abilities; I had mis-remembered how these work, and thought that I would need to invest ability points in them, so I wanted to pick them up early so I could invest them. It turns out that you actually get the abilities, not just unlock them, so I could have done it at any time.

It was still good, though... I like this quest for many reasons, especially the extreme moral grayness on display (is it right for a Gray Warden to get involved in politics to overthrow a tyrant? is there ever an excuse for summoning abominations?) and the chance to see into a critical historical period within Ferelden. I ended up following pretty much the same path as before: I lied to Sophia about my intentions, then convinced her to seal the rip in the Fade, then spared Avernus's life and convinced him to continue his experiments without using living subjects, then killed Sophia. Last time, I had exited the Keep too early; once you leave, you can't go back in, and so I had missed the special sword you can find, Asturian's Might. This time I was careful to stick around and explore until I discovered it. I can't equip it on Alistair just yet, but it looks pretty promising.

Following this, I went to Redcliffe; not to get a new companion, but to unlock the Blood Mage specialization. (You can only unlock this if your player character is a Mage, so it was the one specialization I hadn't unlocked in my first game.) Man, this is such a fun sequence! It's kind of a nice premonition of the allied war that comes at the climax of DA:O (which in turn was a cool early version of the epic galactic alliance in Mass Effect 3): you need to travel through town, discovering resources that can be used to help protect the village, recruit new fighters, improve morale, etc. Once your preparations are done, you defend against the undead corpses invading from the castle. I was pretty determined in this game to keep everyone alive, and was delighted to pull it off without too much trouble (though, granted, with frequent pausing). The first section, with the knights, was super-easy: my people crowded in front of the flaming barricades; Kiriyon kept up Inferno in the slope leading down to the barricades, or tossed a Fireball in when it was down; and Alistair and Leliana easily cut down the few weakened corpses who stumbled through intact.

The harder part is the fight in front of the chantry: it's a big melee, with enemies arriving from multiple directions, and a hodge-podge of militia swarming around in the square. Here, the barricades are actually kind of a hindrance: there are multiple openings, so you can't easily keep bad guys from getting in, but the barricades can keep your spells from crossing in or out. I mostly let this fight proceed using AI Tactics, but kept an eye on the militia's health bars so Wynne could toss over manual Heals when someone got low. The toughest guy to keep alive is Lloyd; he died in Seberin's game, thanks to the way he runs around and attacks everyone, but in this game I was able to keep up with him and take down enemies before they could kill him. Hooray! (Also: Boo! I still can't buy his tavern!)

Coming in through the secret passage via the dungeons, I met Jowan again and was reminded of the role he plays in this quest. As usual, the game supports a pleasingly broad array of situations and responses. In my situation, he was justifiably angry since I had lied to him and betrayed him to the Circle and Templars; I imagine that he's more appreciative if you support him outright and are swung up in the same trap as him. Anyways, I could be apologetic, or vindictive, or matter-of-fact. I opted for a fairly tough reaction: Kiriyon is compassionate, but blood magic is incredibly dangerous, and Jowan's actions had put far too many lives at risk. Not to mention that he was working for Loghain and had poisoned my ally! Still, I did choose to free him from prison, warning him that he would need to help undo the damage he had caused.

Man... the scene with the possessed Connor and an enthralled Bann Teagan is really creepy; so whimsical on its surface, with the heavily armored grown man capering about and laughing maniacally in service to a little boy, but so very disturbing for the very same reasons. I broke the spell (with some relief; I couldn't remember if there was a way to finish the fight without killing the Bann) and then got ready to eliminate the demon. Like my previous game, I decided to do this the "best" way by recruiting the Circle of Magi to put me back into the Fade where I could battle the demon, thus saving Connor's life. Since I'd already saved the Circle, it just took a round trip to get that support. Only a mage can ordinarily enter the Fade; in my first game, I'd sent Morrigan (who has some really amusing interactions with the Desire Demon), but this time Kiriyon could go herself; some time it would be interesting to see whether you can actually send some of the other options the game presents, like Jowan and the First Enchanter. I doubt they're playable characters, and I wonder if they just accomplish the task, or fail in it (or maybe just refuse to go).

I love dreams, and I love games about dreams. Lots of players seem to hate the Fade, but I really dig it, both the long excursion during Circle Tower and the short visit in this quest.

Initially, I made the deal with the desire demon to learn blood magic; then reloaded and made the "real" choice of fighting her. Although it's a bit incongruous with my character, I am seriously considering giving her the Blood Mage specialization at level 14.  Shapeshifter has never seemed like a useful specialization, and I never even use Morrigan's shapeshifting abilities. (Mages are crucial, and transforming into an animal removes the mage from your party.) Arcane Warrior seems interesting, but doesn't really fit my playstyle; I want to wear robes, and hang back, and toss fireballs at bad guys. I dislike the lore for Blood Magic, but it actually sounds pretty useful; I do have trouble with running out of mana during long fights, and appreciate being able to tap Dark Sustenance. While I don't have a ton of health, blood magic could be very useful for getting out of tight spots.

Continuing my companion-acquiring quest, I then did the Stone Prisoner sequence to pick up Shale. I'd forgotten just how funny Shale is; she may be the most amusing character in the party, which is saying a lot. I'd initially been planning on using Alistair as a tank, but I'm now at least somewhat considering Shale; unfortunately, she loves squashing puny humans a bit too much to fit in with my party. (That said, I am pretty sorely tempted to grab Shale just so I can make an all-girls party of Kiriyon, Shale, Leliana, and Wynne. It's too bad that there aren't humanoid female fighters in DA:O. I loved my all-girls party in BG2 of Sebrina, Mazzy, Chloe, Imoen, Viconia, and Nalia; and my Mass Effect 1/3 all-girls party of Shepard, Ashley, and Liara; and my Mass Effect 2 party of Shepard, Samara, and Miranda.)

With Shale in tow, I'm currently doing Orzammar. Shale has a ton of unique dialog for this area, so I'm swapping out Alistair for her during this (long!) quest. Along the way I'll be picking up Oghren, which I THINK will be the last character I need.

Orzammar is very different as an elf than as a dwarf. Interestingly enough, I actually get treated with more respect now; dwarves don't generally care for surfacers very much, but they genuinely admire Gray Wardens. When Seberin came back, his brand ensured that he continued to be looked down upon (not, uh, literally) and he had to work extra-hard to gain their approval.

Let's talk about romance, shall we?

Alistair is so needy! I felt like I was doing a really, really good job of holding him off... the game gives ample opportunities for you to flirt with him, all of which I studiously ignored. Since I plan on keeping him in my main party, I did want to make sure his affection was high, so I stayed on friendly terms with him (being positive, rolling with his jokes, etc.) while never calling him "handsome" or anything like that. It seemed to be working fairly well, and I'd gotten him up to 60+ affection without triggering the romance. I think I finally messed up after giving him his mother's locket, though. There's a fairly long, involved conversation you have when giving this gift. Throughout it, I stuck to my standard friendly-but-distant attitude. At the end, though, there were just three options for me to choose from: something like "Because you're special to me," and two put-downs (I think one sarcastic, one not). I agonized on this choice for a while, specifically because I was worried about starting the romance, but eventually decided that "special" could just mean, like, a special friend, and picked that. Big mistake! Next time we chatted, he was handing Kiriyon a rose. D'oh! I actually thought that I made it out of that one all right, having Kiriyon let him down gently, and was pleasantly surprised to finish it with a +1 approval. I made a huge mistake and quick-saved here, then was horrified to see that the following conversation had a VERY ANIMATED Alistair looking to take things to the next level. I let him down gently. Bam! -19 Approval. Ouch. I reloaded my quicksave, and chose the more direct rejection. Freakin' -76 approval! Ouch ouch ouch. I sighed, bit the bullet, and went back to the -19. It'll take a little while for me to get back into his good graces, but at least that arc is over. I do kind of wish there was some clearer indication of what choices would trigger a romance, so players could avoid ones that they don't intend to enter.

I'm pursuing Leliana again for this game. That makes me happy, since she's such a great character. I'd initially been slightly bummed at the thought that I would be "repeating" the romance from my first game, and wished that I'd retroactively stuck with Morrigan when I was Seberin. In practice, though, I've been pleasantly surprised at how different the flavor of the romance is now. I guess I'd been kind of used to repeating romances in Baldur's Gate with the Tweak Pack's "Can't Kill Romance" settings, where romances play out exactly the same even if the PC is very different, which had HILARIOUS results when my female Elf mage was romancing Viconia. (I had to pretend that she wasn't calling Sebrina 'Male' in every other conversation.) Thanks to the wealth of dialog in DA:O, I got lots of acknowledgment that our situation was different: different from female to male, from dwarf to elf (there's a particularly interesting conversation wherein she inadvertently insults your race while talking about her experience with elves in Orlais), and from thief to mage. I've completed the Andraste's Grace gate of the romance, and will probably head to Denerim after Orzammar to wrap up the Marjolaine storyline and fulfill the romance.

The incident with Alistair has made me a little gun-shy about Zevran. It's kind of a moot point right now, since his approval is only around +15 and probably won't rise until I find some more precious metals to give him. He seems to be more laissez-faire than Alistair, though, which will hopefully make it easier to avoid romance or reject him... so far he's broached the subject in general terms a few times, and doesn't react negatively when I emphatically turn him down, so hopefully that will continue to be the case.


My last couple of posts on Bioware games and Ultima has gotten me thinking a lot about western RPGs in general. This is hardly groundbreaking, but here's my thesis:

There's no modern franchise today that has inherited Ultima's legacy. Instead, we have two successors: the Bioware fantasy RPGs and Bethesda's Elder Scrolls RPGs. Each of these modern franchises has taken an element that was pioneered by Ultima and made it even better, but is missing the element possessed by the other franchise.

When I think back on Ultima games, two things stick with me. First and foremost is the world: even the earlier Ultima games, which are absolutely ancient now, were astonishingly broad in scope and deep in detail. I keep bringing this up, but the amazing thing about Ultima was all the STUFF in each game that had no connection to the main plot but that contributed to the sense that you were inhabiting a fully-realized world; your story was important, but it was just part of what was happening; the universe doesn't revolve around you. For example, you never, ever need to visit a farm in Ultima VI. BUT, if you DO decide to wander around outside the city walls north of Britannia, you may find yourself in a field. Perhaps it's a field of cotton. If it's daytime, a farmer will be there harvesting his crop; you can talk with him and learn about his job. If you like, you can pick some cotton yourself. You can then wander down to Trinsic and find a weaver. You can sell your cotton to him; or, you can borrow use of his loom, and spin the cotton into cloth. You can then take this cloth to a tailor in Minoc, and sell it to him, or use some sewing equipment he has and make your own clothes. There's an ENTIRE ECONOMY in the game, not one that's based around adventurers collecting rat tails, but one that's based on raw resources, value-added skills, supply and demand. This economy doesn't really matter, but if you want to participate in it, it's there for you.

Along the same lines, Ultima games had a really vast landscape. Again, Ultima VI is a great example: you could just stick to the major roads to get almost anywhere you needed to go, or even use your Orb or the Moonstones to teleport various places. But, if you wanted to strike out into the woods, you'd find a whole lot of trees, some forest clearings, some wild animals, maybe an occasional ruin or two. None of this was essential, but it was all THERE.

In retrospect, the framing device for the Ultima games makes a lot of sense. Most games start with an introduction depicting you, a human on Earth, going through some portal and entering Britannia. In many ways, that's what those games were: a portal into a new world to explore, not just a game to beat.

The second aspect of Ultima that I really enjoyed was the conversation system, and even better, having companions with interjections. After a few games in their company, I came to really like Iolo, Shamino, and Dupre. They have recognizable personalities; Dupre was brave and respectful, while Iolo was gregarious and had a sharp sense of humor, and Shamino was quiet and kind. When you wander around, they'll sometimes speak to one another; when you address another person, they might have something to add to your conversation. The only thing better than exploring a fully-realized world is doing it in the company of friends.

Bioware has done a great job of taking that companion system and elevating it to a new level. Their companions are deeper and more interesting than the Ultima ones. In the world of Ultima, everyone is good, just in different ways; Bioware rarely has purely good characters, with just a couple of exceptions (Mazzy and Keldorn come to mind), but most combining admirable and deplorable characteristics. Bioware companions tend to have complex backstories that take a while to unravel. They have fraught relationships with other companions; just try keeping Keldorn and Viconia in the same party for a while, or pleasing Alistair and Morrigan simultaneously. Ultima's companions mostly commented on the action, but Bioware companions can frequently guide the outcome of encounters or open new paths for you to explore; for example, having Viconia in the Underdark can help you bluff your way through a few meetings with Drow. And, of course, romances are practically a Bioware invention. All in all, Bioware's complex characters greatly increase the emotional impact of their games, and add immensely to their replay value, since the flavor of a game changes immensely depending on whose company you experience it in.

The area where Bioware is relatively lacking is in their world design. Well, maybe not "design" - the look and the depth of their worlds is usually excellent - but they don't have nearly as broad a canvas as Ultima did. I think this is a deliberate choice that Bioware makes. They focus on a few specific locations, and try to make them as lush and interesting as possible, then simply cut out all the stuff between those locations. Many gamers who hate journeying will love this approach. (Mass Effect 2 has a great Easter egg conversation on the citadel about this - something like, "Games used to be better when you had to remember to drink water, and traveling anywhere took four hours in real time.") I really miss it, though. I love Ferelden, and I would really enjoy being able to feel like I was IN Ferelden. Instead, I only get to glimpse a handful of the coolest places within Ferelden, and maybe see a few locations in passing when I'm ambushed while on the road. The last Bioware game I can think of that had anything even close to Ultima's unified world design was the original Baldur's Gate, which at least had lots of wilderness areas that connected the major sites of interest. Ever since then, all their games have had a few locations and instant travel between them.

So, who is carrying the banner for the unified world? Bethesda. Much like Bioware has exceeded Origin Systems' groundbreaking companion work, Bethesda's modern environments have put Ultima's maps to shame. It's an incredible experience to, say, be wandering up Gnoll Mountain, then suddenly stop, turn around, and gasp in astonishment at the beautiful landscape below you. You can wander a little to the left or the right, and see slightly new vistas. You know what it feels like? It feels a little like when I hike up mountains in the real world on weekends. Elder Scrolls are such COMPLETE games: any single thing you can see while you're on top of a mountain, you can walk to that thing. It's all there. It's fully-realized. (Similar props go to the Fallout games, for similar reasons.)

Where Bethesda falls short, in my experience, has been with your companions. (Disclaimer: I haven't played Skyrim yet.) Bioware games tend to be about assembling a team, and then doing awesome stuff with your team. Elder Scrolls games are about you becoming an ubermensch: you might start as a particular class, but by the end of the game you'll most likely be wearing powerful armor, wielding powerful weapons, blasting powerful spells, picking locks, and doing everything else that a party would need to do. The Elder Scrolls games that I've played do occasionally have "followers", who will follow you around and help in combat, but their stories are nowhere near as rich as those I've come to expect from Bioware.

So, why am I thinking about this now? Two reasons. First of all, my geek fantasy is that Bioware will revive the Ultima franchise and layer their high-quality stories and characters onto Ultima's rich mythology and vast worlds. I have no idea if that will happen, and stuff like the map of Britain makes me think that they're going to be taking it in the opposite direction... but we'll see!

Secondly, I'm very, very excited (and nervous) about what Dragon Age 3 will end up being. It seems like everyone acknowledges that DA2 was a failure, and so with DA3 we could either see a return to the strengths of DA:O (highly customizable player characters, companions we can dress up like dolls, strategic combat, unique environments, world-changing decisions, etc.), or it can evolve in a new direction. One rumor that's getting a lot of air lately is that DA3 will feature an "open world." Now, I don't know exactly what they mean by Open World; I'd LIKE to think that they're thinking of something like Skyrim or Ultima VII, but it's certainly possible that they're just referring to a less-linear version of the standard Bioware exploration system. Once again, though, if there's any ways that Bioware could keep the depth of character that they're so good at, and set those deep stories in a broad, internally consistent and intricate world... well, that could pretty much be the best game ever.

It also might be a pipe dream. Bioware's inclinations in recent years have been moving towards more cinematic games. Having a cinematic game requires a more tightly controlled environment, and it would probably be a huge challenge to, say, allow cut scenes to play out in any arbitrary location. Bioware is definitely capable of making incredible games while limiting their locations.

As long as I'm rambling about fantasy RPGs and Bioware... I've been really digging Mass Effect 3 multiplayer, and enjoying the combat in Dragon Age: Origins, and those things have combined to make me wonder what a similar style of co-op team-based fantasy combat might look like. I don't have an answer, but I do have some thoughts!
  • I've actually done something a little similar in the past with Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance, a co-op hack'n'slash RPG for the PlayStation 2. I remember enjoying it; it was much less story-based than single-player Baldur's Gate games, but I don't need as much story in multiplayer.
  • The combat for DA:O is actually very similar to that of a fantasy MMORPG like World of Warcraft. Maybe having fantasy MMOs means there isn't as much of a need for multiplayer?
  • I'm reminded of CLANG and Neal Stephenson's comments that today's video-game interfaces are fair approximations of modern and futuristic weaponry (press a button to fire a gun), but awful approximations of medieval combat (move a mouse to swing a sword). Pressing buttons and waiting for cool-downs probably wouldn't feel as immersive and exciting as the fast-paced survival combat of ME3 multiplayer.
  • But, I think the deeper specialization that you get in fantasy RPGs could lead to some really awesome gameplay. That's part of why people love traditional pen and paper RPGs so much: you can be, say, your party's rogue, and be really good at being a rogue, and fulfill a specific niche that really helps out your party. There's still some flexibility that you can get in a fantasy party, but you seem to have stronger archetypes (dedicated healers, etc.), which means that the flavor of the game could change a lot based on your character class and other party members.
  • I just get really happy when I think about a ME3 style co-op multiplayer game for the Dragon Age universe. You could have settings like fighting darkspawn in the Deep Roads, storming or defending a castle like Redcliffe, fighting demons in the Fade (that would be AWESOME!), defending against a bandit ambush while in the wilds. You could also keep objectives like Mass Effect: break into a safe to get money (similar to the Hacking/Upload mission), escort a messenger to safety, etc. And keep the race/class matrix: you can be a Dwarf Thief, an Orlesian Bard, a Qunari Warrior, etc. Keep giving experience and gold. You can level with abilities like in DA:O, using trees appropriate for each class. I think the unlock system for ME3 would work fine. Your items would include one-time consumables (Health poultices, Acid flasks); mission-long consumables (poisons, flaming arrows); new character unlocks (Qunari Reaver, Orlesian Assassin); upgradeable weapons (Gray Iron Greatsword, Silverite Greatsword). You wouldn't need ammo dumps, but maybe you could have a Lyrium Vein or two so spellcasters could quickly recharge their manna. Have some unlock system between multiplayer and singleplayer similar to ME3 so there's an incentive for SP gamers to at least try out MP: like, after winning 10 matches you unlock a unique weapon for SP, or taking a class to level 20 and promoting them will unlock their specialization in SP. With all these similarities, though, the feel of combat would be quite distinct. ME3 is primarily ranged combat with a few melee-optimized classes; DA:O would probably be a fairly equal balance between ranged combat (mages and archers) and melee-range combat (warriors and dual-wielding rogues). 
And, just one last comment to close out this incredibly long and disorganized post: I've commented a few times before on how lucky I was in some ME3 MP matches when I was playing with a whole group of 4 engineers, and was convinced that we were screwed, but ended up being incredibly successful games. Turns out, that wasn't such a fluke after all. I'm used to the necessity of party balance in fantasy RPGs: as previously noted,  you pretty much always need a balance of healer, rogue, and fighter to succeed in a fantasy RPG, and I'd assumed that you need a similar balance in MP of biotic, tech, and combat. However, that's not necessarily the case! ME3 MP is very much about developing synergies between team members, and while those synergies can sometimes come across multiple classes, they can also arise within the same class. Specific to engineers, one advantage I'm just now starting to appreciate is that of the "tech burst". Basically, if an enemy is hit by one tech power (like Overload), and shortly after hit by another tech power (like Incinerate), then it sets off an AOE around the target that further damages it and can damage or kill nearby enemies. I've now gotten to the point where I can set of Tech Bursts on my own (thanks to my focus on powers and my 200% cooldown rate); but it's a lot easier and quicker if I'm with other Engineers, since if I see one of them use a power on an enemy, I can immediately follow up with another power to set off the burst. Once everyone is doing this, you can clear a room of low-level enemies in a shockingly short amount of time. I now think that the ideal party might be something like three Engineers and one Infiltrator - having the Infiltrator is still important for the "activate beacon"-type missions and to do emergency revives. Of course, there really is no such thing as an "ideal" party - with good players who can work well together, there's a wide variety of successful strategies.