Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Cling Clang Clung

So, I've just received my first-ever Kickstarter-backed game! It's... interesting. Not as awesome as I had hoped, but still a nifty little piece of tech.

This is CLANG, the Kickstarted swordfighting game from Subutai that featured the incredible Neal Stephenson as a spokesperson and had several awesome martial combat videos. They made their goal, but just barely, and it definitely wasn't a run-away success like some other projects (Double Fine Adventure, Reaper Miniatures Bones, Wasteland 2). So, fairly soon after the campaign ended, they communicated that they would be focusing specifically on the sword combat mechanics, and not much in the way of narrative or other gameplay.

It seems like a bit of a skunkworks project, and that was clear even in the delivery. The game was distributed as a 200+MB download, and their servers did not appear to be equipped to handle the load of thousands of geeks all downloading it at once; I think my download timed out over a dozen times and had to be restarted each attempt before I finally snagged it.

The initial pitch for CLANG was to create a swordfighting experience in game that "feels" similar to actually using a sword. Neal Stephenson has made some fantastic observations in the past about the inadequate metaphors that our computers offer, and a mouse and keyboard are particularly lousy tools for emulating the sensation of melee combat. As I recently noted, I picked up a Razer Hydra after they identified it as the ideal peripheral to control the game: its fine motion- and position-sensing technology lets you control your in-game stance by shifting your arms around, segueing from one form to another.

All of that is really cool in theory. In practice, I felt totally adrift. I think that, for a neophyte like me, the lack of a tutorial makes the game practically unplayable. I was lost even at the very beginning when calibrating my Hydra, when the on-screen instructions said, "Hold the controllers like you would a sword." Uh... which would be like what, exactly? The only sword I've held before is a fencing foil, and I certainly haven't ever wielded a two-handed longsword. That's a big part of why I was excited to back the project: so I could have the vicarious experience of what it would be like to fight with a sword. That's what drives most of the games I play, actually: the chance to get a taste of an experience that I'll likely never have in real life. As it stands, CLANG seems to pre-suppose familiarity with the basics of sword combat. It would be a little like if a flight simulator assumed that players already knew how to fly an airplane.

I totally get why they didn't build out a tutorial (the option is currently grayed-out): it's expensive, and something that most players would probably only ever run once, so it makes more sense to focus on the core gameplay mechanics. Still, anything that they could have provided would have helped me immensely: a PDF that showed how to position your hands and outlined the various stances, for instance. Heck, if they ever just make a YouTube video that shows a more experienced person playing this, that will probably be enough for me to get the basic mechanics and try again.

As it was, though, I felt like I was flailing. I fought a couple of matches, and won some, and lost some, but really don't have any understanding of what I was doing: I was trying to position my arms to match the ghost outlines that the game shows, and pressing buttons and pulling a trigger, and then some stuff happened.

In their release email, Subutai explained the roadmap: they're going to try and get more funding to build out the game more. That's cool. I still love the idea of a medieval combat game. I just wish that this proof-of-concept was a bit more usable to someone like me.

In happier Kickstarter news: Shadowrun should be released in the next couple of months, and is currently available for pre-order on Steam for non-backers. I was floored and delighted last week when they revealed that, contrary to everyone's expectations, the Matrix will be available in the initial release of the game! I've been planning to play a Decker since I first heard about the project, so this makes me incredibly happy. The initial concept had been that Deckers would only see an "overlay" in the real world, but as a new video shows, they will be able to actually "jack in" to the Matrix, combat IC, duel rival AI, shut down security nodes, and all the other awesome stuff that I remember from the SNES and Genesis games.

They are carefully managing expectations: Matrix runs will be relatively rare, and not a huge feature in the main game. What's really exciting, though, is that just by making this available, they're also making those resources accessible to the mod community, and I have no doubt that we will see many Matrix runs in the months ahead.

Speaking of which: it sounds like early access to the mission creator has been delayed. That makes me feel a bit better about not backing at a higher level just to get early access: I don't think there's going to be a ton of time between when it's made available to backers, and when the game itself comes out (and the creator made available to everyone). It's kind of an awkward situation for Harebrained Schemes to be in: they want to reward their backers, but they also want to make the game as good as possible for their customers, and it will help the game to have a wider pool of community mod creators early on. I'm curious to see how this all plays out. And, of course, I can't wait to get it in my greedy little hands!

It's exciting to see it moving forward. I just recently filled out a survey for getting my T-Shirt and other rewards. The coolest bit was realizing that I'd be able to upload my own photo for my DocWagon card - I'd assumed that by "personalized," they had just meant that it would have my name on it, but nope, this will be a true SINless card! I picked a rare headshot of me wearing sunglasses, which seems slightly more in character for the Sixth World. 

Finally, the Torment kickstarter finished with a rousing success. There was actually a bit of a coda to this: they extended the Paypal campaign for the month of April to let the community try for their final stretch goal, a player stronghold. This has sounded really cool: they're not sure exactly what it will be, but a few ideas they have floated have included a mobile airship, or an interdimensional portal, or inside your own mind. They just announced that we fell a little short of the stretch goal, BUT since the Amazon pledges have had a better-than-expected success rate (not many insufficient funds, etc.), they've decided to take it on after all. Hooray!

So, that's something to look forward to, far, far in the future. They're still in the very early concept phases, and won't even start any coding until after Wasteland 2 ships near the end of this year. I love everything that I've seen so far from the team, though. It's an interesting mix of ambition and tradition: they want to create a deeply meaningful, complex, thought-provoking game; but they're also very explicitly harkening back to old-school gaming (PC-only, no multiplayer) and to a particular beloved property (Planescape: Torment). I'm especially enjoying the video chats with members of the creative team, who are geographically dispersed and temperamentally varied, from the humble Adam Heine to the sly Colin McComb to the playful Tony Evans. Just seeing their individual personalities sparkle makes me excited about the kinds of characters they're going to write. 2015 is going to be awesome!

Oh, and if you aren't already familiar with MrBtongue's excellent, philosophical YouTube videos, I highly recommend checking out his recent meditation on Choice & Consequences. He does a fantastic job of articulating some ideas that I've struggled to communicate on this blog. It sounds like inXile is taking his words to heart, which makes me even more excited about the potential of Torment.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Odds and Sodds

Quick updates on a few pending game things, some of which may get longer write-ups at some point:

After taking a break, I forced myself to return to Neverwinter Nights for the first expansion, Shadows of Undrentide, and so far I'm surprised and pleased at how drastically it improves upon the original campaign. It feels a bit like Bioware decided a decade ago to respond to nearly all of my specific complaints:
  • Your henchmen are now much more integrated into the story. They have personal arcs, but will also comment on situations you encounter and decisions you make, and will also interject when they have urgent information to share.
  • Many quests have a lot more options for completion. For example, a giant has kidnapped a dwarf woman to make his wife. You can slay the giant and free her. You can convince him to let her go (which pleasingly is very difficult to do: you need to navigate through a complex conversation tree, thinking about each response and picking the right one, before finally getting the chance to succeed in a [Persuade] check at the end). You can challenge him to a drinking contest, cheat (with enough dexterity, I believe), then steal the key to her cage when he keels over. Or you can deliberately let yourself get captured, thrown into the same cage, and then break both of you out at the same time. Anyways, it's incredibly refreshing to get quests beyond the "Kill everyone and pick up X, then return it to Y" type, and even beyond "Pick A to be evil, or B to be good."
  • Speaking of which, even the morality system is improved. It's integrated better into the game, and the choices are more nuanced. For example, I now shift towards Chaotic alignment whenever I steal from all those chests in the village, and towards Lawful when I complete a quest that the mayor gives me. Some decisions require careful moral thinking: how do you treat a group of kobolds who killed a bunch of villagers and then surrendered? Be just and kill them, or be merciful and let them go? Be violent and kill them, or be reckless and let them go? Both intention and outcome seem to be important, which I dig.
  • Much more environmentally interesting. Characters will walk around and take actions, which makes conversation cut-scenes much more dynamic, and non-conversation exploration more visually appealing.
  • You have better control over your henchmen. You can access their inventory, change their equipment, give instructions on multi-classing, and ask them to cast specific spells or use special abilities. They also automatically stay put if you're in a safe zone, so they aren't tripping over you.
It isn't perfect. Combat seems way more difficult than in the OC, though I blame most of this on the companions. As far as I can tell, you can only pick two: a sorcerer or a thief. I'm playing as another thief (this time a female elf), so I had to go with the sorcerer, who seems to still suffer from very poor spellcasting AI. It would be loads easier if the game would just let me pick the paladin who's hanging around in the starting room closing doors all the time.

The story is definitely more interesting so far than the OC was at this point, but I groaned out loud when, less than five minutes into the game, someone told me that I needed to Find the Four Stolen Artifacts of WhogivesadarnIcantmakemyselfcareanymore. That said, each individual artifact quest is far more interesting than the Waterdhavian Creatures quests were.

So, we'll see. So far, I'm very pleased at the improvement.

From ancient tech to future tech: I recently bought a Razer Hydra motion controller during a sale. I got it specifically to play CLANG, the Kickstarted sword combat game that should come out in the next week or thereabouts. CLANG seeks to realistically portray martial combat by using actual motion, as opposed to clicking buttons. The Hydra is the most accurate motion controller on the market, and uses magnetic sensing technology to detect the precise location and orientation of the controller. It's far more accurate than my experience of using accelerometer and light-based motion controllers like the Wiimote, PS Eye, or Kinect.

The system is physically rather interesting. You hold two controllers, one in each hand. Each has a directional pad, four face buttons, a trigger, and a bumper. It's a bit like two halves of a PS3 controller, and has a similarly comfortable feel in the hand.

Out of the box, the Hydra only has native support for a handful of games (most notably Portal 2). However, it works with Sixsense MotionCreator, which is a sort of layer that sits between the controller and existing games to map the motion into their existing controls. It's fairly popular with first-person shooters, and also with some tactical games and real-time strategy games.

I was curious as to how well this control scheme would work, so I decided to try and play Mass Effect 3 with it. I loaded a save from <redacted> in the main campaign, and spent a few minutes getting used to navigating in the world with it, before diving into the next combat section. It's pretty fascinating! There are five different control schemes that you can pick from, which basically trade off ease of use for accuracy. I spent a lot of time experimenting with Mouselook, which lets you very precisely orient yourself in-game, but requires using a technique called "ratcheting" that I was never quite able to master. Ratcheting is necessary to solve the problem of how to do a spin in a game: it's intuitive to move left by pointing the controller to the left, but if you wanted to do a 180 degree turn, you can't rotate your wrist 180 degrees; instead, you move your wrist as far as you can, then press a button to "ratchet", essentially turning off tracking; then move your wrist to the right, release the button, and continue turning left.

I had slightly better luck with Hybrid mode, which acts like Mouselook most of the time, but automatically turns you further to the left once it detects that you're at the left boundary. This is also a bit finnicky, but I'm sure that with enough practice one could get used to it.

I have to say: playing ME3 with this new control scheme made me feel a bit like I was a teenager again and learning to play a FPS with a mouse and keyboard for the first time. It's been ages since I had to look down to remind myself where W, A, S, and D lay on a keyboard, and grappling with the Hydra felt a little like that. Certain things came to me more naturally than others. I very quickly grasped that I could reload by shaking my left controller off to the left. However, it took a lot more time to figure out which button was my "sprint," and even more time to associate my powers with their respective buttons, a process than never became completely intuitive to me.

After I could make it through the firefight without dying, I fired up multiplayer and started a Bronze match with my favorite character, a Vorcha soldier. It was a solo match, of course; I wasn't about to penalize other players for my cruddy playing. I managed to make it to Wave Four before dying, and bled out without using medi-gel. It was interesting. I can see how, if someone really spent time practicing, it could be more immersive to play the game this way, as well as more fun. However, the learning curve is pretty steep, and I think it will take me longer to pick up a new trick now than it did when I was a kid.

Interestingly, the sensation of re-learning an FPS even extended to a very slight sense of nausea I felt after playing for a while. It's been ages since I felt motion-sick while playing a computer game, and I'd figured that either I'd gotten used to looking at moving 3D scenes, or else modern graphics' higher resolution had patched over that problem. I now suspect that it's caused by the motion you experience not aligning with your expectations of what you'll see. It's a bit akin to the difference between driving a very fast car on a curvy road, and riding as a passenger; the passenger is much more likely to feel carsick, in part because he or she doesn't anticipate the changes in speed and direction.

After that experiment, I returned to playing ME3 MP with the standard mouse-and-keyboard controls. That was a weird experience too: I felt much more in control than with the Hydra, but it also felt oddly slower than before. Like, it was awkward to return to such a physical interface of manually dragging an object across a table, rather than the ethereal experience of simply looking at what I wanted to see.

The Hydra is definitely a niche product for now; I'm happy to have one, and will probably try it out on some more games, but I don't think it will be replacing WASD+Mouse anytime soon for me. It could play a part in some very cool upcoming technology, though. The Oculus Rift is coming soon, and some enterprising souls have already experimented with combining the Rift's immersive 3D technology with the Hydra's motion sensing, and been pretty pleased at the results. The other day, a friend pointed me to the combination of the Oculus Rift and an "omnidirectional treadmill", which essentially lets you walk endlessly in any direction. If you combined these three things together, you would essentially have a low-fidelity version of the Holodeck from ST:TNG. That's amazing! I wasn't really expecting to get something like that in my lifetime, but it's now close enough to be an achievable goal.

Switching back to ME3 for a moment: I've switched back to ME3 for a moment. Bioware has sadly stopped further development on the multiplayer portion of the game after a year of producing an incredible quantity of very high-quality content. They've stopped running weekly challenges, and as a way to help compensate for that, they adjusted the "Squad Elite" challenge, which previously had required completing a certain number of weekly challenges in order to achieve. Now, you can get points for Squad Elite by extracting from unknown maps and from unknown enemies. Well! I had more or less given up on this achievement, since I don't play Gold games, and didn't think I'd ever be able to get enough First Aid medals for the revive sub-challenge. With two new ways of getting it, though, I decided to take a crack at it.

And, you know, it was really fun, like usual. I love playing my Vorcha and burninating all the Reapers. As time went on, though, I realized that, since the achievements was only counting the number of extractions, and not points, I could get it more quickly and easily by playing Bronze instead of Silver. And, if I play Bronze, I can play as any class. Previously, all six of my classes had been at Level 20 (which may or may not have been so I could maintain an N7 rating of 420), so I was able to immediately promote some of them and start over again with brand new builds. I decided to focus on characters from the free Earth DLC, since I'm closest to unlocking that achievement; I don't think I ever actually will, since I'll need to score a lot of points with particular finnicky weapons, but I have unlocked all of those characters and it seemed as good a place as any to focus.

I'd played a few previously, so I resurrected them to get all the way to 10 extractions each for my N7 Paladin and N7 Shadow. Both are fun classes. I play my Paladin offensively: he can be fairly tanky with his Energy Drain skill, and with Snap Freeze he's quite good at setting off explosions. The Shadow is more squishy, but also a ton of fun. Her signature movement is Shadow Strike, which is kind of like an Infiltrator's response to Biotic Charge: you cloak, teleport across the battlefield, then decloak and STAB A DUDE IN THE BACK WITH A GIANT ELECTRICAL SWORD. All of her sword attacks are melees, so if you pick the right evolutions and pack a pistol with a Melee Stunner mod on it, you can deal out unbelievable amounts of damage with a single strike; plus, with the right Tactical Cloak evolution, you remain in stealth even after delivering the blow, and can run away or do another Shadow Strike on a far opponent. Anyways, one of the big reasons why I like playing as the Shadow is because she fulfills a very specific and useful tactical role. Similarly to how the Vorcha Soldier is fantastic at crowd-control for weak opponents, and at burning down Ravagers, the Shadow specializes in taking out high-damage, low-health snipers like Geth Rocket Troopers and Cerberus Nemeses. Even if they're in cover on the other side of the map, the Shadow can zip right over and take them out with no problems.

Since I got my 10 extractions on those, I needed to start on another Earth character, so I picked up the N7 Demolisher. I'd been pessimistic about her, mainly because she is an Engineer with zero tech powers. But! The interesting thing about her is, she doesn't care about cooldowns at all. Two of her powers are grenades, and the third, Supply Pylon, is an ability that you'll probably only use once at the start of each match. So, I finally had a character that could use all of those super-heavy weapons that would crush my power-using characters.

I'm still leveling her and getting a feel for her play style, but it's been a blast so far. Arc Grenades are fantastic for crowd control and quickly clearing out groups of weak enemies: I took the radius evolution, so even if they start to scatter I can usually grab everyone. It also stuns most weaker enemies, so if they survive the initial blast it's easy to pick them off, or I can just toss in a second grenade to finish the job. I've been playing for long enough now that I have a good understanding of where the spawn points are on each map, and I'm able to start each wave by running into the likeliest source of danger and throwing an Arc Grenade. The Homing Grenade is mostly useful for larger, armored opponents like Brutes, Atlases, Pyros, and Scions; it also sets off a Tech Burst if it follows an Arc Grenade, which can pack a powerful one-two-three punch in a short amount of time.

The Supply Pylon is a cool concept, but it ranges from mildly useful (Firebase White) to completely useless (Firebase Giant). I've read that some people like to use it more offensively, though, since it explodes when you re-deploy. If you were to do that, it might make sense to take lighter weapons for a lower cooldown.

I created my build to maximize grenade capacity. I'm currently just at level 15, and with my Gear I can now carry 9 in a mission. However, this ends up being less of an advantage than I originally thought: I find that I'm constrained more by my ability to restock than my maximum supply, and on certain maps I rarely can keep over 3 grenades at a time. I think this would be even more of a handicap if I tried to play this build on Silver, since ammo boxes carry fewer grenades and regenerate less quickly. (Then again, this would be an excellent reason to finally start tapping some of the 149 Thermal Clip Packs that I've accumulated over a year of playing power-focused characters.)

Last night, after a fun set of games with a stable group of Bronze players on U/U/B, I reached my 25th extraction against Unknown Enemies, and beat the Squad Elite challenge! So, now I have access to a nifty "Operator" banner. Very cool. Apparently, this achievement and my promotions were also enough to push me up to the top 9% of both N7 ranking and Challenge Leaderboard. I never thought I'd make single-digit on either one (and actually had slipped to 11% on N7 just recently), so that was unexpected and gratifying.

I think this would be a good stopping point, if I wanted to stop. I'll certainly never get the Mass Effect challenge, and doubt that I would get the Spectre Mastery one, and those are the only two that feel more significant than Squad Elite. That said, I'm still loving the game, the servers seem quite active whenever I'm on, and I'll probably keep playing for as long as it's fun.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Peace Out

I returned to Sil and took up a new challenge. One of the many things that had initially intrigued me about the game was the idea that it should be possible to beat without killing anyone. I am an enormous fan of games that provide alternate solutions to violence, which is part of the reason why I tend to be drawn to the thief/rogue archetype: they tend to have the most options to sneak past monsters, or fast-talk guards, or seduce the opposition. It's pretty insanely hard to get through a game without killing anyone at all, though. I think Planescape: Torment might let you do this, and it's theoretically possible in a few other games like Fallout 3, but while it's very satisfying from a lore perspective it doesn't make for fun gameplay: you mostly just need to run away really fast and survive being hit.
In contrast, Sil's mechanics can make a pacifist approach even more exciting than the standard kill-them-all solution. It's harder, as it should be: you won't get any experience from killing enemies, and will often need to pass up tempting items because they're in overly dangerous locations. However, it's another type of thrill to sneak around in the shadows, lurking with bated breath while a vampire floats silently by, tentatively following a column of marching orc soldiers and praying they don't turn around. And, if you are discovered - and you will be, sooner or later - Sil has far more options at your disposal to save your life other than depriving your foe of their own. You can raise your voice in fierce song, frightening them away. You can sing sweetly, lulling them into a stupor and eventually into sleep. You can swiftly flee, vanishing around a corner and leaving them befuddled. Ideally, you will have different tools available to deal with different scenarios, which will both increase your odds of survival and make the endeavor more fun.

I've uploaded my character dump to the Sil ladder if you'd care to take a peek. Pax is a Noldor male of House Finarfin. This essentially trades a DEX bonus for one of GRA. Since I heavily rely on Song and Perception, it was my most important stat for this character; DEX is also important, though, since it supports Stealth (always important) and Evasion (shouldn't be important, but will be). My initial stats were 0/4/3/6.

For my first few attempts, I actually played somewhat similarly to my earlier stealth archer, but without any archery. I invested those points instead into more Stealth, and generally tried to stay as far away from monsters as possible. I could get to Lore Master a bit more quickly this way, but always died very rapidly. Even while playing cautiously, I would eventually be spotted, and could not run away quickly enough. Corridors were the worst: I had loved corridors as an archer, since you can control the flow of enemies attacking you; since I didn't want to attack anyone, though, it meant immediate failure if I ever got trapped between two monsters in a hallway, since I did not have Exchange Places. I would generally quit as soon as I got stuck between two enemies, since there was literally nothing I could do but wait for death.

So, for a while I was skeptical that what I was trying was even feasible. After trying out a few different builds, though, I finally found they key: get Listen immediately. I had previously invested in Stealth and Evasion for early survivability; but the best way to survive is to stay way the heck away from all the bad guys, and Listen is the ability that shows you where they are. To do this, you have to dump 8 points into Perception right off the bat, then buy Keen Senses for the pre-requisite, and then you can grab Listen. This is only possible when playing as a Noldor from House Finarfin, since their first Perception ability is free, and as it is, you'll have almost no XP left after purchasing.

Still, that one ability changes the whole nature of the game. When playing as an Archer with Listen, I would look for lone stars of sound, so I could creep in and slay them. When playing as Pax, I would just walk away from wherever there were monsters. I didn't even bother with Stealth for many stretches of the game, since I had entire wings of the dungeon to myself.

This game went much more quickly as well. Selene and her cohorts were gradually building themselves up into fierce warriors, and so I spent a fair bit of time on each level, maximizing XP by killing monsters and discovering items to build out my kit. For Pax, though, every extra turn spent on a level increased the risk of discovery, and so my goal was simply to find the next set of stairs and dive down it as quickly as possible. Of course, this did mean less XP - Pax eventually won the game with a bit over 50k XP, in comparison to Selene's 90k - but you still get a lot of XP from just reaching the lower levels, and thanks to Listen you get a lot of XP from spotting monsters that are nowhere near you. Additionally, since I didn't need to invest any points at all in Archery or its abilities, I was able to take most of the abilities I did care about.

As before, Lore Master was a high priority, so I could gain more XP from identifying items. It was also useful so I could decide ahead of time whether it was worth the risk of walking into a room full of wargs to steal a Bronze Amulet. My next priority was acquiring Sprinting, so I could put some distance between myself and any pursuers. I also grabbed Exchange Places, which was more useful for Pax than for my fighters: it let me get out of those tight corridors without fighting. After that, though, I stopped putting any more points into Evasion. This was a relatively low-CON build anyways, and my entire playstyle was based around staying far enough away from enemies that they wouldn't have a chance to hit me.

In retrospect, I should have invested more in Song from the beginning. I was lucky enough to find the Cloak of Maglor early on (even before my first lantern! I had a 1-radius light circle for more than half of the dungeon), which granted me Unwavering Voice and a boost to Song. Thanks to some GRA-boosting equipment, by the end of the game I had a Voice of well over 300. I could have sung Silence nearly constantly and not invested so much into Stealth; or I could have picked up Elbereth, which might have eliminated the need for Exchange Places. As it was, I didn't start investing in Song until shortly before the throne room, and didn't really appreciate just how effective songs like Lorien were until I started ascending.

I'm getting ahead of myself, though. I was planning to emulate Luthien and use the Song of Lorien to lull Morgoth to sleep, then use Silence and Sharpness to quietly remove the Silmaril. My Stealth was extremely high by the time I reached the throne room, and I didn't need to even activate Lorien until I was within a few squares of Morgoth. (An earlier incarnation of Pax had also made it to the chamber, and had sung her way nearly all the way to the throne, but then Gorthaur noticed her and raised the alarm. This led to a funny and terrifying cycle of events, where on any given turn 5 enemies would fall asleep, 10 enemies would become unwary, 2 enemies would raise cries of alarm, causing dozens more enemies to wake up and notice me. This ended... poorly.) I encountered yet another stroke of luck: while sneaking through the side-chambers (I'd grown nervous about walking down the column of Troll guards ever since the Gorthaur incident), I ran across the artifact dagger Angrist, one of the rare Sharp weapons in the game. So, I was able to skip buying Song of Sharpness after all.

I paused a few steps away from Morgoth, quietly drank until my belly was full of potions, then started singing. A dozen monsters fell asleep within the first turn or two, but Morgoth remained upright. After a few more turns, though, he too dozed off. His enormous iron crown crashed to the ground. My moment was ready.

I stopped singing Lorien and started singing Silence. I crept over to the dagger and tried to pry out the Silmaril. I was pretty pessimistic about how much time this would take: Selene had spent close to fifty turns whacking away at the crown, and Pax had a single dagger, 0 strength, and 0 melee. However, the jewel popped out on the very first try! I was delighted. I think that I might have gotten lucky with a critical hit: I had a fairly high DEX (especially after drinking a potion), the dagger is very lightweight, and Scatha says that the Crown has 0 evasion, so a lucky die roll plus armor-piercing could have given me what I needed.

Of course, as soon as I succeeded, I immediately started wondering whether I could get away with more (unconsciously emulating Beren now). My Voice could continue singing Silence for nearly a thousand more turns, and even if Angrist broke, I could still learn the Song of Sharpness and sing it as a minor theme while removing the latter jewels. What would be the harm in trying?

Well. On my very next attempt to remove a Silmaril, Angrist snapped. A shard from the blade flew out and grazed Morgoth's cheek. He immediately awoke. Still singing in agitation and fear, I immediately abandoned my task and flew back towards the stairs, clutching the lone Silmaril in my hands while the Great Enemy thundered behind me. (So, basically, yeah, this game ended up going down pretty much exactly like the Lay did, absent the latter unpleasantness with Carcharoth.)

I made much more use of my Song on the ascent, and was pretty astonished at just how effective Lorien is. Even if a monster noticed me, I could usually start singing Lorien, and he would immediately become unwary on the next turn. Sure, sometimes he would notice me again right after, but if I switched to Stealth and kept singing while quietly creeping away, it almost always stayed asleep. The one monster this didn't seem to work on was Morgoth; fortunately, he isn't particularly fast, and I was able to outrun him the two times he spotted me during my trip back to the surface. (I was probably lucky to not encounter any Grotesques in this game.)

As with my previous game, the ascent went very quickly. I didn't spend any extra time exploring or looking for items: the instant I found a flight of stairs up, I would take it. Builds seem less important on the return trip, but I dumped any more XP I got into upgraded Stealth, and finally added a little bit of Will.

The Gates went much more smoothly this time. I was spotted as soon as I came up the stairs, but immediately started singing Lorien, and kept it up for the duration, sending dozens of Morgoth's servants into dreamland. I paused again outside the gate, drank all my potions, then switched to Silence. This time, I was able to creep past Carcharoth without him even noticing me: I hugged the wall to the east and made my way all the way down and out. So, it looks like it isn't a hard-coded trigger for him to notice you, he just has enough Perception to make it extremely difficult.

So: Hooray! This is technically a less impressive victory than I had with Selene, since I only claimed a single Silmaril and left Morgoth behind to fight the War of Wrath. However, I'm far more pleased with it. It was more challenging to win after setting this severe constraint on myself, and I found that this forced me to play in ways that ended up being even more fun than the first game. Playing a stealth pacifist is far different from playing as a stealth archer: it's a bit like the difference between "Thief: The Dark Project" and "Metal Gear Solid," albeit in a totally different genre.

Again, that's one of the huge strengths of Sil. Like the best non-computer games, it's relatively simple to learn (at least for a roguelike) yet difficult or impossible to master, and will continue to challenge even seasoned players. No two games will play exactly alike, and you can win by following any one of a host of possible strategies.

Even if someone does feel like the game has gotten easy, they always have the option of setting more conditions on themselves. The Angband forums and ladders contain many of these self-imposed handicaps, such as winning the game without using any magical items, or without identifying any monsters. The most hilarious one I've seen yet is one enterprising soul who managed to kill Morgoth with a shovel. A shovel! I kid you not!

Anyways, that's the end of the tale of Pax the peaceful elf. It felt very rewarding to experience the flow (and not just the goal) of the Lay of Beren and Luthien, and also to complete the game with a very different play style. I think that I'm going to migrate away from the powerful Noldor characters and start exploring some other archetypes, like a dwarven smith or melee fighter. Sil still has a lot more left to give.

Monday, April 22, 2013


Hey everyone,

I try not to be too political on this blog. Even though it's a very casual and personal thing, I try to stay focused on works of creativity that interest me. However, I've decided to participate in today's online protest against CISPA, and I thought I'd share some typically verbose thoughts about the bill.

If it feels like we've been through this before, you're not alone. Ever since the Internet became a major channel for communication among Americans, it has been a target of frequent attack by politicians and government officials seeking to control its content or monitor its activities. I first became politicized back in 1996 when the Communications Decency Act passed Congress and was signed by President Bill Clinton: this law would have criminalized otherwise-legal materials when placed on the Internet, granted the government sweeping powers to regulate undefined "indecent" content, and held internet service providers responsible for the content sent through their networks.

Fortunately, the Supreme Court struck down the worst parts of the CDA. Ever since then, though, there's been a relentless assault on our constitutional freedoms, fought on the battlefield of the Internet. Most of you will remember last year's protests against SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act, another poorly-written and overly broad bill that would have established pervasive censorship of previously protected speech. While being rushed to the US House, it encountered massive opposition that was spearheaded by major web sites such as Google and Wikipedia. Fortunately, the public clamor encouraged the judiciary committee to resist the bill's push, and it was defeated.

CISPA (the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act) is not a repeat of SOPA. SOPA was ostensibly designed to protect against piracy, and would have enabled censorship. CISPA is ostensibly designed to enable sharing of information among law enforcement agencies, but will lead to pervasive surveillance of citizens by corporations and the government.

In America, we are very fortunate to have a strong tradition of constitutionally protected rights. High on this list is the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits the government from spying on its citizens or seizing their property without following due process of the law. Of course, if a person poses a threat, the government can absolutely monitor them and take action to stop them: all it takes is a warrant. Under CISPA, every company with access to your data - Google, Apple, Facebook, Twitter, etc. - can spy on you and provide your data to the federal government. This is true regardless of an individual site's privacy policy. The bill will also allow companies to "hack" perceived threats, even if their victims are innocent, so long as they acted "in good faith."

So, CISPA essentially wipes the slate clean of all the existing judicial processes meant to provide checks and balances between the government's need for information and individuals' desire for privacy. The Wiretap Act, Video Privacy Protection Act, Electronic Communications Privacy Act: all will be rendered moot. A company can promise to keep your information private, then turn around and supply it to the government, which can then share it with anyone and use it for other purposes. You will have no recourse against the offending company or the government.

It's a bad bill. A really, really bad bill.

President Obama has already stated that he will veto the bill if it passes the Senate, so I'm cautiously optimistic that CISPA will not go into effect. However, former Senator Obama previously reneged on a promise to block the immunity granted to AT&T's warrantless wiretapping, a case that bears disturbing similarities to CISPA. Public opposition to the bill will provide political courage and political cover to Obama and members of the Senate who oppose CISPA's overreaching.

So, what can you do to help stop CISPA?
  • Call your Senator. A call is much more effective than an email or other electronic communication, and will count much more quickly than a hand-written postal letter.
  • Spread the word. Don't spam your newsfeed, but a brief post explaining your concerns and pointing to information on the bill will help the movement grow.
  • Support the EFF. These are the good guys, and they have been fighting against awful legislation like CISPA for twenty years. 
  • (Bonus points): Contact your House representative and let them know what you think of their vote. Yes, it's too late to affect legislation, but if they realize how important this issue is to their constituents, they'll be more likely to oppose this type of legislation in the future.
I'll return to babbling about video games and books shortly. Thanks for your time, everyone!

- Chris

Thursday, April 18, 2013


I'm always grateful for book recommendations. The success rate isn't perfect - each reader has his or her own preferences, and it's not surprising that stories which impress one person might not make much impact on me - but if it wasn't for recommendations I would almost never venture outside my silo of authors I've previously read and enjoyed. When someone does recommend something that resonates with me, I immediately perk up, because I can explore that resource for some more good reading material.

A friend's mom recently recommended Alif the Unseen to me, and I'm glad that she did, because this book would never have shown up on my radar otherwise. I hadn't heard of the author before, and I don't think this is the sort of book that would be reviewed by the New Yorker or one of the few other publications I check for reading guidance. She was correct in guessing that I would like it, though. It's a fun story, with well-drawn characters and some surprising plot developments, and somehow manages to fit in the intersection of several genres and themes that I particularly enjoy.


I really enjoy reading science-fiction (particularly of the cyberpunk variety), and have long enjoyed fantasy as well. However, my experience with books that combine sci-fi and fantasy is mediocre to poor. Shadowrun is a great game setting, but I don't consider the books classics. Other series technically combine the two, but frame one genre entirely within the other rather than allowing them to intermix. (A classic example: "This fantastic world we live in was settled by explorers from outer space!")

Alif the Unseen is set in the present day, but significant chunks of the book read like cyberpunk. The protagonist, the titular Alif, is a gray-hat hacker. He lives in a semi-despotic Middle Eastern oil-rich state; I'd initially thought that The City was Tehran, mostly because of some early references to Persians, but realized that it's actually one of the gulf city-states. My guess would be Oman, Qatar, or Abu Dhabi. Anyways: it's a corrupt monarchistic security state, where the government censors the Internet and tries to keep the people in line. Alif has the same amorphous sense of digital freedom that I share: he follows no particular ideology, but supports all forms of dissent equally. He makes a modest income by providing Communists, Islamists, and other factions with hosting and obfuscation, keeping their web sites up and preventing the state security apparatus from cracking down on their communication.

The quality of the technology stuff is pretty good... it's not like Neal Stephenson, where you can tell that the author deeply groks everything, but G. Willow Wilson seems to have a decent grasp on how stuff works, and other than a few overly amorphous invocations of "the cloud" she tends to present things in an entertaining yet fairly believable fashion.

The book gets interesting, though, once the fantasy angle enters. Alif is a fan of fantasy, and has devoured books like Lord of the Rings and The Golden Compass. This is a Middle-eastern novel, though, and so the form of fantasy they encounter is an ancient one: jinns and various other native spirits. Alif turns to them for help after he is exposed by The Hand, a top operative in the State's cyber security office. It turns out, though, that the two sides are more connected than you might think, and both mortals and immortals have sought out the others for help and amusement.

The high point of the book for me lies in the synthesis between the two, and particularly the concept of metaphor as applied to programming. It reminded me a bit of some other fairly philosophical meditations on software that I've read elsewhere, like Robert Pirsig's concept of a "mu" state as applied to binary programming, a concept he briefly developed in "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance." In this book, the technical aspect is mostly concerned with the concept of quantum computing, a theoretical but very intriguing line of inquiry that could have massive implications for computers in general and cryptography in particular. I recommend The Code Book if you'd like a more cogent explanation, but basically, a quantum computer is able to hold a finite set of data with each point of data being in an indeterminate state. Each possible permutation of that state essentially exists in a separate universe. Once the data is observed, the quantum state collapses and only a single, "correct" version of the data exists. It essentially lets a computer instantly operate on every conceivable possibility at once.

Within the context of "Alif the Unseen," the key is in teaching computers to think in metaphors. Similar to quantum computing, the idea is letting a computer accept that multiple, contradictory things may all be true at the same time. The book uses the example of the Quran: the original Arabic contains words that are translated into modern terms that did not exist when it was first written. For example, the word that is currently translated as "atom" was previously translated as "molecule," and before that "mote," "speck of dust," or "grain of sand." The actual word doesn't change, but the word is capable of holding multiple meanings, and different meanings will be appropriate for different ages. So, what if a program was able to apply a similarly rich understanding to data? There's an early gesture towards this idea when Alif writes his "Tin Sari" program, which apparently uses machine learning and mountains of data to develop a model that can identify a particular human being's communications, regardless of their IP address or online identity. The idea reaches its apotheosis when Alif works with the Alf Yeom, a secret book written by the jinn that is structured as a dialectic between a logical/binary/digital observer and an emotional/analog presenter.

It's all nonsense, of course. But it's entertaining nonsense, and does let the author dig a bit into the role digital communications have in our world. A Muslim sheikh ponders whether it's a sin to eat pork in World of Battlecraft. Dina challenges whether Alif bears responsibility for the actions of militant groups he provides services for. A question lurking in the background is: Are there analogies we can make from modern communications back to older ones, that will tell us the proper ways to behave? Or is there something fundamentally different about the instant and global nature of modern conversation, and does this mean we will need to create entirely new rules for them?


The climax of the book takes place when a revolution breaks out in The City. This book feels extremely au courant: not only does it have hip literary references like The Golden Compass, but it's clearly set in the middle of an Arab Spring. In other words, you could expect the events in this book to take place tomorrow.

Alif has hoped for a revolution, but when it actually arrives it's rather terrifying. Organized marches with communists and islamists united seems to offer initial hope, but the scene quickly transforms into that of an unruly mob, eager for blood and not terribly particular about who will suffer. The aspect of the book I was most ambivalent about was how social media intersected with the street protest. At the climax, Alif manages to break The Hand's firewall and restore Internet access throughout the country; the book describes how the protesters were suddenly able to connect with their Facebook and Twitter circles again, and that lights a fire across the world that leads to this great action.

And... I dunno. On the one hand, social media has definitely received a lot of the credit for the Arab Spring. We've heard talk of "Twitter protests" in places like Tunisia, and there's certainly some validity to the idea that distributed communications networks can facilitate ad-hoc actions. However, I'm fundamentally skeptical that social media itself has any influence whatsoever on the real world. I don't think that "Like"-ing a news story about a dictator's crimes does anything to remove that dictator from power, nor that retweeting a protester will help their mission. Receiving information through social media is only helpful if it causes you to take direct action in the real world: show up at a protest, or write a check, or vote a certain way. The idea that Facebook would make any difference to an in-progress protest seems ludicrous to me.

But, I could be wrong! I certainly wasn't expecting the Arab Spring before it occurred, and it's possible that the world is changing in ways I don't recognize.


Plot aside, the book has a really excellent collection of characters. Most of them are Muslims, either culturally or devout, which is a rarity for me. Some characters are very funny, particularly a flippant, rich member of the aristocracy. Others are wise, making statements that advance the story but are also worth pondering on their own. The main character, Alif, is a bit of a shallow cad at first, but his character evolves in an engaging and pleasant manner throughout the book.

All in all, it's well worth reading. It feels particularly apt for today, with the rapid changes going through the Middle East, but I think it should hold up fairly well (modulo a few brand names and cultural references). It's a fun, quick read with some interesting ideas worth unpacking and mulling over.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Finally Winter Night

Through sheer force of will, I have finished the Original/Official Campaign to Neverwinter Nights. Looking back over my previous post, I realize that I may have been overly harsh on the game. No, not because it ends up being more fun and interesting later on - honestly, it remained a slog for virtually the entire duration. But, I eventually came to understand that this game's aims are pretty different from the other Bioware fantasy RPGs I have played, and so it isn't completely fair for me to rag on it to the extent that I have (and will continue to).

I remember that during the pre-release publicity campaign for Neverwinter Nights, the overall pitch was actually something fairly radical: the idea was to translate the feel of a pen-and-paper D&D game to the computer. Anyone who has actually participated in a "true" roleplaying game knows that it's a fundamentally different experience from a computer or console RPG. Since it's run by a human gamemaster/dungeonmaster, every game will have a unique flavor and tone to it. Additionally, individual player characters have an order of magnitude more agency than PCs in a CRPG have. The experience of a pen-and-paper RPG is highly collaborative, with the DM responding on the fly to the wild ideas generated by his or her PCs, and while certain mileposts may be visited along the way, it's impossible to predict the path taken to reach them.

A long time ago, I was the GM for a campaign of Middle-earth Role Playing. This was tiring, but also one of the most entertaining and creative experiences of my life. The campaign was roughly based off of a pre-made adventure that shipped with the core rulebook, but I liberally adapted it well before we started: I kept the Trollshaws setting, but changed the chronology to fit my early-4th-age setting instead of the early-3rd-age concept, and modified some of the characters and locations of the adventure to tie in with my PCs personal backstories (which they had largely developed on their own with just a little input from me). Once we got rolling, I learned the value of flexibility and thinking on one's feet. My players would get antsy and obstinate when it felt like I was railroading them into a scenario: if someone walked up to them in a tavern and asked for a moment of their time, they would say "no" and leave. One player in particular delighted in trying to trip me up: when they stumbled into a library, he spent all of his turns pulling random books off the shelves and asking what was inside. Of course, I hadn't planned an entire library's worth of reading material, so I had to think on my feet ("The Ballad of Frodo the Nine-Fingered Hobbit") and then invent a distraction to make them move on.

The point is, a pen-and-paper RPG allows for infinite variations: anything a creative mind can conceive, can happen during the course of a single journey. A successful DM will provide plot and guidance, but the best campaigns will only give the skeleton of a structure, to allow PCs the greatest degree of freedom and agency while playing. A CRPG is fundamentally different: since the computer is the DM, it can't think creatively; since all assets (art, speech, music) needs to be built into the game, it can't create new concepts on the fly; the PC will need to choose from the set of pre-determined options that the CRPG presents.

Traditionally, CRPGs have dealt with this limitation in one of two ways. The first, which I think of as the "Final Fantasy" solution, tells a tightly constrained story. The PC's background is rich and detailed, but it's one that's handed to you, not one that you create. So, it tells you that you are Cloud Strife, and fills in information about your parents, your employment, your ambitions, and so on. You can slightly guide the path of your story (going on a date with Aeris, Tifa, or Barret), but for the most part it follows a well-known path. The things I do when playing Final Fantasy VII are probably 95% similar to your experiences. The second way, which I think of as the "Elder Scrolls" solution, provides a minimal story, but sets it in a vast and random world to encourage emergent gameplay. You and I have almost certainly created different Skyrim characters, who may come from different races or species, have different combat styles, married different spouses, and took very different approaches to the world. If it's successful, the game will prompt you to emotionally connect with "your" character: you may develop your own personal story for what happened before they became a prisoner, decide how you relate to the world (kind, greedy, violent), and lets you act out all sorts of quirks (collecting an insane quantity of sweetrolls, or stealing every spoon in the world, or breaking into the king's bedroom and staring at him while he sleeps). Because the game can't anticipate these things in advance, though, it's largely a story you tell yourself, and not one that the game provides feedback on.

Well, Neverwinter Nights was kind of created as an attempt to bring CRPGs back to their pen-and-paper root by restoring the missing element: the human DM. While I've been almost entirely focusing on the front-end experience of playing the game, the back-end is really the most interesting part. NWN was designed from the ground up to support multiple players; and unlike Baldur's Gate, which had a sort of kludged way to make multiple PCs join the same party, NWN actually supports a player occupying the role of a DM. So, for the first time ever, it really was possible to get something like a traditional RPG experience in a CRPG. For example, the DM could "possess" an NPC questgiver, so you could carry out an actual conversation instead of selecting choices from a menu; the DM could also provide your quest rewards, perhaps giving an item that better matched a character's proficiencies or that had some significance to their personal quest; and the DM can also create more monsters, place traps, move around objects, and otherwise personalize the experience of the players. At the extreme end, the Aurora Toolset was the only Bioware game engine designed from the ground up to be easily moddable, and the company strongly encouraged players to create their own "community modules", which are entire adventures that other DMs and PCs could play together.

I remember how exciting all of this sounded back in the early 2000s. I still think it could be really cool, if you could coordinate a group of players and had an experienced DM running things. Sadly, that isn't the environment within which I'm experiencing this game. It's very difficult to find a group of friends who all want to do something like this at the same time, and, frankly, even if we did, I think we'd almost prefer gaming over Skype instead. So I'm essentially playing something that was designed as a multi-player game in single-player mode, which goes a long way towards explaining all the disappointments I'm encountering. Of course all the NPC henchmen seem thinly drawn and totally unintegrated into the plot: if multiple PCs were in a party, the game wouldn't have any henchmen at all, so it doesn't make sense to make them at all important to the story. Of course the plot seems simple: a simple plot is perfect if you have a human DM, since that makes it easier to elaborate it in ways that matter to your PCs.

So, I get it. I just don't much like it. Most of the rest of this write-up describes my subjective experience as someone who was hoping for another experience like Baldur's Gate or Dragon Age and was sorely disappointed.

My character was Cirion Bartleman, a male halfling rogue. I do enjoy the vast array of races and classes available in the D&D games, even if it has almost no impact on the story. (It is a little funny to note the difference between the text in dialog and the occasional voiceover parts: a line like 'Welcome Cirion, my halfling friend!' might be spoken as 'Welcome my friend!')  I almost always like to play as thief/rogue characters in RPGs, and halflings are one of the best race options, with a nice bonus to DEX and some boosts to stealth checks. Plus, I haven't ever played as a halfling before. Between BG and DA, I've played humans, elves, half-elves and dwarves, so it was nice to add another race to my set. It makes no real difference to the roleplaying aspect of the game - nobody treats you differently as a little person - but it does have some interesting mechanical implications. The biggest one I noticed was the way a small stature affects your weapon wielding. Basically, each item is treated as being one "tier" larger than it ordinarily would be, so items that most races can wield one-handed (longswords, rapiers, morning stars, etc.) require two halfling hands to hold; two-handed weapons (battleaxes, dire maces) can't be wielded at all; and most shields cannot be equipped at all. I eventually went with a two-handed weapon style since I couldn't use a shield anyways, and rotated between three small weapon types: daggers, maces, and short swords. I probably should have chosen a specialization and dual-wielded weapons of the same type, but this did lead to the nice situation where I was almost always at least somewhat equipped for any enemy I ran across (bludgeoning weapons for undead, bladed weapons for everyone else).

After consulting a couple of online rogue build guides, I eventually took one level in the Ranger class, and another level in the Shadowdancer prestige class. The Ranger level is basically a cheap way to get the dual-wielding feats; it isn't quite as strong as what you would ultimately get with Improved Two-Weapon Fighting, but requires far fewer feats. Once I got this class and took the Weapon Finesse feat, I started contributing a respectable amount of damage in combat (though never anywhere near as much as Daelan accomplished). I liked the idea of Shadowdancer, but most online guides recommend stopping after the first level, which is enough to unlock Hide In Plain Sight. This is a perfect feat for those "Oh, $#!*" moments when you are close to dying and need to break off combat swiftly.

I'd initially dumped a decent amount of skill points into Pick Pockets, but came to regret it. Picking pockets in this game just isn't very fun. In BG and DA, there are plenty of rich officious merchants, or arrogant nobles, or upper-class twits to gleefully rob blind. In NWN, virtually every single person you run across is desperate and miserable, with their way of life under assault, and despairing of any hope in the future. Plus, since the economy is out of whack, you won't even benefit in an appreciable way from stealing. I quickly stopped investing new skill points in here; fortunately, there are still plenty of other skills that can benefit from a raise. I always maximized my points in Hide, Move Silently, Detect Traps, Disarm Traps, Pick Locks, Tumble, and Persuade; I also dumped a decent amount into Appraise, and near the end of the game I started putting a lot into Use Magic Device. The first set of those are all obviously thief skills. Stealth was generally only helpful for preparing sneak attacks on enemies, though there were a couple of points where I was also able to remove traps from a room while remaining unseen. Tumble lets you move around the battlefield more easily, which was helpful for battles where I wanted to skirt the frontline fighters to reach mages, clerics, or archers in the rear; tumble also slightly boosts your AC, and is a pre-requisite for Shadowdancer. (Thanks to Tumble and other items and perks, I ended the campaign with an AC in the high 30s.) Appraise helps you get more gold from selling and buy items for cheaper. This felt fairly useful early on, but I ended the came with over 600,000 gold and nothing to spend it on other than Heal potions (which also turned out to be pointless; more about that later). Use Magic Device had exactly two purposes: it let me cast from scrolls of Remove Blindness on the very rare occasions when I was blinded, and it let me wear the Robes of the Dark Moon near the end of the game.

Persuade is the one option that would seem to be useful for all PCs regardless of class: theoretically, it should open up new dialogue options. (There is also an "Intimidate" skill. I never saw this appear as an option, though that might be because I didn't invest anything in it.) In practice, though, Persuade was only marginally useful. Half of the time, it convinced NPCs to share some extra information with you. This was almost always something that you could also find out through other means. (Though, I think there may have been a few conversations in Chapter 1 where this led to alternate solutions to quests, particularly when it came to entering certain buildings.) The rest of the time, you can [Persuade] people to give you a larger reward after completing a quest. Just asking for money can shift your alignment towards Evil, but apparently if you [Persuade] them there's no penalty. Usually this means a bit more gold, but there are a few cases where you can get a nice magic item in addition to your normal reward.

But, yeah... on the whole, the dialogue was not interesting. It's probably the most Manichean of any Bioware fantasy RPG I've played. BG dialogue often had a whole bunch of options to choose from; some would be transparently evil or good, but there would be a lot of choices. DA:O similarly had pretty big menus that allowed for a fair amount of nuance in how you reacted to information. DA2 had a more limited Diplomatic/Sarcastic/Aggressive division, but each individual option was well-delivered and interesting, and often situationally appropriate to the point where I felt like a particular set of circumstances deserved a certain response, even if it was outside my standard "type". In contrast, the PC's prompts in NWN border on the cartoonish. Often your only options will be along the lines of, "I shall do this thing, because it is the right and virtuous thing for me to do!" and "I shall do this thing, but there had better be a huge reward for me!" Which... well, if we're making the campaign generic anyways, I guess that makes sense, but it's about as painful to go back to this dialogue after DA2's incredibly well-written script as it's painful to go back to NWN's clunky graphics after DA2's incredibly pretty world.

I know I've complained before about the henchman AI, but it's so incredibly awful that I need to bring it up again. It is H-O-R-R-I-B-L-E! I practically wept with frustration near the end when Linu would charge into the middle of a group of enemies at 51% health, lose a few points of health, then start casting Cure Light (!!!) Wounds on herself, provoking an immediate Attack of Opportunity on a TON of monsters, who weren't even targeting her to begin with, and crying when she died. Plus she never buffs herself before fights, or heals herself outside of combat, and as far as I can tell there's no way to tell her to do so. I eventually realized that the best thing I could do was to buff her myself before combat (by carrying around Potions of Bless, when she should be blessing herself!) and tossing her healing potions in the middle of fights so she wouldn't try to cast healing magic on herself. Ugh. If you're ever tempted to play this game, I highly recommend NOT picking a henchman with any spell casting abilities.

Combat in general is often quite annoying. When it's good, it's very good: D&D 3rd edition is a nicely complex system, and it can lead to some terrific tactical situations that reward good planning and careful management. Much of the time, though, it just sucks. Many fights are poorly tuned and feature rewards that are far out of whack with their difficulty. In one sequence, you need to fight Huge Fire Elementals, which are extremely powerful enemies that can usually kill my henchman and require me to resort to cheap tactics and/or consume a lot of valuable potions to survive. My reward for killing one? 3xp. Other times you'll run into a group of orcs and simply slaughter them, earning a decent amount of XP despite expending no effort or thought whatsoever. Some fights feature both sides with relatively high ACs and relatively low THAC0s: I just click on the bad guy, and then wait for ten minutes while they swing swords at each other. A few boss fights seemed virtually impossible, at least with my character build. In the first 3 chapters, I could bring in Daelan and have him roflstomp the boss, but in the fourth chapter I was "stuck" with Linu.

It wasn't until the penultimate boss battle in the entire game (fighting two dragons at once) that, in a moment of frustration, I looked for help online and stumbled across a bit of information that I had totally overlooked before: it's possible to use your "Stone of Recall" while in the middle of a fight! I had just assumed that, much like resting, it could only be activated when no enemies were around. So, I'd gotten in the habit of, you know, healing myself and Linu in the middle of fights. But, all along, I could have just teleported out of anything when it got too tough. Once I realized that, I actually got a little mad. I'd recently begun buying Potions of Heal, which cost more than 2000 gold each. Why on earth should I bother? Teleporting back from the temple with the Stone costs only 400 gold, and if I return to the temple I can heal both myself AND my companion AND clear any other conditions, buff, and rest as necessary.  Frankly, it's crazily easy to exploit that, and I wonder if some of the boss fights might have been over-tuned with the assumption that players would take advantage of this mid-combat escape option. (Of course, as soon as I figured it out, I got to the very last part of the game, where you can not teleport out. Phooey.)

On the plus side: the music is quite excellent. I didn't realize until the closing credits that it was composed by Jeremy Soule, who has a really impressive video game composing resume, and recently completed a successful Kickstarter for his first symphony. (If you're the slightest bit interested in video game music, I highly recommend listening to the Minnesota Public Radio program from Top Score earlier this month, which covers his career and plays some of his best music.) The videos are fine, but very much on the same level as the cinematics from Baldur's Gate: basically just pan-and-scan across interesting fantasy art. My game apparently had some problem that kept the video for the end from playing at all (though I could hear the audio), so I had to look it up on YouTube after I beat the game. Lame.

The graphics were fairly primitive, though I did really like some of the monster designs that they did, and a few of the environments turned out well. For no particularly good reason I took some screenshots, which have ended up in an album for your perusal.

All right, let's get into plot. This will be short. Let's cut right to the


Looking back over the game, I guess a lot of stuff happens, but I just can't make myself care about it very much. The structure is one where you're constantly peeling back the layers of a dark and evil conspiracy, at each level realizing that the force you thought was the "big bad" was just the pawn of someone else. So, at first you search for the culprit behind the Wailing Death; then you realize that Desther was behind it; then you realize that Desther himself is just a pawn for some bigger, darker force; you eventually determine that the City of Luskan was behind the attack; then you realize that the City of Luskan has been taken over by its Captains; then you realize that the Captains are in thrall to the Arcane Brotherhood; then you realize that the Arcane Brotherhood has been infiltrated by Maugrim; then you realize that Maugrim serves a mysterious cult; then you realize that the cult is seeking to awaken the Creator Race; then you realize that the Creator Race is being led by the queen Morag. I remember when I first played Final Fantasy Tactics and was simply amazed at the depth and intricacy of the conspiracy in that game. I don't know if I dislike NWN's plot because it feels like more of the same, or if it just isn't pulled off as well.

I've previously complained at great length about the naked padding that fills much of the game: pointlessly long main-quests and side-quests which require tasks to be performed an arbitrary number of times while providing nothing in the way of story or background. It really feels like, when they were planning the game, someone decided that they wanted to be able to put "Over 100 Hours of Gameplay!" on the back of the box, and they copy-pasted a bunch of quests until the desired length was reached. I'd probably feel much better about the game as a whole if it was only 10% as long. A single Waterdavian creature to recover; the confrontation with Desther; a single cult operative to follow (perhaps the one with the trial, which was decently interesting); all of Luskan; the Red Dragon and Creator Race Temple; and the endgame. I do think that some of the late-game levels were actually quite interesting: the Creator Race temple had some fairly well-constructed puzzles, and the time-travel aspect, while certainly not original, was fairly well constructed. However, by the time I reached that place, I had gotten so fried by staring at dozens of dungeons and caves that I was pretty sick of it all. (Unlike DA2, at least each environment was unique - no maps were reused. But, DA2 gave you unique stories for each recycled environment you entered. NWN gives you one story for dozens of environments. Both are grating.)

Almost all NPCs in the game suffer from the same copypasta that infects its quests. So many times in the game you will encounter a group of NPCs, that will look different and have different names, but will each give identical dialogue. This isn't too bad when it's just floaty text that appears over their heads. Often, though, they will each have the same dialogue trees, often going four nodes deep. And, since the dialogue in this game is so shallow, there really isn't any way to express, "Yeah, you are saying exactly the same things that the other person over there just said to me thirty seconds ago, so thank you, go away now." Your only options are to say "Bye" or feign ignorance at what they have to tell you. Again, this just feels like an artless way to pad out the game. I increasingly like Dragon Age's model of having lots of people walking around in the scene, but only allowing you to interact with a handful of unique people who actually have unique and interesting things to say. Heck, even Skyrim's redundant dialogue is slightly better, if only because your character sounds less imbecilic for repeating him- or her-self.

The entire game really only has a handful of semi-interesting NPCs, and only one truly interesting one, Aribeth. (I'll get to henchmen shortly.) Aribeth was the one character who actually managed to surprise me over the course of the campaign: I totally saw Desther's betrayal and Fenthick's downfall coming from miles away, and understood when she became upset by this, but never imagined her actually switching sides like she did, even after she described her dreams to me. It was the best kind of surprise, one that I didn't see coming but that made perfect sense in retrospect. I think it was effective partly because of the writing, but also due to some clever usage of game mechanics: since she's the character who heals you and sells you items, she feels very permanent by belonging to a class of characters who traditionally have remained static throughout the game. It's not like Lord British ever joined the other side, or like a merchant would decide to fight you.

I felt emotionally connected to Aribeth's situation, and replayed the battle with her in Chapter Four a bunch of times to get the outcome I wanted. (Either she would slaughter me, or I would get in a critical hit that would immediately kill her. You need to get her down into the Near Death range in order to make her surrender, which is incredibly difficult since she will Heal herself as soon as she reaches Badly Wounded.) As with everything else in the game, I'm a bit bummed that there was no closure on what happens to her at the end. Given my conversations with Lord Nasher, Aarin Gend seemed to think it likely that Nasher would show her some clemency. I'm all for that: not only because I'm Chaotic Good, but because Aribeth was clearly under the influence of Morag and not fully responsible for her actions. Anyways. I'm usually happy with movies or books that leave plot elements unresolved at the end, which makes them linger a bit longer for me and lets me imagine how things would turn out. For some reason, I'm less happy when that happens in a video game. I suppose there's a chance that her fate will be addressed in one of the expansions. For now, I'll hope that I'm right and she was able to find forgiveness. I don't see her easily rejoining Tyr's service, but she may find another way to atone for her sins.

Other than Aribeth, Aarin Gend was decently interesting. His voice actor was good. I was pretty annoyed by his dialogue, though, which constantly references how his spies know everything, even if there's no way they could know (e.g., you used the Stone of Recall to teleport to him right after recovering a Word of Power from a fiery pit of lava several miles below the earth's surface, and he says that he's already received reports of your actions), but that never know anything of importance before you figure it out. It just seems to constantly undercut the importance of what you're doing while not providing any useful information about things you need to do in the future. Actually, now that I think about it, that's what much of the experience of playing NWN feels like. Someone tells you, "Go and do X four times!" So you do X four times, which takes an incredibly long and boring time to do. Then you get back, and they say, "Thank you for doing that, and please take this measly 100 XP, but unfortunately circumstances have evolved, and now X no longer matters. Please go forth and do Y!" Ugh. Even if the mechanics of the game were identical, I think it would go down more easily if you felt like you were actually making progress, instead of constantly going on side-quests that become moot as soon as you complete them.

And really, that kind of sums up the overall tone of NWN: it's set against a scene of entropy, with the whole world gradually sliding into chaos, regardless of what you can do. I was going to write that it's a particularly dark and bleak story, but now that I think about it, it isn't that much darker than either BG or DA: the former is about the resurrection of the God of Murder, and the latter is about a race of corrupted creatures seeking to exterminate all life on the surface. I suppose the NWN is kind of a combination of those: the resurrection of a powerful creature who will wipe out all warm-blooded creatures in the hemisphere. But BG and DA posed external threats to peaceful worlds. Wandering through Beregost or Tradesmeet or Denerim or Kirkwall, you get a sense of a bustling city, with some dark sides but generally a place where people can thrive. In NWN, you never experience that home place of peace: your city is always under attack in one way or another, its social fabric unraveling, people turning against one another, choosing between fleeing or dying. The threat is no greater or worse than in other games, but the baseline it's assaulting is much darker than the baseline in other RPGs. Maybe that's why it comes across as so dark, and so hopeless. Even if you do manage to stop a bad thing from happening, you're only preserving the status quo, which is pretty rotten to begin with.

All this could be interesting, of course. I like it when games do something new, and presenting a literally hopeless situation is fairly innovative. But, it's also emotionally draining, particularly in a story with as few distractions as this.

Sorry, I think I lost the thread there. After Aribeth and Aarin Gend, the roster of interesting NPCs swiftly dwindles. Lord Nasher seems like he could have had an interesting story, particularly in relation to Vengual, but he's barely in the game at all, and when he is he might as well just be another copy of Aarin. Fenthick was... ugh, he was so annoying. Even after everything that happened, I'm still kind of happy he got executed. Desther and Maugrim seem like pretty rote villains: they're transparently evil, enjoy taunting people, and get agitated when their plans fall apart. Morag has some cool backstory, but feels very isolated from the plot of the game. Haedraline was potentially interesting, but her dialogue was impossible to listen to, and I always get annoyed at those needlessly contrived mechanisms for doling out plot information. ("I have some important information to give you! No, I can't answer any questions! We will speak again in 10 hours when you have accomplished this same quest another time!") Other than that, it was pretty much all one-note characters... buxom madames, stiff military men, crazy inventors, serene servants of nature.

As I noted earlier, the plots of the NPC henchmen are particularly frustrating. They aren't necessarily bad in and of themselves, but they're completely divorced from anything else that takes place in the game. They never once interject in a conversation, never once make any observations on what's going on; even when you're on a quest to acquire a particular item for them, they seem to pay no attention at all when you spot it. This particularly strains credulity in a few instances, most notably if you bring along Daelan to any of the Uthgardt  locations in Chapter 3. He has plenty to say about the Uthgardt tribes in his own dialogue, and the Uthgardt you encounter have lots to say as well, but nobody will ever acknowledge one another. It's very frustrating, and feels like an enormous step back after the richly reactive stories in the Baldur's Gate games.

In my particular game, I spent most of my time traveling with Linu, but also spent a fair amount of time with Daelan and Sharwyn. To be shallow for a moment, Sharwyn was the prettiest of the bunch. Her portrait's very nice, and she looks quite fetching in a cape. I generally dug her overall approach towards life; she's a true neutral, and not terribly concerned about the forces of good and evil. Her story is very bound up in her personal life: her past humiliations and desire for vengeance and closure; eventually, she seems to re-focus on her identity as a bard, seeking to rediscover some lost old songs and creating a new one about your journey. She's also "romanceable," although that means something far less here than in the Baldur's Gate games: you can express romantic interest in her, and she will acknowledge it, although she ultimately says that she doesn't feel the same way about you. There's no in-depth conversations specific to romance or any personal quests like there were in BG2. I actually did kind of enjoy this outcome in a slightly perverse way - it's a rare thing for an NPC to have a mind of their own and say that they don't think that the PC is the greatest person ever, so it's fairly interesting on its own.

This is a bit of a tangent, but I thought it was interesting that all of your potential romance interests in NWN have surprisingly similar stories: all three of them were in long-lasting, committed romantic relationships that were violently ended, and are currently single and adrift. You see Aribeth's affair with Fenthick crash to a halt at the end of Chapter One; Linu seems to be in mourning for her husband who died on a quest; and while Sharwyn's lover is still alive, she seems like she'd be pleased to see him dead after you free him from the witch's spell. It reminds me a bit of the odd composition of BG2's love interests, where all four of your potential lovers were the four NPCs who were potential healers.

Daelan was by far the most effective NPC fighter, and his story was decent, but suffered from being so isolated from the main narrative. It was actually quite well-written, and I can dig that kind of tale of pathos, where his deep sense of shame and not belonging pushes him to achieve as much as he possibly can. He came across a bit like a friendly version of Sten from Dragon Age: he's very alien, but in his case he makes a great deal of effort to overcome the boundaries between him and you, and you can develop a good rapport with him far more easily than you ever can with Sten.

Linu was the henchwoman I traveled with most often, and was probably my favorite character overall. She has some inadvertently amusing stories, mostly dealing with her incredibly clumsy nature. These reminded me a little of Jan's stories from BG2, specifically the way they keep spinning farther out and endlessly delaying the punchline. This was also yet another point where I was a little irritated at the simplicity of the dialogue menus, since your only options are always "say something really mean and cutting" or "say something nice." As you continue to travel with her, you gradually get to know her better: she's not just a clumsy elf, but has a fairly epic backstory describing her improbable salvation by Sehanine Moonbow, her devotion to the goddess, her tragic love of Synth La'neral, and her firm sense of duty. She isn't as obviously clever or charming as Sharwyn, but she has a much better heart. She also gives several upgraded versions of the "Pendant of the Elf," which provided a very useful boost to dexterity for my rogue. Her romance seems ultimately successful: after you profess your love, she reveals that it is reciprocated, and you can have a very pleasant conversation before heading into the final battle. (And, of course, her awful AI caused her to die almost immediately after. And it's not possible to return to the temple and get her back, so I still don't know if there was any more dialogue from her after the final fight. Phooey.)

Frankly, the entire conclusion of the game is a letdown story-wise, even if the final fights are cool. There's a cool fight against two dragons, but it's excessively difficult, and there's really no particular reason for there to be two dragons there. Morag turns some of her awakened creators upon you; they quickly killed Linu, and without recourse to the Temple I resorted to chugging lots of Heal potions and making liberal use of Hide in Plain Sight plus sneak attacks. The very, very last fight had some cool mechanics: there's Morag, and her two Hands, and an altar, and some priests. As far as I can tell, you need to kill the Hands in order to cross the threshhold to where the priests are. I started off by smashing the altar; whenever the Hands got close, I hid in plain sight to escape, then revealed myself far away to lure them closer, then snuck back to the altar and resumed smashing. Morag casts a lot of spells, but I had crazy-high universal saving throws, plus a lot of resistances thanks to the Ring of Power, so I shrugged off everything. I was able to lure her into the hallway, then ran back inside and slammed the door shut. Many enemies in the game will open doors and follow you, but for some reason Morag never did; my theory is that she lacks opposable thumbs. I launched some sneak attacks on the weaker Hand, then fought the other Hand normally.

With the Hands dead, the rotating razors near the altar seemed to finally stop, and I could cross over to where the priests were conducting their rituals. They're all flagged as hostile, but none will actually attack. Each priest seems to maintain a type of invulnerability on Morag, and killing that priest will make her vulnerable to that type of damage. I was able to kill the one named something like "Protection against Maces"; I tried attacking the others, but couldn't damage any of them, so I suspect that each priest is only vulnerable to its own damage type. Finally, I opened the door and stood toe-to-toe against Morag. She had finally exhausted her spells and switched to combat; my high-30's Armor Class meant that she didn't land a single blow on me for the entire, lengthy duration of our battle. At last she fell, thrillingly but also somewhat anti-climactically. I dunno... I do really dig the complexity of the final battle, it was neat to have so many actors on the field and multiple environmental components to interact with, so it would probably have been overwhelmingly difficult if they had also tuned Morag herself to be even stronger.

Once the final battle is done, though, the endgame is very "blah." There's initially an awesome environmental effect where the plane starts to collapse, represented by sweet flaming fireballs shooting down from the sky and exploding on the ground. You teleport out through one of three (?) portals, where you meet Haedraline in another pocket plane. She provides some summing-up exposition in her standard annoying hissing voice: Morag is gone, and you've not only saved Neverwinter and the Forgotten Realms, but other worlds as well. You step through another portal and... well, hop onto YouTube to see the final video, because for some reason it wouldn't play for me. It describes how the forces of Luskan were driven away, Neverwinter was saved, and it all feels oddly ho-hum. The video basically ends with the narrator saying, "And then, you know, a bunch of other stuff happened. Whatever. It doesn't matter. It could be anything!"


And, to close the circle, that gets back to the fundamental disconnect with the way I'm playing this game. As originally conceived, the Original Campaign wasn't meant to be a story where The World was Saved Forever and the Hero would Live Happily Ever After. No: the OC was meant to introduce you to the mechanics of NWN, and hopefully connect with a social group of other human PCs and DMs. From there, you would keep the story going, playing other community modules and creating new campaigns of your own. It's a pretty different end point from what we expect from most CRPGs, which typically have epic climaxes and either lead directly into a sequel or provide a satisfying permanent denouement.

It looks like I don't even have the excuse of a sequel to hope for. The next game to tackle in my long slog towards Mask of the Betrayer is "Shadows of Undrentide", and while the game allows me to import my Cirion Bartleman post-game save, the manual warns that it was designed for a new Level 1 character. So, sigh. I guess I'll set him aside and create yet another character.

Based on what I've experienced so far, I really can't recommend NWN itself to any modern PC gamer. It's stuck in an awkward technological place, between charming sprite-based games and gorgeous current-generation 3D games. It's also stranded on an evolutionary branch that has largely been abandoned, promising a small-scale personal multiplayer experience that's different from the MMO and epic single-player subgenres that dominate the RPG marketplace; the concept still sounds cool, but very few players today will ever experience it this way, and instead will experience a singleplayer RPG that feels like an afterthought. It's too long, too repetitive, and too thin. I really hope that the pace picks up, and that I'm not disappointed by the well-regarded expansions that await.