Monday, April 08, 2013


Phew! After leading well over a hundred Feanorean Elves to the slaughter, one has finally emerged triumphant from Morgoth's dark fortress at Angband. Selene fled through the gates, accomplishing something that even Beren could not: she carried not one, not two, but all three of the Silmarils, their brightly shining lights carrying her up from the depths of the dungeon, where Morgoth's physical form improbably lay dead.

After well over fifty of my earlier characters had died, I finally realized that, if you try to "continue" a deceased character, it will actually re-start that character. It will remember your statistic allocation and name, although you can change anything and must re-allocate your skills. I've had pretty good results with the "assassin archer" build I mentioned in my last post, so by this point it's a fairly automatic process. If the game kept track of the number of times you restart a character, I finally won on what was probably the 30th or so iteration of "Selene." Of those, probably a quarter stupidly died on the third or fourth level - after you get used to playing a powerful character, it's easy to forget just how dangerous two Orc Soldiers can be to someone just starting out. A bunch of them died in Morgoth's feast hall while I tried to figure out the mechanics and plan strategies. The rest were fairly evenly divided in death, though if I could get a character down to about 700' they were almost always fine... I think I lost one or two when I foolishly attacked a Great Fire-Drake at close quarters, and got swarmed by the Balrog of the Hosts at least once, but otherwise I could generally see where danger lurked and escape when necessary.

I don't think I paid sufficient tribute to this before, but the ladders at the were extremely helpful to me. In particular, there was a competition for a character named "Beleg" that let me look at a bunch of builds people made that were all for archer characters. Beleg was a Sindar of Doriath, so his starting stats were weaker and he had an extra proficiency with the bow, but it was still a very useful model to follow. After finishing up, I finally uploaded my own character as well. This is for personal achievement, nothing more: I'll never be as good as the masters of this game, and am just delighted to have finally triumphed over the fallen Melkor.

So... yes. My last post was when I got my first Selene to 900'. That's actually a pretty comfortable depth for me to be. The enemies are more powerful, but also tend to be fairly solitary: a lone vampire, a lone Gwathrau, and so on. I would typically sprint around, and when I saw a star appear, drop into stealth and check it out. For most passing unwary enemies, I could assassinate them, often with a single shot. Stationary enemies were generally fine as well, although I would skip enemies like fire-breathers (since they can destroy equipment). Some enemies were more trouble than it was worth to slay - since I rely totally on archery (no longer even taking Versatility), it can be expensive to shoot a lot of arrows into an enemy who is immune to criticals and/or has high armor and/or high health. Whenever I saw a group, I would check them out. Down low, there are often groups of cats (cat warriors, cat assassins, etc.), who are actually great targets: they're often encountered sleeping, and with the right build I can reliably kill each in a single shot. On the other hand, groups of trolls are often also found sleeping, but I'm more likely to bypass these: a single troll usually takes a few shots to bring down, giving it enough time to raise the alarm and swarm me.

So, once I got to 900', I would take a few cycles between 900' and 950'. This is a great way to increase experience: the diminishing returns from monsters means that after a while it's no longer very profitable to kill, say, Vampires, but there are a lot of unique monsters typically found at around those depths, and many who are supposedly found at 1000' who can show up there. Simply finding them is worth a lot of XP, and if I encountered them alone, I could usually kill them. As an extra bonus, if you kill them on your way down, that means they can't appear in Morgoth's hall. I took care of Shelob, and Ungoliant (!!!), several named Balrogs, a named dragon, a named vampire, and a few other folks.

The chance to improve your items is at least as important as the XP you gain, though. If I've survived this deep, I must have acquired some good equipment; but, again, one of the core design principles of Sil is that every point is important, so even something like a minor upgrade of a Shadow Cloak of Stealth can have a noticeable impact. Since I tend to run with low Willpower, I rely on items for most of my immunities (well, resistances), and collecting things like a Helm of Clarity and a Lantern of True Sight and Greaves of Free Action are all useful. Artifacts, though, can often combine an immunity with another good power. So, for example, grabbing an artifact amulet can free up a helm slot for another piece of gear that will be more useful.

It took me a while to get used to my limited light and food resources; specifically, learning that they weren't as limited as I feared. I was super-paranoid about torches in the beginning, and would always extinguish them when I didn't actively need them. Eventually I figured out that, unless I was actively wasting time, I could always count on finding a lantern before I ran out of torches. Similarly, as long as I'm descending at a decent rate, I can keep my lantern burning and not worry too much about finding replacements or flasks of oil. Food was a more troubling shortage; I eventually realized that part of the reason why was simply because one of the food items (maybe strips of dried meat?) looks like a white comma, which is very difficult to distinguish from the white period that denotes an empty square. In some of my games, I needed to invest in the "Mind over Body" ability or similar items because I was worried of running out of food. Eventually, though, you should develop a decent stockpile of vittles.

Entering Morgoth's hall is pretty fascinating. There's a description of the loud sounds of feasting, and some more verse when you descend. Unlike all of the 19 levels above it, 1000' is a fixed map, and not procedurally generated. It seems like the monsters may be a mix of set and random: I did notice some consistencies, like a room to the right that's always packed with cats, Morgoth is always on his throne in the southernmost part of the room, and there's always a long double-line of trolls leading up to him. It felt like the other monsters varied from one run to another, but that may have been a cascading effect depending on which unique monsters I had previously killed on a run.

I'd read a decent amount about the throne room, and had heard about "tension" and a secret passage, but didn't really get it until I experienced it. So: when you first arrive in the throne room, it will say something like "a strange tension lies in the air." While tension is active, enemies won't attack you: they can notice you, and follow you, and box you in, but you are otherwise free to move through the hall. Tension can break in one of two ways: if a monster notices you making an attack, or if Morgoth notices you. Once tension breaks, all hell breaks loose, with the huge number of active monsters all hostile.

Interestingly, tension is not broken when you attack, only when you're observed attacking. So, since I am a stealth assassin anyways, I was often able to winnow down the field at least somewhat by entering stealth and one-shot-killing weak unwary or sleeping monsters. Vampires and cats fall easily, though I learned not to attempt this with trolls.

I typically would bring a Staff of Monsters that would identify where all the bad guys are on the map. It doesn't show walls, though, and the first few times I descended I spent a lot of time exploring the level to try and figure out the layout. It's actually kinda interesting... the focus is the main hall, but there's a long hallways with several rooms off to the right, including some tiny closet-sized spaces, and a winding hall down the left. I kept hoping to find an entrance to the secret passage that everyone talked about, without luck. Eventually, I realized that you can't get into it from the main part of the level. You need to sneak past Morgoth, where you will find a hidden door south of his throne. This is only feasible if tension is still active and he is unwary. Fortunately, on the attempt where I finally beat him, even though I had been spotted earlier, I was able to quietly sprint away and cause them to become unwary again, so my final approach to the throne was without incident.

So: I am an archer. I had lugged around a ton of consumables, and once I settled into position at the corner of the secret hallway, I chugged all of them, boosting my stats and my Quickness. I had saved several thousand XP from my recent trips through 900' and 950', and bought Song of Slaying, Woven Themes, Unwavering Voice, Focused Attack, Concentration, Rapid Fire, another point in Archery, and a few more points in Perception. I swapped in Poison Arrows for my normal Arrows; Morgoth regenerates health, so I needed all the help I could get keeping him down. I started singing the song of Sharpness, waited for Concentration, then fired the arrow 'Dailir' at him. This took off... a single star of his 500 health. Gulp.

I died previously when fighting him in the hall. This time, though, I lucked out immensely. Morgoth seems to have one of two moves: a "normal" (albeit very powerful) attack with his hammer Grond, or striking the ground with Grond to cause an earthquake. On this particular fight, he only caused a single earthquake (which damaged and alerted Thuringwethil the Vampire Messenger), and, astonishingly, missed me something like 10 times in a row. This was very lucky; previously he had hit me about half the time. This didn't just help me by keeping up my health: since I didn't need to drink any Healing Potions or Miruvor, I didn't need to break Concentration, and so I was able to maintain an even higher bonus against Morgoth. Thanks to Rapid Fire, I was hitting him with multiple poisoned arrows every turn, several of which pierced him. Finally, at long last, the great enemy fell! Fell in the depths of the Iron Hells!

There's a terrific sequence here where the game reports the "bug" of you defeating Morgoth (which, of course, should be impossible), and asking you to submit a bug report. It also congratulates you: the First Age has now veered off course, and entered uncharted territory. Hooray!

The next part was fun. The only enemy who had been aware previously was Thuringwethil, and she was boxed in behind Morgoth and unable to reach me. Once he fell, though, my double arrows started spilling into the main hall, where they hit bystanders and woke them up. Soon, I had dozens of enemies charging at me. So... using Woven Themes, I switched to the Song of Slaying as a major theme, keeping Song of Piercing as the minor one. The weaker enemies were the first ones into the Chute of Death, and fell fairly quickly. At least a few times, my two arrows would cause two deaths on a single turn. Thanks to Song of Slaying, my attack bonus went up... and up... and up, until at last it was floating around 25-30 every turn. And they kept on coming! Everyone funneled into that narrow chute, unable to even scratch me before I killed them and the ones behind. I think I may have overloaded the floor's capacity for holding items, because stuff started simply disappearing as more monsters dropped their loot.

At last, the flow slowed down. I emerged from the passageway, killed a few stragglers, ended my song, and started rummaging through the rubble. I upgraded a handful of items, then turned my attention to Morgoth's giant iron crown. I knew from comments I'd read online that prising off a Silmaril could snap a weapon, so I swapped out my preferred longsword with a found weapon instead. This proved to be more tedious than I had thought. I don't understand exactly what the mechanics of this process are - the game observes that you can see what's happening in the combat window, but to be perfectly honest I've never deciphered exactly what the numbers in there mean. I kept up the Song of Sharpness, and after a few dozen attempts, succeeded in removing the first Silmaril. I kept going, obviously. The entire point of slaying Morgoth instead of just taking the Silmaril was so I could escape Angband with all three of them. The second one came off as well after another dozen or so tries. When I started working on the third one, the game warned that of a feeling of unease and asked if I wished to continue, to which I said "Yes." I'd assumed that this was referring to the risk of snapping my weapon; this did happen after a few attempts, but wasn't the reason why. When you do get the third Silmaril, it warns that you have effectively been cursed: between now and the end of the game, any time you make a die roll, it will roll twice and take the worse of the two. Good to know! I think this is a really clever move from a game design perspective. I'd wondered before why anyone would ever bother escaping with just two Silmarils. Taking a single jewel makes sense if you don't want to fight Morgoth, since you can snatch it and flee (though my own experience at the difficulty of removing it gives me pause - maybe it's better/easier if you have some points in Melee?). You have the time to take all three if you've killed Morgoth and his host. This mechanic would give a good reason to kill Morgoth (or put him to slumber) and still just take two. I think it's also forgiveable from a fiction perspective. Since Beren only succeeded in removing the first, there's no precedent for what would have happened had he taken all three; and given the extremely bloody history of the Silmarils and the Oaths, I'm willing to accept the idea that some bad juju would travel with them.

From here on out, I moved quickly. Morgoth was dead, but the alarm had been raised, and I needed to escape Angband as soon as possible. I'm not sure exactly how many turns this took, but I do know that I didn't need to eat anything. This portion of the game felt very different from the first part: instead of exhaustively combing over every room in a floor, I would quietly dart around and dash up the first staircase I could find. I still ended up covering a lot of territory on a few floors before I found that elusive way up, though.

The monster mix was interesting. For some reason, I had assumed that you would see the same monsters at each floor as you had on the way down, so it would get easier as you ascended. To a certain extent this was true: there were drakes at first, who gave way to trolls, and by the end I was seeing some enemies I hadn't seen for a long time, like Green Centipedes and Greater Werewolves and various Worm Masses. However, there are also high-level enemies who patrol every level now, and keep the tension high. They're mostly various types of Vampires and Rauko, and they seem to emerge from staircases much more frequently than enemies would during the descent.

This whole section was exciting and weirdly gripping. I spent close to a week getting this character down to the throne room, and took a break after killing Morgoth. Once I started going up, though, I couldn't make myself stop playing, and raced from floor to floor without ever leaving my chair. Finally, at long last, you emerge, blinking, climbing from the first level at 50' to the last level at the surface: the Gates of Angband. 

I had planned to sneak my way out, but it proved difficult, as a bunch of enemies swiftly followed me from the stairs. I dispatched them, then stealthily made my way forward. As with Morgoth's throne room, the Gates are a pre-set, non-generated map. The walls are a different color, which I thought was a cool and surprising change: it makes sense, since this is the first time in the entire game that you would have seen sunlight shining on anything. I crept my way past hordes of enemies, then came to the gates proper. Opening one up, I spotted Carcharoth, the Jaws of Thirst. Swallowing nervously, I closed the gate again before he could notice me. In the Lay of Beren and Luthien, Carcharoth stopped them at the gates, and bit off Beren's hand, swallowing the Silmaril and driving himself mad. This was clearly a difficult foe. What to do? I could PROBABLY kill him, but if he was capable of entrancing me, or if his poison sufficiently strong, there was a risk that I could lose now, just as I was on the verge of escaping.

So, I decided to try and sneak past him; or, failing that, simply flee. I wouldn't gain anything more by killing him than I would otherwise. I took all the XP I had gained during my ascent and dumped it into Stealth, then chugged all of my potions, opened the gates, and snuck forward. He spotted me instantly. He does have 20 Perception, and I was kinda close, but it still surprised me a little. I wonder now if this may actually be programmed: it does make sense, since the rest of the game's stealth mechanics take place in the stygian depths of the dungeon, that you would expect to be far more visible once you had emerged into the daylight.

In any case: with my hopes at concealment gone, I started to run. I now kind of wish that I had stopped and fought him. He doesn't have that much health - I think maybe only 80? - and he's fast enough that he was able to catch up with and bite me while I was fleeing, so running away didn't even seem particular safe. It was safe enough, though! I reached the exit before my health ran out, and - dah dah dah! - I triumphed!

  So! That was a weirdly thrilling game. I'm still pretty amazed at how much I can lose myself into something so low-tech. I've grown accustomed to my emotions being triggered by nicely detailed things in modern games: the way Merrill weeps into her fingers on Sundermount, or the catch in Viconia's voice when she describes her conquering of the farmer, or a screen dissolving away and revealing the visage of SHODAN. Sil can't do any of this, yet I find myself thinking back on it frequently: the ominous quiet, the sense of lurking doom, the flashes of panic, the few brief breaths of respite, the nervous anticipation of a strike, the towering sense of glee as the mighty Morgoth falls. As I mentioned in an earlier post, a lot of this response may come directly from the very limitations of the game: my imagination has to work overtime while playing Sil, since the game isn't providing me with images, voices, and music of my own, and my mind can come up with some pretty gripping details to fill in the framework Sil provided. 

I also think, though, that Sil benefits enormously from being such a very well-designed game. There's so little exposition, and since the little exposition there is is done so very well (lyrical and evocative), it colors the vast bulk of the game that doesn't have exposition. Within the game itself, the mechanics are tied extraordinarily well to the story. In Dragon Age 2, Hawke can be a blood mage for gameplay reasons, and support the Templars for story reasons, which may feel "optimal" but creates some  dissonance between action and story. In Sil, your abilities of song, and stealth, and smithing and so on tie in perfectly well with the story you're creating of how your hero accomplished the incredible feat of freeing a Silmaril. And those abilities themselves are incredibly well designed and balanced... every aspect of the game feels perfectly tuned, such that it's constantly challenging, but always feels like a surmountable challenge. It's like the game strips away everything but the core mechanics of gameplay, and makes them the best they could possibly be.

Anyways. Just for fun, I did another screenshot gallery. Needless to say, this looks nothing at all like the similar ones I've done for recent Bioware RPGs, it's just for my own amusement.

Kudos to the creators for making one of the best games I've played in years! I'm sure that this will be an extremely niche game, but for the right group of people, this could be one of the strangest and most satisfying RPGs you've ever played.

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