Monday, March 31, 2014

Buried Alive

And so, the BioShock journey comes to an end. Back when Burial at Sea was first announced, we all thought it would extend the story of BioShock Infinite, and perhaps provide a bridge to whatever game would be the next main entry in the franchise. Since then, of course, we've learned the shocking news that Irrational Games is shutting down (despite having released one of the most critically-admired games of last year, which appears to have also sold quite well), and this, the second part of the DLC, will be our last-ever journey through BioShock.

Fortunately, it's a very fine end. Like its predecessor, it combines some of the most memorable aspects of the worlds of Rapture and Columbia. It continues the impressive job of merging together their unique gameplay mechanics (sky-hooks in Rapture! Drinkable plasmids!), and actually manages to innovate somewhat in its play style, addressing what I've long considered one of the weak points of the franchise. As I've previously complained, I've often felt like the games have a half-baked implementation of a stealth system, with just enough enemy alertness and patrols to make me want to attempt a more pacifist approach, but not designed well enough to actually make it a viable strategy. Well, they've explicitly made a non-lethal playthrough possible this time, and even associated it with a new difficulty level: 1998 Mode. Somewhat similar to 1999 Mode, a "hardcore" mode with limited ammo and resources, 1998 Mode restricts you to only using stealth-based approaches: you can sneak around enemies, knock them out silently from behind, Possess them to join your side, put them to sleep from a distance with tranquilizer darts, or distract them with loud noises. The intro provides a good overview of the stealth mechanics, which, in addition to the typical field-of-vision sight avoidance now also incorporates an aural component. Moving faster makes your footsteps louder and more likely to draw enemies; stepping on broken glass or water will alert them to your presence, while wood or stone surfaces are quieter, and carpet is so quiet that you can safely run across it. Enemies have different alertness levels, which you can monitor from a discreet distance when deciding a course of action.

I'm not totally sure of the etymology behind 1998 Mode, but I strongly suspect that it's an homage to Thief: The Dark Project. This seminal game was released in 1998 by Looking Glass Studios, which was a forerunner to Irrational Games (Looking Glass also created System Shock, of which BioShock was the spiritual heir). Thief was a revolutionary game for its time, and arguably is still the only great stealth-based first-person franchise ever created. Thief had even more great mechanics, like great use of three-dimensional space (crossing a rope line suspended high above guards), manipulation of light (shooting out torches with water arrows!), and moving around unconscious bodies so they wouldn't be discovered by other patrolling guards. Thief is in the news again lately due to a lackluster reboot of the franchise. The timing is probably coincidental, but will probably make Burial at Sea look better in comparison.

The difficulty for 1998 was nicely challenging. There's one particular area, which I visited at two different points in the story, that was extremely difficult and took well over a dozen tries to complete; other than that, though, most of the game could be completed with a combination of patience, observation, and management of resources. (One random tip: at one point, it looked like I had lost the ability to pick up additional tranquilizer ammo. It turned out that my ammo was full, but since the crossbow holds two ammo types, I was seeing the other ammo type on display. On PC, you can press and hold "E" to bring up the weapon wheel, which lets you switch ammo types for the crossbow.)

One tangent/brag: you unlock a Steam achievement for beating the game in 1998 mode. I've become increasingly interested in achievements since their very clever use in Hate Plus, and after beating the game I looked at the statistics for Bioshock Infinite. I was a bit proud to see that I was one of the 0.1% of gamers who had unlocked this particular one. In comparison, a total of 2.2% had beaten this DLC at any difficulty. I was a little surprised that 1998 mode was so low, but even more surprised that overall victory was so high. This was on... Saturday afternoon, I think, which means that only four days had passed since the DLC was released. It's a bit astonishing to think that 1 out of every 50 gamers who had ever even started playing BioShock Infinite had downloaded this 6GB-or-so-large DLC, started it, and played to completion within a few days of its availability. Then again, I'm notorious for starting a game more than a decade after it is first released, so this quick adoption is probably more common than I realize.

But that also got me thinking about how valuable Steam could be for research and statistics into the patterns of game-playing. Sales data for digital distribution of games is notoriously difficult to get; neither publishers nor digital platforms like Steam tend to release sales figures, so the question of how well a particular PC title does is very opaque. (In contrast, since most console games are still sold through retailers on physical discs, sites like VGChartz usually have fairly-accurate numbers for sales on XBox, PlayStation and Nintendo consoles.) While overall numbers are mysterious, though, there's a lot you could learn from a game with a fair number of achievements. How many people play a game at all, enough to get an achievement from beating the very first level? How many play to completion? How popular is the DLC? Does latter DLC always decline in popularity, or is it primarily driven by reviews? In some games you might be able to figure out whether players gravitated towards "good" or "evil" playstyles, or favored a particular class type, or opted for non-lethal solutions. It would be really interesting to track this stuff across the industry as a whole, and also among individual franchises, to see whether certain types of players are drawn more to certain types of games.

Tangent over. Moving on:

Burial at Sea Part 2 is gorgeous. In particular, the opening scene might be the most beautiful thing I've ever seen in any video game; this is taking the crown from the previous record-holder, the original BioShock Infinite. Scene design is incredible, the animations are gloriously sweet, the hue is super-saturated, and it's all tied together with the loveliest sound design this side of a 1990s Disney musical. The BioShock games, like System Shock before them, have long been renowned for their fantastic sound design, which just might be the best in the industry. Typically, their immense skill is directed towards making the creepiest, most unsettling moods imaginable, so it's wonderful to see that, when they really want to, they can be just as talented at invoking moods of euphoria and bliss.


In small doses, that is. Like every other entry in BioShock Infinite, this game starts with a beautiful worlds to explore, then rapidly shifts into an extended fight for your very survival. For me, the shift was easier to stomach this time, in large part due to the non-lethal tools at my disposal. The big difference, though, might have been the shift in character. In the expansion, you play as Elizabeth, the young girl who was Booker's sidekick in the previous two entries.

This is a fun shift. It reminded me in a few ways of some of my favorite parts in The Last of Us when you play as Ellie, who is Elizabeth to Joel's Booker. It's not quite as drastic a shift in playstyle - Ellie had fundamentally different characteristics and abilities, while Elizabeth still relies on many of the same weapons and plasmids as Booker - but there are still some neat additions, notably being able to crawl into ventilation shafts, just like Elizabeth was able to do in the earlier entries. Playing as a girl is interesting; the biggest impact I noticed was that I tended to cringe a lot more when coming under fire, and I was quicker to reload a checkpoint once it became clear that things would end poorly, unlike my earlier Booker games when I would usually play through to the end regardless. I still feel a weird sense of responsibility for Elizabeth, just like I did when she was a companion, even though now I'm the one looking after her well-being, instead of Booker.

Like Burial at Sea Part 1, this game takes place in Rapture. In this entry, though, we learn much more about the link between Rapture and Columbia. This helps resolve some of the long-unexplained mysteries of both franchises, and also acts as a really nice kind of retcon to explain why gameplay was so similar between the two entries. For example, we learn that Dr. Suchong and Jeremiah Fink were able to establish a connection through a Lutece Device, and so were able to collaborate on the development of vigors and plasmids. The Adam from Rapture was delivered to Columbia to create Vigors. There's even some neat minor stuff you can come across in notes and audio logs about the difference between injectables and drinkables: Fink is more consumer-oriented, and knows that it will be easier to sell a drinkable than a needle, even though it will take 50 times as much Adam to deliver the same results. Fontaine, though, is much more supply-driven, and aware of the benefits in hoarding Adam, and demands manufacturing injectables alone, stating that he'll take care of selling them to the public.

Okay... a lot went down at the end of Part 1, and more big revelations come in Part 2. Here we go!


The big shock at the end of Part 1 was Elizabeth killing Booker. At the time, I'd thought that this was an alternate-universe Elizabeth, acting in vengeance for the death of her sister / alternate-self. In Part 2, though, I'm more inclined to think that it was the "original" Elizabeth from BioShock Infinite. The missing-pinky thing seems to be a somewhat-unique identifier for her, and she has memories of Songbird and other elements that probably aren't all that widely distributed amongst all alternate Elizabeths.

In her internal monologue, it was fascinating to note that she refers to killing "Comstock" and not killing "Booker." To me, these are still two separate entities: sure, if you go far back enough in time they came from the same person, but having "lived" as Booker and "killed" Comstock, I mentally categorize them as distinct persons. It was eye-opening to realize that Elizabeth doesn't see such a distinction: Comstock is Comstock, whether or not he was baptized at Wounded Knee. It does raise a lot of questions about guilty and culpability. Again, having played as Booker previously, I'm automatically sympathetic for him: he made a terrible mistake, but was haunted by it, and wanted to do what he could to make it right by saving others like his daughter. But, from Elizabeth's perspective, he's a monster who murdered a little child (from both directions!) and should be punished for it.

Or should he? Much of Part 2 is cloaked in deliberate confusion. Elizabeth has lost much of her memories; she had previously "seen through all the doors" and knew what lay in store in all alternate universes, but now she has collapsed into a single quantum; she knows that in the past she saw all outcomes, and started along this path, but now that she is set on it she does not know where it will lead. An early, unsettling moment has you confronting your own corpse, and the accompanying dizziness reveals that you have crossed over into a universe not your own.

To be explicit: Burial at Sea Part 2 is the missing link that shows how and why the BioShock games are connected. In addition to minor things like the development of vigors/plasmids, this game shows how Atlas returned in triumph to Rapture and started the war that would destroy it. It doesn't just show it: you, yourself, do it. That felt super-weird, knowing that every action I took was creating the nightmare that I played through several years ago.

There's an optional side-quest in the game that lets you discover fairly early on that Frank Fontaine and Atlas are the same person. Like a lot of plot elements in Part 2, this leads to a hyper-awareness that can feel disorienting. You know that you're going to be betrayed, but need to proceed regardless.  These thoughts are often worked out in a strange external monlogue between yourself and "Booker" - which, as he helpfully points out, isn't really Booker at all, but merely a hallucination you've created to have someone to talk with. "Booker" reassures you, but as he points out, he can't tell you anything that you don't already know. (In one example of narrative inconsistency, it's established early on that you're talking to nothing on your radio, and Atlas jumps on the line, somewhat irritated, asking why you're speaking to yourself. Later, though, you openly discuss Atlas's identity and plans with "Booker," when presumably Atlas can hear every word you say.)

The ultimate resolution is... touching, and very bittersweet, but also confused me a bit. As far as I can tell, omniscient-Elizabeth had looked through all universes, and found a single version of Booker that could be saved. I think she implies that this is Jack, the protagonist of the original BioShock game, but I haven't been able to work out how that makes sense. Jack was Andrew Ryan's son, and the original BioShock took place in 1960. I don't see any way that this could be the same man who fought in the Battle of Wounded Knee... I suppose that some inter-dimensional trickery might be able to explain it, but a major plot point of the first game was how Jack was Ryan's illegitimate child, so without the genetic match the mechanics of the first game don't make much sense. Anyways... it's very possible that there was some explanation in the DLC that I was too dense to see, or that I misunderstood what Elizabeth was trying to do. Which, the more I think of it, just seems deeply strange. She seems happy to be deliberately orchestrating the events that will give Fontaine the activation phrase "Would You Kindly", and dooming the entire city of Rapture to destruction, and for what? To bring Jack down below the sea, so he can have a chance to die? Hm, unless... I suppose it makes more sense if her ultimate goal was to rescue the Little Sisters. If that's the case, then the destruction of Rapture wouldn't have intrinsically been a bad thing; at the very worst, it would ensure that no future little sisters were created, and at best, the existing ones could be rescued as well. Though, with her pre-existing ability to open tears, it seems like there must have been a much better way to accomplish that goal without an extremely roundabout mission. Then again, the whole thing is absolutely a retcon, so I'm probably making a mistake to question it at all.


While I don't claim to understand exactly how Booker fits into all this, it didn't make the ending any less touching. Scenes of sacrifice are always powerful, and fairly rare in video games, and literally every single game in BioShock Infinite has ended with the protagonist getting killed. Each death serves a purpose, though, and while Elizabeth's death is the saddest and least shocking, it's also the most uplifting. Elizabeth kills Booker in the earlier games, but here she has deliberately designed and played out her own downfall, in the service of a greater good. That's pretty heavy stuff, and an appropriately melancholic note on which to end a franchise built on the themes of corruption and decay.


So! I'd mentioned earlier that you might want to wait until both parts are out to try Burial at Sea; now that they're here, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend them. Assuming you already enjoyed Infinite, you'll find more to enjoy - terrific environments, fantastic voice-acting, and improved combat. People who have played through from the very first BioShock will get the most out of this, as it is a fitting tribute and capstone to the entire series. (For the curious, I went ahead and made another album for this one, though I haven't captioned anything yet. That may come in the future.)

Like a lot of people mourning the passing of Irrational, I'm very curious to see what the future brings. Ken Levine, the main creative force behind Irrational, announced its closure and also that he wants to transition to telling smaller-scale, more narratively driven games. That does sound pretty awesome, since I'm all about narrative in games. It is a bit sad, though, to think that we might have seen the end of one of the best visual design teams ever assembled. Don't get me wrong, the storytelling in the BioShock games is very good and much more memorable than most games out there. However, I think the one particular area in which they most excelled was creating distinct, creative, imaginative, wholly original settings. There's nothing like Rapture or Columbia, and if Irrational hadn't created them, I don't think anyone else would have. It's all the rage now to talk about how AAA titles are too derivative and cautious, churning out cookie-cutter sequels that improve graphics while sticking with stale modes of gameplay; the same line of arguing goes that the independent creators are doing all the innovating these days. There's some truth to that argument, but I think that the BioShock games have been some of the best examples to date of what AAA games are capable of doing that indie games are not. A small free or $5 game can have a really compelling story, as good or better than a $60 AAA title; but the $60 AAA title has the resources to construct a lush, vibrant, fully-realized, visually compelling realistic world. Too many franchises these days blow that budget on making the next hyper-realistic simulation of a war-torn WWII battlefield, or a sleek dystopic future, or a modern American city. BioShock broke the mold, inspiring players with its wholly original visions of worlds we hadn't even imagined before. I'm optimistic that Ken Levine will continue to create great games, but I'm pessimistic that the game industry will find a replacement for their breathtaking visual originality. If a franchise this popular and this well-liked couldn't survive, then who can?

Tuesday, March 25, 2014


Heh, that went a lot faster than I expected! Act 3 of Mask of the Betrayer is much shorter than Act 2, so rather than the wait of weeks I was expecting, I'll be able to finish up my thoughts before switching over to the final Bioshock DLC.

My previous post went over a bunch of the more abstract aspects of MotB that resonated with me, and the two albums have recapped most of the my thoughts on the plot proper. So,  here are a bunch of idle musings, not attached to much of anything at all!

First, the non-spoiler ones:

I prefer the crafting system in MotB to the one in NWN2, mostly because I actually used it. I know that a lot of people love crafting in NWN2, partly because they like the character aspects of it (it does connect to a wonderful tradition stretching back to Ultima and continued in many other non-BioWare RPGs), and because the best crafted gear can be much more powerful than the best non-crafted gear, so it's appealing to both roleplayers and min/max-ers. But, for people like me who are playing the game mostly for the plot, it ended up just being a complex, opaque, time-consuming subsystem that I could fortunately safely ignore, instead focusing my limited gaming time on awesome story and character moments.

The main improvement in MotB is a big simplification of crafting. NWN2 had a staggering array of recipes, requiring a big array of different possible components. With planning, you could make something very powerful, but the odds of you just happening to hold the ingredients you needed was practically nil. MotB eliminates all the old stuff and replaces them with a single set of resources, Essences, that you directly take from slain enemies. Enhancing your weapon and armor then becomes a simple matter of applying those essences to the item. Want to add a Lightning attack to your sword? Then use some Air Essences. The more essences and higher quality the essence, the more damage you'll do. How about adding a higher attack to your weapon? Just add Power essences, and so on.

The one thing that was still a little annoying was the lack of any in-game description of what was needed for each upgrade; but fortunately an FAQ was just a few clicks away.

I had big plans for crafting, but ended up not doing that much. Upgrades now check your character level instead of your Crafting skill, and the highest-tier upgrades (like +8 attack bonuses) require a level 30 character. I used Safiya for crafting, and she finally reached level 29 right before the very end. But, I did apply a few mid-level upgrades, which were pretty awesome. I found a Falchion fairly early on that had the "Spirit's Ruin" ability, which lets you inflict critical hits on normally-critical-resistant spirits. With Safiya's crafting upgrades, I was able to add a +5 attack and 2D8 electrical damage. I'd planned to eventually upgrade this to +8 attack, 5D6 electrical, and Persistent Haste, but never got the levels for the attacks, and didn't get enough Spirit Essences for the Haste). Still, even those upgrades still let me destroy everything up through the time I got back the Silver Sword of Gith.

My character build continued along the lines that I'd started in NWN2. I'd already earned all of my Red Dragon Disciple levels, so I was mostly continuing in Weapon Master, though I switched back to Fighter near the end. Weapon Master's biggest jump happens at Level 5, where you get an increased critical multiplier AND an extra +1 on all attack rolls; but, it's worth continuing to Level 7, which expands your critical threat range by 2. Since I'd also taken every single Falchion weapon feat (Power Critical, Improved Critical, etc.), I was critting ridiculously often for ridiculously high levels of damage. Above Level 7, Weapon Master just gives you additional Ki attacks per day, which become less useful the more you get (you're not likely to expend all of them in any boss fight), so I switched back to Fighter to get more bonus feats.

I didn't do anything too special with any of my companion builds. They're all locked into a single class anyways, so I just gave them the stats that worked best for that, and tried to focus on their chosen spell school or weapon ability as appropriate. One of my companions was an interesting critter who controlled his own leveling and couldn't use most equipment, so that was even easier to manage than the rest.


The first part of Mask of the Betrayer is very focused on your sense of isolation and disorientation. Whether you're importing from NWN2 or starting fresh, you're in a land where nobody knows you and you don't know what's going on. I thought it was nice that, starting late in Act 2 and especially in Act 3, they start bringing back elements from the first game, particularly callbacks to your other companions. It might have felt disappointingly brief if we'd gotten all of it at the beginning, but because my expectations were so low and I wasn't expecting to see them again, I felt particularly happy when they popped back up, even in a limited form.

The one thing that probably most disappointed me about the game was the abortive nature of your crusade. Even though I frequently declared my intention to destroy the Wall and overturn the order, the game ended with me "winning" by getting back my soul, but everything else in the multiverse continuing on the same as before, which felt a little deflating. I'm sure that there are alternate endings to the game, but I doubt that any of them let you tear it down. Which was a bit of a bummer; after all, Throne of Bhaal has already established the enormous changes a high-level player character can make, so I feel like there would have been some precedence for letting such a lore-altering action go forward.

Now, you can absolutely make an artistic argument for why they left that option off the table. Games aren't (or shouldn't) be all about wish fulfillment, after all, and one of the big recurring themes in D&D is that even gods are restricted in their actions, so it would have been fine to establish that you wouldn't have the power to accomplish your quest. Still, I was kind of expecting an option akin to the "Refusal" ending to Mass Effect 3, where you refuse to turn aside from your quest, even knowing that it will destroy you. It would have been a tough choice, but I think I could have gotten behind it: taking a mad, doomed course of action, not out of any hope that it could succeed, but merely because I knew that it was right.

Again, though, I can't get too upset about that, because it falls well within the purview of "this is the game they wanted to make," and pretty much everything else was great. I really dug the characters; Kaelyn was by far my favorite, but Safiya was very intriguing as well. Okku was gruff, but ultimately loveable; I never really spent all that much time with Gann, but he certainly seems pretty unique among companions in these series.

The story itself ended up being pretty cool, too. I cover this in more depth in my album, but a lot of the information you kind of incidentally absorb during the Academy segment in Act 2 ends up forming the foundation for the big revelations that drive Act 3. As best as I understand it, here's the ultimate sequence of events:
  • Akachi, a priest of Myrkul the God of the Dead, falls in love with the Founder of the Thayyan Academy.
  • The Founder dies. Since she is one of the Faithless, her soul is interred in the Wall of the Faithless. Akachi knows the Wall as well as any mortal, and knowledge of her fate torments him.
  • Akachi and his brother, Araman, lead a revolt against Myrkul. They convince many of the god's followers to join them, and ultimately create a grand alliance spanning good, evil, and neutral factions. Many join because they feel the Wall is unjust; others for their own reasons (to gain power, disrupt the order, etc.)
  • The crusade against the City of Judgment inflicts tremendous damage, but ultimately fails. Myrkul punishes the False (the traitors), including Araman, by pressing them into eternal service.
  • For Akachi, Myrkul devises a particularly cruel fate. He is placed in the Wall, where he shouldn't be (Akachi was a traitor, but not faithless). He separates Akachi's soul, and curses it with infinite hunger. He places the soul in its first victim in Rashemen, starting a cycle where the spirit-eater will devour the lives of those around him/her, before being consumed by their own hunger and moving into the next body.
  • Myrkul does this because he anticipates the Time of Troubles. He may be killed, but as long as people believe in him, he will continue a limited kind of existence; and having an unstoppable soul-sucking killing machine is a great way to make people believe in you.
  • And, in fact, this is what happens. Myrkul is killed, and replaced by Kelemvor. Myrkul no longer has the power to directly affect events, but the plot he sent in motion continues along its trajectory. The Devourer of Souls will likely continue tormenting others indefinitely, granting Myrkul immortality; but, even if the Devourer or his/her/its allies seek to end the curse, they would have to do so by striking against Kelemvor, potentially killing him and restoring Myrkul to godhood.
  • The Founder was freed by Akachi before his crusade ended, and her love for him grows even stronger. She plans to try and rescue him as he did her. She deliberately divides her soul into four components: most remains with her, but parts of her essence pass into Lienna, Nefris and Safiya. They are separate persons, and grow more different as time continues, but all share a psychic bond, including the ability to communicate with each other over long distances.
  • The Founder remains hidden behind the scenes. Nefris becomes the headmistress of the Thayyan Academy, where she directs research into the problem of restoring Akachi's soul. Lienna is their eyes and ears in Rashemen, tracking the progress of Akachi's divided, tortured existence. Safiya is kept innocent, ignorant of her heritage, in the hopes that she can one day be reunited with Akachi in love, blameless from the torment caused by her other parts.
  • Along the way, Akachi's soul is also divided; I'm unclear on whether he did this himself before launching the crusade, or if it occurred after he was interred in the Wall. These fragments retain uncorrupted essences of himself before his punishment: the Young Boy, recollecting his youth with Araman, and the Red Woman, recollecting his love of the Founder. These essences are weaker than the Founder's, and don't influence events, but ensure that a part of Akachi as he was continues to exist.
  • Kaelyn the Dove, a half-Celestial, enters Kelemvor's service as a Doomguard. She is horrified by the Wall, and eventually abandons her god. She switches her allegiance to Ilmater, caring for the sick and poor. However, she becomes disillusioned with this work as well: she has been caring for the physical needs of the dying, but knows that unbearable eternal torture awaits their souls after death. She abandons all the gods, and begins her own Second Crusade against the City of Judgment.
  • This crusade is much less successful than the first, and she never even reaches the Wall. Her grandfather, a powerful Celestial, thwarts her crusade for her own sake. She breaks off her family ties and continues her mission alone.
  • The spirit-eaters continue to wreak havoc on Rashemen, causing many legends of horror to grow up around them. The curse claims both good men and bad, but everyone eventually succumbs, until a particular man makes an agreement with Okku, a bear spirit. Okku takes the man deep into a barrow and lets him die in a chamber warded against magic. From here, the spirit eater cannot find a new victim, and so remains trapped without a host to inhabit.
  • Neverwinter Nights 2 happens here, and ends with the PC defeating the Lord of the Shadow with the Silver Sword.
  • Crucially, the Silver Sword is required to open the gateway to the City of Judgment. Nefris deduces that the PC has the potential to free Akachi, between embodying the sword and having shown enormous resilience in fighting powerful enemies. When the Temple of Shadows begins to collapse, she teleports the PC into Okku's barrow, deliberately infecting him with the spirit eater curse. She also sends Safiya to meet the PC, instructing her to guide their path. 
  • Nefris hopes to prepare the PC for the mission to the Wall, but Araman, serving under Myrkul's geas and continuing his role for Kelemvor, kills both Nefris and Lienna, leaving the PC and Safiya somewhat adrift.
 I think that's about it for background. What happens in the game proper may vary a bit, and I think you have several choices for how to end it (whether to accept the Crusade, whether to free Akachi or destroy his soul, etc.).  Anyways, it's pretty cool stuff. More details in the album.

  • Favorite companion: Kaelyn, hands down.
  • Favorite weapon: I named my custom falchion My Boom Stick, which amused me.
  • Favorite map: I loved the look of Immil Vale
  • Least favorite map: While I kind of appreciated the complexity, The Skein was a slog to get through.
  • Favorite outfit: I liked having a variety of sweet-looking feathered hats for my PC. Kaelyn looked great in heavy plate armor.
  • Favorite villain: Myrkul was pretty fantastic, a great combination of art direction and voice acting.
  • Best battle: Fighting the Voice of Kelemvor in the Basilica of Lost Hope. Though the final battle is really good, too. 
  • Best conversation: Probably the discussion with Myrkul at the end of Act 2.

And, that's that! If I had it to do all over again, I definitely would have skipped playing the original campaign of Neverwinter Nights, but on balance I'm really happy that I took this detour into the near-past of gaming. I can see why Mask of the Betrayer has such a high reputation, and seeing so much of its creative team  present on Torment: Tides of Numenara makes me extremely happy. I can also start to grok some of the information they've started releasing about the game; concepts like being able to transfer pain from your PC to companions, and making that choice something that affects both gameplay and how your companions respond to you, feels like the same kind of idea that people who came up with the spirit-eater mechanic would have invented, and I'm really looking forward to seeing that holistic approach to mechanics and story being realized in another game.

If anyone is looking for a recommendation, I'd say that it's worth playing NWN2 before MotB if you have the time to do it; despite a few reservations over it feeling a bit rushed, NWN2 is still a great game, and while it isn't necessary to enjoy MotB I think it adds some extra richness and texture to the game. MotB is certainly the crowning achievement, though.

It feels nice to look back over the series, and also feel finished with it. I don't feel particularly drawn to Storm of Zehir; from what I understand it hews closer to the Icewind Dale series, which isn't as attractive to me as the rich character-centric legacy of Baldur's Gate and NWN2. I kind of doubt that I'll replay these games, though the NWN2 games seem likely to hold up much better than their predecessors (both graphically and in terms of story); I doubt I would be attracted to an "evil run" of the game, though I suppose it might be interesting to switch up my parties and get to know some of the other companions better. Still, even if I don't replay them, I get the feeling they'll be the kind of games that worm their way into my memories and continue to influence the way that I think about games, and the potential of games, for the rest of my life.

Saturday, March 22, 2014


Okay! This is a little weird, but I'm going to go ahead and write up my reaction to the first 2/3 of Mask of the Betrayer. It would make a lot more sense structurally to either do one post per act, or one post for the whole game, but I feel like I've reached a critical mass of thoughts, to the point where I'm slightly concerned about losing the thread by the time I finally wrap this up. (This is, of course, the hazard of playing through a long and complex computer RPG as an adult with a job and other interests: I love the game, but kind of miss the marathon play sessions that let a game fully fill my mind during my adolescence.)

In terms of play time, MotB is shorter than the main campaigns of either Neverwinter Nights or Neverwinter Nights 2, but it is deeper than either of those (yes, even than NWN2). I'm not thinking so much of plot twists here, though there are a few of those, but more about a richer backstory and more involved world surrounding it. Of course, it's technically the same world shared by the other D&D games of Baldur's Gate, Planescape: Torment and Neverwinter Nights, but it adds some new elements, and finds some unexpectedly powerful aspects to existing mythology.

As I mentioned way back when I started this insane project, the entire reason I started playing through the NWN games was to get to Mask of the Betrayer, and the whole reason for that was all the flattering comparisons people made between MotB and Planescape: Torment during the Kickstarter campaign for Torment: Tides of Numenara. I've deliberately stayed away from any other information about MotB, and was curious to discover exactly how the games were similar. PS:T remains the strangest RPG I've ever played, and unlike some other RPGs that fade in my mind in the years after I finish them, Torment seems to grow even more significant as it grows older. It turns out that MotB is very similar to PS:T in a variety of ways: while it maintains the user interface and many superficial trappings from NWN2 (XP, combat, crafting, etc.), it also subverts gaming conventions in the same kind of way that PS:T did, and while it might not be quite as philosophically dense as its predecessor, it comes far closer to it than any other entry in the NWN series.

MINI SPOILERS (for Mask of the Betrayer and Planescape: Torment)

The thing that feels most exhilarating about Mask of the Betrayer is its brilliant use of game mechanics, which manage to fundamentally alter the way I play the game, while simultaneously flowing organically from the story. It's a cliche that in role-playing games, time really doesn't matter. Dragons are attacking the land, setting everything on fire, a messenger rushes up to you and says, "Quickly, you must go and speak to High Lord Questgiver! There's no time to waste!" And then you can head off in the opposite direction and spent months  running random minor side quests: rescuing kittens from trees, killing slimes, saving up to buy a leather jerkin, carrying a farmer's heirloom to his son in the big city (but not the capital, since that will kick off the main quest!).

Now, this isn't bad, and is actually one of the things I most enjoy about RPGs: the freedom to explore and do things at your own pace. But it is one of the biggest examples of schism between gameplay and plot: the story is presented as this urgent disaster that requires an immediate response, while the game actually rewards you for doing the opposite: taking your time to level up your character and do literally everything else in the game before starting the main plot.

RPGs occasionally try to resolve this tension. The original Baldur's Gate is one of the few to embrace a story that logically unfolds at a slower pace: there's no urgent quest that kicks off the game, and most of its time is spent exploring and stumbling across the plot, rather than being directly pulled from point to point. More often, RPGs try to add a time limit to the game, or a portion of it, often with mixed results. Final Fantasy VI and VII would put a timer up on the screen if some truly disastrous event was about to occur (an airship crashing, a bomb detonating), and you would need to complete a level before it expired. The drow of Ust Natha in Baldur's Gate 2 will grow angry if you don't complete their quests in a requisite number of days. If you're bitten by a werewolf or vampire in the Elder Scrolls games, you have a limited amount of time to cure the disease before you are transformed into a creature and must undergo a much more difficult restoration. Still, these are all notable because they set a literal timer on a very specific (and relatively minor) portion of the game, while the larger world-threatening aspects can be postponed indefinitely.

So, with all that said, the spirit eater mechanic that is introduced in Act 2 of Neverwinter Nights is absolutely brilliant. It adds a sense of urgency, and a strong motivation to progress forward, while not being as reductive as "Complete task X by time Y". It's pervasive: while most of your activities aren't directly tied to your hunger, your hunger is constantly lurking in the background, and must be taken into account as you plan all of your actions.  The underlying idea here is that you discover you have been cursed to become a spirit-eater, and must regularly sate your hunger by devouring spirits. As you wait longer between feedings, your hunger grows, which applies gradually-worsening effects. Early on you'll grow slightly distracted and awkward, making it harder to hit enemies and easier to be hit yourself. As it grows more intense you'll start taking damage every few seconds. The penalties grow exponentially, so once your hunger reaches a critical level, you (as a player) will be desperate to quickly feed, or else the pain will spiral out of control. Once your hunger is maximized, you die. Full stop, end of story. And, unlike a standard combat death that could easily be responded to by reloading your last save, resting, and then replaying the fight, when you reload your last save you'll still be hungry, so you'll need to go further back in time, and plan much better for the future.

In order to stave off your hunger, you should feed whenever you can, right? Well, not necessarily. The other excellent wrinkle to this mechanic is that, the the more you indulge your hunger, the more your appetite grows. As you devour more and more spirits, your rate of hunger will speed up, requiring you to eat even more spirits just to keep pace. Conversely, the longer you can deny and suppress your hunger, the slower your hunger will grow. As Sid Meier says, gameplay is a series of interesting choices, and this is a great one. Do you pursue the immediate gratification and safety of devouring a spirit? Or do you delay your gratification and suffer in the short term in hopes of making things easier in the future?

There are so many things I love about the spirit eater system. Like I mentioned before, it manages to add a very organic and believable sense of urgency to the game. It isn't imposing a hard time limit or anything, and you can still choose to wander if you want. But, I found that I was focusing on progressing in the game in a way I very rarely do. I would actually pause the game before spending time in my inventory or character sheet, and would even avoid sleeping unless I needed to. (Yes, MotB is the D&D game that finally has a good in-game reason to not make camp after every battle so your spellcasters will always have all their spells ready.) I knew that the longer I took to finish my quests, the more my hunger would grow, and the more effort I would need to put into treating my hunger instead of just playing the game. It also makes perfect sense in the context of the story: in fact, more than that, the mechanic is the story, and the story is the mechanic. Instead of just being told, "You have a curse, and must find a cure," you are living the curse throughout the game, and feel extremely motivated to find the cure, since you feel its ill effects, and all the ways it curtails your activities.

The spirit eater system also works pretty well as an allegory or analogy for addiction. I'm not totally sure if this is intended or not, but the details of your hunger seem to perfectly align with an addictive cycle. To pick a mild personal example, at various points in my life I've relied on caffeine to a greater or lesser extent. Taking caffeine gives me more energy and makes me feel alert, which can have a positive impact on my productivity. But, if I continue to take caffeine, I need increasing amounts to get the same effect. If I stop taking caffeine for a long period of time, I suffer (slightly!) in my withdrawal; but, when I return to imbibing again, I get the enhanced effects again (at least at first). This lines up perfectly with how spirit-eating works in the game, and seems like it would be familiar to anyone who has experienced or is familiar with any sort of addiction.

If you haven't played MotB, spirit eating might sound like more of a chore than it is. It may conjure up memories of late-80's RPGs where your characters needed to eat rations on a daily basis or suffer HP damage. Spirit eating is more flexible: if you feast and completely sate your hunger, you will have plenty of time to finish a major quest before you need to worry about feeding again. But the important thing is that you need to be aware of it and have a plan for how to deal with it. Unlike old RPGs where eating was a pure chore with no upside or interesting choices, MotB's eating is a high-level strategic aspect to the game that requires you to make character-defining decisions. (Will you suppress your hunger to keep it at bay for as long as possible, then devour a few evil undead spirits once you need to feed? Or will you take advantage of every feeding opportunity along the way, so you can progress through the main game without needing to side-track? And keep in mind that your companions have their own opinions about your hunger, and may react poorly based on your choices.)

My biggest problem with the hunger mechanic was, um, realizing that it existed. That's largely my own fault, and a side-effect of the aforementioned difficulty of playing through a large RPG in small chunks. All of this spirit eater stuff was described at the start of Act 2, but I thought that it was a pure plot choice: and in fact there are many points throughout the storyline where you will decide within conversations whether to devour spirits, or grant them eternal rest (which doesn't help your hunger much but is a more virtuous act), or whatever. There are a couple of new UI meters that are added, a vertical one showing your reserve of spirit energy and a horizontal one showing the severity of your hunger; but mine were concealed underneath my mini-map, and I didn't even realize that they existed until too late.

I should have realized what was happening once I started taking HP damage every few seconds. Unfortunately, this happened at the exact same time that I picked up a forbidden book of necromatic magic. "Oh cool," I thought, "The game has realized that I'm carrying this dangerous book, so it'll hurt me for as long as I'm holding it." I knew that I would be returning it to the evil priest of Kelemvor who had asked for the book, but my equipped regeneration bonus was greater than the rate of damage, so I figured I could take my time. I wrapped up the quest I was on, then ambled around for a while before finally returning the book. Then I realized I was still getting hurt. The message for this isn't terribly clear: It says "Someone damaged Toman Benton (13 points)" instead of something like "Your hunger grows (13 points)". I finally found the meter, which described exactly what was happening to me, then looked up my feats in my character sheet (as with the Ritual feats in NWN2, the spirit eater feats are much too complex and have too much extra information that's buried deep in a hard-to-find list of what's now many dozens of entries), and realized I was screwed. I'd already killed all the available spirits in Mulsantir without devouring them, and my hunger was so great that, if I tried to travel to another destination, I would be dead by the time I arrived. I could regain a bit of spirit energy by using Suppress, but I can only use Suppress once after each sleep, and the eight hours it takes to sleep will cancel out the benefit gained from Suppress. Dang it. And again, this isn't something that can be easily undone: I would need to reload a much older game to return to a more sustainable level of hunger. (This serves as your annual warning to use multiple save slots in RPGs, and not rely only on your quicksave.)

I did some research online, and finally found a kind-of-exploity way to get out of the hole I'd dug myself into. Whenever you use the overworld map to move between major destinations, it counts as a rest, which will recharge your spells and abilities, including Suppress. Most of these trips will take at least a day or two, which will add to your hunger; however, traveling between the Mulsantir Gates and the City of Mulsantir takes 0 hours, while still providing the rest. So you can cast Suppress, then walk to the world map from the city gates, travel to the city, re-cast Suppress, walk out of the city, go to the world map, travel to the city, re-cast Suppress, and repeat. It's tedious, and you only gain a few points each time, but it was a lifesaver for me, and let me keep progressing in the game.

Wow, that was an excessively long writeup of a single game mechanic. As you can tell, though, it's something I've been thinking about a lot. It reminds me of the kind of stuff PS:T did, like the way it made your character immortal (which completely changed the way I approached things like combat and saving games). It's introducing something in-game that makes perfect sense in light of the story, and that also fundamentally improves RPG gameplay that I hadn't previously realized was broken.

As a side note: this experience also made me think about counter-examples where game mechanics are not well integrated with the game story. I dearly love Dragon Age, but it's probably the current poster child for this kind of schizophrenic approach to game design, specifically in its treatment of blood magic. Within the Dragon Age mythos, blood magic is an insanely dangerous practice in what's already an extremely dangerous vocation. Literally every single time you encounter a mage in either game who practices blood magic, that mage is possessed by a demon and turns into an abomination. Understandably, everyone (except for Merrill) is afraid of blood mages: even other mages will recognize them as dangerous and try to stop them before the transformation is complete. And yet, you can teach blood magic to your own character or your mage companions. In fact, this can be an excellent idea from a purely tactical perspective: the Blood Magic specialization is a powerful one that gives better bonuses than most other specializations and no penalties. But this leads to purely bizarre scenarios throughout the entire game: you're in a pitched battle against hurlocks, your PC pulls out a knife, slashes it across their palms, blood sprays out, you start levitating, blood boils in the bodies of your enemies and flies towards you as a red nimbus of evil power... and Alistair and Wynne keep going, "Doo de doo, we're helping the grey warden save the world! +10 Approval!" There's absolutely no in-game acknowledgement of the danger and evil of your actions, and you have absolutely none of the risk that seems to inevitably claim every single other person in the world who practices blood magic. I can understand each individual design decision that led to this status quo: blood magic is a really cool dangerous concept; blood magic combat animations look amazing; it would suck to have the game end after you cast a blood magic spell. But taken together they create a big fissure that divorces your moment-to-moment gameplay actions from the big-picture storyline. What I admire so much about Planescape: Torment and Mask of the Betrayer is the way they make their systems and stories play in harmony with one another.

The philosophy in MotB isn't quite as impressive as that of PS:T (at least not as of the end of Act 2, and at least not that I've picked up on). But, it's streets ahead of the earlier NWN games, and has carved out an interesting space for itself. Many RPGs seem to keep revisiting the same kinds of themes: the corrupting influence of power; the self-perpetuating cycle of revenge; how fighting against evil can make someone evil. Some of the sub-quests in MotB echo familiar themes, but the overarching story seems to be getting at something much more unique in major RPGs: divine cosmic justice and eternal suffering.

I should emphasize here that I'm only 2/3 of the way through the game and have avoided any spoilers about the ending, so it's very possible that the game will end up being "about" something else. Based on what I've encountered so far, though, it feels like the most powerful element of this game is the Wall of the Faithless. This is a structure built by Myrkul, the deceased God of the Dead, and is one of the more original and horrifying concepts I've encountered recently. Any mortal who dies without having pledged their faith to one of the many gods will have their soul mortared into the Wall. It's a place of endless torment, with all the souls screaming themselves into insanity, until all memories of their selves are gone, and they are absorbed into the mass of pain shared and intensified by all others sharing the same fate.

This is, of course, a pretty good parallel to Hell as presented in Christianity. The decisions a person makes during their limited years of physical life will determine the fate of their eternal soul, which will be either eternal bliss or eternal damnation. And, in the same way that many people on Earth react hostilely to the very concept of hell, some characters you meet in MotB are filled with a righteous fury at the Wall. What kind of being would devise such a punishment? Why should an absence of belief be a sin, and even if it is one, doesn't the penalty seem staggeringly disproportionate to the crime?

Of course, it isn't an exact allegory. The Wall was constructed by Myrkul, an evil member of a large pantheon, while Hell is the creation of God, a good monotheist.  So within MotB, the anger isn't so much directed against Myrkul, who in any event was slain during the Time of Troubles, but against the entirety of the cosmic order: Ao and Helm and all of the other gods didn't build the Wall, but they didn't to anything to oppose it either, and its continued existence implies their consent and support. To characters like Kaelyn, this proves that all the gods are fundamentally bad, regardless of their supposed alignment. And, with the gods supporting an evil institution, it falls to the lesser created creatures to do what they can to oppose it.

The Wall is only briefly mentioned in Act 1, and is encountered and explained in Act 2. I suspect (but don't know) that Act 3 will involve you continuing Akachi's noble, doomed quest to destroy the Wall. So, I expect this idea will become even further developed, and I'll almost certainly have more to write about it in my final post on this game. Based on what I've seen so far, I'm pretty impressed at how strong of a plot driver it is. There's an incredibly strong resonance with our own worries about hell and the afterlife, and it ties into some theological and philosophical debates about God and fairness that are rarely explored in games. That said, I think it's also a point where the game suffers by being restricted to the Dungeons & Dragons universe. As David Gaider has pointed out in the past, there really is no such thing as an atheist in D&D, because the gods are empirically proven to be real. Any priest can ask for aid, and watch in satisfaction as a lightning bolt comes from the sky and blasts their foe away. There's no need for hospitals or clinics, because you can ask a priest to heal your arm, or even raise your friend from the dead, and watch as it is immediately performed before your eyes. So, all this talk of belief/unbelief is, frankly, unbelievable. Within the existing and immutable laws of the universe, it doesn't make any sense to have a person who doesn't believe in any gods. (In this case, the Dragon Age mythos comes out ahead: there is ample evidence of a supernatural world, but faith is required to decide whether it flows from the Maker, or the Old Gods, or the Creators, or all of them, or something else.)


Okay! I think I can and will save my character analyses and overall impressions for my final post. I've gone ahead and marked up the requisite insanely long album for these two acts. I grow more and more impressed at how great the game looks, even today, thanks in no small part to the terrific epic-level spells that are unlocked by this stage of the game.

And now, full speed ahead! I enjoyed the first act and adored the second act, and I'm very excited to see how the game ends, while simultaneously feeling sad that this long journey is about to come to an end. Still, this final entry has done much to whet my appetite for mechanically innovating, philosophically challenging roleplaying games, and will probably heighten my anticipation for Tides of Numenara even more. Bring it on!

Friday, March 21, 2014

The Conversating

I finally finished season 5 of Misfits, the latest psychologically twisted British television show to sink its fangs into my imagination. It's a pretty incredible program, one of the most amoral, shocking, funny things I've ever seen. (And with a fantastic soundtrack, too! Despite the title, there's nothing from the band Misfits in there, but almost all of my favorite current bands are played at some point, and they pick really good cues throughout the show.)


The premise behind Misfits is fairly simple. Its protagonists (not, despite what they occasionally think, heroes) acquire supernatural powers during a freak storm. However, they're all fairly rotten people: vain, antisocial, violent, disturbed individuals who have previously been sentenced to community service for committing petty crimes. What happens when these people get special powers? Well, they keep on being pretty much the same, except they can do more damage. They aren't organized or ambitious enough to become supervillains, either: they keep living petty lives, accidentally inflicting collateral damage on their surroundings.

It's hard to communicate how gripping and hilarious this is, so if you get a chance I highly recommend checking out at least the first episode or two to see if it's for you. (As of this moment, full SD versions of all episodes are available for free on Hulu, with ads.) In a post-South Park world, it's hard for a show to shock, but somehow Misfits manages to do it over and over again. That's probably at least partly because I continue to irrationally think that this time they'll step up and do the right thing, only to see them dig a deeper hole.

I keep harping on this, but one of the things I love most about British shows is the way they tend to evolve drastically from one season to the next. Most American shows spend their first season finding their voice and rhythm, then settle into a formula that proceeds, with small variations, for years. (Even something like the current season of Archer, which is being hailed as a reboot of the franchise, is keeping the exact same cast and relationships between characters.) Misfits changes a great deal over its five-season run, though, even by the standards of British television.

This is partly due to drastic turnover in the cast, which is consistent for the first two seasons and then starts shifting. Unlike some other shows, where actors decide to leave and then the show must scramble to come up with an excuse for why a character isn't around any more, the changes in Misfits are very easily explained: these are all people who just happen to be on probation, and once their probation is over, they are hardly motivated to stick around the community center, scraping graffiti for the fun of it. Plus they, y'know, live dangerous lives, and it's unsurprising that some of them end violently.

The original cast of the first two seasons is definitely my favorite, ironically because it featured the most hateable characters. Simon is unbearably creepy; Nathan is a quipping antisocial monster; Alisha is wholly self-centered. Just watching them interact with the world makes me squirm and chortle in equal amounts. The theme of the first season seems to be that people never really change: even when this big, life-altering event occurs, they continue being the same rotten people as before.

That starts to shift a bit in the second season. Simon in particular becomes convinced that they have acquired their powers for a reason, and inspires himself (and, eventually, others) to take more of a Spiderman attitude and apply their powers to affecting positive change. The world expands a bit as a result of this: at first, it seemed like only the workers at the community center were affected, but as the show's scope grows we gradually come to realize that this was a larger phenomenon that affected the entire town. The show becomes less driven by the characters' awfulness (though Nathan remains proudly ridiculous to the end), and more by their limitations: frustration that, even with their powers, they're still trapped in this town, in their lives, with their problems.

I thought that the first two seasons were rock solid: I highly enjoyed every single episode, and it didn't feel like there was a single stinker in the bunch. That was no longer the case for me starting with season three: the show can still hit high points (in particular, one time-traveling episode that creates an alternate timeline was one of my favorites of the entire series), but it was no longer the non-stop quality ride of before. That's partly due to the new cast: nobody is truly awful, but in terms of both powers and personalities, nobody is as extreme as the wild first cast. It also feels like the stakes are lowered considerably. Instead of facing threats that confront the entire town or country, the later seasons are much more personal, focused almost exclusively on characters' relationships and private demons.

It's still pretty good, though! If you enjoy the first two seasons, it's worth sticking around to the end, particularly since things start to perk up a bit more late in season four through the end after a great new character is introduced. If you only kind of like the show, it's probably best to wrap up with the Christmas special following Season 2, which provides a decent stopping point and is a highlight of the series.

Beyond the main cast, it was really amusing to see all the supporting characters shifting as well. There's a bit of a running joke in the show about horrible things happening to their probation officers. This slows down a bit later on, but their supervisors are some of the most vivid and amusing characters in the later seasons; in some ways, their last officer channels the most compelling elements of the original cast, with his deep strangeness, utter lack of shame, and near-sadistic tendency to inflict discomfort. Other supporting characters drift in and out of the main slots as they are sentenced to or freed from probation.


Favorite main character: Simon, with Abbey a very strong second.
Favorite probation worker: They were all really good! I was impressed at how different they all were. Shaun might have been my favorite, though. I loved his deeply ingrained apathy. "You're obviously lying...... but it's after five p.m., so I don't give a shit."
Favorite villain: Hm, maybe Rachel, the cult leader.
Creepiest Villain: Possibly the White Rabbit. The Scary was pretty good, too.
Favorite supporting character: Maybe alt-Curtis.
Favorite scene: While I wasn't a huge fan of the episode surrounding it, the rave in Season 2 was fantastic.
Favorite music: Too much to choose from! I fell even more in love with the show when I heard "Paradise Circus" playing; it felt like Misfits and Luther were two barrels of a shotgun into my heart. And Chvrches playing in the last season made the show feel even more contemporary.
Favorite plot twist: Superhoodie's reveal was pretty cool. I also really liked the realization of Curtis's flash-forward to themselves in superhero costumes.
Favorite death: The entire sequence of murdering zombie cheerleaders was incredible, culminating in the matter-of-fact execution of yet another probation worker.
Favorite ASBO power: Simon gets more mileage out of his invisibility than anyone else ever gets out of their powers. Curtis's time-rewinding is vastly overpowered. Finn's incredibly weak telekinesis was probably the most amusing.
Favorite villain power: I kind of liked the insanity of the milk guy, but Video Game Guy Vision was more entertaining.


From what I understand, the series is completely over at this point. It's a bit of a shame - while the first two seasons were the best, everything was pretty good, and it kept getting better near the end. still, they've had a good run, and it's a nice way to close out the series: the remaining characters expressing vague ambitions about doing something meaningful with their lives and their powers, and us remaining optimistic yet skeptical that they will actually do so.

It's a weird show, with deliberately unlikeable characters, but has been one of the most compelling things I've seen recently. If that sounds at all appealing to you, check it out!

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Small Victories

After a few years of half-hearted, very occasional efforts, I’m now the proud owner of the domain name! I don’t have any particular plans for it at the moment, so it’s just pointing to this blog for the time being. Still, as one of my two online handles, it feels kinda nice to have claimed it for myself.

Getting domains can be weird. If you just want ANY domain, it’s pretty simple: just find one that hasn’t been registered yet, and register it. This is relatively cheap (usually around $15/year, depending on the domain extension, usually with a discount for the first year), but since all the short and memorable ones have already been claimed, you’ll probably need to use a long name, punctuation, and/or numbers.

There’s a massive market in domain name resales, not unlike flipping properties in a housing boom market. Marquee domains like can sell for tens of millions of dollars. A far vaster market exists for pure speculation, claiming domains that aren’t popular now, but might be in the future. It’s a bit of a gamble: speculators might be paying thousands of dollars a year to maintain a portfolio of domains that they aren’t actually using, in the hopes that one day they’ll be able to sell one for a big payday. “Cybersquatting” isn’t as big a problem as it was in the past, thanks to the new prices associated with domains, but it continues to be an annoyance.

One of the domains I would love to own is most likely forever beyond my reach: it’s actively being used by a for-profit company, who are unlikely to ever want to sell it. However, was an unusual case. It was registered by a person or entity located in the Ukraine, but was not pointing to any valid IP address. It was both owned and abandoned. Now, if I was a hot-shot entrepreneur who needed to wanted to claim the domain as part of an elaborate business scheme, there was a route to success I could have followed: reach out to the domain owner, either directly or through a lawyer/agent, indicate my interest in purchasing, and negotiate a price. Needless to say, this didn’t apply to me and my vague, fairly indifferent desires.

Since the domain wasn’t being actively used, it seemed somewhat likely that it would become available sooner or later: after all, it’s a bit of a waste to keep paying for renewing something that you aren’t using. So, a year or so ago, I did some research into the wonderful world of domain backorders. Whenever a domain registration expires without being renewed, it is “released” and comes up for grabs to the first person willing to re-register it. However, because there are always more speculators around, there’s a good chance that another person might snap it up. After doing some research, I decided to create an account at, a backordering service. This allows you to list all the domain names you’re interested in acquiring; once the domain becomes available, their servers will attempt to auto-register you as quickly as you can. It’s a bit pricey at $60, but far less expensive than purchasing directly from a current owner would be, and probably cheaper than acquiring in an auction. Plus, there’s no cost unless they actually acquire the domain.

I learned a fair amount during the process. I was initially excited when the expiration date passed and the registrant hadn’t renewed. However, it turns out that in many cases a domain doesn’t revert the instant it expires. Instead, there’s a grace period for re-registration; then it goes into “pending delete” status, whereupon interested parties can start to compete for it. Before entered Pending Delete, it was re-registered. I was very slightly bummed to have gotten my hopes up, but at the time time I’m glad for the system, since it would presumably protect me from having a domain “stolen” if I forgot to update my credit card information or whatever.

I took the domain off the backorder list, and set a recurring calendar reminder to check on it each year. Given the lengthy period between expiring and deleting, I figured I could check the status and re-add the backorder sometime in the week after the official expiration date.

Well, much to my surprise and delight, the next time I checked on it, it was available! Not in an auction, not pending deletion, just straight-up unclaimed. I happily grabbed the rights and set it up to point to my blog, at least until and unless I decide to do something else with it.

I’ve been feeling weirdly guilty since then - I doubt that there’s any connection between the current situation in the Ukraine and the domain becoming available, but I would hate to think that I benefited from a result of the chaos there. Most likely, though, whoever had it before decided to save a few bucks each year, and I am happy to add a little trophy to my online collection of vanities.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Dragon Fell

Okay, so it took me a bit longer than I had thought to beat Dragonfall. That's a good thing, though! The expansion is a big longer than the original campaign, and while it continues to thankfully eschew any hint of grinding, it also creates some engaging spaces where I was tempted to spend time and relax between missions, getting to know the world of Berlin in 2054 better.

It feels like Harebrained Schemes has listened to the complaints some gamers made after release of the original Dead Man's Switch, and fixed pretty much all of them in the sequel, from adding the ability to save anywhere (even mid-combat) to creating more memorable companions, more corporate infiltration runs, a bigger role for stealth and legwork, and more weighty decisions. Like Dead Man's Switch, it's still tied very strongly into the existing lore for 2050s-era Shadowrun, and the events of this game help shed light on some major plot developments that have been part of the Shadowrun story for decades.

Mechanically, there's a lot to like here:
  • My single favorite improvement is probably having teammates with actual personalities and character arcs. There are between three and five companions you can choose between for each run, which cover all the essential skills and also have interesting quirks and backstories. In between missions you can chat with them to find out more about their past and nudge them to make certain decisions. Impressively, there are also some conversation interjections within missions. (You still have the option to hire additional runners, who cost a nominal fee. The emphasis this time around seems to be on quality over quantity, and instead of picking between several dozen runners you have a few excellent choices. As far as I know all of the hired runners are mute.)
  • There's more of everything, including bioware implants, sniper rifles, and a bunch of new melee weapons.
  •  Classes feel more balanced, including out-of-combat. I played a similar archetype to my DMS game, a Decker with many etiquettes and decent rifle skills, but I noticed that, for example, Riggers can now take control of enemy drones during fights, and there are several magical wards that mages or shamans can control. In-combat, melee fighters seem much more effective.
  • Often times, you can switch between teammates even when out of combat. So, for example, you can switch to a Decker to unlock a door if your PC doesn't have the requisite skills.
  • The new environments look great, including new urban areas and a sweet nightclub [Finally!]. There are also some really neat and useful new effects, including falling snow and a distorted video feed overlay. Plus, exploding barrels!
  • There's a really nice mix of roleplaying conversation options and true choice-and-consequences decisions. A lot of the dialogue will lead to a single unique response, then continue along the same path; these things help do a lot to help you define your character and get into their head. DMS had a couple of significant decisions to make (handling Coyote's brother, what you request of Telestrian), but DF has a lot more, which can affect later dialogue, later gameplay, and even your epilogue.  
  • The Mission Computer is a fantastic addition, and very cleverly designed with the existing conversation system. It's a really nice mixture of flavor and functionality. By far my favorite thing is Shadowland BBS! I first encountered this while reading through an old California Free State sourcebook, and was absolutely delighted to see it pop up here. They perfectly captured the tone of the message boards, and there's even a cameo or two from Captain Chaos himself!
  • The classic Doc Wagon kits from DMS have been replaced with BuMoNa (Bund für Mobilen Notfall-Arzteinsatz) kits. After a character's HP have been reduced to 0, you used to have a few turns for another character to apply a Doc Wagon kit to "revive" them before they bled out. In DF, though, BuMoNa kits are automatically triggered on "death", which makes them more useful. (Fortunately, I only had to use mine once or twice near the start of the game, but it's still a very nice insurance policy to have.)
  • On the whole, combat feels a bit harder and tighter in DF, which is a good thing. In DMS I could easily 3-man all missions except the very last one on Hard. In DF I continued playing on Hard and always brought along a full 4-person team, initially just because I wanted opportunities for banter, but the fights felt tough enough to require it. That said, I never died, and only needed to use BuMoNa a bit at the beginning. So, consider Very Hard if you want a truly tough challenge.
A few things felt more mixed:
  • HBS seems to have taken a new approach to scene design this time around, where all enemies start out as neutral, and become hostile once you enter their region. This is mostly a really good thing, since it means that you can quickly move around when not in active combat, which is particularly helpful when you need to backtrack. Unfortunately, though, this also means that any time combat starts, the enemies always get to move and attack first, which is particularly nasty when they deploy DOT effects. In many cases, it's no longer possible to buff before entering combat. 
  • Paydata is worth a lot less here than in DMS. That was a bit annoying, since you can no longer cover the cost of your deck and programs through the paydata you acquire. Still, it was probably overbalanced before, and by the end of the game it doesn't make as much of a difference any more.
  • In DMS, they were careful to not hand out extra karma rewards for using etiquettes; etiquettes and other skills could help you solve certain quests more quickly or easily, but the eventual karma rewards would be the same. In DF, at one point near the beginning you can get an extra Karma point by using the right Etiquette, which initially annoyed me, since it seems like the sort of thing that could lead to metagaming. I didn't notice it happen anywhere later in the game, though, so it might have been a one-time thing. 
  • Dialogues have been updated to support text entry, such as keycodes or word search. On the one hand, it's a cool throwback to 80s-style adventure games, and theoretically much more flexible than predefined choices. In practice, though, it usually just added a layer of tedium. You would find a password, which adds a "mission item" to your inventory, then find the lock, then open up your PDA to find the password, then manually transcribe it into the lock. I don't think it really adds anything over just adding a conversation choice after you've found the password.
I also have a few petty complaints:
  • Etiquettes feel even less balanced here than in DMS. I took Shadowrunner as my first etiquette, and it didn't appear as a choice a single time for the entire game. I think that Socialite was pretty useless as well. Corporate had some limited uses, but in almost every case Security would also have worked, and as in DMS Security felt very overpowered. Academic unlocked a few options which seemed to be mostly flavor. I don't think every etiquette needs to be equally represented, but spending high karma on something that turns out to be completely useless is very frustrating.
  • While the game is pretty stable now (I was playing on 1.2.2), I did encounter one awful bug, where my entire game froze at near the very end of a very long and complex fight. Fortunately, I had a save just a round or two earlier, so after force-quitting I was able to finish it without too much trouble. Still, if I didn't have that save, I probably would have rage-quit.
Let's talk campaign!


I've already annotated a web album covering much of the campaign, so I'll be skipping over some stuff that I don't feel like re-typing. There are tons of spoilers in there!
I kept a very consistent lineup throughout the entire game. My PC was a decking master and could easily handle any matrix maps. Otherwise, he made frequent use of Mark Target to assist the team, then his rifle to attack, focusing on mid-range opponents. Eiger was my main damage dealer, switching between shotguns and sniper rifles as needed, focusing on taking down high-risk enemies first. I tended to use Dietrich as a support mage, whose main goal was to boost Eiger's effectiveness via Haste and Aim; he also summoned spirits when possible, and used Heal and Aim on other members as needed. (He does have a really nice AOE attack that could be very useful on occasion.) Finally, Glory was my striker: she would race between enemies, keeping up DOT effects on them or focusing on taking down a particular opponent as needed.

Blitz felt superfluous so I never took him; I know that he's also a rigger, but still, redundant is redundant. I love that Dante became a recruitable companion and was sorely tempted to bring him along for the endgame, but I figured that since he can't speak he would be marginally less interesting than the original team.

For the most part, I liked all of the companions. Blitz was a little on the annoying side, but I'm sure that's at least partly pride. ("No, I'm the best decker!")  I still chatted with him between each mission, and encouraged him to track down his old girlfriend. (Which may or may not have been a good thing; at the time I thought it sounded romantic, but thinking back on it, it seems an awful lot like cyberstalking.)

Eiger really dislikes you early on, blaming you for Monika's death. Based on Monika's pre-recorded instructions, I got some tips on how to handle her, and so bypassed my typical super-friendly demeanor to offer a solid, no-nonsense front. She responded to it with respect, and by the end of the game we had a strong working friendship. Her backstory felt a little less developed than the others', and I don't think there's the same kind of opportunities for helping determine her future, but that makes sense since she's focused on the practicalities of being a soldier.

I wasn't initially sure what to make of Dietrich, but by the end really liked him. He's very much the future equivalent of a British punk of the 1970s, using bare fists in street fights against racists. Speaking of which, DF has more to say about metahumanity and racism than DMS did, and Dietrich was just one of several characters to get at it in an interesting way. In his case, he's a human and so part of the "in" group, but is wholly dedicated to fighting against the bad actions of his fellow-humans. Unlike your other companions, his personal arc is actually woven into the gameplay, and it felt very rewarding to help him reconnect with his family and directly carry on his fight against a human-supremecist hate group.

Finally, Glory! Glory was probably my favorite, for a couple of reasons. She's initially extremely withdrawn and cold, but once I started digging into her story, I was pretty shocked by what she'd been involved in before. She kind of has a redemptive arc, but it's a very mature and believable one: she knows it's hopeless to undo the bad things she's done in the past, but you can help encourage her to ensure others don't follow her path. Also, I thought the way they revealed the purpose behind her bulky cyberware was extremely clever and a great tie-in to game mechanics. As soon as I realized that she wanted to escape from the influence of the supernatural world, it immediately clicked in to place for me: of course the best way to do this would be by decreasing your Essence, and the best way to decrease Essence is by installing the largest, most intrusive pieces of cyberware you can find.

Of course, plenty of people outside your team have stories as well. It's a bit like characters such as Cherry Bomb and Madame Kubota, but there are more characters, and their stories feel deeper, and seem to have multiple possible endings (though I can't confirm that yet). I was particularly fond of Simmy, a young naif who had undergone personal tragedy and been addicted to sims. Over the course of the game she evolves from an affectless, totally isolated person into a shy soul delicately trying to re-engage with the world. I also liked Samuel, a politicized orc working to build a community center to serve the needs of the trog community; this was another case where I think HBS were able to use metaraces-as-metaphor-for-races very effectively. Anyways, Samuel's community center seems to be pointless from a gameplay perspective, but was incredibly satisfying from a roleplaying perspective, and I'm really glad they added that in.

Unlike in DMS, the shopkeepers don't really have much more to say between missions. Which is fine; if and when I replay DF, it will save me time running between each shop unless I actually need to buy something.


So, let's see, here are a few of the bigger decisions I made:
  • I sided with the smugglers when infiltrating Humanis Policlub. I managed to keep their leader alive through the entire game, and was really happy to see a later post on Shadowland describing (third-hand) what had gone down.
  • I saved Dietrich's nephew, and he seems to be turning into a decent human being.
  • I got Silke's stuff back and convinced her to go clean.
  • I fully funded Samuel and got a civic center named after me!
  • I acceded to Glory's request and released MKVI from his/its captivity. Which... didn't exactly end how I expected, but I suppose it's probably the best possible outcome.
  • I deleted the blood magic research without selling it or sharing it. (Frustratingly, though, the epilogue seems to imply that the research still exists and was responsible for one of the most shocking tragedies of the 2050s. I'm not sure if that's a railroaded outcome, or if a plot flag was incorrectly set.)
  • I decided not to take an optional shadowrun to assassinate a captured runner; as the warning said, I would have to follow through regardless of any moral qualms, so I decided to let it go. It turned out okay money-wise, but I could have used the extra karma. Oh, well.
  • Against my own better judgment, and the universal advice of my team, I decided to ally with APEX and released her from captivity.
  • I actually really sympathized with Vauclair's plot, though there's no option to join with him. At the end of the mission, I decided to double down on my alliance with APEX. I disabled the safety controls and transferred control to her. She claims she will use the power to keep the Flux State safe. I... fear I may have chosen poorly.
  • At the very end of the game, I decided to chat with Lofwyr. I'm not sure if the game considers this as joining with him or not.
So, yeah... fun stuff! The Shadowrun setting is almost always a bleak one, but I really appreciated the many small ways I was able to make it a little bit less bleak. Sometimes that meant letting down a client, or giving up on some potential nuyen, but that just made those acts feel even more meaningful. Still, in the big picture, I felt like I ended up making life a little bit better for a few specific people, and potentially way worse for all of humanity. What an exciting thought!


Lots of online chatter has asked whether getting Dragonfall is "worth it." I would answer with an enthusiastic "Yes." It's not just a fun game, but also one of the best RPGs I've played recently; it feels like it's continuing the gameplay legacy from revered titles like Fallout 2, while simultaneously maintaining the lore of the classic Shadowrun setting. I personally feel like the obsession over game durations isn't very worthwhile - I think we need a lot more Portals and a lot fewer Final Fantasies - but both modern Shadowrun games have offered high quality with no filler, and Dragonfall has even more of that quality to enjoy.

I'm very curious to see what UGC we might see follow in the wake of Dragonfall. The 1.2 editor updates have already added a bunch of great new tools for creators, including better lighting controls, more complex dialogue interfaces, and environmental damage effects; also, since players can now save anywhere, creators should be more confident in creating larger and longer maps, without worrying that a late death will cause a player to lose 20 minutes or more of progress. That said, the stuff that I'm personally most excited about are the new assets: roughly twice as many portraits, lots of great props (including very stylish futuristic nightclub pieces), good terrain (some non-dead grass!), and new 3D models. As far as I can tell, you can use all this stuff, but then your module can only be used by people who own Dragonfall. Which is hopefully a large number, but will always be a smaller number than people who own Dead Man's Switch. If DF doesn't take off, UGC creators might decide it isn't worth the effort to build on that foundation.

Fortunately, it looks like it's off to a good start. It's been getting better Metacritic reviews than the original, and user response has been very positive so far. Which can only be a good thing! A lot of Shadowrun fans have been concerned that Jordan and Harebrained Schemes will be "abandoning" Shadowrun for Golem Arcana. At the moment there aren't any announcements for a third official entry from HBS, but with luck, the expansion will do well enough to convince them to meet or exceed the excellent entry they've made here.