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!

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