Monday, September 22, 2014

Just Keep On Walkin'

Man, talk about brutal! The ostensible reason I gave myself for waiting to start Season 2 of The Walking Dead was so I could “binge play” it and get through all of the episodes without needing to wait for months in between. Frankly, though, I was probably at least somewhat influenced by a desire to avoid the inevitable anguish for as long as possible. The Walking Dead is a fantastic game, one of my absolute favorites of the last few years, but it’s also one of the bleakest and most heartbreaking.

On a technical level, the second season builds on the successes of the first. The overall art style is the same, although there’s a higher level of polish that makes the characters look more vivid, and the new settings are generally even more impressive than the relatively mundane ones of the first game. I also feel like they’ve really perfected the gameplay. Even over the course of the first season, they gradually de-emphasized the more traditional hunt-and-seek adventure game tropes, and correspondingly put more weight on in-depth conversations and quick-time events. Early in Season One, there were occasional spots where I would briefly feel stuck, and would get very slightly frustrated as I tried doing a bunch of random things to advance. That never happens any more. It isn’t completely on rails - there are optional things to do along the way, and some limited opportunities for exploration - but it’s always very clear how to proceed to the next sequence.

I recently heard someone describe TWD as more of an “interactive story” than a “game”. I initially bristled at that characterization, and then started wondering why I had that reaction. My gut reaction is that an “interactive story” is a cheap and uninteresting thing, while a “game” is high-quality and engaging. Really, though, practically all of my favorite games have compelling stories, and I’m always harping on it when a story disappoints me in some way.

It might be fair to say that TWD lies somewhere between a choose-your-own-adventure comic book / TV show, and a video game. It’s true that you do spend proportionally more time watching and listening to other characters; however, your actions can have profound impacts on the direction of that show. Unlike CYOA, which tends to be purely branching (you pick between mutually exclusive paths), TWD has a broader and richer state. You might have conversations with three different people one night, and then get in an argument with them the next day. Each one of those three will remember what you said the night before, but all of your choices were independent of one another. The result is a very organic-feeling adaptable structure which rarely calls attention to itself.

And, in a way, the diminishing of the “game” portion of this experience aligns nicely with my evolving preferences. Minute-for-minute, I get more enjoyment out of TWD than most games, just because I’m always seeing something completely new, always driving the story forwards. There’s no fighting multiple enemies to level up, no time spent fiddling with items in a giant inventory, no incremental upgrades of slightly-better weapons. Just a story that keeps punching me in the gut over and over again.

MINI SPOILERS (for TWD Season 2, MEGA SPOILERS for Season 1)

I’d remarked last year how odd it felt that we had three popular, successful, critically-acclaimed games that all featured gruff middle-aged men looking after young girls. Although their gameplay was different, The Walking Dead, The Last of Us and BioShock Infinite explored this trope in a lot of different ways, and with generally great results: the female characters felt fully developed and believable, they were helpful and didn’t die easily.

I don’t think I could have predicted that, more than a year on, all three of those games would have add-ons in which you actually played as that young girl. I’ve already written about my experiences with Elizabeth in BioShock: Burial at Sea Part 2; I haven’t yet played as Ellie in Left Behind, but did play as her for a good-sized stretch in The Last of Us. I’m pretty happy with how all of them have turned out. The gameplay is fun and rewarding; it recalls the original experience of playing as the male lead, so it isn’t as if you’re missing out or playing a simplified version; but at the same time, you’re controlling a very different character (most notably physically different), and the game mechanics change to reflect that. Ellie had an entirely separate set of moves from Joel: she couldn’t sneak up behind someone and put them in a chokehold, since she’s too short; but unlike Joel she could leap up onto their back and, uh, stab them in the throat with a knife. In Burial at Sea, particularly if you played in 1998 Mode, Elizabeth’s stealthy, pacifist modes of progress stood in stark contrast to Booker’s shoot-everything-that-moves-until-they-are-all-dead way of operating.

The Walking Dead is very different from those action games, and the in-game controls are the same for Clem in Season 2 as they were for Lee in Season 1. Nonetheless, it feels like the developers did a great job at reflecting the place you hold in this very dangerous world. Lee, a fairly strong man, could use his physical strength to smack back zombies and leap over fences. Clementine uses a pistol, hatchet or knife when she needs to engage with zombies, and is capable of crawling into tight spaces that Lee wouldn’t have been able to enter.

TWD has always been mostly about its conversations, and here too they continue to do a great job. It’s an interesting challenge: as the player character, we naturally expect to have a lot of autonomy in making decisions; however, as a young girl in a post-apocalyptic zombie-infested landscape, we would expect to be dependent upon others. The writing is consistently sharp, coming up with very natural and believable reasons for why Clem is being tasked with doing some particularly dangerous errand; they even lampshade it a few times later on, with characters saying things like, “You’re just a little girl, and you’ve done more for the group than anyone else!”

On a personal level, too, Clementine generally has a better time navigating group politics than Lee did. Most people like her, and few view her as a threat. As Lee, the tension often came from worrying that other people would act directly against you. As Clementine, the tension generally comes from worrying about dissent between other factions within the group: everyone wants you to be on their side, which might feel a little like a child caught between two parents in a divorce.

In keeping with the pattern established in Season One, the story can vary in a lot of different ways: you’ll still move through the same locations from one episode to the next, but different people can die or live at different points, which has ripple effects on the rest of the story. And there’s also everyone’s opinion to worry about; there’s not necessarily and “right” or “wrong” way to play the game, but my goal is usually to stay on good terms with as many people as I can for as long as I can. Of course, things fall apart, the center cannot hold, and any taste of victory will swiftly turn to ashes in your mouth… but that’s all part of the lovable charm that is The Walking Dead!

One of the most fascinating features of TWD from its very first episode has been the graph which shows at the end of each episode, describing what you decided for the major choices in the episode and how it compared to the average. Looking at this tends to make me actually feel really optimistic about the human race: while many of the choices are tough, there tend to be really solid majorities behind the choices that clearly demonstrate empathy or pure acts of kindness. It kind of flies in the face of the stereotype of gamers as immoral sociopaths, which is very encouraging. (Of course, I should note that the audience of The Walking Dead is self-selecting and probably not representative of gamers as a whole.)

The choices that tend to interest me the most are the ones where I’m in the minority, or where there’s an overwhelming majority. Neither happens all that often. There was one spot in the game where one person was about to harm another person. (Sorry, being vague here.) You had a choice to remain or to leave. I decided to remain; my thinking was that this way at least I could keep an eye on things, and intervene if the situation got too dire. At the end of the episode, I saw that most players had opted to leave. That made me realize that, of course, most people would probably think that sticking around would indicate complicity with or approval in this act of torture, and would vote to show their protest by removing their selves. To their credit, the developers didn’t enforce any particular interpretation on this: they keep a faithful record of what decision you make, but don’t require you to declare your motivation; therefore, in addition to the different game routes people will take based on their in-game choices, people will also come away with very different ideas of what happened in the game based on their own internal thought processes and ambitions for the character.

For example, late in the game I came to realize that the group I was traveling with was not stable. I began to plan in my mind about how to best manage its inevitable dissolution, so we could continue our lives with a minimum of collateral damage. I had even gone so far as to mentally select leaders, followers, and destinations for each faction. Of course, such well-laid plans are doomed to failure, and the group began splintering of its own accord. But it felt personally tragic because the people abandoning me were the very ones I was hoping would be in my faction. My private narration added a whole other layer of betrayal, on top of the one explicit within the game itself.


So, big decision points:

I saved Nick at the end of Episode 1. It looked like Pete had been bitten, and if I’ve learned one thing from zombie movies, comics, TV shows and video games, it’s that there’s no hope for someone after they’re bitten. Of course, after that I started feeling guilty. After all, Pete had said “I’m fine!”, and he’s a solid, level-headed guy. What if he had just scratched himself on the weeds, and it looked like a bite to me? Which would be very ironic, since Pete was the only one who believed me when I said that my own injury was not the result of a zombie bite.

I sort of took Nick under my wing, trying to help him calm down and also stay engaged with life; he’s kind of a tough person to like, but he seemed to get better, and made it until near the end of the game.

As noted above, I generally tried to be as nice as possible to everyone and get them all to like me. Rebecca is one of the few who is strongly against you from the beginning; I stayed respectful, and didn’t blab about her child’s paternity, and she gradually came around. I was really happy to see Bonnie from 400 Days show up, and trusted her; that made it sting when she turned out to be in league with Carver, but she has a strong moral compass, and her guilt eventually transformed her into a helpful (though not eternal) ally.

I was initially delighted to see Kenny again: it was great to see a familiar face after so long, and I quickly restored our friendship. (Incidentally, I seriously loved all of the [Hug] options in dialogues, and took advantage of pretty much all of them.) I was happy to see him doing relatively well after the tragedy of losing Duck and Katja; but he’s still kind of on edge even when you first encounter him this season, and that edge just gets crueler and crueler as the game goes on. I supported him killing (but not torturing) Carver, not out of revenge but from sheer pragmatism: if I’ve learned one thing from The Governor, it’s that you don’t leave a charismatic sociopath in your wake.

When Sarita got bitten at the end of Episode 3, I quickly hacked her arm off with a knife, figuring that way she at least had a fraction of a chance. But no, it was hopeless. Kenny spiraled even deeper after that. The one thing that seems to bring him back to normalcy is the baby Alvin Jr., but I felt like by the end of the story, even that paternal feeling of love has been corrupted into a dark source of hatred: he can justify any cruel action to himself if he thinks it’s for the benefit of the child.

In contrast, I was quickly simpatico with Jane. She reminds me a lot of Michonne, who might be my favorite character from the comic and TV show: she’s practical, no-nonsense, smart, resourceful, and independent. On a practical level, she’s managed to survive for several years both in groups and on her own, and has actually paid attention during that time, figuring out what had worked and what hadn’t. Best of all, she seems to like Clem and genuinely respect her. I decided that I’d hitch my wagon to her; it wasn’t always a smooth ride, but it seems like the best possible outcome in the very dire situation you find yourself.

Anyways… as noted above, I’d realized a while before that our group wasn’t working out. I’d initially fantasized about Kenny, Bonnie and AJ taking one group while myself, Jane and Mike took another, but of course that didn’t happen. I was more confident about staying silent in this season than the one before, and during several stretches I showed my disapproval of Kenny by refusing to engage with him. (Silence also worked wonders with Carver, who has a bizarre conception of who you are and will talk you up by himself if you keep quiet.) I was pretty sure that it would end with either Kenny or Jane going down, and at the very end I was the one who pulled the trigger.

I was slightly disappointed that this automatically segued into a return to Howe’s; getting away from Kenny had been my top priority, but I was actually intrigued by the idea of living in a cold area that slowed down zombies. On the flip side, neither Jane nor Clementine were about to breast-feed AJ, so I’m glad they returned to a place where they knew they could get formula for her.

And, that’s pretty much where it ended! I hesitated pretty heavily at the final choices, but ultimately decided to let the others in. Frankly, I’m not sure if it makes sense to try and remain in Howe’s and build it back up or not; I’m always perplexed in the comic and TV show when the survivors try to repair and shore up a place that has already been decimated by an earlier attack. I think the best-case scenario would be to get a small but sustainable group of folks in there, including someone to look after AJ, and then hit the road again with Jane.


All in all, I’d say that TWD Season 2 improves on the first one: the gameplay is more fun, the story is even more focused, and the stakes have gotten incredibly high, building on top of all the emotional investment from the first season. It doesn’t feel quite as revolutionary this time around, but that’s just because I’ve come to expect great things from Telltale.

It probably goes without saying that this video game series is, hands down, the best aspect of the Walking Dead franchise. It has the visceral immediacy of the comics, but refuses to allow you to simply be a spectator for this dark story: you must become complicit in its construction, which makes the experience even more powerful.

At this point, I’m pretty much totally committed to whatever Telltale feels like doing. A third season of TWD has been announced, which I’ll definitely be grabbing. There’s currently no word on a follow-up to The Wolf Among Us, but it seems to have been well-received and I’m optimistic they will continue that story as well. And a Telltale Games entry based on the Game of Thrones HBO show? Sign me up!

Monday, September 15, 2014


Considering what a short book Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is, it shouldn't have taken me this long after getting it to finish it. There are multiple reasons why! I was already deep into S, and that story was sufficiently complex that I worried I would lose the thread if I took a break partway through. Also, new Murakami novels are rare and precious things, and I wanted to savor this treat as much as I could.

Colorless Tsukuru is a great little book. In fact, it might become one of the books I recommend to people asking how to get into Murakami: not because it's one of my favorites, but because it's a low-investment way to get a taste of his beautiful writing style while easing into his odder elements.


I should declare my prejudices up front: I'm a huge fan of Murakami's more bizarre books, and enjoy his quieter, human ones. Colorless Tsukuru definitely belongs to the latter category; I've been hearing a lot of comparisons to Norwegian Wood, and I think it's a good comparison, although South of the Border, West of the Sun may be a better one.

The writing is, of course, wonderful. I think he's always a good writer, but the quieter books like this let me focus more on his excellent craftsmanship, instead of focusing on the strangeness of the story and the setting. I think he's particularly good in crafting his characters here. Murakami characters have historically tended to be either enigmas or blank slates, often combining cryptic pronouncements with a few vividly-sketched personal affectations. The cast in Colorless Tsukuru is very believable, and even though the novel isn't very long, we get a good look at not only these characters but their relationships with one another and how they changed over time, growing up from childhood to the cusp of middle age. There's a fantastic economy of prose in the way Murakami creates these people and uses them in this small story.

One aspect that rang particularly true to me was Tsukuru's self-image. As the title states, he is "colorless": the other four members of his close-knit circle of friends each have names that include colors (Black and white for the girls, red and blue for the boys), but Tsukuru's name just means "builder" and he is therefore colorless. He accepts this as a metaphor for his life: in contrast to his friends, who each have talents and personalities that distinguish them, he sees himself as just sort of present, without anything special to contribute. Only much later, decades after the group split apart, does he learn from multiple people that he did have a role: he was considered "the handsome one", and was broadly liked by all.

Anyways, that felt very realistic to me, and probably does to a lot of people. I know that I always think (and have thought) of myself as a very boring person, and am genuinely surprised whenever people say that they think of me as "X". Again, though, this is probably very natural. Each of us can only see the world through our own eyes, and our own experiences are our always-present baselines. We don't see what's remarkable in our own lives, because it isn't remarkable to us, because we live with ourselves all the time.

Even when Murakami is restraining his stranger impulses, he retains a latent potential to create magical environments, and I think some of that feeling suffuses even his more "realist" novels like this one. There are no miracles, no supernatural phenomena: but you still get the sensation that some other forces might be at work behind the scenes, tugging at the seams of our reality. This comes across through vivid dreams, second-hand anecdotes, and other deniable but non forgettable sources.

Although Colorless Tsukuru is a fairly tame novel by Murakami standards, it still is a Murakami novel, and one of its many aspects I love is his embrace of ambiguity. Certain mysteries are solved over the course of the novel, but they raise other questions that can never be answered. Some specific and horrific crimes remain open, with no worldly culprit in sight: one gets the impression that the criminal(s) could only be identified by investigating behind the fabric of the world. Tsukuru has caught a few glimpses of that world, but unlike some other Murakami protagonists, he doesn't travel into it.


The stuff about Shiro's rape and eventual murder was, of course, profoundly disturbing. I'm not exactly sure what to make of it, but it's hard not to think about Tsukuru's repeated "erotic" dreams of her. He considers and rejects this possibility, but it does make a certain kind of Murakami-sense: the souls of the five friends were so tightly joined, they may have been able to visit one another even across vast distances while they dreamed; and, since Shiro had no control over what happened to her in Tsukuru's dream, she was a victim of his (unconscious but real) lust. I wonder if we might be seeing a mirror image of this in Tsukuru's dream-encounter with Haida: is Tsukuru appearing in Haida's dream, the same way Shiro may have appeared in Tsukuru's?

And, while I'm even less certain of this, what if Tsukuru's brief unwilling fantasy about strangling Shiro near the end of the book caused her murder many years before? That happens in broad daylight, in Finland, while in the middle of another conversation, so it doesn't seem like it could possibly follow the same dream-power from before. Still, it's a creepy idea, that simply visualizing an ill act on another person, across time and space, could cause it to happen.

Tsukuru is certainly not the only potential suspect, though. Late in the novel, we catch our first mention of "bad elves", creatures of Finnish folklore who wreak havoc on innocent humans. They're a tempting explanation for the unexplained stories we've encountered before then: Midorikawa the jazz pianist, six-fingered people, and of course the central problem of what happened to Shiro. Tsukuru himself is certainly not a bad elf, and the various misfortunes visited on his group may be the result of some mischievous spirits.


After the weighty, dense and bountiful 1Q84, you can see Colorless Tsukuru as a piece of relief. The language is beautiful, and it paints a striking scene that manages to be haunting while not being openly supernatural. In one important way, it does continue from 1Q84 in creating vivid, human-seeming characters. While their lives overlap with small amounts of trademark Murakami oddness, for the most part they feel very relatable: the struggles they undergo are the same ones most of us endure as we grow up, drift apart, define ourselves, and make our way in the world. This won't become my favorite Murakami novel, but it's one that resonates very strongly with me, and I'm sure I'll continue reflecting on it for a long time to come.

Friday, September 12, 2014

All that REMains

I don't think I've written about this before, but "U Talkin' U2 To Me?" is the funniest podcast I've ever listened to. I'm not a huge connoisseur of the form, but I regularly listen to a handful like Comedy Bang Bang, The Thrilling Adventure Hour and The Bugle, and UTU22M feels like the ultimate fulfillment of the potential of the medium.

Billing itself as an "encyclopedic and comprehensive discussion of all things U2", this podcast is almost entirely devoted to Scott Auckerman and Adam Scott being completely ridiculous. They joke around, tell anecdotes about their Hollywood lifestyle, indulge in running gags, do terrible impressions, and crack me up constantly. Every once in a while they get around to discussing U2, revealing such vital information as the number of people in the band (four!) and their names (Bono, Thedge, Adam Clayton, Larry Mullins Sr.'s son). However, they've also been able to accidentally release an entire two-hour-long episode without talking about the band, so that isn't exactly a necessary component of the podcast.

Anyways, like many people I've been sad this summer since they took an extended hiatus after they finished reviewing all existing U2 albums, and was worried they wouldn't be back. I was wrong! Coming hot on the heels of U2's surprise announcement that they would be releasing their new album now and for free, Scott and Scott scrambled back into the studio to record a new ep.

I haven't been able to listen to the whole thing yet, but so far it's been filled with Great Bits. One part early on caught my interest, though. A fan wrote in and asked Scott and Scott for (of course) their ten favorite R.E.M. songs. I'm a devoted R.E.M. fan and a compulsive list-maker, so I immediately began thinking of my own.

It's a bit funny, but I realized that, even though I annually re-sort my list of favorite R.E.M. albums, I don't think I've ever done that exercise at the track level. It's very difficult! Their catalog is so vast and so strong, and it's very easy to get locked into the mindset of, "Oh, but I can't leave this song out!" Even the weakest albums have strong tracks, and one of the things I appreciate most about the band is how solid their output is; of their fifteen albums, I only skip any tracks on three of them. (If you're curious: Out of Time, Monster, and Around the Sun.)

Ultimately, I decided to assemble the list by focusing on the songs that I find myself most likely to seek out and play on their own, independent of going through a whole album. I'd have a hard time defending these songs as objectively the "best" in their repertoire; many of them resonate with me based on sentimental associations or because of my own peculiar musical tastes.

Without further ado, here we go!
  1. World Leader Pretend (Green)
  2. Perfect Circle (Murmur)
  3. I Remember California (Green)
  4. Swan Swan H (Lifes Rich Pageant)
  5. Sweetness Follows (Automatic for the People)
  6. Sing for the Submarine (Accelerate)
  7. Leave (New Adventures in Hi-Fi) *
  8. Hope (Up)
  9. The Flowers of Guatemala (Lifes Rich Pageant)
  10. Houston (Accelerate)
Some explanations/excuses:

I feel like "Leave" needs about a dozen asterisks. It's such a weird song, standing out on what's already their strangest album. I've gone through multiple phases of loving and hating it. But, it somehow gets stuck in my head, very powerfully, and I feel like it kind of anticipated my musical tastes a good decade or two in advance.

I'm pretty surprised that "Hope" made it on the list; it wasn't one of my favorite tracks from "Up" when it was first released, but for some reason it's really stuck with me. It may be worth mentioning that Hope is one of the only REM songs that I can (and do) sing.

This list is definitely slanted towards quieter, more reflective songs and weird, dark, ominous (but slow) songs. That's mostly because of where my muse lives these days. A few more rock-y songs I love include Revolution, Accelerate, Discoverer, Begin the Begin, and It's The End Of The World As We Know It.

For reference, here's Adam Scott's list, in no particular order.
  1. Life and How to Live It
  2. Half a World Away
  3. I Believe
  4. Try Not to Breathe
  5. Ages of You
  6. Find the River
  7. (Untitled)
  8. Exhuming McCarthy
  9. Hollow Man
  10. Diminished

He only had five minutes to put this together, and it's a great list, which me even more hungry for a follow-up R.E.M. podcast with the Scotts. There's some really intriguing stuff on here; I'm particularly happy to see Hollow Man and Diminished, since most people automatically discard everything that the band did after Automatic for the People. Adam's list is definitely more upbeat than mine, but hey, that's what's great about a band as solid and prolific as R.E.M.: they can cover a wide range of moods and styles, showing their excellence for a variety of occasions.


Okay, I couldn't help myself: here's my latest crack at sorting my favorite albums!
  1. Green
  2. Automatic for the People
  3. Murmur
  4. Document
  5. Life's Rich Pageant
  6. Accelerate
  7. Collapse into Now
  8. Fables of the Reconstruction
  9. Reveal
  10. Up
  11. New Adventures in Hi-Fi
  12. Out of Time
  13. Reckoning
  14. Monster
  15. Around the Sun
It's interesting to compare this list with the sources of my Top 10 Songs list... Document is the highest with no representation at #4, supported by an extremely deep bench. It's possible that LRP is so high because I recently selected two songs from it; the album as a whole doesn't feel as coherent to me as most of their others, but dang if it doesn't have fantastic songs. Curiously, it looks like Around the Sun was two whole spots higher in my last ranking; honestly, I think I've hardly listened to it at all in the last few years, so I may be internalizing some of the widespread criticism it receives.

My confessions: I don't think Reckoning is that great. I think Country Feedback is overrated. Reveal is very enjoyable to listen to. I wish R.E.M. hadn't broken up.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Divinity: Initial Thoughts

I hadn't planned to pick up Divinity: Original Sin. We're just a few months away from the one-two sucker punch of Civilization: Beyond Earth and Dragon Age: Inquisition; surely I would be able to tide myself over with the DLC for Fallout New Vegas or some of the other unplayed goodies filling up my Steam library. But I kept hearing more and more good things about the game, and when my brother started to confirm them, I decided to take the plunge.

DOS is part of a broader trend towards reviving old-school isometric RPGs (which Felicia Day highlighted in a recent video). This movement was born on Kickstarter, with very successful projects to revive beloved old properties like Wasteland, Shadowrun, and Planescape: Torment. I think we're now seeing the second phase of that movement, which is the creation of new and original IPs that continue in that classic tradition, which had been largely abandoned after the shift to fully 3D RPGs by games like Neverwinter Nights and the Elder Scrolls series.

DOS takes place in an existing game series called Divinity, although from the little I've been able to tell, DOS is the most successful entry in the series so far. It unabashedly harkens back to classic gaming, which is both good and bad: gameplay is deep, but you'll end up spending a lot of time futzing around inside of inventory screens.

I think I'm still pretty early in the game... I just recently reached the sixth level, have completed several side-quests but no major quests yet, and am just starting to get some hints at what might be the overarching story for the game. I figured I'd pop in here during a breather and report my initial impressions thus far.

The Awesome

The music! It's really, really good. It's varied, too: you don't just hear a single tune cycled for each location you're in, but there's more of a rich playlist that transitions smoothly between songs. It's all well done; there's one piece with a subtle choral element that I particularly enjoy. Considering how much I've played it already, I'm impressed it hasn't gotten on my nerves yet.

Dual PCs. Most modern RPGs have you create a single player character, who may either quest alone (as in Elder Scrolls) or as the leader of a party (as in Dragon Age). Most of us have a standard approach to building this PC: we'll seek to recreate our real-world selves as accurately as possible with the tools available to us, or create an alter-ego, or draw inspiration from favored role models (Han Solo, Aragorn, etc.), or try to tell a particular story within the bounds of the game. In DOS, though, you make two characters, and then role-play each of them. By shaking up the template, I think DOS does a great job at making us think critically about our characters: we really start to get a feeling for what makes them tick, and then can encourage them to perform like actors in our play.

Dual dialogue. One of the coolest aspects of the game is how you can control both of your PCs in dialogue. When one of them makes a decision, the other one can back them up, or argue for taking another course of action. The back-and-forth here does a fantastic job at further fleshing out the characters, and also provides a nice solution to the old dilemma of resolving a situation where you prefer one choice for role-playing purposes but another choice for the gameplay outcome: here, you can have one character on record as taking a particular stance, even though the opposite ends up happening.

Character creation. It's really simple and really good: you have a handful of discrete options you can change (hair color, skin tone, etc.) with about a dozen pre-defined options for each one. In contrast to the insane flexibility of, say, the character creator in modern EA games, you can't specify the bridge width of your nose or the separation of your brows, but it's very quick and easy to create distinctive, good-looking heroes. I also really like the names they give to skin tones, like "Mahogany", "Autumn Wheat" and "Burnished Bronze".

The Good

Combat skills. There's a terrific variety here; in particular, fighter types get a much richer set of combat options than I'm used to in RPGs, with moves that let them zoom around the battlefield, deal massive AOE damage, debuff enemies, and more.

Build flexibility. You choose classes when creating your character, but that is just a convenience for defining your starting stats and skills. As you play the game and get a feel for how it works and the needs of your party, you can evolve and invest more in the skills that are most relevant to your game.

Traits. In many of the dual dialogues between PCs, taking certain positions will cause your character to establish traits. These are all dichotomies, such as Romantic/Pragmatic, Considerate/Blunt, Independent/Obedient, etc. These help establish your characters' personalities, and also lead to in-game bonuses: being Considerate will make your character more charismatic, while being Blunt will make them immune to being charmed. These trait dialogues are a fantastic way to make you think about the decisions you're making even when they don't have plot-related outcomes.

Encounter design. Like Shadowrun Returns, each fight is a setpiece, kind of a puzzle that you need to solve. You're usually outnumbered and outpowered, and to win you must make smart decisions based on your party composition and your environment. You can tilt the scales in your favor by unleashing environmental effects (like bursting a barrel of ooze, then setting that ooze on fire to create a wall of flame between you and your enemies), or by carefully managing the flow of combat (using freezing spells and stuns effectively to take certain enemies out of the picture early on, then focus on them later). It's occasionally frustrating when they feel heavily tuned against you - I had one fight outside of a cave entrance that I had to attempt multiple times to complete - but that makes it more rewarding when you finally make it.

Combat mechanics. This may be the best example I've seen yet of an RPG featuring simple mechanics that can combine in powerful ways. The most obvious example I've internalized so far is environments, which can be things like water, blood, poison gas, or flames. These will all have effects on creatures inside (entering flames will make a character start burning, entering ooze will poison them), but also as a medium for future effects (if a pool of water or blood is electrified, all creatures inside can be stunned). There are just a handful of environments, and another handful of effects, but exponentially more combinations, which can lead to incredibly cool emergent strategies. Combined with that, they have a solid conventional combat system that recognizes things like zones-of-control, stealth, flanking, cover, destructible obstacles, and other useful concepts.

The Ambivalent

Dialogue. It isn't as deep as I'm used to from games like Shadowrun Returns or Dragon Age; in fact, it reminds me a lot of the shallow conversations in Elder Scrolls games like Morrowind, particularly when speaking with anonymous citizens. On the bright side, it has a distinct sense of humor which I appreciate.

The art style. It's cuter and more cartooney than I'm used to, and looks much more like the exaggerated style of World of Warcraft than the more realistic fantasy RPGs I prefer. That said, it's probably a good thing that not all of my games look the same, so I'll cut them some slack. There are some moments of delightful goofiness their style enables, like a charmingly fat sheep that performs unexpected backflips.

The Mediocre

Character portraits. Specifically, there are a finite set of these, and there are a lot fewer portraits than character model combinations. It was occasionally frustrating to settle on a look that I really liked, only to spend a long time flipping through all of the portraits and discovering that none of them matched. I would have preferred a system like the one used in Shadowrun Returns, where selecting a portrait will automatically update your body, and you can then customize the body further if you want.

Trait metagaming. This is more of a complaint about me than about the game. While I love the idea behind traits, in practice some of them will be more appropriate for a character than others: for example, my rogue Sariya will benefit from the +20% backstab change from Heartless, while my cleric Tindali won't get any use from it and should always be Compassionate instead. So, I often save before dialogues and then reload them afterwards if it caused my preferred traits to shift. I'm not sure what the best way to resolve this would be... they could surface the name of the traits inside the dialogue so we at least knew what choices we were making, or shift the consequences to be more universally useful (e.g., things like extra HP or AP that everyone benefits from more or less equally) instead of being so specialized.

Inventory management. Again, this is probably mostly a personal taste thing. In the games I grew up on, I was accustomed to managing incredibly complex inventories, which often required prioritizing and evaluating and shifting and consuming and divesting. I find that my tolerance for this has decreased rapidly as I grow older: I hate spending fifteen minutes just fiddling around with items in a window instead of adventuring. Given that there is an inventory focus, I like a lot that Larian has done with it: they don't have any space restrictions, and very generous weight restrictions, so you almost never need to manage inventory just to carry your loot; there are good menu options for sorting things by various criteria; graphics are well-designed and clear; it's generally easy to compare two given pieces of equipment and determine which is better. Still, I have to spend much more time than I would like just sorting items to decide what to equip now, what to keep around for later, what to throw away, what to sell, what to craft.

Crafting. The idea is kind of cute - you read actual recipes in books, and then must translate those English phrases to in-game actions - but it just becomes really annoying to find anything: even if you know that you found a recipe for making a sleep potion, the recipe for it won't be labeled Sleep Potion, so you'll need to read (not scan) through a ton of entries until you find the correct one, and then manually look through all of your inventory to see if you have the items it requires. It is annoying! I would kill to have something like Skyrim's crafting interface: once you have a recipe, it just appears in a menu (labeled as itself!); you'll be able to see at a glance what items it requires, what items you have, and then click a button to make one or more of them. Heck, I'd even be fine with requiring the first crafting to be done free-style, just so I don't need to repeat the painful process several weeks later.

Saving games. Again, I think this is mostly me - when I tried it out on a laptop with a solid state drive, saves seemed fast, but when I use my main gaming desktop with a traditional hard drive, it can take a really long time. Some of that is probably inherent in the complexity of the world state they're trying to save, but still, it's pretty annoying, to the point where I'm not quicksaving nearly as often as I would like to.

Thieving skills. I was initially delighted to see the return of my beloved, favorite, classic thief skills which have sadly been excised from modern RPGs: pickpocketing, sneaking, lockpicking. Unfortunately, it usually isn't worthwhile to invest skill points here. Lockpicks are expensive and single-use only; you'll always be able to find a key lying around somewhere, and even if not, it's better to bash the chest open with an unbreakable weapon or a spell. Sneaking hasn't been effective for me in combat, and hasn't been relevant so far in any other parts of the game. I suppose pickpocketing could be a good way to get money, but that isn't the way I want to roleplay my characters. I think I get why things are this way: you have a small party, and they didn't want to force you to bring along a thief (especially since there don't seem to be any NPC thieves you can recruit); and given that they can't assume you have a thief, they always need to provide an alternate solution anyways. Still, as a die-hard thief, it's been a bit of a letdown so far. Despite the presence of these skills, pretty much every encounter comes down to combat now, with sneakier alternatives rarely available.

Morality. The game doesn't have a "moral system", which I'm completely fine with, but I'm finding it hard to navigate the "right" way to play. The game implements an ownership system, where items can be owned by NPCs. If they notice you interfering with these (picking up items, opening doors, fiddling with equipment, etc.) they will give you a warning, and then get upset if you continue messing with it. So far, so good, and after some brief reflection I'd decided to play Sariya as a chaotic-but-not-larcenous rogue. But, in the main questline, the game requires you to steal from a character, break into a protected part of her house, and generally be a criminal around her, even though I'd already deduced that she wasn't responsible for the acts attributed to her. I resisted it for a while, but eventually realized I'd need to go ahead and do the "bad" things to progress with the plot. So, once that was done, I had to decide whether there was any reason (either in-game or from a roleplaying perspective) to not just go around stealing everything I could get my hands on. Other quests in this game have been good about providing multiple ways to find a solution, but having a forced path through the muck didn't feel great.

The Bad

Backstabbing is hard. I play a dagger rogue, and finding the spot where I can stab from is tough at the best of times, and nearly impossible if the enemy has an unusual shape or is knocked down. I often end up wasting some AP just trying to find the sweet spot. I would really like to have something like the circle indicators used in Dragon Age: Origins to show where the backstab area is, or be able to enter a backstab mode that will move your character into the correct position before attacking (instead of the shortest distance), or use an on-ground indicator of when you're hovering over a valid spot, similar to the circles that appear to warn you when a move will trigger a zone-of-control attack.

Targeting in general is hard! Particularly when you have one or more melee characters up close to an enemy, it can be really hard to find the couple of pixels that will let you target them. If you mis-click, then your character will just walk into the indicated position behind the bad guy, which may make you waste your turn, acquire a negative status effect, etc. To make matters worse, enemies are animated, so even if you are targeting the enemy, by the time you click they may have moved their head or arm out of the way, causing you to click on the background instead. You can make this slightly easier by zooming way in before clicking; but even then, the game will automatically zoom you back out after each attack, so with my rogue I'll need to repeat and hunt for pixels up to five times per turn. I wish that they would just make each character a solid cube or cylinder hit box instead of tracking with the animations.

Locating items is hard. You can press "Alt" to bring up tooltips that show each loose item lying on the ground. In general, you can hover and click on these to pick them up, but every once in a while an item seems to fall below a piece of map geometry (like a sloped hillside) or under an enemy dead body and becomes untargetable. You can see its label, taunting you, but the actual item is unacquireable. Something like a "look all" button would help a lot here.

Locating containers is even harder! I was actually a bit surprised by this: ever since Baldur's Gate 2, I've gotten used to being able to hold a key like Tab to highlight interactable items. That works here for loose items, but for whatever reason it doesn't light up containers, which means that I need to play several fun rounds of sweep-the-mouse-over-the-screen when I enter a new area. Most of these became pretty straightforward after I got used to the game - crates and barrels are very recognizable and always are lootable - but it feels like a weird oversight.

That's It!

I'll postpone any discussion of the plot for a later post after I've gotten a better look at the big picture, but I'll go ahead and describe my build now:

My two characters are Sariya, a charming and ruthless rogue, and Tindali, her long-suffering cleric friend. As noted above, I've pretty shamelessly been metagaming their traits, so they end up being opposite in almost every respect, except that both are Independent (which actually helps explain why they butt heads so frequently). Still, whenever there isn't an in-game benefit for taking different paths, I generally have them getting along with each other, praising one another's skills, and supporting the other members of their party.

Sariya is a dagger-wielding rogue. She started with a set of soft thieving skills, but as noted above those haven't proved useful, so instead she's been mostly focusing on her attacks and Scoundrel abilities. She's also the "face" of the group, and always takes the lead in any negotiations or shopping expeditions. She hasn't invested any points in those skills, but I've coordinated a useful set of Traits that make her the best-equipped to wheel and deal our way to success.  She's also our Loremaster, and can easily identify the powerful items we come across.

Tindali started off as a cleric, although I'm already getting concerned about her spreading herself too thinly. Clerics combine Water magic (most notably the Heal spell) with single-handed weaponry, along with a trait that encourages them to use blunt weapons. However, one of the few recruitable NPCs is already much better than her at Water, so now I'm expanding her warrior abilities while also branching out into fire and earth magic. I get the feeling this will hurt her effectiveness at high levels, although it is kind of nice to have a switch-hitter who can fill different roles. She currently specializes in buffing and summoning, but has mainly been pushing her STR stat, and absorbs attacks pretty effectively with her club-and-shield loadout.

In terms of personality, Tindali usually lets Sariya lead conversations, although she'll chime in on important matters. Tindali tends to be more practical, serious, and law-abiding, in contrast with Sariya's exuberant, free-wheeling chaotic attitude.

I've also picked up Jahan and Madora from the first town. Madora is a two-handed-weapon fighter with a solid set of combat stats and skills; there's not really any tanking in this game, but she's good at soaking up damage. Jahan specializes in water and air magic; he tends to hang back from the front line, just close enough that he zap enemies with lightning bolts or fling them around with teleportation. Jahan is also my crafter, who maintains our weapons and armor and performs simple upgrades.

As noted above, every combat encounter is like a separate puzzle to be solved, but in general, here's how it's been going down for me:

Sariya, with her speedy rogue attributes, always goes first. She'll usually haste herself at the start (extra movement and AP), advance close to the enemy, then turn invisible so they can't target her. Madora and Jahan will typically skip their first turn entirely: that lets the enemy waste AP moving towards us, and gives them a full set of max AP to use on the second turn. The enemy usually moves next, so they'll usually advance; ranged archers might get off some shots here, but melee usually isn't close enough to hit us on the first turn. Tindali is usually one of the last to move per round; if she didn't do her buffs before a battle, this is where she'll summon a spider or fortify an ally; if some enemies are clustered together in range, she might toss a small fireball at them; if any enemies have already closed the gap, she might attack.

In the second turn, Sariya will position herself behind the squishiest and deadliest enemy and start backstabbing. It isn't unusual for her to completely take down an enemy mage or priest in a single turn. If the enemies include a big powerful brute, she might try to Charm it; I've come to really appreciate having more bodies on the battlefield, which does a ton to blunt damage against your own characters. She also might Stun a dangerous offensive enemy if she can't take it down. Otherwise, for the most part she'll keep moving around the battlefield, picking off the weakest enemies. I've come to really appreciate her 2AP attacks, which lets me be more surgical when finishing off an almost-dead foe.

Madora will typically start her second turn with a Battering Ram into a group of foes; if they're positioned well, she might be able to make knockdown attempts on six or so of them. Her goal is to end in the middle of a tight cluster of enemies, whereupon she will immediately follow up with a Dust Devil; I'll usually be able to line this up to hit at least three enemies, and five isn't that unusual. This one-two punch can completely destroy weak enemies, and leaves some of the survivors helpless on the ground. For the rest of the fight, Madora will usually just attack the enemy closest to her, though occasionally she'll unleash a Crushing Fist against a foe who poses a threat. Whenever an enemy is incapacitated, I'll make sure that Madora and Tindali adopt their Power Stance before swinging: your chance-to-hit a stunned or knocked-down enemy is always 100%, so the loss of precision doesn't hurt you, and the damage is a big help. Thanks to my party loadout, I'm often able to apply these conditions to a bunch of enemies throughout a fight.

Jahan tends to be a bit more strategic. Teleport is a fantastic spell: I like using this to pick up an enemy and dump them into burning fire, but I'll also sometimes use it to bring a mage into range of my melee fighters so they can whale on him, or remove an archer to the far reaches of the battlefield so he can't interfere with us for a few turns. It has a long cooldown, though, so most of the time I'm shooting lightning at enemies. It has a pretty good chance of stunning them, which does wonders for managing the crowd. I rarely move Jahan at all, and if I don't have any good attacks available I'll often just skip him to get more AP on my next turn.

Tindali is the most jack-of-all-trades of the bunch. She also has Battering Ram, and will often follow Madora's lead. Tindali and Jahan both have Heal, so either one can lend attention to any allies who are falling low in health. She doesn't do quite as much straight-up damage as Madora, but I still like dropping her into the thick of combat since she's pretty capable of dealing with damage. She also has two flame spells, and can be incredibly useful in situations where I can detonate barrels or do other environmental damage.

So far, I haven't been making much use at all of the scrolls I pick up; I'm pretty sure that this would have helped with some of the harder fights. The biggest regret I currently have is not having an archer, mainly because of the vast quantity of special arrows I've picked up or crafted; Sariya has the dexterity to wield a bow, but I've completely ignored the marksman skills for now. I suppose that if I max out her Scoundrel and Single-Handed skills, I might diversify into that.

So, uh... yeah! I realize that the above list contained more negative items than positive ones, but that produces a pretty misleading picture: despite my complaints, I'm having an absolute blast with this game. I wouldn't complain if I didn't care about the game so much! I'm impressed at the tactical depth of the game, and also feel like I'm only beginning to scratch the surface of the story, so I'm very eager to see where it goes from here. I imagine I'll be dropping at least one more post here after I make more progress!

Tuesday, September 09, 2014


I'm a sucker for books that play around with the physical form of the novel. Whether The Raw Shawk Text's ASCII-art-esque storytelling, or House Of Leaves' daring adventures in typesetting, I'm immediately on board for whatever crazy tricks an author wishes to pull. Fortunately, in all cases so far the actual book has turned out to be really good, and not just a novelty. That trend continues with S, aka The Ship of Theseus, which is by far the most ambitious work I've seen yet in this regard.

The book presents itself as a timeworn novel from an academic library's stacks, complete with age spots and circulation stamps. The text of the book tells a story of its own, a surprisingly dire and macabre one, but the real story is the one that takes place within and outside the text. Two readers start leaving notes in the margins of the book, eventually starting a dialogue and, eventually, a relationship that grows between the two of them as they bond, initially over a shared love of the book and eventually for... well, more reasons. But that's not all! The book is literally stuffed with other materials, like postcards with foreign stamps and maps drawn on cocktail napkins and articles cut out from the campus newspaper and lengthy handwritten notes.

I am thoroughly impressed at the engineering work required to assemble this thing - I kept worrying that all this stuff would just fall out of the book, but somehow they've been able to construct it such that they remain securely in place until you're on that page, at which point you can easily remove them (nothing is physically attached), inspect them, and then return them securely in place. I have a hard time visualizing the production of this book. You can't make cocktail napkins on a printing press, so did they hire an army of child laborers to put this together? Or some kind of fantastic Rube Goldberg-esque machine that folds and stamps and inserts all this stuff? Even the marginalia seems tricky: it's all handwritten, not typed, so there must be an insanely high-resolution scan of this thing to get all the ink blots and stuff right. Heck, even the "ink" itself requires effort: particularly heavy blocks of black ink appear to "bleed" through to the opposite side of the page, even though I'm pretty sure that they're actually reversing and re-applying the images on the opposing side to create the effect. It's very well done!

It's also interesting from an intellectual-property perspective. This might be the first book I've read that can't be pirated; or at least the first one since my days with pop-up and scratch-and-sniff books. Even if someone were to laboriously scan this book into a PDF (you couldn't OCR it), you'd miss a significant portion of the story without the inserts. Anyways. I'm fascinated by the idea that, while advancing technology has harmed the publishing business in many ways, in this particular case it seems to have produced a book that "protects itself" in a really unique way.

The story itself is... well, it's complex! There are multiple plotlines taking place, both within the book and within the "real world", over a long period of time and with different groups of characters. Many of the stories feel emergent, as when the two protagonists (Story A) are trying to glean the text (Story B) for clues about what real-world events the story is allegorizing (Story C). I earlier mentioned House of Leaves, which is a pretty good exemplar of this type of storytelling: that book had about five different layers of reality/storytelling, from the in-universe-fictional film The Navidson Record to the in-universe-real book House of Leaves to the primary authorial footnotes on HoL to the secondary editorial footnotes to the tertiary publishers' footnotes. Each of these should be a one-directional remove in storytelling (one step up the Wick in Anathem terms), but what was uncanny in HoL was how ideas in fiction would pollute/infect supposedly-real events. That same kind of interplay is on display in S: reading a book initially seems like one of the safest activities a human can undertake, but the contents of that book affect the thoughts of its readers, and eventually starts to steer their lives in a very different direction.

Another book I often thought of while reading this was Pale Fire. There are some strong surface resemblances, as in both cases there's a fictional work under consideration, and the actual story is happening in the "literary criticism" being performed on it. The big difference is that in Pale Fire, that criticism happens through exposition, while in S, it happens through dialogue. The two protagonists each offer their own theories, test one another, find supporting evidence, discover links between texts, and in general collaborate on a better understanding of the work (in contrast to Kinbote's monomaniacal insistence at projecting his own vision over every aspect of the work). As a proud member of the Professional Organization of English Majors, this kind of story-about-analyzing-stories makes me giddy.

The timelines are really well-done, too. For all the talk about how modern society has been dumbed down, I actually think there's a lot of evidence that large sections of our culture are embracing extremely complex works: movies like Pulp Fiction and Memento were initially hailed as unprecedented experimental works for the way they interrupted our conventional view of timelines, but today nobody bats an eye at this sort of temporal play. Certainly, our television shows have grown far more intricate than in the past (thanks in no small part to JJ Abrams himself with Lost's vast and evolving mythology), and my generation, which grew up on video games, are comfortable with all sorts of ideas about agency and fluid perspective and unreliable narration and branching storylines.


The way it's done in S is through differently-colored pens: in the first couple of pages, you start to recognize the protagonists' handwriting (one writes in cursive, the other in print); over time, you come to understand how the different colors indicate different periods of time when each was writing. Notes in pencil are old, from when Eric was in high school; blue and black pen are from when they're first discovering each other and starting to investigate the book; yellow and green are after they've come to trust each other and are starting to make contact in real life; red and purple come after they've made contact with Filomela and are being pursued/harassed by their enemies; and a final set in all black comes after they've made their escape. (Touchingly, you realize this is because they're now living together and therefore can share the same pen.)

So, on a single page in the book, you might have events taking place in up to seven different timelines: VMS's original text, Filomela's later footnoting, and all of the various dialogues between Eric and Jen. Each newer layer can comment on an older layer. On the next page, you'll get continuations of all those timelines: so the yellow text on this page was written after the blue text on this page and the blue text on the next page, but before the red text on the previous page. It seems really complex at first, but I was surprised by how swiftly I was able to grok it and keep it straight. It definitely helps to only have two participants; it would probably grow exponentially more difficult to track with additional writers.

I should note here that I've deliberately stayed away from any and all online discussion of the book; I'm sure that I'll jump into it after publishing this post, but I wanted to get down my initial "pure" reactions before seeing what other people have come up with.

There's a ton of interesting stuff going on in the book, but one of the most intriguing is the codes. Eric and Jen first start collaborating through their attempts to find and solve the messages that FXC has hidden in the book. This is done well, with initial descriptions of things they've noticed, a few ideas tossed out and developed on, an announcement of the discovery, and finally the full translated message, followed by a discussion of what it means. This is repeated in later chapters, though less time is needed to describe what they're doing for subsequent ciphers. Near the end, though, there are several chapters with discussions about how they are convinced there is a code, but haven't been able to find it. I strongly, strongly suspect that there actually is one in there, and have no doubt that enterprising readers have discovered and decrypted it. I was in a hurry to get through the book so I didn't spend any time trying to suss it out myself, but I'll probably take a crack at it myself before hopping online to see if and what other people have found. (My one hunch so far has to do with place names being important in one chapter's footnotes, but we'll see if that's relevant or not.)

Codes aren't the only unexplained mystery in the book. One big one that surfaces early on, and remains present but is never resolved, is who else is reading the book. Throughout the book, one or both of them (but I imagine usually Jen) will draw a tiny sketch, the sort of thing that you would doodle in your college notebooks. In one early section describing the mysterious "S" symbol, a stylized version appears in the margin. Each thinks that the other person drew it, and they get freaked out when they realize neither did. So, someone else drew it, so someone else has read the book, so someone else has read everything that Jen and Eric have discussed (at least up to that point).


The question is, who? It could just be a random undergraduate, but that would be a rather disappointing answer. The S symbol itself is very important, and is an icon that bridges the gap between the novel The Ship of Theseus and the real world. As I understand it, S was the name of the group initially formed by Summersby, Durand, Ekstrom, VMS, and other fellow-travelers. They were authors with strong social consciences, who used what influence they had to expose the wicked and powerful; this made them enemies of dictatorships, multinational corporations, and their allies in places like the United States. At one point, they antagonized a major industrialist and arms manufacturer named Bouchard, who devoted his life and vast resources to punishing the group. Bouchard's agents appropriated the name "S" and used it to mock their opponents, slandering the writers' good names with the agents' own foul deeds. Much of The Ship of Theseus (particularly the parts set on land and the assassination chapter) is a not-at-all-thinly-veiled allegory of these events, which defined the remainder (and the very end) of VMS's life. There's a lot of confusion in the book about The S, because there are multiple and mutually hostile groups that each call themselves The S.

One thing that's said in SoT, but may or may not have been true in the real world, is that each group would use the S symbol to mark their presence and to taunt the other. It's a way of sending a message, that even here you are not safe. That being said, it seems likely that the S is from one of the S's. The question is, is it the "new" S, or the "new new" S?

If it's the modern descendents of the Bouchard faction, then, well, that would be a bad thing. We know that they're still around (though operating through subsidiaries) and very wealthy, able to fund a range of activities (including, both humorously and chillingly, compliant academic). Their motivation seems to be to erase history: to remove the records of the company's sordid past, and to intimidate people from reopening old stories; when they fail, they close those stories back up, using brutal means if necessary.

A more positive possibility, though, is that there may still be a modern group around that's descended from VMS's faction. Filomela would certainly be aligned with this side, and probably Desjardins as well. I have absolutely no way of proving this, but I would like to think that Serin is a front for this faction: they identify useful allies who share their values and outlook, and support their work, possibly eventually admitting people into their fold. I think this is referenced nicely near the end of SoT, when S sees other versions of himself and Sola piloting ships. Times change and even people change, but the underlying dynamics remain, so new people will rise to play the old roles. One day, Eric and Jen may be the new S and Sola, if they aren't already.

If that is the case, though, then who else at Pollard State University would be on "their" side? I'm tempted to say Ilsa. She appears to be one of the main antagonists early on; but based on what we see later, she seems to be pursuing her own agenda independently of Moody's. She also helps Jen graduate, when she had the power to shut her down; Ilsa also has access to the archives, and would certainly be interested in this book and very interested in the S. Even if she isn't part of Serin/Good-S, I can imagine that she might have read their notes, realized that these two kids were in love with each other, and decided to help them out. If she is in the good-S, then that would explain why Jen couldn't find Eric's recording in Moody's office: Ilsa never gave it to Moody, but instead passed it along to Serin.

Anyways! That's just a single one of the many, many threads that will doubtless provide much fodder for people to chew over for a while. I'm a big fan of the potential of ambiguity, and this book leaves tons of open questions along with many clues that suggest possible solutions, so it will keep folks busy.

The S symbol touches off an early incidence of paranoia. I thought it was interesting how the paranoia appeared to drift between the two of them: at any given point in time, one of them would often be worried about some specific thing, while the other would be reassuring them. Eric seems surprisingly calm about the fires being set around Jen and the men who are following her. Jen regularly tells Eric not to be so worried about being seen in public or to obsess over Moody. Once again, we don't get total closure here: obviously Jen was facing some sort of threat, but we never get definitive proof of who was behind it (an intriguing tossed-off suggestion from Jacob hints that Eric might be doing it, to make Jen more pliant and drive her into his arms). But, that general relationship felt very true-to-life for me; in many of my own relationships, it feels like people take "turns" needing help or giving help, and few things will make one person act stronger than another person asking for help.

The evolving relationship between Eric and Jen was surprisingly touching. Falling in love seems like such a corny concept sometimes, and can be really hard to portray well in fiction. The idea of two people falling in love just by writing marginal notes to each other seems absurd on its face. But somehow it ended up working pretty well for me: there's the shared passion in a common interest, some opposites-attracting personality differences (Jen cheerful and outgoing, Eric moody and intense), a period of gradual opening up, and eventually an intense bonding over their shared experiences. I have to admit that in some ways the oddness of their situation was what made me root for them: there's something that feels weirdly pure about two people meeting through the mind like this, so you can know the others' thoughts and hopes and fears and personality before you ever see their face. That probably hardly ever happens in real life, but it was really compelling for me in this fiction.

Very early on, Jen offers her thesis statement: that SoT is a love story. Eric scoffs initially, but by the end he comes around. I agree, but am left wondering, whose love story is it? There seem to be many possible candidates. S and Sola is an obvious one. VMS and FXC is less obvious within the text of SoT, but seems like a strong candidate based on the footnotes and codes. Really, though, isn't this book most obviously the love story of Eric and Jen? We witness the entire birth and flourishing of their love throughout the pages of the book. Late in the book, though, some additional revelations put new possibilities on the table. What about VMS and Durand? Did they have a child together? Whether the child is his or not, Signe was clearly very important to VMS: you could argue that he wrote this book, and possibly even allowed himself to be sacrificed to Bouchard's agents, to shield her from their sight. That's a very subtle sort of love, but that's kind of the point: a love so secret that it can only be found in the margins, never within the text.

I'm pretty curious about what happens to Eric and Jen at the end of the book. There are references to them leaving as soon as Jen finishes classes (even before graduation), where they apparently go someplace cold to continue their research. I think that they intend to prove that VMS was actually Vaclav Straka by traveling to Prague, hoping to uncover some records of his life before falling in the river, and maybe locating any other people from his life with whom he might have kept in touch. Incidentally, this would also involve investigating some of the awful stuff Bouchard was involved in, which will put them at continued risk.

That said... there is one place where Eric writes something like "It's cold there", except "there" is crossed out and "here" written instead. That made me think there might be an alternate explanation: Eric and Jen might have figured out that someone from the "bad" S was reading their book, and/or planned to leave the book in a place where the bad S could locate it, and deliberately planted misleading information to throw them off their trail. Based on the notes in the book, Bouchard's agents might be dispatched to Prague and spend years fruitlessly searching for them, while the heroes are actually in some other city, either continuing S's work, writing Eric's book, and/or escaping from the violence around them.

Once again, I don't know how to prove this one way or another. Late in the book, it sounds like Eric and Jen are living together in the same room, passing the same pen back and forth, writing cutely snide notes about turning down the thermostat. It wouldn't make sense to leave the book in the library stacks after that, so it must still be in their house. Right?

A couple of random notes:

Man, the horror in SoT was pretty intense! The hopelessness of their escape from the city after the wharf shooting was particularly dire. The ship itself, though, was the nexus of disturbing imagery in the book. I'm usually not very squeamish, but I found myself skipping past the descriptions of sailors (and, eventually, S) sewing their own lips shut with needle and thread. Creepy stuff!

I did find myself wondering what, exactly, the ship was supposed to be. The rest of the novel seems straightforwardly allegorical: Vevoda is Bouchard, S is Straka, the various bird-named people are members of the good S, Sola is probably Filomela, etc. So what, if anything, is the ship, and what does S's experience on the ship say about VMS in real life?

Given the very end of the book, I'm implied to think that the ship represents art. If so, that paints a very dire picture of art! S's time on board the ship is marked by relentless, painful sacrifice. He surrenders his time, becoming an old man; he loses his voice; he loses his moral compass. And, for all that, his efforts seem rather hopeless. Even when he tries to write for himself, his words are twisted into different meanings than he intended. It's a very different picture from the normal messages we hear, that art is a positive mode of expression, a way to change the world for the better. If the ship is art, SoT seems to be saying that art is painful, unappreciated, will ruin your life, and won't make a difference in the end. (I'm reminded of Kurt Vonnegut writing that the combined voices of all the novelists, filmmakers, playwrights, and musicians in America did absolutely nothing to bring the war in Vietnam to an early end.) So then, why do it? Because you must. Art, VMS seems to say, is a duty. Even if it doesn't seem to be working, and isn't having an impact, you do it because you have to.

Super-random note: I absolutely loved Maelstrom's dialogues. He speaks in revelatory malapropisms, like a character from Finnegan's Wake. It always took me a little extra time to puzzle out what he was saying, but once I did, it carried much more weight thanks to its multiplicity of meanings.


Great book! While I've compared it to House of Leaves and Pale Fire, it really is its own beast, and probably owes at least as much to the complex television-based storytelling of JJ Abrams as it does the recursively-layered literary analyses of those earlier books. (Fun side note: While JJ Abrams gets top billing for the book, the actual text was written by Doug Dorst, whose Alive in Necropolis I'd read and enjoyed five years ago. I didn't make that connection until very recently.) The book requires some attention, and I think most people will get as much out of it as they put in: if you enjoy chasing down puzzles and figuring out connections, you'll find plenty to enjoy here. Even if you "just" want to read a story, though, this is a great one, and nearly as interesting as an artifact of publishing as it is a new type of storytelling.

Friday, September 05, 2014

All Dragons Must End

Not a whole lot to say here, except that I've wrapped up my final run-through of Dragon Age 2! I've done the standard album thing: here are Mark of the Assassin, Legacy, and Act 3. Only scattered commentary this time, but still spoilerific.

A random technical note that I think I omitted last time: earlier this year I upgraded my monitor; I already had a decent video card, but I've been gaming on a 1024x768 LCD panel since the mid-2000s, so I've never had much cause to stress it.  Having a big monitor is really, really great! I also discovered that BioWare released a HD Texture Pack for Dragon Age 2, so I installed that before starting this playthrough, and, man, it looks fantastic! While the world itself isn't as broad or dense as Skyrim, it can often look just as pretty with these textures applied. (Interestingly, while almost all cut-scenes are done in-engine, there are a handful of cinematics, mostly near the end of the game, which are pre-rendered; while you would normally expect pre-rendered scenes to look better than in-engine ones, because these were rendered using standard textures, they actually look noticeably blurry in contrast to the in-game scenes.)

The Hard difficulty did prove to be quite challenging towards the end. Weirdly enough, the boss battles themselves went fairly well; most of them rely on knowing particular tricks, and once you have those internalized, they're just a matter of execution. Some of the tougher quest-oriented fights, though, proved extremely difficult. In particular, during Act 3 there are a couple of fights against Blood Mages, some of which I needed to retry about a dozen times before winning. Typically, at the start of the fight, the blood mage will almost instantly unleash an AOE spell that freezes your character in place and does massive draining HP damage; within a couple of seconds Faria and Isabela would die, and even Aveline and Merrill would be so far gone that it would be helpless to continue. The best bet seems to be to hit the mage quickly with an interrupting spell, like Winter's Grasp; this will buy you a bit of time, but still, they'll be able to teleport away and start insta-casting the same spell once the cooldown expires. I found a few tactics that helped - scattering my party as much as possible, trying to keep up AOE DOT spells like Firestorm, trying to keep an interrupting spell on cooldown - but a lot of it came down to luck and lots of reloading.

In contrast to my first game, I was marginally better at equipping runes. I never equipped any on my main character or companions' weapons, since I hated the thought of losing them when I upgraded equipment, but I made sure that my companions' armor (and Varric's Bianca) were fully stocked. I slotted in Defense Runes during Act 2, then added Valiance Runes in Act 3. I waited until right before the end before finally adding in the weapon runes and Faria's armor runes; I generally used Devastation on weapons, often paired with Striking, and gave Faria the Primeval Lyrium and Fire runes. I ended Act 3 with over 150 gold (even after buying Ring of the Ferryman), so I dumped a ton into crafting poisons and potions and grenades, but ended up using basically none of them.

Faria ended up being quite a bit of a pyromancer, with lots of passive abilities and item upgrades that multiplied her already-strong fire-damage spells. After maxing out the Elemental and (most of the) Force Mage trees, she took the Spirit Healer specialization and picked up some very useful spells: not just Revival and Group Heal, but also two terrific passives, one of which kept any party member from ever getting Injured, and the other which gave her a massive +10 CON and +10 health regen.

Every fight went down a bit differently, but in general, this was Faria's approach:
  • Open with a Gravitic Ring focused on the most powerful enemy; if the enemies are all trash, then it's focused on the opponent closest to our front. This completely freezes the enemy in place and stops all attacks (except for scripted moves), and also slows down all nearby enemies. This is particularly effective when enemies in the back need to run through the ring's center.
  • Cast Firestorm. This has a long casting animation, so it's good to freeze enemies first. I'll generally be able to capture all of the enemies within its area of effect; it additionally staggers most enemies (good) and knocks them back (occasionally bad).
  • Cast Fireball. By this point I'll have eliminated any weak enemies, so I'm now going after normal ones, trying to catch as many as possible in its radius.
  • Fist of the Maker. Yet another AOE attack, one that does decent damage but also knocks down enemies. It has a really short cooldown, so I'll also use this multiple times throughout the fight to freeze enemies in place while I line up another Fireball, before Gravitic Ring is ready to re-deploy.
  • If there are a bunch of enemies standing close to each other, I'll rush up, unleash a Cone of Cold on them, then rush back again.
  • Finally, if there's a powerful enemy who isn't already frozen by Gravitic Ring, I'll fire Winter's Grasp at them. Otherwise, I'll wait until the Ring wears off, then use WG; this will slow their movement and attack yet again, and by even more if I pair it with Pull of the Abyss.
  • If necessary, I'll Heal allies as they drop low on health. Any free time I have will be spent doing normal attacks with my fire staff, but I have so many spells available that I'll usually have something available off of cooldown.
So, yeah. Like I said in my previous post, I can utterly dominate in AOE fights against scores of weak enemies, particularly since I almost always run with Merrill. Fights against bosses would be tougher, but Gravitic Ring is a kind of ridiculously effective spell that effectively removes an enemy from a good portion of the fight. Isabela helps a lot with doing single-target damage, so I would generally end up okay.

Equipping for the endgame turned out to be slightly problematic. I dearly loved the Champion armor, which, in addition to having terrific stats, also had enough mana boosts that I never, ever, ever had to worry about running out of mana, even during the longest boss fights. The Regalia of Weisshaupt had a higher armor rating and a bunch of new bonuses, including a delicious boost to Fire damage and various defensive boosts; but it only had half as many rune slots and didn't have the ridiculous Mana pool boost. I hemmed and hawed, and eventually decided to take it, mostly for variety's sake and partly because I was stacking as much fire damage as possible. It ended up working fine; I had to chug an occasional mana potion late in boss fights, but I had more than enough of those to go around.


I switched up my companions for Legacy this time around for story purposes, and I'm glad I did. With Selene Hawke, I took Varric, Aveline and Merrill; this time around I took Isabela, Carver, and Aveline. I was delighted to hear still more new Aveline/Isabela banter, which is always my favorite in the game. Carver also had some really great content: if he's along, then he's almost as important as you, since he also has Hawke's blood, and there's some very touching reminiscing about your father. By this point in the game, I had eased up on the full-on rivalry with Carver, and we had a couple of nice sibling rapprochement scenes. (There's also some adorable dialogue where he attempts to flirt with Merrill and it goes way over her head. Aveline: "I've been there.")

For the actual endgame, I sided with the Mages again, of course; short of a desire for a completionist playthrough, I can't imagine ever siding with the Templars, and thanks to the Keep I won't need to actually do that if I want to experience what that world would be like. Knowing what was coming, I executed Anders with extreme prejudice. This time around I didn't even start his Act 3 quest "Justice" which requires you to collect various items for his "potion". Unsurprisingly, that does not change the result of his actions, but at least I could claim some psychic distance between myself and his actions. (I do think it's interesting how we as RPG players have such a Pavlovian response to automatically completing any quest that's offered to us; I think there's some potential there for a game-maker to do something interesting that rewards you for being more thoughtful about what quests you accept and not carrying out every option you are offered.)

This time around, I had fully rivaled Fenris, and so he stood by my side even after siding with the mages. That made me happy. While I disagree with Fenris's attitude towards mages, and loathe the horrible way he treats Merrill, I feel profoundly sympathetic for the abuses he has endured, so it felt good to have him on my side this time around. And, it's also just nice to have another friendly NPC body on the battlefield.

Speaking of which, I might not have caught this last time, but it was really fun to see everyone pitching in during the final battle. Not just your non-controlled party NPCs, but Cullen fights by your side from early on, and I was really happy to see Guardsman Donnic and his sideburns jump in near the end. It reminded me of the similar we're-all-in-this-together atmosphere during the fight against the archdemon at the end of Origins, where Arl Eamon, Enchanter Irving, Swiftrunner and Kardol stand by you during that epic battle.

I was struck yet again by how thoroughly melancholy the ending is. Particularly after siding with the mages: you have "won" the game and beat the villain; but Meredith was a complex and often likeable figure, not the unbridled evil of the archdemon from the first game; as your reward, you are ostracized from the city and leave to go on the run, abandoned by nearly all of your companions. I don't think that this is a bad thing, and there are lots of examples of trilogies where the middle entry ends on a similarly dark note (The Empire Strikes Back, The Two Towers [the novel]). It does make me even more curious about what The Exalted March would have been: another self-contained DLC like Legacy and Mark of the Assassin, or an extension from the end of the game (similar to Awakening) that would have given a more definitive (and uplifting?) end to Hawke's tale?

In any case, I'm looking forward to Inquisition. It sounds like it will incorporate much of the plot that was originally planned for The Exalted March, as well as wrap up some of the bigger plot threads that have been around since Origin and tell its own cool new story.


So, yeah! I've finished my Dragon Age 2 re-play-through with a good two-and-a-half months to go until Inquisition drops. I initially started this playthrough just to experience some different sides of my companions but ended up enjoying it in its own right, to the point where I started to wonder whether Faria's story would supplant Selene's as my "canon" playthrough. I ultimately decided against it; armed with foreknowledge of game mechanics and plot twists, Faria's was a "better" game that hewed more closely to my optimal outcomes; but fundamentally, Hawke's story is a tragic one, and Selene's well-intentioned disastrous fumbling resonates with me more strongly than Faria's detached, cynical triumphs.

Still, who knows... given what we know of how the Keep and Inquisition will work, if I end up playing Inquisition multiple times (and that does seem rather likely given my track record with BioWare games), I might find a place in the future for Seberin and Faria's stories to be continued. Once again, I love the sheer breadth of options available to you in these games: there isn't just a "good" and an "evil" option, but multiple levels of nuance, so even though I played through the game twice with two "good" characters, the games ended up feeling quite different. Based on what I've seen so far of Inquisition, it looks like that excellent trend will continue in the future.