Tuesday, June 08, 2021

The Big Apple

I have a short update on a very long game, and a long update on a very short game, both published by Paradox Interactive!

 I've abandoned my Feverian run of Stellaris, thanks entirely to my own stupidity. The game had been going great: my "be nice or we'll beat you up" hegemony had absorbed every single empire in the galaxy shortly after 2300, and my empire was already researching future techs. I'd vassalized and absorbed a few other empires, was the sole Council member in the Galactic Community, terraformed all my planets into Gaia worlds. And then, like an idiot, I rivaled the Fallen Empires.

I think I was remembering my previous Pacifist game, where it was surprisingly hard to get the FEs to attack me, so I wanted to start preparing the groundwork early. And I was just starting to build Gateways, so Influence was in shorter supply than ever. But of course you can't choose when the FEs will attack you. Oddly enough, it wasn't the Fanatic Xenophobes, but rather the Fanatic Materialists who came after me. Their Fleet Power was maybe 25% or so higher than mine, and at first they did the trademark brain-dead FE thing and flew away in the exact opposite direction. But once I started attacking their bases they quickly returned and annihilated me, including my brand-new Juggernaut. Alas.

It would be interesting to keep it going and try to recover, but I decided to call it a game and try something else out. During a recent Steam sale during Paradox's annual convention, they offered big discounts across their entire catalog. I picked up a handful of other Stellaris DLCs I wanted, like Distant Stars and Ancient Relics; and I also grabbed Vampire: The Masquerade: Coteries of New York, which is by another studio called Draw Distance but published by Paradox.

It was pretty big news a couple of years ago when Paradox acquired rights to the World of Darkness, which have languished since the demise of Troika. The big reveal was the proper sequel to Bloodlines, which I have been excited for and then alarmed about. But in addition to that big-budget game, Paradox has also been partnering with a surprisingly wide range of developers for lower-budget indie-esque takes on the property. I don't remember seeing an approach like that before; the closest analogue is probably Lucasfilm, making a bunch of Star Wars-themed games across a wide variety of genres and game types.

Coteries of New York was one of the (or perhaps the?) first games to come out under the new arrangement. At first blush, it looks a lot like a visual novel. It's very text-heavy, with no recorded dialogue. The vast majority of scenes show a single character standing in front of a background scene, delivering dialogue, and eventually culminating in a three-choice response from you.

 

That said, the production values are a lot higher than you'd expect from a Ren'Py-type visual novel. The backgrounds in particular are fantastic. When looking at a map of New York City, the arterial streets pulse with blood. Flickering fluorescent lights battle against downpouring rain to illuminate a darkened storefront. Dancers jump and writhe in the background of a club.


The visual design is also fantastic. The character designs are a real highlight, with the vampires looking brooding and magnetic. The city itself is wonderfully gritty; you're often just around the corner from some famous tourist spot, scraping up against the real hard edges of the city, with potholed streets and rusty drainpipes and overgrown bushes.


The overall writing and dialogue are really good. There are a handful of minor typos, and a couple of places where it seems like some lines are just skipped: you have to press "Continue" twice to advance, and then see a response without any prompt. But with so much text these minor hiccups don't really stand out. Each character has a nicely distinctive voice, recognizable motivations and personality. Almost all of the action in the game is communicated through text instead of visuals, and they do a great job at making you viscerally feel the punches and gunshots and metallic taste of blood thanks to the evocative writing.

Music is great in the game, with a mix of ambient tunes and background sound, but there are some inexplicable silent stretches in the game that made me miss it.

And the gameplay? Well, the introduction is a pure straight-up visual novel. There are lots of branching paths choose-your-own-adventure-style, but no real mechanics. Once you move into the main game, there's a bit more gameplay, but it's very light. The game really just has one mechanic, Hunger. Your Hunger increases slowly over time, and more rapidly if you take physical damage or use vampiric abilities like Presence or Fortitude. Hunger decreases when you feed on humans. I never saw what happens when Hunger gets too high, but presumably it's Very Bad.


From what I can tell, you should pretty much always Feed whenever the game gives you the opportunity to do so; these chances just come up at predefined points during specific stories, so you can't seek them out when Hunger gets high. There are a few symbols that appear on Hunger-related options, and sometimes they are unavailable, which I think might mean you have too much or too little hunger? The symbols were honestly a bit annoying, they only tell you what they mean once and you can't look it up again later, either in-game or anywhere online.


In practice, most Hunger-related situations feel like a wash. Using a vampiric power will increase Hunger while letting you avoid damage; not using the power will deal you damage and thus increase Hunger. If you Feed early in a mission, you'll probably face an encounter later that increases Hunger again. Not always, though! The game does generally make sense, and based on what you know about situations and characters, you might be able to navigate through a scenario without ever using a Power or getting injured.

All of this power and hunger and blood stuff lines up very well with my previous experiences in Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines, and presumably with the original White Wolf pen-and-paper game. Overall the game feels very lore-friendly. Stuff is explained well in-game and aligns with the overall mythology and mood of V:TM.

While hunger is the one mechanic, you do have a good amount of control over what your character does, mostly driven by mission selection. In the main part of the game, you can choose what to do each night. Most nights you can do two things, some nights only one. Usually a given subplot will have a slight pause between acts, forcing you to spread your attentions a bit instead of just following one line until its conclusion.

Unlike, say, the Shadowrun video games, you will only be able to do a limited number of sidequests during the course of the game. There are a limited number of nights, and the main plot automatically progresses on specific nights regardless of your actions. I think you're best off going "deep", picking a couple of specific stories and following them through to completion, rather than going "wide", starting a bunch of different stories. Which specific stories you follow don't seem to matter much, but at least one should probably involve recruiting coterie members.

MINI SPOILERS

Coteries of New York is good on the "choice" front, but not so good on the "consequences" side. For example, you can pick one of three characters to play as; but based on what I've seen after 1.5 playthroughs, the main part of the game is the game for all of them, with some relatively minor flavor text differences. You seem to have a lot of choices in how you progress through the introduction, but either you get railroaded into the same main plot or the game ends early. I was curious if your actions during that phase could cause you to become aligned with another faction, but it doesn't look like you can.


People do pay attention to how you treat them. For coterie members, that seems to affect whether they agree to join you or not. For other characters it affects their dialogue. Different people like different things and require particular approaches: for some people, you have to be really direct and project a tough image, while for others you have to be deferential and polite.


So, the game does track your words and actions, but that's the only thing it tracks. There aren't any items to collect or gear to upgrade or powers to learn or anything. It's all about relationships.

MEGA SPOILERS

This seems like a prime example of a "buy it on sale" game. I feel kind of bad writing that, since I always say that I want shorter games, and at about five hours for a playthrough this is actually a pretty awesome length for me. But the actual ending, while very appropriate to the lore and mood of Vampire The Masquerade, feels unsatisfying.

 


I was reminded in some ways of the Shadowrun games. In both universes, you are only a tiny insignificant pawn of far greater forces: the megacorps and the dragons of Shadowrun, or the ancient senior vampires and centuries-old traditions and societies of V:TM. I feel like the Shadowrun CRPGs do a good job at honoring this setting by emphasizing the impact you can make on a small slice of the world, even if you can't hope to change the status quo. In CoNY, you are left feeling like you had no agency or purpose at all, which is a much more deflating feeling for a player. (Though, granted, very much in line with my understanding of the tone of V:TM.)

END SPOILERS

As noted above, this game is on the short side and might be something to wishlist rather than purchase; I was really happy with it at $8, but I might have been more bummed at $20. If you really like vampires, though, this game delivers them in spades.


It's available on Steam for all computers, and on consoles, including the Switch. I actually feel like this would be an excellent game for mobile play: it's divided into nice short storytelling chunks, is text-heavy, and doesn't have any time-sensitive action gameplay. It would be great for commutes and plane flights now that we're doing those again. It's interesting to me that it isn't available for tablets or phones, since it isn't extremely technically advanced and seems like a great match for those devices.

While I didn't love this game, I did thoroughly enjoy it, and will be checking out the sequel once it's on sale too. Paradox has been publishing a bunch of World Of Darkness games, some of which seem to be even more text-heavy than this one. This seems to be a sensible direction for TTRPG adaptations, to try out a bunch of different projects with different partners aimed at different markets, rather than putting all of your eggs in one basket and hoping that a decade-long effort bears fruit.

In many ways, the visual novel (or text adventure!) adaptations seem to be closer to the experience of playing a pen-and-paper roleplaying game with a GM than a graphically-intensive first-person open-world game would be. It's all about imagination, and words can be incredibly evocative if we let them be.

Monday, June 07, 2021

Pretty Niess!

And, just like that, I've finished The Broken Earth Trilogy! The Stone Sky is the third and final entry, and it pulls off an admirable job bringing things to a satisfying conclusion. There's an interesting telescoping effect throughout the series: as we read more, we learn more about what's happening in The Stillness as the story moves forward in time; but we're also learning more about the history of the world, how things got to be this way and why. This isn't just world-building: the protagonists' only chance of making things better rests on understanding what led up to this point. For the most part we're learning things at the same time that they are, keeping a nice sense of mystery and tension through the novel.

 


 

MINI SPOILERS

 

Way back while reading the first book, I was wondering whether The Stillness was a post-apocalyptic version of our Earth. Now that the series is wrapped up, I feel fairly confident that it is not. There are definitely similarities: the geological formation of the planet is similar, as are the lifeforms, the core and mantle and crust, and a single satellite in orbit; but we go, like, forty thousands years into the past of the Stillness, and never learn of anything that's clearly from our own timeline. It seems to be a fantasy world, not our own. Which isn't to say that it has nothing to say about us! But I don't think it's a direct tie-in along the lines of, say, Planet of the Apes.

The main argument I had earlier on for the planets being the same was the similar-but-not-identical language, with words like "Comm" and "Quad" that seemed like possible descendants of English. There is interesting use of language and words throughout the series, and I think I'm missing some of their significance. I was surprised early in the second book to learn of a town named Found Moon, shortly after Essun heard about the Moon for the first time. I kept wondering why it was named that, and am still wondering at the end of the third book. It seems like it can't possibly be a coincidence.

 

MEGA SPOILERS

 

We do have a slightly clearer picture of what's up with the Guardians, though. While it isn't ever explicitly spelled out, my personal read on it is that most of the Guardians were dedicated to preserving the status quo: controlling orogenes, using them to quell most Seasons, and just surviving through the Seasons that still occur. The three Guardians in Found Moon were taken over by Father Earth and working for him; I'm not sure exactly what their mission was, but I'm guessing they were training the orogenes to turn them into weapons and eventually destroy humanity. Schaffa was then turned to a third direction, as a result of a confluence of influences: vague memories of pre-Shattering life, regret over his cumulative actions as a Guardian, and a sense of protection towards Nassun. I think he ended up with the same goals as Hoa, seeking to heal the wounds of the past, make peace with the Earth and help orogenes live in peace with stills.

As for the majority of the Guardians, my hunch is that they were somehow connected to the surviving humans on the moon who were struck by the exploding angry rock. Perhaps during that 100-year period between the failed launch and the Shattering they learned how to modify the influence of the Earth's iron shards, while keeping its power to prolong their lives and have superhuman abilities

It's interesting to think that there might have been factions even during that century, as humanity decided how best to prepare for the catastrophe. Perhaps Guardians and Lorists represented two different factions, with the Guardians as cold pragmatists and the Lorists as hopeful optimists. The Guardians' near-immortality kept their mission more or less on track through the millennia, while the Lorists' shorter and more fraught lifespans eventually stripped away much of the meaning behind their traditions.

Learning about the corruption of stonelore was really fascinating: some knowledge was just lost or forgotten, but some of it was deliberately repressed, like the Third Tablet (I think) that the Sanzed modified in order to justify their cruel treatment of orogenes. That ties in with an ongoing interest of mine about how hard it is to remain to a principle or a project across centuries, let alone millennia.

One specific piece of stonelore that we learn near the start of the first book is gates should be built out of stone instead of metal. At the time that had struck me as odd; metal is more malleable and less brittle than stone. By the end of the third book, we learn the true, forgotten reason behind that verse: it is because metal serves Father Earth, and cannot be trusted, because it could attack the inhabitants at any time. That said, it's odd to me that geologically they can trust stone: both stone and metal come from the earth, after all. I wonder if there are chemical properties of iron that make it more dangerous than stone. In real life iron is vastly more conductive, and perhaps in the world of the Stillness that means it's easier for Father Earth to control.

And man, Father Earth is terrifying! It's a trip to realize that he/it really is a sentient entity and not just a folkloric idea. Learning about what happens to dead people after they are buried in the ground is shocking and horrifying. It seems like a literal depiction of hell.

But, what Father Earth does to the souls of the dead has strong parallels to what Syl Anagist did to the Niess. Humanity did it to itself long before the Earth did. It really clarifies why Alabaster was so adamant that he not be buried after death.

Heh, I feel like I've written way too much about the backstory and nothing about the actual plot! It was really cool. I was curious how the Essun/Nassun dynamic would be resolved, it ended up being pretty sad, but in a way that felt very earned and kind of cathartic. After all of their history I would have had a hard time swallowing a happy reconciliation. I loved the focus on community, which often gets ignored or shortchanged in fantasy novels. Knowing that Castrima will survive and be able to model positive relations between orogenes and stills gives a huge amount of hope to the end of the book, despite the loss of a major character.


END SPOILERS

 

All in all, a really great series from a new (to me) author! I hadn't heard of N. K. Jemisin before, but it looks like she's written a lot of other stuff, and I'm very tempted to check more of it out. At least in this series, she really nicely threaded the needle between worldbuilding, character development, strong themes, clever twists, and excellent writing, feeding many different parts of my brain. I can't ask for more!