Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Oh shit it's been months, anyway they're in Hell


 

Here's what the players have been up to...

After polishing off the Astral Plane and the Turned Castle of the Blood Queen, they went and explored a little bit of the tunnels behind Terrifex the Purple Dragon, an ancient archdragon who, among other things, slew the titan Iat and sleeps in his crown inside a bottomless pit made by Terrifex's reality warping presence. The players found dwarf warrens and corroded broken dwarves and withered gnomes and the throne of the old earth kings, now demolished by an earth demon, which was impaled by the dwarven spear Lamix, The Holy Avenger, which deals an extra +2d10 damage to demons and has a Protection from Good and Evil aura. Maybe now hell is a good idea . . .

The Earth Demon


They knew that the third and final piece of the Skoros Orb was pulled into hell upon the death of Illith Varn. Illith Varn's severed head told them directly that a gate to hell was situated in the back of a temple to a bizarre and violent demon god whose dead adherents claim created reality. This god, Aameul,  has an Archbishop somewhere, who may know the location of the Skoros Orb's Hell Soul. And the players have been curious about Hell. A long time ago they bought a diving bell at a black market auction which can take the occupant straight to hell, and their scribe, the noblewoman Ocean Brack, took a trip one night, and came back claiming to have witnessed Castle Satan, and the great demon sphinx Cazamordias, and other wonders.

This is what the statue of Aameul looks like

So they made their way to the back of Aameul's temple and slew the demon knights guarding the hell gate. A great freestanding gate of black stone, carved with every beast and plant in creation, festooned with the living and the dead and all manner of person and creature, and filled all with smoke, which burned about them as they pushed through, and parted, to show a great cathedral decorated every inch with sculpture, and hung with a horrible icon, and before a great altar where crouched a demon of monstrous size stood a woman wreathed in bone, welcoming a line of grey pilgrims clutching the remnants of their former lives, and the pilgrims in their weary line coming through the front doors up a stair of dizzying height, for this cathedral is perched upon the spikes of a great leviathan, so vast its limits can barely be perceived, its other spikes rising like mountain ranges in the distance, and swimming through clouds of burning fire, where lightning strikes in the far distance and illuminates other leviathans, and columns of stone piercing upwards among them. Luckily there were stairs down.

And found a dungeon. This is a fun mid-sized dungeon with a chapel at its center. Demon boglarites wander its halls, but every few hours the Archbishop Aggreal holds mass, and the boglarites withdraw into the center, leaving the extremities safer to explore. This is my chance to whip out every completely nonsensical demon and hell themed art I've found over the past few years. They fought a guy named Daglaroth with a face in his chest. They fought some guys who were just triangles with knives. They fought a giant rampaging white demon. 

Triangle Guys

Daglaroth

"Boglarites"

Eventually they talked to Ser Bettany of Loigeth, a traveling knight, who told them that the shrine handmaiden above is friendly, and they went and talked to the scary bone woman. 

"Who is that, crawling from the stairs of the temple? I do not remember thee entering. Art thou denizens of the unholy realm? Such a cold, dark place, I shudder to think of it . . . Spare me thy sword, I will not harm thee. You have come by chance to a place most holy, here in the depths of Hell, the Cathedral of Great Hethradiah, Master of All Reality. Even the dark world, where thou hast crawled from.”

The Shrine Handmaiden

She is tasked with caring for all visitors to the Temple of Hethradiah. The demon on the altar is occasionally eating the dead pilgrims. She says it's okay. She tells them there is a bonfire where they can rest and get all their hitpoints back. She offers them healing services. My players are starting to really like hell.

So after taking out the boglarites and finding a few more mysterious NPCs like a melting punished guy who can't speak and a demon smith who can upgrade their weapons and deadending at a couple locked doors and learning about some artifact called The Crown of Golden Death and apparently the existence of another Archbishop somewhere in the depths of the temple who wears the crown, and learning that "He who wears the Crown of Golden Death will learn the deepest secrets of the temple," they decide to take a crack at the Archbishop himself, who's guarded by a pair of platonically bonded bodyguards named Mysander and Dydax. The players almost take them down in one round with a meteor swarm, and destroy the crystalline Occult Screen behind which the Archbishop Aggreal sits, making his pronouncements and leading mass. He's a horrible guy in rotting vestments and he has a big oversized old guy head and a rotting dog head, and he mutters some vague threat like "This cathedral will be your grave!" and his throne which is shaped like a castle sinks into the floor and opens the doors to the dungeons so the demons will come out and kill the players, and the bodyguards do a pretty good job of softening up the players, and the players run away.

Mysander

Dydax

So next they take a crack at level two. This is my chance for a more high level puzzle type dungeon. At the center of the level there's a weird statue of some demon saint and a tablet indicating that anyone who wishes to visit the Archbishop Gorgrudoch must visit the Stations of the Pilgrimage of Voyceps Moth, but the Stations Are Hidden From Sight but May Be Visited In Any Order, and there's just room after room of completely terrifying demons, like a dead dragon infested with some kind of gigantic demon parasite, and a by the book pit fiend, and a giant statue of a colossus with a hundred arms and a note next to it I forgot to delete that says "Statue comes to life," and rumors of a VEIL BEING with a paralytic gaze, and a conjured demon called VILE ANNIHILATION, so basically they're gonna be here for a while.

Veil Being

Pit Fiend

"This statue comes to life" Them: "N-Nate, there's some text there I think you forgot to remove"


But the good news is three of them are level 21 and have taken some hand-crafted epic level feats and the wizard just got access to 10th level spells and their Holy Avenger is just melting demons and we're having a ton of fun. Hell is good.


Thursday, December 3, 2020

Year end ranking off all the video games I played this year, including the ones where I only played 4-10 hours and called it (UPDATED WITH SOME OBVIOUS OMISSIONS)

But not the ones I only played like half an hour of because that's not really fair

Death Stranding 1/10 -- I hate this fucking game
Dragon Age: Inquisition 2/10 -- starts strong, completely falls apart. what is up with all the bugs? overly serious, writing is on par with the worst mediocre sci-fi channel movies. terrible game. but i got to kill a couple dragons so it has that going for it.
Assassin's Creed Valhalla 2/10 -- absolutely terrible corporate trash, I wish I hadn't given it a chance. Looks good but that's about it.
Mortal Shell 3/10 -- pretends to have the depth and cruelty of fromsoft but without the precision and originality
Control 3/10 -- bland shooter in a drab office building themed with a shallow coating of house of leaves / SCP
Uncharted: Drake's Fortune 3/10 -- this game really does not hold up well! looks bad, stilted action, leaden gunfighting, trashy story, bad monsters! i remember this being so thrilling when it came out, but in 2020 it's not good!
Animal Crossing: New Horizons 3/10 -- I don't vibe. A dear friend bought me a copy to try to get me into it, but, I don't know. It's relaxing and neat, I guess. I've seen some cool islands, but, I like those people's actual art much more than their ACNH islands, like, their drawings or cakes or whatever. Nothing against it. Just not for me. 
Kentucky Route Zero 4/10 -- Got I think one episode in and stopped. Pretty cool, just not enough gameplay for me.
No Man's Sky 4/10 -- I just don't like procedural games
Outer Wilds 4/10 -- honestly a really cool game but weirdly empty, I don't know. seems cool. 
Final Fantasy 7: Remake 4/10 -- fuck this game, however, I had fun with this
God of War (2018) 4/10 -- fuck this game too. "Father! Father! Father look at this! Father up there!" I hate that kid, he shoulda died
The Witcher 3 4/10 -- seems on the surface like I'd love it but the endless cutscenes, the witcher vision, the way geralt bounces all over the place in combat instead of just doing what I want him to... fuckkk
Horizon Zero Dawn 5/10 -- beautiful, vivid, but boring
Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout 5/10 -- funny, vivid, lonely
Spelunky 2 5/10 -- aggressively cruel but fun little puzzle box
Dragon Quest XI 5/10 -- completely empty and stupid plays-itself RPG. I don't regret the time I spent on this game, I guess
New Super Mario Bros. Wii U Deluxe 6/10 -- it's good, but treads too much of the same ground. Lacks the sense of exploration or weirdness of Super Mario World, not as tight as Super Mario 3. I don't know, it's good.
Resident Evil 2: Remake 6/10 -- this game is cool. Creepy and gross and sometimes scary, however, I feel like it falls apart as soon as you leave the mansion, and it's downhill from there. I didn't manage to play the second run. 
Ghost of Tsushima 6/10 -- Jin Sakai is hot, he's good with a sword, fun and beautiful island, it's just so long and monotonous though
Super Mario Sunshine 6/10 -- what is up with this game? I can't get into it but it seems fun. I have a soft spot for Mario...
The Last of Us Part Two 6/10 -- I dragged this game through the mud but in retrospect it was really fun. the story is just vapid, thinking about it makes me stupider, and I have a hunch it's a zionist narrative, which others have also picked up on, and which makes the stupidity of the story even grosser to think about. but it looks so good... I don't know.
Hades 7/10 -- Okay so this game rocks. Slick, fast, looks great, plays great, great writing, great acting. You can skip the story and get straight to the action, or you can get to know all the characters and get immersed in their stories and relationships. Its vivid and iridescent colors look truly new, and the variety of playstyles available in the different weapons are fantastic. However... chance-based rogue-like games like this one arouse a compulsive/addictive tendency in myself I really don't enjoy. Plus, the resolution of the story feels much more limited than I expected, and doesn't really meet the promise it appeared to make near the beginning. And finally, eventually I found the levels to be unpleasantly repetitive, with not nearly enough variation or scope to keep me interested past credits. I don't want to downplay this game's accomplishments though, it's really fantastic.
Red Dead Redemption 2 7/10 -- looks amazing, great writing, fun shooting, slow-paced in a way I have trouble breaking into on a casual weeknight, occasionally gates me out of stuff I want to do, like, just turn in a quest or something, because the game has a story to tell. I'm only on chapter 3, still having fun but its welcome is wearing thin . . . another ride and shoot mission? what's with the forced slow walk? why is there so little to discover out in the world? I could see this one's rating swinging up or down depending on how it goes from here
Doom Eternal 7/10 -- fun, hard, stressful, gross, good game
Disco Elysium 8/10 -- Now here's a good game. An incredibly engaging and original sci fi noir world with a fascinating protagonist. Looks great, amazing writing, amazing acting. Why did I stop playing this game?
Persona 5 8/10 -- got about 8 hours in and bought the Royal Version, haven't touched it since. seems great!!
Super Mario Galaxy 8/10 -- great game, what can I say! fun, exciting, imaginative, but misses the sense of exploration and relaxation of the other 3d mario games, especially Odyssey and 64.
Nioh 2 8/10 -- this game stressed me the fuck out but I beat the first go of it. twitchy, HARD, fun, cool, slick, weird, embraces player freedom, also truly obsessive in a way I admire. good game.
Dark Souls 3 9/10 -- Fromsoft does it again. A massive, beautiful, strange world, full of people and situations and monsters and incredible bosses. Astonishingly the DLC is even better than the main game. Hard, but never too hard. Great game.
Inside 9/10 -- this game fucks. Play it if you haven't.
Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild 9/10 -- Incredible game, the only truly original and fun open world game I've ever played.
The Last of Us (Part One) 9/10 -- Starts so understated, turns into a beautiful, authentic, moving story. Magnificent game.
Final Fantasy VII 10/10 -- Okay honestly this is probably more like 8/10 but I can't break through the diamond-hard shield of nostalgia surrounding this one. Falls apart a little at the end, but really, it's a moving and beautiful story, the fighting is perfect, the world is so cleverly written, Cloud is an icon, and of course, Sephiroth... Sephiroth!!! Tifa! Aeris!! These characters are like old friends etched into the foundations of my psyche. But also it's a great game. Don't fight me on this one I'll cry.
Bloodborne 10/10 -- So strange, dark, fast, gory, and fun. The level design so tight and deliberate, its imagining of different planes of existence so original and terrifying. Always riding just on the edge of overwhelming difficulty, with always a chance for breakthrough. In scope sometimes I feel like this game is less than the Dark Souls games, but it accomplishes such a vivid and original world that I can't help but rank it above. Phenomenal game.
Super Mario 64 10/10 -- The Best. Years later, so tight, so fun, so focused on freedom, and so willing to do something simple as well as possible. Such a joy. And the music! Great game.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Three situations

 BELL TRAP


A big metal bell sitting on the ground in the middle of a room, inscribed with obviously magical dwarven runes which say something like "DANGER! KEEP OUT! NO ONE ALLOWED!" If it senses any movement in the room (with magic blindsight, so invisibility or silence doesn't work), it gongs, automatically dealing a large amount of damage to anyone in the room and in the hallways up to the turns, and inflicting deafness if they fail their save. The bell then has a lingering tone that lasts for a minute, during which it cannot gong. After one minute, it resets.

This distracted my players for about two hours and and inflicted a humongous amount of damage.

BLOOD SHAFT







This one's a little more complicated. Both of these maps are vertical maps, you're looking at a side view. Each square is ten feet, and the rooms are square from the top down, so the top shaft is 30' square and 160' high and the bottom shaft is 50' square and about 25' high. Red squares are doorways. 

Players start in the bottom room.  A red carpet runs along the floor, up the wall, and to the doorway in the ceiling. Blood drips down in a steady rain through the square opening and soaks into the spongy, porous ground, which grows weird pink flowers. The vertical shaft above is smooth stone wall except for the red carpet, which continues to run up the wall to the closed door. The shaft is completely filled with this blood, which is dripping from innumerable small cracks in the ceiling. The dripping blood acts as an anti-magic field--it suppresses anything magical it drips on, cancelling spells, magic items, summoned monsters, and so on, and no spells can be cast into the area of the dripping blood, including teleportation. The blood can be cleaned off an item with an action, as long as it's outside the dripping area. It takes a little longer to clean a whole person, I'd say maybe a minute, unless they can think of something else. The antimagic blood loses its properties after ten minutes.

At the very top of the shaft is a metal guard box. Arrow slits are set in the bottom of the guard box in a square pattern, which can be opened and closed with a simple sliding mechanism. The sides of the guard box are open doorways, though the players probably can't see that from the bottom of the shaft. Inside the guard box are four low level vampires with crossbows and swords. They also have with them four giant spike balls attached to chains, which they can use an action to shove out the guard box, dealing a large amount of damage to anyone in a line underneath them. They can then use a winch to draw the spike ball back up over a minute, or release the chain with a release mechanism, causing the chain to drop to the floor.

This entertained my players for about a session and a half. They were really stumped for a while, but thought to smoke out the vampires by building a fire at the bottom of the shaft, using the smoke for cover, and hauled in a reverse gravity boulder to drop upwards onto the guard box, breaking the arrow slits. From there it was a pretty simple brawl, until they found the very next room where four elite vampire knights camped, but we won't get into that here.

BLOOD RAVE


Oh yeah this one's pretty fun. 

Blood soaked room. This room is filled with sleeping, quiescent vampires, naked and slick, wet with black blood that’s slowly dried into clotted mud. There are over a hundred of them, these are the sleeping reservoir of Queen Tetranoska’s nobility. Every few days they awaken, screaming and shrieking, and begin churning against each other, their eyes open and the clots crack, and the reservoir in the ceiling cracks open, blood comes spraying down, and the vampires, screaming in ecstasy, perform an ecstatic dance of incredible violence for two to four hours, and then turn back to their slumber.


This room is filled with 128 fully statted vampires. However they are sleeping, so their passive perception is 9. If they awaken, it takes them two rounds to shake off sleep, and then 1d4+2 will come searching for the source of the sound. If they’re all awakened into blood lust, then they’ll come surging as a nightmare mass of starved and violent vampires. They only have enough energy to chase for 1d4 minutes, after which they’ll begin to slow and stumble, give up the chase, and return to room 16.


If engaged during a blood rage, they’ll be at full power! and run freely through the entire castle for 2-4 hours.


Scattered on the floor are severed body parts, pulped guts, mashed eyes, and some jewelry worth 3000 gp.


My players did manage to encounter the vampires during a blood rave, and did have to run through the castle ahead of 128 screaming maniac vampires.

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Intractibility

So I was playing around in Assassin's Creed Valhallha, I was craving a big medieval open world to roam around in and this one is getting good reviews. Never played an Assassin's Creed game before, they seem bad. 

I speedrun through the tutorial area (too much snow, too many mountains) and come to England, it's really big, the map is vibrant and inviting, there's treasure everywhere, cool towers and ruins, and a lot of hackneyed side quests and boring fully voice-acted cutscenes. This is fine. I realize that I need some more resources to upgrade my town, and the solo quests I've been doing haven't been cutting it. Now the game introduced the concept of raiding to me when I got to England, basically me and all my homies get on a boat and go kill monks and take their stuff, and the game suggested it's a good way to get town upgrades. It's pretty fun but a little clumsy, I just want to explore by myself. 

So I find a monastery. The game is stealth focused, there's a whole stealth upgrade tree, and the monastery is keyed as a "distrust" area, meaning I won't be attacked on sight as long as I'm careful. Maybe I can sneak in and find the golden treasures marked on my map without a raid. 

I quickly find a secret entrance by the river, sneak in, kill the unsuspecting guard with a new sneak attack, and find a new ability book in a crypt. Nice. I climb out of this crypt and find myself in a well populated monastery, there's monks and guards everywhere, but they don't seem to notice or care that I just broke through a locked door. That's fine.

After pinging my search vision tool, I can see the treasures are inside a couple well-guarded buildings. I stalk around the outside of these buildings and find a stained glass window. I remember shooting arrows at windows early on to break in to some buildings, these guards seem pretty credulous so I'll give it a try. The glass shatters, revealing iron bars on the inside preventing my passage.

Okay... so that won't work. That's fine. I circle around to the front door. There's a prompt that says "Force open." Okay, I'll give it a try. My dude then braces against the door with one shoulder and gestures to his comrades WHO AREN'T EVEN THERE and says, "Hey, give me a hand with this." He's leaning there, openly preparing to break down the door, and nobody nearby says or does anything.

I teleported all the way back to my town, grabbed my warriors, sailed our sailboat all the way back through the canals to the monastery, and did the scenario like I was supposed to. It was easy and I didn't have to think for a second about how to succeed.

So that's intractibility.

Sunday, November 8, 2020

Zelda: Breath of the Wild

 The more open world games I play the more I respect and love this game. On my first play through, when it was released, I was disappointed -- no classic Zelda style dungeons, no massive and epic Zelda style bosses, no triforce, no Ganon as a character, little story-line, few villages, all the things I loved weren't here. I wanted something like Link to the Past in 3d, and got this strange exploration wandering ramble game instead. I smashed through it in about a week, went "Huh," and parted ways. I liked it but was disappointed.

After an additional play-through on master mode, and yet another play-through on normal, and many tries at 3d open-world adventure games (Witcher 3, Dragon Age Inquisition, Horizon Zero Dawn, Ghost of Tsushima, probably others) I can confidently say I adore this game, it's really one of the best, and I have no idea how they pulled it off. It's so good. All those other games simply can't compete, this game is tactile, patient, beautiful, respects the player, respects freedom, and respects PLAY as a concept for its own sake.

FREEDOM AND TRACTABILITY

These are two related concepts. A game that allows freedom of play is improved by posing scenarios and problems that are tractable. In Zelda, this freedom is provided to the player right off the bat, and then increased in ever increasing doses, until the full scope of the game is shown. The player is able to wander anywhere they like, so long as they are willing to endure or solve the many problems the world poses them. And as for the problems, nearly every problem is an environmental puzzle that can be solved from any number of different directions, and can be influenced and chipped away at by the player's many tools, depending on which of them they prefer to use. 

This is truly unique. So many games have a feeling of flatness to them, a sense that the world is made to be approached from one direction of the other. Zelda's willingness to accommodate player ingenuity lets the world be a true exploration. You're never just filling in the blanks. At every moment in the game--literally almost every moment--the player is given the freedom to choose how to move and what to do.

Even combat embraces this. Areas of monsters are bounded but open, they live in vertical tiered areas that give them advantages you can overcome with your many powers, they're surrounded by cliffs and exploding barrels, the grass can burn, lightning can strike and be manipulated, oftentimes you're greatly outnumbered but even this can be exploited with your bombs and wands and spin attacks and rune spells.

This is helped by the game's difficulty. Death happens quickly if you get hit by a powerful monster or fall in a swamp. Even on my third play-through, I find myself dissuaded by areas of higher difficulty. Towers of black moblins, lynels, guardian walkers, and so on, are too much for my measly six hearts one upgrade armor. By knowing the penalty for carelessness, the player is allowed freedom to avoid or mitigate these problems however they like. Climb a mountain to get around it, drink a stealth potion to sneak, drop rocks from above, pick them off with bombs from afar, or whatever. The game never pulls its punches.

My friend Nick, who introduced me to this concept of tractability in games, has this to say on the issue:

"If you've ever played a video game and been frustrated the hero can't try to climb over a fence, you've experienced intractability. A tractable world rewards you for paying attention to what the dm describes. 'Oh wait, i remember there was a big delicious looking ham with a big poker fork jabbed into it two rooms back. I'll bet we could use it to prop this door open." So when the world is tractable, you're rewarded for paying attention to the world, and you're rewarded for being thoughtful and imaginative about how to engage with it, and combine different pieces of it.

When the world is intractable, when the answer is "no, there's nothing you can pick up in the opulent dining room" or "no, you can't pull the curtains loose, they're stuck" or "no, there's no way to knock over the throne even though you have that scroll of 'knock over chair'" it punishes you for paying attention, or for thinking creatively, because you've wasted your own and everyone else's time by trying to do something other than hitting the orc with your axe. Because the energy you spent figuring out how to build a trap out of living room furniture could have been spent on looking at your phone, or just saying "sure, i'll look at that" about whatever the dm points you to. If you tell me it's a crudely constructed raft, don't be mad if i try to saw through the ropes holding it together while the villain is giving his speech

The things players think of to do to your perfect dollhouse world will almost always be dissonant with what you imagined, if what you imagined was a specific kind of story."

LACK OF INTERRUPTIONS

Accompanying this is a wonderful lack of cut-scenes. So many of these fully voiced open-world games feel like a stutter-stop slow-motion tv show. You're wandering, you're exploring, and then you meet a guy who wants to tell you about a quest, and the game turns into very low quality tv. And sometimes these strings of cut scenes last forever. I end up clicking through all the dialogue as fast as i can to get to the gameplay, as these games go on usually the story gets more and more muddled.

So not only are you able to go wherever the fuck you want, but also the game gives you very few interruptions.

Not to mention the tendency in these big AAA open world games to have the "interact vision." In Witcher its Witcher Vision, in Dragon Age its the L3 search scan, in Horizon its the I don't even remember what it's called, but you press a button and it highlights what you need to look at. It turns from a game of freedom into a game of treading the path the game has made for you. Press X to examine the campfire and hear a voiceover say something terse like "Coals are cold, they must have moved on", press X to examine the belongings and hear the voice say, "Blood on the cloth, but its not theirs..." etc etc. It's tedious, and more importantly there's not really anything for the PLAYER to do with this information.

In Zelda, when the game provides the player information, the vast majority of the information is useful and relevant. And what information is not useful or relevant, is beautiful, funny, strange, moving, and always, always brief. You can move on if you want.

IMMEDIACY

Every moment is immediate, your contact with the world and its contents are tactile and direct. You stand on a hill and see a distant landmark, you can immediately strike out for it, your vision reaches all the way across the map, the delay in starting your journey can be none if you want. The controls are quick and responsive, your paraglider snaps out very quickly, Link turns on a dime, his attacks are clean and executed immediately, and you can always tell where he is, somehow. He spins and twirls, he snaps to attention, he hops, he doesn't have the range of movement of Mario but there is still that feeling of smoothness and never having any doubt what he's doing or where he is. Maps open and close with no delay, your magic powers are conjured as fast as you can think them. When you select your weapons and tools, the game is paused or so slowed down as to be nearly paused, paradoxically this makes the game more immediate, there's no fumbling or needing to ready your tools before a fight, everything is at your fingertips the moment you need them.

Gathering resources too. You see a mushroom, it has its glinting spark to denote its status as resource, and as soon as you press the button it moves into your inventory, there is a little tune that plays to let you know it worked. So many of these open world games struggle with this. Some of them, you have to click to open containers, even herbs out in the world, and then move through a little menu to gather the item, even if it's just one item. Zelda avoids containers completely--the only containers in the world are chests, which are their own reward, beautiful little objects that click open, they always give you something pretty good. Everything else is just out in the world to grab. Weapons are lying on logs, propped in places where monsters can quickly grab them, or displayed for you. Sometimes items are hidden inside crates, but these are mostly inconsequential and rare enough that they are little bonuses: an apple that gets roasted by your bomb, an arrow or two, just a bonus really. 

Ambling over the landscape also has that sense of immediacy, I don't know how they capture it. You have a sense that you're really there, moving over the contours of the hills, drenched in rain, the clap of thunder. I guess it's an accumulation of concrete details. The grass parting as you move through it, insects and wildlife darting away from you, the sound of Link's footsteps (I read in an interview that they considered Link footsteps one of the most important sounds in the game, always present and always giving you information about where you are). If you need to get up a cliff, there's no delay in climbing it, vertical movement is just as natural as walking, if a little bit slower. Maybe part of it is the movement of the weather and the movement of the days, there is always movement around you, but there is always a sense of stillness, that you are at the center of something very huge and still and alive, and you are the main actor. It's remarkable.

PLAYER CHOICE AND DESIRE, AND CONNECTION TO SELF

Similar to player freedom. I find that this game works best when I'm connected to my own desires, and encourages me to be connected to myself. Do I want to go THIS direction or THAT direction? It feels like the game wants me to be present, wants me to play the game in the way that I want to play, and wants me to enjoy it. The more present I am with this game, the more pleasurable it is. Many games either ignore this element, or go in the opposite direction. They either guide the player at every moment, or create hard guard-rails to prevent us from moving to the wrong place, or like many games these days, try to hook us into cycles of addiction and gambling, like in Blizzard's games, or other games of chance, like the very excellent and recent Hades, which I loved but found I needed to fight against the impulse or repetition and gambling. There is none of that here, it is a relief.

MORE ON THE DETAILS

There are so many of them, the character models and creatures, the items are so detailed, so carefully rendered. I'm always finding new details. You get the sense that this place has a real history, however, there is also a feeling that this was created by interested, compassionate artists. 

The characters themselves are a little strange and a little credulous, and quite varied. They want specific things, they are on specific missions, they seem to think and have opinions about themselves and the plight they're in, their world and each other. They're quite afraid of things that give you no pause. To Link, monsters are mostly speedbumps or puzzles, but to the people they are terrors. 

The world is full of so many details. Ruined columns, places, garrisons, villages that seem to have history. There's a good chance that someone you meet will comment on these places. I should note that there is not the level of detail in a Dark Souls game, those game builds its world with a level of concrete detail unmatched. I think Zelda is trying to build a somewhat less idiosyncratic world, more of a puzzlebox to crawl through than a harsh and menacing baroque dungeon. 

The landscape itself is varied, it contains a level of detail I have trouble understanding. Its contours are obviously deliberate, it moves to obscure and to suddenly open up, its folds contain secret chests and places (not to mention the shrines), it relaxes and then thrusts upwards into menace. And it's always inviting, even when there are obstacles (cliffs, heat, ice, lava) there is always the invitation to overcome them. 

LETS SEE WHAT ELSE

Hyrule Castle is one of the best open world dungeons ever executed. It embraces Zelda's open world design--it's inviting, large, dangerous, you can approach it from any angle at any time, it's full of secrets, details, and treasure, and you can use any number of your resources and tools to solve it. It has a variety of bosses and unique treasures, and a fascinating vertical design: the point is to get to the top.

The more involved and difficult quests are very fun, especially because there are only a few of them. Stumbling across puzzles out in the world is a surprise, and a good break from the core exploration.

What story there is, is fairly surprising. Zelda's misgivings and doubt are fairly compelling, surprisingly dark for the game you're playing. They don't quite manage to overcome the simplicity of the game world and the lack of detail about Ganon and the Calamity, but they're good, and even better than that, they're brief, and can be avoided or skipped if you don't feel like it.

A FEW QUIBBLES

The Shrines are pretty good but they are too short, for the most part. They don't satisfy my craving for complicated indoor place, for dungeons. I like finding them and stumbling across them but they are brief. They are supposed to be brief of course, and not to be too interrupting. But they are an interruption: the lengthy little cutscenes that play every time you enter and finish a shrine, I skip them every time because they are always the same. Also, every time I find a combat trial, I am disappointed. I've already done this! I don't need to be tested again. If you're giving me a combat trial, give me something new: a difficult string of enemies, a difficult combat situation, even a new boss. Fighting the same robot over and over with very small variations gets old.

Not the mention the Korok Seeds. They are fun to complete, varied enough that it doesn't get really old, easy enough that you don't have to struggle, that I'm never irritated. But... they don't serve enough of a purpose. Expanding inventory is a coveted power, but every time I find a Korok Seed I feel a twinge of disappointment. What else could it be instead? Dark Souls has shown that it could be a strange piece of loot, a new strange weapon, or a scrap of information about the world, or a spell. Ghost of Tsushima has shown us that it could be new customization options. I know the game wants to keep it simple, nevertheless that Korok Seeds have that sense of just filling in the blanks that the rest of the game manages to avoid.

While the sneaking is lots of fun, the stealth missions are trash. The sneaking in Zelda works when there is a soft fail-state -- being found means you have to fight. When failing at sneaking turns into a flat game over, like it does in a couple missions, the game gets bogged down, it turns boring and frustrating. I hate those missions. Luckily, there are very few of them.

The Divine Beast dungeons really seem out of step with the rest of the game, to be honest. Here, the lack of variety in monsters and environments begin to show. They're made of the same material ("stone?") which strips you of one of your core powers--climbing; they all have the same robot monsters and eye-bats and slime and moblins and so on that the rest of the game has, and most egregious, they all have the same boss. Granted the boss' different forms and powers are varied, nevertheless it is the same creature, a personality-less elemental without a face, but bearing Ganon's signature shock of red hair, now so far removed of Ocarina of Time that it's stripped of its meaning. They are fun puzzle boxes, but have more of the feeling of needing to go through the motions to solve the puzzles than the rest of the game. I do like that you need to prepare for them like you do for the rest of the game: must ready potions and food and arrows, and if you run out or aren't prepared, it's going to be an uphill battle or you'll have to leave and come back.

I hoped for more classic Zelda dungeons, and I think they could be completed in a style more in line with Hyrule Castle. Giant lightning struck towers, swamp filled skulls, I don't know what else. A 3d literalization of the promise made by Link to the Past. You don't need to strip Link of the power to climb if the dungeons take place indoors underground, this is the power of dungeons! They could even use and exploit his climbing, I have to do this in Dungeons and Dragons because I know my players can and will climb anything. I get around this with bottomless pits, damaging slime, spike pits, vertical shafts, areas of antimagic, they could have got really creative with this. Hyrule Castle shows that they could have, and I wish they had.

Ganon's lack of personality does seem like a drawback. Hyrule's decline feels sudden and meaningless. What exactly is this ancient evil that it's grappling with? It doesn't have the marks of tragedy or evil, instead the Calamity feels just like something really bad that happened, like a war, or a virus maybe, except war has human meaning built in by the motivations of the people in power, and virus as we have learned has meaning by how humans respond to something truly alien and inhuman. I've always enjoyed Ganon as a person, someone with feelings and desires, and his various depictions in the games, particularly Ocarina of Time and Wind Waker, have been a lot of fun. Here, they try to split the difference by depicting Ganon as a prophesied force, but still give him a name and a monstrous face. A game without a villain seems a little reduced. And his form as a robot spider demon is pretty absurd. Why does he take this form? What on earth is going on here? He's pretty fun to fight, I guess, but more silly than truly menacing, like Pennywise's giant spider-clown form. Did he inhabit some piece of machinery that Zelda was working on? Is he another Divine Beast? These details are never filled in. Ganon never does anything -- his victory is complete, so he is a static entity, and the only remaining threat is Zelda's death, which is like, she's been fine for a hundred years, it seems like she can handle a few more years.

Plus there's a lack of concretization to the drama alluded to. We're told early on that Zelda is in Hyrule castle, "battling" Ganon, or keeping him under control. But when you finally get there, there's no struggle really happening. There's no, like, crystal that she's contained in, or Zelda standing in front of a magic seal, or fighting him with her triforce mark, or whatever it could be. What exactly is she trying to accomplish, again, the whole time you're playing the game? Ganon has already won, the bomb went off and everyone died. The time pressure is not convincing. You fight Ganon's minibosses in his throne room, and then you fight his spider form in the dungeons, and then Zelda appears, or something? It doesn't make sense.

BUT WITH ALL THAT

The game is so relaxing, so beautiful, so big and beautiful, so immediate, so detailed, the music so good, the characters so full of personality, the landscape so varied and full of secrets, that simply playing this game is a joy. All you need to do is log in, point yourself in the direction you find most appealing, and you'll find adventure. I don't know any game that manages to capture this feeling of boundless exploration, of an entire world at your fingertips to explore, and to execute it honestly. After countless hours playing this game I'm still finding new secrets and new places and new details, and I'm still enjoying re-exploring the places I've completed twice before simply by virtue of how pleasurable it is to just play. Simply an exceptional game, one of the true best.

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

On scrying

 I like scrying a lot. When my players scry on an NPC, it's a great chance to show them some aspect of the characters that I want them to know, but that it wouldn't make sense for them to learn just through interacting with the characters. I usually don't give up big secrets when my players successfully scry. I prefer to leave that up to piecing together clues. But I do like to give hints and clues towards secrets, and information on the social lay of the land for the character they scry on.

Here's a few examples:

PRINCE ABION PELIOTH, PSYCHIC VAMPIRE PRINCE

PART ONE

Abion had the players go on a quest to the Astral Plane, and his psychic powers let him know that they had captured the Skoros Orb, which he wanted. He ambushed the players in his throne room and they escaped, but Abion and his minions didn't tell the players why they did that. I want the players to understand their enemies' motivations, but sometimes it just doesn't make sense for them to scream "I'm betraying you for this reason!" So after they escaped, they scryed on him, and I made up a short scene of Abion on in his throne-room, dressing down his mindflayer vizier for failing to capture the players, and saying something like, "They have the Skoros Orb!! It called to me in the darkness!! I must have it!!" and for good measure, threw in, "No one must know of this, especially my mother......." That way the players have insight into not only why they were kidnapped, but get a little piece of political terrain revealed to them. 

PART TWO

After the players killed Abion's mother, the Queen, and escaped again, they scryed on Abion to see what was up. I had already decided that in case of the Queen's death, Abion would be first in line for the throne, but that his older sister Ordelia considers herself more capable and deserving. I personally don't think this is very relevant to the players at this point, but they wanted to know what was happening, so I made up a scene in the Queen's throne-room: the throne-room is filled with a sea of the Queen's blood (still pouring from her severed neck) while vampire servants try to bail out the tower, and Ordelia and Abion are verbally fencing before the throne. Abion says something like, "When I'm crowned in the morning, finally I'll be able to lead this kingdom to true greatness" and Ordelia says something arch like, "Will you brother? Be careful you do not stumble along the way" or whatever. Again, this is to show the players the immediate after-effects of their actions (tower filled with blood), as well as what will happen if the players don't intervene (Abion crowned king, Ordelia attempting subterfuge to stop him).

THE DEADBOYZ

The players have been scrying on their rival party consistently throughout the campaign, after getting their hands on one of their water bottles. This has typically not turned up very good information -- I want finding the Deadboyz to be pretty tough to find. Once I gave the players a view of an upcoming room where the Deadboyz were making camp: a frozen lake with a barbed wire fence crossing it. This gave them something to look forward to as they explored the dungeon.

Later, I was able to show them a truly bizarre scene: the Deadboyz' rogue cooking a meal in an idyllic cabin, natural sunshine coming through the windows, when their antipaladin enters, covered head to toe in blood and holding a severed head. In the game, they had made camp inside a magic painting which was inside a magic mirror, but at this point the players had no idea what to do with this information. The result is that when the players DID find the magic painting inside the magic mirror, they had a truly excellent a-HA moment as they understood what they had seen.

NO OTHER EXAMPLES SPRING TO MIND

But it's always a good opportunity when the players manage to scry. I don't have to give everything away, but I can give away some very helpful and interesting information, and come up with details to illuminate the characters.

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Dragon story

 In a glimmering cave filled with carved heads, a big lizard with a hot belly is draped around a stalagmite. His belly is red, his eyes are red, and he can breathe fire, and his wings are draped. They are resting on him like folded tarps, trailing a little bit in the dust on the ground. There is a cage hanging from the ceiling by a silver thread, the cage twists left for a while and then right for a while. Inside it is a small dog, the dragon's fair friend, who the dragon does not allow to leave.

There are also red markings on the floor and the walls in the shape of men, or people, marching every which way. They carry spears and shields, they are coming to slay the dragon. He does not fear the markings.

There is no way in or out except a small hole in the ceiling, which the dragon can crawl up to on the walls, his wings hanging limply down like clothes on a hanger, as his rigid claws grasp the stalactites and striations in the cave walls and allow him to climb up to the hole. Up there can be seen the many stars embedded in the flint sky, it is always dark when the dragon goes out of the hole.

The carved heads are of very old men with broad faces and no hair. They are all scowling. No one knows who put them there. They are gazing every which way. Some of them are a little bit bigger than the others. They are not carved from the stalagmites. The carved heads were brought in a long time ago and left there in a deliberate pattern, as if this was an art gallery. Although the hole in the ceiling is too small to fit the heads through, and there is no other way in or out.

When the dragon crawls out of the hole he emerges in a conifer forest. The smell is of sweet wind and wood branches. He climbs then up a tree that he knows well, the tree is sturdy and old and its branches are well placed for his claws. Have you ever seen an alligator climbing a tree? You would think it impossible. But he is able to stretch and grasp nimbly, though not swiftly. And he comes through the pine branches to grip the top of the tree and up there to take a moment to gain his balance, the tree moving left and right underneath it, and the forest all spread out in all directions, dark and running over the mountains underneath the night sky, and a warm breeze coming opposite the direction where the dragon wants to go. He lets his wings trail out behind him and then catch the wind, his wings that are at first like crumpled cloth and then like sails, which the dragon tucks and maneuvers to better catch the wind. They are arrayed behind him, much bigger than the dragon, and thin, and the dragon lets himself get caught by the wind, and carried into the sky.

Up into the twinkling sky. Where there are mounded and sparkling white clouds. And far below it there is the dark forest, now just a dark patch in a crumpled and dark landscape. Crumpled like a blanket on a bed, crossed with a single shining river, and there a patch of sparks, which are the windows of houses, not all asleep at this hour of the night. The dragon allows his wings to carry him, through strips and tatters of cold cloud. He twists his long neck to look behind him and below him, checking for whether he is being followed, though he could not say what would follow him. The silver thread of the river shined on the black landscape, curving in slow turns as if a boy had been ambling over the hills with a downturned teapot, allowing the water to fall where he happened to stroll. 

When below him the dragon could see, far below him now, the houses of the small village, built in a flat place in the land and bordered by square fields of different shades of black, he flexed his wings so they could not catch wind and allowed him to fall, and land on a house, which broke under his weight, so that he landed in a pile of roofing and part way on a broken wooden wall of a house, the sound of which he did not really register, only noticing that he was now where he meant to be. A person was under his red belly and he moved aside and put his leg on the person and crushed it to death. Then the dragon parted his lips and allowed the fire to drift from his open mouth. It drifted like a slow fog, moving about him like a glimmering yellow fog, but where it touched house, sprang up into a cunning fire, and made him warm.

Thereupon the dragon moved from the house into the streets of the village. Street lamps and a fountain were there in the village. There was screams of the people who screamed at the sight of him. And the fire drifted from his mouth and spread across the dusty earth like ghosts, and took up post in the houses, and burned them. If he happened to see a person, he would let the fire catch them, so that they would die. He stepped into the fountain with one foot and let the fountain burn up into steam. The steam went up around him and surrounded his body and then was also burned away by the fire, leaving him standing in an empty square.

This is how it went for a time. The dragon crawling down narrow streets and over stone walls and into the burning sides of broken houses. Many people were burned up and died. Some men came with bows and stood at a fair distance, at an intersection beside a street sign on which a little flame danced, and they sent arrows at the dragon, but the arrows could not pierce his scales. For he looked like a lizard, but is dense and hard as the densest metal at the center of the earth. The dragon opened his mouth and sent his fire onto the men, who screamed and died.

When the village was fairly burnt up and destroyed from the river to its outer walls, where the dark fields spread out into low hills lit up by the yellow light of the fires, the dragon made his way to the river, and dipped his mouth into the water, and drank it up. The cold river water, heavy with thick river stink, reeds, black algae, water hopping insects, tadpoles, fish, frogs, herons and egrets, and all other river things, reversed course at the power of the dragon's drinking, and were drawn up into the dragon's belly, leaving a trench of bad smelling mud. 

The dragon, his red belly now swollen tight like a red balloon, went then to the village church, and climbed up the walls of the church, just as he had in his cavern, and up the roof of the church up to its high steeple, where was affixed a metal cross. The dragon then broke the cross from the roof with his claws and held it, and opened his wings again, and let himself be lifted into the air. Below him was the remains of the destroyed village, burned and crushed, belching columns of black smoke, and crossed with the deep trench of what used to be its river. The dragon did not look at this.

He let himself drift a ways away from the village and dropped the church cross into a patch of trees, and then stirred his wings, and flapped them like a bird flaps his wings, propelling himself through the night air, now sinuous as a snake over the crumpled landscape no longer split by the silver river, and came through the air to his conifer forest, where he dropped to the tree that he knew, and to the forest ground covered in boulders and branches, and folded his wings, and found the crack in the earth where his cavern was, and crawled head-first down into the crack. He could barely fit into the crack because be was so swollen with the river, and spent a long time easing his way through the crack, his swollen red belly scraping on the outcrops of stalactites, but shortly made his way into his cave filled with carved heads and red markings and his cage held by a silver thread with his dog in it. He sent his tongue into the cage of the dog and touched the dog's head, and the dog shivered, because it was cold in its cage. 

Thereupon the dragon laid himself down in the hollow where he had begun the night and did not sleep and kept his eyes open, and digested the river, and thought no thoughts at all.