March 15, 2008

The Worst Ever

My exciting GDC coverage continues with the dream I had the night before getting on the plane. I dreamt, to my massive humiliation, about this:

I would never have played this following my terrible experience with Neverwinter Nights 2 if not for the significant critical praise lavished upon its story and also the fact that I had bought it already. I will be perfectly straight with you: is this expansion to a cliched mess in fact the best RPG in years and in terms of writing, second only to genre classic Planescape: Torment? The answer, my friends, is yes! Wait, what does "yes" mean again? Oh, right: no.

It is easy to be fooled. Neverwinter Nights 2 looked like this:

and was about dungeons and dragons. Mask of the Betrayer looks like this:

and is about dreaming, love and betrayal. And I think there's something about a mask in there also, I don't recall. To better make the point, the first four companions you find in Neverwinter Nights are these guys:

It is sadly easier to find fan-art and nude skins for that third character than an actual screenshot. Anyway, their Mask of the Betrayer counterparts:

Among the bullet points on the back of the box detailing Mask of the Betrayer's accomplishments over its predecessor, it seems like "creativity" ought to be on there. This is perfectly interesting stuff, and it clearly uses Torment as a template. A personal, tragic, small-scale epic with a heavy philosophical bent. That's a plus. Unfortunately, it's kind of the only one, and it doesn't last very long. Apparently when Obsidian drew on Torment as an influence the only thing they inferred was:

without realising its incompatibility with Neverwinter Nights' top priority:

It takes a superficial reading of Torment to miss that the game works not simply because of the story but because the narrative is completely consonant with the gameplay; the game subverts D&D cliches at every turn and combat is marginalised. In that respect it is exactly the opposite of Neverwinter Nights 2. Mask of the Betrayer is Neverwinter Nights 2 in a pretty dress, and soon enough the dress falls off, although not in a fun sexy way.

Through all the tedious combat and stat-managing, though, the narrative holds up well. The companions are a decent enough bunch and the premise is full of promise. Eventually, though, the gameplay becomes less and less about all that stuff and more and more about rooms full of enemies and it's a hassle to remember why you cared about any of this in the first place. Finally, the one thing the game still had going for it becomes the worst thing ever. The fascinating and thought-provoking narrative reverts to Baldur's Gate 2.

Symptoms first present after about ten hours when a female member of your party falls in love with the main character for no reason -- a love articulated in hyper-chivalrous, uncomfortably formal, vaguely medieval fantasy language, naturally -- and the two forge a magical, soulful relationship writ large across the heavens, although all they ever seem to do is call each other "my love" a lot. This is exhausting. Are we still doing this? I would like one of these games to tackle a relationship plot that was less like this:

...and more like this:

This is close:

...which was 17 years ago. There's this, I suppose:

And this:

This too, probably:

A pattern doth emerge. (My love.)

Without getting into specifics, Mask of the Betrayer ends badly. Essentially, this:

concludes like this:

There is no model of RPG ending less satisfying than -- three minutes after the unclimactic boss fight -- a heretofore unseen narrator appearing unsummoned and over sepia-toned stills describing the rest of your life and the lives of everyone you met. There's a certain gracelessness to that. It's over-selling it. Neverwinter Nights 2 began with "It was a dark and stormy night" and this ends with "And everyone lived happily ever after." Fitting, but also shit. Hence, it is "Shitting." And there is no worse way to end that rambling epilogue but with the line: "Your story, however, is far from over."

You know what, though? I bet it is.


Kirk Battle said...

Brilliant post. I admire the use of imagery as well. In terms of writing, I feel like that's the next step for people to start blending and you've done a great job.

Duncan said...

Thanks. I agree, although this post was more a self-conscious, fun over-correction considering how many of my posts have been mostly or all words (including the other one I wrote about Neverwinter Nights.) Even so, I've been thinking a lot about using images in interesting ways and will keep doing that in a way that's maybe more restrained and effective. :)

Jettoki said...

I think you missed an important point in MotB. Safiya falls in love with you inexplicably because of the mask and her connection to its history. This is a mystery that is ultimately explained. And besides, you can reject her handily. But it seems you went along with the whole thing, despite it being weird.

Your article on Aeris similarly neglects an important chunk of context: she's never truly a love interest. She flirts with Cloud because he reminds her of Zack. Both Aeris and Zack represent aspects of Cloud's personality that he spent years deluding himself into believing. Once they're both dead, he comes to terms with reality.

I agree with a lot of the points you make in your articles, and I think we need to hold game stories and romances to a higher standard. But I think you may be trying too hard to be an iconoclast. For everything you hated about MotB, compare it with the status quo, and it starts to looks pretty damn good.

Duncan said...

I don't remember MOTB that well anymore, and FF7 I never even played so I think I can claim ignorance on that one, so I can't disagree with your points. Still, the Safiya romance, particulars aside, was hugely familiar and that's what bothered me. I mean, I'd really like to see the player have to actively pursue an NPC for once.

If I'm coming off as an iconoclast I swear it's not on purpose. It's something that happens naturally.

Jettoki said...

I agree that her romance was familiar; I only found it acceptable because it gave the mask a real sense of archaic power.

You've made cracks at the Aerie romance in BG2 elsewhere - and this, I sympathize with 100%. The only qualifier is that if you move too quickly on Aerie, she feels used and rejects you. Besides that, and especially taking ToB into account, she's a textbook example of what not to do.

Have you ever attempted to romance Jaheira or Viconia in BG2? Both will laugh in your face or insult you when you try the kind of lines that work on Aerie. You have to be sensitive to their peculiar personalities, and even a single mistake can cause them to shun you. It requires the kind of foolhardy persistence and thick skin that actual romance demands.

Duncan said...

I did the Jaheira one and felt it fell into the usual pattern. She has a character arc to work through and she'll use you as her therapist in intermittent bursts -- "Do you have a moment to talk?" -- and all you do is not say anything insulting or aggressive in response. That's BioWare's MO. Same with Dawn Star, Carth, Bastila, Ashley... of those, Bastila's my favourite because that romance became a major plot element at least. Most of the time they're so peripheral they feel like achievements to unlock and not part of the story or your character development.

Obsidian/Black Isle (other developers too) tend to handle those kinds of stories a lot better, in my opinion. Fall from Grace, Annah, Mira in KOTOR2 who you can hit on and she'll reject you flat out and that's it, even Shandra in NWN2. Safiya I saw as a step back. Cause it was Obsidian doing Bioware.

Jettoki said...

We'll have to disagree on that point, then. The only thing I think Obsidian does differently is make their love interests unavailable or kill them off. But both companies specialize in a kind of interactive fiction that no other developers seem to want to bother with. Writing romance is immensely easier when your protagonist is a fully fleshed out character, as in the examples you've provided (Full Throttle, Psychonauts, etc.) When the protagonist is an automaton with a blank slate personality, creating chemistry is a matter of fooling your audience. I agree that it could be better, but I wouldn't underestimate the difficulty.