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:
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.