Saturday, March 28, 2015

Planescape: Torment's Theme of Belief and Will

It’s March 28th. March 28th, 2015. Do you know what that means?

No, of course you don’t, because you’re (probably) not fanatical Chris Avellone worshippers like I am. Well, for those of you who have not sculpted a golden calf in your mind and stuck a “C. Avellone” name tag on it, March 26th, 2 days ago, was the day on which Pillars of Eternity was released. PoE is a crowdfunded RPG developed by Obsidian Entertainment, the developers behind Knights of the Old Republic 2 and Fallout: New Vegas (and the South Park RPG, apparently, which means I really do need to check that thing out at some point), and whose many excellent writing talents include the transcendently magnificent Chris Avellone. And if what I understand is true, he’s one of the most prominent minds behind Pillars of Eternity...and as a crowdfunded game, and a wildly successfully funded one at that, PoE has had the opportunity to be developed at its own, healthy pace and with no constraints on its creators’ vision. An RPG written by Chris Avellone and his talented peers in which no whimsical but tyrannical corporate suit, no bloodsucking marketing department parasite, and no sales-dictated deadline has had a chance to muck things up? My God. People, at this very moment that you are reading these words, I may be playing the RPG to finally topple Grandia 2 from my Greatest RPGs rant.

That, or I have set myself up for the biggest disappointment of all time. Then again, I did see the ending of Mass Effect 3, so...second biggest.

Anyway, this momentous occasion deserves some sort of celebration here. I did a whole year’s worth of Shin Megami Tensei rants when SMT4 came out, after all, and that wound up not really deserving that much hooplah anyway. The least I can do now is do a rant on an RPG Mr. Avellone has previously worked on. And of all of the RPGs that have been graced by Chris Avellone’s touch, there is one which stands out the most famously. So, without further ado, let’s (finally) have a rant on the legendary, the unparalleled, Planescape: Torment.

Oh yeah, uh, major plot and character spoilers in this rant. If you have not played Planescape: Torment, then for the love of Palutena, DO NOT READ THIS RANT. If you let this shining star of magnificence which you must someday play be lessened in any way, I will be pissed like you cannot believe. DON’T SPOIL PLANESCAPE: TORMENT FOR YOURSELF. JUST. DON’T.

For all the lip service I pay to Planescape: Torment, lip service which it has richly earned of course, I’ve never actually made a rant on it before. That’s not because there’s not much to talk about regarding the game. If anything, Planescape: Torment is the most demanding for discussion and contemplation of all RPGs in existence. It’s more that I actually don’t feel qualified to take the stance of authority in a rant here for anything about the game, the way I do for most any other RPG. It’s so deep, so intelligent, so artistic, and so wise a game that my own childish forays into contemplation don’t even remotely measure up.

Still, I think I’ve actually realized something fairly neat about Planescape: Torment which few others have, something neat and interesting to share with you all at long last. And that realization relates to one of the most significant and fascinating of the many, many subjects that PT touches on: the overwhelming power of belief and will.

It’s easy to recognize how important belief is to the events and setting of Planescape: Torment. It permeates every level of the game’s course. The power of belief comes up over and over again as you travel through the game, in ways both small and large. In Dungeons and Dragons, there is a certain idea that the gods of the D+D planes are born out of people’s belief alone, empowered by it, and that they fade to oblivion if all of their worshippers die or lose faith. At least, I think this is a concept true of the D+D universe in general, and not just invented by Planescape: Torment. The unexpectedly wonderful indie RPG, Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle, has one of its most touching love sidequests making use of the idea that with enough time and belief, an ordinary mortal creature can transcend and become a goddess, and it’s quite clear that EoWC uses the Dungeons and Dragons universe as its setting inspiration. At any rate, it’s an interesting idea that of course correlates thoughtfully to belief’s role in our own world and what we can accomplish with it as our inspiration.

Planescape: Torment takes this idea that belief in the D+D planes has quantifiable power and influence, and runs with it as a major theme in all levels of itself. You have small but notable events involving the power of belief in the planes, such as the possibility that if you have The Nameless One give the false alias “Adahn” enough times in the game, you can actually find an NPC late in the game named Adahn who has come into existence simply from the power of will of The Nameless One’s deception and the belief of others that the “Adahn” they’re told of actually does exist. Even if their belief that The Nameless One is Adahn is incorrect, it has been enough for them to simply believe that there is an Adahn. Belief has produced reality.

Small NPC encounters aren’t the only place where the theme shows up, of course, it’s just interesting and important to note that this theme is so important that it does not restrict itself only to the major events and characters, but is instead infused into every level of the game. Of more important note, the theme of belief’s power shows up in major characters such as Dak’kon, a githzerai warrior whose loss of faith was enough to allow the enemies of his people to destroy the city he led, and for whom regaining his faith transforms his blade into one of the most powerful weapons in the cosmos. Belief in the power of justice is what makes Vhailor the Mercykiller an unstoppable force of kharmic might, so much that even just believing himself still alive keeps him animated--and if you convince him that there is no meaning in Law, and/or that his perspective on justice is flawed and that he himself is guilty, he will kill himself, for he cannot exist without his belief.

Really, though, if you want a proper accounting of just how powerful belief is in Planescape: Torment, there’s no better advocate than the source itself. As the protagonist himself says:

“If there is anything I have learned in my travels across the Planes, it is that many things may change the nature of a man. Whether regret, or love, or revenge or fear - whatever you believe can change the nature of a man, can. I’ve seen belief move cities, make men stave off death, and turn an evil hag's heart half-circle. This entire Fortress has been constructed from belief. Belief damned a woman, whose heart clung to the hope that another loved her when he did not. Once, it made a man seek immortality and achieve it. And it has made a posturing spirit think it is something more than a part of me.”

Holy crap, I love the writing of this game. I’ve never wanted to make love to words before Planescape: Torment.

Anyway, there you have it. Belief does all of those monumentally incredible things that The Nameless One mentions, and he gives this speech at the end of the game, to the manifestation of his mortality, as a way of seguing into what I believe is the only true conclusion of Planescape: Torment: the Nameless One defeating the Transcendent One through just the threat of willing it and himself out of existence. Hell, even the very infamous question of Planescape: Torment, the one that is immortalized as its greatest question, “What can change the nature of a man?”, is answered with belief. Belief is that powerfully awesome and important to Planescape: Torment, to Dungeons and Dragons, to us as human beings.

But of course, all of that is well known in regards to Planescape: Torment. The game outright tells you most of it, and most players will already be well aware of all that I have mentioned so far. So what is my own addition to this? What have I come to realize that I have not seen others mention, in regards to this theme of belief in Planescape: Torment?

My own revelation is that there is another layer of meaning in making belief and will such an integral part of everything within Planescape: Torment: it makes this game the most true and worthy representation of Dungeons and Dragons out there. Because Dungeons and Dragons is nothing but belief.

Think about it. What is, at its core, Dungeons and Dragons? It’s a game of make believe. As is the case for essentially all tabletop RPGs, D+D exists as an exercise of imagination. The players imagine themselves to be others, imagine their surroundings, their enemies, their actions, their interactions, everything. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Dungeons and Dragons can be even more an example of belief than regular make believe! A child pretending to be a knight may do so because he has found a stick to swing as his sword, a child pretending to be a police officer may do so with a toy gun at her side, a child pretending to own a restaurant may set about making mud pies as representative of their culinary creations. The children have the stick, the toy, the mud pies to represent what they are imagining; what does the D+D player have? Dice and a character sheet. Words and numbers, themselves less corporeal than the stick, toy, and mud.*

In being a game wherein the power of will is explored as a power that can have tangible results, wherein belief is perhaps the most significant core concept of absolutely every wisdom and idea presented to the player, Planescape: Torment is the most truly symbolic game of Dungeons and Dragons of all. True, games like Neverwinter Nights 1, Baldur’s Gate 1, and the Icewind Dales much more closely emulate the actual playing experience of D+D.** But ultimately, those games are based on and never get beyond the fictions that have grown from the original truth of D+D, not the game’s core principles. Planescape: Torment of course hugely utilizes the lore that has been built around the Dungeons and Dragons planes, but while doing so, its core theme of belief and will make it a tribute to the heart of Dungeons and Dragons in a way that no other game based on the franchise which I have played accomplishes.

So yeah. Probably somebody somewhere has come up with this connection before I have, but as far as I can tell from a cursory glance online and from my small experience with online forums on which PT was discussed, this layer of meaning is at least not widely known. It’s pretty neat, though, and just one more of many, many examples of the nuanced excellence of Planescape: Torment’s writing.

* Yes, there are plenty of accessories for D+D you can acquire beyond that. Maps, figurines, and so on do add at least as much tangible representation as the children’s tools I mentioned. But at its core, Dungeons and Dragons does not need nor use such things, and that’s my point.

** To their detriment, if you ask me. The closer a game is to the actual D+D playing experience, I find, the less focus it has on a strong and meaningful story carried through by characters of depth and interest. That’s why the best parts of Neverwinter Nights 1 are found in some of its add-ons, which become more focused on telling a story the way the writers want to than just giving the player carte blanche to wander around aimlessly, and why Baldur’s Gate 2, in becoming a game with a great focus on a more linear and structured story and defined characters, so surpasses BG1 in quality.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Final Fantasy Series's Odd Elemental Imbalance

Not really a complaint today, just an observation of something strange. Did you ever notice how early Final Fantasies have an odd disconnect between the plot-important elements and the actually useable magical elements?

What I mean is...alright, see, for the first couple generations of Final Fantasy titles, the plot was pretty squarely centered around the four elemental crystals of Fire, Water, Wind, and Earth. The idea was that these all-important plot devices were what infused the elements of a living, functional, and magical world into the planet and nature, and without them, the elements would either fade out (FF5) or go out of control (FF Mystic Quest) and the world would be doomed. Pretty standard stuff all around, of course; the idea of super magical sparkly special plot item crystals performing essential, mystical maintenance for a world’s life force has been a part of fantasy- and anime-styled stories for ages, and the idea of Fire, Water, Wind, and Earth being the main 4 elements of all creation has been around for a bit longer. And by that, I mean thousands of years.

So you’ve got earlier Final Fantasy games--and maybe more recent ones; I haven’t played anything more recent than FF Crystal Chronicles: Ring of Fates, so I couldn’t say--having these mystical elemental crystals of Water, Wind, Earth, and Fire governing all the world’s magic and essential natural functions and life force and whatnot. Okay, cool. But then what’s up with the elemental magic system?

As far as the standardized black magic of the earlier Final Fantasy games goes, the all-important crystals are barely represented. Okay, sure, Fire spells are in abundance, as you’d expect, but the other elements with the highest number of spells, practicality, and plot focus are Ice/Blizzard and Bolt/Thunder spells. Yeah, you’ll get a token Earth spell, Water spell, and Wind spell, but of the 3 major magical elements of the game’s battle system, which again tend to be the most likely to get out-of-battle use during story events, only 1 actually has anything to do with the major all-important magical plot crystal elements.

And no, Ice/Blizzard spells do not count as representations of the Water Crystal. Water and Ice/Blizzard are considered 2 different elements in the typical FF magic system. And even if you do want to count it as related to the Water Crystal, you’re still missing strong representation from half of the sources of magic in the world, so it still doesn’t make much sense, at least not to me.

And yeah, sure, Wind spells had a little more early game exposure than I’m giving credit for, in that there were a couple for White magic in FF1 and a proper 3 levels of Aero spells for Blue Magic in FF5. I guess that counts for FF1 to an extent, since White Magic is as basic and inescapable a standard for Final Fantasy as Black Magic, but Blue Magic’s kind of its own thing, an odd-ball type that doesn’t really conform to the rest of a game’s magic systems, so I don’t reckon it really counts. That could just be me being picky, I suppose. Still, it’s kind of a shaky point for Wind magic to stand on regardless.

Wouldn’t you think the basic spells of the most basic magic type would correspond to the elements established by the plot to the be major and important ones, the source of all magic? Instead of Fire-Fira-Firaga, Blizzard-Blizzara-Blizzaga, and Thunder-Thundara-Thundaga, shouldn’t it really be Fire-Fira-Firaga, Water-Watera-Waterga, Aero-Aerora-Aeroga, and Stone-Stonera-Stonega? The series later brought Earth magic properly into the mix in FF7, and Water magic in FF10, but the crystals aren’t a part of those games anyway. For the games where they would make the most sense to be the most basic building blocks of magic, most of the crystal elements are represented as only individual spells achieved late in the game, or parts of odd side-magic systems, rather than as the iconic basic spells of the iconic basic magic style of the series.

Like I said, it’s not a big deal, or anything that actually bothers me. Just a little oddity I noticed, that’s all.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Fallout 3's Best Mods

Ahh, Fallout 3. We had to wait a damn long time for the classic 1990s RPG series about post-apocalyptic America to continue, but it was worth that wait and then some. Bethesda took the game engine they had used for their subpar Elder Scrolls 4 and used it to make an intelligent, atmospheric, allegory-rich wasteland for us to explore, and it was awesome.

As awesome as Fallout 3 is by itself, though, it can, it seems, still be improved upon. The modding community had an absolute field day with Fallout 3, as it did for The Elder Scrolls 4, and created a veritable mountain of modifications that you can add to the game to tweak it into something new and different. Traditionally, I go light on mods when I play a new RPG, wanting to get the true sense of the art of the product, but there are certainly many cases of games which are better experienced with some mods, even during your first time. Planescape: Torment, for example, has a couple of mods that restore cut content to the game and fix various bugs and grammatical errors, and everyone should play the game with these mods installed. I’ve personally praised the massive restoration mods for Knights of the Old Republic 2 and Fallout 2 here on this blog before, and I sincerely think that any first-time player should experience these classics with those mods. And of course, the Mass Effect Happy Ending Mod ensures that no innocent man or woman must ever again suffer the grievous emotional injury that is Mass Effect 3’s ending. That right there is less of an enjoyable alteration and more of a great service to all humanity.*

So, here is a little list of a few mods for Fallout 3 that I think significantly improve the overall experience, enough and in such a way that I would encourage you to use them the next time you play, even if it’s your first time. There are plenty of other nifty mods for the game that I have used and enjoyed, of course, such as DC Moods, Weapon Mod Kits, and Cube Experimental, but these are the ones that I feel do more than just enjoyable tweak the game. These are the mods that capture the essence of Fallout 3 and enhance it, creating an experience truer to Fallout 3 than the game on its own could have provided.

Level 100 Cap: You know what’s just really annoying? Hitting your level cap before you’re done adventuring, even though you haven’t been purposefully level-grinding. It’s so annoying that I even did a rant about it (although I’ll do rants on just about anything, so I guess that’s not such a huge deal). Well, with this handy little mod, that irritation is over and done with! Setting the level cap over 3 times higher than the original cap means that you can explore the game to its fullest and not have to give up the satisfaction of gaining experience for your feats part of the way through. Sure, this is a small thing, but you have to realize, the setting of Fallout is a major, major aspect of the series, and even tiny details can add depth and insight into the Fallout universe and communicate a message, details small and hidden enough that you only find them if you’re rigorously exploring. Having a level cap set low enough that you’ll hit it only 60 - 90% of the way through the game means that you have less gameplay incentive to explore that last 10 - 40%. By setting a cap far beyond achievable means even considering the possibility of a bit of grinding, this mod lessens the odds that you’ll eventually lose interest in the all-important exploration aspect of the game, and that’s important.

RobCo Certified: Gameplay is not a huge factor to me in enjoying RPGs (especially since most RPGs’ gameplay, being menu-based, is inherently completely unenjoyable), but this mod that adds a new dimension to Fallout 3 gameplay deserves a mention. Why? Because Fallout takes a certain pride in offering players a chance to achieve their goals in a variety of ways, to encourage everyone to build their own style of playing, and RobCo Certified opens up a new avenue of play style that has not been present before: that of the mighty and fearsome MAD SCIENTIST! With this mod, it’s completely feasible to have a character build who has more or less no combat abilities whatsoever, which really just hasn’t been achievable (at least not in a way that’s at all fun) in Fallout 3 previously. I mean, you could build a stealth-based character in the game and avoid all the enemies, but it’s a lot of extra time to sneak by absolutely everything, and Stealth Boys are so damn expensive. This mod gives you the possibility of learning to repair broken robots with various wasteland junk, upgrade those robots, and set them loose on your enemies while you step back and watch the pretty, lethal fireworks. You can also even turn inanimate parts of the background into attack robots, too! It is rather fun to be flanked by a small army of mobile televisions and ovens, I must say. As your abilities to make killer robots improve with your aptitude for science, it’s now entirely feasible to roam the Capital Wasteland with a character whose skill points are all put toward non-combat abilities, with as much confidence as a heavy gunner character or a champion sniper or whatnot. Hell, the mod even goes so far as to give you a role in combat that has nothing to do with attacking enemies--as the bullets fly, you can just be hitting your robots with your repair tools to keep them in good repair while they’re melting the crap out of super mutants and Enclave assholes.

And hey, in case you haven’t guessed it, beyond opening up new avenues for play style, it does bear mentioning that this mod is FUN. It’s here because of its utility in expanding the gameplay of Fallout 3, but it’s a blast to collect a horde of robot minions and to repurpose innocuous wasteland junk into your own servants. This really is an impressive mod for its scope and complexity, and it’s definitely worth adding to your next Fallout 3 experience.

Ultimate Perk Pack: Well, if you increase your level cap, you’ll want enough useful perks that those additional levels feel like they mean something, right? The Ultimate Perk Pack adds a truckload of additional perks to the game that you can choose from at level up. They’re well-designed, following the same general curve of usefulness that the original perks do, and they’re creative and fun, to boot. Really, they feel very natural to the game, enough that you may not even be able to tell sometimes which perks are from the original game and which came from this mod.

More Map Markers: This mod adds a bunch more markers to the Pip-Boy world map. This is very handy for exploration, as you can fast-travel to more points in the Capital Wasteland and continue your explorations from there, but more importantly, it marks a lot of neat places in Fallout 3 that might otherwise be missed, tiny little points of interest that would be hard to find and return to without the marker. It always irked me that Rockopolis was unlisted, for example, because it’s related to the overall lore of Fallout 3 and it even contains 1 of the elusive Vault Boy bobbleheads. Additionally, what did and did not qualify for a map marker in the original game sometimes seemed strange and arbitrary; there were plenty of spots that were tiny and pointless that did get marked on the map, while other spots of equal or even greater size and importance did not. In fact, thanks to this mod, I found a handful of fun little locations that I had missed the first time I played Fallout 3--and let me tell you, I’m pretty thorough with my explorations! This mod gives you a much better chance to get the most out of your explorations of the Capital Wasteland, and thus, a better chance to get the most out of the game as a whole.

Point Lookout More Map Markers: Everything I just said for the last one, except for the Point Lookout DLC map. Given that exploration is a huge aspect of the Point Lookout DLC, this is no less important for this add-on than the original More Map Markers mod is for the main game.

Tenpenny Tower Alternate Endings: I complained about the Tenpenny Tower quest in a rant a little time ago, and mentioned this mod there, so I won’t say much here. This mod corrects what I see as the only real failure of Fallout 3’s storytelling (besides the ending and Mothership Zeta), the conclusion of the Tenpenny Tower quest, making it possible to achieve a result that is more in line with your intentions and the storytelling style and themes of Fallout 3 as a whole.

GNR Enhanced: Galaxy News Radio is a significant part of Fallout 3’s plot, and listening to Three Dog’s warnings and tips for surviving the Capital Wasteland, and his recounting of your deeds, is fun for when you feel like listening to more than just the quiet background noise of the game (though that background is great for setting the mood, don’t get me wrong). The only problem with GNR is that between these fun bits of Three Dog, the songs that play are extremely repetitive. Sure, they’re not horrible to listen to (well, a couple of them are, actually), but the playlist is tiny, so it gets damn repetitive. Well, with GNR Enhanced, there’s now a ton more songs in Three Dog’s repertoire, all of which are old timey and very thematically appropriate to Fallout. The old classics are still in there, but now you won’t get sick to death of listening to GNR as you traverse the wastes, which is neat.

More importantly than that, this mod also fixes a few bugs for GNR. For starters, Three Dog will report on you past Level 20--in the original game, for some reason, he would sometimes stop running news stories about the Lone Wanderer once the character hit the original level cap, which was annoying, because those were really the only reason after 1 hour to be listening to the station (unless you just really like that hackin’ and whackin’ song, in which case you probably should see a therapist). Better still, this mod adds to the non-music material that GNR broadcasts, restoring Three Dog song intros and outros and certain news story lines. And the mod even adds a couple of fun little commercials for in-universe products like Mr. Handy and the Pip-Boy! This mod expands the entertainment value of GNR several hundreds of times, expanding this plot-important and theme-important radio station’s role in your exploration of the Capital Wasteland and strengthening its significance to the game.

Busworld: Busworld is simple, but awesome--it adds interior areas to the many buses, metro train cars, and boxcars you encounter while exploring Fallout 3. I always thought it was a major waste of potential in Fallout 3 that you could never explore the interiors of these vehicles, which are frankly just all over the place. I mean, come on, exploration is the name of the game in this RPG, and in a post-apocalyptic setting, such larger vehicles would surely be host to all sorts of interesting stuff to find and survivors seeking shelter. And this mod makes that happen! Exploring the subway system is now a lot less repetitive thanks to this mod, and it’s fun to find all these new little places to explore as you pass buses and the occasional boxcar in your travels. This mod is great, taking what was once an unimportant and even mildly disappointing background object and transforming it into another part of the Fallout experience. Big thumbs up from me on this one!

DC Interiors Project: And here we are. Of these mods that I recommend to anyone wanting to sharpen the experience of Fallout, this is the best. For some reason, a reason probably related to making deadlines, the strong majority of pre-war buildings in Fallout 3, especially those within the D.C. Ruins, are boarded up and cannot be entered and explored. As I’ve mentioned many times in the past and as you’ve probably figured out from my continued emphasis on the concept throughout this rant, exploration is a key element of the atmosphere, draw, and storytelling process of the Fallout series, and having so few extra places that you can enter and examine is a severe waste of potential, and passively detrimental to the game.

This mod fixes that problem. The DC Interiors Project adds a whole bunch of interior areas to the game, allowing you to explore nearly all the relatively intact buildings you come across in the D.C. Ruins, as well as the surrounding area. And these new areas are expertly designed, too, interesting, appropriate to the setting, very creative, and with tremendous attention to detail. There are a few puzzles to solve, lots of sights to see, scavengers to find and trade with, and overall just a lot of neat settings that fit perfectly into the wasteland and add in a positive way to your wanderings. It doesn’t exactly reinvent Fallout 3 exploration, but it sure as hell adds more personality to it and gives you fresh incentive to go poking through the crumbling ruins of a past age. And that right there is a lot of what Fallout is meant to be. Kudos to this one, it above all others is a mod to enhance the Fallout experience.

* I WILL eventually be using this mod and making a rant about it, but it’s still a couple versions away from being complete enough that I’m ready for it. Hopefully this will be the year where you will see my glowing rant praise for it, though.