Flicker flames and haunted faces
Shuffling feet find empty spaces
Moving shadows, someone's hurting
Huddle closer, campfire burning.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Help the Aged

So I suppose I should say a little bit about video game addiction. About how vile they are, how they isolate kids from their loved ones and cocoon them in a phantasma of sound and flashing lights? Or I should take arms with my brethren and fight against this unjust crusade, smug in the knowledge that games can’t possible be addictive - you know, even though we all frequently describe this or that game using exactly that word.

Are video games addictive? Well, no - not if you take ‘addictive’ as a word for actual physical dependency. Nobody gets cold sweats after having their DS taken away. Sure, they might get a little twitchy if they can’t play games, but that’s only to be expected, right?

Actually that’s not true at all. They’ll want to play games the same way a reader deprived of his or her book collection might pine for a novel or two to tide them over, or a gardener in a big city might turn to a window box or houseplant in order to get his or her fix. Does this make them addicts? Or does it simply mean their current circumstances make them miss taking part in a hobby they enjoy?

Nobody ever complains that books are addictive, much less decries them as ‘evil’ in the same way video games are often vilified - and how many times have you heard the same TV show hosts that claim to hate games describe a summer read as ‘unputdownable’? Are you saying you actually couldn’t put down the book? You had to keep reading it or what, you’d shiver, suffer convulsions, go cold turkey and suffer the associated withdrawal symptoms? No? So why do you think going without video games would have the same effect?

Of course you wouldn’t. You’re just repeating this mantra to get your OAP audiences all riled up in indignation, the kind of indignation that keeps them watching your show. You’re saying what they want to hear and rewarding their viewing with a deep-down sense of self-righteousness and Alan fucking Titchmarsh’s moronic seal of approval. Stay tuned, because coming up we have Julie Peasgood talking shit about something she knows nothing about. Yeah, applaud that, studio audience. If your wrinkled, nicotine-stained, arthritis-twisted claws can still applaud anything then clap, you senile grandmotherfuckers.

Which is pretty much the same thing that makes video games so addictive - or compelling, to put it more appropriately.

While gamers mightn’t be dazzled by an impromptu live performance from special guest Daniel O’Donnell, we’re uniformly impressed with strobing lights and graphical fireworks. Our satisfaction comes from completing this level, overcoming that obstacle and gaining a high score. We’re rewarded with achievements, points, new areas and new levels, new challenges to face - and what about all those graphical flourishes and carefully engineered sound effects? The tinkling sound of Sonic collecting rings, or his invincibility theme when he collects a certain power up, or how a little fluffy animal scampers out when we release it from robotic captivity. All of which were designed to compel us to keep playing, of course. All of which help to addict us, if that’s how you wish to see it.

And when we complete a game, oh man! We sit back and smile at a job well done. We watch the end credits roll and think about the game. If it’s a particularly intelligent game - a Longest Journey perhaps, or a Planescape: Torment - we might think about the plot, the themes and characters. Maybe we think about all the cool shit we’ve done, or all the places we’ve been. Or maybe, just maybe we think “That was amazing. I want to do it all over again” and we hit start to do so.

Which is something that nobody’s ever going to do once they’ve seen a daytime television tirade on video game nasties. So I guess in that sense they are more compelling than your average TV show.

Not that TV shows don’t do their best to hook viewers with the promise of guests and features still to come, because they do, although when they come along it’s very rare they offer the same satisfaction as, say, filling an experience meter in your favourite RPG.

But then that’s the big difference between the function of video games and the function of daytime television. Video games have to entertain the player, otherwise they’re going to get up and do something else. Daytime TV watchers, well, sad as it is, they’re much more likely to sit and watch whatever shit’s on TV because most of them are old, most of them are lonely, and most of them really don’t have anything better to do. Daytime television doesn’t have to entertain. Daytime television’s there to pass time until the viewer dies.

Here’s the thing. My grandmother is old. She’s in her eighties, and she recently suffered from a series of stumbling falls. Over the past few years she’s become increasingly confused by the world around her; something inside her head was slowly wearing down, and after her recent illness it had worn through completely and dropped her into a world of frightened disorientation. A couple weeks ago her next-door neighbour telephoned me to say he’d found her clinging to a counter top in her kitchen, standing and shaking, not really sure of where she was or what was going on. He’d called for an ambulance and a paramedic was at her house to examine her and make sure she was okay.

Which she wasn’t.

I travelled there by taxi and spent the day with her, although she didn’t seem particularly aware of my presence. I made her a cup of tea and tried talking to her - there wasn’t really anything I could do but wait for another doctor to arrive and another series of tests to be run, but I had to do something. That night she fell again, just as the doctor was about to leave. He said she should go to hospital, and despite her stubbornly wanting to stay at home, eventually she did.

There’s more story there, more to be said about how long it took for the ambulance to arrive and what the hospital did and didn’t do, but at the time that was still ahead of my family, and still ahead of me. At the time I just sat and watched her watching daytime dross on TV, watched her searching for the TV Choice magazine she referred to in time-honoured tradition as the TV Times, watched her wrinkle her nose in distaste as she mistook an advert for A Bug’s Life on Channel 5 for the actual film, and watched her settle down in her lost and lonely world with the only upper she had in her life, the only fix available to people like her: Her television.

The television feeds her poison. It tells her the world outside is a terrible place filled with violence and anger. It takes cuddly public figures and turns them into deceitful cobras spitting nonsense, fear and propaganda. Buy this book. Buy this record. And for God’s sake, think of the children whose minds are rotting from too much Space Invaders, whose minds are rotting as surely as yours is right now as you get your daily dose of daytime drugs.

I wish my grandmother liked video games. I wish she wasn’t so scared of modern technology, so she could play them and discover that even though she can’t leave her house there are entire worlds out there she can explore, puzzles and activities that can help keep her mind active and alert, and people - so many people! - the world over she can play with, and talk with, and befriend. Those social clubs for the elderly just aren’t good enough. They’re chicken farms we throw our pensioners into so we can pretend they’re still having fun while their minds are dying, where bitterness and resentfulness and isolationism form and harden, and God, no wonder we think these old people are set in their ways if this is all you’re going to offer them, you television execs, you poison peddling scum. How about not cutting old folk off from the world in this, a glorious age of global communication? How about having your shows teach them that technology isn’t something to be scared of but something to be embraced, and something that could enhance their lives? Or is there a reason why you’d prefer to have your presenters reminiscing about the good old days, talking about what’s wrong with the world today, talking gardening tips and giving middle-aged mothers makeovers, and here’s some fucking Donnie Osmond to get your juices going if they haven’t already dried up. Do you give them all that terrible fucking shit because that’s what old people want? Or do they just want it because that’s all you ever give them?

I wish it wasn’t like that. I wish instead of my gran burrowing into her armchair to watch an afternoon of antiques auctions, home makeovers and Doctors; instead of struggling to her club to find out who’s in hospital or who’s in a home or who’s dropped down dead she was in a World of Warcraft guild with other people her age from half-way across the globe, where they could share their lives and cultures and get the same kind of fun from video games as gamers do. and maybe that’s not ideal - maybe that’s just replacing one addiction with another - but wouldn’t it be better? Something to actually and actively enjoy; something to be interact with and be passionate about, rather than some slowly seeping off-beige poison cloud to marinate her bones in, to keep her settled and silent and barely aware of anything except Ainsley Harriot and David Dickenson. At the very least she wouldn’t be so damned scared.

It’s not going to happen. She is too scared and too stubborn, and daytime television programming has made her like that with shows not fit to mention video games, let alone hold laughable discussions on their nature.

But you, reader. Let me talk to you, now. Because fifty years from now we’ll be gaming, you and I. I can’t say we won’t become set in our ways, and I can’t promise we won’t sometimes reminisce about what we - falsely - consider to be the good old days. Hell, I full expect us to be terrified of modern technology. Imagine our cyberpunk future. Age reversal! Cranial implants! Nano-woven skin fashions!

But whatever happens, as scared and as senile as we might become, we’ll be gaming. We’ll still be commanding armies and conquering worlds; we’ll still be fighting bosses and jumping on toadstools; we’ll still be playing, we’ll be playing together, we’ll be active for God’s sake, and we’ll be having fun.

When Alan Titchmarsh and all those like him are dead and buried; when they’re dead and their smug, poisonous hate-mongering is dead alongside them, gaming will still be alive. And if that means so-called video game addiction will still be alive then I’ll proud to be an addict. The alternative is so much worse.

Monday, 6 December 2010

100 Minutes With . . . Darksiders

Darksiders is the kind of game that gives games a bad name. It’s infantile and crass, and appeals to the part of a gamer’s mind that’s stuck in adolescence - in heavy metal fantasies, cartoons and comic books. It’s not the kind of game you could present to Roger Ebert as evidence that yes, games are art. It’s not the kind of game you could show your mother, or your non-gaming better half. It’s the kind of game you sit with in a darkened room, and feel slightly guilty about booting up when there are worthier, more intelligent titles lining your shelves.

It’s the kind of game that, after five minutes of play, makes you forget everything I’ve just said because you’re having so much damned fun with it.

Yeah, you know the kind of game it is. It’s God of War, it’s Dead Space. It’s part of a new generation of games that takes an old genre - the Zelda-styled action adventure in this case - and reinvents it by slinging bucket loads of blood and angst and over-the-top violence in your face so you’re spitting it out, letting it dribble down your chin, and having the time of your life. It should be laughable but every so often it tips you a wink to let you know it’s in on the joke, too. It’s Commando. It’s Deep Blue Sea. It’s ridiculous.

The game starts with the end of the world. Crowds gather in the centre of Metropolitan City USA to watch news broadcasts of meteors falling to Earth, smashing the continents, killing thousands - then one of them strikes the massive LCD billboard everyone’s watching and all Hell breaks loose.

I’m hooked before the opening cinematic ends. There’s something primal about storytelling that presents you with a load of arcane back story about gods and demons and then jettisons you into modern day society. The word ‘epic’ gets bandied about a lot these days, but this is a great way of setting up an epic story. It’s the same thing James Cameron did with The Terminator - we get the back story, we see the future war, and then we’re in familiarly modern surroundings and it’s here the shit’s going down, it’s this moment that’s pivotal.

With Darksiders you’re not given much opportunity to make sense of what’s going on. You are War, one of the four horseman of the apocalypse, called upon to fight in the climactic battle between, well, everyone. So you tiptoe through a city that’s disintegrating by the second. Windowpanes shatter, buildings topple, the sky falls and you beat up angels and demons alike, using cars as clubs, turning into some shadowy smoke monster, smacking puny humans around as collateral damage. The occasional cut scene or scripted moment shows the war raging all around you - you see a winged monstrosity snatching a helicopter out of the air and flinging it to the street below, and you see this through a hole torn through the upper floor of a tall building. As far as the apocalypse goes, it’s crazy apocalyptic. And somewhere along the line - shortly before your first boss tears the damned road up from beneath your feet - you realise that something’s not quite right here.

Then you get squished between the boss creature’s monolithic fingers and wake up in Hell.

Darksiders wears its influences on its sleeve. There’s a pervading air of familiarity about it - it doesn’t quite feel like a rip off, but there’s just enough deja-vu for it to feel comfortable yet disquieting at the same time. The action mechanics fall somewhere between God of War’s manic elastic band chain-swinging and Devil May Cry’s dashing about. I’m no connoisseur of these kinds of action mechanics but it all feels solid enough, with mid-air dashes and reflexive counters, and with a few carefully-timed button presses even I felt like an unstoppable killing machine. Enemies can be pummelled for a set number of hits before a finishing move is made available to you, and as you’d expect from such a game these moves are kind of things that make you want to yell “Did you SEE that?” A particular favourite was one where you pin a villain to the floor by driving your sword through his hand, and then you punch him about a bit while he struggles to get free - although I must admit even that pales in comparison to the move where you slice a monster’s arm off and use it to beat him into submission, all the while yelling “Stop hitting yourself!” at the flickering screen. If that doesn’t say ‘God of War’ to you, nothing will.

There are plenty of other familiar elements scattered throughout the first one hundred minutes. At times the game feels very similar to the Legacy of Kain, with its pompous post-apocalyptic setting, but there’s just as much of its era-mates Shadow Man and Spawn at play. Your sidekick - a shadowy being who lives inside your gauntlet - quips on your events and surroundings, and frequently goads you about your circumstances. At one point you’re whisked away to a shadow dimension in which you partake in a number of challenges - kill 50 monsters within the time limit, defeat 30 monsters only using mid-air combos, which recalls the arena challenges from the Ratchet & Clank games. . Even the Council - a trio of immense talking, blazing stone skulls - bring the Quintessons from Transformers: The Movie to mind. It’s all maddeningly familiar.

And it’s all ludicrously over the top. Characters speak in portentous riddles, the actors wringing every last drop of drama from their voices, reading from a script that’s a hodgepodge of names and clichés drawn from the book of Revelation. Hell, even the locks gout blood when you stick keys in them.

But Darksiders’ main influence isn’t one you’ll necessarily feel for much of the game’s opening. For all its God of War moodiness Darksiders is a Zelda clone, and it’s not until you reach the first dungeon 90 minutes into the game that you’ll realise this. The gore-splattered action is tempered by puzzle solving straight from Ocarina of Time, with bomb-chu and boomerang analogues, block-pushing, treasure chests and hidden exits. Zelda-clones are such rare beasts that it’s something of a surprise when you realise that all the gore is disguising a more-than-competent take on this beloved, underrepresented genre. It’s even more of a surprise when this Zelda dungeon comes after an elongated tribute to Sega’s Panzer Dragoon series. Somewhere in the middle of that level, riding my demonic steed through waves of angels, blasting them all with my mouth lasers I realised that this was the kind of game I’d have made as a teenager - and I don’t in any way mean that as a slur. The developers have taken all the things that would have thrilled me and my mates as teens and whirled them into a title that’s more than the sum of its parts. It would have been all too easy to lean heavily on the more parodic aspects, or to abandon the levity altogether, or to make the minigames ragged and unsatisfactory.

It’s easy to judge Darksiders based on its ludicrous finishing moves and preponderance for gore, but it’s the love that’s gone into this thing that makes it shine. You get a real sense that the people who made it are people like you and I - people who love video games and pop culture, and wanted to mash them together in a whole that makes you smile instead of wince. Maybe Darksiders is the kind of game that gives the hobby a bad name, but it’s also the kind of game that spawns a loyal following who’ll shake their heads and tell you you just don’t get it. If you don’t get it it, it’s an adolescent mess. But if you’re one of those guys who can browse through Games Workshop catalogues and Iron Maiden album covers, or who still laughs when the bad guy in a zombie movie gets his entrails torn out then trust me, man-child, this game was made for you.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Hallowe'en on October Street

The gallows are primed at the foot of October Street. The Jack-o’-lanterns are lit, and leaves flow from trees like red and gold tears, scurried by an errant autumn breeze that haunts the dusk. The moon, gibbous, ablaze, rises, and raises a swarm of shadows that chase the last threads of sunlight from the road. It’s clear to anyone and everyone that Hallowe’en is here.

There are bats that flap and rats that snap, and spiders that spin webs from threads as thick as your finger. And from every eave and bog and storm gutter swamp, from crypts laced with dust that stirs as coffin tops lift, from mad laboratories and crematories and great gothic castles, from every abode on October’s road comes the same cry:

“They’re coming!” said Igor, as he swept bone ash from the lightning rod on the top of his master’s tower.

“They’re coming!” echoed the hunchback from his belfry on the other side of the street.

“They’re coming!” cackled witches three as they stirred a cauldron of bubbling slime that smelled of rotten meat and rotting vegetables and worse.

Every eye and tooth and furry snout turned as one to the tiny troop of flicker-flames as they snaked towards the street, and as Hallowe’en touched every town, village and city with its long, elegant claws, so more flames appeared, more candles, more pumpkin faces grinning and snarling in the dark. Children, coaxed by the promise of candied delights donned costumes, wore disguises, became monsters tall and monsters small and joined the parade, and soon the candle light was a river, an ocean flooding into October Street, its ebb and flow too powerful for the street’s inhabitants to draw in their doormats and batten down their hatches. Now they could only watch and wait for the first visitors of the night.

First came Johnny and Christopher, and Christopher’s little sister Sally, trailing behind in a tutu that would soon be frayed, wielding a tinfoil wand that would soon be bent. Of course every child’s costume would be a little worn by the evening’s end, a little too stained with mud and chocolate and masticated candy corn to be worn the next year. But now, if only for a moment Sally was a fairy princess, clad in pink from top to tiptoe, and she took extra care not to scuff her ballet slippers while climbing the steps to the first house of the night.

“It’s a big house,” murmured Johnny, looking up at the eaves that hung above them like great stone bat wings.

“A big, expensive house,” said Christopher. “That means better candy, and more of it.”

“I don’t know. Mom always says rich people scrimp and save - that’s why they have more money,”

“Just press the doorbell, doofus.”

Johnny pressed the doorbell.

It rang somewhere deep inside the mansion, tolling in funereal tones that sent night birds squawking and flapping and wheeling away from the rooftop. A million eyes peeked from the bushes at either side of the porch, a million glistening, watching flames, and when Johnny rang the doorbell again they scattered like bonfire embers in the wind, the last of the Indian summer’s fireflies fleeing into the sky.

They waited for a time, and were just about to leave when they heard heavy footsteps and the click of a thrown latch. As one they stood back, lips trembling, jaws agape as the front door swung slowly open.

“Trick or . . .” Christopher began, and then he stopped to swallow a cry, for the man who’d opened the door was not a man at all but a walking slab of granite, an ashen-skinned creature eight-foot tall. His head bulged at odd angles, his eyes were those of a bloodhound, rheumy and ringed with red, and at either side of a neck the width of a redwood pine was a single metal bolt like a coffin nail hammered into his pallid flesh.

“Whoah,” breathed Johnny. “Nice costume, mister. Trick or treat.”

The eight-foot thing’s mouth grimaced in what Johnny assumed was a grin, and a great gnarled fist rose between them.

Three times the fist rose, and three times the curled fingers opened to let a giant handful of chocolate and jelly beans rain into the children’s sacks, and once they were done they left the porch, their hearts hammering, their hands trembling, feeling like they’d come close to death yet were still very much alive. As they darted down the street to the next doorway little Sally, feeling brave in her pink fairy frock, turned to wave back at the behemoth, but he’d already returned to the house, closing the door behind him.

The children streamed from house to house, their eyes widening and sacks bulging more with every visitation. At every house there was a new horror to behold, a monster, or demon, or spectre, or spook. A hanged man with skin bruised black, a lizard with a forked tongue, ghostly twin girls whose faces and party dresses were stained with something dark, and a woman whose eyes hung damply upon her cheeks, whose bloated and pustulant skin hung from her arms in grizzly grey sheets. At every door was a new nightmare that would accompany them to their beds, that would be locked in their heads in return for a night collecting sweet jujubes and sour sherbets.

I watch them go now, Johnny and Christopher and sweet little Sally, travelling the route from October Street with not a spring in their steps but a slouch. Their arms are weighed down by pillowcases fit to burst, and their bellies are just starting to squirm with too much sugar, the result of small snacks snaffled between doorsteps, little treats eaten between stoops.

They grow tired at this late hour, as they should, as they always have done, and when they fall asleep it won’t be sugarplum visions that dance in their heads, but us. The monsters, the zombies, sea creatures and crones, and I at the head of us, I at the front, leading us onward and into their world. After All Hallows' Eve, when children visit us and take their fill of sugary treats comes our night, the Day of the Dead. We follow their candle flames back to their land, and spread out in the darkness, visiting every bedroom and every child sleeping within. Every monster, every vampire, every mummy and ghoul; we’ll haunt their dreams and we’ll feed on their imaginations until they wake.

The humans never notice it’s missing. They think it’s a part of growing up. They never stop to think that monsters might have holidays too, or that once a year we might visit them with our own carved heads, to mass on their doorsteps and beg for sweet things.

But we do, and tonight as I lead the parade I know exactly where we’ll stop first. Oh, we’ll still visit Johnny’s house and Christopher’s room, but right now the monsters and I hunger for something more satisfying, something sweet.

We stand on the landing outside little Sally’s room; we giggle and shuffle and our costumes are perfect as costumes that can’t be removed always are, and finally, when the excitement grows too much, when we can’t contain ourselves any longer, I knock on the door and we wait for Sally to answer.

Trick or treat, little girl. Trick or treat.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Intellectia Eternum

On the road ahead of you is a dead body. It’s yours.

This might be the first hook in the Neverwinter Nights module Elegia Eternum, but it’s what follows the plot twist that makes the game so special. Most writers would be happy enough ending the story then and there, in a cliché so ubiquitous I expected it to be the be-all and end-all of the mod. Oh my God, I was dead all along! It’s dull, it’s overdone, and I was ready to yawn and roll my eyes that a writer capable of ending his mod on such a well-worn note could be seen as one of the stars of the Neverwinter Nights scene.

But that was a few weeks ago. A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then, and I’ve discovered that not only are there a good number of decent NWN mods out there, but that there are some REALLY good mods. As in, mods that make full-price RPGs look humdrum, unimaginative, and poor in comparison.

Eligia Eternum is a good mod, but not a great one. It takes you away from your standard quest for a magical staff and into a world of conflicting emotions, domestic pain, rack, ruin and heartache. The game would have made a splash on the modding scene anyway thanks to its full voice acting - a rarity in any game mod - but there’s a decent story, a set of interesting characters and some solid puzzle-solving gameplay behind it. The voice acting is almost the least interesting facet of the mod.

You see a dead body on a quest to find a staff. You stop in at a nearby inn and tell the owner about it; she doesn’t believe you - in fact nobody at the inn believes you. There’s something off about the place that you can’t quite put your finger on, but you shake your head and go on your way to the cave where the staff is said to reside. Inside you find a couple of bandits who can’t hear or see you because they killed you some hours ago. They talk about your death and the death of one of their companions in a light-hearted manner, and the phantom of their dead companion sits nearby, bemoaning that he’ll never get to tell his bandit lady-friend how he felt about her.

When you return to the inn the story really begins. The inn is blackened, burnt out, and has been for some time. Everyone you met earlier has been stuck there ever since the place burned down, killing them all in the process. They are imprisoned within the inn’s shadow, both by their own tormented hang-ups and by the staff you were trying to find; the staff, it turns out, is sentient, evil, and doesn’t much like people. You being the hero, it’s your job to stop it, put an end to the torment of those it has trapped, and generally Do Good.

While there are a number of interesting plot points along the way - not least is the introduction of an angel who’d previously tried and failed to save the good residents of the Elgia Inn - what resonated with me was the central story concerning the family that ran the inn. Over the course of the game, through veiled references, diary entries, memories and eventually full-blown maps you learn the history of the Eligia family and how they came to be possessed and trapped by the staff. The staff prays upon their weaknesses and miseries, causing not only their deaths in the process but forging cages from their own tears - sometimes literally - in order to feed upon their pain. The antagonist that indirectly gave the staff this power is an absent husband and father who screwed up his kids, screwed up his wife, and left the lot of them in the lurch. While he thinks of himself as a happy-go-lucky chap he bullies and demeans, and leaves his family in pieces in search of adventure upon the high seas. The staff seizes upon the Eligia family’s sadness and twists it to its own purpose, turning a little girl’s fleeting hatefulness into the blazing murder weapon that razes the inn ot the ground, trapping their souls in its ashes. It’s an extremely powerful motif, and not one that’s often used in video games.

For all the wickedness the staff wreaks during Eligia Eternum, the true villain of the piece is the absent father. The impact of his ignorant hatefulness is driven home by him not appearing in corporeal form in the mod at all. On numerous occasions while playing I’d hear one of his black pearls of wisdom, or watch a childhood memory and see just how bad a father and husband he’d been, and I’d mutter to myself that if I ever managed to track this son of a bitch down I’d make him pay. I never did, because he isn’t in the game. He’d departed long before I’d arrived, and left me to clean up the mess he’d left behind.


He is in the sequel.

Excrucio Eternum is a far more confident mod than its predecessor. It doesn’t rely on the cheap flashiness of voice acting and it doesn’t try to subvert time worn clichés. It has a world all of its own, a world certainly influenced by the likes of Planescape: Torment, Bioshock and Psychonauts, but a world strong enough to stand next to these towering influences and not look out of place.

After saving the Eligia family and letting their souls ascend to heaven I, as dwarvern fighter Manus Dotin, ran into a stranger in the woods, who promptly knocked me out and stole the now neutered staff. I awoke in an asylum manned by gnolls and agents - slaves who’d had their souls carved from them - and discovered that while I’d been unconscious I, too, had become an agent. Once I’d regained my will I set out to find an exit from this place, and to take revenge on whoever had done this to me.

Excrucio Eternum is a true sequel to the first game, and many of the characters from the first title show up in the second in one form or another. It takes the themes from Eligia and greatly expands upon them, twisting them back, looping them over each other, and providing complex motivations for its characters. There’s a part in an early level of Psychonauts where you discover that your optimistic summer camp counsellor has a very dark secret hidden within her psyche. That her psyche is represented by a psychedelic roller-disco makes this discovery darker and more unpleasant. While the Eternum asylum is far from being a roller-disco, the sheer depths to which writer Stefan Gagne plunges needles into his protagonists makes the game often unpleasant, and always achingly sad. He never pushes things too far, and the situations never become gratuitous, but they corkscrew and buck like roller coasters, always threatening to throw the player off yet always driving him onward.

This is best illustrated by the character of Songbird, an elven girl I discovered trapped in a gilded cage. The cage was surrounded by slogans written to suppress her will, her personality - everything that made her who she should have been, and over the years she’d spent within the cage’s confines they’d woven their magic upon her, trapping her mind as surely as the gilt bars trapped her body. I was still only a little way into the game at this point and hadn’t yet seen the depravities this new villain had inflicted upon his victims, but seeing someone reduced to her name and nothing else - a songbird - churned my stomach.

I mean that. Maybe playing the good guy in games for so long has made me soft, but there’s a reason why games prefer to go for the jugular with gratuitous violence, gore and gibs. These are things most gamers have become desensitised to over the years. We can cheer when Marcus Phoenix chainsaws a grub in two with his lancer - hell, that’s what that particular animation is there for. You know there’s not going to be a scene in Gears of War 3 where Marcus talks about how his childhood priest molested him, not simply because it’s distasteful given the atmosphere the Gears games try to cultivate but because it’s not what gamers want in their games. For all the talk of psychological horror in games it’s the gore and monsters people identify with. Look at Silent Hill. Whatever Pyramid Head might have done early on in the series, he’s now a poster child for video game monsters. He’s a monster with a big sword, not some insidiously creeping Freudian nightmare.

The suppression of Songbird’s being was a major part of Excrucio Eternum for me. The game makes it clear that while she was not programmed for use as a sex object there were indignities inflicted upon her besides those involved in wiping her personality. The game even gave me the chance to hear about them, or to take advantage of her myself; I don’t know what might have happened if I’d selected those particular conversation options, because I didn’t. Even in the context of the game I’d become too attached to this fragile creature to act out of character and tread a darker path.

Songbird’s story came to light later in the game, when I was charged with entering the psyches of various characters I’d previously met. While they all had their own tragedies Songbird’s was, predictably, the worst and most affecting, not least because it involved me, Manus Dotin, the friendly dwarf who’d helped a family escape from a well of torment and then been corrupted and turned into a murderer. As the story went, upon my master’s command I’d slaughtered Songbird’s mother when Songbird herself had been a little girl, and taken her back to the asylum where he’d stripped her personality away little by little ‘til all that was left was an obedient bird in a cage. She followed orders - to be an object, to sing, to speak only when spoken to, to always be beautiful, to always be a slave - that hadn’t just been written on signs around her cage, but etched inside her mind. I found the fragments of her distraught personality and seeing them spread out, giving me clear identification as to her mental makeup, somehow made her situation even worse.

Because who wants to think of a person like that? Who wants to break his or herself down into take-or-leave parts? The thought that such a thing might be possible gives cause for panic because it implies that there are events in your life that can set who you are, that can change you for the better or worse. Most people can point to an event in their life and say that it changed their life but the more you think about these things, the more you examine your mental make-up and the circumstances that helped to construct it, the more frightening the world becomes. In its most innocuous form it’s how advertising works, how jingles get lodged in your consciousness so you whistle them in the car and end up buying branded products you don’t really need. If you stop to think about it you realise you’re being manipulated in ways you’d never dreamed of . . . and you don’t want to dream of them. You don’t want to know this because you’ll get wound up in the concept of free will, and you’ll realise that maybe there’s no such thing, and therefore, no point in life but to coast along on other people’s desires. Only without free will, they don’t have any desires either! And life’s one big feedback loop, one self-operating machine.

And God, I don’t want to think of life like that. Do you? It’s given me a headache just writing about it. But this is the kind of thing this game, this free module wants to make you think about. Pretty little Songbird, torn into shards of personality I had to ‘fix’ in order to put things right. Where she was a slave in the real world, inside her head was a version of herself bound by chains. In the real world she had no voice; in her mind she had a locked keyhole sunk into her throat. Where she needed to always be beautiful her skin had turned to gold, and where she was objectified, her skin had turned to stone, making her a statue to be admired and nothing else. And, in one corner of her mind, trapped inside a rotted tree stump she stood in a shaft of burning red light, her skin blistered, her limbs quaking. A man had taken a little girl and done this to her. A man had taken me, scooped out my will and made me bring her to him so he could do this.

It was a powerful moment in a game full of them. Every so often as I devoured the game’s dialogue I’d find my hand holding cupping my jaw as it dropped in disbelief. On one such occasion I’d found the absent father from the first game, sunning himself on a beach surrounded by beer and babes, hiding his red-hot cowardice in the cliff wall overlooking the scene and his guilt at leaving his wife submerged beneath the sand. Though I’d always wanted to make him pay for what he’d done I decided not to kill him, and instead forced him to confront his emotions and crimes. Last I saw of him he was debating whether or not to return to the burned-out inn to pay last respects to his family. Maybe he’ll do it. I hope he does.

The story and motivations behind the villain who built the asylum and imprisoned us all within it are so twisted and brilliant it’d be remiss for me to delve into them here. While they don’t come into play until the end of the mod they are in fact the focal point for it, if not for both games in the series. It’s a trope common to Japanese RPGs to deliver some kind of half-assed sympathy for the villain at the end of the game, as if learning his mother had died when he’d been a child, or that he’d been bullied throughout his schooldays would his excuse his murderous rampage across the land. While Excrucio Eternum doesn’t quite do this - and certainly doesn’t do it in such an opaque way - it does provide ample opportunity for you to stop and reconsider your own motivations for killing him. Maybe it’ll make you change your mind. It takes a skilled game writer to turn such a situation on its head in this way, but Gagne does it, and does it in such a way that you’re questioning yourself as much as you’re questioning the game. In a startling moment of foreshadowing you enter your own head for one sequence earlier in the game. Once inside your own head - in my case, the balding head of Manus Dotin - you lose control of your character and have a one-sided conversation with yourself. This is where the Bioshock factor kicked in, as Manus discussed my own motivations as a player, what had led me through all my adventures thus far, and again addressed the subject of free will. He tried to coerce me into killing him as an escape from this greater control, telling me that killing one’s self is the only free choice a person could ever have. The deeper psychological implication - and the one suggested by the game - is that Manus’s doubts regarding the greater tasks ahead of him were causing him to want escape from what he regarded as his duty towards the greater good. Writ large and sculpted in torment: Death was the only way out.

Today, Bioshock is still lauded for its novel approach to free will but in my opinon this free mod, this throwaway title from a darkened corner of the Internet, this game that has and will only ever be played by a few thousand people did a much better job covering such subject matter than a blockbuster beloved of critics everywhere.

There was going to be a third Eternum game; sadly Stefan Gagne appears to have left the NWN community and the ongoing story of Manus Dotin will never be finished. Such is the way of ambitious mod projects, I suppose. But Excrucio Eternum will always stand, not only as a fine module, not only as a fine game but as a fine story with fine characters, and I feel privileged that I get to be one of the few thousand people who’ve played it.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

NWN: The Art of Adventure

Out of all the games I've played this year, Neverwinter Nights (yes, I'm still playing, and my adoration of it is showing no signs of abating) is the only title that's managed to convey to me the sheer thrill of adventure; that urge to get up and go, to right wrongs, to explore every corner of the world in search of money, power or sense of a job well done. It's the only game I've played where I'll be presented with a hill or a cave and and it'll let me find out what's over it or what's inside for myself. Which is extraordinary because unlike the other games I've played that have let me scratch that explorer's urge, Neverwinter Nights is in many ways extremely limited.

Let me explain.

At the start of Terra Nova: Strike Force Centauri - the forgotten Looking Glass classic about space pirates and class-based, team-based mech-to-mech combat - my squad and I were dropped on moorland a mile or so from a lake and told to sever communications to a rebel pirate base. Once we'd reconoitered the area with a spy drone and found the base in question we could have quelled any pirate resistance we encountered, wired demolition charges to the radio mast, blown it up and waited for our drop ship to come and pick us up. And we did, in time.

But first we went to the beach.

What Terra Nova did that no other game I'd played had was give me the option not to attack the base, but to engage jump jets and bunny-hop down to that faraway lake to frolic in the waves. This fresh sense of freedom was, to put it bluntly, insane. Once I'd become more acquainted with the game I leanred to use it to my tactical advantage. Send my scout-class squadmate out to one side of the base to draw the pirates' attention and have him retreat to the hills, while the heavies attacked with explosives from the rear and I covered from the flank, taking flying pirates out with my tri-laser, frying their skulls inside their power armour helmets and razing their outposts to the ground. But the first time I ran to the beach I hadn't considered any of that. All I was thinking was "There'll be an invisible wall, or something. I'll never get there; the game will never let me". I thought this right up until I took my first tentative steps off-shore, right until I was splashing in the water and power-jumping over the wavelets that welled there.

Liberation: A video game freeing the player from the confines of video games conventions. Remember Morrowind? Remember that agoraphobic urge to stow yourself back down in the ship's hull because there at least you knew you were a prisoner, you knew your purpose in life. Out in the wilds of Vvardenfell you were terrifyingly free to wander a land of dust storms and jelly-fish monsters and towering stiltwalkers. The same was true of Oblivion, and Fallout 3, where Bethesda masterfully turned the scenario on it's head with its post-apocalyptic twist. You leave the vault and you're you're left to fend for yourself in a dead world inhabited by ghouls and mutants. It's do or die - do you curl into a ball, hammer on the vault door and beg your former comrades to let you back in? Or are you an adventurer?

Neverwinter Nights does none of this. Its maps are small and square, and its horizons are ghastly low-res skyboxes that are at their best when mostly obscured by trees and buildings. A lot of the time you can't see anything worth attempting to reach in the distance because there is no distance - there are only skyboxes and cloying fog. Maps flick when you reach the boundaries of an area like in an old Spectrum game.

Yet somehow - in spite of this - it does adventure really, really well.

This is down to the fans who've created the custom content the game is best known for. For the most part they aren't game designers; therefore they're not hampered by concepts of what you can and can't do in a game. They've stretched the engine in new and interesting ways, and, being fantasy fans, one of those ways has been to create epic fantasy experiences the breed of which the game didn't ship with. Longtime fans of the game recommend new players to not touch the original campaign, the one that comes on the game's disc. "If you want a good Neverwinter Nights campaign," they'll say, "play The Aielund Saga."

That's what I'm playing right now. And although it's far from the only NWN mod I've played that has a sense of incredible possibilities and adventure, it's a great series to illustrate exactly what I'm talking about.

Part one of the Aielund Saga beings with the player character arriving in town on - of all things - a dark and stormy night. Rain's been pouring down for so long the town has become waterlogged, and all trade routes and communications with neighbouring towns and villages have been disrupted. To make matters worse there are barbarians holing up somewhere to the east, wolf packs are patrolling the southern roads, and there are strange noises coming from inside the town mausoleum. Obviously there's ample scope for an adventurer to make some coin slaying wolves and barbarians, and running messages along roads no one else will take. But as much as those things might be considered adventuring in a fantasy RPG, that's not where the real adventure comes in.

Exploring the mausoleum under orders from the town priestess I found a trap door which led to a series of recently excavated - and poorly excavated, judging from the close rumblings of falling soil - tunnels. The tunnels were infested with goblins - again, an old, familiar genre trope. But some way into hacking my way through them, the remaining goblins turned tail and fled. I pursued and later found them caught in a cave-in. On one of their bodies I found a note . . .

This jaunt beneath the town of Bracksford had begun like any other quest in the game, but it was actually the start of an epic plotline that took my companions and I to

- a gentlemen's club
- a wyvern nest buried at the bottom of a desert mine
- windswept snowy peaks where we fought ogres
-barbarian forts in tundra so cold we needed fur cloaks just to preserve our body heat

. . . and many other adventure-filled places.

The module ended with us rescuing a kidnapped princess and walking back to town to find it besieged by mercenaries. Finally, I led a band of knights on a downhill charge against mercenary soldiers, trebuchets, and a horse-riding commander who slew three men with one sword blow before he turned his attention upon me and mine.

That was module one. Module two began with me escorting the princess on a sea voyage back to her homeland. Along the way we were attacked by pirates, and had to fend them off with deck-mounted ballista and by swinging across to their ship to light powder kegs buried deep within the hull, escaping by the skin of our teeth as the ship burst to kindling behind us. While we finally made it safely to dock in the princess's home city, we were attacked by assassins while diverted on the way back to her castle. As of my last save I'm on one mission to explore the sewers in search of the thieves' guild (where I'll hopefully find someone who can put me in contact with the assassins' guild and find out who put a contract on the princess's life), and another mission to discover which of the student wizards set up the diversion and if he did it deliberately. Because massive smoking craters in the city's main street - that's not the kind of thing that happens every day.

And all because I was told to investigate some strange sounds.

By rights a single game shouldn't let me do such things. Ship-to-ship combat, swashbuckling, rope-swinging, lighting powderkegs and standing well back - that's a pirate game. Playing gumshoe while trying to unravel the knots of a political assassination? Leading armies into battle? Maybe there are games out there that combine all three into one glorious whole - I haven't played Baldur's Gate 2 yet, so it's possible that does it - but there can't be many of them. I started the year with Mass Effect 2 and for all its gung-ho air-punching action RPG brilliance it didn't have this kind of scale, nor the sense of adventure The Aielund Saga has. With Aielund I genuinely don't know what's going to happen next. For all its bravado Mass Effect 2 was a fairly safe game. Opening with the destruction of the Normandy was a brave move. Presenting the chance for your entire crew to be killed in the finale was interesting. and putting the player in the shoes of Joker, your helpless pilot as he limps his way through corridors filled with rampaging aliens was the highlight of the game for me. I liked Joker's section for a number of reasons, but a big one was because I didn't know it was coming. In a game that might have been hamstrung by its predictable structure - if the content of said structure hadn't been so damned good - stripping away not only your powers but your very identity, and forcing you to hobble through alien terrors as a man who can barely walk was a powerful piece of video game design.

With a game as graphically limited as Neverwinter Nights the module creators have had to push the engine in ways it was never meant to bend in order to make vivid worlds and storylines that engross the player. They engage the player's imagination and show him things other games cannot. I'm a short way into the second part of a story which unfolds over four acts and six modules - I haven't a clue as to where The Aielund Saga will take me next. The only thing I'm sure of is that I want keep playing, and it's in this way that Neverwinter Nights has shown me a hill, shown me a cave, or shown me a glinting lake in the faraway distance, crooked a finger in my direction and said "Come and explore, Campfire. Come and find adventure."

With a request like that, how could I possibly refuse?

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Neverwinter Nights: It's Miller Time.

After playing and loving Maugeter I wanted to thrust into something at the other end of the Neverwinter Nights scale - something big and epic, where I was there hero, I had a destiny, and I'd adventure across the lands crushing evil underfoot, saving villages and kingdoms and all that kind of jazz. And in the NWN community there's nothing bigger or more acclaimed than Adam Miller's trilogy of campaigns: Shadowlords, DreamCatcher and Demon.

I was wary. A long time ago I had some dealings with various fan fiction communities, and it taught me that if there was one thing creative online communities like to do it's slap each other on the back. I reviewed stuff for my own amusement, I wasn't afraid to pull punches when it came to criticism - in truth, I was an asshole. Not being an asshole is not an easy thing for me, especially when it comes to creative talent - which is funny because my ego's as brittle as frost. With the Internet open to everyone it's easy for anyone to self-publish their own work to a wide audience, and most of the time they're doing it because they want to feel justified that yes, they are an artist. Their paintings are Van Goghs. their words worthy of Wordsworth.

Most of the time, they aren't.

These people cluster together and, in the company of wannabes such as themselves, indluge in epic bouts of back-slapping, often while the real talents of the community are ignored. There are real talents lurking in these communities, and they're often not getting the praise they deserve. That's why I reviewed so much dreadful fan fiction. When someone displays real talent that's overshadowed by people louder and more charismatic than them, it's nice to get a bit of recognition.

So before I began work on Adam Miller's magnum opus I'd practically made up my mind: This was not going to be good. I didn't care how highly the modules were regarded; none of them could possibly be any better than Maugeter. Maugeter was the sole diamond in the rough. The community be damned; Neverwinter Nights couldn't get any better than this.

The first module was pretty bad. I'm not going to say it was terrible, because I'm sure there are modules far worse than Shadowlords 1, but was it as good as the community claimed it to be? No, it wasn't. It felt old (which it was) and stilted. and poorly designed, and was lacking in imagination, and everything I loved that was present in Maugeter was missing here. It scored pretty highly on the Neverwinter Nights vault, which was worrying, because it didn't deserve a good score. The best thing about it was when I intimidated a guard into letting me pass by claiming to be a woman and flirting with him. I was a burly bard at the time, and after flirting worked (or failed, depending on how you view me scaring him away from his post) my alignment slipped into the chaotic spectrum. It was a single nice idea in a module lacking in nice ideas, but it showed that Miller at least had some ideas, even if he wasn't using them.

Things had changed by the end of the Shadowlords campaign. While the writing still wasn't great (as of DreamCatcher 4 it's still not great, but it's a hell of a lot better than it was) the scope of the adventure had opened significantly. The final battle for the fate of the world took place in three realms created from a fragment of my character's subconscience, each with a moral dilemma I had to unravel. It was a long way from the go here, kill things along the way quests of the first module.

And then came DreamCatcher.

By DreamCatcher Miller's mastered the toolset. Nothing illustrates that better than the opening, where we're treated to a cut scene, a dream (of the portentous non-Maugeterian kind), a moon-eyed discussion with your love interest from the first campaign, (I ended up with drippy Anera, largely because she was the only one of the three who was competent in a fight) a brief bit of domestic questing in an enormous pub and a outdoor carnival replete with magicians and performing bears. There is more character and confidence in this opening series of events than in the entire Shadowlords campaign. If I didn't know better I'd think it had been written by a different person.

Then meteors rained down upon the carnival massacring the townsfolk and I was summoned by the lord protector of the town, who sent me to a swamp infested with hags, elemental loam beasts and tribes of brain-washed lizard people to retrieve a fallen star.

This was different. Moreover, this was good.

It got better. The meteor I'd worked so hard to retrieve was swapped by the town's arch-magician, who took it and fled. I searched his quarters to try and find where he might have gone and instead found a portal leading to a vast underwater base filled with magical oddities he'd stored there over the years. Now that's the kind of shit I love in an RPG. For me, gaming doesn't get any better than the Clerk's Ward in Planescape: Torment, where there was precious little combat but loads to see and do. While the undersea fortress was nowhere near as wonderfully involved as the Clerk's Ward, there were echoes of it here and there, just as there were in the museum and menagerie sections towards the end of Shadow Lords. Solving riddles, lengthy conversations, whacky mystical gizmos - I love it. There was a seat that transported me into a woman's dream. She blamed the death of her son in a fire upon herself, and combusted accordingly. I ran away with her in pursuit until I located a ice mace which I used to club the guilt out of her. I love that, too; that in the middle of all the worthy adventure there's time enough for an unrelated subquest where I can go and make someone's life better. It's pleasant, you know? It warms the cockles of my stony little heart.

Back on track, my partner and I were to sail to an Elven island for the next part of the master quest. Along the way we were attacked by pirates, and although we managed to repel the boarders our defence against a flurry of cannonballs did not go so well. The ship was sunk, my love was apparently drowned (yeah, right) and I washed up on a mysterious island where I treated with suspicion and thrown into a dungeon.

Ah yes, the old 'dungeon escape' trope. No man's ever managed to escape! Of course, I managed it, but the escape showed off some more tricks Miller had picked up. There were elements of old graphical adventure games as I constructed a torch from pieces of rubbish, and some kind stealth as I pushed a crate down a hallway to trigger the traps strewn across it. All the while I was weak, diseased and dying, and without the gear I'd spent hours accumulating. I foraged for sustenance, killing and eating sewer frogs and drinking water from which I had to pick floating bits of god knows what. Once escaped there was a little girl whose dead mother wanted her to stay in the afterlife with her, and a new companion (and potential love interest, not that I strayed) who was worried about her father, the crazed mayor of the town who had me thrown into the 'inescapable' dungeon in the first place.

And then there was the dragon. After a nice long dungeon crawl that took in elder god frog people and a demon with five lives I escaped from a collapsing tower on the back of a golden dragon. I was impressed. I was even more impressed when the dragon informed me there were pirate ships ahead of us and would I like to rain some vengeance for my lost Anera upon them? As Bruce Campbell once said, I might be good, but I ain't that good.

We torched them and we smote them, and we went to the islands where they live and killed every one of them. I don't know what Anera's going to say when she makes her inevitable reappearance but damn it, I'd already given up one avenue for revenge. When I defeated the dwarf skeleton king and his cronies I gave their cursed spirits freedom. I could have bound their spirits in a weapon and used it against Anera's killers, granting myself a certain satisfaction but prolonging their torment. But I thought to myself, what would Anera do? And I let them go.

There was no such leniency for the pirates who took Anera from me. I hunted them from the skies and razed their towers to dust, and only when they lay in piles of ash did I feel sated and command my steed to move on.

This is what a good game does. When the talent is there, the experience is there, and when the experience is there the war stories flow easily. DreamCatcher is a good game. It's uneven, the difficulty veers from one end of the spectrum to the other, and as I've mentioned before, the writing isn't great. It's good enough, though. Good enough for me to get caught up in the story of Torin Lance, and good enough for me to want the pirates who robbed him of his love dead and scattered to the four winds.

Only one module of DreamCatcher remains, and then it's on to Demon, Millers final campaign for the original Neverwinter Nights toolset. Frankly, I'm looking forward to it. And - and I rarely, rarely say this - for once I'm glad I was wrong.

Monday, 26 July 2010

Maugeter Days, Neverwinter Nights

Welcome to Maugeter, a totalitarian city dominated by twisted lords who rank law and order above all else, where group gatherings and civillian dissent are discouraged by extreme violence and to which you have come, the chosen one, to break its walls and free its peop-

Er, wait. Dreafully sorry but there there's been a clerical error. You're not the chosen one, you're just a schlub who's ended up here. You're not Some Guy capital S, capital G - you're 'some guy', ie. 'some guy who isn't special'. What's your name? Dave? You look like a Dave. Well Dave, you're free to come in here and do whatever it is you Daves do, but take one step out of line and we'll be on you like sharks on a papercut. No loitering, no magic, no bothering the guards, no moving between districts without the proper paperwork and no - absolutely NO parties of four or more adventurers. You want to know what we do to parties of four or more adventurers? You see this greasy red smear on the cobblestones, the one with the clots of hair and fragments of tooth? Yeah, we do that. Got it? Good. Consider yourself warned. Now hop it back to your party of two and don't bother me again.

Maugeter isn't a game you can buy off the shelves of your local Zavvi - in fact it's neither something you can pay for, nor is it a game in the strictest sense. It's a fanmade module for Neverwinter Nights, the RPG Bioware released in 2002 that was supposed to revolutionise the games industry and didn't. The truth was that out of the box Neverwinter Nights wasn't a very good game. I tried it many years ago and gave up somewhere around the point I became bored of pointing and clicking and killing everything as if the game was a Diablo-esque dungeon crawler. Diablo-esque dungeon crawlers are all well and good and have their place in the panthon of gaming but I don't expect this kind of thing from a Bioware RPG. Bioware, who are praised for their storytelling, characters and dialogue had delivered a product that was subpar in each of these categories, and the fanbase built upon the Baldur's Gate games agreed. Neverwinter Nights wasn't a very good game, it didn't take off, it didn't revolutionise the industry, and years down the line after the likes of Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect, it's not fondly remembered.

But there is another side to Neverwinter Nights, one the general gameplaying public knows little about but an important one nonetheless. While most Bioware fans were disappointed by the game and moved on to bigger and brighter things, others took to exploring its the inner workings, seeking to understand the toolset that shipped with it so they could craft their own adventures to replace the one the game itself didn't supply.

In 2010 there are hundreds of these adventures stored in IGN's NWNVault, and while I'm sure most of them are terrible the most important thing is not all of them are. Fans have crawled into every crevice of the toolset and stretched the game engine to breaking point. They've crafted new packs of models, character portraits, improved AI routines, music, sound effects - enough content to replace everything that shipped with the game numerous times over. In the vaccum left by in the wake of Baldur's Gate, Planescape: Torment et al, they've constructed stories that would not and could not be made for today's publishers and sold in today's commercial marketplace, and they've done so because they don't have to. They're not selling their games: They're giving them away for free, making them for the sheer joy it, and for the adulation of the Neverwinter Nights community. They're doing it for fun.

There are enough modules on NWNVault to give Neverwinter Nights an insane lifespan and even in 2010 people are still releasing modules with stories that become more epic and elaborate with every release - not bad for a dead game. While many other games with thriving modification scenes tend to be dominated by mods that offer familiar gameplay in unfamiliar surroundings the NWN mod scene has tried to cater to all tastes. They know that people want diversity from their games and have coded accordingly. Browsing through the NWNVault archives you'll find mods dedicated to pure hack and slash gaming, mods dedicated to a more stealthy gameplay, mods dedicated to roleplaying and storytelling, short mods, mods of epic length, funny mods, sad mods, and mods that do a little of all of the above. Some mods are as open as Deus Ex, allowing players to play their game in any way they choose, as a good guy or an evil villain, as anything they want to be. Others force the player down a certain route, making them play a certain character in a particular way - perhaps a trap-tricking rogue, or a paladin, pure of heart, smiting evil in the name of her chosen deity. Other mods are more occupied with subject matter few games will even hint at, let alone focus on. Free of marketing worries mod-makers deal with gender and sexuality as they see fit. This could be by flinging the player into a wanton orgy or by playing with the more delicate matter of your character's coming out. There are as many ways of making a Neverwinter Nights module as there are of telling a story.

Story's what I want from a game. Atmosphere, character and story, story, story. But an engaging story needn't be a sweeping epic narrative looking to me to save the world, and Maugeter shows that sometimes being a hero isn't all about being a hero; that sometimes it's just about doing the right thing.

Maugeter opens with small, rapt audience listening to a tale-teller plying his wares in - where else? - a taven. The story itself is a fairytale romance about a star who falls in love with a mortal woman and seeks to spend a day with her, but as the storyteller and his companions bicker over how the story should be told and Sara, the excitable young elf sat opposite my dwarven fighter interjects her own opinions a certain sense of dread creeps into the proceedings. The laws governing the city are so oppressive they seep beyond the city limits, and the storyteller is reluctant to tell the story as it is traditionally told for fear it might give us the idea that lawbreaking is a good thing. This is rarely the way a professional game starts out. Such scene-setting is condensed to cut scenes and CG intros. Common wisdom has it that people want to get into the game as soon as possible, not sit and read banks of allegorical text. All the same, the mood is set. The unease of living in Maugeter's shadow is palpable. We're sat by a fire, telling stories while we weather the storm outside. This is how our story begins.

My first quest is to get into the city. Gate passes are notoriously hard to find, and it's with a little questing and gentle persuasion that I happen across not one but two: one for myself and one for my new companion Sara, who needs to enter the city's sixth district in order to begin training as a wizard, and who I've fallen in with because, being scatty and excitable, she'd probably lose her head without my help. Maugeter is built upon a series of districts, each of which requires a new pass in order to proceed to the next. In order to find these passes and make money I need to take quests. There's a guardhouse in the second district that pays bounties for criminals brought in dead or alive, and a guild of mercenaries in the third that should offer good money to a grizzled fighter such as myself. Since I'm stuck in the first district without the pass necessary to enter the next, the only option left is to check the district noticeboard in search of work.

Some hours later the noticeboard provides me with a seemingly simple quest requiring me to go to the fifth district where the city's nobility live. I've accumulated enough passes to get to the sixth, taken Sara there and had her register for classes at the wizard campus - though classes don't start for a couple months so she's decided to accompany me in the interim. Also accompanying me is Catherey, a friendly private detective whose services I'd first employed to track down villains for the city guard, and later employed as my henchman. The three of us make for a formidable team. Delivering a package for some nob from nob hill shouldn't be a problem.

There are instructions: Here is the package. Deliver it to the red tower in the forest west of the city. Go there directly. Do not open or tamper with the package in any way. Deposit it in the container outside the tower. Do not tarry. Come straight back.

It seemed straightforward enough. Too straightforward, obviously, but I decided not to tempt fate and investigate the parcel further. I just wanted to do my job and get paid, and so we departed from the city and went straight to our destination (or we would have done if we hadn't been waylaid by a poor merchant whose furs and cash had been stolen by a band of barbarian bandits. But having helped him, we moved swiftly on). Once inside the forest I dropped the package in the container and was about to leave when we heard a scream coming from somewhere in the ground beneath us.

I could have ignored it. That's the important thing. I could have ignored the scream, obeyed my instructions, returned to district five and claimed my reward. I don't know what would have happened then. Maybe I would have been given the gold and a pat on the head in payment, or maybe something else would have happened; I don't know. What did happen was this: I chose not to ignore the scream, bashed in the door of the tower, entered it and found myself in a world of adventure.

Wights and evil magicians guarded the interior of the tower; we dispatched them with little fuss and set about exploring the labyrinthan confines of what turned out to be a vast underground complex of tunnels, traps and tricks. We found cages filled with bones, monstrous jailmasters, wells of inky black liquid that radiated evil and had to be purified by pouring healing potions into them, and in the very last room, an enchantress stripped down to her smalls, ready to bathe in blood as part of some arcane ritual our package had been a part of. We killed her and found correspondance between her and the noble house that had sent us on this quest, as well as a key to its front door. With righteous anger burning in my bosom I marched us back there, unlocked the door and slew whoever we found. We met riddling golems that had me answer jokes in my chat bar, crept through a network of freezing fountains, sought out silver keys to place on a magical pillar that opened a door to the cellar, and inadvertantly unleashed a plague of walking corpses that had been walled up behind a pile of boxes. When we reached the end of the dungeon beneath the house it almost felt anticlimactic. While some arcane ritual was clearly in progress as lightning lit the dank air, the mastermind behind this sceme lay unmoving, apparently dead on the floor.

I say 'apparently' because when we attempted to leave the ritual room he was transfigured into a gargantuan demon who roared and rolled towards us. My companions advised that we fled. It sounded like a good idea.

The beast chased us the house over until we found ourselves at a dead end in the master bedroom. "Trapped!" the demon boomed, and stepped towards us, moving in for the kill. But in a font at the back of the room I'd found a strange metallic device, the function of which wasn't entire clear, but as the item's description informed me, it had a trigger, and if it had a trigger, that trigger was meant to be pulled. I pointed the device at the approaching demon, pulled the trigger and shot a searing beam of energy into its chest. It screamed and clutched for support, but fell, crashing to the ground, weak and mewling but not yet dead. Then I took its head off with my axe.

The house's doors had locked behind us, but in the corner of the ground floor were three pillars: one with a lever, two with square indentations on them, as if in true Resident Evil tradition they awaited some kind of crest or seal. I'd already found one family crest; the second was on the demon's body, and pressing them both into the columns unlocked the lever which in turn unlocked the front door and allowed us to escape.

And that was it: Adventure over. But as the blurb for Maugeter goes, the city is bigger than you are, and though the adventure was over the game was not.

In truth I don't know how much game I have left. It could be two hours; it could be ten. At the moment I'm working with the mercenaries guild. We've left the city in order to find out what keeps happening to city merchants heading along the eastern trade route. An army of us are accompanying a dignitary eager to study the land (but absent-minded enough to forget his study papers in his home, where I had to return to to retrieve them from his disgruntled wife while the mercenary band made camp far out beyond the city's limits). We were attacked by forest folk and many of us were killed, but the guild captain loosed a glass bird into the air to send for reinforcements and tomorrow we plan on taking the fight to the enemy. Tonight however, I dream. When I sleep in Maugeter, I dream of strange things. Some things resonate with my current predicament - when I dreamt about leaving home and leaving my childhood friend behind, when I dreamt about searching for the one fire elemental who'd disguised himself as a dwarf in a city full of them, the one I needed to track down to act as witness in a courtroom trial of one of his brethren who'd been accused of race betrayal by taking position in Maugeter as a ferryman working with the water. Some of these dreams are nonsensical. Some are scary. One was so disturbing even now I shudder to think of it. While searching for the red tower I dreamt of another tower, coiled and dominating the landscape, at the top of which was a minotaur who would exclaim "Sexy, sexy!" whenever I approached him. In gaming terms these are brief interludes, interactive distractions that take place while you're healing the day's wear and tear, vignettes that reflect your situation, your state of mind, or are just out-and-out odd in the way only dreams can be. But as silly as they sometimes seem, they reflect the mission statement of the game perfectly. Every other game that features dreams does so in a way that adds something to the story. Maugeter has the sense to know that not ever dream has to be portentous; sometimes a dream is only a dream, and as such it adds a surprising amount of believability to your character. When you sleep you don't loose track of your mind, you stay with your state of consciousness, just as you do in the real world. It seems such a simple, throwaway idea, but so many hours into the game the dreams have yet to repeat themselves so the module's creator must realise how important they are to Maugeter.

Maugeter is a place of adventures and mysteries, but it's also a place that endures beyond your own interactions. It's something like Sigil from Planescape: Torment in that way. The are parts of the Sigil the game only briefly touches upon. Though there is a grand, overarcing story in which, yes, you are the chosen one, but there are also deities beyond your imagining. The Lady of Pain, Sigil's strange ruler doesn't acknowledge you unless you deliberately catch her attention, upon which she flicks your tiresome soul into a dimension she's crafted to imprison gnats such as yourself. There's a certain elegance to games that can send you on adventures in which you're not be-all and end-all. For all its bells, whistles and sophistication, Maugeter is a humble game, where you can choose to do great good and have it go unnoticed by the people around you. Ending up back on the streets after my tower adventure, I was back where I'd started, a little wiser, a little more experienced, and with a cracker of a tale under my belt, but there was no fanfare or procession that greeted me. As in life, if I wanted a pat on my back I'd have to do it myself. Much of Maugeter follows such an approach. Storming the thieves guild with my own netted me cash, not fame. Life goes on in Maugeter. New things happen in districts you think you're done with. If watching a group of four adventurers get creamed by the city guard for gathering in too large a party didn't drive the message home for you, playing the game further will: You're a hero, but you're not the hero. There's a certain kind of honesty to that.

It's all the more amazing that this game is not a game, that I didn't pay a penny for it, that it's a bolt-on module for an old game that costs pennies, that it's one of hundreds of its kind, and that while it's very, very good it's by no means the best reviewed of all the Neverwinter Nights modules out there. But I'm guessing that while it mightn't be the best module of all time, it's certainly one of the most unique. A high fantasy adventure where you don't have a destiny? There can't be many of those.

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