250px-planescape-torment-box[Last week Beamdog released an enhanced edition of Planescape: Torment for modern desktops and tablets. In honor of this occasion (and hopefully to drive more people to play it) I decided to post a full-length review of the game, which I’ve somehow never done despite going on about my love for it all these years. Be warned: some spoilers ahead!]

What always strikes me first about Planescape: Torment every time I start a new game is how weird it is.  Your character –called “the Nameless One”–wakes up in a mortuary, apparently as an amnesiac zombie, and is greeted by a floating skull who proceeds to read a message written on the Nameless One’s back.

And that’s just the opening few minutes of what’s at least a 20- to 30-hour game.  It doesn’t get less weird after that.  You meet a whole host of bizarre characters: a chaste succubus, a living suit of armor, a man who is eternally on fire, a living cube with crossbows… the list goes on.  And that doesn’t even address the weird setting–an indescribable world of twisting labyrinths and cities that shift both in physical space and across different planes of reality.

All in all, it’s a strange and disturbing universe that the Nameless One must traverse in order to complete his quest.

And yet, for all the outré creatures and situations you encounter, it always remains possible to relate, even if it’s only in some twisted way, to the humanity of the characters. That is the first piece of genius that points to the heart of Torment’s brilliance: though it is surreal, it is also real on an emotional level–more real, in fact, than many other games that strive for super-realistic graphics and gameplay.

03
Gameplay screenshot via Planescape.com

There is a heart to Torment‘s characters, and a logic to its locales and events, because they are all connected by a unifying theme: their relationship to the Nameless One, and how his actions impact all of this is the thread that weaves all these fantastical elements together into a coherent whole.

The fundamental feature of all video games is interactivity.  What differentiates games from other art forms is that the intended audience is meant to actively engage with the game.  It is not merely a passive experience, but one in which the audience is meant to take some action which in turn advances them towards a goal.

In games with narrative–what we might call “dramatic games”–the player’s actions are supposed to advance the story.  By performing an action, the player sees what happens next.  In more sophisticated games, the player has some choice of what actions to perform, and these affect the course of the larger story.

The full potential of this storytelling style is seldom realized in most dramatic games. Generally, most stick with the tried-and-true formula of the player advancing a straightforward narrative by performing a set of actions. But in Torment, the concept of interactivity is wedded to the story of the game itself.

One of the central themes in Torment is the idea of “consensus reality”–the idea that by agreeing to believe in something, it becomes effectively “real”. This is also tied to the game’s famous recurring line: “What can change the Nature of a Man?” (In some endings, the Nameless One can argue that “whatever you believe can change the nature of a man, can.”)

With its relativistic approach to “reality” (that is, the reality of the game world) Torment acknowledges a little-noted but integral truth of gaming: that the game-reality is subject to the manipulations of the player.  In other words, since the player is interacting with the rest of a pre-programmed world, it is ultimately their “reality”, to shape as they see fit.

This is technically true of any game. When you play anything, from Pong to Minecraft to Fallout 4, you are interacting with a virtual world and manipulating it according to your desires.  The difference is that Torment is implicitly aware of this, and it makes the player character’s relationship to the world mimic that of the player themselves.

It is this subtle, critical point that makes Torment an all-time classic that’s still being played nearly 20 years since its release.

Nearly everything that happens in the story, and every character who appears in the game, either has previously been or currently is affected by the Nameless One’s actions. The entire game-world is (or can become) a reflection of the Nameless One’s character, either in his current life or in previous ones.

The architect Louis Sullivan famously wrote that “form ever follows function.” He meant this not merely as an architectural philosophy, but as a wide-ranging principle of design.

I’d argue that good design in narrative isn’t so much a matter of form “following” function, but simply form and function being in harmony.  In drama, you might decide the “form” (the medium/genre in which you will tell your story) before the “function” (the content/theme of your story), but they had better work well together.  That’s why it’s tough to write an action movie that glorifies pacifism, for example.

In Torment, form and function complement one another perfectly: the gameplay involves the player making decisions that alter the world, and the story is about how the Nameless One’s decisions alter the world.

Of course, Torment’s story and dialogue are brilliant on their own merits, and even in another form (it was adapted into a book, after all), the writing hits all the right notes: witty, moving, disturbing, clever and deeply philosophical.

But what makes the lines so powerful, and the intensely introspective storyline so memorable, is the fact that the player is able to make the game their own through their choices.  The player and the player character effectively merge, in a way that transcends (I used that word deliberately) the usual emotional distance between player and avatar.

It’s a difficult in any game to get players to really connect with the characters or the setting.  They intellectually know it’s all just pixels drawn by a bunch of zeroes and ones. And besides, how much can in-game choices “matter”, if you can just reload and try again if it doesn’t work out?

What’s truly amazing is that Torment should theoretically be less accessible than the average game. The strange setting and characters, forbiddingly odd even by fantasy standards, adds another barrier to the player’s ability to relate to it.

And then there’s the fact that the player character’s “death” means even less than in typical games.  He’s immortal; so it doesn’t matter if he gets killed in a fight; he just wakes up again afterwards.  In theory, this should make every conflict less emotionally-charged than it otherwise would be.

The designers stacked the deck against themselves, and then overcame the odds to deliver one of the most emotionally compelling games of all time. And so Torment‘s weirdness is not a flaw, but a strength–it adds to its unique flavor.

Throughout this review, I’ve said relatively little about the specifics of the game itself. That’s because the game defies description–and I think that’s because it’s like a mosaic: I can’t explain why it’s beautiful by showing just one tile–you have to see the interconnected nature of the whole thing to understand it. The best I can do is describe the sense I got from looking at it.

If you like dramatic, narrative-driven video games and you like to think, give Planescape: Torment a try.  You’ll never forget it.

ghost poster1. Plot Summary

Ghost in the Shell is set “in the near future” according to the opening title card, in a world in which people are cybernetically enhanced. It opens with a young woman named Mira Killian (Scarlett Johansson) waking up inside of a life-like mechanical body.  The doctor who performed the operation tells her that she is the survivor of a terrorist attack, and that her body was destroyed but her brain was saved–the first such instance of an entirely mechanical body.

The Hanka Robotics company that funded this miraculous operation then puts Killian to use as anti-terrorist agent in a group called “Section 9”. The Hanka CEO makes it clear that Killian, as the first fully mechanical shell housing a human brain, is a powerful weapon.

The film flashes forward a year to Killian, who is now a Major in Section 9, carrying out counter-terrorism operations.  After a gun battle with some hacked robots, Major Killian examines and attempts to hack the remains of one of the robots, the Major gets clues as to the location of the hacker, but also exposes herself to counter-hacks.

Eventually, the Major and her team track down the hacker, but when she finally finds him, he captures her and explains she is not really the first purely mechanical body created by the Hanka corporation.  He was a failed attempt they made prior to the Major.  He explains that they wiped her memories and gave her false ones. (Throughout the opening act, the Major has experienced odd hallucinations or “glitches” as her brain remembers fragments of her real past, including a burning pagoda-like structure. The hacker has a similar image tattooed on his chest.)

The Major finds the doctor who performed the operation who admits that the hacker’s story is true, and that in truth, there were 98 other test subjects who failed before the successful operation on the Major.

Now that she knows the truth, the Hanka corporation decides the Major is a threat, and the CEO orders the doctor to destroy her.  Instead, she gives her the address of her real home and helps her escape, before being killed by the CEO.

The Major goes to the address and finds a woman who she realizes is her mother, and who tells her how her daughter ran away a year before and was reported by the government to have committed suicide after being captured.

She contacts the other members of Section 9, which causes the Hanka CEO to attempt to assassinate all of them, but they manage to defeat his soldiers. The Major then meets the hacker at the ruins of the pagoda-like structure from their visions–it was their hideaway, where they both lived before being captured.

Hanka deploys a massive “Spider Tank” robot to destroy them.  The hacker is killed, but the Major destroys the Spider Tank and the Section 9 leader shoots and kills the Hanka CEO after the Major tells him to do so.

In the closing scenes, she meets with her mother and then continues going on missions for Section 9.

2. Analysis

That all probably sounds pretty confusing if you haven’t seen the film.  In fact, even having seen it, it sounded a little confusing to me just writing it.  But it all pretty much worked for me while I was watching the movie.

I went to see it because I like cyber-punk dystopian stories that deal with trans-humanism.  This is due to my fondness for the Deus Ex series of video games, which are set in futuristic dystopias and deal with augmented humans and the theme of humanity merging with machines. I saw a few bits and pieces about Ghost in the Shell and thought it looked kind of like that.

And I actually underestimated its resemblance to Deus Ex. For me, it was practically like watching Deus Ex: The Movie. The city in which most of it takes place looked like the cities in Deus Ex, right down to the intermingling of super-futuristic technology with trash-filled alleys and nightclubs. The fighting factions of hackers, mega-corporations and governments was straight out of that series as well.

The Major’s friend Batou reminded me strongly of Gunther from the original game, and the opening credits sequence looked like the start of Human Revolution. Even the guns looked like something J.C. Denton or Adam Jensen might wield.

More than that, even the structure of the plot was similar:

  • Augmented human/cyborg protagonist works for counter-terrorism organization.
  • Augmented human/cyborg protagonist finds out s/he is being lied to by said organization.
  • Augmented human/cyborg protagonist starts to have sympathy for the people s/he was originally fighting.

And to be clear, this didn’t bother me a bit.  I’m not saying they just stole all the ideas from Deus Ex. In fact, the Japanese graphic novel on which it is based (which I have not read) was written in the early ’90s, before Deus Ex. So I don’t know which is influencing which.  And frankly,  it doesn’t matter to me.  The fact is, it’s a good concept, so it pretty much works. All these things are common tropes of the cyberpunk genre.

Now, that isn’t to say that there weren’t some rough spots. There definitely were, including a major (no pun intended) one that I’ll get to later.  But I want to make clear that if you enjoy dystopian cyberpunk science fiction, you’re probably going to enjoy this.

At times, it felt like the greatest video game adaptation in history, even though it isn’t one.  There was tactical, squad-based combat, there were exciting gun battle scenes, and there was even a boss battle–in fact, the “Spider Tank” almost seemed like a brilliant parody of a typical video game boss fight.

The action sequences were pretty well-done, and most importantly, didn’t drag on too long.  In fact, except for one element (again, I’ll get to that later) they were surprisingly good.  The only one I really disliked was a scene in a nightclub where the Major is handcuffed to a stripper pole by some thugs who then hit her with some sort of electric prod.

First of all, it seemed like a bit of salaciously sexualized violence needlessly tossed in to titillate immature people. Second, it made no sense whatsoever why the Major would be susceptible to torture–why would anybody build a counter-terrorism cyborg that could feel pain?

Of course, the Major escaped–it wasn’t really clear why she waited–and satisfyingly beat up the thugs, albeit in a rather silly pole-dance-fight sequence. (It’s not as bad as that sounds–but still, not the film’s high point.)

One of my favorite scenes was the one in which the Major hacks into a broken mechanical geisha. I won’t try to describe it, but the visual metaphor they used for the hacking–and subsequent counter-hack–was very cleverly done. It was a good way of dramatizing the process.

Now, there are a lot of nitpicks one could make about the technology in the movie.  How can they have these super-sophisticated robots but still be using cartridge-based firearms? Moreover, how come the robots and augmented humans can still be destroyed by bullets?  There’s really no good answer, but this is where the concept of “suspension of disbelief” comes into play–if the story is good enough, the audience will accept it.

Except–and here’s that flaw I’ve been alluding to–there was one thing that totally ruined the immersion for me.

At the start of the first big action sequence, the Major is covertly monitoring a meeting that gets attacked by hacked robots.  She is standing atop a skyscraper in a black coat, which looks pretty cool.  When the attack starts, she leaps into action and… throws off her black coat to reveal the “outfit”–if you can call it that–pictured in the poster above.

Except the poster makes it look way better than it does in the movie.  Here’s a still from the movie:

ridiculous
via IMDb

This looks absolutely ridiculous.

For some reason, when particularly intense fights happen, the Major takes off her clothes and fights in what I guess you could call her “underwear”.  This allows her to periodically turn invisible, which is a useful tactic.

However, what is not a useful tactic is running around in what appears to be a bright-white naked human body. It’s hard to get any more conspicuous than that.

Images of Scarlett Johansson in this costume have been used heavily in the film’s promotional materials.  I guess this is just the marketing people trying to follow the age-old adage that “sex sells”, and figuring that this will appeal to teenage boys. (Although I was once a teenage boy, and I don’t think I would have thought this was hot even then.)

The effect is absurd and stupid.  The special effects are generally good, but on this, they really fall down.  The impression you get is that the bad guys are being attacked by a naked mannequin with a realistic-looking head superimposed on top of it. It’s slightly creepy but mostly just laughable.  It reminded me of the game Mass Effect 3, when the A.I. that pilots the ship takes over a robotic body that looks like–of all things!–a slender human female.

I would be inclined to complain that this is a rather cheap, crass and sexist ploy to get attention, except that it’s so silly-looking it’s kind of hard to imagine anybody thinks it’s sexy.  (And if they do, I can’t imagine what their reaction to walking into a clothing store with mannequins must be.)

This is even worse because most of the time, the Major wears perfectly respectable, everyday cyberpunk-heroine outfits that look just fine.

cool
via IMDb

(Side note: I have no idea what’s up with all the knives in this movie.  People would have knives and never used them.  The utility of a knife as a weapon in a world populated by cybernetically-augmented humans and pure machines seems limited.)

I don’t generally pay much attention to costumes in movies, and I feel slightly sexist myself for even discussing this.  (The natural feminist counter-argument would be that a strong, independent anti-terrorism cyborg has every right to wear what she deems best.)  I’m just saying it looked so bizarre that the scenes where it happened became unintentionally comical.

But what bothered me most about the suit is the fact that I could see people getting the wrong impression about this movie from how much it’s used in the marketing.  I was afraid the movie might be nothing but a flimsy excuse to give callow teenagers something to gawk at between shoot-’em-up scenes, and for the most part, it’s not that.  Apart from this relatively small (albeit really stupid) element, it’s actually a surprisingly thoughtful film, as these things go.

With that, enough about costumes.  Back to plotting and character–things that really matter.

Juliette Binoche is really good as the doctor who saves the Major and gives her the new body.  Hers was probably the most complex character–she is driven by a passion for science, and a genuine desire to help, but makes a Faustian bargain with the less-than-noble Hanka corporation to do so.

Her death scene, however, was poorly-handled.  It was clear enough when she helps the Major escape that she would be killed unless the Major saved her.  That she simply left her there made her seem a little cold.  Also, there is a logic problem in that the doctor is shot through a window looking into the room where the Major was held in captivity–you would expect that to be bulletproof glass.

There are no great feats of acting in this movie, but it’s not really the sort of movie that allows for or needs it.  All the actors delivered very solid, competent performances.  And the characters, while mostly stock figures of the genre, are reasonably well-written and consistent.  The script has only one memorable line and no masterful plot twists, but it is well-paced and workmanlike, with no serious flaws.

I would have ended the movie about two minutes earlier than it actually ends.  The last two scenes–of the Major reuniting with her mother and then going on a mission for Section 9–raise more questions at the worst time.  Who is the Major fighting now?  Is she still working for the government that collaborated with Hanka to kidnap her in the first place?  It seemed strange, and made the film a little less satisfying than it could have been.

All in all, I was very pleasantly surprised by Ghost in the Shell.  It is not a great film, but after the modern science-fiction films I have seen–Prometheus, The Force Awakens–even basic storytelling competence was really a treat.  If you like cyberpunk or science-fiction in general, I recommend it.

Now if only Section 9 would issue the Major a less-ridiculous stealth uniform…

I stole this idea from Barb Knowles who got it from Paul who got the idea from Aaron who stole it from Jess. (Whew! It all reminds me of the Tom Lehrer song “I got it from Agnes”–quite possibly the dirtiest song ever written without using a single off-color word. But I digress.)

  1. Blogging
  2. American football
  3. Pizza
  4. Economics
  5. The color red
  6. History
  7. Desert landscapes
  8. The movie Lawrence of Arabia (combines 6 and 7)
  9. Writing
  10. The book A Confederacy of Dunces
  11. A good scary story.
  12. Gilbert and Sullivan operettas
  13. Political theory
  14. Hazelnut coffee
  15. Conspiracy theories
  16. Well-written, metered, rhyming satirical poetry.
  17. The number 17
  18. Thunderstorms
  19. Friendly political debates
  20. The sound of howling wind.
  21. The unutterable melancholy of a winter sunset in a farm field.
  22. Pretentious sentences like the one above.
  23. Knights of the Old Republic II
  24. Halloween
  25. The book 1984
  26. Niagara Falls
  27. The song “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner”
  28. Pumpkin-flavored cookies. coffee, cake etc.
  29. The book The King in Yellow
  30. Hats
  31. Chess
  32. Trivia competitions
  33. Numbered lists
  34. Mowing lawns
  35. The smell of fresh-cut grass
  36. Black licorice
  37. Beethoven’s 3rd,5th and 9th symphonies
  38. The color light blue.
  39. Exercise machines
  40. My iPad
  41. Feta cheese
  42. The movie Jane Got a Gun
  43. Etymologies
  44. Gregorian chants
  45. December 23rd
  46. The story “The Masque of the Red Death”
  47. Mozzarella sticks
  48. Leaves in Autumn
  49. Long drives in the country
  50. Fireworks
  51. The song “You Got Me Singin'”
  52. The book To Kill a Mockingbird
  53. Constitutional republics that derive their powers from the consent of the governed.
  54. Strategy games
  55. Puns
  56. Ice skating
  57. My Xbox One
  58. The smell of old books
  59. Hiking
  60. Tall buildings
  61. Bookstores
  62. Gloves
  63. Rational-legal authority, as defined by Max Weber
  64. Bagels with cream cheese
  65. The Olentangy river
  66. The movie The Omen
  67. Far Side comics
  68. Planescape: Torment
  69. The song “Barrytown”
  70. Reasonable estimates of the Keynesian multiplier
  71. Stories that turn cliches on their heads.
  72. Editing movies
  73. Really clever epigraphs
  74. The movie “Chinatown”
  75. Ice water
  76. Deus Ex
  77. Silly putty
  78. Swiss Army Knives
  79. Anagrams
  80. Wikipedia
  81. Radical new models for explaining politics.
  82. Weightlifting
  83. Lego
  84. Madden 17
  85. The song “The Saga Begins”
  86. Trigonometry
  87. Writing “ye” for “the”
  88. Well-made suits
  89. Popcorn
  90. Pasta
  91. The word “sesquipedalian”
  92. The movie Thor
  93. Blackjack
  94. The movie The English Patient
  95. Pretzels
  96. Cello music
  97. Bonfires
  98. The story “The Hound of the Baskervilles”
  99. Soaring rhetoric
  100. Astronomy
  101. Getting comments on my blog posts.

[See it at Scott’s website here.]

This is a good example of video game analysis done right. Scott’s description of the different levels of Deus Ex‘s story reminds me of (you guessed it) Gayden Wren’s style of analysis. You know how I love that.

As I’ve mentioned before, Deus Ex is one of my favorite games, and its atmosphere–which the game’s creator Warren Spector called “millennial weirdness”–was one of the major influences on my novella. I recommend watching this review for anyone who doesn’t play games to see what I mean.

Coincidentally, Spector tweeted this today (The embed tweet code isn’t working; sorry):

“When is a game going to win a Pulitzer Prize? Are we ready and deserving of such an honor? Can we at least TRY to be worthy of that? Please.”

Before watching Scott’s video, I probably wouldn’t have said Deus Ex deserved it, but having seen it, I realized that as a piece of “entertainment pseudo-journalism”, I decided it was.

“Reactivity”. “Choice and consequences”. “Influence”. These are the watchwords for the RPGs designed by Chris Avellone.

For example, one of the major features of Alpha Protocol (2010) was the branching path structure of its story, depending on what the player chose to do. The world of Alpha Protocol reacted to the player’s choices, making it feel like they were really changing the story as they played.

More than just being a quirk of game mechanic design, this philosophy permeates the Avellone-led Black Isle/Obsidian RPGs in surprising ways. It goes beyond just being a player ego-stroking mechanism into every aspect of the games.

Planescape: Torment‘s protagonist can influence the story, setting and other characters in countless ways, and while this in itself makes for an interesting game, the mechanic complements the theme of the story: that belief can influence reality itself. Musings on self-fulfilling prophecies and consensus reality are integrated with the structure of the game.

If video games are power fantasies, designed to make players feel like they can impact the world, then these RPGs are both archetypal examples and subtly subversive at the same time. While they allow the player to make all manner of changes to the game world, they also ask the player to reflect on the consequences of their actions.

To see how this approach differs from other RPGs, consider the popular but controversial Mass Effect 3, the original endings of which prompted criticism that none of the player’s choices really mattered. Defenders of the game replied that this was the story BioWare had wanted to tell, and so it should be accepted by the players as such.

It is a delicate balance, but in a medium defined by user input, the experience is most satisfying if the need to tell a story is balanced with giving the player choice in how it unfolds–if the story is the player’s story, and the player is not simply a bystander.

In many games, the player is to the game’s plot as Indiana Jones is to Raiders of the Lost Ark. They are at best just there to perform the requisite tasks to fulfill the writer’s story. Not so with Planescape/KotOR II/Alpha Protocol–in these, the player is the story.

Perhaps the most famous of Avellone’s characters is the enigmatic Kreia from Knights of the Old Republic II. She embodies the philosophy of player choice more so than any other single character. (Her avowed hatred of the predestination element of the Force could be interpreted as opposition to the “railroading” so common in games.)

Kreia is seemingly amoral, allied with neither the Jedi nor the Sith, but uses both to achieve her goals. To gain influence with her, the Jedi Exile (the player’s character) must show that they can make logical choices consistent with furthering their own long-term goals–in other words, that they understand choice and consequence. Kreia doesn’t care if you are good or evil–just so long as you know what you are doing and can strategize to make it happen.

In this way, the game mechanics, characters and story are all fully integrated. The mechanics reinforce the characters who reinforce the theme.  This level of coherence is what produces a truly satisfying experience. When game mechanics clash with the theme or the story, the player feels subconsciously confused.

Since games, unlike other art forms, rely on user input to tell the story, it only makes sense to center them around the user’s input in every respect. If thematic coherence is what makes Art great, the greatest games should surely be built around the idea of player choice.

I normally don’t like games that are just about repetitive gameplay. I like to make progress through a story, and reach a satisfying ending.  To just keep doing the same thing to try and get a high score doesn’t really appeal to me.

But Faster Than Light is an exception to the rule.  The game, in spite of its 1990s-caliber graphics and nearly-impossible to win gameplay, it’s extremely fun and addictive. (It doesn’t hurt that the Advanced Edition has material written by the great Chris Avellone.)

The idea is that you are in command of a starship, and you have make through nine sectors to fight the enemy flagship.  You can get different types of starships, with different crews, weapons and layouts.  I’ve only unlocked one so far, and I’ve never beaten the enemy flagship.  That’s right: I’ve never actually won the game.

It doesn’t matter, though. FTL is a journey, not a destination.  As you travel through the sectors, you never know what will happen.  Sometimes, you’ll get a free laser weapon upgrade, or “scrap” (money).  Other times, you might be lured into a trap by evil aliens.  You never know what you’ll run into.  It really is like playing a season of Star Trek.

Another element I normally hate, but FTL makes enjoyable, is the resource management aspect of things.  I normally am terrible at this,  but in this game you have enough downtime between space battles to think about whether you wan to upgrade lasers, shields, engines, etc.  You’re not rushed in making decisions.

The best part is, it’s available on the iPad, which makes it easy to take with me.  Only downside to that is I end up getting hooked when I really should be doing something else.

There are a few nit-picks–the menus are kind of dense, and on the iPad sometimes I end up pressing a menu button when I want to select a part of the ship.  But it’s not a big deal.  I can hardly wait how much fun it will be when I actually win it.

Great article by Rosie Cima about why Hollywood movies tend to have an orange and blue color palette: http://priceonomics.com/why-every-movie-looks-sort-of-orange-and-blue/

I first noticed this with video games, when Shamus Young pointed out how Mass Effect 3 overused this palette.  Once you notice it, you realize it’s everywhere and it makes it hard to watch modern movies. 

So, I got the game Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim as a gift.  When it came out years ago, I mentioned I didn’t care for the sword-and sorcery fantasy-setting, which was why I didn’t get it earlier, even as it won tons of Game Of The Year awards.

I still don’t care for the setting, but I will admit that it is so beautiful and atmospheric I can kind of get past that–it is a seriously gorgeous game, and it is really fun just to wander around the huge open-world with no aim, admiring the scenery.

But of course, this is a Bethesda production, so the minute you start to run into anything related to the plot or characters, things get silly.  The major issue so far in the game is that dragons are attacking the land for some reason, even though everyone thought they had been destroyed a long time ago. The opening sequence of the game involves a dragon attack, which is a shock to all the characters around.

Naturally, we learn that the player character is special, being a “dragonborn”, which gives them the power to absorb dragon souls, or something.  And of course there is a prophecy about it all.  (First rule of fantasy: there is always a prophecy. I guess they make their prophets in volume.)

My character has already been in five or six battles with dragons, and won all of them by hitting the dragon with a hammer when it lands ten yards away.  This makes the dragons seem, frankly, stupid. They could win continually if they just stayed up in the air, or perched somewhere I couldn’t get at them with my hammer.  But no, they obligingly allow themselves to be drawn into my kind of fight. It’s the “Cthulhu Problem” all over again.

Then there is the dialogue.  In one town that I rolled into while running away from monsters, there is some mystery that has to do with a house being burned down.  The locals are too afraid to investigate, because they are, according to the “Jarl” (the executive of the town) “too superstitious”.

I wanted to say to the Jarl “Of course they are!  We live in a world where dragons attack people and sorcerers openly summon evil spirits.  Just yesterday I was attacked by a gang of reanimated skeletons.  You’d be an idiot not to be superstitious in this world!”

(The house mystery, by the way, turns out to be the fault of vampires. And the clues to solving it are provided by ghosts. Yeah, I’d say the people are right to be superstitious.)

Also, there is the recurring problem of people saying essentially “well, hello there, heavily-armed stranger who just ran in three seconds ago from the vast wilderness populated by legions of bandits and bloodthirsty monsters. Here are all the secret intrigues and problems of everyone in town.. Please help fix them.”  This problem is to some extent inevitable in a game like this, but I think it could still be handled more deftly.

And then there is the criminal justice system in Skyrim.  It’s set up so the guards will attack you if you commit crimes against the people of a given town.  Neat idea, but I don’t see how it is that stealing a carrot can be punishable by death, whereas hitting the Jarl in the face with a sword can be forgiven if you put the sword down afterwards. (And yes, Fallout: New Vegas suffered from this too, a bit.)

In short, so far it seems to be Fallout 3 all over again, only more so:  awesome scenery and landscape, laughable character interactions, plot and dialogue.  And like Fallout 3, I’m having fun with it.  More than I expected actually.  If they had only gotten Obsidian Entertainment to write it, they would have had another masterpiece on their hands.

10 years after its release, Obsidian Entertainment’s first game still fuels discussion. (Image via Wikipedia-Fair Use)

This time of year is always important for the video game industry, as they move their products into stores for the coming holiday rush.  Games have become one of the most successful forms of popular entertainment, with recent years seeing multi-million dollar launch events that break records once belonging to Hollywood.  Early December is the peak time of year for selling the latest installments in hit franchises to loyal fans.

10 years ago today, the sequel to 2003’s Game Of The Year was released.  And not only was it a sequel to an award-winning instant classic; it was set in the Star Wars universe; George Lucas’s billion-dollar space-faring fantasy whose allure has captivated generations.  Small wonder, with such a pedigree and promise, that LucasArts was eager to ensure it was released in time for the Christmas shoppers–they wanted to be sure to get everything they could out of this highly-anticipated title.

This eagerness caused them to encourage Obsidian Entertainment to push the release of the game forward, even if it meant not having time to finish the ending as originally planned.  The result was that the game, though eagerly bought up by thousands of fans, did not receive quite the same delighted reviews as its predecessor; that it was criticized as incomplete, or incoherent.  Its last few hours in particular were perceived as a rushed muddle of action sequences that arrived at a confusing and unsatisfying conclusion.

And so with this moderate, but not spectacular, success behind it, the “Old Republic” franchise moved on; to be resurrected again, briefly, first as a book and then as an MMORPG to go to war against World of Warcraft–a war which, like the Mandalorian Wars that form the background of KotOR II, is a futile and depressing effort from which no combatant ever returns victorious.

Obsidian Entertainment has moved on as well, most notably to the retro-futuristic Mojave wasteland of Fallout: New Vegas.  Both developer and franchise have gone their separate ways; and though talk of another Obsidian-made Star Wars game surfaces now and again, it seems likely that, given Disney’s purchase of the galaxy far, far away, the darker and more mature tones Obsidian always brings to their stories may not be as welcome.

So what to make of Knights of the Old Republic II, ten years later? Now that the Star Wars film series has been ended and revived yet again, now that Mass Effect, BioWare’s spiritual successor to KotOR I, has run its course, and left its original fans as bitter as Star Wars fans dismayed at the prequel trilogy; where does that leave Obsidian’s strangely rough, brooding tale of the exiled Jedi who travels the galaxy not to defeat an Empire or rescue a princess, but to come to terms with the effects of war on the human psyche?

In spite of the name, canonical Star Wars has rarely been about war. The original film series depicts an insurrection against a tyrannical empire; but this occurs largely in a couple of battles–primarily, the story is about the Skywalker family.  The prequels deal with the run-up to a war in the first two films, and the end of that war in the third, but Lucas shunted the details of the war into comic books.  (A few of which were written by KotOR II creative lead, Chris Avellone.)

The Sith Lords, though, is very much about war, though not in the shallow sense of being a Call of Duty clone with a Star Wars coat of paint. KotOR II is about war in the way that The Deer Hunter is about war–it is exploring the mental and spiritual toll that war takes on everyone it touches.  Or, as Kreia tells the Exile early in the game: “You are the battlefield. And if you fall, the death of the Republic will be such a quiet thing, a whisper, that shall herald the darkness to come.”

Kreia is always the focal point for any discussion of Knights of the Old Republic II, and even the game’s detractors will usually admit that she is one of the greatest characters in the history of video games.  A mysterious old woman, allied neither with the Jedi nor the Sith, yet overwhelmingly knowledgeable about both, she at once fits the Star Wars tradition of the Wise Mentor and violates it utterly. She is a gadfly in the Star Wars universe, questioning everyone and everything; and by the end, the player comes to understand that her rebellion is against the Force itself; the mysterious metaphysical “energy field” which most characters accept with a (sometimes literal) hand-wave, but which she attempts to understand and destroy. Many players find it immensely satisfying to see this brown-cloaked Nietzsche slicing through the pop-philosophy of Lucas’s universe.

Kreia’s occasionally harsh criticism of the player’s actions are emblematic of one of KotOR II‘s distinctive features: namely, that it is not necessarily meant to make the player feel good.  In literature, film and television, it is common for a story to leave the audience sad, or contemplative, or shocked.  But games are meant to entertain; and to write one that does not simply laud the player for their victories over ever more powerful foes, but instead compels them to think about what they are doing–to think of, as Zez Kai-Ell says in the game’s pivotal scene, “all the death you caused to get here”–was a bold move, indeed.

In this way, KotOR II is the forerunner of another one of the most fascinating games released in recent years–2012’s Spec Ops: The Line. Though different in style and in tone, (not to mention that SO:TL is far more polished and graphically advanced) Yager’s dark satire of military shoot-’em-ups is at its core the same tale as KotOR II: that of a soldier who commits an atrocity and is forced to face the consequences.

But while Spec Ops is a sharp, tightly-plotted tale with every element integrated into its gripping narrative, KotOR II is less minutely-engineered, and more filled with oddities and curious plot threads which lead in unexpected directions–or sometimes nowhere at all, thanks to the content having been cut at the eleventh hour.  While this makes the game seem less focused and at times even hard to follow, it also lends it a certain feeling of scope; an epic, vast implied scale that even next-generation open-world RPGs have not matched.  There is a hauntingly depressing quality to the sprawling modules of Citadel station, of gloomy isolation to the corridors of Peragus, and of melancholic splendor to the partially restored surface of Telos, that creates a peculiarly memorable and powerful mood.

Of course, it’s impossible to talk about KotOR II‘s plot threads without also discussing The Sith Lords Restoration Project–the fan-made effort to restore the cut content.  While interesting in its own right, and a must-play for any fan of the game, the restored content ultimately raises more questions than it answers. Some of it really is integral to the story, but other parts are relevant only as curiosities, and serve only to add unnecessary complications to the game’s already complex plot.

But even with the missing pieces restored, insofar as possible, KotOR II remains a very odd, misfit game–an exile, like its enigmatic, war-worn protagonist. If the original KotOR was an effort at making a playable version of the summer swashbuckling blockbuster epic that Star Wars helped revive, then KotOR II was an attempt at making a playable version of a more mature, David Lean-ish kind of epic. It is not designed for commercial success and records, but for critical success and acclaim. It is Oscar Bait in a medium that does not receive Oscars.

It is possible that being part of such a widely recognized franchise hurt its chances among the very people most likely to appreciate its many virtues.  Critics searching for video games that prove the medium is a mature art form, not merely an entertaining diversion, can be too quick to dismiss a “mainstream” game in search of something more unusual.  And few entertainment franchises show a more striking disparity between their commercial success and their reputation among critics than Star Wars.

In spite of its less-than-universal acclaim, though, KotOR II has not been completely forgotten by gamers.  In 2010, it was included in the book 1001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die. Kreia still frequently appears on lists like “best video game characters” and “best female antagonists in video games”.  But it has not been considered particularly “influential”, either; certainly, it has not become a household name like, for example, Valve’s Half-Life 2, released three weeks earlier.

Much of the plot of Knights of the Old Republic II is concerned with finding that which has been lost–be it knowledge, people, or places.  As Kreia explains at the end, the real “lost Jedi” the Exile has been searching for have been there all along–“they simply needed a leader and a teacher”.  Similarly, the nightmarish planet of Malachor V–the site of the pivotal battle that is at the heart of the game’s entire plot–had been forgotten by the Sith Lords of times past, before being rediscovered in the Mandalorian Wars and spawning the innumerable stories of victory, heroism, defeat, death and horror that the Jedi Exile encounters on the journey across the galaxy.

And so it is fitting, as the medium matures and gamers and game critics cast about for evidence to prove its legitimacy as an art form, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords sits quietly on the fringes of the game universe like Malachor V; not at the center of attention, perhaps, but still well remembered by all who have seen it firsthand.

As the preeminent video game critic of my time <insert laugh track here>, I feel compelled to weigh in on the recent series of events referred to as “GamerGate”.

As I have stated before, I absolutely despise this habit of appending “-gate” to everything that is considered a scandal.  Following this logic, you’d think the Watergate scandal was about water.  Attention, people born after the 1970s: the Watergate was an office complex. The scandal was called that because it centered around a break-in at said office complex.

Now, then:

The origins of GamerGate are shrouded in the mists of the internet, but the facts are these, as related by that always perfectly factual and unbiased source of information, Wikipedia:

The controversy came to wider attention due to the sustained harassment that indie game developer Zoe Quinn was subjected to after an ex-boyfriend posted numerous allegations on his blog in August 2014, including that she had a “romantic relationship” with a Kotaku journalist, which prompted concerns that the relationship led to positive media coverage for her game. Although these concerns proved unfounded, allegations about journalistic ethics continued to clash with allegations of harassment and misogyny.

Kotaku is a video game focused blog from the Gawker network. Being outraged at them for giving biased coverage to a given game is a bit like being outraged at The Chicago Tribune for giving biased coverage to the Chicago Bears. Or maybe being outraged at Weekly World News for giving biased coverage to Bat Boy.

Zoe Quinn’s game Depression Quest supposedly, according to the GamerGate crowd, got more favorable press than it merited, either because she was romantically involved with a critic (not true) or else because the gaming press generally was biased in favor of a game made by a woman.

Might the latter be true? Sure.  Remember, the first rule of journalism is that “Dog Bites Man” is not a story, but “Man Bites Dog’ is, because it’s unusual.  “Man Makes Game” is not interesting, because most games are made by men.   So of course the press would pay extra attention to her game; regardless of any extracurricular romantic activity on anyone’s part.

Now, I don’t know how much coverage the game really got compared to a lot of the triple-A titles.  I do know that I would never have heard of it if not for this GamerGate business. So they have not exactly done a marvelous job, if their goal was to correct what they saw as an imbalance in the game’s favor in terms of press coverage.

But things quickly went beyond Zoe Quinn and her game. First, internet troublemakers started publishing her personal information online.  People responded by saying the attacks on Quinn were “misogynistic” and constituted harassment. More troublemakers responded to this by posting those people’s personal information as well.

Among the people whose info was posted was actress and writer Felicia Day, after she wrote a post about “GamerGate”. This is noteworthy because Day’s biggest claim to fame is writing the web comedy The Guild, the final season of which culminates with a huge protest made by a bunch of gamers, who have something of a reasonable point, but undermine it with their insults, sexual innuendos, and boorish behavior.  Life imitates Art, it seems, and all that stuff has given the “GamerGaters” a bad name; and while their concern may be journalistic ethics, they have been completely overshadowed by the trolls on this one.

Putting aside all the sordid instances of harassment against female gamers/game developers/journalists that have been perpetrated by those allegedly affiliated with the “GamerGate” crowd–which invariably devolve into arguments over who is truly part of the “GamerGate’ crowd–I want to focus on what a singularly unlikely and useless thing it is to want “ethics” and “fairness” from gaming journalism.

First of all, we will never have unbiased gaming journalism as long as companies like Electronic Arts exist and have a seemingly endless supply of money to throw at promoting whatever re-hash of a game they are selling. (I actually don’t despise EA as much as many do; but I think they are a negative influence on gaming.)

I don’t know what an un-biased entertainment journalism industry would look like, to be honest.  I mean, what’s the idea?  the good games get coverage and the bad ones don’t?  Well, I mean, this may shock people, but there are disagreements as to whether particular games are good or bad.  I love KoTOR II; other people hate it.  I thought Half-Life 2 was a mediocre FPS; most people think it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread.

Do people think we have an unbiased movie journalism industry? The truth is, which movies get reviewed and given awards is based on which studios decided to pay which journalists to review them, to submit them for which Academy Awards, etc., etc., etc.

Does this mean the gaming industry is doomed?  No; not really.  I don’t think that journalism matters that much when it comes to gaming.  I don’t make my gaming decisions based on what some review on Kotaku said; I make it largely based on what genre it is and whether or not Chris Avellone wrote it.

Integrity, honesty and ethics are easy things to ask for from journalists who are covering subjects like politics, weather, crime and so on.  We don’t get them, but it’s reasonable to ask for them.  It’s much harder to ask for them from people covering art and literature.  But the good news is, we don’t need integrity in gaming journalism; because we can just go right to Steam and download whatever strikes our fancy.  I don’t care that Destructoid gave Alpha Protocol a 2 out of 10; I still know it’s a very good game. And I’ve said so.  On this blog.  That anyone can read.

Do you want to see an example of what happens when gaming journalism gets hit with a truly innovative game?  Here it is:

If you’ve played the game, it’s hard not to cringe at some of the questions the reporter asks there.  It’s not her fault, because nobody knew what to expect from SO:TL, but the questions are in anticipation of a typical “choose your ending”-type military game, when Spec Ops is… let’s say… different. If you think Depression Quest is ‘not for typical gamers’, well, Spec Ops is actively against them.  You want to know more than that, play the game.  But my point is just that all kinds of games can flourish now; gaming journalism isn’t holding them back.