Posts by DeiSophia

The first game I ever played was a shareware version of Jazz Jackrabbit, however I truly cut my teeth on RPG and strategy games from the early days of Age of Empires, to The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. I had a brief flirtation with Sony's Playstation as teenager owning a PS1, PS2, PS3 and PSP before returning to PC.

The Lion’s Song and Symbolism: In Search of Inspiration

Art is often synonymous with creativity, and is seen as the emergence of something new out of nothing. The discourse that centres around inspiration explains it as though it were derived from some internal wellspring. Yet this is not entirely true, art is more often the consequence of drawing from and interpreting ones surroundings, uniqueness comes from the idiosyncratic viewpoint of the artist and the way they weave their observations and experiences into the pieces they create.

Art dallies with interpreting itself, from novels such as Irving Stone’s The Agony and the Ecstasy to  Kazuo Ishiguro’s An Artist of the Floating World however the abstract and deeply psychological process that is an artist’s inspiration and their concerns with their arts reception is incredibly hard to conceptualise in any concrete form. Where metaphors and symbolism can often work to convey deeper truths in a condensed form, there are times when the ideas being portrayed are too self-referential to hold any meaning. It’s at this point that any attempt to explore concepts like imagination tend to break down, unless they are in the hands of a skilled individual.

Romantic Inspirations

Mi’pu’mi have tackled precisely this issue in their debut game The Lion’s Song. At a surface level it’s a point n click adventure delivered in an episodic style that was popularised by Telltale Games. The first episode of “The Lion’s Song” is free on both Steam and itch.io and concerns itself with Wilma’s attempt to compose a new piece for an upcoming concert. Struggling with artists block, she retreats to the Alps to compose amidst the “Silence” of the mountains and allow the music within her mind to emerge once again, despite her personal troubles and tensions that distract her from her work. It’s at this point that The Lion’s Song takes the formulaic methods of a point n click game and transforms them. There’s nothing mechanically new that the game is doing, you search, hover and point with the mouse, interacting with the background to reveal new information. If anything The Lion’s Song is actually reductive in its mechanics. There’s no menu to combine items, you can’t pick things up and make them interact with others. Instead where The Lion’s Song manages its interactivity, is within the symbolic function of the things you interact with. Where most games focus purely on the physical aspects of their world, Lion Song’s focus on the metaphorical and psychological focus leads you to pursuing the issues of the mind.

Waiting for inspiration or merely procrastination…

The very first quest with Wilma Doerfl, is simply to block out annoyances, and pursue aspects of the environment that she can weave into her music. The Alpine setting lends itself to a consideration of Wilma’s music as essentially romantic, however as much as she can listen to the sounds of wind, rain and thunder, Wilma is not a romantic, despite the game hinting at her work being contemporaneous with luminaries of the movement such as Mahler. The romantic movement ended roughly at the start of the 20th century with a few composers drifting into the 20th (some notable Russians composed quite late) but Wilma represents the shift to modern music. Simply using the symbolism of nature to compose her music will not be enough. And this is where the games writing begins to emerge, creating its own harmonies between player, character, mechanics, imagery and symbolism. The skill the player is asked to engage with here is in fact empathy, understanding and listening. Not listening as an auditory skill, but listening to the imagery of the game, Wilma’s unfolding narrative, through her own reflections on her circumstances, the letters she uncovers and the dialogue she engages in. If you want to compose a song for the ages, you actually need to understand a poem:

“A portrait drawn in different style,
a push through sleep, just for a while,
the sound of rain does make you smile.

Behind those bars, trapped with a hiss,
a call, so strange, yet full of bliss,
you might regret a second miss.

My latest piece, in one fair letter,
while clouds rush on a change of weather,
transform its state and make it better.

Worth your while, if you don’t mind,
these tiny things, so hard to find?
Now back to play, please be so kind!”

The hints here in fact allude not only to what elements of nature Wilma draws expression from and so links her music back to the movement and expressive style of art she would have grown up with, but also how she is pushing the movement forward. Searching for new expressions and inspiration, that are drawn not only from her own emotions but also interactions with others and how this manages to clarify her own ideas. It’s during her discussions with a stranger and through her dreams that Wilma comes to terms with her unequal relationship with her mentor and is able to fully distill the elements of nature and her emotions to selectively include them in her work.

This exploration of people and their dimensions is a natural follow through in the second part that looks at a young artist Franz Markert. He is introduced at a high level of Viennese society despite not being particularly wealthy. Our first encounter and introduction to him, is as he is on his way to unveil his new art at a private gathering held by Gustav Klimt. And here the game introduces one new mechanic to differentiate the new episode. Franz is able to see people’s layers. These emerge from people as you approach them in the game world, and if you engage in tete-a-tete with them in private, the layers shift depending on what that person seeks to portray of themselves. It’s a visual representation of the concepts of id, ego and superego, that had been codified by Freud in his 1923 paper The Ego and the Id. Of course, the fantastical element here is that Franz is capable of seeing all these things, whereas the player is not. In terms of perception these are characteristics that they highly empathic and sensitive Markert would be able to sense. For the player, we are given visual clues as to what aspect of the character is being evoked, represented by the ghosts that are superimposed over the actual character. To elicit these ghosts during the portrait painting sequences… you ask questions.

Self-portrait

Questions and dialogue are what expose our psyche to psychoanalysis. Something Franz actually undergoes underneath Freud himself. Markert’s neurosis, is what drives him there, and its from Freud that he engages in dialogue to begin his self-portrait. This is the central piece of Markert’s tale, the uncovering of his own layers of identity, by asking questions of himself and the player responding to the questions, in a form of self-dialogue. Markert’s revelation of his own identity is dependent on how much attention the player has actually paid to his identity, as revealed in his reactions and relationships to others. Here the role of the traditional psychoanalyst is transferred between player and Markert, with the player as analyst acting to supply the answers in a process known as countertransference, which attacks the patient’s pathological defenses in order for him to gain insight. If the player is giving the wrong information to Markert, he is unable to gain insight into himself.

The therapy begins

There’s nothing new mechanically to this approach. Dialogues with varied options is a stable in multiple genres, what is new is the context of the dialogue. That it is framed and styled as a therapy session, and that the focus is not to garner information regarding a plot, or to force a romance subplot -in the horrendous nightmare of relationship manipulations that are Bioware games- but as a means to discover someone’s psychological state.

Yet how is the player to gain such insight? Here the normal exploration mechanics of the point n click genre come to the fore. Information can be gleaned from environments, and from dialogue. What is unique here is again, not how you gather said psychological insight but how the game presents it. All the characters in The Lion’s Song are interconnected, in that serendipitous way that only exists in stories. Exploration here is not simply moving through screens and clicking on everything insight, but moving through the various plots of the story itself.

Thwarted by ones own intentions

Exploration in video games is one of the principal areas identified by Bartle in his 1996 essay, Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades: Players who suit MUDs. Which although focused on a specific genre of game, swiftly became used in other genres as well. Exploration as he defined it was about exploring the topography of the game, which is the common factor that most games design for by creating expansive open worlds and sandboxes, but Bartle also identified that exploration consisted of exploring the physics of a world as well in order to fascinate and satisfy a sense of awe and wonder at the virtual world. The Lion’s Song plays upon this but of course its concern is not a physical dimension of its world, which is largely limited to a singular map of Vienna with limited locations, but rather the psychological depth of its characters. The game actively encourages you to explore their minds, and allows the player to replay each chapter by making them accessible. The connections between characters that give insight into individuals are even highlighted in a gallery that is extrinsic to the story, making players aware of who and what social connections they still need to uncover.

Image originally available at gameanalytics.com

But this is not before the game attempts to explore one new dimension. Appropriately it does attempt to innovate in its third chapter on change, which features Emma Recniczek. A rather unconventional woman who attempts to pursue a career in mathematics only to be prevented by societal norms. Her tale is a common one, wherein she engages in crossdressing shenanigans in order to be accepted into an all-male mathematics club, and the difficulties this leads her into in maintaining her disguise. It’s the sort of humorous nonsense, to occur on Twelfth Nights and played for effect in the theatres of Elizabethan London, though here it is handled fairly seriously.

Restless Sleep

This third episode does mark a number of changes. Firstly, the previous chapters had focused on a more historical approach which complemented the stylised pixel graphics and choice of a heavily muted colour palette. The previous chapters also focused quite exclusively on the internal state of the characters rather than external states or society, when other people were concerned, the focus was on their direct relationship to the other characters. Emma (or Emil’s chapter) focus on more modern concerns of progressivism. The game, in a rather clever pun attempts to declare Emma non-binary, and there’s a very subtle homosexual relationship alluded to. Emma’s nonbinary status as a result of her crossdressing seems to simply be there to score points, rather than as a truly considered inclusion of her character. Emma is by no means non-binary, nor did such a concept exist for people to identify with, the closest would be the hermaphrodite, but the game steers away from any allusions to Tiresias. Emma is only crossdressing as a means to an end rather than as an expression of identity. This pragmatic context has very little to do with the modern concern with gender expression which is not pragmatic at all. However, the homosexual incidence is handled far better.  Though it is discreet, which is largely appropriate for the time since it was considered illegal, the signs are there for an attentive player to note one characters blossoming attraction and eventual dismay when his love is thwarted. The game handles this all sensitively that actually makes it far more sympathetic, than if it had been trumpeted. There’s more akin to the portrayal of gay characters in an Iris Murdoch novel, than in modern inclusive writing.

Rebuffed

The shift to a larger social concern is also accompanied by an attempt to innovate with mechanics. In Emily’s story, her mathematical revelations can be realised visually, just as Franz’s ghosts were marked in the second chapter. For Emily her work on change is represented visually to the player as graphs that can be interacted with. By selecting the appropriate point on the graph or selecting a range on the axes, the game allows you to interact with Emily’s ideas. Her ruminations indicate you were to point and then it’s a short and easy puzzle to figure it out. However unlike the other characters Emily does not allow you to make a mistake with her ideas. Where you could create a poor or great composition for Wilma, or allow Franz to identify or not, with Emily there is no room for failure. Whatever the outcome of your interactions the correct maths is forced onto the player. This leaves little room for conflict in Emily’s tale except for the social conflict she finds herself in.

In search of states

For her story then it is not so much about her ideas as it is about how they are received socially. With Emily you need to convince a review board that her mathematical proof is sufficient. The pay off is that this is done before a university class in perhaps the largest scene of the game. This scene plays out in a similar fashion to a Phoenix Wright court case. Objections may not be shouted dramatically, but the game utilises the same array of postures for its principal actors, the susurrus of a captivated audience and the player to interact with dialogue back and forth in an attempt to prove your proof! Though the scene is cathartic if you do manage to triumph, compared to the stillness and introspectiveness of previous aspects of the game, it stands out as breaking the overall tone. For many though the emotional impact of the scene may override the more contemplative aspects, yet like the fourth chapter it marks a substantial point that shows the games direction has indeed changed, just as history was about to change.

On the Way to War

The fourth chapter solidifies the game further. Not only is it the primary chapter that acts to link all the preceding three, it serves as a point to anchor the game in its broader socio-political context. but at the expense of losing focus on a central character. The third chapter had hinted at events in Serbia, and Bosnia and the effect that this was having upon some of the Austrian citizens. In addition, Emily’s disguise is as a German, due to the extremely close cultural ties between the Austrian and German nations. Yet it is only in this the final chapter that the realities of the onset of World War I become apparent. Whilst they hurtle towards a battlefield the four characters talk briefly about events (events that the previous three characters featured in) and it settles into an exploration of a brief cultural high note that was lost with the onset of war.

It’s a somewhat sobering ending to a game that if played well truly celebrates the pinnacle of human creativity and endeavours, but it is not a disheartening one. The game actively encourages you to replay the segments to improve and acquire beneficial endings for all the characters. The insights you gain in the final chapter into each person are critical to understanding them, and definitely encourages a replay to further explore the characters minds. In this the game is slightly weak as it certainly favours players who do like to explore, but then the point n click genre doesn’t tend to lend itself well to replays anyway, so if anything, The Lion’s Song offers more than the average game in the genre.

Despite note being unique on a mechanical front, The Lion’s Song’s true brilliance resides in how it present familiar mechanics within new contexts, and how that shift manages to fundamentally shift the way a player engages with the game. Whilst it doesn’t offer Dostoyevskian insight, it certainly presents new ways with how to represent characters minds and internal states, and how this leads to their creativity and imagination. It marks a shift in games towards stories that can effectively utilise symbolism and metaphor mechanically in order to convey more information to the player. In this its achievements are similar to Hellblade Senua’s Sacrifice, and it is well worth a play through, particularly since the first episode is free.

Quarantine Circular

Quarantine Circular is at its most fundamental level a game about conflict. Not by waging armed warfare, though that is present in the background story to the game, but rather waging war against a super bacteria that has decimated the worlds human population, and is leading towards an extinction event. Mike Bithell and Bithell games have in addition explored the conflict that occurs between individuals of different personality types and/or the issues that arise between ideologies and beliefs. Quarantine Circular’s message about this is ultimately a negative one. Differences of opinion are so fundamental to the characters roles that they inevitably lead to greater conflicts. There is no resolution that can be acquired once ones position to others is formulated. For a game that bases itself on dialogue, this is an interesting position to take.

Linguistically dialogue performs two major roles, the first is transactional, the ability to communicate information, the second is interactional, to establish personal connections and convey empathy or sympathy to others which also ties into languages social purposes.

For a game that focuses on these things, and does them surprisingly well, the fact that it ultimately looks at the failure of discourse and its methods is somewhat disheartening, and though the game can be fairly cynical in some of its writing at times, it is at the very least realistic in its conveyance of the types of conflict that can arise.

Aggressive introductions

The characters in Quarantine Circular truly take central stage. Each chapter of the story centres on a specific character, which the player is required to roleplay. The large extraterrestrial being, Gabriel, acting as the cornerstone of the entire plot. Each encounter with him is undertaken by a new character, and viewed solely from the perspective of one actor at a time. The game itself uses the 1st person perspective for each character in order to limit your awareness of others ideas, requiring you to formulate opinions on the basis of what they say. Sadly the game doesn’t really explore the concept of lying much, so you have to assume that they are truthful for the most part. The game does in its later stages look at omission of information, or the difficulty of interpreting others words purely on the basis of your own understanding without the value of greater awareness of situations. This issue is mainly addressed by microbiologist Lisa, and her skepticism but is actually most notable with Gabriel’s various revelations and how it makes your opinion switch due to new information and insights. However, because the game chooses to address these new insights in the shoes of specific characters rather than one individual character, there is no room for that character to realise the fallacy in their own understanding. Only the player, externally to the game can come to such revelations. This sadly does diminish individual character arcs, most particularly those characters that act as general antagonists. The antagonist here being someone who would halt or interrupt dialogue and prevent the dissemination of knowledge.

Professor Zima

Another quality of the dialogue is that it is purposeful whether rhyming to rap, to establish rapport, or seeking to establish a basis of syntax (grammar) for language. Mechanically the game indicates this purpose to the player by assigning them a task that needs to be accomplished, and then placing a progress bar to track how far the player has achieved this. In one instance, during the first contact scene, you are required to gain the trust of Gabriel (the alien). Your dialogue choices either win or lose your trust, the trust that is essential at accurately calibrating the communication device. Interestingly the game does hint at actions needing to be conversant with words. And a few significant choices actually do coincide with actions you can have that character make.

Of fears and conspiracies

Another mission requires you to investigate and acquire a set of information. This needs to be done by communicating with multiple people in the dialogue and again is tracked by a progress bar at the top of the screen. Like in the prior game Subsurface Circular, aims and goals are listed to the side of the screen, so a returning player can continue with the appropriate task when resuming play. The difficulty in accomplishing this second task is caused largely by the conflicting and competing viewpoints of the various actors in the dialogue. Acquiring and then cross-referencing of information, forms a key activity in this dialogue. In this Quarantine Circular seems to have borrowed from the point n click genre, that often uses similar procedures before items will be activated but in the case of Quarantine Circular before branches of dialogue are activated. It’s a key point that the questions we are able to ask are dependent on the information we already possess. In order to fully understand the dimensions of a problem, you need to seek out multiple perspectives, and its at this point that mechanically the games focus on co-operative dialogue is revealed. Whilst at times you are able to block your peers from speaking, (fairly notably near the end of the game) you lose access to valuable information, no matter how offensive that individual may be. Blocking conversation ultimately penalises you the player, as it limits what information is available to you, and at times if you are unsuccesful, the self-censorship of certain actors makes the acquisition of information all the more difficult.

HEREAFTER THERE BE SPOILERS

The inevitable outcome

And whilst this all so far covers the pragmatic issues of language, it doesn’t truly cover what semantic issues might lie in wait within the labyrinths of words. And Quarantine Circular does have a number of issues and themes it decides to address. The central theme is of course conflict and the pursuit of resolutions, in this the game does sympathetically handle its opposing sides, however it does focus on the less violent solutions slightly more. Within the context of the game this is most noticeable with Gabriel’s cure, his development and transmission of a cure to epidemiologist Prof Alla Zima that ties directly into the central title of the game. Quarantine here, is due to the status of the bacteria on earth and its rapid water-borne spread. Yet there is more to the concept of Quarantine than merely this. As Prof Zima discovers, earth the planet itself is “quarantined” placed under an interstellar embargo and Gabriel’s presence is in fact in direct defiance of this. Gabriel’s liberal attitudes seem to be compliant with the best of Thoreau’s “civil disobedience” however his interests and ideas come into conflict with those of Teng Lei.

Time

Teng is far more concerned with order and the obeyance of rules and law. Any who find themselves acting contrary to protocol will find themselves placed under Teng’s displeasure. What the game fails to explore with Teng Lei is how her strict observance of protocol is what enforces the concept of a quarantine and the measures under which it is enacted. The civil liberties that both Zima and Gabriel wish for are measures that would have caused the extinction of human’s far sooner. Teng is rarely painted in this sympathetic light, however in the final dialogue, one may try to change Teng, having her argue her faults with Gabriel. Despite her personal convictions about the alien, she still proceeds to obey her orders to acquire the cure, only to have Gabriel deny her at the penultimate moment. The true criticism here is that laws and justice enacted without compassion and understanding can only lead to discord. Teng’s great failure is her lack of attempting to understand Gabriel despite the opportunities that the dialogue present.

Other characters such as Lisa Seddick, play the role of sceptics. Within the drama itself Lisa’s role is more to make the player question the motivations and conversation of others. She offers up alternative considerations that act to break the binaries of Aristotelian logic, that previously hampered Subsurface Circular. As a character her role is minor, however her questioning draws into light the assumption that all characters are truthful. This is problematic since as the player is given control of the various characters at each time, it means that you are aware if a character is lying or not already. In fact the game doesn’t actually have any characters conceal or obscure their motivations and intentions. Rather any conflicts occur due to lack of a holistic awareness of the situation. Of course this slow revealing of information is necessary for the conveyance of plot, but it does mean that larger psychological depth of characters must be subsumed since if they had lied it would interfere with the exposition of the overall narrative.

Self-censorship

This lack of psychological depth is what hampers Quarantine Circular from ascending to true art, despite its clever use of acts and scenes that leads to its being structured similarly to a play. The characters do not quite have the depth they ought to and individuality is forfeited to the needs of the role within the narrative. This reflects in the dialogue as well, as important markers of individual speech are not present. Marc’s expression is easily interchangeable with Lisa’s only the content matter they speak of differs. Markers of expression and individual peculiarities of language are not written into the text, and this “poker face” language is partially why greater subtleties could not be included within the games discourse.

For all that Quarantine Circular fails on its psychological front, it isn’t without tension. The penultimate act draws the disparate narratives of quarantine to a head, with a literal confrontation. Not only between Teng and Gabriel who are foils of each other, are the only two present for the final act but also of the creation of a cure, perceived as humanities salvation and Gabriel acting according to his Biblical name as a messenger of deliverance… or not. As well as the larger quarantine which comes to a head, with the presence of a larger threat, those who would destroy both Gabriel and humanity, even if the Tek would still be considered a suitable gestation for intelligent life on the planet.

(Tek is a nod to the previous game, Subsurface Circular, where the Tek are AI, constructed by humans that are attempting to foment rebellion).

Quarantine Circular is simultaneously an easy game to play whilst also hard. The questions it asks about humanity, our paranoia in the face of the unknown, our search for stability within the boundaries of knowledge and the issue of confronting our own inherent violence and framing of discourse and dialogue as conflicts (see Metaphors we Live by, by George Lakoff).

What is perhaps also strikingly circuitous about Quarantine Circular, is the circularity of game design. Text adventures formed the central ethos of the video game identity back in the 60s and 70s, so the return of text heavy games like Quarantine Circular mark a shift back to early games and their focus. Of course the complexity and presentation is vastly different. The character designs, and 3d modelled backgrounds are far more than could have ever been conceived 40 years ago. Yet the same principles are still in effect now as in those early games. Games may evolve in how they are delivered, but some principles are always contained within the core of storytelling and art, and will always be circled back to.

GRIS

This post contains spoilers

Gris is an ode to grief. Presenting itself simplistically though not minimistically it draws a balance between the emotional stages of its protagonist as she moves gracefully forward through her own personal tribulations.

The artwork of Gris is balanced somewhere between etherealism and emotional rawness, something that the artworks of designer Conrad Roset distil. Other inspirations draw from the landscapes with the surrealistic world, drawing from asian influence. This is most clearly seen in the final levels, where lotus flowers bloom alongside cranes and circular geometries hint at the Dharmachakra and reincarnation after suffering.

Pi halved

In an interview by Andrew Webster (Verge), the games director Roger Mendoza, speaks about how Iwagumi aquascapes were the choice for the level design, and that is clear with the games lack of textures, and simple colour palette that is contrasted against strong lines and the silhouettes they create. The animation itself is as fluid as the watercolours that disperse across the screen in brief bursts of emotion. Slowly building in complexity as Gris revives her own emotions. The simplicity of it all, allows the game to emphasise its symbolism, making them all too obvious. A trait that has led many to criticise the game for being too heavy handed, and yet there’s enough range to fully elucidate a range of psychological stages without obscuring the games message behind an idiosyncratic presentation. In short Gris’s symbolism works because it is simplified and not obscured.

The symbolism is presented in a variety of ways. Foremost is the use of colour. As Gris journeys through the world her emotionally numb state is offset by the stages of grief. The game begins as a bland monochrome, tonality is reduced and everything is represented by white, ostensibly the colour of innocence and purity which could be congruent with our introduction to Gris, but also to blankness or nothing. The failure to manifest emotion that leaves her as a blank slate. This transitions to reds, the ambiguous colour of both love and rage. Here with Gris entering the anger stage it is a harsh colour, melding with the blacks to create shades of carmine and sangria. Gris’s new ability “heavy” has her colliding against the environments, using force to move forwards. Whether it’s against the winds of her own discontent or obliterating the statues that demarcate her memories. Eventually the anger fades into lighter tones, melding with the white state of calmness into rose and salmon pinks.

The blessings still remain

But despite Gris’s development her emotions are still stilted and so she enters into a green forest world. Green the complementary to red, here repressents recovery and growth, a chance to replenish herself after the previous destructiveness she undertook. Making friends she bargains with them, enticing them with apples and other food, and the tenuous connection slowly builds into a proper bond. Initial reformative acts of kindness (in the giving of apples) result in her invitation to their abode and a chance to live out the old adage “a friend in need is a friend in deed”. Gris bargains with herself as well, leaping into the air grants her the ability to ascend higher her dress spread out like wings, but ultimately as all things need to descend she falls, but it is a controlled fall, a negotiation with her weight to descend lightly and gracefully to the ground. It is here too that she meets her first externalised foe. A giant blackbird that screeches at her, causing her to tumble backwards, her own song being lost all she can hear now are the screams that impede her progress. Her act to defeat the monstrosity is with an exterior sound. The tolling of a giant bell, usually rung at times of joy or for funerals here the bell sounds the deathknell of the bird, allowing it to dissipate into fragments. However as a realisation of Gris’s mind, as surrealist landscapes are imaginings of interior worlds, the Blackbird does return, though it also now is capable of lending aid.

For whom the bell tolls

It is this robustness of Gris’s mind. Her negativity that turns to her strength that lies at the heart of Gris’s themes. Though the game is about depression and grief it is also the tale of overcoming it. The acquisition of Gris’s new abilities and the players persistance in driving her forward are the clearest indications of this. Gris as an avatar of the player, has no choice, like people who suffer from such mental states, the march of time offers them no choice either but to persist against the mental hardships they face. And whilst many of these hardships are of the mind, just as Gris landscapes present her with obstacles and puzzles to overcome, so to is her mind a source of strength. The world offers assistance, both in the landscapes. In the windmill the scaffolding actively assists her by extending as she approaches, her own mental scaffolding that provides her with the ability to move forward, or in the figures she meets, the small apple creatures or the red birds that allow her to jump further than she would reach alone. They are welcome reminders of the robustness and strength of the mind when facing difficulty.

Yet Gris’s journey is not yet done, and she must still encounter the blue of depression. Sinking into the ocean, she drowns and yet still breathes. Her terrors transform as she sinks, what was once the bird is now an eel. An irrepressible force that chases her, barely staved off between bouts of rest. And it’s darkness surrounds her as she sinks deeper beneath the waters. Into areas darker and blacker. Again she meets assistance, a turtle offers temporary reprieval yet the depression still surrounds her.

All the while Gris still gathers the fragments of her memory. Small mementos the game hides and conceals about the world. Pieces of memory that cause her pain, that it may be easier to simply forget abandoned in the darkness. Yet there they still glow waiting to be retrieved.

Memento vita

As blue overwhelms her shifting in blackness and hollowness so vastly different from the white of blankness, Gris encounters the fourth and final colour. It is not entirely the complementary to Blue, being the more gentle yellow, that begins to illuminate her world again. The colours shifting and swarming into new blends, and varied hues and tones. Light has another effect. Unlike the obfuscation of depression, light illuminates new platforms, new perceptions of the world. Yet as the final colour it also introduces the most complex of areas. With her emotions restored Gris must now use all her skills again to proceed, not merely relying upon one emotion or the other.

The final level then is one of varied shapes, a city of the night teeming with flowers, its sculpted turrets shine against the distance offering new heights to ascend. But there is one more difficulty, that of her own distorted perception that still remains. For Gris can move across a boundary line to stand topsy turvy upon the ceilings. This too is another difficulty to be confronted, a way to confront her mirrored world yet still move capable of understanding more than one way of existence.

But the negativity of her emotions is still embodied within her temple. They may now give rise to blossoming flowers with the return of her voice, and allow her to ascend to the stars, yet the loss is always with her. Grief is unending and not even time can truly distil the pain. All that has happened is that through her journey Gris has found the mechanisms to cope with her grief. Her acceptance is one of defeat as she admits to her emotions, yet triumph as she is no longer subject to their vagaries.

As above so below

Gris is a parable of the mind. A story that showcases the robustness of spirit and the capability of logic to confront even the most difficult of its own conceptions. Gris embodies this in her pursuit of a resolution, of continuing despite the adversities she faces. It is a persistence that is accomplished both as an individual (as a proxy of the player) and as a receiver of help, turning her adversaries into assistants or through discovering new friends.

The greatest weakness of Gris, is perhaps its difficulty. It is a very forgiving platformer. And whilst this could be argued that it means individuals should be kind and gentle with themselves, it also means that the difficulties Gris faces are not difficult to overcome, this lessens the nature of her achievements in battling herself and coming to terms with her emotions. The game has no death state, there is no point where you can’t stop playing, but where it should have created difficulty is in the platforming elements. As a puzzle platformer, the game needed more areas to explore rather than the linear experience it offers as well as trickier jumping sections to further illustrate her increasing abilities. With difficulty in games being a contentious issue, and a game like Gris being designed with only one difficulty in mind, it is a slight shame to see that the designers couldn’t further reward players with more difficult to access mementos. Only two offer a fair challenge, one because it is concealed off screen and so unlikely to be noticed and the other required a timed sequence of light, that was perhaps too forgiving. The other alternative being to offer multiple routes with one way indicating an easier path and another a slightly more difficult path.

Pros

  • Gorgeous yet simplistic designs that are highly symbolic
  • Fluid animations

Cons

  • Puzzles are slightly too easy to solve
  • Overall design is fairly linear, with options to take alternative routes unavailable
  • Jump command was sometimes slightly unresponsive

Publisher: Devolver Digital

Developer: Nomada Studio

Platforms: Windows, Mac,

ESRB: E / PEGI: 16

Available from: SteamGoG.comHumble Store, Microsoft Store

Banner image is used under fair use. The images in the review are from the author’s own playthrough.

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The spirit will always rise anew

Building a Backlog

With digital purchases becoming the largely de facto way to purchase games, sales have skyrocketed. Whilst some still prefer to own an actual product (specially coded onto a plastic disc of varying storage capacities) that is also fueled by limited edition collectors specials (usually with bonus goodies) and some discussion of this also points to the continued preservation of games. Most of the time games are now downloaded at a button click. Continuing expansion of digital infrastructures globally, has meant faster and easier access to games whether it is by 3G and 4G technology with increasing possibilities with the slow rollout of 5G, or increasing dispersion of fibre-optic cables.

This has come with varied problems however. As far back as 2012, Steam sales have been noted as harming the game development community by damaging the long term value of the brand or as put by the CEO of EA a cheapening of intellectual property. Though this is largely opinion based and not compared to sales figures, not to mention the inherent bias in both interviews as both storefronts (GoG.com and Origin respectively) were possible competitors to Steam at the time.

Steam Libraries have a tendency to increase exponentially with sales

Some of the claims are partially true, as waiting for a sale is only a matter of a few months or so, (and even less with increasing world wide holidays such as the Chinese Lunar New Year gaining traction offering reduced time between sales) and gamers have even more discounts to look forward to. However there is another effect that I couldn’t find discussed until two years later, that points to how sales encouraged growth of players, whilst warning that it caused initial communities to be smaller, though long term this seemed to even out as many developers pointed to long term sales for their games that gave them “healthy revenue boosts”.

However for us as gamers, Steam sales are massive contributors to the backlog of games. It gives us the opportunity to experience games as a medium more widely, when you take a chance on that niche, bizarre indie game that you otherwise may not have bought, or let you purchase two expensive AAA games rather than one, since you were trying to stretch your budget as far as possible.

Steam sales are massive contributors to the backlog of games. It gives us the opportunity to experience games as a medium more widely

Other culprits to increase ones backog include gaming bundles such as those from Fanatical or Humble Bundle, whose Humble Choice offers select games every month at a very attractive subscription price and the added bonus of donating to charity. Who have by and large seemingly avoided the ire of the gaming press.

Another more quiet culprit is the issue of regional pricing. This may not be a large factor for gamers in 1st World countries, but it makes all the difference for those of us living in the 3rd world. My GoG library is largely inhibited by the fact that they do not allow for regional pricing, which makes Steam, Epic and even Humble Bundle far more attractive prospects. Being charged Pound sterling on the uPlay store or directly converted prices on Origin make them far and away the most expensive options. The same held true whilst I worked in China, where games were even more cheaply priced than in my native South Africa. Though regional pricing is not without its detractors as well, with concerns being raised around geoblocking and discrepancies in pricing.

My GoG library has had an extensive increase with increased integration provided by the new Galaxy client

Despite all of these controversies and debates, many of which centre around economics, and accessibility of gaming as a world-wide phenomena, many gamers’ backlogs continue to grow. Which begs the question… how to manage continuously increasing inventories.

Which begs the question… how to manage continuously increasing inventories.

Prior suggestions have included working out the time to beat various games using sites like HowLongtoBeat or organising your Steam library into played, unplayed, DNF (Did Not Finish) or current. That is even easier now with Steam’s (and GoG’s) new library management tools.

Steam itself has also suggested ways for players to play old games, from its mini events such as the SpringCleaning event that included badges entitled “Clear the Backlog”, “Nostalgia” “Can’t Wait” and “Blast from the Past”. In addition they’ve just unveiled the Play Next Experiment in the Steam Labs, designed to recommend games you have not yet played from your backlog.

Narrative and puzzle games seem like appropriate recommendations

Other ideas for mastering the backlog come from a few friends. One of which is to tackle a larger more time intensive game whilst playing shorter ones alongside it.

Now finally for the main #LoveYourBacklog challenge provided by LaterLevels.

A Game You’re Eager to Play But Have Not Yet Started

Disco Elysium has been critically hailed by many, and its dialogue systems and opportunities look absolutely incredible. Although I don’t particularly relish the general nihilistic tone of the game, I do look forward to seeing exactly how their systems have developed opportunities for roleplaying.

A game you’ve started several times but haven’t yet finished.

I actually don’t have any titles for this category. I finish all the games I start, mainly because I’m on a mission to review every game in my library, which means in order to review them, completion is required. Even if I leave them on hiatus for a while, I end up resuming from where I left them rather that restarting.

The most recent addition to your library

Project Warlock comes courtesy of Humble Bundle Choice for February. It’s an old fashioned FPS shooter, that is vaguely reminscent of the old Heretic and Hexen games. I’m terrible at FPS games but did have fun exploring the old level designs and castles of Hexen, so hope that this will give me a ‘blast’ of nostalgia. It doesn’t have an elven protagonist though as Heretic did, so I may not enjoy it quite as much!

The game which has spent the most time on your backlog

Dungeon Siege III was purchased in 2013 as a part of a Dungeon Siege pack, as I slowly converted my physical game library over to a digital one. This was mainly due to the fact that I ended up not having a settled home for many years, which is prohibitive against large book or gaming libraries. Slowly over the years I’ve built up my backlog to be primarily games I had previously owned and so I picked up the Dungeon Siege pack. I had played both the original Dungeon Siege as well as Dungeon Siege 2, but never had the opportunity to play the third. Partly because I had grown bored of aRPGs at that stage and partly because it received lacklustre reviews. I replayed Dungeon Siege last year, and temporarily started Dungeon Siege 2 after tweaking it to run on a modern system, however still haven’t completed it in order to play the third and final game in the series.

The person responsible for adding the most entries to your backlog

This would be myself since my relatives are fairly disapproving of gaming, seeing it as an escape from reality (it is) and something I retreat to at difficult times, which they then blame as causing the difficult time. Other factors such as depression or just the general society in which I live were not seen as exacerbating factors, although with the declining economy, there has been some mitigation, as well as the incredibly difficulty of finding work against affirmative action policies when applied against minorities, to exclude them. Yet persistence pays off, and work can be found, even if it’s not the skilled work I’m fully trained for. It does however allow me to freely indulge in the occasional splurge on games, though with what global gaming trends hold as well as the junk status of our economy, the future is likely not so prosperous. But while I can, I will add games to tide me over the dark times ahead (and most literally dark times, as our electrical power outages are consistently being increased)!

For more old games, I will replay at some point as well as more modern titles I still have to tuck into, you can browse my Steam Library. I’m planning to tackle quite a few RPGs alongside the numerous HoGs that are waiting to be reviewed. This includes classic titles like Baldur’s Gate I & 2 EE, to see how much more I can appreciate them now, with a few years of gaming behind me, years that have changed and reformed the way I view games, alongside some extra worldly wisdom, from having traveled and become a …semi-responsible adult.

Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire

This review contains some mild spoilers

The high seas beckon, as the Watcher of Caed Nua finds them-self adrift at sea… yet the Watcher is not unwatched. For the god of death, Berath, seeks to use The Watcher towards her own ends.

The first Pillars of Eternity was an immense disappointment when I played it. The world building and overall story were interesting, yet the companions felt stilted and the narrative was continuously interrupted by kickstarter self inserts. As much as it was a nice idea in theory to have so many diverse voices appearing in the game, in practice it distilled and weakened the overall world and frayed the themes of the game.

Being the desperate crpg player chasing after a Planescape: Torment high, I did however purchase Deadfire, despite not being particularly interested in pirates, nautical adventures and only after a vague sense of “treasuring” the ambition of the first game more than truly enjoying it.

Deadfire was thus an incredibly welcome surprise. The graphics are slightly overhauled with additional lighting and spell effects. This is noticeable in the very first area where a rainbow dances over a waterfall concealing a cavern. And was further validated by the delicate animations that bring each character to vivid life, whether it be flexing their water shaping skills, or scratching an itch in an… unmentionable area. The landscapes themselves evoke the Carribean, but with just enough innovation to still feel exotic, with Adra taking the place of coral to form reefs and shoals. Whilst exotic fruits and berries form the basis of various local cuisines. These little hints of the fantastical were present in the first game as well, but with the unusual setting they are even more apparent in Deadfire, and create an environment of discovery that was previously captured in games like The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind.

Berkana’s Orrery

As tropical as the environments are, the game doesn’t shy away from more graphical effects in combat as well. Spells are the most gorgeous to see, with bright neon colours dancing about the screen, whilst insidious cloud effects partially obscure the combatants. Even the fighters are well realised as they steady themselves before a dash attack, and launch themselves on their enemies. Critical hits even have a kill cam feature where the game momentarily slows down time, before zooming in on the action further. The slow down however was rather frustrating as the combat wouldn’t flow as smoothly after, and the loss of framerates at such times was immensely frustrating. Some of the more demanding areas, had some noticeable drops in framerate, particularly where there was advanced wind or water effects that caused shifts in light, or sand particles to obscure the camera.

At times when the action on screen was particularly frenetic, the UI certainly came to the fore. Most information is readily available and many of the pop up menus are contextual which is helpful. The game does highlight figures if you linger over them with the mouse and an information screen will also pop up giving general details such as resistances, current effects and a generalised statement of health.

And the narrative whilst still based in its pirate theme, thankfully expanded far beyond that.

Narratively the game attempts to wear many hats, it wants to be a postcolonial deconstruction of colonial economics, a rollicking marine adventure ala Robert Louis Stevenson, by way of Pirates of Penzance and a high fantasy RPG that delves into existentialism, the nature of the divine and at times even ecological terrorism. This kaleidoscope of influences collide into a mess of genres and tropes. A cohesive theme is lost in favour of attempting to straddle various genres and their requisite themes. Whilst this slew of influences lends the game it’s diversity of choice it also lessons the impact of any particular message or thought the game might have, even if it does have some fantastic shanties.

We’ll rooooooooll the old berath’s wheel along and we’ll all hang on behind!

Foremost of all of these narratives is the factional alliances you can make. The Huana are the natives of the isles. Initially they may seem the most sympathetic to modern audiences, however the strict rigidity of their caste system and propensity to suppress social mobility in their own population is part of what causes their lack of ability to develop and is a large cause behind their social and economic stagnation which is what places them at the feet of foreign powers and even those powers that are only emerging as a result of the regional conflicts.

A chance to settle trade disputes… or start them

The Principi are as such a lawless faction governed by their own piratical code, that swings along the lines of “might makes right”. They are the most piratelike of the factions and at times it felt as if the game was most sympathetic to them. They have their own internal conflict, involving the seizing of slaves and selling them on for profit that causes an internal schism and power struggle. As buccaneers and freebooters they stick, lamprey like, to the various economic thoroughfares of the Deadfire archipelago seeking to exploit weaknesses and undermine inefficient bureaucracies. Their penchant for chaos does have a few redeeming features, as they actively subvert corrupt social structures as Neketaka (the primary city of the regions) lower markets. But they do this not from any compassion for misfortune but for the sake of individualism that results in anarchy.

Opposing this anarchy yet seeking to use it for their own ends are the economic policies of the Valian’s trading company. Seeking to expropriate valuable resources at the most efficient price possible they seek to reduce the cost of their scientific funding of animancy. The very same animancy from the first game that lead to some of the kiths greatest achievements as well as being incredibly harmful to the ecological state of the world, not to mentioning engendering the metaphysical crises that drives the primary narrative of the game. As expropriators they bring economic prosperity and to a limited extent social upliftment due to the benefits of their knowledge, and sciences, but sadly the game never truly explores the sustainability of their practice.

More coveted than gold, Adra is the natural resource for which the factions fight

The Royal Deadfire company on the other hand is largely concerned with long term viability. They are colonisers in the most general sense. They seek to dominate whether it’s via military prowess, new engineering feats or through remolding the defects of Huana society to gain political advantage. The game skirts away from racism and eugenics here to establish that the Huana are considered close to the Rauatai and so deserve the imperialistic improvements that they can bring. Superficially the Rauatai are there as benevolent arbiters of the indigenous Huana culture.

These conflicting factions form the backbone to the God’s secular question, of whether humanity itself is able to overcome its differences and act in unison to confront a global crisis. Eothas, in the aspect of Gaun, is simply the progenitor of this crisis and Woedica who is the most antagonistic and cynical about the nature of the kith, seems to be the most vindicated by the results of your actions at the end of the game. This is largely due to the fact that the game offers no true resolution to the factions. There is no armistice, in fact it fails rather dismally, sometimes as a direct result of the players intervention, such as two factions storylines that result in you destroying the powder house of the Royal Deadfire company. The failure to create solidarity is justification of Woedica’s views. Even the party itself is split once certain factions are chosen with even the Watcher’s closest companions abandoning them at the penultimate moment.

Whilst the faction endings are at once rather underdeveloped (after all two factions resulting in the same scenario as a penultimate quest speaks to lack of resources to develop more broad scenarios), it doesn’t assuage the results of the player causing the unity of the individual faction they choose: whether it is deposing a pirate lord, or maintaining his power, allowing for a queen to continue to rule over a caste system that creates systemic inequality, or allowing a merchant to continue to hold his corrupt bureaucracy or fall in favour of his more ruthless and exploitative underling. In these smaller triumphs the narrative does hint towards Eothas’s idealistic view of human nature.

But these moments fall short of the absolute failure to actually bring about a more amicable and stable political situation to the Deadfire. The political tensions are done away with in acts of braggadocio and the jingoistic triumph of the faction you choose. The consequences for choices here are clear, and the central importance of your character is never in doubt as the traditional fantasy protagonist that sways the fate of nations. Yet in its larger narrative solidified in the titanic Eothas the game reverts all of this, clearly playing upon the more passive nature of being a “watcher” rather than an active participant.

Gods, even the artificial gods of Eora, are clearly considered too much for the protagonist to handle. The game steers directly away from the power inherit within a protagonist to indicate, despite being a Watcher, that your abilities are mundane. This is done repeatedly; from tête-à-têtes with the ‘Prevailing Powers That Be’ to encounters with archmagi that reveal their superiority over the player character. Even the trials against gods take place as gauntlets to be overcome rather than climactic confrontations, which is all the more obvious in the DLC content. It’s a realism that is surprising in such a game, and has been the source of many complaints, not least amongst them the inability to duel Eothas at the finale, which many felt robbed players of a final boss fight. This lack of pandering to a power fantasy is a break with the more conservative tradition in cRPGs that gives the player godlike potentiality. In the case of Eora, this lack of status given to the Watcher makes some sense, after all the Gods are created by animancy and a mechanical apotheosis would require some similar circumstance to be undergone, but with Eothas’ intentions for the wheel it seems such pursuits might be permanently unattainable. Instead the game reconfirms in its finale your ultimate status as kith – mortal and mundane. In this the games ultimately cynical outlook on kithkind (humanity) is revealed.

Beware when you play cards with death…

From the very beginning Berath informs you of the inevitability of your journey’s end. That in pursuing Eothas you will ultimately fail to prevent his mission. This is reconfirmed throughout the game. Narrative tension is lost from the outset as failure is inevitable, and even exploration of the unknown and the mysteries it holds does not lend any motivation, after all the trajectory of a titanic Adra statue is not difficult to determine. Instead the game relies on the factional tensions and the alliances you build with them to create interest and conflict. The burden of the storytelling lies firmly upon the ability of the roleplaying, roleplaying that is hindered by a mechanical system that can never compare to the freeform play of tabletop or the statistical methods that optimize the play of powerful builds that can overcome the most difficult strategic challenges.

For all that is a major criticism, the combat in Deadfire is immense fun. Breaking from the DnD ruleset and it’s min-maxing elements, leaves room for experimentation with builds. Many things are still the same, a dexterous wizard is still a primary but might (physical strength) is a positive boon as well, because it directly translates to the damage output of spells. Likewise unconventional melee builds are possible as well, with fighters being able to include intelligence as a stat for Defensive fighters due to its bonuses to AoE. As much as the game does allow for such unconventionality though on harder difficulties it still favours more traditional builds.

Those harder difficulties are more difficult than the first game. There is still some issue with level scaling, as per the first game, were later game encounters became to easy for large parties, requiring the game to upscale the difficulty. It is nowhere near as noticeable here though, and the overall development is well handled. The quests themselves don’t necessarily increase in importance however. Some of the later stage quests are incidental encounters, that neither add to the overall story, though one might consider an imp uprising to be possible in future titles (if they ever come to be). Companion Quests however tie in directly to the main plot, whilst adding characterisation. The game hints at which characters to use for which quests by including their portraits alongside the quest description in the journal. Special dialogue is usually available adding to the players understanding of events, as well as causing party alliances or disputes. Deadfire has a robust character system that encourages the party members to actively like or dislike each other. Aloth will constantly roll his eyes, in his best imitation of a petulant teenage girl at anything Serafen says, whilst Tekehu’s amorous adventures and nymphomaniac tendencies are laughed at by the selfsame Serafen. This causes more links and interconnections than just simple party based banter familiar in more normal RPGs that is purely based on character and not how well the characters are getting on. It’s a lovely feature though one that is questionably included considering how much extra work it must have required. Work that the game desperately needs elsewhere such as in ship exploration and combat.

Since Deadfire has a nautical theme, it’s unsurprising that the player is given a ship to steer about the sea. This is where factional alliances come into play. Depending on the colours you fly (your own unaffiliated, or factional) various ships will either ignore or attack you. Managing and outfitting your ship takes the place of usual keep management that was introduced from games like Neverwinter Nights 2. In addition Deadfire also has you manage the crew for your ship. The larger the ships and the more crew you have, the more food and water they will require. The game also introduces morale, keeping the crew happy and preventing them from mutinying will require either victories at sea or more expensive rations, usually of an alcoholic nature. Yet it never really feels like it amounts to that much. The travel distances of the Deadfire Archipelago are so small as to make most of the rationing and strategical planning to be redundant, and by the late stages of the game, the ships are easy money sinks, since the loot has improved immeasurably so that it’s easy enough to simply purchase up the rations required.

The triumph of the Useless Idiot!

Ship to ship combat is also relatively unrewarding. The combat is rather clunky and not visually realised but rather as descriptions of combat. The nautical terminology is easy to grasp and glosses for terms are provided, whether through icons or descriptions. Most of the time combat is usually simply advancing close enough whilst receiving as little damage as possible in order to board the ship, which then moves to normal ingame combat, which of course is the games strength. You can even simply attack directly as an option when engaging vessels bypassing the ship combat completely.

The other important aspects to ships is of course exploration. The ships crew gains experience in an additional levelling system, as they encounter new regions, sights and survive encounters. The islands themselves are marked on the map for you and a subquest encourages you to “colonise” the lands, naming them after your whim. However main quest locations are marked and can be sailed to directly without exploration. Since the islands are discrete landmasses, they don’t offer a feeling of scale when adventuring. They inevitably end up feeling more like once off encounters rather than integrated parts of a world. A place to tick off then continue adventuring. As such the wonder of discovery is inevitably lost to a list of check marks, something that the game tries to prevent with its detailed and inventive locales but never quite achieves. This is especially apparent when massive wonders are only reverted to textbox descriptions that can’t quite translate across the dual medium of the game as both text adventure and visual isometric world.

There are many fishermen’s tales of odd creatures in the Deadfire, not least amongst them tales of living trees.

Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire is overall an incredible game, with sound combat, an incredible interfactional storyline, but is let down by some very serious issues, such as the lack of intriguing exploration, feature creep that led to some interesting elements but that will only be for new games to explore meant that areas that required more development did not receive the budget or development time they should have. It is however still one of the finest RPGs ever made, despite the passive role it wishes the protagonist to adopt, that leads to weaknesses in the narrative. It is kept aloft by its fantasy and inventiveness that promise future developments for the genre, and continues to carry the standard of its predecessors Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale.

Score ~8/10~

Pros

  • Incredibly well written with lots of nuance
  • Companion dialogues and stat system is intriguing
  • Lots of complexity and customisability of companion builds
  • Detailed graphics that bring the world to life

Cons

  • The narrative is somewhat weak as it de-emphasises the role of the player character and shifts them to a passive role as “Watcher”
  • Naval combat is underdeveloped and lacks impact

Publisher: Versus Evil/Obsidian Entertainment

Developer: Obsidian Entertainment

Platforms: Windows, Mac, Linux

ESRB: M / PEGI: 16

Available from: SteamGoG.comHumble Store, Microsoft Store

Banner image is used under fair use. The images in the review are from the author’s own playthrough.

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The Vicarious Baron of Varn

Please note this article focuses on some critical story elements and may contain a few spoilers for Pathfinder: Kingmaker

Pathfinder: Kingmaker like many RPGs offers a variety of outcomes to the events of its main story. Alignment choices, completion or incompletion of side-quests, decisions of governance, may exhibit immediate outcomes, or have an outcome in the ending slides of the game. Even nominal characters like Nyrd Zottenropple, have an impact on important events should you make the requisite choices. Yet none of this is unique, in fact it’s been done for years. As recently as Deadfire and as far back as Arcanum. As creative as Kingmaker is, and as varied as it’s choices are there is still one more unique way it approaches its storytelling that I haven’t seen in a game of this type before.

The primary focus of an epic fantasy RPG, as the genre implies, is the creation and fulfillment of your avatars life in the world. The game is played from a first person perspective with the player embodying the characters view point. We learn about the world and it’s events through the eyes of our avatar. And although mechanically we can pull the camera back for a 3rd person view in some RPG games (like Skyrim or Dragon Age) this is only a mechanical change, not a narrative shift, instead the narrative stays purely focused on something I call (for games) the singular perspective. This of course allows for the building of suspense for plot twists and removes an annoying omniscient (or partially omniscient narrator) from muddying the ‘text’ of the game keeping the player immersed in that delicate balance that is known as ‘suspension of disbelief’.

Yet this is also limiting. Where novels such as A Song of Ice and Fire, The Wheel of Time or Lord of the Rings can switch easily between characters and events in far-flung spaces, which vastly expands the scope of the world as they do it. Games however largely require the player to explore the world, revealing it slowly frame by frame focused upon the avatar. As such games lay importance upon the characters agency and this is somewhat to the detriment of a concept of a world that exists externally to the avatar.

Not all illusions are art

Pathfinder: Kingmaker attempts to overcome this, with timed events that place pressure on the player to resolve them before they escalate. The world is filled with danger and wonder that both threatens and delights. The world has agency, important to the thematic elements of the plot, and it is unlike other RPGs in that this danger purely manifests as quests to resolve or monsters to slaughter. As nature, and time attempt to tear down the hard wrought community you attempt to build. These events that occur are revealed in the main quests as many media’s do, through insight from NPCs, most notably certain companions as well as through a villains monologue. Allowing the player to piece a timeline together after the fact, and discover the secrets and revelations of a forgotten past, the secondary type of exploration that games can offer.

The Varnhold’s Lot DLC offers a new approach, more closely allied to novels that switch character perspectives.

But these traditional methods are not the only technique Owlcat Games uses…

The Varnhold’s Lot DLC offers a new approach, more closely allied to novels that switch character perspectives. Running two characters in a single unified game is of course impossible, except Varnhold manages to achieve this by offering a secondary campaign that occurs in conjunction with the first campaign. Whilst the player character is exploring events in the Shrike Hills, the Varnhold Barony is expanding into the Dunsward and developing alongside your own kingdom. It offers a juxtaposition to the success of your own elevation, and may be seen as either a rival or ally. The Baron Maegar Varn who was elevated alongside your primary character by Jamandi Aldori in her scheming against the Issians and House Surtova, is genially disposed towards you, and beset by much the same curse that drives the conflict in the rest of the game.

All of this is revealed in dispatches and missives in the main game, and the fall of the Varnhold Barony is explored in depth in Part 3 entitled rather literally “The Varnhold Vanishing”, along with a little foreshadowing by one Willas Gunderson. Yet more is made available in the DLC, and whilst the player characters concern is with preventing the same forces from destroying her own kingdom, the DLC fills in plot holes as to how certain individuals survived.

Necrotic botanists

As a separate campaign the solution is easy, simply role a new character to play for the duration of the DLC. This newly embodied character gives a fresh perspective to the player of the characters involved. Not only is this character exploring the world at the same time as the main character but also reveals a few hidden truths about the nature of the curse and the depravity of the individual behind it, or perhaps nefarious assistance would be a more appropriate term when discussing the Horned God’s intervention through the aforementioned hapless Willas Gunderson, who unwittingly awakens a fallen empire.

These tidbits of information are illuminating. Not only enhancing the nature and temperament of the villains, but also expanding the scope of play. Such things have been used before in gaming where a choice of characters are offered such as in Resident Evil 2‘s choice of Leon or Claire, but took a backseat for years until being revived in games like Dishonored 2 which allowed you to play the same campaign but from both Corvo’s and Emily’s viewpoints or the more recent Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey choice of Alexios or Kassandra. But it has never truly been attempted in a multiparty game nor in offering a largely separate structure from which to view the larger narrative, although Resident Evil 2 comes closest to this.

These tidbits of information are illuminating. Not only enhancing the nature and temperament of the villains, but also expanding the scope of play.

The other more important part that the Varnhold’s Lot DLC adds is tangible changes to the games overall story. The choices you make have distinct outcomes, whether your character is left to wander the first world forever or whether they end up retiring to the comfort of your capitals tavern. And seeing your character (YOUR character) ensconced in the gameworld with your primary protagonist interacting with them is something distinct and unique.

Awaiting the final release

Of course the pioneering ability for this comes from Baldur’s Gate 2 which allowed you to import a saved character from the first game, but was refined with the release of Dragon Age 2 and Inquisition and Pillars of Eternity 2 that allowed you to not only import your previous character for a cameo, but the entire set of consequential choices that had shaped the world. Whilst this had established continuity between games, it’s only with the Varnhold’s Lot DLC that I’ve come to see the potential for expanding narratives in a lateral fashion. It is this that makes the DLC so innovative, and something I’d hope to see more of in the future. After all the fantasy novels we read have expanding vistas shaped by vain villains confronted with violently vehement adventurers! Why not expand the possibility of players and allow them to vicariously assume the identity of more than one inhabitant that can shape the events of a world? Not just by controlling side characters, that serve an important role as tools with which to shape your character through interaction, but with the primary force that makes gaming so powerful a narrative medium, the players own ability to choose the actions and shape the responsibilities of more than one protagonist and in so doing the world at large.

Varnhold’s Lot was the second DLC released for Pathfinder: Kingmaker on February 28th, 2019. It is included in the Imperial Edition of the game.

Images are property of Owlcat Games and are used here for commentary and criticism. Screenshots from in the game were taken by the author.

Pathfinder: Kingmaker Enhanced Edition (PC)

Sic transit gloria mundi

Pathfinder: Kingmaker, much as the rather unimaginative title indicates, is a game about the establishment of a kingdom. Yours. From the political machinations of a nearby Duchy that wishes to create a possible alliance against their enemies they aid in not only granting you the land but also in financing its establishment. From there in true fantasy style a new threat emerges, an old curse exists upon the lands that gathers the remains of previous empires, atoning for a mistake from the past.

Like many of the cRPGs of recent years Pathfinder: Kingmaker is the product of a crowdfunding success story that propelled the small Russian studio of Owlcat Games into the limelight. Though it’s initial release was marred by numerous bugs and balancing issues, subsequent patches largely fixed many of the issues, and the release of the Enhanced Edition incorporated a great deal of player feedback to improve the overall quality of the game.

Story

Pathfinder: Kingmaker is truly epic in scope, not only does it span multiple playing hours but in terms of the game world it explores millennia. In doing so it can elaborate on its them of civilization and barbarity, the transient nature of empire and the various ways they rise and fall. This is done most notably through the various chapters of the main campaign, each of which focus on one or more kingdoms that had once existed in the territories of the Stolen Lands. Not only is internal strife and decadence explored but also external threats, and natural disasters, whether it be plague or climate change. Accompanying these hints from the past for the discerning lore master, the actual campaign itself also expounds on these ideas, with each chapter of the campaign unfolding a new threat to the governance of yourself and your advisors (who are selected from your various companions).

Arise, Your Grace…

The choices here are unprecedented, you can recruit erstwhile enemies to assist you, (provided they have a similar ethos to governance as you), shape and change the fates of your companions due to your influence over them, and in some cases might just roleplay their influence on your character as well. And they are an interesting lot, from the grandiose delirium of Nok-Nok the goblin, to the stalwart Valerie, and erudite Jubilost, there’s a lot to uncover about each companion.

Of course, they do have accompanying side-quests to expand upon their choices and influence them, as well as the option to romance some of them. Many of the options taken in these side-quests also have additional impacts upon the fate of the kingdom later on, though they aren’t realised mechanically. The characterization of each is superlative, from the erudite, pomposity that characterizes Jubilost’s speech, and his accompanying focus on rationalism and rhetoric to the crude yet good natured banter of Amiri, each companion has their own distinct style of speech. They also might unintentionally work against you. Lindzi for instance procures some of the kingdom’s funds to assist one of her dreams. Depending on how you’ve managed your kingdoms finances this may either be an absolute disaster, or you just shake your head, and wonder why she just didn’t come and ask you in the first place since you would have happily assisted her anyway. Even with such inadvertant setbacks however the game does recompense you in some way. In the case of Lindzi, you do receive a building later that covers the cost of what you initially lost.

The kingdom itself shares a story with you, changing significantly based on the decisions you make, whether its populated with monsters, a mercantile success, or a generic tyranny there’s multiple ways to craft its story. This is realised in short excerpts from the kingdom management screen, and are known as “problems” and “opportunities”, choosing different advisors (with different traits) will have varying outcomes, not only can they fail or succeed but different individuals handle matters differently. Some of these permutations can be seen as many of the “opportunity” events are recycled (which leads to some story fatigue) but they also shape the alignment of the kingdom, having distinct outcomes for how the people are governed.

Lost time unleashed

The main story itself has a fairly generic ultimate villain, but the secondary villain is the main antagonist for most of the game, and she is rather unique, however it’s up to the player whether she will be viewed sympathetically or not. The main story is also imperative in forcing and encouraging exploration. Most of the structure turns upon a threat whose mystery must first be uncovered, then investigated and finally confronted. This pattern unfolds for each chapter. The greatest criticism I can level is that after a while this feels uninspired, but the mysteries themselves are intriguing enough and pull the player to explore the world further, which is after all one of the great joys of playing a cRPG, adventuring to uncover new dangers, treasures and above all to gain experiences (xp points too).

Gameplay

Kingmaker truly excels in its game-play. The combat mechanics are robust and adaptive to varied play styles. Characters can be built in various ways and , on harder difficulties tried and tested builds will need to be used in order to min max stats, however easier difficulties (including a story mode) allow for more experimentation in builds and are forgiving if you make a few mistakes in a build. The mechanics will be familiar to any person whose encountered a cRPG game before. From elemental to physical damage types and their relation to damage resistances, the need to create a party with multiple ability types, to work in concert together. All the normal roles apply.

Nothing is truly innovative here, wizards can work as heavy damage dealers or crowd controllers, rogues can provide debuffs and concentrated damage, fighters work as tanks, bards as buffers/debuffers. It’s all familiar and comforting terrain to veterans of the genre, but not overly complicated for newcomers to work out.

Valerie’s Confusion

General play will consist of observing the encounter beforehand, time spent buffing your party before launching into attack. Positioning of characters is important (you don’t want your wizard to land their fireball right upon your tanks head with their low reflex save) and at times controlling the flow of battle will require deftly moving your characters around. Managing debuffs upon your party is also important at higher levels, and not controlling them can result in a few rather hilarious scenarios, that leads to emergent storytelling, such as when Valerie, the noble fighter ended up slaying a unicorn, going insane from a spell inflicted upon her by the dryad who looked after the beasts, she turned upon the party… terrified by their normally steadfast and loyal companion they hid in terror waiting for her to calm down… only to witness her hit herself between drinking bouts of beer. Its moments like these that shape and make your own adventurous tale.

Ready to paint the map

Exploration occurs across a world map with isolated encounter areas (as well as random encounters when travelling between locations). At first most of the map is unavailable with higher difficulty levels being locked until you’ve expanded your power enough to access them, that is not to say that difficult encounters are not hiding tucked away in caves in earlier areas though… discretion is the better part of valour. In addition, some areas will require repeat visits, as new quests will be linked to that area. Encumbrance impedes exploration and acts as a serious hindrance, slowing travel time which affects the games overall time pressure. It’s not a huge role but is something to be aware of, if a quest timer is close to ending. The area is not free-form exploration sadly. You are confined to the paths that you find between nodes. It’s a step back from the slightly freer feel of Baldur’s Gate but not out entirely out of line with more recent cRPGS that also have limited budgets and so restrict encounter areas.

Each encounter area is filled with various side-quests or unique enemies to fight (and loot) however the major dungeons are reserved for areas associated with the main campaign. Many of these dungeons have multiple levels and distinct puzzles associated with them as well as some rather difficult combat challenges. The game also does not shy away from splitting your party on more than one occasion. The dungeons themselves are generally well-crafted experiences, with challenging encounters as well as various puzzles to solve. In some dungeons these puzzles take precedence and can be rather obtuse in their riddling, however compared to games like Pillars of Eternity and its sequel Deadfire which had very few puzzles its pleasant to encounter such riddles again. Sadly, one of the dungeons has some rather complex coding associated with its puzzle and it can be quite buggy, it’s also exceptionally late in the game so multiple saves are mandatory… of course.

The beginning of a city to rival Absalom!

The other important aspect is the Kingdom itself. The kingdom is assigned various stats, such as loyalty, espionage, military, arcane and culture that link to various domains of society. These stats are boosted by assigning the appropriate ministers to events and granting them time to complete them. In addition, you can construct villages with various buildings that provide boosts to said stats, and some buildings even decrease the difficulty for the encounters by providing bonuses. Your companions may be assigned as advisers in a vaguely nepotistic faction however there are other advisers you can assign and complete tasks to enhance their governing abilities. Who you assign is important as it shifts the alignment of your kingdom, which further determines what buildings you can include, not to mention their own allegiances, that just may result in a betrayal? The kingdom management also has certain tasks that only the player character can complete, such as annexing neighbouring lands that results in time lost for adventuring. This is where a more strategic layer of play develops, balancing the cost of assigning various advisers, (also dependent on which adviser is available), upgrading your kingdom and completing the timed quests. It’s a unique and heady blend of strategy that is utterly new for the genre. The only issue is that it can result in not being able to see some content if managed poorly, the same issue that games like Avernum 3 had as well.

Who better than dour Harrim to deal with death!

Since the success of the Kingdom also factors into the completion of the game, managing it well is a necessity. Like the keep in Neverwinter Nights 2 ruling your people (or monsters) well and looking after their safety is a necessity. Integrating the success of your kingdom to concepts such as the health of the ruler is linked to the health and prosperity of the land are born out later in the story as well. This is a refreshing change from the unimportant management aspects of games like Pillars of Eternity where Caed Nua plays an unimportant role in the games story (at least only as a cut scene as a prequel to the second game does it gain significance) and Dragon Age: Inquisition where the missions don’t really bear much impact on the overall story except perhaps to fill in a few sundry details.

To the horizon

Other things to note is that there are some keyboard shortcuts, but I didn’t find or use any party management shortcuts (e.g. for melee vs ranged members) which was frustrating. Also, the game is active time with pause so prepare for your spacebar to be abused.

Graphics

The graphics are quite phenomenal, there are some gorgeous lighting effects and there is very little issue with textures. A great amount of detail has been paid to monster designs, from the irascible mites to the gargantuan Crag Linnorn’s they are rendered with unique animations, that are particularly noticeable when it comes to combat. Combat itself is a visual feast, the array of spells and spell like effects dazzle across the screen, and make a wonderful visual counterpoint to the slowly increasing feel of power. Death and critical hit animations, have enemies (or your characters) reeling backward or stumbling, and with a well-placed heal, lifting themselves with effort to join the fray again.

Healing waters

The UI is fine on lower resolutions with lots of detail at a glance but can be slightly too small on larger screens even with the option for text scaling. Additional information such as enemy stats are not readily available with a mouse hover (such as in Deadfire) but are available using the “y” button on English keyboards, this was somewhat frustrating as I’d have preferred combat information to be available more readily.

The in game menus are pretty comfortable to view and easy to sort, however some of the icons are a little too similar, this was particularly frustrating with scrolls and some of the potions that meant you had to hover slightly over the potion to check it was the correct one, you wanted to select which slowed down combat at times, one way to overcome this is to use alphabetical sorting.

Music

I was somewhat surprised when starting to play the game and thought for a moment I was hearing Dragon Age: Origins again, because the chord structure is nearly identical. This is of course due to the soundtrack being largely composed by Inon Zur. He’s an excellent composer, however at times the similarity in music evoked memories of other games which actually detracted from the experience with Kingmaker.  What was particularly wonderful though was the kingdom having music associated with its state, a lawful good kingdom has very different ambient music to a chaotic evil kingdom, add in the music for specific areas, as well as each boss having a soundtrack designed especially for them and you’ve got hours of music to accompany your play. The music seems to draw heavy inspiration from European folk melodies and the choice of instrumentation, lends itself well to the standard medieval fantasy setting.

Additional sounds make the world come to further life, whether it’s the varying sounds of your footsteps across different terrain or the sound of magic combusting, the game is an absolute aural treat, making the animations come alive.

Silence is golden

Even the voice-acting is well done. The emotions are well conveyed, and though not all dialogue is voice-acted, most of the main campaign is. The emotions are subtly portrayed with layers of nuance, and vastly aids in making the characters more sympathetic. Sadly budget constraints meant that party resting banter is limited to only two lines of exchange which doesn’t really convey the relationship between the two companions involved, where even three lines with a second response would have done more to establish their relationships.

Conclusion

Pathfinder: Kingmaker is one of the great cRPGs, despite its rather difficult launch, the enhanced edition is generally a treat to play, despite still having a few bugs. It’s exploration of rulership and governance sets it apart from its contemporaries, and whilst it lacks philosophical depth directly in the writing, the concepts are there for the attentive player to explore. It may not have the philosophical complexity of Numenera or the verbosity of Deadfire but it is far more accessible than those games, and still incredibly entertaining to boot.

Score ~8/10~

Pros

  • Incredible and lengthy narrative that has multiple plot twists
  • Well fleshed out companions
  • Engaging combat system that offers tactical depth
  • Lush and colourful graphics

Cons

  • Rather generic in its medieval fantasy setting
  • Time management on quests creates sense of pressure and reduces willingness to explore
  • An area at the ending is rather prohibitive if you haven’t fully explored the side-quests from earlier in the game

Publisher: Deep Silver

Developer: Owlcat Games

Platforms: Windows, Mac, Linux

ESRB: – / PEGI: –

Available from: SteamGoG.comHumble Store

Banner image is used under fair use. The images in the review are from the author’s own playthrough.

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