All That Matters is the Ending: Pillars of Eternity

Pillars of Eternity surprised me, but not in the ways I expected. I’ve always had a soft spot for Obsidian because their games are exactly how I would expect mine to be if I ever made one: an amazing story stuck in a lair of bugs. So I was surprised when Pillars of Eternity ended up having very little bugs, at least in my experience with the game. I was also surprised to find that the story was… okay. By average video game standards it’s a good story, but from the people who gave us Knights of the Old Republic 2 and Fallout New Vegas, it’s probably one of their least interesting stories.

Don’t get me wrong there is some absolutely amazing writing in this game, I mean god damn spectacular writing.

This what you call painting a picture with words.
This what you call painting a picture with words.

There were moments in this game that brought me close to tearing up and yet… I never felt truly engaged in the main storyline.

Pillars of Eternity came out two days before I began my new job as a transcriber, and I couldn’t finish the game in that short period of time. Yet when I started my new job I felt no desire to stay up late and play Pillars when I got home. At first I thought maybe I was just becoming a responsible adult, a truly horrifying possibility. But then I binged on watching Netflix’s Daredevil (review coming soon!) and stayed up till 3am on a Sunday to see how the first season concluded. So clearly I was still willing to screw my future self over for the sake of good storytelling.

The simple fact of the matter is that the Pillars of Eternity main storyline just never grabbed me. I feel bad that this is going to be mostly a negative review because I absolutely love the ambition on display here. Obsidian shot for the moon on this one and it just…didn’t quite get there.

All That Matters is the Ending:

Pillars of Eternity

pillars-of-eternity-pc-web

Pillars takes place in an entirely original fantasy world, and though the combat rules are pretty much just Dungeons and Dragons, the world itself is as alien as it gets.They very clearly spent a lot of time and effort on making sure their world felt lived in, and it has a history that goes back thousands of years. You could point to any location on Eora and there would be a fascinating story to be told.

For me I ended up wanting to be a sailor in this world, because the oceans of Pillars would be an amazing setting for an HP Lovecraft style horror game. In one of the many books you can read, there’s a description of Krakens the size of islands, great spiked whales that ram ships, and strange humanoid sea-creatures with hair of seaweed and great unhinged jaws like snakes that invade ships in the black of night. I really hope Obsidian does a sequel for the game because this world is absolutely magnificent, it really is.

And yet…

The sheer amount of information that needs to be conveyed means you get tons of exposition dumped on you a lot. For instance you’ll hear the story of Saint Waidwen and the Saint’s War a dozen times from various people. The first couple of times you’ll appreciate it because the history of this troubled land is incredibly complex, but after you’re halfway through the game and you’ve had it explained to you a dozen different ways you’ll end up wishing there was “shut up! I already know!” dialogue option.

Then there’s the backstory you’ll need to know about the War of Black Trees and War of Broken Stones that lead to the current situation in Dyrwood. Oh and you’ll need to know about Waidwen’s Legacy, which means you’ll need to know about Animancy, which means you need to know about how Souls work in this world, which means you need to know about the Glanfathan’s…

They basically needed to give you a history book to read before playing the game.

They basically needed a history book to be provided with the game...oh, nevermind, they did.
Oh…

I hate that their huge epic world ultimately becomes a negative to the overall story, but it is. There’s simply so much information you need to know in order to even understand what’s happening in the story that at some point you simply stop caring. Exploring and learning about new, strange worlds is half the fun of these kinds of games. Yet when you’re forced to refer back to your glossary just to understand the context of a conversation you just had, it’s no longer fun.  In many ways I think they should have limited the scope of their story, because while the story is confined to a single country on their huge world map, it’s a larger than life adventure that drags you into a huge history-spanning conspiracy.

What they should have done instead is make their story a character driven human drama, because that’s where the writing really shines. When I was learning about the various gods and the political machinations of Defiance Bay I was left utterly disinterested. When I found a the body of a small murdered boy and experienced his final moments I nearly cried.

When Lady Webb was trying to explain the political infighting between the Crucible Knights and the Dozens, I couldn’t have cared less. But when she told me about her love affair with Thaos, I was fascinated.

Humanizing a villain is always a smart move.
Humanizing a villain is always a smart move.

Which is why the ending really doesn’t work for me. For one, it was my relationship with Thaos that was the most fascinating part of the game for me. In the flashbacks that occur throughout the story, you relive your past life as a follower of Thaos; watching yourself go from an unknown acolyte to his right-hand man. I had actually grown to like Thaos character, especially after learning about his love for Lady Webb.  He was very human character, despite having lived thousands of years.

Yet at the end there was no real sense of resolution to this character arc. Instead we get one of the dumbest and most pointless plots ever conceived.

In the end you meet a woman named Iovara, who you’ve seen tortured to death in a former life. When you meet her she’s entombed by the gods for heresy and she tells you that the gods aren’t real…

Pretty sure Bender made the same argument about evil Santa, with pretty much the same results.
Pretty sure Bender made the same argument about evil Santa, with pretty much the same results.

Yes, after riding a magic carpet of souls made by the gods themselves, a ghost who has literally been damned by the gods tells you that the gods aren’t realI’m sorry, I thought I was playing a well written Obsidian game Iovara, I seem to have made a wrong turn. Can you point me back to the real story?

The gods in Pillars of Eternity are gods by every human definition of the word! They make themselves known to the world, speak directly with certain people and grant magical powers to their followers. These aren’t like the gods of our world, where they’re so ephemeral and distant their very existence is doubted. If the Christian God sent down a Jesus with a head made of blazing golden light, my first instinct isn’t going to claim his god isn’t real.

You're god damned right
You’re god damn right it’s on fire, kid.

Morrowind had a similar storyline but here’s why Morrowind story works: Morrowind let us peak behind the curtain. We got an opportunity to see Vivec and learn that he is not an all powerful god, but simply a man who was given god like powers through several powerful magical artifacts. And even before you meet Vivec, if you visit the ruins around Red mountain, you can find writings and artifacts that prove the same point.

When I finally met the gods of Pillars of Eternity, they were exactly like I would expect a god to be: beings living on a different plane of existence. I got no impression from those meetings that these gods were anything than what they appeared to be.

This is made worse by the fact that Iovara doesn’t actually tell you what made her reach the conclusion that the gods weren’t real. She literally just says “I saw things and heard things that proved the gods weren’t real.” The entire argument basically boils down this:

Iovara: “The gods aren’t real!”

Thaos: “Are too!”

Iovara: “Are not!”

Thaos: “Are too!”

Iovara: “Nuh-uh!”

It’s like every internet argument atheists and theists get into on Facebook. Only this time the theists have some pretty damn compelling evidence on their side.

You're god damned right
Because again, flaming head guys. FLAMING HEAD!

And with all this overwhelming evidence of the gods existence, Thaos’ mission suddenly looks really, really stupid. Was all this death and destruction really necessary to make people believe? First of all I didn’t meet a single character in the game who didn’t believe in the gods, so it didn’t seem like this was a huge issue that needed an organization like the Leaden Key to prevent. In the flashbacks its made clear that Iovara eventually gathered a significant number of followers, but since we never learn what evidence she had, this seems more like a simple plot contrivance than anything.

Worst of all though, when you fight your way to Thaos, the game completely destroys any sympathy you might have had for him.

Thaos was a good villain for most of the game, especially once you uncover his love affair. An immortal man who has lived countless lifetimes but is still vulnerable to the feelings of love. His reluctance to kill his love, and the relative kindness with which he does it when his hand is forced, really made him a human being again after revealing his immortal background.

And of course that’s all utterly destroyed by his closing monologue:

“When the plague came to [a city I can’t remember now] I made sure the cure didn’t. They stacked their dead outside until the piles were as high as the walls themselves.”

Great…and that accomplished what exactly?

You know maybe if you shut up once in a while, you could actually do something right for a change.
It was a line straight out of “The Big Book of Evil Cliches” by Corypheus.

Thaos, up until this point, had been portrayed as a man who was willing to do what was necessary. He would kill and destroy anything to obtain his goal, but only if it were necessary. That and his love for (female spymaster) were what made Thaos an interesting villain, he had motivations for what he was doing. Then here at the end of the game he throws both of the things that made him interesting away. First by joyfully telling you about the millions he’s killed, and then by telling you he was just using Lady Webb.

I mean maybe he was just feigning indifference for intimidating value, but it would have been nice if I could have pressed him on the subject. Something.

And then there was my relationship with Thaos. As strange as it sounds I’d come to think of Thaos as a friend by the end of my journey, I really had. He was so well written, and the amazing choices they offer in your flashback options allow you to roleplay your prior relationship anyway you choose, and I’d chosen to see him as a mentor in my past life. Like Lady Webb and Iovara both tell you, he is a master manipulator. And I hope to god whoever wrote his dialogue doesn’t become a political speech writer, because I might just believe every word he writes.

But at the end, when I relive the final moments of my former life, and have our final conversation… I’m forced to ask him whether the gods were real. Despite the fact that neither my current or former characters would have asked that.

What, you expect me to believe you just because you have giant unstoppable avatars of your god?
What, you expect me to believe you just because you have giant titans brought to life by your god?

Whether or not I believed in the gods was irrelevant to me. I wanted to know what Thaos thought of my character, to have a satisfactory and emotionally fulfilling resolution to our respective character arcs.  Yet in the end I felt like this whole relationship that had been built through the excellent writing, was left hanging in favor of resolving a plot point I didn’t care about.

One of my best memories in gaming is of the relationship between Kain and Raziel in the Legacy of Kain series. They start out as a bitter enemies, and I hated Kain so fucking much. He was twisted, sadistic bastard I wanted to see dead. But then throughout the series you learn the truth, that they were friends that had been manipulated into fighting by forces they didn’t understand.

“I am, as before, your right arm… your sword.” Raziel’s final words to Kain. I’ll be doing a full write up about the brilliance of this scene soon.

That was the kind of resolution I was hoping for from Thaos, not specifically that we’d been friends…just the satisfaction of seeing whatever our relationship reach its conclusion. Did he betray me? Did he hate me? Was he regretful of how he used me?

According to him, he didn’t even care. Which would have been fine had I been allowed to respond to that in some way, but he pretty much immediately launches into trying to kill you. When he died I thought, maybe now I can interact with his soul and see the truth about how he felt about me, but instead it just reinforces the same tired plot point: the gods aren’t real.

And the evidence we see is that these giant Glenfathan machines extracted souls from people and somehow coalesced them into gods. That’s it, that’s the big secret he’s been trying to hide all these millenia. That still seems pretty godlike to me.

If the ending had been framed as “the gods were created by an act of pure evil and we should stop following them,” then yeah I could have hopped on board with that. Or if it had been “clearly the gods are fucking up our lives more than they’re helping, we should get rid of them” then I could have worked with that. But the gods don’t exist? Yeah that’s not something the setting lends itself to.

This dude can hail down fire from the heavens through the power of faith. Atheism really isn't something that can exist in this world.
This dude can hail down fire from the heavens through the power of his faith. Atheism really isn’t something that can exist in this world.

I thought at the end of the story we’d find out what the Pillars of Eternity really were, and why they channeled souls. But it never is. In fact the titular Pillars of Eternity have absolutely nothing to do with the game’s story at all as far I could tell. Even the nature of souls, the core of the game’s story, are left infuriatingly ambiguous. How exactly were the gods created using these souls? Did the souls themselves become the gods? Or was their power used to grant a single being god like powers? And how was collecting all of the souls in Dyrwood going to bring back the Queen?

I know this is a fine line to walk. Explain too much about souls and the pillars and suddenly we’re back talking to the AI God and Architect, but explain too little as is done here and you have a story that ultimately goes no where and means nothing. Maybe a few months ago  I would have been content with having no answers at all for fear of having a Catalyst moment, but then I played Planescape Torment and now I know that you can reveal enough of a mystery to be satisfying while still sparking the reader’s imagination.

Of course all this said, it’s still a good game. It’s far better than Dragon Age Inquisition in that it’s writing is top notch and it doesn’t waste 100 hours of your time to figure out the plot is worthless. So pick it up if you have the money, because I’d definitely like to see a sequel set in the same world. That’s for sure.

This is but a tiny fraction of the world map of Pillars of Eternity. And somewhere out there is a story that will absolutely blow my mind.
This is but a tiny fraction of the world map of Pillars of Eternity. And somewhere out there is a story that will absolutely blow my mind.

Cortana and the Great Left Handed Writing Experiment

So it’s not exactly been a great time for the Great Left Handed Story Experiment. Last week I began a new job, a boring and yet somehow fascinating job transcribing audio records. Currently the company I work for is being contracted to transcribe people’s interactions with the new Cortana assistant that will be featured with Windows 10. Basically I listen to what people say and compare that to what Cortana thought they said, and it’s usually hilariously wrong. For instance right now it thinks Wikipedia is spelled wicca pedia. But then I correct it, it gets sent over to China where the company is based, who send it back to Microsoft (who is like a block up the street) and their fancy engineers go over it to see how they can improve the voice recognition. It’s revealed a lot about how humans interact with machines and it’s proven one thing:

The moment we create an AI it will totally go Skynet on our asses.

All according to plan...
And we will have totally had it coming…

The amount of abuse hurled at Cortana is frankly staggering. Most of this is standard “God damnit why don’t you work properly” and “How do I remove you from my phone” but some of it is stuff that makes even me blush. I’m sure most of my readers know, but for those who don’t, Cortana is for all intents and purposes a totally nude woman from Halo who travels with the Master Chief during the Halo games. Okay, she “technically” doesn’t have genitals, rather she’s the holographic equivalent of a Barbie doll, but here’s what she looks like:

Download-Wallpaper-HD-Microsoft-Studios-Halo-Cortana-wallpaper
Even the Asari from Mass Effect were this shamelessly objectified. So they’re releasing that to the public, and most of the people testing her are in the 18-32 range. So about my age, only without all of my class, charm and fucking self restraint.

So a non-trivial portion of my day is now spent listening to what people would do to the voice on their phone if she were a real woman. And then I have to faithfully dictate those remarks. She’s just a voice on the phone at this point, I shudder to think what will happen when they actually create a hologram of her. Let’s hope the holodeck comes with a self-cleaning mechanism.   And you can believe that if I had my finger on the Doomsday button, I would have pushed it by now.

But anyway between that and helping my mom move into her new place over the weekend, last week was pretty much a wash in terms of writing. So let’s just assume that was a very prolonged April Fool’s joke and move on with our lives, shall we?

On Sunday evening I carved out some time to do some writing, and started writing on my breaks/lunch at work. Here’s Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday. Now if only I could find some time to actually play Pillars of Eternity…

Josh stood up as straight as he could, trying to look as intimidating as possible. The old man at the bar laughed even harder.

“You’re the one who blew up the DuPrix Blacksmith aren’t you?” The bartender asked.

“How did you know?”

“Oh just had a feeling…” The bartender chuckled again. “No wonder that stick o’ a girl Annabelle was able to lay you out. I’ve buried corpses with more fight than you.”

“She didn’t lay me out! I fell over!” Josh said.

“BAHAHAHA!” The bartender roared with laughter.

He took out a brown glass and poured a clear liquid into it, filling it to the brim.

“Here, on me.” The bartender grinned.

“Why?” Josh asked, eye balling the ugly glass as if afraid the contents might erupt from it.

“Cause that drunken bastard went and died before paying his tab and watching his shop burning down did my soul good.”

Josh smiled, picking up the sickly brown glass and holding it to his lips. He hoped it was simply poorly made glass rather than filthy as he let the liquid pour down his throat.

Josh dropped like a stone, he was huffing and puffing like a woman in labor with every breath, and each of those breaths were agony against his scorched throat.

“Acid…” Josh coughed. He’d been poisoned! He was sure of it.

“How ’bout that bite, eh boy?” The bartender laughed. “That’ll put some hairs on that yankee chest!”

“You…” Josh rasped accusingly. but the curse was driven out of him as the alcohol hit his stomach. “God save me…”

“Get up!” Tommy said, pulling Josh to his feet. The entire bar was now rattling with laughter. “You’re embarrassing yourself!”

“Fuck you… try some of that poison and tell me I’m embarrassing myself!”

Soon Tommy too was leaning against the bar, his coughing causing his entire body to heave and shudder

“Don’t you have anything a bit…weaker?” Tommy rasped.

“This ain’t one of those fancy drinking dens like you’re used to back in Naw Yorhk. I’m all out of your watered down yankee swill. You want some of those why don’t you go outside and piss in each other’s mouths!” The bartender scowled. “Now either buy another round or get the fuck out of my bar.”

One of the drunk soldiers came sidling up to them, wrapping his lanky arms around their shoulders. The long hairy knuckled hand crept down Josh’s shoulder like a tarantula, and he shuddered as he noticed the man’s pinky and half his ring finger were missing.

“Lookie here, boys. I came ‘ere to get drunk off me ass and you two are pissing off the man with the magic elixir. Now buy yourselves a couple of drinks or me and my boys will shatter every bone in your body.

Josh and Tommy slid a few coins across the makeshift bar and watched as the pungent liquid poured into their glasses…

Once Josh’s mouth and throat were completely numb, the moonshine really wasn’t all that bad.

“Aghnoffer” Josh said, his numb lips struggling and failing to form a T-sound.

“That’s the spirit.” The bartender said.

“Sooo you owe me…blowing up the Blassith’s hoose”

“I owe you nothin’ yank.” The bartender said with a scowl. “But at least you brought Annabelle DuPrix down a few notches.”

“Annahhbellll Duppeee? Whooose ‘sat?”

“The girl who laid you out today. Was her pappy’s shop you done blown up.”

“What!?” Josh said, half a mouthful of liquor burning its way down his chin. “I blew up her father’s shop?”

Josh momentarily emerged from the fog of bewilderment he’d been smothered in ever since that first drink.

“I shoullh go apolgiees righhh nowww.”

“I wouldn’t if I were you. She damn near killed you last time.”

“She did not, I fell over!”

 

Analysis: 

Well this was fun. You know going back over these last few weeks and the story I’ve written, I can see it becoming a good story. I’ve read a lot of theories about writing and one of the most common ones is that you should just write your first draft. Like Sean Connery said in Finding Forrester, the first key to writing is to write. I’ve never actually written a full first draft without any editing at all, I always edit as I go.

“Well is there a better way to say this?” I say to myself, and the answer is always yes. For instance when Josh notices the man’s fingers missing, I just state the fact his fingers are missing. I tell instead of show.

“The man’s pinky and ring fingers ended in shriveled, blackened nubs.” Might have been a more descriptive turn of phrase.

And yet if I were editing as I go, I might have spent ten fifteen minutes just trying to figure out what to do with that sentence. Agonizing over every little detail.

Same with the historical accuracy, I have a feeling I’ve got a lot of anachronistic elements in this story. Yet I’ve written far more on this story than I have with my story about World War I and the Warsaw Uprising of 1945, both of which I did exhaustive research on. I still have stacks of notes for a story I haven’t actually written yet. Now I’m thinking I’ll start writing those stories, and ignore the notes until the 2nd draft.

And hand writing it has really helped with the urge to edit while I write, because I hate writing by hand. 

“Oh, I used the wrong version of their in that sentence. Well too fucking bad, I ain’t going back to fix it! This is pen is a runaway bulldozer, we only go in one direction!” Is what I say to myself. You see I have terrible fine motor control, so the effort of making the text legible for even me is pretty considerable. So I write the important parts of the story and move on, I’ll describe the bar when I can retreat to a computer!

Yes I’m still a bit embarrassed about the quality of the story so far, but when I went back over what I’d written on Sunday, I saw the really cool story that’s hiding under the mess. I’m kind of excited to finish this project now, just so I can go back and post an edited version to compare and contrast the two versions.

The Great Left-Handed Writing Experiment: Days 5-8

So I’ve fallen a bit behind on my writing experiment. I’m starting a new job next week, I’m currently playing Pillars of Eternity so I can review it, and my parent’s are moving into a new house. So there’s a lot of stuff going on.

But mostly I’ve fallen behind because I’m just embarrassed by what I’m writing here. This was a terrible idea. I’m thinking of titling this “Life sucks and everything is terrible” in honor of how bad this story is getting.

Yet that was the point of this exercise, to put something so embarrassingly horrible out there that publishing other work I’ve done seems brilliant by comparison. So without further ado here it is:

Annabelle launched herself at the cackling former slave, slamming into Beth’s midsection. The pair of went tumbling into the road, beth began pulling at Annabelle’s hair. All along the row of the houses, people come out to watch the girl’s tumbling through the street.

“Hey, get off her!”

Suddenly a hand was clutching Beth’s hair like a leash, using it to viciously yank her off Annabelle. Beth found herself hanging in the air by her hair, tears stinging her eyes as searing pain radiated across her scalp.

“Lemme go you somabitch!” Beth hissed, grasping at the massive calloused hands holding her up. Max von Krieger spat in the girl’s face, making her squeal.

“Thank you Max!” Annabelle said. The hulking man grunted, smiling down at Annabelle. At leas Max’s version of a smile, the right side of his face was twisted with scars and the dead milky white of his right eye stood in stark contrast to the brown of his left.

“Whatcha think y’all doing?”

Annabelle whipped around to see a half dozen former slaves strolling down the street.

“Put her down, ain’t slaves no more. Ye can’t treat us like that anymore.”

The leader of the group said, a man  in his forties said, his skin so black Annabelle mistook him for a shadow.

“Your girl here attacked Ms. DuPrix.” Max said.

“I believe ya, she always done had more fire than sense.” The man said, “And I promise ya, sir, she will be disciplined. But by us, in our own way.”

Max stared at teh girl, to the man, and back again.

“I’d hate to be bothering them boys in blue over this. So why don’t you just let her go?”

Max grumbled and tossed the girl into the man’s arms.

“Ya somabitch!” Beth wailed, running her hands through her hair, making sure it was still attached. “I’ll kill ya! Ya hear me!? I’ll kill-”

Beth was suddenly silenced by the man as he cuffed her over the back of the head.

“Be quiet ya fool girl, you made enough trouble for one day.”

The group surrounded the crying girl and quickly left the area.

 

Josh began dry heaing again as the stink from the latrine pit struck him again. It was like being punched in the face by God Almighty himself!

“Sweet Mary,” Josh said, struggling to cross himself while still retching, “Whatever Sin I committed to deserve this, I ask you, just strike me down for it next time.”

Josh resumed shoveling dirt back into the hole, his stomach turning over as the putrid mix of piss and shit swallowed each shovel full of dirt with a disgusting wet gurgling. Fortunately this was the last one he had to fill.

“So I guess you learned mouthing off at your commanding officer isn’t such a good idea, eh?” Tommy Lancaster said, taking a long leisurely drag on the cigarette hanging from his mouth.

“You shut your damn mouth.” Josh said to his loader. “You wanted to christen Bellowing Bertha just as much as I did, but I’m the one who got latrine duty.”

“YOu didn’t get latrine duty for that, you got latrine because you never learned when to keep your mouth shut. ‘Sides, I didn’t say to blow up a house, you were supposed to aim for the tree line!”

“I did!” Josh said, pounding down the dirt with his shovel, as if afraid the latrine would come oozing out after him.

“Well thank God the war is over if that’s how you aim.” Tommy laughed.

“Did you want something or you just here to gloat?”

“Sorry there Josh!” Tommy chuckled, raising his hands in surrender. “Just having some fun. I just got tired of patrolling the streets. Not like anythings gonna happen here. Only thing left here are old men, women and their slaves. Don’t know why we’re even down here now, just ship us home.

“So much for killing a regiment each, eh?”

 

“Yeah come on, there is one good thing left in this town – a saloon.”

It was still early afternoon but it wasn’t much like there was much else to do and Josh wasn’t exactly eager to get new orders.

The pair went strolling into town following the winding dirt road until finally they finally came to an old run down building that had “salone” painted across the door that was barely hanging onto its hinges.

They stepped inside to see it was filled with three dozen other soldiers in various states of drunkenness.

“Heheh” The bartender, an old man with a beard’s worth of hair sprouting from his ears, chuckled as Josh stepped up to a slab of wood nailed into the wall.

“Something funny friend” Josh asked, sitting up straight and trying to look as intimidating as possible. The bartender only laughed harder.

The Great Left-Handed Story Experiment: Days 3 and 4

So yesterday I missed a day, but here are days 3 and 4! And it gets dark this time:

20150323_183245 20150323_183253 20150323_183259 20150323_192158

 The girl emerged  from the building, her face nearly black from the soot. Her eyes were even redder than before, two strips of of clean white skin carving through the filth on her cheeks. In her hands was a twisted piece of blackened metal. She cradled it to her chest for a few moments before storming down the hill towards town.

“Stop!” Josh called after her. “You can’t take that!”

The girl vanished as the crowd swallowed her up.

 

“Yeh had one job, you sorry bastard! Is your head so full of shite there’s no room for my orders? Is that it, McKinney?!” Lieutenant O’Bannon screamed, his breath so ripe with alcohol that a match would have caused the man’s teeth to explode out of his mouth like a hail of grapeshot. Josh smirked at the thought.

“Did I say something funny yeh dimwitted son of a whore’s chamberpot?!”

“No Sir!”

“That’s the first intelligent thing I’ve heard you say since I had the misfortune of meeting your sorry ass!”

“Sir if you would all me, I’ll arrest her immediately and -”

“Arrest her for what you slackjawed bespewing gnobmoucher!” He screamed again. The lieutenant was so close that Josh could see that dangly thing at the back of the throat whipping around like a fish out of water. “The only thing the girl did was correctly assume the scrawny, arsefaced soldier in front of her had less of a spine than the snails on her porch!”

“Well they do have that hard shell.”

The lieutenant looked at him, mouth agape. The only thing moving was the lower lid of his bulging right eye, which was rapidly twitching like a rattlesnake’s tail…

 

Annabelle DuPrix sat on the stairs of her house, stooped over the charred bit of metal she’d rescued.

“Ya enjoying your inheritance thar, Miss DuPrix?” A cackling voice called out. She looked over to see a young black girl leaning against the far railing. She flashed a smile of chipped, yellow-brown teeth.

“Git outta here, Beth!” Annabelle spat.

“Nuh-uh,” Beth said, still smiling her toothy grin. “Don’t take orders from white people no more!”

Annabelle’s nails cut into her palms as her fists clenched shut. A few short years ago Beth had been their house slave, and Annabelle would have had her daddy whip her good for such impudence.

“This is still private property and I demand you leave!” Annabelle said.

“And who’s gonna make me?”

 

Analysis: 

Well what the fuck Left-hand. This was turning into a perfectly lovely little romance, and you went and bucked all the current trends by actually making the girl a slave-owner. Seriously.

An interesting turn, since most stories taking place in the deep south and featuring a southern protagonist end up ignoring the whole slave thing. So this could either be extremely cool, or turn so dark and horrible that it literally scars my psyche.

Let’s find out tomorrow shall we!

50 Shades of Calm the Hell Down

I’m still working on my follow up articles to Planescape Torment, and I think you’ll all be pleased. But I’m also exhausted. Trying to describe all the different aspects of Planescape is like diving into the ocean. It’s so deep and vast, it’s a challenge to even know where to begin. So I took a brief break to dive into a thimble to clear my head.

thimble
If this wasn’t a metaphor I’d have one hell of a circus act.

 

Let’s talk about Fifty Shades of Grey.

Is it Really That Bad?

Fifty Shades of Grey

 

If you’ve been alive and on the internet any time in the past year, you’ve no doubt heard of Fifty Shades of Grey. It’s sold 100 million copies and has been decried as the worst book ever written and a shameless smut peddling disgrace to literature. People have accused it of glorifying an abusive relationship, trying to recruit people into the BDSM lifestyle and trying to demonize the BDSM lifestyle. Kind of like that episode of Parks and Recreation where people object to Twilight as being both too Christian and not Christian enough. So with all this media attention I began to wonder:

Is it really that bad? 

Two weeks ago I began reading Fifty Shades in order to answer that question. And since I’m obviously not the target demographic for this novel, I asked my friend Hali to assist me.

Forget all that taking a bullet crap, a real friend is one who will read a bad book for you.
Forget all that taking a bullet crap, a real friend is one who will read a bad book for you.

What we both agreed was that the first 100-150 pages of this book are some of the worst stuff ever written. First of all the beginning is utter trash, it starts out with Anastasia (no really, that’s her name) getting ready to interview Mr. Grey. No getting to know who this girl is, no characterization at all. Which might be a good thing because the author clearly doesn’t know how to characterize. Or anything else about writing really.

Show don’t tell is a pretty important rule in good writing, but here’s how Mr. Grey is first introduced to us:

“…as an exceptional entrepreneur and major benefactor of our university…”

Come on, E. L. James, that’s just fucking lazy. There were so many different ways you could do this:

Mr Grey was worth 500 million dollars, was featured in Forbes’ 30 under 30 list, and the University’s library was named after him. 

Seriously, not that hard, lady.
Seriously, not that hard, lady.

See how easy that was? Details are the key to a good story, and Fifty Shades rarely gives you any kind of detail about characters, places or really any details outside of a sex scene. For instance it plays up Ana as a lover of “British Classics.”

How does the book tell you Ana is a lover of classic British authors? By telling you she loves classic British books. Not a single title or author is even mentioned, but the fact she loves British books is repeated over and over again.

“See!?” The book seems to say “She’s a nerdy girl! She likes books! She doesn’t know the name or author of these books, but she loves them!”

When the name Thomas Hardy is finally dropped we’re nearly 1/3 of the way through the book, and it’s only mentioned so Mr. Grey can buy her expensive first editions of his books. What’s really galling about this is that E. L. James is British, she should have known at least one British author to mention. In fact, forget the fact she’s British, who the hell hasn’t heard of Dickens? He’s the epitome of the English Classic.

"Tell me more about how you want to dirty my name putting it in Fifty Shades of Grey."  "I'm so sorry, Mr. Dickens..."
“Tell me more about how you want to dirty my name putting it in Fifty Shades of Grey.”
“I’m so sorry, Mr. Dickens…”

Of course when she does add detail they’re usually either straight up wrong or just bizarre.

For instance when Ana sets off to interview Mr. Grey:

“The roads are clear as I set off toward Portland and the I-5. It’s early and I don’t have to be in Seattle till 2.

Well it’s good you don’t have to be in Seattle till 2 but you’re going the wrong way. 

Wrong Way

Portland is south of Vancouver, Seattle is North. Now even if I wasn’t a native of the area, if I’m writing about an area I don’t know about I at least do some research. That Google Map search took 10 seconds. Now maybe Ana was going to Portland to do some shopping or something, its like a 10 minute drive to get from one city to the other, but if that’s the case it’s never mentioned! 

Then there are the other bewildering details she adds, like Grey’s building being made of “Glass and Stone”. Glass okay, but stone? Is this building in Minas Tirith? Concrete, yes; steel, yes; but stone?

And then there’s the floor of Grey’s office, which is sandstone. As in it’s colored sandstone or it’s literally sandstone? We’ll never know because she doesn’t elaborate.

Falling on that would have left Ana with some seriously scrapped knees.
Falling on that would have left Ana with some seriously scrapped knees.

Then of course there’s the fact that everyone still talks like they’re in the Author’s native land of England.

“He sounds quite taken with you!” Her friend Katherine says to her. Now I use verbal communication so infrequently that I’m pretty sure I’m a telepath, but that is a phrase I’ve never heard an American say. The dialogue is filled with people using British vernacular when they’re all supposedly home grown Americans. At one point Ana says that Mr. Grey “utters an oath.” Which is the fancy British tea-and-crumpets way of saying he swore.

All that said, once you get past the horrible opening third of the book, the rest of it isn’t so bad. I mean yes it is bad, but it’s interesting enough to keep reading and it’s by no means the worst thing I’ve ever read. And once you get into the mystery of why Grey is such a fucked up control freak, you do get genuinely interested in how he became that way.

But enough about all that, I know what all you perverts really want to know: the sex. Is the sex as weird and freaky as everyone is making it out to be?

No, not really. It was frankly a bit disappointing. It felt a lot like reading the reviews of Dragon Age: Inquisition, it was a lot of hype for a pretty mediocre title. Similarly, the build up and hype surrounding 50 Shades made me think it was going to be strange and/or hideous.  The reality…it was just another trashy romance novel with some kinky stuff thrown in.

In fact most of the sex scenes are just straight up “vanilla sex,” as Christian Grey would say. Their first encounter is entirely just plain old sex, and 19-year-old Virgin Ana has multiple orgasms on her first try because Christian Grey is just so good at sexing, you guys. He doesn’t have an Adonis-like physique for nothing! (No, really she literally describes him as an Adonis at one point.)

Adonis_Mazarin_Louvre_MR239_n3
For reference, this is a statue of Adonis and I look more like Adonis than the way Grey is described. Totally unrelated note: I’m single ladies!

The sex scenes are ridiculously common and incredibly ludicrous depictions of sex. My friend Hali, who has a PHD in Sexology (IE she has had sex) tells me that Ana having multiple orgasms her first few times having sex is a fantasy on par with a Unicorn eating ice cream from a Yeti. And they have sex so often that I’m pretty sure the friction alone would have left made both sets of genitals slough off and leaving them with Ken doll style amorphous mounds.

But that’s the fantasy that sells these books I suppose. Yet that’s about as shocking as these scenes get, just the sheer amount of sex.

The “infamous” tampon scene was one of the most disappointing in the whole book. Apparently people are pissed off that the movie didn’t include this scene. So after hearing so much about it, I thought Christian Grey would use the bloody tampon to write obscene words in her own blood. Or maybe, given this book’s origin as a Twilight fan-fiction piece, he’d start sucking on it like fucking Nosferatu.

You know what happens? Better brace yourself, cause this is gonna just blow you away.

He takes the tampon out…

And then he throws it in the toilet.

Then they have sex. That’s it. That’s the big, scary, taboo subject that the director was too afraid to show and people are pissed off at its absence. That’s nothing!

Breaking News: A dude still wants to have sex with his girlfriend even though she’s on her period, because like most dudes he’s a horndog who would have sex in a landfill if it came down to it. 

Is that supposed to be kinky or something? The fact that she’s on her period and he wants to have sex anyway is somehow…weird?

What!? A man sees a standard physiological process as normal, and doesn't give a shit? INSANITY!
What!? A man sees a standard physiological process as normal, and doesn’t give a shit? INSANITY!

Maybe this is getting into the too much information department, but I wouldn’t have a problem having sex with a girl on her period. Sure there’s gonna be some extra clean up, but holy shit you guys, grow up. We’re all a bunch of filth-beasts rubbing our filthiest parts together in a filthy display of filth because it feels good. If a little extra filth ruins it for you…well go back to being the obsessively compulsive germaphobe everyone hates.

I’d imagine that the girl would have a bigger issue than the guy when it came to sex during a period, because they’re going through all the cramps and hormone shifts.

I suppose that so many people saw this scene as “shocking” or “gross” indicates how archaic our views on female sexuality are, but otherwise there’s nothing special about this scene.

And England already pointed out that flaw in our society. Thanks England!
And England already pointed out that flaw in our society. Thanks England!

The other scenes include a hand spanking, a leather-pleated riding crop, and a belt. And other than the final scene with the belt, none of these scenes come close to pushing any boundaries or shocking me. And the belt scene was only interesting because of her emotional reaction to it, not any of the action itself. Those 100 million people who bought this thing must have lived really sheltered lives.

So the writing is bad, but isn’t the worst thing I’ve read. The sex scenes are tame and relatively uninteresting. The only thing left is the controversy of “Is this an abusive relationship?”

I’ve read a lot of articles on whether the relationship depicted is abusive, and most of them fall on the side of “yes.”

And I have to say I have no idea where they’re coming from, and I think some didn’t even read the book before coming to that conclusion. Most of them focus on the “Fuck Contract” as people have taken to calling it, but she never actually signs it and in fact most of the book is her thinking about it and negotiating with Christian over certain aspects.

Here’s how the CDC describes Domestic Violence.

"Hey gang, let's go into this CDC headquarters building where there is only ONE scientist alive."
“In case of abusive spouse, please promptly bash their heads in  and turn them in at the nearest CDC facility for disposal.”

I can tell you that NONE of those things happen in the book, and while I admittedly haven’t inflicted the movie version on myself yet, I can’t imagine they’d add anything to change my mind. Here’s how my friend Hali weighed in on the situation:

“I read a few commentary things before reading the book, and there was plenty of information claiming that Ana was being taken advantage of, or like the next question- she was in an abusive relationship / involved in a domestic violence situation. I really didn’t take that away from the actual book at all. Most of the time she stood up for herself and she wasn’t afraid to make fun of Christian or call him out on being a control freak. So I don’t think she had self-esteem issues. Maybe she didn’t think she was that great looking, but most girls are critical of their looks. Also, Christian was very upfront about what they would be doing and she always had a say in the sexual stuff as well as asking him for “more”.

So I don’t think the relationship could be considered abusive. There were no classic signs of abuse, like belittling or trying to isolate her from friends and family. If anything, he increased her confidence and encouraged her to visit family. Yeah, he was asking her to step way outside her comfort zone and try a relationship that probably wouldn’t end up being the normal boyfriend/girlfriend relationship that she had imagined, but he was being honest and open about what that meant.”

Exactly, in fact at one point Christian even tells Ana straight up front that she has all the power in their relationship. All of this controversy is just Much Ado About Nothin’.

By the way, Shakespeare had way freakier sex going on in his plays than Fifty Shades does.
By the way, Shakespeare had way freakier sex going on in his plays than Fifty Shades does.

None of that is to say I think this is a healthy relationship, to me it reminded me of a high school romance or Romeo and Juliette. They’re just so caught up in their emotions and, more importantly, hormones that they can’t just settle down and talk like rational adults. Every time they try to have a serious conversation about their relationship, it immediately devolves into sex. So yes, this relationship might result in a double suicide at some point, but not because it’s abusive.

They’re just idiots. 

So is Fifty Shades of Grey That Bad?

Verdict: No

Is it a literary masterpiece? Good god no.

Is it a good book? Ehhhh, not really, but it can be enjoyable in places.

Is it the worst book to ever exist? Not by a long shot.

Not as long as Ayn Rand's books still exist.
Not as long as Ayn Rand’s books still exist.

The only reason I think this book became so popular was because of the controversy surrounding it. And that controversy itself is so painfully shallow that there’s a no-diving sign over it.

Is it trying to recruit people into BDSM? If it is, it did a shit job because it made the whole thing look so fucking boring. Seriously there’s a good 3 or 4 pages dedicated to that stupid contract.

So really, everyone needs to calm the hell down about this book and movie. People enjoy trashy things like this, don’t judge them. Some of you reading this have probably seen all 7 SAW movies, and they’re utterly terrible on almost every level. I know a lot of my readers watch Walking Dead, and you KNOW you’ve seen some pretty bad writing there, don’t even try to deny it.

So everyone calm the hell down and concentrate on what’s really important.

WritersBlock
Like giving me money. Come on, give me your money! Please?

 

The Great Left-Handed Story Experiment: Day 2

Today I got to do some writing while enjoying the company of some dogs that came to the park to play.

20150321_165748

 

I said good afternoon to the man, who said “Tax season is coming up, eh?”

Is…is that a normal response to “good afternoon?” Or have I been so reclusive I’ve forgotten how to interact with people? Do…Do I start talking about taxes with everyone I meet? Should I give people a copy of TurboTax?

Anyway, on to today’s experiment:

20150321_171610

20150321_171616

20150321_171619

 

-Saw a young woman pounding her way across the dirt road towards him. Her shaggy brown hair was plastered to her face but he could see her blood-shot eyes glaring at him, like the flashing eyes of a cat hiding beneath a dark porch.

What the hell was this girl doing?

“Stand back ma’am!” Josh said, standing up straight. Unfortunately his boot was still tangled up in the horse shoe, which went sliding across the ash. He stood on one leg for a moment, his arms flailing like a drunken windmill. Then he planted himself face first in the dirt, within kissing distance of the girl’s bare feet. Well, not entirely bare, half a shoe sole was tied to each foot by strips of light blue fabric.

“What a sorry state of affairs that we lost to Yankees like you!” She spat, using her big toe to flick a pebble into his face.

The girl went into the blacksmith’s shop, ducking beneath the partially collapsed roof and disappearing into the mess of shattered wooden planks and smoldering ash.

“You can’t be in there!” He said, scrambling to his feet.

“The Hell I can’t!” The girl yelled back.

A crowd of people burst out laughing, which had gathered to watch the spectacle!

 

Analysis: 

Okay the guy might be a dick, and an incompetent dick at that, but this girl is pretty awesome. My left hand is apparently a fan of Gone with the Wind, because it’s channeling Scarlette O’Hara, which is weird since it’s been like 5+ years since I’ve read the book or seen the movie. Anyway I like her attitude, she doesn’t take shit from anyone.

I still have no idea where this is going, which is a strange sensation really. Usually I have a rough idea of the story and while I’m getting the impression this is going to be a romance, because obviously, I don’t know when or why or how. This is a really freeing exercise, not having to worry about if it’s any good or if the story is going anywhere.

It might suck in the end, but I like where it’s going so far.

Hopefully my left hand finds out what this girl’s name is tomorrow.

The Great Left-Handed Story Experiment Day One

I met with a friend for coffee today and he had an idea for a really cool experiment: sit down with a pen and paper, and write a story using my left hand. The idea being that forcing myself to use my off hand will cause the neglected side of my brain to write a story, which might result in something different than what I usually write. For 30 days I’m going to write 200 words using my left hand and see what happens.

Why!? Sweet God, WHY!?

Well because I have some stories written that I’ve shared with only a select few. I’ve only ever tried to publish one story, which was quite correctly rejected, and if I’m ever going to make it as a writer I need to get over the fear of people seeing errors in my work.  So I’m also writing this totally uncensored. Normally when I write I sort of edit while I go, changing words and reorganizing paragraphs. This is going to be one long continuous writing exercise, crossing out words only when they’re so illegibly written that even I can’t identify them.

It’s obviously not a full story yet, and I have no idea where it’s going but looks like its gonna be a romantic story so far. Which is already unusual because I don’t normally write romance, since there’s that whole “write what you know” rule about writing and I know about as much about romance as I do theoretical physics.

We can smack aliens in the face with a crowbar
Theoretical physics involves hitting things with a crowbar right? 

This is also a small and easy project, 200 words a day will be a piece of cake. It will also be an interesting experiment into our weird two-brained minds.

Most importantly though it’ll get me over my constant fear of being outed as a terrible writer. By putting this story out there without any editing (aside from fixing spelling mistakes), I’m showing the worst and most raw story that I can possibly create. It’s like getting over a fear of public speaking by giving your first speech naked, once you’ve experienced the absolute worst case scenario, everything else is a breeze.

Is this a terrible idea?

Let’s find out! 

20150320_122119 20150320_122110 20150320_122126

As you can see I’m pioneering a whole new form of language that combines English print, cursive, hieroglyphics and Sanskrit into an indecipherable mess. For those of you unable to read my genius, here it is in standard readable English.

It began, as it always does, in a small town in Alabama. The Confederates had just lost their civil war and now the town of Huntsville was trying to pick up the pieces.

Josh McKinney sucked the sweet tobacco flavored smoke into his lungs as he leaned against the blackened wall of the Blacksmith’s house. He gently nudged an old rusted horse shoe. It was warped and twisted, and as he pushed it though the grey ash that covered the ground, he wondered if the fire from his cannon had melted it or if the Rebs were too stupid to shape a horse shoe.

McKinney and his battery had gotten a reprimand from their CO for using the old Blacksmith’s shop for target practice, but it had been worth it. He had just graduated artillery school when the Rebs had up and surrendered.

Now all head to fight were the mosquitoes that circled around anything with a pulse like a horde of vultures.

“Why’d anyone live in this God forsaken place?” He said, grinding out the burning cigarette butt  under his shiny black union-army- issued boots.

“Because this is the most beautiful land on God’s Green Earth.”

Josh looked and saw

 

Analysis

This was fascinating to read again as I was transcribing it here. First of all the people who have read my writing tell me I’m very good at describing things, and yet here I don’t describe anything aside from the horse shoe.

I also used the passive voice a lot, which isn’t really a good thing, but interesting none the less since I try to limit that in my stories. Most interesting though is Josh McKinney, who is definitely not the type of protagonist I usually use. He blew up a blacksmith’s house (or shop, because apparently I can’t keep details straight when I’m using my left hand) just so he could fire a cannon. He’s a dick.

So the one question I have is this:

Is this actually something that’s happening because I’m using a different part of my brain? Or is it placebo effect from thinking that’s how this should work?

I have no idea, but hopefully by the end of this 30 day project I will have an answer. And hopefully a story to show for it. You can expect daily updates on this, in addition to my normal articles.

Speaking of which, tomorrow I’ll premier the first of a series of new articles called “Is It Really That Bad?” and it’s going to be on Fifty Shades of Grey. So, don’t miss that, because you know it’s going to be bad.

 

Planescape Torment: What can Change the Nature of a Man?

There’s only one thing that scares me more than the thought of dying: the thought of living forever.That’s the fear that Planescape Torment explores with such subtle beauty and elegance that my fundamental understanding of what video games can accomplish has been completely rewritten. I knew this game was considered legendarily good before going in, but somehow I just didn’t think a game from 1999 could possibly live up to the hype. Surely it was nostalgia warping people’s perception of the game.

I didn’t play this game when it came out, and I’m actually glad I didn’t. I really doubt that the 11-year-old me would have had the patience for a game with so many words, and he certainly wouldn’t have been able to understand the nuances and themes of the narrative. And I’ve very glad that my Patreon backer Erik Jensen chose this game for me to review, because it was definitely an amazing journey.

My spoiler-free review of the game is this:

Planescape Torment is the most beautifully written game I’ve ever played. It’s a story about the death, the nature of identity, and the power of regret. This game is, without exaggeration, the Citizen Kane of Video Games. It made look at myself and reevaluate my own beliefs and thought processes. 

If you’ve never played it, it’s only $10 on Good Old Games and you must absolutely play it. Don’t read my review and spoil it for yourself, because it will absolutely blow your mind.

I really struggled writing this article, because the first draft was like 10,000 words and rambled between various topics. So I’ve decided to just make this a series of articles. The first is just my initial thoughts playing the game. Follow ups will concentrate on specific characters, the setting, narrative structure and anything else I couldn’t fit in here. Seriously, I could write an entire book about everything going on in this game.

 Planescape Torment:

“What can Change the Nature of a Man?”

I think one of my greatest fears when I got the game was that it was going to be a constant parade of misery and death. After all, it’s a game about death, how could it not be a never ending march of misery?

And yet the first thing I did upon waking up on that slab in the mortuary was laugh. Out loud. A full bellied, grinning laugh.

Snorting without lungs

Having Morte be there when you wake up was a stroke of absolute genius on the part of Black Isle’s writers. You wake up cold and alone in a mortuary surrounded by walking corpses: you don’t know who you are, you don’t know where you are, and you don’t even know what the world is like outside the small room that is your current universe. Letting the player wander around aimlessly in this environment would have been terrible, because we’d have absolutely no reason to care about our character or figure out who we are. Enter Morte, a floating skull with a sharp tongue…despite not actually having a tongue.

Morte not only introduces you to the world of Planescape, but also sets the tone for the rest of the game. Yes, this is a game about depressing themes like death, betrayal and redemption but that doesn’t mean you won’t get some laughs along the way. That’s important because without that juxtaposition of humor and unspeakable horror, this would have been a real chore to play through.

Morte despite being a head without a body is actually quite useful in combat and we were both easily able to leave the Mortuary. I found myself in the city of Sigil, the city that sits in the center of the Multiverse in which Planescape takes place. It’s called the city of Doors because it links to every other plane in the Multiverse. Sigil is an absolutely amazing setting because it really does make you feel like you’re in a totally alien world.

I mean I guess Planescape would most comfortably in the Fantasy genre, but only in the loosest sense. There are no elves, no dwarfs, there’s really nothing familiar about this world at all. Some of the buildings of Sigil are made from brick and mortar, rotting after centuries of use, but others are carved from bone or bits of fabric hastily stitched together. The roads twist and turn with no discernible pattern,  strange creatures called Dabus speak only in strange symbols and constantly rework the streets into new configurations. And on every street corner is a Collector, foul scavengers that linger like vultures around the slums (known as The Hive) where they wait for the sick and dying to finally keel over so they can give them to Dustmen in exchange for a few bits of coin.

So basically it was Detroit.

Actually it's kind of scary how accurate the comparison is.
Actually it’s kind of scary how accurate the comparison is.

What I found fascinating was the fact that I felt like the city was dying because of me. As you go through the streets of Sigil you start to realize something: the Nameless One is old. Old enough that stories about The Nameless One have become part of the local mythology. And most of those stories aren’t good.

I walked into a building called the Smoldering Corpse Bar where I found, unsurprisingly,  a smoldering corpse. Except it wasn’t a corpse, it was a powerful mage named Ignus who was engulfed in flames. His flesh had been melted from his bones and yet he was alive, but trapped in a coma-like state. After asking around about him I found out that he almost burned the entire city to the ground before an alliance of mages, sorcerers and anyone with even the slightest magical ability managed to contain him, turning him into a living conduit for the element of fire.

I eventually found a way to free him, and found that he was totally insane, but during one of his lucid moments I managed to question him. It turns out I was the man who taught him magic, or rather one of my previous incarnations. This incarnation was a mage of great power, and even greater cruelty, who drove Ignus insane by torturing and tormenting him. All in the name of unlocking Ignus’s power.

ignus-smoldering

Unfortunately Ignus’s story is just one of many and as you uncover more of your past history you’ll come to understand The Nameless One’s torment. The lives you’ve ruined, the destruction you’ve caused, and the chaos wrought by your actions… your very existence is your torment. You’ve become a wound on the multiverse, one that’s begun to fester and spread, possibly threatening to unravel the whole thing.

After scouring the city of Sigil for evidence of your identity you finally come to the person who made you immortal; Ravel the Hag. I came seeking Ravel expecting some conniving schemer, like basically every other “hag” character in the history of storytelling. What I found instead however, was a sad and tormented old woman who had been waiting for so long she barely remembered why.

But after talking for a while she did finally remember: Ravel loved me, had always loved me, and had granted me immortality because she wanted to see me free. I should have been revolted at the advances of a crone with mottled grey skin, long curling green talons and grey lidless eyes. But I found it quite the romantic scene because if you look past the shallow identity of physical appearance, she was really just an enamoured girl who had waited untold millenia for you to arrive.

And this is just the first in a line of deeply humanized villains you encounter throughout the game. Eventually we had talked over everything and before I departed she asked one question:

“What can change the nature of a man?” – Ravel

Not only was I impressed by the question, I was impressed by the number of responses I could give. In fact this was something that had impressed me in through the entire game. There is a ton of dialogue in this game, and it’s all utterly fantastic. I read somewhere there’s something like 800,000 words in this game. It’s really an incredible achievement. I just needed to say that.

So out of the dozen or so answers I had available, I chose the honest option: I had no idea what can change the nature of a man.

Frustratingly Ravel didn’t give me an answer, but I’ve been thinking about that question every day since. Even after learning the answer at the end of the game, it’s still a fascinating philosophical question.

Granted, it's not a new question, but it's still damn impressive for a video game.
Granted, it’s not a new question, but it’s still damn impressive for a video game.

And Ravel, in the tradition of the finest romances, sacrifices herself to try and save you. Though you see her sacrifice in a cut scene, The Nameless One never knows the lengths that Ravel went to in order to repair the damage she caused.

Frankly I was a bit emotionally exhausted by the time I arrived in Curst, a city in the Outlands. I felt like I had just watched a Game of Thrones marathon, that’s how good the writing is. It does what all good writing does, it skips your brain entirely and speaks directly to your heart. But here I was in Curst and there was still a lot of work to be done, there was no time for rest.

I knew that my first incarnation had sought out immortality from Ravel, but Ravel couldn’t restore it. Instead I had to seek out a Deva (an Angel basically) named Trias, locked away somewhere.

To make this already long post shorter, when you free Trias from his imprisonment he tells you that you must seek out your mortality at the Fortress of Regret, whose location is only known to the Pillar of Skulls. Which is, unsurprisingly, a tower of skulls. What was disturbing is that it could speak.

Gee, that sounds like someone we know.
Gee, that sounds like someone we know.

Yes, this is where Morte came from. You see he led your first incarnation to his death by telling you a lie, and his punishment was to forever suffer among that pile of other lying skulls. Turns out your previous incarnation freed him from the pile and took Morte with him.

That’s why he was waiting for you in the Mortuary. What I thought at first was a rather convenient plot device, an easy way to introduce you to the world, turned out to have a plausible reason for its existence. He’d always been there waiting for you, guiding you when you forgot yourself. So why didn’t he reveal himself to you? Because sometimes you woke up crazy.

“One time you woke up and you were convinced I was your skull.  You spent days chasing me through the Hive before you were crushed by a horse-drawn cart.”

Well okay, hard to argue with that logic. What the Pillar of Skulls reveals is that it doesn’t know where the Fortress of Regret… but Trias does.

That lying bastard lied to me! THE LIAR!

Plus he was voiced by John DeLancie, and I wasn't about to kill Q.
Then again he was voiced by John De Lancie so I should probably have seen that coming.

When I returned to Curst I found that it had been shifted into the prison plane of Carceri. Trias the Betrayer had bargained with the lords of the Lower Planes to deliver Curst to them and open the way for their demon hordes to attack the Upper Planes directly. Why? Because his superiors were secretly arming both sides of the Blood War so that the demons wouldn’t turn their sights on the heavens. Trias believed they should attack now while the demons are divided, and hoped to force the Devas into conflict.

In the end I forgave Trias, not because I condoned what he did, but because after everything my past incarnations had done who was I to pass judgement? And as I urged him to go to his people and beg their forgiveness I was reminded of a line from Dragon Age Origins:

“I am the Penitent Sinner, who shows mercy in the hopes that mercy will be shown to him.” Dragon Age: Origins, Temple of Sacred Ashes.

And in showing mercy to Trias I had hoped that the powers-that-be that ruled the Multiverse would show mercy to the Nameless One.

Come on, look at how ugly he is. Don't you think he's been punished enough?
Come on, look at how ugly he is. Don’t you think he’s been punished enough?

Which leads us to the finale of the game. Trias reveals that the entrance to the Fortress is back in the Mortuary, a stone’s throw from where you woke up. The Nameless One’s entire life has been a long unending circle that’s never been allowed to close, so I found really thematically fitting. It ends where it all begins.

When you finally arrive at the Fortress of Regret you’re forced to fight your way through the Shadows that have hunted you through the game. It’s here Deionarra, a girl who a previous incarnation got killed specifically so she could serve as a scout, reveals the nature of the Shadows that have been hunting you.

Death cannot be avoided, it can only be deferred. Every death you suffered meant some innocent person somewhere else died in your place. The Shadows are the souls of those people, trapped here in the Fortress of Regrets, unable to rest. Quite frankly I thought this was the most horrifying thing I could possibly imagine. That’s when I met the only other soul more tormented than those that died.

Your soul.

He calls himself the Transcendent one, but he’s simply tormented. Your mortality has experienced the sum of all the rage and hate and fear and pain that had tormented you through the thousands, possibly tens of thousands of years you’ve existed. He brags that this means he has all of the skills you’ve ever accumulated, the spells of the sadistic Mage, the killer instinct (and possibly the insanity) of the Paranoid Incarnation, and the brilliance and callousness of the Practical Incarnation, as well as all those countless others lost to history.

Yet in this boast he also reveals the reason he hates you so much; he’s been suffering all that time. Your mortality never got to forget the pain you’ve caused through your life times, the suffering you’ve wrought and the lives you’ve ruined. Your mortality remembers the face of everyone you’ve killed and he spends his entire existence locked away with the innocent but tormented souls of everyone who took your place when you died. Of course he hates you, how could he not? 

You know I'm sensing torment is a major theme here.
You know I’m sensing torment is a major theme here.

I could have fought him and forced him to return, but instead I decided to ask my mortality a question.

“What can change the nature of a man?”

Belief, I told him, belief can change the nature of a man.

Holy shit.  Planescape you have blown my mind.

I wish I had had the presence of mind to take screenshots of the whole explanation because it was one of the most thought provoking and quite frankly beautiful things I have ever read. Unfortunately I was sitting in slack jawed amazement that I was reading this in a video game and not Plato’s The Cave.

I’m going to replay the ending so I can grab the quotes, because I’m pretty sure I need to do a whole “All that Matters is the Ending” article just on this ending. Which is probably what I should have done rather than make this long rambling article that took a week to write. That’s how good this game is. So good I forgot how to organize a fucking list article.

You gotta play this game.

You know maybe if you shut up once in a while, you could actually do something right for a change.
Because clearly the people who made Dragon Age Inquisition never did.

So I finally merged with my mortality and did what was necessary: my existence ended and descended to Baator to take part in the Blood War.

The Nameless One had been running in fear of death for countless centuries. I played my Nameless One as someone filled with regret, because that was honestly how I was feeling playing this game and listening to the shit my previous incarnations had done. So I tried to do good as much as I could, but in the end I deserved to go to Baator. The damage I’d done in my previous incarnations, the damage caused by his desire to avoid death.

But I wasn’t disappointed by the ending, it was emotionally satisfying because as the Nameless One picked up a mace and walked into the Blood War to do his penance, behind him was the Rune of Torment. He walked into that maelstrom of unending war having finally left behind the torment of a life without end. Compared to the hell he’d just gone through, the punishment in Baator he’d feared so much must have paled by comparison.

And I think Grace’s words were probably ringing in his ears:

Time is not you’re enemy. Forever is.

New Format!

So I’ve just switched to a new kind of theme that should allow me to organize the site a bit better. What does everyone think?

Patreon Updates

I’m still writing my review of Planescape Torment, which should hopefully be up by next week, but in the mean time I thought I’d give my patreon backers a few updates:

First of all, thanks to Jared and John for becoming my second and third backers on Patreon. I’ve already hit my first two milestones, which means that the WordPress Wordads will soon be joining the Darkspawn in the black abyss of the deep roads and my blog will be moving to a private host instead of WordPress.com. WordPress is a great site and it’s served me well, but it does have it’s limitations. I’ve been wanting to redesign the site for years now so that readers could see and read articles in an intuitive way, where as now it’s easy to miss the fact that an article might be part of a larger series. Unfortunately to do that on WordPress requires you buying one of their Premium Themes, which are ridiculously expensive, it would be far more cost effective to move my stuff to a private server and then I can tweak the wordpress code however I like. Thanks to Eric, John and Jared I can now do just that.

I’m currently in the process of looking for a good host, so hopefully in the next few weeks I’ll be on a private server with a completely revamped website layout. In theory this shouldn’t affect you at all, the site will still be at the same URL (www.johnswritersblock.com), the switch should happen entirely in the background. However that’s just the theory, so in the case something goes terribly, terribly wrong and my site leads you to a 404 error or something similar, send me an email at j.stevenson88@gmail.com and hopefully I can get it fixed quickly.

Secondly, my Patreon now has a fancy Header graphic thanks to a terrific artist I know!

WritersBlock

 

Thanks to the outpouring of support I’ve already received, both in actual dollars and supportive messages from people who couldn’t afford to contribute, I’ve been thinking of expanding the Writer’s Block to include my own works of fiction. I’ve been reluctant to do this because, and this isn’t easy to admit, I can talk the talk but walking the walk scares the shit out of me. Yes, I love getting up on my soapbox and criticizing writers who, even if they failed, put themselves out there and tried to tell a story. As badly as I piled onto the writers of Dragon Age: Inquisition, they at least actually published a story for the world to see, and I respect that. Unfortunately because my ego is held together with chewed bubble gum and ancient mummy-wrappings I’ve always been a bit reluctant to open up myself to similar criticism.

Well no more. I already have a series of stories that will be published on http://www.fantasyrockopera.com, one of my freelance writing clients. I also have a science fiction short story that’s near to completion that I’ll be publishing.

Now only will this help me become a better writer, but I’m hoping it’ll also greatly improve my chances at finding a job in the game industry. The one thing holding me back, I think, is my lack of actual content that I created with my own fingers. The storytelling reviews and copy writing  experience on my résumé is all well and good; it shows my experience in professional settings and the ability to relay complex information to an audience, but it doesn’t really showcase my creativity. At least not in a way that would make a potential game company look at it and say “yeah, this guy could create a world for our game.” Basically I’m Gordon Freeman in Half-Life 2, I go around ripping things off the wall with a gravity gun and giggling like a maniac.

"You have destroyed so much, what is it, exactly, that you have created!?" - Pertinent Half-Life 2 quote.
“You have destroyed so much! What is it, exactly, that you have created!?” – Pertinent Half-Life 2 quote.

I’ve also recently gotten back into playing Freespace 2, one of the greatest space simulators ever made: it also happens to feature a powerful mission creator so simple even a poorly trained monkey could use it. I used to make dozens of my own campaign when the game came out in 1999, so with everything I know now and the much more powerful FRED editor provided by the Open Source Project, I should be able to create some really cool stories. Not only will this get my own stories out there, but it’ll give me a chance to experience making a story using gameplay and having to keep things like game balance and pacing in mind while creating a story. After my Planescape Torment review, I’ll be doing a review of Freespace 1 and 2 and why they did a terrific job telling their stories.

So prepare yourselves, for stories are coming. They might be bad, but they’ll be mine. So we’ll just see how this goes. My Patreon page may eventually expand to include milestones for short stories and perhaps novels at some point, but for now, just enjoy.

And support my Patreon if you can, and if you can’t, share it on Twitter and Facebook!

 

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