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:

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 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.

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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:

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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 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!

 

The Importance of Death and Failure

Well it’s been an exciting two months here. Lots of new readers who apparently all agree that Dragon Age Inquisition is perhaps the most disappointing Game of the Year in history. I’ve had my first, hopefully of many, backer on Patreon (Big thanks to Eric!) and am playing through Planescape Torment now to review the story. I’ve been playing it for about two weeks now and it’s become clear that it’s going to take a while to write a proper review of the game. The narrative is deep, the characters believable, and there are important facets of the game’s multilayer, in media res, checkovian, greek-tragedy style storyline that must be analyzed and meticulously um…analyzed to um… provide maximum reviewyness.

You’re… you’re not buying it are you?

Okay I’ll admit…

I suck at the combat!

Awaiting death should have been my character's name.
Awaiting death should have been my character’s name.

I remember classic RPGs from the 90s being hard, but after years of playing games that go out of their way to help me win, they’re almost impossible. The part of my brain that used to see games as a challenge has completely atrophied. I’ve woken up on that lonely slab so many times I consider it a close personal friend. Not to worry though, I’m sure I will eventually get the hang of playing a game that doesn’t hold my hand.

Eventually.

In the meantime, I want to talk about how refreshing it is to play a game that’s actually difficult and why difficulty is important to a game. I touched on this in my review of Dragon Age: Inquisition, the inability for the character to fail in anyway cheapened the story and completely undermined the stakes. Now I’m not going to sit here and say how much better games were back in my day…

Now that's a game!
Now that’s a game!

Games are definitely far more fun and accessible now than they were when I first started playing them in the early 90s as a kid. UI’s have been streamlined and made more intuitive, improved graphics have made it easier to actually tell what the hell your shooting at, and on the whole, writing has been greatly improved. Still, in the effort to make games appeal to wider and wider audiences, the difficulty of games has gone down dramatically.

For instance a few weeks back I played Dying Light, which is actually a pretty good game at the beginning. You’re so pitifully weak and out of shape that trying to take on more than two or three zombies at a time will either send you running for your life or screaming as they feast on your flesh. And because I felt so weak during the day, Night was an absolute nightmare. Nighttime is when the freaks come out, they’re fast, strong and utterly merciless. When you first encounter them, you have to run through the pitch black streets and try and make it home again while dozens of these monsters are tearing after you. As a complete and utter coward even in video game settings, my heart was pounding in my chest as I ran through the streets while hearing their grunting and screeching cries just behind me.

And then they caught me.

In my panic I’d run into a dead end, and I couldn’t parkour myself up the walls fast enough to escape.

maxresdefault (1)
Wait! Stop! Do over! DO OVER!

So I splashed some cold water on my face, psyched myself up and hit the continue button. This time I’d remain calm, avoid that alley, and try to stick to the rooftops.

And then suddenly I was back at the Tower, a safe zone.

And like that, all tension in the game evaporated. Your death in game has absolutely no penalty aside from the loss of XP if you die in the day time, but at night there’s no penalty at all to dying. Without that, the game loses any sense of threat or challenge because you know, no matter what you screw up or how hopeless your situation seems, you’ll wake up back in a safe location. Now I wasn’t expecting an Ironman mode where dying would result in a complete reset, that would just be annoying, but I was at least expecting the game to put me back at the beginning of the chase scene.

Death is one of the most basic and effective means to establishing the stakes of a story and creating challenging gameplay. When you take that away you better have a damn good mechanic in place to replace it, Dying Light didn’t and after that the game just didn’t have any thrill to it. Beating zombies to death with a baseball bat isn’t nearly as intimidating when you know that losing just means waking up in complete safety with ammo and health available for purchase at the nearest store. In fact sometimes when the game made me run off to remote locations to complete a quest, I’d jump off a cliff or something just so I could use the Magic Teleporter of Death to warp back into the city.

And the game only gets worse from their as you unlock abilities and weapons that allow you to take down hundreds of zombies at a time.

You see zombies, I see a crop of XP waiting to be harvested.
You see zombies, I see a crop of XP waiting to be harvested.

Allow me to compare Dying Light to the only game I feel did zombies correctly: State of Decay. Now in State of Decay you could gain experience points from killing zombies, but these didn’t unlock special abilities so much as it simply represented a character becoming more familiar with his weapons. If your character takes a baseball bat to zombies, he’ll naturally progress in melee skill. A character who runs at the mere sight of a zombie will become more athletic and able to run faster and farther. But even when all your stats are maxed out, more than a handful of zombies will ruin your day unless you have a gun with a suppressor.

More importantly, if your character dies… he dies. Though you can recover his equipment if your fast enough, death in State of Decay is permanent. And when your first character dies screaming in terror because you stupidly thought you could take on a dozen zombies, it really reinforces the stakes of the game. And when you see a character taken down by a feral and literally torn in half, through no fault of your own but bad luck, it makes the game world feel dangerous and unpredictable.

Now Dying Light has some great things going for it, it’s one of the few games where I felt like melee combat had any real weight to it. I could practically feel the impact of my blows while playing Dying Light, and its physics engine is top notch, with zombies tumbling over and picking themselves up in realistic ways. Once you play it, the zero-mass rag-dolls of yesteryear’s physics engines will seem utterly ridiculous.

crackdown2_small
You know, just in case you didn’t already think they were ridiculous.

But if you’re looking for a satisfying sense of danger and fear, Dying Light will not scratch that itch in the slightest. In fact you’ll probably find yourself doing more missions at night because you get bonus XP.  And while I’m using Dying Light as the whipping boy here, it’s only because it was the most recent example, there are plenty of other games guilty of reducing difficulty to the point where there’s no satisfaction to winning.

And I do understand why games have become easier. As a person with increasingly less and less time to actually play video games, I don’t want to have to repeat the same level four times. However, there’s streamlining the difficulty for the player’s convenience and then there’s just holding their hand the entire time, and tutting us like an irritated mother when we fuck it up. Dying Light falls distinctly into the latter category. When you die in Dying Light, the game gently soothes you, wraps you in a blanket and gives you some hot coco before placing you safely back in the game. What it should have done is tell you what a disappointment you are to them and then toss you back into the streets with the monsters.

Now some of you might be finding this stance a bit hypocritical given that Planescape Torment does pretty much the same thing. You die, you end up back in the Mortuary safe and sound. The difference is that Planescape Torment’s death mechanic makes sense in its world, and not only that, it also fits into the themes of mortality and identity. Plus I’ve heard, though not yet experienced myself, that certain powerful deities and creatures you meet in the game can Permakill you if you piss them off. That’s the key, Planescape Torment makes its death mechanic part of the story and thus it doesn’t undermine the stakes when you’re reborn.

Dying Light just teleports you to safety with no explanation and no penalty.

maxresdefault (1)
Yeah, if you could just carry me back to my room, that’d be great thanks.

My brain’s ability to deal with difficulties has been completely atrophied after years of playing games like Dying Light that go out of their way to make sure I never feel challenged. Planescape Torment, aside from having an amazing story, has reminded me just how important difficulty and the possibility of failure is to a satisfying video game. Hopefully I’ll be back soon with a full review and story breakdown of Planescape Torment.

In the meantime, I hope you’ll support my Patreon page and keep on reading the site!

The Failure of the Inquisitor

So, one last swipe at this dead horse before I leave its carcass to rot, okay? Let’s talk about one of the most disappointing aspects of Dragon Age Inquisition, the inquisitor itself. For a roleplaying game, Dragon Age Inquisition didn’t provide a lot of opportunities to play a role.

Despite being able to customize your character to an insane degree, from gender/race to which voice actor you wanted to represent your character, the ability to define that character in game was anemic at best. In fact one could argue that it was because of this extreme amount of customization that the character itself was a blank cipher. Obviously the player character is supposed to be blank so that players can project their own personalities into the game, that’s not the problem. The problem is that projecting a personality into Dragon Age Inquisition is damn near impossible.

While different dialogue choices in the game allow you to react differently to different situations, there’s no coherent structure tying those dialogue choices together. The dialogue suffers from the same problem as everything else: it’s completely isolated from the rest of the game. The only character you can play is a schizophrenic suffering from multiple personalities, because there’s no way to craft a fully realized character.

The inquisitor is an empty helmet with no way to fill it.
The inquisitor is an empty helmet with no way to fill it.

Let’s talk about Commander Shepard for a moment; as I pointed out in my Mass Effect 3 review, no matter what choices you make, Commander Shepard still has several important characteristics that are always present:

Courage

Loyalty

Perseverance 

There are several others but let’s focus on these three. As I said, these characteristics are present in every Commander Shepard, but it’s the player’s input that helps to define those characteristics. Is Commander Shepard’s courage simply conquering his fear of death and charging into danger, or does it extend to moral courage too, the ability to do what’s right even if it isn’t easy? That depends entirely on how you play the character. Shepard is courageous no matter what, otherwise Shepard wouldn’t be the last hope for humanity, but it’s the player’s choices that help to define that characteristic and make it feel real. Is Shepard Loyal to his friends or to Humanity as a whole, willing to put human interests above everything else? Does Shepard’s perseverance come from stubborn pride or righteous morality?

Every dialogue choice and every action you could take in Mass Effect helped to make Commander Shepard feel like a living, breathing person. It’s why there are dozens of Facebook fan pages and twitter accounts for Commander Shepard. It’s why people cosplay as Commander Shepard at conventions. Shepard was a fully realized character, someone we could not only project ourselves onto, but also relate with.

Now name me three characteristics for the Inquisitor…

Anyone?

Okay, let’s make it easier, is there even a single characteristic to work with?

Courage? One of the first dialogue options you can pick is trying to wiggle out of going to the Rift.

Loyalty? The inquisitor doesn’t even know any of the characters when he first arrives, and can choose to kick out almost every companion he has.

Perseverance? The inquisitor certainly does persevere through a lot, but there’s never any motivation for him to do so. He perseveres because the plot demands it, nothing more.

I wish these amazing characters had appeared in a story worth the telling.
Ugh, do I really have to collect 10 ram meat, again? This is an inquisition, not a shopping mall!

There’s a reason you’re not going to see people cosplaying the Inquisitor, and its not just because that uniform is so darn generic: it’s because he’s nothing but a uniform.  There’s no way to consistently project any characteristics onto him. And I think one of the main problems is that, once again, Inquisition needed a prologue: an opportunity to get to know our character.

Mass Effect started out with Admiral Hackett and Captain Anderson giving us a brief description of Shepard’s past, whichever one you chose, followed by an opportunity to meet some of the characters. You’re conversation with Dr. Chakwas and Ensign Redshirt (I forget his name), allows you to decide whether you’re going to play a hardnosed no-nonsense commander, or an informal commander who treats his soldiers like friends. Then you meet the Turian Spectre, and you can choose to be either diplomatic or xenophobic in your reply.

More importantly though, these choices continue to present themselves throughout the game. You can continue being xenophobic when talking with aliens, or maybe as Shepard works with Turians, Krogan, and Salarians, Shepard becomes more accepting of their cultures. Shepard can continue to be an aloof commander that keeps a discreet distance from his soldiers, or one that likes to share a drink with Garrus after a hard day’s sniping.

1764420-mass_effect_3_garrus_4_super
And if you don’t want Garrus as a drinking buddy, you have no soul.

Dragon Age Origins gives you a pretty blank character as well, but again the prologue is what allows you to get to know your character and decide how you want to play the role. If you picked the Dwarf Noble origin, are you a stuffy aristocrat who refuses to even speak to the lower castes or a rebellious heir to the throne who is disheartened at how the lower castes are treated?

The Dalish Elf, are you the curious adventurer who wants to explore that ancient ruin or the cautious voice of reason when your friend decides to investigate?

The City Elf, are you bitter and resentful at how humanity has treated your people, or do you rise above it and hope your calm resolve eventually triumphs over human arrogance?

And once again these choices can continue to be reinforced or changed during the course of the game. Elves will be continually harassed by human characters for the rest of the game, and you can react calmly or threaten to gut them. Then your actions within the game will determine whether your character is brave, cunning, cruel or compassionate.

You butcher one castle's worth of people and suddenly your the bad guy. Go figure.
Kill ‘em all.

Now let’s look at Dragon Age Inquisition. When you’re first arrested you can act like a total coward and try to talk your way out of leading Cassandra to the Rift, but later on in the game there is no option to continue playing your character as a coward. When you’ve officially been named head of the Inquisition and move to Skyhold, one of the options for your speech is “for my own power!” and yet there are no future dialogue choices that allow you to continue to playing as a power-hungry dictator in the making. Even the romances are badly designed in that there is no way to screw it up.

Romancing a character in Mass Effect or Dragon Age Origins meant picking the appropriate responses, ones that would please whoever you were romancing. If you were romancing Zevran, crude sexual innuendos and a certain amount of arrogance would get you a long way.  Try being arrogant and crude with Lelianna and you’ll lose relationship points fast. The same was true with Mass Effect, their responses to your flirtations was dependent on how you flirted and their personality.

Come Dragon Age Inquisition and this has all been replaced with a single dialogue option in the upper left of the conversation wheeled marked with a big goofy heart. You want to romance someone, just click that button and your character will take care of the rest. No need to actually get to know the characters and what they like, oh no, that’s too complicated. And sometimes if you want to romance a certain character, the Inquisitor ends up making decisions that are totally out of character for the role you’re desperately trying to play.

I was trying to play my character as a ruthless Inquisitor, willing to do anything and everything to obtain his goals. This was already difficult enough with the shizophrenic dialogue choices and lack of any meaningful input for my gameplay choices, but when I romanced Josephine all of that went straight out the window. I had to duel Josephine’s suitor to win her heart because apparently someone at Bioware had just read Romeo and Juliette before writing Dragon Age Inquisition. Was I given the option of poisoning my opponent before the duel, and thus ensure my victory? Or could I send one of Lelianna’s assassins to kill him and make it look like an accident? Could I throw honor to the wind and simply plunge my sword into my opponent’s heart?

I wanted to go Count of Monte Cristo on his ass?!
I wanted to go Count of Monte Cristo on his ass!

No I couldn’t do any of those things. My Inquisitor showed up and had a stupid duel when that would have been the last thing my character would have done, but that didn’t matter because the game just railroads you along a very specific path.

Would Josephine still have loved my character after I presented her the severed head of her former lover? No, she absolutely wouldn’t have, that would be totally out of character. She probably would have spat in my face and never spoken to me again.

But that’s what I wanted: the ability to fail.

I wanted to be able to fail to romance her. Not a stupid dialogue option that allows you to end the relationship, but a real, plausible way that our relationship could have been irrevocably broken. Instead every single romanceable character in the game will fall in love with you, just so long as you’re the correct gender and you keep pushing that Love button in every conversation. Your character will shift personalities faster than a sociopathic serial killer in order to match the desires of your love interest.

Yes I'm talking to you and your bullshit ground AoE attack!
No wonder the Envy Demon couldn’t copy the Inquisitor’s personality…he doesn’t have one.

The fact of the matter is that Dragon Age Inquisition was badly mislabeled when it was declared an RPG, because it’s impossible to play a role of any kind. The infrastructure necessary to make the Inquisitor an interesting character that feels real just isn’t there. I never felt any attachment to my Inquisitor. I’ll always remember Commander Shepard and the first Hero of Ferelden I played because they both felt like real characters.

The Inquisitor, just like the game he stars in, is utterly forgettable.

Thanks for reading and don’t forget to check out my Patreon Page! And a huge thanks to Eric for becoming my first patron, I’m already playing through Planescape Torment and hope to have the review for it soon!

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