Life is a Strange Journey

Life is Strange is an amazing story that I recently got to experience thanks to the generosity of one of my readers, Martin, who gifted me the game on Steam. The only catch? To do a review of it.

Which wasn’t much a catch, because Life is Strange is an amazing story filled with memorable characters and a unique time traveling mechanic that requires you to think outside the box to solve most of the puzzles. It’s also a game that explores important themes and shows you that life is a strange journey for all us, and sometimes we all need a little help to get through it.

Life is Strange:

A Storytelling Review 

Life is Strange Logo

Life is Strange is the story Max Caulfield as she returns to her hometown of Arcadia Bay, Oregon to attend the prestigious Blackwell Academy. It’s a game that fills its cast with typical trope characters: the bitchy popular girls, the fat loner, the crazy rich kid, and every other character you can think of. It’s beginning is a giant cliche as Max walks down a long hallway filled with students while monologuing about her life to an admittedly great song.

It lures you into making assumptions about characters and let’s you think you know where this story is heading… and then completely challenges all your expectations and turns the tropes on their head. In most adventure games, you have to explore your environment to find the solutions to the puzzles. In Life is Strange you have to explore the characters around you, talk to them, in order to find many of the solutions. It’s a game that rewards you for interacting with its NPCs, something more games need to do. And most importantly, it’s a story that makes you examine yourself just as much as the characters you meet.

I fell in love with this game less than twenty minutes in when we’re introduced to the Blackwell’s groundskeeper, Samuel. Max’s internal monologue states right up front that people find him creepy, and Max tells us that he isn’t stalker creepy, but more X-Files creepy.

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His spirit animal is a squirrel guys… this is seriously the nicest guy in the game.

Yet despite Max’s reassurances, as soon as Samuel spoke I said to myself, “oh yeah, he’s creepy as fuck.” And I hate that that was my gut reaction to him, because it says something horrible about me. It says I’m willing to judge a person based on his appearance and voice, and I don’t like that one bit. I think of myself as a tolerant and nonjudgmental person, but when confronted with someone who doesn’t conform to societal norms… I acted like a total Trump. The groundskeeper ends up being one the kindest and quite possibly wisest character in the game.

That’s when I fell in love with this game, because I think the best stories are the ones that make us look at ourselves and consider how we might act. Games have the unique advantage of actually putting us into those situations and seeing how we act. Life is Strange held a mirror up and I didn’t like what I saw in the reflection, and it made me want to change that about myself. So now when I meet someone in real life that acts or sounds like Samuel, I hope I remember the monster I saw in that reflection and treat them like Max treats Samuel; with dignity and kindness.

Which is really the theme and message of the entire game; treat everyone you meet with dignity, respect, and with the understanding that they’re all facing struggles of their own.

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Shockingly, treating people like crap doesn’t pay off for anybody.

One of the most shocking moments in the game comes when a viral video of Kate Marsh hits the internet. Kate is one of Max’s classmates, and she’s incredibly sweet. She’s a shy girl that keeps to herself, to an even greater extent than Max, and she’s very religious. As a shy person in school myself, I can attest to the fact that often times shyness is taken for arrogance. People assume you don’t hang out with them because you think you’re better than them, when in fact you don’t hang out with them because you’re afraid they don’t want you to. Combined with the fact that Kate is very religious and the rest of the students at Blackwell assume she’s an arrogant, holier-than-thou stuck up bitch.

So when a viral video pops up of Kate making out with several boys at a party, everyone is quick to pile onto the poor girl. Because now they can label Kate a hypocrite, and there’s no worse kind of bullying then self-righteous bullying. People wrote horrible messages on her dorm room panel [Will Fuck 4 Jesus being one that stuck out in my mind as being thoroughly disgusting] and posted links to the viral video everywhere they could. As Max, I did my best to erase these disgusting remarks and links, and helped Kate when I could.

But no… that’s not entirely true. One morning things were clearly coming to a head for poor Kate, she ran crying out of Mark Jefferson’s class after he refused to help her and she was keeping to herself far more than usual. Earlier that day using my time bending powers, I’d explored her room and seen terrible messages from her family about how she had disgraced them and shamed herself. I knew she was in pain, I knew she needed help.

But I was with Chloe at the time, playing with my time powers.

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Her mind went to exactly the same idea mine would if I had time powers…

So when Kate called while I was with Chloe, I chose to ignore it. After all, it’s a video game, what’s the worse that can happen?

Kate Marsh Jumps
OH
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MY
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GOD

 

This is one of the most powerful scenes in the game and an unfortunately accurate portrayal of what leads people to suicide. When Max sees Kate leap off the roof, her sudden burst of emotions freezes time its tracks, giving her enough time to reach the roof and try to talk Kate down.

I tried to reach her, I really did. Unfortunately I tend to get tunnel vision playing through a good game and rush towards resolving the main plot, skipping a lot of the optional stuff so I honestly didn’t know Kate very well when I tried talking her off that ledge. And because of that, I ended up metaphorically pushing her off that ledge. Kate felt utterly alone and because I didn’t know her well enough, I couldn’t provide the human connection she desperately needed.

And she jumped.

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I’m so sorry Kate.

What I absolutely love about this game is that it’s entirely possible to save Kate, and you don’t have to find some secret McGuffin or complete some sidequest to do it. All you have to do is invest a little time into talking with Kate and get to know her, so that when you are on the roof with her, you can show her she’s not alone. Having metaphorically been on that roof a few times in my life, I know that the most important thing in those moments is knowing someone out there cares.

And if you do manage to save Kate you meet her at the hospital, where she’s already feeling much better. Because suicide is always a spontaneous decision (with the exception of end-of-life euthanasia that is) and the reality is, the desire to die never lasts very long. It’s one of the most sensitive and accurate portrayals of suicide I’ve ever seen, and the first one I’ve seen in a video game (at least the first one that didn’t involve a zombie bite.) The game is worth it just for this sequence alone.

I found myself so invested in the characters and their relationships, I actually found the mystery plot surrounding it to be almost dull by comparison. The mystery revolves around the disappearance of Rachel Amber and the Vortex Club, where girls are getting drugged and abused (including poor Kate, which leads to the viral video). Max is also haunted by visions of a massive tornado destroying the entire town of Arcadia Bay. Honestly I think the game should have spent just a little more time on these plots, because they feel almost like afterthoughts compared to experiencing the interpersonal relationships between the characters.

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The big reveal at the end of the mystery is that Mark Jefferson, the famous photographer turned teacher, the reason Max came to Blackwell, is actually the serial killer she’s been hunting. This was a brilliant twist because it makes complete sense in hindsight. Mark Jefferson’s creepy fixation with Max’s entering his contest, the weird photographs he was famous for that were plastered across the campus, and even his personalty: his Ted Bundy like charm designed to make someone lower their guard.

Max manages to stop Mark Jefferson, but only by doing multiple warps through time and space, and by the end time itself begins to unravel. The huge tornado that Max had seen tearing through Arcadia Bay is the result of Max’s continuing use of her powers. Leading to one tragic, but ultimately inevitable decision.

Max has to return to the moment it all started… and let Chloe die, rather than change history.

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Two moons is nature’s way of saying you’ve really fucked something up.

Or you can choose to sacrifice Arcadia Bay and kill thousands, get a 30 second clip of Chloe and Max driving through town, and roll credits. I honestly have no idea why this ending is in the game, clearly the team didn’t like it since they put no effort into making it emotionally fulfilling or offering any sense of closure. Maybe this was a decision by some soulless corporate suit that wanted to appeal to a wider audience or something, I don’t know. The fact this crappy ending is in the game is almost insulting, and tarnishes an otherwise shining jewel of storytelling.

The confusing thing about Life is Strange‘s two endings is that it really didn’t need it. I hold up the first season of Telltale’s The Walking Dead as one of the finest storytelling experiences in gaming, and it didn’t need two endings. Instead Life is Strange should have done something similar to the Walking  Dead: offer a single ending but with two small but still incredibly emotional choices. The Walking Dead let you choose to let Lee turn into a zombie or have Clementine mercy kill him. Life is Strange should have had the same kind of choice, and I’m honestly surprised they didn’t offer it. It should have offered us the choice of sacrificing Chloe, which they gave us…

Or sacrificing Max.

I was expecting this option to appear and was rather shocked when it didn’t. Nathan was already so keyed up that all Max would really have to do is jump out from behind her cover and scream at him, and he would have shot her on instinct. Yes she would be changing the timeline one last time, but Max would also die, and with her, the power that was destroying time.

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Honestly I think sacrificing Max would have been the more tragic and emotional ending. Not to mention making more sense. After all I don’t think trying to save Chloe was the reason time began unraveling and created a huge tornado. It was Max’s continuing use of her powers and ripping time a new space-hole in the process. And while Chloe was indirectly the cause by forcing Max to continue saving her, Max is the real problem. Even with Chloe dead now, how long until Max uses her power again?

At several points in the storyline, Max uses her power instinctually to protect herself or others. What’s preventing that from happening again?

Still all that said, as long as you pick Sacrifice Chloe as your ending, the final act of Life is Strange is still emotionally satisfying. Would I have preferred something a bit less conventional and less of carbon copy of The Butterfly Effect? Of course. An ending that challenged my expectations just as much as the early chapters did would have made Life is Strange a narrative on par with the Telltale’s The Walking Dead, but as it is, it falls short.

Yet I have to admit that the final scenes of Life is Strange hit all the right emotional notes and provided closure to the series, which is all I really look for from an ending.

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I’ll admit, the appearance of the blue butterfly brought a few tears to my eyes…

The ending isn’t what I would have liked to see, but Life is Strange is still an amazing game filled with memorable characters and a great message we should all take to heart:

Life is a strange journey for all of us and we should all try to help each other through it as best we can. Because one day we’ll all find ourselves staring out into an unstoppable storm and when we do, we should have someone at our side…

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Even if it’s just to hold us until the very end…

 

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True Detective Season 2: What The Hell Went Wrong

True Detective’s second season finally came to an end on Sunday, brutally killing not only several characters but also any hope we had that the show would somehow redeem itself in the finale. While I didn’t quite get the transcendental experience others seemed to get watching the original season of True Detective, I still thought it was a great show with some amazing performances by McConaughey and Harrelson. So what the hell went wrong with this season?

Well let me lay out for you the mistakes that made this season of True Detective one of the most bizarre experiences in recent memory.

[Obviously spoilers are to follow, but quite frankly if you haven’t seen it, you might save yourself 8.5 hours of your time and just read this review instead.]

4. The Dialogue Was Awful

Wait...what?
Wait…what?

That up there is the closed captioning for the finale of Season 2, I turned it on specifically to make sure I was hearing what I thought I heard. Those words are spoken by Generic Russian Mob Boss #3209, A.K.A. Ossip, as Frank and Velcoro sneak up on cash exchange between Catalast [that’s not a typo by the way, that’s how it was actually spelled in the show] and the Russians, and it serves as a perfect example of how messed up the dialogue is.

What does that sentence even mean? Everything you start is unfinished, that’s why you’re starting it. The strange dialogue of season two was both a blatant attempt to recapture the magic of Rust’s poetic philosophizing and a great demonstration of how the show misunderstood its own popularity. There were several reasons why Rust’s dialogue worked in the first season, reasons that are completely absent from this season.

First of all, the dialogue was appropriate to Rust’s character, he was the perpetual outsider. The pariah who had trouble connecting with people on even the most basic level. That’s why he spoke the way he did, why he waxed philosophical at every opportunity, because it was representative of his inability to communicate with other people. To put it simply, Rust earned the right to speak like he did because it was a core part of his character.

The second reason Rust’s dialogue worked was that it was counterbalanced by Hart’s dialogue. Whenever Rust would get particularly insufferable in his nihilistic preaching, Hart would jump in with a well-timed “shut the fuck up.” Hart grounded the dialogue by not taking what Rust was saying seriously. Rust was using big words and complicated philosophies to cover the fact that he has utterly miserable and pretending that misery made him special.

Rust from True Detective
Shockingly, this is not a mentally stable person.

And the most important reason that Rust’s dialogue worked was this:

Rust was the only one who spoke like that. 

Everyone else in the first season of True Detective spoke like a normal human being, with the exception of The Yellow King, who was the foil of Rust’s character. The Yellow King was basically the Anti-Rust, an insufferable philosopher driven by faith rather than nihilism. So again, both their respective dialogues made sense in context.

In this season of True Detective, everyone is now talking like Rust and the people listening to it are taking it dead seriously, despite the fact this season features some of the goofiest lines ever spoken in a crime drama. I do not know how Vince Vaughn said “blue-balls of the heart” with a straight fucking face, but he deserves some kind of award for that. It’s sad that Vince Vaughn got saddled with a disproportionate amount of strange dialogue, because his character is the last person who should be speaking like that. Frank is a gangster who runs a bunch of casinos and whose primary duties are interacting with other people, and getting them to give him their money. He’s a people person, a negotiator. He’s not a loner or a reader of philosophy, there’s not a single thing about this character that justifies him talking like this:

WTF IS THIS NOISE
You can see more of these gems right here.

Look at that fucking sentence up there. Herman Melville would look at that sentence and say, “Dude, no. Just no.” Even the Borg speak more organically than that. Was McConaughey adlibbing all his lines last season or did True Detective simply fire the editor in charge of proofreading this crap?

Whatever the case, the only time anyone spoke like a normal human being was when the characters sat down to spew out expository dialogue in a futile attempt to help the audience make heads or tails of the plot…

3. The Plot Was Buried in Subplots

Blue Diamonds True Detective

The main plot revolved around the blue diamonds stolen by corrupt cops in 1992, in which the jewelers were brutally executed during the heist. The orphans of those jewelers then kidnapped Caspere some twenty-odd years later, originally planning to interrogate him and find out who else was responsible, before the crazy brother ended up killing him in a fit of rage.

This is not a complicated plot. Any other police procedural would have been able to tell this story in a 42 minute episode. So why the hell did we all spend two months in a near constant state of confusion over what the fuck was happening in this show?

Stan Dead...who is he again?
I still don’t know who the fuck Stan was…

Well because the plot so was simple that an episode of Castle could have covered it, True Detective season 2 needed something else to make it interesting. There were several ways to do this:

A) They could have setup some character-driven subplots, a la the first season’s subplot about Hart’s constant infidelity and the tense relationship between Hart and Rust. 

B) Solve the main mystery quickly, but that in turn leads to the uncovering of the larger criminal conspiracy at work in Vinci, and the detectives have to protect the former orphans while collecting evidence about the conspiracy. 

C) Create a few carefully crafted subplots and use them to spice up the main storyline. :

D) Take the plot of every noir crime story ever made, make them their own dedicated subplots, and throw them all into a big bowl. Mix until plot is totally incomprehensible. 

Unfortunately for us all, they chose D.

The largest and most pointless subplot was the Railway Corridor, which ended up taking approximately all of the show’s running time. Seriously, more time and effort was spent trying to uncover the mysteries of this stupid land deal than was spent on telling the actual story of the show. The worst part is that the Railway Corridor was only ever tangentially connected with the main story, the corrupt cops were hoping to use their share of the diamond heist to buy their way into the land deal. If Velcoro, Bezzerides and Woodrugh stuck with actually investigating the diamond heist, instead of wasting their time looking into the land deal, they probably would have all lived happily ever after.

Seriously guys, you had ONE job.
Seriously guys, you had ONE job.

If the story had stuck to telling us about the diamond heist and then led us into the deeper conspiracy surrounding the rail corridor, then yes, this could have worked. But instead of doing that, True Detective apparently got bored and wandered off to tell us a dozen different stories all happening at the same time.

We had a bunch of pointless scenes with Frank attempting to retain control of his clubs, even though roughly 100% of the audience didn’t have a single fuck to give about the intricacies of Frank’s operations. We even got a pointless fist fight between Frank and a fat dude with gold teeth, for reasons I still don’t understand.

We had even more scenes with Frank trying to have a baby with his wife and complaining about how hard his life as an orphan was.

Bezzerides took more than one trip to see her father, who knew some of the older conspirators in passing but the connection is ultimately meaningless.

Essentially 99% of the subplots in this season were pointless. Not only did they not advance the story, they actively held it back. The Russian mobster taking over the underworld? Pointless. He shows up three or four times, vaguely threatens Frank and then promptly dies at the end.

Wait, I'm too vital to the plot to die! *Dies* Oh, I guess not.
Wait, I’m too inconsequential to the plot to die!

The strange Mexican duo that looked like they stepped out of the 80’s? Nothing more than ethnic Deus Ex Machinas to make sure Frank died tragically. They literally only show up to advance the story (helping Frank find the Mexican prostitute), throw up obstacles (then killing the Mexican prostitute), and then putting the main character in arbitrary danger. Their presence was never explained.

Then there was the Black Mountain security company, which was alluded to throughout the season but ultimately contributed nothing but a couple of goons for the main characters to shoot at.

There was also a really strange, creepy fixation on the character’s sex lives. I understand the main theme of this season was sex (it wasn’t exactly subtle about it), but the show also doesn’t go anywhere with this. The first time we meet Bezzerides she’s having an argument with her boyfriend over her BDSM fetish, but the scene is ultimately irrelevant to the story. In fact the BDSM thing is never mentioned again.

Okay we get it, True Detective, she's kinky. Is there any point to knowing that though?
This scene is also another example of bad dialogue. “Are you into that?” Her boyfriend asks as she stands in front of her wall of BDSM sex-toys…

So instead of using this scene to give us a glimpse at her character, the whole scene just comes across as weirdly voyeuristic. The only point of this glimpse at her collection of paddles and straps is to titillate the audience. It did nothing to characterize her to the audience.

In fact there was very little characterization at all because…

2. The Characters Were Ignored

You know, I don't think all four of these actors ever ended up on the screen together at the same time.
The main characters spend so much time apart, there’s not even a photo of them in the same room together.

The main appeal of True Detective was that it was essentially an extended buddy-cop movie where the buddies actually kind of hate each other, but not really, it’s just complicated. The incredible performances of Harrelson and McConaughey combined with the unique narrative design of the flashback sequences and taped interviews with unreliable narrators made for a compelling show. The two main characters spent the entire season together, playing off each other and revealing more about their characters with every interaction.

Now compare that to season 2 where all of the main characters spend most of their time completely isolated from one another. In the start of the second episode, the state sets up a special investigative team and throws Velcoro, Bezzerides and Woodrugh together. They meet in some crappy warehouse for a couple of minutes, and then split up, never to be in the same room again until pretty much the tail-end of the show. We get some shots of Velcoro and Bezzerides driving around together, and these scenes are good. The two definitely had some chemistry together, but then the show inexplicably separates them again.

So instead of watching these characters interact and learning who they are from those interactions, we instead get to watch each character deal with their own personal issues separately. Frank dealt with his crumbling empire and his impotent balls, Velcoro was in a custody battle for his son, and Paul was desperately trying to catch a case of the Not-Gays. Bezzerides spent the first four episodes dealing with a pair of scorned lovers at work and then the last four episodes dealing with her childhood rape.

Gee, another strong female character defined by her rape story. Yeah, that never gets old.
Gee, another strong female character defined by her rape story. Yeah, that never gets old.

Even when the characters are together, they spend so much time delivering clumsy exposition that we never get any of the incredible character interactions that made the first season so memorable. When Woodrugh dies, in a goofy assassination scene straight out of a Victorian play, Velcoro and Bezzerides spend about two minutes mourning his loss before delving right back into expository dialogue about how to find the orphaned brother.

No one’s character ever experienced any kind of dramatic arc, or changed in any way, and without strongly written characters, the performances of the actors were severely ham-stringed. If they’d had a script that allowed them to act out their characters more often, rather than idly standing around explaining the plot of their show to the audience, they might have given us performances on par with Harrelson and McConaughey.

Ultimately though, they wasted most of their time explaining the show because…

1. Nothing About Anything Made Sense

Wait, why is this guy mayor? Did he like inherit it from his father?
Wait, why is this guy mayor? Did he inherit it from his father?

When you look at most of the events that occurred in this season of True Detective, you’ll come to one inescapable conclusion.

Nothing about anything ever made sense. 

The events of this show didn’t follow any kind of logic, except maybe some kind of internal logic of the writer that is incomprehensible to mere human minds. Instead, things happened because the plot demanded they happen. It was cheap and succeeded only in wasting everybody’s time.

One the most glaring examples of this plot contrivance is the raid on the sex party about midway through the season. Bezzerides has used her sister’s porn connections to get her into one of the sex parties that Caspere was such a fan of. Masquerading as a prostitute, Bezzerides gets drugged and stumbles her way through the party, eventually finding a missing girl who knew Caspere. Meanwhile Velcoro and Woodrugh are going full Splinter Cell, sneaking around the house and taking out guards. Eventually they stumble upon the architects of the rail corridor going over some documents. They steal the documents, save the girl and flee into the night.

Stunning Police Powers
Showcasing Woodrugh’s powers of deduction…

Now let’s rewind and ask ourselves one very important question:

What was the plan here? 

Seriously, I’m asking, what was the group’s plan?

What was the reason? What were they looking for? Finding the missing girl and retrieving the documents were all purely happenstance, so what was the original objective? What was Bezzerides there to find out? Was she going to ask the other prostitutes who Caspere hung out with? Gather evidence of who was attending these parties?

Why was Woodrugh choking out guards and stealing documents? Shouldn’t he have been waiting as backup in the woods? Why risk discovery?

The answer to all the above is simple: the plot demanded that the characters be in a certain place at a certain time, and so they were. Now tons of stories rely on coincidences to drive their story forward, but most stories give their characters some reason for being at the right place at the right time. John McClane is in that building because he was attending a Christmas party at his wife’s work. Darth Vader’s Star Destroyer intercepts the Blockade Runner at Tatooine because that’s where Princess Leia was heading there to contact Obi-wan. Point is, most stories make an attempt to create a plausible reason for things to happen, even if that reason is paper thin it gives the audience a foundation for their suspended disbelief.

This season’s True Detective didn’t even bother giving us that foundation. I want you to look at something.

Dry Street

This is Velcoro getting out his car to say goodbye to his son after his successful heist of the Russian/Catalast money exchange. Notice that the street is as dry as only a never-ending California drought can make it.

This is what Velcoro finds when he comes back to the car.

“Later today there will be a highly concentrated rain storm under one man’s car.” – Plot Contrivance News, Weather Report

There’s a pool of water under Velcoro’s car. At first I thought the gas tank had been punctured and that’s what I was supposed to be seeing, but he drives away just fine. No, it’s just ordinary water and it appears spontaneously so that Velcoro can see a reflection of the red light on a tracking device in the water. This is just so lazy that I can’t even believe I’m seeing it in what must have been a multi-million dollar HBO production.

They could have put an extra out on the street watering his lawn. Boom, a reason for the water pooling under his car, see how easy and painless that was. That’s all it would have taken, it still would have been incredibly lazy but it would have been something at least.

And on that I rest my case, because if you can’t even move your plot along without a car peeing itself, then you have officially failed to tell a good story.

Game of Thrones: An Ending Too Far

So once again, I loved this season’s Game of Thrones, even though this was undoubtedly the worst season we’ve had so far, it’s a great show. Still I’m nothing if not a picker of nits, so let me highlight why this season’s finale was lacking and should have run with the much better finale they already had.

The Battle of Winterfell Was Too Short (And Was Utterly Meaningless)

Battle of Winterfell Now I understand that battle scenes are a huge drain on the budget, but the “battle” at Winterfell was utterly pointless. I understand that Stannis was never going to win and I’m not saying they needed to spend an entire episode showing him fighting a losing battle. Still, the entire battle took literally three minutes, and that’s being generous by including every scene until Ramsey’s return to Winterfell. If we just include the scenes with actual fighting it’s only about sixty seconds long. Worse than that though, it skips the actually interesting parts of the battle. Yes seeing the battle from Sansa’s point of view is visually interesting, but we also get no frame of reference as to why we should care. So far the battles in Game of Thrones have been exhilarating because they always had a tight focus on one of our beloved characters: Tyrion at the Black Water and Jon Snow at Castle Black. Showing us the characters we love dealing with the chaos of battle is what gives the battle meaning and emotional weight. Here have no real reference as to why anyone should care: remember Stannis just burned his daughter alive, asking us to care without actually seeing him fighting is a big fucking ask.

The battle begins with Stannis is the middle of a snow covered field, and ends with him in a forest. There was at least a quarter-mile between him and that forest. I want to know how Stannis fought his way there, or how that final desperate defense in the woods must have played out to leave Stannis wounded and alone. There were a lot of interesting ways to play out this battle is my point, cutting the entire thing down to sixty seconds of CGI toy soldiers and two minutes of follow up wasn’t one of them. And speaking of follow up, who here thinks Stannis is really dead? Because I sure as hell don’t.

Just hurry up and kill him or get out of my way so I can kill him.
Just hurry up and kill him or get out of my way so I can kill him.

Again, like the rape of Sansa earlier this season, this is an example of lazy storytelling that we don’t expect from Game of Thrones. Cutting away just as she swings the sword is just boring and lazy, it doesn’t build suspense at all because we all know that if he didn’t die on camera, he’s still alive. So what’s the point of leaving this as any kind of cliff hanger? The better cliff hanger would have been to see Brienne falter in her duty and then march Stannis off into the woods, because that actually has some interesting ramifications for next season. And if it turns out that Stannis really is dead next season then that makes this scene even worse because there were people out there (namely me) who were looking forward to finally seeing him die.

Personally, after this scene, I was looking forward to Ramsey flaying Stannis alive.
Personally, after this scene, I was looking forward to Ramsey giving Stannis the full Reek treatment.

Myrcella’s Murder

thronesThis was undoubtedly the dumbest scene this season and that’s quite an achievement considering that the earlier rape scene with Sansa destroyed the character arcs of four characters in twenty seconds. It was stupid for a variety of reasons, first because it makes King Julian Bashir look like a fucking idiot. He’s already foiled an assassination attempt by his sister-in-law, he knows his brother loved using poison, and the three daughters all used poison weapons. And yet this happens only feet away from him:

Look at that death grip on her face? No one finds that suspicious?
Look at that death grip on her face! No one finds that suspicious?

Which brings me to my second point: it makes everyone look like an idiot, including the show’s creators. Let’s assume for the moment that everyone on that dock is suffering heat stroke and ignore the fact that each and every one of them should have found that final kiss alarming. It’s the middle ages, people were stupid, fine. But we’re not. 

Who staged this scene? I want to know and I want his resignation on my desk by end of business tomorrow because I really don’t know why this scene played out the way it did.

If they were hoping to surprise the audience with another shocking death, the possibility of surprise died when Ellaria latched onto Myrcella’s face like a fucking lamprey. If they had left it as Ellaria giving her a gentle peck on the lips and not played it up like Snow White getting that poisoned apple, there would have been some element of surprise.

Was it played out that way so the poisoning was obvious to the audience? If so, why? What possible purpose did that serve? It certainly didn’t make the melodramatic conversation between Jaime and Myrcella any more tolerable. Seriously, who came up with that scene?

I'm watching you, but not so closely that I'm going to notice you poison the girl in front me.
I’m watching you, but not so closely that I’m going to notice you poison the girl you’ve been trying to kill all season  in front me.

This was just a lazy, terrible scene in every respect. The only thing that could have saved it was if we’d seen Jaime’s reaction and end the scene with him sailing right back to Dorne to avenge his daughter. As it is, apparently Jaime is going to wait until he gets back to King’s Landing to file a formal complaint with the Dornish king who is apparently as blind as he paraplegic.

Queen of the Andals and the Idiots

Mother of Dragons Now I loved Daenerys escape last week and watching Drogon burn a bunch of people alive was well worth the wait. But this follow up scene was awful, mainly because it made Daenerys, one of the strongest female characters in the story seem like a whiny little brat.

“We have to go home.” – Daenerys says, suddenly developing a British accent.

That’s the first thing we hear her say to Drogon, not thank you for saving me from an otherwise fatal ambush or how are you feeling after taking two dozen javelin wounds. She spends the whole time sulking like a child and even tries to climb onto Drogon backwards for some reason I still don’t understand.

Drogon's mother: literally riding his ass.
Drogon’s mother: literally riding his ass.

Then she complains that Drogon is just sitting around instead of getting them supper. Oh, I’m sorry you’re hungry princess but were you not paying attention last week when Drogon took a dozen spear wounds to save your ass? Do you not see the holes torn through his wings?

You know what Drogon, just leave her.
You know what Drogon, just leave her.

Then she wanders off into the hills alone for some stupid reason and immediately gets captured. Seriously, is this the same team that gave us the past four seasons of greatness? I’m starting to suspect they’ve all been replaced by pod-people sent from NBC, ABC and FOX. If not for the amazing scene of Jon Snow’s reenactment of the Ides of March, I’d have called this finale a total disaster. Which is just infuriating considering they already had a much better finale.

The Finale That Already Was

Because THIS was finale material.
Because THIS was finale material.

Yes, the best episode this season is the one they should have ended on and not just because it was so well done, but because it would have given HBO and the writers more time to tell the stories. That was my main complaint this season, everything seemed to be moving too fast. Here’s everything that happened this season:

Tyrion goes from living in a box to being Ser Jorah’s captive to being a slaver’s captive to becoming the Queen’s adviser.

Jon Snow meets Stannis, becomes Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch and tries to save the Wildlings before pulling a Caesar and “dying”.  (In quotations because you know damn well that he’s going to be coming back in some form or another.)

Daenerys struggles to maintain control over the old slaver kingdoms and fails miserably.

Jaime is sent to Dorne to retrieve Myrcella.

And worst of all, Little Finger goes from a meticulous plotter to some kind of insane gibbering idiot in the span of two episodes. He delivers Sansa, the only person who can give him a legitimate claim to the North to the crazy ass Bolton’s and then immediately returns to King’s Landing, plotting to attack the Bolton’s after literally giving them the most valuable hostage in the seven kingdoms.

How about I give you a ride in my Benz and we call it even?
You know, I’m starting to think this was a bad idea…

You’ll notice that while some of the characters have a ton of things happen, others are left in a lurch of nothing happening at all. What this season needed was more time to tell the stories in a way that didn’t undercut the storylines of several important characters and allowed the events of the show to play out more naturally. By using Hardhome as the season finale Game of Thrones would have had more time to properly tell us the stories it needed to tell, to dedicate more time to the characters.

Jaime was perhaps the most underused character, almost criminally so because his was the one storyline from a Feast for Crows I wanted to see play out since it was the book where Jaime finally realizes what a bitch his sister is and burns the letter he receives from her.Of course instead of that happening this season, what we got instead was Jaime wandering around Dorne not really doing anything. Nothing happens in Dorne at all, it’s just a giant time sink. They could have used the time in Dorne to characterize Jaime and maybe lead up to his final abandoning of Cersei, but aside from him staring wistfully at Brienne’s homeland of Tarth, we get nothing.

And speaking of Tarth, the other problem with this season’s sprinting pace is the fact that it completely screws with our perception of time and space in Westeros. I already pointed this out in my earlier post on Sansa’s Wedding,  but it goes beyond Little Finger’s teleporting himself to King’s Landing. Journeys that took other characters entire seasons to complete now have bullet trains apparently. The opening scene of Game of Thrones always gives you that little pop-up map thing, and the world seems pretty big, but everyone seems to get where they’re going a little too fast this season. Take Tyrion for example: despite being abducted by both Jorah and slavers, attacked by Stone Men, and becoming a gladiator he still makes it to Queen Daenerys’ side in time for the Harpies to ambush them. Or Jaime for that matter, whose journey to Dorne took less time than the average ferry ride here in Seattle.

Maybe all these boats just have propellers we're not seeing...
Maybe all these boats just have propellers we’re not seeing…

Ending the season at Hardhome would have given the writers much more room to extend the storylines of various other characters and actually have them make sense. First of all Sansa’s storyline could have been given a lot more time and by extension maybe Little Finger’s plan wouldn’t look completely insane. The storyline in Dorne could have been given more time, allowing more time for Jaime to actually experience change in his character. And Tyrion and Daenerys’s storylines could have met without seeming like the laws of time and space were becoming warped. And perhaps most importantly, ending at Hardhome would have given the writers a more plausible reason for the Night’s Watch to kill Jon Snow.

Because THIS was finale material.
Oh wait, you can’t… you’re dead.

Don’t get me wrong, the scene with Jon Snow was amazing, but there was a niggling little voice in the back of my mind the entire time saying “this doesn’t really make sense.” This scene worked in the book because Hardhome doesn’t actually happen in the book, so the White Walkers are kind of like the climate change of our world. Yes, everyone sort of admits it’s there and it’s a threat, but everyone is also more obsessed about their own personal ambitions to really do anything about it. So when they kill Jon Snow, it make a certain amount of sense because to the other members of the Night’s Watch, the Wildlings are the real threat.

After Hardhome though? This whole “traitor” business is a bit harder to swallow. Eyewitness testimony to the rising of tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of corpses isn’t enough to vindicate Jon Snow’s decision? The other members of the Night’s Watch didn’t point out that maybe he was right? I mean I know the hundreds of crew members on Stannis’s fleet didn’t say anything, because they keep landing on the north side of The Wall for some strange reason, but there were a ton of people with Jon Snow. No one spoke up in his defense among all those Crows who stabbed him?

The kid's motivation is really the only that stands up.
The kid’s motivation is really the only one that stands up.

I mean stabbing Jon Snow at this junction would be like people denying climate change after thousands of deaths from heat waves, huge unprecedented storms, and unending droughts…

Huh… Touché, Game of Thrones, well played…

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt Review

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is a thing that exists and that alone is a miracle. After everyone rushed to pile awards at the feet of Dragon Age: Inquisition, a game that was mediocre in every sense of the word, I was beginning to feel like no one gave a damn about stories anymore. After spending nearly a hundred hours in the world of the Witcher 3 though, I can say that this is one of the best RPG’s I’ve ever played. This game is everything Dragon Age Inquisition should have been, everything it promised and failed to deliver, was delivered in spectacular fashion by The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.

The open world is mind blowingly huge, and unlike Dragon Age Inquisition, there are no artificial boundaries that turn the maps into a series of corridors. You can cut through the middle of a forest or swim across a lake, just beware what lurks within. You never know when Nekkers will crawl up out of the ground around you, or you’ll be sailing along minding you’re own business or riding along on your faithful steed when a Griffon will swoop down and rip off the top half your torso.

Your choices have real consequences, some that are immediately apparent and others that won’t reveal themselves until you’ve nearly forgotten about the choice you made…only to have the stark consequences slap you in the face. Every single choice yo make has a consequence. At the beginning of the game I met a scholar who wanted to write about the war between Redania and Nilfgaard. I told him to go for it, tell the real story of the war. The next zone I entered, I found that scholar’s corpse dangling from a tree; hanged on suspicion of being a spy.

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But most importantly, the story is one worth experiencing. It’s not about some evil sorcerer trying to conquer the world or finding a plot McGuffin, it’s about characters. There are no pointless side quests in this game and no collecting ram meat for nameless refugees. Everything matters and everything tells you a story, and they’re all worth the telling.

That concludes the spoiler-free portion of my review. If you don’t want the story spoiled for you turn back now, just trust me when I say this is a story you won’t regret having experienced. What Game of Thrones did for television (completely redefining what’s possible for the medium) The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt does for video games.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is the game I’ve been waiting to play all my life.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

A Storytelling Review

Witcher3-geralt-of-rivia

The world of the The Witcher is George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones meets high fantasy. There are elves and dragons and magic, but this is no Tamriel or Middle-Earth. It’s a world of political intrigue and brutal warfare inhabited by monsters drawn from mythology of every culture. Yet of all the monsters you’ll fight in this game, none will be so monstrous as man himself.

The story follows Geralt, the titular Witcher, as he tries to find his old ward Ciri. The Witcher 2: Assassin’s of Kings made reference to Ciri, as well as Geralt’s former lover Yennefer, but they were so vague that none of it seemed all that important. The Witcher 3, however, does an absolutely astounding job with the characterization. Every single character feels alive and you’ll come to love each and every one of them, or love to hate them as the case may be. As you experience Ciri’s life through a series of flashbacks, you’ll become just as eager to find her as Geralt, if only because she’s so incredibly badass.

At first I was afraid this was going to turn into a “princess in the tower” scenario where you have to rescue Ciri from danger. But basically most of the story is spent chasing her because Ciri keeps rescuing herself  before Geralt can even get there.

This is no princess you have to save.
In Polish stories, the Princess rescues you.

Ciri is being pursued by the Wild Hunt, considered a legend by most  and a wraith by those who’ve seen him, but who Geralt and Yennefer know is very real. The Wild Hunt is a huge monstrosity of an elf from a parallel world, who is able to cross between worlds and is desperately seeking a way to save his world from destruction. Of all the characters, the Wild Hunt is the only cipher among them, he’s not really characterized at all and so he comes across as a bit of a stereotypical villain. He’s basically The Witcher 3’s Corypheus, only his boss fight is actually climactic and difficult, so even the weakest link in this game’s story is infinitely stronger than Dragon Age Inquisition’s entire chain. His part in the story is extremely small though, as it should be, and the focus is on the amazing characters you’ll meet.

Most of the game is spent trying to pick up Ciri’s trail and piece together her story from the peoples she’s met along the way. First all this is a brilliant way to do a story in an open world environment, because it lends itself to the exploratory nature of the game’s world. There’s an urgency to finding Ciri, but at the same time it’s not the same urgency as trying to stop an apocalypse. It makes sense that Geralt would choose to take on a monster contract while scouring a village for clues to Ciri’s disappearance. It starts making less sense once you find Ciri, but by that time I’d finished most of the side quests, and the main quest had become so intriguing that I rushed through to the end of the story. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

In the Witcher universe, that phrase usually means the Emperor has literally taken your head.
In the Witcher universe, that phrase usually means the Emperor has literally taken your head.

The game has an impeccable sense of pacing, for instance after a long arduous journey finding Ciri’s trail and finally deducing that Uma is the key to finding her, you have a chance to get some real work done: Drinking. Along with your fellow Witchers, Lambert and Eskel, you get the opportunity to relax. I can’t tell you how fun this scene was, but after what must have been 20 or 30 hours spent hunting Ciri and witnessing terrible atrocities in that time, this was exactly what I needed. Most importantly you remain in control and in character the entire time. So if you’re playing Geralt as a straight up professional, you have the choice to go to bed early. The game doesn’t just jump to a cutscene, and by doing that you feel completely immersed in the experience.

Now I’ve never developed a taste for alcohol, it just tastes so awful I can’t drink enough to get drunk, so I have no idea what it’s like to get drunk. Thanks to the Witcher 3 though, I feel like I really did get blind drunk and dress up in a frilly frock, because the scene was just that expertly written and presented. I felt like I lived it myself, it was that good. I also nearly broke a rib laughing.

The writers know how to craft a story, because after every major event and heart rending moment, there was moment to balance it out. The Battle of Kaer Morhen was quite possibly one of the most intense battles I’ve ever played in a video game. It’s just a handful of defenders against dozens of the Wild Hunt’s warriors, and yet the small number of combatants did nothing to detract from the pure epicness of the siege. In fact the small number of defenders made me feel like everything I was doing was absolutely vital.

More importantly, I knew the who each of the defenders was. There were no faceless, nameless defenders being killed in a failed attempt to raise the stakes like most video games. No, I knew the face and name of everyone fighting by my side, they we’re people to me, and that made every moment of the siege feel real. My heart was in my throat the entire time. And when Vesemir gave his life to save Ciri, I felt the same rage Ciri felt.

Burn them all, Ciri.
Burn them all, Ciri.

But back onto the point of pacing, directly after this incredible scene, the writer’s wisely decided to give us an opportunity to laugh. This is absolutely vital to any good story, because if it’s all horror and death the audience will grow numb to it and eventually bored of it, that’s something the Witcher 3’s writers understood. After a somber funeral scene and a few days to recuperate, we’re treated to a snowball fight between Ciri and Geralt. Again the incredible people at CDProjekt knew the best way to tell this moment was to leave the player in charge, so it’s you charging around exchanging snowballs with Ciri.

And when you’ve slain the Crones of Crookback Bog and avenged Vesemir by killing the Wild Hunt’s general Imrelith, you share a tender moment of peace while watching the sunrise. That’s the other great thing they did with Ciri’s character, they didn’t fall into the trap of making Ciri a badass by draining her of emotion. She laughs, cries and rages like every other person in the story. She’s human.

And it’s in these interactions with Ciri that Geralt is best revealed. Once again you remain in complete control, you can choose to not have a snowball fight with Ciri and play it cool and distant. But though you may not know it now, even these small moments have huge consequences on the story.

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My friend also played through the game and played almost the exact opposite Geralt, a pure professional who did only what was necessary. He didn’t have a snowball fight with Ciri, he didn’t gleefully smash up Avallac’h’s lab, and he didn’t let Ciri lay to rest Skjall (the man who led Ciri to safety in Skellige). In his ending, Ciri had disappeared and was presumed dead.

In my ending, as my Ciri stared into that strange energy field from which the White Frost was coming, in her mind’s eye flashed all the great moment’s we’d shared throughout the game’s story. The snowball fight, the lab, and the visit to Skjall’s grave where she told the villagers of his heroism. The moments that reminded her that there were things worth living for.

And she came back.

Together again.
Together again.

Again the brilliance of the conclusion is that I still retained control, I was the one who had “Sparrow” inscribed on Ciri’s new silver sword, and rode to meet her at the Inn in White Orchard where this whole story first started. When I talked about emotional closure and the importance of resolution in the Story Arc in my Mass Effect 3 and Dragon Age Inquisition reviews, this is exactly what I was referring to. A few brief moments when we can relax and allow the story to come to an end, like the last trailing notes of a grand symphony.

“Well then, let’s try it out…” – Ciri to Geralt 

Then of course we’re also given the slideshow ending that answered any unanswered questions and gave us resolution to the interesting, yet ultimately unimportant subplots such as the Nilfgaardian invasion. Much like Game of Thrones, The Witcher 3 dangles fascinating political stories for you to focus on that ultimately have nothing to do with the actual plot. This is a story about characters, and the slideshow tells you what became of the people you came to love.

Geralt spent a few months with Ciri teaching her all he knew of the ways of the Witcher, and then they parted ways, with Ciri going on to become a Witcher even more famous than Geralt. And as for Geralt himself?

He retired to Kovir with Triss, taking on occasional monster contracts, but for the most part living out the rest of his life in the peace that had eluded him for so long.

That was my story. My choices in the game led me to an ending that left a warm glow in my heart, and was one of the most satisfying experiences I’ve ever had in a video game. And if you haven’t already, get out there and start your Geralt’s story because no matter how it ends up, you’ll never forget the experience. 

TheWitcher
Hard to believe it all started years ago with a game so rough I can barely believe it got a sequel.

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’s 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 Lady Webb 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.

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 your enemy. Forever is.

All That Matters is the Ending: Dragon Age Inquisition

When I wrote my breakdown of Mass Effect 3’s ending debacle, I took several days to properly organize my thoughts and make sure everything I was saying made sense. By contrast, when I wrote my critique of Dragon Age: Inquisition’s ending, it was a stream of consciousness straight from my raging, bitterly disappointed mind onto the vast wastes of the internet. So let me take a moment, now that I’ve calmed down, to reiterate the reasons I think Dragon Age: Inquisition failed in its ending. And why that halfhearted ending makes an otherwise remarkable game…less than the sum of its parts.

First of all I should say that I was exaggerating when I said this was a worse ending than Mass Effect 3. It clearly isn’t. Inquisition’s ending didn’t throw out the established rules, lore and setting of all the other Dragon Ages, or end with a stupid closing soliloquy from an omnipotent god caught in a feedback loop of stupid. It’s not even really a bad ending, it’s just so…underwhelming. It avoids all of the horrendous mistakes made by Mass Effect 3, but at the same time we get such a pitiful and anticlimactic ending that it renders all the awesome stuff we experienced along the way seem less special.

[The following is based on my 65-hour initial playthrough and the 15-hour 2nd playthrough (yes, you can plow through the main storyline in about 15-hours, probably less if you’re better at the combat than I am) to see if any of the major decisions changed the ending. Spoiler alert: They didn’t.]

1. Every Story is Isolated

Don't let the other people fool you. You're all alone here.
Don’t let the other people fool you. You’re all alone here.

Interactive storytelling is hard, I get that, but that’s also why it’s so amazing when it comes together beautifully. Dragon Age: Origins remains one of my favorite RPGs because of how well all the stories meshed together, regardless of which origin story you chose or which choices you made along the way. Dragon Age: Inquisition has some remarkably good stories and some of the best characters I’ve encountered since Mass Effect 2. Yet very few of those stories actually interact with any of the others. They all take place in their own isolated little corners of the main story, sometimes being peripherally mentioned but never really impacting anything.

For instance, at first glance, I felt the new War Table was a wonderful new method of storytelling. Not only did it make me feel like I was really running a kingdom, but it allowed the game to tell me stories that impacted the entire world of Thedas rather than just the isolated corner my character was inhabiting. When Darkspawn appeared in southern Orlais I felt dread, for surely this was a sign that Corypheus was somehow summoning these creatures to aid him. Fortunately I had just saved Empress Celene’s life and secured Orlesian support for the Inquisition and thanks to Josephine’s skillful diplomacy I was able to call upon my new Orlesian allies to aid me. I thought this would help limit the Inquisition’s casualties in battle, though I was conscious of the fact that since Empress Celene’s treacherous cousin had held the loyalty of Orlais’s Chevaliers, I might not be getting their best troops. Still any little bit would help, or so I thought. After all, I didn’t want to deplete my own army when Corypheus might appear with his own at any time.

It’s a fine story in and of itself, and it really makes you feel like larger things are happening all around you. Unfortunately this feeling is completely undermined by the fact that the story doesn’t affect, nor is it affected, by anything else happening in the game. For instance my siding with Celene didn’t affect Orlesian support, nor did my destroying the Darkspawn army in anyway weaken Corypheus, and any troops I lost to fighting the darkspawn didn’t affect my army’s performance when I finally attacked Corpyheus’s army in the Arbor wilds. It didn’t even affect my approval rating with Blackwall, and he was the one guy I thought would be pleased with my destroying a darkspawn army.

Though with a beard that magnificent, I can forgive him.
Though with a beard that magnificent, I can forgive him his nonchalance at the news of the Darkspawns defeat.

And speaking of character approval, I never once saw a character’s approval rating come into play. It was a thing that might as well never have existed. Nor did any of the character’s side quests ever come to affect the ending or even the characters themselves.

When I helped Sten find his lost sword in Dragon Age: Origins, it had a lasting impact on his character throughout the story. He was no longer the standoffish and hostile brute I met back in Lothering…well okay he was, but not to me. Sten began to address me as Kadan (a sign of respect) and even began smiling when I talked to him, which up to that point I thought was physiologically impossible for a Qunari. When I helped Morrigan obtain Flemeth’s Grimoire and then slay the old hag, she became more genuinely confident rather than hiding her fear and hate behind a thin veil of nonchalance and arrogance. I didn’t treat Zevran very well my first playthrough (in my defense, he did try to kill me) and as a result when the Antivan Crows sent a second assassin, Zevran was quick to betray me. These are instances of where the character’s stories had real meat to them, where my actions directly affected the characters and in turn their characters affected the story at large.

Compare that to Inquisition. When I helped Cassandra find the lost Seekers, nothing really changed for her or the story at large. She seemed conflicted and then angry during the mission itself, but once we slew the Head Seeker and left? Outside of a couple conversations you have directly after the mission, it was like the whole affair never even happened. Again, the story itself is fine, I liked seeing her confront a betrayal of her fundamental beliefs. And I was genuinely curious what would happen after she was confronted with the fact that the Rite of Tranquility could be reversed and that her Order had become less a peacekeeping force and more a kind of Secret Police of the worst kind. Unfortunately my curiosity was never sated, because nothing changes. Are there perhaps subtle changes to Morrigan’s narration if Cassandra becomes the Divine? Perhaps, but considering that could take dozens of hours to get to that ending depending on when you do her quest, and compared to the very full and engaging character storylines of DA:O, it still falls depressingly short of good.

Which is a shame, because all the characters are wonderful. They just don't end up affecting the story.
Which is a shame, because all the characters are wonderful. They just don’t end up affecting the story.

Even each individual zone in the game remains totally isolated from everything else. Completing the main storylines of the Western Approach doesn’t affect how the siege of Adamant plays out. I thought capturing the keep in the area would not only weaken Corypheus’s hold over the Grey Wardens, but provide my own forces with a forward base from which to launch an attack. Go through the game without doing a single sidequest though, and the siege of Adamant plays out just as it did before. Same with every other zone and every other story. They all play out as if in a vacuum, all the stories are within sight of each other but they never interact directly. The closest we get to any of the stories interacting is with the War Table and certain zones, such as building bridges across the sulfur vents or setting up watchtowers in the Hinterlands, but even then those interactions are minimal and don’t affect any other nearby story.

On the surface Dragon Age: Inquisition gives the player a false impression that they’re experiencing a vast tapestry of stories all woven together to form a coherent narrative, but once you dive beneath the surface you see its not a tapestry at all…it’s an anthology of stories. They all take place in the same universe, and maybe they even take place at the same time, but they can all be read independently of one another or ignored entirely. That’s not to say it’s a huge problem, anthologies can be fun too, but when you combine this with all of the game’s other major problems, things start to unravel.

2. Choices have no consequences

…Story and Choice as a Fundamental Pillar of the Game.

How you choose to lead is up to you, but remember, in Dragon Age: Inquisition choices have consequences. Making a new ally can also lead to the creation of a new enemy. – From Dragon Age Inquisition’s Promotional Material, emphasis mine.

That’s just a small section of the marketing campaign that preceded Dragon Age: Inquisition’s release, and yet in the game itself very few of the player’s choices have any real consequences. Let’s examine the very first choice we’re given in the game: your race. Go ahead and pick a Qunari. Now you’d think being a huge hulking beast from a strange land that has fought several bloody wars with her Chantry, Cassandra would be a little more suspicious of you than if you’d chosen human or elf for your race. Unfortunately aside from a few minor dialogue changes, Cassandra’s attitude towards you remains static. You’d think it would be harder to win her approval and trust, but she’ll happily thrust control of the most powerful organization in Thedas into your waiting hands, even if you make it perfectly clear you think the Chantry and everything Cassandra holds dear is a lie.

But okay, maybe its too much to ask to change the beginning of the story based on your race (even if that’s the exact thing that made Dragon Age: Origins stand out and started this whole franchise.) Let’s tackle some actual gameplay and see what kind of consequences the player experiences:

After being led by Cassandra to the Inquisition’s forward camp, you’re asked to make the decision on how to approach the Rift. Do you take the mountain path, and risk casualties among your soldiers. Or charge with your troops, but risk losing your scouts in the mountains? Or do you just flip a coin because there are no consequences for this choice?

I’m not asking for this early game decision to have butterfly effect ripples across the entire story. I didn’t expect the ending to shift because I lost some soldiers or scouts, but I did at least expect this to have some kind of change to the encounter with the Pride Demon at the Rift. I chose the scouts the first playthrough, and was gratified to see Archers (who I thought were the scouts) loose their arrows as the Pride Demon came through the rift. I thought, upon a second playthrough, that these archers would be replaced with more soldiers or different kinds of soldiers (two-hand wielders or something). Unfortunately there is no such change.

Nothing changes based on your choice apart from which road you take, a gameplay mechanic so simple that even Gears of War managed to integrate it on a regular basis.

Come on Bioware, you can do better than this can't you?
Choices in an RPG should have more significant consequences than a Gears of War game, don’t you think?

But okay, it’s early in the game, maybe they just didn’t have the time or inclination to make the beginning amazing. Fine. Let’s skip to halfway through the story.

The Inquisition attacks the Grey Warden stronghold of Adamant to free them from the corruption of Corypheus. Once you’ve succeeded, you’re given the option of allowing the Grey Wardens to join with the Inquisition or exiling them from Orlais. In theory this presents sweeping and potentially dire consequences for the player. On the one hand, Grey Wardens are Thedas’s only line of defense against another Blight as it’s their mastering of the Darkspawn’s corruption that allows them to kill an Archdemon. Yet on the other hand, it’s that same corruption that allowed them to be twisted to Corypheus’s will. Allowing the Grey Wardens to serve the inquisition might give you a powerful ally against Corypheus should he somehow summon Darkspawn armies to his side, but at the same time Corypheus might use those same Grey Wardens to undermine the inquisition from within. It was a choice that demanded careful consideration. So what affect does this choice have on the story?

None.

Okay yes, it does end up affecting which portrait you get in the closing epilogue and Morrigan’s narration, but that’s it. Don’t take that to mean I don’t like “slideshow” endings, I have no problem with having slideshow endings or narrations, in fact I think both can be incredibly effective storytelling techniques. Both Dragon Age: Origins and Fallout New Vegas had great endings, and they both heavily relied on slideshows. My main problem is that Inquisition’s slideshow is anemic and unsatisfying compared to most games that have used this technique, including Inquisition’s predecessor Dragon Age: Origins. Inquisition’s epilogue covered only a few of the decisions the player could make and only told us the story of which character became the new Divine, all of your other companions were left in the dust. The epilogue for Origins covered every major choice you made in the game and told you the fate of every character you met, which made it infinitely more rewarding than Inquisition’s.

"When fellow qunari asked if there were worthy people outside Par Vollen, Sten would answer that in all his travels he had only met  one.” - Sten's Ending
“When fellow Qunari asked if there were worthy people outside Par Vollen, Sten would answer that in all his travels he had only met one.” – Sten’s Ending Slide, after my Hero of Ferelden died slaying the Archdemon.

I will say this for the game, it was very good at making you think everything you were doing had a consequence, it’s why I was so happy with the game right up until the end when the illusion fell apart. However there was one choice given in the game that almost went out of its way to make sure you knew what you did was pointless, and that was the Templar mission. Early on in the game you’re given a choice to save the Templars or the Rebel Mages, with a specific warning that choosing one will deny you the other.

Now if you went for the Mages, you probably thought all the Red Templars you were running into throughout the game were the consequence of your choice, and you probably went through the game thinking that was the meaningful consequence of your actions. I, unfortunately, chose to side with the Templars in my first playthrough. So you can imagine my annoyance when, not only were there no rebel mages to fight outside of the attack on Haven, but even worse there were more Templars fighting for Corypheus than were fighting for me. I never once saw a Templar come to my aid in battle, or march along side my armies during the attack on Adamant. They didn’t show up to help me battle Corypheus at either the Well of Sorrows or in the final battle. Instead all I came across were legions of Red Templars? So what was the point of saving their order? They showed up at one brief cutscene when you seal the rift and that’s it. We might as well not even been given a choice in the matter (especially since the Templar mission is such a royal pain in the ass compared to the Mage mission.)

Yes I'm talking to you and your bullshit ground AoE attack!
Yes I’m talking to you and your bullshit ground AoE attack!

The only place I felt like I had any kind of impact on the story was at the Well of Sorrows. First you’re given a choice to either follow Corypheus’s followers down a crevasse to the well of Sorrows or undergo the Rites of Metel and pay homage to the Elven Gods. This does actually seem to affect how the Ancient Elves regard you and allying with the Elves allows you to bypass most of the combat by taking secret passages. Then you can choose whether the player character or Morrigan drinks from the Well of Sorrows. If Morrigan drank from the Well of Sorrows the she’s able to transform into a Dragon like her mother Flemeth once did and do battle with Corypheus’s corrupted dragon. If the player drank, you have to first subdue a dragon and bring it under your command using the power of the well. And that’s it. That’s the sum total of the impact it has.

And you know what, that’s actually fine, and had there been more small changes to the ending based on your choices I wouldn’t be writing this. Having small amounts of feedback throughout the course of a long game can be just as satisfying as having wildly divergent branching endings. Unfortunately Inquisition failed to deliver on either of those, because those consequences to the Well of Sorrows choices are the only real impact you’ll have on the story or ending. As much as I hate to keep comparing Inquisition to Origins, let’s look at how the choices my choices in Dragon Age: Origins affected the story.

My first character was an Elf from Denerim’s Alienage, and because the Arl’s son was a monstrous rapist, I gutted him like a pig in his own bedroom to save my cousin. Much later down the line I was trying to gather support for the Landsmeet, but because I had butchered the Arl’s son, I lost not only the support of that Arldom (which had fallen into Loghain’s hands) but I also was unable to convince the landsmeet that Loghain’s plot to sell the Elves into slavery was a bad idea, because now they all saw Elves as murderous psychopaths.

You butcher one castle's worth of people and suddenly your the bad guy. Go figure.
You butcher one castle’s worth of people and suddenly your the bad guy. Go figure.

A seemingly inconsequential choice at the beginning of the game had a profound impact on the story later down the road, now that’s a consequence. So when the Landsmeet turned against me and Arl Eamon, did the ending change drastically? No, you end up having to go mano a’ mano with Loghain no matter what you do. Yet seeing the consequences of my actions from the beginning of the game having an affect on the story so late in the game was incredibly gratifying. It made me feel like a part of the story, a part of the world I was in, rather than merely a spectator. That all important word, immersion. That’s what I felt playing Dragon Age: Origin.

Meanwhile, my choice to choose the mountain path? To exile the Wardens? To Save the Templar Order? To save Empress Celene? I got no feedback from the game. And these were huge choices that implied dire consequences no matter which choice you made. By comparison, the choice to kill the Arl of Denerim’s son seems downright trivial, and yet I got more feedback from that than I did any of the major decisions with Inquisition. So I guess it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that, when I finally did reach the ending that –

1. The Ending is the very definition of an Anticlimax

Perhaps all of these problems could have been forgiven if at least, at the end, I’d had seen a battle worthy of all the buildup. To battle a Godlike Corypheus in the depths of the fade, perhaps even in the center of the Black City itself, while in the normal world our two armies clashed in a bloody maelstrom of steel and magic. Unfortunately we didn’t get any of that. Instead we got Corypheus alone in the ruins of the Temple of Sacred Ashes giving us a cliched (and hilariously misguided, given his track record of failure) monologue about his imminent ascension to godhood. Then we fought him, and it was a boss fight so pitiful I almost felt sorry for him at that point. The dragons I had killed throughout Thedas had been more challenge then him. His Fear Demon ally in the Fade was tougher than him. Most Red Templar mobs were tougher than him. His half dead dragon was tougher than him.

Then we blast him into the ether of the fade, go home and have some drinks with the guys and roll credits.

The closest I got to feeling excited in that final battle was when Morrigan grappled with Corypheus’s Dragon. Watching those two colossal beasts having at each other was a spectacular sight to behold, but every time I got close to feel some excitement it would cut away from the amazing aerial dragon battle to focus once again on the pitiful old man Corypheus. The last time I felt this apathetic towards a boss fight was when Ezio punched the pudgy old Pope to death in Assassin’s Creed 2.

And quite honestly, the Pope put up a better fight.
And quite honestly, the Pope put up a better fight.

As I wrote originally, it was such an anticlimax I thought it was Bioware trying to fake me out. This was all just a ploy to take me off guard when the real villain showed up, and the one thing convinced me that was the case right up until the end was Skyhold. Chekov’s Gun is an old literary axiom that basically says if you introduce something to the story, it better serve a purpose. The saying is from, of course, Anton Chekov:

Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there. – Anton Chekov

Skyhold is the gun hanging on the wall. Why did you give me a huge, epic keep and allow me to personalize it if we weren’t going to have an epic siege there? You don’t give the player a castle and then not attack it. Imagine Dragon Age: Awakenings if at the end of the game, the keep you spent so long rebuilding just… sits there, doing nothing. Or flying the SSV Normandy II into the Omega 6 Relay and then peacefully landing on the Collector Base without a single shot being fired. Or even better, imagine leading the counter attack on Earth at the end of Mass Effect 3 and finding no Reaper fleet or vicious ground battle being fought, and instead cutting to those last godawful 10 minutes immediately after landing.

Just imagine this.
Just imagine this.

Skyhold was the perfect setting for the climactic final battle with Corypheus. Defending the walls of the keep you’ve come to love, watching as Morrigan in Dragon form fights the Archdemon in the skies above the fortress, while great siege engines rain down fire and destruction. It would have been every definition of epic. There could have been so many amazing ways to make the Siege of Skyhold the epic ending we all needed. All of your characters would have been involved too, rather than just the 3 you chose to take with you.

It could have been a tense, bitter fight as the gates are shattered and Darkspawn come pouring into the courtyard where, without the help of the Grey Wardens, my soldiers are beaten back into the keep proper. Or if you kept the Grey Wardens perhaps the Darkspawn are scattered, leaving the Venatori and Red Templars to lead the vanguard of the assault.  Blackwall and Cullen could lead the defense of the courtyard. Sera and Varric could direct the archers on the walls and rain death upon the enemy ranks or take potshots at the dragon. Cole could assassinate priority targets and cause chaos in the enemy ranks.  Iron Bull and his Chargers could lead a vicious counterattack and buy the time necessary for Cullen to withdrawn his exhausted and wounded troops into the keep where the Inquisition would make its final stand.

A climax worthy of the term would have made Dragon Age Inquisition my new favorite RPG and I would have overlooked all the other problems with the game. Instead we got a pitiful whimpering boss who could barely put up a fight and made every other flaw in the game come through with glaring clarity. I don’t need a dozen amazing endings, I just need one good one.

Give a dragon and an army to fight, and I will give you my undying praise.
Give me a dragon and an army to fight, and I will give you my undying praise.

Marching on Denerim at the head of the army I had worked so hard to build is still one of my fondest gaming memories. Sending packs of Werewolves to shred the Genlock Archers harassing me while a newly crafted Golem took on an Ogre with help from the stalwart Legion of the Dead was incredibly satisfying, it was a final battle that really made me feel like everything I did in the game actually mattered. All of the alliances, all of the sacrifice, all of the death: it had all been building towards this moment, and it was a moment that did not disappoint.

Mass Effect 2’s Suicide Mission remains the epitome of the epic ending for me. A mission in which everyone can die, including you, and an explosive finale that sent a chill down your fucking spine.

Even Mass Effect 3 had a damn good conclusion until they fucked it up in the last 10 minutes. That final charge towards the Citadel Beam may have seemed stupid, but it was the stupidity of desperation. It was a desperation that said “we either do this now or we go extinct.” It was a desperation I felt right down to my bones.

Thanks, Harbinger, you did good son.
I like to pretend the game ended here and we all died. It’s less depressing.

Those are the endings that will stay with me for a long time. Not because I’ll remember the specifics of why or how or when, but because I’ll remember how I felt.

Dragon Age: Inquisition… well it’ll be just another game I’ll probably remember having played at some point, but I won’t remember what it was about or what happened in the end. And most importantly I won’t remember how I felt.

Because Dragon Age: Inquisition didn’t make me feel anything…

I wish these amazing characters had appeared in a story worth the telling.
I wish these amazing characters had appeared in a story worth the telling.

In Closing:

Dragon Age: Inquisition is a game filled with some amazing, unique and fine crafted stories. It has some incredible world building. And while the main plot is pretty mediocre, the underlying plot of the Dread Wolf and Flemeth and ancient magics awakening is really compelling. Yet good storytelling is about more than good characters, plot and world building.

It’s about bringing all those elements together to form a whole that’s more than the sum of its parts. It’s like cooking, you can have all the best ingredients but unless you mix them right and cook them properly, you don’t have a good meal. Dragon Age: Inquisition had the best ingredients, it just undercooked them.

A note to Mark Darrah:

Hi Mark,

First of all I appreciate your response, I really do, that’s not sarcasm or anything. While I can see where you’re coming from, citing the “lose texts” as alternate endings is a bit disingenuous don’t you think? By that train of thought any game that has any kind of text message when you die technically has multiple endings, which would make Sierra Adventure Games of the 1990’s king of the alternate ending. I remember playing Space Quest when I was a kid, I used to get all kind of hilarious messages when I died.

And I died so many times...
And I died so many times…

And while wanting to emulate Sierra Games circa 1995 is a laudable goal, perhaps releasing serious RPGs like Dragon Age: Inquisition aren’t the best way to go about achieving that. I’m totally on board for a Dragon Quest parody game though.

 

Enjoy this article? Support me on Patreon!

WritersBlock

 

More on Dragon Age Inquisition:

The Ending Isn’t The Only Problem

Why Corypheus is a Bad Villain

The Failure of the Inquisitor

The Problem with Dragon Age

Super Edit: 

I have a new, much more coherent review of the Dragon Age: Inquisition’s ending right here. Just click anywhere on this giant block of text. 

Edit: Since this post was written in the heat of the moment and not up to my usual standards, I’ve done a new review of the ending. I figured I’d leave this one up though in the interest of full disclosure, and for anyone who’s curious as to what my first drafts usually look like. 

So I’ve been in a bit of a funk lately. I’ve found that I’m just having a hard time concentrating on my writing and my blog. Maybe it’s the soul crushing loneliness. Or maybe it’s the fact that my recurrence of depression has me living in a bottomless pit of despair. Regardless of the reason, I just haven’t been writing like I should. To try and pick myself up I bought Dragon Age: Inquisition. I never planned on buying this game, but after seeing so many people recommend it and so many positive reviews, I finally decided to get it.

I should have remembered that Mass Effect 3 had glowing reviews too...
I should have remembered that Mass Effect 3 had glowing reviews too…

I was hoping to do a review of it, like I’ve done for The Walking Dead series, praising its storytelling and characters. But what I got was even better…

I got a bad ending.

And there’s nothing that motivates me like a bad ending. After all, my most successful post was eviscerating the horrible ending of Mass Effect 3.

So thank you BioWare! Thank you for giving me an ending that’s somehow EVEN WORSE than Mass Effect 3. You have given me reason to exist once again.

All That Matters is the Ending:

Dragon Age Inquisition

DAI-Box-art

 

Now let me preface this whole review by saying that I have something like 60 hours logged in Inquisition. It’s a good game. And I totally understand why the game is getting such great reviews from everyone. Just like Mass Effect 3 though, it’s the ending that totally derails the whole thing. The main plot is competently written, the characters are amazing as usual, and the huge expansive environments really let you experience Thedas is a way the Dragon Age: Origins never allowed. Yet the ending…

The ending is somehow even worse than that of Mass Effect 3.

“But John, how can that be!?” I hear you ask, “Mass Effect 3’s ending was without a doubt the worst finale in the history of video games!” 

Well… it’s worse because it doesn’t even try.

As harsh as I was on Mass Effect 3’s ending, on some level I still respected what they did. They dreamed big. And really the main problem with the ending was the last 10 minutes of the game with the Star Child and his Architect-like explanation of the Reapers.

In fact I'm surprised BioWare didn't get sued for lifting their ending straight from Matrix Reloaded.
In fact I’m surprised BioWare didn’t get sued for lifting their ending straight from Matrix Reloaded.

As many wise people have said over the eons:

If you’re going to fail, fail spectacularly!

For all its failings, at least Mass Effect 3 tried. It tried hard. The finale in the smoking ruins of Earth’s cities is still one of my favorite moments in gaming, and ignoring the last ten minutes, it’s a fine ending to the series.

Dragon Age: Inquisition on the other hand…well it doesn’t even try. It fails so pitifully that I almost hate to tear it down further. Mass Effect 3 was a worthy opponent, an ending whose many grand mistakes demanded a long detailed analysis. Inquisition practically apologizes to you for having such a bad ending, before immediately offering to sell you a better one. Ten, twenty years down the road people will look back and remember the hilarious aftermath of Mass Effect 3’s terrible ending, and the otherwise amazing game that led to that ending. Ten, twenty years down the road people will look back on Inquisition and say… “What game was that again?”

So why is it so utterly forgettable? Well…

1. There’s No Payoff

Let me just say this… I never really got into the plot of Inquisition once “The Elder One” was revealed to be Corypheus (really Bioware, Corpse? That’s the best anagram you could come up with?) Up until the attack on Haven I felt like this story had the potential to go anywhere, who was the mysterious voice in the ruins of the Temple of Sacred Ashes. What was the purpose behind the Divine’s “sacrifice”, what was the ultimate plan behind the rifts? This story could have gone in so many epic directions, told us strange and wonderful tales.

Instead it went with the old and incredibly tired megalomaniac aspiring to Godhood route.

Sorry Corypheus, but I think that whole schtick has been done before...
Sorry Corypheus, but I think that whole schtick has been done before…

Now I’ll be the first to admit that there’s nothing new under the sun, every story has been told. The challenge of writing a good story lies in telling the same old crap in new and interesting ways. Bioware failed to do so. All of Corypheus’s dialogue sounds like it came straight out of an “Antagonist Dialogue for Dummies” book complete with the deep, gravely voice. He wants to become a god and remake the world in his own image…well get in line buddy, there’s long, long line of people ahead of you that already had that idea.

Even after Corypheus proved to be a disappointing reveal, I was hoping maybe his plan was imaginative or would reveal something interesting about his character. Did he learn something when he was lost in the Fade? Was there a secret to Godhood? Was he behind Red Lyrium and its corruptive properties?

We may never know because his whole plan seems to be “enter the fade” and… well that’s it. Nothing else. There’s only a Step A, with Corypheus apparently hoping that the rest will somehow take care of itself.  Yeah, that went real well for you the last time you tried it, Magister. Oh did I forget to mention he was one of the original Tevinter Magister’s the penetrated the Golden City, turning it black and unleashing the Darkspawn? Well he is. That’s the same plan he has now, because surely the same plan couldn’t fail twice right?

And yet despite the fact this same plan has already failed before, everyone is convinced it’s going to work. Why? If he didn’t become a god from penetrating the Golden City, why would entering the Black City herald any different results? The better explanation is that his tampering with the fade might unleash powers that will destroy the world, but everyone acts like that’s the less likely option, despite literally no one explaining why.

I will admit his generic plan fits rather well this is generic character and generic appearance.
I will admit his generic plan fits rather well this is generic character and generic appearance.

Corypheus, apart from being utterly forgettable, is also just really terrible at his job. He’s built up as this all-powerful demigod and yet he fails every single time we meet him. The whole reason this plot even begins is because the all-powerful sphere of magic slips from his hand. Yes, the inciting incident of this entire story can be summed up as “Oops…butter fingers!”

Next he attacks Haven, a tiny little village utterly isolated from the rest of the world. Yet despite having an army of thousands, magical abilities powerful enough to rip open the sky, and a fucking dragon, he can’t even do that properly. Then he marches into the Arbor Wilds in search of the Well of Sorrows, and fails to get there before the Inquisitor despite having a head start. Oh, and we only know he’s heading there because he takes his entire fucking army with him. Why not just take a small team? You’re a demigod after all, why did you need thousands of soldiers?

And while we’re on the subject of the Well of Sorrows…why wasn’t this your plan A, Corypheus? If the Well of Sorrows could have taken you into the fade, why rip open a giant green sky hole and announce to everyone your intentions? He could have gone into the Arbor Wilds and taken the the Well of Sorrows before anyone even knew he existed.

And finally we get to the final boss fight? Finally, Corypheus has a chance to show us all the power at his disposal…

And he’s basically a mediocre Mage. The unstoppable Demigod, who everyone was telling me would easily kill me if we met in battle, who can levitate an entire temple and the bedrock it sit on… is apparently not all that powerful in combat. Hitting him repeatedly with an axe seemed to work just fine guys, but thanks for all the concern.

Pictured: A far more interesting and capable Villain.
Pictured: A far more interesting and capable Villain. Also a headcrab.

Ultimately the game is 99% build up and 1% crushing disappointment. Everything in the game fools you into thinking that the story is building into an epic finale. It’s like watching the fuse on a firework slowly burn down, and you brace yourself for the spectacular light show you think is coming, only for the firework to fizzle pathetically to nothing.

2. None of Your Choices Matter

Aside from the horrible dialogue and awful contradictions that Mass Effect 3’s ending introduced, the other major complaint was the fact that in the end none of your choices really mattered. Whether you chose to kill or spare the Rachnid Queen, whether you sided with Krogan or the Salarians, none of it affected the ending. It was a perfectly valid criticism, ultimately nothing you did in Mass Effect had any effect on the ending. Now take that utter lack of meaningful impacts from your choices and multiply it by a hundred.

That’s how useless your choices are in Dragon Age: Inquisition.

Not only do none of your choices affect the ending…they don’t affect the game period. One of the early story missions asks you to choose between seeking the aid of the Mages or the Templars. I chose the Templars because I thought their anti-magic abilities would be the most useful against a mage like Corypheus (at the time I didn’t know he was less dangerous than the wildlife in this game.) When Corypheus attacked Haven, his Venatori were supported by rebel mages and then…well they’re never seen again. From then on it’s just Venatori and Red Templars, Templars corrupted by Red Lyrium. Okay, I can accept that maybe I didn’t save all the Templars and that they’d still show up…but the utter lack of mages? Where did they all go? You telling me they were wiped out at Haven? Every mage from every circle?

Bioware couldn’t even make their first meaningful choice in the game last beyond one mission. But at least it showed up in one mission, that’s more than I can say for the rest of the choices you’re given.

Another mission later on asks you whether you want the Grey Wardens to join the Inquisition. I exiled them from Orlais because I figured they were too susceptible to Corypheus’s darkspawn influences. So was my caution rewarded and a mutiny in my own army avoided? Or were my troops slaughtered by Darkspawn without the Grey Wardens to protect them? Uh, apparently neither , because as far as I can tell, not a single thing changed. I looked it up, even if you let them stay, all they do is show up at Skyhold. It’s a purely cosmetic choice.

Did you save Empress Celene or allow her to be killed so her more militaristic cousin could take over? Hint: It doesn’t matter, you get Orlais’s army no matter what.

I don't know why we went through all that effort to build an army in Origins. Apparently they grow on trees in Orlais.
Remember when building an army was a huge undertaking?

And while I wasn’t expecting every single operation on the war map to have a significant impact on the game, I did expect some kind of feedback. I helped Queen Anora of Ferelden broker a peace with Orlais. I sent my troops to combat an army of Darkspawn and hunt them down when they retreated into the mountains. I gave financial and medical aid to civilians affected by the Orlesian Civil War. These were big missions with far ranging implications, and surely those would have some impact.

Nope. You can go through the entire game without doing a single operation and it would’t affect the outcome, not even a single line of dialogue would change.

I paid special attention to the Keep missions because those, I thought for sure, would play an important part in the ending. Surely the ending would feature all out war with Corypheus and his army. Maybe even the Tevinter Empire would send its legions in support, and my strategic positions in the keeps would be the difference between victory and defeat. So I captured the Keeps, and did all the operations to make sure they were operating at maximum efficiency. I found a new source of water for the keep in the Western Approach and made sure they had good food to eat. I rebuilt the highway at Empris Du Lion so that troops could march through the area quickly.

And it didn’t matter, because the only thing Keeps do is operate as another campsite that you can fast travel to. They also have a merchant or two that will sell you some good stuff. But as for an impact on the story? Nope.

Welcome to the table of worthless bullshit.
Welcome to the table of worthless bullshit.

So what about character side quests? Surely their approval would matter in the end. Cole, a spirit of Compassion, was worried that Corypheus might bind him. So I found an amulet to protect him, and then helped Compassion learn to forgive the man who killed the boy he couldn’t save. So did Corypheus attempt to bind Cole and impotently rage at me when he failed? Nope, as far as I can tell he never even made an attempt to do so.

And yet in the final meeting in Skyhold’s grand hall, Cole has the gall to say “Did you see? Corypheus tried to bind me and he couldn’t!”

No Cole, I didn’t see that. I would loved to have seen that. To see some kind of feedback from my choices.

The only choices that have any impact on the story are the ones from previous games. And it’s kind of impressive they managed to integrate so many of your previous choices into the game world. It’s just a shame that they couldn’t do the same thing for all the choices you make in the game you just spent nearly $70.00 on.

3. The Story is a DLC Marketing Tactic

I think the saddest part of the ending, is that I was waiting for the other shoe to drop. When my final objective was “Retire to your Quarters” I thought, Bioware you crafty Dog. This is a fake ending isn’t it? I’m going to retire to my room, and then my Inquisitor will wake up in the middle of the night as Skyhold is besieged by…someone. I didn’t even care who at that point, just tell that anemic boss fight wasn’t the ending. But no, I retired and the game gave me a final whimper as it gave me a couple of portraits explaining how my actions had consequences. Even that final ending monologue was pathetic compared to Dragon Age: Origins, at least Origins went through every choice you made and told you the fate of all the characters you got to meet. Inquisitions final monologue covers like 3 of the major choices in the story and maybe like 2 or 3 characters. That’s it.

Still, even as the credits rolled I thought, nah. Bioware couldn’t have fallen this far. No way. Mass Effect 3 had a bad ending, but surely the company hadn’t fallen this far from grace.

When I saw this after credits stinger, it suddenly all made sense. The whole, shamefully underwritten plot and story of Dragon Age: Inquisition was just a preamble to a series of DLC.

It was the video equivalent of this message.
It was the video equivalent of this message.

Oh, so you didn’t like the ending? Well guess what, there was this far more interesting story going on in the background this whole time! But you’ll have to pay to see that one, because forking out $70.00 fucking dollars just isn’t enough to justify us giving you a good story. – EA Games, apparently

Well guess what Bioware and EA. Fuck you. If you couldn’t get a decent story written for the main game, what makes you think I’m going to trust your storytelling abilities in any of the undoubtedly long series of overpriced DLC adventures you have planned?

So in Conclusion…

Bioware took our criticisms of Mass Effect 3’s Red, Blue and Green endings by giving Dragon Age Inquisition only a single color ending.

And that color is white.

White as in the color of really old dog shit.
As in the color of really old dog shit.

 

 

Burial at Sea: The Cycle Ends

And so we come to the end of the journey, in more ways than one. With the death of Irrational Games, this is truly the end of the Bioshock series as we know it.  In a way I’m glad they had time to wrap up the storyline of Infinite, but in other ways I wish they’d had more time to give us a more satisfying ending. One filled with more closure and understanding, and less with random retcons and useless scenes.

Burial At Sea: Part 2

A Storyteller’s Review

I suppose it's fitting that it ends where it all began.
I suppose it’s fitting that it ends where it all began.

When we last left our heroes Zachariah Comstock had just suffered a heart bypass via pneumatic drill while Elizabeth solemnly watched in an attempt to satisfy her hunger for vengeance. Of course we all know that’s a hunger Elizabeth will never satisfy, so Part 2 of Burial At Sea begins with us waking up as Elizabeth and staring into the face of Comstock’s corpse. Having achieved nothing beyond petty vengeance and ruining the life of one little girl, Elizabeth is tasked by Atlas to find a way off his prison in order to save the girl she just screwed over.

Like Bioshock Infinite, you spend most of your time trying to figure out what the hell just happened but somehow this plot didn’t seem as coherent as Infinite’s. Infinite was a complex plot filled with time travel and multiple dimensions, but I always felt the plot knew where it was going and the great character interactions kept me invested in the story even when I had no idea what was happening. Part 2 of Burial at sea, by contrast, sort of meanders around for most of its story and I felt like it didn’t quite know what it wanted to do with itself. It doesn’t help that Elizabeth is suffering amnesia, making her just as confused as the player. And like the first part of Burial at Sea, I felt that the majority of our time was spent just killing time and waiting for the story to resume. I liked the conversations Elizabeth had with her hallucination of Booker, but again, these were too sparse to fill the hours of vent crawling and sneaking around. When the story is present, and not just taunting you from the other side of a locked door, it’s pretty good but also filled with strangely unnecessary scenes and plots.

Daisy's Retcon is horrible in Burial at Sea Part 2.
I don’t think even the Luteces understand what the fuck was supposed to be going on here.

There are a handful of absolutely baffling scenes that seem to serve no purpose to either the story, the characters or even for the sake of entertainment. The one that really sticks out is Daisy Fitzroy’s retcon. At one point you have to use a tear to go back to Columbia to retrieve a McGuffin in order to progress through the story and while crawling through the vents of an airship you meet the Lutece siblings convincing Daisy to kill Fink’s son so that Elizabeth will become “the person she needs to be”. I really hate this scene because it’s utterly unnecessary, killing Daisy Fitzroy wasn’t the pivotal moment that turned Elizabeth into a vengeful killer, it was an important step along the way but not the pivotal moment. It also ruins Daisy Fitzroy’s character and the motivation of the Vox Populi, first of all why should she even take orders from the Lutece siblings? For one, they’re supposed to be dead, and two they were Comstock’s henchmen for most of their lives, so why would Daisy trust them? Is she also a time traveling, dimension-hopping demigod that just somehow knows that’s what she needs to do? You could remove this scene from the game and it wouldn’t change anything in the story. Nothing. I still don’t know why it was included.

At another point in the game you explore a bit of Songbird’s backstory, but that too retcons the previous storyline and explores things no one was interested in. Instead of exploring Songbird’s origins and creation, the game focuses on why and how it bonded with Elizabeth, which would have been fine if it had something to do with Songbird’s personality or had anything to do with the story at all. The game takes us tantalizingly close to some answers regarding the enigmatic Songbird, only to then totally disappoint by showing us that it bonded with Elizabeth because she plugged a hose back into its beak. “The lion with the thorn in its paw” is the analogy imaginary-Booker uses. They then use this completely anticlimactic reveal to show how the Big Daddies bonded with the Little Sisters, which I’m pretty sure Retcons the original Bioshock since I think the Little Sisters used pheromones to command the Daddies. Not to mention this retcons the previous chapter since Sally called for Mr. Bubbles before they were supposedly bonded. Again, removing these scenes from the game wouldn’t have changed the ending or the overall story of the game one iota.

Those are the two most egregious scenes in the game but there are plenty of other quests and plots that just seem to hang there like the frayed ends of a broken rope. For instance, the McGuffin I mentioned earlier turns out to be locks of Elizabeth’s hair. Again I thought this was another important part of the story at the time, like the Little Sisters are all clones of Elizabeth or something like that, but no it’s just another obstacle slowing down the story’s pace.

They might as well have made the McGuffin this doll head for all the impact it had on the story.
They might as well have made the McGuffin this doll head for all the impact it had on the story.

So after an interminable amount of time crawling through ducts and tranquilizing more bad guys than Solid Snake, we finally get to the meat of the story. After raising the prison and setting in motion Atlas’s war for Rapture, Elizabeth has to find the ‘Ace in the Hole’ in order to free Sally. Long story short, after more meandering around, you find the Ace in the Hole is “Would you Kindly?” the phrase that will set in motion the events of the original Bioshock. And we finally reach the end: Elizabeth gives Atlas the phrase and allows herself to be killed.

“It’s like a wheel of blood constantly turning…”

That’s how Elizabeth describes her existence and it’s what I’ve been saying through all the different writings I’ve done on this game. Fortunately in this ending Elizabeth finds the same strength her father showed in the ending of Bioshock Infinite. Elizabeth’s life, like Booker’s before her, is a constant cycle of betrayal, pain and revenge. She could have spent the rest of eternity trying to satisfy her lust for vengeance, but it wouldn’t have helped. And as she realized during this episode, she was fast becoming the very monster she was hunting. She took Sally away from the only person she could call a father in order to use her as bait. Ruining a child’s life in order to achieve your goals, gee, that sounds somewhat familiar. Yet it was this realization that made her return to this time, to set aside the rage and the pain, to achieve something that was truly worthwhile. In her omniscience she saw all the doors, all the paths of rage and hate that had been laid out for her, the never ending cycle of blood.

But behind one the doors, she found hope. She found a place where she could do something good.

Elizabeth couldn’t save herself, no matter how hard she tried. She would never be able to just live a normal life, never experience life with her real father, never dance in the streets of Paris. What Elizabeth could do, was prevent the same thing from happening to five other innocent girls like her. Saving Sally was about more than simply rescuing her from Atlas, it was about saving her from living the same life Elizabeth led. It was about giving them the life she never had the chance to live. It was about giving those five girls the life that twisted monsters like Andrew Ryan, Atlas (Fontaine), and Comstock sought to steal from them.

Elizabeth couldn’t right all the wrongs that had been inflicted on her, she could never go back to the girl she was, but here in this moment in time, she could save five little girls. And she was willing to make the sacrifice, the same sacrifice her father made, only this time it worked.

She gave them the father, the childhood and the future she never had.
She gave them the father, the childhood and the future she never had.

It was a bittersweet goodbye, but overall I think this was a great ending for the Bioshock series. In her final moments Elizabeth defies Andrew Ryan (and Ayn Rand) by sacrificing her own life to save the life of five strangers, altruism at its finest. She defies Comstock by choosing to accept responsibility for her actions and not hide them behind a cloak of rationalization and excuses. And she defies Atlas-Fontaine by showing him… he’s not nearly as clever as he thinks he is.

I found this ending to be incredibly emotionally gratifying, it let us say goodbye to the Elizabeth we all knew and loved: the one who was kind at heart and generous of spirit.  The cold, detached Elizabeth that drowned her father and used Sally as bait to kill Comstock died the moment Elizabeth realized what she was becoming. Elizabeth dies as the person we all grew to love, and sets aside the rage and anger that had haunted her for so long.

Goodbye Elizabeth, you were one of the finest characters ever featured in a video game.
Goodbye Elizabeth, you were one of the finest characters ever featured in a video game.

All that said, what holds this ending back from becoming the greatest video game ending ever, is all the sloppy writing that comes before the ending. The unnecessary scenes and retcons, the unanswered questions, the endless padding that killed the pacing. It was a brilliant ending for the series, but everything leading up to that ending…just didn’t work.

I love the ending…I just wish everything that had come before had been as touching and as memorable.

 

Burial at Sea: An Infinite Loop

Burial at Sea is the latest DLC for Bioshock Infinite and continues the story of Elizabeth, though how it connects with the main story isn’t revealed until the final moments of Part 1. It was kind of refreshing to return to Rapture after all these years and the DLC shows us something we never got to see in the original Bioshock: Rapture at its prime. One of the things I liked about Infinite is that it showed Columbia might actually be a nice place to live (if your white, protestant and non-Irish anyway) whereas we only ever got to see Rapture as the dark, rotting corpse of a dead society. This time we get to see Rapture at its prime as we wake up as Booker DeWitt and begin a journey through Rapture on the eve of its utter destruction…

Bioshock Infinite: Burial at Sea

A Storyteller’s Review

Burial-BookersOffice

The first thing I want to say is that I don’t think this DLC is worth the $15 they’re charging for it unless you really wanted to get back to Rapture. I completed it within about four hours I think and most of the time it just felt like busy work, half the time you’re just looking for a way to open a door or get across a chasm. I realize this is just how games work, looking back at Infinite most of the game consisted of the same thing, but here it just feels like a time sink and I think it’s because nothing you do has any real impact on the story. With the original game there was a lot of dialogue between Elizabeth and Booker as they visited various locations, and every mission had a tangible effect on the story. Maybe it’s just me, but a lot of the combat and missions in Burial at Sea just felt like padding. Honestly this whole chapter would have been better if it’d been an hour long, that would have been the perfect length for it, enough to fit in plenty of shooting and violence while allowing the story to maintain its pacing. Enough about that though, I’m here to talk about the story and what there is of it is top notch.

One of the things you’ll immediately notice upon playing Burial at Sea is that Elizabeth is extremely cold and hostile. That alone will probably tip you off that this is the Elizabeth that took Booker through time and drowned him at the end of the game. Again this isn’t the Elizabeth we saved, as I pointed out in this review she disappears the moment the Siphon is destroyed, but even the Elizabeth at the end of Infinite wasn’t this hostile. Every attempt to befriend her fails and every time she says “Mr. DeWitt” it has this venomous, almost sarcastic quality to it. Most telling of all is that when Booker DeWitt tells her to call him Booker instead of Mr. Dewitt, she responds “If it’s all the same to you, I’ll stay with Mr. DeWitt…” and it’s the way she says it that really clues you in that something is wrong. You don’t know what it is yet, but this Elizabeth hates you, and yet for some reason she’s trying to help you. I spent most of the game trying to figure out why she seemed to hate me so much and what was so important about this girl Sally, whom Rapture Booker managed to lose while gambling. Hey, that sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Constants and Variables
Constants and Variables

Sally’s trail leads through prosperous and lively Rapture, where we get some genuinely interesting glimpses of Rapture’s societal structure and the benefits of Plasmids when used properly. Of course we also get to see the cause of their downfall: their utter indifference. Elizabeth is the only one who shows any shock at a parade of Little Sisters standing in the street, Booker callously calls them “Adam Factories,” and the rest of the population is just so used to seeing this horrific atrocity it no longer even registers.  Then of course there’s the constant chatter about Fontaine’s death (or rather his alleged death) and the seizure of his assets. Of course only stay in Rapture proper long enough to watch Elizabeth beat the ever-loving shit out a store clerk before ending up in Fontaine’s old building, which has been detached from Rapture and sunk. Now its a prison housing the splicers and unfortunately the story’s pacing gets locked up in here too. There’s very little to talk about in the Fontaine Department Store, there is some great dialogue in places, but overall the story just comes to a halt while you figure out how to progress to the next area. The one part I did like was a piece of excellent foreshadowing when Booker asks what Elizabeth’s true motives are.

“There’s a debt that needs repaying.” I’m paraphrasing cause I stupidly didn’t write it down, but the way she says it sent a chill down my spine. And I found out why when we finally find Sally.

After forcing Sally out of the vents she’s hidden in we discover that the girl is now a Little Sister and, like all Little Sisters, has a big brother to look after her. A brother with a big ass drill for a hand.

Blood can only be repaid with Blood.
Blood can only be repaid with Blood.

And now Booker remembers, as he tries pulling Sally from the vent like he tried to pull Anna from an alternate dimension, Booker remembers who he truly is: Comstock. For those of you who pointed out that the ending of Bioshock Infinite didn’t make sense because you can’t fix an infinite amount of different universes, you’ll like this twist. Comstock is from yet another universe where he attempted to steal Anna, only this time instead of severing her pinky, it was the top of her head that didn’t make it through. Guilt ridden over his crime, Comstock has the Lutece twins use their Tear generator to send him far away to a new place and time where he can forget who is he is. Once again, constants and variables. Elizabeth found him though, like an inter-dimensional predator she’s stalked him through time and now she’s made the kill.

“Child, I’m sorry.” – Comstock

“No…but you will be…you will be!” -Elizabeth

Those are Elizabeth’s final words as the Big Daddy impales Comstock through the chest, and I have to admit that I grinned when the drill came on and Comstock screamed. As soon as I found out he was Comstock, and witnessed his crimes through his own eyes, I lost all sympathy for him. I was rooting for Elizabeth to kill him painfully, and she didn’t disappoint. Yet I felt sad for Elizabeth.

This DLC reveals something tragic: Booker’s death was ultimately meaningless. It was futile attempt to fix what Comstock broke. To fix something that might not even be fixable. It seems Elizabeth isn’t as omniscient as I first thought, and that her drowning Booker at the moment in time at the river was an act of desperation. She obviously hoped it would be a cure-all for the infinite universes spawned by Comstock’s hubris. A hope that was obviously never realized.

As I watched the credits roll I remember the Elizabeth from the beginning of Infinite, the one who just wanted to go to Paris and to dance. The Elizabeth we lost when the Siphon was destroyed. Now this is all that’s left to her: an infinite cycle of rage and vengeance as she hunts each individual Comstock down in whatever universe they choose to hide in. If there truly are unlimited universes, then Elizabeth’s crusade will never be complete and she’ll spend countless lifetimes hunting down Comstocks. Unless there’s a better way…

Tyrants aren't born in a vacuum.
Is this man really worth an eternity of hate?

As I pointed out in my first analysis of Bioshock Infinite, one of the underlying themes of the game can be interpreted as the importance of forgiveness. Holding onto hate and anger lead to each character’s destruction in the game, and now Elizabeth risks being consumed by her own hatred for Comstock. If she wants to break this infinite loop of pain and death, she’s going to have to let go. I have hope that she might well do just that, because the promotional art for Part 2 shows Elizabeth with a Little Sister. Maybe by saving this little girl from her fate, Elizabeth will find a better way of dealing with Comstock.

Maybe she’ll finally learn to forgive.

Maybe she’ll finally go to Paris.

Maybe…