Tuesday, September 26, 2017

On Making Life is Strange Into Dark Souls

"People are always ruining things for you."
-Holden Caulfield

This is the tale of how I experienced the indie adventure game Life is Strange.

It started as a dare. A few of us were talking shit about video games, mostly belittling one anothers' abysmal tastes, and a few choice words spiked our collective blood pressure high enough that the Dark Souls / Life is Strange Throwdown of 2017 was set in motion. And executed.


My friend Jon played Dark Souls 2: Scholar of the First Sin for a good 14 hours. I commend his efforts, as he was pretty cynical about the whole From Software mystique and I think he's at least started to see why I like the Dark Souls vibe as much as I do. However, the game I recommended was Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition, which he has yet to play.

I played Life is Strange for 1 hour, which was 45 minutes longer than I wanted to play. Once I realized the game mechanics were essentially going to be cut scenes and dialogue trees, I became frustratingly bored and the game itself felt like a chore. The bit with the paint bucket and the sprinklers and bitchy Veronica or Victoria or whoever, the girl you can't just fucking walk past and get into the dorms, was the first time I told the game out loud to go fuck itself. I got to the end of Chapter 1 and decided I was done.

For perspective, these are five games (off the top of my head) that I really like, and have played in the last couple years:

Darkest Dungeon
Master of Orion 2
Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition
The Binding of Isaac

All of which are a million miles away from Life is Strange in terms of theme, mechanics, and ... well, basically everything. Dark Souls, Binding, and Overwatch are all dexterity based, revealing their vague-yet-intriguing worlds through masterful use of context. MOO2 and Darkest Dungeon are not dexterity based, instead requiring the player to build their own world within the game's rules and setting. All have very few cut scenes, very little dialogue, lots of significant choices, lots of variable challenges, and tons of player agency.

Life is Strange, on the other hand...

Ok, before I go off-road into the pseudoscientific quagmire of "what makes a game fun to play," let me abruptly switch gears: I'm not trying to bare my amygdala, or even assert that one type of game is better than another. Merely, I'm offering an explanation for why I found Life is Strange so frustrating to play.

As a game, I can only say two things about it with any sincerity: "I found it horribly dull" and "It's not my kind of game."

That said, I wasn't willing to let my prejudices get in the way of a good experience, and besides, I was still curious about what made people recommend it. The more I consciously dismissed it, the more curious I became in my unguarded moments. I was starting to obsess over it, honestly. I tried watching an 8 hour long video on YouTube which was essentially a Let's Play without any talking, but I found my attention drifting and abandoned it.

Then I found this:

And then I was all, "Ok, let's do this." And I did. And I laughed. And I re-watched critical scenes without Adam's commentary later so I could make up my mind for myself. And you know what? Despite the mountain of odds which were stacked against both myself and the game, I actually really liked Life is Strange.

Adam hated it for predictable reasons (which, I must digress, is one of the reasons I like his movie review channel - even though my tastes diverge from his fairly often, his critical voice is consistent). But I enjoyed the story once it got going. Yes, the game is a pastiche hacked together from a bunch of other, better-executed ideas, but buried somewhere beneath the horrible dialogue and cringey cliches, there's something sort of sublime that's worth experiencing.

Rather than wax on about all the things that were wrong with it, I'm going to discuss what I liked.

The Soundtrack
Whether or not one likes the original score + licensed tracks is a matter of taste, but you've got to admit, the music fits the mood of the game so well. Not really a whole lot else to say about this, other than, "Damn fine job!" Obstacles has been stuck in my head for two days now.

The Dialogue
It's utterly atrocious, but in a way that's so bad it's good. Saying hella is fun. I missed that phase in the mid-2000s because I went to college in the rural Midwest, so it never showed up organically in my dialogue. Now that I'm in my thirties and much too far from cool to care, it's great. Hella great, in fact.

The Architecture
This is it. This is the thing that got to me and won me over. It requires a shift in perception - you can't take the game literally for this to work. You gotta let your right-brain take over, shut off your left-brain logic, and try to enjoy the interplay of symbols and overlapping meanings within the narrative.

Life is Strange (and the story it tells) is a dream-like meditation on the fear of success. Max's desire to be an artist (but her hesitation at handing in her photos in Episode 1) is the narrative-in-brief, or the fugue, or the mantra, which will be repeated over and over and over. The mysterious storm bearing down on Arcadia Bay represents The Unknown - all possible outcomes, good and bad, but mostly the bad ones as far as Max can imagine them, and Chloe represents Max's comfort zone. Max wants to be as close to her comfort zone as possible, but she knows it can't last. Chloe is so much fun but, in the long-term, she will be toxic. She's like drugs, refined sugar, or never leaving home. If Max chooses to stay with her, she commits a kind of suicide - in one sequence, this plays out with Max literally needing to kill Chloe in order to escape from her past. In another, Max is successful and living in San Francisco, but Chloe herself is dead.

Chloe gives Max all kinds of great and memorable experiences, and Max wants to hold on to her forever. But Chloe can't last - She is inevitably slain by Mr. Jefferson (who represents Death in the physical, metaphysical and spiritual sense; he brings the inevitable loss of innocence which Max is hoping to delay forever). Max's battle with Jefferson is telling in that she needs outside assistance in the form of David Madsen in order to defeat him, cooperating with her former (perceived) enemy in order to overcome her real one.

Madsen represents everything Max finds distasteful about the world. War, narrow-mindedness, intolerance, violence, patriarchy, etc. Despite all of Madsen's negative traits, Max knows she must align herself with him, if only for a moment, in order to beat back her true adversary, Death. By choosing to do so, even if it's only to save herself, Max regains a measure of control over the loss of her innocence. The loss still happens. Death is still confronted. But when the struggle is over, Madsen frees her and she can stand again, on her own. The story could very well end here and be a cautionary tale, but Max has magic powers, so why would she want to end her tale in this bleakest of timelines?

She goes to a timeline where everything is great and Chloe is alive and they can be together, only... There's that storm. The Unknown. The Future is coming to take away Max's past, and Max has a choice: She can act to preserve the innocence of others, or she can act to preserve herself. Only, no matter what she does in this moment, she must be selfish. She is creating the world she wants to live in. She is choosing to be the person she will be for the rest of her life. All of this power is now, finally, inescapably, being released via her agency, and she will be responsible for everything that happens next.

Chloe, her comfort zone, tries to convince Max that it's all right to sacrifice her. And that's the beautiful ending, the meaningful ending, the ending that we wish we could choose because it means we're good people and willing to make sacrifices for the greater good. We are worthy of our future. We have chosen to discard our innocence. Our character has been tested and we've come out ahead. We can sleep at night, even though we will always carry a Chloe-shaped scar, and there will be dreams which we kiss our secret lovers even as we know we must, inevitably, wake up, and leave them all over again.

There's also the ending that I chose. The bitter end. The one where Max says, "Fuck this place, fuck your narrative, fuck your apotheosis. I want what I want and I will take it no matter the cost." Because that's how I saw Max, and on some level, that's how I see myself. We both fuck up important things, things which should be clear and unambiguous but which we can't seem to let go of and move beyond. We cling to our comfort zones despite knowing better. We dream, and occasionally even act, but we are weak people and the world pays a cost for our weakness. We think we are acting out of love but, in the dark, at night, alone, we know we are acting for our benefit alone.

This revelation makes us numb and guilty and ruins our lives and the lives of those we care about, but we were weak when it mattered the most, and this is what we have, now. Our reward is ruin, but at least we held on to our beautiful, blue-haired delusions. Comfort is our final bulwark against despair.


Of course, there's a silver lining: This is all just a game. You can always go back and choose the other ending. If being selfless and beautiful has proven to be too much of a burden, you can always choose to put your own happiness first. If ignoring your own failures while you focus inward has begun to lose its luster, you can always choose to be a better person and correct your past mistakes.

Metaphorically, we make Max's "hard choice" every day. If you're past the age of innocence, if you've confronted the reality of your own death, and if that confrontation has led you to make any sort of real decision about your life, then you've already killed and saved Chloe a thousand times. Big decisions - whether to go to college, or move to Rome, or ask out a crush - act as obvious anchor points for this metaphor, but so do the small ones.

On a personal level, in my struggle with weight loss, I destroy Arcadia Bay every time I choose donuts over salad. I fuck up every time I sleep in instead of going for that morning walk. I inevitably pay for it, and will keep paying for it, because my decision can't be undone. But I can choose the right ending the next time. It will never be enjoyable to sacrifice Chloe. My eyes will never light up in sadistic glee as I leave her to die on that windy hilltop. I will never teleport away cackling.

But I can still choose to do it.

It's only through acknowledging her unspoken desires and choosing to act on them, one way or the other, that Max is able to move forward with her life.

Likewise, I really wanted to play more Dark Souls and not some indie game marketed to teenage girls. I needed to turn Life is Strange into a meta version of Dark Souls in order to access it. I needed to find my own path, to fail, to meditate, to try again. I needed to get frustrated and quit. I needed to be miserable with it. Then, and only then, could I approach it with enough emotional jet fuel to blast through it and see what the experience was all about. And really, I'm glad I did, because it showed me a real truth about myself, and despite everything, in the end, it was good.

Hella good, in fact.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Atlantis (A Lamentations of the Flame Princess Campaign Seed)

Game System: Lamentations of the Flame Princess.
The gist: It's old-school D&D (Basic/Expert base rules) with a twist: It's got weird magic, it's got a ton of metal influences, and it's set up to play in an "early Modern period" instead of the default "pseudo-Medieval" of Dungeons & Dragons. What I like is that it's a fairly straightforward, simple rule set in which you can easily make a character in 10 minutes. And that's great, because all characters are fragile and the world is a bizarre and brutal place.

The Setting:

It is June 1, 1618.

Atlantis has re-appeared in the North Atlantic after a two-hundred and twelve year absence. She is still inhabited by descendants of the brave French and Spanish settlers who risked all to settle her shores between her discovery by Admiral Diego de Camiña on August 4, 1450 and May 14, 1506, when the entire island disappeared without a trace.

The first continental power to re-establish communication (and thereby dominance) over the Atlanteans stands to profit substantially. Atlantis is rich in natural resources, as well as exotic creatures and rare metals found nowhere else in all the world. Whichever crown calls Atlantis her ally (or, better yet, her vassal) will stand tall above her enemies - and in these uncertain times, friends are few, and enemies are everywhere.

As a group, you'll need to choose a patron:

France. You are part of the entourage of Roul Pasquier, a Parisian diplomat. Your duty is to guard Pasquier as he conducts affairs in Soluna, Atlantis' capital, as well as to perform any 'unsavory' duties he assigns to you. Pasquier is a wealthy man, and his family owns several iron mines. He wants you to discover new sources of mineral wealth on Atlantis, and to buy, cajole, bully, coerce, and otherwise take the rights to that wealth. For the glory of France, of course.

Rome. You're part of the Vatican's expedition to Atlantis. Officially, you're there to act as guards for the esteemed Cardinal Francisco Bertello as he conducts affairs in Soluna, Atlantis' capital. Unofficially, you are relic hunters, acquiring magic, art, and treasure for the Catholic church. You are also tasked with endeavoring to understand how an island could disappear and re-appear in such an inexplicable fashion, and to root out and destroy heresy and darkness wherever it might appear.

Independent. You're mercenaries, adventurers, and privateers. Although you're under-funded and don't have any crowns backing you up, you're also completely unfettered by their expectations. Your story begins in Soluna, Atlantis' capital, shortly after you part ways with the Spanish merchant vessel which brought you here from Europe.


And if you're a GM wondering about influences and such:
The Default Setting. Essentially the skeleton I'm hanging the rest of the game on, at least as far as adventures in Atlantis go.
The Inspiration. Turtledove's prose is overly verbose and repetitive, but his ideas can be pretty neat sometimes.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Sewer Rats Primer (Chesterwick Part 2)

This is a long overdue continuation of this post about the Sewer Rats.

The year is 1542, and you've got the most thankless job in the Empire. If you don't die fighting oozes in a shit-pipe, you might just retire young and rich! And full of trauma, but whatever, gold pieces pay for therapy, so go on - get in there, draw your blade, and stop complaining about the smell!

Sheldon: Senile old human (?) druid. Primary questgiver. Can also provide curse removal and disease-curing services, though it’s a total crap-shoot as to whether or not it’ll work.
Captain Turk: Cocksure halfling fighter and veteran Sewer Rat. Competition / clean-up. Always gunning for your glory and taking your quests.
Gorgool: Earth Elemental. Will pay you with raw gold for metal, gems, and jewelry, and vice versa.
Grandma Hiderender: Retired half-orc barbarian. Buys and sells low-level magic items. Tells great stories from her wild killin’ and revelin’ days.
Maeve: Disgraced apprentice witch. Half-elf. Slightly mad. She helps write spells and collect material components for arcane casters who need that kind of thing.
Jerome: Intelligent, free-willed zombie. Leader of the Undead Collective.  Not a Sewer Rat, but very familiar with the sewers, and helpful toward the Guild.

Other Factions
The Kings’ Guard. Royal knights fond of taking all the credit whenever they intercede. They’re a big authority on all sorts of Fighter/Paladin stuff.
The Alchemists Guild. Notorious polluters who hate paying taxes.
Netherstorm University. The city’s premiere college of wizardry.
Akaga Dojo. Continuing a fine tradition of martial training and philosophy.
The Undead Collective. The city’s civic-minded, free-willed undead.
The Dwarf Quarter. Divided between Roeni mountain-dwarves who want to overthrow the king and city-dwarves who like Chesterwick better. They worship Moradin and (allegedly) give espionage quests.
The Thieves’ Guild. They’ve got a truce with the Sewer Rats at the beginning of the campaign, but that may change. They keep track of how much gold the PCs are accumulating and don’t like it when the Rats kill their members. Rogue stuff.
The Steamfitters’ Union. An endless source of escort quests and obnoxious NPCs.
The Great Library. Not affiliated with Netherstorm University, and they’ll let you know it, too, even if you don’t care. They’re mostly Clerics of Cobb, god of knowledge, and they’ll buy weird books and religious paraphernalia. They’re also a great source of general information. Cleric/Warlock stuff.
The Church of Heironeous. The ultra-baroque chivalric arch-paladin god watches over his people, and sometimes gives them quests. Cleric/Paladin stuff.
Stabby’s Place. The black-market, kobold-run undercity bar that every fantasy city needs.
The Lich King. The real ruler behind the scenes. High level stuff.
The Duergar. They really want to invade and take over the city.
The Stone Circle. Druids who are very concerned that life isn’t being extinguished willy-nilly, and will quite likely protest against most of the stuff the PCs do once they find out.
The Temple of Dagoth. Discount hexes and bingo on Thursdays. Side-quest-givers for evil PCs.

General Random Encounters in the Sewers (d100)
2d4 Rat Swarms
2d4 Wererats
1d6 Giant Spiders
3d6 Zombies
1d4 Gargoyles
3d10 Bandits (d6: 1-4 no leader, 5 5th level Fighter, 6 6th level Warlock)
Oozes (d6: 1-3 Gray Ooze, 4-5 Ochre Jelly, 6 Black Pudding)
No Encounter
Roll three times and triple the number of dice used to determine # of enemies.

Random Side-Quest Generator
The Stone Circle
Needs you to rescue one of their novice members from…
The Spider Pits
The Steamfitters’ Union
Is being threatened by a group of bloodthirsty bandits who are hiding in...
The Ant Caves
The Undead Collective
Discovered a screeching monolith; it’s awful and they want you to get rid of it by returning it to…
The Lost City of Zinje
The Alchemists’ Guild
One of their high-ranking members is sick and can only be cured by a fungus that grows in…
The Sinking Quarter
Netherstorm University
Lost an important McGuffin ages ago, but new information leads them to believe it’s in the…
The Old, Skull-filled Temple of Erythnul
The Church of Heironeous
Needs to perform a ritual / fix a pipe / etc., except there is a rampaging plutonium elemental who killed the last crew, and it was last seen in…
The Gypsum Caverns
The Thieves Guild
Needs you to scout out this place and make a map.
Be thorough. Don’t ask stupid questions.
The Dripping Forest
Akaga Dojo
Has important business in a weird spot, and needs bodyguards to make it safely through…
The Canyon of the Wurm
The Dwarf Quarter
Roll d8. It’s just like that, only a pack of gargoyles stalks the PCs the whole time and attack them if they get into a fight with something else.
The Pit of Annihilation
The Great Library
Roll d8. It’s just like that only there is an undisclosed faction opposed to it and they will send 2d6 Assassins to stop the Sewer Rats in their tracks.
The Duergar Pipes