take my money, clarinets

Listen to these clarinets, from ESO: Summerset’s soundtrack. Just listen:

I love that the person who made the video advertises this segment as “not depressing!” Thank you my man. You know what I’m looking for. Just listen to that!

Those lone clarinets are absolutely the most magnificent part, but here is the preceding minute, with more strings and almost-but-not-quite locomotive buildup, which is beautiful:

I think that’s, what, an oboe in there? Goddamn. It’s so good. The high elves are so awful. But this music is so good. Every time my husband passes by me playing Summerset he pauses either to note, during a dialogue sequence, “god the high elves suck,” or, whilst wandering, “that music!” And he’s right. Shit. It’s great.

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summerset : what you can and cannot say

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The latest expansion to the Elder Scrolls Online is out: Summerset. It takes you to the formerly forbidden land of the High Elves — who, as their name implies, have sticks inserted a great distance up their asses vis-a-vis their own significance in the world. The font of all culture, the height of all elegance, the shimmering paragons of refinement, etc. etc. The kind of tropes you expect from High Elves in any story anywhere.

But!

This expansion plunges us far deeper into the immigration issues sowed by Queen Ayrenn’s edict demanding the high elves open up their vaunted isle to all races — an act which, encountered during the plot for the vanilla game, came all too swiftly and with too little questioning to carry much weight. “Only in a fantasy world,”  you think, in vanilla ESO, “does this happen with only a few racist malcontents that the player themselves gets to destroy and thus pave the way for peace, prosperity, and good will toward men, mer, khajit, argonians, etc.”

Neope.

Summerset is blowing me away by the amount they’re willing to look at this. I know, I know, as everyone from David Gaider to Evan Narcisse has said, it’s not the job of any fictional medium to endlessly re-hash real-world issues, to reproduce the same cultural failures that exist in our world. That to make the effort can disenfranchise players in multiple ways — from simply failing to provide an enjoyable alternative world (“Do same-sex relationships have to be frowned on in every fantasy world?”), to using injustice as some kind of petty gold star for realism. So I know that the very idea of Summerset dealing with racial and particularly immigration tensions is not going to sit well with everyone.

But at least they’re opening up their damn mouths about it.

Instead of wringing their corporate hands about internet libertarian (see: fuck that they’re goddamn racists) lynch mobs, they’re actually portraying stories beyond the tired old twin “up from his bootstraps in this land of plenty” or “this evil foreigner is an evil evil terrorist” tales. In addition to actual quest lines that pursue these themes, Summerset introduces randomly-spawned NPC encounters, some of which can be interacted with and some of which are simply for observing. In one, a high elf official is fining an Argonian for simply standing there. She protests, saying she just got off the boat and has no local coinage with which to pay, and the guard insists that she pay up the fine for loitering (which you as the player can offer to pay for her). In another, a guard demands a khajit merchant pay a fine for unloading his boxes. The guard insists that foreign cargo intended for commercial use must be taxed. “I don’t see any high elf merchants here paying you,” the khajit points out. The scene ends.

In a quest line involving favors upon favors upon favors to grease the wheels of bureacracy, a high elf magistrate wants to collect “cultural souvenirs” from various newcomers (the term the game dispenses at will to describe all the non-elves in Summerset; I’d be curious to know if they toyed with the idea of developing a specific elven term, like gaijin, and then dispensed with it for simplicity’s sake or for fear of some moron like me overanalyzing its use) and the player can choose to engage each person about the desired item…or to steal them:

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The collection of these items for this odious high elf is weird in and of itself, but the choice to steal them or not does force the player to pick a side of sorts in the immigration conflict. The non-stealing interactions for each of the three items each harness an interaction: either the chance to pay one’s way into possession of the item, persuade the holder to part with it, or…to intimidate them into giving it up:

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This does not feel great. It is not intended to feel great. It makes me wonder if these branches were put here in order to continue to utilize the intimidation and persuasion perks available as part of the Fighter’s Guild and Mage’s Guild skill trees, respectively (I assume, to keep the skills relevant, there is pressure to make sure there are x amount of quests that use those skills, in every update or expansion), or if the intent was to make you consider how being forced to be an asshole to immigrants who did nothing wrong makes you feel. Stealing the items, while morally problematic, never forces you to confront them head-on. This does. It’s not giving you a high road option; it’s forcing you to do something bad and feel the consequences of your actions through conversation with your victim.

Of course, Summerset isn’t all about heady, all-too-relevant immigration topics. There is plenty of lighthearted stuff:

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They managed, too, to touch on trans people for as far as I can recall is their first time:

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I’m not going to spoil that particular quest, but suffice it to say that in a game where same-sex relationships among NPCs is very commonly displayed, discussed, and written into quests, it’s nice to see them finally include trans people in a more nuanced way than the “Why’d you come to space? / BECAUSE I’M TRANS HI” way of Andromeda.*

The overall tone of the quests and the interactions, though, tends toward one of struggling with racial tensions, and that, in today’s balls-less climate of video games developers too concerned about money to risk offending bigots, seems worthy. Of the series, and of players. Because more can be asked of us.

And should be.

 

*I’m sorry; I’m not on the Andromeda hate bandwagon and never was, but that was an awfully-fumbled attempt at appearing inclusive.

an acceptable distance

It me.

Traditionally, I have little love for isometric roleplaying games. I liked them well enough in the 90s, sure, because that was the best angle we could get. I certainly preferred them to side-scrollers, with their claustrophobically limiting 2D prisons. When I started playing video games, the isometric perch, at a 45 degree angle in the air over the character, was a few years yet from evolving into a standard, but you could see it coming. A child, I called them “see yourself games.” As opposed to those where you could not. I preferred them.

But over time, what I wanted from games changed, and so did the distance I desired to have from them. I grew to hate the isometric perch, floating so far away from details I wanted to see: the graffiti scrawled on mages’ desks; the contents of various bowls in a kitchen. From the isometric distance, everything was limited to a blur of pixels, and detail depended upon someone having bothered to code in a description triggered by your click. Perhaps, coddled first by text adventure games and then by MUDs — where such details would most definitely have been added — I was spoiled.

There is too, though, the fact that I’m less desirous of seeing myself in games now, in third person. I’m less interested in having to see the necessary disconnect between the character and myself, maybe: whereas before, I delighted in the appearance of a new cloak or sword on my character in accordance with my having added it to my inventory, now all I wanted to do was meld into the game, without the prop of the character between me and the environment. When people gather to discuss this or that game and the talk turns to mechanics I want to dig a hole in the ground. I don’t care about mechanics, I want to snap. Just give me a world I can vanish into, and don’t bother me there. I’ll jump through whatever hoops you want me to vis-a-vis how the character or combat is controlled. I don’t care. Just let me in, and let me shut the door behind me.

I had little interest, then, in Pillars of Eternity, when it came out in 2015. People tried to get me hyped; I took one look at the isometric angle and said no. Not gonna happen. Not when I can fade into Skyrim, or at least drag the camera down over my character’s shoulder in Dragon Age or, you know, most other modern games. Games that wouldn’t force you to keep that damning distance between you and the action. Diablo, Darkstone, even remasters of old point-and-click adventures: I had tried them already, and found them lacking.

But I bothered to pick up the first Pillars last week because its sequel just came out. And the sequel boasts free DLC that places the members of Vox Machina, whose Critical Role voice actors already voice tons of characters in both Pillars games, in as recruitable characters for your party. And I mean. I’m not made of stone.

And it turns out I love this game.

I love the immense amount of writing that sits within it, waiting to be discovered — or not. As with the Elder Scrolls games, you can read all the in-game books — or you can not. (I always do.) As with the early Sims games, you can read the lengthy, often tongue-in-cheek stories behind every item’s description — or you can not. (I always did.) The very fact that reading all that text was optional makes it more valuable to me — maybe how books I chose to read automatically had more value to me than those I was forced to read. It’s juvenile, I know. It’s artificially limiting. But I hate being led by a flagrantly obvious carrot on a flagrantly obvious stick. Unless we are talking romanceable NPCs, which is another question entirely. Having the choice to do all this reading of details, of stories-within-stories, will always invite me to read them. Forcing it all to be read as part of some ham-handed fact-finding mission will curdle my tongue. I have never liked mystery novels or hidden object games, and don’t like have to engage with a warped version of either.

In Pillars, though, I do care about the written details behind these characters. Yes, these characters I can barely see — and I have no doubt that the portraits (themselves visual callbacks to older games, older ways of looking for identity in a sea of pixels) of major characters that appear next to their text when they speak go a long way toward warming me to them. Even frozen into stillness, they still give you more of the character than the sprite. (This is probably a deficiency in me, peculiar to the specific time I came into games, and the nature of the games I played first, but there it is.)

Yes, McCree. Yes indeed.

There’s the plot, too — which, like the characters, is not crap. “This must be upsetting for a lot of people,” I murmured to my husband, who played a little of the game when it came out, but not much.

“How so?”

“Well, anyone who’s lost a baby, or had it dragged lifeless out of them, or had it show up breathing but a vegetable. It kind of touches on all of that with zero subtlety. Look.”

“…oh.”

I know people to whom all of these situations apply, and when this is the backdrop to your story, it demands attention:

Holy shit.*

I get that it’s dark, but…I appreciate this particular darkness. Like how I appreciate an adult losing their shit over their lost mother, as appeared to happen during Critical Role two weeks ago (however briefly). It’s…affirming, surrounded by those who have either not experienced hardship or who who have dealt with it but seem unphased by it (the curious emotional immaturity of the vast majority of Californians I’ve met here has at its root, I assume, as least as much wealth and luck as it does climactic or societal ease)…affirming that in this soft, beautiful land of soft, beautiful people, who seem unable to be stirred to extremes of anything, to see someone break down is just a relief. Ah yes, the thought is. So you still believe in some kinds of precipitation out here.

This sounds irrelevant to Pillars of Eternity, but it’s not. All day I listen to people talk about games, but about the parts of games that are entirely interchangeable for me. Economies of this or that, balance, meta, I don’t care about any of it. I never have; if I have appeared to it’s only to look polite. And it’s frustrating, to be neck-deep in something you should love, only to find everyone most caught up in the minutiae that does not move you. Or for them to be so, so close to doing something meaningful, only to veer sideways into frippery or a cheesy joke instead. Oh just have the balls to be earnestly dark, I want to tell them. Just bring people to their knees and don’t apologize for it.

This is so not the time and place, but this dovetails so well into my loathing of labels…

Pillars does that. The character of the Grieving Mother, for example. At first I glowered, thinking how debilitatingly shallow of them, to define a woman and sure, a mother, by what she lost. The losses she continues to feel, magnified throughout compounded losses of those who follow in her wake. But then it became clear that even proffered with other names, other options if she could not remember hers (and she can’t), this is the name she chooses to go by. She claims it. And probably that is more helpful, and empowering in a way, than if her sorrow were swept under the rug after one or two paragraphs. “Sorry for your loss lady, now let’s call you Pam, shall we? Because The Grieving Mother is just such a downer, amirite?”

Well, yes, she is. (Speculative spoilers: she’s probably also some sort of amnesiac maternal goddess, temporarily dissociated from powers and her identity as a result of The Legacy, and my hope is that like Meridia in ESO she’ll burst out of her sad shell in a blaze of blinding light and roast everyone who caused harm, before the end. But that’s just hope and speculation; I haven’t finished the game.) But that’s the point. There are plenty of rogues with hearts of gold out there — every story ever has its obnoxiously charming rascal. I’m looking at you, Mat Cauthon. But rarer are the stories to show women wracked with grief — and not as flavorful background noise (think banshees) but as actual party members, who sometimes speak past or around their grief with insight or shrewdness, without having to erase the sorrow that shapes them. Or having it vanish after a single sidequest and a couple lines of follow-up conversation. The Grieving Mother is barely even seen by other characters. Her sadness makes her invisible to them. She doesn’t know why you see her, and you don’t, either. But you — I — want to. I want to know what makes a sad woman worth seeing. What they’re saying it is burning in there, waiting to burst forth and blind everyone.

With characters like this, both heavily written and yes, heavily voiced (having grown so coddled by the gift that is modern voice acting in games — even going back as far as Inherit the Earth, whose then-rare voices entranced me as a kid — returning to older or cheaper games that lack it is disappointing), I can stomach the isometric distance. I still have no desire to float up there at 45 degrees, so damned distant from everything and everyone…but with so much accessible to me through words, it’s an acceptable distance. One I am willing to put up with, even if I can’t disappear into it.

And if you haven’t had your fill of feelings, there are always the in-game memorials to people real and fictional, granted to Kickstarter backers of the first game. While many are silly, trite, or make no sense, every tablet has at least one line that will kick you in the guts.

*Also, holy shit that puberty is the dealbreaker for animal souls shoved into human bodies (?!), but…that’s a whole post in itself.

class in the clockwork city

Note: I prepared this post, but never finished it, and now that the closed beta for Summerset is out and I’m in it, it seems unwise to continue to sit on a post predicated by that upcoming release. I liked this Clockwork City quest — well, there are two referenced here, I suppose, but I mean the longer involved one below about whether one is or is not allowed to change one’s fate in a clockwork world. It interested me. Yes, even though I’m sure many kneejerk reaction was to scoff at Yet Another Game Company trying to explore Issues. It’s too easy to scoff at that, folks. Obviously no one’s going to get it right, but that doesn’t mean those who try should be shamed out of ever making the attempt. Then no one will try, and all we’ll get is tawdry linear stories of unquestioned heroism. We don’t need that. We need something better.

So yes, excerpted below are screenshots from a Clockwork City DLC quest about fate, as foretold by a creature, an automaton, crafted by the same hand that crafted the world in which the characters find themselves entrapped. These fates are predicted by analytics; data harvested by the automatons that make the city run. Clockwork City is useful for these sorts of examinations because it’s contained. All disparities are explained away by Sotha Sil’s minions as having been brought into existence to correctly mirror the world above/outside. That includes disparities in class. And this tautology, this “it’s just how it is; we’re just showing you how it is” mindset would be more troublesome if it weren’t questioned. That’s what this quest line is doing. Maybe too overtly; maybe not colored with enough shades of gray, but the questions are at least getting asked. That’s more than you can say of most games; certainly most MMOs. 

(I’m not trashing the idea of a utopia where these problems don’t exist, mind you. The need for that kind of world-building and even escapism is ever-present. But we can’t spend all our time there. We’ll never learn anything about where we are, or how to fix it.)

****

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With ESO’s recent announcement of its next chapter DLC (chapter, mind you, the same term applied to Morrowind — so expect a lush, large world and extra content), people in my guilds started musing on what was to come, and one observant soul pointed out that a trip to Summerset Isle shouldn’t be a surprise, since it had been hinted at as recently as in a quest in the Clockwork City DLC.

Cue my guilt. First out of a desire to linger and wait until my husband could play through it with me (which hope was permanently stymied by a dead graphics card and insane prices driven up by bitcoin miners), then out of a dogged loyalty to my pvp campaign, after I finished the main plot and the emotionally compromising memory sideplot of the Clockwork City DLC, I somewhat laid it aside. Occasionally I’d go back and do some dailies, because the crows and the crow-summoning armor they give were cool, but by and large I stuck to Tamriel’s sunny shores, rather than the brassy light of Sotha Sil’s realm. I am just as bad about finishing the quests in Coldharbour, to be fair: it’s dark, dank and dreary. There is no natural light. There are no sunstars. It’s not really a place I enjoy lingering.

But my guildie’s comment intrigued me: where had this upcoming expansion been referenced, that I missed? So I padded back into the Clockwork City and began picking up quests.

ahoy

I’d been following Sea of Thieves with interest since its initial trailer, but now that it’s out I find myself in a situation similar to that of a bookworm in a literature program. It behooves you to be guarded about things you get excited about, because the first and most immediate reaction of those around you is to to find fault with it. Not because they’re terrible people, but because it’s what they do. And that kind of mindset, while no doubt necessary for the advancement of mankind, really isn’t any fun. Not to be around, and not to carry between your ears, either.

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So I’m sailing around on my little sloop pretty much alone. It’s clear — you don’t need me to tell you; the press around the game made clear long ago — that it would be best to play with others. So your poor frantic fingers aren’t busy fumbling down the sail AND the anchor as you pull into port, for example. Or so you don’t — as I do — abandon mooring dockside altogether and simply commit to sloshing your way back and forth to your ship a safe distance from shore — where you won’t bang it into the dock and sink it when you sail away again. Or so there’s someone else to help carry all the chickens.

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Sharks? Skeletons? Storms? No. The real horror in this game comes from realizing that you can accidentally drown your chickens if you hold their cages too low in the water. That frantic flapping and the bubbles rising from that beak will have you slamming the up key like nothing else.

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Even so, though, sailing is a beautiful experience in this game. I know I’ve sung the praises of that old Pirates of the Caribbean PC game — the one that came out before there was more than one movie; the one that had far too small a map but which I clung to slow travel within, preferring entirely the endless swell of the horizon to the fast travel of the zoomed-out map — and I’ve probably gone on about having read the Patrick O’Brian books, Horatio Hornblower, etc. etc. I played Sid Meier’s Pirates! and a couple shitty knock-offs or remakes. I’ve read every damn novel about female pirates in the English language. My bar is low. I just want to sail. And the sailing is gorgeous.

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Would I like a comrade or two? Sure. The ability, like in Pirates!, to careen off into the sunset with a tavern mistress or a governor’s daughter (or son, I suppose), and embroider a story to go along with those escapades? Definitely. But even without all that, the sailing is enough for me. The characters’ art style would have pushed me away, had the sailing not been there. Everyone looks like they just walked out of James and the Giant Peach, if with a far brighter color palette — and I loathed the art direction for James and the Giant Peach. But that doesn’t end up mattering much, because most of your time isn’t spent looking at other humans, let alone at yourself: it’s spent gazing at the waves as you try to keep your prow pointed into them.

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And they really are waves. They will crash onto your deck if you don’t do the obvious thing and steer into them. They will foam and froth when whipped up by the wind. If you abandon your boat to bob in them, you will indeed bob, and while I’ve never been one given to nausea or motion-sickness, that very distinct up-and-down heave sends a thrill of terror through me every time. I like looking at the actual ocean. Not being in it. It’s endless and dark and it doesn’t give a fuck. The ocean is terrifying.

But I bring it up just to point out how good the waves are in this game.

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There are settlements. Quests. People. Outfits and improvements one can make to oneself and one’s equipment and one’s ship. Hell, you can even choose from an array of snazzy figureheads to affix to your prow — if you’re rolling in gold, anyway. But I’m not here for any of that. I came to fill my sails and steer into the sunset, and the game does that really well.

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Maybe one day I’ll even get to use my cannons.

fayth

At Distant Worlds, they sang Hymn of the Fayth, synced to the cutscene. Less than a week before my mother’s funeral, I started crying, as I supposed I might have. I thought I could at least keep it together until Zanarkand — the song for which I attended in the first place. It’s not as though I hadn’t watched this cutscene of the Sending before, many times.

I kept thinking of Yuna as a provider of a service, though. Someone who was good at what she did. Yes, there was the morbid self-sacrificing part of it later, but first and foremost her job — what she travelled her world doing — was to give comfort. To give those people sobbing at the water’s edge, staring at the wrapped bundles of what had been their loved ones bobbing beneath the waves, the impression that there was some scrap of final goodness to be gained from all this. Because a summoner was there, and could release the souls of their loved ones to a peace they, those remaining, hadn’t been able to grant them in mortal life. A gift they couldn’t give.

The betrayal, the lie she is told, cuts the player deeply, sure, for the tax on the characters you by then love. But for Yuna as a provider of this service — someone who at great physical and emotional cost has travelled the countryside releasing the spirits of the dead to what she thought — what the people clutching at her skirts believed — was rest, to discover this falsehood is vicious. Her one job, the one thing she was good at, and had studied for years to learn to do, turned out to be a lie. Not only was she being used, but she had been, without her knowledge or consent, using others. Hundreds of them. And all those people who looked at her through tears before her service, and who probably looked at her through tears after, too, but who through their snot expressed sore, aching gratitude — to discover that rather than peace, what you had been doing that whole time had been “releasing” those souls to feed a kind of machine…how bitter. How cruelly undermining of everything you thought you had to bring to the world.

And I found myself crying, there in that theater full of shrill fangirls and too-tall guys who reeked of cheap weed, because I remembered my mother saying, for years, that she’d done what she’d done — studied what she had, lived where she did, around the world — to provide a service. A very specific, medical service to people who needed it. She was good at it. Everyone who keeps throwing her past at me, thinking their sudden ambush of memories helps me, has made this clear. She was good at what she did.

It wasn’t a lie…the wounds she healed stayed that way, and the muscles she coaxed back into functioning continued to grasp and grip and turn and manipulate objects in this world. Her speciality was hands — the most devastating thing for craftsmen to lose, yes, but even laypeople, as I learned one year, can have so much they love taken away through the loss of their hands. Even the ability to clutch at the people they love.

What she healed stayed healed, but there was no return favor. She fell apart and stayed that way. I thought of the Hymn of the Fayth as the man whose faith I did not share read words seeded throughout books and movies as words that give peace. Well, no — he didn’t read them. His finger marked a page in a closed book, but he didn’t need to read them because he’d memorized them already. This was his job. To stand here in the blazing sun for ten minute segments in front of strangers either crying or holding rigidly, desperately still in order not to. To stand there and speak words that bring people in stories peace. Close-up shots, and piano solos, and laid-down flowers and peace.

It was this that I appreciated, more than any particular affinity for the Bible passages he trotted out. The fact that this was his job. That he was a provider of this service, and went to bed at night feeling as though — one assumes; he was younger than me but not by enough to still lie to himself about his worth — the strangers he saw in streams that day had been served. In some way. He didn’t try to chum it up as small-town ministers I’d met in the past had done — he did not pretend, in speech or in manner, to have been my friend, or my mother’s. He was a stranger, doing his job. A kind of healer, rehabilitating us to grasp and grip and manipulate objects in this, the world-that-remains, even if we don’t much wish to. He’d do it for the next group gathering on the hill behind us. And the next, and the next. And then he’d go home and feel that work had been done.

And I want, very much, for him never to feel that it was all a lie, or that he’d been used or using people. The passages he kept quoting are just scraps of stories, even though they aren’t the stories that are dear to me. In the hands of others — the organized bodies who archive them and form policies based too much upon them, for example — they are weapons, and wretched. But in the gloved hands of a stranger on a sunny hill, they’re just tools used to do a job. Or to try to. I can’t resent him for that effort.

Nor could I summon shame — I checked — when, looking right or left or anywhere except at the tiny box in front of me that held what had been my mother — I kept hearing the choir singing Hymn of the Fayth three thousand miles away, and seeing shining streaks of soul-stuff visibly releasing those gathered from a loss their knees were pebbled and bruised under the weight of bearing.

night chats with sotha sil

Sotha Sil is arguably the least accessible of the Tribunal, whether of the character’s own volition or just as a function of the organization of the games. So to get to see so much of him in the Clockwork City DLC is a treat, not the least of which because, of all three of them, he is the most given to pedantry.

(Cut for large number of images. We’re talking a Tumblr-level cascade of images here, people. Also, um, spoilers!)

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