Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Diabolic Paths of Od Nua

"it takes minute detail, it takes holy life, it takes dedication, it takes dedication
and you couldn't do it if you're not the seed of God
and so the path through these great corridors
(these are corridors unto His perfection)
and i went through that last segment
where i went through these dark serpentines
i passed through that corridor
where they sat, where they are

this is all a dream
a dream in death
and so i went through that window
and the tower of hell and the great serpentines of the highest order"

Godspeed You ! Black Emperor - Static


While Diablo 2 was Blizzard Entertainment's test lab for keeping players enthralled to an endless loot grinding treadmill, the first Diablo game was a worthy project in its own right, a compromise between the randomized roguelikes of the previous decade and the rising trend of scripted, story-based RPGs which came to be dominated by Black Isle's Infinity Engine games. Diablo earned its fame largely by thematic coherence, both in gameplay mechanics and its artistic delivery of the bleak grayscale "built on an Indian burial ground" B-movie haunted town routine. Magic specialness did not suffer from the rampant devaluation seen in loot grinding games like World of Warcraft and its copycats (there's a reason the DnD routine breaks down after twenty levels) and its four by four zones proceeded in a very satisfying fashion from intrigue to rising action to climax and denouement. Diablo was a DnD dungeon crawl. Play a fighter, rogue or wizard, dodge traps, track down macguffins slay ghoulish beasties and grab tha lewt! Though the Infinity Engine games tacked on a classic dungeon crawl here and there (Durlag's Tower, Watcher's Keep, more in Icewind Dale) Diablo embodied it, descending level by level through incremental badassery. The whole game was a megadungeon.

So, ironically, when I played Pillars of Eternity, the Endless Paths of Od Nua reminded me not of the Baldur's Gate games Obsidian ostensibly emulated but of Blizzard's more simplistic, more atmospheric downward spiral. This is not a bad thing. Diablo succeeded (some might say too well) in getting players engaged in the delving of its multi-tiered, nested cluster of adventures. You can see the same precept in many other games as well (Skyrim's Dwemer ruins for example, with a layer of Falmer biscuit underneath) but it's usually not laid out purposefully, consciouslly, unapologetically enough to really drive home the message. For all that open world adventures have to offer, there's a lot to be said for a well-executed, iterative escalation of thrills and drama. Something about the neural infrastructure we've inherited from our arboreal ancestors also insists such escalation must have something to do with verticality. It's either a glorious climb up mount Olympus or a daring descent down deep dark dungeons of doomy despair. You half expect Virgil to materialize at your side to show you the way to Cocytus.


Like Blizzard decades ago when still capable of some creativity, Obsidian realized their labyrinth needed both diversity and some coherent recurring themes to keep everything together. For Diablo this was descending through sedimentary history, from gothic masonry to crudely dug catacombs to volcanic caves to hell itself. For the Paths of Od Nua it's the visible bits and pieces of the gigantic statue and repeated hints of the true nature of the Master Below interwoven with the Engwithan opera plot. About the only element out of place were the adra beetles, mostly because their placement was too random and out of sync with the thematic build-up.

Both adventures benefited greatly from the player not knowing just how far the rabbit hole goes (barring internet spoilers) from simply discovering another and yet another set of stairs at the end of each level, building up and stretching expectations with each new descent. After all, you basically start out exploring a church basement. The Endless Paths even, hilariously, keep teasing you with red herring big bads which seem like an appropriate climax to a mere side quest, only for each one to declare "huh? Master Below? no, no, you're looking for that other guy" before pointing you to yet another set of stairs. There's a lot of fun to be had with the inevitable observation that DnD's absurdly oversized dungeons must house their own monster-eat-monster ecology. Best of all, the dungeon does have a definitive beginning and end, obfuscated for dramatic/comedic purposes as it may be. You're not simply rerouted to the start for everything to respawn with 10x the hit points. You've earned your victory.

Games have an artistic side and art is less about the basic concept as about the execution. My basic preferences run toward sweeping open-world adventuring, but Pillars of Eternity's little old-school jaunt through the nine circles of this-and-that gave me a sense of glee you don't normally find in modern monetization strategies .... errr, I mean "games." The Endless Paths of Od Nua are a work of art.

So I have to wonder: why don't we see more of this? Give me a game ostensibly about a basic "cops and robbers" setup only for one robbery to blow open an oversized labyrinthine sub-basement sending me to rescue hostages from aligator-infested sewers only to be drawn into an abandoned subway tunnel adventure with ninja hobos which leads to old World War 2 bunkers covered in mutant ducks, beneath which is the secret underground lair of a mad scientist who, it turns out was really only trying to save the world from the dire threat of morlocks from the steam age fighting the descendants of an old Roman legion, who themselves are trying to escape the lizardmen coming up through lava tunnels which lead to a 65-million-year-old cavern filled with dinosaurs and the ancient alien spaceship which really wiped them all out and yes, I could probably keep going.

Seriously, don't tempt me. I've got misfiring brain cells and I know how to use them.

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