Saturday, December 28, 2013

Three first impressions of Baldur's Gate

I've long been curious about Baldur's Gate since it seems to have set off our current popular interpretation of roleplaying games. Just as the current (and erroneous) concept of the "MMO" hinges on World of Warcraft's formulaic slot-machine, no-repercussions gameplay, just as FPS games rarely exceed the limitations set forth by Doom and Half-Life, computer RPGs as a whole are largely defined by Bioware's isometric D&D wonderlands. When you boot up a CRPG, you sort of expect to watch your level whateverteen Barbarian/Bard strutting around a vaguely medieval town. You expect to hear terms like "armor class" or "critical hit" and feel like you've been cheated if the dire badger you just killed didn't drop a magic sword of some kind.

Most comparisons between the Infinity Engine games, the Neverwinter titles and Dragon Age stem from the D&D license or lack thereof, and I won't get into them here. It's more interesting to note a striking similarity in Bioware's releases which persisted through and past the days of Black Isle. I've often remarked that both NWN releases followed a set order: the original campaign serves as a very generic, introductory "hero saves the day" routine, the first major expansion presents a more interesting story and the second focuses on combat mechanics and various gameplay improvements. Amusingly, this pattern itself was set by Black Isle.
Baldur's Gate seems at first glance to be a very expansive but relatively shallow, quaint, generic mix of classes and adventures.
The year after, the next Infinity Engine game Planescape:Torment, gave players a dialogue-centered adventure.
One year later, the somewhat grindy Icewind Dale gave them a dialogue-free, decision-free stream of tactical challenges to test their dungeoning&dragoning mettle.

I have no idea if this order was kept at all through the later Infinity Engine sequels, but in Neverwinter Nights terms, Undrentide and Betrayer were what Torment was to Baldur's Gate, while the Underdark and Zehir expansions mimicked Icewind Dale's combat focus.
The pattern seems to have finally been abandoned for Dragon Age with both good and bad results, but that's a topic in itself.

The second observation has to do with RPGs' target audience. In 1998 Baldur's Gate was still a game for nerds. It was blatantly intended for existing D&D fans and a certain familiarity with the various tropes and trademarks of the Forgotten Realms was expected. You're expected to know whereabouts Amn might lie or the type of personality expected of a Fighter or a Druid. By 2002 however, Bioware having apparently shaken off the collaboration with Interplay and Black Isle was setting out to capture the mass-market. If BG seems less wordy at first glance than Neverwinter Nights, it's largely because it was still a niche product and could throw its target audience straight into the escapist fantasy they already loved. Much of the first content you see and hear is therefore less of an introduction and more of a stream of tongue-in-cheek jokes about medieval roleplaying.
"Yeeees, oh Omnipresent Authority Figure?"

Third, a pleasant side-effect of BG's niche-market appeal is the lack of instant gratification. This holds true for the later two Infinity Engine games as well. They were still selling a product to an informed audience and expected that audience would want to stop and smell the roses. There was little instant gratification to be had but plenty of quaintness and delight in the activity itself. Case-in-point: starting level.
It's become a given that the first few levels of an RPG are freebies. They are meant to introduce the concept of leveling. The NWN games' introductions both put the player at level 2-3 automatically. In Baldur's Gate however, I've gone through two towns and two wilderness areas and am still a level 1 diviner. It was the same with Torment with its endless running about the Mausoleum and Icewind Dale... well, look out for that first band of goblins on your way out of the starting village and be ready to re-load a few times.

And that part, at least, I'm loving. It's good to feel weak at the start of these adventures. It was delightful to spend the first couple of zones of Half-Life whacking things over the head with the crowbar, before worrying about rocket launchers or the gluon gun. It is important in a strategy game to start out with a warrior and settler. Perspective matters.
One of the common detriments of wider commercial appeal, one of the most reliable destructive means which the average consumer brings against a genre is the loss of balance and contrast. The average moron doesn't really "get into" a game, a book or a film or anything else for its own sake. Lacking the intelligence to consider anything objectively, they only seek art as an extension of their social worth. They seek only what will give them a constant high - constant car chases, constant sex scenes, constant reinforcement of masculinity and femininity and social hierarchy.
For computer games, this has meant constant reinforcement: constant loot, constant levels, constant patting on the back. You saved the world, hurrayyyy! Never mind what world. There are no small or medium shoulderpads or monsters in World of Warcraft. Everything comes in large, jumbo or mega-gulp.

It's worth going back to old games like Baldur's Gate just to see something done at least partly for its own sake and not entirely to hand out facile endorphin boosts to all the brainless apes who don't care what they're buying as long as it makes them feel big.

I'm looking forward to working my way back to Ultima someday.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

No, Virginia, there is no Brian

Ah, it's that lovely time of year again, the time of gifts and giving (unless you're rich - then it's the time for raking in the cash from all the suckers paying into your malls) and the time for such bounty and blessing that even farm animals begin to expect a bit of extra protein in their mangers.
What, too soon?

"His perfect kingdom of killing, suffering and pain
Demands devotion, atrocities done in his name." - NIN, Heresy

But, ok, maybe I should just stick to bashing Santa Claus - that's the low-hanging fruit, right? "Commercialization" the carolers decry, with a gift-card in one hand and a maxed-out credit-card in the other, flapping to escape their own hypocrisy while lip-synching to the latest pop-idol's re-branding of Jingle-Bells. Except I never know what to say about dodgy old Saint Nicked-Your-Cash beyond the simple fact that you're worshiping an eighty-year-old Coca Cola ad. Truth is stranger than religious fiction and let's face it, nothing popularized by word of mouth two thousand or two hundred years ago can compete with Coca Cola's marketing department.
Not that it's so different from how traditions spring up in general, including the religious ones. Let us now say grace (good bread, good meat, good God let's eat) burn an unboiled gluten-free noodle in offering to the Flying Spaghetti Monster and bow our heads in worship before the holy Gourd of Brian, for the hour of gullibility is upon us.

But mostly let's focus on the controversy around Monty Python's most carefully orchestrated and coherent work, Life of Brian. The facile religious accusation against the "blasphemous" film seems to have hinged on Brian himself being a parody of Jesus and while there's nothing wrong with satirizing religious and social reformers like that long-dead desert preacher, it would be giving the Pythons too little credit. Their great achievement, the nameless terror from which the religious mind reeled back into a fabrication of sectarian squabbles, was shining a spotlight on the irrationality of faith itself. Much like Anatole France's penguins, Brian and his various foils and antagonists ridicule not just individual idols but the faults in human behavior which allowed those idols to arise in the first place. The film's pivotal scene shows a crowd bleating "yes, we're all different" in a chorus. The main problem with faith shows from the start: if you had Jesus and Brian side by side in two mangers, you probably wouldn't know the difference. But you'd pray to whichever one you ran across first anyway.
It was in the interest of any religious leader, of every anti-intellectual charlatan hailing not just from Christianity but "the faithful of all faiths" as Nietzsche put it, to reduce the scope of the argument back to an attack against Jesus. It is the nature of every power structure that the few at the top, regardless of their in-fighting and fratricide, never hold such enmity for each other as they do for the lower classes. It was fruitful for them to brand Life of Brian as anti-Jesus because it was the anti-faith argument they feared. Just as for an entrenched aristocracy it's never the argument against count or duke such-and-such, the deposing of any of them but the argument against aristocracy that's the true threat, just as Coke and Pepsi's greatest enemy isn't each other but water and health regulations, the greatest threat to pulpit-pounding scheisters is not an attack against the belief in Jesus but an attack against belief itself.

As long as you believe in something you're still playing their game. As long as you pick one of them, Jesus, Brian, Amitabha or Mohammed, Coke or Pepsi, Microsoft or Apple, the U.S.A. or the U.S.S.R., Democrat or Republican, wife or mistress, mom or dad, as long as you declare your faith and undying devotion, you're still in the game and it remains their game. As long as you play by their rules, they own you, and they can just trade you among themselves in the zero-sum game of primate hierarchy power struggles. Only intellectual progress remains their true and common enemy, the advance of reason over gullibility.

"you can stop the truth from leaking if you never stop believing" - The Dresden Dolls, Mrs. O

So we come back to Santa Claus because that is the beginning of faith: childhood. The greatest unspoken crime we perpetrate against each younger generation is to use our innate dependency on parental authority to promote in the maturing brain, in the growing individual, the flaw and mental deficiency of faith. It is not kind to lie to children for no other reason than perpetuating the crimes inflicted on ourselves. I remember when I stopped believing in Santa Claus, from four to five years of age. I was proud of having seen through the lie, and yet it took me a year to bring up the subject with my parents because I was also confused and hurt at having been lied to. My parents, the object of my faith, infallible and all-knowing law-givers... had deceived me.
It of course does not cross our minds at the time of that first betrayal that we are only being initiated into a much greater betrayal. The damage inflicted by that morbidly obese home-invader is not the belief in Santa Claus himself, but the pattern of belief. It is the extension of our state of slavery as children mentally into a perpetual search for masters, in all the apish rituals of matrimony, political parties, temples, sports and all other methods of bleating "yes, we're all different" and no, Sirs and Madams who were some decades ago initiated yourselves into this cycle of sadomasochism, I refuse to acknowledge your perceived right to inflict some poisonous pedagogy in your own turn.

The adults who latch onto the discarded sandal of Brian as a sign of the Messiah were initiated into that blind faith by their parents years prior and it doesn't matter whether those stories were about Santa Claus or the boogeyman who'll get you if you don't eat your peas. The real crime has nothing to do with Santa Claus or Jesus or any other one idol.
The crucial moment is that point where your children grow suspicious, and instead of doing your duty as parents and encouraging them to pull on Santa's beard so they grow into critical, rational adults you slap their hands away and punish their intellectual growth, crippling them into a perpetual childish search for faith. So yes, when Brian the Messiah wanders along, it's a safe bet your children will be among those worshiping his sandal and imagining he made juniper berries appear, because you've taught them to latch on to irrationality.

"We all know
There's no Hell and no Hiroshima
Chernobyl was a cover-up
The world is really all in love
And oh, Mrs. O
Will you leave us hanging now that we are grown up and old?"

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Free to pass

As a follow-up to my post about LotRO's recent "pay to pay" marketing breakthrough, I must note the obvious success their brilliant machinations are having. When not even a full month after releasing the expansion you're already forced to slash it to half-price, well, whose fault is that?

Maybe it's Tolkien's fault for not creating even more enthralling fantasy tropes.
Maybe it's your graphic artists who just didn't make players' armor and weapons oversized and glowy enough to draw in the hordes of kiddies.
Maybe the game just isn't easy enough and it's time to finally institute that all-purpose "click here to win" button.
Maybe it's da gummint brainwashing customers away from you with fluoridated water... whitey's keepin' you down, Warner!

Or maybe, just maybe players decided that if they're just going to have to keep running an endless treadmill they'd rather do it in that newfangled Tamriel they've heard about than in Middle-Earth or Azeroth. When you reduce your product to the lowest-common-denominator, it turns out other companies find it quite easy to offer the same thing and you're in no position to strongarm customers into staying by double-billing them for the same level-grind they can find in shiny new copycats.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

"Fan" Means Fanatic

Funny how our experiences sometimes converge. A few days ago, Wikipedia's front page asked me whether I knew that disproving someone's beliefs can often, paradoxically, strengthen them. One might picture Bart Simpson's fevered repetition of "Krusty is coming" at summer camp (minute 9:20 here) through every day after day that Krusty the Klown fails to arrive. Or any religion. Jesus is coming, Jesus is coming, Jesus is coming. Though Bart at least, to his credit, eventually snapped out of it.
I was indeed exposed to this notion in the "intro to psych" course through which every college student snoozes regardless of major. However, even without academic guidance or real-world observation, I might draw endless examples of this puzzling behavior pattern from my electronic escapist fantasies.

I was informed last night while whittling away a few quests in The Secret World that "this game is awesome." I have grown weary enough of the constant fight against stupidity that I neglected to follow up on that wonderfully nuanced and well-reasoned qualifier of "awesomeness" but I did retort that TSW deserves its bankruptcy. I was immediately questioned on this point by another supposed 35-yr-old with the sputtering, punctuation-free, cliche-ridden speech patterns of a teenage mall-rat.
I often find myself in this position in online games and lemme tell ya, trying to convince everyone the emperor has no clothes is much harder than simply stating the fact. Even those few players who might be intelligent enough to spot their pastime's flaws manage to convince themselves that those flaws don't really (not really-really, not entirely really, not if you squint the right way) exist.

TSW's fanbase denies it's a level-based or class-based game even as they advertise themselves as "level 10.4 healer LFG" - and that's just one facet of their denial. Don't even try to convince them that a game that's over 90% single-player has no business online.
Turning to LotRO, I found out this morning that one recent change removed the hunter class' "focus" loss while moving, which previously limited their running around in combat. Yet most any LotRO player I've met year after year whenever I've dropped in on middle-earth has been adamant in the belief that gameplay is not, no sir, never gonna happen, no way getting simplified. This was the belief, as Loremasters lost their dependence on synergy with their pets, as mana became for all purposes infinite, as weapon attack speeds vanished, as spell reagents disappeared and teleportation replaced travel, etc. And LotRO fanboys just like the entrenched base of any activity with a social element will continue to pat each other on the back as they uphold this belief even as all gameplay gets replaced with a "click here to win" button.

Why? How feeble-minded must one be for this desperate need to place all self-worth in the activity in which one engages. Because that's what we're really discussing. This is just another facet of faith. Most players are incapable of putting pressure on game companies to deliver better products because they have to convince themselves at every turn, every time they switch from one game to another, that they've found the holy grail, that this time this thing, this thing right here we're playing now, this is "awesome" and we wont hear otherwise. They must have faith in the social validity of their activity.

Why not just admit that the best crap on the market is still crap?
Can we not overcome faith, this pathetic slavish dependence on validation by authority, at least through our virtual selves?
Krusty is not coming. Find a new summer-camp.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Friday, December 13, 2013

Pay to pay

OK, MMO marketing schemes have officially passed the point of laughter into headache-inducing irrationality.

Back before the latest LotRO expansion launched, I expressed both annoyance and resignation at the fact that the game would continue to add ten levels every year, forcibly extending the completely nonsensical static levelling treadmill. Among other problems, the gulf created thus between new and existing customers grows with each iteration. It prevents new players from getting into the game and is actively counterproductive and counter to the all-mighty profit motive.

I needn't have worried. Time Warner's underlings were way ahead of me and this week I received an e-mail advertising a double cure for both my levelgrinding blues and my wallet's unhealthy obesity. For the low-low cost of just under $50 (more expensive in fact than the Helm's Deep expansion itself) the friendly corporate overlords of Middle-Earth are now prepared to offer any and all us valiant heroes the (trumpets, if you will)

"Gift of the Valar!
Instantly become level 50! Includes many extra boosts and buffs."

Yes, lucky customer, you now have the privilege of paying Warner Brothers for the honor of paying them again to prevent you from using their product.
I love it. My hat's off to you, guys, this is the sort of ruthless, bald-faced highway robbery marketing gimmick which hearkens back to the time the sugar lobby in the U.S. tried to define ketchup as the "vegetable" in children's school lunches.

From the looks of it, the news has already drawn plenty of attention across teh internets, but I'm afraid to even tally the reactions: how many are rightfully outraged at the sheer gall of this fleecing push, and how many game reviewers and other toadies are hailing this as the next godsend for the industry?

Also, I'm pretty sure half a million Chinese brats can offer better powerlevelling rates than a dollar a level. Come on, Warner, you need to stay competitive if you want to corner the RMT market.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Smartphones - cutting the tumor from dekstop gaming?

The living death of MMOs, though the particulars vary, has featured as a core constant the downward slide into what I and many other angry nerds have for years called slot-machine gameplay. With Lineage, Diablo 2, Everquest and especially WoW, companies marketed the most simplistic endorphin boost through operant conditioning: loot drops. Simplistic, mindless actions, repeated endlessly, become addictive through the random pay-off of an apparent increase in wealth or social status. The shiny sword acquired by hitting goblin #462 over the head with a magic sword is addictive for the same reasons as the clink of coins in a Las Vegas slot machine after 462 pulls of the lever.

Recently, it was suggested to me that games made for mobile devices, in their accessibility and mind-numbingly addictive simplicity, their sheer limbic pay-off per joule of cerebral investment, represent the death of games. I offer a dissenting scenario. Computer games have, for one thing, always coexisted with their prettier but more simplistic console counterparts, the bimbos of electronic gaming. Most of us grew up with plenty of opportunities to jump through hoops as Sonic the hedgehog, yet at some point some of us decided we'd rather, say, amass a few tank battalions in Command and Conquer. Even from the depths of our own beloved desktop computers beckon the likes of Solitaire or Minesweeper and yet we still sought more. Computer games have as a rule simply addressed a marginally more ambitious demographic.

The internet changed all that. Most online games have been best played on desktop computers, as a rule. The internet has been, until only the most recent couple of years, a predominantly "desktop" feature - despite growing numbers of WiFi hotspots. A side-effect relevant to this discussion was the conflation of online games with purely social online activity. The draw of the internet itself brought the mass market in, and the mass market demanded that gameplay be simplified to their hoop-jumping, slot-jockey tastes. Single-player games were in turn tainted by association, through "competitive" multiplayer gimmick runoff like achievements or static levelling. The crux of the matter, however, is still the multiplayer market. As long as the mass-market infection continues, it will easily drown out the feeble cries of us few nerds who pine for the days when we'd lock ourselves in dark rooms to slay goblins for the joy of goblin-slaying and not to fill a goblin-slaying quota for a Steam achievement.

It may be the tumor is deadly seeing it has, as I mentioned, already metastasized from MMOs to other genres. However, there's another possibility. The mass market did not invade computer games for the love of playing games on computers. They always wanted only the simplistic slot-machine gameplay they could get anywhere else, but in a medium which allowed them to form social hierarchies around it. They wanted to pull at that one-armed bandit not by themselves with a handheld game, but with an opportunity to have their skill at lever-pulling witnessed by the entire world.

And the accessibility of tablets and smartphones can fit this role much better. They offer dick-measuring in a more accessible form. The average morons never wanted an MMO. They wanted Pong with character levels in a global stadium, and now that mobile, networked devices are so prevalent, they can get it without sitting at a desk. Fruit Ninja might seem like a problem, but it can provide precisely the sort of breathing room much better computer games need. As simplistic mobile games acquire fancier graphics and more reliable internet support, they might draw in those players who just want simplistic gameplay with bragging rights attached - and draw them away from say, strategy or roleplaying games.

It will mean a shrinking of the market for desktop games, yes, and that's good. We should be praying that the marching morons abandon computer games, and leave them to the same crowd who got drawn in because the complexity of gameplay afforded by a mouse and keyboard trumped the simple animalistic joy of Mortal Kombat. Let's hope they'll soon be able to get their Achievement fix on phones and wander off. Then maybe the voice of we few who have little interest in ninja-ing fruit and who outgrew Mario and Sonic's antics can once again be heard in what used to be our niche market.

Let's hope the new wave of networked slot-machines, twitch-swiping and button-mashing will remove the incentive for strategy and RPGs to cater to those tastes, and relegate those genres once again to their proper role as the "artsy" nerdy fringe of electronic gaming. And from there, we can grow once again into the proper concept of an MMO.

Monday, December 9, 2013


Ever had some family member try to make a minor nice gesture toward you which completely backfired? Over the week surrounding Thanksgiving, I did the done thing and visited relatives. Said relative attempted to pander to my tastes in entertainment by renting a SciFi movie. It had the words "Asimov" and "best scifi ever!!!" on the cover, so you can't go wrong, right? Wrong.

The flick in question is the 2000 adaptation of Asimov's Nightfall, and it's one of the many adaptations which seem to deliberately attempt to deface and defame their supposed source material. I have never read the much later novel-length version so I don't know how guilty Asimov himself might've been of watering down his own idea, but I was familiar enough with the original 1941 short story that after ten minutes of the irredeemably despicable movie which bears its title had gone by, I stormed out of the room in disgust. Go watch ten minutes of Xena or one of the worse episodes of the original Star Trek and you'll get the gist of it.

Unfortunately, it cannot be ignored, because though the movie itself is better left unwatched, the ways in which it denigrated its inspiration are entirely too relevant to contemporary culture. Had I seen the box cover I might've warned against the idea of a loving couple as the central image. Asimov's story contains about as much sexual tension as Green Eggs and Ham and indeed features no female characters whatsoever. Neither did it portray any swashbuckling scenes or fireball-spewing sorcerers.

There was indeed a lovely little scifi short story bearing the title Nightfall, written by Asimov. So far as that goes, the movie studio can't be accused of false advertising. Also, as wikipedia informs us, the story was declared the best pre-1965 short story by the Science Fiction Writers of America... back in 1968. Somehow the year-2000 movie's box cover left that tidbit out. However, the honor bestowed is in itself interesting. The Science Fiction Writers of America of 1968 must have been aware of how ludicrous any declaration of "best" is, especially when discussing largely subjective matters such as fiction. Such awards are more often than not a means of popularizing a particular work for secondary reasons. It's not just the Oscars that are political. And, kudos to those '68 Fiers of Sci, they picked a doozy.
There is indeed a contemporary relevance to Nightfall, just as there was in '68, with the religious revival backlash against the human rights movement building. The story is largely a polite, drawing-room deliberation between men of reason, of truth, of science, as to a possibly cataclysmic event and the hope of averting it. It's even set inside an astronomical observatory. Their communal antagonist is the "Cult" which seeks to speed the Apocalypse for dogmatic reasons. Sound familiar? It's a delightfully concise, heavy-handed depiction of the progressive attempts of science sabotaged by the demented mass of the people deliberately whipped into a destructive frenzy by religious manipulators. All the more relevant today, as religious extremists backed by corporate interests all too eager to divide and conquer have seized control over so many of the more backward states in the U.S. and are actively destroying the progressive social programs of the past few decades, to say nothing of similar religious revivals abroad.

All the more relevant the guilt of that video-store owner who would seek to defame Asimov by shelving a so-called adaptation which turns his rational flight of fancy about the limitations of human thought and the need for the structure of science to stretch our awareness into the vastness of the cosmos into a pathetic farce in which a priest with magic powers is the hero and he does it all not in search for the truth, not for progress, but for the love of a good woman. So they become a new Adam and Eve.
Spinning much down there, Isaac?

If you want Nightfall, read the story.
If not, the Escape Pod audio version is, if not entirely palatable, digestible and blissfully un-adapted.

With the original story being short, set almost entirely in a single room and composed of simple roles which though all male are fairly unisex and should be easy enough to act out, it would make for an excellent one-act play. Can we get this thing played by high-school and college drama clubs?

Friday, December 6, 2013

Get a job you hippie!

Does nobody ever consider anymore just how sick, how perverse our attitude toward the worth of the individual is? Consider the sadomasochistic fixation on putting each other to work? Or at the very least the slavishness of our institutionalized dependence on corporate sponsorship?

A "job" is not a humanist ideal. Defining yourself by your worth toward the profit margin of some multibillionaire is the sickest sort of feudal backsliding. Slaving away for those who dictate your wages and at the same time your cost of living, unable to compete because they also dictate the terms of competition - yes, this is a sick society, and you're only salting its wounds every time you scramble for a shred of self-esteem by proudly declaring just how good a little wage-slave you are, how obedient, how in tune with your culture.

Your culture is a yoke.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Five Minutes of Divine Divinity

I don't bother with so-called "action" RPGs much (if you've played Diablo you've played 'em all) so I'm not sure what possessed me to pick up Divine Divinity. However, I did spend a bit of time nukin' nasties in Torchlight and as a result of some bundled sale on GoG, Divine Divinity made its way into my collection and is therefore beckoning me to justify the $2-3 I must've spent by at least running the stupid thing once or twice. After five or ten minutes and fireballing down a dozen or so skeletons I realized I'd forgotten to enter a character name so that's about it for now.
I feel that I've given the game a fair shake. Call me jaded but I can pretty much see where it's going and I've been there a few times already. It's not that golden of an oldie - not a bad game in any technical sense, but then the ARPG formula is so simplistic by definition that it's hard to get wrong. Or at least wrong-er than any of the other endless Diablo copycats out there. My glorious abortion of divinity has however prompted a couple of thoughts.

Thought the first:
Can we at some point please stop humping Tolkien's corpse? Two or three dialogues into things, I'm told by an NPC to go fetch something from a snooty elf but it might take some convincing because he's an elf and you know how elves are. Yes.
Yes, unfortunately I know entirely too well how elves are. I have praised in the past both the whimsical, graceful good-nature of the Sindar and the pride and dignity of the Noldor. However, unless you're working under the umbrella of a licensed fictional universe, you need not outright copy these motifs even if you're copying gameplay. Diablo became memorable because it broke away from the largely Tokien-inspired Forgotten Realms and cobbled its own dusty, hopeless setting out of medieval Christian iconography. Most other game worlds at least tried to put their own spin on things and even in 2002 you'd have been better off avoiding elves and goblins altogether. For instance, if you're selling a product dubbed doubly divine featuring a decidedly non-androgynous angel performing a strip-tease on the box cover, you may want to speak of heavens and hells, Faustian bargains and fallen angels to grab my attention... or at least don't outright tell me that I already know what your elves are like.

Secondary cogitations:
One nice aspect of Divine Divinity at first glance is its relative blurring of the RPG/ARPG line. With more of an InfinityEngine-ish than Diablo-ish interface and dialogues, it throws an uncomfortable light on its contemporary NWN's own simplicity, not to mention on predecessors like Icewind Dale. What exactly do game designers and reviewers mean when they spout a designation like "ARPG" - more monsters to fight? NWN itself featured hordes of goblins and endlessly-spawning imps. Less dialogue? Without meaningful consequences, less is more. So many dialogues in RPGs are nothing but pre-fight rituals and even where choice seems possible there's always one "right" choice. You don't gain much by clicking through an endless branching dialogue only to find out you have to hit that goblin over the head anyway or you don't get paid. Is "action" supposed to be a condemnation of a streamlined combat system? Not in my book. If your game limits me to shooting fireballs or swinging a sword anyway, then I'd much rather have the more fluid Diablo-ish click-casting than an unjustifiable target-lock mechanic. Fewer classes? Everything D&D-inspired is still based on either a nuker/tank/healer group dynamic or a purely cosmetic hitter/shooter/fireballer single-character split so you may as well be honest about it.

Lack of backstory or immersion seems a more constant delineation of "action" than anything else, and here's where ARPGs limit themselves unnecessarily. Much information can be conveyed without sifting through NPC dialogues, through voice-overs, snippets of overheard conversations, or simple observation. There's no real need to stop the player in his tracks and put him through the ritual of watching your oh-so-clever cinematic. Games like Half-Life or Stalker showed how even the most basic concept of gunning down zombies can be spiced up with world events which play out as you advance through gameplay. It should be role-playing, not role-saying, as I'm so fond of repeating, and it's more the lack of variation and consequences which makes ARPGs so uninteresting than a lack of explanation. This flaw, however, is shared by supposed high-brow RPGs as well.