Friday, December 25, 2009

Happy Holidays

I LOVE MY JOB.

I work in an apartment building as a concierge, and over feasting holidays (Thanksgiving, Christmas, etcetera), afternoon shift is one of the best because often kind and generous residents will bring down a nice plate of dinner or dessert.

It always makes me feel grateful for my job which is otherwise really not particularly glamourous or well-paying.

We also received a bunch of neat apples from the Okanagan, each with an Ogopogo logo on them, presumably done by pasting a sticker on the apple while it was developing. As we had such an excess of them, I gave some away to residents who were kind enough to give us staff a little something as well -- It's the season for giving and sharing, right?

Happy Holidays everyone!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Great Stories in Spellforce 2: Dragon Storm

I recently finished playing Spellforce 2: Shadow Wars and the Dragon Storm expansion. It was for the most part standard fare, but there were a few really good subplots. These very short stories were told in bits throughout the main story arc.
In our last posts I talked about the DreamStalker and the themes of the innocent and weak defeating the wicked and powerful; and Judge Caine and moral dilemmas. In this post, I'll mention the short but touching story of the protagonist and his ward Yasha.

In bits and pieces, we learn that Yasha Ashir is a mean, possibly evil woman, taking after her powerful father, a Mage of the Circle, Hokan Ashir. In the time of the Circle Mages, Rune Warriors traded free will for immortality, bound to a magical rune stone that forces them to obey whoever carries the stone, but which also allows them to return to life again and again so long as the stone exists. After the magic of the Circle ended, their artifacts also lost their enchantments, and with immortality lost, free will was restored.
We learn that our protagonist was one such Rune Warrior. Hokan Ashir gave their runestone to his then very young daughter Yasha, and additionally bound them with a (non-magical) pledge of honour to protect her.
Yasha grew up willful and cruel, it turned out, just like her father. Perhaps because she had power from a young age, or could command a competent Rune Warrior through the rune she held, she did evil things and forced the Rune Warrior to do evil things.

Even after the Rune Magic was gone, however, the protagonist held on to their pledge to protect Yasha, perhaps from herself sometimes. And in Dragon Storm, even though Yasha tries to kill them, the protagonist defeats her, but revives her with his mystical dragonblood. From then on, she is somehow bound to the protagonist. We are given the impression that she is reluctant, but nevertheless obeys. So our protagonist continues to hold on to the pledge to protect Yasha Ashir, despite the evil that she forced the protagonist to perform while under the influence of the Rune. And also declares themselves her gaoler, to keep her from harming others. We are made clear by mid-game that Yasha Ashir hates this captivity.

In one necessary scene, the protagonist is required to call forth their most hateful memory, and it is the one of their time under the Rune and the things Yasha made them do. More than anything else, this they hated and regretted the most.
And yet, at the end of the game -- the very, very, end -- when the protagonist lies dying, it is Yasha Ashir who is by their side first, trying to save their ebbing life. Perhaps imminent death changes many things about people, and compels them to set aside pride to express the simplest, deepest, gratitudes that would sound corny at any other time. It is at this time that Yasha Ashir thanks the protagonist for singing her bedtime lullabies when she was a very young child, and had to be soothed to sleep.

Then the other members of the party rush over and kneel around the protagonist, desperately trying to save their life, yet knowing what was eating at the protagonist was inevitable. If you paid attention to the dialogues and did all the sidequests, then this is a powerful moment. The end of the campaign also brings the protagonist into confrontation with their past, with what was at the very root of the Rune Power that had brought them both power and shame. The enemy defeated, the world saved, the quest won--the protagonist can finally be at peace. Throughout the quest, their care and interest in the the other members bonded them together, and now, at this final hour, the protagonist is truly surrounded by not just comrades in arms but true friends. And will not go into the next life -- to "the River of Souls" -- alone.
Combined with the touching background music and great camera angles, this scene lingers just long enough for you to hope it is not truly the end for your hero, but resign to the fact that it is.

There's more to it, but that would spoil things more than I already have. Play the game! It can be a bit tedious at times, but on the Easy setting, you can whip through most of it and focus on experiencing the story. And in the case of Dragon Storm, it's really worth the wait. Do all the quests, and I guarantee you it's worth the journey too.

On useless information

Well, my dad's still in Royal Columbian Hospital. I guess I never really did update my blog about it. He's had multiple surgeries, and the nurses have hinted on occasion that he might not make it through the night.
We had another such call tonight. He went in for some surgery, and it looks like he's having trouble pulling out. Breathing is weak. The hospital called to let us know, and of course they are doing their best and trying this and that.
I missed the call and they spoke with my sister. Who then relayed it to me in the most long-winded fashion imaginable. And she wanted me to call the specialist later to get an update.
I suppose the feel-good thing would be to call the hospital, but at this point, I'm not sure what the point would be. I'm sure if they're not busy with my dad, they're busy tending other patients. And if something happened, they'd try to call. Meanwhile, why bother them?
And why load me with detailed information about the exact procedures? Where I know about them or not makes no difference. All I really needed to know was that he was having a hard time -- to put it bluntly, that he might die and I should go see him. Just in case. To be there at the end. If it really will be the end this time.Even if I were right there in the hospital throughout the night, there's nothing I could do to change his condition. It's up to the hospital staff now, and we have to trust that they are doing the best they can. We've never really had a choice there.

We've all seen him deteriorate so it wouldn't necessarily be a surprise if he did pass away, but I guess no one is ever really ready to lose someone to something as permanent as death.


And if he does pull through, he can expect mashed potato for lunch. Again. Just like every other day for the months he's been in the hospital. Every. Single. Day.
Swell.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Great Stories in Spellforce 2: Dragon Wars

I recently finished playing Spellforce 2: Shadow Wars and the Dragon Storm expansion. It was for the most part standard fare, but there were a few really good subplots. These very short stories were told in bits throughout the main story arc.
In our last post I talked about the DreamStalker and the themes of the innocent and weak defeating the wicked and powerful. In this post, I'll examine the moral dilemmas presented by the Judge Caine.

In the world of Eo, there are otherworldly demons that offer power in exchange for one's soul. When the contract is up, the demons come and take what is theirs. However, they cannot enter holy ground, and so some parties hide from their fate by staying in such areas. When that happens, a human assassin is sent. Not being a demon, holy ground does not deter them. In exchange for these errands, these assassins are given the power to sustain their life indefinitely by drinking the blood of their targets.
Caine is one such assassin, and when out of mutual benefit and necessity he joins the protagonist's party (that is, "your" party, as you make choices for the protagonist in this computer role-playing game), he is accused of being a mere murderer.
But he is also a "Judge"--he examines the cases, and can choose to pardon the target. The contract is destroyed and his demonic masters are none the wiser apparently. Their souls, at least, are safe.
To give the protagonist some insight into his role, he lets the protagonist decide the verdicts in three tricky cases. We now have the power of life and death over three persons, and this is reinforced by making an actual execution an automatic thing: There is no fighting involved -- Caine just walks up and chops them down with a massive sword that is granted to him by his Abyssal masters.
This subplot has nothing to do with the main story, but it's definitely worth doing just for the mini-stories that go with each of the people named in the contracts. There is ultimately no difference in the outcome on the protagonist's side -- they get the same rewards / find the same items no matter which choice is made.
The stories are Ainur, Ironbelly, and Una.

Ainur was horribly abused by his employers/masters, who treated him like an animal yet managed to have a decent image in public life, so many were appalled by their particularly horrible murder. The law hadn't caught up to him at the time the protagonist confronts him.
With all the cases, there are different elements of the law with which the protagonist can uphold. For example, there is the matter of the contract into which they more or less freely entered. Although it may have been made under durress, the supernatural forces of the Abyss were not involved in creating the stressful circumstances (Ainur's captivity, for example), and therefore are merely (ruthless) merchants offering a service in exchange for a price. To destroy their contract would be to cheat them.
In Ainur's case, we also have to decide whether his torturous captivity was grounds for murder. Complicating this was the fact that some people actually did know about it. Why nothing was done is not mentioned, although it does convey the impression that it was up to Ainur to do something if anything was to change.

Ironbelly signed a contract with supernatural powers for wealth and success in business. As a result, lives were ruined and some competitors were even afflicted with illnesses by the supernatural, resulting in businesses lost to Ironbelly. The result was that he made more money than even the King of the Highmark. His current circumstance (which Caine notes came up after he signed the contract) is that his wife has a yet uncurable bone marrow disease, and he has since been a very generous benefactor to research. Without his support, the local healers could not afford the necessary imports to continue research and treatments, and it is made clear that without him, such could not continue. So in Ironbelly's case, we are forced to weigh past deeds against present and future benefits. Does his generosity count as atonement? And what happens to the people who need his money now?

Finally there is the case of Una. Her father made the contract, but he escaped it through some sort of exorcism which ultimately killed him. "The law", Caine explains, says the price must then be paid by his descendents (just as debts can still be collected from one's estate after death, perhaps)--which in this case is Una. Which law, exactly, is not revealed. All we need to know is that Una's head is the one under the axe.
Una clearly has wealth, and we may well suspect much of this was due to an inheritance of contract-gotten gains from her father. She is ruthless in business and bitchy in person. Knowing she is bound to a demon contract has made her hide on holy ground in the temple and pray to the Light Gods, but her heart holds none of their teachings.
Here, we are asked to decide on the basic fairness of her being bound by law to her father's contract -- and weigh with our previous decisions. If we have previously ignored the letter of the law--the fact that there is a contract with the Abyss--and made judgments in different ways, will we now conveniently resolve Una's case by debating law -- in this case, deciding that her inheriting her father's debt is unfair?

We often demand a game to have a long story and a long quest. But long stories aren't necessarily better than good stories (they just give more bang for your buck when you buy a game), and sometimes focussing on the essential emotional elements and moral conflicts -- making people stop to think by wrapping it around a story and engaging them with choices (as a computer role-playing game can, in some limited way) makes the *experience* of a story that much more fulfilling.

caine 2

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Great Stories in Spellforce 2: Dragon Storm

I recently finished playing Spellforce 2: Shadow Wars and the Dragon Storm expansion. It was for the most part standard fare, but there were a few really good subplots. These very short stories were told in bits throughout the main story arc. In this post and over the next few posts, I'll talk about some of these short but powerful stories.

One of these stories is the series of quests involving the DreamStalker.
A similar story appeared in the first Spellforce game, but the resolution was much simpler: Kill the Dream Thief. Except it was extremely difficult unless you also killed the innocent woman whose dreams it was stealing and giving him power.
In Dragon Storm, this sidestory has been re-written into a full quest.
In the city of SevenKeeps, we quickly find out that the dreams of children are being stolen, and as a result they wither away. As part of the ritual to this, four children were murdered and their dreams stolen. Each continues to linger on with painful memories, and this pain keeps the DreamStalker Sharad'Naine invincible.
One child had a toy sling, another a toy sword, but they did no good against the sorcerer. Others mentally withdrew, holding on to a doll or staring into a marble.
In order to defeat the Dream Thief Sharad'Naine, we are tasked to remove his power, which is fuelled by the suffering of the now ghostly children. We find each of them, ask for their help, and are in turn given their token -- the sling, the doll, the marble, the wooden sword.
During the confrontation with Sharad'Naine, he calls on the children for power. But having rallied them, we now raise these toys against the invincible sorcerer and the children pull away from his power. In the end weakened, he falls to the ground, merely a man now.
So far we have a simple story of evil versus innocence, the ultimate triumph of justice and good over power and wickedness, and also the powerful theme of how the weak can overcome the strong, and still have justice in the end. In life these children were helpless, but now are instrumental in the defeat of a great evil. In fact, the game reinforces these themes by making our powerful heroes impotent. They can keep Sharad'Naine at bay, but cannot defeat him. Only the children can, only their courage is required. To have allowed powerful heroes to short-cut the process by simply killing Sharad'Naine would have diminished the emotional impact of the story.
If the story ended here it would be a decent one with a stirring and powerful finale--but there's more!
Sharad'Naine, now merely the man Barubas, explains that it was not for him that all these deeds were done, but rather for his wife Hazibelah. She has grown old as time takes its course, but lives in denial. He had to hide all the mirrors lest she be upset at the truth, and made him steal the dreams of children so that she could, at least in her mind, have her youth by dreaming their dreams.
Do we let him live? Is he ultimately responsible? Here, the story is taken briefly out of our hands, and we are left to wrestle with it -- one of our companions, Caine, who is a judge and executioner of supernatural contracts, steps in and pronounces "judgment" on Barubas and executes him. (More on him in another post as we explore the side stories related to his background).
To finally end it, we confront Hazibelah. She is upset at the truth and attacks (and is a worthy mage in her own right, though behind a childish mindset), but if we have a mirror on hand and can show Hazibelah her true self, she retreats and is helpless. In the end, she must be slain, and finally the threat of the DreamStalker ends with her.

hazibelah 2