Archive for the 'RPG' Category

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night as RPG

If I didn’t already have a notion of what genre Castlevania: Symphony of the Night belongs in, I’d probably invent the category “Platform RPG” for it. It’s simply got more RPG-genre signifiers than any other metroidvania I’ve played. It isn’t just that you earn experience and level up; there are a bunch of games go that far without seeming particularly RPG-like otherwise. (I think of Blood Omen 2 as a good example, although it probably only comes to mind right now because of its long-haired vampire protagonist.) It’s the little influences, like the choice of stats (which use stantard D&D abbreviations like STR and CON), as well as their initial values, which fall squarely into the middle of 3d6 range. And the whole layout of the status and inventory menus is not just RPG-like, it’s distinctly Final Fantasy-like.

The specific powers of the items you can equip include gimmicks of the sort I particularly associate with JRPGs. For example, there’s a suit of armor whose protective power increases with the amount of the castle you’ve explored. Several other items that provide substandard protection make up for it with other powers, such as recovering health, mana, or “hearts” (ammo for special weapons) faster than normal. That sort of thing has been rare so far, though. Most of the weapons, armor, and trinkets you find just increase your Attack and/or Defense ratings to various degrees, and possibly give a stat bonus. Special gimmick items seem like more of a late-game thing, something to give you options beyond maximizing numbers once you feel like you’ve got them maximized enough. (And that’s a phenomenon happening to me already, when I get a new exploration-enabler and go back through earlier sections to reach previously-inaccessible areas: suddenly I find that I’m killing everything in one hit and only taking one point of damage at a time, just like in the intro.)

So I spend enough time contemplating equipment for the game to feel very CRPG-ish, but every once in a while it goes and does something just flat-out old-style coin-op platformer. I thump a crumbly tile of wall with my thumping-stick and out pops a roast turkey: suddenly, I feel like I’m playing Black Tiger. It’s a peculiar mix.

WoW: Orphans

I spent so much time procrastinating about writing up Portal 2 that I completely missed Noblegarden, the week-long Azeroth Easter festival. No matter: it was immediately followed by Children’s Week, when battle-hardened mercenaries with the power to destroy gods are invited to bring orphans to work with them. There’s a whole quest-chain of activities you can do with your orphan, such as flying kites and going for ice cream and going to visit the Banshee Queen in her dank and horrible lair.

Your orphan is treated by the game as the same sort of thing as the various summonable pets you can buy. That is, it follows you wherever you go and does not participate in combat in any way. If you get into your turbo-trike and drive away, the orphan chases after you like an Olympic sprinter. It all seems comically callous: “I’ll just get in my car. No, you stay outside. Cars are for us important hero-types. Just try to keep up, right? The exercise will do you a world of good.” Particularly since, as I noted before, I can drive around on top of lakes. I can see the tyke furiously swimming underwater after me, his location identifiable only by the little quest marker over his head.

Another amusing fact about orphans: they are interchangeable. In a sense, each orphan is all orphans. If you see someone else out walking with an orphan, you can talk to it, and it will respond as if it were yours. I actually took advantage of this during the kite quest, which caused my own orphan to go running around at random, so excited was he by his kite. Rather than chase him down and click on him to complete the quest, I just spoke to a calmer orphan accompanying a stranger.

In short, Children’s Week is exactly the kind of fun I’ve learned to appreciate in WoW: the fun of immersing yourself in incongruity. It’s also a golden opportunity for easy XP (especially for pacifists): each quest in the chain gives the same largish lump of experience as the daily cooking and fishing quests, which means it scales with the questor’s level. As a result, Oleari has finally reached level 60, the level cap for vanilla WoW. I’m disappointed to report that, although I’m now at the right level for a flying mount, I can’t actually obtain one without buying an expansion or two.

It seems like there are three routes I can take from here: I can buy The Burning Crusade and continue leveling Oleari, I can switch to a different character for a while (maybe even try out the Alliance), or I can just drop the whole thing. I’m going to have to decide that I’m done with this game at some point, and reaching the level cap seems like a pretty good time to do that. But I’m told that Burning Crusade is nice — nicer than subsequent expansions, apparently. I’ll take a few days to decide.

WoW: Story and Player Interaction

There’s been some discussion lately about the role of pre-scripted narrative in MMOs. A lot of people see it as a cheat, a gimmick that only provides pseudostory, and desire a story that’s more reflective of what the players are doing in the gameworld. The WoW model is of course the one most familiar to the greatest number of people, and in WoW, the scripted storylines are, in effect, static features of the environment. The unit of plot is the quest, and quests get done over and over by different players, and that takes away from the sense that you’re participating in the story in any meaningful way: can you really say that you’ve defeated an enemy if you can stand there and watch it respawn and get defeated over and over? (In one extreme case, I was doing a quest that involved leading an NPC around, and was startled to realize that there were multiple simultaneous instances of that NPC simultaneously following different players.)

My own take on the question is a little more complicated. First, let me point out that there are really two separate stories going on in WoW. There’s the pre-scripted story, and there’s the story of the players playing the game — call it the mythos layer and the game layer. The mythos story contains events like the betrayal of Lady Sylvanas, the attempts of both Horde and Alliance to gain the support of the centaur tribes, and the defeat of the Lich King at the hands of a large band of heroes. The game story contains events like druids getting nerfed, the auction price of glyphs going up, and the Cthun raid being successfully completed for the first time. The two layers do have some points of intersection: the Cataclysm, for example, was a major event with wide-reaching consequences in both. But they’re mostly independent, and players can only have a permanent effect on the gameworld at the game layer (and usually only in the aggregate, at that).

Secondly, the above is not at all unusual. Most CRPGs have such a split, including single-player ones. This very blog contains numerous posts analyzing mythos in CRPGs, and also numerous posts recounting my particular experiences playing the same CRPGs — my exploration of their terrain, attempts at making the most of their combat systems, etc. — and they are, for the most part, different posts. Furthermore, I’ve made comments about how the two layers contradict each other, so that aspect of WoW isn’t unique to the mechanics of trying to shoehorn a single-player storyline onto a multiplayer environment; it’s something that can happen whenever the mythos and game layers both try to depict the same kinds of events. But perhaps something about the MMO paradigm makes it more obvious when it happens.

Now, you may object that the game layer isn’t a story. And I agree. It’s a story-space, a set of constraints and opportunities in which stories can happen. These stories aren’t entirely fictional, because we’re into the realm of what Jesper Juul calls the “half-real”. If my character gives yours 60 gold pieces in exchange for a piece of armor, neither the gold nor the armor actually exists — but the exchange is nonetheless a real event, something that occurred between two actual human beings, rather than just described by a storyteller, or played out repeatedly by a couple of automated NPCs like figurines on a cuckoo clock. But we do have a notion in our language of “true story”. Arguably, real events only get transformed into stories after the fact, when they’re recounted to others, but some events are more inevitably story-like than others.

Let me tell you a story that happened on Everquest during my time there: the story of the Naked Troll Run. Once upon a time, a bunch of players on the Rallos Zek server decided on a whim to make new level-1 troll characters, ditch their starting equipment, and run from the troll starting zone to the human city of Freeport to see how far they could get before they were killed. On their first attempt, wandering monsters slaughtered them all before they got far, but they just respawned back at their starting zone and tried again. As they did this, more and more troll corpses piled up along the way, and other players took notice and asked what was going on. Some of them joined in. Eventually, there were enough trolls that the combined efforts of the wandering monsters and the Freeport city guard were not enough to kill them all, and a few managed to board the Freeport ferry and continue their run as far as gnome territory. This all happened without the participation of the Everquest developers or mods. All they did was provide an environment in which running a naked level-1 troll all the way to Freeport is difficult, and the players came up with the rest.

Let me tell you another story, which we might call the Gaming of the Marble. This one happened on A Tale in the Desert. In ATitD, a combat-free game, combat is replaced by various “Tests” that increase your rank in the game’s various Disciplines. Some of the Tests had other gameplay benefits, and some of the Tests were competitive, and one Test in particular had both of these properties: a two-player mini-game that affected the player’s ability to detect deposits of valuable stone. The mini-game had a ranking system like Chess or Go, and specific types of stone were tied to specific ranks, the higher tiers being types of rare marble. Months after this system was introduced, there was still no one with sufficient rank to find the highest level of marble, and the players grew frustrated with this. So a bunch of them decided to game the system by means of a rigged tournament. A largish number of people got together to play the minigame, but there was one pre-designated champion, and anyone playing against that person would deliberately lose just to raise her rank. Other people would be chosen to win for a while to get their rank up just to maximize the effect when they lost to the designated champion — people had worked out the ranking formula and knew exactly how to optimize it. The end result was that, for a little while, the player base had access to every kind of stone in the game. But the devs knew what was going on, and they soon responded by moving the goalposts, adding several new types of marble that required even more elevated ranks.

Now, both of these stories involve player-initiated events involving large numbers of people. The Naked Troll Run happened in a game that worked on more or less the WoW model (except less questy and more grindy), and it didn’t have any permanent effect on the gameworld. The Gaming of the Marble took place in a game designed with the explicit goal of involving the players in a larger story that developed over the course of play, and it had a permanent change in the global game-state as a result, both before and after the devs intervened. If you take the people who say they want more meaningful interaction with the gameworld at their word, the latter seems more like what they want. But the Naked Troll Run was far and away the more satisfying experience.

Ultimately, the game doesn’t have to make stories happen. There’s nothing stopping the players from making stories at the game layer if they want to. But a lot of people don’t want to. A lot of WoW players don’t even want to engage the mythos layer, and being part of an ongoing creative process takes a lot more mental effort than being a passive audience to something pre-scripted. With power over the gamestate comes responsibility, and responsibility plus persistence equals obligation, not fun. Perhaps MMOs that seriously attempt to provide a more genuinely interactive world are doomed to be niche things, not because they do a bad job of it, but because that’s not actually what the majority of the players want, even when they say they do.

So what do the players want? As far as I can tell, the main thing is just harmonization of game and mythos. Give us a game where the NPCs don’t lie to us about how we’re having an impact on the world. Stop trying to pretend that every single player is the hero of the story. Find a fictional premise that acknowledges the truth of the situation, that thousands of people are going through the same experiences.

Or, alternately, do away with the mythos altogether. Hey, it worked for Minecraft.

WoW: Big Bosses

Bosses in WoW dungeons are generally easy to spot, even if you’re mainly concentrating on healing your party. They generally take two forms: the big boss, and the talky boss.

Talky bosses are people. They’re humans or undead or whatever, just with high class levels and one or two unique skills or spells. As such, they don’t necessarily look all that imposing. If the grunt forces of the dungeon are all members of the same army, the boss will probably look more or less like his underlings, just with more swagger in his bearing, and a slightly more impressive uniform with bigger epaulets. (WoW is very big on epaulets.) So they identify themselves as bosses by means of pre-fight monologue and/or continuing banter throughout combat, possibly including cries of disbelief at their defeat.

Big bosses, on the other hand, need no such verbal reminders. They’re just big. Many of the monsters in the game are substantially larger than the player, but whatever has been established as the usual scale for the dungeon, the big bosses will be something like three times their height (or length, or other appropriate linear measure). They’re appropriately impressive, and often take the form of horned demons or dragons or something of the sort, as appropriate to the dungeon’s theme. The game is saying to the player, “You are now facing something ultimate, something apocalyptic. Fear it.”

The problem is, it starts saying this somewhere around level 25. And the fiction supports it: you’re already starting to challenge gods at that point (even though you continue to also get routinely defeated by mortals). Bosses of higher-level dungeons are no more impressive than earlier dungeons. You know they’re more powerful, but only because the UI tells you so. It’s all just a numbers game.

It’s easy to blame this effect on the expansions: originally, the level cap was lower, and each expansion has raised it somewhat, so that the enemies that previously were in fact ultimate, the toughest monsters around, no longer hold that title. But this explanation would be wrong. The maximum player character level was originally 60, and the effect I’m describing takes hold long before that. No, this is simply a matter of the designers not leaving themselves room to scale, and also of the utter arbitrariness of power levels endemic to CRPGs.

There is one boss that stands out, though: Deathwing, the massive dragon released by the Cataclysm, as depicted on the game’s launch screen. I’ve had one run-in with Deathwing so far. Apparently every once in a while it just flies through a zone and kills everyone. It doesn’t even seem fightable; it manifests more like a weather pattern, or a sunset. You get a certain amount of warning about this — possibly enough to hightail it out of the zone if you know what’s coming, which you certainly don’t the first time it happens to you. That’s how you make an enemy feel epic: you make it completely beyond the normal rules.

WoW: Guild Activities

Oleari’s current guild in has suddenly started doing raids. There’s one scheduled for every Tuesday and Thursday until the end of the month. I think this is happening as a push to get guild XP and consequent perks, and, perhaps more importantly, to reach the guild level cap and get people to stop being concerned with guild leveling. (The whole system of guild levels is a recent addition, and there’s been some complaining on the guild chat about it, how Guild Experience distorts the guild experience.)

Now, to the extent that I’m playing this game to understand the WoW phenomenon, going on a raid or two seems essential. Raids are a big part of the WoW image. Even if you only have a vague understanding of what a raid is (and my own understanding is kind of vague; I gather they’re like dungeons, but with multiple parties acting together), you’ve probably at least encountered jokes about raids as the dedicated nerd’s one unshakable commitment. So I definitely want to experience that firsthand. Also, raids done as a guild activity help the participants’ guild Reputation, which is one area where I’m sorely lacking: I’m still only about 1/6 of the way to achieving Friendly status, which locks me out of most of the guild perks. Which is fair, I suppose, considering how seldom I have anything to do with the guild beyond the chat.

Raids seem to be rare these days, so this is an opportunity not to be missed. Except for a couple of problems: the raids scheduled for my guild all require the Cataclysm expansion, and they’re calibrated for level-85 characters (the current maximum). Oleari, by far my most advanced character, is not quite 60.

It seems like there’s a bit of a newbie lock-out problem here. There’s been a little bit of guild chatter about the newer members’ lack of activity in the guild, but how can we participate? There are other guild activities, often spontaneous, but they’re mainly about doing “heroic” versions of dungeons, similarly too high-level for me. It seems like people are just expected to be at or close to the level cap with at least one of their characters, with the bulk of the game being just a hurdle you have to clear to achieve this normal status. Once such an attitude is entrenched, it may become self-reinforcing, with people power-leveling who otherwise wouldn’t. Or maybe it’s just that the non-power-levelers drop out after a while. There are guilds specifically described as “leveling” guilds, but I don’t see any “stop and smell the roses” guilds.

WoW: Trike!

Have I mentioned my goblin turbo-trike? No? I’ve had it for a while now, and it’s easily my most prized possession in World of Warcraft.

I described goblin trikes in a previous post as three-wheeled go-karts. The turbo-trike is similar, but goes faster, and has a raccoon tail on an antenna and flames painted on the engine housing, clearly souped-up but still as ungainly-looking as the original, half hot rod and half Big Wheel. Like all mounts in this game, it vanishes when not in use; obtaining a mount means learning a spell you can use to summon it. I have several mounts, some in both their slow and fast versions, and, aside from the fact that some are fast and some are slow, they’re basically all equivalent in terms of gameplay. But the feel of the trikes is superior in two respects. First, the ride feels very smooth. With other mounts, you get hoofbeats and the rocking motion of galloping. Goblin trikes just go forward, without any fuss. You can move and steer (both in and out of vehicles) with the mouse by holding both left and right buttons down, and doing so in a trike feels very simple and direct in a way that a more complicated animation would spoil.

Secondly, trikes are pleasingly incongruous. Now, Azeroth is a technologically diverse place. Chainmail and rifles are both commonplace, and robots and rocketships are not unheard of. So internal combustion engines have a place here, even if they’re magically summoned. Nonetheless, many of the settings — elfin glades, deep jungles, trackless wastelands — have dominant moods that jar a little with puttering around in a little car. (It helps that the design of the trike kind of jars with itself. The trike is automatically scaled to fit its owner, but “fit” here means “appears to be a little too small for”. Oleari really needs a fez.) I won’t say it spoils the mood exactly — but it does help to keep things from feeling too serious.

The best part is that trikes have all the abilities that all the other mounts do, but the mere fact that it’s a little car doing them makes it all much jollier. What abilities are these?

  • It can jump. With a horse, you’d take that for granted. With a car, it becomes like something out of an old videogame. Sometimes when I’m going over the top of a hill, I’ll jump at the end, knowing that I’ll take damage when I hit the ground, just because it seems somehow appropriate. Other steeds do not inspire this behavior.
  • It can go up stairs, on ramps, and into some buildings. Most interiors automatically unmount you, but some of the larger, more monumental enclosed spaces are treated like outdoors, so you can send the trike zooming up and down corridors like it’s a child’s toy.
  • It can swim. It can swim underwater, just driving upward and downward like a little open-air submarine. I recall James Bond had a car that could do this in one film, but his was at least airtight, and went through a little transformation sequence to shift between ground mode and underwater mode. Also, although it doesn’t involve swimming per se, driving along the bottom of a lake and emerging on the other side is fun.
  • Shamans have a spell for walking on water. It applies to your mount as well. I’ve come to really like driving around on the surface of the ocean. It’s often the easiest way to get from point A to point B, because there are no obstacles, not even any wandering monsters. (The ocean has monsters, but they’re all underwater.) Again, you can do this with any mount, but the trike’s smoother ride brings out the smoothness of the surface.

Combining these, sometimes the game presents an opportunity to jump into a body of water, be carried under the surface by your momentum, and then surface and drive away.

Soon, Oleari will be advanced enough to be permitted flying mounts. We’ll see if the turbo trike is still my favorite mount or not when that happens, but at the moment, it seems to me that flying has the danger of making the terrain irrelevant. Half the fun of the trike is how it interacts with the terrain.

WoW: Learn Alchemy Fast

Questing in low-level areas helps to satisfy my sense of completism: as I’ve mentioned before, each zone of Azeroth has an Achievement for completing a certain number of quests (generally several short of what’s attainable), and at the rate I’m going, it looks like getting all of the quest Achievements for one or both continents is a reasonable goal. But that isn’t my only motivation. When I started doing it, it had more to do with herbalism. Early on, when I was questing in the Northern Barrens (which were appropriately-leveled for me at the time), I found that the place was riddled with a plant called “mageroyal”, which, at the time, I didn’t have enough Herbalism skill to gather. This was frustrating enough that I eventually departed for a zone with herbs I could pick, and didn’t come back until I’d had enough practice to gather mageroyal to my heart’s content. By this point I was too advanced for the quests to be challenging, but I did them anyway, because just picking herbs without any other simultaneous goals is kind of boring.

Mageroyal was plentiful enough in the places that I was going through repeatedly that I accumulated a glut of the stuff, which I stuffed into a satchel in my bank vault. The same later happened on a different continent with kingsblood. 1Pretty much all the herb names follow this pattern of two-word compounds. In fact, the game as a whole is inordinately fond of this formation, starting with the title. I hoarded these things because I had potential future needs for them: Oleari is also a student of alchemy.

My alchemy skill has long lagged behind my herbalism: most potions have two components, and although I have a surplus of some herbs, I have a shortage of others. In fact, that’s more or less inevitable. Practicing alchemy generally means making the most advanced potion you can until you run out of one of the ingredients. But I had something of a breakthrough lately, in that I started finding just the right herbs to let me advance. Partly this can be credited to my finally discovering how to find herbs. An earlier comment mentioned that pickable herbs call attention to themselves by sparkling, which hadn’t been my experience at all. It turns out that they only do this if you have the mini-map set to plot herb locations. (Probably I hadn’t noticed this because the last time I right-clicked on the mini-map was with a different character who didn’t have herbalism and thus didn’t have the option.) And making them sparkle is crucial for some types of herb. Mageroyal and kingsblood are colorful enough to stand out, but fadeleaf, which is used in invisibility potions, is, appropriately, really hard to spot. But I don’t want to overstate the effect this had on my gathering. Mainly I was just exploring new territories, with different distributions of flora.

Now, I’ve spent quite some time speculatively picking herbs that I had no immediate use for. And this means that suddenly being able to practice alchemy had a slingshot effect. Raising my skill a little gave me access to a new potion recipe, one that I could make using herbs that had been languishing in my vault for some time. Making as much of that potion as I could, I gained enough alchemy skill to learn another potion, and so on. For a while I was running back and forth and back and forth between the bank and the alchemy trainer, until came to my senses and just cleared the vault of herbs. (Well, not quite cleared. I’ve still got more mageroyal in there than I know what to do with.) So now I’m considerably more advanced at alchemy and have a great deal more vault space than previously, both good things.

It strikes me that a sufficiently wealthy character could just buy a bunch of herbs at auction and zoom all the way to maximum alchemy skill from nothing in a single day. One could conceivably sell alchemy kits — and tailoring kits, armorcrafting kits, etc. — that contain everything you need for such a purpose. And if I can think of this, there are probably people already doing it.

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1. Pretty much all the herb names follow this pattern of two-word compounds. In fact, the game as a whole is inordinately fond of this formation, starting with the title.

WoW: Non-Combat XP

Some years back, a gnomish rogue called Noor the Pacifist attracted some attention by attempting to advance as far as possible in World of Warcraft without killing anything — not even indirectly, by joining in a party and sharing experience from kills. This endeavor seems to have been done in the same spirit as conduct challenges in Nethack, only much more visibly. People make attempts at memorable characters all the time, and some become well-known within their communities, but Noor is the only player character who’s ever really stood out for me. The simple act of resistance, of refusing to go where the rules of the game lead, is a lot more striking here than it would be in most games, because the story of WoW is so very much a story of war — moreso even than most combat-based CRPGs, possibly even moreso than some wargames.

But Noor wasn’t the first attempt at pacifism by that player, nor the last. And in fact other people are trying it out now, because, as with many aspects of the game, the changes in Cataclysm have made it easier.

There have always been sources of combat-free XP. You get a certain amount just for exploring regions for the first time. There are various quests that don’t require combat: quests to fetch items, deliver messages, gather herbs, etc. (I suppose you could argue that a pacifist shouldn’t be doing espionage missions that lead directly to battles, but I don’t think this bothers the pacifist players much.) But there’s a finite number of regions to explore and quests to do — especially considering that a pacifist will be simply locked out of large sections of the quest tree.

As of Cataclysm, you can gain XP from ordinary, non-quest-based mining and herb-gathering. This drops with your character level, though, just like fighting monsters or doing quests below your level. But there’s an even bigger gain: the new daily cooking and fishing quests in Orgrimmar. These give a substantial wodge of XP, and, unless my eyes deceive me, it scales with your level. A pacifist couldn’t do both quests every day — at least one of the cooking quests involves killing pigs — but between them, they seem to get you about 10% of the way to the next level.

Of course, you’re going to level slower that way. But are you going to level slower than me? I’ve been taking the scenic route through the game for a while now, pursuing quests for the sake of pursuing quests, even when they yield no XP whatever. A limited-conduct run wouldn’t be significantly slower than this, and would yield a better story and bragging rights afterward. Maybe I should try to figure out some other obscure and difficult limitation. But I get the impression that people have pretty much already rung all the changes on that.

WoW on the Wane?

I’m still in that state where I don’t have time or attention to spare on starting (or even resuming) a major game. But I figured I should put in a little more time on WoW as long as I’m paying for it, and logged in for a couple of quick sessions, doing low-level quests over in the Hinterlands. (I’m very close to getting the Achievement for that region.) But even as I come back to the game, it seems that a lot of people are leaving it. At least, that was the constant refrain on the chat channels.

Partly, it seems, it’s the competition: people torn away by Rift, which has been very specifically advertising itself as a WoW-killer for the last month or two. Partly it’s just that a whole lot of people reopened their accounts just to see the effects of the Cataclysm expansion, and now that they’ve seen it, they’re losing interest again. Or so it’s said. I honestly don’t have any direct evidence that people actually are leaving in droves. If I were to go to Orgrimmar, a place that I think of as the Times Square of Azeroth, and find it deserted, that would be something. But I haven’t been back there yet at all. Like I said, I’ve been in the Hinterlands. Not encountering anyone in the Hinterlands comes as no surprise.

Of course, even if most of the players are suddenly leaving, it doesn’t strongly affect my mostly-solo play experience. It might even be beneficial, by reducing the competition in auctions or something like that. But even so, the idea that the game is on the wane just as I’m getting into it is disheartening, like I’ve cast my lot in with a losing cause. Which is a completely irrational reaction for someone who used to play and enjoy A Tale in the Desert. I’m pretty sure that ATitD‘s user base on its most popular day ever was still multiple orders of magnitude below WoW‘s today. But that means that ATitD has always been the scrappy underdog, while WoW has to play the role of the empire in decline.

And when I say it “has to”, I mean that it’s inevitable. If not today, then someday, and soon enough that most current and former players will live to see it happen. This is the fundamental tragedy of MMOs: that they’re doomed to peter out. A single-player game can end in triumph, but a conventional 1Note that A Tale in the Desert doesn’t qualify as “conventional”, and tries to deal with the problem by periodically bringing its story to a conclusion and starting over. But since it does in fact start over, with mainly the same players, it’s not all that different for our purposes here. MMO can only end in lack of interest. Oh, sure, in theory Blizzard could decide to end it while it’s still on top, as various TV shows have managed to do, but while this might be right thing to do artistically, it’s unfeasible financially. They’re not going to kill their cash cow until it stops being milkable.

I spoke before about how WoW‘s popularity is self-supporting. And this isn’t just based on the perception of popularity; actual raw numbers of people give the game certain advantages, regardless of whether people are aware of them or not. But the perception of popularity is undeniably a factor. I mean, heck, my own perception of the game’s popularity, of its ubiquity in game culture, is what convinced me to start playing. So I start to wonder if this advantage might be double-edged. Will a perception of people leaving in droves induce people to actually leave in droves? I don’t know. Very likely not; the old-timers have probably heard it all before.

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1. Note that A Tale in the Desert doesn’t qualify as “conventional”, and tries to deal with the problem by periodically bringing its story to a conclusion and starting over. But since it does in fact start over, with mainly the same players, it’s not all that different for our purposes here.

DHSGiT: Ending

It’s easy to tell when you’ve entered the endgame in Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble, because time stops advancing. The last chapter is played in a perpetual midnight, which is plainly symbolic: it’s by far the darkest chapter. Ironic, then, that it’s also the point at which so much comes to light.

For Brigiton is a town with a secret, a guilt shared by the entire adult population. In fact, it has several, and they all come tumbling out one after another towards the end. One fairly big one involving the town’s finances was already revealed in a previous chapter, and in the process explained quite a lot of the townfolks’ seemingly irrational behavior, and their willingness to accept and even defend blatant lies — to paraphrase Upton Sinclair, it is difficult to persuade a man of the truth when his salary depends on his not believing it. The girls’ response to this is to deliberately sabotage the town’s economy, by far the most obviously ill-advised plan in a game full of ill-advised plans. But the dirtier secrets are kept for the end, and dirty indeed they are. One in particular stands out as the dirtiest. I’m going to get spoilery here.

There are several points in the game where the topic of the girls’ eventual marriage comes up. (Looking back, I think they might correlate with the points where it’s possible to recruit boyfriends.) I recall some early NPC comments along the lines of “You’ll understand on your wedding night”. It seemed fairly sinister, in context, and became no less so when other grown-ups found it necessary to remind the girls that marriage is an honorable institution and suchlike. I couldn’t help but speculate about the wedding night secret. Some approximation of the Stepford Wives? A cult of some manner, either Satanic or Lovecraftian? The truth turned out to be not nearly so fanciful, but all the more shocking because of it. Brigiton, it turns out, is the one town in America to have imported the ancient (and probably fictitious) custom of the droit de siegnur. When people in Brigiton marry, the mayor has the legal right to have his way with the bride.

Much has been made of the sequence that starts the final chapter, a scenario involving the attempted rape of one of the girls in your gang by one of the anonymous boys (a potential boyfriend from earlier), and his death at the player’s hands. It’s a shock when it happens, even if you’re anticipating it, because the sudden change in mood from unbridled silliness to raw horror and desperation makes it seem out-of-place. But once you have the full context, it isn’t out of place at all. The boy is just emulating his role model, Mayor Stogie, who has basically raped the entire town. (Worse, in a couple of cases it’s my fault: the game contains some opportunities to bring couples together. I had wondered why they were so angry at me afterward.) You can argue that it’s not that cut-and-dried: as one NPC points out, the wedding night law is easily circumvented by just not getting married in Brigiton, and at least some of the people who have gone along with it have done so in exchange for benefits of some kind. So, not so much rape as socially-approved prostitution? But then, that’s not exactly an either/or proposition. In one case, the “benefit” consisted of letting the groom out of prison, with the implied threat that he wasn’t ever getting out any other way, so there’s definitely coercion. The mayor is a master of taking advantage of situations, especially situations where people are desperate. And he’s willing to manufacture the desperation.

For most of the game, the mayor comes off as a mere caricature of an old-fashioned American politician, all bombast and petty corruption, and dimwitted enough for a bunch of high school girls to pose a serious challenge to him. (The scene where you “debate” him via the game’s usual insult minigame makes him seem particularly silly.) Here at the end, he becomes more like a personification of unquestioned privilege. Even when he was in high school himself, we learn, he was a bully, beating people up in the secure knowledge that no one would ever challenge his right to do so. The most distressing part of this kind of injustice is the cooperation of the victims, and that’s continued into his political career. The wedding-night law was adopted as part of a political compromise that also gave the women of Brigiton the vote, years before women’s suffrage was adopted nationwide. The woman who came up with this compromise figured that she had outsmarted the mayor, because the part she wanted would render the part the mayor wanted moot: given the power, the women of the town would replace the mayor with someone who’d repeal the wedding-night law. But no, to her shock, everyone kept on voting for him, proving his more cynical view of humanity correct, that people will rally behind those who mistreat them, will try to compensate for their weakness by taking the side of the (apparently) strong. This is what’s at stake at the end: human nature, whether people possess the will to rise up against the kind of entrenched power that exists only because it’s entrenched. Well, at least the dangerous high school girls do. They remind me a little of Veronica Mars, another fictional high-school girl with a penchant for uncovering secrets and a relentless crusade against privilege.

Having seen the final chapter, I kind of see Big Fish’s point about the sexual content, which isn’t at all limited to what I’ve mentioned above. The game gets raunchier as it goes along — the ending I got involved the mayor receiving implied oral sex from a donkey. There’s nothing explicit, but that’s because it always stops just barely short of saying what it obviously means. A young child playing the game would be severely confused about what’s going on a large portion of the time, and, more importantly, would completely miss the point of the story.

My one biggest dissatisfaction with the game remains the amount of content I missed without intending to. While it’s true that, as I said before, important stuff waits for you, there are a lot of optional sub-quests bound to specific chapters, and it isn’t always obvious which of the goals you’re pursuing in parallel is the one that makes the others go away uncompleted. I’ll try to be more thorough if I play again. And this is a game that more or less demands to be played a second time, if only to see all the hints and foreshadowing in full knowledge of that they mean. Plus, I’m a little curious about what happens if you manage to successfully flirt with the detective in your final encounter with him, and that would require some serious min-maxing.

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