Sep. 1st, 2008 05:29 am
garote: (Default)
So I'm trying to drum up support to repel an invasion at the north end of the kingdom. Going from town to town asking the mayors if they can spare some troops. Each one usually asks me to close an Oblivion Gate that spontaneously erupted outside their city when this particular quest began. (An Oblivion gate is a big O-shaped fiery thing, sucking in air and spewing out monsters like some kind of backed-up cosmic sewer conduit.) Got to make me work for it; you know how it is.

So I get into the habit of locating the nearest Oblivion Gate, sprinting inside, running the gauntlet of towers and lava, and stealing the magical stone that holds the gate open so that when I escape it closes behind me. Then I walk into the town and speak to the mayor, enjoying a hero's welcome even though I'd never been directly assigned the task of closing the gate.

This works just fine until I enter the city of Bravil.

I've already closed the Oblivion gate that was making ominous vacuum-cleaner noises from the top of a nearby hill, so I run past the guards and inside the city, looking for the mayor. Bravil is a port city, crammed with houses made of unpainted, sun-bleached wood, but the mayor lives in a large building made of stone, which is pretty conspicuous. The door to the main hall is unlocked, so I stride confidently into the throne room to receive my congratulations. But the throne is empty. Oh yeah, it's two in the morning. He's probably asleep in his chambers.

I break left and leap up the stairs, and arrive at a landing with doors on either end. In what has got to be the most asinine posting of guards I've ever seen, this one 50-foot landing is being patrolled by three guards. So you can walk right through the front door of the mayor's house undetected, but woe betide you if you're a criminal trying to steal a landing.

Both doors are locked, so I need to unlock one in order to get to the mayor who I presume is sleeping in a room somewhere beyond. My skill at picking locks is poor, but I know a magical unlocking spell that I can cast from a distance.

Now, guards are usually not the most observant types, but these fellows must be lifted right out of a Terry Pratchett novel, because they clearly aspire to great heights of selective obliviousness. I cast the unlocking spell at the door right next to me, then turn around and cast it again, sending a little glowing projectile of "unlocking" magic floating down the length of the landing, past all three guards, unlocking the door at the opposite end with a loud "zap!" sound and a flashy spectral glow. They don't even blink.

I decide to start at the far door, so I walk over to it. As I pass the first guard, he bellows "HELLO THERE!!!" The second guard says, "You look like you're swung a mace or two in your time!" The third guard just grins ear-to-ear.

Beyond the first door is a hallway with three rooms attached. In the first room is a lady asleep fully-clothed on a bed. When I walk in, she stands up, congratulates me for closing the gate (she must have had a dream about my heroics), introduces herself as the secretary to the mayor, and then gets back onto the bed. Conversation over.

In the second room is a fellow named Drels Theran, who also sleeps in the traditional Oblivion custom, fully clothed on top of the bed. He gets up when I approach, and introduces himself as special consulate to the Krel guerillas or something. He, too, is pleased that I've closed the gate. News travels fast.

Since I haven't found the mayor, I decide to try the large room at the end of the hall. When I enter it I think to myself, "this has got to be the place", since it's much larger and better furnished than the other two rooms. I walk from a foyer to a dining area to a sleeping area, but when I get close to the bed, the fellow sleeping on it leaps up and shouts, "YOU CANNOT ESCAPE THE MASTER'S VIGILANCE!". He casts a spell covering himself from head to toe in magical armor, and draws an ugly-looking mace from behind his back.

"Whoah, whoah there," I shout, and back off. I don't want to get into a brawl with the mayor, even if he is in service to some dark lord or whatever. I enter a defensive, yielding position, but he keeps wailing on my shield with his mace, driving me into a wall, so I turn and flee from the room. He follows me out into the hall, screaming.

I turn right, dodging into the room where Drels Theran is sleeping. Perhaps Drels will recognize his own employer and do something to mollify him. Instead, he swings out of bed and shouts "Die you swine!", dashes up to the mayor - or at least, I assume he is the mayor, but now I am having some doubts - and begins punching him in the head.

The mayor turns away from me and begins swinging his sword at Drels Theran, but Drels charges, shoving him into a corner behind a few large barrels. Drels takes a few heavy slices from the mayor's sword, and I fear for his safety, but since I don't want to directly attack the mayor, I summon Daedroth instead. He's the big honking man-lizard I always use as a combat assistant. "If Daedroth doesn't attack the mayor," I think, "then I'll know something's wrong here, and I should probably flee the premises."

But referee Daedroth immediately roars, does his little I'm-armoring-myself disco-boogie magic dance, and then tears into the mayor with both claws. Wedged in a corner, trying to fight two foes at once, the mayor is overwhelmed and catches a nasty blow to the chest, and falls down dead, out of sight behind the barrels. His work finished, Daedroth stands in place making his hideous alligator-breathing noises, and Drels Theran walks casually back over to his bed. I clamber over the barrels to loot the mayor's body.

On his person I find a pair of cheap leather boots and a castle key. I also observe that the game's label for this man is "Hans Black-Nail". Who the hell is this, if he isn't the mayor? Have I forgotten something about this town? Some unfinished side-quest perhaps? I'm standing there pondering my next move, when Drels Theran walks back over to me from his bed, and shouts: "I'm warning you for the last time, get out of here!!" Apparently his very flexible sense of privacy has finally been breached. (I blame Daedroth.)

So I stumble out into the hallway, with the castle key. The corpse I assumed was the major is still heaped in Drel's room. That's fine; he can explain it to the guards then. On my way out to the main hall I discover a third door I hadn't seen before. The guards had been standing in front of it. I bust into the hallway beyond, and see a guard running towards me in the distance. I attempt to jump over his head, but he starts a conversation with me in mid-leap, so I hang suspended in the air while we talk. "It seems you're in a bit of trouble," he says. "Don't worry. Since you're my friend I'll take care of that for you."

He ends the conversation and I fall to the floor, narrowly missing his head. Apparently busting into the hall made me guilty of trespassing, which put a bounty on me - of about two dollars. Good heavens.

At the end of the hall is another door, and beyond that is another man in bed. I jab him and he stands up. Ah hah, THIS is the major. Mystery ... solved? He congratulates me on closing the gate and pledges to send some troops in defense of the kingdom. Then he lies back down again.

I have no idea who that other fellow was. I may never know. But at least now I have a skeleton key to the castle.
garote: (Default)
Advanced Table Dancing Tactics: Bookshelves.

If you back up, then run forward and bash your face against them over and over like Daffy Duck, you can knock everything onto the floor. Combine this with the usual tabletop mambo and you can ruin a shop in seconds. To complete the scene, go sprinting out the door shouting "WOOHOO!!"

"Oh, only 800 gold for my Daedric mace? Well ... how you like this, huh?" (CRASH) "Cheapskate! Gosh, you sure keep a messy shop!" (CLANG) (CRASH) "Whaaaat a MESSY SHOP! Woohoo!! Bye!" (SLAM)

I don't know how they did it - I'm not even sure why it's so - but the lizard-woman who runs the Cheydinhal Mage's Guild is downright sexy. Chat her up and tell me if I'm insane.

I have found the ultimate armor. It's a pair of echanted cloth trousers called "Monkeypants". You put them on and your acrobatics and athletics ratings are fortified by 10 points, and your willpower reduced by 5. It's good to be a monkey.

Here's a little story about things going wrong!

While exploring the wilderness I passed a mansion on a hill, next to a cave. I wandered in, offending the lady of the house, who ordered me to leave. I ignored her and marched upstairs, where I found the count, seated at a desk. He decided to tell me - a complete stranger - all about his plan to mine silver from the caverns next door using ogres as slave labor.

I decided the right thing to do was go running into the mine and free the ogres... But the entrance was locked. So I wandered away and did other things.

Days later I found a huge statue of a demonic god. When I approached, the statue began ranting about how ogres should never be slaves, and about how there was a count in a nearby mansion who was being a real jerk and keeping ogres as slaves. He ordered me to go back to the mansion and set the ogres loose.

So I stormed in a second time, offending the lady of the house all over again. This time, I stopped and talked to her instead of her husband. She told me - still a complete stranger - that she disagreed with her husband's barbaric ways and that she wanted the ogres to be liberated. Then she handed me the key to their mine, and said, "Go do it."

So I went barreling into the mine, expecting a fight with whatever guards were there. But I didn't bother using the key to get inside, I just cast "master unlock" at the door from a distance. Perhaps this was my mistake. Inside the mine were about a half-dozen guards, standing around looking grim. Whenever I walked close to one, he ordered me to leave the mine, or proclaimed my eminent death. But none of them actually attacked, or even drew their weapons. Just followed me around the mine at a respectful distance.

Eventually I found a disheveled troop of ogres stuck in a cramped cell behind an iron gate. I cast "master unlock" on the gate and opened it. The ogres wandered out, completely ignoring me ... and began beating on the guards, who fought back. I dodged around the fracas and located a second jail cell, with more ogres, and unlocked that. And a third. Each time, the ogres would trudge casually out, and stand around until a guard came into view. Then there would be a deafening brawl.

Unfortunately, the ogres were unarmed, and the guards were numerous and well equipped. Before I could even find my way back out of the mine, all the ogres were dead, along with a few guards. I had let them out only to have them fight their captors ... and lose.

"Well, that was a wash", I thought to myself, and trudged back to the statue of the demonic god. I wasn't sure what to expect, but I was a bit surprised when the god lavished praise on me, handed me a magical item, and said, "that'll teach them! Ogres should be free!"

I get the impression I was supposed to kill all the guards before the ogres left their cells. But the guards never raised a hand to me.

Anyway, I forgot all about this odd quest. Then weeks later I entered a city at night, intent on selling my loot at a blacksmith, and accidentally clicked on the locked door of the shop (the shop was closed for the night, which I should have realized) and the game presented me with a "pick the lock!" screen instead of taking me inside. I exited that screen, but it was too late - I'd been spotted by a nearby guard "attempting" to pick a lock. He said "Okay, pay your fine, and give me any stolen goods back at the castle, and you can go." That was alright by me, since the fine was the equivalent of about 70 cents.

But something went horribly wrong. Partway to the castle entrance, near the barracks, the guard was ambushed by four of the guards from the ogre mine. The first guard called for help, and more guards came running out of the barracks. The two groups of guards then fought each other, while I stood there, dumbfounded, ... and totally ignored. Clang! Ooof! *BRZAP*! "Heelp! Murderer!" "Stop!" Whack, hack, chop. "ARRRGGH."

The first collateral damage was a townsperson who happened to be standing near the castle entrance. Her name was Varulae, and I'd recently returned a crystal ball to her that had been stolen. A battlemage from the ogre mine group unloaded a fireball right in her face, and she flew up into the air, head over heels, struck the castle wall ten yards back, and hit the ground dead. As the guards fought on, I strolled over to her corpse to loot it (of course) and yes, there was the crystal ball I'd given her a few weeks ago. Still in her pocket. So I took it back, because ... well, why not?

Next victim was a castle guard. On his corpse I found some nondescript armor and a castle key, so I swiped the key just in case. After that, the murderous battlemage was killed. On his corpse I found - ah hah! - a key titled "tarnished ogre cage key". Well that makes sense. Perfect sense. Except the ogres are all dead now, and the ogre mine is more than a hundred miles to the east, absolutely nowhere near this town, and the guards are still not attacking me.

Eventually, every damn guard in the barracks was dead, and every member of the ogre mine group was dead as well, except for one man, who stood in the castle courtyard, facing me. As though we had some unfinished business. So I walked up and engaged him in conversation. He opened his mouth and screamed:


Then ended the conversation.

I have no idea what to do with this guy. He's just standing there in the courtyard. If I get close enough, he says generic conversational things, like, "You're a fit one! Been running a lot?" But if I actually engage conversation, he screams at me again. There are four dead guards heaped nearby as well. I'd take their loot, but it's all cheap stuff and not worth my time.

Update: The last mine guard is dead. Another castle guard came wandering outside, and as soon as he saw the mine guard, he drew his sword and cut him down. Now the only evidence that this happened is the corpses. I looked at my game stats, and it shows 0 bounty, 0 infamy, and 0 murders. Apparently I was just a spectator here.

I still need to sell all this loot. First I need to wait for the damned blacksmith shop to open. I went wandering in to the Fighter's Guild to look for a spare bed, but when I talked with the first person I met, he said, "Hey you! Deliver this shipment of weapons to Desolate Mine!" and shoved a steel longsword, a bow, and a warhammer into my arms. So I left and went to the tavern, and bought a hotel room for 1 dollar. I laid down in the bed but woke up one hour later from a nightmare that I was turning into a vampire. Oops, got to cure that Pyrophiric Hemawhatsit, or whatever that vampire disease is called in this game. So many things to do... Heh heh.
garote: (viking)
The game tracks the concept of stealing. Items that belong to someone else are marked with a red cursor when you try to pick them up, so you can avoid breaking the law. The game is also clever enough to know when no one is looking, and if no one sees you take a red-marked item, no one calls for the guards.

The good news is, walking on things is never a crime. And when you walk over small things, you occasionally kick them or shove them aside. So where does this naturally lead?

Table dancing!

If you're in the local pub and feeling snotty, just leap onto a table and start wiggling. The patrons seated around you will not even bat an eyelash as you send their cups, bread, mutton, placemats, beer, and candlesticks bouncing all over the floor. If you find the house wine to be particularly offensive, feel free to draw your broadsword and chop the bottle right off the bar. Kick the statues down off the mantlepiece. Go on, get jiggy. Just don't pick any of it up! They hate that!

In general, townsfolk are pretty oblivious. Lately I've taken to summoning Daedroth - a six-foot-tall, asthmatic man-lizard who looks completely ridiculous when he runs but can apparently scrape so hard with his claws that he can hit creatures that are technically non-corporeal, like ghosts. I've kept up with the summoning practice, so now I summon Daedroth in odd places. Just a while ago I summoned him in a small room I was preparing to burglarize, and he appeared on the bed, on top of a sleeping shopkeeper. Daedroth stood there wheezing away, and the shopkeeper didn't wake up. Even when I shoved him out of the way so I could pilfer the bedside table and he stomped all over the guy's head. Setting aside the fact that Daedroth probably weighs eight hundred pounds, and setting aside that cacophonous wheezing, don't you think the smell of a man-lizard would be enough to wake you up?

I love these arbitrary edges between realism and programming. They just beg for some kind of humorous explanation - or at least, exploitation. Heh heh heh.
garote: (hack hack)
Recently I felt those old Nethack caverns calling to me, and I had urge to dive into an RPG again. Hours in a dark room in an alternate universe.

This time around I chose Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion. Game's almost two years old, which means the hardware you need to run it is now affordable. My console of choice is a 24-inch widescreen iMac booted into Windows XP.

I went in knowing nothing about this game except that it was a single-player RPG. I've never played the earlier installments. Right off the bat you get a voiceover from Jean Luc Picard, so you know this game has a lot going for it. Then the character he's playing gets assassinated. Whoops. And so the plot begins.

After a while of playing, and slooowly getting used to the controls (which are nicely refined and flexible just as they should be in the fourth installment of a series), my first personal response to the game was this: "Well. Ten years later, and they've finally pulled off a decent competitor to Ultima 9."

Hell, not just decent. An excellent competitor. In fact, a few of the features have been bizarrely over-developed. I was stunned to discover that you could customize your character's face. By adjusting well over two dozen sliders in a hierarchy of facial zones like "brow", "nose", "cheeks", and "lips". After about half an hour of messing around (the time didn't feel wasted because the feature was so interesting), I was able to form an easily recognizable 3D facsimile of The La's face. It was so eerie that I decided to name the character "Digital La".

Here's a meandering account of my thoughts while playing:

I can only imagine how incredibly frustrating it must be to play this game on a Playstation, with that damn thumb-driven video-game controller. Being able to use a mouse to look around is what makes this game playable. With a flick of the wrist, I can glance to my left and right in under a second, and return the view to where I had it before simply by relaxing my hand to where it was. Very, very useful.

This tactic has also been greatly enhanced by the invention of the laser-driven mouse. I play with the mouse set on a pillow, with most of my forearm laying on it as well. The mouse is lightweight, accurate, and tracks the cloth surface perfectly. Plus it sinks just a little way down on the pillow, bringing my wrist into the ideal straight position. Playing this game on an old-school wheeled mouse with a flat mousepad would probably give me tendonitis in less than a week, but this way it's a breeze.

Wow, these oblivion gateways are really neat looking. Best effect in the game so far. Seeing them reminds me very strongly of the evil red pillars from Ultima 9. I wonder if this is some sort of homage?

Okay, I simply must complain about the horseback riding. It is just not fun to sit on a 3D horse that can move only on totally flat roadways, and steer the damn thing all the way across the world map, watching the same four textured trees float by for a solid half an hour. Worse yet, your lousy companions keep falling behind, or refusing to get back on their horses when you dismount to kill some stupid forest creature or bandit blocking the road.

No, designers. This is not fun. In half an hour I went from happily immersed in the world to swearing angrily at it, and berating my lunkhead companions, who completely failed to assist me. "Arrrgh, you are so damn slow! What, is your horse made of rocks or something? Are you taking smoke breaks? Do I need to get a leash and yank you along?"

It's good to play a game that understands the power of words. With every level you gain, the game presents a little text blurb of what's running through your mind. For example, "You resolve to continue pushing yourself. Perhaps there's more to you than you thought." These little fortune cookie missives sit on the boundary between first and third person - the boundary a role-playing game is designed to pull you across - and give you something to reflect on as you distribute the new stats you've gained in the little pop-over window. I remember writing about a similar phenomenon in a much older game called Alien Legacy. Just a little scrap of text, but the effect it has is welcome and important.

Well, I got tired of breaking all my lockpicks, so I bought a spell of opening. It only opened "easy"-level chests, so I couldn't use it much. Then I found a spell of opening for "average"-level chests, and bought that, but my skill level wasn't high enough to cast it. "Okay," I said to myself. "My skills improve with use in this game. In a little while I'll be good enough to cast this, no problem."

Well I got all the way through a dungeon in some wilderness outpost, and encountered a locked door of "average" difficulty. I'd run out of lockpicks some time ago, and wasn't good enough at the spell yet to open the door. Annoyed, I turned around and began casting the "easy"-level spell at the walls and the floor, then checking my stats to see if my skill improved with this "use" so I might soon learn the spell. Turns out the skill only improves if you use the spell in the context it was meant for. Okay, fair enough... How about if I zap the "easy" spell at the "average" door? The door obviously doesn't unlock... But ah hah, my stats go up anyway.

So I jammed the 'C' key down on the keyboard and then left my room to go get a snack. A while later my magic points ran out from casting the spell, but my skill level had indeed gone up. So I took the paperweight off the 'C' key and waited for my points to recharge.

In about a minute they did, so I jammed the key down again. Another round of this, and my skill level went up enough so that the spell cost almost nothing to cast. Since then, the key has been jammed perpetually down, and Digital La has been casting the "unlock" spell at a wooden trapdoor in a filthy hallway of some backwater dungeon. Zaa-BOMPH. Zaa-BOMPH. Zaa-BOMPH. Meantime, I've been typing this.

Okay, it's been about 20 minutes and my snack is eaten. I am now a "master" at alteration-class spells. Time to arm the "average" unlock spell and continue.

I find this whole exploit rather amusing.

So after going up four levels at once (due to becoming an instant master in "alteration"-class magic), the critters on the map and in the dungeons suddenly got a lot harder. On my next walk between towns I ran into a bear, a troll, and a minotaur. Each one was just standing there, weaving slowly side to side in that I'm-alert-but-have-no-purpose way that all the bit players in 3D games do. Just killing time between beatings.

The bear took two dozen hammer blows to keel over. As I fought, I admired the skill of the game designers in modeling the creature. There was no way I could have run from it, and any single one of the dozens of blows it dealt to my character was clearly enough to incapacitate even the toughest linebacker in real life. It gave me a new respect for the bears I had seen up close in Alaska. I later found myself thinking the same thing when I encountered a mountain lion. "Yeah, they pounce," you think to yourself. "I could just dodge that and then shoot the thing." But fighting a mountain lion in this game is terrifying. It creeps slowly up to you, low to the ground, way out of reach, and then leaps straight at your head, faster than you can swing any weapon, and if you're lucky enough to sidestep the whole flying barbed-wire projectile, it simply lands behind you and jumps again, before you can turn around and figure out where it went. You see one of these in the woods and there are three outcomes: 1. It's too far away, 2. You scare it off, 3. It eviscerates you.

But we're here to play fantasy games, not think about reality. So, from bears and lions, we come to trolls.

The troll was just too much for me to handle. It pursued me and I had to run backwards across open country, casting healing spells, swinging my hammer to knock it back every time it lunged. A few times I blundered off the mountain and got jammed up in some rocks, and the troll fell on my head and scratched me to death. Ah, the outdoors.

Finally I went around a bend in the road and got the town gates in sight, and standing under a nearby tree was an enormous bull creature with a breastplate and a hammer. I summoned lesser creatures and shot it with lightning from a distance until it keeled over with a long brassy-sounding groan and slammed into the roadway, sending its hammer clattering into the bushes. (In this game you even get tailored sound effects for each item dropping onto each surface. It sounds fantastic.) So much for the minotaur. Then thirty yards further on, a brigand came sailing out of the undergrowth and took a swipe at me with an even larger hammer, of a kind I'd never seen before. It was shiny, emerald green, and remarkably painful. I had a mace, which I could swing faster than the brigand could swing the hammer, so I clubbed him to death. I wanted to take the hammer into town and sell it, but I couldn't carry the damn thing.

This gave me two bright ideas: One, I could earn a lot of money - more than I'd ever scrounged up before - by simply killing these new-fangled well-armed brigands and selling their loot at the blacksmith. And two, I could cast conjuring spells just like I'd cast the "unlock" spell earlier, and increase my skill at conjuring even when I didn't really need the assistance, and even when I wasn't in combat at all.

So for the next four hours the pattern was the same: March out into the woods, to some god-forsaken temple or infested cavern, clout some hapless robber or mage to death, strip him naked, and hock his crap back in town. And every step of the way, summon creatures.

You can only have one summoned creature at a time, so I couldn't litter the landscape with them... But I got real good at making them. A couple times I would summon a Dremora (a toasty-looking demonic fellow in black and red armor) and just leave him standing in the blacksmith's shop, glancing nervously around like a party guest who's just realized that he's the only one who showed up in a costume. Yes, if you get close, you actually can see his eyes darting around.

If you summon the Dremora - or any creature, really - in a room with no enemies, the poor thing has no idea how to proceed. The skeleton stands there and creaks for a while, then starts creeping around the room and bending over to peer at things, like some macabre Groucho Marx. The Flame Atronach stands stock-still and emits farty campfire sounds. The Dremora looks nervously around. Then if you turn to face it, it turns to you, with that twitchy expression you get on a chicken in a barnyard when you get up close. ("b... rraawwwk?") Utterly confused and unsure how to proceed, but waiting for you to make the first move.

All summoned creatures will follow you as far as they can. All try to appear nearby when you summon them. But sometimes they make poor choices, and sometimes the deck is stacked against them. I've been summoning Dremora as I run cross-country, so occasionally they appear halfway over cliffs. Or they appear right in front of me and I smack into them at full gallop. Or I encounter some menacing wildlife with no items to steal, and abandon the Dremora as bait, only to summon it out of combat and back beside me like a yo-yo, just to burn the mana points and keep practicing. No wonder the Dremora looks confused. And nervous. If any of the townsfolk in this game were really human, they would consider me a lunatic and a public nuisance.

So now the game has really his its stride, for me. I get to act crazy, and just mess around with things, and it's still detailed and large enough to completely surprise me. Like the time I hit a floor panel and opened a secret door, and got my first encounter with a wraith - essentially a floating shower curtain and a skull with a wicked sword attached - and it went "SKREEAAW!" and took a swipe at me, making me shout "What the crap is that!!". This exploring is so much fun that I've decided to ignore the main plot of the game for as long as possible. I still haven't found even a third of all the temples, forts, mines, caves, and dungeons on the map.
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