Confession time: I didn’t get my work done.
Specifically, I am currently in the middle of Canadian nothingness (read: Sasketchawan) writing a post that was meant to be completed before I began this lengthy trip to the Yukon. I failed which means I am working within a tight timeframe as I pound out these thoughts in the few hours between my late evenings and early rises. However, it appears that Derek has started posting which is nice since he continues to ignore my desperate pleas for attention whenever I get a few seconds of precious Internet on this voyage.
At any rate, this is the final post I have for my wonderful “Month of Joy” or whatever we want to call this. I decided, since this is my last, I would do something different. Here at somewherepostculture, we are often a little behind the times. We review things that are often already ingrained into the cultural consciousness. Neither my colleagues nor I have the ability to experience new “art” as its produced and often when we find the time to look at it, the object in question has already come and gone through the public’s mind and we’re left overlooking some old relic seemingly unearthed from antiquity than anything new.
Well, this time will be slightly different.
While on the road I was bemoaning to my sister how I didn’t have anything in mind for my final week. I knew I wanted to cover yet another medium and I already settled that it would be video games. From prior posts, this should not have appeared too arduous a task as I quite enjoy that entertainment and have written many words at length about my thoughts on opinions of various products. However, when it came to discuss something I actually liked, things got difficult.
I was left with that nagging problem I mentioned in passing on previous posts. I didn’t want to cover well known or universally acclaimed games. Not that I don’t enjoy some of them but that there seemed little value in espousing their well known qualities. What is there to say about games like Dota 2, Team Fortress 2 or Portal that hasn’t been covered previously? Actually, given our focus here, I knew that I would be looking at role-playing games. They’re really my favourite genre that deals with narratives, characters and world building in any great capacity. And if anyone were to ask what my favourite rpg was, my immediate and fervent answer would be Baldur’s Gate II.
But that game is such a cornerstone in the genre. It is a game so good that it, essentially, ruined the company which created it. It’s shadow is long and dark with many titles being measured against it and, ultimately, coming up short. It is fantastic and it was a game I adamantly wanted to avoid reviewing.
My sister suggested I take a different approach. Instead of focusing on the tale, how about I focus on the gameplay? Video games are an interesting medium because of the interaction between creator and consumer. The most effective usage of the medium involves some “game” with the audience and perhaps I should discuss one where I really enjoyed that play. We tossed a few ideas back and forth and, ultimately, one title stood out above the others.
And it is a game I have not completed.
I do not like reviewing things that I have not finished–the reasons should be self apparent. Only in extraordinary circumstances will I break this preference (for example, if I read a book so awful that I am physically incapable of completing it… and it truly is that bad). For this game in particular, I know I’m going to do a full review when I finish it. However, I am having so much fun now that it seems remiss not to highlight its positives and demonstrate that there are still quality titles being released that make me feel that wonder and excitement many assume I am simply unable to feel.
I speak, of course, of Divinity: Original Sin.
Divinity is a curious game. It is not the first of its title by its creator studio though it’s certainly the first that I have played. It was one of the latest of the kickstarter darlings but fell well after I had chosen to participate in the experiment. As I refuse to kickstart any more games until my original “investments” bear fruit, I politely ignored Divinity. This was for the best as I had little expectations when I finally came to its release. It, however, received quite a bit of positive word of mouth and that it was co-op excited my friends to no end. Thus, Derek and I grabbed two copies when it went on a Steam release sale and sat down to enjoy as much as we could before my excursion to our country’s cold, white and isolated north.
To put bluntly, the game is fun. I don’t use that word lightly. I find it is incredibly undescriptive. Fun. It bears not quantitative measure. It is an ephemeral descriptor which gives a listener no bearing on quality or measure of its matter. It makes it ambiguous on a scale as one can not, simply, compare the “fun” of one thing with another. Whereas other emotions are easier to draw strengths: I may have been startled by Amnesia but my sister was positively terrified. Despite my displeasure of the word it is a fantastic tool for Divinity.
At its heart, the game is enjoyable. It isn’t the greatest work of art. One will not likely hold Divinity as a moving narrative which brought them to tears or instilled some revelation or philosophical quandry. It will hardly inspire. Its visuals hardly transport you to fantastical settings or leave you dizzily lost in flights of imagination. Its score doesn’t plumb the depths of emotional experience. At best its writing will crack a smile but its mystery hardly leaves one pondering long after they’ve turned off the game.
In short: its characters are shallow, it’s narrative is cliched, it’s style is non-existent. And it is the best game I’ve played all year.
The truth of the matter is that Divinity is, first and foremost, a game. It is there to amuse. Its narrative serves the basest level of setting and cohesion. It is like the short blurb printed on the introductory rules of a boardgame. Its characters are there to direct players from one point to another. If they can get a smirk then they have gone beyond their duty. Ultimately, the game wants you to play with its systems and with a friend.
Divinity’s draw is near entirely its combat system. On hard, I am challenged. Each fight is a tactical puzzle to be solved. The vast majority of role-playing games, nay, the vast majority of games treat combat as just another diversion thrown in to keep the player awake between narrative beats or provide the most rudimentary challenges. Combat, as a whole, I often find is a task one does because it is expected of you. I’m hard pressed to think of a game that has me as excited for its fighting system as Divinity. If I had my choice, I would play Dungeons and Dragons or its ilk without a single dice cast for a brawl.
But not Divinity. Instead, it makes me excited to level my character. Every turn has me pondering my next move, often speaking to Derek in order to co-ordinate my next action. I’m playing a wizard, so I don’t get many turns, but the interaction between agents, environment and abilities is staggering. The moment when you set your first stun arrow on a pool of water to stun half your enemies through snaking series of blood and puddles only to follow up with a great fireball to create a smoke screen from the steam of the exact same stunning water is a thing of wonder. You almost feel like you are a painter during confrontation. The terrain is your canvas. Your spells are your brush. You position your actors, trigger your abilities and watch a calvalcade of actions in motion which cripple, stun, blind, burn and knock down your enemies to keep them controlled and pinned.
Or, at least that’s the idea. More often than not I feel like a child with my finger paint, madly trying to outdo an intermediate artist before he finishes his gradework with my blood. For your enemies are always unique combination of classes with different abilities and tricks of their own. They are gunning to turn the exact same combination of spells and effects against you. In fact, we have learned more ability combinations from what the enemies use against us than we’ve discovered on our own experimentation. So far we have faced a fascinating blend of abilities and combinations too that no single fight has felt the same or tired.
For the first time in an rpg, it is not the next clue or character that motivates me to keep playing. I don’t care where the game goes next. Instead, I’m ruminating over my level-ups and which abilities and skills I want to increase. I’m plotting formations and ability interactions. I’m counting action costs and measuring out distances. I’m getting into arguments with my partner and I’m stunning him with waylaid shots or poorly placed fireballs.
And I’m loving every minute of it.