Friday, March 6, 2020

Funny How Time Slips Away

I said I wasn't going to post much about Divinity: Original Sin 2 and I intend to stick to that but since it's the game I'm playing most right now it would be a tad arch not to post about it at all...

To say it's the game I'm playing most tends to suggest it would also be the one I was most enjoying but that wouldn't be entirely true. The main reason I'm playing more D:OS2 than anything else is that D:OS2 takes longer to play than anything else. So. Much. Longer.

Everything about the game seems to be drawn out to take just about as long as a reasonably patient person could be expected to stand. Conversations go on and on and there are hundreds and hundreds of them. There are manifold containers to be opened, often containing books and letters to be read, although these are mercifully short.

Travel takes place at a gentle dog-trot across maps that are, by intent, hard to navigate. Direction-finding is wilfully obtuse. There appears to be an extensive and convoluted crafting system, which would no doubt provide yet another deep well of lost time. So far I have avoided falling into it.

Upgrading characters takes an inordinate amount of attention. There are many, many "meaningful" choices to be made, although what the precise meaning might be is often unclear. Gear is varied and has to be considered carefully. It's not a game where a single glance will tell you whether something is worth keeping or discarding.

Combat takes forever. Even the smallest battle is a major tactical event. When the big red "FIGHT!" warning fills the screen you know you're in for half an hour or so of analytical thinking and if it all goes horribly wrong you may well be reprising that soon afterwards.

Steam tells me I've played twenty hours of D:OS2 so far. It seems longer. It feels longer. This game eats time. I start playing and three or four hours vanish.

There was a time when I would have seen that as a mark in the game's favor. Not any more. My time is more valuable to me these days. If I'm going to fritter it away I'd at least like to feel its passing as it slips through my hands, not to wake up as if from a dream, hours lost and nothing much to show for it.

It's all too easy to lose yourself in this game. The process of playing is innately absorbing. It's immersive in the psychological rather than the aesthetic sense. At no point so far have I ever felt I was "in" the world but I am almost constantly in the game in that I am never not accutely aware that I'm playing.

The whole thing is about mechanics. Playing D: OS2 gives a very similar sensation to the one I get when I'm putting together an item of flat-pack furniture. The difference is that at the end of a session I don't have a finished table or bookcase I can use. I just have the memory of of having constructed something that no longer has any function.

Although it has a large number of superficial similarities, this is all very different from playing an MMORPG. They may both involve building up virtual power in imaginary environments but the open-ended nature of the MMO form means that the power you have accrued and refined can be used for new projects within that setting. I'm acutely conscious at the end of each D:OS2 session that whatever I've achieved is moving me ever near to the point where what I've achieved will be nullified by an ending.

No different from reading a book or watching a movie, then. Except that in the time it's likely to take to finish D:OS2 I could probably read a dozen books or watch fifty movies. More significantly, I could read a dozen books that were far better written and far more memorable and watch fifty movies that were far better acted and which would live far longer in my imagination.

Divinity:Original Sin 2 is well-written and well acted by genre standards. It is nonetheless somewhat bland and generic. After twenty hours I have yet to discern a plot that intrigues me. There are hints of something that might become interesting at some future time but other narrative media would have needed to take and hold my attention in a fraction of the time.

What keeps me plugging away isn't any compulsion to see how the story turns out. As yet I'm still not clear what the main plot might be and I certainly don't care whether I ever find out. None of the characters I've met is particularly engaging and neither are their backstories. I could drop any of them at any time and never look back.

I was briefly excited when I found I could, after all, take the Pet Pal talent but sadly every animal I've spoken to so far sounds much the same as the rest of the NPCs, talking in long-winded, self-important, full sentences about arcane or metaphysical concerns. Some effort has been made to present them as different species with non-bipedal perspectives but they mostly express themselves in the same, portentous fashion as every other fantasy race. By and large they aren't even cute or endearing although I strongly suspect whoever wrote the dialog imagined they would be.

The voice acting, like the writing, tends towards the competent. I'm not sure that competency is ever much of a selling-point although it would seem to have the edge over its opposite. There's a very impressive range of regional accents on display, most of which sound to be either originals or skilled copies and yet even as I admire their accuracy I find myself questioning their authenticity.

The sheer variety of accents is also distracting in itself. I get that the location is a prison island to which prisoners, guards and administrators have been brought from all over the place but it's still disorienting to hear a seemingly random collection of voices ranging from Devon to Dumfries, let alone the occasional transatlantic tourist.

The actors delivering lines in extremely plummy upper-class, educated British elite accents seem to get closer to the text than those giving their their line readings a strong local flavor. I've yet to hear any that are outright bad but there are quite a few that sound as though there was either too much rehearsal or too little. I could definitely take a little more scenery-chewing just to get some emotional heft in there.

All in all I'm finding it quite difficult to work out whether or not I'm enjoying myself. My favorite part of the game, without any doubt whatsoever, is the combat. It may be a major commitment in time and mental energy but it's extremely engaging and absorbing. I very much like the way initiative is decided on an individual basis. I'm sorry to hear that won't be the case in Baldur's Gate 3, although I'm sure that deciding tactics for the team as a whole will bring its own rigors and delights.

I wonder, though, whether I wouldn't enjoy a game more if it had only the fights, dispensing with the both peripatetic seeking and searching and the tendentious plot. It seems odd to say it, given my explorer sensibilities, but I find those largely crushed by the execrable camera, the dreadful movement controls and the ant farm perspective.

It's next to impossible either to see anything at sufficiently close range to enjoy the excellent graphic design or to take screenshots that look anything but muddled and confused. I looked into mods to improve the look and feel of the game but the ones I found didn't seem much of an improvement.

So, in conclusion, I'm playing a lot but I feel I might be wasting my time. That's a feeling I have almost never had in twenty years of playing MMORPGs, even though the hobby has consumed a huge portion of my waking life (strangely I almost never dream about gaming in any form).

For now I'll carry on because I do really like the set piece fights. I'm also reasonably determined to finish the first part and get off the island just to see if the game opens up or changes after that. If it goes on to be more of the same, though, I might have to bow out. As the banker in East Freeport often says, I have better things to do with my time.


  1. I am trying and failing to remember any story whatsoever for my last 20 years playing game.Part of the issue is that I never finish game, but this is also related to the main reason : it seems that videogames is one of the worst way to share a story. I remember some smallest stories/scene within the stories but never the overall one.
    I believe the reason is that interesting gameplay is kind of the opposite to good story. The few counterexemple I can think of never last more than 30s, (Halo 1 alien discovery, Max Payne dream 'back to home' scene, sorry for the old example).
    Exemple of story characterist that does not match well with gameplay :
    - Story surprise the reader/viewer, while my own action cannot surprise me
    - Story about interaction between character while I cannot discuss with NPC
    - story about main character evolution, while I am not changing
    - game (especially RPG) often use filler/mundane task rarely found in stories ( or they serve the story)
    - when book/movie focus on character action, it focus either on esthetic (movie), or cleverness (book), while in game you are thinking of what to do, with few brain power left to appreciate esthetic and you will not be surprise by your own cleverness

    I believe this is why most games separate the story done in cutscene from the game itself. The counter-exemple is story by environement such as when you visit a devastated place and you gather together what happens in the past.

    Do you have counter-example of good game interlaced with good story ?

    1. I agree with most of that. I've been playing video games since I was in my late teens and it's only since the rise of what we sometimes call "walking simulators" that the form seems to have found a compromise with narrative flow that more or less works. As far as I can tell, the success of a game in putting across a compelling and coherent narrative is in inverse proportion to the amount of active gameplay. The more the player has to do, the less well the story works.

      I did find the stories of Broken Sword 1 and 2 pretty good but I wouild take a good deal of convincing that they wouldn't have been even better as straightforward animated movies. The same applies to most adventure games I've played. Perhaps the most convincing novelistic game I've played in recent memory would be Doki Doki Literature Club. That does reach for the same ground as an experimental novel and by and large succeeds in grasping it.

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