Monday, January 11, 2016

Beyond Good And Evil : EQ2

A particular quirk of EQ2, one that stems from the very beginning of the game and which stubbornly persists while other underpinning concepts lie long abandoned and forgotten, is that players must ally with one of two opposing factions. For the sake of tradition, or so it always seemed, they're labelled "Good" and "Evil".

It's worked well enough across the years. Although the initial, onerous factional restrictions laid on groups and guilds were quickly scrapped, along with many other of the poor design choices that made pre-Hartsman EQ2 such a dour and difficult game, the background of two opposing cultures competing to reclaim a shattered world provided a functional, easily understood setting for adventure.

Originally each of these factions was clearly and specifically attached to a single starting city, Qeynos for Good and Freeport for Evil. Neither was an especially close match to its supposed philosophical or ethical outlook. Qeynos seemed prissy rather than pious, tidied to whithin an inch of its life and overly concerned with vanity and rules, while Freeport resembled a once-powerful mercantile city-state, now down on its luck and running to seed.

It was easy enough to fit into either without feeling you were making a heavy, moral choice. I always felt comfortable in Freeport. Yes, Overlord Lucan D'Lere does hold frequent public executions, which he conducts personally and with relish, but for the most part "evil" in the great maritime city is confined to venial and corrupt guards, weaselly sneak-thieves and a widespread belief in self-interest above all else. In the immortal words of The Shangri-Las, Freeport is good-bad but it's not evil.

Over the long years, however, there has been slippage. When the dragon threat was at its height a couple or three years back, Freeport and Qeynos even entered into a semi-formal alliance. The lines were blurring.

Internal Neriak politics. Nothing to do with me. I hope...
Well before that unthinkable event, something more ominous had occurred: Neriak was found. The lost city of the Dark Elves resurfaced in Update 35 back in May of 2007. On that fateful day Freeport forever lost its crown as the urban embodiment of evil. Lucan just didn't know it yet.

I have never liked Neriak. I don't believe its possible to like Neriak although it can be admired and, certainly, feared. When I first encountered the City of Hate in the original Everquest I found it daunting and disturbing. All those dismembered dwarf carcasses hanging from butchers' hooks like so many sides of beef. The eerie, subterranean neon glow of it all. Disturbing.

Neriak redux is sharper, neater, cleaner. Evil redefined, repurposed, yes, but still, unmistakably, real evil. It was inevitable that Queen Cristanos, chilling psychopath and would-be godling, would ultimately outmaneuver the pompous, self-satisfied Lucan.

Possibly it was Lucan's dalliance with Queen Antonia Bayle that sealed it. Freeport lost status as the Lodestone of Evil in The Shattered Lands. And after all, Lucan may be undead but he's still human. The two above-ground leaders at least have that in common. Cristanos is a Dark Elf. There's not much more to be said after that.

All of which brings me to current content. Terrors of Thalumbra, like most EQ2 expansions, has a through-line: a meaty Signature Quest that sets out to explain where you are and what you're doing there. In the old days much of that narrative would have been gated behind group and raid content but for many expansions past the whole thing has been democratized.

Hang on, run that past me again? I hope that's prudent self-preservation I'm hearing, not the result of some kind of Dark Elven mind-magic.
Consequently I've been chipping away at the storyline, learning a great deal about the ancient pre-history of Norrath as I go. It's fascinating stuff. I've really been enjoying it. Only there's a problem. Somehow I appear to have been seconded, or more accurately suborned, into working directly for House Thex.

And when I say "directly" that's just what I mean. At first it was the relatively affable (for a Dark Elf) Virun D'Xyafin. We first met a while back in the pre-events and it all seemed quite in order. There I was, or there my Berserker was, a Freeportian in good standing, investigating a problem common to both Freeport and Neriak. It's not like The Overlord didn't have an interest. It's not as though I'd, y'know, signed anything. Especially not in blood.

So how is it that a few months later I find myself reporting not to the familiar and largely nonthreatening Virun, nor yet to his extremely disturbing, apparently deranged replacement, Zintra D'Oziana, but directly to The Queen of Hate herself?  I am, to put it mildly, NOT HAPPY about this.

Backing away now.
I'm not happy about it on both the meta and non-meta levels. In role-playing terms, my Ratonga Berserker is very much the Captain of his own soul. He's pragmatic, unromantic, forceful. He likes to solve problems by hitting them hard with either a blunt or a sharp object until they go away. He's not big on thinking or forward planning and certainly not on politics. No-one would claim he's an altruist but he has his own conception of both loyalty and fair play and he lives rigorously within them. Selfish, certainly. A psycopathic, lack-spittle zealot? I don't think so.

As a player, I have deep problems with the Dark Elven race as it's widely and consistently portrayed in both EverQuest and EQ2. The levels of sadism and the apparent glee with which sadistic Dark Elven practices and customs are described and detailed are often disturbing. I like a bit of grimdark as much as the next non-crazy person but there's a wealth of difference between the moral complexities of The Secret World and Innoruuk's particular vision of hell.

I don't play Dark Elves for a reason. I find them unplayable. I am not at all comfortable about having my Ratonga converted into a quasi Dark Elf by default. And yet, if I want to complete the very interesting and intriguing storyline, I have no choice.

My Queen? She's not my queen. I'm a frickin' ratonga. We don't have queens and if we did they would certainly not be Dark Elf queens. What exactly is going on?

Except, come to think of it, I do. I could Betray. In all the years I've played EQ2 it's something I've never done even though, if I remember rightly, it's been an option since the game began. Once, it was a very lengthy and arduous process but I believe that, like most things in the game, it's a lot easier and faster than it used to be.

If things go on this way, if this questline ends with my Berserker falling even deeper under the sway of the House of Thex, if, most importantly of all, all future access to new content for we "Evils" is to be contracted universally to Neriak, then I may have little choice. The sheer effort and time involved in getting a character up to matching gear and skill level precludes any chance of simply rolling again. I go cold even thinking about it.

Well, we'll see where this road takes us, my Berserker and I. Perhaps there will be a twist in the ending. If not, though, we hear that, if the streets of Qeynos are not exactly paved with gold, then at least the guards wear gold lamé. We'd fit right in.


  1. It's pretty easy to betray, far easier than years ago. Just boring. I've done it several times, basically picked a quest and did it over and over until faction is maxed, maybe 50 runs? Tedious, but easy.

    I think there is also a betrayal token on the loyalty vendor, if you have tokens to spare that's another option. Never tried it though, I use all mine on gold, Lol.

    1. The loyalty token version sounds interesting. I have literally never spent a loyalty token yet - I haven't even looked at the vendor for what must be a couple of years. I have 268 loyalty tokens so I really should use them for something.

      That said, I really don't want to Betray. My zerker is a fully paid-up Lucan loyalist. I just want to be doing my questing for Freeport, not Neriak.

  2. The problem I have always had with evil factions in general, and the evil side in EQII especially, is that they seemed to be modeled on some as yet undiscovered in the real world form of government I will politely call a Jerkocracy.

    Everybody in authority in Freeport is at least a bit of a jerk when you meet them. But Neriak, that place takes the Jerkocracy to a whole new level. They're jerks when they get to know you and like you, but right bastards when you first meet them. You can get societies where being a jerk is not uncommon in the civil service and what not, but a whole structure of jerks seems likely to ferment revolution. Even the Nazis looked out for their own and sang songs and went on Strength Through Joy vacations together.

    Also, that "Thank You, My Queen" screen shot riles me up on one of my long held pet peeves, which is, "Don't put words in my character's mouth!" Let me silently accept whatever task on my own terms. You don't have to make me a horrible little lick spittle.

    1. All of that is so true but particularly the last paragraph. I vastly prefer the way Funcom did it in TSW, where the most my character ever did to express an opinion was give a tell-tale frown or shrug. If writers are going to insist on adding in a written response on my character's behalf they could at the very least try to keep it neutral and factual and refrain from flowering it up but oh, no...

      I did actually shout at the screen when the first grovelling, toadying speech popped out of my character's mouth. I was hoping it might at least be leading to some kind of revelation that he was operating in some deep, undercover role on behalf of Freeport but I've finished the Signature line now and no such luck. It feels like he's been traded to Neriak in some pre-season deal fixed up by his agent, who forgot to mention it to him.

  3. I don't play EQ2, but I feel your pain. I had a similar problem as a Horde player in the Cataclysm/Mists of Pandaria era in World of Wacraft.

    See, Horde has traditionally been something on an anti-hero faction. They have an edge, and they certainly do morally questionable things at times, but they also believe in honour and are, as a rule, simply people trying to survive in a hostile world.

    Then Cataclysm saw a regime change, and suddenly the Horde went full-Nazi Germany. Suddenly my faction turned into a ravenous pack of bloodthirsty racists and war criminals. I was, in a word, pissed.

    In that case, it did eventually work out. As Mists of Pandaria progressed, we as players began to turn on the warchief and ended up leading a rebellion against him. There was a great catharsis to sitting in that cavern beneath Pandaria and swearing the blood-oath with Vol'jin to end Garrosh's madness and reclaim our Horde. It ended up being a very satisfying arc.

    No idea if something like that is in the cards for EQ2, though. Don't know enough about the game. Point is, I sympathize with your frustration.


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