Monday, December 02, 2002

Daughter of Bhaal
Once in a while I stop working and start playing, and what I play at those occasions is Baldur's Gate II, Shadows of Amn. I have been playing this game in my spare time since May, and I am not bored yet.

Shadows of Amn is the sequel to Baldur's Gate I, where if I had played the game I could have conquered my evil brother Sarevok and prevented my father, Bhaal, God of Murder, from returning to the Forgotten Realm. In this game I have to choose between good and evil: will I take up my evil heritage or will I turn away from it? Neither one of the Baldur's Gate games gives the player a chance to write the background of his or her own character, it's already set. For more freedom of expression, import the character into Neverwinter Nights. Instead Shadows of Amn offer tricky choices and high pressure on several levels.

The main character soon gathers a party of adventurers, and although these are NPC's, non playing characters, they are quite sophisticatedly programmed and ensure varied feedback to the player. Depending on the choices the player makes for the group, the different NPCs will agree to stay or go. The game offers a multitude of little choices, each little quest one that can change the outcome: do you turn to the light or the darkness? Little distracting quests turn up in every place the company goes, and the player's character is constantly hazzled both with the needs of the people of the Forgotten Realms, as well as the needs of the people in the group. Minsc and Jaheira, two characters who obviously have been with you since the battle with Sarevok, are the only ones who have not insisted on having any special favours yet (I am on chapter three after seven months of playing - I am slow but this game is complex). Their job seems to be to give the PC a solid guilt-complex.

On the other side of the coin is the evil wizard Irenicus. He is an important opponent, but also the devil's advocate in this game. He keeps whispering about grandeour and power. In series of dreams he comes to tempt the PC to turn to the dark side. His is the classic role of the devil, who shows the PC the powers to be had... if only the player lets it turn to the dark side. At the same time the game manages to create NPCs who really suffer. They suffer small things and larger: Tiny little experiences whch might or might not be quests colour the game, and the Forgotten Realm is not empty of life and humanity. The NPCs might be pawns just like the footsoldiers in chess, but this is chess as we see the wizards play it in Harry Potter: Each pawn speaks, each pawn pleads, suffers and dies.

Baldur's Gate is a classic tale of sibling rivalry, of rebellion against the parents, social unrest, corruption and temptation. Religious sects mislead the unwary, corrupt leaders of society take advantage of the people, and children are sold, used and abused. The parents in this game are either evil as in Bhaal, pathetic as in the case of Anomen's father, or absent until he's found to be dead as in the case of Nalia's father. There are no mother-figures at all so far, unless I count Nalia's annoying and narrow-minded parasite of an aunt. This is more in line with the general motif of parental betrayal than any slur against women, since we find women wielding many different types of power in Shadows of Amn.

All of this is however just the framework, the fictional background against which the game itself is played. The game is based on AD&D, with the same system of rolling dice in order to determine the outcome of battles as well as quests (the computer rolls for you, of course). The main enjoyment comes from using the full range of abilities available to the group in order to beat the opponents, and to choose skills and abilities which will advance the progress of the group through the game. While the fiction is pleasing as a backdrop that allows for spectacular graphics, mysterious dungeons and wicked traps, the many little puzzles which influence the progress of the characters in different manners is what makes the game worth playing. Shadows of Amn has been adjusted somewhat from Baldur's Gate I, and such adjusting is the trademark of a game with ambitions to be good, at present there are no single spells or weapons that always saves the day. This forces the player to experiment, explore and test in order to determine tactics, a strategy that makes the gameplay varied, entertaining and challenging. Shadows of Amn is a game where agôn dominates over alea and mimicry: a game of skill rather than one of luck or pretense. It does however use the fictional frame efficiently, and the quests and puzzles are firmly embedded in the fictional reality of the Forgotten Realm.

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