Flicker flames and haunted faces
Shuffling feet find empty spaces
Moving shadows, someone's hurting
Huddle closer, campfire burning.

Monday 4 October 2010

Intellectia Eternum

On the road ahead of you is a dead body. It’s yours.

This might be the first hook in the Neverwinter Nights module Elegia Eternum, but it’s what follows the plot twist that makes the game so special. Most writers would be happy enough ending the story then and there, in a cliché so ubiquitous I expected it to be the be-all and end-all of the mod. Oh my God, I was dead all along! It’s dull, it’s overdone, and I was ready to yawn and roll my eyes that a writer capable of ending his mod on such a well-worn note could be seen as one of the stars of the Neverwinter Nights scene.

But that was a few weeks ago. A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then, and I’ve discovered that not only are there a good number of decent NWN mods out there, but that there are some REALLY good mods. As in, mods that make full-price RPGs look humdrum, unimaginative, and poor in comparison.

Eligia Eternum is a good mod, but not a great one. It takes you away from your standard quest for a magical staff and into a world of conflicting emotions, domestic pain, rack, ruin and heartache. The game would have made a splash on the modding scene anyway thanks to its full voice acting - a rarity in any game mod - but there’s a decent story, a set of interesting characters and some solid puzzle-solving gameplay behind it. The voice acting is almost the least interesting facet of the mod.

You see a dead body on a quest to find a staff. You stop in at a nearby inn and tell the owner about it; she doesn’t believe you - in fact nobody at the inn believes you. There’s something off about the place that you can’t quite put your finger on, but you shake your head and go on your way to the cave where the staff is said to reside. Inside you find a couple of bandits who can’t hear or see you because they killed you some hours ago. They talk about your death and the death of one of their companions in a light-hearted manner, and the phantom of their dead companion sits nearby, bemoaning that he’ll never get to tell his bandit lady-friend how he felt about her.

When you return to the inn the story really begins. The inn is blackened, burnt out, and has been for some time. Everyone you met earlier has been stuck there ever since the place burned down, killing them all in the process. They are imprisoned within the inn’s shadow, both by their own tormented hang-ups and by the staff you were trying to find; the staff, it turns out, is sentient, evil, and doesn’t much like people. You being the hero, it’s your job to stop it, put an end to the torment of those it has trapped, and generally Do Good.

While there are a number of interesting plot points along the way - not least is the introduction of an angel who’d previously tried and failed to save the good residents of the Elgia Inn - what resonated with me was the central story concerning the family that ran the inn. Over the course of the game, through veiled references, diary entries, memories and eventually full-blown maps you learn the history of the Eligia family and how they came to be possessed and trapped by the staff. The staff prays upon their weaknesses and miseries, causing not only their deaths in the process but forging cages from their own tears - sometimes literally - in order to feed upon their pain. The antagonist that indirectly gave the staff this power is an absent husband and father who screwed up his kids, screwed up his wife, and left the lot of them in the lurch. While he thinks of himself as a happy-go-lucky chap he bullies and demeans, and leaves his family in pieces in search of adventure upon the high seas. The staff seizes upon the Eligia family’s sadness and twists it to its own purpose, turning a little girl’s fleeting hatefulness into the blazing murder weapon that razes the inn ot the ground, trapping their souls in its ashes. It’s an extremely powerful motif, and not one that’s often used in video games.

For all the wickedness the staff wreaks during Eligia Eternum, the true villain of the piece is the absent father. The impact of his ignorant hatefulness is driven home by him not appearing in corporeal form in the mod at all. On numerous occasions while playing I’d hear one of his black pearls of wisdom, or watch a childhood memory and see just how bad a father and husband he’d been, and I’d mutter to myself that if I ever managed to track this son of a bitch down I’d make him pay. I never did, because he isn’t in the game. He’d departed long before I’d arrived, and left me to clean up the mess he’d left behind.


He is in the sequel.

Excrucio Eternum is a far more confident mod than its predecessor. It doesn’t rely on the cheap flashiness of voice acting and it doesn’t try to subvert time worn clichés. It has a world all of its own, a world certainly influenced by the likes of Planescape: Torment, Bioshock and Psychonauts, but a world strong enough to stand next to these towering influences and not look out of place.

After saving the Eligia family and letting their souls ascend to heaven I, as dwarvern fighter Manus Dotin, ran into a stranger in the woods, who promptly knocked me out and stole the now neutered staff. I awoke in an asylum manned by gnolls and agents - slaves who’d had their souls carved from them - and discovered that while I’d been unconscious I, too, had become an agent. Once I’d regained my will I set out to find an exit from this place, and to take revenge on whoever had done this to me.

Excrucio Eternum is a true sequel to the first game, and many of the characters from the first title show up in the second in one form or another. It takes the themes from Eligia and greatly expands upon them, twisting them back, looping them over each other, and providing complex motivations for its characters. There’s a part in an early level of Psychonauts where you discover that your optimistic summer camp counsellor has a very dark secret hidden within her psyche. That her psyche is represented by a psychedelic roller-disco makes this discovery darker and more unpleasant. While the Eternum asylum is far from being a roller-disco, the sheer depths to which writer Stefan Gagne plunges needles into his protagonists makes the game often unpleasant, and always achingly sad. He never pushes things too far, and the situations never become gratuitous, but they corkscrew and buck like roller coasters, always threatening to throw the player off yet always driving him onward.

This is best illustrated by the character of Songbird, an elven girl I discovered trapped in a gilded cage. The cage was surrounded by slogans written to suppress her will, her personality - everything that made her who she should have been, and over the years she’d spent within the cage’s confines they’d woven their magic upon her, trapping her mind as surely as the gilt bars trapped her body. I was still only a little way into the game at this point and hadn’t yet seen the depravities this new villain had inflicted upon his victims, but seeing someone reduced to her name and nothing else - a songbird - churned my stomach.

I mean that. Maybe playing the good guy in games for so long has made me soft, but there’s a reason why games prefer to go for the jugular with gratuitous violence, gore and gibs. These are things most gamers have become desensitised to over the years. We can cheer when Marcus Phoenix chainsaws a grub in two with his lancer - hell, that’s what that particular animation is there for. You know there’s not going to be a scene in Gears of War 3 where Marcus talks about how his childhood priest molested him, not simply because it’s distasteful given the atmosphere the Gears games try to cultivate but because it’s not what gamers want in their games. For all the talk of psychological horror in games it’s the gore and monsters people identify with. Look at Silent Hill. Whatever Pyramid Head might have done early on in the series, he’s now a poster child for video game monsters. He’s a monster with a big sword, not some insidiously creeping Freudian nightmare.

The suppression of Songbird’s being was a major part of Excrucio Eternum for me. The game makes it clear that while she was not programmed for use as a sex object there were indignities inflicted upon her besides those involved in wiping her personality. The game even gave me the chance to hear about them, or to take advantage of her myself; I don’t know what might have happened if I’d selected those particular conversation options, because I didn’t. Even in the context of the game I’d become too attached to this fragile creature to act out of character and tread a darker path.

Songbird’s story came to light later in the game, when I was charged with entering the psyches of various characters I’d previously met. While they all had their own tragedies Songbird’s was, predictably, the worst and most affecting, not least because it involved me, Manus Dotin, the friendly dwarf who’d helped a family escape from a well of torment and then been corrupted and turned into a murderer. As the story went, upon my master’s command I’d slaughtered Songbird’s mother when Songbird herself had been a little girl, and taken her back to the asylum where he’d stripped her personality away little by little ‘til all that was left was an obedient bird in a cage. She followed orders - to be an object, to sing, to speak only when spoken to, to always be beautiful, to always be a slave - that hadn’t just been written on signs around her cage, but etched inside her mind. I found the fragments of her distraught personality and seeing them spread out, giving me clear identification as to her mental makeup, somehow made her situation even worse.

Because who wants to think of a person like that? Who wants to break his or herself down into take-or-leave parts? The thought that such a thing might be possible gives cause for panic because it implies that there are events in your life that can set who you are, that can change you for the better or worse. Most people can point to an event in their life and say that it changed their life but the more you think about these things, the more you examine your mental make-up and the circumstances that helped to construct it, the more frightening the world becomes. In its most innocuous form it’s how advertising works, how jingles get lodged in your consciousness so you whistle them in the car and end up buying branded products you don’t really need. If you stop to think about it you realise you’re being manipulated in ways you’d never dreamed of . . . and you don’t want to dream of them. You don’t want to know this because you’ll get wound up in the concept of free will, and you’ll realise that maybe there’s no such thing, and therefore, no point in life but to coast along on other people’s desires. Only without free will, they don’t have any desires either! And life’s one big feedback loop, one self-operating machine.

And God, I don’t want to think of life like that. Do you? It’s given me a headache just writing about it. But this is the kind of thing this game, this free module wants to make you think about. Pretty little Songbird, torn into shards of personality I had to ‘fix’ in order to put things right. Where she was a slave in the real world, inside her head was a version of herself bound by chains. In the real world she had no voice; in her mind she had a locked keyhole sunk into her throat. Where she needed to always be beautiful her skin had turned to gold, and where she was objectified, her skin had turned to stone, making her a statue to be admired and nothing else. And, in one corner of her mind, trapped inside a rotted tree stump she stood in a shaft of burning red light, her skin blistered, her limbs quaking. A man had taken a little girl and done this to her. A man had taken me, scooped out my will and made me bring her to him so he could do this.

It was a powerful moment in a game full of them. Every so often as I devoured the game’s dialogue I’d find my hand holding cupping my jaw as it dropped in disbelief. On one such occasion I’d found the absent father from the first game, sunning himself on a beach surrounded by beer and babes, hiding his red-hot cowardice in the cliff wall overlooking the scene and his guilt at leaving his wife submerged beneath the sand. Though I’d always wanted to make him pay for what he’d done I decided not to kill him, and instead forced him to confront his emotions and crimes. Last I saw of him he was debating whether or not to return to the burned-out inn to pay last respects to his family. Maybe he’ll do it. I hope he does.

The story and motivations behind the villain who built the asylum and imprisoned us all within it are so twisted and brilliant it’d be remiss for me to delve into them here. While they don’t come into play until the end of the mod they are in fact the focal point for it, if not for both games in the series. It’s a trope common to Japanese RPGs to deliver some kind of half-assed sympathy for the villain at the end of the game, as if learning his mother had died when he’d been a child, or that he’d been bullied throughout his schooldays would his excuse his murderous rampage across the land. While Excrucio Eternum doesn’t quite do this - and certainly doesn’t do it in such an opaque way - it does provide ample opportunity for you to stop and reconsider your own motivations for killing him. Maybe it’ll make you change your mind. It takes a skilled game writer to turn such a situation on its head in this way, but Gagne does it, and does it in such a way that you’re questioning yourself as much as you’re questioning the game. In a startling moment of foreshadowing you enter your own head for one sequence earlier in the game. Once inside your own head - in my case, the balding head of Manus Dotin - you lose control of your character and have a one-sided conversation with yourself. This is where the Bioshock factor kicked in, as Manus discussed my own motivations as a player, what had led me through all my adventures thus far, and again addressed the subject of free will. He tried to coerce me into killing him as an escape from this greater control, telling me that killing one’s self is the only free choice a person could ever have. The deeper psychological implication - and the one suggested by the game - is that Manus’s doubts regarding the greater tasks ahead of him were causing him to want escape from what he regarded as his duty towards the greater good. Writ large and sculpted in torment: Death was the only way out.

Today, Bioshock is still lauded for its novel approach to free will but in my opinon this free mod, this throwaway title from a darkened corner of the Internet, this game that has and will only ever be played by a few thousand people did a much better job covering such subject matter than a blockbuster beloved of critics everywhere.

There was going to be a third Eternum game; sadly Stefan Gagne appears to have left the NWN community and the ongoing story of Manus Dotin will never be finished. Such is the way of ambitious mod projects, I suppose. But Excrucio Eternum will always stand, not only as a fine module, not only as a fine game but as a fine story with fine characters, and I feel privileged that I get to be one of the few thousand people who’ve played it.

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