Part 34: We Who Are About To Die
Act Three Chapter Three - No Pictures, Only WordsLet's recap, because I've stretched Mask's story over thirty-four updates and even I have forgotten what's happened. I hope you like reading!
Akachi and Eveshi are two Rashemi boys given to the priesthood of Myrkul at a very young age. Akachi quickly distinguishes himself as being truly devoted to Myrkul and in time becomes his high priest. As a token of his esteem, Myrkul gives Akachi a powerful artifact to wield in his name: the Silver Sword of Gith. Eveshi, nicknamed "Ahrraman" for his good humour, loyally remains by his brother's side throughout Akachi's rise to power. Akachi also finds himself a lover: the Founder, a Red Wizard who prefers magic and research to tyranny and murder.
Myrkul fogs the Founder's mind at a critical moment during an experiment, killing her. Because she was without faith in the gods, she is condemned to suffer in Myrkul's Wall of the Faithless for eternity. Akachi begs for Myrkul's mercy in the matter, and when he does not receive it he raises an army to bring down the Wall. Using the Silver Sword, Akachi creates a secret gate to the City of Judgement in the lower vaults of his home temple and leads his forces through it. Though his allies have many motives for attacking the City of Judgement, Akachi's only goal is to rescue the Founder from the Wall.
He succeeds. The Founder returns to Toril - but Akachi cannot escape Myrkul's wrath. He is captured, thrown onto the Wall, then pulled clear before he is consumed completely. Akachi is then cast back into his native Rashemen, now a mindless raging spirit that possesses others with the hunger of the Wall and forces them to consume souls to survive. Thus ends the Betrayer's Crusade... and thus begins the curse of the spirit-eater.
* * *
Years pass. The Founder establishes the Academy of Shapers and Binders, dedicated to researching manipulation of the soul. She splits her own soul into four: hers, Nefris, Lienna and Safiya. The Founder, Nefris and Lienna plot to restore Akachi and end the spirit-eater curse. Safiya, their 'child,' remains ignorant of their purpose and of her true nature, and serves as an errand-runner for her 'mother.'
Eveshi had also been captured by Myrkul at the end of the Crusade. Myrkul tortured him into subservience, then commanded him to destroy the Founder (the only soul ever to escape his judgement). Eveshi infiltrates the Founder's Academy, posing as "Araman," a quiet, thoughtful senior instructor.
Myrkul steals the Tablets of Fate in an unrelated plot and dies. His portfolio as god of the dead passes to Kelemvor, a former mortal who is kinder and less ambitious than his predecessor.
Akachi's spirit passes through numerous hosts - some of whom revel in their new-found power, some of whom abhor it. One man, a Rashemi vremyonni, acting on Lienna's advice, makes a deal with the bear-god Okku: to trap Akachi's hunger forever. The vremyonni wards the bottom chamber of Okku's barrow with runes, then lies down and dies. Okku gives up his place in the telthor pantheon to safeguard Akachi's spirit.
Kaelyn the Dove, a half-celestial Doomguide of Kelemvor, learns of Akachi's Crusade and is inspired to begin a second crusade of her own. Her grandfather learns of her intentions and betrays her to Kelemvor before she can begin; she is exiled and excommunicated. Meanwhile, Gulk'aush the hag falls in love with a mortal man, against the customs of her kind. Their child, Gann-of-Dreams, is discovered by Gulk'aush's peers in the Slumbering Coven and she is forced to consume her lover in order to save Gann's life. Like Kaelyn, Gann is exiled from his home and left to wander the earth.
* * *
The events of Neverwinter Nights 2 occur. Calliope is abducted by Lienna's gargoyle servants and deposited in Okku's barrow, as part of a deliberate ploy to turn her into a spirit-eater. Nefris confiscates her Silver Sword, intending to repair it to full strength. With the spirit-eater curse to motivate her and the Sword to open the way, Calliope is the perfect heir to Akachi and the best candidate to resume the Betrayer's Crusade - only this time the goal is to rescue Akachi from the hunger of the Wall. Safiya is sent to Rashemen to rescue Calliope from Okku's barrow and bring her to Lienna for direction.
Unfortunately Araman takes advantage of the Founder's distraction and kills both Nefris and Lienna. Calliope and Safiya are left stranded in Rashemen, pursued by Okku and his army of spirits, with no idea of the secrets behind the spirit-eater curse.
Calliope recruits Gann and Kaelyn into her party to defeat Okku, then recruits the bear-god as well. Together they consult the wisest powers of Rashemen and beyond to find out more about Calliope's curse: the Wood Man, the Slumbering Coven, the dead god Myrkul and eventually the Founder herself.
Now they know the truth. Calliope must reclaim her soul from the Wall of the Faithless and bring peace to Akachi by any means necessary. War must return to the land of the dead if she is to survive.
That's pretty much everything. Technically, at this point you can stop reading the LP: you know what happens next. We're going to attack the City of Judgement, reclaim our soul and end Akachi's curse. Obviously we don't know the details yet but you understand where the story's going. That's why it's Act Three - it's the conclusion.
Does the above sound familiar? It should do - the first bit especially is basically every life-death-resurrection story ever told.
The original title for the thread, when I wasn't really sure what to call it, was "The Oldest Story Ever Told," which was a reference to The Epic of Gilgamesh, which is (possibly) the oldest (recorded written) story ever told (or one of them at least).
Part of the epic poem describes the journey of Enkidu into the underworld: Gilgamesh accidentally drops some toys into the underworld and his best friend, Enkidu, offers to get them back. Gilgamesh tells Enkidu the 'rules' of the underworld, like "don't wear clean clothes" and "don't throw sticks at the dead people" but Enkidu's an asshole and breaks them anyway, so the underworld claims him as one of their own. Gilgamesh prays to the gods and Enkidu is returned to him, though it's uncertain whether it's for keeps or not. It doesn't matter anyway because Enkidu gets himself killed another way and Gilgamesh goes on a long quest for the secret of immortality (which he then fucks up) but that's neither here nor there.
It's not just the Epic, though. I've already talked about Orpheus and Eurydice earlier in the LP - to that we can add the story of Persephone, also from the Ancient Greeks; Izanami and Izanagi, the creator gods of Japanese myth; the Egyptian gods Osiris and Isis; one of the stories of Coyote, the Native American trickster-figure; and I think some guy called Jesus died and came back from the dead as well I heard??
Much like the Betrayer's Crusade in Mask, these stories never end well (with the notable exception of Jesus). Persephone was condemned to spend half the year in Hades for eating twelve pomegranate seeds. Izanagi was so terrified by his wife's dead appearance that he runs away from her, so she promises to kill a thousand people every day as punishment. Isis brought Osiris back for long enough to conceive a son (Horus) but no longer than that. Coyote's actions are the reason why death is permanent and why people can't reincarnate themselves anymore. The moral is clear: don't mess with the dead. And compared to all those outcomes, Akachi's transformation into a soulless hungering void doesn't seem that bad after all.
* * *
Mask of the Betrayer is a genuinely well-written game.
This is the kind of statement that gets people into a lot of trouble. So, yes, of course a bunch of overweight roleplaying game geeks aren't going to equal the literary geniuses of history, don't be absurd. Different kinds of texts for different purposes, compare like with like, apples and oranges, etc. etc. if anyone brings up "Are games art?" I will be very angry.
Instead let's focus in on what makes Mask good - and I think the answer ultimately boils down to 'brevity.'
Think of Mask's peers: big CRPGs like Dragon Age, Mass Effect, The Witcher, the Infinity Engine games, and Neverwinter Nights 2 (duh). These games all share an underlying structure: the big amazing fantasy epic. Terrible Evil Threatens Civilisation. Lone Hero Saves World. You know what I'm talking about.
A common complaint leveled at these games is the lack of originality, but I don't think that's as important as most people make it out to be. I've just listed how Mask imitates a dozen mythological stories from all over the world, and it shares many archetypes and concepts with previous Obsidian/Black Isle titles, yet I still think Mask is a pretty good game. Why?
Obsidian knew what they wanted to do with Mask and wrote it accordingly. Too often in games I find some puzzle, some encounter, that could have come from anywhere; the most egregious example is Bioware's reliance on the Towers of Hanoi puzzle (which thankfully has come to an end). There's too much that has barely anything to do with the premise or purpose of the story (if they bothered to have one at all). In Mask, though, I struggle to find wasted space. I've mentioned it before, but it bears repeating: there are no irrelevant sidequests. Every quest and every NPC ties back to the core themes in some way.
Part of this may be because Obsidian wanted to fit a full-size game into an expansion pack, but some of it is due to conscious planning. Post-game interviews reveal that Obsidian had a dedicated 'story editor' that worked on all the modules to unify the writing and highlight the key ideas Obsidian were trying to convey.
All right, so what do I mean by that?
Here's an example: Okku's barrow. Remember when I said that this was the best opening to a game ever?
Hyperbolic, sure. It could probably do with being a bit shorter and more visually exciting. But...
There's this idea that you can't ever really spoil a good story. A bad story relies on a dramatic twist; a good story should be able to tell you the ending and still keep you engrossed until the end.
FOX, you maniacs! You spoiled it! Damn you! God damn you all to hell!
How about another example... the example I was given when I first heard about this concept: the intro of Men In Black starring Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones
What happens in the opening credits? A bug erratically flies all over a motorway before getting squished.
Now, what happens in the film itself? A bug erratically rampages all over New York before getting squished.
The key is coherency. The intro to Men in Black is basically setting out the 'rules' for the movie - not just establishing background details like "set in the present day U.S." but tone and structure: "This is a movie about a bug going on a rampage; it's going to end with a splat and it's going to be funny."
All right, so, bearing that in mind... what happens in the first half-hour of Mask of the Betrayer? A brave hero enters the domain of the dead in order to rescue her love from the clutches of an angry god. And what is about to happen in Act Three? A brave hero enters the domain of the dead to rescue her love from the clutches of an angry god.
It's reversed from our perspective - Safiya is the one who braves the underworld, then leads us out away from Okku's wrath, whereas now it's Calliope leading the charge against Kelemvor to rescue Akachi from the Wall. But it's the same story: the story of the Betrayer's Crusade, which is also the same as the legends of Orpheus, Persephone, Izanagi, Osiris and Coyote.
But what is that story?
* * *
There are lots of ways to think about Mask, and that's one of the reasons I love it so.
Aside from mirroring life-death-resurrection tales from mythology, Mask taps into another rich seam of human psychology - a phenomenon so widespread that it even has its own forums catchphrase: No Dad, You Shut The Fuck Up.
There's tons of parental angst in Mask: the companions' parents play almost as big a role in the story as the companions themselves. From Nefris to Gulk'aush to Grandfather to the clan ancestors, and finally to Kelemvor - because God is the ultimate paternal authority figure. Gann and Okku had their conflicts with their parent-figures... now it's Calliope's turn. Much of the game is spent deliberating the question "Would it ever be morally right to turn away from God?"
The Wall of the Faithless is a symbol of the compact between gods and mortals: faith for salvation. It's a cruel deal but it works; gods need faith to survive, mortals need gods to keep the world in order and provide a place to go to after they die. Unfortunately there are those who fall through the cracks and end up suffering eternally for it - like the Founder, or Akachi, or us. Now, it seems like a no-brainer to tear down the Wall, because despite its necessity it isn't just. Best example: Jesus comes down to Earth to overturn the old rules and bring about a new age of love and forgiveness; his sacrifice ends the harsh reign of the Old Testament and pays the debt for all sinners to be forgiven. However, compare to Okku's barrow, where an old man made a deal with a living god to keep his soul after death, only for the whole world to be placed in danger when the Founder thought she knew better.
Let's develop this idea further: that the party in Mask are a motley bunch of rebellious children. What other rebellious children do we know?
For their disobedience, Adam and Eve were cursed with the burden of Original Sin - the Catholic concept that all humans exist in a default state of sin, from which they are forgiven by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Sin is associated with ugliness and deformity... now, consider the two companions that are described as especially attractive: Safiya and Gann.
Remember the Founder's words? Safiya was kept ignorant of the true nature of her connection to the Founder and the others, in order to keep her safe... and while the Founder is withered and wrinkled, Safiya is described as "beautiful," with golden skin, delicate features, and dark, almond-shaped eyes. Likewise, Gulk'aush is the most hideous and disgusting of the hags of the Sunken City - an insane murderous cannibal. But her son, Gann, who was cast out to be raised apart from hag society, grew up to be uniquely handsome for a hagspawn.
Kaelyn and Okku are similar. We all fell in love with Kaelyn as soon as we heard her voice; Okku, meanwhile, has changed a lot from the boring brown bear he used to be in life. Gann describes him thus:
: Okku is a preening beast, for certain. He was not always the garish colors you see there - in times past, his coat ran thick with the blood of enemies, of other beast-kings.
: In touching the dream, by sleeping through the long winter of the Age of Faith, he has changed. The dream has touched him, and where once his coat was matted with blood, now color bleeds from it.
Ignore Gann's snide remarks: Okku is a very pretty bear.
So what links these four companions? Why are we the Beautiful People?
The Founder protected Safiya from the truth for love. Gulk'aush sacrificed her sanity to protect Gann, out of love. Kaelyn surrendered her faith and her home, for love of the innocent trapped in the Wall of the Faithless. Okku gave up his afterlife to the Old Man to protect his beloved Rashemen from the spirit-eater curse.
Our companions have been freed from the burden of Original Sin through the love they or their parents bore for others. Love will break an oath, shatter a man's faith, and outlive gods.
* * *
Let's not get too gushy. Love did all those things and more, yes... but it was for love that the Founder gave us over to the spirit-eater. It was for love that Okku hunted us at the beginning of the game. Myrkul's love for Akachi caused him to kill the Founder in a pique of jealousy, and Akachi's love for the Founder turned him against his god and gave excuses for millions to die in the pursuit of his Crusade. And let us not forget that there would be no need for the Wall of the Faithless were it not for the existence of faith - the love between Man and God.
Only love could be so cruel, right? This, then, is the premise and moral of Mask of the Betrayer, the message that Obsidian wanted to convey. Myrkul was more correct than he knew: it is not justice but love that drives the Planes.
And when love comes into conflict... that is where Betrayers live. Akachi, yes, but also Gulk'aush abandoning Gann; Okku driving his clanmates into insanity; Kaelyn's grandfather selling her out to Kelemvor; the Founder's many secrets. Were these betrayals, or were the characters simply being true to another cause?
Here is where we link it back to Mask's motif of the mask - of "surface lie/deeper truth" dualism, a readily apparent lie that conceals hidden truth. Just as the meaningless physical realm conceals a meaningful spiritual realm, so does Gann's sarcasm hide intimacy issues; the peacefulness of the Ashenwood against the rage of the genius loci; Akachi's grand Crusade against faith and his mission to rescue his lover; the modest temple of Kelemvor and the baroque Death God's Vault; the quiet professor Araman concealing the driven Myrkulite Araman hiding the laughing boy Eveshi (double secret!); and most important of all, Calliope's face worn over Akachi's soul.
Truth, love, God... everything tied up so intricately, so neatly that I can barely begin to untangle it all. And this isn't even touching on my feminist reading of the game...
* * *
I made a very big claim at the beginning of this LP: "Mask of the Betrayer is better than Planescape: Torment."
I stand by that declaration. It is better.
There's a very interesting video series up on Youtube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EHGAkICv_Vc) that some nice poster in the Laissez's Faire games thread linked for everyone. It's a keynotes presentation for a games developers conference given by none other than Mister Chris Avellone, Obsidian bigshot and official heart-throb. Alas the focus of the speech is on KOTOR2, Torment, Fallout and Alpha Protocol but it's still worth a watch anyway even if it is eleven parts long.
Very early on in the presentation MCA talks about 'hate' as a design aid, specifically in relation to KOTOR2. Avellone does not like Star Wars, he does not like genre conventions, and he does not like creative laziness... so when given creative control of a new Star Wars game, possibly the laziest and most conventional of all sci-fi franchises alongside Star Trek, the result was a game that deliberately challenged the fundamental assumptions of the Star Wars universe.
The same with Torment. Take a look at the design docs - the underlying theme of the game objectives is "this is not like other D&D CRPGs." No death, no swords, no elves... Torment is different, intentionally so.
I don't want to suggest that Avellone is a deeply disturbed individual capable only of producing vitriolic screeds - to the contrary, tons of love clearly went into both games. But it does mean the developer's viewpoint is very strongly felt, and I'm mostly talking about KOTOR2 here. Obviously to anyone with their head on straight, Kreia is correct: the Star Wars mythos is a bunch of bunkum, a load of childish, inconsistent, nonsensical bullshit. But a game is unlike other works of fiction: it ought to allow for reader disagreement. KOTOR2 doesn't have that room (by design or, more likely, by cut content). Worse still, it is unable to confirm its own premise in gameplay - the game is set up to demolish the traditional conceptions of Light Side/Dark Side, but the player still needs 15% morality points to recruit companions and take prestige classes.
Not trying to rag on KOTOR2 here. It's actually indicative of a flaw in Mask of the Betrayer: an invisible divide between gameplay and story. The spirit-eater mechanic is good but ultimately just an exotic kind of food system - it doesn't tie in to the themes of the game at all. Personally, I was hoping for some Majora's Mask-style shenanigans - perhaps taking the 'faces' of people and creatures as a consequence of spirit-eating, then using those faces as a mask to infiltrate towns, defeat powerful enemies, etc. Too ambitious for an expansion pack, but it would have been nice to see nonetheless.
But I digress. What I see in Mask that elevates it above Torment and KOTOR2 (in addition to qualities all three games share, like decent writing, good art design, etc.) are brevity and purpose. Torment lacks brevity: the first time through, it was amazing that a developer would spend so much time on an NPC that just sat in a bar and explained the abominable Great Ring to you in massive detail; the second time through, it was utterly tedious. KOTOR2 has too much purpose: so much time is devoted to explaining Kreia's philosophy that the game almost forgets to ask you your opinion as well. In Mask, we will have the option to confirm Obsidian's premise in the choices we make up until the very end of the game... but we can also choose to deny it, or to alter it. The whole mood of the game changes with the player's decisions, and I think that is something special that few other games have accomplished.
But that's just my opinion, and you might disagree. That's cool too. Hopefully, what I hope we can agree on is Mask's value and worth as a story and a game.
And I'm done.