The Let's Play Archive


by TheGreatEvilKing

Part 41: Bastard's Wound Postmortem: Why Are We Here?

Bastard's Wound Postmortem: Why Are We Here?

It's tempting to just skip this postmortem and reiterate what was already said in the updates. Nothing makes sense, the Fatebinder has no reason to get involved, characters are dull and uninteresting, the Oldwalls dungeon is a terrible slog, et cetera. There's some things, however, that we haven't completely addressed - and sadly, some things we will have to leave for later as they clash with unseen parts of the game. I promised you a postmortem, and a postmortem you shall get, though feel free to skip the parts that seem redundant.

What's New?

Tyranny's Narrative Designer posted:

“It’s easy to write empathetic sociopaths, as the really good sociopaths are charismatic, engaging folk,” [Matt] MacLean says.

If we take a look at the Steam description of the Bastard's Wound DLC, the marketing copy sells the Wound as "a refuge from Kyros". Indeed, Kyros, Tunon, Graven Ashe, Nerat, and the rest of our Archons and Overlord are absent from the narrative, replaced with the relative unknowns of Wagstaff, Jaspos, Mell, Reef-Talon, and their followers. One might think these characters would be meaningfully different, or perhaps express themselves in opposition to the Kyrosian regime. You would expect factions, sure, but perhaps different factions based on things like country of origin or whether or not the Vendrien line should continue to rule after their defeat by Kyros. Maybe someone sets up some kind of weird experimental government like a commune, who knows?

The writers decided to create ANOTHER power struggle between two factions of assholes. Now, this isn't inherently a horrible choice. The idea that the offshoot of Kyrosian civilization would also be a horrible autocracy riven by infighting among the powerful actually makes a lot of sense! This is the Bronze Age, the culture of the Tiers already speaks Kyros' language, uses his currency, and exchanges legends of the Northern Empire. People don't suddenly overthrow tyrants and begin building ballot boxes. George Washington putting down power and not making himself god-king of the United States is the exception, not the norm, and Terratus doesn't have the traditions of the Athenian democracy or Roman republic to fall back upon because Kyros wiped all that from history. The problem is twofold. The base game heavily features factional struggle, for one thing, and the factions are different and have multiple reasons to join them. Graven Ashe has a well-disciplined army, but they're all inept racists. The Voices of Nerat is a crazy monster, but he has powerful mages, hordes of troops, and a precedent set in place for you to betray him and steal his army. The Vendrien Guard are the old nobility of the Tiers, you can resent them for starting the rebellion that put your life at risk, join their rebellion to get back at Kyros for drafting you, or use them as a personal army. Maybe you hate Ashe's racism and like Nerat's egalitarianism, maybe you think Ashe is more trustworthy. Maybe you just want the Scarlet Chorus to hook you up with sweet magic sigils. These are different factions with different means seeking the same goal (sucking the Overlord's teat to gain rulership over the Tiers), they all have things to offer, and you can make a moral case for or against all of them. The game also ensures that you are the kingmaker player with a vested interest in resolving this crap because your life is on the line, and if you fail Kyros can and will kill all of you.

The factional content of Bastard's Wound is significantly less interesting, and it all comes down to the fact that Wagstaff and Jaspos are bad characters. I quoted Matt MacLean up there for a reason - he's wrong. It's really hard to write characters who are able to charm the reader into forgetting that they're complete monsters. The best example I can think of is Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, where idiots describe it as a love story despite Humbert Humbert being very clear that he molests sexually abused children and marries a woman so he can kill her and rape her daughter. Now, sociopaths can be very charming. The classic example that comes to mind when I think of it is the American soldiers who Saddam Hussein befriended, but these kinds of characters are very hard to write because you have to be able to bamboozle the reader into accepting that the Kurds needed to be gassed and that's a fine line to walk. What does this have to do with Jaspos and Wagstaff?

We are supposed to buy that Jaspos and Wagstaff are so charming and attractive that they are able to attract hordes of horny apprentices and fanatically violent followers who will perform acts of torture and murder. It sounds insane at first glance, but this is the textbook definition of a cult. A charismatic sociopath goes after people with low self-esteem and convinces them to do whatever he wants them to do. The easiest pop culture example of this is Tiger King. Joe Exotic is a piece of shit who demands his employees keep working after tigers rip off their arms and keeps young men in sexual thrall by supplying them with meth, and yet there is a non-significant percentage of the internet who thinks the president should have pardoned him for his failed assassination attempt. An even better example is "Doc" Anthe and his weird tiger sex cult. The producers of Tiger King had the advantage that Exotic and Anthe were doing what they usually did and they didn't have to script them to be sympathetic, but writing a fictional character like this who can charm a player in a videogame is a legitimately difficult if not impossible task. Cleopatra is not a character who is suffering from low self-esteem and will yield her body for a few compliments, she is a powerful agent of the state who can legally execute people on the spot. She's no mere functionary, to get to this point in the game you need to single-handedly take command of the Kyrosian forces and put down an insurrection. Such people are not easy targets for cult leaders!

Now, in defense of Obsidian, it seems extremely clear that the Fatebinder is not to side with Wagstaff and Jaspos because of their personal charm or ability to open our chakras or divine right to bang all the women because Jesus said so, but because of that wonderful crutch for lazy genre writers, the Trolley Problem. Wagstaff and Jaspos have a means to purify the toxic water the illegal settlement needs to survive, and by not immediately sentencing the settlement to death the game deduces that for some reason we care about the settlers. Do we know anyone here? No. Do they have anything we want? No, but we obviously want to save this settlement of terrible people per Bad RPG Writer Logic, so now that that's arbitrarily established Wagstaff and Jaspos are the key to purifying the settlement's water and it comes at a terrible price. Are we hard enough to make the hard choices?

The Cold Equations... of Incompetence

The science fiction and fantasy genre is obsessed with the Trolley Problem, and the earliest and most influential example I can find is Tom Godwin's 1954 short story, "The Cold Equations". It's not mandatory reading for this essay, but it would certainly help. I'll give a brief summary here. A rescue ship carrying medicine to a colony planet has only enough fuel to transport the pilot and medicine. The pilot discovers there's a stowaway on board, and prepares to kill the stowaway as is the law - the ship doesn't carry enough fuel to decelerate two people, so the stowaway must die. Horror of horrors, the stowaway isn't an evil criminal badman, but a teenage girl hitching a ride to visit her brother! The story continues with the pilot calling everyone he can think of, but due to Godwin's arbitrary rules of space travel, no one can come rescue poor Marilyn Lee Cross, so she is sadly thrown into space after Godwin uses every trick in the book to explain the horror of young ladies being thrown into space. The story has gathered a lot of criticism, mostly of the variety of people questioning why the engineers who built the ships included no tolerances and other people pointing out that the scenario is completely contrived via incompetence (if the rescue ship's sensors can detect Marilyn, why was it launched with her on board?) while Godwin assures us that nothing could be done and the laws of nature must be respected in the same story where we are expected to believe in faster-than-light travel. I bring this up because it's exactly what the Bastard's Wounds writers are going for.

Godwin posted:

He leaned back in the pilot’s chair and drew a deep, slow breath, considering what he would have to do. He was an EDS pilot, inured to the sight of death, long since accustomed to it and to viewing the dying of another man with an objective lack of emotion, and he had no choice in what he must do. There could be no alternative —but it required a few moments of conditioning for even an EDS pilot to prepare himself to walk across the room and coldly, deliberately, take the life of a man he had yet to meet.

He would, of course, do it. It was the law, stated very bluntly and definitely in grim Paragraph L, Section 8, of Interstellar Regulations:“Any stowaway discovered in an EDS shall be jettisoned immediately following discovery.”

It was the law, and there could be no appeal.

It was a law not of men’s choosing but made imperative by the circumstances of the space frontier. Galactic expansion had followed the development of the hyperspace drive, and as men scattered wide across the frontier, there had come the problem of contact with the isolated first colonies and exploration parties. The huge hyperspace cruisers were the product of the combined genius and effort of Earth and were long and expensive in the building. They were not available in such numbers that small colonies could possess them. The cruisers carried the colonists to their new worlds and made periodic visits, running on tight schedules, but they could not stop and turn aside to visit colonies scheduled to be visited at another time; such a delay would destroy their schedule and produce a confusion and uncertainty that would wreck the complex interdependence between old Earth and the new worlds of the frontier.

Does this seem familiar? The Bastard's Wound settlers are driven to the harsh Oldwalls, where one mistake can mean death by Bane, and the waters are poison. Much like the EDS is carrying medicine for six feverish men who will die if Marilyn Lee Cross isn't immediately thrown into space, Jaspos and Wagstaff will assure you that their blood farms and secret murders are totally necessary to purify the water from the Withering Rot and protect the Wound from outsiders.

The same problems immediately rear their head. Why did the rescue ship launch with so little fuel if the sensors detected a stowaway on board? If Earth has "fast, black patrol ships" that can fly out to rescue attractive ladies, why isn't one stationed on the frontier in case something goes wrong? Why is only one star cruiser in the area to save all these colonies? What if the star cruiser crashes or the engines break down? I've read at least one sci-fi anthology that describes the story as a complete failure of engineering. The same goes for this illegal Oldwalls settlement. Why didn't you block off the teleporter with the Bane? Why can't you set up a rainwater collector on the roof? Why can't you try to grow food on the manor grounds? The entire settlement comes off as a contrived scenario designed to enable "hard choices" and for Wagstaff and Jaspos to use the tough life as an excuse to gather followers and justify atrocities, but there is absolutely no reason for anyone to stay here. You can build your settlement literally anywhere else. Just leave!

Godwin goes TOOOOOOOT! posted:

It was a full minute before she spoke, and as she considered his words, the expression of numbness left her eyes. “Is that it?” she asked at last. “Just that the ship doesn’t have enough fuel?” “Yes.” “I can go alone or I can take seven others with me —is that the way it is?” “That’s the way it is.” “And nobody wants me to have to die?” “Nobody.”

Now, Bastard's Wound is a bit more clear that Wagstaff and Jaspos are cynically abusing the water scarcity to gain power and the real conflict between them is that they're two identical assholes who supported the same scam.

Why do we need BOTH Wagstaff and Jaspos?

Wagstaff and Jaspos are basically the same person. They're both magic users who use their magic to filter the water and leverage that to gain political power and cultish followers. They're both narcissistic assholes who believe themselves superior to everyone else, sleep with their apprentices, and send hit squads after the Fatebinder. They have extremely similar quests involving murdering their old allies to steal their tools, and they both want you to go down and murder Reef-Talon so they can loot her body for their shitty water filtration systems. The other alternative is Reef-Talon, who is a competent leader and budding Archon who offers us an artifact for free while all Wagstaff and Jaspos offer are pointless fetch quests with no reward and oodles of contempt. I get that RPG writers want to have a good path and an evil path and all those choices that supposedly matter, but the choice between Wagstaff and Jaspos actively doesn't matter, and Reef-Talon is the obvious choice no matter what your end goal is. If you're trying to help the people of the Wound, she's the only competent leader, if you're trying to cynically exploit the people of the Wound, she's the only person who brings anything worth having to the table. We don't need Jaspos' crafting skills because they're garbage and we're on a first-name basis with actual Forge Bound masters. We don't need Wagstaff's Tidecasting because we have Eb. Neither one of them actually offers us anything worth having except vague promises. They have no leverage over us, and our interactions with them literally start with them acknowledging we have the legal authority to kill them all and they have to beg us for their lives.

Now, combining Wagstaff and Jaspos still leaves a lot of problems. Wagpos still has nothing to offer us and still looks like a massive asshole with no redeeming features. You need to come up with a plausible reason the player would back Wagpos, and "can purify water" really doesn't cut it when the only reason the settlement is short on water is because they're contrived idiots - but it would cut out 50% of this DLC's redundant quests and tedious dialog.

A Fake History...of Dumb!

The last running theme in the DLC I want to address is the theme of false history. It appears both in our attempts to "interpret" the ancient murals to tell Reef-Talon what she wants to hear, and Lexeme's fake history that could maybe save Tiersmen lives through an extremely dubious thought process. I am going to stop kicking Lexeme, as I think we've covered why her plan is doomed to failure and extremely idiotic, and talk about the Reef-Talon section some more. The goal in the Reef-Talon section is to interpret these vague murals and convince Reef-Talon that her Archon powers are actually cool and good so she stops hiding in a cave while Wagpos runs rampant spewing bad ideas and incompetence. The problem is that as soon as Reef-Talon returns she's convinced her powers make her, and the Wound invincible, and this is probably just as dangerous for the Wound as having a leader with no confidence is. Remember, both the Disfavored and the Scarlet Chorus are sniffing around the area at the beginning of the DLC, and Cleopatra doesn't bother to tell anyone that the Wound is totally legal because they're "below" the Oldwalls or whatever stupid crap Mell came up with. We know what happens when leaders get overconfident and think they can take on Kyros because we saw Raetommon do it and that didn't end well for him. Now, this particular fake history deal has the side effect that Reef-Talon can pacify the Bane with her powers, and the intent seems to be that we invest Reef-Talon with a fake historical record to calm the cognitive dissonance caused by the human-Beast interracial society. It's pretty clear the only person who can come up with any kind of narrative to hold the Wound together is Reef-Talon, as we see with the Sleepless and the Bane coexisting in the dark, and Reef-Talon is also the only person who can heal the Beasts to allow Wagpos' trolley filters to work. The more we examine this narrative the less sense any of this makes. Let's take a look!

Per the narrative we interpreted from the Wound's murals, Reef-Talon is rightful heir to her Archon powers and the Wound because her ancestors were the only survivors, her powers are meant to fight Bane, the Bane changed the Beastmen into awesome superweapons, and Reef-Talon is needed because she's the ultimate Bane hunter. The process of discovering this narrative comes across as extremely cynical and manipulative because it's Cleopatra making shit up after staring at some vague ancient artwork for a few minutes. This convinces Reef-Talon to go right back and lead the Wound exactly the same way, because now she has a right to her power, and we sweep all the secret murders, assassination attempts, and Beastmen body part harvesting under the rug for the narrative that Reef-Talon's granted powers drawn from antiquity grant her the right to lead. It's actually very similar to what Cleopatra is trying to do, but the game doesn't want to acknowledge this. The end result of all this manipulation is to restore the old status quo, which sucked! Yes, people die less from patrols against the Bane (because they're too fucking stupid to just block the entrance point), but the Beasts are still having to go through the pain of constantly donating blood and bone for water purification they might not actually need - remember, Reef-Talon can swim in the water with no ill effects! It raises the question of just what either humans or Beastmen are gaining from this alliance. The humans certainly aren't sacrificing anything for the Beastmen! If anything, our newly discovered narrative mandates that the Beastmen sacrifice more, because we have established that Beastmen's purpose is to fight Bane. The humans so show little concern for Beastmen lives that they cynically bet on which Beasts will die! I really don't know what the writers are trying to say here. Is this supposed to be commentary on real-world racism? I certainly hope not, it reads like the Mississippi articles of secession where the white people whine that it's too hot outside to work and they need black people to do it. Reef-Talon certainly doesn't seem to have any interest in punishing Wagpos, or even trying to recruit somebody competent to do the water filtration. There are a ton of Sages running around! Maybe one of them could do something with this!

Unfortunately, the DLC is too focused on examining the ethics of throwing poor Marilyn out of the metaphorical window and actual quality with it.

So What Did We Accomplish?

It's very hard for me to see this DLC as an enhancement to Tyranny's story, as thematically it's a rehash of stuff we've seen before. Visually it's all an Oldwalls dungeon with generic human and Bane enemies, and thematically it's all the same. Fake history as a means of control came up in our chats with the lovely Fatebinder Calio. Community-destroying factionalism appeared in the conquest of the Tiers. Artificial scarcity as a means of control showed up with Kyros' laws of quota and sharing. Even the cruel trolley-problem choices came up every time we were asked to adjudicate a case based on Kyros' laws - do we sentence the rebel commander to death, or conscript him into the Scarlet Chorus? The DLC doesn't add anything new to these discussions, it doesn't add any fun items that make the combat better or new sigils that do anything except "bigger numbers". There are no new or interesting fights. The DLC is marketed as a refuge from Kyros, but we don't actually get a different perspective on anything! We don't gain allies who can help us in our power struggle, we don't discover any insight that helps us understand the world or anything useful. Yes, I suppose we can surmise that the Beastmen built the Oldwalls and are related to the Bane, but how does that help us? How does that advance the story of our rise to power under Kyros? What is the point other than cynically milking Tyranny fans who were desperate for more content after the end of the game?