Had it been a book, I’d have read it in one sitting. Had it been a movie, I’d have watched it without blinking. As a role-playing game, the story was infused with a sense of immediacy unique to the medium, gaining much and losing nothing. There are very, very few games in my not so modest gaming experience for which I could say the same. Even in the face of considerable expectations I had, based on the surprisingly positive reactions of the RPG community, Mask of the Betrayer stood its ground as a rare and superb experience.
Mask of the Betrayer (MOTB from now on), is an expansion for the second installment of Obsidian’s Neverwinter Nights, a licensed implementation of the DnD gaming system. Although envisioned as a direct continuation of the original campaign, to be played with the same character, MOTB is essentially a standalone campaign. It makes many references to the events and characters from the original game, but the plot synopsis you get at the beginning is more than enough for you to catch up on the important stuff. I mention this because I, for one, didn’t play the original campaign. I tried, twice, and dropped it for reasons very succinctly summarized by V. D. Weller in his review of MOTB:
Fantasy RPGs often suck because the fantasy aspect isn’t overly ‘fantastic’. In fact, usually it’s generic, boring, and bland. Let’s say that you’ve bought a new fantasy RPG and have just installed it. What do you have there? A young guy/gal in a small place is forced to get the fuck out and explore a very predictable world and eventually save it. When you see a town, you know pretty much what to expect. It’s not a place of wonder and strange customs, it’s a place to get quests and buy/sell shit. You can easily replace a town with 3-4 NPCs standing in the middle of fucking nowhere offering quests and shopping. In fact, that probably would be more interesting than a generic and boring as fuck fantasy town #3471.
Well, MOTB goes against this tired cliché in almost every aspect imaginable. It places you in an alien, unpredictable world and tells a tightly written, original story centered, for a change, on character and setting rather than on some apocalyptic event, which is in itself a huge step up from the formulaic approach that most modern games seem to take. MOTB starts in medias res, as you awake in an underground barrow and find that your body, and even your soul, have been tampered with while you were unconscious. You soon discover that you have become a vessel of a terrible and ancient curse that threatens to wreak havoc on the lands you pass through and to ultimately devour you from within. The plot revolves around your efforts to understand the curse and undo it, but also around the way you react to it, for you can choose either to fight it or give into it, a choice which paints all elements of gameplay in a broad spectrum of grays.
Basic gameplay is the same as in the original campaign (and, I suppose, as in most games based on DnD). You start as a high level character, and if you haven’t played the original campaign or don’t want to use the same character, that means leveling up 18 times, effectively removing all the fun from the process, before you can start playing. I found myself clicking the “Recommended” button (which makes an automatic selection of skills, feats and spells), quite often during the course of the game. One of the reasons is that leveling is, simply, more interesting for low level characters; another is that skill-related problems the game posed weren’t very challenging, combat and dialog skill checks included; and yet another is that I happened to play a spell-caster character, and with two other casters in the party, I had about as many spells as one could handle. The battles were mostly “easy” for the same reasons. Not so much as to be boring, but rarely did I need to load a game because of being defeated. Mind you, it’s not really a complaint; perhaps the game would have been more challenging if it was designed for brand new characters, yes, but the story leans on your past accomplishments and I wouldn’t see it suffer for a piece of gameplay mechanics.
The story is instead supported by an innovative gameplay element, the controversial “spirit meter”, that presents you with a different set of rules and challenges, making up (and then some!) for the lack of challenge in character development and combat. It is difficult to talk about the spirit meter without giving away vital spoilers; let’s just say that it makes the time count. This might seem like a rather trivial statement at first glance, but I assure you it’s not. As time passes, the spirit meter goes down, and when it hits the bottom, you die. There are ways to replenish it, but they are not always obvious or straight-forward, and may bring some unwanted side effects. So you won’t just make camp and rest whenever your resident wizard spends her best spells, because that’s a lot of wasted time; and you’ll think twice before stepping in some stranger’s house, because that’s also likely to be a waste of time – well, not necessarily from the perspective of the player, since the houses sometimes hide interesting things and little side quests, but that reinforces the idea further: you’re told you don’t have a lot of time, and in this instance, the gameplay is tailored to reflect the urgency. I’ve been disappointed by fake urgency in games so many times before that I can’t pass the opportunity to praise this one for doing it right for a change.
I’m calling the spirit meter controversial because it got a lot of criticism from the players and media alike, and it wasn’t the thoughtful and constructive sort of criticism. Turns out that many people had difficulties understanding and controlling the system, and ended up angry and frustrated. Can’t really comment on that without insulting the intelligence of the said players and media, other than to say that there’s a really obvious path through the game that minimizes the challenges posed by the spirit meter, so that you can practically ignore it if you don’t particularly like it. It’s actually hard to imagine that there are people who have found their way through the complexities of the DnD gaming system but couldn’t get a hold of the spirit meter – it goes to show that the public reacts poorly to being removed from their comfort zone, even though they are at all times pretty loud in asking for innovations.
Thankfully I haven’t heard of any complaints against the innovative setting. I was delighted to be exposed to something new and unfamiliar and thought that many concepts were incredibly original. Later I read in some designer interviews that the inspiration for the setting came from Slavic and Japanese mythologies; I have to admit that I, being myself Slavic, didn’t really recognize anything in particular, and certainly didn’t felt any traces of the Slavic “soul” in the setting or the behavior of characters, something that readily stood out as familiar when I read and played The Witcher. Is it because The Witcher isn’t only based on Slavic mythology, but was in fact created by a Polish writer and then implemented into a game by a team of Polish designers? Possibly. Again, I can’t say that the lack of recognition is a complaint against the game, quite to the contrary.
There’s one aspect of the story/setting that I was particularly drawn to: the concept and usage of dreams. Your path will take you into yours and other people’s dreams on several occasions, recovering bits of information and memories you weren’t aware you possessed. I was pleasantly surprised by the maturity of the approach to the subject, by the subtle hints that things and people you encounter in your dreams are symbolic representations of yourself, your fears and desires; and of course of your soul-sickness. I’ll use the opportunity to say that hinting in general is an art very few games (and very few stories in general) ever got right; usually the hints, whether to ideas or events in the past and the future, are either too blunt or too vague, and the tension built around them is resolved either too quickly or dragged on past its capacity. Like many other things, hinting is something MOTB does extremely well, and while some elements of the major puzzle you get to gleam in the very beginning, some mysteries stand their ground to the very end and do not fail to surprise you.
Along the same lines, I was pleasantly surprised by the complete lack of filler quests. Even the main quests didn’t have the usual kill & fetch feeling to them; the rewards for completing most of them were simply in the form of information, answers being the main currency to motivate the advancement of the plot. The story flows smoothly from chapter to chapter, no sudden and arbitrary revelations, no artificial insights from an omniscient narrator, no fake choices that all end up leading you into the same situation. More than in any game I played, except perhaps Dragon Age: Origins, your choice of words and actions brings direct, logical and nontrivial consequences, but the game still manages to deliver a consistent narrative that has the same key points for every player, the paths from one key point to the next being subject to your decision. It’s a masterpiece of design and storytelling. More than a few times I thought it obvious that it was the example that DAO followed to become my undisputed favorite.
As every good story, MOTB is acted out by a cast of interesting characters. Like the other elements of the game, the characters have been created with an unusual level of care, and even though many represent strong archetypes, the personal stories of your companions contain surprising twists and are interrelated with the main plot in varying degrees. The relationship you have with your followers is measured by a thing called “influence”, clearly a predecessor of the approval system in DAO. Actions that are in line with their preferences and beliefs will grant you influence, and actions that insult them or demonstrate incompatible values will cost you influence. After reaching a certain level (“Loyal” or “Devoted”), both you and the companion gain specific feats that boost your abilities. On the other hand, in order to increase your companion’s influence level, you’ll have to get to know them, and take care of what you say to them or in their presence. It’s not at all as difficult as it may sound, and with a marginal effort, you’ll easily have them all worship you. There’s also a possibility to develop a romantic relationship with some of your followers, which again grants you an additional feat and different dialog options.
With the well-written, no-nonsense dialogs, logical reactions and excellent voice acting, the characters seem realistic and alive; however, in more than one occasion, I simply wished they had more to say. The progression from a perfect stranger to a fanatically devoted companion is rather steep, there are too few steps on the way, and there’s nothing between them other than the same “who are you and what do you think of the others” talk that you get treated to when you first meet them. I found it impossible to restrain from comparing this to the dialog that you could have with the companions in DAO, which is vastly richer, more informative, more helpful, and way more natural. Of course, DAO is a more modern, and also a full-feature game, whereas MOTB is only an expansion, so the comparison is necessarily unfair. But still, it bothered me. More so because of the fact that Neverwinter Nights has a functional text-based dialog system next to the fully voiced, cinematic system, and adding more dialog to companions would have required only the effort to sit down and write it. The only other objection I can think of is that there’s an overall lack of humor in conversations, and the writing takes itself [a bit too] seriously. I’m undecided if this is a flaw or a quality – in truth, the story doesn’t leave much room for comic situations and a joker type of character would probably stand out, so I’ll file it under something that I’ve noticed, but that didn’t really bother me.
Not to finish on a negative note when the overall experience was so overwhelmingly positive, in the end I want to commend the music and the scenery, and in general – the atmosphere. In some dungeons and dream sequences the music was so well suited to the theme as to give me regular goose bumps; and the visual impressions I got from certain exteriors were unexpectedly strong, given the age and the limitations of the Neverwinter Nights engine. Last, but certainly not the least ingredient in the concoction that makes MOTB such a delight, is the concept of the voiced narrator, who reads the lines between the dialogs, delivers the prelude and the epilogue (and even has a definite identity you only get to discover in the end).
But this is yet another unusual idea among the many things that set MOTB apart from the average RPG built on top of a fixed set of memes that have been regurgitated over and over till the genre nearly became synonymous with the tolkienesque fantasy cliché. The obvious conclusion is that I liked this game immensely and have nothing but praise for all its aspects. In the wake of the dubious sequel to DAO, I can only hope MOTB won’t prove to be the last of its kind.