The Cost of Magic

My character hasn’t been reborn in fire as much as she’s been burned to ashes and reconstituted using some wack ass voodoo. We’re almost three months into Secret World Legends, and as much as I hate to use clichés in my writing – so much so that I predicate my message on making you forget that they exist – the old term “three-monther” comes to mind at this point for entirely inappropriate reasons: three months is how long it took me to run through the story and achieve my optional statistical goals. I’ve acquired all of the active abilities, all of the passive skills and stat boosts, maxed out Expertise on every weapon (level 50), and reached the 9th capstone level on every weapon (which in and of itself requires 3,240 AP). Time for a break, right?

I did so by forgoing instanced group content entirely – I don’t have a spirit guide to coax me into that, this time, so I’ve relied entirely on “mission trains”: clustered sets of missions that yield maximal returns for one’s time investment. I based my path on the highest yield missions found on the Missions tab of this fastidiously maintained community document. I spent my first week figuring out where the missions were in each individual zone, one night per zone; after that, it took another week of practice to get the pathing and sequencing down. Thereafter, I ran them like clockwork daily, discovering optimizations here and there along the way. The presence of other players was rarely a hindrance – they’d end up costing me a couple of minutes, at most.

Gear
Colors and numbers and dots.

What you see above is the product of those daily mission trains for two months straight (140 hours of play time in SWL over 90 days, an average of 1.5 hours per day). When I started them, one session took about 2.5 hours, including post-mission gear upgrading and inventory management. Eventually, as I became more powerful and got better at running them, I could do the whole thing in about an hour and fifteen minutes. My efforts have garnered me a DPS set that’s half-mythic, half maximum level epics, and a tanking set that is maximum level epics. The upshot of this is that I will be able to breeze through future story content – including Story Mode dungeons – and should be able to solo-tank most anything that isn’t absolutely brutal (i.e. Elite 5+ dungeons) as long as I have the patience and motivation to do so.

I’m not much for this sort of min-maxing, so it’s difficult for me to tell you exactly why I decided to this. My sense is that it’s partially because there was nothing left to do after I’d completed the story (and didn’t want to do dungeons with our lovely free-to-play friends), and partially because, to be quite honest, deep down I’m very sad about having 660 hours of my time on Liling in The Secret World turned to dust and cast into the wind, my stoic demeanor and “screenshots are my experience” statements notwithstanding.

The cost of magic is high, very high. So high, in fact, that it’s killed the experience for me. They broke up the band, turned the earth’s underbelly into a mall, put slot machines in a Stephen King novel. “Get hyped for new content!” they tell us while releasing the same content they did in December of 2015 (1 year, 9 months ago) with a new name and new systems slapped on top of it. They’re flirting with taking the crown for Slowest Content Trickle from pre-Heart of Thorns ArenaNet. To their credit, they have fixed numerous things, including most of the items I listed in the “Bad” section of Secret World Legends, One Month In. (The “stuck in combat” bug is much less frequent and requires a relog to fix.) On the flip side, my character’s soft, Chinese face has been replaced with something much more heroic and angular and Western. Oh, and I have to regrind every goddamn thing I did in TSW.

My poor heart can’t take it. I’ve even paid to win, shelling out $80 for their “Operative Bundle” and “Supernatural Bundle” on Steam. They’re billed as downloadable content, despite being neither downloadable nor content – they’re just a bunch of in-game currency with associated titles and cosmetics. I upgraded my sprint to maximum, increased my inventory space by 10, and leveled up a couple of talismans. Underwhelming.

What’s left for me is to log in daily for cache keys – you don’t get them unless you log in, fuck you very much, weekend warriors – and wait for story updates. We’ll get to go past the quarantine wall in Tokyo later this week; after that, I would imagine the Halloween events are the Next Big Thing. Beyond that, I may drop in here and there to potter about collecting lore and achievements, whatever strikes my fancy. I’ll probably let my patronage drop – I have no need for double AP/SP now that I can’t spend any more of it; cache keys and extra dungeon/scenario/lair keys, free anima leaps, whatever. I have 700,000 anima shards from all that mission grinding, so I’m good for a long while.

BlackBelt
I don’t feel like a black belt.

Too long, if you ask me. Why wouldn’t you want to make spending money feel good? It’s enough to make people angry – so angry, in fact, that the game is getting review-bombed on Steam. I ask myself whether the people who didn’t find my Steam review helpful (I had the audacity to recommend the game with serious reservations) did so in order to remove it from sight amid the sea of red thumbs down icons. I don’t blame them, I guess. The suits who made this decision decided to trash an existing player base in favor of a new, bigger one, presumably with more money to spend. I’ve never been very good at understanding the workings of game development studios and their management, so I suppose I’m in no position to question their financial wisdom.

I just wonder whether Liling will eventually have any more stories to tell.

 

 

 

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Life is Strange: Before the Storm

Life is Strange: Before the Storm is a story I didn’t know I needed until I learned of its existence. It’s a dream come true for those of us who are in love with the original. It must, of necessity, come in the form of a prequel: the bifurcated ending of Life is Strange, Season 1, is predicated on player choice, and as much as any of us would like to see a canonized continuation of the adventures of Max and Chloe, it has been made clear that the existing body of thousands of works of fan fiction constitute the officially sanctioned epilogue to an emotional journey. This burgeoning fandom reflects the extent to which the people at DONTNOD have captured the hearts of many, many people with the compelling tale they’ve woven – one with room for embellishment in the right places.

The unveiling of the mystery behind the question mark that was Rachel Amber in Life is Strange serves as a vehicle for a look into Chloe’s life in Arcadia Bay during the five years that Max is away in Seattle. In her absence, sixteen-year old Chloe is beginning to blossom into a woman, and the references to sexuality that were somewhat more diffuse in the original are made increasingly direct and explicit in Chloe’s journal: entry one features a drawing of dreamy-eyed Max with hands in her pockets, the dialogue bubble above her head inviting Chloe to “Put your thoughts in me.” Chloe talks of her desire for Max’s return, saying that she’d take her back in a heartbeat and talking about what they’d do “after we kiss and make up.” And then, in her third entry, she tells Max that she first thought about Deckard, then Pris from Blade Runner while “rubbing one.”

So it’s quite convenient that attractive, young, blonde-haired, jasmine-scented Rachel shows up and takes an interest in Chloe at a time when Max was not there for her. More than anything, Rachel offers an escape from the drudgery of Blackwell Academy, a personal life that has begun to dissolve into nothingness, and a home life with a mother who has moved on too soon by shacking up with a man whose personality embodies the antithesis of her life-loving, warm-hearted father, William. William’s cold, lifeless body now rests in the earth, and somewhere down there, Chloe’s soul has begun to settle in as well. Her daily habit of smoking weed offers only a temporary reprieve from the bullshit of being trapped in a seemingly loveless existence.

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The static-infused, ethereal anthems of indie folk band Daughter give voice to the themes of abandonment that Chloe has been forced to shoulder; in All I Wanted, a heavy double-bass line drives the chorus: “All that I wanted / Was that I’m wanted.” Her mother Joyce’s decision to date a hard-nosed military veteran who is more inclined to treat Chloe like a soldier than a step-daughter echoes throughout the sad, mournful organ chords and gentle piano strokes of I Don’t Live Here Anymore. Prior to being driven to school by her future führer-in-law, she has the option of checking the mailbox for a postcard from Max that never comes. “No love for Chloe.” Her sigh bears the weight of the emotional wasteland that is Arcadia Bay. (“Whoever said ‘You can’t go home’ was probably from Arcadia Bay. And he didn’t want to go home.”) There is a hole in Chloe’s heart that mirrors the Hole in the Earth in which her father rests; the refrain could just as well be a pained love song that Chloe sings to Max – or now, Rachel: “You have very childish qualities / Friend make sense of me (x2) / I have very destructive qualities / Friend make sense of me (x2).”

Chloe has been left vulnerable and we sense that Rachel sees an opening for fleshing out her own desires. She makes a habit of “running into” Chloe at the most opportune times: once at the Firewalk concert during the game’s opening sequence, and once again at Blackwell Academy right as Chloe is about to enter the main building to attend her chemistry class. In both cases, Rachel is able to utilize these encounters to lay the groundwork for a bond between the two of them, a bond whose ambiguous purpose and nature serve as a source of speculation for the story’s readership. We know from Season 1 that Rachel used money and sex to score party favors, but what exactly does she want from a lone wolf pothead who sometimes forgets to shower?

We could be forgiven for sighing in exasperation at the cliché pairing of Chloe the Social Outcast and Rachel the Golden Girl. They are teenagers who are suffering through their own personal forms of grief, and yet, they are also human beings with hearts – hearts that seem to be seeking each other out. Indeed, Life is Strange encapsulates a story that is best experienced while wearing your heart on your sleeve – logic and continuity are rendered secondary considerations. This may be problematic for those unable to ignore the existence of the fourth wall in the face of glaringly obvious solutions to otherwise agonizing dilemmas, for example: why didn’t Max just warn every adult she could about the coming tornado and have the town evacuated beforehand, rewinding her way through Arcadia Bay until she found someone who would listen? Answer: Max has social anxiety, Max doesn’t think like that, Max is too focused on helping Chloe. If you’re unable to come up with a plausible explanation for questions of this nature, you may find it difficult or even impossible to suspend disbelief.

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When I wrote my first response to a game I had purchased for $1 as part of a Humble Bundle on Steam, I had been bitten by the love bug ever so gently but wasn’t really aware of it due to mostly having brushed off the milieu and its seemingly inane fluff as yet another variant of Saved by the Bell. A full blown romance did not bloom until ten months later, when winter had vanished and was riding back in on the coat-tails of chill autumn winds. The Life is Strange series, as it has now become, slowly kindled and ignited my interest in choice-based interactive stories, regardless of whether those choices fundamentally alter the narrative arc or simply add flavor to a predetermined outcome. It’s that first experience of having played through the story using one’s own instinctive decisions that sets the soul humming and crystallizes the totality of the play-through into a fond memory infused with the myriad possibilities electrified by mutually exclusive yet peacefully coexisting decision branches.

As Chloe, I played through a session of Dungeons and Dragons with tabletop nerds Steph Gingrich and Mikey North, also fellow Blackwell students. The hip-shot decisions I made during those ten minutes resulted in an epic, climactic battle complete with body animations (Chloe sat on top of the table), masterfully rendered facial expressions, and fully voice acted dialogue that drove home the power of telling a story through a video game. “RIGHT. IN. THE. DICK.” is a line that is best delivered diegetically, in person. Static text on a page has its place; to fully appreciate Chloe and the world which has been thrust upon her, we need to hear her speak.

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On the whole, the voice acting in Before the Storm remains faithful to the spirit of its predecessor. The ongoing SAG-AFTRA strike precludes the use of the original cast on Deck Nine’s project; there was, understandably, considerable trepidation about the actress who would be selected to fill the shoes of Ashly Burch as Chloe, a multi-talented veteran whose work on Adventure Time with Finn & Jake recently won her an Emmy award. And while Rhianna DeVries does not possess the nasal, sarcastic delivery that Ashly brings to our blue-haired girlfriend, she does perform her role admirably alongside co-star Kylie Brown as Rachel Amber. They are not perfect – nobody is – but I have come to embrace them as the canonical voices of their characters and have even joined their cheerleading squad, wishing them the best as they breathe life into the lines crafted by Zak Gariss’s writing team, a team which includes Ashly Burch in her capacity as a writer.

With that said, there are some misses here and there: David’s gruff, gravelly bellowing has been replaced by a much smoother voice that doesn’t quite convey the authoritarian discipline which serves as his modus operandi in his interactions with the Price family. Chloe’s father, William, comes off as robotic in his dream sequence delivery – even if this is intentional, it is somewhat off-putting. Rachel’s reaction to Chloe’s baritone confession in the junkyard is met with the sort of “Ah…” one might expect to hear after having spilled a glass of milk on the floor. This comes on the heels of her seemingly simple response to Chloe’s unspecified invitation to check something out (the junkyard): “What?” The micro-spittle release at the end of the word masterfully conveys Rachel’s well-lubricated articulation after having chugged her way through the better part of a bottle of red. Victoria Chase is particularly on point; Nathan Prescott is not far behind. Bootsie Park as Chloe’s mother, Joyce, conveys a much more subtle Southern accent than Cissy Jones’s commanding presence does without fundamentally altering Joyce’s personality. It’s the sum of this vocal give and take throughout Episode 1 that renders, in my mind, a balanced performance.

As such, it’s essentially a story told in a different voice by a familiar narrator. And it’s fitting that this story is told differently because brash, pot-smoking, concert-going Chloe Price is quite different from shy, socially awkward wallflower Max Caulfield. The male crooners of Max’s indie rock/folk library (Foals, Local Natives, Syd Matters) are complemented by a harder driving brand of ethereally voiced female indie folk (Daughter) that reflects Chloe’s straightforward, I-open-doors-with-my-head personality. The Right Way Around, Before the Storm’s title screen music, sets the tone for the journey with its heavy bass line, deep electric guitar chords, and uncomplicated drum-and-bass beats. The gently muted piano tones that accompanied our read-through of Max’s journal are replaced with distorted, white noise-filtered guitar renditions that serve as the background hum of Chloe’s fatherless, friendless existence in Arcadia Bay.

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Friendless until Rachel shows up – Rachel, who quite conveniently bumps into Chloe more than once, almost as if she’s placed a GPS on her. There is room for Rachel in my heart despite her flaws and manipulations, just as there is room for potty-mouthed, back-talking Chloe. As in Life is Strange, there are plenty of opportunities to take a break from exploring the painterly minutiae of scenes and spaces to plop oneself down wherever one pleases (whether Principal Wells approves or not) and take time to reflect. One of the most memorable scenes for me is when Chloe shares her earphones with Rachel (you did share, didn’t you?) and together, they listen to Through the Cellar Door by Lanterns on the Lake while taking in the passing evergreenery of the Oregonian countryside from their perch on the edge of an open-doored boxcar in transit.

It’s a relationship whose still-sparse canvas lends itself well to brushstrokes from other sources; in my mind, I painted around the edges with references from Gone Home, a mansion exploration game in which Katie Greenbriar comes home from abroad one evening to her family’s empty, sprawling estate, wherein she spends several hours learning about her sister Sam’s blossoming relationship with fellow high school senior Yolanda “Lonnie” DeSoto through journal entries, pictures, letters, and answering machine messages. The most immediate similarity for me was the cassette tape in the bottom left corner of the screen that indicates one’s progress in Before the Storm is being saved – the style mirrors that of the cassette tape displayed on the loading screen of Gone Home. The open-ended buzzing of the background chords that introduce Daughter’s Glass remind me of the distant, midnight humming that accompanies Gone Home’s title screen. These are, perhaps, subtle coincidences or even inventions on my part, but it gives me warm fuzzies to pretend that they aren’t.

That we know Rachel’s eventual fate does little to detract from the magic that is present in Episode 1: Awake. I like to think that Max is still here in spirit – as Chloe certainly does, addressing her journal entries to Max and frequently musing on what Max would do if she were there. She seems to accompany us in the music that plays such a vital role in telling this tale: her freckles are the notes of the piano scale melodies on upbeat tracks like Hope, and again, in Voices, where they twinkle like stars in the night sky as Chloe looks around Blackwell’s drama lab dressing room. Glowing guitar chords, the steam locomotive swishing of a snare, and cooing that sounds like a railyard whistle serve as a musical prelude to the train ride Rachel and Chloe will soon be taking.

It’s a ride I would recommend to anyone who will listen.

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Overwatch: Rewind, Revisit

As the children sleep at their grandmother’s house, I sit here in the wee hours of the morning, my right hand caressing a gaming mouse that sits atop a 17-inch gaming mousepad purchased specifically for getting better at tracking and aiming in Overwatch. It is an endeavor that began in its most nascent form in December of last year when I bought the game and took a liking to D.va, the Korean pop star who pilots a tanky mech outfitted with boosters and flak cannons. I played her at every opportunity, dueling opposing Reinhardts and doing my best to place my ultimate ability in spots where it was sure to kill at least a few of the enemy team members. (It usually didn’t.) I thought I was a pretty decent D.va with all my shiny gold and silver medals for eliminations, objective kills, and damage done. Websites told me that my kill:death ratio was outstanding – I made myself difficult to take down, even if I wasn’t doing much else for my team. Little did I know that my experience then was largely characterized by the Dunning-Kruger Effect, one which in this context told me that I was bad, didn’t know that I was bad, and didn’t know why I was bad. Honestly, I didn’t think I was bad.

I was bad. Very, very bad.

What I was supposed to be doing, I discovered in retrospect, was using my Defense Matrix to block enemy ultimates, contesting the high ground (often without dueling), protecting my supports when they were being flanked, and generally creating space for my damage dealers and healers to do their jobs. Because I didn’t do these things – and didn’t understand that I needed to be doing these things – I lost games and ended Season 3 in mid-Bronze, an inflated rating at a time when many people inhabited tiers higher than where they should have been due to the Skill Rating system in place.

Season 4 saw me expand my hero pool to Mercy, Pharah, and Symmetra, only to hit rock bottom at my “true” skill rating: 812 SR. Through luck and a modicum of skill, I was able to end the season slightly above 1000 SR. In Season 5, the current season, something clicked and I rapidly rose to a place just above 1800 SR, only to lose 200 SR in a single marathon weekend “tilt” session, prompting a two week break from the game. And here I am at the end of Season 5, sitting solidly in mid-Silver at 1750 SR, with my intuition, observation of the ranks of the players I get matched with/against in Quick Play, and sites like c0derwatch.com telling me that my mechanics are at least low Gold.

Hello, Dunning-Kruger. We meet again.

I’ve certainly improved, somewhat, and the price has been severe: my most recent love affair with Tracer has required a great deal of my time in the form of warm-up drills in the training range, daily practice in custom games against hard bots, practice in Quick Play to acclimatize to actual players who don’t move anything like bots, and practice in Competitive Play where people want to win and, generally speaking, behave in a more organized fashion than what you will find in Quick Play. Failure on my part in engage in these activities on – at the very least – an every other day basis results in mechanical skill decay and loss of muscle memory that does not regenerate for several days or even weeks.

This is a problem. Tracer is a high skill floor, high skill ceiling flanker whose job is to coordinate her backline assaults on the enemy supports, squishies, and tanks with her team’s front line engagement. In the absence of kills, her role is to harass, annoy, and make people chase her, taking precious resources away from the main engagement in the hopes of giving her team the upper hand. It takes a great deal of skill to be a not-bad Tracer. The very, very good Tracers possess a trained skill set that resides somewhere in outer space.

Naturally, Tracer needs very, very good aim.

I devoted myself to improving my aim. I lowered my sensitivity to 1000 dpi @ 4.8, a combination which requires 28.86 cm (11.36 in) to execute a 360 degree turn in game. My wrist chafed for weeks as I got used to sweeping my mouse across my mouse pad with my entire arm. I practiced switching between finger aiming, wrist aiming, and arm aiming (depending on the distance between you and your target) until it became second nature. I trained my muscle memory as often as I could stand to. I even played Aim Hero on Steam for eight hours, a game that allows you to simulate your Overwatch settings in a sterile environment designed specifically for training your aim. (Turns out the best way to get better at aiming in Overwatch is to play Overwatch.)

I’ve hit my limits, though.

My aim after all these months still isn’t good enough to win games as Tracer. Today was the last day of Season 5; against my better judgement I decided to play some competitive matches on my second Origins account – one that I paid $60 for and spent hours upon hours leveling up to 25 through excruciatingly uncoordinated Quick Play matches to make it eligible to queue for competitive play. An account that I created specifically to play Tracer. I lost five in a row. In each game, I couldn’t hit anything, couldn’t engage the enemy team without five people immediately looking at me and reacting, and couldn’t go more than a minute without someone looking at my profile and asking me to switch to Mercy, my second most played hero on my secondary account – because sometimes I wanted to win.

After seventy or so games as D.va in Season 3, my competitive win rate was about 37% – an indicator that one needs to find a different hero. My win rate on Tracer this season is 33%. The writing is on the wall.

So I suppose I should have seen this second uninstall coming at some point. It wasn’t my fault, though – I fell in love with her, her play style, her charismatic attitude, and her penchant for being a zip-a-dee-doo-dah little shit.

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Once upon a time, Tracer’s butt was front and center. No longer.

I could play her all day, and have on the rare occasion that the children are away, there is nothing else that needs to be done, and I’m not going to be interrupted. The problem with Tracer is not that I can’t be good at her – I have had my moments, and they make me smile – but that I need at least three hours of concentrated play before I start to be not bad at her, regardless of the amount of previous warm-up, practice, and training that I’ve engaged in.

It’s a heavy time investment, one that leaves emotional and psychological debris when I play games in which I am bad and tank ranked games for my team. I look back and think to myself that perhaps I could have done something more productive with all that time rather than doggedly persisting – by now, for three months during this second attempt – at something that ultimately does not yield rewards in the form of fiero or even simple satisfaction.

The lows in Overwatch are low, but the highs are just…well, not low. I’m supposed to be good at the hero I’m playing, I say to myself.

The Duke of O counseled me earlier this year to rejig my parameters. I tried playing Overwatch casually, but I can’t ignore the element of competition. I’m a cooperative player by nature, generally gravitating toward the role of tank and healer in MMOs, so when players clash in any context, my ego comes online immediately and quite forcefully. If I lose, it means I’m a failure. I need to win. To win, I must be good. Having attempted to be good at the role of protector (D.va) in Overwatch and failed, I then tried the role of assassin (Tracer) and have reached my limits. I could be good at her, given a Herculean, parent-unfriendly time investment, but I haven’t been good at her, so, pragmatically speaking, I can’t.

To make a third attempt as a support hero such as Mercy embodies the definition of insanity. You can expect a third such post some time next year.

 

Secret World Legends, One Month In

The tree house you see above embodies the essence of the secret world as we’ve come to know it: dark, mysterious, enigmatic. Moonlit. The reintroduction of The Secret World as Secret World Legends essentially turns up the gamma a few notches and subtly defogs the intentionally shrouded. If you’ve played The Park with the darkness settings at the recommended level, you can barely see anything – just enough to stumble about and eventually find your way to where you need to go. Turning the brightness up to normal levels lets you see more than you need to, rendering a fundamentally different game experience.

This is what Secret World Legends has done. I’ve reached level 50, completed all of the missions, and soloed two-thirds of the powerful champions and story mode dungeons; SWL strikes me as the reorganization of existing elements overlaid with more generous opportunities for monetization, the kind you’d find in a casino. And while the cash options and solicitations are not at first blush overly intrusive, recurring mainstays such as the glitzy daily login rewards screen and future-tech Agarthan Cache interface don’t exactly fit in with the game’s overarching “once upon a midnight dreary” motif.

So, what’s different? This is the same game that uses the same clunky engine with the same wonky physics and possesses many of the same seemingly invincible bugs that existed when I first started playing The Secret World in June of 2015. The mouse-centric action combat is slightly more mechanically tactile, the main story’s mission flow has been streamlined, many activities have been simplified (e.g. the Beaumont fight, tuning Gaia engines), active and passive abilities have been reorganized and mixed with permanent statistical gains, the old crafting system is all but gone, story mode dungeons are easy and role-agnostic, and the time/money investment gap between the average player and the most powerful players has been made absolutely staggering in a bid to attract the fattest of whales and the firehose streams of cash spewing from their blowholes.

With that said, I’d like to offer my thoughts as a moderately invested lone wolf player on The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly aspects of the first thirty days of SWL’s existence.

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Hemitneter is still my spirit animal.

The Good

The story mission can be completed alone in its entirety should one so choose, as can the associated action, investigation, sabotage, and side missions. I would estimate that play sessions of two hours perhaps two to three times per week accompanied by judicious use of talisman and weapon empowerments should allow the average player to get through the entirety of the current offerings – Solomon Island, Egypt, and Transylvania – within a couple of months. This is quite worth the price of zero dollars and is recommended for anyone who has not yet experienced the dark and fascinating story of the Secret World or who got stuck somewhere along the way in TSW and wouldn’t mind having a second go at it under more forgiving circumstances.

Indeed, Funcom can truthfully refer to this part of the game as an “Action RPG”: players focus chiefly on combat, exploration, and plot building. Managing gear upgrades is a fairly straightforward secondary activity provided one concentrates on increasing their attack power. Your average solo player’s point of contact with anything resembling a trinity role would be perhaps a pair of health or healing talismans if it suits their fancy.

And it’s very important to understand that for the purpose of experiencing the game’s story, this is as it should be. If one is not specifically playing for the MMO aspects, which absolutely do exist outside the confines of the superbly written and voice-acted narrative, one’s “role” is more thematic than anything: Dirk “BladeRunner” Gently wields heavy steel in melee combat against the living dead; Mai “PurpleHair” Hasegawa slays demons using her fists and custom-made magic bullets; and Dixie “DeepSixes” Cox is a former nightlife manager who wields chaos and the elements in her personal crusade against the army of vampires that siphoned off her clientele.

Our three friends have the option of teaming up and making their way through Story Mode dungeons, breezy easy-mode smash-throughs that allow agents to focus on the mysteries and goings-on contained within. These can be soloed provided you are five (rough going) to ten (smooth sailing) levels above the recommended level, but I would really recommend doing it with a pair of people you know. If you’d like to duo the dungeons, be sure to check the “Private Team” box in the Dungeon Finder interface before queueing up.

If one goes to the trouble of completing most of the available missions, one’s level should be advanced enough to progress without considerable difficulty using the cues and clues provided. For example, Carter Unleashed now provides a visual reminder about the immunity ward in your quick access inventory after the first time you die to Carter’s mobile, baseball field-sized swirling vortex of instant death. This is an excellent addition; I completed the mission before this reminder was added and didn’t notice the ward until after my seventh death. It’s important for players to overcome such obstacles relatively quickly when first starting out, so Funcom can be forgiven to a certain extent for holding the player’s hand a little too tightly in other cases (e.g. “reach character level 12” before proceeding with the main story mission).

As you complete these missions and dungeons, you’ll find yourself ticking off boxes on the Daily Challenge checklist. Dungeons and scenarios (which at the Elite 1 level have been simplified in a way that is quite pleasant) count toward main mission completion; both defeating the final boss of a dungeon and completing local bounties (random “kill X” missions that pop up in certain areas) count toward side mission completion. Empower a handful of items and kill 50 to 100 monsters, and you’ll have your daily allotment of 10,000 Marks of Favor (12,000 for patrons) which can be used at vendors, on the Auction House, and elsewhere. This is a refreshing change from the very specific requirements of TSW’s challenge completion system. On the whole, it’s much better to reward players for doing things they like rather than carrot-sticking the most tolerable things they don’t like. Thankfully, Funcom has emphatically demonstrated that they are listening to what players like and don’t like and have implemented changes accordingly.

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I’m the ghost in the back of your head.

 

The Bad

If you decide that you like the game well enough to spend at least $12.99 per month on it, patronage’s most notable benefits include increased experience gains, a daily Agarthan Cache key, and double AP/SP gains. This accelerated influx of Ability Points and Skill Points as you level up will help you unlock weapon abilities, passive effects, and permanent stat boosts fast enough to keep you interested in learning about the dynamics of your chosen primary weapon, with a moderate decrease in acquisition speed once you hit maximum level. This moderate decrease becomes substantial if you are not a patron.

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Where SWL differs from many other free-to-play games is that contributing monthly does not confer a stipend of cash shop currency (in this case, Aurum). In a game where Aurum can be used to buy so many different things from increased sprinting speed to additional AP/SP to items that increase the quality (but not rarity) of weapons and talismans, it makes sense to reward those who commit to scheduled payments with a little bit of the good stuff. Quite frankly, it doesn’t make sense not to do so given that even buy-to-play TSW rewarded subscribers with monthly Funcom points that could be used to buy the aforementioned perks, including roughly thirty inventory slots a month if one were so inclined, up to a maximum of five hundred.

And it becomes apparent that once a player begins to amass items and reward bags to any significant degree that inventory space is much less fluid than it was in TSW, a stinginess that is endemic to SWL in general. Players begin with 35 inventory slots (up from 25 originally) when starting out. After a while, things begin to pile up despite one’s best janitorial efforts – More Space is required to accommodate More Things. The first two five-slot upgrades can be purchased for nominal amounts of Marks of Favor; the second two five-slot upgrades must be purchased for 400 ($4) and 500 ($5) Aurum respectively. At current median exchange rates (140 MoF = 1 Aurum), this amounts to five and six days’ worth of challenge completions for those who do not want to inject cash into the process.

If one chooses to transcend the confines of the Secret World ARPG novel’s dust jacket and venture off into the game’s MMO offerings, sooner or later one brushes up against SW:ToR-esque restrictions designed to entice players into making their inconveniences go away with a charitable donation. Herein lies one of the poorly implemented features of SWL’s time-is-money model: a lot of these things are fabulously expensive. Sprint V is $10 (125% speed increase). Sprint VI is $15 (150% speed increase). 45 to 55 inventory slots is $9. Bypassing the need to level a second talisman to purple 30 for mythic orange fusion is $15. Increasing a talisman’s pips from two (medium strength) to three (maximum strength) is $25 (Anima Imbuer). And so forth. The impression that I get is that the MMO side of the game is unfortunately quite stingy in general, even for patrons.

There’s a reasonable fix for this, though: tiered pricing and generosity to a point. A green (superior) Anima Imbuer is $0.50, a blue (epic) Anima Imbuer is $1. A red (legendary) Anima Imbuer is $25. Players are going to be doing a lot of empowerment and fusion; when they give you cash, give them a generous helping of basic inventory space. $1 a slot? $1 gets me 72 slots in Guild Wars 2 before I have to buy another bag slot unlock. You need to be less stingy, initially.

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Indeed. I’m learning about inventory Tetris more than anything.

Personally, I think these sorts of things can be dismissed as growing pains provided Funcom continues in the vein of listening to players, looking at works and what doesn’t, and making sensible changes. What really rubs me the wrong way in the Bad category is the philosophical direction in which this transition has taken us. The above-mentioned empowerment system, which involves feeding lesser weapons to a very hungry Greater Weapon (or talisman or glyph or signet) to make it stronger, costs anima shards, a new currency which turns a notionally supernatural essence into a preternatural, discretely quantified entity.

The introduction of anima shards as concrete units of currency is as about as philosophically appealing as the insertion of midi-chlorians into the Star Wars universe: it is entirely unnecessary and erodes the mystique of the experience. This is the signature theme that has been introduced by Secret World Legends, a game whose new name unfailingly makes me think of a Candy Crush-style mobile app every single time I read it. Here and there the story’s unseen undertones have been laid bare presumably for the purpose of attracting new players with a less opaque, more vibrantly presented backstory – the image of a Dreamer’s bird holding a man’s limp body (an Orochi employee, undoubtedly) in its filthy talons has been replaced by an attractive, red-toned image of Rose White’s face framed by a vertical white line and high-rise buildings while a young woman holding a pistol in one hand and an atomic fireball in the other poses before her in miniature. (“You’re pretty good with a fireball,” an NPC once said to me while I blasted zombies with a shotgun.)

This is all part of a Modern Promethean cosmetic update that sees our new face gazing out toward the end of the update roadmap where we’ll finally stop Laying Low in the Limelight some time in Late 2017 / Early 2018. That the roadmap explicitly mentions where we got our powers is a harbinger of Kinda Dark But Not Too Dark Days to Come. Changing the title from “The Secret World” to “Secret World Legends”, turning Agartha into a social club complete with the banners of the three main factions hanging up, and straight up affirming cynical Sam Krieg’s description of our raison d’être as a “fight against evil” are broad brushstrokes that paint a picture much too bright for a game that has always been at its most seductive when it is dark as fuck. I mean, the entire world goes blank for a split second at midnight to herald the appearance of the bogeyman in Atlantic Island Park and here we are atop the roller coaster playing Connect Four with different types of shoddy pistols.

I’m being facetious, of course. The real Bad in this category is the UI. I have to click a small, thin blue bar to the left of my abilities to even know that my seven deaths to Carter’s impromptu volcano have resulted in “Anima Degradation” and I need to pay 100 anima shards per death to fix it. How about just fixing Anima Degradation instead? By removing it. And the little blue bar.

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Once upon a midday cheery…

 

The Ugly

Seeing other players in the world is not always a good thing. They’ll depopulate your mission NPCs in limited spawn areas (looking at you, Ghoul Tools) and one of you won’t get credit for a kill if the other tags it and isn’t in your group. If your lair run has more than ten people, sorry eleven and twelve. The ten of us are going to have enough problems as it is getting into the same lair instance and staying there. Sharding playfields into ten-person affairs is great for maintaining that feel of isolation but not so great when people band together organically to engage in group content.

Weekend warriors are left out in the cold – there’s no system for banking anything other than Agarthan Cache keys, so it’s not possible to burn through a bevy of free, banked dungeon keys in a marathon session or spend Marks of Favor obtained by completing weekday challenges.

Static NPCs that can be destroyed have a very annoying habit of keeping you in combat for long, long periods of time, even when you are not attacking anything and nothing is attacking you, e.g. blood stocks in Transylvania. Being in combat prevents you from regenerating your weapon power quickly and also keeps you from sprinting, leaving you hamstrung while you wait for the random number generator to finally decide that you are out of combat. One of the important parts of keeping your players excited about playing is making them feel fast: your combat experience should be a romp through the zones in which players zip around at their own pace rather than being beholden to the whims of a fickle combat flag or unending waves of trash mobs. In any case, there is something going on with the combat in Trash Mob Legends that makes me feel slow as molasses – maybe it’s all those Filth microparticulates in the desert air.

Crowd control effects are still way too long. This has knock-on effects in PvP, which isn’t terribly relevant at this point given that we’ve only got Shambala to work with (which people are suicide-farming for anima shards), but there is little that is more frustrating to a player than losing control of one’s actions, especially for lengthy periods of time. It strips the player of their sense of agency when used too liberally; anything longer than a couple of seconds should be tossed out the window unless it’s being used as part of the story, e.g. Cassie King’s “Wicked Witch of the South” stun.

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I married the afterlife in a shotgun wedding. I’m holding the shotgun.

Concluding Thoughts

Just as Ptahmose “lovingly” murdered his children and sealed them inside statues in the City of the Sun God where they sing a song that keeps the Black Pharaoh imprisoned, so too have our old selves been rendered impotent and sent into stasis. We have been recast into bodies with faces that sometimes scarcely resemble our old features; the many hours we spent in our previous life have been wiped away and supplanted by a new siren’s song designed to prevent darkness from overtaking the balance sheets.

As a parent of young children, I cannot forgive Ptahmose for what he did, even though I understand that what he did was presumably for the greater good. As he labors over his children’s bodies, he chants praises to Amun, the god who is not-Akhenaten, and I mutter a curse under my breath. I will not bless this reskin of a game I’ve spent hundreds of hours in even as I prepare to spend many an evening retracing my steps. Secret World Legends has turned the erstwhile secret world into the only legend of note – it is the one I think about while this plastic body of mine traverses familiar streets and fields in a slightly off version of a place that was once a shade darker, one whose gambling parlor decor and transparent mysteries must now be endured if we wish to see it persist.

Secret World Legends: Tear down the Heavens to Rebuild the Underworld

In a world of unicorns and rainbows, the second incarnation of The Secret World may aspire to reimagine its predecessor the way Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen seeks to recapitulate classic EverQuest. But there are no rainbows and unicorns in this dark and mysterious – oh, wait. There are. I was going somewhere with that.

Sometimes in order to turn your artistic vision into reality, you have to tear everything down and start over, rebuilding the foundation from existing pieces. This is what makes great art, and that’s the way I see The Secret World, primarily: as a work of art that functions as a support system for life. Exploring the dark underworld that exists within our dreams makes the tedium of the waking world more bearable. I am probably an idealist in this regard; I leave an analysis of the game studio’s marketing, public relations, and financials to more capable and invested entities, not least of which the game studio itself. Ahem.

I’m more interested in the extent to which this rework emphasizes the narrative, a shining gem in a sea of numbers ground into sawdust. Many players are already understandably upset about having their Numbers and Stuff trivialized; I sympathize with them as I wear my cheekiest innocence-is-bliss grin and sip my coffee in anticipation of journaling my dormant character’s dreary, fog-shrouded meanderings. I measure my experience bar in screenshots and short stories. My nearly maximum-capacity inventory’s lattice grid of signets serve as trinkets more than anything, reminders of the paid-monthly journey I have at times cursed and worshipped. The talismans that will only cease to protect me when the Eleventh Hour arrives remain hidden under my clothing.

The information we have so far shows us a work in progress, one which highlights improvements (more interesting combat), integration (a popular topbar mod is now part of the UI), and growing pains (a key-activated mouse cursor mode à la SMITE). The default reticle emulates a soft-targeting system which highlights whatever’s underneath it. Fantastic, minus the concentric circles in the center of the screen. (I was getting tired of spamming tab.) The Overwatch-style mouse button usage will eliminate my need for AutoHotkey: I’ll be able to smash my primary ability without having to worry about left-hand cramps. I’m hoping this will make it easier to enjoy the freneticism of five-button combat in counterpoint to my ethereal countryside strolls – executing optimal damage rotations is the sort of ledger-balancing Liling would be doing if she had chosen to take up a nice, non-lethal desk job with regular tea breaks.

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Levels are no longer hidden variables. The philosophical value in deliberately hiding this information is overshadowed by the usefulness of being able to gauge your presumed effectiveness at a glance. Each level up now bestows a chunk of base hit points, another form of shorthand which vitalizes the otherwise static dead/not-dead binary. The upshot is that when you walk into a new area such as Blue Mountain, you’ll be armed with a more accommodating skill floor as well as the information needed to reasonably size up threats. No longer should you spend warm, wine-infused hours painstakingly crafting a new build for your favorite weapons, only to be flattened by the first giant insect beast that rushes you.

Much has been written on the virtues of selecting your own difficulty – if you want your audience to stay until the end of a movie that challenges them, you need to be able to take them outside of their comfort zone without frustrating them. Later, if they decide they’re up for it, they can choose to engage more difficult subject matter on their own terms. Forcing those terms on them by default via complex systems that require extensive research and experimentation may result in alienating those who just wanted to turn the page to the next chapter of your story without having to take a quiz on the mechanics of your fantasy world.

While character levels reflect one’s progress through the story, the notion of being able to “level up” your weapons is one that engenders lasting attachment and emphasizes one’s identity, the face that one shows to others. Once you’ve acquired an appearance you like, you are then free to focus on becoming more proficient with it rather than mentally reserving room for its successor. Space also exists for those who wish to min-max: each weapon type has an associated “always-on” character-level passive which requires a certain degree of mastery to enable; this passive remains even when you switch to other weapons. This appears to be a more meaningful system of progression based on a specialization-diversification dynamic as opposed to the straight-up grind demanded by augments and AEGIS.

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Indeed, the most powerful intrapersonal and interpersonal bonds are formed in cooperative environments that support the expression of one’s identity in communion with others. My play sessions are fairly anti-social apart from my interactions with friends – I generally do not want to see other people out in the world while I am playing. When I do interact with others, however, I want us to be able to accomplish our goals without having to get up in each other’s business: I shouldn’t be able to “kill steal” or disable an interactive object. The proposed culture of softening the emphasis on competition between the factions and replacing it with a sense of belonging to one’s own faction must be accompanied by game play systems which support this. To take a phrase from elsewhere: seeing another player should always be a good thing.

Even in Secret World Legends, where playing fields are going to be capped at ten players. Even in places like Kingsmouth, which is sharded – not mega-served – to preserve the sense of isolation. Big Brother informs me that shared participation with no grouping requirements and personalized loot rewards is The Way Things Have Always Been. For once, he’s absolutely right.

I just hope that he sees fit to provide an option to turn off the swirling anima “ding” effect when you level. I don’t want to be a legend – I just want to continue the story with a minimum of fuss.

Reflections on Having Written a Fan Fiction Novel

Nearly four months after I typed out a breathy introductory chapter in December of 2016, I’ve finally finished “After This“, a fan fiction novel which continues the “Sacrifice Arcadia Bay” ending of game developer Dontnod Entertainment‘s episodic, choice-driven narrative Life Is Strange. I was inspired to do so by the lingering emotional vulnerability I experienced after completing the game; the bonds I had formed with the story’s protagonist and deuteragonist, Max and Chloe; and the myriad possibilities hinted at via the determinant nature of one’s decisions throughout the game.

My novel weighs in at ten chapters and exactly 50,000 words. Varying definitions of where a novella ends and a novel begins have long served as conversation starters over a pint; the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America set the threshold at 40,000 words, so that’s what I’ve opted to use. Prolific authors such as Steven King might place it at around 80,000 – then again, Mr. King’s phone books frequently clock in at 200,000+ words. I figure I need to give people something to complain about in addition to whatever they find in the substance of my writing.

Personally, I’m satisfied with what I’ve written to the extent that it withstands repeated read-throughs; the statistics kept by Word indicate that I spent 15,607 minutes, or just over 260 hours, drafting, writing, editing, revising, and proofing. That works out to 192 words an hour, or 1,596 words a day if we assume an eight-hour writing “shift.” But we can’t, really, because like other human beings I took time off and wrote in binges. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from all this, it’s that one must write regularly in order to improve and remain comfortable with the art of sculpting statues out of thin air.

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To wit, some things I’ve learned from published, professional sculptors whom I follow on Twitter and whose writing I admire:

  1. Your first draft should be fast and shitty (Delilah S. Dawson)
  2. Writing in the second person (Alyssa Wong)
  3. At some point, characters must fuck or it’s trash (Sam Sykes)

The canon continuation of Max’s story, according to its authors, is the one that you write. My drafts were fast and shitty, my chapters alternate between first person Max and second person Chloe, and they eventually fuck in one of Max’s dreams. This canon that blossomed out of my heart and mind found its home on Archive of Our Own, a fan fiction website with a reasonably active readership and an agreeable layout. It boasts well over a thousand Life Is Strange works, a testament to the game’s popularity and its power to inspire storytelling. Readers can leave comments and “kudos”, a way of saying they liked something without having to type anything.

And so I left my story there, chapter by completed chapter, expanding on some of the darker themes that had been touched on in the narrative. I based my imaginings of Max and Chloe and Kate on what I had seen and heard while I was playing. I let them do whatever they wanted after long, thoughtful meanderings through mental landscapes on quiet, moonlight nights and, later, when I righted my sleep schedule, on sunny mornings. Sometimes scenes and chapters did completely unexpected things after I had taken the time to daydream about them. I didn’t even have a climax in mind until halfway through the novel. I wrote organically, not knowing what would happen in the next chapter. A terrible practice, from what I’ve gleaned – but I’m a novice novelist, so what do I know?

One thing that I would change if I were to do it again – and I am not inclined to write another fan fiction novel any time soon – is the manner in which I published it. I would either not release chapters serially or request the pre-publishing assistance of beta readers: people who read your polished drafts and give you feedback on all the things you’ve become blind to after your first ten thousand words. I say this not because I’m unhappy with the tone, consistency, and overall quality of my novel, but because there are some tenuous points in the first couple of chapters that I would have gone back and solidified with much more editing had I not blasted them out into the stratosphere as soon as they were done. As is, they remain milepost monuments to the evolution of my writing over the past four months.

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I’m genuinely appreciative of those who took the time to tell me they liked my story, just as I am appreciative of the people who were courteous enough to express their dislike (and educate me on how to improve) using constructive criticism. Probably the most heartening praise I received was in a DM on Twitter from an artist who is active on DeviantArt – I follow them there and have marked several of their fantastic works as “favorites.” They sent me a message telling me that they normally don’t read fan fiction because the characters are invariably written so OOC (out of character), but that they loved mine. This really made my day.

With all that said, this is what I learned from writing a fan fiction novel:

  1. Writing takes practice
  2. Writing at length takes lengthy practice
  3. Quality takes time (best aged like a fine wine)
  4. Structured drafting preserves sanity
  5. Fan fiction is a cesspool of iniquity

So, when I say that fan fiction is a cesspool of iniquity, here’s what I mean: you have to lower your standards. Like, really low. This is what I didn’t understand when I decided to start writing this novel (you can call it a novella if you like – I would agree): people are not looking to swoon over your references to Greco-Roman mythology and Hamlet and Edgar Allan Poe – they want characters to bang in the locker room, to have adventures, to engage in warm fuzzies and catfights and sleepovers. They want their favorite characters to do their favorite things, and if there’s any sort of drama or conflict, it can be tropified using quotes and catchphrases for all they care so long as their honeybuns are fucking rock stars at the end of it.

I understand this now, after having written to my heart’s content, and the lasting effect is that I probably won’t write anything else in the realm of fan fiction that goes beyond the length of a short story or maybe a novelette (7,500 – 17,500 words). I still balk when reading the author’s notes to some of Archive of Our Own’s most beloved works, however: they tell their audience how they wrote this 12,000 word chapter in a single four-hour caffeinated binge or how they cranked out their latest 10k monster while listening to the same Adele song on repeat 35 times in a row. I look at the sixty hours I spent on Chapter 8 (12,885 words) and make myself another coffee. What’s all this, then?

At the very least I’ve learned quite a bit about writing at length, even if some people would look at what I’ve done and chastise me for not having spent that time doing actual writing. I’d just reply that I did it because I enjoyed it. I’m like anyone who plays games for fun instead of learning how to play the piano or taking up martial arts – I’m not spreadsheeting my free time to find the optimal intersection of usefulness and enjoyment. I’m having fun, damn it. And it just so happens that my preferred writing milieu – those dark and mysterious midnight haunts in the realm between life and death – best manifests itself elsewhere. Lesson learned.

We Bathed in Moonlight, Drowned in Sorrow’s Embrace

They told me I had been dead for ten months when they pulled my lifeless blue body from the bottom of Lake Delavan. Why I was now staring at the dull brown ceiling of the hospital in the Salma Quarter of Divinity’s Reach instead of slumbering peacefully in the cool embrace of the Mists was not something the priests and priestesses were able explain to my satisfaction. When, after several hours, I regained the color in my face and the feeling in my fingers, I felt an anger that should have remained dormant forever.

I returned their dispassionate gazes, face up in my bed, as my cheeks flooded with uncomfortable heat. This is what the White Mantle looks like when they imbibe bloodstone, they told me. They’re dangerous. White. Mantle. For as long as adjectives and nouns continued to exist, humans would agglutinate them in endless permutations and use them as rallying cries in their idiotic wars against each other. The fact that my parents had once shared a bed in Kryta did not obligate their offspring to care about the kingdom’s politics.

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I don’t give a damn, I replied. Tell me how you brought me back, since you won’t tell me why. They offered conflicting answers: Engineers had concocted a potion that had the power to reanimate the departed; Rangers had called upon the spirits of the forest to imbue my skeletal frame with verdant life force; Mesmers had conjured up an illusion which was temporarily housing my essence; Lyssa had personally bartered with Grenth for the return of my soul until the Elder Dragons had been vanquished and the safety of the Six Gods’ human subjects had been secured.

I want to go back, I growled through clenched teeth. Tell me what I have to do.

Meet your old friend Logan Thackeray in the Upper City. He and the Queen will help you understand what needs to be done.

So I did. It was as if I had never been gone. The Pact still called me Commander, even though it was clear to me that I wasn’t commanding anything or anyone. Braham wouldn’t listen to me. Marjory wouldn’t be told what to do. Kasmeer was conspicuously absent. Anise had developed a thirst for blood, while Canach had developed an endearing brand of wit. Taimi and Rytlock were the only ones I felt I could trust – Taimi’s burgeoning genius needed an adult catalyst to ensure her transition from progeny to practitioner; and where there was a battle to be fought, as there typically was when I was around, Rytlock would be there to guard my back and tell everyone exactly what he thought of them.

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Logan was the one person who hadn’t changed. As much as we had been through, he wasn’t good for anything but commanding human forces. When he told me that General Soulkeeper had offered him the position of Marshal within the Pact, I stopped caring about the organization altogether. Call me what you will, friends. I’ll go where I need to go and do what must be done. The flow of time wraps itself around my sword and shield while Queen Jennah kills with a flick of the wrist and erects a reflective dome over the entirety of Divinity’s Reach by simply willing it to exist.

Tell me again: why do you need me?

Once we’ve slain the remaining Elder Dragons I am going to fill my lungs with as much of Lake Doric’s water as they will hold and return to Eir in the Mists. We’ll spend our eternal twilight leaving heavy footprints in the frosty snow beneath us as we make our way toward the sound of howling wolves on distant ridges.