Inland Empire is David McNeill’s column about world building, CRPG’s, love, loss and many other kinds of literary vulnerability.
This year has been strange and difficult. I lost my job, lost my girlfriend, lost my home, lost a long-term friend, lost a mentee and had a creative project of eight years come to a grinding halt (months in lockdown didn’t help any of above). This has easily been the hardest year of my life, as it has for many. In this miasma of suffering, I’ve played a lot of Computer Role Playing Games (CRPGs) in the last few months. Like, a lot.
It’s hard to say if this is just escapism. Escapism tassetly implies running away from the pain and difficulty. These CRPG’s feel more like bathing it. Becoming consumed in its peaks and troughs. But honestly, sometimes, it’s something to do with my hands between sips of beer. And there’s only so many times you can re-watch Community until they pronounce you legally unfit to run a media crit publication.
Recently, playing Divinity Original Sin 2 has crystalised why I enjoyed Wasteland 3 and Disco Elyisum so much more than any other CRPG’s during this fugue. Divinity is a standard CRPG in a lot of ways: it’s a stats based war game. You progress through a story and gain levels by completing quests and slaying enemies. It’s the grandchild of Dungeons and Dragons in a very real way, and satisfies that itch to out-think an opponent who wields similar spells and abilities.
I’ve clocked in nearly 60 hours of Divinity Original Sin 2 and discovered it has this weird gap. A sort of absence, for an RPG. The combat is the same engaging push and pull of positioning and abilities that Larian perfect in Divinity: Original Sin, but in translating their previous experiment into a sequel they centered the combat. This means most conversations end with either a quest, quest progression or combat. While the game is filled with myriad content to explore, there are a slim number of compelling conversations to have after the first act. It wasn’t until act 3 that I suddenly felt compelled to give a shit and start conversations with random characters because they finally had something to say again. In part because the plot accelerates - you can start arguing with gods and half-gods and almost-gods and it hits far more than misses. But also because the threads of your side characters’ quests come together and you have to start making decisions about the future of this world and the people who dwell there.
I’ve been trying to decide what it is that Divinity Original Sin 2 failed to do that Wasteland 3 achieved, and short of the specific framing device, it seems to be the way the game allows you to interact in these conversations.
The penny dropped during act 2 when I was trying to extract information from a witness to a crime. I made my way through a few levels of conversation tree, passed a finesse persuasion, and he told me what he’d seen. He was clearly shaken up by it. But my options in response were a flacid acknowledgement or the equivalent of ‘shrug and walk away.’ I couldn’t provide a comforting word, I couldn’t really… do anything. I eventually traded with the man and donated him a bottle of beer, but this just increased his ‘how much I like you’ score. He didn’t react in a meaningful way. I couldn’t rest a hand on his shoulder to let him know the world hadn’t ended, not yet.
In Disco Elysium, a far more role playing focused CRPG, when you speak with Klaasje, a similar witness to a crime, you interrogate her, sure. You can be paralysed by her beauty and fail to flirt, sure. But when she speaks about the emotional trauma of her lover dying while inside her, you can talk to her about it. Explore the emotion. Help her heal, if only the tiniest bit. If you care to (and you do, this is the ennui of Disco) you can delve into a philosophical discussion about the nature of grief and pain, and lever your unique talents and skills to provide a compelling discussion, to try and empathise, to sympathise, to offer this damaged woman the briefest respite with the knowledge she is not alone. Not completely.
The same with Kuno, an objective racist piece of shit. If you speak with Kuno long enough, you learn about his absentee parents, his drug addiction. And you can empathise with Kuno. The game gives you the objectively bad option to validate his racism at times, but mostly it lets me, as Harry, a damaged person, reach out to others and help them, just a little. A kid who is so abrasive that no adults even consider him as a person with feelings and needs. He’s reduced to a caricature of his beliefs by the other grown-ups. But I can change that. Hell, depending on your playthrough, you can even take on Kuno as a partner for the final sequence of the game.
As someone who feels damaged right now, this is a unique form of catharsis. This is the realm of good role playing games, and part of why I find Divinity Original Sin 2 so frustrating. It very often approaches the precipice of these kinds of dialogue trees but rarely commits unless it directly benefits the plot. This is not so much a criticism, I suppose, but a matter of taste.
Divinity is a unique-ish narrative about ascending to godhood and unpicking the workings of a great evil (who has some fascinating motives as you get further into the story). It does some great work around the motivation of the gods too, and paints a unique form of ‘powered people privilege’ that rings very true to boardrooms of executives deciding the fate of the every-man. But when I stumble across a young girl who watched her farmstead be butchered by voidwoken creatures, I ask her what happened. She explains the monsters were attracted by her brother who was secretly a sorcerer, and I can’t reach out emotionally.
I can’t talk to her about the deeply complex weaving of emotions. I can’t try and help her understand that even though her brother attracted the beasts that killed her family, he isn’t entirely to blame. Nor is he blameless. I can’t give her a hug and tell her it will be okay, eventually. I can’t take her for a beer and talk it through.
This is where Disco Elyisum, Wasteland 3 and even Assassin’s Creed Origins tap into some deep, nascent desire I have. Some primal need to help others when I feel I cannot help myself. This is partly why I enjoy Darkest Dungeon.
Because even though the crueling combat and brilliant tone are the attraction, what keeps me is the moments after. When you finally give your priest a week off to relax in the tavern. Or you finally heal that disease that your warrior has been carrying for months. The small, incidental kindnesses of these games is the emotional catharsis I’ve been struggling to find in 2020. When you are hurting yourself, in some small way, soothing the hurt of others helps.
This is a large reason the Witcher 3 feels authentic and tactile. Geralt doesn’t just pursue world ending plagues or monsters. He’ll stop to help a child who has misplaced a toy. A grieving brother. He’s a monster-sherif, yes, but he’s also kind. Equally, Bayek from Assassin’s Creed Origins is permitted similar interactions with Egypt. The option to stop mid journey and assist a woman recover the bodies of her friends in order to put them to rest. The ability to literally talk someone off a ledge: no big clever quest or a dope sword as a reward, just an act of compassion.
In this way compassion and goodness are a journey, not a destination. Classic morality systems in games treat morality as a state to achieve: being compassionate is presented as the outcome of an action, rather than the act of doing. I’m no believer in exclusive positivity, because negativity and criticism and analysis is invaluable in so many settings, but that a lot of games have a tendency to place good actions and bad actions on a balance sheet to determine ‘how good you are’ can be off-putting. Particularly when you are in extreme pain, or when your previous normal has dissolved so entirely you feel you’ve lost yourself.
At the start of Disco Elysium you, as Harry, literally form out of oblivion. A bender so bad you’ve erased your past, and must wait as memories trickle through the dam of trauma. In this state, it’s unclear if an action is good or bad, and frankly you don’t care. What seems to matter in these moments is that you do the thing that feels best. Though you are unable to find your own way in the darkness, you can offer others solace. And if you’re very lucky, light, perhaps.
Like Harry, the way to move forward is to go through the motions. Get up. Work out what happened. Investigate the things around you and help others when you can. Your job is to solve a murder, yes. But solving the murder is about salvaging the social fabric of the town. It’s about resolving tensions of the scared, xenophobic locals and the gang of proud boys and the militia. It’s about maintaining the illusion of law and order to provide comfort to those who are comfortless. Harry has to put the needs of others above his own, in an awkward, stumbling quest to recover both his memories and leads for the case.
And if you keep doing the work, keep pretending to be motivated, eventually you won’t be pretending any more. People will still side-eye Harry. He’s still the drunk who painted the town red and abused his authority. But that’s not who he always has to be. Harry gets to decide what to do next. He has to choose, at every juncture, to do the next best thing.
And it’s not always easy. Hell, I make the bad choices more often than the good ones lately. Dwell in the pain rather than make a change. Because it is hard. All we can do is keep trying, every day. Doing the good things a little, every day, and helping others when we can. Eventually, Harry starts to feel… if not whole, then more alive. More solid.
Disco Elysium is a reminder that your own pain is not so large, but rather, that pain is universal, and the real work is to help each other through it. It’s a lesson games have the unique ability to titrate mechanically because you have to choose to participate in this confrontation of pain. It’s a lesson that we should hold in mind, particularly in those moments when we are weakest: the small hours of morning, the moment before picking up another bottle, rolling another paper, texting the ex. These games help us understand kindness to others, but it’s ultimately our role to ensure we are also kind to the most important person: ourselves.