About Me

My photo
Hi, I'm Tess. I'm thirty something and live in London. Dances with Squirrels is a blog for my collected stories and stuff. My books are available on your friendly regional Amazon in paperback and e-book. Comedy fantasy, The Gatekeeper on the Docks is here and The Ghastly London Ghost Stories Omnibus is here. If you'd like to follow me on Twitter, I'm @TessStenson

Thursday, 25 September 2014

A quick update

Hello. I've not posted much recently. Sorry.

Amongst other stuff, The Gatekeepers of Gloucester is taking up a lot of time, because self-promotion is a painful and challenging thing. There is a paperback version out for anyone who doesn't have a Kindle or just likes readin' oldschool like, yo. Paperback is available through Amazon, like so, or your regional Amazon flavour, such as this one.

Here's a dodgy picture of me with proof that the book exists.

I've been busy with other stuff but I am working on newer stuff for future releases. In the mean time I've been writing some games related things for http://www.coffeebreakgaming.co.uk/. You should check them out, it's a great new site for PC gaming.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

The Gatekeepers of Gloucester is now available.

My new book is finally available to buy from your regional Amazon store. Here's some things about it.

Working with dead people can be stressful. Few know this better than Nigel Moody. When his new friends found out about his job processing the recently deceased, the job became dangerous too. Dealing with suspicious superiors and dangerous entities from the other side, Nigel is feeling the strain and he’s sick of it. He has a plan to free himself of his obligations to his employers, the Company.

Millennia of controlling every aspect of the world beyond the mortal veil has left The Company bloated and stagnant and unable to deal with a growing human population. They’re near breaking point, and Nigel thinks he can take them on and go into business for himself. Breaking the monopoly on the afterlife is a tantalising prospect to a group of idealistic and disillusioned employees. The only problem is the Company doesn’t appreciate the competition and will go to great lengths to stop a bunch of humans from messing up their operations.

Goddess help us, Gloucester’s going to burn.

Additionally, the first book, The Gatekeeper on the Docks, is free to download for the next few days. So if you are interested and want to start from the beginning, now is the perfect opportunity (although the new book is written so that knowledge of the first isn't essential).


Monday, 7 July 2014

The Gatekeepers of Gloucester - First chapter

The Gatekeepers of Gloucester will be out soon. Here's a sneak peak with the first chapter.

“Did you eat my cheese, you bastard?” said Mod. He pointed accusingly at the plate on the coffee table and the tell-tale collection of crumbs in a void left by some missing cheese. “I go out for a quick smoke and you nick that bit of Cheshire I was saving. How dare you!”

“Greg, honey, we talked about this. We don’t accuse the recently dead of theft, or threaten or mock them,” replied Sophie, keeping her tone reasonable and patient. Mod barged passed the placid grim reaper stood guard at the door and stuffed his pipe back into his jacket pocket after he had finished knocking the tobacco remains into a bin in the kitchenette corner. From his seat next to the terrified spirit on the comfortable new beige sofa, Nigel was quietly impressed by his colleague’s consideration in tipping out the ashen gunk into a bin rather than the floor as he’d been wont to do in the past. Almost like Sophie has civilised Mod, or Greg, whichever name we’re using for him this week, he thought.

“Yeah, sorry about that dude,” muttered Mod to the pale and terrified spirit next to Nigel. The spirit had arrived an hour earlier and had barely spoken throughout his stay, seemingly too overwhelmed by the whole experience to have much to say. The three humans on duty in The Spirit of Mercia were forced to work on the assumption the spirit understood that he was there to wait for his passing on through to the other side of mortality, to the After-worlds, whichever form that would take. The Death Council were taking their time over the decision on this particular spirit’s ultimate fate. Although the spirit was oblivious to the meaning, Nigel and his two colleagues were finding their thoughts increasingly turning to imagining why the council were having such trouble with this spirit. A fringe case perhaps? Bit of an arsehole but ultimately a good enough guy to get through to the Light After-worlds? Nigel hoped it was that simple.

“No one ate your left over cheese. I put it back in the fridge to keep it fresh,” said Sophie. She was lounging in the highly coveted big comfy single chair Nigel had somehow managed to squeeze into the lounge area after his unprecedented furniture buying spree in the spring. Spending the morning on duty by herself had allowed her to stake her claim to the best seat on the boat with no arguing and enjoy the day’s proceedings in comfort and style. Nigel himself had been obliviously asleep in bed after a late night dealing with multiple spirits and her boyfriend had been out buying groceries. She had taken to the job like a cat to catnip. It sometimes frightened Nigel the extent to which her enthusiasm for it ran.

“Oh, cool. Thanks babe,” replied Mod, all irritation and anger at the perceived cheese theft diffusing from his voice in a split second as he set his sights on the fridge to reclaim his precious lunch. Sophie kept an eye on the spirit, smiling the whole time and occasionally reaffirming that it would be okay and everything would work out for him. The spirit began to grow restless with the waiting. If Nigel had learned anything during his years of service to the forces beyond the grave, it was that the recently deceased could be surprisingly restless. Despite regular pressing on the subject, the spirit had refused to speak on the subject of his death. Few things irritated Nigel more than not being given enough information to write an accurate and detailed posthumous report for his superiors.

Watching the freshly dead say their farewells to the mortal world could be a spectacular thing to see. Final words took place on a bespoke canal boat on a still new annex to the Gloucester-Sharpness canal system, surrounded by cow filled fields and with a view of Gloucester cathedral towering in the distance. Few spirits expected their last bow to take place on such a boat full of ramshackle upgrades and half hearted renovations, lived on by a scruffy man with fashion sense from decades ago and looking for the entire world like he was waking from a year-long coma and readjusting to the strange world around him. It had a habit of throwing spirits off from concentrating on their trauma and into a world of confusion. Nigel leaned forward in his chair and studied the jittery spirit closely.

The spirit had arrived relatively quickly after the estimated time of death, which suggested the death event had been relatively close by. It was at an irregular time too and after the evening rush hour, statistically suggesting it wasn’t work related and lessened the chance of it being a traffic related accident. He seemed to be intact and not missing any body parts. If he had been missing anything, they would be waiting on delivery of said body part in order for full completion and processing into the next world. There did not appear to be any obvious wounds or marks that would point to a violent death of any sort. The spirit was wearing hospital gowns and, judging by the wear on them, it looked as though he had been in them for a while. An extended hospital stay was confirmed by stealing a quick glance of the name tag, the admission date being the 14th of July, 2015. His hair was unkempt and he looked fairly bedraggled. So he was in for a while then, thought Nigel. His skin was pale and looked rather anaemic to Nigel’s completely untrained eyes. Skin colour and health would recover over time as the spirit adjusted to post-life existence. Some sort of horrible disease I bet. I should take a page out of the NHS’s book and demand everyone use a hand sanitizer before entering my boat. I’m sure The Company will be willing to send me something graded to work on spirits as well as the living. He had not been told of any cross-mortal communicable microbes, but when it came to the After-worlds, he could never be certain just what waited on the other side. Overkill maybe? Nigel tried not to dwell on the possibility of any serious contagion transferring from its deceased victims to the gatekeepers tasked with ushering them on.

He decided instead to check his messages again to see if there was any update from the Gatekeeper’s Service Operations hotline on the status of the spirit. He received the same reply that he had been receiving for the last hour – his guest’s case was still under review. He killed a bit of time dealing with a few reports from other gatekeepers in his area, all of which he needed to sign off on and send back to his superiors at the Deliveries Department for processing. He gave them a cursory speed read, forgetting any details as soon as he had read them. He trusted that nothing needed doing with them. He wasn’t sure what he would have to do if there was an issue, or even how to identify an issue. After being made Area Line Manager for Gloucester based gatekeepers, his extra training had been surprisingly light and vague. The area had managed to survive well enough without a line manager for several years before he had been ‘awarded’ the job. Until a demonic agent provocateur had possessed a friend of Nigel’s and taken her on a murderous rampage through Gloucester city centre, resulting in the death of a dozen people and the injuring (Nigel included) of several dozen more.

“Any word from Cosmic? Thought she was going to pull a shift today,” asked Mod, out of the blue. He was leaning on the kitchen counter, fiddling with his tie. Nigel suspected it had been ironed. Usually he would have assumed that Sophie had ironed it for him, except that she had been at the boat all day and Mod had only come along later. It was a fresh tie, not the same as the previous day’s. Nigel realised that his suit jacket had been cleaned and ironed too. Suspiciously out of character behaviour, it was almost as though he was taking the job seriously. Oh no! He’s not gone and been possessed by a demon now too has he? Nigel thought. Sophie spoke up before he could respond.

“Saw Amelia when I went on my break. She’d closed up shop for the day and seemed quite content listening to Test Match Special in the garden, smoking a joint and texting bad jokes to Charlie.” Sophie offered Nigel an apologetic smile on behalf of his girlfriend. “I think she’s going to be a no show.”

“Again,” muttered Mod. The spirit coughed slightly, surprising the entire crew who had almost forgotten he was there. “Sorry mate, you say something?” The spirit’s eyes went wide and he shook his head vehemently. Sophie sat up in her chair and offered the snacks plate to it.

“Are you sure you don’t want anything, honey? I’m afraid I can’t say when you’ll get to enjoy your first meal on the other side, it could be a while.” The spirit once more refused the plate and its collection of crackers. Sophie tried the cake plate instead, determined that the spirit’s last taste of the mortal world be of her baking prowess. “I’m sure what they do have isn’t a patch on my Vickie sponge...” She was interrupted by a sound that was like the distant scream of a jumbo jet gradually getting closer and closer. It ramped up in intensity every few seconds until it became difficult for any further conversation at anything other than a shout. Anyone walking outside the boat alongside the canal would only hear the sound of people having a shouting match inside, completely oblivious to the deafening rumble coming from the back of the boat. In the previous six months, there had been one or two unfortunate incidents of passers-by getting the wrong idea about the shouting. Police had even been called on one occasion. The standard excuse the team of gatekeepers had agreed upon was that they were simply practising a dramatic four person independent stage show that they planned to take to the Edinburgh Fringe. Sophie had taken it to heart and started to write a play before being reminded that it was not in fact the truth.

While the three members of the living branch of humanity on the boat remained nonchalant and unconcerned by the sudden noise, the spirit broke into to complete panic mode and leapt from his seat and paced around the small lounge area, nearly knocking the coffee table over and stepping on Mod’s toes. Since Nigel’s spring redecoration frenzy and the installation of a new sofa set, there was very little room for free pacing, particularly with the boat as busy as it was that day. I hope this dude isn’t claustrophobic, thought Nigel.

“It’s err, okay, friend. This is all normal. Just your own...personalised portal to the After-worlds being delivered,” said Nigel, hoping to pick his words precisely and reassure the distressed spirit enough to calm him down. He got to his feet and extended a placating hand, letting his nerve damaged arm hang limply at his side. “I’m sorry that your life has ended, err, sorry to put it bluntly. It’s a complicated change, but that’s all it is – just a change from one state of being to another.”

“Yeah mate, nothing to worry about. Think I saw the paperwork arriving too, I’ll go get it. Sure it’s nothing to worry about,” said Mod. You and me both know that it could well be something to worry about. Very much so, thought Nigel bitterly. The spirit did not seem to hear. He had already made up his mind that he would much prefer to get away from the boat and these strange people as quickly as possible. Before anyone could say anything else he bolted for the door, barging through at breakneck speed. The reaper that had escorted him from his place of death to the boat, his extraction point from the mortal world, reacted quickly to move and block the exit and stop the spirit getting away. It had not reckoned with the life preserver jacket, that all reapers visiting The Spirit of Mercia were required to wear now, stopping it from getting into the door frame properly and making it bounce back slightly, just enough to let the spirit push it aside whilst it was off balance. It tumbled into the canal without making a sound. It bobbed in the water without complaint or making any further movements. From underneath its pitch black hood, two red eyes flashed and a beeping noise began to ping out, transmitting a distress call between worlds. Sophie however, was not content to wait for back up. In a flash she was out of her seat and rushing out the door in pursuit, pausing only to give Mod a quick kiss on the cheek and to grab her trusty scythe, the cheerily red ribboned Nigella. Nigel and Mod exchanged looks and shrugged, confident that Sophie would catch up with the spirit and absolve them of the responsibility of exerting themselves in anyway. Nigel put the kettle on for a pot of tea and read the paperwork that Mod handed to him.

“The latest firmware update for the reapers is pretty crap isn’t it, buddy?” said Mod as he casually finished his prize cheese.

Sophie intended to speed out the door and chase along the canal side but her best laid plan was scuppered when she found her feet unsteady and wobbling on the uneven ground. She thought that a still relatively new canal folly would have had better pathways, she then realised the problem was probably more likely to be the unreasonably high wedge heels she was wearing. She kicked off her shoes, aiming to leave them in a neat pile that would be easy to find when she returned. They tumbled in opposite directions, one landing in tall grass on the field side of the path, the other perilously close to a dunking in the water along with the reaper. She nearly bumped into a dog walker passing by as she began the chase once more. She smiled, apologised and then ran off, leaving the dog walker baffled by the shoeless girl with a seemingly imaginary pole of some sort. The walker shrugged and concluded that the girl must just be practising her pole vaulting technique in preparation for an athletic competition.

Sophie got to the end of the canal and a fork in the path. She cursed herself for missing exactly which way the spirit had gone, assuming it kept to a path at all. Yeah, must have kept to the paths, no one would be inconsiderate enough to go rampaging over Mr Farmer’s private land for the cows, she told herself. Faced with a binary choice of which way to go, Sophie couldn’t decide which one to choose; both seemed equally reasonable turns for her prey to take. One direction would take the spirit on a path out along the city ring road and towards the suburb of Hempsted - a good way to go and get lost with ample opportunity to veer off along a little used street. The other direction meandered off over a small foot bridge over the River Severn and into the main docks basin and then the familiarity of the city centre. Plenty of nooks and crannies to hide away in. She considered the spirit may even try to commandeer a boat of some sort to take it out onto the canal or river, becoming a ghost ship and passing into Gloucestershire legend. Just like Nigel had attempted to do when trying to aid their now deceased friend, Charlie. Ahh, good times. Sort of.

She decided that the fairest way to select the correct path would be to leave it to random chance. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath and spun around on her heels holding Nigella out to keep her balanced. She opened her eyes and was grateful to see she had not accidentally cut an innocent passerby with her scythe. She found herself pointing closer in the direction of the city centre than the route to Hempsted. She continued onwards, sticking to the cool soft grass alongside the jagged sun-baked path. The early evening sun was lazily sinking behind her, elongating her shadow into a hideous apparition with a deadly weaponised farm tool, just like the creeping shadows cast by the villains in her favourite German expressionist films. She was forced to remind herself she was not in fact an evil blood sucking ghoul and indeed that blood sucking ghouls did not dress as snazzily as she did. The day she came across an ancient film in which the head monster was wearing pristine black jeans and lacy purple swing vest was the day she might re-evaluate her fashion choices. Her colleagues had consistently declined her offers to make a fetching new uniform for them all to wear whilst on duty on The Spirit of Mercia in a bid to give a greater air of professionalism. “We don’t do fucking uniforms” was the general tone of the replies that she’d received. Not even her suggestion of at least coordinating a bit more by wearing red shirts had been met at all warmly. She had to tell herself to snap out of it and focus on the job at hand. She had lost visual contact with a spirit that had freaked out and run away before their sentence had come down. She reminded herself she should work on the assumption that he was innocent and bound for the eternal paradise of the Light After-worlds, unless told otherwise. She couldn’t be certain that the spirit was aware of the dangers of running off into the world.

She approached the foot bridge over the river where she had a good view piercing between the decaying old Victorian warehouses that had ganged up to surround the Gloucester docks main basin. She could see a good portion of the docks ahead of her. It was full of people milling about visiting the shops in and around the place, killing time before going for a meal or heading to the pubs. Employees from the City Council who were late finishing work were gradually slumping out of the offices and blinking in the sudden bath of sunshine that greeted them, seemingly unable to quite recall what the bright big shiny disk in the sky really was. No one seemed to notice there was a terrified man, so pale that Sophie suspected he would be transparent if a light was held up to him, in hospital gowns looking around shiftily amongst the gradually dispersing groups. Even without the surprise blinding from the sun, no one but Sophie would have seen him.

Disconnected from his mortal coil, the spirit was only loosely interacting with the physical mortal world. Although Sophie doubted he had noticed it yet, he would gradually lose any remaining connection as his essence diffused into the atmosphere to leave only the most basic husk of his self, a being of purest id forever roaming the world and wondering why nothing seemed like it had during the half remembered life he had once enjoyed. Sophie wanted to avoid that for him, her job could be tricky enough without the added hassle of having to track down a crazy spirit too far gone into madness. They could get very tricky to find when diffused completely, usually spotted only during those rare moments when something set them off on a violent episode. A short sharp burst of spiritual activity brought on every so often by the vague memory of the place in which the spirit has wandered to or the hazy recollection of seeing someone they may have known in life or the far away smell of something familiar. Something to make the spirit snap and unleash all the remaining energy it had built up as it drifted along between worlds, like the slipping of a tectonic plate causing a short violent earthquake without warning. That would be bad. Pretty bad, thought Sophie.

She tried to keep out of sight as she crept her way over the Severn road and into the docks main basin. She tried her best to hold Nigella awkwardly behind her back, nearly tripping herself over several times as the shaft knocked her bare feet. She did her best to keep behind a group of workers in overalls covered in paint and dust as she crossed the locks. They were discussing work on one of the tall ships they were restoring in the dry dock when Sophie tripped over once more and headbutted one of the men on the backside.

“Hey, easy there sailor!” he said before turning around and looking at her with a bemused mix of surprise and confusion. “Oh, you all right there, love?” Sophie got back to her feet, very mindful that she had very nearly sliced at the man’s leg with Nigella, so she clasped the blade behind her back once more and put on her sweetest apologetic smile. It confused him even more; he couldn’t see objects from the spiritual world, like Nigella. The man’s companions meanwhile, found the whole situation utterly hilarious and burst out laughing and informed their friend that he was “well in there” and “sure to score now”.

“Sorry. Slipped,” said Sophie and tried to ignore the group of men crowding her and surveyed the surroundings. Aww, nuts, she thought when she saw the spirit had had his attention drawn to the eruption of laughter. The spirit once more burst into a gallop to get away from the petite girl with a ponytail of unnaturally bright red hair and a scary looking scythe. Sophie pushed by the men and ran after the spirit, grimacing slightly as she went over some pebbled ground and ignoring the man she had headbutted as he called after her insisting that she absolutely must take his number. Astonished onlookers were kind enough to part for her, trying to interact as little as possible with the crazy girl running barefoot through the docks. The spirit ran up the small flight of concrete steps at the north-east end of the Docks and turned onto a small side road, Parliament Street.

She ran as fast as she could around the docks and rushed up the stairs in a few graceful steps. She still got a kick from being able to do it, still could not quite believe that the techs on the other side had been able to engineer some upgrades to her balance, alacrity and reaction times. She did not understand in the slightest how it had been done, ‘fiddling with her spiritual DNA’ was the best she could understand. It was only after skipping over to the other side of the shared traffic and pedestrianised zone that she realised she hadn’t bothered to check if she was about to leap in front of an oncoming car. Somehow, it just hadn’t seemed like a high priority to her. She continued to gain ground on the spirit and managed to catch up as he was laboriously drudging past a bar called The Shed, a place Sophie thought rather bravely mixed alcohol and indoor climbing. The spirit had just about run out of steam and was through with running and gave up as soon as Sophie tapped him on the back.

“What do you people want with me?” he asked morosely.

“We just want to see you pass on to the next world safely,” she replied, with no hint of tiredness from her exertion. The spirit eyed Nigella suspiciously. “We really don’t want to hurt you.”

“I just want to go home,” he murmured. Sophie put Nigella gently to rest against the red brick wall of the side of The Shed. She pulled the spirit in and embraced him with a heartfelt hug.

I’m sorry, sir, but you can’t.” She was never sure what to say, what was the best way to inform someone that they were dead and about to go on into the unknown? As much as she tried to pre-plan a comforting and understanding statement, when faced with the reality of telling someone that they were dead and could never go back, no words could ever sound right. How on earth did Nigel manage to do this for so long by himself? “There's a whole new world waiting for you on the other side, a world of infinite possibility and you’ll get to see everyone you know who is already there. I’ve been there, sort of, it’s lovely.” She refrained from adding, my friend Charlie is there, I know the drill. The spirit didn’t say anything else, just quietly sobbed to himself. The two stood like that for a few minutes, despite the odd strange look from strangers on the street, until Sophie felt her mobile phone vibrate in her pocket. Keeping the hug alive, she decoupled one arm and reached into her pocket to read the message. It read: “He’s clear, Sophie. Good to go on, the Council had just misplaced some paperwork. Bring him back when you can. We’ll see him off. Nigel”. Sophie felt a sudden wave of relief come over her. She broke off from the spirit and began to tell him the good news, that he was to pass on to the eternal easiness and calm of the Light After-worlds. Before she could get beyond the part about her having received an update on his sentence, the spirit had got cold feet once more and started to run. Oh, yeah. Maybe the word ‘sentence’ was a poor choice. She sighed and bent down to pick up Nigella, idly wondering when she noticed a pool of spilt beer outside the bar, if either Nigel or her boyfriend had been nice enough to pick up her shoes. Before she could turn and begin the chase once more, she heard a crackling hiss whizz through the air. A snap of electricity lit up the atmosphere for a split second and a residual static charge made Sophie’s hair stand up for a moment. The spirit lay on the floor groaning to himself.

“Oops, sorry, Cupcake. Didn’t mean to get you too just then,” said Cosmic, casually walking up to her, trying to shake off the tingling feeling from her fingertips and still in the same cricket shirt and shorts she had been wearing all day. Sophie had no idea where her friend, colleague and housemate had come from or how long she had been watching her hug the spirit. She found it a little bit creepy. “Don’t think he’s going to run off again anytime soon though.”

“Amelia! He was clean, no high security protocols, he was just scared,” said Sophie.

“He was? Oh. Shit. Hey, sorry about that dude. Thought you were trying to pull a fast one.”

“What are you doing here anyway?”

“Oh, the day’s play finished. Aussies hammering us, unfortunately. Thought I may as well come and see how you guys are doing. Saw a shifty guy in a hospital gown legging it and thought he may be one of ours. Decided I’d hang around and see how it turned out.”

“Well thanks. I guess. We should get him back.” She bent down to offer the spirit a hand to get up. He took it hesitantly, not wanting to make any sudden movements and elicit any more of the new arrival’s wrath.

“Good idea. I’ll give you a hand.”

“Be gentle!” ordered Sophie. Her housemate grinned.

          “Have a little faith, Cupcake.”

The Gatekeepers of Gloucester. Coming soon.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Gnome-napped in White Forest

Help, I think I’m being kidnapped. A couple of people just broke into my hut. They are heavily armed and seem to be working with others. My name is Gnome Chompski, I live in a hut in the forests around City 17. I will leave these messages whenever I can in the hope that someone comes across them and is able to help me.

I’d been hearing strange things in the distance coming from City 17. I think something bad happened there. I always try to stay out of politics; I don’t know why I’m being targeted. Two people broke in during the morning. One was a man with glasses and a goatee beard and wearing a strange orange hazard suit, he has a device that appears to be able to manipulate gravitational fields. He doesn’t speak much. It’s the other one that’s the talker. She is young and less well armed than her accomplice, but talks a lot.

They have yet to make any demands or even to speak directly to me. It is the man who seems to be responsible for carrying me. I decided to not put up any fight, they look on edge and I’m in no position to adequately defend myself. I’ll go along with them and try to look for an escape when I can.

They used the old communications equipment in my hut to make a call. My TV license is fully paid and I’ve no subscriptions that are out of date, I don’t think that is the reason for any of this. No, these people are professional covert operatives with an agenda I can’t begin to fathom. Are they even after me? I have no enemies. I’m a gnome. A respected gnome. Perhaps I’m just unlucky to be in the wrong place at the wrong time?

They spoke to another group somewhere off in White Forest. No one has spoken to me. They keep mentioning getting a package to the other group as quickly as possible, before the Combine can get a hold of it. I don’t know who the Combine is, are they the government? Heavens! Am I the package? Oh no! I think this is a hostage situation.

We are leaving my hut. The man is carrying me whilst the woman talks. I think she is the boss in this duo. From what I can gather from their conversation with the other group, we’re heading out on foot through the forest. I’m scared; there are dangerous things in the forest. As much as I hate to say it, I’m reliant on these people for protection.

Something has gone wrong, the woman has been injured. A tripod robot creature came out of nowhere and battered her whilst she was guarding me when the man was looking for a way through a building. I don’t know if the tripod creature was looking for me, I tried to give it a message but it ran off before I could get one to it. A Vortigaunt arrived to help the woman. How far does this conspiracy go? They have the Vortigaunts on their side too? Whatever this organisation is, it is powerful. The Vortigaunt took the woman to their base. Why not take her to a hospital, unless...Ahh, of course. They’re trying to remain hidden and off the grid. I don’t think anyone is coming for me. Does anyone even know I’m gone?

The man is my only guard now. He is taking me on a different route to their base. I assume that they don’t want me seeing the direct route so I can’t find my way back if I were to get away. Damn them. We’re heading into the Antlion tunnels. I’ve never seen one before, but I hear them all the time. They are dangerous.
I am more and more convinced that this man is a sociopath. We are in the dark of the Antlion tunnels, nearing their nest. There is no hope of escape unless with this mad man, but I am unnerved by his behaviour. He seems to actively hunt down the Antlion grubs to squash them. It only angers the hive mind of the Antlions more. I fear I will be lost in these tunnels forever.

Somehow we have escaped the Antlions. I tried to leave a trail on the off chance that anyone is coming but my madman of a captor uses his gravity gun device to remove any debris near him. I can only hope the trail of squashed Antlion grubs will help a saviour follow me. We are in an abandoned silo of some sort where the tunnels converge and my tormentors have taken the injured woman.

We were followed! The Antlions are attacking. It’s a war zone here!

The attacks have ceased. For now. The Vortigaunts are telling the man he needs to go off to find some extract in the hive to help revive the woman. This seems like a bad idea but I fear what they would do to me if I spoke up. They barely deign to acknowledge my presence. Perhaps if I remain patient, an opening will come that I can exploit.

It has been some time since the man left to find some extract, but I can hear a lift coming up the silo and a smell...My god, the smell. It reeks. What on earth went on down there? I don’t think I care to know. Whatever the case, the man appears to have been successful in acquiring the extract. He is covered in slime and bruised all over. I can’t seem to work up much sympathy for him.

The Vortigaunts are attempting some form of dark ritual upon the woman. Are they some sort of satanic group? What madness have I been dragged into. During the ritual, the man appeared to go into a trance and looked as though he was having a vision, or at least believed himself to be. I would have made an attempt to flee then and there, if not for two other humans patrolling the area. They seemed to be of limited intelligence, but quite able to handle weaponry. I have no choice but to continue on with my captors.

The woman has recovered. The ritual appears to have been a success. Unless it was all a ruse to break my will. I cannot say. I fear I am becoming paranoid. We returned to the surface in order to continue our journey through the forest. I saw in the distance what I believe to be hope for my future. An army of, what I now believe to be, the Combine. A search party out for me? I can but hope. Meanwhile, my captors fought off more Antlions and discussed a vehicle they could use from some of their allies.

What sort of allies are these? There are bodies everywhere and sinister sounds coming from the structure below their base. The man is off to get the vehicle from the other side of a broken bridge. I saw a strange man in a suit watching us all in the distance. Who is he? This organisation is well funded and organised. Is this man their financier?

We are now driving through the forest. When we stopped last, I had chance to see over towards City 17. It’s gone! My god! A whole city gone. Did these people have something to do with it? Is that why they are so desperate? Wait...I hear a helicopter. Can I dare to dream that it heralds rescue.

I’m being shot at! Please let it stop. My god, I just want it to stop.

My captors were busy fighting the helicopter so I tried to make my escape. Alas, I was not successful and the emotionless madman found me. In my despair, there was little I could do. I can only assume that the helicopter was not part of a rescue party but was hunting down this sinister organisation. They must think I’m dead. Perhaps no demands were given after all and they need their ‘package’ for something else entirely. What they could need me for is anyone’s guess. I must try to get a message to the Combine to let them know that I am still alive and being held.

The man has disappeared off to do some errands, leaving the woman to guard me as some more of their allies worked on the car. I’m distressed by how relieved I am to be allowed to stay in one place for a while. The car mechanic is almost treating me kindly, although as with everyone else, refuses to talk directly to me. Still, he seems less unhinged than the others.

My respite didn’t last long. The man returned and we drove off again. I realised what the mechanic had done to the car. He’d attached a radar system of some sort to help my captors avoid the Combine. Any hope of getting a message to them is fading. Any more run ins with them may be problematic if they continue to shoot to kill, thinking I am not with them. I may be on my own now.

We were ambushed at the White Forest Inn. I yelled at the top of my voice that I was alive, but the sounds of the gun fire drowned out anything I shouted. The Combine didn’t hear me.

We have come to a base of some sort. I pray that this is our final destination as my nerves cannot take much more travelling. Everyone looks at me strangely, just as they greet the man and woman who brought me to them. Still no one tells me what I am here for but they all appear to be on edge and gearing up for something. I am under no illusion that whatever it is bodes poorly for me. I shall try to make one more bid for freedom, even if I don’t know how I would get home even if I could escape.

The woman greeted the man I saw on the communications screen in my hut as though they are related. She seems less alert, as though she is distracted by being back home. Could this offer me a chance? I hope so. The man continues to carry me and remains as detached from reality as he ever has.

We are going down into the depths of this facility in a lift. No opportunities for escape other than flinging myself off the lift. I’m getting more and more desperate now.

A rocket! They have a rocket here! Everyone is talking as though they plan to launch it soon...No! Wait! I see it now, the hatch is open. I think they intend me to be in it.

Then man has locked me in the hatch of the rocket. I can hear a creature of some sort in here with me. Oh god...Please save me.

That noise...

Oh dear god...The rocket is powering up. I’m being launched.

So scared.

Please help.

Difficult to breathe or think. Can’t write much longer. If anyone finds this, send help.

If anyone finds me...

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Tex Murphy is my BFF

Disc 4 was the bane of my life. I’d found it nestled in the cardboard coffin of a forgotten adventure in the local game store as I was hiding in from the piercing rain that fell from the heavens outside. It was one of those rare times when I was flush, and when I’m flush I’m going to enjoy it. The shop keep took my four pounds and ninety nine pence with a glint in his eyes. A smile crept across his face. That kind of knowing smile that fills you with unease. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Four discs of full motion video gaming filled my pockets, exactly what that meant was a mystery. I hate a mystery; this was one that I had to solve. I don’t do loose ends. Disc 4. That son of a bitch never worked. Nearly took the whole damn case with it.

1994’s Under a Killing Moon was not only my first meeting with FMV games (“interactive movies” that were usually just awful) but also with Tex Murphy, the tongue-in-cheek futuristic film noir P.I. of New San Francisco. It was a ridiculous game but one that I grew to love, despite constantly having to wrestle with the scratched disc 4 that only worked some of the time. That disc made the game’s occasional requests to change the active CD-ROM a tense will-it-or-won’t-it moment. Yet it was a fun enough game to persevere and finish the case. Then get the next game in the series, The Pandora Directive (1996). That was the fourth game in the series. I tried to find the first two (Mean Streets and Martian Memorandum were released in 1989 and 1991 respectively) but never found them. Luckily, 1998’s Overseer was essentially a retelling of the first game. And my copy of it had a scratched disc. I had learned my lesson by then and took that copy back to get a replacement. If only there were a way to enjoy Tex without the need to get any more fucking scratched discs.

Well lucky us, because a mere sixteen Tex-less years later, we have a new Tex Murphy game. Yay! And it’s a digital download. Huzzah! Up yours physical media! After a successful Kickstarter campaign, Big Finish Games have introduced Tex back into the wild with Tesla Effect: A Tex Murphy Adventure and brought back a genre that had been lost and left for dead in the darkest depths of the 90’s. FMV games were never exactly respected or well liked, but Tex stood out as one of the few series that is fondly remembered. So it’s a genuine pleasure to see that such a relic from another time has been dusty off and given a few gigabytes of goofy HD video campiness. I really like it.

I was worried that it would be full to the brim with fan service, and to be fair it does have a lot of that but it doesn’t let any of it get in the way of the game it’s trying to be. The new characters sit nicely alongside the returning characters (played by the original actors) and there are nice nudges and winks to the older games that are mixed well into the new story of Tex’s mysterious amnesia. Tex is as sarcastic and lovably dense as ever. His commentary on the world around him has some witty writing and good delivery that frequently made me laugh out loud. In fact the game makes me laugh a lot. Whether it’s a good come-back, a groan worthy pun (a hologram named Holly Graham makes me giggle just typing it), visual gag or clever word play, the game does amuse at every turn. It’s not the most challenging story in the history of the medium but it fits the game’s style and is paced rather well.

Part of the joy of the FMV sequences in the original games was the dodgy melding of the live actors into the 3D world. It’s still wonky as hell and the makeup and prosthetics of the actors is pretty laughable. Honestly, I think Tex fans would be up in arms if it didn’t have that wonkiness. Unfortunately, the game world also has that wonkiness. The geometry of the world feels off in its dimensions and I’ve found myself getting stuck on corners of steps a bit too much for comfort. The Unity Engine used for the game has allowed for a better representation of New San Francisco, but it’s still often just as empty as it was sixteen years ago. Areas such as Tex’s office are full of details and things for Tex to make jokes about, but other areas seem like they could have benefitted from filling up more.

One of the frustrating parts of previous Tex games was the pixel hunting for objects. Thankfully it’s less of an issue in Tesla due to Tex finally investing in a flashlight, which highlights any important objects with a sparkly aura that appeals to the inner kleptomaniac. Puzzles could get rather obscure and maddening in previous games too. I’ve yet to come across anything that had me pulling my hair out (I’m about two thirds the way through, though I’ve heard there are a couple tricky ones towards the end). Most of them have been pretty satisfying if maybe a little less intricate than in the originals. I seem to be spending much of my P.I. investigating just interviewing folk, which is a little disappointing.

Overall my first impressions of the game have been positive. Despite some rough edges, Tex’s new adventure is a welcome return. It doesn’t exactly reinvent a genre or break boundaries in story-led gaming, but its solid and entertaining revival of a cult favourite with some good dumb laughs and a cheeky noir conspiracy theory story. It’s unashamedly old-school and probably won’t convert anyone who didn’t like FMV games the first time around, but it’s a lovable and silly game that shows that there is still a place for FMV and that it can be enjoyable as hell. A Tex Murphy filled world is a happier world. Tex, never change.

Eight Tex Murphys / Tex Murphy.

Friday, 9 May 2014

Hawkewind: A Dragon Age II retrospective.

A mine worker that Hawke and her party rescued warned us not to go that way; there was a huge dragon that way. “Oh, are we going to go that way? I’ve never seen a huge dragon before” chimed in Merrill. I burst out laughing at the question. Merrill’s earnestness was just adorable against the piles of dead miners that littered the area I’d just fought through. Likewise, people had been warning me away from getting Dragon Age II upon its release in 2011 and yet I found it an entirely endearing and enjoyable game, despite its many flaws.

Shockingly, a game named Dragon Age II features some dragons.

After a terrible pre-release marketing campaign, Bioware’s original Dragon Age: Origins turned out to be something of a modern RPG classic that resonated well with players (particularly with its PC release). It was a huge game with what I’m sure the game’s publisher EA relished describing as being epic. It was filled with interesting characters and well written scenarios, all stuffing a familiarly Tolkienesque setting that had enough tweaks and changes to well known fantasy tropes to keep it interesting. There was a lot of scope for players to create their own character and were given six separate origin stories for them to play through as a prologue. Choices the players took in their prologue story could have big effects on how the rest of the story panned out for them. The choices my Dwarven princess character took in her origin story made her return to her home, the underground city of Orzammar, more than a little awkward later on in the game. There was a great deal of detail and attention that went into the game. It took Bioware five years to make, and it really showed. It was bloody huge.

The game centred on the coming of the dreaded Fifth Blight upon the world of Thedas. The Blights come when one of the corrupted Old Gods are awoken by The Darkspawn (the Dragon Age take on Orcs) and they rise to wreck havoc and kill indiscriminately, and do your typical naughty ancient evil like things. Blights are bad then. Only The Grey Wardens are able to stop a Blight, and would you believe it but your character ends up being inducted into The Wardens. Unfortunately, betrayal! Tragedy! Intrigue! You find yourself as one of two surviving Wardens and so must rebuild the order and form an army to take on those damned Darkspawn and their twisted brood. No, Origins didn’t exactly have the most original or thought provoking main storyline. As with most RPGs though, it was in the characters, world building, interactions and side quests that provided most of the meat and substance. You could barely move without coming across details about the world and the people in it. The characters were wonderful and well written and led to some truly memorable moments. Recently reanimated golem Shale and her hatred of pigeons, Alistair and Morrigan’s constant bickering and Oghren’s drunken rambling provided some of my personal favourite bits of dialogue in gaming. Everything came together to make a great RPG game. A sequel was inevitable.

Darkspawn. Boo. Hiss.

The Dragon Age lore was very clear about Blights being very rare events. After all, those scandalous Darkspawn need time to retreat back underground and start searching for another Old God to raise, and I imagine they’d want to sit and think about what they’ve done and reflect on bad decisions in their lives. The country of Ferelden (which was the setting in the world of Thedas for the first game) had suffered civil war, magic spawned abominations, assassinations and uprisings. The elves in the forests had had a spot of werewolf trouble and a war of succession had kicked off in the Dwarven lands. The add-on to Origins, Dragon Age: Awakenings, had dealt with the aftermath of The Blight. Ferelden was thoroughly mined for ideas and setting the sequel there may have been a bit too much. As for plot, another world changing peril of ancient evil and ultimate destruction may be a little unbelievable, even by high fantasy standards. So Bioware decided on a much more limited scope for its story and setting it in a smaller and more intimate place. They also decided to do away with the separate origin stories for players to choose and instead give the player character a single, fully voiced persona and background. Players would influence this character’s personality but the options to create their own character beyond choosing facial features were more limited. Much like how players interacted with the world in Bioware’s other big franchise, Mass Effect. They even brought in Mass Effect’s dialogue wheel during conversations to allow for smoother flowing conversations and clearer indication of the type of response players were choosing.

In Dragon Age II players take on the role of Hawke, eldest sibling of the Hawke family consisting of Mummy Hawke, Leandra, and twins Bethany and Carver. The sequel starts off during the events of the first game, with the Hawkes fleeing their home in Ferelden as the Darkspawn are advancing and blighting the lands. Whereas the first game has The Grey Wardens travelling the world, forming alliances and foiling evil, the second game is more content to stick with a smaller core cast and more low key personal issues. Personal issues like escaping the chaos and seeking refuge in the city-state of Kirkwall (where there are surprisingly few Scottish accents). Along the way, we meet new characters, meet old characters, the Bioware tradition of giving you a prologue companion only for them to die horribly before your eyes continues and the game wastes no time in showing off its many flaws.

The one true Hawke.

One of the big changes to the series that Bioware played up was the overhaul of the art direction. Dragon Age: Origins was many things, but holding a unique or stand out art style was not one of them. It was a bit, in the nicest possible way, bland looking. The DAII team decided to spruce it up and give everything a make-over. The results were brighter and bolded characters with a slightly more cartoonish look. This worked well for some parts of the Dragon Age world, not quite as well for others. The Darkspawn for example went from looking fearsome and horrific to looking more like something from Scooby-Doo. The landscape too saw a bit of a makeover. Ferelden used to be like an unkempt country path with decaying ancient ruins, overgrown ponds littering the detailed environment, interesting vistas and you were free to explore it all. DAII’s country sides are linear brown trenches surrounded by boulders or the occasional wiry bundle of dull vegetation. The overall effect is one of a much less lifelike and far more barren world. Visually it hardly seemed like the same world. Unfortunately this lack of life in the environments extended to the rest of the game too. The world around Kirkwall had very little of interest to see bar some hills and the odd tree. It’s not just the environment that feels a bit lacking either.

Perhaps two of the things I missed most from the original whilst playing the sequel are also two of the pettiest details, but it represents the loss of detail and thought that the original game had in spades. In the original, the feeling that you were part of a powerful and fearsome band of rogues and warriors was helped given weight by the sound design. The simple act of walking around caused a satisfying clinking and thumping of armour and equipment that mingled with the heavy footsteps as you stomped around hitting baddies and monsters. This was not the case in the sequel which just had some rather weak footfall sounds as you ran. As far as complaints go, it’s a petty one but one that is symptomatic of the decreased detail in the world. Throughout the game there is a lot less incidental and background sound to the world. Maybe Ferelden is just a noisier place than Kirkwall? Maybe the creatures of Kirkwall are all mute and the people have a much more limited vocabulary? One man in the palace of The Viscount of Kirkwall spends the whole game complaining about how long he’s been waiting to be seen. Poor chap, I wonder if he’ll ever get seen.

Kirkwall. Its rather brown.

The other petty detail I mourned the loss of in the sequel was the blood spattered journal interface. The interface of the original was wonderfully detailed and stylised, taking the look of a battered and frayed journal that went with my Grey Warden everywhere she went. The sequel went for a blank black background with a plain list of entries in a dull font. It just seemed amateurish in comparison, where’s the detail? Indeed the whole user interface in DAII was simplified and made more controller friendly than in its predecessor (a cardinal sin for PC games fundamentalists who, sure enough, screamed treason and shouted “consolification” at the top of their lungs on the internet after playing DAII). Making it more controller friendly or more accessible isn’t a problem, but to be so reductionist as to rob it of all style just seems mean. Really it’s more a sign of the lack of polish afforded the game to its quick turnaround (about two years worth of development) and a desire to make it a more approachable game with a clearer GUI, just at the cost of its care and detail. Petty concerns aside, I was all about the story and characters and I was sure that they weren’t diluted and rushed too.

Varric and Inquisitor Cassandra getting cosy.

The game plays out in three distinct acts (after the Hawke party arrives in Kirkwall), all set in a framing device of an inquisitor grilling a crossbow wielding and chest-hair loving Dwarf named Varric. Spread out over a decade, the story’s three acts are rather disconnected from each other as Hawke faces a new challenge in her (or his, if you’re weird) rise to power. The first act is all about the Hawkes establishing themselves in Kirkwall, even though word has reached them that The Blight in Ferelden has been stopped. Varric convinces Hawke to join an expedition into old Dwarven lands where they find a magical idol that sends Varric’s brother mad and has the mystic power to relegate itself to a subplot in the following acts. Act Two starts several years later when trouble with ferocious giants called The Qunari stir up trouble in the city. Hawke defeats them and becomes The Champion of Kirkwall. Act Three sees tensions between the powerful Templar Order and their Mage wards heat up until a boss fight happens and the game ends. This disjointed story telling is one of the biggest complaints fans had with the game as it comes across as an unfinished and loose story, perhaps lacking in focus. Although there is some light foreshadowing of later acts at the start, there isn’t much to link up the acts in any meaningful way and all three acts can be taken as standalone stories well apart from each other. For example, there are Qunari present in the city in Act One but don’t influence the main plot at all and can only be approached in a side mission, otherwise they just stand around looking mean. A line or two of dialogue hints at them becoming a much larger threat that will take up the meat of the game. As Act Two comes to a close, they do finally attack with such ferocity that they fight themselves out of the game and are barely mentioned in Act Three.

The Qunari are one example of the great Dragon Age art redesign working out well. Qunari in the first game had no horns because of technical issues (Bioware couldn't get their horns to work with helmets).

At times DAII feels like a game of very loosely connected side quests. Some side quests seem like they could become plot important but fizzle out never to be picked up on again. Others feel rather truncated and unimportant, only for the game to suddenly tell you otherwise without much warning. It feels messy and rather like the game has a revolving door policy on storylines. However, it makes a certain sense thematically. The game is about Hawke’s world over the course of a decade. Crises come and go; old disputes get forgotten and past adventures become rather unimportant in the face of new dangers. It’s not about how these events really came to be. How the dispute between the Mages and Templars isn’t the focus of the game, it’s how Hawke sees them and helps resolve the immediate danger to her adopted home or to her new friends in the city-state. Hawke’s friends have lives of their own and do their own things between acts, but they come to Hawke when they need her help.

For me, Hawke’s relationship with those around her was the best thing about the game. In Origins I set upon a selection of companions who I would take along everywhere (Alistair, Morrigan and either Shale or Ogrhen), but it’s a testament to the strength of the companions in DAII that I was mixing up the party structure constantly. As the game progresses, your pals will come to you and ask for help in their lives. Just call Hawke “The Fixer”. The companion’s missions are the best missions. Like escaped slave Fenris tracking down his former master, or pirate Isabella’s search for a mystery artefact she stole and then lost or Mage/Spirit possessed madman Ander’s quest to free other Mage’s from the Templars. The way you deal with each character effects how they deal with you back with a friendship/rivalry system. The way Hawke interacts with them leads to some wonderful dialogue and moments, and the way the relationships between your companions’s develops works well to give the impression that they have a life outside of Hawke’s interaction. Again, the game is about Hawke’s world over the years, and how better to demonstrate it by showing how her friendships progress.

Hawke and her besties. Left to right: Hawke, Aveline, Fenris, Varric, little sister Bethany, Isabella, Anders and Merrill. Not shown are little brother Carver, because he went and got himself killed, and Sebastian. The latter of which had abandoned me by this point, so I'm not going to show out of spite.

Despite the Mass Effect style dialogue wheel not allowing the same sort of depth or branching choices as the older dialogue options list, there are enough choices to make in conversation to let Hawke develop her own personality. There are three basic types of response to give; the nice one, the aggressive one and the snarky one. A nice touch is that the more you choose one type of response, the more that personality type will come out in Hawke’s travels. My Hawke ended up being a bit of a sarcastic happy-go-lucky cow but who tries to do the right thing, and that came across in her conversations even when I wasn’t specifically being asked to choose a reply option. Likewise, play as an overly aggressive and unpleasant Hawke, the cut scenes and incidental dialogue will reflect that and everyone will begin to hate you and probably abandon you when the time comes for them to choose their allegiances. I say probably because I tend to get overly invested in these games and have a genuinely hard time playing as an unpleasant person and taking the evil options. This is either because of some personality complex I have and a need to be liked, or the game and its characters is interesting enough to get me to care.

There are plenty of nice little touches in the characters, if not elsewhere in the game. Past actions (from Origins as well as earlier in DAII) will be remembered and referenced throughout. Isabella, for example, was in the first game briefly (and is an example too of where the redesigning of the art style benefitted the game) will talk about meeting your Origins character, if they did meet for you. She’ll even remember talking to Alistair from Origins if he was around when you met Isabella in the first game. Another returning character, Anders, will fondly reminisce about his old cat, Ser Pounce-A-Lot; if your Grey Warden did give him a pet cat (if you didn’t, you’re probably a monster). Background characters will talk about the rumours they hear from Ferelden and the actions that your player from Origins took. Piss off Aveline at any point? Oh she’ll remember and remind you about it years later. Show some kindness to Merrill when she’s abandoned by her Elven kin? Well she’ll remember and stick up for you when times get tough, whilst Sebastian may remember how you scorned his religion and swear a vendetta on you and storm off in a huff. The conversations between the cast were often a thing of joy. From the mistrust between magic hating Fenris and Anders to the way Varric looks out for Merrill, the game was always packing in more character development for each of them wherever it could. Sometimes touching and sometimes funny (especially if Isabella was involved), it worked nicely. Other details like Fenris’ hunched back helped sell the former slave history. Varric’s compulsive liar personality was ably shown by the very first prologue scene being exposed by his interrogator as a complete fabrication, complete with bizarre little touches like Bethany’s boobs being bigger in that fabricated story. It’s the detail in the cast interaction and development that made the game’s meat, and part of why it was so enjoyable. It’s a crying shame that that attention to detail was so absent elsewhere.

There ain't no party like a Fenris party.

One of the biggest and most common complaint that people had about DAII is the over use of assets in the game. Playing Dragon Age II, you get very familiar with the same handful of locations in Kirkwall and a couple of spots outside the city. You visit the same places over and over and it gets pretty tiring after a while. The scope of the game may be smaller than Origins, but it really doesn’t help itself my making you visit the same cave dozens of times for different reasons over the course of the game. Reusing assets isn’t exactly a new thing in gaming. No one really complained about the same handful of scientist models turning up again and again in Half-Life; developers can’t be expected to have unique models and assets for every little detail. Making time saving prefabs and generic models is a necessary part of game design; even a lay person like me can see that. The problem is that DAII does it so much that it becomes a detrimental to the integrity of the world Bioware are building. I can accept that a game set in one place over several years may see some retreading of areas, but the areas are largely static and unchanging and the variety of settings so limited that it makes the world seem so small and lifeless. Which is strange given how most of the areas are rather big by volume, just so poorly detailed that they come across as hollow sets rather than the environments around a bustling port city. Many of the levels are so lacking in detail that they become almost sterile. When I first installed the game upon its release, I remember being surprised by the game’s download size. It was only a little more than half the size of the first game. That doesn’t usually happen. Installation sizes go up with time, not down. Bioware apparently reworked their file compression technology to make it more efficient but it’s still a big difference in size. I told myself it was silly to judge a game by the size of its installation (because it is very silly) but quickly saw why it was so much smaller. It’s because there’s just so much less in DAII than in Origins.

Hope you like this cave. You see it a lot.

When not talking to people, what happens in these lifeless surroundings is mostly running around beating stuff up, because video games. The first game gave players a lot of room for tactics and strategy during combat. It gave lots of scope for stealth options, laying traps and ambushes, giving you multiple tactics to use in a fight and plenty of different abilities to learn and find new uses for. Not so much in DAII. It still has the basics of the combat from Origins, but not nearly the same freedom to play with. Combat was generally a lot quicker and the fights suddenly spawned upon you, so Hawke and company have no time to prepare a trap or a plan and the fight is over before any real tactics can emerge. Every instance of combat seemed to go exactly the same way: You get to an area, baddies appear, stab them until they fall over, another wave of baddies appear, stab them until they fall over, final wave of baddies appear, stab them until they fall over and then move on to the next seemingly empty space. Oh look, baddies have spawned out of nowhere. Stabby stab stab time. Combat became entirely too predictable and formulaic. It’s not bad as such, just uninspired and basic. Many of the combat abilities are fun to use, but the game desperately wants to make every move any character makes look flashy and bombastic. Even the most mundane manoeuvre elicits an over-the-top animation or exaggerated flourish. Bioware rather infamously stated that “every time you press a button, something awesome happens". The gaming world collectively cringed at the promise and fans of Dragon Age hoped that this wasn’t the herald of style over substance in the second full instalment in the series. Unfortunately, it seems that it was.

The game doesn't even try to hide that it spawns in enemies by making them jump out of thin air.

Yet I still love the game. It is a very messy game at times, one that is frustratingly limited and missing the depth that made the first game so compelling. It really feels like a game that was rushed out of development and was always only ever going to be a hold-over game until the next big instalment comes in the shape of Dragon Age: Inquisition later this year. It’s a game that some fans say never really happened and was just a series of lies told by the unreliable narrator, Varric. However, it’s still a game that my Steam profile says I’ve sunk well over 200 hours into over the years with a several separate play-throughs. I still love the setting and the characters. Despite being weaker than its big brother in its gameplay, it’s an enjoyable romp and compelling enough for me to want to see it through to the end. The game suffers from the fragmented nature of the story but taken as a collection of isolated encounters, it works well and has some interesting ideas.

Perhaps the game’s greatest sin is that it shows its working too readily. Too many reused assets, too predictable in its mechanics and too eager to move you along from storyline to storyline without fleshing any out as well as Origins managed. None of these are truly game breaking issues though. Annoying and flawed yes, but underneath it all there is a still a fine role playing game with a lot to offer players. Bioware, to their credit, did listen to the criticism and tried their best to offer more substantial gameplay and detailed settings in the two big downloadable adventures they offered for the game. Legacy and Mark of the Assassin gave players two completely separate adventures to play with all new assets, monsters, characters for Hawke to meet and stories. They were a big improvement but being just DLC packs for the game, they were limited in how much they could really do to change the core game’s issues. Maybe this, and the less than stellar sales, contributed to the cancelling of a planned expansion called The Exalted March? Either way, Bioware have some lessons to learn from their failed experiment that they can hopefully use to improve Inquisition. I am very much looking forward to that future game.

The biggest reason why I love the second game so much is that it makes me laugh an awful lot. Maybe that isn’t reason enough for most, but even with my recent play of the game I still found it bringing a smile to my face more than most games in recent years. Maybe that’s enough after all? It’s hard to argue that Dragon Age II wasn’t a miscalculation on Bioware’s part, but not the embarrassing calamity that it is often portrayed to have been. They tried to do something different to the original with a more limited time to do it in, it didn’t all work out as well as I imagine they’d have liked it to. Despite its flaws, it was still a game with a lot going for it and I’m glad it exists in my game library.