Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Baldur's Gate, part 6

There's quite a bit to do in the city of Baldur's Gate, being the largest city in the game. Unlike the rest of the towns, which tended to have quests with objectives to be found in the surrounding wilderness, the quests in BG City all seem to be self-contained. After waiting so long to get here, and having thoroughly explored four of the nine districts in the city, I'm already wanting to leave, to get a change from the persistently urban environment.

The game-breaking "poison" quest

If you'll indulge one small spoiler, for the purpose of preventing you from finding yourself several hours further along into the game with no way to avoid dying, take my advice and don't kill Lothander. Lothander is one of the many assassins sent from the Iron Throne to kill me, and all of them have been pretty straightforward until now. This one previously approached us with his partner Marek in a dark alley to deliver a threat, and hadn't been seen again until we went to the tent area of central Baldur's Gate. This time, he tells us that Marek poisoned us while we slept, and we'll all die in 10 days, and no spell or potion will cure us, but surprise, surprise, he has a special antidote that he'll give us if we do a task for him. He says that killing him won't help, because he only has half of the antidote. So, I'm supposed to believe an Iron Throne assassin is both telling the truth about this antidote and won't double-cross me at the end?

Well, apparently I am supposed to believe him, because killing him ensures your death. You can take his half of the antidote, certainly. Marek has the other half, right? Yes, he does. Too bad Marek is removed from the game unless you complete Lothander's quest. In fact, the way the game handles the quest, it's not actually the antidote that cures you, but talking to Marek after doing Lothander's quest. The antidote itself is unnecessary. The only way to deal with the whole ordeal cleanly (without going through the quest) is to attack and kill both of them before they disappear from their first threatening warning.

But don't do that, because the quest that Lothander sends you on is actually a very nice questline with lots of experience and loot, and you get some conversations you would have otherwise missed out on. I just didn't know what I was setting myself up to miss by killing him, any more than I knew that killing him would make the game impossible to win (unless I managed to finish it before 10 game days had passed). Fortunately, I keep incremental saves, so I was able to go back a few days to do it again the right way, but that meant losing some progress. (I also later had to backtrack a day's worth of progress when I noticed far too late that my familiar had been killed.)

Anyway, it's quite a surprise that after a game full of alternate ways to approach quests, there's one quest where you have to help out an assassin who's under contract to kill you, or die. So, don't kill Lothander.

Alyth in the Elfsong Tavern

There are a number of curiosities in the game in the form of NPCs who give you brief, cryptic messages about other places or about things that sound like they might be quest-related, but which never come up again. Earlier in the game there were NPCs that seemed to be heralding upcoming games in roundabout ways, like Neverwinter Nights (an NPC talked about the "nights in Neverwinter", where he was heading).

Well, here, in the Elfsong Tavern, there's a conspicuous NPC upstairs named Alyth who laments that their tavern has "lost the Lady", a phantom voice of an elven maid, and that her absence must be an omen of something to come. Then she changes the subject and says no more of it. I was curious enough to look it up online to see if there was something I missed, but there's nothing further about it in the game. But I did find references to this same thing in another game, the console game Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance. I have to wonder how far back some of these games were planned, if these are all references to them in the first BG game.

Temple of Umberlee (WaterQueen's House)

On the docks of Baldur's Gate is what's called the "WaterQueen's House" (it's spelled three different ways in the game: with camel case in the map, as "Water Queen" in the journal, and as "Water-Queen" in a dialogue), AKA a temple of Umberlee. Umberlee is apparently an evil goddess of the ocean (also called the "Bitch Queen" by her followers), but we helped one of her priestesses before entering the city, who was being harassed by a group of farmers, who tried to hire us to kill her.

All I really want to say about this place is that it's the most interesting temple I've seen yet. Very appropriately outfitted for this goddess' attributes, with most of the floor area occupied by pools that presumably go all the way down into the ocean, since this temple is built directly over the harbour. There are what appear to be small statues mounted on poles in the middle of each pool. Narrow tiled walkways lead around and between these pools to small decoratively tiled platforms where the priestesses can stand. I'm generally very impressed with the originality of design of the temples in this game, especially as compared to the ones in Oblivion.

The temples in Oblivion were extremely uninteresting and unoriginal, especially compared to the previous games in the series. Oblivion's temples, despite each being dedicated to different gods and goddesses, all looked exactly the same -- like generic Christian chapels, with hard wooden pews, stained glass windows, and an altar in front. Even the temple of Dibella! Go back to the second game in the series, Daggerfall, and you'll see how the temples should have been differentiated in Oblivion.

Ajantis shows his true colours (black and white)

Ajantis has abruptly started getting pissy. He had been getting along fine with Viconia for the past few game days, but once we stepped into the Undercellar, it triggered no less than three bits of dialogue from Ajantis. Again, I'm not sure which dialogues are original to BG, and which were added by the NPC Project.

The first one was his usual unprovoked insults toward Viconia, insulting the way she dresses, for one thing. Hey, Ajantis, if you don't like the +2 Ankheg plate armour she's wearing, then you should be complaining to me, the one who gave it to her! Or maybe you're feeling insecure, since it's the exact same armour you're wearing? Anyway, the rest of his insults are basically racist rants against the "always chaotic evil" drow, and ignoring the fact that Viconia ran away from her people because she didn't fit in, much like Drizzt Do'Urden. It's also the case that she has never done anything evil or immoral in the time since we've known her, and has in fact been indispensible in helping us with all of the noble deeds he had previously been praising.

Next, he began a new rant complaining about being in the "famous" Undercellars at all! He said they were "no place for a paladin," and rather imperiously demanded we leave as soon as possible. Keep in mind that I didn't even know what the Undercellars were at that point. I stumbled upon the place through a door in the sewers, and so far all I could see of it was an empty room, and I assumed from the name and its location that it was just another "dungeon" sort of place (turns out it's a harmless brothel). Would have been nice if Ajantis would have given a little more information about the place other than that it "stinks of crime and oppression".

Finally, before we could even take a step, he just blew up at Viconia and started yelling at her with every hateful insult in his repertoire, and then had the audacity to command her to leave the party within a day or face his wrath! So now Ajantis has gone from harassment of fellow party members to trying to go over my head in command. The game at least offered me the option to either confirm or belay his order, and I chose the latter, of course. It was far too politely worded, however; I really wanted to slap him down for that. If it comes to a choice between Ajantis and Viconia, Ajantis will be the one getting kicked out. He's a troublemaker, and his only useful paladin ability is his instant "heal minor wounds" ability, which is getting less and less useful as our hit points increase.

One strange thing about the rules in this game is that stealing is apparently not an evil act. Our resident paladin never complains about Imoen being a thief, nor seems to mind when she picks locks and steals whatever's inside, and there's never any loss of reputation unless the guards actually catch us. I'm curious if the D&D rules state that a certain number of thefts will eventually change a character's alignment.

Imoen shows her stuff, too

Until recently, I had mainly been having Immy stay at range with bow and arrows. I picked up a nice Eagle bow (+2 damage, +2 THAC0) from Marek when finishing that poison quest, and I have plenty of special arrows scavenged from enemies, as well as thousands of normal arrows from same (unlike sling bullets, I never have to buy arrows). But when I ended up with a +2 short sword and a +2 dagger, I played around with equipping her with those items dual-wielded, and then later tried swapping the dagger for a +1 long sword, which she could also dual-wield.

For a couple of fights, when I could tell a conversation was likely to end up in battle, I started positioning my party strategically around the soon-to-be enemy, with Imoen behind him and stealthed into the shadows. It would be a nice game feature if NPCs would react to such an obviously threatening action, but it would probably be impossible to pull it off without getting into false accusations, like the Fallout 3 NPCs giving you stern warnings if your line of sight happens to briefly fall on a door or container that you didn't even know was locked.

Anyway, all that positioning wasn't even necessary in these cases (except for Imoen and the one in front initiating conversation, of course), because both times, Imoen got critical hits, triple-damage backstabs, and took them out before any of the other party members even landed a shot. Now that's an impressive rogue! I never saw Leliana pull off one-hit kills like that in Dragon Age!

I know the usual advice is to dual-class Immy to mage once she has enough thief skills, but I was fuzzy on how many is "enough", and I wasn't really in need of another mage anyway, so she's still a pure thief at level 8, with Open Locks at 90, Find Traps at 85, Hide In Shadows at 70, Move Silently at 72, and Pick Pockets at 45 (that last one needs work -- there's one person's pocket that I can't seem to pick successfully). I think I wasted 17 points on the Set Traps skill, because I never use it, and I also have 1 point in Detect Illusion. I actually don't think I'll be dual-classing her at all. There's no time in the game that I can foresee not needing a thief, and if I dual-class her to mage, she won't be able to use her thief skills until her mage level equals her thief level, which would be a very long time. I think I'd rather just have an excellent thief, and leave the spellcasting to me and Edwin. I'm looking forward to taking her into Durlag's Tower, which should be soon, I think, since I hear the minimum level for it is 7 or 8.

Some more of the comedy in Baldur's Gate

In another example of the kind of humour in BG (where they can have a perfectly serious storyline, but really not take themselves too seriously), I entered what was marked on the map as "Poultry Store", and found myself facing a room full of rabid chickens. No NPC, no explanation, just chickens. It was an easy fight, but a good laugh.

In a nearby tavern, I met an NPC named "Borinole Mann" who told a very rambling, incoherent story with no real point. Joke names like this "Boring Old Man" are fairly common in this game. And yet it doesn't take away from the real emotion of the more tragic and serious questlines.

Did I ever mention that the game is also very pretty to look at in some places? Most of the screenshots I see online focus on the more fantastic dungeon-looking places with fancy lighting, but the normal forests are quite nice, and some of the upper class inns and other interiors (like Ragefast's home) are very nicely decorated.

Desreta & Vay-ya the nihilists

On the gambling ship The Low Lantern, there's a small encounter with a couple of strange women who appear to be simple thrill-killers who justify their actions with some bizarre nihilistic notion of "entropy" (which Edwin disputes in an amusing flirtation), which amounts to the idea that since there is no "ultimate purpose" to anything (if the universe will eventually use up all of its energy and die out), then we should all just give up now and embrace death. I have actually heard real people express similar sentiments before, which made it all the more satisfying to kill these two after their inevitable attack.


I finally came across Skie, in one of the last sections of Baldur's Gate I explored. It seems I'm pretty late in the game at this point (I'm late in chapter 5, and there are a total of 7 chapters), so I don't see why they hid several of the potential party members locked inside a city you can't even access until chapter 5 (plus the fact that you'd have to take her boyfriend along as well, and I'm pretty happy with a bardless party). Not much to say about her, except that I'm tempted to pick her up temporarily just to see some of the banter between the two lovers. As Ragefast said, "Eh, love is a-blind, a-deaf, and ever, ever so dumb."

There's also a gnome in the docks who seems to have something to say, but only if I have that gnome mage Quayle in my party.

Alora and the Iron Throne fight

Okay, wow. I take back what I said about not needing any thief but Imoen. I regret that I took so long to get around to the telescope-stealing quest, because that's where you meet Alora, and this lovable halfling thief is an instant addition to my party. She's so cheerful and happy, it brightens up everything. I love her voice, and the things she says.

"Isn't this great? All of us, doing nice things, being happy! It's great!" --Alora <3

I left Ajantis on the steps of the House of Wonders where I found her, and good riddance to that troublemaker. After the incident mentioned above, and also running into another paladin in a tavern, who righteously attacked us because he detected two of my party members (Edwin and Viconia) as evil, I think my party's better for the absence of bigoted, self-righteous zealots.

Alora gets along great with Imoen, and even with Edwin, who she sees as someone who just needs to loosen up a little, though unfortunately she seems to be bringing out a mean side in Viconia, who doesn't seem to like halflings. A backlash against the persecution from the now-absent Ajantis, no doubt. I hear I can find a helm of alignment changing in BG2, and if I do, then I know what I'll be getting Viconia for her birthday. Should pretty much solve everything.

So now my party consists of Minsc, Edwin, Viconia, Imoen, and Alora (and myself). Two magic-users, two cheerful, perky, pink-haired thieves, one cleric, and one tank. I think the rest of us are strong enough to carry Alora through a couple of levels, especially if I give her the Eagle bow Imoen was using, and have Immy doing the stealth backstabbing dual-wielding thing (finally her catch-phrase "My blade will cut you down to size" will be appropriate, since she's using blades now instead of arrows.)

I can say with fair confidence that we can make it through, since we made it through our first really difficult fight, in the Iron Throne tower. It took me four tries, but I managed it finally, after trying different strategies and buffing everyone up with all the advantageous spells at my disposal. I tried the first time stealthing everyone up by using my fairy dragon familiar's 10-foot-radius invisibility spell, and that got us all up there with no problem, but the rear assault in the narrow hallway wasn't very effective. As an aside, it was a bit confusing when I did that, since Ambassador Tam did not approach us when we were invisible, and thus never went upstairs, but she was upstairs anyway when we got there.

It was interesting getting up to the roof, and suddenly recognising it as the place where the opening cinematic took place, where the big evil armoured guy threw someone over the edge. Fortunately, this evil armoured guy was not currently at this location, but perhaps I'll meet him on my return to Candlekeep, because that's where the quest took me after I finished up everything there was left to do in Baldur's Gate.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Lovely happy holiday card

As an owner of The Witcher, and being signed up for news and updates on the series, I received an email from CD Projekt Red containing this very pretty holiday greeting card, with greetings for Kwanzaa, Christmas, and Hanukkah, featuring a beautiful painting of smiling characters from The Witcher preparing for a holiday celebration. Geralt's carrying a tree, Triss is holding a presumably magically-lit menorah, and Dandelion is carrying some kind of candlelit object I'm not familiar with, but which may be related to Kwanzaa. I like the use of "non-linear" here to refer to the multi-holiday nature of the card. I hope they don't mind me showing it here!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Age of Decadence

The upcoming game Age of Decadence looks like the sort of game I've been enjoying lately, and it's good to see new games being made in styles and genres that the larger publishers don't seem to want to touch. I thank Dragatus for referring me to the AoD site. It's a turn-based isometric RPG with a visual style similar to games such as Fallout, Baldur's Gate, and Icewind Dale. The features look very appealing, allowing for a wide variety of non-linear gameplay, with seven distinct character "classes".

For once, it looks like someone is using the word "decadence" correctly, because the game setting is about a world in decay, long after the fall of an empire inspired by the ancient Roman empire of our world. However, I dislike the use of the term "post-apocalyptic" to describe the world, because I don't like how a perfectly good word ("apocalypse", from Greek "apokalypsis") that literally means "uncovering" or "revealing" has mutated to mean "disaster" or "cataclysm" in common usage.

From the gameplay videos, it appears that it's a single-character game with no party, similar to Fallout 1 and 2. I was hoping for party mechanics, but I have Fallout 2 on my wish list, so I'm clearly not opposed to games where you go it alone. I believe I read a post on their forum that stated they were working on a setting to allow players to speed up the combat animation as well, which I consider a must for a turn-based game.

Speaking of their forum, it's full of fascinating, detailed posts on game design theory and world-building, which will take me weeks to read, at the minimum. Their depth makes me look critically at my own inexperienced musings on the same topics, in unfinished articles yet to be posted here on my blog, and wonder if they're worth posting after all. It's giving me both things to look forward to for their game, and also a couple of disappointments, in the areas of visual design and narrative tone:

Visually, the game is nearly ideal, with a nicely designed interface, and backgrounds and characters that from an isometric perspective in the screenshots look almost hand-painted, despite this being a 3D game. The only trouble is what I mentioned in my comment before this post -- that all the screenshots are predominantly brown. From interface, to character clothing, to backgrounds, all are in shades of brown. I had thought at first that this was just due to whatever finished areas that were available to show in screenshots happening to be brown, so imagine my dismay upon being informed that this is an intentional design decision, with the idea of having a "consistent" colour palette. In reading their screenshot thread, I note many people complaining about the monochromatic nature of the works, even though most of the images seem to have been "removed to save space", as well as the lack of contrast. They appear to be using some kind of dull greenish-brown filter that lays over everything, eliminating any whites and dulling specular highlights (if any).

Now, I know this is another world, and despite being based on the Roman Empire, it's not actually the Roman Empire, but you know, the Romans built with concrete and marble and plaster, and used paint. Why is everything brownstone here? Well, who knows -- maybe there actually is a lot of concrete and grey and white stonework, but it just looks brown to me because of their browning filter.

As for narrative tone, I'm apprehensive about it due to two of the developers' comments in that same forum post, regarding the inclusion of jokes and references:

"No references, no jokes, no easter eggs. Much like the infamous internets, AoD is a serious business." --Vince

Developer Scott expressed a similar distaste for humour in an adjacent post.

So now I'm worried that this game is going to be a drab, monochromatic, humourless game that takes itself too seriously, unlike the other games in whose footsteps it's following. The Fallout series (prior to FO3) may have been set in a wasteland, but it had high contrast graphics, areas full of colour (especially in the interface), and lots of humour and references. Baldur's Gate probably doesn't even need to be brought up here, since I've specifically praised its use of humour before, which is sometimes referential and even self-aware, and it's full of colour as well.

Now, mentioning WoW might just throw my credibility out the window as far as some people are concerned, since it's not in the same category of game, but I mention it here because they have a brilliant art team that can make even brown deserts and wastelands look visually interesting and appealing with contrast and good use of colour.

It seems that the brown filter is not present in the screenshots of interiors, which I see in this more extensive archive of screenshots, so this gives me hope, since the contrast and colour look good for those, so it's only the exteriors that I'm concerned about.

I look forward to the game at any rate, and I hope to see more along these lines.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Windows Vista Game Explorer (and 7, too)

Having picked up so many games this summer from the sales on Steam, I found myself looking into convenient ways of organising my games. Up until now, I've generally just kept all my games in the normal folders in the Windows Start menu, and putting an occasional shortcut to a game on the desktop. That last bit is usually unnecessary, since the Start menu ends up just showing my most often-played games in the list of most recently used programs.

But I started using the Steam client to launch the games, since they required the client to be open anyway, and I got tired of the "details mode" and/or "list mode" I usually kept my games list in, and tried out the grid view. I ended up liking that mode much better, with its large box-art-like graphics for each game, since looking at the images gave me a better sense of which game I felt like playing at any given moment.

The Game Explorer with partial remodeling underway

The problem: Not all of the games had that nice box art. Notably mods or non-Steam games, which showed only the little ugly icon. I searched online for how to change or add custom art to the Steam list, but to no avail. So, I ended up looking for other options.

A long-neglected wasteland on my start menu was the "Games" button, what I usually see called the Vista Game Explorer (or sometimes "Games Explorer" in the plural -- the window itself only says "Games", so I don't know which to use). Of course, it's also in Windows 7, so I guess we shouldn't call it "Vista Game Explorer" anymore.

It was mostly full of default Windows games, and the occasional other game that it happened to detect. From what I've read, the Game Explorer only officially supports games that bear the "Games for Windows" logo, which requires the company to include a special icon and rating information to appear in that window. Some older games are also supported, if they're popular enough.

At any rate, the Game Explorer offers pretty much the same kind of thing the Steam Grid View does, and with almost the same inability to customise the graphics. I say "almost", because there are some programs available that let you customise them, as well as add any games the Explorer never detected. This allows you not only to change the icons, but also edit the names.

For instance, you may have several games in a series which are named inconsistently, causing them to be ordered strangely. Or, perhaps you only have one game in a series, and you want it to be named by that particular game's name, instead of by the series name. Look under "K" for "Knights of the Old Republic", or "S" for "Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic"? Look under "O" for "Oblivion", or "E" for "Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion"? (Or worse, "T" for "THE Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion".) With this, you can order them however you like, unlike on Steam. Also, some publishers felt the need to add things like (TM) to the ends of their games' names, which makes it look ugly and tacky, so I removed those as well.


After some work, I'm very happy with my new, shiny Game Explorer with all my games (including Steam games) added into it (at least all the ones I care to play lately), and it has become my preferred method for selecting and launching my games.

I took the time to make custom graphics for almost all of them. Firstly for the ones that didn't have any graphics at all, and only showed a tiny icon like some of my games in the Steam list. Then I moved on to box art that was ugly. The box art gets downloaded automatically from some box art database, and sometimes it's low-contrast or projected onto a faux 3D box, even if it was a download-only game that never had a boxed version. Then I replaced graphics that were too abstract. Some games like Torchlight and The Witcher have nothing but abstract symbols with no title, as if the developers thought it should just be a really big icon, even at 256x256 pixels.

All in all, it was a consistency problem. Front shots, isometric shots, and icons, some round, some skinny, and some fat, all jumbled up together. I liked how Steam did it. All graphics are the same size and shape. What I didn't like about the Steam graphics was their choice of aspect ratio. Why a long horizontal rectangle, when most game boxes are vertical DVD-case-sized rectangles? This odd choice has some apparent problems for the design of the graphics for some games, with awkward blank space off to one side, or other strange element placement.

So, for my custom graphics, I chose a square for the canvas, maximising the available height and width, since the max limit was 256x256 anyway. This way, I've found I have no trouble placing the graphics and titles into the images in visually pleasing ways.

Making your own graphics for it

I took graphical elements from official game art, wallpapers, screenshots, box art, and whatever else I had on hand, and made them into nice little collages emphasising the themes of the games I enjoyed most about them, and getting rid of any ugly company logos that get in the way of the art (when you only have 256 pixels to work with, you don't want a lot of clutter). You've seen one of the results if you've read one of my earlier Baldur's Gate posts, which has a square logo I assembled from the cover of the manual. Moby Games is a good place to get box art, since they tend to have scans from numerous different editions of the game covers, some of which have fewer logos getting in the way of the art, or simply different art selections to choose from. You might also take a look at VGBoxArt.com, which has mostly fan-made alternate DVD covers for a decent selection of games.

If you want to make your own graphics, I recommend finishing it up at about 350x350 pixels, and saving it as a PNG. Larger is probably unnecessary. You could use a JPEG, of course (the manager will convert it to whatever Windows actually needs), and you can use whatever size you want. The maximum size Game Explorer will use for it as an icon looks to be about 242x242 px (you can resize all the icons with the view slider like all icons in Vista/Win7), but you should also take into consideration that it also displays larger art in the Preview pane if you give it enough space for it, where all the rating info goes, and where in Win7 there are some additional features. I don't really care about the preview pane, though, and keep it hidden on mine. More space for games that way.

Windows standard icons are 256x256, but it's definitely not displaying them quite that size when the window is set to its maximum view size. I'm assuming Game Explorer Manager deals with the sizes when it makes the display DLL, though.

However, there are a large number of already-made icons for just about any game you can think of in PNG format at 256x256 resolution, if you just want to use pre-made ones. Using Google Image Search with the size restriction set to 256x256 seems to be ideal for finding ready-made icons for the game of your choice. Many of them seem to be using a circular template, though, or a partially-rotated 3D box style, so most of them aren't what I want, but you may like them that way, or just find them more convenient to use.


The two programs I tried out for doing all this custom work were Vista Game Explorer Manager, and Vista Game Explorer Editor (check out their nice "before and after" screens, which illustrate it nicely). I found VGEM to be much easier to use, so I'd recommend that one, even though it's no longer being updated (the author switched to Mac) and that it doesn't have an entry for adding Steam games (VGEE has one). I may revise this recommendation if VGEE continues to be developed and surpasses VGEM's no-nonsense, always-works ease of use. But you can add Steam games with it anyway if you do one manual tweak, so I'll give instructions for that in the next section. And despite the "Vista" in their names, they work the same for the Explorer in Windows 7.

There is one issue with VGEM that took me a while to overcome -- that it's designed for a minimum vertical screen resolution of 768px. This is a problem for netbooks, which typically are locked to a maximum resolution of 1024x600, because it means the most important buttons (add new game, edit existing game), which are located at the bottom of the window, are cut off and unable to be activated. There are two solutions to this, because netbooks generally can display higher resolutions, and they're just instructed not to for the small netbook monitors.

The easiest solution is probably just to plug it into an external monitor. The netbook should allow a higher resolution if you do that. If it doesn't, then try the second solution.

The second solution is to unlock the higher resolutions for the netbook screen. It's a simple registry edit. Just search for 'Display1_DownScalingSupported' and change the value from '0' to '1'. There are several entries with that name, and I'm not sure which one was really necessary, but I just changed it for all of them, and it worked fine. After a reboot, the higher resolutions should be available to you.

Getting it to work with Steam

There are two ways to get Steam games to show up and work properly in the Game Explorer, and one works better than the other. The not-so-good way is to just make your shortcut to the game executable in the Steam folder. When you execute it, it'll launch the Steam client and run the game its own way, but for some reason it didn't work for all games when I did it that way.

This might be why the other way works better: If you use the Steam client to make a shortcut to your game on the desktop, and you look at the properties of that shortcut, you'll see it doesn't actually link to the executable, but it rather sends a command to the Steam client to launch the game with that game ID. So, the way that works best for the Game Explorer is to:

  1. Create your new Explorer entry using Vista Game Explorer Manager (for the icon and such). Point the entry at the game executable for now.
  2. Create a shortcut to the Steam game on the desktop.
  3. Copy the address from the shortcut's properties.
  4. In Game Explorer, right-click on the game's entry and choose "customise". (This option was removed in Windows 7, so see below)
  5. You should see several unused "play commands" near the end of the list. Select one of those and click "Add".
  6. Paste the Steam address into that field. It treats it as an URL, which it basically is.
  7. Move that command up to the top so it'll be the default when you double-click the game.

All done!

Another way to add Steam games that I just learned about is something that also works for Windows 7. There's a program called Steam Assistance that can detect your Steam games, or let you choose them from a list, and it'll add the proper entry to your game explorer. It uses the wide-aspect Steam graphic for it, though, which amounts to only using maybe 35% of the available height for the graphic in the Game Explorer window. I couldn't find a way to get it to let me select my own image, even though it seems from the screenshots that there should be a way. If there's a way to get out of the "add/remove Steam game" wizard in that program and into an "Edit entry" screen like I think it's showing in the screenshots, I'd like to know how.

So, all in all, getting your Game Explorer in order is a bit of work, but I think of it as a crafting project, and I'm happy with having a nice, universal central location from which to launch all my games, with customisable graphics, reorganisable series names, and cleanup of unnecessary garbage.

Baldur's Gate, part 5

Finally, the promised fifth part of my Baldur's Gate saga. In the time since my last one, GOG has fortuitously enough released Baldur's Gate 2, along with many of the other RPGs that I've been talking about, including in the post about games similar to Baldur's Gate.

As it turns out, when I said in my last post that I was still in Chapter 3 of Baldur's Gate 1, I was actually just a few steps away from Chapter 4, which begins once you face the boss of the Bandit Camp. Officer Vai tells you to go there pretty much as soon as Chapter 3 begins, and it would have been a shame if I had done so immediately, as it would have made a very short chapter. Chapter 4 was short enough on its own, and I'm now in Chapter 5.

As mentioned before, I'm using Dudleyville's guide, because I want to avoid progressing through the chapters until I've done all the side quests that are available for those chapters. Some people do that just for the XP, but for me it's primarily so I can experience all the story and meet all the characters I can. Not that I couldn't do those quests after progressing, of course, but the game does relegate any quests aquired in a previous chapter to a secondary quest log, even if you haven't finished them yet.

A few of the side-quests have been rather emotional and moving to me in the way they were written. There was a side quest that you first hear about in Nashkel, about a former captain of the guard named Brage who has a bounty on his head for going on a murderous rampage that included killing his own family. Seems like "Rage" would have been a better name than "Brage". But by the time I found him, I had actually forgotten about that quest, and didn't remember the name. All I knew was that his cousin Laryssa was begging me to try to help him, and so I did.

He was remorseful, and his actions were apparantly due to a curse. My dialogue options included summary execution, but Ajantis agreed with my personal inclination toward mercy, suggesting bringing him to the temple at Nashkel for treatment. As you may know, I have no love for paladins, but frequently they do what I also consider the right thing, and I thought it was best to forfeit the reward bounty and take him to the temple, since temples in this game's setting are the equivalent of hospitals, where actual healing takes place, and not just places to pray. The temple took him in, and tried to comfort his despair. Afterward, I saw that the sword he had been carrying was, in fact, cursed. It had very high enchantment benefits, but the curse was that the wielder would be stuck in a berserk state, and kill indiscriminately.

There probably should have been a dialogue option to explain this information to Brage after I identified the sword, so that he would know that the deaths on his hands were out of his control. But aside from that, it was a very satisfying quest.

Chapter 4

Chapter 4 of Baldur's Gate went very quickly, as the only new area to explore was the forest of Cloakwood, the site of the only working iron mine in the game's area (as far as I know). Here, there were druids, large numbers of spiders and ettercaps, and three new possible NPCs to recruit as party members: Coran, Eldroth, and Yeslick. Oh, and some crazy druid named Faldorn, so make that 4. It was also here that the random encounters started including wyverns and better-outfitted humanoids.

The spiders and ettercaps offered a challenge thanks to their poison and their web traps that can sometimes kill off several of my helpless party members. I have one free action item, and several spells and potions, but of course, you can't drink a potion if you're already ensnared, nor cast a spell. I may have to look into strategies for dealing with that sort of thing, but perhaps I'm already past it, since I've already reached chapter 5. The strange thing is that the spiders don't seem to have any ensnaring abilities on their own. Instead, the webs are triggered only as traps, which are set up in advance and can be detected and disarmed.

Eldoth was the first of the new NPCs that I met, and he seems the most interesting, even though I haven't found much use for a bard as a party member. Unlike the idealistic chaotic neutral bard Garrick, Eldoth is a neutral evil, pompous but smooth-talking freeloader who drifts to any new lover that can keep his coin purse full. Since he says he wants help getting his girlfriend Skie away from her father in Baldur's Gate, I'm thinking this is another inseparable pair of party members, since I know she's a thief. I hope not, because I really think there were already too many "buy one get one free" specials in this game. I sent him to wait at an inn, since the city of Baldur's Gate wasn't open to me yet, but I do want to bring him along later, when I head up there, so I can see his side plot.

I almost forgot to mention Shar-teel, another joinable NPC that I met back in Chapter 3. She's a chaotic evil barbarian fighter, and even the Happy Patch couldn't keep her happy. On my way to sell off some loot at the Friendly Arm, she complained about my party's high reputation. I told her that this is the way of most profit, since loot seemed to be her main concern, and she said words to the effect of "Fine, we'll see," but just as we arrived at the Friendly Arm she complained that this so-called "profit" hadn't arrived, and she left the group. Well, good riddance to her, anyway. Her personality was very unpleasant. She's also apparantly of the "evil is stupid" variety, equating random murder of innocent peasants as "profit", and ignoring the 30 thousand gold pieces I was carrying around and all the loot we were about to sell off. (It's up to 70K at the end of chapter 4.)

So Shar-teel's denial in the face of evidence that one can be both rich and helpful makes me happy to be rid of her. The ideas of "good" and "evil" here are difficult to understand, but I think they got it right with Viconia and Edwin, who get along fine in the group aside from occasional bickering. I'm not evil myself, but I'm definitely not lawful good like Ajantis. I don't do what I do because it's my "duty". In fact, I look out for myself as a priority, and I do good deeds when I feel like it. It's just that I happen to feel like it most of the time, when I have the means. How much good does it do for a pauper to give a portion of his meagre income to charity, when if you instead first seek to secure your own affairs, you can give so much more and help many others? As they say: to love others, you must first love yourself.

This is one reason I like keeping Ajantis around despite his constant blathering about his god Helm -- because of his reactions, acting like I'm a model of paladin virtue despite my world-wise dialogue options and my lack of condemning people for being human. At the end of chapter 4, he told me (I imagine with sparkling eyes and a puppy-dog grin):

"Your actions are in the true spirit of honour and righteousness! I am exulted to be in this group, and to fight at your side!"

I'm not sure what I did to make him fall all over himself like that. Possibly it was because I offered some gold to make sure some slaves escaped the mine, and then I abided by the wishes of the rightful owner of the mine, by flooding it. Perhaps also because I showed mercy to the ones in the mine who threw down their weapons and surrendered (I allowed them to leave).

So, back to the new NPCs. Coran was the second one I met, a chaotic good fighter/thief, and he just wanted to kill a wyvern for some reason. Profit, I think. He said the priest at the temple next to Beregost would pay high prices for the head of a wyvern. Well, I already had a wyvern's head from a random encounter, but the priest wouldn't acknowledge it. So I had to add this strange elf to my group and leave poor Imoen waiting again, just to get the money. And he only bought one. I booted Coran as soon as possible (his stats looked like crap anyway, and his personality seemed annoying) and took Imoen back. I don't need any thief but Imoen.

Yeslick was the last one I met (I'll get to the druid in a second), a prisoner in the mines under Cloakwood. Yeslick is a lawful good fighter/cleric, which is an interesting combination. I temporarily said goodbye to Viconia and tried out Yeslick doing cleric duty for the rest of the dungeon. Not bad, but not as good as Viconia. Not enough spells to allow him to do full group support and heals like she can.

Being a prisoner when I found him, he was in need of some armour and weapons, and from the clearing of the rooms and from all of the random sleep-interrupting encounters (almost every time!), there was plenty of gear lying around, so I pulled some plate off of a dead body, wiped some of the blood off, and handed it to him. (Really, you'd think that if a group of guards came across a small band of adventurers trying to take a little snooze on top of a very large pile of dead guards, they might stop, close the door, and pretend they didn't see anything. This was what it looked like after being woken several times from trying to rest by groups of guards.)

I like Yeslick's personality. His interjections are pleasant and non-annoying, and the NPC Project adds some charming interactions between him and Imoen, where she takes him as a grandfather figure. However, I don't think I can keep him, because his multi-class would cripple my party's healing and buff abilities, and I don't think I need more tanking, since Minsc and Ajantis are doing the job well. I'll go pick up Viconia again before I head to BG City.

Shadow Druids: Terrorists of the Woods

The crazy druid girl Faldorn was the other recruitable NPC I met in this chapter. She's a member of this group of "Shadow Druids" in Cloakwood. Perhaps I shouldn't condemn all druids based on the example of her and her associates, but so far my impression of druids in Baldur's Gate has been rather negative, including normal druids such as Jaheira.

Now, I love the druids in WoW, who are also nature-based. My interaction with them and their culture during my time in Darnassus and Auberdine is a fond memory I'll long recall. By contrast, these arrogant, violent Shadow Druids seem to be what I would call "evil", despite their proclamations of devotion to the concepts of true neutrality and "balance".

And other druids like Jaheira are what I would call borderline psychopathic -- intentionally refraining from doing "too many" good deeds according to some nebulous quota, or abstaining from evil acts only because their rules told them not to, and not because they find such an act repugnant. Or, indeed, intentionally committing an evil act, not because it benefitted them, nor out of any heat of passion, but merely to serve this "balance". Jaheira made several statements expressing such a sentiment (though those lines may have been added by the NPC Project). Perhaps I can't call Jaheira's type "evil", but I can call them "dangerous".

Faldorn's portrait depicts her as a feral sort, her face twisted into a nasty scowl, her hands raised like gnarled claws. Her time in my party was brief -- only long enough to do her little side-plot with a man raising wyverns in a cave. It was mainly her associates that soured my experience with these druids. I met a man near a lodge who asked for help, fearing for his life. He was a snooty, egotistical sort, out in the woods on a hunting trip for sport, and he apparantly ran afoul of the local druids. They killed one of the hunter's old friends, and planned to come back to kill off the rest later.

Now, I found this hunter to be a bit of a jerk -- a pompous ass, you might say -- and I probably wouldn't care to work for him or associate with him in normal circumstances, but that's a far cry from saying he deserves to be murdered for hunting in the forest. I don't hunt, and I don't understand why anyone would want to, but I see little difference between their actions and what goes on in the forest as a matter of course. Especially in this forest, where the most common animals appear to be giant killer spiders, who snare victims in their hidden web traps, slinging painful, steadily killing poison. More than once I heard Imoen's pitiable wavery cry, "I feel so...cold..." after being attacked by these things -- here is Tennyson's "nature, red in tooth and claw." I have a hard time sympathising with the druids here.

So, right after Aldeth the hunter asked for my aid, along came Seniyad the druid and a gang of his fellow druid thugs, telling me to get out of the way so they can execute the guy like gangsters for dissing their hood. They also claimed that the hunters killed one of their gang during the same confrontation in which they killed a hunter, but it doesn't take much imagination to guess who shot first. There were only two dialogue options, and one of them was a flippant comment, expressing a lack of concern for human life, while the other one was more in line with my actual sentiments -- a kind of "Calm down and let's settle this peacefully".

Well, my impressions were pretty much confirmed when the druids took my plea for reasonable discourse as an excuse to murder the whole lot of us. Their subsequent deaths do not weigh heavy on my heart.

Faldorn didn't do anything extreme like that, and her dialogue was pretty mild by contrast, but I wasn't tempted to keep her in my party anyway.

Final thoughts about the mine:

The boss of the mine, Davaeorn, had a nice speech for my party when we stumbled into his room.

"Why have you come? Is it to steal my riches? Or perhaps you seek to righteously punish me for my affront to your morality. It matters little, for you will do neither."

After delivering those cool lines, he then proceeded to zip around the dungeon like Daffy Duck going "Hoo! Hoo-hoo-HOO! Hoo-HOO!" and wiped my party with a lightning bolt.

Attempt #2 went much better for me, and I was happy to find a present just for Edwin: The Robe of the Evil Archmagi! It's your birthday, Edwin! I've been wearing the Robe of the Good Archmagi that I bought from Thalantyr in High Hedge, but he didn't sell the evil variety. This one has an extremely high collar in the back, much like what Ming the Merciless wore in Flash Gordon, except angular where Ming's was rounded. I think it suits Edwin nicely.

This will probably be the last post illustrated with screenshots in 4:3 aspect ratio, as I've recently upgraded to a 16:9 monitor.