Sunday, August 9, 2015

Letters from Tamriel, Part X - The Templar

It's a sad indictment of my state of mind that even though I am aware that TESO is not a game conducive to alts, I am still levelling up two, perhaps three characters at once. Part of it is a type of rebellion against what is expected of me - common sense dictates that the optimal path is to level one character to VR14 first. By levelling alts I am saying that I will engage the game on my own terms, which is the opposite of what I have always done. In my WoW days, I would always level one character first and completely kit them out in full PvP gear before moving onto another. In TESO I am subverting that habit, and embracing a different play style. Either that, or I'm just not right in the head.

Theodorius in traditional Imperial heavy armour, surveying the rooftops of Sentinel like a Roman legionnaire visiting Egypt in ancient times.

My crafting alt is Theodorius Gaius Aurelius, and as evidenced by the name, he is an Imperial Templar. Theodorius has also wandered through many a virtual world, although his incarnation in TESO is darker than his usual manifestation. He is an artefact of my childhood, and also my WoW main - in WoW the people that play with me know me and address me as Theo. Because most of his skill points are tied up in crafting, Theodorius has had to use a very tightly focused build with no room for experimentation. He uses the archetype of the WoW retribution paladin, or the Warhammer Online warrior-priest - clad in heavy armour and wielding a greatsword he stacks magicka in order to be able to heal while being in the thick of the fray at the same time. In low level dungeons this build allows him to tank and heal himself at the same time. He is only level 42 so I can't speak to the efficacy of this build at veteran level, but I am having great fun at playing multiple roles in lower dungeons, alternatively tanking, healing or dpsing as needed. Because his stamina is low he can't sustain long periods of dps, but can alternate it with healing while his stamina recovers. I also have the option of using offensive magicka abilities, but I have the feeling that I might blow out my magicka pool if I use it for both offence and healing. My current build allows me to alternate between using stamina and magicka based abilities at a constant rate without having too much "dead time" where I am only swinging the greatsword. Having self-heals is also important for a Templar because unlike Nightblades (who can vanish) and Sorcerers (who can blink away rapidly), Templars are committed to a fight once they are out of stealth.

Wandering the desert of Alik'r evokes echoes of Lawrence of Arabia.

Hatakeyama and Theodorius have manifested themselves over and over in many of the worlds I have visited, and their significance varies from minute to minute, from play session to play session. Most of the time they are just extensions of myself, tools which I use to extend my will into the virtual. Other times they take on a life of their own - in much the same way an author finds their characters doing things they never expected, I find myself in situations in which what I want conflicts with what my characters want. Having two avatars means you can make alternative choices during the second playthrough of the game, and to see what would have happened if you had taken the road less travelled by. In my first playthrough Hatakeyama was given the choice of saving a mage, or condemning her to madness in the Shivering Isles in return for power in the form of two skill points. There was no way Hatakeyama would ever have accepted such a Faustian bargain however, and she gave up the skill points in order to save the mage. On the second playthrough Theodorius was offered the same deal, and I was resolved to take it for two reasons. Firstly, I wanted to see how the story would pan out on the alternate path, and secondly, Theodorius' skill points were at a premium due his status as a crafting alt. To my astonishment however, I found Theodorius rebelling - there was no way that this avatar, based on a childhood toy that was my constant source of comfort and safety as a little boy, would ever sell someone down the river like that. For the life of me I could not make him take the evil choice, and had to save the mage. Again. A make-believe mage, no less. Although given that Theodorius is a make-believe entity as well it does seem to follow a certain twisted logic.

Theodorius and Lelle in real life. My sister and I  jointly owned these toys as kids, imbued them with distinct personalities, and we would switch roles interchangeably. When we became adults the personalities we had invented as children transitioned into virtual space seamlessly and Theodorius became a demented, mischievous and impudent ret paladin, while Lelle became a happy, content and non-confrontational resto druid. These toys are now the property of my niece, and  hopefully they will provide her with the same level of security they gave me as a little kid.

A similar episode occurred quite a long time ago, eight years or maybe more, when my sister and I were levelling in WoW in Desolace and trying to complete the centaur quests in the zone. This questline called for you to choose sides, and once committed, you basically went on a campaign of genocide to wipe out the other tribe. We started killing, and after a few deaths, we both looked at each other and thought, Lelle and Theodorius wouldn't do this. I don't know why we suddenly had pangs of conscience after killing thousands of mobs up to this point - perhaps the centaurs had a particularly strong emote when they died - but it seemed we drew the line at killing neutral mobs which did not attack us on sight. What makes this entire episode so daft is that Theodorius or Lelle would have no qualms about killing an enemy player in PvP. Between my sister and I we have played thousands of Arenas and Rated BGs combined and accumulated over 200,000 player kills over a decade of WoW. So why the squeamishness?

Theodorius, in TESO on the left; and Theodorius, in WoW on the right. Theodorius considers himself a badass...

The key difference for me is that a human player just gets back up and shakes it off at the graveyard, while an NPC is condemned forever in the halls of Oblivion. Humans are meta creatures that transcend the virtual universe, while NPCs are bound and circumscribed by the boundaries of their creators. Human players are like the Daedra in TESO lore - they cannot be killed, only temporarily banished back to Oblivion. NPCs on the other hand, are trapped in the world states we shape by our choices. So while I can be ruthless to the other Daedra who have come to these worlds by their own volition, I have much more sympathy for the artificial inhabitants of the virtual. At least, Theodorius does. Theodorius and I are separate beings - he would never be wantonly cruel, only mischievous to a certain point, but essentially good-hearted. I, on the other hand, have been known to be cruel, vicious, petty and cowardly, as befits my status as a Daedra. If hell is other people, as Sartre once said in his play No Exit, and as people around here are fond of saying, then we are all demons. Daedra is a more fitting word, because demons conjure up images of hellfire and brimstone and unbridled malevolence. Daedra, on the other hand, can be compassionate, benevolent and good - Azura in particular comes to mind. There are other Daedra who may not be as benevolent as the Lady of Dawn and Dusk, but are nonetheless devoted to ideals which are not necessarily evil - Meridia stands for life, Malacath is the patron of the spurned and ostracised, and Jyggalag upholds logical order and deduction. Even Sanguine just wants to have a good time, and Sheogorath, well, he's just insane through no fault of his own.

...but in reality he's just a goofball. Here he is in WoW, taking a selfie while waiting for an Arena queue to pop.

Of course the analogy fails once we retreat back to reality, where we are subject to all forms of infirmity and weakness, and our mortality holds sway. But when it comes to the virtual I think the comparison holds - we are essentially Daedra travelling between virtual worlds. If we are the Daedra then the developers are the Aedra, who sacrifice their powers - their time, money and effort - to bring these virtual worlds into being. That is the key difference between Aedra and Daedra in TESO lore - through their sacrifice the Aedra can engage in the divine act of creation, while Daedra can only mimic, copy and criticise. Quite apt really.

Reviewing the troops with King Fahara'jad.

What then, does that make our avatars? The best answer I can think of is a negative one, which is simply that I am not my avatar. It's amazing how virtuality empowers and disempowers at the same time. In some ways I am free to re-create my identity online in a manner I see fit - in other ways I don't have the same range of options I would have in the flesh and blood world. Avatars can also take on a life their own, making decisions in much the same way characters in texts begin to do based on their background and internal logic. Finally, avatars are always in a state of flux - they can be hand puppets one day, and then reincarnations of our happiest childhood memories or sad reminders of loved ones lost the next. In a way virtuality mirrors our own search for identity in the real world - the main difference is that there is much more pressure in the real world to maintain a cohesive and continuous idea of who you are from your friends, colleagues and loved ones. If I started acting "out of character" these people would think I was either sick or insane. 

Theodorius in full Sith mode.

In virtual worlds the pressure is much more diffuse and ephemeral. Some of the pressure comes from the role I have chosen to play - being an Imperial and a Templar comes with a whole series of connotations as to how I'm supposed to play the character, and the world of the Elder Scrolls also applies a gentle ambient pressure as to how the character would act in this setting. I chose to create Theodorius Gaius Aurelius because he has accompanied me all my life, but he's not just a mischievous stuffed bear I once owned. He's also me, with my predilection for min-maxing and PvP. On top of that he's also a two-handed wielding Imperial Templar in a time where the Imperials have been discredited and lumped with the Daedra-worshipping Worm Cult. The way he looks affects the way I play him - he looks like a Sith lord in his current get-up, which makes me want to play him as ruthless and cruel. Apparently there is too much of the childhood bear in him, thought, as I can't get him to sacrifice a make-believe mage for the life of me. When my sister and I stumbled on a cave of bears in TESO we were completely bamboozled, and it took the intervention of my brother-in-law who said, "Guys, we're not really killing them, OK? We're just knocking them unconscious - we're just putting them to sleep for a little bit. Zero health means unconscious, OK?" Even now I still avoid bear NPCs, and will run away rather than killing them. It's ridiculous.

I love Sentinel. Apparently, Theo does, too.

In short, the Templar known as Theodorius Gaius Aurelius is me and also not me. He is free in a way that I am not, but also bound in a way I am not. He is a manifestation of my will in the virtual, but can rebel and do things contrary to what I want. My avatar is me, but also not me, and it is doing my head in thinking about this. I'll just accept it, go with the flow, and let Theodorius wander the world of TESO on his own terms.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Letters from Tamriel, Part IX - The Redguard

TESO is not a game conducive to alts. For one, the grind to level cap - currently VR14 at the time of writing, and soon to be expanded to VR16 with the arrival of the Imperial City DLC - is a mammoth task akin to scaling the peaks of K2 or Mount Everest, something more suited to younger folk with lots of free time on their hands. Secondly, there is no content a main character is not privy to regardless of what faction they start as. Irrespective of whether you begin your journey as Covenant, Dominion or Pact, you will be able to experience every faction's single player storylines, as well as all the dungeons, raids and PvP the game has to offer. Think of the single player storyline as an stage play with three acts, with the nature of the first act being determined by your faction. The first act allows you to play through the story of your faction, and it culminates with the battle to reclaim your soul and defeat Molag Bag. The second and third acts, however, allow you to experience the tale of the other factions, in essence reliving the march to the final confrontation with Molag Bal, except without the confrontation (because you've already defeated him in Act I) and in full awareness that you are doing so in a lucid dream or fugue state. For all you know you are passed out at a bar somewhere after having too many celebratory drinks because you just saved the world. Hard to muster up heroic gusto in that scenario.

Yuri Hatakeyama my main - on the left, wearing her healing gear; on the right, wearing medium armour and armed with a bow and great sword. 

Alts still play a vital role in providing inventory space and providing a crafting toon who is able to spend valuable skill points on crafting instead of combat abilities. Another incentive for creating alts is to be able to play with different class skills, although this comes with the caveat of a massive levelling requirement. There are four classes in TESO, each with their own unique class skills. These class skills do not preclude any of the classes from fulfilling any of the classical trinity roles however, and all classes have equal access to all the other skills in the game. This means that all classes can be effective tanks, DPS or healers, and largely obviates the need to create specialised trinity alts. I use all eight of my character slots in TESO nonetheless - six of them are banking alts, each tasked with holding a specific category of objects. The other two slots house my main and my crafting alt, and it is through their eyes that I experience the world of Tamriel.

Hatakeyama travelling in Eastmarch, in the lands of the Ebonheart Pact.

Yuri Hatakeyama is my main - this persona has travelled through many virtual worlds, the last of note being Archeage - and she is a Redguard Nightblade. Her home base is in Sentinel, the capital of the Redguard, and this is where I return to between adventures to sell, store, transfer or disenchant items when encumbered. I don't have to use Sentinel as my home base - Shornhelm in Rivenspire is better laid out in my opinion - but it is fitting in terms of lore, and I love the look of Redguard architecture and the lonely ambience of the Alik'r desert. TESO gets full marks from me with the job they did in fleshing out the Redguards and expanding their background in terms of story and environment. Now they are no longer an abstract race of athletic Africans/Egyptians in the character creation screens of Morrowind/Oblivion/Skyrim, but a real people of Tamriel with their own history, their own king (I've met him!), and their own places in the Elder Scrolls world. I loved wandering the zones of Stros M'kai and Alik'r, visiting the Valley of Blades with Sai Sahan in the main quest, and look forward to adventuring in Craglorn when the time comes.

Wearing medium armour and wielding a great sword, Hatakeyama prepares to engage a lesser Daedra blocking her path.

I'm not really sure why I decided to roll a character on the Daggerfall Covenant, especially given that I loved Morrowind, and liked Skyrim very much. Part of it stems from the wish to expand my knowledge of the Elder Scrolls world - I already know much about the Dunmer, the Imperials and the Nords because of their respective stand-alone titles, so much so that any deviations from the pre-conceptions formed within my head are met with much pooh-poohing and indignation. "The Dunmer would never do that - what the hell are the developers thinking?" Nonetheless, it seemed more interesting to see how the less prominent races were depicted in Zenimax's vision of Tamriel. I have to say that I found the Dominion quests very disappointing in this regard - the Altmer, Bosmer and Khajit never emerged as distinct cultures for me, although my experience may have been unfairly coloured by the strident and all-consuming desire to level which overrode all other considerations at that time. Once I relaxed and decided to enjoy the journey I became more open to the experience and started to see the quests, mobs and locales as more than just experience point values.

Deep in a delve Hatakeyama stumbles onto some ancient Ayleid ruins.

Another reason why I chose the Covenant was also due to the fact that I always love playing the underdog, and I could see that the vast majority of players would naturally gravitate towards the Pact. My wish to play the underdog has been granted in full, incidentally - the Covenant was absolutely thrashed by the Dominion in July once again. The only consolation for me was that the Covenant was triumphant in Azura's Star, the other 30 day campaign. I'm happy for my comrades-in-blue, but I have no plans to desert Thornblade as I intend to turn my avatar into a fully fledged ganker in the Imperial City once the DLC drops in late August. The more targets the better.

Hatakeyama's current build and gear.

For now my Redguard Nightblade is running a magicka based build in heavy armour. Her weapons are a two-handed mace and a restoration staff, and her load-out and skill selection are designed primarily for survival and longevity. Her WoW equivalent would be a holy paladin, with perhaps a tad more offensive power plus the ability to escape and evade with the use of Dark Cloak. She is very robust - with food and battle buffs she is rocking almost 30k health in Cyrodiil. She is also wearing five pieces of Whitestrake's Retribution, which means that once her health drops below 30% she gains a 9k shield at VR12, for a total effective health pool of about 40k. This gives me lots of time to react. If you want to PvP in Cyrodiil you need at least 20k health, otherwise a player could eviscerate you in 3-4 seconds when they jump you. The way I think about it is that 4k health represents roughly one second of life against a single player. So if I'm fighting someone one on one I can use four abilities before I have to heal up or vanish, and less if I'm facing more opponents. It's not a perfect guide, but it has served me well so far.

Metal is bad when you're freezing to death in one of Skyrim's enchanted caverns.

In PvE she is perfectly capable of soloing all veteran content designed for multiple players (excluding instanced dungeons and raids) because of her survivability, healing output and Dark Cloak. This makes it easier for me to complete dolmens, world bosses, delves, and public dungeons without the aid of other people, because let's face it, in the instanced versions of Dominion and Pact lands, people are in short supply. In instanced dungeons my DPS is sub-par because her build is not optimised for doing damage, but she can play support and off-heal, and provided that there are no burn timer mechanics in play, we will eventually win because the boss won't be able to kill us.

Solving a puzzle deep within a Dwemer ruin.

In this fashion Hatakeyama has been slowly and methodically clearing all the content in Pact lands, and she is now halfway through VR12 as she makes her way through the Rift, the final zone in Ebonheart. Once she completes the Rift she will have done all the single player content in the original game, which is actually quite a staggering amount. I just don't like the central conceit of the Caldwell quests - the idea that we are in a dream facilitated by Meridia's magic seems like such a cop-out, and it diminishes the experience. After the Rift she will either have to complete quests in Cyrodiil, run dungeons repeatedly for the Undaunted faction, or enter Craglorn, the first expansion for TESO. She won't be wanting for content, which is a good thing and probably makes TESO good value for money as a buy-to-play title. The ultimate goal, of course, is to hit VR14 before the DLC drops - for all my talk on lore and enjoying the experience I am still a min-maxer at heart, and I want to enter the Imperial City to as close as an even footing as possible before the fun starts.