The Unbroken Circle of Zerthimon

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Videogames are filled with conversations. These range from simple barks to deep and varied dialogue trees, but they’re fairly prevalent regardless of implementation.

And it makes sense, too. People like stories, and stories are built on characters.

Despite this fairly natural desire for dialogue, games used to be pretty devoid of conversations. This struck me as particularly odd in RPGs where groups of people set out on a quest to save the world. After all, one would assume the journey would foster some banter and comradery.

Cutscenes eventually filled the void, but it took a while for another mechanism to catch on: letting the player manually choose to speak to his followers.

Planescape: Torment was one of the first titles to do this, and its discussions on the Circle of Zerthimon remain one of my favourite examples of player-initiated dialogue.

Introduction

“No wonder my back hurts; there’s a damn novel written there.”

Planescape: Torment opens up with its scarred protagonist, The Nameless One (TNO), waking up in a morgue. A talking skull quickly floats by initiating a conversation.

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The “cant” is a bit alienating at first, but it adds another layer of immersion to the setting.

We soon find out that Planescape: Torment is not afraid of being verbose. Dialogue is plentiful and it’s buffeted by descriptions, creating entire paragraphs that read like a novel. The Planescape cant — 19th Century British slang — adds further colour to the text.

Morte, the talking skull, informs us that TNO is effectively immortal as he resurrects each time he dies. The caveat is that he risks losing his memories whenever this happens, which is exactly how the game begins.

A Meeting at the Smoldering Corpse Bar

“Here? This is the Smoldering Corpse, though the person smoldering ain’t dead yet.”

TNO’s only clues to his past are rather vague; all he knows is that he’s missing a journal and should seek out a man named Pharod.

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A motley crew at the aptly named Smoldering Corpse bar.

Sigil is a wondrous city, but in some ways it’s not that much different from a typical fantasy hub. To get a few quick answers, the easiest solution is to visit the local tavern.

The gruesome Smoldering Corpse bar is filled with all sorts of interesting characters, one of whom is noted to be observing TNO. His name is Dak’kon, and he’s a withered old githzerai who wields a shimmering glaive.

Talking to Dak’kon reveals that his weapon, a karach, is shaped and sharpened by his mind. The karach represents a zerth, a follower of Zerthimon, but Dak’kon’s blade is somewhat degraded due to a spiritual crisis. The githzerai dwell in the ethereal world of Limbo, forging their surroundings from clear thought, so this is a fairly significant issue.

Unfortunately Dak’kon cannot answer TNO’s immediate questions, but when the conversation ends, he offers to accompany us on our journey.

Getting to Know Dak’kon

“This is his gallery. He says that he *knows* you as his canvas. He shows respect to your strength with his admiration.” Dak’kon is silent for a moment. “Then he insults you by giving you his pity.”

The initial conversation options with Dak’kon are limited, but talking to other githzerai in his presence reveals more about him. We pick up on the fact that Dak’kon’s sullen disposition is a result of what’s seen as a terrible disgrace by his people.

What’s more, Dak’kon is purposefully hiding things from us.

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Fell’s grotesque backstage gallery consists of TNO’s moulted skin.

In the Weeping Stone Catacombs, TNO comes across a severed arm that once belonged to his previous incarnation. The arm can be taken to Fell’s parlour to ask the Dabus about the tattoos that adorn it. If Dak’kon is chosen to translate Fell’s rebus dialogue, TNO can detect that the seemingly honourable gith is actually lying.

When confronted, Dak’kon states that he will not say any more in the parlour. The issue can be pursued later on, at which point we discover that Dak’kon has actually traveled with one of TNO’s previous incarnations. This revelation leads to the rather unique Xachariah subquest that sheds more light on TNO’s own past.

Learning the Circle

“*Know* that I am not a teacher in this, but *know* that I can serve as a guide.”

When TNO asks Dak’kon about his magic — the ‘Art’ — the gith replies that he does not know how it manifests itself in humans. However, if TNO were able to use it, he could learn more of it from Dak’kon.

This is achieved by completing Mebbeth’s sidequests and becoming a mage. While a mage, TNO can study under Dak’kon, and also switch classes by talking to him.

“To learn, you must *know* the People. To *know* the People, you must *know* the Unbroken Circle of Zerthimon.”

The Unbroken Circle of Zerthimon is a device composed of a series of interlocking stone carvings. It’s a clockwork bible of sorts that Dak’kon carries with him wherever he goes.

Examining the Circle as a mage opens up a dialog box. Each level of the Circle tells a different tale of the githzerai race, its genesis, mass enslavement, and eventual rebellion. It reveals the rise of Zerthimon and the eons of suffering him and his people endured. The Circle teaches how the zerth came to learn and master themselves, and how enslavement became their greatest anathema.

“Endure. In enduring, grow strong.”

The full transcript of the Circle’s teachings can be found here, although it doesn’t contain Dak’kon’s and TNO’s commentaries.

Reading and learning the Circle comes across as a ritual; TNO must unlock each layer himself — as shown by Dak’kon — and talk to the gith after each session to discuss it. If TNO’s wisdom statistic is high enough, the proper lesson can be gleaned. This rewards the party with some experience, and a unique spell disk for TNO that magically slides out of the artifact without diminishing its weight or content.

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Discussing the Circle in front of the Tomb for the Planes, it’s finally revealed what plagues Dak’kon with doubt: he fears that Zerthimon was just a puppet of his enemies.

This pattern goes on for six lessons until it’s revealed that Dak’kon himself does not *know* the full Circle.

Teaching the Circle

“You performed a great service for me. In so doing, you enslaved me.”

With with the sixth layer, both TNO and Dak’kon receive a new spell. To unlock the seventh and eighth layers, TNO’s intelligence must be high enough to work the mechanism, and his wisdom high enough to understand the lessons themselves.

This is a nice transition of student-to-teacher, and ultimately rewards Dak’kon with some permanent stat increases. These in turn affect the karach blade, empowering it with each increment.

The lessons of the Circle also lead to the truth behind Dak’kon’s and TNO’s past.

The ruthless “practical” incarnation originally found Dak’kon close to death in the world of Limbo. He desired the karach blade, so he ensnared the gith in a devious trap. By constructing the Unbroken Circle of Zerthimon and speaking of its lessons, he showed Dak’kon a glimmer of hope to his spiritual ailment. In exchange, Dak’kon promised to follow TNO until his death, effectively becoming bound to the immortal for all time.

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Although purely text-based, this was one of the most moving moments I had ever experienced in a videogame.

This enslavement constituted the greatest sacrilege for the zerth, yet it was the only salve for Dak’kon’s moribund soul. By completing the Circle, we finally brought him the resolution he so desperately craved.

Conclusion

“*Know* that there is now nothing left that I may surrender except my life.”

Although still bound to TNO, completing the Unbroken Circle of Zerthimon allowed us to strengthen Dak’kon’s body, mind and spirit.

The process also facilitated character development and character progression. It was meaty, and deep, and unfolded gradually as the game progressed. It sparked numerous discussion that are still ongoing to this day, and it’s held up as a prime example of what made Planescape: Torment such a compelling title.

And it was all for a completely optional character.

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Design Roundup #6

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Wheel of Time Bits

wheel of time header WoT winds Wheel of Time Terangreal Shador Logoth mists Mashadar Machin Shin Legend GT Interactive game fps

I was never a big fan of The Wheel of Time series, but I liked the actual game quite a bit.

The notable parts:

— The title largely revolves around the player’s armament of Ter’angreal, ancient artifacts that grant magical powers. They’re grouped together into numerous categories — offensive projectiles, homing attacks, shields, immobilizers, summoners, magic nullifiers, etc. — and encompass gameplay modifiers that are usually presented via inventory items.

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The tutorial does a good job of introducing the player to various facets of the game.

Many of the Ter’angreal are also only used to solve in-level puzzles, while others are strictly limited to multiplayer.

— Many of the enemies have an annoying habit of instantly sidestepping incoming projectiles. It looks awkward, wastes precious ammo, and often forces the player to aim at the ground in order to cause splash damage.

Aside from this odd quirk, the enemies themselves are quite varied. They have drastically different amounts of health, fire numerous types of projectiles, can deflect or absorb the player’s attacks, and even possess special abilities such as teleportation.

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A rather dramatic entrance by one of the more powerful enemies.

— The vast amount of Ter’angreals makes it difficult to properly use them in fast-paced battles, but when the interface doesn’t get in the way, they work quite well.

Here’s an example:

I entered a small arena where I encountered a magic-wielding boss. I immediately threw up a magic-dissipating field, activating it just in time to dissolve a barrage of incoming projectiles.

As the field’s timer began to count down, I queued up a Reflect Ter’angreal and activated it when the field wore off. It batted back an approaching Soul Barb, a homing Ter’angreal that damages its target whenever it attempts to use any of its own weapons. The Soul Barb struck my foe, and I went on the offensive with a Decay.

Decay is useful for boss battles as it homes in and damages enemies over time, but it’s also quite slow. My opponent was able to bring up her own magic-nullifying shield before the projectile reached her, but since the dissipating fields work both ways, she was unable to counterattack.

I used to the time to retreat and heal up, and as her field was about to expire, I launched a Freeze. The projectile reached my opponent right after her shield went down, encasing her in a solid block of ice. I immediately threw out an Earth Tremor, an area-of-effect Ter’angreal that causes continuous damage, and started blasting away with other offensive spells. My immobile target screamed as the ice slowly melted, and victory was mine.

Of course at other times you round a corner only to be hit by 2 Fireballs and die instantly. It’s a flawed system that encourages quick-saving/loading, but when it works, it does a good job of making combat feel like a magical duel.

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Another clever puzzle that requires the player to place some Explosive Wards on a barrier and then blow it up. This will flood the sewers and allow access to a brand new area.

— Many of the Ter’angreal are also used exclusively for puzzles. They’re placed very deliberately so that there’s never much experimentation, and the puzzles themselves are usually straightforward, e.g., using a fire shield to walk across a furnace, but there’s a handful of more interesting ones as well.

One of my favourites revolves around getting across a vast chasm between a rampart and a fortress.

The rampart contains an opening that provides a view of the fortress, complete with a metal shield adorning one of its walls. The shield can be struck with a projectile, creating a loud sound that summons the guards. Once one of the sentries is visible, the player can use the Swap Places Ter’angreal to teleport into the fortress while jettisoning the enemy back into the isolated rampart.

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Two enemies (one lurking in the shadows) about to duke it out in Shador Logoth.

— The overall level design is quite good with interesting environments that take advantage of 3D to loop in on themselves. Progression is still fairly linear, but with enough twists and turns (and optional passages) to feel fairly open while still guiding the player.

There’s some scripted sequences here as well, but they’re pretty sparse and clunky when compared to something like Half-Life.

— WoT contains a large amount of destructible objects, traps, climbable areas, lever/pressure plate/key based puzzles and a handful of scripted triggers that collapse floors, walls, etc. When combined with the aforementioned puzzle-Ter’angreals, these components make for pretty interactive levels that help breathe life into the world.

As an interesting side note, Balefire, the BFG of WoT, can disintegrate various props that are not part of the architecture. These objects do not regularly react to weapon use, imbuing Balefire with an added sense of power.

— Shadar Logoth is a destroyed city haunted by a deranged evil. It’s notable for its unique enemies that attack the player and his foes, as well as a monstrous boss called Legion. Its main attraction, however, is the Mashadar fog.

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The deadly fog homing in on the player.

The first time I played the game, I started anxiously looking around when I heard some soft hissing. I couldn’t spot anything coming down the hallway facing me, so I decided to hunker down and wait in ambush in case an enemy appeared.

That’s when the screen became a white haze and my character started screaming in pain.

I scrambled around, desperately firing off Ter’angreal and trying to get away from whatever was hurting me. That’s when I realized what was happening: the puffy mists I passed earlier on weren’t just an ambient decoration, they were a vicious threat!

The ethereal fog snaked out of its hole and coiled around me, mindlessly following my character like harmless prey.  My panicked counterattack actually hit the fog, forcing it to retreat, but there was no way to actually kill it. Soon the hissing filled the air, and I ran as the fog followed.

— Shador Logoth ends in an interesting mission that takes place in a large arena. The level is filled with numerous Ter’angreal and a never-ending onslaught of enemies, and its main goal is simply to survive until daybreak.

The main character is joined by a handful of NPCs, and although the powerups don’t seem to respawn (requiring a lot more exploration than in a typical Alamo standoff), the gameplay is similar to current-day multiplayer modes such as Gears of War 2’s Horde.

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A helpful Ter'angreal that lets the player snatch some extra ammo during the assault on the White Tower.

— Following the brutal assault on the White Tower, the player is tasked with recovering her arsenal of Ter’angreal and retrieving a special artifact in the citadel’s vaults.

The mission makes sense within the narrative as well as the gameplay, and provides a nice change of pace from the intense battles that preceded it. The level lacks enemies of any kind — except for an end-boss — and is filled with traps and puzzles that take advantage of various Ter’angreal such as Seeker and Levitate.

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A mirror-image fight at the end of the puzzle-filled Vault.

— The Ways are a series of stone walkways floating in a dark void that serve as shortcuts throughout the land. In one of the levels, the player character is forced to traverse them in order to pursue the antagonist. In the process, she encounters the Machin Shin.

Staying within the Ways for an extended period of time summons this infinite wall of ghostly heads that scream and whisper as they approach. It’s a very striking event, and one of the most memorable parts of the game.

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The Machin Shin approaches.

If the “Black Wind” envelops the player character, the small amount of lighting in the level — including the Light Sphere Ter’angreal — is subdued as she is slowly killed.

The Ways are also used as a clever framing device. The player must periodically exit the ways to avoid the Machin Shin, each time facing a new challenge. These mini-levels force the player to find a way to re-enter the gateway, or simply survive long enough for the the Machin Shin to recede.

— The second last level is another Alamo standoff, but this time the player is forced to protect injured NPCs. An interesting twist here is that the map is filled with portculli that the player can control, effectively funneling the enemies while setting up traps.

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The final seal being delivered via a Portal Stone.

A neat touch is a lever that opens up a floor grate above a pool of acid, and a Whirlwind Ter’angreal located just beside it. This allows the player to toss in various enemies while staying out of harm’s way.

— The audio in WoT definitely stands the test of time. The majority of the sound effects are very fitting, and the unique soundtrack (here’s a taste) does a great job of enhancing the atmosphere.

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Super Mario Bros 3 Level Design Lessons, Part 2

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In my previous post, I took a look at the various level designs lessons gleaned from Super Mario Bros. 3’s first world. A lot of them naturally dealt with introductory tutorials, but I wanted to take a slightly different approach with this article.

Super Mario All Stars 3 chomp tutorial tips super mario bros stage SMB 3 secrets platformer maps map levels level lessons guide design All Stars 2D

The elegant introduction of new mechanics is still present throughout SMB 3. In this example, the first appearance of a Chain Chomp is marked by two columns that indicate its range and allow the player to safely observe its behaviour.

SMB 3 is filled with great levels, so I decided to pick out a bunch of clever, fun or simply unique moments from the game that originated with its architecture. I skipped over a lot of possible examples trying to keep the list down to 30, but I think I came up with a good collection that complements the original post.

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Super Mario Bros 3 Level Design Lessons, Part 1

smbasheader tutorial tips super mario bros stage SMB 3 secrets platformer maps map levels level lessons guide design All Stars 2D

I recently decided to play through the All-Stars version of SMB 3 without using any Warp Whistles.

smb3title tutorial tips super mario bros stage SMB 3 secrets platformer maps map levels level lessons guide design All Stars 2D

SMB 3's playful title screen has Mario & Luigi messing around with a bunch of enemies and powerups. The sequence is fun to watch, but it also serves as a great preview of numerous game mechanics.

I suspect that the majority of people who replay the game are familiar with the secret and use it to skip to the last world. This also means zooming past a plethora of well designed levels. It’s been my habit as well, but this time I resolved to experience SMB 3 in its entirety.

A lot of small, geometric stages later, here’s an overview of what I found to be the most notable points in the first world:

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