Monday, June 28, 2010

Antagonists: Neverwinter Nights 1

Neverwinter Nights 1 was BioWare's first game that came with a toolset. Now, it wasn't the first RPG game I'd modded, as way back in the days of the 486 I'd dabbled with a 2D RPG creating toolkit. Admittedly I was in primary school at the time, so didn't produce a masterpiece, but it certainly gave me a taste for making my own game worlds. So NWN held a great deal of promise for me. Unfortunately the original campaign left me a little disappointed, and that was in no small part was due to the mediocre antagonists... spoilers to follow.

The game starts off with a plague killing off many people in the city of Neverwinter. You play a young adventurer academy recruit undergoing basic training, and you graduate in a ceremony attended by Aribeth de Tylmerande, a famous elven paladin. Yet suddenly you're plunged into a battle as enemies assault the academy, which for some reason is being used to house creatures to be used in a cure for the plague. Why they're stored in a recruit academy and not protected by trained soldiers, I'll never know. Regardless, the creatures escape and are quickly distributed across the city. As a result, it comes down to you to track them down.

"You, brave adventurer, must find the magical macguffins to cure this plague!"

So you collect the four creatures (or the relevant ingredients from their corpses) for a cure, but they are immediately stolen by a traitor named Desther whom you then chase. Upon capturing him and returning to the city, his friend, Fenthick, who is also Aribeth's lover, is put to death. Unwittingly supporting a traitor is apparently sufficient cause to be hanged. As a result of this escapade, you leave the city to find out information about the cult behind the attack.  Your investigations eventually lead you to someone called Maugrim and "The Old Ones", an ancient powerful race attempting to return and conquer the land. Aribeth's bitterness at Fenthick's treatment along with the magic of the Old Ones cause her to betray Neverwinter and join her former enemies. Thus it is then up to you to find four "runes of power" which will prevent the Old Ones from returning. Yes, that's right, both the first and third acts of the game have you collect four items to further the plot.

More giant bug beasts... wait, who is the antagonist again?

You spend the entire third act running around defeating a myriad of enemies in bizarre situations that actually have nothing to do with the Old Ones. Yet no sooner have you collected the runes and sent them to Neverwinter for safekeeping than Aribeth assaults the city, paving the way for their invasion anyway. Thus you must defeat Aribeth, Maugrim and finally travel to the dimension in which the Old Ones are imprisoned in order to defeat their leader and save the day.

Ahhh, the bad guys. The ones I haven't seen for an entire act. I forgot about them.

I have several problems with the story, from Fenthick's trial to the repeated "magical macguffin" finding main plot, to the fact that much of the plot revolves around Aribeth and not the player. But one of the biggest issues for me is that the antagonists are so muddied and weak. It's Desther, then his cult, then Maugrim, then Aribeth, then the Old Ones... yet none of it makes any sense. The secondary antagonists have at best slim reasons to follow the Old Ones, and your actions in all but the last act have very little to do directly with those antagonists.

Those alien features must ooze charisma to wannabe villains.

In the first act, the cult causing the plague virtually has no involvement in the location of the animals except for setting them free in the first place. In the second act, you spend all your time investigating the cult, but do very little to actually track or combat its leader.  What's worse is that Maugrim is introduced in the second act, but you don't face him until the last, and the same goes for Aribeth with her betrayal.  The third act is then entirely about collecting the "macguffin" runes, but you don't deal with your antagonists at all, so it just feels like a pointless distraction.

Only in the fourth act, which is very short, do we actually start dealing directly with the antagonists. All the three major antagonists were saved for the last 5% of the game, and as a result, you don't really care that much about any of them.  The reasons for Aribeth's betrayal are shallow, Maugrim is a mindless servant to an evil power yet lacking any motivation whatsoever, and Morag (the Queen of the Old Ones) is just a vanilla "destroy and rule the world" villain with absolutely zero character depth. Your enemies are so one-dimensional that it is hard to muster any significant degree of anger towards them, and your collective ire for the three of them is so diluted that it lacks any potency except for the desire to finish the story.

This is the fourth boss fight in the last 30 minutes. Please just end...

The game pitted you against a great evil, but never gave you a personal reason to want to defeat it. Certainly, wanting to save the world from the Old Ones is a noble cause that you want to achieve (unless you're an evil mercenary type, in which case you're only doing it to save your own skin), but there's very little to make you personally invested in it. The only way you could have a direct link with the antagonists was if you were romancing Aribeth, but even that felt very tenuous. Without that personal connection and drive to want to see your enemies defeated, the climatic battle felt more like a showy letdown lacking substance than the epic battle with the forces of evil that it was made out to be.

The antagonists are one of the major failings of Neverwinter Nights. The player is forced to want to kill the antagonists simply "because they're evil", and the antagonists have virtually no motivation beyond "I'm evil".  Their irrelevance to much of the story and their complete absence in major portions of the plot mean that even when you do finally meet them, you don't really have any reason to want to defeat them. As such, they make the entire game, and particularly the ending, flat and lacklustre.


  1. You certainly said it better that I could. NWN's OC was obviously designed for the new multiplayer feature, where you just run around and kill things together. That's great and all, but I was hoping for, you know, a story.

    Sadly, I feel like Fenthick's execution was one of the few plot points that actually made sense. It was mostly pre-empting the angry mob that killed Desther, so apparently if people want you dead, people who like you kill you first. Like you said, everything after the second act made no sense. I'm still wondering what the runes do. The whole third act would have made more sense if the cult was actually after the runes.

    Just looking at the leaked segment of the design document from the OC, there were many ways to fix the third and fourth acts that were never implemented. I just wish I knew what was going on. After act one, I gave up on figuring out the story.

    By the way, are you going to be doing BG2 and other BioWare games? Irenicus certainly has more depth than Morag, and might make an interesting article. Even Mephistopheles (Hordes of the Underdark) was more of a decent villain, and he never pretended to be more than "I'm just that evil."

  2. NWN1 is just awful I couldn't blame it all on that single category. Going from bg2 which is the ultimate RPG to probably the worst one I've seen, I still can't believe its the same franchise.

    The fact that I could start a brand new chracter in act three and still be able to kill the non boss characters, the hideous graphics and ridiculous hordes of generic treasure are other things I would add.

  3. I am planning to go through other BioWare games, along with quite a few others. I've been holding off on Irenicus because I've been trying to write the article on him for a little while; he requires some effort! I hadn't thought of Mephistopheles, thanks for the suggestion!

    As for Fenthick's execution, I can partially see the rationale, but even at the time it seemed like a big stretch. You *found* the guilty party. And why not blame Aribeth and Nasher? They let Desther roam free in the city, had him housed in the Temple of Tyr and otherwise trusted him. Regardless, there's enough weaknesses without trying to pick more holes in the story.

  4. Fenthick's execution actually makes a lot of sense to me - it's a classic case of finding someone guilty to appease the pent-up anger in the populace. It doesn't always make sense from a logical POV but someone has to pay and pay publicly. Nasher couldn't be on the receiving end as he was the judge and Aribeth couldn't be the one as it would have hurt public morale way too much - she was a decorated paladin and loved by the people.

    By direct extension, Aribeth's loyalty-switch was to be expected if she felt the same way as you do - that Fenthick's execution was irrational and unwarranted.

    I agree though that the third act and Morag (not to mention the Fedex quests and bland side-quests) were bad - it felt as though they were attempting to just add game time for the sake of an extended campaign and then, wham! no more development time so finish it off.

    HotU was much better and Mephistopheles was portrayed as the devious character an arch-devil is meant to be.

  5. About Fenthick's execution.
    I think that the real problem is that they choose to let him "executed".

    The choice to kill Fenthick was irrational. Ok, people want someone dead. But why him? They do not give an answer satisfying enough.

    Execution is a rational way to kill someone. And this collide with the irrational choice to kill Fenthik.

    I suppose that changing the way from execution to "lynching" him in the street was a better choice.
    And it goes well with the rest of the plot.

  6. I completely agree with what is said about Fenthick's execution here and I'm glad I finally see other players but me raise these issues (even if I'm one year late for the discussion, heh). For me that was kind of the last straw, a good example what was wrong with the OC's story-telling.

    It's not that it doesn't make any sense - actually it makes perfect sense for a ruler to find a scapegoat to appease the mob and save his own hide. But it's an awful choice to make the PCs accomplices of this injustice by giving them no option to prevent it, or at least protest against it, not even after the execution. The PCs just have to swallow it without any comment and have to continue working for the "good side" as if nothing happenend and as if they're meant to approve of the execution or ignore the cruelty of Fenthick's fate. If Thenthick is guilty of treason just because he trusted someone who deceived him, the same applies to Nasher and Aribeth, especially after ignoring the PCs suspicions about Desther.

    I couldn't care less for Aribeth after the execution; even if her remorse becomes evident later in the game, it's too late for me to find it convincing and have sympathy for her. It's always been a mystery to me why so many players seemed to like her; for me the only tragic character one could sympathize with, if there was any at all, would have been Fenthick.