A Short Take on Self-Deception

I can’t even summon the energy to write about Neverwinter Nights 2. I suspect this means I won’t be able to summon the energy to actually play it, either. Mind you, I’m sure I’ll purchase it. I bought every NWN expansion like a good citizen, but the game lacked snap. It was a victim of its own compromises.

We can mock John Romero for his long hair and his broken promises. But if ever there was living, breathing proof of his dictum that “Content is King”, it is that Jade Empire was compelling from start to finish, and Neverwinter Nights makes me feel narcoleptic. They are built on the same basic technology. But one is fun, and the other isn’t.

This is above and beyond the other issues – the fact that whenever I wanted to play online with my friends, we all had to spend an hour and a half synchronizing on the right versions, getting the server configured, and so on. The fact that browsing the thousands upon thousands of fan-created modules is more fun than playing them. The tragiocomically bad camera. Neverwinter Nights fails to be fun in a particularly frustrating way. This isn’t an obvious stinker like, say, Dungeon Siege. Everything about Neverwinter radiates fun. Everything about it sounds fun. Everything about it looks like fun. For the love of all that is good and holy, it should be fun.

But it isn’t fun. Why?

The politically correct attitude among gamers – by which I mean “people who have so little to do with their time that they’re willing to install and play games on a computer instead of a box hooked up to their TV” – is to pretend that user created content is the apotheosis of cool. Witness the recent bloggy wanking about how modders “saved” Oblivion, a game with an original story line, stunning graphic design, and intriguing gameplay because they created mods like “made the water more transparent.”

The thing is: it isn’t true. Neverwinter for example, has many user-created modules that are “fun” on some abstract level. Nice plot. Good scripting. Clever puzzles. But the sense of you’ve-been-here-before ennui is strong throughout. It’s not a fair comparison. The simple fact is that no matter how good a module Jeb and George write, the hundreds of artists, writers, musicians, set designers, modelers, and QA personnel who worked on Jade Empire make a real difference. Both Knights of the Old Republic and Jade Empire have a quality about them that the Top Gear guys, when talking about cars, call “bespoke.” That’s what’s missing from the best user-created Neverwinter Nights modules. I think it’s the need to create something that could be used by Jeb and George to create Generic D&D Module G6: Against The Vault Of The Drow On The Borderlands that forces Neverwinter into a very cookie-cutter sort of design sensibility. And it shows.

To be frank, I haven’t paid very close attention to NWN 2, simply because I have an assumption going in that however good it is, it (and the user-created content for it) will lack this bespoke quality. Maybe someone at Bioware can set me straight. I figure they still owe me a favor for the Inscrutable Denominator of Heavenly Glory.

We’ll see.