I want to talk about Mask of the Betrayer, the first expansion to Neverwinter Nights 2.
I finished it a few days ago, and it went straight to my top 3 of best game stories of all time. In fact it beats both Deus Ex and KOTOR1 and 2 on that count, making it a strong contender for Torment’s long-held first place. MotB has it all: Companions that you care about, a clear and strong structure, memorable location upon jaw-dropping setpiece upon memorable location, intellectually stimulating philosophical and existential questions (no, really!), and probably most importantly, plenty of freedom of choice.
First: Companions. In NWN2, they really missed the mark on that count. There was one companion for each available character class (except Barbarian, but there were 2 fighters instead), meaning 11 different companions, and for that reason, most of them were shallow and uninteresting (exceptions include Shandra and Ammon). In MotB there are 5 companions, two of them mutually exclusive(!!), and all of them deeply tied to the storyline. The romance options are interesting personalities this time! Most impressive of all, you can alledgedly play the whole game without taking any of the companions along.
The locations are another contributing factor to making MotB a great game. During the storyline you do one fantastic thing after the other and visit unique and exciting places. This is far removed from NWN2′s standard fantasy countryside and woodlands. I was especially pleased to visit the Shadow Plane, an almost exact copy of the material world, in which everything is colourless and slightly twisted. I once planned an NWN module which would feature this plane prominently, but that turned into The Bitter Taste of Blood instead.
Not only do you visit places that are so epic they could very well make you cry blood, you get to do things that are outstandingly epic in nature. Things that involve plane-travelling. In this, and several other aspects, MotB resembles Planescape: Torment to a great degree. It’s not about saving the world, it’s about figuring out how to solve a significant problem that has befallen you, and possibly changing the planes in the process.
Finally, MotB is probably the first game ever that I have disagreed ideologically with. I can’t really go into a lot of detail here without throwing around some significant spoilers, but MotB’s story deals with some very expansive philosophical questions about faith and religion and the relationship between mortals and their gods. I have come to accept the morale of MotB only because there exists no doubt in the game’s setting (Forgotten Realms) that the gods exist, but if one were to transplant this story into our world, where (let’s face it) no conclusive evidence exists that gods are real, it would take on a completely different spin, and I hope the morale would be something other than “You can’t change the world.”
You’d think disagreeing with the ideology of a game would be a bad thing, but the mere fact that there is a philosophical ideology here to disagree with is something I deeply respect. In most games the ideology is not actively discussed in the story, but just something deeper, more fundamental, hidden beneath the action like in Gears of War with its ridiculously masculine protagonists. In Mask of the Betrayer it’s right up there in the story and the dialogue, being debated by you and the characters in the world, and your reactions to those questions change the story slightly.
Mask of the Betrayer has a lot of different endings because it uses a denouement sequence told by a narrator with slides. Of course this is sort of a primitive way to handle it, but on the other hand it allows them to really account for anything you’ve done throughout the game. There are 3 main endings, each influenced by how you’ve dealt with your companions, how you’re aligned morally, how you deal with your romantic interest, and possibly other things that I’ve failed to notice or discover.
My only objection to MotB is a small one: An entire ending was closed to me because I missed a hotspot where I could click. This would be a major point of critique if not for the fact that this ending is basically an optimal happy-ever-after ending, the availability of which would have eradicated the amazing existential dilemma of choosing between the two other endings. The two main endings of MotB are like the four endings of Invisible War: Neither of them is entirely happy, there is always a drawback. Introducing a third ending where everything is sunshine and lollipops would render that completely irrelevant. It could be considered a “reward” for those who are especially explorative, but frankly I’m happy I missed it – I just wish it weren’t there to begin with, so I didn’t feel as cheated as I do. Does that make sense? I guess it doesn’t – I feel cheated for missing something that would’ve removed a large part of what made the game’s ending as enjoyable as I found it. But I guess it pertains to the way I play: I want to experience everything that I possibly can in any given playthrough of a game.
Mask of the Betrayer has an outstanding story that concludes the storyline of Neverwinter Nights 2 on a far better note than even the best parts of NWN2 could muster, but it still suffers from its annoying dependence on Dungeons & Dragons. I don’t mind D&D as such, I just think it’s terrible for computer games – we don’t need levels or character classes, the computer can handle all the complications. In spite of the slightly uninteresting D&D combat, however, all the other qualities of the game make it a clear recommendation from me.