Stories about wizards fucking things up for the sake of fucking things up are not very interesting, unless you go into why that darn wizard wants to fuck things up. The grievance that led me to create, for the core of my story, the subject of this essay, comes from The Elder Scrolls. In Oblivion, the fourth main entry in the series, Mankar Camoran, a devotee of Mehrunes Dagon (no apparent relation to just plain Dagon of the Lovecraftian mythos), through his Commentaries on the Mysterium Xarxes, really a mediocre acrostic puzzle written in rambling purple prose, seeks to initiate members of the Mythic Dawn, a cult devoted to the summoning and physical manifestation of Dagon in Tamriel. Eventually, you travel to Camoran’s paradise realm, through the use of said Mysterium Xarxes and the magical powers of one Sean Bean, and ask him what the hell he thinks he’s doing. Well folks, it turns out he’s doing something because of reasons. And then you kill him.
I knew that I wanted above all else to avoid having a Camoran for a main villain. Our initial main villain was “The Lich”, a generic undead superbeing type entity who would be, Frozen Throne styles, sending his rotting plague hordes and abominations to destroy the realm. In practical terms, the final result wasn’t far off. The undead guy commands undead legions, but he has also brokered a deal with demonic forces of another realm, who will serve as his generals until his aim is achieved, whereupon they will saddle up for a rematch with the gods who long ago bested them. For the game’s purposes, you have a clear set of bad guys to go and take care of, but from the perspective of telling an interesting story, one that ties into the lore of the world you’ve created, it’s a tiny bit bland. Cue the psychological turmoil of one 16th century Thorian parliamentarian.
Iridius Barquentine is a Thorian hero, best remembered as a politician and prosecutor who punished blasphemers and traitors to the realm many centuries ago, and ensured that the empire would ever be impervious to acts of treason. Ask who exactly was punished, and for what—never mind how—and you’ll not get an answer of any substance, only a rephrasing of what has already been said. The Cathedra Magna’s great tradition of censorship, which followed immediately in the wake of Barquentine’s “Shiedaric Trials” and surrounding events, and has been kept up now for some three-hundred years, effectively prevents the loosing of such knowledge upon the public. Try though they might, the Arlaug has only been successful in acquiring a handful of disjointed documents, relevant and related, though not complete enough in themselves to present a solid case against the myth of Barquentine.
So who was he? In The Life of Barquentine, a “Great Thorians” series pamphlet containing all the nice bits—including some made up stuff to patch over the wounds where great chunks of controversial detail has been cut out—of his life’s story, we are told that he was born in 1508, and was a child prodigy, selected for a career in the Cathedra Magna at the tender age of six years. But a document containing what purport to be the last entries in Barquentine’s journal prior to his disappearance tell us otherwise. He was an illegitimate child, sent away for fear of scandal to live with the Quithians, a working class family of farmers, only returning to Arch Thorian to be at his biological father’s side when he was twelve years old. Iridius was presented to society as the adopted son of Victor Barquentine, who had rescued him from poverty, a gracious and well-received showing of philanthropy. Despite the confusion the young Iridius faced, he accepted his position, never seeing the Quithians again, and attending throughout his teenage years the academies at Arch Thorian, where he received a fine education, preparing him for ascendancy to the Hierarchy. However, he left the Church so that he could marry Floella Agon, which he did, and sought a career in politics.
The Life of Barquentine, if we take Yulud’s histories to be accurate, which in broad strokes it is, has to dance around the Reformation and the Council of Aspects. The former is ignored completely, the latter is transposed to seventeen Hierarchs “observ’d speaking Blasphemies”. In this way, it actually makes quite a weak case for Barquentine’s notability. In a theocratic state the prosecution of blasphemers is par for the course, and in the kind-of-but-not-quite-Mediaeval-ish setting it would have been a matter of routine for someone in Barquentine’s position to sentence them to execution or tortures, most likely to undergo the latter until the former has been achieved. Barquentine’s real significance in this period is in leading the way for the restoration of a broken empire by destroying the ones who broke it; if Thoria’s situation at that time is now shrouded in fiction, then the hero himself is rendered lesser. On a personal level, however, it was a resurgence of a bloodlust that had been brought out in him when, in his teenage years, an insult was thrown his way by a fellow student. He had bloodied the student’s face and been imprisoned in solitary confinement for a week as punishment. The resurgence was far worse. As Radolphus Lantulla tells us, writing from Barquentine’s dictation, in the Record of the Shiedaric Trials, Part I, Barquentine ordered the brutal torture, execution, and dehumanisation of the Council of Aspects. (For an example of dehumanisation, at least two convicts were to be eaten, either alive or after death, by animals, and the dung of those animals to be burned, in effect denying the elevated status of humanity in Eadratic doctrine.)
The Journal of Iridius Barquentine does not acknowledge the political situation in Thoria either, but expresses regret for the punishments he devised in the Trials. The author appears to be describing a state of mental breakdown, possibly of schizophrenia. Perhaps driven to despair by his violence, he becomes reflexively attached to a voice that only he can hear. It is implied near the end of the journal that he has discovered this voice through “books”. Throughout the journal “books” seems to mean other journals, which he “speaks to”, in the sense of writing in them. It’s possible that he is writing his journals in books possessed of corrupted magical energies (and the implications of that would be huge), or, more likely, that he uses “books” interchangeably to mean journals and Dark Books. As someone of high standing in the Thorian government, and as a former student of the Cathedra Magna, who left in excellent standing, he would undoubtedly have had access to Dark Books, many high quality examples of which exist in the Secret Library of the Cathedra Magna. Whatever the case, Barquentine leaves for Eenwyck under cover of night.
The player, in travelling from Arch Thorian to Eenwyck, will note that, far from taking Barquentine’s recorded ten days, it takes probably the better part of ten minutes on foot (I’m guessing). Obviously, a world in which it takes ten days to walk from one city to another would be insanely time consuming to construct and and populate. But the dramatic weight of the character of Barquentine walking for ten days, presumably without food or sleep, drawn on by the voice, is extremely useful in conveying the consumptive power of his sudden obsession. Is it madness, or is Arch Sapherion actually reaching out to him? When the player arrives at the final sequence of the main quest, a huge twelve-level dungeon crawling with tough mobs and tougher bosses, the answer to that question begins to unfold. Scattered throughout the levels, a sequence of fragments, which seem to pick up where the Journal left off, tell the story of a wanderer’s descent into the abyss, where either he falls victim to madness or ascends to godhood. The Dungeon Fragments, comprised of seventeen (and don’t go reading too much into that—whatever the “divine mathematics” of the Numeris may be, I certainly didn’t plan nothin’ ’round no number seventeen) short pieces in total—a theoretical eighteenth could be thought of either as a blank page or even nothing at all, if that weren’t a far too on-the-nose reference to the “remove the page” mantra (or maybe it could be a Samuel Beckett reference?)—were an attempt to do character development, which I think is the main thing that had been missing up until that point from the in-game literature, and do it entirely from the character in question’s perspective.
I think it came out sort of Lovecraftian in its overall effect, but Lovecraft tends to use his main characters as symbols of humanity and human fragility, and in doing so does not treat them as individuals so much as figures that would be inanimate were he not there to move them about the alien landscapes he envisions. I was focused entirely on the individual nature of Barquentine, his inner violence, desire for status, dislike for external authority, his paternal and familial issues. The notion of “removing the page”, which I take to be a metaphor for removing one’s physical form, is reminiscent of, or rather directly parallel to the supposed transformation of Arch Sapherion in the Caudex Magnus when, after having created the Aspects from parts of his own body, he sheds his physical form entirely. Is what Barquentine records in these fragments reality, or is he just going mad with hunger, possibly amplified by his use of Dark Books? Don’t look at me. This is one of those things I wanted the player to decide for themselves. You have the Journal, the Fragments, and, following the gruelling dungeon series, the final battle with “The Lich”, an extremely powerful entity which may or may not be the ascended form of Barquentine. If it is Barquentine, does it even matter? Players who choose to RP as a patriotic Thorian might well have significant qualms about the whole situation, or their faith may compel them to ask no questions and fell the abomination where it stands. (…or floats…? I had the idea that The Lich’s body, which he would take so as to have terrifying combat presence before his enemies, would be made out of hundreds and hundreds of bones, human bones, animal bones, maybe even the bones of extraterrestrials, bound together by the sheer force of spiritual power he has attained, and would be able to split apart, form and unform limbs, and maybe even weapons, attack from multiple points etc. That would have been a programming and animation nightmare, so it’s probably for the best that my continued involvement in the project didn’t work out, but I can’t help thinking: man, that would have been cool!) For the non-RP’ing player, he’s just another big dude to take down, but for RP’ers, and particularly for readers (well duh) I wanted to think about what kind of effect the idea that he very likely is a god who used to be a human being, and an important one at that, one that through official histories they know as a legend, one that through the narrative of his journals they know as a deeply troubled man, would have.
Such a big part of the writing as I envisioned and hoped to realise it was getting the player to question the world they were exploring. I wanted them to question religion, history, perspectives of NPCs, of writers in their books. If I could get them to question whether the final battle has meaning beyond being the final battle—that is, does it imply something for the character, for the world that hopefully was now very much their own, or is it just the last big fight, the dramatic climax that gaming convention demands?—that would be putting a great big interrobang at the end of one long sentence. In the broader scheme of things, if it is Barquentine, that suggests that godhood of the sort possessed by Arch Sapherion, is possible to attain for human beings, and I guess any living being capable of ratiocination. But who knows—you see a flat hedgehog out on the road, think about it, maybe it wasn’t using that body any more anyway.