Sunday, May 22, 2022

Ultima Underworld II: Test Anxiety

The Avatar starts to regret his life choices.
I begin this session by returning to the (now) deserted prison tower I first visited. Altara said to use her rod at places where the Guardian has touched the world. In this world, the only place I can think of is the magic prison cell at the top of the tower. I reach it and pound the staff against the floor. There's no textual confirmation that anything has happened, but the screen shakes and there are some freaky theremin effects, so I suppose that's enough.
Next stop: Killorn Keep. It's time to get into that secret basement. I head down through the barracks. The guard at the door tries to stop me, but I tell him to go pound sand. He reacts predictably. The combat that follows is easily the hardest in the game so far, though rendered a bit easier by the fact that I can just go back upstairs to rest and heal. Still, I have to reload about four times. The guard is supernaturally hard, and the reason for this becomes clear after I hit him about half a dozen times and he sheds his human body for the form of a demon. I spend a lot of time and a few wands killing him.
There are going to be a lot of demon shots in this one. I don't know if any of them are supposed to be gargoyles.
The massive door behind him is locked, but I'm surprised to find that I have the key on my keyring. I must have found it on a previous trip. The diamond-shaped room beyond has brass walls and a lava pit in the center of the floor. "Spacey twinkles" float in the air, as do two large "brain creatures." This is clearly the Guardian's place of power in this world, which I confirm by whacking the ground with the rod and getting the same audio-visual experience as last time. 
The weird guts of Killorn Keep.
I suspect that the brain creatures are what's keeping the keep flying. I wonder what would happen if I killed them. But I don't go beyond wondering; the creatures are "peaceful," and I have some friends and unfinished quests in the rest of the keep. If I think the Guardian's forces need to die, I can take them out more selectively.
On the way back to the exit, I run into an NPC I haven't met before: Relk, captain of the guards. He says that he's heard I am "wise in the way of virtue" and asks me to see him in his quarters sometime. After I pay Merzen to identify some items (I decide afterwards that I've sunk enough money in that money sink), I go looking for Relk, but I can't find him in any of the keep's chambers. I hope that wasn't important.
This could be interpreted a couple of ways.
The ice world is next. The fountain plaza in the old city's ruins seems to be the only place of importance in the entire area, and indeed the staff works here. Afterwards, I speak to the ghost of Beatrice, who says I've brought her peace. In the Talorid world, the place of power is in the chamber where new Talorids are made.
The welcoming committee as I return to the Talorid world.
It's time now for an unexplored world! I enter the south-southwest facet of the gem and find myself in a stone corridor. It dead-ends in a secret door, which opens into a large room. I find a robed man in a corner. He introduces himself as Elster, a student of the Scintillus Academy of Magic. He seems to think that I'm a professor, but I disabuse him of that. It transpires that we're in the staging area for the final exam, "a series of mazes and deathtraps [that] has claimed some of even the best students." Elster, he admits, is far from one of the best students, and thus he has been delaying taking the test--for 63 years. He says he keeps hitting the button on the wall that's supposed to summon a faculty member, but no one has shown up. "I fear some disaster may have befallen the Academy up there on the surface."
I open an eastern door, which takes me to another large room. There are three pressure plates on the floor and a gold coffer nearby, which I can use to weigh down the plates. Each plate opens a different portcullis. The middle one leads to a room with a couple of mongbats, and I soon determine that this area is the game's first respawning and grinding opportunity. Every time I cross the threshold of the room, another couple of mongbats appear. 
A teleporter in a different corridor brings me to an icy, frozen area. The moment I step off the arrival platform, I go sliding across the ice and am dumped into a chilly river. Remembering the jumping trick (jump until you stop, after which you move really slowly but can control your movement), I make it through the large, empty area. A button opens a door, which leads to a moving bridge across some lava, which leads to the exit.
Why does it always have to be lava?
The next area is smaller but far more difficult. A Wand of Telekinesis lies near the entrance corridor, which opens up to a deep room full of lava. A 5 x 3 grid of stone columns of varying heights seems to be the only way across the lava to the exit on the other side. It takes me a lot of practice (and reloading), but I train myself to jump the right distance to get from pillar to pillar. The extra twist is that each of the six pillars against the east and west walls have buttons next to them that raise and lower various pillars. Weirdly, though, it only takes the two buttons at the end of the first row (the first two you would encounter) to create a path that works. I don't know what the Wand of Telekinesis was for. You can't possibly see the buttons from far enough away to use it.
The next area is easy again--a maze of staircases in a large room full of easy enemies like rats, skeletons, and giant spiders. I have to find two keys and then the exit door. There's lots of jumping, but otherwise nothing special. 
Fighting a giant spider in a maze of staircases.
I notice some writing on the wall as I enter the next area: "Section Five: Effects and Constraints." This suggests that I missed similar titles in the previous four sections. I also notice that if I go to sleep, my mana does not recharge. Presumably this is to make the students pass all the tests on one mana pool. Since I have used no mana at all, except for "Night Vision" and healing, I start to wonder if I'm doing these tests wrong. All the alternate spells that I think might help, such as "Levitate" and "Fly," require runes I don't have.
This area takes me a while, and I get a bit confused. There are two doors out of the main chamber. One leads to a portcullis which blocks the exit. Near the portcullis is a chain. Pulling it just seems to release skeletons (another grinding opportunity). There are three corridors that dead-end in switches and a pole manifestly meant to flip the switches. At first, I don't understand why the pole is necessary because you can just walk right up to them. Later, I notice pressure plates on the floors, so I guess the plates probably negate the switches. Instead, you have to use the pole to flip them without crossing the plates.
Skeletons look pretty cool with "Night Vision."
Anyway, through some combination of things, I open the south door, jump across a pit, and get a key that opens the portcullis (again, how?). I kill a couple of skeletons for good measure on the way out.
This test is starting to get kind of long, I think as I enter the next area. And it doesn't seem to involve much magic--or, at least, the creators left non-magical alternatives for what might otherwise be magical solutions. The next area, according to the etched stone I am now primed to look for, is called "Risk Avoidance." The first room is large, with four pillars in the center creating a small area shaped like a "plus," strewn with bones. I figure out the puzzle after I bungle it. Stepping on any of the plates between the pillars causes a friendly, motionless headless to spawn in a different opening. These headless are clearly meant to soak up the damage from crossbow bolts that fire at you when you step on the central platform to collect a key. But I just suck up the damage and continue.
This headless is supposed to take an arrow for me, but that just seems mean.
The key opens a door to a teleporter maze. Some of the teleporters promise to return me to the beginning of the world, not just the level, so I have to watch out for them. (They're all marked with some nearby etching.) Some sketched notes help me figure out what teleporters lead to what destinations, and before long I'm out of the area and on to Level 7, "Nonreversible Processes."
This level has another pillar puzzle. To get to the exit, I have to jump from one stone pillar to another arranged in a 5 x 5 grid. I find that if I stand just at the edge of one, I can make it to another with SHIFT-JUMP, but it's easy to accidentally walk off the edge. The more difficult twist is that each pillar has an arrow on it, and stepping on the top of that pillar causes a different pillar to disappear in the direction that the arrow is pointing. Since I can't see the directions the arrows are pointing until I'm standing on top of them, I functionally end up having to map the entire area. I finally make it to the exit, then realize I don't have a key to the locked door or any more spell points left to cast "Open Door." I have to start the entire level over.
The trick is to never jump on a pillar that points to another pillar that you need later in the sequence.
I finally make it to Level 8, which is just called "Section Eight." It starts with a teleporter puzzle that I don't understand. A nearby message on the wall says: "3, 5, 2, 9." The rest of the maze has four rings of teleporters, and every time I step in the wrong one, I'm taken back to the beginning and an enemy spawns. Every time I find the right one, I advance to the next ring. I can't figure out what the numbers mean, so I just find my way through via trial and error.
I finally exit the test. The long-decayed bones of some academy instructor lie under a nearby table which has exam scores from previous students. There are several rooms off the exam area, and one of them has a note from a mage named Devrow who has noted "something monstrously powerful" approaching the planet. 
This suggests that some of Devrow's own colleagues were responsible for summoning the Guardian.
There's an exit back to Level 1, but I decline to take it. A large room has a pentagram on the floor with more bones strewn around it. I determine that this is the Guardian's place of power and successfully use the rod. There are some runes on the floor, and I finally get HUR and UUS. I nearly miss the blackrock gem in the middle of the pentagram, but fortunately I find it.
Yet another door leads to yet some other kind of series of tests. I'm all tested out, but I do my best. An initial door requires EX YLEM to open. Next is a door with a faraway button that requires ORT POR YLEM ("Telekinesis") to open. I fall into a pit with a monolith which takes me to a lake of fire with three doors. There are a few safe places to get out of the fire, and I end up resting there a lot, passing days and days in this one small area. An imp in one chamber guards a chain; a demon in another guards a key. I need both to get through the doors on the far side of the chamber, in between which is yet another demon. To defeat him, I have to unload virtually all of my remaining wands and scrolls and swallow my remaining healing potions.
Fortunately, he's trapped himself at the end of the room.
Once out of this area, the corridor just takes me back to the beginning. This doesn't seem right, so I start testing walls, and I find an illusory door in one of them. It opens into a small room with a single treasure chest. The chest contains a bunch of gold, a black pearl, and, at last, a FLAM rune. An illusory wall in this room leads to a corridor that ends in some of those light bars that imprisoned Bishop in the first world I explored. And of course I don't have the Fraznium gauntlets with me to get through it. 
This is not cool, Ultima Underworld II.
I return to the entrance to the world exhausted, starving, and badly poisoned from the last demon I fought. Elster is gone; he must have tried to enter the test. I search around, but there doesn't seem to be any shortcut back to the top, meaning that whatever's behind those bars better not be that important. Did I miss a clue somewhere that I would need those gauntlets?
As I return to Lord British's castle, I see that I reached Level 13 at some point and I have 18 skill points to spend. Nystul is the first person I run into, so I learn "Mana" and "Casting" from him and have him do whatever he does to the blackrock gem. I pick up another level in "Attack" and "Defense" from Geoffrey, then go study "Lore" from Nelson until I'm out of skill points and still can't identify everything in my pack (I get up to 28 points). 
I guess I'm going to be taking piles of gold to Killorn Keep for a while longer.
Nobody has anything new on Tory's murder. Feridwyn mentions a river I found in another world, noting that it has saved the castle from thirst. I don't know whether the game assumes I'm ferrying back water on the side or if other people are using the teleporter. Lord British is useless. Patterson says he's heard of the world peacefully ruled by the Guardian and wonders if living under the Guardian's control is necessarily all that bad. 
You can take the man out of the Fellowship . . .
A couple of people tell me Charles is excited about something, so I track him down after going down to the cellar to stuff some food into my backpack. He's excited about having found an old key next to a document about a battle with a sorcerer. I take it from him. 
Charles's discovery resonates with another of my priorities: finish exploring the Britannian sewers. Even before Charles discovered his key, I was planning to use the old "cast EX YLEM in another world" trick to try the still-locked door in the south of Level 3. Equally important, the HUR and UUS stones should let me reach at least one place I couldn't before: the top of the waterfall on Level 3. I go there, walking on water, and cast "Jump," which allows me to leap to the top of the falls. Down the river and around a bend, I find a ghost guarding a small chest. He dies in a few blows. The chest has a Chain Cowl of Valor and an unidentified magic scroll. Not everything I was hoping for, but not bad.
I finally make the leap.
At least Charles's key works. It opens into a large room in which an upset ghost flies around over a locked chest. I use my Wand of Smite Undead to kill the haunt, then open the chest with the key he drops. The chest has some gold, a gem, a scepter, a magic scroll, a NOX rune (finally!), a key, and a moonstone. That reminds me that I found a moonstone somewhere else, so now I have two. I can use them for the "Gate Travel" spell if I ever get the VAS stone.
A red ghost! Does that mean something?
Speaking of VAS, it and TYM are the only runes I'm missing now. I can live without TYM; it's only use is the "Freeze Time" and "Speed" spells. But VAS is used in four spells I really want--"Daylight," "Gate Travel," "Greater Heal," and "Fly"--and several others that will be very useful. Still, with what I have, I should start experimenting a lot more with spells. I'll report on that next time.
I didn't like this session much. The mage's academy section dragged on way too long and then really screwed me at the top (assuming I need to get behind those bars). I recognize that it's my fault--I suspect I was meant to leave it for when I was stronger or had more spell options. Knowing that it's my fault just annoys me more. I'm also really annoyed that I spent so many skill points on "Lore" and still can't identify half the scrolls in my pack. Still, I feel like I made a bit of progress, and I can't imagine there are more than two or three more worlds to go before the Guardian's threat is (for now) neutralized.
Time so far: 32 hours


  1. "Lord British is useless."

    I've never been very familiar with the Ultima titles, but I'm beginning to see a pattern here ;)

    1. He's pretty effective in Ultima 5, but only after you've beaten the game. (Still, that's better than his performance in Ultima 6, where even after you beat the game he's still clueless about what's going on.)

    2. Both Ultima 4.5 and Nakar's famous let's play of Ultima 6 are great at calling him out for that.

    3. I think he is decent in both Ultima 4 and Ultima 5. Ultima 4 there is no immediate threat and he is sort of pushing Britannia forward in a good direction.

      In Ultima 5 he gets captured by the Shadowlords, but they feel like a real threat. And before that he again both leads Britannia forward by adding a representative part to the Monarchy and by really kicking ass during the expedition to the Underworld (just read the expedition report that comes with the game). He still helps you out with magic while imprisoned and once freed clearly resolved the situation.

      It's only from Ultima 6 forward that he feels like an useless figurehead.

    4. Doing that underworld expedition in the first place was pretty idiotic for the head of state. Note that he had no successor or interim leadership set up; Blackthorn stepped up but British had no way of knowing that.

      Then at the end of Ultima 5, British is all like "thanks for saving me, now GET OUT of my country!" and sends you home without so much as a farewell.

      This is behavior fitting for a rebellious teenager, not for a king. Then he spends the next three games sulking in his throne room...

    5. Almost wonder if he's meant to have been broken by the ordeal with the Shadowlords.

    6. VI and VII both feature egregious dereliction of duty from LB, although in different ways. In VI the realm is fighting a desperate war for survival against invaders and the invincible mage-king doesn't lift a finger to fight, nor does he appear to make any attempt to engage in diplomacy, or even identify the source of the invaders. In VII he has the excuse of his magic being weakened, but apparently has made no effort to find out why, nor to do anything to address the malaise experienced by the people. Hell, he doesn't even summon the Avatar -- the Guardian has to do that for him! A worthless king. Asterion has the right idea about what to do with him. And that's without taking into consideration the arguably non-canonical revelation in his will.

    7. @Ross that's definitely my new headcanon!

    8. According to the Ultima timeline, LB spent FOUR YEARS in solitary confinement before being rescued in Ultima 5. That's four years of "can't do anything, avatar will save me"; that's enough to drive any man catatonic!

    9. It's definately an interesting idea, but I don't remember a single thing in the games that even implies that the Shadowlords broke Lord British. I feel like the real issue is the fact that Lord British was both an author avatar and in the games from the start, so as the series started to take itself more seriously the local godking starts to stick out more and more. You can't have him go and just fix everything because then there's no game, but then that just leads to him either sitting around doing nothing or outright being part of the problem.

    10. I think LB's uselessness is intentionally part of the story arc starting with The Black Gate. In U6, I see it as more a limitation of the engine. He doesn't summon the Avatar in U6, and only asks his help since he's already there. The Avatar discovers the gargoyles' motivation for the war, and comes up with the peaceful solution - but NPCs in U6 never change their dialog, they only respond to keywords. There's really nothing he can do by then, that the Avatar hasn't done already, by way of diplomacy. Yes, he sends the Avatar home at the end, as always, because it's his home. A party would have been nice though.

      By the time of The Black Gate, I think the Guardian has gotten into his head a little, he is after all a magic user. It evolves slowly throughout the Guardian Saga, starting with hints in BG about his cluelessness (and the quasi-canonical note about Nell), and continuing in UU2 with (ROT13) gur cbffvovyvgl bs n freinag eribyg (I'm pretty sure Chet is past this part, but I thought I'd be cautious). It goes a little further in SI (ROT13) jvgu sbezre Oevgnvaavnaf bhgevtug pnyyvat uvz n glenag, nygubhtu gurl yrsg orsber gur Thneqvna fb gung yrnirf vg na bcra dhrfgvba. IMO, though maybe not every detail was yet planned out, the general "British Sux!" story arc WAS planned, beginning with Black Gate and finishing with Ascension, (ROT13) jurer ur onfvpnyyl nqzvgf ur'f hfryrff.

      Sorry for the long post. I've just been thinking this for awhile, and it makes the most sense to me.

    11. Sorry, forgot to mention, but LB in U6 not only heals you whenever you ask, but also your entire party, even if you die outside his presence, on the other side of the world. So again, not completely useless. It's more than most kings would do. In U7BG, E&A heal you when you die, but LB makes you go through a ridiculous sequence of questions in order to heal one of you at a time. That bastard! :)

      So it's clear to me: Blackthorn 2024

    12. E&A rescuing you on a total party kill becomes really strange at least halfway through the plot...

    13. If E&A kill you in battle, they will still rescue you and bring you to the healer's to recover. How's that for a plothole?

    14. I think the Doylist explanation is simply that Richard Garriott stopped directing the development of the games after U4 and U5 and thus wasn't around to see that his alter-ego was represented well. The developers who took over were forced to keep the character for legacy reasons but probably did so grudgingly.

    15. I just messaged a question about this to Richard Garriott on LinkedIn. If he responds, I'll let you know.

  2. Killing the brain creatures in the Keep does what you’d think it should… kind of worth trying (after saving your game of course).

  3. Reminds me of how great the mage test in QFG 2 is.

    Too bad you didn't enjoy this section too much, but I hope you at least had some fun whacking your rod.

    1. Is that the best "test" in videogames? It's both well-designed and satisfying to figure out, as well as an essential part of your narrative arc. They even foreshadow future story beats!

    2. I asked that myself and I couldn't think of anything that's better. But I avoid calling things "best" because it's very subjective and there are hundreds of games I don't know.

    3. Do the test chambers in Portal count? I'm struggling to think of other examples. I feel like this is a common trope at the beginning of JRPGS as an excuse for a tutorial, but they're not usually very interesting.

  4. A ghost. Was carrying. A key? I suppose that is part and parcel of being undead and not regular-dead.

    1. You have to rattle it, it's part of the deal.

    2. This sounds like the Aperture Science testing center from Portal, really. I was expecting smartass remarks from GlaDOS by the end!

    3. Maybe it was a spookey?

      I remember the wizard exam feeling like a procession of every environmental puzzle the developers came up with that they couldn't work into the game in a more natural fashion. I'm still a fan of UU2's format; it's like every world calls upon a different RPG discipline (combat, stealthy infiltration, exploration, puzzle-solving, etc.).

    4. I seem to recall the red ghosts just denote that it's a more powerful type of ghost?

    5. If I can hit it with a sword, I don't see why it can't carry a key.

    6. In European folklore, ghosts are often depicted as carrying chains like a former captive, so a ghostly presence with mundane accessories isn't that far fetched mythologically speaking.

    7. Red ghost is called a 'haunt' in-game and they are stronger than normal ghosts or dire ghosts.

  5. Hello there, I am a old fan of you and I like to follow your forum and the comments from here, and from RPGCodex to gain acess to more knowledge - your post even helped me to make a puzzle in Dungeon Master. I am Brazilian, sorry if I express myself poor, but I am making a blog where I like to show old rpgs, old animes, and express some individual topics, and I would like to put your link there as a propaganda. Can I do this? I would like your permission first.

    1. You have my permission! Thanks for reading all these years, and best of luck with your blog.

  6. About the light bars in Scintillus: Lbh qba'g arrq gur tnhagyrgf, gurer'f na vgrz lbh pna svaq arneol va Fpvagvyyhf gung unf gur fnzr rssrpg.

    1. Son of a bitch. I almost wish I hadn't unscrambled that. Thanks for telling me, though. I can't find the damned gauntlets anywhere.

    2. Ah Bruce's answer above is somehow connected to my comment below. It's past those bars that you can get the best Axe in the game and, if that is not incentive enough, a VAS rune :)

      (assuming that since you passed that area it's not a spoiler anymore)

  7. Yes, if you do the test again, you will find that Elster does pluck up the courage to follow you. It's one of my favorite little flourishes in an CRPG.

    1. I wonder if 'Elster' is a cheeky little play on 'Elminster'? I guess in this particular universe he doesn't get to become Ed Greenwood's Gary Stu.

    2. Bruce - Now that you mention it, it's almost certainly a play on Elminster. Nice catch!

  8. Pretty sure that in Scintillus Academy, somewhere between those 2 demons and the imp, there's a hidden spot with the best axe in the game

  9. Lore is pretty much useless especially for mages, since there is a (non-hidden) spell to identify items. I think it might help you detect a weapon is magic in the first place though.

    In general, magic can completely replace a lot of skills like swimming and lockpicking.

    In the same vein but spoilery:
    Nyfb gurer vf gur uvqqra fcryy lbh zvffrq gung pbzcyrgryl ercynprf gur ercnve fxvyy nf jryy.

    The academy is also my least favorite place out of the UW2 worlds. I like the next 2 ones though.

    1. I didn't miss it; i just forgot to talk about it. I've been casting it every time my equipment gets down to "worn" and I can spare the points.

    2. Sorry, my mistake then! Just the last thing I remembered in this regard was you noting back in the Goblin Tower that you already had found all the runes without mentioning the specific combination.

    3. One of my main issue with both Underworlds is how lopsided the skill utility is.

      As Erik says, There is little reason to invest in specialized skills when in most cases there is a spell that can replace them.

      It is one of those games where you can definitely screw up the build and have a very hard endgame.

  10. The Academy is one of the worst worlds IMHO, cool in concept but the execution is flawed.

    People have pointed to QFG2's mage test as a counterexample and, while they are very different games, I agree that it conveys much more the idea of a magic skill test.

    I wonder if for the concept of a "deadly wizard initiation" they were inspired by Dragonlance (Raistlin barely comes back alive from such test) and what other notable examples there are in fantasy literature...

    1. I agree, and I think there are two main reasons why it doesn't work well.

      The first one, is that conserving your mana as a mage is an important skill, but basing the entire test about it is a bit much. It actively discourages you to use any magic because you don't know if you will need it later. That one could have been changed by a relatively design decision.

      The second reason is harder to tackle: none of the UW 2 worlds are optional. So any fighter with Mana 0 and Casting 0 also needs to be able to get through the test. Therefore you can't really tailor the level design and puzzles to mages.

      It's a bit strange that if you look at modern games like Skyrim or Oblivion they could easily put a mage test that makes you rely on magic as part of the Mage Guild quest line, since a pure fighter shouldn't expect to succeed in there, but they still designed it in a way that you don't need to cast spells.

    2. @Vince
      "'deadly wizard initiation'... and what other notable examples there are in fantasy literature..."

      Barbara Hambly's Sun Wolf/Starhawk series ("The Unschooled Mage") had something like this, IIRC. Most of her fantasy stuff seems to be out of print, but I found my copy at a used bookstore, and there's always Amazon, if you absolutely have to. It's mostly the first book, I think. Series goes "The Ladies of Mandrigyn", "The Witches of Wenshar", "The Dark Hand of Magic". Not bad stuff at all, but not her best either.

    3. I can think of several deadly wizard initiations (e.g. Feist does it too) but not ones that involve jumping on platforms over lava, without actually using magic.

    4. It seems to me a bit of "fridge logic" that a non-mage strong in OTHER skills can still pass the magic exams since the usual contenders are mages-in-training, with little to none skills OTHER than magic. So it makes sense that THEY would have to use magic for passing the tests, while the Fighter Avatar or Bard Avatar could pass it too by the virtue of the tests not being made "fighter-proof", since there never was any NEED to make them "fighter-proof"!

  11. About Relk:

    Lbh ner fhccbfrq gb svaq uvz va gur ebbz va gur FR pbeare bs gur xrrc, jurer ur erirnyf uvzfrys nf na ntrag bs gur Thneqvna naq nggnpxf lbh. Fbzr bs gur bgure punenpgref jvyy npxabjyrqtr uvf qrngu, nsgrejneqf, ohg V qba'g guvax vg vf n arprffnel fgrc va gur znva cybg.

    VVEP vg vf fhccbfrq gb unccra dhvgr rneyl, fb V'z abg fher vs fbzr gevttre tbg zrffrq hc nsgre lbh ohvyg gur fgnss.

  12. > The Avatar starts to regret his life choices.

    I thought Ratava the Avatar was a lady?


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