Why I love Kingdoms of Amalur's best questline, the House of Ballads

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Why I Love

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In Why I Love, PC Gamer writers pick an aspect of PC gaming that they love and write about why it's brilliant. Today Jody celebrates a great quest in the overlooked RPG Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning.

I first realized what the House of Ballads was about—and that it might be something special—when I stumbled across a quest called Reprisal, Reprised. A young woman in some old ruins explained that the magic blue elf-people called Ballads Fae revere stories so much they re-live their legends in an endless cycle, like actors performing the same plays forever. One of those Ballads told of a troll who lived in these ruins, a beast so greedy he swallowed a ruby ring. If I helped her set the stage for that story the troll would appear, just like in the tale—and we could kill it, dig the ring out of its stomach lining, and pawn it for cash. She'd figured out how to tap into the myth cycle of an immortal supernatural race, and used that knowledge to farm them for loot. It was both an arch comment on the repeatable quests of MMOs and a clever little story of its own.

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Fantasy games love to show off their slightly tweaked versions of the traditional fantasy races. "Our elves are different! They're super racist!" But in Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning they really were different, which was surprising in a game that in so many other ways played it straight, with its textbook Amnesiac Chosen One hero trudging through a main questline about saving the world from an ancient evil. Like The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion it was the kind of game where you needed to go off-piste to find the good stuff, deviating from the tale it wanted to tell. You needed to travel to Sidequest Country.

The House of Ballads is a faction tucked away in the north of Amalur's map, and their job is to guard the legendarium of the Summer Fae, who are the nice-guy elves of the setting. (You can tell because they have terrible Irish accents.) The Fae are sort of immortal, reborn into new bodies shortly after they die, but what makes them unique is the way that's incorporated into their culture. Their limitless lifespans leave them in no rush to achieve things for posterity and so instead they happily repeat stories from a romantic past when knights and rogues rescued kings and slew trolls.

When you arrive there's an opening in the role of Sir Sagrell, the hero who slays a fairytale villain called Bloody Bones. While normally everything in the Ballads plays out according to the script this time something went wrong, and Sagrell fell before his time. The Fae are so bewildered by this unexpected twist they'll even allow a mortal like you to step into the role, so long as you promise to play it by the book. But Bloody Bones isn't following the Cliffs Notes and refuses to give up and die on the end of your sword (or those Omniblade daggers you unlocked by having Mass Effect 3 registered to the same account). Bloody Bones has become convinced his ending's not written in stone.

Behind this rewriting is the Maid of Windermere, one of the Winter Fae who plays head villain in a myth arc called The Telling. Where the Summer Fae represent growth, the Winter Fae are all about decay and destruction, and the Maid thinks it's time the Ballads themselves were destroyed. But winter knows summer will follow it, and the Maid only wants to destroy The Telling so the Summer Fae can grow a new one rather than being chained to their canon. She wants to be rid of the clichés of questing fantasy heroes, to find new stories to tell.

The Ballads Fae who have been captured by the Maid have been enchanted by her magic, but they talk like they've been liberated. Sir Farrara looks with wonder on the chance to be whatever he wants; Queen Belmaid revels in not having to be subservient to a king who is inferior to her just because that's what the Ballads dictate. Whoever you choose to side with—of course it boils down to a binary moral decision, this is still an RPG—the Ballads will be permanently altered by your actions.

Our lifespans may not be limitless, but given the number of worlds we can immerse ourselves in via games we can live plenty of lives if we choose. Like the House of Ballads we can find meaning and comfort in re-telling our favorite stories, and there's value in that, but we can also strive for something different. Even if it is in a sidequest tucked away in the corner of a familiar map.

Jody Macgregor
Weekend/AU Editor

Jody's first computer was a Commodore 64, so he remembers having to use a code wheel to play Pool of Radiance. A former music journalist who interviewed everyone from Giorgio Moroder to Trent Reznor, Jody also co-hosted Australia's first radio show about videogames, Zed Games. He's written for Rock Paper Shotgun, The Big Issue, GamesRadar, Zam, Glixel, Five Out of Ten Magazine, and Playboy.com, whose cheques with the bunny logo made for fun conversations at the bank. Jody's first article for PC Gamer was about the audio of Alien Isolation, published in 2015, and since then he's written about why Silent Hill belongs on PC, why Recettear: An Item Shop's Tale is the best fantasy shopkeeper tycoon game, and how weird Lost Ark can get. Jody edited PC Gamer Indie from 2017 to 2018, and he eventually lived up to his promise to play every Warhammer videogame.