Archive for the ‘Not-So-Casual Commentary’ Category

Thoughts on “Arthur”, Book 3 of the Pendragon Cycle

February 10, 2016

I’m reading “Arthur” in a bit of an eccentric way, for a couple of reasons. First, I’m taking Malcolm the Cynic’s advice, and only reading the first two sections — “Pelleas” and “Bedwyr” — before turning to the fourth book, “Pendragon”. Second, right after reading “Pelleas” I picked up the latest “Order of the Stick” book, and so decided to read all of them through, starting from the beginning, before reading “Bedwyr”, which not only means that my reading of the book was spread out over a longer period of time, but also means that “Pelleas” is significantly less fresh in my mind when compared to “Bedwyr”.

That being said, I think that “Arthur” is indeed the best of the books so far. As we’re now well into the well-traveled terrain of the traditional Arthurian legends, we can build character and events by comparing them to the legends and noting where Lawhead differs from them, as we saw at the end of “Merlin”. Both “Pelleas” and “Bedwyr” are interesting narrators, so we don’t have the issue where, at least to my mind, I didn’t care about Charis’ perspective enough to make her parts interesting, like we had in “Taliesin”. The down-to-Earth and semi-realistic approach to the work reminds me of what was done in the movie “King Arthur”, which I admit, perhaps shamefully, that I actually enjoyed. But Lawhead manages to keep the general magic and major themes of the legends, while it can be reasonably argued that “King Arthur” is a story with some sort of Arthurian wrappings that doesn’t capture the legends at all.

Lawhead still struggles with presenting important events that don’t have a lot of content to them. Early in “Pelleas”, there was a key battle where they were fighting with, I think, one of the rebellious kings, and the battle itself was little more than a cleverly employed ambush. The way the scene was structured, it was made out to be the preamble to great battle … but it was over in a few short pages. It didn’t last long enough to justify the build-up. Now, those sorts of things can work, as long as everyone admits and lampshades that, you know, this was a bit anti-climactic, which I don’t recall Lawhead doing there. That being said, things work out much better in “Bedwyr”, as the battles are generally longer and much harder for Arthur to handle, and so we don’t have this problem; all of the climactic events, in general, have enough content to be worth the build-up. This is why I also like “Bedwyr” better than “Pelleas”.

Next, it’s on to “Pendragon”.

Tropes vs Women: Strategic Butt Coverings

February 5, 2016

Anita Sarkeesian has put up her latest Tropes vs Women video, “Strategic Butt Coverings”. To my surprise, this video is actually shorter than her bonus mini-episode on DLC. As it turns out, this is how things are going to be from now on as she tries to finish the series off. From her Kickstarter post on the subject:

We plan on completing Tropes vs Women in Video Games within the year but it’s going to look a little bit different. Instead of incredibly long videos that focus on one trope and deconstruct hundreds of examples, we are going to break it down into smaller bite-size pieces. We’re going to publish shorter, more focused episodes, by taking the theories and concepts from the remaining tropes and presenting them in 5-10 minute long videos around a very focused topic.

Huh. The main issue I had with most of the videos so far was that there was too much focus on trying to find and sometimes force examples as if posting a huge amount of examples would say something interesting, instead of taking a small number of examples, making reasonable claims based on that, and focusing more on the analysis and making it deeper and better argued. It turns out that generating all of those examples was taking up too much of Sarkeesian’s life, and so now she wants to focus on smaller videos that hopefully she’ll be able to get out faster so that she finally finishes the series. There are two important things about that related to my post here:

1) I’m going to end up saying far more about this specific topic than Sarkeesian does, and this may well carry forward into the future.

2) Given this, it would seem that videos will have to be focused and not have the time to drift into irrelevant topics that would be mostly aside jokes.

So, let’s look at this video, “Strategic Butt Coverings”, which has as one of its main points … the idea that game designers are going to great lengths to cover up the butts of male protagonists, a point so important to Sarkeesian that it’s pretty much what inspires the title of the video.


Anyway, onto the content:

Third-person games with female protagonists typically display those characters in a way that gives players a full-body view. A classic example of this is the original Tomb Raider games, which are presented from a third-person perspective wherein protagonist Lara Croft’s entire body is visible. In these early Tomb Raider games, Lara’s butt is typically right in the center of the screen, a camera orientation which, along with the sexualized clothing the designers chose to outfit her in, places a tremendous amount of emphasis on that part of her body.

In dozens of third-person games with playable female characters, the character’s butt is brought to the forefront and that’s where the player’s focus is directed.

Let’s contrast the way that women’s butts are emphasized with the sometimes absurd lengths taken to cover up or hide men’s butts. If some of this footage looks jerky, that’s because in some games, trying to get a glimpse of male characters’ butts can feel a bit like wrestling with the camera.

Common ways men’s butts are hidden are by preventing the player from seeing below the character’s waistline, or employing a more over-the-shoulder camera angle, which has the added benefit of keeping the character’s butt safely out of the frame. The most amusing solution is to simply include a cape, tunic, long coat or very conveniently positioned piece of tattered fabric which actively prevents the player from getting a clear or sustained look at the protagonist’s butt.

The problem is that this idea that the male protagonist’s butt is habitually covered up in first-person games is, well, generally false. In all sorts of games, especially the games I play — RPGs and MMOs — and especially in the games where you can create your own character and choose their gender — which is the majority of the games I actually play, unless I’m playing JRPGs — in the third person view you get to see the entire character (see TOR, KotOR, Sith Lord, Suikoden III, Shadow Hearts (which is generally only a male character), Mass Effect, Dragon Age, etc). This has led to a very common joke — so common that even I’ve heard it — which I’ll illustrate with Shamus Young’s take on it from his series on LOTRO:

So… character creation time. I’m going to play as a female, because, hey – if I’m going to be staring at an ass for hundreds of hours, it might as well be…

…shaped like a dumpling? Hey baby you got any fries to go with that bowl of yogurt?

Typically, if you play a third-person game, you are going to be staring at a butt for the entire game. Male gamers have joked that this is one main reason to make the main character female, because at least then you’ll be staring at a woman’s butt instead of a man’s butt. And in the Mass Effect case … it didn’t seem to work based on Sarkeesian’s own comments on the game.

And, as it turns out, one of her main examples — Batman in the Arkham games — is plain wrong:

For the purposes of this video I tried to get a glimpse of Batman’s rear end, but it’s as if his cape is a high-tech piece of Wayne Industries equipment designed to cover up his butt at all costs. I like to jokingly refer to this aspect of a male character’s costume as the strategic butt covering.

Except that you can get capeless costumes for old Bats, and it turns out that Nightwing is in the game and can be played for a period of time, and he doesn’t have a cape. In both cases, you’d get to see their butts. So if they were going to extreme lengths to hide them, they didn’t do a very good job of it.

Of course, not all games with male protagonists keep the character’s butt obscured or out of frame like these games do.

And, in fact, most of the third person games don’t do it at all. So why did you name your video after this supposed phenomenon that doesn’t really exist?

The real issue is one of emphasis and definition; a significant portion of third-person games with female protagonists call attention to those characters’ butts in a way that’s meant to be sexually appealing to the presumed straight male player.

Yeah, we know that sometimes or even often games draw attention to the sexual characteristics of women in odd ways. Shamus Young highlights the issue with Miranda in Mass Effect 2, and this was a well-known trope among gamers longer before his latest series, again, so well know that I’d heard about it. I believe that Chuck Sonnenberg over at SF Debris brought it up in his series on The Old Republic, commenting on the exaggerated sway of the hips of the female characters, which made me wonder why I hadn’t noticed it (reason: that’s the one MMO where I only have one female character, which I haven’t played since I joined the first time). Mostly, however, that’s in cutscenes, or in general costuming. And the latter, at least, is something that Sarkeesian has already talked about. So beyond the almost non-existent trope of strategically covering up the butts of men — so limited that it’s not even worth calling a trope, really — there’s nothing new here. Surely if Sarkeesian is going to have more focused videos here, she’s going to have to focus on things that are really there and are really important, no?

Rather, the solution is to deemphasize the rear ends of female characters, so that players are encouraged not to ogle and objectify these women, but to identify and empathize with them as people. This is not an impossible task given that game designers do this all the time with their male characters. It’s time they started consistently doing it with their female characters, too.

Why can’t we do both?

In the same post that I found out about the extra costumes for Batman in the Arkham series, a commenter mentioned JRPGs and their issues with sexualizing characters. Which is true; the character in JRPGs are often dressed up in very sexual and often fetishy costumes, with an emphasis on their … attributes (usually not the butt, oddly enough). Yet, JRPGs that do that also often push us to identify and empathize with them as well, particularly the “dating sim” type of games, where thinking of them as people is rather the point of having to choose which one, if any, you end up with at the end of the game. Let’s take Conception II as an example. It is a very juvenile game, where your female companions dress in very sexy outfits for your dungeon-crawling, tend to be very well-endowed — except for Serina in her normal form, which is a character point for her — and they combine this with rampant Gainaxing (I noticed this with Miss Chloe in the dungeon after one of her special moves). Given that the Classmating mechanism is a thinly veiled allusion to sex — so thinly veiled that, well, there might as well not be a veil at all — this is a game that should embody the sort of objectification that Sarkeesian talks about.

Except … all of the female companions are interesting characters with distinct personalities, so much so that you can’t help but like some and dislike others. My favourites were Chloe Genus, Narika Shina, and Fuuko Amicis. Chloe is smart, strong, capable, caring, and responsible, and was my favourite. Narika is caring, shy and a little unsure of her own abilities, but is just so incredibly nice that it all works. Fuuko is nice as well, but lacks confidence in a way that annoyed me more, but she’s also more outgoing than Narika. As for the others, Torii is utterly flaky but in a way that others might find cute, Ellie is cute and fun and funny but still a bit too flaky for my tastes, Feene tries to mix, it seems to me, eccentricity and cool elegance and it doesn’t work for me, while Serina has a massive chip on her shoulder that just irritates me. But all of them could be interesting and could be interesting to get to know depending on what you personally like. While they all may be somewhat stereotypical, they are also people that you are supposed to get to know and care about, and literally bond with (bond points are the mechanism by which you do good things like produce Star Children and pull off special abilities). You do that by hanging out with them, finding out what is going on in their life, and what they like and don’t like. In short, you treat them like people.

In Persona 3, given the right outfit, you might get a good look at Mitsuru’s butt when she gets a critical. And yet her personality, in game and in her S-link, is developed enough to almost make her my favourite female character ever. Sexy to men and a person aren’t mutually exclusive … and often have to be combined.

Given that, Sarkeesian is focusing too much on shallow appearance in determining if a female character is objectified. What we have to do is look at appearance and, more importantly, how the character is portrayed, and in particular how they are portrayed — ie in what depth and detail — when compared to all the other characters in the game. A game that characterizes no one doesn’t objectify a female character if they fail to characterize her, and a game that characterizes everyone except the main love interest objectifies her even if they put her in baggy pants and don’t show her butt. We need to look deeper, not shallower, if we are going to make games better, keeping what people like about them and adding things that ought to be there.

Thoughts on “Merlin”, Book 2 of the Pendragon Cycle

February 3, 2016

When I wrote my thoughts on “Taliesin”, I had just finished reading it and hadn’t started reading “Merlin” yet. Here, I’m already starting “Bedwyr”, which is the second book in the third novel “Arthur”, and who knows how far I’ll get in the series before this actually comes up in my blog post queue (I’m running about two weeks ahead at the moment). Anyway, on to “Merlin”.


Final Thoughts on “XBlaze: Code Embryo”

February 1, 2016

“XBlaze: Code Embryo” is the first real Japanese-style interactive novel I’ve ever played, and it’s well, okay. The main thrust of the gameplay is that you go through the scenes, but eventually things show up in your TOi (say that out loud as one word) and you can read them or not read them. What you read and don’t read has an impact on the scenes, and presumably on the path you end up taking through the visual novel, and thus on what ending you get.

Unfortunately for this game, I’m a voracious reader, and so will always read everything, which takes you down at least part of Hinata’s path, to an ending that’s a bit strange and that I’m not sure that I understand. But since Hinata was probably my favourite character anyway, that wasn’t really a problem for me.

The main issue is that while the “read articles to shape the story” approach is interesting, it doesn’t work for me. First, I’ll always want to read everything anyway. Second, because it encourages you to check the TOi as often as you can to make sure that you read what you need to read before the events come up, which takes you out of the story mode, as if you’re someone obsessed with checking your texts even while everyone is planning out what steps to take to stop the main issue. Third, it isn’t always clear before you read it what articles impact what people and events, and so focusing on a path is going to be hard unless you memorize the paths or use a guide. Fourth, the story itself isn’t fun enough to make it worth doing, at least for me, and the TOi mechanism itself isn’t fun. Thus, I find that I have absolutely nothing to do, and so all I’m really doing is reading a novel. If I wanted to just read a novel, I’d just read a novel.

Ultimately, the game is okay and was worth playing, and I might even try out some of the other paths later, but I found myself pushing through it just to finish it and see at least one of the endings, and don’t feel much incentive to try it again.

Thoughts on “Dallas” at the half-way point …

January 27, 2016

So, I’ve been watching “Dallas”, and at this point — remember, this is being written a bit ahead of when it gets posted — I’m just starting season 8, so a bit over half-way through. I actually am quite enjoying it. At the start of a season, things may move a bit slowly, but the machinations and plots are still interesting, and it does work like soap operas in that it builds at the end of the season so that you really want to see what’s going to happen next, leading up to the season-ending cliff-hanger. As a soap-opera, it’s also the case that I can watch it while doing other things, or even while I’m winding down before sleeping, because if I fall asleep or don’t pay attention to something the show will, in fact, let me know what I missed at some point if it’s at all important. That being said, there does seem to be some foreshadowing and plot threads dropped that can be picked up again (or not) later, which is a sign of good soap-opera plotting; a lot of the later plot threads don’t really come out of nowhere, but out of things that could be utterly unimportant if they don’t fit, but can be critical hints if they do.

Anyway, some other thoughts on the series:

1) When I recalled this series, I remember being mostly sympathetic to Pam, and she is seen as one of the “better” characters in the show. Watching it this time, however, I’m utterly unsympathetic to her … although she’s getting a little better in late season 7 and season 8. The reason is that she’s turned into a “I’m always right” character, which is what I hate about Leanne on Coronation Street: Pam can do things that be considered right and also get upset about other people who do similar things (but not as bad) and also be considered right. It actually ends up worse for Pam because one of her big foils is Bobby, who is probably the most genuinely good character on the entire show. From the start, Pam had to insist on having her own job, even when the demands of that job meant that she and Bobby didn’t get to spend time together. And Bobby was just so completely reasonable about that, reasonably upset and maybe commenting on her not really needing a job, but being understanding the in first place. Then he had to put up with her not wanting a child, then heading for a nervous breakdown without one, leading him to desperate measures — and an accident — to get one to make her happy. Then Jock dies and put J.R. and Bobby into competition for Ewing Oil, which means that it takes up more of Bobby’s time. And then she’s upset with Bobby for spending that much time there, and also notes that he’s changed to become more like J.R. when, really, he hasn’t (and, in fact, one of the reasons he bowed out of running Ewing Oil the first time was that he understood that it required him to do things that he didn’t want to do). Bobby’s biggest sin is putting the screws to the Cartel in that they either have to pump oil or buy him out, which offends them — and Pam — greatly … except that all of them would have done the same things if not worse to him for far less motivation. Bobby points out at one point that while Pam thinks he’s changing, he’s always been this competitive and ambitious, and it’s true. Even when he bowed out of Ewing Oil at the start of the series, he immediately went into development, and worked to win. Despite his changes, he’s still genuinely good most of the time, as his deal with the Canadians revealed (that’s why they wanted to work with him, and he treated them fairly when he went in with them). So Pam’s objections are far too strong there.

It gets worse when they separate. Pam almost immediately ends up with Mark Grayson, and even while they are supposed to be trying to save the marriage is going places and “dating” someone who is obviously and openly trying to break up the marriage so that he can have her, while Bobby is remaining focused on rebuilding the marriage. That doesn’t make us want to be on Pam’s side. But when Pam is in Paris and her and Mark are supposedly about to sleep together, Pam gets a phone call from Afton saying that Bobby and Katherine, Pam’s sister, might be up to something, so she storms home and angrily confronts both of them for doing … at worst, what she was doing with Mark. And there was nothing going on, not even to the extent of her and Mark, which she never really apologizes for, and when Bobby confronts her about Mark, she doesn’t seem to realize that he ought to be feeling what she was feeling, but instead expresses it as if this is such a hard thing for her to have to deal with, as opposed to him. While, sure, it’d be hard for her to decide between them she shouldn’t have been in that position in the first place. The show should be showing her as being not really pure and Bobby as being hard put upon, but it seems to frame it as the other way around, which makes me dislike Pam.

She gets a bit better when she decides to marry Mark because he doesn’t have long to live, but for the most part she’s irrational and self-absorbed, and yet we’re supposed to think that she’s a great and good character. The fact that she most commonly plays against Bobby who is not that irrational and self-absorbed only makes it worse.

2) At this point, there really is nothing for Lucy to do in the show. When the show was focused on Pam, their relationship and how it evolved over time would be interesting, but when J.R. got more focus, there was little for her to do. She wasn’t in any way smart or powerful enough to be any threat to J.R., and knew nothing about and had no interest in Ewing Oil, and the focus had to switch to that because that was just so important to J.R.. Even when she was managing her father’s voting rights in the company, all she ever did was vote against J.R., which, honestly, is what her father would do anyway. Even the plot where she was raped and then had to learn to allow someone else to be romantic with her would have been done better with Pam or Donna, where how that impacted their husbands could have been explored. There’s really nothing for her to do in the show anymore.

3) Katherine Wentworth’s actress can’t really handle the role she was in, or she’s gotten bad direction. She’s supposed to be manipulative, but how she presents her plans makes you really think that she is up to something, because a lot of the time what she says seems artificial. You have to wonder what she’s up to because she doesn’t seem genuine in her words, unlike how Larry Hagman plays J.R.. I also don’t think that the obsession she ends up with for Bobby is all that believable; he’s certainly a good catch, but that she’d fall that strongly in love with him that quickly, and think that she can win him over? It comes up too quickly, mostly I think because she’s a minor character early in the show and the obsession is already full-blown when she returns. I think the actress is attractive and that the character has potential, but as J.R. said she really is just not as smart as him … or any of the great manipulators on the show, which would include Sue Ellen and probably Pam.

4) Afton Cooper started out as a very manipulative person, but by this point is another one of the genuinely good people in the show, which is a nice progression. It also ends up hurting our view of Cliff, because he really does treat her badly most of the time. I ended up really disliking him — which makes me want J.R. to crush him — and wanted to see her find someone better than him, not being able to understand what she saw in him at that point. What’s good about this is that the show can be seen, instead of as a big clash between J.R. and Cliff, as a clash between J.R. and Bobby, which is a much more interesting relationship to explore, especially considering that they both do seem to actually love each other when they aren’t fighting over something. Cliff, then, is the puppy yapping at J.R.’s heels … which doesn’t make me happy that at the end of season 7 he actually succeeds.

So far I’m enjoying the show, and I only have a few more months to get through all 14 seasons.

Final Thoughts: Conception II

January 25, 2016

I finished Conception II, and it was the most disappointing ending I could possibly imagine. I had maxed out the affection with all of the companions, and had spent most of my time focusing on Miss Cloe, because she was my favourite out of all of them (I also liked Fuuko and Narika, but the only character I really disliked was Serina, but that archetype seems to be quite popular in Japanese RPGs/Interactive Novels). I went through all of the stage interactions with them, repeatedly, and expected at some point by the end of the game I’d have to choose which one to settle on. And, much to my surprise, the game proceeded on and I ended up with the “no one likes you” ending, where you tag along with Clotz and Luce on their “date”. What, wait happened?

Well, it turns out that in order to actually get to choose who to go to the final festival with, you have to do the Classmating to advance their personal stories. While playing, I was wondering why those stories seemed to have stalled, but thought it might just be that they were pretty much at the end and so there wasn’t anything new. So why wasn’t I Classmating? Well, it uses bond points, and I had all the Star Children I wanted, the level of the city was reasonable, and I was using bond points to Mechunite to help me clear the dungeons so that I didn’t have to grind so much. This meant that I was grinding the individual story scenes — seeing the same ones over and over and over again — to build up bond points anyway; the last thing I wanted was to spend them on something that I didn’t need to do.

And so, because of that, I didn’t get the ending I wanted. In all fairness, I think this was something that I had known about when I was playing it the first time, and it was only the long lay off that made me forget this, and so end up with the ending I didn’t want. It was still disappointing, though.

However, this, to me, highlights the major and serious flaw in Conception II: its grinding. How did I get into this mess? I was trying to avoid grinding levels in dungeons, and so a) wanted to stick with the Star Children I had and b) wanted to use the Mechunite to allow me to survive encounters that I wouldn’t survive in a simple straight fight, including the boss fights. In order to do that, I had to consume bond points, but grinding bond points was easier for me than grinding dungeons, especially since I was always cash-strapped. But Classmating would have used those points and required me to grind that more, and the grinding of that simply wasn’t fun. Since I didn’t need the Star Children, it would have been grinding for no real reason, and so boring. Ultimately, then, too much of the game is spent trying to reduce how much you grind, or grinding, which is not fun.

Which is a shame, because the characters are interesting, and their stories and reactions are worth exploring. Compared to Akiba’s Trip, the character stories and personalities are deeper and more interesting, and the plot is more involved and entertaining. Conception II should just be a better game than Akiba’s Trip, but I don’t like it as much, because the grinding is just too much for me. Which is a shame.

Ultimately, my conclusion is if they can tighten up the main story and remove a lot of the grinding, then they’d have a worthy competitor to the Personas. They can even keep the lighter tone and the more goofy interactions, as long as they stop breaking the mood by starting a very, very serious scene and then trashing that with an utterly ridiculous statement. The game is juvenile, but if they weave that better through the game it could be very entertaining. But with the grinding as it is, the game is okay, but not really worth playing over and over again.

I don’t know if I’ll ever play out the remaining stories. On a restart and load you can start late in the game, so that you don’t have too much left to do, and so hopefully be able to experience each story with a minimum of grinding … but the final battles weren’t fun for me, and the grinding you have to do is also not fun, so I think I’ll pass. Ultimately, Conception II is a bunch of decent ideas killed by gameplay that’s far too grindy to be truly entertaining.

That Dragon, Cancer … and Issues With Reviews

January 22, 2016

So, I still do peruse the Feminist Frequency site, and recently came across this review of “That Dragon, Cancer” by Carolyn Petit which manages to, I think, represent the precise type of review that I don’t find helpful, and advocates for the work in ways that I think many people are becoming upset with across the board, in video games, TV and movies, and science fiction/fantasy novels. So, first, let me invite you to go and read the review, in its entirety. Don’t worry, it’s not long. When you’re done, I’ll have two questions for you.

Done? Okay, now answer me this:

1) What is the actual gameplay of the game?

2) What does the gameplay of the game do to enhance the overall message that the game conveys?

If you can’t remember the answers to those questions, feel free to go back and read it again. I’ll wait.

Okay, now maybe I’m just missing something and maybe there are answers to those questions in the review, but as far as I can tell the reason that you can’t answer those questions upon reading the review is that those things are never talked about in the review. So, she’s reviewing a game, and yet doesn’t seem to mention anything about what the game is like, well, as a game. It’s all about the message. In fact, after reading it the first time I actually thought that this was some kind of web series or something, and not a game at all, and then looked back and found at least three places where she calls this a game. So, I guess this is a game. But from her review, I can’t even tell if it’s a game, and I certainly know nothing about it as a game. How in the world do you get a game review that doesn’t even mention the parts of it that would, in fact, make it a game?

Even worse, nothing that Petit mentions are things that wouldn’t work equally as well in a short animated film, film or novel … and, in fact, they might work better. For example, she praises it for this:

The game reveals how living with Joel’s cancer for years was simultaneously a source of tremendous difficulty and exhaustion and pain for the Greens, and how, when you live with something like that for so long, it becomes woven into your normal, everyday lives. We hear a voicemail from Amy as she’s on her way back from the hospital in which she tells Ryan to preheat the oven for the lasagna they’re making for dinner. Life doesn’t stop. You have to keep on living, doing all the things you’d normally do. But when your life is full of hospital visits and impossible conversations with doctors, you also learn to hate some of the “normal” little specific things that become part of the texture of your life. At one point, Ryan mentions how he has come to hate the way the vinyl of hospital chairs sticks to his skin. Precise details like this put you in the day-to-day lives of the Greens.

But all of this can be conveyed very effectively in films and in novels. While I’ll say that games can indeed be art, what games are going to bring to art and to conveying messages is the fact that you are the one doing it and the one who is in this situation, and so aren’t merely voyeuristically observing the lives of other people. For a game to really have an impact here as a game it’s going to force you to make those decisions, to deal with those situations, and form those opinions with you in the role of the people involved somehow. Petit comments on none of that, and in fact implies that that isn’t the case; you observe them as they live their lives, with no real ability to alter or change it or else you couldn’t really be experiencing what their lives were like. Yes, games can pull off that sort of thing, but there’s nothing in her review to suggest that any of that is what happened, as you don’t seem to play as yourself, and all of her examples are of you listening to their words and their reactions, not what your reactions are in response to that situation.

In the artistic games that work, you either are doing the things yourself and so get to experience it from the first-person perspective, or else you are forced to make choices that impact the lives of the people in the game and how things play out. An example of the first is “Papers, Please”, which I recall (but cannot find quickly) Shamus Young raving about, and saying just that: the game, as a game, is utterly frustrating and not fun, but it’s great because it forces you to actually live that life, and face the same choices — and outcomes — that they do. Another game whose title I don’t even remember that was also talked about on his site somewhere is one where there is a family with someone who is trying to be an author, and you have to make decisions for the family and how they react, which impacts what kind of life the family ends up with at the end. What these games do is leverage the one thing that games bring to the artistic table that pretty much nothing else does, which is the interactive nature of it.

Without that interactive nature, it’s hard to say that they’re games at all, let alone good ones. Another example from Shamus Young (and I can find the link this time) is “The Path”, but it’s debatable whether that’s really a game or not. You get to explore the world to experience the stories of the girls, but if that exploration is nothing more than the equivalent of “walk across to room to get your non-interactive cutscene” then maybe it’s not really a game at all. If That Dragon, Cancer is just you clicking around to see cutscenes that simply show you what’s going on with the characters, then it might not even rise to the level of interactive novel/movie, let alone a good and quality game.

Look, to be a game, in my view, you have to do at least one of two things that play on the interactivity. You either have to have my actions matter to the game, or you have to give me a lot of things to do in the game that are preconditions to my getting to the non-interactive cutscenes that advance the story. So a game where I have conversation options that, at the end of the day, ultimately change — even in small ways — how the story plays out and how it ends would count (the traditional interactive movie/novel model) counts, or alternatively a game where the story is fixed but I have to engage in puzzles or combat in order to advance (RPGs, adventure games, FPSs, strategy games, and the like) definitely count as well. And sure, games without stories count as games as well, because they are all about the things you have to do in the game, and so all about you interacting with them. From the description in the review, I’m not convinced that this is even present in the game. Now, I haven’t played or even looked up this game, but it seems to me that if you claim to do a review of a game and I can’t tell anything about the gameplay and can’t tell if it’s even really a game from your review, then you didn’t really do anything that should count as a review of the game.

Which leads back to my starting point: Petit seems to be engaging in a “message” review, where she is extolling the virtues of the message the game delivers — and, to some extent, how effective it is, in her mind, at delivering it — while completely ignoring the details of the game itself. If you add in the fact that most people won’t want to praise a work for delivering a message that they dislike — at least cancer is a relatively politically neutral topic, but some others, especially some advocated for on that very site, are not — and you hit the sort of politicized reviews that I loathe and that people are complaining about: people with vested political interests positively reviewing a work because it aligns with their worldview, not because it’s a good work. Petit clearly thinks that the message is profound and meaningful, but provides no details on the work itself or how it works as a game. Thus, her review is, in my opinion, worse than useless.

If this is the future of gaming reviews, then I want no part of it.

Thoughts on “Taliesin”, Book 1 of the Pendragon Cycle

January 20, 2016

By the time this gets posted, I’ll certainly at least be into if not through the second book of this series, but as I type right now, at this very instant, I’ve only finished this, the first book. I know that this is only the first book in a series, and so it’s a little odd to write a “review” of it, but that’s what I’m going to try to do. What I won’t do is claim that this is an objective review of the book, even though I’ll give reasons for my opinion, because most of my reasons and discussion are about style and how things seemed to me, which is much less objective than what I normally do. Anyway, let me start with my overall impression of the book:


There will be spoilers, so I’ll continue below the fold:


Thoughts on the revamped TOR

January 6, 2016

So, I’ve spent far too much time playing “The Old Republic” over my recent vacation, with it completely taking over two full days that, well, I probably should have at least spent some time doing other things. I’ve now completed 6 out of the 8 class stories, although almost all of those were completely under the old system, and not the new system that came in when “Knights of the Fallen Empire” was launched, which as a subscriber I have access to but haven’t started yet.

Now, I’m a Not-So-Casual Gamer, which means that I’ve heard a bit about what has changed and what all of this means, but don’t really know what all of that means. So all I have to go on is my own personal impressions of what is going on, which may be wildly inaccurate for all I know. Keeping that in mind, let me talk about the things that I’ve noticed so far.

First, they explicitly claim that you can level through to the end of the game only doing the class missions because of the XP boost that they give. Now, they’re running a Double XP event at the moment, but I spent a lot of time on my Bounty Hunter before that kicked in and know that when I ran on rest XP with a major experience boost (which might be doing nothing at all at that point, but what else do I have to spend Cartel Coins on?) I was able to get and keep my Bounty Hunter leveled over the level caps for the planets doing the class missions, planetary story arc missions, and the remaining general missions, as I’ve never done heroics. I needed to do that and do the bonus missions to do that for other characters. So it looks like, in general, I might be able to maintain my general strategy of victory through massive overleveling just going the class and planetary story arc missions, with some of the remaining general missions thrown in.

There also seem to be less of those around. I remember on most planets I always ran the planet arc, class, and two or three general missions in each sector to get my levels, and on my Bounty Hunter playthrough I noticed a number of areas that didn’t have any of those, or only one or two. The boost in XP for class missions allows them to only keep the quests there that were entertaining, and not have to have ones there just so people could gain XP, so that might be intentional. Or they might be adding some back; finishing off my Jedi Knight (the first character I created way back in 2012) I saw a lot more missions around … but I was high enough level and was pushing to finish the game so I completely ignored them. Hopefully, the missions will be more fun and less for XP gain.

It also seems that the game is trying to make it so that you don’t need a specific companion in order to proceed, as all of them can take on the various roles. Now, I’m always overleveled if I can manage it, so I’m not the best judge, but I had no issues with Mako in a healing role on my Bounty Hunter and made it through relatively easily with Kira Carson in the same role for my Jedi Knight, although I noticed that I was very luck dependent there — as my HP would sometimes get pretty low in some encounters, while in other, almost identical encounters it never moved — which wasn’t the case for my Bounty Hunter. That being said, I seemed to have less issues with that when I took T7 out at the last mission (it’s a forced choice) … but then I was avoiding combat more because after playing for about 11 hours I really just wanted to finish the story [grin].

Finally, it seems to me that the companion system is revamped. Originally, you had to build certain affection/influence with them before they’d talk to you and you could progress their stories, and the stories were also tied to certain chapters of the class story, so no matter how much they liked you they wouldn’t talk to you about anything else until you hit that point. This also meant that you could max out affection with them, and had to do see all of the story. For me, this meant that I took the “soft” skills — Diplomacy, Investigation, Treasure Hunting — that would get you companion gifts as rewards, and ran through them getting gifts for my companions in order to build affection. Thus, Quinn would be sent to get things that hopefully Vette would like, and Risha would be sent to get something nice for herself or that I’d pass on if she didn’t like it.

Now, though, it seems that the progression is independent of affection level, and just pops up at certain points through the class story, and all you have to do is go and talk to them. This is more consistent with what happens in KotOR and Mass Effect, and it’s even more obvious when this happens. In a sense, I like this, but it seems to make the professions useless for me. I’m not interested in crafting, and don’t need more credits (after offloading a lot of my credits to one of my other characters long ago, my Jedi Knight went from 120000 to 600000 in the span of level 45 to level 60). Treasure Hunting’s giving you lockboxes for equipment is interesting and was very useful for my Bounty Hunter, but for the most part I got enough equipment during the class missions to keep me going that it didn’t matter. So I’m not sure why I’d ever want to do that, especially since it seems they’ve taken away the special abilities of the companions in relation to those sorts of missions, so there isn’t even a personal touch to it.

This also means that I have no idea what affection level does. It’s now massively boosted (to 50) which is really hard to get, I think (I was giving Mako everything she wanted and only hit late 20s), but there’s no point in trying to do that if I don’t get anything out of it, so on my Knight they all stayed at about 10 or so. Maybe there’s something good that comes out of doing that, but if it isn’t the companion stories, then I don’t know what it is.

So far, the changes seem fine and seem to allow me to progress faster with less busywork, which is a nice thing. I’ll have to see how Knights of the Fallen Empire works when I get around to it, but I think I want to finish my Trooper and Imperial Agent first.

Final Thoughts on Akiba’s Trip

January 4, 2016

So, I recently finished the game again, getting Shizuku’s ending. It turns out that once you can turn on the option to see which options increase trust with each member, there are only a small number of decisions you can make in order to get each character’s trust, and that since some of them are mutually exclusive you can’t get all of them in one go. Maybe. Who can say?

The game is short, at least in terms of story and side missions, and so it makes it relatively easy to replay to get different endings, and as I said earlier the characters are all interesting, and so it makes it that you might want to actually do that. That being said, I think I have too many games to play and too many things on the go right now to dedicate to that.

Overall, on easy, the combat could often be frustrating due to it not being clear when you had to hit things and when things were hitting you, but in general it was easy enough that I could get through even the toughest missions with only minimal replays (the second one with the idols was typically the one that messed me up). The combat is constant, but mostly unobtrusive; it generally turns out to be a short thing that you have to do before you can get back to the story parts and side missions. So, unlike some other games, the combat isn’t something that I feel the need to avoid or skip; it just happens and then goes away, so you don’t have to focus on it. I’d probably do even better at it if I, well, actually learned how to dodge and block [grin].

I really liked how on replays the game opens up the choices and lets you build a custom avatar. Sure, that doesn’t show up in the “cutscenes” where they show your character, but it lets you build a personalized personality that can guide you through the game, which is what I did. The options are pretty detailed, although I wish it was easier to customize your look without having to worry so much about the qualities of the clothes you’re wearing. I assume that the sister modification portion was supposed to allow for that, but I could never really get the hang of that and with a game like this couldn’t be bothered to spend the time to figure it out.

Ultimately, at the end of the day, this is a fun, light game that’s pretty enjoyable. The story is relatively entertaining but doesn’t take itself all that seriously, but lends itself to taking on a more serious aspect in your responses while not breaking the utter ludicrousness of the game itself, something that Shizuku herself absolutely epitomizes. As I said previously, I wanted more, and there may be more to it (there are supposed to be a ton of minigames that I never found), but what I got was fun and made this game be worth my getting. Of the JRPG games that I’ve played recently, so far this is probably the best. It can’t compare to the Personas, but it definitely gives Lost Dimension a run for its money.


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