Tuesday, November 6, 2018

I'm Like an Addict

When I finished this blog, I swore I'd never come out of retirement. And I am technically keeping my promise . . . by doing something almost, but not quite exactly the same, only with my tabletop rpg collection this time.


You know, just in case your one complaint about this blog was that it was not niche nerdy enough.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

One last, self-indulgent good-bye.

I used to think it funny was when an athlete or musician or other performer would ostentatiously and publicly announce their retirement, only to come back a few months (or even years) later and try and take it back. I thought it was silly for them to quit while they still had a love for their craft, and just a little bit pitiable for them to throw away the dignity of going out on top for just a little bit more time in the limelight.

I don't think that anymore.

I've spent the last couple of days thinking about loopholes. Ways I could keep doing the blog indefinitely without looking like I was going back on my word. I even, briefly, secretly hoped that someone would buy me a dozen cheap and terrible games as a last-minute prank, so I wouldn't have to take responsibility for how I feel.

But there's no need for that. I'm not retiring the blog because I got sick of it. It's natural, then, to feel ambivalent. I could do this forever and be perfectly happy in the pursuit.

I'm stopping because I came to realize that as time went on, my ratio of unique insights to random time-killing posts was starting to skew towards the trite. I'm a person who is driven to create, and I knew that if I kept doing this, my skills would begin to stagnate. If I ever wanted to explore new areas of writing, criticism, and game design, I would have to move on to something else.

So let me just say directly what I'm feeling - I'm sad that this is ending, but I'm excited to see what come next.

I think I've learned a lot in the last four years. When I started out, I was hesitant to say there was such a thing as a "bad" game. Over time, I relaxed and let myself be a little more catty, but as time went on, my understanding deepened. There's no game, aside from possibly Sakura Spirit, that I regret playing, though there are more than a few (especially Sakura Spirit) that I regret trying to play for 20 hours. Every game (except - oh, you know) had some merit, and often even the ones that were really flawed showed a unique idea or were the production of passion and determined work. And that's beautiful. So even if I would now be willing to say that there are bad games, I'm not so sure if there's such a thing as a contemptible one.

My biggest regret for the blog is that I started off with the absurd goal of "all games for at least 20 hours," as if their worth could be measured on a clock. I realize now that I should have said "until I've beaten it, or 20 hours, whichever comes first." It likely wouldn't have saved me much time, but would have spared a few decent games the brunt of my wrath.

The most rewarding thing about doing the blog was the mandate to play things that I would not have played otherwise. I likely would never have seen the end of Dangerous High School Girls In Trouble or Cthulhu Saves The World if not for my goal, and I probably would not have toughed out the early learning curve of games like One Way Heroics or Blood Bowl 2, if I'd had the luxury of quitting when things got hard. And I most certainly would never have even thought to play games like X3: Terran Conflict or Skyborn, if not for the generosity of my readers. Before I started, I had a niche, a comfort zone where I liked to stay. Now . . . well, I still have the niche, but I know I won't wither and die if I venture outside it.

It took me four years to get to where I am now, which absolutely boggles my mind. I could have gotten a second degree in that time, and in all likelihood it would have taken me less work. That's why I'm going to wrap up the blog by awarding myself an honorary Bachelor of Arts in the field of video game journaling.

That was not a typo for "journalism" - my phoney-baloney degree is definitely in a phoney-baloney field. But I wouldn't have it any other way.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt - 20/20 hours

I thought for sure I was going to get more time with this game, but over the last couple of days I've been hit with one responsibility after another - train the new guy at work, go shopping for a wheelchair-bound friend, watch season 2 of Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency. I've been swamped.

So this is going to be my last ever post about playing a game for the blog. I've got to make it count. Go out on something profound and insightful . . .

I just spent eight hours dicking around in the woods chasing map markers. Man, this is one well-realized dark medieval fantasy world.

Good-bye and good luck, everyone. It's been a wonderful four years!

Okay, that's not how I'm going to end it. But it is true that I made literally zero progress in The Witcher 3's main story, so I can't really talk about the game's themes, or how I was inspired philosophically. All I can really say is that The Witcher 3 was the single greatest concentration of sensual pleasure I've gotten from a game since Mass Effect Andromeda, and that's probably not a coincidence.

Over the course of the years, I've played a lot of indie games, and a lot of games that were spectacular blockbusters 10+ years ago, but it has become rare for me to play something near the cutting edge (and, of course, this is all relative - The Witcher 3 is from 2015) and I guess I've forgotten how much artistry and expertise goes into games these days. I'd like to say that classics like Deus Ex hold up, because I'm sentimental that way, and more than a little skeptical of a "newer is always better" philosophy, but they really don't. The Witcher 3 was so beautiful, so smooth and precise in its controls, so filled with detail and character that I'm actually worried I won't even be able to go back to Skyrim.

Skyrim, of all things! Can you believe it?

Maybe I'm being unfair. The Witcher 3 was lauded as a masterpiece, so it's likely to stack up well even against future games that are not themselves brilliantly realized by the standards of the day. But still, it's undeniable that gaming has not just accumulated more and more titles, it has advanced. I can't really say exactly what I mean by that, because it's clearly not a direct straight line - there will likely never be a video game greater than Tetris, inside the puzzle genre or out of it - but I can't deny that the industry is learning.

Open world games tend to follow a formula, and while Breath of the Wild probably opened up some new avenues for designers to explore, The Witcher 3 probably does the old model as well as it's ever going to be done.  What they both have in common is that they are both massive worlds that nevertheless pull off the trick of not feeling like they have a lot of wasted empty space. And that can only be the result of two decades worth of experience in what makes open worlds fun. I guess if it were easy to put into words, anyone could do it.

I'm definitely going to keep playing The Witcher 3, though perhaps not with the fervor of being on a schedule. I want to explore every nook and cranny, see every monster, discover an awesomely powerful build. Plus, I looked up spoilers online and learned that there is not a Geralt-Ciri relationship, so I can proceed with the confidence of knowing at least one unsettling plot point won't be sneaking in to ambush me. Also, I owe the maker's of this game an apology for doubting them. I could offer the multiple gross sex scenes of the original as an excuse, but they've had to deal with the creepy fans who have been complaining about the lack of Geralt x Ciri for three years now, so I feel like maybe they've suffered enough (seriously, do not go looking into internet discussion on this topic).

I'm wracking my brain thinking of more things to say about The Witcher 3, because I know that when this post is done, I'm going to stop writing about games indefinitely, but truthfully, most of what I could come up with are either overblown praises for small details (I like how you only have to gather the exotic ingredients for a potion the first time you make it, then they replenish themselves from your stock of alcohol whenever you rest, a mechanic that neatly solves the problem of potion hoarding while also keeping a large part of the feel of witcher alchemy) or just vague generalities that I've probably already said a dozen times before (war really sucks and I like that this game doesn't gloss over that).

So please, ignore the claw marks on the floor and pretend that I've exited this project with a modicum of dignity. . .

 The Witcher 3 is good enough to make me forget about its dubious gender politics (okay, that's the last one, I swear).

Good-bye and good luck, everyone. It's been a wonderful four years.

Monday, June 18, 2018

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt - 12/20 hours

It has become obvious to me that there's no way I'm going to finish this game before the 20 hours are up. In all likelihood, I won't even be able to finish it before the 21st, though I'm expecting I'll get an easy 30-40 hours by then. Call it a hunch. Call it "me having heard before that The Witcher 3 has a ridiculous amount of content" But whatever it is, I'm certain this is a game that will last me for a long time.

Which is kind of nice, when I think about it. It will make for a seamless transition from blogging games to just playing them as a civilian once again. The Witcher 3 just happens to be exactly the game I want to play right now, and I'll wind up playing it in exactly the way I've historically played games like this - futilely chasing 100% completion and then eventually giving up when the remaining tasks get too hard or something new catches my eye. The circle of life.

I have managed to advance the plot just a bit, though. I wound up clearing all the side missions and map markers in the first area and was forced to move on to the next. It was kind of interesting. I got to meet an emperor. And for once Geralt's and my opinions happened to line up well on the subject of monarchy (neither of us is a fan). I got the feeling that I was missing a lot of subtext from the second game (and the end part of the first), but it was pretty cool that Yennifer turned out to be working as a vaguely menacing plenipotentiary agent of this sinister king.

And I like the thrust of the main plot, in general. Geralt raised and trained this young girl, Ciri, who was a very precocious student of the witchers' arts, but it turns out that she was related to this sinister king fellow (Geralt probably knew that all along, but it came as a surprise to me) and now the king wants her to come home. Except that she's on the run, probably from her past and definitely from the ghoulish undead/faerie spirits who are chasing her like a pack of starving dogs. So my first task is to track her down using Geralt's ye olde CSI techniques and it looks like, as I find the major waypoints on her trail, I will have to play brief side missions as Ciri, using meaningful echoes of Geralt's own skills as a way to establish a powerful emotional connection between the characters even if they share no scenes directly.

My only worry is that Geralt is going to try and fuck her.

It's probably groundless. Undoubtedly this is just residual trauma from the sex trading cards of the original game and I'm being completely unfair. The codex described Ciri as Geralt's "adopted daughter," and that's got to mean that the writers are aware that a relationship between the two will have creepy, incestuous subtext. And Geralt has always been portrayed as a stand up guy, even when he's being a bit mercenary with his witcher services. There's no way they'd go there.

And yet, Ciri went from being a cute little kid in the opening dream sequence to a svelte, platinum blonde battle vixen in her playable scenes. This is undoubtedly done for the benefit of the game's male fanbase (or perhaps so reflexively that no one even considered going another way), but it feels like Chekhov's male gaze. When Geralt and Ciri eventually and inevitably meet, the only course that is sensible, responsible, and humane is to treat it as a reunion between a father and a daughter. Geralt will express worry and relief, and Ciri, being a spunky action heroine, will make some quip about him taking too long to find her and they will continue on as a cool adventure team.

Except I just know that there are sleazeballs out there who won't care anything about that and simply relish the idea of seeing Ciri in a state of digital dishabille. And I worry that they might be a powerful enough faction that the developers would see fit to cater to them, even if just in an optional side path.

I mean, if this game were made in the 50s, it wouldn't even be a thing. Geralt would just look her up and down and quip, "my, but you have grown," and that would be it. It would never even occur to them to question the relationship. Of course adult men will be interested in romancing the barely post-adolescent women they once knew as children. That's what barely post-adolescent women are for.

I have to confess. A part of me was prejudiced against this game going into it. I'd heard that it was popular among gamergate types and that they would often hold it up as the ideal of what video games should be. It's only because I'd also heard it praised by virtually everyone else that I didn't immediately dump it into the "never in a million years" pile. I'm certain that if the game had that kind of stinking turd of a subplot, I'd have picked it up on social justice twitter or something and the praise would have been a lot more one-sided.

So there you have it. Twelve hours into the game and I waste everyone's time by writing five paragraphs on an unjustified anxiety that just popped into my head when I saw Ciri's ye olde medieval bra strap. What can I say? If not for asides like this, all my posts would be variations of "I just spent six hours dicking around in the woods chasing map markers. Man, this is one well-realized dark medieval fantasy world."

And I've got to save something for the finale.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt - 6/20 hours

I got to spend the last four hours playing the good part of The Witcher 3. And that is not as backhanded as it sounds. The good part is really damned good. Traipsing around the countryside, slaying monsters, finding treasure, and doing favors for people in open-world ARPG style is a proven formula, and it has yet to let me down.

Which isn't meant to put The Witcher 3 in the same class as Two Worlds, a game whose only real strength was its genre. First of all, The Witcher 3's mechanics are as polished as anything I've ever seen in this sort of game. The combat is fast and fluid enough to make Skyrim's feel like your character is wearing a full-body mitten. The scenery is beautiful, which seems like it should be a superficial detail, but when I crest a hill and look down into a field of golden wheat rustling in the wind, I feel a profound sense of . . . something. (I was going to say "connection to nature," but that is clearly ridiculous, and I am not yet that divorced from reality).

And there are indirect things that contribute to The Witcher 3's amazing feel as well. The scale of the map is probably the closest to reality any of these things have ever been. I'm still in the first area, a small village called White Orchard, and it feels just like a small village. Which is to say that it is larger and more populous than any of the major cities in Skyrim. It's likely not the size such a place would be in real life, but it is giving me something I've been wanting for a long time - an open world fantasy game that does not try to abstract the life of an entire kingdom and just densely packs its story into a small corner of the world. This illusion is not likely to last the entire game, I'm sure, but for now it's very refreshing.

Also, the side quests are uniformly pretty good. Not once have I been asked to deliver a letter to someone's cousin asking to borrow a cup of sugar that I would subsequently have to go to the store and buy myself. The NPCs have thus far respected my time and expertise. They ask me to do things like clear a ghost out of a well or hunt down an arsonist.

Speaking of which, those sidequests I mentioned were pretty neat (there were others that were less memorable, like the time I had to go into a house and retrieve a pot for an old woman, but even that qualified as "respecting my time and expertise" because the house was filled with dead bodies). I had to use my witcher senses to gather clues and follow trails, like some kind of fantasy Sherlock Holmes.

If all the side missions are as good these have been, I may never get around to finding Yennifer (and you know what, I'm cool with that, if it means never again having to see her nude.)

Friday, June 15, 2018

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt - 2/20 hours

I do not think I'd be friends with Geralt of Rivia. He is often sarcastic, when I'd favor tact and he will threaten violence when I'd prefer to deescalate a situation. And call it a consequence of knowing so much about his aggressively heterosexual sex life, but he has an aura of macho wish fulfillment about him that would probably just come across as pathetic in real life.

Now, just because I don't like him doesn't mean that he's a bad character. It's just I can't shake the feeling that I've stepped into someone else's fantasy. Like, if Geralt were just a bellicose jerk with an ill-timed sense of irony, he'd just be another video game antihero. His personality isn't substantially different than Alex Mercer's, and I loved Prototype.

But there's something about the way he's portrayed that I just can't put my finger on. It's like the game desperately wants to make him into a sex symbol, but not like the kind of sex symbol that is widely lusted after by regular people as a sort of unattainable ideal, but the kind of sex symbol that is a symbolic stand-in for the purest possible expression of heterosexual male sexuality. He's a male sex symbol for men.

So the game starts with a Geralt nude scene, but the whole thing feels like it's setting up an alibi for the inevitable accusations that the game objectifies its female characters. You've got Geralt in a tub, legs splayed and draped over the edge, but the water obscures most of his body. Then he gets out and there's full rear nudity, but his sexy, muscular back is covered in ugly scars. His face is prettier than I remembered, and he cuts a dashing figure in his flowing swashbuckler shirt, so it's credible that he's attractive, but I'm left feeling like the very purpose of his existence is to say to players "this is what it feels like to be an alpha." The fantasy here isn't "hey, let's watch this sexy guy do his thing," it's "play this guy and you can be sexy vicariously."

I didn't really mean to focus on the game's sexual politics so much and so early, but it really does throw them at you right off the bat. Yennifer is there in the opening scene, fully nude, still looking so conventionally beautiful it's like Geralt ordered her out of a catalogue. As you search the chamber for the key to go to the next area, Geralt makes a crack about how all her clothes are black and white, and then she immediately uses that as an excuse to talk about her underwear. Later, you track her down by describing her smell, which isn't inherently sexual, but come on. It's weird. I feel like I need to slowly back out the door and knock before reentering.

Which is a shame, because I think I'm going to like nearly everything else about this game. I was afraid it wasn't going to run on my laptop and I'm certain that I'm seeing close to the ugliest possible version of the game, but even so, it's beautiful. The wide, clear vistas have a gorgeous backdrop of far-off mountains. The foliage is diverse and colorful without crossing the line into the fanciful. And even the in-door areas are lushly decorated in ways that give a very distinct sense of place. Geralt may or may not be hot, but the wall treatments in this game are sexy as fuck.

Oh yeah, and the fighting dangerous monsters and questing for justice and fortune in a land ruled by chaos is pretty good too.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

 The Witcher: Wild Hunt is a story-driven, next-generation open world role-playing game set in a visually stunning fantasy universe full of meaningful choices and impactful consequences. In The Witcher you play as the professional monster hunter, Geralt of Rivia, tasked with finding a child of prophecy in a vast open world rich with merchant cities, viking pirate islands, dangerous mountain passes, and forgotten caverns to explore.

Previous Playtime

0 hours

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

This is it. The last game I'll be playing for the blog (notwithstanding some unexpected gift in the next week). I wanted it to be something of a landmark occasion, so I knew I couldn't just play any old game that struck my fancy. But being an "event" put far too much pressure on my decision, so I put it up for a vote and The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt won.

The reason it even got on the ballot in the first place is because I've been hearing about it for years and in all that time, I've seen nothing but praise. Also, it and all the DLC was on sale for 20 dollars and it would have been a shame not bring this thing full circle.

Expectations and Prior Experience

I think I'll first need to address the elephant in the room - I may not be able to play this game at all. I bought a mid-range gaming laptop about 8 months after it came out and it was able to play Fallout 4 just fine, but in looking over the minimum system requirements, it may be that The Witcher 3 is far more demanding graphically. It's hard to say because I barely understand the difference between graphics card specifications, but I think it will be a stretch. I'm not sure what I'll do if I'm wrong and it turns out the difference between my card and the GTX 660 is more profound than I thought. Declare defeat for the first time ever, maybe?

But why dwell on the worst-case scenario when I still have an hour left on the download (seriously, 43 GB, what the hell is going on with games these days). Supposing I will be able to eke something out on the lowest possible settings, I'm rather looking forward to this game. I liked the non-sexual parts of The Witcher just fine, and I can't help but think they must have learned something in the subsequent seven years. I do worry that the off-putting moral cynicism that encouraged me to cut the first game off at 20 hours might make a return, but maybe if it does it will give me the opportunity for one last long-winded philosophical rant. I'm in tears just thinking about it.

In any event, it's hard for an open-world action/rpg to go wrong in my book. As long as I can travel the countryside killing monsters and running errands for random villagers, I'll probably have a blast for 20 hours and beyond.