Thursday, April 30, 2015

Braid - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

 Braid is a puzzle-platformer, drawn in a painterly style, where you can manipulate the flow of time in strange and unusual ways. From a house in the city, journey to a series of worlds and solve puzzles to rescue an abducted princess. In each world, you have a different power to affect the way time behaves, and it is time's strangeness that creates the puzzles. The time behaviors include: the ability to rewind, objects that are immune to being rewound, time that is tied to space, parallel realities, time dilation, and perhaps more.

Braid treats your time and attention as precious; there is no filler in this game. Every puzzle shows you something new and interesting about the game world.

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

Like many games on my list, I first became aware of Braid through cultural osmosis. In the various internet haunts I frequent, it was repeatedly mentioned as a game to look out for. When I saw it was on sale, I did a little research, and the time manipulation element looked like it could make for intriguing puzzles, so I thought I'd give it a try (despite the fact that I had no concrete plans for when I would actually get around to playing it, because if there's anything this blog has proved, it's that I don't always consider the long-term consequences of my actions)

Previous Playtime

0 hours

Expectations and Prior Experience

If this is another "emotional journey" I am going to lose my shit. I'm still reeling from Brothers and  Never Alone did its part to weaken my resolve (that damned Manslayer). Luckily, this is a time-travel themed puzzle platformer. I expect it to be exceedingly cerebral and frustrating enough that my primary emotion will be rage. Nice, simple rage that has no chance of making me cry or contemplate the death of a beloved pet. Plus, the plot, according to the store page, is to rescue a kidnapped princess, which is more or less video game code for "we didn't bother coming up with a plot."

Yet that 90% metacritic score is taunting me. My hope is that Braid is exceedingly clever, and the critical response is a measure of admiration for its craft. After all, the Mario games frequently score that high, and they never made me feel a damned thing, except possibly joy (and, yes, the occasional bout of rage). However, with the way my luck has been going . . .

Brothers - A Tale of Two Sons: 3 hours (12/20 Total)

When I first heard this was a critically acclaimed game that was praised for its story, I was worried that it would be a dismal experience. It's a stereotype that critics like grim and joyless stories, so I was pleasantly surprised to find that Brothers was actually a fun and fast-paced adventure game where the titular brothers have to work together to solve puzzles while navigating through gorgeous fantastic environments. I thought this was one of those situations where elite opinion-drivers and popular sentiment were on the same page.

Then I got to the end. I don't want to spoil it for anyone who's planning on playing the game, but suffice to say, it's powerful and profoundly beautiful, and I hated every minute of it. I was literally bawling my eyes out for at least a minute after I stopped playing. It was an experience that will stick with me for quite some time, and one with an overall hopeful tone, but I prefer to engage with games on a more intellectual and less immediate level. I think it's because I'm easily swayed emotionally, and thus I like to stay away from emotionally manipulative (said without prejudice) media, purely for my own personal sense of equilibrium and well-being.

Which is a shame, because I think it would be worthwhile to go back and unlock all the achievements. From what I can tell, based on the two I was able to get on my first playthrough, they are awarded for performing brief, but charming side stories (such as reuniting baby giant turtles with their mother) or visiting striking fantastical landmarks (such as blowing into a massive horn left strewn on a giants' battlefield). But I don't think I can face this game again, even with the knowledge that I can quit well before that part (those of you with stronger emotional constitutions than myself should take this as a recommendation).

Overall, I'd say Brothers is an amazing example of the potential of video game art, and perhaps the most perfectly condensed game since the original Portal. There's nothing I would want to add or take away (aside from the last fifteen minutes, that is). Some might complain that it's too easy, but the story and the visuals are so strong that I can't count that as a valid criticism - it's not to a novel's credit when it's hard to read, nor to a movie's when it's hard to watch, and while that analogy might incline you to question why Brothers is a game instead of a movie or a book, the actual act of playing it is so integral to the story it tells, that I can't imagine it any other way.

I came into this game completely unspoiled, and I can only imagine that enhanced my perceptions of the thing. As I played along with the brothers' story, I went on an emotional journey of wonder, fear, despair, and finally, hope that touched me on a more primal level for the fact that the medium, and my own coincidental innocence, encouraged a high degree of immediacy. Because I controlled the brothers, I was invested in their experiences to a startling degree. I think that's probably the ideal way to play the game, and my biggest regret about playing Brothers for my blog is that the very act of reading this post is likely to create expectations that might blunt the impact of this incredible story. Of course, if you're in a position to read this, it's already too late, but please don't let that stop you. If you care at all about storytelling in games, you owe it to yourself to play Brothers - A Tale of Two Sons.

Brothers - A Tale of Two Sons: Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

 Guide two brothers on an epic fairy tale journey from visionary Swedish film director, Josef Fares and top-tier developer Starbreeze Studios.

Control both brothers at once as you experience co-op play in single player mode, like never before.

Solve puzzles, explore the varied locations and fight boss battles, controlling one brother with each thumbstick.

A man, clinging to life. His two sons, desperate to cure their ailing father, are left with but one option. They must set out upon a journey to find and bring back the "Water of Life" as they come to rely on one another to survive. One must be strong where the other is weak, brave where the other is fearful, they must be... Brothers.

This is one journey you will never forget.

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

I was thinking that it was 75% off, and that I could easily spare $3.75. This was the same day I heard someone (I forget who) describe it as an exceptionally beautiful game, so I figured "what the hell."

Previous Playtime

0 hours

Expectations and Prior Experience

Brothers has a high metacritic score, but is an indie platformer, so I expect it to be the sort of game that greatly appeals to critics - artistically ambitious and emotionally affecting with a unique visual style. However, most of the Steam reviewers have fewer than six hours with it, so I also expect it to be slight mechanically. With my platformer experience, and being "in the zone" after playing Never Alone, I imagine that I'll breeze through it.

Story-wise, I'm going to try and keep an open mind. All I know for sure is that it appealed aesthetically to at least one person on the internet, and the description in this post's opening section, and that's not nearly enough to make any kind of advanced judgement.

Never Alone - 9/20 hours

I finished the game again, this time collecting all the cultural insights. This makes Never Alone the third game I've managed to get 100% of the achievements for (the other two are Fallen Enchantress: Legendary Heroes and . . . sigh, Hatoful Boyfriend). The second time through wasn't much different than the first. The death of the fox was still a gut punch. It was still beautiful, and there were still areas where the controls betrayed me (though in fairness to the game, it was a lot easier the second time through, even if the Manslayer chases continued to be total bullshit).

Overall, my impression of this game is positive. Even separated from its educational goals (at which it succeeds admirably - I am definitely interested in learning more about the Inupiat), it is a wonderful fantasy starring a pair of charming characters; a simple story, beautifully told, around the framework of an adequate platformer. I would unreservedly recommend it to anyone who was on the fence about whether to pick it up.

That said, I don't exactly relish the thought of playing it two and a half more times just to prove a point. I mean, yes, it would be about a million times more pleasant than toughing my way through Ship Simulator Extremes, but I'm not sure it would make for especially scintillating reading. I can already tell you what my 15 and 20 hour posts would be - Never Alone continues to have a delightful visual style, the bulk of the gameplay continues to be serviceable, Manslayer continues to be a pain in the ass, the death of the fox is still sad.

Not that it's not worth doing, exactly (I did honestly and seriously contemplate playing Portal ten times in a row), it's just that the purpose of this blog is not for me to do silly endurance challenges, it's for me to get the most out of my games, and I feel that with Never Alone, I did.

Yet I can't have that gap in my completed list. It'll bug the hell out of me. So, I'm going to do what I did with Portal and Portal 2, and bundle this game together with a couple of similar games, and treat them collectively as one 20-hour project. Specifically, I'm going to lump Never Alone in with Brothers - A Tale of Two Sons, and Braid. Why? Because they are all critically acclaimed puzzle platformers that come in short of 20 hours per playthrough, so it just seems logical to me that, as long as I'm bending my blog's mission statement, I might as well play to a theme (that this forestalls two other gaps in my completed list is no small concern as well).

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Never Alone - 5/20 hours

Damn you, Manslayer, YOU KILLED MY FOX. I will never forgive you. Granted, he immediately came back in a new and more powerful form, but there was a grieving scene that made me cry, and as cute as the glowing spirit boy in fox pajamas was, I preferred having a fuzzy animal companion.

Or maybe I'm just grumpy because the transition marked a significant increase in the game's difficulty (no, I'm not, that fox was damned cute). The problem, as I see it, is that Never Alone is not a great platformer. It's serviceable, but in the late stages the actual jumping challenges are tricky enough that the mushy and inconsistent controls can lead to a great deal of frustration. Many times, I missed a jump that I was certain I knew how to make, due to the character not responding to the button presses in the way she had in the past.

It really makes me appreciate the artistry of something like Super Meat Boy or the Mario games. Of course that just raises the question of how it's possible, in this day and age, to make a 2-d platformer that does not control perfectly. It seems like a solved problem. I guess there's a lot I don't understand about how games are made.

In any event, it's not a huge problem, because I managed to finish the game anyway. The story turned out to be simple, but impressive. In every level there is a new fantastic conceit, ranging from the beautiful to the frightening. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the magical elements are well-integrated into the environment, and that gives it an admirable specificity. The ice giant at the end was just an incredible creation, and a suitably epic end to an amazing experience.

From here there's not a lot left to do. I still have three of the cultural insight videos to unlock, and that will require replaying certain levels, but I don't expect it to take more than an hour or two. I think I may try and replay the whole game, and go the long way round (you can actually just directly replay any level you've already completed, and it even helpfully points out the ones with unlockables). After that, I'll see how I feel, although I can say right now that it's short enough that I'd need to play it a couple more times.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Never Alone - 2/20 hours

The first thing I noticed about this game (because it was an option available from the main menu) is that you can unlock and watch videos about the Inupiat culture. For me, these have been a mixed bag. As an ardent materialist, I find the descriptions of survival techniques, the arctic environment, traditional crafts, and personal experiences to be fascinating, but the earnest spirituality makes me somewhat uncomfortable. Still, what would this world be like if we were all the same?

As for the game itself, it's good, but inconsistent. It has a beautiful look about it, and the character designs are adorable. You play as a chubby little girl and her ridiculously cute arctic fox companion, and it's a lot of fun just watching them move through the levels. Though the appealing characters have a downside as well - watching either of them die is absolutely heartbreaking.

But the biggest inconsistency is in the difficulty. So far (though I've only completed four levels) the actual platforming is middle-to-easy, but whenever an enemy shows up, the difficulty jumps to the unforgiving. I'd say that 90% of my reloads came when I was being chased by the mysterious stranger or a polar bear. Most of the rest came from events that I could neither explain nor control, like the fox falling off a platform while I was controlling Nuna, or one character or the other clipping through apparently solid terrain.

Those issues aside, I'm going to give Never Alone a tentative thumbs up. Mechanically, it's a solid, conservative platformer (though the two character mechanic does offer some twists on the basic formula), but its unique style and point of view elevate it to something special.

Never Alone - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

 On over 75 "Best of 2014" lists, from Eurogamer to PC Gamer, from the L.A. Times to the New Yorker. Nominated for awards from DICE, GDC, SXSW, Games for Change, IndieCade, and more — and winner of "Best Debut Game" at the 2015 BAFTA Games Awards. The whole world has discovered and fallen in love with Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna) — the first game developed in collaboration with the Iñupiat, an Alaska Native people. Nearly 40 Alaska Native elders, storytellers and community members contributed to the development of the game. Play as a young Iñupiat girl and an arctic fox as they set out to find the source of the eternal blizzard which threatens the survival of everything they have ever known.

Guide both characters in single-player mode or play cooperatively with a friend or family member as you trek through frozen tundra, leap across treacherous ice floes, swim through underwater ice caverns, and face numerous enemies both strange and familiar in the journey to save the girl’s village. (NOTE: Local co-op play requires at least one Xbox 360 or equivalent game controller)

In this atmospheric puzzle platformer, you will explore awe-inspiring environments, perform heroic deeds, and meet legendary characters from Iñupiaq stories — all narrated by a master storyteller in the spoken Iñupiaq language.

Previous Playtime

0 hours

Expectations and Prior Experience

This game made it onto my wish list when I heard about the unique circumstances of its creation. Native American people are underrepresented in video games, especially on the development side, so it's potentially very interesting to hear a new voice outside of the narrow video game culture that I've grown accustomed to. Many thanks go out to Daniel for getting me this for Christmas.

That said, I don't really know anything about it as a game. It's a platformer that uses a controller, so as long as it's not broken, I'll probably enjoy it. Plus the visual style (judging by the store's screenshots) is striking, so that's nice. My main worry is that it will be too short. Which I guess isn't technically a problem, but I'm not sure what I'll do if I blow through it in six or seven hours (which appears to be the average playtime of people who've reviewed it on the store page). Hopefully, it will at least be engaging enough to replay, but that's a future worry, and not that big a deal at the moment.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Hatoful Boyfriend - 20/20 hours

The last three hours were superfluous, but they were not a total waste. I learned that Ryouta's drag name is Coolette, which got a genuine laugh out of me, and Hiyoko coined the term "rival-zoned," which I'm glad to have seen at least once.

However, my overall impression of the game is still negative. It's the damned birds. I know it's not Hatoful Boyfriend's fault, but I have a thing about birds. They creep me out. Looking at close-up pictures of them, with their beady eyes and scaly skin, it makes me a little queasy. And the thought of actually romancing a bird. There is not enough soap in the world.

Over time, I seem to have gotten desensitized to the birdiness of the game, but I think it's more the case that I got more adept at focusing on the text and ignoring the pictures (as much as I think the name "Coolette" is a clever play on words, seeing Ryouta in that maid's outfit . . . ugh). At times, I even got invested in the story, but the second I remembered it was about birds . . .

I have a feeling that there is a lot of cultural stuff that I'm just not getting here. And I don't just mean Japanese culture (though there were times when I'd see something that was obviously a reference I wasn't getting, so I can only assume that twice as many escaped my notice). Charles Darwin bred pigeons (though somehow, I think he'd agree that Hatoful Boyfriend is a step too far), apparently because it was a widespread hobby that dovetailed (I'd say "no pun intended," but would anyone believe me) with his scientific work. So there is a whole culture of pigeon-lovers out there, and I'm certain that this game speaks to them (for example - I actually did google "Brian Pigeon" and it is a real blog that has nothing to do with Hatoful Boyfriend, and is, in fact, still going strong). It's likely that there are whole layers of the game's central joke that flew completely over my head (again, pun, etc).

Despite the anger I feel towards Hatoful Boyfriend, I'm glad I played it. Not glad glad, obviously, but glad in the sense of qualified satisfaction you feel when you complete an unpleasant chore that you know will nonetheless improve your life. Like mowing the lawn. It's one of those situations where you can be happy the chore is done while still feeling a lingering resentment towards having to do it.

Because, my hang-ups aside, it's obvious that Hatoful Boyfriend is an important game. The sheer audacity and absurdity of its presence, combined with the fact that it has some genuinely deft storytelling where genres can shift on a dime without the change coming across arbitrary or awkward, means that it is a game that will be talked about for a long time to come. And now, at least, I'll be able to understand what people are saying.

HO, HO, HO, indeed.

Hatoful Boyfriend - 17/20 hours

Man, that alternate game mode took longer than I thought. And I wound up having to play it twice. All through this experience, I've assiduously avoided using the fast-forward button because I knew Hatoful Boyfriend was a slight game that didn't have enough content to justify playing for 20 hours, and I figured I might as well draw it out for as long as possible. That wasn't such a big deal for the regular mode (though, by the twelfth time through, it was starting to get a little tedious), but this new story was so long that towards the end it started to feel like a slog.

I think the problem is that the story front-loads its energy. Alternate mode starts just like regular Hatoful Boyfriend, but after the summer break you go to the infirmary to find Ryouta . . . and die. The game then does one of its sudden genre shifts and becomes a murder mystery with heavy science fiction elements (unknown parties lower a giant iron dome of St Pigeonation's, trapping all the students inside and giving the whole story a huge sense of urgency). From there, Ryouta partners up with the most appealing version of Sakuya (basically the same as he's always been, but now a take-charge "bad cop" to play against Ryouta's milquetoast boy-next-door "good cop") to figure out the how and why of these events, eventually uncovering a deadly conspiracy at the heart of the school - the terrifying Project Hatoful, a biological weapon developed by the Hawk Party to wipe out the human race.

And of course, Shuu is behind it, so they chase him into the basement . . . and all the momentum goes out of the plot as we learn huge amounts of backstory. Like, it was kind of chilling to learn that Nageki was the original Hatoful test subject, and thus killed himself out of grief for killing humans and to prevent his tissues from being used as a weapon, but then to find out that he was Kazuaki's adopted brother, and that Shuu was good friends with Ryouta's father, and that the whole game was really about grudges and relationships from half a lifetime ago, and the only thing I could think was "when will this end/"

But I did it twice, because once you've unlocked every ending in the game, the alternate mode gets an epilogue. The actual epilogue itself was completely not worth it due to its shortness and the fact that it undoes an affecting and dramatic death from the main story, but whatever. The alternate mode was worth it, if only because I was able to learn the answers to several nagging questions. The year is 2187. Humanity was mostly wiped out by the bird flu. The intelligent birds are the result of an extremely ill-conceived attempt to halt the epidemic (a bioengineered virus that was meant to kill all birds which is like - is not the very problem you're trying to solve a deadly virus that made the leap from birds to humans).

At this point, I basically have no reason left to play the game, but ending after 17 hours would so mess up my nice, neat symmetry that I can't help but soldier on. I never quite got the bean gifts right, and I'm sure there are at least a few interesting lines to be had from giving "wrong" answers, and there's a part of me that wonders if it's possible to keep Yuuya alive in the Shuu storyline (though I'm pretty sure the answer is "no"), so while there's not a lot to discover, I'm sure my last three hours will not be entirely wasted.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Hatoful Boyfriend - 9/20 hours

I've now played the stories of all the main pigeons. The last four were Yuuya, Okasan, Kazuaki, and Anghel. Kazuaki's was fairly bland. A young girl falls in love with her teacher, but of course that's something that can't happen, so he lets her down gently. It might be more interesting if Kazuaki had any sort of personality at all, but he is pretty much 100% defined by his narcolepsy quirk.

Yuuya's story was more interesting, but I saw it coming back when I finished Shuu's. He's actually a spy infiltrating the school in order to investigate the doctor. Along the way, I learned that there is political turmoil in the world of Hatoful Boyfriend, as Yuuya's faction, the Doves wants to coexist with the remnants of humanity, whereas Shuu's faction (and the secret sponsors of St Pigeonation's), the Hawks, want to exterminate humanity. Much to my chagrin, when I declined to go into hiding with Yuuya, I experienced the wrath of the Hawks firsthand.

I guess the reason Hiyoko has such an attraction to birds is that she was chosen specifically as a goodwill ambassador, and all the while, behind the scenes, the Hawks were waiting. When it becomes clear that a human cannot be intimate (game's words, not mine) with a bird, they come in to put an end to the experiment. Yikes.

Anghel's story did not fill in any gaps, like I was hoping it would. It's more like an alternate universe, where instead of being a mad scientist, Shuu is actually a dark sorcerer, and by joining forces, Anghel and Hiyoko were able to thwart his plan to create an evil demon tree (your guess is as good as mine) and destroy the world.

Finally, that leaves Okosan. Maybe I'm supposed to view his obsession with pudding as something whimsically random, and his eventual ascension to be some kind of iconic immortal pudding god as delightful absurdity, but honestly I found it all kind of exhausting. This is already a game about a human girl in a post-apocalyptic world attempting to find love with sapient pigeons. Adding additional wackiness on top of that is just too much.

That said, the interesting thing about Okosan is that he is some kind of genetic throwback. He speaks only in coos (which are then helpfully translated in parenthetical asides), is much more impulsive and aggressive, and his "human portrait" (a feature I'd normally file under "why, god, why") is actually just a pigeon in a suit. Taken together, it implies that the evolution of the birds into the Earth's dominant intelligent lifeform is still an ongoing process.

From this vantage, I'm not sure I'll be able to get to the full twenty hours of Hatoful Boyfriend. There simply is not that much game here. And I don't mean that in the sense of something like Bad Rats, where I can see all the levels and be forced to repeat myself before the deadline is up. I mean that it is wholly deterministic, and thus once I've earned all the achievements, I'll have seen 100% of what the game has to offer. And while I don't normally mind repeating a game, I've already repeated the bulk of the game about a dozen times. I even had to do a full story, Okosan's (my least favorite), twice, just to unlock the extended ending. I don't know what I'm going to do when I get the last four achievements.

Still, that's likely another three hours at least, so there's no point worrying about it until the time comes. I've just unlocked what appears to be a new game mode (at the beginning, it's asking me if I want to "keep my promise," or "live a normal life" which is a new decision), so maybe that will take longer than I anticipate.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Hatoful Boyfriend - 5/20 hours

I've played through the game twice more, exploring the Ryouta and Sayuka storylines, and they were relatively normal (though that "relatively" is important - I cannot stress this enough, everyone in this game is a bird). Sakuya is a spoiled rich kid with few life skills and an arrogant attitude, but deep down, he has the sensitive soul of an artist, and his strict, patrician father demands that he give up his dream of playing music to succeed him as the head of an aristocratic family. If you become intimate with him, he will flee his home and move in with you, becoming a musician and building a life of his own.

Of course, he's a pigeon, and you'll be living together in a cave, because Hatoful Boyfriend is bizarre, but underneath all that, it's kind of a sweet story. Ryouta's, however . . .

Maybe I'm biased against it because it featured a bird in a maid's costume. That would be a sufficient reason for anyone. I don't think that's it, though. Yes, it was weird and gross, but honestly, also kind of funny. No, I think the reason that I don't care for Ryouta's story is that it's the first one so far that doesn't work if the boy is not a bird. You see, Ryouta is a hardworking and conscientious boy who works several jobs to care for his ailing mother while also attending a school for the gifted, and in the end, he falls in love with the supportive childhood friend who was there for him all along . . . but he's scared of being with her because he's a bird and his much shorter lifespan means that he's destined to die long before she does.

I really don't like being reminded of Hiyoko's creepy sexuality. There's this scene, where Sakuya and Yuuya are competing in a swimming match, and Hiyoko thinks, "the damp, tight-clinging feathers are making my heart race," and I just want to start shuddering and never stop. There no point mincing words here. Hiyoko wants to fuck a pigeon.

Maybe I'm being too judgmental. The main problem with bestiality is that there is such a huge gulf between the experiences, capabilities, and inner emotional lives of humans and animals that any such relationship would be exploitative to the beast and utterly degrading (or the sign of severe mental problems) for the human. However, the pigeons in Hatoful Boyfriend are basically human. They have complex interests and feelings. So it's not inconceivable that there might be a connection between them and a homo sapien. It's more like a relationship with an alien than an animal. It would be churlish and ignorant of me to object. . . but I just can't get past the physical aspect.

I have to assume that Hiyoko's socialization was different than mine. Presumably she grew up with images of pigeon beauty spoon-fed to her in the pigeon mass media (despite living in a cave as a hunter-gatherer), and thus it's entirely understandable that she has some internalized xenophilia. But that just raises further questions about the nature of the human condition in Hatoful Boyfriend's universe. Perhaps it has something to do with the mysterious student Higure Anghel, the exotic Luzon Bleeding Heart Dove who claims to be a fallen servant of God.

It's odd. I thought that the explanation for this bird world was something science-fictiony, but perhaps it's supernatural after all.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Hatoful Boyfriend - 2/20 hours

Progressing through this game is going to be slow, I can tell. I've completed another story and I still have seventeen and a half hours to go. According to the Steam Achievements, there are fourteen endings total, so I still have to play through at least another dozen times. In the short term, this is not much of a problem. By choosing a different bird to romance, I opened up a great deal of content, but the repetition was non-trivial, and I worry that by the time I'm in position to complete the game, I'll be swamped under the sameness of it all.

Although, to be totally fair to Hatoful Boyfriend, diversity of experience does seem to be the watchword of the game. The two storylines I've pursued thus far could not be more different, and neither were what I'd have expected from a "dating sim" (though when you qualify that as a pigeon dating sim, having any expectations at all becomes at least a little ludicrous).

As I mentioned before, my first time through the game, I pursued the shy boy who hung out in the library, and turned out to be the ghost of a student who committed suicide. The fact that he was a pigeon notwithstanding (it took me about a minute and a half to write the first part of this sentence, due to repeated head-desking, but still . . . notwithstanding), it was a melancholy tale with a bit of redeeming sweetness. Through patience and care, Hiyoko was able to help the troubled spirit find peace, and move on to the next life.

One would think that this would be the outlier story. That through sheer chance, I picked the one story that indulged the supernatural in an otherwise grounded high school romance game (pigeons notwithstanding, damnit). But that is not the case. On the advice of Baffle Mint, from the forums, I next pursued Shuu, the doctor who ran the school's infirmary.

If I thought things were creepy and weird before. . . Shuu is a bit of a mad scientist with a serial killer vibe. He's constantly joking about dissecting you or performing experiments on your various parts. For Christmas, he gives you a quill pen and a roast chicken, and my god they're made from the body of the popular kid who was snooping around, investigating the mysterious disappearances, and why is he hanging around the incinerator, and what was he disposing of in the park so late at night. And holy fuck, he kills you and then keeps your severed head in a jar of preservative, taking it on the run with him as he flees the bird police and/or the possible conspiracy of bird scientists that wants to study the human race and to which your mummified head is a valuable classified sample, and then in a final act of defiance, he breaks the jar. And what the hell is happening, they're all birds, you'd think that would make it easier, more abstract, but that fat partridge body, with those soulless alien eyes, and it's like being trapped by a horrifying monster dredged from your darkest nightmares.

So, horror accomplished, I guess. I'm reminded of the difference between the movie Silence of the Lambs and the tv show Hannibal. In the former, when Anthony Hopkins talks about eating a liver with some Chianti and fava beans, the reaction is "geez, what a freak." By contrast, when Mads Mikkelsen cooks one of his exquisite gourmet meals, you think "wow, that looks good, oh my god, is that human." Not saying one is better than the other, but the latter is a much more visceral reaction, because it makes you part of the horror. Which is to say, I've had roast chicken before, so I probably would have "helped" to dispose of poor Sakazaki Yuuya.

Speaking of which, this playthrough does raise some questions more questions about the nature of this bird society and their relationship to the apparently vanished human civilization. I learned about Brian, the first intelligent bird, who suggested that the Olympics be changed to the Pigeolympics, and is apparently a blogger and Pulitzer Prize winner, which suggests some overlap between human and pigeon society of which Hiyoko is only the lingering remnant. Additionally, the fact that Yuuya could be mistaken for a chicken might mean that these birds have other physiological differences, in addition to the fact that they can speak and attend high school. Finally, on Legumentines, Shuu noted it as the anniversary of the first human embryo transfer, which may be a science-fictiony hint towards something (though he was probably referring to the real-world medical event and mistakenly attributed Feb 3 as the date of the transfer when it was actually the date the baby was born from the first successful transfer - thanks wikipedia).

There's definitely something weird going on (again, pigeons notwithstanding), and I'm sure that future playthroughs will give me more information about this mysterious Pigeonation Project, and its sinister goals. (Though, saying that, I honestly feel like my sense of reality is hanging by a fraying thread).

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Hatoful Boyfriend - 1/20 hours

This fucking game. I haven't hated a game this much since Antichamber. Maybe the arc of my experience will be similar, where I start off so completely out of my element that I can do nothing but flail in rage, but gradually, as I become acclimated, come to appreciate the game's strengths and end with a grudging respect.  I don't know, though. I sort of thought that the strange premise of the game would become normalized over time, and I'd gradually stop noticing it, but I'm starting to think that's not going to happen.

The underlying story of Hatoful Boyfriend is charmingly simple, with hints of mystery, and would probably be moderately entertaining were it not populated by fucking birds. The main character, Hiyoko Tosaka, is an earnest and straightforward girl, who must adjust to a new school while wooing a boy that falls into one of several appealing and/or familiar types (or so I imagine, like I said earlier, I'm not too experienced with the dating sim genre, but over the years, through cultural osmosis, I've gathered a thing or two about these sorts of stories). You have your childhood best friend, Kawara Ryouta who is also a fucking bird; the supportive "cool" teacher with an odd character quirk (narcolepsy) who is also a fucking bird; the attractive and confident rich kid who may be excessively haughty, but probably has a softer side who is also a fucking bird.

You can't forget the birds. Every time I found myself buying into Hiyoko's situation, and caring about these goofy romantic cliches she was living through, one of those damned birds would appear on the screen and completely shatter the illusion. I think I could handle it if Hiyoko herself were a bird. Then it would just be one of those cartoony animal stories, and the birds would be essentially anthropomorphized characters, but Hiyoko is a human, so there's this constant reminder that the birds are actual birds, and it is deeply weird to be romancing them.

As near as I can figure, this game takes place after some kind of nuclear war and the world is in a weird "planet of the apes"-type situation, but with birds. Hiyoko is a hunter-gatherer who lives in a cave, but in addition to the notable "school for gifted birds," St Pigeonation's, there seem to be modern cities that must be populated with birds, because even when you leave school grounds, there's not another human to be seen. Whatever happened, the bird society is definitely modeled on Japanese culture, with a few bird-centric twists (like Legumentine's day, where you give beans to a bird you like, which is apparently a mutation on an actual Japanese bean-throwing festival). It's deeply, aggressively weird.

I'd be lying if I said it wasn't funny. I mean, I hate the game, but much of that hate comes from the feeling that I'm being subjected to some kind of elaborate practical joke. In my more relaxed moments, I can laugh at myself (I spent an hour romancing Nageki, the shy kid who hung out in the library and turned out to be the ghost of a boy who committed suicide years before, and is also a fucking pigeon), but it's an embarrassed kind of laughter. I feel like I've been successfully trolled, and it's an elegant enough troll that it comes across as hilarious, but damn.

I suspect, once enough time has passed, I'll view Hatoful Boyfriend as an unpleasant rite of passage. Like a fraternity hazing for video game nerds. I'll be able to look back at it and chuckle knowingly, that I was able to plumb the depths of madness for the sake of my hobby.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Hatoful Boyfriend - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

Congratulations! You’ve been accepted as the only human student at the prestigious St. PigeoNation’s Institute, a school for talented birds! Roam the halls and find love in between classes as a sophomore student at the world’s greatest pigeon high school. Finding happiness won’t be easy, but it’s not all academic - there’s always time for a little romance in this delightful remake of Hato Moa’s popular visual novel / avian dating sim Hatoful Boyfriend!
Please Note: No birds were hurt in the making of Hatoful Boyfriend. In fact, many found love.  

An Avian Love Story: Chat with birds of every feather from narcoleptic school instructors to pigeon biker gangs on your way to flirty encounters potential suitors that set your hear aflutter. Spend time with the ones that strike your fancy and ditch the birds that prove to be a bore!

New Scenario and Ending: Series creator Hato Moa has created an all-new scenario and ending to discover in this exciting update for fans of the original game and brand-new Hatoful Boyfriend players!

Replayability to Fall in Love All Over Again: Build your own nest of intrigue within the St. PigeoNation’s Institute with genre-bending intertwining narratives, hidden stories, surprise paramours, and multiple endings sure to send you back to the start to try a new path and a different love interest.

Attend Class and Level Up: Choose elective classes like gym and art class to raise your character’s stats and bend suitors to your will by mixing charisma, vitality and wisdom. Get wise and you’ll pass your classes. Getting fit might save your life!

Fowl Twists and Turns: Not everything is as it seems at St. PigeoNation’s Institute! Uncover dark conspiracies, unexpected twists, and hellish fiends bent on bringing on the apocalypse. Pick your dates wisely, and you’ll flap off into the distance with your one true love. Take the wrong turn, and you might just end up murdered in your bed.

Sensual Birdfeed: Purchase delicious beans as a gift for your potential love interests and wow your feathered crushes with Calm Corn, Country Millet or Bitter Black Beans.

Previous Playtime

0 hours

Expectations and Prior Experience

I don't even . . . What? If you could see my face right now, you'd see that I'm just flapping my jaw uselessly, trying to come up with a reaction that makes some kind of sense. But I can't. Pigeon high school? What?

I first encountered this game in a thread on I didn't actually read the thread, because it was already pretty long when I first encountered it, but I skimmed enough to glean the basic premise, and it was weird enough to stick with me. When I saw that it was available on Steam, I put it on my wishlist as a lark (no pun intended?), but I wasn't actually planning on buying it unless it was on deep discount and I had nothing better to do.

Then me friend Jared bought it for me. I have to assume it was because the thought of anyone playing a dating sim where all the boys are pigeons is hilariously deranged. The whole premise makes me deeply uncomfortable.

My hope is that it will be so absurd that I'll be able to approach it with a kind of ironic detachment, and then I'll be one of those cool, in-the know type people who can play self-consciously weird video games and not make a big deal about it. Maybe one day I'll just casually name-drop it ("you know, this reminds me of Hatoful Boyfriend. . ."), and people will think, "there's a guy who really knows a lot about video games."

Strangely enough, this is my first dating sim. I expect that will take some more getting used to than the whole "everyone's a pigeon" thing. I'm not even sure how the physical mechanics of the game work. However, the store gives it a "visual novel" tag, so I'm guessing it will be a lot like Long Live the Queen. If so, it should be easy to learn, but difficult to master. And perhaps the only thing more disturbing than pigeon romance is pigeon heartbreak.

Torchlight II - Wrap-up

I was leery of starting a game with a new class, because in the early game, the classes are somewhat uniform. So I found a mod that boosted me up to max level at the beginning. But then the monsters weren't nearly strong enough to make playing worthwhile, because the first playthrough doesn't scale. So I found a mod that allowed me to tackle an "endless dungeon" that matched your level. But then I wound up getting quickly killed, because endgame play assumes high end equipment. So I searched for a mod that would make the merchants scale. . . and I couldn't find one. So I rushed through the game to start a new game+, so I could get level scaling merchants and then put the appropriate equipment in the shared chest so new characters could access it right away.

That took about five hours. Much as I suspected, the game's plot is not at all worth mentioning. There's a sorcerer (alchemist) that you have to kill, but then he turns out to be a pawn for some humongous demon. Once you kill it, the world is saved. Pretty standard stuff. Anyway, once I got my equipment from new game+, I tried the endless dungeon again . . . and died because I didn't have any high-end gems socketed in my equipment. So I searched for a gem merchant mod.

And . . . it turns out I'm not nearly skilled enough for endgame play. So my plan to check out the differences between the classes by checking out late game builds in action was a total bust. The most reasonable course of action is to simply play them from the beginning. By the time I get to the end of act one, I should have a fairly good idea of how they play (though I suspect, much like Borderlands the game doesn't really get started until new game+). The only problem with this plan is that it will take forever.

I don't quite want to say goodbye to Torchlight II. It definitely sunk its hooks into me, and as jaded as I am, that endless loot and xp treadmill, when combined with 30 possible classes, worked its magic on the primitive, gambling-addiction-prone part of my brain. I really do want to see it all. I just don't want to commit to a lifetime of playing nothing else.

Sigh. There are many games I've played where, at the end of my time with them, I felt a resolve to return one day, to get the most out of their unexplored potential (Recettear and Anno 2070 spring to mind), but I don't think Torchlight II is one of them. Don't get me wrong. I could easily see losing myself in this game, diving deep into its nuances and its apparently limitless mods, devoting hundreds of hours to the old loot and grind. But that is exactly the problem. There's just too much. I doubt I'd ever feel finished. And that sort of perpetual incompleteness would bug me (when I fail to complete something, it's because my attention was caught by something else and I wandered off with the intention of coming back until too much time has passed and I forgot what I was originally doing, and not because the task is too great to have been reasonably attempted by anyone - thank-you-very-much).

Torchlight II - 20/20 hours

It figures. Eighteen hours in, and I finally get addicted to the game. Despite what I said in my last post, I found that I couldn't abandon the Luminous Arena. It simply felt too cowardly to start a new game the second I reached a genuine challenge. So I fiddled with my equipment in order to squeeze out every last bit of defense, and it turned out to be enough. It wasn't easy, but I was able to do it.

Yet my expressed desire to experience the other classes was not (entirely) a disingenuous ploy to avoid facing a difficult level. I really did genuinely want to see what else the game offered. As soon as my conscience was clear, and I knew for certain that my motives were pure, I fired up a hardcore game (where you only get one life, and if you die, your save is deleted).

It turns out, I should have been playing the Berserker all along. This is one of those things that seems obvious in retrospect, but when I was selecting my initial class, the Outlander's twin pistols so enchanted me that I had to see what it was all about. And while there's nothing wrong with the Outlander's focus on ranged weapons and enemy debuffs, for me at least, getting up in the face of a monster and whaling on it while in a berserk frenzy is so much more satisfying. There's nothing I love more in an action game than throwing caution to the wind and just going for an all-out attack.

But it wasn't simply the Berserker that triggered this sudden increase in interest. I was also intrigued by the fact that Torchlight II allows for mods, so I downloaded one that added twenty-six classes to the game. New Game+ and Hardcore mode notwithstanding, I reckon you could easily play thirty hours with a single class. Multiply that by thirty, and you've got 900 hours. And that's without ever touching the endgame. It is difficult to overstate how much I want to see what all these alternate classes can do. It simply amazes me that fans of the game, uncompensated by anything but their own love of the material and the gratitude of their fellow fans, can put in so much work to expand the scope of their hobby. I feel like I should pay tribute to the creativity and dedication of these people by witnessing all the incredible diversity (as untested and unbalanced as much of it is sure to be) that they have added to the game.

Except that if you add up all the time I've spent with all the games on this blog, you'd still get nowhere close to 900 hours. There's no way I can fully explore the potential of this mod without dropping everything and making Torchlight II my new exclusive hobby. And I'm much too fickle for that. The same intellectual wanderlust that makes having thirty available classes into such a penetrating temptation for me also ensures that I'll want to move on to a new, entirely different game sooner rather than later.

That's not to say I'm done with Torchlight II just yet, but I probably won't spend too much time with alternate classes. It takes too long to grind up to a level where they begin to seriously distinguish themselves (early game, weapon choice has a far more immediate impact on how your character plays). Now, if there were a mod that let you start at level 30 . . .

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Torchlight II - 16/20 hours

Torchlight II is a fine game, but it doesn't give me a lot to write about. In a way, that's a good sign, because it means I have no complaints. On the other hand, I've got a blog here, and it would wound my pride to just keep posting, "more hack and slash, finding and sorting loot, exploring levels, irrelevant story . . . grade acceptable." So I decided to wait for something unexpected, or until I encountered something that challenged me intellectually or ideologically.

I honestly thought I would get through the entire game before this happened. And then I entered the Luminous Arena. What you have to do is go through a dungeon while staying inside a circle of light. The light moves, and as you move with it, monsters spawn, and you have to survive them while keeping up with the light. The object is to make it all the way through without dying, and unlike every other area in the game, when you die, your already slain monsters will respawn. It is a sudden jump in difficulty that completely blindsided me.

I worry that I won't be able to get through it. For hours now, I've been neglecting my armor upgrades. You have ten total pieces (shirt, pants, gloves, boots, belt, shoulders, helmet, amulet, and two rings) and you have to worry about four different types of defense (physical, fire, ice, and poison armor). Plus the individual pieces can have individual enchantments, boost your attributes, or hold gem slots. Since there's no quick sort button, I've found myself somewhat overwhelmed. What I've been doing is settling on "good enough" and hoping that my offense alone would be able to get me through. So far, it has, but the Luminous Arena is proof that such a strategy is unsustainable.

At this point, the obvious thing to do is buckle down, grind out some more gold and xp, buy myself a new set of equipment, and power through the arena. That's the virtuous path, the way of the true gamer. But (of course there's a "but") it would be easier to start from scratch. Build a new character with a different class, and try out an alternate build. Coast my way through the last four hours, and move on to another game.

It's a plan that tempts me due to the obvious fact that Torchlight II is a "lifestyle game." It's the sort of game where you get as much out of it as you're willing to put in, and is deep and wide enough for you to put in practically everything. I admire games like that. There are times when I wish I could just commit to one game and then play it to utter mastery. But that's obviously never going to happen, so playing the game as if it might is kind of counterproductive.

There are four classes and multiple playthroughs, and a special hardcore mode where you only get one life, and then alternate builds within the classes, and a huge variety of equipment with which to customize those builds. I started with the intention of playing through the campaign once, in order to see the "whole game," but it's kind of an absurd way to approach it. It seems just as authentic to sample Torchlight II's diversity as it is to focus exclusively on a single playthrough.

Yes . . . I'm actually just checking things out, not giving up in the face of a difficult level. I'm practically a hero.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Torchlight II - 5/20 hours

I realize now that I've played this game before. Not Torchlight II, precisely, but other games with the exact same reward progression. The way you balance short-term equipment rewards with long-term character development awards has been incorporated into a whole mess of superficially different games like Kingdoms Of Amalur and Borderlands. From what I understand, this is due to common descent from an immensely influential game, Diablo, which strikes me as interesting.

I wonder if things like this happen by accident, where you have a small team of designers who try something they think will be fun, and it turns out to be this perfect psychological trap. Or was it a studied decision? Did they consult behavioral research and then build their game around its conclusions? I know that since then people have, but I like to think that 1996 was a more innocent time.

I don't mean to be excessively cynical here. These addictive mechanics can add value to a game. There is something genuinely pleasurable about getting a rare and useful piece of equipment that would be lost if the loot gains were rigorously predictable. Just because a game features a gambling mechanic doesn't mean it is intentionally exploiting gambling addicts.

Torchlight II, for example, is not a game that I worry about ruining people's lives. The loot system is generally enjoyable, but it has altogether too much cruft. I'm only five hours in, and I'm already drowning in more common items than I have the energy or attention to evaluate. And the wonderful sensation of finding a rare item is somewhat undercut when you find out you can't use it because it's for a different class. As it stands, I'm finding the random component of the game to be startlingly inessential. I imagine that would change if I got really invested in Torchlight II, and had a bunch of alternate characters from the various classes to which I could distribute my good stuff, however, I don't imagine I'll be playing for that long.

That's not to say I dislike the game. I have literally no complaints about it (even that thing I just said is more of an observation - it's not like I want to become addicted to a new video game), and there are actually some unique things that it does that I really enjoy. My character is a magician who dual wields pistols, which is a nice change of pace from the bulk of fantasy fiction, which seems to say that nothing invented after the 18th century can possibly be magical unless it is also post-modern. Plus, he has a pet alpaca, who in addition to being a useful beast of burden, may well be a deadlier combatant as well (seriously, I found some unusually rare pet equipment that boosts ol' Softy's stats to a ridiculous degree).

My assessment of Torchlight II thus far is that it's a pleasant diversion which is unlikely to blossom into an obsession, and I'm fine with that.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Torchlight II - 2/20 hours

I think this game is going to be pretty easy to get through. It's got a simple point and click fighting interface and an addictive loot system that allows you to make complex decisions about how best to optimize your character. It's an effective formula for endless time-wasting.

Thus far, the story is virtually nonexistent. There's some rigmarole about an ultimate evil sorcerer-type that's rampaging about the land, but what it all boils down to is that I have to go to a place and kill monsters. I haven't needed much framing beyond that, but we'll see how I feel about it in a few hours.

I'm liking how bright and colorful the game is. It's a nice change of pace from the somewhat drab games I've been playing for the past couple of weeks. I'm not yet sold on the art design as a whole - there haven't been any really memorable locations or characters - but it's pleasant enough to look at that I have no real complaints.

My big concern, going forward, is that I'm not really used to playing this sort of game. Specifically, I'm having trouble managing my special abilities. Only one maps to my right mouse button, but I already have two and I'm only going to get more. I suppose I should map them to shortcut buttons, but I don't have the muscle memory to use those buttons effectively. That will probably change in time.

I think it's likely to be a lot of brainless fun, provided it doesn't suddenly spike in difficulty.

Torchlight II - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

 The award-winning action RPG is back, bigger and better than ever! Torchlight II takes you back into the quirky, fast-paced world of bloodthirsty monsters, bountiful treasures, and sinister secrets - and, once again, the fate of the world is in your hands!

Torchlight II captures all the flavor and excitement of the original game - while expanding the world and adding the features players wanted most, including online and LAN co-op multiplayer. Torchlight II is fast, fun, and filled to the brim with action and loot. Adventure solo or online with your friends!

Previous Playtime

0 hours

Expectations and Prior Experience

I'm coming into this game entirely fresh. I've heard it compared to Diablo, which isn't super meaningful to me (I once rented Diablo 3 for the console, but didn't get that far into it). However, Torchlight II was given to me by my good friend Daniel, who has excellent taste and knows me very well, so I'm not at all worried.

What I expect, given a quick glance at the store page and the small amount of osmosis that has occurred from my 11 Steam friends who play Torchlight II (I think only Skyrim and Civilization V are more popular) is a loot-driven hack and slash adventure that will generally be pretty fun and causal, which will be a welcome change of pace from all these serious, dark and gritty games I've been playing lately.

Deus Ex: Game of the Year Edition - Wrap-up

Of course the game had to end in Area 51. You can't have a game about conspiracy theories and not include the grandaddy of them all. I couldn't tell you why I wound up in Area 51 - the main villain was the head of a corporation and a private citizen, not the US military, and while there were aliens, they were kind of perfunctory. They hung around in the basement being deadly, radioactive guardians, but didn't have much individual character. I got no sense of their culture or personality from my brief, shotgun-heavy interactions with them. In fact, I can't even really be sure they were aliens. It's just as likely that they were simply genetically engineered guard animals that happened to look like aliens. Disappointing.

Towards the end of Area 51, I was offered a choice. Depending on how I approached the final level, I could either destroy the global communications network, ushering in a new dark age of competing city states; kill Bob Page, allowing the Illuminati to take over and rule the world from the shadows; or merge with the Helios AI and become a god-like overseer, directly ruling the world with my new, superhuman intelligence. I picked the third option for two reasons - first, it seemed like the least bad choice for the world at large. The guy pushing the new dark age was a Chinese gangster, who naturally would want a world where he and his cronies didn't have to worry about the law, and the guy who wanted to put the Illuminati in charge basically just wanted to reset the world to its 20th century status quo of competing nations and unaccountable plutocrats. The AI was creepy as hell, but at least it seemed to lack the ego that would doom the other paths to disaster.

My other reason was purely pragmatic. The AI ending was the easiest to pull off. I didn't have to wander around the facility for an hour and half looking for various doo-dads and macguffins to trigger the process. I just had break into a room and then return to a different room. Did I doom humanity with my laziness? Only the sequels will tell.

Since my last post, I've made peace with Deus Ex's light levels. It took some conscious effort, but I was able to relax when I encountered darkness, and grudgingly use my flashlight instead. That had an enormous effect on my mood, and while I'll never fully adore the game's resource management elements, I wound up finishing the story with ammo, bioenergy, and health packs to spare, so maybe I was just being a huge baby about it.

So, how do I sum up my experience with Deus Ex? If I'd played it in 2000, it would have blown my mind. It might not have been as visually stunning or generally well-constructed a game as Majora's Mask (which is what I was playing when this game came out), but the openness and non-linear nature of its levels really is something remarkable. I once compared it unfavorably to Skyrim, but I realize now that was unfair. Skyrim gives you freedom in how you build your character, and that allows a different approach to the dungeons, but those dungeons were mostly fancily-decorated tubes. It took me awhile to appreciate that Deus Ex doesn't do that. There were locked doors I failed to go through, air vents I bypassed, and walls I didn't climb, but if I had, if my collection of augments, chosen skills, or available equipment had been different, I could have unlocked whole new paths through the levels. Deus Ex is one of the few games out there where going from Point A to Point C doesn't necessarily entail going through Point B, and I respect that.

That being said, I'm not eager to revisit this game. It has a rhythm to it that just doesn't jibe with the way I like to play games. Going back and exploring the various side-passages and alternate routes would involve dealing once more with limited supplies, inaccurate shooting, and sudden and unpredictable fragility (seriously, it seems like half the times I reloaded, it was after being taken down by a single rocket or well-placed shot), and that's just not my style. I'm sorry I was so hard on it earlier, due to my own stubborn refusal to engage with the game's mechanics (even if I think "limited light" is a terrible mechanic for a video game), and as I often am when I move out of my comfort zone, I'm glad I gave it a try, but I can't deny that I'm glad to be moving on.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Deus Ex: Game of the Year Edition - 20/20 hours

For a significant portion of the last 20 hours, Deus Ex has made me inexplicably angry. That might not come as a surprise to anyone who's read my previous posts on the game, but believe it or not, I've been trying to restrain myself, because my feelings towards the game were not reflective of any identifiable property that it might possess. My working theory was that it was a holistic thing - Deus Ex does a good job of making you feel alone and without support, trapped in a desperate situation where you have to carefully marshal your resources and choose your battles in order to have any chance at survival, let alone advancement. I thought that maybe such deliberate gameplay was too at odds with my normal "kick in the door and only halfheartedly aim" approach to shooters. However, I recently played Velvet Assassin, and while it was not at all the sort of game I'd ordinarily choose to play, its survival elements were even more extreme than Deus Ex's, and yet I was not so consistently irritated.

It wasn't until around hour 19 that I finally realized what was bugging me. It's the damned flashlight. It's always been the damned flashlight. Even in Hong Kong, which had the additional problem of being a confusing urban maze, the light levels were a major component of my distaste. It's not that the game is dark. It's that your flashlight uses the same bioelectric energy as your combat implants, so I was subconsciously avoiding its use. All the time I was sneaking around, conserving ammo, or navigating without a map (activities that test my patience even under the best of circumstances), I was doing it while squinting.

I couldn't say why I would do such a thing. It can help me see by focusing light more narrowly, but it can't magically change a pixel from black to white. Honestly, I wasn't even aware I was doing it. Yet that constant, low-level physical discomfort managed to bleed over into my assessment of the game as a whole. It's a phenomenon I've long found fascinating - the mind can transform the meaning and context of feedback from the body when it is uncertain about the feedback's origin, but even so, it's the teensiest bit embarrassing when you notice it happening.

I now have a dilemma. Even though I'm armed with the knowledge of why the game has been making me so cranky, I'm not sure this is a problem willpower alone can solve. Thus I have the perfect excuse to stop playing at 20 hours. However, that would make this the third story-driven rpg in a row I gave up on before the end. I have a feeling that I'm pretty close to finishing the story, and would estimate it as taking no more than 25 hours. Plus I'm kind of interested in how the story will work out.

The thing I'm starting to realize about Deus Ex's story is that, despite the greyness of the environments and the inherent self-seriousness of the cyberpunk genre, it is actually gleefully absurd. Basically, it's set in a world where every half-cocked conspiracy theory is true. I'm working for the Illuminati to stop a conspiracy from within the Illuminati that is orchestrating the UN and the European Union to subvert national governments and impose control by the intellectual elite, using false flag terrorist operations and the secret cure to a deadly disease that they themselves released. Most recently, I explored a cathedral that used to be the headquarters to the secret surviving Knights Templar, where they were paid tribute by the Bilderberg group.

I can't help wondering how tongue-in-cheek this is supposed to be. Played straight, it can be disconcertingly right-wing. The NSF and Silhouette (basically the French version of the NSF) both seem like they're reactionary nationalists whose only redeeming quality is that they oppose the super-evil conspiracy. And the Templar bank is extraordinary for the fact that it uses gold, despite the practice being completely nonsensical in a cyberpunk, post-information economy.

I wouldn't say that Deus Ex has a particularly political slant, but given the nature of its subject matter, maybe it should. The baroque excess of its "all-conspiracy-theories-are-true" mythology screams out for satire, but the studied neutrality of its presentation means that notional satire has no particular target. I'd prefer it if this game were either a little less ridiculous or a whole lot sillier, but I'm still looking forward to seeing how this will all work out.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Deus Ex: Game of the Year Edition - 15/20 hours

I am ready to be done with this game. Hong Kong was a nightmare. It's a funny thing about science fiction - it's easy to extrapolate from existing trends, but almost impossible to predict something genuinely new. Thus JC Denton can have all sorts of borderline-magical nanotech augmentations, and yet I would gladly trade half of them for a modern smartphone. It seems obvious in retrospect - carry around a little portable computer around with you that communicates with gps satellites and pinpoints your current location on a map. The reason you'd need such a thing is that if you were dropped in an unfamiliar urban environment, and you didn't have a guide, you'd quickly become hopelessly lost. It's possible that Deus Ex deliberately left out map functionality in order to create a particular gameplay challenge, but it's still disappointing when video games are less convenient than real life.

It made me a little cranky, and as a result I'm inclined to judge the game more harshly than it deserves. It's sort of the opposite of Fallout 2. That was a game that had some serious flaws, but because I played it at a critical juncture in my gaming life, and because, at the time, I'd never experienced anything more advanced, I was able to play it with one eye in the past without holding it to a standard it could never possibly meet. By contrast, Deus Ex is a game with many great qualities, but I'm having a hard getting by it because I've played it long after its historical moment.

It's a problem with video games as an artistic medium. They aren't just art, they are also technology. Over time they become increasingly sophisticated. New games learn techniques from older ones and build upon what came before. As a result, appreciating an older game requires appreciating its historical context. However, that appreciation can feel abstract and removed. You may enjoy a Model-T for its craftsmanship and the ingenuity of its construction, but you wouldn't necessarily want to drive it down the road.

Or maybe I wouldn't have enjoyed Deus Ex even when it was new. I've never had a great deal of patience for stealth, and you spend a lot of time wandering around, and the shooting and resource management are unforgiving. It's definitely a "hardcore" game, and thus speaks to a certain sensibility that not everyone possesses. It's really impossible to say.

Plotwise, things have gone sideways fast. There is a difference between working with a rebel group to take down an evil conspiracy and assisting criminal gangs by stealing high-tech weapons for them, and then brokering a deal by which the largest gangs can consolidate into a super-gang. When I returned to New York City, UNATCO may have demonized me by framing me for the very terrorism I once thwarted, but when they said I had links to the Hong Kong Triads, they severely understated the case.

Now I'm working with the Illuminati (who are, apparently . . . good) to destroy a boatload of the virus (I'm assuming this is not as reckless a plan as it appears for handwavy sci-fi reasons), and I've basically just given up all pretense of being a law-and-order sort. The boat is guarded by a bunch of Chinese and American soldiers that don't have any obvious connection to Majestic-12, so now I'm just shooting people for doing their jobs. On the other hand, it is easier doing it that way . . .

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Deus Ex: Game of the Year Edition - 10/20 hours

I was probably a little too harsh on Deus Ex's graphics before. Now that I've gotten used to them, they're fine. Not great, but I can imagine how in the year 2000, they would have seemed incredible. Two nitpicks - I don't like the dark areas. Sure, the game gives you a flashlight, so by extension dark must exist, but it's a frustrating mechanic because I always walk into darkness from a place with light and the transition is jarring. My other complaint is that, now that I'm in Hong Kong, the world doesn't seem vertical enough. Cyberpunk, to me, is about a world of gleaming towers that cast long shadows, and the sort of desperate parasitical life that goes on in the cracks of the system. Deus Ex sort of hits that note, but there's not enough worldbuilding. The various civilians you come across don't have enough lines, and you're too caught up in the whole conspiracies-within-conspiracies plot to explore much of how the world works on a day-to-day basis.

Speaking of which, things look like they are finally coming to a head. Paul, my brother, turned out to be working with the terrorists. It's a bit of a bummer, because I thought he was urging me to use nonlethal methods out of some great compassion and sense of responsibility, but it turns out he just wanted me to spare his friends (it's possible that it's both - the game tried to present him as a softy - but in my book, when you willingly work with a group that bombs subway stations and takes hostages, you lose the ability to present yourself as a gentle peacemaker).

It's a betrayal that is a major turning point in the game, because it marks when UNATCO goes from "ominously authoritarian" to "evil to the point of incompetence." First, they tell me to kill an unarmed prisoner, despite that being against UNATCO's official policy, and totally irrespective of the fact that they have underground prison cells that could disappear a person more or less indefinitely. Then, they hit the kill switch on my brother, which, okay, maybe that's something you'd want to have, even considering the risk of an enemy hacker getting in and triggering it on your loyal agents, but then they make a big deal about telling me about it, presumably "so I won't get any ideas." If they'd just quietly killed Paul without bothering to say what they did, I would have almost certainly assumed that he escaped into the underworld and was laying low, and thus I'd have never sought him out in Hell's Kitchen, and never been persuaded to broadcast a message to the NSF (plus, it turns out that many of the terrorist organizations out there are on UNATCO's payroll, so I'm not sure where Paul thought he was running to).

Finally, I learned (though, to be fair, they more or less came out and said it in the opening cinematic) that my employers are responsible for the plague that is the driving force behind the NSF's dissent in the first place. Releasing a biological agent into the wild and then trading the cure for political favors has got to be the dumbest evil plan ever conceived. Do these people not realize that once it's out of their control, it's going to evolve, and that it's only a matter of time before it out-evolves the cure? Once that happens, it's game over for humanity, shadowy conspirators and all. I think the Grey Death is supposed to be nanomachines rather than a virus, but that just makes it worse. It will have all of the weaknesses of a biological weapon, and can also be traced to one of a small number of groups with the knowledge and resources to build such a thing. What's the damned point of having a mysterious conspiracy when you're just going to print your calling card on your weapons?

I once thought that Deus Ex would turn out to be a conflict of grey vs grey, where all sides have a compelling point that belied their brutal methods, and that I would have to carefully navigate between the factions to reach a satisfying conclusion while keeping my honor intact. Now I realize the conflict is grey vs dark black, where I'm forced to side with contemptible losers in order to preserve the human race before some idiots accidentally reduce it to unidentifiable organic sludge.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Deus Ex: Game of the Year Edition - 5/20 hours

I'm a bit intimidated in blogging about this game. It is an undisputed classic, and I worry that if I don't appreciate it enough, I'll be revealed as a philistine. Lucky for me, then, that I can see how it earned its reputation.

Deus Ex is a good game. You're given control of an elite cyborg operative, and sent into various wide-open levels to thwart terrorist plots. You're given a set of skills and implants, and different ways of upgrading your character lend themselves to different approaches for navigating the levels. It's a great formula, but . . .

Well, Skyrim exists. If I want to play a game that offers me incredible freedom and the ability to customize my game experience through the way I advance my character, I have options. I could be playing a game with lush and gorgeous environments, smoother and more responsive controls, and dozens more character options.

Which isn't really fair to Deus Ex, of course. If I could mentally transport myself back to the year 2000, I'd easily see what a marvel it was. I just recently got done playing some rpgs that were released at around the same time (Baldur's Gate 2 came out in the very same year) and there is no comparison. It even looks and plays well compared to Morrowind, which wouldn't come out for another two years. But it really is a victim of the curse that afflicts all early 3-d games - they're not simple enough to be timeless, and they're not detailed enough to be good. The only people who could possibly love how this game looks are those who have never been exposed to anything better.

And I'm not normally what you'd call a graphics snob. This period in graphics history is simply that awkward.

This is exacerbated by the fact that I don't really care for stealth gameplay, so I'm not quite engaged enough to completely overlook the blandness and blockiness of the environments. That being said, I don't mind the shooting and exploration portions so much, I just wish the resources management wasn't so strict. Your superiors at the UN literally punish you for taking the direct approach. After shooting my way through the first mission, the quartermaster refused to give me more ammo due to my body count. I guess I could be using nonlethal methods, but dart gun and stun baton ammo are even scarcer than that for lethal weapons.

I suppose how you approach the missions does affect the tenor of the story. It you're a sneaky, nonlethal type, then Deus Ex is the story of a conscientious peace officer. If you use lethal force, it's the story of a brutal authoritarian enforcer. It's not really fair, though, because the NSF terrorists are a deadly threat who wouldn't hesitate to kill me, so restraint is kind of supererogatory. Maybe the very fact that I'm present, enforcing the dictates of the UN, is a morally unjustifiable act of aggression, but the NSF is the sort of organization that takes over subway stations, lines them with explosives, and takes people hostage, so that doesn't seem very credible. I suspect it's one of those things where they steal vaccines to aid the poor, oppose the oppressive corporate oligarchy that has subverted world governments and the UN, and are also just nastily ruthless.

I certainly don't trust the shadowy government officials who are pulling my strings, or the bloodthirsty fools who take my willingness to defend myself as an endorsement of their genocidal agenda. I'm hoping there will be a branching path later on that lets me forge my own path that balances social equality with public order. Of course, I should be so lucky. I'm sure I'll be forced to make moral compromises to get to the end.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Deus Ex: Game of the Year Edition - 2/20 hours

This game and I are not getting off to a great start. I had to use a guide to get through the tutorial. It didn't explain how to move bodies or reload guns or exit the water after swimming. I didn't learn that guns were useless against robots until I expended my only clip. Luckily, I couldn't actually die, so I was able to muddle through.

The same can not be said of the campaign mode. I wound up losing my whole first hour of progress because I forgot to save. Deus Ex does not do autosaves. That's going to take some getting used to. There are a lot of similar little quality-of life-features that I wish were included. There's no minimap, and I really wish for context sensitive action buttons (I wound up shooting at least two friendly npcs that I wanted to talk to). There's also no objective markers, which is kind of a huge deal for me. I need to know where to go next. Wandering around aimlessly while I search for the particular location, item, or npc that will trigger the continuation of the game is one of my least favorite activities in gaming (off the top of my head, only escort mission rank lower). It's not a guaranteed disaster, of course. Level design and strong direction can make up for a lot.

I suppose it all comes with the territory. Deus Ex is an old-school game. It does not have the advantage of the last fifteen years of game design innovation and refinement. Yet I shouldn't view its age purely as a liability. While it may lack the polish of a modern game, it is likely also unburdened by the homogenous conservatism that can take hold of a solidifying genre. It will almost certainly attempt things that later games wouldn't dare, because "it doesn't know better." I'm sure that if I stick with it, I'll learn why this game has such a strong reputation.

The story thus far is minimal. Due to playing it twice, I have just now finished the opening mission. Terrorists have taken over the crumbling ruins of the Statue of Liberty (could this be a metaphor . . . nah), and the main character JC Denton, is an advanced cyborg who is used by the UN to enforce public order. Whether that's the right thing to do or not is up in the air, seeing as how the terrorists were stealing an important vaccine to distribute to the poor and disadvantaged (and according to the opening cinematic, the world of Deus Ex is inhabited by shadowy cabals who are not above exploiting, or engineering, a deadly plague and subsequent vaccine shortage to consolidate their hold on political power). I expect this means that JC is going to be thrust into a world of conflicting loyalties where the promise of technology is contrasted against its peril, and the tyranny of power is opposed only by the danger of anarchy.

Which sounds interesting enough, if I can actually survive the shooting and the stealth mechanics with my sanity intact.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Deus Ex: Game of the Year Edition - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

 The year is 2052 and the world is a dangerous and chaotic place. Terrorists operate openly - killing thousands; drugs, disease and pollution kill even more. The world's economies are close to collapse and the gap between the insanely wealthy and the desperately poor grows ever wider. Worst of all, an ages old conspiracy bent on world domination has decided that the time is right to emerge from the shadows and take control.

Key Features:
Real role-playing from an immersive 3D, first-person perspective. The game includes action, character interaction and problem solving.

Realistic, recognizable locations. Many of the locations are built from actual blueprints of real places set in a near future scenario.

A game filled with people rather than monsters. This creates empathy with the game characters and enhances the realism of the game world.

Rich character development systems: Skills, augmentations, weapon and item selections and multiple solutions to problems ensure that no two players will end the game with similar characters.

Multiple solutions to problems and character development choices ensure a varied game experience. Talk, fight or use skills to get past obstacles as the game adapts itself to your style of play.

Strong storyline: Built on "real" conspiracy theories, current events and expected advancements in technology. If it's in the game, someone, somewhere believes.

Previous Playtime

0 hours

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

A long time ago, I want to say about ten years, I played a demo of this game. I liked it, but didn't particularly feel the urge to track down the full game. Since then, I've heard the title Deus Ex bandied about as a serious contender for the best rpg of all time. My curiosity was piqued, so when I saw I could buy it for less than five bucks, I figured it was worth a try.

Expectations and Prior Experience

I've played the aforementioned demo, but that was ten years ago and I don't remember much of it. More recently, I played Deus Ex: Human Revolution on the console, but I didn't finish it because stealth games frustrate the hell out of me. I worry that an old-school stealth game will be even worse, but that fear isn't based on anything concrete. By all accounts the original Deus Ex is more open-ended than any of the sequels, so presumably I should be able to find a character build that plays to my strengths.

My real concern is that, with this game, I'll have played three story-driven rpgs in a row, and if I don't finish the entire main story, I'll seem overly feckless. I'm probably being too sensitive, though.

The Witcher: Enhanced Edition - 20/20 hours

I think I've got a handle on the game's plot. It looks like there's a war brewing between a group of "freedom fighters" seeking the liberation of non-humans from racist human oppression and a knightly order who appears to protect both the innocent from monsters and the status quo from any sort of reform. The various quest-givers I've encountered have been trying to influence me to give aid to their preferred faction in order to manipulate the outcome of this war. I'm not sure how the Salamanders fit in with all this, but they have powerful friends, so I'm guessing that their raid on the witchers' alchemical supplies was no mere coincidence. One way or another, my mission of vengeance is going to dovetail with the war, and my choices will decide the fate of nations.

The only problem here is that I really don't want to. Both of the factions have managed to annoy me. The freedom fighters have a righteous cause, but it seems like every time I encounter them, they're threatening either me or the innocent. The knights are led by a guy, Siegfried who has always treated me with respect and seems personally honorable, but the organization itself is an obstinate and unshakeable defender of a corrupt and unjust society. The idealistic, modern part of me says that the solution to this problem is obvious - the kingdom must unilaterally begin to treat the non-humans with equality and dignity while still making clear that terrorism will not be tolerated, allowing the knights to protect the common folk while eliminating the iniquity that plagues their realm.

Unfortunately, Geralt is not a diplomat. He's just a humble monster-slayer whose only skills are alchemy and swordplay. With him as my avatar, I am helpless to turn the tide of history, and am crushed beneath these titanic political forces I couldn't possibly influence and only barely understand. Just like in real life. It's depressing. When I speak with an elf terrorist in the midst of a botched bank robbery, he tells me I must pick a side. What I really want to do is appeal to his fundamental decency and compassion and urge him to consider releasing the hostages in exchange for me brokering a deal that would allow him to escape. That's what would have happened in Fallout or Mass Effect, but here, it's not an option.

Perhaps the standard "you can find a third option" narrative is a bit naive. While I am very much against stark "you're either with us or against us" ideology in the real world, even I have to recognize that forging consensus and building bridges between antagonistic groups takes more than simply picking the right option from a dialogue menu. It is a painstaking and time-consuming endeavor that requires a lot of trust and faith and tolerance for the inevitable setbacks that will occur as people with a lot of built-up animosity learn, fitfully, to coexist. So the idea that some golden-tongued savior can just swoop in and fast-talk their way through problems that have endured for centuries is pure fantasy. On the other hand, so is the super-human killing machine who can take on whole armies without backup or support. If a game is going to be a power fantasy anyway, a fantasy of soft power isn't inherently more ridiculous than a fantasy of brute force.

I will grant, though, that others have a bleaker view of the world than myself. That it is easy to envision new types of force that will play out the same old, blood-soaked political dance that has so long been the curse of humankind. Perhaps peace requires a change to our very nature, or at the very least that more people than just one, lone hero be invested in achieving it. A thoughtful game could explore that very idea. That there might be an individual who is possessed of a phenomenal physical power, and yet is helpless to move the machinery of history, because their personal strength does not extend to hearts and minds.

However, The Witcher is not that game. It all comes back to the damned sex trading cards. Those are the most articulate examples of the game's thesis regarding the nature of power. Which is to say, power is awesome. You get to swing swords, and get drunk, and see boobies. And yeah, things are "dark and gritty," but it's the fun, shallow kind of dark and gritty were you're free to act with total irresponsibility (OMG - I just realized that the witchers' sterility and immunity to disease are not at all coincidental) because nothing will ever get better, so you don't have to worry about the hard work and compromise you could be doing, since those things will just lead to you getting screwed over by some other asshole who knows the real score.

What I really want is a ray of light. Some slim hope that my Geralt can be on the side of justice and peace, and not merely a sword in the dark. I don't think one is forthcoming, though. The question I have to ask myself is - is it worth it to stick with the game just for a bit of hope? Maybe, in other circumstances, I would. There was I time when I didn't have so many options, so I always took pains to get the absolute maximum out of any game. I may well have played The Witcher multiple times to see all the paths and explore as many sidequests and "romances" as possible. Now, I have more than a hundred games in my Steam library, with roughly ninety that I still need to play for the blog. The opportunity cost of continuing is just too high.

My final opinion of The Witcher is that it's adequate. It has some problems with its story, world-building, characters, and treatment of women (I understand it's based on some novels, and I'd be curious to know whether the problems are in the source material or were introduced due to the natural friction that comes with adaptation), but the core game was technically competent, with comfortable, if not especially compelling, mechanics and an well-put-together structure that does a fine job in managing the player's attention (or, at least, this player's attention) and keeping them interested. It won't go down as one of my favorite games, but on the balance I enjoyed it, and would not hesitate to recommend it to someone with a greater tolerance for its relentlessly dark and intermittently juvenile sensibilities.

The Witcher: Enhanced Edition - 16/20 hours

This game has a lot of fill. I really shouldn't complain, because what is life if not a series of filler quests between notable events (what, I've got to go to the store to retrieve a list of items and bring them back home - jeez, how many more of these fetch quests do I have to do before I can advance the plot already)? Still, it comes to be a flaw when the significant information becomes so spread out in time and so buried in minor incident that you forget about it by the time it becomes relevant. For example, I just recently learned that Geralt has iron-clad proof that Raymond the detective, who was helping to uncover the location and activities of the Salamandra gang, had actually been killed and replaced by the leader of the gang. I know this because Geralt said as much to an npc, but for the life of me, I couldn't tell you what that proof actually is (I just looked it up on the wiki, and apparently you find the real Raymond's body, which I either completely overlooked or somehow the game glitched and triggered the dialogue anyway).

I think what I'm supposed to be doing is chasing the threads of a complex plot that can't be boiled down to simple summaries or easy answers. The game advertised itself by saying "NO GOOD AND NO EVIL - ONLY CHOICES AND CONSEQUENCES" and presumably that means that The Witcher is attempting to create an ethically murky world where the line between right and wrong is not easy to discern. However, most of the time I feel less like I'm being presented with serious moral dilemmas and more like I simply don't have enough information to make a confident decision. And perhaps that, too, is realistic. How often in life do we fail to have the whole story? How often are we confronted by lies and self-serving mythology? Yet, to the degree that it is realistic, it emulates one of the worst facets of life. However ideologically dubious it might be, I like it when video games present me with a clear moral path. In some ways, it is better to play as an outright villain than to have to navigate through a story that casts you as a conflicted antihero (which is not to say that I don't like stories with conflicted antiheros, but when I'm presented with a choice, that's generally a path I avoid, with the caveat that in video game morality, slaughtering ordinary work-a-day mercenaries, gangsters, and goblins does not really count as a cause for ethical conflict).

I may be overthinking this, though. Geralt is really just a monster hunter. Traipsing through a swamp, killing random ghouls and plant monsters, that's where he's at his best. This whole thing with Salamandra is really just a distraction from his main business, so perhaps instead of viewing the sidequests as filler that distracts from the main plot, it is in fact the main plot that is superfluous. All this time I spend getting confused by the machinations of the various factions in Vizima's underworld is really time that I could better spend slaying cockatrices and hunting vampires. In which case, I'd better get it over with as soon as possible.

Monday, April 6, 2015

The Witcher: Enhanced Edition - 10/20 hours

How do you draw the line between sexism and depictions of sexism? I ask this, because over the last five hours, I managed to save a witch from being burned at the stake, and witnessed, as a consequence, some really horrific sexism. And I'm not talking about the overly-sensitive, politically correct version of sexism, where maybe the people who perpetrated it are actually just a little misguided, but seriously old-school violent misogyny, with the whole "women are the spawn of the devil who tempt men into evil with their wicked lusts" spiel.

And I'm not sure how I should react to that. The game doesn't endorse that view. It comes from the perspective of some dipshit villagers that I eventually wind up fighting, so it's obviously not meant to be a credible source. On the other hand, the game also does not make much of an effort to critique the villagers' sexism, and that can send the message that it is not their hateful misogyny, but the fact that they attack the player that makes them the enemy.

For example, during the whole witch-trial thing, the sins of the various men around town are revealed, and one of them, Mikul the gate guard, is a rapist. However, he's not present at the brawl. You don't see him again until after you defeat the Beast and are ready to move to the next area. He shows some small bit of contrition, but after literally one second the whole matter is dropped and never mentioned again. The rape of Ilsa is treated as unarguably a bad thing, but apparently not so bad that anyone has to do anything about it (maybe that's why she committed suicide).

If I were inclined to defend the game, I'd say that the sexist attitudes and injustice are a trait of the fictional society that makes up the setting, but that's not actually an argument that has a lot of traction with me. The question that leaps to mind is "why this society?" "Why these attitudes?" And the only answer that seems to make any sense is that the world of The Witcher is meant to be a grimy and unpleasant place, and the mistreatment of women is meant to act as a kind of shorthand to convey that. It all feels very exploitative.

Like, if you were setting a game in Earth's past, you'd have an excuse. You're just telling it like it was. Women did not have a very easy time through much of history, so changing things to make them more comfortable to a modern audience is to make your game at least somewhat fantastical. Similarly, if you were making a game about fighting for justice for women, then you'd also have reason to do this sort of thing. If you're going to have awesome feminist avengers, you're going to need some gender-based iniquities for them to rail against.

The Witcher, however, is neither of those things. It is a game about fighting ghosts and assassins, and violence against women is a mere backdrop. What's more, you can't divorce it from the context of its sex minigame. I'm not inclined, by temperament, to take an especially hard line against the game's sexy trading cards. They're cheesy as hell, and literally objectifying, but they are so incredibly stupid an idea that they possess a certain camp charm. And if I were in a generous mood, I'd say that there is an intersection between campiness and sentimentality that makes it almost sweet for a player to collect a tangible memento of the video game ladies he has once loved (full disclosure - I'm almost certainly saying this because I myself possess both those qualities in abundance).

Yet the way those cheesy card are acquired dovetails with the game's setting is unnerving. I've so far seen three of the sex scenes, and with the exception of the very first one (which was merely hilariously inappropriate in its abruptness) they have all had an element of the coercive to them. Not anything that I'd say crosses a line, due to the fact that they were both proposed by the ladies themselves, but they were nonetheless creepier than they were sexy. The second sex scene was with Abigail, the witch, who propositions you (possibly as a bribe) right before the mob of villagers comes to burn her at the stake. The third was with a prostitute who offers you a "freebie" for rescuing some of her fellow prostitutes from gangs of thugs. It's all very gross, and serves to paint a picture of a society where the feminine is completely degraded. Basically, if you ever wondered why the philosophy of political lesbianism would appeal to somebody, all you have to do is try and play The Witcher as a "ladies man."

(You may, at this point, be asking the obvious question - if it's so gross, how do you know so much about it? I'd like to say it's because of my intrepid doggedness as a reporter, and that I'm braving the seedy underbelly of the game so I can blog about it honestly, but it's probably more accurate to say that I'm triggering these sex scenes out of prurient curiosity. I keep wondering if they could possibly be as bad as my imagination makes them out to be, and so far, they are.)

What this all means is that I feel like The Witcher uses the mistreatment of women as material for entertainment, but it hasn't really earned the right to do so. In theory, you can take a pandering, cheesecake approach to erotica if your idea of sex is fun and goofy, and you can populate your "dark fantasy" setting with the bleakest horrors of history if you're otherwise conscientiously sensitive to the plight of downtrodden people, but to take The Witcher's approach is to combine the worst aspects of both.

The main redeeming factor of the game is the fact that this dubious gender stuff is like, 10% of the game. For most of the last five hours, I've been slaying monsters and running around a vaguely medieval town gathering clues about a criminal conspiracy. This mostly involves talking to npcs, getting a new, misleading quest marker, and talking to another npc across town, with the occasional punctuation of a sudden betrayal, but the individual subquests are short enough that they fall under that ineffable "just one more" threshold, so the game as a whole is moderately addictive. It does mostly feel like filler, however. If I were to summarize the plot since my last update it would be - saved a witch from an angry mob, discovered the villagers were in league with the people I'm chasing, killed a hellhound, and then went to the city to try and find the gang, where no one individual was able to give me a particularly large bit of help. Presumably, the devil's in the details, but I doubt they would be very interesting to someone reading along.