Friday, May 29, 2015

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

Five years after the events from the award winning Star Wars® Knights of the Old Republic™, the Sith Lords have hunted the Jedi to the edge of extinction and are on the verge of crushing the Old Republic. With the Jedi Order in ruin, the Republic’s only hope is a lone Jedi struggling to reconnect with the Force. As this Jedi, you will be faced with the galaxy’s most dire decision: Follow the light side or succumb to the dark…

Previous Playtime

4 minutes

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

It was in a bundle, and thus, on an individual level, extremely cheap, so I felt like I couldn't pass it up.  It wasn't a purely compulsive purchase, though. Back when I was still gaming on the original Xbox, this game was in heavy rotation as one of my go-to games. I put in my wish list specifically to wait for a sale and thus get it in a more convenient format.

Expectations and Prior Experience

I must have played the bulk of this game at least a half dozen times. I only finished it a couple of times because it's long and the ending is kind of lame, but I made up for it by searching for secrets and Easter eggs. It wasn't until my third time playing that even realized you could convert your party members to Jedi and I subsequently made it my mission to convert them all. I don't remember if I succeeded, but it'll definitely be a goal for this playthrough.

I think I have pretty realistic expectations about this game. It's a lot like the original Knights of the Old Republic except with more sophisticated crafting and dialogue systems, more complex character creation, and a shakier plot. I'll probably cruise right through it, though depending on my build, I might face a couple of rough spots.

It'll be interesting to see the ending again through fresh eyes. I never quite understood what was going on, but maybe that will change if I pay closer attention this time through. All-in-all, I'm looking forward to it.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic - Wrap-up

There is only one logical conclusion to be drawn from the last few hours of Knights of the Old Republic - the dark side makes you stupid. And I don't just mean in the ideological sense of order and peace being obviously better than chaos and war (though that is indeed part of it). It's like becoming a Sith robs you of your basic pattern-recognition skills. I attack the Star Forge and they mobilize its defenses against me. I effortlessly cut through them and they mobilize some more. And so on until I get to the bosses, and they toss a massive amount of attitude my way, as if I weren't a terrifying whirlwind of destruction, and even when they're beaten and I'm deciding what to do with them, they still go on and on about how the dark side is too powerful to oppose. Fools, if the dark side is really that great, why the hell are we in this position?

And the way they celebrate betrayal and petty violence, as if that impresses anyone - ugh! I hate them so much. Maybe if I were a Jedi, I'd fall to the dark side pretty fast, but I like to think that if I did, I'd at least have more style than these jackholes. That's probably the most aggravating thing about the story - the homogeneity of evil.

Take Bastila, for instance. The second big twist in the game is that after she sacrifices herself to hold off Darth Malak (which in retrospect is an even dumber move than it seemed at the time, considering I eventually had to solo him in a place where he could draw on dark side power, with a PC who was only two levels higher, and thus a three-on-one fight on neutral ground would have been a much better situation for me), she is not killed but rather captured and subsequently tortured until she becomes Malak's apprentice.

Okay, so it's a little offensive that being the victim of torture would turn you evil, and it bends the suspension of disbelief a bit to imagine that it would give you super powers, but even granting those two conceits - why the hell would the recipient of such treatment side with her worst enemy? It's not total loyalty, because the Sith have no redeeming qualities, but after I beat her, the only betrayal scenario she's willing to entertain is to take over Malak's job as head Sith. It seems like even though I failed the Persuade check to get her back on the light side, she'd still be interested in a deal that lets her keep her life and get revenge on the guy she hates, but no she's willing to fight to the death in support of a Sith philosophy that is transparently unworkable due to the fact that I literally just that very moment decisively beat her. And it's not as if she's defending some deep-seated worldview. She's only been a Sith for like a day and a half, and prior to that she hated them just as much as I do.

Grr. Anyway, in the end, despite being unable to save Bastila, I managed to defeat Malak, blow up the Star Forge, and become a hero of the Republic. So a bit of a bittersweet ending.

Overall, I really enjoyed this game. Don't let my complaints about Korriban and the Sith fool you. They definitely pushed my buttons, but that just made destroying them all the sweeter (again, I'd probably fall to the dark side, but the Sith can still go fuck themselves). The gameplay was a casual implementation of the d20 rpg rules, which was kind of fun to see in action, even though it is way too easy to get yourself into trouble with character builds. It could have used a bit of polish in a couple areas. Backtracking was a pain and towards the end my equipment list was out of control huge. However, none of that really detracts all that much from the main draw - Knights of the Old Republic is a Star Wars roleplaying game, and being able to enter that universe with a digital avatar is a total blast.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic - 28 hours

Man, Korriban is the worst. I'm a level 18 character, only two levels away from the cap, which more or less makes me one of the most powerful Jedi masters in the galaxy. The Sith have built an academy on Korriban that blocks my access to the last piece of the Star Map I need to stop Darth Malak and save the galaxy. The obvious solution to the problem - walk up to the Sith's front door and start laying down the law.

But no, the game wants to railroad you into an infiltration plot, so you have to make nice with the locals and pretend to want to be a Sith. But when you get in, you find there are other candidates, and only one gets to join the ranks (which, conveniently, you need to do because the Star Map is in the forbidden tomb where only Sith are allowed). Again, the solution to this problem is obvious - use your massively superior combat abilities to simply kill off the competition.

But no, the game will not allow you to initiate hostilities, not even as a dark side option, so you have to do a series of fetch-quests. The whole thing is galling because it's basically forcing you to aid the Sith in order to advance in the game.

And the punchline to this is, at the end of the quest, there's a moment when the academy master's protege betrays him (because of course there is), and I wound up killing them both, and when the school at large finds out about it, I fail a persuade check and they attack me en mass, but because I'm level 18, I wound up easily dispatching the whole school, which is exactly what I should have done in the first place. Argh!

Anyway, I have now finished all of the main planets. Tatooine and Kashyyyk were fun, but didn't really have all that much I feel compelled to comment about. I got a couple of fun new companions, HK-47, the psychotic assassin droid who drily and matter-of-factly comments on his contempt for all organic life, and Jolee the wisecracking rogue (but not dark) Jedi.

The biggest event of the game happened between levels. I was caught by one of Malak's ships. After being subjected to one of those "you are imprisoned and forced to escape without any equipment" sections that people are still inexplicably putting in games, and dealing with Karth's old mentor who really had terrible judgement when it comes to his enemies (considering he was aware of the game's big plot twist and thus should have known he couldn't possibly win against me), I come face to face with Malak himself.

So, I'm not just level 18. I'm a level 18 soldier/jedi guardian. Malak is a tough foe, but his level scaling assumes that he could theoretically be facing a scoundrel/jedi councilor and since they make you fight him solo, the encounter is presumably balanced along the assumption that they don't want you to ragequit on an unavoidable boss fight. The practical upshot of this is that I tore through him like he was made of paper.

Which just goes to show that cutscene incompetence is a tool of the dark side. My fight with Malak was one I was scripted to lose, because he needed an opportunity to tell me a terrible secret - I am actually Darth Revan, the prior leader of the Sith forces, believed to have been killed by the Jedi!

It turns out that they actually managed to recover her near-lifeless body and were able to use the Force to psychically implant false memories, in the hopes of creating a sympathetic pawn to lead them to the Star Forge. Because executing someone is wrong, but maiming them beyond all recognition is perfectly acceptable.

Bastila sacrificed herself to unnecessarily delay the final boss battle (seriously, I am almost certainly over-prepared for this fight), and that gave me the time I needed to get back to my ship and fly to Korriban, where I could sped the next few hours dicking around with some Sith who really should have known better than to cross me.

Now, I have all the information I need, and the only thing left to do is fly to the Star Forge and shut it down. Hopefully, the next time I meet Malak, the game will actually let me use my full set of abilities.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic - 20/20 hours

I finished the first of the four main planets, Manaan. It was an ocean planet, with pleasant, but uninspiring architecture and some forgettable political intrigue between the Republic and the Sith. The aliens who control the planet, the Selkath, produce a kind of super-effective healing item and want to remain neutral in the galactic war. Representatives of both the Sith and the Republic are milling around the city, being aggressive towards each other and brusque towards me. Combined with the Selkath's cultural suspicion of outsiders, and it was a tense situation that had me wishing I was Darth Malak so I could show the locals just what I thought of their hospitality.

Or maybe I'm just being prickly for no reason. I knew, simply by the nature of the genre, that no one was going to just up and tell me where the Star Map is. I would, of course, have to do an unrelated favor for someone before I could get the location. Yet that doesn't quite erase the sting of going into the Republic embassy, being recognized as a Jedi on an important mission, and having the ambassador flat out hold the information hostage. Dude, I understand that you need someone to aid you with your cloak-and-dagger shenanigans aimed at controlling the kolto supply, but I'm kind of on an important mission to discover the secret of Darth Malak's mysterious super-weapon. It doesn't really help the Republic all that much to solve a regional problem by diverting resources from a galaxy-scale project.

Still, I did what I was asked. I broke into the Sith base, retrieved the data from a captured probe, and incidentally slaughtered the entire facility staff all the way up to the Sith master in charge. My reward was the opportunity to fix another Republic fuck-up, deep beneath the waves. Basically, the Republic and a rogue faction of the Selkath government built a secret harvesting facility on the ocean floor in order to produce some extra amounts of the super-healing substance and smuggle it into Republic hands. Seeing as how this involved huge off-the-books expenditures to cover up what must have been a massive construction and smuggling operation, it seems to me that it would have been easier just to fudge some numbers in the regular kolto distribution channels, but what do I know.

The most memorable part of the mission was the fact that you got to leave the undersea base proper and explore the ocean floor inside an environment suit - an experience that can best be described as "excruciatingly slow." Seriously, what is up with games giving you alternate modes of play that are just like the main game, but worse? As much as I liked the idea of going out into the ocean, the clunk, clunk, clunk of moving at a snail's pace through the water really turned me off.

But in the balance, I'm having fun. So much so that I plan on seeing this game out to the end. Next stop Tatooine!

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Interlude - AdVenture Capitalist - 20 hours and counting

Sigh. There's this free game AdVenture Capitalist, which I thought looked pretty cute. And it was free, so if it turned out to be horrible, there's basically no risk. So why not give it a try? I am such an idiot.

All it is is a "numbers going up" simulator. You click on buttons to make certain numbers go up faster and your reward for doing so is the ability to click on buttons. It's just the slightest wisp of nothing, yet I'm finding myself hopelessly addicted. I keep checking back every few minutes, "have my numbers gone up enough yet" a question that is never too far from my mind. Why, in the course of writing this post, I've already checked it three times.

I suppose it's harmless enough. There are things you can buy with real money that will speed up the rate at which your numbers increase, and in my more fevered moments of obsessive number-watching, I briefly entertained the possibility of purchasing them, but fortunately, I am still tethered enough to reality to understand what a huge waste that would be.

I didn't actually intend to take a break from Knights of the Old Republic, and I've still been playing it a little, but I really did get sucked in unexpectedly. I think the initial thrill (yes, it is oddly thrilling when you reach milestones in this game, your first million, billion, trillion, quadrillion . . . there doesn't appear to be any upper limit) has faded enough that I'll be able to put it on the back burner for awhile. I expect a new KotOR post tomorrow, though my first quintillion is really close . . .

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic - 15/20 hours

After a number of sidequests, I have finished exploring Dantooine, and can now call myself a Jedi. I haven't actually used my lightsaber yet due to the fact that my upgraded vibroblade did better damage with higher accuracy, but I recently found some crystals that will make up the difference and then some.

Most of my Jedi duties thus far have involved talking to people and navigating dialogue trees. One thing Knights of the Old Republic has going for it is that those aforementioned dialogue trees are pretty forgiving. I've not yet run into a situation where saying the wrong thing has locked me out of completing a quest, even though that has made some of my conversations completely absurd. Let me talk to you Juhani and convince you not to fall to the dark side of the Force. Oh, what, I said the wrong thing and offended you? Let me say the exact same thing I said the first time I talked to you, but change the last sentence to something more conciliatory. Yeah, I thought so.

I'm not entirely sure I'm on board with this game's sense of whimsy. Like, on Dantooine, there's this woman who's Droid has gone missing. And it's pretty obvious that she's been having sex with it. So there's this whole "wink, wink, nudge, nudge" thing going on with it, and my reaction is like, "huh." I wound up reuniting the woman with her sex toy, and I don't know whether I should feel guilty, because this particular sex toy has a personality and is worried about his owner becoming a recluse who is too emotionally dependent on a machine following the tragic death of her husband, or whether I should roll my eyes at the game because, seriously Bioware, a woman owning a vibrator does not make her insane. I think I'll just split the difference and say that this isn't exactly the sort of problem I like to devote a lot of time to thinking about.

Meanwhile, in the main plot, the player character is turning out to be a prodigy with the Force, and along with Bastila, with whom she shares a mysterious spiritual bond, has discovered that Darth Malak is using some kind of ancient superweapon called the Star Forge. Only by going to four different planets and doing various favors for the locals can the pair recover the map that will lead to the Star Forge and allow the heroes to confront Malak and put a stop to the Sith's reign of terror.

You know, basic crpg stuff. There does appear to be a twist in the offing, though. The Jedi Council is acting particularly cagey about the main character's unusual facility with the Force, and her mission seems as much an exercise in keeping her busy as it does a genuine plan to save the galaxy.

Okay, I'm cheating a bit here. I already know the dramatic reveal. It's just that, knowing this, I can't help but observe that it is being fairly foreshadowed. I wish I had a clearer memory of my first playthrough, because it would be interesting to contrast my differing reactions to these subtle (and in some cases not so subtle) hints. However, I don't, so I can't. Let's just assume (despite all contrary evidence) that I was an observant and savvy player who always knew something was up, and was only surprised by the particular expression of the twist.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic - 11/20 hours

Okay, so I'm bad. Shortly after my previous post, I decided to abandon my current save and start the game over with a different character build. This kind of flightiness is not at all uncommon for me, when it comes to rpgs. You get to a certain point in the game and you realize that your choices while leveling-up have not lead to the sort of gameplay experience that you were hoping for.

My turning point was when I realized the character I've been playing would eventually become a Jedi. Having played the game before, this is something I already knew would happen, but for some reason, it did not at all occur to me to design my character around that fact. I wound up being level six and having no facility whatsoever with melee attacks. Which, you know, makes getting a lightsaber awkward.

My new character is an unstoppable melee powerhouse, though I'm starting to think that choice was a mistake too, because I managed to get that combat ability at the expense of my out-of-combat skills. Blame the d20 system Knights of the Old Republic is based on - it forces you to make decisions that will confine a character to a particular niche, and it isn't particularly careful to make all niches equally fun to play.

Yet I'm going to resist the urge to start the game a third time. I'm six hours into my new character, I've finished the main quest on Taris and have traveled to the Jedi academy on Dantooine. It would be too much of a pain to scrap that progress when I could just use my NPCs to cover my main character's weaknesses.

Not that I'm especially thrilled by the prospect. So far, none of my compatriots have been the sort of person I want to hang out with for extended periods of time. Mission Vao is fine, but her "plucky and chipper street urchin" routine managed to wear thin with surprising speed. Canderous, the Mandalorian, has a good voice, but I don't really need another heavy, and I'm worried that he might start spouting macho "being good at violence is the only way to be a real human being" gibberish at any moment. Carth is bland and whiny, and can't help reminding me of the much superior Kaiden Alenko. And Bastila is . . .

I don't want to get down on her just because she is abrasive and arrogant. These are character flaws you might expect any brash and callow hero-in-training to have, and I'm well aware that there is a tendency to judge women more harshly for traits that, in a man, would be considered "gruff" and "no-nonsense." That being said, I don't find it particularly pleasant to be around an imperious person who doubts my abilities, second-guesses my  decisions, and takes credit for my success. I'm sure she mellows as the story goes on, but from a pure meta game-design level, I'm not sure why Bioware found it necessary to include such an antagonistic character in your party. What experience were they hoping to create? That of having an annoying coworker who is clearly angling for promotion and won't shut up about her kooky religious views?

That leaves me with a party of basically mute characters - T3-M4, the astromech droid, who is impossible to screw up and Zaalbar the wookie, though, for reasons I can't quite articulate, I find the whole "life-debt" schtick to be vaguely icky. I guess it's because I'm constantly saving people with no expectation of reward besides basic gratitude and perhaps whatever junk items they happen to have lying around.

Speaking of which, the Sith bombarded Taris, exterminating all surface life, and rendering everything I did for the first five hours of the game completely pointless. All that shit with the gangs, both the prisoners I released from holding cells, the woman whose psychotic stalker I bribed into leaving her alone (in what may well be the dumbest plot point in an otherwise good game I've ever seen - apparently I could not beat him into compliance, despite being a massive whirlwind of vibroblade death, because he worked for a crime lord - who I would eventually come to kill) - none of it meant anything, because they are all nothing more than radioactive ash.

Maybe the point was for me to become invested in the people of Taris so that Darth Malak's destruction of the planet would strike me as more personal. He wasn't just messing with a bunch of nameless NPCs, he was fucking with people whose lives touched mine, and thus I have a stronger motive for revenge. However, if I'm being perfectly honest, it really feels more like the game itself pulled the rug out from under me. Like, I didn't need to have a tour of the surface, with developed and likeable characters, to understand that the Death Star blowing up Alderaan was a bad thing. I'm just not used to seeing that kind of existential futility in Star Wars.

Oh well, at least (according to Wookieepedia) the outcasts who I helped find the "promised land" survived . . . for a few generations before starvation and disease wiped them out. Life is pretty pointless when you think about it.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic - 5/20 hours

It looks like I was wrong about the effects of my patch on Steam functionality. I can't access the overlay, but it still records how much time I've played. It's a little inconvenient when it comes to accessing guides mid-game, but I'm not quite so spoiled that alt-tabbing out of a game is especially onerous. Plus, it's not as if I especially need outside information. I've played this game before, so I'm finding it pretty easy to know where to go. My biggest problem is that my memories of Knights of the Old Republic are occasionally blurring together with my memories of the sequel. It's not a huge obstacle or anything, just intermittently confusing. I should probably just try and rely less on my memory and experience it more in the moment.

So far, Knights of the Old Republic has been . . . serviceable. I'm still stuck on the first planet, Taris, and I'm doing that rpg dance where you want to do a thing, but there are sorts of arbitrary obstacles between you and that thing, so you have to wander around looking to do favors for people in hopes that the reward for those favors will be a way around the obstacles. It's not too big a deal - this is not my first time in this rodeo - but it doesn't help that Taris is likely the blandest location of any Bioware rpg. The upper levels are this generically clean sci-fi city and the undercity is just a grey shithole. There aren't any fantastic vistas or fanciful science fiction conceits. If I recall, this gets a lot better after the game opens up, and I'm almost there, but in the meantime, blah.

Other than that, I'm kind of getting sick of Carth's shit. Ooh, you don't trust me, there's the door, asshole. What? You want to help me find Bastilla? Okay, then maybe you should get over yourself. However, I just got Mission, the Twi'leck and Zaalbar the wookie on my team, so I have a feeling Carth is going to spend a lot of time on the bench from here on out.

Next up is searching through the sewers for a secret entrance into the Black Vulkar's base, so I can find a part for a swoop bike so I can enter a race and win Bastilla's freedom. It's considerate of the game to get the sewer level out of the way so early, although I feel a little bad because I remember the end of the Taris storyline, and it's kind of a bummer to think that all these people I'm helping are not long for this world. Hopefully, there's some nuance I'm forgetting and I'll actually be able to save most of them.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic - 2/20 hours

It's the things you love that have the power to disappoint you. If I wasn't looking forward to Knights of the Old Republic, then this:

would have been no big deal. Since the graphical glitches were intermittent, I could have simply endured them until my time was up and shook my head about what a poorly-made game it was. However, since I know from first-hand experience what Knights of the Old Republic can be, this twisted mockery of a familiar game is utterly unacceptable.

As a result, very little of my first two hours has been spent actually playing the game. Mostly, I've been scouring the internet, looking for fixes. None of the obvious ones worked. In the end, I had to download a total graphical overhaul mod and run it directly from the executable file. The good news is that it worked and the game looks fine now. The bad news is that I don't have access to the Steam overlay, so I have to estimate on how long I've played.

Right now, I'm past the tutorial. A ship orbiting above the planet Taris was attacked by the Sith who, under the command of Darth Malak, are taking over the galaxy. They're trying to capture Bastilla, a Jedi with a unique power to influence the morale of armies. Unfortunately, we were too late to rescue her, and were forced to abandon ship on an escape pod. When I last quit, I was on the surface of the planet with a guy named Carth Onasi, who doesn't have much of a personality, but is voiced by the same actor as Kaidan Alenko from Mass Effect, so I'm sure he'll turn out not to be bland at all.

I haven't had time to learn much about the planet Taris, having only just arrived, but I do know that its society was hugely racist even before the Sith occupation and hasn't gotten any better since. I now have to find Bastilla in the city's hidden underworld and try not to get killed by the Sith along the way. I'm looking forward to it.

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)
 Choose Your Path.

It is four thousand years before the Galactic Empire and hundreds of Jedi Knights have fallen in battle against the ruthless Sith. You are the last hope of the Jedi Order. Can you master the awesome power of the Force on your quest to save the Republic? Or will you fall to the lure of the dark side? Hero or villain, saviour or conqueror... you alone will determine the destiny of the entire galaxy!

A brand new Star Wars role-playing experience with unique characters, creatures, vehicles and planets.

Learn to use the Force with over 40 different powers and build your own lightsaber.

Adventure through some of the most popular Star Wars locations, including Tatooine and the Wookiee homeworld Kashyyyk.

Choose your party from nine customisable characters, including Twi'leks, droids and Wookiees.
Travel to eight enormous worlds in your own starship, the Ebon Hawk.

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

There was a sale. Fourteen Star Wars games for twenty-three dollars. Averaged out, that was less than two dollars a game. For Star Wars games. I'm a huge fan of Star Wars (I know, big surprise, right), and an even huger fan of buying things when they are deeply discounted, so I wound up snatching up the whole lot, and putting my blog project even further in arrears.

Previous Playtime

0 hours

Expectations and Prior Experience

Knights of the Old Republic was my first Xbox game. In fact, it was the game that convinced me to buy the system. I played the hell out of it. I wouldn't consider myself an expert, by any means, but I know for a fact that I adore this game and that I will almost certainly enjoy playing it again. My only worry is that the PC version does not have controller support, but seeing as  how this is a turn-based rpg, I'm certain that won't bother me all that much.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Sakura Spirit - 20/20 hours

It's finally done. Over the years, only a few games have made me cry. Brothers tugged at my heartstrings. Super Mario 64 awed me with its incredible 3D world. Sakura Spirit flooded me with relief that the damned thing was over.

I think I've learned an important moral lesson from this experience, though. You shouldn't let resentment eat you up inside. Sometimes, in life, you are confronted with unpleasant experiences, and they will seem monumentally unfair. But approaching it as one aggrieved, whose dignity has been outraged won't make a demeaning chore any less difficult. You don't have to forgive, and you certainly shouldn't forget, but you mustn't lose sight of your own power. If you have to do something, do it. The fact that you are able to keep your poise under difficult circumstances will be a rebuke to those who did you wrong.

Do you hear me, Jared? You didn't break my spirit.

Or maybe I'm being overly dramatic. What, really, is Sakura Spirit's big sin? It's tedious, but so is Ship Simulator Extremes. It's got a puerile approach to sexuality, but it's not as offensive as Ride to Hell: Redemption (provided Sakura Spirit's intended audience is male virgins who are very insecure about their heterosexuality and are desperate to have their inchoate sexualities affirmed by non-threatening digital puppets who act as a surrogate femininity in order to ease them into the idea that women will not castrate them for expressing attraction, but you know what, I've just been assuming that subtext is so obvious it can be read as text). It doesn't offer any significant decisions or require any skill, but neither does The Lord of the Rings, and I'd have been happy to read that for twenty hours.

Really, it was no one thing. Sakura Spirit just happened to have a perfect storm of factors that ensured it would trigger an immediate and visceral loathing in this particular reviewer, and that's not something I can blame on the game.

Modding Sakura Spirit helped me a little. There were times when I was so engaged in writing that I almost forgot what I was writing about. And bug-checking my mod did force me to play the first fifteen minutes of the game about a dozen times, so it wasn't an entirely fatuous excuse. Unfortunately, I could not quite figure out how to package my mod in a way that would allow me to share it without pirating the whole freaking game. I thought I might make a video or slideshow about it, but my early efforts proved to be really tedious (to watch, not to make - I actually really enjoy crafts), so just imagine something hilariously irreverent. It won't match up to the reality, like at all, but I'll feel flattered by the thought.

You know what, though? I'm happy. With Sakura Spirit behind me, I've passed the low point of the blog. Looking ahead, there's nothing on the list that worries me. I've survived the worst-case scenario, and it wasn't entertaining enough for people to want me to repeat it.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Sakura Spirit - 17/20 hours

I feel like I've hit a wall on this whole "Hey, why don't I mod Sakura Spirit instead of directly playing it" project. At first, it was a fun technical challenge - the closest thing I had to relevant experience was a Visual Basic course I took in college ten years ago. Then, once I started getting a handle on things, it morphed into an amusing private joke (for some reason, a long time ago, I decided I was going to be one of those people who listened to DVD commentaries, so I know all the cliches). Now, with only three hours left to go, the joke stopped being funny.

I think I can pinpoint the exact moment, too. I'd just written the following speech for "the Director:"

I got a lot of flak from the critics for the opening of Sakura Spirit. They didn't understand why we needed these three opening scenes. They said it was redundant for Koyomi to bring up the existence of the  shrine, only to send Takahiro to see Ichikawa, who only knew enough to refer him to Ariya. They said it would have been more "economical" to just have Koyomi know about the shrine from the beginning.

That just demonstrates to me that the critics don't really understand Sakura Spirit's first act. Yes, we all want to get to the fun of the alternate world as soon as possible. But the mystery angle is necessary to build up the power this experience has in shaking Takahiro's world. Sakura Spirit is really the story of his journey into adulthood. I had to show the social entanglements he was leaving behind, so the audience would know what he was giving up with his choice at the end. The cost of pursuing his dreams.

And I realized two things. One, that because I take some moderate pride in my work, I had done my best to make "the Director's" self-regarding explanation of the game's intended themes  as consistent as possible with the actual game, and that meant I'd officially spent more time contemplating the themes of fucking Sakura Spirit than I had of much better games like Deus Ex or Broken Age.

The second thing I realized is that if I stuck with this project, I'd have to do it all over again when I got to the "maidens' silk" line, to somehow reconcile the way the fox spirits got young girls' panties confused with a traditional wedding garment with the notion that a pretentious director was deluded into thinking Sakura Spirit was anything but absolute schlock.

And . . . and . . . I just hate this game. So much.

I can't do a lighthearted mod that pokes gentle fun at the game's foibles. I don't have enough respect for it as a piece of art. A parody gives it too much dignity. I want nothing more than to delete it from my hard drive with extreme prejudice.

It's a disconcertingly strong reaction. I have to acknowledge that it is probably out of proportion to Sakura Spirit's offenses. I have experience writing fiction, and I know that it's hard work, and trivially easy to wind yourself up into a sort of fevered blindness, where you don't realize that your ideas aren't working and you're creating something dismal, boring, or vapid. I should have more understanding for the creators of Sakura Spirit. I think I, personally, could have done better, but not so much so that I'm entirely confident about casting judgement.

So, while I have a lot of creatively venomous things I could say about this game's writing and general artistic sensibilities, and while many of those barbs would be based on reasonable criticisms, they'd almost certainly be driven by an emotional reaction that I'm not especially proud of. Instead, I'll just say, I am looking forward to being done. I want to put Sakura Spirit behind me and never think of it again.

To that end, since I only have about one more playthrough's worth of time left before I reach 20 hours, I'm just going to power through it. Read the story and the alternate path one more time each and then forget about them forever. I think the satisfaction of slamming the door on Sakura Spirit might almost be worth the pain of enduring it.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Sakura Spirit - 15/20 hours

The deeper I get into this whole modification thing, the more I realize that it's a huge mistake. I'm finding it enjoyable to tinker with the script of the game, making it say things the creators never imagined, but who am I doing this for? The readers of this blog get to hear about it second-hand, but by-and-large, it's a private joke, amusing to one person, and never to be shared.

After tinkering with the script for a little bit, I came to the realization that my initial aim of rewriting the entire thing to be closer to my own aesthetic sensibilities was a whole lot of work for a project destined to be abandoned long before it was completed (don't judge me - does the world really want a polished version of Sakura Spirit). So I came up with a new idea that I hoped would be more modular - commentary mode.

What this mod does is add a "commentary track" to the game. And not a "ha, ha, look at how stupid this stuff is" MST3K-style track. Rather, I'm working from the conceit that all of the characters in the game are actually played by actors, and they, along with the director, have gathered together to do a DVD-style audio commentary for Sakura Spirit. Furthermore, no one realizes how bad a game it is, so it's actually the sort of earnest love-fest that you'll often see on commentary tracks for good and bad movies alike.

It amuses me to make up personalities and backstories for the different commentators. "The Director" is a pretentious auteur and "gaming insider" who thinks Sakura Spirit is a major work of art, and has nothing but praise for the cast. The actress who plays Koyomo, "Angel Heart," is trying to make a transition from h-games to more "legitimate" visual novels. The main character was chosen for his Judo ability, and isn't actually an actor. And so on.

As satire goes, it's pretty mild, and I can't help but wonder about the overlap between "people who play Sakura Spirit" and "nerds who listen to audio commentaries" (because that's the hypothetical target audience for this mod), but it's keeping me interested, and has the side effect of forcing me to read and re-read the original script to look for good places to insert commentary, which makes me feel like I'm being truer to the original spirit of the Decadent Gamer Challenge.

It's still a lot of work, though. I'd estimate that I'm about a tenth of the way through the script. I'll probably make faster progress as I get more into the voice of the characters, but I doubt I'll finish by the time I reach 20 hours, which kind of puts me into an awkward position. Do I leave the project hanging or do I see it through? The whole point of this exercise is to keep me amused with this game by making stupid jokes, plus I have no infrastructure in place for distributing or publicizing the mod, and no particular audience who's interested in running it, so all the factors point to just dropping it when the time comes.

However, I'm starting to feel a sentimental attachment to this little sub-project of mine. If I quit, then it was only ever a vanity, a personal folly to wile away the hours. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but it does make me feel a little lonely.

Though perhaps not as lonely as discovering there is, in fact, no audience for a "fake commentary track to a sub-par visual novel" mod. If I never finish, I can always comfort myself with the thought that it would have been huge.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Sakura Spirit - 8/20 hours

My last post represented my darkest hour. I was almost completely overwhelmed by despair. But it's a funny thing about despair - it can sometimes make you see things with startling clarity. I realized that "playing" a game is actually a broad sort of goal. What actually counts as "playing the game?" Is it just pursuing the activities the designers intend, in the way they intend? Could I not reinvent the game for myself, to find a way to engage with the game that I enjoy? Does attempting to break the game count as playing it?

Of course, Sakura Spirit is so simple that it's impossible to break. What exactly was I supposed to do, make the single choice in such a way that it led to unintended consequences? It seemed hopeless, until I had a mad idea, born of desperation. What if I modded Sakura Spirit?

I did some cursory research, and discovered that this is something that has never previously been attempted. Who would bother? So, not only am I making the game more tolerable for my twenty hours, I'm also a bold pioneer, forging my through uncharted video game territory.

There was only one, slight problem. I don't actually know how to mod games. It took me two hours of internet searching just to be able to start (I have not counted that time as part of my 20 hours, because I didn't know, while I was doing it, whether it would lead anywhere). In the end, though, I managed to get my foot in the door. I now have the ability to alter the game's script, to make the characters and narration say whatever I want.

Case in point:

Mark your calendars, people. The image above is a screenshot of the world's very first Sakura Spirit mod. I added the word "Yo" to the first line of the game. As time went on, my tinkering has become more extensive, but you gotta start somewhere.

The tools I found to edit the game are actually quite powerful. In theory I could add new characters, locations, and gameplay mechanics. However, I've resolved to alter only the narrative and dialogue, and use only elements that were present in the original version. Two reasons for this - one, there's a lot of stuff going on in the scripts that make up the bulk of the game that I don't understand. In my earliest attempts, I actually messed things up so badly that I had to uninstall and reinstall the game. Secondly, while I could easily rip out the guts of Sakura Spirit and make something totally new, that's probably stretching the definition of "playing Sakura Spirit" far past its breaking point.

My current goal is a complete overhaul of the entire game, with the aim of telling the same basic story, only less stupidly. I don't think I'm likely to finish, though. After three hours of modding work, I have approximately two and half minutes of gameplay to show for it. Granted, a lot of that was spent figuring out how my various formatting errors were causing the game to crash (and looking up things like how to write in italics), but nonetheless it's turning out to be slow, painstaking work.

I suppose I should be more understanding of the makers of Sakura Spirit, now that I've had a chance to walk a mile in their shoes, but I still haven't forgiven them for making Sakura Spirit.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Sakura Spirit - 5/20 hours


Two down, six to go.

Sakura Spirit - 2.7/20 hours

I finished Sakura Spirit's story. Allow me to summarize - an up-and-coming judo star is nervous about a tournament, so he goes to a mysterious shrine to pray for luck, where he's transported to a magical land to indulge in some arbitrary flirting and poorly-justified nudity until a problem comes out of nowhere and is solved in a way that doesn't make any sense. There's some kind of half-baked lesson about tolerance in there, but no. Just no.

There is a single decision point in the entire game, but it doesn't change anything. It just determines which festival experience you have - do you attend it with two half-naked fox spirits or with two villagers wearing kimonos that cover half their bodies. After the festival, the game ends in exactly the same way, regardless of which pair you go with.

I'm going to keep trying to play this game, though.  I seriously considered giving up and declaring defeat, but I can't. The whole damned point of having a challenge list in the first place is that things are bound to get dark. I just have to endure.

However, I can't play it at work. It would be hugely inappropriate (there's having a job that lets you play video games all night and there's having a job that lets you look at porn). My plan is to play it once every day or so at home, while concurrently playing a different game at work. I'll blog about both, but try to get Sakura Spirit done as soon as possible.

Sakura Spirit - 2/20 hours

I hate this game. I don't use the h-word lightly, but it's two hours in and I haven't made a single decision. It's just click-read-click-read, etc. It doesn't even count as a game. And I don't mean this in an elitist "only activities I, personally, enjoy count as real games" sort of way. I mean only that there should be some minimum amount of interactivity to separate a game from purely passive media like books or movies.

And that comparison should illustrate something else. I don't hate Sakura Spirit for its passivity. There are lots of books and movies I enjoy, even to the point of being willing to reread or rewatch them for 20 consecutive hours. Sakura Spirit is not a work on that level. The writing is stilted and overly expository. The visuals are static and dull. And the soundtrack is awful.

I suppose I should talk about the sex. It has a combination of "tee-hee ain't I naughty" titillation, bland pg-13 coyness, and blatant pandering to the male gaze that has the combined erotic effect of a whiffle-bat to the face. It's not porn, but it occupies the same ecological niche. As a result, it has all of porn's weaknesses and none of its strengths.

I honestly don't know if I'm going to be able to finish this game. I'm certainly capable of doing it as a feat of physical endurance, but as a purely practical matter, I'm not sure how I'll be able to do it. I can't play this game at work. Sure, The Witcher had nipples, and thus Sakura Spirit is technically tamer, but those were only on screen for a brief moment, and most of the game was actually just dark fantasy. Sakura Spirit is nothing but anime ladies in skimpy outfits. It's just really over the line.

Plus, I'm not entirely sure what counts as "playing" this "game." The only things you actually do is press the "next" button, look at pictures, and read text. I'll see it through to the end, but after that, I'm going to have to come up with a plan.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Sakura Spirit - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

 Rising Judo Star Gushiken Takahiro was two weeks away from the match that would make or break his career -- a championship match where the winner is then signed up to be a young national athlete for Japan. He was very determined to win, in order to fulfill his dreams of finally representing his country for a sport he loves so much.

He's prepared and ready, but that doesn’t stop him from being nervous about his upcoming battle. At the suggestion of his friends and classmates, he goes to a shrine that is rumoured to grant any wish or prayer. He pours all the coins from his already full coin bank into the offering box and says his prayer. After praying, he becomes dizzy and nauseous and eventually faints. When he wakes up, he finds himself in an ancient, unfamiliar place.

While searching for a way back to his village, he stumbles upon two girl wielding swords chasing after two… foxgirls? He questions his brain at first, but then follows them, only to be caught up in their shenanigans as well.

Who are these girls, and are they involved in Takahiro’s arrival to this new world? Will he get back to his own world and timeline in time for his match? Or will he be stuck there forever?

Previous Playtime

0 hours

Expectations and Prior Experience

You know, I'm just not sure about this one. I don't know why it is on my list, and I can't remember the circumstances of how I got it (though I'm certain that it came from Jared). It's another visual novel, so I think I've got a pretty good handle on what it's going to be like - interesting at first, but increasingly tedious as I have to replay scenes in order to unlock new endings.

The store description doesn't particularly do anything for me. It sounds a little weird, but not so weird that I feel compelled to play it purely for the gawk factor. I guess it will be fine, if a little out of my comfort zone.

The only thing that worries me is that the store page has a very prominent "adult content" warning on it, which doesn't exactly bother me, personally, but does seem to guarantee that I'm going to spend far more words than I'd like writing about sex.

Broken Age - 20/20 hours

I replayed all of act one and about half of act two, getting quite a few achievements in the process. It was mostly a matter of going through the game and systematically touching every thing in my inventory to everything in the environment. This is not quite as tedious as it sounds, because there is a lot of unexpected dialogue to be discovered when you put your items together in an illogical way, some of which is quite funny. It's actually pretty impressive that they wrote and recorded so many lines that most people will never see. I like that. It demonstrates an admirable craft.

My main agenda in the replay, aside from collecting achievements, was to pay close attention to Shay's story in act one and see if the reveal about Mom and Dad was fairly foreshadowed. And my conclusion is . . . sort of. There's a lot that seems ill-fitting and bizarre about the set-up, if you assume the parents are human (like the fact that Shay's mom still bathes him and watches him almost constantly), but nothing that directly contradicts the fact, assuming you believe Shay to be deliberately perverse.

I think the dilemma is typified by the following (paraphrased) exchange:

Shay - "I'm sorry they programmed you with someone's sad memories."
Mom - "You know the truth, son."

You could make the argument that they already had the reveal in mind when these lines were written (and Mom's performance, in particular, seemed to fit with the twist), but if so then Shay was either completely delusional, or really, really catty. I think that's what makes it so tough to accept. The Shay we first get to know has a sense of weariness and cynicism that's easy to empathize with, given his apparent circumstances, so it rankles a bit to find out that he's capable of cruelty.

In an article I read about the game, I heard Broken Age can be taken as a metaphor for the problems of growing up, and coming into one's own as an adult, and I can kind of see how you might come to that conclusion, but I think the game works much better on a superficial level than as any kind of deep statement. Mostly it's because if you do assume the game is about growing up, then there's no real payoff or acknowledgement about the main characters undergoing a transformation. They each repair their respective spaceships and then solve an (unbeknownst to them) tandem puzzle when those two ships collide, but there's no real coda to the story. It just kind of ends abruptly.

I don't mind too much, though. Broken Age was a lighthearted adventure with some appealing characters, fantastic locations, and a healthy dollop of whimsy. The humor, and the effortless rapport I had with the people and the world were more than enough to keep me entertained, even into my second playthrough, despite the fact that the gameplay is basically nonexistent once the puzzles are solved. I wouldn't mark it as a classic, or even one that I'll feel particularly compelled to revisit, but it was definitely worth experiencing at least once.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Broken Age - 11.5/20 hours

I didn't realize I only had an hour and a half left with the game. If I'd known, I would probably have waited to write my previous post. I guess it's a convenient excuse to separate out my spoilery observations, though.

So, about Broken Age's story. Act one is much better than act two. I think it has something to do with the big twist - the monster, MOG Chothra, is actually Shay's ship, and the "creatures" he was "rescuing" were actually the girls sacrificed at the various Maidens Feasts. That was the very best kind of plot twist, because it immediately changed the whole context of the story, but made perfect sense in retrospect (so much so that I don't think this counts as too huge a spoiler - if I'd played Vella's story before Shay's, I'm certain I would have picked up on it).

However, the way act one ended set up some problems for act two that it was never quite able to overcome. The biggest issue being that while Vella getting trapped on the ship, and Shay in the unfamiliar outside world has the potential to reveal a lot of interesting stuff about both characters, it also means that the best part of act one - the game's sense of inventiveness, and the excitement of discovering new, fantastic locations or zany, sci-fi conceits - is no longer viable. Act two introduces no new locations and only a single new character (who only appears over a viewscreen, at that). It was a little disappointing.

It didn't help that the plot itself was very (maybe excessively) simple. You basically have two different variations on spaceship repair. Shay's half had the advantage of being out in the open, and having a greater diversity of characters. Vella's, by contrast, felt claustrophobic, though you did learn more about the motives and identity of the villains (they're not important - basically a boilerplate "poorly thought-out bad-guy plan" involving eugenics of dubious utility).

I don't mean to be so down on act two, though. It was fun seeing the characters in each others' worlds, and the way that their new perspectives caused those worlds to behave differently, and, except perhaps for the very end and a couple of tense points in Vella's storyline, Broken Age never lost its breezy pace and easy humor.

I think the most controversial part of act two is the revelation that "Mom" and "Dad" are not, in fact, AIs, but Shay's actual parents. Act one was very misleading about this, and I'm not entirely sure this twist is earned. It's a change that makes Shay into kind of a jerk (when he was already almost too bristly to the cheerful and friendly robots), and pushes Mom into the realm of delusional insanity (the way she treated Shay made perfect sense for a poorly programmed AI, but I'm not at all convinced that a human woman, who presumably lived through adolescence herself, would make the sort of mistakes that Mom makes). I'm going to reserve judgement on this, though, until I replay act one and see how well it's foreshadowed (though I'm pretty sure there are at least a couple of lines that don't track with the characterization of Shay as a sullen teenager who treats his parents like computers, but nonetheless has full knowledge of their true nature).

For now, I am going to start the game over and try to get as many of the achievements as possible. Looking over the list, it looks like a lot of these are for poking your nose into the corners of the game and triggering optional lines, which is fine by me. I really enjoy the little jokes you hear this way. I'm not sure whether this will take another eight and a half hours

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Broken Age - 10/20 hours

Empirically speaking, I must be getting into this game, because I stayed up way too late today playing it. I said earlier that I liked it more as a story than a game, and that's still true, but my feelings are a bit more complicated now.

I'm not sure how much I should talk about the story. The achievement you get for finishing act one is called "Please Don't Tell Anyone," and there is a major twist, but if I don't spoil the plot, I'll only be able to talk about the game in really general terms.

I think what I'll do is put the mechanical discussion in this post, and then talk about the story when I've actually finished the game.

Broken Age's gameplay is . . . tricky. The later part of the game does not telegraph answers in the same way as the early part, and that can make it more satisfying to solve puzzles, but at the same time, the puzzles have gotten more obscure, and it seems like a lot of the time the "solution" is just exhaustive trial and error, as you attempt to use your particular items on everything you can see until you reach the right combination. Skill does play a role, and the best puzzles are the ones you're able to reason your way through before-hand, but there are a couple of real clunkers (in particular, at the end of act one, you have to use your ladder in a way that would never have occurred to me had I not peeked at a guide).

Fortunately, a lot of the time failure is just as entertaining as success. There's a multitude of voiced lines for when you use the wrong item on the wrong thing, and a lot of these have jokes or character-developing moments associated with them, so it's often worth it to take the long way round on puzzles you've already figured out just to see all this stuff. This is going to make a second playthrough a much more pleasant prospect than with similarly story-driven games, because I realize now that there is probably a lot of optional dialogue I missed when I breezed through the easier early puzzles.

My one big complaint is that, as I'm approaching the end of the game, a new mechanic was introduced without any sort of fanfair or foreshadowing - in order to solve certain puzzles in Shay and Vella's individual stories, you need information only available in the opposite half of the game. Up until now, switching back and forth was something you'd only have to do if you wanted a change of pace. As a result, I never did it, because I like to focus on one thing at a time. This led to me getting hopelessly stuck after I solved all but one of Vella's puzzles. I'd have really appreciated some kind of hint that solving the puzzle was impossible as a solo effort.

Oh well, that's what guides are for. I think I have only a little bit of the game left to go, and I'm interested in seeing if there are any more tricks left in store. Here's hoping, if there are, that they are introduced a little bit more elegantly, and I don't have to rely heavily on a guide (which, more than with other genres, feels like cheating here).

Broken Age - 2/20 hours

I don't think much of Broken Age as a game. You basically just click on things, and if that thing is relevant to the story at the time, the plot will advance, and if it's not, it won't. There is some thinking involved when it comes to picking up and using items, but if you use an item wrong, the game will usually give you a pretty clear hint about what you're supposed to be doing. It's not much of a challenge.

That doesn't mean that it's not entertaining, though. The art design is amazing, the voice acting is excellent, and a lot of the cutscenes are both funny and delightfully weird. I'd say it's like watching a smart children's cartoon with interactive elements.

At the beginning of the game, you're given a choice between two characters, but you can switch back and forth between them, presumably if you get stuck. More recently, I was automatically switched upon reaching a break in the story, so I'm guessing the two characters have related plots which must advance before you can complete either story. They're both pretty interesting.

Shay is a boy living onboard a spaceship. He's constantly being watched by "Mom" a friendly, but overprotective AI. At the start of the game, his whole environment is designed to be cuddly and safe. The parts of the ship he's allowed to enter look like a baby's toy, and every day he goes out on "missions" that are ludicrously infantile, like "rescuing" a yarn creature from a "hug attack." The AI doesn't seem to realize that he's getting too old for these activities, and is, in fact, colossally bored. The first part of his story is about how he begins to break free of his routine in order to do something real, although the wolf-man (or perhaps "man in wolf costume") who aids him has begun to act suspiciously.

Vella, on the other hand, starts with a certain degree of independence - due to being chosen as a human sacrifice. The monster MOG Chathra comes by her town every fourteen years, and the villagers hold for it a "Maidens Feast," where young girls pose for, and are devoured by, the creature. It has a weird beauty pageant vibe, and the villagers seem to have turned it into a kin of celebratory festival. Naturally, Vella escapes the sacrifice and forges her own path (foreshadowed by the fact that she wants to fight the monster instead of appeasing it), but I actually just started this story, so I don't know what happens next.

Broken Age marks my fourth beautiful game in a row, and I worry I might start to get spoiled by this sort of thing. Everything is done up in bold, bright colors that make the game look like a storybook, and the world itself is designed with a lot of idiosyncratic character. Shay's starship is powered by a "space-weaver" who creates a "nav-scarf," and you can see the wooly texture. Vella and her fellow sacrifices wear dresses that seem half Miss Universe costumes and half confectionery. As trivial as the actual gameplay is, I'm nonetheless eager to see what happens next.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Broken Age - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

 Broken Age is a family friendly, hand-animated, puzzle-filled adventure game with an all-star cast, including Elijah Wood, Jack Black and Masasa Moyo.

Funded by a record breaking crowdfunding campaign and designed by industry legend Tim Schafer, Broken Age is a timeless coming-of-age story of barfing trees and talking spoons.

Vella Tartine and Shay Volta are two teenagers in strangely similar situations, but radically different worlds. The player can freely switch between their stories, helping them take control of their own lives, and dealing with the unexpected adventures that follow.

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

Awhile back I played a game called Brutal Legend, and it was an absolute delight. The degree of imagination and humor packed into it were unlike anything I'd ever seen. So when I saw that the same company had released a PC game and that it was on sale, I jumped on the chance to try it oug.

Previous Playtime

0 hours

Expectations and Prior Experience

The Steam store description is a little vague. I liked Jack Black's vocal work in Brutal Legend, so I can only hope that the same combination of developer and voice actor will be similarly hilarious. I don't know the particulars of how the game is played, so I don't know what to expect from the moment-to-moment experience, but I'm sure it'll be fine.

I'm a little worried that a game that so prominently advertises its voice actors will be difficult to play at work. I have a lot of time, so that's not a problem, but I'm frequently interrupted. I hope the game won't suffer from me having to pause a lot.

The screenshots from the store make Broken Age look adorable. I predict (if a tad optimistically) that this will be a funny and magical story.

Brothers, Braid, and Never Alone - Wrap-up

Let's just get this out of the way first. Yes, I chose to treat these three games as a single entry on my list primarily to get out of having to play them all 4-6 times in a row. I'm fairly confident I could have gone that route - I played through Bad Rats twice, so a good game is like nothing - but unlike Bad Rats or even Hatoful Boyfriend, I respect these games too much to subject them to that kind of gruesome spectacle.

It was not an arbitrary decision to group these three games together. They all occupied a similar mind-space in my head - they were "artsy" games, designed to put to the test the medium's cultural pretensions. I think, on balance, they succeeded. All three were visually stunning, with thoughtful gameplay that engaged with their core themes, and while I didn't find Braid quite as moving as the other two, I could see what it was going for, and the moods it evoked were effective, even if the text was not.

I have to wonder, though, whether "artistic" games are for me. The other thing these games have in common is that they all embraced a principled shortness. Not a one of them had anything I'd describe as padding. There was no doing a task purely for the sake of doing something. Everything you did had a point.

On one level, that is an admirable economy. You have a thesis. You trim away everything that doesn't serve that thesis. Say what you want to say and get out. Don't waste people's time. It's what a good storyteller does.

However, I'm starting to realize that storytelling is incidental to what I want out of video games. Don't get me wrong, stories are great. A good story will definitely enhance a video game, and it is a rare game that doesn't need some kind of story to give it structure. It's just, what story does chess tell?

To me, the ideal game is one that can be a universal activity, a hobby in itself. It should either reward different strategies or approaches, be an open-ended or abstract activity that is intrinsically engaging, or simply be so big that by the time you exhaust its possibilities, the beginning of the game will seem fresh once more. The kind of game I love doesn't just tell one story, it tells hundreds.

But I'm not some absolutist curmudgeon about this. I am definitely not saying that games which focus on a single story and tell it economically shouldn't exist. For all that I may wax rhapsodic about the Civilization series, and the way that no two playthroughs are exactly the same, and it is the nuance of this variance that makes an individual game interesting, I have to admit that those hundreds of subtle variations would be one big, boring blur to the uninitiated, and not a single one of its multitude of "stories" would be told with even a fraction of the artistry and power of something like Brothers - A Tale of Two Sons.

I think my experience of playing these three games has solidified something in my mind. "Are video games art" is the wrong question to ask. There are activities and creations that are of immense cultural value which nonetheless fall outside the narrow purview of things which can be described as "art." For example, if a demon threatened to erase from reality the text of Hamlet or the rules to chess, which would be a greater blow to our civilization? Yet the rules to chess are not art. Art goes into the creation of a chess set, and many chess pieces are beautiful sculptures in their own right (and even a mass produced plastic chess set had to be designed by an artist at some point), but the abstract thing, the idea those pieces represent, is something else.

And I think that's fine. By and large, video games are not art, but art is involved in their creation. And sometimes, as is the case with Brothers, Braid, and Never Alone, video games are art, from beginning to end, and I feel privileged to have experienced them.

Braid - 8 hours (20/20 total)

Well, I resisted the urge to consult a guide. I'll always have that slight bit of honor. However, after eight hours, I think Braid has defeated me. The tricky thing about this game is that it's a both a difficult puzzle game and a difficult platformer, so when I reach what seems like a dead end, I'm faced with a dilemma - do I have the right solution, but I'm failing to execute it, or is the reason I'm failing to make progress because I don't have the right answer?

What's really frustrating is that I almost made it through the whole thing. Out of the sixty puzzle pieces you need to collect, I found 57. It's a good enough ratio that it almost seems worth it to tough it out and pick up the last three, but I am thoroughly stumped. Many times, over the course of playing Braid, I'd run into difficulty navigating a puzzle, but I'd fail in an effectual way. I'd see that something was happening, and how I could do thing differently so it would happen in a different way. Eventually, one of those different ways would lead me to the solution. You know, the basic way that stubborn idiots solve problems.

But with these three puzzles, I haven't even got that much. I've just been flailing away at nothing, unable to even fail interestingly. It's just the same missed jumps over and over again. And without that productive failure, I could not get a handle on the problems.

I thought, briefly, that I might have had one of them. In the first world, second stage, you have to jump from cloud to cloud to get through. One of the puzzle pieces is on a distant platform with no apparent way to reach it, but hovering above that platform was a cloud that appeared to be stationary. However, I noticed that it was actually moving very slowly, and that it was heading towards a platform I could reach. Thus a plan was formed. I'd simply wait for the cloud to get into range, and then use it as a stepping stone to the puzzle piece.

So I waited for about a half hour (it was moving excruciatingly slowly), until it got close to a tenable jumping point, and I made the leap - and it was too short, just like all the other ones. I tried it about a half dozen times just to be sure, but nothing at all came of it. And while there was another potential jump point, it would probably have taken another 20+ minutes for the cloud to reach it, and even if I could make it on top, it would, by that point, have been far too distant from the puzzle piece. Since, at that point in the game, I still had about a half dozen other puzzle pieces I could pursue, I decided to leave it be and hope that another idea occurred to me while I was doing something else.

It never did.

I'm now faced with a choice. Do I consult a guide and finish Braid - something I don't technically have to do, considering I bundled it with Never Alone and Brothers, or do I leave it as is, a monument to the limits of my problem solving abilities (despite the fact that I am so close to the end, I can practically taste it)?

It's a war between my pride (I've made it this far without a guide, it seems a damned shame to give in with only 5% of the game left to solve) and my curiosity (what basic thing have I overlooked that will make these jumps traversable). I think curiosity will wind up being the bigger draw, but I am going to be really mad at myself if it turns out to be something I could have figured out on my own.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Braid - 3 hours (15/20 total)

I don't know why (or how) I keep convincing myself that I like puzzles. I mean, I enjoy solving puzzles. That's a good feeling. It's immensely satisfying to figure something out and see an obstacle turn into a non-issue. And I suppose I'm moderately good at puzzles. You don't get a degree in mathematics (even as half-assedly as I managed to do it) if you don't have a brain that can twist its way around a problem. However, there is a period of time, where you can see the basic shape of the puzzle, but you have not yet found the thread to tug that will lead to a solution, and while that is going on I just . . . I feel like I want to break something.

I knew that would happen. My long, frustrating time with Antichamber is not something I will soon forget. Yet before I started, I fooled myself into thinking the anger would be a tonic, an antidote to the melancholy that settled over me post-Brothers. I'm something of an idiot.

Especially since the particular puzzle that's thwarting me is apparently an easy one. It is literally in the first level of the game. There is a collectible do-dad that is right out in the open, only a fraction of an inch above the character's normal jumping height, and for the life of me, I cannot figure it out at all. I have not the slightest clue about how to squeeze out that extra little jump. I'd think that boosting off an enemy might do the trick, but there are none around. The frustrating part is that it has to be something basic, because according to the global achievement stats, almost half of all Braid players get this. Yet I am drawing a blank.

Which reminds me why I hate puzzles. I'm sure that when I do finally get the answer, it will seem incredibly obvious, and the inevitable "aha" moment will be an enormous relief, but for now, when I don't even have an approach, it feels like pounding my head up against a brick wall.

Braid does have a plot, and it appears to be kind of heavy, emotionally speaking, but something about the combination of the subject matter (I think the main character, Tim, is analyzing the breakdown of a relationship through the metaphor of time travel) and the presentation (somewhat hypocritically, the precise and verbose prose of the interstitial narration strikes me as pretentious) means that I'm not really engaging with it (seriously, Tim, get over it, sometimes these things don't work out, and besides, if your diaries are any indication, the "Princess" dodged a bullet). This is fine by me. The last thing I need is to have my heart touched again.

Finally, I have to say, that for all my histrionics about "feeling too much," these last three games have all been a feast for the eyes. Braid looks like a painting, and the artifice of the "brush strokes" goes a long way towards giving the levels a great individual character, ranging from the dreamily hazy to the darkly intense, and I'm kind of loving the way that the visual design of the game pulls me into Tim's mind (as inconsistent as that is, in light of the fact that I'm only superficially interested in what he has to say).

There's still a lot left to discover in Braid. I've only got 32 of the 60 puzzle pieces, and I'm running out of easy ones, so I expect that I'll still be pretty far from completion by the time I've played another five hours.