The home page for author Eric J. Juneau

Late to the Game: Overwatch & Horizon: Zero Dawn & Monster Hunter: World

t-shirt so many games so little time

So I want to talk about three games I’ve played recently. First, Overwatch.

Ever since I got my new computer, I wanted to play this game. I frickin’ love the lore and stories and comics and videos around it, I thought “this must be an awesome game”. And though I expected that what’s actually in the game might be subdued compared to what’s in Blizzard’s videos, it was still worth playing. Not like Five Nights at Freddy’s or World of Warcraft.

The story’s not just subdued, it’s completely absent. There’s a complete novel’s worth from these dynamic characters, but it’s nowhere in the game. There’s not even a campaign mode. And the lore doesn’t make sense in the context of the game since you can play on either side. Bad guys and good guys are on the same team and no one seems to care.

So what’s the big deal about this game? If it wasn’t for the extra videos, it’s no different than an evolved version of CounterStrike. The levels don’t seem to advance anything. They’re either King of the Hill or “moving” King of the Hill. And there’s too many characters. Each is just slightly different from the other but none of them fit together. You’ve got a cowboy with a four-legged robot with a cyber-angel with a Max Max warboy.

And the gameplay is all the same anyway (“point away from face and fire”). Plus, I’m kinda terrible at it. The only way I can get a point is to killsteal. As soon as I get into the fray I get pulled in by Roadhog’s grappling hook and shot. The characters are so tiny I can’t hit them, and everyone’s so good at this point I can’t hope to match their skill. Same thing happened to me in CounterStrike. I get killed right away, then wait ten minutes while the rest of the game plays out. It’s frustrating. I feel like I’d be having more fun playing Halo than this.

I’m getting way more fun out of playing Hearthstone, which is a free game I discovered in the Battle.net menu. I love card strategy games, even if I’m terrible at them. I think I make my moves too fast. But I love the aesthetic. I love the little cards and art and gameplay and collectability. And it’s completely free.

Now let’s talk about Horizon: Zero Dawn. This game is apparently trying to be Breath of the Wild with robot dinosaurs and advanced mechanics, like crafting and discoverable story. It might be a decent game, but the problem is A) I already played Breath of the Wild and that was pretty much a perfect game so I have no desire to play it again B) I don’t have time or inclination to memorize another huge world’s worth of stuff.

It’s just so bland. None of the characters have any life to them. It’s one of those “Press A to talk to everyone” games where characters have boring conversations to expand story. Aloy looks like she’d be interesting, but she doesn’t DO anything. Every cutscene she just stands there with her bland voice acting and bland uncanny face staring lifelessly. I played about 3-4 hours worth and still wasn’t out of the tutorial/preface. I just never cared about the main character or the game. Not even robot dinosaurs could save this for me.

monster hunter world logo

And then there’s Monster Hunter: World. This game is similar to Horizon: Zero Dawn in being “Breath of the Wild-y”, but it’s Japanified. It’s from Capcom, so you can bet there’s a gruff Lone Wolf warrior, a chirpy waifu assistant, and cutesy mascot pets.

Again, there’s a huge world to explore, but it gives you a little more guidance first. This one also has you hunting dinosaurs, but not robotic ones. I still don’t get the online group aspect of it yet, but maybe that’ll come. I think it’s a little more “Dark Souls”-ish in that the monsters take a ton of hits to kill but needs little strategy and timing to kill them. But they don’t kill you in one hit, so it’s more forgiving. However, the monsters take so many hits to kill, it’s tedious. Now that I think about it, I wonder if this game is meant for a younger audience than Horizon: Zero Dawn. Like, under 13. It’s a little simpler, and there are kitty mascots who follow you around and you can dress up. It’s part of the “junk overhead” that all these games have in common–herbs and crafting and cooking meat and online sessions and costumes. It’s like feature bloat.

You play a customized character, so that takes away much motivation to see that character succeed. Because that character is you. Since you’re customized, you have no backstory, no motivation, no needs or wants, and thus no personality. You are your avatar, but you don’t know why you’re hunting these monsters. You don’t have anything to drive you. It’s why I couldn’t get into Choose Your Own Adventure books. I don’t want to read or watch movies or play video games to be ME. I want to escape into someone else.

So I don’t know how long I’m going to stick with Monster Hunter: World. It depends on if the gameplay can improve and if it overcomes the blandness of the main character.

What these games all have in common is that they don’t have any personality behind them. In Overwatch, the personality is external to the game, which is bad. It’d be like putting all the Star Wars story in books, and then the movies are just the space battles and lightsaber duels.

Game developers, learn some tips from past games. Final Fantasy 7 has personality to it. Inscryption has personality to it. Deep Rock Galactic has personality to it. Complex gameplay does not equivocate to fun gameplay. Start with the simple, then build on the fundamentals. Don’t start with the complexity. I’m an old man, I can’t take that much information thrown at me. Fun first. Bells and whistles later.

Late to the Game: Resident Evil 6

resident evil 6 logo

What a load.

The start of the game is bonkers-go-nuts. It throws you in the middle of a terrorist/zombie attack with no instructions on where to go or how to play or why you’re there. It’s been a while since I played Resident Evil 5 and I just finished Resident Evil 2 so I’m used to its slower pace. But all of a sudden I’m falling out of a helicopter and climbing up skyscrapers. What kind of tutorial is this? Can you not give me at least a little context? Mise en Scene is for movies, not video games.

Plus I hate when they throw you in without a chance to adjust the controller or the video settings. I thought I’d have to save at some point before even getting to setup. How do I get health? How do I deal with inventory? What’s new and different in this game compared to RE5?

Not much it turns out. It seems like the big draw is that there are four interconnected campaigns, each about five hours long. But each story is so fragmented that it makes no sense, and playing each campaign does nothing to fill in the gaps.

How about some background on these characters? Who is this Nemesis-knockoff Ustanak chasing Jake Muller? What’s the deal with him being Albert Wesker’s son? (Jake, not Ustanak). When did Sherry collect Jake’s blood after they crash in the helicopter? They’ve been running around crazy the past hour (video game time). It sounded like you needed a lab for that. And now they’ve got a fetch quest to find three data chips that fell out? Plus, you’ve still got him next to you. Just collect the data again!

Half of Chris’s story takes place in flashback. What is it, five years ago? So that makes it all pointless–I know Chris survives because I talk to him in Leon’s story. Playable flashbacks in video games are as pointless as sesame seeds on a hamburger bun. I should be invincible because, by laws of temporal mechanics, I have to live in order to do the actions which are already cemented in time.

I played Leon’s and Chris’s campaigns on easy and felt like it was an on-rails shooter. The stages are so difficult to navigate you have to pull out your GPS to find your objective, which creates ludonarrative dissonance. There are no pauses, no puzzle-solving. It’s like they’ve been injecting steroids since the success of RE4, trying to one-up each with action and explosions. All it does is turn them into cheesy movies.

And then the final boss is a giant housefly

It’s weird, Resident Evils seem to go in trilogies. One, two, and three are fixed-camera horror stories with jump scares. Four, five, and six are action games without scares (just grody monsters, like a Asylum movie). I haven’t played seven or eight yet, but judging by the metascores, they do something different. But for RE6, you might as well just watch a Let’s Play of it. That’s what I’m doing. It looks and feels like Call of Duty or any of those high-octane army games. Brown and gray, shoot-shoot-shoot, no challenge whatsoever.

I got more out of Plants vs. Zombies than this game.

Bad Writer — A Writing Video Game

Sorry, I just saw this and I had to share. It combines two of my favorite things–writing and video games. And I’m sure it’s going to be just as exciting. Looks like some kind of Stardew Valley mod, but I’m sure it’s as riveting as writing a real novel. This is the equivalent of my Animal Crossing — Chore Simulator 2000 (and I mean that in a nice way).

Late to the Game: Grand Theft Auto IV

grand theft auto 4 box cover

This game sucks.

I tried playing this many years ago, but an irritating video stuttering issue stopped me. I thought I just needed a new graphics card, so I archived it until I got a new computer. Now I got a new computer, and it still plays like crap.

Why doesn't GTA IV need a remaster? - Quora
Okay it wasn’t that bad. I just thought this GIF was funny.

I haven’t dived (dove? diven?) into a GTA game in years. Not since Vice City on my PS2 (which I still have). But I don’t remember it like this. I remember vibrant cities and fun stunt ramps and zippy motorcycles and colorful characters (they were misogynist douchebags, but it’s GTA–you have to expect some “unenlightened” material, just like you can’t be surprised when someone slaps his wife in a Martin Scorsese film).

Speaking of Martin Scorsese, the story needs a cocaine injection. It looks like, instead of ripping off Scarface and Goodfellas, they tried to make their own gangster story. This time, it’s Eastern European immigrants in America, the “land of opportunity”, doing drug runs and taking verbal abuse. Like The Departed meets An American Tail. The protagonist is literally just off the boat and his only ally is a loudmouth cousin who sounds like Ali G if he watched nothing but Casino. He beats up loan sharks and takes shit from another equally Eastern European co-worker.

I appreciate the graphical upgrade, but that’s all it is–an upgrade. The textures are in high def, the corners are smoother, but where’s the style? Vice City and GTA3 all had bright skies, colorful buildings. Here, all the colors are washed out and it’s always cloudy. Every day looks like Ireland in Winter. If it wasn’t for the American radio, I would think this game was taking place in whatever Eastern European country the protagonist escaped from.

A Tour Through Russia's Five Poorest Cities
Is it Grand Theft Auto IV? A city in Russia? Can you tell?

The character movements are the weirdest. Previous GTAs didn’t have the best motion capture. Everyone moved like marionettes with mitten hands. But they were marionettes controlled by trained puppeteers. These guys move like they’re in Garry’s Mod.

But most of all it’s boring, boring, boring. Every mission is driving someone somewhere. Maybe you shoot a few dudes. Then you drive back. That’s it. Over and over again. All I’m doing is chauffeur missions. I might as well be playing Crazy Taxi. Except in Crazy Taxi the cars are actually fun to drive. Here, they all control like bricks. I’m always running into something stupid and then slowly backing out to correct my course. Meanwhile the asshole I’m pursuing is getting away.

gif gta 4 gta iv the creatures danznewz danznewzmachinima kootra  createthefuckingchaos •
Here I am on a date oh sorry motocycle guy watch out no big deal right honey?

I’d understand if this is the tutorial level, but here’s the thing: a tutorial introduces you to the basic activities that reflect what the future gameplay is going to be. And none of these activities are enticing me to play the game any further.

The point of GTA is that I can run around and do what I want. I don’t have to follow a storyline to have fun. I know I’m usually the one rooting for linear gameplay, but I like side missions to break up the experience, to go exploring, to see a part the world that I might not if I stick to the main storyline.

Here, I don’t have any reason to do that. Each city block is the same slate gray as the other. I can’t take “odd jobs” like taxi driver, cop, ambulance driver, firefighter, ice cream truck, etc. I can’t shop at the mall, drive RC cars, find hidden packages, do street races.

Maybe it’s early and I don’t have access to the fun stuff yet. But if I have to get through hours of gameplay to get to the “fun stuff” (I’m looking at you Kingdom Hearts 2), it’s not worth it. Or maybe I’ve been spoiled by Saints Row 3 and 4, which took out everything dull and plodding in GTA and replaced it with fun, wacky, bizarre shit like hoverbikes and zombies. Unrealistic? Maybe. But who played video games for realism? The first video game involved a plumber who could super-jump, shoot fireballs, eat mushrooms, and punch bricks.

Late to the Game: Transistor

transistor stabbing video game

I really liked Bastion. I liked the atmosphere. I liked the art style. I liked the fantasy-Western aesthetic. I liked the music. I liked the simple hack-n-slash gameplay combined with the “earn upgrades to get new moves”. I’m a sucker for that kind of game–where the objective is “grow stronger to defeat your enemies”.

So when I learned the same developers were creating a follow-up to their breakout hit, I jumped in feet first. It was going to be a little different–a computery cyberpunk feel and starring a slender well-to-do woman. But good art begets another. This game was called “Transistor” and released in 2014.

I’ve attempted playing it three times and only now have I gotten past the first level.

Not because it’s hard. But because it was boring. The problem was I had to get past the tutorial to understand where the game’s “fun” was.

One part is the “Turn()” system, which is a little like Fallout, where you can choose between real-time combat or queue up a series of instantaneous actions at the cost of a cooldown. The trick is to plan your attacks and movements efficiently.

The other part is the actions you get. Each one you get can be its own action, an enhancement to another move, or an enhancement to your character. Mix and match to try new combinations and see what best fits your style.

So that part’s fun for me, but it’s no good unless the game answers a crucial question — what’s the point?

I keep asking myself — why am I here? What am I doing? What am I trying to do? Is there anyone else here besides my talking sword? Who is my talking sword? Why does he talk? Am I inside some kind of Tron-world where everyone’s a sentient program? Who is my enemy? What are they? Why are they trying to stop me? Why am I trying to get through them? Where am I going?

In Bastion, it’s quite clear — some “Calamity” has broken up the world, generated all these weird monsters. You need to find the pieces of the Bastion to “fix it”, although you don’t quite know what it does until the end. And along the way you discover interesting tidbits about the world’s culture and characters, like uncovering a fossil.

There’s nothing like that in Transistor. It’s just you–another silent protagonist–and your chatty sword. There are no people in this world, just mute monsters. Oh, unless you like reading. Yeah, I guess each move is a person? And you can read about them in your encyclopedia when you pick them up. Long paragraphs about these people’s lives and what they did for the empty city you’re in. Because when I play an action-RPG, the part I like best is reading. Especially about characters you never meet.

You never encounter these people, never talk to them. They never show up in flashbacks or diaries laying around (either Resident Evil or Bioshock variety). I might as well hit the “Random Page” button on Wikipedia. If there’s no context to the descriptions, if it never matters in the game, then why should I give a shit about reading it. I wonder how many man-hours were spent on these biographies that were probably the least accessed part of the game.

The very first scene of the game has you standing in front of a man slumped over and stabbed with your giant circuit-board sword. You take it out and start moving. That’s it. The sword seems to imply you have a previous relationship (it calls her “Red”), but you don’t know if you stabbed the guy, discovered him, if that’s your sword or you just found it, who is in the sword, why you were there in the first place, and so on. There’s even a little flashback scene where it shows that, no, you didn’t stab him, just discovered him, but that’s it.

The game is essentially “walk the infinite hallway”, broken up by occasional battles. Your sword is supposed to be guiding you, but really there’s no way you can deviate from the path. He occasionally chimes in about where you are in a gravelly voice. “Hey, Red, look, it’s the Barkland Heights.” “Looks abandoned… wonder where everyone is.” “What a night. You’re still in one piece. That’s all that matters.” “Here he comes.” “Yeah, good call.” Really useful stuff, but it’s the only narrative color the game gets.

I hate games with this “story amnesia”. The characters know everything that’s going on, but we don’t. We, the player, have to piece together what happened, making the story part of the gameplay. I don’t want to play a game like that. A story shouldn’t be a puzzle. Well, I guess it can, like in Memento or a mystery novel, but in Transistor, it distracts. The player character knows where she is and who she is, but we, the player don’t.

Also just a basic storytelling mistake. And it’s especially bad in a video game, where you need to give your player motivation to play. This isn’t an unreliable narrator. It’s not trying to demonstrate something about the reader/player’s prejudices. It’s omitting or hiding information for the sake of drama. But it doesn’t add suspense, just confusion. That’s ludonarrative dissonance. It’s like in Bioshock: Infinite. You have this deep meditation on fate and American exceptionalism and alternate realities and quantum theory… but then you also grind someone’s face to a pulp with a rotating gear tool.

At least in Bastion, the story was simple enough that keeping things vague didn’t have much of an impact. When the puzzle pieces are big, you can kinda tell what the picture is anyway. But here, where you’ve got terms and jargon that never get a definition, that’s where my frustration lives. And I have a bad feeling the ending’s going to make as much sense as Birdman.

Late to the Game: Diablo

diablo logo

So I bought some retro games over the Coronavirus outbreak because my computer is too slow to play anything new (and has been for several years now).

One of them was called Diablo, which passed over my radar when it made its big splash in the nineties. I think I played the shareware version of it (ah, ♪shareware♪) , but never got interested. I wasn’t into PC games then. I had an N64 and the world was my oyster.

This is said oyster.

After playing Dusk I’d realized how much I missed my old Doom and Quake clones, so I bought Heretic and Hexen and some others like Warcraft, Warcraft II, and Diablo. The best thing about retro games is that they’re so cheap. And you don’t notice the bad graphics because you’re old and nostalgic.

When I got to Diablo, I played a little bit and realized it was really fun. I thought it’d be closer to Starcraft–needing strategy and placement rules. But it’s just another rat-in-a-maze hack-and-slash with RPG elements and an isometric view. The movement is wonky, probably because of the perspective, and it’s hard to figure out the mechanics when you start. For some reason you don’t even get a map in town.

It reminded me of Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance. I played the shit out that with my friend on the PS2 and I still haven’t found a decent replication of it anywhere else. We creamed over the piles of gold and monsters and leveling up and swords with names like “Keen Masterwork Broadsword of Frostiness +1”. I didn’t realize it at the time but Baldur’s Gate felt fresh and fun where IT was the clone of Diablo.

But there’s a problem.

Because there are RPG elements, the game does not increase your potency– the amount of damage you can do–until you kill so many baddies. And baddies don’t respawn. So I’m stuck on level 9 and I can’t get past a big clump of bad guys around a corner. Ranged weapons aren’t working (partially because they have them too, partially because they seem to be unaffected). I can’t duck in and out because I have no cover. I can’t bait one to follow me, because they’re in some kind of cage.

So now I’m just stuck. I bought this game and there’s no way to move ahead, short of some time-consuming tactics (i.e. chuck one arrow at a time until the healing potions are used up, make the long trek back to town, buy more, make the long trek back, repeat). There aren’t even cheat codes to let me progress.

I hate the way these old PC games were just too hard because of cheap tricks and ludodissonant advantages. By “ludodissonance” I mean a fireball hits me even though I wasn’t anywhere near it because of the wonky 3-D view. Or I dodged into it because of the wonky movement. Resident Evil had the same problem — you could easily dodge those slow moving zombies, but the tank controls limit your agility, even though no human being moves like that.

Warcraft and Warcraft II were the same way. I wanted to beat them on my own merit, but I got frustrated that my men weren’t doing what I wanted them to do. Either I didn’t click on them right or they decided to fight a different guy or they’re attacking a house and ignoring the orc pounding them or because the path-finding AI is TERRIBLE. Seriously, there’s only nine maps. Couldn’t you playtest this a little better to make they don’t go the long way around the forest and get stuck? It’s like they’re too stupid to know there’s no straight line through the cave wall.

Once a guy built a farm, got stuck in a corner, and I had to kill him to free up my resources

Let’s just put a hundred bad guys together and call it difficulty. Ganged up, they take half my health in three seconds. And then let’s design the game so that you get stronger the more monsters you kill, but then never give you new monsters to kill. Seriously, I’ve killed everyone on each floor — I should be at least able to take enough punches without chugging all eight of my potions.

I’m just gonna play Bioshock 2 again. At least I know A) it works on my PC B) someone put some time into figuring out the level of challenge.

Zelda: You Can’t Save Them All

link zelda sad

I’ve noticed a recurring theme in The Legend of Zelda that I’m not sure anyone else has picked up on. The fantasy genre and the dichotomy around the world of heroics and sword-and-sorcery and fairy tales and the like often uses this trope, but for Zelda, it’s a little unusual.

You can’t save everyone.

More to the point, you aren’t allowed to save everyone. The game won’t let you. It’s teaching you a harsh lesson that not everyone gets a happy ending.

As the games became more complex, it became easier to bake this story point into each plot, be it either a sidequest or a main twist. It might have started all the way back with Mr. Error.

Now, it’s widely believed that it’s a mistranslation, but it’s sort of not. The man’s real name is Erā, which phonetically is “Error”. I believe this is the unfortunate “meaningful” naming of a character that works in Japanese but not so much in English (see also Aeris/Aerith/”Earth”). He was meant to pair with a guy named “Bagu” which is phonetically “Bug”. So we’ve got “Error” and “Bug”, both programmer in-jokes. But Bagu’s name was left untouched. That left poor Error out there, all alone, with a confusing name and no purpose*.

Perhaps this was the impetus for Shigeru Miyamoto to put a character like this into all his games. For the next edition, we have a small side quest character known only as Flute Boy. When you enter the Dark World version of the Haunted Grove, you encounter a humanoid tapir sitting on a stump. (Everyone in the Dark World becomes something that reflects who they were in the Light World — Link is a bunny!) He asks you to find the flute he buried in the Light World. But returning his flute is all for naught. As soon as you give it to him, he says he is “fading” and asks to hear it one last time. After you play it, he becomes a vaguely tapir-shaped tree.

That’s pretty sad for a light-hearted game with cute smiley dwarves, a fat fairy princess, and lumberjacks with buck teeth. The ending shows that the flute boy recovers, but you don’t know that while you’re playing.

This sentimental downturn has been wildly successful because in the next game, Link’s Awakening, you can’t save ANYONE, because everyone is a dream. The only character to make it out alive is the Wind Fish. Everyone else wisps away like so much Thanos snap fodder. This includes one of my favorite characters, Marin, who seems to know her fate, but keeps singing as the world fades around her.

Ocarina of Time follows A Link to the Past. At the end of the first dungeon, the Great Deku Tree tells you that he can’t be saved and grays away. For this, you are kicked out of the Kokiri village. But later on, when you revisit the tree, a Deku Sprout erupts. Telling us that no one ever really dies, because life goes on.

Majora’s Mask follows suit, being the bleakest of the bleak Zelda’s. Your mission is to make sure Termina doesn’t become another Koholint Island, with everyone wiped out. But even so, not all of Majora’s black magic can be erased. When the game ends, the Deku Butler’s son remains as it was when you first encountered him.

And who knows if any of the events you accomplish in the game get erased when you travel through time.

In The Wind Waker, our sacrificial lamb is Daphnes Nohansen Hyrule a.k.a. King of Red Lions a.k.a. the guy whose beard looks like it’s a Roman column. But it’s actually a touching and poignant and significant to the plot. He sacrifices himself so that Hyrule can have a future. It’s an ode to the existing generation making the sacrifice for the young people.

Twilight Princess pulls a kind of bait-and-switch “unrecoverable” moment centered around Zelda. First, you see her surrender when Zant invades her empire, which is rather heart-breaking — Hyrule had never given up before. Then in the middle of the game, Zelda does… something to help an injured Midna can live which makes her disappear. The next time we see her, she’s a zombie in Ganon’s power, and you have to fight her. (But she gets better… once you beat her ass.)

There’s the one sage who’s killed during the “Imprisoning Ganondorf” cutscene, which is a bit distracting. The sages, in this game, are weird monochromatic uniformed entities. They kinda look like techno-angels. But you can’t see, according to the Arbiter’s Grounds, the one with the broken pedestal was the sage of water — Ruto.

At the end of it all, Midna returns to her kingdom, but then destroys the only way to do that — the Mirror of Twilight. Why does she do that? You had a real bond together. Not like Navi or King of Red Lions.

And there’s other scary moments too. What are the Interlopers? Why are they Dark Links? Why is possessed Link screaming? Why does Ilia want to stab me? WTF are those cucco-man things for real? Why does that song in City of the Sky creep me out?

In Skyward Sword, Fi makes a heartfelt goodbye when she is resealed inside the Master Sword and begins a long slumber. Although at this point I was wishing she was slumbering in a bathtub with a toaster. Nonetheless, she is a loss the hero experiences. And maybe Impa and the old woman. I don’t know. Honestly, I almost gave up on Zelda after this game.

Finally, in Breath of the Wild, our big loss is Hyrule itself. And by the end of the game, you may have banished the evil, but the kingdom is still in ruins. When you first saw the Temple of Time ruins, didn’t you have a reaction? Didn’t you feel something when you saw your first human after hours of gameplay? Know that lives were lost at Fort Hateno? Become acutely aware that, although the “wild” is vast and beautiful, it’s missing people? Missing that “lived in” feel?

There’s a little ink spot in each Zelda game. An indication that although this is a game about fighting monsters and saving princesses, not everyone gets a happy ending.

*He does have a purpose, though it’s unrelated to his name. In Mido, someone there says “Ask Error of Ruto about the Palace”. After that, Error tells you how to get to the third dungeon. But who remembers that?

The Books I Read: January – February 2019

bookshelf books

The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo
(unfinished)

Too cutesy, too moralistic, and it kept running on. I felt like nothing important happened. It’s all stuff I’ve seen before in “little animal befriends a human” stories, like The Littles or The Secret World of Arietty or Stuart Little or any other of the various children’s books I’ve read to my offspring.

It’s slow. I was constantly yelling at the book to get on with it. Especially cause the formula was so predictable. I could see it checking off boxes as the narrative went on. Too much set-up, not enough plot.

I couldn’t figure out why the book was so popular. It seems to rival The Mouse and the Motorcycle. But it felt like any other middle-of-the-road book. Maybe it had good marketing. But I got enough Ned Flanders-style writing in Because of Winn-Dixie.

Crispin: The Cross of Lead by Avi
(unfinished)

I stopped 50% – 60% of the way through. Just didn’t want to finish it. Someone told me if you’re not wholly in love with the book you’re reading, you should stop. There are plenty of other books out there. And this one didn’t spark joy.

Disclosure: I’ve never seen Marie Kondo

I try my best to get through these award winners and classics, but they’re always drab and dry. The POV is a peasant boy, so he has no great vocabulary. The narrative stark and emotionless (maybe it’s supposed to be because he’s little better than a slave). And everything is historically accurate so the prose gets dry and boring.

But the key was that I couldn’t care about anyone. It took forever for supporting characters to enter the story. And they kept me going for a little, but I didn’t care if the kid lived or died. I read the Wikipedia entry to find out the ending, and I missed nothing.

The big revelation, you can see from a mile away (think Jon Snow). But then he doesn’t even use it! After all those pages about being dirt poor and not being able to eat meat, and he’d rather be a traveling peasant when he could be a baron or lord. I thought the ending would result in his taking the power on to change the ways things were. But nope, he pusses out. Not my kind of hero.

Dealing with Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede

Eh, I guess it’s fine. It’s short anyway.

A woman who doesn’t want to be a proper princess leaves the castle. She wants to learn fencing and performing, but they won’t let her. So she finds some dragons to capture her as a fair maiden. The kind you rescue if any male in this story was capable. What this really means is she becomes a maid, doing dragon stuff like polishing the gold hoard, making breakfast, and handling appointments. So much for feminism.

To be honest, I didn’t think there was much there. Not enough to recommend it. It’s got a few funny moments, but I find comedy in books comes greatly from the absurd. And this isn’t it.

I think this might even be more of a prequel or setup to some other book. I like my stories with a little more substance than twee charm. Like Diana Wynne Jones lite. Nothing seemed to matter to anyone. It was just a few trite “stronger princess than prince” jokes. As if fairy tale maidens have never broken the mold before.

Blood, Sweat, and Pixels: The Triumphant, Turbulent Stories Behind How Video Games Are Made by Jason Schreier

A collection of stories about video games and how they got made. It doesn’t take for them to get samey. Company wants to make a game. It takes longer than they think. It costs more than they think. They work ninety hour weeks, beg for deadline extensions, and then release it. Game is a hit. Then they all go and do it again. I’m reminded of a George Carlin bit my dad liked:

“You know when you’ve been eating ice cream too fast and you get that frozen spot in the back of your throat but you can’t do anything about it because you can’t reach it to rub it? You just have to kinda wait for it to go away? And it does… then what do you do? EAT MORE ICE CREAM!”

At times it almost sounds like propaganda for the video game industry. There are no tales of when it all fell apart or everything was cancelled and dreams were destroyed (except one). He glosses over the lay-offs and misses those times when they just lock the doors and fire everyone. I bet he lifted from stories he’s written on Kotaku, so he didn’t have much work after that.

I don’t think it’s a well-balanced look at the crunch video games are famous for. And really, I don’t think it’s telling us anything we don’t already know–that working conditions for video game makers are horrible. I think you’re better off subscribing to a video game news feed.

The Company of Death by Elisa Hansen
(unfinished)

I wanted to read this book because Elisa Hansen is the Maven of the Eventide–a youtuber specializing in vampire media. And friend to Lindsay Ellis, who I’ve talked about before.

But the book has a fatal flaw–amateur writing. There are adverbs everywhere. There are long sentences. There are pacing problems. So much telling. Bad dialogue to narrative ratio. It’s like the stuff I read from people putting their novels up for critique.

This is a flaw that can be fixed over time, but it won’t be fixed in this text, so I decided to stop (see previous comment on joy sparking). There is charm there, and the content sounds plenty promising (there’s a zombie apocalypse at the same time as a vampire horde takeover). And if you can get past the writing style, maybe this is the book for you. Maybe I’m not the right audience for it.

But right away, I could tell this is an issue book (fair disclosure, I’m probably biased because I knew as much going in–I follow her on Twitter and saw how this book came about). And that issue is asexuality.

It’s a topic I don’t know much about it but was hoping to learn. Hansen herself identifies as asexual. I don’t understand it, but I was looking forward to learning about it in this book. But I couldn’t get past the beginning. Sorry Elisa.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

I was going on vacation for a week (a Disney cruise). I did not bring my Kindle, because I thought it would be too sunny to read or I wouldn’t have time. I didn’t bring anything to read on the plane. And they don’t make SkyMall anymore.

So I had to quickly peruse the selection in one of those airport kiosks. Lots of spy/CIA/political thrillers, romances, and “going home” books. No science-fiction or fantasy. The reason I picked this is because A) it advertised humor and satire (specifically using the term “beach read”) B) I remembered seeing the trailer for this. If someone turned it into a movie, it must have at least a moving plot, right?

I was most afraid of it being quirky chick-lit. You know the kind, where the main character is always an attractive professional woman who just can’t land a man. Her friend is a sassy bartender or gay guy. And it’s all about careers, shopping, and other stuff Sex & the City already covered. But it’s not. It’s more of a family-style novel, like an ABC dramedy.

The plot is hard to describe. Its mood is ambivalent even, but the humor makes up for it. The key plot point forms the third act. Before that, all of the first two acts are epistolary. I kind of frown on epistolary because it’s an easy way to get world-building, and plot out there without narration. It’s a novel of all dialogue. The best part is the main antagonist–a nosy oblivious suburban mom who puts that one busybody in Donnie Darko to shame.

This isn’t my normal faire, so it’s hard to judge it using my perspective. I know I enjoyed it. I’m a little miffed at some of the shots it takes at Microsoft (and that’s saying a lot, because I’m a software engineer) and there are some things that don’t make sense. Like one of the things is Samantha 2, which is an incredible invention that [SPOILER REDACTED] and Microsoft cancels it. Not even they could fail to see the money-making opportunities, especially when the CEO invented poo water.

I think the theming was more about a woman’s need to be unexpectable vs. the expectations placed on her being a “normal” mother. It’s not going to be taught in any future curriculum, but hey, sometimes you need a beach read.

Dungeon Master Guide by Mike Mearls

Well, there’s really no sense to review this one. It is what it says on the tin. What surprises me is how much information in the DMG is already covered in the Player’s Handbook (which I’m in the middle of now).

But as for whether you’re going to read it? Well, it is a pretty book. Lots of cool pictures. Nice tables. After five revisions, I imagine they’ve got the technical documents down to a science. I just wish it wasn’t so expensive.

Late to the Game: Baldur’s Gate

baldur's gate dungeons and dragons computer game

So after my disappointment in The Witcher, I decided to try another old RPG — Baldur’s Gate (the enhanced edition).

When I was younger I played a co-op game with my friend on the PS2 called Baldur’s Gate. This must have been something different than what I got now, because I remember blasting rats in the basement with magic missiles and getting excited at finding a +2 Sword of Frost that actually froze enemies. This is more like an RTS, like Command & Conquer or Starcraft, except without resource gathering. And you only get six guys.

baldur's gate dungeons and dragons computer game

I did actually try this out when I got it, but the tutorial made me too anxious. That’s a lot of individual characters you gotta work with. How does Find Traps work? Combat got over so quickly I didn’t know how to do it. There’s lesson after lesson about moving, clicking, casting, etc. What happens if you die? What are all these commands? Is my mage going to waste all his magic missiles shooting at a jar? I didn’t really understand how to play.

So I put it aside and played some other (simpler) games for a while. I didn’t know if I’d ever pick it up again. It looks like an old game, like DOS era, so it’s not like something I need to put into my “classics I’ve played” bag.

But I came back to it and now I love it. Pretty much spent my entire December vacation playing it. It’s like a solo Dungeons and Dragons campaign, but with none of that disgusting “being around other people” crap.

I’ve gotten pretty attached to these characters. When it comes time for inventory management I say things like “OK, you need this and you should have this, and can you have this?” or “Dynaheir, where are you? Get over here” and “Xan, will you shut up.” I’d love to trade Xan out, but I haven’t found another sorcerer/magician person. It’s all fighters and thieves, which I started with.

The character movement is a little slow, but it’s nowhere near Witcher speeds [Editor’s Note: I found a way to instantly bring characters to your cursor using some minor console cheats. Now to avoid the temptation of using others.] My favorite part is the exploration. It’s kind of Starcraft where you’ve got a “fog of war” that’s all black until a character moves into it. Then it clears up, but if you go away, it fades. And now you know the terrain, but you don’t know if some gang of hobgoblins or a basilisk is going to be there when you get back.

Character management is still a problem. Sometimes my 7 HP mage keeps trying to go toe-to-toe with a pack of wild dogs.

Next time I’m going to play as an evil party. The dialogue choices aren’t varied, but that’s been a pattern for a long time (I’m looking at you Bioshock). So while it was fun to “play the character”, they really only give you choices between “be a noble hero” and “be a jerk.” I had people leave my party because I had too much reputation–I thought it was a glitch. Next time–let’s see what happens if I’m a bad boy.

baldur's gate dungeons and dragons computer game

Late to the Game: The Witcher

the witcher cross-eyed

I bought this on a Steam sale a LONG, long time ago, as part of a bundle with all the The Witcher games. The Witcher 3 was getting a lot of praise at the time. And I think Wild Hunt had come out? I think that’s like a expansion or the name of the “special edition”. Whatever it is, I finally started it after finishing The Stanley Parable and Torchlight.

Well, first there’s the production logos. And then there’s a long cutscene (really a short cartoon) with The Witcher fighting this werewolf thing. It all seems very Van Helsing and Hansel & Gretel. Bunch of impossible jumps, collateral damage, and no innocents harmed. And this has nothing to do with what follows (which is another bunch of cutscenes). I feel like that previous action sequence was either some kind of bonus content for the Enhanced Edition or meant to draw the player in. Because what follows certainly doesn’t.

exciting boring street signs

All of the sudden he’s getting carried somewhere on a cart despite defeating the wolf thing. And I don’t know who these people are and they’re taking you to some castle. And there’s talking and there’s old men and there’s a singular woman and they’re still talking and some bandits are now attacking and there’s still talking and now there’s a tutorial and I’m wondering when the hell I’m going to get to play.

cutscene

I mean, I like a game with story. But there’s story and then there’s having a preface to the prologue to the introduction. (Plus all the time I spent getting my controls working the way I want and adjusting the graphics settings for frame rate/detail balance).

So now I’m getting used to my sword and the combat is apparently based on clicking. I guess it’s in the timing of the clicks–you don’t press combo buttons or anything like that. All you really change is your combat style–fast, strong, or wide. At first I liked it because it was simple, but then it felt too simple. Too dry. It’s boring when you’re fighting a guy and waiting on the click. I wanted to play The Witcher, not Guitar Hero.

witcher combat
Click, click, click, like Farmville

Then cutscene, cutscene, cutscene, more running around. I still don’t know who I am, who’s attacking, why they’re attacking, who the other people are, or why I should care about any of this. Nor do I have any real freedom to explore or get used to my controls, I got thrust into combat right away. I think that’s a big mistake. Video games need to give you a chance to get used to the world and how you move. It’s establishing the “normal” before getting all crazy. Especially with a new IP. Half-Life did this. Zelda games always do this. Super Metroid, Resident Evil, Final Fantasy VII, I could go on.

All right, this castle is the tutorial level. But they still give you sidequests, but before you know how to do them or how to finish them, it takes you to the first level/chapter.

And before we get to that, let’s talk about the menu for a bit. In order to level up your character, there’s a small skill tree for various stats and swording skills. But you have to meditate in front of a fire to commit your changes. Also, there’s a pharmacy-mixing portion, where you can gather ingredients to make buffs from potions. These, along with inventory items are all in tiny little boxes on your character. With drugs, I don’t know what the point in seeing them is, because I can see if the potion is enabled or disabled. And the items of the same type stack, but not unique types. So I can have 10 loaves of bread, but not a scarf if the grid is full.

witcher 1 menu
Hope you like tiny icons

My point is that this is needlessly complex. Why do I get medallions instead of EXP points? Why do these buffs take 5 ingredients plus a base? Can I mix things together without a recipe, like Breath of the Wild? No, you can’t. Someone needs to give you the recipe or you read it. Consequence of your laser-guided amnesia I guess. (BTW the books, that have a one-time use to gain knowledge, stay in your inventory). Even FFX made more sense, and at least it did the math for you.

So after some confusing conversations, you can start wandering around the world. If you’re smart enough to know to open doors, you can leave the little fort and explore the open world. Well, as open as it gets for a small village. There’s a few landmarks around, several characters to talk to for both main and side quests, items to fetch for them (the classic “light the five torches around town”). It’s like a text adventure.

witcher meditation
Witchers be meditatin’

Combat occurs only at night, but time moves very slowly in this world, not like Zelda. And the enemies aren’t much to speak of. They stand there and get hit. My only challenge came from getting the combat system down. I breezed through every fight and I was on normal. It’s just clicking, like a Facebook game.

The world is dingy and gray and foggy. You have to look at the map a lot because everything looks the same. You don’t walk quickly and there’s no fast travel (I even looked up a mod for it). I’d say I spent 90% of the game walking from one place to another. The characters stand stock still when they deliver their lines. Men are power-hungry nobles, fat and drunk. Women are hot wenches.

witcher 1 dingy landscape houses
Have I been here before? How would I know?

The breaker for me was the sex thing. I don’t want to have sex in a video game. I don’t want sex to be part of a video game. Whenever I encounter it, it turns me off from the game. There’s never been a time where it hasn’t. It’s icky and creepy. But this one took the cake. Basically any woman in the game is someone you can bed down. It’s part of the dialogue options, if you pick the correct one.

abigail witcher 1
All the women look like this, hot and plastic

And when you finally do the deed, it doesn’t show anything. It just kind of fades around in colors. But you get a trading card for that person. That’s gross in itself, like these are achievements to collect. But the card is pretty dirty. It’s not like an artful Renaissance nude or a 50’s Bettie Page pin-up. No it’s a sweaty, curvy redhead humping… something.

witcher romance card
This is one of the tame ones

This game reminds me a lot of Conan the Barbarian. Not the environment so much, but the idea there’s this invincible superhero laying waste to all the evil soldiers and bedding all the women. His only vulnerability is his loss of memory. And all that does is give the game a chance to infodump on you without looking like it is.

conan the barbarian movie sword arnold

So it didn’t surprise me when I found out it was a book first. Not one I’ve heard of, but I imagine it can be compared to Robert E. Howard. The covers certainly make it look like that. So all this turns out to be is male wish fufillment. One based in some pretty mundane fantasy trappings for boys, like Red Sonja and He-Man. Not sure why it’s so popular. Maybe Witcher II gets better.