All posts by brian

The Summer of Harry Potter Wrap-up

Okay, so the Summer of Harry Potter became the Autumn of Harry Potter, which became the Winter of Potter, because I’m a slow reader. It also went that way because I had a hard time getting through those last two books.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was a slog. It ditches the whole Hogwarts setting for… camping. Aimlessly looking for horcruxes. Hiding from Death Eaters. It ditches the prophecy leading to the confrontation between Harry and Voldemort for some wand magic rules that weren’t important to the rest of the series until this last chapter. It reveals that Snape was actually good the entire time and gives him a most ignoble death for all of his sacrifices. It denies redemption for Draco and all other Slytherins, and some of the worst characters, like Dolores Umbridge, never get their due. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is a bad book and a terrible end to the series.

Over the series, I’ve learned that Harry is the worst character, the rest of the cast isn’t much better, and Neville is the only character with any development. They’re largely brats who don’t learn anything except what they’re taught in wizard school. Neville, on the other hand, learns confidence and leadership, and even he immediately defers to Harry when he’s around, despite Harry proving to be an awful leader. And it’s like the whole prophecy introduced in Order of the Phoenix was meaningless. It teases the possibility that Voldemort got it wrong, that Neville is the one who will defeat him, and immediately forgets about it. Neville was never going to be the one. Voldemort choose Harry and he was right.

And Voldemort. Voldemort is an idiot, not a menace. How does he not know that someone is destroying his horcruxes until it’s waaaaaay too late? It’s obvious he notices when one is destroyed. Did he think those were accidents??? And he never suspects that Snape is not working for him. He kills Snape over the Elder Wand, not because he’s spent decades in Dumbledore’s service. I can’t really figure out how he got so many followers. He uses dark magic and kills people, two things that seemingly any wizard can do.

Speaking of dark magic, it seems that dark magic is a very bad thing until Harry and his friends use it. They use the Imperio curse to break into Gringotts to steal a horcrux, with the intention of screwing over the goblin that helps them steal it. None of that is good! And throughout the series, Harry uses dark magic, sometimes intentionally, to get things done, so how is he so different from Voldemort?

The series peaks with Order of the Phoenix. That’s when Neville didn’t trip all over himself, the department of mysteries makes the wizarding world actually wondrous, and real sacrifices happen. Everything afterward was a downhill slope to a poor end. I’m not happy about being such a downer about it, but at least I’ve experienced what Harry Potter brought to SFF. But please don’t ask me to finish the dreadful movie series.

Assassin’s Creed Origins

I tell people I have a love/hate relationship with the Assassin’s Creed series, but I’m going to be totally honest here: it’s mostly a love/annoyed relationship. I find them to be brainless timesinks, and that’s not really a bad thing. They’re a reliable, often enjoyable 20 something hours of game. I haven’t played all of them, and the ones I have played are often regarded as the bad ones, but I almost always get one when I want to kill time. Assassin’s Creed Origins, however, is better than a time killer. It’s a great game.

Assassin’s Creed Origins takes the history-skipping game way back to ancient Egypt, in the times when Cleopatra’s brother occupies her throne, and he’s propped up by a Greek army. You play as Bayek, a Medjay, and you’re hunting down the people who killed your son. This mission will take Bayek all across Egypt and lead to uncovering a greater conspiracy.

Origins bins a lot of hallmarks of the Assassin’s Creed series. In doing so, it becomes a much more enjoyable game, and probably a more accessible game, but it loses some of what makes Assassin’s Creed unique. Origins presents a huge, sprawling Egypt, that you’re free to explore and engage with on your terms.

Origins took a lot of, let’s call it, inspiration from The Witcher 3. It’s very much about having a lot of stuff to do, and letting you do it in whatever priority you want. Often, you can even run off in the middle of a quest to do something else and then come back and pick it right up. While the quests aren’t quite as well written as The Witcher 3, and they rarely do that thing where it acknowledges when you’ve already solved a step in the quest ahead of time, they are competent. They don’t feel like a waste of time. Bayek himself, along with the rest of the cast, is also well written. Compared to some of the rest of the Assassin’s Creed series, this is the best it’s been.

What is loses is the strict focus on stealth. Bayek can get into a lot of fights and leave most of them alive, where most Assassin’s Creed protagonists would wilt like a flower. Additionally, if you do find yourself in over your head, you can simply run away and it’ll almost always work. This is in stark contrast with other games in the series, where enemies are almost omniscient and ever-preset to the point that being spotted means reloading a checkpoint. Add in that you no longer have the ability, or much need, to blend in with crowds, nor much need to run along rooftops to avoid being seen, means this Assassin’s Creed feels least like a game in this series. If it weren’t in a historical setting, with a single “assassinate” button, and good climbing mechanics, it’d be a different game entirely.

Some people aren’t going to like this shift; I’m not one of those people. I loved it. Like The Witcher 3, it hooked me early on and I spent a lot of long stretches of time playing it. Unplayed games notwithstanding, this is the best game in the series. The extra time Ubisoft put into its development clearly paid off; they made an Assassin’s Creed that I just loved.


Reference: Ubisoft Montreal. Assassin’s Creed Origins [Ubisoft, 2017]

Source: Purchased from Steam store.

Night in the Woods

There’s an audience for Night in the Woods that this game will hit harder than the rest. Here are just a few touch points this audience will identify: instant messenger, away messages, sleeping until 4pm, dropping out of college, being in a band that never plays a show, working in a low paying, low skill job for too long, bailing on said job as often as possible, living in a dying town but coming back because it’s home. All of these things come together to form a picture of Night in the Woods, and it’s not going to connect with everyone.

You play as Mae, who’s recently dropped out of college and returned home. You pick things up with your old friends, learn what they’ve been up to since you’ve left, but there’s something else going on in Possum Springs. Mae has nightmares or visions and strange things around town that cannot be easily explained seem to follow her.

To Night in the Woods‘ credit, the characters are well-defined, and it’s a pretty big cast. Each has a unique voice and the often more to them than their initial presentation. This clarity of character definition extends to the beautiful art of the game. Night in the Woods has a distinct, clean art style that never looks bad or dull.

Where it didn’t quite come together for me was in the narrative and gameplay. It took a long time for the story to build to a point where it had to hooked. It is a slow starter. This may be purposeful, as a lot of the draw of the game is the connection you should feel to the characters, but it felt tedious at times. Adding to this tedium is the gameplay loop.

Here’s the loop: wake up and check your computer for messages from your friends. Talk to mom in the kitchen. Walk all over town, talking to everyone. They’re always in the same places, but they always have something new to say. After you’ve talked to everyone, go back to the one friend you want to hang out with that night and tell them so. Then go to a character specific scene that nudges the story forward a little bit. These end at home where you talk to dad, check your computer for more messages, and go to sleep.

Again, this may be purposeful. They’re replicating some of the tedium of living in a small town, where you know everyone and they’re all going through a similar routine. But it’s not particularly thrilling and I wish there were a way to move a bit faster. Mae’s not a quick walker and I got a bit tired of walking all over town at her slow pace. It plays like Super Mario Bros. at half speed and, instead of squishing dangerous mushrooms, you’re chatting up your friends and neighbors. If it moved a bit faster, maybe it wouldn’t have taken me nine hours to complete a story that could’ve fit within maybe a quarter of that time.

I picked up Night in the Woods because so many people whose opinions I respect loved it. I get why they loved it, because the writing is good and the characters are great. But I found it pedestrian to the point of being just okay. It’s got its moments but they’re deep in there, surrounded by a lot of slow walking and repetitive gameplay. I was honestly quite surprised to find this game has an Overwhelmingly Positive user rating on Steam. It is very much not going to please everyone.


Reference: Infinite Fall. Night in the Woods [Finji, 2017]

Source: Purchased from Steam store.

2018 Goals

The new year is coming, so why not draft up some overly ambitious goals? Goals are better than resolutions. Resolutions rarely come with an end state. They’re just bland statements of things I’d like to do better without any particular way of measuring whether or not I am doing better. I can resolve to eat healthier, but healthier compared to what? “Eat healthier” won’t get me to the end of the year because I can’t point to any accomplishment. It’s hard to hold myself accountable with “eat healthier”.

With that in mind, I want to improve some things so instead of saying I’m going to improve them, I’m setting some goals. To keep myself honest, expect something like a monthly check-in. That’ll serve a dual function, allowing me to share what I’ve done throughout the year, and experience public shame over what I don’t do. That’s healthy, right?

Writing/Production

I’ve been writing a lot for the last several years about video games and it’s almost always reviews. Criticism has some value, but I’d rather get away from criticism and closer to critical thinking about the games I play. In 2018, I’m going to write about something, probably video games, without that writing being a review. Additionally, I want to do more videos. I dipped my toe in video production in 2017, but I want to do more of it. I’ll probably supplement reviews with video or do video reviews.

Goal: One video per month

Goal: One non-review per month

Exercise

I didn’t run much in 2017. I took most of the year off from running because I ran a marathon in 2016 and the training for it really burned me out. I started doing weight lifting instead, using the Stronglifts 5×5 program. I wasn’t perfectly consistent with it, but it got me started. In 2018, I’m going to switch to a program (GZCLP)  that I think will help me get to some weight lifting goals. I’m also going to do it while keeping my weight under control and not losing my ability to run a 5K.

Goal: Keep my body weight under 200 lbs.

Goal: Increase max 5 rep weights

Exercise Current Max Goal Max
Squat 200 300
Bench Press 140 200
Deadlift 225 325
Overhead Press 95 150
Barbell Row 115 150

Goal: Maintain the ability to run a 33:00 5K

Being a person

I spent entirely too much free time in 2017 sitting at home, doing essentially nothing. I also have a terrible tendency to buy RPG source books, read them, love them, and never play them. In 2018, I’m going to kill some free time by playing these games. I’m guessing I’m going to end up running more of these than playing them, but I’ll get some use out of them. I’m also going to go to a gaming convention of some sort. I’m going to interact with and talk to people who share interests similar to mine, like some kind of person.

Goal: Play each of these games once

  • The Dark Eye
  • The Strange / Numenera
  • Dungeon World
  • D&D 5th edition
  • Swords Without Masters
  • Stars Without Number

Goal: Go to a con

Get Even

The number of video games that actually do something with medium that less interactive media (movies, TV) can’t accomplish is so vanishingly small. Video games are so frequently linear affairs without much opportunity for deviation that the rare ones that do something different stand out. Get Even stands out.

You are Cole Black and you can only remember one thing, a hostage rescue gone wrong. You wake up in a run down asylum where Red, your captor, has strapped a headset to you that can explore and replay memories. By replaying these memories and exploring the asylum, you have to put together the pieces to try to find out who you are, what you were doing, and who’s behind all of it.

In a lot of ways, Get Even reminds me of Condemned: Criminal Origins. Like Condemned, you have a handful of non-gun tools to explore environments and collect evidence, like blacklights, thermal vision, and an environment scanner. Collecting this information and finding documents are an important part of the game as you attempt to sort out Black’s memories. While using these tools to meticulously scour rooms is kind of fun, often I just found myself in rooms littered with documents to dump a lot of information.

However, this isn’t a walking simulator. There are guards and mercenaries everywhere. Black is equipped with a couple useful weapons, but discouraged from using them. This means most levels are stealthy affairs, and the stealth in the game isn’t exactly great. You can view enemy vision cones with your map, but the enemy’s vision extends far beyond what the cone indicates. This is no Metal Gear Solid. Additionally, you’re told upfront that your actions, including killing people in your memories, have consequences. So you’re given a cool weapon to play with, and told not to use it.

What Get Even does really well is mess with the player. At the start of the game, you know as much as Black does, so the game can reveal things to you and Black at the same time. This exploring of Black’s memories where Black doesn’t know what happens next leads to some situations where you as the player can and should question whether what you’re seeing is what actually happened or only how Black wanted to remember it. This merging of perspectives and unreliable narration are head games that other media can’t pull off, so Get Even‘s experience is pretty unique.

Looking at The Farm 51’s past titles, Get Even should be the game that gets them more positive attention. It’s a cool game that tries to create a different experience from most games and succeeds in many ways. Get Even seems to have flown under a lot of people’s’ radars, and it deserves more attention.


Reference: The Farm 51. Get Even [Namco Bandai, 2017]

Source: Purchased from Steam store.

Oxenfree

One of the things video games struggle with is human dialog, especially when they introduce player choices. It’s often stilted and flows poorly, if it’s written well at all. Many games can get serious kudos if they manage to get dialog and conversations right. Oxenfree is a game that gets it very right and it might be enough to cover its flaws.

In Oxenfree, you control Alex, a high schooler who’s gone to a beach party on a small island with her friends. However, the island has a dark history and Alex and her friends have to uncover it to find a way to save themselves when the night takes a turn for the worst.

The thing that Oxenfree does best is its conversations between characters. Your four friends are fairly chatty. The dialog is natural and well-written, but what Oxenfree brings to it is that you’re given up to three dialog choices, and when you makes those choices, you can interrupt your friends. Mass Effect did this, but your friends in Oxenfree actually react to it. It’s such a minor thing, but it goes a long way toward immersing you in what is going on.

Night School Studio is comprised of some former Telltale Games developers, so it should be no surprise that your dialog choices affect the story and how other characters think of you. However, instead of an outright “character B will remember this” type statement, you don’t really get a lot of feedback on when you’re changing hearts and minds. The only feedback you get is a little thought bubble over someone’s head with someone else’s face in it. It gives some indication that they’re thinking about that person, but not explicitly why. I like this a lot because it made my own choices feel more natural and less like I’m trying to push a friendship slider in one direction or another.

What might turn some people off is that there isn’t a lot more going on here than walking around this island and talking to your friends about the weird stuff that’s happening. There’s some very light puzzle solving, and you can choose to do a lot of backtracking to find collectible items that flesh out more of the mysterious island, but don’t expect to manage an inventory, or jump on a platform, or shoot anything. I’m not sure there was any point in time I could’ve “failed”, just dozens of opportunities to alter the story in negative ways.

While the gameplay is very light, I could not stop playing Oxenfree. I played it all over the course of a single day with the game lasting about 5 hours. The intrigue-filled story and the immersive dialog kept me around. If I was going to put it down at any time, it would’ve been during some of the item finding I did, where there wasn’t a lot of dialog but still got some payoff by finding another piece of the mystery. It nails a foreboding and dark story without being totally grim or colorless. It’s the perfect way to spend a winter weekend.


Reference: Night School Studio. Oxenfree [Night School Studio, 2016]

Source: Purchased from Steam store.

2017 Dream of Waking Video Game Awards

I play a ton of video games. It’s about time I made my own yearly awards. In an attempt to escape a simple list of games I’ve played, I’m making some categories that may or may not return next year. But that’s enough talk, let’s give out some awards!

2017 Game of the Year

NieR: Automata

I played NieR: Automata to completion twice. I’ll be the first to admit that the combat wore on me after a while, but I spent 76 hours playing this game. It was absolutely worth it. It’s an incredible game that blends good gameplay with an experience that can’t be replicated in other media. It’s instantly accessible, with plenty of options to turn down or turn up the difficulty, and you can buy all of the achievements, if that’s all you care about. NieR: Automata just wants to play it, and you should.

Runners Up: Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus, What Remains of Edith Finch

2017’s 2016 Game of the Year

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided

I didn’t get into Mankind Divided as quickly as I would’ve liked, which is why I bounced off of it when it came out in 2016. However, after giving it a real chance, I fell deep into it. While the main story isn’t all there, the side quests fill in the gaps very well. The city of Prague is extremely detailed and every problem has several solutions. It’s a great game, so it’s a real bummer that it didn’t do well enough to warrant a foreseeable continuation.

Runners Up: Hyper Light Drifter, Quantum Break

The “I Wish I Had More Time for This” Award

Endless Space 2

Endless Space 2 combines two things I love, 4X space games, and Endless Legend. It’s really well polished and has received several free updates with new heroes, units, gameplay improvements, and other cool stuff. I just don’t find myself with enough time to dedicate to it to really learn the systems and stick through a game.

Runners Up: Torment: Tides of Numenera, Glittermitten Grove/Frog Fractions 2

The “I Wish I Liked This Game More” Award

Prey

Prey has a lot going on that should work for me. Space, shape-shifting aliens, heavy System Shock influence. But seven hours in, it hasn’t really kept my attention. I think it’s cool, I like it, but I don’t find myself wanting to go back into it anytime soon. I couldn’t even really explain why either, it’s just not clicking with me.

Runners Up: Resident Evil 7, Pyre

The “I’m Never Going to Finish This, But It’s Still Great” Award

Heat Signature

Heat Signature’s combination of gameplay systems leads to some surprising results that never seem to run out of fun. It’s a sprawling game, and the difficulty ramps hard, so I’m almost certain to never see it to conclusion. Still, it’s fun to jump into and run a couple missions.

Runners Up: Hollow Knight, Dead Cells

Awards for Things That Aren’t Video Games That I Loved in 2017

Best Film – Blade Runner 2049

Best Album – Charly Bliss Guppy

Best Novel – Neal Asher Infinity Engine

Best TV Show – Great News Season 1

What Remains of Edith Finch

What Remains of Edith Finch reminds me a lot of Dear Esther, possibly the first “walking simulator”. Maybe it’s the narration, or the tone, or the setting, or faulty memory (it’s been a very long time since I’ve played Dear Esther) but I finished Edith Finch thinking about replaying Dear Esther. That’s not bad company to be in; Dear Esther was good but What Remains of Edith Finch is truly moving.

You are Edith Finch and you are exploring your old family home. Though you’ve been gone from it, it’s where your family always lived, and where you explore their lives and deaths. You see, you’re (probably) the last Finch.

The patchwork Finch home is an experience to explore. Every room is incredibly detailed, and they’re decorated in the manner fitting their occupants. Nearly every family member had their own rooms, and they’re all lovingly preserved. It’s kind of like going through the house of a historical figure, like the Lincoln home. It’s not quite as thoroughly interactive as Gone Home, but this is made up for by the vignettes.

While exploring, you’ll find bits and pieces of your family’s lives that take you to a little vignette about them. They seemed to all have a different style or approach, so no two were the same. Sometimes more interactive than others, these break up the exploration of the Finch house perfectly.

There’s no way to discuss the Finch family without ruining the experience, but I left the game knowing each of the Finchs by name (and there are about a dozen of them) and their personalities. It’s amazing how well their stories are constructed to be memorable and unique.

I really don’t have any criticisms of this game. It’s a beautiful, emotional experience. Pass on seeing a movie this weekend and play this game about family and death.


Reference: Giant Sparrow (developer). What Remains of Edith Finch [Annapurna Interactive, 2017]

Source: Purchased via Steam Store

Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus

The New Colossus is not The New Order. That much should be obvious from the title, but I want to make it perfectly clear. If you go into The New Colossus expecting more of the tone or content of The New Order, you will be disappointed. I know this because for the first half of the game, I was disappointed.

The New Colossus picks up immediately after the events of The New Order. You’ve dealt the Nazis a defeat, but not a killing blow, and they’re still in charge. But instead of liberating Europe, you’re moving on to free America. America surrendered after the Nazis dropped an atomic bomb on New York City, so you and your team of misfits are going to start a new American revolution.

I think maybe I have rose-tinted glasses when thinking back to The New Order, because I recall handily beating that game on “I am Death Incarnate” difficulty (the highest you can start with) and loving it. I started The New Colossus the same way and immediately died over and over until I realized that this isn’t fun and dialed the difficulty down to their version of “medium”. Even with the difficulty turned down, the game is still very challenging because you die very quickly if you don’t have armor. Even when you do have armor, there isn’t much indicating you’re being shot or where you’re being shot from until that armor has evaporated, and then you’re essentially done for.

However, the shooting and action does feel great. Enemies visibly react to being shot, weapons all have an appropriate punch to them, and heavy weapons can make you feel invincible. When you’re not sneaking around( which is still an option), you can run, dodge, shoot from cover, and melee, all of the options you want from an solid action game.

Thematically, The New Colossus is about revolution, and not the dour, grim game that The New Order frequently was. It rapidly switches from Nazi oppression and fascism on display to humor and humanity. It’s more rollercoaster than whiplash though, handled in a manner that few games can pull off. It’s a game that will shock you sometimes, but the shocks aren’t meaningless. They serve a purpose.

I’ve heard plenty of other people say that anyone wanting to play Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus should turn the difficulty down to easy and run through it, which I don’t particularly agree with. The action is fun and worth engaging with, even though it does suffer from lack of feedback. And running through the levels to get to the next cutscene neglects the wealth of background information in the well-done collectibles as well as the beautifully designed levels themselves. Maybe take one approach or the other, but play it. It doesn’t quite live up to The New Order, but it’s still an excellent addition to the series.

Below the cut are some thoughts and notes that will contain spoilers. This is your only warning.


Reference: Machine Games (developer). Wolfenstein 2: The New Colosssus [Bethesda Softworks, 2017]

Source: Purchased via Humble Store

Continue reading Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus

Thoughts on Patreon changes

Patreon is changing how they charge patrons for their pledges in a confusing way that’s probably going to hurt creators in the short term. I’m not a creator. I’m a patron, pledged to six creators that don’t always produce a pledge charge monthly.

The change is explained here in language that isn’t particularly clear. The gist of it is that instead of charging me what I’ve pledged and taking their service fees out of what they pay to my creators, they’re going to charge me what I’ve pledged, plus a flat fee, plus a percentage per pledge to cover those service fees. This ultimately gives my creators and Patreon more money at my expense.

The bottom line is that I don’t know what I’m going to be charged next month to support the creators I’ve pledged to. Some of them are charged per month, some of them are charged per item produced, and I don’t know if those per-pledge charges are going to be applied to each item produced or once per creator.

Last month, I spent $17 supporting creators on Patreon. I can look at the list of charges and what each pledge was and it simply adds up to $17. By my math, with the same pledges, Patreon is going to charge me an additional $2.25 or $2.60 depending on how they apply the fees.

I can shoulder the additional cost. The money isn’t a big deal. The problem is that they’ve instantly added 15% to what I’m spending supporting Patreon creators. And the smaller the pledge, the more their fees are adding to it. For the odd $1 pledge, they’ve added charges equal to 37.9% of what I’m already paying. If you’re a patron with a lot of $1 pledges to many creators, congratulations; your charges are going to go up by more than a third of what you previously paid.

This sudden increase is sure to cause patrons to reevaluate how many pledges they’re willing to make monthly, particularly those with low dollar amounts. That $0.35 flat fee per pledge is a real killer. I’m personally not going to stop supporting the creators I pledge to on Patreon because most of my pledges are not that small, but this will absolutely cause me to reevaluate the small pledges I do make. I’ve seen some creators trying to come up with different tier costs to reduce the effect of these new charges on their patrons, which is admirable, but Patreon is putting them in a bad position.

Patreon should’ve been more conscious of their creators and they definitely should be more open with patrons about how much their next bill is going to be. The sticker shock next month could really damage their creators’ income for the following month as patrons unhappy about the new charges drop their pledges. It’s billed as a win for creators, and I hope it is, but it feels like it’s going to cause a backlash against them.