This looks at one last game, then talks about some conclusions I’ve drawn. Monster Manor is the most complex of the games, so it has the longest entry.
I recall the 3DS having a bumpy launch, but now it seems like it’s almost ubiquitous among gamers. As a 3DS owner myself, I like to take advantage of the handheld’s Streetpass function. I even splurged on all of the additional Streetpass-based games that are available on the system.
I realized after a weekend of lots of Streetpassing, that I have Opinions about the Streetpass games. And as it’s rare to find a comprehensive review of that kind of thing, I thought I would take some time to write those Opinions down in a three-part series.
I made a post about Heavy Rain on Tap-Repeatedly today. I’ve had it for a while but felt inspired to finally play it now that Beyond: Two Souls is out and getting lukewarm reviews. I started Tweeting about this process, which you can also follow right here. I don’t really like Heavy Rain so far, but I’m willing to admit that this is partially my fault.
I will probably get around to posting IF Comp impressions starting next week, since I am not in the competition this year. I can’t promise I’ll get to all the games this time around but I always enjoy the competition.
It was an accident. It probably always is.
I was fortunate enough to have a review that I wrote, the Dragon’s Crown review on Tap-Repeatedly, get high praise semi-recently on Quarter to Three from Tom Chick. I admire his review style and candor a lot so this was a real achievement for me. He said he wished he saw more game reviews written the way I wrote that one, and that is really kind.
I was excited about Gone Home, the environmental exploration game, when I heard about the premise, and since it’s a fairly short game that isn’t challenging in the traditional sense, I was able to block out some time to play it. It seems there are a lot of blog entries going up about this game this weekend, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see a Critical Distance roundup for it or something come next week.
My thoughts on it turned out to be different from most other thoughts I’ve read. So I feel like it’s worthy to weigh in. I really liked the game but it wasn’t perfect for me either. For one thing, it ran a bit slowly on my older laptop, which is unfortunately the primary machine I’m using for gaming right now due to a variety of moving-related factors. So it was a bit of a slideshow which hurt the impact.
Any other comments will have to be mired in spoiler territory, but before I go into that, I will say it got the 90s-teenager-nostalgia just right for me. I was also a teenager in the 90s and though our house wasn’t the mansion depicted in Gone Home, there were a lot of similarities, too – the wallpaper, the unfinished basement, the cheap blue nail polish, the glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling, the Oujia board tucked in a back closet. Every once in a while in the game there was a moment that reminded me of something from being a teen in the most obvious and non-obvious way. And that was very touching and a big part of the value of the experience.
Also, I am totally on board with Christmas Duck being the new Companion Cube, because having a house is all about those weird Christmas decorations that don’t make sense. Christmas Duck plushies should be a thing. Just saying. Good ol’ Christmas Duck.
Spoiler jump starts now:
So another big reason I wasn’t totally blown away by Gone Home, even though I enjoyed the game, was that I called the ending about five minutes in. I saw a note that said “don’t tell Mom and Dad what happened” and a note that said “I don’t want to hang out with Daniel anymore because he’s getting weird.” That was all right in the first little area, and I thought: this is the game that pulled out of PAX because it has LGBT content. Okay, so the reveal at the end, I said aloud, to my husband nearby, is the sister has run off with another young lady, because she’s gay. After deciding that, I wasn’t really buying into any of the other clues the game threw out about there being ghosts or this being a murder house. Those moments were spooky, but I was pretty sure the situation was going to be something mundane, and there was enough evidence throughout (ransacked drawers and missing VCRs) to support my suspicions.
Hubby didn’t want me to be right that quickly, but it was what it was. The way the story was laid out was very neatly done, and, though the lesbian bit comes out early enough, there’s still the possibility of something like a suicide pact or something gruesome and worrisome near the end. I stood by my “run away” choice even after seeing a pentagram, because leaving a note that says “don’t let Mom and Dad find out” wouldn’t have made sense in the context of a suicide.
A few blogs have gone up already saying things like “I wanted to identify with this game, but I can’t, for X reason.” For example Anna Anthropy can’t identify because she is trans. Nick can’t identify because he didn’t grow up wealthy. Alec Meer can’t identify because he’s a man… but there is the dad character for him to identify with, and his struggles in becoming a successful writer, which is the largest “side-story” in the game.
So… I can’t entirely identify, because I’m straight…
Oh, god, hold on. Okay. I’m sorry, I don’t want this to sound like whining or anything. I realize that as a straight woman I’m privileged. And I am the sort of straight woman that’s sex-positive and sometimes enjoys sexualized depictions of other women, which if you believe in queerness as more of a scale thing, then I don’t tip the needle all the way on the straight side. But I don’t really consider that a part of an identity that I have, and every sort of awakening or watershed moment that I had has been from the straight point of view.
And it’s very hard to express this, but it feels like video games kind of sidestepped straight women? Question mark because I’m not saying this in an authoritative way, but more in a, am I the only one who feels this way, way? That’s one of the reasons I was so eager to write a little about Everlove when I heard about it. It’s solely about a straight woman having sex with men. How rare is that? It’s not completely rare, no, but it’s pretty rare.
I was thinking about Remember Me, and the backlash against it starring not just a woman, but a straight woman. That would be awkward because you can’t make the player “kiss another dude” in the game (presuming that the player is a dude, naturally). And I was thinking about how in most early games, when there was a romance to play out, I did it as a man picking up women, because that was what there was to do. And I was thinking about how in a lot of games there’s a woman-on-woman relationship, because designers put that woman in the game as a love interest for a man, so why not go ahead and open that up for both genders? So it took until the second Mass Effect game for a female character to have more than one male romance option, for example.
I get that this sucked even worse for gay men, who got nothing in the first Mass Effect game at all. I’m not saying it’s bad that there’s homosexual options in games or that games are increasingly inclusive across-the-board. I’m just saying that sometimes it feels like, in a world where at first women at all were a bit of an afterthought, in a world where the trappings of “the feminine” are already frequently dismissed, it feels like straight women haven’t quite carved a niche.
As a thought experiment I wonder what Gone Home would’ve been like if it were a straight-girl story. It could’ve gone the same way, generally: maybe Sam’s potential boyfriend still has to choose between her and ROTC; maybe they still have to sneak around to have sex; maybe there’s some other thing keeping them apart, like he’s a different race or he’s lower-class and the Greenbrier parents just don’t approve. Maybe she writes the same sort of little diaries about sexual confusion, and maybe she comes to the conclusion she really likes this guy, and they’re going to run off together.
It just doesn’t feel as important somehow, but it would be no less real, right? But it would feel kind of less weighty. And I think the same exact writing voice for Sam might’ve come across as a ditzy and frivolous giiiiirl if she just had a crush on a boy. It’d be less triumph and more… Twilight.
And I’m thinking about the mother character in Gone Home and I’m realizing that, aside from Katie, who is just an avatar, Jan, the mother, is the most under-written character. Most of her story is about how she’s away from home often, so it makes sense we hear less of her, and maybe I missed a scrap or two of her story in all the piles. But she hasn’t seen a lot of evaluation in the same way that Terry’s side-story has seen.
We do know that Jan is a Christian and she reads the Bible and, hey, it’s nice to see a straight, Christian woman in a video game who isn’t portrayed in an entirely demonized fashion. She’s sympathetic even if she’s still a bit of the villain to Sam’s story. There’s been so much Dad-based content in games, lately, and there hasn’t been so much a corresponding increase in “Mom” content, so it’s nice to see a mom at all.
Yet Jan’s not the most interesting character in the game. I think Sam is the most interesting character in Gone Home, and that’s by design I’m sure. I like reading her writing as it develops and hearing her point of view and I empathize with her often throughout. I want to learn more about Katie, because I was the oldest sister in my household, but as the avatar she’s never given too much to say.
I’m happy to have a game about a family and a game that’s about sisters growing up. Gone Home works very well telling the story that it tells. And ultimately I think the success of Gone Home isn’t so much what the story is as how it’s told in the environment design. (Which is a little too on-the-nose sometimes, but games are getting there.)
Just imagine there’s a game like this, but it’s about the sexual awakening of a straight teenage girl falling in love with a boy. Do you hate her? Is she airheaded? Imagine there’s a game like this but it’s about the concerns of the mother as she struggles to hold her family together. Is she boring? Is she selfish?
Finished it on Sunday. All the spoilers for the ending of The Last of Us. Below the jump.
That was not at all my experience. When the Fireflies at the end said “we have to cut her brain open,” my husband was sitting next to me during those last few moments of the game.
Our collective reaction was “Aw, helllll naw,” and it was lock and load all the way till the end. I took the next few sections of tactical combat as seriously as I’d taken any other sections.
When I got to the operating room I had the shotgun out and I blew the lead doctor away before he could say anything. I did not have that “and then the game made me kill him” experience.
After it was all over, I only then mused “I wonder if I could’ve made another decision there.”
And my husband said “Nope, I think that’s the way it ends.”
I looked online to see if there was a second ending. There isn’t. But I was totally satisfied with the ending as presented (which felt, at the time, like one I chose).
I guess lots of people wanted that to be a choice situation, but treating it like one didn’t occur to me at all at the time. I guess I’m agreeing with people who have said “yeah, I’m glad the game didn’t make that a choice situation,” but I’m agreeing with it only in the most basic way, which is to say, I didn’t even consider a second choice in the moment. I mean it just felt like the way it was supposed to go, to me. As much as I pick fun of the “dad with a gun” conceit as a repeating trope, it was obviously the point of the story to here and it all comes together in a narratively inevitable way. So, um, good end, guys.
Spoilers, I guess. Nothing terribly non-obvious given the marketing, but be warned.
It occurred to me that lately, any time a non-gamer asks what game I’m playing right now, I answer The Last of Us. This isn’t untrue, though it’s one of many games I’m playing. But irrespective of this truth, or the fact that it’s a quality game, I answer The Last of Us because the premise is so easy to explain to a local non-gamer.
“It’s got zombies, and part of it is set in Pittsburgh.”
“Oh, really? Man, cool.”
After answering this way for the third time or so, I wondered if I shouldn’t be giving an answer about a game with a less-predictable theme. Maybe I would be a better champion for games as a medium if I answered something that says something more unexpected. Then again, all the games I’ve played recently involve knights with swords, elves with swords, or off-kilter superheroes… with swords, so I’d have to dig into my memory a ways for something that fit the bill.
When someone who is a gamer hears I’m playing The Last of Us, they ask “how far are you into it?” to which I answer “not very far.”
“Yeah, but how far?”
“Not real far.”
“Like what season is it?”
“I’m not even at a point where I can answer that question accurately? The first one. The beginning. I’m not very far.”
I guess the first part is Boston, so, yes. I’m still in Boston! In other words, I’m at the point after the first girl dies, but before the other lady dies, because that’s apparently how we measure time in video games.
I am totally a champion for this medium.
Warren Spector wanted to know this week “Where’s the Roger Ebert of video games?” and it was a question that made a lot of game critics mad because there’s a lot of game critics who feel like nobody cares about or reads their game critique, which they are already busily writing. I think this essay isn’t evidence that there’s no writing; just evidence that the writing we have has a discoverability problem. A question I find more valuable isn’t “where is the Roger Ebert of video games” but “who plans on paying the full-time salary of the Roger Ebert of video games?” Is there a value proposition in such a person? Of course other people find the question “Who cares?” to be more valuable still, and maybe that… proves some kind of point. I think it would be fun to be the Roger Ebert of video games.
One of the reasons I often don’t bother with the “hot critical game of the moment” is because I get busy or even lazy and I’m bad about carving out time for it until people are already done talking about whatever game it is. Often, it’s enough that I feel like I didn’t need to bother with the actual game and got what I needed to know out of the essays. I was mulling over writing an essay about The Last of Us as a “Dadfeels Game,” which is a term I’ve been using on Twitter lately to explain about how all the big, serious, expensive critically-discussed games (Bioshock Infinite being another one) are all about fatherhood these days. I may still end up writing more about this after playing Heavy Rain, which I also picked up recently, and which is yet another game about the Dadfeels. Even the new Grand Theft Auto is apparently going to have some Dadfeels in it, so, look forward to that, I guess? Fortunately, there’s not too much demand for such an essay to be timely, since Critical Distance already did a huge roundup of many other critics making the same observations with regard to The Last of Us. Any one of those writers or maybe all of them may be the Roger Ebert of video games.
But maybe it doesn’t matter when I answer “The Last of Us; it’s got zombies, and stealth kills where you break open the faces of zombies with bricks” because why the heck should I have to apologize for video games? I could just hold my head high and confess that I’m not at all embarrassed by it. Dadfeels and drama aside, it’s a video game and it brings to the table the things video games are basically known for. So that’s pretty much what I say.
Because the answer so far is usually, “That’s cool.”
This contains complete spoilers for everything that happens in the Mage’s College quests in Skyrim.
Everyone said I should check out the Mage’s College, so, I did. I solved some small student problems, and did an underground quest in some tombs where I found a great big spinny orb. Everyone seemed really impressed by the spinny orb.
I wandered off to do some other things.
Later I thought it might be nice to visit my friend the other Khajiit at the college and see if he would travel with me, so I checked in at the college for some work. They wanted me to get some books, which had information about the big shiny orb thing. So I did that. No worries.
So now I’m the Arch-mage. I would say I’m not sure how that happened, but, ever since you’re sent upstairs to see the sitting Arch-mage’s room and see all the pretty alchemy ingredients and shiny trinkets that are marked “hands off,” it seems inevitable that this can somehow be your own room some day. The funniest thing about being the arch-mage is I’m not that great a caster. I purposely skilled up Illusion just to get silent spellcasting, and I’m an Adept level at Destruction from lobbing fireballs at dudes. I have a couple heal spells, because you need that, and I generally know a lot of spells because I can’t be stopped from clicking on books I find in the world. But I’m not really what you would call a wizard. I haven’t spread out my magic perks much, and I don’t use the spells all that tactically.
For one of the college missions, I ran around in robes that I found on a necromancer. They had a bonus to casting Destruction, and, I thought, looked rather fetching with their emblazoned skull pattern. The problem with this plan was that I really had no mage armor or defensive spells to speak of, except for the beginner-level Ward, and every creature in Boatmurdered was gnawing me to death. I survived by virtue of Resist Poison vials and lots of quicksaving. At one point I almost resorted to setting the game on God mode because I was so frustrated.
Today I thought: well, screw that, and instead went and put on some actual armor, loaded up on enchanted weapons, and crafted myself a Glass Sword, then set about completing the rest of the story.
Lo and behold: Bethesda, as it turns out, is like your dick Dungeon Master. The final mage dungeons truly are the ultimate challenge for a Mage. For someone who is specced as a thief primarily, it turns out they are not so tough. What would be a hard challenge for a mage, asks your dick DM. I know: I’ll put an enemy in the dungeon that periodically drains your spells. Then I’ll give enemies weapons that drain your spells! Some of the monsters will have high magical resistances. Combine that with a couple of big arena-type rooms where you’re forced to move forward, instead of being able to kite enemies in to defensive Rune spells, and that would make things really tough for a magic-user.
The thing you’d think would be most thematically appropriate would be to take another college mage with you, study some new great spells, put on your robe and wizard hat, and venture forth. I hired a basically pure fighter, gave her a magic axe, then put on Glass Armor and packed some invisibility potions. I defeated the undead magic-draining lich of high mucky-muck by standing on a tower and lobbing him with about forty cheap arrows. I even sneak-attacked a Skeletal Dragon to death.
The final boss of the story arc is telegraphed from 600 miles out. He’s an elf named Ancano and it is barely a spoiler for me to tell you you have to kill this man. The moment he showed up, I knew I would have to kill him, because:
A: Every single person you talk to at the Mage’s College has a question allowing you to ask them something about Ancano, even if you literally never met the guy. Then they can tell you he is suspicious.
B: The dude looks like Raistlin.
Remember how I said the enemies in the final mage dungeon have weapons that drain magic? You can take those to an enchanter and learn the enchantment yourself. Then you can enchant whatever you like with it. If you’re really bold, try two: one for each hand. I enchanted a vampiric dagger, and hacked Ancano with it until he was out of blood. Upon doing this, the college made me Arch-Mage.
Here is a list of the mage-like actions I undertook to become Arch-Mage of all Skyrim:
1. Cast a few Novice-level elemental spells, to bypass magical puzzle locks.
2. Enchanted a dagger.
I now look forward to beating the rest of Thieves’ Guild story by charging in with a greatsword like Conan, and beating the Fighter-oriented Companion quests by lobbing fireballs. Because I bet those quests have a lot of guys with shields.
And I am, undoubtedly, the best mage in Skyrim.