Tuesday, November 22, 2011

You see that mountain? There's a story on it. Now go find it. - A bit of stuff about games, The Elder Scrolls, and Skyrim

Out of the gate, Skyrim has been hailed as a universal success.  Its rating on metacritic, that holy guarantor of quality and vigor, is something like 95 or 96 out of a 100.  You probably don't need me to tell you that Skyrim is good.  What I would like to do is highlight exactly why it is good, and give any gamers stubbornly clinging to Oblivion or Morrowind a polite clap on the ear, to hopefully wake them up.

I'd like to ask a searching question.  What, in the most basic sense, is the promise offered by each and every videogame?  The answer, I think, is simple, dictated by the interactive aspect of the medium: "if you play this game, you will not only be able to enter into a world specific to your interests, but you will furthermore be able to affect it and bring your own cognitive power to this world in order to experience this world according to your own desires, rather than that of, say, an author's."

That is, essentially, what is being suggested when that controller is put into your hand.  When you gain access to the power to change what you see on the screen, you are now leveraging for control of the media you are engaging in.

As we all know, that promise rarely, if ever, delivers wholesale.  There are little obstacles, sometimes very large obstacles, between your capacity to change the game world and the actual experience you receive.  Those barriers, disruptive to the very spirit of gaming and yet nearly impossible to avoid, are something we've learned to work with.  We are told the restraints of the game, what we can or cannot do, and operate within them.  And so our choice narrows.

At this juncture, the promise of gaming changes from "I may do whatever I want in this world" to "I may do whatever I want in this world, as long it is less than X and greater than Y."  In some ways, this is natural.  Complete freedom to do whatever one might want would disrupt any narrative gesture on behalf of the game, and I argue that we do appreciate a narrative in a game, even though in the same instance, the natural urge to push the game to the limits of what it will allow can disrupt that narrative.  Who, while reading a novel, does not root for a character, and silently judge their actions and advise them?  That is natural.  But when those novels cave to the simplest desires of the reader, they become trite and uninteresting.  Look, for instance, at George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, which has recently achieved pop culture status.  What is compelling about the fiction he presents is that it does not cater to what its audience expects, and instead offers up a vastly more fascinating narrative venture.

Now, imagine that you are playing a game set in Martin's universe.  I won't go into specific spoilers, but if you were playing through scenes where a memorable character was about to die, the player would want some sense of control, to be able to stop those deaths and prove themselves the champion, and so on: but it would cripple the narrative.  An author's advantage is that they can acknowledge that while the characters in the narrative may suffer and be exposed to undesirable circumstances, this will in fact produce a more compelling narrative.  When we are directly invested in the fiction--as a reader, viewer of a film, or a gamer--we struggle to find that same distance.  Games, then, which endeavor to provide any narrative experience, must navigate that divide, between our natural want for control, and the fact that when given that control, someone with a self-interested investment in a story will, inevitably, make it more predictable and less interesting.

All of this is a very roundabout way of saying that I think that there are two paths that games can choose in order to conquer this fundamental difficulty: a game can either become dictatorial, dictating to the player what to do, what their character says, and where they go, in the name of narrative (a fine example of this succeeding--because I do not suggest that this form of game narrative is entirely inferior--is Final Fantasy X); or a game can become emergent, to borrow a term from Peter Molyneux, who, though much maligned, has a fairly decent head on his shoulders for what gamers want, even though he might not always succeed in making his theoretical ideas a reality.  Emergent gameplay, in short, is described as a complex situation which emerges from the interaction of simple mechanics: I would go a step further, and call it a compelling narrative moment which emerges in the space between the player's internal narrative and the gameplay which the game offers to support that narrative.  This latter category, thriving on those narrative moments, has always been the focus of the games in The Elder Scrolls series (finally, you say, he gets to the point!).

The promise is in the friggin' game manual: the Elder Scrolls promises to let you be who you want, how you want.

However, this process will be necessarily complicated.  If players were just thrust into a world with no quests to explore, I imagine they'd get quite bored: in this sense each Elder Scrolls game has needed a dictatorial framework in which those emergent moments may exist.  The measure of success in any Elder Scrolls game, and any game in general, I would argue, is the intentional submerging of that dictatorial framework, making it nearly invisible, so that the focus is not on what you are being told, but what you are doing.

Morrowind, for instance, is often praised for offering a wealth of unique materials, in contrast to the earlier Elder Scrolls games which featured randomized content.  What are those unique materials and locations?  Things with a specific narrative.  Items which dictate their history to you.  The abundance of unique quest material in Morrowind, material which is dictatorial in nature, is often cited as the primary reason why the game is so well-loved among its fans.  However, Morrowind also enabled the player to choose which of those dictatorial elements to engage in, and to some extent, how to engage in them.  In this sense, we might call an earlier Elder Scrolls game, which chiefly featured randomly generated content, as a sort of amorphous narrative blob, allowing you to go in any direction with no real guidance, whereas Morrowind was a series of narrative paths, which you might happily walk down at your own choosing.

Fast forward to Oblivion.  Oblivion was always going to be the next stage in Bethesda's attempt to allow one full control over a richly realized game space: it was going to be the next stage in Bethesda's attempt to negotiate the divide between dictatorial and emergent gameplay.  Oblivion again adopted Morrowind's 'series of different paths' design, though its detractors, those who maintain the ascendancy of Morrowind, decry it for featuring too much randomized content.  Sections of the game are randomly generated.  In an article discussing the process from Morrowind to Skyrim of realizing the world of Tamriel, Oblivion's development is characterized as a "mix" of randomized content and "hand-placed" content.  In the eyes of many, this muddied the experience of Oblivion: it felt less sincere, less like a realized world.

So, if Morrowind was a strict adherent to the "dictatorial" path, and Oblvion veered too far into randomized gameplay, putting the focus on emergent scenarios without providing a specific narrative thrust, what can the solution be?

The solution, in short, is Skyrim.

Skyrim, Howard boasts, has a world which is "all hand crafted."  It's all "put there" by the designers.  Nothing is incidental.  This, if not handled correctly, could make the player feel as though they are simply playing "on rails" put there by the designer.  Skyrim, however, does not fall into this trap, for more than a few reasons.

Firstly, the elements of the game which are being "dictated" to you are minimized.  The interface, for instance, once a sharp reminder that you are, in fact, playing a game, has been reduced to strict functionality, without trying to hide it under a veneer of fantasy flavour.  Where it does hide beneath that veneer, it tries to make the facade seem like a genuine part of the world you're in: when you examine your skills, you're not scrolling through a list in some pseudo-medieval journal written in vaguely medieval text, but you are looking to the stars, purportedly your stars.  The attempt here, and one I admire, is to reduce the act of "stepping out" of the game world in order to access menus and lists and so on as much as possible.  In Oblivion and Morrowind, the game menus are framed loosely as a "journal" that your character is keeping, but the metaphor is weak: it is obvious to anyone that you are engaging with an element of game design, rather than a fictional world.  Skyrim's menu system assumes that the player has the intelligence to make this jump, that they will not be fooled by a light coating of fantasy paint, and instead tries to remove as much of the obstacle as possible, so that the player spends less time disconnected from the game.

Secondly, the game seizes on Oblivion's greatest success, which was that it never curtails you into any one "path" without your choosing. This is reflected in one of the game's more controversial, but ultimately brilliant, choices: the complete removal of stats.  There is no Strength, Intelligence, or Luck any more.  There are only the three base values that all those superfluous stats fed into: Health, Magicka, and Stamina.  This is a particularly clever move, because it removes any sense that you have to play in a certain "way" in order to maximize your character's effectiveness for a chosen build, which will then cause you to be more proficient in specific questlines.  In Skyrim, you can play freely, knowing that your strength stat will never fall below the curve, or you don't have to intentionally level up endurance skills in order to boost health, and so on.  Furthermore, the removal of a class system first takes away the problematic levelling issues encountered in earlier games, and secondly allows you a little breathing space as you play the game, allowing you to discover how you want to play.  Any superfluous dictatorial elements have been eliminated.

Meanwhile, those dictatorial elements which are desirable have been ramped up to eleven, and then presented in such a way as to disguise their nature as something which the designers "want" you to experience.  There are an abundance of quests you can carry out, many of which with a minor narrative structure in which to frame your experience.  When one walks into an Inn, you might hear a bard playing; when you rent a room, the Innkeeper will order you to your room.  These circumstances were obviously put in "by hand," so to speak, but they don't feel restrictive, because their point isn't to take away your own sense of agency, but to encourage it.  The game's "Radiant Story" system is ingeniously effective, offering quests with specific content to you in unique ways, tailored to your own experiences.  Then, of course, there are the fights with dragons, some of the most spectacular moments in the game.  These fights are filled with excellent drama and excitement, but are also, in their sense, random, in that they can appear at any time: how you choose to fight the dragons is up to you.  The dragon fights, specifically designed, are presented in a random way, and behave in a random way, thus making your own encounters with the dragons unique, freeing up those experiences for those moments of emergent gameplay that we all strive for, without sacrificing narrative clout. The main questline, and guild questlines, are gripping, but they do not impose: they can be accessed at your leisure.

Of course, Skyrim does not succeed invariably: the odd bug might bring your experience crashing back down to Earth, as you realize you're playing a game, not actually sneaking through a cave or chatting with a local blacksmith.  But like no other game before it, in my mind, Skyrim succeeds in negotiating the compromise between giving the player choice, and simultaneously producing a product which has a genuine narrative structure.  Anyone who clings onto older games like Morrowind or Oblivion is, in my mind, missing the point of the series.  While the quest lines offered in these games are engaging and intriguing, they are not narrative masterpieces.  If one might prefer this or that member of an earlier game's assassin guild to this or that member in Skyrim's Dark Brotherhood, that's fine.  That dictatorial element in the earlier game, for whatever reason, just happened to appeal more to you, specifically.

However, what Skyrim does better than Oblivion, better than the sacrosanct Morrowind, and indeed, better than any other game I've ever played, is take those carefully crafted dictatorial, narrative elements, and then infuse them with spontaneity, and a feeling of true control in the hands of the player.  Skyrim is the next step in Bethesda's promise to let you play the game as you want, and it is by far their most successful one.

Originally, this piece was framed as a review, but it obviously became something else.  I don't like numerical grades, I don't like stars, and I don't like letter grades, so by way of appraisal, let me say only this: Skyrim is an extraordinary game.  It deserves your investment, both financially and ideologically, and will reward you if you do.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

And now for something completely different.

I mentioned I wrote an essay about Daenerys from A Game of Thrones to a friend of mine.  I think the title (which is probably the best thing in the essay) is what made her ask me to post it up.

Anyway, here it is, in its entirety.  For the record, this is completely unedited from when I submitted it to my prof, by which I mean completely unedited in the first place.

I see your penis and raise you three dragons: Development of an independent woman in George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones
            At a quick gloss, George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones might not seem like the most viable feminist text, as it focuses on a medieval nobility where power is firmly in the hands of men: men who rule, men who war, and men who quite often view wives as little more than a chance to forge alliances with one noble house and produce heirs (male heirs, almost exclusively).  However, things are not quite as simple as all that: Martin features characters such as Cersei Lannister, a plotting, intelligent woman who is frustrated with and rebellious against her subservience to men, or Arya Stark, a young girl who purposefully rebukes the expectations of a Lord’s daughter.  Even more interestingly, however, Martin focuses on the young Daenerys Targaryen, whose story occurs almost entirely separately from the greater majority of the novel’s narrative.  Daenerys begins the story as a girl who is utterly at the mercy of her half-mad and viciously cruel brother, Viserys, who threatens her with both physical and psychological torment, whilst wedding her to a tribal warlord in order to garner power for himself.  It follows that initially Daenerys, a girl who is utterly powerless, utterly disenfranchised, is defined almost exclusively by way of her sex, and her biology.  However, Martin plots an interesting course for the young, deposed heir to Westoros, which sees her moving away from such a subservient existence and towards a position of power, respect, and one where she blurs lines of gender and authority.  Her development as a character, then, can be viewed as mirroring the development of feminist ideals, particularly those of critics such as Judith Butler or Adrienne Rich.  Daenerys’ initial oppression almost exactly characterizes some of the issues which are at the heart of second- and third-wave feminism; she is a member of an inferior “second sex” which can be controlled and subjugated by way of men’s “…ability to deny women sexuality or to force it upon them; to command or exploit their labor or to control their produce … to confine them physically and prevent their movement; to use them as objects in male transactions; [and] to cramp their creativeness…”, as explicated in Kathleen Gough’s “The Origin of Family” (58).  Daenerys is situated firmly as a young girl who is being defined by her “…biological role as [a] childbearer,” and in the early chapters this definition frightens and subjugates her (Stanley, Wise 93).  It is, however, plainly presented as something wrong, and her path continuing into the novel generally leads her towards growing independence, appropriation of typical male power, and an embracement of the feminist ideal of a woman who is not dependent upon men, nor harmful to her fellow women.  The ultimate arrival of the narrative is not, of course, perfect, and some issues persist, but on the whole Daenerys’ growth models both the difficulties which feminism highlights, and the solutions it hopes to approach.
            To understand the growth of Daenerys, of course, it is key to take note of just how her character begins, and to further address the specific concerns that her situation highlights.  When she is introduced to the reader, quite literally the first thing she does is to obey an order given to her by her brother, Viserys.  He holds up a dress, and commands her to touch it, which she obediently does.  In other words, Viserys presents a symbol of femininity, and then orders Daenerys to identify with it.  It is absolutely imperative, however, to note that she does not identify with the dress: while she describes the fabric as being softer than anything she could remember, a trait one might normally associate with beauty and attraction, the dress in fact “frighten[s] her” (Martin 28).  Her acceptance of her brother’s tyranny establishes what will be a prominent trend in the earlier chapters of the book: her femininity is forced on to her by a male in a superior position, which terrifies her but is unchallenged, since she has no possible recourse.  Shortly thereafter, he commands her to straighten her posture so that Daenery’s prospective husband will “…see that [she has] a woman’s shape now,” before pinching her nipples and threatening that disobedience will “wake the dragon”, i.e. cause him to rage against her (Martin 29). 
Viserys’ abuse of his sister speaks directly to some of Adrienne Rich’s observations (which were prompted by Gough’s “The Origin of Family”) that men can domineer women by assembling “…a pervasive cluster of forces, ranging from physical brutality to control of consciousness, which suggests that an enormous potential counterforce is having to be restrained” (Rich 1596).  Indeed, much of the early chapters of Daenerys’ arc are focused on that “cluster of forces” which domineer her, not the least of which is the institution of marriage.  In her essay “Who Has the Power? The Martial Struggle”, Dair L. Gillespie examines marriage as a relationship which, while presented as natural and wholesome, enabled men to be the wife’s “…superior, her companion, her master” (65).  However, Daenerys does not look forward to her wedding day with jovial optimism, and does not view it as the natural, happy course for her life to take: she is terrified of her marriage to the towering Khal Drogo, and of the restraint and control she imagines will be inflicted upon her.  What Daenerys fears is the control that men can exert, as described by Rich, Gough, and Gillespie, and a societal structure that will enable her husband to dictate her entire being.  Here Martin is basically informing the reader, by way of Daenerys’ terror and subjugation that such a marriage structure is wrong, and is slipping past societal constructions of marriage as natural by attaching the anxieties Daenerys feels to the grandiose spectacle of his imagined Dothraki culture.  It is only when Daenerys begins to realize that her husband does not intend to subjugate and control her that her fear fades, and it is only then that the reader may view her marriage to Drogo as healthy and productive.
The first moment when Daenerys’ fear subsides occurs when she is given a horse, and is allowed to ride it to Drogo’s pavilion: her fear fades as she rides it, as she becomes increasingly aware that she has control over the horse, that the horse responds to “the slightest pressure with her legs, the lightest touch on the reins”, and that when she moves, the “Dothraki scramble to clear a path [for her]” (106).  In one of the most brilliant lines in the book, Martin writes: “The silver horse leapt the flames as if she had wings” (106).  Precisely who the “she” signifies is left intentionally unclear: Martin is implying that the horse, as a symbol of movement and freedom, has transferred its properties to her, and that she is approaching a sort of freedom even as she advances toward a perceived imprisonment in marriage.  Had Martin then drawn a Drogo who reverted back to the dominance of his wife, this fleeting image of freedom would vanish: however, when Drogo approaches Daenerys for the first time and she weeps, he rubs away her tears, and tells her “no,” which is revealed to be the only word of Daenerys’ language that he speaks (Martin 107).  As they proceed through the consummation of their marriage, Drogo does not absolutely heed Daenerys’ hesitation, but he does proceed “gently but firmly”, revealing a “strangely tender” nature that is comforting to Daenerys (108).  Initially, he only touches and stimulates Daenerys, but when the moment comes for Drogo to actually penetrate her, he says “No?” and “[Daenerys knows] it [is] a question” (108).  This is hugely important, because Drogo is essentially giving Daenerys a sense of agency that she has not had until this moment; however, it is still sustained within the marriage contract, which if we follow the track of writers such as Gillespie is inherently designed to make the husband the superior figure even in a marriage wherein “…the husband recognizes more willingly the independence of his wife’s demands” (Gillespie 65).  Gillespie warns that even a marriage which seems egalitarian can often favour the husband in terms of division of power, due to factors such as legal precedent (which, in A Game of Thrones, materializes as Drogo’s leadership of the Dothraki people granting him generally uncontested authority) (Gillespie 71).  While this does complicate the progression of Daenerys’ character, the later sections of Daenerys’ story feature an event which drastically alters her situation, and opens up interesting possibilities: her husband dies, quite unexpectedly.
By removing Daenerys’ husband—albeit by way of the somewhat questionable method of his death—Martin opens up a new avenue through which Daenerys’ story may proceed.  Immediately following the death of Drogo, his tribe—called a khalasar—splinters into disparate factions, most of which ride off, following former high-ranking members of Drogo’s khalasar, leaving the sick, the young, and the elderly who have no leader, save for Daenerys (758).  Furthermore, Daenerys desperately tries to restore her husband to life—only to have him return as a lifeless husk that is really no more than a sort of zombie (759).  A great deal can be said about this, but I only want to take away that her attempt to return to the family structure fails, and such an attempt is rewarded amply with hardship and suffering, gesturing to a movement away from the traditional construction of the family.  In his removal of the husband figure, Martin allows Daenerys to begin deconstructing the norms which have for so long defined the Dothraki culture she has been immersed in: to further interpret this, we can turn to Judith Butler’s conception of gender as a performative concept.  In Gender Trouble, Butler discusses gender as being not “expressive but performative”, as “created through sustained social performances”, from which it follows that “…the very notions of an essential sex and a true of abiding masculinity or femininity” are essentially constructs designed to reinforce traditional values associated with the sexes (2553).  She further elaborates that stepping outside such norms would open up “…performative possibilities for proliferating gender configurations outside the restricting frames of masculinist domination and compulsory heterosexuality” (2553).
Framing Daenerys’ story—after her husband’s death—with Butler’s theory of performative gender, we can begin to view how Martin is playing with gender expectations, and positions of power for women.  After decisively concluding that her husband cannot be truly brought back to life, Daenerys decides to sacrifice his body, alongside the woman who betrayed her.  As she prepares to burn her husband and the sage woman, she dons “…a vest like Drogo’s”, and assumes a position of power similar to Drogo’s, by offering gifts to her husband’s “bloodriders” (loyal followers and bodyguards), which are initially refused by two of the three men, who say “Only a man can lead a khalasar or name a ko”, and “It would shame me, to be bloodrider to a woman” (802, 800).  However, Daenerys is not deterred by the refusal of the men, displaying a lack of concern for their disapproval of her appropriation of male gender roles.  Even as she does take on these male aspects, she does not utterly eschew her identity as a wife, daughter, mother, or woman in general: references are made to her “milk-heavy breasts”, and she thinks of herself as the “daughter of dragons, bride of dragons, mother of dragons” (806).  As she maintains all of these identities—still while incorporating the aspects of her husband’s power through clothing and custom—she commands absolute power, even where she is greeted by hesitancy and reluctance to obey.  When she is questioned by a knight, Jorah Mormont, she plainly orders him to “Do as I say,” and does not accept any further questioning.  Finally, she places three dragon eggs—originally given to her as little more than decoration—onto her funeral pyre, hatching them by walking into the flames as her husband and the woman who betrayed her die.  By turning an object typically associated with femininity—jewellery—into both children and weapons she embraces her identity as a woman, but asserts herself as one who will have power and agency.  Furthermore, her hybridization of male and female identity is shown to be more potent than typical manifestations of gender might be: Daenerys’ Dothraki followers, after seeing her hatch her dragon’s eggs, become “hers now, today and tomorrow and forever, hers as they had never been Drogo’s” (806).
At the outset of A Game of Thrones, Daenerys Targaryen is presented as an utterly subservient victim of patriarchal male dominance, subjected to near-constant torture by her vicious elder brother.  The next scenes in the novel seem to be leading to an almost nightmarish manifestation of female oppression, as Daenerys is betrothed to be wed to a domineering warlord of a foreign, tribal society.  Daenerys’ oppression almost perfectly embodies the trends identified by Gough and Rich, of women being subjugated by men through the “…ability to deny women sexuality or to force it upon them; to command or exploit their labor or to control their produce … to confine them physically and prevent their movement; to use them as objects in male transactions; [and] to cramp their creativeness…” (Gough 58).  Interestingly, however, the arranged marriage which Daenerys is forced into is not undesirable, and her husband proves to be deceptively tender and understanding.  However, one must not forget that it was an arranged marriage, and that the structure inherent to it puts Daenerys in the subordinate position, as Dair Gillespie notes in “Who Has the Power?  The Marital Struggle.”  Martin takes the somewhat radical approach of having Drogo die, leaving Daenerys to take on his responsibilities as leader of the remaining Dothraki, simultaneously combining aspects of the male gender with those normally associated with the female, evoking Judith Butler’s theory of performative gender.  Notably, the conclusion of Daenerys’ arc in A Game of Thrones does not subscribe absolutely to any one of the feminist theories discussed, and offers no easy answers regarding the problem of women’s power and issues of gender.  Daenerys serves as an embodiment of the struggle for women’s rights, and the difficulties involved in trying to successfully navigate away from the dominance of patriarchal society.

Works Cited
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. Leitch 2540-2553.
Freeman, Jo, ed. Women: A Feminist Perspective. Palo Alto: Mayfield, 1975.
Gillespie, Dair L. “Who Has the Power? The Marital Struggle.” Freeman 64-87.
Gough, Kathleen. “The Origin of the Family.” Freeman 43-63.
Leitch, Vincent B., ed. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd Edition. New
     York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010.
Martin, George. A Game of Thrones. New York: Bantam Dell, 1996.
Rich, Adrienne. Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence. Leitch 1591-1609.
Stanley, Liz, and Sue Wise, eds. Breaking Out Again: Feminist Ontology and
     Epistemology. New Edition. New York: Routledge, 1993.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Game of Thrones, a review


Monday, June 13, 2011


I know I said I wasn't doing a Game of Thrones bit.  But honestly I haven't posted anything in ages (my bad) and I sort of knew I'd have to when the time came around .....

Okay, first, stop.  STOP.  STOP.  No seriously.




I hope you're not reading if you haven't seen the episode/read the book.  You shouldn't be.  This will ruin a big Something that you don't want ruined.  Okay?


When I was telling my friends about this show, particularly those who hadn't finished the books or even started them, I was generally quiet but said something to the effect of "Just don't think you've seen it all yet.  There are surprises."  The big moment that I'm going to start discussing in t-minus one paragraph is certainly one of the most gripping in the first novel (second-most, for me, but since my favourite scene doesn't get shown until next week, I'll not say more), and since it's so wrapped up in the developing narrative there was no way they could've ducked away from this gamble without losing all of their cred', yo.

Assuming we're ready: killing off Ned was, in my mind, one of the things that set ASoIaF apart, and I'm desperately glad that they kept it in.  For starters, it lets the reader know that this is not your Lord of the Rings any more (though if anyone still harboured such a belief, seriously, have you been watching?).  Sure, Boromir dies in LotR, but you knew Aragorn wasn't going to.  Hell, you also kind of knew Gandalf was coming back.  Game of Thrones essentially takes anyone who doesn't take fantasy seriously and slaps them on the side of the head.  These aren't goofy stories about a wizard and some short guys and a funny elf and dwarf.  If an elf showed up anywhere in Westoros he'd get his head chopped off.

I'm going to pull back a bit and not talk about the show itself--because the web is full of those discussions--but instead redirect a bit to why this moment was so important to me, especially in the broader sense, for its implications towards a fantasy narrative that's less obsessed with its own trappings and more about a damn good story that, hey, has knights and castles and shit because those things are cool.

I'm fond of saying that a really great way for a fantasy book to look like a hackneyed, low-brow doorstop is to include something in its title taken directly from its own universe; an example would be Eragon, though there are countless others.  The reason I dislike this is because out of the gate, the book is not telling you that it is focused on elements of story, but rather that it has fantasy shit inside so come on and read why don't you?  A title reading The Drizz't of Angmarrez't means absolutely nothing no matter how neat the author thinks it sounds.  I know I'm sort of derailing here, but I do have a point to return to: look at the title of Game of Thrones.  "Westoros" appears nowhere in the title.  Nor do any of the other fantasy trappings.  You hear that title, you know exactly what the show's about.

Returning to what I was talking about, this moment really puts forth that Game of Thrones gives not one fuck that you expect a fantasy story to have an elf and a bit with a wizard in it.  It is telling a story, it is engaging with lots of interesting stuff, and also is written within a fictional world.  To me, that's what separates GRRM's work, and it's a trend I've gleefully noticed is starting to become more and more adopted.  To diverge again, think of a really great thriller.  Is it great because it has all the thriller stuff (crime, sophisticated bad guy, etc.)? No, that just makes it a thriller by definition.  What makes anything great is the actual meat of the thing, not the trimmings.

What I'm saying here is Game of Thrones is rib-eye.  Now I want steak....

How that all translates onto a TV show is somewhat questionable.  I hope audiences don't flee, because there's much more to come (including death, lots of that), and I'd hate to see the series come to a stop at season two.  After the surprisingly strong response to Lady's death (curious how no one gave a damn about the butcher's boy), I wonder if people will be able to stomach Ned's sudden decrease in stature.  Guess only time can tell.

There's a lot of other stuff to talk about in the episode, of course, but I don't have anything particularly interesting to say about it right now, since this is really a seat-of-my-pants sort of thing.

'Till next time.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

My Bad. Also: Cthulhu Saves the World Review!

Okay, I neglected my blog again.  I'm very sorry, and feel appropriately ashamed.  Bad me.  Bad me, indeed.

That said, there's only so much self-deprecating humour I can summon at any one point in time, so let's plow ahead with that promised Cthulhu Saves the World review.

First, a basic summary.  Cthulhu Saves the World, available via Xbox Live's downloadable games interface (under the "Indie games" category), posits itself as a throwback to and parody of the classic 8/16/however-many-bit RPG games of the SNES era.  The player assumes the role of Lovecraft's Cthulhu, who, having lost his powers, must become a true hero to reclaim them.

You can probably guess from that summary that the game is funny.  What you mightn't guess at first, though, is that the game's sense of humour is upbeat, quick, and more clever than you usually get from something so deliberately wacky.  Cthulhu Saves the World happily plays around with its source material, though its parody of its Lovecraftian roots is much more effective than when it pokes fun at RPG conventions.  The former is executed with a clever wink towards the source material, while the latter is really more of the same jokes we've all heard years ago (HAHA LOOK A PATH HAS OPENED UP WHAT A COINCIDENCE and so on).

What makes Cthulhu successful, however, isn't so much that it's good at making fun of its sources, but that it is made exceptionally well, and intimately knows and loves those sources.  Visually, Cthulhu is impressive.  Its intentionally retro-graphics are fresh, easy to look at, and the backdrops are frequently quite attractive.  The sound design is similarly effective, working both as a throwback and as an attractive soundtrack.  The characters are (mostly) likeable and enjoyable, and as a functional RPG Cthulhu is actually quite good.  It has a pretty traditional RPG setup (characters have HP, MP, learn skills and/or magic, and so on), and comes with a few interesting twists.

When each character levels up, you get to pick one of two upgrades, usually offering an interesting choice, and there's an Insanity mechanic that functions quite well.  I won't go into the details of it here, but it adds a dynamic to the gameplay that helps to separate it from verbatim RPG action.  The game also restores your health fully after each battle (taking a note from FFXIII), which allows monster battles to be a little more than "mash A to attack".  Later in the game, though, once you've levelled up enough, that level of difficulty fades and random battles do degrade into button-mashers.  While the bosses tend to run into one another, they're usually a nice break from the action, and there's even one or two hidden dungeons.  I don't claim to have found them all.

The game lasts about 6 hours or so, which is just about the amount of time you'd want to commit to it for one sit-through.  For only 240 MS Points (roughly 3 bucks), it's a steal, and Zeboyd games is going to be updating the game soon (for free) with a new mode and a few other additions; check out their site for details.  As a game, it's not perfect, but it is perfect for its price.  If you're a fan of RPGs, this one is definitely worth your time, and your money.  Absolutely recommended.

I don't like numerical scores, as a rule, but if I must give one: 8/10

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Time to blow the dust off this sucker

Well, it's been a while....

Mostly, you can attribute the downturn in blog-posting activity due to the pile-up of schoolwork. Essays, final exams, etc. I wanted to do one of those blogs where I record my scattered thoughts while writing an essay, but the one time I did it my thoughts turned out to be disappointingly coherent. I blame the lack of children's cartoons.

A deficiency which will probably persist, since my general to-do list for the summer more or less looks like an HBO Greatest Hits series. Mostly, I want to watch The Wire, since anyone who's so much as seen half an episode has informed me that it's really, really good. Liking really, really good things as I do, I figured it was worth a shot. Also I might try and finish the Sopranos (I never did finish the series) and maybe Deadwood.

More to the point: Game of Thrones! I haven't been this excited about a new tv series since ... well, I can't actually think of a series that has excited me this much, ever. However, I pretty seldom watch TV series (this summer looking to be the exception), so I'll refrain from trying to post any comments on it since I don't really feel well-versed enough in the subject matter to talk about it. Chris Lockett's blog will, I'm betting, provide a pretty cool breakdown of the series: An Ontarian in Newfoundland.

Which brings me back to the whole point that I started writing this, if there was one to begin with. Over the past few months I've genuinely enjoyed this thing. It's provided a fun opportunity for me to smack my digits on my keyboard to produce something hopefully resembling an occasionally funny post, or at least one that's reasonably interesting. But insofar as now there's never really been a general direction for the thing. As I speak, I have reviewed, for example, exactly one videogame, talked about fantasy a bunch, mused a little on my life for no reason other than that it amused me a bit, and have posted more than a few bite-sized funny things (my favorite being this one).

This peregrine nonsense stops now, I say!

(Okay, to step aside for a second: peregrinate is a word which means, apparently, to travel or wander about, typically from place to place. Peregrine is the adjective, which can also delineate being outlandish, strange, imported from abroad, or extraneous to the bulk of what's being said, which makes this aside peregrine. How cool is that? I choose to believe it's tied in with peregrine falcons, though I have absolutely no proof to the positive on that.)

Uh, yeah. I like words. Anyhow, I'm not exactly about to "streamline" or "revolutionize" or similarly "bullshitinate" this blog, but I'm hoping to find a sort of general thrust for it, or at least a feature which I can return to semi-regularly.

That in mind, the one area which I do feel pretty sufficiently versed in to comment on regularly is videogames. I mean, I've been playing them most of my life, and I've played more than a couple. But the reason I don't often have any inclination to look at really popular games is that, honestly, most of them bore me, or if I do enjoy them, they're not stimulating enough to make me want to write on them (exceptions: Bioshock, Final Fantasy, Tales of Vesperia, Minecraft, which I suppose is sort of Indie, and anything Bioware makes). However, for the past few days, I've been on an Indie game binge, using the Xbox's pretty well-engineered Indie platform. I've been going through the big ones, if such a thing can exist in what is pretty generally a marginal category, and I've been enjoying myself. So I figure I might make it a bit of a project to start reviewing the Indie games on the XBL Arcade, separating the chaff from the wheat. The upshot of this is that, honestly, playing these things will cost me somewhere in the region of 80-240 MS points per purchase, so it's something I can do without bankrupting myself or limiting to myself to only games that I'd want to buy, anyway.

Right now I'm playing Cthulhu Saves the World, so hopefully I'll be able to post some thoughts about it when I'm done (which should be soon; the game's addictive as all hell and finals are nearly over).

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Am I the only one who always found this amusing?

"Write a well-developed/well-written/well-illustrated/well-something'd essay about..."

It almost suggests that otherwise the student might set out to write a terrible essay. I mean, sure, sometimes they don't give a darn, but I don't think anyone actually thinks to themselves "Well-developed? Screw that! I'm going to write a rambling diatribe on Marlowe from the point of view of a beaver."


That would actually be hilarious.