The One Lovely Blog Award

There was supposed to be a blog post here.  A long one.  I’ve been working in my spare time on one for a while.  This is one that I’m putting a lot into.  Working a lot of thought and research into it, meaning it’s probably going to be one of those posts that so tailored to my own mental processes that not many others are going to agree with or be interested in the content, but it’s fun to put those out every once in a while, and what’s blogging if you’re not selfish every once in a while?

In any case, I had planned to put this post here, today, figured that I’d have the time to finish it up over the weekend.  Unfortunately, life, as it often does, said no.  Between work, chores, homework, and social obligations, I’ve not had the time I wanted to to work on that post.  Looking at the post, I’m not anywhere near finished.  So, we were going to be looking at one of those sad, sad times where it takes me a while to get a post out, and everyone’s hearts feels smaller in the interim.

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Then, I remembered that a fortnight ago, the lovely Athena at the lovely blog Ambigaming had nominated us here at Lost to the Aether for the One Lovely Blog Award.  I’ve been a little hesitant to follow up on that, what with the fact that this is one of those viral social things and I’m just not very social conflicting with the fact that I think I am totally awesome and love talking about myself.  These two opposed mentalities created a stalemate until… well, until I needed some quick content and this provided a good framework.  You should go over to Athena’s blog and thank her for that.  While you’re at it, check out some of her posts, too.  I mean, if you’ve been following me this far, you probably enjoy overthinking video games, and she does that really well!  Especially if you’re interested at all at how brain science works with video games.

And yeah, some of you who’ve been with us for a while may be wondering how I might have anything more to say about myself after I’ve already been Double Liebstered and a Versatile Blogger.  Oh, how much you underestimate me.  I am as complicated as I am mysterious.  Besides, the OLBA on requires me to state seven things about myself.  Seven!  I could do that all day.

Let’s go!

  1. I was a giant Nintendo fanboy for the longest time.  Yeah, the bad, argumentative type.  I don’t know what to say, there was something wrong with me.  That had lasted until I was given a PS2 back in 2007 and got to expand my gaming horizons.  Even now, I’ve owned at least one version of every console and handheld Nintendo’s put out, aside from the Virtual Boy.
  2. I stopped acknowledging my birthday years ago.  This way, I never age, and shall remain eternally youthful.
  3. I haven’t really written into it here, but as you may have guessed from my ill-fated and poorly suited to the internet-format attempt to create a graphic novel, I really like graphic novels.  Or comics, or manga, or whatever you want to call them.  I read more of those than I do traditional literature.
  4. My father was a huge gun nerd.  I have never cared about guns, but I was able to, check the safety, securely unload, and strip a gun at the age of five, thanks to him.
  5. It seems that most of my interests have pulled a complete 180 from where I was as a teenager.  As a youngling, I was never very interested in dancing, dating, sports, clothes, and a whole bunch of other stuff that I’ve really grown into and now I kick myself for wasting all those times and opportunities in my teenage years.
  6. My hair is my best physical feature.  I’m like Samson, and that’s where my power comes from, except my power is to make people weak in the knees and keep them from thinking of anything else.
  7. I’m not a fitness freak or anything, but I’ve gotten really into calisthenics in the past few years.  I can’t even say why that specifically, but those bodyweight exercises just feel so satisfying to me.

So… there.  That’s me.  And wasn’t that fun?  We’ll see you all again, once I get caught up with life!

The Tabletop Critique-Cards Against Humanity

I’m just going to guess you’ve heard about Cards Against Humanity by now. Because, really, chances are. It’s gotten a little bit of attention. On the interwebz. I hear some people like it.

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Right, so, if you don’t know about Cards Against Humanity, it’s basically Apples to Apples, except it’s intended to be played the way everyone really played Apples to Apples. The game is played by someone throwing out a statement card. Everyone else plays the cards in their hands that finish up the statement in the most humorous or awful way. Whoever gets the biggest laugh wins, then it all starts over again.

Also, the cards, they tend to be a little… brusque. Dirty jokes and black comedy. That’s part of the charm. Don’t play this game with your mom.

So yeah, game’s simple to play, so there’s not much analysis of the mechanics here. Let’s get down to the judgment here. Is the game good? In the right circumstances, it’s a great time. You have to enjoy this type of humor to have a good time with it, but if you do, yeah, it’s good. It’s pretty dependent on having a good-humored crew playing with you. Larger groups do seem to make it more fun, but the big key is that they have a sense of humor that aligns with yours. I played with a group that did, and had a great time. Played with a group I didn’t know so well, whose humor was more about alluding to baby murder as quickly as possible, and it was a lot more hit or miss. I played it drunk in a party, and it was like I found a new reason for living. I played with my mom, and we ended up having a long conversation about Jesus and my eternal soul.

Blazes, this is the quickest post I’ve written in a long while.

Oxenfree: A Case Study of Theming

Themes in fiction. They’re one of those things that are easy for the authors to work in, easy for the readers to detect, and they make everyone feel smarter for their inclusion. Themes are great. Just latch onto one idea, bring it up in your story a few times in a few different ways, and bam, you have an easy way of making your story go just a bit below the surface level.

Ok, so maybe it’s a little more complicated than that, but not by all that much! Given that themes are all in the eye of the reader, it can be easy to just work some themes in there accidentally. Hell, I’d been finding themes in the Saints Row series, and you know, if they had the sort of creative minds to be deliberately carrying a solid idea through than maybe they’d be able to write an ending that doesn’t suck without overriding it the next game. Moreover, themes are fun! Try finding some consistent ideas in the next story you go through, and see for yourself!

Oftentimes you see a theme, at least one implemented deliberately, the work will have something to say about it. Not always. And really, the works that don’t impose anything on their themes aren’t necessarily any worse than those that do. But what you rarely see is a work that does make a conclusion about its theme, and fits it into the greater work, but that conclusion comes entirely from the consumer. That’s a way of handling a theme that is largely unique to videogames, and even then, it’s something you’ll see rather rarely. So when Oxenfree freakin’ rocked it, I felt compelled to take a moment to recognize it.

Now, you might notice Oxenfree was released relatively recently. So I’m going to be talking about a modern game here. On Lost to the Aether. That never happens. It’s like Christmas and your birthday all put together. And we’ll be talking about some plot stuff. But I’ll do my best to keep it spoiler light. For the most part.

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So, Oxenfree has a theme of guilt and blame. It’s not like a major thing in the game, so don’t expect it to be hammering you over the head with it, but it’s a concept they return to every now and again, enough for it to gain some mental real estate. It does some minor exploring of the concept. Or rather, it guides you through it. Sometimes, stuff happens. Bad stuff. People are unwittingly involved in the bad stuff happening. Whose fault is it?

For example, in the beginning of the game, you meet your dead brother’s ex-girlfriend. She blames you for his death. You get no other information as to the circumstances. How do you react to that?

You track down your stepbrother investigating some creepy stuff. You find something strange, he wants to push it further. You end up unknowingly doing a thing because of it that triggers the inciting incident. Who’s to blame there? You for actually doing it? Your stepbrother for putting you in that situation? Nobody, because seriously, who would expect that thing to be holding evil?

Even the backstory event that set things up happened because people were forced to act with insufficient information and there ended up being some grave consequences for it. Is it the executor’s fault for doing so? The person who held the limited information for putting it in the hands of those who had to act? Nobody’s, because everyone did the best they could with what they had? One background character spends her entire life blaming herself for it and trying to deal with it. Should she have done so?

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At every stage, the story poses the questions, then lets you put in the answer. What does the narrative have to say about this concept? Entirely up to you. And that alone ends up doing some interesting things with its treatment of the theme. It turns the story from your garden variety plot to something with elements of a thought experiment. It forces you to be more introspective about the plot, to reflect and conclude on happenings there. And that is a way of storytelling that is so uniquely videogames.

The Tabletop Critique-Magic the Gathering: Arena of the Planeswalkers

Despite my best intentions, Christmas happened again this year. Sorry about that. A man can only do his best, and although my best is considerable, it takes some time to efficiently bring Christmas to a close. Until then, I suppose we all have no choice but to suffer through it.

In the meantime, that means presents, from people. To me. They try their best. This year, me and mine seem to have gotten a lot of tabletop games. It’s been rather a year for that. A lesser man may simply play them, and leave it there, but I’m much more than that. Instead, I shall use this opportunity to enlighten the world! And you’re welcome.

Right. So with all my traditional self-absorbed pompousness out of the way, I got a lot of new tabletop games this holiday season. I’m going to review them. Sound good? Good.

The first game on the Tabletop Critique chopping block is this little number here.

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Magic: The Gathering holds a special place in my heart. I was super big into it as a cub. Well, as super big into it as you can get without actually owning any cards. See, I had those types of parents who thought that anything their children enjoyed was a tool of the devil, so, I had to rely on borrowing stuff from friends. Still, there was a time in my life where my thoughts were constantly on Magic. Beyond just the game itself, the stories, the world-building, and the lore had a really strong impact on me, kickstarting my imagination at a formative stage in my life in a way that little else did. It may be a little odd, but Magic was where I first started playing with storytelling, using the cards as setpieces to craft my own tales to tell myself, which built into one of those good old lifelong passions.

Eventually, I did start picking up the card game itself, then lapsed out of it, and now generally only play on special occasions. I still do have a lot of fond memories for the flavor and the world, however.

Which I suppose is where Arena of the Planeswalkers comes in. It’s a competitive miniature-based tabletop game. I know absolutely nothing about Heroclix, so I feel completely comfortable assuming this game is exactly the same but with a different flavor and a major twist to the mechanics somewhere. Each player controls one planeswalker figure and a collection of critters associated with them, then uses this squad to attempt to conquer all the other players who are doing the same.

In keeping with the source material, you’ve got five colors to work with, each with their own planeswalker, creatures, and spells. Each comes with their own strategic focuses, strengths, and weaknesses, giving you the tools you need to craft your tactics in taking the other teams down. Combat takes place on a game board that can be set up a couple of different ways, with a few obstacles and terrain features to present risks and opportunities. Each creature and planeswalker has different stats and traits, each spell card affects the battle in different ways, you get the picture.

Arena of the Planeswalkers isn’t very flavorful, but mechanically, it does carry the Magic the Gathering feel about as well as you could expect when turning the card game into a board game. The mechanics of it are quite simplified, but the functions carry over into the new format quite well. Summoning creatures plays much the same role as in the card games, and well placed spells will twist the flow of the game in exactly the same way as they can in the card game. In terms of mechanical feel, the game has built it’s similarities with the CCG with unequivocal success. Continue reading

The Lady’s Signal Boost

Once upon a time, I introduced all y’all to The Lady’s Choice, a pay-what-you-want regency romance visual novel that’s actually pretty good, and I’m not just saying that because the developer is a good friend of mine and lurks on this blog and is probably watching me right exactly now!

Right.  In any case, you may recall from that last post that one of the three main romance options ended up without a route.  Pretty standard, getting cut for time, for what started as a NanoRemo game.

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Well, that’s been corrected.  And you know what?  Even if the lead in that route isn’t as hunky as my main man Lord Isaac “Drubmaster” Stanton, the route itself is good.  Really good.  Was my favorite one in the novel, in fact.

And it seems Seraphinite doesn’t quite understand the concept of DLC.  See, there’s no charge for this.  The game as a whole still goes under the voluntary payment structure, so pay what you want, or nothing at all.

So yeah, I’m shilling here.  But I honestly enjoyed the experience.  You might as well.  What do you say you give it a try?

Visual Novel Theatre- Phoenix Wright: Spirit of Justice

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Man, Phoenix Wright. Ace Attorney. You remember those games? I didn’t, apparently, because I completely missed this new release until Red Metal reminded me it existed. Luckily, that has since been rectified. And my life is better for it. Let’s use that to make your life better, too.

Phoenix Wright is one of those series that is completely beloved and adored by everyone, so of course Capcom is convinced it’s barely selling enough to keep itself afloat and has thus relegated it to digital only releases on the 3DS. Spirit of Justice is the newest release in the series. And you know what? Phoenix Wright has not stopped being good.

Oops, spoilers. Now you don’t even have to bother reading this post.

Spirit of Justice is the 6th (I think?) entry in the mainline Ace Attorney-verse. It’s also the second entry in the new era they started building after the conclusion of Apollo Justice. It follows directly off of Dual Destinies, with the status quo much like it was then. Ol’ Phoenix is back to practicing law, and actually has a respectable law firm/talent agency, composed of the Superstar titular lawboy himself, the Superloud Apollo Justice, the Superyoung Athena Cykes, and the Superpantied Trucy Wright, who’s not a lawyer at all but that doesn’t matter for the purposes of this discussion. It’s still a pretty decent timeskip after what most people think of as the Phoenix Wright setting, and much like last time, part of the fun is seeing what the old characters and old places are up to in this new era. You finally see Maya again. That was probably one of the big selling points. And it’s not even a spoiler to say that you need to bail her out of a murder charge. In fact, that’s just tradition, now.

Spirit of Justice continues on some of the story notes started in Apollo Justice and continued in Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright, in that the cases you’re facing now impact matters beyond just the life and death of your clients. In this case, you’re dealing with the stability of and rebellion against a quietly oppressive regime in a foreign country.

Continue reading

Peril of the Producer

A lot of creative types tend to give producers a bad rap. The suits. The MBAs. The squares. Those guys who take their SACRED and HOLY capital A Art and turn it into something profane in pursuit of that almighty dollar. Those who ruin everything that was good about the original creation. Those who cause all the bad things you ever hear about that one thing you like.

But no. In truth, producers, good producers, are usually very valuable to the creation. They may not be popular. People who impact the artistic vision of the creative types aren’t usually very welcome around the bullpen.

A producer’s job is to make sure the creative work is profitable. This means making sure it’s… you know… good. Also means making sure it’s going to be palatable to enough of an audience to support its cost plus margin. Sometimes, it means changing the vision of the creative folks heading the production. Sometimes it means making sure they have the free rein and the resources to thrive. Usually, they’re in charge of cultivating the material from the beginning either selecting the base and giving it the resources to grow or coming up with the source idea itself and putting the right people in place to build that seed up. Producers can be known by different terms in different mediums. Editors are more common for written form. But yeah, these are the people in charge of making sure this thing makes money.

A good producer can make the product. A bad producer ruins it. When a producer does their job well, you will rarely ever know what they did in the final product. When a producer doesn’t, well, that’s where we get all these stories from.

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Just look at Silicon Knights. When they had a good, strong, producer, they made magic. Much has been made of the quality of their work when they were a second-party developer under Nintendo. Let free of that arrangement, their work just fell apart. An article (admittedly, published by Kotaku, so, you know keep that garbage can handy) published a few years back sees an anonymous former Silicon Knights employee credit Nintendo’s very involved producing with the reason for the high quality behind those releases.

Likewise, you know all those Kickstarter games by proven developers that seem to keep crapping the bed. Most of their problems seem to stem from things a quality producer would help them avoid. Not to say that the creative types, people involved in the development, can’t be good producers in their own right. There’re plenty who can manage both the creative and the business needs of their projects. Most of the indie successes out there can attest to that.

But, at the same time, it takes a lot to be a good producer. You need good strong knowledge of the creative process, a great awareness of your team and what they’re capable of, and you need to be able to fit everything in with an ultimate vision for the project. Without all of those, it is really, really easy for a producer to have some strong adverse impacts on the project.

Much has been made of Shigeru Miyamoto’s ability to upend the table on any project Nintendo’s working on. If he sees you doing something, and he decides you need to change, you’re changing. Miyamoto’s also got a very distinct taste in what makes a good game. That’s one of the reasons Nintendo puts out games with a very unique flavor. Overall, it seems to have been a positive arrangement for Nintendo, overall.

But if you’re going to be changing the creative vision of something, you have to be choosing the right time to do it, and make sure the team has the time and resources to follow through and implement that new vision totally. Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures seems to be lacking for that. The game was originally designed as a direct prequel to A Link to the Past. In its original form, it told the tale of the war that led Ganon to the situation he was in in the middle of the SNES game.

Miyamoto wasn’t into that. He’s never been big on continuity and storytelling in games, and didn’t like the connections this game had with A Link to the Past. So he made sure the Links between the two were removed. In the end, Four Swords Adventures ended up in a completely different branch of the timeline than A Link to the Past.

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I don’t know when in the development cycle the change was made. But it was obvious it wasn’t near early enough, and once the change was made, the team didn’t have what they needed to implement it completely. In spite of having no story ties to a Link to the Past, Four Swords Adventures is LTTP as all hell. The art style mimics that of the former game, much of the music comes directly from the earlier game, and the overall feel is very, very much that of “Link to the Past callback”.

To the point that the lack of story elements and the insistence of telling a different tale caused me a huge amount of cognitive dissonance. Now, I don’t demand a great, in depth story in my Zelda games. The games are what they are, and while they do have a story, it’s not the most important part of their experience. But when you have the story actively running counter to everything the tone and atmosphere and visuals are telling me, it makes it really hard to get involved in either. Because of this change, elements were in strong conflict with each other, and it made it a lot harder to get myself involved in it.

Maybe the decision did lead to a better game. Maybe the tale about the Sealing War in Link to the Past’s backstory just wasn’t very good, and is one of those things that are better left to the imagination. Maybe the change was necessary. But it wasn’t handled effectively, and that really comes down to the producer. The change completely altered the game’s vision, and at the time it came around, there either wasn’t enough time or enough resources to make the necessary changes to the sound, art, and atmosphere to see that through. If that decision just came at a better time, or with more of a mind to what the team had to work with, Four Swords Adventures may have been a much better game for it.