Notes from the Newbie GM

You come here for the video game content, right?  Too bad.  This isn’t a video games blog.  This is an Aether blog.  Usually I talk about video games, because that’s what’s fun to me.  But really, I talk about whatever the hell I want.

And today, whatever the hell I want is a different type of gaming.  Dungeons and Dragons.  Recently, I picked up the role of ongoing GM for the first time.  Building up a campaign, not just a few one shots.  And it turns out, GM’ing is hard.  Most of the group of players I have here are the same group I learned to play with, and they’re all much more experienced than I am.  Most of them are even more experienced GMs than I am.  As it turns out, GM’ing is hard.  And I think GM’ing for this group is even harder that it would be with a group of complete newbies.  These guys, they freakin’ see right through everything I’m doing.

In any case, I’ve got a handful of sessions under my belt, now.  It’s been an odd experience getting this far.  Here’s a handful of thoughts I’ve had on the process the way up here.

All the Resources are Worthless

Everything geared towards the “New GMs.”  All of it.  Absolutely unhelpful.  Even the things that you think might be helpful.  You would think the Dungeon’s Masters Guide would be essential.  That’s what teaches you how to do the whole thing, right?  Nothing.  If it didn’t come with a list of magic items, it would not be worth anything.  Sure, it has a whole bunch of tables if you’re wanting to roll the dice and randomly generate your world, but just like how procedural generation leads to boring level designs in video games, would you ever expect that to lead to something engaging on the tabletop?  Anything else it has, if you’ve been a player, you already know.  You’ve seen it in action.  You’ve lived it.  And it’s easier to translate that experience than it is to try and pick something up from reading.

But that’s okay, we’ve got the whole wide interbutts at our fingertips, right?  Ehhhhhh…………..  No.  For whatever reason, I’ve yet to see a good newbie GM’s guide.  I’ve even yet to see some newbie GM tips that are helpful.  They’re all either floofy platitudes that don’t really give you anything, they’re concepts that are either over your head or too advanced to work in until you learn to manage your players, very specific things that would not work with the way that you or your players intend to have your fun, or they’re so obvious as to be pointless if you’ve ever been a player.  All of it.  Absolutely all of it.  Even the newbie guides I’ve seen from people who otherwise have intelligent things to say about D&D fit everything into one of those four categories.  And for Kord’s sake don’t go into any sort of online discussion on the subject.  For whatever reason, it seems that the only people heading to talk to others about it have absolutely no interest in actually listening to anyone else.  So many opinions going in all sorts of directions, and no way to figure out what’s good there.

So what do you do if you want to learn GM’ing?  Well, first, spend some time as a player.  You may have noticed that was a common theme of what I had above.  It will do a lot for you if you’re wanting to build worlds of your own to spend time in other’s.  It will teach you things.  From my experience, it’s the best way to get at what you need to know.  Beyond that, just look up regular tips for GM’ing.  Go for the ones for more experienced GMs.  For whatever reason, when they’re talking to the newbies it makes people’s brains go all weird, but you can see some solid material that still gets you what you need to know if you look at what they say to some peers.  Thinking your way through that stuff will teach you a lot more than the weird stuff they’re flinging at the fresh GMs.

Your Players Will Follow Your Lead.  Easily.

From what I’ve been seeing from other GMs, it’s a common struggle to get players to follow on your plot strings.  To actually heed the call, pick things up, and go where you’ve got your material.  Either that pesky free will comes into play, or they completely miss all your intricately laid breadcrumbs, and it’s hard to get them to do anything without railroading.

I have not faced that at all.  Possibly, my experience may be different, because although I’m new, my players are outright D&D fanatics.  They throw around terminology that I don’t even know what it means years after playing.  They seem to have thoroughly explored every new piece of official content before it’s ever even released.  And as I said before, they’ve been seeing right through me.  Oftentimes, they’ve been moving in the direction of the quest before I’ve even laid it out for them.

I just need to hint “hey, there’s a thing there” and they’ll be making preparations for it.  Unless I’m unknowingly being railroady, they’re all actively reading into my intentions and making sure they’re playing along with it.  I’ve gone in some rather off the map directions, and they still keep on top of it.  I had a part where I had the guys basically taking over a town, allocating workers, distributing resources, working out policies, things like that.  I was expecting to actually have to explain this, to more mechanically prompt them into doing it, but no.

I didn’t feel like I even had to suggest it, they picked it up right away. That was a good feeling.

And it makes sense. The game’s not about having the GM against the players. Well, I mean, it kind of is, given that the GM controls the enemies in combat. But it’s not really. They’re working together. And yeah, railroading is no fun. But if players go outside of where the GM made the game, well, there’s really no game. They’d have to sit there while the GM just hammers something out on the fly, and it won’t be as well-thought as the stuff they put prep into. And they know that. So they’re not going to go marching to the east if the adventure is in the west, because that’s not fun for anybody.

That said, you do still have to know their character motivations. Had one player recently who decided that a villain marching through their town wasn’t worth getting out of bed for. Was totally in-character for him, but not super helpful. So sometimes you do have to make the call something that connects with them. In this case, I set his house on fire to get him to do something.

Take that sentence out of context.

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Eyes on Antihero

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So, in general terms, an antihero is a bad person who’s really a good person.  It turns out, an Antihero is also a video game.  Who knew?!

Me.  I knew.  Man, I rule.  And now you do too, because I’m telling you about it!

So, Antihero is a turn-based strategy game in which you run a thieves guild.  In said guild, you manage a team of units to help you yank, gank, and shank, all in the name of robbing the rich to give to… yourself.  You’re like half of Robin Hood, here.  To be honest, the ‘hero’ part of Antihero doesn’t really show up in the game.

Antihero is one of those games that’s simple in concept but really solid in execution.  It plays a lot like a board game, honestly.  Except it’s a video game.  It’s a video board game.  Yes.  You play in a semi-randomized section of one of the three types of Englands that show up in fiction (it’s the Sherlock Holmes-type, for reference) and they have you and a CPU or other player facing off against each other, racing to collect enough victory points to win the game before your opponent does.

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One of the things that I really like about Antihero is the way that your strategy has to evolve as you go along with the game.  Each game moves really quickly, and is over in about 15-20 minutes at most, yet there’s a really clear progression in strategy there.  In the early game, you might be able to make a really strong showing of it by denying your opponent access to resources and blocking them from scouting into your side of the board, while you snatch up and burglarize as much as you can.  If you just stick with that, though, you won’t be able to keep up as they start being able to move units through more territory and the places you’re stealing from run out of stuff to steal, so you’d better have built up a solid base of resource generation to keep you going by the mid-game.  And then in the end game, it becomes very difficult to keep units on the board but both sides should usually have enough to keep pumping more out, so it turns into a very aggressive war of attrition, and the guessing game of where to hit them hardest and where to place your own traps ends up ruling the day.

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There’s two major resources to secure; lanterns, which buy you upgrades, and coins, which buy you units.  Upgrades give you access to more units, improve on their capabilities, and boost your resource generation.  You’re not typically limited as far as how much you can get per turn, but every upgrade makes additional upgrades that turn more expenses, and buying units increases the price of other units of the same type.  Another layer of strategy there, sometimes you’re going to be best served by spending your wealth on a number of units, while other times you should spread them out between turns.

I particularly like the way units are designed to deal with the way strategies change throughout the course of the game.  To start with, you’ve got your master thief, who’s basically the queen of the chess board.  This guy/gal is the lynchpin of everything you’ve got going on.  They’re in charge of scouting, stabbing, and stealing.  One of the big strategic keys of the game is working out just when to upgrade their capabilities over the capabilities of the guild as a whole.  Your units can only operate in the locations you’ve scouted, burglarizing is your man source of resources in the early/mid game, and your attack capabilities without the master thief’s contributions has a strict application limit, so a lot of your momentum swings on how you use your master thief.  This unit gets the most upgrades, as well, and you’re able to increase the amount of moves you can make in a turn, the damage they do, the amount of coins you get activities, the types of places you can steal from, etc.  They’ll get progressively more powerful as the game goes on.  And, they retreat back to your hideout at the end of every turn, making it impossible for the opponent to attack them directly.

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Then you’ve got your urchins.  Urchins are pretty much the worker units of other strategy games.  Have them invade businesses, and they’ll get you benefits for it.  Usually that’ll be resources you get every turn, but sometimes it can be upgrades to your units, reduced costs, or even victory points.  They’ve usually only got one application, but it’s one that’s useful the whole game through.

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Your gangs are another one of your backbones.  These are the things that make people hurt.  Got some goons blocking your way?  Give them a good drubbing.  An assassination target?  Send the gangs after them.  They can kick urchins out of buildings, too, paving the way for you to take hold of it yourself.  You get to upgrade them every time they succeed at doing something, building up the damage they do, the amount of urchins they can remove at once, or the amount of money they make when they succeed at something.  These guys are kind of funny, so absolutely vital in the early game, but they end up dying by the droves in the late game, so it’s hard to build them up much then.  Even so, the ability to remove urchins from locations is vital to managing your opponent, and even when they can only do one before dying, it’s still the most cost-effective way of doing so.

Thugs can block off areas.  Neutral thugs will pop up randomly or around assassination targets over the course of the game, but if you want to keep your opponent from scouting out a certain area or reaching a certain resource, you can send a thug of your own to block it off.  They don’t have any offensive capabilities of their own, but you can make your opponent waste some moves in dealing with them, which is crazy effective in the early game.  As your opponent scouts more and more territory, their usefulness starts to wane, but you can always also add them to a gang to boost its health.

Saboteurs are one time use units that are pretty cheap.  They’re the only other unit other than the master thief that can scout, so if you need to extend your reach but the head honcho is busy, they can at least reveal some more street for your other units to prowl.  Their true utility, however, comes in the traps they lay.  Got a business where you just need to make sure your urchins are unmolested?  This guy can plant a bomb there.  It’ll last for a couple turns, and the first unit that tries to mess with that building will be stunned.  It makes the master thief lose all their remaining moves, and it leaves gangs and truant officers helpless in the streets, waiting to be picked off, all while your happy urchins are still there, unfettered.

And then you have truant officers and assassins.  Both one time use units, the best at what they do.  Both the most expensive units available.  Truant officers will roll up, and in the creepiest way possible, remove all the urchins from a building.  Assassins will strike for a whopping six damage, more than any other unit in the game and enough to slay almost anything except for the later assassination targets, before vanishing.  Both are only available by the time you reach the late game, and the economy on them isn’t great, as given enough time you could have a gang do the same work for much less cost, but smart use of them can really turn the tide for you.

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To win the game, you usually need to secure six victory points.  There’s a bunch of ways to do that, but there’s three that’s available on every map.  You can spend lanterns on bribing someone to get a victory point, although the cost of doing so increases each time you do.  You can fulfill contracts for assassination, taking out random targets with more health than you typically have available at that point, although again, the amount of health they have will increase every time one of them falls.  And you can fill a church with urchins, learning enough from confessions to secure blackmail, but this is the only type of victory point you can lose, so you’ll have to defend those urchins until the game is won.  Scenarios may also present you with other means of scoring victory points, such as by stealing a ship’s cargo, sneaking into a masquerade, or overcoming a palaces security and burglarizing its jewels.

The game has a campaign mode that’ll take you through all of these, as it tells the story of master thief Lightfinger as he ousts all the other thieves guilds from NOT LONDON and establishes his control over the city.  It also has an exhibition mode that I spent a fair bit of time in, and a multiplayer mode that might mean something to me if I ever played these things with anyone else.

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All in all, I want to call back to what I said earlier.  It’s a really simple concept with a very solid execution.  I had a lot of fun with it.  There’s not a whole lot of meat there, though.  The campaign mode will take you maybe 3 hours, and when you’re done with that, you’ve seen pretty much all the game has.  Short games don’t bother me at all, and it’s really good for a quick bit of fun, but if you’re expecting something with staying power, this is not it.  It is really satisfying to get a good strategy going, and although you will probably use the same basic model throughout, the different scenarios and actions of your enemies will require a fair bit of variation to that.  It’s good for my thinking cap, is what I’m saying.

Project G-Godzilla (1954)

We’re going to be doing things a little differently with this one than I’m planning on doing with all the rest.  There’s reasons for this, of course.  I never do things without reason.  Even if that reason is just ‘because I feel like it’.

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In this case however, frankly, the original Godzilla is a little bit different.  It’s incredibly different in tone from what the series would become, or even the rest of the genre it helped found.  Although it’s considered a Showa era film, it has continuity and repurcussions among all the rest of the Godzilla films of every era.  And really, this movie is a lot more serious, haunting, and downright reverent for its subject matter than what’s to come in this series.  So I’ll be treating this one different than the rest of what’s to come.  Usually, we’ll review in bulk, but here, Godzilla stands alone.  I’m planning on snarking up the place, but this film deserves more than that.  So let’s go.

Godzilla (1954)

Memorable Title: The OG Godzilla

Before we start proper, I should mention, I am horrible with names.  I’m especially horrible with names that aren’t in one of the languages I speak.  And I’m super horrible with names that only come up a few times over the course of my run with a film.  So, as will be common with these reviews, I’ll only call people by the names I remember.  If I don’t remember a name, I’m making one up.

Anyways, we’ll lead with a synopsis.  At least, as best I can remember, some time after watching the film and with a drink in hand now.  The film opens with a vaguely seen monster wrecking some boat near some island.  Another boat goes there to check it out, and the monster wrecks that too, leaving few survivors, including, if I’m remembering correctly, Some Guy.  Some Guy will be important later.  In any case, the monster proceeds to also wreck a fishing boat because it’s there, and it turns out that even when he’s not out wrecking boats, he’s still eating all the fish near an island.  This is important enough to get a film crew in the area to investigate.  They learn that the island used to sacrifice it’s nubile maidens to a sea monster named “Godzilla” in exchange for a good harvest of fish.  Godzilla decides to crush the island that night, reporters see, then everyone goes to Tokyo to ask them to do something about the giant monster breaking all the stuff.

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The government sends a mission to the island, consisting of, among others, Dr. Dinosaur, Some Guy, and for some reason the Dr.’s daughter, Daft Tart.  Seeing them off is Dr. Serizawa.  Dude’s a scientist and is really married to his job, but it’s an open relationship, so he’s also engaged to Daft Tart.  Daft Tart and Some Guy are schtupping on the fly, but Serizawa knows about it and is cool with it, because again, open relationship.  Anyways, the mission heads there, takes a look at some footprints.  Dr. Dinosaur notices some extinct creature living in the footprint, notices that it’s radioactive as all hell, and also notices that a bunch of kids have gotten a fatal dose of radiation in them.  The group continues exploring until they spot Godzilla in broad daylight, screaming at them from over a hill.  Dr. Dinosaur takes his knowledge back to Tokyo, presenting that Godzilla’s this still-living dinosaur who had been residing in an evolutionarily and biologically isolated underwater pocket until he was mutated by an errant H-bomb test.  This leads to a bit of furor as some insist that Godzilla’s existence should be hidden to prevent panic and protect Japan’s international relations, while others insist everyone has a right to know.  Either way, everyone agrees that the big giant thing that has killed tons of people should probably not be alive to kill a bunch of other people, except for Dr. Dinosaur who wants to keep the big guy alive so he can do science stuff on him.

Government sends a bunch of ships out to sea to go bomb Godzilla.  They fail to do any serious damage.  This will be a theme in future movies.  They do, however, manage to lead Godzilla back to Japan, where he destroys a train and some other stuff before heading back to the ocean.  Government gets with Dr. Dinosaur about what to do about Godzilla, who tells them that Godzilla is unkillable and also don’t shine lights at him.  Dr. Serizawa shows Daft Tart what he’s been working on, the Oxygen Destroyer, which…. destroys oxygen.  Good name, I guess.  Literally eliminates oxygen molecules from whatever it comes into contact with.  Serizawa is a WW2 vet, saw the impact of the atomic bombings, and is absolutely distraught that he’s created the world’s next great super-weapon.  He resolves to keep his discovery an absolute secret until he’s found a peaceful, truly helpful application to it, worried that if anyone else finds out about it, it’s just going to be used to kill.

 

Japan builds a giant electric fence around the country, thinking that it will stop Godzilla if he ever attacks.  Godzilla attacks.  It bothers him for a second, but then he unleashes something nobody ever expected, his atomic breath, to melt his way through it.  He then lays siege to Tokyo.

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Absolute siege.  I feel I can’t understate it enough.  By the modern day, we’ve seen Godzilla go on a rampage tons of times.  Even compared to that, the destruction he inflicts on Tokyo in this film is absolutely brutal.  And you see it all from the people affected by it.  Those fleeing.  Those hiding.  Those who can go no more, and know that they’re going die.  Moreover, the military is absolutely ineffective against him.  There is nothing they can do that is not futile.  Yet they keep trying, because they have to, and they die by the ton for it.  A big theme in this film is the consequences of the atomic bombing, and you see it heavily here.

The day after, every single place that can care for the injured is absolutely flooded with the wounded survivors.  Daft Tart sees this, and tells Some Guy about Dr. Serizawa’s new potential superweapon.  They confront Serizawa about it, expressing the need to kill Godzilla before he does this again.  Serizawa begins destroying his work at this, leading to a confrontation with Some Guy in which Some Guy gets bloodied, and Serizawa hates himself for the violence.  Then he watches TV, sees what’s going on, and agrees to turn his invention into a weapon, but still destroys all his work so it can never be replicated.

Even with the knowledge that the Oxygen Destroyer is going to wreck the local ecosystem, the government’s behind the plan.  Some Guy and Dr. Serizawa head out to sea, where the military has tracked Godzilla.  Contrary to his previous appearances, here, Godzilla is completely peaceful, and makes no move against the two.  Serizawa plants the Oxygen Destroyer, sends Some Guy back up, then severs his own ties to the ship and his oxygen line, taking the only surviving knowledge of how to create the Oxygen Destroyer with him and keeping it from being unleashed on the world.  The Oxygen Destroyer goes off, and strips Godzilla to the bone.  With Godzilla dead, and Serizawa with it, those above have a bittersweet moment, remembering the heroic scientist and the potentially tragic beast, while also realizing that, if the world keeps on the path it’s on, more Godzillas may well be created.

And let the credits roll.

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Godzilla could have just been another of the stupid fun monster bash movies that I’ve gotten so hooked on, exactly what the series became.  The original film, though, is far, far deeper than that.  You can’t enjoy this film the same way you enjoy the rest of the Godzilla movies.  Overall Godzilla fans may not enjoy this film, and fans of this film may not enjoy the rest of the franchise.  It’s very, very different.  In particular, it’s the themes of this film and the mindset of the people who made it that makes this special.  This is a film about war, about destruction, and about the atomic bomb created by the survivors and veterans of World War II who were witness to its most devastating events and lived through the aftermath.  This type of film could only have come from this creative team and at this time, and it offers a unique perspective into the mentality of the Japanese populace in the years they spent recovering from the end of World War II.

I don’t see any way around this.  Let’s set the scene here.  Pre-WW2, Japan was one of the most vicious, cruel, and inhumane nations on the planet.  World War 2 was the cap for them on at least 30 years of continuous aggressive action and numerous war crimes against China, Korea, Russia, and beyond.  Active and expansive slavery, comfort women, the Rape of Nanking, the Asian Holocaust, the list of horrors that they committed goes on and on.  As the war turned against them, they turned against their own citizens as well, committing to the use of kamikaze pilots long after they ceased being any sort of effective, aggressively encouraging families in soon-to-be Ally-controlled territories to commit suicide in order to keep their populace from finding out that life under Allied occupation is not near as horrible as they’ve been saying, or press-ganging millions of their civilians into military service, arming them with suicide weaponry, and telling them to make their deaths count.  Nazi Germany may be getting the most focus for WW2 horrors, but Imperial Japan was right there with them.

And the atomic bombs hit them so hard they turned into a nation of pacifists.

Granted, there was a lot more involved in their societal change than just that.  Saying it that way makes for a way more dramatic picture, though.  And it’s really hard to understate the impact the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had on Japan.  The film Godzilla gives you a bit of a glimpse of it, though, wrapped up in a much more palatable fantasy horror shell.  Yes, you’re watching a movie about a giant monster terrifying Japan.  But, the monster Godzilla is the atomic bomb.  And that takes things to a deeper level here.

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Director Ishiro Honda, if memory serves, was in the Japanese military during World War II, and returned to see the aftermath of the bombing of Hiroshima.  He drew from those images in creating Godzilla, and I imagine a fair bit of the feelings of the time, too.  The military is helpless against Godzilla, much like they were against Fat Man and Little Boy.  The aftermath of Godzilla’s rampage sees hospitals overcrowded, medical staff overwhelmed, and even the immediate survivors aren’t safe, as radiation poisoning grabs hold.  As was common following the atomic bomb.  Godzilla, who, as the film points out, was mutated by the H-bomb himself, has skin that’s scarred and warped much like that of real-world survivors of the atomic bombings was.  It is not subtle in its metaphors.

Given that the initial American version of this film, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, cut out some “anti-American” scenes, the Japanese Godzilla has picked up a bit of a reputation.  However, I didn’t really see much in the way of anti-Americanism in the original version I watched.  Granted, my copy of it is by Criterion, whom I know retranslated the subtitles from earlier versions, but given their reputation for maintaining movies in their original format, I would think it would be more accurate.  In any case, I just didn’t see it here.  It is strongly against H-bomb testing, and frankly, given that this came out shortly after the Lucky Dragon incident, I can’t blame them for that, but anything that’s really targeted at America is only by extended implication.  Hell, it’s at least as anti-Japanese government as it is anti-American, as you see some mindset to leave people vulnerable and keep Godzilla hidden in order to protect their own interests, and they lead the assault against Godzilla that ends up leading him back to them and provoking even worse devastation.  It is against the advancements of the new biggest, baddest weapons and the use of science to kill people in general, as seen in basically everything to do with Dr. Serizawa.  Even then, though, it doesn’t make a flat statement against them.  I don’t necessarily know if this was the intended statement or not, but there did hit a threshold in this movie where it was necessary to use the new big, bad superweapon to keep the nation from being wiped out, even when that did have lingering effects.  The message ends up being more “only use the superweapons in the direst peril, and even then take care that they don’t develop further” rather than a simple “atomic bombs=BAD!”

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As far as the quality of the movie, well, I know I enjoy my films very differently than your average consumer.  I had a very fine time with it, however.  It’s typical in Godzilla films to have a long time building up tension before Big G appears while they develop the human interest side of things, and that’s definitely the case here.  It’s a very different tension here than you usually see, though, building up fear and danger rather than the thrill of impending chaos.  Several of the characters have a surprising amount of nuance, moreso than was typical for this time period.  And I really have to applaud it for making you feel its themes.  This film has all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, and it would have been very easy for it to end up basically screaming what the developers really thought at you without any hope for absorption, as so many attempts at “thoughtful” media end up doing.  But this film doesn’t do that.  Godzilla exhibits a high level of “show, don’t tell” that makes its themes, blunt as they are, way more impactful, and really promotes an understanding of them.  This is a monster movie at its core, sure.  But it’s a monster movie that makes you think, and it’s one that has lingered with me well beyond when I finished watching it.

Being the Butt of the Joke: The Bard’s Tale

Humor is not always nice to everyone.  Humor has to be subversive in some way to find its mark.  It has to go against expectations, explicit or implied.  And targeted humor goes against the expectation that we’re all good to each other, which, as it turns out, is a pretty core one in this whole human journey we’re on.  Because we’re all good people.  So yeah, making fun of people is one of the more effective ways to get a chuckle going.  Because we’re all bad people.  Making fun of people in real life, when they’re not in on the joke, is kind of a crappy thing to do.  Making fun of fictional people, though, what’s the harm in that?

Aside from making you feel bad for the guy you’re probably not supposed to feel bad for, normally, not much.  Video games bring a new dimension to that, though.  That guy, everyone’s butt monkey, the target of every joke even though he’s not actually all that bad?  What if that was you?

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At least, that’s what I ran across in my playthrough of The Bard’s Tale.  I was going to go for a review, as I’ve been doing around here, but the game’s not enough to make for an interesting review.  “Competent but kind of bad” pretty much sums it up.  The only really notable point is the game’s humor.  It has a lot of it.  It’s in an odd Scottish style, which I wouldn’t have known was a thing before playing it, that may not land with a lot of people, but it does make the humor unique, at least.  A lot of it is at the expense of the titular Bard.  Which, ok, sure, he’s not a good person.  He could use a good few pokes at him.  Thing is, though, he’s also you.

And that leaves me curious for how all these jokes should be landing.  It’s not the only game to be leaving the PC with the occasional thrust.  It sure felt quite a bit different when it’s just so constant, however.  The Bard, and by extension, you, never seems to catch a break.  Even the people who are happy to see you there usually have some jibe in place that the game pulls on you.  And sometimes that has gameplay implications, like when you’re told to find a character and you end up finding 5 with the same name and have to go between them all multiple times over before getting to the next plot point, or when you get to the end of a big old monster sprawl to rescue someone that can point you to the incredibly obvious place you need to go that’s right next to him, but the Bard can’t understand his brogue so you have to spend around 15 minutes backtracking and re-backtracking to bring someone there who could understand him and tell you to just go in the glowing portal thing.  Really, when it gets to the point the jokes are dragging out the gameplay, the joke’s not on the character.  The joke’s on you.

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In any case, for a rather unremarkable game, this is the facet that stuck out at me.  It’s pretty common to have one of those characters in a work.  The perennial lovable loser.  The butt monkey.  The guy for whom luck goes sour in the most hilarious of ways.  And yeah, you can make that work.  Video games play by different rules, though, and no matter who the protagonist is, there’s going to be parts of you there just by virtue of them being your avatar to this world.  You’re going to sympathize with them more.  And good natured ribbing is one thing, but when you’re the butt of every joke and it never lets up, well, it’s not fun to have the whole world laughing at your expense.  That’s an additional level you wouldn’t find in most media, but it’s right front and center in games.

That said, as always with humor, it’s a different matter when it hits right.  A few of the jokes, like when the Bard joins in on a tavern jam session and ends up inadvertantly playing in a song that is insulting him all over the place for accidently setting a doomsday demon free earlier in the game, that was funny no matter how close to home it was.

Project G-A Primer

Man, you remember when I used to do series?  Have a particular idea or theme I was wanting to have across several posts to build off each other, or more thoroughly explore a work or franchise?  And how at least half of them I never bothered actually finishing?  Yeah, good times.  We should do that again.  And you know what, let’s do that again here!

So, a while back, I did something for like the second time in like three years.  I went to see a movie in the theater.  Godzilla: King of the Monsters, in fact.  I’d been kind of a passive Godzilla fan for a while.  I’ve seen more of the Godzilla stuff than your average, less sexy general consumer, and probably enjoyed all the stuff it has to offer way more than most, but I’ve rarely made a point of getting into something Godzilla when it wasn’t right there in front of me.  I caught the 2014 Godzilla in theaters, and thought it was all right, although it was the first movie that I watched after I left the film industry that I ended up with an overall positive experience of.  Still, I found myself inexplicably excited for King of the Monsters.

I know what you’re thinking.  “Aether, my main man, don’t you have issues with watching movies?  And didn’t King of the Monsters get really mixed reviews?  This doesn’t seem like a good time.” On the contrary, this ended up being the best time with a movie I’ve had in… I don’t know how long.  It was perfect for me.  Part of it may be expectations.  I remember talking to a few people about my hopes going into the film, hoping that it would be at least a little stupid, but not too stupid, and that it would revel in it’s own big dumb monsters fights in a satisfying way.  And I’ve never had a movie that delivered what I needed from it so fully.  It is exactly the right level of stupid, it relishes its monster fights, and, for me, one of the best things is that about 90% of the movie was done either on a sound stage or by CGI, which are two aspects of production that I never had anything to do with when I worked in film, and therefore don’t trigger my burnout-induced stresses that often come with watching a movie.  So, whomever you are on the film crew for that movie that is a devoted follower of this blog because that’s the only likely way you’d know so much about me, thank you so much for making a movie that’s just for me.

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In any case, after my time with Godzilla: King of the Monsters, I found myself diving deep into my inner Godzilla fangirl.  Snapping up all the movies I could easily get my hands on, pouring hours into going through them, reminiscing about all the other Godzilla properties I’ve spent time with, I don’t think I can call myself a ‘passive’ Godzilla fan any longer.

Which brings us into this series I’m going to start here.  I’m spending all this time with the movies, I figured I’d at least build some content around it.  Godzilla’s been around for close to 65 years now, with more than 30 films made, with widely varying levels of quality and availability, and I haven’t been able to build up a complete library of Godzilla films overnight.  As such, this may not be a comprehensive look at the Godzilla films.  But I am going to at least put together some mini-reviews for all the Godzilla films I’ve been able to collect.  So, I call this a series, but that’s really just what it will be.  A bunch of small reviews.

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Before I get into doing that, though, I wanted to go over how these films all fit together, because I think some groundwork there will be useful in understanding these things once we get into a bit more of the nitty gritty.  One of the things I particularly enjoy about the Godzilla films is that in general, the continuity is handled in a way that, largely, you could make whatever you want out of it.  The movies may be very, very different, and there’s a couple of separate timelines and continuities there, but you can always just pick up a movie and watch it, if you were so inclined.  The individual stories are almost entirely self-contained, and for the bits that do follow up from previous films, they will explain clearly what happened in those films and how it’s leading to things now.  There is absolutely zero continuity lockout in this things, and you could start from any point and be right where you need to be.  And frankly, there’s a lot of room for headcanon in there too.  There’s the official lines, sure, and things may not always match up between series, but it’s wiggly enough that if you wanted to, you could consider things pretty much happening all in one go, with different Godzillas growing up and stomping around at different times.

That said, there are a couple of factors that could be useful to keep in mind as we’re going through this.  Biggest one is just the eras of Godzilla we’re looking at here.  Toho will typically produce Godzilla films in clumps, doing them over a span of time while people are really interested in them.  Then, when interest starts to wane, so as to avoid making things overdone, Toho will put the franchise on hiatus for a decade or so, to give it time so that it’s more fresh when they come back to it.  As they bring Godzilla back, they’ll reboot the continuity, starting after the first movie.  Usually, each span of time will be creatively rather different as well.

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As far as the movies go, you start, obviously, with the original Godzilla in 1954.  No matter what the other films do with their timelines (except for the American-made Monsterverse films and Shin Godzilla, which start everything over completely), the original Godzilla is fixed point in history.  The first Godzilla known to man always attacked Japan in 1954, Japan was always helpless against him, and he was (almost) always killed by Dr. Serizawa weaponizing his newest, fearsome scientific discovery.

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Then, some time later, a new Godzilla arose to terrify the world.  What happened there, though, varies.  The various series of Godzilla films are named after the Japanese eras in which they were largely made.  The first of those is the Showa series, which is what most people think of when they think of Godzilla.  Probably where the films made their biggest overall impact.  The Showa series came out in a time where the Japanese film industry as a whole was really troubled, and although they did have home-grown successes of all types, the only types of films that could consistently bring in a profitable audience where kids’ movies.  The first two Godzilla films are thoughtful horror movies akin to the classic King Kong.  If they stayed that way, though, the franchise probably wouldn’t have survived this long.  Bowing to the market of the time, from the third movie on, Godzilla movies where either ‘all-ages’ or outright children movies.  This is where you see the campy, goofy Godzilla, basically pro-wrestling in rubber suits.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s helpful to know what to expect.  When you think of cheesy Godzilla movies, the scenes you may be remembering probably came from this era.  This is where the big dumb Godzilla dropkick was.  This is where you saw Godzilla dancing.  And although this isn’t the only place to find Godzilla goofiness, this is where it was most concentrated.

And although the first Godzilla movie pretty much stands outside the series structure, it’s considered a Showa era film, so next time you’re trying to impress that fly honey at one of those Godzilla parties that go on all over the place all the time, make sure you include the original in the Showa films or he/she is just going to think you’re a big nerd.

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The Showa series ended in the 70s.  Godzilla was on hiatus for a while, until they came back with a new film in 1984.  The developers, recognizing the trajectory the original series was on, wanted to go back to its roots and start fresh with the dark, heavy tone that the first movie set.  So, The Return of Godzilla, the first movie of the Heisei series, rebooted the timeline to just after the first movie, and had a new Godzilla attacking Japan 30 years later, taking the next step from the original film while also maintaining a lot of the sci-fi elements that the later films had brought.  Other films in the series followed suit.  The Heisei series definitely has it’s own goofy moments, some of them really goofy, but it plays everything a lot more seriously than the Showa series did, and it’s rare that you’ll find instances of deliberate humor in there.  It still revels in its fun big monster fights, but it does so seriously.  Serious face :I.  It has a bit more of a sense of continuity; there’s a couple of recurring characters, the G-force organization is at the heart of most of the movies, and fairly often new villains are created as a result of past happenings in this Godzilla timeline.  You can also tell that the special effects team was really excited about being able to put lasers on screen here.  In most other eras, most of the monsters will fight physically most of the time, with the various breath and other distance weapons being reserved for special occasions, when you really just need to hit the big guy hard or when you need a whole lot of things destroyed right now.  In the Heisei era, though, monster combat is mostly done through beam spam.  Lasers, breath weapons, special moves, the monsters are definitely at their flashiest here.

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Then, in the 90s, the Heisei films started slowing down.  As a result, Toho put their Godzilla films on hiatus again.  This time though, we weren’t going to lack for Godzilla in general, just their version of Godzilla.  Instead, they were going to give Tri-star a shot at making their own Godzilla universe in America.  Plan was for Toho to be on hiatus and Tri-star leading the way for Godzilla for about ten years.  Tri-star’s Godzilla film came out in 1998.  It… wasn’t good.  Toho wasn’t willing to let that be the lingering memory anyone had of Godzilla, so they broke their hiatus early and came out with the Millennium series of films.  Probably the biggest notable thing about the Millennium series is that every single film with one exception is in a continuity of it’s own.  Like The Return of Godzilla did, although most of these came out within a year of each other, they all take things back to just after the first movie.  Some of them do recreate events in the backstory between the first movie and this one, but that’s always independent of any of the other movies, and doesn’t match up with anything we’ve seen on film so far.  This series is less consistent, in general, in terms of creative design between films, but overall, it strikes a balance between the goofiness of the Showa series and that seriousness of the Heisei.  It’s also of pretty mixed quality, but the good films of this series are some of the best Godzilla movies overall.  In my not-so-humble opinion.

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Then the series was put on hiatus again after all that was done.  Ten years later, Toho decided to trust an American producer again, licensing Godzilla to Legendary Pictures for what would become their Monsterverse.  That’s still ongoing, with two Godzilla movies on deck so far as well as one where Godzilla made a cameo, and a third already in post-production, and it will be ongoing until at least 2021.  Contrary to last time, Toho seems very happy with what Legendary is doing, and is satisfied with allowing them to take the lead.  The Monsterverse, so far, restarts Godzilla and most of it’s associated features from an American perspective, while also slowly combining it with what they’re doing with the King Kong reboot.  It offers a new take on the classic Godzilla format while also being really faithful to what worked with Toho’s films, and with the latest release, is starting to build a world unique to itself.  I’ve been a fan of it.

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Toho has returned to the Godzilla well a few times, however, although they haven’t made a dedicated effort to establish a new series.  It seems that so far, with what’s being called the Reiwa series, they’re mostly doing it when the creative opportunity for something unique presents itself instead of really trying to establish a market position for it the way most film producers would.  So far, we’ve got one movie and a trilogy of anime films out of the Reiwa series, both of which are taking the normal Godzilla formula and twisting it into new forms, well beyond what’s been done before, that essentially require these movies stand apart from anything else that would typically be going on with Godzilla.

So…. that’s that.  Here’s a big old post where I’m creating content that’s mostly talking about how I’m going to create content later.  Have I ever mentioned that I work for the government?  We love recursivity.  In any case, I’ll see you guys down the line.

Mumbling about Muramasa: The Demon Blade

Man, you remember the Wii?  I’m pretty sure I’ve said this before, but for all the flak the Wii got for “having no games”, it sure had a hell of a lot of good games.  In a lot of ways, I feel the Wii got everything that the indie games market is covering now, before indie games even had a hope of making it.  In the face of the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 pushing HD graphics and high processing power, but correspondingly high development costs, the Wii offered a more modest rate of performance at a much cheaper, and correspondingly less risky, development price.  Games didn’t port well to and from the Wii and you didn’t see it’s larger install base buying as many games as the other consoles, so it didn’t see that many AAA releases.  But established companies shooting out more experimental and creative secondary-level games?  That it had in droves.  And lots of them were really good.  At this point, my Wii library is pretty comparible in size to that of its competitors, and I find myself really glad for that.

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Case in point, there’s Muramasa: the Demon Blade.  Oozing art style, combat that’s at the same time buttery smooth and awkward, a game that’s not trying to make the huge statement of its AAA counterparts and is just there to be fun.  That last part is really representative of the Wii’s output for me.  How did it play out in this case?  Let’s find out!

Muramasa is made by Vanillaware, who at this point were notable for Odin Sphere and later because well-known for their beat-em-up Dragon’s Crown.  It’s a side-scrolling action game where you play as one of two characters roaming around beautifully drawn depictions of the various areas of feudal Japan, as you slay your enemies, collect the Demon Blades, and…. do things to get stuff done.  There’s a plot, but frankly, it really doesn’t matter.

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And yeah, it being Vanillaware, the art is the most prominent part of this piece.  And it is great.  Everything is lavishly hand-drawn, incorporating real-world art techniques from feudal Japan in a way that makes things look completely fitting to the setting even as they’re stunningly gorgeous.  Most of it looks even better in motion.  Being hand-painted, animations are a little limited, and some of them do look a little janky, but for the most part, they really breathe life into these characters and locales.

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The bosses are probably visually the best part.  If you’ve been playing video games for a while, chances are you’ve probably been pretty well exposed to lots of classical Japanese culture and mythology.  Muramasa draws from that well pretty heavily, but doesn’t just add art to it, it’s often dropping some really interesting twists on the classical mythology as well.  Inugami goes from classical mythology of being a dog poltergeist to the version here of being a blasted scary being with rows of teeth that never end.  Raijin keeps all they fierceness and aggression he’s had in classical mythology, but he’s in the form of a muscular battle woman here.  I found it interesting, seeing the unusual takes on familiar features all over the place.

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Sunshine Blogger: The Four-ening

We’re continuing our Sunshine Blogging spree by taking on the questions that Red Metal posed for us in his nomination.

And frankly, if you hang around this place, you know Red Metal.  He and I have been blog allies for quite some time.  He does a lot of video game reviews, pulling some rather unsung parts of games history out of the pile as well as the traditional classics.  On top of that, he’s been doing film reviews as well.  Guy puts a lot of content out.  So go check his blog.  You won’t be sorry.  And thank you, Red Metal, for this honor.

Other than that, rules are the same as the last three times.  Or, frankly, any of the many other awards we’ve gotten.  Questions are different, however.  Let’s go!

  1. What do you feel is the ideal length for a studio album (or LP)?

Roundabout an hour is the perfect length for me.  Substantial enough to be getting at an artist’s sound from a variety of angles and to make for a full experience in the car, which is where most of my albums get played, but not so long that you start to get tired of it.

2. Have you ever accidentally rendered a physical copy of a game/film/album unplayable?

Aaaaahhhhaahahahahaaaaaa…. all the time.  Let’s see.  I think first was with a copy of SimCity 2000.  Dropped the disc underneath my computer chair, and in attempting to pick it up, ran the chair’s wheels over it.  Never got that recovered.  My copy of Saints Row wasn’t running as smoothly as I wanted it to, and I had my Xbox in the vertical position.  I wanted to see if it’s work better if it was horizontal, so moved the console while the disc was spinning, and that put in a thick circular scar that made it unreadable.  My local game shop was able to fix it, though.  A similar thing happened with Fallout: New Vegas, when the cat knocked the console over while I was playing it.  Game shop guy came through then, too.  Later, he went out of business, and I bought my own disc grinder for those knocks and scratches.  Got a lot of use out of it, but a few missteps.  I had a used copy of Eternal Darkness that was always in poor shape, but it had degraded to the point where it just couldn’t read anything past a certain point in the game.  Tried to get it in the disc doctor, but the tiny little Gamecube discs didn’t mount correctly, and it ended up in worse condition than ever, to the point that it wasn’t even readable.  And the used disc I bought for Yakuza 4 has a slight scratch in it that had absolutely no effect on the game except for one late game cutscene that it prevented from loading, completely ending progress.  I ran it through the grinder and got the disc in absolutely pristine condition, except for the fact that it didn’t work at all.  Apparently you can’t just grind down the scratches on blu-rays the same way you can with CDs and DVDs. I had to replace the disc entirely.  Save data was on the console, luckily enough.

I swear, I am truly an elegant and graceful person.  These missteps are totally unrepresentative.

3. What series do you feel has a confusing naming convention?

Godzilla is absolutely the worst at names.  The. Worst.  Seriously.  Let’s see if you can follow along with this.

Godzilla (1954) is a different movie from Godzilla (1985), which is different from Godzilla (1998), which is different from Godzilla (2014).  Godzilla, King of the Monsters! and Godzilla: King of the Monsters are different movies.  Mothra vs. Godzilla and Godzilla vs. Mothra are different movies.  King Kong vs. Godzilla is different from the upcoming Godzilla vs. Kong.  Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla and Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla are different movies.  Terror of Mechagodzilla is the sequel to Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla, not Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II, which takes place in a completely different timeline than Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla.  Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla was notable for having a direct sequel in an era where otherwise every other film around it completely restarted the continuity, but the sequel was titled Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. and didn’t refer to the previous title at all.  However, Mothra vs. Godzilla and Godzilla vs. The Thing are different titles for the same movie.  Same with Ebirah, Horror of the Deep/Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster, Invasion of the Astro Monster/Monster Zero, All Monsters Attack/Godzilla’s Revenge, and probably a lot of others I’m not perfectly aware of now.

On top of that, and this seems like a really minor issue now, most over the films are titled something in the structure of Godzilla vs. Other Monster which is only helpful if you can distinguish the names of the monsters.  Do you know the difference between Megalon and Megaguirus, and can tell me whose film features the coveted Big Dumb Godzilla Dropkick?  Becoming a Godzilla fan requires a guide of some sort.

4. What critical darling do you feel completely failed to live up to the hype?

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I remember people raving about Psychonauts.  I remember people bemoaning the fact that it’s not talked about more, didn’t sell enough, doesn’t take up enough space in our collective consciousness.

Then I played it.  And you know, I get what people like about it.  It’s got good ideas, it’s got a lot of creativity, it’s really high concept.  It’s just not very fun to play.  The controls are clumsy, the environment is often unresponsive, the challenges before you are really uninteresting, etc.  This is a game that’s a blast to watch, to absorb all the good parts behind it.  Just not to actually get your hands on the controller.

5. Which work do you feel should have deserved more attention?

Time is starting to correct this, but Fire Emblem has long been one of gaming’s unsung treasures.  I love turn-based strategies, but you very rarely get a good series going.  Fire Emblem has earned it’s place as one of the best.  I can understand why it never got much love.  Nintendo didn’t have faith in it on the American market until their character’s placements in Smash drove demand for it, and even then, the rampant permadeath, minimal developmental advancement between entries, and really basic presentation makes it hard to recommend for the general player.  But the strategic gameplay is really solid, and the series always deserved more than just surviving on the very edge of profitability.  From Awakening on up, though, the series has been getting a lot more success, and that’s really nice to see.

Now, if it would just get enough success that you could manage to find a copy on sale or for something less than MSRP even years later, that would make me a pretty happy man.  Nintendo doesn’t really cooperate with deal hunting.

6. Do you prefer a foreign work to be subtitled or dubbed in your language?

Film and TV, I prefer them to be subtitled.  I have a lot easier time with my film-industry burnout stress issues when watching a movie if I don’t understand the language being spoken, for whatever reason.  Video games, I prefer them dubbed, usually, especially if they’re going to be delivering any spoken content outside of cutscenes.  Given that I’m interacting with the work and my attention needs to be going in a couple different directions, having the dialogue draw too much of it away by making me both read and listen and mentally attach one to the other through translation conventions just doesn’t work on the fly.  Video games seem to get higher quality dubs than film and tv as well, that helps.

That said, I’m not super picky on it, and there are times when dubs can improve or reduce the quality of a work.  I just want the best experience available, and I can go between them as needed.

7. Can you remember an instance in which you managed to succeed in a game by the skin of your teeth (e.g. beat a difficult boss with barely any health remaining)?

Lots of times.  I think one of the most glorious times of that was in fighting Artorias in Dark Souls.  And you know what?  You guys were there for it.  Nice to have it recorded for posterity like that.

8. Can you remember an instance in which you got completely robbed playing a game?

Yes, and it still burns me.  No More Heroes has the absolutely worst overworld I have ever seen in games.  It’s big, expansive, takes forever to traverse, and mostly empty.  You have to deal with it, though.  It’s not an optional part of the game.  Specifically, to get your story missions, you have to grind for them.  You have to pay money to get your missions, and the only way to get sufficient amounts of money is through the inane minigames that are scattered around there.  To access them, you have to sign up for them at a central location, drive through the lame overworld to get to them, do the worthless thing, drive back, sign up again, rinse and repeat.  It’s not fun, it’s not engaging, and no matter how anyone tries to say it’s really satire, this is one of the dumbest and most disrespectful things I’ve ever seen anyone include in a game.  The core gameplay is pretty good, so you deal with it, but as you have to do more and more grinding to get to your missions, it really starts to wear thing.

Halfway through the game, you have to pay about $800,000 of game money to access a mission, if I remember correctly.  Tons of grinding.  Contrary to every other mission you’ve been through, when you start this one, it’s just a big long hallway.  No open areas, no twists and turns, nothing really to capture your interest, just long hallway that you fight basic dudes in.  But then you get to the end.  And the boss comes out.  And the bosses are the best part of the game.  This guy looks intense.  This is going to make up for it all.  But who’s that other guy in the cutscene?  And why did he just slice the big boss in half?  And now he’s leaving?  You never got to fight the boss?  Oh well, mission success, now grind $900,000 for the next mission.

I turned the game off then and I have never been back to No More Heroes.

9. What is your favorite arcade game?

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I have not played this since I was a kid, so nostalgia may well be twisting my perspective, but Ninja Baseball Batman was my favorite arcade game as a cub.  The only place I ever saw it was my local Pizza Hut, but I spent so many quarters on that game.  I don’t know if I ever beat it, but I do remember coming really close to the end multiple times.

10.  If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would you go?

I would make a world tour, and visit the homes of the significant others of all my enemies and take them all on their dream dates.  No romances are so sweet as the one that ruins the life of someone you hate.

11.  What critics (in any medium) do you find to actually be reputable?

These days, not many.  I would much rather get an opinion from one of my fellow content creators than trust a review.  I trust the staff of PC Gamer more than anyone else, however.  It used to be because they were the only outlet I would see that would be openly negative in previews about a game that just wasn’t fun to see.  Everyone else, no matter how they trashed the game when it was released, you could always go back and see those same staff doing their jobs of being good industry outreachers and talking up that exact same game in previews, but PC Gamer would openly state that the games not good.  I don’t see as much of that these days, as I’ve moved away from traditional video games media as a whole, but I still see them taking a more balanced line than other outlets, not so much trying to partner with the publishers until they switch sides so they can milk a bad game or controversy for the big bucks then ingratiating themselves with the publishers once more to start the cycle over again.  I’ve gotten a little bitter about that, haven’t I?

Well, in the interests of sparing LightningEllen, no nominations this time.  Yet.  We’ll see if anyone displeases me first, then they’ll be staring 121 questions down as well.