Sunday, October 25, 2020

Skill Up's Review of The Last of Us Part 2 and the Art of Video Games

Warning: Spoilers. Do not read unless you've finished the game.

This article is a response to some of the points raised by Skill Up in his review of the The Last of Us Part 2. Unlike a lot of, if not most of the game's reaction and backlash, this article will not be a hit piece or click bait. I hope it is critical but constructive, addressing what was unaddressed or misrepresented.

Unless you were part of the burgeoning industry, most would have scoffed at the idea that video games are an art form a few decades ago. Given the state of of video games today, however, it's tough to argue. Like books, movies, etc., video games have the power to speak to us through a medium that is fictional yet relative, representative yet stimulating. But where books inspire imagination and movies guide you through an imagined experience, video games add yet another layer of imagination: participation. Players vicariously take on the roles of the characters, directing them within the limitations of agency granted by the game/technology. This experience is dichotomous; one one hand (no pun intended) are the technical mechanics of participation/gameplay (control, vision, action, interaction, etc.), and on the other hand are the elements of narrative (setting, character, dialogue, plot, etc.) In Skill Up's review of The Last of Us Part 2, this dichotomy is heavily, heavily biased to one hand with a lack of underpinning knowledge on the other. It does not do the game full justice.

There are many different types of gamers, and Skill Up is one I've come to categorize as a gamer who loves gameplay—the first hand, in-the-moment experience of interacting with the game's virtual world through the mechanics that allow this. Another way of putting this is, some of his criticisms of TLoU2's gameplay are spot on. Gameplay has been slightly enhanced and improved from Part 1, but the loop overall is very similar, nothing truly innovative coming out the game. Naughty Dog clearly did not want to deviate too far from the success that was Part 1, and yes, there are absolutely other games with better control, response, action, etc. on the market. SkillUp nails this. Trouble is, gameplay isn't the game's prime focus, and by focusing so heavily on gameplay Skill Up failed to capture the value of narrative to the work of art the game is.

Saturday, October 24, 2020

Review of Cugel's Saga by Jack Vance

First half of Jack Vance’s Cugel duology, The Eyes of the Overworld (aka Cugel the Clever), is a riot of wit, charm, and the most colorful storytelling that a reader can encounter. Rogue an unintended wayfarer (as we all are, to some degree), his quest to capture the ‘eyes of the overworld’ and return them the Laughing Magician is the joy of fiction in 150 pages. The last pages of that book indicating just how two-edged Cugel’s ‘cleverness’ is, it remains for Cugel’s Saga (1983), second and final book in the duology, to complete Cugel’s tale.

Having accidentally transported himself back to the very same place at which he started his quest for the eyes of the overworld, Cugel’s Saga opens with Cugel standing on said shores, with nothing in his pockets, wondering what to do. Heading in a different direction, he comes upon the manse of a magician, and there finds gameful employment collecting the scales of a dead demon from from a pit of slime, all for pitiful pay. Escaping the miserly magician on his own terms, Cugel once again finds himself alone in the wide world, but with a numinous object in his pocket tat he feels will surely lead him to revenge on Ionuscu, the Laughing Magician.

Review of The Eyes of the Overworld by Jack Vance

There are certain reviews that I don’t feel comfortable writing. In some cases I don’t feel I will do a book justice. And in other cases, the material is so special, so close to my heart, that putting into words a “review” has a chance of deconstructing something that I would like to remain a construct of mysterious quality—or at least that’s how it can sometimes feel. Teetering ahead on this tightropes, I dive into Jack Vance’s The Eyes of the Overworld (or as Vance preferred, Cugel the Clever) (1966).

Figuratively and literally (at least in the text), The Eyes of the Overworld, first of the two Cugel novels, is magic. Ostensibly far-far-far future Earth, the sun is a dying red blob in the sky, occasionally fading out to pop back to life, while below on Earth humans live a quasi-futuristic/Medieval existence. One such existence is Cugel. At the outset, he is a wannabe tradesman at a flea market who quickly succumbs to his baser instincts at the behest of a fellow seller. Coming to regret his decision to steal from the local magician’s manse, Cugel finds himself thrown across the sky into foreign lands with the spells of the Laughing Magician impelling him to find and acquire an object of inestimable value and bring it home. All manner of being resourceful (a useful trait considering he gets himself into trouble as much as he avoids it), Cugel fulfills his mission, sort of. But as with most things, it’s the journey not the destination…

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Review of King of the Dogs, Queen of the Cats by James Patrick Kelly

The talking dog. Ordinarily it’s a sign of madness, but in science fiction fully sentient canines have long existed—from Olaf Stapledon’s tragedy of a dog with human-level intelligence in Sirius to Clifford Simak’s cautionary sequence of stories that find dogs becoming “rulers” of the universe in City. Adding a dose of feline in his futuristic vision, James Patrick Kelly’s novella King of the Dogs, Queen of the Cats (2020) tells of one decaying but diverse city ripe for revolutionary change, all through the eyes of man’s best friend.

Kelly seeming to have shifted into a more subtle gear as the years go by, the splash of talking cats and dogs proves just the surface of King of the Dogs, Queen of the Cats. About an aristocratic canine named Gio, the dullards of societal stability have started shaking him loose from his deep-rooted life. Involved in love triangles, sneaking around at night, rubbing shoulders with nefarious people, and otherwise not knowing what to do with his life, Gio’s answer comes in the form of a circus brought to town by an extra-terrestrial cat. Revolution in the works, a stable life for Gio and the city around him will be no more…

Console Corner: Review of Guacamelee!

Zap! Pow! Bang! With mariachis—and luchadores!! Guacamelee Super Turbo Championship Edition! by DrinkBox is one of those game that is just fun of the purest variety. It embodies the spirit of video games in every way—the glorious colors, the sense of fun, and all button mashing you can imagine in this highly recommended 2D action platformer.

An ordinary man working in the agave fields, players take on the role of Juan in Guacamelee. But he oh so quickly finds himself in the position of rescuing the beautiful president’s daughter from the evil Calaca, who has emerged just before the Day of the Dead to find a sacrifice. With the assistance of goat man (as well as chicken magic), Juan punches, headbutts, and suplexes his way through our world, into another dimension, and back again to defeat the evil Calaca and rescue the president’s daughter. Not precisely Pulitzer quality writing, but certainly fun.

Review of Demon in White by Christopher Ruocchio

Those reading this review will likely be interested in having one question answered: is Demon in White (2020) as good as the two previous novels in the Sun Eater series? Is it worth the time and money? Answer: yes. Ruocchio continues to build his world with surprises, fill out Hadrian’s character in a mostly 3D way (2.5D?), and keep the reader engaged through big-screen storytelling. Page length, well, it too increases…

If you were hoping to have an additional question answered: how did Hadrian get his head chopped off and survive? You are not the only one. Hadrian also wants to know, and his quest leads him to an answer in Demon in White. But not before two major trials. The second not possible to be described (spoilers), the first can at least be introduced. With the slaying of the Cielcin prince, Hadrian is now a legend among men, and an Emperor’s knight. His first mission as knight sends him into the deeps of space to solve the mystery why imperial ships disappear without explanation in a certain quadrant. Hadrian unravels the mystery, but not before encountering a threat unlike the human world has ever seen, and one that has implications on the entire Empire itself.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Cardboard Corner: Review of The Enchanted Tower

Perhaps someday I’ll wax on about all the wonderful, human aspects of board games. The healthy social interaction, the brain exercise, the fun, the imagination, the tactile experience—waxing! They’re good in many ways, and I would argue most especially for children. Granted, some games offer limited forms of brain exercise: roll the dice, obey the dice, move the piece, roll the dice... Such games may actually be a detriment, in fact. But at the same time, many adult games—adult in the intellectual sense, har har—are too difficult for wee ones. Thus, children’s board games that exercise the mind and are fun for adults are a blessing. Enter The Enchanted Tower.

Using a classic fairy tale motif, The Enchanted Tower sees a hero and a sorcerer racing toward a hidden key, trying to rescue or capture, respectively, a princess locked in a tower. The hero closes their eyes while the sorcerer hides the key in one of the many holes. Players then take turns rolling unique dice to move around the board and find the key. As the sorcerer knows where the key is, the hero is given a head start for searching. The player who finds the key first, however, does not automatically win. There are six keyholes in the tower that players must test to find the one that frees the princess, meaning it’s likely more races—and more suspense—await.

Friday, October 16, 2020

Review of Out of Body by Jeffrey Ford

Jeffrey Ford is quietly one of the tip-top best fantastika writers of the 21st century. The originality of imagination, the sense of ebb and flow of story, and the understanding of what makes a story truly a story, I buy read his books sight unseen. And this is despite Ford’s work with Tor.com. Seeming to have a contract with the publisher to deliver a novella every year or two, these stories tend much closer toward genre mediocrity (aka “broader appeal”). But he is Jeffrey Ford, and thus I read 2020’s Out of Body.

As hinted in the title, Out of Body is about out-of-body experiences, particularly one had by a small town librarian who begins to experience the phenomenon after being first-hand witness to a tragedy. His experiences arising at night after falling asleep, he goes out into the night world, there to learn who and what else is “alive” there. More than he ever expected, his out of body experiences lead him into the middle of a situation he would have far rather slept on.

Console Corner: Review of Ghost of Tsushima

Shorter Review: If there were a hippy community of Witcher 3, Horizon: Zero Dawn, Assassin’s Creed, and God of War that had an orgy one night, Ghost of Tsushima would be the samurai love-child—true parentage a mix of blood.

Longer Review: Over the years, and undoubtedly over the years to come, there have been and will be video games trying to capture some essence of ‘samurai’. From Ninja Gaiden to Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun, the world has a fascination with these Japanese knights, their code of honor, and the deadly katana combat they are famous for. And there has been, and will likely be controversy over how well or poorly these games capture that essence. With Sucker Punch’s 2020 Ghost of Tsushima, however, it’s difficult to see where any controversy might arise (save the ‘cultural appropriation’ crowd, natch).

Seeming to take all the lessons learned from this generation’s action-rpgs and blending them into a synergistic vision of single-player campaign glory, Ghost of Tsushima pushes all the right samurai buttons (har har). Fluid combat, engaging world-building, a story of honor and glory, evolving upgrade paths, blessedly short loading times, a staggeringly beautiful setting—finding holes in the game is very difficult. All the good parts of other games borrowed and implemented in a historically realistic setting, Ghost of Tsushima may be the last great game of the current generation of consoles.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Review of Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell

David Mitchell occupies one of a few hallowed spots on my virtual shelf of: buy sight unseen. Even if he were to take on the most tried and true plot ever contrived, I believe his wordsmithing would overcome any inherent triviality, producing an engaging novel in the process; reading a Mitchell story is like being scrubbed in the waters of dynamic diction and gregarious character. The man’s writing defines ‘verve’. Utopia Avenue (2020) was bought review unread. It’s time to see if his spot on the shelf is still deserved.

Utopia Avenue is yet another departure for David Mitchell. Each of his prior novels scattered across the dartboard of setting and theme, Utopia Avenue finds itself in the counter-culture revolution of 1960s England. What we’ve come to call classic rock starting to take center stage, the book tells of a fictional band—a drummer, bassist, guitarist, and organist—who come together under the numinous auspices of Canadian manager Leon—to make it big. This arc of story, from poverty to success and beyond is everything a reader would expect from such a story. But it is likewise more.