Digital Changeling

May 29, 2010

Game Review: Puzzle Bots

Filed under: Feminism,Games,Reviews — Eva @ 12:43 am

I play a lot of adventure games. I’ve played the majority of the old Lucas Arts games and all of the new Telltale games. It’s not a very popular genre, so my husband and I are constantly on the lookout for for games by smaller studios that show promise.

Last year I ran across Wadjet Eye Games’ Emerald City Confidential. I took a chance on it and quite enjoyed it. My husband and I then played through the three Blackwell games and the Shivah. They varied a lot in quality, but were definitely worth playing overall.

Wadjet is a young (and very small) company and playing their older games gave me a feeling for how much they’ve learned and improved over the years. I’ve been looking forward to their newest game, Puzzle Bots, since I heard about it last year. I finally got a chance to play the game last week.

The main game play element that Puzzle Bots adds to the standard adventure game is the use of tiny robots who manipulate the environment in different ways. There are five robots that you get to play with throughout the game and each basically corresponds to a different verb. Every new bots is introduced with a set of training rooms, meant to give you an idea of what their unique talents will be able to handle. Together, several bots can take on more complex problems.

The individual puzzles were self contained, which was also a nice change from the crazy fetch quests which pervade most adventure games. The bots generally work on sets of puzzles in a “one room” setup and once they’ve solved the area they’ll move on to a different situation or location. There are often cut scenes between the puzzle rooms where the human characters go about advancing the main plot of the game. I generally found these cut scenes interesting to watch, but not super related to what my bots were doing. The scenes gave the impression of an unfolding mystery that the bots were somewhat aware of.

I had some issues with the themes of the human characters and some of their actions and plot elements. I was not amused to discover that both of the female members of the five person team were romantically interested in the forgetful and not terribly smart “American White Male” inventor. I understand when Hollywood goes all Reverse Jane Austin on stories, but this seems really unnecessary from a small studio. This is just a lazy way of writing characters and plots. I know they can do better.

Unfortunately, this was not the only thing about the human characters that constantly irritated me. One of the female inventors was Asian, and just happened to be from Japan. Good gravy, do people think every Asian woman comes from that island? I love Japan as much as the next woman, but has no one ever heard of Korea or China or Vietnam or Thailand or any of a half dozen other Asian countries? Anyhow, this Japanese inventor was naturally very smart, soft spoken, and shy. And spoke in perfect, unaccented English.

Despite all this ridiculousness she manages to be the most sympathetic person in the game… except when she’s whining about men. Then I wanted to hit her designer over the head with something heavy, perhaps a book on feminism.

The second woman on the team was “Sexy Punk Grrl,” complete with bright pink hair, a short skirt, and a penchant for exploding things. Since she was the “bad girl” she was also way louder, pushier, and sexually aggressive. I just about wanted to bang my head on the desk when she introduced her robot and it was zipping around on roller skates. I get that we’re building towards a theme here, but this was a bit much. You can love roller derby without being a ridiculous stereotype.

The other two members of the team consist of “Generic Black Dude” (he is generically amusing, but has very little part in the plot) and “Angry Russian Man who is trying to get fired” (he was also amusing and rarely important). I got the impression that these two were intended to be background color and excuses for their robot designs. I’d say four stars for multiethnic casting, one star for which roles actually went to the characters who didn’t sound or look like Midwestern Americans.

I would also like to take a brief moment to say, if you are only going to have one person in your cast who is significantly chubbier than average, please don’t make them the villain of your story. This is just a laughable level of prejudice. “Let’s assume ‘ugly’ people are evil and treat them like crap” wasn’t funny 10 years ago and it isn’t funny now.

I may sound like I’m being a bit particular about the characters and the romantic sub plots. This is partly because they were just so cartoonish that they grated on my nerves. I didn’t feel like a lot of these extremes were really necessary. It’s possible to make relatively light, shallow characters without falling back on these sorts of pastiche images that mainstream culture is always shoving in our faces. I felt like the casting, as well as parts of the plot, were lazy and ill-considered; it rubbed me the wrong way.

Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of things to like about Puzzle Bots. The interface is clean, the art is beautiful, the puzzles are intuitive, and the hint system has just the right level of clue vs clue-bat. I enjoyed almost all of the puzzles and I think the idea of using the robots’ different talents in the place of traditional verbs is really cool. I do think the game was a bit short, based on the price, but I understand that as a small studio Wadjet’s economic model may not reflect my normal expectations.

I enjoyed the game and I would recommend it to others. It is a little bit expensive, not excessively so. I think it would make a good introductory adventure game, especially for slightly younger audiences. I wish that the creators had taken a different tactic when building their characters and plots, but I suspect that for most people these stereotypes are so deeply ingrained that they won’t really detract from the experience.

I’ll keep my eyes open and look forward to seeing what Wadjet has to offer in the future.

May 24, 2010

Book Review: Changeless by Gail Carriger

Filed under: Books,Reviews,Steampunk — Eva @ 12:55 pm

Romance, mystery, adventure, airships, and werewolves… Changeless delivers all those things, and not in the trite way that you might think.

I started reading the first book in the series, Soulless, largely on a whim, and I liked it quite a lot. Fortunately the second book, Changeless, had just come out so I picked that up too. I think the author managed to balance light and fluffy pulp-steampunk with interesting characters and a neat self-consistent system of supernaturals.

The main story revolves around Alexia, a half English, half Italian, young lady without a soul. She lives in a world where having too much soul allows people to be turned into Vampires, Werewolves, and Ghosts. The fact that she lacks a soul means that she can temporarily negate the super-powers that come with immortality with just a touch. She’s also very smart and practical with an amusing no-nonsense attitude. Naturally she gets involuntarily sucked into all sorts of supernatural weirdness including mysteries, affairs of state, and some romance.

There is certainly a bit of Mary-Sue-ism going on in the overall premise and plot. Some of the concepts are so over the top they can only be seen as parody. However as my husband pointed out to me recently, just because there’s a Mary-Sue element doesn’t mean a work can’t be good.

The actual execution of this book is so good that I think it pulls the ideas off with flying colors. The author has built believably flawed characters who frequently have to fend for themselves and don’t always get what they want, a mystery that is often non-obvious, and a story with many intertwined character goals and a lot of twists and turns.

I have to say, I love the color in this book. Ms. Carriger obviously did quite a bit of historical research into Victorian daily life, social conventions, and fashion. This is all mashed up with the fact that society has strangely advanced steampunk-tech and immortals in the form of Vampires and Werewolves. The immortals provide a good deal of the politics, and the tech is worked into the story rather than being pure window-dressing. The result is a very compelling and visually rich world.

Since it is a sequel, reading Changeless will reveal quite a bit of the ending to the first book in the series, Soulless. I really enjoyed Soulless, so I would recommend reading the books in order.

The only caveat I have is that Changeless ends with a bit of a cliffhanger. The main story is wrapped up, but some issues that arise near the end of the book are left unresolved. I assume they’ll be handled in the third book, Blameless, which is due in September, 2010.

Changeless is a light book. At it’s heart it’s a pulp-adventure with a mystery, some romance, a bit of supernatural, and a dash of steampunk. It pulls all of those elements together into a very pleasing harmony. I thought it was well written and a lot of fun to read. I’ll definitely be looking at more of Ms. Carriger’s work in the future.

May 6, 2010

My First Post Shouldn’t Be About How Much I Hate Your Software

Filed under: Angry,Programming,Reviews — Eva @ 12:45 am

Seriously, I know you get what you pay for, but my experience with setting up WordPress is still leaving me with a desire to stab people in the face. I haven’t even written my own theme yet.

I have so many things I want to  say about people not understanding how other people use technology, or how non-tech people look at things. I shouldn’t need to be a computer scientist to set up this blog. I shouldn’t need to know two other computer scientists to ask questions about it either. (I probably could have gotten it working with just my two friends, being a computer scientist mostly meant I understood a lot of what I was seeing… and it made me very sad.)

Just as a general thought on technical writing: Please be able to identify the words you know which people outside your group/culture/company/job/skill-set/ninja-clan will not know the definitions of. Define them before you spout them off willy-nilly.

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