Digital Changeling

December 7, 2011

Baby It’s Cold Outside: Or How an Idealized Story Can Train You to Commit Rape

Filed under: Angry,Feminism,Reviews — Eva @ 11:53 pm

I was linked today to this defense of the song Baby It’s Cold Outside by feminist Slay Belle. It’s a well thought out article and if you’ve got the patience to read a few pages go look at it now. If not, the summary is, people have been complaining about one line in the song and Slay Belle thinks that’s silly. She sees the song as a story about how the female lead is being held back by society’s expectations (ie. disapproval of “good” women having sex) and the male lead is giving her the excuses (encouragement to stay, reasons not to leave, etc.) she needs to make the choice to have and enjoy sex. Unfortunately the author has utterly missed the part where this story trains people to commit rape.

The song Baby It’s Cold Outside is creating a myth, a sort of idealized view of a romantic relationship. In this particular myth we’re told the girl resists the boy’s advances, saying no, possibly giving excuses of several sorts, but since the boy is persistent, the girl gives in and they’re happy. The important thing is, she gives in because she really does want to, she’s just worried about what people will say, so she needs to “put up a good fight”.

If a man buys into that pattern of romance, he really should badger and push his girlfriend for sex over and over, no matter how much she says no. Because she wants to have sex underneath, she just can’t admit it, or she won’t be a “good girl.” Now her boyfriend can’t tell sincere no’s from “coy” no’s and may be coercing her into sex (which incidentally is rape). Still he may honestly believe that she doesn’t mean what she says because he’s been taught this false model of how women act by popular culture.

This is the problem that I have with Baby It’s Cold Outside. “You should pressure her because she really does want to, even when she says no” is not a message I find acceptable. No means no and yes means yes. Teaching people that they’re interchangeable if you push is a nasty slippery slope. That slope is exactly where popular culture was standing when Baby It’s Cold Outside was written in 1936.

October 27, 2011

What Do I Need to Know About Your LARP?

Filed under: Games,LARP,Reviews — Eva @ 12:02 am

I’m trying to pick games for Intercon L and I’ve read so many bad game descriptions I want to cry. If your description can be summarized as, “A bunch people are in a place! It will be wacky!”, you haven’t written a description.

Please try again. This time actually tell me about your game.

Don’t confuse “world back story” with “stuff I need to know about your game”. Back story is nice, but it doesn’t tell me anything about what my experience is likely to be when I play.

Things about your game that I care about include:

  • What I will be doing?
  • Who I will be playing?
  • Are there any interesting major themes I should know about?
  • What style is the game (theater, horde, jeepform, etc.)?
  • Is there any existing source material (books, tv shows, board games*, etc.) the game is based on?
  • Why will your game offer me a different experience than the other games (I could be playing)?

Keep in mind that if something is going to be a huge super secret surprise which you’re going to keep under your hat for 10 whole minutes in the game, you should just tell the players in the description. They can pretend they don’t know for 10 minutes and if it’s that vital to your game they need to know about it to figure out if they’re the right players for your game.

That’s the most important thing. You want the right players in your game, the players who are the best match to the game. The better they understand the essence of your game, the better they can self select for you. Casting will be easier, you’ll have fewer mysterious drops, and everyone involved will be happier! ;)

* Unless you’re Mike Young, please don’t try to write Jumanji: the LARP. Do write Clue: the LARP though. I want to play that!

June 29, 2011

D&D Daggerdale Videogame Review

Filed under: D&D,Games,Reviews — Eva @ 10:14 pm

D&D Daggerdale is a beta pretending to be a game. The game has potential but it’s drowning in an incredible numbers of bugs and a camera so laughable it might as well be the first D&D movie*. I found one showstopping bug that was so amazingly obvious I find it hard to believe they ever ran this game past a playtester. I’m glad I played it, but it was not worth what I paid. WotC should be embarrassed for putting their name on such a low quality product.

Annoying things / bugs that I saw:

  • numerous cases of shooting enemies and they were so ‘surprised’ that they died frozen standing up
  • one cases where an enemy was so very, very surprised to die that he remained in his idle animation
  • one case where an enemy’s weapon hung around floating in the air after his death; it was persistent too, stayed through many reloads of that dungeon area
  • when talking to an NPC to finish a quest, if the NPC teleported away after the quest ended, the green circle under them and their floating name remained
  • when I finished some fights that triggered NPC dialog, the game teleported me as far as it wanted across the level to the NPC; this made it very hard to pick up the treasure from the enemies I just killed
  • once when I was teleported to talk to an NPC the game decided he didn’t actually want to talk to me, but the camera was locked on him; I could see myself on the mini-map, but otherwise had no idea where he was; eventually I dead reckoned back to him and talked to him manually to unlock the camera; this was a showstopper in my mind, since I couldn’t even trigger the pause menu
  • did I mention the camera was my worst enemy? it constantly pointed where I was going, which is useless when you’re playing a bow focused character who runs away and then shoots things behind them; I spent much of the game judging enemies state by the sounds as I shot them
  • the camera also totally destroyed the cinematic boss fights; there was at least one boss with floating and fire and different stages; I couldn’t watch any of it while fighting because the camera wouldn’t look at the boss
  • the NPC guards were really not very smart; several times I felt guilty about dragging them off to parts of the dungeon they weren’t meant to be in because they followed enemies and did not return to their “posts” when the threat was over; this was especially sad when they got themselves locked behind doors only I could open
  • I really wanted the ability to compare weapons and armor on the shop screen; in your inventory you can properly compare things with your full stats before equipping them, but in the shop you’re guessing based on their description, which is slow and boring
  • Oh my god, the mini-map; pure directional indicators are not good enough when you’re running around a cave with twisty, poorly connected passages; I got so f’ing turned around and spent a lot of time just wandering trying to find things; THIS WAS BORING, NOT FUN
  • Some of the feats would have been utter gibberish if I was not already a D&D player; likewise, I would have had no idea how to choose my primary stats if I didn’t already know what classes use what in the game; there needs to be either more guidance or a “choose this shit for me because I have no idea” button so the game is not only for D&D nerds like me
  • I never used my special attacks; they were too confusing and too slow; I got through the whole game and I am a killing machine with just my basic attacks

I think my main advice to the folks that made this game is to fix the camera, then maybe patch some of the more obvious graphical bugs. Most of the other stuff would be forgivable without the camera. Also, next time you make a game, please keep in mind that you are making a video game, not a tabletop simulator on an XBOX. If I wanted to play pure D&D I know where my table and my books are. The point of a video game is to abstract away some of the boring numbers and get on with the action.

I’m not even going into the local coop play, which based on my brief sampling has so many shared camera issues that it is nearly unplayable. I think they may have to implement split screen to save this mode.

The plot is cheesy and stupid, but based on the RPGA games I’ve seen, it’s above average for plots that comes out of WotC. I’m going to protest here that every single dwarf I saw in the entire game was male, which is gibberish based on WotC’s normal campaign materials. I saw very, very few female characters of any kind and those were primarily ‘sexy female assassins.’ Apparently the folks who cast this game think Tieflings reproduce through binary fission or something similar. I was also not impressed by the last 10 minutes of the plot. It’s stupid. Really, deeply “the gm has decided exactly what’s happening to all the NPCs and you’re just here to hang out while the action occurs” sorts of stupid. I’ve had GMs like this and I don’t play under them anymore, WotC.

I wish I could say the autotargeting makes up for the camera, but that would be like saying that crutches make up for two broken legs. This was especially evident because I played with the elven rogue and specialized in using a bow. This meant that most of my time was spent running away from enemies so they couldn’t reach me and then shooting them with the bow. Running causes the camera to pivot to the direction that you are running, so you can’t see anyone chasing after you. As I mentioned above, the camera further screwed up all climactic fights, by not showing me the super scary bosses. The simplest of camera lock-on features could have fixed this issue.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed Daggerdale in spite of it’s persistent, awful flaws. It shares something with NWN in that it fills that third person dungeon crawl desire in me. It has well designed environments and reuses them effectively, with meaningful connectivity changes and interesting location based quests. It has bad guys who actually feel different to me and there are coherent combat groups rather than just a random bunch of the same guy attacking you. Despite wanting to stab the person who designed the camera in the face with an icepick, I finished the whole game and was max-level when I did. Through the anger and constant ranting about the camera/npcs/plot/controls/bugs/etc., I had fun.

At this point I would only reluctantly recommend D&D: Daggerdale if you’re already a fan of D&D and games like NWN and you want to play it solo or coop over the network**. I’m hoping the game will eventually be patched to fix the most egregious issues and I’ll try to append my review if it is.

* Yes, this is the basest of sarcasm. I think the first D&D movie was terrible.

** I haven’t played network coop but I’m assuming you’ll all have your own camera to contend with rather than a shared one.

September 25, 2010

Leverage RPG Review

Filed under: Games,Reviews — Eva @ 11:33 am

A few weeks ago my husband ran a game of the Leverage RPG for four of our friends and me. I should qualify this review by saying, he only had the rules in The Quick Start Job plus what he could remember from the game he played at GenCon. The full RPG hasn’t been released yet.

I’m impressed with this game. I often complain about systems getting in the way of the sort of play they claim to support; the Leverage RPG goes the opposite direction. Every mechanic in the game was built to make the game feel like the show. The plot moves quickly, you’re encouraged to work together, and it captures the “fly by the seat of your pants” feeling of the show while still giving the players a lot of control over what’s going on.

As someone who likes the show, I found it massively amusing to be playing with other people who were into the Leverage characters. We hammed up their strengths and flaws, even some of their quirks. It’s one of the few times when I had no problem playing someone far outside my normal comfort zone. The characters and the light, fast system made it work. The presence of the earbuds meant that we could help each other in-character if someone faltered. This kept the “meta-game” issues to a minimum.

If I had to describe the system very briefly, I’d say there are four distinct parts: die rolls, special abilities, traits (also the similar assets and consequences), and scene control. There’s also something called Plot Points which are similar to Action Points or whatever they call them in Spirit of the Century.

Plot Points can be used to fuel some special abilities and you can get them by playing up parts of your character that are generally considered negative. However, the mechanical penalty you get for playing up a negative trait is a chance that things will become complicated and something exciting and dangerous will happen. It’s a gamble and it doesn’t detract from your ability to accomplish your goal. I loved the fact that playing “bad” things about your character didn’t always directly hurt you. It could, but the fact that you could get lucky and have no effect made the trade off much easier to swallow for me. I felt a lot more willing to play up the negative parts of my character and wasn’t as worried about the occasional results.

Most die rolls in Leverage involved rolling two dice: one die with the type of your appropriate attribute, like Agility or Strength, and one die with the type of your appropriate skill. The skills fall into the categories already defined by the Leverage characters: Grifter, Hacker, Hitter, Mastermind, and Thief. The pre-built characters on the Leverage team had different balances of skills and attributes and some of them were pretty good at their secondary skills, which seemed in line with the show. They definitely had the flexibility to take on other roles when needed.

When you needed to make a roll, you’d figure out which attribute and skill were appropriate (or the GM might tell you) and roll those two dice. Your total for the roll was dictated by the sum of the two dice that you rolled the highest on. You can use a Plot Points to add another die in some situations or to make a third die count towards your total. This gave us a bit of a safety net for crucial rolls and we were managing a limited pool of Plot Points to use that net.

It might seem like you’d always want to grovel for as many dice as the system would give you. Except dice rolls can also dictate complication and assets. For every one that you rolled on a die something exciting and unexpected, a complication, came up in the current situation. I’ve seen this happen to the actual Leverage team dozens of times. Everything is going great, and oh and wait the target also wants to see the good RIGHT NOW or the event has been moved to a venue they haven’t hijacked, in ONE HOUR.

Strangely, complications don’t feel quite as much like getting screwed, because they add so much to the flavor of the game. Our GM went out of his way to let us think of our own complications, so while it made life harder, I didn’t feel like the situation was spinning out of my control. We had something else to plan around and when we succeeded in spite of everything, our team looked that much more awesome!

The GM can suffer from the reverse of complications. When his NPCs roll ones, the players get an asset. This is some sort of advantage that the players can exploit later. This is also the sort of thing that’s come up in the series quite often. A stolen laptop just happens to have all of the mark’s financial information on it or the he might be a bit taken with Sophie, which has happened in the show more times than I can count. Assets each have a die associated with them and you can spend a Plot Point to also roll that die on a roll if you can reasonably describe how you’re using the asset to make the action easier. This adds to the possibility of complications, and it adds to the possibility of success. The whole situation gets more mixed up and interesting as things progress. Each asset felt like a small victory that we could use to further own the con.

Each character also had different special abilities they use to help other or to be more effective themselves. We only got to see the Leverage main cast, but I’ve been told there will be rules for making your own characters in the book. I assume there will also be other special abilities or rules for making them up. The ones we saw included powers that let characters “own” their specialty skills on contested rolls, powers that made them more awesome in their general field, and powers that let them help others or share their awesomeness. That last set was really powerful because it captured a part of that feeling of “we’re more when we’re a team” that’s so prevalent in the show.

Those powers plus the earbuds and some of the plot control mechanisms gave the game a cooperative nature that was unlike any other RPG I’ve played. Many of the helper skills cost Plot Points, so they weren’t unlimited, but they were a way that Hardison could help anyone with technology, Sophie could talk anyone through grifting, and Nate could encourage the team members to work together, with a mechanical benefit. It captured the feeling of the show and encouraged people to play in that style.

I’ve played many cooperative RPGs. I’ve played a couple of storytelling games. I’ve never played a storytelling RPG that hides the fact that it’s a storytelling game as well as Leverage. Most of the game feels like a regular, low simulation, RPG. The arrangement of the plot is different. You set short scenes and players are allowed to declare that they did something previously at any time. Then you immediately have a flashback to them doing it. This ends all of the super boring Shadowrun style pre-planning sessions. The characters might have had those meetings, but we didn’t need to be there for them! As players couldn’t forget things and we could pull off the clever, reversible plots like the Leverage team even if the mark did something crazy.

The GM was pretty up front with us. The team is supposed to win. That’s explicit in how the game works. If they don’t win, it’s clearly the first part of a two part episode and they’ll fix it in the second part. This is another dead giveaway of a story game. The story and having fun with the story is more important than being totally realistic about the world. I think this is a good decision, since it mirrors some of the slightly sloppy stuff in the show, while emphasizing that the point is for the players to make an awesome Leverage style story where they “win.”

In our group there were four people who have played RPGs with differing levels of frequency and one person who was totally new to the whole idea. Three of the people at the table hadn’t seen Leverage, so we showed them the pilot episode before we played. We struggled a little at the beginning, which was partly my fault as Nate, but we figured out what we were doing quickly and had an awesome time. The new player told us afterwords that she had fun and wanted to play again. That seems successful to me.

My first impression of the Leverage RPG has been overwhelmingly positive. I thought all the mechanics actively added to the game and to making the game like the show. I think it’s a good game for new players, because it’s relatively simple and if you like the show you already know how to play the existing characters. I’m eagerly awaiting the main book so I can bully my husband into running more games for us. :)

July 29, 2010

Some Thoughts on 4th Edition D&D and Trash Talking

Filed under: Angry,D&D,Games,Reviews — Eva @ 12:25 am

Last year I attended a panel that was ostensibly about D&D 4th edition. I say “ostensibly” because of the people who sat on the panel, one had played 4.0, one had read it, one had skimmed it, and one just wanted to share his opinions. The person who had actually played 4.0 was the most rational person there. She was a bit misinformed, but she was trying. The other three… I’ll just say that I spent that panel boiling with a desire to stab them in their faces.

They essentially repeated a bunch of uninformed trash-talk. I’d heard it all before on the Internet, but I didn’t expect people to actually sit in front of me and repeat it while claiming to be some sort of authorities. Their statements were rife with misconceptions and factual inaccuracies. It was clear that the three of them were so committed to hating 4.0 that they didn’t really care what the game was actually like.

Here’s a sample of the sorts of things they said:

  • It’s just a MMOG. The inclusion of cards means that WotC is telling you to never roleplay.
  • It’s just for hack-and-slash. There’s no support for anything else.
  • The “loss” of the magic system has destroyed wizards. There’s nothing interesting you can do with them now. Tactically they’re exactly like everyone else. (This was harped on at great length.)
  • The fact that classes have “roles” means it must be a MMOG.
  • All the classes are identical now.
  • It’s not possible to make characters with multiple classes anymore.
  • There’s no support or encouragement for storytelling.
  • The rules are simple and boring.
  • WotC is trying to bring in all “those kids” who play card games (they may have mentioned Yu-Gi-Oh or Pokemon). It’s too childish for “serious” gamers.

I hope that at this point it’s clear why I wanted to start with the face stabbing.

I’ve been playing roleplaying games since my early teens. I was exposed to them much earlier, but I preferred board games and tactical miniatures games when I was young. I played 3.0 and 3.5 in various settings for years. I never really liked combat. It was slow and tedious. I saw it as a necessary evil that I’d occasionally have to sit around doing nothing for 4 hours, taking brief 2 minute turns. Some days I brought knitting so I didn’t fall asleep. I frequently took the role of the cleric (because no one else would), which didn’t make it any less tedious. I far preferred sessions where I got to talk to NPCs or do interesting non-combat things like exploring or figuring out puzzles.

When I sat down to play 4.0 for the first time, I hadn’t heard much about it. It was very new. There were vague rumors, but fundamentally I guess I didn’t expect it to be all that different from 3.5. I was hoping for something a bit more streamlined in the same way that 3.0 was less bulky and painful than what came before it.

4.0 was different… far more so than I had expected. Combat was fast and intensely tactical. The world wasn’t just a featureless plane with a couple of immutable stone walls. You could interact with the environment and actually use it to your advantage in a fight. The characters were built to encourage people to fight together instead of being a pack of lone wolves. It was amazing.

It felt like the first day that I won a game of Puppy Pounders and the first time I played Second Edition D&D (and used up every spell on the sheet the GM gave me in a creative way) without any of the slow, boring bits from either one.

Yes, my powers happened to be on cards. Yes, that first game, the Keep of the Shadowfell, is all hack and slash. I still thought it was awesome. I played the cleric. I healed my friends, and I still got to play a real part in the battles!

Here’s my rough response to the trash talk above:

  • The classes are more balanced now. Everyone bring something tactically unique to a fight and everyone has their own weaknesses. It is still possible to build a more powerful character with careful choices, but the individual classes have pretty equal susceptibility to munchkinism.
  • Different classes with the same role, and even different builds of the same class are unique. They have different strengths and different strategies that they excel at. If you want nuanced mechanics and tactics to dig into, they are there. If you don’t, you have a general role. If you get the idea of the general role you’ll do just fine.
  • The game doesn’t start off “slow”. Fights and stories can be interesting, complex, and fun from the beginning. There’s no reason to start PCs off at level 4 because “those first few levels suck”. (I know multiple people who did this in 3.x.)
  • Things like magic can still be used in creative non-combat ways. You’re limited by what applications/effects your GM allows, just like you were in other editions. There are a lot of cantrips that have explicitly non-combat uses. There are also a huge number of Rituals, which are much larger non-combat magical spells. They’re expensive, slow, and sometimes hard to find, but they’re also powerful. Properly used Rituals can seriously alter the course of the game. They also make great hooks! :)
  • You can create characters with multiple classes. The related material had been released for quite a while at the time of the panel, so I don’t think they had much of an excuse for not knowing this.
  • The skill challenge system has plenty of issues, but it’s still very useful. It gives GMs a framework to support other kinds of success behind the scenes in a mechanical way. This can mean the end of needless flailing and meaningless skill checks that lead to nothing and the beginning of an era where the effects the PCs have on the world around them make sense.
  • Skill challenges help tremendously when you have a complex system that you want to model. Even when you have to ad-lib some, you have that framework and you have thought about how it works before the players start poking it. From a player’s point of view, something really complex has the potential to feel more consistent and realistic without driving your GM to madness.
  • In the same way that 4.0 combat allows for all sorts of environmental interactions and improvisation, skill challenges are more than tests of pure mechanical skill checks against target numbers. A good GM gives players leeway to tackle problems creatively using the resources they have at hand, whatever those may be. Smart players will be able to think of many ways to bend the situation in their favor, to tackle the problem using their own strengths, and to work together to solve problems. The system encourages this creative behavior rather than just “I roll diplomacy to convince the king,” which you may have seen previously.
  • The mere existence of skill challenges telegraphs to GMs that players should be doing things other than fighting. They’re a concrete way that WotC is telling you that your game can have more than hack-and-slash.
  • The monsters are simple. A monster is just what a GM needs. Less paper, less reading, less confusion and delay during combat.
  • The monsters that WotC releases have a really cool array of powers that make combat tactically interesting. They’ve been designed to work together in certain ways so that a GM can build an encounter easily. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out a monster’s basic tactics or who it would work well with.
  • As a PC there are also clear mechanics for figuring out about monsters IC (during combat), so you don’t need to memorize the compendium or metagame to get insight into their powers and likely tactics.
  • There is a huge amount of support for GMs who are learning. The various DMGs and D&D insider are peppered with ideas in chunks as large or small as you want. You can read guidelines, advice, and suggestions, or lift whole adventures. WotC has gone out of their way to hire some very good writers and it shows.

I don’t think 4.0 is some sort of shining star or the best game out there. I do think it’s a roleplaying game with a generic fantasy setting that supports fast, interesting tactical combat. If that’s not what you’re looking for, there are probably systems that are better suited to your needs.

In the past I’ve been terrified to run anything more mechanically complex than BESM. I hated learning new rule sets. There are a lot of edge cases and a lot of nuance in 4.0. That scared me tremendously when I set out to run a game. The resources available and the simplicity of the basic combat principals meant that I could handle learning the simple stuff and slowly building up my specialized knowledge. I still screw up edge cases, but I have the 98% I need to be functional.

No one is ever going to convince me that having enough rules to choke a rhino is a good feature in a game. I really appreciate the fact that new players can sit down and play by just reading their character sheet and learning a handful of basic things. Teach them about movement and basic combat turns, give them a reference sheet for status effects, and they’re ready to start having fun. They’ll find out later that there’s more to the game.

I don’t think gaming should be some sort of exclusive club. I like being able to introduce new people and hook them quickly. Everyone should be here at the table, having fun now, not having fun after they finish reading 200 pages of rules. This is not a college physics class. It’s a hobby. You shouldn’t need to suffer to join the club.

I think it’s especially disingenuous to to imply that getting kids into gaming is a bad thing. A lot of us got started in this hobby when we were young and have fond memories of “finally belonging” at the gaming table.

I love roleplaying. I love tactics. I love great stories. I can get those things from 4.0. I can create those things in 4.0. As a gamemaster, I have control over the proportions; the rules are supporting me rather than limiting me. If my players wanted more of a talking heavy epic saga, a super crunchy game, or even something more old-school, I would be able to provide it.

I get really sick of the trash-talk. Don’t get me wrong, if you love 3.x or Pathfinder, that’s cool. If you’re having fun, you’re doing something right. I have nothing against people with taste that differs from mine.

But, if you feel the need to trash-talk, please play the game you’re trashing. Try to look past claims like “It’s a MMOG!” and “OMG Yu-Gi-Oh Players!” and focus on understanding what the system actually is before you close your mind.

You might discover that it supports the kind of games you love even better than the system you were clinging to.

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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