Category Archives: Personal and Opinion

Most posts fit in here. Things where I write from the heart about all manner of subjects. As is the norm on personal websites these days, I remind you once again that everything I say here is my own opinion and doesn’t reflect the opinion of my employers — past, present or future.

1554: Your Regular Reminder to Not Be a Dick

It saddens me to occasionally have to write posts like this, but today has been One of Those Days when you just want to pick significant portions of the Internet up by its collar and shake it about a bit.

Put simply: don’t be a dick.

Put more specifically: don’t make sweeping generalisations that might upset or hurt people.

This is good advice for interacting with the rest of the human race in general, and it applies to numerous situations on the Internet, the most common of which is the increasingly frequent discussions surrounding gender — and rightly so.

But that’s not the only place where these sweeping generalisations can hurt people. Those who have found solace in certain forms of entertainment and/or subcultures should not be ridiculed for the things they enjoy, so long as they’re not hurting anyone. Those who sport a particular type of headgear should not be automatically assumed to be sex pests. And on the rare occasions when someone from a particular subculture does step out of line or do something stupid, for heaven’s sake don’t get on your high horse and start painting the entire subculture as some sort of disgusting deviant cult.

Those who have been following me for a while will now that I identify as being on the periphery of the “brony” subculture — that is, adult-age fans of the TV show My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. I count myself in this collective due to the simple fact that it’s an excellent show, and the extent of my fandom is that my desk is adorned with a few figures, my wall is adorned with a giant Rainbow Dash picture that Andie bought me for Christmas, and Andie and I enjoy playing the My Little Pony collectible card game, which is actually a really solid and enjoyable little two-player game. I don’t really engage with the rest of the community any more than that; I had a brief stint posting on a pony forum, but that shut down temporarily and I never went back after the relaunch. I don’t make videos, I don’t write fanfic, I don’t make pony-related art, and I’m not into “rule 34″ stuff. (If you don’t know, for heaven’s sake don’t Google it.)

Which is why I was so upset earlier on to be greeted by a tweet from someone I follow that simply read “destroy all bronies” (in that slightly annoying, all lower-case, unpunctuated sort of way that a lot of people seem to be favouring these days) without any sort of context. It turned out that the tweet in question was to do with an unpleasant (and, it turned out, seemingly debunked) story that had been circulating regarding a recent pony convention: a Tumblr user had claimed that an unaccompanied 11 year old girl was being stalked by an older dude (oh, and he was a fat guy, too; how convenient!) and this subsequently degenerated into a discussion of how bronies were the scum of the Earth, how they were corrupting something “meant for little girls” and all manner of other nonsense that assumed everyone in the entire fandom behaved in exactly the same unpleasant manner.

I’m not going to deny there are some aspects of the fandom that delve into territories I’m not interested in exploring — see the aforementioned “rule 34″ — but the fact is that the fandom as a whole is a large and diverse one made up of both men and women, and the creed it holds itself to, on the whole, is “love and tolerate”. Which, in my experience, it does. Tarring the whole lot with the same brush is completely unhelpful, and of course people are going to get defensive if you start lumping them in with perverts, deviants and outright criminals.

The irony of today’s few “bronies should just leave My Little Pony for the little girls” discussions is that also in circulation today was an article, video or some other piece of “viral” media explaining how men shouldn’t be “gatekeepers of culture” for women and girls; if that’s the case, it works both ways, surely. Just don’t gate off aspects of culture at all, regardless of gender or age. Girls can be geeks. Boys can like My Little Pony. And, as one post I read earlier pointed out, it’s actually kind of cool for kids and adults to have something they can both engage with and enjoy together rather than deliberately segregating themselves from one another.

All this happens with anime, too. You only have to mention something vaguely moe for the “anime fans are paedophiles” crowd to come out and start making wild assumptions and accusations. I had a brief but interesting discussion with a Japanese otaku on Twitter the other night who was surprised, confused and disappointed to see that Western mainstream media discussion of the moe side of anime culture largely seemed to paint it as some sort of sexual deviance for perverts rather than simply what it is: an aesthetic designed to elicit an emotional reaction, and not necessarily sexual at all. (This isn’t to deny that there is sometimes a sexual aspect to moe, but to make it all about that is a gross oversimplification.)

What I find infuriating about a lot of the times you see ridiculous discussions like today — whether they’re about the creepiness of bronies, the paedo factor of anime fans, the rapey nature of men who choose to wear hats or whatever else Tumblr is angry about today — is that they often stem from people who are the first to jump atop the soapbox the moment there’s a perceived injustice against women, or people from non-white ethnic backgrounds, or transgender people, or those with a disability, or any number of other groups. It’s important to fight for justice in these areas, but doing so doesn’t give you “social justice credit” to be spent on being a dick towards groups of people who gather together based on something they enjoy or something they have in common. It’s a different situation, of course — you can choose what you’re a fan of, but you can’t choose your gender, race or all manner of other aspects about yourself — but the principles of love and tolerance still apply. People are different and diverse, both in terms of their non-negotiable characteristics and the things they choose to identify with, and that’s wonderful. Celebrate this diversity rather than trying to tear it down.

To put it another way: don’t be a dick, and I hope I never have to write a post like this again.

 

1554: Rebels Against the God

Having finished To Love-Ru a few days ago, I decided to jump into another show I’d heard of but didn’t know much about: Angel Beats!, a show from P.A. Works and Aniplex, with a story and character design from two members of Key, the folks behind Clannad. (I mention this because the latter aspect is particularly noticeable; the show has the same gorgeous, well-animated style as Clannad, though thematically it’s rather different.)

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I’m only three episodes in so far but I’m very interested to see more already simply because the premise is so unusual. Unfolding in the afterlife, the show follows the exploits of a group who call themselves the SSS — a group of people who are attempting to resist a non-specific “god” to prevent themselves from being “obliterated” and subsequently reincarnated. Each of the characters clearly has their own story to tell about how they died and why they don’t want to give up and accept their fate; three episodes in, we’ve already seen a couple of them, and I predict there will be quite a few tearjerking scenes before the end.

Like Clannad, though, Angel Beats! doesn’t rely purely on wringing out your tear ducts until you can’t cry any more. In fact, even more so than Clannad, there’s a heavy dose of humour to the proceedings, and it’s often rather black in nature. In the second episode, for example, the main cast are attempting to find their way to a hidden base from which they can procure weapons and supplies for their fight against what appears to be God’s representative, an emotionless young girl called Angel who constantly thwarts them with her mysterious, seemingly supernatural powers. Along the way, it becomes apparent that the “anti-Angel traps” that had been set along the route have been activated, and one by one the group gets picked off in a series of gruesome manners. One guy gets crushed by a rock; another drowns; another is sliced to ribbons by being too big and muscular to duck under an arrangement of laser beams. In most shows, this sequence of events would be a horrifying tragedy, but since all the characters in Angel Beats! are inhabitants of the afterlife, we’re quickly reminded that something that would kill you in reality will merely inconvenience you for a few minutes if you’re already dead. I sense this is something that’s going to come around again in the future.

One of the things I’m enjoying about the show so far is how it juxtaposes darkly humorous sections like the aforementioned — trust me, it is funny despite all the violence — with sections that are just plain dark. The sequence where leading lady Yuri explains her regrets from the latter days of her life is utterly heartbreaking, for example, as is the story of how songstress Iwasawa shuffled off the mortal coil and found herself in the afterlife. I’m pretty certain that the rest of the cast will have a similar tale to tell — with the final story undoubtedly being reserved for the currently amnesiac male protagonist, who is thoroughly confused by the whole situation he finds himself in.

The show’s beautifully presented; aside from the aforementioned lovely art and glorious animation, the soundtrack is excellent, too. There’s been heavy use of diegetic music in the episodes I’ve seen so far, with the lyrics often being relevant either to the specific situation the gang finds themselves in, or their overall situation in the afterlife. It can sometimes be a challenge to keep up with the two sets of subtitles running at once — one for the music, one for the dialogue — but it’s worth attempting. (It’s also nothing compared to the bizarre way the show handles teasers for the next episode: short clips from the episode of characters talking, all overlaid on top of each other at a more and more frantic pace until you can’t possibly take any more.)

So that’s that. At three episodes in I’m hesitant to say too much more at this juncture, but I’ve very much enjoyed what I’ve seen so far and am looking forward to watching more. I’m sure I’ll have further thoughts when I have a few more episodes under my belt.

1554: Hyperlynx

The Game Boy apparently turned 25 recently, but I didn’t own an original Game Boy when they first came out. (I did later pick up a Game Boy Pocket, a Game Boy Color and indeed every Nintendo handheld since, but no original Game Boy.) As such, I don’t have quite as many fond memories of the little yellow-and-black wünderkind, because our household instead elected to indulge in the Atari Lynx for their handheld gaming needs. (More specifically, the Lynx 2, which was considerably smaller than the monstrous original Lynx but still far too big to even think about putting in your pocket.)

The Lynx was a surprisingly impressive machine for the time, boasting a full-colour backlit screen, a 16-bit processor (compared to the Game Boy’s 8-bit) and hardware scaling for smooth “zooming” of sprites and images a la the SNES’ Mode 7 facility without the “rotation” part. All this technological advancedness (spellcheck tells me that’s not a word, but I’m going to use it anyway) came at a price, though; the system gobbled batteries like they were rapidly becoming extinct. (In fact, the rate the Lynx consumed AAs, it’s a wonder batteries didn’t become extinct.)

So bad was the battery life that it was literally impossible to make it through the entirety of a game such as Gauntlet III without having to plug the AC adapter in partway through the play session. And with the Lynx’s “game card” cartridges lacking any sort of battery backup functionality (and, consequently, the ability to save games) this meant that every time you started playing a game you had to begin from the beginning again, unless the developer had thoughtfully included some sort of “password” function. (Oh, remember passwords? What a hellish time we used to live in.) This meant that games either had to be very short or friendly to replaying. Certain games handled this well. Others, like the otherwise excellent quasi-point-and-click adventure based on Dracula, did not.

There were some really solid games, though. Unofficial Pole Position sequel Checkered Flag was a particular highlight due to its impressive use of the Lynx’s sprite scaling facility (albeit on a distinctly “retro” style of racer, and Warbirds proved that it was indeed possible to have a good crack at a flight sim on a handheld device. The aforementioned Dracula had some impressively stylish visuals and was a good adaptation of Bram Stoker’s story, lack of save function aside, and Gauntlet III was arguably the best version of Gauntlet the world has ever seen thanks to its wide variety of characters and sprawling, interesting levels.

One of my favourites was Electrocop, a game whose technological achievements were really quite impressive for the time. Effectively a 3D third-person shooter before anyone knew what those were, Electrocop cast you in the title role as you wandered around a 3D base from a side-on perspective blasting robots and hacking terminals to open locked doors. It was far more than a straight blastathon, and the side-on 3D effect, in which you could run left and right as well as “into” and “out of” the screen in smooth motion, was utterly gobsmacking for the time. I also vaguely remember it having cool music. Let’s see if I can’t find some.

Also of particular note was the Lynx version of Klax. Klax remains one of my favourite puzzle games of all time — there was just something so satisfying about it — and the Lynx version was pretty much arcade-perfect, right down to having a vertically-oriented screen.

Yes, the Lynx was not at all afraid to demand that the player hold the already unwieldy device on its side with the joypad at the top and the buttons at the bottom (or the other way around if you preferred — there’s a feature that modern handhelds don’t offer!) and indeed boasted a number of vertically-oriented games, of which Klax was one and the aforementioned Gauntlet III was another. After you got your arms used to the initial awkwardness of the arrangement — a problem mitigated marginally on the slightly smaller Lynx 2 — it was actually quite a good way to play, and an eminently sensible solution to the problem of how to accurately represent ports of arcade games that originally played on vertically-oriented monitors.

Anyway. I sold off my Lynx a good few years back now, along with the hefty collection of games I had for it. There are occasional days when I regret doing that, but unlike a lot of the old Game Boy games, many of the Lynx titles don’t hold up particularly well these days, sadly. Although there were a few standout titles — most of which I’ve mentioned in this post — the majority of the library was fairly mediocre in retrospect, and would probably come as an unpleasant shock to people used to the incredible depth and breadth available in handheld games today. Like many systems that failed to endure as well as others, the Lynx was an impressive gizmo in its day, but today, I feel, owning one would be little more than a curiosity rather than something to take particularly seriously.

Or perhaps just a Klax machine. Which, frankly, is actually probably reason enough to own one.

1553: Fight On: A Music Post

I wanted an excuse to share this excellent piece of battle music from Demon Gaze, which I’m still playing through for review, so I figured, what the hey, why not just do a battle music post?

All right. Without further ado, first up, and in no particular order after that:

Demon Gaze (PS Vita) – Blue Eyes Hunter

This track from the dungeon crawler is the battle theme that plays when you fight against the enemies that pop out when you toss a gem into one of the many Demon Circles that adorn each of the game’s levels. This is a core game mechanic that allows you to acquire new equipment without having to pay for it; you can subsequently either equip it if it’s better than what you’ve got, break it down for Ether to use in upgrading existing equipment, or sell it for profit.

Demon Gaze’s soundtrack is consistently excellent and unusual. The fact there’s a heavy Vocaloid component to most of the tracks gives them a very distinctive feel, and this track is a good example. There’s a pretty wide selection of music throughout the game, and partway through your adventure the default battle theme changes — something that I always like to hear happen in an RPG, as it’s an obvious signal that you’ve made significant progress.

Final Fantasy XIV (PC, PS3, PS4) – Fallen Angel

This track from one of the toughest battles in Final Fantasy XIV’s main story (but one of the more straightforward battles from the endgame) is one of the best pieces of music in the whole game. It accompanies the battle against Garuda, one of the gigantic Primals who are threatening the land of Eorzea after being summoned by the beastmen tribes who worship them.

Garuda, or the Lady of the Vortex as she’s also known, is a nasty piece of work, and her fight really gives a strong feeling of clinging on for dear life against powerful winds lashing against your face. The music’s frantic energy helps complement that, too, making this an incredibly exciting confrontation.

Menace (Atari ST, Amiga) – Boss Fight Theme

This isn’t an RPG battle theme; instead it’s a boss battle theme from the Psygnosis side-scrolling shooter Menace – a surprisingly competent game that stood up reasonably well to its console equivalents of the same period.

This track by David Whittaker may be repetitive and simple, but it helped get the idea across that battling bosses was serious business. I vividly recall finding it almost impossible to beat the first boss on Menace when I was a kid. I wonder how difficult I’d find it now?

Time and Eternity (PS3) – Towa Battle Theme

Time and Eternity was critically panned when it was released by pretty much everyone except me — I rather liked it, and looking back on last year it’s actually one of the games I feel like I enjoyed most even though I will freely admit it was not, by any means, the best game I’ve ever played.

Two big contributing factors to my enjoyment of the game were its beautiful HD anime art style — the game used hand-drawn anime cels for sprites rather than the more common polygons seen in many of today’s games — and Yuzo Koshiro’s astonishing soundtrack. Koshiro, if you’re unfamiliar, is the guy behind one of the finest soundtracks of the 16-bit era, the Streets of Rage 2 score. This particular track is one of the normal battle themes for the game — there are two; one for each of the two main characters, Toki and Towa. This is Towa’s.

Baldur’s Gate (PC) – Attacked by Assassins

I’m generally not so much of a fan of Western-style RPG soundtracks because they tend to be more “cinematic” in nature; in other words, in contrast to the catchy, singable tunes of Eastern games, Western games tend to have music more as something going on in the background. This is fine, of course — it’s worked for a lot of movies and TV shows over the years — but I’ve never been a huge fan because it makes the soundtracks less memorable overall for me.

There are exceptions, though, and this track by Michael Hoenig for the original Baldur’s Gate is one of them. One of the first battle themes you hear in the game, this track just has a wonderfully aggressive, pounding energy to it that makes you want to keep on fighting. (Of course, at the time you first hear this track, all your characters are level 1 and consequently are very likely to get killed by a small rat breathing anywhere near them, but that shouldn’t stop you from feeling like a hero while you still have a few HP.)

TFX (PC) – Defence Suppression

Oh man, I’ve been wanting to hear this track again for years now, and good old YouTube delivered the goods. YAY. Ahem. Anyway.

This is from the distinctly “arcadey” (for want of a better word) flight sim TFX from 1993, a spectacular-for-the-time game that I always really wanted to play 1) to hear this music (which was included as Redbook CD audio, so you could listen to it on a CD player) during gameplay and 2) to switch between the internal and external views a few times just to see the G-LOC-style “zoom” animation where the camera zipped back and forth dynamically rather than just switching like other boring flight sims.

Unfortunately, I could never get the copy we owned running, and thus to this day I’ve still never played TFX. I somehow doubt it will stand up quite so well today, but this is still a cool (if distinctly ’90s cheesy) piece of music.

Ar Tonelico Qoga (PS3) – EXEC_COSMOFLIPS

Ar Tonelico Qoga was not the strongest installment in the Ar Tonelico series — that honour belongs to Ar Tonelico 2 – but it has one of the finest soundtracks. In fact, with the amazing music in all three Ar Tonelico games, it’s nigh-impossible to pick one favourite soundtrack.

It is less difficult, however, to pick a favourite individual song; this one, from Ar Tonelico Qoga, is simply wonderful. Just listening to it will hopefully give you an idea of its majesty to a certain extent, but taken in context of what is going on in the story at this point, it’s just magnificent.

Final Fantasy Tactics (PS1) – Trisection

Final Fantasy Tactics had a few good tunes, but on the whole I thought it was a relatively weak soundtrack, especially when compared to the rest of the Final Fantasy series which, at this point, was still dominated almost exclusively by Nobuo Uematsu. (Tactics, meanwhile, was composed by Masaharu Iwata and Hitoshi Sakimoto.)

This track, though, is one that I’ll always remember. Accompanying the very first battle in the game, it was the absolute perfect way to stir up the emotions and encourage you to do your best — which is why I was disappointed it wasn’t used more often over the course of the rest of the game. I always wanted major battles to be accompanied by this tune, and every time the “story” music faded out in preparation for the battle to begin, I found myself hoping and hoping that I’d hear those distinctive opening rising passages again.

Trauma Team (Wii) – Be the One

The Trauma Center series has consistently fantastic music throughout, thanks largely to the involvement of Persona composer Shoji Meguro for part of the run, but this track here is a particular highlight that I believe I’ve drawn attention to on this blog before.

This track is from the culmination of the entire game’s storyline; the final operation to stamp out the disease that has been running rampant throughout the population once and for all. (I won’t spoil any further circumstances, as additional narrative aspects make this an incredibly nerve-wracking scene overall.) It’s a track that says “don’t fuck this up; everything is depending on this”, and the track that comes immediately after it was enough to get me sitting forward in my seat pretty much holding my breath as I attempting to bring the game to its conclusion. Amazing stuff.


 

Well, at nearly 1,500 words that’s probably enough for a “throwaway” post on battle themes from video games. If you have any favourites of your own, feel free to share in the comments. Include a YouTube link if there is one!

1552: An American Workplace

Finally reached the end of the American incarnation of The Office today, and I was very pleased with how it all wrapped itself up. I was very pleasantly surprised with the series as a whole, in fact — though the early stages of the first series where it was literally nothing more than a word-for-word remake of the English version were… not poor, but disappointing; and the latter part of the complete run did perhaps drag on a little longer than it needed to. Still, the finale was good, and the nine seasons of episodes meant that by the end you have a very strong understanding of all the characters involved.

I liked the balance it struck between some genuinely touching stories and somewhat formulaic character comedy. Many of the characters in the show almost had a “catchphrase” — not literally, but an iconic means of behaving — but the show, on the whole, managed to ensure that these party tricks weren’t used so much that the people using them became one-dimensional joke machines. Angela’s prim and proper attitude was subverted by what happened to her in the later seasons with regard to her relationships, for example, while the seemingly alcoholic Meredith points out in the last episode that the side of her captured on film — the side that drank too much, frequently got her tits out and behaved completely inappropriately — was only part of the entire picture.

And this was part of the point, really. As a spoof “docudrama”, both the English and American versions of The Office play with the idea that it’s possible to steer a narrative that you have no external influence on through careful, selective editing and manipulation after the fact. It’s a common trick in reality TV; some shows even supposedly have disclaimers that you may not be portrayed entirely accurately if you appear on them, because the footage will be edited to fit the “script” rather than to give a truthful picture of what actually happened.

In the case of The Office, of course, the whole thing was scripted and planned out from start to finish, and it was, at times, hard to forget that side of things. Jim and Pam’s romance was a little too perfect at times — even with the several pieces of tension introduced in the final season. Similarly, characters such as Dwight, Erin and Andy were almost too much of a caricature to be truly “believable” at times; this certainly didn’t hurt the show if you treated it as an ongoing comedy drama rather than attempting to suspend your disbelief and treat it as an ongoing documentary, but it did lose a little of the magic that the English original had.

That said, thinking back to the English original version, David Brent was an obvious caricature that, on many occasions, behaved far too ridiculously to be “believable” as a real person. The difference is that alongside his obvious nonsense, everything else was a lot more understated. The Tim and Dawn possible romance was constantly left dangling — something the American version simply couldn’t do with the considerably larger number of episodes it boasted — and even when it seemed to “wrap things up” had a certain degree of ambiguity about it. Not so much with Jim and Pam — though again, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing; Jim and Pam’s relationship and how they overcame their difficulties and stuck together was a pleasantly heartwarming tale when all’s said and done.

On the whole, then, I really enjoyed the whole series, and the last couple of episodes were an excellent finale to the entire run. It’s a very distinct beast from the English original — I’m not sure if it’s better overall, but it certainly managed to maintain our attention for nine seasons of twentysomething episodes each rather than the original’s two seasons of six episodes each.

It’s a good watch, then; less dependent on outright uncomfortable comedy than the British original, and more focus on slow, gradual character development over time. The whole run could have possibly stood to be a couple of seasons shorter — things dragged a little in the middle — but it started and finished very strong, and I’m very glad I took the time to watch it from start to finish.

The question is, then, what’s next?

1551: Late-Night Dungeon

I’ve been dipping in and out of Demon Gaze since I wrote about it a few days ago, and while it has a few issues here and there — the discussion of which I’ll save until my review on USgamer, coming next week — I’ve been really rather impressed with this game.

In fact, that’s a bit of an understatement; on more than one occasion now the game has kept me up until well past 3 in the morning after I thought I’d just flip the Vita on for a “quick” game in bed before I went to sleep. (Granted, the last occasion this happened — last night — I had had far too much caffeine throughout the course of the day and was consequently finding it very difficult to sleep, but I could have done anything else with that time, and I chose to spend it lying in bed playing Demon Gaze.)

I’ve been trying to pin down what’s so enjoyable about it and it’s honestly quite difficult. It’s not that there’s no obvious good features about it; it’s that they blend together somewhat, and different aspects of the game appeal in different ways according to the conditions under which you’re playing.

Playing late at night, as I was, I was particularly enjoying the dungeon-crawling aspect of it. It’s not quite as hardcore as the 3DS series it’s taking pot-shots at, Etrian Odyssey in that you don’t have to map the damn thing by hand, but it’s still a game that, from the very outset, doesn’t hold you by the hand and expects you not only to work things out for yourself but also to experiment with the mechanics just to see what happens.

The core game structure is based around capturing demons. In order to do this, you must explore the dungeon that is the demon’s domain and capture all of the “circles” throughout by tossing a gem into them and then fighting the slobbering monsters that come out. Win, and you’ll capture the circle as well as receive an item according to the gem you tossed. Lose, and, well, you’re dead and better hope you had a recent save.

For the most part, this isn’t an issue. The monsters that come out of the cirlces are usually the same monsters you get in the rest of the dungeon, though sometimes in considerably larger numbers. As such, if your party is well-equipped to batter its way through the monsters in the dungeon, they can probably deal with the groups that come out of the circles.

Until the demon master of the dungeon shows their face unexpectedly, that is. You’re set up to believe they won’t turn up until you’ve captured all the circles and found the boss fight location, but in actuality what happens is some time around when you capture about half of the circles in the dungeon, the next one you try for will summon the demon. And it’s entirely possible they will smash your face in and then wear your buttocks as a hat, particularly in the first dungeon where your characters likely still aren’t all that powerful or well-geared.

The first time this happened, I thought I’d done something horribly wrong. Surely the game balance couldn’t be that broken? I experimented a bit; did the demon only come out of one circle, or all of them? (All of them.) Was it every time? (No, but seemingly most of the time.) Did using special abilities help? (A little.) Did levelling up help? (A lot.) Did better equipment help? (Also a lot.) By the time I’d reached my own conclusions — I should have just run away the first time I encountered Mars, then come back better-equipped and better-trained a little later, and probably with a healer in tow — it felt enormously satisfying to take the demon down and effectively clear the dungeon.

There are more subtle things, too. Occasionally you’ll find “Loot Maps” as random treasures in battle, for example, and these will give an area name, an X and Y map reference and the name of the “power” you need to reveal the hidden treasure at that location. Trouble is, the area name never matches the actual area names — “Garden of Thorns” becomes “The Vine-y Land” — so you have to use a bit of your own brainpower and deduction to figure out what it’s referring to. (Pro-tip: if the grid reference the map is pointing to appears to be a solid wall miles away from anything, you’re probably looking at the wrong area.) You also have to figure out which of the demons the “power” names refer to — rather than saying “you need Comet, Mars or Chronos” it’ll say something like “requires Dragon power” or the like. Again, there’s a wonderful feeling of smug satisfaction when you successfully decipher a map and uncover the treasure hidden in the location – particularly when the treasure in question is something that you’ve been searching for for hours for a quest.

Demon Gaze doesn’t give up its secrets easily, then, but for me, this is proving to be one of the best things about it as it makes your victories feel like genuine accomplishments. I’m looking forward to working my way through the rest of the game not only to see how the interesting story proceeds, but also for more sweet old-school grid-based exploration and treasure-hunting.

It’s bringing back fond memories of old titles like Lands of Lore, it of the Patrick Stewart-voiced intro fame, and will be a solid investment for any Vita-toting players who have a penchant for traditional dungeon-crawling. Watch out for it — and my full review — this week.

1550: Alpen Sponsors Characters on Dave

It’s been a while since I talked about how shit adverts are, so let’s talk about how shit adverts are. Or, more accurately, how shit those annoying “bumpers” or whatever they’re called before and after every ad break on a particular channel are.

I’m thinking of two specific examples here, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a good one, even thinking years back. Remember the annoying girls frantically scrabbling around with a hammer and a bowl of popcorn before Friends came on? I don’t think I can ever remember what that was fo– wait, Wella Experience, so I guess it did its job to a certain extent. Or did it? Annoying girls frantically scrabbling around with a hammer and a bowl of popcorn before Friends came on didn’t make me want to purchase any of Wella’s Experience products, whatever the hell they were. No; it made me irritable, and it made me fast-forward the moment the screen faded for the ads whenever I watched the episodes on video, which is how I typically ended up watching Friends.

The two specific examples I’m thinking of from 2014 are both from the channel Dave, it of the perpetual Top Gear, QI and Mock the Week reruns. The first is for Admiral multi-car insurance, and the second is for Alpen.

They’re both shit, and not just because they’re repetitive — although by God they’re both repetitive as fuck when they’re repeated a considerable number of times every evening — and they’re both shit for the same reason: they don’t make any sense whatsoever.

Take the Admiral ones. Here’s one. (Actually, these are a little different from the ones that air on TV, but these are the ones that Admiral has inexplicably chosen to upload to their YouTube account.)

And another.

They appear to be attempting to make a catchphrase out of “ooh, that’s primetime!” because, you see, they accompany “primetime” shows on Dave. Trouble is, that doesn’t make any sense. “That’s primetime!” isn’t something people say, and it’s not something you can force people to say. Not to mention the fact that the ads don’t have anything whatsoever to do with what they’re supposedly advertising — multi-car insurance. And no, saying the words “multi-car insurance!” during the advert when something completely incongruous is going on is not advertising multi-car insurance. Like the annoying Wella girls, these ads make me less inclined to ever make use of Admiral’s services.

Then comes Alpen, who have much the same problem. Alpen, as the campaign goes, sponsors “characters on Dave”, or in other words, the shows that are on in the mid-to-late evening and typically involve recognisable, well-known comedians.

A month or so ago, Alpen’s campaign made a reasonable amount of sense. There was a dude tramping around his alpine apartment eating porridge. Geoffrey Palmer said “porridge full of character”, then there was a close-up of the porridge. Fair enough.

Now, however, there’s a bearded bloke who waffles on some idiotic nonsense about what he thinks characters “are” (“Characters have eyes in the back of their head! Hello, mountains!” — he’s standing in front of a window with a view over some mountains), then Geoffrey Palmer says “Alpen sponsors characters on Dave” with a rather worn-out voice, as if he knows what he’s being asked to do is utterly stupid. And no porridge, full of character or no. (Unfortunately there’s no videos of these sequences easily available. Sort it out, YouTube!)

I just don’t understand why or how someone signed off on these. Both the Admiral and the Alpen ads are clearly supposed to be funny, but they’re also obviously composed by people who have absolutely no idea how to write comedy and thus have absolutely no business whatever writing comedy. Or attempting to, anyway.

Anyway, yes. That’s what I’ve been thinking about this evening. What a happy and exciting life I lead, no?

1549: HOUOUIN KYOUMA

Still not finished Steins;Gate – it’s long! — but I wanted to talk about it a bit more, as I played it a whole bunch this evening and think I may be closing in on one of the games several endings.

Like most good visual novels, Steins;Gate does an excellent job of drawing you into its world and helping you understand its protagonist. Despite being entirely composed of static images, character portraits and very occasional “event” images — much like every other visual novel — it manages to craft an extremely convincing setting. Or perhaps, given the game’s focus on manipulation of time, the many-worlds interpretation and all manner of other goodness (this isn’t a spoiler, by the way; it’s a core theme of the whole thing), it would be more accurate to say “settings”.

One of the most interesting things about the game is the effort to which Nitroplus (and, by extension, the translators) has gone to ensure that all the background detail in the world is consistent, detailed and, in many instances, based rather obviously on reality. An extensive in-game glossary allows you to look up information on a variety of different keywords that appear throughout the course of the narrative and dialogue — and these cover a range of subjects from real-life scientific theory to popular hypotheses put forward by science fiction, snippets of otaku culture, online culture, and “chuunibyou” conspiracy theories. Although the game takes obvious pains to twist things slightly from their real-life counterparts — IBM becomes IBN, for example; CERN becomes SERN; names of popular anime and manga get similarly bastardised — it’s obvious that a lot is based on things from the actual, real world, and consequently it’s hard not to feel like the game is subtly sneaking some genuine knowledge into your brain as you play it.

Okay, a lot of it may not be all that useful unless you have an otaku friend who constantly drops references you don’t understand (Hi!) or are acquainted with a conspiracy theorist nutjob, but it’s interesting that it’s in there nonetheless — plus it helps provide a lot of the narrative with an interesting degree of context. It’s also just plain cool for a narrative to be based on real-life urban legends such as John Titor and the question of what CERN are really up to with their Large Hadron Collider.

Aside from all that, though, Steins;Gate is simply a phenomenally well-written visual novel. It’s long and wordy, sure, but all the exposition in the game’s early chapters really pays off with some wonderfully strong character development. The protagonist in particular is a fascinating individual; being a “chuunibyou” conspiracy theorist himself with delusions of being a mad scientist named Hououin Kyouma — a name his voice actor takes considerable delight in bellowing every time it comes up in the script — makes him far more interesting to inhabit the head of than many other “blank slate” protagonist characters seen in other visual novels. Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with those — they often fit well with more “dating sim”-style stories in which the protagonist is usually intended to be a self-insert for the player — but, well, yes. Steins;Gate makes a convincing case for the protagonist being a strong character in their own right.

Anyway, three solid hours of reading earlier have driven my eyes a bit squiffy so I’m off to bed. Further thoughts will doubtless follow when I’ve finished the damn thing.

1548: Sell-Out

This is probably going to sound like a terribly “inside baseball” post, but I feel the need to vent a little, so apologies in advance.

I am absolutely sick of the lack of respect given to my profession — games critic, games journalist, person who writes about games, whatever you want to call it — and I am likewise sick of the daily drama that accompanies it, particularly on the UK/European side of things. It’s getting extremely tiresome to put up with the daily snark, outrage and condemnation of this, that or the other, and I really can’t help feeling that ultimately all it does is distract from the reasons most of us got into this business in the first place: loving games.

Whether it’s someone using the infuriating scare quotes around the job title “journalist” (as in “so-called games ‘journalists’”), the regular (and, to my knowledge, usually unjustified) accusations of bribery, corruption and otherwise unethical behaviour or the current favourite of the social justice crowd, complaining whenever a white man writes something, you sometimes have to wonder why people put up with this shit. And indeed some don’t. And I can’t say I blame them.

I’ve been quite fortunate throughout my career in that there’s only been one real occasion where I became a little uncomfortable as a result of the behaviour of a reader or community member. That was back on GamePro, when the GamePro Facebook page was frequented by a rather strange individual who didn’t believe in debit cards and had some peculiar political ideas. He was harmless for the most part, until I posted a piece about an interesting-sounding game developed by a university that promised to explore matters of sexuality and gender. He exploded in a fit of rage; forced to confront things that clearly didn’t fit in with his rather narrow-minded view of the world, he became extremely aggressive and unpleasant, and for the first time I felt a little afraid of the Internet. (The second time I was afraid of the Internet has been well-documented on these pages, but that was nothing to do with work.)

The latest incident in Games Industry Drama involved a recent press event for Ubisoft’s upcoming game Watch Dogs in which attendees were reportedly given a free Nexus 7 — a decent Android tablet. Predictably, this quickly descended into people condemning the people who had accepted them and people arguing about “ethics”, while at the same time NeoGAF was doing its usual thing of whingeing about how game journalists are all paid off and how no-one writes “objective” reviews. (Hahaha.)

It is exhausting to have to process all this sort of thing on a daily basis. I write about games for one reason and one reason only. (Well, two if you count the paycheque.) I write about games because I love writing about games. No other reason. I’m not trying to change the world. I’m not trying to make people rise up and fight against oppressive powers. I’m not trying to make people confront things they’re uncomfortable with. And perhaps I should be doing those things. But I’m not. The reason I write about games is because I love writing about games, and because I love games.

When I come across a brilliant game I love that few people are talking about, the first thing I think about is how I might be able to write about it in a way that gets my passion and enthusiasm across. These are experiences I want to share with people; experiences I want other people to be able to have. And if just one person reads something I’ve written and thinks “hmm, that sounds interesting; maybe I’ll check it out!” then I’m happy.

But if just one person rolls up and calls me a sellout or calls my integrity into question, that sucks. Fortunately I haven’t had to deal with that particular issue in my career, but seeing it constantly going on all around me on a seemingly daily basis is just exhausting. Sometimes I wish everyone would just shut the fuck up and just enjoy themselves for once.

And I realise that by writing this I’m simply contributing to the noise. But it needed to get out of my brain and on to the page. And now I’m done. I’m off to go and play either Final Fantasy XIV or Demon Gaze and not look at social media for the rest of the day.

1547: Reading Steiner

A lengthy Steins;Gate session this evening coupled with a chat about Saya no Uta (aka Song of Saya, a game I haven’t played but am looking forward to trying) with my friend Mark has reminded me both how and why I love the visual novel medium.

I use the word “medium” when referring to visual novels rather than “genre” because in many cases, it’s not entirely accurate to call them “games”, despite the fact that they tend to be festooned in the trappings of video games. Most tend to include some sort of metagame element, be it a simple checklist of endings, a CG gallery with a completion percentage or, in the case of more complex games like Steins;Gate, even achievements. Most of them are presented in a distinctly game-like fashion, with console-style main menus that make pleasing noises when you click on them, colourful but clear text boxes with a little spinny thing in the corner that tells you when you’ve reached the end of the current paragraph, and all manner of other things.

And yet they’re not games. Not really. They’re interactive stories — some having no more than one or two meaningful choices over the course of the entire narrative, and some even eschewing the element of choice whatsoever — that make use of multimedia presentation to distinguish themselves from, you know, reading a book. The combination of static background images, static or lightly animated characters, music, voice acting, sound effects and text all combine to create a very distinctive effect — and one that can be a powerful poke to the imagination.

Books, of course, are the poster childs for stoking the fires of the imagination, but visual novels also do this, albeit in a different way. Whereas in a book it’s left largely up to you how you picture the scene unfolding in front of you, in visual novels you tend to get a bit more in the way of audio-visual cues. You can hear the characters’ voices (at least you can in recent releases; earlier VNs were text-only), you can see the characters, you can hear the music giving you an idea of the overall mood and, if the scene is a particularly important one, there’ll be an “event” image depicting a dramatic moment from whatever is happening.

Far from being an inferior means of stirring the imagination, this approach works in a different way. While books provide the stimulus for mental pictures through descriptive text, visual novels simply use their multimedia element to do so, which allows them to cut back a little on the descriptive text and instead explore the protagonist’s innermost thoughts, or engage in some snappy dialogue between characters.

Visual novels present a particularly good means of expressing a first-person narrative. While in first-person perspective books you tend to feel like you’re just along for the ride, in visual novels it feels like you’re taking a much more active role — even if your influence on the overall story is minimal. You’re sitting inside the main character’s mind looking out through their eyes and listening to their innermost thoughts — and even if the main character is some sort of awful jerk (as they often are in visual novels) this provides a very good means of exploring that character, why they are an awful jerk and how they may or may not go about changing themselves. Character growth! How about that.

This isn’t to say visual novels have to be confined to first-person narratives, however. No; in fact, it can be very effective for a visual novel to “cut away” to another character, or even a complete shift in perspective to third-person. Nitroplus’ visual novel Deus Machina Demonbane is a particularly good example of this being used effectively; during its first-person sections, it’s something of a film noir tale about a down-on-his-luck detective and how he becomes embroiled in a series of increasingly ridiculous events. During its third-person sections, however, the true scale of what Kujou is involved in becomes apparent thanks to being able to get an overall picture of what is going on — coupled with the authentically overblown and distinctly Lovecraftian narration that accompanies these scenes.

Steins;Gate, also from Nitroplus, is a little more traditional than Demonbane in that it remains firmly stuck inside the protagonist’s mind, but my gosh what an interesting head to be stuck inside, for Rintaro Okabe is a strange individual indeed — seemingly convinced he’s a mad scientist named Hououin Kyouma (which his voice actor bellows with admirable aplomb every time it comes up in the script) who is being pursued by “The Organisation”, it’s not entirely clear for a lot of the game whether Okabe genuinely has a screw loose or if he’s just playing up for the people around him. The sheer ridiculousness of his statements would seem to suggest the latter, but then he does something so outrageous that you have to wonder about his mental state. And when Steins;Gate‘s overarching narrative threads start to get moving, things become even more murky.

The upshot of this is that Okabe becomes something of an unreliable narrator. And this is something that visual novels are particularly good at exploring. Saya no Uta is another particularly good example from what little I know of it, but there are countless others, too; when you’re observing a narrative from a first-person perspective, after all, you’re only getting one person’s perspective on it — and how can you be sure that person is telling the truth?

That’s the question, huh? Anyway. That’s that for now. Check out Steins;Gate if you’ve got a yawning chasm in your life that can only be filled by utterly fascinating sci-fi; full review coming soon on USgamer.