Game #34: Avernum 2: Crystal Souls (2015)

a2cscreator: Jeff Vogel
language: English
finished on: 2 May 2016

I reviewed the last RPG offering in this series about three years ago, and this is the second in the reboot series of a reboot series – the third version of a game originally released in the early 90s. I still question the motive for rereleasing it at all, but I think the reason comes down to Apple consistently removing backwards compatibility for their systems, meaning that we can certainly no longer play the Exile games from the 90s, but good luck playing the original Avernum series from the early 2000s. I think the best way is now to emulate the Windows versions.

Avernum 2 was always the most successful, if I remember correctly, but I never paid for the full version of the old games, and only completed the demo sections. This new version cuts off the demo at a much earlier point, after the end of Chapter 1 instead of Chapter 3, which means I was kicked into buying it.

I wrote up there that I finished the game in May this year, but this is slightly misleading, because I actually played the bulk of it last January, while I was job hunting, just after it came out. When I started my new job I was playing it at home for the first couple of weeks, but my computer finally decided to give up on me, and crashed while I was playing the game. Superstitiously or subconsciously, I blamed the game and avoided it for over a year, and got back into it only recently for about a week just to finish it off. Annoyingly, I’d already gotten a level 30 party, so none of the battles were challenging anymore, and I’d already completed most dungeons, so I was running around the far corners of the maps trying to find something else I hadn’t done already.

Storywise, this is probably the strongest in the series, although it runs contrary to the modern trend of open-ended responsive RPGs, as there isn’t a lot of choice in the way you play the game. You’ve got your assigned role by the story, which is initially linear in chapters, and opens out in Chapter 4, which is the bulk of the game. I guess this is open-ended, but I don’t think there’s a way to play the game “evilly” – you have to be good, basically. Like I’m pretty sure there’s no way to join the evil empire, which is something that the creator addressed in his later works.

The plot is that The Empire invades their rebellious underground penal colony, but they accidentally disturb some hibernating subterranean aliens, who don’t take kindly to pesky humans and divide everything off. The main goal is to return the aliens’ still-sentient ancestors, whose souls are infused into crystals. Then you’re supposed to stop the war to win the game again – I forgot the third goal, to be honest. Kill the bad guy, probably.

Similar to the previous game, not much has been changed in this game except the game engine itself (especially that you can now click to walk to an area). Unlike the previous game, there isn’t a lot of new content, except a single tutorial dungeon right at the very beginning. The last game had a whole new town to explore, but here no. This meant that I could use 10 year old strategy guides without much being different, but it also suffered the same problem as the last game, which was that dialogue and other stuff hasn’t really been altered much since Exile, and dialogue trees are endless variations of “Tell me about X” (Exile had you type in a keyword, instead of asking set questions).

This gets even more annoying at one specific point – the old game had two separate magic stones, one called a “crystal soul” and one called a “soul crystal” – sensibly, the second one has now been changed to something different, like “spirit prism”, but the dialogue trees still have your characters being confused over the difference, and characters saying things like “don’t confuse a crystal soul and a spirit prism” – if I didn’t know where this line came from, I’d actually be more confused.

It’s not just that, though – there are also a bunch of places where Jeff Vogel in the 90s had worked out how to do something technically difficult, and coming back to those points now is painful, as it’s no longer technically difficult. I just hope when he makes the third one in this series that he is a bit more inventive with it.

Thematically and structurally, it still mirrors the previous game to an extent, and Jeff Vogel’s dungeon design style, especially the way he used to do it in the 90s, is very predictable, so I got into a kind of rhythm with this one. The missions are also often very similar to before.

Gameplay-wise, it’s enjoyable, but addictive and repetitive, so I often found myself playing it into the night. Oops. I did get tired of it, though, especially when it got easier at the end – perhaps if there’s a next time I’ll play it on a harder difficulty (there’s an online community for whom playing with one character on the hardest difficulty is the gold standard – I’m more happy to play with close to the default 4 characters on normal difficulty).

I was glad to finally get to play through the story after probably about 20 years since I first tried the series. As I say, I’ll be looking out for the next installment, but I hope he changes it a bit more than this one.

Book #102: Glitterland (2013)

glitterlandauthor: Alexis Hall
language: English
length: 402 minutes (6 hours 42 minutes)
finished listening on: 26 April 2016

There’s a bit of a dearth of LGBT fiction in general, and this book seemed a bit minor when I saw it on Audible’s website – I wasn’t sure whether to risk it, basically. Also it’s a little short. I enjoyed it for the trashy romance that it is, and that’s good.

The book is a love story of opposites attract – the main character is a bipolar writer, probably based on Stephen Fry or Oscar Wilde, and his unlikely love interest is a dancer and model. The plot is predictable from that alone. The book spends a lot of time on musings about class, and it was frustrating how the main character didn’t cotton on, reject the notion of class early on, and accept his feelings for what they were. Just when you thought he had, he blurted out something else stupid, and had another mental breakdown as a result.

The audiobook presentation was pretty good for this one – the narrator was able to flit between different accents and voices as well as you’d like, and I enjoyed listening to him as a result.

The book also has some comedic moments – one that I can remember is the notion of top and bottom in gay relationships, which was briefly hinted at at one point when the dancer guy doesn’t expect to be asked to be a top. There are also a lot of relatable moments for me, which has been important lately.

Equally important to this book was the mental illness of the main character, which I sometimes felt was overstated, but the author paints a good picture of someone who doesn’t deal with emotions well and expects the world to stand against him, so keeps locked up about his issues. This may be a realistic and common way of trying to deal with stuff, but still, I felt that if the characters had just been honest from the start about their feelings, a lot of the drama could have been easily avoided. Like the main character really does a lot of stupid stuff, and that started to drag.

I enjoyed it overall – I think some people I know might too, on the proviso that despite its pretensions (after all, it’s about a writer, which is as self-indulgent as you can get as an author), it’s not high literature.

Film #185: Zootopia (2016)

zootopiaaka Zootropolis, apparently
directors: Byron Howard & Rich Moore
language: English
length: 108 minutes
watched on: 25 April 2016

This was the first movie I saw at the cinema since Star Wars last year, and there’s a pretty simple reason for that: there’s been nothing good on. As usual, Japan was behind with this movie, but only one month instead of the usual four (and for once, not the latest in the entire world). It was also behind with all the Oscar movies, which hadn’t even been released here when the awards ceremony happened, which was just stupid. I think The Revenant was out the same weekend as this, but I still haven’t seen that because I didn’t want to take a full three hours off work.

Anyway, Zootopia, uncharitably called the Furry movie on certain segments of the internet, is a story about sentient animals living in harmony in one city, which has to have different climate sections and architecture designed for all different shapes and sizes. The main character is a rabbit who comes there, wanting to become a police officer, but quickly finding out about discrimination inherent in the system, against small docile animals like herself. The other main character is the fox guy, who, true to his species’ stereotype, is a con-man. They like, fall in love or something, and he helps her with an investigation.

The film has a pretty simple message about discrimination and prejudice, and at its heart promotes diversity. The rabbit character is constantly batting off microaggressions from her massive predator colleagues, for instance. About halfway through there is an event that leads to widespread discrimination against the predators, saying that they’re likely to revert to their primitive ways.

The plot does get a little convoluted on the way, and had an unexpected twist near the end when the villain is revealed. There are more than a couple of unlikely coincidences that save the main characters’ skin, which annoyed me a little – but it’s a movie, and too much extra plot for the sake of avoiding this would have been more annoying in the end.

The main attraction to the film is the attention to detail – especially just seeing how a world with such a diverse array of residents would work and what would be different. A simple example would be the train doors (small ones for the mice and big ones for the elephants) or the different sizes of everyone’s smartphones. Or the tiny town for mice, where the rabbit is huge.

Similarly, it’s visually lush and grand. I really enjoyed watching it for these reasons alone – and if that’s not enough, there’s some light comedy too, like the scenes where they go to the nudist colony (naked animals?? oh no!!), and to the DMV office staffed with sloths, which was pretty relatable for any adults in the audience. So while I’d add the caveat that I don’t think it’s an instant classic of Disney, especially as the plot was pretty forgettable, I do highly recommend it for the reasons listed above. I think it will be remembered for the aesthetic instead of the plot or characters, ultimately.

TV: Brooklyn Nine-Nine season 3 (2015-16)

b99-3creator: Dan Goor & Michael Schur
language: English
length: 23 episodes
finished watching on: 21 April 2016
previous seasons: 1 / 2

I almost thought this season of Brooklyn Nine-Nine was going to go off in a new direction, as at the start of the season, the captain had been sent to a different department and things were in disarray with a series of terrible new captains. How naive – they were back to normal within four episodes. I wouldn’t want to spoil it, but they left off with another cliffhanger on this season, so I fully expect the same next season now.

The writing is still on form with this season, and a lot of the characters have had significant development, although the basic structure of Jake making an ignorant assumption and having been taught the error of his ways by the end of the lesson in a pithy way has not changed.

I like that the show is becoming a bit more popular now, as I’ve started seeing the quotes around the internet. My favourite blog that I followed recently is one that mashes quotes from this show onto gifs from Harry Potter – it works surprisingly well!

So I’ll definitely be continuing with this series. I hope I can find some more stuff to fill the rest of my time now that it’s over for the summer.

Book #101: The Girl on the Train (2015)

girlontrainauthor: Paula Hawkins
language: English
length: 657 minutes (10 hours, 57 minutes)
finished listening on: 31 March 2016

This book has been hawked on Audible’s front page for the last year or so, and I decided I might as well try it, see what’s popular at the moment.

All I can say is, is this really how most straight people view their relationships? Between this and Gone Girl, to which it’s often compared, I’m not filled with hope (I haven’t read the book of Gone Girl, though, only the movie). It’s a story of mental illness and spousal abuse, and it has the air of a thriller. The main character (or, one of the three, who all had different narrators in the audiobook), Sarah, is an alcoholic, and the main incident of the book happens when she’s blacked out, so she has to find out what happened.

As with most stories, there came a point soon before it was revealed when everything fell into place and it was obvious how the story would be resolved, but the author is skilled enough to string us along with something false for most of the book, and so I was suitably surprised when it started to become clear. The unreliable narrator aspects allowed me to experience this along with Sarah, so that worked well.

The train in the title comes in because Sarah is on the train kind of spying into others’ lives on her commute into London, and constructs elaborate fantasies about a couple she sees. And the same woman then goes missing, so she becomes embroiled in the investigation.

As an exploration of misogyny and abuse it works very well and doesn’t shy away from anything. The atmosphere is very foreboding, especially when she blacks out and you know that something bad has happened.

Anyway, there is a lot of good things about this book, but the subject matter was pretty dark. Like the last movie I reviewed, I feel like people could have been a bit more honest and upfront with each other and a lot of the problems would have been resolved. I also don’t think the comparison with Gone Girl is the most apt, because it’s not as nuanced. But it was worth listening to.

Film #184: In Bloom (2013)

inbloombigdirector: Chris Michael Birkmeier
language: English
length: 87 minutes
watched on: 26 March 2016

I often buy DVDs and don’t actually watch them for ages – I bought this last summer in Amsterdam. If you want to analyze my watching patterns, you might find that I watch films in kind of waves, and it looks like February to April this year was a not-many-films wave, because I was moving house and busy a lot during this period. So this was the first film I watched in the new house!

It’s a gay movie, which might explain why it was easy to find in Amsterdam and not in Japan – to be fair, it only seemed to play in the festival circuit in America, but still, the cynical side of me would never hold out hope for a DVD release of LGBT movies here. It’s the story of a breakup, made during that weird apocalyptic period the world had back in 2012, as it opens as a group of young people celebrate the presumed end of the world in December of that year. Then it jumps back and follows a relationship’s dying days in the previous summer.

Similar to the apocalyptic thing, there was a background theme of a serial killer on the loose, giving the film a sense of danger and adding to the atmosphere, but doing little to add to the film in my opinion. The emotions of the characters should have been enough.

It really is a relief sometimes to watch gay stuff, as I can actually see something of myself in it. Writing now, so soon after the shootings in Orlando that shook us all up just a few days ago, I’m reminded of this more than ever. I think I’m lucky to have a community here, but I don’t meet up with them all that often, and I need that contact as much as ever now. Being in Japan can make you feel invisible so easily.

That said, despite having relatable characters and a vivid atmosphere, the movie is pretty depressing, and I don’t think I could mentally handle watching it again right now. It’s also got a lot of drug use, and a lot of the kind of problem that could be solved by talking honestly – heaven knows I’m terrible at that myself, but it’s the kind of thing that makes me lose patience with movies at the best of times.

So while I did like it, it might not be the best thing to watch right now. I will try and think of something light-hearted to watch, I guess.

Book #100: Fear the Sky (2014)

feartheskyAuthor: Stephen Moss
Language: English and a few sentences of French
Length: 1216 minutes (20 hours, 16 minutes)
Finished listening on: 2 March 2016

This audiobook came to my attention both because it was recommended on Audible’s site, and because it has the same narrator as The Martian, R.C. Bray – despite the guy mispronouncing some words, he is still a compelling narrator and commands attention. I also felt like a bit of pulpy sci fi, and the alien invasion theme of the book reminded me of the Zerg in the game I was concurrently playing.

The story is that an alien race travels through space to covertly invade Earth, and the book tells the story of the humans who discover the invasion by accident, but also of the android servants of the aliens, who infiltrate several militaries on Earth.

My first impression of the book was that it was a bit of fun, but also I was struck how straight-white-American-male the protagonist presumptive was in the first few chapters – for example, the book sets up a tepid romance between him and another character at the beginning. I sat up a bit when the book killed off her and some other characters in an opening-act twist, and he wasn’t the protagonist for the entire book, as it jumps between a few characters later on. But it still has that leery air to it.

The book does show some hallmarks of a first-time author who self-published without editing the book properly, quite apart from it being super-long. For some reason almost entire conversations in French were rendered without translation – it came across as the author being excited to show off his high school French. Not translating a foreign language in a book is a cardinal sin as far as I’m concerned, unless the intent is to occlude something from the main character (in a book, that is – I’d say the opposite for a movie). As it happens, I can understand French, but I’ve seen books that didn’t translate their Spanish, and that annoyed me.

R.C. Bray, who I’d already established can’t even pronounce French loanwords in English, had a bit of trouble with this section. I also established later that he actually can’t do any foreign accents except for Indian (this was useful in The Martian, where one major character was Indian, but not in this book), so a lot of his foreign characters sounded too similar.

As for the story, the alien invasion’s motivation wasn’t so believable, but I appreciated that the author didn’t make the aliens monolithic, like he actually acknowledged that there would be cultural divides among them – but even then, we don’t get to see that much of them, and the story of their planet is only relayed to us by another character. There are also some strange pacing issues, when the book jumps forward in time suddenly.

Despite all that, the story is compelling, and I enjoyed hearing it. I think I’d have liked it better if those issues were not present, but I did like it overall. I think I might pass on the next installment, even though I’d be interested to see how the story progresses. It’s a bit on the long side, after all.

Film #183: Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

fmfDirector: Wes Anderson
Language: English with a bit of French
Length: 84 minutes
Watched on: 26 February 2016

I mentioned in the previous video that I was sick in February with flu-like symptoms, but I didn’t bother going to a doctor because I thought it would get better by itself (spoiler alert: it didn’t, and I got an ear infection), but I decided to watch this movie so that I can at least say I watched something in February (I hate missing a month like that). I was a little delirious when watching it, I think.

I can’t remember any details the Roald Dahl book this was based off of, but I remember it fondly, as a short story that was pithy and funny. Some details came back to me when I watched the movie, but not a lot. It’s the story of Mr Fox, who tries to break into three nearby farms to steal meat and drink from the old men. A lot of details have been added, as it’s one of those movies that was liberally based on a short story, so I’m pretty sure Mr Fox’s family is completely new, as are most of the settings and a lot of other animal characters.

This movie is peak Wes Anderson – in fact, I’ve seen it argued, and I’d agree, that it’s even more archetypical of his movies than his non-animated stuff, as he doesn’t need to bother with real movie sets and people. OK, I guess that’s not to say it’s not funny. But the way of dressing sets to look like postcards wore thin on me during The Grand Budapest Hotel and it wore on me here too – plus here, the characters all stand up dead straight and don’t look real as a result. It’s probably deliberate.

The style of animation was one of those where the characters are constantly vibrating a bit – I think this is excusable since it’s actually made with stop motion instead of CGI, if I remember correctly, but the effect can be annoying at best. I think it was also filmed at a lower-than-usual frame rate, to amplify that effect, however, so that I’m not so keen on.

As for all the extra characters and details, it shifts the focus onto an American family unit drama, with one of the conflicts being between the overachieving cousin and the underachieving son. I wasn’t very interested in that, I was more up for seeing Mr Fox one-up the evil farmers.

But basically the movie works, and delivers its purpose. I also like the idea of Roald Dahl turning in his grave over it, since the more I know about him, the less I like him, even though I still like his books a lot. I just think I’d be better off reading the book of this than watching the movie.

Game #33: Starcraft II: Heart of the Swarm (2013)

kerrigan_customizationDirector: Dustin Browder
Language: English
Length: 27 levels
Finished on: 15 February 2016

This game is the first of two expansion packs to Starcraft II, and it includes the Zerg campaign and storyline, as well as a bunch of new units and tweaks to the previous game, but as I never played the previous game when it first came out, I don’t know it well enough to judge which units are new or not.

Content-wise, this game has the same number of levels in total as the Terran campaign, but in general it was a lot more linear. The Terran campaign tried something new with the system of earning credits and buying upgrades, before choosing a new planet for each mission. This game lets you choose between one or two planets to travel to next, and it’s not totally fixed which order you acquire new units in, but you are funneled through three levels per planet. Then you upgrade your character using limited skill points, and you can choose her abilities on an either-or basis, but you can just swap them around freely between levels (this does give the game some replayability). This was simpler but made me feel like less effort had gone into the system.

The story of this game, spoiler alert, is that the great Kerrigan, “queen of blades” and leader of the Zerg, was made human again by her boyfriend Jim Raynor, at the end of the last campaign. But in this game, she has to escape her prison and regain control of the Zerg. Simple enough, but confusing at the start because I expected her to be more fully human, and in some ways this campaign feels like a retread of some previous themes.

Anyway, she goes around and collects other Zerg characters to be her new swarm, and they revisit the Zerg homeworld – that was a very interesting take on the species that hadn’t been done before, and in the cinematic cutscenes they made them look like dinosaur-pokemon, but in practice they were the same units with different skins – a bit disappointing. They do other stuff over the course of the story, and as in the other campaign, there are some interesting levels, like one that freezes over every five minutes, allowing you to cut down the enemies. I also liked being able to “test” the new upgrades to units by trying them out in a mini-tutorial.

My major beef with this game is that I feel like the makers think they’re very modern by having the main character and a lot of the side characters be female (if monstrous), and yet Kerrigan looks like a modern sci-fi update of Lara Croft. She has massive boobs and curvy thighs, even when she becomes her monstrous Zerg form. Maybe I just don’t see the appeal. She also didn’t have much in the way of character – her main motivation in the story was her boyfriend and the rest of it was her posturing and saying pseudo-profound stuff about the power of the swarm. It got boring.

Oh yeah, and the other thing that annoyed me was all the units that were downright missing from the campaign game. Overlords were completely useless, for example, as at no point did it let me upgrade them to dropships or detectors, so I ended up with a pile of them sitting behind my base on every level. I’m pretty sure some other flying units were just missing too, or at least underutilized. Again they put more effort sometimes into reintroducing units from the old game as a campaign special.

That said, I did still enjoy playing it, and I was looking forward to starting the next campaign. Real life, as I mentioned before, got in the way a bit as I got sick and stopped playing. I just haven’t taken it up again yet.

Book #99: Time Warped (2013)

timewarpedaka: Time Warped: Unlocking the Mysteries of Time Perception
Author: Claudia Hammond
Language: English
Length: 352 pages
Finished reading on: 15 February 2016

I go a bit crazy in bookshops in the UK, as I’m suddenly somewhere where I can pick up anything and read it, which is unfortunately rare in this country. So this was a bit of an impulse purchase when I was browsing in a bookshop in my hometown and they had a 3-for-2 offer.

It’s a book about time and the way we perceive it, like how as we get older it seems to “slip away” or go faster and slower. I think I’m a bit worried about this kind of thing myself, as I find myself losing track of time and forgetting daily events, which I’ve always found a bit distressing, so the book resonated with me on that level. It’s also well-written and compelling in its style, making it easy to read.

Like a lot of pop-sci and polemic books, it can get a bit dogged in its pursuit of certain axioms, and it was quite repetitive – it keeps coming back to the author’s idea of the “holiday paradox”, for example, a term she invented to refer to the feeling of getting back after a holiday to feel simultaneously that it was over really quickly but that you had a lot of varied experiences, and she explores different reasons that this might happen.

Because it’s repetitive like that with the scientific, it actually can make it harder to say what the driving point of the book is, and actually, she seems to avoid making any value judgements about the passage of time, and tries to reject the idea that her book could be seen as a self-help tome, even though she throws in a chapter at the end on how to deal with that. I think what she was trying to say in general was that time perception is a bit of a mystery, and involves a lot of separate sections of the brain. I think she tried to tie it to linguistic ability, with which I was a bit unconvinced.

I did enjoy reading it, though, and it resonated with me in the chapters about time slipping away, which makes me feel anxious. It’s rare recently that I’ve had a good easy-to-read book for train journeys. I need to find something else that’s as easy!