Thursday, 30 January 2014

Game review: Skyrim

I wanted to try for one of these a month, and I've only actually played four games total this month (this, Minecraft, Mass Effect, and Mass Effect 2), so even though this has been out for ages and nearly every serious gamer will already have played it, I'm going to review this one. Because most gamers will know it, I'm going to look at it from a non-gamer point of view - I did actually get a non-serious-gamer playing this at one point, so I figure I have form there.


Skyrim is the fifth instalment in The Elder Scrolls series, but don't be put off by the fact that there's a series, they're all stand-alone. It is set in a land called (wait for it) Skyrim, home to the Nords, which is in the middle of a bloody civil war as the Stormcloaks seek to secede from the Tamrielic Empire. Added to this, the dragons are returning; once thought long extinct, they are rising from their ancient burial mounds and reclaiming their seats of power, led by Alduin the World-Eater.

The game is designed to be played first-person, although you can play it third-person if you prefer. You have access to a wide range of weapons, grouped into three sets (One Handed, Two Handed, and Archery), an even wider range of spells covering pretty much everything you could want, and various sneaky/talky/crafty abilities. Each time one of the skills levels up (from 1-100) your character progresses towards the next level, which allows you to pick Perks and increase one of your three stat bars: Health, Magicka and Stamina.

Because you don't have a character class, and every skill progresses your character, you're not limited to one play style through the course of the game. It's harder to kill things at higher levels if you're using things you're less good at, but a little care and attention will see you through the worst of it. Everyone has a play style they find most comfortable and natural, and Skyrim really gives you the space to work out what yours is and develop it if you don't already know, whilst allowing more experienced gamers to challenge themselves by moving out of their comfort zone.

You can have a follower as well, who will fight for you and carry your things if you want. You can equip them with better gear, and they level up at similar rates to you. I usually don't bother with them because I get guilty when they die though, and most of them can die unless they're crucial to the plot. They are really helpful while you're finding your feet or if you're concentrating on a particular play style and are missing something, but be aware they all have their own moral code, and some of them will be really arsey if you steal things or murder people, which whilst a really nice touch definitely makes the Dark Brotherhood and Thieves' Guild quests a lot harder.

Story and gameplay

As an open-world game, you're not led down any one plot more than any other: once you finish the introduction, you're free to do what you want. I would highly recommend following the main plot closely until you speak to the Greybeards, because certain things will be unlocked and explained to you, but after that do what you feel like. There are four major guilds you can join, each of which have long and interesting plot chains; each major settlement has one major quest or quest chain associated with it, and a bunch of minor ones; each of the Daedra (sort of demons but not all of the are evil) has a quest chain, and a couple of the Gods (also known as Aedra) do too, and of course there's the Civil War stuff, where you get to pick a side.

Your character can be male or female, and any one of a number of different races, which all start with slightly different advantages in different skills and one unique racial power. As far as character building goes though, that's basically your lot; there's not much room for character development beyond "am I going to follow this quest or not", and whilst there are consequences for your actions, there aren't really any for your words. The player character isn't voiced although everyone else is, which adds to the impression of being a bit of a cipher.

Gameplay wise, the controls on the PC are fairly easy to grasp and the most challenging part for a new player is using the mouse - the sensitivity defaults to pretty high so if you're particularly jumpy your point of view can swing around wildly, making it hard to hit the enemies. Fortunately, this is easy to customise in the options, and all of the key bindings can be changed as well to whatever you feel most comfortable with.

Musically and graphically, the game is beautiful. There's a lot of in-game footage out there demonstrating just how incredibly gorgeous it is, and I regularly find myself enjoying the scenery even after nearly 300 hours of play time and on the lowest graphics settings (my PC has a problem with particle rates which makes me very sad).


As far as representation goes, the game isn't without flaw, but it's still ahead of the curve. (Of course, this is an industry with a massive problem with representation, so the bar's really low.) Men and women are represented pretty equally across professions, so they're pretty good with gender issues. Race and mental health issues clearly both still have a long way to go though; of the four human races, only one of them is non-white, although in the game's defence that's more a legacy thing I think, and there is a lot of discussion about xenophobia in the way that the other races are presented and interact with each other. (I do not think that this excuses the game designers though. They could comfortably get rid of Imperials and Bretons as different races and add another coloured race if they wanted to stick to the same numbers. The fact that they haven't seems to suggest that they're perfectly happy to not represent anyone who isn't white particularly well.)

Mad characters are either raving murderous lunatics or beggars, and whilst there's a lot of "I used to be an adventurer, til I took an arrow in the knee" from the guards, you never seem to see one of them limping and there's no visible sign of infirmity except a magical plague and some ill people in the temple of Kynareth in Whiterun. One can make the argument that lycanthropy and vampirism are diseases (vampirism certainly is in game mechanic terms) and as such are the way that the game investigates illness, but that's stretching it quite a lot, seeing as they're both powerful advantages as well.

There is zero trans awareness in the game at all; when you pick up clothes, the skin changes depending on your gender, and despite a school of magic which literally turns iron into silver then into gold, there's no spell which will let you change your gender. Whilst the game has rightfully been praised for allowing both male and female player characters to marry any of the marriageable characters regardless of gender, all of the relationships I've seen in the game outside of my own are straight, which is really poor.


So, using an arbitrary 0-5 scale, I give the game as follows:

  • Plot: 5. A brilliantly crafted and immersive story.
  • Sound and vision: 5. Groundbreaking when it came out, this is still incredible two years later. The only criticism it's possible to level at it is its starkness, but I'm fine with stark.
  • Gameplay: 4. There are definitely quirks, but on the whole it's pretty seamless.
  • Representation: 1. One point for being okay for women, half a point for gay marriage, half a point for investigating xenophobia, and -1 point for completely ignoring queer issues except in that one way.
That gives it a total of 15 out of a possible 20. A great game in many ways, but let down by its lack of sensitivity towards under-represented groups.

#CBR6 4:Claim Me, Tawny Taylor

Pages: around 200 kindle pages
Time taken: 2-3 hours

Sylvie is the owner of a goth/fetish club whose office is the scene of the latest in a series of grisly murders. After the police leave, she finds herself in the company of Burke, who she presumes is a PI. In fact, he's a vampire who's been falsely accused of the murders, and he wants to clear his name. Sparks fly between the two characters, and upon realising that Sylvie is his Origo, a mystically ordained fated lover, Burke ravishes her pretty effectively. His mission to clear his name is complicated, however, by the discovery that Sylvie's other Master (yes, really) is Miko, the brother of the lead investigator into the murders, and sexy shenanigans ensue.

This book was laugh-out-loud awful. Seriously. Some of the smexy parts are okay (I added half a star for that), but some of them are pretty bad (hence it not being a whole star) - I found the BDSM bad and the threesomes okay, but YMMV. The rest of the book is just... wow. The plot could have made a half-decent book if it had place over a longer period of time and had not been secondary to the sex scenes. The characters were just awful; the narration is over-the-shoulder third person between Sylvie (so many exclamation marks! So little time between them!), the murderer (little sense of his character comes across, which was a waste), and Burke and Miko, who are practically identical in the way they think, act, and look, in as much as anything other than their rippling muscles and impressive cocks is described.

The exposition is really bad: Sylvie is perpetually confused about things - which I can't blame her for because neither Burke nor Miko bothers to tell her anything properly. The origins of Origos and Vampires are not discussed; the vampires can use magic, but they do it by snapping their fingers, and that's not explained either; Sylvie has a Small Dog Plot Device which gets abandoned at her one female friend's house and never mentioned after that; and the tropes followed are all clichés.

That all being said, I had fun reading it, largely because I was so amazed it got published at all. and there were certainly nuggets of good ideas there. It's basically the literary equivalent of my relationship with Burger King: every so often, I crave their fries, and I inhale a bunch of them, and then it triggers my IBS and I feel faintly disgusted with myself. This is like that. Only with words.

This is part of an anthology, The Alpha's Touch Boxed Set, and I have another 13 books to read in it. I am afraid for myself, but I won't stop reading it, just like the fries.

#CBR6 3: The Invention of Wings, Sue Monk Kidd

Pages: 384 hardcover (read ebook version)
Time to read: 4 hours. Barely put it down after I started reading it. This caused me to burn the first lot of toast I made.

Set in Charleston in the early 19th Century, The Invention of Wings tells the story of Handful and Sarah Grimké, slave and owner, and their separate but entwined lives. Sarah Grimké was one of the earliest Abolitionists and her story is based on what really happened to her; the character of Handful is mostly fictional, although Sarah was given a slave called Hetty (the name Handful is known to whites by) and she did try to refuse the gift on grounds of conscience, at the tender age of eleven. There are two first-person narratives intertwined through the novel, and the story covers a period of around 30 years.

This was a deeply compelling and well-crafted novel. The volume of research must have been enormous, but it has clearly paid off, as the book is redolent with details which ring true (albeit I don't know much about that period of history). Both characters are vividly drawn, and their relationship with its painful inequalities is really interesting to see develop. It's also great to see what each thinks about the other; in a way there is a silent third narrative voice, that of the objective truth the reder pieces together through the subjective viewpoints.

Given the very white-washed way we all seem to learn about history, a lot of the book makes for very uncomfortable reading. Slavery was not legal in Britain at the time the book was set, but the British had heavily profited from slavery for well over a century by that point. The ingrained attitude in the Southern states is something that I was aware of, but I was not aware of the arguments used and how much they fed on a (twisted, to my mind) Biblical precedent, although I could have probably figured it out if I'd ever thought to think about it.

It was also fascinating to see how closely entwined the philosophy of abolition and that of women's rights were entwined, not only in Sarah's personal journey but in the historical movements. I found this particularly striking because of the ongoing and vocal debate about the treatment of race in feminist thinking (or, to be more accurate, the lack thereof), and there's a particularly striking argument made by one of the (male) abolitionist leaders who tries to persuade the Grimké sisters not to argue for the rights of women at the same time as they are arguing for the rights of slaves and black people, because it's more complicated and drives people away from the abolitionist cause. This argument is still used against intersectional movements and thinking today, and I hope that more people learn to show it the same scorn that Sarah does.

I highly recommend this book. Be sure to read the afterword by the author; Kidd gives a very good accounting of her sources and thinking behind the novel which provides greater depth to the work.

Monday, 27 January 2014

#CBR6 2: The Valley of Amazement, Amy Tan

Page count: 608 in hardback (I read an e-book version)
Time taken: 5 hours over two days

Violet is the daughter of a popular Shanghai hostess and madam at the start of the 20th century. The books follows her from childhood through to middle age, zooming in in important times and memories. Half-American, half-Chinese, Violet is pulled in several different directions by her heritage and the whims of fate, but is always saved by the strength of her relationships with others.

I read this book very quickly, in about five hours, which is testament to the pacing and plot of the novel. Violet is an interesting character; the book is essentially her life as she would tell it to someone else, and her narrative voice is a strong one. Set in a turbulent time in China's history, the cultural conflict was particularly resonant, and the book dealt very well with "passing" - Violet is white enough to pass for Southern European, and Chinese enough to pass for Manchu, with the right accessories. The discussion of race in the book is nuanced and subtle.

As the book progresses and time passes, Violet stops valuing herself the way others do and starts to value herself for who and what she is. It sometimes feels as though she is not the main character in her own life though; her mother cast a very large shadow over her, and even in the long years they are separated, Violet constantly compares herself to her mother. In fact, the main theme of the novel is "troubled relationships with parents" and this is particularly striking in the Mysterious Lulu Segment, which (whilst I appreciated getting to know the character through her own eyes) I could not find a reason for it being where it was or its relevance to the plot at the time.

I felt that the novel could have used more historical context than was given; I'm pretty well versed in that period of Chinese history (by which I mainly mean I read Wild Swans a bunch of times) so I knew the basics, but there was an awful lot left out. This could well have been a deliberate narrative choice to highlight the narrowness of Violet's world as a woman at that time, or how little life actually changed for people in the 40 years after the abdication of last Emperor and before the rise of Communism, but it was mostly just confusing when particular people were mentioned with no background as to who they were or why they were important.

The best thing about the book, for me, was its exploration of race and racism. The rest of the book felt much more shallow. There are other books - novels or factual - which deal with the subjects of enforced prostitution, life as a courtesan, life as a junior wife, and the gender politics of the place and time, with greater breadth and scope. Obviously, books are allowed to concentrate on one aspect of a situation more than others; but it came across as much more ambitious than it actually managed to a achieve.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Mass Effect 3 revisited

This isn't a proper review of the game: instead I want to look at my reaction to it two years ago and to re-analyse the ending from a more... rational point of view. There will be spoilers for all three games.

I was devastated when I finished the game for the first time, as I'm pretty sure anyone who read my previous post on the matter would realise. I've seen this type of reaction described as "entitled" in the past. I both agree and disagree with this.

I agree because so many of us were neither rational nor moderate in our discussion of the ending at the time, and Bioware were pretty much forced to release an extended ending to address some of the complaints that were made. From a writer's point of view, this is pretty awful. It was their story. They should have been able to tell it the way they wanted to. I mean, I hate the Star Wars prequels, but I absolutely agree it was George Lucas' right to do what he wanted with his own intellectual property.

The basic criticisms of the original ending still stand though. It was a pretty arbitrary deus ex machina which was not foreshadowed well except in DLCs (Javik's and, later, Leviathan) which not everyone had access to at the time; it was poorly presented with a lot of things happening that the viewer was unaware of the context of; and it was a very emotionally abrupt way to finish the player's relationship with the characters. I think that criticising the game on these points is not being "entitled", it's just being critical.

I would love to know how the writers came to make their decisions about the ending, but I'm never likely to find out - whilst Bioware were willing to address the issue by giving us more exposition, they've closed ranks about any discussion over whether they consider themselves to have done a sloppy job on it or not. In lieu of ever actually knowing, I have formed my own theories about it.

Mass Effect was a very different game to Mass Effects 2 and 3. It was much more like the Knights of the Old Republic games, with a considerably improved combat system. So, a role-playing game. Shepard talked a lot. There were a lot of pissant plots which required you to make moral judgements. There was a lot of emphasis on the choices and personality of Shepard, and the game encouraged you to become emotionally involved with the characters.

Mass Effect 2 had a very different engine, and the emphasis in the game was much more on combat and much less on character. From being an RPG with shooting elements, it became a third-person shooter with role-playing elements. This changed the nature of the plots available. By necessity, the action became more important, and you-as-Shepard spent little time talking to anyone other than your team just for the sake of it. The moral choices are left to big decisions in the important story missions, and any choices you make outside of them are pretty arbitrary and unimportant, basically just whether or not you wanted to be a dick.

There was also very little investigation done in the game. The Collector plot revolves around it, sure, but there's not much else in there which encourages the player to consider a wider, older galaxy. This was crucial in determining the plot of Mass Effect 3. The game is all about the action, even removing the hacking mini-games (which I personally enjoyed because I'm a nerd like that). The pace of the plot is relentless. There is no mission which does not feel urgent or necessary. No more pissing about on crashed spaceships or crashing your Hammerhead into a wall: Shepard was on the go all the time.

(It's worth noting that of the three DLCs released after the game, two of them directly address the gameplay mechanics I've mentioned here: Leviathan is all about the investigation and logic puzzling, and Citadel (whilst the plot itself clearly has a purpose) gives the player a constant facility to piss about. You can even play Find The Lady with a pair of Vorcha card sharps. I presume that the DLC writers realised there was an audience for these aspects of the game and specifically added them in to address that.)

Obviously, that relentless focus served an important purpose in making the player appreciate the importance of the plot. But it also meant that the plot could only ever go the way that it did. As soon as the writers decided to start the game with the invasion of Earth, they had to make the rest of the game about the war. So, instead of spending several missions trying to come up with a plan or investigating the historical battles with the Reapers, you're just handed the plans for the Crucible and told to get on with it. That again was a deus ex machina, albeit not the literal one seen at the end.

The reason why the writers misjudged the fanbase with the ending was that by the time 3 rolled round there were essentially two separate fanbases. There were the people who approached it as a role-playing game who generally invested much more heavily in the characters, and there were the people who approached it as a combat game, who were more interested in the action. (This is a massive generalisation, I know, but I think the basic idea is a valid one.) I make no value judgements here: the games lent themselves to both types of player, and we all play games in our own ways, that's one of the reasons why we game after all.

The thing is. if you're playing it for the combat, you pretty much expect the plot to lead you, rather than you dictating the plot. So when the game ended the way it did, your reaction was probably much more "why is the Normandy there? Oh bugger it, I'm having a beer and playing Halo" rather than the bereft confusion and sense of being cheated that the RPG fan was left with. I didn't mention Halo casually there either: Halo 3 also ends with the presumed death of the main characters, but I was fine with that, because I hadn't made a single decision in the game that wasn't about shooting the shit out of Covenant or Flood.

I'm convinced that the reason why Indoctrination Theory became so popular so quickly was because it was the one way that a Paragon Shepard (and a Paragon player) could keep Shepard alive and still feel good about themselves. The Destroy option kills an entire race of people, and the one member of your crew who is utterly loyal and has never fucked you over (even BFF Garrus has caused you hassle over the course of the games). That's obviously not the Paragon choice. But it's the only choice you can make which allows you to get your happily-ever-after. That was a terrible choice made by the writers, frankly, and they should have realised it.

The kind of heroic quest that Shepard was on by the end pretty much requires Shepard to die. Heroes don't get to live if they're saving the world from certain destruction. HOWEVER. There is a workaround. An appropriately important and heroic secondary character can sacrifice themselves to save the hero. This is a well established trope. It would have been easy to do that in Mass Effect 3. You even actually shoot Anderson, who one assumes then dies, so he would have been the ideal choice. Failing that, you have a squad full of people you didn't shag who would be appropriate. As would Hackett. Hell, even the Normandy herself could conceivably fulfil this criteria.

Even with the limitations imposed on the plot by the nature of the game, the writers still deliberately chose to have Shepard die in two of the three original endings, and only allowed Shepard to survive with the Destroy option if they played the multiplayer game - a game which, purely coincidentally I'm sure, encourages micro-transactions to get better gear. I've been playing it on and off for nearly two years now, and I'm still missing guns, characters, and equipment: very little is maxed out other than the really basic packs. (This does not bode well for me ever actually managing to solo a Gold match. Gear really makes a difference at the higher levels.) This was clearly done to promote the new cash cow, and should be treated with a lot more scorn than I've seen directed at it.

Regardless of the confusion of the ending, Destroy/Control/Synthesis ending was essentially identical to the ending of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, which at least had the decency to foreshadow the nature of the ending in the name of the fucking game. Mass Effect 3 came out considerably after DE:HR did, and even if the writers did have the idea beforehand, I'm really surprised they stuck to it.

I've completed the game a couple of times since my original playthrough, and it elicits a brutal emotional toll on me when I do. I normally just stop playing after you sync the Mako to the Normandy, and avoid the worst of the trauma. I still don't have a completed playthrough on the X-box though, and I want those achievement points so I'm going to do it again soon. I'm really not looking forward to it; I might leave off having the party until after I get the respawn point when the game is over, just so I have a reason to finish it.

No game should make me have to bribe myself to finish it. Especially not one I loved so much. I'm capable of having a rational discussion about it now, but I'm still hurt by it, and I don't think that'll ever change.

Saturday, 4 January 2014

#CBR6 1: The Lions of Al-Rassan, Guy Gavriel Kay

Page count: 592
Time to read: 6 or 7 hours over 2 days

The Lions of Al-Rassan is a fantasy novel set in pseudo-Europe, in a time roughly equivalent to the late 10th Century AD. The national and political situation is roughly based on the occupation of Spain by the Moors, and the retaking of the lands held by the occupiers.

Jehane bet Ishak is a doctor who finds herself caught up in the sweeping politics of the day. Her fate becomes entwined with that of Ammar ibn Khairan of Aljais, the adviser to the King of Al-Rassan, and that of Rodrigo Belmonte, a captain of the kingdom on Valledo (formerly a duchy of Esperaña). With me so far? All three find themselves exiled from their homes and meet again in the city of Ragosa, whilst they shape and are shaped by the unstoppable consequences of faith.

Each of the main characters follows a different faith, which are roughly analogous to Chrsitianity, Islam, and Judaism. The Esperañans (and their fellow pseudo-Europeans) are Jaddite, who worship the God-behind-the-sun Jad. The pseudo-Middle Easterners are Asharite, who worship the stars of Ashar. And the despised and wandering Kindath acknowledge the God but primarily worship his twin moon sisters. Despite being really obvious, this was a fairly clever move by Kay to be able to discuss the religious hysteria of the day without actively offending any part of his audience. He still makes mistakes though.

Given that the book hinges on the differences between these three faiths, surprisingly little exposition is given to their natures or details. We know that the Kindath are hated - in fact, they even suffer from what's know as the blood libel that was claimed of the Jews - there is no information as to why. At all. The other two faiths similarly suffer, and I was uncomfortable with the level of fanaticism shown by the Muwardi (Asharite) tribesmen in particular, who seemed to be pretty lazy Islamist bogeymen stereotypes. On the other hand, the corrupt and cynically manipulative Jaddite clergy were pretty spot on for what I know about the Church at the time, so maybe I'm just being over-sensitive about things I know less about.

The plot is fast-paced and compelling, and the descriptions are very vivid and well done. I've always felt that Kay tends to be much less good with his main characters than he is with his minor ones, and I think that's true here too - the minor characters are much more interesting than the main three. I did care about Jehane, Rodrigo and Ammar, but they could all have done with being a bit less perfect and beautiful and a bit more flawed and realistic. Also, despite hints of the fluid sexuality of Ammar, that was never really seen at all, and the nature of the relationship between Rodrigo and Ammar didn't really feel as well-developed as I think the author intended it to be.

That said, this was a very enjoyable read, and I am glad I was persuaded to keep it. On a scale of 1 to 5, it definitely deserves a 4.

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Cannonball Read 6

Following in the footsteps of my friend Malin I've signed up for the Full Cannonball this year. The goal is to read and blog about 52 books. The is an eminently achievable goal, and means that I should in theory post something.

Worry not, dear readers. I shall also challenge myself to review one game a month. These are probably going to be games I already own and have played a lot to begin with, but I'll try to branch out.

I'm going to pay specific attention to characterisation of "minorities", in quote marks because actually, women aren't a minority, and neither are coloured people, but we're still treated as such. I'll try to illustrate with quotes or examples if I compliment or criticise anything specific. Also, this applies to the books as well as the games. Intersectional feminism is for life, not just one small (alright totally not small I game for more than 12 hours a day sometimes) part of it.

When I say intersectional feminism, what I mean is that I am a believer in equal rights for everyone, regardless of gender, colour, health, sexual preference, or class. I am not necessarily typical of all the people who self-identify as intersectional feminists, and I have disagreed with statements that other intersectional feminists have made. We are not a monolithic culture and we should not be presumed to all be the same. I come from a position of relative privilege: I am white and middle class (which in the UK has little to do with wealth but is much more to do with aspirations and upbringing). Whilst I identify as gender-queer, I am comfortable with my presented gender. As I am heteroflexible, I have rarely encountered any homophobia or biphobia. I am privileged.

This means that I'm much less good at sensitivity about any discrimination I personally don't experience. I am trying to be a good ally, but I might not always be on top of my game. I am much better at spotting sexism and ableism (in myself as well as others) and I'm more likely to concentrate on that accordingly.

So with that out of the way I should probably read some damn books. My fingers are not going to thank me for this. (I nibble them while I read and they bleed a lot. Fortunately, blood wipes right off kindles.)