Thursday, 27 February 2014

Game Review: Gone Home

I'm still winging this reviewing business so it'll take me a while to find a format for this that I like. But I do like looking a game from a non-gaming point of view as well as a gaming one, in the hope of spreading the love to non-gamers.

With that being said, Gone Home is pretty much perfect as an entry level game, as it's far more of an interactive story than a skill-based game. (To the outsider, this definition is unimportant, but a lot of gamers get their knickers in twists about it; I'll discuss this at the end of the review.) The gameplay is easy, it's similar to the classic hidden-object style of game which was popular in the mid-Nineties, and there's nothing complicated or fast about the physical elements of gameplay. You don't even need a good sense of direction, because the map's really good.

The premise is simple: you are a 19 year old who has arrived home (to Salem, I think) from her year in Europe. The house is empty. You don't know it at all, as your family moved there when you were abroad, so you need to find out where your family are and what has happened to them. You find various different letters and the occasional object along the way. There's a lot of tape players around the place too, and you can use them to give yourself a Riot Grrl soundtrack if you want to (I actually didn't much, not being much of a fan, it wasn't part of my adolescence at all).

What makes this game stand out from any other hidden object/clue based game is the depth of the characterisation and the interweaving stories. There's not just one mystery, there are four, and I'm not sure that one of them has any kind of resolution - I certainly didn't find one. There are dark secrets which are hinted at but not resolved, and creepy areas to go through - it's very atmospheric, just the right side of scary for me to get an adrenaline response but not be too scared to continue (I am looking at you here Amnesia, I got five minutes in to that game and then stopped forever).

As the game progressed, I got more and more emotionally involved with the characters, and by the end my response was pretty much what it would be if I'd been in that situation in real life - it's hard to describe without spoiling the story, which I really don't want to do. I played through the whole thing in about four hours, maybe five, and while that's a short game, the experience was very intense.

I highly recommend this to pretty much everyone. This is an experience I will carry with me for a very long time, and I hope it marks a watershed moment in the industry, showing that you can make these stories, these pieces of art, and people will play them and love them. A lot of non-gamers don't appreciate that games can be art - a lot of gamers don't either to be fair - but if this game doesn't change your mind, then there's something wrong with the way you define art. Gone Home is beautiful and important, and that's what art is.

So, onto the scoring. I'll stick to the arbitrary system I used last time.
  • Plot: 5. Compelling and well told, the plot becomes more complicated the closer you look at it. There are a lot of laugh out loud moments to relieve the tension, but you never forget your purpose.
  • Sound and vision: 4. It would be 5 if I hadn't had to turn the graphics settings really low in order to get the movement as smooth as possible.
  • Gameplay: 5 for ease of use. Everything was well-documented in-game as well.
  • Representation: 3. Given that there were only six characters, three of whom aren't voiced, this is harder to judge, but basically, excellent gender and sexuality awareness and representation, poor race representation (one Hispanic character, the rest WASPs), questionable mental health representation.
As a point about the Representation category, I don't expect every game to be perfect at this - in fact, scoring any points at all is an achievement. I don't think that every game (or novel, comic, film, etc) necessarily needs to hit everything all of the time, and some stories will by necessity be more limited in their representation due to number of characters, actual historical details, or limitations of the genre. What is important to me is that both some kind of awareness is shown, and that stereotypes are avoided. Whereas everything else is judged on a 1-5 scale with 3 being "meets minimum expectations", Representation is judged much more fluidly, and I am happy to give negative points (down to -5), as my enjoyment of a game is genuinely impacted negatively by use of offensive stereotypes, images and language.

In total then, this gets 17 out of a possible 20 points. Play this game. You will not regret it.

Here follows a brief but connected discussion about interactive story and skill-based games.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

#CBR6: 8: Dark Witch, Nora Roberts

Page Count: 368 pages in the deckle edge edition, I read a kindle version
Time Taken: 5 hours

Iona Sheehan has arrived in Ireland to take up her mantle as one of three inheritors of the powers of a 13th Century witch and matriarch of her family line. Together with her cousins Connor and Branna, she has to fight a dark power who hounded her ancestress to death and desires her power even now. As her power grows, so too do her feelings for her handsome boss, Boyle McGrath. Can she beat her personal demons and claim her prize?

I made that sound good there, right? It's a shame that the actual book is much more formulaic than my précis of it, because I would like to read a book where the heroine got to claim some bit of fluff as a reward - oh sorry, a well-rounded character who develops and grows over time and is coincidentally attractive. That is not this book. Unfortunately.

The book lost me in the first part, which is told in close third person narrative and starts with the eponymous Dark Witch, Sorcha. It lost me at quite a specific point. It lost me when Sorcha told her daughter to go back to the house and chop the potatoes for the stew.

From Wikipedia, entry potato: "In the Andes, where the species is indigenous, there are some other closely related cultivated potato species. Potatoes were introduced outside the Andes region four centuries ago, and have become an integral part of much of the world's food supply...Following the Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire, the Spanish introduced the potato to Europe in the second half of the 16th century."  Those first two sentences came from THE FIRST PARAGRAPH OF THE ENTRY. Now, I grant you that researching potatoes for your partially historical novel might not strike you as necessary, but I found it staggeringly awful that neither the writer, nor the editor, nor any of the proof readers picked up on what is a glaring historical inaccuracy in the first chapter.

In fact, none of the historical or cultural details in the book really ring true to me. The 13th Century stuff is pretty bad all round - "Sorcha" is not what the name is in Gaelic, that would be "Saoirse" - and a lot of the modern Irish stuff is very... well, shit. Horseshit. Quite literally, a lot of the time. Okay, it's a vaguely supernatural romance written by someone who isn't Irish, for a US audience who probably (also) don't know about the potato thing of how to spell/pronounce Gaelic, but for the writer of over 200 novels, I kind of expected better. I presume that the Gaelic in it is of similarly dubious provenance, but I don't speak any so I don't know, and also Scots Gaelic is a bit different to Irish Gaelic so I'd know the wrong one anyway.

There's no exposition in the story as to the nature of magic or how common its usage is, the book completely ignores everything Catholic about Ireland except for a couple of buildings, and the non-witches in the circle of friends are completely okay with magic existing. There's no sense of world-building or history in the books, no sense of place or time particularly; it didn't feel real to me at all.

Also the word is spelled "magic" not "magick". I appreciate that one might want to use the word magick to hint at a pseudo-Celtic romanticised mythology, and it certainly did that in this book, but it also really reminds me of teenagers who think they can do magic because they got stoned and watched The Craft and wear a lot of green and black. I am totally fine with pretentious arsery, do not get me wrong, me and pretentious arsery go way back, but deliberately drawing on that resonance seems a bit sloppy. And shit.

The second book in the trilogy will be out soon. Without reading any of the blurb, I knew that it would be about the romance between Connor and Maera (not even sure that's an Irish name). I'm sure that Connor will find himself hurt and Maera will have to rescue him with her leet swordswoman skills, and that she'll be rescued by him whilst wearing an unlikely outfit, and there will be Humorous Misunderstandings which will Cause Their Blossoming Relationship To Falter.

I know what the next book will be as well. The compellingly beautiful Branna, long thwarted in her love for Fin because he's the descendent of the evil witch man who is trying to kill them all and claim their powers, will become more and more drawn to and suspicious of her erstwhile lver. He, meanwhile, will be tortured and brooding whilst his dreams are haunted by his dark forefather's malign influence. Eventually, nearly mad with it all, he will do Cabhan's bidding (yes, that's his name, you pronounce it "Cavan", it apparently means "the hollow" LIKE HIS SOUL and is a placename in the Republic of Ireland) before redeeming himself to prove his love for Branna and finally defeating Cabhan, taking a mortal would in the process which will of course be cured by Branna. In the epilogue, Iona will reveal she's pregnant.

I did not just do magic there. Or *shudder* magick. I used my wealth of experience at reading by-the-numbers novels by bored writers. This is one of those. I'd give it two stars, because it was at least readable trite, but I'm taking one star off for the potato and name thing, because that really fucked me off. It's pretty harsh that I marked this lower than Claim Me, but it had better sex scenes, and laugh-out-loud bad is, you know, laughable, rather than tedium interspersed with a voice in my head shouting "IT'S SPELLED MAGIC YOU FUCKS". Not recommended, unless you're doing a thesis on "common US misinterpretations of Ireland", "cultural appropriation", or "examples of poor pacing/stereotypes/clichés/chemistry in romance novels". If you do read it, I found that occasionally pausing to say "it doesn't have a K in it" helped a lot.

#CBR6 7: The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini

Page count: 352 pages
Time taken: 6 hours

Amir is the wealthy and privileged son of a rich Afghan entrepreneur, whose best friend Hassan is the son of one of his father's servants and a member of a despised ethnic minority. The book covers a period of about thirty years, detailing Amir's struggle to earn his father's love and respect, his great betrayal of his friend, and his difficult journey to find forgiveness. The story takes place mostly chronologically, and follows the historical progression of Afghanistan from relatively progressive monarchy through to total religious oppression under the Taliban.

Obviously, I am several years behind most people for a first time reading of this book, but I was given the opportunity to read it and am very glad I did so. This is a masterpiece of regret, loss of innocence, truth and lies, and redemption, and I highly recommend it. (Five stars: this book will make you a better person.)

There are so many themes in this that it must be a source of it to any English Lit student who is assigned it; the only difficulty is unpicking them all from each other, as the threads of the tale are so thickly interwoven that to discuss one part one must by necessity discuss them all. Of course, that would also spoil the book, so I'm not going to do that. Also it would take ages and I still have two more completed books to review tonight.

Instead of themes, then, I'll talk briefly about the cleverness of the book from a literary point of view. Early in the book, Amir writes a short story, and is complimented by his father's best friend: "But the most impressive thing about your story is that it has irony...". It's rare that a writer tells you the constructions he is using in his work before you get to them. I've only seen it does a couple of times before, and each time, it's been a combination of self-deprecation (I'm being silly here), pride (look how clever I am for using this!) and fear (what if no-one gets it?). This is no exception, I think; Hosseini must have congratulated himself on the tidiness of his work even as he was agonising over whether it was too subtle or convoluted to be enjoyable.

The irony isn't particularly subtle, in truth, but it is ever-present, and the sense of terrible inevitability it engenders is part of the power of the story. This was a very hard book to read in places, and deserves a whole bunch of trigger warnings for pretty much everything awful you can think of, but it is a very important book, and there is a great deal in it to take away and think about.

#CBR6 6: Taming the Alpha, Adriana Hunter

Page count: 116
Time taken: 1.5 hrs

Trigger warning: Child rape, emotional abuse

Nikki Avery is a stripper, and a pretty good one, working for a strip club which is only slightly dodgy and doesn't actually require her to sleep with anyone. One of the johns catches her eye and she becomes increasingly drawn to him, against her better judgement and that of her best friend Lori, also a stripper.

Jax is the leader of the local werewolf pack, much to the chagrin of his younger brother. He has yet to do the two things which will cement his claim to be Alpha: kill in wolf form, and take a mate. In Nikki, he finally finds a woman he desires more than any other, but can she ever be accepted by his pack? And what is it that stalks the night, leaving behind death and a terrible stench?

This is book five of the Alpha's Touch set, the previous two books not being long enough to count for the cannonball read. To its credit, it is definitely better than "Curves for her Billionaire Doms", a book which I genuinely regret having read, although I have to say "His Golden Cuffs: Sacrifice" was better, scoring a good, oooh, 2 stars as it did (not worth paying for but you're not going to want to claw your own eyes out). This... One star: would make a good object lesson in how not to write a book.

The characters are one dimensional and frankly fucking annoying, the sex scenes irritating and of dubious hygiene - if you're regularly using sex as a way to make yourself feel better about your shitty life and you don't use condoms, you're going to be passing around a lot of clap, fantasy novel or no - and the politics risible. The only vaguely interesting this is the monster and the similarities and differences between it and the werewolves, but seeing as there is fuck all by way of exposition, it's more annoying and frustrating than an interesting take on the legend, which was clearly what the author was going for.

Unlike One Night of Danger, the emotional and mental trauma suffered by the heroine is used purely as a plot device and is magically fixed by Jax being there and listening, because of course that will get rid of all of the trust issues you would have if you'd been sexually abused by your father and your mother had denied it or blamed you depending on her mood. It's not even surprising; the "stripper damaged by childhood sex abuse" cliché is, well, a cliché.

The relationship Nikki has with her best friend is really odd - they have had sex before but there's no real desire there, and Lori has a cavalier attitude towards personal space and fidelity in a relationship - and it feels really out of place in the novel, coming across much more as a lesbian interlude in otherwise straight porn (which, let's be clear, is what this is). I'm pretty sure that Lori's some kind of shapechanger as well, or at least is clued in, but no exposition means I don't know what is possible in this world at all. Jax's relationship with his brother Bec is also really odd, lots of posturing and dick-waving but no explanation.

The book clearly suffers from the fact that it should have more parts, e-readers having reopened the possibility of serials for authors, but I doubt an extra 200 pages would make me any happier - at least this was a fast read, literally the only thing it had in its favour. Unlike many poorly executed books I've read, I don't even have the sense that I could do a better job with the basic idea: it's so poorly conceived there's nothing salvageable. I'd say burn before reading, but it's digital, and delete before reading doesn't quite have the same ring to it.

#CBR6 5: One Night of Danger, Clara Bayard

Page count: 231 pages
Time taken: 3 hours

Trigger warning: Domestic violence

Carly Chase works a dead-end job which she hates. After a particularly bad day at the office, she goes out for a night on the town with her BFF, and meets the sexy and surprisingly into her Sam Rollins. As her work life spirals deeper into crime and physical danger, she turns to Sam for help; but is he all he appears to be?

Unlike the first book of the Alpha's Touch box set, this one was surprisingly well written and enjoyable. There, I said it. From a feminist point of view, Carly is pretty awful, but she's well written enough that she has good reason to be, and while she does a whole bunch of things that one might generously call "of questionable judgement" they all serve to drive the plot forward, and it's difficult to see how the story could have progressed if she hadn't done them.

There are a few things that annoyed me - the erotica parts used really clichéd phrases in place of "erection" and "vagina" which I got really bored of, but I appreciate that many people prefer floaty euphemism so I'll put that down to taste. Carly is described as a "plus-sized beauty", but in fact there's nothing in the book to make me think she's particularly plus-sized at all, just tall and correspondingly bigger all over. It's possible I missed something, but all of the occasions where Carly's narration talks about it is really just stuff most women get paranoid about even when they've nothing to be worried about. Then again, that in itself might have been a commentary on the fact that society deems all women not built on petite lines as "plus-sized" even when they aren't, which as a taller than average woman myself I feel pretty strongly about.

Sam also bothered me as a romantic lead; Carly's mistakes were compounded by his, although his actions are presented as reasonable and logical, and his character seems an uncomfortable mix of proper hardcore alpha male and sensitive understanding and empowering feminist-appropriate type. As it's a first person narrative, and he's not the first person, the conflicting drives seem much more stark than they might have done if the novel had been from his perspective.

The plot was pretty light and relatively predictable, although there were a few nice touches in there which I didn't see coming. Where the book really stood out for me was the fact that Carly is the survivor of an abusive relationship, and has struggled her way back to herself; she suffers a couple of panic attacks and flashbacks over the course of the narrative. It's dealt with pretty sensitively, and it's not brushed off. Current estimates suggest that one billion women worldwide are victims of domestic abuse. That's 1,000,000,000 women, or the equivalent of the entire population of India. It's important that this is recognised in media and entertainment, because it's brushed under the carpet all too often.

Whilst it loses a point for its general predictability, I was impressed enough with its treatment of a difficult subject to add a point back, so this gets three stars: you probably won't hate yourself for reading this, but it won't blow your mind.

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Scottish vs British

I live in Scotland, and everyone here is aware of the independence referendum coming in September, and we're talking about it a lot. I mean, we talk a lot about things generally, we're a talky country, but we're talking about the referendum a lot even by our standards.

The UK-wide press isn't so much. The occasional article in the papers, a reference or two in speeches, a snippy or comedic aside here or there, and not much else. In fact, I'm told that the London scene doesn't even consider Scottish independence to be likely at all, which seems really badly informed, given that the Yes vote is hovering around the one third mark and the No vote on just over half, with everyone else still undecided.

What commentary I've seen by British pro-Unionists seems to default to bafflement. Why would Scotland want to be independent? What could they possibly gain? They have such a good thing going, why leave? Being British is much better than just being Scottish.

There is one major problem with this argument which the commentators don't seem to be able to grasp: it presumes that Scotland feels British. Now, a lot of people in Scotland do feel British. I am one of them. I always mark myself as British White on anything which asks about ethnicity, because I know that my ancestry is as varied and meandering in location as everyone else's is, and calling myself Scottish White is a disservice to those ancestors who came from other parts of the British Isles and beyond.

But I've always felt that my Britishness is something that I have to fight for. Like it's not proper. Like I'm worth less, as a Scottish British person, than my English British compatriots.

Privilege and micro-aggressions

There are two concepts which I've learned from feminist thinking which I want to explain before going any further with this post. The first is "privilege", and the second "micro-aggression". Feel free to skip the next couple of paragraphs if you know this.

The word privilege has not radically changed meaning in feminist debate, but its usage has become a lot more varied. Privilege is defined as "a right, immunity or benefit enjoyed only by a person beyond the advantages of most" (from This is frequently clarified in equal rights movements as specific privileges, like male privilege, white privilege, straight privilege, or cis privilege, which are umbrella terms covering all the different individual privileges which individuals fulfilling these criteria possess without them realising that life is not like that for everyone. It can be used pejoratively, and it makes people really uncomfortable, but it's not meant to blame the people involved; these identities are innate and as such don't carry any absolute ethical values.

Micro-aggression, meanwhile, is used to describe everyday instances of bigotry which are faced by people without specific privileges. This is stuff that most people don't think of as abuse, but the underlying reason as to why it's not considered inappropriate is because of a wider culture of racism, or sexism, or all of the other forms of discrimination. Stuff like a woman being asked to make the tea all the time in an office, or a person of colour being asked if they're planning on going home for their holiday, are both examples of micro-aggression, because they both contain assumptions which are hurtful and not true: women belong in the kitchen, if you're coloured you're not from here.

If you've been following me so far, I'm fairly sure you can see where this argument is going. In Britain, the English are more privileged than the rest of us are. "British" and "English" are used interchangeably in the media, and the English don't notice it, or realise how alienating it can be. This is predominantly seen via micro-aggressions, rather than any major anti-Scottish/Irish/Welsh/[insert island] sentiment. So, every time there's a World Cup, the whole country rings with the phrase "they think it's all over, it is now" and references to 1966, even though that was England vs Germany, not Britain vs Germany, and as such only really concerns the English. Or the way names referred to as British names always seem to be English ones, although Celtic derived names are arguably much more British than the names Christianity gave us, to say nothing of the Saxon/Norman can of worms.

What this leads to is a situation whereby it's really hard to think of yourself as British unless you have some recent English ancestry, and even then, the actual English are still going to sneer at your accent, make jokes about potatoes or shagging sheep or being a skinflint, and not know anything about your geography and weather beyond "hilly and rains a lot". Really doesn't make you feel like we're all part of one big happy country.

The P Word

And then there's the actual politics. Scotland is pretty socialist and has been for a long time, whereas Westminster has been getting progressively more neoliberal for decades, to the point where literally everything except the Queen has been privatised, and children are getting scurvy and rickets because their parents are being denied benefits, whilst The City grabs all of the money and refuses to pay any of its sodding taxes. That's a pretty big gap right there. (It's very connected to class, as well, although I think that's a rant for another time.)

Europe is another big sticking point; Scotland loves to bang on about "the Auld Alliance" with France (despite the fact that as far as I can tell France doesn't remember it and doesn't really care) and we have strong ties to various European nations which are separate from the relationships held by Britain. Sure, right now we're being total wankers to the Poles, but we're much more pro-EU than most of the rest of the country. And with Cameron promising an EU referendum in 2015 if he gets back in, and Miliband likely to do the same, it looks like we might be taken out of Europe whether we like it or not, as the Little England Daily Mail brigade vote us out with nary a thought as to where we actually do most of our trading and the fact that, language barrier aside, we have much more in common with Europe than we do the US at this point.

I'm one of the undecided voters. But the No campaign is not addressing any of my concerns at all, and that leaves me increasingly looking towards Holyrood as the answer. As with most people with privilege, the English commentators I've seen don't even hint at understanding that not only are a lot of the political and philosophical concerns valid, but that they should be being discussed across the whole of Britain and they're not. If it's hard to be Scottish and British, how much harder is it to be another race and British? It's hard for Scotland to watch her brightest and best leave for fairer climes and better jobs, but that's true of everywhere, and it's hard for everyone not in London to see London booming and the rest of us still in the grips of an icy and ideological recession.

No-one in Westminster seems prepared to have a national debate about this, and the media is just as bad - if not worse, seeing as we're frequently being told how to be British by papers owned by American corporations and headed by an Australian oligarch. But the referendum means that these discussions are being had in Scotland, all the time, and that's what leads me to think that if the No vote wins, it'll be much more marginal than anyone in Downing Street expects. Whatever we choose, we will be choosing it consciously and deliberately, not sleep-walking into it as we seem to have been doing for so long.

I have a lot of problems with the SNP and the Yes campaign, but whilst they're not offering me anything I actually want (except free prescriptions and no bedroom tax, I'm good with those) they're at least not offering me things that I emphatically don't want and telling me I'm stupid not to want them and don't deserve them anyway. That's not the way to win my vote. In fact, it's the biggest thing in the Yes campaign's favour, by far. And even Big Eck's ego isn't large enough to eclipse that yet.