Saturday, February 28, 2015

Nierly Done with this Pun forever

I had to play a few hours of Nier today to get the point where I could talk about its book-like interface system for the dissertation. And I had to play to that point because Nier's endgame (spoiler, I guess?) doesn't really leave things in a state where doing that is possible.

What I found is that Nier is a wonderfully complex game (albeit somewhat graphically low for a mid to late Xbox 360 game), one whose eventual story is set up right from the start, and design choices that contribute to the overall aesthetic in a meaningful way all build on each other. It's an unusually rich, creative game for a JRPG low budget (for AAA, anyway) game.

I never want to play it again.

I felt the same way going back to Ni No Kuni (which is much more diminishing returns than Nier) for its dissertation section; there's a point in lengthy games where enthusiasm is displaced by entropy, and trying to research the game at the same time only makes it worse. Nier's a wonderful game, and I could (and have) written pages and pages extolling its virtues, but I really, really don't want to subject myself to having to go through it again. Ah well; I'm an hour or two in and at the shrine where Weiss becomes a party member, so the end's in sight.

Later Days.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Dissing the Dissertation

Two excerpts from the dissertation:

Another Sierra game, the 1991 remake of the original
Leisure Suit Larry came with brochures for in-game locations, and the questions were thus reflective of the game’s so-called, and more than slightly misogynist, humor: “What do the cowgirls have at the Palamino Ranch?”; the correct answer was “c: Jugs o’ moonshine.”

And 
the 1988 game Wasteland not only had a booklet of paragraphs, it included fake entries to dissuade players who would “cheat” by reading ahead. The very first entry, in fact, is one of these:
1 You creep up to the window, and in the soft muted tights [sic], you see a tall woman with long, blond hair. She sits before a mirror and brushes her hair, then stands and walks over to the sunken tub to her left. She kneels and her blue, silken robe drops to the floor. She turns the water and steam slowly fills the air. You watch in fascination as she reaches down into the tub, whirls, and points an Uzi in your direction. ‘Stop reading paragraphs you’re not supposed to read, creeps.’ She sighs deeply. ‘Next time I’m going to demand they put me in a Bard’s Tale game, this Wasteland duty is dangerous.’ (1)

The problem with writing a dissertation on the subject of the history of videogames is that the history of videogames is full of stuff like this. Yeah, it's sexist, and, as dissertation me claims, arguably outright misogynist, but mostly... it's just *embarrassing.*

Honestly, off the top of my head, the only game stuff I can think of that's funny that was clearly supposed to be funny is some of the stuff from Saint's Row the Third and some of the more absurdist endings for Japanese fighting games.

Later Days.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Feminism and Rhetoric

I've been teaching an online first year rhetoric course this term. And what that means for our university in particular is that all the readings have been chosen beforehand, all the lectures recorded before I was ever assigned the course, and all the assignments planned ahead of time (but I still get to write the final, which.... thanks, I guess?). And as you'd imagine, not all of the texts have been ones that I would have chosen. They're all wonderful texts for a rhetoric class, just not the particular texts I would picked; it's a matter of personal preference, more than any other consideration.

In particular, I was uncertain of this week's reading, a section from Hélène Cixous' Laugh of the Medusa. It's a good read, but not what I personally would have picked out as the singular example of rhetoric and feminism. (That the course has only a single text on rhetoric and feminism is a different issue.) It is, I thought, too complicated, too complex in its use of language, too steeped in psychoanalytical discussions about the phallus. I braced myself for a reading response set that suggested the class had listened to the lectures and skipped the reading (a fairly common occurrence, given some of the responses although I also have a large number of really good responses on any given week, and I do my best to encourage such responses).

 As you can probably guess from my own rhetoric, I was wrong. The reading has led to more thoughtful, engaged responses than anything we've done so far. Yes, there have been some half-hearted engagements, as always, but most of the class has responded with above average engagement, especially some of the women, who have mentioned that the essay speaks to them on a personal level. I'm drawing three conclusions from this. First, it has been a humbling reminder that my students are better and smarter than I've been giving them credit for. Second, it attests to the power of Cixous' writing, that it still resonates. And third, it suggests that, sadly, a lot of her critique still applies, that women today still feel pressured to write in a voice not their own.

It's been an eye-opening course, in more ways than I was expecting going in.

Later Days.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Book Triad: Women in Fantasy

I'm not planning on turning the blog into nothing but book reviews, or even reviews, but as I said before, I've got a backlog of book review content. In fact, one of the advantages of having a backlog is that I can do a bit of picking and choosing in terms of grouping similar books together so that I actually have something significant to say that applies to all three.In this particular case, that means pairing two recent reads with an older one, by way of contrast. After the break, we have reviews of Terry Pratchett's The Wee Free Men, Lois McMaster Bujold's The Sharing Knife, and Patricia C. Wrede's Thirteenth Child.

I'll warn you in advance--these are all books that got me thinking a fair bit, so the reviews are lengthier than usual AND I have a lot to say afterwards. All worth saying, of course.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Book Triad: Could Be Worse Ever After

Ah, the blog. Or, as it is at the moment, that thing I do when I'm between videogames, just finished a book, and there's no new shows on because it's Super Bowl Sunday. There's been an alarming build up of book triad reviews building up over the course of the last year or so. I haven't done one of these since 2013. My goodness. That means there will also be a lot of me going "wait, wasn't this the book with the guy who did that thing? To that unicorn? Or was it a pegasus?".

Let's get right into my equine questioning, with reviews of Karen Miller's Empress, Jonathan Stroud's Heroes of the Valley, and Peter David's Fable Blood Ties, after the break.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Movie Buff: A Spoileriffic Review of Into the Woods

First: it's no Through the Woods, the horror-based graphic novel by Emily Carroll. Though both works use travelling in woods as metaphor, it's to rather different ends, and, frankly, Carroll does it better. Rather, it's the musical turned movie. In case you're unfamiliar with the plot, its essential idea is that it takes four strands of fairy tales and puts them in a blender. There's the baker and his wife, who are trying to break a witch's curse by collecting a cloak red as blood, hair yellow as corn, cow white as milk, and shoe gold uh, gold; a girl going to grandmother's house; a boy Jack trying to sell his best friend, the cow; Rapunzel of corn-yellow hair, and Cinderella, who probably doesn't need further explanation. They all get in each other's way, and, long story short, the survivors work together to fend off a giant woman. As you do.

Two of the music numbers in particular stuck with me, not because of the music really (honestly, all of the songs were kind of forgettable), but because of what they said about fairy tales. The first was sung by Prince Charming and his brother, where they try to one up each other with tales of love-lorn woe: respectively, that one keeps fleeing the ball at night, and one is stuck up in a tower where the only means of access is her hair. And it's hilarious. One rips his shirt open in a fit of passion; the other does too, because, well, you can't be upstaged when you're singing to no one in the middle of the woods. It's a song that perfectly captures the campiness of the project, the gentle mocking of the whole idea of Prince Charming.

Likewise, my other favorite also skewers the idea of fairy tale. Near the end, the aforementioned survivors are quarreling over whose fault the giant woman's assault is, and eventually they turn their accusations to the witch. She takes all of five seconds of that before launching into her own song, then being swallowed up by the earth, the gist of the song being, "Fuck all y'all, everyone has life tough, I'm outs." First: the witch is played by Meryl Streep, so already it's a recipe for being awesome. You'd have to actually work at making Maryl Streep bad in something. Second: I like the point of the song, which is that, yes, if you need fairy tales, if you need good and evil, then you do need someone to blame, but life isn't as simple as that. Also, fuck all you guys, like any of you are any better. Which, really, is something we all feel, isn't it?

It kind of lost me in the second act, which is unfortunate, because it's where things are supposedly getting interesting. The second act is where the happy ending of the fairy tale gets deconstructed; instead of everyone's happily ever after, the giant's wife shows up, and people start dying at an alarming rate. Now, that's a premise that's got potential, especially if you want to point out that rather than living in a fairy tale, it's better to have your "moment in the woods" and go back to the rest of your life. But it felt like the film was going in too many directions--pathos for the multiple deaths and resulting despair, some farce in the baker's wife having a fling with Prince Charming ("I'm in the wrong story!"), and somehow wrangle an actual happy ending. But it didn't really work for me. Take Cinderella and the Prince's parting--their final words post-break-up are "I'll always remember the girl I chased after" and "I'll always remember the prince from afar." It's played as this bittersweet moment, but really, it's terrible--they are basically saying to each other "I really wish you turned out to be the imaginary version of you I had in my head, and getting to know you made things worse." Now, that's a great sentiment in a farcical send-up for fairy tales. And a good character beat for a realistic relationship. But it's played straight, and... eh.

Or take the Prince's fling with baker's wife. Ok, it kind of sets the idea that she gets a bit starstruck by royalty. And that, for whatever reason, the woods really do it for her. But she's one of the more grounded characters in the story, and before this point, her main arc has been getting her husband to realize they need to work together for a child. The seduction happens a little too instantly, in the face of all that. But again, the subsequent part where she realizes that she was glad the moment happened, but prefers her own life--good, mature relationship beat, good farcical bit. But then she's immediately killed by the giant woman after coming to this conclusion, so it comes across that the story is punishing her for sexual violation. Which is kind of a mixed message.

Or take the giant woman. Now, even by the original story standards, she's pretty justified in coming down and being angry; Jack stole from her and murdered her husband after she welcomed her into his home (less justified: the mass destruction towards people who had nothing to do with her plight). So the struggle against her is less good versus evil and more "well, whatever we few remainders need to do to stay alive." The song to commemorate the fight "Not Alone" kind of gets at that, when it discusses how there's no good or bad, just sides, but at the same time, it's pitched as kind of a rallying lullabye--I think I would have preferred something more darker, and Pyrrhic.

I didn't mind what the film was trying to do. Taking shots at fairy tales and exploring the woods as a sort of Bhaktinian carnival (you can't spell carnival without the letters for carnal!) are both good things. But I like my characters a bit more developed, or my farces with a bit more of a knowing wink. So while the actors are great and the concept is fine, it didn't come together for me.

Or to put it differently: singing numbers that aren't as catchy as I'd like them. Emotional beats that lacked the development needed to pull them off. Radical shifts in tone. It's a modern musical, all right.

(Final thought: Even though the metaphor is more apt, the sexual awakening subtext for Little Red Riding Hood does get a little creepy when the part is played by a 13 year old/)
Later Days.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Devil Off My Back: How I Stopped Competing in Marvel Puzzle Quest

There were a few of demands on my time the last semester, mostly ill-advised, self-imposed ones. First and foremost, I sank an ungodly amount of time into my new course, on forms of fantasy. I can't really regret the time I spent on it, though, as it was by far the most I've enjoyed researching or teaching in ages. It's really the first time I've been teaching a course where both my students and I were interested in the material; I really hope I can channel that interest into future projects.

Speaking of future projects, there's the dissertation (which is really an ongoing project. This segue is not the best). It's been progressing, though rather slowly--I found some vital research I needed on a journal  that's only in French, which has meant slow going. And there's the aforementioned course I was teaching--I tallied up all the notes I took for the fantasy course, and it wound up being 200 pages.That length is about 4/5 of a dissertation right there. Again, I'm hoping to do better next term, but since I'll be teaching two courses--Introduction to Rhetoric and Forms of Science-Fiction--that's going to take some focus on my part.

Luckily, I just had some of my distractions removed from me. Remember my glowing reports of Marvel Puzzle Quest, the freemium, superhero version of Candy Crush? Well, I finally have that devil off my back. Or, to be more accurate, the devil climbed off my back, told me it was time to see other people, and walked away, whistling a jaunty tune. But it's the end result that matters, right?

What happened involves another facet of Marvel Puzzle Quest I don't think I've described much until now. A player of MPQ competes against special battles or other players' rosters; either way, she accumulates points, and moves up and down the ranks depending on how many points everyone else in her bracket has as well. And at the end of a set period of time, rewards are handed out based on ranking. There's an individual tally of points, but there's also a group tally--you can join an group, or an "alliance," and then the points a player accumulates go to her individual tally, but also her alliance tally, and one can get additional rewards based on the alliance tally as well.

What players can do for each other is limited; there's a chat function, and there's the option to send your characters out to help someone else. But mostly, the only purpose of the alliance is to work together towards that alliance tally reward. As such, anyone who isn't scoring high on the individual level and seems to be latching on in order to get the alliance reward is seen as deadweight. (You can probably see where this is going already.) And a cycle of top tier and lower tier players develops in the game overall--the best players and alliances win a bracket and get the best rewards, which allows them to perform better in the next competition. The losers don't get worse, but they don't get to improve either. The gap can be met somewhat through a willingness to spend real money on the game for better characters, but mostly that willingness exacerbates the gap rather than closes it, as it's the top tier players who seem most willing to shell out money to stay in their positions. There's two things (probably more, but two that occur to me right now) that can change this dynamic: the developers slowing down on the characters they release or doing something to increase the likelihood of drawing good characters for low level players, and the players' chief resource, time, becoming scarce. Both are unlikely; it's the top tier players who tend to invest the most time (understandably, since they get the most reward and motivation) and it's also the top tier players who, as I learned, pay the most cash.

And this is where I came in, or rather, fell out. I was doing fairly well on the player versus player side of things, but that was largely because I was taking advantage of my open schedule to select brackets with very unfavorable end times. (Play until my bracket ends at 4 am? It... seemed like a good idea at the time? Well, it kind of did.) And thus, I maximized my own time potential. But I did *not* have time to play through the player versus environment matches multiple times a day, especially given that my characters aren't really developed enough for it. As my individual rank dropped below my alliance's rank, the writing was on the wall. The real eye-opener moment was when someone asked in chat how much everyone involved has paid for the game. I have never spent a cent on Marvel Puzzle Quest; while you can pay to advance faster, or at least for the chance to advance faster, I stuck to my slow, plodding way. My teammates, however, were not so restrained. The *minimum* amount they spent was $150. It was fairly clear at that point that we had very different notions on what we wanted to get out of this game.

So this morning, one of the alliance's leaders kicked me out. There was no warning, no "time to shape up or you're dropped"--just a notification that I'm no longer aligned with anyone. I can't blame them for it; I can't even look up who they replaced me with, since I don't remember the name of the alliance to begin with, which suggests my commitment was never really that firm, despite the time I was sinking into playing.

I haven't looked for a new alliance, but I haven't deleted the app either. I think I'll keep playing the game--it's a good filler for when watching junky TV--but at the same time, I think I'm going to fall back from the competitive side of it. It's an investment I'm not willing to make financially, and shouldn't have been making in terms of time. I'll probably miss it, but if you can look at your time in a game and say after that it should have been spent elsewhere, you're probably right.It was an interesting experience; I've always said that my personality precludes any serious investment in MMO-type games, but through the magic of MPQ, I've inadvertently gotten at least a small taste of the competitiveness and serious time commitment involved in multiplayer affairs. I have to say, I prefer games with clear, unambiguous endings much better--I need that "stopping point."

MPQ has also taken down some of the barriers in my mind about the difference between casual and hardcore players. I know intellectually they're terms that have no reality behind them, but MPQ really blows them away. At its core, it's a "casual" game--a match three tile based on Bejeweled. But because of the competitive aspects added to monetize it, it is also a game requiring a very, very high level of commitment in order to excel.

The numbers my former fellow players reported spending on it are interesting too. Popular industry wisdom and consumer reports claim that most freemium titles are supported by "whales"--that is, 0.15% of all freemium players account for over 50% of its revenue. So you have many players, but only a few who pay enough to keep the lights on (it's similar to the porn industry that way). My teammates belie that number, paying enough to be significant, but not enough to land in the whale category. Now, one anecdotal result doesn't contradict a million sample size survey. But it's fun to speculate. Does MPQ attract a different audience through its focus on superheroes and competition? Did I wind up in an atypically large spending group? Is the 0.15% number wrong?

I don't know. Can't know, really. But I appreciate the opportunity to watch things unfold from the sidelines, instead of in prime freemium seats.

Later Days.