Video Games Archive

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A Brief Thought on Star Wars and Star Wars: Aftermath

At the time of this post, I’m about halfway through reading Chuck Wendig’s Star Wars: Aftermath. I feel quite confident in saying it is an excellent entry into the Star Wars universe. Despite Aftermath’s obvious strength as a space opera, a war story, and a piece of a greater whole, some segments of the internet have registered their discontent with the book.

I would like to speak to that discontent, if only to get the following words out of my system before sitting down to write a proper review of Aftermath. So gather ’round, ye monsters of cyberspace; Uncle Adam is going to lay a little truth on you.

In an odd way, I think I understand why some people are angry about this book. It has nothing to do with Mr. Wendig writing in the present tense or inserting lesbian characters into the novel. Nor is it about the lack of movie characters in Aftermath. I suspect the ugly anger comes from a sense of Star Wars being taken away. Lucas might have cocked it up, but now shit is getting real.

Remember back in the late 80s and early-to-mid 90s when Lucasfilm didn’t really care about Star Wars? You know who did care about Star Wars? LucasArts, Timothy Zahn, and a lot of us nerds. Genre defining games like X-Wing, Tie Fighter, and Dark Forces took us deeper into Star Wars than three movies ever could. We were the ones blowing up the Death Star, never mind some farm boy from the Outer Rim. Alternatively, we were the ones flying TIE Interceptors in an attempt to maintain peace in a galaxy plagued with bounty hunters, pirates, and left-wing terrorists. Names like Grand Admiral Thrawn, Mara Jade, and Kyle Katarn were as real to us as Han Solo or Leia Organa.

And then a bunch of suits came along and said that everything we loved about that mythology didn’t count for Bantha poodoo. Now we live in a world where Jar Jar Binks is more Star Wars than Mara Jade. Let that sink in for a moment. A character as asinine as Jar Jar should not be more Star Wars than anything.

Here’s the thing, angry internet people, Disney deciding what is and is not canon doesn’t take away from the fundamental truth that Star Wars was and is a piece of contemporary mythology. There are literally dozens of fan films and countless fan fics that allow people to participate in the communal story telling of Star Wars. Everything in the extended universe is still part of that mythos, regardless of what a corporate entity decides to expunge as to bring a sense of “order” to things. However, understanding that a mythology is a shared story is only half of the equation relevant to this discussion.

Myths and legends, within the Western tradition, at least, are ways of understanding society and one’s place within it. This means that Mr. Wendig’s choice to do “controversial” things like including a diverse host of characters within his novel, is not part of some grand conspiracy to remove “manly men” from Star Wars. Nor is it really controversial. If you’re the sort of person who thinks it is, then you’re likely an asshole.

Mr. Wendig is representing this world, as he sees it, within Star Wars’ mythological system. He’s also mobilizing some of the more complicated geopolitical narratives of our world in parsing the boring and binary nature of the Rebel Alliance and the Galactic Empire. I’d speak more on that, but you will have to wait for my review.

Angry fans do have a right to feel hard done by when the things they bought into are deemed lesser by the stroke of a pen. However, directing this outrage at an author whose contribution to the mythology is more than acceptable is as unfair as it is brainless. Building new places, forging new characters, and telling new stories, all while weaving a reflection of our world into the mythology, is exactly what a good story teller should be doing. To suggest otherwise, is to miss the point of literary criticism and engage in the most banal sort of butthurt.

Thus I shall close with a recommendation to the angry, outraged masses. As the floodgates seem to be open on refilling Star Wars‘ literary canon, those fans who can’t get over themselves and enjoy the thing they purport to love should pick up a pen and start writing. Really, I mean it. There’s probably never going to be a better time to break into writing a Star Wars novel. If you think you can do better, then fucking do better. I’ll help you get started…something about some clone troopers who get frozen in carbonite by the Hutts just before Order-66. When they get defrosted in 2 BBY, they aren’t sure if they should be loyal to the Empire or the Rebel Alliance. I call it Star Wars: Sundered Loyalties. Whatever, shut up, I’m not good with titles.

I await your evisceration.


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MechWarrior Online: I Can’t Even…

Dear readers,

Though this post will touch on some of the reasons why I think most “free-to-play” games are the devil’s bumwash, there’s also going to be a lot of wonkish talk about BattleTech and MechWarrior games. You have been warned.

Now, let’s talk about why I can’t stomach MechWarrior Online, a game I should love.

When Pirhana Games announced they would be producing an online MechWarrior game, I did what any BattleTech fanboy would do; I opened my wallet. I wanted MechWarrior Online to take me back to the days of Activision’s MechWarrior 2: Mercenaries or, to a lesser extent, Microsoft’s MechWarrior 4: Mercenaries. Instead, I found a game intent on parting coin from hand. C-Bills were few and far between; Mech Credits, the game’s premium currency, ruled the day. I could spend endless hours grinding out the C-Bills to buy myself a fancy ‘mech, or I could pony up some MC and save myself the grind.

Even in early access, I hated what the game of armoured combat had become. I staked real world money in supporting it, and the final product was the stuff of my nightmares. It’s a game that makes progressing through skill tress, which confer various piloting perks on a player, so intentionally slow as to build an artificial demand for buying “mastery packs.” These “convenience” features unlock all variants of a ‘mech, thus allowing a pilot to achieve the highest levels of perks for said ‘mech. They are also the very definition of pay-to-win gaming.

Let me reiterate that last point. There are six variants of my favourite ‘mech, the Awesome. Each ‘mech has three tiers of specialty skills. To unlock the second tier of pilot skills on my AWS-8Q, I also have to unlock all the basic skills on the AWS-8V and AWS-8R. I assume unlocking the top tier requires offering up a blood pact to Lucifer. I don’t object to barriers against progression, but I do expect them to be entertaining. Warframe, for example, is a grind, but it’s a grind I can enjoy. Would that MechWarrior Online were such fun.

Though Piranha Games has developed three game modes, all three are essentially the same thing. In my experience, a given game mode almost always devolves into twenty-four ‘mechs meeting in the middle of the map for a battle royale. This is the game, over and over.

Keep up with the blob of your team’s ‘mechs; hammer away at the singletons broken away from the enemy group’s blob; end the round at the match summary screen.

With everything boiling down to a brutal punch-up, there’s not a lot of room for a player’s individual style. Light and medium mechs are limited to the odd bit of sniping and skirmishing before being swatted like flies. The winning team is almost always determined by which team has the most Clan ‘mechs on its side. How does one get access to clan tech? Either through compulsion or convenience.

The Hellbringer (AKA the Loki to you Inner Sphere freebirths) costs in the neighbourhood of either 13,000,000 C-Bills or 5,000 MC – its exact price depends on the variant of the ‘mech in question. For context, I’ll put my average per mission income in MechWarrior Online at about 150,000 C-Bills. Assuming I could grind out a game every fifteen minutes, I would make 600,000 C-Bills per hour. At that rate, it would take me 21 hours to grind a Hellbringer. Compare this to the $29.99 I would have to pay for 6000 MC. For further context, a person making minimum wage in Ontario earns $29.99 in less than three hours. 3 hours of real life work for a Hellbringer versus 21 hours of playing a video game for the same. I call this the mark of a pretty shitty in-game economy, at least for the players; I’m sure Piranha Games and co-publisher Infinite Game Publishing are laughing all the way to the bank.

This is not the MechWarrior game that fans deserve, not even close. Scant C-Bills and the limits of Inner Sphere tech were part of the challenge in old MechWarrior games, not an engine for extorting players. Where’s the joy in weighing the need for C-Bills against the impracticality of scoring a kill in a grand melee? Sorry, MechWarrior Online and Piranha Games. I thought it was me, but it’s actually you. I, and every other MechWarrior fan who is playing your game not because they want to, but because it is all they have, deserve so much better than this.


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A Pillars of Eternity Mea Culpa

Warning: here be mild, non-main story related spoilers for Pillars of Eternity.

Shortly after finishing Pillars of Eternity’s second act, I spent some time working on party member quests. After completing two, I had something of a revelation about Pillars of Eternity; I was wrong when I said the game’s secondary characters might not prove to be eternally memorable.

In fact, I’m likely going to remember PoE’s characters for quite some time. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a sword and sorcery RPG be quite so cruel to its supporting cast. Both Dragon Age and even The Witcher are more merciful in comparison to what Pillars foists on its companion characters.

The first companion quest I finished in PoE belonged to Edér, my party’s warrior. Edér’s personal story is a great inroad to the game’s rich backstory. For the sake of brevity, I’ll summarize with the short version. Edér and his brother ended up on opposite sides of a holy war. In the aftermath, Edér wants the player character (i.e. me) to use my psychic/astral powers to understand why his brother fought for the other side.

After a bit of detective work, I led the party to the site of Edér’s brother’s death. I expected to find something that would provide Edér with the closure he wanted. After all, this is a fantasy RPG; things always work out well for the player character and their friends. Following a bit of impromptu archaeology and a roughing-up of some local toughs, I found the standard Edér’s brother carried into battle. Despite my “watcher” powers, I was unable to reveal any new information to Edér. The quest ended in a bust, leaving Edér in a worse mental state than when he joined the party. This wasn’t the outcome I was expecting.

“Okay,” I thought to myself. “Maybe things will be better with Kana’s character quest.”

Nope.

Kana Rua is a historian in search of a tablet that would justify some of his more controversial academic theories. He believes this tablet rests within the bowels of my keep. If he can find it, he can return home vindicated (and likely secure a tenure track position for himself at Wizard Yale University).

The RPG veteran in me expected to find both the artefact and a moral challenge; do I use the object for my own ends or give it to Kana? So down we went into the “endless paths” under my fortress. A few hours later I found the tablet shattered; its mysteries lost to the ages. The existential loss conveyed through Patrick Seitz’s voice acting was absolutely gut wrenching.

One expects a fantasy game to threaten the party with dangers and hard decisions. This is standard fare in a post-Baldur’s Gate world. Never did I imagine that Obsidian’s writers were running such a majestic long con on me. In all the games I’ve played I don’t think I’ve ever watched as a character’s life-long hopes and dreams are smashed against the rocks of a cruel and indifferent world. It’s an odd and painful bit of realism injected into the fantasy setting.

If I was lacking emotional investment in the party characters before, consider it firmly established now. Going forward, I’m not sure if I want to see these quests reconciled to a happy ending or left to fester. 


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Don’t Throw Out the Witcher With the Bath Water

Unless you’ve been living on Mars, in a cave, with your fingers in your ears while singing a merry little tune, you’ve probably heard about the lack of representation in CD Projeckt Red’s The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt. On this day, I come not to make apologies for The Witcher in its video game incarnation. Like the most recent iteration, both the first and second Witcher games don’t score a lot of points on representing people of a non-white ethnicity.

As a result, I’ve seen a few writers/critics who are content to throw out the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to the Witcher. From my point of view, this is a foolish tack to take. If holding The Witcher to task on its problems demands a wholesale dismissal of the series, then the state of criticism has fallen to dangerously poor levels. Have we become such angry and reactionary inquisitors that we believe the presence of a single sin taints the whole of a creative work? I should certainly hope not.

Though The Witcher may “fail” in its representation – scare quotes in play only because a lot of the lambasting is coming from North American writers offering a moral judgement on a Polish game (not to say morality doesn’t cross nationality, only that a presumption of pan-cultural norms could be an essay in and of itself ) – I do not accept that its shortfalls cancel out its successes in terms of grappling with complex political ideas.

The Witcher, regardless of medium, hosts the usual suspects of fantasy. Both the books and games depict a world largely dominated by humans, but also featuring elves, dwarves, hybrids, dragons, and an entire D&D manual’s worth of monsters. The relationship between Geralt of Rivia, a professional monster slayer, and his world, however, is never so simple as the hero going out to slay the dragon and mount its head on a spike. To compare Sapkowski’s vision of humans living with dwarves and elves to Tolkien – as some are wont to do – is to completely ignore the core conflict of Sapkowski’s world. Specifically, humans are a colonizing force that set up empires on the lands belonging to the elves and the dwarves.

Every major human city within the world of The Witcher is built on the ruins of the elven civilization. Even the word “elf” is positioned as the human designation for the people formerly known as the Aen Seidhe. To the North American audience, humanity’s arrival in this fantasy setting easily works as a parable to the European settlement of the western hemisphere. As it was between European settlers and North/South America’s indigenous peoples, humanity’s arrival to The Content of The Witcher was in too great a number and armed with technology that kneecapped the natives’ ability to resist conquest. Though the humans of The Witcher didn’t have the biological advantage of introducing new diseases to the elves, as was the case in North America, humanity’s ability to breed like rabbits, compared to the Aen Seidhe, stood as a considerable advantage. Say nothing for the internal dissent that humanity created within the elves when humans and elves began cross breeding and creating a sub-species loathed to both sides.

In both the novels and games, elves and dwarves are beaten people. Living on the margins of society, their businesses are routinely appropriated by local governments. Outside of city walls, non-humans are consigned to whatever poor-quality land humans don’t want – notwithstanding the forests of Brokilon where the dryads hold dominion as a race of fantasy Amazons.

Non-human resentment toward mankind’s brutality gives birth to an armed resistance movement, the Scoia’tael. Like any insurgency against the state, the Scoia’tael are seen by some as terrorists and others as freedom fighters. In the novels and games, alike, they are often the pawns of competing empires that would use the promise of a non-human homeland to leverage the elves and dwarves of the Scoia’tael as soldiers in proxy wars. Ignoring this element of The Witcher’s culture is akin to brushing off the significance of America funding the Taliban during the Cold War as little more than a historical footnote.

These politics, in my humble estimation, represent The Witcher at its narrative best. Humans who are sympathetic to the plight of non-humans are often those most powerless to affect change. The people who could improve the lot of non-humans usually cling to the prejudices or profits of their oppression. It is a world absent simple, righteous truths. Geralt, or the player acting as Geralt, must navigate a world filtered through the very real systems of power and control that shape our world. In The Witcher – and life – sometimes there are no good choices, only a choice between lesser evils.

While it is true that The Wild Hunt and The Witcher, as a whole, could do better with its representation of people of colour (and sex workers), it’s a simplistic nod to confirmation bias to write off an entire corpus of work because some parts fall short of an audience’s world view. Art demands better than such a juvenile approach to criticism. Indeed, it is a poor critic who puts their own desire to be right above a meaningful interaction with the subject material at hand. Common decency demands we not turn a blind eye to The Witcher’s problems; this same virtue holds us to a meaningful engagement with the series’ virtues.


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On Doom, Morality, and the Video Game Hall of Fame

On June 4, 2015, six video games were inducted in to the Video Game Hall of Fame at the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York. A cabal of video games editors, scholars, and other notables selected this first wave of inductees, which included Pong, Pac-Man, Super Mario Brothers, World of Warcraft, Tetris, and Doom.

Before the dust could settle, the Christian Science Monitor reported on anti-video game activist Jack Thompson protesting Doom’s inclusion in the hall of fame. This from Mr. Thompson,

“It’s only a matter of time before Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty and Halo are in there. Obviously if they put Doom in there, morality is not playing a role in their selection process.”

Part of me wants to take this joker to task. I love Doom, and I won’t quietly abide somebody shitting on something near and dear to me. As a critic, I could argue for hours about Doom’s technical merit and the complexity of its level design compared to modern games (looking at you, Bioshock Infinite). Say nothing for its ability to spin-off mods and daughter projects from the fan base. If you’ve never played Brutal Doom, you should. Likewise, Doom is fantastic for its subversive use of Christianity imagery – something horror movies did for decades before I shot my first demon possessed UAC Marine.

There’s also the very simple fact of Doom being 22 years old, and we’re still having pissing contests about it. Do we need another argument in favor of this title’s significance beyond its ability to stay relevant for more than two decades? I think not.

Instead, I want to tackle the notion of morality that Mr. Thompson invokes in his criticism of Doom. The first and most obvious question, how is Doom an immoral game?

Asking the question invites a debate on the definition of morality, the likes of which could go on for pages, accompanied by endless comment threads of trolling and counter trolling. Who am I kidding, nobody reads this blog…except for you, mom. Hi mom.

Nevertheless, I’ll offer up a working definition of morality from Bernard Gert’s Morality: Its Nature and Justification.

“Morality is an informal public system applying to all rational persons, governing behavior that affects others, and includes what are commonly known as the moral rules, ideals, and virtues and has the lessening of evil or harm as its goal.”

In order for Doom to be immoral by this definition, one would have to demonstrate that it has the effect of increasing evil and harm in society. Alternatively, we could call Doom immoral if, through intention or design, it promotes evil and harm through a set of values. Finding proof that Doom contributes to harm while working within the confines of a public system applying to all rational persons sets the bar high for those out to argue for Doom’s immorality.

First and foremost, Gert’s definition of morality rejects any religious argument against Doom’s morality; as I submit objections to Doom based on Judeo-Christian (or any other faith-based system) morality do not meet the burden of being public or applying to all rational persons.

At the risk of being glib, an impassioned belief in the supernatural to the point of allowing said supernatural being to proscribe corporeal behavior is not, in this critic’s opinion, a rational thing. Moreover, denominational religions do not meet my understanding of a public system. Religion, by its nature, is an exclusive system built around semiotics and metaphors. That sound you’re hearing is the god argument going up in smoke like so many plasma burned cacodemons.

With the religious definition of evil and harm taken off the table, we’re left with a question of Doom’s morality as it intersects with the physical world.

At this point, we could easily be drawn into a quagmire of trying to determine the intention of Doom’s creators. Though I doubt anybody at iD Software created Doom with the goal of producing moral rules for the promotion of harm – a point I will return to in a moment – let us suppose those desires were in play. Yet if Doom exists to promote harm and evil in the world, research from Rutgers and Villanova would suggest iD made a complete hash of their endeavour. Gamespot paraphrased the results of Rutgers and Villanova’s study below.

“Annual trends in video game sales for the past 33 years were unrelated to violent crime both concurrently and up to four years later. Unexpectedly, monthly sales of video games were related to concurrent decreases in aggravated assaults and were unrelated to homicides. Searches for violent video game walkthroughs and guides were also related to decreases in aggravated assaults and homicides two months later. Finally, homicides tended to decrease in the months following the release of popular M-rated violent video games.”

Even if Doom had the intention to create harm – a highly dubious notion – it nor any other video game has managed to bring about widespread immoral actions like assault or murder. For the record, murder happens to be the primary action available to players in Doom.

As an audience discussing morality as a public system applied to all rational people, does it make sense to interpret Doom as the spectacular failure of a group of black-hearted maleficarum intent to ruin the world? Is it not more sensible to presume the moral objections to Doom, like those witnessed from Mr. Thompson, are better seen as taste-based objections (e.g. I don’t like this and neither should you) or morality as defined by a religious dogma, which likely fails at least one test of being rational or rooted in public understanding?

Assuming no outward ill-intent on the part of Doom’s developers, we’re left with only one course in exploring Doom’s morality: taking the game at its face value. On this front, Doom’s message is as plain as a shotgun to the face. Only a critical tendency to over complicate matters obscures the fundamental fact about Doom’s moral compass.

In Doom, a player’s foes are the very embodiment of evil. They colonize humans, turning the living into zombies. These infernal forces are beyond reason or compassion. They kill everything in their path. Should this horde escape the confines of Mars, they pose a clear threat to life on Earth. Doom’s protagonist “aka Doomguy” personally resists said evil. Indeed, he quite literally reduces the evil threatening the Earth each and every righteous shot of his plasma rifle. I submit the game’s moral code is clear: resist and reduce evil in all its forms.

Doom is certainly a violent, possibly frightening affair for someone not disposed to science fiction horror. However, the challenging nature of any work of art, notwithstanding propaganda, does not amount to a code of behavior so much as an expression from the artist. Likewise, Doom has not had the effect of guiding people to harm through exposing them to challenging imagery. At its core, the game’s narrative is about the reduction of harm to humanity, using force as an absolute last resort against an utterly inhuman enemy. When individual taste and morality parsed through religious systems are set aside, Doom presents itself as a perfectly moral video game.


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Elite: Dangerous – Space Cowboys and Free Market Economics

My name is Adam Shaftoe, but some of you might know me as Commander Adam Shaftoe. I’m what you call a combat pilot. Politics and ideology don’t really matter to me. Show me the credits, whisper the target’s name, and I’ll get the job done. To date, I own two starships, including a brand spanking new Core Dynamics Vulture, and I have about 10,000,000 credits in the bank. I know I’m not the most successful Commander in the Pilots’ Federation, but I’m no rookie, either.

It’s fair to say Elite:Dangerous pushes a lot of my buttons. It lets me tell a meta-story with other pilots in a vast, online universe. For a few hours every week, Elite: Dangerous lets me climb into the cockpit of a space ship and live out my childhood fantasy of blowing things up in space. Rick Hunter, eat your heart out.

This alone is enough to keep me playing Elite: Dangerous.

Mind you, when I’m not tearing around the galaxy, I like to think I’m a reasonably capable critic. The critic in me wonders why I’m still playing Elite: Dangerous.

As much as I enjoy being a bad-ass space pilot, I’m not blind to some of the serious shortcomings in the game – notwithstanding the lack of ownership as elucidated in this piece.

About two patches ago, Frontier Developments introduced community goals into Elite: Dangerous. Players could now work together on large scale projects that would carry forward within ED’s persistent world. My favourite of these community goals are combat operations, which are a lot like fundraisers only with more murder. The game keeps a running tally of all combat payouts a pilot secures within a certain operation. As all players involved in the community goal meet an escalating series of milestones, they qualify for a final payout commensurate with said milestone and their proportional contribution to the goal.

Here’s where things get weird. I worked for the Federation in a recent combat community goal. I supported this particular government within Elite: Dangerous’ political triad because I knew they would send a capital ship to the warzone. I then switched from open play, where I can interact with other human players – some of whom might choose to work for the opposing faction – to solo play, where it was me versus the AI.

A quick FTL to the warzone, and I was in the thick of it with the Federation fighters, a Federal capital ship, and the soon to be dead opposing force.

Experience has taught me to hang close to the capital ship during these situations. Rather than engaging in ship-to-ship combat, I set my ship’s turreted beam weapons to fire at will on any enemy who crossed my path. Meanwhile, the capital ship hammered away on everything within its combat radius. At the time of this post, Elite: Dangerous’ combat system is set up so that AI ships can’t collect combat bonds. Meaning, all I have to do is tag an enemy ship to collect the full combat bond when the AIs/Cap ship eventually take it out.  This system doesn’t always work, but it works more often than not.

I devoted about three hours of play time to this scheme. For my efforts I scored roughly 2,000,000 credits in combat bonds, which amounted to two-thirds of the value of the ship I was flying at the time. No small sum of money. Here’s the best part, my contribution to the community goal put me in the 40th percentile of all pilots working on the mission. This earned me another 15,000,000 credits.

This seems excessive even by the Federation’s standards. Within Elite’s lore, the Feds are a bloated and often incompetent bureaucracy. Don’t get me wrong, the mercenary in me is more than happy to take the Federation’s money. Yet as a critic, I have to ask if this is the game functioning as David Braben and team intended. Should I really be able to cheese my way to riches on something that feels like a design oversight?

I suppose it could be some sort of commentary on the economics of wealth. If it weren’t for the fact that I already had a ship worth 3,000,000 credits, which is a long way off from the Sidewinder I started in – market value 32,000 credits – there’s no way I would be able to milk the Federation for an easy 17,000,000. My wealth, in a game whose economy leans toward lassiez-faire, put me in a position to make literal fuck-tons of more money.

There’s simply no way a poorer pilot could have pulled off what I did. I have the disposable income to buy and sell ship parts without consideration. I don’t have to worry about losing a significant portion of my net-worth on insurance claims if I get blown up. And more importantly, my money bought me an engine that gives me access to the entirety of civilized space. No new pilot can claim those things. In Elite: Dangerous as in life, my modest wealth put me in a place to earn considerable wealth. Even though “considerable wealth” will reach a point where its windfalls no longer represent a meaningful percentage of my net-worth, for the time being my money makes me more money than my combat skills.

Is this side-effect of unabashed, unregulated, capitalism meant to be Elite: Dangerous condemning the status quo? Shall we put in a call to Thomas Picketty and his observations on a return to gilded-age economics? Am I meant to reflect on the fact that as a rich player, I now stand to get richer so much faster than when I started? Or is this an exploit to be patched in a future update? My inner space pilot doesn’t care, and my inner critic refuses to give up the game until he gets an answer. Either way, I keep playing.

If nothing else, it’s a hat tip to David Braben and his team for creating a game that makes me want to keep playing, even when my critical instincts say I should move on to something else. More on this story as I murder my way toward an answer.


3

On the Importance of Escapism

A foreword for readers: this piece is going to be a little more personal than my usual fare. In fact, I think the words below might border on the realm of cheap therapy. Frankly, my dears, I don’t give a fuck.

You have been warned.

Ernest Hemmingway once said happiness is a rare trait among intelligent people. I don’t think my intelligence, per se, has made me an unhappy person. Intelligence, particularly in my childhood, has served to isolate me from a great many people, but people are monsters so no loss there. Intelligence does let me see the world in a slightly different, and often saddening, way. Most relevant to this piece, intelligence gives me an insatiable thirst for knowledge.

This desire to learn has generally served me well. It helps me in almost every aspect of my life, up to and including my professional life. On that note and through either the grace of the gods or the chaos of the universe, I have a job with a work environment very reminiscent of my university days. University was a profoundly happy time for me – possibly the happiest were it not for the fact I was paying to be there. Now, however, I get paid do research, write things, and give presentations. Not a bad deal.

The physical location of the job, however, tends to weigh upon my soul. When I began my job, it was located in downtown St. Catharines. Like most downtown cores, downtown St. Catharines is an odd mix of affluence and poverty. For every salaryman or government bureaucrat dropping $20 on an over-priced farmer’s market lunch, there’s a homeless person digging through rubbish bins. Walking to the one and only deli worth eating at in St. Catharines required passing by a methadone clinic. A person can find brew pubs within spitting distance of pawn shops and “cash for gold” operations.

Last year our office moved from the downtown core to a much more poverty stricken neighbourhood. I’m now within walking distance – not that I ever walk anywhere from my office now – of short-term lending operations, an abandoned bingo hall, and the lowest of low-rent, government-supported housing.

Oh, and I forgot to mention my job involves researching local labour market statistics. This means when people talk about the problems in the local economy, I probably know more than they do about it. I can tell you how many people are working in retail sales and tourism and hospitality in the Niagara region. I can tell you how many people are making less than $14/hour – the figure generally batted about as the living wage. I can tell you what rental prices are like for apartments in Niagara, and then show you the shortfall between median annual wage and cost of living in Niagara – apparent quality of life in the region be damned.

Every day I live with the numbers. Every day I see the face of urban poverty. Every day I have to laugh at the absurdity of it all. Because if I don’t laugh, if I don’t find a way to wrap all the things I’m powerless to change in sarcasm and snark, then I might start really feeling the emotional weight of my knowledge.

Adam, you’re being a little melodramatic.

No, I’m being honest, something we’re only supposed to be within a specific set of circumstances. We’re supposed to blame people for their lot in life. Nothing happens without a reason. The language of bootstraps and self-reliance offers those of us not on the shit-end of the stick a convenient set of psychological and rhetorical tools for distancing ourselves from the privilege of birth and the vicissitudes of fate.

So when a person approaches me as I’m walking from my car to my office and says, “I’m handicap, can I have money for a coffee and a donut?” Am I supposed to have the dark heart to tell them that it’s their fault they are cold and hungry? Should I disregard what stands before me and embrace cynicism to the extent I write the person off as a fraud or a drunk or both? I’ll usually say, “I’m sorry,” and keep walking. Because I am sorry, despite the fact they can’t eat my apologies.

Once I’m at my desk I’ll make a joke about Niagara turning into Detroit and dig into the day’s emails and projects. Doing so is my only armour. What was Edward Blake’s line in Watchmen…once you realize what joke everything is, being the comedian is the only thing that makes sense.

This is the world we live in, Adam, nothing you can do about it, no point complaining about it.

Probably true. And at the end of the day, I’m the guy going home to a loving fiancée, an aloof cat, a nice apartment, all the “privilege” of being a white, het, cis, educated, male, and all the other things that set the difficulty for my life on the easiest level.

Then shut up about your life already, Adam, and get back to reviewing things. People come here to know what games and books they should spend their disposable income on, not to hear you pontificate about your bullshit, you self-pitying jackhole.

Fine. I will. Here’s the point of this temporary foray into feeling human feelings: in so much as our world produces a lot of shitty cultural artefacts, some of them serve the important purpose of giving us a temporary escape from the oppressive weight of willful knowledge and experience.

In so much as I like to bust on Star Trek for over-arching delivered with the efficacy of an undergraduate’s research paper – i.e. what’s said on in writing often falls well short of the intended message – Star Trek can give us a brief cognitive escape and hope for something conceptually, if not functionally, better.

I might be able to walk a Mk. III Jaeger through the plot holes of Pacific Rim, but for those two hours I’m presented with the possibility of humanity getting its collective shit together to do something bigger than any of us can imagine.

A jaunt through The Temple of Elemental Evil or Baldur’s Gate affords 30-60 hours of soul-warming heroics – or cathartic evil, depending on what a person needs.

Escapism is nothing new. Modern, city-dwelling civilizations go hand-in-hand with alienation and ennui. Though the form and medium of these escapes has changed from the early phantasmagoria shows of the 19th century, to the pulp adventures of Buck Rogers, to cock-cannons of Saints Row, these escapes are a pressure valve for those of us who see but are powerless to change. To dismiss them as frivolities in the face of grander works is akin to telling a person they  don’t deserve any safe haven from the creeping sands of the desert of the Real.

This isn’t to say every piece of shit is escapism, mind you, but such is an essay for a different day.

I know return you to your tonally appropriate Page of Reviews content.


1

Apologia Adamus

I recently turned down a very fine guest post due to its invocation of a certain social “movement”. This decision has weighed upon me such that I feel the need to offer up an apologia.

Some time ago, I wrote what was to be my one and only offering about this “movement”. Since then, this cultural phenomenon has mutated into an ideology among some quarters. The actions taken in its name, regardless of if they represent the whole, have only grown more ugly and soul crushing with time. I’ve seen people face death threats and harassment for little more than contributing to a corpus of art or partaking in artistic criticism. Witnessing shit like this leaves me to think that society has utterly failed to instill honour as a virtue in a generation, or two, of people.

In recent months, people have asked me what I think of the counter-movement to the social “movement” that shall not be named. The assumption being that if I’ll mock one thing via internet meme, I must be a member of the opposing camp. This is not the case.

I have too many reviews, essays, and think-pieces to write to bother sorting out who has the greatest claim to butthurt and which side is working best on behalf of the video game playing world. This is not a battle for my soul. This is not post-modern Protestants versus Catholics. I don’t care.

From where I stand, it’s all monstrous, banal, and absurd.

I want nothing to do with any of it. I am not, nor will I ever be, associated with movements whose names are born out of portmanteaus of fence portals or half of a city’s name. I’m a writer. I write things. End of line.

Then why do I feel like a coward for not taking a stand against the things I know to be monstrous?

It is as if I’m a witcher who has turned his back on a village plagued by monsters. Worse still, I know some of the people in this village. I comfort myself with the knowledge that being an aware, honest, and, inclusive critic will be a more meaningful contribution than standing on a wall and daring the worst quarters of the internet to have at me. Perhaps I’m also over-estimating my importance in assuming anybody would bother visiting harassment upon me for stating an opinion. Contrary to what my mom tells me, I am the smallest of potatoes. Be that as it may, I’ve witnessed, through the relative safety of my info-sphere, too many people getting caught in this shitstorm to tempt the gods. In the words of Ferris Bueller, “I don’t want this much heat.”

So there it is. Perhaps I’m a milksop for not taking a more obvious stand against the shortcomings of online culture. If so, I’ll live with it. For the foreseeable future, all I’m willing to do is try to rise above the things that divide us.


5

Better Living through Shadowrun: Dragonfall

I can’t recall the exact number of times I watched my character die as I tried to make my way through the techno-noir action of the SNES Shadowrun game. Let’s say, a lot. A few decades after those halcyon days, I discovered the PC release of Shadowrun Returns and, more recently, Shadowrun: Dragonfall.

Where Shadowrun Returns was a good reminder of everything I liked about Shadowrun’s cyberpunk meets urban fantasy aesthetic, playing Dragonfall has given me cause to reflect on the narrative flavour of the Shadowrun world. Specifically, Dragonfall is an excellent way to have a conversation with gamers about the kinds of social issues that often make gaming look like a juvenile and retrograde enterprise. Allow me to explain.

What little I remember of the Seattle-based Shadowrun lore is that it includes a considerable cultural transplant from the native peoples of the Pacific Northwest. Rusty as my SNES Shadowrun memories are, I think I recall characters talking about their Haida and Salish backgrounds. The game never made a big deal about this representation; it was simply a part of the world. Looking back, this level of inclusion is fairly significant for the early 90s.

From today’s point of view, and given the current debates orbiting the world of gaming, I think it’s fair to expect more than simple representation. We live amid a cultural climate where a vocal collection of nitwits refuse to acknowledge any room for growth within the medium. Thus, if games want to be taken more seriously as art, they need to engage an audience in some deeper conversations.

On said note, Dragonfall offers an excellent dialogue on privilege. In addition to blending magic and technology, Shadowrun features a cast of fantasy races. Humans live alongside Elves, Dwarves, Gnomes, Trolls, and Orks. These Metahumans are often treated as second and third-class citizens in the tumultuous nation-states of the “Sixth World”. Metas have to struggle with discrimination in the workplace, presumed identities based on species, and a greater tendency toward being exploited by the Human and Dragon dominated systems of power. Even inclusive nations, like Dragonfall’s Berlin Flux-State show Humans as often begrudgingly tolerant of Metas.

Dragonfall is also noteworthy in its refusal to present Metahumans as racially/species coded beings. This is in opposition to someone like Tolkien, for example, who aligns the relative good and evil of his fantasy species around skin tone. Humans, Elves, and Hobbits are almost always good, and they just happen to be white-folk; whereas Trolls, Orks, and Uruk-hai are almost always evil and of a darker complexion. Other works of fantasy, both high and low, are equally guilty of this coding. Consider the contrast between the noble Wood Elves and the spider-god worshiping Drow of the D&D tradition.

It’s an obvious act of genre subversion when Dragonfall sets up Trolls and Orks as white, European characters, who actively struggle with a system of oppression based singularly on how they happened to be born. Indeed, this level of discrimination is a sadly familiar state of affairs. Should a player choose to interact with the homeless shelter in the Kreuzbasar, Dragonfall’s central neighbourhood, they learn that the majority of its residents are from the more traditionally “monstrous” species. Most of those residents use the shelter as the first step to finding a third way between a life of crime or a life of poverty that human-dominated society foists upon Orks and Trolls i.e. you’re big, stronng, and dumb, so you’re only good for menial work or as a hired thug.

The added benefit of this primer on privilege is it occurs in a neutral environment, absent any recrimination for what a player may or may not comprehend about inequality. If a person plays Dragonfall as a Human character, the narrative very specifically points out all the ways in which Humans keep themselves on the top of the heap e.g. denial of civil rights, racial profiling, drugs, and so on. Likewise, if a person plays as a Meta, they have to experience all the prejudices and presumptions foisted upon non-Humans. Even playing as an Elf – a race described in game as the most privileged of the Metahumans – I’ve witnessed instances where being a human character would have made my life easier.

As an added bonus, no group of actual people is used as an object in Dragonfall’s lesson. I can’t imagine anyone looking at an Elf or a Troll in Shadowrun and seeing their personal identity being used as a teaching tool. Nevertheless, listening to an Ork businessman share his anxieties about how his co-workers presume his incompetence, based solely on his race, should prove a clear allegory for what many people deal with in the real world.

Dragonfall might not change how everyone who plays the game thinks about race, identity, and discrimination, but it provides an easy point of entry to understanding how these issues effect distinct groups of people. Should Dragonfall give a gamer a moment to pause and reflect on how art may be imitating life, then I dare say it will have done more than entertain its audience. Dragonfall would have helped make that said person a little bit better as a human being.


1

Award Season – Part 1 – Prix-Aurora Awards Best Fan Publication

A quick note on programming. Today’s post was supposed to be a review of the first book in Marie Bilodeau’s serialized novel, Nigh. A trip to the hospital (not serious, all is well) and a burst water main (again, not serious, all is well) got in the way of me doing any writing yesterday and has left me running on no sleep for about 36 hours. In this state, I wouldn’t trust myself to review Dr. Seuss, let alone a writer whose chops put me in mind of George R.R. Martin or Andrzej Sapkowski. Hey, what do you know? I bounced back.

Rather than pressing my luck, I’m going to devote today’s post to some preliminary chatter on award season. It’s a sure sign of the new year when one starts to notice writers talking about which of their works are eligible for award nomination. Last year, I was mildly disappointed when the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Association’s Prix-Aurora Awards cancelled its category for “Best Fan Publication” due to lack of nominations. I’d be a lying prat if I said some part of this disappointment wasn’t wholly selfish. It’s not like I campaigned, mind you, but there’s always some very small, very vain, part of me that holds out hope. The greater loss to not seeing a Best Fan Publication award is some very fine writers missed a chance to be recognized for their efforts. Want an example?

Check out Speculating Canada: Canadian Horror, Science Fiction, and Fantasy. Why? Because Derek Newman-Stille is a hell of a writer. His reviews are outstanding, and his essays are the sort of thing that offer a blueprint for improving this little community of ours. Read his work, be a better person. End of line.

There should be more than enough quality fan writers to prevent us from seeing a second shutout year. I would also implore CSFFA members not to presume that the designation of “fan” constitutes a lower-tier of creative endeavour. The distinction between “professional” and “fan” is rooted in if a person is paid for their work. In terms of quality, I believe the high level of professionalism that goes into most fan work speaks for itself.

And if for some reason you, gentle reader, wanted to toss the Page of Reviews in the ring for Best Fan Publication – if only to ensure there’s an actual competition this year – I wouldn’t kick up a stink.

For your consideration, here are three of my favourite pieces from 2014.

Marginalization and Stephen King’s Rage – April 23, 2014

The Unanswered Question of Land Claims in Homeworld - July 4, 2014

Babylon 5: The Last Best Hope for Empathy – August 11, 2014

There. That’s as shameless and award-grubby as I get. Can I go to bed now?