Age of Wonders

Screenshot from Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic showing the game options available for a player controlling an elven army attacking undead foes

Remember when computer games had crappy voice actors? I do, because I’ve been playing Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic. I got it for like $2 on GOG a while ago and it really does deserve to be listed there, as it actually is a good old game.

The whole thing is kind of like Civilization in a fantasy setting, or maybe a turn-based version of Warcraft. Like Civilization you pick a certain people to play as, you go out into the world, build outposts and cities, gain allies and make enemies, conquer villages, and massacre entire races.

Unlike Civilization, heroes play a big part in the game thanks to its fantasy roots (specifically Dungeons and Dragons with the serial numbers filed off). The player is not some disembodied will directing the manifest destiny of a nation, but instead you are a mighty wizard leading your chosen race to victory over the untermenschen of the world.

I assume you can play as evil races like trolls and stuff but I’ve only done one of the starter campaigns and the story was entirely told from the perspective of the do-gooder elves and halflings. Anyway, your wizard is a unit on the map that you move around, they cast epic spells that can change the face of the world, and they can get their asses killed if you screw up in battle. The best thing to do is probably to stick your wizard in a tower and have them cast their spells from afar.

The race you pick also determines your technology and units, but again with a fantasy spin. The technology tree also deals entirely with getting magic spells that are unique to each race. Elves can get spells to summon unicorns and fairies, for example. Elves also have archers and their higher units are nymphs and druids, while humans have crossbowmen and knights.

The fantasy RPG setting also puts a pretty fun spin on maps because you can send your armies into the tunnels of the Underdark to assault your enemy from the rear, or travel into the Shadow Plane and flank their armies that way. It’s also fun to find random fantasy stuff on a map, like a hidden elf city in a forest you thought you’d already explored or a dungeon you can clear out or an inn where you can recruit a hero or a city that will switch to your side if you rescue them from the demons that besiege them.

Voice acting aside, the game is actually a lot less clunky than you would expect for something from the 90’s. I don’t really notice the interface most of the time, which is pretty much how it’s supposed to work. It’s easy to get sucked in while you’re playing – for instance, I almost missed a social engagement over the weekend because I told myself I’d just finish a map before getting ready to leave. The game is just fun to play and being like 20 years old it’ll run on anything. I say check it out if you like this sort of thing.

Goodbye world

Male Dragonborn glowering in an intimidating pose and decked in a fanciful horned helmet

God help me but I’ve started playing Skyrim.

I got 100% achievements after 400 hours played on Oblivion, though, so I think I’ve got the completist experience already covered as far as the Elder Scrolls series goes. I don’t really need to be the top baker, hooker, and air conditioner repairman in all the land (along with my day job of adventurer).

Things I will avoid: alchemy, blacksmithing, fugly people. This should cut down on the number of quests I’ll need to do. Here’s hoping.

Flameo, Hotman

I just got the Legend of Korra video game. Turns out it’s pretty short and I’m almost at the end. It’s sadly another so-so video game tie-in product. What’s frustrating is that I can clearly see the game it could be if enough time and money had been put in.

The story starts two weeks after the series finale with Korra fighting a new bad guy from the Spirit World, but that plot is basically just an excuse to have Korra fight the gangsters and Equalists that she did in the TV show. You  visit Republic City, Air Temple Island, the South Pole, and the Spirit World, but they’re all just environments for fighting in. There’s a separate pro-bending mode that you can unlock, but it’s more frustrating than fun to play.

Basically, the twin spirits of cheapness and half-assedness hang over the whole production. Everywhere I turn I’m confronted by the fact that this isn’t actually the world from the show, but a backdrop where I can sort of pretend I’m playing the Avatar. The streets are empty except for people trying to beat you up, and invisible walls prevent you from going anywhere except where the designer wants you. Just to drive home how lazy the design is, you actually break pots to recharge your chi – a cliche of game mechanics so old that if it were human it would already have kids old enough to talk.

However, it’s not like the game is actively awful, just rather disappointing when considering it against what a video game of this property could have been. The actual voice actors from the show are playing their characters and there are even original cartoon cut scenes (though not from the same animation studio used by the cartoon). The bending is kind of neat in the beginning and it’s actually rather fun the first time you have to fight simultaneously against three different types of benders.

There are enough hints of a better game scattered throughout this one that fans of the show will find themselves asking “what if”. What if this game had gotten a proper release? What if it had been an open world or semi-open world RPG like Dragon’s Dogma where you walk the busy streets of Republic City and talk to characters from the show and do Avatar quests to increase harmony and fight bad guys and jump from roof to roof laughing with glee at the powers you command? What if you had gotten all that? Because that would have been great.

Somewhere Out There

I recently finished the visual novel Out There Chronicles: Episode 1.

Screenshot of the female spaceship captain Nyx and the dialogue responses available to the player

In case you’re unaware, visual novels are a game genre originally from Japan that are essentially digital Choose Your Own Adventure games. There’s music and perhaps some simple animation, but otherwise the game part is just choosing out of a short list of responses or actions.

Being from Japan, most visual novels use the same visual style you would be familiar with from anime and manga and Japanese video games, and being relatively cheap to make, the vast majority of them are shit. The creative outlay, after all, is just still images, music, and text. You don’t even need any fancy programming as there are game maker programs out there where you can just drop your files straight into a framework and then it’ll spit a game out right quick.

Of course, there’s no reason that visual novels must inherently suck or all be about who’s dating whom in a fictional Japanese high school. I liked this one that I played. You, the protagonist, wake up from suspended animation a million years in the future on the planet America, home of what may be the last humans in the universe. You make your way through this strange society to find out what happened to your own colony ship, the Europa, while trying to hide what exactly happened before Earth died and everyone ran for it.

Screenshot of a spaceship flying through the sky over a rocky alien landscape

What did I like in particular? Well, the visuals are arresting and distinctive, not just for the look of the characters but for the environments they move in as well (the void of space, a futuristic park, a giant restaurant tree). It’s obvious how constrained the choices were but I didn’t feel as railroaded as I should have – the narrative was compelling enough that the choices presented were the ones I wanted to choose anyway just so I could see what happened next.

Anyway, this is only the first episode. There will be more to come. As with all serialized storytelling, the makers may shit the bed in later installments, but for now I’m anticipating the next episode. Thumbs up from me.

Games of yesteryear

I haven’t been playing video games lately. I think weeks might go by between gaming sessions for me. Maybe it’s because I’m reading more.

Anyway, I managed to finish Resonance, a point and click adventure game that had been on my computer forever. It looks like one of the old Sierra games, complete with pixels the size of coconuts.

I don’t know, I think I’ve reached my tolerance for nostalgia acts, or at least with this kind of adventure game. It’s the art that’s just bugging the hell out of me. Why does it have to look so pixelated? Sierra games only looked like that because of technical limitations. If they could have avoided this look they would have.

I installed another game from the studio, Shardlight, which looks pretty much the same in resolution and which I’m not super enthused to keep looking at. The last point and click adventure game I actually obsessed over was Memoria, and that actually looked really great, as you can see below.

Oh well, I guess I’ll stick it out with Shardlight and at least cross another game off my queue.

Middle Ages: The Video Game

So the book Pillars of the Earth (though I only know the story from the TV miniseries) is coming out in video game format. Specifically it’ll be an interactive novel. It looks like there’s some level of game-like playing in there, judging from the pic below.

A medieval monk stands before another, and at the bottom of the screen two choices are presented: to Lie or to Tell the Truth

But seeing as how it’s based on a book with a definite plot and resolution then I assume you can only change the story so much. Perhaps you’ll be railroaded slightly more than in a typical game from Telltale Studios. And seeing as how it’s set in the Middle Ages, it’ll be full of rape, murder, and irrational persecution, so it’ll feel pretty close to Telltale’s Walking Dead series too.

It’s odd that this is coming out, but the art is interesting. I liked the TV show, so I hope the thing is at least decent.

Cruising

So there’s a video game about anonymous gay sex in public bathrooms of the 1960s. It’s called The Tearoom and yes, it’s based on Laud Humphreys’ landmark study about the exact subject.

In-game screenshot from the player's first person perspective of eye contact with another urinal user

Your goal is to engage in sexual acts with other men, but before that, you must wait for someone to enter, and then engage in a ritual that involves repeated periods of prolonged eye contact, all the while keeping an look out for the police.

“A lot of it is based on this sociological study by Laud Humphreys called Tearoom Trade,” says Yang. “[He] actually calls it a game, and tries to write out what the rules are and stuff, so it’s almost like a game design document. A lot of it is eye contact, so they’ll be peeing and then they might look at you and then you look at them, and then you look away and then they look away . . . stuff like that.”

Sing, O Muse

DOOM's space marine protagonist fighting off an endless wave of demons

I had no idea that the Los Angeles Review of Books was covering video games but it seems obvious in hindsight. Games are texts in a literary theory sense, after all, as Wikipedia explains:

In literary theory, a text is any object that can be “read,” whether this object is a work of literature, a street sign, an arrangement of buildings on a city block, or styles of clothing. It is a coherent set of signs that transmits some kind of informative message. This set of symbols is considered in terms of the informative message’s content, rather than in terms of its physical form or the medium in which it is represented.

As texts, games are open to analysis like any other text. It was inevitable that their analysis would move out of the amateur space of student papers and personal blogs and into the formal world of published reviews after the generation that played video games was old enough to get PhDs in literature.

Anyway, the following article is an excellent analysis of the liberal democratic zeitgeist that’s valuable even if one has not played the video game being reviewed. It’s about the modern politics of rage as mediated through the 2016 reboot of the DOOM game franchise.

It’s all great, but here are some choice bits for the tl;dr brigade:

DOOMguy Knows How You Feel

The Union Aerospace Corporation [UAC] appeared as a futuristic defense contractor in the original game. In some not-too-distant, post-apocalyptic future, it has decided that the only path to a sustainable future for humanity is to literally mine energy from Hell. Shockingly, this path to prosperity goes horribly awry. It is up to the newest incarnation of doomguy to sort it out, mostly through destroying key objects, ignoring proffered advice, and murdering a dizzying assortment first of zombified ex- (post-?) UAC employees and then, well, the demonic legions of Hell itself . . .

Games are machines for producing affect, and the affect the public most fears in games is rage . . . The DOOM Emotion Machine pushes you to move beyond mere expression of rage, not just inchoate, unfathomable rage, not just rage at any old thing or the nearest narratively acceptable target, but to feel free to rage at the people who brought you here, rage at their apologists, rage at the idiocy of HR, rage at the plodding stupidity of looking for one more source of “dead labor” . . . Rage at Hell but rage at who brought you to Hell and why any of this is necessary at all . . .

DOOM wants you to consider that when “they go low,” you will scrape the pits of Inferno to go ever lower. DOOM wants you to feel more. But — and perhaps this is sheer, irrational hope on my part, a shard of redemption in a game of bleak glee — DOOM wants you to remember that it is all so stupid. That all of this is instrumental, that the only way out is through, but that this is brutalizing to the world and to yourself. In my most hopeful moment, I think DOOM has old Spinoza on the mind: learn to feel joy in the world again and yes, learn to feel joy in the pain of enemies but remember that it is just — in a measure of mere magnitude — a lesser joy than in the flourishing of friends.

This is some goddamn top shelf games writing. A thousand aggregated Metacritic scores could not encompass the informativeness of this review.

Also, if you’re keen to peruse the magazine’s other video game essays, I recommend Something is Rotten in the State of Lucis: On “Final Fantasy XV”, which analyses the political philosophy of Final Fantasy XV, with especial regard to Hamlet and Americana. I probably won’t ever get FFXV, but this review is well-written enough to give a non-player much to ruminate on.

Follow the White Rabbit

Man, I was so sure that there was a trailer for the original Nier scored to White Rabbit that I spent twenty minutes this morning looking for it. Turns out it was Lost Odyssey. Also, turns out that game wasn’t that good except for the story in the cutscenes, but those were written by an actual novelist. Anyway, at least we got an okay trailer out of it all.

Haruki Murakami: the video game

Behold Memoranda, a point-and-click adventure game that claims to be a magical realist experience in the vein of a Haruki Murakami novel:

Memoranda is a game about forgetting and being forgotten!

A point and click adventure game with magic realism elements that tells the story of a young lady who gradually realizes she is forgetting her own name. Is she really losing her memory or is there something else that could explain the strange circumstances? The story happens in a quiet little town where a few ordinary and strange characters live together. Including a World War II surviving soldier to an elephant taking shelter in a man’s cottage hoping to become a human. There is one thing all these characters have in common: they are losing something. It could be a name, a husband or even someone’s sanity!

I dunno, it seems rather annoyingly twee. I’d say it’s hard to translate the quiet strangeness of Murakami’s novels into the visual medium, but I rather think the Norwegian Wood movie pulled it off. I’m curious, but not enough to pay $17 and change. I’ll probably buy this if the price drops below $5 since I have an abiding lust for point-and-click adventures, but right now I think I’ll hold off.