Site news: updated blogroll and anticipated games

Just a couple of blog upkeep notes, for those who might not visit the actual Bio Break site these days:

  • I’ve erased my old blogroll and started fresh, adding all of the Blaugust Reborn participants as well as anyone I see active on my daily RSS feed. Lots of great blogs to check out if you’re bored, so look to the right there and get reading!
  • I’ve also added a few titles to the “Games I’m keeping an eye on” section. Again, this list is mostly for me, so that I won’t forget about these smaller titles when I go to check up on them later on. But I figure I might as well share those with you guys, so there’s that.
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Blaugust Reborn: Five things every blogger should do to connect with other writers

While I’m not going to speak for all of us gaming bloggers, I will say that for many, there is great appeal in being part of a community that shares our experiences and thoughts. We like being connected — and it’s beneficial, too, since you find inspiration, encouragement, guidance, and even traffic that way.

But how best to do this? Here are six suggestions that I would advise up-and-coming bloggers to apply to their regular routine to connect with other writers:

  1. Twitter stalk. Twitter is still the most common way that many of us stay in touch with each other, bounce ideas off of each other, and promote our blogs. It’s very much a give-and-take thing, so don’t just expect everyone to follow you but you don’t have to do the same. Instead, stalk as many other writers as possible (and news sources to get inspiration for writing prompts!)
  2. Comment. I’m terrible at this. A total hypocrite for writing this, because I don’t comment on others’ blogs nearly as often as I should. But I *should* is the point, and so should you. Bloggers adore getting good comments far more than hits, because it means that what we wrote sparked conversation and debate. So get out there and chat on others’ sites! (plus, it makes THEM more aware of YOU, and you know, traffic ensues)
  3. Encourage. Someone write a good post? Let them know! You see a blogger struggling that day? Toss them a few words of encouragement. Can’t think of what to write today? Draw up a post highlighting some other blogs you find really inspirational and worthwhile. You could make someone’s day with a little bit of effort — and even a new friend or two!
  4. Cooperative projects. It’s so cool to see bloggers get together to work on cooperative projects. This could be two bloggers agreeing to write on the same subject (and link to each other) or a few weird music-loving bloggers collaborating on a soundtrack podcast.
  5. Learn. Everyone has something to teach, and I have learned so much about blogging by watching what others have done and picking up on techniques and approaches and writing styles. You can’t help but become closer to those you admire and emulate, all the more so if you let them know what they’ve (unwittingly) done for you.

Why I don’t roll male characters in video games

In the distant past, I’m sure that I’ve written an essay or two defending and explaining why most all of my RPG and MMO characters tend to be female. But out of all of the reasons that I’ve listed in those articles, I don’t think I touched on one of the most important ones: I generally hate how male characters are portrayed in games.

I’ve made an effort. From time to time, I try to push myself to roll up a male character for variety’s sake if nothing else. I convince myself that there’s nothing wrong with it and that it’ll be good for me to experience the game from the same gender that I am. But a couple of exceptions aside, it rarely sticks. I don’t end up bonding with the male toons the same way that I do with the females, and I grow increasingly cautious about doing that again because I don’t want to waste time or money investing into a character that I will either abandon or pay to change.

What is it? Why are male characters so repugnant? Maybe “repugnant” is a really strong word here. I don’t recoil at them. But I don’t connect with them either. And when I think about it, it’s because video game designers don’t make guy character models that I can relate to.

You see, when I play The Sims 4, I can make male characters that I kind of like. I had this one guy, Trap, who was a “dude bro” with shaggy hair, an outdoorsy style, and a penchant for cooking and playing guitar. Not really me at all, but I warmed up to his goofy approach. Physically he was slightly taller and more fit than me, but nothing too extreme. He wasn’t obnoxious looking, wasn’t a pretty boy, and wasn’t someone who should be a villain in a weightlifting movie.

But I can’t make characters like Trap in most MMOs. Either I get guy characters who are too lithe and sleek in a way that Asian games like to make their men or over-muscled gung-ho stereotypes. The latter all have to look grizzled and buff like a level 90 lumberjack. And that’s not the type of person that I relate to. The body type of the over-muscled even feels threatening, in a way, like this character would beat me up if he met me in real life rather than became my friend.

To be honest, most of the female characters could beat me up too, but they seem more relatable, more nuanced.

I also find that armor on guy characters tends to get far more ridiculous. Female armor can be stupidly skimpy, but most of the time it’s well-proportioned and sensible. Male armor has to double as a costume for a heavy metal cover, so it’s about 75% larger than its female counterpart. It’s more aggressive and more showy. Again, that’s not me.

I kind of liked how SWTOR had a male option to be a rather skinny guy as one of the four male body models. That wasn’t too relatable for me, but it at least gave a different feel to a character made with that body type. Like you were more agile and wiry than hulking and strong.

Guy characters also have so many horrible face options that I’ve lost count. Again, they’re chunky. They have necks bigger than my thighs. They look eternally constipated. About the only fun I get with them is facial hair options, and now hipsters have taken a lot of the fun out of that.

Thinking through the MMOs that I’ve played over the years, very few of them — even the big-name ones — give me male characters that offer something other than “pretty boy” or “steroid freak” with their options. I know that I tend to consider male character options if the race in question is further away from a straight-up human, but even so, there’s always a very specific gender dimorphism at play that makes the female models look better all-around.

It’s not the end of the world for me. I’m very happy picking the characters I do, and there’s always honesty with people about who I am behind the avatar. I guess it’s a shame that MMOs haven’t gotten past a very limited selection of male types, but there’s always the possibility that will change one day!

Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture review

As I’ve demonstrated on this blog, I’ve got a soft spot for “walking simulator” narrative experiences. If they’re done well and have a good reputation, I’ll snap them up and generally enjoy them, including titles such as Gone Home, Tacoma, and What Remains of Edith Finch. One game on my “to play” list for a while now was Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture by developer Chinese Room, and finally I grabbed it and gave it a go over a couple of nights.

Like most walking simulator games, there isn’t much challenge here — it’s more about soaking up the atmosphere, finding triggers for bits of story, and examining environmental clues for narrative tales. Rapture is a very lonely, very sad game that often looks pretty on the outside.

I’ll say up front that I ended up very divided on this title. There’s a lot of great elements here and it generally crafted a tale that sparked my imagination and had me thinking about it for days afterward. Yet it’s also a painfully slow experience that isn’t always clear in direction or story.

So what’s it about? Without delving into too many spoilers, you start out in a small English village where everybody is gone — yet they were obviously there not too long before, as there is evidence everywhere of humans. Bloody tissues and radios apparently tuned to number stations crank up the eerie atmosphere, but perhaps nothing is as weird as these dashing balls of light that zip here and there all over the place.

Basically, the apocalypse has just happened, and your sole job is to uncover the story of it and the people that used to live here. Part of that is done through poking around the place, but most of it comes from these light “ghosts” that pop up here and there and have conversations that show you different chapters at different time periods. I think we’re about at the end of an era where games can get away with doing the whole exposition ghosts thing, and here it felt a little more tired than I’ve seen elsewhere.

The village has a large cast of characters with a lot of relationships and storylines, and it’s surprising how many of these I ended up picking out over time. From a disabled lady running a camp to a Welsh couple on the run to a pair of scientists to a priest trying to do his best, I got to know a lot about these folks without ever properly seeing them. Half of the story is about their own lives and interpersonal relationships, and the other half is how each of them deal with the encroaching apocalypse that they can’t really understand or react to.

It was a little eerie and occasionally creepy, but Rapture doesn’t go for jump scares or disturbing visuals at any point. The first half of the game was very engrossing as the whole threat wasn’t that clear, but as time went on and the pieces fell into place, I found myself becoming less interested with the story solution that the writers had concocted. It makes sense, I guess, but it isn’t as gripping as it should have been for a game of this type.

Let’s go back to the problems. The biggest, by far, is that the game map is pretty sizable and not always super-linear, yet the player character moves about as fast as I actually walk. Realistic, maybe, but it wasn’t fun in the least to move around. Just felt ploddingly slow and stopped me from exploring off the beaten path after a while.

And you kind of want to explore, because you never know where the next story triggers might be. It’s really possible to miss a LOT of this game’s story if you don’t find specific places or return to spots later on (which I never realized). Toward the end, I found myself lost until I consulted a guide and realized that I had to backtrack aaaaaall the way back to the start.

One other criticism that I had was that there are several unresolved questions and plot holes (such as who the player character is supposed to be). I ended up liking the regular human stories far more than the apocalyptic threat, which felt weird in retrospect. Jumping around in time as I encountered stories out of sequence made for some degree of fascination as I pieced them together, but it kept bothering me that I might have missed some.

Is Rapture worth playing? I think it is, with caveats. Edith Finch was just much better overall, Tacoma had a tighter experience and better mechanic, but Rapture perhaps has the most ambitious storytelling out of all of these types of games. With faster travel and perhaps a little more refinement in the storytelling delivery, I might have put it among the best. As it is, solid B+.

No Man’s Sky, one man’s why

With the rollout of No Man’s Sky NEXT, this two-year-old scifi game seems to have redeemed itself — at least in part — for a terrible launch and failed Day One promises. It’s a game that’s never been super high on my interest list, but this update coincided nicely with a recent urge to dip back into scifi games (I’ll talk about Elite Dangerous some other time, perhaps when I actually manage to finish the tutorials). And it was half-off, because there was no way I was going to pay $60 for a two-year-old title.

I found it hilariously ironic that the normal mode for NMS promises a “chill” experience, and yet I was thrust into some fairly hardcore survival situations from the get-go. Apparently NMS starts you on a random planet, so there’s a good chance that you — as I did — will encounter hostile terrain and roving robots without all of the tools and know-how to make it through the day. I restarted three times, each seeming to put me in a lower ring of hell. A planet that is unrelentingly hostile? One with super-storms? Sure, this is as “chill” as can be, mon!

While I’m frantically trying to get used to the interface and follow the tutorial directions, my thermal protection and life support keep dropping, reminding me that I’m on a time limit. This just isn’t my favorite way to start a game, but I stuck with it and blindly followed the tutorial in the hopes that it would save me. I don’t think the whole time in that first planet I ever really got the hang of crafting and deploying items and refining things. I got worried at the thought that the game would drop me into a more open sandbox and I still wouldn’t have grokked the mechanics. Oh well.

At least there were a few things working in NMS’ favor at the start. First, it does look fantastic and beautiful, and I can understand why people screenshot this game like crazy. Second, moving and jetpacking and mining felt pretty natural. The controls are obviously set up to favor a controller, but I’ll overlook a lot if the feel of a character’s movement is done well.

After an evening of wondering if this game would forever be No Man’s Ground to me, I eventually patched up my starship (AKA “the one place in this game where the environment isn’t trying to kill me”) and took off. Again, didn’t really understand navigating in space or whatnot, but I just jammed on the spacebar and followed the target on the screen. Big props for making the transition between (yellowish?) outer space and planetfall very natural and seemless.

Planet Two was a paradise compared to the hellhole from which I escaped. I didn’t even need my thermal regulator here, but I was still on life support (guess that’s not O2 out there?). I had fun hopping around, checking out the weird critters, and finding out that both plants and roving probes like to kill innocent travelers.

It really was a very gorgeous-looking planet to look at. At this point I’m still trying to get a handle on the gameplay loop here and figuring out if it has enough interest points to keep me going. Planetary exploration is a plus, although with these procedurally games I have a hard time losing myself in the awe of discovery when I can see that nothing is hand-crafted but instead thrown together by a random number generator.

Batman: Telltale Games review

As I mentioned yesterday, we recently went to family camp and enjoyed a fun week spent mostly outside and unplugged. There was no wifi or cell phone service in our cabin, so when the kids and my wife were asleep at night, I had to rely on preloaded games to keep me occupied. Actually, the bulk of the week was spent with just one game: Telltale Games’ Batman.

I’m seriously backlogged on my Telltale titles right now. It’s not that I don’t love them, it’s just that they kind of need extended periods of attention to really get the most out of these interactive movies. I seem to need a lot of motivation to get into one, but once I do, I quite enjoy them.

Anyway, kind of went into Batman without knowing much about the game itself. It turns out that it embraces one of the franchise’s greatest trends, which is to reboot and retell the origin of this universe. How many times has Batman begun at this point?

In any case, it kind of works out really well here, because there is both familiar ground and room for the writers to play out things a little differently. At the start of the game, Batman is starting to make himself known to Gotham but hasn’t gone up against any supervillains nor endeared himself to the police. Gordon is but a lieutenant, Harvey Dent is a mayoral candidate, and the Joker is a “John Doe” cooling his heels in Arkham Asylum.

The familiar structure of Telltale emerges — limited-time dialogue options, crucial choice junctions, and the occasional quick-time event — although it’s augmented by a kind of neat (if shallow) detective mode in which Batman combs through a crime scene and pieces together what happened.

What’s probably the most interesting (if somewhat flawed) aspect of this game is that there’s a lot of juxtaposition between Bruce Wayne and Batman. You spend as much time as either, and Bruce kind of emerges as an actual character rather than an interlude for Batman’s adventures. Naturally, the player has some agency in shaping the attitude of Bruce/Batman over the game, making him as noble, violent, or cranky as desired. While all of this was appreciated from a storytelling perspective, all too often I was reminded that the game was on a linear track that wasn’t going to deviate much from the main narrative no matter what you said or did.

I really got into seeing this game’s version of the Gotham universe, especially with its villains. There aren’t too many here — Lady Arkham, Falcone, Catwoman, Penguin, and Harvey Dent are the main ones with few others given cameos in Arkham — but all seem a little more real and threatening than I’ve seen in some other mediums (Penguin most of all). The bat tech was cool (especially Batman’s transforming car) and at least one twist caught me by surprise.

And the combat, while simplistic, felt “cool” with all of the slow-motion moves that kept Batman’s prowess as a scrapper intact from start to finish.

Complaints? The story kind of kept leaping all over the place with the bad guys emerging victorious even when Batman saved the day. I lost count how many places were instantly taken over by the bad guys with no resistance, a trope that got very worn by the fifth episode. And the performance of the game (loading, switching scenes) was often atrocious. The sequel works so much better on my phone, so I know the fault was more the game’s than my hardware. Finally, there was one revelation that felt very much out of canon — at least, I had never heard that particular angle on Bruce’s parents before. I’m hardly a Batman expert, however.

When I was done with it, I instantly booted up The Enemy Within, the sequel series, to see what happens next. I liked how you could import your choices from the first game into this, so we’ll see how my promised favor to the Joker goes…