Horizon Forbidden West Is An Amazing Sequel

I have been playing a lot of Horizon Forbidden West lately. I bought the game the day it came out (as you can probably guess from my recent posts, I was incredibly excited to play it) and have sunk most of my video game time into it lately. All-in-all, it is an excellent modern example of how a sequel can be an improvement on the original game, not just a continuation of the story. Everything Horizon Zero Dawn did well, Forbidden West also does well, and then it adds a whole new list of excellent things. The plot is just as interesting, the world just as enthralling (maybe even more so, since they’ve really improved on the environmental design), and the battle mechanics are so much more fluid and engaging. As much as I am tempted to find a pattern of battle that works and stick to it as I did in Zero Dawn, the weapon systems and new combat skills make it incredibly rewarding to branch out and try new things that I’ve unlocked. Even just wandering the world to investigate the smattering of question marks feels more rewarding. I can’t think of a single thing that wasn’t markedly improved from the first game to this one.

Continue reading

Understanding Story Adaptation Between Mediums

I’ve always been interested in the way stories change as they are adapted from one form of media to another. For most of my life, the only examples I had were books to movies. I didn’t follow comics closely enough to really consider how comicbook characters were represented in superhero movies and TV shows, and I knew that most comicbooks had such varied, ever-renewed stories that adaptation was fairly open-ended. When the Lord of the Rings movies came out, I was given my first real chance to evaluate something I was familiar with as it moved from books to movies. I didn’t have the skills required to do it in a good, critical way when the first movie came out, but the movies remained a part of my life for long enough that I was still thinking about them and the books when I finally had the skills to do a thorough critical analysis.

Continue reading

Closing Thoughts On Death’s Door

I finished Death’s Door. I have officially completed 100% of the game on the switch, experienced all the game has to offer (unless there’s more secret stuff I have somehow missed), and am thoroughly satisfied. I have a lot of notes about how it could have been better, but honestly it’s like taking notes on how a pizza could be better to the granular level of “there were only 9 pieces of pepperoni on this slice, 1.7 pieces lower than the average per-slice pepperoni count.” A lot of it has to do with the ease of commenting on something already made than making something better from inside it. It wasn’t one of my top 10 games, it wasn’t something that hit me hard like Celeste, and it isn’t something I’ll replay for years like Breath of the Wild. It was a very fun, enjoyable game that I looked forward to playing, even after I completed the main story beats and was working on the fiddly, specific collection and secret-finding phase. Given how many games fail at being this thoroughly and consistently good, I feel like this should be taken as enthusiastic praise.

Continue reading

Death’s Door is a Delightful Adventure

One of the games I picked up as a result of skimming “Top Games of 2021” lists is a small game called “Death’s Door.” It’s a cute, delightful adventure game featuring a Crow playing the part of a reaper of souls who travels through doors to various places to collect said souls. At the start of the game, you get sent to collect a cartain soul, defeat the monster whose soul it is, and then go off on a crazy adventure in order to finally collect this soul so your assigned door can be properly closed and you can return to being immortal. Armed with a dodge roll, a magic bow, and a sword (also an umbrella you can find pretty early and few other weapons you find throughout), you battle the various monstrous creatures that inhabit the worlds you pass through and use their soul energy to make yourself stronger for the challenges ahead.

Continue reading

Horizon Zero Denouement

I finally finished Horizon Zero Dawn. I took my time, doing most of the upgrades, finishing every side quest, doing almost every hunting trial with a complete success, collecting most of the outfits and weapons and all that. It was good, though I’ll be the first to say that though the text logs are super interesting, they’re a little too hidden away and difficult to find for any but the plot-centric ones to be worth getting. I thought I did a pretty good job of looking, but I definitely did not, seeing as I found maybe a third of the non-plot data logs. I could look up a guide and hunt them all down, but that just does not feel worth it when I could move on to other games, like playing Ghost of Tsushima again or playing The Witcher 3 for the first time (it was on sale!).

All said and done, it was worth playing. I had a good time, enjoyed most of the gameplay, and only got bored three times. And it wasn’t game-terminal boredom, just session-terminal. I was able to take a day or two off of hunting for raccoon pelts and bellowback hearts before returning to the game, refreshed and ready to hunt again.

While there were definitely some difficult parts early on, the availability of arms and gear meant that by the time I hit level thirty, fights weren’t a challenge anymore. It was only ever a question of how much time and how many resources it would take to finish it. The only times I died is when I fucked up a hunting trial and decided it was easier to just die since I spent too many resource to just try again. I even successfully killed a giant t-rex monster robot called a Thunderjaw way earlier than I should have been able to by cheap-shotting it with fire arrows from behind a rock it couldn’t path its way around. It took, like, fifteen minutes, but I brought it down.

The narrative was worth binging, though, so I’m glad I largely ignored it until I was mostly finished exploring and sidequesting through an area. It’s not that it wasn’t memorable, but that it had a degree of urgency to it that was difficult to ignore most of the time. While the robotic movements and painfully awkward expressions of the characters in cutscenes was difficult to watch, the plot itself was enough to carry me along. It twisted in not entirely surprising ways, but it gave me villains to hate, assholes to yell about, causes to believe in, and a twist I didn’t expect. I always thought it was going to be a global warming/environmental thing that wrecked the world, but that wasn’t it. Turns out that problem was solved. It was something else that revolved around the hubris of humankind that ultimately did us in.

That being said, I felt like there wasn’t enough plot. It felt like maybe ten hours of plot stretched into sixty hours of game by refusing you the information you want until near to the end, at which point it just dumps it all on you at once. There were a couple places where the protagonist, Aloy, interrogates another character about some big plot element (usually about a character) that is just a bunch of question prompts, the option to bail out of this massive dialogue tree, and an NPC just word-vomiting. It felt kinda of stilted, to have it all dumped out at these points. I’d have preferred never knowing to this kind of expository dumping.

While I’m super excited for the next game, and very interested in what might be going on in this next segment, I do feel a little restless. The final conclusion to the game wasn’t terribly satisfactory. Not merely because it was a setup for a sequel (as far as sequel bait goes, this was relatively mild), but because it just felt sort of abrupt. We’re chasing this thing down, fighting to save the world, and then we beat the big bad and it’s just over. No wrap up, no denouement, just a final cutscene to set up the next game. I know that unresolved plot is the key to a new story and that I literally just wrote a post about wonder and the space between certainties, but I don’t like it when it feels like those things were created by cutting holes in something.

I would definitely recommend the game and this is one gripe in an otherwise wonderful distraction and experience, but it is pretty heavily on my mind as I reflect on the conclusion to the game. There was just a world demanding so much of Aloy, a moment of victory, and then a lead-in to the next plot. Seriously, it just feels like they clipped the actual denouement out of the game. It’s a frustrating end to a lovely game.

I Never Wrote About Valheim

I have been updating my blog for two months and eleven days. A more merciful schedule means that I have posted sixty-one times in those seventy-two days. Things have progressed to the point where I no longer feel like this is something I need to do every day. This isn’t a task to fulfill, though writing and editing are on my daily to-do lists, but so is making my bed, washing my masks, and driving to work. Updating constantly, unless I need a break (and I guess I’m just taking Sundays off, since that is the pattern that seems to be emerging), no longer takes up psychic space.

Continue reading

Swept Away Again

Due to my attention/anxiety issues, I almost always have music going in the background. It makes it easier to ignore errant or intrusive thoughts if I have music playing. As I’ve gotten into podcasts, I’ve found myself doing the opposite, finding something to play in the foreground so I can pay attention to my podcast since I’d almost always wind up browsing twitter or something on my phone if I don’t have something to do with my eyes and hands when I’m listening to a podcast. As a result of this habit, I’ve discovered a special moment I treasure whenever it happens.

Continue reading

TAZ and The Words I Needed to Hear

“See, there’s magic in a bard song. They call it inspiration and it tells the listener what they need to hear right when they need to hear it.”

Those were the words I needed to hear right when I needed to hear them. I was sitting on my couch the night following my grandfather’s funeral, a year and twenty-seven days ago. I’d just gotten back from Chicago, unloaded the car, and then sat down on the couch to finish the podcast I’d started on my first of many drives down to Chicago in 2019 to visit my grandpa and help out my mom. I was alone–my roommates could tell I didn’t want to talk–and I put on the last two episodes of the Balance arc of The Adventure Zone.

Continue reading

Every Day is an Adventure

I remember, the first time I sat down to watch Adventure Time, remarking to my friends that I wasn’t drunk enough to watch this show after only the first episode. For those of my friends who are adults and trying to start the show, I usually recommend sitting down to it with a strong drink because while I adore the show, it starts off a little weirdly. It also continues weirdly, but it isn’t jarring once you’ve made the mental adjustments required to enjoy the show. They’re not strenuous, of course. It just takes a bit of time to adapt to the over-the-top action and characters before you start to see past the surface to the surprising depths of the story and character development arcs.

Like a lot of “children’s shows,” Adventure Time can be enjoyed on multiple levels. At the most basic, there are good lessons about how to be responsible, what it means to strong, how to deal with emotional problems, and how to treat people who are different from you, to name a few. These lessons are delivered through fairly straight-forward plots and the colorful fun of an action show with heart, making it an instant hit with most kids. For those looking for a bit more, there’s actually some complex emotional and interpersonal problems that happen through the various seasons that are resolved slowly. It can be difficult to watch if you want the sort of cleaner wrap-ups of most adult shows since, for example, some things are introduced in season 1 that aren’t addressed until season 5. Emotional development takes a long time, in terms of seasons and shows, but it happens at a rate that lets the adults watching the show appreciate what is going on beneath the surface but also lets the kids slowly see the changes happen in a way they’ll understand as they go through similar (if somewhat less fantastical) situations in their own lives.

For instance, a lot of the earlier episodes are non-sequiturs, with nothing to place them inside the show’s overarching timeline, but there are details that slowly fill in the world around the protagonists, Finn the Human and Jake the (magic) Dog. Finn’s sword is an easy indicator of when an episode takes place as he has a tendency to go through them a lot faster than you’d think. His behavior and age are much more subtle ones since they don’t mark most of his birthdays or give a number to his age that frequently. Instead, you can follow the show’s continuity using plot markers and shifts in character relationships. Old enemies become friends, allies reveal ulterior motives and become enemies, and background characters rise to sudden prominence before establishing a firm place in the long list of secondary characters.

The way information is revealed to the viewer can make it a difficult show to watch haphazardly. While understanding most episodes isn’t dependent on having watched all previous episodes, a lot of foreshadowing or important subtext can fall between the cracks in your understanding of the show. As information is slowly revealed, one small bite at a time (bites that increase in size as the show goes on as the first two seasons are particularly light on details), so much that you suspect is confirmed. If you pay attention to the background in almost any episode, you could reasonably draw the conclusion that Adventure Time occurs in a post-apocalyptic world. You could also conclude that humans are rare, magic has risen in the place of most of the sciences, and there’s an incredible danger present in the world that most people see as ordinary because of how screwed up the world became following whatever apocalyptic disaster befell it. Eventually, you get enough information to assemble a picture of the past on your own. Full reveals or complete pictures are super rare, but they become reference points for the show that help shore up the history you assemble as you watch it and you can usually tell where you are in the show’s timeline by references to these points.

My favorite part of the show is the way the writers use the same method of small hints and details mixed in with a few big reveals in the emotional development of the characters. Finn, as the primary protagonist, deals with the most as he grows. Jake, the secondary protagonist, has his share as well. Even a lot of the secondary characters (who occasionally have small arcs featuring them) have complex emotional journeys throughout the show. The best example of that is probably the Ice King, a certifiably insane wizard with ice powers given to him by a magic crown he wears. Not only does he feature in a lot of Finn’s emotional growth, he changes throughout the show from a pathetic villain to a tragic villain who can’t help himself, seeing as he’s been driven insane by the magic crown he wears. Some of the most powerful and emotional moments in the show come from his stories and the way people start to treat him as they grow to understand and somewhat accept him. There’s a whole list of other characters, some with their own special mini-seasons, that undergo growth and change, and each one gets their moment to shine, even the pesky whiny ones you want to just disappear.

 

Throughout it all, aside from the big reveal or big change moments, the show manages to keep an upbeat sense of humor and a positive look on even the most difficult situations. The characters rely on each other to get through their weak moments and humor is a constant aid as they try to cope with the world they actually live in as it pushes aside the world they want to live in. Even the most resilient characters are sometimes knocked down and we get to watch them struggle to their feet again. The entire show is a lesson in getting back up after failure until you succeed and learning to accept change and growth into your life gracefully.

I’ll admit the pacing can be weird early on and that it can be difficult to accept some of the asides the show makes as it slowly works its way through a difficult problem, but every episode has something important to say if you’re willing to look for it. A lot of these messages are repeated many times, but they’re usually important enough that it’s worth hearing them again. Plus, with how human they all act, even Jake the Dog and Princess Bubblegum (who is made of gum), it can be incredibly refreshing to see people struggle to deal with lessons they’ve already learned and taken for granted.

I recommend watching it. The seasons are pretty cheap on Amazon or Best Buy, but I wouldn’t recommend getting them on a streaming service as they are sometimes in weird orders and the season-by-season breakdown in the later seasons gets super wonky. It is way cheaper to get them on DVD or Blu-Ray than to buy them on Amazon or iTunes. If you want a show that will make you laugh so hard you cry and so sad you just have to laugh, that will take you on an incredibly complex emotional journey through the eyes of a wide range of very (mentally and emotionally, since “diverse” means very different things in our world than it’d mean in their world) different characters, and will leave you constantly wanting more, I cannot recommend Adventure Time strongly enough.

Not a Young Priest or an Old Priest, but a Middle-Aged Priest

I’m on a bit of a “Matthew Colville” tear this week, so I figured I might as well review the first book in his Ratcatchers series, Priest. As Colville often says in his videos, the best way to support him is to buy his books. Since I’ve gotten so much enjoyment and refreshing information from his videos, I figured I might as well buy his books as a way to contribute to his well-being, despite the fact that I know his recent Kickstarter has helped him build a company that will probably have more to do with his income than his book series will for the next several years. I also figured he’d be a good writer since he does an excellent job with his videos and seems to be a DM people loved to play D&D with.

Priest is a surprisingly complex and nuanced book that stands out from most of the (honestly, pretty awful) D&D-fantasy books I’ve read. To be fair to the genre, I haven’t read most of what people say are the good ones since I get most of mine from used book stores and people seem disinclined to sell the reportedly good ones. I enjoyed it, and I’d say it was a really fun fantasy novel that broke away from a lot of the typical fantasy tropes by relying on the sort of stuff that comes up in a D&D world that is a bigger deal in a typical fantasy novel world.

For instance, the gods are real and have intermediaries who do their bidding, like the titular character, a Priest named Heden who used to be an adventurer. Heden, an ex-ratcatcher–to use the term most people use to talk about adventurers and all the chaos they bring to locals–is a shut-in priest who hates leaving his closed-down inn but is tasked to go investigate The Forest by his immediate superior, the local bishop. Heden not only has to face the dangers of a forest that generally kills everyone who goes into it and brave the mysterious Green Order, an order of knights who protect the locals from the dangers of the forest, but also his own anxieties and PTSD from his past as an adventurer.

There are a lot of mysteries about Heden’s past and Colville does an excellent job of giving the reader just enough information to slowly create a picture without tipping his hand. He lets us know that the past is important because it informs who Heden is and why he’s been chosen to investigate the death of a knight from the Green Order, but he also lets us know that it isn’t a central point of the story. Heden’s PTSD and some of the horrors from his past impact the present, but the important part is him facing them, not exactly what happened years ago. In addition to the glimpses through Heden’s quickly avoided memories, you meet some of the members of his old adventuring group and get a sense that Heden was the reason they’re all retired. Clearly they had all become very powerful by the time they retired, judging from the casual power of the magic items Heden has available to him, but still they all toil away at their own solo endeavors and don’t seem to speak to each other very much.

This cleverly side-steps the problem that arises when you have a large group of very powerful people united towards a single purpose. With all of them together, there would be very little that could stand in their way. Alone, Heden misses important clues in his investigation, can be brought down by sheer numbers, and has a hard time processing what is happening because he’s alone all the time. With the full group, the story would have been over in the first quarter of the book and there would probably be no sequels. Alone, you get to see that Heden still has a lot of growing to do and there is opportunity for mishap when he has to tackle every major task on his own.

The plot was a little frustrating, but that was mostly a personal thing. Heden is supposed to investigate and then redeem or condemn the Green Order, but he struggles with the task because of his own prejudices against knights and because literally everyone seems to put all of the responsibility on him and then do their best to make his job harder. Eventually, you see everyone was acting appropriately, but felt like “there needs to be a problem so everyone is going to be stubborn and difficult” while I was reading it. In hindsight, it was a clever thing to do because it aligned the reader with Heden’s feelings on the matter, but I really dislike stories that have problems because there needs to be a problem, so I almost put it down.

I would definitely recommend this book. It was a lot of fun to read, the characters are all intricate and super interesting, and it deals with something most people don’t consider: what happens to the mental health of adventurers after they retire. Not many stories seem willing to consider they might wind up like a lot of modern combat veterans. I like that Matthew Colville clearly did his research and does an excellent job of bringing PTSD and panic attacks to life in the novel in a way that isn’t so rough that it could easily trigger someone with related issues. I suggest picking up a copy of Priest and giving it a read.