juushika: A black and white photo of an ink pen. (Writing)

don't take it personally, babe, it just ain't your story
Christine Love, 2011

At a prestigious high school in the year 2027, all students have computers at their desks and all teachers are given full access to their online communication, public and private. While peeking in, new teacher John finds himself swept up in the lives, romances, and dramas that play out among seven students in his English class. don't take it personally, babe, it just ain't your story is a free visual novel by Christine Love, written for NaNoRenO (the visual novel equivalent of NaNoWriMo). As such, it has many of the flaws and limitations that you'd expect: gameplay consists almost entirely of dialog choices, user input has only a moderate effect on the story, and there are sprinklings of typos, clichés, and heavy-handed plot elements. But despite its simplicity and lack of finesse, there's something unexpectedly wonderful about don't take it personally, babe, it just ain't your story. Additively fun yet surprisingly thoughtful, it reads not unlike a high-quality fanfic or BL manga and it's often the best that it can be given its limitations, and neither one of those is a backhanded compliment. With shipping and slashing, outlandish humor, and wish-fulfillment galore, the game has enormous appeal if it—and gay teens and romantic escapades and high school drama (and internet culture, too)—are in any way your thing. But Christine Love has an good eye for character design and dialog, and behind the fun and games there's always depth: on issues of sexuality, identity, communication, and love, don't take it personally, babe, it just ain't your story is surprisingly perceptive. There's plenty of little things here to stick with you—insightful bits of dialog, meaningful interactions, and truly enduring characters. If wish-fulfillment is the cake, then this complexity is eating it too, and it makes for a satisfying dish.

Not everything comes up roses, however. Players already familiar with gay slice of life dramas may find don't take it personally, babe, it just ain't your story enjoyable but not revelatory. As a game, it has the potential to use interactivity to set it apart from those similar stories, but (in large part because it's a visual novel) it doesn't capitalize on this opportunity. The game's lighter aspects occasionally run away with themselves, which is harmless until things grow too ridiculous to allow for suspension of disbelief. In particular, John is never convincing as a teacher; as a result there are no natural boundaries in his student/teacher relationships, and it means nothing when those would-be boundaries are broken, and the story suffers for it. The limitations of the game's format and production value do leave a mark: while its subtleties excel, its explicit themes and subjects are handled poorly. This is somewhat redeemed by how relevant and thoughtful those issues are, but that doesn't really matter—the bad (and sudden) twist ending is a disappointment in itself, and it also makes sure that what the game tries hardest to do, it does worst. And so don't take it personally, babe, it just ain't your story has issues—sometimes plenty of them, sometimes in direct contradiction to its strengths—but they're never enough to ruin the game, and they certainly shouldn't deter interested players from checking it out. For a few hours of free entertainment, don't take it personally, babe, it just ain't your story is fantastic—and even without those caveats, it's a little treasure of a game. I enjoyed and recommend it.

I liveblogged don't take it personally, babe, it just ain't your story here on my Tumblr, but take warning: it'll do just about everything to spoil the game for you.
juushika: Screen capture of the Farplane from Final Fantasy X: a surreal landscape of waterfalls and flowers. (Anime/Game)

Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon
(Fragile: Sayonara Tsuki no Haikyo)
Namco, tri-Crescendo, 2009/2010

When the old man he lives with dies, young Seto leaves home for the first time. He encounters a mysterious girl, and when she flees he sets out to search for her through the decaying wasteland of his abandoned world. Fragile Dreams is a beautiful game—beautiful in a way that shouldn't be underestimated or undervalued. It's a work of art, with a strong and stunning visual style and a well developed dream-like atmosphere, rich with introspective and heartfelt (if sometimes heavy-handed) themes. Borrowing from the survival horror genre, it sets you up as one under-equipped boy alone in a vast, ghost-haunted world, and the ghost are genuinely dangerous and frightening. But from the vivid sunsets which dye the sky to the detailed, crumbling environments to the sparse and skillful soundtrack, the atmosphere is haunted in a different way, romantic and dreamy. Seto's search for companionship leads him into delicate relationships; along his journey he picks up items which convey snippets of the lives—and deaths—of the past. For much of the game, plot takes a backseat to this slow exploration—of broken-down themeparks, doomed emotions, and lost lives. There are flashes of humor and more than a little joy, and the resulting balance is as beautiful as it is emotional.

The controls take understated advantage of the Wii remote: it acts as the flashlight with which Seto explores and reveals the world, but combat is a simple pushbutton. These simple controls will be acceptable even to diehard anti-stick wagglers, and they're natural and immersive. They're still problematic: button placement on the Wiimote is unavoidably cumbersome, and looking around can be slow and sticky (especially when turning around). For most of the game this isn't a big deal—combat is moderately difficult, but, alongside breakable weapons, it's difficult in a way that encourages the run-rather-than-fight mentality of a survival horror game. But as the game progresses, battles become more prevalent, unskippable, and difficult, and threaten to grow irritating. The Wii also weakens the game's graphics—the art design is incredible, and the game doesn't push the Wii too hard, but there are some mushy textures and moments of lag which are all the more a pity when everything else is so beautiful.

The tail end of the game also has faster pacing, and it grows emotionally and thematically clunky during the final reveals. Without the slow, graceful, and multifaceted development of the rest of the game, the conclusion has less emotional impact; set at a whirlwind place, events are hurried and themes have little time to ring at all, least of all to ring true. This downturn in quality is neither total nor unforgivable, and there are some highlights, both emotional and visual, at the end of the game. But it is comparably weak, and upsetting the game's erstwhile strengths makes for a sad endnote. But where the ending may falter, it's not enough to ruin a good game—and Fragile Dreams is good. It's an experience, an exploration, a piece of art—sometimes slow and laborsome, often breathtakingly beautiful, a tear-jerker that edges up on emotionally transparent; the game has flaws, and not everyone will appreciate its style, but it's a beauty. I recommend it. This is a leap forward for tri-Crescendo, and despite its flaws a quietly successful game.
juushika: A black and white photo of an ink pen. (Writing)

Mirror's Edge
EA Digital Illusions CE, 2008

To be blunt: Mirror's Edge is the worst game that I have ever tried to play. To be more specific: Mirror's Edge is a brilliant concept with horrible execution, and more than bad it is simply disappointing.

In a conformist dystopia, where all communication is government-monitored, couriers called runners evade government security to pass messages via the city rooftops. When her sister is drawn into an assassination plot, a runner named Faith leaves the safety of the shadows to discover the heart of the conspiracy. The game is set in striking white landscapes with bold accent colors, and the soundtrack is incredible. The player runs walls, climbs buildings, and jumps stairs from Faith's first person point of view. Momentum and timing are key to building a free-flowing run across the rooftops.

Or at least, that's how it should work. But Mirror's Edge is flawed—consistently, frustratingly, inexcusably flawed. It's a good game gone bad, in just about every way that it could.

Forget couriering packages or peaceful runs across the rooftops. Faith forgoes couriering to save her sister, and with the plot comes interiors to traverse, police to evade, and a distinct lack of wind-in-the-hair free-running. Interiors generally have one correct route, and that route isn't always logical—finding it is a matter of trial and constant error. The combat is, for lack of a better word, horrible: it depend on clunky controls and annoying quick time events, and feels like an afterthought—which is ironic, considering there's at least one required fight in almost every level. Between the single route and the constant hail of bullets, Mirror's Edge becomes a panicked run followed by a hurried death, and then you get to try it again and over again. The plot destroys all the freedom that the game promises—and it's not even worth it. Told in poorly animated cut scenes at the end of each chapter, neither the writing nor the animation is enough to make the story compelling.

With a different plot Mirror's Edge might be a great game, but it's still full of inexcusable bugs. Forget well-timed, graceful jumps from catwalk to rooftop. The game's controls are simple and context-sensitive, but they're also horribly flawed. Almost everything is mapped to the shoulders (with no option to manually remap), a cumbersome choice. The context sensitivity isn't particularly sensitive, and intended wall runs often turn in to accidental jumps and plenty of falls. The game's tolerance is extremely low, and it can take a dozen runs with the exact same moves before Faith finally decides to put out a hand to grab that ledge. To top it off, infrequent checkpoints punish each death with plenty of material to replay. It's as if the game developers never played their own game. The finicky controls and constant dying is frustrating. A successful run isn't the product of smart jumps and careful timing, but rather pure luck and a dozen retries—and that's not how this game should go.

I keep coming back to Mirror's Edge because I want to love it. It is a beautiful game with a brilliant concept, both unique and ingenious. With a different plot and better controls, it could have been amazing. But as it is, Mirror's Edge is nigh unplayable. It's not hard, in the manner of challenging the player to better performance, but frustrating, in that it's too easy to die because the controls fail or a punch doesn't connect or one ledge is arbitrarily better than the other. I'm glad that we rented it rather than buying, and I don't know if I'll finish it. I find Mirror's Edge more frustrating than it is enjoyable. That's a pity, because a successful rooftop run is a liberating, beautiful experience—but the opportunity for one is all too rare.
juushika: A black and white photo of an ink pen. (Writing)
Spore Creature: CathuntStealing time away from Second Life and book reviews (although not my reading): I am obsessed with Spore Creature Creator. Having played Viva Piñata and after my long affair with Second Life, I've discovered a love for that sort of game: an open sandbox that allows you to create everything from setting to plot—so, of course, I've avidly been tracking the development and coming release of Spore. Devon and I downloaded the Creature Creator demo, and I had such fun with it that we splurged on the ten dollar "full demo." As much as I hate the concept of it concept—of a paid demo, I mean, which rather seems like a contradiction in terms—I have to admit we are getting our money's worth because I play with it all the time.

After the first couple creatures, you start to notice the limitations of the program: a fixed front and back, a spine, necessary symmetry, difficultly positioning items, lack of a skull, the land-based model, and so forth. But after the first creature which you make and fall in love with, after a bit more experimenting, and after checking out what others make—you discover that while the program has limits, the greatest limit is yourself. Broaden your own expectations, and the creator becomes a vast playground.

It's not unlike Second Life: If you can dream it, you can probably make it, but you might have to trick the system to do so. That trickery comes with practice, and the Maxis-provided set of creatures are also useful to pick apart and see how they work. But by bending a neck into a forehead or tweaking a jaw into a face, arranging bone plates as fur, repositioning spines and removing joints, and trying random crazy shit just to see how it works—a whole new world opens up.

Cathunt—the winged feline creature above—was the first creature that I was really happy with, and he pulled me from casual exploration to avid enjoyment. He was also the first time that I almost maxed out genetic complexity, something which happens all the time now—and he has max stats for almost everything. Under the cut are Herbert (the would-be-bird with no beak and mere vestigial wings—his singing voice is something to be heard) and Plantstalk (the carnivorous plant with poisonous sap and eyes hiding beneath his leaves). I don't save many of my creations and I took pictures of even fewer—by playing with all shapes and forms but keeping only those that function best overall, I guess I function as my own force of natural selection. These three are a good selection of the best of my collection ... so far

See Herbert and Plantstalk. )
Click for larger images.

Also I suck at naming, and those I use here are hardly permanent. Suggestions for names which do not suck would be cool.

The demo of the demo crashes like crazy. I wish that the mesh and piece placement weren't so buggy. I wish that heads were easier to make. I wish there were more than one attack. I wish creatures could interact, so that there was some purpose to the creature stats. I wish I could test gliding, and that they could swim or fly. Mostly, I wish that Spore were out now, instead of in September. The demo alone is almost infinite, and it is just one fraction of the game's whole. I can only imagine what the finished product would be like.

And obviously—I recommend Spore Creature Creator.
juushika: A black and white photo of an ink pen. (Writing)
Someone turned off the air conditioner last night and I tell you, the silence of the house this morning was almost uncanny. The guinea pigs shuffling and talking to themselves near echoed through the house. You learn to tune out the sound of the AC, but never quite dismiss it—and it was lovely to live without it for a bit.

Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness: Episode One
Adventure RPG
Created by Penny Arcade and Hothead Games, 2008
Available for Xbox, Windows, Mac and Linux
Game website
Penny Arcade

New Arcadia appears to be a peaceful, ordinary place—except that the darkest evil lurks beneath its quiet streets. When a gigantic robot destroys your house, you team up with Gabe and Tycho of the Starting Developments Detective Agency to discover what the robot is—a journey which, in this first episode, takes you from alley to boardwalk, pits you against mimes and clowns, and ends with your first boss battle. Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness is an episodic game; Episode One is less than ten hours long and takes the player up to level 15, but levels, character, and abilities will carry over into the sequels. With script and humor pulled straight from the Penny Arcade comic, a promising but inconsistent battle system, and a mix of bulky 3D and amazing 2D comic cut scenes, the game is quite good, fun to play, but not perfect. It will appeal most to fans of the comic and I do recommend it—but I hope that the following episodes are even better.

Long review. )
juushika: Screen capture of the Farplane from Final Fantasy X: a surreal landscape of waterfalls and flowers. (Anime/Game)
I know I promised a review of Final Fantasy XII, but I'm still putting off beating it. Instead, I've been playing a different game, and I come bearing a recommendation of it. (Quite ironically, I'm watching Boondock Saints as I write a review about adorable piñata.)

I highly recommend Viva Piñata (XBox 360 and PC, 2006) as an addictive and adorable game that offers a few days of obsessive and uplifting fun. Having made it 55 levels and breed most of the piñata, I'm about "done" with the game despite the fact that it has no ending point. I'll be sad to see it go when we return it tomorrow, but my joy in it is winding down. I did, however, have a great time playing it, and I want to introduce it to those that haven't heard of it.

The premise of the game is that you are a newbie gardener, given a plot of dried, cracked land with which to start your own garden. As you begin to prepare the land, your first visitor appears: a tiny Whirlm (worm) piñata who frolics in the rich soil. As you prepare the ground, plant and tend increasingly varied flora, sell produce and pinata, dig ponds, build breeding houses, and hire helpers, you attract more and more piñata, make them residents, breed them via special diets and minigames, evolve them, discover variants, protect your garden from Sour (evil) piñata intruders, and level up to new abilities, better piñata, and a more valuable garden.

The good and the bad: an in depth review. )

On the whole, I greatly enjoyed Viva Piñata, and I highly recommend it for a few days of compulsive, immersive, unapologetic fun. It's adorable, it's addicting, and it's hard to indulge in the dances, candies, colors, and animals without feeling good. The game's challenges require just enough work to be satisfying but not too frustrating, and the amount of variety and change that you can achieve makes it an ever-evolving, personal environment. What more is there to say? It's a great game, and you should check it out.
juushika: Screen capture of the Farplane from Final Fantasy X: a surreal landscape of waterfalls and flowers. (Anime/Game)
I just finished replaying the first Kingdom Hearts game, and am currently deciding between continuing with (ported) Chain of Memories or a replay of Kingdom Hearts II. Meanwhile, I'm enjoying the pleasant glow that comes with completing a really good video game. And true to my over-analytical form, I come with some thoughts on the game, and how it was to replay it.

Kingdom Hearts was the second console game and RPG that I ever played (the first was Final Fantasy X, which I've also loved and replayed). I played it for the first time some years ago (just after it came out, I believe), never played Chain of Memories (as I don't own a GBA), and played KHII as soon as it was released. I loved both games, but I noticed a gap in information—years had passed since playing the first game, and since I'd never played the sequel, I was missing a lot of information coming into the first game. Granted, KHII is playable under those circumstances, but they aren't ideal. So it made sense to come back to the first game—and, well, it's a great game in its own right, and warrants replay.

For those that don't know, Kingdom Hearts is about a young boy named Sora. He begins on Destiny Island, and has two close friends, Riku, an older male who has always been his competition, and Kairi, a female that often becomes the source of contention for his friendly battles with Riku. The three of them dream about leaving Destiny Island for the greater worlds beyond, but their dreams become reality when their island disappears into the darkness, scattering them on the worlds beyond. Sora awakens in a world-between-worlds called Traverse Town and soon teams up with Goofy and Donald, who have been sent by their King Mickey to track to find the Key: a magical weapon that holds the power to fight the darkness, and to save and seal the worlds threatened by the darkness. Sora is the Keyblade Master, and together the three go off to discover and seal new worlds, and to try to find Riku and Kairi. It's an RPG with real-time "slash and hack" action battles, and a combined effort of Square (who contribute a plot worthy of Final Fantasy and many FF cameos) and Disney (who contribute many character designs and the worlds that Sora and his friends visit).

Some thoughts on Kingdom Hearts, a replay. )

There were definitely some annoyances, but I was incredibly pleased with this replay of Kindgom Hearts. The story, plot, and characters speak for themselves: they are all at once idealistic and realistic, with sights set on concepts such as the Heart of Hearts, Light, and Darkness while struggling through the personal issues of identity, belief, choice, and fidelity. The combination of Square and Disney is remarkable and unexpected—it's a bit foolish and exaggerated, but the plot and the characters still bring it back to the realm of delicate and nuanced. The gameplay is fun, and a friendly mesh of RPG and action, which means that it works well for players that rarely stray beyond RPGs and/or are somewhat lacking in manual dexterity (myself included).

It was a fun game to play the first time, and even more enjoyable this second time. I'm glad I came back to it, and let me tell you, the bittersweet glow at the end of the game is truly enjoyable—and it glows all the brighter knowing that I have the sequels sitting there just waiting for me.

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