Politics in art and the value of escapism

Warning: it’s a real load of bullshit this time. I talk about politics, angry people on the internet, and the end of the world, and it’s probably a mess. Maybe. Judge for yourself. I had to get this out, anyway. Next time I’ll post something more normal.

I’ve written about politics here on occasion, usually in the context of law when it relates to the main subjects on this site — games, anime, etc. Anyone who knows me well in real life can tell you roughly where I fall politically (because I probably went on about it once in a caffeine-fueled rant to them, something like this one): I believe in maintaining the rule of law, in fair and equal process without discrimination, in improving both the access to and quality of essential social services like public education and health, and in rebuilding and repairing the national infrastructure. I consider one of the most important roles of government to be the maintenance of a balance between individual freedoms and the good of society as a whole. And I wish we’d have a metro system where I live that’s not a complete fucking embarrassment.

Even the shitass train and highway system in my old, long-gone SimCity 2000 save is better that what we have in my city.

But why am I talking about my politics now? Because apparently the subject just can’t be avoided, even if I were to stick to writing about games, anime, and music on this site without any reference to politics. Because the concerns I’ve brought up in past posts on the subjects of access to art, on public censorship and private pressures to freeze out NSFW/18+ work, apparently put me in the alt-right camp where some of these are used as talking points. So I’ve been told in a few conversations. Sure, I’m alt-right… even though I’d be thoroughly despised by just about everyone in that camp for most of the views I expressed above.

But no, they’re correct. I must actually be in the alt-right without knowing it. Well, it makes sense — after all, people with anime avatars and by extension anime-styled game-themed avatars are probably mostly extremist trolls. And do you like the wildly popular Attack on Titan? Be careful — it’s also a favorite of the far right.

Of course, some people believe that all art is political and so it’s only natural that the conversation involves politics. But then I don’t agree with that stance at all. Is some art political? Absolutely. Art has been used to express political ideas for thousands of years. And of course, anime and games are included in that set of work: it would be ridiculous to suggest Legend of the Galactic Heroes doesn’t involve politics for example; it can’t even be talked about meaningfully without bringing its politics up. And some works that don’t explicitly address such issues can still be examined from political, social, and economic angles.

And LOGH is more relevant now than it’s ever been since it aired.

But is all art political? Is a pure jazz album without lyrics or any apparent message like MSB political? What about an ultraviolent over-the-top gangster story like Vice City? What about a surrealistic slapstick gag comedy like Asobi Asobase, or a silly romantic comedy like Uzaki-chan Want to Hang Out? Where’s the politics behind these works? According to the definition of “political” I’ve sometimes seen used, any work of art that deals with any aspect of life at all is political. To me, this definition is so broad that it becomes completely meaningless.

And even if we agree that a more ambiguous work of art deals with politics, how can we pin down what sort of politics it espouses? The New Republic article above is a good example: the author, a professed left-winger and a fan of Attack on Titan, comments on how both left- and right-wingers have interpreted the series in very different ways that fit their own worldviews. By the end of the article, he notes that manga author Hajime Isayama doesn’t want to tell his readers how to interpret his work — a feeling that I understand and sympathize with myself. But the writer of the article seems almost to blame Isayama for not correcting posters on the virulently right-wing sections of 4chan and elsewhere about what Attack on Titan is supposed to mean. As if that would prevent such people from making their own interpretations of it anyway.1

Another problem I have with this “all art is political” argument is that it often seems to be used as a way to argue some work or other is socially harmful to justify its removal from a private platform, or to try to discourage and freeze out NSFW styles of art. I already addressed this argument here, so I won’t go through it again in detail, but the gist of my response was that if a great enough social harm can be shown to justify removing access to the work in question, I’m fine with having it kicked off platforms. However, the justification I hear so often of “because I think it’s distasteful/disgusting” without more isn’t enough to prove this kind of harm. The burden of proof on those arguing to remove access to artistic works has to be set extremely high, otherwise it’s too easy to turn out any work with anything near a sharp edge that might put a few people off. Granted, I’m not talking here about a legal burden of proof — I leave that for arguments involving the First Amendment, which this one doesn’t necessarily. But I think the concept can and should be applied in a similar way when considering not just the creation of art but of access to it.

I don’t think any of the points I’ve made here are particular to a right-wing mindset. To any right-wingers who might be reading, feel free to tell me if I’m wrong, but you’re not the only ones who profess to believe in free expression, are you? On the contrary, we’ve seen throughout history that those greedy for control and power, regardless of their political stance, are happy to deny freedom of expression and to deny the public access to artistic works they dislike. For the most recent major example, see Xi Jinping’s wide-reaching crackdowns on popular culture in mainland China — anything that even smells like a hint of diversity away from the standard he and his CCP hold up seems to be a target now.

But outside of those really oppressive examples, why does any of this shit matter? There’s still another argument I’ve heard that none of the above matters very much in the face of far more serious social, economic, and political problems — another one that I’ve addressed once before.

Again, I’ll acknowledge that the entire human race faces massive obstacles, some of which may not even be possible to get over. To me and to many others, climate change is the greatest of these obstacles. Together with the threat of civilization-scale suicide by nuclear war that’s been around since the 1940s and more generally defects in human nature that haven’t disappeared or arguably even diminished very much since ancient times,2 and with COVID on top of that, it’s no wonder there’s so much talk about apocalyptic scenarios these days (at least for us humans. The roaches will still be around, damn them.)

And yet again, I say: all the more reason to have a permissive attitude towards escapist styles of art. What the hell else are people supposed to do to let off steam? Yoga, exercise, and healthy eating just aren’t enough sometimes, and certainly not now. Art has practical uses in addition to its inherent value. One of these is its use as a way to express political ideas, yes, but another is the power it holds to let people escape from reality for a while into a novel, a game, an anime or TV series or comic — and of course, there’s nothing to say the two can’t be combined in the same work.

A lot of the anger over games and other popular art forms being “attacked” or “invaded” by people with political agendas is misplaced, I think — all art should be open to criticism, and it’s impossible to “remove the politics” from anime and games since some of these works clearly deal with political and social issues. Certain right/alt-right figures in the gaming and film spheres especially have used this anger to stir the pot for their own purposes, making and inspiring arguments based on racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and other -isms and -phobias (see some of the criticism of the last few Star Wars films or The Last of Us Part II for examples — though of course some defenders of these works were all too happy to paint all criticism with that brush, which was completely inaccurate and disingenuous.)

At the same time, I understand the mistrust some fans feel towards the especially vocal critics who speak against works full of sexual and/or violent elements. This debate around the contents of popular media, and especially of video games, has been raging for three decades now, and for what? There’s never been proof (despite constant claims of it) that these kinds of expressions affect real-life behavior for the worse. On the contrary, it feels to me more natural to think that they act as a sort of “release valve” for people to indulge in extreme behaviors they never would in real life. If you’ve played GTA, for instance, how many wild, murderous rampages have you gone on in game? Does that mean you’d go on any in real life? Have these in-game experiences even made you more callous towards real-life suffering? Similar questions can be raised about sexual content in games, anime, and elsewhere.

I just wanted to play GTA for half an hour but suddenly I’m okay with murder as a result. Shit.

Too often I’ve heard it said with complete authority, but no factual support, that “fiction affects reality” with the implication that writers, artists, and others involved in the creative process have a duty to always create in a socially responsible way. Maybe it’s a mark of my embarrassing immaturity, but I can’t agree with that, or at least not in all cases. If the work is meant to address serious issues — if the creators opened that door — then I agree that such criticism is completely warranted. But there has to be room for pure escapism as well. Age-restricted if necessary, of course, but beyond that, without an extremely strong argument I don’t think it’s warranted to call for the removal of games or series from platforms, bookstores, or any other shops or the freezing out of such works on these grounds.

And I don’t think saying so puts me in a certain political camp. Unless that camp is “people who like lewd anime girls”, and despite efforts to make that seem like an alt-right thing, I’m also committed to helping defend democracy from the extremists who would destroy it. Quite literally: I took an oath to defend the US Constitution when I joined the bar, and I take it seriously. I’m also worried about the future of my country for perhaps obvious reasons. That said, I’m not going to simply fold up and drop this other subject, since I feel more than anything that they go hand in hand.

Yeah I picked this screenshot to place here because they’re holding hands, but it’s also relevant because The Expression: Amrilato was briefly removed from Steam for supposedly being too spicy. Which it really isn’t.

As usual, please feel free to tell me if you think I’ve lost my mind. More likely I’ve never found it.

To be more serious, I know my own life experience colors my feelings about all of the above, and though I do my best to consider my arguments fairly and without too much bias, it’s not possible to remove myself from them. It’s probably not advisable anyway, even if I could. Otherwise what would be the point of writing here? But for this reason and others, I’m always happy to hear differing opinions. In the end, after all, we’re all in the same boat — a boat that might be sinking.

 

1 This isn’t to say that an artistic work with an explicit political message is any worse than one with an ambiguous message or none at all. It all depends on how honestly the work approaches the beliefs and the issues it’s dealing with and how much or little credit it gives its audience. i.e. don’t talk down to me like I’m a child or try to pull some silly straw man bullshit to “prove” your stance is correct.

2 Here I’m starting down an entirely different path that involves history, psychology, sociology and a lot of other -ologies (all ending in eschatology, of course.) I love reading and thinking about history, but I’m an amateur at best in that field and can’t even call myself one in the others. Still, here’s my dumbass opinion: I feel we have far stronger norms these days generally speaking that keep us in line and cooperating to some extent (see international organizations and agreements that only became a standard thing after World War II — I’m not counting the clusterfuck that was the League of Nations) but in the end, human nature seems like it’s still more or less what it always has been. Read Thucydides to see a good example of that. What struck me most about his History of the Peloponnesian War, written 2,400 years ago, is how familiar all the political deceit and militaristic dick-swinging he describes felt, especially at the time I read it in the mid-2000s.

But that’s a debate that I won’t engage in any more deeply because, once again, I’m not really qualified to do so. I’m not academia and never have been. Though a gig as a law school professor would be nice — those people are so incredibly overpaid that it’s practically a crime.

Initial thoughts on the Activision Blizzard lawsuit, or why strict corporate culture isn’t always a bad thing

A few weeks ago, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) filed suit against Activision Blizzard. In its complaint (linked here in full) the state agency alleges that the corporation has instilled a culture of sexism affecting its female employees. Many examples of the alleged sexist behaviors are listed, including unequal pay for similar work and explicitly sexual comments and advances towards women in the workplace. The complaint includes specific examples, most of which are revolting on a gut level, even to the point that reader discretion might be advised.

Activision Blizzard’s Santa Monica headquarters, where many of the alleged facts of the case allegedly went down (Source: w:User:Coolcaesar – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.)

None of this is news at the time of writing. When this story broke late last month, it was widely talked about. Sadly, there also wasn’t all that much surprise expressed over it. Activision Blizzard was already widely regarded as a shit company for its lousy business practices and general disregard for its customers, placing it in the same trash league as EA and Ubisoft. But it also seems that the allegations of internal sexism and “frat boy culture” as the California state agency puts it at Activision Blizzard weren’t such a shock either — Ubisoft and other AAA companies have had similar charges leveled against them.

I’m not going to approach this case from a legal perspective, or at least not yet, partly because I don’t know nearly enough about California employment law or the facts of the case to analyze the complaint on that level. California tends to be more protective of the rights of employees (and tenants and consumers for that matter) than other states are, and from that perspective DFEH may be able to come down harder on the company than another state’s counterpart agency would, but anything beyond that would be too much speculation at this point.*

But this time around I’m much more concerned with the allegations and their implications than with the legal aspect of the case. As far as the complaint and its alleged facts go, if even a fraction of them are true, they’re evidence of a degraded culture at Activision and at any other company that encourages or even turns a blind eye to such practices. I know there are some shitty things about the strict sort of generic “corporate culture”, but a decently professional one can discourage such disrespectful behaviors towards fellow employees and subordinates and can punish them when they occur. In theory at least, since these tools are only as effective as the people with the power to use them.

Of course, Activision has asserted that DFEH’s allegations are meritless and that it will prove so in court, and internally it’s showing some defiance towards the agency if this leaked email from the Chief Compliance Officer is any indication (also noting the different tone from the company’s now-former president.) I’m looking forward to seeing what sort of defense the company puts up assuming it actually backs these words up with actions and doesn’t just fold and settle — a common outcome even after this kind of legal smack talk. But a lot of that depends on what evidence the defendant can bring to counter the allegations made against it.

The California Supreme Court standing by to hear appeals, assuming the case gets that far.

While sexism is considered a divisive matter among the various gaming communities, said communities have perhaps never been more united as they now are against Activision. Again, this is partly due to Activision’s established reputation for putting out poor, shoddy games in recent years and for generally treating its customers like ATMs, but great anger has also been inspired by the facts alleged in DFEH’s complaint. This kind of unity among our communities is not all that common to see, either. Online debates and fights are constantly being waged over games and their contents, their depictions of different types of characters and the acts portrayed in them, and especially over those involving sex and sexual appeal.

There’s plenty of room for disagreement over the contents of the games themselves. If you’ve read this site for a while, you know where I stand on that, both in terms of games and other media. I hope there isn’t any real disagreement about this sort of criticism, though, outside of the usual suspects standing on the fringes. The right of the employee to be treated on an equal basis regardless of gender (or race, religion, orientation, etc. etc.) should not be in dispute. There may be certain gray areas where off-color jokes made in the office are concerned, but the best rule to follow is always to err on the side of caution — if you think someone in the group might be put off by what you consider a joke, don’t make it in that group.

This is not a matter of fun, lighthearted office talk being ruined by “snowflakes” but rather common sense. If someone is truly so uptight that they’d make the office a completely miserable, dull place to work, that person tends to be left out of the group anyway, at least as far as I’ve seen. (And it has to be said that the alleged “jokes” cited by DFEH’s complaint are not even really in a gray area. They’re the kinds of comments and actions that would rightfully get you fired from most other companies on the spot, or at least seriously reprimanded and subjected to rigorous “sensitivity training.”)

I haven’t even addressed the most serious allegations made in the complaint against Activision, which include a suicide following some extremely inappropriate sexual activities considering the context. I won’t dig deeper into these allegations for the reasons I’ve stated above, but I will be following the case to see where it goes from here.

For the time being, though, I will back up calls to boycott this company and its products, because there’s no other real way to make its executives and board of directors feel the pain necessary to encourage them to change. We’re their lifeblood, after all. I get that boycotts are notoriously difficult to put in place, especially for fans of established series, but it’s important to back these sentiments up with action. And if the facts in this case are still too unclear for you to act upon (since they are still alleged, though generally speaking a state agency shouldn’t bring a suit like this without some solid evidence — but the discovery process will uncover everything) I have another totally sufficient reason for everyone to shut out Activision Blizzard, one that’s completely, 100% without doubt: its avowed support for the CCP’s crushing of any semblance of Hong Kong independence, to the point that it retaliated against a Hong Kong Hearthstone player for speaking his mind on the subject in 2019.

Be like me and play a ton of Sega games instead. As far as I know, these guys haven’t (allegedly) done anything wrong. And I still need to get past Chapter 5 in Yakuza 0 too; all these damn minigames and sidequests have been distracting me.

Finally — and this is not legal advice or a specific comment on this case, but again simply common sense — if you run a company that has a legal and an HR department, it might be a good idea to make sure they’re effective and that their advice is actually heeded and put into practice. This might be biased coming from a lawyer, but you pay us for a reason, right? Not just to be window dressing?

 

* For the interested, the relevant parts of California’s anti-discrimination code can be found through following the instructions listed here, and this site provides a summary of the state’s Equal Pay Act. The full texts of both code sections are available on the state legislature’s site.

Eight years on, a few thoughts

Hey, it’s time for another deeply personal post, so if you only want to read about games/anime/music/etc. feel free to skip this one. I won’t be offended. Hell, I won’t even know, really, so it doesn’t make a difference. However, there are a few thoughts I’ve had recently about writing, and specifically about my writing here, and these tie in with the subjects I write about and with my life as a whole. So it is relevant, but still, a warning: I complain a whole lot this time, so if you don’t want to read that, please wait for my next post. Also some stuff about depression and other problems probably. But it doesn’t have such a bad ending, I promise.

Still have to admit that his image is relevant to most of my waking hours, and even to some of the sleeping ones.

This month marks eight years I’ve had this site. When I started it in 2013, I was a different person in many ways. At the time, I was just starting my final degree program, whereas now I’m a working and licensed professional. I also didn’t have much of the responsibility — or sense of responsibility — that I feel now.

Without getting into too many specifics about my life, I can’t live the way I’d prefer for reasons that have to do with family and culture.* This has caused me a lot of stress over the last few years, stress that I haven’t even been able to express — at least not as myself, in my offline life. When I hear people talking about living for yourself, doing what’s best for you, I’m reminded that I can’t do that, and moreover that a lot of people don’t understand why I can’t do that, why I feel so constrained.

This is partly a result of being brought up in (or caught between, maybe) two cultures with very different concepts about tradition and family. I’m very much an American culturally, but the traditional culture of one side of my family has also had a massive impact on me, and one that I can’t avoid. This is partly what constrains me. If I were a more naturally generous and selfless person, I probably wouldn’t feel so constrained, but I have no illusions about myself. I’m actually selfish in the sense that I really want to live the way I like, but since I can’t, I pretend to be a better person than I am. Partly in an effort to actually be that better person, maybe. I don’t know if that’s working, but I still feel bitter about it sometimes.

I’m sorry to be so vague here, but I hope my feelings come across at least. This site is one of the only ways I have to express myself in the way I’d like. And that’s where all the bullshit I write about games and anime and music comes in. I have a few offline friends who share my weeb interests, but most of them don’t. The same is true of my professional colleagues. There are certainly other lawyers out there somewhere with my interests, but aside from one who I’ve more or less lost contact with (though the contact’s not broken at least; it’s really a matter of physical distance) I can’t get into these subjects with them.

That’s not unique to law, certainly — I get the impression that the same is true of almost any professional/corporate American setting. At least when fucking Game of Thrones was running I could relate to people about that, even when it really went bad. By contrast, Don’t Toy With Me, Miss Nagatoro and similar stuff I write about here obviously doesn’t work as around the water cooler talk, even if it is popular in the fringe circles I and other writers get into here on WordPress.*

And I won’t even get into visual novels. At least not some of them.

This is doubly, triply true of family. Maybe it’s a cliché to say so, but they really wouldn’t understand my interests if they knew about them. I don’t think I’m jumping to conclusions here, either — the few times I’ve tested the waters in that sense, I’ve gotten burned, so I have good reason to believe as I do.

This brings me to the main point. A few years ago, I asked myself why I was keeping up a blog. When I asked myself that question, I had been pushed out of my last job, which I was naturally pretty distressed about. Technically I’d quit to save face, but I have to be honest about it — the axe was about to fall on my neck, and I knew it. And money was an issue for me as it is for almost everyone on Earth.

In fact, leaving that job and ending the daily misery associated with it was one of the best things that’s happened in my life to this point, but at the time, I had no idea where or how I’d end up. But thankfully, I’m in a much better place now. My health and mentality aren’t perfect, but certainly better than they were before, thanks in part to my new work situation over the last few years and to certain lifestyle changes I’ve made. I’ve also become resigned to some unavoidable constraints on my personal life — agonizing over them is useless, and as depressing as it might sound, giving up has helped me come to terms with that. Hope can be a good thing, but a pointless and worthless hope can eat at you and drive you insane — this is my feeling about it, anyway.

Because of all this, I’ve found that I can’t stop writing here. At the end of June, I took what I meant to be a hiatus to deal with certain matters that were causing me issues, and I’m still dealing with them, but I’ve found that writing actually helps keep me balanced. Ever since returning to writing on a regular basis here a few years ago, I haven’t been able to stop or slow down very much. It might have to do with my obsessive-compulsive personality — I don’t use that term lightly, because I do have some actual issues with OCD, though thankfully they’re minor and manageable. So maybe writing here is a kind of obsession as well.

I’m not qualified to say anything at all about psychology, so that might be total bullshit. But if it’s true, I don’t mind having this obsession. I enjoy writing here, even or maybe especially through harder-than-usual times, and so unless I happen to just fall over one day (a real possibility given the old “fast living” habits that I’ve gotten away from, but I don’t worry about that anymore) I’ll keep going here.

Semi-related: Chiri from SZS is a pretty good example of one of the ways OCD can play out.

Maybe this long rambling load of garbage I just wrote was completely unnecessary to express this feeling, but I have a lot I’m carrying around right now, and I felt I had to unload a bit. I’m well aware that I don’t have it so bad, especially compared to at least 95% of the rest of humanity, so I don’t want to say I’ve gone through hardships — I have plenty of family who have gone through truly serious hardships, and I know friends who have been through more than I have besides. But it’s all relative, and it’s hard to keep that kind of perspective when you’re wondering about the point of your life in itself. I hope I’ve at least gotten enough perspective to resolve that sort of existential crisis stuff, at least enough that I can go on living more or less productively.

And if you’ve stuck around for all my bullshit, dear reader, I want to thank you as well for helping me with that. I am really grateful for it. Next time, I’ll post something at least marginally less self-indulgent than this post was. For the foreseeable future, I’ll be leaning towards the anime reviews since I’ve been watching so much of it lately (and a reminder to check out Asobi Asobase! Weird in a good way.) But I won’t be neglecting games either — I just happen to be stuck in the middle of a few massive ones at the moment. There are still those itch.io indie games to get through, and some of them are pretty interesting, so I’ll be taking those on in the meantime as well. Along with one game in particular that’s extremely overdue for a review. Until then!

 

* Except to note that it has nothing to do with having a kid or a wife or anything. If that were the case, I’d dive into all that headfirst without complaint.

** Not that I really expect it to make for water cooler talk. Still, this is an issue that someone could write a book about. Maybe someone already has. The fact that I’m expected to give a fuck about pro and college football and the NBA, yet my fringe interests are just that: fringe. I know “nerd culture” is supposedly mainstream now, but it feels like only a narrow band of works are actually included in that. Namely the ones that are put out by major studios and publishers.

But I don’t want to have “nerd rage” here or whatever people who complain about nerds complaining about things call it. This is a subject for a different post, really, and one that I’ve written before and might write again later. I’m nothing if not repetitive.

Summer cleaning game review special #6: Baba Is You

Yes! Summer is back, the worst of all the seasons, and even worse this year because of the heat wave we’re going through. So I thought I’d drag this post series back out as well. It’s especially relevant since just like last summer, I’ve picked up a new massive batch of over a thousand games from itch.io in a bundle, so now I have — well, a lot. There’s some overlap between the two, so I’m not sure how many are in both together, but certainly more than I can ever play in my life.

In this resurrected post series, I’ll again be covering smaller games that I don’t have as much to say about as I would in a typical review. I can use the break from the massive epics I’m working through anyway. Atelier really took it out of me last spring, and I need to gather my energy again.

So why not start with a game everyone’s already heard of? As usual, I’m late to the party, but for those in the same situation, here’s the puzzle game Baba Is You.

This game was released in 2019, when I first started hearing a lot about it but for whatever reason never bothered checking it out. But I should have, because it’s pretty damn close to the perfect sort of puzzle game: easy to learn but hard to master, and one that either lets you or forces you (depending on your mindset) to use unorthodox solutions. The object of each stage in Baba Is You is to reach the goal, which is initially marked by a flag, and your player character is Baba, the white rabbit-looking creature seen above.

But not always. All that can change, because in many cases the player has the power to alter the rules of a stage by moving the text blocks that create said rules. So Baba is you, except when it isn’t. Maybe something else can be you. Or maybe the flag doesn’t have to be the goal — maybe it can be something else entirely. Is a wall or some other obvious obstacle stopping you from proceeding? Maybe you can get around it — or maybe you can change the rules to break straight through that wall.

Is this the solution to this stage? I guess not.

Baba Is You encourages you to try all kinds of stuff that might seem fruitless or even silly at first — if it doesn’t work or results in failure, hitting the z key lets you rewind your actions step by step. And in some cases, an action that might seem silly or unthinkable can be exactly the solution you were looking for.

This game reminds me of nothing so much as the logic game section of the LSAT, the standardized exam that American and Canadian law schools require all applicants to take. I had to take that bullshit exam three times before I got a score I was halfway satisfied with, and those logic games were the bane of my fucking existence for months.* These games were essentially very complex word problems that operated according to logic rules, most of which you’re required to piece together yourself. Here’ are a few good examples of such games. You can see if you play with some of the rules in these problems how the different elements in it can change. The exam does this in some of the questions under each problem, forcing you to quickly factor in those rule changes to find their solutions.

I think this is where I discovered the connection in my head

While the LSAT is a hateful, miserable exam, however, Baba Is You is a fun puzzle game. Probably because it doesn’t impose a time limit upon you or grade you on a curve, and certainly because being bad at it or taking a while to solve its problems doesn’t subject you to shame among your peers and anxiety about your career prospects (unless your desired future career is as a speedrunner, maybe.) But it operates on similar principles, like understanding what rules can and can’t be changed, how multiple rules fit together to create other rules that aren’t obvious at first, and how changeable rules can be broken up or added to. Not every idea is going to work — most of mine were failures, but that’s part of the fun. Even discovering some of the bizarre ways in which you can fail these stages is interesting.

So this one comes highly recommended. Try out Baba Is You for some good brain exercise, because we can all use it.

 

* Of course, now the Law School Admissions Council is getting rid of that section, only after so many of us had to suffer through it. I support that decision, but couldn’t they have made it sooner, preferably before I took the god damn test? Thanks for nothing, assholes.

A review of Highway Blossoms: Remastered (PC)

It’s back to the visual novels. And it’s also back to the itch.io bundle, and specifically last year’s racial justice donation bundle, not to be confused with the recently ended Palestine relief one I talked up last post (which I will be getting to in turn, because there are a few interesting games in there as well. Also thanks to itch.io for that bundle again and to everyone for putting up over 900K for a great cause.)

But for now, here’s the 2016 kinetic novel Highway Blossoms, which I just got around to reading after a year of owning it. This is specifically the recently released remastered version, which adds in voice acting and probably a few other features I didn’t notice because I didn’t play the original. I’m not sure if the old version is even around for sale anymore, but it seems this is the definitive version anyway. (And some story spoilers, since this being a kinetic novel, there’s not much to talk about other than characters and story. But that might not be such an issue either way.)

Yeah I played in windowed mode, I admit it

Highway Blossoms tells the story of Amber (above, left), a young woman driving down a highway in the American Southwest in the RV she inherited from her recently deceased grandfather. As our protagonist drives along, she comes across a hitchhiker standing next to her car on the side of the highway, and against her better judgment she stops to help out. Said hitchhiker is Marina (right), another young woman looking for a lift from a stranger. Which is also against all good judgment and common sense, as Amber herself says — but we’ll soon learn that Marina is a bit lacking in the common sense department.

Amber decides to bring Marina along, afraid of what might happen to her if some seedy weirdo comes across her instead. And so their adventure brings, and also their romance, because Highway Blossoms is a yuri (i.e. lesbian) romance VN and this is our couple. That’s not really a spoiler, either: the game bills itself in exactly that way, and its promotional art makes it very obvious that these two will get together, so I don’t feel like dropping that fact here is a big deal when it says all this stuff on the cover basically.

Amber likes black coffee, Marina likes milkshakes. With this odd couple character dynamic plus the yuri tag on the game, you can see it coming from miles away.

There’s another major aspect to Highway Blossoms aside from the yuri romance, and that’s the travel guide one. This game takes place entirely in the American Southwest region, starting in New Mexico, running through Arizona, Utah, and Nevada, and ending in inland California. What starts as a simple lift turns into an extended trip through an entire quarter of the United States when Amber learns that Marina is out on her own searching for a legendary treasure of gold scattered and buried in parts by a 19th century prospector with clues left about their hiding places.

Amber is a naturally skeptical type, and the fact that this prospector’s journal is being sold at gas stations and corner stores all over the place and has sparked a new “gold rush” to find his treasure cements her opinion that it’s all a scam. However, Marina seems dead set on finding these stashes of gold, so Amber unaccountably (even to her, at least at first) agrees to help her.

It also helps that Amber has an encyclopedic knowledge of the Southwest and the ability to decipher vague hints based on its geography despite still only being 19. Not that a 19 year-old can’t be that smart, but I feel like life length/experience should factor in a bit more, especially when so many people are on the hunt.

This gold rush is the excuse for Amber and Marina’s tour through this part of the country, and we get to visit some big natural landmarks along with them, like Shiprock and Arches National Park, places where the prospector hints that his treasure was buried. And of course, a rivalry develops between Amber and Marina on one side and a team of treasure hunters they keep running into on the other, spurring them on to try to find the gold before the other group cleans them out.

The rivalry is really between Amber and this constantly half-naked lady Mariah; anime hair man and Mariah’s little sister who are along for the ride are actually pretty nice. And nice crack on ska there. Why the hate for ska anyway? It’s not that bad.

Finally, between these points, we get a nice dose of what people call “Americana”1 — it’s a term I always found strange, since it only seems to refer to a narrow slice of what life in America is like, but here we’re talking about country/western folk sort of music, 24-hour roadside diners serving heart attack food, and weird man-made tourist attractions like the tallest thermometer in the world. All the stuff you find on Route 66, even though that famous US highway isn’t mentioned at all in Highway Blossoms unless I missed something. But since Amber and Marina are bouncing between different states constantly, it makes sense that they’d have to go off the beaten path a bit more.

I forget exactly what this spot was, but it must be another important natural landmark.

Before going into what I liked and didn’t like about Highway Blossoms, I want to acknowledge something that I very probably got wrong last year when I wrote about visual novels here in the West — they seem to be more popular here than I gave them credit for. I was thinking more about mainstream popularity then, which I feel VNs still don’t really have here, but my perspective was too narrow to see other niches this medium has gotten into, especially with all the otome games out there.

Original English-language visual novels (OELVNs as they’re commonly called) still look like a niche thing to me, but I might still be out of touch in that area — Highway Blossoms is only the third one I’ve played in my life after Doki Doki Literature Club two years ago and Katawa Shoujo (or part of it anyway)2 last year. But it also feels like a first for me in the sense that it’s an entirely American VN with regard to its setting and characters. I also get the impression that the writers at the indie developer Studio Élan are American, or at least that they’ve been around the Southwest and are very familiar with the cultures down there.

There’s still a lot of very obvious influence from Japanese VNs in certain aspects like the character design (which I’m naturally not complaining about — I am still a damn weeb after all, and Amber and Marina and a few of the game’s other characters look pretty fine) but this is otherwise very much an American work, and as an American who’s somewhat into the visual novel medium, that’s nice to see.

In general, Highway Blossoms feels pretty polished, with full voice-acting, original music that mostly fits that Southwest country/western folkish feel, and some pretty nice CGs. Including a few in its 18+ scenes near the end of the story — the base game is all-ages, but there’s an 18+ patch you can download and apply from the Steam page, even if you got Highway Blossoms through itch.io like I did. It only adds maybe ten minutes to this ~5-6 hour game, but to the publisher’s credit, the patch is free.

The only real complaint I have with the game’s presentation is that the otherwise nice-looking character portraits looked a bit crusty in their outlines when set against the backgrounds, but then maybe it was an issue on my end somehow. I don’t know enough about the technical aspects of putting a VN together to say. It’s not a big annoyance for me either way, but just something I noticed.

Now for the writing, which is certainly the most important aspect of this game considering that there’s no gameplay here to speak of. And this is where I have a few more substantive criticisms to make, one of which has to do with the central relationship between Amber and Marina.

If you’ve read or played or watched any similar romances, it’s not much of a surprise: Amber is the serious one, somewhat bitter for her age and carrying around an emotional burden she’s trying to deal with (the recent death of her grandfather, the one who raised her in place of her deadbeat parents and the only person in her life she really cared for) and Marina is the free spirit she comes across by chance, the one who shows her a new way to think about life and who helps her resolve that emotional burden. The road is a bit bumpy; there are a few arguments and one big fight near the end between them, but the two are finally able to come together and realize and express their love for each other. There’s a happy ending as the pair set aside uncertainties over their futures for the moment and embrace their love.

I’m not saying the above is even that unrealistic, but it does feel like a tired sort of story. Maybe I’m just a bitter fuck, but believe it or not, I actually can appreciate a good romance if it gives me something new and fresh to enjoy, and this doesn’t really. For all her impulsiveness and spontaneity, Marina might even be put in that dreaded “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” category that film critics created in the mid-2000s to describe such free spirits. See the 2004 film Garden State for a good example of that character type: the free spirit in this case being Natalie Portman, who pulls depressed guy and writer/director Zach Braff out of a slump with similar results.3

To be fair, though, I think Highway Blossoms avoids falling into that old trope too much, because Marina does have a backstory and a personality beyond “cute girl who loves life and doesn’t let things bother her etc.” She’s not nearly as out to lunch as a few of the other characters I’ve seen stuck into that category either — Marina’s actions seem to make sense to her, at least, without just coming from a place of pure whimsy or whatever the hell nonsense those other movies were trying to pull. The “Marina’s thoughts” feature helps a bit there — throughout the game, we hear Amber’s thoughts, but certain objects the pair collect are catalogued in a separate menu with Marina’s thoughts on them in the attached notes. It’s clear that though she does lack some common sense, Marina doesn’t deserve to be called a simple airhead. Even if she does a couple of profoundly stupid things in the course of the story that Amber ends up having to fix.

I found the romance a bit dull, but at least sort of believable.

The bigger problem is that as a kinetic novel without any player choice or interaction, the story is all Highway Blossoms has beyond its nice art and music, and there’s not much there for me to enjoy. The romance is nice enough, but nothing more, and all the treasure hunt and travel stuff feels like a reason for the romance to take place more than anything. Again, maybe I really am just an embittered type too far beyond that point of life to appreciate the game’s messages. Maybe this game simply wasn’t meant for me — the main characters in it are 19 and 18, both with their whole lives ahead of them, and while I was once like that, I’m now a professional chained to my desk with no real personal goals beyond “get a few hours of total escapism a day to put up with this shit”, all of which is entirely my fault.

So I’ll go for a complete, shameless cop-out and give the typical lawyer’s answer to the question of whether Highway Blossoms is a good visual novel: “it depends.”4 I feel now like I did when I was looking at Blend S, in fact, only instead of the feeling being “this is for me but might not be for you”, it’s “this isn’t for me but might be for you.” If all of the above really appeals to you, or if you’re the type who melts at romance, you might want to check the game out. I liked Highway Blossoms a hell of a lot better than I did Garden State, at least, if that gives you any point of reference. If it doesn’t, I’ll just say that while I didn’t exactly dislike this game, it did fall flat a bit for me.

Okay, not this part, though. There’s something about that “one character has to wear another’s clothes” thing, especially when the two are still just romantic interests. I don’t know. I’m not the only one, right?

Maybe Highway Blossoms does have some value as a Southwest travel guide, though. I’ve never been to that part of the country before, so I can’t say how well it captures the region and its natural beauty, cultures, and all that. But if it does so sufficiently, some of the states it features might consider officially adopting it as a tool to drive tourism — Japanese VNs do this sort of thing often enough, with Our World Is Ended for example set in Asakusa and even talking up particular restaurants.

Something to think about, at least. Though I don’t know how Utah would feel about using a lesbian-themed visual novel to promote itself. Maybe about as good as they would using a lesbian-themed visual novel to teach their schoolchildren Esperanto. There really are a lot of great potential uses to VNs, aren’t there? 𒀭

 

1 Of course, there’s also apple pie and baseball, as seen in this photo I found under “Americana” taken by someone at the USDA Agricultural Research Department. Those are somewhat more widespread in the US, but I’d say still partly outdated as a representation of what America is considering how far baseball has fallen against other sports like basketball, football, and NASCAR (and even soccer, which has been steadily rising in popularity here recently.)

Apple pie is still good, though. I’m more of a cake guy myself but I can appreciate it.

2 I have a load of very old notes on Katawa Shoujo and I still might write something about it here. The trouble is I don’t know if I should write about it if I’ve only gotten through two of its five routes, but then again it is a proper 30+ hour visual novel with branching decision paths and bad ends and all that. Maybe I’ll just finish the damn thing finally, since I’ve thoroughly liked what I’ve played of it so far (there’s your preliminary review of it at least.) In any case, there are more visual novel reviews to come as I plow through what I still have in my massive backlog.

3 I don’t remember their characters’ names, but these two were quite big back at the time: Braff was one of the main guys in the TV comedy Scrubs, and Portman was in quite a few other movies throughout the 90s/2000s, including the first run of bad Star Wars films. The only movies I saw Portman in that I actually liked were Heat and The Professional, the latter of which admittedly had some very weird vibes that may have been explained recently by what’s come out about director Luc Besson. I don’t know how well it holds up, but Jean Reno and Gary Oldman are both always good. But then there are those weird vibes again, so I don’t know. Maybe it’s worth a re-watch?

4 I don’t mean to say here that it always depends — I absolutely don’t subscribe to the view that the quality of all art is a subjective matter. I just feel this is one of those cases where the problem might be partly with where I am more than with the work itself.

A review of Sagebrush (PC)

I’m generally not a fan of environmental narrative games. These are also known as “walking simulators”, a term that’s meant as a bit of an insult, though one that’s stuck for good reason. Considering how I’ve felt about those I’ve already played, I wouldn’t normally have gone for a game like Sagebrush. However, it was included in that 1,000+ game itch.io bundle from last year that I’ve still barely made a dent in, and lately I’ve felt like giving a chance to something I typically wouldn’t. Open my mind to new possibilities and all that, which is something I usually don’t have an easy time doing.

Well, I’ll just say it straight out — Sagebrush didn’t change how I feel about this genre. Released in 2018 for PC and later ported to the Xbox, Switch, and PS4, this game received quite a lot of praise from reviewers and players, but I found it frustrating, all the more so because the story it tries to tell seems like it would be an interesting one if it were told as it happened. But as is so often the case with these kinds of games, we only get to see the aftermath of that story. Sagebrush does try to justify that with its ending twist, but it still doesn’t work so well for me, partly because the twist itself didn’t work for me either.

Note: I will be spoiling the hell out of this one, so if you don’t want to proceed further, here’s my bottom line: I didn’t like Sagebrush, but its story and characters have potential, and if you like these sorts of environmental narratives I can see how you’d enjoy it. But I didn’t. Now on to the horrifying details, because this isn’t a pleasant story in the slightest.

Good time to turn back if you’re not up to it, and I wouldn’t blame you.

In Sagebrush, you play as an initially unidentified protagonist visiting an old abandoned cult compound, the scene of a mass suicide. The player isn’t let in on why we’re here at first or even about who we are, but we at least know our objective is to explore this abandoned compound and put together what exactly happened here — or rather how it happened, since the game tells us the conclusion of this story at its beginning.

The player is therefore required to piece this story together by working back from the end and seeing how it happened. Sagebrush leaves a lot of clues around for the player to do just this, with plenty of notes, pamphlets, and journals to read along with more physical and visual forms of evidence, all having to do with the head of the cult, a preacher referred to as Father James Israel, and his followers.

Hey, this Father James guy sounds great! I’m sure he had nothing to do with the tragedy we learned about right after the title screen.

The compound is divided into several distinct areas, most of which are initially locked off and have to be accessed with keys and sometimes with other tools you’ll come across during your explorations. This allows the story to build gradually, showing more and more of the true horror behind this Perfect Heaven cult. What first seems to be a strange but perhaps harmless group of ascetics (starting with a few notes in the community hall, including a meal schedule with “fasting” listed two out of seven days) turns out to include a “cleansing” practice involving self-harm and self-mutilation as penance for sin and an “alternative cleansing” method in private with this Father James, which just happens to only involve certain young women in the cult. The inclusion of a schoolhouse and references to children at the compound makes the situation all the more horrific.

The rectory, where Father James lives and commits some of his more despicable deeds.

No one who’s looked into the history of cults will be surprised by any of this. Developer Nathaniel Berens took inspiration from real-world cults, some of the more likely examples being the Branch Davidian cult in Waco, Texas that ended in a deadly standoff with federal authorities, the California-based Heaven’s Gate that ended in mass suicide, and the FLDS polygamist Mormon sect that still hasn’t ended despite its leader being imprisoned for sex crimes. However, the marks of a cult, and especially of this sort of millennial religious cult — fanaticism, militancy, and unquestioning devotion to a leader who claims he has special powers or speaks with God — can be found throughout history. The earliest example I know much about is the 16th century Anabaptist commune that briefly took over the German city of Münster (even if the link wasn’t intentional, Father James surely has some Jan van Leiden in him, especially with his more sexually oriented “revelations”) but there are certainly even older examples.

All this could make for a compelling story, and I had the feeling from reading all the correspondence and journals in the game that the cult featured in Sagebrush might have been a great subject for a game. However, the usual problems of these environmental narrative games show up yet again here. We only see the remains of the story, its characters and conflicts, through the written and physical evidence left sitting around the ranch. These do fill out the story and suggest what some of the characters are like and how they related to each other and especially to the false prophet James, who is about as big of a shithead as you might imagine and maybe even bigger, considering what you find in his journal near the end of the game.

Do not trust a man who hangs multiple portraits of himself in his own house, especially when he puts them right next to religious imagery

But again, I would have liked to see this all play out in real time. That’s always one of the problems I have with these games. Clearly there are people who enjoy this sort of forensic style of gameplay, but I’m not one of them. I have seen Sagebrush described as having a puzzle element along with the exploration one, but the puzzles in this game are the most basic “go to location x and find item y to open door z” sort of stuff you could ever imagine, to the point that I don’t even think you can call them puzzles at all. It’s not all just finding keys to unlock doors to find new keys, but it’s close enough that there’s no real challenge involved.

So all that’s left is the story, which is again told well after it’s happened. And the way it’s told feels a bit cheap. Initially, the player has no idea who the protagonist is or why they’re exploring this cult compound. Near the end of the game, however, it’s revealed that the protagonist is Lilian, one of the former cult members and the only survivor of the mass suicide by fire that puts an end to the cult. After coming to her senses and escaping the flames into a bunker built by Father James to ride out a police/military standoff, Lilian returned to her family and to society. But it’s implied her time at the compound was so traumatic that she’s repressed many or all of these memories, which return to her in the course of her explorations.

I still only vaguely remember who this Athanasius guy was or why he was important from a classics class I took years ago at college. Maybe the reference is relevant to the story? I have no idea.

I know nothing about psychology, so I can’t say anything about how realistic or unrealistic any of that is. However, hiding Lilian’s identity from the player up until that point feels pretty damn cheap. She hasn’t forgotten who she is, after all, and by the end of the game it’s revealed that she came back to the compound specifically to come to terms with what happened there and with her role in it. You’d think we would at least get some kind of internal monologue when we find Lilian’s living space in the trailer park set up to house the cult members, but we don’t. We only clearly enter Lilian’s mind near the very end of the game, when we get a cryptic message about “facing your past” just before entering the chapel, the final area of the game.

The only other clue before this point that the protagonist is Lilian is the old-fashioned tape deck that keeps showing up in various places. These act as save points, but they also play recorded monologues that turn out to mostly be Lilian’s recollections. My read on it is that these tape decks don’t actually exist at the compound but are just representations of Lilian’s thoughts — or it would be if there weren’t also a tape deck in the middle of the game that plays a monologue by Father James. Maybe this is supposed to be Lilian recalling what James told her, since it does take place at the site of one of his creepy as hell sex pervert “alternative cleansings” that it’s implied she took part in. But this also kind of breaks the rule the game set about the tape decks being Lilian’s thoughts alone, assuming it set that rule at all and I didn’t just imagine it in an effort to make sense of it.*

A few of these descriptions might also contain hints, but I might have missed some.

In any case, none of that changes the fact that the game does pull a surprise reveal about the protagonist being Lilian, despite this separation between the player and protagonist not really working. That kind of separation can actually work — I’d give examples but it would naturally spoil those games’ endings somewhat, so I won’t. Some ambiguity like this in a story can be extremely effective if it’s done right. However, I think it’s very difficult to pull off well, and in the case of Sagebrush it simply feels like the game is hiding the ball. Again, maybe it’s just me being dumb or not picking up on something extra-obvious (and if so please let me know what you saw that I didn’t) but I don’t appreciate this approach.

I wish I could be more generous to this game, because I like the basic story it sets up, and I think Mr. Berens treated his extremely sensitive subject with a lot of respect, but as far as I’m concerned it really is just another walking simulator in the end. If you’re into this sort of game, you might like it. Sagebrush has some atmosphere to it and it does deal with some heavy issues, and I can see a cult survivor or someone close to one connecting with and getting something out of the game.

I leave all the theological questions to others, but you don’t need to know much about that to recognize fanaticism when you see it. Stay alert.

But I don’t know. Aside from the narrative issues I brought up, I just like to have more game in my game than I got here. Maybe that makes me a hypocrite, since I’ve highly praised stuff like Yume Nikki that’s also essentially a lot of walking around and exploration, but surreal dreamscape games like that are so interesting and weird that I’m willing to give them a break. Sagebrush gets no such break. At least it only takes a couple of hours to get through, so not too much of a time commitment if you plan to try it out.

So no, my return to this itch.io bundle didn’t start so hot, but I will be going back to it for a few more interesting-looking games. Among those I have lined up to play are a visual novel about two girls driving around a desert, a weird-looking meta RPGMaker-style game recommended by Frostilyte, and a few others I might pick out if they’re lucky (or not lucky?) But hopefully it is all good stuff that I can use to break up the bigger games I have going right now. Until next time.

 

* It’s also possible that the whole thing occurs not in real life but in Lilian’s mind, and the entire game is just her sorting through and coping with her own memories. A real-life cult compound and site of a mass suicide like this wouldn’t just have all that evidence left lying around by authorities, after all. Or maybe I’m overthinking it? See, I really don’t mind some narrative weirdness, but the rules set have to be consistent, otherwise it’s just frustrating.

Listening/reading log #18 (March 2021)

Sorry for the short break between posts and for not being very active in general lately. I’ve had a mountain of work to get through since the beginning of the year, and it’s only growing larger. But I finally have a weekend to myself (as much as I ever get any time “to myself” anyway. Being an adult really is shit, isn’t it? Or maybe I should blame myself instead for making poor life choices…)

I promise I’ll stop complaining now. I don’t have much reason to feel bad, anyway — April is the start of the overcast/rainy season here, which is my favorite kind of weather when it happens in this 60/70 degree, slightly humid climate. I think there are also particular kinds of music that go well with this weather. The following three albums fall into that category for me, though I don’t know if I can really explain why they make good “rain music.” After that, I’ll cover more excellent writing from around the communities last month as usual.

Bitches Brew (Miles Davis, 1970)

Highlights: It’s hard to break down because it’s so damn long but Bitches Brew gives you a good idea of what’s going on here

I’ve written about a lot of progressive rock here, but everyone knows that’s for weirdo shut-in nerds like me and is not cool in the slightest. No, Bitches Brew is the kind of album you bring up if you want to seem deep and cool, especially if you’re in college.

Until the late 60s, jazz and rock didn’t have much of anything to do with each other, but top musicians including Miles Davis, John McLaughlin, Herbie Hancock, and Chick Corea got together to combine the two into what we now call fusion. They weren’t the first to do this, but their work together did a lot to define the new genre, starting with In a Silent Way in 1969. Bitches Brew seems to be the big one, though, both in terms of its scope and size, a double album with a 90+ minute runtime. These are mainly spacy jazz/rock tracks like the opening Pharaoh’s Dance and the title track that make up the entire first record, along with a little more funky-sounding music like the shorter Miles Runs the Voodoo Down.

It’s all pretty hypnotic stuff, excellent to space out or study or work to, but there’s also a lot going on if you want to pay closer attention to the music. Even if you don’t like traditional jazz, you should check this out, because it’s not much like Miles Davis’ earlier work. (Also, if you want to be a real college hipster, be sure to album-name-drop his following A Tribute to Jack Johnson. Really impress that girl in your philosophy class. But more importantly, it’s good as well, so be sure to listen to it too.)

Future Days (Can, 1973)

Highlights: Future Days, Moonshake

I’ve covered the classic German band Can once before, back when I wrote about Ege Bamyasi. That’s a great album too, but as far as “stuck inside/rainy day” music goes, I prefer their later album Future Days. These guys had an amazing rhythm section that makes the music feel almost trance-like, and Damo Suzuki’s strange half-understandable singing adds to that feeling.

Future Days is another album that used to be perfect for my study sessions and is now perfect for my work sessions. Still more hypnotic tracks like you’ll find on Ege Bamyasi and the equally great Tago Mago, but Future Days feels more chilled out than those two albums. The title track is an excellent opener, and the ending 20-minute Bel Air puts me in a nice mood. “Moonshake” provides a nice short break (kind of sounds a bit like “I’m So Green” from Ege Bamyasi, which I like too, so that’s a good thing.)

I don’t really have much more to say about this album, other than it’s another one you should hear if you haven’t already. It almost sounds like ambient music, which I don’t think would take off for a while until Brian Eno really got around to defining that genre. I also wonder if they were going for a kind of aquatic theme here with the music and the trident-looking symbol on the album cover, though from the lyrics that are on this album there’s no way you’d ever be able to tell.

Blue Reflection Official Soundtrack (Various, 2017)

Highlights: Way too many to choose from, but see below

Even though I wrote about Bitches Brew above, as you probably know already, I am a weirdo shut-in nerd who plays way too many JRPGs. A few months ago, I finally got through Blue Reflection, a somewhat unfairly overlooked/maligned game here in the States at least. Not that the mixed reviews are that surprising — it had its problems, but a turn-based JRPG about magical girls isn’t exactly the kind of game most professional critics here love to talk up in the first place.

I didn’t see anyone talking shit about its music, though, because the soundtrack is undoubtedly excellent. There are the expected driving battle themes like TIGAR Kurt, but a lot of the album focuses on calmer piano/synth-based pieces like A Small Distance and Vesicular Membrane Transporter. I’ll still talk up Blue Reflection myself (and I’ll absolutely be getting the announced sequel Second Light when it comes out here) but if this game isn’t your thing, its music is still worth hearing especially if you need something relaxing to get you through the day or the night.

Now to the featured articles:

Eyes on Transistor (Lost to the Aether) — Aether takes an in-depth and thorough look at Transistor, the game that developer Supergiant Games released following their hit Bastion, and it seems this one is a bit of a mixed bag.

FromSoftware Games Ranked (Honest Gamer) — FromSoftware has developed some of the most interesting games of the last decade or so, and I have to acknowledge that even if I am absolute, total shit at every one I’ve ever tried. Stephen at Honest Gamer gives his own ranking of their games along with his thoughts on each.

Source Code (Extra Life) — I’m pretty damn tired of modern speculative sci-fi now, even if I did try to write some at one point — if you’re curious where that writing is now, it went straight into the trash, which is exactly where it belongs. However, that doesn’t mean it can’t be done well. Does Duncan Jones’ speculative science fiction film Source Code get it right? Read Red Metal’s comprehensive review to get his opinion on it.

I Actually Enjoy Among Us (Frostilyte Writes) — Frostilyte takes on the subject of the popular party game Among Us and why he actually enjoys it, addressing how and why it works for him. This is a trend I’ve completely missed out on, but it certainly looks like a great time.

Film in 500: Promare Review (WCRobinson) — New in WCRobinson’s concise Film in 500 review series, a look at one I’ve been meaning to see at some point, Trigger’s Promare.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV: Turtles In Time (Gaming Omnivore) — The Ninja Turtles were a staple of my early childhood, and while game adaptations of comics and films usually weren’t that great at the time, Turtles in Time was actually a pretty fine beat-em-up. Learn more about it from Gaming Omnivore.

Call of the Night: Volume 1 – Sexy Vampire Nights (Mechanical Anime Reviews) — I’ve been thinking about trying out a few manga series lately. I’ll probably pass on Call of the Night based on Scott’s look at it, but it might be just your thing. “Has a hot vampire girl” is a pretty decent draw for a series in any case, even if it doesn’t have much else.

A Twist “Outrage” Marketing in Anime? (I drink and watch anime) — Irina gives her usual interesting perspective on an issue that keeps coming up in the online anime circles, at least here in the West — what place does moral outrage have in marketing anime? There’s no question that a few series have been attacked, and sometimes unfairly, by some very uptight people, but overreactions to such outrages have also occurred, creating an irritating and stupid self-sustaining loop of people screaming at each other on Twitter. And sometimes that mutual outrage gets a series more attention than it might otherwise have gotten (or maybe deserved.) No matter whether you take a side on this issue, Irina’s post on the subject is worth reading.

Amazing Anime Power Often Comes with A High Cost (100 Word Anime) — And from Karandi, a post on the theme of power in anime and the toll it takes on those who use it. If the cost of power is so high, I think I’d rather be powerless.

That’s all for last month. Shorter post this time, and very late, but I hope to correct that next month. And I do have a few posts planned out including two reviews of anime, one very dark and heavy and the other extra-light and fluffy, so hopefully everyone will find something they like. Other than that, I’m currently rolling through the Dusk trilogy of the Atelier series — Gust has really taken over all my game time so far this year. Until next time, all the best.

Deep reads #5.4: Gods and devils

This is the last in my deep reads post series about Megami Tensei, though it’s certainly not the last time I’ll ever write about the series. I can absolutely guarantee that. This one deals a lot with religion in the context of the games, so if you don’t care to read about that, then you probably shouldn’t read it. Otherwise, have a good time! Maybe. That’s for you to judge, not me.

***

I was raised to fear God. Depending on your perspective, this might sound like a strange thing to teach a child. Quite a scary one as well, and in some sense it was. But in the Islamic tradition, it’s completely normal and even natural. The existence of an omnipotent creator of the universe and judge of humanity is taken for granted, as is the fact that this creator and judge is good, forgiving, and just. And in the various places I’ve lived for most of my life, the term “God-fearing man/woman” was a synonym for a good person, which tells you a lot about the values of the cultures I grew up in.

I’m not writing this post to debate the existence of God, gods, angels, demons, spirits, or the supernatural in general with anyone. You may certainly disagree, but to me, that seems like a pretty useless debate to have. If these exist, then they exist; if they don’t, they don’t — there’s nothing any of us can do about that either way. I won’t criticize anyone for their religious belief or lack thereof, either; life is such a miserable shitshow as far as I’m concerned that any way you can find to get through it is fine as long as you’re not hurting or intruding on the rights of other people in the process.1

However, the ways in which people think about religion and the supernatural are really interesting to me. Though Islam is one of the largest religions in the world, there were very few Muslims where I grew up, and there were none at all at my school who I knew of aside from me. This probably gave me a different perspective than my friends from Christian families had about religion in general; since I knew my family’s beliefs were very different from theirs in some ways, I had to accept that most of the people around us didn’t believe in the same way we did.

And maybe that perspective helped me get into Megami Tensei. Because out of every game series that I’ve ever played, MegaTen would probably be considered by strict adherents of any of the Abrahamic religions to be the most sacrilegious.2 Certainly it could come off that way at first glance, without even giving it a second look — just check out the cover of Persona 3 FES, the expanded version of the very first game in the series I bought and the first real breakout the series had here in the US:

Yeah, that is a pentagram in the background, behind the silhouette of Aigis. I think it’s meant to be a magic circle, which would make sense considering its origins. It seems to be a modified version of the older symbol used on the covers of Shin Megami Tensei I and II, which feature a six-pointed star and a more elaborate design in general with what I think is Loki’s face in the middle as a reference to his summoning by Nakajima in the original novel. However, over here, when people see a pentagram, the usual assumption is that it’s associated with some kind of devil business. The fact that the pentagram design specifically was used only in the West had to be deliberate on the part of Atlus — it’s also on the NA cover of Nocturne, maybe put on to add some extra edge (which honestly wasn’t necessary in my opinion, but if it attracted some edgy kid gamers I guess so much the better for their sales.)

In a way, it might have been a good thing that Megami Tensei had a very low profile in the West before P3. By the mid-2000s, the controversies connected to supposed Satanic references in popular media had died down, but in the late 90s they were still going strong. This may have been a result of the larger “Satanic Panic” of the late 80s and 90s generally, during which you couldn’t turn a corner without finding a den of devil-worshipers carrying out a sacrifice — or at least that was what people were saying at the time. I was either not alive or way too young for most of that period to notice that kind of talk or to care about it even if I had, but I do remember the continuing scare in the late 90s that most prominently involved Harry Potter and Pokemon.

The supposed Pokemon links were just silly, probably a result of some parents confused by all these weirdly popular creatures and thinking there must be something sinister about them. At least Harry Potter actually dealt with witchcraft, though the hero of that series and his friends were decidedly good wizards and witches fighting against evil ones, so even that doesn’t fit the bill of a Satan-inspired work. No — if the upset parent groups had really wanted something to be scared by, they should have raised the alarm over Megami Tensei, a series of games that actually featured Lucifer and that even let you join his cause and fight against God himself if you so desired.

(And here’s where I start getting into the actual theology, so please correct me if I get something wrong. Though I have an interest in it, I’m a total amateur in this area.)

“Louis Cyphre” as depicted in Shin Megami Tensei by Kazuma Kaneko. He never bothered trying too hard with his pseudonyms, at least not in the early days.

And Lucifer himself would have been the source of a lot of this controversy. While he doesn’t seem to figure into Judaism very much or at all, in Christian tradition, Lucifer was originally one of the prominent angels in the service of God. But this prominence made him prideful, and he eventually led a failed rebellion against God, who tossed him and the rebel angels who joined him into Hell. Lucifer is sometimes depicted as a sort of king of Hell, ruling over vast legions of demons, including many of his fellow fallen angels featured in old European grimoires like The Lesser Key of Solomon and The Infernal Dictionary. Lucifer is also generally equated with Satan and is often simply referred to as “the Devil”, the one who tempts humans to sin so he can drag them down to Hell when they die.

Islamic tradition contains a similar story about the rebellion against God, only Lucifer is named Iblis and is considered by many Muslims to have been not an angel but rather a powerful djinn, a supernatural being with free will and the source of the genie legend that we know over here. But the gist of the story is the same — Iblis refuses to accept God’s command (in this case, by vocally disapproving of his plan to create humanity) and gets cast out of Heaven and thrown into Hell, but with special permission to tempt humans to sin once again. And in both traditions, it’s implied that he’s the serpent who causes the fall of man by convincing Eve to eat a fruit from the tree of knowledge, who then got Adam to eat the same fruit, and then we were all royally boned and had to till the soil and all that nonsense for thousands of years.

As with just about every element of our religious traditions, there are a lot of disagreements over much of the above between Jews, Christians, and Muslims, and between members of sects and schools within those religions, and even of sects within some of those sects — for example, over whether Lucifer and Satan are the same or are distinct beings,3 over his or their origins, over whether he even exists, over whether or how an apocalypse will go down and how he might be involved in it, etc. etc. What really interests me in this case, however, is the relationship Lucifer, or the Devil, or whatever you want to call him has with God and with humanity, how those play out in the universe of MegaTen, and what that might mean for religious believers who might not be comfortable with its interpretations.

Mastema, an angel loyal to God, as depicted in SMT: Strange Journey offering support to you and your friends. But is he really trustworthy?

The biggest difference between these traditional interpretations and the ones found in MegaTen as I see it is based in the Law vs. Chaos system used so often in the series. In tradition, God is absolutely good and Lucifer/Satan is absolutely evil.

There are very old, famous interpretations of Lucifer than are more nuanced that that. The best-known of these is John Milton’s Paradise Lost, which depicts him as a tragic figure. The Devil is also featured briefly in Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, not laughing maniacally over his kingdom but rather trapped in a mass of ice in the center of Hell, uncontrollably weeping over his fate and being frozen in by his own tears.

However, in both these works, Lucifer is still considered to be evil, or at best extremely misguided. By contrast, in the Megami Tensei universe, Lucifer is not at the evil end of a good-evil scale but rather at the chaotic end of a law-chaos scale, with God or an avatar of God at the law end. One of the results of this difference is that the games don’t put any particular moral weight on your choice between the two, leaving you to make that call for yourself. I’ve written a bit about the hero’s unusual role in these games before — you’re generally required in Shin Megami Tensei games especially to decide between joining God or one of his avatars and his allied forces and supporting a regime of total order, in which peace reigns but at the cost of freedom, or joining Lucifer and his forces and going full chaos with all the freedom but also the destruction and misery that leads to. If you’re lucky enough to manage it, you can also reject both and fight for humanity independent of these two supernatural powers on the Neutral path, though thanks to the games’ strict requirements it’s usually a pain in the ass to achieve this route.

And then you have to fight this asshole. No, I haven’t forgotten about you.

There are many more gods and demons from around the world thrown into the MegaTen mix, and some games center more on eastern traditions (the Digital Devil Saga duology, for example, which is based largely in Hinduism and Buddhism.) But the idea of “killing God” that Megami Tensei is known for is still in those games to some extent. It still feels a little sacrilegious to me somehow, even if these gods aren’t the ones I was brought up to believe in.

This idea of killing God isn’t unique to Megami Tensei, of course: it’s a staple of the JRPG genre itself. If there’s an organized religion in a JRPG, it’s almost certainly dysfunctional and corrupt at best and an insane, evil cult at worst. Gods, if they exist in the game universe, are also generally best mistrusted, since they’re often planning to either end the world or use and sacrifice the heroes for their own ends, and they generally don’t give a shit about humanity or any other sentient life even if they’re not actively trying to destroy it. There are exceptions, but this seems to be the standard, at least in older JRPGs.

So the writers at Atlus didn’t exactly invent this idea. However, they are the only ones I know of to actually put the God of the Abrahamic religions in their games and let you quite literally punch him in the face, mostly notably in the form of YHVH, the Tetragrammaton or four letters of the name of God of the Old Testament. When this guy shows up, he demands absolute obedience or else. Fitting for the one who represents the Law path, but it leaves a bad impression on me, especially when the end result of taking that path involves a lot of people dying as it inevitably does.

This really hit me when I first played Nocturne. That game, unlike most of the others in the main line of Shin Megami Tensei games, doesn’t work on a Law-Chaos scale but rather gives you a choice of three different Reasons, essentially the life philosophies of three characters who are trying to make a reborn world out of the ruins of Tokyo, one that operates according to their own ideals. All three result in pretty shit worlds as far as I can tell, though Musubi is still my favorite (even if my ideas about what Musubi means for its inhabitants might not be correct; I might have to revisit that someday.) Different classes of demons support different Reasons, and strangely enough, the faction of angels decides to support Yosuga, the “might makes right” Reason that has some resemblance to the Chaos concept in terms of its violence against the weak, only with a supreme leader standing at the top who can’t be knocked over by a new challenger.

This was strange to me because I’d always understood that one of the tasks of God’s angels was to protect the weak against the strong, but here they were doing just the opposite. So when I made it to the near-endgame fight against the archangels — including Gabriel, who plays a major role in the tradition I was brought up in4 — I didn’t have any problem knocking the shit out of all of them, since they were clearly twisted depictions of those figures that I couldn’t recognize.

Seraph as depicted by Kazuma Kaneko

Even so, I partly understand this sort of interpretation of God and his angels. The Old Testament God was famously testy, putting his people through all kinds of trials, inflicting plagues and infestations on them and even drowning them in a massive flood. And while God later said he wouldn’t do that again, the prophesies of apocalypse found in the Bible and Quran both have that same sort of feeling to them, to me at least.

And even setting the Old Testament aside, a lot of our shared religious tradition comes off as a lot more terrifying to me than some of us are taught. The idea of a final judgment of all souls is scary enough in itself, but some of the angels as described in the Bible come off as very strange and alien — Kaneko’s depiction of the seraph, left, a high-ranking class of angel, is a lot closer to those descriptions than the guy or lady with wings we generally think of. Hell, even most of Kaneko’s lower-level “guy with wings” angel designs look pretty fierce and unapproachable.

Of course, the point is that if you’re a righteous person and a true believer, you have nothing to worry about despite how scary it all seems. The mercy and forgiveness of God are constantly emphasized as well. All this nice stuff fits perfectly well with the terrifying aspects of religion, because it truly can inspire terror if you believe in it — the kind that hopefully sets you on the moral path. I guess that’s the idea, anyway.

Whether any of that is true or not, I never had the feeling playing these games that I was doing anything particularly against the religion I was brought up in. For one thing, it’s all fiction, so no matter how many angels or even versions of God I beat up in these games with insta-kill dark attacks or Freikugels, I don’t think it matters. But even if it does matter, the ideals expressed by the Law path, to me anyway, never lined up very well with my own concept of God. I admit that concept might not be an orthodox one, either in Islam or any of the other related religions. But I do think it’s totally possible for even a strong religious believer to enjoy these games on that basis, even if they don’t want to follow the Law path. Megami Tensei contains some interesting angles on the ideas of religious faith and how it can affect humanity that are worth exploring, no matter what your feelings about faith in the real world are.

But I won’t be addressing those here. Not yet, anyway, because I’m done with Megami Tensei for now. There’s a lot more that can be said about these games, and I’m sure it’s all been said already. Of course, if I feel like returning to this series, I won’t let that stop me from saying it over again.

Until that time, I’m saying goodbye to MegaTen for a while. At least until SMT V comes out, whenever that might be. If there’s one thing being a fan of this series has taught me, it’s how to wait. 𒀭

1 This view itself could be considered a sacrilegious one, since true believers (at least in my tradition and the related ones in the Abrahamic line) are meant to feel and express gratitude for life, which I’m not properly doing.

That’s the reason I also want to reject a lot of what I see as the more useless social norms. It’s not just because of my leftover bits of edginess from when I was a kid (though I’m sure those are still buried around somewhere, probably in the lines I wrote above now that I look at them again) but mainly because I believe life is generally enough of a burden to bear that people should not be required to conform with such norms on top of that, especially when they’re handed down from generation to generation for no reason other than “this is how we’ve always done it.” Again, as long as nobody’s being hurt or having their rights infringed upon, I say you should be free to cope with life as you like.

Of course, that issue becomes more complicated when the reason is “because this is how God told us to do it.” I think that’s an interesting issue, but it’s not something I feel like getting into here, and anyway it’s way outside the scope of this post and site in general (and also outside the scope of my own abilities to address in a meaningful way, which is another reason for me to avoid the subject.)

2 And maybe of eastern religions as well, though I don’t know enough about them to say for sure.

3 In these games, Lucifer and Satan are portrayed as different beings, and even as directly opposed to each other. The MegaTen depiction of Satan is as scary as you might expect, but he is a loyal servant of God carrying out the role of accuser of humanity on his behalf.

4 The MegaTen version of Gabriel is interesting, partly because the games depict the archangel as female, but more because they generally show her as actually feeling some sympathy for humans that isn’t shared by either her colleagues or her boss (though this doesn’t come up in Nocturne from what I remember.) Even if she still does follow God’s orders no matter what, at least she feels bad about it sometimes.

A review of 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim (PS4)

Where to start with this game? It’s hard to say, because there’s a lot to talk about here. 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim was announced all the way back at the Tokyo Game Show in 2015, but it came out late in 2019 in Japan and late in 2020, only a few months ago, in North America. While it wasn’t released to a lot of fanfare over here, anticipation seems to have been very high among fans of developer Vanillaware, known for their unique art style and great attention to detail with earlier titles like Odin Sphere and Dragon’s Crown.

The big question in these cases is whether the game was worth the long wait. I can’t claim I was one of those fans waiting for five years on the edge of my seat. But after playing through it, I can say that if I had waited that long or even longer, I think 13 Sentinels would have been more than worth it to me. It’s not going to appeal to everyone (just like most of the games I write about here, that’s nothing new) but I liked its mix of gameplay styles and especially its characters and story.

Of course, I’ll be getting into all that in more depth here. Before that, there’s one more thing I have to bring up: this is going to be a no-spoilers review. I’m still putting a disclaimer up even in this case, though, because 13 Sentinels is one of those games that it’s best to go into completely blind if possible. If you trust me enough to just take my word on faith (which I don’t expect at all) then here it is: I greatly enjoyed 13 Sentinels and highly recommend it. But not everyone is going to agree with that assessment, and in any case you probably need more than just me saying “hey it’s great the end”, so I’ll get into why I liked this game so much below without dropping any major plot points or character details, because you should discover those for yourself.

I also promise I won’t make any “get in the robot Shinji” references. They don’t exactly fit here anyway.

On the surface, 13 Sentinels is a game about high school students who have to fight city-destroying mechanical kaiju-style monsters by piloting giant mechs called Sentinels. A lot of the gameplay and plot revolve around these battles and the enormous strain they put on their young pilots, both physically and mentally. As with a lot of other “teenagers in giant robots fight to save the world” stories, though, there’s more going on under that surface.

From the very beginning, 13 Sentinels is split between three different gameplay modes: Remembrance, Destruction, and Analysis. Remembrance is the one you’ll likely be in most of the time. It’s the one that looks like the typical Vanillaware game, only there’s no combat in this mode — it’s sort of in the style of an older adventure game, consisting almost entirely of exploration and character interaction. This is where we really get to know our characters and where almost all of the plot unfolds.

One of the 13 protagonists, Juro Kurabe, at school. The colored bars in the upper right indicate topics or actions that your protagonist has yet to consider or carry out in a scene, some of which are prerequisites to moving their story along.

Each of the 13 protagonists in the game has their own story to play through in the Remembrance mode. In the beginning, the game only gives you a couple of characters to start with, but as you advance their stories, the game unlocks other characters that you can switch between as you see fit. At that point, the initially hidden connections between these characters reveal themselves. These connections are not at all obvious at first in some cases, especially considering the fact that our protagonists are scattered throughout time, with a few from the past of wartime Japan and a few from the far future.

For some reason, everyone ends up meeting in the Japan of 1985, where both the battles against the kaiju and the bulk of the story occur. Figuring out how and why they’ve all converged on this point in time and this place is part of the mystery the game presents. Remembrance involves a lot of tracking down and talking to or otherwise interacting with other characters in the course of this story, but we also get directly into the heads of our player characters. The Thought Cloud is an integral part of this exploration section of 13 Sentinels — it lets the player scroll through the protagonist’s various thoughts, which are updated as they make new discoveries.

Ass-kicking delinquent girl Yuki Takamiya takes a break on the roof in the middle of her various thoughts, one of which is “maybe I should drink this juice box.” Getting your vitamins is important.

But you can’t just make progress through exploration and talking to people: you have to actually fight those big kaiju battles by directing your 13 protagonists in their mechs. This is where the Destruction mode comes in. Destruction is a real-time tower defense game, starkly different from the adventure game style of Remembrance both in its looks and style. Taking place during what the game calls the final battle against the invading kaiju, a horde of giant mechanical monsters, Destruction requires the player to direct a strike team of up to six characters in the defense of a giant terminal that itself acts as a defensive mechanism against the kaiju. Defeating all the kaiju on the map typically leads to victory, though a couple of the game’s 31 maps (not counting the first seven tutorials) require the player to destroy a specific powerful target.

The heat of battle. These screens can get a bit confusing with all the enemies, missiles, and lasers shooting off and flying around, but it’s not hard to get the rhythm of combat down.

A lot of your success in battle comes from preparation. Each of the protagonist’s Sentinels can be upgraded using “Meta-chips” you earn both from advancing the story in Remembrance mode and fighting battles in Destruction mode. Around the middle of the game you’ll be able to unlock some extremely powerful weapons to use against the kaiju, both short- and long-range, allowing you to play defensively by turtling around the terminal and using long-range attacks or offensively by taking the fight directly to the kaiju and punching them in the face. There are four types of Sentinel to choose from as well, each types with its own strengths and weaknesses, so you can mix things up depending upon your preferred play style with a combination of defensive and offensive tactics.

Natsuno’s Missile Rain is stupidly powerful, and I relied on it a lot. Thanks Natsuno, and also Tomi and Keitaro who have the same ability — you saved the team more than a few times. Also god damn, those Sentry Guns.

Finally, there’s the third mode, Analysis, which isn’t so much a gameplay mode as it is a giant cache of information that grows as you progress through the game. Analysis includes a library of previously played scenes that you can return to watch as many times as you like as well as a set of “mystery files” that are unlocked and added to as the game progresses. These files contains information on just about everything in the game, from the characters and their backgrounds, stories, and relationships down to various foods and drinks your characters consume during their adventures. It might seem weird to have entries for such trivial information, but in this game, sometimes the most seemingly trivial bits of information can be important in strange ways down the line.

I’m not kidding; there’s even an entry for strawberry crêpes. Though I have to give credit: the artist made all this food look amazing. I got hungry playing 13 Sentinels a few times for foods I can’t even obtain where I live. Thanks a lot for that, Vanillaware.

It might seem a bit strange at first to put so much information about the game’s major plot points and characters into a library like this. But it doesn’t feel at all like a lazy shortcut to make telling the story easier. On the contrary, I think this Analysis mode is necessary, because the story and its characters’ relationships get so complicated that it’s sometimes helpful to go back and check on a few already established points. Naturally I can’t give any examples without spoiling things (I even went to the trouble of redacting the above image in five seconds in Paint; a lot of work, I know.) It’s enough to say that this mode is very useful in a game like this in which each character’s story has its own flowchart practically.

That takes me back to the story itself. I think the greatest strength of 13 Sentinels by far is in its writing, in the plot and its massive tangled web of characters and relationships. The story is ambitious, but unlike some other works that try this sort of thing and get lost in technobabble and confusion and end up a mess, 13 Sentinels keeps it all together. Part of this might have to do with the organization of the information you receive in Analysis mode and in the character timelines that let you track your progress and jump around from point to point to a limited extent.

For example, should you get crêpes or ice cream after school? This really is one of those branching path decision points.

However, I think more of it has to do with the strength of the game’s characters. Each of the protagonists along with several important side characters are given enough screen time to establish their personalities and motivations. Through their story paths in Remembrance mode, we come to understand how and why they end up in these giant mechs fighting kaiju. These aren’t a bunch of cardboard cutouts either. Each character feels pretty well fleshed out and realistic, allowing the game to build believable rivalries, friendships, and romances. And there are romance subplots in 13 Sentinels, and even though I’m about as unromantic as it’s possible for a human to be, they worked for me — they’re not just shoehorned in for the hell of it but actually play their parts in the larger plot.

That’s love, man, who knows

Then there’s the other half of 13 Sentinels, speaking in terms of gameplay at least: the RTS tower defense section. This one seems a bit controversial. I’ve barely played any tower defense games before, so I really have nothing to compare the tower defense element in 13 Sentinels to, but I found it to be pretty fun for what it was. It was definitely the lesser of the two sections for me, though. Combat in this game, with the exception of maybe two or three boss battles, presented no challenge at all — once you figure out how to play defensively and get the skills to beat the shit out of kaiju without them getting anywhere near you, you’ll be all right for the most part. The second-to-last fight did give me some trouble, but I still beat it on my first try, and I’m not even very good at this sort of thing.

I’m not sure if this game will satisfy hardcore RTS/tower defense fans because I’m not one of them, but playing on hard mode is a good idea if you’re looking for more of a challenge. It’s probably also important to note that, as you can see in the battle screenshots I posted, the combat takes place in top-down view, as if the player is controlling everything from a command center. If you were hoping for the combat sections to be all drawn and animated in that Vanillaware style like they were in Odin Sphere and Dragon’s Crown, you won’t get that in this game. But I didn’t mind too much — the real draw of 13 Sentinels for me was in the story and its interesting character relationships and conflicts.

I wish I lived in Shu’s apartment, what a view. This is my ideal living space.

There’s plenty of style in this game as well. The art is very impressive, much of it handpainted and animated in the typical Vanillaware fashion. That’s one of the reasons I used so many screenshots here, probably more than I normally would in a review like this: the beautiful art adds a lot to an already great experience. The soundtrack is also excellent, from mood-setting pieces in the Remembrance sections to tense battle themes in Destruction mode. And as an added bonus for western players, the NA release features both Japanese and English dubs, so you can choose whichever one you like. Kids these days really have it easy — I remember when we didn’t have that option.

I have more I can say about 13 Sentinels, but not without getting into spoilers, so I’ll leave it there. It’s obvious by this point that I really liked this game and that I’d highly recommend it, especially if you’re a fan of other weird sci-fi material like the Zero Escape series and Steins;Gate. I’ll only add the caveat that it might not be much of a tower defense game if that’s really what you’re looking for. But again, since I’m no expert in the tower defense genre, I can’t say much about that. Again, it’s really all about the story for me in this case, and I was happy with what I got out of 13 Sentinels in that respect. Now I just have to track down some yakisoba pan to see if it’s really as good as the game claims it is, and it will get a perfect 10 out of 10.

Miscellaneous game reviews from that huge itch.io bundle (pt. 1 of ?)

Remember that summer cleaning series I ran months ago? I still have a ton of games from the huge itch.io bundle I downloaded back then. There are well over a thousand games in that bundle, including a few long titles that I’m currently stalled out in — partly because of my own laziness, and partly because playing one of them is like listening to someone scrape their nails on a damn chalkboard.

Anyway, here are a few games I had planned to write about, but that I felt I didn’t have quite enough to say about to give their own dedicated posts. I meant to write about them sooner, but you know how it is with the aforementioned laziness and all. So let’s finally fix that:

Sonar Smash

If you’ve ever thought to yourself: I want to play a shmup about a dolphin killing its fellow sea life, then there’s a game made just for you. Sonar Smash stars a cute dolphin who has the ability to shoot sonar bullets (?) at its enemies. Using this ability, you’ll need to fight your way through waves of enemies who show up to harass you from the top of the screen classic shmup style. It’s easy to mess up and take hits, but luckily there are also shops you run into between waves that offer upgrades and health refills.

And that’s the whole game — you’re just getting as far as you can using your dodging and aiming skills. There’s not much more to Sonar Smash in terms of gameplay. It has some style on top of that, though, with nice retro-looking graphics and a surprisingly good BGM, sort of an electrofunk thing that I really like. The game is probably worth checking out for the music alone, honestly. The sea life killing is fun too, though.

Cityglitch

Cityglitch is a straightforward sort of puzzle game set on a series of 95 5×5 boards. On each of these boards, your goal is to use your main character, an unnamed being that I think looks like a levitating red-haired girl, to activate every red symbol. Your character can move all the way across the board if not blocked by an object, but only in a straight or diagonal line. There’s no time or move limit to complete a board, but there are enemies who move according to set rules that can either block the red symbols or run into your character and remove her from the board, requiring you to start over. The game doesn’t give too much background about why you’re doing this aside from its main page on itch.io, which states “touch runes to illuminate them / light them all to complete the ritual / release the glitch” but for a game like this I don’t guess you need more explanation than that.

You might wonder how much someone can do with a game board as small as five by five squares, but Cityglitch gets quite creative with the setup. The different enemy types and maze layouts can require the player to use some fancy tricks to maneuver the obstacles and clear the board. If an enemy moves across one of the activated symbols, it will also deactivate it, so you have to factor that in when making your own moves.

The green snot-looking things are stationary, the blue dots appear when you move your mouse around to see your range of movement, and the blue guy in the lower left corner is an asshole trying to stop you from completing your task.

And yeah, I liked this game too. I was surprised how quickly it hooked me, in fact — it’s impressive how much developer mindfungus was able to do with these small puzzles. I also like the blocky style of the graphics. For some reason they remind me of those old games people used to program for those TI-83 graphing calculators we used to have in high school, except those were all in black and white. Did anyone else waste time in class with those games? I can’t be the only one who played Caterpillar during trigonometry lessons. Maybe that’s why I never got onto the STEM path…

I should also mention the ambient synth background music, which fits the mood of the game very well. Again, a little style like this can go a long way towards making a simple game a lot more memorable — see also Helltaker, even though in terms of their looks they are very different (and Helltaker is more interesting, but then it also featured a cute demon girl harem, and how do you really compete with that?)

Siberia

I didn’t grow up in the age of those old-fashioned text adventures, but I think that’s the kind of game Siberia is taking after. The scenario it presents is pretty rough: you’re in a plane flying over Siberia that has engine trouble and is about to crash, so you have to parachute out and try to find help without dying.

As you play, the game presents you with branching decision points that you have to resolve before moving on Choose Your Own Adventure style, and as you might imagine, a lot of these decisions will end up getting you killed.

Siberia really has no mercy — there are a lot of ways to die in this game. Fortunately, if you make the wrong decision, it will either kill you instantly or after only a few more screens. This is a very small game, and each playthrough takes five minutes at most. None of the statistics at the bottom of the screen seem to matter that much, because from what I found while playing, I never actually reached 0 in any of them; I’d either be rescued or dead well before that point.

These guys were definitely going for that old 80s aesthetic here. Playing Siberia on a visible old CRT monitor felt a bit weird, but I liked the simple ASCII art the game used for illustrations. Again, this stuff is a bit before my time, but I do remember making and sharing crude text drawings online as a kid in the 90s. Those really were better times, at least for me.

So maybe the nostalgia angle really did work for me here. Siberia is very short — I didn’t get more than 30 minutes out of it, far less than most typical text adventures have to offer. However, it only costs one British pound, which I think is something like $1.25. Not such a bad price for what this is, though the monotonous background music might also drive you crazy. Considering all that, I can’t give it a definite recommendation, but it’s something to check out if you’re into this sort of throwback game.

And that’s it for the moment. Will I return to this bundle to review more of its games long after the bundle was on sale? Maybe. That ? in the title of this post might be a 1, or it might be a larger number than that. I might also get around to reviewing a few of the longer, more involved games in the bundle if I ever finish them. Even the nails-on-a-chalkboard bullshit one, though I might not have terribly nice things to say about it. If I do, I’ll do my best to be fair as always, though.