Temtem and Pronouns

TemTem released this week, and oh boy, did it ever make the gamers angry. Decoupling pronoun selection from physical appearance? Letting people choose they/them pronouns? Clearly, the world is ending and games as a medium will crumble under the weight of this. In all seriousness, while the whole debacle has been mostly funny, there’s been a bit of a sentiment popping up that even the most well meaning people have been falling into, one that I can’t agree with. Mainly, this idea that the way TemTem handles pronouns is the ideal way a game can and it’s funny that gamers are upset at that. While yes it is funny, it’s not the ideal, and for yet another go, I want to talk about how to do pronouns better, even better.

So if you’re not up to date with a somewhat niche creature-catching MMO in early access (shocking), let’s go over character creation’s relevant parts. You do all the standard character making, with one main difference from most games: you get to choose from 3 pronoun sets (she/her, he/him, they/them) and can apply any of those to any kind of character type. So, nothing too radical, but obviously a far cry from the systems most games are stuck in, where you choose a socially conventional masculine or feminine body type with the corresponding pronouns. In that respect, it’s a system that breaks game norms in a good way, absolutely! Temtem’s way of handling pronouns and character creation should be the bare minimum in the medium, and we shouldn’t accept anything less. Appearance isn’t tied to pronouns, people don’t just use 2 binary sets, seriously, it’s just the right thing to do here. It’s not the final frontier of character creation, though.

I’m not here to insult the developers or claim they’re horrible for not doing pronoun creaton literally perfectly. They might not feel they have the knowledge to go further and didn’t want to make mistakes, there might be some weird technical backend, who knows! Point is, I’m here to tackle the opinion that a system like this is the best, not to take down the game itself. Because I don’t think the system on display here is the best we can do. Fact is, people use more than these 3 sets of pronouns at once. Neopronouns, multiple sets of pronouns, all of these are absolutely things that matter to people, expressions of their self, just as worthy of being implemented as the 2 most people on earth tend to use. And with the sheer variety out there, we can’t just implement a bunch of options and call it a day, that’d never ever capture all the ones out there or take into account new ones people put into use. We need pronoun fields.

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Monster Hunter World and Dissonance

Ludonarritive dissonance, everyone’s favourite whipping boy of a term that people seem to be tired to death of. Despite its misuse and potential overuse, I still think the core of the term has a lot of value to be explored, and recently I’ve been playing Monster Hunter World’s new expansion, Iceborne, and whoo boy, do I have a comparison for you. I’ve been playing Monster Hunter as a series ever since 3 Ultimate, haven’t missed an entry (besides the 3DS rpg spinoff) and it’s because of that, that I noticed something really odd when it comes to World. I’ve written about World’s tone before, but here I want to kind of ignore that and talk about how the framing and motivation of the story has issues of disconnect, rather than the setting or tone. For all the improvements it made, World feels… weird to experience as a story, not very smooth or consistent. I want to argue this feeling is a result of the story not tying into the gameplay at all, and I also want to show how an older title did this aspect better.

If you haven’t played the older games, fair, they can be kind of hard to get into, especially now. I’m going to focus on the story elements of 4 Ultimate, because it’s the most expansive plot of “old gen” MonHun and it’s the one I’m most familiar with. You play as a hunter who gets recruited into a caravan, travelling from town to town helping people with their problems, and more importantly, chasing the trail of powerful elder dragons. You arrive in town after town, and usually have to help them out how you can, which is typically fending off powerful monster attacks threatening the wellbeing of the village. Eventually your priorities might change to needing to take out elder dragons because they will mess up entire settlements if left unchecked, but the basic principle underlying the story is still the same. You’re here as a mercenary of sorts, taking on jobs to help people against wildlife that will be a genuine, clear threat to them if you don’t do something about it.

World takes a bit of a different tack: here, the hunter’s guild (who mostly just organized quests in previous titles) take on a much larger role, organizing a huge expedition to a new continent in order to study the place. You’re a hunter, part of this commission, your role being to help survey this world by fighting off the hostile wildlife. The story will go on about your research, what you’re doing to make some progress in it, and then whenever danger gets in the way of that research, off you go. More time here is spent on the natural world and the reasons and value it has rather than any human settlements or problems. World wants you to focus on the naturalistic world as a driving motivation and positive. You’re no mercenary, you’re part of a research commission whose role is only to solve problems as they come up, and to spend the rest of the time appreciating or researching the natural world.

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Monolith and Limitation

Monolith is some of the most fun I’ve had with a retro-styled game in a while, in large part because it really feels like an expanded version of an old arcade game you loved to play. Yeah, it looks the part and sounds the part, but really what completes the whole package are the limitations placed on the player. You know how old arcade games would make you fragile or make your movement space limited, part of why they have a reputation for being hard? It was mostly to make a profit from continues and quarters, but that difficulty and limitation has become an iconic part of that era of games regardless. It’s what makes Monolith feel like a modern interpretation of those games, and instead of being a money making tactic, those player limits are strikingly used in smart ways to give the game a distinct and fun feel.

Boot up the game and it’s immediately evident how this game makes impactful choices: the game screen is only a small vertical slice of your entire screen, kind of like a phone screen now. Of course, it’s an arcade throwback in reality: this is similar to the aspect ratios of many old arcade machines (think pac-man and space invaders) and the entire game is designed to work in just this small slice. It’s a little jarring, but Monolith is really dedicated to this, with the entire game never breaking this aspect ratio once, not even for the title screen. It’s a fun throwback if you know what arcade machines were like, but even if you don’t, it makes for a striking aesthetic just by playing around with the screen resolution.

I’m talking about aesthetic, but what’s really interesting about this whole screen size is the ways in which it impacts the actual gameplay. We don’t typically think about things like screen resolution impacting how a game plays, but it’s really obvious when you take it to an extreme like this. You do not have as much space to move around in this game, with such squeezed in sides. Enemy and player sprites alike are still normal sized for modern game monitors, and that means every enemy and obstacle takes up a significant chunk of the available screen space. Most bosses even take up a good third of the screen, squishing you back into your diminished space to move for the entire fight. You have a dash, but use it liberally and you’re liable to slam straight into an enemy at any moment. It’s one of the most limited play areas I’ve had to work with in a game in a while.

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How Visual Novels Helped Me Read Again

When I was a kid, I used to read a lot. That might be an understatement even, I read so much as a kid I wouldn’t have blamed people around be for being slightly concerned about my habits. Graphic novels, YA fiction, encyclopedias (for kids), real life dramatization, I read it all and read it voraciously. It was a hugely important part of my life. And yet… here I am as an adult, probably having read maybe, what, 3 or 4 books in the entirety of last year? Books as a medium are just not as prominent in my life, sadly. But reading still is, and I want to talk about how another medium entirely helped me recapture my love for reading after I had to stop for so long.

When I say I read as a kid, I mean it: I was utterly enthralled by the medium. I won’t go on some spheal about how it’s the best medium somehow, but to a kid who wanted to explore dozens of worlds in my imagination, books were probably the perfect way for me to do that. They let me picture fiction exactly how it made the most sense to me, and drew me into their worlds because of that. For me, the process of growing up, being a kid, school and play, sometimes I really needed a break from all that, and books let me imagine engaging stories in an ordered way, at my own pace. Books as a medium mattered to me a whole lot for all of this, and were the catalyst for my interests in worldbuilding, mythology, engaging characters, and novel ways of storytelling. They were an absolutely integral part of my childhood.

Another reason books mattered a lot to me was my own neurodivergence. I’ve been diagnosed with autism since I was a kid, and especially when I was younger, navigating the world was a difficult maze of social norms I had to figure out piece by piece. Books were great, because I didn’t need to rush through them, and could make sense of them at my own pace: if something didn’t make sense to me, I could put everything on pause to work it out. I didn’t have to try to parse social norms actively, and I didn’t have to worry that anyone would judge me if I missed something. I felt more confident reading them, and that meant so much for a kid who felt eternally awkward and out of place.

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Doki Doki Literature Club and Genre Knowledge

Remember Doki Doki Literature Club? Of course you probably do, it was a very popular free visual novel back when it was released in 2017, getting a lot of attention because of the subversion of people’s expectations within and the novelty of it, most likely. I’m not here to discuss if the game is good or if it’s bad or whatever here: that’s something for another day. What I do want to talk about is the reaction of people who’ve played it, more specifically, those who played it and didn’t have much visual novel experience. Many, many people tend to think it’s some brilliant subversion of the entire genre, doing something totally different to them all. But that’s not really true, quite frankly, and that disconnect in perception to DDLC’s actual place in visual novel history is something I’ve never been able to get out of my head.

So like, if you haven’t played DDLC or if it’s just been a while, the plot is about your character joining a literature club involving 4 girls, clearly setting up a simple dating sim plot. But things slowly start to degrade, with more problems in the girls’ lives overwhelming the plot to frankly unrealistic degrees, until it’s revealed that the leader, Monika, is self aware that she’s in the game and wants to be with you, the player, forever. The game then concludes by you deleting her character file and restoring the others. It’s clearly meant to be a subversion of the typical idea many people have of the dating sim genre, used for horror and ultimately a metatextual story. Again, how successful it is at this is up for debate and not what I want to get into, but that subversion is the sticking point for a lot of the online response to this game.

In more english-language speaking communities, visual novels are far more niche, and as a result, misconceptions about the genre tend to be more widespread. Doki Doki Literature Club’s premise of a somewhat vapid dating sim is, matter of fact, what a lot of people really think the genre is mainly about. There’s still a sadly relevant perception that the whole thing is just vapid wish-fulfilment dating sims, and that perception has played into a lot of the response this game has gotten. It’s been praised for being subversive, but to the genre as a whole, people saying it’s doing something different in a sea of a stale genre. It’s a parody in many ways, but people think it’s a parody taking a shot at the actual genre at a whole, being an “actually interesting” story that’s about horror, not boring romance. I’ve even seen it called a “landmark title” in the genre.

To put it politely, this is not true. Continue reading “Doki Doki Literature Club and Genre Knowledge”

Final Fantasy 15’s Roadtrip

Final Fantasy 15 is… a weird one. I’m a bit late to the train, but after hearing every opinion under the sun about it, I mean, I just had to try it eventually, right? It’s a weird mess of a game with a rushed story and engaging but maybe shallow but maybe deeper than it seems combat, with a dollop of excellent characterization on top just to round out the inconsistency. This game is one of those that gets harder and harder to understand and pin down the more you think about it. And I have had a lot of time to think. In the car. If there’s one thing that sums up how contradictory this whole experience feels, it’s in the most centralizing aspect of the game: The Regalia, your car.

This game is about going on a road trip, take it or leave it. And when I say a road trip, I don’t mean one with gamified elements and an engaging activity as a drive: I mean, exactly like a real road trip. Nothing to do in the car but watch the sights around you, and wait around. Think about that bored, restless, antsy feeling you got when you were last on a long ride, and well, you’ve got a significant chunk of this game. Just, sitting around, cooling your heels in the car while you wait to get to where you’re going next. That’s it. No subversion, no unexpected mechanic adding to the car rides, absolutely nothing. It’s a road trip, dammit, and that’s exactly what you’re going to get.

Frankly, this is very boring a lot of the time. I could be nicer, but it’s hard to describe having to wait a good 5 minutes as fun or engaging in any way. It seems so pointless, really. Why have all the travelling in the game be wait times and almost nothing else? It really should be the easiest negative to mark down on the game, and yet… it’s hard to feel like that, sometimes. On paper, there is nothing of value to be found here, and when I try really hard to think about it, it seems like a net negative overall. But I can’t get my mind off how strangely interesting this whole thing is. Why design a game like this so intentionally as to put perks in rewarding long car trips? Why bake in so much waiting, so much of the parts of road trips nobody likes?

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The Most Interesting Games of 2019

2019 had video games. Shocking, I know. While I’ve definitely got my favourites from this year, I felt like writing about something a little different: the most interesting games I played from this year. By and large, I wouldn’t describe them as my favourites, but I can say with confidence that every game below is worth checking out. This is going to be the last thing I write for this year, so with this, I hope your year was at the very least decent, and here’s to a better 2020.

Slay the Spire

Slay the Spire is a deckbuilding roguelike, and while deckbuilding games have existed for a long time, never have I played a game that got me to consider my deck as a whole quite as much as this one. It seems simple at first: decks are random, draws are random, so you should probably just stuff your deck with strong cards and hope for good RNG, right? But wait, if you cut down on the cards, you’ll get specific ones you want from draws much faster, and combos between cards can fire off much more often. Then you start thinking about the ways in which specific cards interact, and how one plays off each other. Eventually the game has you really thinking about what cards you want, how many is too many or too few, what you’re likely and not likely to find and how to plan for that luck.

Slay the Spire is a deckbuilding game through and through, and it wants you to build your deck with deliberate intent and plans. That’s what struck me about the game, how it so effortlessly pulls you into the world of building a deck, and how being given endless chances to tweak how you do this really makes you unafraid to try everything under the sun. If you’ve ever tried a card game like MTG or YuGiOh and felt overwhelmed by building a deck, try Slay the Spire. It’s an enthralling way to get into the basic idea.

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