Jul 282011

When I started this blog, I was so excited. I was bound and determined to write articles for it two or three times a week. I was going to keep up with it!

Well, you can see how well that’s worked out.

In the meantime, I’ve been playing games, reading tons of books, watching movies and working hard at the job which supports all those pursuits.

I think I’m ready to give the blogging thing another try. Maybe a bit less ambitiously. Maybe an entry every couple of weeks is more my speed?

 Posted by at 2:31 PM
May 112011

The Smithsonian recently revealed the winners of its vote to choose the games will be featured in their exhibit, The Art of Video Games. “The exhibit creates a visual history of the evolution of gaming from its humble beginnings through the present.”

Unfortunately, it seems that the way the voting was set up (by era, with one game per genre per console, as I understand it) ensured that some games that very much belonged on this list could not make it.

So, let’s play curator for a moment. Imagine that you’re chronicling the evolution of gaming from your own perspective. What games would you choose? I can only imagine this will be heavily influenced by the consoles/platforms you have had access to, and the types of titles you like to play.

My personal museum, as a primarily PC and Nintendo-console gamer, would highlight these titles (alphabetical order):

Chrono Trigger
Dragon Quest
Donkey Kong
Final Fantasy VI
Gabriel Knight
Grim Fandango
King’s Quest (series)
Mass Effect 1 & 2
Myst (I hated the game and partially blame it for the downfall of the point-and-click adventure, but can’t deny its place in the history books)
Planescape: Torment
Sam & Max
Shadow of the Colossus
Star Raiders (one of the first cockpit-view space fighter simulators, pretty amazing for its time)
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
Super Mario Bros. (series)
Thief: The Dark Project / Thief Gold
The Legend of Zelda (series)
The Secret of Monkey Island
The Sims
Warcraft III
World of Warcraft
Ultima (series)

I took a shortcut and put some series on the list, because I think just the evolution of those popular series tells an interesting story on its own. I also put a few titles I’m not a particular fan of, but that I recognize the influence of on gaming in general.

 Posted by at 2:44 PM  Tagged with:
May 042011

It’s Star Wars Day, ladies and gentlemen! Let’s celebrate!

I was born the same year that the original Star Wars, Episode IV, was released, and I’ve always felt kind of a bond with the series because of that. Star Wars was one of the first films I remember seeing. My parents were fans, and as soon as I was old enough to understand (I want to say I was 6 or 7 years old, but my memory is hazy), my mom sat down and watched it with me on TV, explaining things to me when I wasn’t sure what was going on. Return of the Jedi was the first film I saw in the theater. I love the music, have read novels, watched the cartoon series, read comics, and played many of the video games. Star Wars has simply been a huge influence on my life.

As a kid, I didn’t really appreciate Luke much, not until I was older and began to understand more about storytelling and structure; I was all about Chewie, Han and Leia. I seriously wanted to be Leia when I was little. Her character was probably the biggest influence on my love of strong female characters in fiction. Sure, she initially needed to be rescued, but she took charge right away, and proved herself a strong leader even under emotional duress, and her strength was not suddenly removed or undermined as soon as she was in a relationship with a man.

As much as I love the original movie trilogy featuring Luke, Leia, Han & company, my absolute favorite time period to read and write about in Star Wars is the Old Republic era, as established in the Knights of the Old Republic game series. (I’m a huge Atton fangirl!) Dev and I have written a lot of fanfic set in this time period, both based on the games themselves and on an original concept, set several years after the game timelines. Dev also created a fan audio drama based on one of our fics.

Do I always agree with everything creator George Lucas does with regard to the series? Of course not. It doesn’t change the fact that it’s his series to create and his final say. It’s like getting angry at your favorite author for killing off a beloved character. Does it really change the time you’ve spent with that character previously? You can still crack open a book to those earlier scenes and find that character there just the same as you remember them. You don’t lose what went before just because the future may be different. (Well, I’m also of the opinion that if you don’t like what the creator does, you can always write your own stories in the universe for your own enjoyment.)

Personally, I really value what Star Wars has brought into my life, no matter where it may go in the future.

I value the experiences I had watching the movies with my parents. I value the fun of reading the extended universe novels. I value the people I’ve met through the fandom. I value the creativity that Star Wars has sparked within me. I value one of my all-time favorite characters, who was created as a Star Wars universe fanfic character. I value going to the Celebration conventions and feeling the energy of a room full of people who are passionate about the same thing you are.

May 032011

Or, why Portal is amazing, and a brief, spoiler-lite review of Portal 2. Spoilers for Portal, possible spoilers for Portal 2.

I recently replayed the original Portal in preparation for Portal 2, which released on April 19. Portal is one of those games that has achieved a sort of cult popularity in the gaming world. It is also a game that I hold up as an example and inspiration of game design done well. Why is that?

Portal’s central game play concept is simple, yet it encourages creativity.

For those unfamiliar with it, Portal is a puzzle game cleverly disguised as a first-person shooter/platformer. Placing you in the role of a test subject in the laboratories of Aperture Science, you are tasked with a series of puzzles/rooms to solve, under the guise of testing a bit of technology called a portal gun. The portal gun, well, it does what it says on the tin. It can shoot portals onto walls, floors, ceilings, as long as they are made of the right materials. There are two colors of portals, blue and orange. If you enter the blue portal, and you will come out through the orange, and vice versa.

The basic concept is incredibly simple to grasp. You run, you jump, you pick up items and you shoot portals at walls to get across the test chambers. You learn by doing which materials accept portals and which do not. Each testing room is a puzzle; to traverse the room is to solve the puzzle, and there are often multiple ways to do it. It doesn’t really matter if you die; the game auto-saves frequently for you, and you can save whenever you’re about to try something dangerous.

The way the puzzles are presented to the player encourage experimentation and creativity, and there are lots of semi-hidden areas that contain hints at the story behind the game, rewarding exploration. What will happen if you duck under this slightly-pushed-out wall panel? Take a look and see, and you might find some hints that everything is not as it seems at Aperture Science.

By setting you up in the role of the test subject Chell, the game ‘trains’ the player. When you first get the portal gun, you are limited only to placing the blue portal. The orange portal is already placed in the testing rooms for you. This actually complicates matters, and forces you to use your single portal creatively to get through.

Later on, when you get the ability to make both portals, though, you can remember and reuse a number of the techniques the game taught you, as well as learning some new ones. The game has you play with momentum frequently, dropping from a height into a portal on the floor so that you can be flung across a gap by one on the wall.

The story is one you learn through discovery.

There’s no backstory data dump, no prologue, not even very much setup. Every scrap you learn about the story, even your own character’s name, is something you discover over the course of playing the game. This self-discovery of the story is a very important aspect of the game play, and clues are hidden throughout the rooms.

To give you an example of how masterfully I thought this was done, the beginning of the game is simply and subtly brilliant. One of the first things you see in the game is that you are trapped in a small cell with a bed, toilet, table and radio. Your cell has glass walls. After a short introductory speech by the test administrator, GLaDOS (more on her shortly), a portal is created in front of you so that you can exit your cell. As you pass through the portal, you are forced into your first view of your character. There’s no way to avoid at least a glimpse of Chell in this establishing shot. In this brief view, you can see that your character is female with dark hair, wearing an orange jumpsuit (reminiscent of prison garb) and equipped with strange spring boots on her feet.

The character of GLaDOS is quite possibly the best villain to come out of a video game in recent memory.

The player-character, who we only know as a woman named Chell, is essentially a voiceless blank slate for the player to cast his or her own personality onto, typical of the first-person genre.

GLaDOS, the computer who is running the tests in which you are participating, is most definitely not. Voiced brilliantly by actress Ellen McLain (who also voices the turrets), GLaDOS is a character you get to know only through the voice that is your constant companion through the test chambers. Her dry sarcasm is at first delivered in a passive-aggressive, computer-voice deadpan, but as the game progresses, GLaDOS begins to take on a more and more emotional tone. Not to mention the brillance of the writing. GLaDOS has a number of well-written, memorable, and quotable lines as she guides you through the test chambers.

It becomes clear as you progress through the rooms that something has gone wrong with your computer guide. Her messages change from warnings and instructions about each test chamber, to darkly ominous messages about the cake awaiting you at the end of the tests, and about the horrific things that can happen to you over the course of testing.

All those warnings and those secret messages come together as the player finally escapes into the areas behind the test chambers, full of offices and industrial areas. GLaDOS first pleads with the player to return, citing the many dangers in these unsafe areas. When the player continues, she becomes progressively more hostile. Finally when you meet GLaDOS “face-to-face”, as it were, her tone slips into something almost sultry and gleefully evil as she finally shows her true colors, and outright attempts to kill you.

The atmosphere is so well developed that it is almost a character on its own.

At first, you see the test chambers of Aperture Science are sparse, plain, almost clinical rooms made of metal, tile, concrete, and what looks like heavy duty plastics. There is not another living thing to be seen. There are cameras on the walls watching your every move.

The environments become less pristine test chambers as you move forward, and you get more and more of a peek at hidden areas behind the walls which you’re not supposed to see. By contrast, the areas behind the walls are dirty, full of debris and signs of life. There are indications that others have escaped and lived in these back areas. There are radios, remnants of canned food, graffiti and warnings scrawled on the walls. You begin to get a sense that something is wrong. The scrawled messages give you a hint at the true nature of GLaDOS, and that you’re not the first one to catch on to her.

The final section of the game has you making your way not only through the industrial and office areas behind the test chamber facade, but occasionally through test chambers in reverse as you try to escape. It’s a very fun and interesting twist, encouraging you to use all the tricks you learned during the organized tests in new ways.

Is Portal 2 more of the same?

The thing I most feared about Portal 2 was that the return of GLaDOS (revealed in early trailers for the game) would not be enough to save a sequel from feeling stale and rehashed. Portal was fresh and different. If Portal 2 was exact the same formula, I think it would have felt old rather quickly.

The good news is, Valve has escaped that particular trap with Portal 2. They have managed to create a sequel that gives fans of the original Portal some good touchstones, including several sequences with good old-fashioned Portal-style test chambers, while also introducing enough new elements to engage new and old fans alike. Most of this comes in the form of new Apeture Science inventions introduced into the tests, but there are also some fun new characters, and some clever plot twists.

My favorite addition was a new character, Wheatley, voiced by actor Stephen Merchant. Your computer sidekick for the early parts of the game, to me Wheatley feels like an amalgamation of Dragon Age’s Alistair and Harry Potter’s Hagrid: a well-meaning and likable buffoon primarily there for humor and as an entry point for newcomers. Wheatley is a great addition to the Portal/Apeture Science mythos, serving a role as orientation and guidance for new players, and comic relief for veterans, while setting up the story for the rest of the game.

I found one particular section of the game to drag a little: a kind of ‘retro Apeture Science’ area narrated by some pre-recorded messages from Cave Johnson, former CEO of Apeture Science, who is portrayed by actor J.K. Simmons (aka J. Jonah Jameson in the Spider-man films). While the voiceovers by Cave Johnson are great and fun, it felt too distanced from the rest of the plot. I personally found the rooms in this section to be enormous and I often found it difficult so see where my objectives were. According to some interviews I’ve read, Valve had originally planned a prequel to Portal, featuring Cave Johnson as a primary antagonist, and these ideas were carried over into this section of Portal 2. I found the game picked up again quickly once I escaped these areas, and of course they do teach you to use some new Apeture Science tools which you will need to solve later rooms, but I definitely felt these sections were the weakest part of the game.

Overall, I would give Portal 2 4/5 stars. In fact, I immediately started over from the beginning after I completed it the first time, this time playing with the developer commentary on (why can’t you save in commentary mode?). Minus 1 star for having a story-driven co-op mode which I can’t experience without bothering another player (I am anti-social gamer, yay!), and for some slight pacing issues/drag during the middle of the game.

Apr 212011

This year, we attended Sakuracon at the Washington State Convention Center. Sakuracon is a huge anime/manga/Japanese culture convention which is held every year around Easter weekend. We have gone every year for past 3 or 4 years, I think.

Unfortunately, it’s usually the same weekend as Norwescon, the large local sci-fi/fantasy/etc. convention, so that I have never gotten to attend Norwescon. Despite the fact that one of my favorite authors, Jim Butcher, was a guest at Norwescon this year. (Did anyone go and get to see him? Was it fun?)

Anyway, at Sakuracon this year, both Dev and I got to meet people who were very influential to us and helped get us into anime. Dev got to meet Tony Oliver, who has done a lot of voice work, including the main character of Robotech. I got to meet Kotono Mitsuishi, who was the original Japanese voice actress for Tsukino Usagi, the title character of Sailor Moon (among many other roles). She was adorable; she very patiently answered questions at two panels worth of Q&A, and at the second one, she asked the entire room to gather around the front, so she could take a picture of her fans to take back with her. It was really cute. I also got Mitsuishi’s autograph on a Sailor Moon anime-manga book (one of those comic books made up of screenshots from episodes).

On the subject of costumes, we didn’t actually take too many pictures this year, which is sad. I do have to say that people really need to have more spatial awareness of the elements of their costumes. I do not like getting smacked in the head with a giant Bleach sword or someone’s wings. I’ve found it’s getting harder and harder for me to recognize costumes at cons, because I haven’t been watching much current anime. I fell out of it for a while, and it actually took this Sakuracon to get me wanting to watch stuff again.

(We have been keeping up with a fun little superhero show called Tiger & Bunny that’s also being shown on Hulu. One of the main characters is also an older man with a daughter, and I like seeing a main hero from that age group for a change.)

We didn’t get to watch that much at the con itself. We saw a couple of episodes of Eyeshield 21, which is a comedy about Japanese high school teams who play American football. We also saw the first two episodes of Gundam Unicorn. I’m not a Gundam fan, so I admit I laughed a bit at it. (You decided to call your main villain Full Frontal? Really?!)

Oh, and there were quite a few technical difficulties this year. It seems like something went wrong at almost every panel we attended.

The con itself was decently laid out, with almost all the panels and the theaters on the sixth floor, and the exhibition hall on the fourth. There were a few vendors with inappropriate artwork hung up on their booths, IMO, especially for an all-ages show which Sakuracon is supposed to be. I actually didn’t spend much money in the dealer’s room this year! We got a Luffy straw hat from one of the booths, some small One Piece figurines, and a Portrait of Pirates Shanks figure. (I’m still so obsessed with One Piece, even though I’m not caught up on the current story arc. XD)

Overall, we had fun, although it felt like it was over way too soon. We’ll probably be going again next year.

Apr 212011

We recently read A Game of Thrones, the first book of George R.R. Martin’s unfinished epic A Song of Ice and Fire, in my online book club. I said I was lukewarm toward the book, and also that I didn’t enjoy other epic fantasy greats Tolkien or Jordan, which led Kadomi to ask what kind of fantasy I do like.  Which got me really thinking about how to write about the fantasy I love. And what better place to talk about it than here?

I started reading fantasy in grade school, probably around the age of 10. I had been crazy for anything involving swords or magic for as long as I can remember, but the first fantasy novel I clearly remember reading was Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown. I probably reread it once a month, if not more frequently, growing up. My copy was severely worn by the time I reached high school.  The character of Aerin was a revelation to my preteen self, who had previously read books such as Sweet Valley Twins and Babysitters Club.  Here’s a strong girl who goes out and has adventures. She’s persistent and brave, but she also has faults, self-doubts and worries. In other words, she felt like a real girl, someone I could empathize with, in a fantasy setting that was both dark and hopeful. There were swords and magic. I was in love.

Around the same time, I met Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising Sequence. I enjoyed them all, but the title book, The Dark is Rising, was my clear favorite. It was the kind of old friend where I could open it to any page and just start reading, and I would know instantly what was going on. Will Stanton’s hero’s journey was a huge influence on my early writing (to the point where my first attempt at fiction was a rather bad mangling of the basic idea of The Dark is Rising).

My next significant encounter with fantasy was when a friend introduced me to Mercedes Lackey’s Last Herald-Mage series. I was probably around 13.  I devoured them, and then read anything else by Lackey I could get my hands on. While I recognize her weaknesses as a storyteller now that I am older, I still have a soft spot in my heart for Vanyel, Talia, and Elspeth. Vanyel in particular feels like the epitome of teenage emotions and angst: feeling outcast and alone; feeling unloved and unwanted by family; longing for freedom from oppression (imagined or otherwise); having desires that parents couldn’t possibly understand; the first reckless blush of new love and the loss of the same, as well as the discovery that it’s okay to be who you are, and that you shouldn’t deny it.

Lackey’s books also contained a vividly drawn world in which she encouraged people to play by writing fanfiction and drawing fanart. I wrote some of my first fanfiction for Lackey’s Valdemar books.  I created a Mary-Sue Herald of my own and she had adventures, and I went vicariously with her. I also created my first male and homosexual characters for this fandom, and explored other facets of my own personality through them. I found some wonderful pen-pals via Lackey’s fandom newsletter, some of whom I am still friends with.

Lackey was also my gateway drug into fantasy that was more adult in themes and tone. I discovered authors such as Terry Brooks, David Eddings, C.S. Friedman, Tanya Huff, Guy Gavriel Kay, Melanie Rawn, Mickey Zucker Reichart, Jennifer Roberson, Roger Zelazny, and countless others.  I also discovered sci-fi novels, and found something else to love.  I voraciously read anything with a hint of fantasy, sci-fi, or paranormal/supernatural creatures.

This obsession naturally led me, on the recommendations of other friends, to The Lord of the Rings

I tried. I really did. It took me, who could read a book a day if I found it engrossing enough, almost a month just to get through the first book. I picked up the second, saw it was more of the same, and put it down after only a chapter or two.

I’ve had people tell me I should continue slogging through, because the books got better. But honestly, I didn’t want to read about those characters any more because I didn’t find them compelling.  I had no emotional connection to Tolkien’s characters or world. I had no insight into who they were, other than almost-historical cardboard cut-out figures. Eventually I watched the movies and got the gist of the whole story, but I still didn’t really care for the characters.

So. I didn’t like the renowned classic, the story that launched the modern epic quest fantasy as we know it.

So what type of fantasy do I like?

It’s a complicated answer, because I like a little bit of everything.

I like unusual world-building and magic systems, with something outside of the cookie-cutter pseudo-medieval-European fantasy setting.

I like character-centric political intrigue. I like character studies that just happen to be in a fantasy setting. I love swashbuckling adventure stories with swords and spell-slinging, preferably with humor and some romance. I like urban fantasy, although I’m really getting tired of the supernatural romance subgenre that seems to have taken it over. I love genre-crossers, such as fantasy-mysteries.

I don’t mind violence, sex scenes or character deaths, as long as they make sense within the story and the world that the author is building. I don’t like when they’re clearly thrown in just for shock value, though.

I can enjoy when an author does the standard fantasy tropes really well, but I also love when authors turn the tropes on their sides in a clever way, or write with a tongue-in-cheek humor about them.

The characters have to be compelling, fleshed out and well-developed. I especially love witty dialogue and great banter between characters who play off of each other well. I adore a well-written anti-hero, or a noble villain with real motivations other than ‘be evil and conquer/destroy the world’.

That’s the kind of fantasy I love. Not a simple answer, but my answer.

How about you?

Apr 202011

Years ago, when I first discovered the Internet, I started a little web site. It was hosted at Tripod, back when it was a free web host and I think they gave you 2 MB of space, or something ridiculous like that.

My site was called “Tangled in the Web,” which I thought was incredibly clever at the time. It was a simple personal web site, where I wrote about my hobbies and interests and shared things I thought were interesting. A proto-blog, if you will. I was rather naive at the time, and probably shared way too much information about myself. I created my first amateurish web designs there, complete with horrible animated gifs, busy background images, and ugly text.

That first clumsy web site was a stepping stone. I soon discovered how much I enjoyed writing html code and designing web sites. Tangled became a Blogger blog for a little bit, and then, because I owned a web domain, I installed WordPress and moved it to my own hosting.

I rarely updated it. I had trouble thinking of things to write about. I felt that it should be more like my LiveJournal, where I should write about day-to-day things, but I was frightened by the lack of post security. I stopped blogging, and took down Tangled.

I kept my hand in the world of web design, though. I had become enamored of the fanlisting community, which gave me a reason and place to practice my web design and coding. I learned a lot and shared knowledge with the (mostly female) community. Because of fanlistings, my view of web development was actually a little skewed, as I saw mainly teen girls and young women participating. It was actually kind of empowering: an entire community of ladies who were coders, scripters, and designers.

While I still post on LiveJournal and use it mainly as a substitute for a paper journal (when I write in it at all), I haven’t had a regular public blog in years. I’ve felt a bit like I was missing something.

Why start again now?

I have found myself lately starting to write posts or comments on LiveJournal about something I’m really passionate about, and realizing that the topic was something I wanted more feedback on. I wanted a place for discussion about anything and everything that catches my eye, whether it’s a favorite game, a good book, or just a thought about life that strikes me a particular way. I wanted a place where I could geek out and fangirl my favorite things, and invite others to do so with me. I wanted to practice writing again; to talk about life, the universe and everything; to share my unhealthy obsessions with pirates, video games, books, and all manner of geeky things with the world.

The Internet is a wide sea full of strange and wonderful things. This is my ship, such as it is. You’re welcome to come along for the journey, comment and share. Hopefully, it will be a fun ride.