Horizon Zero Dawn

I don’t know if I can say something about this game that would do it justice.  I didn’t even know it existed until I happened to see some comparisons between it and other games that were released around the same time (and the answer to ‘which should you buy’ is ‘why not all of them?’), but then I saw the main character was a female with a bow who primarily uses stealth and I was like “well… I guess it was made for me.”  I suppose we have Katniss Everdeen to thank for the “badass female with a bow” trope becoming more popular lately but as someone who always picks the archer when it’s available (even when it suuuuuccckkkksss), I’m pretty excited about this trend.

If someone were to take all of my favourite games and blend them together, the result would probably be something similar to Horizon Zero Dawn (HZD).  Post apocalyptic, stealth elements and tactical combat, collections and crafting, good dialogue and interesting characters, a plot that holds a lot of mystery and doesn’t let you down with the reveals… all it’s missing is terraformable terrain and economics systems to hit pretty much every one of my favourite games, so it’s probably not surprising that I loved it.

I had expressed some interest in it after reading a little bit about it, and I happened to be sick and confined to the couch, so my husband brought it home for me.  I spent the next 2.5 days piling tissues around the couch and binging through HZD until my wrists hurt from holding the controller.  My husband watched the first couple of quests and then decided he would play it after me, and it was brutal to not be able to talk about the plot points as I went through it (I had to settle for repeating “Oh my god it’s so good…” and he kept repeating “Well hurry up and finish it so I can play it, then.”).  He’s playing through it now, but he’s on very hard difficulty and dallying around doing all the side quests so it’s going to take forever *shake fist*.

For those who like a challenge, the combat offers plenty of ways to be creative.  I had it set to the easiest (“tell me a story”) mode, so I spent the majority of the game sneaking around being a backstabbing goddess of invulnerability… but even on the easiest setting I had to use tactics, set traps, duck into cover, and learn the weak spots of the enemies in order to expose their weaknesses and go in for a critical hit.  Being on easy mode meant I could be sloppy and just be like “fuck it” and flail away when things went wrong.  My husband is playing on very hard and when things go wrong it means he is swiftly dismembered and gets to start the sequence over againI expect a lot of cursing on some of the later bosses.

What did I like about HZD (besides everything?):  It’s got pretty standard open world gameplay (go to places, unlock travel points, collect plants, find quests, clean out the map of points of interest) but the world itself is interesting to explore.  You start out as an outcast, which is a well-done version of putting the player inside of a protagonist who doesn’t know much about the world, in order to learn along with them (not facepalm inducing like ‘amnesia’).  The main plot point is Aloy trying to figure out why she was outcast as an infant, so she works her butt off to earn a way back into the tribe and get some answers.  As a player, you’re just as invested in discovering those answers as she is, and the writers did a fantastic job.  The world feels real.

What really won me over was the writing, by far.  I loved the story and I’m still thinking about it a week later.  I went onto the wiki and re-read all the data points.  The plot zags when you expect a zig, and even though some elements may play out the way you expect, there are enough flourishes that it will still surprise you.  As the ending sequences played out I was watching it and trying to rank it against my favourite games of all time, and I was sitting there thinking “It’s REALLY REALLY good, but it hasn’t really made me cry yet, so I don’t know if I wou—… … … fffffffffffffffffffff okay I’m misting up now.”
I think my “story enjoyment” final ranking would be just above Mass Effect, but not quite to the level of Last Of Us.

So we’ve established that I love the game.  How about Criticisms?  I really only have one, but it’s kind of a big one.  The game spends a lot of time hyping up its strong female characters.  I have no problem with that—more games need to have badass, yet realistic females that have more depth to them than just their badassery.  When I think back across the characters you meet, though, I can’t think of a single male character who isn’t pathetic in some way.
The ironic thing is I can’t tell if it’s intentional or not.  The cast of characters includes (I presume quite deliberately) a hugely diverse cast of races and cultures, and yet every single accomplished character is female.  Every named male in the game is either a failure, or outright evil.  Many of the males who are failures need females to solve the messes they’ve made.  Many of the males who are outright evil are thwarted by females, and solely females.  Even among the scientists, the ones with the most screentime and the most showcased roles are females, except for the one who programs the questionable content, who is, of course, male.  Avad seems to be a strong male character on the surface, until you dig deeper into his story and find he’s actually obsessed with his (female) Military Captain.  That’s a pretty minor character point in the grand scheme, but if you were to apply some sort of reverse Bechdel test to the game, it would go back to a fail right there.  Meanwhile, there is precisely one female in the game I can think of off the top of my head who could be considered pathetic or evil… and it’s made abundantly clear that she’s just misguided and following her own values.  And even she comes around in the end.

I’m not sure if I would call it misandry, and I’m certainly not certain if I would call it intentional misandry, but it’s skirting a line that I think needs to be balanced a bit more.  It is ENTIRELY possible (if not preferred) to have a strong female protagonist without shitting all over males while you do it.  The whole “mother earth” theme is pretty strong throughout the game, so maybe it’s intentional, but if “males ruin earth, females save earth” is intentional subtext, that’s pretty lame, to be honest.  I’m hoping any sequels, should there happen to be some, will rectify the imbalance by continuing the trend of badass females but also mixing in badass males to balance them, along with some pathetic evil females to balance out the pathetic evil males.

That niggling detail aside… I love this game.  Once again I lament the existence of exclusivity contracts.  Everyone should have access to this game on whatever platform they choose, because it is a masterpiece of storytelling that needs to be experienced.

 

Republic of Thieves

The Republic of Thieves (Gentleman Bastard, #3)The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I started late on the Gentleman Bastard journey (thankfully? Since the fourth book has apparently been delayed, which is unfortunate) and it’s been a bit of a rollercoaster. The first book was so full of promise—a few novice mistakes, but with characters so loveable that I couldn’t wait to see where the series went. The second was a disappointment, still full of promise but rushed and unpolished to an unfortunate degree. When I saw what a gap there was between the second and the third I was eager to see how the writing had progressed, because the potential here simply NEEDS to be fulfilled.

I have very few complaints about the third book, and I’m picky as fuck. At worst, I’d say I saw a few places where the characters did some things, then immediately turned around and explained all those things in detail to another character who wasn’t present, which smacked of bad editing. The plot maybe had some contrivances you could bitch about if you wanted to, but I chose not to because I could see the purpose of them.

It actually felt more like two books in one, which I’m not sure I like all that much. It’s got the time-skip stuff again which I disliked in the first books, skipping back and forth from the past and the present, but in previous books that mechanism was used to show the characters acquiring an item or skill which was then presented in the present, and it felt a little contrived. In this book, the past story and the present story are running parallel, and I kept waiting for them to converge and it never really did. The two timelines merely exist to show the relationship of Locke and Sabetha developing side by side. I think it works, but I would have been equally satisfied with two distinct books, and less distracted besides.

I also noticed a couple exposition dumps that I felt could have been handled a little better because I started drifting off in the middle of them, but I feel that’s a victim of the two timelines. You get invested in one story and then blam, dropped into an exposition dump for the other and you’re all “I don’t give a shit about this, I want to know what happens next in the OTHER story” and you end up skimming, which is bad for the story as a whole. I also felt like I didn’t really need to sit through everyone rehearsing their lines for the play, but maybe I started skimming and missed the point.

I think that’s the extent of my bitching. The characters were fantastic, the banter was fantastic, and I burned through it until I had eyestrain. Be warned, though, if you’re not already invested in the characters, you might find it hard to get into. I loved it BECAUSE I love the characters. The fact that the plots took a backseat to character development became an asset BECAUSE I love the characters. If you haven’t reached that level of commitment to the characters, you might be a little annoyed.

I don’t normally like to draw comparisons to other works, but the plot actually really reminded me a lot of Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, in that it was a battle of wits between two forbidden(ish) lovers. In Night Circus, the “battles” were fantastic displays of magic which were very pretty to describe but ultimately made no fucking sense because they never opposed each other, and that was kind of dumb. Locke and Sabetha oppose the shit out of each other with non-stop displays of wit and connivery and it is awesome. I think the snake rebuttal was where I decided it would probably get a five even if it went off the rails at the end.

I’m a little surprised at the sheer hate I see for Sabetha in some of the other reviews.  I suppose that’s the risk of leaving a character shrouded in mystery for two books—people will make their own expectations, and you will never, ever, live up to them. She’s a character driven by pride, which can be a little hard to swallow for some, but all of her motivations seemed logical to me. A little more communication would certainly help matters, but there are pretty clear explanations for most of those difficulties too.  She’s essentially a femme fatale who is not entirely defined by the male protagonist, and I enjoyed that.

I was a little annoyed that
WARNING: SPOILERS: Read more of this post

Crow Lake

Crow LakeCrow Lake by Mary Lawson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I really loved this book. It did an excellent job of tackling themes of trauma and abuse, and I felt the characters were portrayed very realistically.

I did a quick browse through the negative reviews and the majority of them mentioned that it was too slow. It is certainly guilty of that, but I feel the short nature of it helps to make up for it. I never felt like it was slogging on. There were plenty of points where it sort of meandered through a side story and you were like “This is all very interesting, but what is the point?” and then you get to the end and go “Ah. I see.” I felt like it all tied up at the end, although maybe lacking the ‘punch’ a lot of readers might have expected after all the foreshadowing hints that were dropped.

I did get a little annoyed by all the breadcrumb hints about “events to come”. Those are always meant to hook the reader and keep them going with a promise of something big later, and to a degree they work, but it feels cheap and sets up a book to be underwhelming. This book could definitely be accused of that, but I enjoyed the characters enough that I didn’t penalize it.

The other major criticism of the book is that the main character is unlikable and dense. If you’re holding that against this book, I’m afraid you’ve missed the point. The problem is, I think, that these characters will appeal a GREAT DEAL to people who can relate to them – that is, those who have felt snippets of how that sort of trauma can affect your personality, your worldview, and how you react to others. Everyone else will be stumbling along wondering why the characters are acting so strangely, perhaps because they’ve never been unfortunate enough to experience those sorts of emotions and mental states themselves. There are so many powerful scenes in this book that spoke to me because I know exactly how those characters were feeling as they acted that way. I could feel what they felt. It was beautifully executed.

I suspect this sort of book will not be ‘for’ everyone. It was definitely ‘for’ me, and I loved it.

The Half Life of Stars

The Half Life of StarsThe Half Life of Stars by Louise Wener

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was a tough one to rate, made ironic by the fact that I almost didn’t read this. I selected it, looked at the cover, hesitated, read the synopsis, and thought to myself “ehhhh I don’t think I’m in the mood for this right now” and then tried reading a different book which turned out to be god awful, so I came back to this and I went “Well, at least it can’t be THAT bad” and dove in. Silly me. This is why I shouldn’t break my rule of just diving into books and seeing what happens, judging them on their own merits instead of pre-judging them by their covers and synopsis and previous reviews!

I really enjoyed it, and I kept waffling back and forth between 4 and 5 stars. The plot was well done, the characters had real life to them, and the language was wonderful. And every now and then there’d be a big twist that made perfect sense but I didn’t see it coming and I’d think “okay this is definitely 5 stars”. Then there would be a badly edited sequence where words were misused (“I couldn’t bare to do it” came up a few times and I’m pretty sure this isn’t just a UK language thing, because it doesn’t make sense that you simply cannot get naked in order to accomplish this thing right now, does it? Or… does it…). I love heavy dialogue, especially when the characters are as vivid as this, but sometimes the dialogue was so poorly edited that you couldn’t tell who was saying what and I’d start to get distracted and lose the flow. Unfortunate. I’d give it a solid 4.5 stars and I’m still really torn on whether to round up or down.

You know what… it’s been sitting on 4 stars the whole time I typed this but, fuck it, I’ll round it up to 5. The writing and characters just had a brutal honesty that I could relate to. I hated her family, because they were too real. That’s worth 5 stars. The surprising plot that didn’t leave any threads was just icing.

Cruddy

CruddyCruddy by Lynda Barry

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is disgusting, disturbing, and fucked up… and I loved every minute of it. I had no idea what I was getting into when I picked it up. I read Lynda Barry’s illustrated syllabus and really liked it, so when I saw Cruddy I thought “Oh hey she writes books too?” Turns out she doesn’t write many books but what a book she wrote.

You often find a lot of authors are masters of one thing and then everything else is sort of propped up on that thing. Since she’s primarily a cartoonist, I thought maybe these books would be an experimental foray into something different, maybe a little threadbare or grasping. The imagery is incredible, and you might think “well yeah but she’s used to portraying things in a visual medium” but it wasn’t just that. I enjoyed every facet of her writing. Some of the word choices are things I would never think to make, but they were so effective. I was continually impressed by how vivid everything was. Vividly disturbing, with a whole extra layer of fucked up on top. It was really something to experience.

But it’s also bleak. Even though it has its share of black comedy, this is probably not a book to read if you’re feeling down. It’s a snapshot of a miserable world full of miserable people who are fucked up because of the shit they’ve gone through and they’re getting by as best they can because there’s really nothing more they can do—this is it. Addiction, alcohol abuse, drug abuse, child abuse… everything is laid out bare and unflinching in Cruddy, and the vivid descriptions bring it home in full colour.

I can’t give this book enough stars. It needs to be experienced.

Darwin’s Children

Darwin's Children (Darwin's Radio #2)Darwin’s Children by Greg Bear
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is pure emotion.

I don’t actually know how I feel about it. There are parts of it that are probably some of my most favourite scenes I have ever read, and I highlighted a whole bunch of shit just because I really really liked the way it was written. And there are a bunch of parts that made me squint my eyes and scratch disapprovingly at my chin. I spent a whole day reading this book practically non-stop and felt like I was loving every minute of it, until I got to the end, where I stepped back and looked at it as a whole and thought to myself “……. I’m not sure that I liked that.”

But that’s a Greg Bear novel for me, I suppose. It happens every time.

The first book was exhaustively researched and it was a comfortable stretch to believe that the things proposed could happen. This book does not feel quite as tight. The first book spent a lot of time etching out every minute detail, and this one seems to spend a lot of time skimming over those. I’m quite willing to suspend belief for the sake of plot, especially when creating a new species, but learning and behaviour is my pet field of study and I feel like there are some huge holes in the development of the society of the children. Not to mention the religious element that was introduced. It almost feels like the first book was meant to be hard scientific fact and then he wanted the second book to come at it from the other angle to provide contrast, which is a nice idea in theory, but the way it is presented just doesn’t jive with me. I put comments in several places saying “I hope this is explained a little bit better later…” and then I had a moment of hope when Kaye gets all the scans done, but nope, that was just a distraction too, as if it’s trying to explain that there is no explanation so just get over it. It’s like we go from hard facts and figures to watching the book wave its hands spookily and then conclude with “A God did it.” (Well. Maybe. Because that’s not confirmed either.) Unsatisfying.

The time skips are especially bad. I’d be reading almost breathlessly, racing ahead to get to an anticipated point where two plotlines would collide and I could see the result, annnnnnnnddd *poof* 3 years later. That thing happened during those three years and it was cool but we’re past that now and won’t waste any time describing it, thanks. It happened every time and it made me so mad every time.

I have to say, I love the way the characters interact in this book. The characters feel so robustly human to me, full of emotions and flaws and character traits, and I loved them. But they spent a lot of time on superficial interactions and leave the bulk of the plot development behind the scenes to be discussed in hindsight while they go about their superficial interactions. I’m not sure how I feel about that. And apart from the main family (Kaye, Mitch, Stella), no one else gets a lot of development.  They have their template personality and that’s about it.  At times there are characters used from previous books that might have been thrown in purely so that there would be a backstory already in place and there would be no need to add further development.  It led to a lot of cardboard supporting cast.  There are even some characters who felt abandoned. Where are the rest of their stories? Such as:
Minor spoiler:
We skipped entirely over the bit with Stella and Will. Will exists in like, four scenes in this entire book? We start to get to know him and then *poof* 3 years later. Welp, nevermind that now.

I am so exquisitely torn about the main character too. I loved Kaye. I loved the interactions between Mitch and Kaye. I must have been in the right emotional (hormonal??) state of mind for it because I was more invested in their relationship than I was in the fate of the children, most of the time. I highlighted so many of their scenes together because they felt so real. The scene where Mitch finally snaps and Kaye recognizes how unfair she’s been:

“Kaye stood beside the bed and watched Mitch, eyes wide. Her chest felt wrapped in steel bands. She was as frightened as if she had just missed driving them all off a cliff.”

That moment when you emerge from your own misery and realize with a shock that it affects other people too and you’ve been a huge selfish ass about it. That is real.

But then, I don’t know. She struck me as a near Mary-Sue at first. It’s almost textbook – gifted genius girl who doesn’t recognize how good she is and everyone is in awe of her and everyone wants to fall in love with her oh my. But then she displays real, palpable flaws and it dispels the Mary-Sue threat. I found her to be a realistic depiction of an emotional (and at times irrational) female, but at other times she would drop down into a sort of “This is a female being written by a man” template and I’d find it disappointing purely because it was such a contrast to some of her other scenes.  It’s like she has transitions where she grows as a character and changes her behaviour, and then transitions where suddenly she’s just acting sort of different and it seems odd. And then she finds God or something, I don’t fucking know. It felt like a character departure at several points, in this book and the last.
Ending spoiler:
And then I was pissed at the ending. Seriously pissed. I think that means that my ultimate judgement of her is that I like her? I got the impression that the ending was supposed to be hopeful but I guess I’m just not religious enough for that because no, fuck you, give her more time with her family, you fuck. They’ve been through enough!  I think I’m angry at how unnecessary that was.  The injustice of it.  If that was the goal then bra-fucking-vo.

I don’t think I could read this again, but I think I’m going to be thinking of the characters over the next few days.

Darwin’s Radio

Darwin's Radio (Darwin's Radio #1)Darwin’s Radio by Greg Bear

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I am thoroughly impressed with the depth of research displayed in this book. I’ve got an undergrad biology degree, and I got an A in the genetics parts of things, but I ultimately spent more time studying other things and went in different directions after graduation and got pretty rusty on the viruses and chromosomes front. I’m pretty sure the author knows more about it than I do right now. That is a lot of god damn research for something that is dangerously susceptible to making you look silly within a decade (or, fuck, a year if you’re unlucky). And it’s holding its own.

That said, I’m sure if I actually studied viruses and chromosomes this book would have a lot of bits that would annoy the fuck out of me. And since I did study viruses and chromosomes at one point, I didn’t mind slogging through the absolute tons of detail provided about how they work and the proposed systems at play. Someone else might not.

I really like Greg Bear’s books, but I always seem to have this issue where I start reading them, get absolutely fucking hooked and can’t put them down, and then the ending leaves me with a slightly disgusted look on my face and I feel let down and don’t want to bother reading any more of his books. Until next time I’m craving a very good book and then I’ll pick one up, get absolutely fucking hooked, and…

Darwin’s Radio did not have the same effect on me. It was less extreme on both fronts, actually. I was less hooked than usual, and the ending didn’t annoy me as much. But, perhaps that is because this book has no ending. This book has a sequel. Presumably THAT book contains the ending because this one certainly did not. I remain interested enough to pick up the sequel, quite possibly even start it right now! But there was a shift somewhere in the middle of the book that made me think to myself “Oh, here we go again.” It got away from the facts and figures and started moving into the ‘what happens now’ which might account for that, and there were a lot of really good emotional scenes that I enjoyed, but it felt like reading a different book at times. Suddenly characters that I really admired started acting a bit differently and I started to like them less. I got more ambivalent about what would happen to them. I did not like that change and it makes me apprehensive about the sequel. I want to read about the characters I liked in the beginning, not these new ones they are turning into. I don’t just mean the speciation events, either.

Remember Me

“Remember Me” was a game I mentally noted onto my wish list when it kept coming up in conversations about strong female protagonists, after the developers had trouble with publishers wanting them to change their game because their choice of protagonist was viewed as something that wouldn’t sell well.  Then it came out and got awful reviews and I was sad, and then proceeded to not buy it because fuck paying full price.  But then the occasional GOOD review kept cropping up, and then the game went on sale for 7 bucks and I bought it.  And I reallyreally liked it.

A brief premise is that the world has gained the ability to manipulate memories, primarily used to remove all those painful memories to promote happiness (much like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind).  Behind the scenes, it’s becoming a bit more nefarious as well.  You’re introduced to Nilin, the protagonist, just as she’s sprung from the memory wiping facility mere moments before her brain is finished being wiped clean.  You spend the game learning who Nilin actually is (as she herself regains her memories, since the brain wipe was partially successful) and unravelling the deepest secrets of the memory manipulation business.

First up: the game has flaws.  Biiiiiigggg gaping flaws.  It makes sense why it got bad reviews, and it’s not because the main character has boobs but is not naked.  It is also not because she kisses a guy at one point (seriously I read that the kiss was one of the biggest sticking points in the whole publishing kerfluffle and I kept waiting for it to come up, only to discover I had already passed that point in the story and didn’t even notice when it happened).

No, it is because the combat is awful.  I mean, it could have been worse. But it’s not good.  I had it on the easiest setting and all the enemies still took fucking forever to beat up and it was just so fucking tedious, especially when you spend 20 minutes clearing out a wave of enemies and then oops here’s another wave have fun!!  I finally went to my usual fall-back, which is to fire up Cheat Engine and make myself immortal (the cheat engine script for this game has “undead” mode which is my favouritest invulnerability cheating – where you still take damage and can see how terribly you’re doing and completely forget that you’re cheating at all until your health bar goes to 0 but you’re not starting over.  All the fun and tension of playing without the annoyance of losing!).  Around 2/3 into the game I also turned on unlimited ammo for my biggest attack so I could just mow down the damn waves and get on with the story.  It still took forever to clear them out while using my most powerful attacks repeatedly at a rate that is in no way intended, on the easiest possible setting.  It’s not good.

The combat has some interesting ideas which might appeal to a micromanager.  It’s sort of similar to the Batman combat where you have chaining combos and dodges to keep your chain intact (and the animation is pretty fluid and sweet too), but you actually craft your own custom attack combos.  You can build your chains with things that do damage, things that heal you, things that restore your focus/mana, and things that reduce the cooldowns on your super abilities.  The further into the chain it is, the more powerful it is.  But you have to get the chain to that point without breaking it.  The special abilities are super important (in most cases you have to activate a specific one to advance the fight) so you want to be resetting your cooldowns, but you also need focus to fire it off, and you also need to be doing damage, especially since the enemies take roughly 11 billion hits to finish.  Later you end up with enemies that fucking hurt you when you hit them, so you need to mix in the healing ones too.

OR you can fire up cheat engine and just kill everything.  Like I did.  It really helped my enjoyment of the game!

The other legit bitch I see in a lot of reviews is that the game is linear.  That sort of thing doesn’t bother me too much because I usually play games like this to enjoy the story, but oh boy is it ever linear.  It is really a shame because the world is beautifully crafted, but there’s no opportunity to explore any of it.  There’s even an arrow showing you exactly where to go next.  I don’t mind the arrow because it reduces the chance of wandering in circles for 20 minutes because the fucking camera rotates away from the wall showing the ledge I want to jump to, but I agree it should be an option to turn the damn thing off.  What is with developers not giving options?  Is it really that hard to add some lines of code that say “if setting = No, then hide arrow”?

Speaking of options:  The cut scenes are littered with film grain and it’s awful.  I hunted around the internet for a way to remove the grain, but the only ways of fixing it were too involved to bother with.  Why.  Why would you ruin your lovely CGI movies with this shit?  NO ONE thinks this looks good.  It’s awful.  Especially in a game this dark.  The black is all littered with noise and it was grating.  On the off chance someone out there thinks this looks good, put it on the fucking options screen so I can turn it off but they can leave it on.

One last bitch:  Every single boss ends with a quick time event.  I don’t mind QTEs as a rule, but I hated these and this is a perfect example of why people have come to hate them in general.  It’s usually a combination of your kick, punch, dodge, or “use” commands, but the prompts are pretty short, the icons all kind of look the same, and if you’re in the middle of button mashing something you’ll almost certainly hit the wrong key and end the sequence.  It usually required a bit of trial and error to learn the sequence before I could end a fight.  A failure results in the boss shaking you off and usually suplexing you into the ground and booting you across the arena or something, and then you start over and have to take their last chunk of health off again before you can attempt the QTE again to end it.  The only way it could be worse is if it literally ended the fight and made you start at the beginning (i.e.: what Resident Evil 6 does.  I also hate those QTEs…).

Anyway, enough bitching.  Here’s what I liked about it:

The writing.  Okay mostly that.  The world was crafted well and even though there weren’t a LOT of details, they laid out enough of it that it felt immersive.  The whole amnesia mechanic felt like it was going to invoke every single cliche in the book, and other than being kind of a lame way of unlocking new abilities, they managed to avoid most of them.  I liked the characters and felt like Nilin had enough depth that she made an interesting protagonist (though she’s pretty much the only character with any depth, which is kind of a flaw…), and I was feeling actual emotions at some of the pivotal moments.  I really enjoyed the plot as a story.

The memory remixing is a really interesting thing.  It seems to be the thing that everyone universally likes, and I liked it because it was unique and kind of cool, but I also didn’t like it.  It’s kind of funny… I didn’t like it because it ended up being kind of tedious in that you have to play with things in trial and error to see how they affect the outcome (not to mention first you have to watch the whole thing to see the original outcome, then rewind, then fast forward looking for the nodes to modify…) so sometimes you’re watching the same lines of dialogue over and over again (especially when the stupid memory glitch WILL NOT let you fucking click on it before it scrolls past so you have to rewind AGAIN.  GRRRrrrrrr) and then you discover that was actually a bonus ending and now you have to rewind and try something different!  So ironically it seems like my complaint is that the memory remixing was too non-linear.  But really my dislike was quite minor and I mostly enjoyed it.  I liked it a hell of a lot more than the combat!  But where most people are complaining that there were only 5 or so remixing sequences, I was kind of glad it wasn’t mandatory to have one or two every chapter.  Especially since the ones they had in there were quite detailed and they probably would have let the quality slip if they were trying to cram them into every available slot.

I also liked the variety of gameplay they had in there.  They had batman-style beat-em-up, splintercell/asscreed style wall climbing and acrobatics, occasional puzzles (not very challenging ones mind you but they threw a refreshing change of pace into things), and then standard old school boss battles and ability upgrades.  None of it felt cheap to me and I enjoyed that they didn’t just have one style of game from start to finish, while also not really sacrificing any of their story to cram in something bizarre and out of place (not like, say, a fucking tower defence game in the middle of AssCreed).

The last complaint I see is that it’s too short.  I spent about 8 hours playing it, so it was fairly short… but I paid 7 bucks for it.  Remember Me was basically a good Sci-Fi movie that was turned into a game with shitty combat (which I circumvented by being a dirty cheater).  At $7 it cost less than most books, I enjoyed it as much as a book, and at 8 hours I possibly spent more time with it than I would have with some sci-fi books :P (at least at the pace I read…) so it was money and time well spent!  I enjoyed it and I recommend checking it out, as long as you are aware of the terrible combat beforehand…

The Wolf Among Us/Walking Dead (TellTale)

I just finished The Wolf Among Us, so ostensibly this post is about that… but in order to talk about it I must talk about TellTale’s Walking Dead game.  Both of the games are episodic “graphic novel” style games where your dialog choices can affect the outcome.  By “affect the outcome”, I more or less mean “affect how other characters view your character while the outcome takes place”, because there are very few “big” changes you can make in the storylines, but your demeanour can have a big impact on how each of the supporting cast react to things.  Some of the biggest impacts you’ll have revolve around who will make it to the end of the story with you, and whether they hate you or not.

Telltale’s TWD is pretty popular now so it probably doesn’t need a lot of plugging, but I would like to reiterate how good it is.  It’s pretty good.  I never read the comics that it is based on.  I almost didn’t buy the game at all because I loathe the TV show and all of its misogynistic bullshit convenience writing, so I like to pretend the show ended quickly when all of those characters were eaten by zombies and that no one is giving the show writers any more money by watching it.  la la la la la I’m not listeniiinnnggg.  In contrast, the writing in the game is really good.  Well, okay it’s just sort of good, but the interaction of the game makes it feel really good.

Except for the batteries puzzle.  I hope the asshole who wrote that was fired immediately.  It happens really early in Season 1 so I can only assume they made a misguided attempt to match the airheaded misogyny of the show, but were swiftly correctly by someone smarter.

Both Wolf Among Us and TWD are based on existing franchises, but I think TWD works because it’s given the world of the franchise and then set loose to frolic in it. There may be a cameo here and there of someone from one of their other eleventy-billion sanctioned comics or TV shows or games or whatever the fuck else they have now, but it’s not hard to take a zombie world and slap some random new people in it, then begin writing.  Those characters are fresh and the writers are free to work with them.

On the other hand, WAU is pretty constrained.  I didn’t read these comics either, but the characters in the game are (by necessity…) the main characters from the comics.  Right away the writers are restricted, because the characters have to match the personalities they have in the comics.  There’s little room to give the player a character with a personality they can mold and feel at home in.  They do a great job with Bigby Wolf and you get a sense of who he is even without any knowledge of the character beforehand, but it never really feels like your character the way the player characters in TWD do.

The game also has a deliberate time-period in relation to the comic: 20 years earlier.  Which is a huge problem right out of the gate because now we know all of these characters are still around 20 years later.  I did not know this when I started the game and the ending of chapter 1 was like “ohhhh shiiiittt this is going to be awesome”, but then I discovered it is essentially a prequel which sort of nullified all of those events.  It left it a bit bleh, to be honest.  TWD is great because anyone can die.  Anyone.  Those guys are fucked.  In WAU it’s like “This person could die here, if they weren’t in the comics 20 years later.  So.  Nope not gonna die.”  There are side characters who are free to die, but you don’t really care about them, and it just doesn’t have the same impact.  In TWD, your best buddy that you’ve helped through countless harrowing adventures could get snuffed at any moment, because that’s just how it fucking is in the apocalypse, man. (That said, I think they’re trying a bit too hard to manipulate emotions in TWD Season 2.  Tread lightly, guys.)

Then there is the additional problem of characters that seem kind of superfluous in WAU… probably because they exist in the comics so they should probably be in the game, even if there’s not much for them to actually do.  Fanservice doesn’t really do much if you’re not already a fan.

Also I feel like sifting through the clues of a “whodunnit” is kind of silly when anyone can look like anyone else using magic.  Literally anyone could be framed, which leaves a bit too much leeway for “gotcha” twists.  The actual story of WAU was pretty weak as a result, although the experience was still good…

Those things aside, the two games are fairly similar in terms of mechanics, if not setting.  You progress through the story, make some big reveals, make friends/enemies, and choose your story branches.  Action sequences take place through quicktime events, and they’re often quite scripted to match the story.  Some people probably hate this but I find it immersive.  Sure it’s annoying to mash Q as hard as you can and watch the other character begin to overpower you at a certain point anyway, but doesn’t it feel like you’re pushing back as hard as you can and still losing ground?  You can feel his muscles straining as he struggles, but you can also feel the futility…
My only complaint is that watching for the key prompts tends to take my eyes off the scene, which is too bad.  Fortunately failing them doesn’t cause too much hassle, either.  Often it’s written right into the sequence like a dialog choice, which is a nice change from “oh you missed that one.  Welp time to move you back 30 seconds and start ALL OVER AGAIN.”

If I had to pick I would definitely say that TWD is the winner of these two, simply for the reasons listed above.  The freedom the writers have to set events in motion (and break your heart…) is simply not possible with WAU.  But will I buy season 2 of WAU?  Certainly. (when it’s on sale…)

The Knife of Never Letting Go

The Knife of Never Letting Go (Chaos Walking, #1)The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

So difficult to rate. I really really enjoyed this book, but there were some flaws that marred the experience. If partial marks were allowed I’d probably end up dipping into 1/2s and maybe 3/4s, but as it is I will just start at 5 stars for being amazing, and drop it to 4 for having unfortunate flaws.

The language was not one of those flaws, although it could have been. The book uses “cleetus speak” to show that the characters are uneducated. The dialects aren’t slathered all over everything and, unlike the Dust Lands books, characters had unique “accents” as the characters moved from place to place. I could actually tell characters apart as they spoke. I enjoyed it, even. (And they use quotation marks! How novel!) It did still annoy me when words were misspelled when it made no sense to do so. e.g. words ending in -tion would be spelled “-shun”. Why. It is pronounced the same, so it doesn’t even contribute to an accent. It’s a minor annoyance and I got over it, though.

It’s such an interesting premise. Todd was born on this planet, but he’s actually part of a colony who landed here and soon discovered that something on the planet is causing them to hear each other’s thoughts. The plot is a bit sparse to begin with – Todd is going about his life, and then shit goes down and he needs to flee his hometown. He’s just as confused about it as we are, and the readers learn about the story while he figures it out. It’s like a blend of old time farmland settings and sci-fi genres, and it works. The worldbuilding is good and keeps you wanting to know more.

I have some issues with the second part of that, though. It relies heavily on a “hook” that I dislike – not telling the reader anything, even if the protagonist learns something. It’s mostly handled well, but then there are parts of the book where it cuts to Todd’s reaction as someone explains something really really important to him. No one explains any of it to us, the readers, and it’s such a transparent hook to make you keep reading. It works, mind you, but I resent every moment of it. You can handle it more gracefully than that guys, come on. It’s jarring and transparent. ESPECIALLY when you’re trying to pull off first person present tense. It was shockingly sloppy compared to a lot of the rest of the writing.

There’s a bit of really obvious telling instead of showing, too, which was also really odd given how well most of the book was constructed. In pretty much the first chapter Todd is thinking about how the year has 13 months in it, and I was all “aha, these are not typical Earth years.” Many many many chapters later Viola painstakingly lays out how the years are a different length here. Seriously? Did you forget that shit was in chapter one or did you think “omg the years are a different length why” would be a mystery for the whole book and it better be cleared up?

The characters were fantastic. They were real. They had human thoughts and made human mistakes. They reacted to each other in human ways. Each character was distinct. Even the dog had an appropriately dog-styled personality. Most of the writing was sort of stream-of-consciousness choppy style, which made a lot of sense in the context of all thoughts being audible, and it was used effectively to bring the character’s reactions to life. I enjoyed it, although it was a bit overdone in areas.

I loved almost every interaction between characters in this book, except for the villains. All this effort was poured into the main characters to make them believable and human, and then it came time to write the villains and they slapped some comically evil paint onto some cardboard and propped it up. Their motivations are weak and cliche (“I will ruulllleee the wooorrrlllddd” yeah yeah we’ve heard it before). The protagonists “kill” the main antagonist like 4 or 5 times and oops he just keeps popping back up! No explanation as to how he didn’t die, just vivid descriptions of the visible damage from the wounds they inflicted last time (and a conspicuous lack of descriptions of a terminator-style endoskeleton, because I was getting pretty certain that’s the only way to survive all this shit by the end).  And then the reveal of how Todd is supposed to transition to manhood.

I just don’t buy it. It’s too flimsy. Enjoyable I suppose, but flimsy.

A bit of an aside, I suppose… one thing I noticed in this book is that it used the word “effing” copiously. It was amusing in a number of ways, mirroring a teenager trying to toe the line and test their boundaries. But then it would say something like “(but I don’t say “effing” I say the real word this time)”. Just fucking say fucking. I thought it was so the book could be properly marketed to a younger audience without having to worry about any scary words being included that would make parents angry or saddle it with a profanity warning, but then Viola lets a proper “fucking” slip and Todd reacts to it. … we have no need to self-censor then, do we? So why so much self-censorship? Baffling.

Bitching completed. I really liked this book. Flaws aside, the writing was powerful and well crafted, the characters were fantastic and believable, and the world is interesting and unique. The villains kinda suck but maybe it will come into its own later on and flesh out the plot a bit. I can kinda relate even if it doesn’t… I often come up with characters I really like and then have no ideas for good situations to get them into.

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The Reapers are the Angels

The Reapers Are the Angels (Reapers, #1)The Reapers Are the Angels by Alden Bell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have been reading a lot of what can probably quite accurately be referred to as “crap”. As a result, some of the automated recommendations that pop up have been… interesting.

If were asked, I would probably say I am not a fan of zombie fiction, so I kind of scoffed when this book cropped up. But I love post apocalyptic wastescapes and isolation/survival fiction… so it actually seems like something I should really enjoy. The first half of 28 Days Later is one of my favourite movie experiences, where we wander around in an abandoned London trying to piece together where all the people went. And I rather enjoy The Walking Dead video game series from Telltale (not the TV show. I loathe the TV show and all its misogynistic melodrama), where you follow the heart-rending exploits of a little girl trying to survive post-zombies.

The Reapers are the Angels started out as a mix of the best parts of both of them – following a little girl (okay fine she’s 15) trying to survive in an abandoned wasteland.

I was riveted and finished it in one sitting.

It’s actually really well written. Miracle upon miracles – it uses present tense, and I think it is effective and not annoying as shit. It had to happen one day, I suppose. It helps that it is third person present tense, not first. First person present tense is just too awkward. It’s like standing beside someone who is narrating their every thought, and that’s just bizarre. Third person is like standing beside someone as they experience things, which ramps up the tension, and also allows the protagonist to die with a seamless handing of the storytelling to a secondary character, meaning anything could happen. There are also a lot of very vivid descriptions of wastelands and zombie decay which really put you there and bring it to life around you.

What it doesn’t have is quotation marks. And for the life of me I cannot understand this decision. It adds nothing but annoyance. I also noted some other writing weirdness and mistakes, like poor comma usage. It’s nitpicky, but it’s something that really jumped out at me when the rest of it seemed so well done.

Also unfortunately, the vivid descriptions are a bit lost behind tired zombie cliches. There wasn’t much of a plot to begin with: “Temple” is just living her life, surviving, catching fish and smashing zombie skulls. She happens onto a colony of people living in a city and immediately there are shifty looks from the men and warnings from the women to avoid the area where all the single men hang out, because it can be “rough”. “Oh good, we’re going to get to the obligatory zombie-fiction rape scene really early in this one”, I thought to myself. Sure enough, one of them wakes her up and shoves his cock in her face. She obliges by punching it, which made me happy, but the ensuing knife-fight results in her losing a finger and he losing his life. She goes on the run as his brother attempts to hunt her down, presumably to exact revenge. Ta-dah: plot.

The next place she runs to is a little oasis of normal life surrounded by electric fences. Within the barricades, everyone lives life as if nothing untoward has ever occurred in the world. They wear nice clothing, they have a butler, they play the piano, they have proper meals and sit at the table. Oh but father will not be joining us – he’s been sick. I wrote a note saying “There is no way he is not a zombie who they sealed up in the basement out of denial.” Spoiler alert: You’ll never guess what happens next! Can’t we do anything new in this genre?

We can, actually. Those were the only two major blights on the unravelling story of the book. We follow Temple as she travels across the country, and along the way we meet novel dangers and reveal snippets of past events that really enrich the characters and world. You could get out a microscope and pick some holes in the timing and factuality of things, but I felt it was not distracting and thoroughly enjoyed all of it. I was a little worried that the religious undertones might ramp into high gear and get preachy (it says angels right in the title and there are plenty of allusions to whether mankind brought the zombie plague down via sin). They stayed sufficiently out of my way, however.  The actual zombie plague is never really explained, which was both annoying and refreshing.  It’s annoying because I like those sorts of worldbuilding aspects… but it was also refreshing because the zombies are in no way the actual threat or focus of this book, so it was good not to waste a lot of time on them.  They’re proper slow, uncoordinated, largely harmless, indefatigable zombies that must be dealt with but are only an issue if you’re careless.  It’s a nice venture back to the roots of zombie-ism.

That was a really excellent little book, and I’m sure whatever drek I will pull out of my recommended pile next will probably be a little bit worse for being compared to it.

[edit] Hrm it’s a series. I don’t know if I dare look for a sequel… it might suck and ruin everything.

The Cuckoo’s Calling

The Cuckoo's Calling (Cormoran Strike, #1)The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read this book because I discovered it was written by JK Rowling. That’s the only reason. I don’t even really like detective mysteries, and I sought out and read this book solely because I discovered it was written by JK Rowling. And I feel like that was kind of her point.

The book itself was pretty good. Much like Casual Vacancy, it was a fairly solid 3.5, but since Goodreads doesn’t allow for .5s I was once again stuck with the decision to either round up or down. I rounded Casual Vacancy up because I felt like I wanted to reward the risks taken, because it was experimental and I enjoyed the attempt even if the result fell a little flat. This book was not experimental in the slightest, aside from the whole pseudonym thing maybe. It’s a whodunnit from start to finish, and I enjoyed it, but it didn’t really strike me as anything special, so I rounded down this time.

Here’s the premise: Robin is assigned to be a secretary at a private eye office through her temp agency, and from there we meet Cormoran Strike and follow along as he solves a murder mystery. That’s pretty much it – the mystery itself is unravelling whether a “suicide” of a famous lady was actually suicide or if it was actually a murder, and Rowling displays much of the same aptitude for laying down hints and false trails as she did in Harry Potter. The writing itself is excellent as always, although I felt it often drifted into overly flowery descriptions, which never bothered me with any of her other writing. Either I am getting grumpier and pickier (entirely plausible), or she tried just a bit too hard in some places.

The book is set up to introduce the characters and set the stage for future sequels, which I feel is probably a good thing, because I feel like Rowling is writing to her strengths and things will only get better once we get out of the whole “this is who this character is” stage. I’m going to make a lot of presumptions here and they may not be correct at all, but I got the sense that these characters were bouncing around in Rowling’s head for a good long while. There is a lot of character exposition and it felt like she was just boiling over with the need to share it all with us, even when it wasn’t necessarily very appropriate or timely. Strike’s amputated leg is practically a character in the story for the amount of time we hear about it, and it could be safely deleted without affecting the actual plot whatsoever. There’s absolutely no purpose to it other than to add a bit of depth to him. The story almost starts to spin its wheels when it gets into establishing the characters, but it’s really the characters that make the story worth reading. An interesting dilemma.

Here’s some more presumptions: This book spends a lot of time making points about the lives of celebrities, and I couldn’t help but feel Rowling was adding in a little bit of side commentary based on personal experiences. There’s a bit of meta-story going on which seems to parallel how the book was relatively ignored until it was connected to Rowling, and then *poof* suddenly it’s a best seller. I have to wonder if that was entirely intentional, much like how Casual Vacancy seemed to attempt to manipulate the readers judgements of the characters behind the scenes.
As a bonus, there are also side commentaries about the lives of those living in poverty. They say you should write what you know, and Rowling is in a position to write from personal experiences with both.

I have a note about the plot too which might be a tiny bit spoilery – I felt like the ending was a bit too contrived. It was one of those plots where you think to yourself “Okay, the most unlikely culprit would be…” and then oh look, it’s them. Rowling is usually so good at laying clues down earlier (in the case of Harry Potter, literal books earlier) and you can look back and go “ohhhhhhh…”, but in this book you look back and go “… so WHY did they do that, again? They gained absolutely nothing from it, and it led to their downfall.” The only semblance of explanation seems to be “They’re kind of a narcissistic psychopath and thought they were invincible, you see”. Unsatisfying.

Not a waste of time, though (how’s that for a glowing recommendation…) and I’m interested in seeing future installments of this series with a bit less character exposition and a bit more intuitiveness in the plot twists, next time.

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Sling Blade

I went through IMDB looking for movies rated above 7 which we had not seen before.  There were surprisingly few.

We tend to avoid watching romances, so I ended up with a pile of those. Two bonus reviews!: We watched 500 Days of Summer, which felt incredibly generic to me, but it was somewhat redeemed by the creative structuring – I guess the animated transitions really appealed to me.  Husband hated it.  Then we watched Before Midnight which is apparently the third movie in a trilogy that we have not seen the other two movies in!  We got 45 minutes into that before I burst out with “What the fuck is the point of this movie?!?” and read the synopsis on Wikipedia, only to discover there is no point.  I turned it off.  I haven’t seen the first one so I guess it’s probably better if you’re already invested in the characters and just want to spend more time with them, but it was a colossal waste of 45 minutes as far as I’m concerned.  I want movies to have a god damn plot.

Going through the list went something like this:  “ugh, romance… ugh, romance… ugh, romance… ooh not a romance! … ugh, romance…” so when we unburied Sling Blade I recalled that it was one of the non-romance findings, but I didn’t know much else about it.  I assumed that since it had “blade” in the title that it was some kind of action movie.  It turns out it’s actually a drama, which really makes a lot of sense because if it had been an action movie we would have seen it already.  I don’t know what I was thinking.

I really enjoyed Sling Blade.  It had a plot, which was a good start (seriously, what the fuck why is that movie so highly rated), although I was pretty worried when it opened with 15 minutes of some random guy in a mental hospital rambling about almost having sex with a transvestite.  The movie is the story of Karl, who is a mentally challenged man who has spent the majority of his life in a hospital after killing someone with a “Sling Blade” at the age of 12. He is now “cured” of murderous tendencies, but is completely and obviously not prepared to be turned loose on his own.  They pat him on the head and drive off, leaving him on the curb of the town he was a child in.

The plot itself didn’t really hold any surprises.  The foreshadowing is less of a shadow and more of a neon sign, and I turned to my husband at one point and said “Well, now we know how it ends.”  That’s exactly how it ended. (Although when the guy at the shop tells Karl that once the shop is locked you can’t get out and he’ll get him a key, my husband did predict it would end with him burning to death in a sombre lesson about fire safety regulations.  Now you know that it does not, in fact, end that way.  Sorry for the spoilers.)  Despite knowing what’s going to happen, it’s still gripping somehow, probably because the acting is fantastic.  The characters are all very real (sometimes regrettably so) and they all behave exactly like you expect – which is what makes it both predictable and believable.  That’s good writing and acting.  I recommend checking it out.

Xenoblade (Final)

It’s so good.

IT’S SO GOOD.

I could probably just leave it there, but no, I’m fucking serious.  Xenoblade is one of the best games I’ve seen in ages.  At first I was thinking “This is pretty much as good as FFX” since that was the last time I remembered being heavily invested in characters, but then it got better.  And then it got better.  And then it GOT FUCKING BETTER.  I kept thinking “This is so fucking amazing it cannot possibly get any better” and then it kept doing it.  And I was thinking to myself “This is super amazing but I’m sure the ending will be pretty cliche, but that’s okay because it’s really fucking good”, and then the ending surprised me.  Oh my fucking god.  It’s so good.  Game of the decade, sitting on the top shelf right beside FF6 and Chrono Trigger and Earthbound and all the other RPGs I have enjoyed more than anything else.  This game is already somewhat hard to find, so I am going to enshrine my disc for the inevitable day that it becomes a priceless rare collector’s item because it’s so fucking good.  I can’t believe how good it was!  I keep repeating myself but that’s because it was really good, guys!

Now for confession time – I didn’t finish playing it.  I put many many many many many hours into it and started feeling really burned out (I really dislike the real-time combat, which is the huge glaring flaw in the midst of everything), and then discovered that after all of those hours I was only just under half done.  But I really wanted to know what happened!!  But then I’d play more and be like “nnngh.”  But I REALLY wanted to know what happened!!  So I totally cheated and looked up a youtube channel that would show me all the cutscenes.  Watching the cutscenes loses a bit from the game, because a lot of the inter-character development occurs while running around or through cheesy heart-to-heart events, but I was already sufficiently attached to all of them that I was happy just seeing how the story ended.

The cutscenes alone?  ELEVEN HOURS.  ELEVEN FUCKING HOURS WITHOUT ANY GAMEPLAY OR SIDE QUESTS OR WALKING AROUND OR TALKING TO RANDOM NPCS.  ELEVEN. HOURS. OF STORY.

I watched all of it and it was the most epic movie I have seen since the Lord of the Rings trilogy (and at a comparable length too, huh).

Oh my god it was so good.

The worldbuilding.  The character development was good, but there were a lot of flaws with the characters that popped out at me.  They’re all so self-sacrificing and then everyone else in the group gets mad at them for being self-sacrificing and then they go “I’m sorry guys I didn’t want to worry you” and then they all go “TELL us next time – we’re a team!” and then next time they don’t tell them and it happens all over again.  There were plenty of character cliches at work under the surface too, but they were sufficiently buried that I felt it didn’t detract.  Also the romance got a little sappy.  But the worldbuilding.  This is a case study for excellent worldbuilding.  What an amazing world they built.

It really makes me sad that it was lost on the Wii, where the majority of people will not play it because they don’t own it, and the majority of those who remain will not play it because they think the graphics suck.  The graphics did kinda suck, but that’s because it’s a Wii.  I got over it.  It makes me even sadder that they’re supposedly developing the sequel as a Wii-U exclusive.  The console is already considered an abandoned husk :/.  I have no idea how they’re going to top this game, but if they DO, lost in the wasteland of the Wii-U library… noooooo… tragedy of the decade in the making.

This bears repeating: It’s really fucking good.  If you see a Xenoblade Chronicles disc, buy it.  If you don’t own a Wii, buy a Wii after buying the disc, solely so you can play it.  Or just put the disc somewhere for when it becomes a collector’s item because I am totally calling that right now.  Buy the disc to support the game and at the very least cheat and watch the cutscenes like I did, because you cannot miss this.

The Last of Us

I’ve been trying to decide how to review The Last of Us.  It’s difficult to talk about without talking about the story, but I don’t want to talk about the story because I feel that you should see it for yourself.

TL;DR you should buy it.  At full price, even!  The Last of Us is absolutely worth it.  It’s somewhat short… it has about 6 to 6.5 hours of story in it, but the time you spend exploring and picking up collectibles with backstory will pad that out a bit without making it feel like it’s been padded.  It took my husband 12 – 13 hours to finish it, I think.  It was a marathon over two days so maybe more.  NORMALLY I would say that is too short for 60 dollars, but the thing is it’s really good.

In case you’ve been under a rock and have not heard of it, The Last of Us is yet another post apocalyptic “zombie-like” apocalypse game.  In this one, a fungus (based on a real one!  Cordyceps.  Which, incidentally, helps to thin out populations of ants when they become too numerous.  HMMMMmmmm) starts infecting people’s brains, which causes them to lose control of their actions and… start attacking everything (as opposed to climbing up a blade of grass and freezing to death like the real Cordyceps does, but y’know).  Infection spread through bites, yadda yadda, fungal spores mixed in for flavour… the military tries to take control and welcome to the zombie apocalypse.  When my husband was playing through it I wasn’t paying full attention, and I thought it was a pretty generic setting.  I was wrong.  So if at first glance it seems generic to you, take a deeper look.  There are definitely some cliches at play, but the writing and worldbuilding more than compensate for them.  The writing.  I cannot say enough about the writing.  Yes, the base plot has nothing terribly original going on in it, but the characters and the world they’re in.  Everything is lovingly crafted with high levels of detail.  I wouldn’t call it “scary”, but if you like atmospheric post-apocalyptic games, you must get this game.  Right now.

They did a masterful job with the characters – you relate to them immediately and they feel genuine, and at no point did I feel that they were shoehorning character traits in my face to emphasize them.  The character’s motivations are natural and understandable, even if you don’t agree with them, which makes every character strong and believable.  Ellie is one of the best crafted teenage characters I think I have ever seen in a game.  She’s vulnerable and terrified, desperate for someone with some permanence to latch onto, but at the same time teenage defiance keeps flashing out as she struggles to find some independence.  The voice actors do an amazing job of bringing the characters to life, too.  It’s one thing to have incredible writing but a wooden performance will sink it just as quickly.  I am so happy with the voice actors in this game – thanks for doing a good job, guys.  And the graphics don’t hurt, either – cutscenes are incredible, but I did notice a bit of stiffness in the animations when the characters were speaking while moving around the world.  One day we will be unable to distinguish CGI from live action, but it is not this day.  That’s an incredibly petty thing to nitpick on, but I just don’t have anything else to bitch about, dammit.

Speaking of bitching… I hate bringing it up because I feel like a feminist when I do, but the female characters in this game are also fantastic and believable.  I really appreciate it when games go out of their way to flesh out female characters (and also clothe them…) so I feel I must give them another gold star for that.  I don’t usually put a lot of stock into the “Bechdel test” (in order to pass, the media must show two females speaking to each other about something other than a man), but I do find it interesting sometimes to see if whatever I am entertaining myself with at the time does pass it.  Not only do Ellie and Tess talk to each other, but Ellie and Marlene talk, and Marlene and Tess talk, and I don’t think any of them talk about men (unless discussing how to slay male zombies counts, I guess), so it passes multiple times.  Tess is just awesome and badass and I kind of want them to do a “prequel” DLC where we can watch her set up her smuggling ring or something.  Because I want more time with her :(

The only bad thing about this game is that it’s a playstation exclusive.  Not because I don’t like playstation, but more because it limits the audience.  Everyone should be able to play this game.  Everyone should be able to buy this game and encourage the creation of incredible games like this.  It should be on PC so that it can be on Steam and be in the summer sale that is about to start and then millions of people will buy it (and then never play it because that’s how Steam works) and then they can go create more awesome games with that revenue.  Also it should be on PC because fuck shooting things with a controller, grr.

I don’t think I’m even going to say anything more.  I don’t even care if you don’t have a PS3, go buy this game :P

 

Liminal States

Liminal StatesLiminal States by Zack Parsons
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I really struggled with how to rate this. I was originally thinking a solid 4.5, but then the ending was a little too ambiguous, so that dragged it down to 4… but the uniqueness of it deserves to be rewarded, so it bumped back up to 5. Eh, 5. Why not.

This is not a book for the faint of heart. If this book is made into a movie, they will need a very large “fake blood” budget. I meant to go back and see how many times the word “entrails” appears, but I forgot to. It was a lot, though.
It is also not a casual read. I discovered pretty quickly that it is not the kind of book you can read while half asleep at 11PM and still understand what the fuck is going on in the next chapter. The book is a masterful example of showing and not telling, and you have to pay attention to keep up.

How do I even describe this to you. At its heart, the book is a horror novel that reminded me a lot of Stephen King. A lot of the imagery is brutal or disturbing. Despite that, it somehow never seemed gratuitous. The story itself spans three time periods, which correspond to three different genres of writing. The old west, ’50s noir, and finally sci-fi and dystopian present/future.

I’m not sure I even can provide a quick synopsis of this. Let’s just say it involves a mysterious pool that seems to resurrect and provide immortality to someone who falls into it. Each section of the book follows the same characters (more or less…) but examines a different aspect of the consequences of the pool, seeming to widen the scope each time, beginning with individuals and eventually moving to a global scale.

Common criticisms seem to be that the different time periods don’t interface well with each other, making it more like three different related novels than one whole story. Looking back, I would probably agree that is true… the jumps are very significant and you have to re-orient for each one. While I was reading I did not find it to be an issue, and probably wouldn’t have mentioned it if it wasn’t commonly bitched about.

The different genres for each time period are well written and feel authentic. I’m not a big fan of noir, so the middle of the book dragged for me, but someone who enjoys the genre will probably love it. The sci-fi section had a decent “oh, shit is going down now” feel to it, and I thought the visuals worked really well. The over-arching horror story of the pool itself felt a bit vague, though. I read some discussion about it and it seems like it was intentionally left that way, and then a lot of the questions and backstory is resolved in a separate serial. I dislike relying on external material to understand a book… but to be fair, it doesn’t really matter for the narrative of the actual story, so it just left the situation ambiguous in an unsatisfying way.

If you’re looking for something unique, gripping, and disturbing, you should probably give Liminal States a try.

View all my reviews

Life of Pi

I read this book ages ago when it first came out (oh my god, 12 years???) and really enjoyed it.  We just watched the movie and I think I enjoy it even more, now.  The movie doesn’t change things too significantly from the book, so this entry can apply to both.

The story is framed as a novelist (Yann Martel himself, I believe) interviewing Piscine, as he prepares to write a biography about him.  It follows a bit of a flashback format, recounting factoids like how Pi was named after a swimming pool, how he went through school with the nickname “pissing”, and how he tried to change that by changing his nickname to “pi”, after the mathematical symbol.
As amusing as it is, absolutely none of that really matters for the rest of the story.  For the amount of time he spends conversing with other humans in this book, he could have been left completely nameless and no one would notice.  I suspect there might be some sort of theme around the meaning of names, considering the name of the tiger, but it was buried deeply enough that I didn’t bother to dig for it.

The story further describes his father’s zoo and the animals within.  Falling on hard times, his family decides to ship all the animals to Canada and start a new life there with the profits from selling them.  Unfortunately, their ship sinks during a storm, and Pi finds himself in a lifeboat in the middle of nowhere.  With a bengal tiger on board.

I’m not even going to describe the rest.  It’s really something that should be experienced.

The first third or so of the book, before the voyage, spends a lot of time talking about various religions and Pi’s attempts to become a believer in all of them at once.  The movie discusses it as well, but spends less time with it.  The book spends a lot of time discussing how people react to that idea and attempt to force him to choose, while the movie really only throws one line at it when his father tells him he can’t worship all of the religions at once.
I fully admit to skimming this part of the book. When I finished the book, I felt that I had thoroughly enjoyed it and did not regret skimming the religious stuff, but I had always sort of assumed I missed some greater themes that would have popped out at the end.  When we sat down to watch the movie I thought to myself “Aha, maybe now I will see what I missed.”  After watching the movie, I still don’t feel like I missed anything at all, but the beauty of this story is that it is so dependent on the reader’s background.  What seems pointless to me will be the crux of the story to someone else, but things that seemed important to me will seem pointless to them.

Religious themes are important to the book, but a large part of the story is about personal interpretation.  I found wandering around the internet looking at different interpretations almost as entertaining as the story itself.  There are so many different – yet plausible – interpretations of the same story, and so obviously coloured by personal beliefs.  An agnostic will get a completely different ending from this story than someone with a strong faith, and yet all interpretations are “correct”.  There is no one true ending, and seeing people squabble over that is pretty interesting as well.  “What does it mean?!” they cry, and the answer is that it means what you think it means.  Literally.  Life of Pi is ambiguity done correctly.

Xenoblade: First Impressions

I say First Impressions because, despite putting 6 hours into it so far, I haven’t actually left the first town and have barely started the story.  But I can certainly comment on some of the mechanics!  And when I’m done, 200 hours from now, I’ll have forgotten everything I was going to say anyway, so I may as well start now.

I was in the mood for something RPGish and needed something engaging to do while using the recumbent bike, so a console RPG seemed like a perfect fit.  Our Wii library is pretty anemic, and Xenoblade has been coming up in a lot of conversations, so it seemed like a safe bet.  So far it was the correct choice – my hour on the bike disappears, and then I just keep going to finish up whatever I was doing.  If only my butt didn’t go numb, I’d be in amazing shape by the end of this game…

Despite putting only 6 hours into it, I seem to have a lot to say

The Book of Unwritten Tales

I grew up on “adventure games”, and they briefly disappeared from the market so I find myself oddly drawn to them when I come across them.  Telltale sparked a new interest in the genre, and suddenly my Steam account is filled with the damn things.  The problem is, you have to be in a certain mindset to really enjoy an adventure game.  It’s almost like reading an interactive book, except it moves at a much slower pace, and it has bizarrely illogical puzzles scattered about that you have to complete before you can turn the page.  If you’re not in the right mindset, you lose patience quickly and drop the game partway through, and then when you come back later you can’t remember what’s going on, but you remember enough that you don’t want to replay the first part again.  It’s a tough situation!  But Steam keeps putting them on sale for 2 bucks and I have to buy them even when I’m not in the mood.

The latest sale to sucker me in was for The Book of Unwritten Tales.  It’s nice to find a well regarded title that isn’t Telltale, and I happened to be in the mood for some storytelling, so I fired it up right away.

The first thing I do in every game is go to the options and adjust all the settings.  I also ensured that subtitles were on.  The game immediately launched into a movie to start the story off and… there were no subtitles!  It wasn’t a big deal for me because I’m not actually deaf, but I feel bad for anyone who legitimately can’t hear the voiceover as the character sat there and did nothing but write in his book for several minutes.  He was explaining the story, but without subtitles it would make for a pretty god damn boring intro.

The other thing that surprised me was how low res the movies seemed.  The game obviously isn’t bleeding edge graphics, but the graphics are clear and bright.  In comparison, the actual in game movies were spilling compression artifacts everywhere and made it feel like playing a game from the 90s (which works for the adventure game nostalgia angle, I guess).  I’m relatively certain there are no more settings I can flip to improve them, which is too bad.

I liked the animation style they were going for in game – it feels fluid and cartoony, as long as you don’t nitpick their movements too much. Some of the animations are a bit repetitive and it’s obvious they just copied frames to save time. Don’t look too closely at how ridiculous some of the facial animations can be, either.  Probably my biggest complaint is that the animations can leave the characters feeling “wooden”. The faces animate in a fairly robotic way that doesn’t really bring across emotion like a hand-drawn cartoon can (and in a pixel graphic, your mind fills in the blanks, which is why they’re so damn effective).  It can push into the “uncanny valley” sometimes, watching a character break into a delighted smile that really only makes their mouth open a bit too wide, and leaves their eyes dead and staring… oh god, the nightmares…
But hey for the sale price I paid, I’m paying for the writing and the graphics are just a bonus.  It does make me wonder which costs more, though – the 3D renders they have here, or hand drawn cartoony graphics like in the later Kings Quest games.  Hrmm.  I feel like this game would really benefit from hand drawn cartoon graphics that could express themselves.

I enjoyed the humour of the writing, although some of the jokes felt a bit forced.  One of the conversations gives you three different options, and all of them go for the same, obvious joke.  Granted, I didn’t actually go through reloading to try each of them to see if they actually did all lead to the same outcome, but it felt like they would.  Which leads me to another comment: the game also has one of my pet peeves in that the options it gives you to pick from often don’t actually resemble what the character ends up saying.  That is not what I thought I was trying to convey when I picked that dialog choice and it annoys me that I am being misrepresented here!  Damn you, game!

Another problem – the game is one of those “Oh you want to inspect that?  Okay, the character will waddle their slow ass over there to look at it for you” games, which results in a lot of wasted time that does not need to be wasted.  I’ve given up on games before because of this, but they do somewhat acknowledge it by giving you the ability to double click and transition immediately, rather than waiting for the character to waddle across the screen.  Unfortunately it doesn’t help much when inspecting things.  A lot of the old pixel games solve this problem by having the character interact with things no matter where they’re standing, unless a specific scripted animation required them to move to it.  In Unwritten Tales, every bit of flavour decoration requires the character to stand next to it.  Especially annoying is later on when you need to swap between characters.  Each and every swap requires them to waddle over and tag each other, and all it accomplishes is an artificial lengthening of the hours played.  So easily solved… and (I would think) so easy to pick up on in testing.  It’s really too bad they didn’t polish that a bit more.

The story starts out interestingly enough and it grabs you with a decent hook right off the start which makes you want to keep going to see what happens next.  So many stories make the mistake of starting out banal and “normal” and get you to go do normal and boring things before the excitement starts, which is just a barrier to becoming immersed and involved.  Unwritten Tales has you do the banal everyday things (washing pots and chasing a rat… seriously) AFTER the hook scene!  So it gets a thumbs up there, I guess.

When people talk about adventure games, they almost always talk about “adventure game logic”.  Unwritten Tales arguably has some adventure game logic, but as far as these games go it’s very, very good.  Most “adventure game logic” is along the lines of “I have this box with an unusually shaped hole in it, and I have this peg with the same unusual shape carved into the end of it.  How do I open this box?!??! Hmm I’m totally stumped!  The player wants to put the peg into the hole in the box?  What?  No, that’s stupid. Why would I want to try that??  I see no reason to try that.  Hey let’s ask this guy over here if he knows how to open this box!  Hmm he says there must be a key with the same shape as this hole on the box… we should try putting this peg into the box!”
None of the puzzles in Unwritten Tales are stupid, and they all make sense (well… so far, anyway).  They’re just very linear.  I keep getting stuck because the only way to open up the option to do something is to talk to someone I’ve already talked to, with no indication that they should have something new to say all of a sudden.  I dislike that sort of repetitive “checking” in adventure games because it means puzzle solving ends up boiling down to clicking on everything 20 times until something new happens.  In fact, Unwritten Tales offers a time-saving feature where holding a key will highlight everything you can interact with, and once you’re out of potential interactions, they stop highlighting anymore.  So the solution to every puzzle is to click on everything until it stops lighting up.  There’s not a whole lot of “puzzling” involved. There are also some dumb things that MUST happen in order, even if it may not necessarily make sense that they MUST happen in that order.  The very first puzzle in the game revolves around trying to cut a bit of rope.  I did the stuff and got the necessary thing to cut it, so I selected the thing and pointed at the rope, and my character goes “Wait, I better tell him that I’m going to cut it now.”  Yet another conversation must take place before the actual cutting.  Sigh.  Fortunately subtitles work for these bits, so I can read them quickly and not wait for the voice acting to finish before I can go cut the god damn rope already.  At least the game sort of lets you feel like it understands that you’ve figured out the puzzle, instead of acting dumb until all the bits have been walked through.

And then the cutscene after that involved a pretty obvious zoom-in on elf cleavage.  Ugh.  One of the bonuses of story driven games like adventure games is that USUALLY it offers the opportunity to create full-featured female characters.  Nope, it’s an elf, so we better have her wear a leather bikini and zoom in when we can.  It’s too bad because I like her character, but having the defining feature be “female elf” is unfortunate.

All in all, it’s a decent addition to the adventure game genre, and I’m glad to see more developers getting in on producing more modern tales.  TL;DR – The game wins a lot of points for decent writing and not-infurating “puzzles”, but it loses points for the clunky animations and a couple of bad design decisions that end up wasting time.

[edit] And after playing further, I want to add that the game REALLY comes into its own as it goes on.  I enjoyed it almost as much as the classic LucasArts/Sierra stuff, which is saying a lot.  The time wasting stays true throughout, though.  Why do the characters have to slowly plod back to a specific spot when you switch?  Even if they must stand in a spot, why can’t they do that WHILE you control the next one?  It’s just clunky design…

Gemini Rue

Gemini Rue is a classic adventure game, complete with pixel graphics.  It’s so nostalgic that, even though I was aware it was fairly recent, I actually went and checked the publishing date, and was surprised to discover it said 2011.

I love adventure games.  I grew up on them.  All the horrible adventure logic in the world cannot make me not enjoy an adventure game, so this review can probably be considered biased to some degree.  That said, this game really kicked up some nostalgia.  It took me straight back to playing Space Quest on my god damn Tandy computer (I’m so ollllddd…).

Getting it running was practically an exercise in nostalgia, which is perhaps not quite to the game’s credit.  When I first booted it up, it started in default resolution, full screen.  Default resolution is 600×800 which is nostalgia for ALL the wrong reasons.  On a 1920×1080 monitor I think each pixel was the size of Texas.  The options had video settings for gamma and nothing else, so I did some quick googling and discovered you can change the resolution and set windowed mode via an executable in the game’s install folder.  That is so clunky it could only have been designed in the early ’90s.  Oh wait, 2011…
To actually change the resolution, you have to change the rendering mode, rather than change the resolution directly.  I switched it to antialiasing and it looked an awful lot like someone had dumped a vat of vaseline on my monitor, so I went back to nearest neighbor.

I set the options and booted it up again, only to find half the screen was not rendering.  I messed with settings a bit more only to discover that this pretty much happens on first load no matter what, but it’s easily (?) fixed by walking to a new screen and forcing a re-render.  It’s probably worth it to use windowed mode, I guess.

In the process of all this, I had gone through the intro sequence and gotten to the point where I could save a game.  I figured I could just load that game and skip the intro again.  I played for about an hour, then got distracted by something and went to save, and saw that my old save was no longer available to write over.  I figured all my settings fuckery had busted something and oh well.  Except when I came back, it loaded my original missing save – back at the start of the game (it autosaves at every important event, too, but the autosave claimed to be corrupt.  Ugh.).  I essentially lost an hour of progress to that, but since I was able to skip all the “flavour” exploration it only took me maybe 10 minutes to catch back up.  Still a bit disconcerting, but I’m done fucking with settings so we should be good from now on.

Now that I’m done bitching about the setup, we can talk about the actual game!  The story is intriguingly written.  It’s set in the future and bounces between a couple of player controlled characters, including a cop searching for his brother, and an inmate who keeps getting his memory wiped because he tries to escape.  There are plenty of hooks to keep you playing, and just enough left obscured that you want to dig deeper, but you don’t get frustrated.  Good job.  It’s a pretty typical adventure game setup, where you click to wander around a pixellated landscape, and right click to interact with certain designated interactable points.  The old standby of look, touch, talk, and um… kick… are the options on the right click menu.  In typical fashion there are plenty of interactibles in the environment which are just there for flavour and worldbuilding, and the occasional red herring.  Your inventory is accessed from the same menu, so you can take an item and attempt to use it on stuff.  Like your gun!

2013-01-05_00001

Damn.

One of the clues that the game is actually modern is the fact that it is entirely voice acted.  Unfortunately, it is also pretty obvious that the budget “spared no expense” on the voice acting.  The main characters pull it off pretty well, but some of the side characters could take lessons from Shatner in how to read a line.  There are some really obvious pauses where you can just feel them looking down and finding their place in the script.  Then they over-emote to make up for it.  Fortunately the characters you spend the most time with are a bit better at delivery.

The game does have a bit of adventure game logic in that things tend to need to progress in a fairly linear fashion, but unlike many games, it actually tends to make some sense when it fails an action.  There are also multiple solutions to a number of the problems that pop up, which is always nice.  That said, I have noticed a LOT of cases where an action that should be obvious and completable is not actually completable until you attempt it to see that progression is not possible without further action.  Example:  There is a stick stuck in a sliding door.  The stick is visible (such as it is, in its pixellated glory) from the start, but you can’t actually interact with it until you yank on the door and realize it won’t open.  One of the things that really impressed me about the original Myst is that you could solve the game in a few clicks if you knew where to go and how to open things.  Actually solving those things and learning how to open and use them took the entire rest of the game, but once you had solved it once you could be all smug with your friends and go *click click click* “oh what, you couldn’t figure that out???”.  It really added to that sense of “this is a world that exists but I don’t know enough about it so I must explore and learn.”  Adventure logic such as that in Gemini Rue is more along the lines of “I am in this world and I quite possibly am smarter than this character but I have to walk them through it step by step until they figure this shit out.”  It’s just not as engaging…

As the story progresses, you are instructed in how to engage in combat.  Combat.  In a point and click adventure game.  I was pretty terrified, but I found the system kind of interesting.  You can duck behind cover (by hitting left or right, depending which orientation you are at) and from there you cannot fire.  The enemy is going to pop out and unload their clip at you and then duck for safety as well, so you have to time when to shoot at them.  Additionally, if you just pop out and start firing, your bullets will probably go wildly all over the place and not hit the guy, so you can hold your breath and get that perfect headshot.  The headshot system is sort of “golf game” style power meter thing, where the cursor moves around and the optimal time to fire is when it’s in the green.  Of course, you need to make sure the enemy is out of cover when it’s in the green or you’re shooting at nothing, too.  I was pretty interested in this system and ready to talk about how good it was, but then this happened:

2013-01-06_00001

And it happened over and over and over again.  (Also pictured: the screen only half rendering because I have been loading so god damn much.)  Fortunately, there is also an option to change the difficulty of the combat.  I am probably going to be a big pussy and change that, eventually.  I DID finally get the hang of it and got an achievement for a one-shot kill, so that’s something.

I confess to not being very far in this game yet, so I don’t have a lot of commentary on the story.  I have heard nothing but good things about the story though, and what I’ve seen so far makes me excited to dig in and see what happens.  If the gameplay and execution quirks are the worst it has to offer, I think I’m in for a good ride here (although the save bug kind of worries me).  As such, I’m going to go ahead and recommend this now.  If it turns out to suck by the end of the game, I will quietly edit this and destroy all of the evidence.

I suspect it is not going to suck, though.

The Casual Vacancy

The Casual VacancyThe Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this book solely because I was curious what Rowling would do. I also promised when I started that I would not compare it to Harry Potter. I generally leave authors out of mind while reading and try to judge books on their own merit, but since literally the only reason I read this book was because of the author, it was a bit difficult to separate them.

It’s a solid 3.5. Since Goodreads doesn’t let you vote for .5s, I debated endlessly over whether to round up or round down. I finally decided to round up, partially because I simply love the way Rowling writes (I could nitpick some passive and convoluted sentence construction, but everything is so vibrantly described that I let it pass), and partly because I think she tried to do something clever, and even if it didn’t work out, I still kind of appreciated it because I like it when authors try to do interesting things.

The book is set in a fictional town which is probably fairly typical… it has good upscale areas and seedy poor areas, and a local political body that squabbles over what to do about everything. One of the councillors drops dead, and while half the town mourns in shock, the other half scrambles to nominate themselves to fill the seat and further their own agendas.

That’s it. That’s the book. The story follows the reactions and day to day doings of several key players in the town (and their teenage children…). It wasn’t un-interesting… and it’s beautifully described with brutal honesty, going through topics like drug abuse and child protective services, high school drama, prejudice, attempted murder, theft, self mutilation, abusive husbands, mental illness, hateful gossip, pedophilia, sex of both the consensual and nonconsensual varieties… if you can think of a horrible thing, it’s probably described in vivid detail in this book. (Hmm, there was no cannibalism though! So that’s something.)
There’s pretty much no other plot devices than “this is what this character is doing now”, which was my main complaint… there was nothing driving the story. but there was nothing “hooking” me to come back and find out what happens next.

It is 100% character driven, and one of my other complaints was that the first 25% of the book is spent introducing you to all of the characters. One after the other after the other until everyone blurred together in a giant amalgamated mass. I’m already breaking my rule and comparing it to Harry Potter – in HP, we had a ton of characters who were all fleshed out, but the reader was introduced to them gradually as Harry met them. That’s a decent means of exposition. The protagonist is just as clueless as the reader, so we learn together. In Casual Vacancy, everyone in the town knows everyone else and we’re dumped into the middle of it. I’m a fan of showing not telling, but a bit more orientation would have helped the book get rolling I think.

The second problem with the characters was that I hated all of them. Well… not hated I guess. I hated some of them (probably because I was supposed to), and didn’t give a shit about the rest (and I’m not sure if I was supposed to…). It wasn’t until the very end of the book that I realized this was probably on purpose, because the beginning of the book shows you the shallow petty sides of everyone, and it’s not until later that their more intimate secrets are revealed and you understand their history and motivations. I suspect you’re supposed to do an about-face on many of the characters later on and gain some sympathy for them THEN, which honestly I think is kind of a neat thing to attempt in this book. Taking abhorrent characters and turning them into everyone’s favourite is something George RR Martin manages to do in A Song of Ice and Fire, and it’s one of the things I was most impressed with. Unfortunately, with no sympathetic characters to latch on to early in the story, it falls a bit flat. The reader needs a reason to keep reading, and I really only kept reading because I wanted to give it a fair review…

Another thing that might be kind of clever, is that by introducing the characters with only their shallow petty sides visible, the reader is tempted to make shallow judgements of the characters. Which is exactly what the characters are doing to each other throughout the book. At the end, when the reader gets to see “behind the curtain” and see their motivations, it’s a revelation into how those types of judgements are flawed, and simultaneously a revelation into the flawed motivations of the town as a whole.
I’m probably reading too much into it, but the point still stands – the reader has to actually make it to the end before the story becomes anything other than shallow and unfocused.

And one final, sort of minor complaint. I mentioned how every sort of horrible thing is vividly described – The book is very sexually explicit. You can hardly turn 10 pages before tripping over a penis in this book. In MOST of the cases it makes sense, but in a number of them I felt like it was being sexually explicit simply to throw some shock factor in there. Here we go with the HP comparison again – I felt like it was artificially explicit simply because Rowling wanted to distance herself from the “children’s author” typecasting. It felt like she wrote a brutally explicit book simply to say “See? Look, this isn’t a children’s book, is it?” and she tried just a teeny bit too hard in places.

Once you make it to the end, the last 25% or so is a page turner and I enjoyed it very much. The whole “denouement” is full of action and you *finally* want to keep going to see what happens next. It’s just getting there that’s the issue.
And once you’re done… the ending might leave some readers a bit unsatisfied, too. I would suggest avoiding this book if you are prone to clinical depression.

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