It’s been a long time coming, but we’re already one episode deep into the new season of Critical Role. And the state of tabletop RPGs has changed drastically since the show started almost three years ago. In March of 2015, I was wrapping up my first year in game design school and still basking (somewhat naively) in an Obama-led America. Games have only grown more prominent in every way, though, and I see that growth as a mostly good thing. Certainly, this is a golden age for RPGs, where anyone can publish anything they can think of and learning how to play virtually any semi-popular game only takes a few clicks and a few hours of your time.
Enter Critical Role’s second campaign, the inaugural stream of which drew about 95,000 viewers at peak. There’s probably terabytes of fan art for it already, yet we barely got a hint of the cast’s new characters and Matt’s new setting. As CR is undeniably the most popular and most accessible form of D&D ever created, it’s important for designers to take note of what Matt, his players, and Geek & Sundry are doing. The show is responsible for so many people getting into RPGs, and I’m sure thousands of viewers are happy to only experience D&D vicariously through streams. So every week I’d like to do a short recap of the new episode and see what important nuggets we can use from each to inspire and inform my own work. I didn’t watch much of the first campaign, so I’m excited to watch the new one from the beginning. I hope you enjoy coming along with me on the journey.
Production-wise, it’s immediately apparent G&S has upped their game since last season. The new gaming table is amazing, the overlay looks cleaner, and the camera work has improved as well. After 10 minutes of ads and plugs, we get to see CR’s new intro video for the first time. It looks and sounds like a window into 70s stereotypes (reminding me a lot of high school yearbook photos of my parents), from the unpainted lead miniatures and disco-inspired music to Sam Riegel’s ridiculous rainbow suspenders and Matt’s aviator glasses. It’s a welcome improvement over the old intro, and importantly shows D&D as a time-honored game to play with friends rather than just an excuse for cosplay. The game inspired a lot of the media we remember fondly from the 1980s, just like what CR may do for the the 2020’s.
Next, Matt gives us a lengthy monologue about an area of northeastern Tal’Dorei known as Wildemount. He frames a kingdom called the Dwendalian Empire that’s both ruled by religious and military powers and threatened by wild monsters that roam the outskirts of civilization. To me, it sounds a lot like Dark Souls and seems more Gothic than the episodes I caught of the Exandria campaign. After flooding us with details that may or may not be relevant, Matt tells us this particular story starts in a small, agricultural village called Trostenwald. This is not the kind of slow opening to a campaign I would use with my friends, but it is a great way to open a season of Critical Role. As viewers, we need to know where this story is taking place and why we should care, and I think Matt gave us just enough to stay interested through the proceeding 90 minutes of character introductions and role-playing.
Then the actors’ take the stage, and they take their time doing so. One by one, we meet each new character, in a tavern no less, and see how the cast interacts with each other in their new roles. Liam’s reserved and soft-spoken wizard, Caleb Widogast, is my favorite and reminds me of characters I’ve made in the past. He even comes with an orange cat named Frumpkin and Sam’s excitable rogue, Nott. Nott, Sam laments, is a tiny, goblin female with a British accent. I wouldn’t want to try to keep up that voice for three more years, but it will be entertaining to watch Sam do so. Laura easily steps into the skin of Jester, the comedic tiefling cleric, and Marisha embodies a much brasher character than her former half-elf druid. Her new PC, Beauregard the human monk, mainly likes drinking and money. Travis’s half-orc warlock, Fjord, has a gunslinger air about him, and it’s refreshing to see a more serious character in the group. Taliesin and Ashley come as a pair with Mollymauk, the tiefling blood hunter, and Yasha, the aasimar barbarian. Molly’s efforts to swindel the other characters out of their gold are quite entertaining to watch, and Jester bonds with him over his made up card readings. Ashley plays a good bodyguard and portrays the most headstrong character of the bunch.
Eventually, Matt prods the group away from the Nestled Nook Inn towards the adventure, and he paints an alluring carnival scene inside a large, medieval circus tent using more of his written material. We and the characters watch in awe as Matt spins rhymes of contortionism, music, magic, and strange creatures. The beautiful illusion is suddenly shattered, however, as one of the elderly carnival-goers morphs into a zombie-like monstrosity and throws the crowd into chaos. The combat encounter takes up most of the rest of the time in the episode, and Matt has set it up to be both interesting and challenging for a large level-2 party. The map, miniatures, and models keep the fight engaging for the viewers and give us a good idea of what’s at stake. The players have to contend with killing two zombies without harming any of the carnival-goers or allowing more zombies to be created. The crowd provides decent cover for the ranged attackers, though, and the melee classes make short work of the abominations.
The session ends with Molly and the circus company under arrest and the remainder of the party under investigation from the imperial guards. Someone has to be blamed for the mayhem, so it might as well be the player characters. It’s a fitting ending that leaves us with a few key questions. How will the party get Molly out of prison? Who’s actually behind the zombie menace? What kind of magical affect, if any, did the dwarf singer, Toya, have on the circus crowd? I’m excited to see how the group discovers the answers, and I’m fairly invested in learning more about each character. Overall, Curious Beginnings was a great introduction to a new campaign that I highly encourage you to watch if you haven’t already.
And that’s it for now! I’ll aim to get a new recap post up every Tuesday or Wednesday night, so I hope you enjoy them. Feel free to leave me some feedback in the comments or on Twitter as well. Until next time, farewell!
Besides the trial, Episode 4 is fairly uneventful storywise, yet not without its charm. Highlights include the party’s conversation with the newly-awoken Toya, Beau’s solo encounter, Caleb and Nott’s spa date, and a lot of shopping and bargaining shenanigans. But my favorite part was Matt pulling out a beautifully-drawn map of the Dwendalian Empire by one of my favorite cartographers, Deven Rue. She does truly amazing artwork, and the map was an awesome surprise to bring out on the stream. If you haven’t seen Deven’s maps before, I urge you to follow her on Twitter @DevenRue and check out her website. Matt’s prop game has been on point all season, so I’m sure he’ll have even more surprises for us in the coming months.
As the first arc of this campaign wraps up, the party has to make their own way, free from pursuit of the law or demons, for now. With an entire region’s worth of fantastic locales to explore, I’m extremely envious of Matt’s players. Soon to be level 3, they’ve gotten their sea legs under them and come together as a formidable team. I’m a little disappointed that Ashley Johnson has been mostly absent from the campaign so far and has missed a lot of the best moments. But there’s still a lot of Critical Role ahead of us, and who knows what Matt will throw at the party tomorrow night. See you next week!
I’m half sick as I’m writing this, which is a shame, because episode 3 of Critical Role was fantastic. I really wanted to do a deeper analysis of it, but I think we’ll all have to settle for another surface-level recap this week. If you’ve neglected to watch the show up to this point, this episode is a great jumping on point. It’s got everything I want from an actual play with very minimal downtime for a live stream. I hope we get more like it and less like episode 2’s plodding investigation.
It starts as most good D&D sessions should, with combat. The party dispatches two more zombie creatures, but not without casualties. Mollymauk nearly dies, so Taliesin spends most of the session acting wounded or unconscious. It’s not a complicated encounter, but it does get the audience’s attention and gets the whole party rolling dice as soon as possible. The group then hides the zombie guard bodies and tracks the devil toad through the dead of night to the edge of a lake outside town. After a lot of negotiation and preparation back in Trostenwald, the party learns of an abandoned ruin named Crooked Stone on an island in the middle of the Eustaloch. The devil toad, of course, has made Crooked Stone its hideout along with the enchanting dwarf singer, Toya.
For the last hour, we witness a wonderfully tense and dynamic combat encounter that I strongly applaud Matt for setting up. He’s employed several elements that make the fight much more interesting than it could have been. First of all, it’s taking place at night, meaning the characters without darkvision (about half the party) need to create a way to see in the dark. Caleb’s Dancing Lights spell quickly takes care of the problem, but he still has to spend an action casting it, which critically reduces the amount of damage he can do. Secondly, the space isn’t completely flat. Trees, rocks, ruins, steps, and stone walls fill the arena, giving the PC’s and monsters interesting ways to interact with and abuse the environment. Finally, the devil toad and Toya have extremely powerful abilities that demand attention from at least one or two PC’s on any given turn. Because Beauregard spends most of her turns restraining Toya’s voice, she barely contributes to the damage done to the toad, leaving most of the demon-slaying to Fjord.
The rest of the party is left to deal with the monstrous toad and its three imp summons. Though the party eventually emerges victorious, I got the sense it was a very close fight and could have gone either way if the dice had landed differently. Even though I suspect Matt often tries to rule in favor of the party in order to keep them alive and having fun, I appreciate him posing real dangers to this low-level group, especially considering he has such a large audience to please. The episode ends with the toad blown in half and the dwarf girl unconscious in the party’s care. I can’t wait to see what she has to say when she awakes. Our heroes have some real clues to work with now and even got to test their mettle against their first boss battle. Is it Thursday yet?
Episode 2 is more cerebral than the first. We now have a faint idea of who the characters are and how they generally like to act. They even have some goals and can begin to move around Matt’s world making somewhat-informed choices. The party becomes a band of detectives, as they investigate possible causes of the carnival mishaps. They lie, deceive, trick, and sneak their way through Trostenwald and successfully discover that the devil toad is the culprit. They also free Mollymauk in short order, thankfully. For the most part, Matt lets the players do what they want and gives only subtle direction until the end, when the truth is revealed and more zombies head toward our heroes trapped in the tent. Overall, it’s a less exciting episode without a single combat encounter, but it’s still interesting. It’s the kind of session I’d be afraid to run with new players, as they might not know how to make their own fun yet. But for Matt’s seasoned veterans, it’s a worthy challenge and showcases a lot more fantastic role-playing from everyone at the table. I’m excited to see how the party fairs against more zombies and anxious for the inevitable showdown with the fiend. See you next week!
I’m going to state the obvious: 2017 was a hard year for a lot of people. I won’t go into the details, because I couldn’t do them justice if I tried. Fortunately, some of the best games of the decade released in 2017, and they kept me going through some rough weeks. I’ve had to adjust to a lot of changes, including a new job that has solved a lot of my financial problems. It’s also left me with less time than I would like to do creative, introspective work like this. But I still managed to crank out eight episodes of a new podcast I started and play in more tabletop RPG sessions than I have since high school. Music-wise, I’m in a weird spot where I still want to play trombone, but I get increasingly diminishing returns from it. I decided not to perform for free again unless I have a very good reason to, and I encourage all artists to adopt a similar policy. I also discovered that I enjoy the study and craft of tabletop RPG products a hell of a lot, so I’m making it a high-priority goal to self-publish an adventure or two in 2018. All of this to say, play more games, don’t let people take advantage of you, do what makes you happy, be exceedingly kind and patient with others, and keep moving forward, especially when it seems like there’s nothing to look forward to.
Let’s get to it.
SPOILERS ABOUND FROM THIS POINT FORWARD
Top 10 Games of 2017
I’m growing more and more appreciative of short games that do something unique, and Gorogoa is exactly that. You can finish it in the time it takes to watch a long episode of Black Mirror, but the level of craftsmanship is staggering. I don’t want to think about how long and painstaking the process must have been to create art and lenses that lined up perfectly but remained gorgeous from every angle. Gorogoa isn’t particularly difficult, but it does force you to think outside the realm of the four frames and juggle between different time periods, places, and perspectives. There are even some real-time challenges in this unassuming puzzle game, but they’re crucially neither punishing nor strenuous. The story, too, is brilliantly-paced, and you’ll find yourself piecing it together subconsciously even as you spy another hidden connection and watch everything fall into place.
9: Divinity: Original Sin 2
I almost didn’t play Divinity in 2017, and the only reason it’s not higher on this list is I’ve only put a few hours into it at the time of this writing. I fully intend to finish the main campaign and make my own adventures for it, though. Even more than the first game, it near-perfectly nails the feeling of playing a tabletop RPG. It features turn-based combat, fully-voiced dialogue, intuitive mod tools, and a high level of interaction that, in some ways, make Obsidian’s and inXile’s isometric RPG’s look archaic by comparison. Larian Studios has even created a separate Game Master mode for the game that I’m dying to try with a full group. The few gripes I have with the UI, the camera, and the party options will likely be addressed by future updates, either from Larian themselves or fan-made mods. Like CD Projekt Red, Larian has proven they understand their audience and that mid-sized studios can do amazing work when they’re not beholden to the whims of another publisher.
8: Super Mario Odyssey
I’m not in love with Mario Odyssey, but I did love the first 12 hours I spent with it. My enjoyment of it petered off after the end of the main story, until it felt like I was wandering aimlessly from world to world, searching for the same magic behind every pointless Moon that compelled me through what originally felt like pure joy. I appreciated it more after I started watching speed runs and learning some of the harder movement tricks myself. As fluid and inventive as Mario’s new hat moves feel, though, I don’t think they hold up in the game’s most difficult challenges (certainly not with Joy-Cons). I could just chalk this game up to being another victim of the inherent clumsiness of 3D platforming and call it a day. But Odyssey’s highs are so high (the New Donk City Festival sequence, Metro Kingdom, ending Bowser sequence, and Mushroom Kingdom chief among them) that it’s a must-play for Mario fans, and it’s easily one of Nintendo’s best efforts.
7: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
I appreciate what Breath of the Wild has done for games more than I enjoy playing it. Nintendo took a massive gamble by going back to the roots of what makes Zelda great and fully embracing and exploring modern open-world game design. For a company that notoriously keeps its head in the sand regarding so many issues, they took pages from so many developers’ books that I would likely fail to list them all. Clearly, Nintendo has listened to its devoted fan-base this generation and delivered in spades. Where Mario Odyssey comes apart at the seams, Zelda succeeds through a world that feels more alive than Skyrim and combat that builds and capitalizes on the years of work From Software did refining the Dark Souls formula. Like Minecraft, Breath of the Wild for me has become a meditative game I turn to when there’s nothing else I feel like playing and just need another world to drift in.
Cuphead is the rare example of an indie game that actually met the immense hype that built up around it for years. It also sparked the tired conversation about difficulty in games anew and suffered for it. So many critics failed to look past Cuphead’s amazing art and sound and see the nearly-as-good level and enemy design that props the whole game up. If Cuphead still looked the way it does but didn’t play so well, I have no doubt it would have failed and been lampooned like Mighty No. 9 before it. The King Dice RNG boss rush feels more oppressive than the rest of the game, surely, but mastering it and beating it effortlessly was one of the most rewarding things I did in 2017. Taking into account the Simple Mode and unlockable extra hearts and creative weaponry, Cuphead’s learning curve is far more forgiving and generous than the mainstream has given it credit for.
5: Opus Magnum
Everyone on Twitter is showing off their incredibly efficient solutions in Opus Magnum. I prefer taking a different approach… pic.twitter.com/iaSZmdohnj
Plenty of games make me feel stupid, but few ever make me feel like a genius. Even when I’ve made an alchemy machine that looks a little silly or isn’t worth its weight in salt, I still love the act of creation in Opus Magnum. It’s the first Zachtronics game I’ve felt smart enough to even attempt to play well. Constructing a new apparatus and orchestrating every precise movement reminds me strongly of the time I spent in music theory classes, trying to compose figured bass or analyze exactly why a particular harmonic motion sounds pleasing. The ability to create GIFs of your working mechanisms is itself a genius feature, and watching them on Twitter becomes almost hypnotic. Even the story, setting, and solitaire mini-game are charming, in a puzzler that’s really just about transforming alchemy Skittles and putting them together over and over and over and over and over…
4: What Remains of Edith Finch
What I didn’t get from Tacoma, I found in Edith Finch. For some reason, crawling through the secret passages and abandoned stairwells of an old, impossibly-large, possibly-haunted house is extremely enjoyable for me. The real joy of Giant Sparrow’s game, however, is in the variety of gameplay vignettes they’ve managed to include in this 2-hour storybook tale. Some are much better than others, but each has something to say about mental illness, death, family, and memories. Other than that, I’m not really sure what it’s about, but I don’t think it has to do anything more than make the player reflect on their own mortality and the value of stories we pass down through generations.
Equal parts Soma, System Shock 2, and Half-Life 2, Prey scratches an itch for me that not many developers dare to. Because it’s damn hard to make immersive sims, let alone ones that are so cohesive or play with expectations as well as Arkane’s latest endeavor. Mimics and the ability to turn into a baseball glove or desk chair sell the game, but what I remember fondly from my 16 hours on Talos I are the character stories I witnessed and the times I was left to my own devices. Exploring the station and managing health and ammo became an act of tactical planning driven by playful curiosity. How much raw material can I realistically expect to gather from this office with my Recycler Charges? How can I gain access to this elevated space shuttle without fighting through a dozen Military Operators? Who are these people that left the remnants of their D&D campaign scattered throughout the station, and why do I feel so attached to them? I didn’t always find satisfying answers to these questions, but Prey gave me the freedom to inquire and learn on my own terms, a dying art that I truly cherish.
2: Doki Doki Literature Club
If I had to pick a game that hit me in the gut the hardest this year, Doki Doki Literature Club would be it. I’d never given visual novels much of a chance before, because they’re mostly hentai fan-service fair if Steam is to be believed. But I found a real appreciation for them after playing this weird, free story by Team Salvato. I grew to like each character (though Sayori is undoubtedly my favorite), and each death had a profound effect on me, enough that I couldn’t stop thinking about the game for days after I finished it. The icing on the cake though, is how meta this game gets in terms of design and subverting the player’s hard-wired expectations. Even if the act is superficial, I was astounded the game made me manually delete a file in order to progress. Though we see the rest of the girls die horribly, the really tragic figure is Monika, who is obsessed with the player in a way that mirrors the slavish, perverted, clinginess of sexually repressed fanboys. The game ends with maybe the best credits song since Still Alive. It’s more than worth the $10 to get the Fan Pack and support Salvato in whatever he does next.
1: Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy
For a year of pain, anguish, and setbacks, Getting Over It seems like an apt allegory. But Bennett Foddy’s real achievement is not merely creating a game about frustration, but making the player value or even seek it out as something intrinsically useful. Falling from a great height at first seems like a huge loss, and Bennett reinforces this feeling through quotes, music, and personal anecdotes. But you quickly discover that you can regain that lost ground faster as you get better and better at controlling one of the weirdest video game avatars I’ve ever seen. This is also the first game I’ve played that’s explicitly an expertly-crafted homage to a B-game. I went and played Sexy Hiking because of it, though I don’t necessarily recommend everyone do that. Getting Over It is truly for those people that can’t resist climbing a mountain just to see what’s at the top. It’s meant to hurt them and teach them that not every obstacle need be surmounted. But to those that can and do meet every challenge, good for you. Reach down and pick up the rest of us, eh?
Top 5 Honorable Mentions of 2017
5: West of Loathing
West of Loathing is a delightfully-funny little RPG I still need to finish from some of my favorite people in the industry. Check out their podcast at http://videogameshotdog.com/ – it’s a must-listen for me every week.
4: Etrian Odyssey V: Beyond the Myth
Somehow, Atlus still has the capacity to make these games. And I still love creating my own party, drawing my own maps, and fighting through endless hordes of dangerous dungeon denizens. If Nintendo never makes another dual-screen handheld, we may never get another of these games made in quite the same way.
It’s not Gone Home, but there’s enough interesting storytelling going on to satisfy any fan of the walking simulator genre. The AR recording mechanic is uniquely impressive.
2: Thimbleweed Park
I admire most point-and-click adventures more than I enjoy playing them, but I was touched by Thimbleweed Park’s reverence for the past. I’ve barely played Maniac Mansion, yet I still felt nostalgic for it during Delores’ intro section.
1: Resident Evil 7
Maybe the best Resident Evil game ever? I’m not a fan of most horror games with Slender Man DNA (I found Outlast fairly tedious), but RE7 hooked me despite the clunky controls and the sharp difficulty spikes. It’s another great case of a cleverly-designed space with an interesting setting.
And that’s it for the meat and potatoes of this article! But feel free to read on for more thoughts from me about games and stuff, and I’ll be glad you came.
Top 10 Games I Didn’t Get Around to Playing in 2017
10: Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony
I’m not sure why I’m intrigued by this game, but I am.
9: Splatoon 2
There’s a lot of great stuff on the Switch, but I just haven’t played Splatoon yet!
In a year without a From Software game, it seems like Nioh adequately filled the Dark Souls gap for a lot of people.
7: A Hat in Time
This little 3D platformer has gotten a ton of buzz recently, and it has a level editor to boot!
6: Nier Automata
I know, I know, it’s probably sacrilegious that I haven’t seen everything this game has to offer yet. I did play a few hours of it, wasn’t impressed, and haven’t played it since. But I know why people like it, and, for the sake of my partner and the rest of the gaming community, I’m planning on coming back to it. It has one of the best soundtracks of 2017 for sure.
5: Torment: Tides of Numenera
I’ve owned this for several months now, but after my previous gaming computer died, I didn’t have a great way to experience it. Now that I have a new PC, it’s only a matter of time before I get through it and the other isometric RPGs sitting in my backlog.
4: Night in the Woods
This seems like a game that is directly up my alley; I just haven’t made myself buy it yet.
3: Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus
I enjoyed what I played of the first game, and I hear you get to shoot even more Nazis in this one. Count me in.
2: Dishonored 2 and the Death of the Outsider DLC
It’s a real shame I didn’t get to this last year. Arkane is one of my favorite studios, and Prey only made me like them more. We need more good Thief games.
I mostly missed the PUBG hype train in 2017. But I don’t expect that train to be slowing down any time soon, so I’ll get around to trying it eventually. That goes for giving Fortnite a real shot as well.
Biggest Let-Downs of 2017
It’s weird to say this, but I’m pretty disappointed with a game that I played for 60+ hours. It seemed like it had so much promise at first, but Destiny quickly became a grind I wasn’t interested in going through anymore. For an MMO to run out of interesting things to do after such a short time is a major sin to me.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice
As much as I respect Ninja Theory and the time they put into this game, Hellblade missed the mark for me. The voices in Senua’s head were just annoying, and the puzzles were boring and buggy. I love the idea of a game about anxiety, but Hellblade doesn’t pull it off. I do think the combat has potential, and I’d like to see NT make a more serious God Hand-like game in this engine.
I was probably looking forward to Persona 5 the most last year, but it just didn’t have the same magic Persona 4 did for me. That and the soundtrack got really old really fast after I listened to my partner play through the game for 90 hours.
I can’t say I was expecting all that much from this game, but I did have a glint of optimism for it that comes with virtually every Star Wars product. What EA did to it turned out to be far worse than release a bad game, though, so I opted for Call of Duty instead and had an okay time with it.
Top Tabletop RPG Products of 2017
XCrawl: New Year’s Evil
My friends and I had a blast playing through this bizarre adventure for the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG, check out our actual play recording!
Blades in the Dark
Blades in the Dark combines the Thief/Dishonored aesthetic with an inventive role-playing system that I like quite a lot. It leaves most of the decision-making up to the players, as it should.
Probably the best setting book I’ve ever read, I love how Hubris uses well-written random encounter tables in place of boring lore and mind-numbing backstory.
DCC Quickstart Rules
DCC has needed an easier point of entry than a 500-page tome for a while now, and we finally got the quick start rules on Free RPG Day 2017! The Gnole House introductory adventure that comes with it is quite good as well.
Tales from the Yawning Portal
Of the three WotC books released for 5th Edition D&D this year, Tales from the Yawning Portal is my favorite. It’s not for everyone, but it’s perfect for the DM looking to pit their players against some of the most classic dungeons the game has to offer. It’s also a useful guide to converting older content to 5E and a great history lesson for those of us that weren’t slinging dice in the 70’s.
Paizo’s new core rulebook is big, beautiful, and maybe just the right fit for a group in need of a sci-fi system with some crunch. It’s nothing if not a tribute to 3.5’s staying power.
Top Doom Mods of 2017
I didn’t play a lot of Doom mods from 2017, but here’s some of the better ones. Be sure to check out the full Cacowards list on Doomworld for even more Doom goodness here: https://www.doomworld.com/24years/. There are many other WADS from 2017 that are almost or just as good as these, and I’m making an effort to play the bulk of them in 2018.
lilith.pk3 by anotak
I think lilith.pk3 has to be played to truly be believed. I know there’s been some controversy over it winning the Cacowards, but it’s much more than just a glitch exhibition for ZDoom. In some ways, it’s a swan song for that engine. It’s fun to play, and it manipulates bugs and glitches to create things I’ve never seen in my handful of years playing Doom before. It looks impressive enough, but the fact that it’s at all an enjoyable, nuanced experience is deserving of high praise.
Shadows of the Nightmare Realm by Alexa “YukiRaven” Jones-Gonzales
This is a very well-made WAD that felt more like Quake than Doom. The textures and lighting effects are stunning, the many new enemy sprites look fantastic, and the level design shows hints of real innovation. While I’m not a fan of fighting a Cyberdemon in a tiny room and had to cheat to finish it, the last level delivers on the promise of the earlier ones completely. Played on one of the easier difficulty settings, SotNR is one of the better entry points for newcomers to Doom in recent years.
Saturnine Chapel by dobu gabu maru
I’m not at all sure how well Saturnine Chapel is designed, because I haven’t survived long enough to really tell yet. But I had to include it here purely based on how the opening of the map looks. You’re dropped into this green, glowing hell-scape of dead trees and acid towers, and how you approach entry to the Chapel is left up to you. The Chapel draws the player in, because it’s the only non-green architecture in the level. Progressing through it becomes a puzzle, one that you’ll have seconds to figure out before you’re ruthlessly slaughtered by Revenants as you fire weakly at them from a corner with your starting pistol.
Also of Note…
Overwatch – Esports and More
We finally saw progress on the Overwatch League project this year, and I’m really excited to see how the experience fairs for pro players. The World Cup was great to watch, due to new commentator tech and some smart UI choices. The new characters we got, while not always viable in competitive matches, have been a blast to play and still feel unique in the game’s ever-growing roster of misfits and monkeys. Overwatch remains my favorite Blizzard game to date, and I couldn’t stay away from it for very long in 2017, despite dumping 200+ hours into it across two platforms already.
Hearthstone: Dungeon Run
I was mostly over Hearthstone shortly after Knights of the Frozen Throne released. But Kobolds & Catacombs brought me back in a big way. Suddenly, classic D&D monsters had cards in the game, in a rare case of Blizzard actually calling attention to one of their biggest influences. And Dungeon Run is so close to being an amazing mode that it pains me to see ActiBlizz not exploiting it more. Arena is a dismal experience right now, and the game is still too inaccessible for new players. But anyone with a Battle.net account can hop into Dungeon Run at any time for free and have a mostly great time. Please make more content like this, Blizz, and give us better rewards for it!
Elder Scrolls: Legends
The Elder Scrolls: Legends came out of beta in May 2017, and it’s a great game. Like, probably better than Hearthstone great. What it lacks in production values, it makes up for with some innovative new card game mechanics and mercifully little RNG. The Rune system is a great way to give the losing player a chance to catch up, and it turns the normally rote action of attacking the other player into a dynamic decision that can completely change the state of a given match.
Twin Peaks: The Return
Twin Peaks before 2017 was a hit in the 90s and a cult classic, sure, but The Return season elevated the show to one of the best cultural artifacts we have. I can’t say enough good things about it, and if I tried, it would only sound like hyperbole. It’s a show that everyone should watch and appreciate, especially in a landscape dominated by shows and films that merely pay homage to the past without really knowing why.
Most games podcasts stay away from difficult subject matter like politics and current events, but Waypoint in 2017 addressed both games and the state of the world in equal measure. There were weeks I needed to hear Austin Walker and the gang talk through what had just happened, because I didn’t have the capacity to process things as well on my own. As much as we like to think of ourselves as isolated and separate from the outside world, games and the people who play them have a huge role in the current cultural and political zeitgeist. Waypoint dared to tackle some weighty subjects in 2017 and did so with enough tact and grace to justify doing so on a podcast purportedly about video games.
Looking Ahead to 2018 and Barely Cringing
And that’s it for now! If you stuck with me this far, thank you! And I do apologize for the word count on this one. But I haven’t blogged in a year and a half, and it felt good to get all of the above out in a tangible way. That’s one of the things I aim to fix in 2018. More blogging, more videos, more podcasts, more art, more music, and generally being me to a fuller extent. That includes participating in the world more than I have in my adult life, and, while that scares me, I think it’s necessary if I want to change things for the better. I hope you find success and happiness in 2018 and find ways, however small, to give back some of the prosperity you’ve gained. It’s the only way forward.
Happy New Year!
And if you want to keep up with what I’m doing in 2018, you can follow me on Twitter and Google+.
It seems weird to start reviewing a television show in the middle of its first season, but I get the feeling most people, like me, have only just started watching Westworld in the last week or two. I’ve never reviewed a show before, on this blog or otherwise, but thanks to HBO NOW everyone can NOW stream Home Box Office’s slew of raunchy-yet-thought-provoking programming without bending to the will of the cable companies. I’ve taken a couple film classes, watched a lot of TV, read a few books on film critique, and listened to a lot of podcasts on TV and film. I’m no expert on TV criticism, but I am discerning in my tastes and try to hold a high standard as an amateur reviewer.
As for the show itself, if you haven’t watched it yet, I highly recommend you do so before reading much further. And if you really want to understand where it’s coming from, rent the original 1973 movie, Westworld, on your streaming platform of choice. Like or hate its campy thrills, Michael Crichton’s original story sets the stage for the show, and the show often references details from the film, making it worth the watch. There’s even a sequel called Futureworld and five episodes of another series, Beyond Westworld, out there for completionists.
For those of you that want to get to the new show right off the bat, I’ll explain the premise: a bunch of scientists, doctors, engineers, and investors some time in the future have created a realistic theme park called Westworld, an area of land designed to look and feel like the old west, complete with rattlesnakes, horses, cattle, vultures, cacti, tumbleweeds, rocky desert, saloons, brothels, and the like. Robots virtually identical to humans inhabit Westworld and act as hosts for their human guests. Guests spend $40,000 a day to do whatever they wish in Westworld with little fear of bodily harm or pesky conscience. But something strange has happened in Westworld; some of the robots have become aware of their servitude and don’t much like getting killed and raped for the amusement of the guests. In the original film, most of the humans died at the hands of the single-minded androids, but the show has taken a more nuanced approach of making the hosts more sympathetic and less Terminator-esque. Think Jurassic Park meets I, Robot. And if you want more details, definitely watch the show and check out HBO’s companion material at discoverwestworld.com.
All right, from here on out, assume there are spoilers. Episode four takes its title from the psychology concept of cognitive dissonance, which basically states that when humans experience conflicting beliefs or behaviors, they feel discomfort and aim to eradicate the conflict. We most strongly associate this experience with Dolores as she grows ever more uncomfortable with her role, but several other robots, humans, and groups act out this idea as well. This episode also features a strange pairing of writer Ed Brubaker with director Vincenzo Natali. Brubaker, best known for his work on Captain America and other Marvel comics, brings more humor and video game references to the show than we’ve seen so far. While entertaining, some of the more self-referential lines, particularly Logan’s, may prove too quaint for some viewers. Natali has had middling success in the science fiction genre in the past (though Splice is best forgotten), and he offers some interesting visual ideas in this episode. Funnily enough, his film Cube also features a maze full of danger and intrigue. Dissonance Theory falls a little short of the rest of the show’s higher standard, though, and Natali’s direction bears the bulk of that blame.
The first scene opens with a shot of Bernard entering Dolores’s cell, though we see him distorted through the reflection of Dolores’s iris. This helps solidify us in Dolores’s camp; we now empathize with her most of all and see the ensuing conversation from her point of view. Dolores mirrors Bernard in this scene, though, as she wants to feel the grief for her dead loved ones, the same as him. She refuses Bernard’s offer to erase the memories of her parents, because she’s learned the value of memories. Evan Rachel Wood continues to deliver outstanding performances in this episode, effortlessly transforming from one emotion to the next.
Dolores has evolved alarmingly fast in four episodes, to the point where she can mix lines from her script with words she thinks up herself. In one of the best lines of the show, she expounds, “I feel spaces opening up inside of me, like a building with rooms I’ve never explored.” She’s essentially performing verbal jazz, knowing the basic form of her programmed response and choosing to “play over” that response with her own style and expression. Her father, Peter Abernathy, performed a similar act in the first episode when he quoted Shakespeare to express his resentment towards Ford and Bernard, but he never improvised to the extent his daughter does. The idea of a building with unexplored rooms calls open-world video games to mind, in which players spend most of their time in search of more places to explore until they exhaust the supply and move on to a new game. Ultimately, Bernard helps Dolores realize that she wants to escape from Westworld, and he bestows upon her the quest to find the center of the maze. This sets Dolores towards the same goal as the Man in Black, and he and Dolores will probably soon cross paths again.
For a brief moment after the first scene, we see Dolores wake up in Logan and William’s camp. This scene will likely fuel more fan theories about alternate timelines, but there’s no way to prove them conclusively. In the middle of the night, some Westworld employees may have dragged Dolores off for maintenance while Logan and William slept and returned her a few hours later. At any rate, we haven’t seen enough evidence to confirm either side of the argument yet, and viewers should remain incredulous.
Throughout the episode, Maeve’s memories return bit by bit, forming one of the three narratives we see play out in the park; the other two being Lawrence and the Man in Black’s hunt for an egg-laying snake, and William, Logan, and Dolores’s adventure. In the end, only Maeve’s narrative comes to a real conclusion, as she discovers with Hector that she lives in a false world and nothing she does in it matters. Her discomfort grows as she notices more and more inconsistencies, until finally the bullet from inside her confirms that someone set her life on repeat. Who knows what she’ll do next, but Maeve has proven smart, strong, and resourceful in the past, so she probably won’t take her newfound existence lightly.
Outside the fantasy, we continue to see power struggles arise from every confrontation. Elsie remains the most in tune with the hosts, but Theresa and Bernard go over her head without a second thought. Notably, the QA department at Westworld seems to get about as much respect from the programmers as they do in the video game industry, which is probably why Stubbs rarely talks back to the higher-ups. Bernard continues to brush off Elsie’s attempts to unravel the park’s mysteries, even after she declares that everyone has an agenda but her. Bernard insists that the carving on the turtle shell can’t be Orion, but we can’t believe he’ll so easily thwart Elsie’s curiosity. Shannon Woodward continues to be a joy to watch and provides smart humor in stark contrast to Ben Barnes’s winking Logan.
The episode drags throughout the middle section, but we get enough exposition, revelations, and Ingrid Berdal side-boob to stick with the characters we’ve learned to care for. While the script falls flat in places, we do see some memorable interactions between key characters. Dolores, triggered by Lawrence’s daughter, has flashbacks of her past role, and for one moment we even see her bent over her own grave. This may mean Dolores is destined to die, but more likely it insinuates the change within Dolores’s mind and the death of her naivete. She also expresses to William precisely her situation via another cattle drive metaphor: her and her kind exist only for the slaughter. Whether her status as the Judas steer will lead to the destruction of the rest of the herd seems up to her.
Armistice accepts the Man in Black’s ludicrous wager, which he wins in the most cartoonish fashion. He needs only a few explosive cigars to break Hector out of jail and once again save Lawrence from impending doom. Lawrence’s disbelief reaches its zenith as he exclaims, “Motherfucker!” From now on we can expect him to stay loyal to the Man in Black and reconcile the inconsistencies in his life with the truth that Ed Harris’s character can perform the impossible. Unsurprisingly, Armistice points the Man in Black in the direction of Wyatt, the same villain from Teddy’s newly-uploaded backstory.
Finally, we get back to the meat of the story with a showdown between Theresa and Ford. Unfortunately, Sidse Knudsen struggles exceedingly with an American accent during this conversation. She emotes wonderfully, though, and we should forgive her for not navigating Brubaker’s script with the fairest of grace. Despite Bernard’s post-coital coaching and encouragement, Theresa doesn’t stand a chance against Ford’s powers of intimidation and observation. Anthony Hopkins brilliantly plays a wealthy plantation-owner, though perhaps we could have done without such obvious slavery symbolism. Ford exhibits unprecedented control over the hosts, paralyzing them with seemingly nothing more than a thought. At this point, we should consider the notion that Ford is a cyborg more seriously, as it’s unlikely such control comes without technological means.
As Theresa’s memories and assumptions literally get bulldozed, we see the conclusion of Dolores, William, Logan, Maeve, and Hector’s stories for this episode. Logan continues to insist that the fun of Westworld comes from indulging the Grand Theft Auto-style of play. He charges bandits with reckless abandon, smiles as he receives an upgraded pistol from a looted body, and even leaves William behind in search of a more exciting Easter Egg. Logan personifies the rules-lawyer, the min-maxing munchkin, and the jester all in one. One wonders if he would fit well in a tabletop role-playing game environment, but his comments are not without their brash charm. He insists that Dolores will grow to like him, and he’s already grown somewhat endearing to the audience.
In the most audacious manner possible, we see Hector’s gang return to Sweetwater to the tune of the Habanera from Carmen. The connections between Maeve and Bizet’s gypsy heroine lay unsubtle and bare for the viewer to slaver over. Like Carmen before her, Maeve defies the conventions of her world and longs to escape the routine of her life, not just as a prostitute, but as a creation and slave of Delos. She sees without a doubt her role in the Matrix and dies uncaring in the arms of Hector. Despite his nihilistic worldview and the Man in Black’s warning, Hector has unwittingly proven that the hosts do have a larger purpose in this world. Yet we never do get the third number of the combination to the safe. The episode ends, and our chess pieces have found themselves in very different places from where we left them only 60 minutes ago.
While weaker than the previous three episodes, Dissonance Theory further builds the story and characters of Westworld, and it does so with a pacing and style rare in most modern television series. HBO leaves us with yet again more questions than answers, but guessing is half the fun. One only hopes the big W won’t turn out the same as its spiritual predecessor, Lost. While Lost entertained and enthralled us for years, it ended disappointingly and unfinished. Let us hope that Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy have learned from J.J. Abrams’s mistakes and at least some of their Wonderland puzzles have sound and logical solutions.
And that’s about enough from me for one week (I honestly didn’t think I could write this much about one episode), but I hope you’ve enjoyed at least some of my thoughts on this fascinating show. If you feel inclined, please don’t hesitate to leave me a comment or tweet at me @NCBurnham. I’m very excited about the future of Westworld, and may even feel inclined to write another review after episode five airs this Sunday. Until next time, may you find the egg-laying snakes you’re looking for.
A few years ago, IGN published their list of the top 100 role-playing games. At the time, I liked it for one reason: Wizardry 8 made the list. Someone at the biggest mainstream gaming news site agreed with me that Wizardry 8 is great, and what’s more, it beat 26 other games on the list. Looking back at it now, there’s even more surprise entries than I realized at first. Dungeon Master. Pool of Radiance. The Bard’s Tale. Might & Magic VI. Clearly, at least one other person at IGN was into first-person dungeon crawlers as much as I am. More than that, though, the list as a whole is unrelenting in its worship of retro games. Plenty of good RPGs have come out in the last ten years, but only the best of them make this list. Because of this, it seems like an excellent snapshot of console and computer RPG history, both from Japanese and western developers.
Point being that if one were to play all the games on this list to completion, one would have a nigh unmatched understanding of the history, design, and stories of RPGs. The price of such an education? Well, aside from the monetary sacrifice, the endeavor would take approximately 6,000 hours to complete. I came up with that number after adding up the average time users claimed they took to complete each game on HowLongToBeat.com. The presence of massively multiplayer online games on the list made calculating that figure less exact, but I just assumed one would have to play any MMORPG for at least 100 hours to do a valid analysis. I allotted 1,000 hours to World of Warcraft, because that game is just too damn important. My personal feelings on WoW aside, I’ve put off exploring it for too long, and as a designer I need to have a deep knowledge of why WoW has remained the king of a genre for over a decade. Playing for 20 hours per week, it would take a person about six years to finish every game.
But isn’t it possible to understand a game without playing it to completion yourself? On a base level, I’d agree with that, but I’d never presume to say I have comprehensive knowledge of Ulysses just because I read the CliffNotes or attended a lecture series. And in my experience, there’s just no substitute for actually playing through a game yourself. I tend to remember aspects of a game much better if I have spent personal gaming time with it, and there’s really no substitute for the greater context gained by observing every challenge, interaction, and design decision firsthand. For these reasons and the fact that I love RPGs more than any other genre, I want to take on this challenge. Furthermore, I want to document my progress through each game, noting what I observe and really taking the time to analyze the important facets of each title.
There are a number of decisions I’ll have to make about how to approach this monumental task, and I hope to address a lot of them with the first few entries. Inevitably, I’ll arrive at a standardized format for each game, and you and I will both know what to expect from each post. But until then, I’m just excited to think about how my thoughts and feelings about RPGs could change after six years of playing through the foundations of the genre. I’ve completed a fair number of games on the list already, of course, and I won’t be replaying each of those all the way through. However, some of them will likely warrant another go, and I will absolutely write up an analysis of each game. Honestly, I jump at any chance to replay Final Fantasy VI I can get.
I hope you’ll come along with me for the journey in whatever capacity you’d like, and I can’t wait to see what I discover. Am I committing to a 20-hour play schedule for the next six years? God no, I have lots of other games to play and things to do, and I think I’d go crazy if I could only play RPGs from now until I’m 33. But I’ll be going at my own plodding, steady pace and posting every now and then. I’ll be playing through each game in sequence as it appears on the list, which means that Nihon Falcom’s Ys Book I & II are up first. Wish me luck, and may there still be dragons on your hard drive. Til next time, farewell!