Video Games

LOG: God of War is not a good video game

This post is part of a log I keep on things I finish. Read here for why I keep this log.

Early in my opinion-having life, I discovered my thoughts were usually out of sync with everyone else. Some might say there’s something wrong with me. For whatever reason, you can reliably assume that out of the handful of universally acclaimed games or movies that come out, maybe half of those won’t jive with me at all. Consider it an inability to think outside of my own perspective or maybe I have an inherent desire to be a contrarian dick, but I don’t think either are true. Communicating your opinion is very difficult to do and if you haven’t practiced that skill it’s easier to rely on what other people have said. Sometimes this leads to you agreeing with things you don’t actually believe.

Imagine you play a game and hear a critic call it “the best game in years.” You hear that comment and you feel like you agree. The reason you agree is because that particular game did something you hadn’t seen in a long time and you really liked it. You feel the critic’s words accurately describe your general enjoyment of the game and specifically how it accomplished something that hasn’t been done in a game for years. You use the phrase “the best game in years” to explain how you feel because you can’t quite nail the specifics of your own thoughts. But in that phrase comes many other statements that you may not necessarily agree with. Is it truly the “best game in years?” Wasn’t there another game earlier this year you liked even better? Weren’t there several games you liked better? To the average person, this distinction doesn’t matter because the overall message they wanted to get across remains intact. They liked the game and it did something that hadn’t been done in years. This choice of words might dilute their opinion on other topics, but most people don’t dedicate a lot of time attempting to maintain critical consistency (which is totally ok).

In the reception I’ve read for God of War, many reviewers and commenters explain their enjoyment of the game by parroting empty phrases. Their assessment often lacks specifics and relies on vague language or plain descriptions without any real judgement of their merit. Consider IGN’s review that 1) refers to an “engrossing whole” made up of individual elements and 2) spends several paragraphs explaining what’s in the game without really commenting on why it’s any good. It’s easy to see why some people take this approach. God of War is a dense game with a lot of mechanics and many things going on at once. If you’re enjoying the game, it may be difficult to narrow down where your enjoyment is coming from, but that experience can be very different for other players who don’t like the game. See, I know exactly how I feel about God of War because despite dumping 30+ hours of my life into it, I didn’t have any fun.

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God of War is easily one of the prettiest games this year, but it’s successes end there.

Why did I play it?

This is a good question because I’ve never liked God of War. It’s always been a game that values spectacle over substance. This is the series that pioneered quick time events and large-scale boss battles. Sure, it looked cool, but the player interaction with the world was lackluster. I remember comparing the original 2005 God of War to Dynasty Warriors since it was a more stylish button masher, but that comparison never convinced many people.

So, I’m going to write some words to pin point all the ways God of War isn’t “an engrossing whole,” it’s actually a mess of a game that seems loosely tied together. It absolutely nails the spectacle thrills the series is known for, but that doesn’t make it fun.

How was it?

God of War’s remix on its old formula is transitioning the series to an open-world role playing game. The player can now traverse a large world at their own pace and Kratos has a progression system that unlocks new skills and higher stats. In addition to player progression, the open world gives players side quests and small-scale puzzles that reward success with loot that can increase Kratos’ lethality even further. This all sounds like a great deviation from the series’ formula. God of War was known for being a tightly guided experience. In the original trilogy, players couldn’t even move the camera since the developer thought it was essential to guide their attention to the action. If there was any risk for this team to take, it’s relinquishing that control and embracing the open world antics.

Unfortunately, the open world is the most obvious flaw of God of War because the level design was clearly crafted with the intent of directing the player’s experience which is antithetical to the appeal of an open world. In a typical location, the landscape may feel “open” either through its vastness or various crates nestled in the corners of the room but there’s almost always two directions: forward and back the way you came. Once you arrive at the specific destination you were intended to reach, the trail stops and there is nothing further. This can be frustrating for new players because open world games don’t typically feel as restricted as God of War. In any open world game, you can anticipate branching paths, little secrets in nooks and corners and a sense of freedom that you could go wherever you want but maybe you don’t want to just yet. God of War masks the rails of its experience by creating large environments the player can run around, but most of the deviations from the path end in nothing. If you’re like me, and you want to seek out those additional paths, the game can feel frustrating. There are many environments where it seems like you should be able to go somewhere new but that feeling never bares out to be true.

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As much as the game pretends to be “open world” deviating from the intended path is rarely rewarding — instead it reveals the game’s deepest flaws.

Even as a guided experience, God of War can feel inadequate in its directions. Kratos has a variety of ways to traverse the terrain, but most of these traversals result in looking for button prompts in unnatural locations. Consider a game like Uncharted or Prince of Persia where there is a lot of climbing and swinging around, but the player always knows where they’re going. It can feel a little limiting at times since there’s obviously only one path forward, but the player still feels like they’re Nathan Drake or The Prince traversing the world. God of War never feels natural. There’s no visual theme to express where Kratos can climb and where he can’t. Often times you have to search for the large “X” prompt on screen, and if you didn’t have that as a guide you’d be completely lost. It doesn’t help that this prompt is often located off-screen from Kratos’ view. There’s no better way to take a player out of an experience than have them searching for a button prompt, but that routinely happens in God of War.

Even if you’re managing to get to your destination on track, the game has a habit of throwing in unreachable destinations or unsolvable puzzles without explaining that Kratos isn’t equipped to tackle these paths just yet. For example, Kratos eventually gains the ability to break branches by lighting them on fire. Before unlocking that ability, Kratos comes across a series of branches he can’t pass. This might seem like an obvious design choice to anyone who’s played a Metroidvania, clearly the developer wants to pique the player’s interest and once they gain the necessary ability they’ll remember this roadblock and eagerly pass it for more content. Except, God of War only has two or three of these mechanics and they are all introduced very late into the game. There’s no indication in the early game that you will unlock some item later one. Which means every time you pass a pile of branches in the first 10 or 15 hours of the game, it feels like you missed something. There’s not even a “I can’t do that right now” voice over prompt from Kratos or his companion. As a result, you spend a lot of the game lacking confidence that you’re where you should be.

Nothing encapsulates the lost feeling core to God of War’s experience like the introduction of side quests. The first side quests hit a few hours into the game and they’re both strangely designed. My first quest had me seek out a mystical storeroom. I arrived at the location and fought a few enemies that seemed little more difficult than the main story. I eventually got to a hugely difficult enemy with a massive amount of health that killed me in two or three hits. I decided this quest was meant to be completed later — although I wondered why such a guided experience would give me a quest I can’t complete? Many hours later, I returned to the quest several levels higher and with new gear and found the same enemy was still incredibly lethal and had a lot of health. I managed to beat him and completed the quest but the experience was mystifying. Why would they frontload the first quest with such a difficult enemy? Why would the game give me prompts telling me some enemies may be “above my level” when the enemy stayed just-as-difficult even after I gained additional levels? It’s one of the moments where you’re forced to reconsider your impression of the game. A studio like Sony Santa Monica has such a huge budget, clearly it must be well-designed, but this seemed like the sloppy execution found in eastern-bloc soviet games from the mid 2000s.

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God of War presents itself as an action game with solid mechanics comparable to Dark Souls or a character action game, but at its heart its still a button masher.

Perhaps the most revealing fact about God of War’s development is the implementation of the nine realms. Early in the game Kratos comes across a cloud of black smog that impedes his progress. He speaks to a witch who takes you aside and says “Ok, so here’s these nine realms…” In any other game, you’d assume this would be the framing device for the entire game. Clearly, we have to go to each of the nine realms. Maybe a bit excessive for a little black smog, but this is a video game after all so let’s do it. Sure enough the first realm you go to has a complex backstory and a “dungeon” with puzzles that lead up to a final boss encounter. It feels like a Zelda game, or maybe closer to Darksiders. But this one realm (Alfheim) is the only realm that has this much development. It turns out you only go to four of the nine realms, one of which is the realm you start in (Midgard) and another only has a small environment for story purposes (Jotunheim). Even with this in mind, a huge portion of the story is about your ability to traverse the various realms but you rarely interact with these realms in a direct sense. In any other game, the realms would be the centerpiece for the entire experience, but the majority of God of War’s exists entirely separated from these realms. You’re mainly in Midgard. It feels like the game was either meant to be guided through the various realms but creative direction changed, or God of War’s scope was so massive they were forced to cut it down due to resource constraints. All of this is to say, it isn’t really clear why God of War is open world in the first place. It doesn’t embrace any open-world mechanics and appears to prefer guiding the player to specific places and specific times. Even a loose open world like the ones found in Legend of Zelda or Darksiders is ignored in favor of a strictly controlled narrative.

This problem plagues the combat as well. Kratos has his own progression system where he can unlock new abilities by expending “XP” (experience is treated like a currency rather than a metric of progress). He also has several attributes that can be increased with gear. Strength and defense can increase Kratos’ damage or resistance to damage while others like “runic” increase his abilities and “luck” increases the chance of finding more gear. But none of these systems actually matter. Regardless of whatever items or attributes you possess, it always feels like you’re doing the same exact amount of damage to enemies. There may be some minor alterations, but the progression is so slow and so gradual that you never feel like you’re progressing at all. I have to imagine this problem stems from the developers’ desire to control the experience. You never get an overpowered weapon that deals an immense amount of damage, or some random loot with ridiculous stats. Everything is very minimal and gradual. You get new loot primarily from the game’s NPC blacksmiths who unlock new equipment with story milestones. Much of the gear from sidequests is lackluster at best, or in service to collecting the parts needed to create gear unlocked by main quest milestones. You never feel an incentive to take on these sidequests or look for more loot because it’s all so inconsequential. I often forgot to level up Kratos for many hours because it seemed insignificant.

It doesn’t help that the combat lacks the fidelity of other action games. The best way I can describe my problem with God of War’s feel for combat is how it treats dodging. In a game like Dark Souls, or any character action game, if an enemy is swinging their sword at you but you run away from their reach, you can see them whiff in the air and hit nothing. In God of War, enemies will close the distance by gliding toward you and land their attack unless you hit the dodge button at the exact moment the prompt flashes on screen. This seems like an incredibly stupid design decision, especially consider many enemies can attack you and you can only press the doge button at the “right” moment once. Other games like the Arkham Asylum or Assassin’s Creed series have shown how dodging can be done right even with lock-on enemies, but God of War lacks the fidelity of those games. As a result, the combat lacks the feeling of grace found in other melee combats pioneered in the past five years. Instead it feels like a very pretty, nicely stylized, button masher.

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Kratos’ relationship with Atreus is unique, but even that relationship has spots of hamfisted dialogue emblematic of the entire game’s lazy storytelling.

Which brings me to my last point which is whatever God of War does “right” is totally separated from its ability to be a decent game. A lot of reviewers marveled at the one-shot camera gimmick or the presentation of the game, but to me these are totally inconsequential. I have to imagine creating a continuous shot across the entire 30-hour game proved to be a logistical nightmare at times, but that creative decision provides no value to the player. So why did they spend so much time perfecting it?

Some have said the story of God of War is what makes it worth playing and I have to wholeheartedly disagree. It is true that the dynamic between Kratos and his son Atreus is an interesting relationship that games haven’t explored before, but whatever good comes out of their frank conversations about responsibility and purpose is greatly overshadowed by the boring snoozefest of the overall plot. In fact, I’d call God of War a narrative without a story. The characters float from one location to the next while the player is inundated with Norse mythological lore that no one actually cares about. It feels like the writers got lost in world-building without thinking about how to anchor the player’s interest in this fictional world they created. Kratos and Atreus have their own personal motivation that begins their journey, but that motivation is often left by the wayside to explain petty feuds between gods that only exist off-screen. Consider that Thor, Odin and Tyr are talked about for the majority of the game and the player never meets any of them. Most of this information is conveyed through a talking head lecturing about their history. I often found myself mindlessly wandering from McGuffin to roadblock, mystified what my objective was meant to accomplish other than extend the length of the game. It’s fitting that the game ends with two “twists” that basically amount to “Look! MORE LORE!” It’s a game that doesn’t know what motivates players to connect with a story and instead offers mass information dumps.

Final Thoughts

I’ve never liked God of War, so maybe this game is hitting a note I can’t hear, but its fundamentals look deeply flawed to me. It’s one of those games where its faults are so obvious I wonder if people see them and don’t care or if it’s a case of valuing parts of a game I have no interest in. It’s true that God of War looks really pretty. The environments are gorgeous and some of the large-scale boss fights look incredible. To some, it may be enough to play a game where they can experience that sense of scale. They can get lost in the spectacle and feel a fictional world come to life in that way. Maybe that’s why people like God of War. For me, I need mechanics to hook my interest. A video game world is only as interesting as my interaction with it. In that regard, God of War is a sterile controlled experience. It wants you to do specific things at specific times and never deviate from its vision. Unfortunately for me, and I suspect many others, its vision is fragmented. It’s an open-world game that doesn’t feel open. It’s a progression system with no sense of progress. It’s a plot without a story. It’s a game with limited interaction. I commend the developers for trying something new, but the developer’s attempt to translate their formula into the language of a new genre reads as a jumbled mess.

1/5

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Video Games

LOG: Spider-Man does what only Spider-Man can

This post is part of a log I keep on things I finish. Read here for why I keep this log.

Video games are the best medium to convey what it feels like to be another person. Other storytelling forums can make narratives more engaging to follow, but video games immerse a player completely into a fictional world. This amazing feature of the interactivity can result in wildly different experiences across games, but in practice most video games play identical to one another. This is especially true for open world games, which tend to adhere to unstated presumptions about what players can expect to do in their game. There’s always a large map, towers to reveal more of the map, an upgrade system that uses collectibles as currency, half-baked side missions — often with some form of “timed” element — and the game generally throws boatloads of content that you don’t have to engage with at all. This repetition across games in the same genre is a common criticism of open world games, but I’ve never minded familiar concepts. For me, I’m much more bummed when the concepts are haphazardly inserted into a game without translating them into the reality of the character we’re playing. After all, the ability to feel like the hero you’re playing as is one of the essential strengths of video games as a medium.

Spider-Man has been shrugged off as “just another open world game,” and although the familiar mechanics may make some players remember similar games in the genre, the game’s greatest success is providing the undeniable feeling that you are Spider-Man. No matter the task, whether you’re climbing towers or rounding up collectibles, it always feels like you’re playing as Spider-Man. You solve problems like Spider-Man, you move like Spider-Man, and you live the life of Spider-Man. It’s an accomplishment most games don’t even consider and it’s what makes Spider-Man unique.

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Traversing New York City stays fun throughout the entirety of the game

Why did I play it?

I have no love for Spider-Man 2 on the PlayStation 2. I only owned a GameCube at that point in time so the hype for Spider-Man passed my notice (although I do have a distinct memory of seeing Spider-Man 1, 2 and 3 in the theaters). Which is to say I wasn’t very excited for Insomniac’s take on Spider-Man. I got access to the game on a whim and decided to give it a whirl with very low expectations.

How was it?

My descent into the Spideyverse was slow but I ended up really loving this game. The beginning of the game doles out introductions at a steady pace. The game begins with you in a main story mission that’s more than a glorified tutorial, it’s closer to an actual mission with some quick lessons taught along the way. As such, it takes a little bit longer than you might expect to complete but it doesn’t feel like a mandatory tutorial. By the time you beat the first boss you have a good handle of all the mechanics and you’re unleashed into the world. The game wastes no time introducing an oppressive number of collectibles that you can choose to start picking up right away or save for later. Of course, being the crazy person that I am, I almost always immediately went to collect every single one of these optional completionist goals once they were available. There are a lot of them. Backpacks you can pick up, towers to unlock, photography landmarks, combat challenges, web-slinging challenges, a plethora of “research stations” — which could be anything — and many more.

The reason it’s so easy to fall into doing these collectibles is 1) web-slinging around the city never gets old 2) the challenges are likely more difficult than the main story which is by-and-large, stupid easy. I played the game on hard and had some difficulty with the boss of the introduction level, but otherwise I breezed through the game rarely dying at any point. This isn’t a game about challenging your ability, it’s about being your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.

All of the content in the game reinforces the fact you’re playing as Spider-Man. Many open world games tend to rely on genre conventions for mission design. It doesn’t matter if you’re a ghost in Shadow of Mordor or an assassin in Assassin’s Creed, these games almost always end up playing the same way. There’s a stealth functionality that you typically open with but once you fail stealth you fight guards for 35 minutes by parrying them endlessly. Spider-Man has its own stealth, combat and parrying, but it has a Spider-Man edge. For starters, it’s always a viable option to utilize the openness of the world and web-sling far away from your opponents. Attacking a base and screwed up a stealth takedown? Zip down a few floors and chill out for a minute, then come back and try again. In combat and need a breather? Put some distance between you and the bad guys by zipping away several hundred yards.  In addition to web slinging, Spider-Man has access to an impressive number of gadgets you can upgrade. Web shots, spider-bots, electricity surges, concussive force and levitators are some of the abilities available to you. All of them utilize strategies that realistically seem like how Spider-Man would fight and move around.

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Many enemies require an awareness of environmental opportunities that can’t be ignored

The satisfaction of the side missions is shared in the main storyline. Pretty much everything about the game is designed with Spider-Man in mind. Consider the concept of a “heavy” enemy that’s very popular in games. These are bruisers with more health that dish out immense amount of damage. Pretty much every game in existence handles these enemies in the same way. For the “heavy” enemy, you use the “heavy” attack button. Press it a few times and that big guy is no longer a problem. Spider-Man has no such button because it doesn’t make any sense for Spider-Man to have a heavy attack. Instead, bruisers are dispatched by outmaneuvering them, or webshotting them until they’re incapacitated. It’s a solution that only Spider-Man could perform and it not only makes sense, it’s a lot more fun. The best example of this design choice is when Spider-Man faces off against enemies with jetpacks. These encounters often end with the two combatants hitting each other in the air, chaining combos, for a decent amount of time. Juggling enemies in the air feels unique, like it’s something games haven’t done before.

While the combat is easily the main draw of the game, the story is surprisingly well-written. The main antagonist seems to have an explainable motivation and seems more like a tragic tale of revenge rather than a moustache-twirling villain who basks in the misery of others. Spider-Man’s voice actor is great at selling the charismatic jokester personality of the character, and he also portrays the empathetic earnestness of Peter Parker. There are only a handful of characters, but each of them have a distinct personality and purpose for being part of the story. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the game’s plot is how it handles law enforcement. Spider-Man has a congenial relationship with the police, since they’re both committed to keeping the city safe. This — of course — is wildly different than the depiction of police in modern day America. The police officer characters feel like they’re out of time from another era, like a post-9/11 view where all police were valiant heroes. I don’t have a political view on if this depiction is “correct” or “problematic,” but it certainly stands out.

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There’s probably an interesting read on Spider-Man plot based on its creative decision to depict police officers as unadulterated good guys and prisoners as objective bad guys

Final Thoughts

I ended up 100 percent completing Spider-Man, which is unusual for me. I like open world games a lot but there are usually a handful of activities that are too annoying to put up with. Spider-Man didn’t have any of those annoying side missions or brutally difficult challenge rooms, so it makes it very easy to consume everything completely. The relative ease of the game shows how far developers have come since the mid-2000s when plenty of games had notoriously difficult sections that turned players away. We’ve reached the point where you can simply enjoy a game for the experience and not get bogged down by random spikes in difficulty.

I originally viewed Spider-Man as a “good” game, a solid four out of five. It’s better than most, but misses the “wow” element that I usually need to give full marks. Since that initial assessment, I’ve spent some time considering other games from this year and I’ve realized how quickly we’re departing from straight-up fun in favor of other ambitions. Games like Horizon Zero Dawn or God of War want to pretend to be cinematic epic tales, with gimmicks like continuous camera shots or misguided mechanics in service of “immersion.” I’ve always hated games that lack the confidence to be good games first, then try other things. A game like Mass Effect 2 is an incredibly engaging RPG, that also uses black bars and camera angles to look like a space opera. That’s the example I think of for how games should be, but instead we get games like Red Dead Redemption 2 where you don’t do anything for the first five hours other than watch cut scenes and long animations.

Spider-Man might not swing of the stars, but it doesn’t have to. That “wow” element I was looking for is a misnomer. As it stands, Spider-Man is the most fun I’ve had with a game this year. It actualizes the world of Spider-Man and it accomplishes design choices that are unique to the genre. It’s a testament to how good games have become and the skill of developers who can provide a reliably balanced experience. It’s a huge accomplishment and worthy of praise on its own, it doesn’t need to be anything else.

5/5

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Books

Log (Book): One Day — What’s left when you’re alone

This post is part of a log I keep on things I finish. Read here for why I keep this log.

It may be due to my age but it seems like there’s an enormous number of stories about your teenage “coming of age” years, followed by a huge drop-off until you’re old enough to be the gray-haired mentor in another coming of age story. I’m 26 and suddenly becoming more aware of how rare it is to read a story about where I am in life right now. Anytime I come across a story with a 30-year-old — and I mean a real 30-year-old, not some character who’s written like a wise-cracking 21-year-old but they got Robert Downey Jr. to play the role so now the character is older — I realize how novel it is to gain any perspective on this period of life. Usually it’s mentioned on the side, in service to the story of someone else. Think of Ethan Hawke’s or Patricia Arquette’s characters in Boyhood, their story has just as many developments as the main character but they’re treated as secondary. It seems like a quiet concession from the storytelling world that if you don’t find purpose when you’re growing up, you’re relegated to the status of a minor role in the great tale of life.

It doesn’t seem like it at first, but One Day is about those years stumbling around without much guidance or sense of what to do. Most people know One Day for its gimmicky premise, but I was surprised the book became more than a romantic fantasy about the one who got away. It’s not a story that ends happily ever after, but it’s also not one that throws in a twist ending just to shock the reader. It doesn’t deal in the conventions of popular romance fiction. It feels like the life of two people, bonded by simple attraction and a series of events that reveals their fondness for one another. It’s not a story that’s spoiled by knowing the two of them eventually get together, because it’s not actually about the relationship that’s so prominently displayed on the cover. It’s about the aimlessness of life, the mistakes we make and how they form who we become, and the unavoidable loneliness that defines the decade following the “best years of your life.”

Why did I read it?

I was seeing a girl in college who forced One Day’s film adaptation onto me. I went into it bitter and cynical. It seemed like a stupid premise teenage girls fall in love with because it gives them an excuse not to act on their feelings when they’re younger. Clearly, if “it’s meant to be,” fate will force us to collide again and again until things work out when we’re ready. The childishness of such a fantasy isn’t exclusive to girls. On the other side of things, the story seemed to perpetuate this unrealistic male fantasy that any of the women in their life could easily become their future soulmate if they took interest in them and committed. Neither of these fantasies seem like they deserve consideration.

Despite my grouchiness, I really enjoyed the movie. I liked the characters and there was a mood to the film that matched my experience. I was also a huge fan of the set design (or potentially the directory of photography) because of their use of color in each scene. I may have liked the film but it was reviewed quite negatively for a lot of dumb reasons and a few good ones. I remember reading the main complaint was Anne Hathaway’s accent wasn’t very good. To an idiotic American like myself, that doesn’t really mean much to me. The more worthwhile criticisms complained the movie didn’t convey the spirit of the book and much of it felt too on-the-nose.

It took me five years, but I finally decided to read the book based on my interest in the movie many years ago. In addition to this inherent interest, I wanted to do some research into how to write character points of view and how an omnipresent narrator doles out information to a reader. There are many books that do this, but I also wanted to read some junk novel I could chew through to add to my 12 books a year challenge (which I have never completed successfully).

How was it?

I really loved this book. I would attribute its quality to two decisions.

The book’s framing shows a single day in the lives of Emma and Dexter, every year, for twenty years. It begins with the first day they met and continues until the story finds a conclusion even if the characters’ lives go on. This framing is the book’s essential genius. It allows for the reader to spend a lot of time with the characters and see how they develop over the years. Not every year has a climactic event. Many chapters depict mundane realities of each character’s life that emblemize where they are at that moment. For example, an early chapter shows Dexter vacationing in India, bankrolled by his parents’ money and refusing to commit to any type of career; while Emma slaves away at a minimum wage restaurant job concerned she’s going nowhere in life. This method of storytelling makes the book read like a series of vignettes. It never feels like things are slowing down to address necessary plot developments that occurred off screen. The pace moves quickly and your attachment to the characters goes along in tow.

As important as the framing is, I’d say the second and more important decision was the choice to extend the themes of the book to every person surrounding Dexter and Emma’s lives. Whether they’re plot-pertinent characters or a sideshow that only appears for a few paragraphs, the book treats each character as evidence to its thesis that your late-20s and early-30s are defined by aimlessness and unexpected circumstances. For example, early on in Emma’s storyline she gets offered a promotion at the restaurant job she’s working at. The promotion is something Emma fears more than she desires and that point is made by the description of the current manager. He’s described as a 39-years-old and his life “was never meant to be this way.” Many of the characters embody this feeling of frustration with where they are but unsure what they should be doing. While I related to Emma’s anxious desire to achieve and Dexter’s diminishing returns on “living in the moment,” I found myself relating even more to the various minor characters.

That isn’t to say the Dexter and Emma relationship takes a backseat. One Day accomplishes the rare feat of focusing on a romance and its actually explained why the two lovebirds like each other. Emma sees Dexter exert the confidence she wish she could pull off. She admires his willingness to say what he thinks, as well as his genuine interest in people’s passions and what things inspire that passion. She sees that he’s trying to achieve something meaningful with the skillset he possesses and knows he’s disappointed when his career path forces him to become inauthentic. For Dexter, he admires Emma’s thoughtfulness and intelligence, frequently noting she’s smarter than him, and feels like if he lives a life that satisfies her he knows he’s living a good life. He’s inherited a sense that he needs to perform for a matriarch-figure from his mother and likes that Emma finds him funny and entertaining, even if he can’t keep up with her book-smarts. He’s satisfied that he’s attracted the fondness of someone like Emma, it feels like an accomplishment on its own. Their relationship as friends, and later as romantic interests, feels genuine. It shows the practical reasons why they like each other but also the unexplainable love they feel toward each other that propels them to interact in the first place.

The characters come to life thanks to David Nicholls effective writing style. There are a lot of different standards for what makes “good writing,” and despite reading and writing for most of my life I’m not very tuned into what those metrics might be. I liked Nicholls writing style because it doesn’t waste your time. Every sentence has a purpose and each line serves the greater point of every paragraph and by extension the various chapters that comprise the book itself. In other popular fiction, I sometimes find myself skipping large sections of descriptive text that serves no purpose other than to attempt to force-feed a visual image by riddling the reader with every word the author could find in a thesaurus. Nicholls doesn’t do that. It’s one of the few books where I felt every  sentence was one I wanted to read. I was invested in the characters and the story but it was the writing that kept me going. It seemed like every few pages there was a line that resonated very well.

Final Thoughts

One Day might be a great book or it might have expertly revealed my sentimentality toward the passage of time and empathy toward characters who feel just as lost as I am. It’s entirely possible this book’s sentimentality is eye-roll-inducing and feels corny instead of authentic, but I can’t deny my fondness for it. I’ll admit there are passages from novelty POVs that seem overtly manipulative or cliché, but they’re rare and don’t detract from what makes the book great. I’m not sure if I would’ve liked this book as much if I had read it when I was still in college, or even earlier than that. I’m not even sure if I’d continue to enjoy the book when I pass this stage of my life. What I can say is if you feel lost and disappointed with where your life is in your late-20s, this is an essential book to bring you peace of mind and some sense of hope that things will work out — even if it’s not how you expect.

5/5

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Video Games

Log: Cultist Simulator – The dissatisfaction of unanswered questions

This post is part of a log I keep on things I finish. Read here for why I keep this log.

Is solving a mystery inherently rewarding or is it a trick to catch your attention? That’s the question I asked myself while playing through Cultist Simulator. A game shrouded in mystery, where the rewards are doled out by your ability to uncover what the game has to offer. There was a point in my life where pursuing mysteries was rewarding for me. It wasn’t while playing Cultist Simulator or another game like it. It was when I was a kid and full of wonder. I’d feel a sense of discovery while traveling to new places or when I was confined to my room I’d delve into the large worlds found in games like Grand Theft Auto or Elder Scrolls. I’d be amazed by what I found and questioned where else I could go. Asking those questions was rewarding because it didn’t take long to answer them. In a game like Elder Scrolls, I’d wonder “what’s in that house?” and with some lock picking or looking around I’d manage to get inside and find out. Or I’d drive down the San Andreas highway and ask “can I get on top of that mountain?” and with a small time commitment I would find out I could. As a kid I was followed my curiosity on my own terms and frequently saw my efforts rewarded. Cultist Simulator is not like those other games. It’s a game with a rigid structure, where success is clearly defined by the game but vaguely conveyed to the player. You have to work persistently to uncover how you’re supposed to play the game, and invest even more time to figure out why anyone would enjoy this experience.  Unless you’re a masochist or driven by mysteries, the more likely result is total exhaustion in the face of confusing mechanics and frustrating failures that feel unpreventable.

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Your table begins relatively sparse, but Cards and Verbs stack up very quickly.

Why did I play it?

Cultist Simulator was gifted to me. To be frank, if it hadn’t been a gift, I likely would never have given it a shot. The description of the game didn’t sound like something I would enjoy and the first impressions didn’t hook me. The idea of the game is you’re a ordinary person who delves into the world of the occult. Initially studying strange texts and having odd dreams, you eventually start your own cult and lead followers to go out on missions and  expand your influence while anti-cult detectives — known as the “suppression bureau” — seek out your demise.

The mechanics of the game are represented as a series of cards played on a table. Many of the cards represent concepts such as “health” or “money” or “dread,” and these cards are fed into “verbs” such as “work” or “study” or “sleep.” Combining the conceptual cards with the verb cards leads to your main interaction with the game. For example, one of my playthroughs started me as a physician at a hospital. I had a “hospital” card, which when I fed into the “work” verb, which would result in two “money” cards. It doesn’t require much of an imagination to figure out what that interaction represented. Other cards combinations are not as clear. Such as feeding an occult card into “speak,” which leads to your character delivering a sermon on a street corner about a particular cult subject to whoever will listen. The game has some UI tips that suggest what cards can be fed into verbs, but much of the game is discovering what can go where and the subsequent effects. Experimentation and discovery are a core component of the game, to the extent that there is no tutorial or any function that leads the player into the world of the mechanics, it’s all experimentation from the start.

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Organizing your table is an ongoing annoyance. Temporary cards cannot be stacked and the game has a habit of spitting new cards at you without any consistency of where they’ll show up. Examples: the “Fascination” card in the center is plopped on top of another card or the various “Mystique” cards are never placed near one another.

How was it?

Like any  human being, I was intrigued by the mystery of Cultist Simulator. We’re all driven by curiosity, so the presence of a mystery is inherently interesting. I played around with cards for a while and found I was making quick progress to starting my own cult.

Where Cultist Simulator falls apart is when you hit a hard wall once you get close to discovering the main appeal of the game. Just as you’re getting familiar with cult machinations, the game throws a series of obstacles at you, none of which give a lot of feedback on how to avoid them. Your character can fail in a number of ways. You can run out of money, get sick, be discovered by the suppression bureau, or accrue too much “dread.” That last one was the most common form of failure I faced and despite playing over a dozen characters across 10 hours, I never found a reliable defense against my dreadful fate. Let’s walk through how that might happen.

A “dread” failure means you have generated three dread cards that have been fed into a verb called “bleak thoughts.” Once you’ve fed that verb three dread cards, you have a limited amount of time to feed it a “contentment” card or else the playthrough is over. However, dread is one of the most common cards in the game. Reading about the occult, having a bad dream, some types of work and countless other random events all produce dread. Since dread exists everywhere in the game, you can’t adopt a strategy of “avoid dread,” because it’s inherent to the game. The secondary strategy might be “produce contentment whenever you can.” As far as I can tell, there is one reliable source of contentment with zero drawbacks, which is feeding the “health” card into the “sleep” verb. This can produce a good night’s rest and you feel content. However, there are four possible outcomes to feeding “health” into “sleep.” You can have a nightmare, you can have a decent night’s rest (no “contentment” card), or you can have a vision of the occult. Which means if you feed the health card into the sleep verb continuously the entire game, you’re only pulling contentment 25 percent of the time, which isn’t enough to combat dread whenever it appears. You can also obtain contentment by using “money” on sleep, which pays for a therapist or results in drug use. This is a more reliable function for combating dread but it also inherently leads to other fail states such as going broke or getting sick.

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This particular book was written in Greek and requires translation, but acquiring the necessary dictionaries isn’t straightforward.

The issue with the failure states of Cultist Simulator is there’s little feedback on how to prevent these untimely demises and in a game about stacking successive knowledge over a long period of time it’s incredibly deflating to have all your progress wiped by a mechanic you don’t understand. Each playthrough is framed as a new character taking their own dive into the world of cults. Which means any progress you made in a previous playthrough isn’t carried over into the new one. Which means if you spent some time buying books that teach you Latin or Arabic, that ability isn’t available to your next character. You’ll become very well acquainted with the starting moves of the game because you’ll have to do it every single time you start a new character.

The game gets around this repetition by making many of the actions keyed off of randomness. For example, a core component of Cultist Simulator is your character going to a bookstore with strange books that act as a window to the occult (in other playthroughs you bid on books by attending an auction). You can buy an unlimited number of books, but you never get to choose what book you’re buying. So in one playthrough you may get a book that teaches you Latin, and a series of books written in Latin, and in another you’ll get a bunch of books in Greek without ever stumbling across the primer that teaches you how to translate them. In addition to the core randomness, each playthrough gives the opportunity for you to play as a different character. For example, after failing as a physician, I had the opportunity to play as a police investigator who was assigned to the case looking into my physician character’s occult practices. This is a bit of fun storytelling through mechanics where you can see the story of your cult continuing across multiple characters. In this instance, a police investigator gets so wrapped up in his work that he abandons his job and starts a cult of his own. From a mechanics perspective the randomness of each character succeeds at making every playthrough different and reduces the fatigue of repetition, but it actually makes the game more frustrating because you can’t always use your prior failures to ensure success in new playthroughs.

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Dread cards are a source of frustration and frequently lead to your demise.

Pacing in the game is dictated by a constant state of time that passes continuously unless the player hits pause, but you can also speed up the game if you want things to move by more quickly. Most of the verb functions take 60 seconds to complete, so the amount of time it takes to run through the opening moves isn’t an immense amount of time, but it’s still a lot of time dedicated to doing the same thing over and over. Additionally, the limited time window allowed for verbs to complete can create frustrating situations. Some occult rituals require certain cards like “glimmering” or “erudition” to be played into them. When these requirements appear, you’re often given 30 seconds or less to feed those cards into the ritual or else the moment has passed. Of course, obtaining “glimmering” or “erudition” requires feeding “passion” or “reason” cards into the “study” verb — an action that takes a full 60 seconds which is obviously less time than the 30 seconds you’re allowed. If you’re thinking “study the cards before the ritual then you’ll have them ready.” Well guess what? “Glimmering” and “erudition” only last 180 seconds. There’s no way to know if the ritual you’re doing will require them, so unless you want to take up an essential verb with repeatedly studying “passion” and “reason” — when that verb has a billion other necessary functions — it’s likely you’ll miss out on some ritual requirements.

I eventually got to the point where I opened an Excel document every time I played Cultist Simulator and created hundreds of “If X then Y” statements to help me get through the game. I found some reliable ways to gain cards I needed frequently and I managed to write down descriptions for cards that seemed to evade my understanding. This document assisted my playthrough of the game but after assembling this document over a few hours I realized that nothing about this process was rewarding. I was actively wasting my time by trying to salvage some modicum of enjoyment from a game that had effectively given me a series of errands to do.

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With persistence you can uncover strange occult interactions with the game, which can be rewarding, but often times how you got there isn’t clear and what to do next is even more vague.

Final Thoughts

Mysteries can be a powerful tool for hooking a viewer’s attention, but they can’t act as the main attraction. Unless you’re a magician, you need something else going on to please the audience. My motivation to dig into games like Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, Grand Theft Auto or Fez may be based in a desire to solve a mystery, but my enjoyment of those games are the other mechanics. Elder Scrolls’ deep RPG mechanics and storytelling, Grand Theft Auto’s inventive open-ended mission design and Fez’s tightly constructed puzzles. All of those games have a series of reward systems that keep you interested in playing them. Cultist Simulator is a game that dumps thousands of questions on you from the start and requires hours of commitment to answer any of them. The few answers you do find are supplanted by even more questions. I’m sure there are some people out there who love this type of structure, and they’re probably a huge fan of the later seasons of Lost, but I don’t find mysteries to be inherently rewarding. They can be powerful for catching your interest, but there needs to be something else going on. My question to Cultist Simulator was “what reason do I have to care about this game?” and I never found an answer.

2/5

Time: 10 hours played

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Movies

A qualified case for watching Deep Space Nine

I watched Star Trek for the first time in 2016. Following Max Temkin’s guide for The Next Generation’s essential episodes, I fell in love with the series and ended up going back to watching most of the episodes. The experience became an important part of my life. I had never seen a show like The Next Generation before and I’m pretty certain no other show like it exists. When I reached the end of the series I wanted to keep the Star Trek train rolling so I sought out the other series. I found Temkin’s follow-up list, a passionate case for why Deep Space Nine is worth watching, and I gave it a shot.

For those who haven’t been in a room with Star Trek fans before, Deep Space Nine is sort of the ugly duckling of the franchise. In my experience, there are three types of Star Trek fans, each defined by the first series they saw. The Original Series veterans who loved its goofiness and big ideas; The Next Generation fans who followed the franchise’s revival in the late 80s/early 90s and make up the bulk of the fandom; and the Voyager fans who are the youngest and latched onto the more modern approach to Star Trek. In my experience, these are the three camps I run into when talking about Star Trek. I’ve never met a fan of Deep Space Nine who didn’t give a huge amount of qualifiers before stating their enjoyment of the series.

So — I come to you now — a Next Generation fan, who actually likes Deep Space Nine a lot, but I have many qualifiers. I recommend reading Temkin’s guide, but below I’ve added some additional thoughts that I think are necessary when considering Deep Space Nine in a modern context. For Temkin and other fans, Deep Space Nine may have been their first exposure — or most memorable exposure — to long-form storytelling with gritty realism and plot twists, but to compare the show to Breaking Bad, or Game of Thrones is setting up expectations the show cannot possibly live up to. That said, there is something valuable in Deep Space Nine’s storytelling but I want to qualify what that value is.

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Gul Dukat, one of the more complicated characters in Deep Space Nine.

How it’s different from Next Generation

As Temkin says in his thoughts, Deep Space Nine has fundamental differences that separate it from other Star Trek shows. For starters, there’s no ship. Deep Space Nine is the name of a space station that sits outside a stabilized wormhole that connects the Alpha Quadrant and Gamma Quadrant of the Milky Way galaxy. Additionally, this wormhole is located near the planet Bajor — a planet that only recently gained its independence after multiple decades of military occupation from another race known as Cardassians. The Federation has been installed on Deep Space Nine to keep the peace between Bajorans and Cardassians, as well as oversee expeditions to and from the Gamma quadrant. Whereas most Star Trek shows can be serialized as a variety of different missions given to their respective captains and crew, Deep Space Nine stays in one place. Whatever conflict occurred last week, or last season, continues in the future episodes. This also means the show tends to deal with political debacles rather than scientific ones.

These conflicts often exist outside of the politically neutral Federation, which leads to the other significant departure from other shows: most of the cast is not affiliated with the Federation and by extension most of the stories are about life outside the Federation. The crew is helmed by Benjamin Sisko, and he’s assisted by chief science officer Jadzia Dax, chief engineer Miles O’Brien (returning from Next Generation), and chief medical officer Julian Bashir — but the majority of the senior staff and reoccurring characters have their own backgrounds and storylines. First officer Kira Nerys is a Bajoran officer who fought Cardassians during the occupation of Bajor; chief of security Odo is a shapeshifter who operated under Cardassian rule but views himself as purely committed to justice; Quark is a Ferengi and the only bartender on the station; and Garak is a Cardassian tailor who seems to have an intriguing former life. In addition to these reoccurring characters, Deep Space Nine quickly adds more characters into the mix. Benjamin Sisko’s son, Jake Sisko, and Quark’s nephew, Nog, form a friendship early in the series and that relationship develops more than you might expect. There are many side characters including Gul Dukat, Martok, the Grand Nagus, Winn Adami, Rom, Leeta, Shakaar and of course Morn.

Why so many characters? Next Generation showed through its storylines about Worf that the show could achieve more meaningful depth if its intergalactic conflicts were tied to a crew member who had a personal connection to the issue at hand. Worf’s tumultuous family history and his identity as Klingon warrior versus human security officer were persistent storylines throughout the entirety of the Next Generation — many of which are the greatest episodes of the series. Deep Space Nine expands that approach by enveloping multiple races and tying them to specific characters. This allowed the show to tell more stories and fill in the universe of Star Trek that made it feel real. In Deep Space Nine, you get a deep view on the culture, identity, aspirations and problems of the various races that wasn’t possible in Next Generation.

With that in mind, the biggest departure from previous Star Trek shows is Deep Space Nine lacks the optimism that made the series iconic. Star Trek had always been about existing in a utopia and combating the problems of the next millennia. There were no material wants that left people hungry or sick. It was a society of abundance that left people to pursue their deepest desires for the betterment of mankind. In line with this utopian vision of the future, the writing team of Next Generation wasn’t allowed to have the characters be in conflict with each other. If you watch episodes such as Measure of the Man or The First Duty, you’ll see how episodes with obvious interpersonal conflicts are resolved respectfully. Since Deep Space Nine exists outside of the ideals of the Federation, all of that is thrown out the window. Characters yell at each other a lot and many of the solutions don’t follow Federation regulations.

So to review: a Star Trek show with no ship, deeper character backgrounds, more world-building and moral ambiguity. Sounds pretty interesting, right? It is. But there’s some things I have to prepare any viewer for:

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Deep Space Nine has way more goofy episodes compared to other Star Trek series, such as this episode where the station plays baseball against Vulcans, luckily most of these comedic episodes are quite good.

Some qualifiers to keep in mind.

There is a lot of mysticism.

In the first episode of Deep Space Nine it becomes apparent that some type of lifeform exists within the wormhole. The crew attempts to communicate with this being but its messages are bizarre and ambiguous. Any fan of Next Generation will remember plenty of episodes where a strange lifeform appears to have supernatural ability (crystalline entity in season 5, for example). While Next Generation was committed to treating these entities as unknown beings that could be studied, a lot of Deep Space Nine deals in prophecies, belief and faith. Specifically, the Bajorans see the wormhole entities as “prophets,” and refer to them as such. There are a few episodes where Bajoran leaders have religious experiences with “the prophets.” In some ways, this approach of recontextualizing what religion and faith can be is fascinating. However, the show isn’t always consistent with how it treats religion and folklore. Could you imagine an episode of The Next Generation ending with two spiritual deities firing red and blue lasers at each other to prevent the apocalypse from occurring? Well, that exact scene happens in an episode of Deep Space Nine. If you’re someone who’s big into the SCIENCE part of Star Trek’s science fiction, these episodes can induce some eye rolls. There are a lot of them.

It is very inconsistent.

Temkin says in his write-up that if you’re enjoying the show by season 3 or 4, it’s a good point to start watching the episodes sequentially. I have to strongly disagree. Deep Space Nine has multiple massive step ups in quality in season 4, season 6 and season 7 — but I wouldn’t say the show is “good” until season 6. If I were to compare it to another show, it reminds me a lot of Angel, a spinoff series of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Angel was a decent show for four seasons, but it received a big reboot in its fifth season that radically changed its format and quality for the better (it was then promptly canceled). Deep Space Nine follows a similar trajectory. The majority of the show has good ideas, but the whole thing doesn’t come together until season 6 or maybe season 7. I knew when the show got good because all of its attempts became successes. The humor was funny, the character motivations mattered, the drama was heartfelt and I cared about the stakes. A lot of the early seasons are sloppy executions of good ideas, but when Deep Space Nine works it really works.

On the topic of inconsistency it’s worth noting many of the characters of Deep Space Nine can either be well-rounded complex characters or loathsome clichés. I find it difficult to rank my “favorite” characters from the show. Part of me wants to make a passionate defense for Odo’s character and his arc, but there are plenty of episodes where he’s written like a sitcom grandfather who yells at kids to get off his lawn. Some of the characterizations of Odo in earlier seasons hang over the character’s development later in the show which makes it difficult to accept some pivotal events. On the flipside of that problem, many characters who start off as empty husks get an immense amount of development by the end of the show. Jake Sisko and Nog start off as comedic relief, but each character has a hugely significant arc in the show. All of this is to say, there will be moments where you love Deep Space Nine and there will be moments where you want to give up.

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Some characters, such as Doctor Julian Bashir, don’t receive any significant development until the later seasons.

Some of the world-building doesn’t make a lot of sense.

We live in an era where massively complicated worlds such as A Song of Ice and Fire, The Witcher or Westworld exist for mega fans to devour. They have multilayered storytelling, with fictionalized economies and cultures that are detailed in textbooks and other supplemental writings. The description of Deep Space Nine may suggest that this is Star Trek’s biggest foray into explaining the universe that had only been hinted at by the serialized format. Unfortunately, the results don’t always hold up.

The biggest standout is the Ferengi race, a culture built on absolute free market capitalism. Every Ferengi commits to memory a long list of “rules of acquisition.” These rules can sometimes be sound advice (“Greed is eternal,” or “Good customers are as rare as latinum. Treasure them.”) but they usually serve as comedic relief (“Never place friendship above profit,” or “Never have sex with the boss’ sister”). You get the sense that the rules of acquisition are mostly used as a gag rather than a mechanism to fill-in how Ferengi society operates.

Many overarching racial attributes for the various backgrounds in Deep Space Nine seem to be decided in a writer’s room for one specific episode, only for them to struggle to write around it in later episodes. For example, at one point in the show it’s revealed that Bajorans lived in a caste system not too long ago. This becomes very relevant for exactly one episode, but then the caste system — and its legion of supporters — are never mentioned again. In the context of a serialized show like Next Generation, this short-term memory loss about fundamental foundations of how a society exists could be forgiven. In the context of Deep Space Nine’s continuous storytelling, the forgetfulness can seem overly convenient and detracts from the reality of the world. You never get a sense of what matters and what doesn’t.

Baby’s first morally ambiguous hero.

Deep Space Nine is often pitched as a “darker” Star Trek. That’s probably true on paper, but when the franchise is defined by its ethos of optimism, going darker than that isn’t very difficult. Deep Space Nine tackles many grim storylines such as genocide, slavery, war wives, futile resistance, biological warfare, torture, post-traumatic stress disorder, racism, mental breaks and much more — but it’s all in the context of being a Star Trek show. There are moments where the bad guys do something truly horrific, and other times where they come off as Disney villains who have safety bumpers on their malice (because what the character would actually do doesn’t fit Star Trek’s tone). When Deep Space Nine commits to its purpose, it nails it. More often than not, it feels like a corny Nickelodeon show trying to feign villainy.

With all those qualifiers it’s easy to get down on the show, so here’s some good things about it:

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Often times the best episodes exist outside the Federation, such as this Ferengi episodes that’s modeled after The Magnificent Seven.

Why Deep Space Nine is worth watching.

Season 1’s Duet encapsulates Deep Space Nine’s potential.

Temkin notes in his guide that it’s difficult to recommend a single episode for new viewers since the continuous storytelling requires context for every episode. While this is true, the closest estimation of Deep Space Nine’s identity comes from its Season 1 episode Duet. You need a bit of context, but if you watched Next Generation and can answer: “Who are the Cardassians? Who are the Bajorans? What is their conflict?” You can follow the story of Duet.

In Duet, a traveler docks at Deep Space Nine reporting they have a terminal illness that needs treatment. First officer Kira Nerys recognizes the name of the illness as the side effect of a biological weapon that was used in a labor camp during the Cardassian occupation of Bajor. This implicates the traveler as someone who was either a Bajoran laborer or a Cardassian war criminal. The story combines Kira’s past with the universe’s sentiments toward Cardassians and Bajorans. It’s one of the best episodes of the series and acts as a sneak peek to what the show will eventually become.

Some of the world-building is incredible.

With so many characters, there are a lot of options for Deep Space Nine to dive into various races and cultures to liven things up. Typically these are done with the appropriate cast member delving into their own society. For example, Quark has to deal with a trade or commerce dispute on Ferenginar or Worf goes on an expedition with Klingons to achieve glory in battle. As I mentioned above, the lore around these stories can seem a bit silly, but the storylines themselves offer an amazing opportunity for characters to exist outside of the traditions of Star Trek. Some standout episodes include: Tribunal, O’Brien is put on trial through the Cardassian justice system; Prophet Motive, Quark learns that the Rules of Acquisition have been rewritten; Indiscretion, Kira looks into a missing Cardassian prison ship; Rules of Engagement, Worf is put on trial through the Klingon justice system; The Quickening, Bashir studies the effects of biological warfare against a planet in the Gamma Quadrant — and many more. These episodes standout because they would have never existed if it wasn’t for Deep Space Nine’s interest in exploring stories outside of the Federation.

An optimist’s approach to pessimism.

Often in anti-hero stories, there’s a strange fetishism with “being bad.” A series like The Punisher will focus on a protagonist who is supposedly a good person, but they use excessive violence against their enemies. You can see a similar dynamic in modern shows such as Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad. Everyone will talk about Walter White’s descent into villainy, but the audience still cheers when he blows up a hospital or runs over a gangster. There’s something weird going on in when characters are written this way. What are we really celebrating? The hero’s good intentions or their revelry in evil? The “heroes” who perform these actions don’t see a contradiction in what they do and how they do it. They don’t question their goodness despite many actions that could suggest the contrary.

Deep Space Nine has moral ambiguity, but it doesn’t celebrate it. More often than not, the tough decisions are agonized over by characters and their decisions have consequences via their fellow crew members who draw a hard line between good and evil. There are obvious examples where these relationships can be complicated — such as Kira’s past as a resistance fighter, or Odo’s role as a source of order during wartime — but some of the more surprising examples are when it comes from characters you don’t expect. One of my favorite episodes follows Jake Sisko as he tries war reporting. He begins the assignment with ambitions of being a brave correspondent who gets the gritty story, but he walks away from the experience scared and ashamed of his glorification of war. Many of the characters in Deep Space Nine struggle with these problems and the show handles all of these cases with grace.

Far Beyond the Stars.

When I tell people why I like Star Trek, I tell them to check out The Next Generation episode The Inner Light. It’s an episode that explains the importance of Star Trek. Deep Space Nine has its own version of that idea, although its execution is radically different. Far Beyond the Stars is the best episode of Deep Space Nine. It’s practically a standalone episode, but the episode requires the show’s context to understand its significance. It’s an episode about the importance of stories and how Star Trek isn’t a series of whacky hypotheticals about the future, it’s a collection of insight to understanding our current moment. For anyone who’s had a story change their life, or anyone who’s a writer that wants to believe their work is important, Far Beyond the Stars speaks directly to you. It’s powerful.

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This blog may have been more convincing for reasons not to watch the show than to give a chance, but I hope it gave insight into the strengths of Deep Space Nine. I’d recommend following Temkin’s list and liberally skipping episodes if they don’t interest you by the teaser. I personally wasn’t a huge fan of the Bajoran conflict storylines. They felt overly complicated for no real purpose. I also wasn’t a huge fan of Garak’s storylines because they were too corny. But even with those general guidelines, there were exceptions and I eventually found myself watching almost every episode rather than skipping most of them. By the later seasons, I found myself investing time in every episode just in case there was something worthwhile hidden away. That’s Deep Space Nine in a nutshell. There’s a lot of digging, but when you find something good it’s worth the effort.

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Video Games

Log: Valkyria Chronicles – A sleeper hit with more potential than substance

This post is part of a log I keep on things I finish. Read here for why I keep this log.

There’s a mission in Valkyria Chronicles, a turn-based strategy game released in 2008 that has since developed a cult following, that encapsulates my feelings on the game. Main characters Welkin and Alicia, are lost in a forest. Alicia is injured in a cut scene which translates into gameplay with her receiving reduced movement speed. Welkin suggests he scouts ahead since he is more equipped to deal with problems, then Alicia can follow behind him after he’s cleared a path. Along the way, Welkin discovers special blue plants he can use to heal Alicia’s wounds. However, the player is only given three moves per turn. Meaning the player can move Alicia twice and Welkin once, or Welkin twice and Alicia once. The mechanics around the blue plant require Alicia — the injured character — to find the plant first. Then Welkin can use the plant on her. This means it benefits the player most to move Alicia twice and Welkin once. Which also means that the only way the player can progress in the level without wasting turns is for Alicia to limp ahead, scout the area and kill all the enemies then have Welkin follow behind her. Once you understand the reality of the mechanics, success is easy, but the rules around Valkyria Chronicles and its various challenges are neither intuitive nor rewarding to solve.

Why did I play it?

I remember purchasing Valkyria Chronicles the week it came out back in 2008. It was pitched as a strategy game, similar to grid-based tactics games popularized in the 1990s but without the grid. It was a modern take on a beloved genre that had gotten stale over the years. I liked the idea of the game but found myself bouncing off of it consistently. I never finished it, but remembered in fondly without really knowing why I liked it or why I stopped playing it. Since Valkyria Chronicles 4 is coming out later this year — and because Valkyria Chronicles 1 was re-released on Steam last year — I decided to finally complete my time with the original game.

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A typical level in Valkyria Chronicles has your squad attempting to capture base camps while navigating terrain and enemy positioning

How was it?

Valkyria Chronicles makes an excellent first impression. It’s design is slick and intuitive, the characters are original and full of life and the context of the game’s events are uniquely thought out for a video game setting. The game takes place in a stand-in for Europe, known as “Europa.” The continent suffered a world war a few years prior to the game’s events and now the continent is at the precipice of a second Europa War. The allegories to World War II are obvious, but the similarities stop there. The player takes command of Squad 7, a militia squad serving the country of Gallia’s military. Gallia is a smaller country getting dwarfed by an aggressor empire hoping to secure their resources. The political motivations of these countries are complicated. Gallia has access to a rare resource that can be used to build stronger weapons, but they’re typically a neutral nation with plentiful farmlands. They stayed out of the first Europan War while the Imperial Alliance in the east fought with the Atlantic Alliance in the west. Of course, now that they’re thrusted into conflict, the Gallian government is split between allowing the nation to be enveloped into the Empire or maintaining a hopeless struggle against an enemy with superior force.

Internally, Gallia has its own problems. The country is home to Darcsens, an ethnic group identified by their dark hair color, who are treated as second-class citizens. The country maintains ancient lore that suggests Darcsens are responsible for a century-old calamity that brought deserts to Gallia’s otherwise green and prosperous lands. With all this in mind, the characters of Squad 7 aren’t your typical Disney-inspired regular Joes fighting for a good cause. They’re a collection of misfits who know their country can’t realistically win the war, and many of them hold resentment for their fellow countrymen as the cause of their current misfortune.

The politics of Valkyria Chronicles makes the world feel real. It has a level of sophistication and thought that most video game stories neglect. Other than the main characters, Welkin and Alicia, most of the characters are not painted as true-blooded heroes. One of the central fights of Squad 7 is a bartender named Rosie. She’s easily the most capable fighter and loyal to the Gallian cause, but she holds deep resentment for Darcsens. Valkyria Chronicles imbues these personality traits into the gameplay through a system referred to as “potential.”

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Many of the “good guys” on the Gallian side are unlikable opportunists, while some of the “bad guys” on the empire have personal motivations that are easy to empathize with.

One of the best snipers I had on my squad had the attribute “Darcsen Hater,” which meant that their stats would decrease whenever I put them on a mission with a Darcsen squad member. This character had voice over quips about their prejudice, and they generally acted like an asshole the entire game, but the reality was they were one of the most vital assets to my strategies. That character, and others like him, made me reflect on the historical books I’ve read about presidents looking the other way when their generals were dismal moral deviants because their skill was necessary to win the war. Playing as the captain of a squad of misfits, you may find yourself making the same tough decisions between choosing morale allies or effective ones. Much of Valkyria Chronicles narrative story (told through cut scenes) and emergent story (told through gameplay) reflect the reality of armed conflicts in the modern era.

As much as I enjoyed the setting of Valkyria Chronicles, the strategy behind the game was repeatedly unintuitive for bizarre reasons. The game was designed by SEGA, a japanese studio that took obvious influence from anime story telling that directly impacts the gameplay. There is a big focus on throwing curve balls at the player. While one might suspect a traditional curve ball in a military-style game would be an ambush, or reduced supplies, or a pincer attack — Valkyria Chronicles deals in anime tropes. One of the earlier missions had my enemy assisted by a bloodline goddess who could shoot blue lasers out of a spear from across the map. This character could not be killed or damaged, it was something I had to deal with by avoiding her. Sure enough, my first playthrough of that mission resulted in failure. Once I knew to expect the curve ball and plan around it, the second playthrough became very simple. The entire game has these types of out of left field nonsense.

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Some tactics have inconsistent results, such as this plume of smoke that failed to prevent a Heavy Tank Gun from shooting with perfect accuracy.

These curve balls have become a bit of trope for many Japanese games, where the odds are stacked unfairly against the player and their best recourse for success is to adopt an even more unfair playstyle (consider a series like Dark Souls where cheesing bosses is part of the game). I quickly learned that viewing Valkyria Chronicles as a captain in charge of a realistic tactical battle was a fool’s errand. Rather than clearing out battles slowly and safely, it benefited me more to run past enemies and capture their camp — ending the mission successfully within one or two turns. I learned this lesson best from the enemy AI, who would frequently run past my troops to my empty camp and force my failure. Additionally, the game ranks each mission performance with a letter grade. The only metric for success is completing the mission in the fewest turns possible, regardless of if your characters were horrifically murdered along the way or if half the enemy force remains after you complete your objective.

Final Thoughts

Valkyria Chronicles is one of those games where the more you know about it, the less you like it. It’s a game with a lot of promise and intriguing concepts, but it’s lackluster design gets revealed with the smallest amount of scrutiny. The setting of Gallia and the complicated character motivations held my interest, but as someone who’s not a fan of anime, the narrative went in a whacky direction I felt betrayed the intelligence of its premise. Silly anime tropes could have been made up for with higher quality design, but as I got more adept at gaming the systems, I enjoyed the game less and less even though I found success more and more.

Even with my complaints it’s easy to see how Valkyria Chronicles developed a following. It offered something unique and rejuvenated turn-based tactics in a way that held promise for the future of the franchise. Unfortunately, the series has been plagued by poor management decisions since the first game was released ten years ago. A forgettable portable sequel and a low-budget follow-up were largely ignored by the press and public for valid reasons. Luckily, Valkyria Chronicles 4 will be released later this year, which looks like a proper full-budget sequel. I was happy to refresh my memory on the series and remind myself of the potential it possesses, even if its first entry wasn’t all it could have been. As it stands, Valkyria Chronicles is an interesting game to remember and exciting series to follow, but the original game might not live up to your expectations for it.

3/5

Time: 40 hours played

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Musings

How I spend my time

Earlier this year I had a life-altering revelation: my time is limited. It seems obvious. You may already be mindful of how you spend your time, but doing the numbers for myself revealed the value of how I spend my time. There are 52 weeks in a year, each with 168 hours to allot your time. Ideally, 70 of those hours you should be sleeping (although it’s probably closer to 60). If you have a full-time job than another 40 hours go to your job. On top of that you have to commute there and back which optimistically is another hour every day but for many people it’s closer to 2 or 3 hours daily. Off that alone you have maybe 45 hours left of your week to do other things but you also have to eat and do mundane things like put some clothes on before you go out into the world. Maybe you forgot to do laundry for a while and now you have to deviate your time to that task as well. In fact you usually find time sinking into miscellaneous tasks you didn’t plan. You meet up with a coworker, or you go on a date, maybe you see a movie or attend an event in your neighborhood. These don’t have set schedules but they happen frequently enough you have to account for another 10 hours a week doing other things. Which means you’ve got 35 hours or fewer in a week to do other things. Maybe you’re really busy and it’s more like 10 or 20.  Let’s go with 30 hours. Over a year, those 30 weekly hours would amount to 1,560 hours in a year. This is where I would usually say “1,500 hours? That’s plenty of time to do everything I want in a year.”

A few years ago I got big into The Witcher 3 and I ended up playing over 200 hours of it in a single year. I love the idea of delving into something for the long-haul and squeezing everything there is to get out of that commitment. I remember playing through The Witcher 3 and feeling compelled to finish every side quest, see every plot of land and talk to every character. It was an incredible world and every second spent exploring it felt like it benefited my time. I’ve also dove deep into historical nonfiction books. I took several months reading a 900 page biography about Dwight Eisenhower, much to the groans and moans of my friends who discovered I could plant a fun fact about our former President in pretty much any conversation. These commitments were a huge time sink but they’ve had a noticeable effect on my life. I have a deeper appreciation for how fictional worlds are created from playing Witcher 3 and I have an immense amount of knowledge about one of the more relevant presidents in our nation’s history. This is the ideal of how to spend your time. The process is engaging and you get something out of it. Keeping this ideal in mind — 100 to 200 hours of commitment to truly understand something — 1,500 hours start to look a lot shorter. 

Fear of wasting time has kept me from committing to this ideal for most of my life. I’m sure many can relate to the feeling of restlessness. Not interested in any particular hobby and dissatisfied with whichever one you end up settling on. I’ve ping-ponged between interests and ended up dumping more time into doing nothing than applying that time to something useful. That’s how I end up playing three hours of a dozen different games and never finish any of them or how I’m 100 pages into seven different books and have forgotten about them for so long I’d have to start over if I wanted to finish them. You’re always second guessing your initial interest. Is this really what I want to be doing right now? Is this the best use of my time? It’s easy to say no to those questions and do something else, only for the same concerns to plague you again. It’s not productive or rewarding. 

Well now, I say no more.

I’ve started to guide my time with more direction. I’ve decided to commit myself to pairs of interests. Two books, two games, two television shows and two alternative hobbies (I’ve been ‘learning to play the piano’ for over a decade and can’t play anything other than Where is My Mind). With this format, I can reasonably expect to finish each of these two things within a month’s worth of time. Not many games are over 30 hours, not many books take longer than 100 hours to read and television shows are easy to chip away at gradually. Rather than idly stare at my options and fuss about what I’d be most satisfied with, I’m committing to things. There are days where I want to do something more or less than usual, and my think with pairing off each media group is if I’m not feeling one thing I have another option in the same field. Even with that second option available, the commitment keeps me vigilant when I’d otherwise give up.

I came across this concept of time allotment from my dad of all people. My dad started playing video games a few years ago and he plays games in a way I thought was bizarre. He plays one game, continuously, over and over, until he is completely done with it. Then he puts it down and never thinks about it again. He understands its entirety and it is now dead. It seemed like a great way to burn out on something and not have any fun but I see now that he may have been onto something with that approach.

There’s immense satisfaction knowing you have truly completed something. Not in a way where you’re flipping through the pages just to get to the end, but you actually understand the content of a creation and everything about its existence is known to you. It’s a deeper relationship and more meaningful than a flurry of half-remembered experiences.

Most importantly, as a writer, I feel it’s necessary to have some sort of log of my commitments. I’ve already dabbled with this a bit with my 52 Albums in 52 Weeks experiment back in 2016. I’m going to resurrect the concept of that approach with this new philosophy. I’ll be posting short reflections on the things I do and complete, mostly for myself, but you may find them worth reading as well. I’ll be taking a more informal approach to these log entries. I tend to get hung up on writing something truly terrific, something that flows and has importance. This is how this website has less than five entries over the past year. My standards ensure I never write anything. The logs will be less ambitious, less formal and more frequent.

I hope these logs explain my thoughts more effectively and allow for some good recommendations or critiques on how I spend my time. Maybe now I will finally finish Blood Meridian.

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