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Dreamfall Chapters: Chapter One: Reborn

This is a spoiler-free review of Dreamfall: Chapters.  Spoilers for Dreamfall & TLJ are within.

This I said this morning:

I’ve been waiting for the sequel to Dreamfall since I finished the first one. Then waiting for Dreamfall Chapters since Ragnar announced it in  2007. Then a year and a half since the Kickstarter finished. I suspect I can wait ‘til I get home from work. Then I can get on with waiting for the next chapter, I suppose.

So,  I’m now waiting for the next chapter.

I replayed The Longest Journey at the weekend. It took me 12 hours to complete it, and I enjoyed pretty much all of that time. 

I replayed Dreamfall the last few days, it took me 9 hours to complete it, and I enjoyed… some of it. These are things I have said about Dreamfall in the last 24 hours:

I replayed TLJ & Dreamfall over the last week or so to try to get my head back into the series. As mentioned above, TLJ holds up better than Dreamfall does. While the former ends up lego-brick pixels on a modern screen, Dreamfall’s shoddy camera makes its awful combat and occasionally random-fail stealth sections (being killed by an enemy you had no way to predict and the camera wouldn’t let you see is fun for nobody) a trail. The hacking & lockpick minigames are more fun, but only pop up a couple of times in the whole game. Also, adventure games rise and fall on how much they respect the player’s time. Dreamfall frequently makes you run across the entire multi-load-screen zone to fetch a single object from an NPC and then come directly back.

The thing that struck me was that the writing was so good, and the story so much deeper than the game had time to explain in detail. There were some amazing moments – playing both protagonist and antagonist in a couple of scenes – but that ending. The direct storyline concludes, but the last five minutes is so much setup for a sequel that never game… until now.

And, on the engine (specifically “why’d they have to change the engine for DFC?”)

You’re kidding me? Have you played Dreamfall recently? The camera is the leading cause of death. Not just of characters, but of computers thrown out of windows, killing innocents below. The character skins are stretched over duplo bricks, and on high graphics settings light blooms render two hundred pixels south-east of the source. The Shark Engine (the engine used for Dreamfall) was awful.

All these things are true.

The bits of Dreamfall I disliked were… obtuse.l resorted to UHS hints a couple of times, and both were full “How the fuck was I meant to get that?” moments.

So we move on eight years and launch Dreamfall Chapters, hereinafter DFC.

We move on directly from the end of Dreamfall. April’s fallen off the pier with a sword in her chest, Kian’s been arrested for treason, Zoe’s been injected with enough Morpheus to put her in an indefinite coma. Reborn is fairly heavily Zoe-centric, but both main protagonists for the new series (Zoe & Kian) go though their own rebirth.

Mechanically, it’s Dreamfall. Third-person camera, clickable objects, pick an action. The combat, however, has been entirely fucked off with, and deservedly so. The stealth is almost entirely gone – there’s a tiny fragment near the very end – but is no longer any real part of the game. The time-respect is up too, The fed-ex quests are a lot less frequent, and the lack of loading times between the ones that do exist make them significantly less of a bastard where they are.

Shades of Telltale’s expertise have filtered though. The game is littered with minor decisions (unflagged in conversation, but “Foo will remember you like egg sandwiches” type stuff pops up) and major ones (Heavily telegraphed, “THE BALANCE HAS SHIFTED”, complete with “ask the audience” mechanic for finding out what your facebook/steam friends did, if you connect them) 

I was mildly disappointed to hit the top 10 percentile for most of my choices, with only two below 50%. I guess I’m a Mass.

Steam says I spent 4.5 hours playing it. It seemed short, but that’s I think mostly because it ends suddenly – it’s a lead-in to chapter 2, after all – and that’s with a moderate amount of read-all-the-things and ask-all-the-questions but no obsessive “What does Zoe think about that tree” “What are Kian’s opinions on levers?” wandering. The puzzles are mostly only taxing when the dialogue misses a line (this action must be performed outside) or when your next trigger is to follow a different plot strand. Fortunately a Goals tracker helps you with the latter, and a bit of experimentation generally satisfies the former. So it’s not a hard level puzzle-game with symbol matching and mini-games, not yet at least.

And, you know, it’s more TLJ. Stark and Arcadia are there, the Undreaming is Unchained, and something’s fucked with the balance. The characters are interesting and entertaining, the universe is well-grounded and deep. I’m massively looking forward to following the story.

I’m glad I replayed the older ones, though. It doesn’t even *try* to give a fuck about people who are new to the series, with a “story recap” menu entry that’s possibly linked to a kickstarter-mentioned introduction comic that was going to be released a month before the first chapter, but appears to have fallen off a cliff somewhere. If it’s been a while since you’ve played the other two, I’d recommend reading a summary of TLJ & Dreamfall, and then watching a Lets Play of the last 20/30 minutes or so of Dreamfall. Or replaying them.

As a kickstarter backer of this game that I’ve been waiting for for eight years or so, I’m happy with Chapter One. If they can keep up the episode lengths, it’s going to turn this into a 25 hour adventure game in total, but even if not needing to do so much exposition (and there is quite a lot) speeds up future instalments, I’m still going to be sitting here waiting for the next Dreamfall.

Again.

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Not In My Game

Hey look, Gamergate opinion.

So, last month I wrote a long screedy article about GamerGate, focusing on the appropriation of the Gamer identity. There I said a lot of things about the people doing this misogynistic crap. I called them shit-golems. I’d like to apologise for not going far enough.

Any large group of people has those who believe they are the heart, but are actually the bowels. The people who you cringe when they open their collective vocal-hole, because they’re going to say something awful, and are going to say it on behalf of you too.

But it’s the responsibility of the sane majority to denounce them. It’s the responsibility of the Christian church to denounce the Westboro Church, it’s the responsibility of feminists to denounce TERFs, it’s the responsibly of the group to denounce the lunatic fringe.

Not all of the people involved in GamerGate are the lunatic fringe. Some are asking important questions about the relationship between gaming magazines and PR departments. About well-lubricated “awards ceremonies” that reward not shaking the boat. About PR companies like Play Social, who – this week – released review copies of Shadows over Mordor only to those Youtubers/Twitchers who signed a contract that promised only to concentrate on positive aspects of the game, and the ones the company talked about. About having a game go gold in September, but not give review copies out for its launch in mid-october, to maximise the amount of time before any reviews come out. There are *absolutely* massive problems of accountability and integrity in the gaming industry.

Zoe Quinn isn’t part of it, though. The original accusation – that she slept with journalists in return for publicity for her game – doesn’t match any timelines, any existing articles, or any actual proof. It’s almost as if the reporter in question recused himself from talking about anything his current partner was involved with.

A side effect of Gaming’s original central market segment being teenage boys is that a lot of the founding tropes of the industry are built on quarter-century-old male empowerment fantasies. As the industry grows up, and out, we need to sweep out some of those cobwebs, and one of the people who is shining a light in those dark places is Anita Sarkeesian, who this week cancelled an appearance in Utah because someone promised that a “Montreal Massacre style attack will be carried out against the attendees”.

That’s not against corruption in gaming, that’s making people terrified enough that people don’t feel safe speaking. It’s literally terrorism. 

And those people are taking anything that is *worthy* about a discussion on the morally grey areas of the industry and smothering it with so much bullshit that nobody outside can see anything else. 

But when someone writes an article criticising this part of GamerGate – the bit that is targeting women for speaking out and sending them death threats – the comments that come back are how everyone always focuses on those people and not the real issue.

When someone in your organisation is making terrorist threats, I’m sorry but that *is* the real issue now. Anything about ethical questions in the gaming industry is overshadowed by ethical questions about standing beside, and protecting, the lunatic fringe who believes they should “Just Kill” Zoe Quinn. If you want to talk about serious issues, you need to house-clean first. 

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House of Leaves

I bought a book.

It’s been about five years since I bought my first Kindle, and I’ve never really looked back. I love books, I love libraries, and I love the feeling of a book in my hands. But I love more that I have a hundred books at my fingertips, carried in my pocket, and my favourite book is a momentary thought away.

I love books, but stories are more.

So in the last five years or so I’ve hardly bought any physical books at all, and this week, I bought House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski. This article will not contain any spoilers for events in the book, but does discuss they style and presentation, which spoils a surprise slightly.

The surface narrative is an unfinished academic-style critique of a documentary film called “The Navidson Record”  about a normal family whose house sprouts mysterious and inconsistent dark corridors. The critique offers a scene-by-scene analysis of the film, with copious digressions and footnotes. Some of the footnotes are by the publisher, Truant, who found the critique and provides even more copious notes and digressions on the nature of the critique and his journey though understanding it. 

The book is weird in every direction. The split levels of narrative are marked by serif/monotype font changes, with occasional sections struck from the critique and retrieved by Truant marked in struck red text, the page layout and structure varies from the strange – as the footnotes expand themselves to multi-page stories – to the barely followable. At one stage you may find yourself confronting a page like this:

image

(Photo by TheMainMane)

(There, you have main text, three continuing footnote sections, and one new footnote section. It’s not a common thing in the book, but there’s a reason it’s doing that here)

 or some sections where there are only a few words per page, evoking a sense of time and space beyond that which the words alone are conveying, and sometimes at odds with it.

In this short-attention-span world, it’s been rare for me to get lost in books. House of Leaves has captured my head for hours upon hours at a time, rendering early nights invalid, and promised appointments delayed. I’m barely halfway though, and would without question recommend it.

Here’s the thing, though. If you can, get the hardback colour edition. As much as it’s a heavy physical object, it’s an amazing full use of the medium, and perhaps one of the last.

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Dracula Untold

The Dracula mythos suffers like their antagonists on a sunny day from exposure. Vampires are even more done than Zombies right now, and the idea of a brand new take on the concept is not without merit. Maybe you could put them in a high-school or something.
Before I actually dig in to the film, a point of admission: I’ve never read the original Dracula book. It’s not that I have any objection to it, it’s just I haven’t actually done it. I’ve read adaptations, seen movies, seen the references, but never actually read the book. This may be an advantage here.
The big thing that the film does with the mythos is turn Vlad into the protagonist, and the hero. I’m not going to spoil anything that’s not in the trailer (for now) but basically when Vlad needs to protect his kingdom (countdom, something) from an invading army, he takes up the dark power of Vampirism. If he can resist doing anything stupid for three days, it’ll go away and he’ll be fine, otherwise he’s fucked. Hijinks ensue.
It’s not a bad reboot. Dracula’s the most interesting part of the mythos around him, and as a sympathetic character stuck between various rocks and places, the inexorable grinding towards his own doom is interesting to watch, and Luke Evans does a decent job of Troubled Hollywood Hero, but beyond the new origin story, it really doesn’t do anything different with the tropes of vampirism. One by one, the traditional banes – Silver, Sunlight, Religion etc – are brought in without any investigation or reasoning. Late in the game the film seems to suddenly realize it forgot about stakes, and does some paddle-work to make up for this. That said, the powers and abilities are presented mostly consistently. Battle sequences are invariably one-sided, with Vlad destroying foes by the hundred, until he finally comes up against someone else who’s read the tropes page. It suffers a lot from most of the best ten-second-sequences of the film having gone into the trailer,
There’s something very kryptonitey about the film’s treatment of silver vs vampires in the latter act, but it at least provides a finally interesting fight scene. 
This isn’t a movie that is going to surprise you. The winding path of the hero downwards is telegraphed like sky-writing, and the very hollywood non-progressive casting is somewhat distressing. For a film mostly fighting turks, the shear whiteness of the cast is slightly blinding, and for a modern reboot it’s sad to see the only female named character treated very poorly. Late in the film – when Vlad’s making his own vampires – there are actual powerful female characters with fight scenes and everything. It doesn’t even come close to passing Bechmel or having an excuse not to. There are a lot of decent performances in the film. Dominic Cooper’s antagonist does as much as he can with a two dimensional character, Charles Dance chews elegant savage in the scenery as the original vampire. Art Parkinson is an affable enough muguffin as vlad’s son. 
The ending telegraphs a sequel which seems to be a far more interesting reboot of the actual Dracula story, and I hope they get that far.
So basically, if you’re looking for a decent enough fantasy action movie to spend some time on, this is one. It’s not going to set the world on fire, but I didn’t regret the time spent watching it.