Wednesday, January 28, 2015

What I'm Playing: Long Live the Queen

This is the third and final game in my Steam library (so far). And despite how much I love Papers, Please, it's Long Live the Queen that's seen the most play. That is not to say that it is a better game than any of the other two, or that it's more fun. No. If anything, it's the opposite: it's by far the most frustrating.

Long Live the Queen is a game in the "visual novel" genre, meaning that instead of real-time button mashing or platforming, you make narrative and strategic choices that lead to a variety of outcomes. Here, you must decide which subjects to study, which outfits to wear, and which weekend activities to participate in. This is all building towards skill checks that happen on most weeks. You win or lose the game by passing or failing certain skill checks. Do you have enough magical ability to burn a would-be dueler to ashes, or enough training in swordplay to dispatch him mundanely? Or did you solve an earlier crisis in a such a way that he never finds a reason to fight you in the first place?

So that is the gameplay: there is none as such, just a whole lot of numbers-running, planning, and strategizing, I have no idea how typical this is for a visual novel game because it's the first in the genre I've ever played (next on my list is Hatoful Boyfriend), so bear that in mind when I say:

you are so fucked.

You will not win the game on your first run-through. You will almost certainly meet with an untimely death in the 40 weeks until your coronation. Almost immediately you are faced with an onslaught of skill checks of varying levels of importance. Some don't matter at all; others open up new story choices. Sometimes success or failure is a matter of life and death. Naturally, this the kind of game you replay over and over again.

I mentioned when I talked about The Novelist that I'm Queen Metagamer Optimizer Extraordinaire. If that tendency kept me from getting immersed in the world of The Novelist, it is exactly what I needed to enjoy Long Live the Queen. After I died and realized what kind of game this was going to be, I went into hardcore "spade" mode (as we'd say in Kingdom of Loathing....any Pastamancers or Seal Clubbers out there?) and dove into the Wiki and combed Google for walkthroughs and strategy tips.

Some of you, if you are geekier/more hardcore than I am, might think to yourself right away, "Ah hah! It's another Princess Maker!" That was JV's first reaction, certainly. I never played any of the Princess Maker games, but from what I've heard from other people: no, no way in hell. There is no min-maxing. There isn't enough time to train all of your skills up to an even mediocre level. It is a game full of hard choices and not enough time.

That is why I find it so compulsively playable. (I'm able to sit down and write a review right now because I've managed to talk myself into a break after achieving a pretty good ending.) It is hard and yet not so hard that it seems impossible. It is almost-possible and that's what keeps me coming back for more. But more on that later.

You will not be able to succeed at this game (whatever your definition of "succeed" is, because you can go a variety of different ways), you will need to take a copious amount of notes (or take advantage of the list of weekly events and skill checks on the game's Wiki) and decide which tests you must pass and which ones you can comfortably fail.

I swing back and forth between "it's really fun" and "it's just too much" because of that almost-possible nature of it. On the one hand, this line from The Princess Bride is pretty apropos:

On the other hand, I'm not playing a mahou shojou anime visual novel for its realism. Besides, much of the difficulty stems (in my opinion) not from legitimate strategizing but the arbitrary boundaries of the game. When that happens, it's not a fun challenge, but just a hopeless one.

You take two classes every week. There are a ridiculous number of them; there are already a ridiculous number of fields of study (History, Intrigue, Lumen, Faith, Weapons, etc.) and then each of those fields has 3 different classes (History: World History, Novan History, Foreign Affairs; Intrigue: Internal Affairs, Foreign Intelligence, Ciphering....and on it goes). Each class corresponds to a skill, so that taking a class in "Foreign Affairs" increases your Foreign Affairs ability by anywhere from 5 to 10 points (more on that in a second).

Some of these classes are far, far more useful than others. This is not a situation where having trade and economic savvy is going to benefit you as much as knowing how to suck up to the nobles. (As that disparity in scores in the above screenshot might suggest.) Perhaps that's asking for an overly complicated game—to have a whole shitload of skills and not have one set dramatically more or less useful than everything else—but then why not just cut the useless skills entirely?

Sometimes you have a skill that is useless for 90% of the game, but then suddenly you need something like 90 or 100 points in it to pass an essential check or unlock another option, and that just seems unfair: the game has indicated to you, up until now, that there were far more important things to focus on, and suddenly you're blindsided with a high-level "singing" check. Um?

All of these complaints would be more or less irrelevant if the training system itself were different. To get any skill all the way to 100, you need to get its other two classes (which are often quite useless) up to at least 25. So in addition to the ~10 classes you need to train up that skill (assuming no mood penalties or bonuses), you need to spend ~6 ones dumping a paltry amount of points in skills you'll never actually need. Time spent in those useless classes can really add up, preventing you from training other, more important skills in other classes. For example: out of the "Faith" category you see up there, only Divination is well and truly useful. Those points in Meditation and Lore would probably do you a lot better in Foreign Affairs and Foreign Intelligence.

And yes, there are mood penalties and bonuses when it comes to your studies. I don't mind this; it adds another level of strategy. You can engage in weekend activities that will alter your mood, but events that happen during the week will mess with your mood as well. It's kind of a cheap shot in gameplay, but hey, that's how real life works so I can roll with the punches. What isn't fair is not knowing how your choices to events will affect your mood until you select them. It's not coddling the player to tell them that arresting the Lumen witch will make you angry, but that sending her away will only make you more yielding; it's vital information to managing your moods and, more importantly, it seems like information Elodie (the princess in question) would know. (As opposed to random news about a great hairy beast eating people in a forest somewhere; she's not a precog but of course she would know her own feelings about her actions!) You get to know the mood effects on (most) weekend activities beforehand, so why not these events during the week?

Why all this talk about managing moods? Because moods are important. They dictate, especially in the beginning, how well or poorly you do in certain classes. When your predominant mood is "yielding," for example, you get a bonus to the all-important "Royal Demeanor" class of skills. If you're in the right mood, you can get a skill to level 30 in 2 classes of 15 points each instead of 3 classes of 10 points each, and that often is the difference between passing a skill check by the skin of your teeth and failing utterly.

So, given all of that: I have no idea if this is how visual novel games are supposed to be. Maybe they are supposed to be this hard and metagame-y and close-shavey, in which case: well done and the genre isn't for me (except when it is, in great binge-y doses). Otherwise it needs some serious recalibration when it comes to the design to really be fun while also feeling fair.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Intersection of Math and Art

Say hello to the Harniss spiral, a design based on the Golden Ratio. Isn't it elegant? The first iteration would be a great pendant; with some small changes it would be a great design for a chain bracelet: a whole series of interlocking spirals. Unfortunately, those ideas are going to have to wait until I have more time/space/money to work with metal.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Trek Thursday: Return of the Archons

#47: Return of the Archons

In case you forgot: The Enterprise is investigating the disappearance of the starship Archon over Beta III. Turns out Beta III is being run by a computer named Landru and he assimilated the Archons into his collective consciousness party, like a prototype Borg. Kirk saves the day with some good old-fashioned logic.

This episode has a pretty solid opening. The lawgivers and their Grim Reaper style hoods are striking, and the "festival" is a really juicy mystery. What is it? Why do people have to participate? Is it a compulsory kind of participation that they can't help? Is it coerced, or maybe even voluntary?  Why are older people like Reger exempt? Never mind the weird unison with which the locals turn against Kirk and company, picking up their weapons at the same time and slowly advancing. They're a zombie horde without being zombies.

Moreover, this episode is a great example of set reuse (possible costume reuse?) done really well. They don't fuck around with anything like "oh it's an alternate Earth!" or "oh it's Space Nazis!"; rather, it comes across as an entirely believable alternate human civilization; the fact that everyone is SO FUCKING WEIRD makes the fact that they look like extras in a gangster film irrelevant. If anything, the understated costumes makes the Beta III locals even creepier because there is such a jar between what you expect a "regular" Earth human to do (as opposed to a green-skinned space babe in huts or tipi or whatever) and what they're doing.

You see, then, that this episode could have been great. I really cannot overstate how great the pacing is and how juicy the mystery is over basically the whole first act. But when it takes all that good stuff and just pisses it away in favor of Kirk out-braining a computer, it's so disappointing.

All of the questions the episode poses in the first half  never get answered in the second half. This episode is everything I hated about LOST, only in Star Trek. If the episode had stayed on track, it would have been one of the greatest ones, easily.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Stash-Busting Pi Stackables

After my "twine-and-button" period, I sat down and threw together some memory wire bracelets:

All are pi.
I love memory wire, and sometimes when I love something I put off doing it because I feel like I don't deserve to do something I like? I don't know. All I know is that these bracelets are the first memory wire stackables I've made in over a year.

I love these little guys. They are a great sort of "mix-and-match" (though if they're pi bracelets, does that make them "mix-and-math"?) item. Wear them alone, punch them up with a plain chain bracelet or metal bangle, or make them part of a huge, eclectic boho look.

Note that I would not recommend using only memory wire bangles for that look, unless you have exceptionally skinny forearms.

They're fun to wear and they're fun to make, too. In particular, they're great for cleaning out the dregs of a bead supply. That green bracelet, for example: I was working on it when one of the round, lighter beads fell. JV and I looked for a while but couldn't find it, so I shrugged and continued. What are the odds I'll need it? I thought.

Turned out that I needed it.

I refused to let my frustration get the best of me, I snipped the end of the memory wire, taped it up so nothing would slide off, and sifted through my bead box to see what else I could use up. I ended up making that blue and yellow one you see above, and while fishing the blue beads (they are fiber optic glass, by the way) out from the chaos of a box that didn't quite survive international transport, I found one single light green bead.

SATISFACTION. And also: cool story, bro.

I still have plenty more beads to clear out, though. I need to make room for more Czech glass beads in my life. Which color combo do you like best out of the above? What do you usually wear? Your answers will help me think outside my bead box and come up with combinations I wouldn't have thought of otherwise.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Baby Steps in Crochet and Preparing for Alzheimer's

Crochet has always been "that thing that Lawyer Mom can do that I don't understand." Or it was, until now!

As a small child I wanted to be able to do the things that Mom could do, as most kids probably try to emulate their parents. I took to piano easily. Crochet? Not so much. I got as far as just doing endless, endless chain stitches but when it came to moving from that into an actual thing I just couldn't grasp the concept. I ended up turning an entire skein of Red Heart yarn (it was a "baby afghan" colored yarn, pink and blue and white) into one long chain stitch, and then using the resulting snake as some kind of extra heavy yarn and chain stitching that into oblivion. I have no idea what happened to that monstrosity or if I even finished it.

All of that is to say I finally figured out how to crochet. Kind of. So I present a project that 10-year-old me would have been proud of:

I'm not sure if this is a direction I want to take officially take with Kokoba. Not potholders, obviously; apparel is more labor-intensive but it's probably also a much better seller.

Old age, dementia, and Alzheimer's are things that worry me. As I might have mentioned in relation to my thoughts on 23andMe, I know I have a copy of the APOE4 gene, elevating my risk of contracting Alzheimer's. I say "elevating my risk" but truthfully the odds are still against it (the risk is like 13% instead of 7%). Even with Alzheimer's out of the picture there's always the possibility of dementia and there's no report for that on 23andMe.

Long story short, I worry about these things and what will happen to my brain and my mind as I age. There's no way to know until you're in the thick of things. Watching this TED talk (yes, a TED talk, I know, but this one is good except really they should have gotten her a podium or a chair or something) got me thinking about my hobbies and what is familiar to me. What are my hands used to doing?

Piano, for one. According to JV I even play in my sleep on occasion. But if I end up in a home or a care facility, I'm certainly not going to have room for a piano of my own.

Viking knit, for another. That is smaller, portable, silent (no chance of bothering a roommate or anyone else), but handling fine-gauge wire in old age might not go so well. Though, again, if 23andMe is to be believed, I'm at a reduced risk both for rheumatoid arthritis and macular degeneration: good news for working with small crafts!

Still, pliers and wire snips might not go over so well in a care facility. Plus, as I've discovered, it's much easier to find "fiber arts" supplies on a daily basis than it is jewelry. I can go to the varuhus (department store? I guess? it's more than a grocery store but less than something like Target or WalMart) in the first floor of our building and find a wide assortment of yarn (mostly acrylic, which will have yarn snobs poo-pooing, but you can find wool as well), crochet hooks, knitting needles, and patterns. Beads? Wire? Findings? Only available at a couple of craft stores and even then of a questionable quality.

I will keep this up, maybe until we're drowning in crappy little pot holders, but you need to learn to walk before you can run, amirite?

Friday, January 16, 2015

January Read Play Blog: What I'm Looking Forward to in 2015

Today is one of those times where 5 Fandom Friday and Read Play Blog overlap, but I'm skipping 5 Fandom Friday this week. Cons aren't really my scene, so I wouldn't really have any good answers!

Read Play Blog is a meme about video games and books, posted every 16th of the month. Bloggers are encouraged to answer a discussion question, and recommend a video game that is similar to a book they liked. Hosted by Happy Indulgence Books & Read Me Away.

Today's Read Play Blog question is: What games are you looking forward to in 2015?

Truth be told, none. At least in terms of new releases. I don't keep track of video game releases at all, for a couple of reasons. First and foremost is that after a 2+ year dry spell, I am way behind. Case in point: it's 2015 now (holy crap!!) and I still haven't finished Fallout 3, Ni no Kuni, or Demon's Souls. There's a long, long queue of games in JV's collection I need to get to—I don't have time for new releases!

The other, lesser reason is that I simply don't have the discretionary funds for new games right on release. Fortunately, thanks to the fact that I'm immensely far behind in the gaming world, this doesn't bug me as much as it might otherwise.

What I'm looking forward to hopefully being able to play for the first time in 2015 is a different story, though! There are two on the top of my list: Fez and Thomas Was Alone. And while I may have finally been a late convert to Steam, both of those games are unavailable on Linux! They are, at least, available on PS3, so when I clear up some space in my gaming queue I can add them to it.

I was not one of the people clamoring on the Internet for Fez after Phil Fish initially previewed it in 2007 or whenever. The name was familiar to me, in that sort of Internet osmosis way that anything tangentially related to what you're interested in eventually becomes familiar to you, but I didn't know anything about it except that people hated Fish. I didn't see any of the game in detail until JV and I watched Indie Game: The Movie, and I decided that it looked really lighthearted and fun and challenging.

I don't know how I came across Thomas Was Alone. I think it was a blog I follow, or maybe a video review JV was watching? But I live for that puzzle shit, and I love how understated and unique the whole look is. It takes a lot of creativity to make an entire game just out of a few shapes!


I mean, I already wrote a lot of words on this, but I think everyone should at least try Papers, Please, no matter what kind of genre preferences they have. That said, it's a game that I think dystopian aficionados in particular will enjoy. Are you a fan of 1984? Franz Kafka? This game is for you.

Currently Playing

But what currently has the bulk of my attention is this ridiculously ~super kawaii desu ne~~ visual novel game, Long Live the Queen. One of my friends called it "that anime murder sim" and gave me some friendly shit for spending so much time on it, but I can't help it! I have too many thoughts on it to go into detail here, except to say that it appeals to that inner optimizer I talked about with The Novelist

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Trek Thursday: Patterns of Force

#48. Patterns of Force

In case you forgot: The infamous SPACE NAZIS episode! A Federation officer sent to "observe" has meddled in the development of a society and made them all Nazis, with a stand-in Jewish race to boot. The situation has spiraled well out of his control and it's up to Kirk and company to save the day.

Yet another example of Starfleet and the Federation doing more harm in the galaxy than good. You have to wonder: what is the net "moral worth" of Starfleet in this universe? Half the time Kirk and company are either solving problems someone else in the fleet has made; the other half they're making problems and then being nice enough to tidy up the lose ends in under an hour.

This is why the Prime Directive is so important you guys, otherwise we end up with Space Nazis.

 I appreciate that we're not in "parallel Earth" territory—someone from Earth deliberately interfered and made things this way, something about a strong and efficient government rescuing a people in economic and social shambles—but I mean...Nazis? I don't mind brutal totalitarian regimes in my science fiction, even with a good dollop of race hatred, but certainly a more elegant stand-in can be created than Seig Heils and swastikas? Sure this was written in a pre-Godwin environment, where the nightmares of the Holocaust were still brutally fresh, but what makes for good dramatic catharsis in the 60s doesn't always age well. Which is too bad, because with a little more understatement, this episode could have been one of the best in the entire series.