Science, Fiction, Life

Category: Game Review

Game review: 7 Days to Die

If you were to sit down and precision engineer a video game to be hopelessly addictive to me, you would probably end up with something like 7 Days to Die. It’s a strange mash-up of several different game genres – shooter, RPG, survival/crafting, tower defense, voxel-based, sandbox/open world – but somehow it not only works, it is incredibly compelling and has basically hijacked my brain for a significant chunk of the past year. Now, I’m susceptible to becoming addicted to almost any new game, but as you’ll see, this game hits a magic combination for me that takes it above and beyond.

The premise of the game is that it’s the zombie apocalypse and you wake up naked in the wilderness and have to find a way to survive. You gather resources and loot the remnants of civilization to craft clothing, weapons, and eventually build yourself a base where you can live safely and eventually thrive. You have to find food and water and clothing appropriate to the weather. And importantly you have to do all of this while not being eaten by zombies. But the core mechanic of the game is that every 7 days, there is a “blood moon” where the zombies go berserk, can find you no matter where you are hiding, and attack you in increasingly difficult waves. This weekly “horde night” gives the rest of the game an urgency: you need to repair, fortify, and improve your base in time for the next horde, because the hordes keep getting more and more powerful.

What’s really impressive is how irresistible I find the game despite the fact that it has no story whatsoever, and that it is not even a finished game – it is still technically in alpha, meaning it is actively being developed and is prone to bugs, lacking polish, and is generally rough around the edges. It was released in 2013 and is currently on its 21st alpha version, with no final release date in sight. I was hesitant to try a game that was still in alpha at first, and there have been some annoying bugs to deal with, but the benefit is that the game is constantly being improved, and that every year or so a major update is released, essentially providing a “new” game. I started playing last year on alpha 19 and enjoyed it very much (except for when a bug caused my vehicle and all of my possessions to mysteriously disappear…). Then when alpha 20 came out around Christmas time, I started a fresh game and have been thoroughly enjoying it again, appreciating all the various changes. The constant tweaking annoys some players but to me it’s kind of fascinating to watch. I am much more invested in the game because I can see it growing and changing.

It may seem weird for me to get sucked into an open world style game when in the past I have talked so much about how I like games with stories. I do think video games are a powerful medium for telling stories that only very rarely use their storytelling potential to its fullest. But a couple years ago I started to rethink that position when I got hooked on Fallout 4, and actually had a better time when I replayed it and mostly ignored the story and embraced the open world experience, the gameplay itself, and the little stories that naturally arise as you set your own goals and try to achieve them. 7 Days to Die picks up the evolution of my thoughts about games where I left off in Fallout 4, and has officially convinced me that my tastes in games are not actually what I thought, and that I’m perfectly happy without any story at all, in some cases. 

Story is one way that games can be great, and I still wish more games would invest more in good writing and storytelling, but it is not the only way. Games can also be great through compelling gameplay that puts you into a “flow” state where all other thoughts fall away and you know what to do, how to do it, and are enjoying the process of doing it (a combination that can be sorely lacking in real life…). 7 Days to Die definitely achieves this. It has that “let me just do this one more thing” feel to it that characterizes the most addictive games.

Games also can be great by just providing a rich secondary world for you to have interesting experiences in. That’s what I most enjoyed in Fallout 4, and the even greater freedom in 7 Days has been a blast. 

7 Days to Die is a voxel-based game, meaning that the whole game world is based on discrete blocks that you can destroy or build upon however you want. Minecraft is the most well-known voxel game, and makes very little attempt at looking pretty. 7 Days to Die actually manages to look good much of the time, in comparison. The game world is based on 1 meter blocks, but it does a lot of clever things to make this less glaringly obvious. The a20 update significantly improved the random world generation. While it’s still not without bugs (notably, water in the game is a mess, and you can end up with roads cutting across lakes making it look like Moses has been through recently), it generates some pretty believable terrain and cities, which with vegetation, weather, and lighting effects, can be downright scenic. Most importantly, it generates worlds that seem to cry out to be explored. That distant mountain? Not only can you go climb it, you can dig a tunnel right through it, or build a castle on top of it, or carve your initials into it. That distant city? Full of zombies but also potential resources to salvage.

My first glimpse of the new and improved cities in Alpha 20.
Not bad looking considering you can modify everything you see.

7 Days to Die actually has a lot in common with Fallout 4. It is set in a post-apocalyptic world where you have to loot ruins to find weapons and supplies. You level up as you play and gain more skills so you can become more powerful and craft better gear. On the hardest difficulty in Fallout 4 you have to find food and water and avoid disease, all of which are a core part of 7 Days to Die. Fallout 4 is definitely a far more “polished” game, with a great user interface, tons of actual quests with actual storylines and non-player characters. It’s also much prettier because it is not voxel-based. And in both games you can build a base. I enjoyed this in Fallout 4, but it didn’t really serve a very vital purpose, it was more just a cool thing you could do if you wanted. In 7 Days to Die, building yourself the ultimate base (in a game world that is completely modifiable by you – or destructible by the zombies trying to get to you…) is an absolute blast.

When I was a kid, I built a lot of forts. Snowy outside? Build a snow fort. Rainy day? Build a pillow fort. Got some legos? Build a fort. My dad built me a wooden fort in the basement. In high school, when left unsupervised in the north woods of Michigan, a friend and I scavenged materials from an abandoned hunting shack and built a fort. We cut (most of) our timber by hand using a dull hatchet, and even attempted a makeshift forge using a cinder block as furnace and anvil (turns out that, when heated, aluminum curtain rods just flake and crumble and cannot, in fact, be hammered into swords). We made an arsenal of wooden swords, staves, and bows instead. It was never quite clear who we were defending against, but there’s something about building a safe place for yourself and your friends that I apparently find really fun.

Yes, that’s correct, one of my fondest memories from my teens involves harvesting resources, looting ruined buildings for supplies, crafting weapons, and building a fort in the wilderness. I told you, 7 Days to Die is practically laser-targeted to make my brain happy.

In my latest playthrough, after surviving for a while as usual, I decided to get creative. I scouted around until I found the perfect location for an enormous Lord of the Rings-inspired base carved into the mountainside. To avoid disrupting this post with dozens of screenshots I’ll make a separate post to show it off, but here’s a taste.

Sunset over my epic base, complete with Orthanc-like tower.
My own personal, hand-crafted Mines of Moria. Now there’s an eye-opener and no mistake.

Another reason this game was particularly ideal for me is that I love the post-apocalyptic genre. I don’t know what this says about me, that I enjoy thinking about scenarios where the world falls into ruin and almost everyone dies and I need to repurpose the tools in the hardware store into weapons, but the genre’s popularity suggests that I’m not alone. If I had to guess, I would say it’s probably a symptom of the overwhelming complexity of the modern world. I think many of us sometimes wish we could strip that all away, and imagine what it would take to survive. 

We fundamentally have the same brains that our ancestors had 40,000 years ago, and those brains evolved to help us survive in a hostile world, creating tools from the materials we can find around us to provide shelter, food, and defense for ourselves and a small group of kin. It’s not surprising that a genre that considers a return to that sort of life might be appealing.

As an aside, one thing I dislike about the post-apocalyptic genre is the assumption that with the collapse of civilization, people will degenerate into roving bands of maniacs. Actual evidence from disasters shows that the much more likely outcome is that the apocalypse would shatter social and class barriers and that, at least at first, people would work together to help each other survive. (Check out A Paradise Built in Hell for more on this.) I’d love to see more in the genre that explores that perspective, rather than the common assumption that we’re all a bunch of murderers and rapists under a thin veneer of civilization.

The nice thing about a zombie apocalypse is that it gives you a convenient “other” to defend against, while sidestepping some of the interesting but messy questions that can be explored in the genre. Zombies = bad. No negotiating, no moral grey areas. Those are good for thoughtful stories, but if you are more concerned with gameplay, defending against mindless zombies makes for a very fun game. If the last few years have taught me anything, it is that sometimes you just need dumb fun.

The final thing I’ll mention about the game is that it can be played as a cooperative multiplayer game. It’s actually how I first came across it. I have a weekly video game night with my brother and friend from high school (the same friend I built that fort in the woods with) and we came across it while looking for a new game to play together. It’s a fun single player game, but building and surviving with friends makes it even better.

Looking down at the entrance to our cooperative game base. On horde night zombies follow the easiest path to you, but they are dumb so they don’t avoid things like giant spinning blades…

7 Days to Die is by no means a perfect game. It’s still in development, it has a mediocre user interface, occasional bugs, and if you’re used to cutting edge graphics it’s voxel nature will leave you disappointed. It can have the feel of a game designed by and for adolescent boys, with its “busty nurse” shopkeeper and often crude humor. It completely lacks anything like a story.

But it is incredibly fun. It combines what works from multiple game genres into a seriously addictive, creative, and amazingly flexible gaming experience. And it has cooperative multiplayer so you can do it all with friends. I have found myself pouring hour after hour into it and thinking about it nearly constantly. I wake up in the middle of the night with ideas for how to improve my base, either practically or aesthetically. I am finally reaching the point where I feel “done” with my single player game, but I’m still having a blast in multiplayer, and am still eagerly watching the development notes for the next version. I have no doubt that when alpha 21 is released, I’ll be sucked right back in.

Game Review: Red Dead Redemption 2

Red Dead Redemption 2 somehow manages to be one of the most amazing video games I have ever played while also being one of the most frustrating. It is the victim of its own success: it does so much so well that its flaws are all the more noticeable.

[Note: spoilers abound in this post, so if you don’t want the game spoiled, go play it and read this later!]

But first let’s start with the positives. RDR2 is the biggest, most beautiful game I have ever played. The world is huge and intricately detailed, and no matter where you are, no matter what time of day it is, or what the weather is, it looks gorgeous. I recall reading something a few years back about video games and how graphics are good enough that the aim is no longer to exactly mimic reality, but instead to look better than reality, and RDR2 certainly does this. Like its predecessor, the ambiance of the game is one of its main strengths, and there were times when I would just pause to take in the sights. I mean, just look at some of these screenshots I found with a quick search:

The world of RDR2 is a stylized version of the United States, and although the game is nominally a “western,” the map includes the desert southwest, the rockies, the Midwest, the deep South, and Appalachia. These regions blend seamlessly with each other and each has its own unique “feel” thanks to the changing geography, flora, fauna, and cities. If you’ve traveled the US at all, you can always recognize the real-world analog of where you are in the game. Through the course of the game, I talked to a guy panning for gold near Grand Teton, hunted a legendary wolf near Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone, picked wild orchids in the Louisiana bayou, found a mysterious skeleton in a snowy pass through the Rocky Mountains, and watched the sun rise over Sedona. And none of that was part of the main story of the game.

It’s not just the scenery that is amazing either. The game looks like a movie, with nearly every bit of dialogue well acted, and well “filmed” for lack of a better term. No artificial talking heads here, these are real scenes with genuine cinematography. The motion capture for the characters is excellent, and the characters themselves look great. The camera can get right in for a closeup and you rarely lose immersion due to graphics the way you might in games from just a few years ago.

Arthur Morgan, the main character.
Arthur Morgan and Sadie Adler.

Not only do the characters look good, they’re also actual characters with personalities and backstories and well-written, well-acted dialogue to rival any western movie. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the characters and story in RDR2 are better than those in many western movies and novels I’ve seen/read. (This is not to say the story is flawless: more on that later.)

The story follows Arthur Morgan, second in command of a gang of outlaws led by the charismatic, loud-mouthed Dutch van der Linde. It begins with the gang on the run through the snowy mountains after a botched job in the town of Blackwater. They find a new place to set up camp and start trying to earn money through various legal and non-legal means.

Some members of the gang. From right to left: Dutch van der Linde, Hosea Matthews, Bill Williamson, Arthur Morgan, John Marston, Charles Smith

But tensions start to rise as the sleazy and reckless newcomer Micah Bell gains influence over Dutch, leading to a series of failed jobs and increasingly hare-brained schemes. Dutch loses his grip on sanity as the failures wear on him and Arthur begins questioning him after decades of loyalty.

At the same time, Arthur’s life of bad choices catches up with him. Early in the game he is collecting debts and beats a farmer who, it is revealed later, dies of tuberculosis shortly thereafter. Arthur learns that he caught the disease, and faces his own mortality in a way that is unexpected to someone who expected to someday die in a shootout. He has time to reckon with the good and bad that he has done in his life and the opportunities that he has sacrificed and friends he has lost because of his loyalty to Dutch.

Needless to say, video game plots have come a long way since the days of Bad Dudes on NES:

Red Dead Redemption is so excellent in so many ways that it ends up in a sort of uncanny valley between video game and movie, where it doesn’t fully succeed at being either one. Although the plot is excellent for a video game, and I would gladly read a novel or watch a movie with the same plot, it suffers because it has to serve double duty as a video game. I found it really jarring to go from beautiful, well-acted, cinematic cut-scenes, to the inevitable massive shootout against dozens of disposable henchmen. The actual shootout sequences end up seeming borderline slapstick compared to the real drama of the cut-scenes.

Similarly, the plot gets repetitive because it needs to find more and more excuses to have big video-game shootouts. So the gang tries repeatedly to do elaborate jobs and repeatedly fails and repeatedly has to go on the run again, and it quickly gets to the point where you wonder why in the world all these people are following Dutch when Arthur is clearly the more sensible one. And of course, that realization is what ends up being the culmination of the story, but it takes a long time and a lot of repetition to get there. This is because a video game the size of RDR2 needs dozens of hours of content in the main story, not the few hours of a good movie, so there’s a lot of padding and extraneous asides. In particular, the part of the story line involving Arthur trying to help a Native American tribe and Dutch trying to lead them into conflict with the Army as some sort of elaborate distraction made very little sense and was pretty clearly there to have more, and more varied, shootouts. Similarly, the unexpected detour involving a shipwreck in the Caribbean and a fight to help freed slaves against the brutal plantation owner/dictator there was a lot of filler (though it provided a beautiful change of scenery).

(I have conflicting feelings about how the game handles race in general and Native Americans in particular. I don’t feel qualified to speak much about it but I’ll say that I think the game’s heart is in the right place even as it uses some uncomfortable tropes and outright stereotypes.)

The flip side of the story suffering because it has to accommodate the video game aspects of RDR2 is that the game suffers too, to the extent that I actually think it is more successful as a “movie” than as a game. The game aspects suffer from several major flaws: bad controls and menus, lack of consequences, and lack of a compelling open world gameplay and progression.

First, the controls and menus: They’re really surprisingly bad. Because it tries to be a full-blown realistic wild-west simulator, there are a zillion things that you can do, and just as many controls to learn. Even after playing for 6 months, I still regularly struggle to remember what button does what in some circumstances. A lot of this is because new controls are inevitably introduced while there is some other action happening on the screen and are only shown on screen briefly before disappearing forever. Also, the same button sometimes does very different things in different contexts. For example, the button to look at something is the same button to shoot, which can lead to… bad outcomes.

If the controls are bad, the menus are terrible. They require you to hold down one button, then point in a radial direction with one of the control sticks, then potentially tap another button to choose among similar items, and then release the first button. It’s incredibly awkward. Meanwhile the game isn’t fully paused, just slowed way down. I think the idea was to keep it quick to avoid people getting buried in menus and thereby break the immersion of the game, but it’s much more distracting to use a poorly designed menu than it is to just pause, choose the item you want using simple, clear controls, and then get back to business. The inventory is clunky too, to the point that I essentially ignored it other than to occasionally check my Legendary Animals map.

I hate this radial menu.

And that gets at the second major issue: lack of consequences. There are so many things that can just be ignored. You are warned early in the game that you need to eat often enough to stay healthy but not so much that you get fat. You are supposed to brush and feed your horse or it will suffer a loss of stamina. You can learn to cook a variety of fancy meals by combining meat from animals you hunt with various medicinal herbs you can gather. There are different special types of ammo you can learn to craft. You need to clean your guns to keep them in tip top shape. You’re supposed to donate money to the gang to pay for upkeep and provisions. You can craft all sorts of outrageous-looking outfits if you hunt the right animals. The list goes on and on and on, and basically none of it matters.

You don’t suffer any real penalty from eating too much or too little. The penalty to your horse for not keeping it clean is insignificant. There’s no reason to cook anything because even the most basic “stick meat over fire and then eat it” recipe refills all of your stats easily. The ammo crafting is a waste of time: sure I can make explosive bullets, but if I have to make them one at a time, and my sniper rifle can kill even the strongest legendary animals in a few shots, I don’t really need the explosive bullets, do I? Yeah, dirty guns don’t do as much damage, but it’s not that much of a penalty. The gang is perfectly fine if you donate precisely nothing to them. Those outfits you can craft look cool and/or silly but don’t change a thing.

Some of the “interesting” outfits you can make.

It seems like the game designers wanted the best of both worlds: they wanted the immersion of having to keep track of all these little things, but also didn’t want the player to get bogged down in all of them. I would much rather they had picked a few of these details and made them actually matter and ditched the rest.

This lack of consequences carries over into the game’s difficulty, or lack thereof. This is an incredibly easy game. It aims for you, you can enter slow-mo “dead-eye” mode and take out a half-dozen guys who already have you in their sights, and if your dead-eye meter or health runs low you’re basically guaranteed to be carrying enough miracle elixirs and snake oil to refill them indefinitely (another thing you theoretically need to care about but in practice doesn’t matter). Just about the only times I died in the game were when I (a) did something really stupid and deserved it, or (b) got confused about the controls. Confusing controls should not be the leading cause of death in a video game. I’m no elite gamer and I don’t mind a game being on the easy side, but a game should have a bit of a challenge and some stakes if you die and too often this one just… didn’t. Worst case, you lose a few bucks and respawn nearby.

And finally, the lack of a compelling open world gameplay or character progression. In this case, by character progression I don’t mean in terms of the story, but in terms of your abilities in the game. Other than getting a bit more stamina, health, and “dead-eye” time, you don’t really gain more abilities after the initial (lengthy) tutorial period where new controls and things are gradually doled out. The closest thing to new abilities that you get are new guns, but really a lot of these are window decoration. There are technically a whole bunch of guns in the game but in practice there are 5: pistol, repeater, shotgun, rifle, sniper rifle. The different types within each class don’t really matter much.

One of my greatest disappointments about RDR2 is that despite having such an amazing and beautiful open world, once you finish the main story there’s not that much to do in it. Or rather, there is a lot to do but it all feels like filler. Hunting is pretty fun for a while, and I liked the Legendary Animals, but I ended the game wishing I could spend more time in the game world, but unable to justify doing so because there was nothing meaningful to do.

Watching the sun set from your ranch, Beecher’s Hope, in the Epilogue.

I’ve complained here a fair deal about one of the best-reviewed video games ever made (and I freely admit that it’s one of the best I’ve ever played despite my complaints). So what would I do differently to fix this? Aside from basics like “better controls and menus”, a lot of my complaints could be fixed by rearranging the plot.

One of the most compelling sequences in the plot is actually the epilogue, where you’re playing as John Marston and trying to set up a ranch and get away from the outlaw life to convince your wife and son to come back to you. It plays to the ambiance of the game and by cutting down on the outlandish firefights in favor of more character development, it’s stronger than much of the main story line.

In my fantasy version of the game, this sequence is moved to the early part of the game. You would begin the game as a teenage kid with no skills whatsoever, orphaned and heading west to build a life. You find work, develop skills, and eventually start a family and ranch of your own. But paying the bills gets harder and harder and as you discover that you’re good in a fight you start making money by collecting bounties. At this point, you meet up with Dutch and join his gang, trying to live a double life as a family man and as a gang member. You build loyalty to Dutch as the gang protects your family from some other outlaws, but eventually the dual life collapses and your family leaves (or is killed?), so you end up in Dutch’s gang and fiercely loyal. From here, the main plot of the game can proceed. There’s more justification for the long time it takes to realize the loyalty to Dutch is misplaced.

The epilogue with John Marston can still work: he inherits Arthur’s ranch, run-down after years of neglect. After the credits roll, the ranch provides the reason to keep playing. You can build new upgrades and customize it to your heart’s content if you earn money by continuing to play (in this scenario you would not end up with vast sums of money after the end game). I’m picturing full-out customization, similar to the base-building in Fallout 4. (Likewise, in general I’d love to see the introduction of more unique weapons and clothing that actually have impacts on the gameplay, again similar to Fallout 4.)

Anyway, those are my (waaay too long) thoughts on Red Dead Redemption 2. It was excellent in a lot of ways but that just made its shortcomings all the more frustrating. It’s been a couple of weeks since I stopped playing and I still have that sad feeling you get when you finish a really immersive novel. I sincerely wish I had more of a reason to keep playing around in the gorgeous world of the game. In any case, despite my complaints, the success of RDR2 makes me optimistic about the future of story-heavy gaming. If RDR2 is a sign of things to come, I’m looking forward to what the future of gaming holds.

Rapid-fire reviews: Starcraft, Steelheart, Oscar Wao, Zootopia, etc.

I’ve gotten behind on posting reviews here, so in the interest of getting caught back up, here are some quick thoughts on a bunch of books and movies and games from the past few months!


  • Starcraft 2: Legacy of the Void – I loved StarCraft when I was in high school, and I mostly enjoyed the first two parts of the Starcraft 2 trilogy, so I am disappointed to say that this one wasn’t very good. The plot was boring and lacked interesting characters or any sort of emotional range. It was like the game makers were trying so hard to make the finale of Starcraft 2 epic that they forgot how to make a good game. Instead it’s just heavy-handed and over-the-top and relentlessly epic. Also, it was very Protoss heavy. One of the things that is fun about Starcraft is the shifting alliances between the three playable races and their factions. This game seemed to have much less of that.


  • The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao – So apparently this won a Pulitzer? I enjoyed parts of this: the premise of a super geeky Dominican immigrant living in the city in the US was interesting, but nothing really happens. He basically mopes around about how he can’t get laid, and that’s interspersed with some flashbacks to his relatives past lives in the Dominican Republic. The reader is beaten over the head with how misogynistic Dominican culture is and how much Oscar doesn’t fit in with it. And then he find himself back in the DR and involved in a very ill-advised relationship, and then he gets killed. Maybe this one was too literary for me. Sometimes literary stuff is great, but other times it can end up just boring. I found this one was mostly in the latter category. On the plus side, I learned some history that I only vaguely knew about before.


  • Steelheart – This is Brandon Sanderson’s YA take on superheroes. The premise is basically: What if all superheroes were evil? I am starting to think that Sanderson is just not my style of author. This book especially felt to me like he was just phoning it in. He even goes so far as to make one of the main character’s personality traits be that he is terrible with metaphors, which to me screams that the author was too lazy to think of good metaphors so instead used the first dumb thing that came to mind and made it into a running gag. It destroyed my suspension of disbelief every time. But that’s just one minor nitpick. More generally, I think my issue with Sanderson is that he is great at the craft of writing but severely lacking in the art side. Reading his books is sort of like looking at a house that isn’t quite finished. Like, yeah the house is safe to live in, and the roof doesn’t leak, but I can see the foundation and interior structure. The walls aren’t painted yet: I can see where there were plot holes that got patched with a well placed infodump. I’m actually thinking that because Sanderson’s books lend themselves so well to being able to sense the underlying structure and outline, that I should read more of them because it may help learn the craft, even if they’re not my favorites. My favorite books suck me in so well that I can’t sense these sorts of underlying details as easily. (Edited to add: Also, Sanderson is absolutely awful at writing love subplots. Some parts of this book were truly cringe-worthy in that regard.)


  • All the Light We Cannot See – Another Pulitzer winner. I enjoyed this more than Oscar Wao, but it also reminded me very strongly of The Book Thief (not a bad thing by any means, but it made it feel less original). This book is about a blind girl in France during WWII and a German boy who is a prodigy at fixing radios. There is some lovely writing in this one, but again it moved a bit slowly for my taste.


  • The Ocean at the End of the Lane – This is a nice short book by Neil Gaiman, and I think it’s my favorite book of his so far. After reading American Gods, I suspected that Gaiman was better at short fiction than long and this book seems to support that idea. Nice writing, suitably weird, full of melancholy reminiscences about childhood and growing up, with unnerving and ominous powers hidden just beneath the surface of reality.


  • The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet – This is by the same author who wrote Cloud Atlas but is a much more “normal” historical fiction book. The setting is interesting: Japan in 1799. It’s about a young Dutch man who is stationed at the port of Dejima, the only part of Japan where Europeans are allowed, and who falls in love with a Japanese girl. The writing is generally very nice, but I found that there was one stylistic quirk that really bugged me (particularly because I was reading this book out loud). Almost every single piece of dialog is interrupted partway through with dialog tags. Here are couple of examples that I found by searching for quotes from the book:
    • “Don’t let death,” Jacob reproves himself, “be your final thought.”
    • “I find a certain comfort,” confesses Marinus, “in humanity’s helplessness.”

    Every once in a while this would be ok, but it really is basically every piece of dialog. I’m sure there’s some sort of symbolism or something that the author deliberately was trying to achieve here, but it mostly just bugged me. My other issue with this book was that it moves very slowly. Again, this is probably just my preference for genre fiction over literary fiction, but I can always tell a book is going too slowly when I start to nod off while reading before bed, and that happened way too much with this one. Happily, the end finally picks up pace and redeems the slow build, so overall I ended up enjoying this.


  • A Pirate of Exquisite Mind – This is a biography of William Dampier, a guy who really should be better known than he is. The story of his life is pretty remarkable. He was a buccaneer and privateer for a while in the Caribbean and on the west coast of Panama, but also took careful notes in his journal, which made him the first European to describe many things we take for granted like barbecues and avocados and chopsticks. He circumnavigated the world three times and was one of the first Europeans to explore parts of Australia. His writings went on to inspire famous writers (Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels both draw on his writings), scientists (such as Charles Darwin), and explorers (such as James Cook). The only downside to this biography is that it did get dry at times. A lot of it is based on Dampier’s own writings, combined with other written accounts from the time, but the authors of the book paraphrase these documents so heavily that I often thought it would be more interesting and easier to read if they would just quote larger chunks from the original sources. But despite this, I’m definitely glad I learned more about Dampier.


  • Zootopia – This movie was so good! Great animation, full of lots of jokes that kids will get, as well as a lot of them that are aimed squarely at adults. The plot is actually interesting, and the message of this story about bias and racial tolerance is a really important one, and it somehow manages to convey it without being overly saccharine or preachy. It has one of the highest ratings I’ve ever seen on Rotten Tomatoes: 98%. I look forward to owning this movie and showing it to my kids.


  • The Jungle Book – Yes, we have been mostly watching children’s movies at the theaters lately! They’re sure more interesting than the umpteenth superhero sequel! I am still a bit skeptical about this trend of remaking classic Disney movies as darker live action/CGI movies, but there were so many great actors in this one I figured we should give it a try. It was pretty good, and certainly visually impressive, but ended up feeling a lot shallower than Zootopia despite looking much more “serious”.

Game Review: Walking Dead: Season 1


You know that feeling when you get to the end of a great novel? Or when the credits are rolling after an amazing season finale for your favorite TV show? Yeah, that’s what I’m feeling right now after finishing The Walking Dead: Season 1.

I’ve been known to complain on this blog about the lack of a decent story in video games. It’s something that always bothers me because so many games could be so much better if they spent just a little effort on the plot instead of filler content so that they can claim there are 100 hours of gameplay. Thankfully, it looks like at least some game designers are realizing this, and Telltale games seems to be leading the way.

Playing The Walking Dead is not like other games. You don’t have much freedom to move around, the controls are frankly pretty clunky, and the graphics are not amazing (but they are cool looking: making the game look like a comic book is a nice shout out to the source material that also allows them to skimp on graphics). The Walking Dead is more like watching an episode of a TV show. The game is even broken into discrete episodes, complete with credits, “previously on…” and teasers for the next episode. But the difference is that it’s a TV show where instead of yelling impotently at the screen when the characters do something dumb, you actually get to play the role of one of the characters (though if you’re like me you’ll still yell at the non-player characters from time to time…).

In The Walking Dead: Season 1, you play Lee, a former history professor who was on his way to jail when the zombie apocalypse occurred (the details of your past are revealed gradually, so I won’t say anything more than that). You end up escaping from the crashed cop car and finding a little girl, Clementine, hiding out in her tree fort to get away from the zombies. You take her under your wing and meet up with an assortment of other interesting characters as you try to survive in the zombie infested world. Unlike most games where killing aliens or terrorists or, you know, zombies, is the main attraction, here the best part of the game is just getting to know the characters. They all are well written, often with their own annoying traits but that only serves to make them feel “real”.

Of course, with realistic characters comes conflict. Disagreements about how best to survive, who is in charge, what to do when someone “turns” into a zombie. In every episode, you are faced with a few tough moral decisions, and these decisions have consequences. More often than not, your choices determine who survives the episode, which can be very difficult because the characters are so well developed. (The game does overuse the “who will you save?” decision a bit.) But it’s not all choices like that. Sometimes it’s the choice between fighting someone or talking to them to calm them down, or what to tell Clementine about whether her parents are alive or not, or whether to trust a newcomer to the group. Oh, and usually you only have a second or two to decide. Of course, the choices don’t alter the fundamental backbone of the story too much: the game’s writers would rapidly end up with a million different diverging stories. But even though the game steers you toward what must happen to advance the story, the fact that you get to make decisions that affect not only the current episode, but all subsequent episodes, means that you get really emotionally invested in the game. The Walking Dead game could easily be set up to just watch like a TV show, and it would be a pretty darn good show on its own. But by allowing you, the player, to make choices and get invested in the characters, it ends up being more powerful than just about any TV show I’ve ever watched. Not to give anything away, but the ending of the final episode had a hell of an emotional impact.

The only negative thing I can say about the game is that one of the episodes was very buggy. I had to restart and re-do a few scenes to be able to get through it. Things like this are especially jarring for a game that otherwise sucks you in so thoroughly.

But other than the bugs, I loved this game. It makes me incredibly happy that there are more “seasons” and that Telltale has quite a few other games out there (apparently they have a Game of Thrones series that I’ll have to check out). I really hope the success of games like this that don’t treat plot and characters as an afterthought inspires other developers to follow suit.


Game Review: Dragon Age Inquisition

I got an Xbox One for Christmas, and the first game that I played on it was Dragon Age: Inquisition. The game has been winning all sorts of awards, and so I figured I might as well have my first Xbox One gaming experience be as epic as possible. So did it live up to the hype?


The environments in this game are gorgeous.

Yes! Mostly. Inquisition blends the character-driven games that Bioware is now famous for (see: Mass Effect and the earlier Dragon Age games) with a much more open world (no doubt because of the great success of Skyrim). In some ways this was great: Inquisition allows you to explore many huge environments and get lost on side quests to your heart’s content, and unlike Skyrim there is much more variety in the different areas. You can explore desert wastelands, lush forests, rain-drenched rocky coasts, along with the more traditional “mountainous temperate European-like” landscapes like in Skyrim. And of course, these all look gorgeous on the Xbox One. The game generally looks great. My main complaint about the graphics are the characters. It seems as though the game designers got so excited about the ability to have specular reflections rendered in real time, that they made everything shiny, including people. The result: everyone looks like they are wet, and wearing extremely shiny lip gloss. Also, anything that is actually supposed to be shiny ends up looking like it is covered in sequins, especially if it’s in the background and slightly out of focus. But, after playing for a while I stopped noticing these graphical quirks, and for the most part the game looks awesome.

The downside of having all of these huge and beautiful environments to explore is that it tends to dilute the actual storyline of the game. By far the best thing about previous Bioware games were the character arcs of the various interesting party members that can join you in your adventures. There are some good character arcs in Inquisition too, but they sometimes felt less coherent and meaningful than in previous games. I should note, however, that as usual Bioware does a nice job with the diversity of its characters. There are strong women and people of color, and a variety of sexual orientations. In fact, one of my favorite subplots had no climactic battle or world-changing choices. Instead, you help your gay team-mate confront his disapproving father. These sorts of character-driven moments are often much better and more memorable than yet another battle with a dragon or a wizard. It helps that the writing and voice acting in Inquisition are among the best I’ve seen in a video game.


These characters are the best part of the game.

Unfortunately, despite the interesting cast of characters, I found the main plot of the game to be pretty weak. This is likely because it was stretched so thin as I spent my time wandering around the open world doing other things and then occasionally checking back in to the plot once I ran out of other things to do. By the time I decided to finish the game, my character and team members were strong enough that the final battle was laughably easy, and because it had been many many hours since I last checked in with the plot, I didn’t really care that much about it. It didn’t help that the main bad guy is a very cliche and one-dimensional villain. The ending was so anti-climactic that I was sure there was going to be some shocking twist, but nope. That was that. For such a huge game, the ending felt small and unimportant.

All that said, as I think back to the major events in the game’s main story and subplots, I realize that they are full of some great scenes. There’s a very fun sequence where you have to infiltrate a royal ball and stop (or aid) an assassination attempt. You get to defend a town from an advancing army, explore ancient ruins in search of long-forgotten power, disrupt an illegal mining operation, stop an evil mage from distorting time to save his son, and of course you get to fight some dragons (hunting down all the dragons is much more exciting and challenging than the actual final boss battle).

Basically, my review boils down to this: Dragon Age: Inquisition is a great game, but it is trying to do too many things. If I were to play it again, I would resist my completionist urges and focus entirely on the main story and the sub-plots for my party members. I think doing that would make them much more enjoyable by essentially cutting out the filler and focusing on the good stuff. The alternative way to play is to basically ignore the stories and just run around doing whatever you want like in Skyrim. Learn to craft armor and weapons, find treasure in every nook and cranny, do every fetch quest for every villager in need of help.  This will let you see more of the game, but will rob the plot of its immediacy.

I’m looking forward to seeing what Bioware does next. The fad seems to be to make games have ever-more open worlds, but I really hope Bioware decides to buck that trend and turn all the effort that they put into making Inquisition so open, and instead direct that at crafting a great story with meaningful choices and interesting characters. Too much freedom makes it impossible to tell a good story, and for me the story is what makes Bioware games great.

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