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What I’m Playing: Sea of Thieves

Sea of Thieves is a beautiful, joyful, pulse-quickening, sweet tech demo. The team obviously spent enormous effort, skill, and time in getting the water and the wind and the sailing just exactly right—and they are marvelous! Unfortunately, after years of development, they have little game to go with them. And the game industry has seen too many games live too long in development. This is a real problem, because a game that stays in development too long dies. A novel too long in development risks being over-written, but the tech doesn’t move past it. A novel in the works for ten years may risk feeling old school, or thrillers may seem ripped from yesterday’s headlines, but most genres are insulated from the dangers of time. A game in development for a decade, however, finds that everyone else’s graphics and even gameplay have moved beyond them. The audience no longer can be wowed by a game coded on an old game engine.

So the corporate overlords have a point beyond simple greed when they push a game like this out the door. Plus, even with your overlord is Microsoft, paying the salaries of a hundred (or whatever) highly-skilled people for four years isn’t cheap. At some point, you need to see a profit. That’s not Microsoft being evil, that’s just reality. You can’t pour money into a pit forever, especially as you know what you get back will decline sharply if they take too long. (“Oh, you have HDR and 4k?” goes from a selling point to “So what? How’s the holographic rendering?”)

The game is really fun, and if you play it with a friend—or more, I guess, but I only have one, so… ya know… 😉 —it’s even more fun. Sailing is great: it feels exploratory and even dangerous. Your first storm is awe-inspiring. But after a few hours, you realize the game is empty.

The quests are all fetch quests. There are literally 3 different fetch quests, and… that’s it. There are no NPC ships. At all. So there no merchants for your pirates to… pirate. You’re only fighting other pirates–that is, exactly the people you’d avoid as a real pirate. Most of those are smart enough that when they get plunder, they take it immediately to the many and readily available ports, and sell it right away. So if you sink another ship, you get little or nothing in game terms. If you seize a ship, you might get a chest, which gives you gold that you can use to… get a cosmetic upgrade. (Or more realistically, one chest will pay for 1/15th of a cosmetic upgrade.) There aren’t enough cosmetic upgrades to make this meaningful, nor are they tied to anything you’ve done in-game. After you’ve done 200 fetch quests you can get a peg leg, or something. None of the upgrades add any function.

I understand why. Your progress in this game is simply that you learn how to do harder stuff through your own gaming skill or memorization of the map; every pirate is on equal footing in gameplay terms. That’s a really bold decision. After all, if you reward experienced players by letting them earn better guns, you open a wider gulf between them and the newbs who log on for the first time. This makes things friendlier to new players.

But it flattens out the game. There’s no progress. That makes a game that already feels purposeless feel even more so.

If getting treasure doesn’t DO anything but help you play dress-up, and the dress-up you play isn’t even meaningful, what does that encourage instead? Well, I think it encourages you to abandon the pointless pursuit of loot yourself and enjoy messing up other players’ pointless pursuit of loot instead. There’s a name for this: griefing.

There are two types of ships: big and little. There are no better ships. If you’re playing alone, you need to be on the little ship.

The death mechanic is compelling, even brilliant. If you’ve killed a hostile pirate before you die (which happens often in ship battles), you’ll find him too in the afterlife. You can talk to each other. This humanizes your opponents (which is everyone) and makes for a friendlier game experience. I think it’s awesome. (More on this in a moment.)

But—and I think this is being addressed in an update—you respawn WAY too close to your fight. If you die, you can quickly rush back to your ship to rejoin the same fight before it’s even over. So death doesn’t suck much for the person who dies. That’s nice. (Though it encourages reckless play.) But in game terms, it also means that killing a hostile pirate doesn’t mean putting him or her out of the fight. If you’re outnumbered, you’re screwed. You can’t kill opponents fast enough to win.

The same thing happens if your whole ship gets sunk. Your ship respawns within view of your opponents. I played alone one night, and took on a bigger ship that (it turned out) had four players on it. They killed me, sank my ship, killed me, killed me, sank my ship again, and sank my ship again. I couldn’t get away from them, period, and no matter how many of them I killed, they always outnumbered me because of the respawn.

This level of game design stupidity is hard to comprehend. Did no one in the many months of beta tests act like a-holes? That’s hard to believe. These are gamers, after all.

And if you’re on a ship of four players, what’s fun? Killing other weaker ships. You’re playing a pirate. That’s the whole point. The money doesn’t matter in this game, so it doesn’t matter that you’re killing a ship that doesn’t give you loot. Loot is pointless. Your own ship respawns too, so you don’t lose anything if you lose the fight, either. So the fun is in demonstrating your mastery over other players. Of course this is going to happen.

But!–and this was a unique gameplay experience enabled by the death mechanic–I told the guys killing me that they were griefers and being assholes coming after a new player. (It was the very first day the game came out, and they already had the sails that cost 70k gold—so they’d been playing a long, long time in the beta.) They were first like, “Hey, it’s a pirate game, buddy.” But then they hunted me down (a 4th or 5th time), and apologized. This doesn’t happen in online games. They gave me some chests they were carrying, and we went our separate ways.

So the brilliance of half of the death mechanic countered the stupidity of the spawn distance. (Which is fixable.)

But it all points to the emptiness of the game. After you master sailing (which takes some time!), what do you DO? The islands have cool cave paintings and are fun to explore—but there’s no one who made the paintings. There’s no quests to find out anything. No lore. Nothing to discover. Obviously, that content is planned already, but it doesn’t exist yet. Your opponents are players, or skeletons or harder skeletons. That’s it. The NPCs otherwise stay in their booths, handing out ale or one of the three fetch quests. The same 4 NPCs (with different looks but identical dialogue and functions) inhabit every island.

There is apparently an endgame (being a legendary pirate), which takes 100+ hours to get to. 100-some hours of mind-numbing fetch quests, which opens… more of the same, but with a cooler-looking ship.

I see a ton of potential here IF they reinvest their profits into developing all their ideas, and IF they move quickly to make necessary changes (realizing problems, unlike Activision/Destiny 2), and IF the player base either doesn’t drop off too dramatically or if they believe they can lure players back with additional new content (which will have to include micro-transactions so they can show an on-going profit stream), if all that happens, then in a year, this will be an amazing game.

It already is an amazing game for a few hours. I hope it survives. I hope the content that is surely in the pipeline is as good as the sailing and weather. It’s getting terribly low reviews right now because, like I did in school, you’re averaging 95%’s in with some 0%’s. Those zeroes really pull your average down! Is this game as bad as the shoddy work out there that gets a 6 or a 7 out of 10? No, not even close. But then, it’s not a whole game either.

Right now, I can’t give it a grade. It earns an


Teacher’s note: “Must work on time management skills. Not living up to potential. Please finish your project before graduation, Rare.”

What I’m Playing — Legends: Heroes of Skyrim (iOS/PC)

This is a virtual trading card game, of which the most famous is Magic the Gathering. This one is considerably simpler, and thus easier to learn and cheaper to continue to play. This is a game with In-App Purchases done acceptably. Look, I sorta hate IAP too, but it’s here to stay. In many ways, it’s the only way to make sure that a company continues to support and innovate in a game. Otherwise, a year or so after launch, a company sees declining profits or no profits at all and pulls the plug on a game, or at least pulls all the most talented staff from it. They do have keep paying people to keep many of these games going. (Yeah, you can point out maybe a handful or a dozen counter-examples, but CD Project Red/Witcher 3 is an outlier, not a business model.) So, my judgment of any game with IAP comes down to “How Greedy Are These People?” Legends of Skyrim has good single player campaigns that you pay for. You get lots of cards, lots of scenarios. You get to try all sorts of things, which to me is more fun than trying just one thing where you can win all the time. It MOSTLY avoids Pay-to-Win in its online multiplayer component. I really enjoy it. If I only have 15 minutes to play a game in a day (a sadly common occurrence), I’ll play this one.

What I’m Playing: Destiny 2

Destiny 2 is a hard game to talk about rationally. Take a bunch of incredibly talented programmers and artists and shackle them to greedy executives determined to serve up the most mediocre (read, cheap) product possible to keep outrage only simmering but not boiling over, and marketing folks wielding an enormous budget with great skill to placate gamers that REALLY SOON all their gripes will be fixed, and give one fair score to everyone.

The old problem with game companies was that they were run by programmers who had no idea how to run the huge companies they were suddenly in charge of. Deadline? What’s that? The ludicrous over-time hours, the terrific lack of ability to forecast when a project would be finished… there were real problems.

Their vast piles of money, and the vast piles of money they were leaving on the table through mismanagement, threw the pendulum all the way to this side of things. You can see the fingerprints of this on otherwise incomprehensible decisions:  Destiny 1 was a complete mess in terms of story and end-game mechanics. (Eventually, a year or so after I quit, it apparently got really good.) Why would you launch a game that wasn’t ready? Because you’ve got investors. You’ve got guys who only get bonuses if they hit their targets. So you push product out the cloaca and lean on the marketing department to fix it. Destiny 2 was a far more polished as a game, but they took many of the wrong lessons from it.

The developers learned wonderfully from Red Dead Redemption–part of what makes an open world fun is that there’s ALWAYS something to do when you’re on your way to do something else. “I’m just going to go kill these guys for a bit, then I go on to quest x–oh, look, a cave! Oh hey, there’s a tough enemy who drops a loot box if you kill him!” It’s ADD fun to the max.

The game shoots beautifully. The controls are so tight and slick it almost makes it hard to play shooters that are older. The cinematics and art are stunning. Beautiful set pieces. Big moments. Sure, the story is trash. The villain is possibly the least frightening guy to ever blow up a thousand planets. (He stomps around and talks. All game.) The difficulty has no spikes at all. If you don’t beat the final boss on the first try, I’d have to ask what quantity of illicit substances you’d stuffed up an orifice when someone pounded on your door and you thought it was the cops. But heck, difficulty spikes could keep people from the end game–where the In-App Purchases and company profit lives.

And indeed, everything I can see that inspires rage from the (admittedly rage-prone) online gaming community on sites like r/DestinyTheGame makes sense when you think about what costs Bungie/Activision versus what brings in money for Bungie/Activision.

It’s a shoot/loot collecting game… without loot. In Destiny 1, stats were rolled random for every gun. So you could get your 10th copy of Super Rocket Launcher Black, but you’d check that sucker out… because it might have the “god rolls” you were looking for. Destiny 2, all stats are set. Get a cool gun, try it to see if it sounds different than your other gun in the same class. But get another copy of that gun, and it’s exactly the same. Add to this that the rarest gun type, Exotics, had some common bug where if you got an Exotic Gun, say the XXX, you had really great chances that the next five or six or thirteen super rare Exotic Guns you got would be XXX… which all have the same stats. You might play all evening to finish one quest line just to get a exotic at the end… and you get your eighth XXX. And this would happen when there are only 26 Exotic guns to begin with.

They artificially slow progress at certain points in order to make the game feel like it has more content than it does. Even that had bugs, so some people had greatly slowed progress while people they’d play with (at literally the same time) would quickly outrank them. That’s… not fun. They speed progress for infrequent players (gotta keep ’em in the game so they can buy IAP), and slow it for people who are ranking up too fast. So if you figure out an efficient order to do quests, you’ll suddenly see your progress is slowed.

Guns individually feel great, handle great, sound great. Great work team… and that’s manacled to… your damage never goes up. This gun SAYS it’s level 200, and this one says it’s level 300. Put a lowly grunt AI out there against that gun, and what happens? Level 200 gun: three body shots to kill, or one head shot. Level 300 gun: three body shots to kill, or one head shot. In game-play terms, this means you never feel like you’re tougher than you were last week or last month. All the loot you’ve collected (it’s a loot collecting game) has done you no good at all. Now, whyever would they do this? Because if you have enemies who are intrinsically tough, some players will go to those areas and die. Or level up too fast if they get lots of experience for killing tough enemies (which is how games have done it before). Some players will never even SEE those levels that are so very expensive to create. Or players will be sad that tougher players killed all the monsters in an area. Or can kill in one shot what takes them many, many shots. There are ways to fix this, but they involve making multiple areas. That costs money.

It’s a doll collecting game. The only thing that changes is the cosmetics.

The guns are also weirdly homogenized. Instead of there being hundreds of different guns, with dozens of different feels and bizarre combinations, you have like ten. Some have better stats, more scope sway, extra damage drop-off, different skins and shot sounds… but they eliminated outliers. They said they did this so that the PVP (Player versus Player) wouldn’t get lopsided. But… they already tweak your guns when you go into PVP.

And the PVP experience isn’t good. It’s the least fun I’ve had in PVP since I had the lowest ping on Duke Nuk’em. Even when I won handily I was saying, I hate this. When you play with even one other friend, you’ll tear up opponents. Alone? Good luck. You can’t sort by map or game type or exclude certain ones that infuriate you… Didn’t these guys do Halo? Halo 1Halo 1 had better match-making by far. And bigger teams. (Destiny 2 is only 4vs4. I’m serious). Halo had quicker load times. That was 16 years ago. In video game years, that’s centuries.

But let’s buy the official line (because we’re not cynical at all) and believe that guns are homogenized so no one has kick-ass guns in PVP. Okay, even if you actually couldn’t figure out any way around that–(say, when you joined a PVP match, your ‘unbalanced’ guns would be re-balanced for PVP)–even if that’s true, a huge number of players don’t WANT to play PVP. Especially when it’s crappy like this. And what does Bungie care if I’ve got a gun that’s “too strong” when I play against the AI? It doesn’t hurt anyone else’s fun. Instead, you’ve made EVERYTHING Bud Light.

A loot collecting game should feel like walking into an enormous grocery store in the Pacific Northwest and venturing into the beer aisle: there are so many beers there, it’s daunting. You know some of those beers won’t be at all what you like. You might hate them. But some you will love. And some, some people will hate and others will love, and people will debate the merits of various beers and what should go with them for hours.

Bungie/Activision have warped us to Michigan circa 1995: “Well… we got Bud. Or Bud Light. Or Natural Light. Or Natty Ice–that’ll get ya trashed! Or Coors. Wait! Wait! We got Rainier here too! It’s an embarrassment of riches at the 7/11 tonight, folks!”

Everything here has been done to have to retain and pay the smallest staff possible to do hot-fixes and rebalancing work that is usually just part and parcel of a massive online social game. (It’s certainly no MMORPG.)

A lot of great people, talented people and hard-working and skilled people dedicated to their art worked on this game. They did amazing work. The suits did amazing work, too. It seems they saw their job as giving gamers the lowest possible return on investment since No Man’s Sky. I can only guess that at least one meeting featured a graph of plotting rising levels of gamer outrage to show at what point gamers won’t buy the sequel. Those people make more money than you or I ever will because they’re actually really good at finding that point, and at manipulating gamers into getting excited for the inevitable “more accessible still!” Destiny 3. People raging at Destiny 2 will pre-order Destiny 3 to get that sweet Lazer Tiger Skin pack for the BamBam Shotgun, and 4 Elite Gold Loot Crates.

Sad, huh? Video games are art. Unfortunately, the art in question is the art of commerce.

What I’m Playing — Torment: Tides of Numenera

The Definition of Nostalgia.

I loved 1997’s Planescape: Torment. It remains one of very few games I’ve played through more than once. It was, finally, a video game where it seemed your choices mattered. If you squint hard, you could even see strains of the ideas of Torment show up in the Night Angel trilogy. Big fan. Nuff said.

So I came in to Torment: Tides of Numenera, the spiritual successor to Planescape: Torment with high hopes. The IP is different, sure, so it’s not exactly supposed to be the same thing, but it’s totally supposed to be the same thing.

Trouble is, gaming has changed since 1997. I’ve changed. When my character gets stuck while simply trying to walk around a corner and the movement feels cludgy, in 1997 I just tried again (and again, often); now my tolerance is much lower. “I’m getting stuck on corners? Really?” If you want to evoke an old gaming style, that’s great—but remind us of the good stuff, and quietly fix the b.s. we tolerated because we didn’t know any better, and programmers didn’t either.

The game starts fantastically, making you make tense choices that seem like they’ll have a permanent and an immediate impact—pun intended, if you’ve played. But then they neutered that by giving you the ol’ standard Hall o’ Creation: “Didn’t like any of the choices you made ten minutes ago? They didn’t actually matter, you can undo all that and choose your character type here.”

Oh, very daring. No actually, how incredibly safe. I mean, if a player was just being an idiot and choosing things they really didn’t mean, what’s the worst punishment they would receive if you stuck them with the character they’d chosen to play? Well, they’d have to start a new game, and lose ten minutes of their life—and play the character the way they actually wanted to play the character. That’s not actually bad. You would have shown–in a very few minutes–that the choices matter.

But because they neuter your choice and stick you in front of the long descriptions of how each character type works and what its flavors are—which are totally NOT Fighter, Thief, and Mage. (But totally are.)

So then I’m stuck in the same old familiar What Kind of Fun Do I Want To Have loop that’s sadly so standard in RPGs. I love playing stealthy characters, but it’s really hard to make a game where stealth is a viable and fun path: ergo “Nope, there’s two guys facing each other at that fire. You can totally backstab one of them, but the other one will kill you or chase you forever.” It is precious few games that manage a balance of making you weak (but a badass when you’re in your element so that YOU are what’s scary in the shadows), that expose you to real danger if you mess up, but also allow you to get back into the shadows if things go wrong but you think fast. Think Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory (since we’re going very old school here) or the multiplayer in Splinter Cell: Double Agent.

Here you can choose to be a charming character—which means you’re hoping the designers and writers worked together nicely to give you many situations where the dialogue is more interesting for the charmer and often tilts the direction of an encounter. But of course, you’re always trusting the game designers in some way, right? I mean, usually the Fighter is the most boring of the character types because he or she has the fewest options, but you hope that the designers at least make you feel like a boring badass who destroys people in interesting ways and has visually cool effects that no other character gets.

Well, this is Torment. The writing has to be good, right? And they make a big deal out of how you don’t even have to fight if you don’t want to, so charming is clearly a good option.

But being stuck in this (totally unnecessary) creation screen reading all the character categories and their sub-categories (which feels necessary because they tell you that these are definitely NOT Fighter, Thief, and Mage) definitely makes me think about the creators of the game, rather than being immersed in the game—which I’d been so immersed in as I fell from the sky.

Another fantastic trick they pull that I loved: they make you make a big choice right away between two characters accompanying you. You don’t have enough information to decide between them, but you have to decide anyway. It’s actually the same trick as before (make a huge choice with limited understanding of the fallout—pun intended again, sorry—and let you wallow in the agony of wondering what you’ve missed out on). This time they don’t walk it back, though.

Which is weird, if you think about it. They’ve JUST taught you that you can walk back significant character decisions. So I’m expecting that by the time I get to the first little town, if I decide Doofus 1 isn’t my bro, I’ll find Doofus 2, who’ll say, “Are you tired of that guy?” And I’ll say, “Yeah.”

But they don’t.

In isolation, I really really like the trick. It makes your choice feel like it matters. Sorry, you don’t get to see everything in this game, they’re saying. But what you see will be different than what others see. It’s that big.

In conjunction with the previous big decision that you can walk back, it’s bad design because it’s confusing. Is this a game that gives you choices that you get one shot on (which makes them feel momentous), or is it a game that gives you second chances if you clicked the wrong place (which makes it feel more forgiving)? The first two huge choices offer the opposite answers. That makes this 40 Year Old Gamer distrust the game designers.

I love the art. It’s just fantastic.

I love the quirky characters.

I love the weirdness.

I’m guessing “Overwhelm the Player with the Bigness” was a guiding principle here, because very shortly after you begin, you’re dumped into a city. This does indeed make the world feel big and weird, and I would like it more if the entire stat and inventory systems didn’t already feel weird and complicated. Like, this “Oddity” is a book with an intriguing title. Seems like it could come in handy later… but it’s an oddity. Does that mean I can always sell those, and it won’t screw up the plot, or not?

There’s a reason most games have you enter a small town first before you get to the big city.

Pretty quickly, I come upon a major irritation: I can’t find a place to sleep. No, seriously, my character can survive a fall from 40,000 feet, but he can’t sleep in a fucking field or a ditch. I’d already exhausted my main stat pool (you spend it to try harder tasks, and refresh it by sleeping), so I wander the town, failing easy stat checks and reloading to try them again—“Come on 50% chance!” all in order to find a place to sleep. I find a place, and it’s too expensive. What? The three characters I’ve just had join me are totally impoverished, too? Screw those guys. Where have they been sleeping?

I’m a godling who can’t find a place to sleep. For two hours.

I’m not sure why loading between areas is so slow. There’s nothing 3D here. Most of the background is painted, and static. Shouldn’t this be snappy, even on a console?

Once I finish a quest to earn a place to sleep—yes, seriously, but I still have to pay for it! This is a HUGE city… with one hotel. Choices galore, here, folks!

Then I find out I’ll be punished if I sleep too often. Plot lines advance every time you sleep, and the first ones they show you are bad–a serial killer murders another victim each time you sleep. (So it’s not just that the world advances, it’s that they’re trying to teach you not to sleep and refresh those stat pools.) Now, I can dick around awake as long as I want, and I have to, because I’m revisiting areas to see if I screwed up a dialogue option. I can even die and come back, but as soon as I sleep, that plot line advances. Now, obviously, this is meant to put some stress on the player to hurry up and find that murderer. But it’s obviously meant to punish you for using your stat pools too much. That feels capricious. You have these great abilities, but they don’t want you to use them.

Designers, not every choice should be agony. It’s okay for the charming character to put some effort into charming.

But for me, it IS agony, because the last time I used my stat pools, I got stuck for two hours of real time in an artificial and weird way.

The effort system that works so well in the Numenera table-top gaming system that this is based on doesn’t survive the transition well. Like, I used enough effort that I had an 80% chance to beat that fighter guy, and I failed. You really think I’m not going to reload my save? Did we not grow up playing games at the same time? Fine, THIS time, I’ll use more effort, and definitely beat him—but now I can’t sleep or you’ll punish me? Do I need to go back to the 80% try and reload the save over and over again until I succeed?

Oh, reloading my save takes three minutes? Fun.

No. That’s not my definition of ‘fun’.

I end up feeling the hand of the game designer everywhere, but it doesn’t feel highly polished. Maybe this is a fault in the expectation—Planescape: Torment was a AAA title. This is not. That’s fine. Yes, it’s only $40 (rather than the normal $60 here in the US). But… they’re the ones who billed it as a successor to a AAA game. I expect a AAA level of polish. Or at least AA. I expect snappy loading when the CPU is dealing with isometric screens. I expect that they did play testing.

Yes, it is its own kind of a game—sometimes more a visual novel than a game, with huge long blocks of text. (Much longer than I remember in the original, which also had long blocks.) But if you’re going to have those blocks of text, and you’re going to release your game for consoles, make sure your font works well for consoles. Playing from my couch, (but on a big HD screen) everything would be fine… until I got to some wall o’ text and go ‘What? Did I suddenly get old?’ I think there’s a big font choice somewhere, but I’ve literally never had illegible fonts until this game. Playtesting. Do it.

There’s combat immediately, then no combat for hours. (Even if I hadn’t gotten stuck looking for a place to sleep.) This is not subverting expectations, it’s frustrating them: I’ve been slowly rewarded with a huge collection of weapons choices for all my characters, but there’s been no combat. If I need to pick between weapons, you have to give me a chance to use them.

I wanted to love this game so much. I came in to the experience with a great deal of good will, and a willingness to forgive flaws. (Some of the saltiness above only comes after I look back and examine the bad choices they made along the way.)

Eventually, picking up Torment: Tides of Numenera started feeling like a chore. I thought, “I need to give this another couple hours to turn things around. I need to love this.” But I didn’t love it. I realized I was playing it for nostalgia, not enjoyment. Torment didn’t live up to its name: it wasn’t torment to play, but it also was not a worthy successor to Planescape: Torment.

We think of nostalgia as a longing for an old time or good memories. Literally is comes from Greek roots for ‘returning home’ and ‘pain’. I came in to this game looking for the former, and I found the latter. Bad memories and disappointment now live alongside my old good memories and fondness. The magic is gone. Did. Not. Finish.

What I’m Playing: Ant Smasher (iOS)

People buy crap for their kids. I mean that both ways. Ant Smasher is a stupid game pointed squarely at children. No, scratch that. It is an app with game-like features aimed directly at impatient parents’ wallets.

Ants cross the screen at varying speeds and you tap them to squash them. Bees are scattered in, and your game ends if you squash those. That’s fine. That even sounds like a game.

But the programmers apparently heard that lots of gamers call EA the least ethical company in gaming and decided that was a challenge.

In a game for children, they made the menus deliberately confusing, and the only reason I could guess is that it must be in order to coerce parents to pay for kid modes. To start the app there are six buttons. Okay, fine, you gotta have a menu. You can teach your kid to press the Big Red “Play Button”. They do. An ad plays. (If they touch the ad, it opens a download of some other game.) Ugh. Okay, fine. You gotta generate revenue somehow. Daddy can tap through the ad for you.

But do you now play? No. Now, you’re confronted with more buttons. “Baby”? Locked. “Kids”? Locked.  “Fun”? I thought this was all supposed to be fun? Okay, that’s locked too. Uh… maybe I went to the wrong screen. I should back out to the menu again… Press menu? An ad plays. Again. No, your child needs to press the blue button in order to play.

Oh, they died because they missed two whole ants? (C’mon, dad, you didn’t buy Baby mode?) Okay, well, they can just play again. Kids don’t really mind dying in video games. Now they need to press yet a differently colored button (out of six choices). This time they’re looking for the light green button.

Those other game modes I’m complaining about? I should drop a buck or two to support game development, right? Yeah. Each one is $10. Ten dollars.

But there was “SPECIAL PROMOTION! $1 TO DISABLE ADS!” I finally knuckled under (it was a bad parenting day), and I decided to do this. Button pops up: “Approve $4.99?” Huh?

Oh, dammit, I already decided to do this to gain five minutes of sanity so I can finish a conversation with my wife, fine!

And… the ads still play. Or… maybe I get 10 second ads instead of 30 second ads. Or maybe that’s only because they’ve shown me so many ads today, they’ve run out. I can’t tell. I can tell that the ads are NOT disabled.

But hey, for just another $10, I MIGHT be able to get some peace. Or not. This app is like a box of poop chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get:  Deer poop, parakeet poop, lemur poop… It’s a mystery!

Go juggle landmines, guys. I hope your piles of money bring you persistent venereal diseases and the leisure to never defile the App Store again.

What I’m Playing: Dante

Sweet! This guy?


Nope. This guy.

Dante? Awesome! I’ve always wanted Brent to review a game from the Devil May Cry series! Which one did you play?

Er… well, let me explain. I wanted a space with my new website design to talk about video games—I love them. But I also want to, from time to time, engage with other media. “What I’m Playing?” fits in a shorter space than “What form of media is Brent playing or reading or watching, and what particular title currently, and what is his take on that?”

So, uh, really this sidebar is “Brent’s Brain at Play” … so, yeah, it’s false advertising. Sorry.

I’ve just re-read The Divine Comedy for the first time since four miserable weeks in 1995. Miserable not because I hated Dante. I read the Dorothy Sayers translation in terza rima, and I loved much of it. The misery came from the class: Freshman Honors English, semester 1. This was my introduction to college. One semester, one class: 4,200 pages of reading.

I still believe this was the class that convinced the smartest student in the college—I’m talking ‘pun in Latin and expect others to laugh along with you’ smart—to drop out and become a priest. Little known fact: that kid punched me in the face once. (A little known fact that will doubtless come up when he’s up for canonization—he was a pretty darn good guy. Is still, I assume!) It was not the only fight I got into in college, oddly enough, though it was the only one where I didn’t hit back… So I guess you could say I… lost?

But c’mon, you try to hit back after a future pope punches you. If the word ‘discombobulating’ had been invented for any legitimate purpose, it would have been for that moment. (But that’s a pure hypothetical. Don’t combobulate if you hope to copulate, nerds.)

But I digress. Every student in Honors English 101 had a B or lower. (B- here.) Our professor was a poet. He really liked the word “wen”. No further explanation needed, right? The end of the semester was fast approaching. Panic set in for all these kids who’d never earned less than an A- in their 18 blesséd years, sir, by my troth!

The professor said we could add AN ENTIRE LETTER GRADE to our grade if we… outlined the entire Divine Comedy. That’s… a trilogy of epic poems.
It was an assignment that would later save my soul. But that’s another story.

Imagine thirty sweating honors class freshmen, some of whom had scholarships riding on their GPA, others—far more importantly—had their entire self-worth riding on their GPA. All of us faced Thanksgiving Break with the shame of a B. It had just become Thanksgiving “Break”.

There were three weeks from Thanksgiving until finals, when the assignment was due. Three weeks in the inferno—or, if one paced oneself correctly, one would only spend one week in Inferno, one in Purgatorio, and the last in Paradiso.

Oh, let me tell you, how those freshmen rejoiced their way through Paradiso. Well, maybe the final canto. Paradiso’s a bit of a slog, dramatically.
Want to see a textbook definition of subclinical triggering? Just whisper “Bernard of Clairvaux” to any veteran of Dr. Sundahl’s H ENG 101.
*insert meme here*

The angel on my right shoulder: *No, really, don’t.*

All this is prologue. (Dizzam, bruh, that’s some Jordan-esque level prologue.)

On to the review.

I was glad to see that after 20 years, Dante hasn’t become dated. Ages well, Ol’ Danny Alighieri. Okay, fine. I should say, “more dated”. One thing in particular struck me repeatedly about Dante, reading him now as a 39-year-old fantasy writer, versus reading him as an 18-year-old college freshman, and I mean so oft-repeated I felt like my face belonged to a P.I. in a noir novel–I mean repeatedly like the bass thunder from the stereo in a 75hp Honda owned by that pepperoni-faced dude who thinks he’s auditioning for Fastest and Even More Furiousest Than Evar:

The chutzpah. The sheer audacity. Dante was writing the work without which he would be forgotten by most everyone except Italian lit majors. He’s coming into this famous but soon to be forgotten, like the English Poet Laureate Robert Southey–you’ve heard of him, right? No. So before Dante’s written his Great Book, he presumes himself into the company of the all-time greats. (He deserves it, but he jumps into that place like that kid challenging Mario Andretti to a quick couple laps for pink slips.)

But not only that. He, a Christian (if one who finds himself lost along the Way in the dark wood of middle age), readily consigns foes and even acquaintances—some not yet dead, if I remember correctly—to Hell. If there’s one thing the modern mainstream Christian doesn’t do, it’s to presume the eternal destination of others. As C.S. Lewis said, (paraphrasing) “When we get to Heaven, there will be surprises.” That lack of presumption is bolstered on our culture’s favorite partial Scripture “Judge not lest ye be judged” which goes on “For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” Most Christians today are like, “Yeah, I’d prefer a really lenient measure, thanks. So I’ll just not presume to judge anyone else, either. Plus, not judging at all gets me thrown out of way fewer parties.” Dante, not so much. He’s like, “This pope from a few years back? Totally burning in Hell, right now. Look at the evil he did!”

Dante does this while, as far as I can tell (as a non-medievalist, and no longer even a Roman Catholic) remaining himself orthodox. He doesn’t question the pope’s authority as it was understood then. Check this example out: that evil pope who himself is burning in hell? He’d corrupted one of his own courtiers, who had previously been some kind of shady guy, but repented, turning his back on all the evil he’d done earlier in his life. (Think like Godfather 3.) The kicker? Evil Popey makes him go back! (“I try to get out and the Pope (!) keeps pulling me back in!”) Evil Pope gets him to betray some folks, by promising our repentant Michael Corleone, “Hey, yeah what I’m asking you to do is evil, but I’ll forgive you for all this evil you do for me. I’m the Vicar of Christ, so I can totally give you an Evil Pass.” So the courtier does said evil stuff. And gets ‘pardoned’.

Now the demons in hell that Dante encounters are super pissed, because “Hey, that guy should totally belong to us! He did evil stuff!”

But Dante DOESN’T question that the evil pope effectively uses a loophole to get around God’s perfect justice. Nope. That courtier guy is heading for heaven—except the demons later tricked him into committing suicide by demons, a sin for which the pope apparently forgot to preemptively forgive him for.

This whole episode is listed as proof that the pope was evil: he used his authority to pervert eternal justice. That’s really, really bad. Later Protestants would say, “This is redonkulus! No one gets to use a loophole to escape God! That’s the whole point of eternal justice: often on Earth justice isn’t served, but we can deal with that because we know no one can escape God’s justice. If your doctrine lets people fool God, your doctrine is wack, yo. [Also, that you have Evil Popes in the first place seems to point out a problem in your system.]”

Dante’s audacity though, goes further than merely presuming himself in the company of the greatest of the greats, and also being comfortable judging the quick and the dead: Dante sets out to out-epic Homer and Virgil.

Homer [with a battered old harp, ratty beard, and mismatched sandals–dude’s blind, give him a break on the fashion policing, people]: “Friends, Achaians, countrymen, lend me your ears. I’mma tell you about big war and a big voyage with the ideal Greek man.”

Homer’s poetry and story-telling, his nuance and his imagery would capture and define an entire culture, and deeply influence many others through the present. It’s hard to overstate his impact.

Virgil [strides forth in a solid gold toga, taking a bit of snuff from a slave]: “No offense, old sport, but your hero was bollocks, Homes. He was actually the bad chap, and not nearly as wonderful as you make him out to be. Let’s talk about that Trojan War thing, and I’ll subvert the Hades out of your narrative.”

Oh snap.

Virgil is a master of poetry and storytelling who is self-consciously telling the story of an entire people and their founding mythos, (small) warts and all (sorry ’bout that, Dido! a real James Bond always loves ’em and leaves ’em… burning!). Virgil meant his epic to be studied and admired by audiences high and low, and he meant to define his Romans as the best of the best. Sort of “the arc of history is long, but it bends toward Rome.”

Dante [ambles up in a Led Zeppelin t-shirt and bell-bottoms]: “You guys are far out. Wish I could have heard your stuff, Home-bre, I’ve heard it’s real groovy, but the Saracens haven’t invaded yet with their hippie zeal to give us the LP bootleg translations of your work from the Greek. Sing it for me sometime. I’m sure I’ll dig it. Anyway, bros, thanks for inviting me to your drum circle here, but never start a land war in Asia unless you’re the Mongols, never get in a wit-fight to the death with a guy named Westley, and never, ever invite John Bonham to your drum circle. You guys thought small. Nah, it’s cool and everything, but really? Some guy on a boat? Some other pious guy on a different boat who lost a war to the first guy? I’mma let you finish swiftly here, but I’m going to tell the story of all creation, do world-building that includes the entire universe—both the physical and metaphysical worlds: earth, hell, purgatory, and heaven, AND show how my main man Jesus changed everything, aided in my quest by numerous holy Jesus groupie chicks and the spirit of Virgil himself. Hope you’re down with that, Virg. I mean, you’re an Italian, I’m an Italian, we’re pretty much bros, but I’m like your intellectual successor and stuff? Oh yeah, and because I’m after Christ, I really have an unfair advantage on you, because you were the bee’s knees. Seriously, love your stuff, I even own the b-sides of your pastoral poetry. So if I’m a little better than you, it’s purely happenstance: You came before Ludwig drums and Remo drumheads, man! If someone told you ‘More cowbell!’ you’lda been like ‘A cowbell? In music? What’s next, balancing a shield on a post and banging on it with a stick?!’ By the way, I use Paiste cymbals. I’ll show you later.”

That story of all creation includes the pagans. Dante also sets about to reconcile, or at least appropriate, the gods and monsters of antiquity—though sometimes not very successfully. I’m like, Hey, big D, if some of the figures of Greek mythology are real, are all of them? If they’re real and they did some of the stuff we’ve heard they did, where was God in that? Are these all actually just demons just playin’ around? Fess up, c’mon. You can tell me, buddy, I understand. You just wanted monsters, didn’tcha? You got stuck on that one part and were like, How can I get Dante and Virgil out of this one? Oh, I know! A big ass dragon flies up out of the pit, scares the bejeepers out of them, and then totally lets them become the Dragonriders of Burn and head on down further!

Oh, did I mention that while doing all this, Dante maintains that he’s writing on four levels at once: 1) The literal (which, you know, literally means the literal, the stuff that happens—hey, I write on that level too!). 2) The allegorical (that is, there’s what he calls “truth hidden beneath a beautiful fiction”) so being lost in a dark wood in your middle years might be an allegory for getting lost in your life, or even a mid-life crisis. 3) The moral (which explores the ethical implications of a work of fiction) so what do you think about Odysseus sitting on the beach crying to go home to his wife every day, and then banging goddesses every night? What do you learn about the power of hope or forgiveness when Luke Skywalker confronts Darth Vader? That’s the moral level; and 4) The anagogical. Yeah, you’re not going to see this word unless you’re talking about Dante, I’d guess. I had to look it up again. I was honestly proud of myself for merely remembering the word. The anagogical is a level of spiritual interpretation. This is when the work captures something that is eternally true. In a Platonic sense, it would be when you step out of the cave and instead of looking at shadows on the wall of thing that are True, you look at the things themselves. For Dante, this is of course expounding scripture in a way that captures “a part of the supernal things of eternal glory”. (Supernal: being of, or coming from, on high.)

This is the level where you say, the characters Dante and his guide Virgil are hiking up Mt Purgatory, but Virgil is literally Virgil, a great poet who lived before Christ and thus is a pagan, so when Dante and Virgil get to the top of Mt Purgatory, Virgil can’t get into Heaven—you need Jesus for that. “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. None come to the Father except through me”. (Virgil’s not exactly being punished for being a pagan; he gets to hang out talking with all the other awesome pagans forever.) But Virgil is ALSO an embodiment of Reason, so when Virgil and Dante reach a rad curtain of fire up on the top of Mt Purgatory, Virgil can (as Reason) say, “Bro, you got this. You know there’s people on the other side. You know this is the only way to get there. You therefore know they jumped through this curtain. Ergo, you won’t get fried. Probably. Well, at least not everyone who jumps through gets a thermite sun-tan.”

But Reason can’t go through that curtain himself. The thing that makes you jump through a curtain of fire isn’t, ultimately, reason. Reason can’t get you to Heaven. Thus, the anagogic lesson is that belief is, ultimately, an act of the will. Or, in the common phrase of which this scene may be the origin, one must take a Leap of Faith.

Did I mention Dante’s doing this while writing poetry? And apparently his poetry is pretty good? (Not knowing Italian, I can’t say. The Sayers translation I read in college was way more beautiful than the Clive James version I listened to this time. Sorry, Clive, personal preference.)

Now, I should probably address the world-building, too, seeing how world-building is something fantasy writers ought to know something about. (Yes, hecklers in the back, I hear you. Notice the caveat ‘ought to’? Now run along and play. With scissors.) In the mind of your inconsistently humble correspondent, Dante’s world-building is bold, presumptuous, brilliant, and a blithering mess.

Whereas Dante’s treatment of pagan mythology would likely appeal to the common reader and just as likely outrage scholars who knew enough to ask questions, in his world-building, he seems to completely ignore the common readers, and go straight for the art- and map-geeks. You’ve probably seen those elaborate medieval drawings of the world Dante lays out.

Woodcut from a Venetian edition of the Divine Comedy, c1520.

(I don’t even know if most of them are faithful to the text or even agree with each other, other than the order of the circles of hell and the like.) On the one hand, this world-building is ingenious. Stunning. (Anyone know if he borrowed most of this, or invented most of it? I know he was synthesizing a lot of speculation and Christian cosmology, but I don’t know how much of his work on this is original.)

It all hangs together, literally and symbolically and morally. Satan is at the center of gravity? Like, literally? At first, you’re like, “Huh?”

Well, he’s got to have his head visible in hell; he’s the king there, and he’s got to be scary. How scary is a guy with buried head-down with his butt in the air like a North Dakotan bike rack? (Sorry, old Montanan North Dakota joke there.) But when you think further, well, hell has inverted values, so after you come past him at the center of gravity, and into a vast crater–he left a giant crater when he was thrown out of heaven. Of course he did! And here he IS head down and not so scary, but he’s also head down because he’s buried in his sin. He’s at the bottom of a pit. Of course he is! He’s denied the light of heaven, his face must be buried. And so on.

But most of the things that I caught on this second listening, I caught only because of the art I’d seen, and the explication of college professors and footnotes back when I’d read it before. Those professors taught me that the common way for people to experience a book during Dante’s time was most usually that someone would stand and read it to everyone else. (Audiobooks go WAY back.) This is a terrible way to experience what he’s doing, though.

When you only listen to the Divine Comedy, there’s no way for you to understand a lot of the imagery. Not a real quote, but a realistic one: “Then I turned left 90 degrees, and saw, up at the point where the sun was crossing the mountain, another path veering to starboard under the sign of the Cygnus at the fourth hour of the morning” oh, and time moves differently in Purgatory. Or something. I still don’t get that part.

This kind of world-building doesn’t work at all for the medium. Certainly the first listeners wouldn’t have any art or maps to help them figure this stuff out in real time, while the reciter continues reciting the poetry describing this weird journey. So it’s definitely weird, it’s opaque, and it’s kind of bad art–at least, bad world-building for what is, at core, more of a travelogue than an epic adventure.

But it works… for the artists and the map-geeks, who fan art the hell out of it.

Now, I call Dante’s world-building presumptuous because leaving the explanations for all the weirdness intelligible ONLY to those geeks ONLY works because Dante was famous. If he hadn’t been famous already, people would go, “Huh, this doesn’t make sense to me. So it probably doesn’t make sense. What garbage.”

So it kind of works in the way Ikea instructions work–if you’ve got a bunch of Ikea engineers in your living room to help you out: “Oh, that was a concise way to explain that… now that you did it all for me.”

Dan, my boy, that is some… what’s the term for accurate hubris? Oh, self-confidence. I guess it’s still that even when the SELF-CONFIDENCE IS GIANT, YO!

All this! Look at all that! He’s doing all that… and more. At the SAME time! All that, and then… Dante flinches.

Dante gets daunted.



When this pilgrim who has had to fight past so many lesser demons (using his special access badge that says, I’m-on-a-holy-mission-one-of-the-roadies-from-JC-and-the-Sonshine-Band-says-it’s-cool) finally makes it to Satan’s circle and crosses the frozen lake of Coccytus, do you know what Satan says?

Do you know how Satan addresses the first non-traitor to visit Satan since he was thrown out of Heaven? Satan himself… just doesn’t notice. Sure, the big guy is busy gnawing on Judas, Brutus, and Cassius but he’d been gnawing on those guys for thirteen hundred years!

But nope. Satan says nothing. There’s no, “Yeah, I let you come all the way down here by my satanic will. It was all a trap. Now you can rot with the worst of them. I am literally going to eat your idiot face for eternity!”

There’s no big rescue from the monstrously huge arms and hands as that giant is stuck in the frozen lake of Coccytus. No last minute rescue by an angel.

Nope, Satan just doesn’t notice. Even when Dante grabs onto his hairy ass and climbs around him through the center of the universe where gravity reverses itself and climbs out to go to Mt Purgatory, literally past his butthole. Satan. Doesn’t. Notice. Doesn’t notice the man playing George of the Jungle on his hairy hip. And climbing…Past. His. Butt.

Weaksauce, Ali D!

Lotta buildup to go limp at the finish! It’s like you’ve never played a video game in your life.

I’m sure someone can defend it. Great literature of this magnitude will always inspire defenders. But just because something is great in many, many ways doesn’t mean it’s great in every way. To me, this reads as a failure of nerve, or a failure of poetry, or the latter and then the former.

Because I can see this: Dante’s like, Man, when I write my Satan, it’s got to be good. I mean, like the best poetry ever. He was the highest of the angels. He was so beautiful, and his fall so epic, my lines describing him must be amazing. They’ve gotta be best I’ve ever written.

Maybe he couldn’t come up with those lines. Too much pressure. Or maybe he did, and then got nervous that he was giving the best lines of his career… to the Devil himself. (Milton, later, wouldn’t flinch on this count–good way to one up old D.) But Dante flinches, or fails, either as a dramatist or as a poet.

In only a few places is Dante (the character) actually sort of threatened by all the terrible demons he confronts. Mostly, he just kind of walks past. It’s like Dante (the real-life poet) was intuiting the interstices between a travelogue and an epic quest. Here, by walking past Satan and describing him, but never interacting, he falls back into travelogue. Here’s the difference: a travelogue is boring your neighbors with a two-hour slideshow of your trip to the Death Star; an epic quest is blowing it up before it blows your planet.

Granted, given that this is Satan, the character Dante isn’t going to do jack squat to Satan. On a literal, moral, or anagogic level, he obviously can’t. That’s a tough problem with the rubric Dante’s set up for himself. But Satan could at least interact with him so that it’s not also a dramatic failure. Satan could lie. Try to destroy him.

In Christian scripture, Satan’s a devouring lion, forever seeking to kill and destroy. Here he’s a fat kid gnawing on popsicles. Why not have Dante (the character) momentarily believe Satan’s lies? So much of fiction reaches its climax when there’s a symbolic or literal death. Here, in a story about everything in the universe, there’s nothing like that? Why not have Dante barely escape, rattled and fundamentally changed by his own encounter with ultimate evil?
Instead, it’s more like, “And this is another interesting thing we saw. Scary, huh?” This is viewing the T-Rex in Jurassic Park, if it never gets out of its enclosure. You tap on the glass and it roars, and you go home to a nice steak.

Missed opportunity, bro. You coulda been a contender. You coulda been somebody.

Scoot over at the drum circle, Danny boyo; you’re no John Bonham yet.

5 Stars–but only because I’m a forgiving critic.

What I’m Playing: Battlefield 1

Battlefield 1. I love the Battlefield games. The strength of Battlefield is that you can do very well even if you’re not a 13-year-old with fast reflexes who plays eight hours a day. With intelligence, and even more so with communication, you can win and have fun. Battlefield 1 is the best so far at trying to help players focus on PTFO—playing the f’ing objective. Not only do you get points for things like giving ammo or health to your squad or capturing objectives, they also intentionally bury the Be All, End All stat of most first person shooters: the K/D ratio. “Oh, you’ve only got a 1.14? How long have you been playing?” “You have less than 1.00? You can never be on my team.” Getting in a tank with three buddies and calling out—and killing—enemies is amazing fun.

But if you ever play and your squad has three snipers… those guys are clueless. Switch immediately.

p.s. SUPER weird thing about this Battlefield iteration—the single player mode is actually pretty great!

What I’m Playing: Skyrim SE

Skyrim SE—I played Skyrim on Xbox when it first came out, finished the campaign, did the Dark Brotherhood quests, became Archmage—the whole nine yards. Why buy a game I’d already bought? Mods.

Here is where our sneering PC Master Race brethren are somewhat justified in their sneering contempt for those of us with inferior consoles (which cost less than their graphics card). With mods, Skyrim can be pretty. And it still is what it always was: fun. This is what the Assassin’s Creed games have missed. Beautiful art and an intriguing premise can only carry you to a couple dozen million sales. If you want players to pick up your game (for full retail price) a second time, five years later, and put many hours into it again, the game has to be fun.

Somehow, though, I ended up as a mage/stealth-archer AGAIN.