So I tried to post something like this before with the understanding that I might make different editions, but I decided I’d rather make one huge post that has everything I love and just come back to update it now and then. Again: I’m sticking to my one-sentence-summary rule, but please mind the author-marked tags. For now, here is The Good Shit.
You’re lost. You’re tired. You’re hungry and you’re sick. You’re stumbling through a forest knowing that if you stop walking, someone will find you. Your life is in danger, be it from a misfortune, a mistake, or a vendetta. You call out to any god or spirit that might be listening to please have mercy and provide you refuge. That’s when you see it: a huge mansion in the woods. The House in Fata Morgana.
The House in Fata Morgana — or as I will call it from here on: Fata Morgana — is the visual novel debut by the group Novectacle, localized into English by Manga Gamer. It guides you by the hand with the help of The Maid as you learn the misfortunes of the people who lived in the mansion over a thousand years. There’s much more to it than that, but to say more would ruin the story for you. This VN is very hard to summarize and review without ruining things.
Fata Morgana, although written by a Japanese team, is a gothic story at it’s core about sin and forgiveness. It handles many themes of Christianity with thoughtfulness, tact, and a bit of the Japanese worldview mixed in. Fata Morgana stands on its own, without falling back on tropes and benchmarks like you often find in visual novels. Fata Morgana is like reading a book more than any visual novel I’ve read before.
If you’re interested, here’s a list of bullet point things that Fata Morgana does well, out of context to sell you on it without providing specific spoilers:
- Lack of communication ruining relationships.
- How not to cope with being a psychopath.
- Toxic masculinity destroying everything.
- Mistrust due to personal baggage.
- Recovering from trauma.
- Being a trans person in a shitty, shitty time.
- People making stupid fucking mistakes intrinsic to their character flaws that ruin other peoples’ lives.
I was waiting for things to fuss about over this story, but it is very well done. The narrative is tight. The localization is smooth as hell. The art is good. The music is good. Every character is a fully realized human. Some of the jokes were really dumb? So I guess there was that.
Fata Morgana had a perfect score on Steam by recommendation, and I believe it was well deserved.
Continue on for a summary just a little less careful about spoilers:
Persona 5 has disgusting portrayals of gay men, and gross camera shots of female characters for fanservice. These aspects (especially the former) I won’t forgive. However, they weren’t enough for me to give up on Persona 5. The work it does in reestablishing what JRPGs can do is, to me, moving. The graphics, the gameplay, and everything that is included in the game justifies the release date delays. It was all worth it. It’s beautiful, it plays well, and most importantly to me: it establishes itself as a part of the larger Persona/SMT canon.
The troubles surrounding the translation is undeniable, and has been talked about at length in game journalism, so I don’t think there’s more I can offer to the conversation. For the sake of sparing spoilers to anyone, here’s a quick rundown:
- Fanservice exploiting the female characters
- Endless material made to pander to every (straight male) gamer’s fetish
- Dungeons each have a unique design to enhance the narrative
- UI is beautiful, battles are fun and slick
- Enhances features that characterized the past two Persona games (school days timeline, stat generation)
- The narrative design and plot arc structure is very good
- Futaba’s mental illness is dealt with sympathetically and that is incredible
Persona 5 has a finely fabricated mystery. Character’s arcs, plot developments, and major reveals are telegraphed well enough that you can see them coming, but they build suspense. It isn’t perfect, which I believe are caused by how many storylines they juggle at once and the different ways the player might handle them. I don’t feel like I can fault the dev team for that. Writing games is hard.
Persona 5 makes me excited to see where the future of JRPGs is going to go. Anyone who loves RPGs or games should play it, even if you haven’t seen the series before. I feel like it understand what was created here would be an asset in a developer’s arsenal for the future.
As said above, the most I got out of the game was seeing it tie into the lore of it’s predecessors, specifically into the concepts of Persona 2. Although the allusions were vague, I believe the relation was deliberate. I hope to write a post on that in a year, when I don’t have to worry about spoiling anyone.
Persona 5 has been in development for years, but the themes of rebellion and breaking the shackles of society’s expectations appears to be globally relevant. Older SMT fans might be able to turn to Persona 5 to understand the feelings of today’s youth, while millennials like myself may be touched by the sense of worldwide solidarity, like I was. In the end, all we can do is inherit the earth, make it ours, and make it right.
In recent years, Yoko Taro has grown from a small Japanese developer, to an auteur who I believe will be making waves alongside Hideo Kojima and Suda51 before long. NieR: Automata is his biggest hit to date, and rather emblematic of what Taro-san does when it comes to game and narrative design. NieR games pull in elements from many genres in order to create a game that says things about all games. In this post I’m going to talk a little about this gameplay mosiac and how it works, and the story themes about evolution to godhood in a story about AI.
Oh my goodness Night in the Woods was really something.
Night in the Woods is a simple story game and almost-platformer about Mae Borovski when she comes home after quitting college. She returns to her childhood home of Possum Springs, to the place and the people she’d left behind. Why did she quit school? Why is everyone so hostile toward her? Why does she have dreams of giant animals in the woods?
Usually when I have a lot to write about a game or whatever I’m reviewing, it’s because some aspect of it either blew my mind or disappointed me. People are interested in what I have to say after I played Oxenfree, but it’s hard because Oxenfree is a very solid, respectable game. I recommend it to people looking for a small, good story, but that’s about all I’ve got.
I loved the characters. I love their interactions. I loved the effects of the dialogue on events. Oxenfree was a linear story with relationships that changed. All of the characters were frustrating teenage brats. It was wonderful.
I feel a little strange writing a review of a game without having a pedestal and a pointing stick to outline every little thing in it that blew my mind, or I hated. Oxenfree effectively used established expectations in games to create something good. It’s a solid story that used its mechanics in an interesting way. It’s a good way to show simply how these things can all be harnessed and used well.
However, it didn’t do anything that I believed was revolutionary. And while that may sound like an insult, I don’t mean it as one. Not every single game needs to revolutionize anything. I will play and enjoy every single Telltale Game, regardless of whether or not it gives me something new. Oxenfree is a good game, and that’s just fine. Give me more of this sort of ghost story. Give me more light interaction games. Give me more.
Play Oxenfree for a good ghost story with meaty characters. Enjoy it for that. And please, Night School, give me more.
4/5, highly recommended to people who like things that are good.
Every time I manage to go to GDC I have the time of my life.
This year I attended the conference as an attendee of the Amplifying New Voices program, which was an honour to be accepted to and may have been the best thing to happen to me over the week. I worked with industry veterans who were thrilled to lay themselves out and provide us with everything that they could in order to diversify games. I feel like, even since GDC 2015, the conference has become more colourful and effective at welcoming PoC, women, and people of gender and sexual diversities. There are many growing pains in the industry that reflect the growing pains of the culture around us, but I think that we’ve made some progress. Let’s keep moving forward!
I can’t even begin to talk about all of the amazing things I experienced this year, but it did help me to decide what to do with myself in my career. I realize now that I’ve lacked focus. While my passion has always been games, the work I’ve done hasn’t always reflected as much. While my blog is been about games and discussing them, my life choices have not always done the same.
In 2016 I submitted a lot of job applications toward game companies for illustration and writing work. At the same time I spent a lot of energy and consideration applying for comics jobs and anthology submissions. At the end of the year I was declined work for what would have been a lucrative game writing job, which led to me having a minor crisis about what I’m doing with my life.
I think my dilemma was in seeing how webcomposites like Those Without Shadows were typically understood as being webcomics. That may have been the case because of those authors’ networks being webcomic networks. This has resulted in me trying to get work in anthologies and comics with few credentials aside from my fanwork. I don’t have much income, so I’d just apply for anything. In retrospect this took a lot of time and energy away from more relevant jobs and my personal projects.
This is something I’m not going to do anymore.
This doesn’t mean my comic career is over, I’m just going to take heart behind the support networks that I’ve recieved in the game industry. I will no longer work hard on applications to anthologies for comics that I haven’t been explicitly invited to. (Fancomics and zines are still on the table though, because I love them.)
I feel good about taking this new direction. I hope you are all looking forward to it, too!
Root Letter by Kadokawa Games is a game that sparked my interest after I saw ads for it on twitter. It is one of few visual novel mystery games that has an official localization, which excites me. As you probably know by now, I love a good story, and I’m interested in visual novels as an art form. So, I contacted the PQube marketing department and asked for a review copy (thank you very much!).
So far I am 2 for 2 out of games I’ve requested for review that I haven’t liked and I feel really terrible about it. So I’m going to try to keep this brief.
There is a mystery visual novel game localized as Higurashi When They Cry (ひぐらしのなく頃に / When the Cicadas Cry). It was a big hit in Japan and adapted into an anime, which you’re more likely to know about. Higurashi takes place in a sleepy village in the countryside called Hinamizawa. Higurashi is a mystery/horror story, and so the things that happen in Hinamizawa are pretty terrible. Higurashi turns this little village in the country into an eerie, and sinister place. Regardless of that, the town that Hinamizawa was based on – Shirakawa-go – receives many tourists.
Anime tourism is real and if you ever thought to yourself “I would love to spend my money on a game that makes me want to visit somewhere in real life to spend more money”, you might be interested in Root Letter. The game takes place in Matsue, and I suspect there was some funding by the Shimane tourism board that made that happen. This sort of… ‘product placement’ or whatever isn’t something that I usually let bother me, except when it causes other elements to suffer.
Leisure and Suspence Don’t Mix
The plot of Root Letter is the story of a guy who finds a letter by his old penpal where she confesses she was involved in a murder, so you go to Shimane to look into it. The stakes are high, and there’s no way to know if your old penpal is even alive. Is she dead? Did she kill someone? Would you like to take a leisurely boat ride to tour Lake Shinji? YES let’s have a lovely stroll while we contemplate a possible murder. You have no choice in the matter.
Higurashi has a story to tell that uses its setting to the fullest, crafting an atmosphere that makes even a sunny countryside feel dangerous. It sets up the right conventions of mystery and horror that causes Silent Hill fans to feel a thrill when going down a foggy street.
Root Letter is far too preoccupied with painting Matsue in a beautiful light to use the setting to build any suspence. The mystery is entirely carried on the shoulders of the characters involved. Once you encounter someone who you need to question about your penpal, you’ve had such a lovely day around town that it’s easy to forget what the hell you were doing. Or, in my case, you’re so bored of not doing mystery stuff that you go back to bed.
There’s a way to make a story that uses it’s environment, and Root Letter is trying so hard to overcompensate and make you want to visit Matsue, that it tarnishes overall experience.
If you want to read a good mystery that takes advantage of it’s setting, just read Higurashi.
So I lost my life this week to LISA. It is my very favorite thing when this happens to me when I play a game. I don’t think I’d heard about it before this week, so I purchased it when it was on sale.
If you follow me and you agree with my opinions on stuff, please play LISA. It’s about toxic masculinity, sexual abuse and drug abuse in the post-apocalypse. It’ll take about 12 hours of your time, not including the very important DLC: LISA the joyful. You’ll laugh a lot. You’ll cry a lot. You’ll pay the price for trying to protect the last woman alive.
What is LISA?
Okay here’s the story:
The apocalypse happened. It was an event they refer to as “The Flash”. The main character, Brad, survives around his small squad of childhood friends. He finds a child – a girl, possibly the last girl alive – and swears that he will take care of her to make up for past mistakes.
They do their best to raise her, but the girl – Buddy – is curious and anxious being kept contained. In time, their home is attacked and she’s taken away. Brad then does what any father would do a la Taken except in the rapey post-apocalypse: he goes to find her.
How does it play?
LISA is like a side-scrolling RPG platformer. There are jump/movement mechanics that often make zones into tiny puzzles themselves. The battle system is reminiscent of Earthbound, but with a lot of unique elements like combo mechanics.
One of LISA’s heavily marketed features is perma-death. The post-apocalypse is a terrible place where you have to pay the price. Characters are knocked out when their HP reaches zero in battle, but other situations will get them killed for good. Certain special moves will take them out permanently, but most of the time it’s scripted events that put your treasured NPC’s lives at risk.
NPC ally death doesn’t have story repercussions, aside from leaving you to level up new randos that you might not like as much. Save often.
LISA is inspired by the P.D. James novel Children of Men. (The movie is pretty good too, if you’re interested.) It takes the concept of low-fertility dystopia from A Handmaid’s Tale and looks at it from a separate perspective – the men’s perspective. LISA goes a step further and leaves the concept of fertility behind to fall into a James Tiptree Jr. style feminist horror. There is no evidence to say that anything killed the women in LISA except for men.
I can’t say too much about the complex gender politics without spoiling things, so I might save that for another blog post.
LISA also explores – using character permadeath and other mechanics – a sense of player agency. I can’t help but compare how these elements play out to other games like Undertale and my treasured OFF.
LISA never blames you for how the events unfold. Instead, it instills a constant sense of moral confusion where your hands are tied, but you struggle with Brad to decipher if you’re doing the right thing. Even at the end of it all, it never points fingers at the player. Everything in the end works toward a sense of storytelling rather than meta-narrative commentary. (It seems like a strange thing to praise, but I could make a whole other post about player agency as narrative.)
Please play LISA.
Please play LISA.
Please play LISA.