The Issue with Transistor's Ending (SPOILERS)

It's been about a week since I've finished Transistor, and I've taken the interim to think about its ending. As I said in my review, "The ending provokes confusion instead of satisfaction", and it's not just because everything isn't revealed by the end. Please note that in discussing this, I will spoil the entire ending, which might ruin the entire game for you. (Also spoilers for Spec Ops: The Line, Mark of the Ninja, Casablanca, and Seven Pounds.)

You have been warned.

Last chance: turn back now to avoid spoilers!

When I finished Transistor for the first time, Red got the power to rewrite the city, but instead committed suicide with the Transistor so she could be with her lover. From my Internet research, this seems to be the only ending to the game. My initial reaction was mood whiplash; I had just beaten the game! The Process was eliminated! I could rewrite what they had erased! And then suddenly, despite her lover's (and my) protests, she kills herself. Credits roll as her lover breaks down over her body... cue a romantic song, and... wait, it ends with a picture of them in the Country? And they seem happy? What? How did her lover go so quickly from begging her not to do it to being glad she did? That dissonance clashed with the emotional tone they were going for. Sure, the lovers were reunited, but I wondered if I should be happy for it. I honestly thought I had gotten the bad ending somehow.

I wasn't the only one who felt that way. A blogpost in the Transistor Neogaf thread stated bluntly, "Red is *puppy* selfish... killing herself on the Transistor rather than repairing the city (which she showed she could do with minimal effort) or bothering to check for any other survivors despite the protests of the Transistor him/itself just came across as short-sighted to me." This is not how you want your audience reacting to the sympathetically-portrayed protagonist at the very end of the game.

More problems cropped up as I thought about it. I had just won the final boss fight to escape the Transistor... and then Red immediately goes back into it? What did winning that final boss fight accomplish, then? Looking further back, what did we accomplish, if anything, in the game itself? Nothing is saved as a result of our actions, and the moment we have the power to save something... Red doesn't use it. She gives up. She gives up and kills herself to be with her lover.

Suicide is an inherently selfish and despairing action. It is not something we react to well. It, like rape, requires hefty writing chops and a good deal of setup to pull off well. Transistor does not have this. Although 2 other characters committed suicide, Red never seemed to entertain notions of it. She always seemed driven to find some way to stop the problem. This causes her suicide to seem completely out of left field. Spec Ops: The Line, for everything it forced you to do over the course of the game, at least set up the disastrous consequences of the protagonist's decisions and his mind cracking so suicide seemed like a viable choice. Mark of the Ninja, another tragedy game, had the choice of suicide at the end, but also compared it to the alternative of going homicidally insane (wonderfully illustrated by the hallucinations you experience during the final stage), which made it more of a heroic sacrifice.

Sacrifice is something we like to see in our protagonists. The ability to put aside our own desires, including love, to accomplish something greater is a classic trope. Casablanca wouldn't be half the movie it is if the protagonists didn't give up their love for a greater good. Ebert put it well: There is actually no reason why Laszlo cannot get on the plane alone, leaving Ilsa in Casablanca with Rick, and indeed that is one of the endings that was briefly considered. But that would be all wrong; the “happy” ending would be tarnished by self-interest, while the ending we have allows Rick to be larger, to approach nobility (“it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world”). You could say the same for Transistor: the "happy" ending is tarnished by self-interest.

Even worse, it encourages an act that is horrifying in real life. It reminded me of a review of Seven Pounds by Film Brain: when he reveals the ending of the movie says killing yourself to donate your organs is a good thing, he goes ballistic and rips it apart. In his commentary, he revealed the reason why: a relative killed himself, and the thought a movie would encourage such behavior infuriated him.

The ending of Transistor is the sci-fi equivalent of committing suicide to be with your lover in heaven. Sure, Shakespeare ended Romeo & Juliet the same way, but that was a tragedy, and Romeo & Juliet are implied to be idiots for going that far. What's the implication in Transistor? What are we supposed to take away about Red? The more I look at it, the less I like what it's saying.

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Tropico Tourist Trap Pt. 2: Cigars, Depression Fruit, and Space Tanks

In Part 1, Governor Rico "Ryan" Davis managed to overthrow the stifling rule of the Crown and declare independence, moving the tyranny closer to home. As we rejoin El Presidente, the world is on the verge of a World War... a situation I plan to exploit for all it's worth.

First, though, let's take a moment to enjoy Tropico's loading screen tips:

Laugh at the absurdity of it! Frown as the realization these people actually ruled entire countries sinks in! Drink heavily!

Look, Patrick! I found one about the country you're visiting!

We finally load up our fledgling nation:

Here you can see the skeleton of a soon-to-be bustling city, a few plantations on its borders, and my trio of gold mines in the distance. It doesn't look like much now, but it will be grand soon enough.

Okay, time to check out the changes caused by advancing to a new era as an independent country. First, we now have a Constitution:

The Constitution dictates how various aspects of your island is run, which in turn affects your country's efficiency, happiness, and opinion of you. Sadly, we can't change it whenever we want. I've stuck with the default Constitution for now. I could let everyone vote, but at this time that would probably just anger everyone...

...because we don't have a liberal Intellectuals faction yet. Now that we've gained independence, the old Royalists vs Revolutionaries factions have been replaced with Militarists vs Religious, and Communists vs Capitalists. Most Tropico citizens choose one faction of each category to support (such as being a Militarist Capitalist); their happiness is influenced by how well you support their factions' ideals. Here, you can see the Religious faction is happy I finally built a Church on the island (and stuck with good old-fashioned chauvanism), but they're not happy I'm tolerating atheists on the island. Constitutional laws, edicts, buildings, and requests can all influence a faction's opinion of you.

Here, building a Lighthouse (in addition to unlocking more trade routes for me) is a cheap way of gaining the Capitalists' favor. Foreign Relations has also changed, too; instead of just dealing with the Crown, now we have to deal with the Allies and the Axis. We can improve our standing with one (while usually lowering our standing with the other) through diplomacy, trade, and (you guessed it) more requests.

Hey, if fruit baskets will increase my foreign aid from the Allies, I'm all for it. I was planning to build massive tobacco plantations, but it's simple to change a few of them to bananas or pineapples instead, at least until this request is filled.

I've set up the tobacco banana fields in a diagonal formation like this to follow the curves of the beach. Note the green/red grid overlay over the fields; that indicates how good the soil in that area is for that particular crop.

Once the plantations are up and churning out crops, I start focusing on building up my infrastructure: a Church for the religious, taverns & restaurants for entertainment, a Clinic to treat diseases & injuries, and a Cigar Factory to fund it all by turning my loads of tobacco into (more profitable) cigars. The problem with the Clinic and the Factory is they require educated workers; it's relatively cheap to build a High School to start educating children into future factory workers, but being a Clinic doctor requires a College degree. I'll have to hire them from abroad for now; the cost of doing so increases with each hire, though, so eventually it'll be cheaper to just build a College and train them at home. (Plus it's easier to indoctrinate homegrown college students.)

During this time, the game kind of slows down. Now that I'm no longer under constant pressure to extend my mandate, requests come in slower and I have more time to just build up my island over the years. It's a relaxing change of pace, but it hampers my enjoyment of Tropico. Justifying running a tyrannical banana republic requires stressful circumstances, whether it's revolts or debts or-

-well, I suppose fire-causing droughts is close enough. I spend a decent chunk of my savings hiring foreign agencies to put out the fires (Firefighting helicopters! In 1919!) with minimal damage, and quickly recover from the droughts. It cost too much money, though; I should build a Police Department with a Firefighter's Branch soon. I continue building up my infrastructure and finish exploring the island:

Mwahahahahahaha! *rubs hands gleefully* The Cold War era's going to be fun...

Meanwhile, things are still chugging away across the sea:

I send Rico's son Flavio to kickstart the worst war in human history. Go go, Tropico!

Soon I get another request from the Allies:

I was planning on building an Army Base for the tanks anyway; this is just icing on the cake. Once I finally build it, I get my first look at the newest member of my Dynasty:

...Apparently General Bile (a name that would make anyone cranky) is so rowdy he time-traveled into the future, beat up an astronaut, and stole his suit. We have an Astronaut General named Bile Davis in the 1920s. Also, look at his facial hair! This is a man's Man! I've put the Man in charge of my tanks.

At first, I thought Tropico's random generator was stupid for making anachronistic choices. But this is gloriously stupid. I approve of Rowdy Bile Davis leading my space tanks into the future.

Continued in Part 3: Peace for our Time!

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Tropico Tourist Trap Pt. 1: The Colonial Days

I finally have Tropico 5 and the time to start playing it. If you're new to the series and asking, "What is Tropico?", it is a city-builder (similar to SimCity) where you play the dictator of a small banana republic on a Caribbean island, attempting to grow your country while appeasing multiple factions to avoid being overthrown/invaded and siphoning off cash to your Swiss bank account. If you've played Tropico before, your question is probably "How is it different from the other Tropicos?" Tropico 4 felt too similar to Tropico 3 for most fans of the series, and they (rightfully) don't want to pay $40 for an experience they can almost duplicate by buying a 4-year old game for $10. To that end, I'm detailing my first run through Tropico 5's sandbox mode, pointing out what's different and what feels the same, so others can use it to decide whether to buy it.

...Of course, I want to put a GiantBomb twist on it too. In honor of Patrick vacationing in the Dominican Republic, which caused a Twitter replier to mention "how exploitative the tourism industry is there", I've decided to make a highly-exploitative tourist trap to lure in suckers like Patrick! Now I just need to pick a Duder that fits the role of El Presidente well. Hrm...

Here's my representation of El Presidente Davis; the character creator is a bit slim on options (and you have to choose from an existing list of first names), so instead of the splitting image of Ryan Davis, we're going with the uncannily similar Rico Davis, General Extraordinaire. (You can't see it here because it was on the previous character creation screen, but I've given Rico Davis the General perk, which increases our troops' damage by 2%.) Also note our avatar's... low-quality appearance is because I have the Graphics Options set to low for this game. Framerate trumps detail IMO.

With our initial El Presidente created, time to choose our map & settings for this game:

Isla Rojo specifically mentions plenty of scenery porn; such natural beauty is vital for a tourist attraction. I set the various difficulties to Average and don't set any Victory conditions; this game will run until I get bored or ousted. Note the "Starting era" in particular; Tropico 5 has implemented 4 different eras you go through during the game. The Colonial Era is the earliest one. I won't be able to start a tourist trap immediately; first I need to get through the earlier eras.

Time to dive in.

And here's how our fledgling colony looks at the start of the game: the Governor's Palace, a few houses, a corn plantation for food, a dock for trade, a Construction Office to construct buildings, and a Teamster's Building to transport food and resources. Take a look at the minimap in the lower-left; notice how it says 4y (4 years) instead of an actual date? That's because the Colonial Era is essentially a timed mission: you're a Governor in service to the Crown with a 4-year mandate over this colony. To become the El Presidente we all know and love, you need to get your Approval Rating above 50% and then declare Independence. Judging by our current 15% approval rate, that's going to take some work. Four years won't be enough.

Luckily, you can extend your mandate by performing services to the Crown like this:

Right now, I really don't have any option other than forcing a smile and agreeing to His Majesty's flippant demands. On the plus side, I can use a tobacco plantation later to make high-quality pseudo Cuban cigars, so it really isn't a loss... I get to work building a plantation.

Along with the Royal requests, I can also complete requests by the Revolutionaries; doing so increases how many people are in the Revolutionary faction, who support my dream of an independent Tropico and increase my approval rating. I'm doing Royal requests to buy time to garner enough support from the Revolutionary requests to declare independence.

These requests highlight an important difference between Tropico and SimCity: it's not just about creating a near-perfect city to keep your citizens happy, it's also about completing requests to keep the various factions happy.

Once I complete the Royal request, I get to choose my reward:

...Of course I go with the direct deposit into my Swiss Bank account. Did you think I was altruistic?

In previous Tropico games, the Swiss Bank account was just a means to increase your final score. In this game, it's also used to level up your Dynasty's members, including El Presidente himself. If I ever want Rico Davis to reach Level 2, I'll need to indulge in a little greed.

While I'm growing cash crops for the Crown, I build a Library for the Revolutionaries. This also opens up the game's Research tree, a new aspect in Tropico 5. Rather than giving you everything off the bat, you need to research new buildings & upgrades.

Once you research enough technologies in the first tier, you can research the 2nd tier of technologies, and so forth. So far, I've found it relatively easy to research all of the technologies, but I'll see if things change in the later eras. Oh, and research gives you some pretty bad jokes as well:

I research Mines first because my initial exploration squads have discovered three Gold Mines within spitting distance of me. Exploration is another new aspect of Tropico 5: resources are hidden from you until you send an infantry squad to explore it, but that requires time and money.

Once I have gold mines up & running, I open up the Trade table and look for a good deal. In addition to the default trading previous Tropicos had, you can choose specific trade routes for more profit. Your trade partners influence your relations, though. In this case, the Crown won't be pleased that I'm selling my Gold to Smugglers for 40% over the going rate, but I'm beginning to garner enough support that I can start pissing off the Crown.

While I'm busy building up support and money, I get a pleasant surprise:

I thumb my nose at the Royalists some more.

And I continue the military tradition by giving my heir the Tactician trait. Now my soldiers deal more damage and take less damage! That'll come in handy if I have to fight off invaders or rebellions.

They grow up fast. Flavio Davis is immediately ready to help Rico Davis manage the island, or even take over the Governorship himself. Having a Dynasty with multiple family members that can fill various roles is also new to Tropico 5; I won't have much time to really set it up or see how useful it is during the Colonial Era, but we'll see how it rolls out in later eras.

Just when I get comfortable, this lovely notice pops up. My source of mandate extensions is running dry; I'll have to declare independence soon. I'm down to less than a year in my mandate and my support is only hovering around 42%; it's time for drastic measures.

Edicts either give a constant effect (as long as you fund them) or give you a one-time boost for a hefty amount of cash. In this case, I'm giving away a third of my treasury to bolster public opinion. A few months later, my approval rating jumps to 52%; the Tax Cut did its job. I quickly declare independence before they can forget their future President's generosity.

When I declare independence, I have the choice of either paying a large sum for a peaceful separation, or going the bloody revolt route. Guess which one I choose?

It's a close fight, but my passive bonuses (plus the Colonial Fort I built near the Dock) give us the edge, and I successfully survive flipping the Crown the bird. With my declaration of independence, we advance to the World Wars era, where we have to deal with elections, a constitution, and even more factions we have to mollify! Will I survive long enough to reach the Cold War and the Age of Tourism? Continue reading about the reign of El Presidente Rico "Ryan" Davis here!

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Tropico Tourist Trap Pt. 1: The Colonial Days

I finally have Tropico 5 and the time to start playing it. If you're new to the series and asking, "What is Tropico?", it is a city-builder (similar to SimCity) where you play the dictator of a small banana republic on a Caribbean island, attempting to grow your country while appeasing multiple factions to avoid being overthrown/invaded and siphoning off cash to your Swiss bank account. If you've played Tropico before, your question is probably "How is it different from the other Tropicos?" Tropico 4 felt too similar to Tropico 3 for most fans of the series, and they (rightfully) don't want to pay $40 for an experience they can almost duplicate by buying a 4-year old game for $10. To that end, I'm detailing my first run through Tropico 5's sandbox mode, pointing out what's different and what feels the same, so others can use it to decide whether to buy it.

...Of course, I want to put a GiantBomb twist on it too. In honor of Patrick vacationing in the Dominican Republic, which caused a Twitter replier to mention "how exploitative the tourism industry is there", I've decided to make a highly-exploitative tourist trap to lure in suckers like Patrick! Now I just need to pick a Duder that fits the role of El Presidente well. Hrm...

Here's my representation of El Presidente Davis; the character creator is a bit slim on options (and you have to choose from an existing list of first names), so instead of the splitting image of Ryan Davis, we're going with the uncannily similar Rico Davis, General Extraordinaire. (You can't see it here because it was on the previous character creation screen, but I've given Rico Davis the General perk, which increases our troops' damage by 2%.) Also note our avatar's... low-quality appearance is because I have the Graphics Options set to low for this game. Framerate trumps detail IMO.

With our initial El Presidente created, time to choose our map & settings for this game:

Isla Rojo specifically mentions plenty of scenery porn; such natural beauty is vital for a tourist attraction. I set the various difficulties to Average and don't set any Victory conditions; this game will run until I get bored or ousted. Note the "Starting era" in particular; Tropico 5 has implemented 4 different eras you go through during the game. The Colonial Era is the earliest one. I won't be able to start a tourist trap immediately; first I need to get through the earlier eras.

Time to dive in.

And here's how our fledgling colony looks at the start of the game: the Governor's Palace, a few houses, a corn plantation for food, a dock for trade, a Construction Office to construct buildings, and a Teamster's Building to transport food and resources. Take a look at the minimap in the lower-left; notice how it says 4y (4 years) instead of an actual date? That's because the Colonial Era is essentially a timed mission: you're a Governor in service to the Crown with a 4-year mandate over this colony. To become the El Presidente we all know and love, you need to get your Approval Rating above 50% and then declare Independence. Judging by our current 15% approval rate, that's going to take some work. Four years won't be enough.

Luckily, you can extend your mandate by performing services to the Crown like this:

Right now, I really don't have any option other than forcing a smile and agreeing to His Majesty's flippant demands. On the plus side, I can use a tobacco plantation later to make high-quality pseudo Cuban cigars, so it really isn't a loss... I get to work building a plantation.

Along with the Royal requests, I can also complete requests by the Revolutionaries; doing so increases how many people are in the Revolutionary faction, who support my dream of an independent Tropico and increase my approval rating. I'm doing Royal requests to buy time to garner enough support from the Revolutionary requests to declare independence.

These requests highlight an important difference between Tropico and SimCity: it's not just about creating a near-perfect city to keep your citizens happy, it's also about completing requests to keep the various factions happy.

Once I complete the Royal request, I get to choose my reward:

...Of course I go with the direct deposit into my Swiss Bank account. Did you think I was altruistic?

In previous Tropico games, the Swiss Bank account was just a means to increase your final score. In this game, it's also used to level up your Dynasty's members, including El Presidente himself. If I ever want Rico Davis to reach Level 2, I'll need to indulge in a little greed.

While I'm growing cash crops for the Crown, I build a Library for the Revolutionaries. This also opens up the game's Research tree, a new aspect in Tropico 5. Rather than giving you everything off the bat, you need to research new buildings & upgrades.

Once you research enough technologies in the first tier, you can research the 2nd tier of technologies, and so forth. So far, I've found it relatively easy to research all of the technologies, but I'll see if things change in the later eras. Oh, and research gives you some pretty bad jokes as well:

I research Mines first because my initial exploration squads have discovered three Gold Mines within spitting distance of me. Exploration is another new aspect of Tropico 5: resources are hidden from you until you send an infantry squad to explore it, but that requires time and money.

Once I have gold mines up & running, I open up the Trade table and look for a good deal. In addition to the default trading previous Tropicos had, you can choose specific trade routes for more profit. Your trade partners influence your relations, though. In this case, the Crown won't be pleased that I'm selling my Gold to Smugglers for 40% over the going rate, but I'm beginning to garner enough support that I can start pissing off the Crown.

While I'm busy building up support and money, I get a pleasant surprise:

I thumb my nose at the Royalists some more.

And I continue the military tradition by giving my heir the Tactician trait. Now my soldiers deal more damage and take less damage! That'll come in handy if I have to fight off invaders or rebellions.

They grow up fast. Flavio Davis is immediately ready to help Rico Davis manage the island, or even take over the Governorship himself. Having a Dynasty with multiple family members that can fill various roles is also new to Tropico 5; I won't have much time to really set it up or see how useful it is during the Colonial Era, but we'll see how it rolls out in later eras.

Just when I get comfortable, this lovely notice pops up. My source of mandate extensions is running dry; I'll have to declare independence soon. I'm down to less than a year in my mandate and my support is only hovering around 42%; it's time for drastic measures.

Edicts either give a constant effect (as long as you fund them) or give you a one-time boost for a hefty amount of cash. In this case, I'm giving away a third of my treasury to bolster public opinion. A few months later, my approval rating jumps to 52%; the Tax Cut did its job. I quickly declare independence before they can forget their future President's generosity.

When I declare independence, I have the choice of either paying a large sum for a peaceful separation, or going the bloody revolt route. Guess which one I choose?

It's a close fight, but my passive bonuses (plus the Colonial Fort I built near the Dock) give us the edge, and I successfully survive flipping the Crown the bird. With my declaration of independence, we advance to the World Wars era, where we have to deal with elections, a constitution, and even more factions we have to mollify! Will I survive long enough to reach the Cold War and the Age of Tourism? Stay tuned to find out!

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Transitioning to Tropico

First off, I just finished Transistor yesterday and posted a review. In summary: its mechanics are more interesting than Bastion, but the plot & worldbuilding suffers from being more complex and more vague, capped by a final act that doesn't explain core aspects of the story and therefore leaves you more confused than emotionally-invested in the ending. I expect better of Supergiant; they showed they could nail story in Bastion, and this is a step backwards.

As an interesting point of comparison, Dark Souls' story was even more vague and left more things unanswered, yet it was an advantage for it rather than a disadvantage. Why the difference? First, Dark Souls didn't have two characters it wanted you to be emotionally invested in at its core; the core of its plot was the mystery surrounding the land of Lordran and your purpose in it. Vagueness and obscure hints emphasize that, while they just get in the way of Transistor's emotional investment. Second, Dark Souls still provides answers to all of the core story beats even if you don't explore around. You ring the two bells and learn you're the Chosen Undead meant to rekindle the First Fire and keep the Age of Flame going. The story makes sense. But then with some digging, you learn that story might not be... entirely true, which is ingenious: you don't have the whole story, but you think you do. Meanwhile in Transistor, you know you don't have the whole story, which means you're more worried about filling in the blanks than the relationship between the two main characters once the ending rolls. It just goes to show, you should make sure your players have a reasonably filled-in plot even if they just take the most direct route, unless the whole point of the game is to chide them for not exploring more to fill in the blanks. I might play Transistor's New Game+ in the hopes it fills in some of the blanks in the story, but I doubt it. There's other games to check out.

Such as the Adventures of Van Helsing 2. The original Adventures of Van Helsing was a cheap Diablo clone that... well, while I wouldn't call it good, it was interesting. Interesting enough I'm tempted to buy the sequel and see if they made enough improvements to make it a good game... or at least more interesting.

But that'll have to wait, because Tropico comes out tomorrow! I loved Tropico 4's character, and ever since the latest SimCity went belly-up, it's the only city sim I'm interested in. I approach Tropico like I approach a game of Paranoia: I want things to go hilariously wrong. That's why it was a disappointment when I realized how easy it was to keep everyone, even opposing factions, mollified in Tropico 4. In game after game, I managed to keep everyone happy and not revolting. I never had a reason to call out the death squads or crush a rebellion! It was a utopian banana republic, which should be an oxymoron. I'm eager to see how (or if) Tropico 5 solves that problem, providing conflict even if you're bringing in enough money to keep tax rates rock bottom. Hopefully it involves envy somehow (the more you have, the more other people want it). Ah well, I have to wait another day to find out.

I think, in celebration of Patrick visiting the Dominican Republic, my first Tropico island will be a highly-exploitative tourist trap. Now I just need to decide whether my first dictator will resemble Ryan Davis or Patrick Klepek...

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Equal-Opportunity Flirting

There are occasions where something you had previously overlooked finally crosses a line that causes you to step back and think, "Maybe this is an issue..." LoL's female characters can be well-proportioned and their comments risque, but it felt low-key enough I never shared some people's outrage over their sexualization. Smite is a whole different story. The first thing I noticed upon selecting a character was that she had jiggle physics. The second thing I noticed was one of her idle animations was running a hand over her body.

"I'm running a hand over the part you're looking at for emphasis."

I blinked a moment and thought, "Wow, this feels a tad awkward. I wonder what a woman would think about seeing that." It had finally crossed some line that caused a moment of revelation; I couldn't just go back to ignoring it, so I checked out a few more things. "Well, that's the goddess of love; of course she's a flirt. Maybe the other female gods aren't so... flirty?" And then I saw Freya, Queen of the Valkyries, act similarly. And the outfits of some of the other female champs. "Yeah, this is... a running theme."

Apparently warrior women want some attention, too.

Perhaps the male gods acted the same way? Nope. While many of them looked ripped enough to be Chippendales dancers, they don't flirt. I'm sure they have a sex drive; most of the old myths were soap operas where everyone was trying to screw or kill each other (or both). The Greek pantheon alone puts most hentais to shame. The only reason Zeus isn't trying to hit on the player is because it's assumed the player is... male...

Slept with 50 women in one night. Romanced the Queen of the Amazons. Was bisexual in some myths. Closest thing to a flirt he has is this pose and a "Does anyone want directions to the beach?" comment.

That's when it hit me that the default characterization of these characters towards an anonymous player was alienating half of the potential audience. At least, I assume it's alienating them... I assume most guys' reaction to Zeus the Thunderlord flirting with them would be a moment of awkward shock followed by an urge to uninstall the game. I don't know what women think of this. Do they have some tolerance built up from years of dealing with a male-oriented media that lets them ignore it? Do they drop games because they don't want to play a female character that's constantly seducing them?

I'm not advocating removing that stuff; I enjoy a bit of cheesecake in my games. But that doesn't mean the fairer half should be denied their beefcake instead. What if there was alternate animations/voices where the male characters hit on the player and the females treated them neutrally? What if you could turn on flirting for everyone if you wanted to get kinky? Or turn it off if you were uptight (or didn't want the parents finding out)? What if there was a menu option where players could choose which gender(s) they wanted flirting with them?

Sure, it's a longshot that any developer would approve of that, as it would cost extra time and money and cast an awkward spotlight on the assumptions game developers make about their audience... but I have a really hard time justifying enjoying cheesecake when the other half can't enjoy beefcake as well.

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Smite: The MOBA FPS

A decade ago, I fell in love with Unreal Tournament 2004. Its Onslaught mode mixed its crazy weapons and vehicles with a territorial tug-of-war that required more strategy than the average FPS. I loved that combination of creativity and thought in an FPS, one that has rarely been matched since. Team Fortress 2 scratched a similar itch, but I didn't notice any other games that hit that sweet spot of intellectual twitchy lunacy. Not until I played Smite.

I decided to play Smite after its ads on the GiantBomb panel reminded me it existed. (I guess they did their job, despite being annoying.) I had previously heard of it, and thought a Multiplayer Online Battle Arena based off ancient myths would be interesting, but I was delving into League of Legends at the time. Last month, my enthusiasm for LoL was beginning to wane and I was looking for something similar-yet-new. I decided to install and try both DOTA2 and Smite. My initial match of DOTA2 felt too much like LoL. My initial match of Smite felt like the lovechild of Unreal and LoL.

Smite's biggest difference is that its camera is constantly positioned behind your champion, instead of having a free-roaming top-down view. Every gameplay change between Smite and DotA/LoL stems from that. You use the WASD-move/mouse-look control scheme like a shooter, and every attack and ability has to be manually aimed (unlike DotA/LoL, where basic attacks & some abilities will automatically hit as long as you can get within range and click your target), which makes leading the target and getting a clear shot important. It also gives you a giant blind spot behind you; you can see an enemy sneaking up behind you in DotA/LoL, but not in Smite. It has all the trappings of a MOBA, yet you play it more like an FPS.

The up-close-and-personal camera angle also adds some spice to the typical MOBA abilities. Beams and vortexes narrowly miss you as you strafe past them, champions fly around and smash down on you, and I've dodged a few ults without looking by listening for them on the surround sound. It's one thing to watch a battle from on-high, it's another to be caught in the middle of it. It reminded me of Unreal Tournament fights where you barely dodge a shock rifle blast only to get beheaded by a hovercraft. It's been far too long since I've had that kind of experience.

Smite's FPS style might be its key to getting 3rd place in the MOBA competition. While LoL and DotA jockey for first place and everyone else tries to play follow-the-leader with them, Smite is different enough to lure in players who are burnt out on DotA/LoL and looking for something similar-with-a-twist. It's sucked up plenty of my time over the past week, and the $20 I've spent on it so far seems like a good trade for the 20+ hours of fun I've had with it.

I hope to post more later about its details, quirks, and flaws, but for now, I'll go back to playing it. Need to get screenshots for future entries, after all.

P.S. It looks like the "post to specific game forum" function isn't working again, hence this post's appearance in the General Forums instead of the Smite forums.

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First Impressions of The Last Federation

I can't tell how much of this game's vagueness & erratic behavior is from bad design and how much of it is from bugs. Planets won't die despite being sieged by enough starships to blow out the sun, diseases refuse to be vaccinated, and tooltips can be overwhelmed with so many Influence Change notifications that you can't read what they actually do.

Convincing a bunch of other races (that start out hating your guts) to form a federation is a neat idea, but this game overwhelms you with information and actions that (barely) shift things in your favor. The numerous bugs (that throw a monkey wrench into your actions) aren't helping. It sounds like there will be a large patch to smoosh most of the larger ones soon; I'll give the game another go once it hits. Until then, I'd stay away from this game (unless you're sure to want to buy it; it's 25% off right now).

It also makes me appreciate how a similarly-complex game like Dwarf Fortress can be interesting by graphically showing the important stuff (dead dwarves, miasma, carnage, lava floods, etc).

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The Limitations of a Favorite

"Is every superhero someone's favorite?"

I dug up a forum thread debating that question on a random Google search. Reading it further, there was the implication that superheroes who were nobody's favorite could be safely neglected (or unceremoniously killed) without ticking off anyone. The problem with that view came into sharp relief when someone commented:

"Aunt May is nobody's favorite character."

"Perhaps not," I thought, "but I wouldn't enjoy Spiderman as much without her."

The notion of a single favorite is artificial, based off an assumption our preferences aren't swayed by our mood or situation. It reduces ourselves to a one-dimensional stereotype who always prefers the same thing. It's why you see many Top 10 lists rebel against simple rankings by having multiple ties or refusing to rank them at all: why should you be asked to choose between two things that are similarly important in different situations? It loses the nuance of why we choose what we choose. It's better to ask why we chose them, what roles they fill in our lives.

For example, take my current favorite games:

  • D&D: Socialization, Storytelling
  • League of Legends: Competition, Time-Waster
  • Pokemon: Creativity & Expression, Competition
  • FTL: Multitasking Distraction, Challenge
  • Luftrausers: Quick Distraction, Challenge
  • Dark Souls 2: Challenge, Exploration, Competition

And let's flip it around to see which roles they fulfill:

  • Socialization & Storytelling: D&D
  • Competition: League of Legends
  • Creativity: Pokemon
  • Side Distraction: FTL
  • Quick Distraction: Luftrausers
  • Challenge: Dark Souls 2

Each of them is my favorite for completely different reasons. Each fulfills some role in my life the others don't. I would be hard-pressed to choose a single one as my favorite because they are equally important to depending on the situation. I like League of Legends, but I can't play it when I only have a few minutes to spare or I'm chatting with a friend; I go with Luftrausers or FTL for those situations.

If I chose a "favorite game" out of them, it would say less about the quality of said game and more about which want/need I value most. A good example of this is Zoe Quinn's Top Games of 2013 list; people got salty at her for including a bunch of free web games instead of the AAA fan favorites, even when she admitted up front her wants were different: "I’ve been more and more pressed for time and haven’t been able to sit down and marathon the 60+ hour long games that I fell in love with as a kid." The AAA games she excluded are still great games, but they're horrible at fulfilling her current wants: a quick game you can blast through in an hour or two that still leaves an impression. (This difference in wants is also at the core of Length vs Price vs Quality debates; people's answers to that depends on their situation.)

So here's a question for you: rather than ask what your current favorite game is, what are your current favorite games? And which want/desire does each fulfill that your other favorites can't do as well?

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Pokemon's Potential

I didn't expect to put 50 hours into Pokemon X over the past week. I had set off that time block for Dark Souls 2, then promptly saw those plans waylaid by a combination of Twitch Plays Pokemon and a sale on Pokemon X.

I was surprised I enjoy this "children's game" with its roots in the Tamagotchi craze over 15 years ago so much. It's a solid game in a neglected subgenre nestled between RPGs and pet simulators. It simultaneously satisfies my desire for interesting mons and strategic battles; every pokemon I captured because I "liked how it looked" ended up filling a useful niche in my party. The Super Training (get into the nitty-gritty of tweaking your pokemons' stats) and Pokemon-Amie (spend time petting & feeding your pokemon) modes emphasize this duality of strategy & pathos, the constant conflict (and attempts to reconcile) having the team you want and the team you need.

It wasn't long until I began getting attached to some of my pokemon. My starter pokemon, the firefox, was a cute little bugger. My mature stoicness quickly melted after I fed him a few treats and scratched his ears. If I held the 3DS far enough back for the camera to register my face, he would tilt his head when I tilted mine. Such damn basic responses, combined with a bit of animated personality, still reminded me of my old pets. That feeling got stronger as I captured more pokemon that reminded me of... something. A Lucario that kept wanting to duel me. A Lapras I always wanted to hug I nicknamed "Nessie". An Amaura that had a haunting trill for its cry. A Disaster Hound that reminded me of an old friend...

Years ago, I had a dog named Trouble. She got her name after an exasperating week of dealing with her as a puppy; it stuck. I still remember the feel of her fur, the way she ran around on three legs (she lost one when a car hit her on the highway; we were just happy she survived), the dopey grin on her face... Trouble seemed like the perfect name for the Disaster Dog I captured, and I found myself reminiscing whenever I sent her into battle or scratched her ears. When I played the original Pokemon Red in my childhood, surrounded by a dozen dogs & cats, I never quite got the draw of it. I don't know if it's the improved emphasis on playing with your pokemon, or the fact all my old pets have died and I've been in apartments where pets aren't allowed ever since, but Pokemon hit me hard in the gut. I felt like the critic in Ratatoille, smashed by a wave of nostalgia from what was supposed to be something simple & trite. Silly? Perhaps. As silly as a kid's bond with a pet...

Somehow, Pokemon did this right. It might be the animal-based designs, or their background as natural parts of the world, or the simplistic plot of a young boy traveling the world with his friends, or even the fact they don't actually speak, but Pokemon nails the strong bonds between a kid and his pets. It avoids the dual threats of treating the mons as amazingly fantastical creatures, thus divorcing it too much from reality (like other mons RPGs), and removing all danger from the experience until the pets are simple playthings (like other pet simulations). It represents the way kids imagine their relationship with their pets. It's an all-too-rare feeling in games, and the most unique thing about Pokemon.

So where can it evolve from here? More than the usual "add more Pokemon" approach, I think Nintendo should double-down on making the Pokemon feel more alive. I want my mons to have a few quirks and odd rivalries/friendships I have to take into account, just like when you have multiple pets in the same space. I want the vague bookkeeping aspects, like storing and releasing pokemon, fleshed out to the point you start caring about what you do to them, too. I want more reasons to give up absolute combat efficiency in order to be a better caretaker for my mons. I want Pokemon to remind me more of my youth, when it was me, my pets, and treks together into the backwoods...

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