I like using the short description of my next play to, for comedy purposes, make some wild-ass guesses about what’s waiting for me next. But this one worked against me:
“The details that make folk in fantasy TTRPGs unique & fun to play without racist undertones condensed into one page each”
The “without racist undertones” clause is what threw me. I’ve been a gamer nerd for a whole lotta years, and yeah, there are some Issues with races that are “inherently evil.” I mean, it all goes back to the source. I’m having trouble finding it (so perhaps I’m misremembering it), but I definitely remember hearing a quote from Tolkien that orcs were based on the “less desirable” aspects of Asian cultures. And even before him, there’s a long line of creatures in folklore that were simply irredeemably evil, alien, other.
The heroes have to slay SOMETHING, you know.
I’m not gonna sit here and wail on The Old Ways just to try and earn some cheap Internet wokeness points; fuck that noise. Popular culture is a mirror, reflecting both the best and worst a particular time has to offer. A thing does not have to be perfect to be worthy of love, particularly when its flaws are so clearly rooted in simple human failings. Lord of the Rings is awesome, and enriched my life immensely. Dungeons and Dragons and the myriad of games that followed in its footsteps have brought me more joy, more connection with friends and loved ones, than I can possibly recount. They are also, in presenting imaginary races that are inherently evil beyond redemption and exist primarily for the forces of Good to remorselessly slaughter, a bit fucked up. The former does not excuse the latter — but the latter does not negate the former.
We’re all just doing the best we can with the world as we understand it. If our understanding grows in a way that tells us that hey, maybe some shit we embraced yesterday without a second thought actually has elements that are not so cool, that’s called “growth.” Feeling like you understand the world a little better today than you did yesterday is nothing to be ashamed of, even if it makes you see some things you love a bit differently. Quite the opposite. It’s an opportunity to embrace the good bits, and figure out how to move past the bad. It’s a chance to do better.
So based on that simple-ass three-word clause — “without racist undertones” — I was actually looking forward to a bit of a deeper dive into what drives said racist undertones, an exploration of how they can sneak into our fantasy worlds without our knowledge or consent. Hell, I’m taking a stab at writing a fantasy RPG right now, at least when Covid-depression isn’t kicking my ass (which it is more often than not, unfortunately). This sounds super relevant to my interests! In fact, didn’t I see something about a supplement like that a while ago?
Yup, it’s called “Ancestry & Culture“, and I’mma buy that sumbitch as soon as I’m done writing this up.
Because with those three words, “One Page Lore: Fantasy Folk” wrote a check it didn’t really cash.
Look, it’s the Year of Our Lord 2021, and this is an indie RPG supplement I downloaded from a site that ISN’T trying to indulge racist chuds. Twenty years ago, ten years ago, a D&D supplement that dealt with races in a consciously even-handed way would have been notable. But in context, a supplement that is “not racist” is about as meaningful to me as a movie that’s “in color” or is a “talkie.” It’s just what my entitled ass expects nowadays; I’d really only notice if it WASN’T there.
Anyway. This is a perfectly serviceable fantasy RPG supplement — yup, after all that ranting, I’m going straight middle of the road in terms of how much I actually liked this — offering up system-agnostic ideas for how to give fantasy races a little more flair without going into gonzo bugfuck territory a la Troika! or Penicillin. (And as promised, it is in colorfeatures talking actors not appreciably racist, so, yay.)
We’ve got everything from twists on old faves (Elves are cold-blooded! Dwarves are literally carved from stone! Halflings are totes narcoleptic!) to Kirkland-brand versions of ents and furries to straight up weird shit I don’t think I’ve seen before, like fungus people or people whose torsos ARE their heads. There are even a few classic monsters like liches and skeletons in there, because fuck it, why not?
Each race comes with a two-page description — which means you can print it on a single sheet of paper, hence the name of the book — describing what their deal is. Translating their deal into stats for your game is your problem, but hey, that’s what I’d expect.
There are some weird assumptions baked into the book, like the fact that pretty much everything can interbreed with everything else. Okay, fine, half-elves and such are totally a genre staple, but if you’re gonna go this far to make everything race so unique, I’m not sure that works particularly well. Like the Formless (Kirkland dopplegangers), whose flesh is a kind of non-Newtonian fluid. The description indicates their transformations are into other creatures are no more than skin-deep, but their reproductive systems are somehow compatible?
Does this weird universal interbreeding extend to, like, EVERYTHING in this implied universe? Is a turducken the result of a regrettable barnyard orgy? Does the threat of human-faced lambs keep lonely perverted shepherds from doing anything nasty?
Eh, whatevs. It’s all perfectly fine. The copyediting is a little sloppy in places and there are examples of “This is clearly an X but with the serial numbers filed off” than I would consider ideal, but what the hell, it’s a perfectly cromulent indie RPG product. It didn’t dazzle me, but if you’re looking for some ideas for how to give some tropes in your RPG a little more weird kick, it’s very likely to be worth your time.
And it’s totes not racist. Even though it lists reasons why Gnomes are an innately apathetic people. Which, given that it’s telling me why a personality trait is actually an inherent part of a sentient race’s physiology, is just a teensy bit yellow-flaggy to me. But there are no monoculture races devoted to the destruction of all that is Right and Good, so I’m pretty sure it cleared the bar it was setting for itself.
Up next: Ancestry & Culture. Just downloaded it. Boom! Totally gonna give that a good read-through.
But I gotta have a justice game to check-out next, too. Will this next one invent a word like “craniothorax” and then use it so often it actually becomes a weird distraction?
Page 11, Game 18: Blitz Breaker by Boncho Games
“A fast paced platformer without…running?”
Ooh. Somebody wants to break one of the core rules of their genre. I’m intrigued.
That was quite thoroughly pleasant. Which is way, way more than I feel I have any right to expect of a self-published novella. (Complete with perfectly competent anime-esque illustrations from the author!)
This is the story of M, a young adult largely adrift in life who stumbles upon a strange opportunity: let a witch transform them into a demon, and then spend three months living with a different witch. See, in this world, witches and magic are totally a thing and it’s no big deal. M tried magic a while back and really sucked at it, but they’re not torn up about it or anything. Witches often have demon (think made-of-magic demons, not hellfire demons) familiars who are a BIG help in doing magic stuff, particularly when it comes to artificing work.
Penelope is a witch who really knows her shit, and her kid sister Amanda is getting her magic feet under her. Problem is, Amanda kinda sucks at magic too, and can’t hack even a simple familiar-binding spell. (Why? I don’t think the story really explains that; she seems perfectly capable-ish. Maybe demons just think she has lousy taste in footwear and get all snobbish about that stuff?) So, Penelope’s solution: demonic ringer. Pay-off a regular ol’ mortal human to get transformed into a demon critter, and let Amanda summon a beastie that is getting paid to do whatever it takes to help her out. What could possibly go wrong?
Whatever complications you think might arise from that scenario, you probably don’t need to worry about it, because it’s not an issue. Yes, even that one. And that one.
I’ve mentioned it before, but since I have no reason to believe anyone other than me reads these in chronological order (or, like, at all), I’ll mention it again: I’ve read a LOT of unpublished/self-published fiction. Writing stories of any length that don’t suck is HARD, much harder than than anyone who’s never dipped their toes in those waters would believe. Most of the un-/self-published fiction in the world is hidden behind impenetrable gates for a very, very good reason.
So, yeah, when I say that this novella doesn’t suck, no bullshit: I mean that as praise. When I say it was actually pleasant and enjoyable to read, please recognize that as very, VERY high praise indeed.
It’s enjoyable. The prose flows smoothly, the characters are sympathetic and engaging. It’s all very pleasant.
Overbearingly, suffocatingly pleasant.
Ruthlessly stripped of conflict to the point where the characters occasionally don’t even register as recognizably human pleasant.
Yeah. When I call this motherfucker “pleasant,” that is actually far and away my biggest beef with the whole thing.
The story’s big hook is that it’s actually trans allegory. Our protagonist M is … is there a word for someone who really needs to dump their current gender identity but has yet to truly grapple with that reality so is just grudgingly going by their assigned-at-birth gender as an awkward default? What pronouns are appropriate for that person? Whatever. M is male-ish, neither happy about it nor willing to confront it; but when they find themselves in the body of a female demon-mouse (who gets named Emilynn by pure coincidence), it’s liberating in a way they — she — has never experienced before. This is a story about discovering and creating a new identity for yourself, about cannonballing into a completely new world and finding love and acceptance within it. Those are the parts of the story that work. Those are the parts that charmed me.
The problem is, as mentioned, that this process of discovery feels shockingly devoid of any sort of risk or stakes, and it’s taking place within a world that’s only barely sketched with the broadest of outlines. I mean, there’s some really hefty ethical shit going down here, but most of it barely gets mentioned let alone explored. Setting your sister up with a faux-demon familiar without her consent? That feels like one hell of a violation of trust! To say nothing of learning that your adorable new familiar is actually a male-bodied human in demon-mouse drag!
And all of that is, from a storytelling standpoint, good. VERY good! This feels like the sort of thing someone with big-time magic power might do, overstepping boundaries to act in (what they perceive as) the best interests of someone they love. That’s interesting. That’s a rich vein of drama just waiting to be mined.
But, no. Conflict of any sort just doesn’t fit the novella’s oppressively wholesome tone. So everything that might be worrisome, that might make someone question their actions or choices, will at best be mentioned and glossed over. It’s fine. Everything is fine. Very, very, very fine. So fine.
And that’s honestly a damned shame.
The novella is also very, very light on the sort of details it needs to truly come alive. For instance, in one scene, Amanda is preparing breakfast. What kind of breakfast? Can Emilynn smell sausage cooking in a pan? Is Amanda chopping up veggies for an omelet? Is she a Cap’n Crunch kinda witch? No idea. It’s Breakfast. Just some perfectly ordinary Breakfast. Don’t worry about it.
This lack of detail permeates the novella, to its detriment. More problematically: Amanda wants to be an artificer, to craft magic objects. WHY is she so intent on being an artificer, even though prior to Emilynn’s help she was quite rubbish at it? No idea. WHAT sort of magic devices does she want to create? Well, erm, bolts that glow, I guess. Oh! And a hairbrush that can make your hair different colors! That’s one’s really dope, actually! That was a really compelling, interesting detail!
As far as I know, Amanda’s goal is to open a magic shop that exclusively sells light-up hardware and brushes that make your hair different colors. I’m really feeling like she needs to stay on Magic Etsy until she diversifies her stock a bit. But that’s just a detail, and this novella doesn’t really bother with nearly as many of those as it needs to. (Yes, it’s possible to go way too far the other direction and get bogged in superfluous details. At this stage in the author’s career, that is emphatically not a worry.)
If I were in a critique group with this author, this is someone whose work I’d genuinely look forward to reading while completely understanding why she keeps getting form rejections from all but the semi-est of semi-pro markets. There’s a lot to like here; reading this novella is not a chore, and “Not A Chore” is a mountain all too few amateur writers ever manage to conquer. But to be really compelling, to write stories that I’d want to seek out, this author has some growing of her own she yet needs to do.
I hope she manages it. The best version of Alex Zandra Van Chestein is absolutely an author I’d want to read.
And, hey, it’s self-illustrated! I’m not an Art Guy, but the anime-inspired illustrations all helped to solidify and ground the world in a way that the prose sometimes struggled to accomplish, and were a welcome addition. This lady has some chops.
Will this next entry in the list feature a surprise subplot with a polyamorous demon-cat?
Page 27, Game 18: One Page Lore: Fantasy Folk by Jesse Galena – RexiconJesse
“The details that make folk in fantasy TTRPGs unique & fun to play without racist undertones condensed into one page each”
Hmm. Fantasy races stripped of racism? As a middle-aged nerd who now holds some small degree of embarrassment at having been attracted to chicks cosplaying in Drow-face (oh, yes, sacrifice me to your dark spider god, baby), you may consider my interest piqued.
Wretched Wasteland is a solo game where you play with a deck of cards and a Jenga tower, which is something I’d never heard of before this trawl but is apparently its own genre; I think this is the … third? … such game I’ve encountered so far. And my reaction to it is the response I keep having: “This looks kinda cool. I should get a Jenga tower and try it sometime.”
I mean, I could do it WITHOUT the Jenga tower. If I wanted to be a punk.
Anyway. You’re a scout for a Fallout-style community of survivors, and you found the bad thing: a camp full of raiders. You need to get back to your people and warn them. But, they spotted you, and are after you. As if there weren’t enough things trying to kill you already.
(Which as I’m thinking about it leads to a bit of a plot hole: if it’s that hard for you to get back to your home, wouldn’t it be similarly hard for them? Isn’t the lethality of the wasteland working in your community’s FAVOR right now? In fact, isn’t the biggest threat facing your people the risk of you kiting these assholes back to your home? I feel like it would be an interesting added dimension; do I try and lure these fuckers into danger, try to shake them, or selfishly hope that my peeps will be able to waste them once I get within sight of the compound? But this is, I think, an entirely different game.)
Draw a card, look up what it means, resolve the effect. Pull a block from the Jenga tower when told to; if it falls, the wasteland got the better of you. The game encourages you to write a fiction of what’s happening as you go — or maybe even record an audio log. You know, like the kind of plot hook you find lying around all over the place in these sorts of games.
If you play this game as intended, you wind up with an artifact that you could toss into a post-apocalyptic RPG completely devoid of any of this context. That’s kinda fucking awesome.
I wanna play this. I don’t have the Jenga tower — and more importantly, I don’t have the energy, because I’m hitting those Sunday-afternoon blahs right now. But by the time I get my hands on a set of blocks to play this with, I hope I remember writing all of this, because this honestly looks really cool.
Will this next game be something more appropriate for someone running out of energy on the weekend?
Page 27, Game 3: I Signed Up To Be The Substitute Familiar Of A Struggling Witch To Pay My Bills And I’m Just Now Realizing… by Alex Zandra
“An illustrated light novel about magic, witches, familiars, and gender feels”
Ooh, very nice timing, “light novel.” I mean, it’s hard as fuck to do fiction well, but if it describes itself as “light” I’m optimistic that at least it’s not gonna waste my time. Let’s give it a look.
You’re Caffie, a young woman (or, at least, femme-presenting human — I don’t recall the game specifying a gender) just starting work at a coffee shop, the titular Whipped and Steamy.
In proper video game fashion, you shall be given extraordinary latitude in running things at your new job — you have to select coffee, snacks, and decor for the day, based on what flavor of egregious horndoggery you anticipate catering to. That’s your niche: you sell coffee and treats to horny nerds with terrible boundaries. I’m sure all the other local businesses appreciate you keeping these dipshits out of their stores.
Each day has three parts. Part one: choose coffee, treats, and decor. Your potential customers are neatly divided into three camps: “Vanilla” (horny assholes dressing up as stuff to get laid), “Fantasy” (insufferable hentai fanatics), and “Exotic” (kinksters who have almost certainly gotten kicked the fuck out of all their local BDSM meetup groups), with the occasional “Non-Cosplayers” wandering by. Each menu item or piece of decoration will appeal to one or more of these groups; do you try to lean into whatever crowd you’re expecting, or try and swim against the stream a bit for the sake of diversifying your clientele? Simply running the same things day after day gets stale, so you want to mix things up — but be careful, new stuff costs money, and you have a target goal you need to hit after two weeks.
Then comes part two: sales! This is non-interactive, and you simply learn how well you did for the day.
Then finally part three: workplace harassment. You get to relive the most “interesting” customer interaction you had that day, wherein an underclothed horny superfan of something spews fannish enthusiasm at you while saying various sexually charged things. This portion is also completely non-interactive. Interested in what they have to say? Disinterested? Comfortable? Uncomfortable? You have no choices, none of that “agency” shit matters. Just stand there and take it, bitch. Gotta get those tips somehow.
Each day will get one of six pre-programmed cosplayers, and all of them are awful. There’s the submissive attention-whoring luchador with no sense of boundaries who demands you shout his name and requests you spank him right in the middle of your fucking coffee shop. There’s the condescending rabbit-hentai fangirl who is every insufferable fan who WILL NOT SHUT UP about whatever piece of media they enjoy and are as subtle at recruiting you to their fandom as a Mormon with a quota and a shotgun. There’s the conceited pirate guy who was probably the most fuckable of the lot just because he was the least horrible — not that, as we have established, my preference matters in any conceivable way. And there’s the Wannabe Dom Girl.
Sweet leather-clad Jesus, the Wannabe Dom Girl.
I am not a kinkster, but I’ve dabbled, and I have enough friends in that community to consider myself well-versed in the basics. Every time this braying jackass opens her mouth, she is violating the standards of any reasonable kink community.
As an ex of mine once said to a clueless guy who came on to her too strong at an event, “Sweetie, you may be a dom, but you’re not MY dom. Now run along.”
But, no. Every word out of Wannabe Dom Girl’s mouth is berating and belittling you, and demanding you RESPECT HER AUTHORITY and grovel at her feet. Even though you’re just the girl working the counter in a coffee shop.
Did you consent to this treatment? Nope! You don’t consent to goddamn anything in this game. And that’s a MASSIVE problem. Any dom who pulls this shit on someone who doesn’t consent to it isn’t showing strength — they’re showing clueless idiocy. They’re showing a frightening lack of boundaries, and a terrifying disregard for other people. This is the sort of behavior that gets you kicked out of communities. This is the sort of behavior that makes people ask hard, uncomfortable questions of your friends who stand by and enable it. This is the sort of behavior that gets people warning their friends about you.
The secret sauce that makes a good dom a good dom is empathy. Dick-swinging testosterone is cheap and easy, and if that’s all you have going for you, any sub who knows what they’re doing will stay the fuck away from you. This game’s author is mistaking the theatrics of BDSM for reality, and is demonstrating an understanding of the kink scene on par with 50 Shades of Gray.
And Wannabe Dom Girl is pulling this shit on a BARISTA. She is pulling this on WAITSTAFF. She is harassing and verbally abusing someone who is FORCED to be there, whose job makes it difficult for them to push back in the way this behavior demands.
The fact that your on-screen avatar is a slender femme-presenting woman adds yet another layer to the ongoing squick.
Once the interaction is mercifully over, you get a punchcard indicating your relationship with this customer has somehow advanced, whether you want it to or not. Because that’s apparently how sexually charged relationships work or something.
It’s fucking awful. If you’re a woman who’s worked as a barista and ever had to deal with horny idiot customers who would not take “Go away” for an answer, I would expect this game to be actively triggering.
This game clearly wants me to be enticed and titillated by all these sexy people talking about sexy things. Instead, all I see are a bunch of self-absorbed assholes intent on inflicting their fandoms and kinks on whatever poor shmucks are forced to stand there and endure it.
At the end of the two weeks, my boss informed me I had failed at the resource management aspect of the game. He had mentioned early on that I had a target monetary goal I had to hit. I have no idea what it was; the game never mentions it again, save to tell me that I’d missed it. With regret, my boss fired me — but invited me to try playing the game again and seeing if maybe I could do better.
No. Never interacting with any of these fuckwits ever again is worth more than this job could possibly pay.
Everything about this game is pure yikes, and I cannot recommend it for anybody.
Will this next game help purge the foul taste of ignored consent from my soul?
Page 19, Game 23: Wretched Wasteland by Stuart W.
“A solo journaling RPG set in a barren post-apocalyptic wasteland”
Comparatively speaking, sounds like Disneyland. At least radioactive mutants will take getting shot in the face as “No.”
Norton tells me that it doesn’t know enough about this file to say I can open it safely. And I have that anti-viral software running for a reason. I’ve seen Norton react much more negatively than this, but if this is the game that gives me digital herpes, I’d feel pretty stupid.
A pity. It looks adorable.
I’ve deleted it from my script’s list of games it’s already covered. Maybe the next time it comes back ’round on the guitar, Norton will know enough about it to give me the all-clear. Until then, let’s spin the wheel again.
Will this next game give me that thrill of using the WRONG COLOR when coloring-in animals?!
“A pixel platformer/adventure where you try to find the shrine to Anubis”
All right, welcome to last-minute fill-in status, Shrine to Anubis!
… and fifteen minutes later, it’s all played.
That was cute.
All right. So, you’re an Archeology Guy doing an Archeology.
Into the pyramid you go! Behold strange, perplexing glyphs!
Jump around! Dodge things! Try not to die! Set flag checkpoints if you ignore that advice and get your stupid ass killed anyway!
Obviously, it’s a lo-fi adventure platformer. It plays … fine. Movement is weirdly devoid of momentum. When you stop, you STOP, immediately. Makes some of the precision jumps pretty simple to time, at least.
That’s really what the game is all about — timing. Get the timing on the arrows right, get the timing on the floor spikies right, jump here, jump there, etc. There’s really not much here you haven’t seen before, probably.
You’ll pick up some loot, too. And the finale stage has some surprises I don’t wanna spoil. Because slight as it is, I’m actually gonna kinda sorta recommend this one.
I’ve been fooling around a bit with teaching myself the Unity engine, and I have to say, this feels like something an experienced game dev could bang out in a day. But I don’t think that’s what actually happened; this feels more … self-educational than that. It feels like this is someone’s first try at making a platformer — and they did a pretty solid job. It’s unpolished, but quite playable. It hits the right balance of being challenging without being frustrating, and it moves along briskly; I finished it in about fifteen minutes, and it didn’t wear out its welcome.
It’s fun. There’s not much to it, but it’s a charming little retro run-and-jumper. I had a good time playing it.
Honestly, it feels like something somebody worked on as part of a video game design class. No idea if that’s true or not, but if it were, I’d be inclined to give this dev an “A”. If my nephew or nieces told me the created this, I’d be suitably impressed — though I’d warn my brother/sister that if they REALLY want to put it for sale on-line, maybe encourage them to not charge more than a dollar for it.
Which is exactly what this guy will cost you. If it sounds at all appealing, by all means give it a look. If you hate it, you’re only out $1 and fifteen minutes.
Will this next game encourage me to shout “It belongs in a museum!”?
Page 26, Game 21: Whipped And Steamy • Cosplay Café by Whales And Games
“In a town where adult media is the new best thing the Whipped and Steamy Café is the best fun for all cosplayers!”
Only if the museum has a Culture After Dark section. This sounds super porny.
Aside from being two-player-only — tl;dr I’m not a fan — this game actually ticks a lot of my boxes. It’s visually interesting, with inventive game play that I’ve never seen before. It’s exactly the kind of game that I’m hoping to find on this trawl….
… except for the whole thing where I want it to be “fun.” Clash of Coins is emphatically not fun. Gonna have to deduct a whole bunch of points for that.
You are a coin. Your opponent is a coin. You will now coin-battle, and attempt to blast each other off your coin platform. Now fight!
The goal is to blast your foe into the cloudy void surrounding your platform. You can slam into each other, you can make spinny attacks, you can jump, you can even jump AND attack! This will cause you to slam down into the floor below you — which is very rough on the floor. See all those cracks? Those are sections of floor just waiting for you to weaken them so they can fuck off forever.
Also, sections of the arena will start spinning. There will be times when defeating your foe simply means you did a better job identifying and jumping to safety than they did.
So what’s the problem?
It’s all so slow.
Moving the coins is like moving through Jello. You push the button, and your coin will start doing the thing eventually. Jump, and you slowly arc up, then gently come back down. Fall off the edge, and you have ages to contemplate your demise.
It makes for a deeply frustrating gaming experience.
I have no idea what the problem is. My machine has handled much fancier games than this, and the framerate looks fine. The game doesn’t look choppy at all; it’s excruciatingly slow, but it’s a very high-resolution slow. It’s like watching a hi-def video of slugs fucking, which I just realized is almost certainly its own genre of porn and I’m not gonna go looking for it let let me just live in ignorance.
The video on the game’s page looks fun. I’d be curious to play that game. The game I downloaded really sucks.
The best version of this game would be intriguing. It’s still pretty raw; there’s no sound whatsoever, and as mentioned, there’s not even an attempt at an AI opponent here. But if you presented me with a version of this game that doesn’t feel like swimming through a fat kid, I’d absolutely play it. If the dev is still playing with this concept, I certainly wish them well.
Will this next game respond to my commands in real time?
Page 45, Game 16: Discovering Colors – Animals by Frogames
“Coloring for kids”
Animal colors? For kids? Fuck yeah! Kids are stupid! I’m gonna rock that shit!
Okay. Are you developing a video game, or some other form of visual media? Would you like that video whatever to have a background appropriate for a side-scrolling 2D platformer? Would you like that background to be a forest? Would you like that forest to be dominated by the pixelated side of the Force? Would you like that forest to be dark and gloomy?
If you answered Yes to every question in the prior paragraph — every single question — then I have some excellent news for you!
What’s to say? It’s a perfectly cromulent solution to an extremely specific problem. If you’re one of the people trying to solve that problem, it’ll be a nifty resource.
However, no bears. Gonna be a little bit judgy for that.
Will this next game offer me any bears?
Page 50, Game 6: Clash of Coins by Zwi Zausch
Local 2 player brawler fun on a shapeshifting arena in the clouds!
A goofy little physics trifle designed to make you and someone you love very, very irritated with each other. Yet another game that winds up testing whether I’m a half-full or half-empty kinda gamer nerd. Is it fun? Yup! Is it everything it could be? HELL no. Not even close. I’ll be enumerating the opportunities it missed in just a moment. But it IS fun, and that counts for quite a bit.
You have a spaceship. It is on a black pad. You would rather it be on the blue pad. Now get to it.
To fly your spaceship, you’ll fire-off the rockets. See that washing machine? That washing machine is your ship, and those five little nubbins beneath it are your rockets. Each of them has a key associated with it. Hold down the key, fire the rocket. Easy-peasy.
Except, of course, like any good physics-based nightmare, what you want to do and what you actually wind up doing will likely have sweet fuck-all to do with one another. Particularly if you play the way the developer intended: as multiplayer. Everybody gets assigned one or more buttons. How you coordinate moving in the right direction and not, say, spinning helplessly through space or into the scenery is your problem. And oh, what a vexing problem it is.
And like any good game, it gets more complicated the further you go on. Soon, you’re not just hopping to the right; you’re having to go UP. Or go AROUND shit. Or find these annoying blue balls that you’ll need to collect before you can successfully land. Or deal with force fields that shove you in directions you’d rather not deal with.
Fuck it up, and the game will play a noise like a really annoying text message notification and start you over.
The first problem is the obvious one: the graphics. The most charitable adjective I can muster is “Functional.” They convey where you are and what you’re trying to do … and that’s pretty much it. It’s all just boxes, leavened by the occasional sphere. There’s no creativity here, no spark, nothing to enhance the sense of maddening consequences that are at once pure chaos yet somehow all your fault. Your rocket ship is a big white box powered by tiny grey boxes, fer fuck’s sake. It’s just kinda there.
Ditto for the consequences of touching terrain that isn’t a landing pad with something that isn’t one of your five rocket nubbins. No fiery death animation, no mocking explosions; touch the red blocks, hear an annoying noise and start over.
And boy howdy, do you hear that noise a lot — even if you’re playing solo. Rakete is about as forgiving as Tywin Lannister after hearing some asshole diss the family; even the slightest touch and you’re fucked. And you do NOT have a lot of room to maneuver; as the game progresses, you’ll find yourself trying to snake the USS Maytag through block chimneys that aren’t that much wider than it is, possibly having to maneuver to compensate for some force field trying to slam you into the walls.
I played a few rounds of the game as intended with my wife controlling the right rockets and me controlling the left, and we had fun. We spun around and antiseptically smashed into things and eventually got where we were trying to go, and cheered, and then did something else after playing a few levels. But as the game progresses, it gets brutally difficult in SINGLE player mode; the various puzzles take perverse delight in killing you even if it’s just you working the rockets. I was actually unable to get all the way through the game; I have absolutely no idea how you’d do some of those levels with multiple players.
I don’t mind games that are challenging, but this one just feels fussy. It’s so tight and unforgiving that it just stops being fun after a while. When you decide you’re done with a game because you beat it, that’s fun; that’s satisfying. Deciding you’re done because you’re sick of getting your ass handed to you is less fun. I have to think that far more people who’ve played Rakete are in the latter group than are in the former.
The game also feels weird and subtly wrong. It claims you’re controlling a rocket ship, but … are you, really? The environment feels viscous. There’s some sort of ambient resistance that will bleed off your momentum, to say nothing of the very clearly defined gravity. It feels less like you’re maneuvering in space and more like you’re operating some sort of deep-sea submersible. That’s not a bad thing, but it’s a hint that the game might have done better with entirely different theming.
So the graphics and sound feel less “minimalist” and more “eh, fuck it, whatever,” the gameplay quickly becomes less “challenging” and more “brutal,” and the overall feel is less “rocket” and more “clumsy submarine.” But … well, see the cold open. I had fun. A good puzzle game will make me feel like a very clever boy when I finally defeat whatever challenge it has laid out before me, and yeah, Rakete gave me that feeling quite a few times. The raging chaos of mutiplayer had my wife and I laughing.
Rakete is clearly not the best version of itself, but it doesn’t suck. If anything about this sounds fun to you, or you’d like to torment a loved one with almost but not quite managing to coordinate with one another, then by all means give it a look.
(Just one advisory, however. For some reason, the game played VASTLY better when I had an external keyboard plugged into my laptop. For some reason, when my wife and I were sitting on the couch using the built-in keyboard, we could only get it to recognize two buttons at a time. I’m guessing this is more a limitation of the hardware than the game, but be warned it’s a limitation you might run into as well.)
What physics nightmares await me in this next game?
Page 27, Game 9: Pixel art Forest by edermunizz
Make your own forest!
Ah, falling trees and such. Will there be bears? I’m hoping for bears.
This is an ultra-short little game about organizing your bookshelf. Do you have a bookshelf? That shit is probably messy as fuck, isn’t it. Why don’t you go ahead and organize it. Organize it how? However you like, really. Alphabetically, by color, by size, it’s up to you.
My wife and I actually organized our main bookshelves in the past year, so if I’d been feeling lazy, I could have just skipped that step and started there. However, I’ve been meaning to organize my role-playing games for forever.
So, I organized it alphabetically by game system. For games with multiple books, it was sub-organized by edition, and then by character creation supplements, worldbuilding supplements, and finally pre-gen adventures.
I’ve been playing RPGs since I was twelve. I’m in my late forties now. I own a lot of RPG books. There are also, sprinkled here and there, little indie guys that my wife bought on our various convention outings. But the vast majority of the paper on these shelves is mine.
The thing that’s always scary for me about this kind of deep-dive reorganizing is how easy it is for me to get lost in thoughts of the past. I am, at the end of the day, one sentimental motherfucker. I am also cursed with a brain that prefers to fixate on the bad, on failures and mistakes, on moments when I was an asshole or let somebody down. (Thanks, clinical depression.) That can make wallowing in memories more than a little dangerous.
Here’s the D&D Red Book — from way back in the day. Just the second of the two books that came in the box, though — no idea what happened to the first. Probably destroyed, though there’s a slim chance it could be stashed somewhere in my brother’s or sister’s belongings. Wanted to play D&D SO bad when I was a kid, but I had a hell of a time finding anybody to play it with me. It looked so cool. I remember running games for my stepbrother Brandon. Of course, I wanted to be a player, not a DM, so my character was in there as an “NPC.” I may not have both books, but I still have the box — and a whole shitload of notes from way back when.
I have a lot of D&D in general, really. A whole bunch of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition, enough that I could absolutely run a campaign if I wanted to. And OMFG, I have so much material for D&D 3 and 3.5. Half of an entire shelf is taken up just by materials for the Scarred Lands, a setting from White Wolf (the Vampire: The Masquerade people) that I simply loved. It was grim, but not over the top. I’ve heard it referred to as “Grimbright;” the world is fucked, but it can get better. I like that.
I only ever ran two campaigns in it. For all the source material I have, you’d think I ran dozens. Naw, just the two. I remember having a bunch of ideas for both that I never wound up following through on. Funny thing about me as a GM is the fact that I think I’m the only one who doesn’t enjoy the games. I feel like I’m perpetually underprepared and half-assing everything, but people always seem to have a good time. I’m harder on myself than is good for me, always have been.
In the pre-plague times, I was running a Starfinder game that was actually going quite well. I went into it conscious of my tendency to be overly critical of myself, and just chill the fuck out. It felt like it was working, honestly. People seemed to be having a lot of fun. But then Covid hit, and the campaign went on hiatus. I’m still working full-time, and moving the game on-line would just have been too much.
Ironically, none of my Starfinder books live on the RPG shelf — nor do my 5th-ed D&D books, or my Pathfinder books. I didn’t realize it, but the RPG shelf has basically become a kind of museum for games that I no longer play — or never played at all. I should probably rehome it entirely onto shelves with a little more room for growth.
Or I could get rid of some of the games there, but … it’d hurt. I could prune a smattering of books that I picked up here and there that never really mattered, but trimming down the collections actually taking up the bulk of the space would feel like I was throwing away some piece of myself. Like all those Shadowrun books. Most of them will probably never be opened again, but I played the absolute tits off that game back in college. Even a little after college, too. Damn, did those books ooze personality. Every sourcebook, regardless of whether it was adding sexy new gear to buy or spells to learn or just fleshing out the corners of the world, came sprinkled with tons of in-universe commentary from the various low-lifes inhabiting it. They gave insights into the whatsits being described, sure, but those fake people joked and bickered and sometimes even died in those pages. What a marvelous way to bring a universe to life.
I sorted the shelves, according to a system that might be a bit impenetrable in places. “Champions” is filed under “H” for “Hero System”, for instance. Of course, the “Champions” book that’s there is just a hollow shell filled with campaign notes. The binding on that book was shit, so I just gave in to the inevitable and tore out each page, one by one, and tucked it into a three-ring binder. One that’s unmarked and setting on a different shelf entirely, because there’s no damn room for it with the other books.
Yeah, I definitely need to rehome everything.
Once the books were sorted, time to get on to the next stage of the game. Remember? The Bookshelf? The “game” I’m playing? It tells me to open the first book and:
Read through the first few pages, pick out a sentence, phrase, or string of words that speaks to you now. What turn of phrase catches you? What idea do you love. What declaration in these first crucial phrases made the entire book worth reading.
WRITE IT DOWN.
Put the book back, and open the second book.
Repeat the process, taking time to read the first few pages, and writing down another phrase.
Okay. Cool. I’ll do that.
First book: ÆON. Man. There’s a game I haven’t thought of in forever. Back in the late 90’s, White Wolf — the Vampire folks — were branching out into an entirely new sci-fi setting. I remember buying the game when I was living in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, just after graduating college. I found some folks on ISCA, a BBS I used to hang out on, looking to start a game. They were in Iowa City, but it was only a half-hour drive. The campaign only met a half-dozen times, but we had fun. I wish I could remember their names — or even what they looked like, really. I remember it was two dudes and a lady who was married to one of them. God, I was so desperate to make connections back then. I was in so much pain. Those were the depths of my untreated depression years, and I very seriously didn’t make it. Playing in that game was a bright spot.
I wondered what happened to that game system, so I Googled to see what I could see. They got sued by the copyright holders for the Aeon Flux cartoon and had to change the name of the game to “Trinity.” My rulebook, which comes in a kind of built-in plastic folder, apparently predated that mess. The game only lasted five years or so before it kinda just vanished. It was followed by two prequel games — “Aberrant,” which was a kind of superhero game, and “Adventure!,” which was all about Nazi-punching pulp shenanigans. For some reason, I thought “Aberrant” was the one that actually kinda caught on, but no, looks like that sank with the rest of the ship; I must be thinking of a different game entirely.
Anyway. Open it, read. Damn, this game had some serious production values behind it. The game starts with a twenty page short story — that’s one hell of an indulgence, but come on, it’s White Wolf, everything they touch turns to gold, it’s all good. Out of curiosity, I Google the name of the short story’s author, thinking it’s probably some in-house writer. It’s actually a dude named George Alec Effinger, who died in 2002 at the age of 55. I’d never heard of him, but it looks like he had a very interesting career. Dozen or so novels to his credit, and won the Hugo and Nebula awards in 1988 for a Novelette called “Schrödinger’s Kitten.” Damn, that must have been exciting for him. Must have felt like he was on the verge of making it big. I wonder if he had any inkling he’d be gone less than 15 years later.
I find a passage in the short story, I copy it, I move on to the next two books. They’re both ÆON/Trinity supplements, one a crunchy gear book, one a little guy updating some of the “current events” in the world. I think I got both of them used, picked them up for the hell of it because they were cheap. I pluck some text out of those.
The next one is Apocalypse World. Discovered that ten years ago. Got to play it with some very cool people at Origins, one of whom I’m even still in sporadic contact with. Man, I was in such a better place at that moment in my life. Still awkward — I guess I always will be, really — but a lot more at peace with it. Apocalypse World is one of those games you pretty much have to know if you’re fiddling around with RPGs these days, it’s so damn influential. Even ran a game of it myself. It went … fine. I’m sure most of the players involved would tell you it was good. Except for the guy whose character I killed. That was a really weird experience. I presented a threat, and he ignored it. I kept escalating the threat, and he kept doubling-down on ignoring it. Finally, the goons storming his compound just kinda had to annihilate him, because if they didn’t, everyone at the table would have known that any “threats” I presented were pure bluffs and they all had full script immunity, and that’s just not how you run a game called “Apocalypse World.” I still sometimes wonder what the fuck was up with that.
Next game, Ars Magica. This is one I played a bit in college — the latter half of my college years, which were unsettled and weird. I was splitting semesters between going to college and working full-time (to save money to go back to college), and … God, that was such a toxic way to do it. It was so bad for me. I struggled so much to make connections with people — still do, really. Being half-in half-out of two worlds was probably one of the most mentally destabilizing things I could have done to myself.
Anyway. College buddies who were cooler than me played Ars Magica a bit, and I got to play NPCs in a few sessions. By that time, White Wolf had acquired the game and integrated it as a kind of medieval wizard prequel to its flagship World of Darkness line. Really cool game. What I remembered most about it was how they played an entire collective of wizards and their non-magical retainers. Each session followed multiple plotlines. Each player had their own wizard, but only half or a third of the evening would be spent following what that guy was up to. The rest of the time would be spent on some other wizard(s), and if your wizards weren’t involved in that plotline, you’d play a knight or a fairy or somesuch associated with the group. Really fascinating; I still don’t know if that was the recommended way to play the game, or if it was some sort of alt playstyle suggestion plucked from Usenet.
My copy of the game was an early edition pre-White-Wolf copy that I found cheap at a game con. Funny. I’ve never properly read the book, certainly never used it in a game, and yet it’s still somehow a part of me. I opened it, and copied some words.
Next game, The Authority, a d20 version of a comic book some friends had shared with me. I found it ultra-cheap at GenCon one year, and bought it as a gift for those friends, but fell-out with them before giving it. One of them laid-down one of the most brutal emotional betrayals I’ve ever experienced. I’d discovered that a mutual friend — someone I actually considered my best friend — had been manipulating the absolute shit out of all of us for years, had been lying to everybody’s faces. I was reeling, and sent comic-book-friend an email describing what I’d learned and how fucking wrecked I was trying to process it. She responded by gathering up every piece of media I’d loaned her, and returning it to me in person so that she could tell me what an absolute piece of shit I was to my face. Apparently, feeling hurt and betrayed by my ex-best-friend was unacceptable. She told me that, on behalf of every abuse victim who’d ever been disbelieved because their abuser was so charming, to go fuck myself.
The irony of her siding so emphatically with someone I now realize was (and almost certainly still is) an emotional abuser was quite lost on her. A better man than me would recognize that her own traumas had almost certainly been triggered by what had happened, and that I’d simply gotten caught up in the blast. As it is, I’ve never truly found it in myself to forgive her, and the handful of times I’ve interacted with her in the ten years since then, I felt like I was doing it through a glued-on smiley-face.
It can’t be healthy to carry around grudges like this. At least I don’t think of them often. If I’m being honest with myself, there are likely people out there who I’ve hurt just as badly through my own selfishness or short-sightedness. Old wounds, half-healed.
Open the book, copy down a sentence.
According to the game I’m playing — hey, this is a game review! — I’m instructed:
You may try to create a narrative story, and I encourage you to create a narrative, however surreal. If you can’t, or don’t want to, you are instead writing a poem. Enjoy the words taken from things you love. Remake what you have read, create a new story, with a new hero, and a new author.
At the rate I’m going, I do not think I’m going to be able to get through enough material to actually create any sort of story. But what the hell, I made it all the way through the A’s. I can at least come back with this:
I dreamed once when I was born, God gave me a second calendar page — for the last day of my life. I’ve spent years trying to forget that image. You will have a last day too, John. If you’re lucky, you’ll have a friend as good as the one I have in you. Please let me ask this one last time: Remember me, John.
A computer can be the size of a thumb. We can do it, but the question is, should we? Do you really need a computer the size of your thumb?
The planet is a grim place, worse than the old holos suggested. Lichen is the national flower, and the gravity really gets to you after a while. The main town was renamed New Hope and looks more like a shanty town than a military base. The locals seem to have kept things in good repair, but the prefab buildings definitely show wear.
Now the world is not what it was. Look around you; evidently, certainly, not what it was. But also close your eyes, open your brain: something is wrong. At the limits of perception, something howling, everpresent, full of hate and terror. From this, the world’s psychic maelstrom, we none of us have shelter.
While nobles wage their petty wars, friars preach to their forlorn flocks, and rogues scrounge for ill-gotten wealth; a mystical order of wizards dwells on the outskirts of civilization, dedicated to their arcane and esoteric pursuits.
A pantheon of new gods stands revealed at the close of the millennium. Its message: “Game over.”
There’s … almost something there. But it seems trite, maybe even petty, compared to the journey sorting these books actually took me on.
These books are all a part of me, to some degree or another. They open doorways back to pieces of my life that are, more often than not, long gone. They are joy and failure, love and betrayal, fellowship and loneliness. They are reminders of both worlds I once eagerly explored and paths I never took.
What’s actually written on their pages feels almost inconsequential compared to all of that.
If The Bookshelf is a success, it is because it brought all that history to the surface, for me to understand it and myself just a little bit better. If The Bookshelf is a failure, it is because it did so as a side effect of its actual goal, which was kind of a silly party trick in the first place.
Still. I got an organized bookshelf out of the deal. I even pulled-out tiny little books to put on display so we’d be reminded they exist instead of letting them get swallowed up by all the rest. So that’s pretty cool.
Will this next game be fun and not a wrenching self-therapy session?
Page 40, Game 22: Rakete by Playables
“Each player controls one thruster of a rocket with the goal to land it safely.”
Ah, so more of a group therapy session. Likely with failure and explosions. I’m in.
It’s not just a pompous way to say “That video game you like actually sucks and I’m so much smarter than you ha ha.” It’s what happens when a game’s words and your actions wind up being two wholly separate things. It’s the term for when there’s a disconnect between the narrative and tone the game is trying to establish and your experience actually playing the game.
As a general rule, if your story has a strong narrative element, you want the gameplay to back-up whatever’s going on in the story. If the story tells you that you’re hungry, the game needs to actually enforce that somehow — say, with a “Hunger” meter, and a setting where food is scarce and you’re always grateful when you find some. If the story makes a big deal over how you’re desperate for food but in-game it’s the last thing on your mind, that’s ludonarrative dissonance in action.
It’s actually a pretty common problem; it’s hard to either tell a good story or make a good game, and as a general rule you’ll have plenty of opportunities to screw it up. Just because a game has a little dissonance going doesn’t make it bad. Nevertheless, you can’t help but notice that no matter how much the flavor text screams at you that there’s some emergency that you MUST deal with NOW, you can just ignore it and fuck around hunting darkspawn in the Deep Roads to your heart’s content, because the game has firmly established that the plot won’t start until you walk in the door. Telling you that you’re a desperate scavenger in a desolate wasteland rings a bit hollow when you’re finding food, guns, and ammo all over the place — and honestly, the food is just an affectation anyway. And why is that NPC you like dying during the cutscene? You can just Phoenix Down the motherfucker!
So, Long Gone Days is a story about a young sniper working for a … mercenary company? secret underground society? … called The Core. He’s being sent on his first mission in more or less modern-day Europe. But oh, fuck! He just learned he’s committing war crimes! He’s been lied to his entire life! He wants out! So he and another soldier desert, and are tasked with both keeping themselves alive and doing something to stop the cruel machinations of their homeland.
What kind of video game comes to mind when you think about that premise? Perhaps something old-school Fallout-y, right? The characters are deserters, so resource management is going to be a huge deal; every bullet needs to count. Modern gunfights are frightening and brutal; combat should probably be lethal, with injuries representing a very serious problem. There should probably be a stealth element, too; the player is probably best served by avoiding fights entirely. And they ARE being hunted, after all, so narrowly evading the soldiers trying to capture them should absolutely be part of the gameplay.
Or, you could do it up as a homebrew JRPG, basically Final Fantasy but with guns instead of swords and such.
Whatever game you imagined based on my initial description of the premise, I promise you that Long Gone Days looks absolutely nothing like it. Here’s a Russian village that our baddies just got done murdering the shit out of:
While the story is busy telling us that we’re hip-deep in a false flag atrocity, the game is showing us a clear, bright color palate complete with anime-boy insets.
Actual gameplay further hammers home that you’re experiencing perfectly ordinary adventure-game hijinks, with a world full of stuff to rub yourself against to see if you can interact with any of it. Explore the world! Talk to this medic! What’s this? He needs someone to give bandages to three other soldiers! Would you mind taking care of that? You’re going back to the field hospital — but oh, no! The bridge is out! You’ll need to find some way of getting across that bridge!
It doesn’t stop. It never stops. I played the game for four hours — easily two more than I should have — and even in the midst of what was supposed to be a dark, tense sequence, the game still demanded fetch quest bullshit before letting me proceed.
Combat comes in the form of scripted encounters, and is purely turn-based. I have no beef with old-school Final Fantasy style combat mechanics, but again, the kind of experience that kind of combat actually provides violently clashes with the tone required by the game’s storyline. No amount of grim-faced pretty-boys-in-camo graphics are going to compete with the fact that I’m basically a Pokémon trainer.
There’s also a sniper minigame that was more interesting, but played so little part in the game that I felt like it either needed to be expanded or cut. It wasn’t anything super-inventive, but it definitely felt more like it was putting me in the protagonist’s shoes, and I can’t say that for much of the gameplay.
The game engine is fine; nothing special, but it works. It’s a perfectly competent JRPG framework. (Though when you’re walking around outside, the game seemed weirdly reluctant to acknowledge the “Up” command from my controller; this isn’t a problem if you just use the keyboard.)
The story is fine-ish. The worldbuilding was sloppier than I wanted; it never firmly establishes either what The Core is or how the rest of the world perceives them. It’s dropping hints for a Big Reveal, but come on, you gotta let me get grounded before any of that stuff is going to actually pull me in. But the story of a disillusioned sniper abandoning his army and seeking redemption makes for a splendid hook and could be quite compelling.
But putting that story in this engine simply does not work, at least for me. I dunno, maybe if you feel like Apocalypse Now would have been even more intense with trivial fetch quests and random puzzles, this might be the game for you. Otherwise, I have to recommend passing on it.
Will this next game have me pounding potato chips in the middle of a gunfight for their precious salty healing powers?
Page 17, Game 16: The Bookshelf by linda c
“A solitaire game about reliving stories, recognizing the past, & rewriting the future.”
Only if I put them there. Time to write some Pringles dystopia.