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The past few weeks I've been sorely addicted to Destiny, Bungie's new(ish) MMO-FPS. Every other MMO I've seen falls into the action-RPG genre. So, in being an FPS, Destiny has the potential to be a watershed moment for massively multiplayer games. In some ways, it lives up to these possibilities; but in some ways, it falls far short.

First Run

I'm a sucker for good storylines, that's why I love RPGs so much. So my formative experience with Destiny was running through the single-player plot levels, though I've probably spent more time on the post-game MMO aspects. I played the whole thing on hard/heroic, which will take you up to the soft level cap with a minimum of grinding. The initial setup for the world is pretty interesting. In particular, the idea of playing in a post-human universe is pretty cool, and offers a nice counterpoint to the transhuman universes which are starting to become popular in the tabletop RPG community. The presence of post-human technologies also helps some system details make sense in-game. For example, using reprogrammable matter as money makes it natural that you should be able to break items down into money without a vendor.

Many aspects of the universe are reminiscent of Bungie's other FPS franchises: Marathon and Halo. There's a Covenant-like race (individually strong, with shielded elites). There's a Flood-like race (though they're less zombie-like). There are warmind AIs. There are murderous robots (though less entertaining than the Monitors). Introducing a new race for each planet gets a bit stale, especially since every planet has two races fighting among themselves; but it's not too terrible.

The storyline itself is decent, though nothing amazing or unique. There are no major twists (e.g., the introduction of the Flood in the first Halo), but there are a bunch of minor ones to hold your interest and to keep things open for the expansions. The final boss fight is well done, both challenging and interesting. Though I'm not entirely convinced the Vex pose a greater threat than the other races; certainly not enough to make them the first Big Bad. It'd've made more sense to have had the first major villain be Fallen so the heroes can reclaim a chunk of Earth, and then make the Vex the main villain of an expansion.

An FPS and an MMO

As a hybridization of the FPS genre and the action-RPG MMO genre, Destiny works surprisingly well. You can definitely notice the difference from leveling up or fighting higher level enemies. Just as in other MMOs there's the exponential power curve which makes it impossible to confront enemies who are too many levels above you, and lets you ignore enemies too many levels below you— whether you like that sort of thing is up to you, but it definitely gives the MMO feel in ways I never would've expected of an FPS.

The upgrading of equipment fits the FPS genre surprisingly well. There are even some interesting tradeoffs. What is just a single gun in traditional FPSes (e.g., a hand cannon or a sniper rifle) is a class of weapons in Destiny. And while all guns in a particular class behave basically the same way, they differ significantly in terms of recoil, rate of fire, magazine size, etc. Thus, whenever you pick up a more powerful gun, there's always the question of whether the extra damage is worth the change in how it feels. In my first run through I often stuck with an old gun that felt better, only upgrading when it was a few levels behind or when the new gun had a similar or better feel.

Destiny has six character classes: three of which you can choose from the outset, the other three being subclasses available later on. Unlike traditional MMOs the classes don't really fall into the standard team roles of tank, dps, healer, buff/debuff, etc. Like an FPS, everyone on your team is just someone on your team. But each of the classes does come with different types of grenades and different special powers. So the classes play rather differently, even if they don't contribute to a team dynamic in the way you're used to from MMOs.

Once you reach the soft level cap (i.e., as far as XP will take you), you unlock all the various ways to play the game as a true MMO: daily and weekly challenges, cooperative strikes, raids, etc. From there you work towards the hard level cap (i.e., as far as equipment will take you). Either reaching the soft level cap or beating the single-player storyline (I'm not sure which) also unlocks higher level hard/heroic versions of the storyline levels. All in all, the MMO content is as addictive and entertaining as other MMOs. However, there's not a lot of content there. After a few weeks of running the same half-dozen strikes over and over, you know them inside and out. Perhaps this is just because Destiny is so new, whereas other MMOs I've played had been around much longer and so had more time to accrete expansions. Only time will tell.

The inevitable comparison

Let's get this out of the way: I don't like FPS games. The only FPS I've really enjoyed is Halo, another Bungie offering. What I loved about Halo —the first one especially— is the way that it revolutionized the FPS genre. Instead of being a walking arsenal carrying fifty different guns and going through a complex menu to switch between them, Halo came up with a brilliant innovation: you have a gun and another gun, that's it. Instead of classifying grenades as a type of gun (going through that same complex menu to switch to them and back, rendering them useless in most games), Halo considered grenades integral and gave them their own trigger. Not to mention the vehicles: (a) they had them, (b) they had unique and interesting offerings like the aerial Banshee and the multiplayer Warthog.

In Destiny, rather than two gun slots there are three, but each class of weapons is restricted to fitting only one of them. This can be annoying —in the beginning I'd've loved to have used a hand cannon as a secondary weapon— but it's still simple enough that you can switch freely in the middle of a firefight. However, Destiny nerfs many of the traditional FPS guns.

Shotguns have too wide of a choke to get all the pellets into one target, and not enough pellets to be effective against multiple targets. Also, per FPS tradition, they're only usable as melee weapons— something Halo nicely got away from by making them short-range rather than melee-range weapons. But that's fine, I just won't use shotguns, whatevs, no big loss.

Sniper rifles are an all-time favorite of mine, I'm much more interested in getting a headshot from a mile away than in riddling people with bullets up close. The sniper rifle fills that role, but there are very few scenes with enough distance to make it worthwhile. Besides, there's the scout rifle: a primary weapon which acts as a light sniper rifle. For all the really excellent sniping scenes, a scout rifle has enough range to make the shot if you have the aim. So sniper rifles are a bust (leaving the fusion rifle as far and away the best option for the secondary weapon slot), though this is heartily made up for by the presence of the scout rifle, which operates much like the beloved pistol in the first Halo.

But the most annoying is how they nerfed rocket launchers. Traditionally rocket launchers have a handful of uses: (i) to thin a clump of enemies à la grenades, (ii) to take out vehicles, (iii) to take out or severely wound strong enemies, (iv) PvP. The first use is generally thought of as a waste, given that we have grenades. (But Destiny's rocket launchers do fill that role nicely.) And I don't like PvP, which is no doubt a major component of why I typically dislike FPSes. (Though Destiny's rocket launchers also fill the PvP role nicely.) So that leaves the main roles: vehicles and strong enemies. Alas, there are only two spots where you encounter enemy vehicles: a few Ghost-like speeders in the middle of the first moon mission, which you can just avoid by using your own (gunless) speeder to get to the next section; and a tank miniboss in one of the strikes. Moreover, against any of the major bosses, you can get far better DPS with the scout rifle (and no doubt any of the other primary weapons) or a fusion rifle (a secondary weapon), making the rocket launcher (one of the two heavy weapons) a mildly entertaining waste of time on bosses. I got a legendary rocket launcher in a drop fairly early on so I've used it a fair deal and discovered one or two niche uses (against clusters of Phalanxes, and as a well-targeted grenade against drop ships), but otherwise I stick to my (non-legendary) LMGs.

Nestled in that diatribe against the rocket launcher is what I think is a greater loss compared to the Halo franchise: the lack of vehicles. After playing through the first Halo which had a number of excellently crafted vehicle levels, and the second Halo which had vehicles all over the place, the relegation of vehicles to a few throwaway moments in Destiny feels like a major step back. Destiny deserves to be far greater than an MMO Halo. The Halo franchise is well and thoroughly played out, and players want something new and different. But nerfing the classic FPS weapons and all-but eliminating vehicles doesn't seem necessary just to distance the Destiny franchise from Halo.

Missed Opportunities

It'd be cool if the reprogrammable matter ("glimmer") idea was played up a bit. In the early game, glimmer can be useful for buying up your equipment if you're not getting good drops. But by the mid-game, there's nothing worthwhile for sale, and you have more than enough glimmer to meet your needs for leveling up equipment. By the end-game it's easy to hit the glimmer cap, especially if you've been using the items that make all enemies you kill drop a bit of glimmer. But the idea of glimmer could be so much more interesting than just money. Imagine:

Instead of relying on ammo drops at all, you could fabricate all your ammo, making some weapons more economical than others (in practice instead of just in the flavor text). Ammo would take a while to fabricate, but you could have a small pre-fabricated stockpile on hand, much as the current/standard ammo system. Tuned to be fabricated at the right rate, this would make it so you either need to take some downtime between stages or else have to buy ammo off others.

Rather than having a long recharge cycle for grenades, you could treat them more like the ammo suggested above. Instead of having only one at a time and saving it up for the right moment, at the end of the charge cycle you've fabricated a grenade which you can keep in a small stockpile. This way you can use a few at a time, or use them more frequently, but at a cost. You could even introduce new grenade types which recharge faster but cost more, recharge faster but are weaker, and so on.

Instead of buying or finding equipment, you could buy, find, or invent(!) blueprints which allow you to convert glimmer into equipment— as often as you like! With an exchange system for trading items with other players, this could make for some very interesting commercial models. When you've found or invented a new blueprint, do you sell people the blueprint itself, the rights to use the blueprint some number of times, or do you sell them the product? Some players could be dedicated to inventing new equipment, focusing on particular sorts of armor or weapons. Or, rather than inventing items wholesale, perhaps the art is in figuring out nice combinations of level-up features to put on your equipment.

Perhaps the fabrication units are too large or delicate to carry around with you, and so they have to remain on your jumpship. Now, instead of only changing the skin of your ship whenever you get bored with the old one, you could get new ships with different manufacturing capabilities.

The essential core of any MMO is, ultimately, the economy. There's only so much you can level up, and only so slow you can make leveling, so the way you indefinitely extend the length of a game is by adding in various farming tasks: whether that's collecting raw materials, converting those materials into items, or whatever. But all these farming jobs generate products, and there are only so many products of a given sort that a single player can use. Thus, it's imperative to have some sort of exchange system so players can buy and sell items with one another. By allowing trade between players, the costs of items will naturally adjust based on their scarcity. In addition, the auction house will usually take their cut, which helps to siphon currency out of the system.

Alas, Destiny lacks both a trading house and any sort of item fabrication system. Before the patches to make way for the first expansion, you could trade collected raw materials for Crucible points— which was great! It siphons the materials out of the system, it gives you a farming game, and it gives players like me who hate PvP a way to gain the Crucible points necessary for buying legendary equipment. Unfortunately, the first patch for the expansion (prior to the expansion itself) reversed this: you could only spend Crucible points to buy raw materials. By this point I'd gathered far more raw materials than I could ever use up —via opportunistic collection alone, not even by farming—, so there's no reason to ever buy them. And now I have this huge pile of raw materials I can neither use nor sell, yet I'm forced to PvP for Crucible points.

Another unfortunate departure from traditional MMOs is the reliance on voice chat instead of textual messaging. Technologically it makes sense: Destiny is only available on consoles, so the lack of a keyboard makes typing difficult. But women get a lot of shit for being gamers. And both the FPS and MMO communities are especially renowned for their misogynistic behavior. It'd be nice if I could make friends for going on raids and such without opening myself up for that sort of abuse. When I do strikes with a random team, I often end up making by far the most kills. Whenever a teammate falls, I do my best to rush in and revive them. I switch between crowd control, taking out vips, or maximizing dps, depending on what the team needs and where we're falling short. Traits like these are looked up to in (male) players, so I've managed to make a few friends on merit alone; but if people knew I'm I woman, how differently would they interpret these traits? Do I revive teammates because of my "motherly instinct" or because I'm "flirting"? Is my kill ratio "compensating" or because I "have no life"? Do I take on crowd control because I "can't handle" the boss? When I dps the boss instead of doing crowd control am I "focusing on the wrong thing"? When the inevitable death happens, is it "because girls can't play"? Men never have to deal with these accusations, but women are always vulnerable to them if we make our gender known. By relying on voice chat, Destiny makes it difficult for women to form the friendships necessary to make MMOs fun and to tackle the hardest challenges.

End Game

A few days ago the first expansion for Destiny came out. At first I was excited since I'd started to get bored by the repetition of the content from the first/main game. But then the patches started coming out. The first patch introduced a bug whereby precision kills no longer register. You still get the bonus damage and death animations, but you no longer get better drops from headshots. Hence, I went from getting almost exclusively blue/rare drops (my precision kill rate is over 60%), to only ever getting green/uncommon drops— which are utterly useless at my level, even for the raw materials you can break them down into. This is the same patch that reversed the Crucible points for raw materials trade; thus, since I will never get a legendary drop again, and I cannot sell raw materials to gain Crucible points, the only way to get legendary equipment is to grind away in PvP. Have I mentioned how I hate PvP?

In addition, with the official release of the first expansion on December 9, they introduced new currencies of Vanguard and Crucible "commendations" in addition to the Vanguard and Crucible "points". The old legendary equipment which only cost points went away, and now there's new (stronger) legendary equipment which costs both points and commendations. In short, buying legendary equipment went from being extremely time consuming (at least a week and a half of grinding per piece, since there's a cap on how many points you can earn per week) to being effectively impossible. I get that MMOs are all about grinding, but there's a big difference between making slow progress and making zero progress. As things are, I'm permanently stuck at level 27 because the only non-PvP way to improve my level is to go for raid drops— which requires level 28 or higher thanks to the exponential power curve. I might be able to handle the raid if I got an exotic weapon, but that requires beating an epic stage with an effective level requirement of 30 or so. Chicken, meet egg.

So yeah. I'm kinda done with it for now, but it was fun while it lasted. The hours I put into it were well worth the sticker price, but I don't think I'll be getting the expansions for now. Maybe I'll come back in a few years.

winterkoninkje: shadowcrane (clean) (Default)

Hmm, so I was hoping to get back into blogging over the summer. Y'know, a sort of liveblogging on quals, like how people blog about their Google Summer of Code projects these days. Turns out, some part of my brain is all, "oh noes! blogging is a waste of time! You could be working or, y'know, playing videogames or something!" So that sucks. In part because my brain is stupid, in part because I've been reading so many awesome blogs by people at least as busy as I am and now I feed bad for not measuring up to some impossible standard I made up out of thin air.

So the summer was fun, albeit not relaxing in the slightest. I really need to work on that whole Day of Rest idea. Things that happened this summer:

  • Grace and Jason got married! So that's the second California wedding I've been to in as many years. Now I can quit complaining about never having gone to a wedding. It was great to see friends from college again. Of the ones I lost touch with over the years, one works in the game industry (both indie and corporate), and another works for Wolfram Alpha (indeed, with Mr. Wolfram himself). So that's pretty cool.
  • Went to NASSLLI in Austin. There were some awesome classes there. Craige Roberts is fabulous; definitely someone to keep an eye on. Got to meet Adam Lopez, who was recently working on stuff related to one of my quals. Adam was part of the Edinburgh SMT crew, who came to JHU shortly after I left so I hadn't met him before. And, of course, got to hang out with Ken and Oleg again. Also, awesome, someone there remembered my talk from NASSLLI 2010 and asked about followup work on it.
  • Read a bunch of fun books, or rather had them read to me. Licia got a kindle and loves reading aloud; she's the best ever. Fun books include: Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre. Seriously, they are both delightful and if you haven't read them you should. Competent women are the best. Also, Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger's (dude, what a life!), and most of God, No! and Drop Dead Healthy.
  • Bought Tales of Graces F on a whim and loved every minute of it. It starts off as your very standard JRPG about childhood friends, but then jumps ahead a few years after everyone has separated and grown up. The prologue is, as the reviews say, the least entertaining part; but it does a good job of setting the background for making the main plot poignant. Just saying people were childhood friends pales in comparison to seeing it and then seeing how they've grown apart. I haven't played any of the other Tales games, but the system is pretty similar to the Star Ocean system. Better done though, IMO. You have the fusion/cooking thing, but it's done in a way that's both extremely helpful and not obnoxious, so you use it regularly and actually care. The combat system is vibrant and engaging, and the system of badges is really cool. Overall the system has a lot of depth but doesn't get in the way of just playing. Some of the reviews complained about uneven difficulty, but I have no idea what they're on about. 10/10
  • And in a few weeks I'll be heading off to ICFP again. It'll be the first time I've been to Europe, can't wait.
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Speaking of prancing about in one's neglige, a while back I got Nier. Unfortunately, as Jou laments, American audiences only get the Gestalt version, not the Replicant version with a cute main character. The short review is that the game is made of awesome. My only complaints are the FUG main character and the aforementioned neglige. Don't get me wrong, I loves me some neglige, but in making Kainé badass they went a bit over the top. The shit that comes out of her mouth will make anyone's ears burn —the "anti-femininity" of which is a beautiful counterpoint to the standard of demure virgins and super-femme harpies you usually get in Japanese RPGs— but it's hard to suspend one's disbelief and take the trash talking seriously when she's in her undies. C'est la vie.

In some ways the genre is a fairly standard 3/4-view medieval action with a dose of puzzle jumper. But a better description is if you took 3/4 medieval action and crossed it with danmaku. I've been meaning to play some danmaku for a while, and the danmaku aspect makes the game truly unique among 3/4 medieval action games. So if you like action games with puzzle elements to the boss fights, then this is right up your alley.

The plot is amazing. On the surface it's a typical series of fetch quests, but the real plot lies in the character development and the mystery of figuring out how the world got to be the way it is. And while you're first given to think that the plot is about figuring out the world, in truth it's all about the characters, about who we are, and about what it means to be whoever we are. That plot is unveiled slowly, layer by layer. The details are given with subtlety, first with just outlines that leave you to connect the dots, and then with color and shading as the complete image comes into focus. It's a glorious respite from most games which just beat you over the head with every plot twist and let you know right away who're the villains and who the heroes. The slow and steady sketching leads to a depth and richness that puts it in league with the best RPGs, far surpassing the standard RPG baseline. And once you beat the game you can re-play through the second half, unlocking new cutscenes that give the story from the perspectives of secondary characters, heroes and villains alike.

While I loved the plot, like Wanda and the Colossus, it's all about how much you bring to the table. It's an story you must engage, like a novel, not a story that spoon feeds you like Hollywood blockbusters. If you just run through the quests without exploring the world or doing side-quests, then it's a fairly short game and you'll miss much of what it has to offer. This is the reason, IMHO, for the mixed reviews you may find out there. Don't listen to them; listen to me :)

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I've always been a fan of the Metroid series because it was one of the few franchises with a strong female protagonist. From the first game, her being a woman was not a plot detail, but rather just a fact about the character. She can wield a gun with the best of them and wears real armor instead of prancing about in neglige. Being tough as nails doesn't mean you have to be a sexbot, the most competent and effective women can be practical too! But this well-done analysis of the latest installment calls all that into question.

August 31st marked the release of Metroid: Other M, the latest installment of Nintendo’s Metroid franchise, and the most aggressively marketed game in the series. Produced, directed, and written by franchise patriarch Yoshio Sakamoto, with game design by Team Ninja, it represents a significant change of direction for the series. Plenty of reviewers have already dissected its gameplay, with mixed but mostly favorable impressions.

But this is not a gameplay review.

I’m here to address the game’s writing — not so much where it failed artistically (though there are some legitimate complaints to be made on that front), but unfortunately where it succeeds. When it comes to the game’s story, there is an elephant in the room which very few reviewers have addressed head-on.

To put it bluntly, Metroid: Other M is a story that consistently portrays an abusive relationship between two of its main characters, and romanticizes it, painting the depicted behavior as justifiable, even laudable. No single moment in the game bears the blame for this (though a couple are problematic on their own); the entire story, taken as a whole, is the problem.

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I've been playing a lot of games, watching old TV, and reading books of late. I've been meaning to write some reviews, but I've been burned out of late. Here are a few of the more recent ones.

God of War, SCE Santa Monica, 2005. God of War II, SCE Santa Monica, 2007. If you haven't heard of this series, then you haven't lived. Both games are a fantastic fusion of puzzle jumping and action adventure, where many of the puzzles require both wits and dexterity. As a series, God of War somewhat resembles the Halo franchise. The first game blows away all the competition with an innovatively simple system, and a compelling plot threaded with deep metanarrative seldom seen outside of the best RPGs. The second game adds a lot of new intricacies to the system, and they're all good improvements once you get used to the new style; but, while the plot seems to make sense at first, it doesn't really hold together very well and the miniquests seem more like excuses for a level than really being part of the plot. Both games are worthy of their best-of-the-best reviews. But beware, if you have hand problems then you should avoid them, especially the second one; and if you don't, you will.

Dirge of Cerberus: FF VII, Square Enix, 2006. A three-quarter view FPS/RPG following Vincent Valentine after the events of FF7 and Crisis Core. Rather than being a typical FPS, the play style is more similar to other action/RPG hybrids. In particular, common tactics like strafing don't work, whereas standing like a badass before blowing someone away does. If you're looking for a traditional FPS, this game isn't it (whence everyone else's mixed reviews). The game really is all about watching Vincent be pretty, though the plot makes as much sense as anything else in the FF7 line. Lots of fan service with the other characters showing up, though the new characters seem better developed. The ending is very well done, albeit with Lord of the Ring style: final battle, conclusion, final final battle, ending, final level, epilogue, epiepilogue, afterward,... I had fun with it, all in all a good game.

A Deepness in the Sky, Vernor Vinge, 1999. The summary on the back of the book sums it up quite well without giving too much away, so I won't repeat it. Hard scifi set in the far future, Vinge presents a rarity: a future that is both intricately developed and entirely believable. Vinge's scifi is not the classic "technological what if", but is rather a deeply human story (which happens to touch on the very human ways in which technology shapes our lives). I'd been meaning to read some Vinge for quite a while and finally got the chance when I forgot to bring a book with me on my last trip to DC. This is, apparently, a prequel to another of his books but it was the only one available at the time. Now I must hunt down A Fire Upon the Deep, and add a shrine for Vinge in my small pantheon. If anyone has heard me go on about C.S. Friedman or George R.R. Martin, then you'll know how how great a writer is Vinge, and how small the pantheon he shares.

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So, you may be wondering what it is I've been up to since winter break started and I finished my grad apps. Well, among other things I've gotten back into my reading. And so, since it's been some time since my last real post I figure a few quick reviews might be in order.

Learnability in Optimality Theory, Bruce Tesar & Paul Smolansky, 2000. For those who're interested in OT and curious about how such a theoretical framework might be implemented this is an excellent book. Pretty short and to the point, it makes for a quick read if you're already familiar with OT. Plenty of technical details are given on the RIP/CD model used, though not as many on how exactly the RIP portion is implemented. It seems that Tesar has moved on from the RIP/CD model in his more recent works, but the model still has some nice features. Not a book for non-linguists or non-machine-learning folks.

The Selfish Gene [wikipedia], Richard Dawkins, 1976. Written for a broad target audience, it doesn't go into excruciating technical detail though it does go pretty deep for pop science. A must read for anyone with an interest in genetics or adaptation whether from biology, computer science, systems science, or elsewhere. Dawkins goes about explaining why genetic evolution must work on the level of gene-selection, what that means, and why individual-selection, group-selection, and species-selection don't account for the behavior we see. In the final chapter is the infamous coining of the "meme" which, while it's interesting to see the original formulation before it was altered by other researchers, it's particularly interesting to read after getting a better understanding of how genetic systems evolve in the first ten chapters.

Leadership and Self-Deception, Arbinger Institute, 2002. An extremely quick read, very fluffy but it has some interesting ideas in it. The main thesis has to do with origins of interpersonal conflict and at one point does a good job of showing why actions we perform because we want someone to act a certain way often only reinforce them to act the opposite way. Worth an afternoon, but not more.

How to Become a Schizophrenic: The Case Against Biological Psychiatry (2nd ed), John Modrow, 1992. Half memoir, half polemic. In the first third of the book Modrow lays out his general thesis and background information, the second third is an account of his childhood leading up to a schizophrenic break, and the final third systematically goes through and disproves the various biological theories put forward for explaining schizophrenia. The first two thirds were the most interesting especially since personal accounts of schizophrenia are far less common than those for other disorders, though the last portion veers a bit too far into being clinical and polemical for my tastes. Halfway between a true memoir and an academic piece, it may not scratch either itch but it's worth reading for those into that sort of thing.

Geeks & Geezers, Warren G Bennis & Robert J Thomas, 2002. Another book I picked up in a wayward stroll through Powell's. In seeking to write a book about leadership, the authors discovered that today's greatest leaders fall into two groups: those under 30 and those over 70. The book then seeks to analyze what these two groups have in common, how they differ, and what it takes to make a leader. The writing is a little fluffy as befits a pop business book about leadership, but it manages to hold interest throughout even if a bit lighter than I'd have wished. Worth reading.

Grandia III, Square-Enix, 2006. An RPG set in a (mildly technological) fantasy world. Typical save-the-world-because-of-personal-connections-to-evil plot more in line with Enix's old games (e.g. Star Ocean series) than SquareSoft's fare. Great graphics, engaging plot, and a lot of well-paced cut-scenes. The combat engine is another variation in the action-rpg spectrum though it more closely resembles traditional rpg engines than most action-rpgs these days. And did I mention the combat engine rocks? One of the great things about how it's set up is that you can get better either by leveling your characters up or by just learning how the game works better, which means as you get the hang of it you can really tear through things. The game is consistently challenging and is very well paced. Towards the end the monsters scale up quicker than you level and so some of the final fights can take a while to finish even with powerful spells, though they manage to be neither boring nor repetitive. The plot is somewhat lighthearted but stays grounded and can get serious when need be. Excellent game.

Skin Game: A Cutter's Memoir, Caroline Kettlewell, 2000. I've always had a soft spot for memoirs of mental crisis. Like Caroline, I've always been compelled by the something dark within them, seeking a certain escape in the familiarity of the miserable. To be quite honest, there's no way to do this memoir justice in but a short review. It's hard to find the right praise for the books which remind us why we love their genre. This one is well written, literate, eloquent, and with short chapters it's a quick read (though not always an easy one). For those who've ever been confused by how someone would come to injure themselves, Kettlewell sheds light on the way so many people encounter their world. Some of the scenes early on are not for the squeamish, but for those who've ever cut, her descriptions of the impulse to go further and the fear of having gone too far are only all too familiar. Very highly recommended.

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