Tales from the Borderlands (Telltale)

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I’m going to talk about the whole season, but the badass vault hunter Athena (pictured) is one of my favorite side characters, so we’ll start with her

This post needs a big, big disclosure message before I say anything else:

1. Though I had no involvement in this series, I have done some paid work for Telltale Games in the past, and it is conceivable that I might do so again in the future. I was consulting with them during the period that Tales from the Borderlands was being made, and I talked with people who were on the team at the time. 

2. I have no prior experience with the Borderlands franchise. Everything I know about it comes from playing the Telltale series and from a little casual Wikipedia-reading.

3. I did not pay for my copy of this game. It was given to me to cover, though by someone who is not affiliated with Telltale.

I haven’t been reviewing (or even really talking at all about) recent Telltale work precisely because of the potential conflict of interest here. However, during last year’s IF Comp I offered to do some review swaps in order to get more coverage of the competition: if the other person would write a review of an IF Comp game, I write a review of some work of their choosing. One of the people who took me up on this was Justin de Vesine, who reviewed Grandma Bethlinda’s Variety Box and Midnight. Swordfight. In exchange, he asked me to cover Tales from the Borderlands and offered to supply a Steam code for it, since it wasn’t freeware. I explained the caveats mentioned above, and he said he was still interested in my take on the series. That seemed cool to me too – Telltale is doing some really interesting stuff, and I’d like to be able to talk about it, as long as I’m not deceiving any readers about my level of distance.

So here we are. Consider yourself warned.

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IF for the Lengthening Nights: Beautiful Dreamer (S. Woodson); Witches and Wardrobes (Anna Anthropy); Winter Storm Draco (Ryan Veeder)

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Late fall hasn’t always been the greatest time for me. Like a lot of people, I’m responsive to the amount of sun in my life; on top of that, when I was a junior academic, that was the point at which real panic set in about finding a job for the next year.

A couple of those years I was living in the midwest, too, as a really unprepared coast-native. My colleagues in Minnesota took pity on me and gave me a down jacket to wear, a hand-me-down from one of their wives, because I had somehow not grasped that it was going to start snowing and keep snowing and not stop with the snow for the next four or five months. The jacket was enormous and teal. I looked like an 80s-themed reskin of the Michelin Man. As the winter went on, I also needed gloves and silk long johns and a ski mask because, with wind chill, it would get to twenty below sometimes on the way to work. I didn’t have a car. Getting groceries was a problem. I wasn’t sure how much I should be running the heater because, having just moved into this apartment, I didn’t know how efficient the system was and I was afraid of getting slapped with a huge bill I wouldn’t be able to pay.

Now this was all hard to navigate, because things that make me sad include: being thousands of miles from my family, friends, and significant other; being uncertain about my job future; getting very little sunlight; being cold a lot; being hungry a lot; falling down on the ice and bruising myself (at least once per trip). Oh, and I had a fun medical emergency at one point, too.

That was the year I started taking a survivalist approach to mental health. One of the stupid things about sadness is that it gets harder to remember how to make yourself less sad. I gathered my anti-sadness devices and I put them in one cabinet in the kitchen: chocolate, favorite books and candles to light and gifts from friends and things that made me happy to look at. I made anti-sadness playlists. I had a perfume, essence of blood orange, that I’d wear for protection when things were particularly bad. (“For protection”: I’m not ascribing magical powers to it, but even just finding the desire to protect yourself can be important, depending on your state of mind.)

On the front of the emergency anti-sadness cabinet, I taped a postcard from a French town where I’d spent a week with my partner. I didn’t quite go so far as to write “Hey, dumbass, if you are sad, >OPEN CABINET” — but that was the meaning of the card, an inescapable in-plain-sight reminder in case I was too sad-stupid to remember on my own.

Anyway, this is a long-winded way of introducing a couple of games that touch on some of those feelings and that (at least for me) are ultimately comforting.

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Attack of the Clockwork Army (Felicity Banks)

Attack of the Clockwork Army is a new Hosted Game at Choice of Games. It’s a steampunk Australian story by the same author who wrote IF Comp‘s Scarlet Sails and one of this year’s Windhammer Prize entrants, After the Flag Fell. And before I get any further at all, we need some disclosures.

Disclosures: Attack of the Clockwork Army is a hosted game released by Choice of Games, with whom I also have a contract. Moreover, I received a free copy of this game for the purpose of writing about it.

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IF Comp 2015: a couple of games I beta-tested

The 21st annual Interactive Fiction Competition is currently on, through mid-November. Voting is open to the general public; the only prerequisite is that you not be an author, not vote on games that you tested, and submit votes on at least five games. (You emphatically do not have to have played them all! In a year with 55 entrants, it is very unlikely that most judges will get through anywhere near all of them.)

If you are looking for other reviews, this ifwiki page contains a list of places currently carrying them.

Cover for Laid Off From the Synesthesia Factory

This is a little different from usual because I saw these games in beta: Sub Rosa and Laid Off From the Synesthesia Factory. So I’m not voting them scores, naturally, and the standard bias disclaimers apply.

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IF Comp 2015: The Problems Compound (Andrew Schultz)

The 21st annual Interactive Fiction Competition is currently on, through mid-November. Voting is open to the general public; the only prerequisite is that you not be an author, not vote on games that you tested, and submit votes on at least five games. (You emphatically do not have to have played them all! In a year with 55 entrants, it is very unlikely that most judges will get through anywhere near all of them.)

If you are looking for other reviews, this ifwiki page contains a list of places currently carrying them.

Cover art for The Problems Compound

If you’ve been following recent parser IF, the title and author name are probably a strong hint about how you’ll feel about this game. Andrew Schultz has written a whole series of games riffing on different wordplay ideas, set in surreal environments in which object and character interactions don’t always make logical sense as long as they conform to the linguistic game currently at work.

The Problems Compound actually slightly deviates from that expectation — though all the characters and situations are based on one inverted idiom or another, the actual gameplay is a bit more standard parser puzzle stuff involving manipulating objects. But the writing style, setting, sense of humor, and overall difficulty are all about where you might expect based on the author’s past work. The game is fairly sizable, and even though I sometimes resorted to the included walkthrough chart, I eventually ran out of time before finishing. This is also a somewhat unconventional review for me, and more than usually based on running notes rather than a considered retrospective after play. The reasons for that will become clear at the end.

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Hollywood Visionary (Aaron Reed, Choice of Games)

hollywood_visionaryHollywood Visionary is a game by Aaron Reed, published by Choice of Games. And before I say a lot more about it, I need to put up a big disclaimer, because a) I beta-tested the game; b) I am currently under contract to Choice of Games for a project of my own. For those reasons, I hadn’t been planning to write up the game at all. However, since its release I’ve found myself thinking a lot about a couple of things that it does. I’d like to write about those, just so long as you know how I relate to the project and that this doesn’t qualify as a disinterested review.

So. Hollywood Visionary is a game about artistic vision and realization in the context of both complicated personal loyalties and a tough political climate. It’s the 1950s, McCarthyism is in full swing, and you’re trying to find enough money and enough talent to put together the project of your dreams while at the same time avoiding any unfavorable attention.

To make the artistic aspect interesting, Visionary allows for a degree of combinatorial invention that most Choice of Games pieces don’t really attempt: you can combine genres, figure out how many leads you’re going to have and of what genders, give your movie its own title. You can also hire unknown or celebrity historical figures to direct and star in it — bring on Alfred Hitchcock, if you can afford him. The result captures some of the generative humor of Game Dev Story, but within a much more narrative setting.

At one point I set up to make a black & white racy religious fantasy set in a convent, featuring a nun at odds with forces beyond her control. I was picturing this as a Joan of Arc story that sexualized her religious passion. I didn’t really have a way to express the Joan of Arc concept within the game, but I had been allowed to pick enough details that they shaped how I imagined all the filming and decisions afterward.

Aaron’s mentioned that he’s gotten a lot of messages from people telling him about the different movies they created within Hollywood Visionary — a clear sign, I think, that there’s enough freedom in these choices to let people feel some creative ownership over their movie concepts. Which is a pretty cool thing for a game like this to achieve.

Now the more spoilery bit.

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