Masques and Murder is a dark historical revenge fantasy taking place in Renaissance Italy. The historical setting lends the game a richness of language, combining with the art and music to give the game its particular aesthetic. The plot is as grisly as requisite. You play a young woman whose family was murdered in a power-grab, where the combined goal of the game is to extract vengeance, as well as escape the prospect of marriage to one of your family’s murderers. The game’s atmosphere is meticulously put together.
Ambivalence and Found Family (a Rat Queens Review)
One of the delightful things that happened at Olamot Con 2016 is that I happened upon a copy of the first Rat Queens TPB at one of the stands. The name rang a bell, so I flipped through it and eventually surrendered to temptation and took it home with me. This title has been vaguely on my radar for a while, but the scarcity of comic book stores and my general disengagement with the medium produced an obstacle of availability. What am I gonna say, there is so much entertainment media out there, you have to work hard to catch and keep readers’ attention.
Conventions, however, exist to circumvent the barriers that make mass media vastly more available for consumption than more niche markets, and I took full advantage of this fact. I bought the first two TPBs, covering Rat Queens #1-#10, and a full story arc with a satisfying conclusion. Frankly, that’s already more than most comics can boast.
Quick Hits: Games and Visual Novels
The game’s central mechanic is stat-building, which allows the heroine to get closer to her prey. The stats, like everything else in the game, are determined by the setting. The range of skills is interesting in that it encompasses the expected combat skills like fencing and shooting, not to mention seduction skills, but also some unexpected ones, like theology. Browbeating a man into complete intellectual surrender by interrogating him on the nature of the afterlife is one of the most satisfying victories I’ve ever gotten in a game.
The writing is very conscious of the position of the heroine in society, and consequently the game has an optional filter that abbreviates some of the longer chains of slurs into a brief description. Still, the game is as violent as one would expect from a revenge simulator. Ultimately it’s for fans of the genre, as it were. I can only play it when I am in a particular mood.
Find it on itch.io.
The Blind Griffin is a lovely visual novel set in prohibition-era San Francisco, a humorous fantasy romance lightly sprinkled with plot. In this game, it’s very difficult to tell how the choices you made lead to the outcome you receive, which is especially daunting given that some of the endings are pretty bad. The three romance options are all cute and entertaining in their own right, although the lack of any female romances makes me sad. Short and sweet, and free to download with an optional suggested price. Frothy speakeasy romance fantasy. Noted for having a Chinese protagonist and a perfectly delightful (supporting) trans lady character.
Find it on itch.io.
Wanted: Dragon is a perfectly delightful romp about an exiled princess who wants to take back the kingdom from her sister, and needs to recruit (read: seduce) a dragon to do so. Fortunately for all of us, we soon find out that this princess is the absolute worst and was exiled for very good reasons. Not gonna lie, that’s definitely the main appeal of the game. The heroine is absolutely appalling, which makes her infinitely entertaining. 10/10 would scheme and connive again.
Find it on renpy.org or on Google Play.
Magical Otoge Ciel is a routine fantasy adventure about a feisty princess running away from her over-protective father. Liberal hints to some dire secret that justifies keeping the princess locked up all her life. Two apparent love interests, both of them with a bodyguard complex, and at least one with a childhood friend complex. Plus one additional male character who may be a stealth third romance. Unless someone can tell me that the game radically changes later on, I gotta say this is a color-by-numbers RPG romance fantasy. Maybe worth the time to play the free demo, if bodyguard romances and spirited princesses are your thing.
Find it on itch.io.
Cute Demon Crashers will require its own post, I think.
“Oh, Look, It’s a Strong Female Protagonist.” – a Look at Queen at Arms
Queen at Arms, a strategy and romance visual novel, first became known to me under the working title ‘The Silent Princess’. Thankfully this title was dropped pretty quickly since, despite being accurate in the literal sense, it gives an entirely false impression of the game’s content. The protagonist of QAA is variously characterized as shy or reserved, and the player receives a close view of his anxieties and insecurities via his inner monologue. Ditching the awkward moniker lets his characterization stand on its own merits and lets the player engage with Marcus on their own terms — without subjecting both to the implicit judgment of what strong heroines are supposed to be.
The plot of QAA is basic fantasy fare. A good king and queen are assassinated and usurped by a brutal pretender. A loyal knight takes in their only child, a baby girl, and raises her anonymously under the identity of his own dead infant son, Marcus. Years later Marcus attempts to follow in his adoptive father’s footsteps, still oblivious to his royal heritage. Circumstances conspire to put him in the path of the pretender king, and place him in a position to either affirm or deny his male identity.
Marcus worries a lot about what he’s supposed to be. On more familiar terms, we learn that many of the supporting characters grapple with similar concerns. Hardly surprising given this theme seems nearly universal in nature. He nurses a secret, mutual inferiority complex with his older foster-brother, Nicholas, as they both labor under the shadow of their late father’s military reputation. He struggles to embody ideals of masculinity he learned from his environment and stays silent, in part, because of how feminine his voice sounds to his ears.
The central struggle, of course, is the one on which the whole plot of the game is predicated. Like most fantasy readers (I imagine) I’ve seen more crossdressing teenage girl heroines than I care to recount. By now the trope seems impossibly stale and unsatisfying. Again, the heroine rejects the burden of “weak” and “soft” femininity and seeks to emulate male role models. Again, she struggles to bind her breasts and hide her short stature (writers! there actually are tall women in the world, I promise). Typically whatever subversion of gender or sexuality norms is implicit in the scenario is obliterated when the narrative buries its heroine under a thick, treacly layer of compulsory heterosexuality. Haha! Nothing gay here, I promise!
I’m not going to say that QAA is the perfect antidote to this, or that it can fill the conspicuous lack of growing up with all those other ones. I’m also not ready to slap it with a grandiose label like ‘interrogating masculinity’, although heaven knows that masculinity needs some interrogation, especially in fantasy. I can tell you, however, that my first run through the game culminated in a romance where the love interest had no qualms about using Marcus’s birth name (Callista) as well as his chosen male pronouns. “Do they know you’re not a woman?” It’s rather refreshing to see such a seemingly-complicated identity just accepted as a matter of course.
I don’t know if I feel comfortable praising QAA for its depiction of gender issues. Its first and main advantage is that the character in question is the protagonist. The player is able to empathize with them from a position of exposure, to read and experience their inner narration, their authentic self. Then there is also the matter of being able to choose, and especially valuable is the fact that the choice isn’t presented in a clear-cut, obviously labeled dialogue option. Rather, it’s woven into the narrative. The game also spends some time on the intersection of gender identity and sexuality. Although the conversations surrounding this could be made more explicit and detailed, something about their implicitness rings true. It feels more like a love story between people questioning their gender or their sexuality, and less like a pamphlet for high-schoolers in disguise.
As well, I would need to experience all the different romance paths and their variations on this conversation before I felt comfortable drawing a bottom line. I played the game once through and was delighted by it. My second playthrough stalled near the end and I don’t know when or whether I will pick it up again. Frankly, the game is very playable and entertaining, but just not varied enough or beautiful enough to keep me amused through a third and fourth run.
The quality of the dialogue is a little inconsistent, and there are some eyebrow-raising writing choices. As a player with virtually no experience with strategy games, I found the gameplay responsive to common sense and satisfyingly challenging. The occasional timed decision added tension without becoming nerve-wracking. The visual novel convention of sprinkling the dialogue with voiced catchphrases is… well, I assume I’ll get used to it, but it rather caught me by surprise. There’s enough variation in the supporting cast to appeal to most players, and the game features six possible romances, four male and two female.
Ultimately I would say QAA is a compelling game, although not an excellent one. What recommends it is that it tries to bring something new to the table, and in the experience it can offer to the player. Despite multiple romance paths, achievements and hidden secrets to discover, it has limited replayability value. Recommended with reservations.
Crossposted to Dreamwidth.
Solstice – The Jewel of the North
Solstice is a mystery visual novel from MoaCube, which previously brought us Cinders, one of my all-time favorite games. It’s been highly anticipated by myself and others since being announced about three years ago. As advertised it replicates the immaculately painted art style of Cinders, with the addition of small animations that enliven the sprite interactions. The writing style is similar to Cinders, but much more polished. With complex characters and a more complex plot, it’s at least as engaging and replayable as its predecessor, with the promise of good and bad ending in multiple variations each.
The central conceit of Solstice is its setting, a magical eco-bubble that lives in the heart of a frozen tundra, like a massive hothouse. The city, known only as the Jewel of the North, is the source of mystery and intrigue that pushes the plot along. Throughout the game, it is almost invariably referred to only as “the city”, which serves to underscore how central it is to the narrative, as well as to the lives of the characters living in it. Their suffering, whether self-inflicted or at the hands of the ruling merchant families, always seems to trace back to the city and its strange, compelling power. In this way, it is set up to serve as the game’s speechless but menacing antagonist.
Zen Cho -Sorcerer to the Crown
I read Sorcerer to the Crown, beginning to end, in under three days. Not a usual occurrence for me, not since my high school years. There’s a particular joy to be had in devouring a book and not being able to set it down, and this is exactly the sort of book you want for this type of adventure. Light without being frothy, romantic without being cloying, and effortlessly funny. My favorite stories are the ones that have well-balanced measures of comedy, drama and action. It’s a pretty difficult trick, but I think this book manages it remarkably.
The most obvious draw of Sorcerer to the Crown is the two protagonists. Zacharias Wythe, the eponymous sorcerer, is cautious, withdrawn, abstract-minded and secretive. As the child of African slaves adopted by an English gentleman and raised to become the first black magician in England, he has better reason than most to be reserved, not to say insecure. Prunella Gentleman is a plucky orphan living in a girls’ school under the sufferance of a family friend, but instead of being filled with gentle forbearance, she is as pragmatically ambitious a heroine as I might want. The contrast between the two starts paying off almost as soon as they meet.
Prunella is a woman who knows how to work the system. She wants her independence, but independence means cash and she is not above acknowledging that the most realistic way for a pretty girl to come into a fortune is to marry well. Zacharias is almost as confined as she is by the walls of convention and expectation that box him in on every side, but of a naturally ideologic temperament. His foster-parents, alive and dead both, struggle to deal with this very impractical tendency of their son. Zacharias is a man who can ill-afford lofty ideas of social change, but for all his soft-spoken civility, he as just as stubborn as a protagonist is expected to be.
And so, the Sorcerer to the Crown takes it upon himself to champion the cause of women’s education — magical education, naturally. By the cosmic forces of narrative coincidence, his first meeting with Prunella convinces him that suppressing women’s magic is a great evil. She has natural talent and is remarkably competent, which would seem to make her an ideal candidate for his apprentice. Prunella, though, is not very academically inclined. Still, she doesn’t scruple to pretend a passion for magical research to draw Zacharias into the thick of her machinations.
Meanwhile the plot rages on, pitting Zacharias against his colleagues in a fight for his position and his life. The admixture of politics and magic feels natural and compelling, as the poor beleaguered Sorcerer Royal must contend with diplomatic crises involving foreign witches, while simultaneously negotiating the relations between humans and fairies that ensure England’s access to magical energies. He seems set up to fail from every quarter, and all the while he runs afoul of his artful young student. Superficially it seems that he and Prunella are at cross-purposes, but this is an unusually compelling variation on a clash of personalities that tapers into attraction and genuine, mutual respect.
It is a feat of sheer magic to get me to read a book cover to cover without once resenting the inevitable romantic subplot. I found Zacharias and Prunella’s non-flirtations charming throughout the story. Never did I feel that they weighted the narrative or slowed it down. Their relationship progressed organically and I found its conclusion immensely satisfying, instead of grudgingly accepting it the way I ordinarily would. Even Zacharias’s evasively-worded confession was more endearing than irritating. I especially enjoyed Prunella’s utter confidence in her own powers of attraction. By contrast, Zacharias was as comically unaware of his own appeal as the most flagrant Mary Sue. It’s this kind of subtle twist that makes the book consistently funny and surprising.
Sorcerer to the Crown came highly recommended to me (from various sources), but I can honestly say that it exceeded my expectations. An instant classic, and one that I’m certain I’ll want to reread on a regular basis.
Crossposted to Dreamwidth.
Seth Dickinson – The Traitor Baru Cormorant
The Traitor Baru Cormorant is a secondary world fantasy novel, taking place in an unmagical world dominated by a sprawling colonial empire.
Baru Cormorant is a brilliant native child, taken from her family by the Empire of Masks in order to be raised in a residential school on Imperial values. Her voracious mind devours everything they teach her, mathematics and astronomy at the price of doctrine and propaganda. The ruling principle of the Masquerade is “social hygiene”, an all-consuming style of eugenics that deplores sexual deviancy and obsesses over optimizing the mixture of racial traits. A reader might be jarred into attention by the absence of racial supremacy as they’ve come to expect it, replaced by a creepy pseudo-scientific fetish for “hybrid vigor” as it’s sometimes called.
The opportunities presented by a Masquerade education are irresistible to young Baru. She is nurtured by a patron who recognizes her curiosity and keen intellect, who pushes her to excel and distance herself from her family and her roots. This sets Baru on an ambitious course, to become an Imperial bureaucrat and learn the secrets of power that brought low her homeland and split up her family. She is defined as much by this ambition as by her cool, calculating nature and inordinately long view of the future.
One of the most charming and fascinating things about Baru and the Imperial Republic respectively, is the centrality of economics in their relationship. Baru gains her mentor’s attention when she comments on his commerce practices: he buys in Imperial paper notes, but sells only for gold. This is her introduction to the Empire’s most potent strategy of colonization, and presages her future position as an Imperial accountant. The centrality of economics to Imperial reign makes this a position of great power, and Baru’s natural intellectual talents make her ideally suited to it.
The title of the book (just The Traitor in the UK release) is not an idle threat. Baru is a character filled with contradictions and the most important of these is how far she is willing to go in service of her goal, to protect her homeland and her family from the Masquerade. Loyalty, in the world of the Masquerade, leads inevitably to treachery. The narrative is not at all forgiving on this point. Baru’s goals may be just and true and even noble, but they are in no way pure, and their goodness can in no way protect her from the consequences of her actions.
Baru’s treacheries span the book’s entire character arc and are directed every which way. There is no one in her life, including herself, that does not in some way suffer from her deception. The daughter of a mother and two fathers, and herself a “latent tribadist”, she still chooses to function under the Masquerade’s system of “social hygiene”, with the full knowledge of the gruesome interrogation techniques and punishments devised to enforce it. She lies to herself throughout, in the inevitable tension between her distant goals and her immediate actions, and in evading the many spies set on her by many political interests. The Masquerade, she helpfully explains at one point, is a “cryptarchy”, the rule of secrets.
Read this book. It’s clever and touching and suspenseful, and the ending left me craving more. I can’t remember the last time I picked up a book and got so exactly what I was expecting, and what I wanted. Bright and cold and calculating, Baru is exactly the kind of female protagonist I am always looking for.
Crossposted to Dreamwidth.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens Is the Story it Needs to Be
Last Saturday I watched The Force Awakens. This is the Star Wars film that was supposed to wash away the bad taste left over from the prequel trilogy. Between the reviews I’ve seen and my brother’s reaction, it seems to have achieved that quite well. Which means that when you walk into the theater to watch this movie, you know exactly what to expect. And that’s a good thing.
Spoilers from here on. Proceed with discretion.
Salt and Steel (a Sunless Sea review)
I adore the world of the Echo Bazaar, the world of the Neath, damned to a shadowy existence both literal and figurative. Horror isn’t usually my jam, but this world has undeniable character and a creepy kind of charm. I’ve played Fallen London, on and off, for a while. Though I was initially very enthusiastic about it, I found the game mechanics wearying and never progressed as far as I liked. As such, I was terribly excited when Failbetter Games announced Sunless Sea, a desktop game exploring a new, wider horizon of their addictive fictional realm.
As a Kickstarter backer, I got access to the earlier, incomplete (and sometimes buggy) versions of the game. Not surprisingly, it was an up-and-down journey. The earliest versions had a somewhat notorious problem raising enough cash to buy fuel and supplies. Sometimes, just as I was setting out, only starting to get comfortable with my explorations, a new update would throw me for a loop. At one point map-shuffling was introduced which, at a stage of development when many map tiles were blank, was a major challenge to the player.
Still, new content kept coming out, expanding and improving the game, and I knew that eventually one of my captains would survive long enough, and raise enough cash, to reach the later stages of the game’s many quests. The major thing that changed this perception was the Steel beta. Sunless Sea updates were rolled out in batches, coded by color. The Steel update was added to the development plan rather late, and hadn’t been part of the Kickstarter game concept. It changed the game’s combat system from a turn-based mini-game to an integrated, time-sensitive style.
I wasn’t enthused for the Steel update. I don’t do well with time-sensitive portions of games, and I had been generally pleased with the turn-based combat, except for the over-abundance of low level opponents at mid-level gameplay. Naturally, I did want to give it a chance. I was a little apprehensive because I was launching a mid-level captain into a situation where I didn’t know if I’d be able to defeat (or survive) mid-level zee monsters. Even though I was resolved to give the Steel beta a chance, the game I was playing became less relaxing and less fun.
I didn’t play for very long after the Steel update. I had no intention of abandoning Sunless Sea altogether, even though, with the number of hours I’d already sunk into it, I’d definitely gotten my money’s worth. Because the game was in beta, I decided it would be better to wait and see whether future updates would compensate for the change I was so impatient with. I had little interest in re-learning combat, to begin with not my favorite part of the game. If my screenshots folder can be taken as reliable witness, I swore off the game for a little over a year. It was only lately that I picked it up again.
A lot can happen in a year. The game I launched three weeks ago was very different from the game I’d played pre-Steel. A little disorienting, with certain features having been removed or replaced with more elaborate, dynamic variations. But overall, the game benefited from a huge addition of content. The early parts of the game were still a trial, and I did find myself consulting more than one informal player’s guide. At least, though, the game no longer felt unplayable — or playable, but not enjoyable. Combat remained fairly stressful in the early stages of the game, but then I’ve always been a gun-shy game player.
After three weeks of intense preoccupation, my third captain achieved her life’s ambition to write the zong of the zee, and I achieved the much more modest ambition of making peace with the Sunless Sea combat system.
Crossposted to Dreamwidth.
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