fantasy

“Oh, Look, It’s a Strong Female Protagonist.” – a Look at Queen at Arms

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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.

Adventures in Twine: the Unicorn Trilogy

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Although I have mentioned it elsewhere on social media, I haven’t discussed my games here much. Over the last few years, I’ve been dabbling in making hypertext games and stories using Twine, a wonderfully simple and flexible platform. It proved the perfect tool for making tiny little mini-games, light-weight and playable in a couple of minutes. Bearing in mind, of course, that the several minutes of gameplay took several hours to write, code and test.

It took some time before I was comfortable enough with Twine to create something that I could call a complete product. Once I did, and uploaded the final product to the lovely philome.la, the page seemed a little desolate. I looked at it and wanted it to be full of links to different games! Well, creating a portfolio of games takes some time and effort, even if they’re the sort of games that can be completed inside of six hours. But if a writer is not going to be realistic about their goals, they can at least be brave for them.

My first complete Twine adventures, the “Unicorn Trilogy”:

  1. Box of Unicorns“, a cute cotton-candy colored romp where you collect small colorful unicorns to no apparent end.
  2. Box of Unicorns: the Gritty Reboot” a.k.a. Unicorn Hunt, a low-rent grimdark post-apocalyptic parody, based on code almost identical to its predecessor, but with the added possibility of a bad end.
  3. Unicorn Wars“, a heroic pseudo-epic in which you are called to defend unicorn-kind against sundry enemies. Slightly more complex gameplay with a countdown and a bad end.

Solstice – The Jewel of the North

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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.

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The Jewel of the North – Solstice game art.

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.

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Zen Cho -Sorcerer to the Crown

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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

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TTBC1_Cover1-680x1024The 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.

Past Stain

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“The stain is spreading to your past.”

She blinked, staring down at the words, which stared right back at her. “What am I supposed to do with this?” she asked, waving the scrap of paper about.

The coach frowned. “Just try to let it inspire you,” she said before hovering on to one of the other writers.

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Blue Tea Games and the Dark Parables Series

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Not sure exactly how I got on to the Dark Parables series, or hidden object games, or the Big Fish games interface. All I know is, I started playing them sometime last year, tore through the whole series, and swapped part-way through to buying the extra-features collector’s editions. I started getting really excited for new releases and then… the excitement dissipated a little.

From the top:

Blue Tea Games is a game studio that puts out primarily “hidden object” games, where the plot is moved along by a series of small puzzles, most of which involve picking out specific objects from a cluttered scene. I find this a fantastic game genre for me, since it provides a very relaxing level of challenge and generally comes in games with beautiful art and music. What’s more, HOGs pretty commonly come with several different difficulty levels, of which I usually select the middle one. Many of the really good games have thematic objects hidden throughout, and discovering all of them is a fun extra challenge.

One of Blue Tea‘s most exciting series is/was the Dark Parables games. This is a series of adventures in which a nameless protagonist called “the Fairy-Tale Detective” investigates strange, magical occurrences all over the world, only to discover the source of the mischief to be a fairy-tale character run amok. The twist that draws you in is that the fairy-tales are mashed up, crossed over and fused rather liberally, which allows certain characters to serve multiple roles in different stories. If you were personally insulted by not being able to like Once Upon a Time, you might find these games comforting.

The games have a rough chronological order and playing them out of order gives mystery spoilers. Generally, though, that’s not really the main draw. They are beautifully drawn, intricate and rich with details and motifs. The visual language of the games is distinct and recognizable and truly, to me, the very best thing about them. Unlocking the titular “parables” gives a little insight into how the original tales were forged into an amalgam.

The characters are fun but not very deep. The villains are frequently heroic characters turned dark by adverse circumstance, and last-minute redemption is pretty common. In addition to the fairy tale amalgams, the games add some original characters, of which my favorite is undoubtedly Queen Ivy, Briar Rose’s sister.

I played the games out of order beginning with Rise of the Snow Queen, before tracking back to the first game, The Curse of Briar Rose to get the full experience. Given my love for the games’ aesthetic, the entries I remember most fondly are The Exiled Prince, about the curse of frog prince, and The Ballad of Rapunzel, which adds my other favorite original character.

After the Rapunzel game, Blue Tea apparently sold the whole brand to a game studio called Eipix. Quite coincidentally, while googling around for game information, I discovered that I am not the only fan of the games who was less enamored of their two most recent additions. A trailer for a third game has been released, so I am waiting to see if I feel better about that one.

Meanwhile, I replay some of the earlier games in an attempt to catch all of the extras and bonuses, and use earned credits to upgrade the regular versions to collector’s editions. However, I am due to replay The Little Mermaid and the Purple Tide, since I seem to remember very little of it. Of all the hidden object games that I’ve played through the Big Fish app, the Dark Parables games are still by far my favorites.

Crossposted to Dreamwidth.