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Celeste

Tuesday, 05 August 2014 00:00

Review - Divinity: Original Sin [PC]

Growing up, I always felt western role-playing games on the PC were underrated. Maybe it's due to the fact that I was only two years old when Wasteland was released. Ten years later when I was enthusing about Baldur's Gate, most of my twelve-year-old buddies were busy anticipating the release of the next Final Fantasy game on console. I mean, yes, I love Japanese RPGs as much as the next gamer, but the communities for the computer games I grew up loving always seemed scarce or closed in by comparison.

Fast-forward to the current era of gaming where we have the introduction of Steam and crowd-funding websites, and a different picture is emerging. In an arena where consumers can have direct involvement and influence on the types of games they want to play, there has been a reemergence of these very games. And while the Divinity series of games may not span as far back as some others, they certainly have harkened to this earlier era of RPGs in their latest release Divinity: Original Sin.

The game was completed and enhanced through Kickstarter funding. Different aspects of gameplay were unlocked as levels of the funding were reached, and thanks to all of those who contributed, the game is intricate and vast. The self-published title from Larian Studios also runs on their own engine, complete with a tool kit for designing customized levels. While the game is available on Mac and coming soon for Linux, mods for the PC version are available and can be published through the Steam Workshop.

Divinity screenshot1

The first thing you'll want to do with the game is decide whether to play the campaign in single-player or drop in multi-player mode. Both modes require you to create two characters. You will choose the name, sex, appearance, portrait photo, and class for each character. Advanced players can mostly disregard the pre-built classes, as the Divinity gameplay allows fluid and complex class building. Don't feel like you must limit yourself to be strictly caster, ranged, or melee. Various items found in the game, along with perks, traits, and skills, allow you to reach outside of basic class structures. Customization is more involved than the RPGs the game emulates, but it's still more simplistic than a lot of modern RPGs. The game offers a variety of skin tones and hair styles, but sadly falls short in offering any variation in body type. Once you have your character looking stunning, it's time to give them a voice (three options per gender) and most interestingly, an AI personality. AI personalities, such as Loyal, Knight, or Rascal, are more than just clever fun for dialogue- they offer unique insight and development for your playable characters.

You start the game with only two characters, but you can add certain people you encounter to your party. You have the ability to change their gear and assign skill points, as well as control them in battle. However, they are still separate from your main characters, as you cannot speak for them. If you choose to play multi-player, LAN or internet connection are available for drop in/drop out gameplay. The person hosting the game can assign characters to those who join and also determine whether they can change certain aspects such as gear or skill points. I absolutely loved the simplicity of playing in multi-player. However, it would be great to have the option of more than two original characters for a team. Events in the game don't just happen to your characters, your characters also take time to reflect upon events and even their own actions. This is where the exciting addition of the AI personality really shines, allowing the player to create exchanges between their characters. The options chosen in many dialogue exchanges not only shape the character in the player's mind, but they also contribute to certain traits gained through gameplay. For example, if a player chooses kind options, they can receive the Compassionate trait, which gives them a bonus to critical hits. If a player chooses to be cruel, they can receive the Heartless trait, which increases their chances to hit while backstabbing.

Divinity screenshot2

Another unique aspect of the game is the bartering system. The game still offers vendors for particular items, but player purchases are not limited among them. Every person in the game offers not only a chance for better information and possible quests, but a selection of items they are also willing to trade. This is one of the ways that the game really emphasizes thorough exploration. And if talking to every person in the game isn't enough, there is also the option to take on the Pet Pal perk, which allows your character to speak with the various critters found throughout the game. Aside from humorous banter and the realization that the animals are more pleasant company than most of the humans, this perk can also help provide solid clues to solving quests and puzzles.

Talking to every creature great and small isn't the only thing that will take some time. Turn-based battles set the pace at self-determined and much slower than an action RPG, especially if you're playing multi-player. This, along with the ability to see rolls for each action, really give the game an old school tabletop feel. The battle system is quite easy to learn, which allows the player to focus on customization and tactics. With every move and attack costing action points, it's important for players to understand what each spell and skill can do. It's also vital to pay attention to the hit percentage that will pop up, along with the area of damage, since friendly fire is very possible and likely with certain magical and elemental attacks. The battle system here allows the player's inner strategist to really shine as they discover attack and elemental combinations. There are many barrels filled with water, oil, etc, but spell casters can also create elemental changes, such as rain. Use these abilities together to create poision gas clouds or electrically charged steam. The creative battle techniques are really what set this RPG apart not only from action RPGs, but also from other turn-based RPGs that place far less emphasis on atmosphere and status effect combinations.

The basic gameplay is straight-forward and great fun to explore, and once you've felt your way around most of the game (which will take many hours depending on how thorough you are) you might get the itch to take your creativity to the next level. Divinity: Original Sin does a fantastic job of merging the organic feel of tabletop with the best offerings of contemporary gaming technology. The next step in staying true to these roots is to allow players the ability to build levels within the game's engine. The engine is solid and provides for smooth gameplay even on less advanced set-ups, though my one small complaint is load times, which of course vary by computer. The Divinity Engine Toolkit is far more advanced than many level editors in other games of its ilk. As a player who loved to create levels in games like the original Warcraft games and Lode Runner, I had all the creative will, but very little of the modding and world editing advanced knowledge. Larian has provided many videos to help those who are newer to level editing on this scale. The step by step guidance was extremely helpful for me, and while building levels this way is definitely more complex and time consuming than in other games, it also creates a more detailed and personalized product.

Divinity screenshot3

Divinity: Original Sin is a sampling of some of the best offerings from both old and new schools. A fitting homage to the games I grew up playing, it also establishes an identity of its own and can be grouped in among the best of the genre. It's a fine example of what can be achieved when a good balance between a development/publishing team and players is created. Between all of the creative ways to construct in the game and the sprawling world to explore, the game brings apt innovation to an already solid genre.

SCORE: 9/10

Wednesday, 25 September 2013 00:00

Games, Panels, and Parties - My PAX Prime 2013

 

Since the latest PAX Prime sprawled out over an extensive four day span, I'll do my best to condense my experience. A couple of years ago I exchanged words with a BioWare employee who compared the convention experience to summer camp. In many ways, we look forward to it, it's a great chance to catch up with some of our friends we don't see the rest of the year. But conventions are also exhausting, and as much as we don't want them to end, we also want to go home. I think the latter part cannot be stressed enough as we rolled into our fourth day.

celeste pax badgeFour days was good in a lot of ways, though. As a person expected to fit in seeing as many games as possible while also enjoying the other amenities of a convention, four days meant I had way more time and less stress when planning what games I would see. Unfortunately, the convention still only allows one hour of early access for media on only the first day, which is just not enough time to see everything. I unfortunately missed Titanfall during the media hour by about ten minutes. I won't be able to tell you guys about that game, because the wait was four hours long, and they weren't making media appointments or allowing media a chance to get hands on without waiting the four hours. I just had too many other appointments and games to see to wait that long, sorry! I was disappointed at no presence for Rockstar, but given the fast approaching release date for GTA V and the fact that the first three days of release broke entertainment sales records, I'm sure they were more focused on making sure the launch was smooth sailing. One of the biggest draws this year was getting to see the Xbox One and PS4 in person. I guess that was neat, but really, they just looked like consoles. I used to work in a bank, and I'd have tens of thousands of dollars in my drawer every day. It never phased me, though, because I didn't think of it as money. I knew it wasn't mine, so it didn't excite me the way someone handing me ten grand in my home would make me feel. I guess that's how I feel about previewing consoles as opposed to owning one, especially given that the demonstrations and libraries at this point are limited.

pax bethesdaWatchdogs also had one of the longest lines there, but playable demos were not available. Instead, we filed in to a theater to see a live presentation of gameplay as two presenters played competitively using a console and mobile device. The goal of the mobile device player was to obstruct and distract the console player from reaching their goal. She did this by sending out helicopters, utilizing police, and even changing parts of the city to create new road blocks. This presentation allowed Ubisoft to not only stress the importance of dynamic gameplay, but also show us how it could be manipulated. One of the features of the game that they mentioned but could not fully demonstrate was the ability of the player to make game affecting choices. The player can choose to escalate or downsize their role in conflicts throughout the game. Each decision and its impact on the citizens within the game influences the perception of the main character, which in turn changes gameplay. I'd really like to see how these consequences play out.

The next booth I managed to hit up was Bethesda. They were showing Wolfenstein: The New Order, which boasts the same brutality and well-aimed aggression of the original, just this time with way more heavy machinery. The Evil Within was not on display, but the trailer was broadcast frequently, and the swag included a pin for it. The main attraction at their booth was the playable demo for Elder Scrolls Online. I have to say I'm really impressed by how much Bethesda promoted the game at many conventions this year. While we didn't get a beer garden at PAX Prime, we did get a free food truck (if you wanted to stand in the line) and free Ben and Jerry pints of ice cream. All of the offerings were done in Nirn style, such as Sweet Cream with Khajiit Sweet Bites and Nirnroot Pickles.

As far as getting my hands on the game, I did! And it helped ease a lot of the fears I previously had, such as the game feeling more like a generic MMO clone. I can state as a fan of the series and also a person who has played way too many MMORPGs, this is not the case. I was fortunate to get a full hour of play time, and this allowed me to get quite far in the quests available to me. First, character customization is brilliant with great attention to detail and allowance for many body sizes and types. No matter what class you are, you can use any type of weapon and armor. Aside from needing to scroll back a bit in how the environment responds to players (meaning you can't knock all the stuff on a table across the room anymore) the scenes are intricately detailed and have all the same feel of playing Elder Scrolls games. Even the way quests pan out feels much like the quests picked up in earlier ES games. Even the beginning area quests were varied and extended beyond simple fetch or kill quests. Another thing that has me excited is the fact that PVP is confined to Cyrodiil. This is probably necessary due to the fact that there are no separate servers for things like RP and PVP.

All Games PAX-13I also had a chance to play the new Pikmin 3, which reminded me of my advancing age. Given that it has been a good nine years since the release of Pikmin 2 on GameCube, my attempts at playing the game using Wii controls was sobering at best. The preview showed gameplay very similar to previous games, with a seemingly greater focus on developing and implementing some solid Pikmin-corralling strategy. Getting my hands on the 2DS helped break previous conceptions on how huge the contraption appeared online.  The system has quite a good feel in the hands, and seems much more ergonomically sound than the previous clamshell bodies.  Also, it's much sturdier for the rough and tumble little ones.  A playable demo of Pokemon X/Y was right next door, which is still something that can excite me despite my towering height and age over the rest of the players.  Enhanced care for Pokemon is a great new feature, allowing the player to interact using treats, petting Pokemon, and even using facial expressions to respond to the game.  The Indie Megabooth was filled with exciting and varied games. One of my favorites was the game Foul Play, which showed a lot of creativity and humor. The gameplay is a basic side-scrolling brawler with unlockable combos, but the story pulls in a new type of audience. As in, a real audience. Life in this game is monitored not in hit points, but in audience excitement. You play as a retired adventurer on stage, reenacting some of your most daring feats along with a cast of actors. The better your combos, the happier your audience, and the more points you get to unlock cool bonuses. I even had a chance to attend the Indie After Party and meet the creators of Foul Play and Hotline Miami. And that's really one of the best parts of the convention experience. PAX allows not only media and industry, but regular gamers a chance to meet game creators and hear the enthusiasm and story driving these titles.

I saw a lot of panels, which was hard on my tailbone due to the chairs there being so darn rigid. I'm honestly not sure which was more sore by the end of the convention, my ass or my feet. But there were so many panels dedicated to social issues this year. I didn't even manage to catch all of them, but from what I did see, there is a growing community of people involved in bringing social awareness to game culture. This is fantastic. In previous years at cons, I have given my contact info to people, expressing my desire to delve into these topics. This has always been met with a cautious acceptance. I think we all had this notion that nothing would ever change because people kept reverting to the age-old "but this is just the way gamers are" excuse. This year, however, despite hecklers at the Political Correctness in Gaming panel, and despite Mike from PA still not "getting it" in many ways, I was so fortunate to meet and have a few small jam sessions with some of the most brilliant and innovative gamers I've met. I was also fortunate enough to cry for an hour at the Take This Panel, which focused on the hardships of dealing with mental health issues as gamers. The panelists were all people who worked within the game industry and were brave and open about their histories with anxiety and depression. The Take This Project is all about providing support for gamers who may struggle with these same issues, though it is important to note that this group cannot replace seeking professional assistance. This was one of the best panels I have ever attended, hands down.

pax panelsThat's not to say the other panels were not also excellent and hard-hitting. Panelists for the other panels ranged from military women, tabletop gamers, trans* gamers, gamers of color, and much more. These are people who are not only finally getting to speak about their experiences, but they get to do so in front of an audience that is attending these panels and actually listening. And when I handed my card to these panelists and told them how I want to help advance geek culture, I was met with palpable enthusiasm, acceptance, and encouragement. I feel that the end result of these panels was creating more allies, and at the very least causing some of the audience to reevaluate how they previously viewed these issues. And that is really saying something. That is the true power of a convention like PAX. It's terrible that so many of these amazing people will not be attending next year due to the inability of PA to provide any meaningful understanding of their tenet of inclusion and safe spaces.

I don't want to end this on a down note, so I want to stress again how fun and fulfilling most of my PAX experience was this year. I'll be back at PAX next year, running a panel on these very topics if I'm lucky. I'll be gearing up even more excitement about fun games, an ever-evolving industry, and amazing people who have too long spent the majority of their time on the sidelines. Be sure to check out the gallery below to see some of my amazing action shots.

 

 

Tuesday, 03 September 2013 19:11

Safe Spaces, Inclusion, and PAX

dickwolves-shirt

I've been on the fence numerous times about attending Penny Arcade Expo. I attended this year, thrilled at how many panels were discussing issues of inclusion and diversity in gaming. I had a wonderful time becoming involved in these discussions, networking with enthusiastic panelists, and basically carving my own safe space out of the massively populated convention center. There were small things that kept creeping in, though.


A few panels maybe underestimated their audience, sticking to the very basics, framing arguments for those not impacted by these issues, even going so far as to seem apologetic for our actions as pop and game culture critics. There were the people who attended the Political Correctness Panel who were there to start arguments calling "cis" a slur and defending their right as white men to say the n-word (which they did, more than once.) There was the time my friend heard a guy yell at a woman on the escalator, "SHOW ME YOUR BOOBS!" and then run off before she could grab an enforcer. There was the time one female enforcer was made to feel uncomfortable by a fellow male enforcer. Even though there were ways to anonymously report these things (which is wonderful), there was still that overhanging guilt of "creating a big deal" out of behavior that is widely commonplace and accepted still.


And the nail in the coffin, as it were, was the statement given at closing ceremonies this year. I did not attend, so my friend linked me to this tweet made by Patrick Klepek of Giant Bomb. Mike states he wishes they had never pulled the Dickwolves shirt from their store, followed by loud cheers in the audience. The basic message here being, no, they didn't learn anything from the exchange, and yes, their audience continues to support every action they make even when it involves behavior that goes completely against their proclaimed mission at PAX.

 

tumblr lg2k65ve3q1qfjiioIf you're not familiar with the Dickwolves discussion, here is a very extensive history, and here is a post on why many people feel boycotting PAX is the only way to curb this behavior. And in a way, I agree. But I also realize that PAX has a certain sway that is not going to be undone by those of us who understand how harmful their actions are. GaymerX is brand new, Geek Girl Con is much less reported on, as well as other conventions. So I definitely understand when people who disagree with the actions of the PA owners continue to host panels at PAX which focus on addressing this behavior. We still need a voice. But this year had the highest number of panels focusing on diversity and inclusion and women within gaming. So how could a closing ceremony make such a statement and be PRAISED for it? Because PAX, as much as they claim wanting to be inclusive, does not understand that they are still promoting segregation. You're fine going in this corner and talking about your issues. Sure, have this panel. But if you try to tell US that we are doing something wrong? No, we are telling you that we will ignore you and your concerns. Flat out ignore.


Here is the part where I explain to fellow Americans the difference between censorship and criticism. Bear with me, people who already understand this, I'll keep it brief. First, threats and personal attacks are never okay. You're protected under Freedom of Speech from the government forcing you to stay silent. You are not immune to criticism, as the PA owners seem to believe. In both the case of Dickwolves and of transphobic statements, it would be much easier to dismiss these things as ignorance or being sheltered by privilege. I'd accept this if the response to the criticisms was not to increase disrespect of not only the stance of those who dissented, but those who dared question them, as well. You make art, and that's great, and you're allowed to make statements within that medium. But you are NOT immune to criticism, and you're still expected to realize what sort of social impact you are creating as an artist. You don't get to turn in your social awareness card for an artist card, and if someone has an issue with what you have created, listen to them first maybe before deciding they are only trying to limit you. As a public figure or artist, you're still held to the same standards of respecting others, which includes people who may not agree with your actions or stand to receive harm from what your actions support. People who use the "but it's art" argument remain inconsistent. If they encounter artwork that depicts, say, violence of a sexual nature against men by women, or women debasing men, they certainly will not insist that it shouldn't be criticized due to it being art. They exist within a society that caters to them and their comfort zones, and if you breach those, prepare for everything they've previously told you to be thrown out the window.

 

Image from HyperAllergic.comThe panels I attended discussing inclusivity all mentioned Gone Home, a game that was not at the convention due to the actions of the PA owners making The Fullbright Company feel PAX was not a safe space.  These panels elaborated on why these actions are harmful but did not delve into the recent reason many of us nearly followed The Fullbright Company's example.  Transphobic statements, made of either ignorance, malice, or both, help contribute to a society where misunderstanding trans* people furthers their endangerment. And yet, only two panels briefly mentioned the recent actions, touching on why they almost did not attend, but still wanted to have a voice. And I agree, having a voice is important. But why can't we discuss the impact of what PA does? They certainly feel that they can, why can't we? Everything PA does impacts gaming and game culture in some fashion, so why is it off limits? I feel that as much as we are saying amazing things to help encourage better representation of everyone in gaming, we are still not hitting with everything we have. We are told to hold our tongues when what we do risks to make those in the socially reinforced position uncomfortable. This is regardless of how many things they do that go even further than infringing on our comfort but also serve to contribute to beliefs which cause us harm. When do we stop saying the stuff everyone already knows, framing it for people who don't care to listen to us in the first place?  When do we actually address the silencing tactics of those who claim to want to help us?
Mike went on to say that he has learned things, but only in respect to how he is creating trouble for his employees, not in relation to the toxicity of his statements toward marginalized groups. He even continues to excuse this behavior by saying he "hopes" it doesn't happen again, but it's just "how he is." This is proof that he only cares about the people involved in PA, not the people he might be impacting outside of this by negating their importance. Even in clarifying the statement with Kotaku in the article here, they still try to make the issue about censorship, which it NEVER was. By reframing the issue as "Penny Arcade was being censored" as opposed to, "Penny Arcade unwittingly created triggering content, failed to listen to criticism, and instead generated even more harmful environments by silencing those who respectfully disagreed with them" you are erasing the statements of those who had the courage to speak up against their actions.

 

feedbackHow do we let people know this erasure of entire segments of the community needs to stop? As far as I can tell, we need to start letting the media and game companies know how we feel. They only thing that PA responds to is the threat of vendors and exhibitors not attending, so this is the best place to be heard. Let the game companies know what they are supporting and representing by attending. Tell them how it harms us, and we don't agree with it. Let media know that there is another aspect to game culture that impacts a very large portion of the gaming population.  Tell them we are marginalized due to bullying and a lack of voice and coverage. And let Penny Arcade know, as well. Tell them that just saying they want to create a safe space for inclusion doesn't DO anything if what they are promoting as artists works to undermine that very cause.


I'm not saying everyone should boycott.  We all have varying positions of ability to do so.  I'm telling everyone to speak up! SPEAK. UP. Really. Even if you're an ally and not directly impacted by these things. DO IT. Because the more we call out this behavior and refuse to accept it, the less acceptable it becomes on a much larger scale. My goal, along with many others who feel this way, is not to bankrupt PA for a few mistakes or even for those at the top who consistently disregard the safety of others. The goal is for people to LEARN from this and to move past the allowance of these detrimental behaviors by not accepting them. PA is not the perfect model for inclusive communities, but they can be made an example.  They can show how refusing to understand those impacted by damaging beliefs has consequences, is not acceptable, and can be addressed without creating further harm. We can make PAX a safe space, but only if everyone, including those at the top, is consistent with this cause.

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