Lead or Die (But Probably Die Anyhow): Thoughts On “Banished”

Banished is the sort of city-builder that makes you late for work.

A lot.

Shining Rock Software’s city-builder is one of those games that I’m not even sure I enjoy–I mean, I think I do. Take a look at my Steam profile: nearly a hundred hours at the time of this review. But what inspires it, I have to wonder? So let’s take a look. In Banished you are the leader of a group of people who have been banished from their own villages for one reason or another. Why? It’s never explained. There isn’t a storyline or a plot arch to follow–it’s just understood that these are your humble beginnings.

You are left to your own devices on the best way to push a small civilization of criminals and outcasts forward in a vaguely medieval world. Perhaps this expulsion is the reinforcement behind how completely alone your people feel–the only outside input comes from nomads and the occasional traveling salesman. But perhaps the premise is simply meant to quietly prepare you for how brutal it is. Banished is a hard, hard game.  But its difficult is measured and stealthy. You’re cruising along–everyone’s clothed and warm, and you’ve got a sweet little alehouse on the way (that oughta keep the ungrateful bunch of bastards happy). Everything seems fine, if uneventful.

"Well sure--I'll buy your Satanic produce..."
“Well sure–I’ll buy your Satanic produce…”

When out of the corner of your eye, you notice that one of your houses isn’t getting fed enough. No worries, you think. Winter’s almost over, and the year’s crops’ll be grown and harvested before it should become a true issue. When suddenly BOOM BOOM BOOM. Around a dozen of your villagers die of starvation. Women and children, man.

Women and children.

If this were real life, that many lives might take its pain out of your psyche–and you might find comfort in the sweet embrace of your local frozen river. But it’s a game. You hit ESC. You start a new game. You shake the Etch-a-Sketch of these people’s lives one more damn time. You won’t make the same mistake again. Two hours later you’re drinking too much coffee and a fever dream of all the digital moms and chillun you’ve executed through neglect visits you every fifteen minutes or so. When did you become such a monster? Aren’t you awesome at Civilization and Sim City? Are you doing this because, secretly, you want these families dead?

Did I mention there are the occasional disaster beyond starvation?
Did I mention there are the occasional disaster beyond starvation?

I don’t know–maybe that’s just how I play Banished. Because it’s easy to get immersed in it. You’re not dealing with full-scale cities and civilizations, really–you’re dealing with dozens of people. Hundreds at most as the game progresses. So each death prompt really makes you access what’s going on–what you’re doing wrong. The stakes are high–and the game takes pains to remind you of that fact. I love these sorts of strategy games, and maybe the difficulty is what keeps bringing me back to it. Maybe its the unique design and careful, minimalist execution. But one thing’s for sure: I need to build another woodcutter, because I’ll be damned if one more kid freezes to death on my watch.

Computer Savings Time: Strong Bad’s Cool Game For Attractive People

Once again, it’s time for the Conquistadork (that’s me) to encounter and defeat a game I really should have played years ago: Computer Savings Time.

I miss Homestar Runner. Desperately. For those of you completely out of the loop, Homestar Runner was a bizarre, yet entirely wholesome, web cartoon that starred a speech-impeded, armless sweet heart and his bizarre friends. The appeal to Homestar… You know what? I’m not going to spend a lot of time explaining, because if you don’t know what Homestar Runner is, you seriously need to be watching it. Look: I linked to it right up there at the beginning of this paragraph. Go ahead and tear through some of those cartoons. I’ll wait.


So with a glorious piece of gloriousness like that, how were the storytelling dynamos at Telltale Games supposed to resist? And so, in 2008, they released the episodic Strong Bad’s Cool Game For Attractive People. Since Homestar Runner recently kindasorta made a comeback and Telltale’s release of their Game of Thrones series, I was thrilled to play my way through their take on some new Homestar material, which is essentially what you’re promised if your franchise game is being made by Telltale.

True to that form, Strong Bad’s Cool Game For Attractive People is a story game with the point-and-click mechanics that we’ve grown to expect from Telltale.  It follows Strongbad as he gets into trouble and briefly ruins the life of the speech-impeded Homestar Runner. Hijinks, footraces, and non-painful nudity ensue–and it’s every bit as fun as any episode of Homestar Runner you’ve ever seen. All of the original characters and present, and none of it feels stretched or phoned in–this was definitely a labor of love.


While it’s true that some of the item collection feels a little too “old school adventure game” random, none of it is so difficult that it’ll keep you stumped for terribly long.  There are lots of little extras and hidden easter eggs that I had a terrific time finding in addition to the main quest pieces.  It’s also true that the interface feels a little clumsy–I found myself occasionally clicking and reclicking and trying to set the mouse up just right in order to hit the proper link or button. In a way, it’s almost fascinating: if you’re a recent devotee to the story/games of Telltale, there’s something to be gained from watching them develop and grow. Strong Bad’s Cool Game For Attractive People is far from baby steps, but it’s definitely a link in the evolution that would bring us up to their present-day greatness.

It’s also a short game–I clocked in at just under three hours by the end.  The regular priced $20 tag that it’s currently hefting on Steam might not be worth it to some based on this fact, which uis understandable. But picking it up at half that (or, knowing the insanity of your average Steam sale, even less) is definitely worth your time if you’re a longtime devotee to the beauty that is fhqwhgads, Teen Girl Squad, and Strong Badia .

Population: Tire.


Spooky Beauty Picturebook: Thoughts on “Grendel: Warchild”

Oh, Dark Horse. How I love your disturbing picture books.

It’s true: my admiration for 1993’s Grendel: Warchild cannot be properly summarized without pointing out that when I was growing up, there were essentially three comic book publishers: DC, Marvel, and Dark Horse. You could pick up an issue or two of any number of books–usually missing issues here and there due to the fact that we were kids and some of our moms refused to take us to the comic book store every Wednesday. Bless my mom’s heart: the Satanic Panic of the 80’s and 90’s hit her pretty hard, and I had a hard enough time hiding my Dungeons & Dragons collection from her without resorting to explaining why Grendel was actually art.

Dark Horse, you see, was always what the older kids read. What the soldiers picked up while grabbing staples and snacks.

We wanted to read those books.

2165565-letterYears later in my adulthood I come to find that a lot of my faith in the grandiose and beautiful nature of “adult” comic books was misplaced. “Adult” comics in the 90’s sometimes meant deeper storylines and heavier themes, but mostly meant gore and tits. And while both are present in abundance in Grendel: Warchild, this is not a book that disappoints.

Taking place decades after the original Grendel storyline, Warchild follows Grendel Prime (a cyborgwarriorjedigodthingie) as he protects the heir to the empire of the world. It’s On The Road with laser swords and Machiavellian intrigue.

Going through it all this time later, I’m reminded of all the good that the 90’s did for comics. I’ve written in the past about all the bad it’s done, because it’s so easy to glom onto the boobs and Liefeld and contrived storylines and Liefeld and sexism and Liefeld. But lots of good came from the 90’s, too. And by good I mean absolute, unadulterated (and yet, well-written) insanity.

This book is fucking crazygonuts.

Grendel Prime fights his way through zombies, massive reptiles, samurai in red paint, African tribesmen (who for some reason talk in a bad Jamaican accent a la World of Warcraft), leper cultists, giant apes, robo-pirates, and a cabal of vampires who take their fashion sense from Kurt Cobain. Every chapter there’s something different, and I’m pretty sure Matt Wagner would have thrown in a chapter with ninjas if Dark Horse would’ve sprung for a twelfth issue.

"Seriously--fuck giant apes." --Grendel Prime
“Seriously–fuck giant apes.” –Grendel Prime

It. Is. Ridiculous.

And it’s fun as hell. The artwork is dynamic and fluid–the characters (and there are more than a few) are well designed and unique. And while the last chapter falls into a massive hiccup with its abrupt “Ten Years Later…” shift and introduction of a faceless narrator, it’s otherwise some of the most fun I’ve had reading an action comic now or in 1993.

If this was one that you passed by in the past, I’d pick it up and give it a read. More of a massive, unique world–excellent stuff. Crank up the Pavement–get your 90’s on.

Oh, and Vivat Grendel

Playing Pretend: Thoughts On “Dear Esther” and other Walking Simulators

I was halfway through the haunting storyline of Dear Esther when a curious thought swam its way through my skull:

“Should Bioshock Infinite have had less fighting?”

This was an odd thought to have for many reasons, not the least of which being that they are two completely unrelated games.

Except for all the ways that they aren’t.

Dear Esther, like indie darlings Gone Home and The Stanley Parable, is what many refer to as a “walking simulator”. It’s one of those designations where the definition really depends on who you’re talking to. But whether it’s used as a term of convenience, a grinning tilt of the hat, or a mocking jab, the result is always the same: there aren’t a heck of a lot of flamethrowers or zombie Nazis. Focused on storyline and atmosphere, the vast majority of games like these tend to be spent slowly peeling back the layers of a world and a plot.


There are some who argue that these games aren’t really games at all. Their reasons for this range from the lack of interactivity, rules, and puzzles to the lack of flamethrowers and zombie Nazis. All of which are decent arguments. But I stand by the “gameness” of Dear Esther for the same reason I adore many other walking simulators—the sense of play.

We’ve become immensely absorbed in the rules-heavy interactivity of games in this day and age. And that includes everyone—not just what we would see as a traditional hardcore gamer. Taking a step back from video games, anyone can tell you that we’re in something of a board game renaissance. Hell, even your weird aunt plays Settlers of Catan, and she got arrested for burning Harry Potter books at your local Barnes and Noble, claiming they were “queerbait witchcraft on par with a three-penised Freddie Mercury”.

So with everyone caught up in fourteen pages of rules and trading bricks and sheeps and what not, it’s easy to forget what “play” is really all about: it’s about pretend.

Which brings me back to my original, seemingly-out-of-the-blue question: Should Bioshock Infinite have had less fighting?

This is a question of love, mind you: Bioshock Infinite was more than your average mindless shooter—especially to me. It was my favorite game of 2013. It was filled with rounded, fully realized characters strung merrily in a complex and beautiful plot line. It is officially the first game that ever made me cry tears that weren’t directly related to the frustration of playing something that was mildly more entertaining than an aneurism.

It is a beautiful game with a storyline that made me sob like an orphaned Russian mouse. Those tears were bottled as a marital aide, and are currently circulating through the black market in Jakarta. Bioshock Infinite is a blissful package of story and character that absolutely enveloped me in its world, and I’m certain it wouldn’t have been a quarter as popular if not for all the bullets and flesh-eating crows.


But would it have lost its emotional impact with them? I seriously doubt it. Because the element of play was so infused into what you were engaging in that those moments of blowing open robot presidents and dodging tin bird golems often felt like filler. Exciting filler, sure. And there’s even an argument to be made that without your visceral fight to protect the lovely Elizabeth, you wouldn’t feel as invested in her relationship with you. Which is valid. But couldn’t that investment have just as easily come from any number of other options? Maybe—maybe not. But I think we can all agree that the shooter choice was the correct one in order to get this story to as many people as possible—at least in the FPS-centric world we live in today.

But it’s important to recognize that it isn’t the only option.

Which brings me back to Dear Esther. Which is indeed a game. Because play is about taking on a role. Whether that is the role of a Navy SEAL executing terrorists or the role of a tormented man who misses his dead wife doesn’t matter. In both Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare and Dear Esther, you’re being taken for a ride, and occasionally you get to steer.

Dear Esther and other walking simulators like it are the game equivalent of Weezer’s “Come Undone”—you take the thread of the sweater and walk away with it, unraveling and unraveling until Rivers Cuomo is topless and exposed to the harmful UV rays of the sun. And like those proto-emo, sun drenched nipples: it’s not for everybody.

It is a laborious, arduous process that involves making your way across a scenic and gorgeous island as the story is slowly made known to you. It is beautifully written and filled with the same tragedy, love, and hope that so enamored me to Bioshock Infinite: thus the constant comparisons. There is no opportunity to hold down a button and run your way through it, either—so take your time. And choose a time that you’ve got an hour or two to devote to it: Dear Esther can be finished in one sitting, and really should be for the sake of absorbing everything it has to offer.

It’s a beautiful game: one with a story that makes for a unique and wonderful experience. And it is a game. A game that is equal to so many films, television shows, plays, and works of literature I have experienced in the past. And unlike many of those other works of art, I felt like I was a part of it. I was the one turning my head and taking it all in. I could have been done in an hour or I could have been done in ten hours. I felt absorbed by it. I was a true part of its hope and strife and tragedy and beauty.

Tell me how that would have been greatly improved by a minigun.


Tasteful Detritus Of The 90’s: Thoughts On The Gen 13 Mini Series

Gen 13.

Oh, for god’s sake… Did I use to read this?

I mean, I have positive, Weapon-X style memories of humor and breasts and excellence… But then again that was the nineties: when I read Wizard Magazine like it was the word of John the Baptist, second edition, and Liefeld taught me that men and women were fifteen feet tall with eleven bendable joints in each leg.

You punks don’t know how important Jim Lee was to us: he was the legitimacy that turned Image from a middle finger at Marvel and DC to an honest-to-god enterprise. Without J. Scott Campbell’s perverted, big-eyed scrawls, you crotch fruit wouldn’t have your precious “The Walking Dead”.

Pictured: The 90's.
Pictured: The 90’s.


I’m sorry: I think I’m trying too hard here to justify this particular aspect of my childhood. Let me get back to the point. Yeah.

So… Gen 13.

That was a thing that happened.

It wasn’t bad, really: even reading it again after twenty years, it has its appeal. I mean, you lusted after Fairchild and laughed at Grunge’s jokes (they didn’t really kick in all that well until the unlimited run) and some of us even patted ourselves on the back for supporting a comic that contained an openly gay character (even if it was the sexy, hold-your-breath-and-let’s-experiment-because-this-is-college style gay).

There's gay and then there's 90's gay.
There’s gay and then there’s 90’s gay.

Look, if you’re younger or more cause-head inclined, I understand why you hate me for remembering this in even a vaguely positive light, but it was a different time. All the comics had variant, super-collectible covers, and the girls were eighteen feet tall, and all I wanted was something colorful and exciting to keep my mind off of middle and high school awkwardness.

It wasn’t all bad. I mean, I probably wouldn’t have discovered the more abstract work of Sam Keith or Jeff Smith if it wasn’t for this boner-bait.

Gen 13 was that dweeby, uncomfortable moment in our Nerdling history where our picture books were just unironically and unapologetically stereotypical. Between games of Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego we used to stare at books like these until the part in our brain that begged us to find a girl with a nice personality was reduced to a withered, dried-out husk.

So, in the age where Meat Loaf was attempting a comeback, I liked this book. And the fact that I’m not particularly proud of that means (to me, at least) that this is the sort of book that Nerd Scholars should pick up in an attempt to better understand how decadent the nineties were to a niche group that hadn’t yet achieved some level of mainstream popularity due to people like Judd Apatow and Joss Whedon.


First Draft Sex Toys: Thoughts On Chuck Palahniuk’s “Beautiful You”

“A billion husbands are about to be replaced.”

Oh, shut up.


This had its moments: I won’t lie. There’s a twanging absurdity to just about anything that Chuck Palahniuk writes that will drive me to dig through it for something meaningful–he can be so uniquely readable. But lately it’s just been one disappointment after another. I don’t know if it’s ego or the assembly-line attitude of literature that seems to be at work lately, but something’s got to give for Palahniuk to retain any of the credibility he gained from Fight Club, Surivivor, Invisible Monsters, and Choke.

Beautiful You isn’t the female companion piece to Fight Club that everyone seems to believe it to be. It’s got an interesting twist and a unique point of view–but the story itself is so boring I felt the need to read Choke back to it in order to remind it what beautiful sexual satire and vulgarity can really do properly. And that’s not to suggest that this idea–this entire book–couldn’t be saved. I do believe that the horrors of rape and desensitivity exist in this book for satirical purposes–but they’re so clumsily wielded that it feels instead like just more shocking shock that shocked you for the purposes of shocky shockery.

Chuck, my friend–this isn’t a finished book. This is a first or second draft. Don’t publish your second drafts.

That’s actually pretty good advice for anyone.

It had its moments, but an intriguing climax and resolution comes too late after many, many pages of what appears to be South Park style satire written by someone who is a fan of Palahniuk’s, instead of Chuck himself. When he takes his time, Palahniuk can create books that make you want to headbutt your boss’s smug grin into oblivion (in the name of justice, of course). Rant comes to mind–Rant was good.

I’d like another Rant.

I don’t know who told you that you needed to pump out a book a year, Chuck, but you should probably punch that person. Punch him or her plenty good. And take your time with the next one.

Face Off: Thoughts on “The Joker: Death Of The Family”

Dammit, I tried.

I had me a long, honest discussion with myself. I said, “Well, Phil–doesn’t this look good? Haven’t you been intrigued by the New 52 and quite enjoyed Batman Incorporated?”

I said, “You’re right, voice. Also, I enjoy spooky. Spooky is good.”

So I picked this trade up (I read trades now–my premade explanation goes something like “I’m an adult”) and I took it home. It felt like a dishonest purchase because I had already been fairly unimpressed with the storyline behind The Joker’s (ahem) facial reimagining. But I figured, hell–just go with it. Sometimes the stalest cookie provides the most gratifying gas.

batgirl14What followed the next couple of days was a frustratingly uneven experience–like a broken electric blanket that leaves you warm and womb-like one minute and delivers painful bolts to your scrotum the next. As we passed from one book and author to another, there was a numbing yo-yo effect that somehow marred even the good authors assigned to it. Gail Simone’s take on Batgirl was, as always, nearly perfect. On the other hand, I went into the book unsure of whether or not Teen Titans would ever be worth reading, and came out the other side with an answer I won’t spoil for those of you who haven’t enjoyed a cocktail with me (hint: I do not like the Teen Titans and never will, apparently).

Hell, near the final few books, it felt like they were just re-telling the same storyline over and over again. Joker tricks our fearless hero, babbles about weakening the Bat while our fearless hero stares at him fearlessly from his or her fearless bonds. Usually he kills someone you love (who was probably introduced an issue or two before).

Oh, and he shows you a gore-spattered covered dish just in time for the POV to change. That’s apparently a very important part of his designs.

But when it’s good, it’s just so good. I’ve mentioned Simone, but John Layman, Peter Tomasi, and Scott Snyder are really solid writers, as well. But the brass they’re polishing is attached to a bloated, overthought, and underwhelming ship that may or may not require further Titanic metaphors in the future.

The faceless Joker is your girlfriend’s Jagermeister tramp stamp that she got on spring break. I mean, it looks okay now that she’s young and taut. But years later when you’re looking for a house and she’s asking you to pick her up a bottle of calcium tablets on the way home from work, it’s just going to look kind of confusing and out of place.

It’s a massive build up to a conclusion that leaves you anything but stirred. All of the Joker’s horror-filled escapades–they mean nothing in the end. All of his horrible threats are snatched away far too easily. There is no consequence, and in the end, no one has learned anything, no matter what the dreamy epilogue suggests. And no, before you ask: that isn’t the point.

So, oh well–ho hum. This could have been done so much better. If they wanted to shock us, couldn’t they have just gone with subtlety and detective work?



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