Update on my time with Book of Travels

It’s been just about two weeks since the game launched, and I’ve been playing Book of Travels for barely over a week. I’ve tried to log in on the weekday evenings that I’ve had a little extra free time, but play has mostly been limited to the weekend. I’m continuing to have a great time with the game, although I acknowledge that I’m still not all that far along. I wanted to post this update because my few big problems with the game’s bugs are largely resolved after the implementation of the first patch. This Saturday has seen my first extended amount of time in the game since the patch, and a lot of troubling issues are gone. Transportation by vehicle seems to be entirely fixed, no longer causing random location warping or getting a player character stuck (though the transition time with vehicle transport is still rather long–a minor complaint at best). [Update: a few hours of playtime after I wrote this, I did have an incident in which my character got stuck next to a dock after arrival, so this is not fully fixed.] I’ve been consistently able to locate my character in servers within my set geographic region over the past week. Sometimes actions can be a bit delayed and moving away from an action can cause the player character to sort of slide in place over the ground for a couple seconds, but overall I can do what I intend to do and without resistance. I haven’t had to log out or exit the game at all to fix any issues. I have had no game-crashing problems. At this point, the only disruptive bugs I’ve noticed at all are of two sorts. First, sometimes characters will have the text “[CUSTOM POEM]” instead of their intended dialogue. Second, with longer play sessions, sometimes status effects don’t dissipate or activate like they should. In other words, the game is already rather stable, and if that was a reservation about playing, I would say that you can set those worries aside and give the game a try now.

That said, I want to also update a little bit about what I’ve been up to in the game. Most of this has been helping locals with small tasks, delivering the occasional message/package, fishing and foraging, and trading. I have a larger goal of trading up to eventually getting a Master Iron Cog, since it’s a high-value item and in demand on the docks of Myr. I keep getting sidetracked by useful, novel, and/or quirky skills offered by certain vendors, so my hoard of goods is at times greatly reduced by a splurge on some skill or another. I’ve also barely dipped my toe into the combat mechanics. After my Mosswalker character, Eno, got a little too close to scary-looking supernatural creatures and was once chased across the countryside by some bandits, he finally purchased a blade. But he had no proficiency in it, wasn’t prone to combat, and felt a little awkward carrying it, so he stored it in his pack. On one of his trips through Myr, he remembered a warden who offered some combat training. And so this warden taught him armor and weapon proficiencies, then suggested they have a duel. Anxious, Eno accepted. They paced out and drew swords, and while the match was close, the warden bested him. Eno felt that he’d had a narrow defeat, despite it being his first attempt, and so challenged the warden again. The warden again drew his blade, but this time, Eno more carefully timed his strikes and actually won the duel! Now he feels emboldened to wear his half-sword at his waist, but outside of occasionally taking up non-lethal sparring matches in the form of duels, it’s unlikely that he’s actually going to engage in combat anytime soon. His laid-back attitude, spiritual nature, and mechanical interests mean that he’s not looking for action, adventure, and excitement, and he’ll still be inclined to avoid a fight.

Combat is very interesting, and I am contemplating a combat-focused alt. When you want to fight someone, you select a battle stance, and you’ll engage with your opponent as you both pace out and size each other up. Factors like speed inform your initiative, and whoever’s initiative bar is depleted first takes the lead. You select an attack button to fight, but there’s a lot of strategy and luck in the actual fighting. The longer you wait before attempting a strike, the higher the probability that your attack will actually land. Striking quicker means a lower probability of success, but if you land your hit, you disrupt your opponent’s increasing probability of scoring a successful hit in turn. Additionally, a hit decreases your opponent’s ward by the amount of your force of attack. Whoever depletes ward to zero first wins. You can flee combat in a blind panic, without control, and with a resultant morale loss, but you avoid a risk to your life. It’s an interesting system that gives weight to combat, allows for a sense of samurai-dueling artistry, and balances the high stakes with a fast-paced resolution. Hopefully I’ve explained all that right, but there’s more to it, with more skills like magic knots that can be employed. And of course, my two duels were in a safe environment, did not require fleeing, used just the single attack option, and did not cause a loss of life petals. Life petals are a whole other thing and, if I understand correctly, a character can permanently die if their life petals are fully depleted. Life petals are also difficult to restore. I’ve made sure Eno hasn’t been in a situation so risky that he’s lost any yet, so that’s another system that I don’t fully understand yet.

I think it’s safe to say that there’s a lot to this game that I don’t understand yet, because there’s already a lot to uncover with time and patience. And of course, some systems are not even fully implemented yet. I’m really eager to see more content in future updates. I’m excited for later updates that should add more creatures and characters, allow access to new regions, and build out existing experiences (like giving stakes to playing the card/dice game Passage). Figuring out what happened with Kasa, and getting to the inevitable reopening of that great trading city, will be cool. But there’s plenty to do now, as the game exists. I could see someone getting bored at this stage because the game is structured around giving yourself things to do, setting your own goals and direction, rather than being guided by more and more quests. I, however, remain satisfied as my notebook continues to grow with notes about hints, rumors, and goals.

Early access, early thoughts: Book of Travels

I suddenly started seeing coverage for Book of Travels this past Thursday. That happened to be the day after the game launched for early access, after an apparently delayed development process. I knew none of this context. I hadn’t even heard of Swedish indie developer Might and Delight before this. I just knew, upon seeing screenshots of the game and reading descriptions of its focus, that this seemed very much so a game for people like me. I just started playing yesterday and have fallen thoroughly in love with this charming title.

Might and Delight is marketing Book of Travels as a Tiny Multiplayer Online RPG, or a TMORPG (in contrast to MMORPGs, of course). Individual servers are capped at seven players. While you could easily join some friends in a shared server and chat over Discord, socialization within the game is rather light and whimsical. There is no chat text bar. There is only a selection of simple emotes to communicate basic ideas and emotions, just enough to potentially nudge other players to work together. Groups are organically assembled just by being around others for a little bit, but they’re also easy to leave. Most of your time, you will probably be alone, wandering the idyllic fields and forests of this fantasy world.

There are other big differences. The game’s core priorities and mechanics are quite different from most MMORPGs. The very start feels different, as you pick broad, archetypal Forms rather than specific classes, and you pick a variety of background elements like a basic origin story, a starting “wind” that you were born under that relates to things you are inclined toward rather like a meteorological astrology alternative, and some basic descriptors for your external appearance. A great deal can be augmented with free text fields, empowering organic roleplaying rather than mechanics-focused results. Those free text fields are even used for age and gender. While you can type in a nickname, your first and last name are supposed to be important to your character and determined through in-game dice roles to ensure that everyone has an immersive identity; your starting equipment, just some basic clothing, food, and/or tools, is also rolled. A focus on roleplaying and immersion are therefore baked in from the start. The game should feel different from any other MMORPG, with beautiful storybook imagery presented from a side-view perspective, with obstructing trees or rocks popping into or out of view as you advance toward the foreground or retreat into the background; movement and interaction are both guided by a point-and-click system that feels far more like what I’d expect in a classic/retro adventure game or isometric RPG. Where stats matter most, perhaps, is when completing endeavors, which require the application of a skill at a certain level to do something like completing a mystic ritual at a shrine or fixing a machine. Stats are augmented not just by the player character’s individual ability but also by equipment and the presence of other player characters working in a group to complete an endeavor, so even then there is more than one way to complete these optional events. There are tasks given to you, but there is no automated journal, and there are no quest markers; you need to make your own notes in your own real-world notebook and consult the in-game maps to determine what you’re needing to accomplish and where. Magic is also a little different, with instant-effect magical abilities achieved through the tying of knots imbued with reagents and longer-term status effects achieved through the brewing of special teas.

I understand that roleplaying is always available in any MMORPG. Collecting herbs and fishing are common tasks. But they’re additional features. Roleplaying and immersion are not the focus. I remember the old description of two open-world game types: theme parks versus sandboxes. Theme parks are oriented around keeping the player constantly entertained with structured diversions. Sandboxes don’t have structure, they just provide an open setting for players to interact with and hopefully make their own fun in. Most MMORPGs are theme parks, whereas Book of Travels is decidedly a sandbox with a focus on player-inflected, dynamic storytelling (though there are plenty of interesting characters and events, and there is plenty of interesting lore, within this sandbox).

There is no main quest to set off on. To the extent that there’s a larger narrative, I’ve barely touched on it (if at all) so far in my travels. I follow hints, tips, and rumors disclosed by non-player characters I encounter. I set off for interesting destinations on my map or explore interesting features within the region I find myself in. I have mostly just wandered the roads, and sometimes off-road, interacting with the denizens of the land, discovering new things, running a few errands for people I encounter, and collecting herbs and flowers and other botanical odds and ends. I could tell you that those plant samples are going to be used as reagents for magical knots and teas, but I honestly just like collecting them as I explore. My character’s Form is that of “The Mosswalker,” whose cryptic description states, “Deep cleft bright in small delight.” The associated artwork shows a figure, sunhat tipped low, reclined against a grassy slope, smoking a pipe with a tea set prepared nearby, shoes kicked off and a couple bundles of items dropped to the ground. I’ve used that as inspiration for a languid, easy-going fellow who simply enjoys seeing the world, rather in line with the brief introductory scene describing the character as wandering off from a caravan to explore a given path. I walk almost always, almost everywhere (and the stamina system encourages walking). I spend long stretches of time in the game picking plants or fishing or simply observing. I’ve only played for eight hours so far, but it’s significant that I have not fought man or beast throughout that time and do not even own a weapon. You can certainly play a character in pursuit of danger and adventure, and I might at some point start such a character, but I love that there’s a multiplayer RPG that prioritizes roleplaying, immersion, and adventure over combat and leveling. For that matter, I’m not even impeded in advancement, to the extent that I need/want to advance my characters’ skill repertoire, since you get Knowledge Points (basically experience points) simply by interacting with things and people in the world and learning more.

There are two really fun social interactions I’ve had in the game so far that I’d like to share, as well. First, I happened across another Traveler who was fishing off a pier near a teahouse. I used emotes to indicate a friendly greeting and a thumbs up, and the other player reciprocated. I joined them at the pier and started fishing too. We stood side by side, simply fishing, for maybe a half an hour. About halfway through, I chose an emote indicating two people and gave a thumbs up, and they emoted a smile in return. When the other player finally went off to pursue some adventure, they waved goodbye, and I did the same with a heart icon, which they reciprocated as well. I’ll never know who that person was, and I very likely will never encounter their character again, but it was a surprisingly peaceful, authentic, and human interaction between two people, two total strangers, just sharing some time together.

The other unique incident was when I was wandering through a familiar orchard at night; I came across a person who needed greater mystical help than I could provide, but there was another Traveler nearby. I initiated the endeavor, and without any further prompting, the other Traveler joined in, and we succeeded. We exchanged thumbs-up and parted ways. Just simple little encounters that still felt really special and powerful in the moment.

There are some bad things. So far, it’s nothing to do with the gameplay or the world as designed. There are just a lot of bugs. I’ve had a lot of issues with using the train or the ferry to travel places; the game has trapped me in areas after disembarking, or it has warped me back and forth between my departure and arrival points. These issues were always fixed by logging out or exiting the game and signing into a server again. I made sure to report the issue, of course, since it’s an early access game and the point is to further develop and improve the game until its full, official release. There has also been a problem where my character simply does not exist on many servers; this has been a widespread enough issue that it seems to have been prioritized, and there was an update on one of the game’s Discord channels today that this should have been resolved through a server reset. There have been a few other, less disruptive issues, as well. Given how much fun I’ve had, they’re all worth putting up with. But you might want to keep that in mind if you’re considering whether to hop into Early Access or wait.

Other than some issues that I am confident will be ironed out in the coming days and weeks, I love virtually everything about this game. We’ll see how long I stay with it, but I could see myself continuing to play for longer than I have any traditional MMORPG. It’s fresh and exciting and original and really feels like I’m discovering a genuine new land with its own distinct cultures, an experience I haven’t felt with a game since perhaps Morrowind. And the developers are promising considerable new content, with many more lands opening up, as the game continues in its Chapter Zero segment of Early Access. I’m excited to see where its roads take me.

Review: The Many Saints of Newark

With The Many Saints of Newark, “the movie was not set up as a Tony Soprano origin story. It was a story about Dickie Moltisanti and it still is. It’s a gangster movie. It’s about gangsters in the late sixties, early seventies in New Jersey, both black and white,” David Chase told interviewer Alan Sepinwall with Rolling Stone in August. This provides a clear mission statement for the intended plot and themes of the film. While I think that goal is clear enough in the final product, it still is fundamentally an origin story, in part for Tony, but also in part for the entire Sopranos series.

In that same interview, Chase expressed some clear frustrations about the project: that he was not ultimately able to direct, that the movie was released immediately on HBO Max alongside the theatrical release, and that the movie was marketed as A Sopranos Story and as an origin story for Tony. But he also made clear that he pushed back on actual changes to the movie itself, and he said that he did not add more to Tony’s plot despite studio pressure and the remarkable ability of Michael Gandolfini to embody his late father’s appearance and mannerisms. So I think it’s safe to say that The Many Saints of Newark is more or less the movie that Chase as writer and one of the producers, cowriter Lawrence Konner, and director Alan Taylor set out to make.

All that said, it is not possible to separate this movie from The Sopranos. It’s not just a gangster movie. One of the four people I saw the movie with had not seen The Sopranos, and the surprise reveal at the end of the movie mostly left her bemused, not impressed and certainly not surprised. The characterizations in the film, with its colossal ensemble cast, largely rely on familiarity with the existing characters; while virtually all of the actors are allowed to bring their own takes to these well-known figures, there’s certainly a degree of impression baked into each portrayal of a younger version of a familiar character. That means that someone without knowledge of the show, or who maybe hasn’t watched it since it came out, will miss out on the foundation provided by the original portrayals of these characters, likely finding most of the performances to be too brief to provide more than superficial personalities. I’d also suspect it would be difficult to track the characters; I watched the show over the past year or so, and I still was uncertain about who some of Tony’s same-age friends, barely if ever mentioned by name, were. (Here I’m actually grateful that this was simultaneously released for home streaming, because I’m sure to watch again with subtitles on to pick up on more dialogue and see if some elusive character names are provided.)

The film also adds a tremendous amount to one’s understanding of the characters in The Sopranos. There’s plenty to unpack. Young Tony sees Dickie’s aging father bring home a beautiful Italian immigrant and beams up at her; it’s hard not to draw the connection to his hallucinatory Italian beauty decades later. Dickie and Tony have a relationship that mirrors, in many ways, Tony’s later mentorship of Dickie’s own son. A younger Livia looks somewhat similar to Carmela. The movie is an exploration of Tony’s boyhood psyche.

We see more clearly the forces at work in Tony’s life, pulling him many ways. While Livia’s borderline personality disorder is just as disruptive to her family’s lives as ever, it’s also made crystal-clear that Tony’s idealized vision of his father doesn’t match the thuggish and violent figure of his past. As a nice example of this, in a late-series episode of the show, Janice tells a drink-infused story about how Johnny once shot a gun through Livia’s hair when they were driving home from a dinner; Tony is quickly angered that Janice brings this up at all and denies that it ever happened. But we see this scene in the movie, and it’s truly horrifying, an abrupt switch from Livia’s constant complaining to the loud blast of the gun in the night and the brief moment when everyone in the car is sitting in shocked silence. That scene also provides an example of where the events depicted don’t quite line up with the story as told in the series; in fact, we even see some scenes from the series’ flashbacks that don’t quite happen exactly the same way, or events that don’t seem to match up with the suggested timeline of what happened in the show. It’s an interesting portrayal of the slipperiness of memory, the subjectivity of perspective. Even the movie itself shouldn’t be interpreted as the “canon” events of the Sopranos story, with its sparing use of surreal imagery and the frame narrative that is Christopher Moltisanti (voiced again by Michael Imperioli) telling the tale of his father from the grave.

It’s also not really about “black and white” gangsters in equal consideration, or about the Newark riots. At the core of the movie, this is a story about the relationship between young Tony and his “uncle” Dickie. There is a B plot involving the Newark riots, white flight, and anti-black racism from the police and the Italian-American community. That B plot has a lot of heady material but does not delve deep enough–I wonder if such an effort was even necessary at all in a movie about a particular Italian-American crime family, and I would argue that the result is largely a distraction from the main narrative. Despite providing a rival black mobster, Harold, (played by Leslie Odom Jr.) to follow as he breaks away from working for the Italian-Americans and launches his own numbers racket, we don’t truly see much from a black perspective. We see the riots, even up close, from a mostly outside perspective, often tinged with fear as the characters focus on the chaos and violence rather than the underlying racism and racial tensions that led to the riots, or we see them as the Italian-American mobsters use the riots as a smokescreen for their own illegal activities. Again, this would be fine if the movie were about the Italian-American criminals’ perspectives only, but it’s ostensibly about viewpoints from both sides of a racial and cultural divide.

As it is, the story is about Dickie, and we don’t really get enough time to understand Harold’s motivations or end goal. The Italian-American characters often have moments to talk to another character in moments of vulnerability, signaling their deeper emotions and concerns even if not stating them outright, and I do not recall Harold getting many such moments. It is a struggle to even sympathize with Harold, as he serves more as an antagonist stealing away from Dickie than an active agent in his own right. His turn to starting his own criminal empire is largely motivated by black empowerment performance art, leaving a spoken word session with the determination not to help his community but to get rich off his black neighbors through vice on his own terms. Certainly there was no need to make Harold more heroic, or smarter, than the Italian-American characters, but it was clear that his choice would lead to a lot of bloodshed and suffering for the people close to him, and it was unlikely that there would be any scenario where Harold would win big in a war against a much more powerful enemy. Additionally, in a moment that has very little setup in the film, we find out that he’s having an affair with Dickie’s own mistress, which seems more primed to reflect fears of interracial mixing or a slide away from the establishment of a white middle-class identity for Italian-Americans than anything that actually seems relevant to the characters’ experiences. In general, Italian-American racial attitudes and fears were provided ample screen time, while there was not really anything that felt like an authentic black perspective–although it’s worth noting that Leslie Odom Jr., the great actor that he is, found personal resonance in the role of Harold and attempted to bring a rich portrayal to what David Chase wrote.

It was not hard to remember that this was a movie created by older white men (making the recurrent use of the N-word by black characters a little cringeworthy, given who wrote the dialogue and made the choice to employ it). There are still plenty of stories to be told about protests, riots, injustice, and race relations then and now, but that story certainly wasn’t shared very coherently here. If anything, this subplot felt like a distraction from the core story, which very much was a Sopranos prequel. And there are stories to be told about the many lived experiences of black Americans, which can include tales of organized crime–in fact, the third-act appearance of Oberon Adjepong as real-life gangster Frank Lucas in a mostly cameo role is a reminder that there is already at least one good, complex portrait of a black crime lord in American Gangster.

As a Sopranos prequel, this movie excels. I’ve already talked about this, but it’s worth emphasizing that Many Saints adds new layers to the characters and events of the original series. Of course, if there were a single protagonist in the movie, it’s not anyone named Soprano, but rather Dickie Moltisanti, portrayed by Alessandro Nivola, who effortlessly swings between affably charming and murderously enraged. Dickie has a large influence in The Sopranos, despite being dead for decades by the start of the series. He’s representative of the good old days that are past. Tony’s explanation for Dickie’s death and the quest for vengeance he gives to Christopher are important late-stage moments in their fraying relationship. Finding out who Dickie was and what actually happened to him proves to be a worthy subject for an addition to the Sopranos narrative. He proves to be as tragic, gifted, and flawed a character as Tony ever was, sympathetic even as a criminal yet prone to horrific and inexcusable conduct when enraged. The return of his abusive father with a beautiful young Italian woman as his new stepmother sets off an Oedipal narrative that ends as wretchedly for Dickie as it did for Oedipus. There’s plenty of psychological subtext throughout the film, and Dickie’s conflicted feelings regarding his stepmother and his father–redirected toward guilt-assuaging visits to his father’s twin brother (with both brothers played by Ray Liotta) after the father’s death–are an essential part of his story.

I saw some critics complain that the movie does not offer a convincing turn to organized crime for Tony. But the movie ends with him only beginning to make that commitment, not through literal action but through an unspoken vow. A lot is left unsaid. A lot still must happen on Tony’s journey. But this is not a flaw of the film. There is enough to wink at Sopranos fans, but this movie is not, and never was, an origin story for Tony’s entrance into organized crime. Yeah, I’d watch a sequel with the cast assembled here reprising their roles as younger versions of iconic characters to actually depict that journey, but I also don’t need that movie. Yes, this is an origin story, but more than the specific path Tony took to becoming a mobster, this movie gives us even more insight into the roots of his later-life neuroses and provides a riveting tale of the tragic end of Dickie Moltisanti and the turbulent time that would be remembered by Tony and crew through rose-tinted glasses years later as the good old days.

What I’m Into: Fall 2021

It’s been a long time since I’ve had posts just talking about what I was into at a given moment. Not review, or analysis, just an overview of everything engaging me at the moment. Those posts were sort of aimless, but also sort of fun, because I’d just talk about whatever was absorbing me at the moment. I’ve had so much narrowed focus on big franchise things lately on the blog that I think one of these sorts of scattered, aimless, free-form posts is long overdue.

So, what am I into right now?

What I’m Reading

I’m reading quite a few things, hopping between them. I’m finally around to Michael Crichton’s posthumous Dragon Teeth, which so far has been an enjoyable Western adventure romp with the fairly unique focus on the Bone Wars and early field paleontology. Marsh and Cope are characterized quite colorfully but the rest of the cast, including the protagonist, are fairly bland. I’m simultaneously reading Star Wars: Master & Apprentice by Claudia Gray, which does a great job portraying Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan at an especially fraught moment in their relationship before the events of the prequel trilogy, alongside a lot of cool Jedi Stuff. Then I’m reading Jon Dubin’s Social Security Disability Law and the American Labor Market; it’s been a while since I’ve tackled a truly academic book, and so I’m making slow progress through this dense text despite the rather slender physical packaging, but it’s very worthwhile, and I’m sure it would be a tremendous resource not just for disability law scholars but practitioners like me and perhaps even a general reader seeking to better understand the arbitrary and archaic way that the Social Security Administration attempts to account for an individual’s ability to perform other work and to determine how much of that work actually exists, and in what form, in the national economy.

I’ve also been churning through the published materials for the Alien RPG from Free League. This is just tremendous stuff. I’m not particularly interested in published adventures in general but the cinematic mode gameplay modules that have been published so far offer some really tense, vivid, horrific scenarios. And mechanically, there are a lot of ways to make the players feel insecure, underpowered, under-resourced, and facing threats they can’t possibly comprehend or defeat. (I’ve seen at least one reviewer suggest that agendas and effects like panic take the roleplaying out of the players’ hands, but players would still have to play out how things happen–this if anything just sets up more dramatic opportunities and encourages a feeling of loss of control at key moments that reflects the horror focus of the game.) Just as importantly, the RPG recognizes that the Alien franchise has been about a lot more than the alien from the very beginning, and it builds out enough complicated politics between interstellar governments and mega-corps to provide entertaining storytelling possibilities for their open-sandbox campaign mode. I hope to get some friends to play through at least one or two of the cinematic games in the near future. I think I’ll have more to say about all the materials when I’m through reading them, but of course a proper review of a game is rather incomplete if not based on play experience, so you’ll have to take it with a grain of salt unless I get a group together for this quicker than I think likely. In fact, there are a few different Alien/Aliens posts coming up, but I’m going to keep them to a single day, rather than another series spanning multiple weeks; Halloween seems appropriate.

What I’m Playing

I’ve been in a bit of a tabletop gaming mood lately. Way back in February, I wrote about a routine I had of playing Ring Fit Adventure, a single-player RPG, and then Star Wars: Squadrons with friends over the course of the week. All of that’s changed since then. Ring Fit Adventure play is now quite sporadic. The single-player video game of choice varies a lot as well. And the Squadrons play changed over to (virtual) tabletop roleplaying with those friends; one of them has always been an exceptional gamemaster and has been leading us through an Edge of the Empire campaign, and I haven’t had this much fun with a tabletop RPG in years. I’ve even led a couple of sessions with some side characters set within the same continuity. So between that and reading the Alien materials more recently, I’ve been really energized to try to get to more tabletop roleplaying. As usual, I’ll probably spend a lot more time thinking about settings and stories than actually playing any of these systems, but it’s generative creative energy either way. In addition to the aforementioned materials, I broke down and purchased the Cypher System Rulebook and its Predation supplement because the Terra Nova-meets-Dinotopia-meets-Xenozoic setting looks too damn cool.

I also just pledged on Kickstarter to back a physical printing of Matthew Gravelyn’s survival-adventure journaling game Clever Girl because I can’t get enough of dinosaurs in games and fiction. It’s not the only unlicensed work heavily inspired by Jurassic Park that I’ve recently purchased–about a month ago, I got Dinosaur World from Pandasaurus; it’s a delightful competitive game about building the best dinosaur park you can, producing dinosaurs amid other attractions and amenities and attempting to keep interest in your park maintained through constant expansion and greater risk (it’s also a sequel to their previous Dinosaur Island, which I haven’t played). My wife and I have only played Dinosaur World once so far, and it took a while for us both to get a feel for how the rounds flowed and everything that we should be keeping in mind during the different phases. Once we got that down, it was a lot of fun, and I’ve been itching to play again with a full four players (it’s for 2 to 4).

We technically attended Gen Con this year, but we were only there for part of a day (Sam really struggles with crowds and being in public now). Nonetheless, between Gen Con and online purchases, I’ve picked up quite a number of board games–nothing super-new but certainly games released over the last few years that I’ve been wanting to play. Aside from Nemesis, the ones I picked out this year have been mostly licensed stuff. I’ll write more if/when I get around to these games. I also might write about some of the older games we haven’t played in a while if we pull them out in the coming months–which I hope to be the case more and more as we’re trying to set aside some time for board games, both between the two of us and with a couple friends, on a recurrent basis. Hopefully, there will be no dramatic new developments in the pandemic that would require us to back off from that.

Normally, I would have brought up video games sooner, but I haven’t been playing as much lately. I’ve been intermittently playing Mass Effect: Legendary Edition. I’m trying to do three playthroughs of each game in the trilogy (on top of the playthroughs I had in the original releases of these games). I’m currently on the second playthrough of the second game with my only Renegade character, and even without being a pure Renegade, I don’t enjoy how much of a dick you are with this playstyle. But I’ve been just as likely to play a little bit of Jurassic World: Evolution (yes, I keep coming back to it after all) or The Sims 4. I’ve even given Alien: Isolation another try, finishing…most of it. I’ll have a post about that experience on Halloween, as well. The video game I’m most excited about isn’t even out for about another month: Jurassic World Evolution 2 looks like an improvement on the original in about every way–and at 280 hours recorded, I’ve now put more time into this game than any other in my Steam library.

What I’m watching

I re-watched “The Ninth Jedi” and “The Elder” from Star Wars: Visions this weekend. They’re so good. I’ve also been watching Letterkenny, Marvel’s What If…?, DC’s third season of Titans, and Only Murders in the Building. I’m only current on Only Murders, which is hilarious while simultaneously being surprisingly heartfelt and mysterious. Martin Short, Steve Martin, and Selena Gomez are all delivering fantastic performances every episode. Lastly, for television at least, I’ve started watching The Haunting of Bly Manor, just as most people are now talking about Mike Flanagan’s latest Netflix series, Midnight Mass. Ah, I’m forever behind the times.

I don’t think I’ve watched very many new or new-to-me movies recently, or at least not since The Suicide Squad, which has already been nearly two months ago. Once more, it’s what’s in the near future that my attention is more focused on. I’ll be seeing The Many Saints of Newark, actually in a cinema, sometime this week, and I’ll also be going to Dune in theater later this month or early November. I’m sure I’ll be posting reactions to both when I can.


I’ve written before about trying to balance consumption of big franchises and existing IP with original creative works. Looking at my blog posts this year, and paying attention to what I’m currently engaging with, I am a little disappointed to realize how heavily my consumption has favored the former this year. But since 2020, life has been tumultuous for a lot of people, and that’s certainly been true for my house. Plus, work has remained quite busy for about a year now. So I guess it’s okay if I’m taking in more junk comfort entertainment. I’d also argue that even though these creative works most benefit large corporations and often regurgitate existing ideas, characters, plot structures, and so on, some of the current franchise productions are managing to mine new territory and do really interesting things. Still, it’s something worth being mindful of, and it might gradually lead to a rebalance of what I’m spending my time on.

I think I’d like to sign off by doing something a little differently and talk specifically about what I’m into creating instead of just consuming. Outside of this blog and the briefs I prepare for work, I haven’t written consistently in a long while now. But I do have sporadic bursts of creativity. I try to jot ideas down in a journal. Over the past few months, a few dreams have connected with other, older ideas and led to two full outlines for fantasy stories set in a shared universe. I think they’re each maybe novella length, at least, and I’d really like to devote some time to writing those stories in full. I’ve also been dabbling with fan fiction, though I haven’t completed any of those projects. Some of it’s been related to those Jurassic Park gap stories I mentioned in that series of posts on here. The fantasy stories are closer to my heart and so even if I finish them, I probably won’t post more than some excerpts here, but I think I very well might just post any finished fan fiction to this blog. Maybe writing this here, publicly, will get me to commit to completing some of these projects.

And that’s just about everything I’m into, for now.

Review – Star Wars: Visions

Star Wars: Visions is an incredible creative treasure trove and probably the single most-exciting and innovative addition to the franchise since…I can’t even say when, but certainly at least since I’ve been a fan. The easiest comparison point I can make isn’t even a work of fiction, exactly, but the West End Games release of the Star Wars roleplaying game, before my time as a fan. That opened the galaxy up wildly, inviting players to take on new roles and tell their own stories while providing a great deal of new lore and settings and story prompts. In the same way, Visions is refreshingly free from the intertangled core relationships between familiar characters that fill most of Star Wars content (brief appearances by Boba Fett and Jabba the Hutt in a single episode of this anthology notwithstanding). But more than that, it feels free from the stranglehold of canon itself. You can choose to align the stories to the larger canon galaxy if you want, or imagine them in alternative universes, but they’re doing their own thing that’s not hung up on continuity or interconnected storytelling. It’s the freedom of creative energy from many creators also found in A Certain Point of View, but with a complete detachment from the films. It’s beautiful and inspiring.

Visions is, of course, an anthology series from different anime studios with very distinctive styles. For someone familiar with anime broadly and a fan of certain works, but lacking some of the cultural touchstones of a true fan (and I’d fall into this casual-fan category), you’ll surely recognize some influences, homages, and familiar styles. I’d be fascinated to know what a heavy anime fan made of the nine unique shorts, though. Just as excitingly, I think this is a great jumping-off point for someone with little to no familiarity with anime as a medium, as it showcases a wide range of art and animation styles, themes, and storytelling methods. Each episode feels quite unique.

It’s easy to binge all nine episodes, as I did; they’re all fairly short and intensely watchable. I can imagine easily re-watching many of these episodes again and again, as well. Every episode feels crafted by an auteur with a unique point of view and intent, and as a result, they’re all worth watching, although I certainly favored some over others. I expect that we’ll see a lot of officially licensed works, fan fiction, and analytical essays exploring the dimensions of each and every one of these episodes over time. I know I’d certainly like to see more, especially of my favorite stories of this batch, and basically every episode has some dangling plot threads that could be woven into follow-up chapters.

Speaking of favorites, there were a few knock-outs for me: “The Duel,” a story of a wandering Ronin who stumbles onto a village besieged by a group of bandits (lovingly rendered like an old black-and-white film with heavy nods to Akira Kurosawa, with splashes of color for lasers and lightsabers), from studio Kamikaze Douga; “The Ninth Jedi,” set in a distant future in which the Jedi have disappeared from the galaxy, where the daughter of a man who’s rediscovered the techniques behind crafting lightsabers must do her part to renew the Order, from Production I.G; and “The Elder,” showcasing a Master/Padawan team during the height of the Old Republic who stumble upon a powerful Dark Sider in the Outer Rim, from Trigger.

While those were the ones I most loved, virtually every episode had some charming character, intriguing idea, or gorgeous aesthetic. “Tatooine Rhapsody,” from Studio Colorido, managed to combine a band story, a gangster story, a Jedi in the Dark Times plot, and one really oddball punk Hutt. “The Village Bride,” from Kinema Citrus, offered another interesting alternative Force tradition and provided an understated redemption narrative for the Jedi exile protagonist that left a lot of intriguing mystery. “T0-B1,” from Science Saru, mixed a quirky, silly tone with some rather dark narrative and a classic animation style with themes that echoed Astro Boy, Mega Man, and Pinnochio–and it offers up a droid that may just be able to feel the Force, or at least who truly understands the concepts of the Force and finds a way of life more authentic to the Jedi way than the dreams of adventure he started off with. “Lop and Ochō,” from Geno Studio, has some truly gorgeous visuals and a strong emotional heart about complicated family dynamics, although the narrative itself is way too rushed and confused, deserving much more room to breathe and grow. “Akakiri,” from Science Saru, feels largely like an even more explicit remake of The Hidden Fortress than A New Hope, with a dash of Obi-Wan’s complicated history with Satine thrown in, up until its very dark twist ending, an ending that perhaps won’t feel so entirely surprising given how George Lucas tended to treat dreams and prophecy in his films–but this, too, is a whole lot of narrative that feels a tad rushed, or maybe ended too early, right when the story gets interesting. The only one I didn’t really like was “The Twins,” from studio Trigger just like “The Elder”; this story, rather than the brooding and tense investigation with a quietly dynamic mentor-student relationship at the core of “The Elder,” was exposition-heavy, flashy and over-the-top, heavy-handed with its ideas, and somewhat absurd in the excesses of its stylized action sequences, although my wife was a fan and could probably explain its charms quite well. There’s something for everyone in this set, and each story will appeal to someone, truly.

There’s a lot more that I could say about each episode. Like I said earlier, I expect there will be a lot of essays exploring elements of every episode, after all, and I think the episodes are worth that level of intense consideration. But I’ll leave this as a broad initial reaction: this was some incredible television, all the more remarkable because I’d felt rather indifferent about it until the opening scene of that very first episode. This is good Star Wars and good animation, well worth the viewing.

And yes, now I’m really stoked for Emma Mieko Candon’s Ronin, a novel that will expand on the world of “The Duel”; I’m sure we’ll see many more works that do similar for the other stories–or, at least, I really hope so.

Summary of GTA Series

I apparently never summarized this series when I originally prepared it, so, as I’ve been reorganizing some things following the conclusion of my most recent series, I wanted to get this a little more orderly. Here’s the series:

For the sake of completeness, I’m also linking to my much older post discussing the filmic influences on the games.

Summary of Arena Series

For convenience, I’ve linked to all my Arena posts here. Within each of the three categories, posts are ordered most recent to oldest. Note that simple announcement posts (about scheduling and such) are not included. At this point, I don’t anticipate continuing a playthrough further, so this is sadly an incomplete attempt to beat the game, but I think the journey was still memorable.

Primary Posts

Arena, Part XIII: Lost in the Labyrinth (in which Aizen solves yet another riddle and wanders through a maze without ever quite being totally lost)

Arena, Part XII: Beginning the Labyrinth (in which Aizen enters a wizard’s maze and reads vague clues)

Arena, Part XI: How I Did It (in which I explain how, exactly, Aizen finally completed the Fortress of Ice)

Arena, Part ???: I DID It (in which Aizen exults over completing the Fortress of Ice, in a rare, though not quite serious, in-character post)

Arena, Part X: Thawing The Fortress of Ice (in which Aizen learns that the Fortress of Ice is a hell on Tamriel)

Arena, Part IX: Welcome to the Frightfully Frozen Fortress (in which Aizen begins to explore the Fortress of Ice to find the location of Labyrinthian)

Arena, Part VIII: Defanging the Lair (in which Aizen recovers the first piece of the Staff of Chaos from Fang Lair and is told to find Labyrinthian in Skyrim)

Arena, Part 7.5 (in which I discuss miscellaneous events in the town of Rihad and in Stonekeep)

Arena, Part VII: Stonekeep Is Ghoulish This Time of Year (in which Aizen explores Stonekeep dungeon to learn the location of Fang Lair)

Arena, Part VI: Something Like Flow (in which Aizen does a lot of quests, robs the Mages Guild again, and heads to Hammerfell to try to find Fang Lair)

Arena, Part V: Sweet Revenge (in which Aizen teaches a mugger a lesson and then robs the Mages Guild)

Arena, Part IV: Setbacks (in which Aizen explores around Corkarth Run)

Arena, Part 3.5 (in which I learn how to speed up the game’s frame rate and resultantly have a better experience)

Arena, Part III: Late-Night Mugging! (in which Aizen meets a sexy blacksmith, gets attacked in the night, and learns a little more about Corkarth Run)

Arena, Part II: Believe Me, Wood Rot Is Everywhere (in which Aizen escapes prison and arrives in Corkarth Run)

Arena, Part I: Exiting Your Cell, Killing Goblins, and Other Such Things (in which Aizen starts his quest and attempts to escape the Imperial dungeons)

Don’t Put Me in the Arena Without Telling Me How to Fight! (in which I briefly play Arena but do horribly, and then review the manual)

Miscellaneous

Exoticism in Arena (in which I try to discuss race and cultural appropriation in the game)

Side Quest: Arena, Part II (in which I learn about Arena designer Ted Peterson)

Side Quest: Arena (in which I learn about Arena Chief Designer V.J. Lakshman)

Arena’s Funky Music (in which I discuss and sample Arena‘s MIDI music)

Fan Fiction

A Job For The New Moon (in which two dudes rob the Mages Guild)

Jurassic Park Series Summary

This Jurassic Park / World series of posts finally meets its end. I had fun with it, and I’m also glad to be returning to the roulette of random topics for future posts. Especially since this series had some off-topic posts intermingled over the many weeks since this began, a list of all the final individual posts seems useful. So, to recap, I wrote:

  1. The initial introduction;
  2. A comparison of the first novel and the first film;
  3. What I love about the largely panned sequel;
  4. How I’ve come to accept the third movie, flaws and all;
  5. A review of Blue’s character arc;
  6. Which themes made The Battle at Big Rock so exciting to me;
  7. A reading of the Jurassic Park films as metaphors for family trauma;
  8. Gap stories I’d like to see, or a list of fan fiction projects I’ll probably never get around to; and
  9. What’s on my mind about Dominion as we draw closer to its release.