Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Because Fuck Videogames

As has become abundantly clear in the past year, I don't really have the time or inclination to play games that aren't either a) ten years old or b) Bravely Default, so reviews are a rare feature here on Undisciplined. To correct this vital oversight, I've opted to do some brief reviews of games I know absolutely nothing about, beyond what I've heard from knowledgeable journos and game devs on the Twitter.

Kentucky Route Zero: This game is just so literary, you'll shit. It's like reading Moby-Dick in the original American. Presumably it involves Kentucky, and some sort of road. I like road trip narratives, whether they're about young women finding themselves and the true power of friendship, or dudes killing increasingly unimaginative monsters while listening to 70s and 80s metal. Kentucky Route Zero probably isn't like either of those, but regardless, it's literary. So literary. 10/10

Transistor: Some sort of cyberpunk RPG thing. Like Shadowrun, maybe? Sure, why not. Or Netrunner! The kids are playing Netrunner now, right? It looks pretty, and apparently it handles gender better than most games, but it's hard to imagine how much core gameplay you can wring out of electrical engineering. Nonetheless, it gives me hope that new stuff is being done somewhere other than the adventure genre. 10/10

Watch Dogs: Seriously, fuck Watch Dogs. 10/10

Monday, May 19, 2014

Community 1.01: Pilot

Pilots are strange things.

I'm sure analogous processes exist in other media, but none immediately spring to mind. It would be interesting if every novel came with a first chapter that lagged behind the rest of the book by several rewrites, but I doubt anyone would think it to be a sensible idea. However, the exigencies of television mean that often it's prohibitively expensive to do anything else. The pilot sets up the plot and characters, the all-important "why this day" that situates the narrative, but the show has often changed around that narrative by the time the series begins production: characters are added or lost, actors change, personalities soften or harden. The pilot often ends up feeling like an issue #0, an odd prequel of greatest value to completists.

30 Rock's pilot is famously uneven; Parks and Recreation's pilot is practically unrecognizable upon review. Cheers has an iconically strong pilot--Tina Fey cites it as an example of what the 30 Rock pilot wasn't--and it's a fine place to start when examining what a sitcom pilot is called upon to do. The cast is introduced one at a time, and paired with throwaway characters who set up the jokes, letting us in on what we'll need to know in a fairly organic fashion. Cheers gets a lot of mileage from adapting theater traditions to the multi-camera setup; the blocking is crisp and intuitive, the jokes well paced for audience response, and the comedy gets physical very quickly.

Community has its share of commonalities with Cheers: it's initially structured on a confident, likeable womanizer and the pretentious blonde he wants to hate-fuck. Both shows are about homes-away-from-home for various misfits, losers, and temporarily embarrassed geniuses. On Cheers, Diane is dropped into the plot via a specific disappointment; the rest of them are there by virtue of the sheer joy of drinking alcohol and the sublime shittiness of living and working (or not working) in Boston. Cheers is a finely tuned machine that starts off smooth and stays there well into its run. Community is messier. It's a show about messier, or at least it will become one when it begins in earnest with "Spanish 101." For now, Community #0, written by Dan Harmon and directed by Joe Russo.

It starts with the Dean, the muse who calls our players into being: Troy ("remedial athlete"), Britta ("twenty-something dropouts"), Shirley ("middle-aged divorcees"), and Pierce ("old people keeping their minds active as they circle the drain of eternity"). Jeff, Abed, and Annie fall outside even the domain of "loser-college" for now. Jeff's too awesome, perhaps, and Abed and Annie might be too weird even for Greendale. But we digress. (We'll digress in a minute. First, is that an uncredited Vicki in the crowd? This is the sort of thing that keeps me up at night.)

We see Jeff for the first time, being followed by a fast-talking Abed. Abed is upbeat and energetic, a storm of tics and gestures. Like the rest of them, he's a rough draft. The mostly unchanged Jeff, being too busy enacting the story to examine it, asks Abed about the blonde in their Spanish class, and Abed rattles off a surprisingly detailed biography, closing it with a verbatim performance of something Britta said to him earlier. (I have been known to employ variants of this. In my experience, Jeff's a lot less weirded out by it than most.) Having become acquainted with Britta via Jeff's interest and Abed's creepifying observational skills, along with a brief shot of her responding to the Dean's call, we'll have to wait a bit for more. Jeff has an appointment with one Prof. Ian Duncan, Psychology, to discuss the premise of the show. Jeff, accomplished badass lawyer, was caught with a fake degree and needs a real one, and apparently Greendale counts. That said, he doesn't intend to do any work, and asks Duncan to help him cheat. Mentions are made of when Jeff helped Duncan beat a DUI rap, but overall Duncan seems both competent and wise, a dignified man in an undignified milieu. (This, like so much else, will change.) Duncan, in his British sort of way, admonishes Jeff, and appeals to the value of learning. Jeff finishes what the Dean started, bringing the invocation to a close: "If I wanted to learn, I wouldn't have come to community college."

We're not quite where we need to be, for one location remains to be visited. In the cafeteria, after a brief shot of Pierce trying to scam some food, our third-person-limited consciousness floats over to Britta, cramming for the aforementioned Spanish test. Jeff ambles over and, seemingly off the top of his head, invents a backstory as a Spanish tutor, inviting Britta to join his "study group." Britta's Spanish is too weak to realize that he's full of shit--90% of everything is confidence, after all--so she agrees. The study group has been called into being!

Granted, it's bullshit. It's just something professional liar Jeff thought up to get laid. But an idea, once bidden, cannot be denied its reification, especially when it's taken into the study room. The study room is magical. I'm going to be writing a lot about the study room.

Appropriately, Britta lays out her baseline. All we know about her, at this point, is that she's desirable, so it's going to be Important: honesty. Above all else, honesty. Jeff, continuing the lie, does his best to roll with it. Abed enters, realizing that the story needs him, but we have a couple more stops to make before the show can begin.

Jeff meets Duncan on the athletic field, and they jabber about ethics. Jeff lays out the closest thing to an authentic identity we're going to get: "If I talk long enough, I can make anything right or wrong." Duncan sort of misuses "moral relativism," but he's a psychology professor, and you can't expect too much from those people. He seems to give in, and Jeff returns to find the rest of the cast.

Abed has invited them. Of course he has. Beyond the five we've already met is another, a young, dark-haired woman who seems quite skeptical of Jeff and his study group. Troy makes the first ever Seacrest joke. Oh, and Britta's gone. Attempting to bail, Jeff runs into her outside, and quickly changes his mind a second time.

Returned to the study room, Pierce introduces everyone, getting the names wrong and sexually harassing Shirley in the process. (In a pleasant change of pace for sitcoms, everyone in the room identifies it as such, even the token jock.) Annie's backstory, the Legend of Annie Adderall, is invoked. Jeff, still focused on his goal of a study group consisting only of Britta and himself, attempts to harness the group's internal tensions to destroy them, and they seem to be off to a good start when he gets a call from Duncan.

Duncan has agreed to help Jeff in exchange for his car, and Jeff accepts, faced with the terrifying prospect of studying. It's a short scene, and really, we ought to be getting back to the study room. Jeff meets Britta at the door, alarmed at the chaos inside. Jeff admits that he engineered the chaos in order to get them alone--I'm not sure if he's hoping the honesty will win him points, or hoping she'll be flattered at the scope of the manipulation in her pursuit--but she's only disappointed in him for using them all. Still, she agrees to go out to dinner with him if he fixes it. Thus inspired, Jeff strolls in and delivers the Very First Winger Speech. There's not easily accessible video of the scene, as far as I know, which is a shame, as I'd probably watch it every morning for inspiration. Jeff is lying, of course, in every word. In this scene, in this act to be repeated with every episode, is the basis of Jeff's character, and the frame that balances the show between sappy and cynical: the truth is what people want to hear, but not what they'll believe when they hear it. Jeff can tell the difference between truth and falsity, he's just swapped out the values. He tells the truth with lies, and lies with the truth.

"I hereby pronounce you a community."

At the conclusion of the speech, Annie is smiling so much she looks like she might be holding back tears. Britta breaks the moment by revealing to Jeff that she was lying about dinner, and she'd like him to politely fuck off and leave. He responds by offering to share the envelope full of test answers with the group.

On the steps outside, Jeff opens the envelope to find only blank pages and "Booyah" written, somehow, in John Oliver's accent. A brief confrontation with Duncan later--the moral status quo restored--brings us back to the steps, where the study group seems to instinctively want to comfort Jeff; Jeff instinctively finds himself giving advice. He protests the narrative role he's being boxed into: "I don't have any of the answers." When it's pointed out that he's obviously smart, Jeff's reply is one of uncommon insight, as far as pop culture generally goes: "Funny thing about being smart is that you can get through most of life without ever having to do any work." After a non-verbal conversation incomprehensible to Abed, Britta formally invites him back into the group his lie called into being, and after a beat, he follows them back inside.

There isn't a credits tag on this one, but there's a memorial nod to John Hughes, which I guess is close enough for a pilot. It's not much of an ending, and appropriately, neither is this. None of these characters are where they need to be, yet. Pierce is an unreconstructed hippie, Troy's a token jock who refers to Abed as "slumdog," Britta is pretty and perfect and empty. They'll change, albeit mostly in the next episode. Community is as much about how people don't change as it is about how they do. I'll also be changing, as I write more of these things up, and find the balance I need between vague commentary and tedious recap. I could spend a week reading the respected recappers and cutting this one down to size, but it seemed more prudent, and apropos, to just feel my way through. The best eps are in the second half of season three, anyway. I have semesters and semesters to learn.

First Appearances
Everything. It's the pilot.


  • Abed bursting into a scene from The Breakfast Club in response to tension.
  • The first and only explicit mention of Asperger's.
  • Dean Pelton appears but briefly, and the rest of the B-cast is unsurprisingly absent. The one exception, Prof. Duncan, will actually be absent most of the season. What can ya do.
  • Seriously, is that Vicki?

What Have We Learned?
"You are all better thank you think you are. You are just designed not to believe it when you hear it from yourself."


Thursday, May 15, 2014


ETA: An actual appropriate illustration.
While I work on exciting new content--you'll love it, there's going to be synergy and everything--a brief update to inform my vast and varied readership of a valuable crowdfundportunity.

Deborah, who you'd recognize from my links had I ever bothered to update them from when I set this thing up in 2008, is working on a big website thing to archive and annotate the works of Charlotte Mew.
File photo: Deborah J. Brannon.

"Who is Charlotte Mew?" It's a question being asked by the poorly educated with fingers far from the pulse of the community. Mew was an indie Victorian poet; you've probably never heard of her. If you'd like to contribute to a comprehensive archive of her work, like, and the existing scholarship that will no doubt be a tangible contribution to Victorian studies--and who wouldn't?--you can read up on the project and contribute hereThen, when all your dirtbag friends are talking about Victorian poetry, you can tell them that you were into Charlotte Mew when she was underground.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Harry Potter and the Emblem of Fire

I'm not sure why turn-based strategy games so frequently lack a difficulty setting between "Harlem Globetrotters" and "battle of Stalingrad," but it's something I've come to accept from the genre, and Fire Emblem certainly follows suit. My dawning awareness of this fact is the main thing I remember about my first experience with the series: alternating between easy, which felt less like a strategy game than an unusually long and condescending tutorial, and normal, which felt like playing chess when you never learned how to play, and also you're drunk, and someone keeps punching you in the face. I was reading Lord of the Flies at the time, working on an article about Bully and school shooting narratives--thank goodness THOSE aren't topical anymore--at my sister-in-law's place. Life was better, then. It had regular soda, and cigarettes.

The Sacred Stones was the my entry point into the Fire Emblem series, and the last game I remember purchasing for the Game Boy Advance. I'd spent more than fifteen years with the Game Boy and its variants, before the DS came along and perfected game consoles, so I suppose it's fitting that my final purchase was so memorable, but I don't remember what prompted me to buy it. I only know that right as I was starting to "get" it, I lost the damn thing somewhere in transit, and found it astonishingly difficult to replace without going to rather alarming expense. Fortunately, after a year or so of searching, a DS remake was released--Shadow Dragon, a remake of the series' premiere that I had missed--about which I wrote a mediocre and poorly proofed entry here.

I wasn't great at Shadow Dragon, but I feel like I understood it: learning to love the characters who'd be cruelly taken away from you for the simplest of mistakes, and learning to discard the worthless little shits who filled out the roster so the ones you cared about could survive. It wasn't built for long-term play, and even the hidden levels, while technically making the game longer (and exposing your characters to additional risk), were useful primarily because there simply weren't enough enemies in the game to sufficiently level everyone up. You couldn't play Shadow Dragon as an ongoing, infinite process. Everyone would die.

Awakening, of course, offers a choice on that front. Sort of. Sure it offers you the option to have "dead" characters taken away from you, as has traditionally been the series' wont, but they aren't dead. They're "retired." Not in the cool way, like in Blade Runner: their role in the story, if there is one, is unaffected. It kind of takes the piss out of permadeath when you can see the dead milling about at the craft services table between levels.

Nonetheless, losing soldiers to imaginary-death is uniquely galling, since Awakening goes on for-fucking-ever. The number of battles you can get into is literally infinite, and Nintendo will happily sell you additional ones in the e-Shop.

I find I miss the limitations more than anything. The reclass function never made any fucking sense--turn your deadly swordsman into a shitty, awkward knight!--but at least its existence pointed to a fundamental scarcity, that you weren't going to get many chances for a given class of combatant, and you'd goddamn better learn to appreciate them. The weapons followed suit. Sure, you could find an anti-cavalry axe somewhere, but anti-cavalry lances were plentiful, and delineated the superiority of armor over cavalry. (Even cavalry bearing anti-armor swords came at you from a point of statistical weakness.) Cavalry units were particularly limited and valued; in Awakening, nearly every class has a mounted variant, even the nerds, and while reclassing is more limited, it's also a hell of a lot more useful, and allows your characters to be leveled up infinitely.

Where scarcity remains, it's met with surfeit. "Rare" weapons present themselves with surprising consistency, to the point that it becomes hard to keep track. Due to the crucial finitude of nearly all weaponry, inventory management has always been annoyingly complicated in Fire Emblem; there's something perfectly compelling, and eternally frustrating, about a game that would be improved by removing one of the series' oldest and most consistent features. Then again, I guess that's how we got to Casual mode in the first place.

Fire Emblem is dead. Long live Fire Emblem. Just maybe don't make it quite so monogamy-oriented next time. In Shadow Dragon's multiplayer mode, I had an unstoppable squad of low-tier fighters with amazing stats, and do you know why? Because they supported each other emotionally, goddammit. To the tune of 45% hit and evasion bonuses. Awakening restricts relationship bonuses to one at a time, and an S-rank requires all-out hetero banging to achieve, so good luck forging an epic relationship between Virion and Kellam. Sure, you can do it, but you'll always be thinking, "this is cool, but it'd be a lot cooler if I could make these two fuck."

Which I guess is how it feels to be a shipper, huh?

Monday, May 5, 2014

A black fly in your chardonnay

I was called upon to remark, recently, that I have played and finished Final Fantasys I, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X, and X-2. Some observations arise with which to be dealt:

  • First, how does one pluralize the proper noun Final Fantasy? Final Fantasies seems wrong, since the "ies" isn't part of the title. Final Fantasies looks a bit better, but still loses the y in the process of pluralization. I dunno, kids. I don't have all the answers.
  • At 20 to 50 hours apiece, my total time playing these games--even excluding possible replays or restarts--would come to between 140 and 350 hours, with a median time of 245 hours, or about ten days. To put that into perspective, that's enough time to watch the Tenth Doctor's death scene nearly three times.
Suffice to say, my commitment to this series is not insubstantial. So why have I not played Lightning Returns, or its two weird prequels? How did I fall out of the series that defined Serious Gamerdom in the 16-bit era?

That would fall on Final Fantasy XII. I've probably put as many hours into FFXII as I have in more than one of the ones I've finished. Partially, this is because the influence of Final Fantasy Tactics encourages diversions and grinding to a degree that's extremely unusual for the fairly linear JRPG genre Final Fantasy epitomizes. Partially, it's because my life has been too chaotic for the sustained focus of a console JRPG for a while, and the complexity of the Tactics influences make it a difficult game to pick up in the middle.

But mostly, it's those damned licenses.
These fuckin' things.
FFXII gives the player a wide degree of latitude in terms of character design, and the characters' hardwired stat growth doesn't meaningfully bias them in any particular direction. On that basis, I let narrative be my guide, and built my team the way I interpreted them as having been written:

  • Light armor, green magic, knives, crossbows, and ninjato for Vaan
  • Magic armor, black magic, staves, rods, and measures for Penelo
  • Heavy armor, spears, and axes for Basch
  • Light armor, time magic, guns, bo, and bombs for Balthier
  • Magic armor, arcane magic, bows, and katana for Fran
  • Heavy armor, white magic, swords, and greatswords for Ashe
  • with a bit of white magic for everybody, because a little goes a long way
There's a logic to these choices, and you can follow them on the license board. (Not the one I've posted, probably, but, you know. Try to stay with me here.) The weapon and armor choices seem to follow fairly straight lines, without a lot of wasted points. There's also some overlap in terms of weapon types: high damage with high damage, magic with magic, and high combo/critical with high-combo/critical.

Here's where it gets tricky. FFXII bears a strong influence from MMORPGs. It would be sensible to divide the characters into tanks, nukers/healers, and DPS, and the models described above fit that. Magic armor boosts max MP, so that's simple. Heavy armor, in addition to providing better raw defense stats, also boosts strength. Ok, that makes some sense, I suppose. Agility's usually more important for lightly armored high-damage classes, maybe light armor has a speed or critical bonus? No, light armor boosts HP.
  1. If I may take a brief aside from this otherwise laser-focused post, I can see why having both HP and defense stats would make sense from a design perspective, but making them both variable by player action drives me mad, since they both do more or less the same thing. The differences--sometimes subtle, sometimes less so--can only be inferred by looking directly at the math. Fire Emblem, frustrating though it is on other issues, is admirably clear on how this works. X-Men Legends, a game with character growth that is elegant and delightful in every other way, is infuriatingly vague. The math gets a bit more complicated in FFXII, and since light armor and heavy armor provide defensive boosts through different stats, it's not particularly intuitive to weigh them against each other.
  2. Light weapons benefit greatly from combos and criticals, which are enhanced as a character's HP % drops, which the HP bonuses influence...not at all, really? I suppose it makes the margin for a given enhancement slightly wider, but not terribly noticeably.
  3. In practice, my fast characters never feel as effective as the rest of the team. I've tried putting heavy armor on them, in defiance of my beloved narrative tropes, and while I do appreciate the extra offensive capabilities, I quickly find myself missing the defensive properties of the lighter armor. This is weird.
It probably wouldn't meaningfully affect my play experience if I hadn't noticed it, but dammit, I can't stop noticing it, and every move on the lower half of the license board quickly becomes an exercise in self-doubt. Since self-doubt is roughly the opposite of why I play RPGs, I usually end up taking a break, and the rest is history.

The horrible, horrible irony of it--the rain on my wedding day, so to speak--is that writing this brought back a torrent of memories, and now part of my wants to boot the PS and start this monster of a game again.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Memento Morghulis

Hey, kids. How're yez? Been workin' on some stuff.

Convergence of Masculinities in Gamer Culture

Masculinity Without Men: The Sontarans and Relational Gender in Doctor Who

Going through the backlog, might get some more stuff up soon. Need to set up a general purpose "bunch of shit I wrote" page.

In the meantime, zombie zoo, zombie zoo, who let them zombies out of the zombie zoo?