Two years of Pathfinding, part 1: basics + my sine wave of opinions

A little over two years ago, I embarked on my journey into Pathfinder 2e — and a little less than two years ago, I wrote “Five months of Pathfinding,” detailing my experience with the system thus far.

Well, here it is, September 2023, and we recently wrapped up the Agents of Edgewatch campaign, the campaign we started back in May 2021. I retired my redeemer champion Kivran, and I’m about to embark on a new campaign with a thaumaturge named Tak. So at this point I’ve played a character from 1-20, played through an entire adventure/story arc, and built a new character of a different class.

I think it’s time for my much-more-informed opinions!

… in a multi-part format, as it turns out that I have MANY opinions. A whole-ass wavelength of them, in fact.

Some basics

As a starting point, let me share/remind you of the statistics on the party, campaign, variant rules, deaths, etc.

We were playing the level 1-20 Adventure Path (AP) “Agents of Edgewatch,” which can be glossed as “fantasy guards at a fantasy world’s fair.” It starts pretty lighthearted, but quickly descends into some dark and heavy stuff.

Our party was five people, and we had one GM (Josh). We had eight different characters over the course of the adventure, due to three character deaths.

For reference, player/character names and party composition:

  • I was playing a Taldan human champion of Iomedae named Kivran.
  • My husband Matt was playing Lucio, a Taldan human swashbuckler. Who, despite all our jokes about his absurd movement speed, was not a sylph.
  • Chloe played the leshy Shep. Originally a druid, she retrained as a summoner when the class was released in Secrets of Magic. (This will be a recurring theme).
  • Diego started by playing the kobold alchemist Jabi, but retrained as inventor when Guns and Gears came out. Jabi died at level 13, and he returned as Zokaratz, a fetchling witch from Shadow Absalom.
  • Poor Nick went through three different characters. He started as Nathraak, a Varisian human wizard. Then, when Secrets of Magic came out, he also retrained, as a magus. Nathraak bought the farm at level 10, so he created Frøya, an Ulfen human thaumaturge. Sadly, Frøya only lasted for three levels; she died in the same battle as Jabi. Nick rerolled as Cedela, a Galtan human rogue, who was with us until the end, but died a dramatic scripted death in the final battle.

As far as variant rules go, we used Free Archetype from the get-go. Later on in the adventure, we switched from the standard progression rules to Automatic Bonus Progression (for story-related reasons which I’ll get to in a later post).

“How did you like Pathfinder, Lise?”

That would depend on when you asked me! I ended on a generally positive note — as judged by my joining the new campaign! But there were many ups and downs along the way.

You can see my “new TTRPG energy” and optimism in my August 2021 post. “Okay, this is different, and crunchier than I expected,” I seem to be saying, “but there are so many possibilities! I can work with this.” I was excited to try something new, and optimistic about what lay ahead for me and my character.

“Holy shit, this is Mathfinder!”

Sometime after that I hit a low. Maybe it was trying to figure out how shields work (“okay, so I subtract the shield’s hardness from the damage taken, then the shield and I both take the remaining damage. If the shield takes more than like 15 damage, it breaks, and has to be repaired. Plus I have to take an action each turn to raise a shield. So how useful are they, really??”) Or maybe it was the language of the Glimpse of Redemption champion reaction. (“What the hell does ‘The ally gains resistance to all damage against the triggering damage equal to 2 + your level’ mean?”)

At one point in time, I made a joke like, “Nobody said there would be math.” To which player Nick said something like, “Uh, everybody said that, Lise. There’s a reason they call it Mathfinder.”

But by that point I was learning more about the world of Golarion and Kivran’s place in it. I loved my character’s complex relationship with the church of Iomedae, and her growing connection to Pharasma. I loved coming up with fun downtime activities for our characters, like “we’re going to go over to the Foreign Quarter and get some dumplings from Tian Town.” Or “oh hey, if you’re going to the Temple of Norgorber could you pick up some Mwangi coffee?”

So I guess my opinion at that point would be “I don’t need all these rules pls let me just play D&D 5E but in Golarion.”

“How do I stealth past the bunyip?”

After a while, I could calculate myself how much damage my shield mitigated, or how much resistance my champion’s reaction granted to an ally. At the very least I was comfortable doing “champion stuff.”

But the minute I left the world of champions, I got confused.

How does stealth/concealment work? I still don’t quite know. I know there are many different degrees of “seen”, eg., undetected, obscured, hidden, invisible, etc. I know there are flat d20 rolls you have to do to hit somebody at different levels, eg. a DC5 flat check to hit someone who’s obscured.

But since I basically couldn’t stealth anyway — due to a mere 25ft of movement speed plus being CLANKY CLANK in heavy armor — it rarely came up.

… until I was forced to sneak into a dockside warehouse, and suddenly was attacked by a fish.

Lemme tell you, I sure know what a bunyip is now, even if I still don’t fully understand the stealth rules.

Magic was another one that was more complicated than I expected. Prepared casters vs. spontaneous casters, PF2e’s more traditional take on dating cafe singles online than 5e’s, four different spell lists, devotion spells, focus spells, cantrips, heightened spells, discrete vs. continuous heightening patterns, and on and on.

Mostly I didn’t have to deal with it as a champion — except for the Lay on Hands focus spell. But my fellow party members translated it simply for me — it always healed 6 * (1/2 your level rounded up).

But then I (very briefly) retrained into cleric archetype. Suddenly I had a few divine spells, and I had to figure out spell heightening. “Cleric” was appropriate as a descriptor at this point, because it felt like I was trying to read Old Church Slavonic. This conversation cleared some things up, but I promptly forgot most of it when Book of the Dead came out and I decided the Soul Warden archetype was more along the lines of what I wanted for Kivran, and so — yup — I retrained.

Other points of confusion: the stages of poisons and diseases. Grappling (has this actually changed from the bullshit that was 3.5?) Counteract checks.

“Why am I not playing a rogue, again?”

I think another downturn for me was when we hit level 13, and we lost Jabi and Frøya in the same battle. That wasn’t the issue itself — the issue was a combination of factors that made me feel a lot weaker than the other party members.

One was that the new characters came in at level 15, while the survivors needed to wait until the end of the chapter to be leveled up two levels. (I presume the GM was like, “uh, the party just lost two characters; they need a little bit more fire power and HP to actually survive this encounter”).

At around this level, too, the damage numbers for dps classes just got absurdly high. My husband’s swashbuckler gets in an appropriate finisher and rolls well? 100+ damage. (To say nothing of his absurd move speed; Mr. “I have 75ft of movement speed plus I also have a fucking climb speed when I have Panache”). Our new rogue Cedela gets trapped in a narrow hallway with a bad guy? I shuffle over at “I’m wearing plate armor” speeds to protect her, only to watch the bad guy be wiped off the map in one of the rogue’s turns.

What also felt bad was the fact that the rogue also went in the Intimidation direction, an area I had invested in heavily for Kivran. It often felt like we were competing to see who could Demoralize an opponent first — and Cedela had the higher Perception, so it was mostly gonna be her.

I was also annoyed when I found out that she had the Scare to Death feat, the pinnacle of the Intimidation skill feat line. “How do you have that at level 15? I can’t get it until level 16,” I asked Nick one day.

“Oh, rogues get skill feats every level instead of every other level,” he answered.

It was completely irrational, but it felt like the rug (or rogue heyyyy) being pulled out from under me. I thought I understood the system, and I expected that once I understood it, I’d have the class fantasy. But it turns out the system had more surprises for me, and I didn’t have what I wanted, after all.

While the class fantasy of a redeemer champion isn’t, and shouldn’t be, doing damage, it does suck when you feel like you don’t have a chance to even get to the fight before combat ends. Everything a redeemer does well involves being within 15′ of the enemy and allies, after all. And it always sucks feeling like someone else in the party is taking over “your thing” — Intimidation/Demoralize, in this case.

“I finally feel like the tanky tank I wanted to be.”

The level wonkiness worked itself out once we were all level 15. And the rogue’s player and I got better about not stepping on each other’s toes with Intimidation — even learning the advantages of having two people who can Demoralize.

But the “class fantasy” part I had to make a conscious effort to fix. I did that by retraining — basically reallocating some of my character choices.

I can’t take all the credit, though. My party members were amazing. Hearing that I wasn’t having fun, they all threw out a bunch of suggestions for retraining, some wackier than others.

Ultimately I dropped the Edgewatch Detective archetype in favor of the Marshall archetype, focusing on Inspiring Marshall Stance (the Diplomacy option) rather than Dread Marshall Stance (the Intimidation one — I again wanted to avoid overlapping the rogue). Job done: I immediately felt like a hero. I get to pose dramatically, and it empowers all my allies. Then I can also do things like give them an extra action!

Later on I also added on the Bastion archetype, which improved my shield and shield block action, allowing me to do things like block attacks to adjacent allies.

Finally, I was the tanky tank of my dreams, and things were good.

“How can I keep track all these feats?”

Look, this game is crunchy. And like anything complex, the complexity increases exponentially, not linearly, as the system grows.

In PF2e, some of the most important puzzle pieces are feats. Each feat is a cool thing your character can do that breaks the rules in a small way and differentiates them from others. They’re comparable to feats in D&D 5e, in that way, but unlike in 5e, where they’re rare (and have to be swapped out for an ability score increase), you get a feat or multiple feats at every level in addition to your ASIs.

In fact, by the time you reach level 20 in this game, you will have +/- 32 feats of different types. With the popular Free Archetype variant rule, you’ll add on an additional 10 class and/or archetype feats.

This is vastly simplified, due to variant rules, differing class progressions, types of feats being tradable in various ways, etc — but you get the idea. You have a lot of what are essentially variant rules and special actions to keep track of.

By the time I reached level 17, I had around 40 feats, and man was the cognitive load high, especially during combat. I’d (mostly) plan what I was going to do on my turn, but when my turn came up and I said it aloud, somebody would say, “oh remember you have [other feat],” or “remember [this buff given by one of their feats],” and “probably not a good idea to use [that action] now because X.” It kind of turned into combat by committee.

There also ended up being a lot of retconning — “oh wait, I didn’t actually have my shield raised, so I couldn’t have blocked that. I should actually take full damage and my shield should take none.”

None of this felt good.

Surprisingly, combat didn’t bog down nearly as much as I expected under this weight. I’m not sure if this is due to a general systems improvement over 1e/D&D 3.5e (the latter being where I once battled a purple worm for six hours of real time), or that my fellow players were systems experts who planned out their turns ahead of time and helped others do the same. Or both!

But still… I often joked I needed a flowchart to play my character.

“… that’s the neat thing, you don’t.”

Around that time was the OGL 1.1 kerfuffle I wrote about here. This definitely made me much more invested in Pathfinder as an ecosystem, seeing how Paizo responded (sometimes with delightful cattiness) to Wizards’ poor business and ethical decisions.

It also led to me watching a lot more YouTube videos about Pathfinder, which is where I discovered The Rules Lawyer, who (imho) is the savviest and most entertaining of the YTers in this space.

In his video Let’s do the SAME COMBAT in D&D and Pathfinder 2E!, he dropped a piece of wisdom on me that has stuck with me. It has helped me feel better about making mistakes, retconning things, house ruling things on the fly, etc.

The quote (beginning at 13:30; emphasis mine):

So as you can see a number of modifiers can happen in a single roll, which can be overwhelming at first. Though in my experience it’s something people get used to. And if you’re not tracking it all and nobody’s noticing you’re still having fun.

Was I having fun? I sure was. In character, Kivran was developing a crush on Cedela, thus perpetuating the “Kivran has a type, and that type is evil women who look like they could suplex her” joke.

Out of character, I still genuinely liked the other players, who were helpful, funny, and like-minded. How did I find these amazing people on r/lfg, and how were we still getting along two years later?? It truly is a miracle.

Around this time I was also realized that this isn’t just difficult for me. Nick, perusing his character sheet at the start of his turn, once said, “Okay, let me see if I can find some bullshit that can help in this ridiculously long list of feats.” (“Oh yeah,” I remembered, “Cedela has twice as many skill feats as Kivran”). Diego, who played our witch, also had a very complicated build, and often mentioned how much anxiety he had before every turn.

Given the high level of systems knowledge these two players had — enough so that their idea of a fun time is “rebuilding PF1e classes in PF2e” and “homebrewing a variant system for crafting magic items” — I knew no one expected me to know it all and to get it right 100% of the time.

Challenge accepted

As we reached level 18 or so, I realized another thing that was different from 5e: It was still challenging.

At level 18 or 19, there was at least one battle where we were forced to retreat from a combat to avoid character death(s). In the same dungeon, we also came across a trap that, if run RAW, would have one-shot Kivran and outright killed her via the Death trait. (GM Josh ran it as “this seems incredibly overtuned to me; let’s just play it out and see what happens; no consequences”).

My general feel about challenge is: if death, and loss of your character, isn’t on the table, it’s not fun. Nothing means anything if it can’t be taken away, and, as I’ve said before, there’s no emotion that humans won’t pay to experience in the safe environment of a story. That includes loss, grief, and fear.

So to see us still struggling in a meaningful way — at the level where, in Out of the Abyss, our party was able to defeat multiple demon lords in a single battle, almost untouched — was really fucking cool.

Also, not only were the encounters challenging, they were interesting. One of my favorite fights in those high levels was when we were attacked by a living mural, which turned some of us temporarily two-dimensional. This led to Kivran being worn on the cloak of her beloved Cedela for the rest of the session — a situation which had surprisingly few downsides!

Or, as the GM said, when I asked if I could still take the Demoralize action as a 2D picture on a cloak: “Sure, because Cedela’s ass does not quit.”

The end of the road

Finally we reached level 20. I will admit, at that point, the challenge did sort of vanish. I permanently had a raised shield, I could use Glimpse of Redemption and Shield Warden on the same ally at the same time, and I could make monsters shit their pants with fear just by walking into a room. We crushed our way through the final dungeon in record time, and it seemed like nothing could stand up to us for more than a couple of combat rounds.

Given that, the final battle might have been astonishingly anti-climactic… except that the other players did everything they could to make it awesome.

Zokaratz threw out some, um, ill-advised spells that caused the room to start falling apart around us, video game boss battle-style. At one point Lucio was climbing up the wall with Zokaratz on his back to escape the collapsing floor, and Shep’s bear eidolon was scrambling to avoid falling into the ever-growing pit at the center of the room. As part of a scripted death, Cedela exploded in a fine mist of blood upon striking down the Big Bad, splattering Kivran (who was fighting beside her). It ended with us all piling into a portal to Shadow Absalom to escape the falling tower, in a “come with me if you want to live” moment.

It was easily the most epic final battle I have ever seen in a tabletop campaign. (Yes, even moreso than Out of the Abyss).

In Conclusion (for now)

That final battle was definitely a high point to end on, and that informs the positive tone of this post. But it is interesting to think that if I had stopped playing at certain points, my opinions might never have evolved to this level, and I might be telling everybody about what a bad experience I had and how I’d never play Pathfinder again.

I also think that if my group hadn’t been so ding-dang awesome, it wouldn’t have been as enjoyable. I can easily picture playing with a less experienced group, where we were all confused by the mechanics. That picture includes hours of time wasted looking up and arguing over rules, and it just isn’t pretty.

I can also picture a boring final battle, if we had all played optimally and just beat the boss until they were dead. And without the RP and character development I put into Kivran (and which the others nurtured), I wouldn’t have been as invested in the outcome.

Lucky for you, it’s been a positive experience, and I still have lots more to say about it. Next time I’ll get more detailed on how crunchy the game mechanics are, and help you to answer the question of “would I enjoy this game?”


Featured image: Party art by Iisjah Art/Natalia Komuniewska. An early iteration, since we still have Jabi and Nath!

Lise opines: plant identification apps

Or: why I use iNaturalist.

I constantly see posts from my Facebook friends (and even in native plant communities) asking for recommendations on mobile apps to identify plants.

Inevitably someone will pop up with PictureThis, or Google Lens, or even Seek. But here’s why I use iNaturalist.org‘s mobile app.

Free

PictureThis is ad-supported if you don’t give them money. The premium version ranges in price from $30-$50/year, depending on plan.

The last thing I want when I’m in the woods is ads. And while I am willing to spend money for apps that are valuable to me, nothing I’ve seen has convinced me the IDs are any higher quality than what I can get for free with iNaturalist. It’s also more than I spend per year for, say, Zombies Run!, which IMHO gives a lot more content (hundreds, if not thousands, of adjustable length and intensity story-driven workouts).

Also, don’t quote me on this, but I would venture that PictureThis is taking an API and/or computer vision model that is available for free — potentially even the one collated by the California Academy of Sciences (see below) — and profiting off it.

I haven’t really played around with Google Lens, but I imagine it has the same problem as any Google product — if you’re not paying for it, then you are the product. Plus my experience with Google is that as soon as they decide they no longer want to develop a product, well, fuck you, even if it’s a product millions of people use. (Google Reader, I’m looking at you).

Scope of IDs

Look, you know me. If I could do nothing all day but touch plants, I’d be pretty happy.

But I also like spiders, and snakes, and mushrooms, and birds and mammals. I don’t call myself a real life druid for no reason; I observe any living thing that will stand still for long enough to get a picture of it.

(Also poop and dead things, too, because I’m classy like that).

On the other end of the scale, Google Lens will identify anything. But that has its limitations, too. It’s hard to get accurate predictions when your model includes every picture posted on the Google-curated internet. What happens when your plant happens to look like a snake — an example I came across recently? It’s not super helpful.

(In its defense have found it very useful for “hey I took a picture of this famous building in England and I have totally forgotten what it is, please help me, Architect Google!”)

Non-profit and mission-driven

Both Seek and iNaturalist meet the criteria above:

  • They’re truly free
  • They ID not just plants, but any form of life

But it’s more than that. Both are developed by the California Academy of Sciences, a non-profit organization with this mission:

The mission of the California Academy of Sciences is to regenerate the natural world through science, learning, and collaboration.

CalAcademy has a ton of different initiatives, but they are perhaps best known for their their computer vision algorithm tuned specifically to the natural world. That includes all kinds of life, from protists to blue whales!

Moreover, that model, like machine learning models everywhere, learns from user contribution. Those user observations are made available, for free, through the GBIF API, which is used by thousands of different organizations to conduct scientific research.

The way I look at it is: By using Seek or iNaturalist, you are contributing to the mission of regenerating the natural world.

Feels good, man.

Community science

So why choose iNaturalist over Seek? After all, the Seek app is definitely slicker of the two apps — it has gamification! By comparison, the iNat app looks clunky and buggy.

One big reason pertains to community/citizen science. When you observe something with Seek, it uses the CalAcademy CV model to identify your form of life, but it does not save that observation. You might learn from it — and certainly there’s value in that! — but you’re not helping the machine learning algorithm you know. Learn.

(For that matter, it’s debatable how much it helps you learn. I get a lot of value from going back through my old observations in iNat to remind myself where and when I observed something).

On top of that, Seek is pretty much just the CV model. Once you’ve made an ID, that’s it, you’re done. But on iNat, once you’ve made a preliminary ID, that’s where the fun begins.

See, once you’ve posted the observation, other people — real humans! — can come in and refine that ID. If you posted something that the CV could only ID to genus level, maybe some nice expert comes in and says, “hey you can tell X and Y species apart from the leaves; looks like X to me!”

When two other users confirm or refine your tentative ID to the species level, it is labeled “research grade.” Research grade observations are available in GBIF — helping science across the world! — and are used to train newer versions of the CV model.

And you are the expert! Know a lot about the trilliums of Massachusetts? Go identify trilliums! (That feature is website only currently. Alas). It’s yet another way you can use iNat to give back to citizen science.

Other nice to haves

  • Since iNat is community supported, you can use it to ID, say, birds by song. I’ve had a lot of luck recording birdsong in a voice memo, uploading it to iNat, tagging it as class Aves, and letting the birders have a go. Birders on iNat are an enthusiastic lot, and usually I’ll have an ID within minutes.
  • iNaturalist itself has an API (not the same as GBIF, I don’t think?) which allows you to write your own algorithm against iNat data. I’ve seen people use it to write nature quiz webapps; at one point in time I considered using it to answer the question of “how many taxa did I ID for the first time in 2020?”
  • As I mentioned earlier, iNat is a website first, and an app second. Maybe this is a con for you, I don’t know. But when I’m, you know, IDing trilliums of Massachusetts, it helps to see them on a big screen with a keyboard that allows me to write comments and use shortcuts.
  • Similar to what I mentioned above: Seek is video-based and real time; it does not save or import images to your photo app. iNaturalist can work on a live image, but most often I take the photos and ID them later.

Here’s a good comparison of the two apps.

Value to my life

This is unquantifiable, but in the early pandemic, iNaturalist saved my life. When I couldn’t go anywhere or do anything, I went to the woods. I took pictures, and I participated in socially distanced bioblitzes, and identified hundreds of species. I didn’t stop using it after the pandemic, either. I’m now up to over a thousand observations across three countries and two continents.

(“What happens when you reach 1000 observations on iNat?” my friend Scott asked. I replied: “They send you a letter informing you that you’re legally a nerd”).

Could another app have done this? Maybe. But for me, it was iNat.


tl;dr: this is why I use iNaturalist, and donate $10/month to CalAcademy, even though I absolutely don’t need to.

Have I won you over? Go download the iNaturalist app for iOS or Android!

Mini game review: Return of the Obra Dinn

Recently I played Return of the Obra Dinn (2018), an indie video game which bills itself as “An Insurance Adventure with Minimal Colour.” I’ve been playing so many (short) games lately that I can’t take the time to properly review them all, but I wanted to collect my Facebook musings about each game in one central place.

First, let me steal this description of the game from Wikipedia:

The game is set in 1807 with the player assuming the role of insurance inspector for the East India Company. The Obra Dinn, a merchant ship missing for five years, has reappeared off the coast of England with no one alive aboard. The player is dispatched to the ghost ship to perform an appraisal, reconstruct the events of the voyage, and determine the fates of all sixty souls aboard, providing a cause of death for those deceased or a probable current location for those presumed living. Investigation is accomplished through the use of the “Memento Mortem”, a pocket watch capable of transporting its user to the moment of death of any corpse located. The game, played in first-person perspective, uses a “1-bit” monochromatic graphical style inspired by games on early Macintosh computers.

“Return of the Obra Dinn” on Wikipedia

And here’s what I had to say about…

From June 29, 2022:

I just started playing Return of the Obra Dinn last night, the… new-ish? new-er? game by Lucas Pope, who did Papers, Please.

As usual with his games, I don’t really know how to describe them? It’s a puzzle game, I guess? You have to discover the fates (mostly, deaths) of the 60 people on board the Obra Dinn, using a magical stopwatch that shows memories of the person’s life. It’s mostly a deductive reasoning problem, but a SUPER COMPLEX one.

It’s hard! So far I’ve only solved 6 of the fates after 3hrs or so of play. It requires some careful observation skills — like: what is that accent? What part of the ship are they in? How do other people address them? How are they dressed? What manifest number is on their hammock?

Also love the early Macintosh-era graphics.

Additional things I wrote in the comments:

Since I’m bad with faces, I enjoy giving [the passengers] dumb names based on their appearance in the Life at Sea drawings. “Kicky neckerchief guy,” “tuque guy,” “tattoo guy,” etc.

I watched… an interesting video [Ars’ Technica’s “How Localizing Return of the Obra Dinn nearly sunk the game”] about how [the developers] decided on the different verbs [for what happened to the passengers], and how it made additional challenges when they translated it. (Like… some languages don’t have a verb that corresponds to “killed with a club”).

Additional notes:

  • You can actually pick what version of early computer graphics you want! I stayed with the early Mac era graphics, because it brought back memories of playing Oregon Trail on my Mac SE with a whopping 20mb of hard drive space.
  • The game is fairly lenient as to manner of death, disappearance. In many cases it will accept multiple different causes, such as “speared” “spiked” “bitten,” etc.
  • I feel like having toured the HMS Victory, Nelson’s flagship, in Portsmouth, UK, really prepared me for some of these puzzles. (Like… of course all the midshipmen hang around together! Or: what’s an orlop deck?)

From July 2, 2022:

Okay, folks who have played Obra Dinn: when are you supposed to leave the ship? Because (I think) I’ve uncovered all the memories I can except for the stuff in “The Bargain,” which explicitly says “this will be revealed once you leave the ship and turn in the book.” I’ve only uncovered 36 fates, though, and I thought you weren’t supposed to leave the ship until you solved all 60. But I’m already scraping the bottom of the barrel for clues, and I have no more memories (I think) to uncover on the ship, so I’m wondering if I’ve misunderstood something.

As a friend informed me in the comments, you do have to solve 58 out of the 60 fates before you leave the ship if you want the “good” ending, i.e. where you actually figure out what happened.

By this point it was some of the tricksiest puzzles that stumped me. Looking up videos about all the clues in the game, it seems I wasn’t the only one struggling to identify the Chinese topmen, or to tell Alexander Booth apart from Hamadou Diom. There were definitely a couple of places where I had to guess, or brute force the solution. The “fates are revealed in groups of three” mechanic does disincentivize guessing, though, which was both a blessing and a curse.

From July 3rd:

Also, apropos of Obra Dinn — good goddamn I love the music in Soldiers of the Sea. Those bells! It gives me shivers.

Yahtzee of Zero Punctuation, who is known for his scathing reviews, actually liked Obra Dinn — but he did not like the music. He is just wrong.

On the same post I commented:

And apparently Lucas Pope composed [the music], too? This man is too talented.

Later that day I wrote this:

I finished Obra Dinn!… I still have so many questions.

For all that I solved the game — discovering the fate of all 60 passengers on board — at the end I still felt like I didn’t really understand the throughline of the story. Of why things had happened, and why the ship seemed to be cursed.

I won’t copy over all spoilery questions I had, but I answered a lot of them by Googling “return of the obra dinn story” and finding this. Warning: wildly spoilery. I’d only suggest following that link if you, like me, got to the end and still had a ton of questions about the plotline.

Also, fwiw, Steam informs me that it took me around 19hrs to finish the game. These Sudoku experts playing Obra Dinn on YT put me to shame.

Final Verdict

I adored much of this game — the music, the writing, the voice acting, the stylized graphics, and of course, the puzzles. Despite my confusion about the individual details of the story, the emotional impact was always clear. You could tell it was a passion project for Lucas Pope, and that he took the time to make it just so.

All that said, one thing I didn’t love was the user interface. The game gives you no guidance as to the controls; you just sort of have to discover them organically. (Don’t ask me how long it took me to figure out I could zoom in on figures to match them to their picture in the “Life at Sea” drawings). Navigating between scenes seemed clunky; I’d love a way to pull up a scene from the logbook rather than having to go to the body in question. I also wish there was a way to replay a scene from the beginning while you’re in it.

All in all, I’d give it a 4 out of 5 stars.

The only bad thing is? Now I’m in the mood for puzzle games, but there’s nothing quite like Obra Dinn. There are many puzzle games, but after surveying my friends, we couldn’t come up with one that had the same blend of logic puzzle + story-driven + unique aesthetics.

That said, I dove into a few other puzzle games after that, and — dopamine willing! — I might say a few words about them later.

Playing Video Games for Racial Justice, part 2 of ??

In which I review three more games out of the Itch bundle: A Mortician’s Tale, Mon-Cuties for All, and Verdant Skies

I enjoyed doing this so much, I did it again! You can find part one here.

A Mortician’s Tale

Love this banner art! Credit: A Mortician’s Tale on Itch.io.

A Mortician’s Tale is a short, story-driven “empathy game” by Laundry Bear Games, exploring the Western death industry through the eyes of Charlie, a fresh-out-of-school goth mortician.

Most of the story happens via in-game emails. There’s a long-running email conversation with a friend (sister?) who works in a museum, and daily newsletters that keep you up to date on innovations in the death industry. Emails from your coworkers and bosses present the contrast between small, “mom and pop” funeral homes and the big corporations that are replacing them.

In between reading email you do your job — preparing the dead for burial or cremation, embalming them with tiny adorable tools, and attending funerals.

In fact, the mechanics of the tiny adorable embalming tools might lull you into thinking this is Yet Another Simulation Game — an odd one, sure, but I have played Graveyard Keeper. The mechanics are well-designed, and on the whole they feel good to use. Which is great! Except it’s easy to get distracted by the mechanics and forget that Story is Happening.

Witness: tiny adorable embalming tools. Credit: A Mortician’s Tale on Itch.io.

In fact, that’s exactly what happened to me — I arrived at the end to find I hadn’t been paying enough attention to the story. I knew something impactful had just happened, but it was diminished by the fact that I couldn’t remember who it concerned! This probably wasn’t helped by going into the game not knowing how incredibly short it was.

Basically I need to go back and replay this game so that I can get the full impact of the story. I’d urge you to not make the same mistake I did — keeping in mind that the gameplay is only about an hour long.

Also worth noting: there’s not really much branching going on here, so replayability is limited. I noted only one point where you had to make a choice, and it’s unclear to me if anything different happens on the other path. I guess I’ll see in my inevitable replay!

Overall, I rate this one 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Mon-cuties for All

Credit: Mon-cuties for All on Itch.io.

Mon-cuties for All by Reine Works is a game about raising monsters on your country farm. It was tagged “clicker game” in the Itch bundle database, which was precisely what I was in the mood to play (see: Plant Daddy, from my last post).

it takes the clicker part of “clicker game” very seriously, and I came out of this game with a sore finger.

This game starts with a long and not particularly relevant intro involving the farmer who’s selling you his farm in the country. He seems uncertain about your gender, which leads you clunkily into character creation. (Funnily enough, after all that, the best you can get towards a non-binary gender presentation is “androgynous.” I mean, I guess it’s something?)

Then the farmer… disappears? “Is that supposed to be important?” I wondered, but it never comes up again.

You start with one monster who’s already living in your barn — a tanuki, in my case, although the other possible option is something called a “carbuncle.” While I understood this word to mean “a cluster of boils on your body,” apparently it has another meaning in the world of monster ranching, which is “a fox-like creature with a gemstone in its forehead.”

(After some research on the always-reliable TV Tropes, I figured out this usage of carbuncle dates back to Jorge Luis Borges’ Book of Imaginary Beings, but it has been used greatly in anime and Japanese RPGs. The game also features the nekomata, a creature from Japanese folklore, so yeah, there is a very anime/Japanese folklore aesthetic to this game).

I’m sorry, if this banner art doesn’t say “mid-1990s anime,” to you, I don’t know what to say. Credit: Mon-cuties for All on Itch.io.

At any given time, there are only three things you can be doing: feeding/taking care of your monster, attending a prize fair, or shopping. When I discovered that, I very much had a moment of “… seriously, that’s it?” I dunno, maybe I expected to shovel monster poop on my idyllic country estate?

First, let’s talk about the “taking care of your monster” part of the game. Holy hell, is it a lot of clicking. That is basically all it is — do X number of clicks in a very generous amount of time, and your monster will smile instead of looking surly. (Personally I prefer a surly-looking tanuki, but YMMV). After three such feedings, your monster will level up.

And require more clicks to level up again.

To give you an idea of how absurd the amount of clicking is, you start by having to click… 10? 20? 50? times? It varies by monster, but it felt reasonable at first. But by the time you’ve maxed out your monster, it’s a total of something like 5,000 to 20,000 clicks each time you care for them, and just… NOPE.

Now, lest you think this is worse than it actually is, let me talk about another of the game’s three activities: shopping. In the shop you can buy “treats” and “toys” that will make your clicks more effective, in standard clicker game way. However, they are priced such that, at the beginning, acquiring them is veeeeeeery slow. So while you might not have to make 100, 500, or 2,000 clicks directly, you still have to click a lot, especially at first.

What else can you do in the shop? Well, you can buy new monsters, and… that’s about it. (I did note with some amusement that the feline shop owner, Nyahjit, is clearly an homage to the Khajiit of the Elder Scrolls).

Where do you get the money for shopping? Prize fairs. These are basically trivia games. Trivia about what? It’s a little bit of everything! Some of it is about cats (sadly, all those farming parties in my ESO guild Feline Good Meowporium did not prepare me for this), some of it about Reine Works and the game itself, and some of it is just random. (“Who was the first queen of England?” or “What is the highest recorded distance a goldfish has jumped?”)

Either way it’s unlikely you’ll already know the answers to most of these questions, so you won’t be making much money at the prize fairs until you figure them out. This doesn’t take too long, as the set of questions is pretty small, and they are introduced in tiers based on the “level” of the prize fair. (It’s unclear to me how the game decides what level of prize fair you attend?) If you answer all three trivia questions correctly, you win a prize; otherwise you get a meager consolation prize of (IIRC) between $25-$100, depending on level of the fair.

It is… not a lot of money. And since money is how you buy treats and toys that allow you to do less clicking… again, in the beginning, there will be lots of clicking.

I also felt like the game just sorta… ends, rather than wraps up neatly. It finishes after you’ve acquired your final monster — an incubus, in my case, as it was the most expensive — without you leveling that monster up. I felt was being rushed out the door just as I got to the party!

(The leveled-up incubus was quite the handsome fellow, by the way. I would like to have tea with him and share my thoughts on post-Reformation epistemology. For a brief moment I was sad this wasn’t a monster dating sim…)

Tho seriously, that bodice… jacket…. thing is doing him no favors. It’s clearly meant for someone with boobs. Although, being a demon, I’m sure he could have boobs, if he wanted to…

On the whole, I wasn’t very happy with this game. There was too much clicking, and a lack of different activities to do. I guess I expected more simulation-y aspects to the game — that “taking care of your monsters” would be more than just clicking repeatedly. Once you’ve done all the clicking, too, there’s probably not more than an hour of gameplay here. Plus I’m just not a super fan of the cutesy anime style to the storytelling.

That said, I have only good things to say about the art, music, and the sound effects. Someone clearly put great care into crafting the different sounds for each monster, and the different levels and color palettes for the monsters. These felt polished, even if the story and gameplay didn’t always.

On the whole I give this a 2 out of 5 stars. It wasn’t for me, but I can see how it might appeal to others!

Verdant Skies

Verdant Skies by HowlingMoonSoftware is a life stimulation game in the vein of Harvest Moon or Stardew Valley. Here, you play a colonist on an alien planet, doing things like growing plants, fishing, cooking, and scavenging for scrap to improve your homestead and your colony, all while managing your energy, which slowly depletes over the day.

First things first: I love this thumbnail art, used to promote the game on index pages on Itch.io. It made me want to jump in right away, before I even read the description. If the job of the thumbnail is to sell the game, then it succeeded admirably.

I mean, it may help that I have a dress like that.
Also: note the subtle rainbows!
Credit: Verdant Skies on Itch.io

This thumbnail is pretty representative of the game art, too, with the hand-drawn style of the cut scenes contrasting with the more pixelated style of the actual gameplay. I like both — whoever the artist(s) are, they use color in ways I really love.

Like many games in this genre, Verdant Skies gives you the ability to romance, marry, and have children with the NPCs you encounter in the game — from the stern-but-ultimately-kind colony director to the ditzy blond photographer who begs you not to eat fish. But unlike most of these games, Verdant Skies rejects outdated notions of gender or sexual orientation.

For one thing, in designing your character, gender is irrelevant –you select the hair, face, and clothing you want from options that are more-or-less gendered, but gender is never explicitly stated, so you are free to define your character how you like. (In the narrative, your character is always referred to as “they” in the third person. Ideally I’d prefer the ability to choose pronouns, but this is pretty good, too).

As I’ve been doing lately when it’s an option — like in Mon-Cuties, in fact — I picked a fairly-androgynous-but-slightly-femme gender presentation. Is this telling me something about my gender presentation IRL? Maaaybe, I dunno. I’m pretty gender apathetic, all things considered. But that’s neither here nor there!

(I read some complaints that “none of the faces are masculine enough!” but that was on the Steam forums, so I tend to write that off as the gripings of toxic masculinity — the real villain of Verdant Skies!)

Given that gender is irrelevant, sexual orientation only has as much meaning as you, the player, ascribe to your character and who they romance. And there are many fine choices for romance, including at least one non-binary character using they/them pronouns — Zaheen, the colony’s doctor.

(I don’t think I’ve met all the NPCs yet, so there could be others, too).

There’s a lot of racial diversity in the cast, too — admittedly, ethnicity doesn’t matter much in space, but it’s implied you all come from Earth, where such things definitely do matter. At least three characters are Black (Jade, Anthony, and Wyatt), Zaheen is coded Middle Eastern, and the mechanic Rosie is Latina. Again, there could be more diversity among the characters I haven’t met yet!

And then there’s the Scottish character, Nessa. I have a… thing about bad Scottish dialect in fiction, and this character has a bad case of Robbie Burns. Look, I’ve spent a lot of time in the UK, some of that with honest-to-god Scottish people, and I am pretty sure that ACTUAL MODERN-DAY SCOTTISH PEOPLE DON’T SAY “AMN’T” for “am not.”* That said, she is a redheaded farm girl who loves animals, which is exactly my jam. I may romance her. (After Wyatt; see below).

*(Actual Scottish People have informed me that “amn’t” is rare but does occasionally come up, mostly among older folks. Still I maintain that if Nessa were any more aggressively Scottish, she’d be a talking plate of haggis).

Luckily for my highly romantic heart, some characters in Verdant Skies are open to polyamorous relationships, which is really the first game I’ve played that allows that! I haven’t explored it yet, but it’s something I’m looking forward to checking out. According to posts I’ve seen on the forums, some of the mechanics break down in actual play, in that ultimately you can only choose to live with one spouse. The developers have expressed a desire to make that work better, but it requires a lot more dialogue trees, i.e. more work, i.e. probably more money and/or time.

Personally, I developed an attachment to the Black botanist Wyatt. He had me at “lovely specimens of Poaceae around here, eh?” Like the totally well-adjusted human with the totally misspent youth that I am, I knew immediately he was talking about grasses, and was able to respond with “WHY YES, I especially like the purple ones!” Clearly it’s love at first turf, although our relationship is still growing, as we take turns at the gene splicer or bump heads while harvesting mushrooms.

Like you do.

Did I mention he’s a punster? (Pundit?) BE STILL MY HEART.

Speaking of gene splicing, I want to say a word about the gene splicing mini-game, which allows you to combine a traits on plants (and later, animals, too) to select for the traits you want. At least for plants (I haven’t explored animals yet), you have traits like “juicy” or “tasty,” that increase the nutritional value, as well as ones like “regrowth” or “double yield,” that change how you harvest them.

I was worried I was “doin’ it wrong” at first, especially since I hadn’t watched the “Verdant Skies Gameplay – Genetic Splicer Tutorial” video. But it’s actually pretty intuitive — put two seeds in, and drag a slider back and forth until you get the traits you want. One end is all the traits from the first seed, and the other end is all the traits from the second seed, and the order you put them in the splicer does matter.

On the whole, it’s a fun system which feels satisfying to use! But then, if you don’t have good mechanical representations of mundane(ish) tasks in a life simulation game, then what do you have?

Besides cute botanists, I mean.

Overall, this has been one of my favorite games out of the Itch bundle so far, and I went whole-hog and rated it 5 out of 5 stars. It’s nearly my perfect game!


So that is three more games down! Only… 1735 more to go?

The next games from the bundle I’ve been playing are Changeling and A Short Hike, and I hope to write about those next — maybe along with one other game? We shall see!

A just review is always found Elsweyr

In which I review ESO’s newest expansion.

Recently I finished Elsweyr, the third and most recent Elder Scrolls Online’s chapter (expansion). This chapter is set, as you might guess, in Elsweyr, the home of the Khajiit, the cat folk of the TES universe. We only get the northern half of the zone in this chapter; southern Elsweyr will be out soon with the Dragonhold DLC.

My general impression of Elsweyr? Favorable, but there were areas that were seriously underdeveloped.

The main quest and core mechanics

I did enjoy the main quest, and I did enjoy the expansion of Cadwell’s history (and more John Cleese voice!) His quest punches you in the gut and then comes right back to jollity, and it’s pitch perfect.

This isn’t even his final form.

I also enjoyed everyone’s favorite grumpy battlemage, Abnur Tharn (and more Alfred Molina voice!), and the rare bits of vulnerability you see from him — about his aging, about his waning magical power, or his relationship with his (half-)sister, and how he feels about [spoiler]. I also like that he is super cagey if you ask him about the Amulet of Kings 😉

I don’t quite understand the Khamira love that everyone else has, but she’s fine, too, and I liked Zamarak and Prefect Calo as additions to the team.

I felt like the final fight against Mulaamnir and Kaalgrontiid was suitably epic.

Likewise, I enjoyed the roaming dragon encounters, which are challenging and require a group. The first time I heard them use the dragon language gave me a little shiver.

I liked the Sunspire trial (raid), and I liked the story behind it. Because of course if dragons start appearing, it’s not long before they start pretending to be Akatosh and demanding to be worshipped like gods.

I know some lorebeards had problems with the whole “dragons released on Elsweyr” aspect of this expansion, arguing that “canonically” there weren’t any dragons in this time period

As for me? Well, you know how I feel about canon in TES. Not only that, we’re sort of in a blind spot in history in the Second Era; it’s implied that much was lost due to the disorder of the Interregnum. So I’m willing to believe that some details about dragons weren’t well recorded.

(And no, we are not in a Dragon Break. Stop spreading that stupid rumor. There’s very little that Bethesda/ZOS word-of-gods, but they got pretty dang close to word-of-god-ing that, when Matt Firor said that interpretation was “too literal”)

Also how freakin’ cool is it that the dragons were released from the Halls of the Colossus? The last time that place was mentioned was in Arena, a.k.a. the first Elder Scrolls game, before we even really knew what the series was about. I love that this series has a history that long to pull from.

I didn’t yet finish the mural (the museum quest for this expansion), but so far nothing has disabused me of the notion that Rahjinn is best referred to as “the Dickster God.”

Side quests

I don’t think I’ve been completely exhaustive in doing the side quests in Elsweyr, but I’ve tried pretty hard!

I like the Mizzik Thunderboots quest out of Riverhold, even though I saw the ending coming a mile away. But still, seeing a Khajiit in a fabulous hat and doublet solving crimes is worth the price of admission.

Or you could just look at this picture.

Of course I adored the “rescue the guar” quest outside Rimmen. Can’t have a new zone without one of those. And he really did look like a Gordon!

I loved the heist you engineer in the Stitches, although the ending feels somewhat… unresolved? (Then again, I’ve only ever chosen one particular option). Sereyne, and the Alfiq in general, are everything I could hope from “magically adept housecat-sized Khajiit,” and yes I bought both the Alfiq banker and merchant, why do you ask?

I liked the Ashen Scar quest, and how it expands the Azura lore — or, I should say, Azurah, the Khajiit’s take on that particular daedric prince. And hey, I remembered Vastarie from doing Grahtwood quests.

In general I liked the theme of “seeing old friends again” to the side quests, though their individual quests varied in quality:

The “Razum-dar on vacation” quest was pretty hilarious. I knew there was a Raz quest in Elsweyr, but even so, I was surprised when I saw that he was the lazy son everyone was talking about. The actual quest itself was kind of unmemorable, though; I can’t even recall what turned out to be plaguing Raz’s family farm.

The Skooma Cat quest — aka Sheogorath, as seen by the Khajiit — was fantastic. I enjoyed the challenges you solve by playing to his feline nature 😉

Who could resist the fluffiest daedric prince of madness?

I absolutely adored the Jakarn quest, which starts with him falling out of a window at your feet! I loved that it tells us in no uncertain terms that he’s bi, moreso than “he flirts with your PC regardless of gender” that we already knew. Thanks for not shying away from that.

Of course there’s no doubt he’s a disaster bisexual.

Oh hey, do you remember those two random Peryite cultists from Shimmerene in Summerset? They’re baaaaack, this time being creepy around the public dungeon of Orcrest, a city depopulated by the Knahaten Flu.

The quest in Hakoshae featuring Ashur, the silken-voiced Morag Tong assassin from the Morrowind expansion, left me with decidedly mixed feelings. On one hand, I love that you’re seeing him again. While I adore Naryu Virian, she often falls into the role of “your local fanservice assassin,” and it would have been easy to put her here, too. But instead they decided to put in a lesser-used character who is fanservice-y to their audience of, well, me, and I for one am grateful.

For you, my sweet-voiced assassin, I would go anywhere.

I also love that his plot involves his grandfather’s potentially incomplete writ of assassination for an Akaviri Potentate. It ties nicely into the lore where the Morag Tong were (allegedly) responsible for the deaths of the Potentates; moreover, the Morag Tong is the sort of organization that ties up loose ends like that. And hey, there’s an Akaviri diaspora in Hakoshae, so where better to track that down?

(I guess this does confirm that the Morag Tong did actually assassinate the Potentate, as much as anything in TES is ever confirmed. Though why they would have done something so foolish as write ‘MORAG TONG’ in blood on the palace walls boggles the mind…)

But everything else about it kind of left me cold. The “Proving Trial” portion of the quest was uninspired; it felt like the other three bajillion “prove yourself with mind, body, and spirit”-type quests that are found everywhere in the game. It also just seemed silly — if an Akaviri is not proved worthy in the trial, their ancestors will haunt them?

The ending also seemed unnecessarily complicated, with secret identities and kidnapping by malevolent spirits, all of which kind of made me say, “what is going onnnnnn?”

But my biggest issue — with this quest, and the expansion — has to do with how they handled the Akaviri diaspora as a whole, and that means it’s time for a lore rant…

Akaviri what?

There was a great deal of content in this expansion about the Akaviri — those mysterious folks from a continent to the east of Tamriel — but it left me puzzled rather than enlightened. I felt like the game just threw a bunch of loosely-labeled Akaviri stuff at you and didn’t make sure it hung together logically.

In concept, I have no problem with an Akaviri diaspora in Northern Elsweyr. The Akaviri Potentates ruled the empire at the beginning of the Second Era (ESO is set in 2E 582, or thereabouts), and it makes sense that after the Akaviri Potentates fell, not all of their people went back to their homeland. And it does seem like the Akaviri Dragonguard was active in Elsweyr at the time, so why not?

But what I don’t get is this: the Akaviri who ruled Tamriel at the beginning of the Second Era were Tsaesci, the “snake men” of Akavir. None of this two-hundred-years-later diaspora looks even a little bit snakey. They look, universally, Imperial. And yeah, yeah, racial phylogeny in TES is weird (in that race seems to be inherited entirely through the maternal line), but you’re telling me that there were NO Tsaesci moms hanging around waiting to pass on their scaley looks to the next generation?

This sort of gets brushed off in the Ashur/Hakoshae quest as “anyway it was a long time ago and there was a lot of interbreeding,” but that feels inadequate. It just seems like they didn’t want to make a new model for a new race.

This incoherence around the Akaviri also came up in the Tomb of the Serpents delve. It was one of the first ones I did in the zone, and it feels unfinished. It seems like there should be more of a quest here than just “sinister talking voice?” All the enemies you face are Akaviri (or minotaurs), and it’s an Akaviri tomb, but it basically raises some questions (Why Akaviri? Why minotaurs? Who’s the sinister voice?) and then resolutely refuses to give you anything more to go on.

There’s also an Akaviri world boss you fight, a swordmistress with the name “Vhysradue.” Is there any significance to the fact that her name sounds like “Versiduie-Shae,” one of the Akaviri Potentates? Who knows! This random cultural tidbit is just hanging in mid-air, unexplored, like an unripe fruit.

Creepy masks: the closest you will get to a Tsaesci in this game. Credit: UESP.

Generally I feel like there was a great opportunity to present the Akaviri in an interesting way, and it was sort of (pardon the metaphor) pissed down the leg. It ended up feeling like the writers couldn’t commit to either revealing info about the Akaviri or keeping them mysterious, and it comes off as wishy-washy and incoherent as a result.

Necromancy!

I nearly forgot to say anything about the necromancer, the new class introduced with this expansion. Possibly because I still haven’t gotten my Breton magicka necromancer past level 30 yet.

Liselle looks like Anne of Green Gables in her brother’s Dark Brotherhood robe, and that’s not unintentional.

What I can say is this:

I have no problem with necromancers from a lore perspective. It’s been in the lore forever, for one thing. Culturally, reactions to necromancy have varied from place to place and time to time, but arguably it’s no more unacceptable than sorcerers running around Tamriel with daedra at their sides.

I do like that there is a justice system penalty for, say, summoning a flesh atronach in the middle of Rawl’kha. And I do like that a few quests in Elsweyr react to you being a necromancer.

As for how it plays? Some of the necro abilities, like the scythe, are suuuuuuper satisfying to use, in the same way the templar’s jabs are. Some were, last I checked, a little buggy/unresponsive (i.e. Blastbones), though those might have been fixed.

As its viability in endgame? I couldn’t say. (Pshh, everyone knows housing is the real endgame, anyway).

The scenery, and other intangibles

Obviously I have a ton of love for the Morrowind expansion; TES3 was my first love, and I imprinted hard on that stark volcanic landscape. The soft light, coral forests, and unearthly beauty of Summerset is also my jam.

By contrast, the “fantasy Arizona” scenery of Elsweyr seems somewhat mundane. Obviously it has its moments, as my numerous screenshots prove! But I’ve since headed off to do the Summerset quests on my main, and I’m still stopping more often for screenshots than I did in Elsweyr — and it’s not my first time through the zone.

This aqueduct saw a lot of screen archery from me. It reminds me so much of the Roman aqueducts in Southern France!

Another intangible thing that bothers me about Elsweyr? I’m a compulsive looter of containers in ESO. Backpacks, urns, desks, barrels, you name it. In many other chapters and DLC, this pays off; this is often how you get rare furnishing patterns in Morrowind and Summerset. But it seems they are just waaaay fewer lootable containers in Elsweyr, and I only rarely get anything specifically Elsweyr-themed out of them — I sometimes got recipes, but they seemed to be pulled from the generic loot table.

It seems the way you’re intended to farm rare furnishing patterns in Elsweyr is by killing dragons, which have a chance to drop a “documents pouch” containing a recipe. Which is fine and all; dragon fights are fun. But sometimes you just want to chill out and loot a hundred closets, and I don’t understand why the game doesn’t support that playstyle, too.

My verdict?

There are many things to like about Elsweyr, but it’s probably my least favorite of the three chapters. If nothing else, I have more emotional memories of Morrowind and Summerset than I do Elsweyr.

(I’d still rate it higher than Orsinium, but I’m not sure that counts as a proper chapter).

But hey, not everything is everyone’s cup of tea. At the end of the day I’m glad we continue to fill out the map of Tamriel and learn more about cultures heretofore unknown. ESO keeps building on the fantastic TES lore, and I can never be unhappy about that.

And, while I’m on the topic, where I’d like to see us go next in ESO? I want to see more of mainland Morrowind — Blacklight! Necrom! — and I would love to see a story based around Almalexia, since the other two Tribunes have gotten their own DLC. Aside from handing you a glowing light in Deshaan, and serving as the motivation for the zone’s villain, she doesn’t do much. And I just listened to the episode of Written in Uncertainty about her, and now I’m eager to see an interpretation of her that isn’t “bitches be crazy.”

And that’s all I have to say about Elsweyr! Play it, if you are so inclined 🙂

Civil war in 1844 – Review of Dragonwyck (1946)

dragonwyck_film_poster

Matt and I recently watched Dragonwyck (1946), one of the harder-to-track-down Vincent Price films. (We had to buy it in a “FOX Classic Horror” movie bundle with a couple of other ones). It’s also vastly different from pretty much any other Price film I’ve watched — it’s gothic romance, with all the trappings of haunted houses, brooding heroes, doomed families, and sense of being displaced in time.

Miranda Wells (Gene Tierney) is the daughter of a farmer in Greenwich, Connecticut in 1844. She’s a dreamy-headed girl who her parents think unmarriageable. Then a letter arrives from a distant sorta-relative named Nicholas Van Ryn (Vincent Price) — the patroon of Dragonwyck, a manor on the Hudson. She’s invited to Dragonwyck to be a governess to his daughter. Over some objection from her parents (who are about as unlikeable as can be), Miranda jumps at the chance to have anything to do with castles and lords.

Of course, everything unravels from there. The manor is haunted, naturally — by the ghost of the wife of the first patroon, who felt trapped and miserable there. Her haunting is a mellow sort — ghostly harpsichord playing that only those with Van Ryn blood can hear. The servants fear this, but the Van Ryns mostly disdain it.

Also there are those creeeeeeepy vibes Nicholas is sending Miranda’s way, making a point of saying they’re not really cousins (Miranda’s mother and Nicholas have the same grandfather; you do the math), and also some posh variety of “hey there, beautiful” (“the breeze must feel wonderful indeed with a face as beautiful as yours against it,” which sounds only marginally less ridiculous in Price’s mouth). He also comes to her rescue when she finds herself embroiled in a social mess at a ball he hosts.

Of course all of this is with his wife Johanna (Vivienne Osborne) standing right there.

Then the stuff with the tenant farmers starts up — they refuse to pay their rents, requesting the right to buy their land. After all, it is 1844 and they are living in the United States. This starts to bring out the crazy/evil in Nicholas; now he becomes obsessed with the fact that he doesn’t have a male heir and what will become of Dragonwyck, ohnoes. It doesn’t help that at this point Miranda strikes up a friendship with a local doctor and anti-renter, Jeff Turner (Glenn Lagan).

Given all this, and the genre, is it any surprise than Van Ryn decides to off his wife?

…is that a spoiler? The movie is 70 years old, in addition to this being a common gothic trope.

On the same night that that Johanna is dispatched (by poison: oleander), Nicholas, being sketchy as fuck in the delightful way only Vincent Price can be, commences the serious wooing of Miranda.

Next thing we know Miranda is going back to her family and acting very weird and skittish. When Nicholas shows up again, we figure out why–he’s going to ask her father for permission to marry. Reluctantly, he gives it.

Of course, this solves nothing. Nicholas is already becoming dictatorial by the time Miranda announces she’s pregnant. The baby is a boy, hooray! (And ooh boy, the weirdly detached way that 1940s movies depict pregnancy…) But he’s sickly, and dies right after being baptized.

This is all more of a pretext for Nicholas to descend further into madness, drug addiction, and yet more attempted poisoning. Miranda is only able to escape with the help of Dr. Turner, who arrives at a critical moment with a gun and a mob of angry farmers.

The final climactic scene of the movie is Nicholas being shot to death — right atop the seat where he used to take the feudal tithes at the annual kermis. Oh, while wearing a fabulous dressing gown. Because Vincent Price, of course. His dying words? “That’s right. Take off your hats in the presence of the patroon.”

As symbolic as this is, apparently the book ends with a steamboat chase scene, and I am kind of sad that wasn’t replicated here. I blame wartime austerity. (While the movie came out post-WWII, it was clearly made during it — the print we had has a “buy war bonds!” message on the opening credits scroll).

So that’s the plot synopsis. But what did I think?

It actually reminded me a lot of Crimson Peak — more than just being a gothic. The whole “female character prone to flights of fancy falls in love with a brooding gothic hero in a terrifying manor and is eventually ‘rescued’ by a down-to-earth doctor” brought a lot of the same feelings up.

(Which may have led to me saying, “I guess Vincent Price was the Tom Hiddleston of his day.” And like Hiddles in Crimson Peak, a 35-year-old Vincent Price in Victorian clothing is very fine to look at).

1526381_719500951423109_1788654326_n
Mrowr.

I actually find the historical background really, really interesting for this, for all that the movie barely touches on it. (The book, by Anya Seton, may do more — the movie felt like it was rushing through the Cliff Notes version). It’s set in 1844 in upstate NY*, which will twig any Rasputina fan’s sensibilities, if you’ve heard the song “Calico Indians,” about the anti-rent wars of the 1840s.

* (upstate NY by the most common meaning, which is “New York that is not New York City” — in particular the Catskills and the capital district. I admit, I object to this title, too; I was born in Plattsburgh, NY, which is basically southern Canada. But whatcha gonna do?)

Really the whole system of patroonships that led to the anti-rent wars is super interesting. The Dutch, arriving in the 17th century, set up what were basically feudal landholdings for people who pledged to settle a certain number of colonists to the Dutch West India Company. These became the “patroons,” from the Dutch word for “patron.”

While feudal landholdings were still a done thing in the 17th century (how else would Charles II have appeased his many mistresses?), they were not really present in any place and time in U.S. history… except the patroonships. These unlikely feudal holdings persisted until the family lines literally died off in the 19th century. (When the English took over from the Dutch, they just converted them to manors legally, but left them otherwise untouched).

“The Last Patroon” was Stephen Van Rensselaer, patroon of the Manor of Rensselaerswyck (shades of Dragonwyck, hm?) which gave us most of Albany and Rensselaer counties — also the dude what founded RPI.** His heirs, trying to collect the rent from the tenant farmers after his death in 1839, is what sparked the anti-rent wars.***

** If you’re familiar with New York’s capital district, you’ll also recall there’s a bridge near Troy called Patroon Island Bridge)

*** I’m not even touching on some of the wackiness of the anti-rent wars that the Rasputina song mentions, which Wikipedia summarizes as “Riders disguised as Indians and wearing calico gowns ranged through the countryside, terrorizing the agents of the landlords.”

And it’s in this fascinating Dutch diaspora, frozen in time, that Dragonwyck is set. (Another thing that reminds me of Crimson Peak — or is it gothic in general? — is that sense of being displaced in time). It’s embodied in how the ladies at the ball talk — speaking of the Hudson as if it’s the only river; assuming her name is “Van Wells.” We see it, too, in the kermis — a sort of festival that has its roots in Dutch culture — that takes up a good chunk of the story, and is where Miranda meets Jeff Turner.

Random “actors in this film who were way better known later in their careers” notes: At one point in the movie I was like, “I swear that voice is Harry Morgan’s!” (on Klaas Bleecker, one of the anti-renters). Indeed, Harry Morgan (who you probably know as Colonel Potter from M*A*S*H) is in this movie as “Henry Morgan.” Jessica Tandy also appears as Miranda’s maid Peggy O’Malley, complete with an awful “Oirish” accent.

All in all, it’s an engaging picture. If I have any complaints, it’s that I wished for more character development than we saw over the course of the story. Price is awesome as Van Ryn, of course, but in comparison all the other characters seem a bit wooden. I also just wanted MORE to the story — as I said, it felt like an abridged summary of the book. I think I may have to acquire a copy of Seton’s novel.

If you’re a Price fan, or you have an interest in the gothic genre, or weird U.S. history, you should definitely track down a copy of this unique American gothic.

Observations on The Three Musketeers (1948)

91GbB9QVnaL._SY606_

I had seen almost every film version of The Three Musketeers.

I have seen much of the oevre of Vincent Price.

But until recently I had not seen The Three Musketeers (1948), in which he plays Cardinal Richelieu.

In that regard, I was not disappointed. Every time Price was on screen was brilliant. He was born to play that role.

… sadly, not for more than maybe ten minutes of the whole film.

(Learning that Price was probably bi has colored my interpretations of his roles. I feel vaguely bad for wanting his seducing D’artagnan over to his side to be an actual seduction — but only a little).

Lana-Turner-and-Vincent-Price
I lurve these villains so much.

Other thoughts:
– Gene Kelly (as D’Artagnan) really wanted to dance in this movie, and it seems like NO ONE HAD THE POWER TO STOP HIM. The sword fights — of course there are a lot — feel like dance routines where people are just kind of waving around weapons.

– The story is fairly accurate, except when it’s not. Like, Constance is D’Artagnan’s landlord’s niece, not his wife. (This is a common change — if not always in this permutation). There’s also the fact that they decided to smoosh Milady’s imprisonment/Buckingham’s assassination/Constance’s poisoning into one subplot in one location. Sure, I guess so? It makes the plot go faster…

– WTF is Lana Turner (as Milady de Winter) wearing? There’s perfectly serviceable 17th-century garb all around her, and she’s wearing some strangely architectural 1940s evening gowns. And some truly ridiculous hats.

10658036_2
What the hell?

Sadly, there’s otherwise nothing notable about her performance as my favorite character 🙁

– This is a version with a Duke of Buckingham! The script writer even went to the trouble to learn the given name of the historical first Duke of Buckingham (George Villiers). But then no one bothered to pronounce it right.

– Surprising no one, I get all teary-eyed at Milady’s execution at the end of the story. She’s a terrible person! I know that! But still. It’s no wonder I decided to write an entire novel as her vindication.

Crimson Peak — fashion and fantasy

This post has been sitting around, half-formed, in my Blog Posts folder since I saw this movie in November. I still don’t feel like it says much, but here, have it anyway… maybe it’ll help if you’re choosing what to watch on video?

Guys, I need to write about Crimson Peak.

This movie blew me away. I was transfixed throughout the whole thing, hand-to-mouth with shock in some parts. It was everything I had hoped for and more.

It was…

Visually stunning. That’s Guillermo del Toro for you. The red clay that dyed everything in Allerdale Hall bloody red was… improbable, but beautiful and thematically satisfying.

The attention to detail is pretty much what you’d expect from del Toro. As somewhat of a connoisseur of Victorian fashion, I can say that even the clothing tells a story.

For example…

Edith Cushing, our protagonist (Mia Wasikowska)’s dresses are all the height of 1890s fashion, her colors bright against dull, especially when she’s at Allerdale Hall:

8470cc65b3420736a59155dfa48a48d3
9ddc2958de22b992cd905946b1236e8d
Puffed sleeves! Intricate hats!

Lucille Sharpe (Jessica Chastain)’s by contrast, are the heavily-swagged gowns of the late 1870s/early 1880s in deep, saturated colors; also notably, she wears a high-necked day dress in the ballroom/waltz scene while everyone else is wearing sleeveless evening dresses.

bb2ad0e94d6848d44b88cecb0414cc0c
Like so.

As for Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), Edith remarks that his clothing is ten years out of date. Indeed, his velveteen frock coat and satin waistcoats and cravats strike me as more 1880s than 1890s.

ed204560081fa57a15ee1d91567995f6

Especially contrasted with Alan (Charlie Hunnam), who wears a more modern cut (shorter, squarer) and is more drab.

101515-crimson-peak-charlie
I would turn neither gentleman out of bed for eating crackers.

What does this costume design tell us? It paints a picture of the Sharpes’ morbid fascination with the past and contrasts it deftly with the breath of modernity that Edith and her companions represent.

Also, apropos nothing, I kind of want to be Thomas’ blue velveteen coat for Halloween some year. Not him — just the coat.

Alsoalso, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy staring at Tom Hiddleston for two hours. He is a shapely man who fills out a frock coat well. He plays the same sort of doomed, beautiful, broken man he plays in every movie, it seems.

Enough about fashion! This movie is also…

Satisfyingly gothic, with modern sensibilities. There’s a great video out there of Tom Hiddleston explaining what gothic romance is. He pretty much gives the textbook definition, too. It’s delightful.

The joke about the gothic novel is that it’s “girl meets house,” and this is true here — Allerdale Hall is as much as character as any of the humans, with its water running red, its clay pits, the snow falling through the gaping maw of the roof, the sounds of its breathing. Its inhabitants are corrupt and doomed, with a sense of dark noblesse oblige that ties them to the house. Thomas, in particular, is the classic brooding gothic hero, with redemption perpetually out of his reach.

But our heroine is so much more useful than most gothic heroines. I love that she’s a writer, and that the story is framed around the manuscript she’s writing; I love how she deflects jibes about “lady authors” (“Our own Jane Austen… but she died a spinster, didn’t she?” “I’d prefer to be Mary Shelley, who died a widow”). And oh, she makes good use of the fountain pen her father gives her…

The ghosts, and the violence that births them, are much more real and unabashed than in a gothic novel, though. There’s a scene early in the film that ambushes you with its violence and brutality, in a way that a 19th century novelist would shy away from. It’s still beautiful even in its horror, in classic del Toro fashion.

A horror movie, maybe? I hear it’s gotten panned for “not being scary.” I guess? There aren’t a lot of jumpscares, but there is a lot of creeping dread. It evokes fear less than it does unease.

Executive summary: It is beautiful. It is wildly unbelievable. See it.