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I recently realized that I spend so much time playing games with plots, whether good or bad, that I rarely ever play something that’s literally just a game. Typically, when I finish an RPG, I play a few action or adventure games as palate cleansers, but I generally shoot for the narrative when it comes to selecting games to play. What’s funny about this is that I often like to play games where I have tons of things to do without furthering the main narrative.

Last month, I played Outlast for review, marking the first game I’d play on the PS4 I bought near the end of December. It wasn’t the first game I owned for the system, though, since I redeemed all my freebies from Playstation Plus. (Seriously, get on that if you haven’t.) Since Outlast is kind of stressful because of it’s horror genre, I could only play it for an hour or so before I’d need a breather. But when I quit the game for a spell, I didn’t necessarily feel like doing something other than playing. I didn’t want to get invested in a plot game like Contrast since I was already in the middle of Final Fantasy VI on my Vita. So I loaded up Resogun.

Holy hell, what a good game that is. I love Resogun. I haven’t really played a “shmup” since…does PixelJunk Shooter count? (Seriously, buy that soundtrack by High Frequency Bandwidth if you haven’t.) Resogun‘s “story,” if you’d even consider it such, is about aliens or some such. Actually, it’s very easy to play the game a million times and never figure out what a Resogun is. But the game is awesome. The soundtrack is fantastic (and not for purchase, boo) electronica by Ari Pulkkinen, who also did Housemarque’s stunning Outland. The graphics are gorgeous. Whether they’d be considered next gen or not, I barely spend a second thinking about it. This game is filled with so much visual reward for blowing stuff up that it’s ridiculous.

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Madness.

The best part for me, though, is that I have nothing to think about when I play it other than doing just that. It has become my go-to as of late when I just want to play a video game but don’t feel like loading up something heavy. At the risk of sounding like a Sony advertisement, I’ll also note how convenient it is to load the game through my Vita when my husband is watching something else on TV. I get tons of pretty for a little over an hour and then can go back to things like scaring the crap out of myself.

Then last week, I also played the Early Access game, Nether, for preview. The story is also barely there; all I know is that something happened that turned the city into a wasteland full of aliens. I wanted to test my experience with another person, so I invited my friend, Tyler, to redeem one of the 72-hour codes I got so that he could join me. I wouldn’t call this game awesome by any regard, at least not in its current state, but I enjoyed how devoid of activity it was because it allowed me to just talk with a friend for over an hour.

We rummaged through some buildings, pretended to find places to live, and just chatted about all sorts of things. Without any recordings to pick up, cutscenes to watch, or even mission descriptions to read, we literally just played and caught up with each other for a bit. Frankly, I don’t know if the developer would be that thrilled to know I consider Nether mindless, but it was nice to focus on other pursuits while I played.

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Nether: a post-apocalyptic play date sim

When I tried Diablo III‘s demo many moons ago, I wrote it off as also mindless. The story didn’t seem that present or urgent by any means, and I was just smashing enemies endlessly and grabbing their loot. Watching my friends play onwards, I realized it never becomes much more than that. You just get better at killing enemies and grabbing loot as you progress.

But today, I noticed that Tyler and I each have Torchlight II in our Steam libraries, and it’s basically the same experience. For once, instead of disregarding a game I bought on a random sale or part of a Humble Bundle, I’m looking forward to just randomly destroying enemies while I spend time with a physically-distant friend. Maybe it’s time I take my gaming a little less seriously and start opening my session up to lighter experiences, ones where I just game for gaming’s sake. This late in life, I’m certainly excited at the prospect.

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Gil is a video game enthusiast and professional meanderer.  When he’s not giving people his unsolicited grammar corrections, he is out and about seeking exciting food and even more exciting single-player experiences.  He’s got one of them Twitters (@gilmeansjoy) and a blog or something (fromthebacklog.blogspot.com).

I just beat Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, you know, that game that’s sent the entire state of Rhode Island into a tizzy. I know some people may have liked this game a lot, but I felt continually at odds with it. Maybe I was never destined to enjoy it fully, which is funny for a game about a protagonist with no fate, but I’m happy that it’s over and go back to the far reaches of my mind again.

When I played the demo, which features the entire first chapter, I thought it was pretty neat. Actually, it’s a particularly good demo, imploring you to try the three different skill trees and associated weapons and armor that go with each. Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is definitely an action-RPG, forcing you to dodge and be a little tactful while you spam some attacks and skills. The problem is, when you finish the demo area and are unleashed unto the world of Amalur, you’re presented with a game so full of crap to do, it’s borderline annoying.

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First, I should point out that there are about a million locations in Amalur, and each one is full of people who want you to do something for them. Maybe your immediate thought is that this is great — open world games are special for this reason — but it drove me to madness. Almost everybody has a name and a dilemma, and when you talk to each character, they have multiple conversation options for discussion. If you made no effort to complete quests, you could talk to the characters of Amalur until you’re dead. Rather than have any kind of guided chats surrounding a specific topic to keep you focused, you could go on about fantasy matters all damn day.

Speaking of fantasy, this game is so loaded with fantasy names of places and people and things that it feels like the result of J.R.R. Tolkien overdoing it on laxatives. Apotyre, Dellach, Lorca-Rane, Canneroc, Mel Senshir, Odarath, Haxhi. Dokkalfar, Ljosalfar, Almain, Varani, Tuatha. Desiderus Trav, Corialia Scathe, Heki Hraedin, Gunnar Frode, Magessa Ohr, Jubal Caledus. And none of them are memorable. At some point, I felt so inundated, so oppressed by fantasy lore names that I could not imbibe another word of it. I made the most un-RPG decision ever in my entire life: I will not talk to anybody else about anything, and I won’t take any more sidequests unless they are related to the Factions, which have slightly more cohesive/interesting stories.

Although the game is arguably beautiful in its presentation, and the character and environmental designs have an incredible amount of character themselves, it really takes just one besieged village full of sidequests to see all the tricks Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning has to offer. Every root-laden dungeon, arcana-decorated temple, and oppressive fortress is a remix of another, and my eyes tired of Amalur and its needy peoples quickly. I took months off from the game because I didn’t think I could do it anymore. I felt so mauled by this game’s atmosphere that another minute sounded intolerable.

Shortly after I started Final Fantasy VI on the Vita, I realized I wanted to play an RPG that utilizes modern technology. Although the game is interesting, it’s hard for me to be impressed with old 16-bit visuals that don’t necessarily remind me of my own childhood gaming memories. So I downloaded Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning again (I got a new gaming PC in September), and if it wasn’t for Origin’s automatic cloud saves, I probably would never have trudged on. I figured I could mindlessly play on.

Well, I did it. I finished all the Faction sidequests and obtained the Twists of Fate that come along with them. I hit the level cap of 40, maxing out every Sorcery ability available. (On a side note: it drives me mad that after hitting Level 40, I was given 77 XP towards level 41, so I got to look at a bar that would never fill for another 10 hours.) I customized all varieties of weapons and armor so that anything that dropped was thrown to my junk pile to be sold to the nearest vendor. I finished the game with over 6 million gold made entirely from opening treasures, looting enemies and dungeons, and selling the chaff to vendors. I think Fallout 3 was onto something by limiting how much money any vendor had at a given time because I was surprised how even the poorest minstrel had millions of gold to give me for my junk.

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Hey, the music’s good…

Tonight, I completed the story. I’m pretty sure something important to Amalur happened, but I just don’t care. The main story is arguably short compared to the infinite hours one can spend in that cursed land, but even it threw me a cop-out of a final chapter. You reach the land where the final battle is going to go down, and one of the supporting characters basically says, “Meet me there,” there being all the way on the other side of the land. And I ran and I ran and I fought and I fought, clearing enemy wave after enemy wave with massive meteor explosions and other fancy tricks. I got to the final area, which had more enemy waves to fight, before I got to the final-er area, which had suddenly new enemies to fight.

In the final-est area was the final boss. For realsies, though. However, it was not the final boss you expected for the entire game because in one of the almost final-like areas, you’re poorly introduced to a new enemy awaiting you and some more bull about your backstory that you stopped caring about 60 hours ago. Maybe when I began, I cared who I was, the Fateless One, but in the end, I was just the F*ckless One, as in I had none to give. Just give me the boss. Yay, it’s dead. Oh, I’m not supposed to tell anyone what happened? Sure, whatever, I wasn’t expecting a particularly engaging ending anyway. These credits are long. Who are these people? And now I’m awake again, ready to finish more sidequests.

Nuh-uh. Save. Exit. Uninstall game. Banish Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning back from whence it came. I had enough.

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Gil is a video game enthusiast and professional meanderer.  When he’s not giving people his unsolicited grammar corrections, he is out and about seeking exciting food and even more exciting single-player experiences.  He’s got one of them Twitters (@gilmeansjoy) and a blog or something (fromthebacklog.blogspot.com).

 

There’s something about beating a boss in an adventure game that speaks to our basic desires for accomplishment and to overcome adversity. Boss battles (should) test all your learned skills and how well you apply them to a given situation. But if I ponder it more deeply, some of them were not as satisfying to defeat as most. Here are just a handful:

Spoilers ahead.

Matriarch Benezia – Mass Effect

While pursuing Saren and Sovereign across the universe to stop their evil plan, it is eventually revealed that the asari matriarch, Benezia, Liara’s mother, is working for the dark side. Of course, this inherently creates an emotional conflict because of the relationship Liara and Benezia share. In general, it’s not cool when you find out you’ve gotta fight your friend’s mom. But the twist ends up being that Sovereign was controlling her the whole time. In a scene before the battle, Benezia frees herself briefly from the indoctrination to explain what’s really happening.

benezia

Shortly after telling all, Benezia loses her last grip on her own mind, and she challenges you, accompanied by a slew of soldiers. Putting her down didn’t feel right because she was helpless in all of this. Someone or something took a sentient being and turned her into a tool to carry out evil plans, and you are forced to kill her in order to guarantee the safety of the universe, however brief it may be. Liara tries to act cool about losing her mother, but being complicit in her murder is unfortunate.

Maiden Astraea – Demon’s Souls

I commented in my piece on Demon’s Souls that the archdemon fights were surprisingly easier than other boss fights. They weren’t without any challenge, of course, but that challenge was just different. In the case of Maiden Astraea, whom you find in the depths of the Valley of Defilement, that difference is a boss who refuses to fight you.

Maiden Astraea

Her story, which is only really fleshed out on the wiki, is that upon learning of the lack of a benevolent deity, she took on a demon’s soul to care for the corrupted people of the land. Although Demon’s Souls appears to be about defeating demons on its surface, elements of its gameplay suggest that you really become a demon yourself, evidenced by the fact that you collect and use demon souls for all manner of ways to grow stronger and more powerful.

When you reach the Maiden’s area, assuming you approach like I did, she doesn’t have any grandiose attacks flying your way like other major bosses in the game. Instead, her bodyguard, Garl, who still cares for her deeply, fights you, but assuming you exhibit the same amount of patience you have to defeat anyone else in the game, you’ll find the fight relatively unchallenging. Once he is done with, you actually can just talk to Maiden, who will kill herself at that point to give you her demon’s soul. Might I mention that the music during this sequence is rather sad, too? The whole aura of the battle suggests that Astraea is not necessarily evil but a means to an end of ambiguous morality.

Angel – Borderlands 2

In the first Borderlands, Angel led you around Pandora, aiding you towards your final destination, The Vault. Then, in the second game, it turns out that she has been misleading you because she’s under the control of her father, Handsome Jack, who’s trying to unleash some ancient evil.

In order to prevent Jack from accomplishing his goals, she asks you to kill her when you finally find her. Despite this being an unfortunate trope, the possessed woman begging for release from the mortal coil, taking on this depressing tone in a game full of smack talking, comedy, and pretty colors felt unsettling. I already had enough emotion when Bloodwing died, but in his case, you were defeating him to save him, only for Jack to put an end to that hope. In Angel’s case, you are fighting her to end her life.

Angel_in_the_core

She doesn’t sit idly by like Maiden Astraea because she’s surrounded by multiple defenses outside of her direct control, but that doesn’t take away from the unfortunate circumstances behind the whole scene. Some small consolation came in the form of Anthony Burch, lead writer on Borderlands 2, lamenting being included in one of Anita Sarkeesian’s videos.

Colossi – Shadow of the Colossus

What starts as a game about defeating giant evil creatures in order to save the one you love takes a different turn as soon as you shove your sword into one creature’s skull. Despite any active efforts by each colossus to take down Wander, when the battle turns in his favor, the expressions on their faces sours the joy of winning.

Their eyes change from a tranquil green to an alarming orange, and they widen in shock and disbelief. The colossi wail and moan with each fountain of black blood spurting from their bodies. No matter what they did to you previously, it feels evil to take down these creatures. Then, of course, comes the emotional music that comes with felling each foe.

shadow-of-the-colossus

If that all isn’t bad enough, the final colossus, has the saddest music of all. Getting to her involves maneuvering through a labyrinth, both on the ground and on her body, and as soon as you start putting the damage on, she flails wildly like she knows the end is near. There’s no victorious chorus booming through your speakers as you take her down. Instead, the choir is practically crying for all that you’ve done. Not only have you taken down creatures that were just trying to survive, but you’ve also unleashed an evil being on the land, all so you can have one young maiden back in your life.

What about you? Were there any bosses that felt uncomfortable to defeat?

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Gil is a video game enthusiast and professional meanderer.  When he’s not giving people his unsolicited grammar corrections, he is out and about seeking exciting food and even more exciting single-player experiences.  He’s got one of them Twitters (@gilmeansjoy) and a blog or something (fromthebacklog.blogspot.com).

Recently, thanks to some friends, we discovered that Space Team has been out for Android.  My first encounter with the game was watching members of Penny Arcade and teams from the PAX East Omegathon playing it on stage.  It looked both frantic and amazing (when the game wasn’t crashing).  Certainly, once I actually started playing it on my phone, it was all of those things, though it’s arguably less amazing during “Translation Error” mode.

In order to play, up to four players check in over a wi-fi network and are presented with a screen full of controls.  Above the controls are commands that are often, not always, for other players in your space team to perform.  The thing is all four players are issued commands to bark out and each command has a limited time, so things get nuts as people yell over each other.  Then, there are also asteroids, wormholes, smoke, dangling control panels, and space goo to contend with.

Tonight, for the first time, I’m going to be playing Artemis Spaceship Bridge Simulator.  It is like Space Team in that everyone is responsible for handling functions on a bridge, but it’s less about being frantic and more about creating a simulated ship experience, even the slow parts.  Here, several people handle completely separate parts of ship operation, such as communication or ship readings.  One person, playing the commander, doesn’t have a computer but an image of what’s going on.  He or she will issue commands based on what is displayed and what the others are saying.  Evidenced by one video, the commander can just disregard safety and attack everything, though.

Oddly enough, despite these games and loving Mass Effect to pieces, I’m actually not that into space-oriented science fiction stuff.  I don’t know.  Maybe it seems too easy, you know, to do sci-fi in space.  So I typically need another hook or some kind of segue in.  Before I played a ridiculous amount of Mass Effect, I once sunk too many hours into a game practically nobody’s heard of: Escape Velocity Nova.

Escape_Velocity_Nova_Title

My segue into playing EV Nova dates back to when I actually owned a Mac. Although more developers are getting the hint nowadays, the gaming landscape on Macs is pretty similar to what it was in the 90’s before the Apple explosion.  However, since there were significantly less games available in that decade, there were significantly less games available for Mac than you see today.  One company, Ambrosia Software, seemed to fill in this gap.

For a good while, the majority of Ambrosia’s lineup was a collection of arcade remakes.  I remember they had a game based on Asteroid and another based on Centipede that I used to enjoy.  They’d update the graphics, add new challenges and sound effects, and put out a very decent product.  Since I was a preteen to teenager at the time, I didn’t really have money to drop on these shareware titles, but I got a lot of enjoyment out of them.

Eventually, Ambrosia came out with a game that wasn’t completely derivative, that being Escape Velocity.  The game put you in charge of a tiny shuttle in the great expanses of space.  You even had a little laser to defend yourself from enemies, but let’s be honest – you weren’t killing anybody.  The interface was extremely simple.  You’d hyperspace jump to large 2D screens that typically had a planet or moon or several, and you could land on each.

Escape Velocity Nova 2

Typically, only certain planets had any interactive elements to them.  You could engage in space trade by buying items in one place and selling them for a higher price in another.  Consulting the news on any planet would typically inform you of where goods were priced high or low.  Most planets also had shops to buy upgrades for your ship or a new ship entirely, which is something you’ll want to get as soon as it is feasible.  There was also a mission board you could use to do some simple tasks for people.

But your best bet for a little excitement and a lot more money was to venture into the bar.  Often, going to the bar would just result in a small text screen describing the atmosphere, but now and again, as soon as you enter, a little pop-up would display telling you someone wants to talk with you.  All “scenes” played out over text, but what was actually going on was often engaging and interesting.  What you decide to do when these little events happen typically determined the grand plotline you’d be following for the remainder of the game.

Escape Velocity Nova 4

I didn’t get very far into it when I was younger, but after I finished college, out of nostalgic curiosity, I went and checked out Ambrosia’s page and saw that they had put out an Escape Velocity for PC, too.  With utter dedication, I finally purchased a game from them, that being EV Nova.  I should note that although the game is shareware, you’ll want to purchase it after 30 days.  While you play, there is a little ship that passes occasionally and hails you, reminding you to register the game.  Once 30 days have elapsed, he sets phasers to kill.  It shouldn’t take long to guess that he is also completely invincible, so don’t even try.

Playing this entry was simply fantastic.  It might be my nostalgia talking, but EV Nova had some awesome plotlines.  Each plotline kind of puts you as the messiah for the particular faction you align with, but they are all engaging, and there are a bunch to work with.  On the surface, there is an ongoing war between the Federation and the Rebellion systems, but depending on your choices, you could end up aligning with Pirates, Marauders, or even a race of people who use their telepathic powers to create spaceships around them.  (They’re the coolest, by the way.)

The battles becomes crazy huge as you progress.  Soon you not only have enough money to get a huge ship, but you gain the ability to dock tinier fighter ships, which you deploy when threatened.  But if you manage to disable a ship without destroying it, you can often repurpose it for your own side. Thus, your army is as big as what fits inside your dock, and limit of followers you can have. At the time, there was a lot of framerate drop, but it was just awesome to witness the crazy space battles that you’re somehow in control of.  Performing a hyperspace jump with twenty other ships also looks awesome.

Escape Velocity Nova 3

Did I mention that you can take over planets and moons?  Depending on your alliance, you can start coloring the expansive hyperspace map with your own crayon.  Yes, that is kind of evil, but it’s incredible fun.  While the major plotlines have some crazy battles, there are certain planets that seem to have an infinite supply of defending ships to deploy, not to mention those in the area that will join their cause against you.  Taking over these places is incredibly satisfying and also guarantees safe passage for most areas.

It looks like you can still purchase the game on Ambrosia’s website.  I highly recommend you do. It’s easy to play for just a little while but also for just a long while, and at this point in time, your computer is definitely powerful enough to handle it.  (It’s all sprites.)  If you want a cute little space game you never heard of, you can’t go wrong with Escape Velocity Nova.

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Gil is a video game enthusiast and professional meanderer.  When he’s not giving people his unsolicited grammar corrections, he is out and about seeking exciting food and even more exciting single-player experiences.  He’s got one of them Twitters (@gilmeansjoy) and a blog or something (fromthebacklog.blogspot.com).

Most games force players into the role of the straight white male.  Some games deviate from this and allow them to play a straight arbitrarily colored male robot or alien.  However, a handful of games, namely fighting games and RPGs, lets players choose to play as either male or female or a mixture of both to build a party.  Lately, since I started Final Fantasy VI (yes, for the first time), I was reminded of how I tend to choose depending on the game.

One of the first times I can recall of being able to choose between a selection of men and women was The Simpsons arcade game, which let you choose from the eponymous family.  I would generally choose to play as Lisa — Bart was too obvious, and I suppose I didn’t relate to the parents at my young age.  Frankly, for a long period of my childhood, I always rooted for the woman.  When the X-Men arcade game took the former’s spot at the front of the arcade, Storm became my gal because, let’s be honest, Dazzler kinda sucked.  That game is actually what started my interest in the X-Men and my adoration towards Storm.

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Don’t mess.

When it came time to play on home consoles, I was the kid playing as Blaze Fielding in Streets of Rage 2, kicking ass in short shorts and fabulously teased hair.  And I was picking Chun-Li in Street Fighter II before she was given a fireball in Super Street Fighter II.  Admittedly, she was slightly harder to handle, but her crouching roundhouse kick was amazing at knocking people out of the sky.  Hell, even in Ballz, I played as Divine, the ballerina.  (Yes, as a child, I really enjoyed that game. I feel no shame.)  I will admit that I didn’t like playing as Sonya Blade in Mortal Kombat, though.  Something about Sub-Zero’s freezing ability was too tempting.

It wasn’t until playing my first RPG, Final Fantasy VII, on the PC in 1999 that I was given the option of choosing more than one female to be on my team.  So began a trend towards staunchly choosing as close to all-female lineups as I could.  In VII, my optional two party members were Aeris and Yuffie until [something happened], and I’d switch one for Tifa.  I loved the idea that Tifa was the punching and kicking powerhouse, so I ported over the idea to Final Fantasy VIII.  I liked utilizing the Junction System to make Rinoa into my super strong physical attacker.  Things were slightly more progressive in Final Fantasy IX, when I’d have both Dagger and Eiko in my party with the genderqueer Quina Quen rounding things out.  And so on and so forth.

Quina-Quen

Ivy, Bayonetta, Alexandra Roivas, Lulu, KOS-MOS… it goes on and on.  I found that I didn’t start deviating from this female picking scheme until games started letting me customize my characters.  I was MaleShep for Mass Effect, a male elfen fellow in Kingdoms of Amalur, and a silent male for all of Fallout 3.  Although it sounds silly, I think I will generally customize a male since I can make him mine to some extent, and I can also make him an object of desire, contrary to typical game design and marketing.

But as soon as I had the option in Final Fantasy VI, I was trying to include Terra and Celes in my party as often as possible.  So nothing’s really changed in that regard.  I have always liked the idea of “girl power” before Spice Girls made that a thing.  Although I don’t identify as female, I’ve always identified with females, who were often my friends outside of video games.  So I took to those characters in games readily because I wanted them to take charge and kick ass.  As a child, of course, I knew little of the concepts of sexual agency and patriarchy that undermined many, if not all, of these characters I loved so much.

But women still rule for me, and I’m looking forward to playing as many more.

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Gil is a video game enthusiast and professional meanderer.  When he’s not giving people his unsolicited grammar corrections, he is out and about seeking exciting food and even more exciting single-player experiences.  He’s got one of them Twitters (@gilmeansjoy) and a blog or something (fromthebacklog.blogspot.com).

So it quickly approaches — the end of 2013. This has been an undeniably amazing year for gaming, one in which we’ve seen the rise of amazing games, the next generation of consoles, a number of controversies, and a lot of fun.  I decided to look into what I’ve accomplished this year in terms of gaming, and the results are that I’ve played 47 unique games and DLC packs, which I’d say it not too shabby.  Of those 47, I’ve completed 39 of them.  Considering one of them was the life-consuming Persona 4 Golden, I don’t think that number is too bad either.  Also, we have a few more days left to stuff some short games into.  In light of all the games I’ve finished, I’d like to share with you my completion ritual.

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The majority of games I’ve played have been on the PC this year.  I can thank great sales for that.  No matter how long or tough a game is, whenever I finish one, and the credits begin to roll, I recline my chair all the way.  Then, I just sit and watch the screen.  It’s something simple, I know, but I look forward to that moment when I have nothing left to do but recline and watch the list of people who made the game that took over my life for the past few days.  Even if you don’t really care (or if the list is freakishly long because it was made by Ubisoft), that moment of reflection is pretty significant.  Besides, you never know if there’s going to be a cutscene at the end of your wait.

I’d like to suggest that you all do the same when you finish a game.  Aside from admiring the developers, that kind of time can be cathartic.  We don’t often have these moments where it’s acceptable to just do nothing.  This is a busy, multitasking world that often reminds people they’ll be left behind if they’re not constantly doing something.  When you use Steam, you can easily flip over to the web browser, chat with friends, or look up anything and everything on your smart phone.  Maybe you didn’t totally understand the ending you just witnessed, and you want to look up what Wikipedia has to say about it.

Don’t.  Recline.

recliner

Do this for all accomplishments, actually.  That would be my larger point.  Every year is a big one in your life, and it’s important to think back on it before approaching a new one.  I’m not saying you should come up with New Year’s resolutions or anything, but like a good game, you’ve just spent a long time taking in a lot of knowledge — some of it is useless, and some of it is impactful — and you should acknowledge it.

Life can wait a moment.  Watch the credits.  Absorb what you just witnessed.  Make your experience truly complete and not just because your cheevo says it is.  Then, after your moment of (digital) zen, keep on gaming.

My 2013 has been made impossibly better due to games.  This is a fact I cannot deny.  My credits include a lot of awesome people from the industry, notably the folks at Sumthing, who offered my stupid diatribes another platform.

I wish all the Sumthing fans, especially including Emily and Geno, my Sumthing Siblings, a happy holiday and a joyous New Year!  Thanks for reading.  Recline, and game on!

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Gil is a video game enthusiast and professional meanderer.  When he’s not giving people his unsolicited grammar corrections, he is out and about seeking exciting food and even more exciting single-player experiences.  He’s got one of them Twitters (@gilmeansjoy) and a blog or something (fromthebacklog.blogspot.com).

 

You’re going to see a lot of listicles dedicated to looking back on this year, the two thousand and thirteenth year of the Common Era.  Many of them will count down towards the heavily anticipated GOTY or Game of the Year.  Others may count down towards the current-gen music of the year (tastes may vary).  And although I played a great many games and listened to a great many soundtracks this year, I’d rather pitch my FOTY or Feeling of the Year: the satisfaction of beating Demon’s Souls.  It isn’t my game of the year (developed, played, or otherwise), but I think few games have made me feel as good upon completion.

My first knowledge of Demon’s Souls was that it was particularly hard.  Instantly, I wrote it off – I generally play games on the easiest mode available because I’m all about the narrative.  I wasn’t interested in a game that would do everything in its power to prevent me from reaching the end.  Also, I couldn’t help but think “Boletaria” has to be the least appealing fantasy world name I’ve ever heard.  I probably don’t have a reasonable explanation for why, but it makes me think of vomiting.

Regardless, it entered my home in early 2010 when my then-boyfriend (now-husband) picked it up.  Generally, he’s an easier mode gamer than I am, but somehow a friend of ours managed to convince him to give it a try.  Over the next week or so, he was having plenty of problems getting past the tutorial, and the first stage wasn’t too friendly either.  So he gave up, basically.  I decided to give it a whirl and created a character, a temple knight, for its mix of magic and weaponry.  I did find it rather tough, much tougher than other games usually are upon beginning them, but I persisted until I managed to defeat Phalanx, which took all of half an hour.

demons souls 1

Defeating the first boss, necessary to begin leveling and doing anything else worthwhile in Demon’s Souls, felt pretty awesome, so I was riding a decent high moving on past Phalanx.  After much drudgery, I managed to get through the second stage of the first world (lovingly, “1-2”) and gaze upon the Tower Knight for the first time.  I was impressed with his size and presence from trailers and reviews and was excited to see him in all his glory.  As soon as his shield slammed down near me, my excitement dwindled as I ran like a crazy person to get away from him.  Thinking I was safe for the moment, all his supporting archers managed to sink their arrows into me and kill me.

And that was it for me in that year, 2010.  It took so much effort to get to that point, and I died thinking I have no chance against a giant monster knight and his team of archers.  The experience also caused me to woefully overestimate how many there were.  It felt rather hopeless to persist, especially when I had more “beatable” games to play.

Fast forward to this year, and I got this weird itch to pick up Demon’s Souls again.  I don’t recall perfectly how this itch came to be, but I think there was a point where a lot of people on Twitter were talking up Dark Souls.  I figured that maybe if I learned a modicum of patience, something instilled in me to a lesser degree by The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, then maybe I could get through this game.  Doing a tad of research revealed that it’s not advisable, though it is possible, to go to 1-2 after finishing 1-1.  Oh. Stupid me.  Super Mario Bros. apparently taught me the wrong way to play a game.

So I went to 2-1, and my adventure, though fraught with frustration and cursing, went significantly better than it had almost three years prior.  Compared to how I typically play RPGs, there was a lot of guide consultation, namely the amazing Demon’s Souls Wiki.  That website became the air I breathed for a number of weeks.  Since the underlying story is not particularly interesting (or present), and Demon’s Souls does practically nothing to explain its underlying systems, I thought I’d rather fill myself with knowledge and finish the game than stumble around again.

I was definitely more patient.  I really went around each map to learn my way around and took time with particularly troublesome enemies.  Those who did not eliminate all my stamina in one fell swoop just required more strafing and less tomfoolery.  There are no guns, but if there were, you still should not go into this game with them blazing.  Slowly ticking off health is key to getting through this craziness.  Although the Wiki certainly helped me in my adventures, the fact is that the player has to actually beat the game.  There’s no simple button to push that makes a boss or challenging enemy just disappear.  You still need to cramp your hands holding block and moving around to beat these bosses.

demons souls 3

After working tirelessly past sassy grim reapers, poisoned waters, a gargoyle with a twin, a handful of red invading souls, and the jerk who handed me my own ass at the end of the tutorial, I managed to make it to the archdemons in each land.  One thing I did not realize was that the third stage in each land was just the archdemon, so dying didn’t mean getting sent back to some ridiculous point way back like it did for other bosses.  Although these characters were certainly challenging, they felt like more of a reprieve than the challenges that preceded them.  They were often more about puzzle solving and paying attention to the clues the environment handed you.  In one archdemon’s case, she elects to die on her own.

Finally, once these menaces are slain, I was able to finish the first world.  Taking down the Tower Knight felt glorious as I nipped at his heel for the last time.  Although I still died foolishly, I found myself slaughtering foes and navigating past traps much more easily than when I first played 1-1.  Even more gleefully, I was suddenly able (with a ton of patience) to take down the optional bosses in the game, who all seemed damn near impossible in the beginning.  Telling that blue dragon to piss off was just glorious.

Then, I got to the end.  I defeated the False King Allant, who wasn’t so easy, and the game was basically over.  Admittedly, I did something rather stupid, which cost me the trophy for beating the game (people who have played will know exactly what that was).  But it didn’t matter.  I finished.  Like the reprieve of the archdemon battles, the ending to Demon’s Souls is actually a cakewalk.  The brilliance of this game lies in the moments like the archdemon battles and the ending — it knows it’s been really hard on you and wants to reward you for being a good sport.  Almost self-aware, Demon’s Souls demonstrates to those who persist and tough it out that it has a conscience.

demons souls 2

Beating Demon’s Souls felt like a major comeuppance – over something trivial as a video game, sure, but my soul bared its middle finger at the game one last time before I quit out of good.  That was easily the hardest game I have ever played and beaten, with or without outside help.  And I did it.  I didn’t gain a particularly engaging narrative experience, but I felt quite a warmth in my heart.  Trophy or not, knowing my accomplishments on that night was a high better than any experience I gathered from another game in 2013.

Feeling of the Year 2013: Returning to a challenge and completing it.  I will, of course, try to replicate the feeling with Dark Souls in 2014.

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Gil is a video game enthusiast and professional meanderer.  When he’s not giving people his unsolicited grammar corrections, he is out and about seeking exciting food and even more exciting single-player experiences.  He’s got one of them Twitters (@gilmeansjoy) and a blog or something (fromthebacklog.blogspot.com).

You might not know this, but the Myst game series is one of my all-time favorites.  Actually, for a lot of you, the most immediate question brought to mind is probably “Wait, series?”  So many people seem completely unaware that there were five games after Myst: Riven, Myst III: Exile, Myst IV: Revelation, Uru: Ages Beyond Myst, and Myst V: End of Ages.  Actually, before it was notably common, Uru had expansion packs, To D’ni and Path of the Shell.  I’d even go so far as to say Myst itself is the least interesting game in the whole series, although it does a great job of setting up what is an ultimately fascinating storyline.

If you’ve never played or heard of Myst, which before The Sims held the record for best-selling CD-ROM game of all time, I’ll quickly explain.  You, who are never named (or gendered), land on Myst Island, which is covered in weird machines and curios.  The way you land there is a little mysterious: you press your hand against an animated image of Myst in a book at the bottom of a fissure.  It turns out this world is full of books that transport you to other places by placing your hand on them.  When you arrive, there’s only a note from some dude, Atrus, asking his wife, Catherine, to find some message he left for her.  What follows is a strange journey that involves Atrus’ two sons, Sirrus and Achenar, trapped in strange books in a library, trips to four other worlds, called Ages, and a tale of betrayal and abuse of power.

Myst 1

Unfortunately, for many people, clicking around the island and trying to figure out the honestly challenging puzzles wasn’t as exciting as stomping enemies in Mario, so many people never finished it and never looked past it.  Books didn’t just transport people to other worlds.  They were also there to be, well, read.  Some of the clues you need are in the few surviving books in a mostly burned up library, journals written by Atrus about his adventures in the other Ages — Mechanical, Channelwood, Selenitic, and Stoneship — all of which he also wrote himself.  Accessing those Ages requires solving puzzles around Myst to reveal their linking books, and once you get to each Age, it’s easy to just not have a clue what to do.

Admittedly, I only managed to complete the game by constantly traveling to Electronics Boutique at the nearby mall and flipping through the guide.  (There’s a reason they’re wrapped in plastic nowadays.)  But I was invested in this world enough to want to explore more.  I haven’t seen lore of this kind in any other game, and I was mesmerized at the thought of people literally writing new worlds.  Whereas Myst is a rather lonesome experience, what with the majority of people you interact with talking through books, the sequel, Riven, was a vast departure.

Compared to its predecessor, Riven was literally about the one eponymous age.  At the good ending of Myst, Atrus informs you that his father, Ghen, has kidnapped Catherine, the very woman who was supposed to find your message.  Riven is made up of multiple islands that you access by taking mysterious trams that connect them. Already, by taking one tram, more curiosities are revealed as it delves into the depths of the surrounding water.  You see, the tram isn’t covered, and it looks like tunnels were dug through the water since no nonporous substance, such as glass, was used to shield these tunnels.  On top of trying to find Ghen, you encounter the people of Riven, who you learn have been subjugated by him somehow.  You also learn that Riven used to be just one island but is constantly being ripped apart by various instabilities in the Age.

Riven

What I loved so much about Riven was how organic all the puzzles were to the environment.  Instead of shuttling off to new ages with strange objects and puzzles, Riven itself was unified.  It had wildlife all its own, a unique race of people, and a culture that binds it all.  It was also in Riven that you learn more about the D’ni culture, to whom Atrus, Ghen, and his sons belong.  They have a numbering system unlike ours that is actually base twenty-five and has unique symbols.  (Ours is base ten.)  Oh, and they can write books that transport you to other worlds.

My favorite part was the big puzzle, which none of the other games even tried to match in scope or awesomeness.  In order to finish the game, it’s necessary to activate a Riven-wide power system.  However, when you do find and approach it, it is literally a 25×25 grid with six colored beads to place in it that has 58,752,420,690,993,751 possible solutions, so it’s actually impossible to guess.  The actual solution requires players to pay attention to almost every aspect of the island in order to figure it out, an incredible challenge that has yet to be sufficiently matched, in my humble opinion. Riven also features other puzzles, whose solutions are randomly generated on each new game.

Although I enjoyed every game, I had no plan on gushing about each one here.  However, I’d like to end it off with talking about Uru: Ages Beyond Myst.  This game was actually not really about Atrus and his family like the others, although it did feature his daughter, Yeesha.  Instead, Uru was actually about the D’ni, the driving force behind all the games.  It is also in Uru that players customize avatars, which are controlled from a third-person perspective.  The game was planned as an online experience, where players would meet each other to try and solve puzzles together, something later done in Journey.  However, for a number of reasons, the servers were shut down (and kind of restored).  Insert sad face here.

uru

:(

It is disappointing to hear that, but I didn’t end up playing the game until Uru: Complete Chronicles, which includes the game and expansion packs, came out.  During the course of Uru, you explore the vast city where the D’ni used to live and learn more about their culture and linking books.  If you were a fan of the actual Myst backstory, this was kind of huge.  There is a lot of reading, but you can learn about all the kings, the guilds, and cultural quirks of the people that once inhabited this world.  Moreover, it is revealed that the D’ni argued about their own abilities, known as The Art.  Do the Ages they write begin life when the last word is penned, or have they always existed, where each revision represents an alternate reality?  This argument creates quite the moral conundrum when you realize that the first game focused on a number of burned books.

If any of this garnered most interest in the Myst games, I implore you to seek them out and play them.  I’ve linked to where you can buy all of them, my favorites all being on the amazing GOG.com.  I also encourage you to download Jack Wall’s scores for Myst III: Exile and Myst IV: Revelation, which are amazing.  The world as imagined by Cyan is just so vast and interesting that any good adventure gamer should check them out.  If you’re a fan, I’d love to hear your stories, too!

Oh, and Cyan is finally making a completely new adventure, Obduction.  You should be aware.

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Gil is a video game enthusiast and professional meanderer.  When he’s not giving people his unsolicited grammar corrections, he is out and about seeking exciting food and even more exciting single-player experiences.  He’s got one of them Twitters (@gilmeansjoy) and a blog or something (fromthebacklog.blogspot.com).

In my second-to-last piece, I discussed how I’m tired of disappointing binary choices that some games present players with — good or evil, upstanding or rebel, win or lose.  I also derided Heavy Rain for focusing too much on the win/loss scenario of decision-making, hoping that Beyond: Two Souls would be better.  It’s actually much worse.  However, despite that let down, Beyond: Two Souls also did something else I hated, something that I think a lot of players hate if their reaction to one game in particular is any indication.  This game let me choose my own ending.

Spoilers ahead.  This is your spoiler warning.  Not just one game either. (Beyond: Two Souls, Deus Ex: HR, Mass Effect 3, a little Witcher 2 – just tread carefully… it’ll be ok)

Now, I’m actually not that upset by the first major choice Beyond: Two Souls had me make, that is, whether to stay in this world or move onto the infraworld.  Of all the silliness that goes on with the plot, this made the most sense since Jodie has emotional ties to this world but also begrudges it for the troubles with which she’s lived.  The problematic decision to be made was choosing between Jodie’s emotional ties – those to which she’d devote the rest of her life (or not).

BeyondTwoSouls5

After deciding to stay in this world, Jodie retreats to a cabin in the woods where she waxes regretful about losing Aiden in the Black Sun mess.  Then, she talks about how she chose (narrated in past tense) to spend her remaining days, and the game actually lists your options on the screen.  I almost found it offensive in its display, showing small circular portraits of the major characters with giant symbols for the corresponding DualShock controller button the player must press to proceed.  Considering how minimal the interface is in this game compared to Heavy Rain, this felt so out-of-place.

More offensive still is that an emotionally involving ending, one that is supposed to wrap up the plot for me, is suspending all further activity until I pick something.  No matter which choice you make, Jodie says something to the effect of “It all made so much sense!” as if the revelation was seriously all her own.  I was mildly flabbergasted that all the actions you take during the course of the plot don’t make this decision for you, especially since some choices weigh more heavily than others.

Don’t get me wrong, I was happy to be able to spend the rest of my life with my Nava-hottie.  But I’d like to know why someone who shows up in one chapter and who I am given exactly one romantic opportunity (to kiss or not) is an option alongside a major character who I’m asked to embrace or reject about four times prior during the course of the plot.  Obviously, the story was written specifically to weigh towards a specific character.  Why create so much focus for me to invalidate that focus later on? Is that really enabling the player or sloppy writing?

One of the remaining choices, the young child of a woman you helped while homeless, is also befuddling. Although picking that choice results in a slightly reasonable set of cutscenes, among two romantic choices, choosing a toddler doesn’t make immediate sense to anyone.  It feels like the odd choice a player might make if he/she hated the romantic options or just wanted to be contrary, but it definitely doesn’t feel like a naturally occurring idea a player would think of.  Couple these three with choosing to be eternally alone, and you’re left with an ending that’s underwhelming due to its own inability to work itself out.

Of course, Beyond: Two Souls is not the first game to do this.  I felt the same weirdness about the ending to Deus Ex: Human Revolution.  After uncovering the grand master plot and heading way under the ocean to stop a crazy super computer*, you defeat the final boss and are presented with three possibilities for wrapping things up.  Unlike Beyond: Two Souls, these choices nagged at me because they were all actually morally grey (kudos!).  You can blame recent events on two different sources, resulting in continued augmentation or severe restrictions, or you can hide all evidence, letting the world make its own decision.

*Deus Ex: Human Revolution has a ton of great sci-fi stories – all made mildly worse by being all together at once.

DeusExending

Buffet style narrative!

Each of the three choices and endings make complete sense, but they are the only three endings.  What I mean to express here is that it takes one save game after the final boss to just find out what all three endings look like.  Here, your decision is rendered worthless by its accessibility.  In a game where you are capable of murdering everyone or taking no lives, playing stealthily or running around with guns blazing, you’d imagine that the ending would be a reflection of your attitudes throughout.  Instead, no matter how you played or what you did, you are given the gift of the same three endings everybody else gets.

Admittedly, you see the outcome of the four life choices in Beyond: Two Souls with a single save, too, but to get to that point requires a number of actions and decisions along the way.  So being able to do so (and I did) is not as cheap as in Deus Ex: Human Revolution because the four choices aren’t actually present for everyone and in all circumstances.  Unlike Deus Ex: Human Revolution, players still need to invest time and energy into obtaining those four endings, some of which are available in the infraworld, too, though I haven’t tested that yet.

However, you all know perfectly well what the worst offender of all is: Mass Effect 3.

You know, I didn’t hate the ending to Mass Effect 3, but I did think it was a disappointment.  Like Deus Ex: Human Revolutions before it, it presents you with three choices that are available to everyone who plays the game.  Like both previously mentioned games, a well-placed save game allows players to easily witness the effects of all three endings. (In all honesty, it’s not that easy because the last place you can save is before a tough battle.)  Those endings?  Destroy the reapers and all synthetic races, control the reapers and stop them in their tracks, or fuse organic and synthetic life-forms together… for some reason.

What makes Mass Effect 3 the worst offender?  This ending is the culmination of three 30+ hour games full of decision-making and branching outcomes!  Most players’ heartbreak was to find out that they spent three long games trying to destroy the reapers only for the game to ask them if they would like to destroy the reapers, worse still for painting that decision as the bad one.  Then, there’s the fact that these decisions are spouted to Shepard by some deus ex machina in the form of the only human child ever rendered in the series.

ME3 decisions

The final twist of the knife was how ambiguous each ending was — each one successfully stopped the reapers, blew up the Citadel, destroyed the mass relays, and forced the Normandy to engage in an idiotic escape from the relay explosions.  The Normandy somehow lands on some planet, and two or three crewmembers step out to view the new world… and credits.  The tons of characters you met along your journey all have unknown fates as you deal with the biggest letdown you’ve ever experienced in gaming.

Sure, BioWare amended the ending, but they didn’t change its core idiocy, and the fates of those you grew to love were still mostly thrown to the ether.  At least Mass Effect 3 was large enough to create a humongous outcry.  Although I did not agree with players demanding that the ending be revised, they all were entitled to their frustrations with the ending.  I just don’t think developers should have players choose their own endings.  It’s fine to have some decisions in the last chapter (The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings lets you decide whether or not to fight the final boss!), but the ending should be a reflection of everything you’ve done during the course of the game or everything the writers have made clear strides for it to be.

Just let us know when it’s time to put down the controller, recline, and watch some cutscenes.  Everything after that just hurts.

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Gil is a video game enthusiast and professional meanderer.  When he’s not giving people his unsolicited grammar corrections, he is out and about seeking exciting food and even more exciting single-player experiences.  He’s got one of them Twitters (@gilmeansjoy) and a blog or something (fromthebacklog.blogspot.com).

I finished Persona 4 Golden for the PlayStation Vita last week.  For a while beforehand, I was sure I was almost finished, which in Shin Megami Tensei terms can mean about twenty hours away from completion.  I was kind of right.  But I’m not going to discuss how I leveled all my characters to level 99, and how the payoff for doing so wasn’t the same as in Persona 3.  Instead, I’d like to focus a little on the ending and what I liked about it compared to its predecessor.

Spoilers ahead for Persona 3 and 4.  Just stop here and whistle to yourself if you haven’t played and finished either game.

A large portion of both Persona games I’ve played is focused not just on typical JRPG grinding and combat but also on leveling relationships with other characters, known as Social Links.  Each friendship of meaning that you establish, however friendly or oddly adversarial, becomes a logged Social Link of a particular major arcana from tarot.  These relationships don’t just benefit the player with additional, yet brief stories, but each level of a Social Link boosts the experience of fused Personae of matching arcana.

Given that none of that makes obvious sense, let me provide an example: In Persona 4, when/if you join the soccer team, you make friends with Daisuke and Kou, which establishes the Strength Social Link.  Later on, when you fuse Personae (the game’s version of summons) together to make Rakshasa, who is aligned with Strength, he gains bonus experience upon creation.  This experience levels him up without going into combat, and because he has certain abilities that unlock with certain levels, you gain access to those a little sooner, too.  Carrying a Persona of a certain arcana also enhances your ability to progress with your relationship of that arcana, so it ends up being this Ouroboros-like feature of endless winning.  You kinda need to do it unless you’re daft, but it’s completely rewarding.

Persona 4 g

That said, I feel like the idea of forming friendships played out better in Persona 4 than Persona 3.  During the final encounter in Persona 3, you die but are somehow resurrected because of your Social Link bonds and general RPG shenanigans.  It’s a lot like the final encounter Okami, but without the awful yammering in place of voices.  However, once the final boss is defeated and everything is fine again, you die!  Seriously.  You join your friends on the roof of the school a few weeks later, talk about how lovely everything is, and then you drop dead.  It’s a good ending to a great game, don’t get me wrong, but you can’t help but feel moderately angry with the writers. (I wonder if anybody cried.)

Persona 4, on the other hand, kills and resuscitates a wholly different character way before the final encounter, so that’s taken care of.  (I did tear up over that one.)  The final encounter is crazy, and then you get almost two months to keep hanging out with friends and maxing out those Social Links.  The reward for doing so, by the way, is the ultimate Persona for that arcana, which is usually awesome.  Oh yeah, and a friend for life blah blah blah.  However, when the ending comes along, two rewarding scenarios take place.  First, the day before you have to return home (you only came to Inaba because your parents left the country on business for exactly one school year), you can go and say goodbye to all those people with whom you have maxed out Social Links.

Persona 4 D

Next, the day you leave comes with an animated sequence where you board the train, and the six friends who helped you defeat Shadows and the like run after the train yelling about how much they love and value you.  I’m not much of a sap when it comes to games, but that had me there.  There are lots of games that try to tell you that you, the protagonist, are special for single-handedly doing something or another.  By virtue of you having some unique ability that others do not possess, you are special and valuable to the world or the universe.  But in Persona 4, despite all the great accomplishments you’ve made and the unique gifts you possess, you make friends with kids in high school who value you for you.

Ignoring the issues with the idea that people form these grand relationships with a silent protagonist, it’s really gratifying to play a game where you finish it feeling valuable as a person.  Not a lot of games value the person over the abilities or the skillset, and it’s really an important lesson to drive home to players.  Mr. Rogers spent a lifetime trying to teach viewers of his program that they were special for the people that they were.  I kind of wish more games would reinforce that idea, too.  Once you strip away our magic powers, fated fortunes, grand destinies, and dumb luck, we are just people who want friends.

OK.  Maybe I am a bit of a sap.

Persona 4 h

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Gil is a video game enthusiast and professional meanderer.  When he’s not giving people his unsolicited grammar corrections, he is out and about seeking exciting food and even more exciting single-player experiences.  He’s got one of them Twitters (@gilmeansjoy) and a blog or something (fromthebacklog.blogspot.com).

 

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