10 10 / 2014
Nerd Talk podcast: October 9, 2014
Sen and Pixie return! In this bite-sized episode, we talk about the Warmachine tournament held last week at Gryfalia’s Aerie in Bloomington, IL, Pixie’s brief foray into Malifaux, our experiences with the Machine of Death game, what we’ve been playing (mostly WildStar & MoD) and what we’re looking forward to playing next week (Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel).
19 2 / 2014
February 18, 2014 - The Lego Movie podcast
Support the show by clicking here to shop through our Amazon affiliate link.
Notes: We were in no way compensated by any of the brands mentioned in this show.
Pixie also didn’t mean to imply that only girls like narrative-based play experiences, either (the popularity of role-playing games would obviously show otherwise!), but as is often the case, we get easily sidetracked on weird tangents while recording.
25 11 / 2013
Borderlands 2 is more than “just” a shooter
by Veronica “Pixie” Mathy
EDIT: This review was originally written for publication in my college’s newspaper as a genre review, because I was determined to write about video games instead of movies like my professor wanted. Because of its original intended audience, it explains a lot about gaming generally and gaming genres specifically; my apologies to those already familiar with them.
The first-person shooter (FPS) genre is the weakest available description for an entire genre of games. It requires only two elements: the camera is in first person-perspective and the core gameplay mechanic revolves around shooting enemies. All other video game genres have more criteria to fit their respective categories, which is why video game genres recently started borrowing elements from each other; occasionally, this can feel halfhearted and unpolished (like poorly-designed puzzles used to break up an action-adventure game), and other times we get the best of two genres creating something more complex and enjoyable than either genre alone. The latter, thankfully, is what I found in Borderlands 2.
Borderlands 2, like many recent major game titles, uses role-playing game (RPG) elements that enhance the player’s character over the course of the game. Though FPSs rely on player skill to set individuals apart, Borderlands 2 also asks the player to choose from four distinct characters, each serving as a different role-playing class with their own unique abilities. For example, the Siren uses a psychic Phaselock ability to hold enemies vulnerable in the air, while the Commando drops a turret to help provide cover fire. Borderlands 2 also uses randomized weapons dropped from enemies as loot; as the player kills enemies and completes quests, they’re rewarded with better guns and experience points to scale progression with play.
Although Borderlands 2 can be played solo, at its heart it’s a cooperative game that shines when played with a team of friends. Up to three people can join the hosting player’s game and travel the world of Pandora slaying monsters and bandits for treasure. This key element of cooperation also sets it apart from popular FPSs like Call of Duty in that those games emphasize competition with fellow players. I found the cooperative approach much more enjoyable by removing the stress of facing other players’ aggression; we’re all on the same side against the computer-controlled enemies. The strong competitive meritocracy in FPSs is what makes the genre so popular, so this was a risky choice on the part of developer Gearbox Software, but in my opinion, Gearbox made a better community for doing so.
A major complaint leveled at the FPS genre is the toxicity of its community; online, players hurl sexist, homophobic and racist slurs (to name a few) at opponents with such regularity that some people are discouraged from ever participating (especially within marginalized groups). Borderlands 2 instead grows a diverse audience of players aimed toward a common goal with its wide cast of characters - it was a step forward for video games as a whole, not just FPSs, when Borderlands 2 included gay characters for whom their orientation was just another part of their background rather than a dramatic ordeal.
Even over a year after its release, Gearbox continues adding to the game well past the conclusion of the its main story through downloadable content - extra playable characters, increases in the maximum player level and new offshoot stories extend the game’s longevity long after other FPSs would no longer be worth keeping. By now, most other FPS developers would have moved on to the next project, but Gearbox plans at least two more expansions to “Borderlands 2.” Rather than enduring misogynistic “jokes” suggesting I “get back in the kitchen,” from other FPS players, I plan on staying in Pandora with my fellow Vault Hunters for many more months to come.
05 11 / 2013
The Walking Dead: the zombie game that made me feel human
by Veronica “Pixie” Mathy
SPOILER ALERT: The following review will spoil some major plot points of The Walking Dead: Season One.
The Walking Dead: The Game, developed and published by Telltale Games, was released in five episodes between April and November 2012 that comprise Season One. It’s simple enough that anyone can pick it up and get the full experience; much of it revolves around clicking on people or objects in the environment and making huge, irreversible decisions in high-tension situations. It’s a graphic adventure game, like those popularized in the ‘80s and ‘90s, where the player is placed in a setting and can interact with specific objects and characters to move the story forward, with a few often unremarkable false clues to encourage limited exploration of the environment and make the game feel less like being led in a straight line from setpiece to setpiece.
The game begins with protagonist Lee Everett sitting in the back of a squad car as he’s driven to prison for murdering a senator who was sleeping with his wife. I thought it was problematic for Lee - a black man - to start the game cuffed in the back of a police car. People I trusted told me the game had strong characters, but the choice to write him as a felon struck me as lazy.
TWD subverted my initially critical impression and proceeded to portray Lee as a multifaceted individual who retains his values of kindness and selflessness in the face of overwhelming adversity. I learned Lee was a history professor at the University of Georgia for six years, which flew in the face of the stereotype the game first presented to me. That does not change the problem of initially portraying a black man as a violent criminal, but it did make Lee a more compelling, believable character to me; the fact that he had experience with violence made his use of violence during the game more plausible.
When I guided Lee’s responses in conversations, I had the option to portray his personality as a hopeful idealist who tries to settle disputes and question morally objectionable behavior, or a pragmatic man with a tendency toward aggression when provoked. Lee’s dedication makes him a protector and a kind of adoptive father for Clementine, an 8-year-old girl whose parents were killed in the outbreak; she was surviving on her own, hiding in her treehouse until Lee arrived. The relationship between Lee and Clementine forms the narrative heart of the series; in the first chapter of the game, Clementine saved Lee’s life by giving him a blunt instrument with which to defend himself when attacked by a “walker,” (read: zombie) and from then on she’s both an asset to his survival and a gentle reminder to keep his humanity.
The Walking Dead’s greatest strength is in its characters; though there are too many to name, each has a distinct personality and I grew attached to them for different reasons, enough that I was distraught when some tragedy befell them: Omid, a Persian-American from San Francisco with a passion for Civil War history, stands out against the disturbing current trend of portraying Middle Eastern characters in games as villains and terrorists; Katjaa, a Belgian-American veterinarian whose heart brimmed with compassion until it broke when her son became infected; and Kenny, her husband whose fierce loyalty to his family and determination to keep going after so much suffering makes him one of the characters I most empathized with throughout the game.
Not everyone in The Walking Dead is decent. The villains in the game (to the extent that there are villains) are normal people driven to evil actions by universal human weaknesses - greed, fear, hunger and vengeance. In the face of starvation, the St. John brothers resort to cannibalism. To ensure their survival, the “Save-Lots bandits” resort to robbery and extortion. In a world where resources are scarce and vital, depriving others of food and medicine is as harmful as killing them directly, but failing to protect yourself without adequate zeal is equivalent to suicide.
That is the core source of tension in The Walking Dead - decisions where there is no “right” answer. I came across supplies, and nobody is guarding them; should I take them to survive, or respect that they likely belong to another struggling family? If a companion is severely wounded, is it better to kill them preemptively to prevent them from becoming undead, or is the idea of murder even worse? At the risk of becoming an undead monster, is suicide an acceptable answer?
These are questions that divide people - I have had heated debates about what is the “right” thing in each of these situations, or in lieu of “right,” what is the action Lee “should” take? After each episode, the game reveals a statistical breakdown of the decisions made by other players - consensus is rare. Games have a unique ability to create empathy; as my avatar for interacting with the game, I felt a direct connection to Lee, and as such felt accountable for his actions - I even found myself justifying choices I never directly made, but since I “became” Lee, I treated them as though they were my own.
Like life, there is no closure in The Walking Dead. When people die, or leave, or you otherwise lose contact, there is no omniscient third-person narrator to say how they’re feeling or what they’re doing. I see only what Lee is around and conscious to experience; I have to rely on context clues to piece together a picture of what might have occurred if Lee missed key events. Did Omid and his girlfriend Crista make it out of Savannah? Will they survive? How far could Clementine survive on her own, if something happens to Lee? For some of these questions, I will never get an answer - for others, I can only hope that Season Two mentions some character I’ve come to care about, even in passing, just to know they made it.
Ultimately, The Walking Dead shows the best of what it is to be human. It places its characters in the most hopeless, desperate situations imaginable, and in that situation some succumb to vice, villainy and madness - but not all of them. In The Walking Dead, there are people who remain true to their values and treat the people around them with respect and compassion, and by doing so, they make their overwhelmingly bleak and depressing universe just a little bit better.
“Clementine will remember that.”
26 9 / 2013
What does size six mean?
by Veronica “Pixie” Mathy
When a man walks into a clothing store, he can quickly assess whether product on the shelf will fit him, and generally without having to try it on. If he measures his waist at 34 inches and his legs’ length at 30 inches, he can grab a pair of pants labeled 34x30 without much consideration. Moreover, men’s sizing is pretty consistent across the board, no matter where you shop - and yet, women’s sizing is much more difficult to navigate. Why?
While clothing has been around as long as we have, for most of human history it was sized directly for the person who was intended to wear it because clothing was made by hand. Mass manufactured clothing (and therefore, sizes) came about around 250 years ago during the Industrial Revolution, at which time it was primarily used for the manufacture of men’s clothing (particularly military uniforms). American sizes consisted simply of measurements (in inches) of the relevant body parts; mens’ clothing sizes today are still based on this heritage.
Women’s sizes as we know them today were developed in the 1940s and 1950s based on a US government survey of women’s measurements. Modern women’s sizes are an arbitrary standard using sizes such as “00” and “18,” where the numerical value of the size only serves as a name (hence the term “nominal sizing”), rather than a measurement.
Because women’s sizes are an arbitrary standard, rather than based on actual measurements, the measurements corresponding to particular sizes have changed over the years. This has happened for two reasons: one is simple chaos - how big exactly a “6” is in inches has no single, official definition; the other is a more deliberate system known as vanity sizing.
Vanity sizing is a phenomenon where clothing manufacturers deliberately sell larger clothes labeled as though they were smaller. When a shopper tries on clothes from a vanity-sized line, they are often pleased to discover they fit sizes labeled smaller than they expected. In a world where consumers are perpetually worried about their weight, a shopper is more likely to buy a pair of pants that allows them to believe they are a smaller size.
Nominal sizing isn’t everywhere; some retailers, like Lucky Brand jeans, use it alongside real waist and inseam measurements. Another store, Buckle, doesn’t use nominal sizing at all. Buckle uses measurements (similar to men’s pants sizes) where the consumer selects waist and length separately, and even offers the measurements of the model wearing the clothes in the picture (her height, bust, waist and hips along with the size she is pictured wearing).
It would be easier to pick apart the clothing industry if sizing standards were uniform; unfortunately (for women’s sizes, at least), they’re very inconsistent. Online women’s clothing retailer ModCloth.com, knowing this inconsistency, will hire a model to act as a “standard” to try on all the clothes they stock, then compare the fit on her body to the nominal size; in this way, they offer a “runs small/large, please size up/down” or “fits true to size” label on the item’s product description. In a perfect world, it would be possible to know your size and purchase clothes in that size from any store; that is not the world we live in today. There is a way it could be, though.
The most obvious way to fix this problem is simply for all retailers and manufacturers to sell clothing based on actual measurements - like men’s clothing; that’s not the ceiling for improvement, though. There exists a system in Europe - EN 13402 - that corresponds to very specific descriptions of the body part measurements relevant to the clothing item in question, including offering a pictogram on the sizing tags. This standard has been adopted to a varying degree among European countries, but it is a consistent system and one that American clothing retailers and manufacturers should adopt, especially in the current global economy. Businesses don’t even have to manufacture anything differently - just put correct labels on things. If adopted, shopping will be a much more inclusive and less confusing experience for everyone.