Category Archives: Review

What I Learned From “Spec Ops The Line”

It’s been a while, so let me recap: “What I Learned” essays are not game reviews in the traditional sense. Rather, I talk about what I learned as a designer from playing the game in question. Sometimes I learn awesome things from terrible games, and sometimes games I love don’t actually give me any new insights.

This past weekend, I played Spec Ops: The Line….

Wait, before I start. This essay will not just “contain spoilers” as we mere mortals understand it — I will ruin the entire game for you. I will spoil this game like five-month old milk. Here be spoilers. Spoiler alert. Seriously, I’m going to talk about the end of this fucking game, a lot. If you haven’t played it, just know that it is not a typical shooter, and the narrative is worth the six or so hours it’ll take to get through it. Come back when you’re done. I’ll be here.

(Oh, and avoid the comments, too. Spoilers there as well, most likely.)

Continue reading What I Learned From “Spec Ops The Line”

Peer Review: Shotguns & Sorcery

Another peer review of one of Matt Forbeck’s 12 for 12 trilogies. This time, it’s “Shotguns & Sorcery,” Matt’s noir-esque fantasy world. As always, full disclosure: I’ve traded drinks and emails with Matt, and I was a backer for the Kickstarter to fund these. Also, like his last trilogy, while the first book stands largely on its own, the three books are pretty heavily connected, so I’ll review them as a collection.

The main character is Max Gibson, a retired adventurer/mage who is down on his luck. He and his former group of treasure hunters landed the big score and called it quits ten years ago. Since then, he’s lost touch with most of his friends, and broken it off with the love of his life. And that’s all before he’s called in to investigate the murder of the entire family of one of his best friends.

The entire setup is “Chandler meets Tolkien,” and I was in love with the premise of a hard-bitten investigator in a fantasy noir world. And the first book is a lot like that. But then, around book two, the story starts to slide into a more traditional fantasy tale, and by the time you’re into End Times in Dragon City, it’s a full-on fantasy adventure.

At first, this bugged me. I am a fan of noir, even if it’s hazily defined, and I felt like I wasn’t getting what I wanted. And yet, the series’ tone reminded me a fair bit of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files novels which also use noir detective trappings to tell a more traditional fantasy tale (albeit a modern fantasy one in Butcher’s case). Once I wrapped my head around the fact that Matt was using noir as set dressing and not as a plot structure, I got over my concerns and enjoyed the mad race to the end of everything. Plus, Matt does something with his fantasy that I don’t see much these days — he keeps it concise, and that gets a lot of points with me in these days of 800-page doorstops.

You can get all three books from Matt’s site, including a free short story if you’re not sure about the tone.

Peer Review: Matt Forbeck’s Brave New World

It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these, but I have a few backlogged. For those new to my blog, “Peer Reviews” are reviews of products that friends of mine have worked on, because I am lucky to have a lot of talented friends. As usual for my Peer Reviews, full disclosure: I have shared drinks and emails with Matt Forbeck in the past. I purchased these books with my own money.

Matt Forbeck’s Brave New World (so called to avoid confusion with any other properties entitled “Brave New World” and not at all due to Matt’s ego) is a trilogy of superhero novels based on a roleplaying game Matt developed back in the late 90s. I actually have no prior experience with the game, so I came into them cold. While the first novel stands relatively well on its own, the story really takes place across all three books, so I’ll be reviewing them as a unit (collectively “the story”).

Continue reading Peer Review: Matt Forbeck’s Brave New World

Review of “The House of Silk”

Being the Sherlock Holmes fan that I am, I wasn’t surprised when many people pointed me to the highly-publicized and officially-authorized pastiche The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz. Since I have a two hours of commuting every day to and from work, I’ve been listening to a lot of audiobooks recently. I’m in the middle of rereading and finishing the Song of Ice and Fire series, so I knew I wasn’t going to get to read this book anytime soon, but when I saw that Derek Jacobi did the audiobook version, I quickly snatched it up and put it into my listening queue.

Like with any Holmes pastiche, there’s a few different ways you can break it down: as a novel on its own, as a Sherlock Holmes novel in general, and as a purist.

Continue reading Review of “The House of Silk”

Peer Review: “City of the Lost” by Stephen Blackmoore

I hadn’t planned to do another Peer Review post so soon after the last one, but this entire weekend was a lot of things taking much longer than anticipated and me being stuck with my iPhone (and the nook app), so I ended up reading City of the Lost in a weekend. And it was totally worth it.

On the surface, it’s got a lot in common with Double Dead. It’s a premiere novel. The protagonist is undead and generally disreputable, and part of the plot revolves around the character coming to terms with a new state of being. Also, both authors don’t shy away from bad language and splatterpunk gore. Oh, and zombies show up in both. But that’s where the similarities end.

City of the Lost is, essentially, a modern-day crime novel. The protagonist, Joe Sunday, is a hitman for a local mobster who, through a variety of mishaps, ends up turned into a zombie. Because that’s just what happens in L.A. And yet, the supernatural elements don’t end up overpowering the plot — the story slips in and out of the mystical parts effortlessly, making them feel like a natural part of a story that is really about one man’s attempt to get what’s owed him, and maybe a little payback if he can get it. In truth, while I starting thinking Chuck Wendig when I started the book, towards the middle the book felt more like Seth Harwood‘s Jack Palms novels, and by the end I found myself in love with Stephen’s unique voice. You can point to a lot of things it’s kind of like, but it’s not exactly like any of them.

I am eager to see what Stephen Blackmoore does next in this world.

Peer Review: Double Dead, by Chuck Wendig

One of the disadvantages of having lots of talented writers and designers as friends is that I end up with more books to read or games to play than I have time to read or play them. I know that one of the best ways to help a fellow writer out is to write a review, and I sometimes regret that I don’t always have the time to do that.

When I saw that I had a couple of dozen ebooks in my Kindle app on my iPad that I hadn’t read yet, I decided to try and do something about it. So I’m starting a new feature on my blog called “Peer Review.” These are highly biased reviews, because they’ll be of the work of my friends, acquaintances, and colleagues, but it’s a chance to help some friends out, and a chance to expose some great work to people who might not otherwise have heard of them.

Let me start off with a quick story. When I was visiting my mom a couple of weeks ago, I met my stepsister’s boyfriend for the first time for dinner, and we fell into talking about vampire and zombie movies. He pointed out that he didn’t know of any movie or book which featured both zombies and vampires. I pointed out that there is one book where this is true.

Thus: Double Dead.

Double Dead is Chuck Wendig‘s first published novel. That seems weird to me, since I’ve been working with Chuck for years, and I feel like he’s always been more prolific than the rest of reality considers him to be — something, I will note, that he’s been rapidly working to correct the past year or so. And this book showcases some of the best of Chuck’s technique and narrative voice. A number of people know Chuck for his intensely surreal and foul-mouthed patter, but I’ve always known Chuck as a very subtle storyteller. The profanity and scatological humor are like a magician’s flourish: a distraction to draw your attention away from the real magic, the engaging story that’s dragging you along and making you care about the characters and the world he’s creating.

A perfect example of this is the protagonist: Coburn the vampire. He wakes up in the middle of a zombie apocalypse, and is pissed off that blood has basically stopped falling into his mouth. He is, to put it mildly, the worst kind of self-entitled asshole. And yet, by the end, I was rooting for Coburn (and his dog), even during the worst parts of the zombie apocalypse. Sure, there’s a lot of pure fun in the story, the kind of enjoyable ass-kicking and crass humor that makes for a good action film. For 80% of the book I felt I knew exactly where the plot was going, and I was enjoying it like a good road trip — the journey meant more to me then the destination. And then, a number of twists hit me like rabbit punches to the gut, and it was all over. I was down for the count, staring at the words THE END and wondering how in the hell I ended up on the floor.

… I lost the metaphor a bit there. I’m still recovering from the end of the book.

Go get Double Dead.

What I Learned from OWbN Girls

Permission to use granted by OWbN Girls and Meredith Gerber

No, it’s not a game. It’s an organization. But I still learned a lot about game design from OWbN Girls.

Over the past few days, I’ve been getting a trickle of drama in my various social networks around the group. For those not in the know, OWbN Girls is an advocacy group within the organization One World by Night that strives “to play fair in the gaming community, educate those that believe in the stereotype [of unempowered female gamers], and engage non-gamers in joining the community.” I admit that I’m not entirely sure what the drama is,1 but it brought me back to a particular thing I keep picking at: sexism (and really, many different “isms”) in gaming.

The conflict for me is that the extremes are disagreeable. It seems like whenever things like sexism comes up, the two options float to “suck it up and deal with it” or “turn into a politically correct wasteland.” I don’t agree with either option, so I keep picking at it because it’s important to me as an artist and a game designer. It’s a more complex problem than it appears on the surface, which is true of any important problem, and there isn’t a simple, tweet-sized answer. In talking on Twitter to the OWbN Girls account and admitting that it’s a bigger problem, I came up with some ideas on how to extract some of these threads.

Continue reading What I Learned from OWbN Girls

  1. Nor do I want to dig into it — I’ve had too many years of LARP drama in my past to actively look for it, thanks.