Ninefox Gambit – Yoon Ha Lee

Ninefox Gambit CoverSeries: Machineries of Empire, #1
First Published: 14th June, 2016
Genre: Military Science Fiction / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Cheris is a soldier who falls out of favour with the hexarchate, but she has a chance to redeem herself by winning back a fortress taken over by heretics. The catch is she has to work with Jedao, a general who slaughtered his own people for no apparent reason.

This is initially a difficult book. There are a lot of concepts introduced with no explanation. It’s worth persevering through the first chapters, as the terminology will fall into place. Until then, it can be a little confusing.

The worldbuilding centres on the idea of using calendars to control people. By making everyone follow the same calendar, with the same festivals and events, it manipulates reality. One result of this is battle formations can change how things work around the soldiers, rather than just providing the more traditional tactical advantages. This reality change also allows faster travel between planets, and helps maintain order across those distances.

Cheris gets in trouble because she calculates new formations based on the calendar of a group of heretics. This wins the battle, but it’s a little too close to heresy. Jedao also isn’t a stranger when it comes to unconventional tactics, given that he’s known for not losing battles, along with the one where he killed everyone on his own side. They make an interesting pair. Their different approaches sometimes clash, but they slowly come to appreciate each other’s strengths.

The siege of the fortress is a relatively slow affair. Cheris is constantly having to decide on acceptable losses, as no plan of action avoids all death. The focus is on tactics and managing resources, including gauging the reactions of the people under her command. As well as showing it from her perspective, there are parts from the viewpoints of other characters, including the troops sent to die. War is shown unflinchingly. There’s nothing glorious about victory. All it means is more bodies.

It’s a very political story. Outside of the task at hand, there’s more going on in the hexarchate as a whole. Issues from the past are impacting the present. The servitors, sentient robots used as servants, also have their own society and agenda. Everything feels very close to unravelling, with the situation at the fortress only being the start.

I have mixed feelings on how insanity is presented. I did like that it’s clearly a social construct. Insanity in the hexarchate means going against the brainwashing and the rigid social control. Jedao is considered mad simply because they don’t know why he acted as he did. However, it didn’t get away from associating violence with insanity.

Jedao is dyscalculic. This is revealed rather late on, so it’s handled very simplistically as dyscalculia meaning being bad at maths. It’s not actually possible to tell that someone is dyscalculic purely by looking at how well they do in exams, which is how it’s presented. It would have been good to mention it earlier, so it could be handled with a little more depth.

I liked the characters and the idea of mathematical manipulation of calendars. It’s a complex political story with some unique worldbuilding. But the ending got too dark for me. There’s a rape scene near the end, which I didn’t know about when I picked up the book. It’s also clear this is a setting where it’s a bad idea to get attached to characters and enjoy seeing their relationships develop, because ultimately, the chances of anyone surviving are slim. Which might be realistic, but I like to have that character connection in a series. Setting and story are not enough for me. For readers who like that darker edge, this may not be a problem.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

Actual Sunlight

Actual Sunlight CoverDeveloper: WZO Games Inc
First Release: 2013
Version Played: PlayStation Vita
Available: PS Store US | PS Store UK | Steam

Evan Winter is depressed. Nothing has any meaning anymore, but he gets up for work anyway.

This game is about depression and suicide, based on the game developer’s own experiences. It’s mainly told through text transcripts. These can include imaginary therapist conversations or chat show appearances. Between these sections there are pixel art locations which Evan can explore, uncovering more comments about his life.

There aren’t any happy endings here. Evan has internalised a lot of bad things about himself, and nothing that happens causes any change in that. He hates himself because he’s fat and sees that as a reason why no one will love him. He feels alone and as though his life is worthless. He does things like watch porn (not shown in the game) and play games to take his mind off things, then hates himself for it.

Evan has a lot of prejudices and is highly judgemental of the people around him. He doesn’t believe he has privilege as a white man, as his life is hard and he doesn’t feel part of a community. At the same time, he shows some awareness of the issues faced by others, such as realising his workplace is very white and discriminates against talented non-white people. There’s also a woman with a chronic illness, who he almost manages to empathise with, but not quite. In the end, it doesn’t feel to me as though the game world reinforces Evan’s view as being correct. It’s more that he has a narrow perspective and he doesn’t see much beyond himself. Though that doesn’t make it any less unpleasant to read for someone on the receiving end of some of his comments.

Actual Sunlight Screenshot

Image Caption: Evan, a small pixel art man wearing a red scarf, is standing outside an apartment building. The building has glass doors. Against the wall is an ATM, popcorn machine, lamppost, rubbish and trees/flowers. Ahead is the road with a streetcar stop.

As a study in depression, this game does a good job. Evan’s thoughts of worthlessness go round in endless cycles. He constantly thinks about jumping off the roof. When the destinations in the lift pop up, the option for the roof is always there. It’s clear from the start that things aren’t going to get better. Evan has no support network to notice or care that things are falling apart.

This is one of those games that could be exactly what some people need. Seeing someone else facing similar issues can help people. For others, it may be too much, particularly the frequent suicidal thoughts and lack of hope. There is also a message from the creator encouraging young people not to kill themselves, but at the same time, suggesting once people get to their late twenties it’s hopeless.

The game lasts about an hour and doesn’t have a lot of interactivity. It plays more like a short story with brief game interludes. I found it somewhat interesting, but it’s not something I’d want to replay. I always felt a certain distance from Evan because of his level of privilege. I’d never be in his situation, not because it’d be impossible for me to be depressed, but because it’d play out very differently based on my other marginalisations.

Cyborg Vol. 1: Unplugged – David F. Walker

Cyborg CoverFirst Published: 29th March, 2016
Genre: Superhero / Graphic Novel
Contributors: David F. Walker (writer); Ivan Reis (penciller); Joe Prado (artist); Adriano Lucas (colourist); Rob Leigh (letterer)
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Attackers from another dimension kill Cyborg and steal his arms. But Cyborg doesn’t stay dead and his arms regenerate. He heads to S.T.A.R. Labs to find out what’s going on with his technology. Meanwhile, in another dimension, a war against alien cyborgs rages.

This graphic novel includes the first six issues of Cyborg’s comic. It tells a complete story, though does leave some plot threads open for future stories. The opening introduces what’s been happening in Detroit while Cyborg was off being a superhero, as well as providing space for Cyborg to reflect on his life and relationships. This part interested me the most, as it means finding out about the man behind the snarky superhero.

Inevitably, the two storylines come together, and there’s some alien cyborg action. The highlight of that part was the art. The aliens are detailed, and there’s a certain organic messiness to the cybernetics. The battle scenes are a place where this really gets to shine. My only complaint with the artwork was the cat who Cyborg talks to before and after. The cat didn’t seem as detailed or expressive as the other characters. Though he wasn’t in a lot of frames, it stuck with me.

Cyborg’s backstory is having most of his body destroyed and replaced by machines, including a replacement eye and arms. Disability issues often aren’t addressed in stories like this. When prosthetics give someone superhuman abilities, it’s usually handled as though there aren’t any issues at all. That isn’t the case here, though the way it was handled wasn’t perfect. I liked that the cybernetic technology is treated as the untested equipment that it is, with the concerns that raises for Cyborg about what’s happening to his body. He also faces being treated like a science experiment by the scientists, including his own father. The struggle against feeling dehumanised is linked back to how he felt just after the accident, when he was hesitant to go outside due to reactions from other people. Even after becoming a superhero, he faces people asking him invasive personal questions, from how he goes to the toilet to his sex life. Superhuman prosthetics don’t make these social consequences go away.

Other social concerns are touched on in the early part of the story, such as differing access to medical care. A man with a missing eye and crude prosthetic arm is one of the protesters outside the labs. Detroit is suffering financially, and access to the best medical care is not something everyone has. This leads to body shops, where people can have untested cybernetics attached. It’s an option that can be within reach for people failed by the medical system, but it means surgery in shady back alley establishments and uncertainty about what the cybernetics will do.

It was a great setup… but it gets lost once the action starts, and is wrapped up neatly in a simplistic cure narrative. This highlights an issue with the aftermath in general. I’d expect a lot more devastation left behind, rather than things going back to normal so quickly. The way everything wraps up feels rushed.

I also would have liked to see more of Sarah. She’s shown as a supportive friend, and possible love interest, but doesn’t get to do a whole lot. I couldn’t say much about her. I want to see them as friends before I can really buy them as a possible romance.

I don’t think this is a bad introduction to Cyborg’s solo adventures. It has some time to develop him as a character, as well as some action. There’s more to explore when it comes to how his cybernetics are changing. The ending was the weakest part, though there is the potential to address those themes in more detail in future stories.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

Sugar Scars – Travis Norwood

Sugar Scars CoverFirst Published: 28th July, 2015
Genre: Post-Apocalyptic
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Sugar is a type 1 diabetic. When a virus kills most of the world’s population, she hoards all the insulin she can find. But insulin can’t be stored forever. To survive, she’s going to have to make her own.

There will be some discussion of sexual assault in this review, though no graphic descriptions.

The basic premise is something that appealed to me. It’s a different kind of post-apocalyptic survival, as it deals with how to get something that requires a society to produce. This part is handled well enough. Sugar’s diabetes is something she constantly has to remember, by monitoring her blood sugar and food intake. Producing insulin also isn’t something she can do alone. It requires a community. Though there are people who use society’s collapse to do bad things, most of the survivors are simply trying to live their lives and help each other out. This is realistic, as most people don’t actually turn into serial killers the moment a disaster happens.

The issues I had weren’t with the main plotline of trying to set up insulin production. Communities that band together and help their sick and disabled members is something I’m down with, and I wish happened more in post-apocalyptic work. The problem was everything else.

Sugar does not act like an older teenager. She acts like a child. Though her voice does mature somewhat over time, the start was a mismatch between what the text says she is (a nineteen-year-old who has been in and out of various foster homes, and living on her own since she was eighteen) and her behaviour (maybe nine or ten years old at most). At first, I thought this might be purposeful. She might be non-neurotypical. But as it went on, I changed my mind, because of the gender binary stuff.

And there’s a lot of gender binary stuff going on. Women all want babies, even the ones who say they don’t. Men are all lust machines. Sugar thinks her first relationship was as an equal and she never relied on her boyfriend, yet what is shown is her struggling with basic tasks when he isn’t there to do them. He did manly man stuff, because he was the provider. She cooked and looked after the house. There’s a constant repeating of how small and tiny Sugar is (she’s a woman of average size) that I’ve come to associate with this sort of attitude. It’s a way to portray women as being like children. Which with Sugar’s immaturity, combined together in a package that says women really need menfolk around to look after them.

Non-white people are mostly there as background decoration, or for Sugar to sweep in and rescue. It’d be nice to say no gay people appeared, but one of the characters has a backstory of being raped by his father as a child, and by other boys of a similar age. Gay people are rapists and paedophiles. There are no counterexamples to this.

That’s touching on just a few of the bigger issues. There’s basically a layer of bigotry over every aspect of the book. The author’s worldview shines through clearly, and it’s a worldview that hates people like me. I was not particularly surprised that the author’s note says he aspires to be like Orson Scott Card. For anyone who loves Card and his politics, this might be a great book. For anyone else, it’s one to avoid.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

Beyond Eyes

Developer: tiger & squid
First Release: 8th September, 2015
Version Played: PS4
Length: Short

 

Beyond Eyes is a short exploration game, about a girl called Rae going to find her missing cat friend.

The marketing descriptions for Rae’s backstory are a bit of a mess, and don’t line up with what’s stated in the game. In the game, Rae is blinded in a fireworks accident. She becomes reclusive, staying in her garden, as a reaction to the trauma of the accident. That summer, she befriends a cat she calls Nani. The seasons travel through to winter, Nani starts to visit less and less often, and by spring he’s disappeared. Rae heads out to find him.

The difference is the marketing versions say she’s been blind since she was a toddler. However, the game shows her as near the same age (and wearing the same clothes) when she has her accident. The passing of the seasons would make it about a year later when she heads out. This also fits better with her general level of skill in moving around. If she had been blind since she was a toddler, it would come across as strange that she wasn’t more skilled at moving around. This would mean she’d been blind for most of her childhood, which just doesn’t fit.

But anyway, if I hadn’t read those descriptions, I’d have said this takes place about a year later.

The strength of the game is the way the world is painted around Rae. As she uses her other senses to navigate, she imagines the world, and it appears around her. This means she sometimes gets things wrong, such as thinking cloth flapping in the wind is a clothesline, when it’s a scarecrow. She might imagine a gate as closed because it was when she first encountered it, but someone’s opened it since then. As this representation exists only in her mind, it’s also influenced by her current mental state. When she’s frightened, the colours are less bright. When she’s confused, areas can disappear.

Though there are some sadder/tenser moments, it’s overall a gentle experience. Rae’s world is an idyllic village with flowers and birds singing, rendered in watercolour. The threats she faces are common ones, such as crossing the road or a loud dog.

I liked that Rae’s accident was not portrayed as the end of her life. Withdrawal is a normal (though not the only) response to trauma. The key here is it’s also showing her facing that, by leaving to find Nani. Life carries on.

There were two things I noted as not ideal in the portrayal of blindness. It’s odd that Rae’s eyes are closed all the time. Even in cases where the eyes are removed, the eyelids are not usually sewn shut in humans. I wonder if this was done to avoid showing damaged or absent eyes. The second point also doubles as a gameplay issue. There’s a misconception that blind people can’t move quickly. That blind children don’t run when they play, adults never run for the bus, and even a fast confident walk is seen as out of the question. This isn’t true. It’s natural for someone who is re-learning how to navigate to be cautious, but slow movement speed is not inherent to being blind.

The gameplay issue being Rae moves slowly all the time. For the initial exploration, this speed is fine. But it gets painful when backtracking to explore all the areas, which isn’t a good gameplay choice for an exploration game. It makes sense both from a real world perspective, and a game perspective, to have her pick up the pace in areas she’s already been. Even a cautious child is going to move faster going back down the path she knows is fine. It also would have been a nice touch if her basic walk had slowly increased in speed during her adventure, as she got more confident.

In terms of gameplay, I would have liked more events. There were some already in the world, such as being able to feed flowers to a cow, and finding memories of Nani. But there were also places that felt empty. Some of these had objects that could have triggered events. I didn’t feel the balance of things to find, versus the time taken to explore, had been hit.

Accessibility options for blind players would have been good, such as the option to have a narrator reading the story (it’s text only) and controller vibrations when hitting obstacles. Also worth noting the undiscovered areas are white, which can be a migraine or motion sickness trigger for some people. If you’re in that category, keeping game sessions short is advisable.

Overall, Beyond Eyes is a nice addition to the exploration genre. It has some strong points, such as the way the world is painted from Rae’s perception and the beautiful artwork. I would have liked a faster backtracking speed and more things to find, but this didn’t stop me enjoying it. Fans of quieter exploration games and walking simulators are likely to enjoy the game. It took me around six hours to finish everything, including reruns for trophies.