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]

Julie of the Wolves – Jean Craighead George

Julie of the Wolves Cover: a yupik girl in a fur-lined coat and a wolf

Series: Julie of the Wolves, #1
First Published: 1st January, 1972
Genre: Contemporary Young Adult
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Barnes & Noble

Miyax, a Yupik girl, runs away from home after being attacked. She has to survive in the Alaskan wilderness, using the skills her father has taught her and with assistance from a wolf pack.

I did enjoy some of the aspects of the story. The feel of the landscape and how the animals interacted was there, which is something I look for in survival stories. I liked the change between the names Julie and Miyax in the narration depending on her current situation. Some of the thoughts on animal behaviour were dated, but I’d hope no one would use this as a natural history guide anyway.

However, the descriptions of Miyax/Julie’s culture and herself were often exoticised or laced with unfortunate implications. An example was the description of Miyax’s looks. It’s said she’s an “Eskimo beauty”, which comes with the implication of “pretty for an Eskimo”. Not properly pretty, like a Northern European. Add in her thinking she looked more beautiful when she was starving, because her face was thin like a European. Even when she changes her attitudes towards Europeans, she doesn’t start to think of herself as beautiful.

When Miyax decides to embrace Yupik traditions, she does so in a very black-and-white way. The real world isn’t as simplistic as traditional is good and modern is bad. Someone can hunt in traditional ways and enjoy chocolate cake. They can travel on foot and carry a phone. I wasn’t comfortable with the vibe that the only way to connect with her culture was to exist in the past, as it ignores the modern reality of Yupik people.

There’s also the issue that Miyax’s husband from an arranged marriage is non-neurotypical and ends up trying to rape her (the attack that leads her to run away). Non-neurotypical people are often portrayed as violent in books, but are more likely to be the victims of violence for real. It’s not a good trope to be reinforcing.

I couldn’t get away from how much like an outsider’s view the story read. With the added helping of the attempted rape scene, I didn’t enjoy it very much.

inFAMOUS: First Light

First Light Cover

Developer: Sucker Punch Productions
First Release: 27th August, 2014
Version Played: PS4
Length: Short
Links: Trailer One, Trailer Two

inFAMOUS: First Light is a short prequel to inFAMOUS: Second Son – a 3D action game set in the near future. First Light was offered as extra content for Second Son players, but is also sold as a standalone game. I got a copy as part of my PlayStation Plus subscription, having never played the other inFAMOUS games. My thoughts are from the perspective of how the game stands up on its own for players who are coming into the series with this as their first game.

In the inFAMOUS world, conduits (superpowered people) are controlled by the authorities in the USA. They’re locked up in government facilities and trained to use their powers for official purposes (like working for the D.U.P., who contain and control conduits).

Abigail “Fetch” Walker is a conduit who controls neon. When she’s a child, her parents want to turn her over to the authorities, so her older brother runs away with her. They spend years living on the streets, struggling with drug addiction, and carrying out petty theft to raise enough money to escape to Canada. This evidently goes wrong, as Fetch is in a D.U.P. prison for conduits, telling her story about what happened in Seattle a few years earlier.

It was clear the game wasn’t initially intended for people who hadn’t played Second Son. The early part forgot a few details, like highlighting what waypoints looked like. Or that waypoints existed at all, and that was the place I needed to go on the map. I wandered a series of streets I couldn’t tell apart until I figured it out. Once at the waypoint, it threw me into a combat situation without a clue about which keys were for combat. A button-mashing extravaganza ensued.

Once I survived that, the game had a combat tutorial (these take place in the prison, where Fetch alternates between telling her story and doing combat training). Because the best time for a combat tutorial is after you’ve already had to fight something. Needless to say, the game wasn’t making the best impression at this point.

But it was free and I wasn’t going to get any more free games for a few weeks, so I kept at it. I took some time out from missions once the open-world objectives appeared on the map. A bit of wandering around and fighting random gang members helped a lot with learning the combat system. The game grew on me after that point, though still had some issues.

Starting with the positives, I liked Fetch. Her neon powers are interesting (she absorbs neon, and uses it to create light weapons, turn into light and run, and other things). Her character design is good, with clothes and mannerisms that match her character, rather than having her posing sexily in her underwear (unfortunately common in games, even when it’s snowing). Her voice actress hits the mark of someone young who’s been through a lot.

The portrayal of women was generally okay. Of the main voice-acted parts, three are women (Fetch, the head of the prison, and a hacker who helps on some missions) and two are men (a drug lord and Fetch’s brother). So Fetch isn’t a single woman in a world consisting entirely of men. There are some uncomfortable themes, like the drug dealer being creepy and sexist towards Fetch, and women being kidnapped by human traffickers, but these aren’t shown as good things (or shown in such loving detail that it seems the storywriter is fetishising them). I would have liked to hear a female voice alternative for the D.U.P. armoured people, as it’s clear they employ women and anyone could be in those armour suits… yet the voice for the mob is always a man. Though the main point isn’t so much First Light, but that the main games of the series have all had men as leads. Fetch gets a smaller prequel game rather than a main title, which is an elephant that needs pointing out.

The open world (the Seattle parts of the game) was a good idea in principle, with collectibles (lumens), lumen races (chasing after moving lumens) and neon graffiti as things to find. It encourages the player to explore the whole map. It’s only a pity the city wasn’t worth exploring. Seattle was beautifully textured for sure. The rain effects were nice, like reflections in the puddles and rain falling on the camera when it was angled up. But the city districts weren’t very distinctive. The buildings felt like empty boxes, which were only there as platforms to jump off to reach lumens. There wasn’t a sense of exploration or finding something unexpected around the corner. A few buildings were clearly copies from the real Seattle, which is nice enough, but the overall city was rather lifeless. As most of the game took place here, this was a problem.

Story isn’t a strength of the game. It has a straight-forward and simple storyline. It does its job well enough, of introducing the character, and holding together the action. It’s just not likely to surprise anyone.

Once the game is done, the player can continue to roam Seattle or play in the prison arenas. The arenas score points, which go on a leader board. In theory, a player could spend a lot of time playing the arenas to compete with other PlayStation players. In practise, I doubt that many people keep playing the arenas after they earn their trophies, as they’re not that interesting. It is worth going for the trophies though, as unusually for a short game, this one comes with a platinum trophy.

I enjoyed the game in the end, but not enough to want to buy the other inFAMOUS games. I might have been swayed if Fetch had been the main character in Second Son, but she isn’t. As far as First Light goes, the grittier sides of the world might put off some players, as there is human trafficking, torture and needles are shown. But if you’re in the market for an action game where you get to smite things with superpowers, and you’re not too worried if the world and story aren’t the strongest, it’s not a bad title.

Book Launch: Sunstruck – Bigfoot Urban Fantasy

I had the cunning plan to launch the book on my birthday. This might have worked, if I hadn’t also got a helping of viral friends for my birthday. But a few days later than intended, it’s go time. Sunstruck is an urban fantasy novel with Bigfoot. More about the book and the launch is below.

Sunstruck Cover

 

Book Description

The Spokane Ecology Board covers up supernatural incidents, under the pretence of enforcing environmental laws. It’s a dull job of sightseeing thunderbirds and pixie outbreaks. Until the team gets murdered.

Ari is the replacement team’s Bigfoot liaison. Armed with everything she’s learned from detective shows, she’s ready to find the murderer. The downside is the job comes with a human partner, who smells of air freshener and lines up his desk like a math project. He’s only a scientist, so it’s not like he knows anything about magical crimes.

Ben Cabot grew up hearing stories about Bigfoot, but they failed to mention a love of the internet or an aversion to throwing wrappers away. But there’s more out of place than an untidy work partner. Someone’s messed with the case files, and that means the killer might be closer than they think.

I have a three chapter sample on my website. Some vendors also have their own samples. I always recommend reading the sample before buying. The book is currently available on Amazon US, Amazon UK and Smashwords. A comprehensive (and regularly updated) list of sellers is found on the book’s official page.

 

About the Series

The books are set in an alternate version of Spokane, Washington. They’re told from two points-of-view – Ari and Ben. The balance between the two narrators will depend on the book. Sunstruck has more from Ari. The next book (Conduit) will have more from Ben. After that, it’ll vary.

It’s an open-ended series, where each book has a stand-alone mystery (though it’ll help to read them in the right order).

 

Cupcakes

In the tradition of launch cupcakes, I made Bigfoot faces. These aren’t my most technically skilled decorating jobs, but they are very chocolatey. So, here’s to Bigfoot and launches. I hope you enjoy the book!

Bigfoot Cupcakes

# If you want to note it for later elsewhere, I’ve tweeted about it and have a post on Tumblr. The book also has a page on Goodreads.

Secret World – Act One Roundup

Dead on a bridge
I reviewed urban fantasy/horror MMO The Secret World shortly after it came out. Since then, I’ve played through the main storyline available at launch and tried out a number of the other activities in the game. The first special event (Hallowe’en) has also happened.

These are my updated thoughts on issues of gameplay and representation.

 

Gameplay

Storyline – Act One

The main story remains strong throughout. A story mission guides the player through each region. Mini stories link each of the areas, and these mini stories vary depending on the character’s faction. The story themes are as follows:

  • Solomon Islands – Zombie invasion, Wabanaki (Native American), Norse.
  • Egypt – Biblical plagues, Aten (Sun Cult), Ancient Egyptian Gods.
  • Transylvania – Forest folklore, vampires, Soviet era, Roma.

Recurring themes are sun cults (including a modern New Age cult, which runs through several of the zones), the Filth (dark stuff that corrupts people) and the Orochi group (a Japanese mega-corporation). Along the way, you learn more about Gaia and your own place in things.

There are several points where you have to make a choice. It could broadly be defined as a choice between good and evil, but it’s a little more complicated than that. You’re never really sure which is which, or whether evil has a point. Good has its own agenda and it may be evil is the one telling the truth. It’s been implied the choices will impact later on the game world or characters, but so far, it’s uncertain in what way.

New quests are released in small batches at regular intervals. There were two general updates, and then the Hallowe’en quest line. My main complaint is about Hallowe’en, as they said the event would run until the first week of November in one announcement… but they ended it on the morning of November 1st. This didn’t give enough time, as many people would have used the weekend after Hallowe’en to finish it (especially those hit by the hurricane). I hope next year they take on board the feedback, and reactivate the quests from this year (as well as any new quests they design for that year).

End Game

The end game does have issues. The main repeatable things are group dungeons (separate areas with a mini-story running through them) and lairs (where players spawn rare bosses to fight). The dungeons come in various difficulty levels, from normal to nightmare. Unfortunately, it’s very hard to get a group for anything above normal, unless you have gear from PvP. This is a player-created issue, but would be alleviated by having a better chance of decent gear in solo PvE play.

Accessibility

Right from the start, there was dialogue without subtitles. This has been improved. A lot more of the background comments have subtitles, but there will still be areas where it’s an issue. The community has taken this on board though, and walkthroughs will turn sound information into pictures.

My biggest accessibility problem has been player created, as it’s become very hard to find a cabal (guild) who doesn’t organise everything over voice chat. Text-only cabals are rare. This is likely to be an issue in any game, so I’m not blaming that on the developers. It’s just a pity it’s gone that way.

Factions

Now I’ve tried out factions, the Templars still remain the most interesting. They are utterly colonial, yet at the same time, they have a whole lot more diversity than the other factions. They’re also the only one your character chooses to join (the others practise forced recruitment). The (faction-specific) story mission between Egypt and Transylvania was one of the most atmospheric in the game, in a creepy horror way.

The Illuminati are rather mad science, and though that can appeal to me, it didn’t quite hit it here.

The Dragon were the least my thing. There are some good aspects. I like the work they did on Seoul. They used Korean voice actors for the parts of dialogue in Korean, which avoids the Firefly effect of people who don’t speak the language botching the words. Working in chaos theory gave a modern mathematical edge to dragon legends.

But overall, the Dragon intro is full of East Asian stereotypes. Silent tattooed men stand ominously. No one says what they mean. And all round, the mysteriousness is so thick there isn’t really a chance to get attached to your handlers. Less yellow peril would have gone a long way to making me like the Dragon.

 

Portrayals

Gender/Sex Neutrality

The game has an interesting design choice, in that it does not differentiate between male or female characters. Everyone takes the role of Sarah (a woman) in the tutorial flashback. The Templar guards (mixed male and female) will flirt with anyone. NPCs who make suggestive comments in their cutscenes do so to all player characters.

However, it is a little imbalanced. Though a few male NPCs do make suggestive remarks, it’s a blink-and-miss-it moment. This is in contrast to some female NPCs, where it’s very obvious. This could easily be balanced though, but having a few more male flirts.

Sexuality

The game normalises gay and bisexual behaviour. In some ways, it has to, due to having no male/female differentiation with player characters. But it’s shown directly in dialogue with characters too. In the first zone (Kingsmouth) Moose tells you he has feelings for Andy. It’s not immediately obvious if this is mutual, but Andy does talk about Moose a lot and the Hallowe’en cutscenes suggest Andy is considering a relationship. It’s not uncommon to have a gay man pining after a straight man, and calling it representation. It’s a way of avoiding having to actually show a relationship. But it looks like it’s not the road they’re heading down, based on Andy’s current reactions…

…though this may not be a surprise considering Egypt has a gay couple who appear in cut scenes together.

There’s apparently a lesbian character, but this is known because of what some of the other NPCs say about her. I haven’t found that dialogue yet.

Women

Women and girls continue to have varied roles in the story, including positions of power. The Roma storyline especially has some direct criticisms of sexism, both from the woman who acts as their lookout and the daughter of the leader. The latter directly confronts her father when he suggests the only reason an older man enjoys her company is her looks, telling him it’s messed up to think being pretty is her only worth.

There are points that made me wince, like the French women at the windmill where one uses gendered insults against the other, but overall, it’s pretty female-positive.

However, women are underrepresented in marginalised groups. Kingsmouth has two black men as NPCs, complete with missions and dialogue. It has one black woman, who is the voice of the zombie announcements, and who can’t be spoken to and has no missions. There are several gay men, but only one lesbian who you wouldn’t realise is unless you hear the right background dialogue.

Disability and Non-Neurotypical People

One NPC in Transylvania has facial scaring and is blinded in one eye. There’s also a woman in a wheelchair in London (who currently has no dialogue, but is set up as though she will have in the future).

A recurring trope is seeing unknowable things and going insane (something common in Lovecraftian horror). What interested me more is how people with pre-existing conditions or who were non-neurotypical were handled. That’s a bit mixed. I loved the sociopath headmaster, as it showed a positive side to it. By not being concerned about the people around him, he’s able to cope with everything that’s happened. It gives him an impartiality that lets him organise the school, without getting caught up in feelings of guilt or grief.

Not so hot was the man with a low mental age in Transylvania. He enjoys killing things, and about the only thing keeping him from killing humans is his mother. Though it’s clear she encouraged this behaviour in him, it’s a common trope to show low mental age people as violent, and it isn’t countered by any other more positive representations.

Belief Systems of Marginalised Groups

There are a number of marginalised groups, include a Roma group, a Native American Tribe, Egyptians and some references to voodoo in the Hallowe’en event. Some are better handled than others.

The Wabanaki – the Native American tribe (or more accurately, a confederacy of nations) – came across as reasonably well researched. They were shown as modern people, and the events in the game touch on the issue of lost cultural knowledge. The tribe remembers they shouldn’t dig somewhere, but their last medicine man is shot and no one left knows why they can’t dig and why it’s important.

I wasn’t as comfortable with the handling of the Roma (who appeared to be an entirely invented sub-group, with invented beliefs), though it does avoid things like the gypsy fortune-teller stereotype.

The voodoo references were too brief to really say, and in itself, I don’t think that’s a good thing… they have a Haitian market and a voodoo supply shop, so they could have NPCs and related missions. Voodoo should be a year-round religion, not kept as ‘black magic’ for Hallowe’en.

But the biggest area of discomfort are the sun cults. In the game story, the sun cults aren’t really worshipping the sun, but are being corrupted. This works fine for the invented New Age cult. It’s getting a little dubious at Aten. I couldn’t see any signs of a continuing tradition of Aten worship from an internet search, but it may exist. However, once we hit the Mayans, I wasn’t happy… it strayed too far into the North Native Americans being good and South Native Americans being bad (as the context is a battle between the Mayans and the Wabanaki). Unlike Egypt (where a village of everyday people is shown), this example had no ordinary Mayans to act as a counter to the corrupted Mayans.

 

Final Thoughts

The game still has aspects that need improvement and areas where the portrayals could be better. However, I’m still enjoying the storytelling and they’ve got me interested in how it’s going to end. I like the prominent women, non-white and gay characters, and would like to see this extended to other groups.

I have some cautions, in that it’s a horror game and some characters will die. I hope they focus on killing off non-marginalised characters, because it’s far too common to kill off the black and gay characters first. And there are a lot more non-marginalised characters to kill, so it’s not like there’s a lack of other choices.

A Wabanaki gathering

The Wabanaki (…with two exceptions. I’m the centre character with the cross on my back. To the far left is Boone, a white man, who is there with his partner Jack.)