Game Review: Game of Thrones, a Telltale Games Series

Type of game: Interactive movie / point and click graphic adventure
Developed & Published by: Telltale Games
Year:  Episodic release dates from December 2014 – November 2015.
Played on: Steam

Telltale's Game of Thrones series logo

Westeros: there are certainly more festive and joyful destinations in which to spend your Christmas vacation. This game proved absorbing, challenging and emotionally devastating, but a jolly experience it certainly was not. But, while my real-life December proved unseasonably – even alarmingly – warm,  a large chunk of this episodic interactive adventure game is set frozen north so at least I got a White Christmas!

There was also a lot to be said for the opportunity the break afforded me to play all six episodes in quick succession. Like all their episodic adventure games, Telltale’s Game of Thrones was released at intervals from December 2014 to November 2015. Releasing in parts like this – usually with a cliffhanger ending to each – mirrors the format of popular TV shows, allowing space between episodes for reflection and discussion and, of course, ratcheting up anticipation for the next instalment. I can see why they do it. Telltale’s phenomenally good Tales From the Borderlands was my 2015 game of the year and, after a slightly delayed start, with that one I played each episode as it was released. There, I did actually appreciate being forced to wait and make the deliciously entertaining story last. While Telltale’s signature relationship web-spinning and complex moral decisions were still a key component, the plot and characters in Tales from the Borderlands were – just like its distinctive, cel-shaded art style – still rather cartoonish and larger than life. So, even with lengthy gaps between the episodes, it was easy to remember the choices I’d made and the truths and lies I’d peddled.

Telltale’s Game of Thrones is just as true to the spirit of Westeros as Tales… was to Pandora, which makes it an altogether more subtle, bleak and sombre affair. The cast is large, with 5 playable characters plus a whole host of supporting figures, both familiar faces from the HBO show and new personalities. There’s also a lot of negotiating to be done, with multiple identities, names, promises and lies to remember, particularly in the King’s Landing sections of the story. For this reason I think I would have struggled if I’d tackled each episode months apart. But played intensively, an episode a day over the course of a week this builds into an immersive and gut-wrenching (often literally) narrative that feels extremely true to the world George R.R. Martin has created – a verdict that applies as much to the flaws of that world as to its many strengths.

Spoiler Alert!

The game’s action weaves cleverly around key events from the HBO TV show and therefore contains massive spoilers for season 3 and season 4. This review will replicate those spoilers but it doesn’t give away the specifics of this game’s actual plot. By the way, if you consider “several beloved main characters die in this” to be a spoiler then I’ll assume you’re probably not a Game of Thrones fan.

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Geeky Christmas Decorations 2: Goblin Dreams Haul

In my last post about Geeky Christmas decorations I explained that I try to pick up one or two new unusual new tree ornaments each year. Well, December 2015 might be somewhat lacking in overall festive anticipation, but in this respect at least I haven’t broken tradition. This year’s acquisition for the Addaltmode tree, has now arrived and gone straight to the top of my list of favourite decorations. He’s flying the geek flag pretty high too….

Meet Potatox*:

Dragon Christmas bauble by Goblin Dreams

Dragon Christmas bauble by Goblin Dreams

Isn’t he lovely? This little guy is handmade by the talented Nici and Marc a local duo who run an ”Emporium of Shiny Curiosities” called Goblin Dreams. I’d bought jewellery and craft supplies from them before when I’ve seen their stall at local comic conventions. And I’d always admired their handmade dragons, who appear in all sorts of adorable and geeky guises, from fairly classic mythical reptilian poses right through to Doctor Who and Ghostbuster dragons, even an Aliens-inspired chest-burster dragon (who has no right to be that cute!) Goblin Dreams recently hosted an online market via their Facebook page and when I saw some festive dragons were available it seemed the perfect opportunity to treat myself.

But wait, there’s more… I think Goblin Dreams might just have helped me answer the conundrum I posed last time: what’s the least appropriate but most geekily awesome festive decoration?

Drum roll please…

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Creepy Countdown: Spooky Scary Skeletons

Part of AddAltMode's Creepy Countdown series

Part of AddAltMode’s Creepy Countdown series

Well hello, internet! This post is part of AddAltMode’s Creepy Countdown. Cue bat (on the right):

Today I’m going to talk about skeletons; specifically, I’m going to list some of the more interesting ambulatory skeletons in geek culture. Skeletons are a necessary thing for vertebrates like ourselves, dear reader. (If you’re not a vertebrate, then please don’t be offended.) They stop you from being a pile of meat flopping about on the floor, or having to leave a trail of your own mucus on which to glide. No offense to snails, but their preferred method of locomotion is less than dynamic, and it makes a mess on carpet.

The problem with skeletons is what happens when black magic gets involved, and they get uppity and decide to claw their way out from that itchy overcoat of suffocatingly warm meat that they’re covered in and feel the moonlight on their skulls.

So, on to the list…

Even scarier is that they dnace like this to dubstep. Wubwubwubwub.

Still from “The Skeleton Dance“, © Disney 1929

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Book Review: Drood by Dan Simmons

Part of AddAltMode's Creepy Countdown series

Part of AddAltMode’s Creepy Countdown series

When I’m not reading about robots, I do love a good horror story, so as part of our Creepy Countdown series, I’m going to recommend and discuss a few of my favourite creepy reads in the run up to Hallowe’en.

Title: Drood
Author: Dan Simmons
Published: 2009 by Quercus

Now, horror literature is a genre that I think often works best in concentrated doses, ideally suited to short stories or – at a push – novellas, as it can be hard convincingly to sustain terror and suspense for the course of a long novel. Which isn’t to say that long reads can’t be scary, but it’s a different kind of scare: more about creating an atmosphere of mystery and doubt than conjuring jump scares and physical threat. It’s probably significant that most of my favourite 500-pages plus horror reads sit squarely in the genre of Victorian-inspired historical fiction. Why is that? Well, Those triple-decker-penning Victorian writers like Charles Dickens and Wilkie Coillins certainly knew a thing or two about how to pace a marathon read, and even works by modern writers that are set in the nineteenth-century can often get away with being very expansive, as the length feels authentic for this setting rather than just an authorial indulgence. Also, let’s face it, when it comes to creating an atmosphere of spookiness there is something unbeatable about a nineteenth-century milieu, especially an urban one. Perhaps it’s the obscuring smog for which Victorian cities were notorious; perhaps its the darker shadows cast by gaslight, or perhaps it’s the idea of London during this period as a city expanding and mechanising at a prodigious rate, all of which make it a perfect setting for mysteries and secrets.

In Drood, Dan Simmons draws on all of these ideas, as well as re-imagining the lives of two of the era’s foremost writers of spookily atmospheric fiction, the aforementioned Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins. Dickens’ ghost characters (particularly those from A Christmas Carol) have to be among the most famous of all pop-cultural spooks, while Collins’ The Woman in White and Armadale are classic spooky thrillers that would both feature on my list of all time favourite reads. So it’s a wonderful – if slightly crazed – conceit to follow these two men as they become embroiled in a mystery of their own. Simmons speculates (wildly but enjoyably) on the inspiration behind Dickens’ unfinished final novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood in a plot which sees the two great authors battling demons of their own – both metaphorical and slightly less so. If that sounds silly, that’s because it is. Let’s be clear, Drood is a completely ridiculous and overwrought piece of faux-Victorian Gothic hokum. But it’s also unputdownably gripping, brilliantly plotted and tempers its crazed flights of dark fantasy with some impressively heavyweight literary and historical research. In short, although I freely admit this novel is mad, bad and dangerous to know, I adored it – and sustainedly adored it throughout all its mighty 800 pages. So this is one of my top picks for a Hallowe’en read. But Drood is a weighty tome indeed so if want to get it ticked off your reading list before the end of the month it’s probably best to start now. Here’s more on why you should…

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Book Review: The Alchemy of Stone by Ekaterina Sedia

Robo Reads

Title: The Alchemy of Stone
Author: Ekaterina Sedia
First Published: 2008

Robots tend to be imagined as being pretty tough and durable. Even those machines that aren’t specifically built for war or heavy labour are often depicted as having super-strength or the ability to withstand great pressure (check out the TV Tropes page Super-Powered Robot Meter Maids!) This is understandable: metal is stronger than flesh.  But when authors diverge wildly from this stereotype the results can be intriguing. Mattie, the mechanical protagonist of this steampunk fantasy novel is one such divergent creation. She is an (allegedly) ”emancipated automaton” with a clockwork core; less sentient tank and more whalebone-ribbed living doll – with all the frailty that implies. She even has a delicate, porcelain face that is prone to cracking.

It’s refreshing to see a more vulnerable robot for a change; refreshing, but also heart-breaking. Think about how much prejudice and intolerance we see towards sentient machines in other sci-fi and fantasy works and now imagine a creation singularly ill-equipped to defend herself against such abuses. “There are a few intelligent automatons around,” Mattie explains ”…But you know, nobody likes making them. And they… we don’t even like ourselves.”

As this quote suggests, The Alchemy of Stone is a beautifully melancholy read, blending the sensibilities of a dark fairytale with an allusive commentary on real world issues of gender and racial inequality and – as is common in steampunk-inspired fiction – an exploration of the conquests and casualties that are inherent in the unstoppable march of progress. Sedia’s vivid imagination and beguiling way with words kept me intrigued to the end of Mattie’s story, but I have to admit, I felt this novel’s world-building was finally more captivating than its plot.

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Here Be Dragons! TrollArt Fantasy Design

OK, who likes dragons? Everyone likes dragons don’t they? Except fantasy medieval peasants in thatched roofed cottages, they probably don’t and with good reason. But for the rest of us, dragons are awesome. Just like a certain Daenerys Targaryen, I have three dragons in my life, although the way I acquired mine was a little less extreme than how she hatched hers. My dragons come from an amazing German Fantasy merchandise company called TrollArt Fantasy Design. They sell a range of stuff, from troll and elf figures to steampunk accessories, but the main attraction has to be their lovely plush dragons, which are available in a range of colours, textures and sizes. Here are mine:

Plush dragons from TrollArt

Plush dragons from TrollArt

They are bean filled, so are quite huggable but their wings are softly wired so they can also be displayed in a pleasingly diverse number of ways: draped over anything from necks and shoulders – fantasy scarf style – to banisters. I keep mine on a clothes rail we’ve fitted in the alcove in our living room and they always seem to be a talking point when we have visitors.

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Card Game Review: Epic Spell Wars of the Battle Wizards: Duel at Mt. Skullzfyre

Type of game: Card game
Published by: Cryptozoic Entertainment
Year: 2012
Played on: a table!

Did you know that magical wizards are battling to the death … and beyond … right now!? “Why battle?” you might ask. “What have I got to prove, magic man?” Only who’s the most awesomely powerful battle wizard in the entire realm, that’s what!

An ''Elemental" themed 3 card spell

An ”Elemental” themed 3 card spell

Bursting with crazy flavour, the introduction to this game lets you know immediately that you’re in for a treat, though not a particularly sane one! Let’s take a deep breath and say that distinctly unTwitter-friendly title together shall we: Epic Spell Wars of the Battle Wizards: Duel at Mount Skullzfyre (hereafter referred to as Spell Wars). It’s a card game for 2-6 players, it does a brilliant line in bright, cartoonish ultra-violence, and it’s a regular gaming night favourite Chez AddAltMode.

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Game Review: Choice of the Deathless

Type of game: Text / interactive fiction
Written by: Max Gladstone
Published by: Choice of Games
Year: 2013
Played on: Steam

Choice of the Deathless Cover Art

Cover art by Ron Chan: http://www.ronchan.net/wordpress/

Thanks to Choice Of Games I’ve already been able to cross off “marry a robot” from my 2015 to do list. My love affair with that game – the first of its kind I’d played – inspired me to begin exploring the Choice Of back catalogue, which brought me to Max Gladstone’s Choice of the Deathless. And now I’ve been able to  draw a line through ”become an become an undead skeletal lawyer at a demonic law firm” too.

skeleton

To be honest, I hadn’t actually realised that item was on the list, but hey, you’ve gotta try these things once, right?

Wrong! The beauty of these Choose Your Own Adventure games is that it doesn’t need to be only once; you can try everything, replaying the game as much as you like to explore different options and pursue different paths. This definitely appealed in Deathless as the game’s primary strength is undoubtedly its world-building. The story made me want to explore and discover more of the interesting setting Gladstone has created, a world that takes the “law is an evil business” cliché and runs with it all the way to its necromantic conclusion.

What’s it all about?

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