I Can Quit At Any Time

One day last week (not sure which, it’s all a bit of a blur), I was nestled on the couch with a blanket and a couple of cats. Too tired to read and having watched enough television to numb certain parts of my brain, I was playing solitaire on my Kindle. Though it makes little sense to play a game of logic when I’m tired, I often play solitaire in the evenings. I find it just engaging enough but just bland enough to fill in the hour I should wait before surrendering to sleep. (Going to bed too early means I get up too early and that’s an unaccountably vicious cycle.)

An ad popped up for a game called Klondike and I figured what the heck, I’d download it and give it a try. It looked even more mindless than solitaire but prettier.

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The game started up with lots of easy to follow instructions. Buy some chickens, plant some wheat, and chop through these bushes to reveal hidden treasures! The juxtaposition of farming and exploring didn’t really make sense to me? Nor did having to rescue people and fix someone’s boat, but the game was telling me what to do, meaning I didn’t have to think, so I went along with it.

For three hours.

Worse, I played with breakfast the following morning. Tiredly. Doggedly. I’d accepted a challenge to cut down twelve sequoias in ten hours and waiting on the energy bar to refill between each effort was killing me.

I put the game aside to get some work done and managed to write backward, meaning I ended up with fewer words on my current WIP than I started with. I edited. Cut. Didn’t replace. Then I completely messed up another project by editing the incorrect file. I save daily and every version is dated. It’s a stupid mistake to make, but I was tired. Also, I needed to make bricks to complete the dairy and to make bricks I needed mortar and to make mortar I needed cement and to make cement I needed gravel. Gravel came from crushed up rocks and I couldn’t spare the energy to mine those rocks when I’d accepted a challenge to cut down these all these trees.

I went to bed early but took my Kindle with me, and in between chapters of I Don’t Know What I’m Reading Right Now I cut down trees, collected milk and eggs, and finally repaired the crusty old sea barnacle’s ship. Off we sailed to a new land!

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It was kind of embarrassing to be caught playing the game by my husband when he returned to the house on Friday afternoon—after having seen me playing it at breakfast. I did take pains to point out that I’d not only written a full chapter, but had fixed my editing snafu, done all the laundry, mowed the lawn, cleaned two bathrooms, mopped and swept everything, and tidied another corner of our daughter’s bedroom. (She’s away at college and reclaiming that room is something like accepting a challenge to fell three hundred trees. The dust, omg, the dust. And the old plates under the bed. And the shoeboxes full of things. But that’s another blog post.)

We went out to see a movie and as I watched, I prepared strategies for optimizing my energy use in the game. To my credit, I didn’t campaign to return home early in order to complete another challenge by the deadline instead of getting dinner out. I Like pho. I am also an experienced gamer, after all. I’m used to not getting every achievement.

I’m not used to being able to take my games to bed with me. I Klondiked into the wee hours, even going so far as to log in and check my energy bar, mine a few things, and queue up some production (can you believe it takes twenty minutes to grow strawberries? I can clear a field of wheat in just three) after visiting the loo at two in the morning. I know. I KNOW.

At breakfast on Saturday, I told my husband, “I can quit at any time!”

We both laughed.

On Saturday afternoon, he surprised me with a plan to visit the corn maze we both loved and visited every year, with maybe dinner out afterward. The deadline for mining quartz would expire while we were out, but I couldn’t say no, could I?

I told myself I wouldn’t take my tablet to bed, but my current book was on it, so I sort of had to. Right? Right! I flipped tabs between Klondike and the book for about twenty minutes before giving up on reading and just farming. Mining. Manufacturing. Browsing upcoming challenges. I dreamed of farming and mining and manufacturing, and the weird little candy swap game you play to get more energy.

When I woke up on Sunday, I took my tablet downstairs, deleted the game, and read my book for an hour.

I didn’t even hesitate, even though I wasn’t quite aware of having made a conscious decision to delete the game (without even opening it). The evening before, I’d completed a five-day challenge and received a reward and a promise that the reward would be even bigger when I got to the twenty-day mark. I really wanted to see what that reward would be! But on Sunday morning, I didn’t care. Likely, it would have been just enough energy to complete roughly twenty percent of the next mining/farming/manufacturing challenge and no more. It would have been enough XP to take me to the next level and another host of challenges. More lands, more people who inexplicably needed rescuing, and maybe this time we’d be looking for mustard pots for the mustard pot set which I could exchange for hot dogs and I don’t know what the hot dogs would have done for me, but I’d probably hope they were for energy.

I enjoyed Sunday. I played Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey and Borderlands 3. I watched a movie and saw the whole thing because I didn’t have my tablet with me, or a reason not to pay attention. I went out to lunch with friends and didn’t check the time once. I cooked dinner when I got home. (Okay, yes, we’d been eating canned soup and banana and peanut butter sandwiches, but I’m pretty sure that wouldn’t have lasted forever!)

Not once did I miss Klondike. I haven’t even played solitaire since. But I have been thinking about what it is about games that grab and hold our attention and why some games keep me and others don’t.

The first time I stayed up all night playing a game was Sim City in 199-something. I stayed glued to the PC for thirty-six hours muttering, “One more year. Just one more year.”

My propensity for mindless additions probably goes back as Asteroids, though. We had an Atari and if my dad wanted me to do anything on a Saturday, he’d have to pull the plug at the wall socket. I can still remember the shock of having that happen. The blank screen and not having anywhere to direct all the energy pent up in my entire body as I leaned forward over the joystick.

I call myself a recovering WoW addict. I played for five years, taking a break of three months only to get lost in Civ V. I never played any of those games through the night, though. I had a child by then and I was pretty fierce about putting family time before game time. I sacrificed other hobbies to the gaming gods in those years, reading very little and falling way behind on popular TV.

I never went back to World of Warcraft, even when my husband did. Once I quit, I stayed quit. I still play Sim City and The Sims often enough, but it’s usually when I’m looking for what I briefly found in Klondike. Something to do with a restless mind. An activity that swapped achievement for very little thought. No story to consider, no role to play, just a reorganizing of objects in order to reach goals. It’s no wonder I enjoy jigsaw puzzles and can often be found leaning over the same puzzle morning, noon, and night while listing all the other stuff I did that day to anyone who looks at me sideways.

There is a need for these types of activities—the sorts of games that challenge only just enough to entice, but let you win pretty easily. Because you’re tired and you really want enough points to build a cottage by the sea. (Also, you need more workers to farm all this stuff.)

But while I’m happy to pay sixty bucks to play Assassin’s Creed, I’ve never succumbed to the lure of microtransaction in puzzle games. I know I’m going to get at least 120 hours of playtime my first time through Assassin’s Creed and that the experience will probably wow me. I love these games. I love the worlds, I love a perfect assassination! But I’m not going to spend $3.99 on a welcome pack of energy and emeralds (that can be swapped for energy) just so I can farm more wheat and collect more milk. Why? It’s only four bucks. I’ve played Klondike for close to twenty hours in five days. (I know. I KNOW!)

I think the issue is that while I enjoy both puzzling and gaming, I have certain expectations for each. A puzzle is something to occupy my mind when I’m still buzzing, but not ready to commit to something else, like sleep. More, though, puzzles don’t tell stories. What I get out of a game like Assassin’s Creed is story. It’s what I look for, too. And if I quit a game early (Andromeda, for instance), it’s usually because it’s more a list of tasks for the same old rewards than an involved narrative. There are only so many times a game can send you after wolf pelts before you’re done, and ultimately, that’s why I quit World of Warcraft as well. I got up one morning and logged in to complete my dailies and was suddenly hit with a wave of inertia. Why was I doing this? So I’d be properly equipped for the raid that night, of course. But why was I doing that? So I’d be even better equipped for the next night’s raid—and I’d have to set my alarm to get up even earlier tomorrow because I needed to fish for elementals before I did my dailies and be done by the time my daughter got up for school.

No wonder I quit.

I already have a job. Several, in fact.

And gaming, for me, has always been about losing myself in another world for a while. Kind of like reading. Somewhere to visit and return from. Not a place where I want to live. So, no more Klondiking at three in the morning for me. Not at the moment, anyway. But, hey, as long as I use a tablet to read and get tired and easily distracted, no promises. What I can guarantee, however, is that my next silly gaming addiction will probably only last about as long as this one.

At least I hope it does…

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In grabbing some images for the game (from the Klondike website), I discovered I could download it on PC. And that there were twelve maps, meaning eleven I hadn’t visited. I’ll admit I was tempted.

So far, I have resisted. I really want to finish my current WIP. Also, I can only eat so many peanut butter and banana sandwiches.

 

Small Packages, Good Games

In between long and involved games like chapters of Assassin’s Creed and The Witcher, I really like shorter games with tighter stories that I can play through in a week or two. Especially when I don’t have a lot of time to devote to gaming. Two shorter games I played this summer that really impressed me were Watch Dogs 2 and Soma.

Watch Dogs 2

I loved playing this game. Watch Dogs 2 has the perfect balance of open-world and a directed story. I could while away a gaming session exploring a beautifully rendered San Francisco and Bay Area, stopping for coffee at a donut shop, trying on new outfits, cruising the harbor or pretending to be a part of impromptu parties and street gatherings. I could explore hidden basements and rooftops, looking for new key data and the points to spend researching it. For a day, I could be a cab driver, toting citizens around the city – or helping them catch as much air as possible by zooming up San Francisco’s many hills and launching ourselves (in the car) from the top of them. There are so many neighborhoods to explore and reasons to do so. And, you can post it all on an Instagram type feed called ScoutX.

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Meanwhile, there’s a fairly immersive story waiting for you that ties into real-world issues by proposing that one man, Dusan Nemec, is using the tools at the disposal of his tech corporation, Blume, to gather data on network users (hypothetically, me and you) for financial gain and influence. The data is exchanged in secret deals with health insurance companies (order a pizza using the app on your phone and your health insurance premiums might just go up), home security companies (do you know who has access to your new smart home?), the local police (use and abuse of power and cooperation with local outlaw gangs), the FBI… the list goes on up the chain until the game has you believing that no data is safe from attack and abuse. It’s pretty scary and reminiscent of reality in a way that has you thinking about the trail you leave online.

I’ve always been of the opinion that if someone finds me interesting enough to trace, good luck to them. I surf recipe sites, book review sites, gaming sites, some science, a little porn, and too much social media. I’m really not that interesting. But my digital footprint could be useful in the right hands when it comes to manipulating my opinion on certain subjects, such as an election.

The point of the game is to take down Blume and the process is fairly straight forward. Get some dirt, spread it around, and invite others to roll in it with you. Of course, this gains Nemec’s attention and he’s not a friendly foe. The stakes rise far higher than I expected from this outwardly fun game, and the plot points hit harder. I came to truly care for the members of Dedsec, even though they sometimes felt a little too young and radical for my homecooked and mow it to perfection twice a week self. 

What I Loved Most

Driving. Or, more accurately, riding my Sayanora motorcycle from one end of the city, across the Golden Gate Bridge and up into the hills behind Oakland. I only killed one other motorcyclist on these trips (which I, of course, felt terrible about), and managed to limit collateral damage to a few traffic lights and several stop signs. I was much more dangerous with four wheels beneath me. Or should I say Marcus was? Marcus was much dangerous in a car. In a van, he was downright destructive. The guy was a terrible driver. 😉

I never got tired of driving across the Golden Gate Bridge or simply watching the city unfold around me. The environment is amazing and the fact you can stop off at any point and engage with it never failed to tempt me.

I also really enjoyed learning to sneak around Umeni security corps and gang members. I excelled in the art of distraction and spent most of my research points learning to sow greater chaos.

The network puzzles were awesome, except the ones that had timers attached. I actually sucked at those but managed to get through all of them, sometimes with naught but a second to spare.

And shopping. I really enjoyed shopping. In what other game can you buy and wear a donut shirt?

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What I Didn’t Love

Not much, to be honest, though the level of violence available never stopped bothering me. For some reason, I thought hackers would be peaceable types who favored quiet takedowns or a completely hands-off method to achieving their goals. Probably naive of me.

Apparently, if you immediately freeze, Umeni Corps won’t shoot. They’ll arrest you and escort you from the premises. I never managed this feat. I was shot every time and had to replay several missions several times in order to learn the path of least resistance out of a building – until I become a more accomplished chaos engineer, that is.

I also didn’t like that it was so easy to kill people with things like, um, forklifts. The first time was an accident and I stared at my screen, completely horrified. The second time was deliberate as I learned to remotely pilot forklifts, cars, motorcycles, vans, and scissor-lifts into enemies, maiming, crushing, and killing. Bad guys. Mostly bad guys. Load up something explosive and the effect is even better. I never felt quite right about killing people, though, and opted in most cases for a melee attack that probably broke necks, but I could tell myself they were simply knocked out. You know, like in Assassin’s Creed.

Dusan Nemec was a tool. I loved his eventual takedown. So, I didn’t love him, but his character was perfectly scripted. From the man-bun and not a hair out of place face fur to his stupidly expensive track pants.

In Summary

While searching online for the reason there was so much trash blowing around the streets of San Francisco (I thought it might be a real-world effect caused by my causing too much chaos, like in Dishonored), I came across a lot of Reddit and other forum comments calling the game trash, a waste of time, and absolute garbage. I disagree. I thought the game was FUN, well-scripted, just difficult enough to be a challenge, and filled with enough activity outside the main quest to be worth the sticker price. I grabbed it on sale for less than $20 and wouldn’t have been upset to have paid the usual $50-$60.

The game ran bug-free and seamlessly on my PC, which is running a fairly old (now) Intel Core i5-4460 CPU with only 16Gb of RAM, and a GeForce GTX 970 graphics card.

I logged 40 hours of playtime and though I completed the main quest and quite a few side activities, I felt I’d barely scratched the surface of the world environment. There was a lot left to do and the main quest holds (in my opinion) substantial replay value.

Recommended!

Soma

Before playing The Evil Within, I hadn’t known horror survival was a genre. What I love about games like this is the tight, compact story, and the different style of gameplay they encourage. These aren’t necessarily “kill them first and ask questions later” kind of games. You don’t advance by learning to hold two guns (swords, machetes, flame throwers) at once. More usually, the player is presented every level with a new puzzle that encourages you to think about what you’ve already learned and apply it in a new and interesting way. Sort of like Prince of Persia, but with way less jumping.

I had forgotten everything about Soma by the time I got around to playing it, except that maybe I’d bought it on my daughter’s recommendation. I once watched a trailer for this post-apocalyptic game set under the ocean where you went from station to station in a sub, avoiding scary things. It was a top-down, 3D affair (think Diablo III) and looked pretty immersive. I forgot to add it to my wishlist, though, and never saw it again. Then my daughter started talking about a game called Soma that was post-apocalyptic and underwater. And it was on sale. So I picked it up.

Soma is eerily similar to that lost game, except that it has an FPS interface and the only sub you get your hands on breaks soon afterward because of course it does. Getting around in a sub would be too easy – and boring.

Basically, the story is that you’re this dude, Simon, and you have something wrong with your brain. The result of an accident. The game begins with you (as Simon) visiting the doctor who is going to scan your brain with the hopes of developing a treatment regimen. You go to this lab and sit in a chair and a mechanical screen lowers over your head as you engage in foreshadow-y banter with the doctor – about how Native Americans believed that cameras could capture a person’s soul. As Simon is plunged into darkness, you, the player, is, of course, thinking about what this computerized brain scan is going to capture.

When the screen lifts, you’re in a different room. It’s dark and really, really creepy, and once you figure out how to turn the lights on, it’s not much better. The room is littered with broken machinery, which has, ah, something sort of growing on it, something that at first glance is part machine, part biological – maybe – and then there are these suits.

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You quickly ascertain that you’re not where you thought you were and over the course of the game, you also discover that you’re not what you thought you were. Oh, and the world has ended, and you’re basically humanity’s last hope.

What I Loved

While you’re dodging scary AF creatures that KILL YOU, the story delves more deeply into the themes of what makes us human, and thoughts about our viability and survivability as a species. All stuff I LOVE.

The voice acting is thoughtful and I really enjoyed getting to know the two main characters in the game, Simon and Catherine. I was invested in their adventure.

The creep factor is real and I jumped several times as horrors ducked around corners and crept up behind me. I further loved the fact that there is no combat option – the only way to survive the game and win all objectives is to sneak your way through the increasingly weird and depressing ruins of the Pathos station.

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Oh, and there are a couple of neat twists to the story, and one or two decisions you must make that really hit quite hard.

What I Didn’t Love

The way the ending was handled. No spoilers, but initially, there was a complete sense of “well, damn.” I was depressed about how things had turned out and a little annoyed that the developers had ended the game the way they had. Tabbing out of the end game credits delivers an epilogue that is much more worthwhile, being the ending I’d expected all along. I don’t know if the first ending is a fake-out? If so, I think the segue into the second ending could have been handled a little more elegantly.

In Summary

Overall, I loved this game. I’ve raved about it to several other gamer friends and despite the small hiccup toward the end for me, I thought the story was super solid. Deeply thoughtful and compelling. The first ending does work quite well, it’s just… I like my endings a little happier.

I was hooked by the story from beginning to end and played this game in two days – which is nearly unheard of for me. I usually don’t have that sort of time to devote all at once, but also, this is a really short game. I clocked only 12 hours over the course of a single weekend.

I got this one on sale and would probably wait for a sale again rather than pay $30, but I did think the bang was worth the buck. Soma delivered a nearly flawless gaming experience and a totally immersive story. It’s easy to learn the rules, and while the story is tight, you can roam off the beaten path to explore more of the world if you want to. I can imagine the game could be replayed a couple of times, therefore revealing more clues.

Highly recommended. I’ll be looking out for more from Frictional Games.

 

My Favourite Things: 2018

It’s time for my favourite post of the year, and thank goodness for that. Did anyone else think 2018 was a long year? Time’s supposed to speed up when you get older, isn’t it?

I needed all the time I could get, though, to write the last book of the This Time Forever series, a final novella for Marc and Henry, edit everything I’d written last year, this year, and what felt like an entire library full of books, and then promote it all. I also taught three writing workshops and continued my volunteer work at the library. And my husband bought a bagel shop. And my daughter is preparing for college. And…

But, still, I found time to read, to watch, to play, and to fall in love with a year’s worth of stuff. ❤

 

Books

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I read nearly 220 books this year, which is a little more than average for me. I’m honestly not sure how I found the time earlier in the year, but I do know that a lot more of my reading is now done with my ears. I’ve always been a fan of audiobooks, but as my days become increasingly busy, listening to a book is so often the only reading time I get—and a great way to switch off my own thoughts for a while. Half of the books I’ve chosen as this year’s standouts were listened to as I walked the neighborhood, drove to town, cleaned bathrooms, and mowed the lawn.

 

Bitter Legacy by Dal Maclean (Mystery/Thriller)

Extremely compelling. I had a really hard time putting this one aside to deal with real life.

I really enjoyed the mystery aspect of this novel—more than I thought I would, actually. I liked the slow collection of clues and the “procedural” feel of having them snapped together, one by one, but not always in the right order. I’d love to read more mystery written by Dal Maclean. I think she demonstrates great talent.

The romance aspect of the book was a little more difficult to… like. This isn’t a happy, fluffy contemporary. But it totally worked for the characters. Jamie is so new and so inexperienced when it comes to relationships that it was easy to imagine him making the excuses that he did. His hesitancy and heartbreak were also really well written. I felt them both quite deeply.

I did have a hard time accepting the reconciliation at the end, but justified it in much the same way Jamie did: love can overlook a lot of faults, especially when we think we’re getting what want/need. Also, if Ben isn’t to be a bitter, twisted, and lonely old man, someone has to take a chance on him.

I’m really looking forward to reading Maclean’s follow up novel, Object of Desire.

 

Dangerous Women (Anthology)

One of the reasons I love short story collections so much is the opportunity to try new authors, and I will forever be thankful to this anthology for introducing me to Lawrence Block. This is otherwise a solid collection. I skipped a few stories, mostly those set in worlds I wasn’t all that familiar with (Jim Butcher, G.R.R.M.). I imagine those stories would work better for existing fans, but S.M. Stirling’s entry really worked for me.

The stories I enjoyed the most:

  • “Some Desperado” by Joe Abercrombie. A Red Country story. This was a great intro to the collection.
  • “My Heart is Either Broken” by Megan Abbott. Really well done.
  • “Raisa Stepanova” by Carrie Vaughn. Fantastic piece of historical fiction.
  • “Wrestling Jesus” by Joe R. Lansdale. This was one of my favourites. It was just so quirky and out there.
  • “Neighbors” by Megan Lindholm might be my favourite story. It was so well written and complete.
  • “I Know How to Pick ’Em” by Lawrence Block encouraged me to give one of his novels a try.
  • “Second Arabesque, Very Slowly” by Nancy Kress was amazing. Perhaps the best in the collection.
  • “Pronouncing Doom” by S.M. Stirling – An Emberverse story. Had me wondering why I never got back into the Emberverse books.

 

Dedicated (Rhythm of Love, #1) by Neve Wilder (Romance)

I just finished reading Neve Wilder’s Center of Gravity (Nook Island, #1) last night and considered replacing this with that, but in the end chose to stick with Dedicated because for as much as I loved Center of Gravity (to the tune of almost half a box of tissues toward the end), I feel Dedicated is the better book. It’s a little tidier and tighter, story-wise, and is one of the best rock star romances I’ve ever read.

What really make this novel work are three things. The first is the almost flawless integration of plot and romance. I’m one of those readers who require quite a lot of story with my steam, and this has that. Second are the tropes: friends to lovers and fake relationship. Yes! Third, the interview snippets interspersed throughout the book. These are awesome, and taken alone, give wonderful insight into the characters personalities. Along with the story, they’re gold.

 

Fools and Mortals by Bernard Cornwell (Historical)

Fools and Mortals had been on my wishlist for a while, and after I finally read it, I almost wish I hadn’t so that I could read it all over again—for the first time. Briefly, it’s the story of the first production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as related by one of William Shakespeare’s younger brothers.

The history of the play itself would have made a fascinating story—and Cornwell’s attention to detail stood out here with facts so expertly interwoven with fiction as to give the book that peculiar weight of good historical fiction. I came away feeling as if I’d learned something, and with a desire to read more about the subject.

What made this book so special, though, was Richard. He’s a compelling character in his own right with a very Dickensian life story. I loved his point of view and enjoyed his unique insights into the character of his older brother William. I actually became so engrossed in the lives of the players in Shakespeare’s company that I could have kept reading forever.

 

God Country by Donny Cates (Comic/Graphic Novel)

How do you even describe a comic book like this? The shelving label on the back reads “Epic Texan Battle Fantasy” and there is a quote inside the front cover from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the WestGod Country lives up to both. It is a western. But it’s also a fantasy that borrows from Norse mythology. And it’s the story of a family devastated by Alzheimer’s.

I most often buy comic books for their art and it’s gorgeous here, with the style definitely working in support of the story. But what made this comic one I was keen to shelve in my library with a reverent stroke of the cover as I slipped it into place, were the spontaneous tears that caught me about five pages from the end. I’m a self-admitted sap. I’ve cried in more Star Trek episodes than anyone else on this planet. But I’ve only teared up over one comic book before, the poignant Roughneck by Jeff Lemire.

I might have to start a new Goodreads shelf.

 

Now That You Mention It by Kristan Higgins (Contemporary)

I loved Now That You Mention It from the first chapter, the first page, the first paragraph—the first line!

The first thought I had after I died was: How will my dog cope with this?
The second thought: I hope we can still go with an open casket.
Third thought: I have nothing to wear to my funeral.
Fourth: I’ll never meet Daniel Radcliffe now.
Fifth: Did Bobby just break up with me?

Everything you need to know about this book is right there, in black and white. Nora is obviously at a turning point in her life, and she has questions. What follows was a funny, deeply thoughtful, honest, romantic and just a damn fine story about a woman finally coming to terms with herself. As always, the secondary characters were wonderful, populating the small island off the coast of Maine with authenticity and charm. I particularly loved Nora’s mother and niece. The dialogue was amazing—effortlessly flowing through every subject—and the romance was sweet without overwhelming the true message of the book.

I loved every minute spent within the covers of Now That You Mention It and can’t wait for my next Kristan Higgins. She has become one of my favourite authors.

In contemporary fiction, I also really enjoyed Less by Sean Andrew Greer. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara isn’t a book you could say you enjoyed, but the reading of it consumed a part of my soul this year and I’ll carry the story of Jude with me forever.

 

The Dark Defiles (A Land Fit for Heroes, #3) by Richard K. Morgan (Fantasy)

I tried to read The Steel Remains, the first book in this series, several years ago and put it aside after only two or three chapters. I can’t remember why, but the usual reason for putting something aside is simply a lack of connection. It’s frustrating when it’s a book I really want to read, so I’ll often return later, or try it on audio. That’s what I did here and I immediately became invested in the first book, then the second, and finally the third. As soon as I finished, I ordered books two and three to go with the first on my keeper shelf. This is a series I want to revisit and remember.

It’s not always a pleasant read. The violence is brutal and the themes quite dark. But Morgan has a way of drawing you into a story almost unaware, and making you care about characters who aren’t even particularly “nice.” He did it with Takeshi Kovacs and again here with Ringil. If I had a favourite character at the beginning of the series, it would have been Egar, but only because he’s typical. He’s a man meant for more. Arceth’s story is fascinating and she grew on me as the series progressed.

But Ringil. He was hard to love, but once there, impossible to shake off. I adored his caustic wit and unrepentant attitude toward his homosexuality. If ever a character was who he was, it would be Ringil. Society reviles him, his family despairs for him, and yet… and yet. Without giving away too much, Ringil doesn’t bloody care, except for when he does.

I loved the ending, and what I presumed to be Ringil’s fate. Even more, the coda afterward that hinted at Arceth’s epilogue (and maybe the fulfillment of a certain prophecy), and the circumstances surrounding the birth of a certain baby. I shed a few tears throughout. I laughed, too. I stood silent sentry at every funeral. But that last chapter of the coda. I pretty much lost it there, as Morgan tied up every loose end and brought us back to the beginning.

This was a great year for fantasy (for me) and I had a hard time choosing a favourite. The other contenders were Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold, and The Blinding Knife (Lightbringer #2) by Brent Weeks.

 

Touch by Claire North (Science Fiction)

I invented chores to keep listening to Touch. I baked muffins. They were horrible because I left them in the oven too long because I was listening to this. But I did get all the bathrooms cleaned and even vacuumed my stairs. I hate vacuuming stairs.

What drew me to Touch was the premise: Kepler is a being that can pass from host to host through touch. There’s also a mystery. Kepler is trying to solve the murder of his most recent host, a woman killed while Kepler was “in residence.” Toss a mystery plot into a novel with speculative elements and I can’t help myself.

Touch was exciting, compelling, different, but not weird. There was a logic to it all and it was kind of beautiful. I don’t think it made quite the comment on gender that some reviewers seemed to think it did, though. I thought was actually more about self and love.

As an aside, Touch reminded me of another of my favourite books, Purpose by Andrew Q. Gordon. If the premise of Touch appeals, I’d suggest you add Andrew’s book to your wish list as well.

 

Movies

FTMovies

I’m going to share a secret: if you go to the theatre at about four or five in the afternoon, on a Friday, you can see a new release film at matinee prices, and pretty much have your pick of seats. It’s not a “cool” time to go to the cinema, but it works for me. I can be home and in bed by about eight. You know, like the old folks. 😉

2018 was a great year for movies, seeing me in theatre seats forty-four times. That’s… nearly every week. And I didn’t really see a movie I regretted. My picks for favourites are a bit surprising, though, and not what I would have predicted going in.

In Theatres: Crazy Rich Asians

I had such a good time watching this movie! The story, the characters, the sheer spectacle of it. I laughed and cried and just felt good the whole time. I was thoroughly entertained, which is about all I ask for when I buy a ticket.

My other favourites in theatres this year were Hostiles—one of the most moving Westerns I’ve ever seen, plus… Christian Bale. I’ll always go to see Christian Bale. And Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse, which I expected to be good, and was better than good, almost taking the top spot.

I can’t let the year pass without mentioning Love, Simon, which I saw twice. The kiss at the end was everything. Also, I enjoyed the movie quite a bit more than the book.

On DVD: The Rider

One of the most quietly touching movies ever made, The Rider pretty much broke me and Jay. By the end, we had a box of tissues on the couch between us and were shamelessly grabbing handfuls. The two standout scenes were the campfire, where the guys shared their songs and stories, the faith that keeps them going, and Brady’s dedication to his family and best friend.

I also enjoyed The Wedding Banquet and I Feel Pretty.

 

TV

FTTV

2018 was the year of The Walking Dead.

I normally limit myself to one episode a day of whatever show I’m watching. By the time I got to season six of The Walking Dead (I picked up where I’d left off with season two sometime in January), I was devouring four episodes at a time. I couldn’t stop, even though the story was so, so dark, and the world outside was so, so dark, and life itself was… Well. March was tough. Romancelandia exploded, a blizzard dumped three feet of snow in northeast Pennsylvania, and I got the flu. And one of my favourite Walking Dead characters died. I recently caught up with season eight and might actually have to buy season nine instead of waiting for it to hit Netflix. But then I’d have to wait nearly a year for more, and…

I also got heavily invested in The Americans, which I watched from beginning to end (seasons 1-6) over the summer, sobbed my way through two seasons of Queer Eye, and thoroughly enjoyed season two of Iron Fist, which I thought was even better than the first.

 

Games

FTGames

Game of the Year: The Evil Within

Horror Survival is a genre. Who knew? My daughter showed me the trailer to this game and despite all the blood, I thought the story looked pretty good. It is pretty good. Also, the game is phenomenally fun to play. It has a similar feel to Dishonored, in theme and in appearance, with that sort of open world feel that gives you enough space to move without letting you wander off the path. The scarcity of resources reminded me a little of The Last of Us, and the way I had to plan out each encounter became addictive. Outside of the blood and gore and blood and blood, this game is one long logic puzzle, and I loved it.

Another game I really, really enjoyed was Rise of the Tomb Raider. It was pure fun from beginning to end, with a story that wrung a few tears from my eyes, and I’m looking forward to the next installment.

I also played through two installments of Assassin’s Creed this year. I found Syndicate a little boring, but quite enjoyed Unity, which felt like a return to Assassin’s Creed II style of play—lots of story, compelling characters, and a thoroughly invested world.

Right now I’m playing Fallout 76 and having a lot of fun with it. While I’m hoping there are plans for more story than there is right now, and fewer disconnects, the game so far is everything I love about Fallout: a world I can explore on my own, quirky quests hidden in odd places, crafting, and lots and lots to do.

 

Music

FTMusic

The increase in audiobook listening this year meant a decrease in music listening. I’d miss music sometimes, and so tune in to Pandora while editing. Or occasionally spend an evening flipping through my somewhat outdated collection. But I did discover a couple of new (to me) songs in 2018, two of which wormed their way into my subconscious, and then into the playlists for two of my releases this year.

“You’re Somebody Else” became the theme song for Renewing Forever, my melancholic romance featuring a couple trying to bridge a gap of thirty years. The lyrics and the feel are so damn perfect that the first few times I heard the song, I’d think about the book and weep a little.

“Broken” by lovelytheband became the theme song for Chasing Forever, and the upbeat melody and lyrics are the perfect antidote to my first choice.

I still love “Whatever It Takes” by Imagine Dragons, who seem only to be getting better with age (and they started out pretty good!), and I bought the soundtracks for both A Star is Born (every time Lady Gaga sang in that movie, I cried) and Spider-Man.

 

Food

Hot Bagels Gold (1)2018 was, without a doubt, the year of the bagel. My husband and I bought a bagel shop, meaning we kind of live and breathe bagels. I still like them—but it’s only been three months. A long three months. He gets up at 3:00 a.m. to bake and I head in late morning to work the lunch shift and close the shop. And clean and clean and clean. I’ve never washed so many dishes in my life!

My favourite bagel is still the sesame, especially when it’s fresh from the oven–crisp and chewy on the outside and tender in the middle. Toasted lightly and spread with cream cheese, sprinkled with capers and piled high with lox. Yum!

 

Activity

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I’m tempted to say sleep, but really, getting out to hike became super important again this year. It’s not a new activity and I’ve always appreciated my time out on the trails, but with everything that happened this year, to crowd my headspace and my workspace, I needed the quiet of the forest more than ever.

I took several hikes with my dad this year, which added to the fun, and discovered a few new trails, including those around Boulder Field at Hickory Run State Park! I look forward to getting out there again as soon as I figure out how to get time away from the shop!

That’s another year quantified! It was productive and busy and I’m hoping 2019 at least begins a little more sedately. We’ll see. Hope it was a great year for all of you and that the New Year is better still. ❤

(For those of you looking for my writing plans for 2019, stay tuned! I’ll be posting sometime next week!)

Wrapping the Kenways and Completing the Initiates

I had actually thought both Unity and Syndicate were a part of the Kenway saga. The names of Edward and Haytham pop up often enough for them to feel like they are. But apparently they’re their own thing, which doesn’t really affect this post all that much except making naming it more complicated.

I’m talking about the endlessly fascinating Assassin’s Creed series, by the way. I’m behind in posting my thoughts on Rogue, Unity and Syndicate.

assassins_creed_syndicate_logo-HDWe’ll start with the game I finished playing just last weekend: Syndicate.

What I Loved

Which is mostly going to be a list of what I liked, in some cases very much, as I didn’t really love this one. I loved the beginning and felt the game actually got less interesting as it progressed, most markedly when Jacob and Evie arrived in London. There began the relentless and monotonous conquering of the city, which I enjoyed for the sake of clearing out the rabble, but quickly abandoned once I’d leveled the twins and finished upgrading all of their gear. Westminster remains unconquered.

I really enjoyed the Thames as a borough, and had fun riding up and down the river on barges, sabotaging and stealing shipments. I stumbled into the World War I segment by accident and enjoyed that immensely. I liked the short and defined nature of the quests and the feeling of actually making a difference. Also, shooting the planes out of the sky was fun.

I liked how the present and precursor stories were handed in Syndicate. No more tedious traipsing around an office hacking computers for files we didn’t really need. We also got a huge chunk of precursor story, but felt a little recycled. Was it recycled? I did miss solving the logic puzzles, though. I’d rather have scanned barcodes on buildings and solved puzzles for database entries and keys than complete endless London Stories that often had no bearing at all on the main quest.

But we’re talking about what I liked. I loved driving carriages and quickly achieved Wanton Destruction, thus making my carriages even more dangerous! I liked not having to level my lockpicking skill and waiting for tumblers to settle. But I sort of missed that as well?

Jacob was loveable. I made up a ton of stories for him in my head and if I still had the time to write fan fiction, he’d quickly consume my life. I loved his personality. His cheekiness and blunt way of getting things done. I felt he had a lot more emotional investment in his quests than Evie, too.

Finally, being able to infect multiple targets with a poison dart? Delightful.

What I Didn’t Love

The overall story was… dull. Basically, it followed a chain of linked characters who had to be killed before the big bad, Starrick, could go down. And Starrick wasn’t all that big and bad. In discussing this one with my husband, we came to the conclusion that while we like the blurring of the lines between the ultimate aims of the Assassins and Templars, this game really suffered from the shades of grey. Yeah, Starrick was evil, but he also seemed like he had the best interests of London at heart. I dunno. I didn’t feel as though I was ridding the world of super dangerous scum at the end of this one. But I did like that Jacob and Evie had settled their differences by the end.

maxresdefaultContinuing to work backward, let’s talk about Unity.

 What I Loved

Just about everything, actually. I had FUN playing this one. I loved the brightness of Paris and the difference between the neighborhoods. The city felt much more distinct than in previous games, which was probably because I’d played Black Flag, Freedom’s Cry and Rogue in the year or so leading up to it, and so had been wandering the developing world, sacking and pillaging ships and villages for a long, long time. It was nice to shake the mud off my boots for a while and rediscover civilization.

I think my favourite aspect was that it felt like a return to Assassin’s Creed II in gameplay and design. I enjoyed making the city mine and bumping into history via quests and the engaging Paris Stories. I loved solving the mini-quests like the murder mysteries. Again, I fell into the expansion without warning and though I was a little under level for it, persevered and came out all the richer for my troubles.

I enjoyed sneaking into and out of the Bastille. I enjoyed sneaking into and out of just about everywhere, actually. What I loved most about this installment, though, was the story. Yes, it was another shades of grey episode, but it really worked here with the star-crossed romance angle, which I really liked. Arno had so much more purpose than the average assassin. In fact, he kind of reminded me of Ezio, my all-time favourite. Giving the assassin a personal quest as well as a world quest definitely makes the story more engaging.

I also just really liked Arno.

Oh, and the World War II segment was really, really cool. I took so many screenshots of the balloons over Paris and all of the other craziness.

What I Didn’t Love

The present part. BORING. I miss the present story having a face. I miss Desmond. 😦 I also feel like the present and precursor stories have stalled. I love that the series has unlimited potential when it comes to tracking down the pieces of Eden using the memories of certain bloodlines, but what drew me to and kept me fascinated through the end of Revelations was the intertwined story threads of past, present, and possible future (or ancient past). I’d love to see more of that.

10495383_849842478360298_1178114232514149692_oFinally, let’s talk about Rogue.

What I Loved

A lot, actually. My most defined thought is that Rogue is what Assassin’s Creed III should have been, starring Haytham Kenway. I’ve complained loudly and often about Assassin’s Creed III—the game that nearly had me quitting the franchise. If not for Black Flag, I might have. Rogue took the best elements of both—giving us the story that should rightfully have been Haytham’s, that of a man born to one creed and raised by another. Conflict within and without.

If you don’t know Haytham’s entire story, I recommend reading Oliver Bowden’s novel, Forsaken.

Back to Rogue. I really liked Shay’s story. I felt his motivation for leaving the Assassins and joining the Templars was sound and his continuing struggle with his decision was handled well. Not over the top, but not ignored. I played the game with a sort of, “about time” attitude.

I loved the more confined map. This isn’t as big a game as Black Flag, although it was markedly similar in a lot of ways. But the story was much tighter and more cohesive with less reliance on real-world or “storied” events. More its own thing. Like Revelations, the story here was organic to the game world and current character than the more sprawling installments in the series.

I really enjoyed sacking and pillaging.

I always enjoy sacking and pillaging.

I don’t know what’s so fun about it, except that there’s a wonderful sense of accomplishment attached to defeating another ship or claiming a plantation or warehouse and relieving each of all their supplies. Maybe it’s that those supplies were then used for upgrades, so there was a real drive to engage in this activity, over and over again. And it wasn’t as tedious as all that shipping and trade introduced in AC II (only to be dropped thereafter, because ugh).

I enjoyed the mini-game of expanding trade routes, though, with the turn-based ship battles. I liked building and maintaining that fleet, and watching my wealth escalate as a result—not that I ever figured out what to do with it all? I’ve generally finished the main plot of every Assassin’s Creed game before realizing the benefits of all the side quest actions like conquering districts and building fleets.

What I Didn’t Love

The limited access to the world map at the beginning of the game. I’m a natural born wanderer and as such, like to wander wherever, whenever. I became so frustrated with the limitations of the map and not being able to clear and claim areas and complete quests ahead of schedule. Same with the access to tools and equipment.

Thankfully, this seems to be the only game where the limitations were so fierce, and I’ve wandered freely since.

 

So, what’s next up? Origins, I guess! I’m usually two games behind, so I doubt I’ll even get to Origins before Odyssey is released, though. Probably not even this year. I’m playing The Evil Within right now, and loving it, and I’m hoping to squeeze the new Tomb Raider in before the new Fallout drops. Then there are all the other new games coming up soon (which I talk about here if you want to read another gaming ramble).

I am looking forward to playing both Origins and Odyssey, though, and despite myriad small complaints, really do love the Assassin’s Creed games. They’ve become my comfort game of choice, taking over from Skyrim. When I just want to kill stuff, I now slip on my hood and become an assassin for a while. Keeps me off the streets. 😉

What I’ll be doing in October, November, December, and beyond…

There is so much gaming goodness coming our way! Among the titles I’m most looking forward to are the usual suspects: another Fallout, more Assassin’s Creed, anything related to The Witcher, and a follow up to The Last of Us. With E3 wrapped, I’ve been watching videos and reading up about the games I’m most excited about. Here, in no particular order, are my top four.

*game links refer back to reviews and rambles on this blog

The Last of Us Part II

Okay, I lie. This is the game I’m most looking forward to, so I’m going to talk about it first. The Last of Us was my favourite game last year and is in my top five games ever. It’s also the game that affected me the most emotionally, just eclipsing Dragon Age: Origins by a single box of tissues. (Damn you, Alistair!)

What I’m looking for in the sequel is that same emotional impact along with a story that isn’t just another run through the wasteland of a zombie apocalypse. I also have questions I’d like to see answered—which I’ll try to allude to without spoiling the first game. For those of you who have played: remember the scene at the end when Ellie asks Joel if he’s lying? I want to know if that is going to come back to haunt us. Developer Neil Druckmann has confirmed that Joel and Ellie will continue to be central to the game, though Ellie will be the only playable character. So however it plays out, we’re only going to get one point of view.

After watching the recent gameplay trailer, I’m also really excited about the combat tweaks. The Last of Us is already nail-biting and edge-of-your-seat when it comes to the fight scenes, with the scarcity of resources, smart opponents, and no two scenarios playing out the same way. Now it looks as though combat will become more dynamic, taking the environment into account in ways I haven’t seen before.

What I’ll mostly be playing for, though, is the story. Fingers crossed it’ll be a good one, and that Joel will get enough screen time. For lots and lots of story discussion, including hints and theories, visit this fantastic article https://www.usgamer.net/articles/22-06-2018-the-last-of-us-part-2-release-date-characters-story-trailer-everything-we-know

 

Fallout 76

The Fallout games have some of the most immersive worlds I’ve played in. Even months after I’ve finished the main quest, I’ll find myself thinking about other parts of the map—mini quests I stumbled across, the quirky side characters, and the unique and diverse environments from each game. To this day, I cannot travel the Metro in D.C. without having a Fallout 3 flashback—and an overwhelming urge to play. I adored the faithful rendering of the environment in New Vegas, which reminded me so much of the real place, and when I’m out hiking and find abandoned and broken down buildings, I’m instantly in one of my favourite games—thankfully without a marauding population of radscorpions.

Fallout 76 is exciting for a number of reasons.

  • It’s another Fallout. Duh.
  • It might be set in West Virginia (or neighboring Virginia). I’m not as familiar with that environment as I have been D.C., Vegas, and Boston, but “Take Me Home, Country Roads” took me right there.
  • It’s going to have base building. Yes! One of my favourite parts of Fallout 4 was building towns. It was a new addition to the Fallout activity roster and even though I eventually tuned my radio away from the Minutemen because, oh my God, those towns always needed rescuing from something or other, I did enjoy dotting the map with several iterations of Kellyville.
  • It’s going to be online…

My excitement skids to a slow halt about here because I’m pretty much over multiplayer online games. Recovering WoW addict, here. Also, I just don’t have the time to compete with other players in a persistent world. I am always going to be behind and playing catch up isn’t the same as playing a game. But, it has been confirmed that you can play solo, so I’m hoping the experience will be similar to BioWare’s Star Wars: The Old Republic, which I mostly played solo, co-oping now and again to complete difficult quests.

I will say that having other players inhabit the roles usually reserved for NPCs—from vendors to raiders—could make the game more dynamic. I’m hoping the PVP aspects will be flexible, though, so that I’m not spending all of my time dodging other players.

Despite this bump in the road, I am still really looking forward to this game.

 

Cyberpunk 2077

I’ve been interested in this one since I finished The Witcher 3 and started poking around the internet for hints as to what the team at CD Projekt Red might do next. Though slightly disappointed that it wouldn’t be another Witcher game, I found it hard not to be excited by the early concept art and gameplay descriptions for a near future cyber thriller type of game in my favourite setting: an open world.

After watching available trailers and cutscenes for Cyberpunk 2077, my number one impression of the game is that it’s going to be fun. I get a Mass Effect crossed with Saint’s Row vibe from the world, which is exactly the sort of game I’ve been hanging out for. I was seriously disappointed by Mass Effect: Andromeda—mostly due to story issues. But I miss the “feel” of a sci-fi game. Mash that up with an interactive environment, new and interesting combat models, and multiple mission approaches, and Cyberpunk promises not to be boring.

Check out this article for a full list of what we’re looking forward to http://www.ign.com/articles/2018/06/12/e3-2018-first-cyberpunk-2077-details-game-is-a-first-person-rpg-more

 

Red Dead Redemption 2

This one’s easy:

  • It’s a western
  • It’s the sequel to Red Dead Redemption
  • It’ll be available for PlayStation as well as Xbox! (And maybe even PC.)

The release date for Red Dead Redemption 2 has been pushed back so many times I’ve often wondered if we’ll ever get to play it. But this trailer keeps the home fires burning.

 

But wait, there’s more…

I am, of course, looking forward to Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, but Ubisoft releases new adventures in this franchise so regularly and reliably, I hardly have time to build up a proper flail. The trailer is pretty exciting, though!

I’m interested in Days Gone, even though I’ve been reading some pretty lackluster reviews of the gameplay. One player compared it to Far Cry, which honestly didn’t turn me off because, even though the Far Cry games are variations on a single, oft-repeated theme, sometimes I crave that. A simple story that’s just engaging enough to carry the action, and a world open to the havoc I can bring. Plus, Days Gone has zombies.

Which upcoming games are you most looking forward to?