Category Archives: Entertainment

Review: Beyond Eyes

The minute I saw Beyond Eyes on Steam, I was interested. A female protagonist with a disability, gorgeous art, and a mechanic that aims to put the player in the shoes of the blind protagonist were obvious selling points for me. Of course, it’s far too frequent that the playable character(s) in a computer game is/are white, male, able-bodied, and violent, so this was a refreshing change of pace. The game is a short story-driven adventure with gentle music, art reminiscent of watercolor painting, and text narration. You navigate the world as Rae, a blind ten-year-old girl who lost her sight as a toddler. The game’s creator, who is not blind but consulted with multiple blind folks to get a sense of blind perspective when working on the game, describes Beyond Eyes as “a video game about loss.” It is certainly that, in a way you don’t expect. But it’s also a game about sight, sensation, perception, and one’s own internal sense of the world.

A young girl and a cat with the text "Rae had never been this far from home, but she imagined Nani would have come here."
Textual cues expand upon the story and Rae’s inner world.
Unlike some indie games about vision loss, Beyond Eyes doesn’t fully take away the player’s visual cues and force you to rely on sound to navigate. I appreciate this as a hard-of-hearing person—for a game that’s about putting the player in the shoes of someone with a visual disability, it’s nice that it’s accessible to pretty much everyone except those who have that specific disability. Instead of taking away visual cues, the game limits visual cues and uses those limitations to approximate the blind experience for a player with vision. As Rae, you only see on the screen what she can perceive, so you find the world in bits and pieces as she walks around it. As an exploration game and as a walking simulator, this mechanic definitely makes it a bit different. The visual field beyond what Rae has already discovered is white, and so you can’t rely on sight at a distance to decide where to go.

Beyond the disorientation of this basic mechanic, there are also more subtle elements that give you a sense of Rae’s perspective. Early on in the game, you realize that a cool thing is happening. What you’re seeing is not limited to what Rae perceives with other senses exactly, as I’d originally assumed (and been a bit skeptical of, since you actually see a fair bit as soon as she touches one thing), but what she imagines based on that perception. Since she doesn’t always imagine what’s actually there, it’s useful to touch and get closer to the things you can see as a player, as they may change when she experiences them further. You also get (sound and smell) cues from more of a distance sometimes, which can be helpful for making your way.

A young girl stands near a drainage pipe and a ditch.
What at first sounds like a running brook turns out to just be a drainage pipe.
There is actual sound (as well as music) in the game, but Deaf and HH folks will be fine, as there’s no spoken narration and any sounds that are useful for navigation are echoed with visual cues (a crowing bird pulses on the screen, for example). In a practical sense, the game does also guide you somewhat by putting obstacles down when you’re getting way off track. There’s sparse text narration and occasional cuts from one “scene” to another to give a sense of pacing. I did get a bit lost at a couple of points, so the playthrough took 2.6 hours for me, but it didn’t get so frustrating that I ever wanted to stop playing the game.

Beyond the specifics of mechanics, I really like this game for mood and atmosphere. The visual style, music, text, and the story itself all give this game a lovely and distinct feel. It’s calm, but melancholy, and really evokes emotions in the player. You can feel for the girl you’re playing as, but she’s not presented as a victim or someone you need to “save” as the player, which I appreciate. I would recommend playing in a single sitting for an immersive experience—it’s also not super clear if there’s a way to pause or save, so I wouldn’t risk quitting the game. If you’re familiar with other indie adventure games, I’d say it’s similar in mood and feels factor to Gone Home, though it’s not point-and-click and you do have to get used to the fact that your interaction with the world as a player is entirely about walking exploration — there are no resources to grab or journals to read.

You can get Beyond Eyes for less than $15 on Steam, depending on the sale price of the moment, for Mac/OS/Linux, or for either of the current-gen consoles.

Review: The Right Side of History

cover of The Right Side of HIstoryAs I read The Right Side of History: 100 Years of LGBTQI Activism (Adrian Brooks, ed., published by Cleis Press) I vacillated between feeling like this collection is an important addition to the queer U.S. history canon and wishing that it could be just a little bit more. I found the pre-Stonewall chapters quite refreshing, something different from a lot of the histories I’ve read that tend to be either highly academic and theoretical in discussing gendered behavior and queer urban geographies, or tightly centered around the specifics of the 1950s-1970s gay and lesbian movements. Several of those books have a place in my heart, Martin Duberman’s Stonewall in particular, but I’m always in favor of a new twist, and the opening chapters of this book deliver.

The Right Side of History falls in between anthology and single-author work, with about a third of the chapters written by Brooks and other authors taking up one or two chapters each. The topics coalesce around the theme of 20th century queer activism in the U.S., but also vary quite a bit, discussing people as much as movements and wandering between major historical figures and the more obscure. I particularly liked how the pre-Stonewall section of the book focuses on topics you wouldn’t necessarily expect to find in a history of queer or gay activism: Isadora Duncan, Josephine Baker, the 1934 Longshoremen’s Strike. There are some great threads picked up here around how anarchism, socialism, labor movements, and racial justice movements contributed to the development not just of queer activism in the U.S. but of a culture in which queer activism takes place.

Unfortunately, I didn’t find that those threads were consistently followed through to modern history in this collection. The mishmash of personal stories, interviews, and more removed histories is enjoyable, and there were certainly chapters I appreciated about movements post-Stonewall—Merle Woo’s chapter was a highlight, as was the inclusion of a piece by intersex activist Tiger Howard Devore—but the later chapters for the most part fail to deliver on the radical promise of the book’s introduction. While I appreciated the framing of actions in the 1950s and 1960s as radical for their time, I don’t love the way the book sets up an arc from truly radical movements to the 1990s and 2000s gay nonprofit-industrial complex as if interviews with Barney Frank and Evan Wolfson are a natural conclusion to this activist story. While inclusion of authors of color and trans authors is certainly a welcome relief in such a collection, I found myself bothered by the fact that Miss Major Griffin-Gacy’s account of Stonewall is the only chapter that gets a sort of disclaimer and is followed by other witnesses’ memories of the event. Certainly, there are a lot of debates around the facts Stonewall, but was this really necessary?

Overall, I think the book is a worthwhile addition to the canon, and I love the way it ties together political and social history with cultural and artistic history, jumping among perspectives, but it could have gone further. I’d have loved to see interviews with Reina Gossett or CeCe McDonald, for example, rather than so many snippets from Brooks’ personal history.

The Kinky Side of Twine

I was first introduced to Twine games only last year, when I sat down to review Merritt Kopas’s Consensual Torture Simulator. While this is that review, I’ve also in the long time between playing that game and getting a chance to write this come upon several other games in the fairly specific genre of kinky interactive fiction. Interactive fiction games, generally written using a platform called Twine, fall into a niche that seems to appeal especially to queer audiences and others exploring “alternative” modes of sexuality through writing games. This is a genre that plenty of us nerdy queers are hungry for, but it takes a moment to get used to the conventions of Twine and understand what you’re doing, exactly, when you play a Twine game.

On the plus side, Twine games are typically under $5 and easy to play on any computer. They’re also (or at least seem, from a consumer point-of-view) fairly simple to create in a technical sense, which makes them accessible to those looking to tell a story outside the mainstream without a ton of resources to do so. If you’re looking for more on Twine in general, Kopas has curated a book on the subject, Videogames for Humans. The basic idea, though, is that the game itself is a series of screens with text, hyperlinks, and sometimes images. Like a choose your own adventure novel, you follow the often-branching path the author has created for you by clicking on the links and seeing where the creator’s imagination takes you. Here, I’m particularly interested in how game creators are helping their readers to engage with kink through the medium.

[talk of NSFW content behind the cut]

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Review: Blackmail, My Love

I’ll admit to some initial skepticism when Cleis Press asked me to review a murder mystery, Katie Gilmartin’s Blackmail, My Love. Mystery is far from my favorite genre, but I was intrigued by Gilmartin’s background as an artist and former cultural studies professor, as well as advanced press promising a deep understanding of post-war queer San Francisco. A well researched piece of fiction, to me, is often as alluring as my preferred non-fiction social histories, and this book was no exception.

I was particularly relieved to find a lack of anachronism in the book’s treatment of gender roles in lesbian as well as gay male subcultures, and further interested in the way Gilmartin treats a broad cast of gender non-conforming characters across the spectrum. Within the foreboding noir tone that frames a plot around blackmail and a murdered brother, there are surprisingly coherent philosophical discussions around trans identity versus drag performance, gender identity over the lifespan, and the relationships between queer community members that might otherwise never meet. I had trouble following all the characters at times, but I really enjoyed the way Gilmartin blends historical accuracy and realistic anti-queer sentiment with a perspective on queer culture that includes racial diversity and more nuance than some accounts of 1950s queer communities might suggest. Gilmartin’s narrative brings alive the voices of very real San Francisco queers forgotten to history in the form of her fictional characters.

Gilmartin will be reading from Blackmail, My Love this Thursday at Good Vibrations in Berkley, 6:30 pm.

Review: Gaysia

gaysia cover

[crossposted from Radically Queer]

When I recently received a copy of Benjamin Law’s Gaysia to review, I admit I was a bit skeptical, given the title. I needn’t have been worried, however. Law blends an accessible journalistic style familiar to fans of travel writing with solid research and investigation into various queer cultures in the countries he visits. Each chapter focuses on a country, and I was happy to find that despite the cheeky title, the coverage is quite comprehensive when it comes to queer identities and communities. Law focuses quite a bit on transfeminine folks of various identities, as well as queer people involved in sex work, silenced lesbians, and even the often-abused wives of MSM in a repressive society, showing a refreshing willingness to consider queer life from all angles. The account is honest, as Law admits his own ignorance going into some situations, and thus particularly accessible to the reader who is interested in but not particularly familiar with queer Asian cultures.  I was eager to ask Law some questions about his process and what he learned in his travels.

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Playing LOTRO for Tolkien Fans

In a few weeks, the course that initially got me playing LOTRO (Lord of the Rings Online) comes back for a second run.  Online Games: Literature, New Media, and Narrative is taught through Coursera by Jay Clayton, a literature professor and rather charming Tolkien geek, and focuses on narrative by comparing LOTRO, The Lord of the Rings, and the Peter Jackson films of the same name. When I first took the course last year, I was a big Tolkien fan but a newbie to LOTRO and to MMORPGs in general, and I imagine I’m not the only one. So I thought this would be a good time, as promised, to cover LOTRO from the perspective of a Tolkien fan–what’s cool about it, and what to avoid. If you’re new to MMORPGs, check out my review of the LOTRO experience before the course starts.

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Playing Lord of the Rings Online as a First MMORPG

I started playing Lord of the Rings Online, or LOTRO, about nine months ago as part of an online course. Other than about three minutes (literally) of City of Heroes after spending hours designing my character, I had never played an MMO to that point. This post is about what I learned, geared towards first-time MMO players and beginning gamers, in hopes that others who want to try this as a first game will find play a bit more intuitive than I did.  I may do future guides as well that are more specific to the game, and probably something about playing LOTRO as a Tolkien fan (which I could easily geek out about for an entire post).

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BBC Sherlock Series Three Review

After quite a long hiatus, Sherlock fans have been treated to quite a whirlwind of a series in the past week and a half. The whole thing was excellent, but a few things in particular stood out for me in the three 2014 episodes. John Watson looking angryFirst, Martin Freeman is at the absolute top of his game here. All of the ensemble cast gave an excellent performance, but Freeman’s emotional delivery, especially during the big “Not Dead” reveal of “The Empty Hearse” and following another (discussed in the spoilers section below the cut) shocking reveal about Watson’s wife in “His Last Vow,” was stunning in its realism and ability to capture the complicated emotional landscape of an outwardly-reticent character. Sherlock giving a toast at John and Mary's weddingSecond, I have to applaud the show runners and all the writers involved for a show that continues to grow and explore new ground as plots develop. The grand finale and explanation of the Reichenbach Fall could have been a flash in the pan, allowing the show to fizzle once the #sherlocklives fervor died out, but instead we’re treated to continued excitement and experimentation in the way the show is presented to its audience.

Finally, I was impressed by the way Series Three was filmed and how the cinematography lined up so beautifully with the plots (often within plots within plots). Sherlock looking shocked, bleached out by white lightFrom Series One, Sherlock has relied on a certain degree of gimmickery to illustrate the mad genius’s workflow and the rhetorical device of the mind palace. Sometimes it’s fun, sometimes it falls flat. In this series, the gimmicks weren’t completely lost, but the way the mind palace was used to film Sherlock’s internal processes served a useful purpose in giving us some insight into his emotional landscape. I finished “The Empty Hearse” cursing at my television for a regressed Sherlock who seemed even worse than he had been pre-hiatus, but the show didn’t lose me as “Signs of Three” and “His Last Vow” dug a little more into Sherlock’s past and his relationship with Mycroft. John and Sherlock on a park bench, Sherlock sitting forward and looking much largerCinematography was also a useful tool in organizing plots as the writers played fast and loose with timelines and in generally framing relationships in the show, from an iconic park bench scene with Sherlock and Watson strongly differentiated by height to the amusing split of Mary giving both men a cheeky “thumbs up” inside 221B. Even the evolution of the flat’s appearance throughout the series plays a sort of supporting role as Sherlock navigates the shifting ground of his relationships with John and Mary.

Warning: the rest of this review contains spoilers for all of Series Three. Proceed below the cut at your own risk!

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My Top Ten Fandom Experiences of 2013

Are you tired of 2013 wrap-up posts yet? Admittedly, being a pop culture podcast enthusiast, I am. But this is more of a personal list to remember my own year in fandom, which includes some common picks of the year as well as some silly things I discovered a bit late. What are your top picks for the year? And what are you looking forward to in 2014?

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A Retrospective on the Eleventh Doctor

This past holiday season has been quite a tearjerker for Doctor Who fans, with the 50th anniversary episode in November and the end of Matt Smith’s tenure as the Doctor on Christmas Day.  I only started watching Doctor Who this spring, as the second half of the seventh season was airing. I loved the Ninth and Tenth Doctors, but in a way Eleven is “my Doctor,” especially given to the roles of Amy and Rory as my favorite companions and River as my favorite character.

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