Still Alive

I apologize for not posting more often the last few weeks (I seem to say that a lot lately). I’ve been struggling a lot with motivation these days.

The extravagant combat of Nier: Automata.Partly it’s that my new D&D writing gig has taken a lot out of me. It’s probably a bigger workload than I’ve ever dealt with in my life up to this point. Given my disability, that’s not saying as much as it might, but still. I’ve had very little energy left for any other forms of writing, and most of what is left over goes to maintaining my column at Massively Overpowered.

The other factor is of course the pandemic.

On the one hand this hasn’t really changed that much for me. I already work from home and don’t go out that much. Really everyone else has now been forced to live their lives how I’ve lived most of my life.

But then of course that was something I wanted to change. I’ve been working very hard the last few years to go out, experience new things, and form social connections outside of the virtual realm, and now thanks to the plague all those doors are closed to me, and I’m back where I started, at least for the time being. It’s demoralizing.

The monotony of every day being the same is starting to get to me, and that is also really killing my motivation for a lot of things, including blogging.

But I don’t want my blog to die altogether, so let’s try to throw together an update.

Playing Dungeons and Dragons via Roll20.My D&D group is still going, albeit online. We’re using Roll20. It’s bad. I won’t sugar-coat it. Roll20 is bad. Like I want to respect it for having so many features, and we are managing games with it, but it’s so clunky and buggy.

Wanting something comforting and unchallenging, I’ve been binge rewatching Star Trek: Voyager lately. I’m not watching every episode; just the ones that jump out at me, which is roughly half of them, I’d say.

I’ll stand by what I’ve said in the past: It’s not great, but it’s not half as bad as people make it out to be. I think the worst criticism you could make of it is that it could have been so much better. It’s a show rife with missed opportunities, underdeveloped characters, and failures to live up to the potential of its premise, but if you just take it for what it is, it’s decent.

Season two was probably the best. At that point they’d gotten over the opening jitters but hadn’t yet completely betrayed the premise of being lost and struggling for survival in a harsh frontier. After that it was slowly downhill. The show lost a lot of heart when Kes left.

As far as video games, my favourite new discovery in recent months — as you might have seen from my MOP column — is Wolcen: Lords of Mayhem.

Much to my own surprise I’ve continued playing for quite a while after finishing the storyline, just grinding dungeons. I love the combat and the build system so much. The nigh-limitless build options really remind me of old school TSW, and I’m having so much fun theorycrafting. I’ve started a new character, a necromancer based on elemental damage, and I love it. I just sit back freezing enemies and setting them on fire while my zombies distract them.

I also finally got around to finally playing Nier: Automata. It’s one of those games that I liked, but I don’t get what the fuss was about. It’s more good than bad, but nothing about it strikes me as exceptionally memorable.

My biggest complaint was the side quests. I think Nier: Automata wins the award for the absolute worst side quests I’ve ever seen in a video game. None have interesting or memorable stories, most involve long tedious travel times, and many throw you against enemies that vastly out-level you, leading to crushingly long and boring fights.

I will say that I only played through it once, and I do understand that the story changes on subsequent playthroughs, so I may not be getting the full Nier: Automata experience. I’m still considering doing the extra playthroughs at some point — a friend assures me I won’t have to repeat the side quests, which makes the idea a bit more appealing — but I was pretty happy with the original ending, and I somewhat resent needing multiple playthroughs to see the whole story, so we’ll see.

In Star Trek Online, I’ve now finished the Iconian War arc, and I’m thinking I may take a break there, as it seems like a good place to pause at, and I’m starting to feel some burnout. Mostly I was happy with how the Iconian plot wrapped up. The ending nailed that morality play feel good Star Trek should have.

A scene from horror game We Happy Few.Finally, I’ve just started on We Happy Few. It’s a game I’ve been wanting for ages, but I wanted to wait for a sale in case I didn’t end up enjoying it (gods, I miss demos). I’m only a few hours in, so I’m still making up my mind.

So far I love the story, the world-building, the artwork, and the music. The downside is it is very stealth-heavy, and I’m terrible at stealth games. I had to start the game over on a lower difficulty because I was struggling too much. Thankfully I wasn’t that far in, so I haven’t had to repeat much, and so far the lower difficulty seems to be working out better.

So that’s the basics on where I’m at. Let’s hope we’re all out of this virus nightmare sooner rather than later.

Star Trek: Picard’s First Season Is a Rough but Worthwhile Journey

I’ve had very mixed feelings on Star Trek: Picard’s first season, which wrapped up last night (spoilers ahead).

The official logo for Star Trek: Picard.Certainly, there’s a lot to like about it. Aesthetically, it’s masterful. The special effects, cinematography, art design, and soundtrack are second to none. The acting is also excellent throughout, and most of the characters are excellent.

Patrick Stewart’s Picard is of course flawless as ever. That goes without saying. I also deeply enjoyed the guest appearances by Jeri Ryan as Seven of Nine. Jeri Ryan is a great actress, but Voyager’s writers never did her justice. Seven mostly just felt like a cheap Data knock-off with added fan service in the form of a ridiculous skin-tight catsuit.

Picard finally gives Seven of Nine the development she deserves (and reasonable clothes). She’s probably more fleshed out in a few episodes of this show than she was in all of Voyager, and it’s just a delight. I’m quite happy with the not-so-subtle implication that she will be promoted to main cast next season.

Many of the new characters impress, as well. My favourite by the end of the season was probably Romulan warrior-monk Elnor, who is as sensitive as he is deadly.

Can I just say how utterly I love the Qowat Milat? In my head canon, they are the “true” Romulans. I think their philosophy is the original Romulan culture that existed from the Time of the Awakening, when they were Vulcans marching Under the Raptor’s Wings. The Qowat Milat’s philosophy is the exact counterpoint to Surak’s teachings. Instead of repressing their emotions, they express them all, without reservation or hesitation. Instead of cold pragmatism, they live to fight for only the most hopeless of causes.

I love this because it makes the Romulans so much more than just the evil cousins of Vulcans. Clearly their culture was corrupted somewhere along the line, but the Qowat Milat shows it was built on something beautiful and unique.

Evan Evagora as Elnor on Star TreK: PicardAs a long-time Romulan fan, I’ve wanted to see them get this kind of development forever, and even if nothing else about Picard had been good, the whole thing may have been worth it just for this.

However, for all the positives this show has, I spent most of the season feeling more dissatisfied than anything. There’s much good, but also a lot of flaws.

I did say that a lot of the new cast is good, but not all of them. For me the biggest weak link was Raffi. She’s just a shambling mound of manufactured drama without any sincerity or believability.

What makes matters worse is she’s in the same show as Rios, who is basically the exact same character except better. They’re both Starfleet officers who had personal breakdowns following painful events.

But Rios suffered genuine, horrific trauma, and even after that he maintains obvious competence and nobility of spirit. Meanwhile Raffi abandoned her family, gave up on life, and became a junkie simply because she got fired. That might work as a story in a contemporary setting, but with the boundless opportunities and flawless social safety net of the Federation, it just doesn’t work.

That’s the trouble with writing in a utopian setting. You can’t just forget it’s a utopia when it becomes convenient to the plot.

I was also disappointed with the handling of Soji’s storyline. It pains me to say that because she’s a character with enormous potential. A representative of a new race of artificial life, the living legacy of Data himself. That’s a wonderful character concept.

Isa Briones as Soji Asha on Star Trek: PicardUnfortunately they never really use her for anything. She is, when you get down to it, the archetypical damsel in distress. She’s just there to be acted on by others and, ultimately, to be a goal for Picard to chase.

I hope this changes in future seasons, because honestly I love the actress and the character, and she deserves better.

But by far my biggest issue with season one of Picard was how bleak and grim it felt. In a world where cynicism rules the day and our media seems to be in a race to the bottom to see who can provide the most shocks and wallow most deeply in the worst aspects of humanity, a series about Jean-Luc Picard felt like the perfect opportunity to bring back the hope and inspiration that Star Trek has so long stood for. Discovery certainly hasn’t delivered on that front.

But for much of the series it seemed determined to continue wallowing in all that is awful. We saw a broken Picard and a broken Federation, and through it all there seemed little cause for anything resembling hope.

The series hit its nadir about halfway through the season with the episode “Stardust City Rag.” Despite a stellar performance from Jeri Ryan, this episode was so off-putting I almost gave up on Picard then and there.

Icheb’s brutal death was too much — it was just torture porn, pure and simple. I’m not opposed to Star Trek going to dark places — I think any effective drama should be prepared to do so — but there’s a difference between depicting bad things and sadistically reveling in the most gruesome, horrific events imaginable. Forget Star Trek; this scene wasn’t appropriate for any media save a slasher film.

Agnes in Star Trek: Picard.But what bothered me even more was the reveal that Dr. Jurati — up to that point the most lovable member of the cast — was a murderous traitor. With her innocent manner and boundless curiosity, Jurati had struck me as Picard’s representative of Star Trek’s spirit of optimism and exploration. Her turning out to be a villain felt like the writers communicating that Star Trek’s hopefulness was well and truly dead.

My interest in the series almost didn’t recover from that, but I clung on, with the slightest ghost of hope remaining. Picard is perhaps the most serialized TV series I’ve ever seen. It’s all one continuous story, making it almost impossible to judge each episode as an individual unit. Because of that, I held out hope that my faith would eventually be rewarded.

Against all odds, it was.

At the last moment — almost but not quite too late — Picard turns around and finally embraces the inspirational nature of what Star Trek should be at its best. The image of Jean-Luc Picard making a suicide run against hundreds of Romulan warbirds in a tiny passenger ship just to save a bunch of people who want to destroy him and everything he holds dear because he believes they are still worth saving is just about the most “Star Trek” thing ever, and it deserves to be remembered as one of the iconic moments of the entire long franchise.

Virtually everything about the season finale is damn near perfect. It doesn’t entirely erase all of my complaints, but it does counterbalance them enough to make the whole rough journey feel worth it.

I also have to say as much as I love a good cliff-hanger, I appreciate the courage of ending the season with a largely happy conclusion, with no new crisis to confront. It’s a daring choice in a world where the media is an arms race of ever bigger shocks and ever more endless drama.

Soji, Rios, and Picard on the bridge of La Sirena in Star Trek: PicardIn fact, the finale was so good it makes me wonder if we really need a second season. This is such a satisfying ending it could just as easily work as the conclusion to the series. Of course, presumably the Reapers are still out there (because Star Trek turned into Mass Effect somewhere along the line), so the potential for more is there, but I’m not sure the need is there.

All in all, it was a very imperfect season, but it does eventually pay off.