Gaming Round-Up: Torchlight II, Star Trek Online, Anthem, and More

Time for another quick round-up of some of the gaming I’ve done in recent weeks. This month I got a free month of Origin Access (somehow…), which allowed me to check out a bunch of games for free.

The Icetide season in Anthem.Torchlight II

The main coup of the free month of Access is that it let me play through Torchlight II, which means I’m now caught up and ready for Frontiers.

TL2 is an upgrade over the original in virtually every way. It’s still kind of a by the numbers ARPG, and not a lot about it is terribly original, but there’s a lot more variety of enemies and environments than the original, and it’s fun.

I can’t put my finger on why, but something about this game reminded me of the original Dungeon Siege. Strange to feel so nostalgic playing a game that’s new (at least to me).

The highlight of the game for me was my class, the Outlander. It may as well have been built for me. Bows, dark magic, support abilities, pets… it’s everything I ever wanted all rolled into one.

TL2 is still a little repetitive, and the last few areas in particular turned into a bit of a slog. There was never a lot of story in the game, but in the latter half it feels like the writers gave up altogether. The Alchemist started out as a relatively nuanced villain with a sympathetic motivation, but that just flew out the window after a while with no explanation as to why.

My Outlander in Torchlight II.My other major complaint is that the skill system is pretty awful. I’m not a big fan of traditional skill trees at the best of times, and this one embodies all of the worst sins of the concepts. You don’t just spend points to unlock skills but have to constantly dump more into them to keep leveling them up. Everything is massively level-gated.

And worst of all the respec only lets you change the last three points you spent. I wound up with a bunch of points sunk into skills that I only took because I had no better option at the time (thanks, level-gating) and no way to reclaim them and put them into abilities I was actually using.

Frostpunk, They Are Billions, and Diluvion

These are some other games I tried via Access, but I didn’t stick with any of them long.

They Are Billions sounded really fun in theory — zombie horde mode RTS is something I’m all for — but there’s little to no story, and it’s just not that fun. It takes so long to build up your base and get your economy going. It’s tedious.

Frostpunk is another one that sounded cool (hurr hurr) but didn’t deliver. It’s brutally punishing, to the point it feels impossible to ever get ahead. It’s just one crisis after another.

My city in Frostpunk.Beyond that, it’s just not that fun. You spend the vast majority of the game just watching your town run itself. You can speed up the game speed to hasten things along, but it constantly resets itself to the default speed, which is painfully sluggish. Bafflingly, this is intended behaviour and not a bug.

Diluvion is something I tried on a whim when I was scrolling through vault games. A post-apocalyptic steampunk submarine RPG sounded interesting, but there’s no voice acting, and the controls are terrible. I don’t think I lasted fifteen minutes.

Anthem

I haven’t been playing a lot of Anthem lately, but I have dabbled a bit to check out the new Icetide season. While it is a bit disappointing to not see more new gameplay (just a new Freeplay event and the time trials), I am nonetheless surprised there isn’t more buzz around the fact Anthem literally reskinned the entire game world to reflect a real world season. Has any other game ever done that before? I’ve never heard of it.

It’s gorgeous, too. I always like winter zones, but even for me this is a cut above. The light dusting of snow paired with the vivid red leaves is so striking.

It seems a lot of art design work for what is otherwise a fairly small update, and that has conspiracy theories spawning in my head. Given the rumours of a reboot, I wonder if the snow environment is something they were working on for the reboot that they realized they could port into the base game…

The Icetide season in Anthem.Time will tell, I guess.

Star Trek Online

The real surprise lately is that I’ve suddenly started playing Star Trek Online again. I didn’t really see that coming, but between getting caught up on Discovery and the hype for the upcoming Picard series, I guess I’ve had Trek on the brain, and I wanted a fix.

It’s been a long time since I played last, and I didn’t get that far before, so I started over with a new character, though still a Romulan. Only real difference is this one’s an engineer rather than a tactical officer.

The one big change from when I played last — at least in my view — is the addition of scaling tier 6 ships, which allow you to just stick with one ship throughout instead of changing every ten levels or so. If you ask me that’s how the game should always have worked. Changing ships constantly never felt right to me.

The scaling ships are mainly a microtransaction thing of course, which isn’t ideal, but I can live with it. I bought myself a D’deridex warbird (or more accurately bought the T6 equivalent and reskinned it as a D’deridex) and named it the Tomalak, which is all I ever wanted.

My D'deridex warbird in Star Trek Online.I’m choosing ships purely based on aesthetics and nostalgia, so I had no idea what the stats of a D’deridex were like until I started playing it. Turns out it has all the cornering ability of a brick lodged in half-frozen mud.

On the plus side, though, it seems very tanky. I can just shrug off most threats like they’re nothing. That plus a powerful but very short range AoE DoT make this ship very much a bruiser, but I’m enjoying it. Using my cloak to get in close and then popping my DoT can get pretty hilarious.

Otherwise my view of the game remains much the same as it always has. It’s super janky and full of bugs and clunky, over-complicated systems.

But it does capture the look and feel of Star Trek very well, and for now, that’s enough for me. I just wanted a decent Trek fix, and STO is giving it to me.

Also, I was jonesing for a new MMO to play. I’ve mostly played single-player and “not-so-massively” games this year, and I’ve had a great time with that, but it did feel time to sink my teeth into a meaty new (or new to me) MMO.

I will say this game is a bit like crack to a fashionista like me. So many options for both my character and my bridge officers. It feels like I’ve spent half my time in-game so far just tinkering with outfits. It’s a shame you can’t save multiple outfits for your officers the way you can for your own toon…

My Romulan engineer and her bridge crew in Star Trek Online.I did pick a good time to pick up the game, what with all the holiday sales on. When I got my D’deridex, I got a package with tickets for three T6 ships for barely more than the cost of a single ship. I still haven’t decided what to spend the remaining two tickets on. I’m considering Akira class, Galaxy class, and Valdore class (or again their T6 equivalents, which I would then reskin), but I’m also tempted to try something that launches fighters. Carrier has arrived and all.

There’s also alts to consider, as well. I’m not sure if I want to stick with my Romulan or branch out. If any STO players are reading this, do you think alts are worth it as a story fan? Would I get a lot of different content playing Federation or Klingon, or would it just be the same stuff as my Romulan past the tutorial?

On Being Represented

I’ve always been a big believer in the idea that representation matters in the media, but as a straight white guy, I’ve never really lacked for representation, so it’s a concept I mostly view in the abstract.

Lana Beniko in Star Wars: The Old RepublicHowever, there is the one major way in which I’m not not like the average guy, so in that way I don’t get to feel represented. Autistic characters in the media tend to be pretty rare. It occurred to me it might be interesting to do an analysis of those characters I have encountered that are either canonically autistic or perceived that way by fans and see how well they represent me.

A few caveats:

This is hardly an exhaustive list of autistic/autistic-seeming characters in the media. They’re just the ones I know. I don’t generally go looking for them. I already live with autism every day; I don’t crave it in my entertainment.

Second, I can of course only speak for myself, and not everyone on the spectrum everywhere. My opinions may not be shared by others with my condition.

Finally, I do wish to state that I am not drawing a comparison between my situation and the challenges faced by women or ethnic or sexual minorities. I do not believe there is an equivalence. As a heterosexual cisgender white man who can pass for normal on a limited basis, I still enjoy a great deal of systemic privilege.

Sylvia Tilly (Star Trek: Discovery):

I don’t think Tilly is autistic?

Mary Wiseman as Sylvia Tilly on Star Trek: DiscoveryHonestly, I was very surprised when I stumbled across this fan theory. I never got that vibe from her at all. Yes, she’s a bit socially awkward, but so are lots of people who aren’t on the spectrum, and aside from that nothing at all about Tilly points me in that direction.

She’s a fun character, and I like her, but I never saw her as autistic. It’s also worth noting neither the writers nor the actress see the character that way, either.

Cole and Sera (Dragon Age: Inquisition):

It quickly became clear to me when playing Inquisition that Cole was a stand-in for an autistic person, and upon doing some Google research I learned that yes, this was something the writers did deliberately.

This might be my overly literal autistic mind talking, but I feel that the fantasy element of Cole — that he’s a magical spirit and not a human — rather undermines any relevance he might have to real world people. He doesn’t feel representative of me or my experiences. He’s an interesting character, but not because of any parallels to the real world.

The one thing I will give credit to is that I feel they did a very good job of being even-handed around the story of whether to make Cole more human or more spirit, which is clearly meant to echo the real world debate over whether a hypothetical cure for autism would be ethical. Both options in the game are treated as valid and lead to happy endings for Cole, which I think is a good way to handle things. The debate gets pretty heated in reality.

My inquisitor and Sera in Dragon Age: InquisitionInterestingly, while researching Cole, I discovered there’s a significant number of fans who also headcanon Sera as being on the spectrum. That thought had never occurred to me, but I can see the argument.

Personally, I would say that Sera is not autistic because I think her weirdness is more the result of her upbringing and mystical powers rather than any fundamental aspect of her nature. Autistic people are born odd, whereas Sera is odd because of the life she’s had. Nature versus nurture.

That said, I will say that as an autistic person I see myself in Sera far, far more than I ever did in Cole, to the point where I’ve adopted her as something of a personal hero.

Sheldon Cooper (The Big Bang Theory):

The Big Bang Theory is an absolutely despicable show.

Yes, I know the writers say Sheldon isn’t autistic, but he’s certainly coded as such, and it seems to be how most people see him. And regardless of any specific diagnosis, Sheldon and the series as a whole are pretty much entirely devoted to making a mockery of people with social impairments. It’s a monument to casual cruelty and punching down; it’s blackface for the neurodivergent.

Jim Parsons as Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang TheoryIt is not at all an exaggeration to say that Sheldon Cooper is one of the biggest reasons I’ve been afraid to tell people about my condition. I feel like he’s how people will see me, as some sad clown that’s only there to be mocked or pitied.

Now if you’re a fan of the show, you’re probably getting hackles up right now, but I will say that liking The Big Bang Theory doesn’t make you a bad person. I’ve known good people who enjoy it, and most all of us enjoy things that may have problematic elements (for me, Warcraft’s less than stellar treatment of many of its female characters comes to mind). It doesn’t necessarily reflect on you as a person. I would, however, ask that people acknowledge how hurtful and damaging stereotypes like this can be.

Now, writing for The Big Bang Theory? That probably does make you a bad person.

Gilhaelith, Ulii, and sensitives (Three Worlds Cycle):

Interestingly Ian Irvine has a number of characters in his Three Worlds books with some degree of autistic traits.

Most obvious is the mancer Gilhaelith, who fits the profile to a T (almost to the point of being too stereotypical, honestly). He’s intelligent but socially awkward, he has narrow obsessive interests, he’s a fussy eater with gut issues…

A map of the continent of Lauralin on the world of Santhenar, setting of Ian Irvine's Three Worlds novelsBut there are other examples, too. The sensory issues of Ulii — to whom a whisper is a scream and a dim light is blinding — are very reminiscent of those people on the spectrum tend to experience. For a long time I couldn’t wear jeans because the fabric was so coarse to me it felt like wearing sandpaper pants. Meanwhile the extreme emotional states and intense imaginations of sensitives like Karan also have some familiarity for people like me.

I was curious if any of this was intentional, and then I realized that in this wondrous modern age it’s easy to get an answer to such a question. I messaged Ian Irvine on Facebook to ask if any of these characters were modeled after real world autistic people.

He told me that while none of his characters are written as autistic per se, he had done some reading on autism — such as the works of Temple Grandin — due to a family member on the spectrum, and that Ulii’s issues did draw some inspiration from that. Gilhaelith, meanwhile, is inspired by many of the scientists Mr. Irvine has worked with, some of whom may have been on the spectrum.

As for how I feel about these characters… it’s hard to say. I loved them at the time, but I hadn’t been diagnosed back then, so I might feel differently now. I should probably reread those books at some point.

I don’t expect my opinion would change too much, though. Especially where Ulii is concerned. I remember her being a really excellent character.

Sentinel Brin (Anthem):

Sentinel Brin in the MMO shooter AnthemBrin is not explicitly flagged as autistic in-game (I’m not sure Bastion even has the concept), but between her social awkwardness, her confusion around humour, her need for rules and structure, and her obsessive Crimson Lancer fandom, it’s pretty obvious. Also that thing she’s always doing with her hands is definitely a stim.

Part of me feels Brin is too much of a stereotype — she’s a bit of a caricature — but she’s also fairly adorable, and the game is quite good at making clear she’s a truly good person despite her odd mannerisms, so I’ll count her as a win overall. Whatever flaws her portrayal might have, she’s still easily my favourite Anthem character and the one that really makes me wish the game had romances.

Abed Nadir (Community):

Somewhat to my own surprise, I’m mostly okay with Abed.

He’s not perfect. In contrast to Sheldon Cooper, Abed tends to go to the opposite extreme and tend towards the “autism as a blessing in disguise” narrative, which I also loathe, and on the whole he does present a fairly sugar-coated view of the condition.

But it’s a comedy. A sitcom probably isn’t the place to look for a gritty, realistic portrayal of what living with autism is like. For a mainstream sitcom character, Abed does an admirable job of poking fun at our foibles without seeming mean or disrespectful, and sometimes the portayal is spot-on. Danny Pudi really nails the mannerisms.

Danny Pudi as Abed Nadir in Community“Your faces are changing. Are you angry or hungry?”

Brilliant.

Lana Beniko (Star Wars: The Old Republic):

Lana Beniko is by far and away the best representation of an autistic person I have seen in the media.

This is despite — or more likely because of — the fact the writers don’t seem to have actually intended to write her as an autistic character. Certainly nothing in the game flags her as such. It’s not even hinted at. Nonetheless, she possesses a remarkable number of autistic traits.

I think most striking is her stoic manner. I’m no expert on Star Wars lore, but as I understand it power in the Dark Side comes from emotion. “Through passion, I gain strength.” Therefore to be as powerful of a Sith as Lana is, she’d have to be an intensely passionate person.

But you almost never see that. Only rarely do you get fleeting glimpses of the feeling underneath. Most of the time, she seems very cold, almost robotic.

This is something that’s very true of people on the spectrum. We struggle to express our feelings in appropriate ways, so we often come across as cold or emotionless, but our inner emotional landscapes are at least as varied as the general population. Personally I’m fairly convinced we actually experience emotions more intensely than the average person.

Lana Beniko in Star Wars: The Old RepublicThere’s other things, too. She has a very stiff, formal way of speaking and writing. Following the events on Iokath, we learn that she has a very regimented daily schedule that she never deviates from. If you romance her, her feelings for the player character are clearly very intense, but at times you almost have to remind her to be affectionate.

These are all classic autistic traits.

It’s funny because I took an instant liking to Lana the moment I encountered her, but for a long time I didn’t understand why. There are plenty of more likable or entertaining characters in SWTOR, after all. Eventually I realized that it was because I saw myself reflected in her, but even then it took longer than it should have for me to grasp why I saw myself in her.

She’s like me. Fictional or not, she’s still likely the closest thing to a real peer I’ve ever had. I wouldn’t say it makes me feel less alone per se, but there is something about adventuring alongside her that is very reassuring.

The other great thing about Lana is that — perhaps because she was probably not consciously written as autistic — she isn’t stereotyped as “the autistic character.” She’s allowed to be a three-dimensional person who is not defined by her condition.

Lana is one of the main reasons I’ve stayed as loyal to SWTOR as I have, despite its many, many flaws. It’s just about the only place I can go to see someone like myself represented as something other than a shallow stereotype or a cautionary tale.