This Way Madness Lies: My Game of the Year?!

 This Way Madness Lies is the latest game from developer Zeboyd Games, creators of indie classics like Cthulhu Saves the World and Cosmic Star Heroine. When I heard that Zeboyd was creating a game based on the works of Shakespeare -- starring magical girls -- I literally jumped for joy. Then I asked for a review copy. I couldn't imagine exactly how a game about magical girls in the stories of Shakespeare would work, but I knew it would change my life for the better. 



If you've been following this blog for any amount of time you are probably aware that I have spent a lot of time writing about Shakespeare's influence on the video game medium. In fact, earlier this year I wrote about the vast quantity of games that are based specifically on Hamlet. Hamlet is all but absent from This Way Madness Lies, and I suspect that's because the game's creators knew that the bard's other plays needed a bit more attention in the video game realm. I was impressed by writer Willow Boyd's knowledge not only of the contents of Shakespeare's plays, but of the scholarship and historical discussion surrounding the plays and their author. I studied Shakespeare throughout college and two levels of graduate school but I still learned a thing or two from this game. Truly (verily?) the game's writer is a genuine bardolator. 


Screenshot of Imogen saying, "It's a real term, look it up."

The most notable aspect of This Way Madness Lies that a new player will undoubtedly appreciate is the soundtrack. Immediately upon starting the game and viewing the opening menu, players are hit with a truly rocking symphonic metal banger, which I had to sit and listen to several times before I was willing to move on to playing the actual game. From this menu players can navigate to the credits, which show  that the music was composed by Joshua Queen, while the vocalist is Sarah Queen. Note that I still have this song stuck in my head as I'm writing my review, and I haven't even played the game today. The soundtrack throughout the game is just as good, and I felt nostalgic for the Persona series as I was listening to the soundtrack of This Way Madness Lies -- perhaps it was an influence? 


After the musical score, my favorite aspect of the game is its referential humor. Not only are there clever little quips about Shakespeare, but in true Zeboyd Games style there are lots of references to older games by the same developers, and to their favorite sleeping god, Cthulhu, and his otherworldly brethren. Every piece of dialogue in This Way Madness Lies is dripping with my kind of humor (mostly cheesy), so I couldn't help but have a big grin on my face throughout the 14+ hours I was playing the game. 


Rosalind, a character from This Way Madness Lies, says, "I  bite my thumb at you, plant monster!"

I can't consider this review complete without mentioning the beautiful pixel art. Each character is incredibly detailed and unique and players will get to see these details on full display every time the protagonists complete their magical girl transformations -- a necessary staple of the magical girl genre.

 

While I loved this game with all my heart, I would be lying if I said I didn't have any less than positive thoughts, however small. First: accessibility options are practically nonexistent. HOWEVER: I didn't find that I personally needed any accessibility accommodations in this game. I played the game with a controller and selected easy mode, and those seemed to be all the accommodations I personally needed. The game was very easy for me and I had no difficulty with controls or with my ability to see or hear the game. That said, I am only somewhat low vision and I suspect there are players who would benefit from some accessibility options like different text sizes and fonts, etc. The developers have been very good about updating the game after listening to their players, however, so accessibility options may be added in the near future (or they may already have been added as I haven't played the game in the last few days). 


I enjoyed the decision to start the story in the middle of the action -- we don't have to slog through origin stories for our magical girls, and I approve of that decision. I do wish we had a bit more background and character development for the girls, however. Is it too early to hope there will be a sequel or prequel to This Way Madness Lies


To answer my question in this post's title: yes, I would say that This Way Madness Lies is my game of the year for 2022. Does that mean I am comparing it to titles like God of War and Elden Ring? No, because I didn't play those games. I tend to spend most of my time playing more niche titles, so my closest runner-up that I played this year would be Kirby and the Forgotten Land. But I can't deny that This Way Madness Lies moved me in a way that I haven't been moved since the first time I played Supergiant's Bastion. It wasn't just the Shakespeare angle that hooked me -- I genuinely connected with the characters and the world of the game. I felt like this game was made for me, specifically, and that's a rare feeling. I greatly look forward to seeing where Zeboyd Games goes from here.


I received a copy of This Way Madness Lies for free in exchange for an honest review.


Welcome to #SciFiMonth 2022!

     It's Sci-Fi Month! Every November a bunch of blogs, including this one, celebrate #SciFiMonth and read science fiction books, play Sci-Fi games, and generally geek out. This year is the tenth anniversary of the event! It's hosted by OneMore.org and Dear Geek Place. 


Square banner that says Sci Fi Month 2022
Artwork by Simon Fetscher

    As usual, I plan to have a fairly chill month since I am also participating in Nanowrimo. Last month I boasted on Twitter that I was thinking about doing a Resident Evil marathon, but since that has fizzled out for me I will probably focus my time on different games. I have been wanting to get into the Star Ocean series for a very long time, and I think now, during Sci-Fi month, and so near the release of the latest Star Ocean installment, would be a great time! Now, I know that different people have different opinions on where I should start in the Star Ocean series (I did some research on social media), but since the PS3 game, Star Ocean: The Last Hope, is within easy reach I plan to "dive in" with that one (pun totally intended). If that doesn't fill up all of my gaming time for the month, I will probably also go back to trying to finish Assassin's Creed Odyssey, which I have already started a blog post draft on. I need to stick to my resolution to finish a Tales series game this year, so I will also keep working on beating Tales of Berseria. 

Cover of Star Ocean: The Last Hope on Playstation 3Cover art for Assassin's Creed: Odyssey on Playstation 4


    As far as reading goes, I'm not sure what all of the books I read this month will be, but I will try to stick to the Science Fiction theme. The first one I'm reading for the month, which I started last night, is Victories Greater Than Death by Charlie Jane Anders! The story is really different so far -- which is always a good thing! I'm only a few chapters in so my full review will be forthcoming. There is an official #SciFiMonth readathon taking place, in which participants will be reading The Galaxy, and the Ground Within by Becky Chambers. I haven't read the rest of the series in which that book takes place, so I might be skipping the readathon this time. 

Stay tuned for more #SciFiMonth updates! And happy gaming/reading. 

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The Outer Worlds Explores Space While Grappling with Human Consumption

 After my panel at Momocon back in May, several audience members came up to me and asked if I had yet played The Outer Worlds. A segment of my presentation had been about Fallout: New Vegas, and my fellow gamers wanted to make sure I had played Obsidian's latest game. I hadn't, and though I had heard of the game I surprisingly didn't know that it was developed by Obsidian, or that it was such a similar game to their Fallout entries. I immediately bought the game and started playing, and I am so glad that I did! Though The Outer Worlds seems to have slipped under the radar of much of the online gaming community (perhaps because, like many a Fallout game, the game's initial release was filled with bugs and errors, though these were later fixed with a patch), it is a very fun, well-written entry into the annals of science fiction gaming that asks tough questions about morality and human consumption while endearing the player to the many characters and colonies in Halcyon. 


Image of Parvati from The Outer Worlds fixing an engine.


Like Fallout: New Vegas, The Outer Worlds is set in a future that feels oddly vintage, which draws the player's attention to the cyclical nature of history -- humanity will always be doomed to repeat its mistakes. In the case of The Outer Worlds, humanity's mistake is extreme consumption -- consumption of food, fuel, and other necessities, but also frivolities like clothes and guns. There's even a parody version of the NRA that highlights the modern American urge to own lots and lots of guns (see a short video of this parody interaction here). 


Some reviewers may have felt that the anti-capitalist overtones of the game were too overt and caused the story to drag, but personally I feel that if you want to get a message across, sometimes you have to metaphorically hit your audience over the head with it, and Obsidian does this with side-quests that you really don't have to complete if you don't want to. I promise, it's okay to skip a few side quests. Really.


My favorite part of the game, however, had nothing to do with the overstory about consumption and greed, and instead had everything to do with party member Parvati's sweet, romantic side-story. I want to say it's rare to see a story in a video game about an asexual, homoromantic major character, but that wouldn't exactly be true. The truth is that before The Outer Worlds, I had never seen an asexual, homoromantic major character in a video game. That level of realism and complexity in an LGBTQIA+ character almost never exists in fiction. The only other time I have even read a story about an ace protagonist in a relationship was when I read Claire Kann's Let's Talk About Love. Other books with such characters do exist, but these types of relationships are rarely seen in video game romances. This is no case of queer baiting, in case you were wondering. Parvati very clearly communicates her sexual identity to the player, who then even has the option of telling Parvati that they, too, are asexual. See the below screenshots for examples of conversations about sexuality that the player can have with their companion:



Screenshot text: "That's - well, it's tripped folks up in the past. Folks I thought cared about me for me. What if she's not okay with that? What if she IS, but then, later, she's not?" Player answer: "We have that in common, you know. I'm not interested in physical affection either." Screenshot text: Parvati: "You- you're not? You're like me?" Player: "Well, I'm cooler, but yeah."

Screenshot text: Parvati: "I'm not much interested in... physical stuff. Never have been. Leastways not like other folk seem to be. It's not that I can't? I just don't care for it."

Without spoiling the romantic side story that is Parvati's companion quest, I will say that Parvati and her girlfriend meeting each other, dating, and getting to know one another truly warmed my heart. This may end up being one of my favorite video game moments of all time. 


What were your favorite moments in The Outer Worlds, and which characters warmed your heart? Let me know in the comments!


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Momocon 2022 Panel Video Now Available!

 Momocon 2022 was so much fun, even if I ended up only going on Thursday. I ran my very first Video Games as Literature panel on Thursday night, which has been filmed and uploaded to YouTube! If you weren't able to make it to the live presentation, you can watch the video below. Please let me know if you have any technical problems with watching the video, and thank you for watching!



If you're interested in more multimedia on Video Games as Literature, check out this podcast episode I was invited to speak on: NEW Super Gamer Podcast 115 – Better Than Any King’s Horse with Kirsten Rodning. You can also find the Super Gamer Podcast on your favorite podcast platform.

Hamlet: A Video Game Genre

 Over the last decade, as I've worked on this blog and thought deeply about literary video games, I've noticed a trend: a lot of video games specifically reference or recreate the world and characters of Shakespeare's Hamlet. Something about this particular play fascinates the minds of readers, academics, and game developers more than any other Shakespearian play, and perhaps even more than any other work of literature. Below are just a few examples of games that recreate or expand upon the story of Hamlet, that brooding Danish teen and his doomed family and friends. 


Elsinore

Screenshot of Horatio saying, "Ah, the good and fair Lady Ophelia. Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?"

Elsinore is one of the most surprisingly remarkable and touching literary games I have played to date. It is a very true retelling of Hamlet, but through a time-travel element it manages to not only expand upon the original story, but also fully flesh out all of the characters Shakespeare created. For example, most people hold very little love for Polonius, Ophelia's father, when they read or watch the play. He is usually seen through Hamlet's eyes as a somewhat useless old man who no longer has a real purpose in the world. Because Elsinore is played from Ophelia's perspective, however, we get a chance to see Polonius from a different angle: as a caring father and a diligent servant of the late king. All of the play's characters receive similar treatment -- since we are not expected to experience the story in the few hours it takes to put on a play (though, yes, Hamlet is quite a long play), we as gamers get an opportunity to spend longer periods of time with each character and learn more about them as people. 

As a side note, another work of literature that I have noticed has influenced a large swath of modern games is the Legend of Zelda video game series. I admit it's very strange that I have written several posts and articles about the influence of the Zelda franchise on other games, but I have not yet written specifically about any Zelda games, though I profess that Ocarina of Time is one of my favorite games. Elsinore is no exception to this trend: the time travel elements in the game are almost definitely intentionally based on the time travel found in The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask. If you don't believe me, take a look at the character Peter Quince, himself an anachronism in the world of Hamlet. Quince is a character from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, and seemingly has no business in Ophelia and Hamlet's story. Players soon find, however, that Peter Quince is aware of the time travelling, and of everything that is happening to Ophelia. Does that remind you of anyone? One might almost expect Quince to introduce himself to Ophelia with the line, "You've met with a terrible fate, haven't you?" I'm speaking, of course, about the Happy Mask Salesman from Majora's Mask -- the character who guides Link through his chronologically confused story.

The Happy Mask Salesman Source

Peter Quince reveals his knowledge of current events in Elsinore.

Quince's uncanny resemblance to the Happy Mask Salesman is likely intentional, and we see him wearing many different masks to represent different characters when he puts on a play, solidifying his similarities to the Mask Salesman. 

Elsinore is a lovingly crafted game that pays homage not only to Shakespeare, but to literary pop culture in general. Play this game in detail to find all kinds of surprising references -- I won't spoil them for you!



To Be or Not To Be

One game that I already reviewed back in 2015 is To Be or Not to Be, a choose your own adventure style retelling of Hamlet. To Be or Not to Be is a game based on a book based on a Shakespearian play... in other words, it's my favorite type of literature! While Elsinore takes the story of Hamlet seriously and tries to expand upon the existing world and characters, To Be or Not to Be takes Hamlet in a much more fun, and often silly, direction. Yes, you can play the game as though you are reenacting the play, and make all of the choices that would lead to the story ending as Shakespeare intended... or you can become a pirate. It's your choice! Check out the link below to browse or buy a copy of the original To Be or Not to Be book (the affiliate link will give me a small commission if you decide to make a purchase):



Final Fantasy XV

A group photo of Noctis and his bros in front of a fancy rock.


Ah, Final Fantasy XV. If you've played it, you either love it or you hate it. I personally fall into the former camp. Many who play Final Fantasy XV may not be aware that it is a direct retelling of Hamlet (or, at least, as direct as a Final Fantasy game can possibly be). Even I, who have studied Shakespeare for decades, took a frighteningly long time to realize what was going on and where the game was headed (certain death). It wasn't until I made the connection that the primary villain looks and sounds a lot like Scar from The Lion King (also a retelling of Hamlet) that I started to put the pieces together and realize that this Final Fantasy game was a direct Shakespeare retelling. When that happened, I made a blog post to share my revelation.



... And More

There are so many more games that reference Hamlet or even take the majority of their stories from Shakespeare's most beloved play that I can't possibly mention them all. Below I list a few other games I have found that draw inspiration from Shakespeare's Hamlet. Can you think of any others? Feel free to mention them in the comments!
  • Don't Starve: Hamlet
  • Hamlet or the Last Game without MMORPG Features, Shaders and Product Placement
  • Vagrant Story
  • The Lion King (Sega Genesis and SNES)
Also note that many other Final Fantasy games follow Shakespearean themes. Final Fantasy XII's Balthier behaves as though he believes himself to be a Shakespearean hero. Final Fantasy IX draws inspiration from several of Shakespeare's plays, especially Romeo and Juliet. 

ICYMI, I will be talking about Hamlet in video games and much more at Momocon on Thursday! Click here to find more information about my Momocon panel.

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