Eleven ADHD Strategies

Caution: this post is roughly 3,000 words in length.

ADHD doesn’t scare people as much as some classical mental disorders, which is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, few assume you’re going to kill their family, but on the other, it’s subtle enough to be overlooked, even in the face of great turmoil.

I’m autistic, but I also have ADHD, and in my particular case, I consider it a larger issue. It’s the difference between looking strange and confusing important deadlines, or wanting to fall asleep all the time, or coming in thirty minutes late to your school’s free ACT session.

It sounds laughable, until you (or other people) suffer the results. But I’ve survived, partly from stimulant therapy, and partly because I’ve learned to compensate. These are eleven strategies and ideas I’ve developed over the years. I won’t claim to follow them perfectly, but they’ve made a difference in my life. I’m not a medical expert, or even old enough to drink, but if you have ADHD, I hope at least a few items here will prove useful.

1: Stay Organized

It can be tiresome to sit down and make a coherent plan for the week, or even the rest of the day, but it saves effort in the long run. With or without stimulants, it’s easy to be overwhelmed if you don’t have structure in your life.

The simpler the organizational strategy, the better, When I receive my syllabus at the beginning of a course, I record the deadlines for each assignment in a simple planner in my backpack. I also list certain weekly chores there, such as laundry and yard work. In the past, I tried to store everything in my head, but I lost many, many assignments that way, and you get a certain sense of accomplishment from visually recording your progress.

I store my actual work in a single red binder, with dividers for each course. Back in grade ten, my geometry class required us to hold onto our completed assignments, and I nearly failed the associated test grade because I lost so many papers in my cavern of a backpack. At one time, it contained two or three binders, two textbooks, and numerous supplies each day, with predictable results. I simplified my system the day afterward.

Similarly, I’ve found it important to leave items in predictable locations, particularly small ones that are easily lost or forgotten. I sleep next to my keys, flip phone, and wallet, I leave my charger in a particular section of my backpack, and I ensure my textbooks are clearly visible on my dresser. It sometimes pays to pack your supplies the night before work or school, since most people are a little sluggish when they first wake up.

As a caveat, I’m a nineteen year-old college student, and those with full-fledged careers may require more detailed strategies.

2: Establish a Reliable Morning Routine

Mornings can be a perilous time, because in addition to ADHD symptoms, you begin with residual fog from your sleep cycle. The first hours of the day should revolve around activating yourself for the challenges ahead. Take a shower, eat breakfast, look over your schedule for the day, talk with your family, drink coffee (if you wish), take your meds (if you’re prescribed any), and complete as many minor tasks as you can. Avoid games, social media, and other recreational electronic use until later, unless you have more willpower than me. On weekends, I sometimes begin the day by running or doing yard work; nothing vanquishes fatigue like the Florida sun.

3: Do Work and Chores Earlier Than Required

When possible, I recommend completing chores and projects a little earlier than strictly required. First and foremost, it gives you padding when you fall behind, or forget a handful of supplies one day, and for someone with ADHD, every bit is valuable. It also makes you look good to teachers and employers, particularly if you’re just starting off, and it’s easier to begin with a good reputation than redeem yourself afterward.

But even beyond those factors, working ahead makes life feel more like a game and less like a struggle. Stimulants increase dopamine themselves, but they also prolong natural release, so it pays to make ordinary work as rewarding as you can. It also helps offset the sensations of failure that many with ADHD are accustomed to. My first grade 12 year was a disempowering experience in numerous ways, but I completed most of my homework days or weeks early, and it was one of the few parts of life I was truly happy with.

4: Get Regular Exercise

Exercise has a wide array of health benefits. It also increases dopamine and norepinephrine activity, which can be useful for ADHD patients. When I started high school, I had to run a mile for soccer tryouts, and I overheated so quickly that my coach sent me home midway through (I didn’t make the team). But I started running between my house and the gas station next summer, and my trips ventured further into town the years afterward. I also joined the track team in grade 10, which I participated in until next fall.

There were a handful of better distance runners at my school, and many at competitions, but I enjoyed seeing my endurance improve, and it seemed to clear my mind afterward. I even received an accommodation in grade eleven that allowed me to run around the football field at lunch. It didn’t work as well as Vyvanse, but it was better than nothing. I dropped out of track that year to focus on homework and writing, a decision I now regret, but I continued running and biking throughout my hometown after school. It’s been years since I played sports, but I try to run or engage in other aerobic activities several times a week. My stimulants appear to function better, and it reduces some of the stress and obsessive patterns they can emit as waste.

5: Don’t Be a Work Martyr

Hard work and dedication are all well and good, until you force yourself to stay up until 2 AM regularly, or hide in your room for seven hours each day writing mathematical equations. Moderate stress enhances productivity, but when you’re working to fill a hole in yourself, everything starts to consume more energy than it should.

Most humans are more effective working forty hours a week than fifty or sixty, because there are other priorities in their life, and they only have so much energy to give. It’s why Henry Ford got away with lowering his workers’ hours to forty from forty-five, and it’s why “work harder” and “accomplish more” are sometimes very different things.

It’s easy to define your worth by your output, particularly when you have ADHD or other disorders. Before I started taking stimulants, my academic performance tanked (by my standards) for almost a year, and I grew to hate myself in progressively elaborate ways. I received my first dose of Vyvanse in the final weeks of grade 11, mere days after two large writing projects. The improvement was immediate. I had no tolerance to either focus or euphoria, and I blew through our final exams with little effort, like I was playing a particularly immersive computer game. But guilt over earlier failures remained, and I still didn’t know how to organize myself, despite what I was now capable of. When school started next year, I didn’t just want to do better, I wanted to redeem myself. I achieved straight A’s, but every remaining error—every missed assignment, unfinished chore, or failed voluntary writing project—felt like a mark of inferiority instead of a simple setback. I performed tasks in front of me with little delay, but between the stimulants and my own obsession with work, I was too pressured to read novels, make friends, outline short stories, or plan for college next year. I couldn’t see beyond the next hour or day, because it forced me to confront parts of myself I was trying to destroy.

In the end, life is simply easier to manage when you don’t hate yourself. Stimulants can promote obsessive thoughts, which makes balance even more essential, at least for me. But even if you don’t take them, you have to know when to give yourself a break. Seek improvement, by all means, but don’t beat your own skull in for forgetting deadlines, or being unable to work for twelve hours without falling flat on your face.

6: Don’t Overthink Your Meds

Amphetamine and methylphenidate are crude instruments. While effective for many people, they can disrupt sleep, increase heart rate, promote anxiety, and create discomfort in other ways. They can also elevate mood, stamina, pain tolerance, and sex drive, even at moderate doses. If you experience some euphoria, don’t agonize over it, as long as you aren’t abusing them. Not everyone does, but in the end, it’s still speed, albeit precisely delivered. My first Vyvanse dose hit very hard, partly because I’d never had amphetamine before, and partly because it broke the fog I’d been carrying around for sixteen and a half years. Stimulants aren’t nearly as exciting now, but I still notice them, particularly after I take a break for a few days.

Similarly, you may wonder if you’re betraying your natural self by taking stimulants, or if you deserve any credit for what you achieve. In the past, I faced some discomfort over those questions. My current take: Adderall, Vyvanse, or Ritalin won’t accomplish much unless you want them to, so they aren’t much different from other tools. But on the subject of nature, your brain and your environment already manipulate you in innumerable chemical ways. Stimulants are unusually stark about it, like ADHD itself, but from dopamine to serotonin, the systems they impact were there in the first place.

In fact, your brain naturally contains a molecule called phenethylamine, which behaves much like amphetamine, albeit shorter-acting. It even serves as the structural backbone for amphetamine, along with Ritalin, cocaine, ephedrine, and a variety of other compounds.

In short, focus on what works, instead of allegiance to primal Nature, or remaining Drug Free. If they don’t work, or make you feel sick, then by all means, stop taking them. But if they do, philosophy is a secondary concern. The same goes for non-stimulants like clonidine.

7: Avoid Electronics Whenever Necessary

Electricity is a lot like magic, except it exists, and computers are some of the most intricate creations of all. They’re also some of the most distracting. Between Internet arguments, social media, television streaming, gaming software, political sites, and online pornography, they offer a black hole of easy, reliable stimulation few activities can match. The blow to focus is threefold: they train you to expect immediate rewards, they present information in overwhelming quantities, and they cause you to sit down for long periods of time.

Whether they’re addictive in the sense of gambling is still up for debate, but a lot of people look at their iPhones a little too much, and the effects range from traffic accidents to lost work output. If electronics don’t impact your focus, I congratulate you. But if you find laptops, smartphones, or other devices intruding in your activities, don’t hesitate to switch them off, leave them at home, delete offending applications, or interrupt the cycle however else you deem necessary. If you feel weak, remember that normal people have issues with them too. In a way, you’re leveling the playing field.

In my experience, it’s usually easiest to break the habit by avoiding them for a few hours. Each use strengthens it, so a definite “no” is better than “I won’t use them quite as much today”. In particular, I no longer bring electronics into my bedroom when I’m trying to sleep, other than my shitty flip phone. It’s too easy to stay up later than I intend, or reach for them the moment I wake up.

8: Use OTC Stimulants Cautiously

Like Adderall, caffeine can improve focus and energy, but the effects on dopamine are much weaker and less direct. Accordingly, it’s less addictive when abused, but also less useful medically. Before I received my first Vyvanse prescription, I self-medicated with tea, energy drinks, Mountain Dew, Vivarin tablets, and a handful of other products. None of them worked very well, and they set my nerves on edge, creating numerous bouts of insomnia, facial tics, and general grittiness. I sometimes consumed over 400 or 500 mg of caffeine in a single day, hoping I would reach a threshold that relieved my symptoms, but I regretted it virtually every time.

At low doses, caffeine might make Adderall or Ritalin work a little better, but it can also worsen tachycardia, blood pressure spikes, and other side effects. Consult with your doctor before combining them. Similarly, nicotine can boost focus and working memory, but tobacco is fiendishly addictive, and quite poisonous over time. The CDC estimates it kills over 480,000 Americans per year, including over 41,000 casualties from secondhand exposure. Nicotine gum and patches are probably less addictive, because they lack the natural MAOIs found in tobacco products, but they still aren’t FDA approved for ADHD treatment. I personally use nicotine gum, which seems to help a little, but I haven’t taken any cognitive tests to verify. I’m not dependent yet, but for all I know, I might regret it in a year or two.

9: Get Enough Sleep

You’re unlikely to reduce your natural need for sleep, so don’t feel bad if you can’t get by on five or six hours. Sleep deprivation is a common problem in America. Some people even brag about it, but it impairs focus and emotional control, much like ADHD itself. In one study, participants who stayed up for 17-19 hours suffered impairment similar to a blood alcohol level of .05, with significantly worse scores on some measures of accuracy. After delaying sleep for, on average, around an hour longer, performance become similar to a BAC of .01. For comparison, the legal driving limit in most U.S. states is .08.

Unsurprisingly, sleep deprivation can lead to traffic accidents. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that it caused around 83,000 crashes yearly from 2005 to 2009, including an average of 37,000 injurious crashes and 886 fatal ones. Beyond that, missing sleep decreases productivity in a variety of ways, increases cognitive errors, and generally makes life unpleasant.

On average, adults require somewhere between seven and nine hours of sleep for optimal functioning. Drop below that, and most people will suffer fatigue, disrupted focus, muscle aches, bloodshot eyes, sensitivity to cold, sudden spells of unconsciousness, or even psychotic symptoms, depending on just how much sleep is lost.

Even with stimulants, my life is much harder on four hours of sleep than eight. There were several pre-diagnosis years where I regularly stayed up until 2 or 3 AM before school. This pattern started in grade 8, after my mother got a new job that required us to wake up at 6 AM. My nighttime routine was too complex, as lazy as that sounds. The combination of Proactiv, homework, and reading was too intensive for my tired, unmedicated self to finish until 11 or 12, and then I generally gave up, because my sleep cycle was fucked anyway. I would recommend this pattern to no one, particularly not a child. My eyes burned like bleach rags, my arms were cold and sore, and every day became a nameless, depleted extension of the last. When I later tried to repair my sleep patterns, I had to relearn how to sleep normally, and it took several years to do so.

Later in adolescence, I developed a habit of staying up late writing. It wasn’t as consistently terrible, but it sometimes prevented me from sleeping at all. There are times when you may be forced to sacrifice sleep for work or school assignments, but it should be used as an occasional panic button, not a standard tool.

If you find yourself regularly missing sleep, it’s important to identify the source. Excessive caffeine, ADHD stimulants, smartphones, gaming consoles, alcohol, stress, or overly complex night routines may be the culprit. Amphetamines don’t give me trouble sleeping now, but they did in the past, and nighttime gaming remains very disruptive. If insomnia can be eliminated through changes to home environment or schedule, it’s important to do so. You’re sometimes stuck with your meds, but lowering your dose or switching to another treatment may bring relief.

10: Everyone Thinks They’re a Goddamn Psychologist

Psychology is similar to the Bible, or Donald Trump: you will meet many laymen who behave as though they have studied it for years on top of a mountain. Venture into some circles, and you may hear that ADHD is a gift, offering great energy at the price of a little clumsiness. Stimulant therapy, according to many of this camp, stems from an intolerant society that wants all children to behave in identical ways. Other circles will present ADHD as a scam created to get money from parents, an attempt to label normal childhood, a symptom of excessive television use, an excuse for lazy parenting, or any combination of those factors. The CDC disagrees with them, but you may still wonder how a disorder can be diagnosed in over ten percent of American children. You may also wonder how, even as an adult, you keep making the same mistakes and losing the same items so many times.

Admittedly, you can also purchase books from trained psychologists who don’t believe in ADHD, or oppose stimulant therapy, or think it’s been diagnosed too widely. You can also purchase books from those who uphold the medical model. You can examine brain scans showing differences in ADHD patients, and then you can read articles and forum posts arguing they’re a sign of variation instead of disorder.

I tend to think most humans are a little disordered in some ways (including myself, obviously), but I don’t think you can deny that ADHD symptoms are a problem for many people, whatever the numbers. Nonetheless, if you see persistent evidence of dysfunction in your life, you shouldn’t feel compelled to discount it. Perhaps ADHD is overdiagnosed; perhaps it isn’t. But in the end, you still have to find a solution.

11: Think for Yourself

Don’t feel compelled to follow the opinions of strangers on the Internet, including me. Stimulants, clonidine, exercise, antidepressants, therapy, Internet tales, self-help books—incorporate whatever works, jettison whatever doesn’t. Even qualified doctors disagree on how ADHD should be approached. You should consider different views, but in the end, you’re the one who has to solve it in your own life.

Image Attribution

License: CC BY 2.0
TheDyslexicBook.com. Nov 17, 2017.
Found: https://www.flickr.com/photos/153278281@N07/37764661234/in/album-72157690694372246/

Review: Hero Core (Freeware)

Genre: Shooter, action adventure
Developer: Daniel Remar
Platform: Windows, Macintosh
Release: May 3rd, 2010
     Latest Windows version: July 22nd, 2013

Hero Core is an open-ended shooter game from Daniel Remar, the creator of fellow freeware title Iji. While Iji is an unusually intricate Game Maker creation, with complex stat development, branching plot, hacking minigames, and two competing enemy factions, Hero Core takes a simpler approach, and ultimately a better-rounded one.

You play as Flip Hero, a being locked in never-ending combat with a war machine called Cruiser Tetron. With his legion of robotic soldiers, Tetron aims to destroy the earth, and you simultaneously. Flip Hero has defeated Tetron many times in the past, including in one of Remar’s prior games, but the machine’s servants rebuild him each time, and relief is fleeting for both both sides.

It’s a familiar plot for a game, but Tetron receives more development than you would expect, a predator enslaved by his own programming.

The game contains two primary difficulty levels, each with different architecture and enemy placement. Both take place in Tetron’s asteroid base, a black-and-white maze of angular combat machines and automated war industry. The entire game is drawn in flat, colorless pixel, from the largest mecha to Flip Hero’s own health bar. The artwork made me skeptical at first glance, but it fits the tone perfectly, vibrant and alienating at the same time.

Tetron can be challenged from the beginning, if you desire, but you start with a single weak blaster and minimal health. The other areas of the base contain numerous upgrades, guarded behind blast doors, turrets, molten metal, and fearsome bosses. Each room spans only a single screen, imitating older games on primitive consoles, but the enemies are quite diverse, with robotic snakes that jerk across the screen, mobile turrets armed with heavy cannons, lethal fish-shaped machines that summon smaller ones, and mecha with every combination of those attack patterns. Many robots also have smaller destructible parts, removing weaponry when disabled.

Combat in Hero Core is more complex than it appears. The screen tends to overflow with bullets in harsher stages, but there are plenty of walls to duck behind. Your blaster can only shoot left or right, but you can move fluidly in any direction, and with good enough reflexes, you can weave through most bullet patterns without harm. The primary keys shoot slowly, but you can activate a faster auto fire mode, offering devastating power at close range. Since only eight (player) bullets can exist on screen at once, this mode is less effective at a distance, delivering a potent initial burst with a mere trickle afterward. It’s an elegant system, encouraging strategic pauses in use.

You also acquire the Blade, a melee weapon capable of deflecting bullets and smashing environmental barriers. For combat, I found it less satisfying than my blaster. It inflicts severe damage, but it charges slowly, and the range is uncomfortably short. It’s easy to crash into an enemy you were trying to cut up, reflected shots don’t harm them, and many stronger attacks will run right through it. Regardless of your health and armor upgrades, sustained fire is impossible to withstand.

I died many, many times on each playthrough, but I rarely found the game cheap or unfair. Enemies respawn on each screen if you return, but they’re frozen for a few seconds on arrival, granting time to dart past. If you die, you respawn at the last save station you visited, shaped like a save icon on a computer document.

You can fast travel between each station, easing navigation, and different areas can be conquered in almost any order. The interface displays a relative threat level for each section of the base, from the opening Natural Caves to the lethal Guardian Zone, and I generally found it accurate. In addition to weaponry and suit upgrades, you’ll find small computers hidden throughout the base, providing lore on Tetron’s past and his nature. He becomes easier to empathize with, though clearly hostile. Each area has a different chiptune theme from Brother Android, adding bleak color to the monochrome design.

The boss encounters are the strongest aspect of Hero Core. From a walker that splits into three parts to a drone that attacks with arms made from copies of itself, they offer battles as diverse as they are lethal. Some bosses spawn with numerous minions, and some fight as a single overwhelming combatant. One machine encases you within their body for the entire battle. Many contain destructible weak points, and some even split into multiple units. Subverting conventions, most weaken as you hammer them away, aside from a metallic hydra that simply grows more heads.

Except for the final boss, each uses the same haunting soundtrack. It becomes repetitive over so many trials, but when fighting machines, it feels appropriate.

One optional boss appears randomly throughout normal screens, engaging you in a duel it flees if you don’t kill it quickly enough. It doesn’t pack as much firepower as other machines, but it’s difficult to shoot down in the allotted time. I’ve played Hero Core for years, and I rarely succeed. Fortunately, it can eventually be challenged without a time limit.

It’s possible to beat Hero Core in a few hours, but Normal and Hard mode contain different level geometry, and both are well worth playing. A third mode, Annihilation, appears after completing the game on either difficulty. Annihilation is a side story that takes place on the starship Ciretako. Compared to the primary game, it lacks upgrades, but it provides a short, punishing change of pace. You can also unlock a Boss Rush mode, a hidden minigame, and several other items.. I would not be adverse to paying $20 for that amount of content, and for a free application created by a single developer (plus the musician), it’s remarkably polished and durable. Iji spends more time on characterization, but Hero Core doesn’t punish you for combat, and the gameplay is stronger as a result.

Hero Core emulates the past visually, but the presentation and enemy design are decidedly modern. It has some of the most varied boss encounters I’ve ever seen, freeware or otherwise, and the fact that it is freeware only makes it easier to admire. The controls work perfectly, and aside from the limited utility of the Blade, I have few complaints about combat. Tetron wears the familiar mask of a doomsday villain, but his war with Flip Hero becomes more pitiable the further you look, as colorless as the robots that follow him.

If you’re interested, the game can be downloaded here:

Rating: 9/10 (Remarkable)

An excellent game with few identifiable blemishes, or too many positive aspects to do much harm. Won’t turn bread into wine, but belongs firmly in the upper echelon of its genre.

Works of Fiction (and Research) I Should Have Finished by Now

An incomplete list:

Woken Furies – Richard K. Morgan
Havoc – Chris Wooding (Lost under my bed for several months)
The Diamond Age – Neal Stephenson (Checked out online numerous times; too lazy to finish)
Ravenor Rogue – Dan Abnett
Caves of Ice – Sandy Mitchell
NeuroTribes – Steve Silberman
Complete CompTIA A+ Guide to PCs, Sixth Edition
– First semester HTML and C++ textbooks (Busy compensating for lack of friends in high school)

Doctor Who (Removed from Netflix)
House, M.D.
Supernatural (Watched halfway through Season 6)
– Carol
OZ (Too cheap to buy on Amazon)
– The OA
– Law & Order: Special Victims Unit
Every other Netflix show I’ve watched for an episode or two

– BioShock 2: Minerva’s Den
(Father’s PC kept crashing)
Batman: Arkham Asylum
Final Fantasy V (Too many random encounters)
– Unreal Gold
– S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat (Bought too many games at once)
The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages
– The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Why does my sword break every four seconds)
Metro: 2033 (Last level, so no excuse for this one)

iOS, Kovacs, and Other Winter Distractions

Even Google’s in on it

Ah, December. The month of an arctic-dwelling fat man who runs a factory of elves, handing them manufacturing quotas from lists written in childhood handwriting. Their orders are many, encompassing brands from Lego to Sony, but the elves possess the technical knowledge, company schematics, and rare metals necessary to assemble them, because otherwise they wouldn’t be elves. They receive most of their lists a week or three before Christmas, but they never collapse while operating heavy equipment, or misplace important parts, or call their labor union; they churn out products hour after sacred hour, as if fed meth through their office coffee maker.

All must be completed by Christmas Eve, when their employer loads the enormous heap of merchandise into a single wooden sleigh. Like an inflammatory Instagram post, he traverses the globe overnight, delivering presents to every child who didn’t skip their homework too many times. He has no difficulty locating their gifts, or remembering the hundreds of millions of address throughout his path. He enters each family’s house through the chimney, no matter how narrow, or the porch, if they don’t have one. He deposits his cargo under the Christmas tree, consumes a glass of milk and a plate of cookies as payment, and flies away without waking anyone, no matter how many children inevitably suffer insomnia from their excitement.

I live in a neighborhood in the Deep South, where guns are nearly as plentiful as secondhand Marlboro fumes. When I learned about Santa Claus in elementary school, I expressed fear that our neighbors would shoot him. My mother reassured me they would make an exception for him; if I’d been older and less impaired, I would have realized the truth. As it stood, between The Polar Express, YMCA nursery rhymes, and fear of no longer receiving presents, it took me until grade five to realize Santa Claus didn’t exist. Many children are disappointed; I wondered how I could be so dumb, and then I wondered why my parents would lie to me. I write sarcastically now, but as a ten year-old, it was an unpleasant experience. Afterward, my father apologized. My mother told me I discovered the myth in preschool, and she feared the social consequences if I argued about him with the rest of the class. In retrospect, I can’t blame her, but deception unsettles me. At least where science is concerned.

I’m writing this on an iPad Pro I purchased from Best Buy several weeks ago. It measures 10.5 inches in height, with four speakers and a 64-bit A10X Fusion chip. With the case and the stylus, it cost slightly over a thousand dollars, and I was lucky enough to find a used model in excellent condition. The system boasts 4GB of RAM, and my particular model carries 512GB of storage space, before the operating system is accounted for. Weak by modern desktop standards, but stronger than computers from older decades, and far more portable. Apple’s trying to market it as a laptop substitute, but it’s more of a souped-up iPhone. Some models even possess cellular capability. Still, it works well for many tasks, if you don’t require a USB port. The battery also lasts for slightly over ten hours, which is more than my gaming laptop can say.

In many ways, iOS offers a more focused experience than Windows 10, if social media apps are used in moderation (or not at all). The virtual keyboard is large enough for comfortable writing, unlike my old iPod Touch, and it can run Google Docs, Microsoft Word, Pages, or other software. The larger screen makes web navigation richer, and iOS Safari almost feels like a desktop browser at times, although there remain glimpses of dodgy mobile loading. On the other hand, iOS is much less vulnerable to viruses than Windows 10. On the entertainment side, you can download Spotify, Netflix, Kindle, YouTube, and numerous other apps, and the larger screen offers many advantages. It would be difficult to watch a movie with two other people on an iPhone, but I could imagine doing so with my iPad.

It doesn’t have the firepower to run intensive PC games, and most of them can’t be installed on iOS anyway, but it does handle App Store releases quite capably. Being App Store games, a lot of them suffer from microtransaction abuse, but there are decent titles—Infinity Blade II, Final Fantasy VI, and Bloo Kid II, to name three I’m familiar with. Final Fantasy I, II, III, IV, and V were ported to iOS as well, although I haven’t tried them here. You can even get Final Fantasy VII and IX, which were PlayStation titles.

When you wish to include an Octorock in your game,
but you don’t work for Nintendo

I’m currently playing Oceanhorn: Monster of Uncharted Seas, a Zelda clone created by Cornfox & Bros. The graphics are slightly clearer than a 3DS title, and the levels are built decently enough, but I’m finding the controls somewhat awkward, and combat is shallow as a result. It’s not very difficult, mind you, but pure touch controls have issues with this style of game, and it’s hard to move and attack precisely at the same time. Even Spirit Tracks and Phantom Hourglass had a few buttons to augment their touchscreen maneuvers. It also takes great inspiration from Wind Waker, but sailing occurs through rapid autopilot, sacrificing both the frustration and the adventure that defined the GameCube title.

On the other hand, I haven’t encountered any ads or microtransactions yet, which does wonders for immersion. There’s nothing wrong with imitating Zelda, per se: good ideas are good ideas, no matter where they come from. I’m glad Oceanhorn exists, but we’ll see how it holds up by the end of the journey.

I’d planned to finish Dark Souls II by the end of the week, but when I take the DLC areas into account, I doubt I’m going to get there. It’s a massive title, and I’ve devoted so much (extra) time to level grinding that I’m only at Dragon’s Aerie after a hundred hours of play. My tentative score for the game is a 9.25/10, unless something very disappointing (or impressive) happens in the final stretch. I feel some of the lore was squandered, which is an issue in a game this fucking long, but it offers enormous challenge and freedom of movement. After the tutorial realm of Things Betwixt, you’re presented with two large areas to explore: Heide’s Tower of Flame, and the Forest of Fallen Giants. You select a character class at the beginning of the game, but those merely determine your starting gear and abilities, and you can adopt an entirely different strategy by the end. There are four different types of magic and numerous weapon classes to choose between, and with the proper stats, a single character can experiment with all of them.

I’ve been reading a novel called Woken Furies. It’s the third book in a cyberpunk trilogy by Richard K. Morgan, which began with Altered Carbon and Broken Angels. It takes place centuries in the future, when mankind has learned to upload their minds into computer stacks and travel to distant planets. Fatal injuries can be survived simply by transferring to new bodies, and minds can be kept in storage for tens or hundreds of years with no loss in functionality. If that sounds idealistic, rest assured; it’s one of the bleakest fictional worlds I’ve ever encountered. The main character Takeshi is a former U.N. Envoy soldier with extensive mental conditioning that enhances his reflexes, memory, and capacity for violence. The books follow his journey from detective to mercenary to vigilante, with different employers each time. He initially comes across as a power fantasy, but he either lost some of his humanity to gain those abilities or never had it in the first place.

The series has a bit of a liberal bent, with extreme technological advancement, numerous female authority figures, cynical treatment of religion, and a few homosexual characters that are described quite casually, but it also contains copious bloodshed, cursing, references to sexual violence, use of fictional hallucinogens, and warfare with nuclear weapons and civilian casualties on every side. It blends philosophy and scientific details with naked human barbarism.

It’s also one of the few series I’ve encountered that contains pornographic sex scenes without being pornographic in general. Altered Carbon features a passage where a male and a female character have explicit, prolonged sex under the influence of Merge-9, a drug that causes each partner to share the sensations of the other. It’s just as explicit as Fifty Shades of Gray, if less sadistic and more clearly consensual, and the writing is much, much less clumsy. You could probably use it as masturbatory material, if nothing else was available. But against a backdrop of spinal mutilation, chemical weaponry, murderous corporate figures, virtual torture realms, and other such wonders, it feels downright wholesome.

Like Dark Souls II, I planned to finish it by the end of the week, but at the time of writing, it’s 3 AM on Friday and my Kindle position is 24%. On the positive side, I wrote this almost twenty-four hours after taking Adderall, and little of the drug remained to assist me. My natural state is slightly easier to tolerate than when I was younger, although great stupor remains. I suspect my brain is improving as I mature, and I also had ordinary, garden variety childhood deficits to contend with, which behave almost like a disorder in their own right. On some level, I probably still do, but I’m approaching my twenties, the peak of human fluid intelligence. If that sounds harsh, then perhaps you understand why I dislike lying to children, or corporal punishment. All humans are impaired in my eyes; we merely suffer to different degrees. My kind know that well.

First Impressions: Dark Souls II

Genre: Action role-playing
Developer: FromSoftware
Publisher: Bandai Namco Games
Platform: Windows, PS3, Xbox 360, PS4, Xbox One
Release: March 11, 2014

Our hero. Armor may vary.

I’ve spent around seventy hours with this game, and so far, it’s handily one of the best I’ve ever played. The graphics are slightly outdated, as you’d expect for a 2014 title, but aside from a few bland stone textures, the artwork remains appealing. Drangleic is a broken realm, and decay runs through every lifeless wooden shack and moss-infested tower. You play as an Undead (yes, capitalized), a human branded with a cursed mark known as the Darksign. The mark grants your kind potential immortality, reviving you at magical bonfires whenever you die. But though you begin with human sentence and flesh, each death rots your body and corrodes your mind, bringing you closer to the walking corpses of old superstition. The final state is a being known as a Hollow, an animalistic predator that exists only to feed on the souls of humans, sentient Undead, and other lifeforms. Hollows also die permanently when killed, removing the Darksign’s only gift.

You begin the game partially Hollow, and your character visits Drangelic searching for a cure. You never reach the final stages in gameplay, but your character loses maximum health each time you die, down to a minimum of fifty percent. Your health and humanity can be restored by viewing magical effigies, but it’s a brutal system nonetheless. You meet many sentient Undead throughout your journey, but most of the enemies you face are Hollows, wrapped in bandages or tattered armor and cloth. You also find blades and contraptions dedicated to torturing your kind, or locking them behind metal bars. The Undead are feared even when they remain sentient, because the Darksign’s Hollowing has brought many nations to ruin. It’s a much more nuanced take on the undeath concept than usual, although the core is still negative.

But at the core, Dark Souls II is about combat. The lore is mostly optional, spread through item descriptions, conversations with NPCs. It reminds me of the modern DOOM, in that sense; there’s plenty of worldbuilding, but you can skip most of the finer details, at least to the point I’m at. I could do for a little more character development, but it keeps the gameplay in firm focus.

The combat system is exceptionally brutal. At the beginning, you have little health, and enemies can stunlock you at a moment’s notice, delivering two or three blows in rapid succession. Defense is key to survival; you’re often forced to lure enemies out one-by-one, using rolls, backsteps, and shielding to bait them into overextending themselves. It sounds tedious, but it’s really quite a fluid system, if you’re paying attention. If you swing too quickly or get lazy about defense, even the weakest enemies will cut you down in seconds. When you die, you drop all the souls in your inventory, which serve as both experience points and currency for merchants. You can collect them again after you’re revived, but if you die beforehand, they disappear forever. The enemies in each area respawn twelve times, which allows for efficient level-grinding, but also makes travel unrelentingly dangerous. Fortunately, most locations contain more than one bonfire, which you can quickly teleport between kneeling at other ones.

Adding to the difficulty, most of your actions consume stamina, from swinging a sword to sprinting away or blocking an enemy attack. The stamina meter begins fairly short, although it can quickly be upgraded. Unless you’re holding a shield up or wearing equipment you’re too weak to carry, it rapidly recharges, but you can still be left helpless and exhausted for a few seconds if you act too aggressively. Most shields also allow a small portion of enemy damage through, as they would in real life. On the positive side, this means you can often finish off an enemy who raises their shield at low health. You can also perform a quick shove to knock them off balance, but many enemies can break your guard with their own special attacks. You acquire a rechargeable healing flask early in the quest, but it requires extensive upgrades to be very useful, and you need several seconds to drink from it, which Hollows will gladly take advantage of.

To make matters worse, the game has no pause button; you remain exposed while changing your equipment, key bindings or other settings. The core experience is singleplayer, but other users can leave messages and bloodstains on the ground, warning you of impending danger. They can also invade your game and try to kill you, which rarely takes more than a few blows. You’ll gain an effigy to reverse Hollowing if you kill them first, but the invasions force you to remain vigilant, even when all nearby enemies have been vanquished.

It sounds difficult, and it is, but I’ve rarely died in a way I could honestly call unfair. Usually it springs from fighting multiple enemies in a small space, not dodging properly, falling off a boardwalk, allowing enemies to get behind me, exploring at low health, or other self-inflicted follies. Many action RPGs, such as Fallout 4, become very easy in the later stages, because you gain enough health and attack power to make severe errors without consequence. Not so with this game. My character is currently level 156, but even when visiting the forest that held the first boss, I have to pay attention.

You can also gain levels and items quite rapidly, if you don’t keeping losing your souls. From Software’s decision to combine experience and currency focuses the gameplay, creating a constant resource tug that prevents even small acquisitions from feeling empty. If you don’t have enough souls to level up, there’s probably something useful to buy, and vice versa. You can also upgrade your weapons and armor, if you find the right equipment. It has a real addictive quality, but you’re constantly rewarded, unlike some more sluggish RPGs I could name.

So far, I only have three serious complaints: the PC version still displays console buttons in the menus and tutorials, I had to disable double-clicking to get guard breaks to work right, and you sometimes have to cover a lot of ground to reenter a boss battle if you die the first time, even when all shortcuts have been uncovered. The lack of a pause button can pose issues when real life intrudes, but it contributes to the atmosphere of threat, and it would be difficult to include the PvP elements if one player could halt things. I also wish the lore elements were more prominent, but the ruined fortresses, undead huntsmen, and haunted prison cells already tell a dark tale themselves. Every area seems to have degenerated further than the last, and Drangelic’s world is fascinating to uncover. The trail is always grim, and a few areas become truly frightening, even though the game is rated T instead of M.

Interestingly, Dark Souls II has the highest Metacritic score of the series, but I’m told many fans prefer the first and second games. I’ll have to finish the game for a full review, but if this is even arguably the weakest entry in the series, then Dark Souls strikes me as the equal of Zelda, Final Fantasy, and other classic franchises. At a minimum, it certainly handles breakable equipment better than the latest Zelda, simply because it’s possible to prevent.

Sleep Deprivation

I hate sleep deprivation. Of all the mundane physical sensations, it’s probably the shittiest. It’s also been a frequent companion. When I was very young, staying up late excited me, but my sleep reached an average of three hours by the first month of grade eight, which forever killed my enthusiasm. The following 2.5 years were a single never-ending day, a haze of social fears, sleep deprivation, and untreated ADHD. I started sleeping better afterward, but I was also self-medicating with caffeine pills, which caused occasional nights where I couldn’t sleep at all. I usually sleep for seven or eight hours now, but I stupidly, stupidly played Zelda II: The Adventure of Link until 1 AM this Tuesday, and I couldn’t shut my brain off afterward. I spent the next day at college with no sleep whatsoever. It’s a little better than in grade 11, since I take stimulants now, but it’s still one of the shittiest feelings in recent memory. And self-inflicted, no less.

Every time I have a night like that, I remember: there are people who brag about losing sleep, or think you’re lazy if you can’t get by on five hours every morning. There are times when you have to wake up early, just as there are times when you can’t get enough food or water, but it should be avoided as much as possible. It doesn’t just make you tired, it impairs you. According to the CDC,

  • An estimated 1 in 25 adult drivers (aged 18 years or older) report having fallen asleep while driving in the previous 30 days.
  • The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that drowsy driving was responsible for 72,000 crashes, 44,000 injuries, and 800 deaths in 2013. However, these numbers are underestimated and up to 6,000 fatal crashes each year may be caused by drowsy drivers.

Sweet dreams. However, I’ve always wondered if the severe stages affect others as much as me. My senses were hyperactive in childhood, and when I stay up all night, the slightest touch feels deeply nauseating, like nails over chalkboard. I would rather suffer twenty-four hours of influenza symptoms. It sounds melodramatic, but that’s the best description I can give. As such, I’ve prepared an account of those feelings: I’m curious how familiar they sound.

For me, lost sleep affects the senses as deeply as the mind. At the beginning, it decays vigilance, it impairs memory, and it leaves eyes coarse and bloodshot, as if they’ve been soaked in chlorine. The effects are minor with one missed hour, but they worsen quickly afterward. Muscle tremors set in, punishing movement, exposure to cold, or further attempts at sleep. When they develop late at night, it becomes tempting to get out of bed, but that only makes them worse in the end.
At amounts below two hours, it feels less like drowsiness than poisoning. The brain is prevented from clearing certain neurotransmitters, and the journey begins with mild euphoria. The room seems further away, and normal thought disintegrates, removing fears and expectations that seemed overwhelming before. Plans are formed for staying awake the next day: caffeine, lots of social interaction, and sharp focus on simple chores.

But the hope fades around the time the sun rises. Hours become an undifferentiated mass, as if buried under cannabis, but my muscles protest at the slightest touch, and the world acquires a harsh, grainy filter, leaving nearly everything painful to view. When I shower, the water clings sickeningly to my face, and my shirt disgusts me as I slide it on. If possible, I hide in my room all day with the door locked, skipping meals to remain alone. You hate yourself for reaching this state again, but your only priority is forgetting you’re there. I’ll often watch Netflix or other websites to distract myself, although I have to remove my glasses, because otherwise the most attractive sets and people look highly disgusting. I’ve watched entire television seasons in a single day, which is a dubious honor. Video games can also be an effective distraction, but it’s difficult to gather enough energy, and I usually don’t perform well. Books are almost impossible to focus on. Masturbation is an option, but it produces sweat, which reminds me how shitty I feel.

If forced to travel in public, I slide my glasses in my pocket, try to avoid looking at anyone, and attempt to hide my disgust over wind, cold temperature, insects, moisture, and anything else that happens to brush my face. I don’t think I’m successful, because people often ask if something’s wrong; my grandfather once thought I was on drugs, and not legal ones (I wasn’t). I’ll complete work or chores if they’re right in front of me, but it’s physically difficult to get anything myself, or sometimes even to remember it. As the day progresses, I start involuntarily sleeping for brief moments, leaving time disjointed and spotty. It’s unsettling to become so weak, so confused by simple activities.

Often, sleep deprivation is caused by having too much work, taking too long to do it, or some insidious blend of the two. Writing is a particular culprit, because you have to focus on it very deeply, but you also have to relax yourself to really get anywhere. Otherwise, if you’re like me, you’ll spend six hours writing three sentences, and other tasks—math, laundry, job applications—will fall by the wayside, until they form a heap that can only be conquered by staying up until three in the morning. Of course, the more sleep you miss, the dumber you get, and the more you forget what you’re doing. In accordance with circadian rhythm, your energy dips between 2 and 5 PM, leaving precious little behind. You accomplish nothing until the evening, when it begins to rise, and nighttime hormones relieve stress, making you forget how tired you were. You’re tempted to stay up until three again to catch up, promising yourself you’ll do better tomorrow, or when you finish this class, or in a year or two.
Electronics are another culprit. I’ve been known to play video games until eleven or twelve at night, and I regret it almost every time. It’s easier to play for longer than I intend, but more importantly, they affect me afterward. There’s a particular sort of energy that leaves half your mind in the game, even when you’re lying in bed with the lights off. When I reach that state, it can take two or three hours to fall asleep, if it’s even possible. First person shooters seem to be the worst, perhaps because of the intensity, and perhaps because I keep my computer in my room. But any genre or console can do it. While rarer, television can have the same effect. Web browsing hasn’t induced as many involuntary all-nighters, but it’s a good way to stay up an hour or two late, particularly if I don’t brush my teeth or clean the kitchen first.

The other primary cause has been frustration over the sleep itself. It’s much, much harder to sleep well if I’m scared I won’t be able to. When I started trying to correct my sleep cycle in high school, it had been almost three years since I’d reliably gotten eight hours. The first time I tried to sleep at nine or ten, my mind wouldn’t shut off until well after midnight. I faced the same problem again the next day. My body wasn’t used to sleeping that early, and I was going to bed excited about getting more rest. Both made it difficult for my brain to shut off, and some adolescent chemistry might have contributed as well. The transition into sleep involves letting go, and my desperation pushed it away. Our bathroom also had a mold problem, requiring several walls to be cut open, and the repair company left two loud devices running there. They were necessary, but they woke me up two or three times each night.

I also had unmedicated, undiagnosed ADHD, and it was worse back then. Even when I did manage to sleep for eight or nine hours, I never stopped being tired, no matter how much exercise, caffeine, or loud music I added to the picture. My mother still smoked back then, and she rarely slept for more than four or five hours. She’d always encouraged me to go to bed earlier in the past, but this time she just wanted me to shut up about being so tired. I suspect she was still bitter about me setting my own bedtime, and I started plenty of stupid arguments myself, as you’d expect. But the end result was that no one listened, and I essentially had to relearn how to sleep in a normal fashion. It took months to accomplish.

On the positive side, I finally beat Zelda II Wednesday morning. It’s probably the hardest Zelda game, but it’s also the only flat-out RPG, with the possible exception of Breath of the Wild. And like most RPGs, you can get stronger than intended if you’re willing to spend hours grinding. I started a new game Tuesday evening, found a room in the first palace with three respawning Bubbles, and killed them for experience until my attack stat reached seven. The rest largely followed. The last two palaces murdered me even with all stats at eight, but I pushed through, and Dark Link has an A.I. oversight that makes him much easier than he appears. This could have been accomplished without missing a single of sleep, and probably more efficiently, but at least something good came of it.

Why Ocarina of Time Isn’t the Best Game Ever

Ah, Ocarina of Time. The first 3D Zelda, and probably the most respected. Ocarina pioneered target-locking, context-sensitive controls, and other modern features, lifting the core gameplay into wider spaces with no loss of playability. It hit shelves in 1998, earning perfect scores from IGN, GameSpot, Edge, Famitsu, and numerous other sources. In that day, it probably deserved them. Countless developers cite it as an influence. At the time of writing, it continues to hold the highest Metacritic rank of any video game.

I first played Ocarina of Time in second grade. My parents ordered a GameCube from eBay, which shipped with a copy of Zelda: Collector’s Edition. It also shipped with a PlayStation 2 AV cable, which proved mostly incompatible. The screen rendered in sickly gray tones with lines of wavering static, as if struck by some digital pathogen. After placing yet another order for the proper AV cable, I popped the disc in around a week later. I tried all four games, but Ocarina was the first I made any progress in. The NES titles killed me too fast, and Majora’s Mask was too complicated. I got stuck at Death Mountain for several months, but a guide helped me enter (and beat) Dodongo’s Cavern, and I woke up early the next morning, trying to make up for lost time. When we moved the system to my room, I often played late at night with the speakers muted, sneaking paranoid glances down the hallway. I often turned in homework late, as well, but you don’t get that focused without making sacrifices.

Despite that, when Edge, IGN, or other sources called Ocarina the best game ever made, I never agreed. I considered it very good, and I still do, but “best ever” didn’t make sense to me. The characters were too simple, the combat was too easy, and the Water Temple sucked too bad, among other reasons.

Ocarina of Time deserves great respect, both as a influential title and an . But to be crowned above all others, mere influence is not sufficient, at least in my eyes. It must excel in every area, even patches of relative weakness. And even if we ignore the outdated textures, there’s one realm of glaring weakness: character development.

The plot is a simple tale of good versus evil, with little deviation. The most interesting event occurs when Ganondorf conquers Hyrule. After gathering the eponymous Ocarina and the three Spiritual Stones, you open the Door of Time and draw the Master Sword, expecting it to grant you the power to stop him. Instead, he follows you into the Sacred Realm, and you’re sealed away for seven years, emerging as an adult in the blackened rubble of Castle Town. Darkness swirls through the sky, and the NPCs have been transformed into walking corpses with a taste for your flesh. It’s a heavy blow.

When you return to your home forest, monstrous, man-eating plants grow alongside houses, and Octorocks float through the pond, firing rocks at your skull. It’s another rude awakening, although I’d prefer if they attacked the other forest dwellers. In the next area, Ganondorf imprisons the Gorons in the Fire Temple, planning to feed them to an ancient dragon. He isn’t a complex villain, but he serves well in his role as destroyer.

Unfortunately, he’s probably fleshed-out better than everyone else. Zelda develops your strategy throughout the game, switching forms in a way that keeps her somewhat dynamic. The rest of the cast is largely hollow, including the Sages. They have a handful of amusing lines, but they change little, rarely interact with each other, and suffer less than you might expect. Most of Ganondorf’s actions are also reversed by the end, even in the adult timeline.

It’s pretty good compared to, say, Mario 64, but even in Ocarina’s era, deeper writing existed. Fallout 2 came out the same year, FreeSpace 2 was released in 1999, and Final Fantasy VI reached shelves in 1994, to name three I’m personally familiar with. Hell, Majora’s Mask came out in 2000, and it does a better job.

Combat is also simpler than later Zeldas. There are only a handful of sword techniques, and few enemies require tactics more complex than “raise your shield until you see an opening”, if that. It handles well, but there’s no Flurry Rush, Mortal Draw, or Parry Attack. One moderately challenging combo allows you to quickly perform enhanced spin attacks, and you can stab rapidly by kneeling behind your shield. That’s the extent of things. It’s not a bad system, by any means, but it’s been surpassed many times since.

The overworld of Ocarina is a mixed bag. On the one hand, dungeons are revealed quickly, without the protracted fetch quests of Wind Waker, Twilight Princess, or (dear God) Skyward Sword. On the other hand, there aren’t nearly as many side areas. Hyrule Field is a vast, open expanse with relatively little to do. There are Big Poes as an adult, Peahats and Stalchildren to fight for money as a child, and two evil golden spiders that can be found by bombing your way into simple caverns. It’s (other than the day-night cycle) largely painless to navigate, but the most interesting part of the area is how it connects to other places. Termina Field is larger, richer in side quests, and simply easier on the eyes, and Twilight Princess‘s version of Hyrule Field is superior in similar ways. Even the Great Sea, as tedious as it can be, packs a lot more content, with numerous caverns, platforms, and submarines, many entirely optional.

Compare the areas in Ocarina of Time to their counterparts in Majora’s Mask. Romani Ranch reuses character models from Lon Lon Ranch, but it adds dog racing, replaces Ingo with a pair of corrupt rival ranchers, and attaches an early-morning attack by aliens (or possibly ghosts) who want to steal your cattle. Castle Town has quite a few side quests, but Clock Town has even more, and it changes as the three days pass. Zora’s Domain is smaller than Great Bay, the Gerudo’s Fortress is simpler than the Pirate’s Fortress, and so on. I say this not to brag about Majora, but to show how limited Ocarina’s world really is.

Perhaps the greatest contrast occurs in the phase of the quest involving large numbers of undead. Ocarina of Time gets the Kakariko Well, the Shadow Temple, the Kakariko Graveyard, and adult Castle Town. Majora’s Mask gets Ikana, a unified area much larger in scope. The spectres also exhibit greater humanity. ReDeads dance, Gibdos speak, and Flat teaches you the Song of Storms.

Ocarina is known for excellent dungeon design. The Forest Temple is among the finest levels I’ve encountered, no matter the genre. The Fire Temple, Spirit Temple, and Shadow Temple are almost as good, and they play quite differently. Ganon’s Castle is easier and less unified, but it makes for a nice change of pace before the final battle. Even the Deku Tree is a good tutorial area, and the Master’s Quest version is lethal.

And then the Water Temple appears. It, too, is lethal, like waiting in line at the Social Security office, or debugging a program in machine language. Dark Link and Morpha are interesting, but the dungeon revolves around raising and lowering the water level, which can only be accomplished by playing Zelda’s Lullaby in front of certain crests. By itself, this might be tolerable, but the Iron Boots transform the area into a horrible slog with countless visits to the pause menu. Every switch between water and air is punished by an interruption, and if you change the water incorrectly a few times (you will), you’re interrupted even more. Add in the usual sluggish block puzzles, and it begins to feel more like homework than gaming. The 3DS remake fixes it, but every other version still suffers.

In a game with nine primary dungeons, a single misstep is easily forgiven. Unless it’s the best game ever, in which case the Water Temple doesn’t belong here. Or the ancient textures. Or Hyrule Field. Or the clumsy arrow controls.

Ocarina of Time wrote the book for action adventure titles. Even today, the 3DS remake earned several perfect scores. I’d give it a 9 myself. But it’s not without fault. In the end, nothing is.

Image Attribution

Link vs. Ganondorf
April 14, 2011.

Second image:
Nintendo Press. April 15, 2011.

Majora’s Mask: The Clockworks
Author: Janice Scott, Upload: 2013.
Found: https://danlev.deviantart.com/art/Majora-s-Mask-The-Clockworks-346565290

Link vs Amoeba
Author: Anthony Vargas, Upload: 2011.
Found: https://tv-tonyvargas.deviantart.com/art/Link-vs-Amoeba-196662799?q=gallery:tv-outcastart/74034&qo=28

Review: Observer

Genre: First-person adventure, survival horror
Developer: Bloober Team
Platform: Windows, PS4, Xbox One, Mac, Linux
Release: August 15, 2017

Observer is an unusual beast. It belongs to the class of horror games that don’t let you defend yourself, but there are relatively few moments of danger, unlike, say, Amnesia. It also eschews true supernatural elements in favor of an oppressive dystopia, delivering the most horrifying visuals through the Dream Eater, a device that lets you invade human memories.

The game takes place in future 2084, a world of overgrown technology. Poland is run by the Chiron Corporation, a company that gained control in the aftermath of a great war between East and West. Mechanical augmentations are common, and not always benign. The population lives in fear of the Nanophage, a plague that causes your implants to attack your organs. Beyond that, your character occasionally has to inject Synchrozine to stop his mechanical parts from shattering his psyche.

You play as Daniel Lazarski, a specialist employed by their police force. Unlike Adam Jensen or Soldier G65434-2, you spend the game unarmed, and your implants weren’t built for combat. Instead, they let you project night vision, scan organic matter and technology, and view a virtual case log, in addition to the aforementioned memory invasions.

Lazarski spends the game hunting a serial killer in a class C apartment complex, home to the lowest of the three social castes segregated by Chiron. The complex is brilliantly realized, a den of drug users, hologram addicts, and blue electronic ad screens. When the main power cuts out, they fear your Dream Eater as much as they do loss of stimulation. You don’t harm them, but few trust you, and the backstory makes it hard to blame them.

You find many of the killer’s victims too injured to speak, and the Dream Eater allows you to gather evidence, recreating their darkest memories as a parade of hallucinations. You witness disintegrating corridors, silhouettes who cover ground in angular jerks, and appliances that cry, vomit, or fly through the air. The sequences are fairly linear, with a handful of puzzles and the occasional stealth section, but they bring the darkness of cyberpunk to grim, bloated exuberance. Lazarski emerges from each trip gasping for Synchrozine, vision covered with blotchy digital squares. Horror is most effective when it spawns depression, and the initial half of Observer delivers in spades.

You also scan objects near the victims, ranging from credit chips to globs of blood and tissue. Your findings establish them as disenfranchised and sometimes questionable bunch. One victim used drugs, and another performed illegal cybernetic operations. One particularly tenacious managed to wound their attacker with a sword cane, leaving a trail of blood for you to follow. It’s an effective way to convey information, although I had to switch between different vision types too often for my taste.

You’ll make some of your most interesting discoveries by reading computers. There are numerous character logs and emails throughout the different suites, ranging from critical plot information to male enhancement requests. The Chiron Corporation’s logo rests watchfully at the home screen of every system, and their footprint echoes throughout the low-caste apartment complex, whose residents receive fewer votes per person than higher citizens. One computer throws in a piece of wartime propaganda, establishing their sheer level of control. Some computers also contain a minigame where you navigate a maze full of spiders, collecting flaming swords as weaponry. The graphics are intentionally lo-fi, and each area reveals a new level or two. It’s a brief but welcome respite from the darkness.

Unfortunately, Observer loses steam in the later portions. The first chunks of memory are unsettling, but it uses similar tricks and scream effects too many times, and tolerance builds quickly. Lazarski’s scanning implants are disabled in the neural realm, and aside from the stealth sections, you’re free to avert your eyes. You aren’t forced to confront your fears like in other horror games.

Several times, you’re required to hack into the brain of a deceased person. Your onboard A.I. warns against it, and the first scenario leads to the game’s most nightmarish sequence, where Lazarski faces true danger. But the setup repeats numerous times, and it loses punch. His brain suffers from the experience, leading to hallucinations in real life. Voices accost you, and wires turn to intestinal tissue, a twisted figurehead for the fusion of metal and flesh. But even then, I rarely felt threatened. Even the few enemy sequences were too simple; I snuck past one without ever seeing it. For reference, I’m the guy who couldn’t bring himself to get past the first enemy in SOMA, so I don’t think my spine is enormously thick.

More damningly, Lazarski and the other main characters never quite live up to the depth of the setting. It’s hard to tell if his voice actor is trying to sound grave or bored, and the body count becomes increasingly cheap, as if you were watching a low-budget slasher flick. The decline is slow initially, but it dives headfirst into a very predictable sort of horror at the end, reducing the higher themes to mere window dressing. Both suffer as a result. It’s refreshing to see a game where the protagonist isn’t trying to save the world, but once you adapt to the jump scares, there has to be substance underneath.

In particular, large amounts of time are spent building one very promising character… only to jettison his development for a cheap horror persona. Many game elements remain strong, but the damage to the climax is irreparable.

When horror is fused with other genres, it tends to consume them. Technology, shadowy researchers, and government programs become rationalizations for monstrous forces, and everyday men and women are reduced to mere props for their rampage. At the beginning, Observer straddles the line well, but horror dominates by the end, wearing cyberpunk as mask instead of partner. Visions repeat too often, deaths are too easy to predict, and characters become cheap victims or aggressors. In a less story-driven game, these faults could be overlooked, but Observer reaches for higher territory, and it could have been brilliant if it stayed on task. As it stands, I’m glad I played it, but it left me wanting more.

Rating: 7/10 (Good)

Run-of-the-mill “good” game. Mostly convincing, with a few notable flaws that hold it back from greatness.

Web Review: Frantic 2

Genre: Shooter
Developer: polymerrabbit
Platform: Internet
Release: September 1, 2009

In addition to games you download or install to your PC, I’ve decided to review Internet releases as well, provided they reach a certain level of depth. The reasons for this are twofold: some deserve recognition, and you can’t go on IGN or GameSpot for each one and read about the same shit. My first review involves a game by web creator polymerrabbit, one I’ve been playing on-and-off on Kongregate for many years:

Frantic 2 is a bullet hell shooter notable for how easy it can be. In it, you pilot one of five ships through patterns of enemies that launch circles, triangles, line segments, and other geometric shapes at you from across the screen. The game contains fifteen levels, which are split into three episodes that can be played in any order, and there are four additional game modes, two of which must be unlocked.

The sheer number of enemy projectiles can be daunting, especially when joined by opponents who carry lasers or homing missiles. Each level throws a mini-boss at you around halfway through, and a boss at the end, which spew enough geometry to fill the entire screen. They often carry missile or laser turrets, sometimes both at once, and survival requires careful maneuvering that limits your chances to aim clearly.

However, unlike many shooters, Frantic 2 allows your ship to survive multiple hits, and you can fly over enemy vessels without harm. Even if you die, you begin each episode with multiple lives, though the highest difficulty offers only two. By killing enemies, you slowly fill an adrenaline meter, which allows you to slow time, shield yourself, or unleash massive attacks that destroy enemy bullets. It makes for a refreshingly approachable experience. You increase your score multiplier by flying next to bullets and killing enemies at close range, but it gets sliced in half when you take a hit, so you’re still rewarded for mastering dangerous actions. By selecting the right card, these actions can also provide extra adrenaline or bonuses to weapon power.

Frantic 2‘s greatest strength is variety, often coming in fives. Five ships, five difficulty levels, and five cards for each of three categories. There are five primary weapons to choose from, ranging from shuriken to laser beams, and you can select between five types of wingmen, which fire rockets, particle showers, or other weapons in formation with you. Most of the options are satisfying, although enemies explode with a generic effect that irritated me after repeated playthroughs. It clashes with the rest of the visuals, which aren’t too pretty to begin with.

On that note, the game doesn’t show much variety in presentation. Each level shares the same soundtrack and boss theme, which would lose impact after five stages, to say nothing of fifteen. Sprites and in-game text are pixelated in a chunky way, not an endearing one, and most of the bullet effects are made from similar shapes and colors.

The game’s sole background is a white (or black, if you choose) space with a few particle effects to simulate motion. It makes the bullets easy to see, but that’s about all you can say for it. Even a simple grid would have looked more interesting.

The sheer number of enemy projectiles can be daunting, especially when joined by opponents who carry lasers or homing missiles. Each level throws a mini-boss at you around halfway through, and a boss at the end, which spew enough geometry to fill the entire screen. They often carry missile or laser turrets, sometimes both at once, and survival requires careful maneuvering that limits your chances to aim clearly.

However, unlike many shooters, Frantic 2 allows your ship to survive multiple hits, and you can fly over enemy vessels without harm. Even if you die, you begin each episode with multiple lives, though the highest difficulty offers only two. By killing enemies, you slowly fill an adrenaline meter, which allows you to slow time, shield yourself, or unleash massive attacks that destroy enemy bullets. It makes for a refreshingly approachable experience. You increase your score multiplier by flying next to bullets and killing enemies at close range, but it gets sliced in half when you take a hit, so you’re still rewarded for mastering dangerous actions. By selecting the right card, these actions can also provide extra adrenaline or bonuses to weapon power.

The typos get old, however

Between levels, you can upgrade your ship with coins dropped by fallen enemies, swapping weapons, upgrading their power, or purchasing cards that confer special benefits. These cards provide much of Frantic 2‘s tactical depth, allowing your ship to regenerate health, move faster, disable enemy missiles, suck in faraway coins, or perform other feats. Initially, only two can be carried, but beating any episode unlocks a third slot. There are also several unlockable cards, enhancing replay value.

For fans of more brutal shooters, the Kamikaze card makes your ship go down in one hit, with a small boost in weapon power for compensation. It can be unlocked by completing two levels without taking any hits.

As mentioned, there are four additional games modes. Arcade removes the shop, providing upgrades based on your ship choice. Another mode offers a prolonged fight against all thirty bosses and mini-bosses. Endurance requires you to complete all 15 levels in one sitting. Survival is the game’s greatest challenge, offering an endless battle where one hit is fatal.

For those interested, Frantic 2 also offers leaderboards. It’s a considerable slice of content, and progression is fast and clean, with no hint of grinding or other tedious padding. I unlocked everything several years ago, but I still return on occasion.

I’ve docked 0.5 points because of my issues with artwork and sound, but otherwise it’s solid.

Rating: 7.5/10 (Good)

Here’s a link, if you want to play it yourself:
Kongregate: http://www.kongregate.com/games/polymerrabbit/frantic-2?acomplete=frantic2

First Impressions: Observer

Genre: First-person adventure, survival horror
Developer: Bloober Team
Platform: Windows, PS4, Xbox One, Mac, Linux
Release: August 15, 2017

I bought this game off Steam last Friday after reading a handful of reviews. The PC version fell short of an 80 on Metacritic, but that isn’t a failure condition like when I was younger. I’ve played nine hours so far, and it seems decent, although I haven’t reached the ending yet. I’ll post a full review after I finish.

An epilepsy warning. Global war between East and West. Cybernetic implants, and a plague that makes them consume your organs. A corporation so powerful it governs a nation, dividing humans into social castes with different voting rights. Your character introduces himself before the title screen, delivering a monologue on the game’s backstory. It’s an effective introduction, although I could imagine some players accidently skipping it.

You arrive in the first gameplay scene slumped back in a car, injecting Synchrozine to stabilize your mechanical parts. Your vision blurs when you go too long without it, and after memory sequences. My supply of the drug has never run low, but it makes your powers a little more threatening. It’s a classic cyberpunk setup, but it’s refreshing to find a game where you aren’t a super soldier.

Instead, you’re a augmented police officer working for the corporate structure. Nine hours in, I haven’t found any firearms, blades, or other weaponry, except as unusable props. There’s no hand-to-hand combat, or even a jump button. Instead, you follow a trail of murders, scanning electronics and body parts in an effort to find the killer. You spend the game in a class C apartment complex, filled with hologram addicts, controlled sedatives, and the occasional organ dealer. The residents fear you, partly for your invasive evidence gathering, and partly for your association with corporate power. It’s been an intriguing journey so far, although the lead’s voice acting is too sluggish for my tastes.

Your implants allow you to scan for electronic parts and organic matter, produce night vision, or hack into the brains of others, experiencing their memories in tortured, hallucinatory binges. These binges are your primary means of gathering information. You’re thrown between rooms that grow, pulsate, scream demonically, sprout intestinal tissue in your face, and pour electronic feedback into your ears, while you try to discern plot details from the translucent, jerky human figures around you. Most of the visions can’t kill you, but you never know what to expect. I once saw a pipe vomit bloody laundry, complete with shaking and very human gurgles.

That said, it quit scaring me after the first few hours. It threw too many screams and furniture at me in too short a period of time, and because I’ve rarely been in danger, I’ve rarely been forced to confront them like in other horror games. Movies let you look away until a particular scene finishes, and Observer mostly does as well.

When enemies do appear, Observer follows the Amnesia school of not allowing you to fight back. In some ways, it goes further. When detected, you’re immediately dragged out and killed. But the monsters I’ve run into have a narrow visual range, and I was able to avoid them by hiding under desks, even when they trudged right beside me.

All in all, it seems like a strong title. It has an extreme ratio of story-over-action, which might drive some players away, but I’ve enjoyed it so far. I’ve noticed some of the dark backstory elements haven’t made a strong appearance in gameplay, and I’m hoping they’ll be integrated more by the time I finish. One reviewer thought the ending was very weak, but I haven’t spoiled it for myself, and I’ve only used guides to solve a small number of puzzles I didn’t have time to figure out manually. I’d like to write a review later this week, but I have an essay to write for school, and I want to study technique a little first. I’ve been reading old issues of Game Informer in my spare time.