Thursday, June 6, 2019

Quick Sips - Serial Box: Alternis [s01.03 & s01.04]

After a pair of episodes penned by the same author, these two new installments of Alternis from Serial Box come from different sources. The authors do a good job of flowing the style and feel of the world and characters, though, creating a mostly seamless transition and exploring the world of the game further. And it is in many ways about the shock of a rather idealistic creator finding out exactly what her game is being used for, facing the criticism from people who have very different styles of play, priorities, and stakes. All while keeping things weird, charming, and tense. To the reviews!


“Do The Math” by Maurice Broaddus (s01.03)

No Spoilers: So there’s a new mission that’s...a bit above the party’s level. While the other teams begin level grinding and preparing for their chance at the prize, though, Dante has a much different idea of how to proceed. The episode is all about teamwork. Or, well, maybe the lack of it. There hasn’t been much time for the team’s personalities to gel yet, and with the stakes so high it seems like there’s no time to wait or think about what might be best. Action rules the day, which isn’t perhaps the worst course of action in an RPG. After the relative success of last episode, this one acts as a reality check, and introduces a lot of new people, places, and ideas.
Keywords: RPGs, Teamwork, Family, Diplomacy, Sheep
Review: Okay the scene of Tandy going around petting sheep for experience was pretty great. Can we all agree on that? I do like how the project is building up the world of Alternis as a place developed by someone doing it for the love of it, without a lot of formal experience or training. And how it’s making this situation for Tandy where she doesn’t know what to say or what to do, both because she doesn’t know if her having the knowledge she does is considered cheating, and because the rest of the party doesn’t exactly have much nice to say about the design work she did. It’s especially clear with Dante, who approaches everything from the perspective of familiarity. So if the game is like other games he’s played, he likes it. But because Alternis comes outside of that, without quite the same value set of “traditional” games, he spends much of his time talking about how Tandy got it “wrong.” Which leaves Tandy in this vulnerable place where Dante will put it down, Ben will agree on principle, and Etta won’t say anything, despite the fact she likes the game world, because saying so would make her vulnerable as well. The story does a subtle job of showing these women kept apart in some ways because of toxic gamer culture, and yet I really hope that they become closer and can push back against some of Dante’s by-the-numbers approach to gaming.

Otherwise, this episode turns things back from the success of the previous installment by handing the team a pretty resounding loss, though not one they can’t walk away from. But it shows the team struggling to find ways around the game design. Dante is all about trying to exploit the rules in order to win, which I mean is a legit strategy for some games, but seems at odds with the spirit of Alternis, something that I feel is going to be more and more important with time. In that vein, the episode also reveals that Team Canada is actually more like Team Cheat-anada. Canadegenerates? Ca-not-playing-fair-ada? Hmm. Well they’re disqualified for cheating, and I am very interested to see what that means back in the “real world,” because that aspect of the game is fascinating to me. The rift between game and resources hasn’t been super explored yet, and I want to see if there will be news about problems arising north of the border.

There’s also a bit of head hopping in this chapter, which happened a bit last episode as well and seems to be a feature of the project. It’s handled well, though with the larger perspective shifts bracketed out by section breaks it sometimes made it more difficult to know who was having what thought at times. Still, I like the way the project is building up the team and their different personalities and specialties. Ben hasn’t gotten quite as much time to shine yet, but there’s strong work with Tandy, Etta, and Dante. The team isn’t exactly looking like one yet, but with this failure there’s maybe the hope that they’ll find out they do much better when they’re on the same page and maybe having fun rather than just worrying about winning. It continues to be a very fun and lush read, with the feel of a game and a political scene that might seem fairly simple now, but I’d bet is going to start ramping up soon. A great read!

“Xyzzy” by E.C. Myers (s01.04)

No Spoilers: Fresh off a recent failure, the team has to figure out how to move forward—a prospect hampered by Dante’s anger and moodiness. Tandy, hoping to maybe finally get accepted by the team, decides she knows exactly how to help. And it works. Kind of. But also. Kind of not. The episode focuses on people trying to force teamwork and understanding out of a group still very much treating Alternis as something they have to win rather than something they have to play. And the episode brings with it a moment that has been building since Tandy first showed up in the game, and leads to a rather interesting new wrinkle.
Keywords: RPGs, Coding, Lies, Beavers, Puzzles
Review: There’s a certain roughness to this series so far that’s interesting to me. Because in some ways the series feels almost at odds with itself, bumpy in the way that Alternis itself is bumpy, filled with hope and compassion but with a few hiccups that add an abrupt feeling to things for me. Which again, fits well with the nature of the setting and the situation, where the team is mucking through this game that’s not entirely finished, where Tandy has to keep explaining that the inconsistencies in the game and design are mostly to do with her not having finished it and not having been able to do anything with it to really get ready for what’s happened. Everything has been reacting at this point, Tandy still an outsider and wanting very much for things to work. And she’s got this one advantage, this one secret that’s sort of eating her up inside but that she’s afraid to really bring up because she knows that it will be used against her as much as it might help her seem useful. The problem with just reacting, though, is that she’s lost control over when her secret gets revealed. And that’s not even the worst of it.

I love how it all starts with her wanting to spare the feelings of Dante. The series so far has done a good job exploring and spotlighting the emotional work that is required of the women on the team. Etta and Tandy are supposed to be the facilitators. They are there to navigate the fragile egos of the men. The men who are the first to act rashly when things aren’t going their way and then lash out about it if someone mentions it. Ben in this episode kills a beaver to save time. Dante kills fairies because that’s what he’s supposed to do. There’s this pressure to not value the aesthetic of the game, or respect the NPCs of it, that is driven by the men. It’s part of what pushes Tandy to hold back, to want to seem like she can hold her own in the same ways, and what pushes here to bend the rules in order to try and do something nice, yes, but also to “give” Dante a win. She cuts corners because she’s not playing her way, isn’t focused on enjoying things. And that I think is where the series is most interesting for me, because it carries this heavy weight of the rest of the world, and so Tandy (and Etta too) aren’t really embracing their play styles, favoring instead Dante’s. But Dante is an emotionally unstable asshole who probably shouldn’t be catered to. It’s something his sister notes to kick off the episode, and I think it’s telling that he’s given so much space while really not caring if anyone else he’s playing with is having a good time.

And in the end it’s what costs people a big part of Tandy’s utility, because the team essentially squanders her insider knowledge trying to puff up Dante’s self esteem and it crashes part of the game, causes a patch that means that Alternis isn’t as much the game that Tandy envisioned. And seeing the beaver corpses in the water afterward, it seems like it might be setting up a bit darker a world. It’s a fascinating twist, and I’m very excited to see what the series does with it. A wonderful read!


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