Essentialism: Just Say No

I purchased Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown on a whim. I was at the bookstore, they didn’t have any of the books I came for (too old), and Essentialism was on my TBR list. Before you could say cheesy self-help, Essentialism was on my shelf.

I really wish I hadn’t purchased the book. Essentialism is mediocre, even for a self-indulgent business book. I have a soft spot for books about productivity and time management, even though they are often kind of bad, but this one was not worth my time at all. And it’s not worth yours either.

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McKeown says over and over again that Essentialism is all about focusing on the number one thing in your life to exclusion of all else. Not only is this impossible, it’s unhealthy. It’s ok to follow interests that aren’t directly related to your core mission in life. It’s ok to want to do things that aren’t directly related to your career. And sometimes you have to do things that don’t directly fit into your core mission because you’re a freaking adult and not everything you have to do is something that you want to do.

The book is mostly filler and could have easily been condensed into a single strong article instead of bloated to an entire book. There are only so many times one needs to say “Say no to things that aren’t central to your mission.”

Get a head start on the Essentialist lifestyle and say “no” to this book.

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The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses (A Lot of Lenses)

Last month, I ran across the YouTube channel Extra Credits, and I have become a creature obsessed. Extra Credits is a shining example of quality game discourse: Every episode is well-written, thoughtful, and informed. They’ve put together a playlist of all their episodes in chronological order, which you can find right here. Sorry in advance for sucking up all your spare time.

In one of their “mailbag” episodes, in which they answer questions sent in by viewers, they recommended a number of books on game design. Now, I’m not interested in becoming a game designer myself, but I am very interested in the game design process, so I decided to write down their suggestions and add them to my TBR list.

Impatience Rewarded

First up was Jesse Schell’s guide, The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses. My library had a digital copy and I forgot to bring a book for my lunch break, so I started reading it almost immediately.

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I’m glad that I read The Art of Game Design right after watching so many episodes of Extra Credits, when my enthusiasm was way up. As interesting as I think game design is, this is definitely a book written directly to game designers. Coming at it from a player perspective made the whole thing feel a bit off.

Even so, it was a good read. The whole book is organized well, so the sections that are super back-end, hidden-from-view, gritty details that I didn’t care about were easy to skip, and honestly, the “lenses” that Schell highlights throughout the book do a nice job of summarizing each section, making this a book that’s easy to come back to for refreshers, or an easy skim if you just want a basic primer on the subject of game design.

Recommendation

If you’re interested in game design, The Art of Game Design is well worth your time, even if you only want to flip through and read the summaries of each section. As a player, I learned a lot, and if you’re an aspiring or current designer, I’m sure you’ll learn even more.

(This review has been cross-posted to my LibraryThing account.)

Asking the Right Questions: The Critical Thinking Guide All of Us Need

Because I’m returning to school this upcoming fall, I thought it would be a good idea to brush up on my literary theory and critical thinking skills. As I was meandering through the relevant section of the campus library, I stumbled upon Asking the Right Questions and picked it up on a whim.

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cover image from LibraryThing

Priming the Pump

Asking the Right Questions is a quick read that manages to pack a great deal of excellent information in a deceptively small volume. It uses plain, easy-to-understand language that is suitable to an audience unfamiliar with the principles of critical thinking, but never talks down to those who are more experienced with the subject.

In addition, the book provides both guided and self-lead exercises that allow the reader to practice the skills covered in the chapter on examples that are relevant and varied. I found the combination of instruction and practice very helpful, and am certain that many other will feel the same way.

Recommendation

Perhaps its just election-season fatigue talking, but I think everyone should read this book. Those who have never been exposed to the principles of critical thinking will find an excellent beginning resource that will set them on the right path. As for the rest of us: We could all use a brief refresher.

The Plan: Meditations on a Housefly

Oh, Steam. No matter how many games I play, you’re always there to show me that there are many, many more that I need to experience. Your algorithms for determining my interests have come a long way since I first started using you back in 2010, and I’m grateful for it.

As usual, I found The Plan through Steam’s recommendation engine. I think it was sent to me after playing Dear Esther, which — despite my lack of enthusiasm for the execution — was an interesting direction for a game to take. I’m down with walking simulators, as long as they tell a good story.

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Promotional image from Steam

The Simplest Story of All

In The Plan, you play as a housefly. There is no voiceover or text to guide you or distract you from your simple fly life. You are a fly, and you exist.

And that’s really most of the game. Just existing. Making it through life trying to find a point when there is no voiceover or game text to guide you.

Silence and Meaning

The Plan is only about four minutes long, so I won’t give away the ending. It’s free, just go give it a shot here.

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Screenshot from Steam

A smidgeon uncomfortable, wasn’t it?

A large part of what makes The Plan so compelling is its relative silence. There is music, but no language. This lack of language, the lack of traditional communication, causes the game to feel much longer than its mere four minute play-time. It’s strange and unnatural feeling.

The Plan is a quiet, contemplative piece in a medium that usually serves to distract us from our own thoughts. It gives our thoughts the quiet they need to peek out and look around with just enough of a direction to focus them. Honestly, playing as that little fly felt more like my daily meditation session than a gaming experience.

But I liked that. It’s nice to slow down and breathe for a few moments. It’s nice to just be without having a larger point. There are no experience points to be gained, no exploration to be had, no grand adventure to embark upon. It’s just you and a fly, meandering through life together.

Recommendation

I wouldn’t call The Plan a great game, but it is an interesting game. It uses the medium in a different way than we usually experience as gamers, and it offers a nice chance for contemplation and reflection.

Go play it. It’s pretty, it’s free, and it’s trying something a little bit different than the norm. Plus, it’s going to take you less than five minutes, so you may as well.

Brave New World

Introduction

I recently started a book club with some of my friends. After some voting and debating, we settled on Brave New World by Aldous Huxley as our first book. Many of the group remembered liking the book in high school, but couldn’t really recall any specifics, and the rest had never read it at all.

This was my third time reading Brave New World, and I noticed things that had escaped me before. Things that made me angry.

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My Newfound Feminist Lens

Despite always having some feminist tendencies, I wasn’t properly introduced to the movement until college. I took a class on punk rock music and discovered Riot Grrrl, and I’ve never looked back. I greatly appreciate that class for introducing me to a social movement I identify so strongly with, and I’m grateful that my journey into feminism and feminist theory was shaped by finding Riot Grrrl first.

Since I was introduced to feminism through Riot Grrrl, I’m pretty comfortable with anger. And I’m pretty comfortable voicing that anger.

So, what made me angry? The fact that the society of Brave New World is supposed to be a futuristic utopia, and women are still dealing with the same old shit.

Women’s Problems

Despite being genetically engineered for perfection, the women in Brave New World are still worried about their looks. Despite sex being demystified and normalized to the point of banality, women are still treated as the lesser partner. Despite the years of “progress,” women are still seen as less than men.

Lets break these things down one by one, shall we?

Worried about Physical Appearance
Brave New World is a very short book, which means that scenes that would normally be a mere blip on the radar of a story on a grander scale become imbued with significance. One such scene, or rather, series of scenes, is when Lenina is speaking with her friend in the locker room after work. The two women have lockers next to each other, and often chat while changing from their work clothes to their street clothes. Nothing abnormal about that.

But all they talk about are their bodies and their attractiveness toward men. Despite being genetically superior specimens, they are still worried about looking too fat. About not being beautiful enough. About being imperfect physical beings.

But we never see the men worrying about this. Ever. Just the ladies.

Lesser Sexual Partners
On a similar note, we see women being the only ones to worry about their sexual health and well-being. The few women who have not been created sterile are solely responsible for contraceptive measures. Forget about condoms. It’s all birth control, and it’s all for the ladies.

And while there is more of a sense of the men and women being equal sexual partners, the men “have” the women much more than the other way around. It’s not 100% — the women are mentioned to “take” the men every now and again — but is dominant.

While we’re talking about sex, why is everything so hetero? There is not a single, solitary mention of homosexual relationships.

Lesser Beings
Finally, I want to talk about the use of the word “pneumatic” to describe the women in the story. If there were a drinking game that called for readers to take a drink every time Huxley used the word pneumatic, it would have a 100% fatality rate. It’s so frequent. And what is pneumatic used to describe? The women’s bodies, and occasionally furniture. Yep. Women and chairs.

A Product of Its Time

I realize that Brave New World was written at a time when people were less informed than they are now. Women didn’t have the same rights and privileges then that they do now. I understand that Huxley’s work is a product of its time.

But it still makes me mad to see all of this, because Brave New World is supposed to be a view of progress. A satirical view, sure, but progress all the same. And what are the women? Sex toys that are concerned with nothing more than their ability to please. No women in power. No women dissatisfied with their role as little more than something for a man to use.

That’s not progress.

I also recognize that Brave New World is supposed to scare us. To act as a warning against the mindless pursuit of pleasure and the lack of social awareness. It’s very effective, because it sure scared me.

Detective Grimoire: Cute, Simple Fun

Introduction

I know that this is usually the time I would review a Nancy Drew game, but I just don’t have the next one finished yet. To be completely honest, I think I need a break from the Nancy Drew franchise, as playing them all in a row like I have been is beginning to take some of the fun out. I obviously love them, but they do tend to get a bit same-y after a while.

So what did I choose to play instead of Nancy Drew? Detective Grimoire. I know, I know: Playing another mystery game isn’t exactly the most dramatic change from Her Interactive’s portfolio, but what can I say? I’m a sucker for a mystery game.

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promotional artwork from Steam

Discovering the Game

After reviewing a couple of Nancy Drew games in Steam (Secrets Can Kill and Last Train to Blue Moon Canyon to be precise), Detective Grimoire began popping up in my recommended titles list. I clicked around the store page and thought it looked interesting, so I added it to my Wishlist, then forgot about it.

Well, Steam has started sending me emails whenever a game on my Wishlist is on sale, which I both love and hate. I love it because I get games I want for much less, and don’t miss out on the often short windows where their price drops, but I hate it because I wind up spending my fun money in teeny-tiny little bursts, turning Steam into a kind of permanent leak on my funds.

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Oh well. There are worse things.

Detective Grimoire popped up in my email as a game on sale, and since the price was so low, I snagged it immediately. I’m talking absolutely measly price-tag here. Like two dollars. How was I not going to buy it?

Short and Sweet

Despite its very short playtime — only 3 hours for a 100% — Detective Grimoire would have been worth its full price. It’s a tight little game that never gets boring, is beautiful to look at, and has mechanics that never get in the way. Mix all that with a good story and a killer soundtrack, and you’ve got a great game on your hands.

I was a smidge disappointed with the difficulty of the game, since I expected something a little harder. There’s not a lot of mystery-solving on the player’s part, since the game puts clues together for you. That being said, I know that I’m a bit of a mystery nerd, so even though I wanted more of a challenge, other players may find the game more accessible than some more subtle mystery titles.

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screenshot of clues being put together

The charm of the game more than makes up for the straightforwardness of the mystery. It has some basic puzzle elements and character interaction, neither of which are very difficult, but both are super fun. The characters are lovable and intriguing, which makes Detective Grimoire’s focus on talking a treat. And the voice-acting! Be still my heart! The voice-acting was superb.

I was also a huge fan of the art style, which honestly, is going to be a make-or-break thing for a lot of players. If you’re into casual gameplay and lighthearted stories, you probably won’t mind the quirky art style, since it fits with the mood of the game. But if you’re wanting something realistic, look elsewhere.

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screenshot showcasing art style/character design

Recommendation

Detective Grimoire is very short and very light, but showcases how great those kinds of games can be. I would highly recommend it for anyone who likes point-and-click adventures/mysteries, as well as anyone who just wants a little charm in their life.

Infinite Jest: A Confused Look Back

Today I’m going to be talking about Infinite Jest, so buckle-up, Buttercup. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Infinite Jest? I think I’ve heard of that!

Yeah, you probably have. Infinite Jest is one of those books that it seems like everyone has heard of, but nobody has actually read. At least, that was certainly my experience. I kept hearing about it in various places, but nobody I talked to had ever given it a shot.

After picking it up from the library, it was easy to see why more people haven’t given Infinite Jest a shot. It’s huge. HUGE. Big books usually hold no intimidation for me, but this one made me pause. Then I shrugged it off, because I am a Reader, damn it! No book is too large and/or complicated for me.

Super-Duper Complicated

Ok, so putting my pride aside, Infinite Jest may have been too complicated for me. It has so many plot threads and storylines that may or may not have much to do with each other that I had trouble keeping everything straight. Even with my copious notetaking habits, I struggled to make heads or tails of this one.

The confusion mostly stems from the lack of clear-cut relationships between events. Usually in a story, A happens, and then B happens afterwards, with a clear relationship visible between the two. But not so with Infinite Jest. Instead, A happens; then W happens; then C, T, and B all happen at the same time. And all this time you’re flipping between the story and the endnotes, which sometimes don’t seem to fit with everything else that’s going on. Trying to keep everything straight while resisting the urge to force arbitrary meaning on meaningless things is hard.

Post-Modernism Is Strange

Though it’s hard down to pin down a movement that is determined to destroy definition and expectation, I’d say it’s pretty clear that Infinite Jest  is about as post-modern as you get. All the things you expect in a reader/author/text relationship are turned on their head and made strange. The structure and writing techniques employed tell just as much of a story as the story itself, since they force you to examine the work in a way that is unfamiliar.

Lets take, for example, Wallace’s copious endnotes. They make up a significant portion of the story, and aren’t a strange technique in themselves. Lots of books have endnotes. But these endnotes often go off on total tangents, telling stories of their own, leading the reader away from the “original” subject matter, only to drop them back in the middle of the action, dazed and confused. Infinite Jest  is not a book that can be read passively. It’s active, and the reader has to work for comprehension.

So, should I read it or not?

I don’t know. It’s not an easy read by any means, and it didn’t really blow my mind or add a whole lot to my understanding of the world, but it is interesting. The format is interesting, and there’s no question that Wallace is a great writer. It’s dark and gritty, but frequently humorous as well. It paints life in an absurd light, highlighting just how weird the world is through fairly common occurrences, as well as extraordinary circumstance.

Give it a shot if you’re looking for a challenge and/or want to have your idea of story stretched. Skip it if you’re not willing to put a lot of time and energy into the reading.

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image from DavidFosterWallaceBooks.com

Whispering Willows: A Beautifully Crafted Disappointment

Introduction

Whispering Willows started showing up in my Steam recommendations last summer, when Steam learned that I favor mystery games and games with an interesting art style. Whispering Willows checks both boxes, so it only makes sense that it wound up in my radar.

I started playing the game last week, after purchasing it for next to nothing during a flash sale. (Side note: I may do a whole side post on Steam sales one of these days, since it’s an interesting business decision on the company’s part.) It’s short, and I figured it would be a good little indie game to write about here on the blog.

I wasn’t wrong when I assumed Whispering Willows would be an interesting game to review, but I’m not going to talk about the reasons I expected. I thought I would be raving about the art and the mysterious story, as well as the interesting core game mechanic. Instead, it got me thinking about disappointment.

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promotional image from Steam

Unmet Expectations, but Charming Story

Don’t take what I’m about to say the wrong way — overall Whispering Willows is a fine game, especially at its low price point. I brought expectations along that were flat out wrong, and that colored my whole gameplay experience.

I expected some sort of murder-mystery/whodunit kind of scenario, and it’s not that at all. I’m not sure where that assumption started, but don’t make the same mistake. Instead, it’s an exploration game. You play as Elena, a girl with shamanistic powers that’s trying to find her dad. He has gone missing within an old mansion that is widely believed to be haunted, and it’s Elena’s job to explore the grounds in order to bring him home.

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image from Steam store page

I actually really enjoyed the storyline. It was a refreshing change of pace to play as a young woman trying to save her father, instead of the stereotypical young man trying to save his lover. I liked the exploration of familial love over romantic/passionate love, and it was also a nice change of pace to explore that love from the viewpoint of the child, rather than that of the parent. I’ve played games where it’s the parent’s mission to save the child — and this makes sense, since the child is usually very young — but I connected much more with this reversal. After all, I don’t know what it’s like to be a mother, but I do know what it’s like to have a father you care for very much.

Beautiful, Atmospheric Environment

On top of the lovely nontraditional plotline, the game is beautiful. I’m a sucker for stylistic games, and Whispering Willows artistic bent leaves nothing to be desired. The flat, graphic novel style works well for a game centered around a rather young protagonist and accentuates the retro feel that the side-scrolling movement creates.

And Elena’s character design? Perfect. She’s a knobbly-kneed, kind of scrawny, totally relatable tween. She’s cute, but her looks are not emphasized as important. The fact that she wears her father’s oversized coat further deemphasizes her figure, which is a very welcome change from all the media that sexualizes females as soon as they hit puberty. She’s expressive and obviously frightened by her creepy environment, which only serves to make her bravery stand out more. She’s courageous and strong without being invincible. She’s human.

And don’t even get me started on how cool her spirit form is. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful!

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image from Steam store page

Disappointing Gameplay

So why, after all of these great points, did I fail to finish the game? It’s very short and obviously has some excellent features, so what happened?

It was boring.

The whole game is based on exploration. Elena moves through a giant haunted mansion and its surrounding grounds, picking up notes from previous inhabitants that reveal information about the area’s past and its current ghostly guests. Usually, I love exploring in games and one of my favorite ways to learn about the world is through diary entries — a la Bioshock, which introduced me to the technique.

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image from Steam store page

But rather than uncovering new areas and feeling excited by exploring, I found myself retreading old ground over and over again, which quickly grew old. I was always lost, and when I’d finally find a new area, it was always blocked, because it wasn’t the right new area. And the journal entries were poorly integrated with the overall gameplay experience, so reading them always felt like an interruption, rather than a part of the game. Especially when the notes were found in particularly creepy areas. I would open them up immediately, since I knew I’d forget to come back to them later, making the game’s element of danger moot, since everything halted as the player read.

Recommendation

I’m very torn on whether or not to recommend Whispering Willows. It’s beautiful and well-made with an interesting core story, but it’s just not a very fun game. So I suppose I have to say skip it.

House of Leaves: Not What It Once Was

Introduction

Though I have only written about books I’ve read for the first time here on the blog, I love to re-read things. Though it’s often less magical than the first reading, a re-read can allow for much deeper connection with a story and a better understanding of the overall structure. And re-reading books in different stages of life allows for brand-new perspectives and interpretations to appear.

House of Leaves is a book that I read back in high school after a friend of mine — who I had a major crush on — recommended it to me. It was one of his favorite books and when he let me borrow his copy (swoon), I devoured it.

The First Time

In the past, I avoided horror at all costs. I wouldn’t watch scary movies, I wouldn’t play scary games, and I certainly wouldn’t read scary books. But I went ahead and read House of Leaves. I had my doubts, but soldiered on in order to discuss the book with my crush.

At first, I thought things were going just fine. It wasn’t a very scary premise and the events that took place were so far removed from anything I ever saw myself experiencing that it was easy to detach from them. I mean, there were no strange doors appearing in my house, and if there ever were, I would just move. Immediately.

But after I finished the book, things changed. After I’d returned it to *name redacted* and discussed it with him, then it started to feel scary. Despite not connecting with it on any sort of surface level, I internalized the story much more than I had originally thought. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It started with just an odd fascination with the book’s unique structure, with its haphazard footnotes and forced interaction. I kept replaying having to turn the book and revisiting the way I felt with the physical object itself. Then I started really thinking about the story, allowing it to burrow deep in my mind and take root, refusing to let go.

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image pulled from Goodreads.com

Why did I connect with House of Leaves so deeply, despite not feeling as if I were doing so? If I had to wager a guess, I’d say it had a lot to do with my depression. The situational horror didn’t resonate with me, but the psychological implications were another story. Watching the various characters lose their grips on reality, seeing them become prisoners in their own heads, that was horrifying. Because I’d been there. Oftentimes, my own head was a prison and the more I thought about how it impacted the characters within House of Leaves, the more disturbed I became with the idea.

House of Leaves was one of the first books I read that dealt with mental stability and questions of sanity in any sort of nuanced way. I had read books featuring characters who were clearly sane pitted against the mechanization of characters who were clearly insane, but never before had I witnessed the deterioration of a mind. Being present for the entire journey added nuance to the loss of the mind, and blurred the edges between normal and abnormal. That connected with me somewhere way down deep, and greatly impacted the way I thought about mental spaces.

The Second Time

Fast-forward seven years and you’ve got a completely different Autumn than the one who read House of Leaves to impress a crush back in high school. An Autumn who, upon reading something with lots of footnotes, thought about House of Leaves for the first time in a long time, and decided to read it again.

I fully expected to re-connect with the story instantaneously, since I’ve thought about it frequently throughout the years and it impacted me so profoundly as a teen, but that didn’t happen. I felt disappointed more than anything else.

 

Rather than feeling like a reflection of my own inner demons, the whole book felt like just another story. It was a good story, and frightening on a psychological level, but didn’t carry the same impact it did when I was a teen.

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image pulled from Goodreads.com

House of Leaves is certainly different than many other books I’ve read, but it’s not the fantastic work of mastermind I thought it was when I read it back in a hormonal haze. I’m glad I read it the first time, and I’m glad I read it the second, but there probably won’t be a third.

Recommendation

So, should you read House of Leaves? Despite my disappointment with my second read-though, yes. It really is a fascinating play on structure, and the amount of work that went into creating a sense of depth and interconnection is impressive. Danielewski’s world is one that it’s easy to get lost in.

Just make sure you can get back out.

Danger by Design (Nancy Drew #14)

Introduction

Finally, back to Nancy Drew games I remember! I was starting to get worried about my brain after encountering two in a row that I had almost zero recollection of. Unfortunately, I remembered that I found this one just ok.

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promotional image from HerInteractive.com

Review

Nancy is sent off to Paris, France, to investigate an American fashion designer who has started acting positively batty. As someone who is not particularly into either fashion or Parisian culture, this one just didn’t catch my attention the way Secret of Shadow Ranch or Curse of Blackmoor Manor did.

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Minette, being her testy self.

Because the setting and context didn’t interest me, I had trouble really losing myself in the game. When I play Nancy Drew games, time usually just disappears, but not so much with Danger by Design. It was still enjoyable and I had a good time, but it wasn’t all-encompassing the way some the others have been.

A big reason for this is the rather annoying amount of shopping that must be done. Nancy has to visit street vendors to gather items that help her advance the game. Every time the player wants to see what items are in the vendor’s inventory (which changes), they must listen to the seller’s spiel. Then, to buy an item, there is another spiel as the seller tries to justify their inflated price. Then there’s some haggling. Then Nancy can finally leave. It is not a pleasurable experience, and it happens all the time.

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An example of the gorgeous surroundings.

Other than that, Danger by Design is a good time. The puzzles are challenging without feeling impossible and everything is very pretty.

Recommendation

If you don’t mind listening to the same chunks of dialog multiple times, you’ll do fine with one of the more annoying mechanics of the game. And if you’re interested in Paris and/or fashion, you’ll have a great time. It’s not the best game, but I’d recommend it with only the smallest hesitation.