Pop Culture Coven: The Podcast!

I’m not sure whether anyone follows this blog who doesn’t also follow me elsewhere, but just in case!

I’ve started a new podcast, also called Pop Culture Coven. It’s a weekly show that features one guest each week, talking about a character who is important to them. These are short, 20 minute episodes that are packed full of fun discussion and analysis.


If that sounds like something you’d enjoy (and hopefully it is if you’ve found your way here!), you can check out my new podcast at popculturecoven.simplecast.fm or you can subscribe on iTunes!

A Mile In His Shoes: Playing Shadow of Mordor as Lithariel as Talion

There was a lot of discussion this year, thanks in no small part to Bayonetta 2, attempting to define the “female power fantasy” in gaming. Bayonetta is a fitting character upon whom to center this conversation, given that she is both strong physically and also sexually intimidating in a way that seems designed to at least poke fun of, if not all out terrify, the male gamers who would typically ogle and otherwise degrade a character who looks and acts like Bayonetta. Yet, oddly enough, this year I found my example of a female power fantasy in a video game whose fantasy was quite clearly not supposed to be “for me” – Shadow of Mordor.

lithariel sky

A so-called female power fantasy can never exist in a vacuum – it will always be influenced by the patriarchal norms that inform what we believe makes women powerful. So while I appreciate and agree with Maddy Myers’ assessment that Bayonetta’s overt sexuality does not necessarily mean that she is defined by the “male gaze” (maintaining all of Maddy’s reservations about that term) or that Bayo exists as a sex object for the player, Bayonetta doesn’t work as a power fantasy for me specifically because much of what the game displays as being powerful about Bayonetta hinges and is dependent upon her sexuality. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with this, and Maddy points out that perhaps our unwillingness to value sexual power as highly as other forms of power is rooted in puritanical American squeamishness, if not also our historical tendency to assign scary sexual power to women. But for me, at least, a power fantasy that is rooted in sexual power is still not a fantasy that feels as if it is “for me” when sexual power is practically the only way in which characters who share my gender are allowed to be powerful. My idea, as a woman, of a power fantasy is a world in which I can have the types of physical power that narratives often exclusively assign to male characters – essentially, a world in which my gender is largely inconsequential to the power I can achieve.

Shortly after Shadow of Mordor‘s release, Carolyn Petit rightfully took the game to task for its disgraceful treatment of women characters. Of the five women characters in the game (and I say five women characters, not five named women characters because there are no women in this game aside from these five), three must be rescued from various forces of evil during the course of the game’s story, and the other two are murdered in front of their respective husbands in order to give their husbands proper revenge motives. Carolyn is completely right – Mordor’s treatment of women is despicable and brings an already simple and cliché story down even further.  But since I was already aware of the largely negative reviews Mordor’s story had received when I purchased the game, and because I have a deep-seated hatred of all things Tolkien, my likelihood of enjoying the game’s story was in no way a factor in my decision to buy the game.  Like so many others who have wanted to try Mordor, I was here for the Nemesis System.

Gundza the claw

Pictured above are one of my first and my final meetings with Gûndza the Claw. Gûndza and I met very early on while I was playing Mordor, early enough that I didn’t fully understand when it was best to cut my losses and run, or at least to get to higher ground and make a more strategic attack. Consequently, I was killed repeatedly by Gûndza and one other Uruk captain who always managed to show up to the fight (I can only assume they were BFFs) during my first few hours of gameplay.  Soon, they were each level 20 captains who still always showed up in a pair anytime I attempted to go after one of them.  I killed Gûndza’s friend first, but the next time I fought Gûndza, his friend had returned from the dead. Then I killed Gûndza, but he reanimated when I next faced his friend. For a long time, I was convinced that the game was not going to allow me to kill the pair unless I killed them both at exactly the same moment. Every time I managed to kill either of them, and it took several times before they stopped coming back, I yelled at my computer in satisfaction. Simply put, I fully enjoyed what the Nemesis System had to offer, but my enjoyment stemmed less from the Uruk characters themselves than their interactions with my character.

Look at how Gûndza threatens me in the two scenes pictured above. He is annoyed by my resilience in the bottom picture – practically a compliment – and utters one of the more violent threats in the game in the top picture, saying that he plans to kill me slowly and painfully. Gûndza’s threats, particularly the bottom one, are directed toward a worthy adversary. The Uruks in Mordor consistently treated my character as an equal in combat skills. Sometimes they mocked me, but often it was clear that behind those jabs was a fear of the stories they had heard about me from the rest of their army. And never once in the game did these supposedly evil and bloodthirsty Uruks threaten me by way of gendered slurs or sexual violence.

talion and lithariel

Now, there is a very good reason for this and it cannot be attributed to Monolith’s intentional desire to make me, as a woman player, feel more comfortable playing their game. While it appeared as if I played as a woman, in fact I never played as anyone but Talion, the game’s male protagonist. Lithariel is a character in the game’s story, one of the women Talion has to save, and with a free DLC pack that is now downloaded automatically upon purchase of the game, you acquire a Lithariel skin. Lithariel’s skin has none of her own voice acting, uses all of Talion’s animations, and does not appear in cut-scenes. If you think this sounds immersion breaking, you are absolutely correct – although I quickly found myself thinking of my Lithariel as a largely silent mercenary who was hired by two whiny men to do the heavy lifting in their boring revenge plot. She listens to them conspire and take credit for the battles she fights, but never particularly cares as long as the pay is good.

Regardless of any headcanon I imagined for my version of Lithariel, the game itself – and by extension my enemies, the Uruks – never thought of me as anyone other than Talion. As such, I was happily free of the common threats of sexual violence and use of slurs that often accompany a “strong female character” when such a character is allowed to be a part of a video game’s narrative. Lara Croft in the Tomb Raider reboot could conceivably have worked well as a female power fantasy, if not for the constant feeling the game reinforces that, if I allowed Lara to die, she would be in immediate threat of assault at the hands of the Solarii. Tomb Raider‘s enemies consistently threaten Lara with slurs, and one of their members does assault Lara early on in the game – the catalyst that supposedly makes her capable of killing a human for the first time. Even the game’s simple insistence that the Solarii refer to Lara as “girl” throughout the game stole away some crucial aspect of her power. While the Solarii become increasing wary of Lara as the game progresses, their early threats constantly reminded me of the specific type of danger that Lara, as a woman, faced and made it impossible for me to fully enjoy her rise to power. Video game narratives that insist upon the use of gendered slurs and sexual threats to amp up the perceived stakes will never function as power fantasies for me, because they are too deeply rooted in a world that consistently demonstrates the ways in which I have less power because I am a woman.

In Mordor, my Lithariel walked like a battle-hardened warrior. She fought like an expert. She was never degraded by enemies who sought to find ways to terrorize her that were specific to her gender. And all this was only possible because the game knew she was really Talion – a man.

two lithariels

This was never more apparent than when my Lithariel was tasked with rescuing herself from an Uruk stronghold. I was stunned at the differences in the two models when I viewed them side by side. My Lithariel had a slightly larger frame with an entirely different walk and fighting style. The game’s Lithariel is supposedly an experienced general and fighter, but she quickly finds herself and her forces overwhelmed when they attempt to storm the Uruk’s stronghold. My Lithariel wiped out that same stronghold single-handedly.

Or, more accurately, Talion did.

So I cannot praise Monolith because it unintentionally created a universe in which I was able to play a strong and capable woman warrior, though Mordor remains the closest I have come in a very long time to understanding what a female power fantasy would look like to me. Bayonetta is a fascinating character and a perfectly valid example of what women’s power fantasies can look like in video games, but the ways in which her power is inextricably tied to her sexuality simply serve to remind me that she is woman first and powerful second. Saints Row IV goes to great lengths to ensure that the Boss acts the same and is treated the same by all the other characters regardless of gender, but I can’t shake my unease that two of titles that have done the most substantial work in this arena have both been comedies. Comedies are in no way inferior to their dramatic counterparts, but powerful women in video games should not be confined solely to comedic narratives.

The key to my female power fantasy is simple. Let me play as a woman, but do not change my character’s speech, movement, or fighting style to fit your definition of “feminine.” With all due respect to Bayo’s fantastic moves, I would much prefer to play as Lithariel, wielding a heavy broadsword with grace and skill. Above all else, allow my female character to inhabit a world in which merely existing as a woman does not mean she is subject to additional fears or threats that her male counterparts never have to see. The real world is scary enough for women – why would we want those fears to follow us to our fantasies?

Violence, Guns, and Guilt: My History With Shooters

When I was a kid, I wasn’t allowed to watch Looney Tunes. My dad, a child psychologist, believed that cartoon violence wasn’t something young children should be allowed to watch, and I assume he had seen research that supported this. This became something of a Big Deal to me, likely only because it was forbidden and I believed I was missing out on some huge cultural experience that all my peers shared (or the equivalent of that feeling when you’re ages 5-10 and can’t express it as such). Overall, however, I would not categorize my childhood as particularly “sheltered,” except in this one very specific way. I watched lots of other cartoons that were probably not substantially less violent than Looney Tunes, and I was allowed to watch The Simpsons – yes! The Simpsons! – from the time of its debut in 1989, when I was only 5 years old.

Oddities of my childhood aside, the problem of whether it is Ok to enjoy violent media is something I still think about a lot. As an adult, I doubt I am any more nonviolent or a pacifist than anyone else with similar ethics. Yet what I feel when I watch and enjoy a violent scene in any kind of media isn’t merely an internal examination of whether that enjoyment is appropriate, but also a deep-seated feeling of guilt as if a parent is looking over my shoulder.

I didn’t play shooters for a long time.

Again, when I was younger, I played plenty of video games that probably contained more cartoon violence than most Looney Tunes shorts. My cousins and I loved to play Streets of Rage, which included plenty of cartoon violence, including bosses who carried knives, guns, and other weapons. The first actual first-person shooter I can remember playing is Goldeneye, again with my cousins. We played multiplayer mode and turned on the paintball cheat that would turn any bullet holes in the walls into splotches of colorful paint instead. While it didn’t change the fact that we were still zooming around the map attempting to shoot each other, I do think it softened the experience somewhat and probably made it more palatable to our parents if they happened to see us playing.

After Goldeneye, I can’t recall playing another FPS or any kind of shooter for at least a decade, though it was probably much longer than that. Beyond my feelings of guilt about playing violent games (my assumption always being that shooters were among the most violent games available) was the very clear sense that these games were not designed for me or my enjoyment. Shooters, I believed, were designed for hardcore gamers; specifically, they were created for gamers with vastly superior skill and reflexes to my own. I truly believed that because I was someone who enjoyed games like The Sims or Mario Kart, or games considered even more “casual” than those, I had not developed the skills necessary to play shooters successfully. As my friend Grace has pointed out to me, this was clearly an irrational viewpoint to have, given that I was healing heroic raid content in World of Warcraft, which is some of the least forgiving reflex-based gameplay out there. But my aversion to shooters was specifically based on this irrational idea that, somehow, these games would be magnitudes harder than anything I had ever played before.

Well, that and the guilt.

Femshep with gun

Then, one day last December I was bored. I wanted a new game to play with an interesting story, but all the AAA games that seemed to fit that bill were shooters. I started rifling through my boyfriend’s old Xbox games in our basement and eventually came across the first Mass Effect. What the hell, I figured. If I failed miserably, at least I hadn’t spent any money to do so.  I realized pretty quickly that the combat was not as difficult as I expected it to be, but I could also tell that I wouldn’t want to play it on a console. Years of being used to a keyboard and mouse system has made it nearly impossible for me to function with dual analog sticks for directional controls of movement and vision, and continues to ensure that I will probably never be much of a console gamer.

So I took a chance and bought all three Mass Effect games in a bundle to play on my PC, where I could enjoy it with the familiarity of my mouse and keyboard. I wasn’t disappointed, and not simply because the story was fascinating. It didn’t take long for me to discover that the combat was actually pretty fun – and that I was something of a crack shot. I’d previously honed my aiming skills when I played as an archer in Skyrim, but Mass Effect was the first time I played a game where I routinely stared down the barrel of a gun at an enemy. It was simultaneously fun (a word I cannot write without immediately affirming my deep trepidation) and also very disconcerting.

Since Mass Effect essentially opened the doors for me, I’ve played through several shooters in the last year. I finally had a chance to see firsthand why so many pieces were written about the violence and the story of Bioshock: Infinite. Most recently, I’ve been unable to suppress a laugh every time Gaige yells “NOOB!” when she gets a Critical hit (read: headshot) in Borderlands 2. The challenge of hitting a target is something I enjoy and feel rewarded by when I do it successfully, but it is so difficult and also completely necessary to that enjoyment to separate the feeling from its source. Put simply, I find guns utterly terrifying. I have never fired one and I have no desire to do so. I don’t want to be around them or have anything to do with them – except, rather inexplicably, in video games.

I can, and do, reason away this disconnect as much as possible because if I didn’t then I would never play any game with guns at all. While it’s easy to point out that a lot of the epic narratives being told in AAA games are done while your character holds a gun out in front of them, it is disingenuous for me to act as if that is the only reason I play. I do play because I want to see the stories, but I also play because the combat is fun (again, with the same affirmation as above). I play shooters because I enjoy them, and some not-so-small part of me hates that I enjoy them. I’m not sure I want to be able to reason away that discomfort. I’m not sure I want to shake the feeling that someone is watching over my shoulder as I score headshot after headshot, whispering “Don’t you think this is kind of horrible?”

A Game For All Seasons

Choosing the perfect summer beach read is an art form. You need a book that’s interesting enough to read for long stretches of time as you sit out in the sun, but also something that’s easy to put down when it’s time to go for a swim or do other beach things. The book itself, physically, is also important. The beach is a place for sun-bleached paperbacks that can handle at least one more year’s worth of salt and sand, wind and water. So year after year I return to my favorite dogeared copies of murder mysteries whose murderers have already been discovered and arrested countless summers before.

A few weeks ago, Soha Kareem joined us on Justice Points and mentioned that she was playing Skyrim again. I made an offhand remark that it seemed like several people I know have returned to playing Skyrim ever since the weather started to get colder, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about that (admittedly unscientific) observation since.

Skyrim was released in early November of 2011. I played my wood elf archer through much of the winter of 2011 and into early 2012.  While there are occasional green forests to explore, the vast majority of the land is buried deep in a white, Nordic winter. Running through a blizzard that limits your vision to a few feet in front of your face is a common occurrence. When you step out of the cold and into one of Skyrim‘s inns or castles, you find roaring fire pits with a roast slowly cooking above them, and a gathering of locals warming themselves while they take turns singing.

Simply put, Skyrim feels like winter.

Skyrim Blizzard

Ok, granted it’s a winter that includes bloodthirsty dragons and mythical powers, but winter nonetheless. Winter comes, the weather gets colder, and suddenly I want to play Skyrim again. I want to immerse myself in the isolation and the quiet, the sound of horse hooves crunching on snow. I want to wander through the blizzards and the mountains in the warmth of my own home, but feel the chill of falling snow just the same.

Seasonal influences on our media are nothing new. We talk about big summer blockbusters at the movies and we know that fall sweeps are a crucial time for any TV show that wants to stick around for another year. In much the same way that summer is traditionally a time for reruns of our favorite shows, summer was also always the time for the doldrums between major content drops when I was playing MMOs regularly. Since World of Warcraft was the MMO where I spent most of my time, I’d use those slow summer months to “take a vacation” to other MMOs that seemed interesting but that didn’t necessarily have enough appeal to pull me away from a WoW raiding cycle. Even now, when I feel that my interest in MMOs is generally waning, I still resub to Star Wars: The Old Republic or play a few weeks of The Secret World over the summer months. WildStar capitalized on this idea when they released on June 3 of this year – directly in the middle of one of the longest content droughts World of Warcraft had ever seen.

Similarly, Hollywood knows that now is a great time to put out horror movies, and clearly the gaming industry realizes that as well with games like Alien: Isolation, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, and The Evil Within all releasing within the span of a few weeks. Late September and all of October are times when we already enjoy scaring ourselves more than we usually would, and it makes sense that games would appeal to our Halloween spirits. My pre-Halloween traditions currently include pulling Dracula and The Historian off my bookshelf – it isn’t much of a stretch to imagine replaying an appropriately terrifying game, too.

Surely industry research must exist that narrows down precisely which game genres we prefer at different points of the year. Do we want heavy narratives during the fall and winter because that’s when we are used to watching serious TV dramas? Do we prefer lighter fare during the summer because we spend more time on the go and out of our houses? In that vein, do we play more mobile games during summer months because we can do so while we travel or spend time outdoors?

Skyrim is a fairly direct interpretation of this idea in that it is set in literal winter. But it’s not simply that I want to play a wintry game as it turns cold or spend all my summers vacationing in a tropical island game. There’s nothing about Alien: Isolation that points to Halloween as such, unless there’s an unannounced upcoming DLC that features a skeleton suit for the xenomorph. What matters more than the actual setting or visuals of a game is whether it is evocative of the feelings we associate with certain times of the year.

So this November, when I’m finally ready to surrender to the holiday season, I’m going to curl up under a blanket on the couch with a giant cup of tea, like I always do when I’m ready to watch Love, Actually again. (Judge me all you want – it’s my favorite Christmas movie.) Then, maybe this year I will start a new winter tradition that’s as fitting as scarves and eggnog – I’ll start to play Skyrim again.

Jasyla’s Gaming Questionnaire

While I am about 2 months late to this party, I wanted to join in on a gaming questionnaire that Jasyla of Cannot Be Tamed created back in August:

When did you start playing video games?

I don’t really remember a time when I wasn’t playing video games. I definitely recall playing Atari at my grandparents’ houses, and I would have been 5 years old or less around that time. It seems to funny now to think that both sets of my grandparents owned a video game console before my parents or I ever did.

What is the first game you remember playing?

I don’t recall what I played first as much as I remember what my grandparents played. I know that one of my grandmothers was fantastic at the Atari boxing game. I remember that at some point I started to really like Pitfall and some horse racing game.

The first games I really played on my own were Tetris and Super Mario World for my original Game Boy. I got it for Christmas the year it came out and I could not have been happier. I also played a ton of different games on our Apple IIGS, but I can’t remember the titles of most of those.

PC or Console?

Almost entirely PC these days. I’ve owned every Nintendo console from the SNES forward, but the majority of the games I play now are on my computer. I have never purchased a PlayStation or XBox for myself, although one of each currently live in my house thanks to my significant other.

XBox, PlayStation, or Wii?

Wii, but really only because I want to be able to play Nintendo titles. If I could play those on a PC I probably wouldn’t own a console at all. I’m not particularly interested in motion detection consoles or software, but playing a super competitive game of Wii Sports golf is always fun.

What’s the best game you’ve ever played?

This is so hard. I guess it’s probably going to have to be the Mass Effect series, just because I feel like I could keep playing it over and over again and never get tired of it, even if I keep making more or less the same decisions that I always do.

What’s the worst game you’ve ever played?

Paper Mario: Sticker Star. This is kind of unfair to say, I suppose, because it was going to be hard for a new Paper Mario game to live up to my expectations for the series after The Thousand Year Door, which is one of my favorite games. Even so, the combat system and the need to collect stickers got very tedious very quickly, and the story didn’t grab me the way Thousand Year Door did.

Name a game that was popular/critically adored that you just didn’t like.

I do not have the patience necessary to enjoy Braid. It’s a really unique idea with extremely challenging puzzles, but I just got too frustrated with it too quickly to want to continue. I guess my mind isn’t cut out for time travel.

Name a game that was poorly received that you really like.

As I mentioned in my introductory post, Carmen Sandiego: The Secret of the Stolen Drums is a game that got almost universally poor reviews that I absolutely love. Sure, it’s a terrible example of a Carmen Sandiego game in that it is in no way an actual Carmen Sandiego game, but it’s a fun stealth platformer that I come back to every few years if I want a game with fun mechanics and basically no story.

I also had a ton of fun with Fable 3, which is another game a lot of people hated. My boyfriend and I played through the entire campaign on multiplayer (which made saving up all that cash you need at the end ridiculously easy). The game really didn’t scale up difficulty appropriately for having two players rather than one, so we mostly smashed through everything with the silliest abilities and costumes we could find.

What are your favourite game genres?

Action/adventure, time management, stealth. That’d be a pretty weird game if you combined all 3.

Who is your favourite game protagonist?

Red from Transistor. I love her character design and her voice, and I love that one of the first things we see her do in the game is to turn right when Sword Boyfriend tells her to turn left.

Describe your perfect video game.

A really deep story (preferably something sci-fi or set in modern day, not fantasy) with an interesting female protagonist. Engaging combat and some sort of stealth system.

What video game character do have you have a crush on?

Thane from Mass Effect 2/3.

What game has the best music?

Transistor. The game came out months ago and I still can’t stop listening to it. Music from Transistor is my ringtone and my text notification. It’s my startup and shutdown sounds for Windows.

Most memorable moment in a game:

When I beat the original Mass Effect game for the first time and my Shep crawled out of the pile of debris and smiled. I’d played my Shep very serious that entire time, and so seeing her give just the faintest smile as she emerged was a big deal to me.

Scariest moment in a game:

I’ve mentioned on Twitter that I have a really hard time getting into scary games because they just don’t usually work on me. So I suppose the closest thing would be something that scared me because I didn’t like what was going on or kept failing, and that would absolutely be the wolf attack quick-time event in the Tomb Raider reboot. That thing made me want to toss my computer out a window.

Alternatively, one of the biggest rushes I’ve gotten from playing a game was climbing up to the top of the Empire State Building way back in the Spiderman 2 game, and then diving off the top and casting out my webs just in time to swing away from the street.

Most heart-wrenching moment in a game:

There were several points in my first play-through of the Mass Effect series that I simply had to sit at my desk for a few minutes with my head down and try to decide what decision to make. Probably the worst of these was when I did Legion’s loyalty mission in ME2, and I brought Tali with me because I had no idea what was going to happen. Fortunately, I had enough Paragon levels at that point to be able to reconcile them, but not realizing that was going to be an option, I spent a good 10 minutes basically doing this before I made my decision.

What are your favourite websites/blogs about games?

Paste Magazine’s games section, Rock Paper Shotgun, and a handful of others. Generally, though, I am more interested in specific writers than websites.

What’s the last game you finished?

Hyrule Warriors, in that I finished the Story mode. I’m definitely not done with the game, though.

What future releases are you most excited about?

The Telltale Game of Thrones project, Bayonetta 2, Splatoon, and Rise of the Tomb Raider.

Do you identify as a gamer?

Generally no, and I’ve become even less comfortable with that label after the events of the last few months. I rarely identify as a gamer within the gaming community, because I do not want to take on the mantle of all the other things that identity conveys aside from simply “a person who enjoys playing games.” I don’t personally feel that the term holds much value for me, or accurately describes who I am. That said, I am more likely to identify as a gamer to someone who is outside of the gaming community, because I do think it is important to break the idea of what a “gamer” looks like and how they act. Ideally, I would prefer that the term eventually become synonymous with saying something like “I am an avid reader,” where it merely expresses an activity I enjoy without simultaneously conveying something about my personality.

Why do you play video games?

For entertainment – specifically, entertainment that is more interactive than other forms of media. Also, because there is so much depth to the critical analysis going on of video games right now, and I’m really happy to have a chance to participate in those discussions.

Review: Cook, Serve, Delicious!

Around the early 2000s I got into management sim games in a big way. They were something that I could spend a lot of time on when I wanted to, but that I could also easily pick up and put down when I needed to focus or classes or papers or some other college-type responsibility. I loved Roller Coaster Tycoon and played a bit of Zoo Tycoon as well, but my bread and butter were restaurant sims. Diner Dash and Burger Island were two of my favorites, and Cook, Serve, Delicious! is their much harder, faster spiritual successor.


Vertigo Gaming bills Cook, Serve, Delicious! as a “hardcore restaurant sim,” and it certainly lives up to this description. What allows the game to be so fast-paced is that it no longer relies upon a point and click system to manage your restaurant, but instead uses either your keyboard or a gamepad to control the action. The game also allows you to completely remap your keybindings for every menu item, so you can customize it to whatever will be easiest for you to remember. The bulk of the gameplay is cooking orders and doing chores by hitting buttons in the correct sequence. Sound simple? Don’t be so sure.


As you purchase additional recipes and then upgrade those recipes, you’ll quickly discover just how many keybindings may be involved in a single meal. For many menu items there are multiple steps that you must perform in the correct order as well – cooking the hamburger patty before you put it on the bun, filleting the fish before you cook it, chopping vegetables to put into soup, and so on. The more you upgrade your restaurant, the more challenging the recipes become. Fortunately, the game also allows you to try out new menu items before you decide to purchase them, so you can get a sense of how challenging they will be. (Thanks to this function, I will probably never add shish kabobs to my restaurant’s menu.)

Of course, more complex recipes will bring in more money, so upgrading your menu items is an important step of growing your restaurant. Your restaurant starts out with no stars and the goal is to eventually turn it into a fancy five-star establishment. As Graham Smith points out on Rock, Paper, Shotgun, however, upgrading your restaurant is kind of a bittersweet moment. Recently my restaurant finally got its second star, accompanied by a notification that I could no longer serve pretzels or corn dogs because they aren’t seen as classy enough by my current customer base. And I suppose I understand the logic there. Limitations on what type of food you serve based upon customers’ expectations of what a two-star or five-star restaurant should have are realistic. But I would love to have a little more customization available. Maybe I want to be a five-star restaurant that serves both expensive wines and gourmet corn dogs.

In this way, I wish Cook, Serve, Delicious! had borrowed a bit more heavily from some of the earlier restaurant sims I mentioned above. Even small, superficial things like being able to choose the color of your curtains, or the tile on your walls would make the restaurant feel more tailored to each player. I’d also love something like the Test Kitchen from Chocolatier, another of my favorite sim series. The Test Kitchen let you play around with different ingredients so that you could discover your own recipes. It wasn’t entirely freeform – there were still certain combinations of ingredients that wouldn’t create anything. But I can’t shake the idea of a customized burger that I get to name and make my daily special.

Cook, Serve, Delicious! also has a complicated “buzz” system. Buzz is how popular your restaurant is and it is influenced by anything from what items you have on your menu to how many perfect or bad orders you served the previous day. Higher buzz (measured in a percentage) increases the number of customers who enter your restaurant on that day, thereby increasing your potential number of orders served and money earned. Figuring out how to structure your menu to get the highest percentage of buzz possible becomes one of the major strategies in the game. Serving 3 or more “healthy” foods will give you a positive boost to your buzz, but those food may also be more complicated or time consuming to cook. Serving alcohol in your restaurant will generate negative buzz (because your restaurant is in an office building and apparently it’s frowned upon to serve alcohol there), but wine and beer are easy to serve and are two of the more expensive menu items. Weighing these pros and cons makes managing your daily buzz a complex but interesting part of the game.

My customization wishes aside, Cook, Serve, Delicious! is a fantastic management sim. It becomes extremely challenging as the game progresses, and there are even Steam leaderboards to measure your skill against other players. It successfully ups the difficulty of traditional restaurant sims while still capturing the spirit of the genre. You’ll enjoy this game if you love management sims, testing your reflexes, and making yourself hungry while gaming.

Cook, Serve, Delicious! is available for PC, Linux, Mac, Android, and iPad. Vertigo Gaming offers a free demo for each platform.

Content warning – Some ableist language.

Halfway Through Who: Season 8

This Saturday, “Mummy on the Orient Express” will air as the eighth episode of the current season of Doctor Who, placing us squarely in the homestretch of Peter Capaldi’s first season as the Doctor. Prior to the beginning of this season, we were repeatedly told by show-runner Steven Moffat and also by Capaldi that the 12th Doctor would be “darker” and less patient than the incarnations we have seen thus far in New Who.


Seven episodes in, I’m not entirely sure that’s the case. Capaldi’s Doctor is a fascinating man, or at least he seems to be in the relatively few moments when we’ve had an opportunity to see exactly who he is now. Much of what we do know about 12 is revealed in the first episode of the season, “Deep Breath,” where we see an unprecedentedly vulnerable and frightened Doctor who is worried that his companion will leave him just when he needs her the most.

“Deep Breath” remains the emotional core of the season thus far, and it is impossible to evaluate the continued conflict between Clara and Capaldi’s Doctor without keeping that Glasgow scene in mind. The Doctor begs Clara to “just see” him, to see beyond the flirtations and the youthful apparitions he has chosen in the past, and instead recognize him as the centuries-old, lonely alien who is the last of his kind. What I hoped, and what I imagine Clara hoped as well, is that this might mean we get to see just who this new Doctor is when he has cast away all the lies and illusions that protected him in the past.

Instead, most of what followed has been a Doctor who continues to make the same mistakes and who holds himself in the same high esteem he always has – except he now feels no need to be dishonest about it. Where previous Doctors may have at least feigned interest at the most mundane of human activities, like Clara getting ready for a date, this Doctor wastes no time to spare Clara’s or anyone else’s feelings. His agenda is forefront, even more so than it always has been when it comes to the personal lives of his companions, because he has asked Clara’s permission to be himself and to be honest.

I had hoped that the Doctor’s honesty would lead to some soul-searching once he began to realize just how perilous, detached, and callous he truly is when he is not hiding under the faces and flirtations of David Tennant or Matt Smith. While I enjoy seeing the Doctor sloughing off some of the more artificial aspects of himself that he maintained because he thought it was necessary for his companions, I assumed that doing so would require some sort of introspection and self evaluation. We and Clara have seen the Doctor’s many faults exposed this season, but he has yet to recognize any of them. Granted, we have 5 episodes left in which perhaps the 12th Doctor will finally begin to do so, particularly after Clara’s condemnation and banishment of him in “Kill the Moon,” but it feels a little late in the season to really begin a development arc like that.

Clara’s completely understandable and righteous anger with the Doctor at the end of “Kill the Moon” strikes me as even more poignant because it comes from the companion who has sacrificed the most for the Doctor. Both original Clara and the dozens of copies created of her during “Name of the Doctor” last season have lived, and in many cases died, to save him over and over again. It is paramount to her that the Doctor be worth that sacrifice.

Yet repeatedly this season we have seen Clara out-Doctor the Doctor. Early on in “Into the Dalek,” the Doctor describes Clara as his carer – “She cares so I don’t have to.” Clara carries the emotional burden that used to be at the forefront of the Doctor’s characterization when he was portrayed by Tennant, and yet she does so with only a fraction of his experience or history. Clara checks in with Courtney Woods repeatedly throughout “Kill the Moon” in the same way that the Doctor should check in with a companion to ensure that what they are experiencing is not overwhelming or terrifying. Clara accepts the burden of overriding the Earth’s decision to blow up the moon because she knows that the Doctor would have found another way. Clara has taken on all of the enormous responsibility of making moral decisions for the Doctor, a man who is so close to being omnipotent that he must construct rules for himself lest he become too detached.  Clara is God’s conscience.

This season has done a lot of work toward deconstructing our (both viewers’ and companions’) notions of who the Doctor is at his core. We want to believe that his emotion and moral code, however flawed they may be, are a fundamental part of who he is, and challenging that idea has sent the series in a new and interesting direction. Unfortunately, it has done so at the expense of Clara Oswald’s emotional well-being. While I would hate to see Jenna Coleman leave the show, especially now that the show’s writing has finally given her something to actually use her incredible acting talents on, I cannot imagine how her character could be expected to continue amid this.

Ideally, what I would love to see in the final 5 episodes of this season is that emotional weight shifted back to the Doctor, where it rightfully belongs. While the Doctor has come a long way this season in terms of exploring and accepting who he is, it is now past time for him to consider the impact he has on the people around him. His appeal to Clara at the start of this season, both in “Deep Breath” and again in “Into the Dalek,” is that he needs a friend. It is no coincidence that Clara also appeals to their friendship when she chastises him in “Kill the Moon.” Clara has presented to the Doctor a mirror of what she believes his behavior should look like, both as her friend and as an incredibly powerful protector of the universe. He asked Clara whether he was “a good man,” and since she could not answer that question with certainty, she has instead demonstrated to the best of her ability how a good person acts. The Doctor need only follow her example.

My Favorite Blog on the Citadel

It speaks to my aspirations for this blog that I am already soliciting a Commander Shepard endorsement.

Hi there, I’m Tzufit. You may know me from such projects as Tree Heals Go Woosh (a now retired World of Warcraft blog), Justice Points (a podcast about gaming from a feminist perspective), or maybe Live From Satellite 5 (a Doctor Who podcast). Perhaps you know me from Twitter, where I mostly post gifs or confess that I’ve started crying while playing Mass Effect again. As you can probably gather from that list, I like to talk and I like to write, especially about video games, television, and other aspects of popular culture.

Enter Pop Culture Coven.

This blog will be a space for me to write about whatever I find interesting on any given day. Chances are that it will skew heavily toward pieces about TV and video games , so it may be helpful to know what my preferences are.

When it comes to TV, I am a sucker for serialized dramas. If it’s moody and an hour long I’ll probably enjoy it – bonus points if it’s science fiction or a mystery. I don’t watch very many sitcoms or comedies. Some of my favorite shows of all time are Lost, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Doctor Who, Parks & Recreation (to break my own no sitcom rule), and Farscape.

As for video games, my tastes tend to be much more eclectic. Very generally speaking, I prefer games with a strong emphasis on narrative that also have engaging combat. I primarily play PC games, though I am also a fan of many Nintendo titles. Some of my favorite games are the Mass Effect series, Transistor, Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door, The Sims 2,  and Skyrim.

I also enjoy games that have interesting stealth systems. My idea of a near-perfect stealth system can be found in Carmen Sandiego: The Secret of the Stolen Drums, a game you probably won’t remember or maybe have never heard of because it is generally accepted as terrible. I love that game. I probably need to dust off my GameCube and play it again.

I’ll have more to come soon with reviews of some games I am currently playing, and my thoughts on Season 8 of Doctor Who at its halfway point. Thanks for dropping by and giving my new project a chance.