The Tabletop Sessions of 'Shadowrun Returns'

Shadowrun Returns makes allowances for the video game medium, but it knows that it is a tabletop game at heart.

Over the holiday break, after getting a number of year end obligation out of the way and spending way too much money on Steam sale gifts, I started to get into my gaming backlog. One of the games that I finally got around to playing was Shadowrun Returns. I didn't know much about the Shadowrun universe or the game itself. Last year when it was originally Kickstarted, I thought about donating but eventually decided to keep my investment to -- at the time -- two games. Ironic that it came out long before either of the others have seen the light of day.

I knew the basic set up and lore of the universe. In the cyberpunk future, some sort of magical calamity intrudes on the real world and mutates humans into elves, orcs, dwarfs etc. and introduces magic into the world alongside cybertech. That's pretty much it. I knew nothing about the actual system of the tabletop role-playing system and only briefly tried out the Super Nintendo game on an emulator. All I knew about the game itself was its lukewarm reception at launch. And since I was mining for Steam Trading Cards for the Steam Sale, why not play it a little? Several hours later, I realized I should probably go to bed.

Over the next few weeks, I would boot the game up and play a few more hours of the campaign. The game is by no means perfect, but it is utterly engrossing. Even after all these months, the atrocious save system has not been patched. The game auto saves at the beginning of a scene and you have to play it to completion before it will save again. The writing is pretty okay. It's nothing special, but it does what any good pulp writing should do. It allows you to believe that these characters are people in their fictional world. And the world itself is a wonder. Who knew a dystopia -- scratch that, a world has to be aiming for a vision of utopia to be a dystopia -- a high tech future urban environment could be colorful... in a video game.

As much as Dragon Age: Origins billed itself as a spiritual successor to Baldur's Gate (one of my all time favorites) and as good as that game was, I think this might actually be a better spiritual successor. Most of the interface is comparable, but Shadowrun Returns doesn't get bogged down in minutiae and large menus like Dragon Age: Origins does, which for the record did not exist in Baldur's Gate. But most of all, the game feels like a tabletop RPG.

I can understand how people looking at it for what they understand to be a video game feel and find it lacking, but I don't think it should be judged on those terms. It's an RPG with an extra emphasis on the feel of a good role-playing session. I don't have any people around me that I can play D&D or other tabletop games with, so a video game that can lend that feel is more than welcome. It's why I like Steve Jackson's Sorcery! on iOS.

The game starts with your character -- in my case, a female Elven Street Samurai with a tendency towards being responsible -- hiding out and completely broke. Then you get a message that an old colleague and friend has died, and as per his will, if you capture his killer and bring him/her/them to justice dead or alive, you will be paid a fortune that will set you up for years if not for the rest of your life. Great hook. Let's get started. As the story progresses and you advance your skills and become a better shadowrunner, you find that each leg of the adventure opens new levels of depth to the story of your friend's death and that you've stumbled upon something much bigger.

The game isn't an open world or even a series of large areas connected by a map. The maps are self contained places. They are effectively scenes from a play or movie. Each have their own objective that progresses the main plot. In between encounters, you'll go back to a bar in the lower quarter to stock up on supplies, to upgrade equipment, and to plan your next move. It has its slow moments between those of action and danger. After ten or so hours, I realized what all this amounted to. This was a tabletop campaign made with the computer acting as the game master.

With so many games trying to be movies or emulating the standards set by other games throughout the history of video games, it's surprising to see one influenced by paper and pen games. The structure is different. You aren't a player at a keyboard doing whatever you want to do. You are an actor in a cyberpunk play with some real liberty in how you express your character. Honestly, this set up must be every railroading GM's dream: "You mean the player can't go off the rails and ruin my perfectly planned story?" No, no they cannot.

That's probably the biggest difference in feel between Baldur's Gate and Shadowrun Returns -- a GM philosophy. Baldur's Gate has a goal but is more open about how to explore its world, and you could spend dozens, if not hundreds of hours, trekking through its wilderness stumbling across monsters and side areas. Shadowrun: Returns is more focused on its story. Yet, at the same time. the game offers the freedom to define who you are within those narrow parameters.

Dragon Age: Origins gets caught up in too many video game conventions as it attempts to present its world. It is much more interested in the nebulous concept of immersion, as far it can be immersive, and Bioware's own patented style of presentation. A lot of the mechanics look the same, but Dragon Age wants you to believe this is a real world, whereas Shadowrun Returns and Baldur's Gate present systems that allow players to have adventures. The designers are your game master, and this is the campaign you signed up to play.

Another great little note is that your party is never the same. Sometime there are characters that will join your cause because they have some stake in it. Most of the time, however, you have pay for freelance shadowrunners to join you on your mission. You're presented their abilities, their equipment, and a few words that sum up who they are. That's it. These are not characters in your story. They have their own lives elsewhere when not working with you. Even those individuals that are more fully fleshed out characters drift in and out of your view. They have other things to focus on.

Another thing that annoyed me at first (but I later learned to appreciate) is that you can be locked out of certain choices because of your build. Some dialogue options to get a better outcome are linked to whether or not you have a certain etiquette, which are essentially passive skills that represent your ability to fit in in certain circles. In one mission, I was locked out of some extra information because I did not have a Decking skill level of 6. Decking is essentially hacking, and being a Street Samurai, I left that sort of thing to others.

When you look at the game as a string of tabletop role-playing sessions instead of as a single continuous video game narrative a lot of the problems others have had with it seem to fade away. Each scene is essentially analogous to a gaming session. Maybe two or three scenes. Not being able to save in the middle makes sense in that context. The game makes allowances for the video game medium, but it knows that it is a tabletop game at heart. And each scene leaves off with enough new intrigue and new threads to keep your players coming back like any good GM knows to do.

What's great is that once this campaign is over I can check out what others have made and try out a new game master with a new campaign. The tools to do so come with the game. There's got to be a user creation community around it with some quality adventures by now.

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton

9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton

8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge

7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge

6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

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