Zero Escape: The Most Amazing Games You’ve Never Heard Of

I have a lot of interests.  I don’t always keep up with all of them as well as I’d like.  So I managed NOT to hear that one of my favorite game series got it’s long-anticipated third installment made until almost a year after publication.

Almost as good was the news that they’ve released all three games on PC through Steam as well as for PS4.   So I figured now that the games are much more accessible than ever before, I should tell you why YOU SHOULD PLAY THEM.

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The first two games have been released as a collection called The Nonary Games (Nonary as in 9) for Steam and PS4.

But this is challenging.  The Zero Escape games are some of the most difficult to talk about.  It’s difficult to explain what they ARE and what they are ABOUT without major spoilers.  And there are a LOT of potential spoilers.  Moreover I think the enjoyment of playing the games would be seriously compromised if you are spoiled for some things.

So I’m going to try.  But first I’ll just say that if you like video games with great narratives, lots of dense story, especially if you also like puzzles, you need to just run and go play them now.  You’ll thank me eventually.

(Note: I haven’t played the third game yet, though it’s sitting next to me as I type.  So I don’t know exactly what the story of that game is, though I have my suspicions about how it’s connected to the first two.  If my suspicions are correct, you really need to play the first two FIRST. )

So first, let’s talk generally about what kind of games these are.  They don’t fit perfectly into any one genre, as they are unique.  They are weird little Japanese games.  But they are part of a few different game traditions.  First they qualify as adventure games, in the sense of classic graphic adventures (point and click adventures.)  They have heavy emphasis on story and puzzles and not combat or reflex-driven actions.

Secondly they are visual novels.  When 999 (the first game in the series) was released there were not a lot of visual novels published in the West.  Now they are much more common to anyone familiar with small or indie games.  Visual novels originated in Japan, and some people barely consider them video games.  They are more like interactive novels.  They feature lots of text to read, and the only actions the player takes are decisions that determine how the story plays out.

Dating sims are a popular subcategory of visual novel and probably the kind people are most familiar with.  Most visual novels involve branching story paths with multiple endings.  It’s expected the player will play the game over and over to make different choices and get different endings.  (In a dating sim each ending involves winning a different romantic partner, usually.)  Sometimes there is a “good” or “true” or “ultimate” ending and frequently the more difficult to obtain endings require you to have played through certain other story paths first.

The Zero Escape games are visual novels and follow most of these conventions, but they also have other features and, in my opinion, utilize the format better than any other games ever have.    They are hybrid visual novel/puzzle games.  So in addition to long segments of text-based story, there are also sequences involving puzzles that you have to solve in order to progress.  I’ll talk more about the puzzles in a bit.

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So what is the basic set-up?  Let’s start with the first game 999: 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors.  As the game opens you wake up and you’re locked in a small room.  You realize after looking around that it looks like a crew bunk in some kind of metal-hulled ship.  About that time, the round window bursts and water starts pouring in.  You have to escape before you drown!  The door is locked, but there’s a card reader next to it.  So you have to hunt around the room and follow the clues to solve the puzzles to find the key card that will let you out before you drown.

While that’s a pretty intense way to start a game, I’ll tell you right away that you’re not under a time limit at any point in these games.  Thankfully.  Even when it feels like you are under pressure, you really can’t die by not solving puzzles quickly.

So eventually you solve the puzzles and escape the room, entering the first visual novel portion.  You meet a bunch of other people who also woke up trapped in their own rooms.  And eventually you have the situation explained to you by finding notes.  There are 9 of you.  You are trapped on a ship (it looks like a luxury ocean liner ala the Titanic).  It is sinking and in 9 hours will go under.  There are nine numbered doors throughout the ship, with the way off the ship being behind door number 9.  There are complicated rules about when and how you can go through these doors, but basically you go through in groups and have to then solve the puzzles behind the doors to be let out again.  If you break any of the rules about going through the doors, you will be killed.

The person behind all of this calls himself Zero.  The rest of you have numbers 1-9.  And very quickly you discover the part about killing isn’t an idle threat, because someone decides “Fuck this” and they die.  Horribly.

So this is not a kids game, by the way.  It’s very much a game made for adults, with adult language and a very dark, threatening tone.  It’s not quite a horror game, but definitely relies on suspense and creepiness.  You are trapped in a situation reminiscent of Saw or Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, playing by the rules of a mysterious and dangerous puppetmaster under threat of death and with no escape except to keep playing the game.

So the important choices you make in 999 are who goes through which doors.  Which doors you go through and who you are with determine what experience you have on each play through.  There are 10 endings possible, with one actual goal ending.  The real ending is much longer than the others.  It’s not necessary to play through all the endings, though many of them are worthwhile either because they’re amusing or because they answer questions or tell you more about different characters.  I think you only actually HAVE to play the game through 2 times to get the real ending, assuming you do everything in the right order from the beginning.  The game allows you to fast forward through conversations you’ve seen before, automatically stopping when it gets to new dialogue, which is a very welcome feature.  You still have to play through the puzzle rooms each time, though some are going to be different depending on your choices.

But often you can take big short cuts in the puzzle rooms if you’ve kept good notes.  Which you will need to do.  Many of the puzzles require pen and paper to solve or make note of pieces.  Several of the rooms only require you to know the right code to leave, so if you write it down you can speed through on subsequent plays.  I always finish the game with several pages of puzzle notes, though.

So let’s talk about the puzzles.  I think the puzzles in the Zero Escape games are some of the best puzzles in the industry.  I have played a lot of games with puzzles, because I play a lot of adventure games.  But I’m not actually a huge fan of puzzles.  I really don’t like Myst and all it’s many, many, many imitators.  I don’t generally like puzzles for puzzles’ sake.  I got bored of the Professor Layton games about halfway through the second game.

I am a frequent cheater at puzzles.  If I start getting frustrated with a puzzle, I just reach for a walkthrough because it’s not worth getting pissed off.  So it means something when I say I really, really like the puzzles in these games.  I rarely reach for a solution unless there’s something like, urgh, math involved or I really am just completely stuck.  And these puzzles are really well designed to be challenging but not frustrating.  There aren’t any annoying timing puzzles or sliding tiles that take a million tries to get.

There are a wide variety of puzzle styles without many repeats (unlike, say the Layton games where I think there’s maybe 6 puzzles repeated over and over).  Some are math based, some are games, some require looking all over the screen, some are codes to solve, but they are all way above average for game puzzles.  I find them really satisfying to solve, so that you feel you’ve accomplished something when you finally open that door, without a whole lot of being stuck.

So I feel like that’s about as far as I can go talking about the first game without danger of spoilers.  I haven’t gotten into characters, although the first game is filled with really memorable characters.  Or the themes of the game and there are a lot of themes.  You get a lot of info thrown at you about seemingly random things.  Everything from supernatural legends, paranormal phenomena, weird bits of science and the occult, and lots and lots of philosophy.  Some of it is based on the real world and some of it is not, and one of the accomplishments of the game is that I had to look most of it up to know if it was created for the game or something that exists outside it.

All of it ties together or at least most of it does, into the reason you’re in this weird-ass situation.  There IS a point and a purpose, and I find it immensely satisfying.  I honestly consider 999 one of the best narratives I’ve ever consumed, and moreover one that could only be told through the media of a video game.  The very format of the game is what allows for the story to be told.  It’s super brilliant and that’s all I’m going to say.

Ok let’s talk a bit about the second game, Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward. So this game is very similar to the first, except it’s much bigger in scope.  Once again you (playing a new character this time) are kidnapped and forced to play a sadistic game under threat of death.  There are 9 players with numbers and doors to be unlocked and puzzles to solve behind the doors.  But it’s all a lot more complicated than the first time.  VLR_wallpaper_1920x1200

This time there are both pairs and solo players and who is paired with who switches from round to round.  Instead of a player’s number determining which door they can go through it’s now done by color, and the colors change each round.  And after each puzzle round, there is an “Ambidex game” where players are locked into little rooms to vote whether they will “ally” or “betray” the other people on their color team.  Betrayal wins you more points towards escape than allying, but allying helps everyone gain points equally.  And betrayal may take a person’s last points from them, at which point they die.

So the focus of this game is much more on the interpersonal dynamics and whether or not you can trust anyone.  It’s a game with a lot more frequent interpersonal clashes and more frequent violence and death than the first.

Partly that’s because the number of endings has increased to 28 total possible.  It actually feels like more than this, because if you go down a path prematurely, you will get a “to be continued” false ending.  There are lots of game over paths, and 9 character endings.  There is still one True ending, and in order to get it, you have to complete all other 8 character endings first.

To make it a little easier to actually get the ending, there is a branching flow chart of choices and you can move to any choice on this chart at any time.  So you can make Choice A and see it play out and then skip right back and make Choice B and see how that works out.  This means you never have to play any puzzle sections more than once.  You can still fast forward through dialogue sections too. All told there’s something like 40 hours of gameplay involved, so it’s a pretty big game.

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This is Zero Jr.  He’s a demented rabbit AI.

VLR has a much more sci-fi feel than 999, which had a paranormal/horror aspect.  VLR deals with artificial intelligence, robots, quantum mechanics, apocalyptic diseases, terrorism, and themes that feel much more 21st century.  It’s a less creepy game, in my opinion.  (It’s also probably easier to spoil, so REALLY don’t look at anything about the game online.  Like I just looked at a list of characters that gives away SO MUCH.)

It’s not clear for a long time exactly how the game connects to the first one.  There’s the very similar game, the fact that someone named Zero is in charge again, and there are a couple familiar faces as characters.  All is eventually revealed and the two are definitely connected.  The second game ends with a LOT of exposition of some very complicated ideas.  If the game has any fault it’s that the gigantic branching structure and the underlying premise are REALLY complicated and difficult to follow.  I’ve played the game three times and each time when I start it I’ve forgotten exactly how everything fits together.

However, it’s complicated for a REASON because it’s a really unique take on…let’s say causality.  It’s a story that really seeks to do quantum principles justice, so yeah, it’s complex, ok.  (But it does feature one of the clearest explanations of Schrodinger’s cat I’ve seen.)

You may be getting the idea that these games are…thinky.  They are.  They tackle big concepts about the nature of reality and identity and human nature.  They’re super ambitious and that means sometimes they don’t quite succeed at everything.  I think VLR is a stunning game, but it’s also less successful than 999.  It’s a bit over-ambitious and overly complicated.  Eventually working your way though EVERY branch of possibilities starts to feel like a grind.  (Also I should mention the original 3DS version of the game has a MAJOR bug that can wipe out your savegame if you save while in the wrong room.  There’s only one save slot, so I lot over 30 hours of play the first time I played it.  The fact that I wasn’t too upset at replaying it should tell you something though.  To prevent the bug never save in any room but one of the big warehouses.  I assume the re-release fixed this problem.)

Oh I haven’t mentioned that VLR featured a full voice cast.  Not everything is voiced, but the visual novel segments are, and it’s very nicely done.  The translations for both games are excellent and don’t feel like a shoddy or rushed localization.

So I guess that’s it for the first two games.  I’m super excited to start Zero Time Dilemma.  The last thing I had heard after VLR was that there was very little chance of the series continuing, despite the creator’s desire to do so.  So it feels like a minor miracle to suddenly have the next installment.

The Witcher and utterly ridiculous sexism

WARNING: Mildly NSFW images in this post.  Also language. 

So I have one 3/4 written post from like a month ago about a previous game in my current Old RPG binge.  But umm, yeah, I’ll finish it eventually.  It’s harder to write reviews about how awesome a game is without spoiling it than it is to complain about shit.

This post is both.   So after I ragequit Baldur’s Gate 1 I did start playing Jade Empire.  And it’s a very good game.  But action-oriented.  Easy enough, but still kinda stressful to play.  And it involves lots of clicking, which aggravated my knitting-related RSI.  I pledge to go back and finish it.

But then GOG had a flash sale one day, and I snagged a copy of The Witcher Enhanced Edition for $1.50.  Literally all I knew about it when I clicked buy was that it was an RPG and I had heard good things about Witcher 3.  I checked reviews after I bought it and they were overwhelmingly positive.  Awesome.the-witcher-20070606011153024-2014206

So first things first, the game looks really nice.  It’s from 2007 but it still looks great.  I was coming off a bunch of games from around The Turn of the Century (that’s still fun to say!) so yeah I’m a little skewed in my perception.  But even compared to Jade Empire, that came out the same year, this looks loads better.  Maybe that’s the “Enhanced” part.   Honestly, unless you’re only playing lastest gen consoles and games from this year, I don’t think you’re going to notice a real deficit in graphics here.

It’s a little jarring to not have a choice of gender and appearance for your character.  You get a brooding white muscular male, Geralt of Rivia.  I don’t have a problem playing male characters, and I see the benefit of crafting a story around a defined character with set history.  But there’s still something about being forced into the Default White Male box with gaming that makes me a bit leary.

But the actual game was surprisingly fun.  The combat took some getting used to, as this is an action-y RPG again.  But it’s really a Diablo-esque “click on the bad guys to kill them” kind of game.  And the easy setting is REALLY easy.  I like that in a game.  You have to choose your weapon and your attack, which you can do while paused.  Difference blades work on different kinds of enemies and some need fast attacks while other need strong, etc.  And you have to time your clicks to get attack bonuses.  At first it was a bit much to figure out, but it soon stopped feeling at all stressful.  And unlike Jade Empire I could do almost everything easily with my trackpad and my left hand, which relieves my hand issues.

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Do you like my medieval fishnets?

The plot is ok, fairly standard for an RPG.  You’re a Witcher, a mutant who fights monsters.  You get special attacks and abilities.  You are sent to hunt down some bad guys.  Lots of things happen and you fight a bunch of crap.  I really enjoyed the questing and progression through different areas.  Though there IS a lot of running around from place to place.  And to not miss out on quests and different options I found a walkthrough/guide very helpful.  But this was a COMPELLING and addictive game.  You can ask my husband: I did little else in my downtime but play this for a couple weeks.  The game makers are obviously skilled at crafting a game so you are constantly moving forward and want to keep playing.

The makers, by the way, are CDProjekt, a company from Poland.  The games are based on a series of fantasy novels by Andrzej Sapkowski.  So one thing that became apparent before too long is that this game was not going to win any awards for gender inclusiveness.  The outfits on female characters are skimpy in a way that is fairly typical for fantasy video games, but which has improved in some parts of the industry recently.

And I have no problem with sex in games.  My Dragon Age playthroughs are ALL about the romance stories.  But sex in The Witcher is basically a collection quest, where every named female character (ok, except the old ones) is a seduceable character.  And once you have sex with them, you get a “sex card” for them.  Yes, really.  Here’s an example.

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This is one of the tamer and most tasteful.

 

They’re all basically the worst fantasy pin-up style shots, with frequent full-frontal nudity.  So as you collect these women, you get to see them in their nighties as well.  They all apparently wear the same one.  It looks like this.

 

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You’ll note Mr. Of Rivia stays fully clothed in armor at all times, including during and after sex.  If the nudity levels were at ALL equal across genders this would be easier to take.

But the frequency of this kind of thing is just laughable.   Like this character design.  This isn’t a sex scene, it’s just how the character looks all the time.  (Though of course, you can have sex with her.) lakelady3

The isn’t the worst character design, cause of her conveniently placed hair.  There’s a dryad that’s just naked, but green.  (And yes, you can sleep with her, TOO.  Getting the idea?  If it’s got nice tits, you can fuck it.)

There are other instances of the sex in this game being ridiculous.  Like “hey I saved you from rape  back there, wanna fuck?”  (Of COURSE she does.)  Possibly more annoying than anything isn’t that the game presents these options to the player, but that they are so incredibly difficult to AVOID.  I found myself more than once accidentally sleeping with someone just because I chose the “nice” conversation option.  This is clearly the way they want you to play Geralt.  He collects the set.  Conveniently, even after you “become serious” with one woman in particular, she doesn’t mind you sleeping around.  She wants commitment from you, but “isn’t jealous.”  Except apparently of the one particular woman you sleep with, because you’re forced to chose between two women which to “get serious” with.  The other gets very angry.

So yeah, I know this makes the game sound unattractive, but actually I really, really enjoyed it.  The vast majority of the time spent with the game is running around killing monsters and fetching stuff.  And all of that is GREAT.  It’s honestly one of my favorite RPGs, except for everything involving sex and women in relation to sex.  If a penis was involved in the decision making about something, the outcome SUCKS, but otherwise, it’s a great game.

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I forgot, there is male nudity.

And lest someone get the wrong idea I’m not ANGRY about the sexism, really.  Cause my reaction was to laugh every time something else cropped up.  It’s so terrible it’s funny, in an “I’m embarrassed for you” kind of way.  It doesn’t stop me from wanting to play the other two games in the series, although it does have me wondering whether I should legally pay for them.  I’m a bit hesitant to pay actual money only to get more of the same or worse treatment of women.  But for $1.50 I got amazing value for my money.

So I do recommend the game, but with the caveat that you have to be able to laugh at some Polish idea of female characters in video games.

 

 

 

 

Kim Plays Baldur’s Gate 1 …and gives up

Yes, yes, this blog is not even a real blog, but I’ve been feeling the desire to talk about crap again.  Serious things about disability and being poor and then also video games.  (I already have places I talk about knitting and sewing and corsets.)

 

So at some point I will maybe possibly write a whole post about why video games are so essential to managing my disability.  The short version is sometimes I am bedridden and they’re the only thing that entertains me and keeps me from climbing the walls.

It’s been at least a month that I’ve been in bed now.  When this flare started I was distressed to discover I had no games I wanted to play.  I’ve replayed my favorites A LOT.  Most recently I played Dragon Age Inquisition six times all the way through.  And I’m finally truly bored with it.

Also I’m broke.  Beyond broke.  So buying something…not an option.  So I decided to replay one RPG that I enjoyed but have only played once: Planescape: Torment.  I intend to write a whole post about how incredibly awesome that game is, 17 years after it’s release.  I played it through in a huge marathon.  And then I was bored again.

And since I enjoyed Torment again so much, I thought, “hey, I should try Baldur’s Gate because that’s the same engine.”  And everyone says how awesome Baldur’s Gate 2 is, best RPG ever, blah blah.   But again, no money to shell out, either for the $10 GOG original version or the $20 Steam Enhanced Edition.  But lo and behold, my husband happened to own the discs for Baldur’s Gate 1.

I read up on modding the game, but discovered that the way everyone seemingly plays BG1 is through the BG2 engine, which requires owning a copy of BG2.  Which, again, I don’t.  Since I had problems with the widescreen and UI mods on Torment I decided to just go out of the box.

So, Baldur’s Gate is weird, y’all.  It starts off like many RPGs, you have a mysterious quest, people are trying to kill you, you have to fight monsters and not die while gathering party members.  Except the first weird thing is that there’s roughly a million and a half potential party members.  So you’re constantly picking people up and then dumping them for someone new, and trying to keep the old people from running around with your best gear.  And making sure your party members get along, and you meet their favorite quests in the right amount of time, or they leave.  And they sometimes come in pairs, and you can’t have one without the other.    In short, there’s almost no way to manage who you have in your party without doing internet research, and even then, it’s a constant source of stress.  (If you’re me.)

But other than being annoying, the companions don’t really add much to the game or story.  They just fight differently and sometimes whine.  (And say the SAME TWO THINGS OVER AND OVER, looking at YOU Minsc.)

The other thing about this game I noticed right away is that is is HARD.  I set the difficulty really low, not ALL the way down, but pretty far.  And I was still constantly reloading to keep from dying.  It doesn’t help that you start out with about 3 hit points.  I’m not even exaggerating there.  And ok, I made my character a bard, because I am contrary.  (Note: Don’t make your character a bard.  You are not very good at anything.)

Basically, if I hadn’t been coming right off Torment, there’s no way I could have played this game for a couple of weeks before rage quitting.  (We’ll get there.)  I was used to having only a handful of spells, and having to constantly rest, and micromanaging my party constantly in fights, etc.  But I was also used to only having characters die in fairly extreme circumstances, and then having a healer who could revive them pretty much immediately.  Not in BG1.  You have to drag their corpse back to a temple and pay a priest to revive them.  Which in practice means you’re constantly reloading to keep your characters from dying.

Honestly, I can’t stress enough how hard this game is, coming from modern RPGs.  I know OG gamers will be scoffing about how things were better when they were harder, but I don’t know, this is a LOT of micromanaging and redoing to make any progress.  I felt like every session I played had a 50/50 chance of either being fairly entertaining (meaning I was wandering around killing thing and mostly not constantly dying) or being just an exercise in frustration.  And it’s not just because I’ve basically played my way through RPG history in reverse.  Forum posts show up in my frustrated googles asking “was this game always this hard?”,  “why do I keep dying?”,  “I don’t remember it being this tough.”

If you try to seek help, via walkthough, guide, etc, I find the advice is super contradictory.  One walkthrough which was recommended as “the best” offers no strategy, it just tells you to kill everything and acts like it’s no big thing.  Another “spoiler free” guide I was at first trying to follow had me doing what I later read was “the hardest area of the game” when I was about level 3.

But I was really pretty determined to make it through this game.  I wanted to move on to Baldur’s Gate 2.  And I had nothing better to do.  So I persevered.  I built a pretty good party (except for the one chick who kept complaining), and I thought I was finally doing pretty well.

Until Cloakwood.  The forest itself, not much of a problem.  But every time I moved from one area to another, I was attached by multiple wyverns.  And I would die.  Or someone would die.  Or I’d barely make it through, not be able to save, click on my desired destination again, and get attacked AGAIN.  Finally, finally, I made it through cloakwood.  I made it to the mines.  And then I faced the dreaded party member dilemma.  There was a new fighter/cleric character.  My cleric was non-stop complaining.  I wanted to change.  So I did.

Except I didn’t realize I couldn’t take the new dwarf out of the mines without finishing that quest.  He glitched, making my game stop dead.  I had to go back to the beginning of the mines.  I wasn’t good enough yet to finish the mines.  And since I had to start over I thought I’d rebuild my party differently.  I’d wanted to replace Minsc with the dwarf, but if Minsc leaves, his girlfriend and my only mage leaves.  So I decided, ok, I’ll multi-class my thief into a mage.  My walkthrough recommended doing this at the level I was at.  Cool.  Then I’ll have TWO cleric/fighters which means more healing, which means less dying, right?   Except I didn’t realize making my thief a mage means I can’t use her thief skills at all.  So, ok, I’ll go get a thief.  I do this, dropping my ranger and mage.  Then I pick up a shapeshifter on a temporary basis.  Then I get to the mines again (fighting my way through wyverns, AGAIN.)

And I get the dwarf, and have my new party all ready.  And get to the end of the mine, where there is a tough mage to defeat and some traps that if you set them off, you get super difficult enemies that are really hard to kill.  So my thief, he who’s sole purpose is to detect and disarm traps?  His skill isn’t high enough to see them.  So, after dying A LOT and reading some more forums I learn there’s a cleric spell that can identify traps.  Cool.  Manage to get that spell loaded, and identify the traps.  Still can’t disarm them.

So to progress in the game at all (and I tried beating this for HOURS) I have to go all the way back to where I went back before and NOT multi-class my thief so I can actually disarm freaking traps.

Which is the point at which I’m saying FUCK IT. This isn’t any fun anymore.  There’s really hardly any story at all, just monsters to kill.  The game feels a lot more like Diablo than any other RPG I’ve played.  More strategy/action than anything.

So…yeah.  What now?  My options are currently: Neverwinter Nights, Morrowwind, or Jade Empire.  I’ve actually started both Jade Empire and Neverwinter Nights before and didn’t get very far at all.  Jade Empire was on the Xbox and I got my ass killed right away and didn’t try very hard.  I bought it a while back from GOG for $2.99 so I want to try it on PC.  I’m a huge Bioware fan and it’s one of the only of their RPGS I haven’t played.  And when I tried Neverwinter Nights I didn’t like the engine, mostly.  But I’m kinda used to that style of game at the moment, and my husband promises me it’s got better story.

So yeah, I dunno.  Non laptop alternatives are going back to Inquisition, or back to Mass Effect 2, which I was in the middle of.  ME2 is stressful to me, though.  It’s good, but the action is pretty intense and it doesn’t really RELAX me, so much as lead to me sweating and all my muscles clenched.   And it hurts my RSI in my thumb, which is one nice thing about laptop games.  Low stress on the thumb.