10.4.22

The Secret History

Like if Harry Potter went to Slytherin. Tartt is undeniably a better writer than Rowling – every couple of pages of The Secret History has a dazzling bit of description. But Rowling does a better job of interweaving the mysteries in her plots, where episodes are returned to and reinterpreted in the light of new revelations. Tartt's approach is more linear – new information is introduced about characters and events to explain the latest twist, which feels clumsier. It's forgivable though, expecially as the narration is in first person and the character of Richard may not be as skilled a storyteller as he, or we, would like.

The book is long and as a result occasionally plodding. The sheer extent of it makes deducing its themes difficult – it's about what it's about. The lasting impression it left me with was that the youthful dyonisian urge towards dissolution is universal – and the disturbing rituals the coterie engage in are just a more sinister manifestation of the decadent student experience of parties, drugs and rock music the main characters are so dismissive of. There's just a seductive upper-class veneer applied to their activites– which Richard, an interloper ashamed of his working-class background, cannot but be enchanted by. Wealth and beauty are dazzling but ultimately disguise what is (to put it politely) extremly reprehensible behaviour.

Bunny's character is dwelt on so long partly to set up a contrast with our narrator and protagonist. Bunny cannot afford the trappings of his class, and sponges off the wealth of his friends. Richard almost dies rather than admit his poverty and ask for help. But despite his flaws, Bunny has the capacity to see through the allure of his sophisticated friends, and was on the cusp of exposing their crimes, whereas Richard does everything he can to protect them. The act of writing his secret history may be a form of atonement, a realisation on the part of Richard that Bunny had the right idea in the end, and Richard has to finally burn his bridges with the university friends he loved so much. 

27.2.22

Disco Elysium

I want another 50 games like Disco Elysium. This takes the writing-first approach of Planescape: Torment and removes all the combat elements so that everything is about your character's interactions with the world, and the different bits of it you can unlock with your skills and choices. At times it feels like an adventure game, where you are collecting items and asking questions until you tick your tasks off the list. That may sound linear and boring, but thankfully the game's story, characters and universe are so rich that I was compelled to explore as much as possible, sinking a glorious 50+ hours following every lead I could find.

Even if the gameplay is limited, there is enough of it to be satisfying when your build allows you to pass a check. Die-rolls govern your every interaction, modified by your skills and prior actions. There's always a chance to succeed or fail – at the first big climax of the game, where your amnesiac detective examines a dead body, I managed to pass a 3% chance perception check which massively upends your assumptions about the cause of death, and I felt a huge surge of elation even though it was just a piece of (amost literally) blind luck.

There's a pleasing ludo-narrative consonance to developing your skills. You wake up not knowing anything and are tasked with investigating a murder. But as you tick off bits and bobs in pursuing the case, you gain experience points, which allow you to level up your skills and slowly learn, or re-learn, how to be a cop.

Even better, your skills can talk to you – giving you tips and dialogue options that can push you in the right direction. But not always – sometimes their advice works against your interests. This was the second revelatory moment in the game for me. In a conversation with a femme fatale character I passed a volition check which made me realise that all my other skills, particularly the one helping me detect lies, were being hoodwinked. My character was being seduced, almost mesmerised, by the figure he was talking to, to the point where my thoughts and impulses were betraying me.

If skills are a bit like companions, chipping in here and there with advice, the game adapts the standard RPG alignment system to give you options to explore and subscribe to different cop personalities (sorry cop, superstar cop, honour cop) and political philosophies. The latter are more well developed, and in the final cut version of the game include specific 'vision quests' revealing the implications of your political allegiances. In my playthrough I picked the boring moralist (or centrist) option, which I thought went furthest to minimise harm. But in this world, the moralintern are the ascendent power, and the game makes clear the damage caused by keeping things as they are.

The game's reflections on politics are commendably nuanced. The representative of the libertarian faction (a negotiator for a shipping conglomerate) is personable and helpful, but the organisation she works for is sinister and dangerous. The representative of the dockers union is unpleasant, slippery and corrupt, treating you as a means to advance his own ends. But ultimately those ends are more noble than they at first appear. Generally, the game is ambiguous about whether the sacrifices required for liberation are worth the price in blood, sweat and tears. A moralist abandons dreams of a better world for the crushing, unfair reality of today. But realising those dreams risks unleashing horrors that are far worse than the status quo.

The game's final comment on these alignment options might lie in the character of the killer – an old revolutionary that remains committed to a dead cause, with a psyche so poisoned and curdled by ideology that it starts unleashing random death on the neighbourhood. Committment to a grand project is suspect, the game appears to suggest. A better avenue for your energies is the limited good you can do in your interactions with people.

The one discordant note for me came towards the end, where the game inserts a kind of deus ex machina in the form of an alien creature imparting wisdom on our player character, whose bender is at root inspired by a break-up he never got over. The Insulidian Phasmid urges you to let her go: "Turn and go forward. Do it for the working class". The implication is that being hung up on a lost love is preventing you from reconnecting with the world and the downtrodden people in it (it's not for nothing that the only essential skill check to pass in the game is a Shivers one – it's the skill that plugs you into the rhythms of the city). But the following line puts a sour twist on that laudible sentiment: "She was middle class. It doesn't take a three-metre stick insect to tell you that". The tone is resentful, and implies that any inter-class relationship is inherently tainted and unworkable, which is a gross idea to latch onto one of the final climaxes of the game.

That's a small exception that proves the general rule, which is that Disco Elysium is written with great thoughtfullness and tenderness for its large cast of characters. It is also very funny, and has a knowing sense of its own inherent ridiculousness. But even in a playthrough committed to exploring its most farcical elements, the creators ultimately pull the player towards the great sadness haunting the setting – the threat of existential nothingness that warps every attempt at progress. The poetry of the game is inescapable, and is its most impressive and unique feature. It's a great novel disguised as a roleplaying game, a new milestone in interactive narrative. And I want a lot more of it.

30.12.21

Favourite music of 2021

Most appreciated shorts:


12. Unknown T feat. Potter Payper (prod. Sean Murdz) - Trenches

I don't have the stomach to really enjoy UK drill, much of which is so relentlessly bleak it becomes a bit monotonous (not to mention terrifying, although that's kind of the point). Grime MCs can be similarly heavy-going, but they are also frequently funny and silly, and drill evaporates all that levity away. That said, Unknown T operates at the poppier end of the drill spectrum, and 'Trenches' is basically a backward-looking straight-up rap track that appeals far more to my sensibilities. It's elevated particularly by a star-making performance by Potter Payper, providing a welcome counterpoint to T's flow by rapping with a booming voice and at a leisurely pace, showing that speed isn't always necessary to maintain energy.



11. Nippa (prod. TobiAitch) - Situation

Imagine 8701-era Usher over a Zaytoven beat, with signifiers straight out of north London. The innovation here is that while this sounds like the silkiest R&B from ages past, lyrically the laydeez are a peripheral concern. Instead Nippa is focused on whether his people will back him up if there's danger on the way. He's a seducer, but he's not after love, he's after recruits. For me, the crooning adds a frisson of homoeroticism to proceedings that makes the track even more special.



10. 5ever - 'Champagne'

This feels like three lockdowns worth of pent up energy released in one minute-and-a-half burst of the sugariest pop punk since Fall Out Boy sat under a cork tree. 5ever write about the years after you're done with school where you're not quite sure when your life will actually start – a situation made all the more relatable by our collective pandemic experience. But the band don't sound indecisive or adrift here, leaping straight into the chorus in a bid to get you singing along as quickly as possible. 'Champagne' recognises how difficult it can be to make an effort when the world is in stasis, and then it gives you a kick up the backside.



9. Facta - 'FM Gamma'

A rainbow road of vibrant melody brushed over a sturdy but understated beat that bounces you along. The joy of this is in the little sound effects littered throughout – a bit of bubbling liquid here, a burst of static there – all adding to the sense of a playful, cheerful mind at work. The title suggests the track is a celebration of the radio, and when those thronging high notes soar towards the end you can almost visualise the frequencies floating across the skyline, merging and harmonising together into a unified sound of the city.



8. Bad Boy Chiller Crew - 'Forget Me'

These lads sounds like a total nightmare to be around – like three Liam Gallaghers in their prime who've added cocaine and MDMA to their lager consumption. They know how to please a crowd though, on record as well as on social media (the crew first found fame doing Jackass-style videos around their native Bradford). This year's Charva Anthems is a big upgrade to the BBCC template – the group could afford to commission slick original hooks from female vocalists, which add a healthy dose of feminine pressure to their standard formula of hyperspeed back-and-forth raps about cars, birds, clothes, drugs and parties. 'Forget Me' has my favourite chorus of the bunch – being slightly mellower than the rest of the EP, although that's not saying much as the whole thing delivers on the promise of its title and is never less than anthemic throughout. If nothing else these boys are a reminder of just how joyous and wonderful baseline house can be, and they've done a service to the world by popularising it outside of its northern strongholds.



7. P Money & Silencer - 'Trouble'

Just your standard Silencer riddim – a UK garage-indebted beat sliced up with dramatic strings – and another virtuoso performance from P Money, who is simply the best skippy grime MC ever. 'Trouble' sounds like it could have been on 2009's classic Money Over Everyone except now P's going on about his 'Covid flow' and streaming games on Twitch. I guess we've all developed new hobbies over lockdown. Honestly it's just good to check in on these dudes and see that they're still killing it. That said, I do find P Money's lack of solidarity ("Had a ting putting in work / Left-wing politics meant I had to sack her.") somewhat dispiriting.



6. Tinashe (prod. Stargate) - 'The Chase'

Pushed up because this year's 333 is a great record, trying all kinds of different moods and genres and generally pulling them off. 'The Chase' is the big power pop ballad – booming drums and a soaring chorus designed to be blown out of cars or over rooftops. There's even a hint of a guitar solo squiggling around towards the end to add an extra layer of Guns & Roses grandiosity to the song. It's about getting over a relationship and feeling like you don't need anyone else in the world, and Tinashe makes it sound great.



5. Meridian Dan feat. President T & JME (prod. Sir Spyro) - 'Teachers Pets'

Meridian Dan is an earworm master craftsman. As soon as you come into contact with the hook you'll have it clanging around your skull for the rest of the day. He doesn't even finish it half the time knowing you'll be able to fill in the blanks. Spiro's minimalist beat gives grime legend President T plenty of opportunities to pause for effect (his signature move), but really I'm all about JME protective father energy at the end: "dad now, married and that / yard, garden, garage and that / why you want to war with the vets / especially now I've got more to protect?" You and me both, brother.



4. PinkPantheress - 'I must apologise'

I'll admit to initially being a bit suspicious about the nostalgic bent of this project – PinkPantheress starting out by reworking god-tier UK garage and drum & bass classics 'Flowers' and 'Circles' into vibey, laid-back rollers and finding an audience on TikTok. Her tunes slap though – you can't fault the craft on display. And the very intimate and authentic tenor of the vocals and lyrics do recontextualise these by-now ancient genres as something that can soundtrack the quotidian headphone moments of teenagers working through their feelings. Ultimately though I'm a sucker for this stuff and PinkPantheress does it very well.



3. Skullcrusher - 'Storm In Summer'

Last year's number one entry is back with a longer and less-perfect EP which is nonetheless still magical. The title track is a proper cinematic triumph, the arrangement beefed up with a full band and with its eyes set on being licenced for the credit roll of an epic romantic movie. Having garnered a fair bit of attention with her music, here Helen Ballentine is ambivalent about what has been read into it, and cautious about what more to reveal or obscure. The hesitancy in the lyrics is answered by the blast of the instrumentation. The outro keeps repeating the line "I wish you could see me start this storm". We certainly hear it.



2. Pale Waves - 'Tomorrow'

The Avril Lavigne worship begins with the cover and lasts all the way through the album's runtime. The whole thing is a pitch-perfect imitation, to my mind made all the sweeter by the band being from rainy Manchester. 'Tomorrow' is basically a 2021 version of Jimmy Eat Word's 'The Middle', if anything even more earnest in its lyrics and delivery, to the point where there's a slight anxiety that in their performative solidarity the band haven't accidentally outed the named characters in their various struggles (if he exists, the Ben in "Ben I know that you love a boy!" might be a bit miffed to have the fact included in a pop song). These minor dissonances aside, the song is a glowing feelgood paean for inclusion targeted at all the misfits in the world. Very uncool but hugely heartwarming.



1. Arm's Length  - 'Eve (Household Name)'

Emo in 2021 in rude health judging by this short release – all six tracks are absolute bangers. The Hotelier's Home, Like NoPlace Is There is the foundational influence on these teenagers from Ontario, Canada, who've somehow sharpened their songs into tight packages of soaring hooks and carefully deployed melodic howls despite never actually having played a show. The lyrics are too convoluted for their own good (what does "I'd rather have bad luck than none" actually mean when you think about it?), but it kind of doesn't matter. They're probably just angry at their parents, which is an inexhaustable theme for a young punk band. 'Eve' is faster and poppier than the rest of the songs on the EP, with an intricately lovely opening riff and a collosal sing-along chorus. Life-affirming every time you throw it on, and a testament to the enduring power of guitar-based pop music.


Chill long-players also appreciated:

Lucy Gooch - Rain's Break EP
Proc Fiskal - Siren Spine Sysex
Erika de Casier - Sensational 
Joy Orbison - still slipping vol. 1


Old emo things newly appreciated:

Knuckle Puck - Copacetic
Into It. Over It. - Proper
Pinegrove - Cardinal
Jimmy Eat World - Clarity

27.12.21

My year in lists 2021

There is less to list this year so I've consolidated films, books and games into one big post. Having done these end of year accounts for a while, it looks like I've continued to lose interest in films and books while trying to expand my knowledge of games. The below is ordered roughly by preference.

Films

I did manage a couple of trips to the cinema this year – of which the experience of Dune at an empty screening at my local indie beat the classics I saw at the BFI Southbank and the Prince Charles. The links below go to what I've managed to write about on here, but I've also set up a Letterboxd account where I jot down stray thoughts. The platform has been a good way to find new things I'd want to watch, alongside the weird and wonderful items discussed in the Savage Beast podcast (the best film podcast).

Denis Villeneuve - Dune

John Fawcett - Ginger Snaps [link]
Olivia Wilde - Booksmart [link]
Robert Eggers - The Lighthouse [link]
Anthony Minghella - The Talented Mr Ripley
Michael Mann - Heat [link]
Kathryn Bigelow - Point Break
Rob Reiner - A Few Good Men [link]
Boots Riley - Sorry To Bother You
Akira Kurosawa - Drunken Angel [link]
Kenji Mizogouchi - My Love Has Been Burning [link]
Russell Mulcahy - Highlander 

Books

I got a bit sick of reading science fiction after finishing off Gene Wolfe's 'Solar Cycle' – he's one of my favourite authors but I really needed a break after 12 books. I picked up some contemporary fiction (by women for a change) as a bit of a palate clense, and there was enjoyment to be hand. Having avoided non-fiction for most of the year, I tore through some slim but potent pamplets on politics and culture in the winter months. The links below go to reviews on Goodreads, where I tend to write up most of the things I read even though the site is a bit garbage. I'm poking around Storygraph here, but while I like the data there's less of an emphasis on reviews, so I'm not sure how much I'll persist with it. 

Felipe Pepe (ed.) - The CRPG Book: A Guide to Computer Role-Playing Games [link]
Dan Ozzi - Sellout: The Major-Label Feeding Frenzy That Swept Punk, Emo, and Hardcore (1994–2007) [link]
Kit Mackintosh - Neon Screams: How Drill, Trap and Bashment Made Music New Again [link]
George Orwell - The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius [link]
Roger Scruton - Conservatism: Ideas in Profile [link]
Christopher Bigsby - Viewing America: Twenty-First-Century Television Drama [link]
Mark Bould - The Anthropocene Unconscious: Climate Catastrophe Culture [link]

M. John Harrison - The Course of the Heart [link]
Ursula K. Le Guin - The Left Hand of Darkness [link]
Ursula K. Le Guin - The Tombs of Atuan [link]
Sally Rooney - Conversations With Friends [link]
Anne Carson - The Beauty of the Husband [link]
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - Americanah [link]
John Crowley - Little, Big [link]
Poul Anderson - The Broken Sword [link]
Raymond Chandler - The High Window [link]
Susanna Clarke - Piranesi [link]
Gene Wolfe - The Book of the Short Sun [link] [link] [link]

Dan Schaffer - The Scribbler [link]
Joseph Michael Linsner - Angry Christ Comix [link]

Games

Gaming is still where I'm mostly at though. Last year I exclusively played CRPGs, whereas this year I branched out a bit and tried an adventure game, some puzzle games, an action-platformer and a JRPG for the first time (all on the iPhone). My heart is still set on the CRPGs genre however – the New Vegas playthrough that stretched over the winter months and into spring was in aggregate the most transcendent experience of media I've had in a very long time.

Obsidian Entertainment - Fallout: New Vegas [link]
Larian Studios - Divinity: Original Sin 2 [link]
Firaxis Games - XCOM: Enemy Within
Konami - Castlevania: Symphony of the Night [link]
Valve - Portal / Portal 2
Square - Chrono Trigger [link]
Playdead - Inside
Capybara Games - Grindstone
thatgamecompany - Journey
Double Fine Productions - Day of the Tentacle Remastered [link]
ConcernedApe - Stardew Valley

17.11.21

Ginger Snaps

What if a teenage girl got bitten by a werewolf? The metaphor is usually used to explore the bestial nature of adult men and the (sometimes sexual) violence they are capable of. That's present in Ginger Snaps as well, but the focus is shifted to girls hitting puberty – the lunar cycle explicitly linked to the menstrual cycle. Ginger becoming a werewolf drives new urges – to snog boys, smoke dope, fight bullies and ultimately to rebel against her family.

But that's only half of it. Ginger isn't really the main character – her younger sister Brigitte is, and the film is about their relationship and their toxic family environment. The two sisters are incredibly close, they have no friends and they are obsessed with death – perhaps as a fantasy of escaping their cloying family and dreary town. But Ginger is the instigator of their disturbing reiterated suicide pacts, and her lycanthropy only extends her control over Brigitte. In trying to manage her sister's transformation, Brigitte has to upend this power imbalance. She loves but is terrified of her sister, even before her werewolf problem. The final shot of the film tries to capture that very mixed emotion, as Brigitte finally gains her freedom.

But really the most moving part of the film happens earlier. For much of its running time, the mother is a source of brilliant comic relief. Her daughters find her attempts to engage with their problems ridiculous – even though the advice she gives (and that of the cheery school councillor) is eminently sound. Teenagers having to talk to adults about sex is always embarrassing, and displacing that with becoming a werewolf just highlights how out-of-touch parents might come across. But there's a great turn towards the end of the film, where the mother rallies around and chooses to sacrifice everything for the sake of her daughters, no matter what they've done. Brigitte accepts her help but is kind enough to say that it's not her fault. And then the mum says that it is, and apologises.

They are both right – Ginger is obviously out of control, but a parent shares some responsibility for their children's behaviour, even when they are doing their best. Despite baking the cakes, being supportive and making an effort, the mum has failed to nurture her daughters. She hasn't found a way to relate to them that can arrest their (self-)destructive behaviour. That's a tough lesson to absorb, and yet she does it and is determined to keep trying. That steely determination to stand by your children in the face of failure is admirable and very touching.

8.11.21

My Love Has Been Burning

A very didactic feminist film from Mizoguchi – starting out with a statement from the filmmaker to the audience dedicating it to women seeking freedom around the world. In 1949 the sentiment may have been provocative, but today the lectures about human rights land like platitudes.

The film still has the power to shock, however. Mizoguchi doesn’t flinch from depicting the physical and sexual brutality inflicted on women who are basically sold into slavery or are imprisoned. That sequence, which comes midway through the film, has an almost mythic quality – where the radical leader and his followers wait in the woods like Robin Hood and his merry men while our heroine sneaks into the workhouse to witness its horrors.

That's a far more powerful moment than the subsequent domestic drama where we discover that the politician we thought was on the side of women's emancipation is a cad, and an elitist one at that. The film ends on an idea of solidarity between women of different classes, committed to educating each other and dreaming of a better world while male politicians advance their careers and leave them behind. It's a well crafted statement, but the characters remain little more than vehicles for ideas, and ultimately I don't find Mizoguchi’s firebrand activism as moving as Ozu's contemplative quietist studies of the burdens of familial obligation.

4.11.21

Divinity: Original Sin 2

Although this game has a reputation for having a wacky Discworld-esque tone, the overarching plot goes to some dark and heavy places. The path to divinity is covered in blood – gaining and maintaining power necessarily involves war and murder on a grand scale. The game’s bad guys do terrible things, but it’s all in the cause of averting even more terrible things from happening. There are no good options really. To govern is to choose between horrors. 

The original sin of the title does not refer to the burden humanity lives with for disobeying god. The gods are the original sinners, destroying their own race to acquire power and worshippers. The creation of different creatures in their image is not an act of benevolence, but selfishness. Our souls are food. We are farmed animals with the illusion of freedom. The game sets you up to escape this false consciousness and follow in these footsteps to godhood. And it has you killing things every step of the way.

Combat really is integral to the game – there aren’t many peaceful options like in other RPGs. Thankfully combat is the USP of DOS2. Things like elevation, positioning, environmental effects and objects on the map significantly affect each encounter. Winning a fight isn’t just down to the items and abilities you use, but how these interact with elements in the arena. The range of options and tactical possibilities are extraordinary, and pretty daunting when you are starting out. But DOS2 rewards you for understanding its systems and figuring out its exploits.

Although the combat borrows ideas from immersive sims (barrels of various dangerous materials you can move around and blow up, for example), the game is not actually that immersive. Where the developers had to choose between realism and keeping the play as engaging and challenging as possible, they pick the latter. For most people, that's probably the correct choice, but it does make the artifice very apparent, and for me that has downsides. 

The best example is the way the game maintains its difficulty curve all the way through its runtime. Most RPGs get easier as the player amasses more experience and better items. The more side quests you do, the more overpowered you become. In DOS2 on normal difficulty, you have to go everywhere and fight pretty much everything in order to get enough experience and levels to keep up with your enemies, and if you’re not a completionist like I am you will fall behind. Thankfully the fighting is never dull and most of the storytelling is not embarrassing. But it's still a pretty relentless XP farming treadmill to have to keep on. In fairness to the developers, the explorer difficulty setting seems to be designed for players who prefer to have that more traditional RPG experience, where you can pick and choose what you do and still make it through the game.

A more prevalent point of dissonance is equipment, which is assigned a level and gradually loses its utility as you encounter stronger enemies. If you’re not constantly upgrading, again, you will fall behind. Although there is a slight justification for the low-level items at the beginning and the OP ones at the end (you start off in a prison and end up in the literal city of god) it doesn’t really hold together. There’s no reason why Orivand’s mace should be so much weaker than Lothar’s hammer. It just is because it’s in Act 1. In a more freeform RPG like Fallout 2 the journey from periphery to centre makes the shift from pistols to laser weapons feel more consonant.

Those older games also provide opportunities to sequence break and acquire awesome loot early. In Baldur’s Gate you can get the best long sword in the game outside the first dungeon. It’s a tough fight and you have to throw everything at it, but the treasure you get as the reward is very satisfying. In DOS2 every bit of loot you find has an expiration date, which devalues the satisfaction you get in acquiring it. I actually kept the level 2 Gloves of Teleportation on Fane all the way through to the final fight, but I really shouldn’t have. The game doesn't encourage a sentimental attitude to your stuff. To be fair, again the developers seem to have thought about this and added an optional mod allowing existing items to be upgraded for a price, which would significantly reduce the amount of inventory management required to keep your party battle-ready. 

Rivellon itself never feels like a coherent place in the way that the Sword Coast or the Fallout universe does, where the player is a small part of a big world with its own dynamics and developments. DOS2 trades in the more traditional linear hero's journey narrative for a tangle of storylines akin to something like Game of Thrones, where your party turns out to be at the centre of every web of intrigue. You don't exist in the world, the world exists for you.

It's a big game, with so many plot strands to pursue that it becomes a struggle to really care about any one of them. Characters like the Shadow Prince, who would be the overall villains in a different game, are met and dispatched very quickly and are used to tie together several arcs in quite an artificial way. With so much stuff happening, the individual story beats lose their impact, even though most are actually well-written. Sebille's romance is unexpectedly sweet. She ends up trusting you enough to teach you the magic that turns her into a slave – an apt metaphor for how love is about being comfortable with your vulnerabilities around another person. Lohse's quest to rid herself of the demon in her head has well-observed overtones of an abusive relationship. And Fane's resolve to document the world with a sense of wonder unavailable to its inhabitants is quite touching.


All of these moments are buried under an avalanche of game-spanning narratives involving a heap of not very distinctive factions, all of whom – elves, dwarves, lizards, magisters – are planning or committing atrocities of one kind or another. By the time you get to the ending slides, it's difficult to care about the fates of these people or places, whereas in a good Fallout game that would be one of the highlights. The politics of this world is just great power competition, which you can put a stop to in order to fight an extra-dimensional Satan figure. The choices are not very interesting, and neither are the results. The game doesn't really pass judgement on your actions. It's for you to reflect on the power you've gained, and whether the mayhem and murder along the way was worth it.

All of this nitpickery is an attempt to justify why I've not fallen head over heels for a CRPG that by general consensus is one of the best things to play right now. Because the play really is exceptional. A DOS2 fight is more stimulating than the complicated rock-paper-scissors nature of a Baldur's Gate 2 encounter – which at higher levels is just about buffing, debuffing and countering the enemy's immunities. Encounter design in DOS2 is better than anything else out there. The variety never lets up, and while there are duds (those respawning necrofire lizards in Act 4 are a pain), generally every battle is a new puzzle that's a joy to solve. And yet ultimately I still care more about the fate of the world in Fallout and my character's story in Baldur's Gate. Those games are intellectually and emotionally richer than DOS2, where the writing is serviceable and mostly serves to get you to the next brilliant bit of combat.

18.10.21

The Lighthouse

Going into this I expected another example of the “is it all a dream?” film, where realistic and fantastic interpretations are equally weighted and you get to pick what you prefer. At its best, like in Pan’s Labyrinth, this is just the opening part of a broader argument about the origins and purpose of myth-making. The Lighthouse doesn’t have such big ambitions. In fact, whether what we’re seeing is real or not doesn’t really matter. It’s like asking whether the action in Waiting For Godot or Blue Velvet is real. The film isn’t about what’s going on in the character’s heads but what's going on in our heads. It presents a metaphor, whereas Pan’s Labyrinth is about the creation of metaphors.

And while the mythological and psychosexual accoutrements provide some interesting visual cues, at its heart the film carries forward The Witch’s exploration of the evils of authoritarian patriarchy. Interestingly, although couched in familial (and psychoanalytical) metaphors, the oppressive relationship here is an economic one, where Daniel Defoe is the worst boss in the world, and where Robert Pattison’s final descent into madness is precipitated by the arbitrary withholding of wages.

One wonders why Eggers is so interested in unearthing these historical examples of religious or workplace tyranny – the echoes of which are slowly fading in the modern world. Perhaps it’s good to be reminded of how truly awful the past was. Eggers’s young heroes endure extreme emotional abuse at the hands of their elders and are driven to strike dark bargains, or just to strike out, in order to escape their hopeless situation.

The contents of the knowledge that Pattison gains at the top of the Lighthouse isn't as important as the fact it was kept from him for no reason. Whether it's fire, or sexual awakening, or knowledge of good and evil, the rebellion of the young against the patriarch does not end the pain of existence. The seabirds, old souls representing the ideological remnants of the old order, remain to peck away at whatever freedom is carved out from overthrowing your masters.

14.8.21

Day of the Tentacle

The first adventure game I've played (it's a year of gaming firsts for me). This one was cute but it did make me feel stupid a lot of the time. Some of the time it made me feel clever. And some of the time I felt frustrated because adventure game logic is not real-world logic and certain things that should solve puzzles just don't because the creators didn't think of them that way. My experience was of a lot of dead ends and bewilderment when I looked up the solutions. The logical leap required to get the horse's dentures for example is just wild – like, how were you supposed to get that??

Day of the Tentacle's innovation is to use time travel as a puzzle mechanic. You control three characters that are transported to three different eras within the same building, and getting them back together requires collaboration across the past, present and future. The most fun you can have in the game is changing history for your own trivial reasons – from having the US constitution mandate that every basement should have a vaccum cleaner to turning the American flag to a windsock. Some of the puzzles that involve depositing items in the past so they can be dug up and used in the future are also particularly satisfying.

The game is very funny, in a wacky Cartoon Network sort of way. There aren't very many pure dialogue puzzles in the game – conversations are an avenue for humour and your dialogue options are usually just a choice between different jokes you can make. The animation is beautiful and the voice-acting is pitch-perfect. It's a very charming game – and the remaster (which I played on my phone) is a labour of love. Although I had a hard time playing it, it feels like a great entryway into the genre. The genre just might not be for me.