21.6.21

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night

Picked up this legendary game on iOS for £3 and it’s worth it even if you have to make do with touchscreen controls, which will never be as intuitive as having actual buttons to mash. Thankfully, Symphony of the Night is pretty easy as action platformers go, thanks to the introduction of RPG mechanics like levelling, consumables and a massive variety of equipment that make you more powerful as you progress, as well as allowing for a certain amount of player expression in terms of builds you can use.

That said, as with a lot of RPGs the hardest part is the beginning. You start off with your endgame equipment, which is then quickly taken away and you have to scramble around in the early areas of the castle finding basic swords, shields and armour to survive. I didn’t really understand the process of saving or using secondary weapons, which made the game feel far more frustrating than it actually is. Once you know what you’re doing and have beaten the first few bosses the world becomes your oyster.

Symphony of the Night is one of the most famous examples of a game that gates areas by equipment and abilities, so rather than progressing in a linear fashion through levels, you are constantly exploring a giant map, and doubling back through old areas to find new pathways and treasures. At several stages, you have a choice of what to explore next, and you can check out early by beating the main boss of the castle, although that doesn’t give you a very satisfactory ending. The game is designed to reward exploration – only by unlocking its secrets do you get the full story (meagre as it is).


You also get a huge amount of extra content. The biggest trick Symphony of the Night pulls is to reward the player who has explored every nook and cranny of the castle with a whole other one to play in. Granted, it’s just the same castle turned upside down, but there is still a heap of new enemies and equipment to discover. It’s not quite a doubling of the game’s runtime, but it’s close. And that moment of revelation is a powerful one.

Unfortunately, the inverted castle doesn’t quite live up to its promise. Large portions of it are only accessible through flying, which isn’t a particularly enjoyable way to traverse new areas. It’s pretty obvious that the developers didn’t design the map to work effectively when it’s turned upside down – plenty of platforms are just out of reach of your double-jump, which is frustrating. The inverted castle is also far more hostile than the game thus far would lead you to expect. The power curve is very effectively reset, but at the beginning you are reliant on using your mist form (which makes you invulnerable) to bypass certain enemy-filled corridors until you gain enough levels and endgame equipment to navigate properly, which is again, not very satisfying.


The RPG elements save the day in the end. If you explore enough you will find enough health, armour and weapon upgrades to give you the resilience to survive. The bosses you encounter are actually not too difficult, and by the time I got to confronting Dracula, I had so many consumables on me that I just drank them all and aced it with most of my health intact. There is one impossible boss –  a giant mecha called Galamoth – which can be a bummer. But there are game-breaking tools available (a weapon and shield combo that does huge damage while healing you) to get you past things you can’t be bothered with. Ultimately, the inverted castle is an awesome idea that doesn’t quite stick the landing, but there’s enough fun to be had to make it worth engaging with.

Beyond its open-world experiments, Symphony of the Night is not complicated or especially cohesive. The plot is a ridiculous mish-mash of vampire tropes that is difficult to take seriously. There are entire systems that I didn't engage with at all, such as the economy of the game (there's a merchant that will buy gems and sell you things that you don't really need). You can cast spells – which might have made certain areas easier although I never figured out how to work them.

The look-and-feel of the game is very ornate and impressive, however. The game is basically still a 2D platformer, but it uses 3D to embellish the backgrounds of the world to achieve startling effects. There are also quirky little easter eggs throughout – although ostensibly set in the 18th century you can pick up pizzas and ramen to eat, and you can lounge around in banquet halls and eavesdrop on ghosts in confessional booths. It's silly and delightful, even if it doesn't hang together very well. But it holds up, and you won't find many better ways to spend £3 on over 10 hours of entertainment.

15.5.21

"Freedom is a heavy load, a great and strange burden for the spirit to undertake. It is not easy. It is not a gift given, but a choice made, and the choice may be a hard one. The road goes upward towards the light; but the laden traveller may never reach the end of it." – Ursula K. Le Guin, The Tombs of Atuan

15.4.21

"There is an essential core at the centre of each man and woman that remains unaltered no matter how life's externals may be transformed or recombined. But it's smaller than we think." – Gene Wolfe, The Book of the Long Sun

22.3.21

Fallout: New Vegas

What a delight. What a triumph. I honestly think this is the most fun I've had playing a computer game. And I've been playing this in fits and starts going on for over four months now, so to sustain that kind of momentum is quite something. Fallout: New Vegas is the first open-world RPG I've played, and I really went all-in on it – completing every major side-quest and companion quest during my playthrough. Looking back, I marvel at the lack of filler and flab. Obsidian took Baldur's Gate 2's ambition to never waste the player's time with boring things to see and do and just kept adding more and more interesting things to see and do. What an achievement.

The developer has made a name for itself exploring the grey areas in between the traditional good-and-evil moral landscape of video games. New Vegas has a myriad of factions, four of which can make or break the Mojave. Your character's allegiance decides the world's fate – but it's never an uncomplicated choice. The New California Republic is the 'good' path – especially for players who have watched (and perhaps abetted) the rise of the NCR through Fallouts 1 and 2. But here you're on the fringes of their push east, and you are constantly confronted with evidence of imperial overreach. The bureaucracy is inefficient and bedevilled by corruption. The army cannot keep the roads safe. The people chafe at the imposition of new rules and taxes. The lofty ideas that the country was founded on are being tested by the realities of governing an unruly patch of the post-apocalypse. The player can bolster the faction back to glory, but there is nonetheless the sense of moral decay and political decline to their project.

Like Byzantium facing the rise of the Arabs, the NCR is confronting the creation of a new empire in the east. Caesar's Legion present the player with the 'evil' path to victory. They have a very powerful and disturbing introduction in the town of Nipton, which the player approaches at the end of an orchestrated massacre designed to terrorise the region. The Legion is inspired by the NCR's weaknesses, which are attributed to those ideals – democracy, tolerance, freedom under the law – that would endear them to the player. Instead, Caesar has taken inspiration from pre-modern civilisations built on slavery, racism, patriarchy, military ruthlessness and the cult of a divinely-inspired monarch. The Legion are gruesome, but their religious attachment to their war leader has given them a unity of purpose that has made them effective. If the Nazis made the trains run on time, the Legion keep the roads safe – even if it is through terror. Caesar's argument to the player is that these medieval values are what can bring order to the chaos of the wasteland. He wants New Vegas to be his Rome – a glittering jewel of civilisation upheld by the fervour of his devoted legionaries. It's not an attractive vision of the future, but it's a more subtle one than that of would-be dictators in other media.

If Caesar finds his roadmap to power in the distant past, Mr House presents the player with the opportunity to harness the tools of the future. He is a scientific genius – Tony and Howard Stark rolled into one and multiplied by twelve – who used his brilliance to shield Vegas from the nuclear warheads. He has built an army of robots to keep the peace in the city – and wants the player's help to upgrade it so that he can push both the NCR and the Legion out of the Mojave and rule it himself. Mr House offers huge wealth to entice the player, but also suggests that his genius can build a technological wonderland that can not only restore what was lost but propel humanity to the stars. It's Silicon Valley utopianism that nonetheless strips the vast majority of any political rights or power. Mr House is the philosopher-king to Caesar's bloodthirsty emperor – a more attractive proposition, but one that still has a dark side.

The final option is to reject the other three – and is probably the most appealing to most players. Mr House needs a MacGuffin – the Platinum Chip – to power up his army. You are the Courier who has been dispatched to deliver it from where it was buried in the west. But at the start of the game, you are intercepted by Benny, who shoots you in the head and takes it for himself. Benny is a slimeball wheeler-dealer voiced by Matthew Perry who's managed to hotwire one of Mr House's robots and has learned of the army lying dormant deep in Legion territory. His plan is simple – use the Platinum Chip to steal the army for himself, take Mr House's place and liberate New Vegas from his oppressive rule.

His mistake was to mess with the wrong Courier. There are a lot of different ways to deal with Benny once you've recovered from your head-wound and have caught up with him. In my playthrough, he ran away and I found him tied up in Caesar's tent having failed to infiltrate the robot army bunker. Caesar gives the player the opportunity to dispatch Benny – a fittingly poetic reversal of the beginning of the game where Benny has you at his mercy and shows you none. Killing Benny may be satisfying, but the game gives the player an opportunity to redeem him as well. He's a scumbag, but he's not a coward – he's accepted that his life is at an end, and in his final moments he tries to convince you to finish what he started. And you can kill him promising that you'll fulfil his wish to make Vegas swing again. It's one of the most emotionally complicated moments I've ever come across in games.

The independent path seems to leave you in charge, although in the final moments of the game Benny's hotwired robot 'Yes Man', which you've installed as a substitute for Mr House, drops the hint that it might upgrade into something more authoritarian that may slip out of your control. But the fundamental ideological conflicts between the factions remain – how do you strike the balance between liberty and authority, and does Mr House's technology inevitably imperil democracy?

The DLCs take up that second question and run with it – introducing several Mr House-equivalents digging through the wreckage of the old world to uncover wondrous innovations and dangerous weapons. Dead Money is one long metaphor for obsession and addiction, fittingly centred on an old world casino stuffed with miracle technology and more gold than you could ever dream of carrying out with you. The villain is Father Elijah, who gambles with his own life and the lives of others in order to crack open its mysteries and use an army of unstoppable holograms to reconquer the Mojave. You stop him, of course, although the option to join with him and unleash a second darkness on the world was added in for players who need more thanatos in their lives.

Old World Blues is a comedy DLC with a serious message – its squadron of superbrains must be forced to forget their past so they don't use the enormous pile of dangerous weapons they sit on to take over the world for themselves. Fallout takes place after a nuclear apocalypse, and all of these investigations into the perils of science could be interpreted as metaphors for the bomb. The final DLC Lonesome Road makes this more explicit. The DLCs were helmed by Torment narrative designer Chris Avellone, and there's definitely a Torment echo to you uncovering your backstory to reveal a great crime – you delivered a piece of tech that accidentally set off a nuclear arsenal and incinerated a community that you had a hand in creating. The DLC incongruously introduces you to a little minigame where you use a laser to detonate other warheads lying around the wreckage – forcing you to continue to repeat your original sin in order to move forward. The villain Ulysses enjoys this historical irony, and is generally obsessed with the way history keeps repeating itself. All empires fall – and you have to convince him that instead of succumbing to nihilism and accelerating that process, it's better to keep trying to rebuild.

All of these grand themes are set against hundreds of smaller stories of people struggling to survive in the Mojave. New Vegas probably takes narrative complexity as far as it can possibly go in a fully-voiced 3D first-person game. The writing is never lazy, and the voice-acting is almost always excellent. The set of companions you encounter have rich backstories and involving personal missions, although not all are equally well-developed. Veronica is gradually losing faith in the secret society she was born into, and you can help her decide whether to stay and try to make it better, or abandon it forever to forge her own path. Arcade is also trying to escape the shadow of his upbringing – he's a peacenik doctor but his family were part of the facsistic remnants of the US government that were defeated in Fallout 2. He can either embrace that legacy and try to fight for something better, or renounce violence and go back to treating the sick. Boone's story is possibly the most tragic – he is hollowed out and close to suicidal after participating in a war crime and following the death of his wife. He hunts down the Legion incessantly in the hopes for a meaningful death, but through your adventures you can help him find a meaning in life again. There are no romances in New Vegas, but I liked to imagine my Courier was lowkey in love with Boone, all the while knowing that love could never be reciprocated.

The one blemish on the game is the second DLC Honest Hearts. It's most appealing feature is the lush environment of the national park, but the actual missions are dull and badly designed, supposedly offering you stealth or violent options while in practice making stealth almost impossible. Thankfully it's short, and its story is not well-integrated into the rest of the game, so it's an easy one to forgo entirely.

The game is very buggy, and you're advised to do quite a bit of patching and fiddling on PC before you begin in order to avoid crashes and glitches. Although I had a couple of crash-to-desktop moments, by some miracle all my quests (and I did a lot of quests...) triggered correctly and completed or failed as you would expect. In general, the play isn't difficult – and the GOTY version is made easier by the addition of a heap of high-value equipment to get you started. The main challenge comes from entering areas and fighting monsters you're not ready for. The DLCs up the challenge significantly, but they warn you in advance about the level your character should be before you attempt them, and Dead Money's survival horror gameplay does a good job of resetting the power curve if you come at it when you're a level 35 beast like I was. There are a couple of set-piece encounters that stay with you, such as taking out the deathclaws in the quarry or the radscorpions at the airport. But mostly this is a game about talking to people about their stories and making choices about how those stories should resolve, all of which is presented with a care and intelligence that preserves the game's place among the pantheon of western RPGs. 

7.3.21

The Course of the Heart

A tale about the allure of a fantastic world that can be breached with obscure magical ritual – the obsession with which destroys the characters' lives. This ostensibly moves beyond M. John Harrison's early deconstructions of the fantasy genre, but given how phantasms invade and wreck the seemingly ordinary lives of the characters in the novel, I feel like it's of a piece with Harrison's ability to take genre elements and make them dangerous and unsettling again. For example, although the corrupt (and corrupting) magician Yaxley seems to be modelled on Aleister Crowley, he reminds me just as much of the decadent wizards in Fritz Leiber and Jack Vance, who offer quests and magnificent rewards but can never be trusted by the roguish heroes. This book is like the inverse of the author's Viriconium series, which gradually brought its fantasy world into a closer relationship with our own. Here the fantasy genre lurks in the shadows of what appears to be a standard work of 'literary' fiction.

Unlike most fantasy authors, M. John Harrison is happy to leave the structure of his overlapping universes vague and unexplained. Moreover, if the genre as a whole operates by using metaphor to convey meaning, Harrison's metaphors are notably enigmatic. The three characters who performed the magical ritual as students are all haunted by monsters that reflect their particular psychosexual hang-ups – Pam's lovers perhaps reveal a lack of romantic fulfilment, Lucas Medlar's dwarf/child a guilt and self-disgust that spills over into masochism. The unnamed narrator's glimpses of a (more benign) green goddess is in the opening of the book associated with his mother, and perhaps reflects a tendency to revere but misunderstand women.

The book is ultimately a love story where the love affair is skillfully obscured until the final pages. It's a superb reveal, and subtly recontextualises everything that has come before it. The book can be criticised for fridging the two female characters, although rather than providing a motivation for the male characters, their deaths totally unravel their lives. An undercurrent of the book is that the fixation with a more perfect magical world arises and is a substitute for a lack of solid connections with this one. It's a grim verdict for a fantasy author to reach. 

14.2.21

Booksmart

I'd like to think I was a little younger than 18 when I realised that being well-behaved is different from being smart. For someone who wasn't exceptionally bright but liked to keep within the rules, I can understand the resentment that might cause, although rather than leading me to act out as the characters in this film do, I just knuckled down and tried to work harder to keep up. Still, this is a great hook for a high-school comedy – and one that speaks to me particularly clearly, despite being made more than a decade after I left school.

The film does shoot itself in the foot in the first 20 minutes before this dynamic is revealed. The pace is just a little too quick, and the jokes still haven't built up a rhythm where an audience can get their bearings and figure out why they should invest in this story. I watched the film with my wife, and she straight up got up and said she was going to bed at one point. Thankfully the long night of mishaps and adventures was about to begin. This is when the film slows down enough to explore its wide cast of characters. It settles into its groove and becomes wickedly enjoyable.

The hook is also a storytelling device. The main character Molly is fundamentally incurious about other people, which leads her to treat everyone with insufferable condescension. Her arc and that of the film are intertwined – discovering that your initial assumptions about the characters are wrong. The film is constantly setting out to disrupt our expectations. Characters you think are empty-headed jocks or prep boys, gay or straight, figures of authority or figures of fun, turn out to surprise you. You can't judge a book by its cover, and being booksmart is not the same as being streetsmart. Trying to understand people will get you further and make you happier than looking down on them. The film is at its best in those little moments of revelation, where alongside Molly you realise that everything you thought you knew was wrong.

27.1.21

Drunken Angel

Kurosawa's breakout feature stars a gruff, irascible but golden-hearted doctor working in a slum and doing his very best to heal both the bodies and the souls of his patients. The metaphor is bluntly stated and frequently reiterated – dirt and disease are the physical counterparts of the moral evils committed by the yakuza who control the neighbourhood. There is a giant swamp in the middle of the district to underline the point. 

The doctor tries to save the life of a young gangster who he diagnoses with tuberculosis. But treatment involves staying away from the drink and excitement of life as a criminal. Ultimately it's impossible to stay clean and healthy while living in the city. The film floats the prospect of returning to health and finding love in the countryside, but the yakuza cannot stay away. He's stuck in the swamp, and dies there.

The film is notable for being Kurosawa's first collaboration with Toshiro Mifune, who really does dominate the screen. He can be as suave and debonair as Marcello Mastroianni in 1960s Rome and as physical and dangerous as a jungle cat. There's a scene of him taking a girl for a spin in a nightclub where he looks like he could command armies with a swing of a hip. Mifune is emasculated by the introduction of a bigger and badder crime boss, but he sells the desperation he falls into well, and is given a grandiose death scene as a fitting send-off. 

Mifune's energy is well matched by that of the doctor, played by Takashi Shimura, who cannot stop himself speaking his mind and never speaks when he can shout. Without the portentous body politic metaphor the film is basically a character study of a man stuck where he is because he cannot grease the wheels of social advancement. He calls bullshit everywhere he sees it and as a result cannot escape being engulfed by it. Kurosawa doesn't quite know where to take the character. The ending gives him a little moment of grace with a young patient he has managed to cure, but that is set against a lifetime stitching up criminals and burying bodies, and it rings a bit false. Kurosawa may have had his first hit, but it seems he was still learning his craft.

1.1.21

2020 lockdown gaming

The main reason why my other EOY lists are shorter than previous years is because I've started playing computer games again. That makes perfect sense in a lockdown year where you had to find ways to occupy yourself at home. It makes less sense when you have a baby to look after, although I've found that the stresses of that (alongside some other things that have made this year pretty tough on my family) were aleviated somewhat by gaming, which has the amazing ability to take your brain elsewhere entirely.

I haven't played a computer game since going to university more than 10 years ago, so I'm neither a very experienced nor a very proficient gamer. But that hasn't stopped me from trying to think a little bit about how games achieve their effects, and writing about that here. I've been helped in this by listening to the Watch Out For Fireballs podcast, which talks through and takes apart different games on a weekly basis. That show, as well as the network in general, has been another source of entertainment and distraction during this difficult year – and it has supplied me with prompts and a vocabularly for evaluating the games I'm playing. The hosts are great company, and it's been fun to listen and play alongside them.

I've been drawn to CRPGs mostly, which are gentle on the reflexes and tend to have a greater emphasis on story and character. That's the stuff I really latch onto, over and above satisfying and rewarding gameplay. It helps that I've been playing the Citizen Kanes and Casablancas of the medium – a good way to avoid disappointment as well as educate yourself on what games can achieve at their best. I've done my best to articulate those achievements in the summaries of my playthroughs below:

31.12.20

26 films in 2020

I managed to avoid watching a single film released in 2020 this year – as with other things, lockdown has merely accelerated pre-existing trends. Nevertheless there was plenty to enjoy on different streaming services. In a shrewd and extremely welcome move, Netflix responded to the advent of Disney+ by making the entire Studio Ghibli back catalogue available, meaning I've now watched pretty much everything they've made. Although best known for Miyazaki's fantasy films, I found that some of the Studio's best work is in a realist vein – Whisper of the HeartOnly Yesterday and Ocean Waves are masterpieces comparable to Nausicaä and Mononoke.

For a couple of months I was subscribed to Mubi, which I used mainly to get to know the works of Céline Sciamma. I traded that in for a BFI Player subscription late in the year, which has a larger and more interesting selection of films, particularly if you're into arty schlock from France and Japan. This Chrismas has been a feast on the BBC iPlayer, where I've gorged on the very best of recent Disney/Pixar (Frozen, BraveInside Out, Moana) and Hollywood classics (Casablanca, Some Like It Hot, Singin' in the Rain).

Below is the list roughly in order of preference. I've succumbed and set up a Letterboxd account, partly in a futile attempt to work out how many films I've watched in my life (not that many, it turns out). I've started to jot down more casual thoughts on films over there, which don't deserve a full blogpost here. 

Yoshifumi Kondō - Whisper of the Heart [link]
Céline Sciamma - Portrait of a Lady on Fire [link]
Isao Takahata - Only Yesterday [link]
François Ozon - Swimming Pool [link]
Tomomi Mochizuki - Ocean Waves
Ken Russell - Crimes of Passion [link]
Yasujiro Ozu - Late Spring [link]
Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly - Singin’ in the Rain [link]
Céline Sciamma - Water Lilies [link]
Georges Franju - Eyes Without a Face [link]
Shinya Tsukamoto - A Snake of June [link]
Thom Eberhardt - Night of the Comet [link]
Greta Gerwig - Lady Bird [link]
Céline Sciamma - Girlhood [link]
Atom Egoyan - Chloe [link]
Damien Chazelle - La La Land [link]
Nobuhiko Obayashi - House [link]
Jean Rollin - Lips of Blood [link]
Ben Stiller - Reality Bites [link]
Tim Burton - Beetlejuice [link]
Tsai Ming-liang - The Wayward Cloud [link]
Hiroyuki Morita - The Cat Returns
John Hughes - Ferris Bueller's Day Off [link]
Alexander Payne - Election [link]
Masaaki Yuasa - Night Is Short, Walk on Girl [link]
Jim Henson - Labyrinth [link]