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]


33 books of 2020

The Alzabo Soup podcast has continued to exert an influence on my reading this year. The start of their coverage of Gene Wolfe's Book of the Long Sun spurred me to gallop through the four books over the last three months, and it's been a hugely enjoyable experience. Wolfe best known work is dense and knotty with riddles, but Long Sun is much more relaxed and easy to get into. Can't wait to start on the concluding Book of the Short Sun in the new year.

The podcast also took a detour to look at Catherynne M. Valente's Palimpsest, which got me to read it as well. And I filled out some gaps in my knowledge of the fantasy canon by dipping into Fritz Lieber, and also looking at the authorised Tolkien biography. Turns out I really can't get enough of this stuff.

The libraries closing during lockdown meant I was able to focus a bit more on the backlog of weird comics I had bought and never got around to reading. The majority wasn't particularly revelatory, but Alex de Campi, Ram V, Ho Che Anderson and André Lima Araújo stuck out as talents that deserve a bigger audience. 

I try to write something about most of the things I read over on Goodreads, even if it's just a paragraph. Most of the links below point there.

Paul Collier - The Future of Capitalism: Facing the New Anxieties
Gabriel Pogrund / Patrick Maguire - Left Out: The Inside Story of Labour Under Corbyn [link]
Humphrey Carpenter - J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography [link]

Gene Wolfe - The Book of the Long Sun [link]
Philip Pullman - The Book of Dust vol 2: The Secret Commonwealth [link]
Elmore Leonard - Killshot [link]
Paolo Bacigalupi - The Windup Girl [link]
Catherynne M. Valente - Palimpsest [link]
Natsuo Kirino - Real World [link]
Fritz Leiber - Swords and Deviltry / Swords in the Mist / Swords against Wizardry [link] [link]

Alex de Campi / various - Smoke / Ashes [link]
Ho Che Anderson - I Want To Be Your Dog [link]
Jamie Delano / John Bolton - Batman: Manbat [link]
André Lima Araújo - Man: Plus – Electric Memory [link]
Ram V / various - Brigands [link]
Lovern Kindzierski / John Bolton - Shame vols. 1-3
Stjepan Šejić - Sunstone vol. 1 [link]
Kazuto Okada - Sundome [link]
Marc Guggenheim / Tara Butters / Ryan Bodenheim - Halcyon [link]
Marc Bernardin / Adam Freeman / Afua Richardson - Genius [link]
Yukito Kishiro - Battle Angel Alita vol. 1 [link]
Pat Mills / Olivier Ledroit - Sha [link]
Elaine Lee / William Simpson - Vamps [link]
Sam Humphries / Jen Bartel - Blackbird vol. 1 [link]
Andy Hartnell / J. Scott Campbell - Danger Girl: The Ultimate Collection [link]
Sessyu Takemura - Domin-8 Me!
Saburouta - Citrus vols. 1-3
Jim Mahfood - Grrl Scouts: Magic Socks [link]
Sophie Goldstein - House of Women
Christophe Gibelin / Claire Wendling - Lights of the Amalou [link]
Guy Colwell - Inner City Romance [link]
Kazuo Koike / Seisaku Kano - Colour of Rage [link]
Kevin Eastman / various - Roninbebop [link]


Favourite music of 2020

I've listened to a lot of music this year, but very little of it was released in 2020. Partly that's down to lockdown leading me to seek out the kind of introverted favourites I listened to as a teenager (Belle & Sebastian, The Sundays, a lot of R.E.M. thanks to this excellent podcast surveying their career). 2020 was a difficult year, as it has been for a lot of people, and I needed the familiar as a source of comfort and solace. Perhaps when things brighten up the urge to investigate the new will return. 

All of that dovetailed nicely with a playlist I was building of canonical pop songs for my baby daughter (Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, Nick Drake, Motown), which for selfish reasons I preferred to singing nursery rhymes. That gradually morphed into a giant collection of things daddy likes, from Erik Satie to Aphex Twin to the mellowest jungle and grime I could find. The initial intention to familiarise her with the classics has been diluted somewhat, and she may not thank me for it. But then again maybe she will. I'm looking forward to finding out. 

A lot of the new music I've investigated this year has been on the ambient electronic side of things – stuff that comfortably slots into the background while working from home. I've listed them below, but first a short run down of 2020 songs that have managed to float above the melange of chill beats and old favourites.

Favourite songs:

5. Low End Activist feat. Flow Dan - Game Theory

Impossible for me not to fall for Flow Dan over a beat that harkens back to the earliest days of grime and dubstep, when the two genres were still somewhat indistinct from each other as they emerged out of UK garage. There's plenty of menacing low end business here, but it's elevated by the swing of the drums – encouraging a bit of a skip to Flow Dan's bars, which is a welcome change of pace for him. A great tune in a year where I haven't come across many.

4. Phoebe Bridgers - Kyoto

Not enamoured of the album as a whole, which melted into the background for me and not in a good way. This single is one of its more upbeat moments, where the soaring chorus provides a bit of contrast to the sullen and slighly dazed delivery in the verses. The production is weirdly restrained and muffled for something that has horns and cymbals propel the crescendos. It's a pop song that isn't entirely comfortable being a pop song – and that may be part of the charm.

3. Gulfer - Forget (Friendly)

This year's self-titled LP isn't quite the roaring success of 2018's more concentrated Dog Bless, which was my favourite record of that year. In fine math rock tradition Gulfer's songs studiously ignore predictable structures – with mixed results. They really hit the jackpot here, though. Each element builds on the previous one to a richly satisfying denouement. Chest-pumpingly huge as the best sweaty guitar music should be.

2. The Beths - Jump Rope Gazers

Again this year's album isn't quite the unparalleled success that 2018's Future Me Hates Me was, which may have beaten Gulfer as my favourite record of that year if I had heard it in time. But the title track on this year's effort may be the best thing they've ever done – anchored by a stadium-sized riff and leading to a very sweet and understated declaration of love that will mercilessly worm into your skull and heart. An anthem for the ages.

It's only four songs and I make the rules anyway. This is quite a personal one. When my daughter had a serious accident at the start of this month, the video for Skullcrusher's 'Day of Show' was one of the only things that would keep her calm through the frighening events that followed. The EP is just 12 minutes of ambient-tinged folk, whispy and ethereal in a way that tugs at the corners of your attention without imposing itself on it. Its use as a lullaby to soothe a toddler is very far removed from the intentions of the artist, whose lyrics detail the fraught moments of self-doubt and self-actualisation that you experience in that uncertain period after the end of your education and the beginning of the rest of your life. But the tone and melodies, inspired by Nick Drake by way of Radiohead, were exactly what my daughter and I needed during the long nights in the hospital ward. 

Other 2020 records I liked:

Akasha System - Epoch Flux

Minor Science - Second Language

Sufjan Stevens - The Ascension

Tengger - Nomad

And some amazing 2020 reissues:

Foul Play - Origins

Hiroshi Yoshimura - Green

Move D & Benjamin Brunn - Let's Call It A Day


Crimes of Passion

The film makes the perhaps obvious connection between a prostitute providing comfort and affirmation to her clients, and a priest ministering to his flock. Russell must have enjoyed the perversity of the idea – he was the one who switched Shayne's role from a psychiatrist to a man of the cloth. It presented him with an opportunity to explore the way these two broken people feed off the inner lives of the men and women they serve. It's a deeper kind of voyeurism than just a sexual one. Kathleen Turner's China Blue has no personal life outside prostitution. She comes alive when she is transformed into other people's fantasies. 

The Reverend is totally overwhelmed with unwanted sexual thoughts and a fevered desire to purge them from the world around him, and finally – fatally – himself. He identifies China Blue as a kindred spirit, and confronts her with their shared pathology. But while she leads a schizophrenic life as a fashion designer by day and hooker by night, Shayne is a little bit further down the road to total psychosis. On the other end of the spectrum is a boy scout former high school quarterback with a wife and two kids, who remains a romantic at heart. Kathleen Turner's character is caught between the relative normality he offers, and the dangerous escapades of an obsessive sex-crazed priest. 

It's a gleefully transgressive film, and some of the most outré moments (including an S&M-tinged session with a policeman enjoying his own baton) were cut for the theatrical release. The smutty content is offset by Russell's theatrical, campy direction, where the actors are allowed to deliver their dialogue in long takes, as if we're watching them on a stage. The set design isn't as spectacular as in The Devils, but Russell still goes to town on China Blue's hotel room, full of props and pulsing with neon light, and Shayne's serial-killeresque den where religious symbols are pasted alongside pornography and lit up with a thousand flickering candles. The star of the show, however, is Kathleen Turner, who not only nails every bit of innuendo-laden repartee, but subtly conveys the fear and loneliness lurking beneath the bravado and roleplay. 


The Wayward Cloud

So bizarre it almost defies attempts at interpretation. It's a romance without conversation – communication achieved through bottled water, watermelons, food, cigarettes and, finally, porn, which mediates the couple's lovemaking in a disturbing way. The kitch musical numbers are little windows into the soul set against the static shots of dingy appartments and their silent inhabitants. But if the film is supposed to be about the inherent loneliness and alienation of modern life, it takes a great deal of absurdist joy in it. It reminded me a little of Tampopo in its series of loosely unconnected sight gags and focus on food as a proxy for dialogue.

The porn we see being made is ludicrous, and becomes an opportunity for wry jokes rather than titillation. However, the final scene may be designed to shock us out of that complacency. The female porn performer is comatose, and laboriously positioned by the crew in different poses so that the shoot can continue. The lack of consent is unsettling – a stark warning about the danger of treating others as things rather than people. But the sequence is also about how pornography literally comes between the couple in the film. The male porn actor humps a lifeless piece of flesh while looking at the face of the woman he really wants to be with, and she, in sympathy and sadness, starts encouraging his behaviour. But then she is also unwillingly forced into the action – the voyeur is raped as well. Is that an encouragement to the audience to consider the conditions under which their entertainment is made? Or is it just a warning about divorcing and abstracting sex from the lived reality of relationships? Either way, it's a bleak ending to a strange, sometimes ponderous, but often charming study of modern love.


La La Land

Is the final musical number suggesting the possibility that things could have worked out between Seb and Mia if different choices were made? Or is it just an idle fantasy that disregards the obstacles put in the way of the relationship succeeding? The former is the sadder, more regretful ending. The latter is resigned, and ultimately happier. Given the parallels with her own life, it must be Mia's vision we're seeing. The touchstones are the same, only the man is different. And the sequence brushes aside the problem of separation – Seb just is magically able to come to Paris and find success there. Musicals are about externalising the passions and dreams we bottle up inside ourselves – the genre allows them to burst out and change the world around us. La La Land plays with that feeling of possibilities opening up, but it's grounded enough to retreat back into the real world. Some things in life work out, some things don't. The couple achieves artistic fulfilment and success, but not as a couple. 

La La Land uses the tricks of the genre but isn't contained by it. The story isn't just an excuse to move from one song to the next – there's quite a lot of traditional comedy and drama in between. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone probably can't compete with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, but they are great actors, and their best work in the film is when they are acting rather than when they are singing and dancing. Chazelle's determination to use long takes to capture the songs is admirable and technically impressive, but for me the songs themselves are unmemorable. They are there to evoke memories of Old Hollywood and how that romanticism is folded into the romance in the film – two retromaniacs finding solace in their nostalgia for forgotten artforms. It's Gosling and Stone's portrayal of that relationship that makes the film work.


Late Spring

A highlight of Ozu's post-war work, and rather more didactic than the late films I'm familiar with. There is apparently a lively discourse over the extent to which Ozu is critical of the painfully arranged marriage the film ends on. Noriko is in the late spring of life – 27 and unmarried, happily living with her widowed father in a state of arrested development. Eventually her father puts his foot down and explains to her the necessity of leaving home and starting her own family. Ozu will abandon such lecturing in future, but here his thinking is very plainly spelled out. Noriko's situation is unnatural. Her devotion to her father, while honourable, is also self-serving. She is comfortable and content, but her duty is to work at creating her own happiness with a husband. Noriko assents and admits that she has been selfish.

I don't think Ozu ultimately wishes to question the demands that tradition places on people. They are a source of pain that must be endured. The father is left bereft by his daughter's marriage – there will be no one to look after him in his old age. Likewise Noriko must try to build a relationship with a man she barely knows. These are wrenching transitions, but the naturalistic title of the film implies that they are inevitable parts of the cycle of life, and must be borne with fortitude and determination. Happiness requires work. You can't just coast on the achievements of your parents.

The film is humane enough to linger on the melancholy and bitter emotions created by the necessity of marriage. The famous scenes – at the Noh play, the empty vase – are showcases for Noriko's jealousy and shame. The interesting thing about Late Spring is that future films will valourise the Noriko character's attachments as signs of overbearing loyalty rather than selfishness. Ozu keeps returning to the archetype of the dutiful daughter and her slightly warped attachment to the old ways (where remarriage is unaccountably a filthy thing to do), but he will become more tender in his portrayal of her.

Noriko's vivacious best friend is a sign of things to come – a less conservative film-maker would have made her the hero. She has taken advantage of the freedoms after the war to divorce the pig of a man she married, and is making her own money as a stenographer. Noriko is attracted to the independence of not having a husband, but unlike her friend she buys this by looking after her doddery father who she can wrap around her little finger. Tellingly, even her entirely modan gaaru best friend insists that Noriko should get a husband already. It's a part of growing up and becoming your own person, even if it's still couched in the traditions of marriage and male authority.

The film established Ozu's famous late style. A rigidly, almost obsessively, static camera – which doesn't move even when the characters are on bikes. The low angles which position the audience as reverent observers of the quotidian interactions of middle-class families. The ambiguous pillow-shots, which sometimes serve to establish a setting, sometimes as moments of reflection, or in the famous example of the vase, to show time passing between Noriko's change of mood. The film opens on the image of a train station – perhaps a symbolic suggestion of the journey out of the family home Noriko must undertake. It ends on footage of waves on the beach – an image grounding the action of the film in the timeless movements of nature. It's a masterpiece, but Ozu's themes are still rather close to the surface. He will become subtler and more ambiguous as he continued to revisit these stories in the films that followed.


Eyes Without a Face (Les Yeux sans Visage)

Released in the same year as Psycho and in its own way just as influential on the horror genre. Part of the power of the film lies in it not having an explicit explanation for the motivations of the characters. Unlike in Hitchcock's film, here the police fail to uncover the mystery, and there is no debrief where the psychosis is explained, providing comfort and closure to the audience.

Instead we have to rely on the skill of the actors to unravel their inner worlds. The Frankensteinian Dr. Génessier is animated by pride in his medical skill, which extends to the inability to admit or accept responsibility for the car crash that disfigured his daughter. Instead he keeps trying to erase the record and reverse the damage he has wrought. But all that does is deepen the trauma he has inflicted.

The more frightening character is his secretary Louise, who provides the doctor with a source of new faces by seducing students in Paris. She is played with the fervour of a cult follower – wild eyes and a manic rictus grin as she goes about her murderous business. She is grateful to the doctor for her own plastic surgery on her face, but he has co-opted that gratitude and turned her into his very own Igor figure – totally dependent and subservient to his whims and projects.

Christine is the child who is the victim of these experiments. The name is ironic – she’s the opposite of a Christ figure in that people end up dying for her so that she can live and be transformed. It's implied that she endures her surgeries in the hope that her beauty can be restored and she can be reunited with her fiancé, although for much of the film she is also depressed to the brink of suicide at the forlorn prospect of such an eventuality. At the end of the film she accepts that these dreams of love and the protections of the patriarchy are impossible, and she revolts. In the final moments she releases herself from parental and marital authority and emerges into the world.

It's an empowering as well as a disturbing note for the film to end on, and I suspect Alex Garland's Ex Machina takes inspiration from it. In both films, young women have been physically and psychically shaped by domineering, arrogant inventors, and are able to turn the tables on their creators and escape their remote castle laboratories. Franju uses rather obvious imagery of doves being freed from their cages to underline the point, but it's still a haunting and poetic moment, and it has had a long cinematic afterlife.



Imagine if Argento's Suspiria was a comedy in the style of Evil Dead 2, except even sillier. And then throw every garish cinematic trick you can think of into the mix to make something already pretty absurd look even more so. The filmmakers took inspiration from the fears and anxieties of pre-teen girls to create their horror set-pieces, and get very close to having the final product look like it was made by children.

They just about avoid it – at least some of the arch techniques are thematically or symbolically significant. A good example is the long scene at the beginning which introduces Angel's father and the initial conflict of the story, which is that he's getting remarried and Angel's cherished memories of her dead mother are demeaned by the sudden emergence of a step-mother. The entire exchange is shot through glass panels which break apart the idyllic background (which, appropriately, looks extremely fake). The point of all this artifice is to make everything we see impossible to take seriously.

That must be the purpose of the film, if it has one. The sanctity of the family, the authority of teachers, the sacrifice of war, the fantasy of knights riding to the rescue – all of it comes in for merciless mockery. The film ends on the idea that 'the story of love must be told many times over' so that it can live on in eternity, but this is delivered in voiceover by the wicked witch who eats young girls in order to live forever and avenge herself on the man who abandoned her. The story of love turns out to be a cruel satire. The girls all have names like Angel, Melody and Sweet, and they all get gobbled up alongside the ideals they represent.


Lips of Blood

What must be quite a personal film for Rollin. The hero has forgotten much of his childhood apart from the vision of a castle and a girl, and he goes on a quest to discover where this fragment of memory comes from. Such gothic images recur in Rollin films, but disappointingly there is little here that tries to delve into why they hold such a fascination for him. Instead, there's a sense that the hero's controlling mother is a barrier towards romantic (and Romantic) fulfillment – she at one point arranges her son to be kidnapped so that an evil doctor can administer shock therapy to rid him of his delusions.

The hero slips through the cluches of the secret vampire hunting society his mother is a part of, and is reunited with his long lost love at the end of the film. It appears to be a 'careful what you wish for' scenario, in that embracing these nightmare visions means rejecting the everyday world, your family, and life itself. But the film suggests that the couple aren't just transformed into bloodthirsty monsters. Rather they are stepping into a fairytale world. In climbing aboard their shared coffin and setting out to sea, the hero talks about living on an island of sand and luring rich sailors to their shores, as if they are becoming creatures of myth and legend. It's a retreat into childhood adventure rather than death. It's alluring rather than frightening, but then again Rollin has always been on the side of the vampires.


A Snake of June

Tsukamoto acts as the voyeur and stalker in this 77-minute bizarre erotic thriller – where he torments a young woman in a loveless marriage until she is able to act out her sexual fantasies. The first half of the film seems to explore the crushing weight polite society imposes on people's private desires. Everything in the film is mediated by the camera, which reveals the characters' darkest secrets and forces them into the light. Tsukamoto is literally pointing it at the audience and implicating us in his voyeurism.

The other side of that is that people don't just want to watch, they want to be seen. Rinko's fantasies revolve around being exposed and compromised, and the climax of the film (teased at the beginning) is when her inhibitions fall away in front of a camera with a giant flash. The suggestion may be that this desire is born out of frustration – her husband (in a humorous bit of sublimation) is more interested in scrubbing drains than addressing her sexual needs.

The film ultimately ends happily – the stalker confronts the husband with his wife's antics and berates him for not looking after her properly. It appears that Tsukamoto's character wants to replace him and take Rinko for himself, but the film becomes extremely surreal at this point and perhaps this love triangle is all in the husband's head. The final moments of the film has Tsukamoto calmly taking his portrait and then disappearing – his work in bringing the couple together complete.

The film is monochrome and tinted blue, apparently as a visual contrast to the pink film genre it is ostensibly operating in. It is constantly raining (the title refers to the rainy season and may be a ribald joke), and the pathetic fallacy is difficult to read. The rain is both cold and smothering, but also a symbol of the torrid passions swirling within the characters. The random shots of a snail the film keeps returing to may be a similar juxtaposition of something slow and cumbersome that is also sordid and sticky. The film unifies these contrasts – and suggests that the medium is an avenue by which to better understand ourselves, and each other.



The proposition of the game is "what if Sauron won?", but it takes inspiraton from real-world tyrants, gangsters and manipulators as much as fictional ones. The player will most likely end up working for the bad guys – either an elite force of racists who exterminate everyone they conquer, or a horde of unruly terrorists who conscript the people they defeat in shockingly brutal ways. Either of those paths would test the moral limits of the player. They will be instructed to do terrible things, and must decide whether the ends (peace and order) justify the means (conquest and submission to a tyrant).

I shied away from those moral compromises, choosing to betray both sides and seize power myself. This doesn't make you a good person either – in fact, it involves quite a lot more killing than if you just pick one side and fight the other. The dead bodies pile up much higher in the quest to make your name and build up enough renown to be able to challenge the political elites of the world – demigods called Archons whose reputations give them magical abilities.

That is the key metaphor in Tyranny, and one of the strengths of the game. Magical powers are products of knowledge (fiercely controlled by the distant autocrat who directs the Archons – the unknowable Kyros) but also the way you are perceived in the world. Your reputation – both positive and negative – with different companions and factions (and even certain items you are using) will give you new powers. This has big implications mechanically – you can't just sit on the fence and try to get everyone to like you. Instead, the game rewards you for choosing a side. To unlock the most powerful abilities you should aim to have a lot of favour with one faction, and correspondingly a lot of wrath with another. Likewise, although you may want your companions to like you, getting them to fear you as well will mean a wider menu of combo abilities. At the end of both reputation scales is where the bonuses lie. 

This was a roleplaying challenge for me, as I usually play a goody two shoes in RPGs and try not to offend anyone. Tyranny is very upfront about the necessity of not doing this – you are told you have to pick a side, and if you hesitate in the interests of keeping everyone happy you actually lose favour with everyone. Nonetheless, it's the mechanical incentives the game provides which hammer the point home and bring the metaphor to life. Power is literally about what others think of you and can be gained through favour or wrath, loyalty or fear. And in order to build those things up and become an Archon, you have to make enemies.

Kyros's power is also the source of their magic, and vice versa – but it's on a different scale to the Archons they command. Kyros can pronounce commandments called "edicts", which like the twelve plagues of Egypt fundamentally change the character of the landscape. This ability to project power is what allows them (the gender is unknown) to rule from a distance. As the game develops you see the limits of this – on the edges of the empire opportunities arise for its servants to acquire the kind of power and renown that can pose a threat to the emperor. The player character can break edicts, and eventually make them as well. While Kyros's origins remain a mystery in the game, the implication is that they mirror your own. Your investigations into the magical underpinnings of the world give you the power to shape it, and an empire much like Kyros's may become part of your destiny.

The world of Tyranny is rich with detail and novelty. It has a classical rather than medieval flavour – where most weapons are bronze rather than iron and demigods walk among men. The lore can be a bit overwhelming, with many new terms and concepts to learn, but the basics are intuitively explained, and most of the depths are accessed through conversations, which the player can skip if they are uninterested in learning more. You get the sense that the narrative designers really enjoyed pursuing the implications of what a world under Kyros would be like, and you can spend a lot of the otherwise short running time tumbling down those rabbit holes.

Tyranny's biggest flaw is its combat system, and given that you do a lot of fighting it's a significant one. There isn't a lot of tactical crunch, where the strengths and abilities of an enemy require you to change your approach and navigate debuffs and counters. Instead, you end up doing the same thing over and over again – the same buffs, the same opening gambits, the same positioning. Unlike Baldur's Gate, where encounters require a lot of prep but can be over very quickly, in Tyranny fights take a while and end up just being about setting up a chokepoint with your tank and managing the cooldowns of your mages and ranged characters.

The boss fights are where it gets more interesting, particularly when they disrupt the chokepoints you set up. For example, the Voices of Nerat can teleport around and can summon help to attack from the opposite end of the arena. This requires you to constantly shift position to keep your fighters in front of your mages, adding a bit of challenge and variety. Fighting the elemental bosses is enjoyable in a similar way. They also summon help, which they absorb to heal themselves. So rather than focus fire on the boss to take it down before they unleash the next wave of summons, you wear down the boss by dealing with the summons first.

The game's systems are actually pretty complicated. There are many different types of damage (piercing, crushing, arcane) and ways of avoiding it (dodge, parry, armour), so it's really quite strange that the combat ends up being rather monotonous (to the point where this reviewer reduced the difficulty and just let the AI sort it all out). Other systems, like base-management, crafting and inventory, benefit from being stripped back. An interesting innovation is the way dialogue can impact on combat. You can use your knowledge or physical presence to intimidate enemies and change the make-up of encounters. This robs the player of the ability to set up ambushes – the game forces you to talk to people before you attack them. But at least that dialogue has a tactical as well as a narrative significance.

The game was envisioned to be much longer and was edited down, making its ending quite abrupt. You don't get to defeat Kyros, you merely make them flinch – casting an edict of your own and forcing their armies to retreat. Nevertheless, the game really sells how significant this is. No one has been able to do this before you, and the feeling of empowerment is similar to the ending of Baldur's Gate, where you're vying with gods and demons. Baldur's Gate is ultimately a better series in terms of gameplay. Tyranny is more of a flawed masterpiece like Planescape: Torment, where the joy is in the writing, world-building and role-playing choices rather than the play itself. The difference is that Torment explores evil on a micro-scale, and is all about how to atone for it. Tyranny takes that game's villain, the practical incarnation of the player character, and shows what would result on a macro-scale if they were unleashed on the word. It's an accomplished look at the building blocks of political authority, and the ways we make our compromises with it.


The Secret Commonwealth (The Book of Dust volume 2)

At some point after the publication of The Amber Spyglass, Pullman became uncomfortable with the status of being a fantasy author perceived as an advocate for rationality. This new trilogy, and this book in particular, struggles with that tension. Lyra has become infatuated with modern scholars who disparage the presence of the fantastic in the world, but is also learning more about 'the secret commonwealth' of fairies, spirits and other mysterious beings that exert an influence on it. The status of these creatures is uncertain – they resist scientific scrutiny and are the domain of superstition and belief. They constitute a kind of diffused animism set against the centralised and totalitarian tendency of the Authority and his earthly servants, who remain the villains of the story.

In a crucial chapter towards the end of the book, Lyra seeks to unpack her commitment to "the Republic of Heaven" – the hopeful idea which ends The Amber Spyglass. Lyra seems to think this was a repudiation of all superstitions – adopting the misreading of some of the champions of that book. In fact, the phrase points to a democratisation of belief, where the organisational might of religious authority is dismantled and people are free to imagine whatever they want. It's an idea adopted from the 17th century English radical tradition Pullman is so enamoured with, which argued for toleration rather than atheism.

To make that point clearer, Pullman has to reveal more about the Magisterium than he has previously. Lyra and Will's achievements in The Amber Spyglass haven't worked – the villains are consolidating power and exerting it more openly. Their machinations have real-world parallels – wars in the Middle East partly driven by nefarious corporate interests, and the refugee crisis that is the unintended consequence of them. The subtext of previous Pullman books gets closer to text here. The politics is painted in primary colours, but Pullman's writing is strong enough to elicit some genuine horror at the plight of the poor and stateless, and the cruelties of authoritarianism.

The overarching plot of the book is a mess – Malcolm, Lyra and Pan have flimsy motivations for their movements. Moreover, very many of the turning points in the story lean heavily on coincidence, which weakens investment in it. Pullman is close to writing a spy thriller here – Malcolm works for a secret society fighting against the Magisterium, and has some of Smiley's talents at interrogation as well as Jason Bourne's ability to take down an enemy. Pullman is very adept at writing these action sequences, however. Individual chapters are brilliant showcases of pacing and technique, even if the book as a whole is long and unsatisfying. 


Swimming Pool

The final scene in this film completely recontextualises everything we have observed prior to it. Basically, it was all a dream – and that can feel trite and unsatisfying, except it opens up rather than closes down the ambiguities of Charlotte Rampling's character. The film is a slow burn, with the first part setting up how solitary and self-contained Sarah Morton can be, her habit of eating yogurt and sugar echoing the auto-erotic nature of Travis Bickle eating mayonnaise out of a jar. 

The fabrication of Julie may be spurred by the arrival of a real Julia, but we only get to see what Sarah invents, which is a character through which she can dig into her own desire for affirmation from her distant, condescending publisher. By imagining a surrogate daughter with her own issues of abandonment, Sarah comes to recognise her own lack of personal and artistic fulfillment, repressed by the demands of churning out rote but popular detective novels.

The swimming pool is an obvious symbol of this imaginative flowering – slowly being uncovered, cleaned up and then inhabited by Sarah's muse Julie. Julie's sexualisation may hint at a repressed homosexuality in Sarah, but may just as much be down to the envy the old harbour for the beauty and freedom of the young. Through Julie, Sarah relives her own experiences during the sexually liberated swinging sixties. She is a conduit through which Sarah can explore her desire for the men around her – young, old, beautiful and ugly.

Julie concocts a murder in a strange reflection of Sarah's own sexual jealousy, but when confronted she says she did it for the good of Sarah's book. This is a retreat into the comforts of the genre Sarah is familiar with, which distance her from her actual personal tribulations. But instead of uncovering the murder, Sarah covers it up – she's no longer the detective but the criminal. She becomes an actor rather than the observer of events.

The film's blending of these ambiguous personal reevaluations with the trappings of a Hitchcock-style thriller plot goes to the heart of Sarah's ambivalence about her work – the demands of her audience and industry for sex, violence and murder set against the artistic demands for self-expression and earnest communication. Through Sarah, Ozon is laying bare his own anxieties about himself as a creator and filmmaker.

Swimming Pool may ultimately be an argument for the primacy of self-expression – it is the symbol of Sarah's imaginative emancipation and the title of her book. But at its best, the film shows how the demands of art and audience are not actually in conflict. Sarah is at her most prolific – furiously typing away with a cigarette drooping out of her mouth – when she becomes besotted with her invented daughter and her mysteries. We also understand Sarah better as a result of seeing the violent and sexual urges that underpin her creativity. Ozon's project may be to unearth the personal desires and frustrations that give birth to our collective storytelling conventions.


Deus Ex

The premise of the game is that all conspiracy theories are true, and the idea is treated with more seriousness than it probably deserves. Conspiracies are the product of a need to believe the world is less chaotic than it appears, where evil isn't random but has some shadowy force directing it. They are a mirror image of theodicies – instead of justifying the ways of a benevolent God to man, they explain how suffering and injustice are all the work of a great Satan.

Deus Ex is also a cyberpunk game, and it's at its most interesting when that sensibility interacts with the quasi-religious nature of conspiracist thinking. Towards the end of the game, the player comes across an AI called Morpheus, who plants the idea that the omniscient machines mankind has created are strivings towards godhood. The all-seeing AIs being assembled by these secret societies will appease people's desire for judgement, which in the past was provided by gods and governments. The villain of the story wants to merge with one of these AIs, become a god and rule the world. However the player decides to deal with him, it remains the case that as long as this technology exists, the temptation will be there to place it at the top of the pyramid and complete the conspiracy. Chance will be eliminated but so will human agency. Everything will be decided and directed for us by an authority we have made and must (perhaps willingly) submit to. Technology will finally allow Hobbes's Leviathan to be built. 

The player has a choice at the end of the game – to replace the villain and lend greater benevolence to the AI's decisions, or to blow it up and cause a collapse in global information networks, which will return humanity to a dark age but will guarantee freedom from the machines. Both are extreme scenarios – opposing poles in the D&D lawful-chaotic alignment spectrum. The middle path is probably the least favoured by the game – kill the villain but not allow the AI to rule the world either. Instead power will revert back to a more benign secret society, but the hierarchies that structure the world will endure. Instead of revolution or destruction, there is incremental improvement tempered by the dangers associated with the fallibility of human government. But at least this outcome shores up the benefits of civilisation while protecting a modicum of human freedom.

These grand questions of political philosophy are sidebars for most of the game – occurring in stilted dialogue exchanges which are optional and entirely skippable. What's more impressive is the way Deus Ex integrates moral questions into the gameplay. This is confined to the first third of the game before the big reveal that the peacekeeping organisation you are working for is just a front for the bad guys. But that dawning "are we the baddies?" realisation leads to the sort of conflicted feelings that are difficult to find in other games. Your boss and your fellow agents want you to kill the terrorists, but your idealist brother pressures you to be a policeman rather than a soldier and use your riot prod, pepper spray and baton, which merely knock enemies unconscious. In the very first level, you start overhearing conversations between the terrorists that humanise their struggle and make you feel bad about murdering their brethren.

There is no mechanical difference between a dead or an unconscious enemy. But how you approach the first missions in the game will draw contrasting reactions from NPCs – some praising you for wiping out terrorist scum and others disappointed by your bloodthirsty nature. An intriguing detail in RPS's recent oral history of the game's development is that human enemies were designed to run after taking a certain amount of damage, with the player getting to decide whether to finish them off for good or let them flee (there is no mechanical difference between the two that I could see). Deus Ex forces a conflict between the demands of the shooter genre to clear the map and the moral status of the player if they follow through with those prompts. It's a game that urges you to question everything, including yourself.

At least at the beginning. Once the conspiracy is revealed the incentive to play non-lethally is massively watered down, and I ended up mowing down hordes of MJ12 goons pretty much as soon as they became the default enemy. A little bit of nuance is applied very late in the game, where you meet a father who disowns his son for enlisting with the group, and you get the sense that for some people joining the bad guys is just materially easier than resisting them. But these moments of doubt and discomfort are few and far between.

Instead the game devolves into a supremely accomplished stealth shooter where you work your way across a series of secret bases to fulfil different objectives radioed to you by a variety of handlers. It all starts to bleed together and would get tedious if the level design wasn't so uniformly excellent. The role-playing element in the game is muted – JC Denton's dialogue won't change much depending on the choices you make. However, the player has a spectrum of options and choices in approaching a situation. Every level may have the same start and end-point, but there is never only one way to get from one to the other, and there's a great deal of care put into ensuring that sneaking is always as much of an option as fighting.

Moreover, the game rewards you for exploring it – you get experience not from killing more enemies but uncovering hidden areas of the map, and valuable augmentations that improve your build are only found by being on the lookout for them. Rigorous devotion to mission objectives won't reveal the full richness of the game. This was uppermost in the priorities of the designers, who aimed for about 30% of the content to be unique to each playthrough. There are emotional as well as mechanical rewards – fewer of your friends die if you are meticulous about following up every lead. Your trusty pilot only survives if you take the time to investigate a plot to blow up his helicopter. A merchant who provides you with some decent weapons upgrades won't be killed if you take a detour to warn him of an incoming raid.

The game is 20 years old and there's some wear and tear. The AI can be a little silly, with troopers blithely ignoring fallen comrades while doing their rounds. Alarms don't count for as much as you would think. It's very easy to die, particularly when you start having to go against bots and cyborgs. That said, the difficulty curve is pretty satisfying once you understand the basics, and I never had to attempt an encounter more than three or four times before working out a way through. The graphics (if you care about such things) are ugly, and I had to do a little bit of fiddling to make the game bright enough to play properly. But these wrinkles don't detract from the overall experience of playing the game. And at its best – in the first third and in the final stretch – the moral and political dilemmas you face are like nothing else in gaming.


Girlhood (Band of Girls)

A case study used to illuminate the intersecting restrictions race, class and gender place on young people, and for me the gender dynamics feel the most well-observed. The film starts off with a celebration of female physical prowess and solidarity on a sports field, and then contrasts that with the way the chattering girls fall silent as they walk back to their estate and encounter the boys idling outside. As usual, Sciamma's male characters are an external source of menace which the female characters have to navigate around, while still yearning for their recognition and approval. Men are black holes of attraction that are dangerous to go near.

The film makes an exception in the love interest for the main character Vic – who is pliant enough to let himself be sexualised by her, rather than the other way around. Their relationship is sweet, but it is conducted under the shadow of patriarchal assumptions, in which Vic's brother feels able to control and punish her sexual activity. At the end of the film, the boyfriend proposes marriage as a way for Vic to escape her reputation as a 'slut' and her life as a pusher for the local drug baron, which Vic is flattered by but ultimately turns down, perhaps because she sees marriage and children as another confinement and she wants to make her own way in the world. 

The film's portrayal of the girl gang Vic falls in with after dropping out of school feels almost anthropological. Its most famous scene is the girls dancing to Rihanna's 'Diamonds' – a bonding ritual that cements their friendship. Sciamma is an acute observer of the hierarchies that structure even these tight-knit groups. Lady is the alpha, but gets humiliated in a fight with another girl gang, which Vic avenges, but that then becomes a challenge to Lady's status. Lady draws in Vic by her ability to get noticed by boys, and also by gifts of clothes and a phone – huge status symbols for Vic, whose mother works a low-paying job and whose brother refuses to share the spoils from his criminal activity. Sciamma's detached stance is typical of her style, and also probably inevitable given that her personal background is very different from that of the characters in her film.

Girlhood ends with a beautiful piece of visual storytelling, in which Vic breaks down in sobs after deciding not to return to her family, and the camera keeps pushing in leaving her out of frame. Sciamma sets up the expectation that the film will end on this downbeat, but then at the last second Vic steps back into frame, with her tears gone and a determined look on her face. Despite losing everything – friends, family, boyfriend, income – the film suggests that she is resourceful enough to survive, and that we should admire her rather than simply condescend to pity her.


Fallout 2

A post-nuclear role-playing game, although it's not so much about the nasty, brutish and short life you live when civilisation is stripped away, as it is about the myriad ways civilisation can be reconstructed from the rubble. The game has a classic science fiction feel, in that it contains thought experiments about the alternative social and political structures that can emerge when the slate is wiped clean. The fun of the game is in how your choices impact the history of these different places. Your actions literally determine whether a town thrives or dies.

The best example is Vault City – which is the first big urban hub you come across. Its design is clearly inspired by the Athens of classical Greece. It's a democracy in the ancient rather than the modern sense, where citizens have an active role in government, but citizenship is tightly circumscribed (in the game the 'citizenship test' is almost impossible to pass), and there is a large slave population that have no rights whatsoever. Athenian democracy had a very well-developed sense of its own superiority, which the game embodies in the character of First Citizen Joanne Lynette, who quickly becomes hostile if you disparage Vault City's institutions. The city's distinctiveness is reinforced by a strongly held prejudice against the barbarians beyond its walls, who are perceived as sub-human. Through your actions, you can try to establish trading relationships with a neighbouring town populated by irradiated "ghouls", but you run the risk of empowering the city to expand and enslave the surrounding area, much like the armies of ancient Athens would do.

Other parts of Fallout 2 reference other bits of history. The mining town of Redding is caught between the lawless casino capital New Reno and the bland but stable New California Republic to the east. This is where the game gets closest to the western genre. You can swing the balance in favour of one or the other, and while the NCR may appear to be the better option, the game counter-weighs that by evoking a sense of the freedoms of the wild west. New Reno may pump the town full of drugs, but it has no police force, and in the clash of competing crime families a degree of independence can be maintained. It's a choice between the chaotic and lawful spectrum of the Dungeons & Dragons alignment system – anarchism with all its dangers and liberties versus a safe but restricted life under the rule of law.

The game is sprawling not only geographically but tonally – mixing together poverty, drug addiction and prostitution alongside crass schoolboy humour, pop culture references and in-jokes. Different designers were responsible for different areas, which explains some of the inconsistencies. The game also had a tough deadline, which meant that a lot of areas have an unfinished feel, particularly the final city San Fransisco, which is full of empty containers and has an entire map of the docks with no content whatsoever. There are some irritating bugs as well, most notably with some of the endings, which didn't marry up to the decisions I made in the game itself.

The biggest problem with the game, however, is that the central narrative is weak, and doesn't provide enough motivation to push you through to the next area. The mystery of the Enclave isn't revealed until the very end of the game, and a lot of the time you are left wondering what to do and where to go next, with only the enticement of exploring a new area to keep you interested. Despite some attempts to interweave quests between cities, the game remains quite modular, and at several points I was tempted to drop off once I had completed the quests in a particular region. The main campaign in Baldur's Gate – a CRPG from the same era and studio – introduces the outlines of its conspiracy from the very start and is therefore much better at hooking you into the narrative. 

The Enclave itself presents a simple inversion, turning the remnants of the US government into a fascist secret society that has developed genocidal tendencies. The diverse cultures that have bubbled up on the west coast are perceived as irredeemably irradiated or mutated and therefore to be purged by an airborne virus to create living space for the only 'real' humans left on the planet. Not many games lead you to assassinate the President of the United States, but in doing so, you defend the rich variety emerging out of the wreckage of the apocalypse against the regime that caused it. But the game is subtle enough to include wrinkles in that victory – as factions like the Shi, NCR and Vault City have their own totalitarian tendencies.

Fallout 2's role-playing and combat systems are complex but robust, and there are few ways to break your build. That said, some skills and perks are definitely better than others, and as I wanted a relatively painless experience, I relied on a guide to get the most out of the game. There is a bewildering variety of weapons and ammo available, and the details of how armour works remained somewhat mysterious to me. That said, combat is very fun, particularly when you are at the very edge of being able to survive encounters, as I was when I faced the geckos in the Toxic Caves and the xenomorphs in the Redding mines. Money and experience pile up to ridiculous heights, and it was very satisfying to be able to mow down enemies that had previously given me nightmares with my endgame equipment. UX is awful, particularly the inventory, but you get used to it. Party NPCs are outside your direct control – which can lead to them doing ridiculous and infuriating things, but you can fiddle with their AI to get better results, so all-in-all the game is still very playable, and worth persevering with. Few RPGs give you so much scope to affect the world created around you.



The original script was much darker, and traces remain underneath the finished product's goofy slapstick. Keaton's Betelgeuse is a perv as well as a prankster – harassing Geena Davies at every opportunity and setting his sights on hooking up with an unwilling Winona Ryder, who is just a child. So lurking behind the cartoonish wedding ceremony, which provides the final moments of tension in the film, is the spectre of sexual violence and paedophilia.

That makes the film quite strange tonally. For the most part, it looks like Caspar the Friendly Ghost given the Tim Burton design treatment. Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis are wholesome, unadventurous nerds happiest when at home in their rural townhouse. The Deetz family are absurd caricatures of metropolitan bourgeois values, while their daughter is the most ridiculous goth on screen. There are little shadings of tragedy underneath the fairytale portrayal though. Baldwin and Davis's domestic bliss is marred by their inability to have children. Ryder finds her parents repulsive and considers suicide as a way to escape their clutches and join Baldwin and Davis in the afterlife.

If the film is about anything, it's about Ryder finding happiness in a surrogate all-American family structure that leaves her real parents compartmentalised in the attic – free of the responsibility of trying to understand or look after their daughter. In their way, they also find contentment – Charles finally escapes the rat race, and Delia pursues her hideous art projects as a form of private expression (much like Baldwin and his model-building). Betelgeuse is a degenerate wastrel completely alien to the small town middle class community Baldwin and Davis belong to, and the Deetz family join by rejecting their urban attachments and attitudes. While Burton's design sensibilities are outlandish and bizarre, his film is ultimately a tribute to conformism – championing the containment and domestication of deviant urges so that family and society are preserved.


Lady Bird

The intention behind the film was to make the equivalent of a Boyhood-style coming-of-age movie, but from a female perspective. Thankfully it doesn't stretch into three hours but is quite tightly edited. Scenes are like snapshots, with hard cuts moving you drastically forward in time before you can linger on how a moment develops or resolves. That makes for some discordant effects – Lady Bird and her mother are screaming at each other in one scene and then back on speaking terms the next. But I think that's to the film's purpose, which is to highlight the complexity of their relationship. This is encapsulated by an exchange towards the end of the film where Lady Bird gets her mother to admit that while she may love her daughter, she doesn't necessarily like her.

Although the film has an unvarnished style (Saoirse Ronan didn't want to cover up her acne with makeup, for example), there are still references to genre staples, although they are given a twist. There's the slightly less conventionally attractive best friend, but in one of the sweet moment in the film she becomes the prom date rather than the entitled, pretty dude in a band. And the traditional race for your love trope in an airport is not romantic but involves the mother realising that she wants to have a proper goodbye with her daughter, and it doesn't resolve as it normally would. These subversions show that real life isn't as neat and tidy as films make out, even if you sometimes need to use filmic short cuts to communicate meaning and emotion.

It's very good – and reminded me of stupid things I did when I was in school. It's a Bildungsroman in the style of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, where flight is necessary in order to develop as a creative and as a person, but that distance reinforces the impact of the place where you grew up. Joyce never stopped writing about Dublin even though all of his books were written in mainland Europe. Greta Gerwig seems to have the same conflicted feelings about Sacramento. In another pivotal scene, the ability to really observe her surroundings is reinterpreted as a kind of love. That applies as much to the mother-daughter relationship as it does to the city.


Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines

The cruel trick Bloodlines pulls is to make the thing you are pursuing, built up like the Ark in Raiders, into a meaningless McGuffin. Your boss doesn’t use his wealth and influence to achieve anything substantial but just has you chasing baubles. The most satisfying ending is therefore seeing how his dreams of world domination are subverted and destroyed, leading to the triumph of the Anarchs – a sect with barely any political organisation championing the dispersal of power.

Although you become a formidable vampire by the end, you are always a pawn, as some of your more mysterious emails testify. The chessmaster knows all the moves before the game starts, and the beginning tutorial with Smiling Jack takes on a new significance with that hindsight. The implication is that without his guidance you wouldn’t have made it out of Santa Monica, but he trains you up to be the perfect sleeper agent – one who doesn’t even know who is pulling the strings. And if you decide to become a prince yourself, you end up sharing the fate of your erstwhile employer. The game tempts you with power and punishes you if you seize it. 

It’s an interesting move to have the game telegraph the player’s lack of agency in this way. At the very beginning, a fortune-teller basically tells you what is going to happen, and if you play as a Malkavian (a vampire who sees the future at the cost of going mad) you get voices in your head revealing upcoming events. RPGs are supposed to be about player choice, but Bloodlines is acutely aware of the limits of that, not just in the game itself but in the format generally. You are never as free as you might wish. At some point, the game will find a way to railroad you to where you need to go. Bloodlines hangs a lantern on that manipulation. You are a puppet of the other characters in the game, and ultimately of the developers who made it.

It’s a vampire game, so it’s very sexy. But it’s also a noir set in LA, so the sex is sordid and gross, and the developers don’t quite distance themselves from the exploitative and objectifying nature of what they are portraying. The most glaring example of this is the cheat code for inflating the breasts of female character models to ludicrous proportions, but even without enabling the console, you have the optional fetch quests which reward you with nothing but risqué posters of the female characters in the game, literally reducing their complexity to two dimensions.

While you do spend a lot of time in porn shops and peep shows, and can observe blow jobs in alleys and lap dances in strip clubs, as a vampire you are nonetheless cut off from participating in the game’s sexual economy, at least in the normal 'human' way. Vampire society finds sex distasteful and vampires who have sex are perceived as degenerates. So although you can seduce girls in clubs or pay hookers, it’s not their bodies you get, but their blood. That has an interesting distancing effect from the seediness all around you. You move in a world where sex is available everywhere but for you it's mediated by a need to fuel your vampiric powers. In most playthroughs, you don't actually get to sleep with anyone. You are a bloodsucker, not a sybarite. You’re there to use people, not enjoy them.

Sexuality in Bloodlines is structured by the heterosexual male gaze and caters to the whims of the perceived audience for the game. But while the female characters may be designed with fan service in mind, the writing is strong enough to make them interesting nonetheless. A minor example is Velvet Velour, who may embody the stripper-with-a-heart-of-gold stereotype, but who is also very aware of how she is perceived and patronised by the people around her. If the player completes her side quests she will start emailing you bad romantic poetry, but in doing so she also comments on how her creativity might be dismissed because she is (or at least used to be) a sex-worker.

Therese and Jeanette are more complex, and this piece by Cara Ellison is a good articulation of how they represent the Madonna-whore complex, and how society rewards one and punishes the other. Even then, the game is quite clever in subverting this dynamic – showing that Jeanette’s voraciousness is ultimately a healthier expression of sexuality than her sister’s, which is the product of patriarchy in a really quite dark and disturbing way. The player can pick which character to save, or they can save both, in which case the sisters learn to manipulate their contrasting images and gain a new kind of interiority beneath the masks they wear. That outcome underlines the impossibility of building a self outside of the expectations of the world around you. The only freedom to be found is in understanding and mastering the roles you have learned, and discovering how to slip between them.

A still more fraught moral dilemma is presented by the fate of Heather Poe. Arguably the game fridges her to provide some extra motivation in taking down the Sabbat, but you could also read this as a way to actively punish the player for engaging in what is clearly a toxic relationship. Heather is your ghoul – a human dependent on your blood – and she becomes emotionally obsessed with you even if you treat her like dirt. The ickiest expression of her submissiveness is how the player (in another blatant bit of fan service) can tell her to change her outfits, either into to something "dark and gothy" or into her underwear. The ethical thing to do is to release Heather from her blood bond, not only because it removes her from danger but because it allows her to escape an unhealthy relationship that can easily turn into an abusive one. The twist is that mechanically the game rewards you for keeping her around – she drops out of college and gives you her money, she's a dependable source of blood, and finally just before her death she'll get you the best armour in the game. It's like you are being given a perfect girlfriend that gives you presents and does everything you say, but the game will kill her if you don't do the right thing and let her go to become her own person.

The writing and the characters are Bloodlines's strong suits. There are problems with the gameplay that are only partially addressed by the decades-long fan community project of fixing the game's bugs. Although missions were intended to allow for different playstyles (combat, stealth, social skills), in fact the game guides you towards using stealth in the middle portion of the game and combat at the end, and if your build isn't versatile you will struggle. I rolled as a gunslinging Toreador and found the majority of the game pretty well-balanced. I even had fun shooting my way through the Sabbat stronghold, although other players tend to experience it as a grind. Having the flamethrower made the fight with Andrei trivial (and enjoyably so) but the other boss fights were too much for me and I ended up partially cheating my way through them. Ming Xiao has far too much health, making the fight a tedious war of attrition, and the final fight on the rooftop had too many things going on at the same time for me to really try and engage with it. That said, given its reputation I found the game a lot more playable than I expected. Only the very final couple of missions were troublesome.

The game does better when it comes to environmental design. There is a justly famous haunted house level early on which remains a masterclass in how a game can freak you out – all the more impressive in that the ghost can't actually hurt you very much. A later level in what is effectively a private insane asylum also does a good job in building mood, while also serving as a character study for one of the vampire barons that you never actually end up meeting (the sound design for the level also purposefully drives you a little bit unhinged). The developers licenced an early version of Valve's Source engine to make the game, and it all still looks pretty great. The decision wasn't so much about taking advantage of the engine's physics as it was about utilising its unbeatable facial animation, which alongside some solid voice-acting makes a typical pitfall of action RPGs into a strength. The visuals are there to make interacting with the characters as immersive as possible. Those characters are ultimately what makes Bloodlines such a joy.