A Second Set of Very Short Reviews With No Particular Purpose

Too Like the Lightning
It’s the philosophical parts of Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri, but as a book! Awesome! But it’s presented in the most insufferable writing style: needless archaicism. And its philosophy-behind-the-philosophy agrees with my mother, which doesn’t win it any favors.

Ergo Proxy
It’s also kind of like SMAC, but with masses of eye-shadow. If you can disregard the unlikable cast and cliché aesthetics, it actually has some fairly interesting things to say about creating sentient servants. But it kind of mumbles them under its breath with frequent non-sequiturs. Overall, overrated.

Good fun in the vein of SpaceChem etc. Difficulty curve is a bit patchy to nonexistent at times. Looks kind of ugly but not in an offensive way. If you like build-a-machine games, this is one of the greats.

Making Money
I’m honestly not sure about this one. Nowhere near the greatness of Reaper Man, Hogfather, Night Watch, Small Gods etc, but still one of the better ones? Yeah, that’ll do. Kind of bothers me how all of Moist’s opposition just self-destructs without any real sense of him having to fight for it. Maybe that’s just his style.

DotA 7.00

The Slow Regard of Silent Things
Someone told Rothfuss they liked his, shall we say, open-minded attitude towards the categorization of words into nouns, adjectives etc, and he got a bit carried away with the heady feeling of praise. And a thesaurus. Also reduced Auri from a perfectly good side-character to “the yandere harem girl.” Still a pretty good read.

Flip Flappers
You deserve to watch this.

Path of Exile: Atlas of Worlds
Fantastic expansion. Can anyone stop this game from getting better before it’s too late? Find out in Act V, coming some time eventually.

Black Mirror S3
Not as ludicrously good as the first or second season, but still very good for TV. People are right to hype San Junipero. Pretty much every episode had enjoyable parts and made me think about something even if not always what I think I was supposed to be thinking about.

Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky FC
“Charming” is the word that springs immediately to mind. You can do a lot with characters that you introduce as flat archetypes and build on a little more with each scene they’re in, and the setting is well-realised enough. I lack the tactical-RPG experience against which to compare it, but the gameplay is usually pretty engaging, so can’t be that bad.

Hello Internet Podcast
Oh, okay, turns out CGPGrey is only a nice voice and somehow manages to have Wrong Opinions on every single other aspect of existence. Impressive, really, as it implies that there’s a Right Opinion Generator which he’s inexplicably inverting the outputs of. Would be much less terrible if Brady, who has quite a broad spectrum of partial knowledge, weren’t played as the Dumb Guy of the two. In essence, I don’t like thing.

Rick & Morty S1
Wow that got unfunny quickly. Brilliant ideas, but firmly lashed to the anchor of “status-quo-preserving sitcom.”

Perdido Street Station
Reminds me strongly of an acquaintance at university whose drawings of unsettling creatures would consistently feature leaking, oozing, etc. Imaginative, but deeply unpleasant to look at for too long. When most people want to say summer days are long, they don’t use implements of torture in their simile. On the whole: a great book.

A Second Set of Very Short Reviews With No Particular Purpose

Look at Me, I’m Contrarian

Or, “The Beginner’s Guide to Not Liking Thing.

Hey, remember when Digibro said that everyone loves Legend of the Galactic Heroes?

No? I’m the only one who’s been grinding an axe over that? That was a throwaway comment irrelevant to the actual point of the video? It would be pointless in the extreme to take it as a call to write a huge blog post detailing why I don’t like Legend of the Galactic Heroes?

This video would make an excellent jumping-off point to talk about Virtue Signalling and other twaddle. But no, I’m just here to complain about a show I didn’t like. I dropped it at around episode 25 or so. This is more time than I give to most things that I like, and far more than the “3 episodes/chapters/blocks or 5% of the content, whichever is larger” rule that I usually use to decide when to give up on something, so I think I gave it more than a fair shot.

(okay, I mean, obviously Digi didn’t actually mean everyone everyone, so I’m not gonna be the pedant insisting that we all use “almost” in almost every sentence, but still. I wanna bitch.)

So, LotGH. It’s a long anime about warring space-nations. Arguably the best said anime. Except, actually, it’s not about warring space-nations. It’s about warring horse-and-musket nations separated by oceans, that tries to pretend it’s set in space.


This isn’t news. It’s generally known that LotGH is really a paean to the Napoleonic era of warfare, filtered through a vaguely sci-fi coloured lens. Nonetheless, it is my first reason for disliking it. The show and the lens don’t fit. The above image really sums it up. I loved both the original games in question when I first played them. Both got HD remakes recently, both of which I played. But only Homeworld managed to pull me back in and make me love it again, because Cossacks just isn’t that great. It’s a fun recreation-of-sorts of a particular era of historical warfare, and it looks great to have these vast armies of musketeers and hussars flowing across the fields, but both on a tactical and strategic level, there’s not much depth. Most nations’ units are mechanically indistinct – often the only distinction between armies is their colour. The overall game strategy is also pretty much identical between nations – same buildings in the same order for the same purpose. It fundamentally fails as a strategy game, because it’s trying so hard to be historical. And flaws of the exact same pattern haunt LotGH also.

Homeworld 2, on the other hand, is quite possibly the best space strategy game ever made.

So my first complaint is that the show is purportedly science fiction warfare, but is actually historical recreation warfare. Any pretense of Space as a setting goes right out the window when you consistently forget the notion of a third dimension and sometimes have your ships form triangles and make actual cavalry charges at each other.

There’s the choice of medium. Animated works are great for specific things. For creating a visual style that outlasts the aging of your technology (great example: Psychonauts). For visual scenes that can’t be done with live-action, or would look terrible and inconsistent. For impossible camera angles and lighting effects and art styles that go beyond what costumes and make-up can begin to accomplish. This, I think, is why many of the best anime are genre fiction. Ones that aren’t, don’t need to be anime.

But look at LotGH. There are fight-scenes between spaceships, yes, but those have been being done with models since the dawn of TV sci-fi and no one’s minded. There’s no uncanny valley or the suchlike, after all, or at least there wasn’t at the time. Improvements in computer rendering are slowly creating one, but that’s another story. There are some pretty big “planetary-scale weaponry” scenes that maybe would look awful if not animated. But honestly, these scenes all looked pretty awful anyway. Without the benefits of nostalgia-vison, most of yesteryear’s big-budget eye-candy looks dreadful today (thanks hedonic treadmill). LotGH is no exception; another casualty in the inexorable grind of everything getting better all the time.

I’m not enough of an expert on visual media to explain why it looks so bad properly, but I’ll try anyway: there’s very poor sense of motion. It feels rigid. Details aren’t applied to where they need to be, and are often over-applied where they shouldn’t be. It looks for all the world like one of those old puppet-motion shows.

But the vast majority of the show just doesn’t need to be animated at all. People standing in rooms talking? Sounds like a good use of live-action to me. This would immediately fix all the show’s problems with wooden stances and expressions. The choice of medium is poor at best.

A point of praise is often noted to be the soundtrack, which is largely composed of classical European music. It’s very appropriate, considering the show is a Napoleonic costume drama. But that doesn’t necessarily make it the best possible choice. I’ve loved a whole bunch of choices with respect to soundtracks, but LotGH just doesn’t stand out. They wanted to seem fancy and refined, and chose classical music. Okay. Makes sense.

That is to say, the soundtrack is boring. Cliché. Uninspired in the absolute extreme. It’s not even a choice at all so much as the default. To say it leaves me unimpressed is an understatement of planet-busting magnitude.

And then there’s politics. “Ohhh, but it’s bad to not like a thing because you think its politics are wrong, you’re supposed to be objective.” Nope! If anything, the opposite. I’m not here to be objective: I’m here to complain.

If Utopianism and Dystopianism are flawed paradigms, then all the more so LotGH, which flirts with both. Granted it never falls into the worst traps, the starry-eyed optimism that ignores flaws or the dismissal of interesting questions by adding “… and then no one ever enjoyed anything ever again” as an unqualified assertion of the inevitable results of the author’s least favourite social policy. But nonetheless, for a show hyped for its amazing political commentary, LotGH is just So You’re A Reactionary: The Introductory Guide to Wishing for Kings. It pits an idealized monarchic state against a democracy that it clearly wants to be “warts and all” realistic, but the show can’t seem to bring itself to show anything except flaws. The ‘hero’ character of the republic is a mouthpiece to deploy further polemic, and a historian who loves the past. He has some lines mumbling something about believing in what he’s fighting for, but the sentiment is never really felt compared to his idolisation of bygone eras and admiration of his enemies.

Granted, the Empire is not all sunshine and roses in LotGH, but the hand on the scales of the political commentary is blatantly obvious and deeply obnoxious. Are political statements allowed to be art? Sure, I don’t see why not. But it’s harder to respect art that definitely picks a side, and art that picks a side while claiming not to do so is even worse, and art that picks the side you’re not on is always going to be less appealing still. But art that picks the side you’re not on and then tries to pass it off as objective or unbiased is borderline infuriating.

The sad thing is, I can see why people would love this aspect of it. No matter how much we dismiss the Puppies’ methods, specific aims, associations and general appearance of being destruction-seekers, their complaint that science-fiction has a leftist slant is pretty accurate. Of what rightist SF/F there is, most is pretty garbage. Finding something that flatters your preconceptions without going too far and being a transparent exercise in political propaganda is hard, and I don’t fault anyone for loving things that achieve that delicate balance for them.

I mean, I get it. Star Trek TNG in particular is egregiously left-of-center, and I can understand why people would be put off by that; please try to sympathise with my being put off by the exact mirror scenario.

The characters are also raved about. I won’t have much to say about them, though, since I can’t remember most of them. Some are obnoxious; some are contemptible, but the vast majority are just boring. No one in this show seems willing to stand up for their ideals (and no, “I really want to conquer the galaxy and rule all with an iron fist!” is not an ideal, no matter how nicely you phrase it), and no actual character conflict seems to occur. Characters are either Enemies, in which case they try to kill each other, or Allies, in which case they fight together (possibly while plotting betrayal for personal gain). Maybe they get to that later, but there’s a point where you go past “taking your time” into “taking the piss,” and that point is definitely less than 25 episodes into a show.

While I don’t want to dwell too much on the political angle, and I’m aware that reactionary readers would scorn such criticism, the show really lacks women. Like, people complain about Lord of the Rings for being sexist, but it at least has one strong-willed woman with goals and stuff. I’m not a fan of the Bechdel test, so here’s my test: could you randomize the genders of the cast without losing any important story aspects? If so, why didn’t you? The answer for both LotR and LotGH are that they’re a product of their era, and contain an implicit expectation that Fighting Is For Men. However, LotR is set in a fairly distant alternate past, and can be expected to take an ultra-conservative position – but instead includes the Shield-maiden for no reason other than it seemed cool and made sense. Whereas a good sci-fi author might try to extrapolate social trends into the future, which extrapolation for LotGH somehow concluded that the social structure centuries in the future would be uncannily identical to 17th century Prussia.

A list of questions the show never even pretended to answer:
How does interstellar travel work? What are the weapons the spacecraft use? What’s their effective range? Fighter-type craft are seen a few times – how is the balance between what look like battleship-type craft and carriers so near to perfect (in reality, naval combat turned from battleship-doctrine to carrier-doctrine very rapidly)? Why do space-battleships descend to planetary surfaces so often? How does interstellar communication work? Is it faster than travel, and if so, how? How do both sides maintain their large single-government existence across vast distances? How does the configuration of the strategic arena conspire to allow chokepoints such as Iserlohn (it’s outer space, just go around)? Speaking of Iserlohn, how is its energy generated? And why was it crewed exclusively by morons who can’t follow even the most basic security protocols? When a fleet’s supply lines are being discussed, what supplies are we talking about here? Food and water? What kind of timescales are we operating on (see earlier question about interstellar travel)? Why does anyone care about conquering anything at all when you have the technology to travel between stars? What possible desires are there left to satisfy by conquest? What happened to all the other, more plausible images of the future to prevent them happening (admittedly basically nothing ever addresses this one)? Why are static defenses used, ever? Why is Yang considered a genius for using “hit it with something moving very fast” against said defenses? Why are any of the heroic characters considered geniuses, given that frankly their strategies aren’t that brilliant and what we’re shown is simply that their presence in a fleet exerts some sort of auric influence that makes their ships shoot better, shrug off hits, etc? Seriously though, why did massive space battleships land themselves on planets like a bunch of delta-v-wasting chumps? Why did the original writer apparently not bother learning the basics of orbital mechanics, stellar physics, or it seems any science whatsoever before making the attempt? Did they think using fission weaponry against the entire surface of a planet would be efficient? Wait, are these spaceships carrying around fissile materials? Why not just lug a big ol’ box of rocks around space with you while you’re at it? Where are all the EVAs? The fancy futuristic spacesuits? Why did they end up fighting in an Ouroboros shape in the first episode? The Wattsonian reason, that is, the Doylist one is really obvious and really stupid. Why no relativistic kill vehicles? Are planets so individually valuable (in an entire galactic civilisation!) that you can’t afford to melt the crust of even one if doing so might put an end to an interminable bloody war? For that matter, why are mass drivers so rare in general?

You get the idea.

A lot of these questions may seem pointless. Surely all that irrelevant technobabble is what we want taken out of science fiction, to leave the pure essence of the story? No, it doesn’t work that way. The fundamental point of science fiction is that technology and story are inextricably bound up with one another. The constraints on what characters can do inform the audience’s expectations of what they will do, which in turns controls how the story can fulfill or defy those expectations. A great example of this, from the point of view of a character with near-godlike powers. But if you never learn what the constraints are, eventually the story dissolves into a disjointed series of events without any explanation. Oh such-and-such is travelling to wherever to stop so-and-so. Who will get there first? Hah, tough luck, there’s no way to determine that. It’ll happen when the story demands it and not a second sooner, y’hear! Maybe growing up reading fantasy stories that always include a map spoiled me.

Most importantly, why is explaining the above not even worthy of a throwaway line? “mumble mumble hyperspace inhibitors.” There, easy. That’s how Homeworld did it, and while it’s a total write-in of an explanation, it’s sufficient. Here’s my reasoning, which ties right back to the very first point. Legend of the Galactic Heroes is not science fiction. It’s literary fiction: the kind of fiction where you don’t have to explain anything because the assumption that the story takes place in the contemporary world and involves ordinary humans doing ultimately ordinary things is an assumption that is shared by the author and the audience. LotGH is a reskin of that, but the change is only surface deep.

It would be a lie to say I’m not interested in any literary fiction. It’s sometimes very good. But I am inevitably going to be dissatisfied with a literary piece trying to pass itself off as sci-fi, for the same reason that I’m not happy with even the very best coffee if it’s sold to me as tea. It doesn’t help that coffee is not a drink I enjoy even when I know what I’m getting in to.

In conclusion:


Look at Me, I’m Contrarian

A Series Of Very Short Reviews Without Any Particular Theme

Almost all of these short stories feel too caught up in their own cleverness. Some, like Silver Fire, also seem to be struggling with the weight of a not-particularly-brilliant political message. Potentially worth reading but you can easily find better things to do.

Oh, they tried so hard. Really great serious near-future sci-fi, right up until the end where (spoilers) several character arcs derail badly and we’re left with a message of “don’t trust brown people, and keep women at home where they belong.” Yes, I am indirectly judging other people’s culture. Still recommended.

The Martian
At first I loved it, but the almost episodic storyline and weird, badly-done breaks to typical omniscient narrative perspective dragged it down. Combines both of the above in terms of originality and well-researched hard sci-fi, but lacks on the storytelling front. Flip a coin for it.

It’s exactly the right length. Definitely worth watching.

Nadia and the Secret of Blue Water
The great parts are truly great. The good parts are enjoyable. The bad parts are all too numerous. If you’ve watched every Ghibli movie twice and still need more in the same vein, give it a go, otherwise probably don’t bother.

9M9H9E9’s Narrative
When it’s weird and metaphorical, it’s good. When it’s literal, it’s still good but in a “good for a creepypasta or SCP entry” way rather than “just good literature” way. Arguably closer to an ARG than a story.

Ori and the Blind Forest
I guess if you’re really into Metroidvania games and basically only care about visual appeal, this one’s for you? But really, the two conflict too much – precision platforming doesn’t mix with pretty, hitbox-obscuring art-style. The best feature mechanically is letting you save anywhere by expending MP, except when the game decides to not allow that, which, you guessed it, is whenever things are most difficult and frustrating. The soundtrack’s good, I guess.

The Ocean At The End Of The Lane
On the plus side, it is amazing on every level. On the minus side, Pratchett won’t be writing any more witches books, and Gaiman’s version is just a little short of that level of amazing while still being heartbreakingly reminiscent of it. Read this.

Log Horizon
Utterly charming, and a delight to see “taking the hypothetical seriously” done so well. It feels strange to say this, but it’s sorely let down by its aesthetic (or lack thereof). The visuals just come across as “cookie-cutter modern anime” where they could have done so much more. Still a must-see.

Persona 4
Several characters are good, but the game feels ludicrously bloated and has terrible pacing. The mechanical aspects are polished, but this is absolutely a guide-based game. At the very least, I think you’re supposed to play it twice and take notes on how to maximise your numbers rather than enjoying the plot which just seems wrong. Skip this one.

A Series Of Very Short Reviews Without Any Particular Theme

Dear Dinosaur,

So, a year late to the controversy party, I read “If You Were A Dinosaur, My Love” on the recommendation of Eneasz Brodski. But does this sound familiar: a tragic story about loss is presented using masterful language and receives great critical acclaim, from which follows a backlash from those who don’t consider it part of the medium it was being acclaimed in?

I can’t remember how long ago I ‘played’ Dear Esther, but it was fairly soon after it was first released as a kinda clunky mod rather than its own ‘game.’ I liked it a lot, almost entirely because of its haunting visual beauty (only gets better in the final release), great choice of soundtrack and delightful narration/writing. But note the absence of any actual video-game elements from it – apart from the random choice of narration fragments, you’d think it could be done just as well as a short animation.

In fact, Dear Esther only works when the player can treat it like a game even though it’s not. By expecting to be involved in the story in the way a game’s player is, you end up being exactly that. You have to believe that you are the story’s teller in the same way you can believe that you are Chell or DeWitt, and the absolutely minimal amount of control – just enough to walk around as you please – is necessary to achieve that.

Now compare If You Were…, which is not a SF/F story. But by believing it kinda-sorta-is, the reader can be persuaded to humour the narrator’s flights of fancy for just long enough for the author to throw out a BE SAD NOW, drop the mic and leave. As far as I know, though, If You Were… never sold itself as being SF/F, it just got a nomination for a Hugo from fans willing to push a boundary.

If You Were… is perhaps less genre-fiction than Dear Esther is a game. But the resemblance is nonetheless quite striking, especially when you take into account the reaction each received. It should come as no surprise that the “urgh who put this smug literary crap in my vidya” faction quickly allied with the “urgh who put this smug literary crap in my SF/F” faction.

Overall I liked Dear Esther a lot more. In particular, while both are well-written, Dear Esther impressed me a lot more with its focus on meter and pace. Also, it’s really pretty.

Dear Dinosaur,

End of an Era

Exactly seven years of Homestuck found their end today. It’s been a long, crazy journey.

Normally I prefer to observe fandoms from outside, cooing over their adorable degree of love for their object of worship. This is a trick worth learning, since “urgh, but the fandom” is approximately the least meaningful objection to a work it is possible to make. However, that story is for another time.

Homestuck has consumed years of my life even as a non-fan. Even just reading along, picking up a small collection of some fanart, buying some of the albums, re-reading it to re-acquire familiarity for the ending, it is still a vast icon that is, in its own words, ensconced in my personal mythos.

What I am fumbling to say is, I really loved that webcomic.

The crazy jokes. The constant internal references. The nigh-incomprehensible plot. The charming characters and the not-so-charming characters and the “please stop adding these abominations to the story” characters. The music. Great interstellar abysses, the music.

It dragged on. It would be disingenuous to say otherwise, for sure. If it were being adapted for any other medium, the first thing to do would be to attack the plot with the kind of weedkillers kept in reserve for “invasion of genocidal plant-aliens” scenarios. I loved that, too.

There are very, very few things that I have ever wished I could forget entirely and experience for the first time again. That particular fantasy holds little appeal to me, since experiencing other new things is always an option. But Homestuck is unique, I think, in that I might choose to forget it entirely so I could read it again for the second time. To be sure, there are things in there that burn the brightest on the first iteration – the incredible flash animations stand out – but there’s just so much that simply doesn’t make sense except in the context of what comes later. This feeling, perhaps, is what people get out of “complex” literary fiction (the kind I am quick to dismiss as pretentious (because it almost always is)).

I wish I could summarise it briefly. I wish words could say how inadequate words are for this purpose. I wish a lot of things, really.

I’m not ready for it to be over. And I’m ever so glad that it is.

To Andrew Hussie and the rest of the team: my heartfelt thanks and admiration. Today, your work enters the legend. You made it happen.

To anyone reading this who somehow never read it: start here. If you don’t like it by the end of Act 2, definitely drop it. Otherwise, well. See you soon.

End of an Era

Deconstructing Liking Things Wrong

So overall, the notion that you don’t need to spend a lot of time learning the background genre before touching the deconstructions doesn’t tend to go down too well. Nothing new there, of course. And also predictably, since I’m pretty much in the habit of only bothering with the exceptions, I’d like to go over some thoughts on the matter.

There are two arguments I consider worth paying any attention to out of the mass of them. Firstly, there’s “you won’t enjoy the deconstruction as much as if you knew what was going on.” Let’s take a closer look at this. Why exactly does knowing the background result in such amazingly better results? Well, for one, there are explicit references to other specific things. For instance, in Watchmen, there’s a distinct moment in the trailer where you’re supposed to notice how alike to Batman Night Owl is. This gives you a little thrill of “hey! I got that! I know what’s going on!” This is nice, except when you instead interpret on an intuitive level as a rip-off rather than a homage. But even on the positive side, it’s just not that great. Oh, you get to get more references? Woop-de-doo, good for you.

I think the deeper reason for getting more out of it is the subversiveness. After experiencing a sufficiently large quantity of a genre, you start to get very familiar with certain things it will do. By subverting those expectations, a good deconstruction can make you think about what’s going on. For instance, Evangelion has the main character go up against an enemy in a classic “chosen one realises his power” arrangement. And the result is, well. Deconstructive, to say the least. There are two problems though. Firstly, a lot of tropes are more universal than their genre. Yes, there’s stuff you’d only notice was strange if you were a mecha fan beforehand. There’s also a large middle ground of stuff you only need a passing familiarity with the genre to grasp – like the Evas’ biological nature. So overall, being a fan only gains you the subtlest stuff.

More importantly, though, look at what the familiarity-first argument is asking: it’s saying you should consume a certain genre to the point of predictability and even boredom just so you can get the thrill of taking it apart! If you enjoy a genre for its own sake, fine, but typically you’ll have already consumed a lot of it if you enjoy it (weirdly enough). A lot of the reason to watch only deconstructive pieces in a genre is because you don’t typically like the genre, but find that removing or subverting a lot of the ordinary elements of that genre makes it a lot more fun. For instance, FLCL removes pretty much the entire plot, runtime, visual continuity and budget. Ha, okay, but seriously: deconstructions also tend to be much shorter. Madoka runs up 6 hours; Cardcaptor Sakura about five times that (if you watch it “efficiently”). So why should you choke down litres of a genre you’re tepid about just to enjoy a sip of the subversiveness?

The second reasonable argument is “watching the deconstruction will damage your appreciation of the actual genre.” On the one hand: yes, maybe it will. But watching Garden of Words might damage your appreciation of all other animated works forever: it’s still worth doing because it’s amazing. And, well, I say maybe. I’ve read nearly all of Discworld and, you know what, regular fantasy fiction wasn’t destroyed for me. I still love it! I still like superhero stories after Watchmen, Kick-Ass and Worm. And I didn’t read comics as a kid: I loved the deconstructions first. Overall, I think I can declare this argument simply false. It’s worth noting that Madoka might be a special case: it’s known to be pretty brutally violent in a genre composed primarily of sunshine and rainbows. That might be sufficient to actually damage one’s later appreciation.

Speaking not just for myself, though, we again come to the problem that there might never have been any potential for later appreciation. If there wasn’t – if you were simply never going to like the standard-issue magical girl anime (and they are pretty standard-issue) – then there’s no harm in not bothering with them. And this brings up what I consider the strongest argument: seeing something taken apart on a grand level can be the most effective possible introduction to a genre. Even if you don’t end up wanting more, you get to see the most you possibly could have done. Ultimately, the choice may be between seeing a short, sharp, introspective look at a genre through the lens of experience, or not engaging with it at all because watching a huge quantity of ‘prerequisite’ just isn’t appealing. And I for one hope you choose to try out something new when given that choice.

Deconstructing Liking Things Wrong

The Search for Hidden Meaning: The Witness and The Northern Caves

Spoiler warning: I didn’t much like either of these things, and a lot of this post is going to be me saying mean things about them. If one or both are near to your heart, it would be sensible to skip past this. On the other hand, you could consider this a cross-recommendation if the things I disliked about one of them were things you liked. More importantly, this post will contain spoilers for both.

The Witness is Jonathon Blow’s second venture into video games, following hot on the heels of the widely-acclaimed Braid, where by “hot on the heels” we mean “after only seven years.” It is an island-exploration-puzzle game in the vein of Myst, but prettier. It has several serious problems as a game, which ultimately limited how much of its “lore” I could choke down. It’s possible that everything I will say about it will be invalidated by something I missed, but I’m willing to pass judgment based on the arc it seemed to be inscribing when I disgustquit.

The Northern Caves is Nostalgebraist’s second venture into online fiction, following hot on the heels of the widely-acclaimed Floornight, where by “hot on the heels” we mean “after a few months.” It is (probably?) a Lovecraftian horror story in the vein of The King in Yellow, but subtler. To break symmetry with Blow’s works, I could finish The Northern Caves but not Floornight. Probably the same caveats apply anyway.

In The Witness, you wake up with no memory on an island inhabited only by statues and maze puzzles. The maze puzzles are the only feature of the environment you can interact with in any way, and seem to have been meant for a mobile game before it became apparent that doing so wouldn’t be Deep enough. Actually, I tell a lie – you can also activate recordings of people reading various philosophical-sounding quotes about Reason, Faith, Space Travel, and so forth. Those, plus a bonus area that plays video clips on the same subject, are the “Lore” of The Witness. That and the Incomprehensible Mysteries – like the statues and ruins.

The great joke here is that the game talks to you about the search for meaning, and gives you puzzles whose solutions require you to find the meanings of the various symbols and hints – did I mention it never tells you how to solve puzzles? You just get increasingly difficult puzzles following different rules, so you can figure out the meanings. Unless you fail to realise that the puzzle you’re looking at is “above your level” in which case you can spend an arbitrary amount of time trying to guess the meaning of some new symbol or environmental symmetry that you’re supposed to learn elsewhere. Anyway, The Witness is a game full of puzzles for which you can find meaning, all arranged in an island to form a puzzle for which you can’t. And the last jest is that this is the meaning. Because it’s just like real life – you can find the rules with science easily enough, but you can’t know you’ve found the meaning even with faith. Ha ha!

And it seems like The Northern Caves has the same – well, it’s not a problem – it ticks me off for the same reasons, I guess. It’s a story about a group of fantasy-fiction nerds who get together to search for meaning in a baffling book; a search that ultimately drives at least the narrator slightly insane. There’s a symmetry between the reader trying to find the meaning in the web fiction and the characters trying to find the meaning in the book, not unlike the symmetry between the puzzles and the island. The player/character distinction is much looser than the reader/character one, though. This is important, however: the player/character in The Witness can solve the sub-puzzles, while the characters in The Northern Caves only think they’ve ‘solved’ the book, when actually sleep-deprivation, adderall and reading nonsense have broken them. Except, is that really so different? If the player were distinct from the character in the game, we could step back and say “no, they haven’t really solved anything – there’s nothing to solve – they’ve just lost it a little more.” But since they’re not distinct, there’s nowhere to step back to.

So I think my problem with the two works discussed here is simple: they mostly seem to be rude gestures at their audience. Like, “ha, the reason you’re so miserable after finishing this is that you wanted to find meaning in a meaningless world. If you hadn’t tried to do something so stupid, you’d be happy.” And for real life, maybe that’s right! But for fiction? No, I’m not okay with that. There’s a place for that, sure, but I don’t expect I’ll ever love it.

The Search for Hidden Meaning: The Witness and The Northern Caves