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.

Factorio
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
Nah.

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

2016 Review

How much ink has been spilled to complain that 2016 has been a terrible year?2016was
Yeah, quite a lot.

This is the part where I say something like “But! My powers of contrarianism let me see the truth hidden from the vision of mere normies!” But the truth is, I’m just not feeling it. The consensus is allowed to be right, and on this occasion, I agree. 2016 was a disaster. This was the year of Meme Magic, where it finally became clear that we’re just playthings of vast impersonal forces that inexplicably decide what will happen in our lives. For those who haven’t already gone completely insane – apparently a minority – this is a bad thing. Really bad. The worst thing that has ever happened? Perhaps not that far,  but we shall see. But if you think rule-by-egregore will stop at the return of ethnonationalism and the death of journalism, keep thinking. And maybe one day you’ll look back as the metaphorical equivalent of black writhing tentacles rise from the metaphorical sea, and realize that joining the metaphorical XD Kool Kek Kult XD might not have been the brightest metaphorical idea. Just because no one worshipper can be pinned as the one tipping point that paves the way for the rule of the Old Ones, doesn’t mean no one is responsible. And no one really gets to be eaten first. That was always just a… a silly idea that people repeat because it’s funny.

Nonetheless, let’s move on to my summary. 2016 was super boring in my own life! Nothing accomplished, nothing lost. But I consistently felt like I was having a pretty good time, so I’m not complaining.

Well that was brief! Let’s get on with the forecast. Next year? Next year will be beyond imagining.

2016 Review

A Series Of Very Short Reviews Without Any Particular Theme

Luminous
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.

Planetes
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.

Cencoroll
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

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