Taking the plunge

1.  So I just received the confirmation email that says I’ve officially signed up for NaNoWriMo, which is something I’ve been thinking about doing for years.  I don’t have any particular idea in mind, and November is also the busiest time of year in terms of AAA videogames, so who knows how this is going to work out, but that’s not even the point – if I can’t carve out an hour of writing time every day, then I have no business calling myself a writer.

I had an idea for a novel a few years ago, and I took a writing class to help develop and flesh it out, but I couldn’t quite figure out what I wanted to do with it, and it ended up withering on the vine.  I’m not sure I want to attempt to resurrect it for NaNo, either; I know myself all too well, and if I got frustrated with reviving it, I’d give up entirely.  I’m also staying away from Scrivener, even though I’m dying to use it; Scrivener seems to be a useful tool when you already have a plot and characters and scenes in mind, and it’s also useful if you already know how to use it without having to hunt and peck.  And I haven’t turned my Macbook on since I updated to Yosemite, so I have no idea if Scrivener is even working at the moment.  In any event, I’m determined to not let technical difficulties get in the way, so I’m keeping it simple and sticking to GoogleDocs on my home/work PCs.

I suppose there’s a part of me that’s annoyed that it takes something like NaNo for me to get off my ass, but there’s another part of me that’s well aware that this is why NaNo exists in the first place, and so I’m going to try not to beat myself up about it too much.

2.  I am now into the third and final book of the Southern Reach Trilogy, which I am enjoying quite a bit; it’s a very quick read, and makes for an entertaining come-down after the lofty heights of The Bone Clocks.  The second book (“Authority”) wasn’t quite as well-written or as absorbing as the first (“Annihilation”), but the third (“Acceptance”) is immediately gripping and seems to be on much firmer ground, which bodes well.

After I finish this one, I’m not quite sure what I’ll read next.  I still have a hefty backlog to get caught up on, for one thing, and I’m also considering giving the uncut version of The Stand a re-read after polling my Facebook friends on their preferred Stephen King novel – specifically asking between The Stand and It.  “It” was always my favorite, whereas “The Stand” never quite hooked me; I’m willing to give it another shot, though.

Hell, I might as well open up the floor here:

3.  I recently received a preview code for The Talos Principle, a first-person puzzle game from Croteam.  I’m about 2 hours into it so far; I’m enjoying it, despite some odd tonal dissonance and puzzle repetitiveness.  I’m not quite sure what I’m allowed to say about it – I don’t often receive preview codes – but I will say that it’s certainly a refreshing change of pace after the suffocating tension of Alien Isolation.

4.  I’m having trouble finding the Sunset Overdrive Xbox One bundle at the discounted price, but Amazon has already started accepting pre-orders at the new price for their Assassin’s Creed Unity bundle (which also includes ACIV at no extra charge).  I’ve already ordered the digital version of ACU for the PS4, but given that Ubisoft’s already made it very clear that they’re aiming for graphical parity between PS4 and XBO, I can’t help but wonder if I should cancel the PS4 pre-order and get this bundle instead.

5.  I’m not much of a drinker these days, but I’ve developed a fondness for spiced rum, which is quite nice for sipping during a cool autumn evening.  I’m not sure why I felt compelled to bring that up, but it’s too late now.

Weekend Recap: foliage

1.  We were away for a wedding this weekend, and so there isn’t much going on in the way of SFTC-relevant posting.  But I must reiterate how wonderful it is to be away from the internet these days.  No hashtags, no doxxing, no bullshit; just a few beautiful autumn days with good friends, free of day job worries and parental responsibilities.

2.  I’ve been down on the Xbox One a lot on this blog, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want one; even though I’m really happy with my PS4, I’m still an Xbox fanboy at heart, and I’ve been hoping for something to push me over the edge (and being able to import all of my Pinball FX2 tables from the 360, while much appreciated, wasn’t quite enough.)  As it happens, Microsoft’s finally delivered the one-two punch I needed:  both Sunset Overdrive and Forza Horizon 2 have been getting good-to-great reviews, and now Microsoft has announced a temporary $50 price cut starting this weekend.  Would it surprise you to learn, then, that all of my dreams last night were about buying an Xbox One?

3.  So last week I said I’d been debating putting Alien Isolation down, and last night I finally made the decision to pull the plug.  I think I’m about halfway through it; I’m currently in the level where I’m trying to access the APOLLO core, and I had to turn in all my weaponry, and all the Working Joes are immune to EMP mines.  The “turn in all your weapons” trope felt a little contrived, frankly, and progressing through the level was becoming more frustrating than anything else, and I don’t particularly care about the game’s fiction to keep butting my head against the wall.  I’ve kept my save file just in case I get the itch to finish it down the road, but I sent the disc back to GameFly and, for the moment, I’m considering myself done with it.

4.  This means that, barring a spontaneous Xbox One purchase this weekend, I’ve got a little bit of time to try and get back into Shadow of Mordor before this year’s final 3 AAA GOTY contenders arrive in November (i.e., Assassin’s Creed Unity (or “AssUnit”), Far Cry 4, and Dragon Age Inquisition).  It’s been so long since I last tried playing it that I might as well start over from scratch – I don’t think I was that far into it, and hopefully I’ll now have an easier time figure out what the hell I’m supposed to do.

5.  I didn’t quite know what to read after getting turned upside down by The Bone Clocks last week; I’d started reading John Le Carre’s A Perfect Spy but that’s not exactly a palate cleanser.  So, instead, I started Annihilation, the first book in the “Southern Reach trilogy” by Jeff VanderMeer.  And that was, in fact, the correct choice.  Each book in the trilogy is incredibly short (at least when compared to everything else I’ve been reading lately); I think it only took me 2 days to finish that first book (and I had a busy weekend).  I’m now 3 chapters into the 2nd book, Authority, and I’m hooked.

The Bone Clocks

It occurs to me that I don’t really know how to write about books.  I can give a book a rating out of 5 stars, like I do on Goodreads, but that’s not really much in the way of articulating how I feel.  The 5 stars I give to Infinite Jest and, say, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay are misleading in a way; both books are brilliant, but in different ways, and only one of those books was genuinely life-changing.

This is a roundabout way of saying that I finished reading The Bone Clocks yesterday, and I’m not sure I know how to talk about it.  I mean:  I loved it, I’ve been thinking about it non-stop, I didn’t want it to end and I kinda want to start reading it again immediately, etc.  But that doesn’t actually explain anything to you.  If you want the book’s plot, I’ll cut and paste from the publisher’s own copy, so that you’re only getting what they feel comfortable giving you:

Following a scalding row with her mother, fifteen-year-old Holly Sykes slams the door on her old life. But Holly is no typical teenage runaway: a sensitive child once contacted by voices she knew only as “the radio people,” Holly is a lightning rod for psychic phenomena. Now, as she wanders deeper into the English countryside, visions and coincidences reorder her reality until they assume the aura of a nightmare brought to life.

For Holly has caught the attention of a cabal of dangerous mystics—and their enemies. But her lost weekend is merely the prelude to a shocking disappearance that leaves her family irrevocably scarred. This unsolved mystery will echo through every decade of Holly’s life, affecting all the people Holly loves—even the ones who are not yet born.

A Cambridge scholarship boy grooming himself for wealth and influence, a conflicted father who feels alive only while reporting from occupied Iraq, a middle-aged writer mourning his exile from the bestseller list—all have a part to play in this surreal, invisible war on the margins of our world. From the medieval Swiss Alps to the nineteenth-century Australian bush, from a hotel in Shanghai to a Manhattan townhouse in the near future, their stories come together in moments of everyday grace and extraordinary wonder.

As with David Mitchell’s earlier Cloud Atlas, The Bone Clocks is a bit of a Russian nesting doll; stories are nestled inside of other stories, characters appear and disappear and are viewed through each other’s eyes; and minute details in the book’s very beginning are finally explained – resulting in literal jaw-dropping – at the book’s very end.

Cloud Atlas is an impressive and thought-provoking work, but it didn’t necessarily move me; I can see how some might be put off by the book’s conceit, or at least find the inter-connected stories a bit of a gimmick (even if it’s a gimmick that is extraordinarily well-crafted and presented with great skill).  Bone Clocks moves in a similar way – if you’re familiar with Cloud Atlas, you can’t not see the relation – but the structure is an integral part of the story he’s telling, and it ends up making each narrative revelation feel, well, revelatory.

And yet, 24 hours after I put the book down, it’s the book’s ending that has me so swept away in emotion.  The blurb above may talk about this age-old war between psychic, mystical beings, but it’s the very human characters that drive the narrative forward.  Each section of the book is narrated in the first person by a different character, and within a few sentences I immediately knew who these people were, and where they were, and how they interacted with the world (not to mention the all-important when).

I can’t talk about the ending except that it moved me in a way that very few books have ever done.  The story might have the trappings of science fiction, but there are very powerful, real emotions at play, and the ending is heartbreaking in all the right ways.

I said before that I’ve been on a remarkably good run regarding the last few books I’ve read – and I’d just finished reading the excellent Wolf in White Van before starting this one – but this is one of the best books I’ve read in quite a long time.  If you’ve read it, I’m happy to discuss it in the comments below; if you haven’t, I heartily recommend that you start immediately.

The First (and Last?) Few Hours: Alien Isolation

[Before I begin, I'd like to bestow hearty congratulations to Davey Wreden, whose magnificent Stanley Parable has sold one million copies.]

I do not know if I will finish Alien: Isolation, but I’m not sure that I need to.  I’m probably 7-8 hours into it by this point, and a rather large percentage of that time has been spent hiding in lockers and under desks, and, I mean, I get it.

For all its flaws (and it has a bunch, of which I’ll get to in a second), A:I has triumphantly succeeded in a very specific and important way; instead of aping the frenetic shoot-em-up action of the sequel (which would really just make it your standard sci-fi shooter), it understands what makes the first movie so great, which is to say that it’s captured the feeling of helplessness and pure dread better than anything else I’ve played in recent memory.

You have to hide in this game, because you cannot fight.  This is not to say that you’re powerless – you do have weapons, and you can certainly use them to kill, if you must.  But firing a gun will almost always draw the attention of the Alien, and once the Alien spots you, it’s more or less “game over, man.”

And if you’re playing this game with a good set of stereo headphones, every single goddamned noise you hear will set you on edge, ducking for cover, holding your breath and quickly opening your motion tracker to figure out where the sound is coming from.  I’m not sure I’ve experienced ambient noise design this effectively creepy since the first Bioshock.

Unlike other “horror” games, it does not revel in grotesque imagery – indeed, while the game’s environments are graphically impressive, its humans are surprisingly weird-looking, and while there are plenty of dead bodies strewn about, they’re never disgusting or gross – if anything, they’re kinda just sad.  Nor is A:I’s horror mostly based in jump scares; I’m almost never startled.  I mean, I’m in a constant state of worry anyway, because of the sounds in the vents, or because my motion tracker will occasionally beep with alarm, or I’ll see the glowing, super-creepy eyes of the Working Joes off in the distance.  And if I am surprised, I am also then immediately flooded with more worry and anxiety, because the monster is right there, and if I can’t hide in time then not only will I die, violently, but I’ll also lose the last 20-30 minutes since my last save, and ugh.

Now, about those flaws I mentioned.

The save system has been frequently mentioned in reviews as a negative design flaw; there’s no checkpoint system, and because the Alien (almost) never appears in the same place twice, you can either lose 20 seconds or 20 minutes if you’re not careful.  I’ve been a victim of this problem, but I can’t really call it a design flaw; it seems like a deliberate choice, and it’s one of the few ways that a horror game can actually make you feel that there are stakes involved.   That said, it’s a system that can also be abused; if you find a save point, you can also just forge ahead loudly and un-stealthily and see what there is to see, knowing that if you die, you won’t have lost very much, and that you’ll know how to better achieve your objective when you try for real.

The objectives, though?  Those things that you have to do in order to progress?  Ugh.  So dumb.  So inelegant.  So basic, artless, arbitrary, forgettable, cliches that were tired a dozen years ago.   The reason why I don’t care if I see the end of this game is because I barely care about what I’m already doing.  I need to find medical supplies to aid my colleague; but they’re on another level of the ship, because of course they are.  I get to that level; I find a doctor.  The doctor agrees to help, but only if I help him first, and I’ve already forgotten what it is I need to do for him, and in any event I have to do everything myself because of reasons.  Meanwhile, the Alien is near, and while there are lots of people on the ship, the Alien seems mostly interested in chasing me.

Whatever – I find the medical supplies and return to my fallen comrade.  And the head of the ship’s security system is there, too!  How fortuitous!  Except he’s also sending me out on security missions, which is not my job.

It’s great that the player character, Ripley fille, is a tough, no-nonsense woman who holds her own as well as anyone else in the game.  She is nobody’s princess; nobody needs to rescue her.  It’s just a shame that the stuff she’s being asked to do is so mundane.

 

 

of Aliens, White Vans and Bone Clocks

Probably not a lot of posting this week, for reasons I can’t quite get into.  I mean, it’s Wednesday already, you’ve probably figured that out.

I’m not quite ready to do a First Few Hours of Alien Isolation, though maybe later this week I’ll have played enough to give a solid impression.  It’s super-creepy, incredibly immersive, and it hits all the right notes for fans of the first Alien movie (of which I am one).  A short, gut impression is that it feels like Dead Space set in the Alien universe, with the best ambient sound design since the first Bioshock.  Headphones (or a good soundsystem) are mandatory.

I finished reading John Darnielle’s Wolf in White Van the other night, and it is remarkable; certainly one of the best books I’ve read this year.  I went into it more or less blind; I knew of the author’s reputation as one of the best lyricists of this era (though I must confess I haven’t listened to his band, The Mountain Goats); I have a few friends who think very highly of him.  And as for the book itself, I was dimly aware that the narrator had been in a terrible disfiguring accident in his youth and that he runs an interactive role-playing game through the mail; that’s pretty much it.  To say much more is probably too much.  It’s startlingly well written and uniquely insightful, and that ending.

Currently reading David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, which I had been intimidated by for months but finally started yesterday, and it’s already knocking my socks off.  Man, it’s really nice to be in one of those grooves where every book you read is really enjoyable and satisfying, isn’t it?  I’m looking over my “2014 Books Read” list and of the 13 books I’ve finished, I can’t give anything lower than a B-.  That’s a nice run.

Your mandatory reading for today – if you didn’t read it yesterday – is Kyle Wagner’s piece about Gamergate.

And your hashtag of the day is #StopGamerGate2014.

SFTC Mach II: Jazz Odyssey

1.  Since I decided to shut up the other day, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking.  And one of the things I’ve been considering is to widen the scope of this blog to cover books, films and music.  (Well, film not as much, as I don’t get that much of an opportunity to see new films in theaters, what with the kid and all – but perhaps looking at older movies that have been on my to-do list for some time.)   I’m interesting in doing this if only because sometimes (like right now, actually) I get down on games, and when I’m down I tend not to write, and I’d much rather be writing than not.  Like:  I’d much rather talk about how much I enjoyed reading Whiskey Tango Foxtrot instead of how much I’m not enjoying playing Shadow of Mordor.

I’ll also be posting recommended reading links more often, rather than hoarding them in a GoogleDoc for the end of the year.  I ran across 2 necessary links yesterday, for example, that I highly recommend:

2.  Regarding the aforementioned Whiskey Tango Foxtrot:  I can’t recall how it was recommended to me, but in any event I’m really glad I picked it up.  It’s ostensibly a paranoid sci-fi thriller about espionage, secret knowledge and post-government corporate cabals gathering all of our private data, but it’s also quite charmingly written and features 3 broken protagonists that I related to a lot more strongly than I’d anticipated.  It’s not necessarily poetically written, but I did get a lot of mileage out of my Kindle’s “highlight” feature – there’s a bunch of really wonderful, insightful, deeply resonating passages that struck me deeply.  From descriptions of ceiling fans:

“There was a ceiling fan in her two-room flat; it was on now. But it whorled and kerchonked around at such an unstable and idiotic rate that what it gave in breeze it took back in worry.”

to descriptions of regret:

There is a club for these people, the people who have waited outside the burning houses knowing that they will not go back in and knowing that the not-going-back-in will ruin them.

to achingly heartbreaking professions of love:

How long do you think a weak-minded addict will stay on the shelf? Because that day you walked in? That day I saw you? I swear, my heart slowed and my breath came easier. All that rabbiting I do—it just stopped. Not stopped by like magic, but stopped with reason. You are as strange and amazing as anything my stupid little brain has ever come up with, and you are from outside of it. You have no idea what great news that is. And I’m going to lift some copy here, but there is a time for everything, that day and night here you were the still point of the turning world, and I knew for sure that I had a place in it. That place is next to you…

I really am quite sure that there is something we’re supposed to do together, that there is more that is supposed to go on between us. Aren’t you? Isn’t there a held breath in your life right now? I’ve missed a few boats already, and I really don’t want to miss this one too. I realize that in that metaphor or analogy or whatever, you are a boat. That doesn’t really quite get what I mean, because I am also a boat. We are both boats and we are both passengers. We should not miss each other.

3.  As for music:  I highly, highly recommend the new Flying Lotus album “You’re Dead”.  I don’t yet know how to fully articulate my feelings about it; it has a density and depth that defies my attempts to describe it, which really just means I need another few dozen listens before I can wrap my head around it.  But if you’re already predisposed to what Flying Lotus does, then you’ve probably already picked it up.

4.  As we approach the end of 2014, I’m no longer as intimidated by the game release schedule as I thought I’d be.  By my count, there’s really only 4 AAA must-plays left on my list, a few indie/downloadable things I’m most likely buying close to day one, and a bunch of curiosities that I may or may not get to in an expedient fashion.

The Must-Plays:

  • Civilization: Beyond Earth
  • Assassin’s Creed Unity (heretofore named AssUnit)
  • Far Cry 4
  • Dragon Age Inquisition

The Indies/Downloadables:

  • Geometry Wars 3
  • Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris

The Curiosities:

  • Evil Within
  • Vib Ribbon (almost bought this the other day for the Vita, actually)
  • Costume Quest 2
  • The Vanishing of Ethan Carter (which I’m almost certainly buying if it’s in a Steam Sale)
  • Driveclub (whenever the PS+ version is finally out, at any rate)
  • Little Big Planet 3 (if my kid likes watching it, I might keep it)
  • The Crew

It also should be noted that if Sunset Overdrive reviews well, and if the Halo boxset isn’t terrible, then I’m probably getting an Xbox One.  I’m still kinda tempted to maybe wait a little longer and see if Microsoft comes out with a redesign – considering that they’ve already cut out the Kinect, it’s not totally unreasonable to think that they might come out with a newer box featuring better optimized specs – but I probably won’t be able to wait that long.  I’m still itching to play Forza Horizon 2 and I’d like to be able to try it while there’s still a strong player base.

Here’s to Shutting Up

I’m back in the world, more or less, after 4-5 days away from everything.  And I have to admit that it was kinda wonderful to be away from the internet; to just focus on being with my family, and enjoying the outdoors, and watching my son explore the world around him.

And now I’m back, and I’m getting caught up on what I missed in the eternity that is 4-5 days of internet time, and I’m feeling kinda gross, to be honest.  I wanted to write a bit more about Shadow of Mordor, but all I can think about is “Trouble At the Koolaid Point“, which makes writing impressions of videogames feel awfully trite.

Seriously:  read that link.  It’s the latest of many similar stories that I’ve been collecting this year, and it’s still just as devastating as the rest.

So rather than blathering about a game that I haven’t even finished (but which has significant problems that make me question whether I should even bother), I’m just going to shut up for a while, and figure out how to write about the thing I love in a way that actually matters.

Brendan Keogh

Writer. Critic. Academic.

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