The Sense of An Ending / INSIDE

1. I’ve been continuing on my reading tear of late, and I’m sure it’s because I’m feeling pressured to make sure I hit my Goodreads Reading Challenge number for some stupid reason.  And most of the books I’ve read lately are on the short side of things.

Since my last post, I’ve finished Emma Straub’s “Modern Lovers”, which I found somewhat disappointing, though I’ll admit that it may only be disappointing in that what I expected is not at all what I got.  I should note that a lot of what I’m reading these days is stuff that I’ve picked in order to help me formulate some lyric ideas.  And a book about middle-aged people who used to be in a band in college and reexamining their lives in light of their shared connection – well, that’s a topic that’s very much on my mind, both in terms of lyrics and just in general.  “Modern Lovers” does not really focus on the stuff I’d hoped it would.  That doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s without merit; it just means I was looking for something that simply wasn’t there.

Then I read Joe Haldeman’s “The Forever War”, which Amazon had recently featured in a Kindle sale for $1.99 or something ridiculous, so I picked it up.  It is known as a sci-fi classic, and apparently you can’t describe it without mentioning its commonalities to Vietnam, of which Haldeman was a veteran.  To that end, it presents a unique perspective of the soldier’s point of view, which is certainly worth absorbing.  I was a little put off by his more far-out ideas of sexuality and eugenics, though.

Last night I began Julian Barnes’ “The Sense of an Ending”, and I finished it this morning, and WOW, WOW, fucking WOW.  I’ve read quite a few good books lately, but there’s a difference between reading a good book and reading a good book by a great writer, and Barnes is absolutely magnificent.  I am also perhaps a little ashamed to admit that I related to the narrator far more than I was prepared to be?  In any case, this was the rumination on nostalgia and loss and remembrance that I’d hoped “Modern Lovers” would be, and now I want to read everything else he’s written.  I think I’d been aware of this specific book for a while, but it wasn’t until the reviews came out of his latest book, “The Noise of Time” – a (fictional?) book about Shostakovitch – that I started looking over the rest of his work.


2. I stared playing INSIDE last night, the latest 2.5D game from Playdead, makers of Limbo.  You can’t talk about INSIDE without referencing Limbo, and I suppose that might be part of the point – they’re both very moody and atmospheric, and both feature a child running away from something horrible towards something unknown but also probably horrible, and all the while platforming and puzzling around dangerous obstacles.  And both games are not afraid of showing the gruesome fate of an ill-timed or wrong-footed step.  I’m about 2/3 of the way through and am hopeful I can finish it tonight.  I don’t want to say anything else about it except that it is, so far, absolutely stunning.  Remarkably articulate animation (helped out by finely-tuned controls), astounding sound design, and a very pleasing use of physics manipulation where necessary.


 

that thing where everything sucks

1. First thing’s fuckin’ last:  my first piece in Videodame’s Co-op Campaign is up, in which me and my buddy Sara start our discussion about Uncharted 4.  I’d deliberately avoided talking about U4 in these pages because I knew this thing was going to start up, so go on and give it a spin, why don’t you?

2. I’m in a weird place, gaming-wise.  I’m not playing anything with any enthusiasm.  Work has been killing me and my three-year-old is a vortex of I’m exhausted, for one thing, and so if I do end up playing anything it’s not for very long; I’m inching along in Witcher 3: Blood and Wine for this very reason.  (Also, I appear to be wildly under-levelled for some of the sidequests, and so I’m kinda just treading water.)  I gave up on Mirror’s Edge Catalyst, because it was hopelessly dumb; one particular side quest has a broken Runner’s Vision thing which kept sending me off a ledge too high for me to survive, and it’s not like I particularly cared about what I was doing.  I’ve more or less given up on Trials of the Blood Dragon, because the off-bike stuff is soooooo bad.  My rental copy of Lego Star Wars: The Force Awakens should be arriving next week, but if the demo is any indication, it’s still the same old broken platforming bullshit that’s been plaguing this series for years.

I honestly can’t remember what else is on my plate at the moment.  I beat the new Gauntlet mode in Swapperoo, my current iOS GOTY candidate; woo-hoo.

3. I’ve read a hell of a lot of books lately, though.  Of note:

  • I finished Justin Cronin’s “City of Mirrors”.  Among the few friends of mine who’ve also read it, I probably have the highest opinion of it; I think, if nothing else, that it ends quite well.
  • Victor LaVelle’s “The Ballad of Black Tom” is a very short Lovecraftian novella that inverts Lovecraft’s latent racist attitudes into something much more powerful.
  • Joe Hill’s “The Fireman” is a really interesting premise and an absorbing read, though I wouldn’t call it a horror novel.
  • Daniel O’Malley’s “Stiletto” is the 2nd installment of his Rook series, and it’s arguably more entertaining than the first entry; the premise is essentially if the X-Men were running the British Secret Service and defending the country from other supernatural forces.  Very witty, very clever, and this 2nd book is very exciting indeed.
  • Sylvain Neuvel’s “Sleeping Giants” had been popping up in my periphery for a while, and I started it last night on the train and finished it this morning.  If this is the beginning of a new franchise (there is at least one more book coming next year), consider me signed on.
  • And now I just started Emma Straub’s “Modern Lovers”, which is very much NOT action/sci-fi.

4.  This eulogy for Other Music is hitting me in the feels. I might as well have written it myself.

…My scramble for self-identity was tied up in records, and Other Music was where I went to get myself sorted out. What did I like? What did I want? Which section did I want to start flipping through first, and what did that say about me? The classification of a person via her cultural preferences and proclivities—maybe that’s something we should be glad to wave goodbye to. One is no longer either a punk or a goth, In or Out; one merely is.

But it’s also why I think of Other Music as an integral player in my making, and why witnessing its end feels especially personal. We all experience some version of this dissociation a million times in a life: a drawbridge being raised behind you. The sense that you couldn’t re-create yourself now if you tried. When I needed it to, Other Music turned the whole notion of “Other” into something prideful—it forced me to make a choice about who I thought I was, or could be—and for that I’ll always be grateful, beholden.

And just like that, the day job is busy again.  Until next time!  [Exits, pursued by a bear]

E3 2016: much ado about nothing

I’d hoped to have posted my impressions of Sony’s press conference much sooner, but events have conspired against me.  I suppose it’s for the best, since I have the benefit of hindsight now and I feel that I can be a bit more objective about what Sony had to offer.

Did Sony “win” E3?  Was this “the greatest press conference ever”?  I’ve seen several tweeted headlines that answer in the affirmative to both of these questions, but I’m not convinced.  Again – I’m writing this a few days after the presser, so I’m not nearly as breathless with anticipation as I might’ve been during the actual event.

Sony’s actual press conference was certainly not the epic, no-doubt-about-it mic drop of a few years ago.  (And when I look at that recap, I am simply stunned by what I managed to be stunned by.)  I did find it much more substantive and tasteful than Microsoft’s, though that could’ve been the live orchestra.

More to the point, the games – or, rather, the portions of new games that were presented to us – seemed more mature, more sophisticated.  This new, Norse-themed God of War reboot feels like a Naughty Dog game, with a nuanced relationship between a father and son.   Horizon similarly looks quite astonishing, although it’s hard to know how to extrapolate a full game experience from that 7-8 minute demo.  We have a 2016 release date for The Last Guardian, which is nice, even if I haven’t read any preview coverage that managed to get a clear handle on what it is.

Honestly, I’m mostly excited about the Crash Bandicoot remasters.  And also the PSVR, which comes in at a price point that I can most probably survive.

This is all well and good, but now that’s it’s been a few days I’m more concerned about what we didn’t see – like No Man’s Sky (which I suspect was withheld simply because they’re in crunch time and didn’t have time to show anything without severely cramping their style).  And of course Sony did not talk about the “Neo”, which begs the question – will my PSVR work better with the new hardware?  Can I afford a Neo and a Scorpio while still paying my mortgage?  Will my wife leave me if I buy them both anyway?

* * *

With regards to the rest of the show: I am the wrong dude to ask.  Work has been crazy, and whatever free time I’ve had this week has been devoted to posting about gun control and how horrible Donald Trump is. But I can run off a few bullet points:

  • I bought Trials of the Blood Dragon after hearing about it at the Ubisoft presser because I love the Trials games, and after 15 minutes with it I can tell you that whoever decided to make a Trials game where you get off the motorcycle and engage in shitty platforming/shooting segments needs to get fired immediately.
  • The South Park game looks awesome.
  • Ubisoft’s winter-sports thing looks promising, though I’ve heard some absolutely dreadful impressions.
  • I must cop to admitting that Call of Duty in space actually looks pretty neat.
  • I very nearly pre-ordered the ultimate edition of Forza Horizon 3 earlier today.  I don’t know why, nor do I know why I stopped.
  • I’m willing to give that standalone Gwent game a look, though I never played more than the tutorial in Witcher 3 proper.
  • Speaking of which, I need to get back to that Blood & Wine DLC.
  • Also need to get back to Mirror’s Edge Catalyst, though to be honest I’m not enjoying it all that much.  It feels like EA’s first draft of a Ubisoft open-world game, and you can take that however you want.

E3 2016: Microsoft presser impressions

I don’t know what I wanted out of Microsoft’s E3 presser today.  I barely touch my Xbox One these days as it is.  Nearly everything that looked halfway interesting had a 2017 date attached to it, and there wasn’t necessarily all that much that looked halfway interesting.

In this frightening post-Burnout world we live in, Forza Horizon has become my favorite driving franchise, and Forza Horizon 3 looks pretty spectacular – I’ll definitely be picking that up in September.

I was hoping for some Crackdown 3 news or footage, and we got absolutely nothing on that front, and I’m not sure if that means I should be worried.  And I suppose I’d also hoped for some big-name 360 games to become backward-compatible (*cough cough* Red Dead *cough cough*).  There were other, obvious things that I figured we’d see – Gears 4 (which looks very Gears-y) and Halo Wars 2 (which isn’t my thing, but whatever).

The Xbox One Slim is a nice deal, but who in their right mind would buy it if the Scorpio – “the most powerful console ever built” with the “highest quality pixels” – is coming next year?  And will developers have a collective nervous breakdown if they have to develop across all Xbox SKUs?

As per usual, the most interesting part of the press conference was the “indie showcase”, which is merely a montage of all the legitimately cool-looking games that I’m actually looking forward to checking out.  Hard to get a feel for any of them with that quick-fire editing, though.

I can’t tell if I’m disappointed, jaded, or distracted.  But I’m definitely not feeling as gung-ho as I’d like to be feeling right now.

As in E3s past, I will most likely miss the Ubisoft presser, just because of my evening commute.  But I’m certainly very interested to see what Sony’s got up their sleeve. I’ll most likely be live-tweeting when that starts happening, and a more detailed impressions post will follow shortly thereafter.

 

 

weekend recap: Dangerous Golf, Overwatch, Blood & Wine

Today’s favorite album:  Steve Gunn, “Eyes on the Lines.”

This was a very busy weekend; lots of fun family activities, plus also a wee bit of a stomach bug last night.  You can’t win ’em all.

I’ve got three games I want to talk about, so let’s get to it.


First up: the eagerly anticipated Dangerous Golf, the first game from the ex-heads of Criterion Games, makers of the Burnout driving games, also known as my personal favorite driving series of all time.  On paper, this sounds like a perfect little arcade diversion: take Burnout’s crash mode, but instead of a car smashing other cars in glorious slow-motion, it’s a golf ball destroying hundreds of fragile, breakable objects in an assortment of rooms.

In execution… well, it’s not quite there.  It’s so close to being great.  Sadly, it feels a little rushed and unpolished.  The impression one gets after an hour or so is that this is a snazzy proof-of-concept physics demo, rather than a well-thought-out game experience.  And it’s not just the strangely bare-boned career mode, or the inconsistent camera control, or the aggravating load times; there’s just a curious lack of attention to detail that make this feel a lot rougher than it ought to be.  Just as an example, there’s no interstitial music.  This is obviously not that big a deal in the grand scheme of things, but it does come off as an oversight that ends up becoming more and more distracting.  Ironically, the 5-second guitar flourishes at the conclusion of each round sound not unlike the sound cues you’d hear after putting a set list together in Rock Band, which is *also* just a bit weird.

There’s also little things like having the control scheme graphic feature a whole bunch of advanced features that don’t actually unlock right away, which can lead to some frustration.  Key example – there’s a thing called “Pistol Tee” and “Pistol Putt”, which happen by pushing RT when you tee or putt (obviously).  But you don’t unlock those two things until after your 2nd “tour” is complete, and even when you unlock them, they aren’t ever explained.  Indeed, the whole putting game is never explained – and you can’t move the camera after you shoot, so when the flag is in a different room you can’t see where your shot is going.

These are things that could arrive in a future patch, but I can’t imagine they would.  I know lots and lots of Burnout fans who have yet to play this game – either they don’t know about it, or they’re busy playing Overwatch, or they just don’t care.  It’s a shame, because with a little more elbow grease this could be a ton of fun.  As it is, it’s almost a ton of fun – and I’m giving it the extreme benefit of the doubt, given that (a) I love golf games, (b) I love the developers’ previous work, and (c) this combination is right in my wheelhouse,  but I don’t know how much more time I’m going to spend with it.

* * *

And speaking of giving prominent game developers the benefit of the doubt – as well as mentioning Overwatch in passing – well, my rental copy of Overwatch finally showed up on Saturday.  I am probably not going to play very much of it.

But I want to stress that this isn’t the game’s fault.

I have nothing but respect for Blizzard’s past work, and Overwatch has received superlative writeups from all the critics I care about, and my friends all love it, and I’m all in favor of vibrant colors and a diverse cast of characters.

The problem, of course, is that I do not like competitive shoot-’em-ups, no matter how amazing they are.  Maybe it’s a genetic thing; maybe I’m never going to like competitive shooters.  It’s the part of every big game that I go out of my way to avoid:  Halo, Call of Duty, Uncharted, Gears of War, Destiny, The Division – I just can’t do it, man.  It’s not even that I suck at them – I mean, I kinda suck at Rocket League but that game’s never coming off my PS4 hard drive*, because even being terrible at it is still super-fun.  There’s a certain mind-set that goes into enjoying competitive shooters, and I just don’t have it, and I don’t know that I ever will.  I’ll be very curious to see what game comes along to break that particular pattern, especially given that I’m always going to be older than the target demographic, and also given that I will eventually spend less time per night gaming than I used to.

Finally, I gotta talk about The Witcher 3 – Blood and Wine DLC.


As I noted last week, I had no idea that I could’ve been playing the first DLC all along.  So I started a new character and began the first Hearts of Stone mission and very quickly  realized that it was all familiar, and very quickly remembered that I’d already played it  and simply forgotten that I’d done so.  So I then immediately started the new one, Blood & Wine.  Now we’re all caught up.

Here’s the thing about this particular bit of DLC – it’s a perfect bit for a player like me, someone who loved the original game but hadn’t played it seriously in a long time and had forgotten what the overall rhythms of the gameplay experience feel like.  Unlike other prominent RPG DLC missions, this is not merely a quest with some side objectives; this is an entirely new and rather large landmass, with at least a dozen heavy-duty side-quests that I’m compelled to tackle if only because I’m still underleveled for the main quest.

I haven’t even really begun to mess with the whole “I own a vineyard and a country villa” angle, if only because I’d already foolishly spent a lot of money improving a different DLC merchant before I realized what I needed it for.

The long and short of it is:  godDAMN I love this game.  I love how this game is built; each quest has its own pace and its own “hook”, and the characters you meet are almost always interesting.  It’s nearly impossible to predict how a given quest will flow; even the monster-hunting quests, which are the closest thing this game has to a “cookie-cutter” approach, are different in terms of your combat tactics.

Here’s another thing about Witcher 3 – it’s completely ruined Bethesda’s RPGs for me. I was already having trouble enjoying Fallout 4, and now I know I’ll never be able to go back to it after this.  Same goes for Skyrim and Oblivion and the like; even if Bethesda remasters them for current-gen consoles, they’ll still feel clunky and archaic.  Playing Fallout 4 after playing Witcher 3 is similar to what it’s like to play GTA 3 after playing GTA 5; even though I adore GTA 3, it’s damn-near impossible to play given how shitty the controls are.  And Fallout 4’s cutscenes and writing just simply aren’t as sharp or as interesting as Witcher 3; and Geralt is infinitely more compelling than any blank cipher I come up with.

But whatever – I’m not here to be sad about Bethesda, I’m here to celebrate The Witcher 3 – one of the finest games of this generation, and one of my favorite games of all time.  I’m so glad to have a compelling reason to revisit it, and I’m even happier that this DLC is, so far, really, really good.


* This reminds me of a question that popped up on Twitter not too long ago – what games will you always keep on your hard drive?   My PC, when it was working, had a 1.5TB hard drive and so everything stayed on it.  My XB1 doesn’t really get used all that often, but I will always make sure that Pinball FX2 stays on, and I suppose I’ll always keep the latest Forza Horizon title on.  (I did recently delete and then re-install Sunset Overdrive, because I forgot how to play it and the only way to re-tutorialize is to completely wipe out any record of you playing it, both locally and in the cloud, and I can’t believe this hasn’t been fixed yet.)  As for the PS4, my primary console of choice – well, I’ve had to do a fair amount of juggling in the last year or so, but I suppose I’ll always make sure I have room for Witcher 3 and Rocket League.

the dummy

So I am a dumb-dumb.

I’ve been complaining for months now that I haven’t been able to get to any of the Witcher 3 DLC, because I started a New Game + and need to be at least level 60 in order to start the last episode, Hearts of Stone.  And even though I’d downloaded the newest installment yesterday morning before leaving for work, it didn’t appear to be available when I started my NG+ save.

So I decided to back out, close out, and see about starting a New Game from scratch.  And lo and behold, there’s an option to play just the DLC (as well as any non-main-storyline quests) as a level 32 character, with properly leveled equipment.

I could’ve been playing the DLC this whole time, in other words, except I didn’t realize it was an option.  Or maybe I did, but ignored it (and then forgot about it), figuring I’d want to get there on my own via NG+ and such.

Unlike other RPGs where I’d find myself attached to my specific character build, Geralt is such a well-defined character in his own right that it seems completely unnecessary to bring my previous hundreds of hours along with him for a stand-alone adventure.  I’m certainly not attached to any of my weaponry or armor, and I have to figure that the DLC content would drop new stuff soon enough anyway.

So, as I said before, I’m a dumb-dumb.  I’ll be playing the Hearts of Stone and Blood & Wine DLCs now, and that’s pretty much all there is to it.


I don’t write about music nearly enough on this blog, and so I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out my current front-runner for Album of the Year: King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard’s ridiculously awesome “Nonagon Infinity”.  One of their songs had shown up in my Spotify Discovery playlist a few weeks back and I’d thought it pretty good, and for whatever reason I decided to give the rest of the album a listen, and NOW I CAN’T STOP.  Which is helpful, because the album is designed to be listened to on repeat – the last song leads directly into the opening seconds of the first song.  The whole thing kicks a tremendous amount of ass and now I’m finding myself falling down a garage-rock-psychedelic-prog rabbit hole; I’ll be listening to this and Thee Oh Sees for the next month, at least.



I’m about 2/3rds of the way through Justin Cronin’s “The City of Mirrors”, aka the final installment in the Passage trilogy, and it’s… hmm.  I’m enjoying it very much, though it’s paced a little too deliberately – there’s lots of short chapters with cliffhanger endings.  I appreciate that he’s trying to build momentum and tension, but it feels a little artificial to me.

On the other hand, it’s very interesting to see earlier events from the previous books told through different points of view – my favorite sequence in the entire trilogy, Amy’s visit to the zoo (from the first book), is now seen through Amy’s own POV, which adds an illuminating layer of intrigue to an already spectacular set-piece.  And there’s also a very long sequence detailing Subject Zero’s personal history, which contains some of the best pure writing in the whole series.

Obviously, if you’ve read the first two, you’re probably already reading this one.  I’ll be looking forward to talking it over with people once I finish.