I’ve got some nerdy stuff to talk about – that’s what this blog is for, after all – but I also just want to give a shout-out to my 5-year-old son, who has been racking up some significant cultural milestones this summer. In the last 2 weeks alone, he’s watched E.T. and Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure with us, and he’s now on his 2nd Choose Your Own Adventure book (from my own personal childhood stash, I might add). He starts kindergarten right after Labor Day. Everything is happening too quickly.
Music: Lots of good music out lately, and there’s three albums in particular that have been kicking my ass all over the place – The Beths, “Future Me Hates Me” (turns out the whole album is great, not just “Happy Unhappy“); Louis Cole, “Time”; and Bad Bad Hats, “Lightning Round.”
Books: I’ve been getting lots of reading done, too, and most of what I’ve read lately has been great. I’d mentioned a few posts ago that I had been flipping around between 5 or 6 different books, unable to get stuck in any of them; well, I got out of that rut, somehow, and I’ve been on a roll. Here are the highlights of what I’ve finished since June:
- Phenomena, Annie Jacobsen. This is a thoroughly researched and quite absorbing history of the US Military’s research into ESP and psychic abilities.
- The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, Claire North. Without question, one of my favorite books I’ve read this year, and certainly one of the more unique takes on the time-travel genre.
- The Book of M, Peng Shepherd. One of the more fascinating apocalyptic novels I’ve read in a while, with a deeply affecting ending.
- The Cabin at the End of the World, Paul Tremblay. Home invasion, doomsday cults, weird synchronicity. Disturbing and tough.
- 84K, Claire North. After reading Fifteen Lives, I decided I’d read whatever she writes. This is a bit more avant-garde in its prose than I was expecting, though that’s not a knock against it; it’s still very affecting and the weird prose rhythms actually do a remarkable job of conveying the speed of an inner monologue.
- The Price You Pay, “Aidan Truhen.” Aidan Truhen is somebody’s pseudonym, and I’ve read more than one rumor that it’s actually Nick Harkaway, who is one of my favorite authors anyway. Regardless, this is very much like a Jason Statham “Crank” movie, but in novel form, and it’s hilarious and completely insane.
- Vicious, V.E. Schwab. Kind of a Flatliners vibe to this one, though that’s only barely scratching the surface.
- Roadside Picnic, Arkady Strugatsky This has been on my to-read list for a while, and I think I ended up buying it because Amazon had it on sale. In any event, this is a seminal work of Russian science fiction, and as such it’s quite unlike anything else I’ve ever read.
- The Third Hotel, Laura Van Den Berg. I’m not sure I fully understood this book, but that’s not to say that it wasn’t a fascinating read.
- Fever Dream, Samanta Schweblin. I think I read this in about an hour, and the title is accurate.
- Joe Hill, Strange Weather. I think I prefer his shorter fiction to his novels. All four of these are pretty terrific, though “Aloft” is almost certainly my favorite.
- The Marsh King’s Daughter, Karen Dionne. Just finished this yesterday. It’s a much smaller story than I thought it would be, but that doesn’t diminish its power; it’s a ferocious and captivating story.
Games: I had been playing around with No Man’s Sky NEXT, but I got stuck on a shitty planet with no resources and I probably have to start a new game, which I’m not looking forward to. I also spent an hour or so last night playing God of War NG+, and it’s hard for me to accept that GoW only came out 4 months ago, because it legitimately feels like it’s been 10 years. (That game is still really goddamned good, by the way, and NG+ is a perfect reason to revisit it.)
That said, there’s really only one game that’s been taking up space in my brain of late, and that would be Dead Cells.
The word “rogue-like” makes me itchy. I’m not attracted to difficult games, especially games where death sets you back all the way to square zero. I’m kinda over the retro art style that has pervaded the indie scene for the last 5 years or so.
And yet Dead Cells is one of my Game of the Year contenders without even a moment’s hesitation. I loved it so much on Switch that I ended up buying it again on Xbox, if only because I had a feeling I’d be better at it with the X controller. And I am! (I’ve now managed to get past the Concierge on both systems, and if that’s as far as I end up getting, I suppose I can live with that.)
I don’t really know where to begin with this game. I feel like I’m lacking the proper vocabulary. The subtle gems of sublime game design that I’m picking up here – for all I know, they may be incredibly obvious to the veteran player. But for me they are all new, and so they are blowing my mind. I tried to imagine what this game would be doing to a much younger version of me, one still getting into gaming and who had better hand-eye coordination – would this game still be important? Would I appreciate it? Because right now I’m torn between stopping this post and pulling out my Switch and firing it up, or falling down another rabbit hole of Spelunky, or also further examining the other excellent 2D platform-vania games currently taking up space on my Switch memory stick – OwlBoy, Hollow Knight, Iconoclasts.
I don’t know enough about the genre to know if the things Dead Cells does are truly innovative, or if they’re simply iterative of what’s preceded it. To my untrained eye, then, it feels positively revelatory; it’s a retro-feeling game that does a ton of smart, subtle things. Yes, the levels are procedurally generated, which is smart because you’re necessarily going to have to run through them over and over and over again, but they’re also – somehow, magically – paced similarly, which is to say that even though the map is always random, you will eventually become familiar with each map’s style to anticipate what lies offscreen.
And because everything is randomized, including (eventually) your starting weapons, you end up giving yourself different goals. And if I start the game with shitty drops, I know my time is better spent just farming cells and then hauling ass to the next checkpoint if I’m running low on health, rather than scouring every nook and cranny.
I know I’m not very good at the game yet, because I often need to replenish my health, and I’m sure that very skilled players will eventually beat the game without taking a single hit. It’s fine, though. I’m OK with not being good. This is one of the few games I’ve played where I’ve been motivated to get better, instead of feeling endlessly frustrated and quitting outright. (I’m never going to get into the Souls games. It’s just not gonna happen.) It’s a perfect game for the train, and it’s just as enjoyable on a big-screen TV. If you haven’t picked it up yet, get it.