Weekend Recap: 43!

So, there it is.  My 43rd revolution around the sun.  It was uneventful, as I’d hoped it would be; for the last few years I’ve noticed that I tend to get a little weird and moody around my birthday, for reasons I don’t quite fully understand.  I don’t want to make a big deal out of it, basically; I’m uncomfortable being the center of attention, especially when I didn’t do anything of note except continue to exist.  I recognize that this is ironic, coming from someone who has maintained an online diary since 2001.  

If I’m ever going to compile my Games of the Year, I’m going to have to reconcile my feelings about Red Dead Redemption 2, and it’s much harder to do that than I’d anticipated.  For one thing, that game has pretty much exhausted me, as far as gaming in general is concerned.  My to-play list, which is primarily backlog at this point, feels inconsequential.  Furthermore, RDR2 has made me surprisingly intolerant of, for lack of a better word, “jank.”

Case in point:  I’d recently rented Darksiders 3 and Just Cause 4, sequels to franchises that I’m rather fond of, and I found myself absolutely loathing both of them after only 15 minutes of play.  The controls were imprecise; the AI was stupid; in the case of Just Cause 4, pretty much everything felt broken.  And instead of soldiering on, I gave up.  I have no patience for unfinished business.  

For all of RDR2’s faults – and they are legion – it is a game that was clearly developed with a finely-tuned sense of detail.  I didn’t encounter that many glitches or bugs, which is incredibly surprising given the game’s vast scope.  I am also aware that the game took 7 or 8 years to develop, and the infamous comment regarding 100-hour workweeks never left my mind during my entire run through the campaign.  All that work is up on the screen; in a way, you might call this game an extreme example of artisinal craftsmanship.  

*SPOILERS AHEAD*

This is also why I’m so conflicted about how I feel about it.  Nothing that happens in that game is an accident; everything was carefully considered and deliberately chosen.  The tediousness of the game is absolutely part of the experience; this is less of a Western adventure game and more of an outlaw simulator.  Brushing and feeding your horse is necessary if you want your horse to be able to run quickly and for long periods of time, and because there’s no real fast travel, you have to do this quite often.  

But even then, let’s get to the real heart of the matter here.  Consider the beginning of the game’s first epilogue.  You finish Arthur’s story by dying alone on a hill (and if you’ve been redeemed, nobody else knows about it), and then you pick back up as John Marston; your first objective as John is milking a fucking cow, and then – not 5 minutes later – you are literally shoveling cow shit out of a barn.  I actually had to put my controller down and walk away from the game because I started getting a tension headache.  

Rockstar has done this sort of thing before, of course.  Let’s recall that in the final heist in GTAV, one of your tasks (as Michael) is to pretend to be a janitor, which means that you quite literally have to mop the floor of a high-rise building.  It’s funny at first, but then you realize that you actually have to do it – there is an actual gameplay mechanic that you have to engage with in order to progress – and it’s ridiculous.  This sort of thing happens ALL THE GODDAMNED TIME in RDR2, which means that it’s intentional, which means that I can’t tell if Rockstar intends this sort of thing to be fun, or if they’re trolling me at my own expense.  

And yet, and yet, and yet.  Even as I found myself annoyed, bored, or perplexed, I was still ultimately wholly and fully absorbed in RDR2’s world, perhaps more than I’d ever been before.  At times I appreciated the languid, slow pace of the game, because it allowed me to linger and take in the astonishing beauty before me.  (Which makes it all the more frustrating that there isn’t a proper in-game screenshot utility.)  

In any event.  

I found myself racing through the campaign and yet I’m still somehow at 82% completion.  I know there’s a ton of stuff I haven’t seen, and because I didn’t do it during the main part of the game I’m sure there’s a bunch of stuff that I simply can’t see, because I’m no longer playing as Arthur.  Would I replay the game in a New Game+ situation?  Possibly, but would I allow myself to put up with every ridiculous decision again?  

I don’t know, man.  I don’t even know where it goes in my top 10.  

Recent Things Wot I Like

I remain confused as to what I’m gonna be doing with this blog.  Indeed, I remain confused about what I’m doing on the internet, as a general rule.  I turn 43 at the end of this week and I am feeling old and uncool and yet I’m also feeling that I don’t have to care anymore about trying to appear cool, because it literally doesn’t matter.  This is not the place you go when you want to know if something’s cool.  This is the place you go when you’re curious as to what’s going on in my brain.

So maybe, now that Tumblr is gonna die a very quick death in a few weeks, and Twitter is, well, Twitter, and Facebook is rapidly becoming a place for kid photos and Twitter screenshots, maybe this here site will become what I originally always meant for it to be:  a blog.  Blogs aren’t cool.  But I’m gonna be 43 and I’m not cool, either.  My hair is grey and I’m overweight and as an adult and a parent I am far more involved in the state of the world than I ever thought I’d be, and because the world is fucking insane* I overindulge in various media and medications, both recreational and non-, because otherwise I’d be in a padded room muttering about emoluments.

So let’s get cracking, then.  

I have finished Red Dead Redemption 2 and I don’t know how to talk about it.  It’s gonna get its own post, for sure.  But the short version is akin to something I said on Twitter the other day, that it feels less like a game that I played and more like a show that I binge-watched obsessively for 2-3 weeks – not all of it was fun, but it was engrossing as all hell, and the feeling of the world is unlike anything else I’ve ever experienced from a game.  For those of you that are my parents (i.e., you don’t watch TV), it’s also sorta like being wrapped up inside a huge novel and then emerging afterwards and not knowing what day it is.  

Here are other things I am in the middle of enjoying, because I feel obligated to spread positivity:

I was gonna start working on my Books of 2018 post, and then I started reading this book, and HOLY SHIT everything changed.  If nothing else, I urge everybody who is reading this post to go to their local bookstore, find a copy of this book and read the preface.  I dare you to not buy the book immediately afterwards.  Tommy Orange is a major talent with an incredible voice, speaking in a language that none of us know as well as we should.  

https://www.stereogum.com/2023673/the-1975-a-brief-inquiry-into-online-relationships-review/franchises/premature-evaluation/

I don’t know if I’m gonna do a Music of 2018 post, if only because my music listening habits have become far more idiosyncratic than I can manage and I have no idea how to take stock of everything I listen to anymore.  Hell, I haven’t even written about my headphones, which are without question the best headphones I’ve ever used in my entire life.  And, again, I’m old and the music that’s popular these days makes me feel even older.  Anyway.  The 1975 are a band that I probably shouldn’t like, but I’ll be goddamned if this song isn’t kicking my ass all the way around the block.  For a bunch of 20-something British blokes, they’ve got some serious balls making an album this strange – while also including absolutely gut-wrenching anthemic singles like the above.  

*this is maybe the most appropriate metaphor for what it feels like to be alive right now*

end of year prep

It’s mid-November, which means that, whether I want to or not, I need to start thinking about my end-of-year lists.  I used to be way more excited about this; the idea of spending hours and hours recapping my entire year’s progress through various forms of media was a fun and informative way for me to revisit the year, to revive long-lost memories, to rejoice and revel in a year’s worth of extravagant impulse purchases.

It has become harder and harder for me to go through this process in recent years.  I’m not even sure I bothered with one last year.  Having a kid means I consume media with a completely different and re-wired brain; having a day job whose busy season is November/December means I have little-to-no opportunity to carve out the necessary time.  (These things used to be thousands and thousands of words long.) 

More than anything else, of course, it’s become very difficult to feel celebratory when the world is on fire.  Does it matter that I can’t decide if Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is better than Red Dead Redemption 2, when I haven’t finished either of them and also that our President is completely fucking insane?  Could I really rank Spider-Man below Yoku’s Island Express if only because Yoku filled me with a sense of calm and tranquility that not even the finest Ativan could provide?  

And what of books and music?  I could potentially come up with a few thousand words for BOTH of those lists, because I devoured far more on both fronts than usual.  As noted above, it turns out that having an insane shithead with access to nuclear weapons be the POTUS means that I end up really craving distraction. 

I used to be afraid of flying, and one of the ways I got over that fear was to do crossword puzzles while the plane was getting ready for takeoff.  Now, I’m afraid that climate change is irreversible and that there very well might be a civil war, and so I buy books and games by the truckload.  (Ordinarily I’d feel guilty about not buying music and instead only relying on Spotify, but I need to pay the mortgage somehow and I don’t want my wife to divorce me.)   

Therefore, it looks like I will be doing some sort of year-end thing here.  It doesn’t matter if anybody reads it, or disagrees with it, or whatever – I just need to do it because, above all else, I need something to do.  

Weekend Recap: Beatles / Murakami / RDR2

Re: the new 2018 stereo remix of The White Album

It’s never been my favorite Beatles album.  Lots of great songs on it – especially from Lennon, which I’ll get to later on – but there’s also a fair amount of stuff I tend to skip over.  Even though my first exposure to the White Album was at summer camp at least 30 years ago, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve listened to “Good Night” all the way through, and that’s because I also can’t physically sit through Revolution 9 without getting anxious.

I feel compelled to back up for a second and give some context here.  Feel free to skip this little mini-bio, though it’ll hopefully explain where I’m coming from.

I am a Beatles nerd, though I would never in a million years consider myself an expert.  (At some point I need to get my hands on one of those coffee-table books that detail every single recording session, because there’s tons of fun trivia in there that I still don’t know about.)  I am a devoted fan of everything from Rubber Soul onward, and my favorite album at any given moment is either Revolver or Abbey Road.  When the stereo (and mono) CDs came out on 9/9/09, I took the following day off from work and binged.  (Also played a fair amount of Beatles Rock Band, I believe.)  I took a deep dive into those new releases with my kick-ass headphones and suddenly heard a ton of stuff I’d never noticed before.  And while my ultimate ranking of albums didn’t end up changing all that much, I did gain new appreciation for pretty much everything.   (Also, for whatever it’s worth, I found that the mono remixes were far better than the stereo remixes, if only because the stereo remixes were still very much hard-panned, making them distracting to listen to over headphones.)

I’m a nerd also in the sense that I tend to approach their albums with this weird sense of reverence, as if the albums were sacred texts meant to be studied, as if they were caverns of knowledge in which I have to entomb myself inside.  I never just pop on a Beatles album; I isolate myself from the rest of the world, put on serious headphones, and dive very, very deep.

Anyway, these new 5.1 surround-sound stereo mixes are something else entirely, and I adore them because they sound like what my memory of Beatles songs sound like – they are suddenly and quite vividly three-dimensional.  In the same way that “Getting Better” on the new “Sgt Pepper” suddenly sounded extraordinary, I have to give props to the new mix of “Birthday”, which is a song that I normally skip over at every opportunity, because it is dumb as hell.  In this new mix, however, it fucking rocks the fuck out.  Do yourself a favor and listen to what happens after the drum break following the first verse:  the gigantic E chord that comes in after that break sounds absolutely enormous.   (Hell, go back and A/B the old stereo mix with this new one, too:  it’s still a completely different animal.)  It’s the sort of jaw-dropping sound where you can just tell that the engineers went “holy shit, that sounds AMAZING” when they played it back.  And the whole album sounds like that.

My favorite Beatle has always been Paul, even though – or perhaps because – he is a cheeseball who writes extraordinarily beautiful melodies.  The Beatle that I feel the closest kinship with is George, because he – like me, when I was in bands in college – was the youngest, and while he was an incredible songwriter in his own right, it’s awfully hard to fight for album space when you’re competing with Lennon/McCartney (and this is also how I felt trying to write songs for those bands back in the day).  This being said, I’d also have to say that the White Album contains the best overall collection of Lennon-penned songs.  I mean, yes, “I Am The Walrus” is probably my favorite John song in the whole catalog, followed very closely by “Come Together”, but it’s hard to beat “Dear Prudence”, “Sexy Sadie”, “Cry Baby Cry”, “Yer Blues”, “I’m So Tired”, “Julia”, “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide…” in terms of sheer consistency.

I have not yet given the bonus material enough passes to offer any definitive statement on them, beyond that they sound fantastic and they’re super-fun for someone like me, who likes to hear how these “sacred texts” originally formed and evolved.  (As an example, they include Paul noodling around and then finding that little “Can You Take Me Back Where I Came From” thing that follows “Cry Baby Cry”.)

I can only hope that they go back and give this deluxe stereo treatment to everything else.  Especially Revolver, because holy shit I can only imagine what “Tomorrow Never Knows” will sound like.

Re: Killing Commendatore, by Haruki Murakami

I used to be a huge Murakami fan, and then “1Q84” came out and disappointed me so much that I started to reconsider if I actually liked the stuff I used to like.  I didn’t know if it was the translation that was off, or if it was the actual text, but it felt like a thousand pages of nonsense, interspersed with surprisingly and shockingly juvenile attempts at erotic writing.  I have continued to buy his stuff but I very rarely feel motivated to give it a proper go.  That said, I have this enormous backlog and I feel obligated to get through it, and I’d heard enough positive things about KC that I figured it was finally time to give it a shot.  And, well, I’m not yet finished with it, but what I’ve read thus far has been excellent.  I’ve come to realize that part of what annoys me about Murakami is how utterly passive his main characters are; everything happens to them, they never go out and make any decisions on their own.  That still happens here, to a certain extent, but at least it’s justified by what’s happened to the main character before the book begins; without spoiling anything, his passivity makes a bit more sense.  I don’t know if it will stick the landing, but then again, in a book this surreal it’s hard to say what the ending should be.  To put it another way, I’m still invested in what’s happening and I’m willing to see it through the end.

Re: Red Dead Redemption 2

I have some complicated feelings about RDR2, the long-awaited sequel to one of my favorite games of all time.  On the one hand, quite a lot of it is incredibly tedious, and when compared to other open-world games that the original inspired (i.e. The Witcher 3, Assassin’s Creed Origins / Odyssey), it feels almost antiquated in terms of quality-of-life stuff.  On the other hand, it is staggeringly beautiful and almost begs you to play it while “in character”; the slow pace and tedium is a deliberate choice by the designers to make you feel like you are inhabiting the actual persona of Arthur Morgan.

And, of course, on the third hand is the knowledge that this game was built under extreme crunch conditions for quite a lot of its staff, and there’s a guilt that accompanies my purchase, because my purchase equals acceptance of harsh working conditions.  It also doesn’t help that all that extra work is absolutely shown on screen.  The attention to detail in this game is simply extraordinary.

I’m still somewhere in Chapter 3, which means I’ve got at least another 40 hours left to go.  I’m sure there’ll be a few quality-of-life patches between now and then, too, which may address some of the weird bugs and glitches (not that there’s been a lot, mind you, but there’s certainly a fair share).  So I’m not quite ready to get into how I’m feeling about it, especially since I’m still figuring that part out.

But I will say that it’s engrossing and beautiful and overwhelming, and in these troubled times we’re living in, it is very much what I need right now.

overwhelmed

I’ve been trying to post here all week, and I just haven’t been able to get more than a few thoughts together before everything falls apart.  (Probably a good sign that I should stay away from NaNoWriMo this year.)

I’d wanted to write about my anticipation for Red Dead Redemption 2, and how it very well may be the last big AAA game that I get that excited for.  The original RDR is one of my favorite games of all time, and I’m almost always inclined to give Rockstar the benefit of the doubt.  And then, of course, the story came out that the making of RDR2 involved several weeks of 100-hour/week crunches, and my heart broke a little bit, and it became very difficult to approach the game with a clean slate.

There is crunch in every industry and discipline – the lawyers I work for routinely work 60-70 hour weeks; when I was in bands, we’d work for 20 hours straight in order to finish a 5 song EP.  When I was in high school, working on a play, our dress/tech rehearsals would routinely go until the wee hours, and that meant I had little time for homework, or sleep, or anything.  The point being – crunch happens.  But when it’s exploited, and pressured, and there’s no compensation, then we enter a grey area of outright cruelty, and that’s a difficult thing to reconcile when it comes to enjoying a leisure activity.

Still, I never got around to writing that thing, and then the game came out, and… well, if I were to present my first impressions, I’m not really sure what I’d say.

Because the thing is, I’d already sunk at least 35 hours into Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, which I also haven’t written much about, and the change of pace between ACO and RDR2 couldn’t be more different.  Even though they’re both gigantic and utterly gorgeous open-world games about exploration, they are so diametrically opposed in just about every other respect that it gives me whiplash just thinking about them.

Side note:  within the last 2 months, I’ve played Spider-ManTomb Raider, ACO and now RDR2.  These are all third-person action adventure games, but the control schemes for each of them are just different enough that it usually takes me a good 20 minutes to remember what the hell I’m supposed to be doing.  I don’t know if this means I’m getting too old, or if I should just stick with one game at a time, or what, but it’s awfully confusing.

In any event!  Here’s the thing.  I never thought I’d say this, but I’m saying it:  I think I’m going to put RDR2 to the side while I finish ACO.  They are equally deserving of my full attention, and it’s just too confusing to switch between them, and as it happens I’m probably past the halfway mark in ACO anyway, so I might as well keep going.

It also doesn’t hurt that ACO is remarkably friendly and approachable in all the ways that RDR2 is not.  RDR2 is almost antagonistic in terms of how it requires you to approach it compared to ACO; it’s much slower, and there’s a great deal of minutiae you have to deal with (i.e., feeding and grooming your horse, doing chores for your camp) – and while I respect that, and while I appreciate that what Rockstar seems to be saying is that if you’re going to get the most out of your RDR2 experience you need to play it “in character”, so to speak, it can also be a huge pain in the ass.

In ACO, it doesn’t matter where I am – I whistle and my indestructible horse shows up.  Combat is fluid and intuitive.  I can climb over anything without worrying about stamina; I can jump from the highest peak without taking fall damage.  If I’m in a dust-up with some bad guys I can set my fucking swords on fire and crowd control becomes a minor inconvenience.  Meanwhile, I’ve only played maybe 6-8 hours of RDR2 and quite a lot of that time has been me slowly ambling over to where I think I left my horse.  Or (slowly) running away from the law because I meant to greet someone and instead I shot them in the face.  Or just pressing A for minutes at a time because there’s no auto-horse function.

I am willing to meet RDR2 on its own terms, but right now there’s just something about how instantly gratifying ACO is and given how crazy the world is right now I kinda just want to lean into that feeling.  I see a question mark on the map and I head towards it without a care in the world.

shame

I know, I know, I know.

Things have been weird over here, to be honest.  There’s been some medical issues, family-wise, that have taken up a lot of my available brain-space.  There’s been some general all-consuming fatigue; even though I tend to fall asleep the second I hit the lights, I haven’t felt particularly well-rested in months.  The day job hasn’t been that busy, but it’s almost always busy when I decide to start writing here.  (I’ve already been interrupted twice in this paragraph alone.)

And then, of course, there’s the crippling fear that everything I say is profoundly stupid.  Or that my “deep thoughts” that take place during late inebriated evenings are so obvious that nobody else bothers to say them out loud.

Still, I’m paying for this blog, so I might as well get my money’s worth.


I  have a Kindle problem.  My list of unread books on that thing is fucking absurd.  Let me put it this way – if I don’t buy anything until I finish what’s unread, and I maintain my current reading pace, it would probably take me at least three years before I got caught up.  (No joke – I decided to make a spreadsheet of all the unread books on my Kindle and it came to over 140.)  It is stupidly easy to have this problem when it comes to Kindle books.  If I owned physical copies of my books I’d need a new house, and the shame would be all-consuming.  But Kindle books are cheaper, and often go on sale, and the *zing* of endorphins from buying something and then having it appear in your hands literally seconds later has never diminished.

I have more than a few librarian friends who probably want to kick me right now, and they’re absolutely right to!  I am filled with shame, is what I’m saying.  But I’m also determined to actually get through that insane backlog.

Fuck it, here’s that backlog.  I’m currently reading Wrecked, volume 3 in the IQ series.  If you see anything here that you think I should read sooner rather than later, please let me know.

Killing Commendatore Haruki Murakami
Wrecked Joe Ide
French Exit Patrick deWitt
In the Distance Hernan Diaz
The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle Stuart Turton
Foundryside Robert Jackson Bennett
Magpie Murders Anthony Horowitz
The Merry Spinster Daniel Mallory Ortberg
Six Four Hideo Yokoyama
The Shape of the Ruins Juan Gabriel Vasquez
Transcription Kate Atkinson
Six Scary Stories compilation
Our Kind of Cruelty Araminta Hall
The Beekeeper’s Apprentice Laurie R. King
The End of the Day Claire North
The Reason I Jump
Naoki Higashida and David Mitchell
The Left Hand of Darkness Ursula K. Le Guin
Notes from the Fog Ben Marcus
theMystery.doc Matthew McIntosh
Florida Lauren Groff
The Last Samurai Helen DeWitt
The Sudden Appearance of Hope Claire North
The Incorruptibles John Hornor Jacobs
Calypso David Sedaris
Less Andrew Sean Greer
Last Call Tim Powers
The Infatuations Javier Marias
Fade Away Harlan Coben
History of Wolves Emily Fridlund
The Book of Disquiet Fernando Pessoa
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki Haruki Murakami
Origin Dan Brown
Reservoir 13 Jon McGregor
The Historian Elizabeth Kostova
The Space Between BDete Meserve
Zeroes Chuck Wendig
Star of the North D.B. John
Olive Kitteridge Elizabeth Strout
Slow Horses Mick Herron
The Only Harmless Great Thing Brooke Bolander
I’ll Be Gone In The Dark Michelle McNamara
Portnoy’s Complaint Philip Roth
A Brief History of Seven Killings Marlon James
American Pastoral Philip Roth
Arcadia Lauren Groff
Kitchen Confidential Anthony Bourdain
Only Human Sylvain Neuvel
Tell The Machine Goodnight Katie Williams
Uprooted Naomi Novik
Invasive Chuck Wendig
Blackfish City Sam Miller
Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs Lisa Randall
Church of Marvels Leslie Parry
Leviathan Wakes James S. A. Corey
The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daugher Theodora Goss
Twilight of the Gods Steven Hyden
The Woman Who Smashed Codes Jason Fagone
Fates and Furies Lauren Groff
The Tragedy of Arthur Arthur Phillips
The Buried Giant Kazuo Ishiguro
Thief of Time Terry Pratchett
2666 Roberto Bolano
Neverwhere Neil Gaiman
How to Stop Time Matt Haig
The Seventh Function of Language Laurent Binet
Awayland Ramona Ausubel
This Is What Happened Mick Herron
The Wide, Carnivorous Sky John Langan
New York 2140 Kim Stanley Robinson
The Lost City of the Monkey God Dougles Preston
Seed to Harvest Octavia Butler
Golden Son (red rising 2) Pierce Brown
Shadow & Claw Gene Wolfe
Grist Mill Road Christopher Yates
The Afterlives Thomas Pierce
I’m Thinking of Ending Things Iain Reid
Peace Gene Wolfe
The Martian Chronicles Ray Bradbury
A Wizard of Earthsea Ursula K. Le Guin
Sword & Citadel Gene Wolfe
All the Birds in the Sky Charlie Jane Anders
Dead Mountain Donnie Eicher
The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley Hannah tinti
The Anubis Gates Tim Powers
A Once Crowded Sky Tom King
Norwegian By Night Derek Miller
A Legacy of Spies John le Carre
The Force Don Winslow
The Power Naomi Alderman
The Inheritance Trilogy N.K. Jemisin
The Big Sleep Raymond Chandler
The Essex Serpent Sarah Perry
The Tsar of Love and Techno Anthony Marra
The Solitudes John Crowley
A Perfect Spy John le Carre
The Long Goodbye Raymond Chandler
The Karla Trilogy John le Carre
Dhalgren Samuel Delany
Love and Sleep John Crowley
Daemonomania John Crowley
Endless Things John Crowley
Mindhunter John Douglas
The Dark Net Benjamin Percy
Medusa’s Web Tim Powers
Hex-Rated Jason Ridler
The Punch Escrow Tal Klein
A Man of Shadows Jeff Noon
The Paladin Caper Patrick Weekes
Mongoliad 1-5 compilation
Mongoliad 1-5 compilation
Mongoliad 1-5 compilation
Mongoliad 1-5 compilation
Mongoliad 1-5 compilation
So Much Blue Percival Everett
The Answers Catherine Lacey
Homegoing Yaa Gyasi
The Prophecy Con Patrick Weekes
Wolf Hall Hilary Mantel
Foundation Isaac Asimov
Sandman Slim Richard Kadrey
Liminal States Zach Parsons
I Sing the Body Electric Ray Bradbury
A Moment on the Edge Elizabeth George
Moonglow Michael Chabon
The Princess Diarist Carrie Fisher
A Great Reckoning Louise Penny
A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall Will Chancellor
The Singing Bone Beth Hahn
The King in Yellow Robert Chambers
(R)evolution PJ Manney
Ulysses James Joyce
J Howard Jacobson
Life after Life Kate Atkinson
Book of Numbers Joshua Cohen
Amnesia Moon Jonathan Lethem
The Harder They Come TC Boyle
The Humans Matt Haig
You Austin Grossman
Ubik PKD
The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch PKD
The Malice of Fortune Michael Ennis
The House of Rumour Jake Arnott
The Flamethrowers Rachel Kushner

I will talk about AC:Odyssey eventually, but not yet.  I’m enjoying it – quite a lot, actually – but there’s so much of it and I’m kinda racing through the story so that I can get to Red Dead Redemption 2 as soon as possible.  One thing I’ll say about Odyssey, though – and, indeed, with other huge open-world games like this and, say, Witcher 3 – is that if you were to map my traversals, they’d mostly be straight lines between objectives, with some meanderings to nearby question marks.  I wonder if the designers anticipate that sort of pathmaking.

 

 

juggling in times of crisis

Folks:  I’m exhausted.  I say this not as a 42-year-old parent of a kindergartner, but as an American citizen who can’t help but pay too much attention to the news when the day job is slow.  I am depressed, hollowed out, an empty husk of a person who is just barely managing to get through the day, one day at a time, until such time as this presidential administration ends or the Earth crashes into the Sun.

As such, it is hard to come here and talk about entertainment.

I have not stopped consuming it; honestly, they’re some of the only things that are keeping me going.  I’ve been neck-deep in books and TV and games and music, and I can even start to feel some of my long-dormant creative muscles itching to wake up and do something.  But it feels silly to talk about them right now.

And yet, this blog is here, and I’m feeling guilty about neglecting it, and maybe it’ll do me some good to empty my head a bit with some nonsense.  And considering that the AAA season is upon us, I might as well talk about some of the stuff I’ve been doing.


Bookwise:  Ever since I reached my Goodreads challenge my reading habits have basically fallen apart; I’ve become undisciplined and sloppy, and I kinda just flit from book to book, putting one down if it loses my attention and starting another one, which I may or may not be able to get into.  That being said, I’m currently about halfway through John Crowley’s Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr, and it is astonishing.  Rather than me attempting to gush over it, let me link you to the original LA Times review, which is what caused me to buy it as soon as I finished reading it; if that review moves your soul in any particular way, you’ll understand why this book is so necessary.  Indeed, that review introduced me to Crowley himself, who I’d never read; I did read Little, Big earlier this year and liked it, even if it didn’t quite hit me as hard as I’d hoped it would.  Still, Ka is gorgeous and extraordinary, and I can’t say I’ve ever read anything quite like it before.


TV:  I’ve finally started watching Maniac.  I think I’m about 4 episodes in?  It is a weird show, but enjoyably so, by turns hilarious and trippy and also unexpectedly affecting.  Emma Stone is magnificent; every scene she’s in, she’s incredible.  This is a hard show to discuss without having finished it; I’m certainly motivated to finish it, and I’ll leave it at that.


I’m towards the end of both Shadow of the Tomb Raider and Spider-Man, and I really ought to finish at least one of them tonight, considering that Assassin’s Creed Odyssey comes out tomorrow.  Forza Horizon 4 technically comes out tomorrow as well, but because I pre-ordered I’ve been playing it since Friday.

What can I tell you about these things?

Tomb Raider:  It definitely feels like more of the same, as far as the last two games are concerned – which is not necessarily a bad thing, given that I like the previous 2 games quite a lot – but this one is quite a bit more dreary and gloomy and pessimistic, with a narrative that is not all that memorable.   Let me put it this way – I’m a good dozen hours or so into it, and I recently hit the “Point of No Return” checkpoint, and I literally have no idea where I am, what I’m looking for, who I’m trying to stop, or what it all means.  The beginning of the game did establish that Lara Croft is somewhat responsible for these end-of-the-world-type things that are happening because of her Tomb Raiding, but it hasn’t really followed through with what that actually means; she’s still raidin’ tombs and seems unaffected by it.

The game is also a lot more combat-heavy, or at least it feels more combat-heavy, which I don’t particularly care for.  I mean, I don’t particularly care for the combat in most third-person action-adventure games of this particular ilk (i.e.Uncharted), even if I understand why it sorta has to be there.  But here it feels gratuitous, as if the developers needed to pad out the story beats.

It’s also worth pointing out that this rebooted trilogy has been attempting to do some genuinely interesting things to turn Lara Croft into a flesh-and-blood character, rather than just an attractive player avatar.  The first game saw her learn how to adapt to her environment, while also letting her get comfortable with the idea of killing people that are in her way.  The second game gave her a bit more authority in that arena; killing people wasn’t necessarily the best thing to do, but she did it and moved on.  Here, though, she kills a lot of people and she does it rather violently and without any remorse; and given that she is more or less alone during this whole adventure, it makes her a weird character to try and empathize with.  I’ve said the same thing about Nathan Drake before, too, though in the Uncharted games they still attempt to write him as this lovable Han Solo-ish rascal; it’s weird.  But Lara Croft doesn’t even get that kind of dialogue; she is all business, all the time, and it makes her all the more inscrutable.

I’m not done with the game yet, so I’m reluctant to give this a proper review.  I don’t know where the story is going, even if I’m almost at the end.  But the game feels like a bit of a mess, which is discouraging.  Weird design choices abound.  I hit that aforementioned “Point of No Return” and realized that I’d missed, like, a ton of the hidden tombs and geegaws and such, and that I didn’t really know I’d had any opportunity to go exploring.  I went back and did a bunch of them, but I’m still missing certain important tools (like the improved knife), and I have no idea where I’d get them.

Spider-Man:  I’ve mostly been playing this with my son, who loves Spider-Man and who’s actually quite good at swinging around the city.  I’m also towards the end of the story, and I kinda don’t want it to end?  It’s easily the best superhero game this side of Batman: Arkham Asylum and, like my son, I’m perfectly content just swinging from one side of the absolutely gorgeous rendering of Manhattan to the other.   And kicking dudes off of buildings never gets old.

Forza Horizon 4:  Well, look.  This is my favorite driving series, and even after only a few hours I can confidently say that this is the best one yet.  I’m still super-early but it’s very hard to put down once I get going.  I can see myself dipping back into this one quite a lot over the next few months; it’s absolutely stunning to look at and it is very easy to create your own fun.

 

The First Few Hours: Marvel’s Spider-Man

It’s early-mid September, school is back in session, and it’s finally feeling somewhat autumnal in the NYC area; yes, today is cold and rainy, but after 4 straight months of 90+ and humidity, I’ll take it.  I miss wearing jackets and comfy pajamas.

Friday’s release of Marvel’s Spider-Man would also appear to be the official kick-off of the AAA blockbuster release schedule; Shadow of the Tomb Raider comes out later this week, and then we’ve got a few weeks to finish those before my personal big three hit the scene in October:  Forza Horizon 4Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, and last but not least Red Dead Redemption 2.  I’m not really feeling all that excited about Fallout 76; I’m hopeful but not necessarily optimistic about Darksiders 3; I’m almost certainly going to buy Civilization VI for the Switch even though I know I won’t play more than 15 minutes of it on the easiest difficulty setting; and then Just Cause 4 is something I’d like to see a bit more of.

And meanwhile I’ve still got a considerable backlog to get through; I’ve put in over 10 hours into Nier:Automata, though I’m kinda stuck at the moment and I’m not sure if I’m even enjoying it.  Then again, I’m not sure that anything is going to pull me away from Spider-Man right now.

Let me back up a quick second.

When it comes to superheroes, I’m a passive but agreeable fan.  I never got into comic books as a kid, so the whole of my exposure to them was from movies and t-shirts.  I don’t think I ever had a “favorite” superhero.   My wife is a hard-core Marvel girl, and so we live in a Marvel house.  I think the Marvel movies are fun enough and competently made – and the DC movies are hot garbage except for the Christopher Nolan Batman movies, but that’s mostly because I’m a Christopher Nolan fan first and foremost.

I’ve never really cared all that much about Spider-Man, if I’m honest.  Never particularly liked the Sam Raimi movies; can’t even remember if I watched the Andrew Garfield one(s); the most recent iteration is fine, if only because I adore Michael Keaton and I’ll see him in pretty much anything, and he’s been good enough in the Avengers.  The character himself is… well, I don’t know.  The endless quips come off as annoying to me, and while I could certainly relate to being an adolescent teenager who is lovesick and having strange issues with puberty, that’s about as much as we’d ever have in common.

My son, on the other hand, is a fanatic.  When I told him there was a new Spider-Man game coming out, he couldn’t wait to check it out.  And this is how he looked while he watched me play.

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Who am I to discourage him?

Anyway, holy shit, this game.  My god.  It’s as if all the best parts (traversal, combat) of the Arkham Batman games met all the best parts (narrative) of the better Naughty Dog games, while throwing in tons of collectibles like this was an Assassin’s Creed game, all while being visually sumptuous and exhilarating.   Zipping around the city is as much fun as I’ve had in a game all goddamned year.  Hell, I even found my office:

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The game’s depiction of Manhattan geography is a bit wacky, but I did find my office building and it’s remarkably accurate.

I’m maybe 5-6 hours in – honestly, I lost track of time yesterday while playing it.  I’ve been staying away from the main story and am mostly focusing on exploration and collectibles and opening up the map, and it’s been absolutely glorious.  It’s pretty much all I’ve been thinking about today, and until Tomb Raider drops on Wednesday (yes, I pre-ordered, don’t judge me) it’s all I’m going to be playing.

Who knows if the rest of the game is as fun, but whatever – as far as first impressions go, this is knocking it out of the park.

Summer’s End

It’s the Friday before Labor Day.   It’s my son’s last day of Pre-K.  It’s a little weird over here.

And as always, I continue to wonder what I’m doing with this blog.


I’m on a book-reading tear of late, which is a fun thing to be in.  Since my last post, I’ve finished reading four more books (The Bone Mother (which is very creepy) and the Gameshouse Trilogy (which is great and very short)) and am switching between three or four other novels all at once.  I don’t normally juggle books like this, but that’s how my brain is working at the moment, and I’m inclined to let it wander as it wants.

As I continue to pine for a new David Mitchell novel, I find that Claire North is a more than adequate placeholder; I’ve now read five of her novels and am also in the beginning of a sixth, and her other two are on the to-read pile.  She’s doing some remarkably interesting things in the literary science fiction genre, and I’m more or less on board for anything and everything else she’s going to write.  She wrote the aforementioned Gameshouse Trilogy, which is excellent; she also wrote The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, which is one of the best books I’ve read this year and is certainly one of the most unique takes on time-travel I’ve ever encountered.


As for games:  well, the big fall release season is fast approaching, which means (among other things) that if I don’t get a handle on my backlog now, I never will.  First priority is to give some quality time to the X port of Nier:Automata.  There are a great many people whose opinions I deeply respect who love the shit out of this game; I’m about 8 or 9 hours into it but I’m not quite there yet.  The combat is serviceable, but the world design is empty and feels unfinished… the most interesting thing about it is how unnerving some of the enemy dialogue is, but I’m not quite sure that’s enough.

I’ve reached a point in Dead Cells where I’m probably never going to get that much better, and that’s OK.  I think I mentioned last week that I’m now at a point where, if I get good drops, I can usually defeat the Concierge.  There is SO MUCH MORE to do, of course, but it also requires me to be far more skilled than I will ever be.  I’ve gotten my money’s worth; I just know that there’s only so much I can bang my head against a wall, and I’d rather continue feeling good about that game instead of frustrated.


Beyond that, it is what it is.  Just trying to keep my head above water, in these troubled times.

Have a lovely holiday weekend, everyone!

Everything All At Once

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.