Saturday, July 24, 2021

A Pond in the Rain

George Saunders is almost certainly my favorite short-story writer today, and I've enjoyed his other works over the years as well: essays, profiles, a novel. I'm not entirely sure why I didn't pick up A Swim in a Pond in the Rain when it was released earlier this year, but I'm glad that I didn't, because my brother (no, my other brother) gave it to me as a long-term-loan-slash-birthday-present a couple of weeks ago.

 


In addition to writing fiction, Saunders also teaches writing at Syracuse University, and has done so for decades. This book is an attempt to capture some of what he teaches in a seminar built around nineteenth-century Russian authors, where he and his students will read those stories, analyze and discuss what the authors are doing and how they're doing it, and use some of those techniques in works of their own.

This book includes the full (translated) text of a half-dozen stories from Chekhov, Gogol, Tolstoy and Turgenev. Each story is then followed by a friendly, conversational essay and analysis. Saunders will ask questions of the reader, then offer his own answers. What is this part doing in the story? What would be lost if it was cut? Why did the author spend so much time describing this character who doesn't do much? After reading the last paragraph, did you also go back and re-scan the story to see if that message can be applied anywhere else?

It's all great stuff from a literary criticism perspective, but Saunders is doing something different, trying to figure out why these stories are so great and how we could apply those lessons to our own fiction. Of course, his words carry a lot of weight coming from someone who has been so widely read and admired over the years.

I personally hadn't read any of these stories before. They're different from one another, despite some repeated authors, and all great. I think I might have enjoyed Tolstoy's "Master and Man" the most, in large part because of the strong moral convictions of the author that suffuse the whole story; but Gogol's "The Nose" was terrific and might have been the most fun to read. (And I liked "The Nose" even better after reading the analysis, which repeatedly drove home just what a terrible job the narrator of that story is doing, and why Gogol is choosing to make the narrator that inept.)

There's a lot of terrific insight in this book, but a few specific things really stick with me. One is his focus on what he calls "meaningful action" (as a sort of substitute for the more nebulous term "plot"). A short story should frequently escalate as it continues. We want to grab a reader's attention, and be respectful of their time. Whenever things escalate, it re-acquires our focus and makes us ask questions that we'll need to continue reading to answer. ("How will Sam get out of this jam?" "Wait, why is Susan mad at Frank now?")

He says that he's observed that, when he compares his students who have gone on to be published authors with those who do not, the former have two consistent traits. First of all, they're willing to continually revise and rewrite their work. Secondly, they're able to convey causality within their stories. Things don't just happen: they show how event A causes event B which leads to emotion C which results in catastrophe D. Without that tight sense of causality, you can have a collection of interesting well-written scenes, but you don't really have a story.

Saunders talks pretty much exclusively about short stories in this book. I'm actually not a huge connoisseur of the form, reading way more novels than short stories. My unexamined prejudice has tended to be that short stories are easier to write than novels: they're shorter, have fewer words to write, and only need to be about one or two things. After reading this, though, I'm rethinking that assessment. Saunders repeatedly points out that the economy of the short story isn't a handicap, it's the whole purpose. Everything that's in a short story should be doing something. Not because it's an interesting idea the author thought about and wanted to write down, not because she liked the sound of a certain phrase. Every sentence in a short story should be crucial, such that the story would be worse if it were removed. There's a lot of discipline and focus that goes into each story, without the flexibility for minor digressions that a longer form like the novel can support.

It's probably a sign of a well-written book that during and after my time reading it I thought "Wow, I should write some short stories!" It brought me back to my own fiction writing course way back in college, which was a lot of fun, but I haven't done anything with that since then. But of course I have done a lot of other writing, both writing technical books for professionals and writing video game dialogue for fun. Those are very different things than short stories, but some stuff in this book really resonated with me. One thing in particular was George's focus on the importance of revision and re-writing. I've always felt and often said that I enjoy editing more than writing, and that I feel like I mostly write so I can get material to edit. I've thought of that as a limitation on my skills as a writer (if I really was a writer I'd love writing more than editing), but I'm now feeling better about my heart being more oriented towards making things better. (For the hundredth time, I'll note that I don't edit my blog posts, much to their detriment.)

The term I personally have used in the past when doing this sort of editing work is "tightening up." I've already gotten down the overall content I want to share, but it's often meandering and inartful. There are some technical things I do to it, like eliminating passive voice and chopping up longer sentences into shorter ones, but I'm also paying attention to how the words sound, and whether they make sense, whether they are engaging, something I'd enjoy reading. They usually get shorter and shorter the more I rewrite them, and I'll also tinker with them to try and heighten the content, make my voice more forceful and bold, or sometimes just toss out a whole sentence or paragraph and start fresh. The end result feels a lot like the writing exercises Saunders includes at the end of this book. I'm amazed at how much better a piece of writing becomes when you cut it.

I thought a lot about video-game writing and which of Saunders' lessons might apply there. His comments on voice really resonate with me: one of my favorite aspects of writing campaigns is coming up with a distinctive voice for major NPCs, and once I have that voice in my head that generates many natural ideas about things that character would do and what opinions they would hold. I don't think video games need as laser-sharp of a focus as short stories: it depends on the game, of course, but particularly for RPGs it can be really fun to have little slice-of-life vignettes that help make the world seem bigger and more real. (Shadowrun Hong Kong would be a much lesser game without Gobbet's noodle obsession.) I think his ideas on causality are extremely important for video games, though maybe through a slightly different lens. It's important for the player to understand how and why things are happening. And, in a video game, it's usually most effective if the causality is caused by the player, if their earlier decisions lead to the later consequences. Of course this is where the art forms significantly diverge, with the player being a participant in the game while the reader remains an observer of the story.

Besides chatting about these Russian stories he loves so much, Saunders also includes "Afterthoughts" as well, which talk about his own personal experiences as a writer: how an especially bad sentence in a student's paper inspired one of his best characters, or some feedback a New Yorker editor gave him, or how a certain story surprised him as he was writing it. I recognized a few of these anecdotes from a talk he gave in San Francisco back in 2013, especially a fantastic recounting of his early desire to be Hemingway and how he eventually realized that he needed to find his own voice. The George writing this book seems exactly like the George I met in real life: humble, kind, generous, funny without ever being mean.

I doubt that there are all that many aspiring short-fiction authors out there, but I think the rest of us can still find a lot to enjoy in this book. The Russian stories alone are worth the price of admission, and the overall experience feels like a return to college in the best possible way: sitting in an interesting seminar with a great teacher, thinking critically about great writing and discussing our various opinions about it. That's a feeling I've missed over the years (and honestly a big part of why I blog about books I've read), and it felt great to recapture a part of that here.

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Eat The Rich

I rarely do this, but I got mad at an editorial, and now I'm writing about it on my blog!

The Washington Post Editorial Board recently wrote an editorial arguing that an increase in the capital gains tax rate would eliminate the need for a wealth tax. It's one of the dumbest things I've read, and it's a huge bummer to see it published in my favorite newspaper.

 

It's flat-out wrong, misleading, or missing the point from top to bottom. Hitting a few highlights here:

* They say that if the wealth tax is implemented, when the price of Tesla stock goes down, Elon would get a "tax cut". He would actually get zero dollars from the government when his wealth went down. Instead, he would pay a smaller tax the following year. If Tesla went bankrupt and Musk's net wealth was zero dollars, then he would owe zero tax. I'm not even sure what they're trying to say here.

* They lament that people with high wealth but low income (e.g. wealthy heirs) would have to sell stock in order to pay the tax. That isn't a bug, it's the whole feature! First of all, if you're doing anything at all with your wealth, you'll easily be able to afford the tax. (Your 100 million shares of $10 stock are worth $1 billion. They go up 4%. You owe 3%. You sell shares to pay $30 million in tax. You're now worth $1.01 billion.)

* Secondly, the whole point of this is to shake up the entrenched wealth of the top .0001%. We shouldn't be bending over backwards to ensure that billionaires can live comfortably in perpetuity.

* They worry about a downward spiral in markets. But markets are overwhelmingly owned by the wealthiest people. Stock is like any other asset: when it comes down in price, it's more affordable. If the stock market crashed in half today, people who automatically contribute to 401k's would be able to buy twice as many stocks as before the crash. Let's say it again for the millionth time: Wall Street is not the real economy, and we should not allow stock prices to dictate our economic policy. Markets should reflect reality, not drive it.

* They then pivot and say that the rich also have other assets that aren't easy to price, like fine art (maybe) and real estate (absolutely false). This is a specific point that Warren repeatedly addressed during her campaign, and I find it impossible to believe that the Washington Post Editorial Board isn't aware of it. As Piketty and others have shown, the vast majority of the wealth of the wealthy is held in financial securities. Fine art and the like is an infinitesimal fraction of that amount. Saying that it's hopeless to tax 98% of the wealth because it's hard to estimate the value of the remaining 2% is asinine. That would be like saying that because some people are paid in DogeCoin and that's hard to price we should stop withholding FICA payments on payrolls in US dollars. So, let's start collecting that 98% today, and tackle the remaining odds and ends (art, patents, copyrights, etc.) when we get to it.

* Piketty wrote at length in Capital And Ideology about why the European wealth taxes of the 1990s were a disappointment, and the very simple technical fixes to address them. (Use more progressive rates, re-appraise annually, don't let the uber-wealthy hide their wealth in secret tax havens.) I guess the Washington Post Editorial Board hasn't read this book. They really really should before they spout out about the wealth tax. Why the hell argue against something you don't understand?

* Reforming property taxes (real estate tax) is the dumbest possible way to try and reduce the wealth gap. The wealth of the middle class is mostly held in real estate, while the wealth of the top 1% is overwhelmingly held in financial assets. You could increase Jeff Bezos's property tax rate by 5000% and it wouldn't make any noticeable impact on his wealth.

* And yes, we should also increase the capital gains rates as the editorial says. The two are not mutually exclusive, which is why folks like Piketty and Warren argue for both!

* And refreshing the estate taxes would also be a great move to make. But again, not mutually exclusive! And estate taxes would not be needed as badly in a world with wealth taxes. It's a choice between a big bite at the moment of death, and smaller levies over a series of years.

* The editorial says in its final paragraph "If the inheritance tax were more substantial people could still aspire to bestow a legacy on their children, but without unduly perpetuating unearned privilege." That contradicts what they are arguing for. Without a wealth tax, and with an inheritance tax less than 100%, parents could bestow legacies on their children that last their entire lives, that will grow over their entire lives, and that they will pass down to subsequent generations, in perpetuity, without anyone needing to ever do any work. I'd call that "unduly perpetuating unearned privilege". Again, the whole point of a wealth tax is to stop exactly that. You can still get wealthy, and you can still inherit wealth, but you have to do something with it, or do something on your own, or else your vast fortune will over the years become merely a respectable fortune.

They say that Part 3 of this editorial is coming soon. I hope it isn't the hot garbage that Part 2 was.

Tuesday, July 06, 2021

A Great Migration

I think a couple of readers know my Shadowrun CalFree campaigns, so I wanted to write a quick post notifying any interested parties that my Shadowrun mods will be departing Nexus Mods in the coming weeks. But not to worry! They’ll continue to be available via the brand-new site at www.calfree.net. And Steam players will still continue to get their mods through the Workshop like always.


I may or may not write a long and rambling post later about the reason behind this migration. The short explanation is that it’s in response to this policy change by Nexus. I understand why they’re doing it, but it’s still a bummer.

Monday, June 28, 2021

All Power to the Soviets

The book October caught my eye recently. It's written by China Mieville, who has become one of my favorite authors, and it's set during a time I don't know much about, the Russian Revolution of 1917. From the brief blurb of the book, I had thought that it was a historical fiction novel; but it actually isn't, it's a straight history book. But it's history as told by a novelist, and China makes it a gripping, exciting, powerful story. Of course, the source material helps a lot! All of the dialogue in this book is taken from primary-source quotations, and the actual events during this period are absolutely astonishing, often veering into actions that would seem ludicrously unrealistic in a Hollywood movie.

 


China gives some brief background on the history of Russia leading up to the Revolution, and notes some of the major events taking place in Europe and elsewhere in the Russian empire, but most of the book is focused specifically in the capital of Petrograd from February through October (in the Julian calendar) 1917. I'll note at the start of this post what China notes at the end of his book: the Soviet Union turned into an incredibly dark, repressive place: a place with gulags, terror, suppression, murder. I'm reminded of an old saying that any story can be a tragedy or not depending on when you choose to stop telling the story. If you leave "Into the Woods" after Act 1, it seems like a very different story than if you leave it after Act 2. For most of "October", then, China is focused on what it felt like in the moment: the revolutionaries weren't asking for gulags or the purge, they were agitating for freedom, for dignity, for economic justice. I think that's a great choice; he gives the book a focus and drive by engaging with the events at the street level as they were happening, and not constantly coloring everything with the hindsight of the following century.

I spent a lot of the book trying to get a bead on China's precise attitude towards his subjects. He is a proud socialist and has made his political views known both in his fictional works and his public statements. I think that overall I would characterize his attitude as "admiring but not necessarily approving." The sheer scope of what the Bolsheviks accomplished in half a year is simply astonishing. At the same time, he definitely avoids eulogizing any individuals or factions, and doesn't hesitate to point out when they are lying, spinning, missing an opportunity or failing to understand what's happening.

I didn't know a whole lot about this time period before reading the book. I'm sure I covered it in World History in high school, and through osmosis learned a bit about the Tsar and Rasputin and Lenin and Trotsky and other major characters. My understanding of the actual dynamics, though, were very flawed. Probably the single biggest misconception was that I thought Lenin orchestrated and led the revolution. Throughout October, it's surprising just how marginalized and irrelevant he is. During the critical early months, he was far away in Zurich: reading old newspapers about events in Russia and stewing that he wasn't involved. After a brief period in the capital, he went back into hiding, in the countryside and then in Finland, once again writing irate letters to newspaper editors about what everybody was doing wrong. More than anything, the Lenin of this book reminds me of a Twitter Reply Guy: constantly backseat-driving and second-guessing the decisions made by people who are actually doing things.

It isn't just Lenin that seems disconnected, though: really, the biggest thread throughout the book is how the leadership of the Left was constantly scrambling to try and catch up with what grass-roots people were actually doing. This struck me as very similar to the dynamic in Strike!; in that book, I was surprised to learn that labor unions are mostly responsible for preventing strikes rather than instigating them, and likewise in October, the Left to a greater degree and the Bolsheviks to a lesser degree are primarily preoccupied with stopping the Revolution: or, if not stopping it, to delay it for a century or ensure it doesn't go too far.

In Strike!, I'd never really understood just why union leaders opposed strikes, though I had my theories. In China's telling of October, it's clearer why the Socialists opposed revolution. For the most part, everyone on the Left was a dogmatic Marxist, and took as an axiom of faith that history had to go through a series of stages to arrive at their outcome. Russia was a backwards, medieval country of peasants, so of course it could not become a Communist country: first it would need to devolve power from the Tsar to the upper classes, and then the bourgeoisie would develop the country and create a capitalist economy, and finally a sufficiently strong and educated labor movement would bring about the Communist Revolution.

The problem, though, was those dang, uneducated workers! They were not having any of it: sick of the Tsar, sick of the Great War, sick of the lack of respect and poverty they faced, they were the engine that kept driving forward, demanding power. So they pushed on the leaders who claimed to speak for them, the various factions of Socialists.

Backing up a bit: the collapse of the monarchy was shockingly fast. Tsar Nicholas refused to entertain any of the demands from his detractors or the pleas of his supporters, to have a parliamentary Duma or appoint a socialist minister or make any concessions. In the tense and miserable conditions of the Great War, immense public anger led to a huge uprising, which Nicholas completely ignored. Finally, once Petrograd had been taken over, he belatedly said "Oh, fine, we'll appoint a cabinet," to which his bewildered aides said "You've lost the country." Nicholas had planned to abdicate in favor of his son; since his son was sickly, he instead designated his brother; his brother realized that his personal safety would be in jeopardy if he accepted the crown and so he declined. And, just like that, the centuries-long Romanov dynasty came crashing to an anticlimactic end.

The point is, all of this was rushed and unplanned and chaotic; there wasn't a strong organized push to overthrow the Tsar and a proposed system to replace him, it all just happened. Coming out of the February Revolution was the so-called "dual power" structure. On the one hand was the Duma, a body elected by the elites, particularly large landowners and capitalists and nobility. These were dominated by "liberals", in the classical European sense and not the modern American sense: people who believe in private industry and private freedoms without interference from the (until recently monarchic) state. Mere months ago, the liberals like the Kadets were a crusading vanguard of a leftward push to reform the backwards autocracy; now, they abruptly were placed in the far-right position of defending private capitalist interests against the majoritarian demands of workers, peasants and soldiers. Their beliefs hadn't changed at all, but their circumstances had violently shifted around them. That must have been a head-spinning change!

The other part of the dual-power system was the Soviet, which is the Russian word for "Council". These were democratically elected representatives from trade unions and soldiers' barracks, which were the two groups most responsible for the overthrow of the Tsar. They had de-facto control over much of the city's infrastructure, as they had overpowered the hated police and occupied key buildings.

The Soviet itself was far from unified. Two things in this book gave me trouble: the many different faction names, and the many different Russian person names. The Soviet included Left SRs, Right SRs, Mensheviks, Bolsheviks, and some other ones I'm forgetting. One thing almost everyone agreed on was that it was up to the Duma to create a government and usher Russia into a fully developed capitalist phase, and in fact that it was the role of the Soviet to accelerate that transition, so that in the future the Socialists could start a new revolution and create a communist paradise.The Bolsheviks were the only ones who disagreed: they started off as a schism of a faction of a minority of a movement: their numbers were tiny, and they were obstinate and hard to work with.

And hence the slogan that is repeated through the book over and over again, chanted by protesters and unions and rebels: "All power to the Soviets!" It isn't the Soviets who are saying that! It's the masses. Over and over again the Soviet are asked to take power, and in fact handed power on a silver platter, and over and over again they turn it down. All because of their Marxist theory! It's pretty amazing and darkly hilarious.

The structure of the Soviets in particular and the Petrograd milieu in general were a lot more democratic than I had though. A lot of the book focuses all of the various committees and presidiums and conventions and votes and delegates. From early on, the Bolsheviks set a deliberate course of persuasion: organizing at a local level, in individual factory floors and barracks and homes, to bring people over to their point of view. What do they want? Withdrawal from the war, a universal peace, worker control of the government, fairer distribution of profits, equal rights for women and ethnic minorities, a whole host of issues. Person by person, they persuade individual folks and gradually, over that eight month period, they grow their number of supporters, and hence their elected delegates, and eventually grow from the smallest into the largest faction of the Soviet.

We think of blue-collar industrial workers as being the backbone of a socialist movement, but in Russia, it was really a triumvirate: workers, peasant, and soldiers. Workers' importance is self-evident from Marxist theory. Peasants were the dominant reality in Russia at the time: serfdom had only recently been abolished, most of the people were peasants and most of their lives were miserable. Peasants don't seem to have been a major factor in Petrograd proper, but were very important in other Soviets throughout Russia, and were rhetorically very important within Petrograd.

And finally but certainly not least, there were the soldiers. While the workers' and peasants' demands were primarily economic, the soldiers' were moral. They deeply wanted respect and dignity: apparently, the Russian military culture had a deeply ingrained system of humiliation from officers, down to the forms of address they used towards soldiers and many petty acts of cruelty soldiers were forced to endure. In any time this would be terrible, but it became fully intolerable after the humiliations of the Crimean and Russo-Japanese wars, and was past the breaking point when two million Russian soldiers died during the Great War, a war that nobody could clearly explain why they were fighting.

While the soldiers were coming from a different perspective, the actual dynamics played out very similarly to the workers' uprising. Individual soldiers would be persuaded that the regime was unfit, then the unit as a whole would stand down or come over to the rebellious side, and their officers would either have to go along with it or be removed. The most striking uprising was on Kronstadt, a heavily armored island fortress near Petrograd, where a decades-long powderkeg of fury finally went off and revolutionary soldiers seized basically an entire navy. I don't think of soldiers much when I think of leftist movements, and it was striking how many of the most passionate partisans came from the military and not from organized labor.

It's fascinating to think of how history might have turned out differently, and the Russian Revolution more so than much, since it all feels so contingent and chaotic and surprising. One particular thing that I wondered about over and over again is whether any of this would have happened if World War One hadn't been happening at the same time, or if Nicholas hadn't decided to involve Russia. Without that added fear and strain, would the soldiers still have joined the uprising? And if the soldiers hadn't joined, would it have succeeded? In the end, "power is power": having hundreds of thousands of people on the street is one thing, having machine gunners and Cossacks and battleships is another.

This all gets me thinking again about misery, something I've thought about a fair amount in recent years while reading Piketty and similar writers. Having great inequality in a country, whether of wealth or status, is a recipe for strife and unrest and revolution. It doesn't seem to be coincidental that the great upheavals of the early 20th century came on the heels of the Gilded Age, or that the relatively phlegmatic social relations of the middle of the 20th century came during a long period of comparative equality. But I do wonder if, in addition to the relative inequality between the haves and the have-nots, the absolute income and status of the have-notes is significant. An extremely unequal society that can feed and house all of its citizens seems like it may be more stable than a slightly unequal society that cannot. People who feel desperation may be more likely to take a risk and put their lives on the line for change than those who have something to protect.

All that being said, after reading this book I feel like I now better understand (though do not agree with) the logic of accelerationists. The change that happened in a few months in Russia is really shocking and amazing. I don't think that change could have happened in a happy country, even if led by a Tsar or greedy capitalists. And if someone really wants to bring about a revolution, it might be in their interests to make things worse and not better in the short term, in order to make greater change possible.

I also now have a slightly better understanding of why the Left in Germany did what it did. I've long thought that the Communists were singularly responsible for the rise of the Nazi party, since they refused to join in coalition with the Socialists and thus enabled the Nazis to take power. But... that's pretty much exactly what the Bolsheviks did in Russia in 1917, roughly a decade earlier, and it worked out great for them! Having seen how Lenin refused to cooperate with other leftists, and that ended with the Bolsheviks in command of a communist country, I can see why German communists would have (mistakenly) thought they were on the same path.

And, likewise, I tend to think that much of the failure of the American Left, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s, has been due to factionalism and infighting and an impulse to believe that your particular cause is more important than any other. I do think that intersectionalism is our best hope for a better future: acknowledging the myriad and overlapping systems of oppression instead of competing for which system needs to be tackled first. But, again, this is a pretty powerful example from history of great change being done when a minority opposes alliance and cooperation with its ideological cousins. I don't think you can or should derive a law from that example, but it's an interesting one.

Speaking of intersectionality, though, October does a great job at highlighting those overlapping systems of oppression in the Russian empire and how the Bolsheviks and others tackled them. Women were a lot more prominent in the Revolution than I had thought: individual women assassinated powerful figures in the state, led prison revolts, governed villages of rebels, were voted into the Soviet, and took part in the many debates of 1917. National minorities were also a big part of the project: for the most part they didn't want independence from Russia, but did want greater autonomy in making local decisions. This all fit in well with the socialists' worldview, which was always explicitly internationalist and opposed to empire. In a particularly interesting incident, a conference of woman socialists from Turkestan and Tajikistan and other Russian Muslim territories convened. They studied and debated the history of the Quran and whether its words literally applied to the present, and ultimately passed resolutions regarding the optional use of the hijab. Again, I'm impressed by how democratic so much of this was: not a man in a pince-nez writing edicts for a nation to obey, but individual collecting together to debate, convince, and eventually choose a path forward.

October wasn't exactly what I was expecting, but it was a great read. Several times throughout the book I thought, "If this scene was in a novel I would think it was way too unrealistic." That period of history, it turns out, was really bonkers. I also feel like I now have better insight into China's own inspirations, as a lot of the politics and stuff in his Bas-Lag books seem to spring from a similarly volatile environment, particularly elements like the Runagate Rampant paper and Mayor Rudgutter; the Three Quills in the books remind me a lot of the Black Hundreds from October. Truth: It's stranger than fiction!

Tuesday, June 08, 2021

The Big Apple

I have a short update on a very long game, and a long update on a very short game, both published by Paradox Interactive!

 I've abandoned my Feverian run of Stellaris, thanks entirely to my own stupidity. The game had been going great: my "be nice or we'll beat you up" hegemony had absorbed every single empire in the galaxy shortly after 2300, and my empire was already researching future techs. I'd vassalized and absorbed a few other empires, was the sole Council member in the Galactic Community, terraformed all my planets into Gaia worlds. And then, like an idiot, I rivaled the Fallen Empires.

I think I was remembering my previous Pacifist game, where it was surprisingly hard to get the FEs to attack me, so I wanted to start preparing the groundwork early. And I was just starting to build Gateways, so Influence was in shorter supply than ever. But of course you can't choose when the FEs will attack you. Oddly enough, it wasn't the Fanatic Xenophobes, but rather the Fanatic Materialists who came after me. Their Fleet Power was maybe 25% or so higher than mine, and at first they did the trademark brain-dead FE thing and flew away in the exact opposite direction. But once I started attacking their bases they quickly returned and annihilated me, including my brand-new Juggernaut. Alas.

It would be interesting to keep it going and try to recover, but I decided to call it a game and try something else out. During a recent Steam sale during Paradox's annual convention, they offered big discounts across their entire catalog. I picked up a handful of other Stellaris DLCs I wanted, like Distant Stars and Ancient Relics; and I also grabbed Vampire: The Masquerade: Coteries of New York, which is by another studio called Draw Distance but published by Paradox.

It was pretty big news a couple of years ago when Paradox acquired rights to the World of Darkness, which have languished since the demise of Troika. The big reveal was the proper sequel to Bloodlines, which I have been excited for and then alarmed about. But in addition to that big-budget game, Paradox has also been partnering with a surprisingly wide range of developers for lower-budget indie-esque takes on the property. I don't remember seeing an approach like that before; the closest analogue is probably Lucasfilm, making a bunch of Star Wars-themed games across a wide variety of genres and game types.

Coteries of New York was one of the (or perhaps the?) first games to come out under the new arrangement. At first blush, it looks a lot like a visual novel. It's very text-heavy, with no recorded dialogue. The vast majority of scenes show a single character standing in front of a background scene, delivering dialogue, and eventually culminating in a three-choice response from you.

 

That said, the production values are a lot higher than you'd expect from a Ren'Py-type visual novel. The backgrounds in particular are fantastic. When looking at a map of New York City, the arterial streets pulse with blood. Flickering fluorescent lights battle against downpouring rain to illuminate a darkened storefront. Dancers jump and writhe in the background of a club.


The visual design is also fantastic. The character designs are a real highlight, with the vampires looking brooding and magnetic. The city itself is wonderfully gritty; you're often just around the corner from some famous tourist spot, scraping up against the real hard edges of the city, with potholed streets and rusty drainpipes and overgrown bushes.


The overall writing and dialogue are really good. There are a handful of minor typos, and a couple of places where it seems like some lines are just skipped: you have to press "Continue" twice to advance, and then see a response without any prompt. But with so much text these minor hiccups don't really stand out. Each character has a nicely distinctive voice, recognizable motivations and personality. Almost all of the action in the game is communicated through text instead of visuals, and they do a great job at making you viscerally feel the punches and gunshots and metallic taste of blood thanks to the evocative writing.

Music is great in the game, with a mix of ambient tunes and background sound, but there are some inexplicable silent stretches in the game that made me miss it.

And the gameplay? Well, the introduction is a pure straight-up visual novel. There are lots of branching paths choose-your-own-adventure-style, but no real mechanics. Once you move into the main game, there's a bit more gameplay, but it's very light. The game really just has one mechanic, Hunger. Your Hunger increases slowly over time, and more rapidly if you take physical damage or use vampiric abilities like Presence or Fortitude. Hunger decreases when you feed on humans. I never saw what happens when Hunger gets too high, but presumably it's Very Bad.


From what I can tell, you should pretty much always Feed whenever the game gives you the opportunity to do so; these chances just come up at predefined points during specific stories, so you can't seek them out when Hunger gets high. There are a few symbols that appear on Hunger-related options, and sometimes they are unavailable, which I think might mean you have too much or too little hunger? The symbols were honestly a bit annoying, they only tell you what they mean once and you can't look it up again later, either in-game or anywhere online.


In practice, most Hunger-related situations feel like a wash. Using a vampiric power will increase Hunger while letting you avoid damage; not using the power will deal you damage and thus increase Hunger. If you Feed early in a mission, you'll probably face an encounter later that increases Hunger again. Not always, though! The game does generally make sense, and based on what you know about situations and characters, you might be able to navigate through a scenario without ever using a Power or getting injured.

All of this power and hunger and blood stuff lines up very well with my previous experiences in Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines, and presumably with the original White Wolf pen-and-paper game. Overall the game feels very lore-friendly. Stuff is explained well in-game and aligns with the overall mythology and mood of V:TM.

While hunger is the one mechanic, you do have a good amount of control over what your character does, mostly driven by mission selection. In the main part of the game, you can choose what to do each night. Most nights you can do two things, some nights only one. Usually a given subplot will have a slight pause between acts, forcing you to spread your attentions a bit instead of just following one line until its conclusion.

Unlike, say, the Shadowrun video games, you will only be able to do a limited number of sidequests during the course of the game. There are a limited number of nights, and the main plot automatically progresses on specific nights regardless of your actions. I think you're best off going "deep", picking a couple of specific stories and following them through to completion, rather than going "wide", starting a bunch of different stories. Which specific stories you follow don't seem to matter much, but at least one should probably involve recruiting coterie members.

MINI SPOILERS

Coteries of New York is good on the "choice" front, but not so good on the "consequences" side. For example, you can pick one of three characters to play as; but based on what I've seen after 1.5 playthroughs, the main part of the game is the game for all of them, with some relatively minor flavor text differences. You seem to have a lot of choices in how you progress through the introduction, but either you get railroaded into the same main plot or the game ends early. I was curious if your actions during that phase could cause you to become aligned with another faction, but it doesn't look like you can.


People do pay attention to how you treat them. For coterie members, that seems to affect whether they agree to join you or not. For other characters it affects their dialogue. Different people like different things and require particular approaches: for some people, you have to be really direct and project a tough image, while for others you have to be deferential and polite.


So, the game does track your words and actions, but that's the only thing it tracks. There aren't any items to collect or gear to upgrade or powers to learn or anything. It's all about relationships.

MEGA SPOILERS

This seems like a prime example of a "buy it on sale" game. I feel kind of bad writing that, since I always say that I want shorter games, and at about five hours for a playthrough this is actually a pretty awesome length for me. But the actual ending, while very appropriate to the lore and mood of Vampire The Masquerade, feels unsatisfying.

 


I was reminded in some ways of the Shadowrun games. In both universes, you are only a tiny insignificant pawn of far greater forces: the megacorps and the dragons of Shadowrun, or the ancient senior vampires and centuries-old traditions and societies of V:TM. I feel like the Shadowrun CRPGs do a good job at honoring this setting by emphasizing the impact you can make on a small slice of the world, even if you can't hope to change the status quo. In CoNY, you are left feeling like you had no agency or purpose at all, which is a much more deflating feeling for a player. (Though, granted, very much in line with my understanding of the tone of V:TM.)

END SPOILERS

As noted above, this game is on the short side and might be something to wishlist rather than purchase; I was really happy with it at $8, but I might have been more bummed at $20. If you really like vampires, though, this game delivers them in spades.


It's available on Steam for all computers, and on consoles, including the Switch. I actually feel like this would be an excellent game for mobile play: it's divided into nice short storytelling chunks, is text-heavy, and doesn't have any time-sensitive action gameplay. It would be great for commutes and plane flights now that we're doing those again. It's interesting to me that it isn't available for tablets or phones, since it isn't extremely technically advanced and seems like a great match for those devices.

While I didn't love this game, I did thoroughly enjoy it, and will be checking out the sequel once it's on sale too. Paradox has been publishing a bunch of World Of Darkness games, some of which seem to be even more text-heavy than this one. This seems to be a sensible direction for TTRPG adaptations, to try out a bunch of different projects with different partners aimed at different markets, rather than putting all of your eggs in one basket and hoping that a decade-long effort bears fruit.

In many ways, the visual novel (or text adventure!) adaptations seem to be closer to the experience of playing a pen-and-paper roleplaying game with a GM than a graphically-intensive first-person open-world game would be. It's all about imagination, and words can be incredibly evocative if we let them be.