Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Beach Reads

I kind of vacillate between this blog being a record of all the stuff I've read / played / whatever, and just being a pressure valve for when I have something in particular I need to get off my chest or I want to work through some ideas. In the earlier days of this blog I would occasionally put together round-up posts that minimally checked the boxes for media I'd recently consumed. This is something like that! Mini spoilers on each topic below.

I've continued working my way through two fun real-world-but-also-science-fiction-y series. The first is the Company by Kage Baker. I previously wrote about In the Garden of Iden and Sky Coyote, and just finished Mendoza in Hollywood. Mendoza is a wonderful protagonist, and it's really cool to see her continue to mature and adapt to her role. She's nowhere near as cynical as Joseph, but is slowly moving in that direction. This novel was especially interesting because it felt much more focused on Company employees, unlike the first two which (as I recall) paid more attention to the natives. We're getting a better sense of the very broad range of personalities among the Immortals and their various goals and quirks. I'm also really digging the development of the overarching mythology. This series had very specific rules laid down from the very start, and we're now getting more and more indications that those rules aren't as absolute as they once seemed. It's a long series and I'm not in a particular rush to get through it, but I'm getting more intrigued the further I get.

Also, as promised, I'm continuing to make headway in Charles Stross's Merchant Princes series. The writing gets better and better with each book, especially the dialogue, which has been getting more natural while still being fun and snappy. My favorite aspect, though, is the gonzo approach to plot. The stakes keep on getting raised to higher and more ludicrous levels, with (mega spoiler) interdimensional weapons of mass destruction and the recent revelation of Dick Cheney as the latest grand villain. The characters are a lot of fun too: the supporting actors can seem a little thinly sketched at first, but across multiple novels they've had plenty of opportunity to grow more complex and endearing. But Stross also doesn't have any hesitation about killing off beloved characters for dramatic effect. The most frustrating thing about these books is their cliffhanger endings, which are really egregious even for thrillers. I'm slightly tempted to wait until the series is officially over before going any further, but may not be able to hold out, we'll see!

A few months ago I played and loved Butterfly Soup. I didn't give it its own post... it's pretty clear that the game wasn't created for me, and I don't think I have much of value to say about it, but I thought it was incredibly charming and thought-provoking and kind of inspiring. Min in particular is an incredible character, and I couldn't help laughing at almost everything she says: she's a tornado packed into a tiny human body, throwing all of her passion and fury at anything that gets in her way. It's especially great to see how the game interface can uniquely enhance her presentation: little touches like the way the screen shakes whenever she speaks do a lot to enhance her surreal qualities, and is a wonderful use of this medium.


(End spoilers!)

It'll probably be a little while before my next media post. Continuing my recent nonfiction reading on economic topics, I just picked up the famous Piketty book on Capital in the Twenty-First Century. I'm pleasantly surprised at how readable and engaging it is: I was expecting a more dense financial tome, but it's clearly written for a general audience, structured very clearly, with patient and welcoming language. It's also been a fun surprise to see so much attention paid to plots and characters from novels by Jane Austen, Honore de Balzac and other 19th century novelists. Still, it is a long book and much less of a bedtime read than Stross or Baker, so it'll take some time for me to finish.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Olly Olly

Wow, Oxenfree is a great little game. It's close to my Platonic ideal of a video game: short enough to complete in a few sessions, interesting mechanics that feel like they're designed to enhance your experience rather than blunt your progress, vivid characters, interesting choices, an intriguing but not overly dense mythology, sweet soundtrack, and distinctive visual style. Oh, and not too expensive, either!


There are a lot of things to praise about this game, but the element I'm thinking of most now is its conversation system. It's the most naturalistic, free-flowing experience I've had in a game, and feels a little like being in a Wes Anderson or Robert Altman movie: characters interrupt one another, leave thoughts hanging, correct themselves mid-sentence. It's close to how people actually talk: sentences aren't polished, meaning accrues in the dialogue, and conversation is at least as much about strengthening relationships as it is about exchanging information.

Mechanically, the system works a little bit like dialogue in Ladykiller In A Bind. Dialogue just happens around you, and at some point it might become appropriate to respond. Options pop up, and you can click on one to proceed. You might interject and cut off the other person, or wait for them to wrap up their thought before adding your own, or just let the moment pass and have them continue or fade into silence. Unlike Ladykiller, this all happens in real-time as you hear the spoken words: generally you have time to think over and consider, but in some of the more intense situations you might blurt something out because you don't have time.



My favorite thing, though, is that this all happens simultaneously with all the rest of the gameplay. As in real life, conversations happen while you're walking with someone, or when folks are milling around waiting for something to happen. The most memorable scene for me occurs near the beginning, when you and some other people are hanging out around a bonfire on the beach. There's a great, long, ongoing discussion that twists and veers into some deeply personal territory; while it's going on, though, you might be exploring the beach, or grabbing a beer from the cooler, or tossing stones into the ocean, switching between activities at will. There's... an air of distraction, I guess, that's deeply appealing to me.

Oxenfree does kind of have the "look" of an indie game. It isn't pixel art, but the characters are small and not very detailed, with each person having a major distinguishing feature. The backgrounds have a painterly style, accompanied with some gorgeous modern lighting effects. The overall effect is beautiful and homey and slightly eerie. The animations are particularly good: even simple actions like walking downhill carry a nice weight to them.


And, the music! The game as a whole but the soundtrack in particular reminds me of a Boards of Canada album, which is a huge compliment. There's sort of a low-key synthwave feel to much of the ambient music, which is then complicated by and supplemented with the fantastic lo-fi warblings coming in over your transistor radio.

MINI SPOILERS

Possibly because I recently finished playing The Longest Journey, I've been thinking about what defines something as an "adventure game". Oxenfree doesn't have what used to be the defining characteristic of that genre, an inventory: there are no objects to collect or combine or use on the environment. Instead, other than walking around and choosing dialogue, the main mechanic is an innovative one: a tuneable radio. At any point at all in the game - while in motion, while talking, whatever - you can whip out the radio and start twisting the dial. This has gameplay mechanics in a few places: you might hear some relevant information, or trigger a feedback loop in your environment. But it also casts an enormous environmental shadow over the entire game. You might pick up fragments of an old noir radio play, or a numbers station, or a big band, or an old Fireside Chat. This all contributes to the sense of being slightly out of time, of multiple generations collapsing on this one island, as well as a slightly uncanny sense of being both connected to and separated from the rest of the world. You can hear, but not speak; you may receive warnings but be unable to interpret them; or you may recognize that someone else is in danger but be unable to alert them.


All this takes a while to get going. The game isn't long, but it also doesn't rush things, and spends ample time easing you into its world before the strangeness starts to creep in. Along with the dialogue, the heroine Alex was my favorite part of the game. She's a predefined protagonist, and the game drops you into the story in media res, responsible for voicing her and making decisions before you know her whole story. You pick up on context clues, learning as much from the dialogue choices available to you as what other characters say to you, getting the knack of her personality while simultaneously getting a chance to steer it.


Often, after delivering a line of dialogue, thought bubbles will appear over other characters' heads, showing your own face or that of another character. I still haven't figured out exactly what this means: specifically, if it always means that their opinion of you has improved, or if it can also indicate disapproval, or if it just means that they're thinking of you (or whoever is pictured).

MEGA SPOILERS

I was really excited early on when I thought that the game might include romances: there's an early game of FMK that sets your mind thinking along those lines, and several lines and choices along the way that seem like they might support it. Sadly, it looks like that isn't the case, at least not for Alex. Which is totally fine - it isn't what this game is about, so it doesn't need to have it - but I couldn't help feeling a little regretful for what might have been.

I did get to experience being kind of catty and petty, though. During the time I thought romance was possible, I set my sights on Nona, which put me in an awkward position with Ren. I did everything I could think of to keep them apart: I asked Nona for her opinion of Ren, took her disinterest at face value, urged Ren to back off, kept Nona and Ren from hanging out at the comm tower, didn't talk up Ren, didn't tell him that her birthday was coming up. And they still got together! Per the ending, apparently it's possible to keep them apart, but damned if I know how. It shouldn't bother me - I actually do, in the abstract, like the idea of a romance that doesn't revolve around the player character - but it felt sort of weird to have so many lines of influence that seemed to be guiding an outcome, just to have them all fail.


ANYWAYS. None of this is what the game is about! I loved the gradual reveal of the island, finding the truth about what happened to the submarine, the deterioration of the "ghosts", all that good stuff. It strikes that line between science and mysticism in a really wonderful way. I tend to hate attempts to conflate the two, which usually involves hand-waving or fake-outs, but this story was just deep and complex enough to pull it off, striking a note plausible enough for me to buy in.


The circular Finnegans Wake-esque structure of the game also seems clever and potentially fun. Thus far I've only finished an initial playthrough. I'll probably give it another whirl at some point, but am decently happy with the ending I got, so I'll likely wait a while for my memory to fade somewhat.

END SPOILERS

I know, I know. There are a lot of indie games out now on Steam, and no way everyone can play everything that's critically acclaimed or whatever. Oxenfree stands out as particularly good, though, and minute-for-minute is one of the best games I've played this year.

I have an album for the game, but I've totally given up on getting it up here after spending nearly an hour fighting with Google. One of these days I'll set up Flickr or something and finally post the six or so albums that have been languishing inside Picasa. I'm sure everyone is riveted by the prospect of finally seeing them.

Saturday, September 08, 2018

Superserious

One of the best, most unexpected gifts this year has been the podcast R U Talkin' R.E.M. RE: Me?, a sort of sequel to the hilarious U Talkin' U2 To Me? Scott and Scott had briefly floated the idea of an R.E.M. 'cast in a late episode of the earlier U2 series, and I had quickly seized on it as a fantastic idea, but as the years passed I assumed that it would never come to fruition. But lo and behold, they did it, dropping a fantastic series of eps in their comprehensive and encyclopedic compendium of all things R.E.M.


The new 'cast has the same general format at the old one: most episodes include a full walkthrough of a single album, with the two hosts discussing their opinions of and thoughts about each song, but mostly talking about inane and hilarious unrelated topics. The overall feel of the two series ended up being quite different, though. The U2 cast was bonkers, the hosts frequently got really punchy, and it usually devolved into a delightfully silly mess. The R.E.M. cast felt more like a hang-out show: there was more nostalgia, insights into the hosts' lives and dreams, and a strong sense of warmth and rapport. Both shows are great, but I think the R.E.M. tone is what I needed more now in 2018.

The background for the shows are also rather different. Scott and Scott were united in their love of U2, and while they definitely diverged on details, they shared the same context for almost everything: the historical tours, the media events, the reaction to each new record. The R.E.M. cast was a bit closer to the original Analyze Phish, with Scott often in the role of resident skeptic while Scott tries to express his love for the material. Unlike with Phish, Scott actually had a strong connection to early R.E.M., which I think makes Scott's job both easier and harder than Harris's. There's a bit of an "in" since there's already affection there, but Scott has also gone through that "I knew them BEFORE they were cool" phase that leads him to feel like he's already considered their later work and written it off. That said, he gamely devotes himself to the project, often listening to albums for the first time, and finds gems along the way. At the start of this cast, I never would have predicted that Scott would enjoy Reveal but not Document. That still blows my mind. Even when he dislikes things, Scott puts in the work, analyzing what isn't working for him and whether it could be fixed. You hear a lot about sequencing, track selection, production, mixing, and other elements that go into albums but are rarely discussed.


Of course, I'm much more in alignment with Scott, as we both have a fierce, protective love of this band and its music. Neither of us were early adopters: Scott started listening around the time of Eponymous, while I started around New Adventures. We both stuck with the band into their final years and found a lot to love in their later records. This podcast was delayed for so long in large part because Scott was afraid that Scott would make fun of R.E.M. and hurt his feelings. And... well, that happens, especially near the end. The last couple of episodes were actively painful for me, as Scott picks up an incredibly annoying habit of mock-singing along to tracks that he dislikes. It drives me nuts when people do that in real life, and was one of the least pleasant things I've listened to on a podcast. Er, I mean to say, it's EFFING RUDE! I started to wonder if Scott had deliberately been on good behavior for most of the show to keep Scott from bailing, and finally felt free to loosen up and let his disdain flow once it was all in the can. But, I think the overall dynamic still helps the show, as I can cheer on Scott's defense of these songs even as I sympathetically cringe at the hurt in his voice.

As with the previous cast, they occasionally devote an episode to a non-album topic, and also often invite on guest stars to share their own love of and journey with R.E.M.. There are some real gems here. David Wain in particular stands out: he played in an R.E.M. cover band as a young'un, and it's thrilling to hear those ancient recordings. I was a bit surprised to find that the guest I most identified with was Haley Joel Osment. He and I actually started listening to the band at almost exactly the same time, although I was (er, am) nearly a decade older. For both of us, going back to the IRS records was like archaeology. It's honestly fascinating to see someone who has favorite tracks from Monster, but of course, that makes perfect sense. One idea the show returns to over and over again is how music is intensely personal and fundamentally biographical. Everyone's favorite songs will be the ones they heard at formative times in their lives, and you can't (and shouldn't!) argue with their love.

Oh, and the Todd Glass episode is every bit as amazing as you would hope. If you only listen to one ep, listen to that one.



The show wrapped this week, at least for the time being. As with the U2 cast, they may reunite for one-off episodes in the future if anything new happens. Given that R.E.M. broke up seven years ago, it's less likely there will be news there... but I noticed that just this week an enormous never-before-released selection of their performances will come out from the BBC, so who knows? We should also be getting at least one episode with their Christmas songs. For now, though, Scott and Scott closed with lists of their favorite R.E.M. entries. There are few things I enjoy more than ranking R.E.M., so I'll gladly take this excuse to play along.

Albums
  1. Green
  2. Automatic for the People
  3. Murmur
  4. Up
  5. Lifes Rich Pageant
  6. Accelerate
  7. Document 
  8. New Adventures in Hi-Fi
  9. Collapse Into Now
  10. Reveal
  11. Fables of the Reconstruction
  12. Out of Time
  13. Monster
  14. Reckoning
  15. Around the Sun
I know, I know, it's heresy to have Reckoning so low. In the past I've placed it above Monster. For me, personally, the songs on Reckoning are so forgettable: there isn't anything I especially dislike about the album, but nothing on it (except for Harborcoat, I suppose) motivates me to listen to it. By contrast, Monster has a bunch of songs I actively dislike, but also several that I actively enjoy listening to. Overall, I think this time my ranking was more influenced by how many great songs I can identify on each album as opposed to the average quality of songs. That especially helped Up, LRP, and NAiHF, and hurt Fables and Reckoning.

I didn't include Chronic Town (it's an EP) or Dead Letter Office (it's a B-side collection).

Next up, favorite tracks. I really like the idea Scott and Scott had to make separate Top Ten lists for each of three major eras of music from the band, partly because that's an interesting way to think of it, but mostly because that lets me choose 30 tracks instead of just 10.

I.R.S. Era
  1. Perfect Circle
  2. Swan Swan H
  3. It's The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)
  4. Flowers of Guatemala
  5. Feeling Gravity's Pull 
  6. Oddfellows Local 151
  7. I Believe
  8. Old Man Kensey
  9. King of Birds
  10. Shaking Through
Fame
  1. World Leader Pretend
  2. I Remember California
  3. Find The River
  4. Sweetness Follows 
  5. Leave
  6. Revolution
  7. Orange Crush
  8. Low Desert
  9. You Are The Everything
  10. First We Take Manhattan
Dusk
  1. Sing for the Submarine
  2. Hope
  3. Accelerate
  4. Houston
  5. Discoverer
  6. Saturn Return 
  7. Walk Unafraid
  8. Blue
  9. Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter
  10. Chorus and the Ring

Their division makes the most sense: it's mathematically clean, with 5 albums for each era, and built around major milestones, of record labels and band members. But, personally, I'd be tempted to move Document into the middle portion and New Adventures to the final, as I think that's more sonically cohesive: Document has the big and well-produced anthemic sound that defines their early Warner records, while New Adventures kicks off their period of artsy experimentation and electronic instrumentation that dominates their later years.

Total Career
  1. World Leader Pretend
  2. I Remember California
  3. Perfect Circle
  4. Swan Swan H
  5. Sing for the Submarine
  6. Find the River
  7. Hope
  8. It's The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)
  9. Accelerate
  10. Houston

While the middle era contains my overall-favorite songs, I had the hardest time whittling the final era down to 10. There are a lot more songs on Up that barely missed making the list, and could easily be defended for top 10 overall.

Finally, a couple of lists of my own:

Least Favorite / Most Overrated (controversial!!)
  1. Country Feedback
  2. Wendell Gee
  3. Mr. Richards
  4. Shiny Happy People
  5. Binky the Doormat (great title, though!)
  6. Star Me Kitten
  7. Tongue
  8. Hairshirt
  9. The Worst Joke Ever
  10. [Insert your favorite song here]
I'm not including instrumentals, B-Sides, novelties or covers in the above list.

Favorite Music Videos
  1. Imitation of Life
  2. Talk About The Passion
  3. Turn You Inside-Out
  4. Losing My Religion
  5. Bad Day
  6. Lotus
  7. E-Bow the Letter
  8. Blue
  9. Finest Worksong
  10. Drive (starring Adam Scott!)

For funsies, I took a shot at sequencing (!) my top 30 tracks into a Spotify playlist, clocking in at a grand total of 2 hours 5 minutes. Here it is! (Note: Spotify doesn't have First We Take Manhattan, so I substituted my #11, Monty Got A Raw Deal. Seems apt. Also, I'd trim the outro to Shaking Through if I could, but it sounds fine as-is IMO.)



And here's the same (almost) playlist on YouTube:




I don't  have as much experience with resequencing as Scott or Scott, so this was a fun challenge. I front-loaded the higher-energy and more upbeat songs at the start, which isn't all that representative of this playlist but feels like a good way to begin (in the begin). It quiets down before gradually segueing into the dark, weird, ominous songs that I most love. There are a lot of those, so I broke them up into a couple of sections, interrupted by some more optimistic tracks. "Hope" starts the transition into the end, leading into a series of especially pretty and reflective songs that close out the playlist.

I'm sad to see this podcast come to an end. Not as sad as I was to see R.E.M. break up, but still. I'm glad that there will still be a few episodes to look forward to, and even more glad that I can pull out these albums and listen to them whenever I want. They are still growing on me after more than twenty years, and going on this journey with Scott and Scott helped me find even more new ways to love them.

Edit: For no particular reason other than me having some free time on my hands, here's how my favorite 30 songs are distributed across their 15 albums.
Murmur: 2
Reckoning: 0
Fables of the Reconstruction: 2
Lifes Rich Pageant: 3
Document: 3
Green: 4
Out of Time: 0
Automatic for the People: 2
Monster: 0
New Adventures in Hi-Fi: 2
Up: 2
Reveal: 2
Around the Sun: 0
Accelerate: 3
Collapse Into Now: 3
Non-album tracks: 2

Friday, September 07, 2018

This is the tale of The Longest Journey, and I will tell it in my own words, just as Funcom told it to me

Phew! True to its name, The Longest Journey is one of the longest adventure games I've ever played. One of the best, too! It recaptures what I loved about the adventure games I grew up playing: the excitement of exploration, the heady thrill of a lightbulb going off as you finally see the solution to a puzzle, the warmth of meeting a variety of quirky characters and becoming involved in their lives. It also taps into the elements that I've come to love in more recent years: nuanced relationships, a sense of community, positive representation, and an awareness of social issues.



That's no mean feat given how old this game was: it was released in the final weeks of the last millennium, and was one of the last successful old-school big-budget adventure games. It was created by the Norwegian studio Funcom, outside of the Sierra/LucasArts duopoly that dominated the industry, and I don't think I ever even heard of it despite its critical and commercial acclaim. A few years back I played the last entry in the series, Dreamfall: Chapters. I loved those games, and have been looking forward to playing these prequels for some time now.

Before getting into the game itself, some quick technical notes:

This game is fairly ancient (older than Baldur's Gate II!), and I was pleasantly surprised by how well it ran on my computer. Over more than twenty hours of gameplay, I didn't run into a single crash or freeze or game-breaking bug. That said, it belongs to that awkward early generation of 3D games, which have aged much less gracefully than even older sprite-based games. Textures are blotchy, models are rough. On the plus side, the character animations are surprisingly well-done and hold up great, and the voice acting is so phenomenal that it leads me to forgive almost all flaws.

It runs out of the box on Steam without any mods or patches, but feels like it's barely scraping by. It automatically resizes the monitor resolution to run, and disables Steam Overlay and other elements I've grown used to having. It also janks up the system fonts, so if you notice any problems after exiting the game, re-enable ClearType in the Windows Control Panel. The lack of Steam Overlay means I wasn't able to take any screenshots during the game, so please excuse their absence in this post; I borrowed a few illustrative examples from other sources.



Overall audio quality is good, and the voice acting is fantastic, but there are occasional pops at the start of some audio clips, which is especially distracting when they loop. Fortunately it's very rare, but happens most often in areas near the start of the game.

The one straight-up glitch I noticed was that some characters have textures that are completely missing, so some parts of their bodies are see-through. I don't know for sure what causes this, but I suspect that these were originally pure-black 0x000000 textures that on modern graphics cards are being treated as 0x00000000 instead of 0x000000FF. Fortunately this only affects a few relatively minor characters and wasn't too distracting.

Despite the glitches, though, the art design is insanely good. Every scene has fixed camera angles, with some of the most interesting and artistic layouts I've ever seen. One scene might have an enormous tower that fills the foreground, while you're a spec in the distance, running your way across a deserted parking lot. One is shown through a security camera, with timestamps and frame overlays silently documenting your intrusion. 

Heh... one thing I didn't realize until I was nearly halfway through the game is that you can run somewhere by double-clicking. I happened to discover it during the one puzzle where you're required to move quickly before a timer expires. Up until then, I'd actually really enjoyed the slow, almost languorous pace of the game. It takes time to walk from place to place, but it felt nice, like I was soaking in the ambience of these imaginary worlds instead of racing from one location to another. It actually reminded me quite a bit of Life Is Strange, which similarly deliberately strives for a more laid-back feel for the game. I might have declared my love for The Longest Journey when I realized that you could sit on a bench and just relax there for a while. There's no reason to do this, no in-game motivation, but it feels great to take a break and watch the world go by.



To reiterate, The Longest Journey is an old-school point-and-click adventure game, which is part of the lineage but fundamentally different from the modern choice-and-consequences adventure game. The gameplay is largely oriented around finding clickable areas on the screen, interacting with them, collecting items, combining items, and finding where those items can be used on the screen. It's been quite some time since I've played this style of adventure game, and I feel like TLJ is an especially good example of the form. Most puzzles are well-designed, things you can mentally work through and anticipate a solution, as opposed to desperately trying every possible permutation. One especially good technique the game uses is providing hints when you're close-but-not-quite-there for a solution: instead of just failing to accept something, April will speak a line like "Hm, I need to X this Y before I can use it to Z." That gives a much more graceful progression through puzzles than the impenetrable walls of failure that made the genre infamous.

All that said, there were a handful of times that I gave up and needed to Google a solution. I rarely felt bad about that afterwards. One particular frustration stands out in my mind: there's a fair amount of dialogue in the game, more than in LucasArts games and a lot more than in Sierra games. You'll sometimes have an available prompt like "What do you know about the Dodecahedron of Verisimilitude?", which will lead to a long and engaging explanation. After that you'll see a new prompt like "Remind me about the Dodecahedron", which lets you know that you already explored that line of inquiry and lets you get an abbreviated response that just recaps the most relevant information. Except, in one particular case, asking that "Remind me about..." question causes the other person to share additional information, which is necessary in order to proceed.

As a whole, though, the puzzles generally felt fair and interesting. The dialogue was great, too. I don't think much of it is required to finish the game, but I happily explored every piece of it that I could. The worldbuilding is fantastic, both the big-scale metaphysics of the game and the small-scale relationships April has with her family, friends, and new acquaintances.



Unlike Dreamfall Chapters or other modern adventure games, there really aren't any significant choices or consequences. There might be one or two cases where you can make a decision that has some roleplaying significance for the protagonist, but it never leads to a branching plot line or anything. That would have been cool, but it also doesn't feel like the game needs it... the story is fully compelling on its own terms, even if it does technically run on rails.

MINI SPOILERS

At the top of the list of reasons why I love this game, April Ryan is one of the most likeable protagonists I've played as. An aspiring painter who fled an abusive rural home and is scraping together a new life in the big city, she combines courage and determination with a strong streak of humility, loyalty, and groundedness. She has ambitions and desires, but is also very aware of managing her budget and supporting her friends.

As with Dreamfall Chapters, the game is broken into a series of chapters; a continuous plot runs through the whole thing, but each chapter can be a bit more focused on its particular environment and puzzles. Unlike DC, you keep the same protagonist throughout, and don't necessarily switch between worlds at the end of each chapter: the transitions are tied more to major story beats.

The early chapters were probably the slowest and wonkiest part of the game. I enjoyed them, but I think the game really gets going on your second trip to Stark. Before this time, you're mostly wandering around without much of a goal, trying to find things to do. After this, though, you start taking on a much more heroic role, which feels much more earned and resonant than almost any other game I've played. April stands toe to toe with the truly frightening Gribbler, uses her ingenuity to not only secure her own escape but also provide salvation for an entire community, and it feels really good to witness their happiness afterwards. I can't help contrasting this with, say, the classic King's Quest games, where despite supposedly being in charge of a kingdom it never felt like you were doing these things for anyone's benefit other than yourself and your family.

Again, the game is long, and the plot has ample opportunity for rising and falling action and reversals and revelations and evolutions. After experiencing the heady thrill of moments of triumph, it feels especially disenheartening when April makes a series of (required!) mistakes that bring misfortune on her and those around her. Nearly as bad as the consequences are the actions: April withholds information, lies to her benefactors, tricks her friends, all in order to accomplish something important but they make the failure feel even more abject: April hasn't just failed her mission, she's failed herself. But, it's exactly these sorts of story beats that make April so appealing. She berates herself afterwards, feels guilty, dusts herself off, tries to make amends, and keeps moving forward, a little wiser and a little more determined.

Random thought: I kept thinking of parallels between this game and Life Is Strange. I'm guessing that at least some of them were intentional, given how well-regarded this game is. I noted above that the overall pace and feel of the games are rather similar: you rarely feel pressured to rush to your destination and are encouraged to sit and enjoy the experience. Additionally:
  • Both protagonists are 18-year-old art students.
  • Both are set in Arcadia.
  • Both feature a journal/diary that's regularly updated with the protagonist's thoughts on recent developments.

There are many more thematic and story parallels, but those are more universal, while the above seem more likely to be deliberate homages.

MEGA SPOILERS

Favorite character besides April, Stark edition: Fiona
Most annoying character, Stark edition: Burns Flipper
Favorite character besides April, Arcadia edition: Crow (he grew on me!)
Most annoying character, Arcadia edition: Abnaxus
Favorite map: So many great choices! I might go with the cave under the island.
Favorite chapter: Monsters
Favorite item: Constable Guybrush. (Close second: the flute. I love that you can play this anywhere!)
Favorite music: Maybe the tunes in the cafe?
Best villain: The Gribbler, though Gordon Holloway was also nicely menacing
Favorite lore: There's so much! I honestly glazed over for a lot of it, but the political history of Marcuria was really interesting.
Favorite outfit: Maybe her second Arcadia outfit (which is nicely echoed near the end of Dreamfall: Chapters) or her expensive clothes from upper Venice. I really love how her main Arcadia outfit gradually dirties and degrades over time., and it feels like a relief to finally change out of it.
Favorite animation: Speaking to Crow.
Favorite FMV: I was a little surprised by how back-loaded these were in the game. The first shot of going into orbit was really beautiful. The collapse of Roper Klacks' tower was also great and pretty funny.
Favorite line: "18 feels kinda like 17, only I can buy a gun and pilot a hovercraft."
Saddest event: Thinking that Zoe was killed

END SPOILERS

The Longest Journey was a very long wait - 19 years since its release and two years since I heard about it - but definitely worth it. I'm even more motivated now to press forward and play Dreamfall. It's nice to see that, despite the age and graphical limitations, the game holds up so well. It even holds up well despite me having played the final entry first: I have a pretty strong big-picture idea of what will and won't happen, but there were still many surprises along the way and plenty of moments to enjoy.

For better and worse, they just don't make games like this any more. There will probably never be a major adventure game that requires players to Google for the solutions to puzzles, just adventures where players Google to find out what decisions they should be making. TLJ/Dreamfall seems especially interesting because it's the only franchise I know of that has straddled both sides of that game design chasm, from its old-school origins to its modern conclusion, and I'm looking forward to seeing how Dreamfall helps span that gap.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

A Sunny Disposition

I loved the Earthsea books when I was growing up. I read them at a particularly formative time of my life, and they made a vivid impression on me, especially the quiet darkness of the Tombs of Atuan. For some reason, though, I never followed up on Le Guin's other output. Better late than never! The Dispossessed (sometimes subtitled An Ambiguous Utopia) is one of her many science fiction novels, and I think the first of hers that I've read. It's very much a novel of ideas as opposed to a novel of action, and explores some really interesting themes that touch on social structures, government, economics, personal relations, and how all those things go together.



MINI SPOILERS

The novel's protagonist, Shevek, is a physicist from the planet Anarres. Anarres was founded nearly two hundred years ago as a sort of living experiment in Odonism, a commune-oriented philosophy that abandons traditional authority-based systems in favor of bottom-up syndicalism. Much like how the Pilgrims came from England to try and start a new society in the alien landscape of the New World, the Anarran settlers came from the more Earth-like Urras, who welcomed the chance to peacefully rid themselves of this potentially dangerous anarchist sect. Alternating chapters explore Shevek's early life on Anarres and his more recent experience on Urras.

This story initially reminded me a little of Stranger in a Strange Land, with the returning-alien visitor seeing customs that we've taken for granted and calling them into question. It feels pretty different, though, partly because both of these planets are technically alien to us, and also because, as we eventually see, Shevek also felt like he didn't belong on Anarres. He's able to see the situation on Urras with fresh eyes, which prompts us to consider the corresponding Earth systems, but on the whole his situation seems to be a bit messier and less... I dunno, dogmatic, than the one Heinlein presented.

One of my favorite aspects of this book is how it takes a holistic views of the system: not just what it does, but how it is propagated and the context in which it occurs. Anarrans are different, but not for any genetic reason: Shevek shares the same great-grandparents as his Urran hosts. Culture requires repetition and indoctrination to continue across generations, from the idealistic founders to those born into it. He notices that parents on Urras teach their children to be silent (respect authority, defer to their elders) with the exact same tone of voice that parents on Anarres teach their children to avoid possessions (deny the ego, put the group before the self). There isn't an explicit doctrinal demand for this early childhood indoctrination, but once set in place, it'll pass down values and also prepare all the individuals for the future actions and behaviors they'll exhibit as members of their societies.

And, on the macro side, we also see how the current concept of "Odonism" has evolved based on its environment. When Odo herself came up with the idea, she was thinking in terms of Urras, with bountiful resources that were allocated unjustly. Once her followers arrived at Anarres, they had to make do with a far more constrained set of resources, and so there's a strain of austerity that now feels like a core tenet of the system. (As a side note, it struck me as a believable and probably common situation for radicals to be forced to practice their beliefs in a poorer environment. Besides the Pilgrims, you might also think of Mormons needing to establish their faith in the unforgiving desert of Utah rather than the fertile farmland of Illinois.)

Partly as a consequence of the alternating chapters sharing focus on both planets, it feels like Le Guin is giving a fair and nuanced treatment of Odonism, showing its flaws as well as its successes. Shevek's faith isn't really shaken by his visit, but we can see many ways in which Urras seems superior to the plainer existence from back home. For me, it seemed like Odonism's superiority is only proven late in the book after violence enters the picture: first the violence of state against state, and then more shockingly of the state against its citizens. There are strong echoes here of the Vietnam war, which was coming to an end as this book was published: there's a cold proxy war between two great powers, a draft with universal conscription, social unrest tied to underlying class issues and covered over with appeals to patriotism and masculinity. It isn't that Anarres is free of violence - someone is killed in the very first pages, and Shevek is badly beaten as a young man just because someone dislikes his name - but the person-on-person violence of Anarres is always small-scale and quickly resolved, not the awful, inescapable horror of statist violence. For this reason alone, if nothing else, Odonism does seem like a utopia, ambiguous though it may be.

While war is a huge and obvious harm in the book, sex and gender issues are also very significant: they seem more subtle, especially among the Urrans, but are even wider spread. In Urras even more than on Earth, women are considered inferior, and completely excluded from higher education, government, and other centers of power and influence. Like on our world, women are considered fundamentally separate, and must practice an entirely separate set of skills: physical appeal, demure behavior. We get a sense of what a waste this is, as the society is failing to tap the benefits half of its population has to offer.

This book was published in 1974, shortly after the introduction of the Equal Rights Amendment, and seems to be of its time in its advocacy for feminism. It seems to also be ahead of its time in its positive portrayal of homosexuality, nontraditional family units, and sex outside of marriage. Monogamy is practiced but not expected on Anarres, and as a result, it's especially meaningful when people stay together. Child-rearing is interesting as well, with soft social pressures for children to be raised by collectives outside of individual family units.

I keep connecting ideas on Urras and Anarres back to Earth, but Earth is actually a separate planet that exists in the universe of this book. The "Terrans" are an exotic species, not very well-known to the Odonians: Shevek spends some time recounting the second-hand theories of relativity developed by the Terran scientist "Aisenstain". The Odonians may be living in an ambiguous utopia, but we learn that the Terrans are in a straightforward dystopia: Earth is nearly uninhabitable now, wracked by environmental degradation and war, its maximum population reduced to a mere half-billion people and able to survive only under a highly regimented authoritarian system that rigidly allocates the sparse resources remaining. From the Terrans' perspective, Urras is a paradise, and they are somewhat bemused by Shevek's hatred for its statist system: the richest Terran would find life on Urras a marvel.

This brings up a sort of meta-question: is an unequal society with a well-off underclass better or worse than an egalitarian society where everyone is relatively poor? I'm curious if you could actually measure happiness or contentment or something in this scenario: are people more upset by having too little or by having much less? There does seem to be a bottom line below which abject misery makes a system unbearable, which some Odonians slide beneath during the drought and famine. As long as peoples' basic material needs are being met, though, does the overall society grow happier by growing the median or by shrinking the standard deviation? It's probably a false choice, at least between the two systems explored in this book... the mean, and maybe even the median would be higher in a class-based society (as there's greater pressure to work and more total economic output), but I have a hard time imagining that the lowest tier in a class-based society would be higher than a single egalitarian tier, absent an external factor like war or famine.

Again, Odonism isn't perfect. Even assuming that equality is good, it fails to live up to its own ideals: Sabul replicates systems of power, even in the absence of recognized systems of authority. This comes across as particularly insidious, since others in the society don't think authority is possible, and fail to recognize what Sabul does. Odonism also limits the Anarrans' ability to create big things, like the postal service, which is erratic and unreliable. Granted, though, their society doesn't value a reliable postal system, so they don't feel any pain from what seem like shortcomings to us. To them, it's a feature and not a bug that they can't build any infrastructure bigger than a single community.

MEGA SPOILERS

The biggest problem to explore, though, is the tension between equality and liberty. Odo's goal was to have both, and in fact she saw each pillar as supporting the other: keeping people equal kept them free since nobody could have authority over another, and by keeping people free everyone had access to the same opportunities and could achieve equal-ish outcomes. Anarres started out that way, but over time the social and cultural forces they created began to exert control that was equivalent to the governmental and economic forces of Urras. This is the main dilemma motivating Shevek and the most compelling question of the book. He ends up becoming a true anarchist by revolting against the anarchist establishment, exposing the ossification of society and hoping to jolt his brothers and sisters into rediscovering the original joy of Odonism.

I thought it was really cool to have a critique like this embedded within the story. It's very tempting, in both fiction and in real life, so say "The current system is bad, we need to use this new system, which will Solve All Problems." It's much more realistic and interesting to explore a situation where the new system is better, but not perfect: it brings its own new problems, and we can see people working through those. Perfection is a goal to strive towards, not a destination to reach.

END SPOILERS

Utopias are notoriously difficult to write about: how do you make an interesting story out of perfection? There's a reason we all read Paradise Lost instead of Paradise Regained. The Dispossessed offers a bold and detailed look at one possible utopia, but it's a modest utopia that comes with plentiful hardships and limitations. It's a vision that's so different from the world we grew up in that it can feel hard to hold the whole thing in our head to compare them. But that comparison is a valuable exercise, leading us to question and challenge values we take for granted. And it's a compelling story on its own terms, with a pleasantly flawed protagonist doing his own part to change minds on his planet, just as Le Guin is trying to do on our own.