Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Homage to Catalonia

For various reasons, I've been thinking a lot over the last couple of years about Homage to Catalonia. It was the first book I read that presented anarchism as anything other than bloodthirsty nihilism, and made democratic socialism appear heroic and admirable. Since the 2016 election, modern groups like Antifa and the DSA have jolted those old memories back to the forefront of my mind, and I've gone on a bit of a retro kick: seeking out the amazing poster art from the Spanish Civil War, reading about the old revolutionary slogans and songs. I've finally belatedly returned to the book, for the first time in over twenty years, partly out of curiosity to see how true my memories are.

 
The answer is they are somewhat faithful, but not completely trustworthy. I remembered the book as primarily being about the struggle between anarchism, socialism, and Stalinist Communism; that does form the backdrop for many of the events, but for the most part there are only brief references throughout the narrative portion of the book. Orwell makes a point of how irrelevant the political disputes seemed to his experiences at the front, which make up most of the pages of the book. The final chapters in the book give a more focused treatment of the parties and their alliances and betrayals, but never really dives into the ideologies of each faction.

Looking back, I think that reading this book probably prompted me to go off and do additional research on the war and its combatants from other sources; this was in the dark ages before Google or Wikipedia, so I would have combed the card catalog to find another book or two in my high school library. If memory serves, this may have led into my senior-year self-study program on revolutions, which led to some cool research and papers on the French Revolution, the Haitian Revolution and (I think) the Spanish Civil War.

On a personal level, I used to be a rather bloodthirsty young jingo, cheering on America's first invasion of Iraq during Operation Desert Storm. Around this time I was converting into a pacifist, recoiling at our bombings of Serbs during the conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina; if I didn't already identify as a pacifist, this book probably nudged me further in that direction, as it gives a decidedly unglamorous look at war. Orwell writes more about trying to keep warm at night, foraging for firewood, battling public lice, or eating moldy bread than he does about actual combat. Most of his existence at the front is marked by boredom, toil, and frustration than by fear. When combat does occur, it is exciting but not heroic. He misses his shot, or his gun jams, or some other problem occurs. In later actions he probably kills people, or at least wounds them, but can't be sure: there's a rolled grenade in the dark and a bang and a cry of agony.

Overall, Orwell's attitude towards war seems to occupy a middle ground between Hemingway's grim-but-necessary view and Vonnegut or Heller's war-is-a-meaningless-absurdity takes. Orwell hates war and finds it ridiculous, but he nevertheless feels compelled to fight. He writes "When I joined the militia I had promised myself to kill one Fascist — after all, if each of us killed one they would soon be extinct." It's tempting to view Orwell as an idealist, with his commitment to worldwide revolution and his personal sacrifices, but he's really endlessly making the best of the bad choices before him. I'm somewhat reminded of Bonhoeffer's tormented decision to commit the sin of murder, not believing that it could be justified or excused, but because his conscience demanded it.

You can see Orwell's thoughts on the importance of freedom versus authoritarianism crystallizing during his experiences and being formalized in this book, and they will be presented memorably in their final form in 1984. Homage to Catalonia is a bridge book between his earlier socialist books like Down and Out in Paris and London and his anti-Soviet Animal Farm and 1984. I think it's important to see him as a democratic socialist and not as a liberal: he's on the side of the (self-organized) workers, not the (authoritarian and democratic) police. As he writes, "I have no particular love for the idealized 'worker' as he appears in the bourgeois Communist's mind, but when I see an actual flesh-and-blood worker in conflict with his natural enemy, the policeman, I do not have to ask myself which side I am on." It seems like Orwell's experience of Communist propaganda that distorted and lied about things he directly experienced was what pushed him over the edge into direct opposition to that party.

As a young man, and a libertarian, I embraced the 1984 version of Orwell. I believed that the worst things a government can do is suppress free speech and disseminate falsehood; the solution was to prevent censorship and get the government out of media. As an older lefty, I now see censorship as just a single aspect in a complex problem. The real problem is people not knowing the truth, whether they're consuming the propaganda of Alex Jones lying about Sandy Hook victims, or embracing the delusions of QAnon, and more speech has certainly not dissuaded the masses from massive delusions. I increasingly want to shut down propaganda, or make it harder to find, and get infuriated when corporations like YouTube and Facebook start algorithmically driving victims towards radical falsehoods.

Several years ago I started watching Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, and YouTube's algorithm kept encouraging me to watch hateful misogynistic videos; the algorithm had been hijacked by alt-right provocateurs, but as YouTube is directly profiting off of video views it has an obligation to stop that manipulation. Years later, YouTube continues to funnel young men down a right-wing rabbit hole that leads from debate videos to white-supremacist propaganda. It's a different problem than what Orwell was writing about, as the world and media are more fragmented today, but individuals can do more damage: a single man with a machine gun can wound 800 people in Las Vegas, a single Twitter feed can destroy a reputation or incite a massacre. Orwell's views evolved over time based on what he saw in the world, from Burmese imperialism to London poverty to Soviet show trials, and I'm curious what he would make of the 21st century. Ultimately he always comes down on the side of the people, not as abstract units of political power but as breathing, passionate people who enjoy good food and tobacco and comradeship and sunsets. Honestly, I imagine that he'd feel more comfortable battling the techno-capitalist powers of 2019 than he was fighting intra-left disputes in 1938.

One particularly amusing, albeit potentially "problematic", aspect of this book is Orwell's constant stereotyping of Spaniards. He dryly notes how his life was saved many times thanks to the poor marksmanship of his enemies and his fellow-militiamen. He creates a national character and consistently applies it to all Spanish people in the book: they are unfailingly friendly, lazy, good cooks and enthusiastic eaters. This is a recurring tic of Orwell, who similarly presented the French in Down & Out as smelly and unsanitary, and the Germans as efficient, and the Italians as emotionally demonstrative. All of these stereotypes ultimately reinforce Orwell's own Englishness: despite his professed commitment to global solidarity, he fundamentally is, well, kind of a hobbit: fussy, proper, aghast at poor manners and hygiene, suspicious of other cultures but ultimately buoyed by inner determination and practicality.

The book as a whole kind of reminds me of Nick's disclaimer in The Great Gatsby that he is one of the few honest people he knows. Orwell is trying to be truthful, and openly admits his biases and limitations. He tries to be dispassionate in how he writes about his personal experiences and carefully separates this from the chapters that were built on his research and conversation with friends. All of this gives him a lot of credibility when he then looks at the official reporting and propaganda to come out of the war. We believe him, as he's shared ample criticisms of the POUM and isn't aggrandizing his own stature. I'm left with more admiration for him than ever before: at his courage and sacrifices, and at retaining an open heart and clear eyes, able to grow and change based on the evidence of what he saw.

There were lots of great quotes in this book, but here are a couple that I bothered to jot down. Page numbers from the 1955 Beacon Paperback.

"It was like an allegorical picture of war, the trainload of fresh men gliding proudly up the line, the maimed men sliding slowly down, and all the while the guns on the open trucks making one's heart leap as guns always do, and reviving that pernicious feeling, so difficult to get rid of, that war is glorious after all." - p. 192

"It seems to always be the case when I get mixed up in war or politics - I am conscious of nothing save physical discomfort and a deep desire for this damned nonsense to be over. Afterwards I can see the significance of events, but while they are happening I merely want to be out of them - an ignoble trait, perhaps." - p. 212

Monday, April 15, 2019

Mr. Thrones

And so it begins! That one TV show based on a fantasy series that I really liked has just started its eighth and final season, firmly leaving the books in its dust. My enthusiasm for Game Of Thrones has waned somewhat during its run, and I'm not quite as plugged into the fan community these days, but it remains one of my favorite shows and I'm eagerly looking forward to the remaining episodes.

One small little fan thing I did participate in was the /r/gameofthrones pool. The question this asks is "Who do you want to win the Iron Throne?" Notably, it did not ask who you think will win. There are a lot of names I like on there, but only one honest answer for me: Lyanna Mormont. As incredibly unlikely as it would be, it would be awesome to end the series with her in charge.



The question of who will win is a lot harder, and honestly I don't have great confidence in any particular theory. So here is my personal ranking of what I view as the most-likely to least-likely outcome of the show.

MINI SPOILERS
  1. Nobody. I'm more confident that the books will end this way, and there's a decent chance the series will as well. This might include the Throne itself being burnt by dragonfire, or blown up with wildfire, or everyone in the series dying or fleeing to Essos.
  2. Night King. Even if some of our heroes survive, I think there's a fair chance he will win. I don't know if the throne means anything in particular to the White Walkers, but it could be a trophy for them.
  3. Daenerys Targaryen. She's the only person on this list who actually wants the throne at this point besides Cersei. She isn't especially cutthroat, but her ambition and resources and nascent alliances could put her on top.
  4. Jon Snow. He seems a very likely compromise candidate in the same way Robert Baratheon was, with a claim to the throne and strong ties to important factions.
  5. Cersei Lannister.
  6. Tyrion Lannister. I have a hard time seeing him openly sit on the Throne, but (if you subscribe to certain book theories) he may have a strong claim, and he seems like he would be a good ruler. He's much more likely to be Hand again, though.
  7. Sansa Stark. This name and all the remaining ones are significantly less likely.
  8. Bran Stark. Only if everyone above him on this list dies. OR if he wargs into someone above him!
  9. Gendry. Arguably the heir to Robert!
  10. Jaime Lannister.
  11. Arya Stark. She's capable, but I don't see her wanting it. She would make an intriguing Master of Whispers, though.
  12. Lyanna Mormont.
  13. Sam Tarly.
  14. Missandei. She's #2 in my "want to win", but has no faction.
  15. Euron Greyjoy. Realistically he should be much higher since he has ambition, resources, and ruthlessness; but narratively he's a late player and I don't see the TV series building to this.
  16. Theon Greyjoy. Kind of the opposite as Euron: There would be huge narrative satisfaction in his redemption arc ending on the throne, but he definitely doesn't want it.

A few other names that aren't on the list and may be worth considering:
  1. Young Griff. OK, almost definitely not, but it is interesting that they bothered to introduce the Golden Company in the TV show, so there's at least a small chance we're getting a late delivery of that plot.
  2. Jaqn H'ghar. Possibly in the guise of one of the other characters; if so, probably in service to a third character.
END SPOILERS

Pretty crazy to think of all this speculation building up and then ending in just a few months. I'll be gone on vacation when the series finale drops and am already wondering how I can remain unspoiled until I safely return. 

Tuesday, April 09, 2019

Everything That Can Be Invented Has Been Invented

We live in a highly specialized society. I'm pretty good at writing Android apps for mobile phones, but I have only the vaguest understanding of the many technologies that underlie my career. If I had to I could probably write a compiler, but I couldn't manufacture a phone, or build a cell tower, or fabricate a circuit board, or create a monitor; going deeper, I couldn't make the steel for the tower or the silicon for a circuit board or the liquid crystals (?) for a monitor; heck, I can't even mine the iron to make the steel, and if someone asked me to collect some liquid crystals my first instinct would be to go looking for a wizard.



Fortunately, I now have a book that will solve all my problems: How To Invent Everything, by the inestimable Ryan North. I've avidly followed his online comic Dinosaur Comics for many years, and have felt oddly proud at seeing him branch out and succeed in so many other ventures: publishing books (To Be and/or Not To Be), writing comics (Adventure Time, Squirrel Girl), engaging in thoughtful and nuanced literary criticism (B to the F), climbing out of a hole. In a fun little coincidence, I received his latest book as a Christmas gift, and then got to see him in person when he came to the Bay Area and spoke at a library about 1500 feet away from my home. In person he has the same voice I've come to enjoy so much over the years: fun, wry, curious, generous. He gave a great, discursive but fascinating talk that covered the history of the human race and how he got into comics writing. One major theme to which he kept returning was just much time humanity wasted along the way: thousands and thousands of years when we had all the equipment necessary to do something but hadn't thought to actually do it. He also held a wonderful Q&A session, good-naturedly laughing at the jokes helpfully offered by an elderly veteran ("You're a comedian, here's some jokes you can use!") and discussing everything from his own favorite comics to Aphantasia to the (poseable! never posed!) clip art source of his Dino Comics to... well, all sorts of good and interesting things.

The book itself is great. The conceit is that it's a guide written for time-travelers who get stuck in the Earth's past: at any time that they arrive after humans have started to, uh, become human, it gives detailed and practical instructions on how rebuild the sort of civilization we're used to in the 21st century from scratch. It's designed so you can flip around and read about individual technologies and inventions that you're interested in, but I read it straight through from cover to cover and loved it. It's structured to start with some relatively simple things, like how to make a fire, and then what you can do with that, like how to make charcoal. I've only ever thought of charcoal as a material for making delicious grilled meats, but it's incredibly useful and is used in turn to create a wide variety of other things. You'll learn superior farming techniques so your society can create a calorie surplus, which will then free their bodies and brains to take on more specialized jobs, and eventually you'll be able to teach miners how to mine, blacksmiths how to smith, farriers how to shoe, and so on.

Coolest of all, the book goes all the way up to some truly modern inventions, covering the basics of the internal combustion engine, the airplane, and, yes, the computer. All of these have great diagrams giving helpful context to the descriptions, and are also presented with practical context. While the book tells you how you can create an internal combustion engine, it also cautions that your society will likely not have the precision engineering necessary for a very efficient one, and so you'd be better served by the simpler steam engine. The computer section stirred memories in my mind of my CS201 course back in college, with its NAND gates and full adders, but it also demonstrated how non-electrical computers could be constructed, including ones that used water or undersea crabs. (Which in turn reminded me of Nell's analytical engine from The Diamond Age - I need to re-read that! North and Stephenson share some of the same gift for demystifying technical arcana in an entertaining way.)

This book was super-fun! It was a light and compelling read, but never felt dumbed-down. The strong humor throughout made everything interesting, above and beyond the naturally intriguing how-to structure. I had a blast reading this, and while I hope I never need to rebuild civilization from scratch, I'm in a far better position to do so now than I was last month.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Legal Tender

I joined the crowd of RPG fans elated at the recent announcement in San Francisco about a new Vampire: The Masquerade game. I'd been loosely following the rumors swirling over the last couple of weeks, mostly driven by the ARG Tender app, and was curious about what was in store, but honestly was not expecting a proper sequel to Bloodlines. Very few games have made a sequel after 15+ years of silence. It's really thrilling to see this is actually happening: Bloodlines has been an underdog cult classic for so long, but continues to see good traction on the Steam and GoG charts, and has a vibrant and active modding community, so I think the corporate suits with money noticed that there's a legitimate opportunity here and funded it. And it surely doesn't hurt that the game is so beloved by so many.

I'm allowing myself be be somewhat optimistic... not exactly preorder-optimistic (though it is already up on the Steam storefront), but the early news seems very encouraging. Paradox has a terrific reputation: I've only played Europa Universalis, but I know Stellaris has been getting rave reviews, and Paradox has a great track record for supporting their games long into their lifespan. What's really selling me on Bloodlines 2 at the moment is the writing staff. Brian Mitsoda, the original lead writer, is back, which by itself would be hugely encouraging. He's joined by Cara Ellison, a smart and thoughtful critic and writer who most recently helped deliver Dishonored 2. And rounding out the trio is Chris Avellone, an RPG writing hall-of-famer.


I'm not super impressed by the one trailer we've seen so far; it's almost entirely combat-focused, and you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who thinks fondly of the combat from VtMB1. But there's certainly room to improve the combat, so maybe that was the purpose; and action-heavy trailers definitely show better than long and nuanced dialogue trees. I am a little apprehensive that VtMB2 will be to VtMB1 as the new Deus Ex games are to the original: streamlined action/RPGs that honor the setting and tone but lose the vast, wide-open "anything goes" design that allows immense flexibility in solving problems, instead following a more slick and cinematic sneak-and-shoot approach.

We have about a year until the game comes out, and I'm confident we will learn a lot more about it by then!

The timing of the announcement is fortuitous in a couple of ways. A couple of weeks ago I downloaded and installed (but hadn't actually started playing) the Clan Quest Mod, a well-regarded fan-made expansion to the base game. My original (and so far only) playthrough was with the Unofficial Patch, and I'd initially been planning on doing a modded run with the Unofficial Patch Plus, but the CQM recently came out with a major new release and I wanted to check it out. It adds new quests for each of the seven clans, and the latest version also adds a new hub area, new voiced NPCs, the option to leave the Camarilla and join the Sabbat, and contains several new endings. It also functions as a mod-manager, pulling in an assortment of features from various other mods: most (not all) of the Patch Plus content, new weapons from the Arsenal Mod, gameplay changes from the Camarilla mod, thrall followers from the Companion Mod, and a few other odds and ends.


I finally fired it up after watching the trailer and getting all inspired. There are already some major differences from the character creation process: in addition to choosing a clan, you can also select a colorful background for your character, like Burnout, Dropped On Head As A Baby, Runaway, Completely Batshit, etc. These obviously impact your perception of your character, and also have mechanical impacts: for example, a Burnout is a mellow stoner who is more likely to resist Frenzy, but also has a -1 penalty to Wits. Completely Batshit is a unique background for Malkavians that gives makes their Dementation ability more potent, at the cost of more expensive Obfuscation powers.


I initially skipped the tutorial, then went back and did it anyways since it's been a while and I wanted to reacquaint myself with the controls. I've noticed a little bit of wonkiness so far: one door didn't want to open at first, and I occasionally have trouble where the third-person camera is perpendicular to my character's movement. Those have easily been fixed by exiting and restarting. I'll keep an eye open on those things going forward; mods can definitely make games less stable, but Bloodlines was a notoriously unstable game to begin with, so it's always difficult to establish the ultimate source of an error.

The other cool little bit of synchronicity was that my new LP from Chiasm arrived in the mail on the same day as the trailer. I first discovered Chiasm from her amazing track "Isolated," which plays inside the club The Asylum in the first game. Since then I've gone on to devour all of her other albums, and have really enjoyed hearing how her sound has evolved and grown over the years.

Her new album is Reset, re-establishing a naming theme from the predecessors Reform and Relapse. It's great! Several tracks on it have appeared an earlier LP, like "Mice on a Wheel," "World Left," and "Make Believe." "Make Believe" in particular was such a joy to hear for the first time, delightful and surprising. After several listens, I think my new favorite is "Locked In," a beautiful track that ambles through the depths before soaring into the sky. Given how many original contributors to VtMB are coming back for the sequel, I think it would be awesome to have one of Chiasm's newer tracks included in the new game as well. "Ella" or "Stumble" would work particularly well with the game's heavy industrial soundtrack.

 
And that gets me daydreaming about what a licensed VtMB soundtrack might look like in 2020. The Birthday Massacre seems like an obvious choice to get some great goth in there. Ayria would be a ton of fun, almost any of her tracks would work great for a new club; "Feed Her To The Wolves" and "Hunger" would be great thematic matches, while "Friends And Enemies" is particularly danceable even for Ayria. I:Scintilla would be an awesome addition, especially one of their heavier tracks like Melt. And of course hearing more from Lacuna Coil and other OG artists would be awesome.

So, yeah... lots of excitement over here, and I'm keeping my fingers tightly crossed that I'll be playing a fun game a year from now!

Saturday, March 16, 2019

The Storm that Speaks

Despite my earlier predictions of a break, I dove (drove? chugged?) right back into Sunless Skies. This time I was pursuing one of the two "story-based" ambitions, The Martyr-King's Cup. (There is a good amount of story for Wealth, and a surprisingly large amount of story for Song of the Sky, but The Truth and TM-KC are primarily billed as story ambitions.) This is a somewhat unusual ambition in that it can be failed: if you lose at some specific challenges, the ambition terminates prematurely and you are forced to choose another. In some ways, this is worse than death: if you take too much damage or incur too much terror, you have the possibility of reloading or save-scumming, but if you fail in the ambition, there is no recovering.


Partly because of that, I opted to do TM-KC first, even though I suspect The Truth is intended as an easier/earlier challenge. Since I've already completed Wealth and SotS, I figured that if I did fail at TM-KC, I could fall back to The Truth and still get a good campaign out of it.


Fortunately, such scheming was unnecessary: I was able to successfully complete the ambition on my first try, woohoo! It was a very close call, though: at one point I faced a Veils check with only an 18% chance to pass, and was convinced that I was going to lose, only to be amazed when the RNG smiled on me for the first time in my life. Not wanting to push my luck, I passed on an 82% Iron chance that would have given me 8,000 sovereigns if I won, but ended the ambition if I lost.

MINI SPOILERS

Before getting into the content of this ambition, I should first correct the record from a few (mis-)statements I've made in previous posts:

I'd mentioned that I couldn't find the transit point to Eleutheria. That's because, despite me somehow being convinced that it was in Albion, it is, in fact, in The Reach. That did make sense in retrospect, and I now think of The Reach as being a kind of crossroads rather than the hinterlands. After all, you start your lineage outside the Blue Kingdom transit relay, and the Albion relay is there, so why not Eleutheria as well? It took me an embarassingly long time to figure this out; I finally realized my error after recruiting the Fortunate Navigator for, like, the third time, and noticed a small note at the bottom directing me to Hybras in order to locate the relay. Of course, that was the one area of the Reach that I had not thoroughly explored: in my game, Hybras is far from any sources of fuel or supplies, and I had no compelling reason to go there. Before now, at least.

Similarly, I had multiple Captains with the mistaken belief that Eagle's Empyrean was located in Albion, and that I was just terribly unlucky in never getting a Prospect for it. I have a better idea of where this idea came from: on my first visit to London, both the Fortunate Navigator and the Firebrand Conductor directed me to the Empyrean, so of course I assumed that it was in the region.

As a side note, the Empyrean just might be my favorite port in the game. Much of Eleutheria is ominous and forboding, and Pan is a rather unpleasant central hub (though more exciting than New Winchester), but the Empyrean is a (literal!) bright spot in that dark region. I absolutely love the music, too; that and the lore remind me of some of my favorite bits of Sunless Sea, and it's really nice to see that carried forward into this game.


I groused at length in my last post about my inability to secure a Captivating Treasure. After publishing that, I broke down and visited the wiki. I have a love/hate relationship with wikis and Failbetter games. I prefer going in blind and exploring stuff on my own, solving mysteries and being surprised. But many of their games have devastating punishments to seemingly inconsequential decisions, and after that happens a couple of times (losing 1CP of Dangerous while pursuing London's Sinew, anyone?), you get in the habit of obsessively checking the wiki before clicking on anything new. Sunless Skies is actually much, much better in this regard than in any of their previous games; I don't remember a scenario this time around where it felt like they were playing "Gotcha!" with me, which is great. (Well, I guess the stat losses in a few storylines do sting a little, but they're much less punishing than, say, losing your Scion or becoming an Admirer of Art.)

Anyways! Like I was saying, I looked it up and, sure enough, there are plenty of ways to get Captivating Treasures. The most easily repeatable way is to kill a Guest, who will often drop one as loot. I always "NOPE!"d out of there whenever I ran across a Guest, but now that I've built up my equipment, they're pretty easy and profitable to take down. I smacked myself in the head when I found an easy early-game way to get one: when turning the Spirifer over to the Presiding Deviless at Carillon, as for a substantial reward. That's the one outcome I haven't chosen in all my playthroughs, and it seems so obvious in retrospect that it would grant such a treasure.

Incidentally, the relative rarity, usefulness and value of each type of item is very inconsistent. Searing Enigmas are the most expensive Academic item, but I always end up with, like 8 or 10 of them by the end of the game without trying for any, and usually only find around 2 or so Condemned Experiments, which are only worth half as much. But on the Bohemian side, I get dozens of Moments of Inspiration, and few or no Captivating Treasures. Crimson Promises are valuable, but seem completely useless; I think they are options for some of the Fortune endings, and don't recall ever seeing another use for them. Searing Enigmas and Moments of Inspiration get tons of use, while Condemned Experiments and Captivating Treasures get very few. I dunno, it's strange.

One final correction/update for the record: as is my wont, I whined a bit about limited romance options. There are more than I'd initially thought; by my count three of the nine officers are romanceable. The ones who aren't romanceable include a gang of talking rats, a book, and your aunt, each of whom would be taboo for their own very distinct reason. What I really wanted to talk about, though, is that I hadn't initially grasped just how many of your officers are transgender or nonbinary. Failbetter consistently does a wonderful job at representation, and Skies is no exception; one of the coolest aspects is that there are multiple trans people in your crew, who have very distinct experiences. As a result they never feel like tokens or stand-ins, but as fully-realized people. I imagine that writing romances for these sorts of characters is potentially even more fraught than usual, and I'm impressed that they did include at least one, with the Felined Eccentric making a dramatic appearance in my most recent game.

On to the plot itself!

MEGA SPOILERS

So, The Martyr-King's Cup is basically a Terry Gilliam movie in video-game form, and therefore it's one of my favorite things ever. It absolutely nails the wonderful slippery sense you get from his best movies, crossing between the mundane and the fantastical worlds, having a heightened sense of destiny and importance to what may actually be a delusion.

This builds and unfolds terrifically over time. You start out with the quest itself: investigating rumors of a chalice that grants immortality, finding a realm hidden beneath London, meeting the Unseen Queen and her retinue. As the story continues, you get a sense that something isn't quite right. Cleverly, this has a strong mechanical component: by passing a Mirrors check, you can discern that you are witnessing an illusion. You're standing in a decrepit sewer, not a subterranean castle. You're surrounded by rats, not retainers. The Queen is a filthy old portrait with its face slashed out, propped up on a broken chair, not a resplendent throne.


As you continue along the stages of this Arthurian quest, you can pivot back and forth between these perspectives. It's really fun! And useful! Like, you may be facing a vigorous knight wielding a broadsword in mortal combat; but by passing the Mirrors check, you realize that it's just a clerk waving a fountain pen at you, and that's much easier to beat up. On the other hand, you may be trying to cross a rickety narrow bridge strung between two towers and need to pass a daunting Iron check to avoid failing the quest... or you can slip into the moonlit world, convinced that you are a fearless knight, and confidently stride across without hesitation.

Like those movies I love, the sense of reality grows increasingly muddled. For quite a while there's a good working thesis that the mundane world is "real" and everything else you see is a hallucination or spell or other artifice; as time goes on, though, you start seeing snatches of those other visions even while you are supposedly in control of your senses. Scruffy robbers may briefly flicker into demonic forms, and that portrait is still speaking to you even when you see the rats. Over time, doubt begins to set in. Is it possible that the moonlit world is, in fact, the real one? After all, this is a video game I'm playing: why am I acting like the world with space choo-choo trains and exploding Correspondence sigils and sentient tea leaves is a "mundane" and "realistic" world? Isn't it at least possible that, within the world of the game, "reality" is a fantasy quest, and these visions of voyages between the stars are just dreams?



This wonderful duality carries through all the way to the very end. There is a huge and very satisfying lore dump near the end. Failbetter's style is typically to hint and allude to historical events and leave you to connect the dots yourself, but in this particular quest you are rewarded with a surprisingly detailed explanation of the Storm the Speaks, the death of the King of Hours, the Unseen Queen and various other major players and events in the game. At the very, very end, your available choices are shaped by how you have experienced the story thus far. Depending on how often you have experienced the moonlit world, versus how much you stay rooted in the world as it is, you can lock or unlock various choices. In my case, I was just barely enough on the fantastical side to embrace the world as it ought to be, and turn my sci-fi game into a fantasy game at the very end.


I don't think I've been writing much about my captains. On the whole I think the roguelike elements work far better in Skies than they did in Sea, but since I do restart captains semi-regularly I don't find myself getting as attached to them as I do to, say, my characters in RPGs. But I do really like the mechanical and flavor customization options, and that helps keep things feeling fresh. My main characters so far have been:
  • Intendant Lloyd, an Auditor with the Ministry of Public Decency who retired to a life of Wealth in London.
  • Lady Sybil, a Celestial Poet who wrote the Song of the Sky.
  • Professor Lydia, a Scholar of the Correspondence who went insane and found that Martyr-King's Cup.

  

All of my captains' builds have been fairly similar so far: I emphasize Hearts, with either Mirror or Iron close behind, then catch up the other once the other two are at 75. Veils is a persistent dump stat that maxes out around 20 or so at my max level. For a while I was feeling like the game incentivizes you to replicate builds like this, since you can inherit equipment that has a usage requirement, so if you want to outfit the gear you've already got you need to hit the same stat levels. But now that I've gone so far along on this lineage, I'm consistently passing down significant dowries on each new captain, so I think I can afford to, say, finally make a Veils-heavy guy and pick up the stuff I need. And finally check out how smuggling works!


That's still a ways off, though. In the meantime, here is my current end-game loadout.
  • Engine: Mandos, the Moloch-class liner. I love the built-in storage and many Bridge slots. My biggest gripe is how slowly it turns, which makes it poor in combat, but I don't fight much and can take decent punishment when I do.
  • Front weapon: The Wrath of Heaven, a powerful (Hearts-based!) missile that is very On Brand for my Scholar of the Correspondence. Does immense damage to enemies, but is also risky: it does burst damage, which makes it more harmful than good when enemies spawn at discoveries.
  • Rear weapon: Wit & Vinegar Zounderkite. A great mine. I think it has a wider trigger radius than the Sneeze-lurker. I rarely destroy enemies with this, but I'm pretty sure it staggers them, which is all I ask for when I'm trying to leave.
  • Plating: The Watchers in Azure, an Assaying device that also gives decent armor. This was the first level-75 upgrade I purchased, and maybe still my favorite, totally worth the early visit to the Blue Kingdom.
  • Scout: Cyclopean Owl. I feel really bad for players who didn't back the Kickstarter, I've tried out some of the other scouts and they all seem notably inferior.
  • Auxiliary 1: Osiris, a great Royal Society invention that gives Butchery and Hold. I love Hold! Having surplus Hold has been game-changing, and I squeeze it into every slot I can, as you will soon see.
  • Auxiliary 2: Canktankerous Boring Rig, another Royal Society invention, this one giving Mining and, yes, Hold. And even a little Hull as a bonus!
  • Bridge 1: Fitted Cupboards. Extra Hold at a reasonable Iron requirement.
  • Bridge 2: Fitted Cupboards. Keep 'em coming!
  • Bridge 3: In this screenshot it's an Adjustable Infirmary, for more Crew, but honestly I think I'm going to swap it out for more Fitted Cupboards on my next captain. Even without it, there's plenty of Crew space on the Moloch. There doesn't seem to be any benefit to keeping more than 12 crew, and even that is only occasionally useful, mostly in Pan; you'll "spend" some crew in The Reach while doing quests, but they're cheap and easy to replace and there's no need to stock up.
I haven't tried the other top-tier ships yet, so I may also try those on a future captain, but I have a really hard time imagining giving up all of my Hold. It's really changed the way I play the game. I just go wherever I want to go to pursue my Ambition stories, crew plotlines, etc. Along the way I buy up every Bargain I find. The next time I come to a central port I check my bank, deposit items if I'm running low on a particular stash, and otherwise liquidate everything I got. It isn't quite as profitable per-item as focusing on Prospects, but it makes the game feel a lot faster since you're just focusing on the main plot, and you can do enough volume to make up for lower margins.

Then again, if I do try a Veils captain in the future, I'll be focusing on trading of another kind. It'll be interesting to see how short-haul high-pressure opportunities compare to my current existence as a market maker.

END SPOILERS

That was a profoundly satisfying ending! I've been happy with all the conclusions so far, but this one is definitely my favorite. It makes me eager to check out The Truth and get another long-form plot set in this world. Again, I think I'll try and take a little break; there have been some very helpful bug-fix updates over recent weeks, and some allusions to upcoming content updates, so I might wait for a more substantial patch before my next thorough voyage. Then again, I wasn't expecting to dive in so soon on this ambition, and certainly do not regret having done so. We will see what the future holds! Hopefully more space trains!