Thursday, August 09, 2018

Strike Three

And now, something incredibly rare for this blog: a non-fiction book!

I've continued to mull over The Iron Heel in the weeks since I finished it. Much of the book is clunky and unconvincing, but there's a sort of seething vibrant energy that helps propel even the most sedate parts of it, and certain dimensions of the story are incredibly compelling. I didn't mention this in my initial review, but this book, written during a period of profound social inequality and an active labor movement, reminded me of stuff I haven't thought about for years.

Back in eighth grade, our US History class included ongoing discussion of the history of organized labor. We learned about the Pinkertons, Haymarket Square, the AFL and the CIO, all sorts of stuff. At the time I just took it for granted, but thinking back on it now, I'm curious how common that is in public schools, both then and now. I get the impression that Minnesota is more progressive than much of the country, and I'm pretty sure that my teachers leaned towards the liberal side of the spectrum. All that being said, I'm curious if it's normal for most students to learn about, say, the Wobblies along with the WPA and the Lend-Lease Act. (And, in my case, that was supplemented by the surprisingly-informative Dave Barry Slept Here, if for no other reason than permanently burning Samuel Gompers into my memory.)

We're now once again in an era of accelerating inequality and starting to see a reinvigorated progressive movement advocating for economic justice, and I've been increasingly curious about how our present moment ties in with that legacy, the one that Jack London was in the middle of. After poking around for recommendations, I emerged with Strike!, a book by Jeremy Brecher. It seems like it's been widely recognized since its initial release in the 1970s, and has been periodically updated since then; I read the edition published in 1997, which is not the latest, but I believe the bulk of the book focusing on the 19th and 20th centuries is largely unchanged.


I liked this book a lot! It may be non-fiction, but it's very gripping, organized as it is around moments of great conflict and action. It starts off near the start of the modern labor movement in the 1870s. Part of what's interesting about this era is that the people we are reading about grew up in pre-capitalist times. They were born in a United States primarily consisting of agrarian and small-scale craftsmen: blacksmiths or cobblers or farmers who each owned their own property, worked out of their homes, and bought and sold directly to their neighbors. As these people grew up, they witnessed the country becoming transformed into an industrial economy, with centralized factories and yards built with large accumulations of capital. So people left their homes, where they labored for themselves, and went someplace else, where they labored for their masters.

That's all really interesting, and may help explain why the mass strikes of the 19th century can seem so much larger and more disruptive than the ones of the 20th. Those people witnessed the world changing, and knew that capitalism was not the only possible system. Those of us who have grown up under it tend to assume that it's a permanent feature of our planet, and it takes more imagination on our part to imagine other ways that the economy could be organized.

The book is filled with stories that would be exciting in their own right, and are even more engaging because they took place in cities where I've lived. It often felt like I was reading a secret history of the United States, wondering "Why haven't I heard of this before?" There were massive strikes in places like St. Louis that spread across the country, with the heartland showing the way. And while I tend to think of both industry and labor as being overwhelmingly Northern, there was also a vibrant labor movement in the South, especially New Orleans, that crossed racial boundaries as workers forged class consciousness to advance their needs.

Strike! has an interesting perspective: it's exciting, and does seem to have a pro-worker point of view, but it also feels like an academic tone, with voluminous endnotes and strong research. In the struggle between management and labor, Brecher inevitably sides with labor, but he also doesn't hesitate to point out labor's more shameful episodes. One early example comes from unrest in San Francisco, where an initial desire to protect wages turned into an anti-Chinese pogrom. (I believe this was the same period where Emperor Norton famously intervened with the Lord's Prayer.) In this case, the forces of law and order acted to protect racial minorities against labor activists. That's the exception rather than the rule, though, and one of the few times that police come off well in this book.

The mass strikes of the 19th century tended to cost a great deal in lives and property, but also led to some thrilling outcomes. It was very cool to see how local workers could quickly and smoothly handle essential functions of government. One great example was the general strike in Seattle, where ad-hoc committees organized to manage the strike and its impact on the city: they held court, and approved exemptions for the delivery of essential goods, like fuel for hospitals and milk for everyone. They created signage indicating who was exempt, and strikers throughout the city would honor it. The committee made decisions quickly, but there was still debate, and the whole system was refreshingly democratic. City officials would appear before the committee just like everyone else, and their needs would be judged and ruled on like all others.

Reading about this sort of victory, and this sort of conflict, has been incredibly inspiring and made me think about potential future stories of my own. I feel like I've been in a creative rut for a long time, where for something to be "exciting" and "epic" it has to involve military conflict and physically harming bad guys. The kind of action shown in this book is definitely exciting, but while violence is a possible element, it's by no means the preferred tool. I think a big part of what's so engaging about this book is that it's about mass action rather than individual heroism, and I think that's a dimension that hasn't been explored very much in video games, which almost always center around the impressive accomplishments of a skilled individual. You can still have clear-cut values, obvious goals, and relatable motivations for your characters. In the context of a game, I can imagine other systems being used to progress through it and measure your achievement: instead of tracking hit points or rounds of ammunition, you might track membership cards, or meals served in commissaries, or oratorical fervor.

Of course, there is also complexity, and not everyone on the same team will agree with one another. One constant throughout the entire book is an ongoing debate between two major philosophies of organized labor. Broadly, one faction is universal, seeking to include all workers under its umbrella. This includes groups like the Knights of Labor and the IWW, which were more influential in the early era of the movement. Interestingly, these groups also tend to be more inclusive of racial and gender equality: the KoL explicitly stated equality of women as a major goal, and these groups welcomed black workers alongside white. It's also interesting to me that this faction tended to have a religious dimension, or some other form of larger-than-life vision that stressed the social good and the responsibility to improve broader society.

The second major faction is craft unionism, where labor organizes around a skilled trade, like machine operators or train engineers or miners. This reminds me more of a modernized guild system. These workers are subservient to management, but form a privileged caste: they cannot be as easily replaced, and know the value they offer. Unlike industrial unionism, which would try to, say, organize all the workers in a plant under one structure, trade unionism would want to organize the same type of worker across many plants. These trade unions eventually coalesced into the AFL, and have dominated labor in the 20th and 21st century. They're primarily focused on maintaining and increasing the wages for their members, and haven't historically pursued the broader social goals of industrial unionism.

I remember way back in 8th grade thinking that craft unionism sounded like a smarter approach: an irreplaceable worker could win concessions just by withholding his or her labor, while an unskilled worker could only succeed through coercion or force. My thinking has evolved since then. Strike! overwhelmingly shows how important solidarity is in winning a conflict. Even a privileged caste can be replaced, and owners will accept the cost of doing so to maintain their power. There's no easy way to "win" a strike, but getting all hands on board seems to be an essential prerequisite.

As I was reading about these debates and struggles, I found myself thinking about the one strike I've paid attention to recently. Nearly two years ago, SAG-AFTRA struck against some (not all) of the largest video game studios, in the first major action in that industry since voice work started in the 1990s. The union had very legitimate grievances, mostly around actor safety (some recounted being required to scream for so loud and so long that their throats bled, or being required to do mocap work without safety supervision) and morality (not realizing until after being cast that a role required delivering sexually explicit dialogue or personally repugnant content). More broadly, though, the strike was about fairness and control: as the industry is currently structured, voice actors knew nothing about a role prior to accepting a contract for it, and they wanted to be able to know basic things about it (is this a sequel? is it a character I've previously played? what developer is making the game?). Thinking back on this strike after having read Strike!, it now seems clear to me that the big sticking point wasn't the headline everyone talked about at the time, residual payments for successful games: it was about power, with the owners wanting to maintain control over casting and information, and the union wanting to empower its members to choose their own roles.

One of the struck games was Life Is Strange: Before The Storm, the prequel to one of my all-time favorite games. There was one really interesting dimension to the strike and specifically the vocal talent involved. I should preface this by saying that the voice actors on the original Life Is Strange were and are amazing people, incredibly talented within the game, kind and generous outside of it, and are directly responsible for making us fans fall in love with the game. LiS is now an iconic LGBTQ game, and its queer roles were all voiced by (talented, wonderful) straight union actors. Those actors couldn't return to voice their own characters in the prequel, and the replacement actors included (talented, wonderful) non-unionized queer actors voicing queer roles, as well as more black actors voicing black characters.

The entertainment industry isn't necessarily reflective of the broader labor market: each profession and sector has its own gatekeepers and traditions. Entertainment work, especially acting, has incredible competition, very few positions, outsized rewards for a very few (though still a pittance compared to the owners' share) and little compensation for the many. In order to get decently-paying movie or TV work, actors need to support themselves for a long time without making any significant money, which dramatically shrinks the pool of available talent: people with outside resources will fare far better, regardless of skill. It's not surprising that straight white people are overwhelmingly represented in entertainment: regardless of any discrimination, people from traditional backgrounds tend to have more resources and can make it through the wringer of unpaid striving. Once they pass the threshold and get their union card, those same people become eligible for the good work that pays a living wage. The union protects their new privilege, which is a consequence of their original privilege.

Crossing a picket line sucks, but, orthogonally to the labor/management dispute, it can be sad to see an institution like a union acting as a gatekeeper that maintains and extends certain forms of privilege and blocks others from opportunity. Of course, responsibility ultimately lies with the managers who make hiring decisions and the owners who pay them: if there was sufficient will at the top, the demographics of the industry could be far more representative. Still, it would be great to see unions be more aggressive in recruiting diverse members and promoting opportunities for people who otherwise wouldn't be able to access them, rather than guarding the established money and influence of those who have already made it.

In the past I've felt kind of traitorous for thinking thoughts like that. As I got further into Strike!, though, I was... uh, struck, by the division between union and labor. In the past I've thought of "labor" and "union" as being absolutely synonymous, but Brecher is very careful to distinguish the two. Labor is people, the mass of humanity, the lower class, those performing the work. The union is created by those people and ostensibly serves their purpose, but in practice is becomes a new institution, a sort of professional management class that sits above the rank-and-file workers, and very often the union leadership seems to be on the side of management and government, opposed to the workers they represent.

There are tons of examples of this division, growing more pronounced over time, especially notably around the World War 2 era. Understandably, patriotism brought traditional rivals into alignment, and unions pledged to keep production high. Even when their members were suffering, the unions refused to back them up in their struggles against (very profitable) owners, and actively undercut them: expelling elected local officers, warning other unions in the AFL against supporting them, using the press to ostracize them.

The CIO in particular comes across as kind of insidious. The AFL is at least straightforward in its "looking out for ourselves" orientation. The CIO sees an opportunity in going after disaffected workers, presenting itself as a means to get what they want. And then, once the CIO is in charge, it actively works to blunt the workers' impact and maintain a status quo. You gradually come to realize that the AFL and CIO's primary goal is to prevent strikes, to preserve the capitalist system by forcing its members to think in terms of concessions from owners and not in terms of taking power or reshaping the economy to their own benefit.

So, if the national union leaders don't want to reshape the system, then what purpose do they serve? Brecher speculates on this a little near the end of the book, and I have some thoughts of my own. The obvious answer is that the union seeks power and money for its own sake: it's another way that they can get ahead, and they can experience a fraction of the privilege enjoyed by owners. A more charitable and pessimistic view is that they're being pragmatic. The union leaders may believe that true structural change is impossible, that the best they can hope for is better wages: they're acting in the workers' own best interests, even if their members can't understand that by striking they risk losing everything. Or it may just be a social phenomenon: the negotiators spend much of their time face to face with managers, so perhaps they become more accustomed to management's way of thinking and framing of problems.

The top of labor unions can be frustrating, but the bottom is thrilling, and the entire book continues to emphasize that every important event is always driven by the bottom up. Every single strike is initiated by disaffected anonymous laborers on a site, and always opposed by national leaders, even unimpeachable allies like Eugene Debs. This aligns what what I've read in other books like Homage To Catalonia and In Dubious Battle that focus on labor unions. The labor movement seems like the most democratic molecule in our political system, with the people directly voting on and agitating for their issues. Everyone is free to speak, everyone gets a vote, and the will of the people is carried out. And that will is strong: even those who may have voted against an action feel thrilled to be a part of it as they feel themselves becoming part of a larger movement.

Sometimes labor leaders feel compelled to go along with these actions, driven by their members' enthusiasm or fearful of losing their leadership position. Sometimes labor leaders are simply ignored as the workers go ahead with their action. Often, though, the leadership will try everything in their power to stop it. Interestingly, this doesn't seem to be a factor of leaders, but of leadership: there are some fascinating examples in Strike! of situations where a general strike breaks out, the workers resist any compromise, one of their rank is elevated to negotiate... and then that same person who was resisting compromise suddenly becomes much more likely to want a deal. Constant pressure from below is necessary to keep a strike on track, because any representation at the top will be strongly inclined to end it, however radical they may have been before.

While there can be significant tensions between union leaders and union members, the external forces arrayed against unions are incredibly strong: they were overwhelmingly powerful from early on, and grew even stronger as time went on. This is one of the things Jack London predicted in The Iron Heel that proved dead-on accurate. In the 19th century, the biggest force facing the unions were private armies, like the Pinkertons, that were hired by managers to break the strikes. In the decades following London, the resources of the state were increasingly brought to bear. This usually followed an escalation of jurisdiction, reliability, and malice. Local police would be called on to protect owners' property; usually they would fight the strikers, but often they would be sympathetic, and in several cases local elected officials would take the side of labor. The next stage is the governor calling up the National Guard, usually mustering in an adjacent municipality and then arriving with a show of force. This phase often results in picketers getting shot and killed by soldiers, which causes the protesters to get angrier and more active, which is then used as justification to imprison labor leaders and crack down further. In some cases entire towns unite to support the demands of the strikers, at which point the federal government will deploy the army to put it down with force.

All this is in the name of law and order, of course. But it's remarkable that the government has a 100% track record of deploying deadly force to protect the property of wealthy owners, and a 0% track record of deploying deadly force to defend the bodies of laborers against the violence of private security forces.

Strike! is a long book, and the big picture can feel deflating. While there are admirable actions taken throughout history, it feels like the biggest and most exciting outcomes came in the early decades of the movement. I think this is largely because the scale grew more challenging: the power of labor is in numbers, which grows linearly, while the power of the owners comes from capital, which grows exponentially; and owners are aligned with government, whose power comes from force, which has also grown exponentially.

This reminds me of some recent research demonstrating that peaceful revolutions are more successful than violent ones, and that peaceful approaches have grown even more successful over time. One reason for this is power differentials. In previous centuries, private citizens held armaments comparable to what the government wielded: swords, muskets, things like that. The government was better trained, but when push came to shove, sufficient numbers of people could defeat their own government. Today, private citizens may wield automatic rifles; but the government has tanks and artillery and stealth bombers. So the odds of armed revolution succeeding drastically diminish. Political pressure becomes more necessary, and maybe more effective: nonviolent direct action catches the attention of fellow citizens, and foreign nations; it can shame the government into changing its course, inspire other governments into withholding support, perhaps demoralize the military and make them less willing to kill their citizens. It seems to me that all of this may apply as well to the labor movement; and, indeed, the (few!) successes Brecher shows near the end of the book do not involve seizing physical control of plants, but of winning the war of public opinion, convincing other institutions to divest, and making strategic partnerships toxic.

(As a side note, though: while I tend to think of rapid transit and mass communication as being a very modern phenomenon, it's surprising just how quickly word spread back in the 1800s, when local strikes would rapidly propagate throughout the country, seemingly overnight. In some ways, our contemporary overabundance of information probably makes it more difficult to discern important news that merits taking physical action.)

Even when I was first learning about this stuff back in 8th grade, part of me kept asking, "So what?" Unions aren't as powerful as they once were, far fewer people belong to them, and they can seem like relics of the past. Unions were born in the crucible of the industrial economy, and as we move more and more of the workforce to the supposed "information" economy, organized labor can seem irrelevant.

But, of course, it shouldn't be. The underlying capitalist system is still in place, the division between the ultra-rich and everyone else continues to accelerate, basic human needs are still not being met. So why hasn't there been the same sense of urgency around organization? Why aren't there unions in tech companies, or in fast food?  Brecher has his thoughts, and I have some too.

One recurring complaint of workers through the book is the mindless tedium of work and the lack of input or creativity. Laborers grow especially upset when their good ideas are ignored by management. Some management trends like kaizen might be helping with this, making individual workers feel more empowered. They're still working for others' profit, but feel like they have more input into the process: a form of power!

Really, I think a lot comes down to power, and specifically, making today's workers feel a sense of power and autonomy while still withholding profits and true decision-making. Simple visual and architectural elements can contribute to this illusion. In a traditional manufacturing line, the manager may be physically elevated over the workers, looking down on them from a panopticon, leading to a very clear physical separation of roles and power. Today, the visual story speaks equality: Mark Zuckerberg sits in an open office, at the same style of desk as other workers. Larry and Sergei drive the same type of Prius that their workers do. The impression is of equality in power, while the economic differential accelerates.

Finally, though, it's worth noting that companies now "voluntarily" provide much of what was once demanded and fought for. Ideas like paid time off, paid overtime, and health care benefits are now taken for granted, but were once unthinkable to owners. People are at their most dangerous when they are pushed below their tolerable levels, when their lives are miserable and they feel they have nothing to lose. As long as people are kept above that line, they may be more compliant, regardless of how much more their boss makes. (You may be angrier if you earn $10/hr and I earn $100/hr than if you earn $50/hr and I earn $5000/hr. I can make a higher profit if I cut your pay from $50 to $10, but if keeping you at $50 keeps you working for me and keeps my business running smoothly, I'll gladly pay that so I can earn an extra $4900.)

I'm left wondering about the future. Jack London (and Karl Marx) were confident that labor would inevitably triumph: it wouldn't be easy or quick, but they were convinced that over the long run capitalism would defeat itself and the mass of united workers would claim the power to control what they produced. But that was before Henry Ford, before automation, before robotics and artificial intelligence. Will the day come, if it isn't already here, where labor is no longer needed? When managers can run factories by themselves? What will happen then?

The "working class" will still be numerically superior to the ownership class, and could organize to win at the ballot box; but if that class no longer holds "real" producing economic power, then will democratic systems continue to last, or will legal oligarchy triumph?

I'm sure that smart people have studied and talked about this; I'm (rhetorically!) asking out of my own ignorance. Reading this book has made me really curious what the academy has to say and what the future may hold. We still may one day arrive at the Brotherhood Of Man, but if we get there, it will be by a different route than people imagined during the heart of the industrial era.

Thursday, August 02, 2018

Rilly

I often include Thomas Pynchon in my list of favorite authors, but I'm not sure if that's actually accurate. The Crying of Lot 49 is definitely in my personal top-five, but beyond that... I remember absolutely loving V. and Gravity's Rainbow when I first read them, but today I couldn't really tell you the plot of either book or recall much specific detail. His recent novels have been a lot of fun but haven't awed me to the same degree as his earlier books. Still, Pynchon kind of personifies my favorite type of book: intricate, clever, funny, thought-provoking, books that both reward prior knowledge and offer something new.

One possible sign that Pynchon actually isn't one of my favorite authors is the fact that I haven't yet felt compelled to read everything he's written. I've been facing two major entries: Vineland and Mason & Dixon, two tomes from the interregnum between his earlier iconic work and his more relaxed modern entries. Neither has acquired the number of accolades of his masterpieces, while retaining their sheer length, making me shy away from them. Until now!


From my prior experience, I knew that I would need some focused time to devote to my trek through Vineland. Fortunately, I had the tail end of a vacation to devote to the start, and since returning I've taken advantage of the late summer days to read for several hours in a beautiful park near work, holding the sprawling plot and cast of characters in my head as the sun shines down.

This ended up feeling like a very apt way to read this book. Like several of Pynchon's other books, Vineland is set on the west coast: this one in particular is mostly set in a fictional Napa Valley-esque region. Much like how TCoL49's San Narciso existed alongside San Francisco, Vineland is accessible by 101 and within a short drive of the East Bay, San Mateo county, and numerous other recognizable real-world locales.

Vineland was published in 1990 and set in the early 1980s, an era that I hadn't experienced out here but one that's very recognizable. The plot background and foreground deal with the rightward shift in the country, turning its back on the wild freedom of the 1960s and 70s as a newer regime sets in. Many of the protagonists are former hippies, revolutionary filmmakers, counter-cultural musicians, and others who feel increasingly adrift in the world, staring at the burgeoning War On Drugs, supremacy of the Tube entertainment, increasing militarization of domestic operations. They aren't really fighting back against it. This isn't some epochal left-versus-right or forward-versus-back struggle. Everyone has gotten a little older, a bit less idealistic, and are trying to make good decisions one day at a time.

MINI SPOILERS

This is all especially interesting given Pynchon's real-life longevity, and the gradual shifts underway in this book feel like they form a natural arc from, say, TCoL49 to The Bleeding Edge. It's neat to see not only some big-picture thematic continuity, but also a handful of familiar names pop up. A big one that jumped out at me here was "Mucho" Maas: he's just briefly referenced, but we hear about his "remarkably genial" divorce, which in turn set off my own personal whirlwind of speculation and longing for closure to Oedipa's saga.

Overall, this novel feels like it follows Pynchon's normal form, while showing a more laid-back style. We still have the vast cast and freewheeling associations, with narrative detours and asides. The structure is pretty interesting: someone in the present will start describing earlier events to someone else, and will recall a story that they were told earlier, which in turn includes a story from yet another person. All of these are delivered in the same voice, and there's an appealing fluidity to the text as you shift between decades and protagonists and attitudes and perspectives. All this may unwind gradually or suddenly, bringing you blinking back to the redwood-shaded grounds of the present as people digest the lore they have unearthed.

It can take a lot of focus and persistence to make it through one of these books, but the journey is significantly eased by the great humor and inventiveness throughout. Pynchon continues writing demented lyrics for songs, expanding his rock-focused repertoire with ukelele riffs and Latin big-bands. We meet the People's Republic of Rock and Roll, get the long and gripping saga of the Marquis de Sod, puns that would ordinarily infuriate me but delight me with their artistry. And who can forget meeting someone whose "haircut had been performed by someone who must have been trying to give up smoking"?

While the two authors don't have a whole lot in common, Pynchon and Neal Stephenson both have a boyish enthusiasm for the English language and become visibly giddy when writing; you get the sense it's primarily to amuse themselves, but we benefit in the process. Here's a single sentence from late in the novel:

To the great delight of Sid Liftoff, who'd known her since their days as regulars at Musso and Frank's, and a senior gaffer who'd worked with Hub, Sasha had come wheeling into the valet parking at the Vineland Palace in a Cadillac the size of a Winnebago and painted some vivid fingernail-polish color, alighting and sweeping into the lobby a step and a half ahead of her companion, Derek, considerably younger and paler, with a buzz cut that nearly matched the car, an English accent, and a guitar case he was never seen to open, picked up on the highway between here and the Grand Canyon, where she'd parted from her current romantic interest, Tex Wiener, after an epic screaming exchange right at the edge, and on impulse decided to attend that year's Traverse-Becker get-together up in Vineland, leaving Tex on foot among the still-bouncing echoes of their encounter, which had brought tourist helicopters nudging in for a closer look, distracted ordinarily surefooted mules on the trail below into quick shuffle-ball-changes along the rim of Eternity, proceeded through a sunset that was the closest we get to seeing God's own jaundiced and bloodshot eyeball, looking back at us without much enthusiasm, then on into the night arena of a parking lot so dangerously tilted that even with your hand brake set and your wheels chocked, your short could still end up a mile straight down, its trade-in value seriously diminished.

I'm just in awe of that. Heck, "A sunset that was the closest we get to God's own jaundiced and bloodshot eyeball, looking back at us without much enthusiasm" is amazing on its own, and it's just a side-thought in this daisy-chaining marvel.

MEGA SPOILERS

That sentence is also a pretty great sampling of the sorts of characters one encounters in this book. People like Sasha are strongly developed over the course of the novel, and we learn everything from her formative childhood through her formidable presence as a grandma. Then there's Tex, who appears and disappears in this one sentence, never to be mentioned again. And Derek, who will put in one more memorable appearance before going to the men's bathroom and vanishing together. But they're all part of the tapestry, each person woven into one anothers' lives.

The flip side is that we only can spend so much time with each character. It helps that the major ones are so vivid and fully developed. I have to say that my favorite character throughout the novel was DL, Frenesi's erstwhile comrade and ninjette. She's probably a little too much larger-than-life to be a protagonist, but I'd still have loved to hear more of her story.

The gradually-revealed mystery around Frenesi was really well done. We see her very early on, so we feel like we know her, but it's a very long process to truly understand her. She feels like the center of gravity, the locus around which recollections dance. I really liked how Pynchon portrays her, and related characters like Prairie and DL. They're complex and flawed and admirable, infused with charisma that puts us on their side, in spite of the bad choices they made.

Speaking of which, Brock Vond was a really well-done villain. He's also larger-than-life, and even other characters in the novel regard him with superstitious awe; but at the same time he's a very particular government agent carrying out a very particular role. The stuff with him and Prairie at the very end was kind of creepy and sad, and makes you very glad that he came to the end that he did.

And the whole Thanatoid thing was super-interesting and well done. I love how that whole world is just kind of adjacent to, butting up against our own world, the specific but incongruent details of Vato and Blood reclaiming vehicles from the highway. It was a little startling to see the bardo mentioned near the end, which immediately helped me make the connection with George Saunders' novel and see how the concepts lined up.

So, just for fun, a quick summary of the plot as I'm recalling it now (almost certainly not completely correct!)

Frenesi was a second-generation leftist. Her parents worked in Hollywood, were fellow travelers in Communist circles, and ended up getting blacklisted. She became active in the movements of the 60s, and was part of a filmmaking collective. While covering a student revolt on a college campus, she fell in love with Weed, a married man who wasn't especially political but had become the center of local activity. As it transpired, though, the whole uprising was secretly supported by federal agents: the goal was to keep potential risks in sight and under their control. This project was led up by Brock, a charismatic prosecutor. Frenesi was seduced by Brock, and gradually brought under his control, until she participated in a staged (but real) murder of Weed. She turned states' evidence and the uprising was gathered in while the rest of her collective dispersed. She eventually escaped the federals and went into hiding in Southern California, where she quickly met up with and fell in love with Zoyd, a small-time good-natured drug-user. They had a daughter together, Prairie, but Frenesi became extremely depressed post-partum and soon reconnected with Brock. Brock had become obsessive about Frenesi and wanted to completely break up her family. Brock uses another agent, Hector, to frame Zoyd on a major drug charge. Brock persuades Zoyd to take a deal: leave SoCal, make no contact with Frenesi, and remain on the government's radar with periodic humiliating naked appearances on television. So Zoyd left the sunny beach life behind and traveled to the great forests of Vineland. Meanwhile, Brock entered Frenesi into the witness-protection program, where she was partnered with a new husband and they had a new son together. Years go by, the kids grow up, nobody's all that happy but not all that sad either. Then Reagan is elected and all of the old long-running spook programs are re-examined. The money that kept Brock's elaborate schemes running starts to dry up and people begin to get restless. Brock moves over to the new War On Drugs initiatives, leading huge raids to destroy marijuana crops in the Emerald Triangle, to hop on the new money spigot. While in the area, he uses his resources to harass Zoyd and Prairie; I'm not totally clear on his motivation, but I think he might see them as loose ends to tie up so his superiors won't learn about the weird stuff he's done. Then Hector shows up again: he's now completely insane, obsessed with the television and unable to differentiate between fantasy and reality, but still with the resources of the government at his disposal. He harasses Hollywood producers until they agree to fund his anti-drug movie. Hector has always been sympathetic to Zoyd and his situation, and sees its resolution as an ideal Hollywood scenario. He arranges to bring Frenesi and her family out to Vineland where she can use her old filmmaking skills to direct his ridiculous new movie. Simultaneously, the reappearance of Brock has led Prairie to ask harder questions about her mom and own past, and she comes to understand everything that has happened. Prairie is eventually reunited with Frenesi and Sasha. Brock, enraged at his will being thwarted, seeks to use his operation to destroy the family; when the authorization is rescinded, he proceeds on his own and dies, I presume in a helicopter crash. This makes pretty much everyone happy, although he continues to exert a certain animalistic, magnetic pull. Now that he's gone, the reunited families can tentatively begin to figure out how to coexist.

END SPOILERS

Phew! That's a lot, and doesn't even touch at all on the secondary or tertiary plot lines. Still, it's relatively straightforward, and I think will be much easier for me to retain than the fractured stories of V. or GR.

So, yeah. It's a pleasure and kind of a relief to find Vineland so enjoyable. I won't be rushing out to devour Mason & Dixon soon; but, at the same time, I'm now confident that it'll be a good read once I get around to it. I was first drawn to Pynchon in large part because of his affinity for paranoia and conspiracies, and it's great to see that he can write hugely entertaining stories even without those elements.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

V@mp1r3

I remain starved for any games even remotely related to Live Is Strange. That's the main reason why I was interested in Vampyr, the latest (well, almost latest) game from the developer DONTNOD. (Thanks for the gift, Andrew!) Secondary reasons included a vague hope that it would be some sort of spiritual successor to Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines (which, to be fair, it was never advertised as), and this really awesome trailer from E3.



Vampyr ended up being kind of an oddity. It's an action game, mechanically a lot closer to Remember Me than Life Is Strange. In many ways it feels like a cookie-cutter action/adventure/roleplaying game: you play as a white dude, you can switch between a melee weapon and a ranged weapon and special abilities, you fight lots of generic respawning enemies, you collect money and materials, you can do some light crafting to create and upgrade weapons, you follow a main plot line with periodic cinematic cutscenes, along the way you have a variety of optional sidequests that give smaller rewards, you earn XP and level up to increase your stats and gain new abilities, the plot mostly runs on rails but there are a couple of choices along the way that can influence which of several endings you will get. Phew! Sound familiar?


That said, it does add a lot of interesting stuff to the formula. High on the list is its presentation of NPCs. Most games of this sort will either have a small handful of named NPCs that serve some limited function (shopkeeper, quest-giver, etc.), and/or a large bustling mass of anonymous NPCs who add atmosphere but don't do anything significant. Vampyr has several dozen - maybe close to a hundred? - named NPCs. Each of them are their own fairly fleshed-out character, with their own secrets and ambitions and activities. The marquee feature of Vampyr is how these characters are bound together in a "social web": each person is related to other characters, and actions that affect one of them will affect others. This, theoretically, adds a layer to the decisions you made, as your actions will carry repercussions.


A closely related interesting mechanic is the "feeding" system. As a vampire, you thirst for the blood of the living. In this game, that doesn't mean regenerating health or stamina, but the most precious resource of all: experience points. Each friendly NPC represents a substantial pool of XP, and feeding on an NPC gives you a substantial boost. Killing a hostile enemy will earn you 5 XP, while a single NPC might earn as much as 5,000 XP.


This opens up all sorts of interesting trade-offs. In order to get the maximum XP from a given NPC, you need to discover all of their secrets and keep them healthy. So you might debate between the utility of a smaller XP boost now versus a larger XP boost later. Also, due to the aforementioned social web, feeding on a person might have negative impacts on someone else. You might inadvertently close off a potential sidequest that would also generate XP. And over the long run, if too many people fall to your insatiable hunger, the district will fall into chaos, growing far more dangerous to you. And that's not even addressing the moral question of whether you want to feed on them in the first place!

MINI SPOILERS

That question "is it right to feed on this person?" can be surprisingly interesting. One of my favorite bits about the game is the complexity of the characters in it, which avoid both stereotypes and easy judgment. Characters are rarely good or bad. And also very diverse! The game is set in 1918 London, which I tend to think of as being a purely white setting; but, of course, the British Empire was globe-spanning, and we run across plenty of characters with Indian or African or other forms of ancestry. And some characters are homosexual, because of course there were homosexual people in England, even if they weren't written about very much. We meet communists, and yes, communists were a large part of the labor movement as seen on the docks here. And women's liberation campaigners, because yes, that was when there was a universal suffrage push. The characters feel simultaneously very modern and very rooted in their setting.


When introducing diverse characters to a place where they might not be expected, I think there's a temptation to make them a little too perfect, to sort of Afterschool Special them. That temptation is avoided here. One of the first characters you meet is Milton Hooks, an ambulance driver and one of the only black men in the game. Talking with him and others, you quickly realize that he's running a variety of rackets: shaking down incoming patients, taking bribes to guarantee bed placement, searching through the pockets of the deceased for valuables. Yeesh! The game never excuses this behavior, but, as you get to know him more and dig deeper, you at least get an understanding of his motivation. Unlike the privileged doctors at the top of the hospital hierarchy, who came from wealthy backgrounds and had all sorts of opportunities and choices while growing up, Milton has never had any opportunities offered to him, and has chosen to create his own. His scrabbling is distasteful, maybe detestable, but if it wasn't for that scrabbling he might not be alive today. What starts out as a judgment about him eventually becomes a reflection on ourselves: it's very easy to cast blame at people who make bad choices, but harder to recognize that they're facing choices we never have needed to confront.

Ultimately, it's up to you (or, rather, Doctor Jonathan Reid in the game) to decide how to respond. In gameplay terms, do you let Milton live, or do you bite his neck and suck out all of his life force to murder him and empower yourself? Milton is far from the most tempting target in this regard, and the game seems to go out of its way to encourage you to feed. One clear example is Clay Cox, the gang leader you meet at Pembroke who introduces himself along the lines of "I sure enjoy MURDERING people! But I'm sick :( so I can't murder as much as I want. But if you make me healthy again, heh heh, there's no telling WHO I might MURDER! By the way, I lost my knife. :-( Can you find it for me?" If you do the knife quest, he'll essentially say "Oy, guv, thanks for getting me back my knife! I can't wait to MURDER another innocent person with this KNIFE!!!"

The game's dialogue is screaming that this is a Bad Guy, and there's a very simple button you can press to take him out... but he's still considered a civilian, he's using the dialogue interface and not the combat interface, and he's not actively threatening you at the moment. The game seems to frown on you feeding on people, so in general it seems like the virtuous path is to spare everyone, but is it really a good thing to just let him wander the street, brandishing his knife?


Oddly, the civilians I felt most tempted to feed on weren't the obvious thugs like Clay Cox or the other Wet Boot Boys: it was the cruel slumlords, the wealthy capitalists. Cadogan Bates inflicts misery on a far grander scale than Cox does. Bates does it with the support of the law instead of in opposition to it, has zero concern for those who suffer under him, and dresses up his oppression with self-serving rhetoric. I ultimately spared him, too, but it was an even closer decision.

And, ultimately, that's one of my mild complaints about the game: they created this really complex, intricate web, but then seem to have superimposed an absolutist all-or-nothing morality on it. If you are a virtuous person who never feeds on anyone, then the web is fully intact and you never see any of those repercussions; if you feed even once, then you do see the consequences, but that instantly casts you to the "dark" side of the moral scale. It would have been interesting to have a wider variety of choices available than "feed" or "don't feed": something like a "bring to justice" option could still have shaken the social web as people are removed from it, without actually killing people, affecting the district's health, and counting as a permanent mark on your soul.


Before I dive deeper into the specific plot, here were things I liked:

  • Great map design. It's based around a deceptively simple principle: doors are locked on one side, and after being unlocked on the other, in the future can be opened in either direction. It's fantastic for guiding players along certain routes, then eliminating the time cost of backtracking.
  • Solid voice acting. It's relatively low-key and not as attention-getting as other games, but feels very authentic and likeable.
  • Variety of personal stories. We've come a long way from "Everyone has daddy issues" or "Everything revolves around me": I was often surprised by the details of individual citizens' tales, and felt invested in their outcome.
  • Quantity of side-quests. It wasn't overwhelming like the seemingly-endless number in an Elder Scrolls game, but there were still enough to have some variety and choice in choosing what to pursue when. Doing enough of them cumulatively grants sufficient rewards to feel worthwhile.
  • A nice range of upgradeable abilities.
  • The atmosphere is fantastic. Dark and moody, but with little pockets of hope.
  • As with all DONTNOD games, it has beautiful lighting. Things like flickering torchlight illuminating damp cobblestones are gorgeous.
  • The unique period setting is a really refreshing change. I don't think I've ever played a game set in this era, but it's great: modern enough to be instantly recognizable and relevant, but old enough to earn a sense of class and weight.
Things I was ambivalent about.
  • No fast travel. This gets to be a pain in the midgame, when you're turning in side-quests around the city. In practice, though, you can run from one side of the city fairly quickly. It's also pretty easy to run through combat in most cases, especially if the route is already open.
  • Character animations are generally fine, but can get really repetitive in certain scenes - once you notice, say, a particular character's hand gesture, you'll see that they're robotically repeating it every seven seconds. 
  • The combat generally felt pretty hard. But, I think that's pretty clearly a consequence of my decision not to feed on the blood of citizens. I do like how this plot decision had a strong gameplay consequence... but it still felt kind of annoying to die fairly often later in the game.
  • Respawning enemies. Combat generally felt more like a chore than fun, and it gets aggravating to face the same anonymous foes repeatedly. This is slightly mitigated by the fact that containers also respawn, and the aforementioned ease of running through/past fights you don't want to do. 
  • "Witcher Senses". They're totally fine on their own, the gameplay is decently interesting and it's a nice change of pace from fighting, but it still feels derivative.
  • Waypointing system. Specifically, they can be misleading: especially early on, a waypoint may show on your map at your ultimate destination, and not at the place you actually need to go. (For example, instead of showing the door to enter a building, it will point to the location on the other side of the block where you'll eventually end up.) I preferred the zone-based approach that just show huge circles over the general areas to investigate, though this is also frustrating for a few quests like finding your father's letters. All that said, I do appreciate having some kind of waypointing while not being handheld for the duration of the game.
Things that annoyed me:
  • Not knowing whether clicking on a door will open it or start a loading screen to transition you to a new area. This is a big issue early and late in the game, but thankfully not much of a problem in the middle.
  • The economy. There's no buy-back or sell-back interface; I accidentally bought a bunch of watches when I thought I was selling them, and ended up losing hundreds of shillings even though I immediately realized my mistake. Then again, there's almost nothing worth spending money on. I did drop some shillings on Good handle parts, but almost immediately afterwards enemies started dropping a ton of them for free. I guess it might make sense if you never loot anything; but since you get most of your money by looting, you wouldn't be able to buy anything in that case, either.
  • Talking to people can feel overwhelming. Whenever you arrive in a new area like Pembroke or Whitechapel for the first time you're confronted with huge walls of text, well over a dozen people to talk with, one after the other. These conversations are very mechanical: click on all of the bright text until it all turns dim.
  • Relatedly: There are persistent minor bugs where dialogue prompts remain bright even after you've spoken them.
  • Ultimately, I found myself often getting bored and doing something else while characters were talking... which is very unusual for me! Dialogue tends to be my favorite part of games like this. Here, that dialogue often ended up feeling like a grind, something I was just going through to get the XP unlocked by the clues.
  • Honestly, a lot of this might come back to Jonathan Reid himself. I liked him fine, but... he's just constantly on about "What have I become?!" and "There is this... HUNGER that burns inside me!" I'll take that over the standard grimdark protagonists who are de rigueur in these kind of games, but it still grates after enough repetition.
  • Whenever you die, you restart from the last checkpoint with full health and stamina, but it takes away virtually all of your blood. Most annoyingly, you see it start at a decent amount, like a half or a quarter, and then get sucked away until you have just a sliver, maybe not even enough for a single ability activation. Especially since you presumably died due to a tough fight, this just makes it all the more frustrating to go into it with a significant handicap. This gets extremely annoying since the enemies you previously defeated will respawn with full health, and depending on how far back the checkpoint was, you might not even be able to get back to the part that killed you last time.

And one annoyance that's not at all related to this game: there were a couple of points where I wanted to check on a sidequest or a choice, and was reminded that FAQs and walkthroughs seem to be dying out. Back in the day, within a few weeks of a game being released you could count on there being a half-dozen or so competing specialized guides that you could turn to; after a few months, one or two would be enthroned as the de-facto community source and contain exhaustive, often spoiler-free guidance. These days, most games don't have any FAQs at all. If they do, it's usually just a single one. So I ended up needing to do general searches and browsing Reddit threads, and occasionally getting mildly spoiled in the process. I'm curious if FAQs are disappearing because of the Pivot To Video, or if it's a consequence of the explosion in the number of games being released, or what. Definitely not the worst trend in gaming, but it's still a little sad to see.

Anyways, back to Vampyr, a quick summary of my style: I focused on quick-hitting melee attacks. By the end of the game I was wielding a Level Five Hacksaw with damage upgrades and a Level Five Liston Knife with drain upgrades. Using the Liston Knife allowed me to bypass the stun/feed mechanic, so I didn't put any upgrades into Bite-related abilities. I also put very few upgrades into my Blood bar in general, largely due to the aforementioned issue with your blood always resetting to near zero on death; I rarely ran out of blood mid-fight as it was, and losing more would just enrage me in real life. On the other hand, I did bump up my Stamina significantly. Even without Stun, your melee attacks will slightly stagger opponents, and so you can sort of soft-stun-lock them by rapidly attacking. If your Stamina is high enough, you can keep this up until they die.

For powers, I focused on Shadow Mist, a long-distance AOE attack, and Autophagy for quick in-combat healing (and aggravated damage healing). I also took the first level of Shadow Veil as a quality-of-life upgrade; it's really nice when you're trying to get from Point A to Point B and don't feel like fighting everyone. Late in the game I took the Abyss ultimate, which I love and wish I'd taken before: it does a ton of damage, and has a long stun that even works on boss monsters. It also doesn't cost any blood at all, just has a long cooldown, and is a great element in any boss fight or general "oh, crap!" situation.



Story-wise, I played as a pretty straightforward good guy. I pretty much always chose the empathetic option in dialogues, generally allowed people to choose their own destiny but tried to look after their interests. I obsessively healed everyone I came across. As noted above, I never fed on anyone, though there are some more challenging scenarios you face later in the game that deal with turning people.

MEGA SPOILERS

More specifically, when it came to the pillars, I:
  • Made a deal with Dorothy Crane to continue the Whitechapel clinic and stop her blackmail.
  • Convinced Sean Hampton to drink my blood and reduce his craving.
  • Convinced Aloysius Dawson to accept a natural death.
  • Allowed Dr. Swansea to drink my blood and turn into a vampire himself.

I think those are all technically "good" choices, though complicated somewhat. Allowing Dawson to die generates a mild in-game penalty as it causes Whitechapel's health to slip and keeps you from making it Sanitized. And Swansea is, arguably, the main villain of the game, notwithstanding his intentions and affable demeanor.


I hemmed and hawwed for quite a while about Geoffrey McCullum, but ultimately decided to just spare him. It was kind of tempting, though.


I pursued the Lady Ashbury romance. It's very low-key and restrained, and felt super English and very appropriate for these characters: they're all repressed and have these Feelings percolating inside that they just don't quite express. Not the most memorable or meaningful romance I've seen in a video game - heck, far from the most memorable I've seen from DONTNOD - but it was still nice and I was glad to have it. The ending was quite nice as well, with us heading off to visit America and the rest of the world.


Vampyr does seem to be setting up a potential franchise, especially with the lore around the Red Goddess and St. Paul's Stole and other stuff. The reception to the game seems somewhat muted, which makes a sequel less likely, but if it happened, it could go all sorts of ways. That's one of the cool things about having ageless immortal vampires: they could easily jump back to the Middle Ages or forward to modern (or future!) times and still feature many of the same characters.

END SPOILERS

Honestly, a big part of me just wants another Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines. This isn't that, but it could theoretically lead to that in the future: it already has the vast cast of characters and the lore, it's just missing the setting and the gameplay. Oh, and the protagonist: nothing against Doctor Reid, but I'd have loved to shape my own character.

That's just wishful thinking, though. On its own terms, Vampyr is a perfectly fine game: solid combat, some interesting gameplay innovations, and a really good setting. I was a bit surprised to see how often the feel of the game reminded me of Murdered: Soul Suspect: while the game mechanics are very different, the narrow, twisty cobblestone streets of 21st century Boston reminded me a lot of the streetlit alleys of 1910s London. Both have a lurking layer of the supernatural hovering over a supposedly mundane world. Like Soul Suspect, Vampyr doesn't completely land everything, but it still carves out a unique space in a saturated world, and I'm glad that we have it.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Games As Literature? Okey-Dokey

Any time I write about a visual novel game, I feel the need to preface it by saying "I don't play many visual novels," which feels increasingly inaccurate as the number of entries in this tag grows. While by now I've completed a good half-dozen or so, though, I'm very aware that the ones I'm attracted to are outliers, that consciously seek to challenge the tropes of the form. Which, again, is odd, since it means that I've spent many more hours playing critiques of visual novels than I have playing "normal" visual novels.

This has been true of the Christine Love games, which remain some of my all-time favorites, and is true as well for Doki Doki Literature Club, a free Steam game that has exploded in popularity, through... hm, I wanted to say "word of mouth", but everyone is very hesitant to go into much detail about it. The Love Conquers All games play with the genre's form, subverting it and critiquing it, but ultimately embrace it. DDLC, on the other hand, sometimes seems to be out to destroy the genre: cutting right to the heart of gaming in general, but visual novels in particular, exposing some serious problems with the structure and content of such games and, ultimately, kind of calling for action.


So: Visual novels can be about anything, can be told in any sort of voice, can have a variety of gameplay elements or no gameplay at all. However, from what I can tell, the most popular forms of visual novels (at least in the US) are "dating simulators". In its most stereotypical form, you play as a first-person (never seen) male protagonist, moving through a story that sort of doubles as a harem of eligible women, selecting dialogue and action that will prompt one (or more) of them to fall in love with you: you generally "win" by having a mate at the end of the game.

MINI SPOILERS

At first glance, DDLC is a note-perfect addition to this turnkey formula. It's set in a school. You are a somewhat aimless student. Your childhood friend invites you to join the literature club, which you quickly learn is full of "four incredibly cute girls!" Each has their own distinctive personality quirk, easily-recognizable interest, and is very motivated to get to know you better.


The actual gameplay feels rather light. You almost never get dialogue options, and can't influence your player character's personality or story: you love manga, don't read many books, are slightly shy, and want to get along with everyone. The insertion of gameplay is one early unique element in the game: at the end of each night, you write a poem. You do this by selecting from a series of words. Chibi versions of the love interests appear on the screen and will react as you select them: between this and the in-game dialogue, you can get a sense for what type of content each person prefers, and can write a poem that will appeal to them.


As a side note: I opted to impress Yuri, mostly because she's the least child-like character. The dialogue focuses on the idea that she prefers poems that have a lot of imagery and symbolism, but from what I can tell, she actually prefers scientific words (universe, infinity, etc.) and complex multi-syllabic words. Actual imagery and symbolism (rainbow, flower, etc.) count as "cute" words and will appeal to Natsuki instead.


Anyways: For the first half or so of the game, the gameplay mostly consists of doing one of these poem-writing exercises, then just "click to continue" for 20+ minutes of dialogue for the next day, then repeating with a new poem. You do get some opportunities to decide in what order you will show your poem to the others, which slightly affects dialogue but doesn't count as a major choice. I think there's just one proper in-scene choice, where you choose who to side with during an argument.

This segment of the game is long and played very straight. I'd avoided any detailed spoilers, but, well, just the opening screen of the game gives a hint that something is coming, and my radar was activated for any signs of incoming strangeness. There are just a handful of lines over the first couple of hours that indicate everything is not what it seems: occasionally someone will say something slightly odd, or do something without any explanation. This is mostly addressed in-game through your character's own reactions. Later on in the week, some of your classmates' poems grow increasingly unsettling, but "you" respond by going "That's kinda weird, but hey, I don't know much about literature."


As I was playing, I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. I kept waiting for a really long time. I'm uncertain whether this long wind-up is necessary... I kinda felt like the pattern was established after the first day or two, and it honestly got a little painful to sit through the longish, stereotypically drawn-out-but-inconclusive scenes with Yuri.

MEGA SPOILERS

In retrospect, though, the long time spent in the first act pays strong dividends in the later ones. By setting so much content in place, the eventual turn feels much more meaningful and less gimmicky than it would with a shorter story. The sheer amount of material almost wears grooves in your mind while playing, its very repetition establishing "this is how things are", and so once that material changes, the difference feels profound.


This is most obvious in the text and disturbing art, but what I'm thinking of now is actually the music: that happy ditty theme-song constantly plays for hours as you play, long past the point where you stop paying attention to it, where it becomes purely ignorable background music. So it is DEEPLY unsettling when just a few notes in that song change to a minor key. This slight diabolical chord instantly sends shivers down your spine: even absent any other signifiers, you are alerted that something is wrong, the center is decaying.

It's around this time that I decided to continue playing the game during a well-lit weekend afternoon. I can enjoy horror, but those early elements were already freaking me out enough that I knew I didn't want to go to bed in the middle of it.

So: The game takes an abrupt out-of-tone turn, coming to a shockingly sad end. And that's where the weirdness really starts to kick in. You're taken back to the main title screen, but it's different now: letters in the menu have been corrupted, as have some character images. And you'll quickly find that your save game files have all been deleted!


Pressing on, you start a new game, but it's... different from before. Nonsense text appears on the screen at random intervals. After a false start, and then another, it starts again, but a bit differently: the overall plot and thrust of the game is the same, but the details are different. A sense of malaise hovers at the edge of the dialogue. Visuals glitch. The music grows ever more unsettling, like a nightmare calliope.


The limited gameplay now feels like a tight constriction: before I might have aesthetically preferred more freedom to express myself, but now it's like I'm tied into a straitjacket, loaded onto a crash-test car, hurtling forward towards something awful, with no opportunity to escape.

There's a compelling sense of mystery at this stage of the game: it's obvious that Things Are Not Okay, but who is behind it? And why? My suspicions were directed towards Monika from early on, but as time goes on and everyone's behavior grows more erratic, it became increasingly difficult to discount Yuri as being the architect of whatever was going on. Still, I tend to be stubborn in my gameplay, so even as it seemed like a worse and worse idea, I continued along the Yuri track.


Around this time, the game starts actively fighting you, in some really fun and surprising ways. When prompted to choose who you will spend time with, you come to find that you're fighting the mouse cursor, which keeps gradually shoving over towards "Monika" while you try to move it elsewhere. Soon after, it blocks you from saving the game, telling you there's no point any more.

After yet another horrific "ending", the game further degrades, with you seemingly stuck inside a loop in a macabre scene as corrupted text spews out. After spending ages clicking through, I tried reloading earlier saved games or exiting and restarting, but no matter what you do you're immediately taken back to that sad scene. At last stuff gets cleaned up, the fourth wall gets torn down, and the plot is explained.


The game gets awesome here - I don't even want to talk about it in the Mega Spoilers, but it simultaneously gets less mysterious and more chilling. It evokes one of the best bits of Analogue: A Hate Story, but with even better ludonarrative harmony. I figured out pretty early on how to proceed, but the dialogue (or, okay, monologue) around this point is so good that I let it play out for another cycle before proceeding. (It's great to see that the game is so explicit about what you need to do: people who already know can feel like they're one step ahead of the game, while everyone else can get unblocked, and learn something new in the process.)

The final coda is refreshing, then surprising. I was actually down to explore the Sayori arc a bit more - as long as she isn't actively murdering people, it doesn't seem like it's necessarily that bad - but the "Shut it all down!" ending is super-satisfying, both in-game and in real life.


Anyways: I've kind of recapped the plot without getting into any of the themes, which is at least as memorable as the formal trickery. The story focuses on something that I've been worrying about for years, in my own games as well as those I play: non-player character agency in video games. I wrote about it at some length in my Shadowrun devlog, and DDLC tackles it head-on.

So: Ultimately, characters aren't real people. They're created by writers and developers to fulfill certain roles. This is also true in fictional novels and comic books and all sorts of media. In video games, though, this can seem especially pernicious, because the player interacts with these "people", and they respond to him or her.

First up, there's this ambiguity of identity between the player and the player character. To what extent are these purely fictional relationships being forged between the in-game avatar and the other NPCs, and to what extent is a relationship being created between the real-life player and those same characters (or, I would argue, the creator of those characters)? If you've ever done something nice in a game, and had an NPC say "Thank you for helping me, CHARNAME! You are a good person!", you might have gotten a small, warm, fuzzy feeling in your stomach. "That's right," you might have said. "I am a good person!" We create identification between our real selves and our fictional virtual selves, and derive pleasure from the achievements of the latter.

That pleasure generally increases as characters grow more believable and complex. But, as players grow more focused and invested in the game, they can start to ascribe too much meaning and importance to these fundamentally artificial and unrealistic relationships. It's a step beyond, say, reading romance novels: you aren't just admiring or aspiring to something, but sort of onanistically identifying with your avatar.

That same believability gets particularly insidious in the context of video-game romance. It's one of those things that outsiders to the form can see a whole lot more clearly than those of us who play a lot of games: it is weird to have a lot of people throwing themselves at you and professing their undying love because you clicked a couple of buttons. They have no choice - they are just characters programmed to do so - but it can be tempting to think of this as an earned "conquest". The big risk, of course, is those sentiments bleeding over into the real world: believing that love is a game, that if you choose someone and select the right things that they will give you their affection, and if they don't then something is defective.

DDLC seems to take aim at the central conceit of having characters programmed to love you and blows it up. I think there are other potential solutions, though. While I've complained about this in the past, I increasingly like BioWare's approach to romance: not just restricted romance, where some characters have certain preferences which may exclude the player character, but also characters like Aveline and Harding, for whom you can express affection but who will not reciprocate. At the very least, this pops the illusion that everyone in the world has the hots for the player and that their lives revolve around him or her. In my own work, I've tried to double down on tension between the player character and the NPC to create the impression that they have free will: ultimately, of course, a fictional character doesn't have agency, but allowing them to veer off in other directions, express disapproval, or second-guess their choices can at least make this an illusion that love is something which is given, not won.

I'm still kind of mulling over what DDLC was saying. It feels like a somewhat nihilistic message, turning away from something artificial in our entertainment, as opposed to the Christine Love games, which are more about finding something valuable in our games and then bringing that back with us to the real world. But both get a lot of well-earned and well-crafted mileage by skating along the line between reality and fiction, between player and avatar, and leave you with plenty to think about.

END SPOILERS

I have a hard time recommending Doki Doki Literature Club. The subject matter will be offputting to a lot of people, and even people who really enjoy one aspect of it may end up disliking the other. But I do think it's one of the most well-crafted games I've played recently. It does very specific things to create tension, to heighten reactions, to draw out your emotions and induce whiplash. I've already found myself thinking about how techniques in this game might be adapted to hypothetical future projects of my own. DDLC can be a hard game to enjoy, but it's a very easy game to admire, and I think it has a ton to offer anyone who wants to provoke emotional responses in other people, as well as players who are interested in peering behind the curtain and exploring how experiences like this can work.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Arboreal Count

Continuing the trend of "authors I've been meaning to read for a while": Italo Calvino. He's popular amongst the Failbetter Games fans, and often shows up in lists of recommended reading, alongside existing favorites of mine like Borges and Mieville. The book of his that shows up most often on those lists is Invisible Cities, which was freshly on my mind thanks to The City & the City and the corresponding memory of Infinite City.


I forget now why I didn't start with Invisible Cities; instead, I picked up The Baron in the Trees, an earlier work by him. This may have been because I wanted to start with a more traditional narrative as opposed to the apparently fragmented structure of Invisible Cities. Regardless, it was a pleasant read: perhaps on the slight side, but very enjoyable.

MINI SPOILERS

The novel is set in the late 1700s, as the vestiges of Italian feudalism are starting to fade in the Enlightenment. The protagonist is Cosimo, the son and heir of a minor, politically ambitious baron. At the age of twelve, the son gets into a spat with his family, stomps away from home, climbs up a tree, and swears he will never come down. His determination proves powerful, and he lives the rest of his life in the branches of the forest: originally out of stubbornness, but eventually he seems to gain pride in his niche and to love what he can accomplish up there.

From early on, the story felt curiously nostalgic to me. I hadn't thought of it in years, but reading this I vividly remembered how, when I was a boy, I would be similarly determined to, say, spend 24 hours living in my backyard without coming inside, or to spend all day in a treehouse, or otherwise arbitrarily-but-emphatically shun the expected trappings of civilization for a (relatively) milder milieu. And I also vividly recall feeling a little boy's anger and sense of justice, issuing a proclamation that I would then seek to uphold long after the inciting incident had faded away.

I can only imagine how exasperating those demonstrations were for my, or any, parents. Similarly, when Cosimo makes clear that he never intends to return to the ground, the people in his life are alternately scornful, worried, disbelieving, dismissive, or condescending. Over time, they, and we as readers, may come to a sort of admiration: at first grudging, and then heartfelt. It's a stupid project and a stupid promise, but we can admire the tenacity and effort involved, regardless of how we feel about its aims.

Much of the fun of the book comes from Cosimo's inventiveness, as he brings the earthbound conveniences of his life into the trees or creates new advantages from his new environment. This reminded me strongly of the Swiss Family Robinson and other books that I had also enjoyed deeply as a child and haven't thought of in years. We learn how he fashioned a shower in an oak, how he brings a horse into the canopy, how he fetches items for his ailing mother's bedside or courts a young lady.

MEGA SPOILERS

We end up witnessing the entire span of Cosimo's life, from childhood to old age, and those courting scenes are surprisingly touching. I really like the complexity Calvino brings to them: it isn't a simple, single love story, but a series of echoes and variations, as he grows and explores and tries. It's messy, which I like a lot: sadness and disappointment are inextricably bound up with passion and optimism.

The novel is narrated throughout by Biagio, Cosimo's younger brother, and in this and other aspects of the new Baron's life we get an appealingly uncertain account of the truth. The baron is a local legend, so of course all sorts of stories spring up around him, some more believable than others. Cosimo further complicates this with his own storytelling, often telling a dozen or more variations about a single battle, say, or an escapade. Biogio will offer up his own best guess about what actually happened, but his inability to pin down Cosimo helps the latter seem even larger than life.

I got the most pleasure from the book's adventuring, whimsical spirit, but it does touch up against some interesting political and philosophical topics. Calvino was writing in the mid-20th century, but these characters fully inhabit the 18th, and it's intriguing to see, say, the conflict between the Jesuits and Voltaire, or between French republicanism and Italian feudalism. Given the decades-long span of the book, it's especially interesting to see how things turn and decay: the initial fervor and promise of the French Revolution curdles and the new boss proves to be even worse than the old boss. But, to me, it doesn't ultimately feel misanthropic: it's more of a recognition that life is complex and unpredictable, and while we can exert enormous influence over how we live our personal lives, even the most powerful people have only the slightest control over how the world evolves.

END SPOILERS

This wasn't a mind-blowing book like I half-expected, but it was a really fun read: unexpectedly nostalgic, with a pleasant mix of action and thought, and a concept that initially seems thin but proves sturdy enough to support an entire life. I think I'll be ready to move on to Invisible Cities next, and am curious how that will compare with this.