Friday, March 16, 2018

Scarred for Life

I know that China MiƩville has been around for a while, but he feels like a new author to me since I've only recently started reading him and he has such a unique vision. He's very much in the camp of people who I need to pace. Not so much because I enjoy his stuff and want to make it last (although that is true), but because it can be extremely dark and disorienting, and I'm reluctant to let it affect my mood too much.

The Scar is less extreme in this regard than Perdido Street Station. It's still a dangerous world with bizarre creatures, but it doesn't have the same omnipresent sense of decay that the prior book did. It's at least ostensibly more upbeat, with a twisted kind of adventure driving the action and regular changes of scenery. Over time, some scenes of macabre horror creep in, but here they feel more like visitors to the story, rather than a revelation of the truth underlying existence.


Reading this book, I did start to feel like Failbetter Games maybe should owe some sort of royalties to Mr. MiƩville. Not that they're ripping him off, but there are a lot of parallels. I'd earlier noted the connections between Fallen London and Perdido Street Station, and their respective sequels seem to share a similar amount. The description of Armada was awe-inspiring, and also very reminiscent of the Khan's Shadow port. The Sorghum and the other rigs reminded me of Station III, the Iron & Misery Funging Station, and similar industrial ventures. The trip to Salkikraltor involves procedures like those I undertook when visiting the Fathomking's Hold, and so on. And this is all on top of the similar sense of constantly suppressed dread, that some sinister creatures are lurking in the depths, ready to destroy the fragile contrivance temporarily suspending you above the waves.

All of which is to say, I'm now wondering whether the third novel in this series will involve spaceflight!

On the whole, I think I liked The Scar more than Perdido Street Station, mainly on the strength of its characters. Bellis is fantastic. She anchors the story; she isn't the only POV character, but drives by far the majority of the story. She's pretty thoroughly unsympathetic: she doesn't have much empathy, cares more about her own well-being than the misery of slaves living below her, is content to remain isolated in her small room rather than speak with other people, has a very transactional view of relationships. Yet, this limited personal character makes it all the more impactful when, late in the novel, she starts feeling remorse and regret for her actions: it makes the moral crisis more urgent and gives a larger sense of scale.

The supporting characters are almost all more likeable. Tanner Sack doesn't get all that much "screen time", but is the compassionate heart of the novel. I liked his back-and-forth evolution where he grows in a certain direction, encounters hardship, becomes fearful or avoidant, but then resumes towards his goal with a greater sense of purpose. Uther Doul is an intriguing enigma, mostly exposed through  exposition but with occasional glimpses at what might be the real man within. Even rarely-seen characters like Hedrigall and Bastard John become a part of Armada's framework: they may be gruff and antisocial, but they're also true believers in the freedom of the city and the chaotic system that uplifts it.


The very end of the novel becomes a bit of a shaggy dog story: they never do lay eyes on the Scar, we never learn what the Lovers intended to do with its power of potentiality. I was still satisfied with it, though. As I see it, this is the one universe that can make sense: in all the other ones where they entered the Scar, Bellis and her letter could never have returned. This way, at least we get a second-hand glimpse of what it offers.

The political dimension to the book was fascinating. I really dug the eventual inversion of the putative threat the Grindylow pose to New Crobuzon. I doubt that it was specifically intended as an allegory, but it's all too familiar to those who have seen America go forth and destroy in order to develop infrastructure and expand markets. Likewise, the maintenance of the Malarial Queendom as a sort of rump state protected by an external force felt oddly realistic.

Magic in this novel generally felt more vibrant and useful than in Perdido Street Station, where it was generally unreliable and costly. That said, we don't see much of it. I do really like the sense that magic (or thaumaturgy or whatever) is another branch of natural philosophy, something that people are studying and grasping in the same way that they are grasping principles of steam power and oil drilling.


This was a huge book, and I feel like I should say more about it, but I think that'll do me for now. This series continues to be a weird, dark, compelling place to visit, and each time I finish one of these books I'm grateful again to not live there.

Thursday, March 08, 2018

So Long

Life is Strange has had a significant impact on me. Not just as a piece of art that I admire, not just as a story that I think about a lot, but as something that has caused me to reflect on my own life and start making changes to become the person I want to be. So, I've felt a mix of anticipation and sorrow at the approach of Farewell, the final installment that closes out the extended first season and the story of Max and Chloe.

MINI SPOILERS (for Farewell, Mega for Life Is Strange)

As the series moves further along, we go further back in time. Before the Storm showed Chloe's transformation from moody teen into confident rebel, and Farewell shows her happier childhood. I was expecting this episode to be very nostalgic, and it definitely is: seeing these two people again, the seeds of what they will become, spending more time in a house that has come to mean so much. What I wasn't expecting, though, was for the episode to be internally nostalgic as well. Most of the episode is focused on Max and Chloe exploring their own childhood, looking back at a still-earlier period when they were younger but already had a strong bond. We are delighted to watch their own delight, looking at them as they look at themselves, in sort of Matryoshka arrangement.

Whenever making prequels, there's a huge risk of leaning too heavily on foreknowledge, winking to an audience that attaches more significance to something than the characters do. Whether it's Palpatine telling Anakin that he'll watch his career with great interest, or Gandalf advising Legolas to visit a young ranger, these can feel like cheap ways to capitalize on existing sentiment in order to pull up a new work. Farewell has ample opportunity for this sort of thing, especially given its construction, but avoids the problem, feeling very genuine and rooted. I tensed a little when Max picks up William's camera, knowing how important it will be in the future; but it's actually integrated into the story, becoming a significant element of the playthrough. And seeing the key photo of Max and Chloe in the kitchen is obviously moving, but Max breezes right past without calling special attention to it. These things can just be, and we can appreciate their presence.

I'd been looking forward to spending more time with the young Chloe, before her life turned so hard. I expected her to be different, a bit lighter and more innocent. That's true, but I was surprised to see that Max is different as well: perhaps not as dramatically changed as Chloe, but she's notably more confident and brave than the version of Max we see in the original Life is Strange. When her quest takes her into the dark, spider-filled attic, she's excited to go in there, even all by herself, where the later Max would almost certainly have been more hesitant.

Seeing that reinforced to me how the their separation was also traumatic for Max. Not to the same extent as Chloe, but being relatively less painful does not mean it wasn't the worst thing to have happened in Max's life. Max also lost her own best friend, and lived through years of guilt, and withdrew into a shell of tentative isolation. Seeing this earlier version of Max, I can see how easily she could have ended up as alternate-timeline Max from Episode 3: a fun, outgoing, social young woman. We're all a product of our genes, our environment, and our actions. I think we tend to think of people (and ourselves) as immutable expressions of a single personality, but that personality came from somewhere, and needn't be set in stone.

I mentioned way back in my initial post on the first game that Max's story had rekindled some ancient feelings of guilt, and I felt those even harder during this episode. Like Max, I moved away to another state while I was growing up, and I keenly recalled the anxiety of informing a very good friend of my impending departure. I think it was unusual for me to feel that sort of responsibility at that age, to recognize an obligation I had to deliver external news that was difficult for both of us. I think I did a slightly better job, at least at first, at keeping in touch and maintaining the relationship; but I'm also recognizing how difficult that must have been on the other side, to partially lose someone during formative years. Though I suppose all years are formative, but teenage years seem more formative than most.


There aren't a whole lot of choices in Farewell - you're mostly just along for the ride - but the most emotionally difficult one for me came near the end, when you and Chloe are discussing the move. I chose the dialogue option like "I'll write and call you all the time", which felt both necessary and devastating. As a player, I know that Max won't live up to this, that she's going to abandon Chloe, and I feel awful that I'm giving her false hope. But it's still what I want to be true, and these seem to be the words that Chloe needs to hear in the moment.

It gets even harder after that. I don't think I'd fully registered the fact that this episode takes place later on the very same day as the time-travel encounter in Episode 3, which means that it's also the day that William dies. It's so sad to listen to Max's heartfelt voice message to Chloe on the tape recorder. Max is so emphatic, so determined, so loving. Chloe needs this so badly, clutching to it desperately. And it all goes away. Chloe will be left with nothing but her own pain.

The moral of the story, of course, is Bae > Bay. After Chloe has been abandoned so badly and lived through a life of broken promises, I'd do anything to make amends. And not just out of sympathy for her: you can see throughout this episode that their affection goes both ways, that Max needs Chloe just as much as Chloe needs Max. Whether Chloe stretches out on the couch or Max takes her hands, you see all sorts of ways that they connect, support one another, make each other better. The overriding legacy of Before the Storm continues to be further affirmation of my initial decision at the end of Life is Strange.


There aren't many photos in this post because I didn't take any screenshots while playing. I picked up a Steam Link a while ago specifically to be able to play these games in my living room. It's... kind of bad? I bought it on sale for $5 so I shouldn't complain, but it won't even turn on most of the time and requires constant fiddling to fix. But when it runs it's pretty nice, and lounging on the couch is a really nice way to play such a low-key game like this. The one downside is that I lose access to my treasured F12 key for taking screenshots, so I only grabbed a handful of shots while in Collector Mode while writing this post, and they aren't really personal.

That's fine, though. Farewell is by far the most linear episode in the series, with no major branching choices and few roleplaying options. I became rather attached to my personalized Chloe in Before the Storm, but I think that every players' Max will be fairly similar to one another.

The game is pretty short. I was a completionist, looking at everything, and spent time relaxing during the moments of calm, and I think it took me just over two hours to finish. The gameplay is simple, with few real choices and straightforward mechanics; there's a single straight-up puzzle to solve, which is fun and well-done.

All that said, I absolutely and unreservedly recommend paying for the Deluxe upgrade to buy this episode. It's such a beautiful, well-crafted, graceful bookend to the series.

I'm not sure yet which bookend it is, though. I increasingly think that I'll recommend new players start with Before the Storm prior to Life is Strange, but I'm not sure yet whether to recommend Farewell prior to BtS or after Episode 5. It works so well in both ways: as a greeting and an introduction to these people we'll come to love, or as a goodbye and a reminder of what they have meant to us. Regardless, it's an addition to the series that has already come to feel essential to me.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Always Dead in the Castle

There are authors who I love and whose work I relentlessly devour, and there are authors who I love despite having only read a small amount of their output. Shirley Jackson belongs to the latter category. I greatly enjoyed The Lottery and The Haunting of Hill House, and dove into We Have Always Lived in the Castle after being reminded of her in a New Yorker article.

What a great book! It's a fast, propulsive read, with one of the most compelling narrators I've encountered recently. It isn't supernatural like The Haunting of Hill House, but achieves a somewhat similarly creepy vibe: more of a psychological thriller than a ghost story.


I knew this book was going to be good from page one. It starts with what has quickly become one of my all-time favorite opening paragraphs.

My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.

Isn't that great?! I love how the writing sort of slides downward as it continues. Reading this for the first time, the line about a werewolf made me stop short, re-parse, go back, and eventually go "Ohhhh... this is an interesting person we're hearing from!"

Merricat is fascinating. She isn't unreliable in the traditional sense, but she has a very well-defined psychological profile. Particularly in the early chapters, she's primarily distinguished by her misanthropic outlook, which is vast and deep.

Merricat sees herself and her family as the persecuted victims, but you can see a broader cycle of hate at work. The village treats Merricat awfully, taunting her and shunning her and physically blocking her. Given her hateful interior monologue, though, I imagine that Merricat is probably glaring and scowling at everyone she meets: even though she doesn't act out against them, her attitude likely eggs them on. You can easily imagine her as a straightforward villain in another story, even though we're inclined to view her sympathetically in her own.

The novel is filled with little rituals and tokens, mostly objects to which Merricat attaches some powerful significance. This starts out fairly commonplace, with a long meditation on a particular pattern of cracks outside a specific house, which Merricat has avoided stepping on ever since her childhood. That feels familiar, the kind of nonsensical but still diligently-observed behavior that young children exhibit. But she goes far beyond that: nailing books to trees in order to keep out unwanted visitors, burying silver dollars in the river to ensure her family's health, smashing glass or mirrors to damage hostile spirits.


That's, uh, not normal, especially for an adult of eighteen. Which raises the question for me: has Merricat always been like this? That's probably the best explanation, which also covers her behavior in The Incident, but I'm not sure if we have enough information within the novel to know for sure. I can imagine her maybe being only slightly peculiar as a child, and sliding further into it after the stresses of living in the orphanage and dealing with any mental backlash from her actions.

Along with the rituals, Merricat seems to have a set of rules that she is "not allowed" to do. At first I thought that this meant Constance forbade her from doing those things. That seemed a little odd, though, since Constance is habitually pleasant and indulgent. I now think that these are interior rules that Merricat creates herself, perhaps for self-preservation of her mental and physical safety, but then externalizes to an outside authority to keep herself from breaking them. Once she has decided that something is "not allowed," she will not be moved from the ban, even though she's the one who created it in the first place.

And what is Constance's deal? She doesn't seem "normal" either, although she is a lot easier to like than Merricat. She may have also had a slide, starting out fairly normal and retreating after the anxiety of the trial. It's really interesting to see how she and Merricat complement one another: given Constance's warmer personality, it would make more sense for her to be the public face of the Blackwoods; but because she bears the blame for what happened, Merricat carries out that awful role. They protect one another and care for each other deeply, which forms a sweet heart of the novel, but also... I dunno. Is it good and healthy for them to shut out the outside world? Maybe it is!

Visitors like Helen Clarke and Charles Blackwood do seem to make reasonable arguments: that it's time to move on, that the sisters need to re-engage with the world. Helen seems well-meaning but useless. Charles, of course, has a more sinister sheen, and it's interesting to unpack who he actually is from Merricat's perception. Obviously he isn't a devil or a ghost. What is his goal? My assumption is that he wanted to mooch from and/or defraud them, given his obsession with money and possessions. But he doesn't seem to be making a big play, and spends most of his time and attention on small items instead of the overall estate. It is curious that he gave up the pursuit so soon after the fire. I don't know if he was just scared off, or if he wasn't all that motivated to start with, or what.

Charles makes an effort early on at winning them over, but the way he talks to Jonas about Merricat quickly becomes menacing and weird. Seeing that made me wonder whether mental illness runs in the Blackwood family. He doesn't have the excuse of trauma (that we know of) to explain his behavior, but he shares similar tendencies of paranoia and hostility, to which he adds manipulation and greed.

Along the same lines of inherited illness, I'd initially assumed that Julian was disabled as a result of the poisoning, but I now wonder if it preceded the incident. It would explain why Julian and his wife were living with them, the conversations about helping out and not being a burden. He seems to acknowledge that the arsenic has damaged him, but it might have broken something that was already bent.

The book gets really exciting for a couple of pages when Julian raises the idea that Merricat is dead. That doesn't make any sense given her trip to the village, but it made me consider various other possibilities. Maybe Constance is dead. Maybe only one sister survived and re-invented the other. I'm just as happy that this ended up not being the case, though. It's nice to keep this intense story grounded without reaching for supernatural complications.

The freakout of the villagers near the end was awful and terrifying. The scene of a roiling destructive mob reminded me of the lynching scene in To Kill a Mockingbird, although in this case the voice of reason arrived far too late and wasn't as good a voice as Atticus Finch. Of course, in the real world, hate mobs do immense harm and are rarely stopped at all. I admired the sisters for simply enduring this horrific persecution, even while their world is shattering around them and their lives permanently changed.

As the story reaches its conclusion, you can see the legend being created, being propagated. In a generation this will become "the house where the two witches live" or whatever, and villagers will continue their own rituals of offering sacrifices, because that's what has been done. And for all that Merricat wanted everything to remain the same, the world actually evolves in a way that's tolerable to them, perhaps even more so than before: they're left alone, and are still provided for.

I was pleasantly surprised that the book ultimately ends on a fairly upbeat, though still weird, note. That would be a horrible situation for me to be in, but they're able to find the good in it and hold on to what's important: each other. Shirley Jackson isn't exactly renowned for happy endings, but despite everything, Merricat and Constance ARE happy. This might be a tragedy to the rest of the world, but not for them.


I, uh, liked this book! It's surprisingly affecting, especially with such an odd protagonist at the center. Much of the mystery comes from parsing out the narrator's inner thoughts, which dovetails nicely with the exploration of dark attitudes surrounding her. It gripped me all the way through, and I suspect I'll remember Merricat for some time to come.

Monday, February 19, 2018

The Cost

I'm still thinking about Dietrich Bonhoeffer a lot. My dad recently recommended "Saints and Villains", a novelized biography by Denise Giardina, which I have greatly enjoyed reading. The writing is fine, and the story is excellent: his life is incredibly compelling to begin with, and she helps make it even more accessible and moving, portraying a believable inner life for him and exploring the moral struggles he faced while opposing the Nazi government.

I was struck by... well, a lot, but two things in particular stood out to me: Dietrich's consistency and his evolution. The first was exemplified by his steadfast and unwavering resistance to the racism and totalitarianism of Hitler's government. Even when the Nazi party was a fringe movement that nobody in his social circle was taking seriously, Bonhoeffer warned loudly and emphatically about the threat they posed. And he continued to fight against them: not only when those actions threatened his life and the lives of his loved ones, but even when he thought that his actions risked damning his eternal soul. (Giardina includes many lines from Bonhoeffer's own speeches and writings within the text, but I was reminded of one that doesn't appear here, "When a man takes guilt upon himself in responsibility, he imputes his guilt to himself... Before other men he is justified by dire necessity; before himself he is acquitted by his conscience, but before God he hopes only for grace".)

But while he was politically constant, he was personally and theologically in flux. He wasn't an especially committed or passionate believer early in life: he decided to study theology because its intellectual rigor appealed to him, not because it spoke to his innermost feelings. Well into his adult life, he didn't think of himself as an especially religious person. As shown here, and backed up by his biography, he had a sort of spiritual awakening during his time in Manhattan and Harlem: first by connecting with the African-American church, and then through seeing how his fellow-seminarians were engaging with the world around him to combat poverty, injustice, and bigotry. Suddenly, theology was not merely an abstract system to analyze: it was an urgent call to action, a clear demand for how Christians should behave in this world.

This is one area where the novel takes a few liberties, coloring in details that (to the best of my knowledge) aren't supported by his biography but are in keeping with what we know of his thoughts and actions. Dietrich did explore America, borrowing a car and driving with friends to Mexico and back. In the novel, this includes a longish interlude in Appalachia, where he witnesses an even more brutal form of the anti-black racism that already appalled him in Manhattan. These incidents don't occur in a vacuum: Giardina portrays the systems of wealth and power that benefit from such oppression, and throughout the novel sympathetically portrays the socialist activists who seek to dismantle those systems, whether in the Old World or the new. Dietrich doesn't directly join their ranks, but is moved by all they show him, and evolves his scholarship to accommodate the wider world he finds.

It's very tempting for Americans to point with horror at all that occurred in the Third Reich, and Giardina doesn't shy away from that horror, but I'm really glad that she shows how the United States actually influenced Nazi racial policy. At the time of Dietrich's visit to America, our own laws were far crueler than anything he had seen: from the codified white supremacy of Jim Crow to the genocide of Native Americans, we were much more discriminatory and hateful to our own citizens than the vaguely multicultural Weimar Republic. It's very believable that Dietrich's witnessing of our strict segregation primed him to be alert when those ideas began to be espoused by the fascists: when everyone else dismissed Hitler as a loudmouth who didn't mean what he said, Dietrich clearly and forcefully denounced the ideology and where it was heading.

Bonhoeffer does admirable things, but, contrary to what you might think from the title, he isn't a saint. I loved how Giardina focused on his humanity, showing the many imperfections of the man. He came from a very privileged life, had the luxury to pursue whatever career interested him, and throughout his life was attached to his comforts: his cigarettes, fine food, classical and jazz music. He wasn't a revolutionary by nature, and wasn't especially brave, but I think that makes it all the more impressive that he did the right thing. Someone who feels intense fear and has a lot to lose, but still does it anyways, can be more compelling than someone who is afraid of nothing and has nothing left to lose.

His romantic involvements are another element that might raise an eyebrow. On paper, I was a bit skeptical of the invention of Elisabeth: it sounded like it was trying to give a more personal reason for Dietrich to oppose anti-Semitism and eventually help smuggle Jewish victims out of Germany, instead of just doing it because it was right. As the story unfolded, though, I was happy with how their relationship ended up. Elisabeth is ultimately more important for the window she opens on the Jewish experience, not for her influence on Dietrich. He lives in a more rarefied social circle and, apart from his brother-in-law, doesn't have much insight into the gradually intensifying prejudice faced by this group. Elisabeth shows how insidious and gradual the growth of anti-Semitic policy was, and also how... almost banal it could be. She doesn't even consider herself Jewish at the start of the novel, since her family converted to Christianity generations ago, and those who meet her don't question her identity. By the end, the Nazi obsession with racial purity has her wearing a yellow star and hiding out in a nearly-abandoned apartment building. She helps turn the abstract into the concrete, connecting Dietrich's moral principles to a physical reality.

The real-life situation with Maria seemed to be handled well. Giardina doesn't wave away or excuse the oddness of this situation, where Dietrich became engaged to (but apparently was never physical with) a woman half his age. Again, she focuses on the humanity of the people involved. Dietrich comes off as a bit smitten, a bit confused, a bit cerebral, and, near the end, a little desperate. Maria is young, vulnerable, romantic, optimistic, trusting, and, near the end, filled with pity. I thought it was a very good choice to focus on Maria. She's one of the very few viewpoint characters in this story, and, though that special insight, we can track her own evolution of feeling and the brave decisions she makes as the novel nears its end.


It's clear for some time that Alois Bauer will be involved in Dietrich's inevitable death. I don't think I ever quite clicked with what Bauer was doing or who he was supposed to be. Given his chapter titles, it seems that he's intended to be Bonhoeffer's doppelganger, but I'm not sure what that means. They have different backgrounds: Bonhoeffer is aristocratic, Bauer bourgeois. They have different personalities: Dietrich is generally quiet and thoughtful, Bauer more impassioned and assertive. They have vastly different outlooks on life: Dietrich is a Christian with a deep belief in God that guides his actions, Bauer is an agnostic and motivated by his self-interest. Their roles, of course, diverge tremendously, with Bonhoeffer diligently trying to bring down the Third Reich with any means at his disposal while Bauer, until the end, works tirelessly to strengthen and spread it. Anyways, given all that, and the fact that they don't seem to look alike, I'm curious what aspect would make them seem to be doppelgangers.

I'm also not sure what to make of Bauer's love of Mozart, which seems to be very significant given the section titles and his recurring obsession with the manuscript. It does make for a somewhat interesting contrast with Bonhoeffer's love of Bach, especially if you look towards their originators: Mozart is more remembered for breaking norms and advancing himself, while Bach focused more on praising the divine. Anyways... was the music intended to humanize Bauer, to emphasize that Nazis were also people with passions of their own and not just mindless murdering robots? Is it just supposed to define him more as a character, give him a quirk to differentiate him from the various other less-important Nazis? Or what?

Even knowing how the story must end, I thought the plotting near the end was done extremely well. You can't help but hope that the assassination attempts against Hitler will succeed, even knowing that they failed. There's an agonizingly long lull as Bonhoeffer languishes in Tegel prison. And, as Bauer closes in on him, it seems to move in one direction, and then lurches in another, with a cruel promise of escape for Dietrich right before the conclusion.

I was surprised by just how emotional I felt at the end. I'd enjoyed reading the book and revisiting the story, but also felt a certain distance. The last page, though, hit me really hard, and it's still kind of reverberating for me.


Difficult times reveal just how extraordinary people can be. If Bonhoeffer had been around before the Great War or after the Marshall Plan, he would have written some good theology (maybe more than he did, thanks to a much longer life) and spoken out against injustice. But because evil was so strong and so visible in his lifetime, he had the opportunity to make a far bigger impact. And so he did: not because it was in his nature, but because he felt compelled to do so, and pursued his mission wholeheartedly. This book reinforces Bonhoeffer's status as one of my heroes, and I'm glad to have a perspective that breathes new life into the man and his story.

Monday, January 29, 2018


This is my final wrap-up post on CalFree in Chains. The campaign has been live for a little over a month now, and I thought it might be interesting to look at the metrics around its performance so far. I'm sure there's a little ego involved, but my main motivation is to provide data that might help other content creators who are evaluating whether to spend time making their own campaigns on this platform.

In this post I'll frequently refer back to my post-launch analysis of The Caldecott Caper. That game was launched just a few months after Shadowrun Hong Kong came out, back when there was more marketing for the official game but before it started going on sale. There are now more players who own Hong Kong (potential subscribers), but probably fewer folks actively playing it at any given time.

First of all, the top-line numbers:

38 days is a weird figure, that just happened to be the delay before my Caldecott post, and I wanted to use the same value here for an apples-to-apples comparison. I am shocked that the number of subscribers is so close to Caldecott's; that must be very encouraging to anyone considering releasing additional content. Regardless of how many people are playing Hong Kong, it looks like there's still an appetite for playing new UGC campaigns more than two years after the official game was released. If that's the case, there's a slight chance that the potential audience could even be larger in the future, as more budget gamers pick up Hong Kong and look for more content.

I had anticipated that CFiC would receive far fewer subscribers due to the lower profile of Hong Kong, and I was mostly curious whether it would be "slightly fewer" or "far fewer". It may have helped that Caldecott was well-received; I have more people watching me on Steam now than I did when I released Caldecott, and I've heard from a few people who specifically re-installed Hong Kong because they enjoyed Caldecott and wanted to try the new campaign (quite a compliment!).

The subscriber graph for CFiC looks similar to the original one for Caldecott:

Caldecott's graph was close to flat throughout, actually accelerating a little after the first three weeks and then dipping down a little. CFiC had slightly stronger uptakes in the first 2 weeks before beginning to level off. I suspect that this may indicate that my more-assertive "marketing" actually had some impact: I'd announced the game on Reddit and Steam several weeks before launch, as opposed to Caldecott which just dematerialized overnight, so some early adopters may have been primed to check it out early. That said, it doesn't seem to have made a huge difference in overall numbers, just slightly shifted around when various people discovered it.

Oh: it may also be worth noting that the numbers are fairly consistent across the two releases despite the change in "competition". Caldecott was released around the same time as the first wave of mods were arriving for Hong Kong, mostly balance and unofficial bugfix mods, and it only spent about a week in the featured mod slot (visible within the Steam client) before being shuffled off. The workshop is a bit quieter now, although with a couple of original campaigns releasing around the same time as mine. I think CFiC may have been in that featured slot for a bit longer, which I had assumed was the primary driver of traffic, but I don't have any metrics to support that.

And, finally, the deltas:

No huge surprises here. The biggest interest came early on, and has bounced around since then at a slightly lower level; from a quick eyeball, I'm gaining roughly 35 new subscribers a day, down from the roughly 80 daily over the first 2 weeks. As a reminder, the numbers at the end of these graphs always under-count the actual values.

And, just for fun, let's check in on how the earlier campaigns are doing!

It looks like The Caldecott Caper has picked up about 15,000 new subscribers in the approximately two years since we checked in last - not too bad! That's roughly eightfold growth since I stopped thinking about it. I'm really curious how this compares to commercial games; I tend to think that those titles, especially AAA entries, sell the most in the first few months, but Caldecott has chugged along slowly and steadily.

Speaking of which, give me those deltas:

As I'd predicted before, there was a big spike when the Hong Kong mini-campaign was released, which turned out to be by far my biggest one-day gain, as well as driving more subscriptions in the following weeks (presumably as returning players wrapped up that campaign and went looking for more content). There are a couple of other spikes in there that are mysteries to me: Jan 17 2017 and May 7 2017 also saw big surges in views and subscribers, but I can't think off hand what could have caused those; I wonder if I may have overlooked some Let's Plays or media snippets or something. Oh! Actually, now that I think about it, it's more likely that these were times when Hong Kong went on sale. I think I've seen upticks in comments on my campaigns in the weeks after a major discount, and it makes sense that those would correspond with those subscriber counts.

It doesn't look like my interminable blogging drove any traffic to Caldecott, which is fine and understandable: that wasn't a motivation in doing this. It does seem like the release of CFiC incentivized more people to download Caldecott, which is cool and interesting: far more people played Caldecott and then followed that with CFiC (which makes sense for all sorts of reasons), but it looks like at least a few people are going in the other direction, or hearing about CFiC and deciding to try Caldecott for the first time.

Caldecott has a long tail, but it's definitely tapering down. It looks like it's currently gaining around 25-30 subscribers per day; in the quiet time before CFiC was released, it was averaging around 15-20. If that continues around the lower end of the range, I might acquire around 7,000 additional subscribers per year going forward.

Finally, let's look back one last time at Antumbra Saga, where this all began.

Those are big numbers, and I don't think the later games will ever overtake it. Even though you could argue that The Caldecott Caper is objectively better (I'll note its 99% favorable rating, as opposed to Antumbra Saga's dismal 96%), I think that the larger Dragonfall install base and the earlier enthusiasm for mods will ensure it continues to rule the numbers. And it isn't just due to early spiking, either. Here's the lifetime graph:

As a reminder, Antumbra Saga is actually just a collection of existing mods for Shadowrun Returns, with some updates to run properly in the Dragonfall engine. Because I only had to update existing stuff, I released it pretty soon after Dragonfall Director's Cut came out, and caught a wave of people playing the official game. Even since then, though, the week-over-week growth on Antumbra is almost always bigger than on Caldecott. Here's a zoomed-in view of the past month:

Here, my average is around 30 new subs per day, which matches the highs of Caldecott.

So, what's the take-away? If your primary goal is to reach as many players as possible, you're probably better off modding Dragonfall instead of Hong Kong. It has more players, it has a lot of Workshop interest, and even older mods are doing better on there. (That said, it doesn't seem to be a huge difference, so you won't penalize yourself too badly if you'd prefer to take advantage of the superior Hong Kong engine and assets.)

And now, let's take a quick visit to the parallel universe of Nexus Mods:

The numbers for CFiC seem a bit better than the launch of Caldecott, but it doesn't really matter: I'm maybe averaging about 5 downloads a day for CFiC, versus around 4 a day at the launch of Caldecott. The values are so low that I hesitate to draw any conclusions from them, it's all just statistical noise.

The numbers get a bit more meaningful over longer periods of time; I can't yet analyze CFiC, but Caldecott now has enough data to be potentially useful. Here's a graph showing monthly downloads of Caldecott since it was released.

It's surprisingly consistent over time. As with Steam, the first peak came after the release of the official expansion Shadows of Hong Kong. I think the second peak may have come after I removed the "Not Safe for Work" tag; I'd initially set it based on a strict interpretation of the Nexus TOS, but after further reflection realized that it didn't really apply to the mod. Removing the tag allows it to appear in more places in the Nexus. Since then, I've been averaging roughly 3 downloads a day. Nothing huge, but Nexus users tend to be polite and supportive, so I haven't minded the effort of maintaining parallel versions.

And here are top-level stats for Caldecott:

Ever since my very first mods back in 2013, I've been seeing about 10x as much engagement in Steam as on Nexus, and that continues to be true in 2018. However, Nexus players are about twice as likely to endorse my campaign as Steam players are to rate it.

So! This will probably be my last-ever blog post on my Shadowrun stuff. It's been a really fun run! I've deeply enjoyed experiencing every stage of these mammoth projects, from pie-in-the-sky brainstorming to nitpicky bugfixing and data analysis. Seeing numbers like this is very encouraging: it's hard to evaluate "real" users that partially overlap across three (or six!) titles on two different portals, but my best guess is that somewhere in the neighborhood of 50,000 people have at least downloaded at least one of my campaigns. That isn't bad! If and when I move on to doing something else, it will be very encouraging to know that there's a group of folks out there who have enjoyed my work in the past, and at least a portion of them might follow me to future projects.