Wednesday, December 28, 2016


This is highly unorthodox for the blog, but Life Is Strange has been nominated for a Steam Award, which gives me an excuse to (a) urge my dozens of readers to vote for it, and (b) sneak in yet another post about this game before the end of the year.

The category, appropriately enough, is "I'm Not Crying, There's Something In My Eye". Voting is restricted to Wednesday, December 28, so please do your civic duty!

I don't think I've mentioned this before, but Episode 1 (of 5) is free on Steam, so if you haven't played it yet, this is a great time to check it out! The first episode isn't quite as amazing as the later ones, but it still gets off to a nice start, introducing the characters and the fantastic atmosphere. And, the remaining episodes are a crazy 75% off for the remainder of the Steam Sale (through January 1st), meaning you can pick up the whole series for five bucks. (Also in Steam sale news: all of the HBS Shadowrun games are 75%+ off.)

Also, I wanted to share something I found online: the Life is Strange Lake Level. Created by a fan named Sbel02, it's a lovely little bit of non-canon content. It doesn't have any real gameplay, but is a wonderful opportunity to relax, wander, and see old friends again. You can download it here (Windows only, about half a gigabyte big). I even made an album for it!

Monday, December 26, 2016


I have finally succeeded in my long-running quest to "find another book like The Steerswoman's Road". I've previously found other good books, but Hellspark is the first one that has satisfied my particular craving for a certain type of story: humanistic, adventurous, creative, drawing real drama and excitement from the advancement of knowledge instead of just focusing on conflicts.


This book does many things, but its biggest interest is with language, and I think it probably has the most interesting, in-depth treatment of language of any novel I've read. The one other contender is Anathem, which is more concerned about the evolution of a single language over time; Hellspark goes back to first principles, looking at the fundamental elements of a language and, more significantly, how language is tied to culture, and how translation is a matter of cultural exchange at least as much as a deciphering process.

Hellspark is straight-up science fiction, set in a galaxy filled with various races, homeworlds, and institutions. One problem that any such sci-fi setting needs to solve is how these aliens will communicate with one another. Typically this is handled with a "universal translator" or "common tongue" or something similar: a little bit of hand-waving that establishes that each of these different species have evolved with their own unique native language, but technology is able to allow everyone to understand everyone else.

Janet Kagan isn't having any of that. Even here on Earth, the same words and gestures can carry radically different meanings in different countries. Does extending two fingers in a V symbolize "Peace," "Victory," or an obscenity? Does "quite" mean "very" or "not"? Anyone who has learned a foreign language has found with chagrin that idioms do not carry across, and politeness does not just require uttering the requisite syllables, but learning and adopting the local customs: that might require voice modulations, or a certain type of eye contact, or accompanying gestures. And we are all homo sapiens who have grown up on the same planet! Just imagine how much more difficult such exchange would be for truly alien species from diverse solar systems!

The Hellspark universe reminds me a little of the Federation in Star Trek, with general comity between the various intelligent races, common mores and traditions that cover their interaction, and a legal framework for conducting business and resolving disputes. Among other things, they have developed a new artificial language called GalLing. (I suspect this is an abbreviation for Galactic Lingo.) It's a sort of lowest-common-denominator language, consisting only of phonemes that every known race is capable of producing. Because it's a second language to everyone, it doesn't come freighted with the cultural overtones and baggage of every other language. And so, even if two different people each speak one another's language, they'll often choose to converse in GalLing, since it drastically lowers the risk that they'll accidentally cause offense.

One of the major exceptions is Tocohl Susumo, the fantastic protagonist of the novel (who has some great Rowan-like characteristics). She is a Hellspark, a culture that's primarily oriented around trading; as such, they are uniquely focused on learning every other culture's language and mores so they can fully engage in trade with them. The Hellspark have their own language, which is kind of an opposite of GalLing: it is sort of a least-common multiple of all other languages, incorporating all of the sounds and acts of other species. That includes aspects like physical proximity and positioning, which are subconscious in most cultures but can carry immense emotional significance. By speaking everyone else's language all the time, the Hellspark are particularly adept at interacting with the rest of the galaxy.

This book is nearly thirty years old, but reading about cross-cultural interactions reminded me of the recent debate over trigger warnings and safe spaces. In the galactic consensus, it's expected that those who initiate a conversation will proactively humble themselves, using a language that the other party will understand (which may be GalLing, their native tongue, or some other language that both parties know), and, more importantly, observing the taboos of the other culture. That often means modifying behavior or avoiding certain constructions; for example, you would never ever call a Jenji a liar, or tell an Yn your real name. This isn't an arbitrary custom or a way to make people feel good about themselves: it's simply a good procedure to ensure that everyone is able to participate in the exchange.

I'm not sure if Kagan wrote any other novels set in this universe, but I was really impressed at her world-building here. I've noticed that, in most sci-fi or fantasy franchises that include a variety of cultures/races/nations, the first entry will have an assortment of characters, often one from each source, and each will, in retrospect, be a typical exemplar of that culture. So, in Dragon Age, Sten is an archetypal Qunari, Leliana a definitive Orlesian, Isabela the quintessential Rivaini, and so on; in Star Trek, Spock is a representative Vulcan, Worf a representative Klingon, and so on. In later entries, they may eventually introduce additional characters who vary from or rebel against the established norm. Hellspark more or less follows that trend, but I was really happy to see exceptions called out. For example, we only meet one Yn, layli-layli calulan, but Tocohl and Maggy explicitly point out that she is untypical for her culture. There's still a lot that they can assume about her actions and thoughts based on her background, but she is more of a wild card and less predictable than the rest of the survey team due to her status as an outlier. Anyways, that felt realistic to me - most people will generally fit within their cultural parameters, but not everyone does, and those variations make the universe feel broader and realer, even if we aren't yet intimately familiar with the standards they're rebelling against.

The novel employs a surprisingly large cast of characters, all the more impressive since everyone has such a distinct name, style of speech, and personal characteristics. Tocohl and Alfvaen get the most page time and are most vividly drawn, but there's a very deep and solid bench. My overall favorite supporting character was Om im, who claims a position as Tocohl's bodyguard, and has a fantastic sense of humor that infuses everything he does and elevates all of his interactions with others. He's a short, quippy, bright guy who you always want to cheer on. Buntec was another character I loved: her cocky talent and delightfully profane mode of speaking were always a joy. I particularly enjoyed her relationship with Edge-of-Dark. They are practically foes at the opening, but after Tocohl's clever interventions, they find a way to grow close; it's emotionally affecting, even more so once their bond becomes strong enough for each of them to embrace the very features that once drove them apart.

Okay, but my real favorite character is probably Maggy, the artificial intelligence. Kagan does such a great job at portraying her as child-like, with all the best aspects that implies: curious, optimistic, eager, sometimes impatient. She's still believable, with Tocohl's explanation of her core programming and vast memory banks. (As a side note, though, one amusing artifact of this book being written in the 1980s is the frequent use of "tape" as a verb meaning "to record".) You really come to cheer for her, more than probably any other character, as she becomes forced to act independently, relying on all of her prior experiences with Tocohl but making her own decisions on how to proceed.


Overall, the investigation for sapient life on Lassti is probably the "A" plot of the book, while the story of Maggy's evolution is the "B" plot. Relegated to near the bottom is the mystery angle, determining who or what killed Oloitokitok and dealing with a dangerous plot threatening the survey team. It's well-written, but I'm really glad that it isn't the main plot. It's so refreshing to have the story be primarily driven by curiosity and diplomacy rather than revenge. The scenes where Tocohl finally cracks the secret of the Sprookje's language, leading up to the final exchange of gifts and development of pidgin, are some of the most joyous things I've read. It awakens a hunger in me to seek out more.


Sadly, Janet Kagan passed away a few years ago. She doesn't seem to have been especially prolific, but her other works have also been well-reviewed and I'm strongly tempted to check them out. I was surprised to see that one of the few other books she wrote was Uhura's Song, a Star Trek novel. That seems a little silly, but also kind of perfect: in retrospect, Hellspark reminded me of the best of Star Trek: The Next Generation and its values: peace, negotiation, diplomacy, science, culture, creativity, knowledge, love. More of this science fiction, please!

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Six Foot Eight, Weighs a Freaking Ton

For the last couple of months I've been gradually making my way through Ron Chernow's biography of George Washington. Much like his Hamilton biography, it's really long, but very readable and well-written, restoring the drama and excitement of their lives while also offering fully-developed and nuanced perspectives on their lives and shortcomings. This weekend I plowed through the last couple of hundred pages so I could turn it back into the library before heading out on vacation.

I picked it up specifically because of the Chernow connection. His Hamilton biography is one of my favorite books - as lifelong Hamilton devotee, I eagerly devoured it upon release, and even tracked down Ron Chernow for a signed copy when he swung through Kansas City on a book tour way back in 2004. In contrast, I've never been particularly curious about George Washington, who had seemed like the most boring of the founding fathers. I'm not really interested in military history, and he isn't as personally colorful as Benjamin Franklin, or as intellectually exciting as Alexander Hamilton. I'm sure this is also at least partially due to my hipster-ish reaction against popularity: if he's the most famous founder, I'm less likely to seek him out.

But, of course, Washington's life is still familiar to me. I'm pretty sure that I've never read a straight biography of him before, even in my childhood, but through sheer osmosis and history classes and everything I've absorbed a ton of fragments about the man. One of the most surprising aspects of this biography was, for the first time, having all those fragments assembled into a whole: I often found that, while I thought I knew things, they actually meant something different than I had assumed. And there were still a lot of elements of his life that I'd never known about before. Altogether, I ended up with a significantly elevated respect for and admiration of this guy, and have to semi-grudgingly admit that he had earned and deserved the immense acclaim he has received.

As one particular example of re-learning something: I'd been vaguely aware that he had earned early military fame for his service in the French and Indian War. I hadn't realized that he had basically single-handedly started the war (which became the Seven Years War in Europe). As in many of his military outings, he had made several questionable decisions and bungled operations, including choosing a poor site to defend ("Fort Necessity") and killing an ambassador carrying a diplomatic message. But despite his strategic and tactical failings, he earned the admiration and loyalty of those around him: he led by example, displayed great personal physical prowess, worked hard to improve his troops, supported his officers, and generally was a good leader. And the dude was only twenty-two years old! That seems to be a recurring theme of the founding generation: just how incredibly young these people were when they started racking up huge accomplishments. One of Chernow's main objectives in this book is to obliterate the stiff image of Washington we've inherited from his most famous portraits, and restore the man as most of his contemporaries knew him: one of the most vigorous, graceful, and physically imposing men of his generation.

This definitely isn't a hagiography. I was really glad to see that Chernow never allows Washington to escape the shadow of his role as a slaveowner. We learn about how he acquired his slaves, how he used them, his policies regarding them, how his opinions evolved over time. It isn't all shuffled off into a single chapter or endnotes, but a constant background presence. Even while Washington is away from Mount Vernon for a decade, leading the Continental Army, we're periodically reminded of his remote management of the estate, complete with instructions on how overseers should keep order and his obsession with pursuing runaways. I was also glad to see Chernow treating slaves as individual human beings and not as an anonymous mass of labor. We learn the names of many of the slaves, their personalities, their roles in the household, how George and Martha saw them. Slaves were often treated as invisible and not commented on, but when possible Chernow records their own words (often quoted by foreign visitors who were nonplussed at the institution).

George was relatively enlightened in contrast to the other Virginia planters of his era. He stopped buying slaves early on, refused to break up slave families, showed particular care and attention to slaves who had served him long; during the revolutionary war, his inner circle was dominated by abolitionists (John Laurens, Alexander Hamilton, the Marquis de Lafayette), and he came to personally view slavery as abhorrent. And yet, he never had the courage to actually take action and end it in his own estate, let alone in the country as a whole. His letters show that he felt trapped: he wanted to free his slaves, but couldn't continue to operate his estate without them. Of course, he could have given them up, but that would have meant sacrificing his reputation and comfort as a plantation-owner. By modern standards, it's pretty unconscionable to consider keeping hundreds of human beings in bondage so a handful can live a comfortable life; he doesn't seem to have even considered the possibility of deliberately becoming poor to accomplish his supposed goal. Only after his death did he free his slaves, and even then he stipulated that they would remain in bondage until Martha had passed.

Before Chernow became a celebrated chronicler of founding fathers, he was best-known as a biographer of businessmen, including well-received books about J. P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, and the Warburgs (none of which I have read). This background in finance has served him very well in his political biographies, particularly when describing the brilliance of Hamilton's financial plans and illuminating Washington's operations at Mount Vernon. Washington was a bit like a CEO: he oversaw far-flung operations across five farms through a hierarchy of overseers and laborers. He was extremely attentive, detail-oriented, requesting and monitoring a regular stream of supports, and issuing frequent advice and orders to advance his interests. As a physically vigorous man, he personally toured his holdings, and would lead by example, showing how to cut wood or thrash grain or other such tasks. And then he would spend hours reading reports, researching new agricultural methods, crafting plans for the coming years of operations.

Washington was a product of the Enlightenment and demonstrated a great interest in science and improvement. After several years of disappointing tobacco harvests, he came to understand how this crop depleted the soil, and restructured his farms to grow a variety of different plants. He took pleasure in architecting his own buildings, including the famed Mount Vernon mansion and a twelve-sided threshing barn, as well as innovative structures to take advantage of the Potomac fishery.

I've tended to think of his time at Vernon as a kind of intermission between the two wars he fought in, but Chernow shows how the abilities he honed during this time became invaluable in his later career. The skills in management and delegation and continual improvement were all incredibly useful when he gained responsibility for leading the entire army. This period also demonstrates one of Washington's best aspects: while he certainly made mistakes throughout his life, he very rarely made them twice. Unlike some other founders (Hamilton springs to mind) who repeatedly fell into the same traps, Washington would recognize when he had made a mistake, would feel deeply embarrassed, and then correct his future actions to ensure he wouldn't fall into it again. As a result, the course of his life becomes more admirable and successful over time. As a young man he could often seem ambitious, hotheaded, and careless; by the end, he had an enduring reputation as a humble, wise, deliberate man.

While reading this biography of the first American president, I couldn't help but make frequent comparisons to the last American president. In contrast to the president-elect, Washington's defining legacy was his sacrifice. He was one of the very wealthy men of Virginia, and willingly gave up the prime years of his life and his fortune to answer his country's call to serve. He refused to take a salary during the decade he served, and watched his personal fortune crumble. He never complained or sounded resentful: his devotion to the cause was so strong that (of course!) money seemed insignificant in comparison. He was also personally generous, providing for widows and orphans and veterans. While the nation heaped accolades on his head, he always seemed painfully embarrassed by the attention: not claiming glory for himself or talking about how great he was, he would always deflect such praise outward to his fellow citizens or upward towards Providence.

In light of current events, I was particularly struck by President Washington's address to a Jewish synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island. He personally visited this congregation, along with Thomas Jefferson and George Clinton, and said this:

All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States… gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance…  May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.
That's so great! To unpack that a bit:
  • All citizens have the same rights, regardless of your background or origin.
  • America isn't merely a country where religious minorities are "tolerated" by the majority. It's a country where every variety of faith is equally protected under the law.
  • The government will act to defend the rights of minorities against bigots who seek to persecute them.
  • America should be a country where everyone can live free of fear.
In our present time, when the incoming president has openly advocated creating a registry of religious minorities and refusing citizenship based on religious beliefs, it feels more important than ever to remember these words, particularly for the other children of the stock of Abraham.

(As a side note, this issue and address is also a great summary of the beliefs of Federalists such as Washington, who saw a vigorous central government as a defender of individual liberty. In contrast, the Republicanism of Thomas Jefferson, much like the Tea Partiers of today, advocated for a weaker or absent central government, which would allow majorities to impose their will upon minorities.)

Washington was a cryptic person in a lot of ways, and his religious beliefs are high on that list. I've tended to assume that he was a deist like Franklin or Jefferson, and his public stance on faith seemed to reinforce that. He never took communion, he spoke in vague religious terms like "Providence" and very rarely referenced Christ directly. However, Chernow finds quite a few reports that complicate this picture. Several people, when they came upon Washington unexpectedly (such as delivering an urgent military message), found him reading his bible, or on his knees praying. He seems to have had a strong personal religious faith, which he scrupulously hid from public view. Why? This certainly seems like a civic asset during his late-life political career, as he visited and supported a variety of churches without seeming to favor the establishment of any one particular denomination. But his religious reticence was a lifelong characteristic, and seems more deeply ingrained in him. We'll never know the answer, but it seems likely that he was balancing his personal conviction with Enlightenment ideals, and dividing his life into private and public spheres.

His romantic life is also a minor enigma, and, oddly, perhaps even more important to the history of the United States than his religious beliefs. He seems to have been impotent, which helped America overcome its fear of introducing a new hereditary monarchy and allowed him to establish a strong executive branch of government. His relationship with Martha seems to have been very fond and mutually agreeable, but not passionate. That doesn't mean that George wasn't a passionate man, though. He had very intense emotional relationships with other women, notably Sally Fairfax and Elizabeth Powel; it's unknown if he ever consummated those liaisons, but he maintained close connections with them even in the company of their husbands, and would often draft Martha in as well. I was a little reminded of the Angelica/Eliza/Alexander relationship, where there seems to have been a clear physical attraction, and the inclusion of the spouse in the relationship simultaneously heightens the level of mutual emotional connection while reducing the likelihood that any actual hanky-panky took place.

As he did with Eliza in the Hamilton biography, Chernow is great at fully fleshing out the women in Washington's lives. People like Martha were very self-effacing and didn't attract much attention, but he finds many great quotes that show how other people perceived her. (Short summary: Everybody loved her, nobody thought she was pretty.) Washington was kind of girl-crazy throughout his life; even in his sixties, he would note with delight in his diary how many women he saw at a reception or ball. He also seems to have been more relaxed with them, generally being more talkative and pleasant in female company than in male. He was especially fond of many of his friends' and officers' wives, including Caty Greene. He was devoted to his own adopted female children, especially Nelly Custis, breaking with tradition by educating them and giving them considerable freedom in pursuing their own desires. Betsey Custis in particular comes across as a very vibrant, independent, clever young woman. Patsy Custis, in contrast, is sweet but leads a tragic life.

The whole Washington/Custis situation is a bit confusing, but Chernow does a good job at laying out the tangled family tree. Washington himself came from a step-marriage, and tracing all the relations can be difficult. He ended up responsible for a ton of people, almost none of whom shared his blood; the main exception, his mother, was one of the more miserable and negative relations in his life. It also considerably complicated his personal financial picture: when he married the widower Martha, she held the immense Custis fortune, but George had no right to it. That wealth ended up being more of a burden than a benefit, as he was responsible for managing it for the benefit of his step-children. It might have contributed to his drive for conspicuous consumption, which cast him into debt at an early age; once again, though, he learned from his mistakes, and late in life he repeatedly urged his wards to frugality and exertion, to little apparent result.

The main quality of Washington that Chernow first identified in his Hamilton biography, and develops more thoroughly here, is his fantastic judgment. If each founding father has their own superpower, Washington's was definitely his uncanny ability to make the best decision. He wasn't a great original thinker, like Jefferson or Hamilton, but he was terrific at soliciting a range of opinions, carefully considering each one, and then would inevitably pick the best option. During the presidency, this usually meant following Hamilton's lead, but he also recognized whenever Hamilton was pulling too far or in the wrong direction and would gently rein him back in.

On a related note, Washington was also a fantastic judge of character. Even before he developed his great judgment, he had tremendous skill at identifying talented people, finding the tasks they were best suited for, and supporting them in their roles. Part of the fun of reading about the revolutionary war is the collection of oddballs and misfits that Washington assembled into an unlikely force that defeated the British empire. Colorful characters like Baron von Steuben, excitable foreigners like Lafayette, an obese bookseller like Knox, a bastard immigrant like Hamilton, and many others could have languished in obscurity, but were elevated by Washington into the perfect parts for them to play. The most inspiring story is probably that of Nathanael Greene, who started off as a private in the militia and ended as the major general in charge of the southern theater of the war; in the last several years of fighting, Greene actually won the war while Washington looked on from afar. Along the way, though, Greene made huge errors, most notably the catastrophic loss of Fort Lee. Almost any other commander in chief would have sacked Greene after this, but Washington saw Greene's huge potential: he not only kept him on, but provided steady encouragement, rebuilding his shattered confidence and gradually reintroducing him to larger commands. Washington was incredibly loyal to those around him, never throwing them under the bus or shifting blame onto subordinates for his (many) failures. His steadfastness, of course, earned their loyalty in return, and built the solid core of the army and the unified nation.

Washington could recognize talent, and also recognized the lack thereof. He had a pretty good sense for which shortcomings were quirks that could be accommodated and which were fatal flaws that should be shunned. He kept his distance from characters like Charles Lee and Thomas Conway, and was eventually vindicated by their failures. The only major exception I can think of is Benedict Arnold, whose treason blindsided Washington; to be fair, though, nobody else saw that coming either.

The political world proved much more treacherous and unpredictable than the military world, and Washington faced more determined opposition and backstabbing from Thomas Jefferson and James Madison than he ever received from the Conway Cabal. Both of these figures appear even more villainous here than they did in the Hamilton biography. In Jefferson's case, I think that's partly because of a greater pre-existing friendship between the two men, which makes TJ's machinations all the more odious. They were both wealthy Virginian planters who shared not only revolutionary ideals but also an interest in science and agriculture and frequently corresponded on both mundane and philosophical topics. Also, Jefferson happens to have been Washington's main enemy at the time that the latter died; Hamilton certainly had at least as much opposition to Jefferson, but by the time of Hamilton's death Burr had eclipsed Jefferson as the primary villain in his story.

In the Hamilton biography, James Madison's arc was probably the saddest story to me, even more so than the death of Laurens, Philip, or Alexander. Madison and Hamilton had such an incredibly fruitful partnership, accomplishing such amazing things together and doing more than anyone else to create the United States. It's so tempting to imagine a world where they continued their collaboration, with Madison shaping the legislative branch as Hamilton guided the executive. Instead, Madison fell back under the sway of Jefferson's influence, and ended up repudiating the very ideals for which he and Hamilton had fought, joining the Republicans in launching horrific slander against the still-fragile nation.

Madison comes across less sympathetically in the Washington biography. I think that's because we see so much more of his backstabbing. He and Hamilton had a very clean break: they were great friends until Hamilton presented his debt plan to Congress, then Madison rejected him and they were acknowledged political foes. In contrast, Washington continued to solicit advice from Madison throughout much of his presidency, and collaborated with him on a variety of issues, unaware that Madison was funneling private conversations to the Republican propaganda machine and organizing widespread opposition to the very issues Washington was soliciting help on.

That said, though, Madison is also the topic of what's probably my favorite anecdote in this entire book. Washington, never a talented public speaker, asked for Madison to write his inaugural address, so Madison ghostwrote it for him. Washington provided it to Congress in advance so they would be prepared for what he had to say. Unaware of the actual author, they then tapped Madison to draft the official congressional response to his own speech. And then, without knowing who had written the response, Washington asked Madison to write his reply. So, in this elaborate ceremony between the major branches of government, one dude was basically just talking to himself. I think that's hilarious.

One of my favorite aspects about this period of history, which continues to blow my mind, was how these people were creating a country and a government from scratch. There were literally zero employees when they started, no departments, no manuals, no customs or traditions, or even other democracies to model themselves after. The Constitution was a great document, but it was deliberately vague about how a lot of stuff was supposed to work. So much of what we now think of as inherent aspects of our government were semi-accidentally determined during those first couple of years as Washington and others made decisions. We have rules against prior restraint because the first Supreme Court justice didn't want to advise Washington on the legality of an action he wanted to take. The executive branch takes the lead in diplomacy and trade negotiations because Washington was peeved at the Senate for refusing to immediately vote on his appointments. The emergency powers of the executive branch were defined because there was an outbreak of yellow fever in Philadephia. And so on.

It was all so fragile. It's miraculous that the country survived, let alone thrived and became one of the most powerful in the world. We've had a pretty good 228 years... shame to see it come to an end, but the fact it's lasted this long is remarkable, and is a huge testament to the incredible intelligence, diligence, and sacrifice of the founding generation.

Friday, December 16, 2016

I Heard You Like Visual Novels

One of these days I'll get over Life Is Strange.

As it stands, though, it's felt more like something I need to work through rather than move on from. Usually, after I finish a video game or novel or movie, I'm left with a burst of thoughts and questions and reactions. That's a major function that this blog serves: to capture and help me process that response in the moment while it's fresh. As time goes on, my emotional and (ugh) intellectual ardor gradually fades. I'm left with a handful of major impressions, and head off to consume my next piece of entertainment.

Life Is Strange, though, is one of a handful of things that has actually grown more significant after I finished it. In the immediate aftermath of the final episode, I was primarily obsessed with the technical details of the plot and metaphysics: figuring out who did what, who was lying, how various powers worked, reconstructing the timeline(s), and so on. I've gotten to a point where I'm more or less satisfied with all that: finding an answer that satisfies me, or concluding that there is no definitive answer, and choosing to either leave it ambiguous or adopt a particular headcanon that appeals to me. With that out of the way, though, I find myself left with... feelings, and reflecting over the characters themselves: the situations they were in, their relationships with one another, what it meant for them, whether it means anything for me.

And, well, that isn't a problem that can be solved. I can see why so many people are still drawing fan-art and such more than a year after finishing the game. While the game itself comes to a definitive end, the characters are so fully-realized that we keep on thinking about them.

As noted before, I've slipped into a mode of "MOAR CONTENT!", devouring even tangentially-related Life Is Strange material. One item that has been on my radar for several weeks is "Love Is Strange." This is a free, fan-made game which has become very popular within the LiS community.

I was hesitant to check it out. I thought that it would suffer in comparison to the professional game it's based off of, and was worried that it might somehow diminish my appreciation for the source material. Fan-created games don't have a great track record... even finishing something at all is a minor miracle, and making something people will be happy with is an even greater challenge. Still, I noticed that a lot of my favorite artists and bloggers frequently referenced it, which encouraged me to take the plunge to download and play it.

I'm really glad that I did! While it explicitly pulls from Life is Strange, it very much feels like its own beautiful thing, and not some pale imitation. For starters, it's set in an alternate timeline (or AU as the kids are saying these days): the same characters exist and have the same personalities (very well captured and represented by the authors), but the events in Life is Strange never took place. Love is Strange takes place one year later, without any super-powers or crimes or drama. It's an appealing but very low-key storyline, essentially a dating simulator, that's almost entirely focused on Max's relationship with her classmates.

The game itself belongs to the genre called "visual novel", dialogue-heavy games with static images. I haven't played many of these before; the only ones I can think of off hand are Christine Love's fantastic Analogue/Hate games. As people who are better-informed than me have pointed out, Love has created games that are really clever subversions of and commentaries on the visual novel format; but since visual novels are primarily popular in Japan, and her games mainly reach a North American audience, a lot of what they're doing is lost on us. Anyways - I really liked the Love games, and that background helped me feel at home when playing Love Is Strange.

MINI SPOILERS (for both Love Is Strange and Life Is Strange)

They did a really good job of capturing the voices of the different characters; I could totally hear Ashley Burch's voice in my head while reading Chloe's lines, or Hannah Telle's interior monologue when reading Max's thoughts. The characters all make sense based on what we saw during the game; at the same time, they weave in new details and plot threads that keep things engaging and interesting.

I think that, in a lot of cases, they wanted to evoke emotional reactions that paralleled what we experienced in Life is Strange. So, for example, Kate is facing new bullying. It's far less vicious than what she went through earlier, and both the cause and solution are original, but it feels kind of like an echo to her dramatic story in Episode Two. It's deeply cathartic to help her work through her problems, offering her support but letting her stand on her own and find her strength. Likewise, Chloe's plot can feel like a metaphor for both the ending of Episode Four and the Bay ending of the game. Depending on the decisions you made in the earlier game, you might be able to revisit a particular feeling, or perhaps explore a path you'd previously left untrod.

There are a total of four "routes" in this game: Chloe (duh), Kate (awww!), Victoria (!), and Rachel (!!). Unlike some other VNs, you don't bounce between characters during the game: instead, you pick one near the start, and then just focus on them for the duration of the game. That really helps replayability, since 90%+ of the content is new for each route (including multiple new locations and unique journal entries).

The dialogue mostly runs on rails, but there are... I dunno, maybe a half-dozen or so branching choices during each route. These can have some fairly significant impact, both on the direction of the story (where you go, what activities you perform) and your relationship. So far I've just played the Kate and Chloe routes, and I was happy to discover that I had achieved the "true" ending for both of them. It wasn't exactly trivial - I had to think carefully through a couple of choices to decide the best thing to say - but, again, they've done such a good job at faithfully representing the existing characters that we can draw on our knowledge of Life Is Strange, in addition to the text within Love Is Strange, to grok the other person's values and needs.

END SPOILERS (for Love/Life Is Strange)

Ultimately, I think Love Is Strange is kind of a hangout game. Much like a long-running TV show in which we've come to enjoy spending time with characters, it's fun to simply relax with them for a bit, without huge earth-shaking consequences hanging over our heads. It feels like a long, protracted release of breath after the intensity of Life Is Strange. I found myself thinking of the Mass Effect 3: Citadel DLC, which similarly gave the gift of more time with people we'd grown to love.

Of course, Citadel had the benefits of an entire AAA studio behind it, plus all of the original writers reprising their roles. Love Is Strange's origin story sounds miraculous: a bunch of fans on tumblr discovered that they shared a love of the same game, and passed around text and graphics and game code until they created this. That's incredibly cool! Oh, and something I haven't mentioned before: the music is great. It doesn't use "real" licensed tracks like Life Is Strange, but its background instrumental music fits the mood really well, and a couple of tracks in particular are quite emotionally stirring.

I've followed quite a few fan-game efforts over the years, and while there have been some amazing successes (Fall from Heaven 2, Counterstrike), they are vastly outnumbered by ambitious projects that have petered out. It's a big testament to the team for accomplishing this, and by proxy a testament to Dontnod for creating a game that inspires such enduring devotion in its fans.

While I was exploring the exciting new world of visual novels, I decided to pick up another entry that has popped up in my Steam Discovery Queue a couple of times. Highway Blossoms, a "kinetic novel" from Alienworks. I'd deliberately avoided researching it, and was initially disappointed when I realized that, unlike the other visual novels I've played, this one doesn't have any choices. No branching dialogue choices or gameplay sections or anything: just clicking through to advance the story.

After a very short time, though, I forgot my disappointment and got fully wrapped up in the story. The pacing is excellent, the dialogue punchy, and plot revelations are carefully tuned to flow at a pace that keeps things intriguing without seeming rushed.  It also has a higher level of visual polish than Love is Strange; where LiS has a semi-impressionistic style loosely inspired by the Life Is Strange aesthetic, Highway Blossoms has a gorgeously vibrant aesthetic with sharply-designed characters and vivid backgrounds. While it looks similar to many other VNs, there is more movement on the screen. Characters will occasionally move around, backgrounds will slowly pan or zoom, clouds may float overhead. There are also some really pretty, very subtle lighting effects: seated around a campfire, characters will be lit by pulsing embers as the logs crackle and pop.

MINI SPOILERS (for Highway Blossoms)

Since Highway Blossoms doesn't have any choices, it of course only has one "route", that of Amber and Marina. Fortunately, it's a great one! They're terrific characters, as vividly drawn narratively as they are visually. Amber is the main narrating character. She's very independent, fairly private, deeply skeptical of the world around her, resourceful and nostalgic. Marina is opposite and complementary: bouncy, joyous, naive, trusting.

Those two characters utterly dominate the narrative and screen; when Marina steps away for a moment, it's unusual enough for Amber to comment on. However, they aren't the only characters; unlike other VNs, where almost everyone you see is romance-able, here there's a varied supporting cast that provides assistance and obstacles to the main relationship. These are more stereotypical characters, but engaging and fun.

Even more than the supporting characters, though, I think the environment does a great job at  setting the mood and driving the story. The southwestern setting is fully realized, in the gorgeous backgrounds and evocative writing and lonely atmosphere. This is one part of the country that I've never really explored, and playing this game has pushed it high up on my list of future vacation destinations: the stark raw beauty and often alien surroundings makes the story... somehow both more epic and quieter, if that makes sense. There's a sense of timelessness and insignificance when you contrast the brief lives of these humans with the ancient rocks that will outlast them. At the same time, though, the absence of life on the barren rocks makes the vibrancy of human connection even more beautiful and precious.

The pacing of the main romance is fantastic. Amber's attraction to Marina is obvious from the very start, and it seems likely to be reciprocated. But Amber's natural reticence, skepticism, and recent emotional baggage keeps her at an emotional distance from Marina. It takes a long time of shared struggle and experiences to bring them together, and they don't fully connect until about five hours into the story. Among other things, this makes their love feel incredibly earned, more of a natural evolution of their characters than something presented for our enjoyment.

The romance itself also does a great job with consent. I've played a fair number of games with romances (typically RPGs), and am used to the PC and NPC deciding that they want to get together and then doing it. Highway Blossoms has made me reconsider how to present and portray consent... in the past I've thought that it would seem like a minor roadblock to overcome or a point of affirmation, but here it's... well, it's really tender and sweet, a genuine discussion that's integrated into their relationship rather than a barrier that guards the perimeter. It's also subtle, without a great deal of attention drawn to it, but that makes it all the more endearing: two people checking in on each other and making sure they're still on board as things develop.

END SPOILERS (for Highway Blossoms)

In the end, I was more than satisfied with my purchase of Highway Blossoms. Per Steam, it lasted a bit over six hours, and delivered a non-stop stream of high-quality storytelling (aided and abetted by terrific art and music).

That did kind of get me wondering, though… can you really call it a game? The only real user interaction is clicking to advance the story, which is more or less identical to, say, turning the page in a book. At the same time, though, it uses the media that we associate with games: it’s played within the Steam interface, mouse and keyboard in hand, looking at the monitor, absorbing the graphics and text and music and sound effects describing “our” character’s journey. It’s game-like, even if it isn’t a game.

And that raises a kind of existential question: what DOES make something a game? If Highway Blossoms had contained a single branching dialogue choice, would that have magically transformed it into a game? What if it contained a single dialogue choice that didn’t impact the rest of the story at all?

I don’t have an answer yet. I know it was good, and can worry later about whether it’s a game.

Highway Blossoms also made me think more about narration styles. I’ve grown accustomed to thinking of video games as fiction that’s told in the second person, but HB reminds me that this definitely isn’t required. It’s a fully-fledged first-person-narrated game, with Amber telling the story and revealing her inner thoughts.

I’m still thinking through the implications of this. One fairly obvious one is that a first-person narration puts more emphasis on the character, while a second-person narration focuses on the player. There isn’t a whole lot of room for the player to color their perceptions of Amber. They might have different REACTIONS to her, admiring or disliking or pitying various aspects of her personality and story, but I think every player will more or less agree on who she is and what she’s like. In contrast, a western-style RPG will typically give the player immense leeway to define their perception of the character, assigning them different quirks and traits.

To be a little less vague: A first-person narration could include a line like "I feel sad." But a second-person narration would almost never say "You feel sad". It might create a scenario in which tragic things occur, and might give the player the option to select an option that says "I feel sad". There's a deep-seated assumption that developers shouldn't assign or assume emotional responses to the player, but of course it's totally valid to assign those responses to the character.

And, of course, all of this makes me think of Life Is Strange (I may never stop). This is technically also a first-person game: Max is giving her own thoughts on things, providing her own descriptive text and objectives and such. But, with the player’s control over the character, there’s much more opportunity to shape your idea of the character. Many things stay constant: she’s always somewhat withdrawn, empathetic, observant, tenacious. Depending on how you play her, though, she may have different levels of attraction to different people, be relatively braver or more cautious, pragmatic or idealistic. It ends up feeling like a collaboration between the developers and the players, coming to a consensus on who this person is. That’s probably also true, to a lesser extent, in Love Is Strange: there are fewer parameters to play with, but we’re still more or less shaping our vision of Max and hoping that this version will find happiness. In contrast, Highway Blossoms’ protagonist is more or less presented as a fait accompli, and in Christine Love’s games, the protagonist is almost entirely defined by the player (or perhaps even one and the same).

So… I guess my very weak conclusion is that both the narrative voice and the player input can contribute to the player’s perception of the protagonist. I’ve adopted a particular gospel about “good” game writing, using a certain set of tools to accomplish a type of result, but this excursion into the foreign land of visual novels reminds me that there’s no one right answer. Depending on the goals of the developer, they might choose to use different tools in order to shape the player’s experience and create the kind of game they want to make.

Some other random thoughts:

Every single visual novel game I’ve played has used the Ren’Py engine. It’s kind of nice having a consistent interface and set of controls to learn. Once I learned that clicking the middle mouse button would hide the UI in one game, I could immediately start using it in the other. It was also interesting to discover the journal, which is a lot more significant in Love Is Strange but is still present in Highway Blossoms. I doubt that I’ll ever build something with Ren’Py, but I am kind of curious how modifiable it is; each game includes a programming credit, so there’s probably at least some scripting involved beyond the text and images. The most complex game remains Analogue: A Hate Story, with a surprisingly dramatic command-line terminal; nothing in Love Is Strange or Highway Blossoms reaches that level, but each of them does include their own innovations, like the achievements in LIS or the wonderfully dynamic lighting in HB.

I’m not sure how common this is in the genre, but the visual novels I’ve played have all been fairly long. Highway Blossoms clocks in at around six hours; Hate Plus requests that you play it over three real-world days. One practical effect of this is that we spend a lot more time getting to know the characters and absorbing them; in this respect, the experience is a lot more like a TV show than a movie. There tend to be multiple arcs, both shorter ones that drive individual segments as well as a bigger over-arching one that spans the length of the game. It’s… nice. AAA games often reach for a more cinematic aesthetic, but these days I’m more drawn to serialized television shows, and this approach rewards you with a more relaxed, thoughtful, sometimes deeper game.

Finally, because I can’t stop thinking about Life Is Strange, here are a handful of half-baked musings that don’t merit their own post and so will piggy-back on this one:

MEGA SPOILERS (for Life Is Strange, somehow, still):

I’ve been thinking about names a lot lately. I don’t think that every name in the game is significant, but a few do pop out. One big example: Chloe PRICE. It’s really evocative of the final choice you have to make, the sacrifice, the price to pay. Either she IS the price, what you might give up in order to save the town; or she HAS a price, the sacrifice to make in order to be with her.

Also, the title “Life Is Strange” itself grows in meaning the more I think about it. I’d initially interpreted this as “Gee, lots of weird stuff keeps happening!” By the end of episode five, though, I’d come to think of it as meaning, “Chloe’s continued existence is unnatural”. We give her the gift of life in the first episode, but that knocks the universe out of alignment; the longer she continues to live, the greater the chaos grows. I don’t really LIKE this interpretation, since it’s an argument for Bay > Bae, but it’s a compelling one.

END SPOILERS (for Life Is Strange)

Oh, yeah: albums! Here's Love Is Strange, here's Highway Blossoms. Both contain minor spoilers in the images and major story in the text and captions.

Yup! I’m feeling a lot better about visual novels now than I did after watching Welcome To The NHK. I doubt that they’ll replace RPGs as my genre of choice, but it’s been fun to see the different approaches they have to storytelling and become more acquainted with the conventions of the form. There are a couple of intriguing elements in these visual novels that I think could be adapted well to other games, and it always feels good to add another element or two to my creative toolbox.

On a more personal level, I’ve really appreciated the relatively calm and reflective mood of these games. Sometimes you want to make difficult decisions and save the world, but often you want to spend time with the people you love, and these games are great at offering the latter.