Sunday, April 22, 2018

Righting

I'm continuing to make my way through Roberto Bolaño's body of work. I'm starting to regret not plowing through all of them at once. Typically, I want to hold off and savor the authors who I enjoy most, but Bolaño's stories tend to have little linkages that bind them together. Not as directly as, say, David Mitchell's, but caesuras in one novel might be filled in another. As I was reading Nazi Literature in the Americas, I often had the feeling that I was reading a reference to a character who I had previously encountered, but had no idea whether it was from the vast cast of The Savage Detectives, the oppressed seekers in 2666, earlier in the same book, or if I was just imagining it. 


All of his books that I've read so far have a few things in common. They're partially or wholly set in a literary milieu, populated by poets and novelists and publishers and critics. They disdain traditional narratives, largely omitting dialogue and using different forms to present their story. Nazi Literature is sort of an extreme example of both of those elements. Per the title, the whole book is about (fictional) writers of far-right-wing literature. Structurally, it's organized as a sequence of capsule biographies. Each writer gets a birth and death date and city, then several pages summarizing their life's accomplishments: who they influenced or were influenced by, what works were rejected or published, critical consensus around their output. We never really see people interacting or get much of a sense of individual personalities. The end result feels much more like a mosaic, impressive but very static.

It's really well-written, though! While the subject matter can be horrifying, there's a strong sardonic streak running throughout. I particularly enjoyed a few segments that, while ostensibly describing a fictional piece of literature, seemed to be anticipating potential criticism of the book itself.

"It is full of appendices, maps, incomprehensible indices of proper names, and solicits an interaction in which no sensible reader would persist... There is no main character. The less chaotic stretches read like collections of stories haphazardly tacked together... The texts are not so much scrambled puzzles as fragments of scrambled puzzles. Although presented and sold as a novel, The Fourth Reich in Denver is in fact a reader's guide to the preceding titles."

Or, later:

"It is not unusual for Sibelius to spend twenty pages simply introducing a character, specifying his physical and moral traits, his tastes in food and sports, his ambitions and frustrations, after which the character vanishes, never to be mentioned again in the course of the novel; while others, who are barely given names, reappear over and over, in widely separated locations, engaged in dissimilar if not incompatible or mutually exclusive activities. The workings of the bureaucratic machinery are described implacably."
Stylistically, the novel reminded me of "The Part About the Crimes" from 2666. There's a sort of similar piling-on effect: each individual entry is dry and colorless, but they are relentless, stacking one on top of another into a more horrific edifice. It gets to be a little numbing, but the numbing is deliberate, drawing attention to how the terror is becoming the new normal.

Despite the title, only a few characters in this novel are technically Nazis, but pretty much everyone is somewhere on the far-right spectrum. Given the predominantly Latin-American setting, it's fitting that Falangism is particularly represented. Most of the writers are not affiliated with any particular movement, but hold antisemitic views, support authoritarianism, and/or hold other rightist views. In the whole book there are perhaps one or two very brief biographies that aren't obviously political. I'm curious if a deeper reading would reveal their connection, or if this is deliberate, depicting them as so minor that it isn't worth exploring their beliefs.

Most of the subjects are presented matter-of-factly, without any obvious editorializing. The characters themselves are... oddly ordinary, I guess. There are a few monsters, but the majority of them come across as vaguely pathetic, misguided, or confused. This is probably realistic, and also seems like it may be an effective way of handling them. It's a little satirical, denying them the glory and infamy they crave, instead showing their smallness and limited impact.

MEGA SPOILERS

The one major exception is the last full chapter, Ramírez Hoffman aka Emilio Stevens. This is one of the sections that felt like it may overlap with another Bolaño book; in particular, the characters of María and Magdalena Venegas seemed familiar. Anyways, this chapter is different from the rest: it's the most vivid, the most horrifying, and has an active, present first-person narrator (named Bolaño). This chapter finally starts to get at raising some crucial questions, although it doesn't begin to answer them: are violent people attracted to fascism, or does fascist ideology produce violence? Does art born out of wickedness have value?

Even though this section feels different from the preceding ones, I think it benefits from coming at the tail end. It's a bright, bold splash of color that brings home the real-world consequences of ideology. We've seen how widespread this umbrella of ideas is, and this final entry is kind of a case study of how deep it can go.

Speaking of the real world... as far as I can tell, the characters in this book are all fictional, or at the least fictionalized versions of real-world people. But it's also very grounded, with plentiful references to real-world political leaders and movements. One striking exception is Pinochet, who seems conspicuously absent from the entire book until making a very late appearance deep in an appendix. I'm a little curious why he doesn't have a larger presence, when people like Peron, Allende and Castro get name-checked more frequently. Bolaño was Chilean, so maybe it seemed too close to home. Maybe he wanted to keep the focus more on pan-American extremism instead of seeming like he was settling scores. Or maybe the absence is itself significant: one of Bolaño's skills is to build a kind of mounting dread by talking around and eliding a central subject, and perhaps Pinochet plays that role here.

I'm still unsure exactly what the book is supposed to be. Some sort of near-future reader's-guide to a completed movement in American history? The timelines in the novel go through at least 2027, and every character has a death date listed, so it's presumably written some time after that. That sort of chronological distance may help explain the chilly and dispassionate treatment of the subject, not unlike how we now write about, say, Galileo's trial. We recognize it as being outrageous and wrong, but it's also settled. We feel only scorn for the antagonists, not anger.

END SPOILERS

Obviously, a book with the title "Nazi Literature in the Americas" isn't going to be a cheerful book, but this ended up being a surprisingly good read. It's a very muted satire, dealing with bad ideas in a deliberate way, revealing them as mean and contemptible, while simultaneously poking fun at the literary system and the whole edifice that produces books such as this.

This is probably the most formally constrained book of Bolaño's that I've read yet. I was reminded often of Borges's work, especially Pierre Menard... Bolaño is definitely not a magical realist and his books have a very different feel to them than the surreal Borges, but I think both of them were great explorers of the untapped potential of non-narrative forms of writing. On a more prosaic level, this kind of reminded me of the short stories I used to write when I was a kid, which were just a sequence of "This person did that and then went there and met them." I was writing out of a paucity of ability and imagination, but Bolaño chooses this mode deliberately, claiming a distant point of perspective from which he can review and dismiss his subjects.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Rapids

I'm not sure exactly how I got into this habit, but for the last couple of years I've read a Nicola Griffith novel each time I fly to and from Chicago. Other than the Aud Torvingen series, I'm not reading them in any particular order, and so am finishing with her second published novel, Slow River. It's good!


I'm increasingly impressed at Nicola's versatility. She's adept at writing noir mysteries, imaginative science fiction, mystic historical fiction. Slow River is set in a near-future very-mildly-dystopic world; the setting seems almost cyberpunk, with subdermal identity chips and a few riveting hacking scenes, but the overall vibe feels quite distinct from most cyberpunk.

MINI SPOILERS

It's less obviously sci-fi than Ammonite, but there might be even more science in this book. Specifically, there's a really cool and deep look into environmental science, microorganisms, public works and infrastructure. I don't know enough about life sciences to know if all of this is established science or if some of it is speculative, but it all sounds plausible and intriguing.

I increasingly enjoy reading about people who are good at what they do and take pride in their work, and Lore is a great example. She knows a great deal about the underlying theory and the practical operations of the treatment plant she works at, and feels compelled to help it perform well. There are multiple tensions opposing this drive of hers. First, she's keenly aware of the source: her knowledge and her determination come from her family, from which she is estranged, and even when she benefits from that association she's simultaneously brought down by the reminder of her past. She's also constrained by her secret identity: she can't seem to be too good, or know too much, lest she ruin her disguise and expose herself to dire consequences.

But she overcomes these hesitations and does what needs to be done. I really liked how the public good and a general sense of responsibility are powerful incentives in this novel. Lore doesn't say "It's not my job" or "What's in it for me?" She knows the consequences of getting things wrong, the mild-to-major harm that will be visited upon untold numbers of people should these systems fail, and that drives her to sacrifice her self-interest and support the greater good.

MEGA SPOILERS

Of course, Lore hasn't always been so altruistic. She hasn't been exactly selfish, but she has been focused on herself. Among other ways, this is shown through her sex scenes: there are a surprising number of encounters she has throughout the novel, starting from a very young age and continuing through a series of disconcerting liaisons while working with Spanner. I thought it was interesting that, of all of Lore's short-term and long-term romantic partners, Magyar is the only one who doesn't get a sex scene. There is still a nice focus on physicality in their relationship: when they tap each other while wearing biohazard suits, it feels more erotic than the graphic parties that occurred a few pages before. The bond Lore forms with Magyar is powerful, built on respect and trust long before they thought of one another as partners, and it's kind of cool to see that Lore decides she will spend the rest of her life with Magyar before sleeping with her.

The Magyar relationship is kind of the opposite of the one Lore has with her mother, which began with love, then moved to trust, and devolved into suspicion and adversity. While Griffith's novels are all very different, I've noticed that the mother characters share a lot of similarities. They tend to be powerful, manipulative, emotionally distant, and clever. Their protagonist daughters inherit their wealth and education, and share some of the high-society connections while being estranged. I don't want to overstate this - Aud's mother is much more sympathetic than Lore's - it's just an interesting theme.

The revelation of Katerine and Oster was seeded very well and cleverly revealed, with all the important information present long before Lore receives the answer. I'd had a suspicion that something else was going on - Oster's behavior didn't really fit the scenario - but for some reason Katerine hadn't been on my radar for that incident, and I was impressed by the conclusion. The Greta revelation didn't make as much sense to me. All the pieces to that puzzle had also been set out in advance, but it wasn't and isn't obvious to me how they fit together, how Lore goes from the old black-ops team to Greta's role in it to blackmail to the kidnapping. It's possible I just missed something in the sequence, though... I was wrapping up the novel near the end of a very long delayed flight.

I'm still undecided on how I feel about the structure of the novel. Within each chapter, it shifts between present-tense and past-tense narration, and between first-person and third-person narrators. These are used to denote different time periods: one starting from Lore's childhood, one starting immediately after her escape from the kidnappers, and one when she starts her job at the plant. It always felt jarring to me, and I'm not convinced that the novel is much better from having the timelines overlap this way than it would be told chronologically. We already know the outcomes of the first two timelines, so it doesn't really build any suspense. It definitely isn't bad, it just seemed distracting to me.

END SPOILERS

All in all, Slow River was a great read. Lore is yet another terrific Griffith protagonist: resourceful, thoughtful, resolute, driven by a winning mix of compassion and self-determination.  While it's technically another science fiction novel, I think it stands on its own, with a very different setting and feel from Ammonite. In some ways it anticipated the crime noir of Aud Torvingen, but with a very different protagonist and a unique set of concerns.

Ordinarily, I would feel bummed to have exhausted the output of a newfound author, but! Fortunately, Nicola is just about to release So Lucky, which will be out in less than a month, yay! That should help tide me over until the sequel to Hild arrives.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Open and Shut

This probably isn't actually a thing, but I've started thinking of the subgenre of science fiction that I've been focusing on lately as "humanist sci-fi". These novels focus on creativity, collaboration, and problem-solving. They eschew violence, definitely as a solution and often even as a part of the setting. Like sci-fi as a whole the science can be hard or soft, the protagonists may be heroes or antiheroes, and and they may or may not include alien species, but they seem allied by a common thread of dignity and curiosity that I find increasingly appealing.


My latest author and book in this vein is A Door Into Ocean by Joan Slonczewski. The story started off a little slowly, but there's fantastic world-building and great exploration of really cool ideas. Once the main conflict kicks in, it becomes very engaging, and I tore through the back half of the book with a quickness.

MINI SPOILERS

There are a lot of neat things going on here. One of the most obvious is Sharer culture, which is built around reciprocity and cooperation. In an appealing variation on Orwell's language theory, Sharer society is fundamentally egalitarian, and their language makes it difficult for them to even understand concepts like domination or unilateral action. In the Sharer tongue, verbs bidirectionally link subjects with objects. If your hand strikes a wall, the wall strikes your hand. If you shun someone, then that person shuns you. If you teach someone, you learn from them.

This leads to a very appealing culture, based around sharing and mutual respect. It isn't a monolithic one: Sharers can and do disagree with one another, and they develop very different personalities, defined in part by the "selfnames" they claim: The Intemperate One, The Stubborn, The Traitor. They generally strive for consensus, but do not compel it. They place a high value on learning, seeking to correct misunderstandings and spread knowledge amongst one another.

The more immediately obvious defining feature of Sharers, though, might be that they're all women. I don't remember if the novel ever addresses whether they evolved this way or if the males died out, but they've developed the ability to reproduce by directly shaping embryos in the womb. (As a side note, they also have an interesting belief in reincarnation: the councils will decide when to create more children, and they believe that the souls of dead Sharers will inhabit those new bodies, thus keeping the overall Sharer population fairly consistent and maintaining a limited demand on Shora's resources.) Of course, this reminded me of Ammonite, although it's cool to see how differently those societies turn out. Jeep tended towards pacifism, while Shora is wholly pacifist; Jeep is mostly driven by a gift economy with limited bartering, while Shora doesn't really have an economy but has adopted barter for trade with other worlds; Jeep is a heterogeneus civilization with various competing tribes while Shora is more homogenous. And there are similarities: both planets, despite being considered "primitive", have highly advanced life science;  both are largely monogamous; both have some sort of meditative trance that can have a transformative effect on those who undergo it.

Some of this probably has to due with the authors' different interests. Joan is a professor of biology, and, while biology isn't the main point of this novel, it's a very cool and important element. Some of this drives the plot, as when Valedonians are baffled by Shora's flora and the Sharers' relation to it. There are occasional semi-deep-dives as well, when Sharers detail how a particular organism works, or the important role a seeming pest has to play in the larger ecosystem they rely upon. As with some of my favorite science fiction, A Door Into Ocean shows an alternate route to reach a familiar place: they have a planetary communication system, recorded knowledge of all their science and history, lifesaving treatments for seemingly fatal injuries. And yet, these are all developed from organic, living sources. Or... "developed" is probably not the right word. Sharers have integrated themselves into Shora, and learned how to thrive within it, rather than bending it to their will.

We learn a lot of the basics about Shora and Sharers through the eyes of Spinel, a young Valedonian male who is apprenticed on the planet. Honestly, I found Spinel a little hard to take, which may have been deliberate. It was difficult for me to place him: at first I imagined him being about eight to ten years old, as he's constantly throwing temper tantrums and storming off in a huff. But then there's the sex stuff later on, which made me think he was a particularly immature young adult. And then near the end Merwen reflects on how much taller he's grown, so I'm left kind of imagining him as an early-to-mid teen. Anyways. I never liked him all that much, but he becomes much more tolerable as the book continues, especially after he returns to Valedon and starts bearing witness.

The really cool thing about Spinel is his stone-knowledge. For most of the novel, it's been kind of inescapable that Sharers are "good" and Valedonians are "bad": that's an oversimplification, but the Sharer way of life seems far superior. But I really appreciated that Slonczewski doesn't make the Sharers perfect, and one of the great examples of this is their fearful, almost hateful relationship with stone. Very late in the novel, we start to see how this is based on ignorance, not entirely unlike the ignorance-based hatred that many outsiders bear towards Sharers. Once Spinel begins learn-sharing with them, they can begin to see that stone is nothing to fear: diamonds are carbon, and carbon is the basis of life. Stone can "grow", it's just done under different conditions, like high pressure and heat. As they begin to understand it, their fear starts to drop away, and you can imagine their stone-sickness dropping in potency.

MEGA SPOILERS

Besides Spinel, the other Valedonian we hear a lot from is Realgar, especially in the last third or so of the novel. He... seems a little like the husband in a Lifetime Movie Of The Week. He's very awful and easy to cheer against. While it was discomforting, I did kind of appreciate that we got to see his point of view, so we could see his rationalizations and motivations. Spinel's ignorance is a useful device to explain Sharers, but Realgar's hostility is arguably even more useful, as it provides a sharp contrast and draws out the way Sharers will behave even under distress.

Realgar's occupation and campaign of domination start exploring major themes of nonviolent resistance and anticolonialism. The asymmetry of the struggle is highlighted, not only in means (Sharers have no weapons) but also in aims (Valedon seeks to conquer and profit, Shora seeks to embrace and learn). The price Shora plays is real and huge, particularly near the end as waves upon waves of peaceful martyrs are brutally slaughtered. The Sharers' response seems to be successful, but not at all easy or simple, requiring a huge amount of dedication and sacrifice. It's fragile, too: a single act of violence immediately undoes all the good work done before and comes close to dooming their entire species.

Reading this book, I was curious how readers in the mid-80s would have read this scenario and applied it. My immediate thought was of colonialism, especially in Indochina: the asymmetry of goals and mutual incomprehension reminded me a lot of the Vietnam war. But it might be more accurate to think of the civil rights movement in the United States or Gandhi's movement for Indian independence, particularly in terms of the methods used for resistance and revolution.

Now, in the 2010s, I find myself thinking of global adventurism, capitalism, and terrorism. How should wealthy and powerful nations behave in their relations with poorer and weaker ones? How will those other nations respond? Asymmetry is inevitable, and while I passionately wish that all parties would follow principles of peace and understanding, it isn't at all surprising that many will choose to follow the example of Nisi rather than Usha.

I suspect that some readers were annoyed by the ending, but I loved it: the last-minute conversations, reversal of plans, and open-ended personal relation between Spinel and Lystra. That felt very real to me, and also like an echo of the culture we've spent a novel exploring. Sharers aren't defined by their dogma: they're curious, taking in new information, adapting, finding the best decisions based on their values and present circumstances. They tend to operate by consensus but, well, Lystra has always been headstrong and independent, and it's very much in keeping with her to act. At a macro level I'm left with the feeling that things will be okay, and I like the bit of messiness that's left for the individuals we've grown attached to.

END SPOILERS

It looks like this is the first book in a series, and I imagine I'll pick up the remainder at some point. This novel covers some really cool, fertile ground, and scratches the itch I'm increasingly feeling for warm, thoughtful, progressive science fiction.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Scarred for Life

I know that China Miéville 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.

MINI SPOILERS

Reading this book, I did start to feel like Failbetter Games maybe should owe some sort of royalties to Mr. Miéville. 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.

MEGA SPOILERS

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.

END SPOILERS

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.

MEGA SPOILERS

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.

END SPOILERS

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.

MINI SPOILERS

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.

MEGA SPOILERS

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.

END SPOILERS

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.

MEGA SPOILERS

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.

END SPOILERS

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

Campaigner

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.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Coyote Point

My brain is weird. Reading Ammonite reminded me of The Company, which reminded me of Kage Baker, which reminded me that I never finished her Company novels, so I recently dove back in with the second entry in the series, "Coyote Sky". It's been several years since I finished The Garden of Iden, and my memories had faded somewhat, but I remembered enjoying the writing and the world, and quickly got back up to speed.


Again, my memory is a bit fuzzy, but I think that Sky Coyote is a funnier work, while The Garden of Iden was more focused on romance. This is mostly due to the narrators: Iden was narrated by Mendoza, while Sky Coyote is narrated by Joseph, who was a compelling character in the earlier book. Their roles are now switched, with Mendoza occasionally popping up and making an impression, but Joseph both drives the plot and provides the overall tone of the story.

MINI SPOILERS

Joseph is a lot older than Mendoza, by tens of thousands of years. He's much more cynical: near the end of the novel he has a line like "As I always say, in a hundred years who's going to care?" It's not that he doesn't care about anything: he's surprisingly loyal to the Company, takes pleasure in art (Warner Brothers cartoons, certain foods and beverages, works by Dashiell Hammett), and is fond of specific employees. But he's seen that everything fades and is destroyed, and learned the folly of attaching his happiness to transient things, so he tends to be unsentimental, even while appreciating things in the moment.

The plot for this book felt a bit looser than Iden. The action sort of drifts from New World One up to California and the Chumash village, but everything tends to go fairly smoothly and according to plan, with short-lived obstacles. It's still engaging, though, thanks to Joseph's fantastic voice and commentary. It might feel light as a stand-alone novel, but it does a great job at extending the overall arc and building out the world more.

Joseph is a master at interacting with every group of people, from Company immortals to Company mortals to the native peoples he encounters. The most interesting relations are those with the Chumash, a native Californian tribe: his main mission for the book is to save them from extinction and capture their culture for posterity. Like a lot of people, I have a fairly simplistic mental image of what pre-Columbian native American culture looked like: either a peaceful and idyllic life sustained in harmony with nature, or a powerful and violent society. The Chumash, though, are surprisingly modern: they have guilds, and trade agreements (along with an understanding of monopolistic practices and collusion), along with labor unions and vocational schools. They may live in huts and craft canoes, but their social structure is virtually identical to ours; even at the familial level, they often divorce and remarry, and a lot of them don't much care for raising kids.

The dialogue here was especially funny, mostly in Joseph's statements but also how the Chumash spoke amongst themselves. I found myself thinking of Christopher Moore, who also deploys a breezy, humorous, anachronistic style of patter in unexpected places.

END SPOILERS

This was a much faster read than I expected, but I enjoyed it! I'm increasingly hooked on the Company, and looking forward to where the series goes from here. The mysteries have grown deeper in this book, and I'm curious to see answers to some of the questions that have been raised.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Looking for Trouble

As much as I enjoy cyberpunk, I'm actually not incredibly familiar with the literature. I came to the genre late; apart from Shadowrun, I only started reading these books in the early 2000s, and haven't strayed far from the titans like Gibson. Recently, I resolved to seek out some of the lesser-known authors and round out my exposure.



The first entry on that new list is Trouble and Her Friends by Melissa Scott. This is vintage cyberpunk, from the early 1990s, and is a nostalgic romp through an era I had largely forgotten. Many of the specific references feel dated - BBSs are important hubs of activity, hackers swap out disks while copying large files. But this era also had wonderfully lyrical writing: back before most readers had ever gone online, or even had a good idea of what that meant, authors used breathless metaphors, filled with sensations of speed and touch and lighting, to try and communicate how the digital virtual space felt. The sense of awe and limitless possibility shines brightly in these early books, something that has largely vanished now that those experiences are universal and mundane.

Considering how few cyberpunk books I've written, it's kind of funny that there are such strong ties between them. In particular, I'm very curious about how the word "Ice" came to be such a universal shibboleth. Various authors will refer to it as "Ice", "ICE", "IC", or, in Scott's argot, "IC(E)". In all cases it means an automated defense program, a digital adversary that blocks or attacks hackers and which must be overcome by programs of their own. None of these books are set in the same continuity, and I don't think there is any real-world basis for ICE, so it's interesting to see it pop up so frequently. I imagine it's a sort of tribute to prior authors, and perhaps also a nod to readers that they are on familiar, if not identical, ground.

The tech in "Trouble and Her Friends" is pretty cool and interesting. The element that stuck out the most for me was the brainworm, which I imagine as sort of like a wetware neural coprocessor. In this world, most hackers have "dolly-slots", the equivalent of a datajack: a port in their heads that they can run a cable into in order to interface with computers without needing a keyboard. The brainworm seems to essentially increase the available bus width for the computer/brain interface, allowing hackers to process more data. This makes them more effective, but also invokes prejudices in other people. That's one of the many things I enjoyed in this novel: tech doesn't exist in a vacuum, but is a part of culture and sub-culture, and, much like real-world arguments over Mac vs. PC or VI vs. Emacs or IDE vs. plaintext, the use of tools is interpreted as an indication of abilities, with different factions using those choices as an excuse to denigrate others.

Trouble (and her friends) are part of a younger generation that have implanted brainworms: it makes them better at what they do, so why wouldn't they? But the old guard hackers look down on them, saying that they aren't actually talented and succeed only through brute force. In reality, the old guard are mostly scared: there's some risk in the surgery, and they are afraid of change. They would rather keep the old mores in place, where they know that they'd be at the top, rather than live in the new world where they need to adapt to keep up. Because of their embrace of the worm and their sexual identities, Trouble's clique are often seen as outsiders; but, at the same time, they are hackers and are a part of the larger culture as well. I really enjoyed how the dynamics between these various social groups and alliances played out, as the same people will shift between being friends and adversaries depending on the circumstances. Have a beef with another hacker? I'll take their side. Now the cops are after you? It's time to circle the wagons, I've got your back.

MINI SPOILERS

Identity is a huge part of this novel. The main plot is set in motion years after Trouble drops out of the net and a new up-and-coming hacker steals her name. Calling him- or her-self Trouble, this hacker uses many of her old programs, but behaves atrociously, boasting about exploits and generally ticking people off. This causes all sorts of trouble for Trouble, who still has a criminal record from the old days, and sets out to reclaim her identity and clear her name.

Reading this book, I found myself surprised that this plot element isn't more widely used in cyberpunk, or in modern fiction in general. One of the defining features of online interactions is how tenuous our identity is: you're a name, and maybe an icon, and that's it. If someone takes that same name, how is someone else to know that it really isn't you? I've had low-key variations of that experience myself: for decades I've used the handle "Cirion" when registering on new sites, and I often get it, but occasionally someone else will have taken it before, and it feels deeply odd to see posts and activity from the doppelganger-Cirion. One particularly odd experience came after the AV Club redid their commenting system: I'd been Cirion on the old system, but a new Cirion took over on the new one. I'd never been particularly active before, but it still felt odd to read comments under "my" name that I disagreed with.

Anyways: it's a particularly rich and resonant theme in any Internet-related story, and more so when it starts to overlap with genres like detective fiction that are already interested in false identities and multiple suspects. The increasing importance of a distinctive name, coupled with the increasing difficulty in protecting it, seems especially important now.

Speaking of identities: the book is mostly focused on Trouble and Cerise, estranged lovers trying to make a living in a new world with harsh laws against hacking. It was a little hard at first to distinguish them: as you might imagine from her name, Trouble has a reputation as the more aggressive of the two, but the book opens with her acting out of extreme caution to avoid danger while Cerise presses forward with a risky venture. It took a while for me to really get their personalities, although it gets a lot easier once they meet up.

The secondary characters don't get as much attention, but are interesting and distinctive. I liked how so many of them already had a history with the leads; if not, they generally know each other by reputation. Having a vast cast makes things much more interesting for a whodunit like this: I'd assumed early on that newTrouble was someone they knew, and it was fun to speculate who it might be and review evidence.

MEGA SPOILERS

The plot moves very quickly near the end, with some of the best-written cyberspace scenes I've read. They're very kinetic and engaging, and I loved the easy camaraderie of Trouble and Cerise.

I'm still a little unclear on the precise relationship between the Mayor and Silk. It doesn't seem like they were lovers. I'd wondered if Silk might be a relative, but there doesn't seem to be any evidence to support that. Perhaps the Mayor was grooming him to be a successor, or some sort of enforcer of Seahaven.

I also never really understood what their motivation was. At first I thought that they were intentionally trying to draw out Trouble, but that doesn't seem to have been the case: everything gets worse for the Mayor once that drama gets stirred up, and it would have been much better for him to live in a world without her than in a world where he can put her down; plus, they don't seem to have had any particular beef before. Was it just Silk being young and stupid? Possible, but odd... it seems like most hackers would prefer to make a name for themself, and he would have been young enough during Trouble's glory days that I doubt they had any meaningful interactions.

Regardless, the denouement was neat and believable. I'd anticipated one or both of them taking over Seahaven ever since Cerise realized how the Mayor controlled the space, and this sort of legal gray space is the perfect spot for them to land.

END SPOILERS

While identity issues are the core of the novel, the political and legal framework is a persistent and intriguing side-plot. Characters in the novel often talk about "the shadows" and "the bright lights" as diametrically opposed factions, but of course there's a broader continuum of legality. On one extreme, you have the mob, straight-up real-world criminal gangs. Then you have the black-hat hackers who commit crimes in cyberspace but would never think of causing harm in meatspace. There are hackers who used to do legal work, but new laws have redefined those same activities to now be illegal. There are private syscops who are primarily interested in the integrity of their own systems and don't care as much about national issues. There are those who might cut corners to uphold the law. And there are the straight-arrow government employees who insist on doing everything by the book. Much as with the subcultures, these relationships are dynamic, and individuals may find ways to create useful alliances on other points of the digital-crime spectrum.

Even the hackers in this book agree that there probably needs to be some sort of law, so the question becomes what is the good law, the appropriate law, that will protect against the really bad stuff happening without stifling the net. This book was published back in 1994, so it would have been shortly after the founding of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, after cases like the Secret Service raid on Steve Jackson Games, after it was clear that existing laws were insufficient, but before the passage of early attempts like the CDA and later efforts like the DMCA. In our own time, this has continued with more aggressive bills like SOPA and COPA. Anyways, it's a topic that was very much part of the zeitgeist, but of course is still an issue today, with issues like net neutrality continuing to drive the conversation of how the government should or should not be involved with the Internet.

So! Really good book - I realize I haven't talked much about the plot here, but it was fun, with great atmosphere and some lovably flawed characters. I'm not sure if Scott wrote other cyberpunk, but I'm definitely interested in checking out more of her work.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Don't Eat Tide

Well! I'm writing that follow-up post a lot sooner than I had thought I would. That's partly due to a three-day weekend, partly due to me suffering from a cold during much of that weekend and thus confined to indoor activities, and partly due to the game being shorter than I had expected. Torment: Tides of Numenara clocked in at around 30-ish hours for me by the end, on a fairly in-depth but not exhaustive playthrough. I was diligent about reading all available text and exhausting all dialogues I ran across, but deliberately turned down a couple of quests that I didn't feel up to pursuing.

"Shorter than I expected" is a good thing in my book! I'm increasingly wary of super-long RPGs; to this day I still haven't finished Divinity: Original Sin or Wasteland 2 despite putting in well over 50 hours on each of them. It's no coincidence that some of my favorite recent RPGs, the Shadowrun Returns series, clock in at a svelte dozen or so hours. I hunger for games that can efficiently establish a world and tell a compelling story without overstaying their welcome.


Torment: Tides does decently well on that front. I don't love this game, but I did enjoy it, and feel that I more than got my money's worth from my Kickstarter pledge way back in the dark ages of 2013. It delivers on what I was most excited about: untraditional gameplay, a game much more focused around talking than combat, and unusual mechanics and story elements that you can't find in most other games. The stuff that I was disappointed in is, for the most part, stuff that the game wasn't really trying to do or wasn't a focus.

MINI SPOILERS

I played as a Slick Nano who Brandishes a Silver Tongue. I almost always opted for non-combat skills and abilities, and usually avoided fighting. I've heard that it's possible to complete the game without killing anyone, or maybe just a couple of fights; I was pleased to see that this wasn't just a straightforward "peace good fighting bad" scenario. There were a handful of cases where I deliberately initiated combat because it seemed like the best course of action. It made me realize how much more compelling it is to give choices, even when fighting truly awful people: I think there's a temptation for game designers to make enemies that are so bad that they can safely assume people will want to fight them, but even in those cases, it's much more meaningful for players to actively choose confrontation rather than passively proceed through it.

Here's my build immediately before the end of the game:


The most annoying skill was Perception, which doesn't seem to have options to raise after character creation; I ended up using my Flex Skill amulet each day to bump it up to 2. I didn't mean to overcap the Lore skills, which I don't think are required for the automatic in-dialogue checks, but ended up surprisingly useful for a bunch of late-game effort checks.

My party composition was stable throughout: I stuck with Calistege after the opening (surrendering at the first fight), recruited Rhin a little later, and picked up Matkina near the end of my stay in Sagus Cliffs. There was a lot of overlap between my Castoff and Calistege, so I tried to give them distinct combat skills (though, again, my Castoff was light on combat in general). I built Rhin as a sort of stealth grenadier and healbot. She can't attack, but she can use cyphers, and later in the game she gets a useful (and fully unique) ability to reuse cyphers multiple times. Interestingly, she actually isn't very good at stealth to begin with; I improved that a bit, but honestly stealth doesn't seem all that useful to me except for characters who can directly use it. Speaking of which, Matkina was by far my heaviest hitter, with devastating single-target damage and very useful fettle infliction.


I was heavily Blue/Gold tides throughout the game (curiously enough, my high school's colors). I'm slightly skeptical of the Blue tide... you get that just by asking questions, which I suspect most players will do a lot of. Gold tends to be for stereotypically "good" actions. The tides represents qualities like empathy and compassion, and you pick it up when you act nicely to people, refuse rewards, or otherwise are "good". That said, I do really appreciate the complexity of the tide system, which provides a great deal of structure without being simplistic like Good/Evil or even Paragon/Renegade. You can be more focused on the bigger picture without being a "bad" person.



The main content things that I intentionally skipped included:
  • All companion quests apart from Calistege, Rhin and Matkina.
  • Giving research to the wannabe Aeon Priest.
  • Resolving the situation with the imprisoned biomechanical monster in Circus Minor.
  • Whatever was going on with that shepherd's crook in that grave place.
  • Recruiting attractive people in the Bloom. (The one I felt comfortable tapping was the Murdens' translator, but after avoiding combat with them I didn't want to fight just for that.)
  • Hooking up the memory addict in the Cirrugen's Swamp.
  • Opening up the human maw in the Bloom.
There may be more that I accidentally missed, though I was pretty thorough (outside of the catacombs).

Okay, let's break down my reaction.

THE GOOD

Flavor text. I'm impressed at just how much thought and care went into the bespoke "vendor trash" items you pick up during the game, and always enjoyed reading through them. 

Cyphers. The "cypher sickness" fettle and limited slots provide one of the best solutions I've seen yet to encouraging players to actually use items instead of letting them collect in your inventory. I was also impressed at just how varied and useful they were: a couple are just grenades, but a lot of them have very unique and interesting abilities. I do wish there had been more non-combat cyphers, things along the lines of Charmpaste were compelling and had their own tradeoffs.

Visual design. Some spots in Sagus Cliffs looked a little generic, but even those areas were really pretty. In contrast, the Bloom was nicely disgusting, making up for all the gross macabre stuff I'd remembered from PS:T and hadn't seen in T:ToN. The best, though, were the planar-type maps, with stunning starfields or other fantastically surreal backgrounds.


Enemy design. Well, this is really just for the Sorrow, but it is so well-done and awesome, with a much more impressive reveal than most AAA villains.


Leveling system. It took me a while to get used to it, but I ended up appreciating the level-versus-tier distinction, which provides a finer-grained upgrade path while still giving a nice sense of accomplishment at rarer intervals. It feels slightly annoying to need to pick through less-useful upgrades before you can get back to the good ones again - Edge is so much more powerful than almost anything else - but it ends up working out fine, and after following it through the game I think it works well.

Economy. Shins balloon a bit near the end, but for most of the game the economy feels nicely tuned, and I was able to buy all the stuff I most wanted without having much leftover cash. I think it was a good idea to limit many (but not all) equipment items to be for the Castoff only, which simplifies ordering and loadout.

Sleep system. I touched in this in my earlier post, but I really like the rhythm that this lends to the game. It would be hard to adapt to other games, since it requires so much specific writing for individual quests to implement the penalties for time passing, but I'm glad that they pulled it off for this game. I probably erred too far in avoiding sleep, especially near the end of the game, avoiding it out of habit even when it seems clear that the game wants you to take advantage of the refilled pools.

Plot. The story is set in a vast and far-ranging universe, but the core plot is nicely comprehensible. It unfolds well, with a good pace of revelations and some interesting wrinkles along the way.


Endings. It's a vintage Obsidian approach, with slideshows and text explaining the variety of outcomes your decisions throughout the game have made, which is one of my favorite ways to end a game. I ran through several of the "big choice" endings, and saw that most of the slides ended up the same, but there were some cool and nicely reactive changes based on the state of the world which impacted some of those smaller stories.


THE MEDIOCRE

Meres. I really liked the idea behind these, and the storybook-esque presentation was really nice.  The interface was a bit annoying: this is the one place where you can't hit the number keys to make a choice. It felt weird to be using your real-world stat pools while in someone else's memories, and it was annoying to not have access to your items and cyphers while doing it. I liked the flavor, but was ultimately confused by what, exactly, they did: early on it seems to imply that you can actually change the past (or maybe switch into another universe?) by the choices you make, but that seems to be totally dropped in the later meres, which makes me think I misunderstood the point.



Companions. They ended up feeling a lot like the ones from Pillars of Eternity: generally interesting and distinct, but shallow, with very limited personal interactions and basic banter. I did appreciate how involved they were in dialogue with third parties; Matkina, in particular, has a lot to say to other people in the Bloom and with other Castoffs. No romances, either, but I was expecting that. They were simultaneously one of my favorite parts of the game and an underwhelming part.


Combat. The system seems cool, with tons of strategic options and tactical positioning and special abilities and fettles and stuff. Honestly, though, it seemed over-designed considering how little I actually used it. The fights were all pretty easy, except for one that was intentionally impossible. The conflation of combat and non-combat skills and abilities was a little annoying, since I always felt compelled to take the non-combat ones; I found myself nostalgic for Inquisition's elegant separation of skills and perks.


Failure. One fascinating aspect of the Effort system is that even failing at a challenge can often yield an interesting result. In some cases, though, that failure is much better than a success: in one early example in Sagus Cliffs, succeeding in a Smashing test will yield a small amount of shins, while a failure will provide a permanent boost to your Might pool - which is vastly more useful! I kind of liked the idea behind this, but it ended up being frustrating to not know if I'd be better off succeeding or failing.

Music. It wasn't bad, but was pretty forgettable.

Voice acting. I liked what little of it there was, but there was very little.

Philosophy. The philosophical talk was pretty light: there are a few factions and cults with interesting beliefs, but they're very closely tied to specific Ninth World issues and not particularly resonant. You get a couple of "What do you believe?" questions along the way, but not much of a background for compelling choices. That isn't necessarily a problem, games don't need to be philosophical, but there was less than I remembered in Planescape: Torment and less than I was expecting.

Message. Along the same lines, the central question of "What does one life matter?" didn't resonate with me as much as "What can change the nature of a man?" did in PS:T. That's very likely due to differences in me and not in the games, but I also feel like PS:T did more work to set up and explore its question.

Stakes. The Castoff's situation is unique and interesting, but partly because of that it felt bloodless and not particularly relatable. You're dealing with vast, metaphysical consequences unlike anything you will encounter in real life. On the one hand, that's cool: it's fiction, so we get to experience something we'll never experience otherwise. On the other hand, though, I didn't really feel especially invested in the outcome, apart from the impact on one or two characters. On the whole, the big decision here didn't feel nearly as compelling as the lower-stakes final choices of the games I've been playing lately. I think that it's hard to write for characters operating at near-god-like power levels, but it might have helped to have stronger analogues to "real life" scenarios instead of being so fantastic.

MEGA SPOILERS

Callistege's ascension was interesting. I'd supported her research throughout, and initially thought I'd messed up when she left my party after I aided her in merging with the datasphere. I thought it was really cool how she popped back up again in the various endings, and behaved differently in them depending on what was happening in the world.



As for the big ending choice: I'd initially mis-read "sever the tidal connections" option. I thought that it would remove the Castoffs' immortality and their tidal abilities, but hadn't realized that it would actually kill them, so I audibly "Whoops!"'d once the Sorrow asked me to justify my choice. After seeing that play out, I went with restoring Miika, which seems like the most "good" ending to the game. (Sidebar: I really liked the delayed revelation that the Changing God was the Ghostly Woman's father; that's especially good game design, as it had been presented as an optional side-quest that I'd closed the book on, so having it resurface so late in the game was really cool.) After that I tried collecting our consciousness in Matkina, which was one of the lower-key endings but still interesting.


My last action was to refuse the Sorrow and destroy it. I'd assumed that this would lead to an optional final battle, and had hoped that it would unlock some better endings. Miika had suggested earlier on that there might be another option for restoring her to life besides eliminating the castoffs, and I only had the Sorrow's word for the consequences its destruction would incur. Instead of a triumphant battle, though, everything plays out the way the Sorrow said, with what seems like a clear worst ending. I'm glad that they included this option, and in general I'm pleased that there's no one "best" / "perfect" outcome (at least as far as I know; I'll spoiler myself as soon as I post this). Trading off between flawed alternatives is a lot more interesting. That said, as noted above, I didn't feel especially invested in these endings, beyond a general desire for Matkina, Rhin and Calistege to be all right.

END SPOILERS

Well, it's been a long time coming! It doesn't sound like T:ToN has been a big success, so it seems unlikely that we'll see a sequel to it or other games set in this universe. Still, the original PS:T was also widely recognized as a failure, and it managed to inspire legions of devoted fans, so who knows what the future might hold for this legacy. I enjoyed this game: it won't be joining my ranks of favorite games, but it's a great palette cleanser that shows other possibilities in how we can make and play RPGs. Even if I'm not particularly eager to play this game again, I suspect I'll be citing aspects of it as examples of good game design for quite a while.