Friday, March 16, 2018

Scarred for Life

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

Thursday, March 08, 2018

So Long

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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