Monday, November 26, 2012

There Are More Kickstarters in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, Than Are Dreamt of in Your Philosophy

Hey, here's something I haven't plugged yet!

Ryan North has created To Be Or Not To Be, a new Kickstarter for a choose-your-own-adventure-style gamebook that allows you to play through the story of Hamlet. This combines many of my favorite things into one delicious package:
* The comedy stylings of Ryan North, as exemplified through projects such as Dino Comics and B^F.
* The dramatic stylings of Shakespeare, and specifically, my favorite play from The Bard.
* Humorous japes at honored literary institutions (see also: Bored of the Rings, Fool)
* Text adventures
* Choose-your-own-adventure books
* The artistry of Kate Beaton!
* The artistry of Jeffrey Rowland!
* The artistry of Randall Munroe!
* The artistry of Andrew Hussie!
* The artistry of Anthony Clark!
* The artistry of Chris Hastings!
* The artistry of David Malki!
* The artistry of Jess Fink! (Link NSFW!)
* The artistry of KC Green!
* The artistry of Matthew Inman! (Wow... while typing out this list, I'm belatedly realizing how much I missed when collating my earlier list of webcomics artists I enjoy, if more occasionally than I would like.)
* Sword fights!
* Kickstarter projects

Ryan has already written the book, so the funds are all going to making as great a package as possible. It raised his goal in just over THREE HOURS, and since then has grown more than tenfold. We have now funded full illustrations for all of the hundred-plus deaths in the book, a prequel mini-adventure (Poor Yorick!), multiple free ebooks of Dino Comics collections, a promise at a sequel (no decision yet as to what, although the comments have been cheerfully agitating for a comedy like Measure For Measure or As You Like It), a sweet multi-partite bookmark perfect for maintaining multiple states within the book, etc. And so far the project hasn't shown much sign of slowing down, so more rewards are getting added and knocked away quickly.

I really like the direction he's taking the project. It's very funny, of course. The setting is grounded in Shakespeare's story, and if you want to, you can play the story through to its original conclusion (though, as he notes, he WON'T skip the pirate fight, and also, the original ending is kind of a bummer). Much of the book will let you explore alternate approaches and different perspectives, though... you can also play as Ophelia, or as Hamlet Sr. (a g-g-g-g-ghost!) investigating his own death.

The language is... well, it isn't Shakespearean, but I love it. Very in keeping with Ryan's voice, which I enjoy immensely.

If you're at all curious, check it out! The pledges start at just $15, which was originally only for the ebook but is now picking up a bunch of stretch goal bonuses. I'm currently pledged at $20, which gets a nifty printed and signed copy of the book, but I'll probably upgrade at some point so I can take advantage of the new goodies added to higher levels.

One of the nicest aspects of this project that I didn't anticipate (but perhaps should have) is the really cool community that has swiftly sprung up around it. Checking out the comments section always makes me smile. Ryan is definitely encouraging people to participate through the very clever device of letting us make a new choice in the book each time a new fundraising goal is reached, so we're essentially playing it as a group. What's really wonderful, though, is the high quality of contributions. People argue for their idea with passion, cleverness, and/or good humor. I've seen Shakespearean sonnets! Copious references to my best-loved lines from Dino Comics! Heartfelt arguments for extra material focusing on Horatio or Rosencrantz and Guidenstern. Anyways... it's the most activity I've seen on a Kickstarter project since Shadowrun, and I have to say that the value of the average contribution here is quite a bit higher.

In totally unrelated news:

I'm writing this post on board a Southwest Airlines flight from Chicago back to San Francisco. I'm extremely frugal at heart, and this is the first time I've been able to make myself pay the measley five bucks to get online. It's... interesting! This is probably the best example I've seen so far of a high-bandwidth, high-latency connection. Hitting a site like Google News might take over 30 seconds to start loading, but once it does, it all arrives almost instantly. I don't think this would work too well for streaming or stuff, but it's been surprisingly bearable for playing turn-based web games like Fallen London and generally keeping me awake. Definitely worth the five dollars, but keep your expectations low.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Travelin' Man

Some aspects of long plane rides are not fun, but I do appreciate having a huge, unbroken period of time with nothing better to do than read through a novel. Ordinarily it might have taken me weeks or longer to finish The Time Traveler's Wife, but instead, I read through almost its entire length during a San Francisco - Chicago flight. I think I still would have enjoyed it regardless, but having a shorter duration probably did help me stay on top of the pleasingly complex plot and track what what each of the characters knew and when they knew it.


The Time Traveler's Wife is based around a sci-fi conceit (time travel, natch), but it doesn't really read like a sci-fi book. It's much closer to a character study, or even a romance. Time travel isn't some amazing super power that lets people go on adventures; instead it's a frightening, uncontrollable, often painful malady that Henry, the protagonist, must endure. Time travel creates much of the tension in this book, and Henry and his eventual wife Clare work hard to limit its damage.

That said, I deeply appreciated just how thoughtfully the author approached the concept of time travel. It isn't some hand-wave-y plot device like what occasionally crops up in Star Trek or Superman. It follows very specific rules, which are explained early on and consistently adhered to throughout the book. Most theories of time travel either follow a multiverse model, where traveling through time essentially creates a new reality based on the changes you make out of time, or a universe model, where the time traveler is prevented from making changes to history. This book follows the latter model very closely, with some interesting wrinkles. The concept of time travel raises the uncomfortable problem of paradox: what happens if you travel back in time, and make some change that prevents you from being able to travel back in time from the future? In The Time Traveler's Wife (henceforth TTTW), Henry is constantly showing up in his own past, but it's fine since he's always shown up in his own past. In other words, when two versions of him meet himself, the older version will remember the meeting from the first time, and it will be new for the younger version.

In a few ways, this book kind of reminds me of the movie Primer, which remains the best time-travel movie I've ever seen. TTTW has more heart, and is more focused on relationships, but both offer very sensible thoughts about how time travel could work, and much of the pleasure of both works is figuring out a very complex puzzle that extends through time in interesting ways. Whenever you see a person, you need to figure out whether you're seeing someone who is existing in "prime" time, or if they are a traveler from another period in time. Unlike Primer, though, I think you end a first read of this book with a very clear understanding of how the pieces of the puzzle fit together.

While time travel is cool concept, it's not the most important part of this book. That would definitely be the relationship between Henry and Clare. It's a love story, but thanks to the time travel aspect, it's a very unique love story. In real time, Henry is 8 years older than Clare. They eventually get married when Henry is 30 and Clare is 22. After marriage, Henry travels back in time and meets Clare on multiple occasions while she's growing up. He first meets her when she's a little girl of six; this is the first time she's met him, and he knows everything about her: her family, her studies, her toys, her house. Over the years, he helps her with her schoolwork, listens to her talk about her friends, and watches her grow up to a young woman. Eventually she moves to Chicago where she meets him... but since she's 20 and he's 28, he hasn't yet met her, so he is meeting her for the first time. Their situations are now reversed: she knows a lot about him since she grew up with him, but he doesn't know anything about her.

That sort of thing is complicated, but also quite lovely. Every piece of it makes sense even if the situation as a whole seems impossible. The book directly addresses the questions of free will, causality, and determinism that are raised by Henry's excursions. Henry seems to have a pretty solid handle on it: things happen once, and they happen a certain way. You can't change anything, since whatever happens, has already happened. The characters don't spend too much time trying to fight this; out of curiosity they attempt once or twice to do something that would change the future, but the future always ends up happening anyways.

Incidentally: the idea of an adult man meeting a young girl for whom he will eventually have a romantic relationship might sound rather skeezy, but the author (who is female) really makes it work well. Henry has matured considerably by the time he meets Clare in the past, and is always very well behaved (while being very self-aware of the oddities of the situation). The book very forthrightly describes the physical aspects of their relationship, and it's impressive that it comes away as so heartwarming. I found myself thinking of the Ben Folds song "The Luckiest," which described a somewhat similar scenario of encountering your true love out of time.

I'm now realizing that I haven't even mentioned the supporting characters, which is a shame. Henry and Clare definitely form the core of the novel: the sections alternate in viewpoint from one to the other, with each taking turns narrating the story. Not as much time is given to the rest of the cast, but they're still really well-written, variable in personality and role, drawing out interesting aspects of the two leads and pursuing their own agendas at the same time. Several are sad: Henry's father, Clare's mother, and Ingrid all live pained and somewhat self-destructive lives. (Even then, though, one of the interesting aspects of the book's construction is that you can shift in time to see periods when they were happy. The book's emotional narrative arc need not follow its emotional chronological arc.) Many others are good friends, who might know about Henry's problems, and support the couple. It's interesting to see other peoples' reactions to time travel: generally they flat-out disbelieve him, but after seeing it in action (for example, being confronted with two versions of Henry), they update their view of what is possible, and become surprisingly nonchalant about the situation.

Most of the book is very uplifting. There are moments of tragedy throughout, though, and the book grows gradually darker as you approach the end. Again, thanks to the unusual construction of the book, the author can get away with some interesting narrative choices: Henry knows in advance what will happen, and so you as the reader know what is coming, which actually raises the tension and creates a palpable sense of dread that looms over the reader. (I'm somewhat reminded of the best Kurt Vonnegut novels, where he tells you in the first page or so how the book will end, and yet the story becomes even more gripping as you approach the inevitable conclusion. But here, there is no omniscient narrator "spoiling" things for us, but an actual character inside the text yet outside of time.) I was happy with the very very ending of the book, which kept it from being as bleak as it might otherwise have been. Again, with this sort of story, you could choose to end it at any point along the timeline, and I appreciated the last act of grace.


I realized as I read this book that I really don't read many romances. Obviously I won't ever read from the genre of the romance novel, but the novels I read typically don't even have that strong of a focus on romantic relationships. The most recent example I can think of is 1Q84, but even that was... well, there was very little exploration of romance, more of a single moment of intense kindness in childhood that radiated out through all realities to bind two souls together across being and un-being. Erm. Where was I? Oh, yeah... weirdly enough, I've probably spent much more time on romances in video games (Baldur's Gate 2, Dragon Age, Mass Effect trilogy) than reading romances in books. I enjoyed this one very much. The concept of the book let the author create something that has never happened, and can never happen, and yet allows her to deeply engage with the subject in a unique yet veracious manner.

Apparently a movie was made from this book. I've been warned against it, so I doubt I'll see it. I loved the images I got from the book, and will be happy keeping them unadorned in my head into the future.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Low, Low, Low

Here's another quickie Kickstarter post. You remember The Silver Tree? The Kickstarter that Failbetter did a while back? Well, they're at it again! Up next is Below, a "dungeon-delving RPG card game."

One thing that's really nice about this project is that, in addition to the requisite inspirational video and gushing description of the end product, they actually include a playable prototype of the game. It's built on their StoryNexus platform, so, as they point out in their "Risks & Challenges" section, they aren't really creating any new technology for this project. The funding is all for the art, the story, and other aspects of content. They are quick to point out that it's an early prototype with placeholder art, but I actually think it looks really good. I was kind of expecting them to recycle prior art from Fallen London and/or The Silver Tree, but so far all the cards share a nifty, unique aesthetic... it fits in very nicely with the subterranean mood of the setting.

I've only played a bit of the game so far, but I'm cautiously optimistic. As they say, the feel of the game is quite different from other Failbetter projects that they've done. This is kind of an homage to or emulation of classic dungeon crawls, so instead of progressing through a choose-your-own-adventure tale, it'll be a bit more of a game approach: explore a level of the dungeon, find equipment and improve your stats, then descend to the next level and take on more difficult challenges. But, it'll still have a very strong overarching narrative that will get into your character's motivations and the life they were leading on the surface.

So far, I think my favorite aspect of the game is the writing. It sounds very anglo-saxon, like something from a lost section of Beowulf. Take this sentence from the introduction: "Each year the Sea-Kings come in greater numbers, with their dawn-winking swords, their tall ships serpent-prowed." I love it! The setting is excellent as well, kind of dark and atmospheric without being macabre. It's kind of hard to describe, but it's very different from Fallen London's atmosphere, despite the fact that both games are set almost entirely underground. The Kickstarter page references classic literary dungeon settings like Moria and the Tombs of Atuan. I still vividly remember my impressions of Moria when I first encountered it as a child, and I retain that same sensation of fascination mixed with dread when I think of these sorts of cave settings. (Of course, from a gaming perspective, the best analogy is probably something like Rogue/NetHack... but I think BELOW is aiming more at literary predecessors.)

It is pretty cool to see how flexible StoryNexus is... I'd initially assumed that it would be for people to make games like Fallen London, just in different genre settings, but I'm increasingly impressed by the very distinct types of games that they've been able to construct out of the same building blocks (multiple card decks, a hand, pinned cards, qualities, and items). It should help spur adoption, since people can start playing different games with a system that has familiar elements, but still expresses a lot of variety from one creator to the next. (In other words, it looks like building a StoryNexus game isn't just a matter of providing content: it's also designing a gaming system. Personally, I think that sounds like at least as much fun!)

The only downside so far is that the rewards don't have too much to offer Fallen London players. The Silver Tree kickstarter had some nifty perks like access to a new location, multiple items, and new storylines. As far as I can tell, the only Fallen London perk for this project is a single item that's available at 30 pounds (roughly $45). Well, there was also a second bottle of Hesperidean Cider, but it was snapped up very quickly; and also some bespoke characters/stories, which sound AWESOME, but are all rather pricey at 150-1000 pounds.

Still, for just doing Below stuff, all the rewards are extremely well-priced: you're essentially pre-ordering some unique content and getting a discount. If my experiences with The Silver Tree are to be relied upon, it would be money very well spent!

Monday, November 12, 2012


It figures that, on one of the rare occasions when I mention on this blog that I've started reading a new book, it takes me embarrassingly long to finish it. Telegraph Avenue really isn't a difficult book - the language is clear, the plot moves around nicely, and there's a good mix of humor and angst that keeps things engaging. All I have to offer in my defense is the Presidential election and Skyrim, both of which took way too much of my time and attention over the last month or two.

But, yeah... now that I've finished it, I can say that Telegraph Avenue is definitely a good book! Among Chabon's other novels, I can only compare it to The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. I liked that other book a little more than this one, but Telegraph Avenue is still quite good, and I think my preference for Kavalier may have more to do with my genre inclinations than anything else.


The books are similar in that they share a strong focus on a complex relationship between two men, both troubled and loving, and how their business partnership sours over the years. In Kavalier, we travel through decades of time with the two protagonists, experiencing the thrill of success and the sickening worry of defeat. Telegraph Avenue takes place over a much compressed timeframe of about a month, so much of its relationship arcs are told in retrospect rather than shown in the present. In the earlier book, the partners' personal lives drive a wedge into their business; in this new book, problems with the business spill over and damage their personal lives.

Nat Jaffe and Archy Stallings are infinitely less famous than Sam Clay and Joe Kavalier, and the greatest strength of the book may be the way it zooms in on and fully inhabits a particular neighborhood, with a certain culture, with a small universe of characters with lifelong relationships. It's a really neat and deep look at the web of relationships that each of us have, from those closest to us (spouses, family, business associates) to friends to acquaintances to the people we recognize but never speak to. There's a really touching scene after one character dies when we get to see many of the other people who had touched his life. Some of this man's best friends didn't know about those parts of his life, and start reconciling their idea of who he was with this new information. That felt like a very realistic situation: we all are complex people, with many facets, and any given person will only see some aspects of who we are.

Telegraph Avenue does have a wider range of main characters than Kavalier did; the earlier book was mostly focused on the two titular protagonists, with a large supporting cast. Telegraph Avenue gives equal time to Nat, Archy, Archy's pregnant wife Gwen, Nat's son Julius, and Julius's friend Titus. (Archy's wife Aviva seems like she should also be in this list, though to me she seemed less present than the others.) Several powerful businessmen (either nationally powerful or locally powerful, and sometimes locally powerful is more within the book's context) fill more or less antagonistic roles. There's a small constellation of quirky characters who spend part of their lives in Brokeland Records: Moby the wigger environmental lawyer, Singletary the local entrepreneur, an elderly musician, a parrot, and more. And then there are the people whose lives only briefly touch the protagonists', appearing in a single cameo scene: Mr. Nostalgia, and an ambitious state senator from Illinois.

Some reviewers have mainly discussed this novel as a book about race. I actually thought it was kind of the opposite: it's a book where race plays a surprisingly minor role. I can think off hand of one major racially-tinged incident, which does cast an ugly pall over the people it affects, but for the most part this is a book about people living remarkably unprejudiced lives. I didn't figure out what race everyone was until a hundred pages or so into the book, and while race certainly does play a part in the plot (which includes some old Blaxpoitation movies and worries over authenticity), the book's focus is much more on human issues.

As with Kavalier, the book doesn't try to sugarcoat everything and lead everyone to a perfect ending free of any pain. Everyone turns out all right in the end, but in a way that feels earned. People have made mistakes, and they pay for those mistakes; some good things in their lives are gone, and they feel ambiguous towards the new things replacing them. The characters become marginally but measurably better people by the novel's end.


All in all, it's a fairly low-stakes but impressive novel, trading off the sweeping grandeur of Kavalier for greater intimacy. I'd recommend the novel to anyone who likes Chabon's other books, and would HIGHLY recommend it to anyone who has spent any time in the East Bay.

Friday, November 09, 2012

All Shall Find the Light at Last / Silver on the Tree

I've finished The Silver Tree, Failbetter Games' latest contribution to their StoryNexus platform. It's the first StoryNexus game that I've actually finished: I lost interest in Cabinet Noir (though I may revisit it sometime), and they haven't finished all the storylines in Fallen London yet. It was cool to see what an entire Failbetter narrative arc feels like, and I was pretty impressed with the result.

Failbetter seems to take a page from Bioware's philosophy towards game design. Stories matter, choices matter, characters matter. You're given a few decisions early on that help shape your conception of your character. As you play the game, you get a better understanding of the world you're in, what plots are unfolding, what's at stake. And, at the end, you make decisions that affect the outcome of that world. It isn't a totally wide-open world - you can't kill Lord British - but it is a much richer and more involved narrative than most games can offer.

MINI SPOILERS for THE SILVER TREE (includes game mechanics for this and Fallen London but no plot information):

The system for The Silver Tree has the same major components as Fallen London, but they are far simpler, mostly because there are far fewer of them. Fallen London has four primary qualities, probably over a hundred secondary qualities, four main menaces, and over a hundred types of items; it also has many locations and long storylines. The Silver Tree has three primary qualities; the secondary qualities mostly just track your progress in each of the half-dozen plots; there's just one menace; and there are only three important types of items (but another three for Kickstarter backers and/or Nex customers). So, it's much easier to understand what's going on, and to track your progress through the game.

Even though the two games both use the same components of qualities and items, the way they're used are quite different. For starters, instead of increasing your primary qualities by using them, you increase them by collecting and spending items. The opportunity deck is pretty different, too: in Fallen London, cards are free to draw but cost actions to play; in The Silver Tree, it costs an action to draw, but the cards are free to play.

The biggest change is probably in how story progression works. Fallen London has many different systems throughout the game, but most often, you'll raise a minor quality to a certain level, then learn the next story beat; this will often reset that minor quality or give you a new one, which you then need to raise again to learn the next plot point; and so on. So, you tend to follow a more or less linear progression within any given plot; sometimes you can choose between multiple paths, or decide in which order to do things. The Silver Tree works the opposite way: you can do the story beats at any time, in any order, and doing so raises the story's minor quality. Once it gets high enough (typically 20, sometimes 30), that plot is done, and you need to make a decision. From a plot perspective, the idea is that you're gradually investigating and learning things, and once you've learned enough, you decide what to do with your knowledge; it's an aggregating process, not a linear progression.

It was an interesting variation, but I think I prefer the Fallen London style. My biggest problem is that, with something like six different plots, each of which have many story beats, some from your deck and some from "pinned cards" (which seems to be the new nomenclature for storylets), it's extremely difficult to keep track of what stories you've already played, and which are new. I'm pretty sure that there are fewer than 20 for each of them, so you'll probably eventually repeat some, which is fine; but the game would also let you play the same plot 20 times, in which case you'd never get to see the other options. I can remember whether some of the result text I'm reading is a duplicate, but the prompts are brief enough that it's really hard to recall whether or not it goes with an already-explored result. I think the game would benefit immensely from some sort of icon indicating whether or not you've previously taken a particular choice.

One or two plots do work somewhat differently, which I appreciated... I think either The Sculptor's Story or A Sip of Immortality. Unlike the other plots, whose only requirement is a plot value between 1 and 20, this one broke down the stories differently: some for levels 1-5, then 6-10, 11-15, etc. This helped immensely, since I'm much more likely to remember whether I took an option in the near past than remember whether I ever did it. It also lets the story feel more like a Fallen London progression, with you actually digging deeper and learning more secret stuff, instead of just additional stuff.

As for strategy: as far as I can tell, it looks like the best plan is to use the opportunity deck for almost all of your actions. This lets you essentially triple your progress, since you're spending 1 action for 3 moves; as a bonus, many of the options give you better results, or let you raise your major quality more cheaply. Use pinned cards to kick off each plot; use to play each plot option once (assuming you're a story-hound like me); if you have the Place of Whispers, play those stories if you like; and once you raise your story qualities to 20 or 30, play the pinned cards to end the plots. Otherwise, cards for everything.

That said, I believe that the quickest way to end the game might be to exclusively play the pinned cards. The flow of a deck-based game is that you gradually acquire more Trusted stats for the three characters; then, when you advance a story, that Trusted is converted to an equal number of items; and, periodically, you'll cash in many items for a boost in a primary quality. However, with the repeatable pinned cards, you can skip challenges altogether and simply advance stories by converting between Trusted and items. For example, one story might require 20 Trusted by the Khan and reward you with 20 Gifts; another will require 20 Gifts and return you 20 Trusted by the Khan. Playing this way will never advance your stat, and you'll miss many of the unique stories, but I think you could finish the game in just about 40 actions this way. If I re-play the game, I may try that, just to quickly check out some of the alternate endings.

MEGA SPOILERS (includes plot and an ending for The Silver Tree, and some minor references to Fallen London):

I was initially attracted to The Silver Tree by the promise of a tie-in to Fallen London, and it didn't disappoint. This doesn't exactly feel like a prequel, but there are some nice thematic nods towards future events and settings in London, and lots of nifty little hidden gems that will catch the attention of London veterans. Most of these are associated with The Cloaked Emissary's story, which sheds a lot of light on the process by which a city falls, but there are many intriguing nuggets scattered throughout. The story of Discovering Another Place has some things to say about Parabola, of which I've also heard a few whispers in London. The Princess's peach brandy explains a lot about The Gracious Widow. And the silver tree itself, of course, is a future fixture in the Forgotten Quarter.

The Silver Tree doesn't try to answer all the questions, which may disappoint some people but I personally enjoyed. I love ambiguity in my fiction, and really enjoy the lingering sense of wonder and mystery that remains when the story is done. I know of the love of the Princess and William; how do I reconcile their story with her eventual identity as The Gracious Widow? Specifically, how was she widowed? I currently am imagining a wedding between the two of them, but what next? Was William killed when Cathay invaded? Did both of them descend to the Neath, in which case, did the Princess's brandy work for herself and not for him? (The brandy itself is pretty fascinating - she developed it herself, without aid from the Bazaar, so it makes sense that, while it would behave somewhat similarly to Hesperidean Cider, it may not be as reliable, or may have other effects.)

One of the benefits and risks of a Bioware-style approach is reconciling continuity and canon with varying player choice. Within the frame of the story, we know that, no matter what, Karakorum will come under attack, and we know that, eventually, it will be a decayed ruin underneath Fallen London. But the question of HOW it falls remain up in the air; and furthermore, your choices will help decide WHY it falls. I'd be curious to re-try the endings sometime and see how other stories finish. In my case, I chose to confront the Cloaked Emissary. This turned out to be a perfect option for a Fallen London player like me, since this way I learned that this wasn't just any master, but Mr Wines, probably the favorite among them all. I spirited him away from the city and set him up in Rome, presumably under the watchful eye of the Pope. And, who knows, maybe he was one of the first Masters to have cast an eye upon London.

I was pretty tempted to pick one of the Princess's endings - I had "Sympathetic to the Princess" at 3 by the story's end - but none of the options sounded quite right for my character.

Oh, speaking of which: this game doesn't have quite the same degree of customization as what you can get in Fallen London - there's no stats like Subtle or Heartless - and the stories you play within the game don't really make a difference, but the way you start and end those stories does let you construct a good vision of who you are. So: in my case, I was Seberin Cirion, an emissary from the Pope, officially there to learn about the Mongol culture, but secretly to discover the capabilities of the Mongol army and provide that information to the leaders of Europe. I was strong in my faith, naming my falcon Iohannes after Saint John; over time, I became more and more intrigued by what I learned of Mongol culture (drinking airag, dreaming strange dreams of another place), and ended up embracing much of what I had learned. I was intrigued by the quiet struggle between Khan, Princess, and Sculptor; I liked the Princess and wanted her to find happiness, but worried about the Sculptor's ulterior motives. Specifically, I learned that he was there on orders from Europe, whose leaders had somehow learned of the Bazaar, and wanted to make sure that the Masters took Karakorum instead of one of their own cities. His love of the Princess seemed genuine, but less important than his devotion to the nations of Europe. I never quite figured out what the Interpreter was up to.

After I had completed my official and secret missions, and all of my other plots, I confessed my actions to the Khan and offered to help him. This led to the very final part of the game, where you can choose your own ending. I had something like ten options; the choices you make with each of the other stories (The Cloaked Emissary, The Sculptor's Tale, The Silver Tree, The Khan and His Daughter, Seeking Another Place) will each unlock one or two possible endings, either directly (as with the Cloaked Emissary) or by providing another stat (The Sculptor's Tale and The Khan and His Daughter can each provide Sympathetic to the Princess). I think I unlocked everything except for the Interpreter's ending.

At the end of the Cloaked Emissary's story, I had two choices: agree to save Karakorum by letting the city be sold, or to ensure that the city was destroyed by Cathay. Neither choice was too appealing, but I understand that the fate of the city is sealed, so I went with the first choice. When it came to the end of the game, though, I chose not to facilitate the sale. Instead, as noted above, I absconded with the Emissary. I do hope that the Princess came to a happy end. Well... she hasn't ended yet, but you know what I mean.


The Silver Tree was a really fun game, and I think it could be a great gateway game for people who might feel overwhelmed by Fallen London's scope. I loved the atmosphere, the writing, the characters (those brief sentences add up to really rich and nuanced portraits of a half-dozen enigmatic people), and the gorgeous artwork. Best of all, the game is a great exemplar of the "choices matter" philosophy of game design, and if you're like me, you'll be thinking long and hard before you click that final button.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Partly Cloudy

I finally made it out to see Cloud Atlas! Sadly, the movie doesn't seem to be doing well at the box office, so I figured I should catch it while it's still available. I'm glad I did - I found it very satisfying, both as an adaptation and in its own right.


Many reviews have focused on how the film casts the same actors in multiple roles. Some reviewers dislike this, saying that it's distracting and pulls you out from the movie; personally, I enjoyed it. It adds yet another dimension to what's already a nicely complex movie with a whole lot going on. The actors wax and wane in their various roles, starring in one time period and playing a minor part or just appearing as a walk-on in another period. The exception is Hugo Weaving, who gives an insanely villainous tour-de-force, appearing as a primary villain in every single storyline.

One rare weakness in the movie: Doona Bae, the Korean actress who portrays Sonmi-451, doesn't speak English terribly well. This isn't a problem at all in the Neo-Seoul portions, where it sounds right to hear English dialog in a strong Korean accent. However, it does make things a bit awkward when she plays a Westerner in some other time periods. I think her make-up is actually really impressive (particularly when she portrays a freckled red-haired lady), but the dialog does make me cringe a little.

The music is wonderful! It's much more orchestral than anything I've heard from the Wachowskis or Tywker previously; a few scenes of the Neo-Seoul period have more action-movie-sounding music, but the rest is majestically instrumental. I rarely bring the music in a film home with me, but I thought the Cloud Atlas theme was haunting, and it's still playing in my head now. I may actually buy the soundtrack, which would be the first time I've done that since the nineties. It totally makes sense that music would be a strength of the movie, given that Robert Frobisher is a composer, and Luisa Rey finds his music.

The movie plays a lot with the idea of repetition, in many different forms, as ideas and acts echo throughout time. Casting is one of the most obvious aspects of this, when we see the same actors appear in different roles. Music is another: we hear the Cloud Atlas theme early on, and catch traces of it appearing in different variations later. The movie directly borrows some elements from David Mitchell's book, such as the birthmark shaped like a comet. We're treated multiple times to some of the best dialog in the movie, as various powerful ideas are restated, often by the same actor but different characters. Some of these are depressingly cold sentiments: "The weak are meat and the strong do eat." "There is a natural order in the world, and those who try to upend it do not fare well." Others are more hopeful, uplifting ideas: "Our lives are not our own, we are bound to others, past and present. And by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future." These lines resonate, growing stronger each time we hear them.

It's a funny movie, too. Most of the humor is in the Timothy Cavendish setting, but due to how the movie is cut, its comic relief gets spread around. Cavendish is as funny in the movie as he is in the book; he's a little less acerbic, more of a victim and less of a rascal (though we do get some good glimpses of that when he's trying to raise money), but they wrote some good new lines for him for the film. The theater I was in was more than happy to laugh with him. Jim Broadbent is just a great actor, taking some sayings that could be cheesy and making them wonderful.

I tend to really enjoy self-aware movies, even more so than self-aware books and much more than other forms of self-aware art. There are some fun, winking parts where the movie acknowledges its quirks. The film opens with rapid cutting between all of the six plotlines, including the end of Sixsmith, the start of Ewing, Sonmi's confession, and so on; this seems purposely designed to disorient viewers, but comes to an end when Timothy Cavendish, seated at an old-fashioned typewriter, grouses about how he "dislikes flashbacks, foreshadowing, and all sorts of tricky devices." From then on, the movie grows much better behaved, with title cards for each time period and a more sensible chronological progression within each story. There's also a fun bit where we (through Sonmi's eyes) get to see the theatrical adaptation of The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish. The role of Cavendish, which is played by Jim Broadbent in Cloud Atlas, is played by Tom Hanks in the film-within-a-film. It seems like... well, like you would expect a Hollywood adaptation of the movie to look like. Cavendish is strong, confident, heroic, the antithesis of the bewildered, cranky old man we know.

There's an interesting idea in the movie that... well, I suppose it might have been in the book, but it felt fresh when I saw it in this context. That Cavendish film is pretty corny, but it includes a dramatic line reading from Hanks, something like "I will not stand for this gross injustice." It seemed overly dramatic when Jim Broadbent said it originally, and comical when Hanks said it. However, that short movie clip fascinates Yoona-939, and seems to serve as a sort of inspiration in her rebellion: she quotes it after taking her independent action that moves her towards freedom. I love it. It plays into one of the major themes of Cloud Atlas, where an idea or act that one person takes ripples forward in time to have a great impact. It's also cool because it's a case of showing how art can influence life. We think of fiction (whether books or movies) as "fake," divorced from reality; but the ideas within them can have profound impacts on entire civilizations. I honestly believe that we would be living in a much darker world if George Orwell hadn't written 1984; the vivid warning of that book has helped westerners fight back against encroaching authoritarianism in democracies. (Conversely, while I was watching the previews before Cloud Atlas, including Gangster Squad and Zero Dark Thirty, I found myself wondering whether the way we depict violence in our movies impacts American attitudes towards... well, everything.)


What I REALLY want to talk about are the differences between the book and the movie. Consider this section to be filled with spoilers for both.

Like I wrote at the very top of this post, I was really impressed with the adaptation. The movie is quite long, coming in at a little under three hours (and, once you account for trailers and such, you'll be in that theater for a bit over three hours), but even with all that time, they still needed to trim the book's plot to make everything fit. I think they did a great job at accomplishing this. Some characters are dropped, some scenes excised, a few chronologies reworked, but none of the changes seemed to harm the core themes of the book and movie. It must have been a gargantuan undertaking, and they passed with flying colors.

Hm... I guess I'll tackle my major observations going in book order. Let's start with Adam Ewing!

The meeting with the pastor happens at the very beginning of the movie, unlike the book, where the captain didn't meet him until a later island. A ton of dialog was removed, but the movie kept the most important beats. I think that, with just a handful of scenes, they did a great job at capturing Adam's moral evolution. When he dines at the beginning, he demurs on the question of slavery (and, for that matter, women's liberation): he doesn't agree with the institution, but his desire to be agreeable keeps him from speaking out against it. By the end of the film, his convictions have grown strong enough for him to (politely but firmly) stand up to his father-in-law. This is probably a good place to note that I found all of the characters very believable and faithfully adapted from the book; there was nothing comparable to, say, seeing Faramir transformed into a power-hungry antagonist.

The Adam Ewing section is notable because it's a case where the movie actually adds something: we get to see Ewing return to San Francisco and be reunited with his family. I loved this part! First, it's incredibly cool to see a Barbary Coast-era San Francisco - there's just a brief shot of the city, with sparse houses on very green hills, and it made me oddly emotional. It also gives a definitive happy ending to what I had thought of as an ambiguously sinister one. As I mentioned in my review of the book, my personal crazy theory is that, after Ewing shared his journals with the captain, he was murdered before he could expose his misdeeds. It makes me much happier to think that Ewing was actually reunited with his loved ones.

Robert Frobisher's section was one of my favorites from the book, and I enjoyed the movie quite as well. While his personality was very much in keeping with the book's Frobisher - smart, arrogant, sensitive, ambitious - it did feel like they modified his sexuality. In the books, I thought of Frobisher as being about a 2 on the Kinsey scale; in the movies, it's more like a 4. He's obviously very fond of Sixsmith in both, but the movie seems to hold that relationship as being a one-true-love type of thing; in the book, his appetites were strong and varied. The movie keeps his trysts with Jocasta, but completely eliminates the Eva character. His sexuality becomes much more important in the movie, since he makes an advance on Vyvyan, and that act is what leads to their separation and his eventual suicide; I'm pretty sure that in the book, it's purely their ambitions and pride that drive them apart. I'll be honest: I thought about Lana Wachowski during these scenes, and wondered how much her own experiences might have informed this. Still, while these are changes from the book, they don't at all make this section any weaker or dull its themes. I suppose the ultimate effect is to make Frobisher even more sympathetic, and Vyvyan less so.

One very curious change from the book was to set the Frobisher section in Scotland rather than in Belgium. This seems designed so they can use Chateu Zedelghem as the retirement home in The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy, which does give them a nifty repeated visual. It also seems to further disprove my crazy theory about Ewing's murder, since there's even less reason for why a Dutch captain's library would end up in a Scottish manor than a Belgian one. And I suppose it makes more sense for Frobisher to flee to Scotland than to Belgium. And explain why everyone is speaking English. So, I guess maybe I'm not so curious about the change after all. However, I do find it much harder to imagine one of Europe's most brilliant composers of the 1930s living in Scotland and meeting with German visitors there. Eh.

Halle Berry was fantastic as Luisa Rey in her section. This was one of the parts that made me think I may have mis-understood the novel, though I should re-read it and make sure. When I was reading her (many!) chapters in the book, I thought that the big plot was just that Swannekke wanted to cut costs, and then to cover up their tracks; the movie makes it very clear that the villains actually WANT the power plant to fail, and the ultimate plot is to discredit alternative energy and ensure Big Oil's continued domination. That's a cool and even more sinister plot than I had expected.

The film kept most of the brutality of the book's Luisa Rey section, with shocking murders sprinkled liberally around. One small consolation: Joe Napier gets to live. I was happy to see that Isaac Sachs dies in the movie; when I saw the trailer, I'd been briefly worried that they'd keep him as a love interest.

There's another minor shift in geography for this part of the movie: in the book, the action mainly takes place in Yerba Buena, a fictional California city that seems to be somewhere along the Central Coast. The name "Yerba Buena" does have strong associations with San Francisco, though, and in the movie they set it in The City. Man... I could say this about every part of the movie, but I LOVE how the San Francisco scenes look. The geography is cool, of course, but it's a real pleasure to see the 1970's depicted today: funky fashions, hilarious dialogue ("If all reporter chicks are like you, I might need to re-think this whole Women's Lib thing!"), gigantic cars chasing each other, an atmosphere mixed with optimism and paranoia.

The Cavendish section is streamlined, getting rid of some business like his long journey to Aurora House, but is probably the most faithful adaptation of any of the stories to film. The one significant shift here happens at the very end, where Cavendish is reunited with Ursula in a very happy ending. Cavendish is also significant because I think it's the one part in the movie that uses a voiceover. (Though, now that I think of it, most of them do retain the framing device of the book: Frobisher writes letters to Sixsmith, Luisa Rey's tales are being heard by a young Javier Gomez, Sonmi-451 is being interrogated by the Archivist, Zachry is telling stories around a campfire.)

By contrast, the Neo-Seoul part was probably the most heavily adapted. One of my few disappointments while watching the trailer was a brief scene that seemed to depict Sonmi getting rescued from Unanimity; I was worried that they would get rid of Sonmi's death and turn it into a cliche Hollywood happy ending. As it turns out, I didn't need to worry. The restructured plot just moves differently than in the book: Sonmi is captured by Unanimity fairly early on, but escapes and joins the resistance before being recaptured near the very end. Anyways... her story's beginning in Papa Song's and her end in the interrogation room were like the book's versions of those scenes, but almost everything in the middle was slightly altered. No time spent in the University, no surgical alterations, no flight to the countryside. The most significant change is probably Sonmi's lover (Hae-Joo Im in the book, though I think they might have renamed the character in the movie); in the book he's actually a very-deep-cover agent for Unanimity, facilitating a conspiracy to strengthen the government by manufacturing a crisis among fabricants. In the movie, though, I think his love and dedication are entirely genuine, and the Union's resistance is real.

Again, though: despite all these tweaks in the plot, the overall arc of the story and its moral themes remarkably remain intact. Sonmi's story is still one of freedom, and courage, of creating an identity from nothing, of discovering painful horrors and feeling compelled to risk everything in order to oppose them. I do get why they changed what they did: there just isn't enough time in a movie to include the lengthy portions of her journey, and an already-large cast would have been more overwhelming if they had included more characters. They managed to hold onto the core even while trimming what they could.

Last, but not least, Zachry. First, I want to address a common criticism I hear, that Tom Hanks is too old for the role of Zachry. It's true that, in the book, Zachry is a young man. However, one of the major points that the book makes is that, other than the Prescients, everyone left on Earth is much sicker and aging much faster than before. Only one person Zachry knows has reached the age of 40, and most members of the community believe that he only succeeded in doing so by selling his soul to the devil. So, the haggish crones we encounter are all people in their 30's. With all that in mind, I think the way Hanks looks in the movie is quite appropriate for someone Zachry's age.

The plot itself is simplified, of course, but I was impressed by how many story beats it was able to retain: the Prescients arriving (a notable occasion, but not so exciting as to make Zachry leave his goats), Meronym's imposition, the threat of the Kona, Meronym's secretive life-saving, the journey up the mountain, the Kona attack, Zachry's escape. A lot is excised or dropped as well: in the movie, the Kona attack as Zachry and Meronym are descending the mountain, and they completely get rid of the trade festival, the Senator, and Zachry's imprisonment. Those are all powerful things, and would have been great if we had a two-hour movie of Sloosha's Crossin' 'n Ev'rythin' After, but I think the movie holds up fine without them.

This section also has one other thing that's either something I totally missed from the book (very possible, especially given Zachry's language), or that was changed for the movie. I was under the impression that Meronym's visit to the island was primarily one of science: she was trying to document the environmental damage, and visited the observatory to try and retrieve information from the Old'uns. In the movie, though, she's clearly on a rescue mission. They mention off-world colonies (both here and, very briefly, in Neo-Seoul), and it sounds like Meronym is sending a distress signal so those colonists can come rescue the survivors of the Fall. They do so, and so the movie has a far more upbeat ending than the book. Sloosha's Crossin' ends with Zachry dying (at a happy old age, granted) on a new island (which I'd taken to be another Pacific island free of the Kona, but I suppose could also have been an analogue to the island Earth); in the movie, he's an old man, married to old Meronym, with grandchildren, on a far planet.

I had mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, it's a very emotionally satisfying conclusion. It doesn't detract from the awfulness of the apocalypse that struck Earth, and still lets the people we like live happily ever after. I also really enjoyed the image of Zachry pointing into a dark sky filled with sparkling lights and showing which one is Earth; it reminded me in a good way of the excellent very end to the Mass Effect trilogy. On the other hand, I found it intellectually troubling. This definitely isn't meant to be a hard science-fiction movie, but I couldn't come up with any good explanations for how they got there. Are the colonies in the Solar System? If so, where? Are they on terraformed moons? Or are they in another star system? If so, it doesn't seem even remotely feasible that a colony could have heard their distress signal, sent a ship, and returned within a hundred years, let alone the few years it seems to have taken them. It also bugged me a bit because I'm wary of a philosophy (which, to be clear, I don't think the movie espouses) that seems to say, "It doesn't matter if we ruin the Earth's environment, because we can always head to another planet to start over." The book ends on a challenging note with a note of hope: Zachry's tribes will need to deal with sins of their ancestors for generations to come, but thanks to his bravery and decency they can do so in a safe environment. The movie ends on a much more optimistic note, where Zachry and Meronym have escaped all the problems of Earth and can start building a new society from scratch, making a fresh start based on solid morals.

So, that piece of it maybe skewed a bit brighter than the book, but it hardly ruined the movie. If anything, it further emphasizes the value of behaving morally towards one another. And I was very happy that the movie didn't shy away from the painful-yet-powerful ends to its stories. The first and last time we see Frobisher, he's committing suicide. Sonmi-451 goes to her death with grace and dignity. Isaac dies a senseless death. I'm not going to complain about Adam and Zachry finding happiness at the ends of their lives.


Good movie! It may be cliche, but the best way I can describe it is "a big-budget indie movie." It's got A-list talent, gorgeous costumes, fantastic sets, wonderful music, and futuristic special effects. It also has an incredibly complex plot, gimmicky casting, an intricate set of references, meta-awareness, and very stylish visual flair. It's a shame that it doesn't seem to be finding an audience, but it seems destined to become one of the future's cult movies. (Oh, and if you are lucky enough to catch it in the theater - you don't need to stick around ALL the way through the credits, but do at least stay until the cast is credited. It's a lot of fun to see all the roles each actor played, many of which caught me by surprise.)

Friday, November 02, 2012


I'm a decent fan of the web comic The Oatmeal. I have a very different relationship with it than I do with my other webcomics, mostly due to its irregular publishing schedule. A lot of webcomics stick to well-known newspaper-style schedules: Sinfest puts out a new strip every single day, including a color strip on Sundays; Penny Arcade has new strips every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. The Oatmeal puts out a new strip when he has a new strip.

They aren't really strips, though: his comics are LONG, and extremely well-drawn. To be very crass, I feel like The Oatmeal produces the same amount of humor content, but delivered in large chunks rather than in a constant stream.

Pretty much everyone first encounters The Oatmeal after being linked to a particularly funny and popular strip of his. There are several such entry points: what life is like for Apple product owners, or paying attention to cats, or why Sriracha is so delicious. Then, once you're on the extremely well-designed website, you start clicking around through the wealth of other great comics (why printers are evil! what the word "literally" means!), and before too long you're a fan.

Matthew Inman, the creator of The Oatmeal, has recently gained some fame and notoriety outside of the world of webcomics-creation. (As a side note, it would be interesting to examine why so many webcomics creators use pseudonyms and what effect, if any, it has. Why do we have Jonathan Gabriel and Tycho Brahe instead of Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins; Oats instead of Inman; The Authors instead of Steve Havelka? This isn't a universal tendency, of course: Ryan North, Kate Beaton, Tatsuya Ishida, and many more proudly write under their own names.) He was involved in (and exacerbated) a legal tussle where someone threatened to sue him after he complained about them stealing his comics. (Yeah, it was as weird as it sounds.) That led into an awesome campaign by Inman to raise money for cancer research and wildlife protection, specifically to spite his enemies. More recently, he tapped the newly-found generosity of Oatmeal readers to raise money to help secure a museum to honor the great(est) inventor Nikola Tesla.

I recently had the pleasure of hearing Inman give a short talk and a Q&A here in San Francisco. Sadly it was in the Marina, but for once I didn't particularly mind trekking out to that particular neighborhood. It was held at the Books Inc. there, and like other branches of that local chain it was well-organized and well-staffed, somehow managing to handle the hundreds of readers who had turned out for the event. It was a young crowd, and while it did give off a bit of a techie vibe, it was more of the cool SF techie than the nerdy Silicon Valley techie that I was kind of expecting.

Inman proved to be a really good speaker, spinning through a series of anecdotes and thoughts. A lot of his talk was autobiographical, and while much of it was familiar to those of us who've kept up with his blog, there were new nuggets of information scattered throughout, including the tale of his family's defective cat, and his extended battle of wills with a friend's cat who confronted a dishwasher.

He graciously took a lot of time for questions from the crowd. Some particular ones that I remember follow:
  • Where does the name The Oatmeal come from? He used to play a lot of Quake. His screen name was Quaker Oatmeal.
  • What was he like in high school? He listened to a lot of Nine Inch Nails.
  • What did it feel like to withdraw $200,000 in cash? It made him nervous. He needed someone to help him, and drew a Venn Diagram of people he could trust who were huge and had firearms, and settled on a friend from Alaska, who brought a shotgun and guarded him from the bank.
  • There is no more awesome sensation in the world than feeding a grizzly bear peanut butter with a spoon.
  • For his birthday, someone gave him a Tesla Cannon. He wants to use it to heat sandwiches.
Inman gamely stuck around to handle the LONG line of people getting their book signed. Interestingly, he does sign as The Oatmeal - and with a lot of style!

Hrm... I'm just now realizing that I haven't written about webcomics in forever. There are a ton of great ones out there, far too many for me to keep current on. I'd break them down by the following:

Comics I Regularly Follow:
  • Dinosaur Comics - I've periodically dropped in on this over the years, but have become a regular follower in 2012. Possibly my favorite comic of the moment; Ryan North has a wonderful comic sensibility.
  • Sinfest - I've been following this since at least 2003. It's changed a lot over the years. I don't think it's as laugh-out-loud funny as it was at the start, but in many ways it's more interesting; the author often uses the comic as a vehicle for self-examination, to intriguing effect.
  • Penny Arcade - I hesitate to even call myself a gamer these days; I might play three or four games in a year if I'm lucky. Fortunately for me, while Penny Arcade the entertainment business is gaming-focused, Penny Arcade the comic is more about the weird obsessions of its creators, and continues to be amusing and relatable even as I drift farther away from the gaming culture.
Comics I Sporadically Follow:
  • Hark: A Vagrant - Kate Beaton has semi-retired the strip, refocusing on her Tumblr and new projects, but she still occasionally updates. I'll always love her for Fat Pony and for her literature comics and all the other awesome stuff she does.
  • Overcompensating - I used to check the site a few times a year, now I watch it regularly, although updates have been getting rarer lately. Rowland is a very busy guy, between running Topatoco, restarting Wigu, and getting married!
  • The Oatmeal - You know the score.
  • Wigu - I'm going through the archives.
Defunct Comics I Re-read When I Need to Laugh:  Comics Emeritus:
  • Men in Hats - Another wonderful absurdist comic, and one of only a few whose book I've purchased. It ended years ago.
  • Sluggy Freelance - My very first webcomic! The abrupt shifts in tone eventually got too severe for me to handle, but I admire how it paved the way for future comics.
  • PvP - I never got too enamored of this comic, and gave it up when the cat started inhabiting the Christmas tree, which felt like a rip-off of Bun-Bun from Sluggy.  Hm, it looks like Scott has updated his style - it looks good!
  • The Trenches - I may revisit this sometime, but the start of the strip didn't really grab me. It might resonate more for people within the industry.
As is often the case, time is the great limiter in what I read. Yeah, a comic only takes several seconds to read, but if it's something you do daily or weekly, it adds up! I'll continue to curate my reading, and am sure the list will continue to evolve over time.