Wednesday, December 28, 2016


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

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

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

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

Monday, December 26, 2016


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Six Foot Eight, Weighs a Freaking Ton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 16, 2016

I Heard You Like Visual Novels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

END SPOILERS (for Love/Life Is Strange)

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

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

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

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

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

MINI SPOILERS (for Highway Blossoms)

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

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

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

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

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

END SPOILERS (for Highway Blossoms)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some other random thoughts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

END SPOILERS (for Life Is Strange)

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

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

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

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Can't Go Home Again

I lucked out and managed to snag Gone Home during a brief window when it was available for free download. This was very generous of the developer, who offered it "for people who need something about hope and love right now". That definitely applied to me last weekend, and I was grateful for the chance to immerse myself into something new and positive.

Gone Home has been dimly on my radar for several years now. It has a reputation as one of the archetypal indie games: using games as an innovative storytelling device, with a unique perspective, a clear thematic goal, and non-traditional gameplay. That last point can trip up so-called "hardcore gamers," who are often left asking, "Is this even a game?" Without enemies to defeat, or resources to acquire, or other traditional markers of progress, this wave of indie games seems to step back from the ordinary signifiers that reward players for their effort. In my opinion, though, that ultimately magnifies their impact: you aren't trying to bump up artificial numbers, and instead can focus on the pure narrative in front of you.

In many ways, Gone Home looks like a fully-polished modern game. In contrast to the retro/pixel-art style loved by many other indie developers, this game is done in gorgeous 3D, with a lovingly detailed interactive house for you to explore. Ambient lighting, sound effects, and such contribute to the fantastic atmosphere. Again, there's no HUD to distract you, no inventory screens to manage. When you pick up an object, you simply hold it in your hands. Most objects are pointless, but it still feels weirdly good to be able to interact with your environment in this way. You can inspect loose ballpoint pens, flip around magazines, check out the logo on the back of a dinner plate. Occasionally, an object will reveal additional uses, such as a cassette tape that can be loaded into a nearby player.


I got a SERIOUS nostalgia rush while playing this game. It's set in 1995, and its environment overlapped in many ways with my own childhood and teenage home. I was often struck by things that I hadn't thought of in years - at one point, you find a table that folds out into a sewing machine. In an instant, I was transported back to the sewing room in my basement, where I played with that exact same model. That machine is long gone, and I might never have thought about it again for the rest of my life if it wasn't for this moment in a game.

There are a lot of very specific ways in which the game diverges from my own experiences, most obviously in the family itself. This family just has two sisters, with you playing as the older and the story primarily interested in the younger. I think the developers are drawing on real-life elements for these stories, but those details are less familiar to me - girl punk bands, beauty magazines. And that's good! The shared experiences help it feel authentic and immediate, while the unique experiences help me share in thoughts and feelings that I personally haven't held before.


The game doesn't have clear rules for progression or goals, but as you explore, you gradually figure it out. There are a handful of very simple mechanical obstacles (I don't want to say "puzzles") to overcome. You might find a key that opens a locked door to a new wing of the house, or a fragment of the combination for a padlock. While the overall feeling of the game is incredibly free and lets you wander anywhere at any time, these few guards help establish narrative coherency and dramatic progress. Deeper secrets are only revealed after you have discovered the clearer ones.

Early on, I thought that the game would be about learning what has happened to your family. In this pre-Internet era, you've flown back from Europe on short notice, to find a seemingly-empty house waiting for you. Going through old letters and messages and press releases and such helps reveal what's been happening in your parents' lives. Your mother has been rising in the ranks at the National Park Service, and there are some hints that she may have become romantically entangled with a younger ranger. Your father is a failed novelist, shamed by his own father for writing conspiracy thrillers, and is skating by with tedious equipment reviews for an audiophile magazine. Each has a happy ending, though. Your mom seems to have ended things gracefully with Rick, who is getting married, and your father has received recent encouragement and inspiration that has rejuvenated his creative writing. For a while I'd worried that they'd both left the house due to unhappiness, but it turns out that they're off on a week-long retreat for couple's counseling and therapy. They've recognized the problems they face, and are working to rekindle their marriage.

While those are interesting stories, though, it eventually becomes clear that the real heart of the story is learning about your sister. You learn about your parents through written fragments, but you can actually hear Samantha's voice, narrating the diary that she left behind. There's also a ton of artwork, and some really engaging short fiction that she wrote. This was probably the most impressive part of the game: just how fully-fledged of a character they were able to create, one who never appears and you can never interact with, but who still feels incredibly vibrant and alive.

I had a sense early on of where her story was headed, and loved what they did with it. Samantha gradually falls in love with a schoolmate named Lonnie, over a progression of really tender and sweet realizations. They are kindred spirits, complementary and compatible. There's a ton to like about their relationship, but one high point was their collaboration, as Lonnie illustrates Sam's writings, or they work together on a girl-power zine.

I had a weird feeling of indirect guilt while playing as Katie reading Sam's notes. In-game, Katie has been gone from home for several years, and so hasn't been around to support her sister, or even know about what she's going through. That resonated with me. I haven't been in that exact situation, but as an eldest child, I've felt bad about not being physically or emotionally present for my younger siblings when they've gone through difficult events. That's actually lessened somewhat in recent years - we're all better at keeping in touch and communicating now, thanks to the Internet and maturity - but putting myself in Katie's shoes reminded me of my disconnection during high-school and college years, when I could have made a bigger and more positive impact.

I was also relieved at where the story ended up - there are some dark suggestions throughout the game that Sam might have come to a bad end, as well as ongoing hints about curses in the house. If the developers had wanted to, they could very easily have made a terrifying horror game here! There are a couple of moments, when a light goes out or a door creaks shut or you read an ominous warning, that your heart rate might jump up as you worry that things are taking a frightening turn. But it's ultimately the same sort of suspended dread that most of us have felt when we're all alone in a large and unfamiliar space. We jump, startled, but eventually realize that it's okay, we're safe, and everything will be fine.


I loved this game. After the heavy narrative rush of Life Is Strange, this felt much more relaxing while still relevant and important. I feel like it opens yet another door when it comes to storytelling in games. I'm not sure if other developers will follow in these footsteps, or if it will remain as a bit of an oddity, but I'm really glad that it exists.

Oh, yeah: here's a little album! It spoils the story.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Forget Me Not

I'm still trying to fill the void in my life left by Life Is Strange. I know nothing will fill it, but have been looking for acceptable substitutes. One obvious place to look is Dontnod's only other game, "Remember Me". This game didn't get much of a reception on release: decent but unspectacular reviews, and I think it sold rather poorly (especially for a AAA title that spent five years in development). So my expectations were fairly low, but I ended up enjoying it a great deal.

To be clear: this game does not play at all like Life Is Strange. It's a fast-paced action game, very different from LiS's laid-back adventure game structure. It's set in a dystopic future rather than the realistic present. Still, you can see some of the same DNA at work in both titles. The games share an interest in identity and empathy, and there are a couple of game mechanics that span both entries.

The bulk of the gameplay is focused on combat sequences. They feel a bit like the fights in Shadow of Mordor: mostly melee attacks, with occasional ranged strikes. You sometimes fight up to a dozen enemies, and combat has a very fluid feel, as you flow from foe to foe and dodge and flip your way out of harm's way.

The most innovative part of Remember Me's combat is the combo-creation lab. This is a bit confusing, and not explained very well in-game, but once I got the hang of it it added a whole other level of coolness to the game. Basically, you have two main attacks: a punch (left mouse button) and a kick (right mouse button). There are several combos that you learn as you progress through the game, each of which follows a fixed attack sequence: P-P-P or K-P-K-P-K or K-K-K-P-P-P-P-K. You can choose to slot different abilities into each attack position: damage, self-heal, ability-cooldown, or a multiplier. Abilities become more powerful later in the chain.

One thing I really like about this is that you don't need to learn as many moves as in other games (like The Witcher or Shadow of Mordor): there aren't buttons for parry or dodge, for example. However, there is still a lot of complexity and strategy, but it's a strategy you need to come up with yourself rather than learn and apply. Based on your own personal playstyle and the specific obstacle you're facing, you'll want to make or use different combos to get through the fights.

By the end of the game, I was mostly using the long 8-attack combo: it started with a small heal and cooldown reduction, but everything else was damage-oriented, and a full chain could wipe out multiple weak enemies. However, I also kept two shorter combos around for more particular applications: the 5-attack chain was focused on healing, while the 6-attack one focused on cooldowns. There are some enemies who damage you each time you strike them, which can be deadly, but using the self-heal makes them fairly easy. And some bosses can only be damaged by your special abilities, so killing mooks doesn't accomplish anything, but they make great fodder for bringing your abilities back up again.

I played on Medium difficulty, which was nicely challenging. There were a couple of boss fights that were frustrating, but after enough tries I was able to finish everything. One thing I really appreciated was that, during fights that had unusual mechanics, it would float hint text on the screen after you had gone for long enough without making progress. It didn't feel condescending or cheap, but would show up when it would be appreciated. You'd also have to survive long enough to see it, so it wasn't boring either.

I did get a bit annoyed at the QTEs, which are used in most boss fights. These are used like in God of War, where you need to press the correct button quickly in response to an on-screen prompt. The worst part about this was just figuring out what each symbol meant, since I was playing on PC and didn't know what each one corresponded to. I had to look it up online, and for reference, here are the defaults:
  • Fist (Punch): Left mouse button
  • Foot (Kick): Right mouse button
  • Bending arrow (Dodge): Spacebar
  • Gear (Interact): "E" key
 Even once I learned what each meant, it usually took me at least two tries to get through a QTE sequence, since my reflexes aren't very fast. But it gets much easier each time you repeat, since it's always the same order at the same time, and in any case there are usually just 3 buttons to remember anyways.

The QTEs are probably my only real complaint about the game. Quite a few players were disappointed that the game was short... it is noticeably shorter than other games in this genre (my total playtime was just under 10 hours), But personally, I'm more and more attracted to shorter games. There's no padding in Remember Me, and it uses its length very well.

One small design quibble has to do with the level design. Unlike Shadow of Mordor or even Bioshock, levels are very linear, where even backtracking is often impossible. I actually enjoyed this: there's a fun, propulsive feel to the gameplay, particularly when you're in constant motion, leaping from ledge to ledge and always pressing forwards. But, there's also a collection mechanic to the game, where you need to examine and explore areas thoroughly in order to find hidden power-ups and experience boosts (which help increase your maximum health, maximum focus, or available pressens). That aspect of the game is, in itself, also pretty fun: the levels are gorgeous, and benefit from increased scrutiny. But that leads to an unfortunate tension between opposing forces: the game feels best when you constantly rush ahead, but it's frustrating to realize that you've missed out on single-chance opportunities to improve your character. I'm not sure if there's a solution to this problem, or if it even needs one, but it's something that bugged me off and on.

Oh - but the movement itself feels fantastic. I haven't played Assassin's Creed or Mirror's Edge, but it seems to embody the same parkour-esque design of those games. Nilin looks amazing when leaping to another handhold or landing in a crouch after a fall. The animations and environments combine in wonderful ways. While this isn't a challenging part of the game - you just need to press the right button and can usually take your time - I'm glad that there's so much of it, which helps this feel like more than just a fighting game.


I enjoyed the story, but many of the characters felt very under-utilized. Nilin and Edge and most of the villains got good character development, but allies like Tommy and Olga get very little screen-time. Which is odd, since they look amazing and very thoughtfully developed. I'm left wondering if there was additional content planned for them which got cut out of the final game, or if they planned to tell more of their stories in a sequel that never came. Or maybe it was intentional all along - again, I'm not inherently opposed to a shorter and more focused game, and it's probably better that they leave us wanting to know more about intriguing characters than leave us bored with too much information about people we don't care about.

The world-building, though, has got to be the highlight. I'm already a sucker for cyberpunk, and I adored having such a fresh take on that setting. You still have the requisite hallmarks of the genre: neon lighting, huge skyscrapers, omnipowerful corporations, cybernetic augmentation, virtual reality, noir-inflected storytelling. And yet, you would never confuse Neo-Paris with Shadowrun or Blade Runner or Neuromancer or Cyberpunk 2020 or other iconic cyberpunk franchises. Remember Me is brighter and more elegant, as befits its location in the City of Light. Megacorps are also less malicious, more reminiscent of Brave New World than 1984: they're delivering experiences that the people demand. Overall, while it's probably still a dystopia, it's much more optimistic than the standard hopelessness of most cyberpunk. And I like that!

A lot of cyberpunk deals with the impact of technology on human life. Remember Me feels unique in the way it focuses on the mental implications of this, rather than the physical. The core technology it explores is memory modification. This widespread, commercialized product allows people to store and refresh their memories of past events, remove painful memories, and even share their memories directly with one another. We mostly focus on the personal use of this capability, but the game also looks at institutional implications: prisoners can serve out their sentences without any memory of who they were before, and have the painful memories of their incarceration removed once they are released. And talented professionals can receive memories that tell them how to accomplish specialized tasks (similar to "skillsofts" in Shadowrun).

Nilin, though, has a unique ability. She can do more than just add or remove memories: she has the extraordinarily rare ability to remix memories, changing details of what happened in the past to influence a person's actions in the present. For example, rather than killing someone, she can convince someone else that that person has died, and so recruit them as an ally to her cause.

This is the one part of the game that seems to overlap with Life Is Strange, as memory remixing shares many similarities with the rewind mechanic. In Remember Me, you'll see a scene play out multiple times. You'll go back, change one event, then see how that change affects the subsequent actions. Finding the right combinations of alterations to make will allow you to accomplish your goal.

This was by far my favorite part of the game, and it's a shame that there's so little of it. I think there are maybe five or so memory remixes over the entire game, definitely less than one per level and fewer than there are boss fights. The remixes themselves are also far more linear than the situations in Life Is Strange. You can try different things, but as far as I can see there seems to only be one correct solution to each memory, and you must select it in order to proceed. That isn't necessarily bad, though... Remember Me isn't a choice-and-consequences game, and they created something cool that doesn't require player choice.

It gets at some interesting philosophical ideas, too. I was reminded of Inception and, even more, Dark City while playing this game. To what extent do our memories drive our actions? Do our pasts determine who we are? Is our identity entirely derived from our mind, or is there something more than makes us human?

The game ends on a very powerful question that is really resonating with me this week. Simplifying a bit, it asks, "Should we live in a happy illusion or a painful truth?" That dilemma is literalized in the world of Remember Me: the great promise of M3morize is crafting a world free of sorrow. But, as the scope opens up, we realize that there are massive problems facing the rest of the world, beyond the intimate circles Nilin occupies. She has the ability to change the world for the better, but she can only do so by discarding the pleasing platitudes, confronting her own issues and those around her, and struggling with the world as it is rather than the the world we wish we lived in.


Remember Me doesn't address these philosophical and moral issues as deeply or as comprehensively as Life Is Strange does, but it still does more with them than any recent AAA action game that I can think of, and that's a worthy achievement on its own.

I don't want to oversell this game - it isn't an instant classic, just a really solid and interesting video game that happens to feature some of the best world-building out there. It is a shame it didn't do well, because it definitely left me hungry for more: as the closing credits began to roll, I thought, "This feels like it would be the perfect prologue to a new story." There aren't any cliffhangers or anything, it comes to a satisfying conclusion, but it did such a great job at opening up this original world that I'd love to explore in the future.

Albums! Here's a big one that covers the whole game. It technically has spoilers, but don't be afraid to look at the pretty pictures. And here's a small one that features some of the unlockable concept art and other goodies from the game. Enjoy!

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Love Is Strained

Okay, I lied: Here’s one more (last?!) post on Life Is Strange. (And, improbably, some initial thoughts on the presidential election, down at the bottom below the spoiler block.)

I’ve been following up with more interviews with the directors, as well as a terrific GDC talk that they gave on the game. The content is great, and the French accents make it all the better. They’ve been pretty open about the message that they want the game to convey, which helps unlock more of the story for me and better parse my own reactions to it.


I’ve also been dipping more into the fandom, and have noted a very consistent reaction to the ending. Most people are sad about it, understandably so. Some of the early gaming press reaction was along the lines of “It’s like the Mass Effect 3 ending! It’s a choice that doesn’t reflect all of the other variables that have come before!” Actual players seem to appreciate it more, but are more fixated on the unequal treatment of the two choices. The correct choice (Sacrifice Arcadia Bay) is really poignant and emotionally affecting, but also brief, with a roughly 30-second cut-scene and recycled music. The other choice (which I haven’t been able to bring myself to watch) apparently leads to a much longer multi-minute closing sequence, with multiple scenes showing the aftermath and more closure for the various characters, as well as new music unique to this ending. Overall, people seem to feel like the developers leaned on the scale to favor one choice, which was not the choice that most preferred.

With that in mind, it was cool to hear Dontnod’s description of the creative process. The initial spark that drove the creation of the game was the idea of a rewind mechanic in a choice-and-consequences game. From there, they quickly decided to set it in high school, at the cusp of when children transform into adults. They had the idea of that final choice prior to any of the other plot of the game. It wasn’t “tacked on” or something that they fell back on because they didn’t have any other ideas; they constructed the rest of the game to lead you to that moment and that decision.

Ultimately, as the directors say, Life is Strange is a game about becoming an adult, which means accepting that you can’t make everything perfect. I hadn’t really considered that while playing, but after hearing them say it, it makes perfect sense. As children, we can have an expectation that the world will be fair. We trust our parents to provide for us, to make the right decisions; bad people will eventually be punished, good people will be rewarded. As we grow older and experience more of the world outside the comfort of our homes, we realize that this is not a universal law. There is injustice in the world, bad things happen to good people, we experience senseless pain. We often rebel against this, with the idealistic clarity of youth: things aren’t perfect, but if we try hard enough and use the right words, we can *make* them perfect.

Sooner or later, though, most of us will eventually realize that perfection is unattainable. No matter how hard we try, some evil will persist in the world. We are limited, flawed individuals: you and I and every other soul we see. With maturity, we come to understand our limitations. That isn’t an absolution of responsibility, but does prepare us for the rough path we need to tread.

In my initial post, I had been a little incredulous that anyone would choose the “Sacrifice Chloe” option, asking what the point of the whole game would then be. With this theme in mind, though, it makes perfect sense. At the start of the game, Chloe dies senselessly and Max can’t accept it. By the end, though, Max comes to understand that the death must happen. She can grieve, process it, and move on.

But! While the devs don’t touch on this, what’s interested me the most is the asymmetry of the two ending choices. They’re both about acceptance, and markers of maturity, but I think they’re two very different kinds of acceptance.

The “Sacrifice Chloe” option is a fatalistic attitude. It’s about recognizing that bad things can happen in this world, and we cannot stop them. It’s about letting go of the things we cannot change so we can continue to function in the rest of our life.

The “Sacrifice Arcadia Bay” option, though, depicts Max as an active agent. This is about accepting responsibility for your actions. Throughout the game, whenever Max makes a mistake, her instinct is to fix it, to strive for an ultimate solution that will please everyone. This is, as Max ultimately realizes, impossible. If she wants something badly enough, she needs to understand that it will require sacrifices. In this ending, she takes ownership of her choice and the impact that it has on the world, instead of deflecting or avoiding it.

Both endings see a wiser and more mature Max, and a Max who is equipped to proceed into adulthood and chart her life course. But they also depict two Maxes with different philosophies. One is a more peaceful Max, who has learned to live with a world that sends bad things her way. The other is a more optimistic Max, who has gained the confidence to make changes to her world. The prior Max will probably have an easier but sadder life, while the latter Max’s life will be more challenging but may bring her greater happiness.


I didn’t think at the start of this post that this would be about the election, but that’s kind of where it ended up! The different attitudes towards the endings of the game seem like a fairly accurate reflection of the difference in French and American attitudes. France, along with much of Europe, tends to be pessimistic about the possibility of implementing real change in the world, whether good or bad; they have strong but sclerotic institutions that resist alteration. Americans have a greater tendency towards idealism: not just that things will be better in the future, but that their actions in the voting booth will change the world.

This seems like the start of a dark and scary time. The world ahead will be worse than the world we left behind. I feel afraid, and sad, and am fighting very hard to keep those emotions from sliding into despair.

I and others who feel the same way need to think of our mental health. It's natural for us to be shocked and depressed today, but sooner or later we'll need to move on. The question is how. The easier and sadder approach will be to accept that this is the world in which we now live. It isn't that radical of a thought; for most of human history, populations have lived in deprived and unjust countries, and civilization has endured. We can find comfort in religion, in culture, in friendship, and burrow into a smaller part of the world for solace.

The alternative is to take the harder but more rewarding path, where we each willingly make sacrifices in order to change the world for the better. That may mean sacrificing money, as we donate to organizations that will protect those most at risk. It may mean sacrificing personal comfort, as we publicly expose our bodies and our voices to speak out against injustice. It may mean sacrificing our careers, as we turn away from the acquisition of money to the betterment of society. It may mean sacrificing friendships, or status, or time, or happiness. Those sacrifices will each hurt, but, if we willingly make them in order to achieve a greater good and roll back a harmful tide, we have a chance of living in the world we want. In fact, it's the only way we can bring that world into existence.

Much like in the game, it sucks that we have to make that choice, but we do need to make it. We need to decide how we are going to relate to the world. I won't fault anyone who chooses to live with the world as it is, but I hope that enough people are willing to make the harder choice and take the actions that will be necessary to change it.