Monday, January 30, 2017


I've been thinking about Dietrich Bonhoeffer a lot lately. I've admired him ever since I first heard his story, probably back when I was in junior high school, and he's been on my mind a lot over the last couple of months as I've thought about what kind of risks and sacrifices we might need to take in the coming years. However, I realized that while I was familiar with his life, I'd never actually read any of his writings, so I recently picked up a copy of The Cost of Discipleship to get a better understanding of his thoughts and motivations.

I realized that my propensity for reading theology is directly proportional to the level of distress I feel over the state of the world. In the dark years of the Bush presidency, I devoured Kierkegaard in a quest to understand my place in the world, and Yoder in an effort to articulate my outrage over the invasion of Iraq. During Obama's reign, when we started very slowly moving in the direction of more kindness, I spent very little time or thought on theology. Now, as we seem to be lurching towards the apocalypse, the words and actions of Bonhoeffer feel incredibly urgent and relevant.

There are four main sections to the book. The first, "Grace and Discipleship", is an extremely powerful denunciation of the slippery tendency for Protestants to bask in the assurance of promised salvation. The core of this church is "by grace and not by works," and God has infinite grace, so it's tempting to believe that nothing is required of the believer: perhaps go to church and be told that you're going to heaven. Bonhoeffer calls this "cheap grace": grace that asks nothing of the recipient. As a Lutheran, he digs deep into Luther's own experience as a monk in the Catholic church, arguing that this was not at all Luther's intention, and in fact an inversion of his goal. Rather, Bonhoeffer believes, Luther sought to open up the demands of monastic discipline to the entire church. One is still saved through grace, and it's a grace that transforms your life. You cannot continue to live comfortably and idly, ignoring the suffering of the world, focused on your own pleasure. Grace is the grace to follow in Christ's footsteps, to lose everything of this world and gain everything of the next. It's a very powerful argument, discomforting in a really good way.

The second section is a long but very thoughtful and methodical walk through the Sermon on the Mount. I was looking forward to this, and thought it was good, but in a very different way than I had expected. I often point to the Sermon on the Mount as my favorite passage in the Bible, and it almost perfectly encapsulates my ideals of a moral life: compassion, humility, pacifism, acceptance, generosity, mercy. It's a radical document that flies in the face of our human nature and calls us to be better: turning the other cheek instead of fighting back when we are struck, abandoning the pursuit of money and possessions. I think I was sort of expecting Bonhoeffer to underline these values. He kind of does, but his main goal here is to explain where the call comes from, not what it's calling you to do. He isn't saying that these are good moral teachings that we should follow. He's saying that these are Christ's commandments, and that they're so extreme that only those who genuinely have been called will follow them. This isn't a path for fellow-travelers: it's an exclusive calling demanded of the elect. Again, this section was uncomfortable, which is good... it's an ongoing process of me re-evaluating what these words mean to me.

This is followed by "The Messengers", which wanders over a wider range of the Gospels but has a very similar thesis. Building on the two previous sections, this looks at all the various ways in which the Apostles were called and what they had to do. Their whole world was upended: not only giving up their livelihood to travel itinerantly with Jesus, but turning their backs on their families and even their faith. I think it's often tempting for us to think that we can know a religion is good and/or correct by checking whether its teachings are moral. Bonhoeffer isn't having any of that. Morality isn't an external barometer by which we can judge God. Nor is it an absolute that God is striving to reach. Rather, morality flows from God. We might believe that honoring our father and mother is virtuous, but if God calls an apostle to abandon his parents, then that is the virtuous thing to do.

Of course, to a non-Christian this all sounds dangerous and possibly harmful, the same sort of fanaticism responsible for much of the evil in the world today. Making morality the fruit of the church, and not the church the fruit of morality, feels risky; but I think it's that conviction that gave Bonhoeffer and others like him the courage to do what they did. Our own personal values can change and slide over time, in response to our personal circumstances and the people around us and the news we read and the temptations we face and the threats we fear. The unacceptable becomes acceptable, the beloved becomes shunned, the line that cannot be crossed is crossed and then ignored. But, if someone stays centered on God's word, and looks to it rather than their own desires and fears, then they will continue to do what it says is right, even in the face of opposition.

"The Messengers" ends with a chapter called "The Fruit". It's primarily about recognizing whether a teacher (a pastor or theologian or other figure) is actually a Christian or leading people astray. I don't think Bonhoeffer was thinking of himself at all while writing this, but I was struck by how the fruit he bore in his own life testifies to the working of his mind and soul.

The final section of the book is "The Church and the Life of Discipleship." Honestly, this was the least meaningful for me... it definitely isn't bad, but didn't feel nearly as eye-opening as the earlier parts of the book. Part of that may have just been fatigue on my part, but I think a lot of it was retreading well-established doctrine, as well as perennial disputes such as baptism. The content is still good on its own terms, just not as surprising and radical as the rest of the book.

While reading, I made note of several passages that particularly spoke to me. I have to admit that I was kind of thinking of maybe posting some of them on Facebook or something, but very quickly realized that that would be a bad idea, and kind of defeat the point. Unlike the vast majority of writers, Bonhoeffer wasn't out to convince the most people or to try and win over the world to his cause. In fact, I think he'd be the first to say that this book isn't aimed at non-Christians. All of its arguments and pleas flow from the central assumption of Christ's call to the individual, and all of his excellent conclusions are only (but thoroughly!) predicated on faith, discipleship, and, yes, grace.

That said, for posterity's sake, here are the passages that particularly spoke to me now in 2017. (All citations taken from the 1967 printing. Transcribed by hand, please pardon typos.)

If Grace is God's answer, the gift of Christian life, then we cannot for a moment dispense with following Christ. But if grace is the data for my Christian life, it means that I set out to live the Christian life in the world with all my sins justified beforehand. I can go and sin as much as I like, and rely on this grace to forgive me, for after all the world is justified in principle by grace. I can therefore cling to my bourgois secular existence, and remain as I was before, but with the added assurance that the grace of God will cover me. It is under the influence of this kind of "grace" that the world has been made "Christian," but at the cost of secularizing the Christian religion as never before. The antithesis between the Christian life and the life of bourgeois respectability is at an end... It is terrifying to realize what use can be made of a genuine evangelical doctrine. In both cases we have the identical formula - "justification by faith alone." Yet the misuse of the formula leads to the complete destruction of its very essence. (p. 42)

At the end of a life spent in the pursuit of knowledge Faust has to confess: "I now do see that we can nothing know." That is the answer to a sum, it is the outcome of a long experience. But as Kierkegaard observed, it is quite a different thing when a freshman comes up to the university and uses the same sentiment to justify his indolence. As the answer to a sum it is perfectly true, but as the initial data it is a piece of self-deception. For acquired knowledge cannot be divorced from the existence in which it is acquired.  (p. 43)

We Lutherans have gathered like eagles round the carcase of cheap grace, and there we have drunk of the poison which has killed the life of following Christ. (p. 44) (Note: I, uh, think that Germans have a less reverential view of eagles than Americans do.)

Jesus prays to his Father that the cup may pass from him, and his Father hears his prayer; for the cup of suffering will indeed pass from him - but only by drinking it... Within the fellowship of Christ's suffering, suffering is overcome by suffering, and becomes the way to communion with God. Suffering has to be endured in order that it may pass away... But the Church knows that the world is still seeking for someone to bear its sufferings, and so, as it follows Christ, suffering becomes the Church's lot too and bearing it, it is borne up by Christ. (p. 81)

In the same way his followers are also called upon to bear, and that is precisely what it means to be a Christian. Just as Christ maintained his communion with the Father by his endurance, so his followers are to maintain their communion with Christ by their endurance. (p. 82)

We are separated from one another by an unbridgeable gulf of otherness and strangeness which resists all our attempts to overcome it by means of natural association or emotional or spiritual union. There is no way from one person to another. However loving and sympathetic we try to be, however sound our psychology, however frank and open our behavior, we cannot penetrate the incognito of the other man, for there are no direct relationships, not even between soul and soul. Christ stands between us, and we can only get into touch with our neighbours through him. That is why intercession is the most promising way to reach our neighbours, and corporate prayer, offered in the name of Christ, the purest form of fellowship. (p. 87-88)

As if their own needs and their own distress were not enough, they take upon themselves the distress and humiliation and sin of others. They have an irresistible love for the down-trodden, the sick, the wretched, the wronged, the outcast and all who are tortured with anxiety... If any man falls into disgrace, the merciful will sacrifice their own honor to shield him, and take his shame upon themselves. They will be found consorting with publicans and sinners, careless of the shame they incur thereby. In order that they may be merciful they cast away the most priceless treasure of human life, their personal dignity and honor. (p. 100-101)

They are told that they must not only have peace but make it. And to that end they renounce all violent and tumult.... His disciples keep peace by choosing to endure suffering rather themselves rather than inflict it on others. They maintain fellowship where others would break it off. They renounce all self-assertion, and quietly suffer in the face of hatred and wrong. (p. 102)

"Blessed are they that have been persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." This does not refer to the righteousness of God, but to suffering in a just cause, suffering for their own judgments and actions. For it is by these that they who renounce possessions, fortune, rights, righteousness, honour, and force for the sake of following Christ, will be distinguished from the world. The world will be offended at them, and so the disciples will be persecuted for righteousness' sake. Not recognition, but rejection, is the reward they get from the world for their message and works. It is important that Jesus gives his blessing not merely to suffering incurred directly for the confession of his name, but to suffering in any just cause. They receive the same promise as the poor, for in persecution they are their equals in poverty. (p. 102-103)

That is the peculiar quality of salt. Everything else needs to be seasoned with salt, but once the salt itself has lost its savour, it can never be salted again. Everything else can be saved by salt, however bad it has gone - only salt which loses its savour has no hope of recovery. (p. 105) (Note: I think I would have really enjoyed Bonhoeffer's cooking!)

By confounding God and the law, the Jews were trying to use the law to exploit the Law-giver: He was swallowed up in the law, and therefore no longer its Lord. By imagining that God and the law could be divorced from one another, the disciples were trying to exploit God by their possession of salvation. In both cases, the gift was confounded with the Giver: God was denied equally, whether it was with the help of the law, or with the promise of salvation. (p. 111)

For the Christian, worship cannot be divorced from the service of the brethren... When we come before God with hearts full of contempt and unreconciled with our neighbours, we are, both individually and as a congregation, worshipping an idol.... Not just the fact that I am angry, but the fact that there is somebody who has been hurt, damaged and disgraced by me, who 'has a cause against me', erects a barrier between me and God. Let us therefore as a Church examine ourselves, and see whether we have not often enough wronged our fellow-men. Let us see whether we have tried to to win popularity by falling in with the world's hatred, its contempt and its contumely. For if we do that we are murderers... Let the fellowship of Christ examine itself and see whether it has given any token of the love of Christ to the victims of the world's contumely, and contempt any token of that love of Christ which seeks to preserve, support and protect life. Otherwise however liturgically correct our services are, and however devout our prayer, however brave our testimony, they will profit us nothing, nay rather, they must needs testify against us that we have as a Church ceased to follow our Lord. God will not be separated from our brother... He who says he loves God and hates his brother is a liar. (p. 116-117)

This saying of Christ removes the Church from the sphere of politics and law. The Church is not to be a national community like the old Israel, but a community of believers without political or national ties... It has abandoned political and national status, and therefore it must patiently endure aggression. (p. 127)

If I am assailed, I am not to condone or justify aggression. Patient endurance of evil does not mean a recognition of its rights. That is sheer sentimentality, and Jesus will have nothing to do with it. The shameful assault, the deed of violence and the act of exploitation are still evil. The disciple must realize this, and bear witness to it as Jesus did, just because this is the only way evil can be met and overcome... Suffering willingly endured is stronger than evil, it spells death to evil. There is no deed on earth so outrageous as to justify a different attitude. The worse the evil, the readier must the Christian be to suffer. (p. 128)

There were those who insulted and derided them for their weakness and humility. There were those who persecuted them as prospective dangerous revolutionaries and sought to destroy them. Some of their enemies were numbered among the champions of the popular religion, who resented the exclusive claim of Jesus... Over and above all these, the disciples also had to contend with the hostility which invariable falls to the lot of those who refuse to follow the crowd, and which brought them daily mockery, derision and threats... From now on there can be no more wars of faith. The only way to overcome our enemy is by loving him. (p. 131-132). (This is a challenging call to me right now.)

We must love not only in thought and word, but in deed, and there are opportunities of service in every circumstance of daily life... Let us show our love towards our enemy... Nowhere is service more necessary or more blessed than when we serve our enemies... Jesus does not promise that when we bless our enemies and do good to them they will not despitefully use and persecute us. They certainly will. But not even that can hurt or overcome us, so long as we pray for them... Their persecution of us only serves to bring them nearer to reconciliation with God and to further the triumph of love. (p. 134)

But this raises the question of the relation between the Christians and their non-Christian neighbours. Does their separation from the rest of society confer on them special rights and privileges? Do Christians enjoy power, gifts and standards of judgement which qualify them to exert a peculiar authority over others? How easy it would have been for the disciples to adopt a superior attitude, to pass unqualified condemnation on the rest of the world, and to persuade themselves that this was the will of God! That is why Jesus has to make it clear beyond all doubt that such misunderstandings would seriously imperil their discipleship. The disciples are not to judge. If they do so, they will themselves be judged by God. The sword wherewith they judge their brethren will fall upon their own heads. (p. 162-163)

If the disciples make judgements of their own, they set up standards of good and evil. But Jesus Christ is not a standard which I can apply to others. He is a judge of myself, revealing my own virtues to me as something altogether evil. Thus I am not permitted to apply to the other person what does not apply to me... Judgement is the forbidden objectivization of the other person which destroys single-minded love. I am not forbidden to have my own thoughts about the other person, to realize his shortcomings, but only to the extent that it offers to me an occasion for forgiveness and unconditional love. (p. 164)

Judging others makes us blind, whereas love is illuminating. By judging others we blind ourselves to our own evil and to the grace which others are just as entitled to as we are... If when we judged others, our real motive was to destroy evil, we should look for evil where it is certain to be found, and that is in our own hearts. But if we are on the look-out for evil in others, our real motive is obviously to justify ourselves, for we are seeking to escape punishment for our own sins by passing judgement on others. (p. 165)

But the Christian is not only forbidden to judge other men: even the word of salvation has its limits. He has neither power nor right to force it on other men in season and out of season. Every attempt to impose the gospel by force, to run after people and proselytize them, to use our own resources to arrange the salvation of other people, is both futile and dangerous. It is futile, because the swine do not recognize the pearls that are cast before them, and dangerous, because it profanes the word of forgiveness, by causing those we fain would serve to sin against that which is holy. Worse still, we shall only meet with the blind rage of hardened and darkened hearts, and that will be useless and harmful. Our easy trafficking with the word of cheap grace simply bores the world to disgust, so that in the end it turns against those who try to force on it what it does not want. (p. 165, again!)

The disciples are not expected to show fear of men, nor malice, nor mistrust, still less a sour misanthropy, nor that gullible credulity which believes that there is good in every man: they are expected rather to display an unerring insight into the mutual relation of the Word and man. If they are content not to pitch their hopes too high, they will not be perturbed when Jesus warns them that their way among men will be one of suffering. (p. 191)

'In the flesh' a brother, says St Paul with emphasis, thus warning Philemon against those misunderstandings to which all 'privileged' Christians are liable. Such Christians are prepared to tolerate the society of Christians of lower social standing in church, but outside they give them the cold shoulder. Instead, Philemon must welcome Onesimus as a brother, nay, as if he were St Paul himself. (p. 231)

The Church can never tolerate any limits set to the love and service of the brethren. For where the brother is, there is the Body of Christ, and there is his Church. And there we must also be... If the world despises one of the brethren, the Christian will love and serve him. If the world does him violence, the Christian will succour and comfort him. If the world dishonours and insults him, the Christian will sacrifice his own honour to cover his brother's shame. Where the world seeks gain, the Christian will renounce it. Where the world exploits, he will dispossess himself, and where the world oppresses, he will stoop down and raise up the oppressed. If the world refuses justice, the Christian will pursue mercy, and if the world takes refuge in lies, he will open his mouth for the dumb, and bear testimony to the truth. (p. 232-233)

Wow, that ended up being a lot longer than I thought it would. Sorry! Honestly, either this is all totally irrelevant to you or you'd be better served by just reading the book.

There's a saying that's been floating through the social networks over the last couple of days: "If you ever sat in history class and wondered, 'What would I do?' the answer is: this. Whatever you're doing right now is what you would have done then." I'm glad to have done what I have (opened my wallet to organizations defending the weak, joined my body and my voice to demonstrations and protests). But, honestly, it's been very easy so far: I still live a life of comfort, and I'm fortunate enough to be surrounded by like-minded people and a local culture that protects dissent. I'm not a courageous person, and things will likely get much, much worse. I hope that I can find a source of strength and determination that will help guide me through the storm ahead.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Black Cat

So, um, yeah. The Cat Lady just might be the scariest, most disturbing video game I've played. It's kind of hard to evaluate entries in the genre; in much the same way it's tough to compare the fear generated by The Haunting to The Descent to Psycho, it's hard to compare System Shock 2 to Silent Hill 2 to The Cat Lady. But I'm pretty confident in saying that The Cat Lady probably has the most pernicious, sustained, permeating sense of dread. Every element of the game seems to be decaying, curdling, coming apart and revealing the horror that lies beneath.

Some other horror games are more focused, tuning in on one particular type of experience: enemies creeping up on you from just outside your field of vision, or sudden onslaughts of violence, or frightening imagery. The Cat Lady, while on its surface a very simplistic presentation (two-dimensional images, one-dimensional movement, mostly black-and-white graphics), manages to draw on an amazing range of tools to disorient and disgust. Those simple backgrounds twist and fade and flicker, calling their own reality and the protagonist's sanity into question. Tiny bodies expel unearthly screeching. And blood! Blood spurting everywhere, or discovered as evidence of past traumas.

There's plenty of violence in this game, but it takes many forms. There's the threat of violence, dangled over characters, freezing them or alarming them. There's active violence, often abrupt and unexpected, but sometimes premeditated and sadistic. And above all there's the evidence of violence, the awful discovery of untold misery that has paved the way and ended or destroyed prior lives. Which, of course, sets up the threat of future violence to echo the past, continuing the cycle.

All of this is very convincingly sold through the simple-but-relatable character designs, married to some really fantastic voice acting. One of my few quibbles with the game is that, while the actors all have terrific vocal tones (English accents FTW!), the technical quality of recordings can vary quite a bit. This was a low-budget game, and I get the impression that many or most of the actors just used their laptop mikes to record, so you'll sometimes get a subtle background hum or popped P's. Still, the emotion behind the dialogue is so persuasive that it didn't interfere with my enjoyment at all.


The game starts with the protagonist committing suicide. Things rapidly get worse for her.

As is often the case for these sorts of games or movies, Susan's plight is inextricably tied to questions of her sanity; these become explicit in the second chapter, when she wakes up in a psychiatric hospital, under observation after her "failed" suicide attempt. The root question is: did she really meet "The Queen of Maggots", and is she really immortal? The answer, within the context of the game, seems to be a tentative "Yes": it's possible that her earlier experiences were just hallucinations as part of a near-death experience, but she really does seem to come back to life after her subsequent murder. I suppose it's possible that this entire sequence is a hallucination, but if so the entire game would seem to be suspect, and I don't think there's enough evidence to support that. (That said, it is really interesting to see Susan's movement and perception visibly alter while she's on medication; these effects are very similar to her death experiences, which is one small suggestion that they are a mental rather than a physical journey.)

So far I've just been talking about the content of the game. The story and presentation is the main star, but the gameplay is sometimes used to great effect, immersing you in Susan's plight rather than just linking scenes together. I think the best example of this comes in Chapter 3. This is the one part of the game that directly deals with Susan's mental state. You receive two meters, one for her anxiety and one for her comfort. Anxiety ticks up whenever something happens to distress Susan: an object breaking, the lights going out, catching sight of an object with a troubled history. Any one of these can cause a large and abrupt jump in her distress. By contrast, every time Susan takes care of herself, her comfort meter rises just a sliver: paying her bills, cooking a hamburger, enjoying a cigarette.

It's all so fragile. I already cared about Susan, but being responsible for her in this way increased my motivation tenfold. On my first attempt, her night ended poorly: after an argument with her neighbor, she fell into a spiral of despair, cutting herself and sobbing throughout the night. I took advantage of the fact that this was a video game and not real life: I reloaded, peeked on Google to see how to make things better, and played through it again. Things that don't even register to me in real life became quiet and significant victories: keeping the lights on, making a nice cup of tea.

I get the impression that some people will particularly enjoy The Cat Lady for how it presents and represents depression, treating it seriously and exploring it without sugarcoating it. In my case, the game has made me realize just how lucky I have it. I'm incredibly fortunate in my personal life, and the strong pillars of support I have underneath me allow me to just shrug off things that might send someone else into a tailspin of sadness. If I scorch my pan while cooking dinner, I'll sigh, laugh at myself, then order a new one online and grab something else from the fridge to eat. But someone who already has a negative self-narrative might see this as yet another chapter in "Chris Can Never Do Anything Right" and/or "The Universe Is Out To Get Chris," and might become non-functional while working through the sadness.

Ultimately, this section strongly motivated me to be kinder. We don't know how secure or insecure the strangers in our lives are, and even small gestures from us can have enormous impact. Even tiny things like keeping a seat open on the subway, or responding with a smile rather than a frown after someone bumps into you, might continue to reverberate for the other person long after I've forgotten it.

The "sanity meters" were a clever addition; I kind of wish that they'd been present in more of the game, although it would have been hard to maintain their effectiveness over a longer time. In general, The Cat Lady tends to play out as a traditional adventure game: you move around, collect items into your inventory, and figure out how to use them to solve puzzles. For the most part, these are pretty logical, and given enough time you can puzzle them out on their own. I think there were just two times that I needed to resort to Google to find a solution; in both cases I felt retroactively justified, as the solutions weren't very intuitive. (In one case, you need to turn on a hot water tap, then keep it running for a minute until it steams up the room to reveal letters written on a mirror. The physics make sense, but it's not an intuitive action to take.) I think I also spotted a couple of visual allusions to Maniac Mansion, which was pretty amazing.

The game is divided into seven chapters. Each has a really good, strong focus: there's an overarching plot, but also very specific self-contained goals and mechanics within each sequence. I found myself wondering whether the creators had originally intended this as an episodic game, which seems to be the preferred way to distribute adventure games these days and would have lent itself rather well to this story.

They do a great job at gradually spinning out the plot over the course of the game. Some bombshells are dropped relatively early, which sort of lurk beneath the surface for a while, before finally being revealed and explained. These aren't exactly plot twists, more of an ongoing exploration and fleshing-out of a really sympathetic three-dimensional character.

I was slightly disappointed that they ultimately gave an explanation for Susan's depression. It honestly felt more compelling to me when it was mysterious and unexplained; I spent much of the game imagining that Susan had just slowly aged into her depression, which seemed more alarming and relatable to me than the eventual revelation that there was a Big Dark Secret Past responsible for her suffering. That said, though, given that they did give a background for her condition, I thought it was a great one: it was unique and unexpected, with a fantastic level of detail (that argument is agonizing) that makes it feel like a genuine core of the character and not a contrivance to place her into this situation.


I'm still mulling over Susan's epiphany that the Queen of Maggots is her own self-hate. That seems to call into question the reality of the QoM, which in turn appears to invalidate Susan's immortality. While playing I'd interpreted this as an internal mental conversation or hallucination of some sort. After considering it more, though, I'm leaning more towards the idea that the QoM is a "real" externalized entity that was created by Susan's despair. Maybe somewhat equivalent to the Guardian of Ultima IX, or gods as depicted in American Gods or Discworld: created through mental energy, but able to physically impact the world once created.

I was really surprised, and delighted, to have a genuinely happy ending. I was not expecting that at all! The whole game was relentlessly bleak and dark, with only a few moments with Mitzi breaking through with little sparks of light and grace. It felt incredibly earned, though: we ultimately see that this has been a long, hard journey that Susan has been on, and at the end she finds what she could never have hoped for: hope itself, and a reason to keep on living.


I'll have a hard time making any blanket recommendations for this game, thanks to its gory and disturbing content. Still, players who are able to stomach the dismal elements will be richly rewarded. Yes, the game is unremittingly bleak and dark; but that same darkness helps the brief flashes of light shine all the brighter. It treats forbidden topics of depression and suicide with such candor that it earns the right to show a path forward. Not with a saccharine assurance that everything will be okay, but with small acts of grace and bravery.

Albums! I'm increasingly frustrated with Google, whose legacy Picasa infrastructure is falling apart at the seams, and am actively looking for replacement photo-hosting services. In the meantime, here are a whole bunch of pictures from the game. WARNING!!! These contain a little nudity, and a lot of gore, and are absolutely not safe for work by any stretch of the imagination.
Chapter 1: House in the Woods
Chapter 2: Second First Breath
Chapter 3: River
Chapter 4: Bullet for Susan
Chapter 5: Some Flowers Never Bend Towards the Sun
Chapter 6: Legend of Cat Widow
Chapter 7: Don't Feed the Troll

Pleasant dreams...

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Fall of the Hospital Builder

Rise of the Tomb Raider is a fun game! It's a well-designed, polished piece of entertainment. Not the most innovative or creative thing I've played, but it also avoids any of the major flaws and irritations that tend to disrupt my enjoyment of big-budget action/adventure games.

Let's start with Lara! It's awesome to have a main character who is not a moody white male troubled by the death of a loved one. Granted, Lara can come across as a moody white female troubled by the death of her father, but it's still a welcome change. As I noted in my first post, Lara often comes across as resigned or bored in her voice acting. This seems a bit out of sync with the gameplay, which is really fun; to be fair, though, Lara does go through a lot of the game getting scraped and burned and shot and frozen and bitten, so I really shouldn't be asking her to smile more.

The environments are great. I'd remarked earlier about the ex-Soviet Siberian outpost, which is a surprisingly beautiful depiction of a dilapidated, rusty, brutal installation. In the latter part of the game, you move to a more vibrant and lush area; the transition from tundra to geothermal valley reminds me of Shadow of Mordor's transition from volcanic desert to the fertile Sea of Nurnen, one of many parallels between the two titles. I like pretty areas, so that was nice; also, I was impressed by the subtle but effective art direction of this part of the game, which imagines a hypothetical evolution of Byzantine architecture adapted to a remote corner of the globe.

And for the plot itself: It's good. Nothing too mindblowing. It's nicely complex, with layered revelations, and a good mix between Ancient Secrets and current plot twists.


Favorite weapon: Grim Whisper (high-tech compound bow)

Favorite outfit: Man oh man! So hard to pick just one, and I loved the variety. Some top contenders included Shadow Runner, the Henleys, Apex Predator (mostly for the face-paint, though the clothes are also cool), Commando, Valiant Explorer, Wraithskin, Sacra Umbra... you know, there are a lot of good outfits.

Favorite fighting style: Melee stealth kills, especially death-from-above and drag-someone-down-into-the-water-and-stab-them.

Favorite purchase: Crafting upgrade, followed by the Commando outfit.

Favorite skill: Hard to pick one, but a few notables: Upgrading Survival Instincts to see items through walls, silent landings, and revealing headshots.

Favorite item: Combat knife.

Favorite NPC: Sofia was pretty cool. Honestly, there weren't a whole lot to choose from. Oh, wait! Changed my mind, it's Nadia from the Baba Yaga DLC.

Favorite DLC: Baba Yaga, with an honorable mention to Blood Ties.

Favorite villain: Again, not a whole lot of options. Baba Yaga was pretty compelling, but I think I have to go with Ana.

Favorite enemy: Hm, maybe the bear. I was excited by the concept of the undead army, but they were mechanically fairly boring.

Favorite challenge tomb: Maybe the Exorcism chamber. I liked how it was small and compact, so you could consider all the elements without a lot of running back and forth, but still dense and mechanically interesting.

Favorite ancient knowledge codex: I was really surprised that Chromite Ore is gated behind one of these. I couldn't figure out how a few of them worked, like the double-shot or the animal heart.

Favorite cut-scene: These all looked really good in general, I'm very impressed by the motion capture. The coolest-looking are probably the pyrotechnics at the top of Kitezh near the end of the game; the most emotionally rewarding was probably Jacob and Sofia reuniting at the start of the Geothermal Valley.

Favorite animation: Ziplining was always fun. Squeezing through cracks is also cool, a really nice variation from standard door-based separation of areas.

Favorite zone: Geothermal Valley.

Favorite consumable: Grenade arrows.

Favorite music: Nothing was really memorable, was it? I guess maybe the closing credits music?


As I understand, here's the full story:

In Byzantium, late in the 10th century, a man discovered a relic he called the Divine Source. This made him immortal, and he could use it to grant immortality to others, as well as heal woulds and such. He became known as The Prophet, and preached a heretical faith. He believed that God existed, but was unknown and unknowable, and anyone who claimed to speak for God lies. But, God can be seen through his creation of the world.

The Prophet attracted a large following in Byzantium, but also unwanted attention. Emissaries from the Catholic Church in Rome spoke out against his movement in the Forum, leading to large-scale riots and other disruptions. (This would have been several decades before the Great Schism, so Rome still nominally held authority over the Orthodox church.)

Rome dispatched a Crusade-like military group called Trinity towards Byzantium to enforce orthodoxy. The Prophet wanted to avoid further violence, so his movement left the city and resettled to the Syrian desert. (This segment sounded reminiscent of the history of the Mormon church, although I don't know whether that's intentional or not.) Trinity followed them, though, and the Prophet's group fled once more, disappearing to the northeast.

They eventually settled in a remote valley in Siberia, warmed by geothermal energy. The Prophet continued to attract new followers, and together they built an advanced city, hidden from the outside world. Trinity's agents continued to search for the Prophet. At some point, their mission seems to have shifted from ending heresy to seizing the Divine Source for themselves. One of their agents secured the cooperation of the Mongol Horde, and together they discovered and invaded Kitezh.

Desperate to save his city, the Prophet granted the gift of immortality to his army of followers: when slain in battle, they would rise up again and continue following. However, this process changed their personalities: they ceased to be the people they were, and became heartless, emotionless creatures, single-mindedly devoted to their mission. When the immense Mongol army threatened to overwhelm Kitezh, they pulled down the ice from the surrounding mountains, trapping themselves, the enemy, and the Divine Source within.

The Prophet and a few of his followers managed to escape. Calling themselves the Remnant, they adapted to a more rugged existence, leaving behind the utopian dreams of Kitezh. The Prophet, calling himself Jacob, cast off his religious role and took on a more simple guise.

Trinity continued to search for the Divine Source, but with the lower profile of the Remnant, they had little luck. Trinity is involved in a lot of other efforts. One of their recruits was a man named Konstantin. Konstantin's sister, Ana, suffered from an unspecified terminal illness. When they were children, she carved stigmata into his hands while he slept; he interpreted this as a sign that he had been chosen by God, turning him into a fervent follower of Trinity, willing to kill and commit atrocities in the name of his faith. Ana cynically supported his path, hoping that, through his contacts at Trinity, he would be able to locate mystical artifacts capable of curing her.

Around the same time, Lord Croft, Lara's father, started investigating the Source, retracing the Prophet's steps from his first appearance in Byzantium. Trinity covertly supported his efforts. Among other things, they planted Ana as a deep-cover agent with him after his first wife Amelia died. Ana became a mother-like figure to Lara; Lord Croft seems to have been fond of Ana, but remained distant, obsessed with his work as always. He discovered that Trinity was tracking him, and sought to expose them; in turn, they discredited his research and murdered him, staging it to look like a suicide.

Years later, Lara, going through his notes, picked up the trail. Ana tries to dissuade her, but Lara persists. She traveled to Syria to locate the Tomb of the Prophet. Along the way, she was ambushed by Trinity; she managed to Raid the Tomb, but discovered that the Prophet's sarcophagus was empty. After a brief encounter with Konstantin, she kills most of his soldiers and escapes back to England.

At Croft Manor, she reveals her findings to her friend and travel assistant Jonah. He is, understandably, nonplussed at her ravings about discovering the secret to immortality, and leaves. At the same time, an agent from Trinity arrives. He and Lara struggle; Jonah returns and helps defend Lara, but the agent escapes with the map to the location of the Prophet. Realizing that they're racing Trinity, Jonah finally agrees to help Lara.

They travel to Siberia and make their way over the mountains. They get separated during an avalanche, though, and Lara is on her own for most of the game. She sees Trinity soldiers exploring the area and taking over an old Soviet base; she also runs into a few locals, the Remnant, who are being captured and interrogated by Trinity.

Lara herself is captured by Konstantin, who threatens to kill Ana unless Lara shares the location of the Source. Lara, not knowing the answer, cannot help him. Ana then reveals herself to be in league with Trinity. Konstantin wants to kill Lara as a loose end, but Ana (and, apparently, Trinity as a whole) want to keep her alive; in Ana's case, maybe for some residual affection for Lord Croft; Trinity's own motives are murky. Lara is locked up.

Lara escapes from her cell, rescuing Jacob along the way. He shows her a secret way into the geothermal valley where most of the Remnant lives. Lara also meets Sofia, Jacob's daughter and a leader of the Remnant's militia forces.

The Remnant knows that Trinity will attack soon, and so they and Lara prepare and defend against multiple assaults. They repel the invasion, but Trinity learns of the key to the Divine Source, an artifact called the Atlas. They stop their attack on the valley, and instead focus on taking the Cathedral, where the Atlas is housed. Lara Raids the Tomb, taking the Atlas and escaping with it back to the Remnant. Here, she is finally reunited with Jonah, who has been searching for her ever since they were separated.

The Atlas projects a complete map of Kitezh's city planning, including all major buildings and routes. Using this, Lara identifies a path into the city through the mountain. But Trinity then launches a counter-attack, capturing both Jonah and the Atlas. Lara rescues Jonah, but by the time she retakes the Atlas, Ana and Konstantin have already made the same discovery of the location of the Source.

Jonah is stabbed by Konstantin and close to death. Lara and some freed Remnant prisoners return him to Jacob, who heals him. Around this time Lara realizes that Jacob is the Prophet; and, furthermore, he's known all along about how to get to the Divine Source. But by this point Lara's continued support of the Remnant has won her their loyalty, and Jacob, Sofia and the rest are willing to trust Lara's quest.

Lara makes it into Kitezh, which is still patrolled by the ancient army of immortal soldiers who have served there for centuries. While she's making her way up from the base, Trinity smashes in through the icy ceiling, drawing the undead towards them. Lara makes her own way up to the top, where she brings down Konstantin's helicopter and finally kills him. She rushes to the inner chamber, only to find that Ana has already taken the Source.

Ana is no longer devoted to Trinity, if she ever was: while Trinity seems to want to hold the artifact to increase their own power, Ana wants to use it for the whole world, curing all sickness and disease (or at least claims as much). However, Jacob has long wanted to destroy it; after seeing the monstrousness of the undead army, Lara is inclined to agree. Ana uses the artifact to heal herself, but then Lara grabs it and smashes it. The undead vanish, and, soon after, so does Jacob.

Ana and Lara slowly make their way on foot out of Siberia, and Ana confesses that she knows Lord Croft's death was not a suicide. Lara learns that Ana didn't commit the murder herself, but before Ana can say who did do it, she is assassinated by an unseen assailant. That same assassin spares Lara on the order of Trinity.

Lara makes her way back to England, where she is reunited with Jonah and everyone lives happily ever after the end!


I get the feeling that this will be one of those game stories that fades from my mind; I doubt I'll retain any vivid memories of Konstantin or the Source or such after a couple of years. (To be fair, though, this is the first Tomb Raider game I've played, and it might have resonated more with me if I'd already been invested in its mythology.) While the plot may be forgettable, though, the actual gameplay seems much more likely to endure. It was fun, fluid, challenging without ever feeling frustrating or unfair, filled with cool little moments and scenes. This is ultimately a game that's primarily about Lara herself, and she manages to be simultaneously relatable and awesome, carrying the game on her strong shoulders.

Albums! Continuing with my belated plan of reform, I'm dividing albums into smaller (through still large) chunks. These are listed chronologically, but each may contain spoilerish captions referencing end-game content.

Geothermal Valley Arrival
Defending the Remnant
The Cathedral
The Rescue
The End!

Monday, January 09, 2017

Grave Pirate

One of my favorite parts of a new year is getting to play the video games my brother gave me for Christmas. This year, that means finally diving into Tomb Raider's latest incarnation, Rise of the Tomb Raider.

I wasn't a huge fan of the original Eidos version of the game. I think I played some early demos way back in the 90s, but they made me sad because I had to shoot wolves. I was curious about the modern reboot, though also a little apprehensive: gameplay clips made me worry it was trying too hard for the "dark and gritty" label that has plagued modern superhero movies and other franchises. The sequel, though, has gotten uniformly good reviews, and I've wanted to check it out for a while.

So far, it's been awesome! Especially after the minor humiliation of Mirror's Edge, it's felt great to cruise through these levels, solving puzzles and stealing priceless artifacts and setting villains on fire. According to the in-game progress meter, I'm a little over one-third of the way through, so I figured this would be a good place to stop and record my initial impressions. This post will focus on the gameplay; I'll almost certainly do a wrap-up later that covers the story and characters.

At a high level, this game feels like a mix of Shadow of Mordor with The Last of Us. (Note: I'm probably exposing my ignorance of other franchises that would be closer matches, but those are the closest of the games I've played.) Like Shadow of Mordor, Rise of the Tomb Raider has an XP system that unlocks purchasable skills, relics that can be rotated in 3D to find hidden secrets, and a similar level design built around large zones. Fortunately, the plot (so far) is infinitely better then SoM's vile story. Combat mechanics are most similar to The Last of Us, with a similar assortment of weapons (bows, hand melee weapons, and firearms), as well as craftable weapons that can be made out of resources found in the environment (molotov cocktails, explosive cans), along with homemade bandages and other crafting.

Like both SoM and TLoU, the game supports a variety of game styles, from run-and-gun to sniper to grenadier to assassin. I've been varying my behavior more frequently in this game than either of those; if memory serves, I almost exclusively used melee stealth kills in both of those. In RotTR, I prefer to use my bow for stealth headshots from a distance; but if I'm getting swarmed by wolves I'll pull out a rifle, and if I'm getting crowded by armored soldiers I'll start building bombs. In the skill tree, I've primarily focused by skills that help me navigate the environment, followed by stealth abilities, followed by crafting, followed by archery. Similarly, my main priority for crafting is expanding my resource capacity, followed by bow upgrades, then upgrades for my firearms.

Gameplay is nicely balanced between exploration, hunting, fighting, and puzzles. I'm playing on the standard difficulty level ("Tomb Raider") and am finding it just right: I've died a couple of times, but thanks to the generous checkpoint system it's never felt too punishing. The puzzles deserve special mention for being cleverly designed, challenging but still logical. Most of the time I'm eventually able to figure them out by looking around and figuring out how things are connected. Once or twice I've had to resort to Google; in those cases, though, once I've figured out how I'm supposed to solve them, it's just a matter of following the necessary steps. It's felt like a breath of fresh air after Mirror's Edge, where twitch reflexes were required in addition to understanding what actions to take.

The game looks amazing. The graphical high point for me is probably Lara's hair: it's hands-down the best hair I've seen in any video game ever. (Apparently, they went so far as to write a library specifically to render her hair, which calculates the physics for each of thousands of strands of hair. Dang!) It moves, and flows, and cascades; when Lara climbs out of a pool, she wrings the water from her mane. It's so good. I want hair this good in every other game I play. My new dream is for the next Dragon Age game to have hair this detailed.

And the outfits! I have a well-documented weakness for playing dress-up in RPGs, and it's fun to get to indulge that in an RPG as well. The game starts with more than a dozen choices, with a few more unlocked over the course of play. They look great, and are also a nice change of pace from the hot-pants-and-tank-top look of the classic games. Since RotTR is set in, y'know, Siberia, her clothing is much more sensible. There's a great variety of fashions available, incorporating furs or high-tech fabrics or oodles of layers or native dress. (In a nice touch, if you wear a henley or other lighter-weight garment, Lara visibly freezes with chattering teeth when in icy areas. It's a great little piece of feedback that gently encourages you to please treat your virtual video game character a little better.) One very mild complaint: a few outfits come with in-game benefits, leading to a disappointing tension between choosing the best look or the best mechanics. The bonuses are relatively minor, though, which frees me to usually grab whatever catches my eye during a given time.

Character designs in general are great as well. Lara Croft used to be a punchline when it came to video game characters; she's definitely idealized here, but feels grounded in a way that her previous incarnation never did. All of the other NPCs are nicely differentiated, with a variety of body types and skin tones and tattoos and facial hair and so on. And the movement is just fantastic, much like in an action movie, with really dramatic reactions and poses.

And, let's not forget the environments! I'm sure there's more still to come, but already, I've been blown away by how gorgeous these areas look. In real life I'm particularly drawn to mountain ridges, and this is one of those games that can kindle a similar love in me when I scan their virtual vistas. But I'm also impressed by what they're able to do with rust and decay. Much of the game so far has been set in an old, abandoned Soviet installation, badly weather-beaten and somehow all the more beautiful for it.

On the negative side... hm, I don't have much to complain about. Sometimes, while I'm moving to the side along a ledge and press Space to move myself up, the sideways momentum continues and I end up leaping off. That's a bit annoying, but I've learned to come to a complete stop. Waypoints aren't very useful, especially when they're marking a location deep underground instead of pointing you towards the entrance. A lot of the relics and logs are pretty boring; I feel like we're reaching the end of the useful life of in-game audio logs. It's been more than twenty years since System Shock introduced them, and they've served their purpose, and I feel like it's time for something new.

Also, while Lara does have a really nice voice (I'm a sucker for a British accent), she sounds so bored when she's examining a relic or contemplating a puzzle or otherwise commenting on her environment. I kind of suspect that that's intentional; at least, I've noticed the same tendency for male leads in other AAA action games, who seem too world-weary and detached to really care. And I dunno, maybe it would get grating if Lara regularly sounded excited and curious about the world around her. But, outside of the cutscenes, I never feel like she's having nearly as much fun as I am.

I should mention that I'm playing the "20 Year Celebration" edition, which comes with all of the DLC, most notably "Baba Yaga: The Temple of the Witch". At the start of that mission, I met a new character named Nadia, and almost immediately started wishing that she was voicing Lara instead. Again, not that I dislike Lara's voice per se, but Nadia just seemed so much more engaged in what was going on around her and had a certain sense of humor.

It wasn't until maybe an hour later that I went "Wait a minute... don't I know that voice from something else? Is that Ashly Burch??" After finishing the mission I went online to check and found that, yep, it was! So that was a really fun and unexpected coincidence: I've been mainlining Hey Ash Whatcha Playin? for the last week, and have had Feelings About Chloe Price for months before that. I now kind of want every video game in the future to feature Jennifer Hale and/or Ashly Burch. We can make this happen!

So, yeah. More later, but in the meantime, I went ahead and annotated my albums so far. That's right, albums! I actually divided my screenshots into multiple groupings so I didn't have hundreds of images all jumbled together in a single unnavigable mass, what an innovative idea. I really should make a habit of this for my longer-running games. Anyways, here they are. Spoilers for each segment within.
Soviet Installation (first major zone of the game, maybe about 1/3 of the content?)
Blood Ties (standalone DLC)
Baba Yaga: The Temple of the Witch (DLC)