Tuesday, July 31, 2018


I remain starved for any games even remotely related to Life Is Strange. That's the main reason why I was interested in Vampyr, the latest (well, almost latest) game from the developer DONTNOD. (Thanks for the gift, Andrew!) Secondary reasons included a vague hope that it would be some sort of spiritual successor to Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines (which, to be fair, it was never advertised as), and this really awesome trailer from E3.

Vampyr ended up being kind of an oddity. It's an action game, mechanically a lot closer to Remember Me than Life Is Strange. In many ways it feels like a cookie-cutter action/adventure/roleplaying game: you play as a white dude, you can switch between a melee weapon and a ranged weapon and special abilities, you fight lots of generic respawning enemies, you collect money and materials, you can do some light crafting to create and upgrade weapons, you follow a main plot line with periodic cinematic cutscenes, along the way you have a variety of optional sidequests that give smaller rewards, you earn XP and level up to increase your stats and gain new abilities, the plot mostly runs on rails but there are a couple of choices along the way that can influence which of several endings you will get. Phew! Sound familiar?

That said, it does add a lot of interesting stuff to the formula. High on the list is its presentation of NPCs. Most games of this sort will either have a small handful of named NPCs that serve some limited function (shopkeeper, quest-giver, etc.), and/or a large bustling mass of anonymous NPCs who add atmosphere but don't do anything significant. Vampyr has several dozen - maybe close to a hundred? - named NPCs. Each of them are their own fairly fleshed-out character, with their own secrets and ambitions and activities. The marquee feature of Vampyr is how these characters are bound together in a "social web": each person is related to other characters, and actions that affect one of them will affect others. This, theoretically, adds a layer to the decisions you made, as your actions will carry repercussions.

A closely related interesting mechanic is the "feeding" system. As a vampire, you thirst for the blood of the living. In this game, that doesn't mean regenerating health or stamina, but the most precious resource of all: experience points. Each friendly NPC represents a substantial pool of XP, and feeding on an NPC gives you a substantial boost. Killing a hostile enemy will earn you 5 XP, while a single NPC might earn as much as 5,000 XP.

This opens up all sorts of interesting trade-offs. In order to get the maximum XP from a given NPC, you need to discover all of their secrets and keep them healthy. So you might debate between the utility of a smaller XP boost now versus a larger XP boost later. Also, due to the aforementioned social web, feeding on a person might have negative impacts on someone else. You might inadvertently close off a potential sidequest that would also generate XP. And over the long run, if too many people fall to your insatiable hunger, the district will fall into chaos, growing far more dangerous to you. And that's not even addressing the moral question of whether you want to feed on them in the first place!


That question "is it right to feed on this person?" can be surprisingly interesting. One of my favorite bits about the game is the complexity of the characters in it, which avoid both stereotypes and easy judgment. Characters are rarely good or bad. And also very diverse! The game is set in 1918 London, which I tend to think of as being a purely white setting; but, of course, the British Empire was globe-spanning, and we run across plenty of characters with Indian or African or other forms of ancestry. And some characters are homosexual, because of course there were homosexual people in England, even if they weren't written about very much. We meet communists, and yes, communists were a large part of the labor movement as seen on the docks here. And women's liberation campaigners, because yes, that was when there was a universal suffrage push. The characters feel simultaneously very modern and very rooted in their setting.

When introducing diverse characters to a place where they might not be expected, I think there's a temptation to make them a little too perfect, to sort of Afterschool Special them. That temptation is avoided here. One of the first characters you meet is Milton Hooks, an ambulance driver and one of the only black men in the game. Talking with him and others, you quickly realize that he's running a variety of rackets: shaking down incoming patients, taking bribes to guarantee bed placement, searching through the pockets of the deceased for valuables. Yeesh! The game never excuses this behavior, but, as you get to know him more and dig deeper, you at least get an understanding of his motivation. Unlike the privileged doctors at the top of the hospital hierarchy, who came from wealthy backgrounds and had all sorts of opportunities and choices while growing up, Milton has never had any opportunities offered to him, and has chosen to create his own. His scrabbling is distasteful, maybe detestable, but if it wasn't for that scrabbling he might not be alive today. What starts out as a judgment about him eventually becomes a reflection on ourselves: it's very easy to cast blame at people who make bad choices, but harder to recognize that they're facing choices we never have needed to confront.

Ultimately, it's up to you (or, rather, Doctor Jonathan Reid in the game) to decide how to respond. In gameplay terms, do you let Milton live, or do you bite his neck and suck out all of his life force to murder him and empower yourself? Milton is far from the most tempting target in this regard, and the game seems to go out of its way to encourage you to feed. One clear example is Clay Cox, the gang leader you meet at Pembroke who introduces himself along the lines of "I sure enjoy MURDERING people! But I'm sick :( so I can't murder as much as I want. But if you make me healthy again, heh heh, there's no telling WHO I might MURDER! By the way, I lost my knife. :-( Can you find it for me?" If you do the knife quest, he'll essentially say "Oy, guv, thanks for getting me back my knife! I can't wait to MURDER another innocent person with this KNIFE!!!"

The game's dialogue is screaming that this is a Bad Guy, and there's a very simple button you can press to take him out... but he's still considered a civilian, he's using the dialogue interface and not the combat interface, and he's not actively threatening you at the moment. The game seems to frown on you feeding on people, so in general it seems like the virtuous path is to spare everyone, but is it really a good thing to just let him wander the street, brandishing his knife?

Oddly, the civilians I felt most tempted to feed on weren't the obvious thugs like Clay Cox or the other Wet Boot Boys: it was the cruel slumlords, the wealthy capitalists. Cadogan Bates inflicts misery on a far grander scale than Cox does. Bates does it with the support of the law instead of in opposition to it, has zero concern for those who suffer under him, and dresses up his oppression with self-serving rhetoric. I ultimately spared him, too, but it was an even closer decision.

And, ultimately, that's one of my mild complaints about the game: they created this really complex, intricate web, but then seem to have superimposed an absolutist all-or-nothing morality on it. If you are a virtuous person who never feeds on anyone, then the web is fully intact and you never see any of those repercussions; if you feed even once, then you do see the consequences, but that instantly casts you to the "dark" side of the moral scale. It would have been interesting to have a wider variety of choices available than "feed" or "don't feed": something like a "bring to justice" option could still have shaken the social web as people are removed from it, without actually killing people, affecting the district's health, and counting as a permanent mark on your soul.

Before I dive deeper into the specific plot, here were things I liked:

  • Great map design. It's based around a deceptively simple principle: doors are locked on one side, and after being unlocked on the other, in the future can be opened in either direction. It's fantastic for guiding players along certain routes, then eliminating the time cost of backtracking.
  • Solid voice acting. It's relatively low-key and not as attention-getting as other games, but feels very authentic and likeable.
  • Variety of personal stories. We've come a long way from "Everyone has daddy issues" or "Everything revolves around me": I was often surprised by the details of individual citizens' tales, and felt invested in their outcome.
  • Quantity of side-quests. It wasn't overwhelming like the seemingly-endless number in an Elder Scrolls game, but there were still enough to have some variety and choice in choosing what to pursue when. Doing enough of them cumulatively grants sufficient rewards to feel worthwhile.
  • A nice range of upgradeable abilities.
  • The atmosphere is fantastic. Dark and moody, but with little pockets of hope.
  • As with all DONTNOD games, it has beautiful lighting. Things like flickering torchlight illuminating damp cobblestones are gorgeous.
  • The unique period setting is a really refreshing change. I don't think I've ever played a game set in this era, but it's great: modern enough to be instantly recognizable and relevant, but old enough to earn a sense of class and weight.
Things I was ambivalent about.
  • No fast travel. This gets to be a pain in the midgame, when you're turning in side-quests around the city. In practice, though, you can run from one side of the city fairly quickly. It's also pretty easy to run through combat in most cases, especially if the route is already open.
  • Character animations are generally fine, but can get really repetitive in certain scenes - once you notice, say, a particular character's hand gesture, you'll see that they're robotically repeating it every seven seconds. 
  • The combat generally felt pretty hard. But, I think that's pretty clearly a consequence of my decision not to feed on the blood of citizens. I do like how this plot decision had a strong gameplay consequence... but it still felt kind of annoying to die fairly often later in the game.
  • Respawning enemies. Combat generally felt more like a chore than fun, and it gets aggravating to face the same anonymous foes repeatedly. This is slightly mitigated by the fact that containers also respawn, and the aforementioned ease of running through/past fights you don't want to do. 
  • "Witcher Senses". They're totally fine on their own, the gameplay is decently interesting and it's a nice change of pace from fighting, but it still feels derivative.
  • Waypointing system. Specifically, they can be misleading: especially early on, a waypoint may show on your map at your ultimate destination, and not at the place you actually need to go. (For example, instead of showing the door to enter a building, it will point to the location on the other side of the block where you'll eventually end up.) I preferred the zone-based approach that just show huge circles over the general areas to investigate, though this is also frustrating for a few quests like finding your father's letters. All that said, I do appreciate having some kind of waypointing while not being handheld for the duration of the game.
Things that annoyed me:
  • Not knowing whether clicking on a door will open it or start a loading screen to transition you to a new area. This is a big issue early and late in the game, but thankfully not much of a problem in the middle.
  • The economy. There's no buy-back or sell-back interface; I accidentally bought a bunch of watches when I thought I was selling them, and ended up losing hundreds of shillings even though I immediately realized my mistake. Then again, there's almost nothing worth spending money on. I did drop some shillings on Good handle parts, but almost immediately afterwards enemies started dropping a ton of them for free. I guess it might make sense if you never loot anything; but since you get most of your money by looting, you wouldn't be able to buy anything in that case, either.
  • Talking to people can feel overwhelming. Whenever you arrive in a new area like Pembroke or Whitechapel for the first time you're confronted with huge walls of text, well over a dozen people to talk with, one after the other. These conversations are very mechanical: click on all of the bright text until it all turns dim.
  • Relatedly: There are persistent minor bugs where dialogue prompts remain bright even after you've spoken them.
  • Ultimately, I found myself often getting bored and doing something else while characters were talking... which is very unusual for me! Dialogue tends to be my favorite part of games like this. Here, that dialogue often ended up feeling like a grind, something I was just going through to get the XP unlocked by the clues.
  • Honestly, a lot of this might come back to Jonathan Reid himself. I liked him fine, but... he's just constantly on about "What have I become?!" and "There is this... HUNGER that burns inside me!" I'll take that over the standard grimdark protagonists who are de rigueur in these kind of games, but it still grates after enough repetition.
  • Whenever you die, you restart from the last checkpoint with full health and stamina, but it takes away virtually all of your blood. Most annoyingly, you see it start at a decent amount, like a half or a quarter, and then get sucked away until you have just a sliver, maybe not even enough for a single ability activation. Especially since you presumably died due to a tough fight, this just makes it all the more frustrating to go into it with a significant handicap. This gets extremely annoying since the enemies you previously defeated will respawn with full health, and depending on how far back the checkpoint was, you might not even be able to get back to the part that killed you last time.

And one annoyance that's not at all related to this game: there were a couple of points where I wanted to check on a sidequest or a choice, and was reminded that FAQs and walkthroughs seem to be dying out. Back in the day, within a few weeks of a game being released you could count on there being a half-dozen or so competing specialized guides that you could turn to; after a few months, one or two would be enthroned as the de-facto community source and contain exhaustive, often spoiler-free guidance. These days, most games don't have any FAQs at all. If they do, it's usually just a single one. So I ended up needing to do general searches and browsing Reddit threads, and occasionally getting mildly spoiled in the process. I'm curious if FAQs are disappearing because of the Pivot To Video, or if it's a consequence of the explosion in the number of games being released, or what. Definitely not the worst trend in gaming, but it's still a little sad to see.

Anyways, back to Vampyr, a quick summary of my style: I focused on quick-hitting melee attacks. By the end of the game I was wielding a Level Five Hacksaw with damage upgrades and a Level Five Liston Knife with drain upgrades. Using the Liston Knife allowed me to bypass the stun/feed mechanic, so I didn't put any upgrades into Bite-related abilities. I also put very few upgrades into my Blood bar in general, largely due to the aforementioned issue with your blood always resetting to near zero on death; I rarely ran out of blood mid-fight as it was, and losing more would just enrage me in real life. On the other hand, I did bump up my Stamina significantly. Even without Stun, your melee attacks will slightly stagger opponents, and so you can sort of soft-stun-lock them by rapidly attacking. If your Stamina is high enough, you can keep this up until they die.

For powers, I focused on Shadow Mist, a long-distance AOE attack, and Autophagy for quick in-combat healing (and aggravated damage healing). I also took the first level of Shadow Veil as a quality-of-life upgrade; it's really nice when you're trying to get from Point A to Point B and don't feel like fighting everyone. Late in the game I took the Abyss ultimate, which I love and wish I'd taken before: it does a ton of damage, and has a long stun that even works on boss monsters. It also doesn't cost any blood at all, just has a long cooldown, and is a great element in any boss fight or general "oh, crap!" situation.

Story-wise, I played as a pretty straightforward good guy. I pretty much always chose the empathetic option in dialogues, generally allowed people to choose their own destiny but tried to look after their interests. I obsessively healed everyone I came across. As noted above, I never fed on anyone, though there are some more challenging scenarios you face later in the game that deal with turning people.


More specifically, when it came to the pillars, I:
  • Made a deal with Dorothy Crane to continue the Whitechapel clinic and stop her blackmail.
  • Convinced Sean Hampton to drink my blood and reduce his craving.
  • Convinced Aloysius Dawson to accept a natural death.
  • Allowed Dr. Swansea to drink my blood and turn into a vampire himself.

I think those are all technically "good" choices, though complicated somewhat. Allowing Dawson to die generates a mild in-game penalty as it causes Whitechapel's health to slip and keeps you from making it Sanitized. And Swansea is, arguably, the main villain of the game, notwithstanding his intentions and affable demeanor.

I hemmed and hawwed for quite a while about Geoffrey McCullum, but ultimately decided to just spare him. It was kind of tempting, though.

I pursued the Lady Ashbury romance. It's very low-key and restrained, and felt super English and very appropriate for these characters: they're all repressed and have these Feelings percolating inside that they just don't quite express. Not the most memorable or meaningful romance I've seen in a video game - heck, far from the most memorable I've seen from DONTNOD - but it was still nice and I was glad to have it. The ending was quite nice as well, with us heading off to visit America and the rest of the world.

Vampyr does seem to be setting up a potential franchise, especially with the lore around the Red Goddess and St. Paul's Stole and other stuff. The reception to the game seems somewhat muted, which makes a sequel less likely, but if it happened, it could go all sorts of ways. That's one of the cool things about having ageless immortal vampires: they could easily jump back to the Middle Ages or forward to modern (or future!) times and still feature many of the same characters.


Honestly, a big part of me just wants another Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines. This isn't that, but it could theoretically lead to that in the future: it already has the vast cast of characters and the lore, it's just missing the setting and the gameplay. Oh, and the protagonist: nothing against Doctor Reid, but I'd have loved to shape my own character.

That's just wishful thinking, though. On its own terms, Vampyr is a perfectly fine game: solid combat, some interesting gameplay innovations, and a really good setting. I was a bit surprised to see how often the feel of the game reminded me of Murdered: Soul Suspect: while the game mechanics are very different, the narrow, twisty cobblestone streets of 21st century Boston reminded me a lot of the streetlit alleys of 1910s London. Both have a lurking layer of the supernatural hovering over a supposedly mundane world. Like Soul Suspect, Vampyr doesn't completely land everything, but it still carves out a unique space in a saturated world, and I'm glad that we have it.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Games As Literature? Okey-Dokey

Any time I write about a visual novel game, I feel the need to preface it by saying "I don't play many visual novels," which feels increasingly inaccurate as the number of entries in this tag grows. While by now I've completed a good half-dozen or so, though, I'm very aware that the ones I'm attracted to are outliers, that consciously seek to challenge the tropes of the form. Which, again, is odd, since it means that I've spent many more hours playing critiques of visual novels than I have playing "normal" visual novels.

This has been true of the Christine Love games, which remain some of my all-time favorites, and is true as well for Doki Doki Literature Club, a free Steam game that has exploded in popularity, through... hm, I wanted to say "word of mouth", but everyone is very hesitant to go into much detail about it. The Love Conquers All games play with the genre's form, subverting it and critiquing it, but ultimately embrace it. DDLC, on the other hand, sometimes seems to be out to destroy the genre: cutting right to the heart of gaming in general, but visual novels in particular, exposing some serious problems with the structure and content of such games and, ultimately, kind of calling for action.

So: Visual novels can be about anything, can be told in any sort of voice, can have a variety of gameplay elements or no gameplay at all. However, from what I can tell, the most popular forms of visual novels (at least in the US) are "dating simulators". In its most stereotypical form, you play as a first-person (never seen) male protagonist, moving through a story that sort of doubles as a harem of eligible women, selecting dialogue and action that will prompt one (or more) of them to fall in love with you: you generally "win" by having a mate at the end of the game.


At first glance, DDLC is a note-perfect addition to this turnkey formula. It's set in a school. You are a somewhat aimless student. Your childhood friend invites you to join the literature club, which you quickly learn is full of "four incredibly cute girls!" Each has their own distinctive personality quirk, easily-recognizable interest, and is very motivated to get to know you better.

The actual gameplay feels rather light. You almost never get dialogue options, and can't influence your player character's personality or story: you love manga, don't read many books, are slightly shy, and want to get along with everyone. The insertion of gameplay is one early unique element in the game: at the end of each night, you write a poem. You do this by selecting from a series of words. Chibi versions of the love interests appear on the screen and will react as you select them: between this and the in-game dialogue, you can get a sense for what type of content each person prefers, and can write a poem that will appeal to them.

As a side note: I opted to impress Yuri, mostly because she's the least child-like character. The dialogue focuses on the idea that she prefers poems that have a lot of imagery and symbolism, but from what I can tell, she actually prefers scientific words (universe, infinity, etc.) and complex multi-syllabic words. Actual imagery and symbolism (rainbow, flower, etc.) count as "cute" words and will appeal to Natsuki instead.

Anyways: For the first half or so of the game, the gameplay mostly consists of doing one of these poem-writing exercises, then just "click to continue" for 20+ minutes of dialogue for the next day, then repeating with a new poem. You do get some opportunities to decide in what order you will show your poem to the others, which slightly affects dialogue but doesn't count as a major choice. I think there's just one proper in-scene choice, where you choose who to side with during an argument.

This segment of the game is long and played very straight. I'd avoided any detailed spoilers, but, well, just the opening screen of the game gives a hint that something is coming, and my radar was activated for any signs of incoming strangeness. There are just a handful of lines over the first couple of hours that indicate everything is not what it seems: occasionally someone will say something slightly odd, or do something without any explanation. This is mostly addressed in-game through your character's own reactions. Later on in the week, some of your classmates' poems grow increasingly unsettling, but "you" respond by going "That's kinda weird, but hey, I don't know much about literature."

As I was playing, I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. I kept waiting for a really long time. I'm uncertain whether this long wind-up is necessary... I kinda felt like the pattern was established after the first day or two, and it honestly got a little painful to sit through the longish, stereotypically drawn-out-but-inconclusive scenes with Yuri.


In retrospect, though, the long time spent in the first act pays strong dividends in the later ones. By setting so much content in place, the eventual turn feels much more meaningful and less gimmicky than it would with a shorter story. The sheer amount of material almost wears grooves in your mind while playing, its very repetition establishing "this is how things are", and so once that material changes, the difference feels profound.

This is most obvious in the text and disturbing art, but what I'm thinking of now is actually the music: that happy ditty theme-song constantly plays for hours as you play, long past the point where you stop paying attention to it, where it becomes purely ignorable background music. So it is DEEPLY unsettling when just a few notes in that song change to a minor key. This slight diabolical chord instantly sends shivers down your spine: even absent any other signifiers, you are alerted that something is wrong, the center is decaying.

It's around this time that I decided to continue playing the game during a well-lit weekend afternoon. I can enjoy horror, but those early elements were already freaking me out enough that I knew I didn't want to go to bed in the middle of it.

So: The game takes an abrupt out-of-tone turn, coming to a shockingly sad end. And that's where the weirdness really starts to kick in. You're taken back to the main title screen, but it's different now: letters in the menu have been corrupted, as have some character images. And you'll quickly find that your save game files have all been deleted!

Pressing on, you start a new game, but it's... different from before. Nonsense text appears on the screen at random intervals. After a false start, and then another, it starts again, but a bit differently: the overall plot and thrust of the game is the same, but the details are different. A sense of malaise hovers at the edge of the dialogue. Visuals glitch. The music grows ever more unsettling, like a nightmare calliope.

The limited gameplay now feels like a tight constriction: before I might have aesthetically preferred more freedom to express myself, but now it's like I'm tied into a straitjacket, loaded onto a crash-test car, hurtling forward towards something awful, with no opportunity to escape.

There's a compelling sense of mystery at this stage of the game: it's obvious that Things Are Not Okay, but who is behind it? And why? My suspicions were directed towards Monika from early on, but as time goes on and everyone's behavior grows more erratic, it became increasingly difficult to discount Yuri as being the architect of whatever was going on. Still, I tend to be stubborn in my gameplay, so even as it seemed like a worse and worse idea, I continued along the Yuri track.

Around this time, the game starts actively fighting you, in some really fun and surprising ways. When prompted to choose who you will spend time with, you come to find that you're fighting the mouse cursor, which keeps gradually shoving over towards "Monika" while you try to move it elsewhere. Soon after, it blocks you from saving the game, telling you there's no point any more.

After yet another horrific "ending", the game further degrades, with you seemingly stuck inside a loop in a macabre scene as corrupted text spews out. After spending ages clicking through, I tried reloading earlier saved games or exiting and restarting, but no matter what you do you're immediately taken back to that sad scene. At last stuff gets cleaned up, the fourth wall gets torn down, and the plot is explained.

The game gets awesome here - I don't even want to talk about it in the Mega Spoilers, but it simultaneously gets less mysterious and more chilling. It evokes one of the best bits of Analogue: A Hate Story, but with even better ludonarrative harmony. I figured out pretty early on how to proceed, but the dialogue (or, okay, monologue) around this point is so good that I let it play out for another cycle before proceeding. (It's great to see that the game is so explicit about what you need to do: people who already know can feel like they're one step ahead of the game, while everyone else can get unblocked, and learn something new in the process.)

The final coda is refreshing, then surprising. I was actually down to explore the Sayori arc a bit more - as long as she isn't actively murdering people, it doesn't seem like it's necessarily that bad - but the "Shut it all down!" ending is super-satisfying, both in-game and in real life.

Anyways: I've kind of recapped the plot without getting into any of the themes, which is at least as memorable as the formal trickery. The story focuses on something that I've been worrying about for years, in my own games as well as those I play: non-player character agency in video games. I wrote about it at some length in my Shadowrun devlog, and DDLC tackles it head-on.

So: Ultimately, characters aren't real people. They're created by writers and developers to fulfill certain roles. This is also true in fictional novels and comic books and all sorts of media. In video games, though, this can seem especially pernicious, because the player interacts with these "people", and they respond to him or her.

First up, there's this ambiguity of identity between the player and the player character. To what extent are these purely fictional relationships being forged between the in-game avatar and the other NPCs, and to what extent is a relationship being created between the real-life player and those same characters (or, I would argue, the creator of those characters)? If you've ever done something nice in a game, and had an NPC say "Thank you for helping me, CHARNAME! You are a good person!", you might have gotten a small, warm, fuzzy feeling in your stomach. "That's right," you might have said. "I am a good person!" We create identification between our real selves and our fictional virtual selves, and derive pleasure from the achievements of the latter.

That pleasure generally increases as characters grow more believable and complex. But, as players grow more focused and invested in the game, they can start to ascribe too much meaning and importance to these fundamentally artificial and unrealistic relationships. It's a step beyond, say, reading romance novels: you aren't just admiring or aspiring to something, but sort of onanistically identifying with your avatar.

That same believability gets particularly insidious in the context of video-game romance. It's one of those things that outsiders to the form can see a whole lot more clearly than those of us who play a lot of games: it is weird to have a lot of people throwing themselves at you and professing their undying love because you clicked a couple of buttons. They have no choice - they are just characters programmed to do so - but it can be tempting to think of this as an earned "conquest". The big risk, of course, is those sentiments bleeding over into the real world: believing that love is a game, that if you choose someone and select the right things that they will give you their affection, and if they don't then something is defective.

DDLC seems to take aim at the central conceit of having characters programmed to love you and blows it up. I think there are other potential solutions, though. While I've complained about this in the past, I increasingly like BioWare's approach to romance: not just restricted romance, where some characters have certain preferences which may exclude the player character, but also characters like Aveline and Harding, for whom you can express affection but who will not reciprocate. At the very least, this pops the illusion that everyone in the world has the hots for the player and that their lives revolve around him or her. In my own work, I've tried to double down on tension between the player character and the NPC to create the impression that they have free will: ultimately, of course, a fictional character doesn't have agency, but allowing them to veer off in other directions, express disapproval, or second-guess their choices can at least make this an illusion that love is something which is given, not won.

I'm still kind of mulling over what DDLC was saying. It feels like a somewhat nihilistic message, turning away from something artificial in our entertainment, as opposed to the Christine Love games, which are more about finding something valuable in our games and then bringing that back with us to the real world. But both get a lot of well-earned and well-crafted mileage by skating along the line between reality and fiction, between player and avatar, and leave you with plenty to think about.


I have a hard time recommending Doki Doki Literature Club. The subject matter will be offputting to a lot of people, and even people who really enjoy one aspect of it may end up disliking the other. But I do think it's one of the most well-crafted games I've played recently. It does very specific things to create tension, to heighten reactions, to draw out your emotions and induce whiplash. I've already found myself thinking about how techniques in this game might be adapted to hypothetical future projects of my own. DDLC can be a hard game to enjoy, but it's a very easy game to admire, and I think it has a ton to offer anyone who wants to provoke emotional responses in other people, as well as players who are interested in peering behind the curtain and exploring how experiences like this can work.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Arboreal Count

Continuing the trend of "authors I've been meaning to read for a while": Italo Calvino. He's popular amongst the Failbetter Games fans, and often shows up in lists of recommended reading, alongside existing favorites of mine like Borges and Mieville. The book of his that shows up most often on those lists is Invisible Cities, which was freshly on my mind thanks to The City & the City and the corresponding memory of Infinite City.

I forget now why I didn't start with Invisible Cities; instead, I picked up The Baron in the Trees, an earlier work by him. This may have been because I wanted to start with a more traditional narrative as opposed to the apparently fragmented structure of Invisible Cities. Regardless, it was a pleasant read: perhaps on the slight side, but very enjoyable.


The novel is set in the late 1700s, as the vestiges of Italian feudalism are starting to fade in the Enlightenment. The protagonist is Cosimo, the son and heir of a minor, politically ambitious baron. At the age of twelve, the son gets into a spat with his family, stomps away from home, climbs up a tree, and swears he will never come down. His determination proves powerful, and he lives the rest of his life in the branches of the forest: originally out of stubbornness, but eventually he seems to gain pride in his niche and to love what he can accomplish up there.

From early on, the story felt curiously nostalgic to me. I hadn't thought of it in years, but reading this I vividly remembered how, when I was a boy, I would be similarly determined to, say, spend 24 hours living in my backyard without coming inside, or to spend all day in a treehouse, or otherwise arbitrarily-but-emphatically shun the expected trappings of civilization for a (relatively) milder milieu. And I also vividly recall feeling a little boy's anger and sense of justice, issuing a proclamation that I would then seek to uphold long after the inciting incident had faded away.

I can only imagine how exasperating those demonstrations were for my, or any, parents. Similarly, when Cosimo makes clear that he never intends to return to the ground, the people in his life are alternately scornful, worried, disbelieving, dismissive, or condescending. Over time, they, and we as readers, may come to a sort of admiration: at first grudging, and then heartfelt. It's a stupid project and a stupid promise, but we can admire the tenacity and effort involved, regardless of how we feel about its aims.

Much of the fun of the book comes from Cosimo's inventiveness, as he brings the earthbound conveniences of his life into the trees or creates new advantages from his new environment. This reminded me strongly of the Swiss Family Robinson and other books that I had also enjoyed deeply as a child and haven't thought of in years. We learn how he fashioned a shower in an oak, how he brings a horse into the canopy, how he fetches items for his ailing mother's bedside or courts a young lady.


We end up witnessing the entire span of Cosimo's life, from childhood to old age, and those courting scenes are surprisingly touching. I really like the complexity Calvino brings to them: it isn't a simple, single love story, but a series of echoes and variations, as he grows and explores and tries. It's messy, which I like a lot: sadness and disappointment are inextricably bound up with passion and optimism.

The novel is narrated throughout by Biagio, Cosimo's younger brother, and in this and other aspects of the new Baron's life we get an appealingly uncertain account of the truth. The baron is a local legend, so of course all sorts of stories spring up around him, some more believable than others. Cosimo further complicates this with his own storytelling, often telling a dozen or more variations about a single battle, say, or an escapade. Biogio will offer up his own best guess about what actually happened, but his inability to pin down Cosimo helps the latter seem even larger than life.

I got the most pleasure from the book's adventuring, whimsical spirit, but it does touch up against some interesting political and philosophical topics. Calvino was writing in the mid-20th century, but these characters fully inhabit the 18th, and it's intriguing to see, say, the conflict between the Jesuits and Voltaire, or between French republicanism and Italian feudalism. Given the decades-long span of the book, it's especially interesting to see how things turn and decay: the initial fervor and promise of the French Revolution curdles and the new boss proves to be even worse than the old boss. But, to me, it doesn't ultimately feel misanthropic: it's more of a recognition that life is complex and unpredictable, and while we can exert enormous influence over how we live our personal lives, even the most powerful people have only the slightest control over how the world evolves.


This wasn't a mind-blowing book like I half-expected, but it was a really fun read: unexpectedly nostalgic, with a pleasant mix of action and thought, and a concept that initially seems thin but proves sturdy enough to support an entire life. I think I'll be ready to move on to Invisible Cities next, and am curious how that will compare with this.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Not So Lucky

I started a couple of other novels on my vacation, but the last one I finished was So Lucky, a surprising new novel from Nicola Griffith that just recently came out. I've caught up with all of her extant works, and it was fun to dive right into a fresh work from her without an extended wait.


It's a little hard to place the genre of this book. Griffith is a very adaptable writer, skilled at writing detective noir and science fiction and historical fiction and whatever else she wants. So Lucky is internally more varied than any of her other works. A sort-of mystery spins up near the end, but it isn't structured like a mystery. There's a slight, possibly supernatural element, but it's ambiguous and not really central to the plot. There are some compelling relationship vignettes, but this is probably the least romantic of any of Griffith's books. I can imagine any one of these elements filling a separate novel, but this story works really well with the combination.

The book isn't mostly focused on the plot: it's focused on the very flawed but wholly sympathetic protagonist, Mara. She isn't some angel: she's a real, grounded, ambitious woman who is swiftly adapting to the titanic changes in her life. This can include reversing her previous actions (or lack of action): when she was fully abled, she casually blocked the creation of a wheelchair access ramp at work, focusing on the dollars saved rather than the people served. Now that she's on the other side of the fence, she's even more determined to see it built.

That might seem a little selfish, but once Mara is awakened to the daily injustices of her new world, she develops a very broad vision that includes a range of disabilities: not only people with limited motor function but also those who are deaf or otherwise face social and environmental obstacles that limit their ability to live their daily lives with dignity.

Mara comes across as an angry person, and I like that! She, and the book, feel very vital: someone who deliberately acts to change the world, not just reacting to her circumstances.


This was a short read, but a great one. It feels more personal than Nicola's other books... she's always had a great worldview, but this work seems more polemic than most, in addition to being a compelling character portrait. It was thrilling to see a little tie-in with one of her other franchises, and makes me curious if we'll ever see these characters interacting in the future.

Saturday, July 14, 2018


Next up on my surprisingly-political summer vacation reading: The Iron Heel by Jack London. I don't think I've read anything by London for thirty years: I vaguely remember reading Call of the Wild back in elementary school, and nothing since. I've been meaning to return to him for a while, though. He was a native San Franciscan, lived in the Bay Area for much of his life, and is honored locally in various large and small ways. While scanning possible titles to read, The Iron Heel jumped out as particularly interesting: in contrast to his man-versus-nature books I was previously familiar with, this was described as a dystopic science fiction novel. Intriguing!


In addition to being a talented novelist, Jack London was also a socialist, and if you didn't know that before, you would very quickly figure it out. The first, no kidding, 150 pages or so of the book is an almost non-stop series of dialogues promoting classical Marxist theory. It's very dull! I happen to agree with a lot of the content, but the form quickly becomes annoying, as London sets his alter-ego against a series of straw men. Have you ever performed the (silent) exercise of imagining an argument with someone else? You go, "I'll say this and then they'll say that and then I'll reply with this perfect comeback and they'll be dumfounded! Yep, I'm pretty smart!" Of course, those conversations never actually play out that way in real life because real people are a lot more complex and intelligent than the automatons inside of our heads. Anyways, imagine 150 pages of those imaginary arguments and you have a really good idea of how the novel opens.

To be fair, those sorts of dialogues have a very strong pedigree. Particularly in philosophy, greats like Plato and Berkeley and Hume used this form to develop and promote their ideas, and that hasn't stopped us from reading them. For whatever reason, I'm less enamored of it in a novel, probably because I want action, darnit!

There's a term in pop criticism that I generally dislike, a "Mary Sue character". If the term has validity, then I think Ernest Everhard is the Mary Suest Mary Sue to ever Mary Sue. He's utterly flawless, destroying all of his foes with his mighty intellect; but strong enough that he could crust them with his fists (or his neck!) if he chose; he's evidently omniscient, perfectly predicting every development that will take place over the entire novel (and, incidentally, robbing it of drama); immediately sizes up every person he meets and accurately states what will happen to them. As the notes in my edition pointed out, Everhard is pretty clearly based on London himself, and I think people who complain about authorial self-insertion would flip out if they ever read this book.

While the opening chapters felt annoying, they moved along very quickly, and they were made much more palatable by the intriguing device London uses to structure the narrative. The Iron Heel was published in 1906, and describes events taking place in the 1910s, Jack London's imminent future; it's technically science fiction for him, but also very much his prediction for the outcome of current events. While Ernest Everhard is the protagonist, it's narrated by his wife-to-be Avis, who is writing the manuscript sometime in the 1930s, looking back at this exciting time in their lives. But the edition we're reading has been edited and released by scholars in the 27th century. The novel contains frequent footnotes from these far-off scholars, explaining to their contemporaries topics that by then seem obscure: who Theodore Roosevelt was, who the Pinkertons were, what a slum was, the incidence of child labor.


These scholars live during the Brotherhood of Man. We gradually learn that the efforts of the Everhards and their allies will, in the short term, be doomed to failure: the Iron Heel will triumph, despotically ruling the world for centuries. But inevitably they will fall, and be replaced with a new era of freedom, equal opportunity, and fraternal solidarity.

That's kind of a spoiler, but also a pretty compelling structure in which to tell a story. You have a sense of fatalism and hopelessness, knowing that the struggle we're watching will fall, but at the same time it's compelling and inspiring to see that struggle, to know that, over the very long course of generations, they will eventually be proven right.

What is this force they're facing? Capitalism, pure and simple. In London's day, this was exemplified by the trusts, like Standard Oil and the railroad concerns. As Ernest observes, there's an irreconcilable conflict between the demands of capital and labor to divide the limited profits generated by their collaboration. Labor has the benefit of numbers, and will ultimately triumph at the ballot box or by force, so the only way the capitalists can hold on to their disproportionate wealth is through overwhelming force of their own: at first by using the judiciary, bought politicians, media organs and bribery; later by enlisting "patriotic" mobs; ultimately by deploying the United States military, militias, and their own paramilitary forces.

It's really fascinating to read this book today, more than a century after it was written. All of London's assertions are made very confidently, and the ones that failed to materialize stick out: we do still have a middle class, nations industrialized throughout the 20th century without starting wars to offload surpluses, the Socialist Party peaked in popularity in the 1910s. The stuff he got right is more subtle and more important: war with Germany, the collapse of Hearst, the use of a bomb in Congress (/ Reichstag) to seize martial powers, the return of conscription, Japanese imperialism. And, of course, the eternal struggle between capital and labor. After decades of relative social flattening between the classes, we've now returned to the mind-boggling gap between very rich and everyone else as was seen in London's day, and it's little surprise that interest in socialism is on the rise again.

The book gets a lot better once the Iron Heel begins to stir and those endless speeches are replaced by dramatic action. It's probably not a coincidence that Ernest becomes quiet for much of this section: he's off politicking, or later languishing in a prison cell, and the novel really opens up now: instead of being obsessed with this unrealistically perfect superman, we start witnessing the struggles of a collection of likeable, flawed, admirable characters. Coming from diverse backgrounds, they are animated by different principles but united in the cause, showing true solidarity with one another.

During the opening chapters I kept wishing that the book was shorter, but by the end I found myself wishing it would go on for longer. I'd have loved to see more of Bishop Morehouse, who returns to the Biblical commandments to serve the poor in dramatic fashion; or Biedenbach, the tragic demolitions expert with a crusty exterior and a soft heart; the young Wickston son, who betrays his own class to support the revolution. Heck, I'd love to read an entire novel about Anna Roylston, the charmed spy and assassin. We get only brief references to these and more characters as the novel hurtles towards its conclusion, but those references are very intriguing.

The climax of the book is the Chicago Commune, which has been foreshadowed and referenced since the opening pages of the book but still feels startling and bloody. The name is a clear evocation of the Paris Commune, a relatively-recent-for-London urban socialist conflict. The Chicago version, though, is a mesmerizing nightmare of modern warfare. You viscerally feel Avis's fear as she races down the streets, chased by enormous mobs of lightly-armed masses, straight into machine-gun encampments that mow down the onslaught. Aircraft fly overhead, dropping bombs onto strategic locations or attempting to shoot down other aircraft. The most compelling and bizarre element is building warfare: entire blocks have been seized by one side or the other, and each fires from its own windows into the other, dealing death twenty stories above a busy street as the battle below rages.

Ultimately, we're left with dashed hopes and disappointment: the revolution betrayed by a few skilled trade unions, unable to control the howling and desperate people of the abyss, the socialists cede all of the power they have only recently gained and resign themselves to fighting a low-key and vengeful insurgency against the triumphant Oligarchy. But, again, the big-picture promise of the coming Brotherhood of Man helps salve the wounds and provide encouragement for the future of humanity.


The Iron Heel isn't exactly what I expected, but it did end up being a blast. I know I've complained at length about the preachiness of the early chapters, but I do really like it when authors have a strong viewpoint and allow it to animate their work, and The Iron Heel is one of the better examples I've seen of that. It feels a little like a precursor to 1984 or Brave New World with its warning against antidemocratic autocracy, but for better and worse it's very much a product of its times, the fears and optimism of the early labor movement. We should probably all be grateful that the Iron Heel he feared did not come into total power, but we can also hope that the Brotherhood of Man is not too far off.


Hello! I've returned from a wonderful two-week vacation. It was filled with nature, and books, and at least one book prominently featuring nature: The Monkey Wrench Gang, a sort of destructive caper novel by the environmentalist and provocateur Edward Abbey.

Abbey has been on my reading list for a little while now. I think he first came to my attention when Nick Offerman name-dropped him during an interview, and the little I'd read about him sounded fascinating. He was an anarchist and naturalist who wrote lyrically about the American West, lamented the destruction being wrought there, took direct action to prevent it and urged others to do the same. The capsule biography made him sound a bit like a combination of John Muir and Abbie Hoffman, further piquing my interest. I'd initially flagged Desert Solitaire, but on further research decided to start with The Monkey Wrench Gang, which fans seem to agree is his most accessible and enjoyable work.


And enjoyable it is! There's a lot of content in there, but even just as a story in its own right it's a lot of fun. It follows a very recognizable formula: a band of misfits joins together in order to accomplish a common goal. But instead of that goal being the defense of a town or the discovery of a treasure or the solving of a mystery, the goal here is pure destruction: blowing up bridges, wrecking bulldozers, cutting down fences, stripping away all markers of mankind's intrusion upon the stark desert landscape.

It's fun to get to know the gang; it felt a little like putting together a party for an RPG, with each member playing their own specific role. Doc Sarvis, a middle-aged surgeon and widower, bankrolls the operation while generally sounding the voice of reason. Bonnie Abbzug, a Jewish nurse from Brooklyn, handles odd jobs and keeps up morale. Joseph "Seldom Seen" Smith is a wilderness guide and local expert, with a perfect memory for the complex geography of western Colorado and eastern Utah. And George Hayduke, a veteran of the Vietnam War, is an expert in all matters of munitions and explosives, and the loudest voice for causing destruction.

The four characters are distinctly drawn, though they serve very different roles in the narrative. After a memorable introduction, Doc fades into the background for much of the story. Seldom Seen and George are the stars of the novel, central to almost all of the action. And Bonnie is... Bonnie can be a frustrating character. She often feels like a sexual token, a resource for the men to pass around among themselves. She does get some great lines, and speaks up on her own behalf, but ends up serving the role the men select for her. I can't decide if it's better or worse that she articulates a feminist message while performing a chauvinist part.

This novel was written in the mid-seventies, and it's kind of interesting to see how Abbey sees women's liberation and the sexual revolution. As portrayed in this book, it's entirely about men's pleasure: at last, they can enjoy multiple sexual partners without any consequences or demands for intimacy. There's really no reference to womens' pleasure or autonomy. This is especially noticeable in Bonnie's initial introduction, and practically parodies the "men writing women" genre: how many stories are there where older, unattractive men, without extending any effort, pique the boundless lust of voluptuous, spunky and creative young women? Isn't it a weird coincidence that those stories are invariably written by older men?

Sorry, that was a bit of a tangent... but it also gets at one of the unavoidable elements of this book: the inherent selfishness of all the characters. They aren't purely selfish, but their selfishness coexists with their noble idealism. Yes, they love the unspoiled beauty of the West and wish to maintain it. But they live in the West. They don't ever suggest that they should leave, just that newcomers should. They benefit from the fruits of industrial life: Doc charters private planes, Seldom and Bonnie drive automobiles, George gleefully purchases products from DuPont. But they don't think that other people should use electricity from these plants, drive cars on those roads, buy those houses.

That contradiction is unavoidable, and has an august precedent: we tend to think of Walden as being a celebration of a pure commune with nature, but Thoreau didn't hesitate to purchase nails and tools and other modern conveniences that would support his project of living in nature. People like Seldom Seen seem to be following in those footsteps, consciously using certain resources to achieve a somewhat contradictory aim. On the other hand, George is openly anti-environmental: he takes pleasure in littering wherever he goes. He doesn't really care about defending nature, he just wants to destroy civilization. The other members of the gang call him out on this, but agree to live and let live. It's kind of cool to see how each person has their own motives and behavior, yet they succeed in accomplishing (= destroying) a whole lot. I wonder if this might be kind of an exemplar of political anarchism: there's no external authority they defer to, all issues are deliberated by the group and decisions are only made once consensus is reached by all. They each take different journeys to arrive at those conclusions, and all support one another once they arrive there.

The two paragraphs above probably sound self-righteous, but the truth is that the exact same criticism applies to my own life: I profess to love nature, and yet my actions belie that love. My work life is focused on technology, and happens to have a very low environmental footprint; on the other hand, I pollute the most when I visit nature. I show that love by hiking, and how do I hike? By driving, by myself, in a gasoline-powered automobile to a trailhead. In extreme cases, like the vacation I just returned from, I might even fly on a commercial airliner, spewing large quantities of greenhouse gasses into the upper atmosphere, so I can appreciate the beautiful landscape I'm helping to destroy.

Like the characters in this book, I think it's valuable for me to acknowledge the contradiction or hypocrisy, the way my actions fall short of the ideals I profess. But even if it is contradictory, nature is still important, is still worth preserving, and we can still benefit enormously as human beings when we immerse ourselves in it.

Returning to the politics of the book: despite its boundary-pushing eco-advocacy, it manages to feel really regressive on other fronts, especially on gender and race. There's a really negative view of Native Americans throughout the book. This might be an aspect of the characters and not the author: when George, for example, espouses an opinion, that probably means it's a bad one. But there are zero positive portrayals of or references to native people throughout the book: despite the fact that this is their land, they only appear as drunken, lazy, greedy, useless background actors. The narrator seems to agree with the protagonists' low opinions.

I find it increasingly difficult these days to separate my enjoyment of fiction from the politics it presents. While the action in the novel is thrilling, the characters' goals end up being opposite to, or maybe just orthogonal to, the stuff that concerns me the most today: improving access and opportunities for the most people. If the Monkey Wrench Gang was focused on saving the West for the sake of the planet, then I could get behind that. But saving it so a few hundred Mormons can keep vast landscapes all for themselves... ehh, that's less inspiring. I admire their tenacity and creativity and audacity, but can't help wish they cared as much about other people as they do about the planet they live on.


All in all, The Monkey Wrench Gang ends up being a surprisingly detailed action plan that anyone can read to become an eco-warrior. Delay roads by pulling up survey stakes! Sabotage earthmoving equipment by pouring corn syrup into gas tanks! I can see why Abbey is so admired by so many people: he seems to have been the ultimate combination of thinker and doer, one who acted and one who exhorted others to act. I feel ambivalent about the actions he describes and the motivations he ascribes, but I can't deny how compelling he makes it seem.