Thursday, May 04, 2023


I just finished reading Susanna Clarke's latest novel, Piranesi. I adored her earlier "Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell" and "Ladies of Grace Adieu". She popped up in a recent missive from Failbetter Games, noting that the staff there had enjoyed reading this book. In an odd bit of synchronicity, Pirenesi is also the name of one of the ports in Failbetter Games' most recent game Sunless Skies. The two Piranesis don't seem to have influenced one another at all, but both of them draw on an older inspiration from large, mysterious, labyrinthine structures.



Piranesi has basically nothing to do with Clarke's earlier work. I suppose it's possible that it's set in the same alternate reality, but there aren't (to my recollection) any references shared between them. The voice is also completely different. JS&MR had a wonderful Austen-esque impersonal narrator, while Piranesi's first-person narrator has a very specific Voice and a unique Way of Speaking that communicates his particular Character and Way of Thinking.

Piranesi is written as a series of journal entries, and through them we come to learn about the titular character and the world he inhabits: deeply strange to us, deeply comforting and meaningful to him. They are the Halls: a vast, perhaps endless, but varied and distinct series of rooms, connected by doorways and stairways. The Lower Halls are usually submerged, depending on the level of the tides: they bring in fish and seaweed that provide food. The Upper Halls feature windows that open to the sky; when it rains, fresh water pours in. The Middle Halls lie between the two and are the most temperate and livable area, filled with birds and other living things. All of the halls are filled with statues: enormous, towering things, depicting people and animals in a variety of poses and scenes. Piranesi feels a sense of mythical significance towards these, but they're also friendly and familiar connections.


The book unfolds pretty delightfully, and we follow along as Piranesi's worldview is challenged and we learn together about what's really going on: who he is, why he's here, what it all means. The novel starts off very sparse and intimate, with only Piranesi and The Other, but by the end we've gotten to know a dozen or so characters; almost none of them ever actually appear, but we learn about them and their forgotten impact on Piranesi's life.

To recap my own understanding of the situation:

Long ago, there was magic on Earth. There is no magic today; so where did it go? It seeped away into something else. It went somewhere; then it moved on from there. But it left traces of where it had been. An analogy: when it rains, water collects on the surface of the earth, then seeps below the earth, then flows down or out. Over thousands of years, this seepage can create immense caves. When you visit the cave, you won't see any water in there: but everything that you see was created by the now-absent water. Likewise, there isn't any magic in the Halls, but the Halls were created by the magic seeping out of the Earth.

Laurence Arne-Syles, a controversial British professor, theorizes about these spaces and is eventually able to physically visit them. He collects a circle of devoted admirers who share his interest in the occult and mystical. Laurence is deeply unpleasant: intentionally transgressive and perverse, he'll do anything to annoy or hurt others for the fun of it. Along the way he murders and imprisons some who come into his orbit, eventually going to prison for his crimes. (The reality of his accomplishment isn't ever understood or accepted by society as a whole, but they can see the evidence of his victims.)

Laurence moves on to other interests, but one of his erstwhile disciples, Ketterly, wishes to continue. Ketterly captures a doctoral student, Matthew Rose Sorenson, and imprisons him inside the Halls. (As I'm writing this, I realize that the Laurence->Ketterly transition is much like the Earth->Halls or the Magic->Mundane transition. Laurence is no longer present or active in Ketterly's actions, but Ketterly was shaped by Laurence, much like the Halls were shaped by departing magic.) Besides being strange and awe-inspiring, the Halls are also dangerous because, if you spend too much time in them, you'll forget about the world outside. This happens to Matthew, who loses track of his former life, and becomes Piranesi.

The book ends with a lovely, thoughtful epilogue: Matthew is back in the world, still remembering the Halls, and bringing that knowledge with him as he goes about life on Earth. There are some touching moments in the final pages where he sees a person and connects them with a particular Statue in the Halls. The significance of this is unclear: are the Halls reflecting lives on Earth? Predicting it? Is there some higher cosmic truth that is being expressed in different ways on Earth and in the Halls? Piranesi angrily rejects the idea from Raphael that the Statues are "merely" depictions of the "reality" on Earth; from his perspective, the statues are closer to a Platonic ideal, and what we see on Earth is merely an imperfect recreation of the pure expression of the Halls.


Piranesi didn't feel as ambitious as JS&MR, but it's a great book: still dealing with the mixture of the magical and the mundane, this time on a more personal level. It has a wonderful voice and clever (but not cute) structure that guides you on the journey and causes delight as it unfolds a mystery.

Wednesday, May 03, 2023

Older Ring

PHEW. Now that I've finally set EU IV aside, I can get back to playing other video games. The first big one I'm picking up is Elden Ring. I've been hearing about the Dark Souls games for years, and have been a little intrigued by them, but also put off by their reputation for brutal difficulty and action-heavy gameplay. I've heard universal praise for Elden Ring, though, and many suggestions that it's a relatively entry point to the series. I'm maybe 15 hours or so into the game and really enjoying it so far.


I'm avoiding any walkthroughs or spoilers of the game, but I am permitting myself to look up a few specific things. Some of these are mechanics that aren't really explained within the game; I also looked up the location of a better Staff for my Sorcerer to wield.


These days I'm pretty ambivalent about open world games, especially open world RPGs, but Elden Ring has been my favorite for a while. It hits the sweet spot of being both vast and dense: there are visually interesting things to stumble across, and you never go very long before stumbling over something intriguing and worth exploring.


Exploration in particular is a strong suit of the game, though I could also see it being overwhelming. I think this game has less direction than any game I've played since Baldur's Gate I: from the start you can go pretty much anywhere and do pretty much anything. There are some descriptions of past events and the world, but not much in the way of plot or goals delivered to you. There's no quest journal, no quest markers (except icons you can manually add to your map), very minimal dialogue and waypointing. There totally are quests, but they're stripped from the UI we've been accustomed to seeing for the last four decades of RPGs.


I'm way too early to have any opinions of the story or worldbuilding, but it's firmly in the dark-fantasy vein. Everything is decaying and falling apart; great battles were fought in the past, and you see the ruins all around you. There are a few spots of light and grace along the way, but they're definitely in the minority. It isn't exactly grimdark; so far there's nothing like the Baron's storyline in The Witcher 3, for example; if anything it kind of reminds me of Tolkien, with a strong sense of decline from a grander time in the past.


Like I said above, I'm playing as a Sorcerer, which is a ranged character. It's been relatively easy so far: I can attack enemies from a fairly safe distance, and usually evade by rolling out of the way. I know that classic Souls play tends to focus more on blocking, parrying and counters, but I'm glad that I can mostly ignore those for this initial playthrough.

 As in many modern RPGs, there are a variety of tools you can have to overcome challenges in the game. The most Souls-ish technique is to "git gud": no matter what your stats are or those of your foe, everyone has their own moveset and strengths and weaknesses, and if you practice enough and study your opponent's behavior, you can beat them. It's hard, though! Another approach is to level up. Keep playing the game, fighting smaller enemies or bigger ones, and you can increase your stats to take more hits and deal more damage, and a harder fight will become easier. A third option is to get better gear. I'll write more about this below, but finding new gear, swapping out pieces or adding upgrades can make a difference. Fourthly, you can craft consumables that will give you a potent short-term boost, long enough to fight a difficult boss. Finally but most importantly, you can just skip it! This is truly an open-world game, with almost no critical challenges: in almost every case you can just go somewhere else and ignore a fight that's too annoying or difficult.


I have a well-documented antipathy towards the economic systems of RPGs, which are especially terrible in open world RPGs with respawning enemies; I griped at length about Mass Effect Andromeda, which had a whole bunch of overlapping currencies and resources and nothing worthwhile to spend them on. Elden Ring goes in the exact opposite direction, taking the bold step of essentially combining XP and GP. You only have a single resource "Souls", that you get from beating enemies, and you spend on leveling your character or on buying equipment. It seems crazy to cross those streams of money and experience, going against everything Gary Gygax taught us. After adjusting to the shock, though, I really love how it works in practice. Instead of forcing certain activities to achieve certain outcomes, you can do anything that's enjoyable to you and reward yourself as you see fit. And really, at the end of the day anything you spend Souls on has the same effect of improving your character. If you spend Souls on increasing your Vigor, you'll get more hit points and become more survivable in combat; if you spend Souls on a defensive piece of equipment, you'll increase your defense and become more survivable in combat.


Along the same lines, equipment in Elden Ring is very different than I'm used to. Most RPGs follow a steadily increasing path: as you get later in the game, enemies drop more powerful equipment, and/or you have enough money to buy more expensive equipment. As I've noted in the past, though, this can lead to player paralysis: you don't want to spend a little bit of money on a mediocre weapon when you know you'll get better weapons for free in a few hours. In Elden Ring, though, the equipment you get at the start of the game can last you through pretty much the whole game. Everything is basically equivalent in absolute terms, and just trading off various pros and cons: you might find a helmet that offers more resistance to piercing damage, but is more vulnerable to bludgeoning; or a heavy metal cuirass that has higher physical defense stats, but weighs more and will prevent you from effectively dodging during combat. Weapons may have a special ability, but any given weapon can only have a single ability. So really, as you play the game and acquire more gear, you aren't replacing old bad gear with new good gear: instead you're just acquiring a broader arsenal of available gear. For a min-maxing player, this may mean swapping out your loadout before a challenging encounter: heavy poison defenses if you're facing a poisonous boss, or switching to lighter armor if you need to be more mobile. For most players including me, you'll occasionally replace a piece in your loadout with something that better matches your preferred playstyle, but overall not sweat it much.

You can also upgrade your equipment in the game, mostly by spending Smithing Stones to increase their level. Again, this is a way to keep equipment pretty equivalent. I'm currently wielding a Meteorite Staff, which is noticeably more powerful than my starter Astrologer's Staff. But the Meteorite Staff can't take any upgrades. From my understanding, by the end of the game a fuller upgraded starter Astrologer's Staff with an appropriate Ash of War applied could be at least as powerful as the Meteorite Staff.

I spent a little time online trying to find the best armor for a Sorcerer, only to learn that it doesn't really matter. Unlike most RPGs, armor isn't all that important in Elden Ring: there's a difference between having a light encumbrance and a heavy one, but armor doesn't carry enchantments or give stat boosts, so Talismans and Weapons (including Shields) are a lot more important. Which, again, I think is great. Another common annoyance I have in modern RPGs is sorting through an inventory, checking the stats and abilities on every piece of armor I've looted, and deciding what to wear, what to keep and what to sell. I pretty much never do this in Elden Ring.



Let's see, I think that's all I wanted to write about in this first post! It's a beautiful game, often oddly relaxing to play at times, wandering through the world and seeing the sights, interspersed with challenging boss fights that, at their best, feel more like puzzles to solve than quick-button-mashing fests. I know it's a big game and I'm not sure if I'll maintain this enthusiasm through the whole journey, but at least so far it's been very compelling.