Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Life is Strange by Dontnod Entertainment

Many years ago, back when computer games were still a niche market and adventure games were a serious concern in that niche, Sierra Entertainment was the 800 pound gorilla of the genre.  They were famous for interesting design choices, risk-taking, good graphics and sound, and outright brutal sadism.

No, really.  Sierra games were famous at the time and infamous today for featuring convoluted logic puzzles, to the point where it was questionable whether they were a game company or a hint book company.  They were also famous for killing you in creative ways, sometimes without giving you any indication of what you could do differently or why you had died.  Believe me, I know.  I spent quite a bit of my lower teens banging my head against various Sierra challenges, so this is the voice of experience talking here.  When I say “They don’t make ‘em like that anymore” this is not an overstatement, firstly because adventure games are pretty thin on the ground generally at the moment, and secondly because it’s against every modern adventure game design aesthetic to make a game like that now.  They really don’t make them like that anymore, and frankly that’s probably a good thing.
The LucasArts philosophy won over – you can’t die, and you can’t screw up for good.  From a design perspective, it’s almost certainly better, but as the years have gone by, designers have noticed that you can’t really do certain sorts of puzzles in this framework.  Hence the rise of “Telltale” style adventure games, which purport to allow you to make choices and live or die by the results of those.

Life is Strange is a bit of an odd beast, from French developer Dontnod Entertainment.  It advertises itself as a choice-based adventure game, making some welcome tweaks to the Telltale style of choice based gaming, and also says that the choices you make throughout will affect how the game proceeds.  Unfortunately that’s only sort of true, but even so, this is a very interesting effort even if it ultimately falls a little short.

Your protagonist here, Max Caulfield, has recently moved back up to the quaint Pacific Northwest town of Arcadia Bay in order to complete her high school education at Blackwell Academy, which is a private school devoted to education in the visual and other arts.  Max is a talented young photographer, and getting into Blackwell is a culmination of her hopes to make this her profession.  At least that’s what we’re told about Blackwell – okay, our introduction to it is in fact a hipster teacher giving an insufferable lecture about Diane Arbus, which fits.  But most of the other students are out of a movie set in just about any high school – such as a clique of rich snobs who torment nerds and geeks.  Not that nerds and geeks can’t manage to have plenty of social dysfunction, but I don’t know why there are any football jocks at this school at all, and probably half or more of the male students ought to be gay or at least open to question.  I couldn’t help but laugh out loud at some of these characterizations as the first episode of the game unfolded.

That said, you’re in this class when all of a sudden you have a vision about a tornado flattening the whole town, and afterwards while calming down in the bathroom there’s a spoiled, crazy boy who enters the restroom, talking to himself and brandishing a gun.  Max sensibly hides in the back as another girl enters the restroom, confronts the boy, and is shot.  Something breaks inside Max, and suddenly she’s back at the lecture from a few minutes before, with the ability to turn back time at will.

Just in case you’re wondering, the cause of this ability is never explained.  Whether it’s scientific, magical, extraterrestrial, divine, or something else entirely is forever a mystery.  This is probably a good thing from a storytelling perspective, but it’s a great mechanic for this game.  Max basically has three discrete powers related to time travel:

1)      The first manifestation and also the least useful one, she has visions of the future;
2)      The most common use of her time travel power, she can rewind time back a few minutes from her perspective (which conveniently happens to be scene transitions, usually).  She and any objects she’s carrying stay in place, but other objects and people revert to their initial conditions, including their memory of conversations.  This is also functionally a form of teleportation; she can also, for instance, kick down a locked door, go through it, rewind time to repair the door to its original condition, and then simply unlock the door from the other side.
3)      Her most powerful ability is also the most capricious one – she can focus on a photograph that she was in or present for and return her current consciousness to her past body at the time it was taken.  She can’t leave the immediate vicinity of the picture or stay for more than a few minutes there, but she can make changes to what she originally did at the time. 

Ability #3 there is pretty terrifying, really – there’s some sort of ongoing timeline, and her present consciousness will return to her body at approximately the same time she left.  But in the interim there may have been any number of changes, which Max wasn’t actually present for and can’t control.  The implication is that she’s actually overwriting the consciousness of alternate universe Maxes – if she’s not, it’s something equally freaky – and in any case she doesn’t actually know what she’s been doing for years, at least in some cases.  Ability #2 is also filled with potential for abuse.
You could set a pretty powerful SF story with these premises, and they basically avoid doing that and set up a high school drama instead.  With a little bit of Twin Peaks.  Somewhat to my surprise, it mostly works.

Anyhow, it turns out that the girl in the bathroom is coincidentally an old friend of yours, Chloe Price, whom you didn’t recognize at first since she’s now got blue hair, a sleeve tattoo, and an attitude problem.  She’s also the chew toy of nature and nature’s God or whatever passes for those around here, since without Max’s intervention she will repeatedly die; of shootings (on three separate occasions), illness, even getting run over by a train.  At first I didn’t really like Chloe, her teenage histrionics rubbing old misanthropic me the wrong way, but I eventually came around on her.  At least I ended up being impressed by how multifaceted she ended up being, although I don’t think I’d really be that interested in actually hanging out with her.  I’m sure that feeling would be mutual.
You have to investigate a little bit and spend time snuffling around the fringes, but there’s a lot of material on most of the side characters in the game.  Most of them have more than one or two things going and they’ve got hidden complexity.  The school’s alpha bitch is a closet anime geek and has complexes big enough to hang a hat on, one of the other social butterfly types is having a personal crisis and will react really well to kindness.  There’s a guy who is pathetically in love with Max and doing that teenage boy hanging around dance where he’s just waiting for Max to make the first move so he doesn’t have to risk rejection.  (You can throw him a bone if you want, which I didn’t, because fuck those teenage memories, thank you very much.)  Or you can just sort of bulldoze right through and not deal with any of this.  I appreciated the care that went into it.  Oh, and one of the characters is an insane serial killer.  Just throwing that out there.  The game does that too, you’re going through the typical high school melodrama stuff and then all of a sudden Max is duct taped to a chair in a freaky rape bunker out in the middle of the woods.  And then there’s all the messed up supernatural happenings – birds dying, whales beaching themselves, unexplained snowstorms and eclipses.  Is it all connected somehow?  Are you responsible for it all?

The Telltale-style games that I’ve played have mostly provided the illusion of choice without you really having much say in how the game unfolds.  Sure, you can save Alice or save Bob, but then it turns out that whoever you saved dies in the next scene or episode anyway, so your choice didn’t amount to all that much in the end.  In some sense this is understandable; the game developers have only so much time and money, so they can’t render the environments as if you were to decide to have Max haul off to an underground cockfight or something.  However, the time travel mechanic allows you to adjust the small things to your liking; if you piss off someone in conversation you can rewind and try again, you can not break the snow globe, things like that.  What you can’t do is seriously change the path of events.  The crazed rich kid confronts you in the parking lot.  You end up in a confrontation with Chloe’s stepfather and a drug dealer in a junkyard.  You can save the life of another of your classmates and get rewarded with a bonus scene a few episodes later, but you can get the same information whether you talk to her or not.  Essentially, you can change how people are disposed to you, but the same basic events unfold no matter what you do.

There aren’t, strictly speaking, a whole lot of puzzles here, but the time travel mechanic allows some really interesting takes on adventure game tropes, particularly dialogue trees.  In traditional adventure games you have the same conversations over and over.  In Telltale-style games you can have dialogue choices impact the story, but the results aren’t always obvious and you have to play the scenario again if you want to do it differently.  Here you can experiment to see how people will react to various conversational gambits and if you don’t like it you can just rewind time and try again.  You can also learn things in conversation that will open different dialogue trees – in one example early in the game you can try to impress some skater dudes, but the first time through they will rightly dismiss you as a poser.  If you want, you can then have the conversation again, using your new command of the slang, and inspire one of them to attempt to do a difficult trick to impress Max.  (He fails and suffers an amusing injury, which you can choose to fix or not.)  On the whole, though, the puzzles aren’t that inspired overall.  This is more of a story and dialogue game as opposed to a real puzzle-solver, although there are some unique physics things you can do related to your time travel / teleportation skills.  The non physics puzzles are typically item collection.  (That said there are some fun time travel scenarios, like when you have to impress Chloe by telling her what is going to happen in the diner where her mom works.)

Time travel is a pretty well-worn genre by this point, so there are really only just so many ways you can take the story.  In fact, there are really only two that I can think of.  You can have a situation where no matter what you do, it’s always been that way already (the stable time loop).  Or instead you can have a situation where you can change the past and alter the future that way.  So there are a couple of obvious culminations for how this story will end, and unfortunately Dontnod goes with one of the more obvious ones.  I say it’s unfortunate because everything at the end comes down to a binary choice which leads to one of two endings, regardless of any of the rest of the stuff you have done up to that point.  I was thinking that I’d have to play through the game again in order to get some different endings, but really it comes down to just two and you can choose either regardless of what you’ve done up to that point.

It’s too bad that the ending is so lackluster, because you really do have quite a lot of ability to choose your own path right up until that (admittedly pretty effective) horror show section in the fifth episode.  You can be friendly and try to solve problems, or be a dick to people.  So, in a sense, the story ends up being about how the week has changed Max, not how Max changed the week, and a lot of that is up to the player.  There’s a lot of things to like here, and a lot that doesn’t work, and maybe like actual teenage years it’s hard to tell which is which.  Fans of unconventional adventure games may want to check it out.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The Shepherd's Crown by Terry Pratchett (contains spoilers)

Apologies for the long gap without entries.  I've been in something of a funk with my reading lately - nothing so great I feel compelled to write about it, nothing so terrible I feel obligated to warn about it.  It's been picking up a bit lately, though, I'll have some more by the end of the year.  Truthfully I've got about four or five of these things half-finished that I sort of can't bear to complete out of inertia or who knows what.  I've been sitting on a partial review of Ancillary Sword for nearly a whole year now (it was okay), and Neal Stephenson's Seveneves (parts really good, parts really bad, overall okay) and even the complete collection of Sierra's Quest for Glory videogames (better than average!)

But Terry Pratchett's final book?  Sign me up.

The greatest witch on the Discworld has been Esmerelda Weatherwax for many years.

You could have asked her, she would have told you.  You could have asked any other witch, for that matter, and they would have hemmed and hawed a bit (witches do not like to admit weakness) and they probably would have said that most witches were in agreement that Granny Weatherwax was the best, and to the extent that they had a leader (witches aren’t followers) that it was probably Granny.
This isn’t to say she was the nicest witch.  No, Granny Weatherwax was born to be mean, and every good deed she was forced to do was something that irked her down to her very core.  And she wasn’t the most learned witch.  She was, in fact, sort of a back country hick, and made up for in cunning what she lacked in book knowledge.  And she may not have even been the most powerful witch – it’s been suggested that her friend Gytha Ogg might have strictly had more mojo than Granny did, and she’s been up in plenty of situations where raw power wasn’t up to the task.

No, she was the greatest witch.  And that means that she never backed down from a challenge, never left anything undone, and never admitted doubt or weakness.  It’s true that she was sort of the Batman of witches – thinking it was easier to make people fear you, because you don’t want to be dependent on those you fear.  And it’s also true that she was not always the most helpful, that her usual trick in treating the ill was to give them a placebo and tell them they felt better.  But if you were really in trouble – really, really in trouble – then she would not leave you in it alone.

This, the last Discworld book, isn’t her story.  But it still sort of is.

Pratchett’s death in March leaves this work in a quasi-finished state.  It’s mostly here, but close readers will note that it’s considerably shorter than the last couple of Tiffany Aching novels have been, and there are parts throughout that do not appear to have been entirely finished.  There’s more superstructure than usual visible throughout, the pacing is off in a few spots, and it’s uneven here and there.  But despite the second Death Star-esque flaws, and it does have several, this is easily the best Discworld novel in years, and a good place to set the great turtle to rest.

Tiffany Aching has starred in her own subset of YA Discworld novels, of which this is the fifth one.  She started out at age nine in Wee Free Men.  She’s older now – when last seen in I Shall Wear Midnight she was 15 or 16 years old, and some time has passed.  (Figuring out how much exactly is an exercise for an even more obsessive reader than me, but it must be at least four years and possibly more.)  During this time she has gone from being a witch recruit, to an apprentice witch, to a full-fledged witch.  And now she is called upon to be the chief witch, the hag o’hags, following the demise of Granny Weatherwax.

Sad as it is, it’s been coming for some time.  Granny’s arc was essentially done – she’d fought the good fight for many years, defeated some powerful foes, and always come out on top.  The last few books featuring her have noted that she wasn’t as physically strong as she once was, and lately she’s been shifting into a mentor role in Tiffany Aching’s books, and we all know what the eventual fate of mentors is.  But perhaps that’s unfair; it’s clear that Tiffany Aching has been set up to eventually replace and possibly even surpass Granny, and because of Granny’s nature she cannot be surpassed and continue to live.  This was set forth explicitly in Lords and Ladies – the cost of being the best is that you have to be the best, and that means every single time, no exceptions; at least if you’re the sort of person that Granny Weatherwax was.  This left the narrative arc at something of a standstill.

Weatherwax isn’t killed by misadventure or her many enemies, though.  She dies the death that Pratchett himself set forth as a Victorian ideal – at home, with cat, of natural causes.  Furthermore she died after a full day’s work and in possession of all her considerable mental abilities.  Nonetheless, it is her time, and like any good witch she knows it.  She doesn’t go gently into the desert exactly, but she knows that Death comes for us all, and goes more or less willingly.

She leaves everything but her cat to Tiffany Aching – the cat can make up her own mind, after all – and now Tiffany has plenty of problems.  Learning from Granny Weatherwax was hard enough, but replacing her?  Not at all to be scoffed at, especially since she’s trying to hold down both her home territory of the Chalk and Granny’s old holding in Lancre.  It’s a lot of traveling and responsibility for a young lady, even one who’s got as much awesomeness as Tiffany does.  Now she’s got some literally big boots to fill, and all those witches to herd.

Out there in the multiverse, though, some of Granny Weatherwax’s ancient enemies have felt her passing, and feel that now is time for them to come through to the Disc once more.  The Queen of the Elves, her most implacable foe, is returning.  At least I think it’s the same Queen of the Elves – the text is a little vague on this.  Some of the other Disc materials have stated that there’s more than one Elf Queen.

Pratchett’s elves are essentially psychopathic fashionistas, something of a parody or extreme example of celebrity culture.  They’re dangerous, but also they appear beautiful to the observer, and you find yourself doing what they want you to do.  They’re without remorse and the things they find amusing are . . . not.  Unfortunately for them, the Disc has moved on since they last tried to take it over.  There are railways now, and iron everywhere, which is not something that the elves are really prepared to deal with.  But there are many witches now, and witches started at least in part to fight the elves in the first place, and the stage is set for a confrontation.

If the book has a major structural weakness, that’s probably it.  We get to see an elf (almost?) redeemed, which fits in with what Pratchett had been doing thematically the last several years but conflicts with just about everything we’ve heard about Discworld elves up to this point.  And the invasion actually doesn’t go all that well – the last time in Lords and Ladies the witches only just barely managed to hold off the incursion, and this time the result is not seriously in doubt.  It is also resolved very abruptly, in one case with a major antagonist being pimp-slapped to death, which is I guess a pretty impressive way to go out but just sort of happens.  I think that Pratchett may have expanded on this somewhat had he lived to revise this one a couple more times.

At the time of I Shall Wear Midnight, I thought that the Aching books had reached a natural conclusion and that further novels were overkill.  Having read this one, I realize that I was both wrong and right; correct as far as that goes, but giving her the chance to step out into the world without Granny as a backstop really made it worthwhile.  In some sense the passing of Granny Weatherwax cannot be helped but compared to Pratchett’s own death; and this is right and proper.  Like her, he made his mark on the world, and will be missed.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Laundry Series by Charles Stross

The first rule about The Laundry is that you don’t talk about The Laundry.  The second rule about The Laundry is that if you do talk about The Laundry then your magically compelled oath of obedience will horrifically kill you.  Don’t forget to properly file your expense reports!

A recent vacation gave me an opportunity to read all the current Laundry materials in basically one go, and afterwards I have a new appreciation for Charles Stross.  I’ve really enjoyed some of his work, but thought that some of the others were not so great; on the whole, the Laundry stuff is really solid.  But what is the Laundry, you ask?  The basic idea behind the series is that it examines the life of civil servant Bob Howard (apparently not his real name, since real names have power.  As to why all the people in the office choose pseudonyms that are basically ordinary names, I don’t know, although his pseudonymous initials are BOFH, clearly no coincidence).  Howard works in the department of the civil service that deals with occult and extradimensional threats – it makes sense after all that if there really were occult and extradimensional threats, that there would be some government organization to deal with it.  But unlike many fictional depictions of such an organization, it doesn’t have an unlimited budget, does not entitle you to go around busting heads without authorization, and they make you fill out a requisition for the fancy equipment and dock your pay if you don’t return it.

The Laundry recruits people who have seen too much or who discover too much on their own.  Howard himself was a computer hacker and mathematician who nearly invoked a nameless horror on the town where he was living at the time.  The basis behind computational demonology is that higher mathematics is indistinguishable from magic, and that properly invoking certain equations can allow . . . things to come through.  Stross originally imagined this as a spy thriller with Lovecraftian cosmic horror elements, but as the series has gone on it’s become more of a typical urban fantasy setup – with the Lovecraft cosmic horror stuff still included, of course.  It’s also a proper series; another basic underlying problem is CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN, which means that the Earth is passing through an area of space where the “borders” are weaker, and the increasing number of computers and large number of people will inevitably allow cosmic incursion of horrible things.  (Incidentally this can’t be avoided through genocide, since a large number of deaths will have the same effect, and Luddite-ism will also not work, since it will cause the same number of deaths, with the same effect.  We are just screwed and it’s unclear whether humanity has any chance to survive.)

So, of course, faced with an inevitable cosmic invasion, all the various countries’ occult defense agencies engage in petty turf wars and spend about as much time screwing with each other as with busting caps in zombies or whatnot.  About right, I’d say.  And Howard’s organization is obsessed with keeping track of paperclips and everyone’s timesheets.  This is still better than the American occult agency, which employs a variety of *cough* “nonhuman” employees and whose contract specifies that it is not terminated upon death.  They also refer to their agents taking “the Dark Mark” and refer to some of their troubleshooters as “Nazgul”, in both cases without irony.

Anyhow, the series currently includes five novels and an approximately equal number of novellas and short stories.  The shorter works tend to have a slightly different tone than the main works, generally somewhat lighter and more comedic, although in the case of Hugo-winner “Equoid”, straight-up pants-wetting horror as opposed to the somewhat wry tendencies of the main novels.

The first novel, “The Atrocity Archives”, has some of the first-installment weirdness that you would expect from a series that is just finding its legs, in the sense that the details that we’re given here don’t necessarily match up entirely with what we’re told in later novels.  (Stross deals with this by pointing out that Bob is an unreliable narrator and may not always be going for complete accuracy in his memoirs.)  Nonetheless the book introduces some of the key characters and key themes that we’ll be seeing throughout, such as Bob’s future girlfriend/wife Monique O’Brien and his boss Angleton, who appears to have been around for a somewhat surprisingly long time without having notably aged.  Hmm.

In any event, Bob decides that he wants to become an active duty agent since his job as an occult network administrator is deadly boring.  Although this may have seemed like a good idea at the time, he ends up continuing to have to engage in the network administration for supervisors that consider this the most important part of his job at the same time that he is tapped for increasingly dangerous field operations that could leave him dead or worse.  In this sense he’s lucky to be married to Mo, who utilizes her skills as a violinist and “combat epistemologist” to do wet work for the agency, and the two of them are essentially able to relate to and comfort each other from the terrible psychological toll that their work entails.  At least for a time.

There’s a lot of ground to cover and a summary of all these novels would take too long.  The second one is a straight-up James Bond parody/pastiche/homage, but as I said before he basically mines out that stuff and goes to urban fantasy, more or less.  That’s all right with me, but some readers might get turned off by it.  And they are also by no means perfect; the works tend to contain a fair bit of repetition and reminders, which might be more appreciated by someone that wasn’t just binge reading the whole series like I was.  Looking at some of Stross’ own commentary on these books it seems like he has gunned some of them out very quickly, and that does occasionally show.

Nonetheless, the various horrors faced by Bob are incredibly creepy, in true Stross fashion, and as it turns out many of them can be invoked by touch or just by thinking about the wrong formulae in the wrong way.  There’s a lot of body horror and parasitic monsters that ride on and/or control people, eating their tongues, coring their insides, castrating them.  Some of it is pretty out there.  Many of the real villains are just people, of course.  Cosmic horrors gotta cosmic horror, that’s just how they roll – but people trying to call up stuff they cannot put down, that’s how people do, and fortunately people can be fought and defeated.  For now.  Even if they are Americans, who are portrayed as either straight up evil or at the least very gullible indeed.  (However, the heavy-handed approach taken by the American occultists is explained in-series as a consequence of the US' enormous physical size and tendency to have isolated cultists who can't separate out reality that well during the best of times; the UK's more compact nature will make it easier to defend, and their surveillance society is - well, you'll see if you read it.)

Throughout the course of the series Bob himself gains in various powers, both practical (fieldwork), magical (gaining the power to eat souls), and political (promotion to lower management).  Given his general lackadaisical attitude and inherent laziness – at least insofar as he self-reports – it will be intriguing to see how everything proceeds.  There’s a new one coming out next month which focuses on Mo, and apparently CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN has already begun.

Monday, April 20, 2015

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

Anyone with even a toe in the pool of this year’s Hugo Awards knows that they have become a major contretemps, accelerated by Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory and an apparent dislike of allowing people to have nice things.  As with so many things on the Internet, there are a lot of people saying a bunch of stuff very loudly, and as someone who both appreciates the awards and doesn’t necessarily have as much time as I’d like to find new fiction on my own, I find the whole affair unaccountably sad.  I mention this only as a backdrop of how I came to be reading The Goblin Emperor, since it’s one of the nominees for Best Novel and got there on its own merit, without being part of any organized campaign.  Honestly I had not heard of it before, but when I saw the positive buzz I decided to give it a shot.

The title is misleading – the emperor is only half goblin, he is also half elf.  And he’s not the emperor of the goblins, he’s the emperor of the elves.  So at that point I got angry that you couldn’t entirely judge the book by the title and cover art, gave up two chapters in, and went off to find some entertainment that would not challenge any of my worldviews or preconceptions, and wrote a 4,000 word essay about how SF/F was better back when I was a boy.

No, wait, that would have been a stupid thing to do.  Surely no sensible adult would act that way.  Besides, the emperor is the grandson of the actual goblin emperor, it's not entirely misleading.

Anyhow, the titular character Maia Drazhar starts out this novel by finding out that he is now the emperor, which comes as a pretty big shock to him, to his staff (such as it is), and to pretty much everyone else in the entire realm.  He’s the fourth son of the current emperor and highly disfavored; he was the product of the emperor’s arranged fourth marriage with the daughter of the actual goblin emperor, who rules the land across the river.  His father didn’t really want to enter this marriage and sent his wife into exile as soon as the ceremony was done, but since the ceremony did involve a ritual bedding the emperor had to acknowledge Maia as his son.  What he didn’t have to do was interact with him or release him from exile, properly educate him, have him prepared for court life, or generally do a thing for him in any other way.  And why would he?  The emperor had three older sons and even a couple of grandsons.  Maia was at best unnecessary and at worst actively annoying for his father, and it looked as if he would spend his life essentially under house arrest until such time as someone decided to let him leave.  Considering that Maia only saw his father once in his entire life, he is not exactly sitting around the house waiting for his recall.

But then there’s an inconvenient airship crash which gets the emperor, the three brothers, and a bunch of crew and staff.  And the succession laws of the empire mean that Maia, as an adult son, inherits before his minor nephews, so before you know it he’s on a ship to the capital city to claim his throne, which he didn’t really want, has no particular idea what to do with, and cannot decline.

There’s been a trend in fantasy literature of late to explore the dark and nasty undersides of fantasy universes.  In one of those works, Maia (now known as Serenity Edrehasivar VII) would be dead inside of an afternoon by the throng of mercenaries, noblemen and ne’er do wells who lurk just off the page, being squalid.  This isn’t one of those stories.  However, it also isn’t the sort of story where Maia comes in and changes everything for the better, fights the dragon, rescues the princess, reforms everything overnight, that sort of thing.

The word that comes to mind when trying to describe Maia is decent.  He is not by any means stupid, but he’s not highly educated and he isn’t really that prepared for court life.  Nonetheless, he recognizes his limitations, and is a good judge of character for the most part, meaning that he both seeks out good advice and follows it, recognizes when he’s doing the wrong thing and seeks to correct himself, and just in general tries to do his best as much as he can, which is limited.  He’s not just a figurehead, but much of what he can do is constrained by law and tradition.  He’s got a vote in the ruling council, but just one of many; he can break ties, but he can also be outvoted, and the other people in the council don’t go along with him out of awe or anything like that.

Much of the good he accomplishes over the course of the novel is somewhat realistically limited to not ordering people to do things.  For instance, as the head of his family he has the right to order one of his half-sisters into a politically advantageous marriage.  As he is not entirely certain of the political ramifications of the suitors, he decides to wait a while and actually ask the sister in question on the subject.  Doing this is considered subversive, even by the sister, who has no interest in marrying any of the offered candidates and who is implied to maybe not even be into dudes.  (The elves practice a form of coverture, so getting married is sort of a potentially raw deal for women even if they are excited about the prospect.  Apparently they are usually not consulted.)  Later on he is in the position where he could be potentially expected to order various people to commit ritual suicide or to show up at the executions of their family members; he declines to do these actions either.

A great deal of the novel is devoted to the intricacies of the Elvish language; there are different forms of address depending on who is speaking and to whom, and as a result you have to pay close attention or you’ll get tripped up by someone who seems to have three or four different names.

Despite the fact that this novel contains a surprising number of assassinations and attempted coups, this may be the most non-action novel I’ve read in some time.  In any sort of assessment, Maia accomplishes very little during the first couple of months of his reign, aside from contracting a marriage of his own and greenlighting an almost-painfully-symbolic construction project.  And I’m hard pressed to say that this is a novel of intrigue, since with one conspicuous exception most of the people who are threats to Maia are pretty obviously against him from the beginning, as in, they come right into his office and start talking down to him, or openly insult him, or the like.  This is perhaps to make it more easy for poor Maia and his simple nature, I don’t know.

The other thing is that all the plots against Maia are pretty amateur hour.  There’s not a lot of wheels within wheels type stuff going on here.  The various cabals and plotters are pretty obvious,  their plans are not well thought through, and as a rule they do not get very far.  Again, there’s one possible exception – the artisan Shulivar, who’s as close to a mastermind as this novel’s got, actually had a pretty good plan and basically succeeded.  If he’d been against Maia, then there may have been some trouble.  However, if anything he was plotting on Maia’s behalf, not that Maia knew anything about it, or would have approved if he did.

Anyhow, I started out assuming that I would really like this novel, based on the positive buzz, and then was not entirely impressed by the first part.  Eventually, I came around, although I can’t exactly explain what persuaded me.  It’s pretty good, and an interesting counterpoint to some of the ultra-grimdark fantasy fiction going around these days.  I can’t give it an absolutely unqualified recommendation; there’s a lack of tension in much of the confrontations, there are bits that drag on, and the antagonists are a bunch of idiots.  Still, if you are looking for some unconventional fantasy fiction and don’t mind checking a glossary a couple of times to remind yourself who’s the emperor’s fiancée and who is his sister, this may be something to check out for summer beach reading.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

There are a lot of negatives to our system of democracy, as anyone remotely connected with politics would be happy to admit.  However, it always strikes me that no two peoples’ lists of the flaws would end up being the same, which is maybe a feature or maybe a bug.  I’m not entirely sure.

But there’s always a feature that seems like a big positive which I end up thinking about every time I read historical fiction, and that’s the fact that we can defeat our political opponents without needing to have them killed, secure in the knowledge that if they do come back into power some day they will not have us killed.  This was something of a luxury in certain historical periods, and leads to a fair bit of burnings and beheadings in Wolf Hall.

This novel attempts to rehabilitate the life and times of Thomas Cromwell, advisor to Henry VIII and architect of many of Henry’s less popular and arguably less defensible actions.  I have to admit that I didn’t know all that much about Cromwell; he usually plays the part of a heavy against the more heroic Thomas More.  But here it’s More wearing the black hat, and Cromwell wearing more of a gray one.  Gray-ish.  This may be a little unfair to More, but then again, More was unfair to people from time to time as well, so maybe it’s just payback.  Possibly not, though.  I think arguing that any of these people were correct puts you on a slippery slope argument to somewhere, regardless of what you’re trying to accomplish.

The background of the novel takes place in that very popular public domain era where Henry is beginning to enter his late 30s with no male heir and decides that Katherine, his wife, has to go.  Makes you wonder about alternate histories where Katherine accepts this, or just outright dies, and all this business is avoided.  However, it’s all foreordained, not that the cast of characters themselves realizes they are historical characters.  They act as they must act, and the writing is all in the explanation.

I’d never read anything by Mantel before, and I found her prose style here to be somewhere between intriguing and annoying, occasionally in the same sentence.  Everything is in the present tense, and the pronoun “he” is almost always used to describe Cromwell, except sometimes when it’s not, and sometimes when you have to go back a couple of times to check.  You’ll have a passage that Lord so-and-so said something, and then “he” made a remark, and sometimes that’s Cromwell, and sometimes Lord so-and-so.  In my personal opinion the best text doesn’t draw attention to itself stylistically like this, but at the same time it seems intentional, and it kinda fits.  Although it’s probably best left as an exercise for experts, I think.

This book is also a doorstopper, which makes sense, there is quite a bit of history to get through.  We start out with Cromwell as a devoted associate of Cardinal Wolsey, and then he survives Wolsey’s fall from favor to rise to an equally powerful position.  Throughout it he gains and loses family members, power, prestige, and starts checking off people from his enemies list one by one.

But what drives this guy?  It’s hard to say.  He fits the profile of a rags-to-riches hero of our modern era, but in the Tudor era Cromwell’s lack of noble blood renders him suspect at the very best and at worst unprintable.  This is enough to give a man a big chip on his shoulder, and I guess he’s got one, but he remains almost imperturbable about  it.  He maintains his stoicism when he loses his wife and daughters; it’s just something that must be borne.  A product of the age, I guess, but hard to appreciate.  Nonetheless, he works hard, he increases his power, he serves Henry VIII, who really isn’t worth all Cromwell’s talents.  He also sort of falls in love a couple of times, but also mostly doesn't.  It's complex.

I’d really like to say more about it, but I found myself on the outside of this one looking in.  If you like historical fiction that’s as big as a brick, and which won’t answer any burning questions for you, this may be something to check out.  I’ll probably be getting the second volume myself.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Wolfenstein: The New Order

So along with the Japanese literary fiction this Christmas, I got some other things too.  My brother got me Wolfenstein: The New Order, which is probably not something I would have bought for myself, and wasn’t on my Christmas list this year.  I guess he just thought I’d like it, and he was 100% right!  Turns out it is awesome.

I clocked a fair amount of time on Wolfenstein 3D back in the day, said day being the early 90s, and back then all they had to do was point you in the general direction of some pixelated sprites and tell you to go kill all those guys.  I mean I guess there was a plot, in the first level you were trying to escape the Nazi prison, and in the second one you were going to prevent the guy from creating all the zombies, and in the third one you had to kill Hitler, who was wearing mechanized armor and carrying four chainguns for some reason.  But these days we expect a little more plot and characterization.

So let me lay out a scenario for you.  You play an unstoppable badass, who has been out of commission for over a decade while an evil empire utilized its advanced technology to roll over all the nations of the world, and raise new monuments to its own glory while oppressing the terrified citizenry.  The will to resist is only left in a few small cells, and when you get back into the action you have to run from the pursuing elements of the evil empire while linking back up with the resistance and getting some advanced technology of your own.  Fortunately, with you at their side, the resistance is finally prepared to strike back at the evil empire and destroy the scientist who had been collaborating with them to enslave humanity.  This guy – who incidentally, is a total jerk – gives you an impassioned speech about how it’s easier to just go around destroying stuff than to create.  And it all wraps up into an action-packed first person shooter video game.  That game is Half-Life 2.

But hey, if you’re going to rip off a plot, shouldn’t you rip off from the best?  I think you should.  This was only the first of many good decisions made by the New Order development team, and I’m not being sarcastic there.  While it does have many of the broad elements of Half-Life 2, William J. Blazkowicz and Gordon Freeman are very different main characters.  Freeman is a mute who never expresses any emotions, and therefore you never really know what he thinks about all this stuff.  In this game, at least, Blazkowicz is an emotionally damaged meathead who rarely shuts up, unless it’s during a stealth section where he’s sneaking up on some guy to stab him in the neck.  It’s not so much that he talks to the other characters – although he does – but he has a complicated inner life, which he shares with the player all the time.

A year or so ago I wrote about the Tomb Raider reboot, and mentioned that they should have had a goofy excuse plot to go along with the stuff that they were showing there up on the screen; the people behind New Order have succeeded in doing the seemingly impossible, which is making a serious plot that is composed of elements that individually cannot be taken seriously.  I mean, if you try to use logic about this stuff then parts of your brain will die, for one instance in the first hour of gameplay how Blazkowicz maintains his He-Man physique despite being in a coma for 14 years.  And if you are like me then you will occasionally be wondering if the way things were transpiring was really part of the plan, and if so if anyone had raised any objections to that plan.  For instance when Blazkowicz infiltrates a labor camp in the general population, and if he hadn’t been selected for labor duty could very well have been gassed.  But somehow it all manages to hang together anyway.

The various trailers for this game show some of the heinous shit that the Nazis were up to during the period 1946-1960, such as dynamiting Mount Rushmore and shooting hippies in Paris.  Also they apparently have introduced the death penalty for flagrant fouls in soccer.  So maybe you would be thinking that the whole thing is played for camp, or for laughs.  But no, not really.  The creators of this game have clearly thought deeply about the Nazi regime and what it was all about at its core, namely nothing except an excuse for the exercise of power.  So the Nazi regime of 1960, despite its ray guns and robot soldiers, is still involved in racial purity buffoonery, trying to conquer the areas of the world not yet under its control, making huge monuments to its own awesomeness.  Blazkowicz comments toward the start that it’s less war than the breaking of seals, and the game itself focuses on the essentially blasphemous nature of the Nazi regime against all virtues and humanity.

Your chief antagonist, Wilhelm Strasse, doesn’t really appear to have strong feelings one way or another about political stuff, he is more along the lines of a very unethical scientist who just wants to see what will happen if he does various things.  I got the impression he only signed up so that he could vivisect people and build a bunch of killer robots, and this was the faction that encouraged that sort of behavior.  He only personally shows up near the beginning and at the end, but it’s his super-science that enables the plot to happen.  (In another one of those logic questions, you have to wonder if taking him out in 1960 when the Nazis have already been victorious will actually help much of anything, having failed to stop him in 1946.  And isn’t he about 100 years old by the end and probably going to die soon anyway?  You know what, it’s probably best to just not worry about this any further.)  You do hear his smarmy voice in various recordings throughout so you can be reminded of how much of a horrible asshole he is.  And although he’s undoubtedly an evil genius, in a nice touch the game establishes that much of his vaunted discoveries were actually reverse-engineered from a sect of Jewish mystics, thereby showing Strasse as essentially parasitic – and hypocritical, when he purports to lecture you on the virtues of creation.  Secondary antagonist Irene Engel , on the other hand, simply gets off on hurting people.  She sadly appears based on various real-life Nazi functionaries.

There’s also a surprisingly well-done love subplot between Blazkowicz and Anya Oliwa, a Polish nurse from his sanitarium.  Blazkowicz thinks at the beginning how he dreams of a picket fence and a family but that it will never happen for him; and of course in this world it’s pretty much not going to.  But these two find comfort in each other how they can.  Anya’s also not some 20 year old ingénue, she is in her late 30s and has had her own life experiences up to that point.  This is rare for main characters in games generally and unheard of in for a love interest, unless she happen to be a 700 year old vampire or something who just looks 20.  Despite some of the campy undertones throughout I’m just going to use the word “mature” to describe it.  It’s not something you see that often.

The gameplay itself is really solid, and does interesting things.  The most out-and-out “gamey” element is probably the perk and item system.  There are a bunch of random items scattered throughout the levels and collecting them gets you bragging rights and some useful upgrades.  Perhaps most interestingly, the item collections are persistent, so if you start a new game the items that you have previously collected stay collected.

The perk system is similar.  You have to perform some sort of feat to unlock them, which range from “you will accomplish this in the tutorial” to “very difficult”, and once done they reward you by improving your stats in some way.  For instance, if you stealthily kill 20 soldiers with throwing knives, you can carry an additional throwing knife in your inventory.  Like the items, the perks stay with you regardless of whether you start a new game or restart a checkpoint.  I think the purpose of that is to enable you to play at higher difficulty levels with increased health and armor capacities, faster movement, sneakier stealth, etc.  Oh, and modern shooters typically limit you to two guns at a time, but Blazkowicz was in a coma when that design decision was made, so he can carry a pistol, shotgun, assault rifle, sci-fi energy blaster, grenades, sniper rifle and a bunch of knives all at the same time.  In fact nature has blessed him with two arms, so he can dual wield anything except the sci-fi laser, so if you prefer to hold an automatic shotgun in each hand this is an option for you.  In fact there are perks for doing so.

If you want to simply run around blasting everyone you can do that, but there’s also strong encouragement in spots for the stealth approach.  Those helmets apparently give the Nazis bad hearing and non-existent peripheral vision, so you can get right up behind them and finish them off.  There are officers in these sections, who will call for assistance if they notice you and will continue calling for backup as long as they live.  (You would think that maybe once HQ gets a request for backup and then hears nothing more from the requesting officer or the guys they sent down there that someone might get a little suspicious, but I guess they figure no news is good news, or a new radio operator just happens to be coming on shift, or actually what did I say about the logic, never mind.)  Fortunately these officers tend to stand very still with their backs toward corridors.  There are also areas without officers where everyone knows you’re coming, and in those areas you have to simply go around killing everything that moves.  This is, if I haven’t been clear on this point, quite satisfying.

The game does a good job of mixing up the levels; you have action-packed shooting setpieces followed up by stealth/puzzle levels, or simple domestic arrangements.  To some extent the levels are a little fragmented, but I guess the developers decided that they simply wanted to have a level in an old castle, on a bridge, a couple of prisons, a U-boat, and the Nazi moon base, and didn’t sweat the transitions too much.

In short, Wolfenstein: The New Order manages to somehow transcend its pulp origins and put together a coherent, challenging, and adult look on a first-person shooter that’s altogether much better than I expected or than it had any reasonable right to be.  It addresses complex questions without giving pat answers; it’s one thing to wipe out the staff of an extermination camp, but even Blazkowicz seems to wonder about tearing up a train full of soldiers on leave.  Anyway, if you’ve ever enjoyed an FPS, this one is absolutely worth a look, and it’s impressive enough to be mentioned as an all-time great.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

Like many college students, I lived in a variety of apartments and dorm rooms with various other young men, and spent a great deal of time engaging in bullshit sessions with them.  On one occasion I remember a discussion about why exactly I liked Vonnegut’s Deadeye Dick, which I was reading at the time, and what I said was this – there was a subplot, or really just a mention, that after a neutron bomb accident the government had moved in a bunch of Haitian refugees into the affected areas and that it might not have been an accident in the first place.  And I said that in most books, that bit about the Haitians would have been the whole plot, or they would have at least gotten to the bottom of it, whether it was a conspiracy, or really was an accident, or whatever.  But instead Vonnegut just mentioned it and moved on.

I’m not sure that was an especially convincing argument for the merits of that book, and I remember this particular roommate looking skeptical.  Back then I was a little more thin-skinned about sophistication, and was probably a little hard to live with.  Then, as now, my literary tastes tended to fall into either 1) nonfiction, or 2) fiction that involves aliens, murders, evil wizards, or some combination of those, and he knew it, which I think was why he was challenging me to explain why exactly I was reading Deadeye Dick.  So, anyway, let’s talk about Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.

Reading Murakami is, for me, like being in a dream, or possibly reading the musings of an alien being.  I’ve read a fair bit of his oeuvre and I’m still really not sure what I think about him, but I keep reading this stuff so it must be doing something for me.  Damned if I can really place exactly what.  The best I can do is to compare it to that bit about the Haitians in Deadeye Dick, though, which was the point of that whole introduction there.  Which is to say that there’s a bunch of stuff in his novels that isn’t really explained.  In some ways I don’t even feel like I’m qualified to say anything about it, but, you know, I’m a literate person, or at least what passes for one nowadays.

If you’ve read something by Murakami before, then Tsukuru is going to be pretty familiar.  He’s a supremely disassociated individual, almost pathologically so.  He’s got trouble connecting with anyone in his life; never had much of a relationship with his father, has decent connections with his mother and sisters but tries to avoid seeing them as much as possible.  Like many Murakami protagonists he does have one particular desire, though, and that is building and renovating train stations.  Tsukuru had four close friends in high school, but after he went to university in Tokyo (to study train station engineering, naturally) he received a call from one of them saying that they didn’t ever want to talk to him again, which he accepted like it was a bad thing from a dream, then went into a suicidal depression for a while.  Later he came out of it, made another friend in college, and lost that guy too.

He’s been carrying this trauma around for some time, since as the book opens he is in his mid-30s and just starting a relationship with a woman that he finds himself actually really into, which surprises him, as he’d had a series of love affairs that moved him just about as much as anything which isn’t a train station moved him (i.e., not much).  But this woman thinks that maybe there’s something bothering him, and suggests that maybe he needs to confront the demons from his past.

Somewhat reluctantly, he does.

And this is where the Haitian bit comes in.  It turns out that one of the friends is dead, that she was found murdered in her home and that the murder was unsolved.  Somewhat like real life, Tsukuru doesn’t know anything about investigating murders, and he does what most of us would do upon finding this out, which is that he says “that’s awful” and goes on about his business.  He never figures out who murdered his friend, and neither do we, and neither does anyone else, that I can tell.

It turns out that the murdered friend had accused him of committing a heinous act, which Tsukuru didn’t know about and didn’t do.  This is why his other friends cut him off, but when he comes back to re-connect with them they all handle themselves like adults and talk it out.  It turns out that one of the three remaining friends knew all along he didn’t do it, a second had figured out over the years that it was pretty unlikely that he did, and the third hears Tsukuru out and then accepts his reasonable explanation.  No throwing things, screaming matches, or crazy fistfights.  But they don't have a tearful hug-fest, either.  They make up, everyone apologizes, they promise to maybe keep in touch in the future, but it's not like they set up an appointment to do this.  I mean, they haven't seen each other in half their lives, and Tsukuru notes each time that he may in fact never see them again.

Oh, and he never figures out what happened to his college friend, either.  Although possibly the centerpiece of the story is a flashback to a story that the friend told Tsukuru one late night decades ago, about the friend’s father and his encounter with a pianist who may have kept an extra finger in a bag, and who had sold his life in exchange for the ability to truly perceive color.  That pianist’s extra fingers may have turned up in a train station later, but if they did it’s not really important.  Oh, and we don’t find out if he gets the girl, either.

There’s not quite as much of the insanity that I’ve come to expect from Murakami, or the laugh-out-loud bizarre flatly-affected conversations.  Mostly it’s Tsukuru thinking about doing things, then doing them, then thinking about the things that he did.  At his worst, Murakami absolutely screams “literary book club selection”, and there’s a bit of that in places here.  But I found myself strangely affected by Tsukuru’s travels, and how he discovers that maybe he’s not entirely colorless after all.  The point isn’t really about any of these external things, but about feelings about them.  Just like real life, that’s all right.