Still not done La Belle Sauvage. I read like half of it in a day and haven’t picked it up since, because computer games. But not just any computer games. One of the best computer games I’ve played in a while. Also, I’ve barely listened to podcasts since November, so I had some catching up to do. This week’s podcast reviews are in clumps, since there were six or seven episodes of some shows that I had to get to. Read on.
Night in the Woods — I was so hungover on New Year’s Day. It’s not something that happens to me much these days, but I woke up around noon and immediately decided (realized, really; I’m not sure it was a decision) that I would be spending the day drinking tea and playing computer games. Night in the Woods was the perfect thing to have on hand for an occasion like this. It is a largely mundane (not a pejorative) story of a 20-year-old woman named Mae who returns to her increasingly impoverished hometown after dropping out of college. (She is also an adorable cartoon cat. All of the characters in the game are cartoon animals, but this goes entirely unremarked upon throughout.) Something happened to Mae in college that she’s unwilling to talk about, even to herself. And she did something in high school that makes some of the people in this town inclined to keep her at arm’s length. Both of these things are sources of suspense in the game, and you’ll get no satisfaction on those counts until the bitter end. But — and here’s the bit where I part company with most of the reviews of this game, even the positive ones — the actual story of this game is a fairly minor part of why I love it. The slow start of Night in the Woods has been much remarked upon. The story doesn’t really get going in earnest until about halfway through. The first half of the game is basically a succession of days where you can guide Mae in her aimless explorations of the tiny industry town that isn’t quite like she remembers it. Fully half of the game is devoted to giving you time to discover the little details hidden away throughout the town and to develop relationships with major and minor characters alike. It’s like if half of Ocarina of Time took place in a bigger, constantly changing version of Kakariko Village. (In fact, it’s almost like Majora’s Mask, a big chunk of which takes place in a big, constantly changing town.) To me, this is ideal. At the best of times I play games at a languid pace. With a New Year’s Day hangover, doubly so. Here is a game that is specifically designed for that sort of gameplay. To illustrate specifically how much I loved exploring the nooks and crannies of this game: HowLongToBeat suggests that a “leisurely” playthrough of the main story of Night in the Woods should take about 10 hours. It took me 23. I played for about 10 hours on New Year’s Day, and I was just getting to the bit with a story. Honestly, I like that early part of the game better. Possum Springs, the game’s setting, is a beautifully realized little place, full of characters and details that feel intensely true to life. You could do a full playthrough of this game just focussing on finding all of the town’s history with industry and unions and that would be fascinating in itself. As I played Night in the Woods, I had a list of people that I made sure to check in with at every opportunity: Mr. Chazokov, your old high school teacher, now an amateur astronomer; Pastor Kate, a big-hearted social activist going to war with the town council; Lori, an alienated teenager you can take under your wing; and even vanishingly minor personalities like the dude who writes bad poems while fishing in the underground tunnel. With a setting as well-drawn as this one, the game almost doesn’t need a story at all. And the fact that the whole place feels like it’s crumbling under the weight of globalization, automation, and the waning power of unions makes these characters’ situations feel all the more resonant. Once the story proper begins, I’m inclined to think the game loses a bit of steam, but not much. For a game that draws the mundane details of life with such engaging clarity, it’s almost a disappointment to learn that there actually is something happening here. But, without spoiling anything, I’ll say that what’s happening does tie in satisfyingly to one of the game’s two thematic throughlines, which swirl around each other like a double helix. That’s the labour and poverty throughline. The other is depression throughline, which is handled with real finesse as well, though I’m tempted to feel it’s been overemphasized in the coverage of Night in the Woods. That could just be because it’s very much a theme that comes through in the game’s character elements, whereas I was much more engaged with it as an exploration of place. In any case, there’s a hell of a lot going on in this game, it has all the heart in the world, and I haven’t even talked about its incredible cast of supporting characters and writing that rivals the best in the industry. If I’d played it two days earlier, it would have booted Tacoma off my year-end list. Pick of the week.
Pretty Good — After putting together my year-end list, which involved at least an hour of getting sucked back into Jon Bois’s awesome mixed-media thing 17776, I went down a Jon Bois rabbit hole. Pretty Good is his series of 13 short documentaries (functionally 12, though, since one has been removed) about “stories that are pretty good.” Being a sports writer, most of them revolve around sports in some way, which is a thing I don’t know anything about or connect with. But like 17776, Bois’s sports-related short films are things you come to for the calibre of the storytelling rather than because you had a vested interest in the subject at hand. He’s one of the internet’s great storytellers, and he makes things that could only exist in an internet world because they are so much more detailed and niche than you could possibly get away with in broadcast media. This is a guy who is totally willing to spend several minutes on a parenthetical about the price of lawn chairs, which is not relevant to the story at hand. If it’s interesting, it finds its way in. Bois also has that rarest of things on YouTube: a distinctive personal aesthetic. Pretty Good makes use of footage from Google Earth, not just for functional story purposes, but also as a way to fill space. It doesn’t feel weird any more than it feels weird to hear glockenspiel in Bruce Springsteen songs. It’s just there because that’s what that guy does. The entire series is worth watching, but I specifically recommend three episodes: the one about Larry Walters’ flight over Los Angeles in a lawn chair suspended by helium weather balloons, the one about 24 as a sad American nightmare, and the one about the time Georgia Tech beat Cumberland in a football game with a score of 222 to nothing. This last one contains more stop-motion than I’ve ever seen in a video produced by only one person. It is also a very convincing psychological horror story that happens to be about a sporting event. Jon Bois’s projects are what I want the internet to be like. Bless SB Nation for letting him do whatever he wants.
Radiolab catch-up — Ah well, I guess I’ll keep listening to Radiolab. I caught up completely this week, and I was totally into the episodes they did where they answered listener questions. It almost seemed like a return to an earlier version of Radiolab where they managed to fit more than one story into an episode. I always liked that format for this show. Anyway. They’ve saved themselves from unsubscription.
Song by Song catch-up — This has really grown on me over the course of its journey through Tom Waits’ Rain Dogs. The secret is that they really need compelling guests to bring something new to the conversation. The episodes I listened to featured Eric Molinsky from the excellent Imaginary Worlds podcast and Jon Ronson, who wrote Lost at Sea, which is one of my favourite nonfiction collections. Hearing Molinsky talk about the notion of continuity in Waits’s catalogue and Ronson talk about what he (and Bruce Springsteen) meant to a kid who really wanted to get the hell out of Cardiff, really made me want to revisit some of these songs. And I did. And they’re great.
99% Invisible catch-up — I have at times become fatigued with the juggernauts of the podcast world (see esp. Radiolab), and this show is no exception. But it never takes long to convince me once again of why it’s awesome. The six episodes I listened to this week are all gems, especially the two about design in the movie industry. Roman Mars’s interview with Annie Atkins about her work designing things that may never be seen by the audience of a movie (and also the Mendl’s box from The Grand Budapest Hotel, which had a spelling error on it that needed to be corrected in post) is riveting stuff. But the best episode is actually a feature from The Organist, a podcast by McSweeney’s and KCRW that I am now subscribed to. It’s a story about the history of radio advertising, told by a veteran radio advertiser. It’s really something. You’ll never hear Jefferson Airplane the same way again once you hear Grace Slick hawking Levi jeans. Pick of the week.
Reply All catch-up — The last few episodes of this of the year are good fun. I always love their year-end wrap-ups, where they revisit stories and people from episodes gone by. And the Yes Yes No episode about Antifa, in which Alex Goldman tries to explain “Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo” on the radio is really something.
Code Switch catch-up — I’m not quite caught up yet, but the live episode with Hari Kondabolu was awesome, and the one about Mary Hamilton, a civil rights activist who fought for the right to be addressed as “Miss” is a classic.