If you’re one of my six regular readers, you will likely already know that I got a job recently. This has resulted in a general sense of stability, clear headedness, and purposefulness that I haven’t had for a while. So, what does one do with one’s suddenly guilt-free spare time on an occasion such as this? One plays computer games.
I’ve been avoiding games for a while because they stretch out to fill the time. And when there’s too much time for them to stretch out into, they can take a toll on your self-worth. But I have plenty of that at the moment, so I played no fewer than three games this week. They’re all very short, to be fair. But it feels good to be back to this medium for at least a while, because all three of them were extremely interesting, and it was hard to pick just one to recommend. Read on to find out if I managed — and to find out which of the gaming podcasts I tried out was the best. When I get in a mood, I commit.
Also, I had three pieces on the radio this weekend. Readers here will likely be most interested in this one.
Kentucky Route Zero: “Un Pueblo De Nada” (and assorted miscellany) — Kentucky Route Zero’s final intermission minisode is an elegiac trip behind the scenes of a declining small-town public access station. I could have identified that as a KRZ premise even if you hadn’t told me it’s a video game. The minisode itself has less to offer than its two immediate predecessors: “The Entertainment,” which opens up the possibility that the entire game is a stage play being written by one of its supporting characters, and “Here and There Along the Echo,” which makes trawling through a touch-tone telephone menu fun. But when you take into account the fact that “Un Pueblo De Nada” has a slew of online videos associated with it, all of which are live-action renderings of broadcasts from the public access station we explore in the minisode, it rises to the level of prime KRZ. I watched the videos first (save for a couple of hour-long, out-of-universe media art pieces that may be edifying but don’t seem crucial), then played the actual game. I think I recommend doing the opposite. Or at least save the final, longest video until after you’ve played the game. I’ll say no more, except that if you intend to play KRZ at any point, you can’t skip the intermission features, because in spite of their brevity they are as enthralling as the actual chapters of the game. (A final note for obsessives: it looks like the airstrip from the first chapter, which initially seemed like little more than a haunting non-sequitur, is actually going to take on more significance. I’m not sure how I feel about that. I really liked it as an inexplicable, beautiful moment that’s basically unmoored from the rest of the story. But then, if there’s any developer we can trust not to make anything too tidy, it’s Cardboard Computer. So I still feel like the ambiguity won’t be explained away to the point where the airstrip vignette becomes banal.)
Subsurface Circular — This is a miniature, dialogue-driven story game that takes place on a single, continuous train ride. It observes the Aristotelian unities more aggressively than maybe any other game I’ve played: it takes place in real time, as far as I can tell, and your character does not (and cannot) move from their seat in the subway carriage. It is written by Mike Bithell, of Thomas Was Alone fame, and like that game it is about artificial intelligences. However, in Thomas Was Alone, that fact was basically only relevant to the plot: the character drama proceeds as if the characters are odd humans. Subsurface Circular has a little bit more fun with the fact that its characters are robots, encumbering some of them with really strange traits, like having their mood entirely determined by the mood of a separate robot. The story is a straightforward mystery that you investigate the only way you can: by talking to people on the train. The dialogue is choice-based, in the vein of Telltale, except that your choices don’t seem to have a great deal of impact on the actual story — or even the relationships between the characters. That’s not a flaw. It still presents a compelling story and offers you the opportunity to role-play within it. Still, to progress through the story you must hit on certain crucial bits of dialogue. Getting to them is less a matter of cleverness and more a matter of simply exhausting all of your options. Given my own propensity to try and see as much of the text as I can in one sitting, this can get a bit tedious. And it’s partially my fault. But the writing and the story are really, really fun. I highly recommend this to people who loved the writing in Thomas Was Alone, and to people who like text-based games in general.
Virginia — I love this game. I can imagine what the key critiques of it are, even without reading anything about it. I can hear people’s objections about the lack of even the illusion of player choice, and the way in which you are driven through its spaces on tracks without any real opportunity to explore. (In that way, it is fundamentally different to some of the games it will inevitably be compared to, i.e. Gone Home, Tacoma.) But the way that Virginia tells its story is completely ingenious and wouldn’t be possible in another medium. The story itself is fairly simple to describe, at least until near the end. You’re an FBI agent, assigned to investigate a missing person with another FBI agent — and while you’re at it, you’re expected to carry out an internal investigation of your partner. Virginia’s FBI is a paranoid body where duplicity is par-for-the-course. It even invokes J. Edgar Hoover: a figure whose time would have been up long before this game takes place, but who looms large in the FBI’s institutional memory. You experience the story from a first person perspective, in which you walk down corridors, search for things in rooms, and frequently find yourself jump cutting to another location altogether. Those cuts are the game’s masterstroke — they convey a sensation of the unreliability of memory, perception and reality. The cuts are simple at first: you’re walking down a corridor, only to find yourself walking down a different corridor. The message is simple: we’ve elided part of the story, because it’s not important. But soon, you find yourself cutting from the present-day to a memory, from a dream to reality, and maybe even into the perspective of another character altogether. All of these are bog-standard techniques in film editing, but they make you disoriented and paranoid in this context. Also notable: nobody speaks in Virginia. It proceeds with visual storytelling akin to a Méliès film or a Pingu short, minus the grunting. That only adds to the vagueness. In fact, Virginia avoids words almost entirely, only deigning to put them on screen when there are especially crucial plot details that you can’t afford to miss. (After an hour of wordless gameplay, a key revelation is delivered via microfiche.) The point is this: Virginia is deliberately obscure because of its central themes. Virginia is a game about transgressing the boundaries of what’s true. It is about the levels of artifice that exist in relationships between people, the disconnect between what we perceive as real and what is empirically real outside of us, and how truth can be deliberately distorted for one’s own means. It is strange, unique, powerful, probably unknowable, and it has an original score performed by an honest-to-god symphony orchestra. I love it. I can’t wait to play it again. Pick of the week.
Isle of Dogs — Hmm. Look, it would be an excellent movie if it weren’t so culturally insensitive. I want to like it, believe me. Wes Anderson is one of my favourite directors, with The Grand Budapest Hotel standing particularly tall among my all-time favourites. And there’s much to love in this film. It contains some of the most objectively gorgeous stop-motion animation I’ve ever seen. And all of the stuff involving the dogs themselves is gold. Bryan Cranston gives a fabulous performance as the hardened stray that the other dogs both look up to and resent. Jeff Goldblum is hilarious as the town gossip. And Harvey Keitel puts in a curiously heartbreaking turn as a dog for whom desperate times called for desperate measures. But much of the remainder of the movie takes place in a Western fantasy of Japan: a Japan with only its aesthetics intact. A key element of the film is that the audience is not supposed to understand the human dialogue throughout much of it. But… presumably those members of the audience who speak Japanese will not get the benefit of that choice. Like Pop Culture Happy Hour’s Linda Holmes pointed out, Japan isn’t Narnia. It’s a real place that exists in the world. Much of Isle of Dogs constitutes textbook cultural appropriation. Shame, too: if this had been made to take place in an actual fantasy world, I think it might be a near masterpiece. As it is, I spent much of the movie’s duration squirming uncomfortably.
Brian Vickers: “Too too solid: On the Norton Shakespeare and the New Oxford Shakespeare” — I have been meaning to buy a proper complete Shakespeare for a while now. Reading Moby-Dick in the Norton Critical Edition has opened my eyes to the advantages of a solid critical edition, even for recreational reading. This opinionated, not to say catty, review of the two most recent editions of Shakespeare from perpetual rivals Oxford and Norton highlights the latter as a pretty clear winner. Even if you’re not in the market for one of these, this is worth a read simply to watch Vickers excoriate the Oxford for its misbegotten attempts at trendiness: referencing Hamilton, referring to Shakespeare as “the ghost with the most,” and eschewing critical introductions to the plays (probably the whole point of a critical edition for most readers) in favour of something they call “Shakespeare tapas,” in which they sample one or two lines from essays and interviews with notable Shakespeareans out of context. Norton it is.
The New Pornographers: Mass Romantic — Somebody mentioned them in conversation recently and I was reminded that I’d never heard a full album. I’m not sure I’d even listened to a song with any real intention. I began where one begins: with “Letter From an Occupant.” That song is a miracle. Neko Case’s voice is a laser, and it contains the lines “I cried five rivers on the way here, which one will you skate away on?” That’s a Joni Mitchell riff that improves on the original. There’s something you don’t see every day. Nothing on the rest of the album quite compares, except maybe the title track. After one full listen, my sense is that I’ll be compelled to revisit the Neko Case songs (I’ve listened to “Letter” probably a couple dozen times this week) immediately, and the A.C. Newman songs may yet grow on me. Good album.
Jack White: Boarding House Reach — It’s not all excellent, but it is so crazily heterogenous and energetic that it doesn’t matter. This is the album where Jack White finally embraces the digital, and it turns out not to actually affect his aesthetic all that much. This is as messy, weird and disjointed as any White Stripes album and also toes the same line between knowing ludicrousness and total sincerity. It’s a succinct demonstration that an artist is not defined by their chosen tools, but by their approach to them. Highlights include “Corporation,” which injects an unexpected dose of P-Funk into the record, “Ice Station Zebra,” which contains the much-complained-about rapping (as if we’ve forgotten that he did it on “Lazaretto” too and nobody minded), “Over and Over and Over,” which is the closest we come to a classic garage rock track, and “Respect Commander,” which does some intensely fun stuff with tempo adjustment, and “Get In the Mind Shaft,” which is probably the closest Jack White will ever get to making a Daft Punk song. His best work since Icky Thump. Freaky good fun.
J.S. Bach/John Eliot Gardiner, English Baroque Soloists et al: St. John Passion — It’s Easter. On Easter we listen to Bach. I’ve always preferred the St. John Passion to the St. Matthew, which I can never get all the way through. Where Matthew is mutedly passionate, John is explosive. The opening chorus is a particular favourite — one of the most openly dramatic things in Bach’s entire oeuvre. There’s nothing quite like a big, awesome choir making their first entrance with “HERR!! HERR!! HERR!!” Speaking of, the Monteverdi Choir are the true stars of this fantastic recording with Gardiner. Neither he nor they are afraid of “letting it rip,” as the kids are saying. The English Baroque Soloists play with a sense of individuality that befits their name. And the vocal soloists put in lovely performances, particularly Anthony Rolfe-Johnson in the often thankless role of the Evangelist. Have a listen. At least check out the choruses.
Retronauts: “Zork,” “EarthBound” & “Broderbund” — In my recently rediscovered enthusiasm for video games, I felt compelled to check out a couple things from the doubtless well-populated gaming podcast space. True to its name, Retronauts is a roundtable chat podcast that focuses on retrogaming. In general, I am a modern gaming person, but I played just enough games in my childhood that I can occasionally conjure some nostalgia for eras of gaming gone by. How surprised was I, then, to find that the most recent episode of Retronauts focussed on Broderbund, a company whose edutainment titles made up a big chunk of my early exposure to computers. This episode reminded me of the existence of Living Books, which I’d forgotten entirely, as well as The Print Shop and the Carmen Sandiego games, of which Where in Time is permanently imprinted on my DNA. The Zork episode is a fun exploration of that game, which I’ve put many hours into and never even really come close to beating. I do feel that the panel may have a limited experience of post-Infocom parser-based interactive fiction, in light of which Zork’s puzzles look counterintuitive and inexpert. The EarthBound episode is the one with the most difficult task, namely to say interesting things about a game about which there is little left to say. It’s probably the Super Nintendo equivalent of Bowie’s Low. Alas, much of the discussion focuses on the game’s music, which is deeply beside the point. Still, I’ll listen to more of this. They’ve got a rich back-catalogue with at least one thing I care about for every dozen that I don’t.
No Cartridge: “Desert of the Real Fictions” — The second gaming podcast I checked out this week is this loose conversation show hosted by a professor. A conversation between that professor, Trevor Strunk, and the developer of Night in the Woods, Scott Benson, is bound to be fun. This particularly focuses on the question raised by gamers who demand better endings from game developers — as if a game is something other than a thing made by a person, but rather a thing that exists whole in some other universe and has been dragged imperfectly into this one by a flawed human vessel. It shines a light on the ways in which a large swathe of the gaming hordes are substantially lacking in critical facility. A fun listen if you’re into that sort of thing.
On the Media: “Big, if True” — One of the best things about OTM is that it’s always there on the stories you need it for. The Cambridge Analytica story was one of those. This is as good an exploration of that as you could hope for.
Song by Song: “Bride of Rain Dog” & “Anywhere I Lay My Head” — I’ve enormously enjoyed this podcast’s breakdown of Rain Dogs. These final two episodes are the general summation you’d hope for. It’s all well that they chose to do that, since I’m really not sure there’s much to say about “Anywhere I Lay My Head” that it doesn’t say for itself. It is one of Tom Waits’s most poignant creations. I’ll be returning to this show for Frank’s Wild Years — my idiosyncratic favourite Tom Waits album, an opinion I know the panel does not share.
Pop Culture Happy Hour catch-up — It came to pass that I agreed with Linda Holmes (and not Chris Klimek) on Isle of Dogs, a very problemsy movie. In other news, High Maintenance sounds not for me, Ready Player One sounds intensely not for me, and the SXSW wrap was sort of repetitive after hearing All Songs Considered’s coverage in its entirety.
Theory of Everything: “Utopia” parts iv and v — This hasn’t been my favourite mini-season in ToE’s history. But there’s much to enjoy here, in particular Andrew Calloway’s trip to a pagan utopia in part iv.
Imaginary Worlds: “Remembering Ursula K. Le Guin” & “Stuck in the Uncanny Valley” — The Le Guin episode is a good primer that I’ll look back to when I am in search of an SF novel to read. The uncanny valley is one of the better Imaginary Worlds episodes in a while, in no small part because it draws on Eric Molinsky’s expertise as a former animator.
The Memory Palace: “Outliers” & “A quick update and a bonus episode” — “Outliers” is a brief thing about the reasons why a person might decide to take part in a freak show in the 19th century. It is as compassionate and broad minded as you expect this show to be. Oddly, though, the bonus episode that follows it is almost better. It transitions seamlessly from being a bland housekeeping episode to being a really lovely tribute to Lavinia Dock, whose suffrage slogan, “the young are at the gates” is now being repurposed movingly as a slogan for the Never Again movement. This show is an ongoing miracle. Pick of the week.
The Nod: “Peak Reality” & “Sister, Sister” — It’s been awhile since I listened to this. I heard a preview for “Sister, Sister” on another Gimlet show and figured I had to hear it. But first I listened to a completely different episode by mistake that turned out to be even better. “Peak Reality” finds Eric Eddings arguing to Brittany Luse that 2016 was the best year for reality television. There’s nothing like smart people talking about dumb things. As for “Sister, Sister,” it’s an interesting bit of family drama in which a producer finds out her sister doesn’t identify as black and is upset by this. Alas, the actual conversations with the sister in question make it plain immediately that this sister’s issue is simply that she is in college, with all of the attendant confusion. It’s less compelling than it might be.