August 14, 2019

Disney Canon #57: Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018)

disney57-title

BETH And now we’re going to read the review.

BROOM Eventually. But we do that at the end, if you remember how this works.

BETH I thought it we did it first.

BROOM No, we talk about our thoughts first.

BETH Sorry, man, I forget the protocol!

ADAM It’s been a long time.

BROOM Three years!

BETH No, wait. Two.

ADAM It’s been… two years.

BROOM Oh yeah. Well, more than two years. Two and a few.

ADAM Well. That felt like turning out the lights on Disney Studios. It was not as bad as Chicken Little

BETH Oh, not at all!

ADAM … but it might have been the second worst.

BETH Maybe the most depressing.

ADAM It might have been the most offensive, other than Chicken Little which was hateful.

BROOM Oh, I’m not coming away with that feeling. I mean it’s not my favorite, but that’s not how I felt, so you’re going to have to talk that through.

ADAM I guess it’s just like “We have no more ideas, so let’s just gorge on the IP in the laziest, dumbest way possible.”

BROOM If you cut out the princess scene, would you still say that that’s what this movie was?

ADAM It still felt incredibly lazy.

BETH I feel like no other Disney movie has been as tied to its culture as this. And of course that’s the point—

BROOM You mean Disney’s culture, or the present-day culture?

BETH The present-day culture. It’s immediately dating itself. Even now it feels a little dated, because Tumblr doesn’t exist anymore, and Tumblr is mentioned. They had to have known that they were doing that, and they didn’t care. That’s the nature of this story. But then it doesn’t play! It doesn’t have a shelf life. Or maybe it does, I don’t know, it just feels weird because it’s so tied to… two years ago.

ADAM And also to a certain feeling about the internet. The internet has had a rough couple of years, as a cultural touchstone.

BETH Yeah.

ADAM Like, today there’s an article in the New York Times about Youtube’s algorithm…

BETH … promoting right-wing extremists.

ADAM … yeah, its rules that send you to right-wing hate groups. I mean… [sigh] I don’t know, man.

BETH It’s just that all the specifics were very specific.

ADAM And nothing worked! Oh my god, it made me so upset. BROOM, you go.

BROOM I don’t really know what to say. My thoughts while I was watching it were that it didn’t feel like the internet feels, to me. And what’s the point of making a cartoon other than to get the stand-up comedy “ha ha yeah” response of recognition? The way they embodied these things and turned them into cartoon scenes doesn’t resonate with my experience of them. On the other hand, I thought, “well, recasting some of these things that I have such a demoralizing relationship to, into cheery cartoon things, would be very welcome —”

BETH The internet’s just a mall, BROOM, it’s just a mall.

BROOM Right, so if the internet were just a partaaay! It’s a rave! It’s a mall! There’s funny people in it! Youtube is just a lady!… That would be a really good feeling! I would like that! So I didn’t want to reject it, and say “I know what the internet really is, it’s that thing that makes me feel terrible.” I felt a hope that at some point it would click in and I would feel like, “Yeah! Maybe the world is okay.” But it didn’t. And that was my complaint about the original Wreck-It Ralph: “This isn’t what videogames feel like.”

BETH I barely even remember the original Wreck-It Ralph.

BROOM At the beginning of this I was reminded of it. “Oh yeah, they live in a power strip? That’s not right. Nobody lives in a power strip. I don’t have any fantasies about the little people who live in my power strip.”

ADAM Is Inside Out the one about the feelings?

BETH Yeah, I was gonna bring that up too.

ADAM So Inside Out was a clever and imaginative and ultimately affecting movie because it was a meaningful depiction of how emotions work, and had something interesting to say about how emotions work, and why sad emotions are still valuable. And this was sort of like that — except this actually had nothing to do with how the internet worked, and was not in any way related to what it feels like to navigate the internet, and it didn’t have anything to tell you about the internet…

BETH I mean, that’s a challenge! How are they going to—

ADAM It was like “Oh, remember Inside Out? Let’s do that, but with the internet!” But then they had no ideas.

BROOM I thought it was more like they watched Toy Story and said “Oh this is so cool because it refers to, like, a Slinky, and people can say ‘Hey I know about Slinky!’, and then they come up with stuff for a Slinky to do. And the claw machine! It’s so funny because people know about the claw machine!” But they ignored the part where Toy Story was a story about a theme that they had extracted from the world of toys. Ralph Breaks the Internet ultimately was a story about giving your friends freedom even if that means feeling insecure.

BETH Allegedly, yes.

BROOM Which has nothing to do with the internet or videogames, or eBay, or whatever. It doesn’t have anything to do with the subject matter, so they just grafted a lot of references on to something that has nothing to do with them.

BETH But I think you’re talking about it in a way opposite to how they conceived it. They grafted the insecurity story on to the internet stuff.

ADAM Right, because it was made by hideous Pixar people who don’t understand how Disney movies work, and think that it’s a joke, and thought that it was funny to call Alan Menken out of retirement to make a joke song. Uggh! So upsetting!

BETH Clearly that was the most affecting part, for you.

BROOM I didn’t see, ADAM — were you in pain?

BETH Yeah, he was distraught.

ADAM Anything where they were, like…

BROOM Anything with the word “Disney” in it.

ADAM Yeah.

BETH They also tried to put a sort of feminist hero slant on the princesses at the end. “Oh, we, the women, are going to rescue him.” But that was offensive. “We’re gonna put him in a dress.

BROOM It was cheap.

ADAM Wouldn’t it be funny if Snow White had a shirt that said “Girl Power”? Ullllgh.

BROOM When they first opened that box, I thought “the whole ‘Disney princess’ phenomenon is kind of external to the actual princesses, so there’s room for comic commentary here.” And then I was waiting for it… “But, oh, seems like they don’t have any real thoughts about this. They just know that they can get points for doing it.”

BETH They’re just rehashing the talking points of other people.

ADAM It’s obvious that people at Disney thought that the scene in Hercules, where they have gear from other movies, was funny. But that’s five seconds of Hercules! They’re like, “what if that was a whole subplot!”

BROOM I was really open to interesting things they could have done with that. The Disney princesses could say “This whole ‘princess’ shtick where we live in this room together is weird, right?” Because that’s the weird thing, that they’re branded with this status and lumped together. But they didn’t want to do anything critical of the business. Just like they couldn’t be critical of eBay, Amazon…

BETH YouTube!

BROOM YouTube, although they apparently did not want to be in the movie. They were willing to have their name be said; they just weren’t willing to have their algorithm be personified.

ADAM Also, Google is in the movie but nothing happens with Google, he’s just on Google when he gets attacked by… the virus of his emotional insecurities.

BETH Because everyone really uses Ask Jeeves.

BROOM They really took on Ask Jeeves! They made Ask Jeeves look like a pretty good search engine, all things considered! “Knowmore,” it was called here.

ADAM Yeah, and Pinterest was in it… as a pin.

BROOM It should have been the Google maps pushpin. I would have much preferred that.

BETH I think Google might not have approved.

ADAM At the beginning I was like, “Oh yeah, remember your fond feelings about the friendship between Wreck-It Ralph and Vanellope?” Beloved Wreck-It Ralph and Vanellope! Sarah Silverman was annoying the first time; I never wanted to see her again. And then the whole thing is supposed to trade on your affection for these characters.

BROOM Yeah, basically another whole movie about Vanellope. That was another one of my criticisms of Wreck-It Ralph: Fix-It Felix and Wreck-It Ralph have an interesting dynamic; why not make a movie about that instead?

BETH Because they need to make a movie about a powerful woman. Let’s talk about the gay subtext!

BROOM Yeah, why didn’t she get married to Slash, or — what was her name?

BETH Shank.

BROOM I made a joke in the middle of the movie, “It’s gonna end with Vanellope marrying Shank.” And then: everything but!

BETH I just was telling BROOM earlier that I saw Hobbs & Shaw over the weekend. Do you know what that is, ADAM?

ADAM No.

BETH Do you know anything about the Fast and the Furious movies at all?

ADAM Eh.

BETH Okay. They’re famous for basically being homoerotic.

ADAM All right. Say more!

BETH You know, it’s Vin Diesel and Paul Walker, and they’re crushing on each other via cars and racing. So Hobbs & Shaw is an offshoot of that with, uh…

BROOM Jason Statham and The Rock, you told me.

BETH Yes, which is basically the same thing. It’s like they love each other but they hate each other but they love each other, and, like, there’s a woman but it’s really just about them. And I felt like that’s kind of what was happening here! Vanellope just wanted to be with Gal Gadot.

ADAM Who wouldn’t want to be with Gal Gadot.

BETH Who wouldn’t! Right!

BROOM Nobody in the story mentioned that she was hot. Sort of a weird omission.

BETH Yeah, I was waiting for it. “Because she’s so cool, and she has good hair!” I was like, “AND SHE’S HOT.”

ADAM And, like, why can’t you leave a game on the internet just like you can leave an arcade game? Why did they have to be separated forever? It’s because the arcade closes and the internet never closes?

BROOM You’re asking why they couldn’t just hang out overnight like they used to?

ADAM Yeah. Shank and her crew have down time to play basketball! This whole forced moral about friendship, which was grafted on to this stupid picaresque plot, which was not itself very interesting… At least in the original Wreck-It Ralph, some of the games were colorful and intriguing.

BETH That’s a good point.

ADAM Whereas, like, it’s so intriguing to visit eBay, which is… a checkout line. And then all the other websites were just some boxes. And then the whole plot where we’re collecting hearts? For stupid videos? That was so depressing.

BETH Your friend [who said the movie was “really sad”] was right.

ADAM It’s depressing that two hundred million hearts only gets forty-three dollars. Everything is depressing. And that there was no critique in that!

BETH Yeah, that’s the thing.

BROOM Right, that’s what hurts for me. Every scene that started, I was like, “Yeah, tell me! Tell me what the cartoon version of eBay is, because I don’t know how I feel about eBay, and the cartoon might be clarifying!” And then they turned out not have a thought in their heads, and that hurt because…

BETH Because you needed it. You feel like you need it.

BROOM I need it! Who will make a beautiful allegory of what the internet is? Who will humanize it for me?

BETH Not these guys.

BROOM Not these guys. On the other hand, I hope that this sinks into some part of my brain nonetheless. I’ll take anything I can get. The internet is so dark!

BETH Why even take this on? It’s too big! They were doomed! I feel like it was way too ambitious to even try.

BROOM So let’s get to what we were talking about before it started: Why is this a sequel? Why indeed is this a sequel to Wreck-It Ralph of all things? Why did they make a sequel to Wreck-It Ralph? It doesn’t make sense that a videogame character would go on the internet any more than anyone else would go on the internet.

ADAM They’ve been making sequels this whole time, but they’ve been straight-to-video sequels that we haven’t had to trouble ourselves with.

BROOM What do you think those princess voices have been up to for all these years?

ADAM This is not a good sign. And then Frozen 2 is coming? That’s not a good sign either!

BETH That’s where Hollywood is, now. It’s all about sequels.

BROOM I’m gonna guess that she gets the power of fire in Frozen 2. Just a guess.

ADAM They didn’t come up with a better name than Frozen 2.

BROOM There is no better name for marketing than Frozen 2.

BETH That’s right.

BROOM This should have been called Ralph Wrecks the Internet. I thought that from the first time I heard of it. I don’t understand.

BETH Because “breaks the internet” is a thing… or was a thing!

BROOM It was Kim Kardashian’s thing.

BETH Again, they couldn’t keep up with themselves. Also eBay! Not really a thing anymore!

BROOM Is that true?

BETH Yeah, eBay is dead. No one uses eBay. It’s all Etsy, or… I don’t even know.

BROOM I thought the scripting was weak, even given the story. That he was like, “Ee-oh-boy!” “Wait, say that again!” We’re gonna do this for twenty seconds?

BETH It really was twenty seconds. “Say it again!” “Eeee-boy.”

BROOM Why does he even have to hear it as “Eboy?” He could have just said: “There’s a steering wheel on the internet, so we’ve gotta get on the internet!” That would have been fine.

ADAM I don’t think there was a single quip or joke or anything that was memorable.

BROOM I laughed when the gang guy that BETH liked, he crashes in the car chase…

BETH … and he says to himself, “You still have value.” That was the only thing I thought was funny.

BROOM I laughed at one other thing, I can’t remember where, but I do remember immediately after laughing, thinking I should be embarrassed because ADAM did not think that was funny!

ADAM The idea of inserting crossover characters from Sugar Rush into an internet game called Slaughter Race is actually a good idea. Someone should do that, on the internet.

BROOM It was supposed to be Grand Theft Auto, and they said “you know what would be funny, would be to sing a princess song about how ‘I want to live in Grand Theft Auto‘”…

BETH But they didn’t pull it off.

BROOM They couldn’t go all the way there because they can’t say “prostitute.” They can’t say anything actually tawdry.

BETH Because it’s actually for children.

BROOM So they say “we’ve got scary clowns and dumpster fires.” Okay, whatever, but if this is a high/low joke about Disney being high and this game being low, that’s not really low enough.

ADAM I hope Alan Menken made a lot of money. And Idina Menzel, and Anika Noni Rose and all those voices, I hope they made a lot of money. Also: I got bored by the car racing in the first one, and then in the second one: “We’re going to the internet where there’s… more car racing.”

BROOM Yes! And obviously the real massively multiplayer online game on the internet is World of Warcraft, and that’s a rich vein. And different! But they didn’t touch it.

ADAM And then at the end, that the villain was a mindless amalgamation…

BETH Yeah, the King Kong of…

ADAM … of Ralphs.

BETH Yeah. It was gross.

BROOM I thought there was something kind of workable in that concept, that his emotional insecurities have been externalized and are now a monster. I feel like I’ve seen that before, and when they got to it I thought “well, they’re kind of squeezing the Pixar formula out of this despite itself.”

ADAM There’s a Rick & Morty about that, where they go to couples therapy.

BROOM Oh yes, yes, and that was much better.

ADAM There was much too much of silly Ralph videos, which I guess is what my nephews thought was funny when they saw this last year. When they were younger! But I don’t know — a goat with a Ralph head?

BETH Yeah, that wasn’t actually funny. It was like, oh my god, they’re just using actual memes? From now? There’s no way this is going to play! No one is going to rent this video in five years, because it’ll all feel really stale. It felt very shortsighted, to me.

BROOM I didn’t feel disgust while we were watching it. I just want to put that on the record. These Disney animated films at their best either reveal or reinforce or reflect human experiences at a deep fairy-tale level. And, yes, if you could do that about modern shit like the internet, what a gift to the world that would be! So just to make a gesture toward it, I watched the whole thing going, “oh, okay, yeah, the internet, could be one of these movies, think of that…”

BETH But at the end of the day it was just being as bad as the internet!

BROOM Yeah, it was taking the Twitter way out of everything.

ADAM Our project is exempt from the obligation to see the many live-action remakes of classic Disney films that have been coming out since Moana, right?

BROOM Oh yes.

ADAM Which none of us has any desire to see. But just the fact of that is so sad. There’s just nothing left in the barrel, if that’s what they’re doing.

BETH They’re just milking everything.

BROOM So to go to back to your first comment about that, which I think is maybe less deserved here than the other criticisms: it isn’t just an attempt to milk the IP, because — again, if so, why Wreck-It Ralph?

ADAM Yeah, it was like a half-hearted depressing doodle within a larger mishap. I agree that if you were really setting out to cynically cannibalize the IP, you wouldn’t have done it as a throwaway subplot in Wreck-It Ralph 2.

BROOM But that’s a specifically painful thing about it: that the cynicism just sort of arises naturally.

ADAM It’s like nobody even thought that that would be seen as anything other than a loving tribute.

BROOM Or just “hey maybe we’ll get some points for cynical self-reference.”

ADAM But I bet the people who put that in thought it was affectionate. It was just so bankrupt of interest. As soon as the browser pointed to “World of Disney” I was like “Ohhh god.” Ugh. Ugh. Anyway. It wasn’t as bad as Chicken Little, which was actively hateful.

BETH It was not, it really really wasn’t, by leaps and bounds.

ADAM Was it better than Home on the Range? No.

BETH Hmm…

BROOM Home on the Range was kind of funny, as I recall it.

BETH Yeah, you’re right. Because after watching it I do feel scuzzy.

BROOM Okay, again, I gotta say, I don’t feel scuzzy. I thought this had more things for me to think about than the original Wreck-It Ralph did.

BETH I just don’t think its intentions were pure in any way. I think it was trying to be “clever.” The reason I feel scuzzy is because I feel like that insecurity shit was pasted on; that was not the core of it. The core of it was “let’s make ‘the internet’ in a cartoon!” And then they were trying to ‘make it mean something.’

ADAM Because nobody had any ideas, and then somebody rewrote it.

BROOM At the end of course the credit is “Director of Story.”

BETH Also that song at the end, where they’re singing about how it feels to be a zero? No!

BROOM Maybe that’s the real commentary about the internet! “I’ll show you what it feels like to feel like you aren’t good enough for anything!”

ADAM There must have been some kind of thing that went on behind the scenes, a power struggle about what this was going to be about, and somebody lost. And that version of the song was left over from the version of the movie that didn’t make it on to the screen. But they were like “Well, we already paid Imagine Dragons!”

BETH “They wrote this for us, so we gotta use it somewhere.” Maybe. Let’s read the review!

[we now read the New York Times review]

ADAM What?

BETH No.

BROOM They thought the insecurity thing was about how we all behave online, which, hey, a better script doctor would indeed have sewn it in that way.

[we look a bit on Rotten Tomatoes to try to find a review that endorses our criticisms but don’t immediately find one]

BETH That’s so interesting. Are we so inside it that we can’t see outside ourselves, and then with even just a year’s distance, we can? Or is it what you said, BROOM, where everyone is so desperate for some commentary on this topic that they’ll take anything?

[ADAM reads an excerpt from the RogerEbert.com review that calls the princess sequence “an incredibly witty scene that wrestles with Disney’s legacy when the filmmakers could have just included another tribute to the company that pays their bills.”]

BROOM That’s exactly what it is: a tribute to the company that pays their bills. Frozen “wrestles with the legacy” much more deeply, by actually having some of its own opinions. I guess my takeaway was that they failed, but I don’t think that they were…

BETH You think their intentions were pure?

BROOM I just think it was written by young people without enough ideas, rather than people who are trying to…

BETH Rather than people who are actually cynical.

ADAM Yeah, I don’t think it was evil, I just think it was brainless.

BROOM When they started, I thought they were going to go a perfectly reasonable direction, which is to point out that it’s all well and good for them to be in an arcade, but arcades are dead beyond dead, and that place is going out of business. The whole crisis is he’s gonna unplug one machine? Guess what guys! The whole place is going under.

BETH You all better find new games.

BROOM Yeah, I thought they were all gonna go on the internet as refugees.

BETH Good idea. Maybe you should write that movie!

BROOM It hurts to be told that you’re going to be told a story, and then be told just a bunch of knee-jerk jokes.

BETH It’s interesting to me that the two reviews we read mention the Disney princesses scene as a positive, funny, witty thing, when to us that’s what seemed especially cheap.

BROOM It felt like review-bait, for reviewers to have something where they can say “I don’t want to spoil it, but something happens about halfway through the movie that really brings down the house!” Put a thing in the middle that needs mention in the third paragraph of every review.

ADAM If you think seeing Sleeping Beauty in a T-shirt that says “Can I get a snooze button?” is funny, this is the movie for you!

BROOM [paraphrasing the NYTimes review] “Who doesn’t want to see the Little Mermaid put on a T-shirt?” I don’t know: everybody? I did have a feeling during that scene of “Oh all these voice actresses are still alive, that’s nice. Jodi Benson, still doing the Little Mermaid, how nice for her.”

ADAM Well who played Snow White?

BROOM I’m sure it was Disney’s current official Snow White. Because no doubt they’ve made “Snow White 4” and “Snow White 5” for DVD.

BETH You seemed to have the most positive response.

BROOM I wasn’t angered. But I am sad. It does feel like we’ve gone through these eras — the golden age, and then the sadder times, and then it comes back in the 90s with musicals and political correctness, and then it loses its way again and we have the Chicken Little era, and then yeah, Tangled is okay, and Frozen is good, and Moana is good, and Big Hero 6, so there’s a sense of rejuvenation there… and this felt like turning yet another corner. “That thing that we do at Disney? We’re definitely gonna produce that product! But we’re a little addled, right now, so… how about this? [starts tossing random objects that are within arm’s reach] How about this? I got another present for you, I got you this!” They just ran around their house and grabbed things. And Frozen 2 sounds the same. “Oh I totally brought you something!” and then rummaging around in your pocketbook.

ADAM John Lasseter is out of a job now.

BROOM Huggy Bear. [ed.: he means “Lots-‘o-Huggin Bear”]

ADAM When did that happen? Since this movie came out.

BROOM Certainly since this movie was made, anyway.

ADAM Yeah because he’s billed as top brass in this movie. Maybe it was just a weird time at Disney.

BETH Or for the country, or the culture, or all of it! I do think that this president has had an effect on art.

BROOM Psyches, yeah. I don’t think that America has responded well, artistically, to a time a of moral crisis.

BETH It takes time.

ADAM It’s too early.

BROOM You really need to digest it first.

BETH Yeah. And then you respond.

BROOM I feel like we’ve got so many Aaron Sorkins who are willing to jump up on the third day and say “I know how to respond to this!” Like David Mamet buzzes in immediately, BZZZ! “I’ve written a play!” And they don’t really know anything about it. And I’m still waiting to see a story…

BETH Yeah, you’ll get it in ten years.

BROOM …a story that reminds me that I’m a person even when such things happen.

ADAM Perhaps you enjoyed the hit Broadway play “Hillary and Clinton.”

[discussion ensues about what this show was, and who was in it, and then about whether any of us have functioning memories]

ADAM Toni Morrison was asked at one point if she had any advice for young writers, and she said “Wait til you’re forty.”

BETH This is our year!

ADAM Yeah. Our country needs us!

BROOM Hey, joke but no joke. If you have digested the current moment and experienced it at a poetic narrative level, bring it!

BETH Please. We’re all ears.

BROOM I’m really eager for that. And I don’t know why I would have expected that from Ralph Breaks the Internet, but… You know, the internet is its own crisis. Even if the president were whatever her name was, Hillary Clinton, we would still be living in a time of moral crisis.

ADAM I think the moral crisis aspect of modern life can be mitigated just by removing yourself from the historically unprecedented access we have to all things, which is to say the internet.

BROOM Yeah, and they didn’t address that. Well, she did say one line: “It’s very big.”

BETH It’s true that what they saw was entirely commerce-based, and not even about, like, Wikipedia.

ADAM There was an email train going by; that was about the only communication that was happening.

BROOM And the absolute stratification between totally pristine, clean, CGI fantasy, and then the “bad part of town” which was literally just a cliché bad part of town.

BETH I did kind of like Spamley, or whatever his name was.

BROOM Yeah, and who was that voice?

ADAM It was a name we didn’t recognize. [ed.: actually it was Bill Hader]

BETH I liked his old New York style: “Nyaaaaaah… wanna see a dirty pictcha?”

BROOM I liked “why don’t you come over to my website — oh sorry it’s a mess.” That was one of the moments where there was a spark of “that is a little like the internet.”

ADAM I find myself doing the “Nyaaaaaah, wise guy, eh?” voice as a joke a lot lately, and Mark has no idea what I’m talking about or why I’m doing it. And frankly I have no idea what I’m talking about or why I’m doing it.

BROOM Kids today just don’t appreciate Edward G. Robinson anymore! It seems like since 2011 or 2012, you just don’t hear kids talking about Edward G. Robinson.

BETH But then why is anyone inclined to do it?

BROOM Nyaaaaah, ’cause it’s a great voice, is why!

ADAM I’ve of course never seen an Edward G. Robinson movie.

BETH Yes you have!

BROOM You’ve seen The Ten Commandments.

ADAM No I haven’t. All I’ve ever seen is Tiny Toons.

BETH Oh, sure. You only know parodies. Haven’t you seen Double Indemnity?

ADAM No.

BROOM What’s “is this the end of little Rico? [sic]” What movie is that?

BETH I don’t know. See, we’re all pretty ignorant.

[ed.: it’s Little Caesar (1931), guys]

disney57-end

July 1, 2019

Game log 6/19

Next from the “Monochromatic” Bundle.


NaissanceE (2014): Limasse Five (= Mavros Sedeño) (near Paris, France) [5 hours]

Astounding! A masterpiece. Awe and disorientation. Pure symbolist architectural immersion, the poetics of dreamspace. Escher/Blade Runner/Brazil/Star Wars/House of Stairs/House of Leaves/Mandelbrot/Lovecraft et cetera et alia. You are neither welcome nor unwelcome here; just as mankind is neither welcome nor unwelcome in the universe. It worked on me at a deep level; it’s still ringing in my head. These hallways aren’t exactly my personal dream, but they’re close enough to resonate; this sort of light and shadow has real meaning for me, not just hypothetical meaning. Wonderfully sensitive and effective use of music, including tracks by noted experimentalist Pauline Oliveros (used with her approval). The game makes the best possible case for her music, I’d say. Just a spectacular overall impression.

(Is it uneven and arbitrary? Is the actual gameplay sometimes infuriating? Does it lack a proper ending? Yes, sure, all of that — so what?)

Remarkably enough, this game has been free since last fall. If you’ve got a Steam account and you have any interest in artsy games, you really ought to give it a look.


Betrayer (2014): Blackpowder Games (Seattle, WA) [played for 2 hours]

Superficially a nice try: cold, crisp, otherworldly black-and-white with flashes of blood red. 1604, abandoned American colonial outposts. Wind in the grass, slow-loading muskets, the cawing of crows. Sounds like it could be a worthwhile dreamy-spooky experience. But the rest of the design is pure reflex and repetition — buy weapons, buy ammo, kill screeching skeletons (!), read scraps of paper, etc. etc. etc. Both the game and its big empty world are underrealized. I’m guessing this team of developers tried to go independent, started out ambitious, then ran out of time and money. That or they just didn’t have quite a full enough vision.


Oops, and I bought a new game. It was clearly a mandatory game, for me, and I decided it would be more satisfying to play it while it was still hot. People I know in real life are playing it right now; why not join the party, right? So I spent $14.99 + tax to buy:

Baba Is You (2019): Hempuli Oy (= Arvi Teikari) (Helsinki, Finland) [41 hours]

Hats off, gentlemen! A fantastic game; an all-time game. It goes straight to my short list of greatest puzzle games, and that’s a list that matters to me. Those were 41 dense hours; this thing is jam-packed, and I am, I daresay, a strong puzzler. It’s incredible just how much of that time was been spent having the so-called “aha” experience — the thrill of transformative insight, prized by puzzlers. Immensely satisfying! Fluxx Sokoban is a nifty enough gimmick, but nifty enough gimmicks are literally a dime a dozen these days. Baba Is You distinguishes itself by the puzzles themselves, which are uniformly excellent and extremely numerous. There are tricks and surprises and meta-gimmicks and all that, but what really counts is that sense of of enthusiastic commitment to its own materials — the designer is genuinely interested in his system, and so has arranged for you to take a self-guided magical mystery tour of everything cool he found while exploring it. These puzzles are never here to prolong your playtime, which is to say to delay you from being done: they’re here to show you something that wants to be shown. They are etudes and this is a book of etudes.

I’ll allow myself some additional paragraphs here because I’m feeling so enthusiastic. The self-devouring logic of the puzzles has delightfully been carried over into the game structure, which might sound like an obvious design move but it really isn’t. Game design is generally myopic and obsessive about its pet forms; the value of rigid hierarchical concepts like “overworld map” and “hub worlds” and “bonus content” mostly goes unquestioned. Here those concepts are all gently tweaked into absurd Möbius loops. Is this screen a level or a map? Am I going up or down in the hierarchy? Are these normal levels or bonus levels, or does this whole group of levels constitute a bonus level, or what? What is the thing, or set of things, that I need to complete to get it to say that I completed something? It’s all deliberately been made screwy. Which is what this stuff deserves. Every artform needs to be always exploding a little bit, if it wants to stay alive. This had some real life in it; it is not rigid.

Computer entertainment, being an extension of animation, has more complete a freedom than any other medium I can think of: it can be truly anything. The breadth of genres demonstrates this capacity, but individual games rarely do — too many preconceptions running the show. Ideally, playing a new computer game should give a least a little of the feeling of experiencing some new slice of “TRULY ANYTHING,” some new discovery that was found floating through the universe of the human mind. This one did, god bless it!

June 2, 2019

Game log 5/19

More Star Wars Bundle.


Star Wars: Starfighter (2002): LucasArts (San Francisco CA) [played 1 hr]

A simplistic, forgettable fly-and-shoot; too slick to be charming and not slick enough to be seductive. The “sixth generation” graphical style still feels like it hasn’t been fully broken in: for fleeting moments, the space battles can look impressively like the cinematic real thing, but for the most part the world feels dull and empty. The overall sense is of programmers eager to get home to their families; the game plays like a contract fulfilled. Plus: the menus, the packaging, the GUI, the primitive CGI puppet storytelling — these were the years when things started to get real ugly.


Star Wars: Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast (2002): Raven Software (Middleton, WI) [22 hrs]

This comes after Dark Forces and Dark Forces 2: Jedi Knight. Amusing for a third installment to be called “Part 2: II”; not sure I’ve ever seen that done anywhere else. (This on top of the usual Star Wars colon overload.)

This was new to me and turned out to be very satisfying indeed. Wonderfully on brand — Billy Dee Williams as the real Lando! — and just the right amount of gloss. 3D action games were well on their way out of the awkward phase by 2002; the surfaces are inviting again, soft and glowing, the figures are doll-like. Gameplay felt a tad cruel at times, and the whole thing ran too long, but keep in mind that I’m not actually very good at these games. Lively level designs full of variety and interest. Much obvious inspiration from Half-Life, and why not. The opposite of Starfighter: feels like a labor of love.


Plenty more Star Wars to go but I need a break so I’m gonna mix in some of the next group.

March 6, 2015, $4.50 for “Humble Weekly Bundle: Monochromatic.” Four games (plus one more that I already have). The theme is black & white graphics. It looked like a neat mix of stuff so I went for it, again breaking my oath to only buy when I had a specific interest. (Eventually I did start sticking to it, but it took a little while to sink in.)


Closure (2012): Eyebrow Interactive (= Tyler Glaiel + collaborators) (San Diego, CA?) [9 hrs]

A close relative of The Bridge, i.e. another well-intentioned Braid-alike from the years when they were rampant. This one has a very fine concept: if a surface isn’t lit and visible, it isn’t there. Unfortunately there’s often a lot of finicking to be done between conceiving of a solution and executing it. Meanwhile you’re putting up with somewhat overbearing Tim Burton ‘zine stylings and repetitive music. I prefer my puzzle games with a meditative rather than a goth vibe; it’s all about the headspace, after all. The puzzles make a nice exploration of the mechanic but there are probably too many of them, and it seems to me they’re in the wrong order: the third of the three groupings is both the easiest and the most aesthetically engaging. Nonetheless: pretty good.


Dominique Pamplemousse in “It’s All Over Once the Fat Lady Sings!” (2013): “Dietrich Squinkifier (writing as Deirdra Kiai)” (Santa Cruz, CA) [1.25 hr]

Not just indie but truly “alt.” I find this sort of thing invigorating, just as I find art by children invigorating. It’s “about gender and the economy” (uh-oh!), but only in the most simplistic ways, which given the medium I think are probably the best ways. At the “be! creative! be! creative!” summer camp I attended as a kid, hippie progressive political ideals were never actually preached, but they were deeply embedded in the camp’s conception of creative freedom. This game is in every way like something made at that camp: the real Social Justice agenda is the one implicit in its defiance of any received aesthetic standards. It is neither serious nor a joke. It is neither well made nor poorly made. It is qualityqueer. More power to it.

By the way, Dominique Pamplemousse is now “name your own price” which means you can download and play it for free if you’re curious. (There’s also apparently a sequel.)

Those links both go to itch.io, an absolutely vast expanse of “be! creative! be! creative!” alt- games, mostly free, by creators at all levels of talent. If you want the real indie, this is where it is. Dipping into itch.io is the equivalent of seeing the unknown bands at the local performance space. Some of it’s like drunken karaoke; some of it is already signed with a major label. Whenever I stop by and glance at the storefront I’m intrigued and tempted, but I don’t think I have the stamina to wander into that thicket alone without guide or companion. If anyone wants to join me in occasional joint expeditions, though, let me know! Could be fun.

April 27, 2019

Game log 3-4/19

Not quite ready to quit this practice yet, but paring it way down.

Finishing up the Humble Indie Bundle 13 as purchased 11/11/14, two games to go:


Eldritch (2013): Minor Key Games (=David and J. Kyle Pittman) (Frisco, TX / Novato, CA) [played 1 hr]

Minecraft as Lovecraft (well, “Lovecraft”), which is an inspired dreamspace equation: pixel-simple, toylike, hushed, spooky subterranean 3D space. Consistently raised goosebumps but not adrenaline, which for me is a rare threading of the needle. As usual with roguelikes, my interest lasted only as long as the novelty.

Tales from Space: Mutant Blobs Attack (2012): DrinkBox Studios (Toronto, ON, Canada) [played 3 hrs]

A handheld game, clearly conceived as “Gish does Katamari,” but with all the quirks ironed out. Plus a pile of standard-issue gimmicks — magnets, moving platforms, rocket packs — to prevent it from being too transparently boring. It’s still boring, but at least it’s cheerful and means well. I regret playing for 3 hours.


Two days later, 11/13/14, GOG gives away Mount & Blade. I impulsively click to claim it, even though it’s not the kind of game I care about in the least.

Mount & Blade (2008): TaleWorlds (Ankara, Turkey) [played .75 hr]

No story or goal; it’s just a Medieval Dolls Playset For Big Boys. I have no medieval fixation and thus am uninspired to play with the dolls. It’s also ugly: like a lot of marionettes being clacked together in the middle of nowhere. I spent several minutes trying to make the guy’s face look like mine. He was killed by looters almost immediately.


Two weeks later, 11/29/14, GOG gives away The Witcher 2. I impulsively click to claim it, even though it’s not the kind of game I care about in the least.

The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings (2011): CD Projekt (Warsaw, Poland) [33 hrs]

Despite being a ridiculous Game of Thrones-style high fantasy porn/gore/politics/snooze-fest, and despite being a goddamn RPG crawling with pointless systems, and despite wasting the player’s time shamelessly, extravagantly… it kept me under some sort of spell and I went the distance. It’s a fancy piece of work; the environments are lusciously pretty and full of detail. It suckered me into trotting back and forth through its virtual parks for hours on end, and I can’t deny I got something out of that. I always felt dumber after playing, but also more relaxed. Way to go, Poland! (Please note: not a recommendation.)


One month later, 12/25/14 GOG adds Akalabeth: World of Doom as a free game. I impulsively click to claim it, even though this is a game of historical interest only. I’m declaring it skippable. Can you blame me?


I think it was clicking on Akalabeth that made me stop and take a look in the mirror. I could only justify all this reckless acquisitiveness if I actually played the games. So a few days later I started blogging my way through the pile. That’s right, I’ve finally caught up to myself from 4 years ago!

At that point I made an oath to myself that I wouldn’t buy any more games unless I actually wanted them. Alas, it only took about a month before my resolve was tested by the “Star Wars Humble Bundle.” 12 games (a retail value of $137!) for 12 dollars. Purchased 2/10/15. In my defense, I did actually want about half of them.

So: here comes a massive overdose of STAR WARS®: EPISODE MERCH®: ATTACK OF THE STAR WARS®: THE STAR WARS® RETURNS-branded space-fantasy-action-style American entertainment products, fun for the whole family. In chronological order of release.


Star Wars: Dark Forces (1995): LucasArts (San Rafael, CA) [13 hours]

One from my past, one with feelings invested in it. Unexpectedly gratifying to return, for the first time in probably 20 years. Not a 100% perfect memory-capsule — I accept that such things can’t exist — but it managed to bring back a lot more of my 1995 sense of things than I thought likely. The simplistic Doom-era 3D is so wonderfully clear: all surface, no interior. Fundamentally comfortable, confident, inviting. The level design is varied, novel, fun. The now-primitive slideshows and MIDI music feel strong and eager. Just a worthwhile imaginary place to be, splendid puppet theater. I feel like kids today would still enjoy this, low resolution and all.

Star Wars: Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II (1997): LucasArts (San Rafael, CA) [14 hours]

The release of this game marked a dividing line for me: I had just gone off to college, which I felt as a sudden distance between me and the world of new games. Playing the demo of this game in my freshman dorm room might well have been my very first time experiencing “Huh, so I guess this is what the young people are up to these days” — now one of the basic emotions.

The same moment also marked a dividing line in the overall aesthetics of 3D games, which is why the games of the “Playstation era” still feel foreign to me. The first games in full polygon 3D were markedly uglier than the clever fake 3D of the earlier Doom style, and the sense of space and proportion tended to be all out of whack. This game tries to turn that into a feature, offering mind-bendingly vast structures assembled into weird, maze-like levels. At first it all struck me as unwelcoming and a little nauseating, but the style grew on me the longer I played. Big chunks of it seem to be trying to recreate the spatial impact of Luke Skywalker falling down that colossal shaft and getting sucked into a duct. That’s a charmed image, worthy of this kind of exploration.

There are several inventive experiments, like the Titanic level where you race through a tilting, plummeting spaceship. They don’t all work but that doesn’t make them any less intriguing. The swordplay mechanics are clumsy at best. The music, collaged bizarrely from bits and pieces of John Williams, is distracting. The chintzy live-action interludes just are what they are. All around: more ambitious and sloppier than its predecessor. But again: I think the kids could get into this.

March 15, 2019

Game log 1-2/19

Some freebies (with no trailers):


Marie’s Room (2018): Kenny Guillaume and Dagmar Blommaert (Bruges, Belgium) [.5 hrs]

After I play Gone Home Steam tells me that I might also like Marie’s Room, a free half-hour game. But I don’t! It’s just someone’s exercise in set-building — yup, good job, very pretty lighting — with some truly terrible middle-school storytelling stuffed into its pockets after the fact. (“Dear diary, I saw that man again!”) It received a bunch of positive press, which just goes to show that you still can’t trust the world of games to know wheat from chaff.


System Syzygy (2018): Matthew Steele (Boston, MA? not sure where this guy is) [7.5 hrs]

System Syzygy is free free free and is a loving homage to some games from 30 years ago that I feel very fondly toward, (Namely these three). The genre here is puzzle grab-bag with some degree of “metapuzzle” that ties it all together at the end. (As readers are probably aware, I was involved in the development of some metapuzzle grab-baggery lately, so this sort of thing was on my mind.) This guy did good. Sure, it has the problems endemic to the genre — unevenness, occasional unrewarding opacity mixed in with the rewarding opacity, and some puzzles that are more “interesting” than they are fun. There’s one puzzle here that’s about five times harder than any of the others (it’s a triple-decker Lights Out variant) and it shows up early on. But really this is a class act aimed at a very narrow nostalgia market — mine — and I’m grateful. (The EGA-style graphics are excellently accurate to the era.) I chomped through it hungrily in two days.



Meanwhile in backlog business. On November 7, 2014, GOG gives away Little Big Adventure for free. I think it was to promote some kind of “Vive la France” sale. Who cares, right? Free.

Little Big Adventure (US title: Relentless: Twinsen’s Adventure) (1994): Adeline Software (Lyon, France) [played for 2.5 hrs]


(This game is 25 years old and has no real trailer. The thing above is what a retro-repackager threw together for a recent Steam release and only contains footage from the first 10 minutes of the game. But that’s what there is.)

This is a game that I owned and played to completion in 1995. At 16 I was still young enough to be enveloped by the reality of every game I played, to be subsumed into its order-of-the-universe, and I remember this game being both intimate and expansive, like the best toys, in a way that set it apart as something special. The text and story were awkward — so in fact was some of the actual gameplay, though I got accustomed to it — but the basic sensory make-believe of the thing felt pure and true and welcoming. Like a beloved dog: it can’t speak but it has heart anyway, and is attuned to the things that matter. The game left a sweet, soulful, animal impression that I can still access today.

I hadn’t replayed it since, and I was truly looking forward. I thought I had a treat, and a sentimental journey, in store. I am thus very sad — pained! — to report that the mechanical problems with this game have aged terribly, to the point that I don’t think it’s possible to recapture that feeling and revisit that dream. Or at least it wasn’t possible for me this month, with the degree of impatience and frustration that currently inhabits me. Having to replay the same first 10 minutes of action over and over and over and over because of the stubbornly unhelpful save system; being punished for the very faintest of navigational miscalculations by getting stuck in an inescapable loop of damage until the character dies. These things hurt my feelings today in a way that at 16 they didn’t. Have I gotten softer? Harder? More impatient? Less masochistic? All I know is I couldn’t stomach it enough to get past it, to breathe the dollhouse air and smell the little Lego flowers. So I had to stop. It made me sad but that’s how it is.



November 11, 2014: I buy in to “Humble Indie Bundle 13” for $7.48, a price chosen to Beat The Average and thereby net me nine games. It’s been almost five years and I still haven’t played any of ’em! Here they are.


OlliOlli (2013): Roll7 (London, England)

Well, this one wouldn’t start. I don’t know why. I tried several different things but it just wouldn’t. As you can see it’s not something I’m too torn up about. Still have about 150 games to get through, so there’s no time to be precious. If it won’t run, I’m not playing it. Next.


Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet (2011): Shadow Planet Productions (= Fuelcell Games & Gagne International(= Michel Gagné)) (Seattle, WA) [7 hrs]

Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet is snazzy concept art in motion, by a real animator guy. The art direction is the point. Heck, even the title is art direction! And to sustain that art direction is a serviceable, unremarkable, good-natured game. (It reminded me a little bit of Guacamelee in this respect.) The trailer is absolutely representative in every way. If you want to play around with a thing that looks like that, this is the game for you. If you want more than that, I have sad news.

By the way, world: this game took me 7 hours because it mistakenly defaulted to my DUMB SLOW graphics processor instead of my SMART FAST one, and I didn’t realize what was going on until I was at the final boss. I thought the game was deliberately slow and meditative. “Atmospheric.” Kind of frustrating that way, but I figured it was their choice! The fast way that it’s supposed to be is much, much better. Too late for me!


Tower of Guns (2014): Terrible Posture Games (= Joe Mirabello) (Sharon, MA) [played for .5 hrs]

This game isn’t for me but that’s okay! It seems like a great idea: randomized, hard, shoot-or-be-shot 3D obstacle course, not too long (pitched as lasting “a lunch break”). You acquire more options the more times you play, so there’s a sense of long-term progression even as it repeats itself. (People really seem to love that, these days. Anything to avoid the sensation of stasis!) Atmosphere is half-silly, half-menacing. No real investment in the specifics but enough atmosphere to transport you, in the spirit of long-ago Quake et al. No drooling demons, just big cartoon cannons. No anger, just danger. I approve. I think this guy did great. (Way to go, Sharon, MA!) But the thing is… I’m not very good at first-person shooterizing, I never have been and I never will be. When I play first-person games I’m always in it for the exploration and the sense of make-believe. Tower of Guns expects the player to be in it for the game. Uh-oh! Waiter!


Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs (2013): The Chinese Room (Brighton, UK) [6 hrs]

Hell of a subtitle. Amnesia is of course the sequel to Amnesia. Another haunted house walking tour with the same plot: “oh god, who’s responsible for these unimaginable horrors” (answer: you; see title for details). As in the original, anticipating the monsters is scary, and dealing with them isn’t. But there’s plenty of anticipation to go around. The first hour or so, in which basically nothing happens, had me absolutely gripped. After that: whatever. The storyline is Sweeney Todd does Dr. Moreau, which is probably a smidge more interesting than Dracula does Lovecraft from the first game, but the writing runs long and repetitive and pretentious, and tangles itself into pointlessly confusing knots by the end. Some people complained that the gameplay was too simplistic and linear compared to the original; personally I’m very happy to be led by the hand down a straight hallway, so long as it’s a rewarding enough hallway. This game means well but could have used an editor.

Also: “Weird ungodly classical music from a nightmare world” gets written into a lot of horror games and movies, but it’s harder to compose than you might think. There’s a piece in here that does a fine job of it. Kudos!


Jazzpunk (2014): Necrophone Games (Toronto, CA) [2 hrs]

High-energy post-retro nonsense! Actual nonsense; silly nonsense. Hipsterism, to be sure, but at least the kind that picks and chooses its influences with panache. I laughed aloud at truly stupid crap because the proceedings were properly manic and stylized. (e.g. you dial the Kremlin and the voice that answers informs you that you’ve reached “Kremlins 2: The New Batch.” That would be unfunny in a movie, but in the middle of a conceptual tornado it managed to surprise and amuse me). These days pastiche is the fundamental mode of all culture, so pastiche-as-comedy is no longer viable. Mad Magazine is a fossil. Yet Jazzpunk manages to seem like something rather than nothing, by channeling it all through the psychedelic inanity of a primitive 3D engine, where it can no longer be passed off as well-formed. It can’t be “merely lame” because it’s too far gone toward real madness and/or incompetence. This kind of prank-dream is probably as close to Airplane! as we can get in a post-Quentin Tarantino world. I admired it for being near-frictionless, un-game-like: it really is just a comedy experience that happens to be interactive. I’ll forgive it whatever it needs to be forgiven, because: it’s some new sort of thing, of its own invention, and god bless it for that.

Maybe some of the principle is the same as those Firesign Theatre albums that used to delight me as a kid despite my understanding them almost not at all. Are my feet on the ground? No? Is everything whirling around? Yes? Excellent. That’s artistic insight enough for me! I say live it, or live with it!


Risk of Rain (2013): Hopoo Games (Seattle, WA) [played 1.5 hrs]

Another game with a simple foundation (shoot monsters and don’t die) on top of which a towering skyscraper of ADD-ONS POWER-UPS CHARACTERS UNLOCKABLES etc. has been built. It’s depth, but it’s cheap depth. If you want to evolve checkers you can either invent “Chess” or you can invent “Hellz Yeah Balancepunk Checkers!!” in which a deck of cards has been added that determines each player’s special power for that game, and the board is randomized before play so that certain squares impart abilities when you land on them, and so on and so on. (I just now coined “Balancepunk.”) To me it seems like the unimaginative way forward but some people really love this sort of thing and are convinced it’s the future. “Is the system more complex? Is the path to mastery ever longer, and paved with ever more bric-a-brac? Does it contain 200 of something that I can try to collect all 200 of? Woo-hoo!”

Personally, I’ll always be a foundation-dweller; I’m compelled to explore the cellar thoroughly but not to try to get to the roof of the unlockable skyscraper. The cellar of this game is a decent little run-around-and-shoot game with a serious case of the tinies. Everything that matters is about 6 pixels big. But: they are real pixels! They never overlap or change size. Gotta respect that. Also the music is really very professionally done, for what it is. I had a 60 minutes of fun poking around, and then 30 minutes of “oh it expects me to want to really get good at this?” and then I stopped.


The Novelist (2013): Orthogonal Games (=Kent Hudson) (San Francisco, CA) [2 hrs]

I like indie games and their ambitions and their pretensions. I really do. Mix it up! Experiment. Throw weird stuff at me. Get things wrong sometimes. By all means!

This is an experiment that doesn’t work because it isn’t good enough. It’s not fun or interesting to play. That’s okay! Keep going, everyone!

Was gonna complain about “choice” here but it started to balloon so I transferred it to its own entry, which may or may not get rounded off and posted at some point. In short: “choice” in games is a false god. Nobody really cares about “choice” and it doesn’t mean what game designers want it to mean.

This game makes you chooooooooooose every day between whether dad’s precious time and energy is spent on himself, on mom, or on little Johnny. Once you’ve chosen, you get told, very somberly (molto sombrero), that the person you chose felt better! as a result of the choice! but alas! the two you didn’t choose felt worse! as a result of the choice! And now… on to the next choice! This is framed as mature food for thought but to my mind it’s reductive in an immature way. Loving your family is nothing like keeping a tally of points for each person; or at least it shouldn’t be.

As is often the case in computer games, the designers’ compulsion to build the model in the first place is far more revealing about human nature than any insight that they managed to put into the model. And this model is really super simplistic. It’s basically a 9-question “what are your priorities?” quiz from Modern Dad magazine, rendered in the style of Gone Home — you slink quietly around the 3D house and look at their stuff. Ostensibly you’re a ghost haunting a family’s private spaces, but it’s more like you’re a PLAYER haunting a NON-GAME, trying not to be seen.

March 5, 2019

6. Stevenson: Kidnapped

006 KIDNAPPED

CD6, 50¢, August 1959. Cover artist unknown. 239 pp.

This glorious passport to romance and high adventure has delighted generations of readers. It is the story of young David Balfour, an orphan, whose miserly uncle cheats him out of his inheritance and schemes to have him kidnapped, shanghaied, and sold into slavery. But justice triumphs — after a spirited odyssey which includes a shipwreck, a hazardous journey across Scotland with a daredevil companion, intrigues, narrow escapes and desperate fighting. Rich in action and characterization, this exhilarating novel was considered by Stevenson to be his finest work of fiction. Henry James called Kidnapped, “Stevenson’s best book.”

With an Afterword by Gerard Previn Meyer


Audiobooks of Kidnapped average around eight hours. It took me approximately ten months to read it. Not busy months, either.

Part of it is simply that my attention is currently very poor. A substantial portion of my brain is constantly flitting around like a moth. After picking up a book I often end up setting it back down after only a few sentences because the moth is spoiling the experience.

Another part of it is that I started Kidnapped three times: the first time getting about halfway, and the second time nearly finishing — maybe three feet! But each time my rhythm was interrupted by some event. This is the kind of book that wants to be read in one continuous burst of fantasy, so picking up in the middle after an extended absence seemed inappropriate. Whereas of course the prospect of having to begin again — and then yet again — was intrinsically untempting, and a certain amount of willpower needed to be accumulated first. Thus delay begat delay and here we are.

So it took me all year, but don’t let that dissuade you from reading it. It really will only take eight hours, and they’ll be eight hours spent in very fine company.


The first half of Treasure Island is my gold standard for prose storytelling. It’s like Mozart: so pure and perfect that children can take it for granted. Everything is simply the way it has to be — “and why wouldn’t it be?” Its naturalness is so complete that one forgets it’s an achievement. All seems equally innocuous, unlabored, unfussy, unremarkable — all the power flows back to the root, to storytelling itself, to the enchantment. It is ordinary and magical.

Kidnapped showed me that it wasn’t luck; it’s all craft. Stevenson writes like a master film editor. He has excellent intuition for the choreography of attention, its rhythms and patterns and tendencies. We never notice the ship being steered; we simply see next what we ought to see next. I made a point of visualizing a movie version as I went, directing each shot in my head, taking the text to be a continuous voiceover. The pacing of the prose allowed for this, where most wouldn’t — witness for example Signet’s next at bat, Thomas Hardy, who switches from 78 RPM to 33 RPM willy-nilly — and this speaks to exactly what I’m admiring: all Stevenson’s moves are the real moves of a living, active, youthful mind. Dipping from surface to depth and back again in graceful, unselfconscious motions, casting an eye around a room and then to the face of the person speaking and then inward and then out, etc. etc. He experiences the story in time and space, he breathes its air and sees what it sees.

Treasure Island is wonderful, but an adult reader with an overcomplicated adult brain may find the tempo too brisk to fully register. It’s been written for children, who experience weight and time in everything, no matter how fleeting. Kidnapped feels distinctly more grown-up; the style thinks a bit more, observes a bit more. Jim Hawkins is about 13 or 14 (isn’t he?) whereas David Balfour is 17, and the book is accordingly that much further toward maturity. But Stevenson has an idea of “maturity” that does not in any way repudiate or supersede youth and innocence. This is to be admired.

In the afterword by Gerard Previn Meyer, there’s a quote from Stevenson that I found inspiring:

The true realism, always and everywhere, is that of the poets: to find out where joy resides, and give it a voice far beyond singing. For to miss the joy is to miss all. In the joy of the actors lies the sense of any action. That is the explanation, that the excuse.

He expands on this in the full essay from which it comes (which I think is worth reading in its entirety): any notion of “realism” that opposes it to so-called distortions of Romantic emotionality is not just an aesthetic failure but a philosophical one. Emotion-infused experience is real and emotionless experience is not real. We should not call the elimination of emotion “clarity” when really it’s just a form of fear. This philosophy comes through in the writing. David Balfour’s naivete, and his experience of the world as sensation first and foremost, is depicted as putting him constantly at risk — but this risk is embraced, and celebrated. The risk is the joy, in the telling of a story like this! (Look at the title!)

This is an outlook I endorse and aspire to. An innocent stumbles out into the world and is horribly misused and endangered and beset by pain and suffering… and it’s all terrifically worthwhile because the world is splendid. Innocents are foolish but innocents are also right. That’s as worthy and evergreen a philosophy as can be put in a book, isn’t it? I think full and capable commitment to this principle qualifies Stevenson as a great artist. Again: there’s something of Mozart to it.


Kidnapped only strengthened my impression that Huckleberry Finn is deeply flawed. What was Twain trying to achieve with his characters if not this? What do Twain’s admirers want to claim for him if not this? But put these authors side by side and tell me which is the more true. Stevenson takes the open-eyed, sensation-hungry worldview of a boy and lets its gaze occasionally pass over glimpses of depth, until a full adult world can be sensed looming; whereas Twain takes the jaundiced worldview of a cynical adult and tries to leaven it with dollops of childlike sensation, retrieved from a jar.


Alan Breck, David’s companion through most of the book, very much stands out as a an author’s subject, a project, a portrait bust. Stevenson set himself the task of painting a man on the page, the way a “high” author like Henry James would — but James would use 10,000 brush strokes and make the reader wait. Stevenson’s technique for character is of a piece with his technique for story: convey whatever a boy would take in, and when he would take it in; no more and no less. The individual strokes may seem broad, theatrical, but the balance of their combined placement is a really fine achievement. Alan’s vanity and resourcefulness and pettiness and generosity, Alan as big brother and Alan as foreigner, etc. etc. Long John Silver is a similar achievement, because he’s a similarly mixed bag, but he’s ultimately a character for Jim to overcome, whereas Alan is a character for David to embrace (with reservations), so his dimensionality is that much more significant to the reader. Television writers ought to study him. They ought to study Stevenson in general. This was “real art in a commercial mode” exactly in the way that the best TV is.

I found the ending very strongly affecting in the emotional truth of its abruptness. No winding down for form’s sake! Stevenson’s sincere feeling for the characters has guided him this far, and as soon as the feeling has crested, the story stops itself because it knows as well as you that what’s done is done. We reach a long-foreseen wistful inevitability… “and so it came to pass, and to yammer on about lesser things now would be in poor taste, so let’s stop.” The final sentences are superb, a hand-closing-the-storybook-at-the-end-of-the-Disney-movie gesture done as well as I can imagine it being done.


I’m sure this all sounds highly enthusiastic, so I must now admit: I probably wouldn’t have had the patience for this book as a child, because of all the time and attention given to Scottish ways and Scottish sights and Scottish lore and Scottish history and Scottish politics and all manner of Scottish color, for which I would have had no framework of interest. And even now it seems to me somewhat to the side of the book’s real strengths.

Plus I continue to find written-out dialect to be an aesthetic error, almost a vice. It’s a trap for writers: when you’re trying to turn human observation into words, it might seem like the purest expression of your art would be accurate transcription of the quirks of how people talk. But, alas, that’s nae the way! Wheesht, man! I cannae tell ye it any clearer! The difference between the narrator’s idiom and the idiom of the characters becomes a conspicuous gap, implicitly skeptical; it can’t help but make the author seem more aloof and the dialogue less immediate, and who needs that?

At least Stevenson’s indulgence is far milder than Twain. And to be fair, given the setting, some dialect was obviously inevitable. My distaste is just for stuff that feels like it goes beyond the inevitable, that excitedly pursues dialect as an end in itself. It’s something for which the printed word is intrinsically ill-suited and so should be handled with appropriate delicacy.


David becomes very ill at least three times, and dangerously exhausted several times as well; there is a definite emphasis on depicting the experience of mentally and physically compromised states. That’s the sort of thing of which Pincher Martin was composed almost exclusively — and I note a striking resemblance, perhaps more than coincidental, between that book and the episode here in which David is stranded on a tiny island (so he believes), sleeping on a stone, battered by the rain, and eating nauseating shellfish to survive.

For our excerpt I’ve decided to go with one of these sorts of passages; it’s the sturdy, eager fascination with hardship that I think is so distinctively healthy about this book. Here’s David immediately after having been konked on the head and, spoiler alert, kidnapped:

I came to myself in darkness, in great pain, bound hand and foot, and deafened by many unfamiliar noises. There sounded in my ears a roaring of water as of a huge mill-dam; the thrashing of heavy sprays, the thundering of the sails, and the shrill cries of seamen. The whole world now heaved giddily up, and now rushed giddily downward; and so sick and hurt was I in body, and my mind so much confounded, that it took me a long while, chasing my thoughts up and down, and ever stunned again by a fresh stab of pain, to realize that I must be lying somewhere bound in the belly of that unlucky ship, and that the wind must have strengthened to a gale. With the clear perception of my plight, there fell upon me a blackness of despair, a horror of remorse at my own folly, and a passion of anger at my uncle, that once more bereft me of my senses.

When I returned again to life, the same uproar, the same confused and violent movements, shook and deafened me; and presently, to my other pains and distresses, there was added the sickness of an unused landsman on the sea. In that time of my adventurous youth, I suffered many hardships; but none that was so crushing to my mind and body, or lit by so few hopes, as these first hours on board the brig.

It’s about suffering and nausea and utter despair, but notice that it’s also about the neverending thrill of sensation. “The thundering of the sails!” In my imagined movie version such stuff was depicted as simply and accurately as possible; no Romantic exaggeration is necessary to find the power in it. Sails really do make that thundering sound, and you really could hear it even if you were lying in a state of pain and terror in the hold.

I take this as a kind of primer on how to experience suffering: with such clarity and vigor that a boy would enjoy reading about it.



All the covers.

CP553, 60¢, ~1971.

First price bump, design unchanged from the original seen above. Once again it seems like the layout had to be reconstructed after the first print run: in the first edition the fellow has more or less white teeth; in all subsequent appearances he has one obviously gold tooth (see below).

Hey, speaking of the fellow with the gold tooth: this is pretty clearly a cover illustration by someone who didn’t read the book. “It’s about pirates, right?” Unscrupulous sailors do appear in Kidnapped, but they’re only in a couple chapters and hardly represent the book as a whole. And they’re just described as run-of-the-mill workaday badmen; they don’t have bandannas or knives in their mouths or gold teeth. They’re not pirates. This cover is, frankly, wrong. Didn’t stop them from using it for 25 years.

Typeface is Century.

006-B
CT744, 75¢, 1974.
CQ881, 95¢, 1976.
CY1035, $1.25, 1978.
CW1194, $1.50, 1979.
??1602, $?.??, ????.

70s branding. Looks like Miss Cross’s copy is one of these.

006-C

CW1754, $1.50, 1982?

The “centered logo” phase.

006-D

CJ1972, $1.95, 1985?
CE2333, $?.??, 1987?
CE2504, $3.95, 1991?

The 80s cover: detail from a painting apparently called North Sea Passage, by one Henry Redmore, an unstoppable producer of this sort of thing. A dull choice but it cannot be denied that there is a ship in this book! To be fair: if you’re restricted to stock artwork, Kidnapped is a pretty tough assignment — there are plenty of enticing paintings of the Scottish highlands, but they’re generally serene and uninhabited, and of course the cover needs to suggest action. A ship on a choppy sea sort of solves the problem. It’s just awfully generic.

Typeface isn’t Ludovico or Zapf Chancery or Catull or El Greco; I can’t figure out what it is. The lowercase “p” is extremely distinctive. Let me know. (I suppose it’s possible that this isn’t from a published font, and is just assembled from a calligraphic alphabet found in some book. But more likely it’s a typeface that never made it to digital and is now effectively defunct. Damn you Macintosh!)

006-E

2768, $3.95, 2000.

With a new introduction by John Seelye

Here they bite the bullet and accept that no stock artwork can better the famous Wyeth illustrations, which entered the public domain in 1988. Certainly this is a wonderful illustration… but maybe not the best choice for a cover. “What’s going on here?” one might well ask. “What kind of character is that guy in the coat and how am I supposed to feel about him?”

Plus Signet has made sure to present it in the least flattering possible context: a yellow parchment texture that makes the painting look washed-out, and a distracting “angled rip” framing that spoils the composition. Presumably the intention is to suggest that an EXCITING PIRATE has whipped out his sword, avast ye!, and SLICED THRILLINGLY through the parchment to reveal this illustration beneath. All that and a little shell design because why not. No, that’s not a logo, it’s just a little shell design. To fill space. That’s all.

The Seelye intro is passably relevant but awfully academic in tone.

Typeface is Baskerville.

006-F

3143, $4.95, 2009.

With a New Afterword by Claire Harman

“Oh what’s that you say? You say we should give it a rest with the pirate stuff? Well just for that we’re gonna put goddamned BLACKBEARD on this cover! Yeah, you heard us! Kidnapped is about BLACKBEARD THE PIRATE now, and there’s nothing you can do about it!”

It’s a near-certainty that they found this painting by typing “pirate” into an image service search engine. Oh well. At least it’s colorful.

Typeface is Windlass. You know, for pirates.

December 28, 2018

Game log 7–12/2018

Man oh man this is a long one. Nobody’s gonna read all this. That’s okay.

Remember, in addition to not reading all this, you can and should pop the videos open to full screen when you watch them. That should go without saying but I felt the need to say it. Don’t want you straining your eyes.


2/14/14: As a Valentine’s Day sale promo, GOG gives away free copies of:

Dungeon Keeper Gold (1997): Bullfrog Productions (Guildford, UK) [played 3 hrs]

A classic that I’m glad to have sampled. I like how it combines murk — subterranean shadows, infernal clanking, weird distortions — with the satisfactions of little-computer-people toddling about, blithely building and destroying their marzipan palaces. A cozy and gratifying proportion of order and disorder; comfort dressed as threat. Which is what I’m here for. But SimCity-likes have never held me entirely transfixed — I think maybe the role of overseer is a little too impersonal for my needs — plus some aspects of this 20-year-old game are inevitably awkward by modern standards. So maybe I’ll return; maybe not. But I enjoyed the visit, both in its own right and for my improved game literacy. Now I’ve played Dungeon Keeper!


2/18/14: I buy into “Humble Indie Bundle 11” and get six games for $5. A week later, three more are added, bringing the total to nine, two of which I happen to own already. Another one, Antichamber, I play to completion right away. (It’s great.) That leaves six on the list still awaiting my attention. Here they come, one after another:

Guacamelee! Gold Edition (2013): DrinkBox Studios (Toronto, CA) [16 hrs]
Dust: An Elysian Tail (2012): Humble Hearts (= Dean Dodrill) (Highlands Ranch, CO) [13 hrs]

We’re deep into the post-pixel era and games are now heir to the visual arts in their entirety, without limitations. Something like Cuphead plainly demonstrates that anything in the century-long history of animation is within reach. Thus games now can and should be held 100% accountable for their actual aesthetic value; we don’t need to be handicapping. (So where’s my Vermeer game already???)

Point is: I’m past saying “wow this looks amazing FOR A GAME.” How does it look FOR LOOKING AT?

Guacamelee! looks pretty snazzy! It’s got honest-to-goodness art direction and conveys a genuine aesthetic sense of fun, something that goes beyond just imitating other games. The animation is a little slippery-weightless, Flash-slick, but they’ve made it work; it ends up being a good match for the vibrant angularity of the illustration style. I usually hate fighting in games but this one does it really well, with a snappy, pared-down version of a Street Fighter-style system. I actually enjoyed myself! The game as a whole I would describe as “Cartoon Network goes to a Mexican restaurant.” Did I mind that it was littered with indefensible hipsterisms and reflexive gamer references? To be honest: not really. I was there for the look and feel. Structure and level design were cheerful and functionally okay — mostly smooth sailing with a few well-balanced challenges dropped in — and okay was good enough. Maybe they’ll aim higher in the sequel. [ed. from six months later: reportedly they didn’t aim higher.]

Meanwhile, Dust… is an impressive? accomplishment? by one man with a vision. He did all the art and animation himself! He designed and programmed it! He really did the whole thing! And it’s so substantial and so polished! Can you believe it? Yes, of course I respect that. But here’s where the “no handicapping” rule comes into play: can we acknowledge that this thing he made looks and feels like a straight-to-DVD animated movie about bible stories that you’d find in a bin at Walmart? And thus IS that? Like all furry-adjacent culture, the psychology here is painful in its transparency. The squeaky, neotenous (but round-hipped!), pupil-less sidekick plushie that floats over his shoulder is clearly his wife. The hero’s eyes are perpetually obscured and averted because of his dark inner life. Etcetera. Ugh. The whole thing is so blinkered and emo and hopeless; it makes me squirm no end. Also is the game actually balanced? I found it extraordinarily easy, and I’m not a very skillful gamer. The intricate piles of different “items” and “power-ups” and “crafting” and blah blah blah turned out to be immaterial; you could get past pretty much every enemy, including the bosses, by just using your most powerful attack over and over and over. No prob.

Nonetheless I played the whole thing. I’m not sure why. I guess it had enough of a sheen — and the intrinsic draw of the Metroid-style “locked door, come back later with the key” design — that I kept being curious to see what else it had in store. Answer turned out to be not much. I should have known.

The Swapper (2013): FacePalm Games (Helsinki, Finland) [4.5 hrs]
Monaco (2013): Pocketwatch Games (San Diego, CA) [played for 1.5 hrs]

The Swapper is a beaut. A real aesthetic vision: clay miniatures put through a digital burn, in heavy, murky darkness. Functionally it’s the same old Alien derelict spaceship environment (you know the drill: “oh god, what happened here? what killed them all?”), but the fuzzy handmade texture imparts a special softness, a dreamy interiority that changes its meaning. The script is a little clumsy, overwritten and under-explained, but in this atmosphere it still manages to have the spooky game-poetic impact it’s going for. The puzzles constitute a good smart tour of the mechanic — which is self-cloning and body-swapping — and they don’t waste time on redundancy. 4.5 hours is SO perfect for a game of this kind. This deserves double praise: it is exactly the right length.

Monaco is a heist game, which is a great and natural idea for cooperative play. Fake pixels aside, the design seems smart and I’ll bet it really does have a lot to offer with a group. Divvying up the responsibilities of lurking around corners, knocking out guards, cracking safes, whatever. Coordinating, holding your breath. I’m all for that game. I, however, heist alone. For a solo burglar, this is just a typical run-around-the-map-and-don’t-get-caught affair. It’s jangly and old-fashioned, and it got repetitive fast. The whole selling point is the idea of a TEAM; I have no team. I certainly didn’t care about grabbing the McGuffin; it wasn’t designed to make me care. So 90 minutes was enough.

Starseed Pilgrim (2013): Droqen (= Alexander Martin) (Toronto, ON, CA) [played for 2 hrs]
Beatbuddy: Tale of the Guardians (2013): Threaks (Hamburg, Germany) [played for .5 hr]

Starseed Pilgrim makes a fine poster child for the whole culture of self-conscious modernist indie game design. There’s a hipster code-llectualism going around out there that prides itself on delving deeper and deeper into the theory of “fundamental game design principles” and “emergent gameplay” and this sort of thing. I like the spirit of experimentalism, curiosity, and seriousness, but the culture also brings with it certain tics. For one thing, these people tend to have a fixation on shufflers and randomizers — to them, dealing with a situation generated algorithmically is inherently juicier than dealing with a human-authored one — and also, their fascination with design itself means they have a tendency to overvalue things that are “interesting,” even though it’s not always clear whether the interest in question is for the player, the programmer, or just some third-party cultural commentator. In other words, it’s not so different from what happened in the arts in the 20th century, as the mindset of the critic began to be subsumed into the mindset of the artist and art became accordingly more and more arcane.

I’m wary of the tendency, but I can also enjoy the arcane, and Starseed Pilgrim is indeed “interesting.” A big part of what it offers is that the gameplay is hard to describe, and it doesn’t try to give you any guidance, so you have to experiment in a state of confusion for a while, developing a wordless sense of things. Which is a pure and rewarding experience. Then once you do understand what’s going on — though you’d still probably have a hard time putting it fully into words — you have to actually develop a nimbleness at deploying the weird set of tools at your disposal, and juggling them on the fly as the randomizer dishes them out. “Interesting,” certainly. I spent two hours with it, which is about the duration of a visit to the modern art museum. Not nearly long enough to beat the game — but then again who ever really beats the modern art museum? It’s undefeated.

Beatbuddy is clearly someone’s half-idea for a game (“everything is synced to music, and you have to move in time with the beat!”), which they then couldn’t figure out how to execute (“so for example maybe there are these, uh… balls?… that are dangerous? … and there’s, like, a row of them?”), and should have had the integrity to admit wasn’t as much fun as they’d imagined (“Yeah I guess you’re not actually moving to the beat THAT much, mostly you’re just sort of swimming around trying to avoid spikes.”) But they’ll be damned if that’s going to stop them! So here’s your game, everybody! The first level (which I completed) is set to that post-Triplets of Belleville sampled-early-jazz kind of stuff that really rubs me the wrong way — a phony idea of culture combined with a phony idea of fun. The player character is like a little lump of Jell-O. This whole game seemed like a no-go after half an hour, so that’s that. (Simple tip for making any title worse: just add “Tale of the Guardians” to the end. Never fails. “Middlemarch: Tale of the Guardians.” See?)


6/18/14: GOG promotes their summer sale by giving away a free game. All you have to do is click. I know nothing about this game but you better believe I clicked on it.

Magrunner: Dark Pulse (2013): Frogwares (Kiev, Ukraine) [11 hrs]

An unabashed Portal wannabe about magnetizing things, with a pea-brained story tacked on about Lovecraftian god-monsters (step away from the Lovecraft, game people!) and a nefarious all-powerful Social Network run by one KRAM GRUCKEZBER, repeat, that name again is: KRAM GRUCKEZBER. Consider that this is a game with voice acting, which means that real live human beings are made to pronounce the sounds of “KRAM GRUCKEZBER” aloud, with their voices, many many times during this script. Please look closely: that is GRUCK-EZ-BER, not GRUCKZEBER, which would be marginally more name-like. Nor is it BRUCKZEGER, BUGZERCKER, ZUGBRECKER, or any number of other pronounceable permutations. GRUCKEZBER. Listen to that poor voice actor in the trailer. His “dignified British” delivery is a food processor and “GRUCKEZBER” is a big chunk of wood that some moron shoved in there with no regard for the blades. Will it blend?

All that aside: yes this has “second-rate” stamped all over it, yes it’s derivative in every molecule — but it’s also a perfectly acceptable puzzle game, made with an acceptable degree of polish, and offers a perfectly acceptable puzzle-game experience. I wasn’t enthralled but I was diverted and I willingly stuck with it to the end. It certainly didn’t deserve to be so utter a flop as to be given away for free within a year of release.

It’s a place! I actually went there! Computer games are fancy pieces of machinery and they offer strange transport. How was all of that free?? I still have a hard time reconciling my notion of value with the way these things are treated like just so many restaurant napkins. Grab one, grab twenty, whatever.

If this is free, why can’t I have a free house? It doesn’t need to be a great one!


7/2/14: After reading some kind of article about it, I decide I’m interested enough in the artistic aspirations of the newly released Mountain to spend the $.99 they’re asking.

Mountain (2014): David OReilly (Los Angeles, CA) [observed for an hour or two]

This isn’t really a game, it’s an art piece. It’s by the guy who animated the futuristic computer game in Her and it shares some of that movie’s air of techno-tender angst. It’s basically an existential Tamagotchi: when you boot it up it does a neat trick to get you in an emotional frame of mind, and then it shows you a pretty mountain floating in an infinite void and says “this is you, this is a depiction of your soul.” And that’s all there is to it. It’s there for as long as you care to leave it onscreen, close it, boot it back up and check in with it some more. The weather comes and goes, every now and then a piece of clutter falls from the heavens and sticks to you permanently, you occasionally utter a few words of contentment or uncertainty, and eventually you die (apparently). There are a couple other aspects to it but really not much.

I admire what it’s trying to do and be. It reminds me of the little animated metaphors that the Headspace meditation app offers to illustrate and concretize experiential states, philosophical stances, etc., except that Headspace has a self-help agenda and Mountain has the opposite of one, it seems to me. By all appearances its intention is to charm you and distress you in equal proportions. That’s a far cry from real enlightenment, but hey it was only $.99.


Yes, this entry keeps going! For a while! I told you it was long! It’s a six month dump!

9/22/14: Humble Indie Bundle 12, $8 to beat whatever the average was at the moment, so that I get Papers, Please, which I play right away, and which is great. Nostalgia for olden C64 Carmen Sandiego aesthetics put to real experiential use rather than just waved like a flag. A brief, well-defined experience, with actual ideas in it, carefully made, memorable. Huzzah! Glory to Arstotzka.

Also, I eventually try one of the other eight games in the bundle, Race the Sun, which has an appealingly stark look to it but turns out to be much harder and much less engaging than it ought to be. Don’t need to return to that one now; I know what it’s like.

One of the other games I already own (it’s Monaco, see above), so that leaves six games that have been waiting patiently in the backlog for five years. Here come all six of them! Starting with:

SteamWorld Dig (2013): Image & Form (Gothenburg, Sweden) [played for 2 hrs]
Hammerwatch (2013): Crackshell (Stockholm, Sweden) [played for 1.5 hrs]

SteamWorld Dig is a cha-ching cha-ching game, where you dig cha-ching for ore cha-ching and then cash it in cha-ching to buy “upgrades” cha-ching to dig some more. There are little obstacle course rooms along the way and you gradually expand your set of abilities, but mostly you’re just drilling down down down through cutesy caves. I did that for two hours, which from my point of view is a very long time to be doing that.

Hammerwatch is basically the long-ago game of Gauntlet, which never had much appeal for me. I like imagining I’m in an endless dream-dungeon as much as the next guy, but hordes upon hordes of creepy-crawlies swarming at me while I collect the same three dumb keys, over and over, isn’t my dungeon dream of choice. Much like Monaco, this is a game designed to be fun as a team effort, and then sold as “and you can play it single-player, too!” Small print: “If you don’t mind incredibly repetitive tedium!” But I do! I mind. In the 90 minutes I played, I got the Steam achievement for killing 2500 enemies. 2500! And that’s apparently the first achievement everyone gets because that’s just the kind of game this is. Then I defeated the first boss — an enormous room-sized grub much like the person-sized grubs I’d been killing endless hordes of for an hour. Then the second level started and it looked like still more of the same. Seemed like a good place to stop.

Gunpoint (2013): Suspicious Developments (=Tom Francis) (Bath, UK) [2 hrs]
Luftrausers (2014): Vlambeer (Utrecht, Netherlands) [played for 2 hrs]

Gunpoint is cute. It’s a 2D stealth game, comparable I suppose to Mark of the Ninja, but I found it much more amenable. It just felt more like it was coming from my kind of people. Ultimately that’s what we’re really responding to, I think, in all culture. It’s still a little guy sneaking around in repetitive 2D environments — which look a lot like Elevator Action (1983) — and trying to dupe guards with his couple of tricks, which in this case are mostly to do with rewiring switches to do things the guards don’t expect. But where Mark of the Ninja was heavily invested in its smarmy idea of cool, Gunpoint is clearly unconcerned with cool, and goes instead for a kind of lazy briskness (or is it brisk laziness?) that I find endearing. (What do I mean by brisk laziness? Think of, say, The Electric Company.) The whole thing feels like a mere whim, executed with an inborn respect for whims. That speaks to me. It’s even nostalgic, in its way: that spirit used to be the essence of computer games and now it feels rare. It’s the opposite of e.g. Beatbuddy, which couldn’t bear to admit that it was a mere whim and accordingly white elephant-ed itself into worthlessness.

Luftrausers” is a more or less meaningless fake-German word (“air-scrammers,” I guess), which is an indication of the sort of “cool before school” attitude that drives this game. (I just made up that expression; feel free to use it constantly from now on.) These developers clearly wanted first and foremost to make something nifty, and then second and thirdmost to make a game worth playing. It’s a retro-chic miniature, which is to say a free flash game. And it probably should have stayed that way, but I guess you can’t blame them for trying to sell it. The gameplay idea is to have a flying-and-shooting game where 1) you can only shoot in the direction you’re moving and 2) you have to fly against gravity to avoid crashing but 3) there are enemies on the ground. That’s interesting — in the sense of “how would that feel? what would be the strategy?” But once you’ve figured out the strategy (fly upward, then cut the engine as you turn around and shoot downward through the top of your parabolic motion, then turn back upward again before you fall too far) I’m not sure there’s really all that much more worth doing here. Yes, yes, the Gameboyish sepia palette is charming enough. The music is not.

Gone Home (2013): The Fullbright Company (Portland, OR) [2 hrs]
The Bridge (2013): The Quantum Astrophysicists Guild (=Ty Taylor) (Seattle, WA) [5 hrs]

Gone Home is supremely indie: a game-as-narrative-art-piece, with campus-literary-magazine depth, that purports to be a three-dimensional portrait of a teenage girl’s first love but mostly resorts to cliches. (Also… quoth the game: “Oh by the way, that first love? It’s homosexual!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! What? What are you talking about? What exclamation points? We didn’t use any exclamation points. Why would we use exclamation points? It’s the most normal thing in the world. Dude it’s 2013, you need to grow up.”)

All that said: it’s a pretty effective piece of work. I was truly moved by the atmosphere, if not by the specifics, and that’s part of the intention. Beyond the story, in the format itself, the game makes a profound equation between haunted houses and real lives. The player wanders around in an empty mansion on a rainy night, pushing through worrying darkness to find lightswitches, hearing ghostly creaks and shuffles as well as lightning and thunder, wondering WHAT HAS BEFALLEN the missing residents — your family! — and yet this genuine spookiness is just form, not content: the story, such as it is, is all about domestic normalcy, and ultimately warmth. I was stirred by that, because it’s true. In both directions. Wandering alone in haunted darkness is just a dream-shadow cast by a normal life; and likewise all everyday security is, under the surface, haunted.

I played this on a night when I was feeling thoroughly distraught and wanted something to change my mood for me. It did just that. By the end I felt that I had traveled through inner spaces that represented outer spaces that represented inner spaces that represented outer spaces etc. etc. in infinite regress — and had thereby been in some respect cleansed. A house is a house is a house. Even when some voice actor is doing a mannered “heartfelt” reading of fake-o diary entries in your ear. It didn’t matter; all that house-ness more than compensated. It evoked some of my earliest “transcendent” computer game feelings, which were brought on by pure text games. What are these spaces? What does it mean to be “in” them, as I feel myself now to be? How quiet are they? Is anyone in here with me? Sometimes during Gone Home I felt like I was in the house in Deadline. That’s meant as high praise, or at least high thanks. There’s a charmed childhood half-sleep implicit in there somewhere and I’ll take it anywhere I can get it.

The Bridge is another indie attempt at artiness, but still shallower, more on the high-school-literary-magazine level. A fancy private high school, mind you! Basically it’s an obvious Braid-alike, which means everything here feels rather sophomoric, Braid itself having been fairly private-high-school itself. The idea here is “what if Escher’s “Relativity” were a game?” Sounds nice but ultimately I’m not sure how fertile an idea that is. The Bridge does the best with it that it can. The world-rules have been worked out reasonably enough and some fair puzzles have been extracted from the system. And there are only 48 puzzles total, which is correctly brief. The little guy (a drawing of poor M.C. Escher himself, I think, who didn’t deserve this) moves quite a bit slower than I would have wanted, and god knows the music (a couple of short tracks by royalty-free royalty Kevin McLeod) is grossly insufficient. It aims to be tactile and atmospheric and satisfying and meditative and it’s not quite as much of any of those as it ought to be. But at least those are, to me, sympathetic goals. This has “my type of game” written all over it. I guess what I’m saying is, I prefer games that haven’t been written all over.

Really, it’s fine. It offers some nice-enough imagery and gameplay to match. And when the game wasn’t getting in its own way, the pencil-and-paper texture did have something to offer.


Meanwhile: non-backlog games also played these past six months.

On August 17 (of this year!) Steam told me a game on my wishlist was very cheap: $2.24. Fine, I said.

Toki Tori 2+ (2013): Two Tribes (Harderwijk, Netherlands) [played for 16 hrs]

This was on my wishlist because I admired the original Toki Tori and read somewhere that the sequel was a completely different design and full of inventive ideas. It is that. It’s built with care, like a fine toy. It gives off a distinct sense of goodwill. The design is based around a very charming, toylike concept: that the player only ever has two possible actions (1. whistle, 2. stomp), but the menagerie of creatures that populate the environment all respond differently to these actions, and their responses interact in various useful ways. So there’s simultaneously the feeling of confidently knowing all of your options, yet also of constantly discovering and learning more about how things work. That’s a fine, bright-eyed set of feelings. The game is invigoratingly tutorial-free — figuring out how to do stuff isn’t a prerequisite to the game; it IS the game — and like its predecessor manages to assemble genuinely tricky puzzles out of the clear and simple elements. I recommend. My one quibble is that after winning the main game — a smooth and pleasant ride all the way — returning to solve the bonus puzzles that you missed is about as annoying as possible; neither the map nor the navigation nor the level design makes for easy retraversal. A shame. I really wanted to go pick up everything but I still haven’t because it’s kind of a drag.


DROD: Smitemaster’s Selections: 9. Complex Complex (2009): Rasmus Björling [43 hrs]

The DROD charge continues. This one was really, really, really tough stuff. Hard. Really. Very. Really, really, really hard. Honestly a little too hard for me. (WHAT? HOW CAN THIS BE?) I had to take quite a few hints. God bless the nice man on YouTube who narrated his thought process as he played through the whole thing. I absolutely wouldn’t have made it to the end without his virtual companionship.

Some puzzles frustrated me a bit for executing truly clever concepts in unnecessarily demanding ways; I would have preferred to experience the exact same challenges in more streamlined forms. But I can’t deny the overall quality was excellent. Having had a couple months away from DROD, upon return I had the same reaction as always: this game is such a gift! It allows for such unlimited inventiveness!

(Okay but seriously this one was kind of grueling. 43 hours over many months! This is the first one where I ducked out without finishing the “post-mastery” extras. Let’s be reasonable here. Word on the web is this is the hardest one. Good.)

DROD: Smitemaster’s Selections: 10. Suit Pursuit (2009): Jason Fedor [6 hrs]

A charming grab-bag of ideas, from easy to mildly tricky. Varied, approachable, never too convoluted. A few sittings to get through the whole thing. That’s more like it.

DROD: Gunthro and the Epic Blunder (2012): Caravel Games (Provo, UT / various) [20 hrs]

The fourth of the five full-fledged commercial DROD games, promoted as being easier than the others and thus a good place to start, for newcomers. The puzzles are certainly more varied and lively than in the first game in the series, and the unveiling of new mechanics is much better paced. But my lingering sense of embarrassment — fond embarrassment, but still — at the story elements of these games, the writing and voice-acting, means I am unlikely to point anyone here for their first DROD experience. Witness that trailer and tell me you don’t sympathize. I personally feel charitable toward the dorkiness — but that’s because these games and I, we grew up together. When I first met this series it wasn’t into that sort of thing yet, and that’s still who I think of it as, deep down. It’s the first impression I think it still deserves.

DROD: Smitemaster’s Selections: 11. Finding the First Truth (2011): George Wanfried [17 hrs]

Oops, I slipped up in my chronologizing. This one was supposed to come before the preceding game. Luckily it makes not a bit of difference. Another excellent add-on collection; this one probably the closest in spirit and quality to the “real” games.

I have deep and distinct experiences with each of these games, but when translated back into written language those experiences return to a state of close mutual resemblance; too close really to be worth expressing again and again. The specifics that make each experience different are musical, in the sense that puzzles are music: formal, structural. The doings of imaginary objects that live on imaginary grids constitute a whole field of interest in itself. That field has no language. I could call these things by their game names — roaches, snakes, mirrors, soldiers, whatever — but that feels like an even worse misrepresentation than not talking about them at all. I spend hours in there doing something, something that is to me fairly fascinating. I assure you the thing I am doing is NOT “fighting roaches.” There is no name for the thing I am doing.

DROD: Smitemaster’s Selections: 12. Flood Warning (2012): “TFMurphy” (Tom Murphy?) [8 hrs]

Another excellent one; of modest length. See above for why there’s not a lot more to be said.

This was the last one in this series. All that remains is the fifth and final commercial game. Which is by all reports the longest, hardest, and most involved by far. I intend not to start that for some months at least. Gonna take a DROD break before diving in.


And that’s it! I promise to write about movies or books or anything other than games next time. Promise.

July 6, 2018

Game log 6/2018

“Humble Bundle: PC and Android 8” continues.

AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! …for the Awesome! (2011): Dejobaan Games (Cambridge, MA) / Owlchemy Labs (Boston, MA) [played for 1 hr]
Jack Lumber (2012): Owlchemy Labs (Boston, MA) [played for .5 hr]

AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAA!!! is silly stuff. Mildly diverting for the one sitting I allotted it, but then what? Tongue-in-cheek dada-punk stylings leave me mostly cold but I don’t actually care; my real problem is with the basic idea that a “falling down past buildings” game is somehow different from a “flying forward past a bunch of random junk, with very sluggish controls” game. Is it? I’m not sure it is.

Jack Lumber is “Fruit Ninja but better,” and I’ve got to hand to them: it’s Fruit Ninja but better! They nailed it! The problem is nobody wants to play Fruit Ninja with a mouse. This is fundamentally a touchscreen game. And my computer, I’m proud to say, doesn’t have a touchscreen.

Hero Academy (2012): Robot Entertainment (Plano, TX) [played for .5 hr]
Anomaly 2 (2013): 11 bit studios (Warsaw, Poland) [played for 1 hr]

Hero Academy is a “tactics” game, which means that it’s not for me, at least as I am now. My attitude is: why would I ever choose to play a strategy game with a big ugly pile of rules and variables — a whole lot of different character classes with different strengths and powers and weaknesses and power-ups and power-downs — when I could play 1) a simpler and more elegant strategy game that’s just as deep, or 2) a full-on action game? Apparently there are great answers to this question, because lots of people love these types of games. Other people.

Anomaly 2 is “reverse tower defense.” I’m able to get some satisfaction out of the core task of keeping a system chugging along happily. The game is fine, truly. If the aesthetic were at all palatable, I’d play it. That is, if this exact game were reskinned to be monkeys throwing coconuts at alligators, with a string quartet playing in the background, I’d probably have played the whole thing. But did you see that trailer? This is a game that repeatedly plays a clip of a guy saying “I love the smell of napalm in the morning!” in the middle of the action. I’m not sure the writers fully understood what napalm is, or indeed, where that quote comes from and what it signifies. Sorry boys, no time to think about that because we’re goin’ in — in three… two… one… LOCK AND LOAD, BABY!!!


That wraps up the games purchased on 12/18/13. Except it doesn’t, because a week later, on 12/24/13, the same bundle got three more games retroactively added to it:

Solar 2 (2011): Murudai (= Jay Watts) (Australia) [played for 2.5 hrs]
Bad Hotel (2012): Lucky Frame (Edinburgh, Scotland) [played for .75 hrs]

Solar 2 is a simple zone-out-and-float-around game. I like the scale of the thing: it’s just this toy; this is all it does. That’s how video games used to be: poems in one stanza. Limitations invite investment; they also give the experience of depth more immediately and quickly. My two and a half hours felt nice and full. I floated around listening to the nice music, getting bigger and smaller, growing little spaceman civilizations and then losing them, smashing into things, devouring the universe, and so on and so forth. Lovely, sweet. Not necessarily memorable.

Bad Hotel is a very literal tower defense game with a cheerfully conspicuous visual style (one which I would characterize as “so lately I’ve really been getting into graphic design”) and a music-generating feature (: the blocks go plinket-a-pop bip!, plinket-a-pop bip!, plinket-a-pop bip! until uh-oh two of them exploded; now they go plink-a smerr, plink-a smerr, plink-a smerr… and so on and so forth). It’s not exactly balanced but it’s perfectly playable. It’s also clearly an iPhone game, meant to be played with one finger, not with a mouse. And also not played for very long. 45 minutes isn’t me getting fed up; it was just the right amount of time.

The Bard’s Tale (2004): inXile Entertainment (Newport Beach, CA) [played for .75 hrs]

Yes, I agree, the trailer makes this look unforgivably tacky, but in action I got the impression that it might well divert me in spite of itself. Unfortunately it’s not properly compatible with modern controllers, and the keyboard controls struck me as ungainly. So I’m passing. Sorry, bard. (As a bonus, it’s also got ye olde 80s “Bard’s Tale” games embedded in it on an Apple IIGS emulator, but those would be fairly punishing to play now, I think, so I’m not even trying. I’m bad enough with RPGs as it is.)


Okay now I’m done with that bundle. Those were mostly-unwanted games that I played quickly, and now have logged pretty much solely to check them off my list. Here come the ones I actually spent time on this month.

Moving down the spreadsheet. On 12/21/13, I bought the delightful Escape Goat on sale for $1.49, then immediately played it to completion, so it needn’t be replayed now. (I exempted myself from the vicious-beyond-all-reason bonus levels that become available at the end. I think everyone does.)

That’s it for 2013!


This next game on my spreadsheet is listed as 1/14/14 because that’s when the first part of it became available to play. But the actual date of purchase was 12/11/12 ($30 for access to the ongoing documentary tracking the development process, plus an eventual copy of the game). I played the first half when it was released in 2014, but when the rest came out, 4/28/15, I never actually opened it up. So just now I played the whole thing start to finish.

Broken Age (2014–15): Double Fine Productions (San Francisco, CA) [10 hrs]

A wonderful, beautiful, transporting, misguided, frustrating, undercooked adventure game. The documentary is truly fantastic and I recommend it to everyone. It’s a fascinating look at a contemporary workplace, the subtleties and good intentions of time and resource mismanagement, and the rewards and challenges of a collaborative artistic production process. It’s also a great piece of pure peoplewatching. I have very fond memories of watching each new episode as it was released; I have a distinct and personal sense of each of the member of the creative team. The game is exactly the heartfelt/confused thing I saw them making.

The core of the problem is that given a budgetary windfall in advance, they decided to spend it on more lavish and elaborate stuff — art, music, voices, animation — rather than on more time to iteratively test and refine the actual game script and design. And then they compounded their error by repeatedly forgetting to give themselves enough buffer to deal with the additional production complexity entailed by that new lavishness.

So that’s what you get: by far the highest aesthetic production values of any point-and-click adventure game ever made. It’s a gorgeous and enveloping storybook. But what’s it like when you actually sit down and read that storybook? How’s the game itself? It’s, uh… well-meaning? A little weak? Seems like they kinda improvised the story, didn’t actually know where they were going, lost their own thread somewhere halfway through… then, finding themselves under the gun, fell back awkwardly on boring cliches that “explained” everything, and threw together a shrug of an ending. The end product is simultaneously a marvel and a damned shame. I’m rooting hard for it. I still am! Even now that I’ve seen it all and sighed my way through. Hey, maybe I got it wrong! Maybe it’s really actually a great piece of work, a big success! I sincerely wish it.

Part of the reason the documentary is so great is because it documents that, the creation of a thing neither very good nor very bad. It’s a thing. It’s a thing people worked on and made. Your relationship to the emotions of hope and disappointment is your own; it’s something you bring with you. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Good luck out there.


On 1/21/14 the following game goes on 90% sale, for $1.49. I’ve been curious about it for a while and can’t resist that price.

La-Mulana (2005/2011): GR3 Project / Nigoro (Kurashiki, Japan) [55 hrs (plus maybe 1 or 2 more…)]

This is a marvelous and terrible game. I know, I just said something similar about the previous game. Well, it’s a thing that happens in video games. But where Broken Age was quietly marvelous and subtly terrible, La-Mulana goes BIG. In every way. It’s a masterpiece AND maybe it’s unplayable and shouldn’t exist. For better and worse I spent a lot of time inside it.

While playing Metroid-style action-adventures, a certain type of mind can’t help but entertain fantasies of ever more baroque mazes, ever more dense with secret panels, ever more intricately constrained and interwoven. Ever more more more. Wouldn’t that imagined game, that more elaborate game, be so astounding, thrilling, splendidly overwhelming! Well this is it! La-Mulana is the realization of that fantasy; it is this type of game “taken to its logical conclusions.” It is willfully, aggressively, flagrantly overvast and overcomplicated and overcryptic; it takes many tens of hours to complete; it sprawls through about 450 rooms; it requires the player to keep track of a book’s worth of maps and hints and symbols. It’s also pretty hard on a screen-for-screen level — the individual boss fights are often really, really tough. It is extraordinarily generous in scope and extraordinarily nasty in particulars. And that’s all awesome, as long as you can clearly distinguish between awesome and satisfying.

The fantasy is of being completely enveloped in a puzzle-womb, from which escape is theoretically possible, but only upon fulfillment of a maniacally overwhelming gauntlet of ordeals, indefinitely prolonged. The fantasy is here achieved and it is exactly as healthy and rewarding as it sounds. Its marvelousness and its terribleness both arise from doing such faithful service to a troubled compulsion. It’s a platonic ideal of something, which means it has a lot to answer for.

I am so close to being ready to love this, in all its grotesque hugeness — I’m even ready to embrace all the prankish sucker-punches — but there’s one thing I cannot fully embrace: that there’s no way to distinguish between “come back to this area later, it’s currently impossible,” and “push through this area now, it’s hard but doable.” When you’ve discovered 25 different blocked passages in various places and 100 cryptic fragments of text, you really deserve some kind of help in deciding which ones to focus your attention on and which ones to leave alone. I wanted to try my best to play without online hints but this aspect defeated me. That’s where my personal puzzle-compulsive psyche gives out, anyway; your proverbial mileage may vary. Whatever kind of person I am, I’m the kind of person who loves figuring things out for myself but who doesn’t love searching for needles in haystacks. Well, I mean, I kind of like that too… but it depends on the size of the haystack. This is a mile-high haystack. This is the Lost Temple of Haystack.

It has a lot in common with Aquaria — which I suspect was somewhat inspired by the original 2005 version of La-Mulana — which I played all the way up to the final boss only to discover I didn’t care enough to finish. In this case I’ve played all the way up to the final boss, died many times, and am currently ambivalent about whether to grind it out and get the “you did it” achievement on Steam. One way or another, I’m pretty much done here.

Is it coincidence that both of these games culminate in destroying your own ancestral creator-god, depicted as an alien maternal figure fallen from the heavens? Obviously no, it’s not. (Spoiler: The vast ruins of La-Mulana ARE the Mother God.) Maybe reread the description of the game with Freudian glasses on.

La-Mulana 2 is coming out any day now.


2/10/14. Tipped off by a post on the “GameDeals” Reddit forum, I obediently go through some kind of promotional rigmarole involving “liking” the Facebook page of some game retailer — maybe “Bundle Stars”? — in order to earn a free copy of game about which I know almost nothing, but which looks kind of attractive:

Pid (2012): Might and Delight (Stockholm, Sweden) [12 hrs]

An exceptionally pretty jumping-around game. For some reason the sensitive soft-focus aesthetic made me think this was going to be a gentle one-sitting indie bonbon. Not hardly! It’s tough and it goes on for quite a while. Maybe a little too tough and maybe a little too much of a while. The basic mechanic — plant little anti-gravity beams and then jump in them to float around — never really enchants. It just sticks around and wears you down. But the hazy, dreamy, murmuring vibe is as sweet and rewarding as it looks. I zoned into this with pleasure. The music is real and smart and human. As is the sound design. The rain patters on the windows of the game and you’re somewhere cozy inside with it. This is a tasteful and cared-for thing, of significant scale. And yet it has almost no presence on Youtube/Twitch/wherever. It has its flaws but its obscurity is unmerited. Glad I played. Wish it had been half as long.


Meanwhile in free play:

DROD RPG: Tendry’s Tale (2008): Caravel Games (Provo, UT / various) [14 hrs]

Next up in the DROD chronological marathon, even though it’s not a true DROD. Sure, it quacks like a DROD, but it plays like something else entirely, something very odd. It’s an example of what I propose to call a “trading maze,” e.g.: your goal is to get 100 Cs and you start with 10 As. Your current options are: 1) Trade 3 As for 1 B. 2) Trade 9 As for 2 Bs and a C. 3) Trade 1 B for 4 As. 4) Trade 5 As to open up a subtree of seven new possible trades. Etc. That’s all there is here — the graphics and monsters and movement and stuff are superficial. But the design invests in that surface in a strange way. You can’t see the whole map, so you don’t actually know what’s your trading options might be — what’s behind door number 3, as it were — until you invest some of your coin in sheer exploration, in the process of which you usually learn retroactively that you did things in the wrong order and have to try again. Which is a classic example of bad game design (don’t punish the player for failing to have information you didn’t give them yet!). The wrinkle here is that this game knows exactly what it is, and is cheerful about it, and wants you to be cheerful about it too. “Save and restore often! Try, fail, then try a different way!” Okay, so… hm, is that fun? It defies some of my intuitions for what constitutes an engaging game. But maybe those intuitions could benefit from being defied?

My experience with this was genuinely fun-confused. Hitting the point of “ugh, so apparently the last 45 minutes have been for naught, I have to redo them” would invariably make me feel irritable and consider quitting for good… and then I’d take some time away from the game, come back, and find that redoing the same stuff with the benefit of foresight was actually rather satisfying. In fact, over the whole 14 hours of the game I developed a deeper instinct for how to make blind gambles wisely, alternating with deliberate and efficient save/restore scouting missions, such that I was able to do the last few areas pretty smoothly, without any major backtracking. That was a satisfying feeling — a feeling of actual increased competence. But the thing I had become more competent at seemed like a meta-game, not the game itself. I recognize that maybe that’s a mental block but there it is. Even having finished, it feels to me like the game itself was the place where I had been unfairly hung out to dry many times over. Then I learned how to steel myself against that intrinsic unfairness, and that became a point of pride. Which is apparently what the designers wanted to offer me in the first place. So again: is that “fun”? I still don’t know, and it doesn’t really matter as there won’t be any more DROD RPG games. (Unless I download the user-made ones.)

June 29, 2018

96. Written on the Wind (1956)

2001: 96_box_348x490_original

criterion096-title

screenplay by George Zuckerman
based on the novel (1946) by Robert Wilder
directed by Douglas Sirk

Criterion #96.


And the category is: “Things You Can’t Write On.”

Or:

Yeah, the screenplay’s got some problems, but cut the guy some slack! He wrote it on the wind!

More samples upon request.


It’s commonly noted that this movie is a precursor to Dallas and Dynasty and the like. Someone on the Criterion site comments that more generally, Sirk here establishes the style and technique of TV drama as a whole. That’s well observed, and it gave me some retrospective purchase on All That Heaven Allows.

Sirk’s on-the-nose sense of drama is easy for me to dismiss because I’ve had so much practice dismissing it on TV. But beyond that easy dismissal, I do understand how this stuff is meant to be ingested: as something too homey to be critiqued, too basic to be shaken off. TV is just there, so your guard goes down. It makes you feel safely superior to it: that’s how it gets you.

But the more subconscious the effect, the more subjective the value. A recurring theme around here is that different art is “for” different psychologies. I was moved to devote time to writing about the Twilight Zone because it felt potent to me, which is to say relevant to my personal baggage; meanwhile I can’t imagine watching more than one curiosity-teaspoon’s-worth of Dallas or any other soap opera. (Admittedly I did take in a fair amount of secondhand All My Children once upon a time. And Adam Chandler is only one degree removed from Marylee Hadley. Which makes Stuart two degrees.)

What I’m saying is that it’s not my psychodrama; it doesn’t resemble my private gods. Sex and alcohol and money and oil and power all stand in for emotions, I get it, but I don’t feel it because none of that is in my symbology. All that King Lear stuff about dissolute heirs remains abstract to me. So far as I was engaged by this movie — and I was! — it was by the sheer ritual spectacle of melodrama, the crazy artifice, the shapes and patterns. And, yes, I suppose that makes it sound like it got in below my radar. That’s what I’m saying TV does: it teaches you shapes and patterns seemingly without real emotional weight or consequence, and thereby indoctrinates you to expect them in life. I’m sophisticate enough at this point to slot things into categories according to what prejudices they play to, but that doesn’t mean I’m not also being led around by my subconscious. The same way that reading Twitter makes you feel the general agitas even as you place yourself in opposition to it. It’s entirely possible that I’ll be seeing these characters in a dream some day. Who knows.

But speaking on behalf of my conscious mind: this is mondo schlock from planet schlocko and I felt pretty damn immune to its meanings.

It was perfectly watchable, though. Which is the TV-iest form of praise.


Lauren Bacall gives a distinct impression of discomfort. In fact I’m not sure she’s even doing the thing the word “acting” usually implies, wherein one attempts to convey emotions held by a fictional character. She seems rather to be giving a series of professional line readings, one after another, without making any effort to disguise her own personal feelings. Am I wrong? The screenplay tells us that she falls for Robert Stack, but it sure looks to me like she hates him. Apparently when Humphrey Bogart saw the finished movie he told her it was no good and that she should never do anything like it again. Maybe he was just nervous that she’d find out about his flirtation behind her back with Bookstore Girl.

Bookstore Girl acquits herself very well here. Dorothy Malone has the knack for extreme exaggeration that the genre requires; she’s completely at ease with her own flamboyance and simultaneously wry about it, which helps to absorb the audience’s insecurity. Once she enters the picture, about half an hour in, I suddenly found that I knew how to enjoy this campy soap opera after all. That alone is an achievement worthy of the Best Supporting Actress award. Which she won. (She died just this January at age 93. RIP!)

Robert Stack on the other hand just locks in his stare and goes as crazy as he can. Not as much for the audience to latch on to there but you can’t help but admire the shamelessness.

Rock Hudson as usual does an excellent job continuing to be Rock Hudson. He nails “what a nice man.” I think I liked him a little better here than in the previous one.

Harry Shannon as Rock Hudson’s father is excellent genetic casting. When they’re onscreen together you believe it.


When Sirk turns up his style to its fullest force — as when Dorothy Malone is dancing out her debauched soul while her father tumbles down the stairs — the impression, to me, is not just of bold exaggeration but of actually missing the mark. I imagine John Waters et al love this sort of thing because it combines sincere artistic conviction about pain and tragedy with honest-to-goodness aesthetic error. The juxtaposition fundamentally doesn’t work, and the bellyflop makes a spectacular splash. It’s stimulating to watch because it’s not apt, not insightful. The equation hasn’t been balanced.

Similarly those leaves that blow in the front door in the opening sequence, just to make sure you know what “wind” is. They’re like a pun that isn’t actually a pun. The hallmark of the style is fervent commitment to devices that are so hackneyed and obvious that they actually stop functioning.

Here are the lyrics to the title song:

A faithless lover’s kiss is written on the wind
A night of stolen bliss is written on the wind
Just like the dying leaves, our dreams we’ve calmly thrown away
Now they’ve flown away, softly flown away

The promises we made are whispers in the breeze
They echo and they fade, just like our memories
Though you are gone from me, we never can really be apart
What’s written on the wind is written in my heart

Not only do these have approximately nothing to do with the action of the movie, but they also equivocate regarding what “written on the wind” means. Does it mean something that’s shallow bullshit, as in the first line? Or does it mean something that lives forever because it transcends the earthly, as in the last line? Maybe both? Let’s try both?

The only really important thing in this artistic universe is whether it’s delivered with passion. It doesn’t matter a bit to Sirk whether something is actually, as the trailer claims, “THE MOST REVEALING STUDY OF HUMAN EMOTIONS EVER ATTEMPTED ON THE SCREEN.” Clearly, in fact, it’s not, and he never thought it was. What matters to him is that it affects to be the most revealing study of human emotions ever attempted on the screen. He prizes that affectation and takes it very seriously indeed. And that seriousness in turn is entrancing in its guilelessness, as all true seriousness is.


Robert Stack says that after five weeks of marriage he’s “still up on cloud seven.

Here’s another thing he says:

This line comes as the culmination of a subplot in which he wants desperately to attend the royal ball but he’s mocked by the king’s courtiers for being too clumsy, so he prays to the tree spirit, who provides him with a pair of magic dancing slippers, but the jealous forest witch hears his prayer and covets the slippers, and though he runs as fast as he can, she chases him all the way to the gate of the castle and just as he’s about to enter, snatches the slippers from his hand.

Actually the funny thing is that what the line really means is: he’s just a moment ago been informed by a doctor that it’s his probably his fault he and his wife haven’t been able to conceive: he might be sterile. Then when his wife asks him to dance he self-pityingly says that unfortunately someone just stole his, ahem, “magic dancing slippers.” That’s someone’s 1956 idea of a semi-entendre of some kind.

The sexual content definitely tries to push the boundaries of the moment, and sometimes the strain shows. The golden statuette of an oil derrick that Dorothy Malone fondles tragically in the final shots is a full-fledged double-entendre. Congratulations to everyone involved in working that one out; I know it can’t have been easy.


The score is again by Frank Skinner — again an able co-conspirator in reckless intensity — but the above-mentioned title song is by Victor Young, and it drives the ship. In fact I couldn’t find a suitable excerpt from the score that was all Skinner, so I’m just embracing it and giving you the finale and end credits, which is basically a straight-up orchestral arrangement of the song:


criterion096-location

June 26, 2018

95. All That Heaven Allows (1955)

2001: 095 box 2 2014: 095 box 3

criterion095-title

screenplay by Peg Fenwick
based on the story by Edna L. Lee and Harry Lee
directed by Douglas Sirk

Criterion #95.


This and Black Narcissus have both forced me to confront my instinctive assumption that a film photographed with painterly distinction must therefore be a film of depth. Clearly not so!

Or then again maybe it is. It depends on where “depth” lies. In visual art, the literary idea of “depth” isn’t generally what’s at issue. A Renaissance painting is rarely valued for its subject (fruits on a table? The Martyrdom of Saint whoever?); the “depth” is within the domain of imagery itself. Film can be that sort of medium, where a simple or formulaic subject is just a framework for the exploration of sensory values. But it seems to me that All That Heaven Allows was not conceived that way; the dippy screenplay is dense-packed with dippy dialogue and dippy events: whatever deeper resonances it may have, the story does expect to be taken seriously at face value. All the visual richness seems to be an elaboration after the fact: it’s Douglas Sirk seizing an opportunity to explore his own aesthetic ideas on the studio’s dime. It’s a fundamentally insipid movie that’s been forcefed expressionism.

That makes it an interesting object, and it creates an interesting effect. I imagine that if I had come across this movie in full ignorance of its (and Sirk’s) reputation, I would have noted that it casts a very odd spell indeed. It’s simultaneously plush velvet and wet cardboard. It’s a bit like the magical, billowing, dreamy, inviting, obviously-fake, chintzy, disgusting, gooey chemical snow into which Rock Hudson gamely flumpfs.

Maybe such things are best recommended by word of mouth, film-lover to film-lover. “Have you seen Sirk’s color melodramas? They’re really quite something!” Unfortunately, we live in a time where scholars feel a compulsion to take up old films as causes and try to boost their reputations ever, ever upward, into The Canon Of Greatness And Significance — as though that’s the inevitable next step in a virtuous historical process of rehabilitation. It’s an addiction to the idea of giving things Their Due; in its overeagerness it amounts to a form of insensitivity. (Have you noticed the sort of thing the Library of America has been getting itself up to lately?)

Put another way: plain old everyday mediocrity is not something that Criterion is very good at knowing about or delivering. Their pomp and circumstance tends to obfuscate ordinariness rather than elevate it. What the heck is this thing we’re watching? How could it possibly be that this package, this luxe commercial fetish object, contains a half-baked lower-middlebrow romance novel? It starts to seem almost like a prank. The effect they want to achieve needs to be approached from the other side: “this particular half-baked romance novel… is actually rather suggestive and striking, isn’t it?”

The colors! The lights! Yes! The photography is glorious. The film is an exquisite piece of commercial graphic art, no denying. But Norman Rockwell’s work has more feeling and vision in it, seems to me.

I like to get lost in old book covers; think about the way they make me feel — good and bad books alike. I like to touch down, internally, on the time and place they represent, both in real history and in the parallel history of dreams, on which they are a window. If that’s all the Sirk game is, I’m glad to play. Sure, these rooms made me feel things. There’s a hushed, half-awake sensation somewhere in there that I might recognize. But my personal dream, the thing that it’s rewarding for me to explore, doesn’t have the slightest thing to do with the story or the themes of this movie. Deadening conformity vs. self-realization through romance? Pff. As if. I’m busy looking at the lamps, here!

And yet witness e.g. the commentary track. That’s the real Sirk game: let’s talk about the social repressions of the 50s. Let’s look for ways this film is secretly “subversive.” Ah well. We can do that if you want. If we must.

Yes, psychological subtleties of production, design, direction are legitimately there to be noted — “you see, now her costume is starting to match his environment” — but let’s not lose sight of the fact that intricate code is a symptom of repression, not an antidote to it. Critics tend to gravitate to the difficulties, the problem-solving, but problem-solving only arises as a result of problem-having, and is problem-having really such a thing to celebrate? Wouldn’t we benefit from celebrating the art that we aspire to resemble, rather than the art that strains to resemble us? Listening to the extensive appreciation for this stilted melodrama, I felt like I heard a kind of retro-condescension at work: “we like this because it has to marshal so much craft and effort just to hint at things that we all now find easy to take for granted. Look at the brilliant artist struggle against his sad sad era! Isn’t it noble!”

Music is by Frank Skinner, who does a fine job laying down the very thickest possible carpet. Or: making sure every event casts the longest, saddest possible shadow. The piano plays a bass note: oh no! alas! alack! He unabashedly makes Liszt’s Consolation No. 3 the figurehead on his ship, as you’ll hear in the main title below — very much in the manner that Brief Encounter draped itself in Rachmaninoff, and to similar effect. The “kitsch” quotient is obviously even higher here — but when have I ever begrudged kitsch its kitschiness? If art can make me cry about nothing, more power to it. I can’t say this movie or this music wrung any actual tears from me, but I wholeheartedly endorse the attempt. Have at me, boys!


criterion095-location