Yearly Archives: 2019

October 13, 2019

7. Hardy: The Return of the Native


CD7, 50¢, August 1959. Cover artist unknown. 413 pp.

The rural tranquility of the heather-covered English countryside is the setting for this moving novel of conflicting aspirations and tragic destiny. Clym Yeobright returns from Paris to the village of his birth, idealistically inspired to improve the life of the men and women of Egdon Heath. But his plans are upset when he falls in love with a passionately beautiful, darkly discontented girl, Eustacia Vye, who longs to escape from her provincial surroundings. Their stormy marriage explodes in a violent tragedy which eventually frees Yeobright to pursue his dream of service. A book of classic dimension and heroic design, The Return of the Native is the forerunner of the twentieth-century psychological novel — poetic, compassionate, vivid in its associations, universal in its meanings.

With an Afterword by Horace Gregory

I found The Return of the Native artistically confusing. Is this good writing or bad? Is Hardy’s outlook broad or narrow? What am I dealing with, here?

You tell me. Let’s go straight to the excerpt. This is the introductory portrait of Eustacia Vye, who isn’t quite “our heroine” but certainly has top billing. (Viewable here in the original ink.)

She was in person full-limbed and somewhat heavy; without ruddiness, as without pallor; and soft to the touch as a cloud. To see her hair was to fancy that a whole winter did not contain darkness enough to form its shadow — it closed over her forehead like nightfall extinguishing the western glow.

Her nerves extended into those tresses, and her temper could always be softened by stroking them down. When her hair was brushed she would instantly sink into stillness and look like the Sphinx. If, in passing under one of the Egdon banks, any of its thick skeins were caught, as they sometimes were, by a prickly tuft of the large Ulex Europœus — which will act as a sort of hairbrush — she would go back a few steps, and pass against it a second time.

She had pagan eyes, full of nocturnal mysteries, and their light, as it came and went, and came again, was partially hampered by their oppressive lids and lashes; and of these the under lid was much fuller than it usually is with English women. This enabled her to indulge in reverie without seeming to do so — she might have been believed capable of sleeping without closing them up. Assuming that the souls of men and women were visible essences, you could fancy the colour of Eustacia’s soul to be flamelike. The sparks from it that rose into her dark pupils gave the same impression.

The mouth seemed formed less to speak than to quiver, less to quiver than to kiss. Some might have added, less to kiss than to curl. Viewed sideways, the closing-line of her lips formed, with almost geometric precision, the curve so well known in the arts of design as the cima-recta, or ogee. The sight of such a flexible bend as that on grim Egdon was quite an apparition. It was felt at once that the mouth did not come over from Sleswig with a band of Saxon pirates whose lips met like the two halves of a muffin. One had fancied that such lip-curves were mostly lurking underground in the South as fragments of forgotten marbles. So fine were the lines of her lips that, though full, each corner of her mouth was as clearly cut as the point of a spear. This keenness of corner was only blunted when she was given over to sudden fits of gloom, one of the phases of the night-side of sentiment which she knew too well for her years.

Her presence brought memories of such things as Bourbon roses, rubies, and tropical midnight; her moods recalled lotus-eaters and the march in Athalie; her motions, the ebb and flow of the sea; her voice, the viola. In a dim light, and with a slight rearrangement of her hair, her general figure might have stood for that of either of the higher female deities. The new moon behind her head, an old helmet upon it, a diadem of accidental dewdrops round her brow, would have been adjuncts sufficient to strike the note of Artemis, Athena, or Hera respectively, with as close an approximation to the antique as that which passes muster on many respected canvases.

This is either intolerable or pretty good. I read the whole book and I still can’t say for sure which it is. Perhaps it’s both.

First the intolerable. The prose is relentlessly self-indulgent; Hardy writes like a retired professor amusing himself. He’s constantly adding twists to the syntax that feign to increase precision but actually have the opposite effect. “To see her hair was to fancy that a whole winter did not contain darkness enough to form its shadow.” Really? Simply to see her hair WAS to fancy this convoluted fancy? There was no alternative? And you’re telling me the fancy isn’t about the hair per se but about the hair’s shadow?

In Hardy’s mind it’s always charmingly high-toned to add more clauses. “Assuming that the souls of men and women were visible essences, you could fancy the colour of Eustacia’s soul to be flamelike. The sparks from it that rose into her dark pupils gave the same impression.” Oh my god. What he means is “Eustacia’s soul was the color of flame, and its sparks rose into her dark pupils,” but he can’t help sloshing his sherry all over the sofa on the way there. The extra words are manner rather than thought, and their music is designed to keep the reader lulled in a cocoon of self-satisfaction while he pages through the story at his gentlemen’s club.

Hardy also has a tic of constantly adding words like “seemed” and “appeared” so that he can try to get credit for “show don’t tell” without actually doing the work: he’s very fond of telling that things were shown. It happens on every page. “Her countenance seemed to signify that she concealed some suspicion.” Determining what such a countenance would actually look like is left as an exercise for the reader. His comfort zone is “one might have fancied that…” It gives the impression of subtlety without containing any.

And let me not forget to roll my eyes at: the random displays of erudition! Which aren’t just restricted to needless manspreading like “the cima-recta, or ogee”; they can get quite grotesque in their smarmy defiance of the book’s milieu. A naive little rural kid isn’t sure whether to stay or go because either might anger Eustacia; Hardy comments: “Here was a Scyllæo-Charybdean position for a poor boy.” Oh bra-vo, Mr. Hardy. What purpose does this learned allusion serve other than to specifically resist the character’s frame of reference? It’s like he’s ashing his cigar on the kid’s head.

Finally, the last and most significant intolerable thing about the passage above: it’s a character sketch that clearly aspires to be specific and careful and nuanced, and yet it’s unabashedly made out of fashionable cliches. It reads like a Pinterest board; comparing a character to “Bourbon roses, rubies, tropical midnight, the ebb and flow of the sea, a viola” is basically just collecting “style inspirations” for 1878. (Here’s the march from Athalie for all you wonderfully stormy and pouty ladies to resemble! With flashing eye!)

Now to the “pretty good.” Despite the reliance on cliche, the intention to be specific and careful and nuanced is real, and has its own value. Hardy’s energetic dedication to the business of description is rewarding in itself. I can’t deny taking pleasure in the shameless excess of detail-work dedicated to the sculptural cut of her lip, or in the sneering, catty description of Germanic mouths “like the two halves of a muffin” (English, presumably). Am I taking pleasure in substance, or style, or what? Is this sort of thing cheap or inspired? I honestly don’t know.

I don’t for a second buy that Eustacia would actually double back to deliberately brush her hair against the Ulex Europœus — it’s sheer Victorian cheesecake — and yet it still contributes to an overall complexity of portraiture, of which the ends seem to me more mature than the means. Despite all the corny objectification in the details, the passage as whole is effective at sketching a kind of petulant sensualism that is not itself wholly a cliche. This image of her restless hunger for all the world to be petting and grooming her (even the prickly gorse on the heath, imagine that!), is tacky and implausible, but I can still respect his taking the time to invent it and feed it into his loom.

When I first read these paragraphs I took them to be a standard-issue “she was entrancingly beautiful” passage. But it turns out that Hardy does not traffic in “she was entrancingly beautiful,” at least not at the level of plot. None of his characters have charmed lives or charmed souls. “She had pagan eyes, full of nocturnal mysteries” sounds like a swoon, but in the long run he seems pretty clear on the distinction between a woman actually being full of nocturnal mysteries and just being drawn that way. What Eustacia is actually full of is irritable discontent and a compulsion to self-mythologize, which end up being unfortunate for her and everyone around her. The Pinterest board is indulged as a kind of game, but its implications are not ultimately endorsed.

And taken as a game, the passage becomes rather charming: description as sheer sport. I’m not going to say his tongue is in his cheek, but there is perhaps a very faint note of deadpan being sounded, which, once I perceive it, suddenly seems to redeem and excuse all the excess. Why not join him in the gentlemen’s club after all?

Then again… is that faint note of deadpan actually there? Have I fallen for an illusion? Or perhaps an excuse invented after the fact? What’s this guy’s real attitude?

Truly, who can say?

I experienced Hardy as evasive. He shows himself technically capable of building rich and complicated feelings, situations, characters… and yet… is that really what he likes, deep down? Is it who he is?

The storytelling frequently lapses into triteness and contrivance, or bogs down in stasis. Then when he finally gets the motor running again, he always seems to say “Oh, rest assured, I meant to do that! That was important.” And I would fall for it, because his authoritative tone could be quite convincing. But thinking back on it all, I can’t shake the feeling that I was witnessing a genuine struggle for clarity and direction. The prose winds its way through the fields, between the characters, around rooms, always making a show of being discerning, of making a skillful attempt to come to terms with things. When will the work of coming to terms be done? It is never done. And perhaps nothing is really being come to terms with; it’s just his chosen demeanor, and a good smokescreen.

I suppose it’s worth keeping in mind that The Return of the Native was originally a serial in 12 installments. The serial form invites unevenness; it almost demands it. Taking stock of this book feels like taking stock of a whole season of a television show. Not all episodes are equal. Not all choices end up sticking. Shows have to find themselves as they go.

In Jane Smiley’s introduction to the 1999 Signet edition she describes Hardy’s works as “an unpredictable mix of the timeless and timely, conservative and radical.” Indeed! It’s strangely disorienting for a novel to be “unpredictable mix” of anything: good and bad, retrograde and progressive, clear and muddled. Hardy does not have a single and reliable temperament, and his head is full of a mishmosh of contradictory attitudes. Some days at his writing desk he leans one way, some days another. Some pages are satisfyingly strong on exactly the terms by which others are irritatingly weak.

That really throws me off! A fundamental pleasure of reading a novel is supposed to be that it is unitary — it is one thing, about which I can say “it,” in the singular. “I read it.” “It was pretty good.” It’s irksome to be denied that.

Smiley also writes:

“It is easy to find fault with Hardy, and readers and critics always have. A salient feature of his career, in fact, is the universal disagreement about what makes this great novelist great. Some critics fault his style; some, his vision; some, his detachment; some, his depiction of women; and some, the way he attacks or upholds certain features of Victorian life.”

Yes, exactly. As I’ve been saying, almost any dimension of the writing could just as easily be faulted as praised.

It seems to me that Hardy straddles two outlooks at once, an old and a new, and manages to frustrate the aesthetic and philosophical expectations of both. Either the book is a conventionally overheated melodrama, “alas alack” and all that, but told in a strangely sedate, dispassionate mode… or else it’s an artistically serious attempt to “realistically” capture a certain rustic milieu and certain psychological drives, but one that falls back constantly on hackneyed dramatic exaggerations. Either way, it refuses to feel natural and whole.

This has all been to say: it’s very difficult for me to say how the book was. But I can say what it was: it was a 19th-century novel!

And that’s probably the best answer to Jane Smiley’s question about what makes Hardy great: he’s great because he took the time to write 19th-century novels, in full, with all the characters and situations and themes and whatnot. A significant and honorable labor, not to be taken for granted.

The book has, as Signet’s blurb says, “classic dimension and heroic design.” Note that this is praise for form rather than content. But praise for form can be real praise. Is not the 19th-century novel as genre, as sheer form — with all the characters and situations and themes and whatnot — a great artistic achievement in itself? All cathedrals are built on pretty much the same plan, after all. Here are some nice ones. Are some of the cathedrals on that list less than masterpieces, architecturally? Do some of them have flaws and inconsistencies? In some sense, sure — but what sort of horrible spoilsport must you be to fixate on that sense? Did you get your damn narthex? Your transept? Then just say “thank you very much.”

Thank you very much, Mr. Hardy!

The things that make The Return of the Native great, in whatever sense “great” applies, are its artistic premises rather than its specifics. I come away from with my strongest impression being just how eagerly and wholeheartedly its author participates in “the project of the novel”: the vision of life as consisting of CHARACTERS in a SETTING dealing with PROBLEMS — of human affairs as a tapestry thickly woven from many individual threads, which it is our sacramental obligation to OBSERVE and DESCRIBE. The novelistic outlook is very truly his outlook, or at least it’s one in which he has distinctly devout faith.

That kind of devoutness is a gift to the reader. It feels good, much the way that it feels good simply to sit in a clean and well-decorated restaurant, regardless of the food. It is, indeed, rare enough, and rewarding enough, that I can understand why some people love this book.

But I am not one of them.

Having read the excerpt you’ll probably agree that 25-year-old Catherine Zeta-Jones was excellent casting, unlikely to be improved upon. (The movie overall looks just like it should if you turn the sound off; as soon as you turn it on you’ll see that the acting and directing are terrible.)

Speaking of which, I want to note that the original serial was illustrated! As usual, the illustrations have never been reprinted. It continues to seem wrong to me that these things, which are born as twins with the novel, can fall so far into obscurity. In this case they’re quite good, too.

The artist is Arthur Hopkins and he clearly had a thing for lighting effects. Can you blame him? I’ve extracted and sharpened the images; here are four attractive non-spoilery ones (click to enlarge):

RotN-02 RotN-03

RotN-06 RotN-05

I think these help immensely to place the action in a world of consistent and inviting tone and shadow; I wish I had been looking at them while reading.

Overall, I think encountering the novel in “Belgravia: A London Magazine” in 1878 is the ideal way to read it. Alongside The World Well Lost by E. Lynn Linton, By Proxy by James Payn, and The Haunted Hotel by Wilkie Collins (which FYI has a floating head in it).

You’ll notice that none of them were too proud to carry the serial illustrations into the book editions. Maybe get over yourself, Thomas Hardy.

I realize I’ve said next to nothing about the actual substance of the book, its events and characters and setting. Well, that’s an honest reflection of my reading experience. The contents felt secondary to the overall question of authorial manner, which I was never satisfactorily able to resolve. I read all the words of the story, but apart from a stray scene here and there, I couldn’t figure out how to dream it. And that’s that.

Also I’m sorry to report that every time I picked up the book, I thought of this. Which can’t have helped matters.

Enough talk. Here’s what we really came for: all the covers.

CP439, 60¢, 1969.

Same layout as the original above. Yet again, the first printing has subtly different art from all subsequent printings (point of issue: the triangle of grass goes all the way down to the bottom border on the first printing only).

As for the art: the rendering of Eustacia’s dark and sensual beauty is, shall we say, underwhelming. Meanwhile, seeing as he’s been tinted red, the guy in the background is most likely Diggory Venn the reddleman. His juxtaposition with Eustacia in this composition could not be more meaningless and arbitrary.

(By the way, J.K. Rowling surely lifted the name “Diggory” from this character. Throughout my reading I had the impression that J.K. had been down this road at some point; her fondness for twisty interpersonal entanglements + rustic local color feels very Hardian.)

Typeface is Clarendon.

CT625, 75¢, 1973?
CQ722, 95¢, 1974.
CY869, $1.25, 1976?
CW1091, $1.50, 1978.
CE1252, $1.75, 1979?
CE1492, $2.25??, 1982?
??1664, $?.??, ????.

70s branding. They centered the title, which is probably a good choice, though now it’s too close to the author’s name.

CJ1796, $1.95, ????.

The centered logo.

CE1974, $2.25, 1985?
??2307, $?.??, ????
CE2471, $2.95 (later $3.50), 1990?

80s redesign; I read from one of these. Painting by Constable. Given that this book could bear having nearly any landscape painting on its cover, a bit odd that they chose this wonky-looking shmeary one. Almost every other painting by Constable is more attractive than this. Not to mention that the subject matter, and the attitude, is wrong: there are no scenic ruins in the landscape of the novel, and the romance of decay isn’t really the ethos.

Typeface is Latin 725 Bold, I think, or a very close relative. (It’s a rip-off of Méridien to begin with.)

2738, $5.95, 1999.

With a New Introduction by Jane Smiley

This painting was seen at auction in 1993 and apparently entered an image library from there, though it seems to have been pulled since. The artist is the little-known Jules-Alexis Muenier. The theatrics in his work seem a bit phony and sentimental, but his use of color is rather good. Say I. The scene here depicted doesn’t specifically correspond to anything in the book, but it still feels like a spiritual match. I’ll let them have it.

Typeface is Engravers Roman BT.

3112, $6.95, 2008.

With a New Afterword by Jeffrey Meyers

Painting is by Pál Szinyei Merse, which means that these two lovebirds are actually picnicking somewhere in Hungary, in a hayfield — but whatever.

Typeface is still Engravers Roman BT.

The original cover(s). Usually I say “original and correct,” reflecting my feeling that packaging is part of the identity of a book and really ought to be retained in perpetuity. But when a book predates the practice of printing the title on the front cover, I’m less inclined to consider its design aesthetically relevant. Like most books in 1878, this one’s design is just trying to put across “book.” Not to say the lettering isn’t nicely done.

While we’re on the subject, here are some other paintings that have appeared on the cover of this book over the years:

James Aumonier (1832–1911): The Silver Lining of the Cloud (1890) (Penguin, various times — sometimes they use the left side, sometimes the right side)
Frederick Brown (1851–1941): Hard Times (1886) (Oxford, early 90s. They later thought better of it and moved this painting over to their Jude the Obscure)
John Middleton (1826–1856): A Landscape With a Horseman (ca. 1850) (Bantam, 80s and 90s)
Artist unknown: Storm on the Heath (Penguin. The result of a Bridgeman search for “Heath,” surely.)
George Inness (1825–1894): Medfield, Massachusetts (Barnes & Noble)
John Constable (1776–1837): Old Sarum (1829) (Reclam, 1989)

Some of these paintings are attractive but none seems quite honest about the book. I think those original Hopkins illustrations get something right about “the heath” that is misrepresented by all the editions of this book that put beautiful unpeopled landscapes on the cover. Despite all the words Hardy expends in describing Egdon Heath — the entire first chapter, and many other passages besides — it is absolutely and truly a backdrop, not a secret ur-subject.

“Really ultimately the book is about the heath itself” seems to me a very 20th-century, cheap way of reading, and a fairly ubiquitous one these days. Maybe it’s a post-Freudian anxiety: we’re so suspicious of “the subconscious,” of any thought that isn’t clearly foregrounded, that we can no longer have our attention directed to a background without believing that we’re being asked to promote it.

It’s as true for me as anyone! I have an embarrassingly hard time making sense of a passage that explicitly says “I’m going to go on at some length now about the background” and really means it. I needed to see that Hopkins illustration of Eustacia standing on the heath, actually, for it to click: background is background.

A picture of some raw mushrooms and onions and sausages would make a fine cover illustration for a pizza; a picture of a pizza crust with nothing on it would not.

With that excellent and valuable analogy, I can at long last bid this entry adieu.

October 1, 2019

Game log 7-9/19

Have been thinking of retiring this log but eh, I’ll at least go to the end of the year. Why not. Still would prefer to be doing multi-paragraph entries about books and movies. If only I could consistently get my brain to stay the course! Working on it. In the meantime here are some mostly bad games I played mostly very briefly.

Last one from the “Monochromatic” Bundle.

Oquonie (2014): David Lu Linvega (= David Mondou-Labbe) (Tokyo, Japan) [2.5 hrs]

A snazzy little doodad from a couple of digital nomads. Maze-puzzle as objet d’art in classic hipster/art-school style: bold, meticulous, superficial.

March 10, 2015: I buy the three DROD games I’ve never played, on sale for $7.82 at GOG. One of them, the last and longest one, remains unplayed today, but I’m still feeling my DROD marathon of last year and think some more delay is in order, so for now I’m skipping over it; this is just to wave at it out the train window. (And I still don’t feel ready to return to that Star Wars bundle, either.)

March 17, 2015: “Humble PC & Android Bundle 12” for $3.88 gets me nine games, seven of which are new. I had played none of them until now.

Tetrobot and Co. (2013): Swing Swing Submarine (Montpellier, France) [14 hrs]

I bought the bundle just for this. A worthy sequel to Blocks That Matter, which at the time of the sale I had posted about just the previous week. Better-than-average puzzles on a smooth difficulty curve. Still quirkily tactile, albeit a bit less so. Charming, flavorful music by the same guy. Low-key and genial; suitable for all.

Titan Attacks! (2006): Puppy Games (London?, UK) [2 hrs]

It’s good old Space Invaders, with glowing faux-pixel graphics and some added structure and variety to satisfy modern expectations. Not to say it wasn’t briefly diverting, but I get the impression that this developer likes fiddling with lighting effects more than he likes designing games.

The Inner World (2013): Studio Fizbin (Ludwigsburg, Germany) [5 hrs]

Oddball cartoon graphic adventure; well-intentioned and cute to look at, but irritating to play. The wacky whimsy is all too German, and the translation is dubious (LOOK AT MOSS > “That has moss written all over it.”) Everything moves too slowly, and the nonsensical puzzles are mostly under-indicated. Kind of dumb, frankly.

Next in this bundle is Ironclad Tactics, a game so overwhelmingly not my style that I am skipping it. For now? For good? I don’t know what to tell you. See below for more on this subject.

Eufloria HD (2009/2012): Omni Systems (Folkestone, UK) [played for 1 hr]

An exceedingly boring game about conquering featureless circles by waiting for grass to grow; pitched as “relaxing,” but bland pastels and ambient synth beats aren’t my relaxation style.

Solar Flux (2013): Firebrand Games (Glasgow, UK / Merritt Island, FL) [played for .5 hr]

Irritating momentum-nudging game of collecting space dots; I think it wants to be a somber cousin to Angry Birds.

Toast Time (2013): Force of Habit (Bristol, UK) [played for 1 hr]

Cutesy “retro” arcade shooter (with a particularly deadly case of FAKE PIXELS) where you’re a toaster that bounces wildly around the screen. Has some appeal but it’s clearly a phone game not really meant for computers.

June 10, 2015: Almost three months pass with no games added to my list! Good for me! Then GOG gives away Battle Realms for free so, yes, I click on it. Free is free.

It’s a real-time strategy game about warring clans in ancient Japan. I don’t have any interest in playing that, and never did.

When I started methodically going down my list like this, it was because I really thought that by dutifully playing each and every game, I could retroactively justify my senseless acts of compulsive acquisition, and maybe broaden my palate in the process. But I’m older and wiser/dumber now, so here are some facts: 1) Acts of compulsive acquisition aren’t actually senseless, and need no justification. They’re compulsions — what’s not to understand? And dwelling on past compulsive behavior, hoping to retroactively redeem it, only makes it loom larger in my life. If you regret something, just move on, dude! 2) My palate isn’t set in stone, but come on, it’s not a magic moonbeam either. I have certain tastes! No need to deny them indiscriminately.

So okay, that’s Battle Realms.

June 15, 2015: I pay $1.00 for “Humble Indie Bundle: All-Stars” because I’ve been meaning to play World of Goo for years and I’m happy to pay $1 for it. It happens to get me two other games, one of which is new to my collection.

World of Goo (2008): 2D Boy (= Kyle Gabler and Ron Carmel) (San Francisco, CA) [7 hrs]

The best “physics game” from a moment in time when physics games were suddenly the hot thing. Build towers and bridges out of ever-sagging rubbery triangles: this is a task well worthy of having a game built around it, and you’ll know it as soon as you try your hand; it’s immediately satisfying to play with. Most physics games fail to strike the right balance between freedom and constraint, but World of Goo pulls it off. The tasks are well-defined, but because the system is so blobby and imprecise, executing any given solution always requires flexibility. And the Dr. Seuss trappings are an inspired match.

Dustforce DX (2012/14): Hitbox Team (Portland, OR) [played for 1 hr]

Looks like a platformer, which I would usually play through, but is actually just an elaborate speedrun course, which doesn’t interest me. Also the anime-like emotional tone implicit in the character designs and the music really turns me off.

Oops, off the list for a second: a game was given away for free by Indiegala on August 1 (of 2019) that looked like it might be my kind of thing, so I played it. Forgive me.

Adventures of Shuggy (2011): Smudged Cat Games (= David Johnston & collaborators) (Littleport, UK) [6 hrs?]

A game out of time: a deep stack of very mildly puzzling one-screen things to do, which is a cheerful format from 30 years ago. “Puzzle-platformers” these days usually aspire to being actually hard. This does not, though the enemy-avoidance does test one’s patience. But in a friendly way. Charming, well-executed, and inconsequential (though I suppose the “avoid your past self” rooms have some slight interest). Downright old-fashioned! Great for kids, I’d think.

And then another dinky giveaway from Indiegala distracts me on August 17.

Puzzle Chambers (2017): Entertainment Forge (= Darko Peninger) (Pančevo, Serbia) [about 3.5 hours]

Unremarkable number-placing logic puzzles but with a charmingly gratuitous narrative presentation: the puzzles are on the floor of a Saw parody scenario and little characters walk and talk their way through. I stayed with it for the freewheeling homegrown dialogue, which is sprightly and dorky and unselfconscious, as though an eager preteen wrote it.

Back to the list.

6/21/15: “Humble Jumbo Bundle 4.” $4.19 to beat the average gets me six games. A week later they add three more for a total of nine. I only bought it because I was curious about The Stanley Parable.

Outland (2011): Housemarque (Helsinki, Finland) [played for 9 hrs]

Platformer with a parity-switching mechanic, as lifted from Ikaruga. Color-swapping obstacle courses are a good idea and there are some satisfying individual rooms, but the game as a whole is bland and repetitive. It’s a fake Metroid-like; actually just a linear guided tour. Art direction is superficially competent but the atmosphere doesn’t really cohere. Also it’s all too dark to see, and the character gets too small. Yet another one where I played up to the final boss and felt no need to finish it off. Frankly I should have stopped much earlier.

Fallen Enchantress: Legendary Heroes is an “empire-building” game in generic D&D fantasyland. I pass, without hesitation.

Mercenary Kings (2014): Tribute Games (Montreal, QC) [played for 1.5 hrs]

Lively cartoon action, excellent pixel animation in the style of Metal Slug, but ultimately this is a systems game rather than a progression game — collect collect collect! upgrade upgrade upgrade! — so it feels essentially static. The trailer tries to wow you with the overwhelming combinatoric possibilities for weapon configuration, which for me is a red flag.

Endless Space is another “empire-building” game, sci-fi this time. Keep in mind I can’t even get into Civilization. Pass.

The Stanley Parable (2013): Galactic Cafe (= Davey Wreden & William Pugh) (Austin, TX & Sowerby Bridge, UK) [3 hrs]

A clever comic performance, well worth the whole $4.19. Essentially the inversion of the Life of Brian “think for yourselves” joke: here the classic Authoritative British Narrator Voice wants to tell you a stirring interactive tale about thinking for yourself, but gets petulant when you don’t do exactly what he says. Wasn’t I just saying that choice in games wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be? Gratifying to see it punctured with such panache. Well staged and well delivered. I laughed aloud twice! Imagine that!

The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing II is a Diablo-style “Action RPG” that’s not particularly well liked. Considering that Torchlight is a beloved one of these and I didn’t even like that, I don’t think this is for me. Pass.

Screencheat has no single-player mode so that’s that. Pass.

Freedom Planet (2014): GalaxyTrail (= mostly Stephen DiDuro) (Waterloo, NY) [played for 2 hrs]

Overt Sonic the Hedgehog throwback. Well-built, but insufficiently tasty for me to want to go the distance — I never having been that much of a Sonic fan to begin with. Also the interstitial storytelling is truly unbearable, spastic furry-minded infantilism, and there is an incredible amount of it. Consider me off-put.

Coin Crypt (2013–14): Greg Lobanov (Philadelphia, PA) [played for 1 hr]

Battle using tokens in order to win more tokens, being careful never to run out of tokens. A worthy idea, but the presentation isn’t rewarding enough for me to want to put in the time learning the deck, the stats, etc. The more tabletop-like the game mechanics, the more look and feel matter to me.

September 3, 2015. A free giveaway from Indiegala:

The 39 Steps (2013): The Story Mechanics (Glasgow, Scotland, UK) [3.5 hrs]

Not a game but a so-called “visual novel,” i.e. a straight-ahead narrative presentation with nominal interactivity (e.g. “click the door to enter”) but no functional choices. The John Buchan book is a good choice of source material for such a thing, and all the illustration and audio has been done with a modicum of taste and care. The adaptation is certainly faithful and respectful. The effect is very similar to filmstrip presentations of olde: very mildly effective, and pleasantly soporific. Plenty of flaws too. I would love to see more and better work in this direction.

September 24, 2015. Free on Steam for a day, as a promotion for the remake thereof:

Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee (1997): Oddworld Inhabitants (San Luis Obispo, CA) [played for 6 hrs]

A big hit from years ago; glad to have finally played it. Attractive, tactile, atmospheric graphics with a stop-motion feel; wiggly-woggly story and character design have real spirit; gameplay distinctly superior to the rather similar Heart of Darkness. But: it is demanding, and one of its demands is a SEVEN SECOND WAIT every time you die, which happens constantly. After 6 hours of play I did not feel myself to be 6 hours into a game; more like 4 hours into a game and 2 hours of SEVEN SECOND WAIT. I really wanted to see it through but, alas, that degree of time-wastage is unendurable even for me. I wish someone had patched it to change just that one thing. Instead they remade it entirely, in ways that mostly seem to detract. A shame.

November 2, 2015. A free giveaway from Indiegala:

Litil Divil (1993): Gremlin Graphics (Sheffield, UK) [played for .25 hr]

You know the type: “half-baked, underdesigned game, but containing cartoon graphics that can be made to look good in screenshots on the box,” from the golden age of same. (A British Amiga game, in fact: the belly of the beast.) This one seems to have its charms, but still, why subject myself?

November 3, 2015 — the next day! Yet another free giveaway from Indiegala:

Lucius (2012): Shiver Games (Helsinki, Finland) [played for .25 hr]

Play as approximately ‘The Omen’ and kill your family one by one. Not sure that’s a good or tasteful concept, but I was willing to give it a chance because I’m a pushover for Mansion Horror. But this immediately reveals itself as ill-built. Feels like it has stray nails sticking out of it and I don’t want to cut myself.

Present day again! My sister tells me she saw a game she thinks I might like, and then a couple weeks later some nerds I know are all abuzz about the same game… so I say fine, it’s a sign and spend a full $14.99 to play it. Was that really advisable? Is that really something I should be doing? What can I say.

Untitled Goose Game (2019): House House (Melbourne, Australia) [3+ hrs]

Art! Not big art, but little art — which is simply to say that it makes you feel and think about things that aren’t other videogames. In a better world, that would be the baseline, but it’s not, it’s special, so let’s celebrate it. I adore the idea of responsive piano accompaniment and I’m very impressed with the execution… I just wish it hadn’t been famous classical pieces, whose vivisection I couldn’t help but find distracting. Oh well. The goose is a beaut. The situational dynamics, the emotions in play and the overall social vision, are so very much healthier and clear-headed than in most other games. The fresh air here feels like happiness offered on the level, not a sentimental escape offered to the needy. I think that’s why the game has become a sensation; it’s so immediate and obvious to anyone who touches it. I’m all for it.

August 14, 2019

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


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?


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


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.


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?


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 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?


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]


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, 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 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


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.

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.


CW1754, $1.50, 1982?

The “centered logo” phase.


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!)


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.


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.