I started the first draft of this blog post by doing the “hey, I’m still doing a series of related blog posts even though I normally give up on my series of related blog posts really quickly” speech. Then I started writing about the first thing I liked this month and I didn’t stop writing about the first thing I liked this month. So “things I liked” for February is actually going to be one thing I liked in February in tremendous detail.  If you’ve been reading this blog for more than never this should not at all surprise you.

I will go back to talk about some of the other things I liked in February at a future date, but I might talk about them in March. Because, after all, I’ll probably still like them in March. And the joy of living in the digital age is that you very, very rarely have to watch or read or play or listen to something at the same time as other people are doing it.

So, yes, the thing I like for February is probably not very good videogame about being a vampire. It’s called Vampyr. Yes, with a Y.

 There’s a certain pleasure in playing, or otherwise engaging with, something generally perceived to be mediocre. I think it gives you more freedom to enjoy the fuck out of it. Vampyr is, I guess, a double-A game? Is that a thing? As in, a game by an indie developer that has good enough production values that you don’t quite think of it as an indie game, but isn’t as swanky as a triple-A game.

You’d think games about being a vampire would be more common than they are, since, y’know, being a vampire is super fun. Or maybe I just think that because I grew up right in the middle of the Interview With The (Not A) Vampire into Buffy into Twilight vampstravaganza that was the mid-90s to mid-2000s because actually they’re a bit thin on the ground, and tend to have a reputation for being flawed but interesting. Troika’s Vampire: the Masquerade – Bloodlines being basically the poster child for flawed but interesting from the studio that was itself also a poster child for flawed but interesting. And Vampyr is no exception. You play an Edwardian doctor who, on returning from the First World War, finds London in the grip of a deadly pestilence. And then you become a vampire. Vampyr?

Anyway, it’s all just super intriguing as you have to balance your newly acquired vampire nature with the ethics and practicalities of being a doctor. This premise on its own helps the game avoid a pitfall that a lot of vampire games (both video and tabletop) stumble into, in that a really, really important part of the core vampire archetype is that you were once an ordinary person and then you get transformed into a monster driven by bloodlust, but most games pay little more than lip service to the “ordinary person” aspect of that and double down on the “now you are supernatural being who exists in a community of supernatural beings and does side quests for supernatural beings” aspect. Or to put it another way, a lot of games treat “ordinary person” as meaning just that: before you became a vampire you were some guy/girl, now you are a vampire. The protagonist of Vampyr has a specific identity, with friends and family and a history that interacts meaningfully with what follows.

I’m aware the game has flaws—the combat is not great, and there’s quite tedious sections of trying to get across London while fighting identikit enemies, the animations are adequate at best and sort of (non-deliberately) ghoulish at worst, the plot could probably have been slightly better developed, and I would have liked a bit more from some of the more significant supporting characters (especially the vampire hunter dude you have a sort of twisted foeyay with). But I found those flaws easy to overlook because the game has such strong themes and such a clear vision of what it wants to be, underscored by actually, really strong voice work from pretty much every character (especially the protagonist). I also really appreciate that it has a notable sense of place and time—it’s very specifically set in foggy, plague stricken London in the aftermath of the First World War, with all the social and political upheaval that implies. But where I find the game, or rather the wider context of the game, especially though-provoking is that some of the things that are widely regarded as flaws by the community (whatever that means – I think I mean people I’ve seen talking about the game on the internet) I tended to read as deliberate and, more importantly, effective creative choices.

So, to quote Noah Caldwell-Gervais, let’s get into it.

A lot of people don’t like that the game’s central romance is non-optional and somewhat subdued—I mean the protagonist (Jonathan Reid) will always fall head-over-heels for this random lady on the basis of three conversations, unless you actively seek more opportunities to talk to her (which I did). It still worked for me because the game has a very late 19th century / early 20th century vibe to it so you’d expect a, for want of a better word, courtship between two upper middle class people living in that world, one of whom is already centuries old, to have a certain mannered quality. There’s lots of quiet looks and tea, which I’m totally here for. I also appreciated that it felt mature in the actual sense, rather than in the “mature content” sense. You’re two adults who’ve lived full lives, and suffered a lot, who find each other in the middle of a vampire epidemic. You’re not two teenagers desperate to bone. As for the non-optionality, I think a lot of people forget that not all video game protagonists are supposed to be blank slates. Jonathan Reid is clearly a very specific person with a very specific story, and his relationship with Lady Ashbury is clearly part of that story. It’s not like a Bioware game where customising your build and picking your romantic interest are core elements of the expected experience.

This difference between a coherent story about a developed protagonist in a developed world and a customisable blank slate in a sandbox (which is what people are very primed to want from this sort of game) becomes even more marked when you look at the game’s side stories. Throughout Vampyr, you will encounter well-realised NPCs who have shit going on that super needs to be fixed and you super won’t be able to fix it. Pretty much the only option you have for interacting with someone else’s story is to kill and eat them. Because you are a vampire. And, for many people, this represents a failure of the game to provide what the industry has long since taken to referring to as “choice and consequence.” Which I find sort of fascinating because, if you look at it in a vacuum, that makes no sense. Maybe I’m wrong but I think if you took someone who’d never played a videogame before and said to them, okay so this man has a probably clinically depressed, maybe illegitimate son who he is raising alone since his wife died, and towards whom he cannot express emotional intimacy, their first instinct probably wouldn’t be “okay, I’ll just have a five minute conversation with each of them which should fix the kid’s depression and make the father get over his emotional hangups.” But if you take someone who’s been trained by years of increasingly streamlined RPGs that are sold explicitly on “C&C” that’s exactly what they’d expect to happen. Because it’s what would happen in any other game.

I have a particularly strong memory of a random encounter in a Dragon Age game (I think it’s II?) where you meet this elf who’s on a quest to kill the man who murdered his mother and you get to talk him out of it with literally one line of dialogue (which, as I seem to recall is, “Is this what your mother would have wanted” and to which strict genre convention prohibited him from replying “Yes, our culture has a deeply held tradition of blood vengeance”). And it felt so unbelievably shallow and cheap that, since then, I’ve been pleasantly surprised every time a game has reminded me that people don’t just sit around waiting for a player character to tell them what to think about their sincerest and most profound beliefs. All of which is to say, I liked the fact that you learn about the people in Jonathan Reid’s world but, apart from giving them the occasional headache pill, you can’t fix them or change them. I mean, change them into anything other than dead people.

The final thing that people don’t like about Vampyr is the way the game handles morality, and how this feeds into the game’s endings. Basically, the ending you get depends (as far as I can tell) only on how many people you’ve killed, and not especially on what sorts of people they were and why you killed them. Some players have a particular problem with the fact that to get the “best” ending, you have to have killed literally nobody (I mean, and okay this is a classic example of what the cool kids call ludonarrative dissonance, nobody outside the combat, where you can slaughter as many randoms as you like). Once again, this strikes me as people having a negative reaction as a result of the way they’ve been trained by other games. In most games that track kills, particularly games that track kills as a negative rather than a positive (for example Dishonored and its sequel) you can get away with a small amount of murder as long as you don’t go super trigger happy. But there are two important differences here. The first is that those games are usually specifically stealth-em-ups and avoiding killing is as much a matter of mechanical skill as moral choice (and, to be fair to Dishonored, on a low chaos Dishonored playthrough you’ll probably kill fewer random mooks than you do in “no kills” Vampyr playthrough). The second difference, which sort of relates, is that kills in stealth games tend to be about leaving evidence or destabilising a city, whereas in Vampyr they’re much more specifically about whether you’re a murderer or not. And, call me old fashioned, but I do think that there’s a meaningful difference between somebody who has murdered one person and somebody who has murdered zero people. And I don’t think it’s unreasonable for the game to recognise that.

The other bit of video game training that Vampyr trips people up on (and, again, the mandatory combat sequences do it no favours here) is that a lot of, I might even say most, RPGs distinguish between good kills and bad kills. The karma system in the Fallout games is a classic example here: it apparently inhabits a moral universe wherein shooting one innocent shopkeeper for fun and then shooting twenty bandits for the loot makes you a good person overall. In Vampyr, by contrast, a kill is a kill is a kill. Eating the serial killer or the slum landlord or the nice girl who sells flowers all make you a murderer.  And, bizarrely, a lot of people seem to feel this makes the game morally simplistic, when what it actually does is put the moral responsibility for your choices back on the player. We seem to have been habituated by decades of D&D derived alignment systems to view a moral choice as one in which you have to work out which of two options the game has pre-emptively labelled as good or bad. What’s interesting about the moral choices in Vampyr is it doesn’t give you that out. You can absolutely make the case that it is morally right to kill and eat the serial killer, because he’s making his mother’s life miserable, and also he’s a serial killer. But what makes that a choice is that it’s set against game mechanics which reinforce the reality that even so, you’re still murderin’ a dude.

Even more fascinating, Vampyr is the only vampire-based game I’ve seen that really recreates that degeneration into a killing machine that is supposed to be a constant temptation in the classic vampire archetype. And it’s exactly the much-maligned “one murder is one too many” policy that lets it do that. Normally, when you play a vampire game, you’re told your character has this hunger but you can’t really feel it, because you’re just sitting in a chair rolling dice or pressing buttons, and consequently it doesn’t really affect you or your decision-making. Vampyr, however, really doubles down on making the murdering incredibly tempting – mechanically (you get massive XP bonuses), morally (I repeat: serial killer) and emotionally (some of the NPCs are just total shits). For most of the game, I really steadfastly went for the “don’t kill anyone” ending, because I do, in fact, generally think that murdering people is wrong #unpopularopinions. But I will admit I did struggle with this for the aforesaid reasons of XP, shits and serial killers.

Then I met Carina Billows. She’s a former suffragette living on the streets of London, eating live rats because a vampire is messing with her mind, and just lucid enough to beg for death because it’s the only way to release her from her suffering. So, after angsting for a while, I ate her. But, of course, because I knew that eating her locked out the zero kills ending and that I had a little bit of flexibility on the “low kills” ending, suddenly the serial killer and the slumlord were looking way tastier. And this is a remarkable piece of structure, because essentially the game mechanics reinforce the argument behind their own design. The objection one could make to the best ending being locked behind zero kills is that it should be perfectly possible to kill one person as a vampire without particularly eroding your overall sense of the value of life. But, of course, killing one person in Vampyr literally erodes your overall sense of the value of life because your first killing is the only one that locks out the best ending and you know that you can still get a quite good ending by only killing a few people round the edges. So the game’s decision to distinguish mechanically between a player who kills one person and a player who kills zero people is reinforced by the way in which your first kill changes the game’s reward structure and your second kill doesn’t.

So anyway. Since I’d already killed Carina Billows, for what I felt were morally justifiable reasons, I killed the serial killer and justified this on the grounds that he was an actual serial killer. Then I killed Cadogan Bates, the slum landlord. And what really gets to me is that I knew it was totally personal. Don’t get me wrong he’s a terrible human being, who exploits and (it’s strongly implied) sexually abuses his tenants, but that’s clearly a wider social problem that is no way impacted by his death. Not only that, but he was only worth 1000XP. I genuinely just hated him. And that was the point where I stopped killing people because the game had actually given me the “oh my God, what have I become” moment that is such an important part of vampire fiction. If I could have looked at my bloodstained hands, I would have.

And I’m actually still thinking about the moral journey I went on even now. From a certain perspective, I find it very interesting, but slightly problematic, that the progression I had went from a killing that was basically euthanasia (which, as it happens, I do believe in) to a killing that is basically capital punishment (which, as it happens, I don’t believe in) to outright murder because I didn’t like someone’s face. There’s part of me which feels that the game artificially pushed me into a slippery slope argument because it mechanically encourages you to view every murder after the first as less significant (I think you can get away with 3-4 before you get the “I have gone too far” ending). But another, and I think larger, part of me feels like the game challenged me in good faith to interrogate my own assumptions. Because it treats all killings as equal it doesn’t feel like it’s making a specific argument for or against killing for any particular reason. I happen to believe that consensual euthanasia is categorically different from murder but I know there are plenty of people who believe the same thing about capital punishment. And what the game does, in both contexts, is essentially ask you “yeah, okay, but what if it’s not?” And that’s … pretty much the opposite of morally simplistic.

So … yeah. That’s Vampyr. Don’t get me wrong, it does have significant issues and if you’re not already a gamer, or not already really into vampires, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it. But it’s been one of the best experiences I’ve had in a game for a really long time, precisely because it made me think about things I normally just take for granted.

Anyway, I’ll be back next month with an list of things I enjoyed in March, which hopefully won’t be three thousand words talking about a single video game.

As ever, feel free to tell me what you’ve been enjoying in the comments. Or don’t.


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Happy new year! I kind of eschewed doing an end of year wrap up for 2018 because, well, I had other things on my mind and I really thought it was the last thing the universe needed.

However, I’m glad to be starting 2019 with yet another list of stuff I’m into.

Company (at the Gielgud)

Sondheim is weird. Like, there’s no two ways about it, Sondheim is weird. Things he has written musicals about include, a fictional Victorian serial killer, real 19th and 20th century murderers, pointillism, and fairytales. In some ways, Company is one of his oddest musicals because, to paraphrase his own description of it, it’s basically a musical about the sorts of people who go and see musicals. Which is to say, middle class people in their 30s who aren’t quite sure what they want from life, but have a nebulous feeling they’re doing it wrong. In a lot of ways, it’s kind of dated. The original story about a man in his thirties who isn’t married but has a broad and eclectic group of friends who are is still sort of relatable in some ways in that, in any given friendship group, there’s going to be one person who’s the last to get a partner. But culturally-speaking we’re a lot less concerned with being settled down by 28 than we were in 1970, so the show loses quite a lot of its emotional force because instead of thinking “I wonder why that nice man isn’t married yet” you’re thinking “I wonder why that nice man hangs out with these bizarrely out of touch people.”

Anyway, the shtick with the current Gielgud Theatre revival (which I think is running til March now, so if you’re in the UK, and like going to the theatre, and particularly like Sondheim, which I’m very aware is an acquired taste, you can still check it out) is that they’ve re-gendered the central character, and made a couple tweaks to the friends so that their relationships feel a bit less, well, mid-20th century (so a few of them are interracial, one of the couples have had their genders flipped, and another couple is same-sex now). And it works amazingly well. So well, allegedly, that one crew member who was unaware of the original genuinely didn’t understand how it made sense with a male central character.

To use a phrase I have no doubt I’ll get letters about out of context, I feel quite ambivalent about gender-flipping things. This isn’t to say that I never think it’s good, or interesting, or worthwhile, and I’m not one of those people who gets on their high horse because A Woman/Black/Gay Couldn’t Do That In The Historical/Cultural/Original Context. But sometimes gender-flips get done naively and in a way that just flat out doesn’t work. And, obviously, this depends a lot on what you’re flipping.

To get needlessly pseudy for a moment and work with purely Shakespearean examples, gender-flipping, say, Prospero (which has been done) is basically a totally neutral call because, unless you want to pull some kind problematic bullshit about how a woman would have a harder time surviving alone on an island, it’s not really a gendered role. I mean, yes, technically a woman would never have been Duke of Milan but the political reality of 17th century Italy is just not at all relevant to The Tempest. Conversely, if you wanted to gender-flip Taming of the Shrew, you’d need to do a lot more heavy lifting because it’s an explicitly (and unpleasantly) gendered story. And there are things you could do with it—weirdly you could argue that gender-flipping it might enable a modern audience to see it as the light-hearted comedy it was always intended to be, rather than the harrowing tale of domestic abuse it tends to read as these days. But you can’t re-gender the characters without utterly changing the way the narrative comes across.

From this perspective, Company is in a really weird position. On the one hand, the protagonist’s gender is a massive part of how the story works. On the other hand, our cultural expectations for men 30s (and, for that matter, women in their 30s) have shifted such an enormous amount since 1970 that gender-flipping the show is in some ways much less of a problem than updating it. Strangely, gender-flipping the character of Bobby actually goes a long way towards helping Company stay relevant, despite its somewhat outdated mores. Because while you would no longer look twice at a 35 year old man who was refusing to settle down and spending his evenings hooking up with hipsters and hot stewardesses, a 35 year old woman who tried to live the same way would, well, probably get looked at twice.

And, obviously, it’s not as simple as standards for 30-something women today aligning with standards for 30-something men 50 years ago. But the show also does a really good job of making the changes it needs to turn a story about the latter into a story about the former. It’s unexpectedly more tragic with a female central character because, ultimately, the original—for all that Bobby comes across as fairly sympathetic and has some really moving songs and is portrayed compassionately—is about an immature manchild who is scared of responsibility. The re-gendered version is more complicated than that because it’s set against, and I appreciate this is an unhelpful shorthand, the “having it all” narrative. Even in 2018 marriage for men is pretty much a flat bonus. There’s no implication that a 35 year old man who gets married is going to have to sacrifice anything except for things he should probably have given up on at least 6 years ago (see: stewardesses, hot). Whereas in 2018 (and I’m conscious I’m quite a long way outside my lane here) marriage for women has gone from “the only thing you’re expected to aspire to” to “one of several possible aspirations that are assumed to conflict with one another.” And, actually, one of the things that makes this version of that story interesting is that, because it started out as a story about a bloke in the 70s, there isn’t any particular implication that Bobbi has remained unmarried because she wants to focus on her career or because she has particularly strong objections to marriage as an institution. Instead, she’s restless, and nebulously discontent, and under increasing social pressure from her friends to resolve that restlessness and discontentment by doing something she knows may change her life in ways she doesn’t want and doesn’t seem to be offering her what she’s looking for.

I’ve now written over a thousand words about this show so I’d probably wrap it out. But basically everything about it is awesome: the casting is excellent, the staging is amazing, Patti LuPone is in it and I’d say she’s fabulous but she’s Patti Fucking LuPone, of course she’s fabulous. I think there are two ways to tell that you’ve really enjoyed a show. The first is if you come out and immediately want to see the show again, which is the feeling I got from Hamilton and Les Miserables. The second is if you come out and never want to see another production because you cannot imagine it living up. And that’s what I got from this version of Company.

The Musical Drinkingware Game

One of the items of merchandising you can purchase from the current production of Company is a mug that says “I’ll drink to that.” I really wish I’d bought one, but I didn’t, and anyway I kind of have too many mugs already.

It did, however, mean that we got to spend the entire interval playing the Quotes From Musicals You Could Put On Drinking Vessels And Sell As Merchandising For That Musical game (or the QFMYCPODVASAMFTM game for short).

Here are some of our favourites:

  • A mug with ‘Drink with me to days gone by” from Les Miserables
  • A pint glass or tankard with “Would you like a drop of ale” from Sweeney Todd
  • A set of six shot glasses, saying severally “I’m”, “Not”, “Throwing”, “Away”, “My”, and “Shot” from Hamilton. (And, incidentally, I’d be amazed if this didn’t exist already)
  • “No more notes, no more ghost, here’s a health, here’s toast” from Phantom of the Opera, on any kind of drinking vessel or, indeed, a notebook.

Do feel free to play in the comments.

Dragon Quest XI

The thing about Dragon Quest games is that they’re always exactly the same. This is what I love about them, and DQXI is, by definition, no exception. I think what I find really engaging about them is that they’re designed along different principles to games that are big in the west: they’re the gaming equivalent of a book you read before bedtime. Every session is designed to be pretty, gentle, engaging, and satisfying in about twenty minutes. You’ll fight a few adorable monsters, you’ll get a bit of story, you’ll wander through the gorgeous countryside, you’ll giggle at the puns, you’ll chat a bit with your charming companions. And then you’ll stop, quietly looking forward to picking the game up again, but feel no particular pressure to carry on right there and then.

The problem with being a grown up is that fitting gaming into your life is actually quite difficult. Wading through 100 hours of densely plotted, strategically complex, lore-heavy drama is all well and good, and I’ll always love that stuff, but, honestly, by the time I’d finished The Witcher III (and, for that matter, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey) I’d forgotten what had happened at the beginning. And, actually, I’ll probably spend about 100 hours playing DQXI as well but the difference is that big AAA games expect you to put a 100 hours into them in exchange for the narrative or mechanical experience you get, whereas Dragon Quest expects to get 100 hours out of it in low investment twenty minute bursts.

DQXI has successfully managed to modernise itself in small quality-of-life type ways (there’s hardly any loading screens, you get a horse to gallop around on, the map notes points of interest for you) while remaining completely true to the core values and general style of the Dragon Quest series. Being the smoothest, and glossiest, and shiniest it’s a really good starting point for the series if you’re happy to engage with it on its own terms, instead of looking for something it’s never been trying to be.

It’s made me very happy. Also it’s got one of the most explicitly and positively queer companions I’ve seen in a JPRG so far—and by explicit, I mean, nobody ever talks about it, but he’s terribly, terribly fabulous, has a harem of beautiful boys who follow him around adoringly, and, despite all of his special moves, involving dancing and blowing kisses, he’s an interesting mixture of hyper-feminine and quite macho. He was raised to be a knight, so he approaches the world with a set of very traditional knightly virtues, he just chooses to express them in an outrageously flamboyant way. And, obviously, the conflation of male queerness and femininity is problematic, but it’s one of the few times I’ve seen a game inviting you to admire and be charming by this sort of character’s approach to the world, rather than laughing at it.

PS: if you’re interested in DQ or this DQ in particular, there’s a great Kotaku video about it from a self-confessedly raging DQ fanboy. But I find his understanding of the core values of the series, and this enthusiasm for them, really endearing.

The Hbomberguy Donkey Kong Stream Thing

This was honestly just the nicest way to start 2019.

Probably the best way for me to explain the background to this for those who don’t know is to link you to his original video but basically the story was like this: Mermaids is a UK charity that works with children and young people with gender dysphoria, they got a small grant from the UK National Lottery, and this made a minor celebrity really, really angry because apparently we shouldn’t be using the funds from the spurious legalised gambling that is run by a state approved but ultimately for profit company to help children. Said minor celebrity got on Mumsnet, and orchestrated a series of letters of concerns to someone at the lottery regulator and got the whole grant put under review. In response to this, Hbomberguy (who is a left-wing, Youtube essayist whose videos I’ve been following for a while) organised a nonstop livestream of Donkey Kong 64 with the aim of raising about £3000 for Mermaids.

It wound up raising $340,000.

Basically, it felt like the entire internet (and, with my humility hat on I should point out that what I really mean is the subset of the internet that happens to agree with me on social issues) turned out for this, including Chelsea Manning, Mara Wilson and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

And, obviously, it’s complicated because when this kind of thing goes high profile it can just entrench culture war narratives and lead to greater polarisation on both sides. But, you know what, it’s a nice thing. A charity that I happen to think does good and important work in an area that I support got a lot of money and publicity as a consequence of somebody who I would interpret as mean spirited trying to mess with it.

So. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a positive. And, actually, it was really nice watching it happening.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

I’m terrified that I’ve reached the stage in my life that the majority of my TV watching is me re-visiting shows that I remember from twenty-plus years ago. But, hey, Buffy’s on Amazon Prime now, and so I’m watching it.

It’s really weird feeling. It’s about one half joyful nostalgia and things actually being as good as or better than I remember them being, especially the episodes that I remember kind of sucking, which are actually usually perfectly serviceable. And one half excruciating awareness that things have changed quite a lot.

Perhaps I just have a distorted perspective on this, but what really impressed me was how not-dated a lot of it seems. The show seems to have made a deliberate strategic choice to try and evoke a fairly non-specific sense of teenagerness, which means that—looking back on it—it doesn’t look like a show set in a high school in the 1990s. It just looks like a show set in a high school. The way the characters talk is unique to them (and was famously so at the time—I seem to recall you could buy guides to Buffyspeak), the way they dress was mocked 20 years ago for being nothing like any sensible teenager would dress but now looks, well, still nothing like any sensible teenager would dress but not in a dated way. Even the music in the Bronze isn’t iconic 90s music. It’s random Indie bands that give the show its own bespoke soundtrack. As long as the characters aren’t talking about, or using, computers you could genuinely forget that it wasn’t set in 2018. Or maybe I’m just one of those old men who assumes that stuff from his youth is still bang up-to-date and down with the kids.

I think where it’s aged less well, ironically, are the areas where it was progressive or mould-breaking in its time. Not to put too fine a point on it, the notion of a high action show with a female protagonist who gets to fight monsters and kiss boys is no longer radical. For all the reasons, I hesitate to give a cisgendered white man credit for altering the way women are portrayed in popular culture but I think it’s quite hard to deny that Buffy’s effect on that particular subgenre of television was similar to The Matrix’s effect on action movies. You could see its fingerprints in everything that came out for about five years afterwards, and for a long time “conventionally hot kick ass heroine” was kind of the gold standard for a certain kind of pop culture, hence Alias, Dark Angel, Charmed, Veronica Mars, etc. And gradually that evolved, especially post-Twilight, into shows that put a lot more emphasis on the kissing and less on the punching (True Blood, Vampire Diaries and so on). And then, of course, you got the shows where people appeared to have watched Buffy and said, “you know, I like this chosen one fights monsters thing, but wouldn’t be a cool twist if the protagonist were straight white men”, hence Supernatural and Grimm. Point is, the ideas that were laid out in Buffy have been thoroughly explored since from a variety of different perspectives and this has rendered strangely archaic in retrospect.

I think also, just social attitudes have moved on quite a bit. So, for example, Xander’s persistent unwillingness to accept that Buffy just isn’t into him for about two seasons, and his deeply toxic hostility towards Angel that we’re just kind of supposed to accept as normal behaviour for a guy who likes a girl, reads as way more problematic than I remember it doing it in the late 90s. On top of which it’s a bit weird that this show as such a reputation for and was so explicitly designed to centralise (terrible phrase alert) strong female characters arguably does a better job with its beta male everyman than it does with basically any of the women in it. And, don’t get me wrong, I love Buffy (the character), especially in the early seasons when she still had interests other than making speeches, but I think it is noticeable that the show still comes from a time when the only character traits women were allowed to have on TV boiled down to “accepts or rejects stereotypically feminine behaviour.”

The impression I get looking back is that there were just so many more tools to use in the late 1990s for rounding out the character of Xander than were for rounding out the character of Buffy. It is, I think, noticeable that Xander is the only character who gets a whole episode (The Zeppo) highlighting his perspective on and his feelings about his role in the Scooby gang and how that interacts with his self-perception and self-identity. Cordelia comes close in The Wish but she actually gets killed about halfway into the episode and, at the end, the whole thing is erased from her memory so she gets zero character development from it. Buffy is obviously at the centre of all the major story arcs but they almost always focus around her role as the Slayer and when they don’t they’re contrasted against her role as the Slayer (like The Body, where she has to deal with the fact her powers won’t let her save her mother). Basically, Buffy is always a superposition of two archetypes (teenage girl and vampire slayer—the clue is very much in the name of the show here) but Xander gets to be an actual person, with hangs ups and neuroses and feelings and motivations that are consistently explored.

Also he gets with, like, everybody. Apart from Buffy, he dates, kisses or has sex with pretty much every single recurring female character who isn’t over thirty, under fifteen or a lesbian. What’s with that?

And finally…

I just really enjoyed this.

As ever, tell me what you’re liking in the comments. Or, y’know, don’t.


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Welcome back to another edition of Things I Liked, and gosh don’t the months go by quickly? On the other hand, this is the third instalment of this series, which means I’ve actually stuck to it for far longer than I have basically anything else except Hugh Grant. Go me.

Anyway, here’s stuff I liked in December.

The Holiday Period

I’m not really a massive fan of huge public celebrations. But it’s hard not to get caught up in the general air of harmless and directionless cheerfulness that attends the holiday season. It’s just kind of nice to have pretty lights everywhere when it’s otherwise just cold and dark and miserable. Also I’m a big fan of long periods of time off work. And there’s something about this particular long period of time off work that feels doubly permissive. I’m usually the sort of person who spends at least half my holiday fretting about all the stuff I need to be getting done before I once again have zero time, but the thing about Christmas is that you have complete licence to say “well, it’s Christmas” when you’re deciding to do your taxes later, put off the cleaning, or buy an extra box of Ferrero Rocher.

So, least controversial opinion I’ve probably ever had. Christmas is good. Hope you’re all enjoying the holiday period too.

My Planner

I wrote in my planner that I should write about my planner in the Things I Liked article that I also wrote down that I had to write in my planner. Then I wrote a whole article about my planner that was on a different list in a different part of my planner. Point is, I really love my planner and you can read all my about it here.

An Article by Heather Alexandra

A couple of days ago one of Kotaku’s staff writers published this piece about going back to the Star Wars MMO after years of absence. It’s a kind of melancholy, hopeful article about MMOs as both digital and emotional spaces, and it got me right in the feels because it touches on exactly the sort of ideas that led me to write Looking For Group. And now I feel really awkward because I’m worried that it looks like I’m using somebody else’s work to plug my back catalogue (available on iTunes). But mostly for me it was that thing that Alan Bennett talks about The History Boys when you read something that somebody else has written and it articulates so perfectly an experience you thought was private to you. Again, I don’t want to be talking too much about myself here—although, y’know what, screw it, it’s my blog—but while LFG has never been one of my most popular books it’s the one that seems to have inspired that Alan Bennett reaction in other people. I think because it’s about something so specific that’s very strongly recognisable to those who have invested in it, but seldom gets talked about. So, in a weird way, reading Heather’s article closed that loop for me because it said to me what I hope LFG says to other people.

Ferrero Rocher

I don’t even know if you have these in America, and if you do they’re probably called something like Jed’s Crunchy Nutballs. But they’re kind of chocolates with delusions of grandeur—famously advertised in the 80s as the kind of thing you would literally serve at an Embassy Ball, specifically, with the line “the Ambassador’s receptions are noted in society for their host’s exquisite taste, which captivates his guests”. And this is something you can buy from Sainsbury’s for a fiver.

They are, in all honesty, quite nice – being a hazelnut, in squidgy chocolate, surrounded by wafer (in the 80s, nothing was classier than wafer), coated in less squidgy chocolate, with nuts in. But they look rubbish, since they’re knobbly balls wrapped in gold foil, and you would in no way serve them to foreign dignitaries. And, if you did, they would certainly not reply “Monsieur, with zis rocher you are really spoiling us.”

But for some reason I really enjoy them at Christmas, which is the only time of year I ever get them.

Sarah Phelps’ Agatha Christies for the BBC

For the past four years, which basically makes it a beloved and eternal tradition, every Christmas the BBC has commissioned a writer called Sarah Phelps to produce a modern adaption of a classic Agatha Christie story. So far, two of them have been quite obscure (Witness for the Prosecution, Ordeal by Innocence), one has been an iconic standalone (And Then There Were None), and the most recent is both iconic and an actual Poirot (The ABC Murders). What they have in common, beyond their source, is that they’re kind of edgy, moody adaptations that are all about post-war anxiety and its very real parallels with modern social problems around which an Agatha Christie is stitched very, very loosely.

I said that these adaptations were becoming a beloved Christmas tradition when it might more accurate to say that it’s becoming a beloved Christmas tradition for the BBC to put out a new Sarah Phelps adaptation of an Agatha Christie novel and for the internet to lose its fucking shit. The thing is that A Crizzle was very much a mystery writer in the classic puzzle box mould. Your only duty when reading an Agatha Christie is to work out which of the details that she deliberately put into the book are clues and thereby determine which of the often cipher-like characters you are being told committed the murder. The classic mystery novel is almost like a cryptic crossword: it has its own set of rules and principles, wholly divorced from anything else, and fans engage with it as a purely intellectual exercise.  The other thing is, that Sarah Phelps has zero interest in that kind of story and, instead, wants to make a TV drama with characters and themes.

And, to an extent, you can do both, because the clue stuff has already been done, and there isn’t much work for an adaptor to do there, so putting your time and effort into telling an actual story that’s relevant to a modern audience is probably a good call. But, of course, there is another perspective which TV tropes helpfully summarises as “they changed it, and now it sucks.” If I was feeling self-servingly high-minded I’d say that which side of the fence you come on is primarily a factor of your personal philosophy of adaptation, and whether you believe that translating a work to a new medium should be an inherently conservative or an inherently transformative process. If I’m being honesty with myself, I suspect it has at least as much to do with how much you like the original.

Last year’s production (Ordeal by Innocence) was especially controversial because Phelps didn’t just add a bunch of themes that weren’t in the book, she completely changed who the murderer was. And while on an abstract level I could understand that changing who the killer is in a genre where that’s literally the whole point should probably be kind of taboo (it strays perilously close to those 19th century versions of Shakespeare where people don’t die in the tragedies) I thought it worked fine as a drama and, when I Wikipedia-ed the original ending, I was really glad they hadn’t gone with it as it was kind of shit.

This year’s mystery is the ABC Murders but because it’s kind of what this series does they’ve added a whole bunch of slightly odd commentary about immigration. It’s a Poirot and Poirot’s backstory has always been that he’s a Belgian policeman who came to live in England after the war (which from Christie’s perspective and, I strongly suspect from the perspective of 1920s England, was super not a big deal) and the story seems to want to be as much about Poirot’s experience as a refugee as about the murders. And this is where I have to accept that my highfalutin belief in the transformative nature of adaptation butts up against the fact that I kind of like Poirot.

I mean, I’m incredibly here for John Malkovitch’s performance as slightly past-it, somewhat tormented Hercule Poirot and I actually think alternative interpretations of iconic detectives can be quite powerful (after all, people have been doing what they like with Sherlock Holmes since Conan Doyle gave them explicit permission to do so in exactly those words). And I even think that the fact that Poirot is an immigrant (who, as we know from Hamilton, get the job done) is an interesting element of his character that I’ve never seen explored before. It’s just that, particularly given where we are right now, it seems to be really, really, really pointedly about Brexit. Like to the extent I’m beginning to find it distracting. And while all the other adaptations have had slightly specious themes in them that weren’t from the original book, they also didn’t seem quite so ripped from the headlines or tacked on. Because, y’know, I’m upset about Brexit too. And I can actually recognise the value of trying to tell a story the re-appropriates the War (which is often used to prop up quite parochialist, quite little-Englandist ideas about Britain standing alone against the world) as a story about the importance of international cooperation and strong ties to Europe. I just don’t think it fits with Poirot. And I suppose if I’m being objective that’s kind of what all of the other complaints have been about as well. It’s just here, because I know the source material better, and because I have such strong sense that it is supposed to be a baffling mystery about a serial killer, not a searing indictment of a culture that grows increasingly hostile to foreigners, that it feels really jarring to me.

Um. I appreciate that this is supposed to be the things I’m enjoying article, and I do actually love the Sarah Phelps Christies, and not only am I enjoying the ABC Murders so much that I watched it live (I know, what is this, 1874?) but I also intend to re-binge the last three as well, and John Malkovitch is great as sad, old Poirot, it’s just this one, for me, works less well than the others. And apparently whether I think something is working or not has less impact than I’d have thought it would about whether or not I enjoy it.

And that’s it for December. As ever, I’d love to hear what you’ve been enjoying in the comments. If you’d enjoy telling me. If not, then don’t.


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Soooo…I’m a touch self-conscious here because I tend not to blog about writing itself. It’s such a subjective undertaking I have no idea what I could possibly say that could be useful or interesting to someone else. And on top of that I’m genuinely uncertain of the degree to which writers-burbling-on-about-writing is alienating to readers. I mean, for myself I kind of think books are like sausages: way easier to enjoy when you don’t know how they’re made. And say what you will about reviewing every Hugh Grant movie ever, at least it’s universally bizarre.

Anyway, this post isn’t precisely about writing. It’s more writing-adjacent. So, y’know, take it or leave it as the fancy takes you. But what it comes down to is this. On the 30th August 2018 I changed my life as a writer. Logistically, psychologically, totally. And the thing about writing is that you always think there are things that are going to change your life—awards, reviews, contracts, advances, whatever. But the truth is, unless you start your career with a seven figure book deal and shoot straight onto the NYT bestseller list, for most of us they don’t. I think it’s impossible to completely shake the sense that there is A Thing out there somewhere that will make a sudden and demonstrable difference to where you are and what you’re doing. But mostly (though admittedly not always successfully because I’m only human) I just try to concentrate on the bit I like best, which is the writing, make decisions that give me the most freedom to get on with that in my own way, and let the rest handle itself.

All of which meant I wasn’t really prepared—or indeed looking—for seismic, meaningful shifts in what writing could be like for me.

And then I bought a planner.

Best investment I ever made in my writing, I swear to God. Of course, I’ve long been aware that I need something in place to keep me organised, since writing involves at least as much administration as it does creativity. Besides, I have a demanding full time job and I also want to have things in my life like fun and a relationship and the option to leave the house occasionally. It’s just I’d never quite managed to crack the code of my own needs in this particular area. I worked my way through pretty much every digital solution out there before finally recognising that, for me at least, some shit just has to be on paper. Then I had a bullet journal for the best part of a year, which was the closest I got to something broadly functional.


There came a point when the very flexibility of bullet journaling—the reason I got into it in the first place—passed from advantage into disadvantage. Bullet journaling has a lot of unnecessarily complicated lingo around it but, honestly, you just draw your own planner: on an annual basis, you do a yearly overview, on a monthly basis you do a monthly overview, then you have a daily task list. And obviously you can make all of these elements look however you like. You can just write stuff down, you can draw boxes, you can be as arty and fabulous as you’re capable of and interested in being.

The thing is, though, I’m neither capable nor interested in being arty and fabulous.  Having to draw up a “monthly spread” every month pretty soon became a chore, and I stopped doing it, despite the fact that I do actually need an overview of my month so I know what the fuck is happening. My “daily log” became scrappy to-do lists that were either so long they were intimidating or so short they were unnecessary, and eventually I became less inclined to update them as well. I told myself that this was another positive feature of bullet journaling. After all, if I didn’t need a daily log that day, I didn’t have to do one. But this just meant I had no sense of progression through my tasks or my writing, and no sense of ever achieving of anything (regardless of whether I did or not). Everything felt very sporadic and half-hearted. Mainly, err, because it was.

I should also emphasise that this was a problem with me, not a problem with bullet journaling. Sort of the whole deal with bujo is—because it’s wholly customisable—any fuck ups are your own fuck ups. I suspect I could have come up with a workable system if I’d put a bit more effort into it, but by this point I’d run out of energy and enthusiasm. I wanted the workable system to be right there in front of me, rather than requiring monthly transcription from my head to a blank page. So I did what I sometimes do when a problem seems beyond the capacity of my spoons: I threw money at it.

And bought a damn planner.

Ironically, of course, planners require planning. There’s a tonne of them out there, all of them fashioned to meet a different set of priorities, which may or may not work for you. For me, the simplicity of my needs actually made it a fairly straightforward decision. My planner is for writing, and writing alone, although I do occasionally put things in it that I see as writing-relevant in the sense they cut into writing time (so, outings, social events, non-writing related appointments, and unavoidable tasks like dramatic acts of house cleaning). A lot of planners are targeted at people who want something more holistic but sections for daily goals, meal planning, gratitude logs and what-have-you are nothing but noise to me. So what that all comes down to is this: I need a planner that includes none of those things, while still having more structure than that offered by a bullet journal. The other relevant issue is where and how you use your planner geographically speaking. Mine sits squarely on my desk and doesn’t move, which means I don’t have to worry about its weight, its dimensions or its durability. I might have made different choices if I was intending to hoik the thing around with me on a regular basis. But as I’m not I could comfortably seek out the Latrice Royale of the planner world: chunky yet funky, large and in charge.

For me, this is the Erin Condren LifePlanner TM, the most outrageously over-priced over-branded, and over-American planner on the market. But, dammit, it’s exactly what I need and I love it. And although rationally I think I should probably resent the $60 I forked over for it … in practice I do not. I mean, I use the thing literally every day and it covers about 16 months. So that’s approximately 480 days of planner-ness, which is about 12 cents per day. Not that I’m telling you to run out and buy a $60 planner. Just that it’s okay to do that if you want. And I’m not specifically recommending this planner over other planners. It just happens to be the planner that works for me.

Something I struggle with a lot in writing, and talking about writing especially, is the amount of what I perceive of as gatekeeping. It sometimes feels like wherever you look someone is telling you buy this computer programme, or read this book, or join this organisation, or else you’re doing it wrong. Whereas I strongly believe that writing is something anyone can theoretically do—I mean, whether you’re any good at it is a different issue, but that should be independent of being able to afford to go to workshops, or buy Scrivener, or enjoy a view of a sunset over the Adriatic while planning chapter 8. And while I’m pretty committed to this position, it does mean I sometimes go too far the other way, in that I’m so terrified of contributing to a culture which positions writing as inaccessibly special that I often don’t believe my own work is real.

For some reason, buying a planner changed everything. I’m not saying it magic bulleted all the usual author insecurities, or the raging imposture syndrome that dominates pretty much everything I do in a writing-related sphere, but for the first time in the five or six years that I’ve been doing this I’ve been able to stop treating my writing as a peculiar accident I’m somehow involved in. And accept it, far more comfortably than I ever imagined possible, as a job.

To be honest, the $60 helped with this. I continue to believe spending money on writing isn’t, and shouldn’t be, necessary. But sometimes it really helps to be able to say to yourself: this is important to me and, therefore, worth my investment. And there’s a difference between a totem and a tool, although there’s also some overlap. To put it another way, you don’t need to spend $9599.60 on a Nesmuk Jahrhundertmesser to chop up a carrot, but if you’re serious about cooking it’s sensible to own some decent kitchen knives.

The second thing my planner does for me is that makes what I do—which mostly boils down to staring at my screen in an empty room with a funny look on my face—less amorphous. It is incredibly easy, I think, for writing and writing-related tasks like keeping up with social media, emailing your agent or remembering to scan your proofs for your editor, to seem unreal because, when you get right down to it, they are completely abstract. If you work in an ice-cream parlour and someone asks you for an ice-cream and you give them an ice-cream and they give you some money it’s pretty damn clear what’s happening and what your role in it was. As far as books are concerned, you’ll spend months and years plugging away at something. Then, if you’re super lucky, six to eight months after that you might get a contract for it. And a year or two after that it might be available to the public. No wonder it often feels like you’re doing a nothing that takes ages and affects nobody. But my planner allows me to give writing, and all the things connected to writing, a concrete reality outside of my own head. And, yes, the concrete reality is just words on a page—a record of my word count, an appointment with my agent, a deadline by which proofs are due—but, hell’s bells, at the end of the day I am a writer. Words on pages mean something to me.

And, finally, my planner is an understanding colleague. I don’t know what it’s like to write full-time. I imagine, if I did, I would treat it like any other job and try to do writing, and writing-related tasks, from 9-5 and then stop. Although probably I would not actually do this. I would end up staying up til 3 and then sleep til 2 and then wander around being confused until 3 again. But because I’m a part-time writer, writing takes place always in the margins—in the hour before I go to bed, on a Saturday afternoon before friends come round for board games. I don’t resent this at all, but it does mean there’s never quite enough time, and there’s always a sense that I could, or should, be doing more. I can remember feeling very much the same way when I was at university. No matter how much I worked, which admittedly wasn’t nearly enough because I was eighteen years old with all the self-discipline of a fruitfly, there was always a persistent buzz at the back of my brain reminding me that there was always potentially time for more.  I could always have gone to one more lecture. Stayed in the library half an hour longer. Got out of bed half an hour earlier. It’s perilously easy for writing to slip into this space. For it to become something you flagellate yourself with instead of enjoy, no matter how much you love it.

My planner forgives me for the days I scrawl “too tired” over the word count space or cover it with a “lazy day” sticker because I somehow managed 2000 words yesterday. If I look down and see a substantial list of administrative tasks, I don’t worry too much if my word count is only 500 words or 200 or none. Last week my word count was zero. But my planner was filled with pre-holiday stuff and preparations for Venice. And this week I blocked out two full days with stickers that said “recover from Venice” – and let myself do nothing. If I start to get angsty I simply turn back the pages and see the days I spent proofing. The afternoon I wrote a synopsis. The Sunday where I answered ten emails. The week where I somehow got down 14k words.

In short, my planner gives me permission both to write and to not write. Something I never realised I desperately needed until I got it. And probably what has been this wild revelation to me is searingly obvious to everyone else. But I guess I just thought I’d share it anyway. I’m not really comfortable trying to offer advice, at least not on these sort of subjects. I mean, if you want to know which Arkham Horror LCG expansion to start with or what Hugh Grant movie to avoid I’m totally here for you. But writing-wise, whether you’re published or not, I think what I’m trying to say is: it’s okay to help yourself believe in what you’re doing. For me that looks like a planner. Maybe it could look like a planner for you too. Or maybe not. Either way, it’s all good.



Welcomeback to another “things I have liked this month” post in which I talk, and theclue is very much in the title, about things I have liked this month.

Total War: Warhammer II – Curse of the Vampire Coast

Pushing the nerdboat out even further than usual, this is an expansion to a turn-based strategy / real-time tactics computer game based on a tabletop wargame franchise with its roots so deeply embedded in the 80s  that its most iconic character still have massive shoulder pads. Curse of the Vampire Coast adds a few faction to this game and that faction is vampire pirates. I mean, do I really need to say anything more than that? Except maybe that one of the vampire pirates is the ghost of an opera singer with a comedy French accent.

I’ve been a Warhammer fan since way back and I’ve really enjoyed the Total War incarnation because they’re all the fun of the Warhammer world without having to spend an insane amount of money collecting miniatures and an insane amount of time painting them. I’ve also theoretically been a fan of the Total War franchise since way back, although what this is meant in practice—and I’m regularly mocked for this—is that I’ve bought every Total War title that’s been released, played it for about 18 minutes, remembered I suck at strategy games and given up.

I’ve stuck with TW:WII for about 200 hours longer than I normally do chiefly because being really bad a strategy is a lot less frustrating when you get to play with dragons, wizards and zombies.

Boston Legal

So, one evening my Internet was down which meant if I wanted to watch something it had to be on DVD like it was 1472. Digging through the attic I managed to find my old copy of the first series of Boston Legal. Full disclosure: it wasn’t until I IMDBed it to find out what else Rhona Mitra had been in that I realised the whole thing was a spin-off for another series I’d never even heard of.

And, wow, this has aged really badly. At least in some ways. I still very much like its exploration of Denny Crane’s struggle with Alzheimer’s and its peculiarly sensitive and nuanced exploration of no longer being what you once were, which is a strange theme for a legal drama in 2004. But in a post #metoo world a show which is essentially a vehicle for a character whose defining feature is comedy sexual harassment is, um, difficult?

I also have the same mixed feelings I always get when looked at American TV shows written by liberal leaning writers from the Bush Jr era. It’s easy to forget, looking back, how much of a crisis the George W Bush presidency felt like to a lot of left-leaning Americans. And I can’t tell if, in retrospect, the correct way to think about that is “oh dear, you did not know how bad it was going to get.”  Or, “oh dear, all the things you were concerned about at the time were eerily prescient”. Or “actually, taking a step back, an awful lot of the things people are concerned about now are the same things they were concerned about then and not only did the sky not fall in but, in terms of broad legislative agenda, quite a lot of things were pretty similar.”

Anyway, against my better judgement I am really enjoying it.  It’s genuinely really rare to find a show that deals with degenerative mental illness that doesn’t present it as the end of the world—the story of Denny Crane is bittersweet, but it’s not a tragedy. And there are even ways that, at the end of his life, he can value to those around him in ways he couldn’t as a younger, less vulnerable man. And James Spader is, of course, the best at everything ever, and a pleasure to watch, apart from, of course, all the gross sexual misconduct. Your mileage may very much vary on how much of a deal-breaker that is.

This Kirby Pillow

Because who wouldn’t want to sleep with their head in the mouth of a giant Kirby.

Diamond Painting

I’ve semi-sheepishly posted some of my diamond-painted romance covers on social media, which while it hasn’t exactly inspired a frenzy of enthusiasm has made a couple of people curious.

Basically, diamond painting is one of those crafts for people with zero crafting ability. It’s kind of the “we maybe think this could be therapeutic” category next to adult colouring books—although it works a lot of better for me in terms of handling my neuroses because adult colouring books make me incredibly stressed. I mean, you have to choose what colour to do things, you have to stay inside the lines, it’s never looks as good as you think it should in your head: nightmare.

The deal with diamond painting is that it’s pointillism with little resin gems. A kit consists of a printed image divided colour-and-symbol coded squares and little sacks of “diamonds” that you stick directly onto the image based on the codes. It is completely stupid, bewilderingly tacky but kind of amazing. I’ve also discovered you can get classic rom covers so I’m clearly not going to be doing anything else for the rest of my life, unless they also bring out classic fantasy in which case I’ll be doing those too.

If you want to try diamond painting here are my top tips for navigating its weird little world:

  • Resin comes in two types: round and square. Round is slightly shinier and slightly quicker to place, because you don’t have to align the corners. Square can be a bit kinder on fine detail and has a satisfying “click” effect when you place the gems, but takes longer.
  • There are what’s known as “full drill” and “partial drill” – full drill means the whole image is diamonds, partial drill means only a bit of it (usually the foreground image) is.
  •  You can get a range of sizes – when you’re starting out, you probably don’t want to go super massive because you might not enjoy it or might feel overwhelmed. But if you go too small you lose most of the detail through pixilation.
  • When you’re choosing images, I personally go for colour and detail (since having to do big blocks of unremitting black or white is rubbish) and, obviously, the tackier the better. Not all images translate well to diamond so anything too ‘realistic’ looking tends not to come out well.
  • You get diamond painting kits from Amazon, but I’ve lately moved to AliExpress, because there’s a much better selection and they’re a lot cheaper, although you do have to wait 20-40 days from them to be shipped from China.

I have more advanced diamond painting tips for committed devotees but, err, I’ll spare you.

The New She-Ra Thing

Loved the old She-Ra. Love the new She-Ra. Although I am really disappointed that Loo-Kee no longer features, Imp is way less cute and Hordak isn’t blisteringly incompetent.  It did take me a while to get used to the new art style, but I am completely see why the showrunners didn’t think that a set of identical, incredibly idealised, massively over-sexualised body types was totally appropriate for a modern kid’s show.

I also admit to sometimes not being sure that the show isn’t fighting its source material a bit. When it’s working well, you’re getting knowing homages to the original series (like Seahawk as this dashing gloryhound who apparently keeps setting his own ship on fire or Madam Raz as a batty old woman who talks to a wholly inanimate broom) but when it’s working less well you have things that are just enough like the original that they remind you of a context that no longer makes sense. For example, I can completely see why they gave Adora more agency in her choice to leave the Horde rather than having her go from being under a spell to being not under a spell entirely as a result of a magic sword she’s given by a man. But because the Horde is so cartoonishly evil it does sort of make you wonder what the hell she thought she was doing for the first sixteen years of her life and why she and Catra (both in this universe raised by Shadow-Weaver to be leaders of the Horde armies) grew up with such utterly divergent value systems.

I mean, I don’t want to bang on about this too much, and I’m aware I always say that right before I bang on about something for a long time, but the thing that cements Adora’s desire to leave the people who raised her for her whole life is when she discovered that the totally innocent and defenceless village she’s wandered into is the same place she knew she had been asked to attack as her first proper mission a Horde Force Captain. But, well, she’d have seen it was an innocent and defenceless village even if she’d gone into it with the Horde armies. Surely the Horde must have known that at some point they’d be asking her to burn down the houses of adorable villagers. Why the hell did they let her grown up to be the kind of person who would have a problem with that? Especially when Catra clearly doesn’t. Did Adora just not show up on brainwashing day? Or are they making some weird point about inherent virtue in which case that’s kind of messed up, especially since she and Catra are both teenagers, and also because the show is so pointedly woke in most areas.

I also find it interesting, in an entirely judgement-neutral way, to observe that the 1980s She-Ra was targeted at kids, featured adult characters but with ultimately child-friendly storylines. The original Horde are totally non-threatening, their soldiers are fairly explicitly robots so the violence never has any consequences, and most of the plots are about the kind of thing that can be summed up in an explicit moral delivered at the end by a blue-haired elf in rainbow knee socks. By contrast, the 2018 series features teenage characters but tells stories that seem much more pitched towards an adult audience. Hordak is genuinely scary (and also is kind of blatantly supposed to represent the patriarchy), there’s a lot of quite nuanced stuff about Catra and Adora’s relationship and their fairly explicitly abusive upbringing (which, again, somehow only affected Catra #justiceforcatra), and the show tries, at least on some level, to engage with its surprisingly sophisticated science fiction premise (a society that canonically exists as a series of quasi-independent principalities ruled by young women with magical powers who are not inclined to cooperate with one another tries to resist a totalitarian space empire with the aid of a mystery saviour figure who comes out of nowhere and who explicitly used to work for their deadliest enemies). I’m honestly not sure which approach does children the most credit. And the answer is probably neither. It’s almost like people in different eras have different opinions about stuff.

Anyway, still really enjoying it. Because I do love me some magic sparkly princesses, although I wish the flying unicorn got more screen time.

Anyway, that’s it for November. Tell me in the comments what you’ve been enjoying month. Or, y’know, don’t. It’s all cool.


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Hello! In the absence of Hugh Grant films I’m starting a new, somewhat lower maintenance blog project of just talking vaguely about stuff I’m liking at the end of the month. Although probably I’ll forget and end up doing it at slightly random times.

So, in no particular order: things I am liking, or have liked, in October.

Noah Caldwell-Gervais

You know how sometimes you really want to listen to a slightly melancholy-sounding guy with a really soothing (possibly Californian?) accent talk about a single video game franchise in an excruciating but fascinating depth for, like, three hours? Or is that just me.

In any case, the absolute king of slightly melancholy-sounding guys with a really soothing (possibly Californian?) accents talking about a single video game franchise in an excruciating but fascinating depth for, like, three hours is Noah Caldwell-Gervais.

I think the thing I like most about Noah, apart from the fact his videos are really, really long and his accent is really, really soothing, is that he manages to be relentlessly positive without being fanboyish. To the point it’s slightly depressing in that he manages to have these intense and meaningful experiences with videogames that I found mediocre at best (hi Tyranny).

His most recent video is an epic run-through of the entire Neverwinter Nights franchise which is completely amazing but only if you’ve spent quite a lot of time playing a very specific and not very well regarded RPG franchise from the early 2000s. Which, of course, I have.

The one thing I dislike about Noah is that literally every time I listen to one of his videos I immediately want to go and play the game that he’s talking about.  But because his videos, while long, aren’t as long as say a full play-through of several games I’ll inevitably have listened to another video and, therefore, got interested in another game before I’ve finished with the game that the last video got me interested in.

I don’t know if he’ll translate if you don’t like video games (although he’s also done some interested travelogues as well) but his channel here, and if you’re not sure where to start I’d recommend starting with a game you’re familiar with but here are my top three favourite of his videos:

  • No Man’s Sky in Close Critique and the follow up Deeper Horizons: A Comprehensive Re-Review of No Man’s Sky: Next (given how controversial NMS sky was in a community that I’m aware most of my readers pay no attention to I found his take refreshingly measured in its attempt to understand what the game was trying to be, rather than simply complaining about what it wasn’t)
  • Tyranny and the Language of Power (he got way, way more out of this game than I did).
  • Genre Orphans: LA Noir (I’ve probably over-identified with this video because it’s pitched as part one of a thematic series that only ever ran to two videos and Noah, man, I know how that feels. But, again, it’s an interesting take on a game that didn’t quite find its niche even though it probably should have – I also think it might be genuinely interested to people who are less interested in gaming qua gaming because LA Noir was very much an attempt to be cinematic in a way that wasn’t just having loads of non-interactive cut scenes between the shooting bits).

Strictly Come Dancing

I think this is the British equivalent of what you Americans call Dancing with the Stars, but I’m pretty sure we had it first. Like, at this stage, I’m pretty sure reality TV formats are our third biggest export. I have no idea what Dancing With The Stars is like but the impression I get is that it’s a lot more glamorous but a lot less beloved. Strictly is basically like bake-off except the contestants are D-celebrities at the start of the show instead of at the end of it, and obviously they dance, rather than making cakes.

It also has the least nasty “nasty judge” than I have ever seen, in the shape of Craig Revel-Horwood who occasionally says some slightly critical things and gets booed to hell by the audience. The other judges are a former prima-ballerina called Darcey Bussell (which is most posh British person name ever), the “queen of Latin” Shirley Ballas, and a walking cartoon character called Bruno Tonioli who, I swear, became a parody of himself about six years ago and is fast becoming a parody of a parody of a parody of himself. But who is, nevertheless, sort of delightful.

The basic entertainment loop of Strictly is that a celebrity does a dance, Craig says something mildly catty and everyone acts like he’s shot a puppy, Darcey says something supportive, loveyish and ultimately meaningless like “you gave this dance a beautiful feeling” or “you have a lovely air”, Shirley will pick up on something quite specific and technical that nobody will understand, and then Bruno will stand up, wave his arms and effusively praise the contestant through the medium of a mixture of increasingly tenuous analogies and something that comes perilously close to interpretative dance.

It’s stupid but I love it. And it makes me very, very happy.

Historical Belle Cosplay

Look at this. Isn’t it amazing?

Cosplay by: Athena’s Adventures. You can see more on her Instagram page.


I read a review of this that described it as a tale of “unremarkable lives gone slightly awry” which is kind of the model for every sitcom we’ve made in this country for the past three decades. But this is a superlative example of the form. It’s Mackenzie Crook (who is the skinny guy from the British version of The Office or the pirate with the wooden eye from Pirates of the Caribbean or the wildling who can control animals from GoT) playing a guy called Andy who is a metal detectorist and sort of wants to be an archaeologist but sort of doesn’t, and it’s very, very British.

I think the thing I like most about the show is its unrelenting love of its subject matter, which is this quintessential British combination of small communities, pointless hobbies, the countryside and the connectedness of things, be those things people or times or people through time.

And the other thing I really enjoy about Detectorists is that as, for want of a less aggrandising term, a work of art it has a tremendous unity of purpose. I’m super wary of talking about vision in any creative medium, really, because that way lies auteur theory and great man theory and a bunch of stuff I really don’t get on with. But actually producing a coherent vision isn’t something you need a single auteur to get and it isn’t even something a single auteur necessarily gets you. Most novels (barring the often undervalued contributions of editors, publishers and cover artists) have a single author but they don’t always have that coherence that makes everything fit together with a sense of shared purpose. TV shows, by contrast, are usually produced by a massive cast and crew but it’s still possible to get them all singing with the same voice. The impression I get from Detectorist is that it’s very much Mackenzie Crook’s baby (he is, in fact, a metal detectorist, he’s obviously really into the stuff that the characters in the show are really into) but without the other actors being on exactly the same page, the cinematography reinforcing every beat and theme and moment, without the goddamn theme (which makes me cry every time I hear it because I am that sentimental) it wouldn’t be what it is.

Basically, everything in this show reinforces what this show is. And, to paraphrase the creepy guy from Love Actually, that to me is perfect.

Here is the theme song, which tells you basically everything you need to know about the show, and whether you’ll like it.

Members of Professions Watching TV Shows About The Profession of Which They Are A Member

I mean, this is low-hanging fruit because, hey, guess what, House isn’t an especially realistic portrayal of being a doctor and Suits isn’t an especially realistic portrayal of being a lawyer. I am neither of those things and even I know that. I think what I like about this surprisingly large subcategory of YouTube reaction vids, though, is that the things you pick up on when you’re a specialist are completely different from the things you pick up on when you’re just a general armchair pedant. So you sometimes you get really interesting insights into things like what being a first year medical student is actually like or what particular bits of real law would be pertinent in well-known movie legal cases, which appeals to the nerd in me.

But what I like most, I think, comes back to one of the things I like most about Noah Caldwell-Gervais which is that, ironically, actual profession members are way less dickish about this kind of thing than the average YouTuber. Because most of the professions they make TV shows about are genuinely prestigious things people who are in those professions tend not to have a massive amount to prove. Which means you don’t get that thing you sometimes get on YouTube channels where people are just desperate to prove that they’re smarter than My Cousin Vinnie. Instead what you get is people who usually genuinely love the stuff they’re watching (because, hey, we live in a post-TV world and an awful lot of people who grew up to be lawyers and doctors grew up watching law shows and doctor shows) making interesting comments about how it reflects on their experiences. And, yes, sometimes you get the funny moment when they scream at the screen because somebody is doing something you would never ever ever ever ever ever ever ever do (watching real lawyers react to How To Get Away With Murder is particularly great in this regard) but you also get cool little nuggets of stuff you’d never thought of, like the fact that the bit that’s usually the end of the legal drama where the lawyer makes the exciting compelling argument is basically the beginning in a real court case because no matter how cool the thing  you just said was the other guy is being paid a lot of money to find everything wrong with it.

There’s loads of these out there, but I particularly enjoy: Legal Eagle (for law stuff) and Dr Mike (for doctor stuff)

Christmas Foods

I just love that you can buy mince pies from about the 28th September. I’m seriously tempted to stock on chocolate Santas and give them out to trick or treaters. Basically, people complain about the commercialisation of Christmas but, y’know what, I’m an atheist. So I’m just going to steer right into it. And what better way to celebrate a sort of arbitrary sense of happiness, good will, winter being fun, getting a lot of time off work and spending slightly too much money than by purchasing perishable goods that definitely won’t last until the season for which they were allegedly produced. Like, what gets me the most is that I go into shops and I look at the racks of Christmas puddings and bags of chocolate Brussels Sprouts (this is definitely a real thing, although it’s probably a bit British and probably a bit hipster) and think “who the hell are those for”, then I walk out the shop with two bags full of that shit and then I think “oh yeah, they’re for people like me.”

And while I’m on the subject of stupid holiday themed food, I do want to give an honourable mention to Mr Kipling’s Terrifying Toffee Whirls. Because I honestly defy anyone to come up with a lazier attempt at spooky Halloween branding than just putting the word “terrifying” in what is otherwise the ordinary name of your biscuit. I mean, what’s next Diabolical Digestives, Creepy Custard Creams, Horrifying Hobnobs, Petrifying Pink Wafers.

And I’ve now realised that I could carry on doing spuriously Halloweeny biscuit names literally forever (Ghoulish Garibaldis, Boo-ourbons) so I should probably call it there.

Happy October everyone. Tell me what you’ve been enjoying in the comments.

I mean, or don’t. It’s entirely up to you.

Wait, one more: Party Rings … Of Deaaaaaaath.


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So … I’ve not blogged about anything in ages. And what better way to break a long blogging silence than a needlessly discoursive post about a series of short point-and-click adventures that began more than a decade ago.

Spoilers, as always.

I’ve always been a big fan of point-and-click adventures. They’ve never been the most mainstream subgenre, focusing on a style of gameplay that at its best involves a strange mix of lateral thinking, puzzle solving and narrative engagement and, at its worst, involves using every damned item in your inventory with every other damned item in your inventory until you discover that oh, you have to use the ringpull to fix the gap in the broken circuit but can’t use the paperclip, the chickenwire or the fragment of printed circuit board.

Like many other popular-but-minor subgenres in gaming, the point-and-click adventure had a bit of a renaissance in the 2000s as home computers got more powerful, digital distribution got more effective and the barriers to entry in game design went from “overwhelming” to merely “very, very significant.” In the point-and-click genre, a lot of the work was (and generally still is) in an engine called Adventure Game Studio, and one of the AGS projects that came increasingly to the attention of the community between its first instalment in 2006 and its last entry in 2014 was the Blackwell series. I didn’t get around playing it until this year because I never, ever get around to things in time, but anyway, 0that’s what this post is about.

The first Blackwell game—The Blackwell Legacy—actually started out as a free project released under the title Bestowers of Eternity in 2003 and seems to have been put together mostly as a hobbyist project. There’s an extent to which this shows, because even in the more swanky modern edition, the production values are a little wobbly, the plot a little rushed, and the puzzles occasionally opaque, but even in its first instalment the game gets enough right that it’s easy to see why it wound up being so popular.

The Blackwell Legacy casts the player as the somewhat peculiarly named Rosangela Blackwell (if we’re being technical, you could argue that while Rosangela is the protagonist she’s not strictly a player avatar, but let’s not split hairs here). Rosangela is a freelance journalist of somewhat poor repute and also possibly an aspiring novelist. She begins the game standing on a bridge, disposing of the ashes of her aunt who raised her until she was about ten before going Victorian-novel-style insane in mysterious circumstances and spending the rest of her life in a psychiatric institution.

Straight out the gate I should probably acknowledge that there are people for whom the core setup of hereditary mental illness as plot point, conflated with hereditary psychic powers as plot point and further problematised with the implication of hereditary mental illness as cosmic punishment for turning away from sacred ghost duty, will probably be a deal breaker. This is a legitimate response, and even the writer (Dave Gilbert, as far as I can tell no relation to Ron Gilbert of Monkey Island fame) acknowledged that this was a dodgy plot element, and later in the series reframed the hereditary Blackwell madness to be a result of the machinations of the game’s long-running villain rather than a judgement on the moral failures of two women.

Anyway, having dealt with her ambivalent feelings towards her aunt, Rosangela jumps through some typically adventure-gamey hoops to get back into her apartment (there’s a new doorman who won’t let you in unless somebody vouches for you, but you can’t approach your neighbour because she’s playing the flute in front of a crowd of people and you’ve got too much social anxiety to approach her, so you have to walk her dog around a lamppost so its leash gets tangled up and … you get the idea) and soon discovers that with her aunt’s death she’s inherited the eponymous Blackwell Legacy, that legacy being a Bogart-esque spirit guide by the name of Joey Malone who is bound to her family for eternity and required to help Rosangela lead restless spirits to the other side.

Rosangela’s new magic destiny and her going-nowhere career as a journalist intersect when she is assigned to cover a rash of mysterious suicides at the local college campus and, in the process of both reporting on the story and laying the students’ souls to rest, she discovers that the deaths were caused by yet another restless spirit who was just looking for a way to escape from the terrible fate that he believed waited for him on the other side. This final plot point involves an encounter with what appears to be an actual demon, an element of the cosmology which basically never comes up again.

It’s hard to put my finger on quite what works about the first Blackwell game, because it’s flawed in a lot of ways, but it has this sort of weird heart to it. If it feels undisciplined at times, it’s because it feels like Gilbert is just throwing a bunch of things he thinks are cool into a setting and then running with them. Mediums are cool. Hardboiled guys in fedoras are cool. Plucky girl reporters are cool. Ghosts are cool. Adventure game mechanics where you use notes in a notebook like they’re objects in their own right and combine them into new clues are cool. Detective stories where nobody is actually a detective are cool. It’s like that bit in the first episode of Frasier where the dad complains that none of Frasier’s furniture matches and he’s all like “it’s eclectic, it doesn’t match, but it goes together.” Umm, I should stress that I haven’t actually watched Frasier since the late 1990s so I might not be remembering that quote exactly right. Point being, the various bits of plot and world and character in Blackwell don’t necessarily match, but they go together in a way that somehow works in spite of that.

The second game in the series, Blackwell Unbound, abandons Rosangela’s story to instead follow her aunt some time in the 1970s. Notes on Wikipedia explain that this whole thing was originally supposed to be a flashback in what eventually became the third game (Blackwell Convergence) but that it spiralled in the way that development often does and wound up being split off into its own game. I think this mostly actually works to the series’ benefit—having a whole game to herself makes Aunt Lauren a bit more real as a character, and I’m kind of a sucker for stories about immortal or undead beings that cross timelines in a way that highlights how they remain unchanging as the world moves on—but it does also lead to my single biggest complaint about the series. That complaint being that the titles of the games, in order, are The Blackwell Legacy, Blackwell Unbound, Blackwell Convergence, Blackwell Deceptionand Blackwell Epiphany. Without the extra flashback episode in the middle, that would have left the titles as Blackwell/Convergence/Deception/Epiphany, which would have been pleasingly alphabetical (I can give episode one a pass on the “Legacy” bit since, as the first Blackwell game it can reasonably claim that “Blackwell” is the key word in its title). But they ruined it. Ruined it I say.

I may be focusing a bit too much on an essentially trivial detail.

Anyway, the plot of Unbound takes the world established in Legacy and goes full Tim Powers with it. By which I mean it does that thing Tim Powers does where he takes a weird historical factoid, a fictional mundane mystery, and something peculiar and supernatural, and then weaves them all together in a way that feels far more plausible than it has any right to be. The story sees Aunt Lauren investigating the deaths of two ghosts both of whom, it turns out, had been the subject of unpublished stories by Joseph Mitchell. Mitchell is a real historical figure, a writer for the New Yorker who suddenly stopped writing in 1964, but still came into the office every day until his death in 1996 (this being apparently back in the day when you could stop doing your job for thirty years without being fired). The explanation given in the game is that Mitchell had somehow formed a psychic bond with a medium who had managed to break her own connection to her spirit guide, and that therefore the subjects of his articles (he was famous for his detailed and moving portraits of ordinary people) would appear to this medium as lost souls needing to be ushered into the next world. But since they weren’t yet dead, she’d have to kill them first. Fortunately, Aunt Lauren is able to overcome the villain (who goes by the name of “The Countess”) by the judicious application of pointing at and clicking on things.

The Countess returns in the next game, now a vengeful spirit but still guided by a weird telepathic bond with somebody essentially random. I suspect that the game actually benefits somewhat from having been broken artificially in two here (despite the alphabetical names thing) because it means that it isn’t obvious at the start that there will be any connection between the previous game and this one, so when you spot the connection you feel clever, and the series looks more like it has a planned arc (rather than being largely episodic, which I suspect it actually is when you step back and look at it more objectively). Convergence is notably more ambitious than Legacy (so ambitious that it had to be split into two games) and makes a lot more use of the game’s character-switching mechanics. So for example a key puzzle involves using Joey to spy on a suspect in order to find out the password to their email account, then switching back to Rosangela and accessing the in-game email that you’ve had from the first scene to find out what the villains are up to. There’s a nice sense of the game growing into itself and becoming more sophisticated in both its storytelling and its gameplay.

The fourth game (Deception) continues to build on the mythology, telling a genuinely touching story about a number of lost and vulnerable people who were preyed upon and ultimately had their life-essence devoured by an evil magician who goes by the bathetically non-threatening name of Gavin. In the last two games the series really doubles down on humanising its ghosts, creating well-crafted and nuanced narratives with a relatively sparse cast of characters and a fairly simple dialogue system. Your client in Deception is actually a ghost himself—a former colleague of Rosangela’s from her time as a journalist who has been killed as a result of his investigations into the mysterious Gavin-related deaths, and the ghosts you save are all people who went to Gavin for help and whose lives he subsequently and deliberately ruined. Once again the game is short (although longer than the previous instalments) and it does a good job of establishing its villain through its opening acts before finally putting him into a confrontation with Rosangela and Joey in which Joey and Rosangela’s personal relationship (which has been developing steadily througout the game) plays a pivotal role.

One of the bug-feature elements of the Blackwell series that I came down on broadly the “feature” side of is that it does way more hinting in its worldbuilding than explaining. You get a sense throughout the series that there’s more going on in the world than Rosangela or Joey really understand, which has a certain logic to it—after all there’s no particular reason that somebody whose entire job is to save ghosts would know anything in particular about magic or demons or any of the other things that apparently exist in this universe. It does mean that you’re sometimes not sure what the next weird thing is going to be, or what the rules of the world are. I mean once it comes out that wizards are apparently a thing that raises quite a lot of questions that don’t really get answered (there’s a fairly strong implication at the end of Deception that there’s quite a major conspiracy of immortal spellcasters in influential positions throughout the city and beyond, a thread that doesn’t especially get followed up in the next game). But since the heart of the game is so strongly Rosangela and Joey and the ghosts, I didn’t especially mind.

The final game, Epiphany has “fitting coda for the series” written all over it. The central mystery is deeper and higher stakes, opening as it does with somebody staggering up to Rosangela, dying, and promptly having his actual soul ripped apart in front of her. It does also do that thing which I know some people really hate where the villain is obviously playing you from the start and you don’t really have much choice but to get taken in by it and act surprised at the reveal (which tastes especially bitter here because you’re so specifically working hard to save these people, and build up a genuine sympathy for them as you investigate their stories). The final reveal ties the whole series together nicely, if somewhat tenuously. It links the severed spirit guide plot from games 2-3 with the evil soul-stealing wizards plot from game 4 in something that feels emotionally satisfying even if it’s a tad more apocalyptic than the rest of the series leads you to expect. Whereas the goals in the first few games are all to do with resolving the personal stories of the ghosts you encounter, sometimes with a broader villain who you often also overcome by resolving, or at least understanding, their personal story, your goal in Epiphany winds up being to save the city from a rogue spirit guide who is trying to destroy herself by handwave-handwave-soul-engergy-rift-in-the-universe. This ends (spoiler) with Rosangela sacrificing herself to save the city and possibly the world and … yeah I’m not sure how I feel about that. Like on the one hand it’s cool that she gets the messianic ending, on the other hand I’m not totally certain that we’re in a place where it’s unproblematic that Rosangela winds up dead in a way that kind of contextualises the whole game as being more about Joey. The final scene, in which the newly-alive Joey (Rosangela goes full omnipotent in her final moments and brings him back) disperses Rosangela’s ashes in the same spot she scattered her aunt in the first game is weirdly moving. It’s just … I’m not totally sure I like giving the somewhat unreconstructed guy from the 20s the last word in a game that wears its Female Protagonist tag as proudly as Blackwell does.

So anyway, that’s my somewhat rambly, somewhat incoherent thoughts on the Blackwell series. For games some of which are over a decade old, they still hold up relatively well, and given that they’re essentially no money on Steam (disclaimer, they are not literally no money on Steam, they’re a couple of pounds/slightly more dollars each) they’re worth a look if you’re interested in the genre. There’s also a sequel called Unavowed, which is set in the same world and which, as far as I can tell, still doesn’t explain what the hell those life-energy-sucking wizards are up to.



I don’t really know what to do now that I’ve watched more-or-less every movie Hugh Grant has ever been in.

Guess it’s time for another board games post!

The game I’m intending to talk about is Gloomhaven. Gloomhaven is a bit different from other games that I’ve reviewed because it’s a kickstarter project, and kickstarted boardgames are often a bit … next level. The armchair economist in me is always interested in the ways that different monetisation strategies and sources of funding can make similar-seeming products wildly different because any product needs to angle itself towards the people who are going to be paying for it. For mass-market products, this tends to lead towards a kind of middle ground—enough of everything to appeal to lots of people, not so much of anything as to put off anybody who doesn’t like that thing. Kickstarter products go pretty much the other way—they’re aiming to appeal to a small number of people all of whom have very specific desires and are willing to drop largeish sums of money on having those desires fulfilled, so kickstarter projects, especially in board gaming, tend to be packed to the gills with stuff.

Case in point: Gloomhaven. This game is so huge that getting it home from the shop I ordered it to was a non-trivial logistical challenge. Which is ironic in a way, because “a non-trivial logistical challenge” is also a pretty good way to describe its core gameplay.

Gloomhaven falls within two distinct popular subgenres and, unlike 93% of the other games I’ve reviewed on this blog, neither of those subgenres is “Lovecraftian”. Rather they are “dungeon crawler” and “legacy game”. Long time readers of this blog might remember the idea of a “legacy game” from my review of Pandemic back in 2016, but for those who are new or who haven’t memorised every single thing I’ve burbled about a nerdy topic in the last two years, a legacy game is a game that is specifically designed to be played once (although often over an extended period of time) and to evolve as it is played into a form unique to the play group. I said in my 2016 post that they looked like being the next big thing in board gaming, and I was sort of right. “Legacy elements” has certainly settled in alongside “RPG elements” and “worker placement” as one of the common features a game might include, and enough games have them now that they feel less like a gimmick and more like a legitimate direction that game design can take. Pandemic: Legacy did well enough to get a second season, and the subgenre has developed now to the point that legacy elements are being built into new games from the ground up, rather than being retrofitted into something called “Existing Board Game: Legacy”.

I haven’t talked about dungeoncrawlers on this blog before. I’ve always vaguely meant to, because I’ve spent a lot of time with games like Descent over the years. In case it’s not obvious from the name, a “dungeoncrawler” is a game in which the players take on the roles of adventurers who go out into Dungeons-and-Dragons style dungeons to fight monsters and get loot. These games range in style from quick card games you can play in under an hour to sprawling, dining-table-swamping, weekend-swallowing campaignable epics like Descent: Road to Legend. Generally, when board games people talk about a dungeoncrawler they’re talking about games in the latter category.

The dungoncrawler in that sense has a fairly long pedigree. Even if we ignore actual D&D (which was itself an evolution of fantasy wargaming), they go back at least to MB Games’ 1989 HeroQuest, which very much established the pattern of up to four adventurers with a mix of martial and magical skills going through a series of linked dungeon crawls, gathering gold that they spend between adventures to upgrade their stuff. There have been variations since—the original Descent packed all of the looting and levelling up into a single dungeon, so you would walk through the front door with rusty daggers and tattered chainmail, and walk out the other side in Adamant Armour of Indestructibility carrying the Axe of Slaying Everything; Star Wars: Imperial Assault does the same core gameplay but in the Star Wars universe, and so on—but the core principles remain the same. Some adventurers. Some monsters. Some loot.

My peak level of interest in dungeon-crawling games was in the late 2000s—I had pretty much all of the expansions for original Descent, and it was something of a favourite amongst my friends at the time, but eventually it got to the point that the game was so large and complex that we realised that if we wanted to play a long, involved game in which a party of characters go on a series of linked adventures with an overarching storyline in a consistent world, we might as well just play D&D. Since then, I’ve never really found a tabletop dungeoncrawler that solved that problem. At least not until Gloomhaven. Like a lot of kickstarter developers, the designer of Gloomhaven documented his thought process in borderline excruciating detail, and he seems to have put an impressive amount of thought into what he’s doing and, perhaps more importantly, what he isn’t. Gloomhaven is very specifically designed to feel like Isaac Childres (the, as far as I can tell, sole designer) is GMing you through a highly detailed RPG campaign. And I think this, broadly, is why it doesn’t give me the “why don’t I just play D&D” feeling I usually get from this sort of game—it essentially feels like I already am playing D&D, it’s just that I’m playing a heavily houseruled version run by some guy from Indiana.

 I started this post by saying that Gloomhaven was a dungeoncrawler with legacy elements, and that’s basically true. But you could make a reasonable case that, deep down, it’s actually a card game.

Like in a lot of dungeon crawlers (and, for that matter, a lot of RPGs) you start out your adventure in Gloomhaven by selecting a character. Except that rather than the traditional breakdown of “Fighter/Thief/Magic User/Cleric” (or in proper HeroQuest style “Barbarian/Dwarf/Elf/Wizard”) your options are things like “Vermling Mindthief” or “Savas Cragheart”. Each of these characters is either quite different from classic fantasy staples (like the Inox Brute—basically a big fighter type, but also a sort of weird horned ox dude) or extremely different from classic fantasy staples (like the Tinkerer, who is kind of a healer, but also carries an actual literal flamethrower). Each character has a totally unique set of abilities, all represented by a (slightly) customisable deck of cards, and these cards are the key to basically everything.

And I mean everything. Specifically:

  • Each card has a top half, a bottom half, and an initiative number.
  • The bottom half of the card (usually) contains a movement type action and the top half (usually) contains an attack style action.
  • You must play exactly two cards on your turn, combining the bottom half of one with the top half of the other, with one of the initiative numbers determining how fast you act.
  • You get the cards back when you rest (resting is a thing you can do), but you lose one card for the rest of the dungeon.
  • If you run out of cards completely (by resting too often, or other methods), you are out of the game.

This last part—the part where running out of cards totally shafts you—becomes surprisingly pressing. You have about ten cards in your hand to start with (it varies slightly from class to class). After five turns, you’ll have to rest, and then you’ll get nine back (or less—some very powerful cards are automatically lost when you use them), which means you have to rest again in four turns. Then you get another four, then three, then three, then two, then another two, then one, and that’s it. Which means you have an absolute hard maximum of twenty-four turns to do whatever it is in the dungeon that needs doing. This strict time limit makes the whole game a logistical challenge in the way that most dungeoncrawlers aren’t. Rather than knowing, broadly, that every turn you will move your movement, attack with your best attack, and maybe drink a potion, you need to think about how to optimally deploy your limited cards to eliminate enemies, move yourself towards your goals, and potentially pick up loot. It means that a long corridor can eat your resources just as surely as a pack of rabid wolves or an angry demon.

It also means that the “dungeons” you “crawl” aren’t actually very much like traditional dungeons at all. They’re usually no bigger than three rooms, sometimes even two, with perhaps a half-dozen to a dozen enemies in each. There is absolutely no emphasis on exploration in Gloomhaven’s dungeons. Since the game is GMless, there’s no real way to keep secrets from the players (at least on the micro level) while also keeping the game running smoothly, and so the adventuring party is basically expected to know the full layout of the map from the beginning. There’s no wandering up blind alleys or deciding which way to go at T-junctions, because within the constraints of the game’s core mechanics, an unnecessary detour could prove more likely to stymie your adventuring ambitions than a room full of armed skeletons.

Rather than extensive dungeon maps with hidden rooms full of surprising encounters, Gloomhaven gets its sense of exploration mostly from its legacy elements. At the start of the game, your characters have a large map with one dungeon marked on it, a secret long-term quest which will say something like “explore three crypt dungeons” or “kill one of each type of demon”, two encounter decks marked “city” and “road”, and a small deck of purchasable items. As you adventure, you will unlock more things—complete that first dungeon and you will unlock two more, complete your quest and you will retire your existing character and unlock a new one, have an encounter on the road and you might unlock a new encounter in the city, or a map to a new dungeon, and in that dungeon you might find a new item for the shop.

Gradually your map fills up with stickers representing places you have either been or have yet to explore. Your character sheet fills up with notes and details and achievements and it all builds up into something that feels inarguably like playing a real fantasy RPG campaign. In fact specifically, it feels like playing a 2nd edition Dungeons and Dragons campaign or, even more specifically, like Baldur’s Gate. Or at least, a slightly weird playthrough of Baldur’s Gate where you mostly ignore the whole Bhaalspawn thing and run around robbing people.

This is very much my personal reaction, grounded in my personal gaming background, and so I don’t suspect that it will be terribly applicable to other people, but the thing that I like the most about Gloomhaven is how it evokes a style of fantasy gaming that has very much fallen out of fashion. The map you get with the game shows the world that the game will take place in and it’s like the map from a D&D module from the 1980s (or perhaps even more specifically, from a Fighting Fantasy novel). All of the action of the game takes place in one smallish town (the “Gloomhaven” of the title) at the end of two roads, between a couple of mountain ranges and with nearby landmarks called things like “Dagger Forest” and “Lingering Swamp”. Despite the strangeness of the setting (of the six possible starting characters, exactly one is human, and none of the others are any kind of traditional fantasy race) I know exactly what kind of fantasy it is going for.

Bear with me, I’m going to go off on one.

People talk a lot about the influence of Tolkien on D&D-esque fantasy, but you can argue (and people who know a lot more about it than me have argued, at some length) that the Tolkienesque influences are actually quite superficial, and that the game’s original designers (Gygax and Arneson for those who are counting) were far more inspired by the weird fiction of the early 20th century—your Howards, your Moorcocks, your Leibers and your Vances—stories that were mostly about self-interested rogues inhabiting amoral universes in which they looked out only for their own advantage. These are small-scale stories about thieves and vagabonds and who are as interested in robbing temples as in saving the world.

Gloomhaven has the default assumption that the player characters are self-interested jerks. You don’t have to be complete assholes, but it probably says something about the themes of the game that a fairly typical random encounter presents you with the choice “do you steal a man’s thing’s while he is taking a dump by the side of the road?” I mean you don’t have to do it, but the fact that it’s even an option says a lot. The tone of Gloomhaven is very specific, and strangely nostalgic. It’s not the boobs and neckstabbing of modern grimdark (for that you probably want Kingdom Death) or the shiny teeth and shiny swords of what people often think of as “traditional” fantasy (for that you want, well, most fantasy games, even the “gritty” ones, which generally assume you’re basically heroes fighting evil). It’s a grubby, localist fantasy about people dealing with what’s in front of them in a world where nicking a couple of gold pieces from a man who is taking a poo can be as big a triumph as battling the evil wizard in the lost temple.

And perhaps, looping back to the start of this post, it’s that specificity of tone that saves Gloomhaven from the “why don’t I just play D&D” problem that I usually get with these sorts of game. The answer winds up being “because it’s actually doing something specific and different.” Whereas playing Descent made me want to play D&D, playing Gloomhaven just makes me want to play more Gloomhaven. It has that virtuous cycle thing you get in a lot of video games that mix combat missions with base management where during the combat missions you’re excited to get back to the base and start spending all the loot you’re picking up, while back at the base you’re excited to get back out onto the missions to try out all the cool new gear that you’ve just bought.

I usually end these reviews by saying whether I recommend this game and, if I do, who I recommend it for. But that’s really hard to do with Gloomhaven. I don’t know anybody who has so much as looked at this game who isn’t at the very least impressed by its scope and ambition, but at the same time I feel like this game is very uncompromisingly pitched at its target market, and that target market is, well, people who want to play a game exactly like Gloomhaven. And you probably already know if you want to play a game exactly like Gloomhaven. You don’t even really need to read reviews, you just need to ask yourself “do I like the idea of spending about a year playing a tactical dungeon crawling game of ever-increasing depth and complexity?” Or perhaps more simply “do I want to play a board game that comes in a box so big that I could take the pieces out and use it as a travel bed for a large housecat?” Or even more simply “is dropping $150 on a single board game a total deal breaker.”

Because, oh yes, this game also clocks in at $150. And the fact that pretty much everybody who has bought a copy agrees that it is probably worth it says something about how well constructed the whole thing is.

I normally also say something about how well I think this game would play with a hypothetical ten year old and while my first instinct was to say something along the lines of “oh sweet Jesus, no a thousand times no what could you possibly be thinking” I actually suspect it kind of depends on the ten-year-old. I remember reading something years ago, either in the original novel of Jurassic Park or on some blog somewhere (or hell, maybe it was Churchill or Shakespeare, that’s the usual go-to for quotes whose origin you can’t quite remember) which pontificated that the reason children love dinosaurs so much is that as a child you are essentially powerless and that, for a certain type of child, learning about something is a way of exerting power over it. Accumulating knowledge about these vast terrifying lizards is a way of experiencing a sense of freedom and self-determination that you don’t normally get until you’re a grownup with a job. And I suspect that for a lot of slightly older young children, complex board games can do the same thing. Warhammer is as complicated as all getout, and it’s crazy popular with that demographic. Yes, the rules of those sorts of miniatures/card/whatever games are byzantine and arbitrary, but to a child all rules are byzantine and arbitrary, and at least with a game you know that the adults don’t get to just change the rules without telling you why.

I mean, I should stress that I’m not in any way actually recommending this game for ten-year-olds, I mean as well as the vulgar-but-arguably-harmless encounter where you steal from a pooping man, there’s encounters in the deck where you’re invited to kill innocent travellers for their money, so it’s something you’d want to make a very informed decision about sharing with your tweenage kids. I’m just pointing out that the actual complexities of it aren’t necessarily as child-unfriendly as they might seem on the surface.

The final axis along which I tend to recommend board games is two-player compatibility. We’re currently playing with a full loadout of four players, and this has its advantages and disadvantages. My cursory peripheral reading suggests that the game is easier with more players, but also that because of the complex interactions between player abilities, that each extra player slows the game down more than the last. Because the game is very focused on tactical combat, a two-player party will need to be really certain that the characters complement each other—if you both wind up playing squishy ranged characters, there’s a good chance that you’ll just get swatted and if you both wind up playing beefy meatshields there’s a good chance that you’ll struggle for damage and utility effects. Still I’ve heard pretty positive things about the game at all player counts, so if you and your partner have $150 and every weekend between now and Easter 2019 burning holes in your pockets and calenders, you might want to give Gloomhaven some serious thought.

And for some reason I also feel compelled to point out that Hugh Grant doesn’t feature in this game anywhere.


1 Comment

All right folks. This is it. The last review of a Hugh Grant movie that I will ever have to write (well, until he makes another one, but I’m not sure what I’ll actually do then). So I’m going to wrap up the Grantathon with a bit about Paddington 2 and then with a highly spurious look back over his entire career, in which I try to pretend that this whole deeply silly project has been building up to something.

Paddington 2

It might just be the hype that inevitably comes with having watched every single film somebody has made since the late 1980s but, oh my God, I loved this movie. Although it was a bit weird because, in this movie, Hugh Grant plays a villainous actor whose schemes are thwarted by Paddington Bear (voiced by Ben Whishaw) and I’d fairly recently watched A Very English Scandal, in which Hugh Grant plays Jeremy Thorpe, a villainous politician, whose political career is thwarted when he attempts to murder his former lover, Norman Scott, played by Ben Whishaw. There’s even a plot-significant dog in both pictures. 

Anyway, this is just a silly, fun movie that—speaking of someone who has no expertise in this area because I don’t have children—feels like one of those kid flicks that was very much written with the awareness that it would be watched by parents and that it had damn well better give them something to hold their attention as well. Thus we get the heart-warming tale of Paddington Bear trying to buy a birthday present for his Aunt Lucy only for said birthday present to be stolen by the evil Phoenix Buchanan and, oh my God, Hugh Grant is loving the shit out this role. At least I hope he is because he’s a fucking joy to watch. He does accents, he wears a series of silly disguises, he sings and dances, and fights a bear. I could not wish for a better film on which to end the Grantathon.

I’ve vaguely run the numbers and you could make a reasonable case that Hugh Grant has been playing people who used to be famous and now aren’t for longer than he was actually famous (if you assume that the peak of his fame ran from Four Weddings and Funeral in 1994 to Love Actually in 2003) while the “guy who was big in the 80s” years began in 2007 with Music & Lyrics and continue to the present day. And it’s even got the point where washed-up-used-to-be-Hugh-Grant Hugh Grant will have scenes where he interacts with an image or a clip for earlier in his career as if it was from the fictional career of the character he’s play – so in The Rewrite, there’s a bit where he watches himself at an award ceremony and it’s clearly a clip of a younger Hugh Grant at an actual awards ceremony and the walls of Phoenix Buchanan’s house in Paddington 2 are plastered with legit young Hugh Grant headshots. 

Just to make this the deeply meta and retrospectivey post it was always going to be, I’ll add that I sort of find it ironic that perhaps the single best way to sum up the latter phase of Hugh Grant’s career is a quote from a Hugh Grant movie (I admit, my perception is a bit skewed on this matter by my recent all Hugh Grant die). There’s bit in the infamous brownie scene in Notting Hill where Anna Scott is explaining why her life is not without its own difficulties and it ends with her saying that eventually her looks will fade, and the calls will stop coming in, and one day she’ll just be someone “who looks a bit like someone who was famous for a while.” Which, ironically, pretty much sums up about half the roles Hugh Grant gets cast in these days. And while it’s problematic that, even in the 21st century, male actors get to have that kind of career renaissance where they deconstruct or build on their former persona whereas female actors don’t I really do enjoy Hugh Grant’s “used to be Hugh Grant” films.

Goodness of film: I’m just going to give this a 5 – which feels a bit off because I also gave a 5 to Remains of the Day and I’ve given 4s to films I’m sure were actually better than Paddington II. But, fuck it, my Grantathon, my rules, and I’m on an adrenaline high. But it actually is charming as fuck and I always respond positively to a film that’s got basically every British actor in it.

Hugh Grantiness of film: 5. He’s playing a vain, pompous, foppish actor whose career has gone downhill and he sings, dances, and has a sword cane.  Also his agent is Joanna Lumley and while I’m sure his real life is not Joanna Lumley they should be.


And, for the record, I’m very aware that at this point I’m not really doing puns any more. I’m just putting bits of Hugh Grant’s name into other words. 

So. Um. Gosh. Well. What a long, strange, Hugh Granty trip its been. I think if I’ve learned anything from this process, it’s that if you watch 37 movies chronicling an actor’s entire career you will quickly come to either really like them or really hate yourself. 

Although I started out this project rating all the films out of 5 for Hugh Grantiness I think, looking back, Hugh Grant has played a wider range of roles than he usually gets credit, and I suspect that part of the reason my Hugh Grantiness ratings have crept up recently is that I’m better able to see how the Grant oeuvre can encompass a multiple of styles. Hugh Grant is large. He contains multitudes.

I was going to do a few best and worsts, based purely on what I can remember off the top of my head, so expect to see “things that were recent” and “things I’ve seen more than once” over-represented.

Best films

This depends a lot on whether you think a good Hugh Grant film is a good film that features Hugh Grant or a film in which Hugh Grant is good. Like Remains of the Day is amazing, and Hugh Grant is fine in it, but he’s not in it very much. And, therefore, in the spirit of the project, I’m going with “best films in which Hugh Grant is if not the lead at least a major recurring character” (thus also disqualifying Maurice).

Notting Hill has to get a mention because, although I acknowledge it’s problematic, I super duper love it and it’s kind of the Grant-Curtis love letter to an imaginary Britain film that’s aged the best. And with my romance hat on it, I think it plain and simple works as a love story, and does some quite interesting, subversive things.

An Awfully Big Adventure is kind of my outsider pick because it is a weird-arse film but, as I think I said in the review, after I watched it, I couldn’t stop thinking about it for a week (and it still occasionally pops up in my head, giving me a moment of profound melancholy). It’s also one of the best examples of Hugh Grant doing a character that’s not at all Hugh Grant, and doing it incredibly well.

Florence Foster Jenkins: obviously I talked about this literally a couple of days so I won’t go into the details. And maybe there’s a certain amount of bias here because I watched it recently but I think it deserves a place here because it ticks so many Hugh Grant boxes and not just in the campy, says gosh a lot say, but in the sense that it’s a complicated character role he can really get his teeth into. It allows him to play a romantic lead, but in a non-standard way. Because the character is a washed up, failed actor it taps into what you might want to call the meta of Hugh Grant. And because he’s playing across from Meryl Steep, who is phenomenal, they bring out the best in each other.

Honourable mentions (and these will literally just be mentions otherwise I’ll write another six paragraphs): Music & Lyrics, Sense and Sensibility

Worst films

I have disqualified Night Train to Venice from his category because I’m honestly not even certain it qualifies as a film. It is Malcom McDowell in a big coat, and some stock footage, like loads of stock footage, and a child falling off a balcony onto Hugh Grant.

Other than that, in no particular order, my three worst Hugh Grant films are:

Bitter Moon: because, um, this is a Roman Polanski movie that contains a lovingly detailed description of an underaged girl’s vagina.

The Bengali Night: I talked a lot about the race angle in this film and the really problematic way it’s based on a really self-serving memoir that profoundly upset the person it was about. It’s also just a badly made film. Like I know it was the 80s, but the sound was fuzzy, the picture was fuzzy, Hugh Grant’s accent was fuzzy. It’s a fuzzy movie. 

Nine Months: and I know this is personal but this is movie is just “1995 called, it wants it’s everything back.” I mean, halfway through I was genuinely missing Night Train to Venice.

Dishonourable mentions: the aforesaid Night Train, Cloud Atlas

Best Worst films

Lair of White Worm: just oh my god. The snakes and ladders scene, the snakes and ladders scene. A really young Peter Capaldi with huge hair. Random nun boobs. So much lingerie. An actual folk rock adaptation of the Lampton Wyrm only they re-named it as the D’ampton Wrym for no reason. Hugh Grant’s dream pencil erection on a plane. Dynamiting a snake. This is perfect film for deciding you should force your friends to watch when you’re drunk at about half one and then you wake up in the morning and wonder why none of them like you anymore. 

Sirens: much Australia. very boobs. wow.

The Lady and the Highwayman: Unique amongst Hugh Grant’s filmography, this one contains a fight scene in which he’s actually supposed to be good at fighting. Although, actually, he still fights like Phoenix Buchanan in Paddington 2 (“stage fighting, level four!). Also, it’s an adaptation of a Barbara Cartland novel (oh, why don’t we do those anymore?). Also foxy evil Barbara Castlemaine. Also epic hats. Also Oliver Reed as Charles II. Also hughwayman.

Honourably dishonourable mentions: Did You Hear About The Morgans 

Best accent

All the accents he does in Paddington 2 are actually quite okay and he does several. Yay Hugh.

Worst accent

Discounting the deliberately awful accent he does in Mickey Blue Eyes, where he’s being bad at being Kentucky Irish, I think this one has to go to Champagne Charlie. Where I seem to recall he was sort of supposed to be French but, honestly, fuck knows.

Worst Facial Hair

It’s gotta be Maurice. That moustache haunted me for the entire project.

Best Dance

Controversial opinion here. Although the PM’s dance in Love Actually is iconic, the Lindy hop in Florence Foster Jenkins is fucking spectacular. I would watch it in a gif forever.

Best Fight

Much as I love “I give up, my face is in the butter” from Music & Lyrics, it has to be the first Bridget Jones movie. I mean, this is two middle-aged British men who feel very strongly they should be having a fight right now but have no idea how to go about it. It’s hilarious and delightful. The one is the sequel is a pale imitation.

Honourable mention: one of the few moments I didn’t hate in Nine Months was the one in which Hugh Grants fights badly with a man dressed as a dinosaur.

Best Song

Given that Hugh Grant is an actor not a singer, I’m actually surprisingly spoiled for choice here. It feels like cheating to pick something from the film in which he plays a legit singer-songwriter but I have to mention that “Don’t Write Me Off Just Yet” is genuinely adorable and “Pop Goes My Heart” is super catchy.

Had I been compiling this list two days, I’d have actually given the top spot to Hugh Grant’s rendition of Killing Me Softly (with his eyes closed) at the end of About A Boy. But then I watched Paddington 2 and Paddington 2 closes with Hugh Grant performing Rain on the Roof from Follies dressed in a pink prison uniform with a chorus line of prisoners and guards.

I just don’t think the world for Hugh Grant Does Actual Fucking Sondheim. Respect.

Most Quintessentially Hugh Grant moment

Okay, this time “I give up, my face is in the butter” is taking it. It’s incredibly British, incredibly silly, dryly funny, and is a consequence of his failing to live up to conventional standards of masculinity while trying to do what’s best for someone.

Most Surprising Hugh Grant moment

Despite the aforesaid Actual Fucking Sondheim, I think coming out of Four Weddings and a Funeral to see Hugh Grant sneering and covered in his own vomit as Meredith Potter in An Awfully Big Adventure was genuinely eye opening. Up until that point, he’d either been in fairly minor roles, basically terrible roles or classic Hugh Grant roles. So it was the first time in this project I got to see how good he could be as a character actor.

Most Romantic Hugh Grant moment

I’m sorry, Don’t Write Me Off Just Yet, you’ve been piped at the post yet again. Because I’m actually giving this one to the scene where Edward Ferrars proposes to Elinor at the end of Sense and Sensibility. Both characters have been profoundly constrained by duty and circumstance and propriety for the entire film, so suddenly seeing them free to express emotions to each other, and have those emotions reciprocated is incredibly powerful. Also I really like Hugh Grant as Edward Ferrars – it’s a very Hugh Granty role but I think he brings a lot of depth to a character who can easily become a bit of a cipher.

Hugh Grant film with lowest Hugh Grant content

Not counting, Travaux (Housewarming), a 2005 French movie in which Hugh Grant has a very brief cameo, essentially as himself, right at the end, which I decided to edit out of this because he’s not strictly playing a character in it. This one goes to White Mischief where he plays a named character, confusingly if I recall correctly, named Hugh, who appears in the first five and then never again. 

Aaaaand. That’s it. Thank you for bearing with me while I watched every Hugh Grant film I could get my hands on. I hope you found it … Hugh Granty? 


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Oh my gosh, this is so nearly over and it’s probably testament to how many Hugh Grant movies I’ve watched that the way I chose to express my emotions on this occasion was to say ‘oh my gosh’. I’ve got 5 movies left to review in the Grant oeuvre. I’ll do four in this post and end on Paddington 2 and an overview (overhugh?) of the whole project.

Cloud Atlas

I feel ambivalent about this film. On one level, it’s absolutely the kind of shit I like and I’m actually really fond of the book. But I couldn’t quite shake the feeling with either the book or the film that it mostly exists as a vehicle for a clever structural trick. And, for me, that trick works fairly well in the book because it unfolds more slowly and so you get a gradually dawning sense of what’s going on and how the stories fit together. Whereas in the film, because of the constraints of the medium, it’s a lot more obvious from the beginning and, therefore, you’ve got a lot more time to get bored of it.

At which point, I should probably explain what happens in the film and what its central gimmick is. Warning, spoilers. Although mainly spoilers for, like, the structure? Cloud Atlas consists of six stories covering a time span from the mid-19th century to an imagined post-apocalyptic future. And, where in the book, they’re told strictly in chronological and then reverse-chronological order the movie jumps between them more much freely. The stories are: a 19th century travelogue, a set of letters written by a composer to his gay lover in the 1930s, a Grisham-esque 70s conspiracy thriller, an almost Ben Elton-esque farce about a vanity publisher whose brother tricks him into committing himself to an old people’s home, a cyberpunk thriller set in Dystopian future Korea, and a Leibowitz-esque post-apocalyptic tale narrated in an an imaginary future-dialect. The twist, as it were, is that the central character in each story reads or otherwise accesses and generally identifies with the story of the central character from the previous narrative. This makes a lot less sense in a movie because we keep jump-cutting between the stories so it’s easy to lose track of the point where the overlap is supposed to happen, although to be honest I feel like a lot of the links are quite tenuous anyway.

I can buy the idea that the tortured Ben-Whishaw-playing-the-character-he-always-plays-in-everything composer could have read and might have become fixated with journal of a 19th century lawyer. And that he might read parallels between the experiences of Adam Ewing, as he finds himself trapped in the middle of the ocean being slowly poisoned by a man he thinks is he friend, and his own situation, stuck in a country house, being gradually undermined and exploited by a man he used to admire. Perhaps, more to the point, I can see how having that explicit link between both stories makes them both stronger. But a lot of the links after that just feel quite forced. I mean, I can just about see how a story about a disempowered old man trapped in an old people’s home could have resonance to an artificial human in a Dystopian future but I don’t see how that cultural artefact of all cultural artefacts survived two hundred years and got to Korea and, also, why does she even speak English? And I get that I’m being a little bit pedantic here but I think the reason it bugged me is that it felt like an idea that was really strong as a way to connecting two stories was stretched out into a way of connecting six to the point that it just fell apart.

The other way that the movie tries to communicate the connectedness of its various narratives is to have the same actors playing different roles in different timelines. And this successfully reinforces a sort of nebulous theme of connectedness but introduces a number of other quite significant issues. The first issue, and I wasn’t sure when to bring this up but now seems as good a time as any, is that it does mean that in the Dystopian Korea segments quite a lot of significant characters are played by white actors in, um, the sort of makeup they put Sean Connery in for that one James Bond movie? And, um, I just don’t think that’s okay. To be very, very fair to the film, there are also a couple of scenes where the Asian actors are whited up to play Europeans but the context is very very different, much in the same way that there’s a difference between having a black Captain America (which I believe they did for a while) and a white Black Panther (which they have sensibly avoided).

The less problematic and more structural issue with the recurring cast is that you spend more time trying to work which character is a different character in a false beard than you do really paying attention to the story. I think the basic issue with the recurring actors gimmick is that it seems to have implemented without intent. There are times when it seems to imply that these two characters are literally reincarnations of the same person enacting similar stories throughout time (like, Adam Ewing makes it home, declares eternal wav for his wife, who is played by the same actress who plays Sonmi in the cyberpunk story, and that he will spend the rest of his life fighting against slavery, and the same actor plays the lover of Sonmi, and they are both in wuv and fighting against clone slavery 200 years in the future). Then there are times when it seems that a particular actor has a particular role in the story, like the way Hugo Weaving always plays enforcers or interrogators or symbols of corrupt authority (which may or may not also represent literal reincarnation which, if it does, it seems odd that Hugo Weaving always reincarnates as some kind of dickhead and what does that say about, well, anything). And also there are times when it just seems like a pointless Easter egg, like Ben Whishshaw, and indeed, Hugh Grant (yes, he is actually in this movie – I’ll talk about that in a second) both turning up as random cannibals. All of which just renders the whole thing incoherent.

I think what I’m working around to here is that this is just not a great film. It’s also three and a bit hours long which is simultaneously too short because it means each story basically gets as much time as one episode of the average sitcom, and far too long because, dude, it’s three and a bit hours.

Goodness of film: 2.5. Like what it does, it does well. But what it does is largely meaningless if very stylish. It’s basically exactly what you would expect a David Mitchell novel adapted by the Wachowskis to be like.

Hugh Grantiness of film: 1.5. He plays multiple roles in it, but at least one of them is a non-speaking cannibal and the others are around for all of eighteen seconds. Also he never dances or punches anyone.

The Rewrite

So this is Music & Lyrics but with screenplays, and also not a lot like Music & Lyrics. It did, however, make me want to Music & Lyrics. In this film, Hugh Grant plays a washed up one-hit-wonder, only this time his one hit instead of being pop music was a late 90s movie called Paradise Misplaced, about two angels who have to go and rescue someone from hell (minor nerdy pedant point, every single person he meets loves and fondly remembers this movie, even though I can think of zero examples of fantastical films from the 90s that achieved anything remotely resembling critical or commercial success. I mean, yes, there was City of Angels but the film that’s described in this movie seems more like a Neil Gaiman thing). Anyway, he hasn’t had a hit in years and his agent books him a gig on Battles of the 80s Hasbeen… I mean teaching screenwriting at a university in upstate New York. 

Now, I know what you’re probably thinking. You’re probably thinking, he starts off resenting this role and believing that he’s too good for it, cutting a bunch of corners, behaving really unprofessionally and generally not doing the job properly, but then gradually he comes to realise that he cares about his students and really wants to help them achieve their goals and dreams so he pulls it out the bag and becomes the best university teacher ever. And you’d be absolutely right. This is not an unpredictable movie. 

There are, in fact, exactly two unpredictable things in this film. The first is that the romantic interest is actually only four years younger than Hugh Grant, which for a Hollywood romcom is positively subversive. And the second is that there’s a bit where he realises that one of his students has written a script that is way better than anything he has written in years and he just behaves really well and professionally about it (despite behaving badly and unprofessionally about pretty much everything else). 

I’m aware that I say this a lot about poorly received Hugh Grant romcoms but I did actually really enjoy this movie. Much like Music & Lyrics, its themes are deeper than its vehicle suggests – in that it seems genuinely interested in the way that our context shapes our behaviour and expectations. To take the most obvious example, the central thematic question of the film is incapsulated by the arguments that Hugh Grant’s character has with Marisa Tomei over whether writing can be taught. He argues that it can’t, she argues that it can but the point is that his beliefs are grounded in his experiences in Hollywood and hers in her experience of pursuing her dreams and failing but not giving up on them. Because his first movie was a huge success, and because (as he says himself in the film) being a huge success in Hollywood is incredibly seductive it was for easy for him to develop a worldview where your work is a reflection of who you are rather than what you can do. So when his later films were less successful he wasn’t able to go back and analyse the factors that had led to his writing one good movie and three terrible ones because, from within the paradigm he accepted, creative output is defined entirely by this nebulous, innate thing called talent. By contrast Marisa Tomei’s character has been a dancer, which requires a lot more specific practice than being a writer (there’s no way to get good at dancing without drilling specific moves and no amount of talent will make up for a lack of technique) and so she views success in any area as a matter of application. 

This theme of people existing in a specific context is reinforced by the secondary cast – from CJ Cregg’s elitist Austen scholar who is unable to see value in anything that isn’t classical literature to the Head of Department who, despite loving and being extremely happy with his wife and four daughters, feels an overwhelming social mandate to voice complaints he doesn’t really feel about how terrible it is to be the only man in a house of five women. And for what it’s worth both of those characters skirt a problematic borderline because it’s not clear to what extent we’re supposed to look at them and think “ah yes, I can see the ways in which these people’s personality quirks are reflections of the way they are restricted by their past experiences and cultural expectations” and to what extent we’re just supposed to shrug and go “women, am I right?” On an only tangentially related noted, I do feel constrained to mention that I have never met an Austen scholar who didn’t love Clueless so this was an element of Allison Janney’s character I found deeply unrealistic. And the upset me.

Goodness of film: 3. It’s not bad and it’s definitely trying to do interesting things. I’m genuinely not sure if the film really counts as a romcom because the actual romantic relationship is quite secondary and I can’t decide if that means it’s expanding the kind of stories you can tell within the romcom format or if it just, well, isn’t one. For example, rather than the film ending on a declaration of undying love, it ends with the main characters committing to maybe giving a relationship a go at some point in the future, which some people might find disappointing but I found created this nice sense of two more mature people who have other shit going on in their lives and can’t just drop everything for a fairytale ending.

Hugh Grantiness of film: 3. He’s perfectly fine in this but I can’t help comparing it unfavourably to other films where he does the slightly-washed-up-used-to-be-big-in-the-80s-slash-90s thing in a way that’s either sleazier or more endearing.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

I think the weird thing about The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is that it’s kind of like Bond movies were before Bond movies stopped being like Bond movies and started being like Le Carres. It’s this weird mix of action, suspense, high camp and black comedy.  Apparently it bombed at the box office and I can sort of see why because it feels like its a little out of step with the aesthetic of 2010s (I was going to say “of it’s time” but, actually, I’m so far through this project that I’m now reviewing films that came out comparatively recently). However you cut it, TV and movies, especially of the actiony-adventurery variety have been getting increasingly grimdark for the last decade. Hell, look at the DC cinematic universe, and its more than slightly painful attempts to make Superman gritty and realistic. So I get how cinema goers in 2015 might have not known how to handle a film where, for example, a guy sits eating a sandwich in a stolen truck while, in the background, his partner/rival has a spectacular and explosive laden duel to the death with nazis on a submarine. But I’ve got to admit, I kind of dug it.

There’s not much to say here, really. The film is a sequence of strung together set pieces, the plot makes zero sense and it’s got that problematic thing that goes back to Indiana Jones where “nazi” is kind of used as a code for “non-specific bad guy” which is trope on which people’s mileage legitimately varies. Also Hugh Grant is barely in it. The character he plays—Waverley—was quite a significant figure in the TV series, because he’s head of U.N.C.L.E., but because this film is sort of an origin story he basically just shows up at the end and is briefly cool. He’s playing enigmatic British spy guy number 47 but he’s sort of the person you’d want to play that role, especially now he’s older and looks a bit more used teabag and a bit less lost puppy.

Goodness of film: I think it’s another 3. It’s a perfectly serviceable spy flick and a nice antidote to modern Bond or all of the grainy sad-faced espionage stuff that’s on the BBC at the moment. I feel sort of bad that it’s so badly angling to be a franchise and so definitely isn’t going to be one.

Hugh Grantiness of film: 2. It’s a good role for him but he’s in the film for all of twelve seconds, and mostly sitting in a helicopter giving instructions over a radio.

Florence Foster Jenkins

This one is deeply tragic. And, obviously, it’s sort of difficult because the part of me that still has a sense of class consciousness is always a bit sceptical about stories that ask you to feel sorry for somebody whose life is very sad apart from the tiny detail of them having been born into massive wealth, often at time when truly unimaginably horrendous things were happening to the sorts of people who don’t get historical biopics made about them.

Florence Foster Jenkins was a real person who was something of a cult figure in what can loosely be dubbed artistic circles in New York in the first half of the 20th century. Her basic claim to fame is that she was an incredibly bad singer who nevertheless gave opera performances. These shows were mostly private and delivered to a carefully cultivated audience of people who could be relied on not to be dicks about it, and historians are divided about whether she was in on the joke. The narrative presented in the film (which more or less tracks to Foster Jenkins’ real biographical details, although obviously the emotional arc is pure speculation) is that that Florence Foster Jenkins was a young and talented pianist (she was) whose passion for music was so great that she ran off against her father’s wishes with a musician (she did) who gave her syphilis (he did) which caused nerve damage that ruined her musical career (this isn’t entirely true – she actually injured her arm in an unrelated incident) and she was left alone in New York with no creative outlet but tonnes of money and so threw herself into singing, even though she was demonstrably terrible at it.

Frankly, she lived a weird life and it is a weird premise for a film but there is something strangely affirming about it because it’s essentially about a woman who is dealt a shitty hand by life (apart from the aforesaid small detail of her massive wealth), is denied the opportunity to truly fulfil her dreams, largely as a consequence of other people’s selfishness, who, by sheer force of will, constructs a world around herself in which she lives them anyway. It helps a lot that she’s played by Meryl Streep and Meryl Streep is the bomb.

Hugh Grant plays her common-law husband, St Clair Bayfield, who is sort of cheating on her and lying to her for the whole film but who also makes real sacrifices to protect the illusions that allow her to be happy. Maybe I’m just inclined to be supportive of non-standard relationships but it seems like he’s genuinely devoted to her and understands her, and is as thwarted as she is in some ways, his own career as an actor having gone essentially nowhere. The central conflict of the film revolves around Florence Foster Jenkins’ one public performance, in which she caved to public pressure and sang at Carnegie Hall. In real life, the show received terrible reviews, which she found distressing. In the film, this is recast as one vindictively terrible review from a legitimately evil journalist that she finds so distressing it literally kills her. To be fair, she did die the same year as that concert but she was in her late 70s at the time.

Perhaps I’m just getting sentimental in my old age but I did find it an incredibly moving film, partly because I have a soft spot for historical eccentrics, and partly because Streep and Grant are really good at what they do, and have amazing on-screen chemistry. Streep is strong and vulnerable and weird all at once. And Grant is devoted and charming and slightly duplicitous. And strangely enough, it’s his comfort with duplicity that allows him to be what Florence needs him to be: someone who will let her live in the world that she wants to live in. 

Goodness of film: 4.5. It won’t be to everyone’s tastes, but I really enjoyed it and got a lot out of it. Pretty much the last line in the movie is a real Florence Foster Jenkins quote, which is “people may say I can’t sing but no-one can say I didn’t sing” which I just find weirdly inspirational. 

Hugh Grantiness of film: 5. This isn’t a typical Hugh Grant role, although the more of his films I’ve watched, the more I realise that “typical Hugh Grant role” is something of a dismissive oversimplification. But it is a strong, late-career example of the kind of the character work he’s not been allowed to do since Four Weddings. He’s just really good in the film. Also he dances. And he dances the motherfucking Lindy hop.


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