So, having recently shared the story of Peanut (a love story across time, space, death and reality), let me tell you about Barold.

Barold is … well. He’s generally considered one of the ugliest villagers available in Animal Crossing. And given he’s kind of a bear with a neckbeard … it’s … okay, I don’t want to judge, but it’s not a good look, dude. Also, in my game, he randomly asked me for a T-shirt and the only thing I was willing to squander on Barold was this unfortunate pastel item with a creepy pink elephant face on it. So now he’s wearing that unremittingly. And looks, there’s no way of putting this nicely, like he spends all day in a basement, arguing on the internet and complaining about SJWs ruining the world.

Now I have discovered the power of Animal Crossing Amiibo cards, I keep meaning to ask him to move out. And keep failing to do so. Because he was one of my first villagers. And sometimes when life deals you a sex offending bear with a neckbeard you … make lemonade? Look, I guess I somehow got fond of him. He’s not Peanut, don’t get me wrong, but he’s no Paula either. Also if I make two bears move out of my village, people are going to think I’m a bear racist.

Part of the reason I’m having trouble getting rid of Barold is that he can be unexpectedly sweet. A totally (as far as I can tell) pointless feature of Animal Crossing is that you can write letters to your villagers, and send them gifts, a process that does actually entail laboriously tapping out a message to a creepy bear with your 3DS stylus like the saddest human being imaginable. Anyway, the other day, Barold was like “Hey, M, look at this” and he showed me a letter  I’d sent him way back when. And it was, frankly, really embarrassing because the letter said something like “I can’t believe I’m writing a letter to a fake bear in a computer game. You look creepy but I guess I like you” and also it was a frankly unnecessary reminder that I’d written real words to a fake bear. “This is first the letter you ever sent me,” went on Barold, blinking at me through his broad coverage neckbeard. “I’ll treasure it.”

Which … got me thinking about letters. Now, I’m not actually one of these “oh ah the lost art of letter writing” type people. I like communication to be as technological effective as possible and there’s no reason that emails can’t be like letters, if you treat them as more discursive and less logistical.

Except. Except.

Letters are kind of nice, aren’t they?

And I honestly can’t remember the last time I received one (I mean, that wasn’t a bill, a pizza flyer or a notification of works from National Rail) or sent one. There’s definitely part of me that resists the whole letter-writing thing as profoundly unnecessary. But there’s another part of me that is drawn to it precisely because it is unnecessary. Not in a OATLAOLW way but just because unnecessary things accumulate their own meanings.

All of which is to say, I’m embarking on an, um, letter-writing project. The basic idea goes like this:

If you would like to receive a letter from me (hand-written, old school style, on pretty paper, the whole works) then you can sign up to … well… I’m calling it Alexis Crossing. Because I thought that was cute. Obviously you’ll have to trust with me a name and address,  which might be a deal breaker for some people, and that’s totally cool.

I’ve designed a really quick form that asks for the relevant information, as well as inviting you to ask me a question (any question, doesn’t have to be about me or anything like that) and—optionally—tell me something (again, this doesn’t have to be a deeply personal revelation about your soul, although it can be if you like).

Then, I’ll pick randomly from the list, drop you an alert to say to keep an eye on the post (and make sure you haven’t moved house or whatever) and send you a letter.

I can’t tell, at this point, if this is cool or weird. And I definitely don’t expect you to come up to me in fifty years and pull a Barold.

But yes, in summary. If you would like a random letter with hard-to-read handwriting, probably on unicorn paper, from me click here to sign up.

I’m going to run this pretty much continuously until I get bored or everyone else does, so you can sign up whenever. My planned timetable is one letter a month but in the unlikely event of demand outstripping supply I can speed things up.

Oh, I should also say, there are no geographical limitations here. If you can get mail, I’m good to send it.

And, while I remember, in the next couple of days I’ll be sending out a newsletter, which will include a free download of My Last Husband, a short story in which I attempt to do horror.

Although, honestly, it’s more like mildly unpleasant, this is me we’re talking about. My idea of horror is not being able to find a matching sock or someone putting tea in the microwave.

But err, sign up if you haven’t already and it’s a thing you’re interested in.

And loooooooook at the cover.

Ah, you came. I’m so glad. Give me your hand—why look at this, you still have paint beneath your fingernails. Oh, don’t apologise. It’s charming. Would you care for champagne? It’s a very special vintage, from a walled vineyard near Chouilly in the Cote de Blancs. Do you like it? Such a heavy sweetness, don’t you think? Like butter and gold. I can take you out there, if you want. It’s quite a wonder: the same land, held by the same family for nearly five hundred years. Though, of course, it’s mine now.

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silliness
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There are few things I find more compelling than a fascinating premise disappointingly executed. I was overjoyed to discover, nearly two decades ago, that somebody had come up with the excellent idea of making an intense spy thriller shot entirely in real time, with each episode unfolding over the course of an hour and each following directly on from the next. I was somewhat let down when I actually watched the first series of 24 and realised that it was basically a completely ordinary spy thriller, with completely ordinary spy thriller pacing, which made no concessions whatsoever to the implications or limitations of its gimmick. I mean seriously, it takes more than two minutes to drive across LA in rush hour traffic.

You know what else would be a cool idea for a thriller – a hunt for a serial killer shot backwards, so you end with the suspect being caught and then each episode comes before the last. After all, the way a murder mystery normally works is that you begin with the exciting bit (the death) and then the detective carefully pieces together the evidence, effectively taking you back in time to the start of the whole affair, why not take that idea and turn it into a framing device?

Turns out there are a whole lot of reasons why not.

Enter Rellik, the BBC’s new thriller series which, with its grey-and-brown palette, grisly crimes and moody protagonist, seems to be aiming for a slice of the scandi-noir market (viewers apparently can’t get enough of slightly grumpy people solving slightly horrible crimes in gloomy bits of Europe) but winds up reading far more as farce than as tragedy. I mean it probably isn’t a good sign when three episodes into your very serious thriller, the Radio Times (for international readers, that’s a popular UK Television listings magazine) is running articles with titles like Is Rellik Supposed to be Funny?

Also, you’ve probably already noticed that the title of the show, Rellik, is Killer spelled backwards. This … this really should set your expectations for what the show is like.

Before I go any further, because the show is shot in reverse (periodically the action pauses and we see things rapidly spool backwards until we restart with a caption saying something like “12 hours and 8 minutes earlier”) talking about timing is going to be a nightmare. I’m going to use the convention of referring to the timeline as experienced by the characters (where the beginning is first and the ending is last) as diegetic and the timeline experienced by the viewers (where the ending is first and the beginning is last) as narrative. I expect this to be slightly clearer than mud, but only slightly.

The Bad Beginning

Not all of these subheadings will come from Lemony Snicket titles but, well, I wanted to start at the beginning, and a lot of the issues I have with the show are evident from the outset, so it just sort of fit.

I’d love to say that Rellik starts strongly. And it almost does. Okay, it almost-almost does. Okay, it gets within throwing distance of almost does. Almost. We open with a man in a hoodie, his face horribly scarred as if by acid, going into a petrol station (I think? Some kind of late night shop – it’s honestly not a massively memorable sequence) and buying something or being intimidating to the owner or … seriously my recollection is vague. We catch a fragment of a news report about how a serial killer who burns people’s faces off with acid has been killed in a police shootout. Then we see mysterious hoodie man digging through a grave with his bare hands, and finding some kind of prescription bottle which seems to contain an SD card, and looking at the camera like something significant has happened. Then we spool backwards and OMG Plot Twist! He is actually a police detective trying to catch a serial killer!

This so nearly works. We hit all the right beats – we are presented with a mysterious situation, then we spool back and we get new information which at once clarifies and challenges. We learn who the strange man was, but also learn that he is not who we expect. It’s actually pretty … pretty okay? For about nine minutes.

Then we get the (narratively) next and (diegetically) previous part of the story. We see our acid-scarred stranger (actually a policeman) facing off against the suspected serial killer who we know from the news report from narratively-earlier-diegetically-later will be killed in this very confrontation. The suspect is obviously distressed, and obviously about as dangerous as a raspberry muffin. Never the less, when he reaches into his pocket for his phone, the police snipers who … who apparently always come along when they pick up suspects in high profile cases? I guess? Anyway, the police snipers shoot him dead. Then we cut to the investigating officers celebrating the end of their serial killer hunt because the guy they shot was definitely the right guy and definitely not an unarmed mentally ill man who was set up by the real killer, while Broody McScarredface sits in a corner and angsts to his much younger, much more attractive, much more female partner who he is obviously banging and who is obviously going to turn out to have had a tragic and abusive backstory that he is uneasy because he’s not sure that the unarmed and clearly harmless mentally ill man they just gunned down for no reason was actually the cold, calculating serial killer they were after. She tries to reassure him, but he’s all “no, I’m sure we MISSED SOMETHING, probably in the PAST back during all the OTHER STUFF THAT HAPPENED which you’re TOTALLY GOING TO SEE IN FUTURE EPISODES.”

Indeed there’s a lot of setting-up-its-theme in episode one (as well there might be). There’s a scene about halfway through were Gloomy McAcidburns looks through his grimy, grimdark car window at one of those guys who non-consensually wash windscreens at traffic lights and pontificates about how if we could just understand that guy’s past and what had brought him to his current situation, everything would be much better and the police would be better at policing and all that. This speech, in which Herr Whiny von Bangshispartner notices that the windscreen-washer is probably also a heroin addict, and wonders what led to his addiction, pretty much sums up what’s wrong with the narrative structure of Rellik.

This is going to need a new subheading.

Memento and Her Sisters

The classic told-backwards story is Memento, but the “six days earlier” episode is actually kind of a staple of serial fiction, both drama and comedy. It usually works, but I think the ingredients that make it work aren’t present (and to an extent can’t be present) in Rellik.

In both Memento and the six-days-earlier story the hook is “how did we get here”. It relies on the story opening with a scenario sufficiently outlandish that the audience genuinely wants to watch on to find out what the hell is going on and how it could possibly make sense. In Memento the entire setup is bizarre, with Guy Pearce’s character (Leonard) – all tattoos and mantras and poorly understood medical conditions – presenting a mystery for us to solve in and of himself. We start with Leonard shooting Teddy and Teddy taunting him with how little he knows about himself, and the film invites us to find out why Leonard shoots Teddy, and what Teddy was talking about. In the “six days earlier” episode of an established series, we will either open with something self-consciously wacky (if the series is comedic) or with a scene in which characters we already know well are behaving in a way we know to be out of character. And again, we will want to know how we got there.

Rellik offers us neither of those hooks. It is an original series, with no establishing framework to let us know what the characters’ lives were like before the events that we are now watching play out, so when Scarsy O’Sadface starts acting in a grossly unprofessional way (abducting and intimidating witnesses, breaking into houses without a warrant, banging his hot partner) we aren’t intrigued about how he got to where he is, we just assume that he was always kind of a shitty cop. As for the other style of backwards story hook, the scenario so strange that you really want to find out what led up to it, well the show could have offered us that. But it didn’t. After the first scene, in which we learn that the strange scarred man is a policeman hunting an acid-themed serial killer, there isn’t really any intrigue left. When we see the confrontation that leads to the obviously innocent suspect getting shot dead, we aren’t left wondering what could possibly have brought us to this point. Because while it’s sad and violent, it’s a completely pedestrian scenario. The police think this guy is a dangerous serial killer, a firearms officer misinterprets a non-threatening gesture as a violent one, and a guy gets shot. We really can fill in the blanks for ourselves.

In a good non-chronological narrative, the diegetically-earlier-narratively-later scenes provide information and context that genuinely illuminates the diegetically-later-narratively-earlier scenes. We understand better why a character reacts a particular way in a particular situation because we understand more about their past experiences; a question that has hitherto troubled us is resolved with a revelation that is surprising but satisfying. The thing is, these kinds of narratives are much harder to put together than it seems, and are probably even harder to put together if you restrict yourself to what you might call a hard reverse structure (that is, strictly showing events backwards, rather than doing as – say – Memento does and playing a portion of the narrative forwards in order to provide context, or embedding the story within a wider series that follows a more conventional chronology).

Every time Rellik spools backwards, we find out a bit more about either the main story about the acid killer, or one of the show’s rather-too-many, rather-too-inconsequential side plots. The problem is that the things we find out are almost always either completely unsurprising, or pointlessly out of left field. Often within the same plotline.

So for example in the first episode, we start (after the grave scene) with Detective Philanderer del Manpain facing off against the obviously completely innocent suspect, who gets shot. The (narratively) next scene shows the events that led up to the confrontation. Which were “they said they had evidence that the guy was a serial killer” and “they thought he had a gun”. Which – um – is sort of what I’d assume the events leading up to that confrontation were. So all that’s happened is that a completely straightforward story about the police incorrectly identifying an unarmed and innocent man as a dangerous multiple murderer gets told in an unhelpfully nontraditional order, for no actual benefit.

Then at the end of the episode we discover that the reason that there was evidence linking Obviously Innocent Guy to the murder was because he had actually committed the murder, but that he had been forced to do it at gunpoint by a mysterious shadowy figure who, by the way, also filmed the whole thing for some reason? And then somebody, possibly innocent guy or possibly somebody else, came back to the crime scene and took the SD card out of the camera on which mysterious spooky person inexplicably filmed the murder they forced somebody else to do, and we are left to draw the inference that this is the SD card that Inspector Mopesalot finds in the first scene. But we also know that whatever consequences may come about as a result of the existence of that SD card, they’re going to have to happen (diegetically) after the events of the first episode, and therefore that they will on no account ever come up over the course of the series. And not only will everything else that happens in the series precede this scene, but we will be following Detective Protagonist, not Obviously Innocent Guy, and we know that Detective Protagonist did not know about this event, or presumably any of the interactions between innocent guy and mysterious spooky individual that led up to it.

Watching Rellik is basically watching an aggressively miserable detective be bad at his job, in reverse chronological order.

Columbo

The faint praise with which Rellik is often damned is that maintaining a sense of mystery and tension in a story when you already know how that story will end is sufficiently difficult that, like a dog walking on its hind legs, we should be impressed not that it is done well, but that it is done at all.

Which would be a fair point, if it weren’t for the existence of Columbo.

Columbo ran for ten seasons spanning three decades, kept a loyal audience, and won 13 Emmys despite the fact that it was a detective show whose whole gimmick was that you actually saw who committed the murder in the opening scene.

There’s a sort of received wisdom that “playing along at home” is a big part of the appeal of detective fiction, and it’s probably half true – Agatha Christie notoriously had to make her plots ever more byzantine (or, less charitably, absurd) in order to meet the demands of an audience who wanted ever more baffling cases to sink their teeth into. But for a lot of readers (and even more so for a lot of viewers) it’s much less important than it seems. We usually aren’t out to beat the detective – that’s a competition in which neither side can really play fair, since the detective can easily withhold information from the audience (as Holmes does), while the audience can access metatextual clues that the detective can’t (in at lest 90% of TV detective shows, the killer is the first person they interview who isn’t a suspect). In fact perhaps a better way to put it is that playing along at home is a big part of the appeal of detective fiction, but that the key word is “along” – we aren’t trying to one-up the detective, or to shortcut the investigation with our real-world knowledge, we’re trying to spot the same clues the detective spots, and to work out how the detective will put them together. The detective is one part guide, one part surrogate.

That’s why Columbo remains fun to watch even though you already know who the killer is. You aren’t trying to guess who the murderer is, you’re trying to guess how Columbo will work out who the murderer is, or how he will trap the murderer into giving themselves away.

This is also part of what makes Rellik so unsatisfying. You can’t follow the case alongside Detectives Scaryface and Sexypants, because you’re following their investigation backwards, so as you come to understand more about the situation, they come to understand less of it.

Although actually, it’s even worse than that. As the show progresses (narratively) forward, you learn more about the investigation that led to the final confrontation with Obviously Innocent Guy, and while much of what you learn would never have been known to the police (suspects are also viewpoint characters, so you get to concretely find out who carried out at least two killings by episode four) much of it would have. In a successful non-linear narrative, the narratively early scenes are intriguing but don’t make much sense, and the narratively late scenes provide much-needed context that answers the questions you previously had about the beginning. Rillek does almost the opposite. The opening is completely comprehensible – botched arrest leads to death of suspect who is suspected for perfectly sensible reasons. But as the story progresses and we discover what happened (diegetically) earlier in the investigation, it makes less sense rather than more that Detective Badatpolicework would ever have considered Obviously Innocent Guy a viable suspect.

When we see the confrontation it is a little bit implausible that the police would think Obviously Innocent Guy was a threat. He’s tiny, twitchy, and terrified (to be fair, frightened men with guns are dangerous, but he also had no visible weapon). Just over the course of that first episode, it only gets less plausible. We hear that they have “incontrovertible evidence” that he’s the killer, but that “incontrovertible evidence” is “fingerprints at the crime scene”. And yes, on TV fingerprints are basically magic but even if we ignore the fact that fingerprints are unreliable and assume that they really do constitute evidence that he was 100% definitely at the scene, that’s not at all the same as evidence that he was 100% definitely responsible for that and a half-dozen other murders. Certainly that and an unconfirmed report of a gunshot don’t seem to be undeniable evidence that Obviously Innocent Guy is so definitely guilty and dangerous as to warrant the full sniper treatment.

Then we go a bit further back, and we discover that less than twenty hours before Obviously Innocent Guy gets tragically shot dead by plot snipers, Detective Offtherails had not only never heard of him, but was firmly convinced that the killer was somebody completely different. Like, completely different. As in Obviously Innocent Guy is a skinny white guy with a ratty beard and a diagnosis of schizophrenia, and the previous suspect was a black woman with acid scars of her own and a previous conviction for melting a guy’s face off.

I mean, I don’t want to be essentialist or anything, but are we really expected to invest in a detective who had so little idea about who the killer was that he thought it was equally likely for them to be a black woman in her twenties or a white man in his forties? I mean I’m sure Criminal Minds wasn’t 100% accurate but surely he had some kind of profile? Surely he had narrowed the pool of suspects down at least a little bit? I mean from what we can tell, Detective Seriouslywhydosomanyhotwomenwanttobonethisguy was actually physically attacked by the real killer. I know it was a traumatic experience, but did he really come away from the encounter with “well it was probably either a man or a woman and might have had some kind of height or weight or possibly both.” I mean if we’d got to episode four and discovered that Gabriel (sorry, that’s his real name, I should have mentioned that earlier) spent a week convinced that the acid killer was actually forty squirrels in a trenchcoat, I would not be surprised at all.

In episode two we discover that at one point a laptop, which was vital evidence in the investigation, was destroyed in a mysterious fire inside a police evidence room. He takes this as evidence that Acid Scars Woman is definitely the killer, even though he has no indication that she would have any ability whatsoever to start a fire inside a secure police station. She’s a resolutely working class woman with severe mental health issues and seemingly no friends, family, contacts or support network, why does he think that she’s capable of pulling off this mafia-boss level evidence tampering? Why, when Obviously Innocent Guy shows up and wipes Acid Scars Woman off of his mental radar entirely, does he once again not think to ask himself “would this man have been capable of destroying evidence in police custody?”

Part of the pleasure of a mystery is following the detective’s reasoning. This is somewhat difficult in Rellik, because the detective seems to actually be incapable of following his own.

Mysteries, Thrillers, and Intrigue

Of course you could reasonably argue that Rellik doesn’t have to function as a mystery because it’s really more of a thriller. It’s not about finding out who the acid killer is, it’s about exciting action scenes, sexy sex scenes (in theory, although basically Gabriel and his partner spend a lot of time having what I’ve taken to calling “Sad Police Sex”) and emotionally charged argument scenes.

Which would be fine. But none of that benefits from being shot in reverse order.

I don’t want to overgeneralise, but I find it very hard to think of any reason to shoot a story backwards except to specifically preserve a sense of mystery. Detective fiction is a broad genre, and sometimes a story can be unfairly maligned because a reviewer reads a thriller as if it were a mystery or a whodunnit as if it were an action adventure. Rellik doesn’t stand up as a mystery because nothing about its setup is remotely mysterious – we know the moment we see Gabriel’s acid scars that he will have got them in a confrontation with the acid killer (seriously the clue is in the name), we know the moment we see Obviously Innocent Guy get shot in the chest that he’s not the real murderer, we know the moment Gabriel and his wife argue about his affair, and he talks about the “terrible thing” his wife did and how she “lied to him” that he’s not his daughter’s real father. So when these things come out, it isn’t a shock or a surprise, it’s just the confirmation of something we already know. So the only tension that can remain is from wondering what the consequences of these events might be, but we also know that we aren’t going to see the consequences of the events, or that we have already seen them, because the show is telling us its story backwards, even though the kind of story it is telling us is the kind of story that in no way benefits from being told backwards.

The show’s many subplots are a good example of this. Several times an episode we’ll have a scene of one of the members of Gabriel’s team doing something unrelated to the investigation – announcing an engagement, being a victim of homophobic bullying, finding a dead pig in their house, something like that. Then later in the episode we will see something that gives more context to the event, which might change our understanding of it, or might not, but either way it won’t make much difference because we already know that the (narratively) first time we were introduced to that plotline is the (diegetically) last time it will come up, so we know that there will be no consequences.

For example, in episode two we have three little vignettes about the relationship between one of the detectives and the receptionist in the police station. In scene one the detective reveals that she and the receptionist are engaged (and do you see, the detective is the woman and the receptionist is the man, take that your hidebound expectations), saying that she “wasn’t supposed to make a scene” but felt she had to. Then we see the receptionist quietly asking her to marry him in the canteen, saying he “doesn’t want to make a scene”. Then, shock twist, we see the receptionist telling a colleague that he’s going to dump the detective but is worried that she’ll “make a scene”, and then just as he’s about to do it, she tells him she’s pregnant. And that’s the last we see of that arc. And okay, it’s sort of an alright story. But not only did that story not benefit from being told backwards, the show didn’t particularly benefit from its being told at all.

Basically the whole thing is presented in a very impressionistic way, which seems to be the only way that it can cope with its framing device. But this makes everything feel very disconnected and consequenceless. Which is sort of a problem for a narrative that’s supposed to be about the ultimate causes of things.

Episode three opens with the protagonist dragging his unconscious daughter out of a skeevy nightclub. Now we already know that she is fine, because we have seen her in (narratively) earlier episodes. We also pretty much know that she was in the nightclub voluntarily, because in those episodes she has been grounded for this specific act of teenage rebellion. We even know, or at least strongly suspect that she is specifically acting out because she has found out about her father’s affair with his partner. So straight from the off we know why she’s there, how she got there, how she got out, and that she’ll definitely be fine. This makes the rest of the episode, in which we see Gabriel searching for his missing daughter, and find out that yes, she heard her parents arguing about her father’s affair and yes, that was what made her go out and do the bad drugs at the bad drugs party, feel spectacularly pointless. There’s no tension, because we already know how it is going to end, and there is no mystery, because we already know how it began. All the show can do is fill in blanks that the audience has already filled in for itself.

Conclusion

Rellik has a fascinating premise. It’s just that the show doesn’t seem to have thought through the way that premise would impact its narrative. I don’t think it’s as simple as just taking a regular thriller plot and putting the scenes in reverse order (that would probably have been more interesting, but much harder to follow). Or rather, I think within individual episodes, that seems to be what’s happening (which is why episode three feels so hollow – it seems to be taking a perfectly satisfying story about Gabriel’s daughter finding out about his affair and endangering herself as a consequence, and putting it into reverse order in a way that makes it actively less engaging) but the individual episodes seem to have the opposite issue – they feel like they were only ever imagined in reverse order, with very little indication that, for example, the first episode (the one with the death of Obviously Innocent Guy) was written with the awareness that Gabriel should know about all of the things that would happen in narratively-later-diegetically-earlier episodes.

In a this sense, the show does strangely manage to produce a satisfying sense of progression. As we get closer to the end of the series, Gabriel actually seems to have a better handle on the mystery than he did in previous episodes, despite the fact that he should actually know less. I’ve only watched the first three episodes so far, but our back-in-time story does seem to be building to a climactic confrontation with the real killer. The fact that this will essentially frame everything Gabriel did afterwards as a massive failure of judgement with fatal consequences might even wind up being quite cool – after all he is clearly traumatised by his experience and probably isn’t thinking straight, and I can almost get behind that as a dark central irony.

But only almost.

And while I’ve written well over 4000 words about the show now, I suspect that there is little I can say about Rellik that sums it up better than this: it’s a show about a policeman hunting a killer, told backwards, and the title is the word “killer” spelled backwards. And the show is exactly like you would expect that show to be.

watching
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So for the last couple of years, in an erratic, incompetent, beautifully satisfying way I’ve been playing Animal Crossing New Leaf. Much has been written and theorised about this series because it is, in many ways, unique—even compared to broadly similar things like Harvest Moon or Stardew Valley. All these games emphasise self-expression, personal and community narratives, and low-pressure play. But I think Animal Crossing goes further in having goals even more nebulous than “have a successful farm” and by happening, essentially, in real time. Truthfully, although I found Stardew Valley one of the most charming game experiences I’ve had for a very long time, and I was obsessed with it for an embarrassingly lengthy period, I never found it that relaxing: I was ragingly committed to improving my farm, I worried that I was planting the right crops to utilise my resources and maximise my profits, and I could play for literally hours, sprinting my little farmer from one end of the valley to the next, driving them to bed exhausted, only to chivvy them out of it again at 4am the next day.

The basic premise of Animal Crossing New Leaf is that you’re the disturbingly human mayor of a town of strange but not unfriendly animal creatures and … that’s kind of it. There’s a vague notion that maybe you should improve things, but absolutely no pressure to do so. In fact, things will develop regardless: spending money makes the shops grow, new animal-people will arrive and open new businesses, trees will fruit and flowers will bloom, the sun will rise and set, and the seasons will pass. In all honesty, my attempts to improve my town have been grossly questionable: I planted a random rose arch on a clifftop and stuck a café in a really stupid place. But such is the gentle resilience of Animal Crossing that it’s all good.

Of course, it’s also Dystopian as fuck. I mean, when the game opens you’re on a train, and the next thing you know, you’ve got off at the wrong station and everyone is claiming you’re the mayor of their town and refuse to believe you when you say you’re not. That’s the kind of situation I could have nightmares about. And let’s not even get started on the dodgy racoon who insists on building you a house and then charges you through the nose for it. And the fact that you have to pay for all improvements to the town yourself. That is not how government works. But then I’m pretty sure most governments can’t officially sanction you if you wear a T-shirt they don’t like which, err, I have been known to do to my citizens.  Oh Jesus, I’m a tyrant.

But, anyway, it’s remarkable how quickly you adjust to the rhythm of life in Animal Crossing. To fishing because you feel like fishing. To collecting fossils because you want to build up the museum. To wandering around the shops conspicuously consuming because, well, if you were the Mayor of a town of animal-folk wouldn’t you want to wander around in a gas mask and knee socks. Or maybe that’s just me. It’s genuinely pleasurable to watch your town evolve and, now that I’ve bothered to do the bare minimum of internet research, I’ve realised I’ve done it all wrong. I could have, for example, not answered the initial questions in a way that resulted in my character having demonic red eyes. I could have not put all my public works in stupid places. I could have made paths and orchards and gardens instead of just swamping my entire town in a completely uncontrolled deluge of plants and fruit trees. And, obviously, I could start again. Build a new and better town, efficient and beautiful, and bristling with facilities, by applying everything I’ve learned over the last two years. But I’m not gonna. Because this town is mine. And feels authentic to me in a way something less hopeless would not.

And I’ve got friends here. Very dear friends. Yes, oh reader mine, the time has come to speak of Peanut.

Peanut was a small pink squirrel and my bestie. She was the first weird-animal-creature to speak to me when I was non-consensually made Mayor. And she called me slacker, which I feel displayed an inherent understanding of who I am. Though, as we grew closer, she bestowed a variety of nicknames on me, including the short-lived Sweet M, and the much preferred and Bowie-esque Major M (M is my initial in Animal Crossing). Fundamentally, Peanut was a lovely person: she was always happy, never held a grudge, and, best of all, when she asked me to do something for her she usually forgot she’d asked. Also her house was next to mine so we were like special closest neighbour closest friends: she was usually the first thing I saw when I left my home. And so was so adorable, her chirpy pinkness, that I was always glad to see.

We had good times, Peanut and me. Like when I forgot her birthday and she invited me to her birthday party and the only item I had in my inventory was a Gentleman’s Toilet. But she acted like that Gentleman’s Toilet was the best present in the world, and told she would always treasure it because it came from me. Indeed, whenever I visited her, the Gentleman’s Toilet would always be there, proudly displayed. How many of us have friends so kind and true? In all honesty, if someone gave me a Gentleman’s Toilet for my birthday I would not take it nearly so well. And I certainly wouldn’t put it in the middle of my living room.

And then, then Paula happened. Paula moved into my village fairly recently. She is a bear with ill-advised eyeshadow and she built her house aggressively close to me and Peanut. And while I am, on some level, aware Paula is a virtual bear … I can’t stand her. Her personality is a strange mixture of pushy and cloying. She insists on greeting me with yodelay, interfering in my shit (like this one time, I had a hammerhead shark in my inventory and she was all commenting on it, when what I have in my inventory is none of anyone’s business, thank you very much) and talking to me like we’re friends. We are not friends, Paula. Peanut is my friend.

And if you think that’s bad, it gets worse. She viciously stole Peanut’s nickname for me and started calling me Major M too. Was nothing good in my life to remain untainted by this damn bear? There are supposed to be ways you can encourage villagers to leave your town – but no matter how many times I complained to Isabelle (my deputy), nothing changed. It got to the point that I stopped playing Animal Crossing as much because there was Paula, in my face, makin’ it weird.

Months passed. And Peanut would always forgive me. Make some excuse for me. Talk to me with all the old warmth. But I could tell it was getting to her. And, finally, one day I started up the game, and there was a message from Peanut in my mailbox. I guess it’s time, she said. You were pretty fun to have around. I hope the neighbours in my new town are just like you.

Noooooooooooooooooo.

My Peanut was gone.

There are, maybe, about a hundred potential villagers in Animal Crossing. When a villager moves out, another will take their place, chosen at random. Even if I found a way to drive every villager repeatedly from my town, which, as far as I can tell, is impossible the likelihood of me ever seeing Peanut again was negligible.

Paula had ruined everything. Invaded my space, destroyed my peace, driven away my dearest friend, probably forever. I’ve never engaged in hostile behaviour to villagers but I wanted to hit her with my net so hard. So many times. I didn’t, though. There are some depths to which I will not stoop.

I didn’t play Animal Crossing again. Until, very recently, an update came out that … well, I don’t know quite what it does. I’m not really up for having virtual worlds interface with accessories in the real world, but that’s a very Nintendo thing to do. In any case, there are things called Amiibo Cards, which you can buy fairly cheaply in randomised packs. Each represents a villager and by scanning the card into your 3DS you can … oh frabjous day … invite that villager to live in your village. I’ve been a committed nerd for long enough that I know buying randomised packs of anything is for the birds. I hopped onto Ebay and bought a Peanut card for the … admittedly slightly excessive rate of £6.50. But it was worth it. This was Peanut, after all.

Anyway,  the card arrived. I scanned it and, sure enough, Peanut moved back the next day.

Except … not back. She was the same Peanut, happy, bouncy, overly fond of pink, but she greeted me like I was a stranger. Called me slacker again. Our friendship… the memories of our friendship … lost like tears in rain.

What happened to you, Peanut? Are you a clone? Is this a Prestige situation? Did darkness take you. Did you stray out of thought and mind? Was the pain of our parting simply too much to bear?

I mean, okay … obviously it’s a different version of Peanut.

But still. I will not forget. She is still my Peanut. She will always be my Peanut. We are souls entwined and I believe, I truly believe, that, as the flowers bloom and the trees fruit, and the seasons roll past, we will find each other again.

Also, I still need to get rid of that fucking bear.

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In my last couple of what’s-happen-with-my-actual-creative-works updates I’ve been a little bit cagey about what’s going on with the Kate Kane series because things were a bit up in the air and I didn’t want to say anything until I was pretty sure I knew what was going on.

I have now formally requested the rights for the first book back from my publisher and will be requesting the rights for the second when that contract expires early next year. I intend to work on polishing up and finishing my first draft of the long overdue book three, Fire and Water, over the December break. And aim to move forward with a self-published version of all three books some time towards the end of 2018.

I do appreciate that this creates a delay for those readers who are waiting for book three. Embarrassingly, and I can’t quite believe I’m saying this, a lot of it comes down to a branding issue. Since my publishers will retain the rights to the layout and cover art of the existing editions it would be difficult for me to produce a third instalment that felt in-keeping with the first two. And I don’t know very much about publishing but keeping your series looking like a series is, from everything I’ve ever been told, really important. All of which means it’s just cleaner all round to start fresh once the rights revert.

While I’m on the subject of the series, do be aware that my publisher has arranged a Bookbub for the first book mid-way through October (I’m not allowed to give the actual date). This puts me in a slightly awkward position because, while I’m obviously always happy for people to buy my books, I would not personally have chosen this October as the best time to encourage new readers to try the series, given that the rights are in transition, and I don’t foresee being able to release volume three before the end of next year. Of course, if you do want to take this opportunity to invest in some f/f paranormal that’s cool. It’s just you’ll have a bit of a wait before the series picks up again.

In other news, How to Blow it With a Billionaire is apparently up for pre-order in all the usual places you can go to pre-order things. I think it’s coming out early-to-mid December. And I seem to recall being told that the first book, How to Bang a Billionaire, will be on sale around the same time. So that actually is quite a good time to get into the series. The third book—provisionally titled How to Belong with a Billionaire—will be out some time in 2018. (Also check out what I did with those universal links there – my social media person is gonna be so proud of me).

And since this the post where I try to be really transparent about stuff, I should warn those readers to whom it is potentially an issue that the central couple aren’t together at the end of book 2. I tried not to make it an epic downer but, well, the couple kind of have to break up at some point otherwise it’s just a book about some people having a lovely time. And in any case, spoiler, they get together again in the next one. I’ll talk a bit more about, um, Blow nearer the time.

So … watch this space, I guess?

And I think that’s it for me on the writing front. Now back to blogging about nonsense.

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At the start of this year, I made a slightly wild (and probably pointless) commitment to trying to whittle down my tbr. And, lo, the whittling was moderately successful – it’s now September and I’ve cut my unread books by about half, and written about some of the more interesting ones here on the blog (they’re helpfully gathered under the ‘reading’ category in case anyone gives a fuck). As with any project undertaken for its own sake, I’ve been fairly relaxed about tossing books aside if I didn’t feel I was getting anything out of them, and simply writing off things I was clearly never going to get round to ever. All of which is to say, I’m calling the undertaking a success and intend to continue with it, albeit perhaps not as rigidly as I have up til now.

Anyway, while dealing with my tbr, I realised something about my leisure time. I mean, apart from the fact I don’t have enough of it. But basically, for me, reading and playing computer games occupy the same mental space (maybe because I tend to play narrative-heavy games? I dunno) and essentially have the same affect, in terms of chilling me out and moving my Sim needs bars from the red to the green. Which, given the limitations on my time (self-imposed limitations I should say in that I’m a greedy fuck in that I apparently want two jobs, a relationship, friends and hobbies) means I can’t—and, actually don’t need—to do both. At least not simultaneously.

So I’ve recently been applying the “my old shit” principles to games as well as books. Last Christmas (oh God, how is September already?) was actually the first time I’d fully finished a game in ages—and the game, embarrassingly, was from 2012. It was Sleeping Dogs, okay? But I had a really nice time, and it was extraordinarily satisfying to experience the whole game, as opposed to the first ten hours, which is how it usually goes for me these days. I think it doesn’t help that I suffer from completionist tendencies, which means I’ll wind up obsessively trying to collect the 27 Golden Monkey Bollocks of Astigorth instead of, y’know, having fun with the parts of the game I actually enjoy playing and am invested in. And, since modern games are ever more preoccupied with justifying their price tag, there’s a lot of monkey testicles out there. But, having given myself permission to put aside books I’m not enjoying, I’ve tried to stop impeding my fun when it comes to computer games.

And with all due awareness that this is probably even less relevant to my readers than my usual babblings: here’s what I’ve been playing. Will probably contain some spoilers.

Nier: Automata

This was so spectacularly weird and sad I don’t quite know where to begin. It’s set on a ruined future-earth where human-built androids fight alien robots, while the survivors of the human race sit on the moon waiting until it’s safe to come home. Obviously the first conclusion you draw when you hear a premise like that—especially when you learn pretty much immediately that the only contact between the androids and the humans are audio broadcasts—is that there probably aren’t any people on the moon. So I don’t think it’s massive spoiler to say: there aren’t people on the moon.  Which means what you’re left with is this really melancholy, peculiar game-entity-thing about androids and robots trying to define what it means to be human while trapped in ceaseless conflict with each other.

Oh, and the female androids dress as samurai French maids. Because obviously. Needless to say I’m pretty conflicted about the juxtaposition of lavish up-skirt shots and German philosophy—although, to be fair, they both make me feel like a teenager. I mean, Nier Automata is full of strange contradictions and connections, but it kind of says everything about gaming as a medium that you can have this quite beautiful, thought-provoking and ultimately compassionate story, which nevertheless wants to make sure you have ample opportunities to see the underwear of the female character you’re controlling.

Obviously your mileage may vary on the degree to which you find sword fighting in your lingerie titillating, an acceptable foible, or just fucking nonsense in the twenty first century. But if you can get past it, this game is … honestly like no other game I’ve ever played, and it’s a little hard to unpick the meaning of that, or ascribe a value to it, since novelty for its own sake isn’t inherently beneficial. The gameplay itself is of the jumpy-fighty-shooty variety, although it switches modes (from 3D to 2D, from ground to air, from fully realised to 8bit) with astonishing fluidity. I will say that Nier Automata doesn’t always respect your time: there’s a lot of running back and forth across the same environments, although annoyingly all that running about grants the geography familiarity and an emotional resonance that contributes to your sense of the world and the characters’ place in it. And you have to play whole game five times: yes you heard me, five times, although the first play through is by far the longest and the final three are substantially different from both each other and the first two.

Basically what it comes down to is: Nier Automata has a coherence of vision that makes the game feel genuinely artful in a way few games do. Which is not a criticism of games as whole—sometimes you just want to shoot things, and you don’t need an artistic purpose to achieve that. But it’s striking and fascinating when a game tries to do something … else. And Nier Automata very much does something … else. I legitimately ugly-cried a bunch of times. Came away tremendously moved, both by the game, and by human beings in general. And that’s, y’know, that’s something.

Also the soundtrack is fucking stunning, each track echoing the themes of the environment it represents.

Tales of Berseria

This is a jRPG—and I haven’t finished a jRPG for so long that I can’t actually remember the last jRPG I finished, so I’m extra chuffed that I finished this. Which makes it sound like playing it was some kinda task when that’s not the case at all. I actually romped through, if you can call 61 hours romped. Eeek, now I look it up, that seems a lot, but I didn’t notice the time at all.

I think what makes computer games especially difficult as … oh whatever you want to call them. a medium. an art form. an entertainment … is that they have to bring together some quite disparate elements and make them, if not equally engaging, at least not too great a hindrance for each other.  Ideally you want the game to be fun to play and the story to be interesting enough to make you want to play and you can kind of get past shonky gameplay if the story is strong, or mediocre writing if you’re having a good time shooting stuff. But jRPGs run long, really long, so there’s even more pressure on your attention span. Generally, I tend to flake out of them because either the story is just too oblique, or the characters just too punchable, or the gameplay—which is usually running from plot point to plot point, encountering a random selection of monsters, which you defeat through some flavour of turn-based combat—is sufficiently repetitious that I can’t be bothered with it any more. But then I also haven’t been paying much attention to developments in the subgenre: we’re actually a long way from three people standing in a line waiting for their turn to attack or throw Phoenix Down over one of their mates.  I didn’t get very far with Final Fantasy XIII because it was basically just a very beautiful corridor, but I seem to recall the combat was actually pretty dynamic, and involved fluidly swapping roles and characters, and then getting your face shot off because I didn’t play enough to get the hang of it.

Anyway, long story slightly less long: Tales of Berseria was a revelation to me. The combat is super super fun. I’m not entirely sure how it works—something to do with chaining artes that I was semi-competent with by the end of the game—but you press a lot of buttons, and you character charges around the battlefield in real time doing cool stuff, while your computer-controlled companions do the same, apparently quite adequately too. Basically, it’s loud and shiny, with lots of explosions and people yelling. I especially loved the yelling, and would gleefully yell along (PERFECT MAYHEM! MEGA SONIC THRUST!), which might partially explain my enthusiasm.

Storywise, I’m not 100% sure what it was actually about. But the game does a really good job of entwining the big gods and demons and churches and saving the world stuff with more personal themes and motivations. It’s also really dark: the heroine, Velvet Crowe, is actually a village girl, who becomes a demon when she witnesses her surrogate father figure sacrifice her sickly younger brother for … well … complex, not completely evil (although still quite ill-advised) reasons that become apparent later. So while the world does get saved, it’s more of a side-effect of Velvet’s personal quest for revenge. A quest on which she does some quite difficult and morally dubious things. And while “oh noes, my village, my family member, now I will lose touch with my humanity” is an incredibly obvious setup I was actually pretty moved by the whole business by the end. And Velvet herself is just awesome, being incredibly bad ass, and bitter as fuck. Part of her arc is, as you might expect, learning to care about people again, but what’s really interesting about it, at least to me, is that it’s also as much about accepting that we all have the capacity to do shitty things sometimes, and there is a necessary power in that, and that you’re still worthy of love and happiness regardless. I thought that was a pretty cool story for a female jRPG protagonist to be at the centre of. (Also, having kicked up a fuss about Nier Automata, I should probably say that Velvet’s default outfit is essentially a cape and some boots and a belt, but you can put her in some nice sensible trousers if you so wish.)

Also, unusually for me, I completely adored the supporting cast, perhaps partially because there wasn’t an army of them so they all had their place in the plot, their stories weaving through Velvet’s, and their choices reflecting on or contrasting against hers.  And I guess I’m turning into a total sap in my old age because Laphicet—the angel child Velvet totally healthily names after her dead brother—is unbelievably adorable, and infuses the whole adventure with hope and wonder. Given the nature of the conflict, and the internal forces that drive the characters, the ending was bittersweet. But fitting.

Oh and in case I’ve given the impression of too much gloom and darkness: the character interactions in this game are delightful, and had me laughing on several occasions. Here’s the cursed pirate and the demon swordsman debating way too earnestly about what to call a bug.

The Witcher 3

So the 115 hours I’ve spent on The Witcher 3 plus its two expansions is making those 61 hours on Beseria look fairly limp right now. I don’t have anything to say about The Witcher games, the third one in particular, that hasn’t been said a million times before: these are a fucking remarkable achievement. Maybe one of the best games I’ve ever played. And the only reason I hadn’t finished the final piece of DLC, despite only having a couple of hours of it left, was because I simply wasn’t ready to let go.

Blood and Wine (the final expansion) is really more of an epilogue than anything, although there’s also plenty of story and monsters to kill. And what it offers, in a series that has always staunchly turned away from traditional heroism, is a happy ending for an old witcher who has kind of earned one. Most of the stories, large and small, that make up the games are ultimately exercises in compromise: yes you can break a curse, but the woman is still dead, yes you can defeat a monster, but others will come, yes you can try to do the right thing but greed and selfishness and the will to power can always motivate people more strongly than kindness or virtue.

But in pseudo-France, among the fairytales (literally in the case of one quest), Geralt gets to spend time with old friends, bring about a relatively optimistic resolution to the plot, and finally retire to a vineyard with the love of his life. It was an odd moment, as I galloped Roach (Geralt’s faithful steed) over that now familiar hill, just as the sun was setting, in far less bloody shades than in the main game, dismounted in the stables and jogged Geralt over to Yennefer’s side, knowing that when I logged out, it would likely to be for the very last time. Forgive me a moment of sentimentality, but it didn’t feel like I was stopping playing a game. It felt like I was saying goodbye to a world.

And if you haven’t read enough about the Witcher, here’s Kelly Jensen’s thoughts. Because there should be some sort of romance writers who like computer games type league.

The Witcher

Yeah, I know. This is weird. But I finished The Witcher 3 and realised I’d never finished the first game. I’ve always been at the tail end of a computer life cycle when a Witcher game comes out, so they’ve been borderline impossible to play on whatever wheezing machine I happened to own. I’ve made several attempts to play The Witcher properly since it was released (in 2007 – help, help, I’m old) but always bogged down somewhere in the middle, largely because deciding to replay a thing involves re-playing the bit of the game you’ve probably already played at least a couple of times before. Kind of like attempting to read Lord of the Rings: I always get to Rivendell, where they start having a committee meeting, and then give up.

Usefully I had a save game knocking around, where I’d pretty much completed the first chapter – the bit of the game I remember most vividly. So I picked up from where I’d left off and, perhaps partly because a game from 2007 now runs as smooth as butter on my computer, completed it.  It’s quite different to the other two games, having much more in common with older school RPGs, and a lot more gratuitous boobs (which, for The Witcher, is saying something), but it gives a lot of context to what comes after. The story-telling is intricate and flavourful, though not quite as assured as later games, although it also has their hallmarks, like a willingness to just take a time out in order to do character work or let Geralt go a party.

Each of the chapters has a distinct flavour as well, the highlight for me actually being Chapter 2, which has a bad rap for being impenetrable. And it kind of is, but in a cool way. It’s the first city-based chapter and perhaps an example of ambition outstripping capacity because it essentially involves untangling a web of deceit that … is actually really webby, really tangled and really deceitful. And I do have vague memories of attempting it in the past and failing miserably—and not being quite sure why I was failing or what I missing. This time, having spent a decade honing my “play computer games” skillset, I figured it all out and felt pretty good about myself. Mystery-stuff in games is really, really hard to do well, even in games that are actively mysteries: and this, at least, has the benefit of being genuinely mysterious.

Mafia II

This is one of those games I’ve always heard people speak well of, but never got round to playing. Well, I got round to it, and I actually found it pretty amazing. Like Nier Automata it has a coherence of vision—I love games, obviously, and I don’t want to sound like I’m championing auteurship but Triple A games especially can often come across as a product. And while products do things, they’re not always about things. If that distinction makes sense. Mafia II is about things. And mainly what it’s about is that being in the mafia totally sucks.

The hero, Vito Scarletta, is the son of an Italian immigrant who essentially gets involved with the mafia not out of any great desire to be in the mafia but because he wants to earn money. And the opportunities available to him, as an Italian ex-con, ex-soldier in WWII-embroiled America, are pretty much negligible. The game spans about a decade—and whereas games usually cover an ascent to power of some kind, Vito basically claws his way to about the middle. Only to discover that much of what he thought he knew was a lie anyway, everything he’s accumulated can be taken away from him at any moment, and no matter how hard he works, the downward slide is a hell of a lot faster and easier than the uphill climb. It’s interesting and unusual, as is the way the gameplay itself contrives to reinforce just how unglamorous Vito’s life of crime truly is. Most open world games give you a city full of dazzling opportunities: playing as Vito Scarletta, the city around you is just your commute to work. And the work itself ranges from the mundane to the mundanely violent. There’s even another stint in prison for the relatively petty crime of forging gas stamps.

Again, I don’t want to get into stuff I really don’t have standing to talk about but: deconstruction of American dream yadda yadda. Good stuff.

Mafia III

I was so impressed by Mafia II I immediately leapt into Mafia III. And, uh, this was a mistake because Mafia III is bad. Or rather, I’m sure it’s super interesting. It has a non-white protagonist and it’s supposed to be—among other things—about racial tensions in 1960s … well it’s made up city but it’s blatantly New Orleans. Like Mafia II, the characters and the dialogue and the plot itself (though it’s a fairly standard ‘this guy killed family, now I’ll fuck his shit up’ type affair) are really interesting and engaging and, as we’ve seen, I’m appreciative of games with some kind of vision that they want to communicate to the player.

Problem is, Mafia III is really, really boring. Which is to say, the gameplay is not only repetitive, which I could live with as long as it was fun, but it’s laboriously repetitive. Mafia II was about the mundanity of crime, but the game itself was never mundane. I mean, even driving from one end of the city to the other, listening to the radio, and obeying the traffic laws so you didn’t get into trouble, was sufficiently reflective of the experience of being Vito Scarletta that served a purpose. And while Vito might have taken on a range of incredibly dull jobs—including selling stolen cigarettes out of the back of a truck—those jobs were themselves varied. So while what you were doing in-game was boring, you yourself were not bored as player.

In Mafia III, you have to slowly take over the city, district by district, and you do that by repeating the same actions, over and over and over again. The actions being, go somewhere, shoot some people, get in your car, do it again. And there’s no way to streamline it or automate it or shortcut it. I did two districts, took one look at the size of the map, realised I was going to have to spend the next 30 hours doing the same shit, and thought … fuck this.

Life is too short to be this bored by a thing I am doing for fun.

Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate

I’m honesty pretty bored of the Assassin’s Creed games by now. And I have lost all track of the metaplot, although I have a vague memory of Q shooting someone or maybe being shot in another game. And there’s an English guy? I think I like the English guy. But I played this one because it was set in London – or rather, a kind of mad, steampunk London. And so I  had a lot of fun with it because the Assassin’s Creed series has stagnated to the point that the only thing that really matters any more is the environment. You’ll be doing the same sort of things regardless, but it just about manages to be entertaining, despite the tired formula, if you’re running-jumping-crouching-stabbing your way round somewhere that has some kind of resonance for you.

This probably isn’t a great game, and the flaws of the Assassin’s Creed series are well-documented, but it’s super Londony, and the voice actors are eating the scenery with extreme gusto, and I got my character to pose next to Charles Dickens, so, y’know. What more could you want from an Assassin’s Creed set in London? The one minor innovation of this addition to the franchise is being able to swap between two protagonists pretty much at will. And since this appears to be a running theme, I am happy to report that Evie Frye is extremely sensibly attired. Finally, the Ripper (as in Jack The not Kris) expansion (if it’s set in Victorian London you have to have a Ripper thing) is really atmospheric , and lets you play as the Ripper a bit, with like scrawly voices in your  head, so I enjoyed that too.

I suppose it’s kind of telling, though, that high point of my game experience was actually just a profound moment of absurdity that occurred in the final mission. In said mission, your arch nemesis, the brilliantly named Crawford Starrick, is attempting to assassinate or blow up or something Queen Victoria at a party she’s holding at Buck Palace. So you sneak in to save the day which, in Evie’s case, involves casing the joint in a fabulous frock, while trying not to draw too much attention to herself. Obviously I was very here for this, though mainly what I was here for was the frock.  At one point, I went a little bit too close to a restricted area: a staircase with two guards at the bottom. Now instead of warning me or anything, the guards just took one look at me walking nearby, magically intuited I was dodgy and attacked me. Since Evie was wearing a dress, her move-set was restricted to party-appropriate activities, and she had no weapons. So these two fine gentlemen beat her to death in the middle of the party.

And it was just one of those moments that remind you you’re playing a game governed by mechanics rather than inhabiting a world governed by … y’know … common sense. I mean, I know Queen Vic was a bit of a hard arse but, to my knowledge, she never had someone murdered in front of her at a ball for standing too close to a staircase.

Prey

I picked this up because it’s from the people who brought us the Dishonored series, which has some of the best environmental storytelling I’ve experienced in recent years. Prey does a similar thing, except the environment is a space station over-run by aliens. And, like most survival games, the best bit is the beginning when you have no idea what you’re doing, where anything is, and the all that’s standing between you and a swift messy death is a wrench and walking very slowly.

By far Prey’s most interesting mechanic is that one particular type of alien—little black squoogly things—have the power to mimic anything around them. And while you’re weak, scared and confused this creates pretty much insta-terror. My first act in entering any room, or rather sidling into any room, while trying to look in all directions simultaneously, would be to scan the area frantically for suspicious looking furniture: that fallen-over chair, is that a natural position for a fallen-over chair? Why are there two coffee cups? Should there be two coffee cups? And then leap across the room, screaming IT’S THE CUP IT’S THE CUP, while whacking my wrench hysterically against a perfectly innocent piece of crockery. Only to then get attacked by the second waste paper basket I hadn’t noticed. But once you get a gun and have boosted your health a bit, the mimics become little more than the occasional  jump-scare which is kind of sad really. And, unfortunately, the rest of the aliens are, well, a bit dull. There’s the big scary ones. And the bigger scarier ones.

Which kind of brings me to the crux of what went wrong for me with Prey. I attempted one run through, favouring stealth and caution as is my wont, only to reach a point whereby it was impossible for me to progress. The station does not stay static. You can set up handy safe zones with turrets, or mark out the movements of aliens, but as you pass from area to area the aliens will come back, will get stronger, and will usually fuck your shit up. Which is cool in theory, except I pretty soon ran out of resources and was basically stuck unable to do anything except cower under an office desk, hugging my wrench.

So I started a second run and used all the knowledge I’d gained from my abortive first run to pimp myself up like crazy. I snuck into places I shouldn’t have been able to get, prioritised equipment I knew I would need and basically became godlike in my ability to muller aliens. Thus I got bored and stopped playing.

And this, of course, is my fault not Prey’s. I may go back to it at some point, but it’ll have to be when I’ve forgotten enough to come at it afresh. So I’m ticking it off my to-play list for now.

One thing I did really like about the game’s design, though, was the station itself.  You could genuinely figure out how things were connected – even to the extent of being able to pop out of an airlock and slowly space-wade your way to another airlock on the other side of the station. The cohesive geographical freedom of that was kind of awesome.

Baldur’s Gate II

This is another thing I’ve had on the go for ages. I played the Baldur’s Gate games as a nipper, long before I really knew what Advanced Dungeons & Dungeons was, so when I say I played them, what I think I mean is, I interacted with them with equal parts fascination and confusion. As other people on the internet who are not me have said, Baldur’s Gate, and its sequel, are pretty much unique in that what they are attempting to do is replicate in a computer game an experience similar to tabletop D&D. So, essentially, my first encounter with the Baldur’s Gate games was a thing I’d never experienced before based on a thing I’d never experienced before. Fun all round.

These days, the games have a reputation for being deeply obtuse in their adherence to a gaming system that has long since been surpassed. But they are also beloved. So much so, that in 2014, a company called Beamdog released a modernised, enhanced edition of the first game, and a little later, the second. It’s been so long since I’ve played the first, that I can’t really articulate the differences except that the enhanced edition has support for modern gaming graphics, and lots of minor quality of life upgrades, like being able to see how many hitpoints each member your party has, and what statuses are affecting them, and so on.

Anyway, I started a playthrough of Baldurs Gate I: Enhanced Edition forever ago. And completed it, along with the expansion, and exported my character into Baldur’s Gate II, played about two thirds of it, and then … I don’t know? Saw a shiny thing and wandered off somewhere? Under the aegis of the “my old shit” project, I came back to my unfinished playthrough of Baldur’s Gate II and finished it off, plus the Throne of Bhaal expansion.

And, wow, it’s been one hell of a journey. Like The Witcher games, playing Baldur’s Gate kind of makes you feel like you lived through something. You go from being a level 1 nobody who can legit get killed by rats to, well, I personally took up the portfolio of my dad – which was to say, I became the God of Murder. Except, y’know, in a good way because I’m good person. And, I should add, at great personal sacrifice because there was an annoying cleric dude who wanted to marry me. But I felt I had a responsibility not leave the portfolio of murderin’ open to any psycho who fancied their chances. Regardless, it felt like the culmination of a journey at once epic and deeply personal.

The other thing I found super interesting about playing Baldur’s Gate as a grown up is that I came to it with actual knowledge of D&D. Which meant, forgive me for blowing my own Balagarn’s Iron Horn here, I didn’t suck. I did the difficult stuff, you know. Meaning the two expansion-content fights, Durlag’s Tower and Watcher’s Keep, including Demogorgon himself, which I found literally impossible when I first played these games.

I think what’s interesting about this—apart from how tragic it is that I’m bragging about my leet skills in playing Baldur’s Gate—is the way fights are managed in these games, which is completely unlike the way computer game fights are usually managed. Because normally, well, fights are fun. In Baldur’s Gate, you have a party of six, you can pause whenever, so it’s pretty much as turn-based as you want to make it, but while there’s some in-the-field manoeuvring, ultimately it’s all about preparation. You find out what’s ahead of you, you either discover through trial and error what its strengths and weaknesses are, or you look them up in the massive manual that came with the game or the actual D&D rulebook, you prepare against the strengths and prepare to exploit the weaknesses. And then you, err, win. Which means all fights are either insanely difficult or insanely easy. And are largely conducted in a shop half a world away, as you stock up on scrolls and potions against the most likely eventualities, like you’re your own mum, sending you off on a school trip. As experiences go, it’s simultaneously satisfying and … really boring. By the end of the game, when we were going up almost exclusively against epic level enemies, each fight would take me about 10 minutes: 9 minutes of thinking, casting spells and drinking potions, then 1 minute of actual combat.

You can kind of see why they don’t make them like that anymore.

Though at the same time, it’s a teeny tiny bit sad they don’t.

Oh, I should, the other thing I really enjoyed about my Baldur’s Gate play through was the romance. Which was to say, no, I did not enjoy the romance. The romance was stupid. And, to add insult to injury, the only person available for a female character to romance is the annoying cleric I mentioned earlier. But, I guess, any annoying cleric in a storm. I mean, okay, points for the attempt at character development and character interaction at a time when there wasn’t much of either around. But what consistently entertained me about my love affair with the annoying cleric was that it appeared to be triggered based on the passage of real time. Which meant, in practice, that he always wanted to whisper sweet nothings to me in the most ludicrous imaginable situations.

You might need to click these to images to appreciate the full scope of my Annoying Cleric’s sense of romance.

Dude, we are not alone. We are with four of our friends, in the mouth of an enormous troll skull.

Um. This is pretty sudden. Especially considering we’re standing right in front of vulval death crevice in hell.

playing
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There’s no reason for this picture to be here but it’s Cersei and that’s reason enough for me

Given that I consume my TV in bulk these days (I genuinely don’t see the point in watching stuff week-by-week any more unless it’s some kind of competition—you can’t really binge-watch Bake Off or Strictly) I’m actually pretty proud that I’m writing the “what I thought about Season 7 of Game of Thrones” post barely a week after the season finale aired. I mean, I know a week is a long time in politics and six long times in Internet but, hey, I’m making progress here.

So, slightly too late to be topical: that raven was pretty quick, huh?

And, obviously, it is in fact too late to do an analysis of whether it makes sense for a raven to fly from The Wall to Dragonstone and for Daenerys to fly back on a dragon before four dudes can freeze to death on a lake because that kind of thing really does need to be part of the frenzy of in-the-moment internet pop culture discussion.  But that isn’t going to stop me. Or rather it isn’t going to stop me using the somewhat infamous supersonic raven incident as a jumping off point for several thousand words worth of rambling about how recent series of Game of Thrones are different from old series of Game of Thrones.

I should also add that pretty much everything I say here is going to be staggeringly unoriginal. Observing that since the show started to outpace the books Game of Thrones has got more done but made less sense is about as insightful as declaring that some elements of the Star Wars prequels were quite disappointing. But I do think the raven incident was interesting and illustrative and so I thought I’d talk in this post about why I was interested and what I think it illustrates.

Spoilers for everything up to Season 7 of Game of Thrones, potentially including the books. Also subheadings because always subheadings.

Once Upon An Ice Floe Dreary

So for those of you who haven’t been following HBO’s Game of Thrones (which I suspect will be rather fewer of you than those who haven’t been following the things I usually blog about) the “infamous raven incident” I keep talking about is a sequence in the penultimate episode of Season 7 in which several characters are trapped upon an ice floe surrounded by an army of indestructible killer zombies and their blue-eyed super zombie masters with no possible hope of escape. Or rather, with one possible hope of escape which is to send one of their number running an unknown distance to the nearest castle in order that he might, from there, dispatch a raven (ravens are the standard messenger birds in Game of Thrones for those of you who haven’t watched/read it) to one of their allies in order that she might then fly on her dragon to rescue them.

The issue here is that the ally in question is in a castle approximately two thousand miles south of our heroes, the ice floe, and the zombies.

Now, of course, the show doesn’t actually say how long the characters in question are trapped in that perilous situation. The zombies are initially held at bay by a lake they cannot cross but which is gradually freezing over and so it’s possible that our heroes have, indeed, been waiting there for the several days it would take for a large and not especially fast-moving bird to carry a message from New York to Mexico City. And there are even people on the internets who will argue that it actually all adds up. There’s a Reddit thread somewhere in which somebody pulls together some slightly shonkily curated bits of Wikipedia data to argue that a raven can fly two thousand miles in about two days—the calculation here being based on the assumption that ravens fly at 50mph which is the top recorded speed of homing pigeons over much shorter distances, and fly 20 hours a day without rest, and that the four day round trip this calculation suggests exactly aligns with the time it would take for the surface of a lake to freeze over in sub-zero conditions. Another writer (I think in Forbes of all places?) argues that it should be even quicker on the somewhat spurious grounds that since ravens are the primary means of communication in Westeros they’ll obviously be better than homing pigeons and that dragons will obviously be able to fly at several hundred miles an hour (as you can plainly tell from their falcon-like aerodynamic build and the sense of unbelievable speed you get every time they’re on screen).

Now as it happens, I think these calculations are way off. The two day estimate, in particular, is based on the avian equivalent of assuming that because Usain Bolt can reach a top speed of 23 miles per hour that he could, therefore, run from Paris to Moscow in three and a bit days. This just isn’t how moving works.

But to an extent I think getting hung up on the details is missing the point. The showrunners have been interviewed about the Infamous Raven Sequence and they’ve defended it in terms of “plausible impossibilities”. Their philosophy appears to be that it doesn’t matter if something couldn’t really happen as long as, in the moment, viewers can accept that it did. And from a certain point of view I think they’re absolutely right, although I’m afraid I would beg to raise two minor points of disagreement in this specific context.

Firstly, most obviously, but actually least importantly: that clearly wasn’t the case with this incident. The show has been so clear about the vast distances involved and the terrible urgency of the situation that even if you can run numbers that make it vaguely possible for a lady on a dragon to rescue some dudes on a lake before said dudes freeze, starve or get zombied to death, the prima facie plausibility of it is zero.

The second point, however, is the one that really bothers me. Which is, that this mode of thinking is, to me, kind of antithetical to what made Game of Thrones the series or A Song of Ice and Fire the books work in the first place.

Maps and Genealogies

A Song of Ice and Fire is in the fine old tradition of fantasy novels that could legitimately stop a bullet. Each one has the approximate dimensions and weight of a house brick and is full of appendices detailing the minutiae of invented histories and geographies that are really important to understanding how the story works. George RR Martin, as far as I can tell, is a genuine Medieval history nerd and while I’m sure an actual Medieval historian could shoot his world-building full of holes it has a tremendous ring of authenticity to it. Even the bits that are totally made up.

I’ve gone over a thousand words without a seemingly irreverent aside so here’s a seemingly irrelevant aside. The word mole, meaning spy or infiltrator within an organisation, especially in reference to espionage, was not real tradecraft terminology. It was invented by John le Carre explicitly for (I think) Tinker Tailor Solider Spy but it had such a level of truthiness to it that it felt almost realer than real spy language. And, as a result, it has now become real spy language, and that sense of that word has passed into everyday English almost without comment.

And Martin does something very similar. His world is full of terms and terminology and phrases that feel like they’re authentic medieval stuff when I’m pretty sure they’re just things he’s made up. Most obviously, the use of “[x]th of his/her name” as a way of describing someone’s position in a succession. Or his use of “knock, draw, loose” as a more archery appropriate substitute for the modern phrase “ready, aim, fire.” Or the phrase “to call one’s banners” to mean mustering your vassals your war. Or even, for that matter, the phrase “bend the knee” as a specific construction to mean swearing fealty. And I’d add that these are all so authentic-seeming that I’m a little bit uncertain about every single one of them. But I’ve read a fair amount of fantasy and a fair amount of history and I’ve only ever encountered these specific bits of language in Martin, but they work so well for what they’re used for that I forget that they’re just something some guy invented to sound medievaley.

And the point here is that (in, as always, my opinion) what makes the Song of Ice and Fire / Game of Thrones series compelling and absorbing is a level of attention to detail that not only makes them feel real but makes them feel like an evocation of a time that is noticeably different from our own. A time in which it is understandable that people would care more about their family’s name than their personal survival. That people would ride to war just because their father’s brother married someone else’s sister’s cousin. That the question of “do I kill the man I am sworn to protect or allow him to carry on roasting completely innocent people alive” is anything but a no-brainer. And, for that matter, that even the people whose relatives were being roasted would look down on you for taking option A.

tl;dr GoT/ASoIaF is a detailed-orientated fantasy setting. Its narrative and emotional weight comes from the reader’s investment in a set of assumptions that have to be supported by a consistent commitment to the integrity of its worldview. Probably the most infamous and most impactful event in the whole of GoT is the Red Wedding. Robb Stark, at the height of his military success, attempts to shore up a faltering alliance by marrying his uncle to the daughter of Walder Frey and his entire court gets slaughtered for their troubles. Everything in this scene relies on the viewer / reader having internalised some very alien, very medieval (or medieval-seeming … medeivish?) concepts. There’s the idea of political marriages being a real and significant thing rather than a plot device for a heroine to pull against. There’s the notion that even though somebody definitely hates you and would definitely benefit from your death it is not stupid to go unarmed into their house because people really strongly believe in hospitality. There’s the notion that these things are sufficiently complicated and sufficiently socially ingrained that a sequence in which:

  • You agree to marry somebody’s daughter in order to secure access to a bridge for your armies
  • You marry someone else while on campaign (and here there’s a book/show difference that I’ll talk about later)
  • The other guy takes this as a sufficient insult that your access to this bridge is now in peril
  • You consider offering up your uncle instead to be a sensible response to this
  • The other guy remains insulted but pretends to be mollified as a result of having been subverted by your enemies
  • He has you and your entire family murdered after you have put yourself in a situation in which it would be trivially easy for him to murder you

is at once emotionally plausible, easy to follow for a modern audience, and nevertheless utterly shocking. This is genuinely masterful and remarkable, but you can’t get there without doing the groundwork.

And, just to play book nerd for a moment, I would point out that the books do a little bit more groundwork than the TV series in that Robb Stark’s reasons for breaking his proposed marriage alliances with the Freys are quite different between the two versions. In the TV show he meets Jeyne Poole and they fall in love and get married on account of what an awesome healer she is. In the book, he has a sexual relationship with Jeyne Poole that actually seems pretty casual (based on the second hand reports that are all we get because Robb isn’t a POV character) and marries her out of a sense of honour because to do otherwise would forever tarnish her reputation. These are very different stories, and, in hindsight, sort of illustrate the different between the type of show HBO is making, and the type of books George R. R. Martin is writing.

Let’s get back to the raven. The problem with the raven isn’t so much that is it implausible (or plausibly impossible) that a raven could fly from beyond The Wall to Dragonstone and that Daenerys could fly from Dragonstone to beyond The Wall in a small enough space of time that neither she nor the dudes she’s rescuing show any especial signs of suffering from starvation, sleep deprivation or hypothermia.  The problem I have is that the showrunners clearly don’t seem to have thought it mattered.

To be glib for a moment you could say that the difference between writing horror and writing fantasy is that if you’re writing horror you have to jump through a lot of hoops to get around the fact that mobile phones exist and if you’re writing fantasy you have to jump through a lot of hoops to get around the fact that they don’t. Which is to say, if you are writer who has grown up in a world where instantaneous communication over vast distances is a thing, and where you find out pretty much instantly about any significant event that happens pretty much anywhere, it’s natural that the sorts of storylines you would think of are ones that assume sending messages is trivial. It requires conscious effort to be double-checking everything you write for the constraints imposed upon your world by the technology that exists in it. And in a lot of situations there’s no real benefit to doing so. If you’re writing a straight-down-the-line, high fantasy, coming-of-age about a farm boy who discovers he’s the heir to the throne you don’t really have to worry how he actually gets to the Dark Lord’s castle for the final confrontation. Or how his wise old mentor always seems to know where he is and when he needs help. Or why everyone has such damn good hygiene.

But if you’re writing a story in which a central theme is that high ideals often crumble when faced with the stark and banal necessities of reality you kind of have to pay attention to the banal necessities of reality. So much about what’s good about the series (both on TV and in print) is that, by and large, sympathetic characters don’t get handed free wins for being the heroes. They have to make compromises, make sacrifices, and deal with unglamorous things like how to actually govern a city after you’ve conquered it or where you get your food from or even how to get accurate information about something that happened three hundred miles away to a group of people who are now all dead.

What’s especially bewildering about the more recent series of the TV show is that they sometimes pay lip service to these ideas. There’s quite a cool bit in Season 7 where Daenerys’s armies under the guidance of Tyrion Lannister capture Casterly Rock (ancestral seat of House Lannister) thinking this will be a great blow against their enemies. But, in fact, the Lannisters have abandoned Casterly Rock and have taken their entire army south to capture Highgarden, seat of House Tyrell, thereby not only eliminating one of their rivals, but also securing control of House Tyrell’s lands, and more importantly, vast reserves of grain. It’s a call-back to the sensibility of the earlier seasons in which we are presented with something romantic (in this case the fall of the ancestral seat of a Great House) and are then reminded that it is meaningless when compared with something practical (in this case, actual food). But this only makes sense if this is the kind of story where that kind of detail matters. There’s another scene in the North where Sansa, having been left in charge of Winterfell by Jon Snow (who’s gone two thousand miles south on a supersonic ship to talk to Daenerys) is overseeing the castle’s preparations for the winter. And, again, she’s paying close attention to details, like how much grain they’ve got, and whether or not they’ve added insulation to their armour so they can still fight in the cold. But you can’t expect me to simultaneously believe that I’m being told a story where these kind of things matter while at the same time being asked to accept blacksmiths’ sons sprinting alone across zombie-invested wastelands without encountering any danger whatsoever and messages travelling at the speed of light just to set up a dramatic rescue scene.

And I suppose there’s an extent to which I’m looking at the series wrong. I watch Sansa patrolling the grounds of Winterfell, showing a detailed knowledge of the castle’s operation and defences, and read that as suggesting that details of the castle’s operation and defences matter. When actually that scene is just supposed to be a character beat for Sansa. It shows her generically being good at Lording. The Lannister army leaving Casterly Rock to take Highgarden isn’t making a point about food being more important than sentiment in a civil war. It’s just a fake-out or a plot twist, which is why nobody seems overly concerned when Daenerys’s dragons burn all the grain two episodes later. And why, somehow, the Lannisters were able to take actual gold from Highgarden of sufficient value to clear all their family’s, and presumably the Crown’s, debts to the Iron Bank of Bravos. And also hire the best mercenaries in the world with what was left over. As one recap video I was listening to put it, “I knew the Tyrells were supposed to be rich but I didn’t know you could just steal the rich”. I mean, I should stress that I’m not a medieval scholar but my understanding is that the vast majority of the wealth of major families in that era (or rather the era on which Game of Thrones is based, which actually covers everything from the Mongol invasion in the 13th century to the War of the Roses in the 15th) was not particularly liquid. And I always assumed that the wealth of Tyrells was in their lush arable land and diligent peasantry. Not in a big vault marked “Tyrell Fortune: Do Not Steal”, filled with easily transportable currency that they themselves for some reason didn’t use for anything.

Once again, contrast all of this against the Red Wedding which 100% revolved around Robb Stark’s need to use a bridge. That entire plot arc, including for that matter Walder Frey being such a dick because he was a feudal lord whose only useful resource was control of a strategic point that hadn’t mattered for a very, very long time and was, therefore, determined to leverage it for all he could get the one time it came up, evolves from a specific technical necessity and the choices and compromises the characters involved have to make to deal with that technical necessity. And it created probably the most iconic scene in the entire seven plus year run of the series.

Not only that but it was a scene that paid off everything building up to it and set up everything that followed in a way that was clear, plausible, natural and fully integrated into the established principles of the world and the story. Daenerys showing up at East Watch with a dragon was cool in the moment but it actually undermined everything had happened earlier (because if it’s that trivial for her to nip up and see the army of the dead, why didn’t she do that instead of insisting Jon go on this weird, roundabout catch-a-zombie quest and if catching a zombie was so important that it had to be done anyway why not send the dragons along to begin with because dragons are really useful and could surely just have grabbed one) and is likely to continue to undermine things that happen afterwards because there’s no point in paying attention to what’s going on now and where the armies are and who’s on who’s side and who’s running out of money or starving to death if what happens next is going to depend not all those things but on the Rule of Cool.

Which sort of brings me to my next point.

Having Your Grimdark And Eating It

I will admit that probably not everybody is as interested in the nitty gritty of moving large bodies of men around a war-torn fantasy kingdom as I am. I can completely see that for a lot of people a scene of Sansa counting grain shipments or inspecting armour really does only need to tell us that Sansa is good at being in charge of Winterfell and absolutely does not need to tell us that the length of time that Winterfell can withstand a siege is a specific issue that will be important later. I admit that, on some level, these are niche preferences (although I suspect they’re preferences I share with quite a lot of viewers and even more readers). What I think is less niche is related to this issue, although in a wibbly wobbly handwavey way rather than a down-and-dirty beancounting way. And that’s the tonal and thematic shifts when you allow dramatic rescues and heroic last stands in a story that has previously been about the merciless calculus of a grim reality.

I’ve talked a bit about how the Red Wedding was one of the most iconic scenes in Game of Thrones and how it evolved out of the necessary consequences of a bunch of very boring details of the setting. Probably the second most iconic scene in Game of Thrones is the shocking-until-you-remember-he’s-played-by-Sean-Bean death of Ned Stark in the first season. And, again, this is an inexorable consequence of intersecting questions of character and circumstance leading to a genuine emotional sucker punch in which you wait desperately for a dramatic rescue or sudden reprieve that is never going to come. And the reason it’s never going to come is because Westeros isn’t that kind of world and Game of Thrones isn’t that kind of story.

Except … now it kind of is.

I mean, wouldn’t it have been cool if just as Ned Stark was about to get his head chopped off, Robb had ridden in on a direwolf, stabbed Joffrey, grabbed his dad, and bounded down the steps of the Great Sept of Baelor in triumph? It would have been an exciting, dramatic scene that would have been a great emotional payoff for a tense build-up. It would also, of course, have felt incredibly cheap and changed the entire character and flavour of the series. And I’m sure if I’d gone onto a message board at around the time that episode aired and suggested that it would have been better for that scene to end in that way I would have been laughed off the internet. Because, after all, who on earth would think it was a good idea for a climactic scene in this grimdark, low fantasy, medieval setting to conclude with a character who, last time we checked, was two thousand miles away and who our heroes can contact only by slow-moving, unreliable carrier birds to ride in on the back of a quasi-mythological creature and save the day. D’you see what I did there?

Throughout Season 7 we keep getting scenes where Jon Snow will say or do something stupid but noble and people say to him “that kind of thinking got your father killed”. And yes. Yes it did. But so far there’s no indication that Jon is going to wind up the same way. I mean, he did once, but then he was immediately resurrected so it doesn’t count. And for that matter you can make a reasonable case that the only thing Jon Snow and Daenerys really have in common in this series (there’s this whole arc where they fall in wuv with each other which really doesn’t work because they have all the chemistry of a weak cup of herbal tea) is that people keep telling them that they run of risk of making the same mistakes as their dead fathers while the entire machinery of the narrative prevents us from remotely believing that they run the risks of making the same mistakes as their dead fathers. So Jon will rush pointlessly into danger or refuse to lie to prevent a war (check that: not even refuse to lie, refuse to break to an oath that he was only in a position to make because he’d already broken several other oaths by which he should still, in fact, have been bound) but we never really feel that this will be his undoing. Daenerys has her enemies burned alive by dragons and is told by her various advisors that she needs to stop doing that on account of that being what the mad king did but the audience never really gets the sense that Daenerys is anything other than a basically good ruler (not least because everybody who meets her is instantly struck by how amazing she is and convinced she’d be a good ruler, even the people who are also warning her that she’s going a bit Mad King Aerys).

Essentially the show is sort of resting on its earlier brutality. It’s relying on our memories of the terrible, shocking and harrowing things it did in earlier seasons to distract us from the fact that those sorts of things should by all rights still be happening but aren’t. And when I say “they should still be happening” I don’t mean because I liked all the tits, neck-stabbing and cock-chopping. I mean that all the bad things that happen to be people in earlier seasons happened because those people willingly or unwillingly found themselves in situations where bad things were very likely to happen. People who did dangerous things stood a really good chance of dying. People who took ill-advised stands on points of principle stood a really good chance of, well, also dying.  But in Season 7 we have things like Daenerys falling on the Lannister army with three dragons and a Dothraki hoard, butchering basically everybody but, somehow, not killing any of the major named characters. They even introduce a new sympathetic character in just that episode so that she can roast him so that we can forget that she somehow failed to roast Jaime and Bronn. In the episode with the magic raven, the party going north of the wall contains a literal magnificent seven (Jon, Tormund, Gendry, the Hound, Beric Dondarrion, Thoros of Myr, and a redshirt) who march out into the most inhospitable place in the continent, fight a gigantic near indestructible zombie-bear, a patrol of zombies, one of whom they are trying to capture without destroying, and whole of army of zombies led by the actual king of the zombies and who keep them trapped on a freezing lake for (as we’ve previously discussed) at least two days … and the only people who die are the boring priest and the redshirt. If those seven guys could face that much peril with that rate of attrition then Ned Stark and his mates should have been able to fight their way out of King’s Landing with no problem.

And, actually, I should step back here and say that I don’t think this problem is entirely the showrunners fault. I’ve read a fair few articles about this season of Game of Thrones and at least one of them referred to the Jon/Daenerys relationship you get in this series as “fanservice” which, well, strikes me as odd because “Jon is going to wind up marrying Daenerys” has been a pretty respected fan theory since about 1998. And a lot of the tonal difficulties that you get in the more recent seasons of the TV show actually seem likely to stem from the structure of Martin’s story, rather than decisions made by the showrunners. I don’t think I know anyone who read the books back in the late 90s /early 2000s who didn’t broadly agree that the most likely ending for the series was that Jon would turn out to be the son of Lyanna Stark and Rhaegar Targaryen, that he would marry Daenerys, ride into battle on a dragon and wind up ruling the Seven Kingdoms alongside her. Of course, the problem with this ending is that it’s a completely generic fantasy novel ending. It’s just “nobleman’s bastard discover he’s the true king and becomes king”. It’s so generic that by its very genericness it fights against the entire structure of the story to date. A world in which the man who rebels against a tyrannical king becomes a terrible ruler because he’s more interested in fighting than governing, in which holding heroically to your principles gets you beheaded, in which the greatest fencing master on two continents can be easily killed by some dickhead with a better sword and better armour, in which your heroic war to avenge your dead father just gets you killed as well, is not a world in which the plucky but honourable bastard grows up to be king of everything.

And maybe the intent for both the books and the TV show is to pull the rug out from underneath us one last glorious time. To have Jon and Daenerys unite, defeat the dead in the north, defeat the Lannisters in the south, and march into King’s Landing only to realise that half the people they now have to rule fought against them, that she knows nothing about Westeros and he knows nothing about governance, that the army of horse nomads with which they took the Seven Kingdoms are still here and still fundamentally survive by pillaging farmers which isn’t great when you’re trying to  rule a primarily agrarian society, and that re-building an empire the size of western Europe after a decade of civil war and supernatural conflict requires goodwill that they have squandered, men they’ve already led to their deaths, and money that they never had to begin with. But that wouldn’t just be an unsatisfying ending, it wouldn’t be an ending. The thing that’s really appealing about Game of Thrones is that in many ways it feels like real history. But the thing about real history is that it doesn’t stop.

So instead it seems very likely that the TV show and the books are going to conclude the only way they can: by bringing Westeros to a point where we can at least be reasonably certain that things will be reasonably boring for a reasonably long time. And that isn’t compatible with a grimdark look at the very real problems of governing a medieval fantasy kingdom.

Essentially there are two possible outcomes to the series that will leave Westeros in a stable state. The first outcome is what I understand some people refer to as the wincest ending (that’s wincest with a small ‘w’ as in ‘incestuous and winning’ as opposed Wincest with a big ‘w’ which is Supernatural fanfic involving an incestuous relationship between the Winchesters): Jon marries Daenerys, they become king and queen, and crucially the narrative contrives to ignore all the ways in which Jon and Daenerys being king and queen would be a terrible thing for Westeros. The second outcome is what you might call the status quo ending or more simply the Cersei Wins ending (and it occurs to me that this means that we’re now down to a duel between two incestuous power couples like a really weird reality TV show). If the series ends with Cersei on the throne that will mean acknowledging that the people of the Seven Kingdoms will carry on having shitty lives but they will at least be shitty in the way they’ve always been shitty to date. Which means we can at least assume there will be stability without also having to assume that the new rulers will have magical good guy powers that allow them to circumvent the very real problems that have led to the Seven Kingdoms being in the state they’re in to begin with.  An ending where Cersei wins would be miserable but satisfying because we know the Seven Kingdoms under Cersei would look like (we’ve basically seen it for the last seven years and, actually, civil war aside it’s not been that bad). By contrast an ending where Jon and Daenerys win would be upbeat but ultimately unsatisfying because, unless we assume the aforesaid good guy powers, we have no idea how their governance will actually look. Presumably he’ll act like a fool and she’ll roast people but the details of how Westeros will react to that are complex enough that they can’t just be taken as read.

I feel a lot like the show is heading for the wincest ending, which is why it feels to me like that they’re going down this weird tonal road where they’re trying to pretend that everything is as dark and gritty and complicated as it ever was whereas as actually we have people who are basically honest-to-god heroes flying about on honest-to-god dragons fighting honest-to-god monsters and never having to compromise their principles. And, on the flipside, Cersei’s behaviour becomes increasingly evil for its own sake when two or three seasons ago she was being ruthless because she lived in a society where you would die if you weren’t ruthless. On which subject…

The Quality of Cersei

So. The last three episodes of Season 7 of Game of Thrones pretty much revolve around Jon Snow’s efforts to persuade the other belligerents in the increasingly inaccurately named War of the Five Kings to put their differences aside and team up with him to fight the army of the dead in the North.

I don’t talk much about American politics on this blog because I think it’s not my place but one of the things I have noticed not just under the current Presidency but for the best part of the last decade is an increasing condemnation of partisanship. My limited understanding of the American political system is that there’s an expectation (outside of the Presidency, which is one person) that stuff will only get done if people from both sides come together and cooperate. The thing about partisanship, though, is that it’s a lot easier to identify in your political opponents than in yourself. Because when you take a partisan stand on something you’re being principled about an important issue. But when you’re opponents do it they’re just being difficult.

And the army of the dead works basically the same way.

At this stage in the game, there are only three players who matter. Jon, Daenerys and Cersei. Jon wants people to fight the army of the dead but doesn’t want Cersei to be queen of the Seven Kingdoms. Once he moves into a state of pre-boning with Daenerys he would quite like Daenerys to be queen of the Seven Kingdoms. Daenerys very much wants Daenerys to be queen of the Seven Kingdoms and, once she moves into a state of pre-boning with Jon, would quite like to stop the army of the dead (once the Night King kills one of her dragon babies, “defeat the army of the dead” and “become queen of the Seven Kingdoms” wind up pretty equal on her list of priorities). Cersei wants Cersei to be queen of the Seven Kingdoms and would slightly prefer if all life in Westeros wasn’t exterminated if that’s all the same to everybody else.

Not a single one of these fuckers will budge on anything in order to get the Stop the White Walkers Bill through Congress. Which would be fine if it weren’t for the fact that the show seems to think that Jon and Dany were being perfectly reasonable, while Cersei was being completely unreasonable.

At the start of the last episode Jon, Dany and Cersei and also basically every other important named character in the whole damn thing have a big sit down meeting somewhere near King’s Landing. Jon and Dany show Cersei a captured zombie so she’ll realise that the army of the dead is a real thing and then Jon and Dany propose an armistice whereby they will go North to fight the White Walkers and Cersei will not stab them in the back while they’re doing it. Cersei’s response to this is to say “okay, but I want you two to guarantee that you won’t just gang up on me when you’re finished.” And now maybe I’ve just had my head turned by Lena Headey but this seemed like the fairest counteroffer she could possibly have made. It’s not like she even asked Daenerys to give up her claim on the Iron Throne. She just wanted them to back down from their initial position of “we’re going to kill the Night King, then we’re going to come back south and kill you, are you fine with that?” Yet from the way they reacted it’s like they were on Dragon’s Den (which is kind of ironic considering the meeting took place in an actual dragon’s den) and she’d come back with “I’ll give you the money but I want 50% of your company.”

This, by the way, is the bit where Jon digs his heels in on the Stark honour thing. Cersei asks him specifically to sit out the war between herself and Daenerys and Jon says he can’t because he’s already sworn fealty to Daenerys. Which is news to basically everyone, including both his and Daenerys’s closest advisors. I also find it a little bit annoying that the show (through the words and actions of pretty much every character we’re supposed to respect) frames this as Jon, like his father, being too uncompromising and honourable for his own good, given that—as I briefly pointed out earlier on—he’s only in a position to swear fealty to Daenerys in the first place because he has violated all of his oaths to the Night’s Watch. Which, for what it’s worth, he also broke originally because of he met somebody he wanted to bone down on. He’s not honourable. He’s just horny.

Anyway, the whole “let’s maybe not have a civil war while monsters are eating the world” thing goes south so Tyrion has a private meeting with Cersei in which there is some cool character work and after which Cersei returns to Jon and Dany and tells them that she’s changed her mind and that she will not only respect the armistice but that she will send her armies north to help them fight the king of the dead.

Later in the episode, we discover that she is, in fact, planning to betray Jon and Daenerys: that instead of sending her armies to the wall, she will … not send them to the wall? And also that, although it seemed like Euron Greyjoy stormed out of the “let’s prevent the apocalypse meeting” this was actually a work and he was, instead, taking the Iron Fleet to Bravos or somewhere in order to hire a load of mercenaries with which Cersei could carry on pursuing her war. She explains this to Jaime who is so outraged by her perfidy that he at last abandons her having stuck by her side through child murder, civil war, and the blowing up of their culture’s most important religious building.

But let’s just think about what Cersei does here.

Two people come to her and say they want a temporary cessation of hostilities so that they can go and fight a war somewhere else. She tries to extract concessions from them: fair enough. It then becomes clear she’s not going to get those concessions and so she is faced with four choices.

  1. Agree to the armistice anyway and use the time when her enemies are off fighting an unstoppable army of zombies that definitely exist to consolidate her position in the south. Remember at this point she basically controls everything south of The Trident, leaving her opponents with the Vale of Arryn and a snowbound wasteland that can’t grow anything. Remember also that she can be pretty damn certain that her enemies are completely sincere in their intent to go north and fight an overwhelmingly powerful army of the dead, and their doing this will almost certainly weaken them massively.
  2. Agree to the armistice anyway but lie and immediately attack Jon and Daenerys when they head north.
  3. Tell them you are so moved by their entreaties that you intend to join them in their fight, send your armies north with them and use the opportunity to ambush them when they are at their weakest or, alternatively, simply assassinate Jon and Daenerys.
  4. Tell them you are so moved by their entreaties that you intend to join them in their fight but then don’t send your armies anywhere so that they immediately know you’ve lied, even though the thing you lied about was something they weren’t even asking you to do in the first place, and by lying all you’ve actually done is do the thing that you wouldn’t originally agree to do which is leave your armies where they were while your enemies march north to fight the zombies. So you’ve essentially put yourself in a position that is exactly like situation 1, except you’ve clearly signalled to your enemies that you plan to betray them and finally alienated your own brother, who is basically the only person in your corner who isn’t a mad scientist or a re-animated corpse.

This is pretty much where I think the show’s lack of attention to detail gets fatal. I’ve given about three or four conflicting theories about what I think the key to the success of the series is and, if you put me under oath, I wouldn’t swear to any of them. But I think you can make a good case that, at its heart, Game of Thrones is a character driven drama. All of the world-building detail needs to be there because it’s necessary to underpin the characters’ motivations. We can’t understand the Starks unless we know what it means to be a Stark of Winterfell. We can’t understand Catelyn unless we understand that being a Tully of Riverrun is different from being a Stark of Winterfell but that their and interests are compatible in these ways and incompatible in those ways. We cannot understand Cersei unless we understand the history of Lannisters and the history of Robert’s rebellion, and the nature of her father, which itself is a reflection of the nature of his society. If you let the world stuff slide, you will inevitably start letting the character stuff slide because people can’t exist in a vacuum. If you allow your hero to be rescued from a fundamentally ill-conceived plan without any thought as to how his rescuer found out he was in danger or knew where he was or got to him in time—without on some level thinking about how long it would take a raven to fly somewhere—then you’re only a short step away from allowing your main villain to pointlessly sabotage her own position just so you can have a scene where it turns out she’s betrayed someone.

And that’s not the show I started watching seven years ago.

watching
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One of the peculiarities of running a blog is that you get access to data about the search terms that bring people to that blog. And, on one level, that’s kind of creepy in the non-specific way that anything which reveals how much the internet remembers is creepy. And a lot of the time the search terms that bring people to my blog are pretty much to be expected, although often also a bit annoying—quite a lot of people seem to come here searching for Alexis Hall free book torrent, and while I would like to think that they’re looking for the free content I do actually give away on the website, I suspect a lot of them are just trying to pirate me. Which I suppose is flattering in a way.

Recently, I’ve noticed that some traffic to my blog has come from people searching for the phrase “why do i get triggered so easily over non con stuff”, hence the title of this post. And, to an extent, I’m not sure how to process that information. I actually prevaricated quite a lot about writing this post because I didn’t want to give the impression that I was calling someone out, or trying to address or reach out to anybody, because I’m really not. I feel that would be very much not my place. On the other hand, I also don’t want this post to just be me pontificating narcissistically about what might lead a person to Google for that term or what the answers to that question might be. Because that feels like I’m just co-opting someone else’s narrative for blog content. So in this post I’m going to use the search term as a kind of jumping off point to address some thoughts about triggering and noncon that I vaguely hope might be of benefit to anyone for whom the phrase “why do i get triggered so easily over non con stuff” has resonance.

Because, right now, if you Google for that phrase one of my old blog posts about how non con is complicated, y’all seems to be one of the top hits. And I don’t think it’s a very good thing to find if you’re Googling for that particular question.

triggered

I don’t like to describe terms as getting de-valued just because their usage evolves beyond that which some people consider (often incorrectly) to have been the original. But I do think there’s been a shift in the way we understand the word “triggered” over the past few years. I think when I first started hearing the term it referred quite specifically to content that reminds a reader (or viewer or whoever) of similar experiences from their own life in a way that provokes a negative reaction which, to an outside observer, might seem disproportionate to the stimulus. Going right back, it ties to things like PTSD and people for whom a sight, sound or, indeed, smell that would be completely innocuous to the general public triggers an emotional connection to a related traumatic event. And I should stress that I am in no way an expert here. And I strongly suspect that PTSD flashbacks are one of those complicated psychological issues where the popular perception is very divorced from reality.

I think these days, when we talk about things that are “triggering” we’re usually not talking those kind of, for want of a better term, second order associations. Rather the term tends to be used for specific reference to or portrayal of traumatising content that is likely to be significantly more impactful to a person who has experience (direct or indirect) of that traumatising content. Hate speech is quite a straight forward (although, as ever, probably more complicated than it seems) example here: as a white British person, I can watch a movie in which the bad guys consistently use ethnic slurs and just treat it as another thing that’s bad about the bad guys, whereas for other people that kind of content would be uncomfortably close to their real life.

More recently the term seems to have developed a host of subsidiary meanings, often just being used for “strongly upset by” and sometimes used in a disparaging way to mean “being a big crybaby about”.

All of which puts the question of how one should respond to one’s own triggeredness in a very difficult place. To step back onto slightly safer (although not much safer) ground I think you can draw quite strong analogies here between being triggered by something and being offended by something. Not in the sense that they’re similar experiences but in the sense that they occupy similarly complicated cultural positions. In particular, when it comes to being offended, people tend to perceive it in two different ways, and the ways in which they perceive it aren’t necessarily consistent but vary from context to context. We will sometimes see offence as resulting from a flaw in the person who causes it and we will sometimes see it as resulting from a flaw in the person who was offended. And even speaking strictly about offence we have to be careful of false equivalences here because while not everybody draws the lines in the same place, most people agree that there are lines and there is a difference between, for example, a member of ethnic minority who is offended because someone has used a specific ethnic slur explicitly to insult them and some jerk who gets offended at being ID-ed while buying alcohol at a store which has a clear policy of ID-ing people who buy alcohol. And there a whole lot of grey and not actually grey but some people think they’re grey areas in the middle that I’m not going anywhere near, but you get the point.

And the thing is some people make it a point of pride not to get offended by stuff.  And it would be easy to say that these people are mostly white men who fail to recognise that it’s easy not to be offended by things that don’t actually affect you, but that’s kind of an over-simplification. There are plenty of people who belong to marginalised groups and who feel that there is a power in rising above and not being bothered by things that other members of those same groups think there is a power in challenging. Because, hey guess what, groups of people aren’t monoliths.

Bringing this back to triggering and being triggered, I think the centre of gravity is in a slightly different place as we are generally comfortable as a society with the idea that there can be social and cultural value in being deliberately offensive, whereas it’s a lot harder to make the case for the social and cultural value of being deliberately triggering. To take a difficult example, the Australian comedian Tim Minchin has song called Fuck the Motherfucking Pope, which is deliberately offensive but is deliberately offensive in order to (from Minchin’s perspective) highlight the hypocrisy of being more concerned about the risk of hurting the feelings of religious people than the actual child abuse to which the song is a response. And you can absolutely make the case that the best way to challenge hypocrisy and speak truth to power is not, in fact, to insult a people of group that has actually, historically, been way less powerful than we like to pretend. But it’s hard to deny that there’s a coherent political purpose there. By contrast, I honestly cannot think of any good reason to just deliberately remind specific people of traumatic things that have happened to them, unless you’re just being an arsehole. Point being, there’s the same spread of opinions but offending people has a certain cache that triggering people doesn’t currently have (although, actually, there are bits of the internet where that ship has already sailed).

I think the other key difference between being offended by something and being triggered by it is that, for a lot of people, being offended can feel empowering, because it takes you to an angry place in which you feel motivated to do something productive. And I should stress that I’m not trotting out the old canards about people “trying”, “wanting” or “looking” to be offended but I am suggesting that there is potentially real social and political value in being able to say, “this is offensive, I am offended by it”. By contrast, being triggered by something just makes you feel shit. It takes you to a place of helplessness and it’s a feeling you always want to avoid.

And, again, people will disagree about in whom the flaw lies here. And I should probably say that I don’t actually think expressing these things in terms of flaws is very helpful but I feel that’s the cultural context in which we operate (and possibly part of what makes these kinds of things so difficult to talk about). I did actually blog about trigger warnings many years ago and it’s always struck me as really odd that people object to them because, to me, they’re just information about the sort of thing that could be in a book. But I think some people feel that being told that the thing they’re writing could be triggering to someone is the same as being told the thing they’re writing is flawed in some way. And even though we all rationally accept that our works are imperfect it can feel bad to hear something that you perceive as telling you that the thing you chose to do is a thing you should not have chosen to do. Again, I should stress that I don’t think that’s what trigger warnings do, but I suspect that some writers might feel like that’s what they do. Which might explain why they don’t like them.

And, of course, from the other perspective we have this (I would argue genuinely toxic) tendency within some cultures and subcultures to view as flawed anyone who expresses hurt or discomfort at anything. This is the culture that leads to calling people snowflakes because they don’t particularly want to be reminded of (without wanting to be either too specific or too stereotypical) all the ways in which their life has been shit and the life of the person calling them a snowflake usually hasn’t been shit.

And this complex, messy, often I feel genuinely harmful social context is, I think, why I found the search term “why do i get so easily triggered over non con stuff” so affecting.

so easily

I promised myself that I wasn’t going to let this post devolve into speculation into the sort of person who might be searching for that particular search term. But I do think that the choice of words highlights some interesting complications of our cultural understanding of these issues and the ways in which we can interact with them. The question “why do I get so easily triggered” for me underscores the conflict between a number of different ways that these things can be perceived.

The interpretation of the question “why am I so easily triggered” that I would personally consider most dangerous is one that’s grounded in self-condemnation. That is a response to a cultural framework that treats suffering, or acknowledging one’s own suffering, as weakness or self-indulgence.  I am uncomfortably aware that literally millions of people go through life not only feeling shitty, but surrounded by people who tell them that they’re weak and wrong for feeling shitty. This makes me profoundly angry (I am, ironically, offended by it).

Being easily triggered by something is not a character flaw. It’s not a weakness. It’s just a thing. We have this deeply problematic and largely unchallenged culture which teaches us that the experiences of people who face difficulties, or disadvantages, or even disabilities are valid only if they rise above them and live their lives the same way as people who do not experience those things. We are so keen as a society to celebrate people who triumph in the face of adversity that we ignore the fact that those people are, by and large, outliers.  Being triggered by something (either in the sense of being strongly upset by it or in the sense of being reminded of your own personal traumatic experiences by it) is not an inherently less worthy reaction than not being triggered by it. It’s a less pleasant reaction, certainly. It’s reaction that makes you feel disempowered. But we (as a culture) are often unwilling to admit that how empowered or disempowered you feel is often more a function of how much power you have than your attitude or ability to think positively. And while it feels terrible to be easily triggered by stuff, I suspect it feels even more terrible to be triggered by stuff and believe that the fact you’re triggered by it means that there’s something wrong with you.

And, again, I should stress that I’m not speculating about the people who have come to this blog via that search term. I’m really talking about basically anyone who has ever been made to feel worse because they haven’t been allowed to feel bad about something shitty. And I know for a fact that this covers a great many people.

All of which is to say: it is okay to be easily triggered by things.

Or to put it another way: if you are easily triggered by something, then for the sake of your own mental health you need to find a way to deal with it, but avoiding the thing you find triggering is as valid a coping mechanism as trying to be less triggered. And, obviously, avoiding things that trigger you means accepting living within certain limitations, which can itself can feel bad in different ways. But, then, attempting to “get over” one’s triggers is never guaranteed to work. And the process will almost certainly be on some level traumatic.

non con stuff

I should stress that I’m using non con here very much as an example, just because it’s the example that comes up in the search term that inspired this post. I’d likely to be writing the same post whatever the subject.

If you have an aversion, be it finding something triggering, being deeply offended by something, just really disliking something or being afraid of it, you are faced with a fairly simple choice. Confront the aversion or accept it. I’ve said “as a society” about ten million times in this post but I’m afraid I’m going to say it again: we as a society have this tendency to assume that confronting aversions is always the right way to deal with them. And I genuinely appreciate that for some people this is an important part of the way they see the world and the way they live their life. For some people, to use the oldest cliché in the big book of old clichés, there is nothing to fear except fear itself. Some people would always rather do something they don’t want to do than be prevented from doing something by the mere fact they don’t want to do it.

Because I’m a glib, meta bastard I like to feel that I have internalised the doctrine that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” to such an extent that I have stopped being afraid of fear. I have joined John Wilmot in the conclusion that all men would cowards if they durst. And I’m partly being facetious but I’m mostly really not. Because at the end of the day there are a finite number of things you can do in your life and it feels borderline irrational to me to spend time doing things you know you’ll probably dislike (or, indeed, find genuinely harmful) just for the sake of proving to yourself that you can do them. I used to do quite a lot of things that I didn’t want to do and I told myself that this was courage when in truth it was just fear of missing out or looking weak.

And I admit that I am a bit hyper-rational but, these days, when given the chance to do something I ask myself two very simple questions: what do I get out of it and what does it cost me?

This is going to be the bit where I talk about non con. Now, I don’t read non con. I should stress that I have nothing against it, I have nothing against people who write it or read it, and I completely respect that there are people who feel they get something important out of writing and reading non con. That it helps them safely confront ideas, issues and feelings that they couldn’t safely confront in a different context. I absolutely get that. And I also get that a lot of the people who feel that they have these positive reactions to reading non con also find the experience of reading it difficult. And for some people there is real value in a book that you find at once emotionally devastating and uplifting. But I know myself pretty well and I feel it’s profoundly unlikely that I would have that kind of reaction.

I am one hundred percent not the person to talk to if you are not sure whether you should try reading non con. But I am one hundred percent the person you should talk to if you are basically convinced that you don’t want to read non con but feel that this makes you weak or judgemental. I am sure there are people who find non con triggering but read it anyway and find value in reading it. This is fine. This is great. More power to those people. There may even be people who find non con triggering and, through reading it, come to be less triggered by the sort of stuff they are reading and possibly even similar triggers in everyday life. Again, that is great. That is a genuine social good.

But it’s not for everybody and it won’t work for everybody. And it is completely okay to conclude that benefits of being a reader of this particular subgenre of fiction are not worth going through the emotional distress that you feel you will suffer in reading it.

This wouldn’t be an Alexis Hall post if I didn’t go off on a massive tangent about critical thinking. There’s a very important concept in data analysis called survivorship bias. In short, it’s that the information you have about something is biased in favour of things that survive the information gathering process. There are loads of cool examples of this, of which my favourite is the one about fighters in WWII.

In the Second World War we were trying to work where to the put the armour on our airplanes for maximum benefit without putting too much stress on our limited reserves of metal. So what we did was we looked at planes that came back from the front, looked at where they’d been shot and assumed that those bits of the plane were the bits that were most likely to take damage and therefore the bits that needed protection. But this didn’t work. The same number of planes got shot down. And the very clever boffins at HQ thought about this for a while and they realised that the reason it didn’t work is that the planes that had been shot in those locations were the ones that came back. So all they were doing was adding more armour to the bits of the plane that the plane could fly perfectly well without. They started armouring the bits of the plane that were coming back undamaged and more planes started to survive.

Survivorship bias is also why you have to be really sceptical about pretty much all inspirational talks and speeches. Because the only people who get asked to make those speeches are the ones who are already successful. No-one ever has the initiative to go down the dole office (I think it’s Job Centre Plus these days, but let’s not split hairs), find an unemployed person and get them to stand up in a room full of people and say “Everybody said I was crazy when I quit my job and poured my lifesavings into my tech start up and they were right because I lost everything” even though that’s what happens to most people who do that.

This is going somewhere, I promise.

My first book, Glitterland, deals with some topics that I’m very aware a lot of people find very triggering. It deals with depression, suicide, suicidal ideation, self-harm, and so on. Every so often I will get an email from someone that says “I originally didn’t want to read Glitterland because I thought I’d find it really triggering, but I did anyway and even though I found it really hard to read I’m really glad I did.” Obviously these emails are great and I love getting them. But, the thing is, they’re another example of survivorship bias because you’re much, much more likely to email the author if that’s your experience than if you try reading the book, finding it triggering, and have stop halfway. Or, for that matter, if you decide (correctly) that you’ll find the book triggering and make the perfectly reasonable choice to just not read it.

The thing is, I would never recommend that somebody read Glitterland if they think they’ll find it triggering. If I just went by my emails I’d be a lot more blasé about this because the feedback I’ve received suggests that most people who think they’ll find it triggering are wrong. But my emails don’t reflect reality. I am pretty much one hundred percent certain that most people who think they’ll find my book triggering will, in fact, find it triggering. And if they choose not to read it they are probably making the right call. I am, of course, flattered and grateful when people decide to read it anyway, especially if they do not regret the decision. But, to me, it would be a staggering failure both of humility and of empathy to ever tell a person that I believe that they will be more negatively impacted if they miss out on reading my book than if they read it and are triggered by it.

in conclusion

I’ve put this subheading in because I sort of feel I should have a conclusion but, as is so often the case, I, um, don’t. I have a position, which is very strongly that you should never feel bad about your own reactions to things or interpret behaviours in which you engage for your own safety as weakness. And, of course, the deeply ironic thing is that I suspect that my other post about non con from 2014 will still wind up being a better hit for the phrase ‘why do i get triggered so easily over non con stuff’ than this one. But I guess I wanted to say something anyway.

Because I think actually we all worry about why things upset us and it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that it’s okay to just feel bad sometimes. And that this doesn’t say anything about you except sometimes you feel bad.

thinking
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One of the things that persistently makes me feel old is my increasing inability to keep up with popculture as it actually happens. There was a time when I’d be watching quasi-legal torrents of currently trending TV shows that otherwise wouldn’t be accessible in my country so that I could stay on top of whatever it was people were talking about online that week. But as you transition into middle age and start having jobs and responsibilities and shit suddenly what people are saying about the latest HBO drama slides down your list of priorities and you very quickly reach the point where you only really notice a TV show exists because of all the buzz about the finale. Like, seriously, I still occasionally think to myself “I really should catch up with Alias at some point.”

So it is that I finally, just as the last season finished airing, decided to have a look at The Leftovers.

I’ve got to admit I went in with a certain amount of trepidation because the premise (a Rapture-like event occurs and the story follows the travails of the ones who are left behind) was eerily reminiscent of a relatively well-known series of books with a fairly hardline Christian right slant. As an atheist I don’t want to pontificate too much about things other people believe in and I’m sure there are plenty of sensible, moderate, none hate-mongering Christians who believe that the Rapture is a real thing that could happen someday, but my perception, and I think the general perception (although, obviously, it’s very hard to tell to what extent the way you see things is the way the other 7 billion people in the world see things) is that explicit belief in the Rapture tends to be associated with more hardline groups. I mean, maybe I’ve just been looking at the wrong websites but I’ve tended to see people talking about the Rapture in the same places I’ve seen them talking about how the Catholic church is secretly run by a black pope who works for Baphomet. And I’m fully willing to accept that this might be in inaccurate portrayal but it does mean that Rapture imagery is in a slightly odd place in my head in that I’m inclined and (again, I might be self-justifying) I think popculture in general is inclined to file it alongside “kooky conspiracy theories” rather than legitimate things that reasonable people believe.

There’s sort of a weird …. I’m not sure I want to say double-standard … but I can’t think of a better way to put it when it comes to the portrayal of religious iconography and imagery. There are some things that are definitely considered quite taboo. For example, actual Jesus tends not to appear in stuff unless it’s done very respectfully (Passion of the Christ) or with the deliberate intent to shock (South Park). But there are some bits of religion (even mainstream religion) that do seem to be considered fair game. Angels are actually a weirdly good example. As, for that matter, are demons. Angels are allowed to fall in love with teenagers and the devil is allowed to solve crimes in Los Angeles, but not even mid-90s Vertigo (for the non-comics readers in the audience, Vertigo being the DC imprint that basically specialised in edgy bullshit) quite had the balls to do Jesus Christ: PI. And, rightly or wrongly, I think Book of Revelation has been put squarely in the popculture camp. We’ve almost forgotten that things like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the actual concept of Satan, the idea of an Antichrist, and the notion of a Time of Judgement are specific things that come from a specific religion.

All of which is to say that going into The Leftovers I was quite uncomfortable in a way I probably shouldn’t have been (because I associate the Rapture with a certain style of fundamentalism that I disagree with and felt a bit leery about a show that could be seen as validating those beliefs) and perhaps not uncomfortable in a way I should have been (in that, since both the author of the original novel and the showrunners seem to be treating the Rapture as an SF premise rather than an actual part of actual peoples’ actual religion there’s an extent to which I feel I should have been more bothered by the cultural appropriation).

And it seems a bit strange to go from here and say “but given these expectations I thought it handled its premise well” since I’ve just spent 750 words explaining at length why I am in no way qualified to make that call. But completely ignoring for a moment the religious implications of the premise, I thought they engaged with it in an intelligent way. For those who haven’t watched it yet (or read the book) the elevator pitch for The Leftovers is that a suspiciously Rapture-like mass disappearance happens and the stories we follow are the stories of the consequences of that event on the people left behind. Which is actually a really cool idea. SF in its purest form is about taking a “what if” and running with it. And “what if the something like the Biblical Rapture actually happened” is a pretty funky if to what.

I think the thing I most respected about the show was its exploration of the way the consequences of an event can spiral out far beyond the event itself. To go off on a complete tangent for a moment I always get really hacked off when people complain about the “misuse” of the word decimate. Not only does it make no sense to insist that a word that has its origins in the Roman army can only be used for the exact meaning for which it used in the Roman army (a standard that “grammar” purists for some reason apply only to the word decimate, not to, for example, words like triumph, ovation, cohort or, indeed, century) but the misuse people complain about isn’t even really a misuse. When people say “decimated” these days, unless they’re being picky, they usually use it to mean “having suffered widespread destruction or devastation”. Pedants insist that the term can only be used to mean destruction of one tenth. And, in a vacuum, it seems like those two things have very different meanings. Human beings are bad at thinking about numbers and when you say “destroy a tenth of [x]” that seems like a relatively small effect. Whereas if you say “damage [x] irreparably” that seems like a very large effect. But when you’re talking about actual death and destruction 10% is huge.  Think about the average high school. There could easily be a thousand students there. If the school was “decimated” in the original Roman sense that would be fully a hundred dead kids. If you decimated the population of London that would be somewhere in the region of a million casualties. The Blitz, as far as I know, came nowhere near “decimating” the city. But it was still quite a big effect.

The “Disappearance” in The Leftovers specifically took about 1.4% of the world’s population, which, from a certain point of view, is nothing. There’s even a radio broadcast at the start where a smug historian is highlighting exactly this fact, comparing the rate of loss in the Disappearance to that from pandemics in … I was going to name a specific century but I can’t remember … in, like, history. But what the series articulates very well is that because human beings are all interconnected and shit a bad thing that affects a relatively small number of people, especially if those people are relatively uniformly distributed, will affect everybody. And it will affect everybody irreparably.

The series mostly focuses on a family called the Garveys (the book seems to focus on this family exclusively whereas the TV series, having ten hours to fill, jumps around a little more). It’s clear, even before the honestly slightly heavy-handed flashback episode, that the family’s life has been completely destroyed by the Disappearance and you spend a lot of the first couple of episodes trying to figure out who they lost to catalyse that disintegration. And it isn’t until about the end of episode of 2 that you realise that they didn’t lose anyone (this is slightly undermined later on, but anyway). The entire Garvey family unit falls apart because of pre-existing tensions within their seemingly idyllic lifestyle that become intolerable in the aftermath of the Disappearance. And, indeed, it’s only on looking back on the series that you notice how few of the characters we encounter actually lost people: a relatively central figure is a woman named Nora whose entire family Disappeared and the community makes a big deal out of this because one of the themes that the show (and I assume the book) seems to be engaging with is the way in which communities and societies construct a narrative around tragic events and how such narratives co-opt or supersede the personal realities of the people affected by those events. This might just be my interpretation but from the way Nora is presented in the show it seems clear to me that her problems stem as much from the fact she is expected to publicly perform both her grief and her healing in a socially mandated way as from the fact her husband and children just disappeared one day. But most of the characters have been affected by the Disappearance indirectly. We meet Meg, who has been putting off her marriage ever since the Disappearance happened and eventually joints a cult, and we met Father Jamison who has dedicated his life to discrediting people who disappeared during the Disappearance in order to prove that it was not the Biblical Rapture. Later on, we learn that Meg is devastated not because someone she cared about disappeared but because her mother died around the same time and she felt that the Disappearance made it impossible for her to express her grief. Father Jamison is so angry that people are treating the Disappeared at heroes because his wife was paralysed by a car accident caused when a local judge disappeared while driving.  Ultimately the show isn’t about how tragedies affect people. It’s about how the way tragedies affect societies affects people.

Also, I feel like an idiot because I’ve literally just this second realised this, but here we have a story about how a well-publicised event inflicts personal tragedy on a small number of people but has widespread consequences as a result of its symbolic impact on the popular consciousness and that event is really explicitly referred to by its date throughout the series.

It’s about 9/11 isn’t it?

Soo….. looking back at the stuff I’ve just written, yeah, I think that’s why I liked it so much. What I responded to positively about the show is that it explored the impact of a tragic event on a society in a way that I felt was well-thought through and realistic. And I was particularly impressed by the way in which it emphasised the indirect consequences of the event and the attempts by interested parties to characterise or co-opt the event in a way that suits them. And I liked that as an abstract comment about tragedies. I think I like it even more interpreted as a specific comment about a specific tragedy. And, obviously, I should stress (and I know this is a written medium so I could go back to stuff and I know should have worked this out sooner) that I honestly did not start this article intending to pontificate about the impact of 9/11 on the American psyche or about The Leftovers as a metaphor for the impact of 9/11 on the American psyche. Because I have no standing to talk about either of those things because I am super British.

Let’s back up a second because I have actually distracted myself. And, in fact, I’m not a big fan of interpreting texts as being specific commentaries on specific events, especially when those texts are adaptations from a different medium because it’s very possible that the guy who wrote the book was intending one thing and the people who made the show were intending something else entirely. Or, indeed, that the multiple people who worked on the show had different intents from one another. Quite famously, if you ask Ridley Scott if Deckard is a replicant you get a strong yes. But if you ask Philip K Dick you get a strong no. Where I was going with this, before I blew my own tiny mind by making a really obvious connection, was that I liked the show most when it was doing quite focused, quite standalone character work about how people and cultures deal with bad things happening. I think I liked it the least when it started trying to have more of a plot.

This is the bit where I start talking about the stuff I liked less about the series. It’ll include spoilers for the last couple of episodes and, as always, I should stress that any criticisms I have are my own personal opinions and interpretations. They’re not, for want a less inappropriate term given the subject matter, gospel.

I’ve not read the book that The Leftovers is based on, although I did classily scan a Wikipedia plot summary just to pick up any major differences between the book and the TV series. And something that seems to come across from the summary was that the book is much clearer about being a set of vignettes about the aftermath of something. For a start, the book’s a standalone, and the events of the book are covered in the first series of the TV show, so we have a slightly odd situation in which a set of stories that were designed to be complete in their original medium are used as the beginning of a larger narrative in the adaptation. And I should emphasise that I’m not a book purist, especially not when it comes to books I haven’t, in fact, read. I don’t at all mind adaptors making changes. In fact I think it’s necessary, important and useful. Novels are not the same as TV series, and things that work in one won’t work in the other. Having said that, I do think that a lot of my dissatisfaction with the first series of The Leftovers comes from the tension inherent in converting a self-contained story (or set of stories) into the first part of a long-running plot. There’s the need for a hero and rising action and a central mystery, none of which from my (let’s be clear, very very cursory) research come from the original novel.

The Leftovers is about the people of Mapleton. And it’s at its strongest when it’s about snapshots of their lives and sketches of their community. My two favourite episodes were ‘Two Boats And A Helicopter’, which is about the town priest, and ‘Guest’ which focuses on Nora ‘I lost my whole family’ Durst. Those episodes take a detailed but ultimately isolated look at what it is like to be those people in that place and at that time. They’re simultaneously banal and profound in a way that only that kind of intense character work can be and in a way that I would argue television is uniquely suited for. Nora’s story is about someone stealing her ID badge when she goes to a conference in New York, which is seemingly trivial, but also serves as a vehicle through which we can explore her life, her identity and what it means to be someone who is literally displaced from herself by the larger tragedy that has been built around her. Father Jamison’s episode revolves around his desperate quest to raise an unrealistic amount of money to save his church, despite the fact his church is clearly dead and his commitment to it is clearly destroying him. Both stories are about people who find liberation from identities and beliefs that trap them. And it’s really good TV.

Kevin Garvey’s arc is … different. We learn fairly early on that his father is in a psychiatric institution because he hears voices, and his son and his wife have both run off with weird cults, leaving him to raise his teenage daughter (and his teenager daughter’s hot friend who seems to live with them for no reason that is ever explained) alone.  And the problem is that his story appears to be two stories at once and they don’t really go together. On the one hand, it’s the same as everybody else’s: it’s how he deals with the aftermath of the Disappearance and how he constructs his identity and re-builds his life. But then there’s this parallel plot in which he’s having explicit visions of a symbolism deer, shooting wild dogs with a man who maybe doesn’t exist, and randomly blacking out and abducting women (okay, one woman, but if the best thing you can say about someone is “he only abducted one woman” you have bigger issues).

I think the biggest problem with The Leftovers, at least with the first series of The Leftovers, is that it can’t seem to make it up its mind whether it is a low-key story about the aftermath of a tragic event that happens to look a bit like the Biblical Rapture or if it’s a quasi-eschatological story about the actual Biblical Rapture. And this is an issue because these stories are very different. Nora is very definitely living in the first, as are most members of the Garvey family. Yes, Laurie (the wife) and Tom (the son) both join cults, but they join them for personal reasons. And Jill’s (the daughter’s) arc is basically just about being a sad, confused teenager. Father Jamison is strangely in the middle in that his narrative is mostly about how he deals with his faith, morality and his wife’s injury, but his specific episode involves quite a lot of things that seem to be explicit signs from God. And this sort of works for Father Jamison because he’s an actual priest and so you can reasonably assume that he is seeing the world through a religious lens and the religious imagery in his story can be seen as telling us about who he is, not about what the plot is or how the world works.

Kevin, in what could ironically be seen as an interesting metaphor for the hypostatic union, is wholly in both camps. His personal plot about losing his family, meeting Nora and trying to get back on his feet is a completely character-driven story. But then there’s the visions and the abducting people and the woman from the cult giving him a portentous speech about how he, and he alone, understands what has happened before legitimately stabbing herself in the neck. Leading to a whole episode of flashback, which, it is strongly implied, is not merely a narrative device but is actually an epiphany that he is having about the nature and purpose of the Disappearance. All of that is pretty much the opposite of a character-driven story. It’s pure, freebased metaplot. The drive in those sequences isn’t to do with Kevin as a person, it’s do with Kevin’s quasi-messianic role in events. Pretty much every other part of the series (except for some elements of Tom’s story, as he carts a pregnant girl across America) makes it fairly explicit that it does not matter why the Disappearance happened, only that it happened. But Kevin’s visions arc (and the “this could be the Antichrist” parts of Tom’s arc) directly invite the viewer to speculate about the potentially supernatural underpinnings of what’s going on. Which is either pointless misdirection or undermining all the really good low-key character work and nuanced depictions of the aftermath of tragic events. Either they spent half of the first season apocalypse-baiting us for no reason or else they spent it building up subtle stories about human responses to something senseless that are going to look pretty silly when the Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun show up.

It doesn’t help that Kevin Garvey just strikes me as quite a generic protagonist. He’s a conventionally attractive white man in early middle age who, before the Disappearance, experiences a sort of vague ennui because his seemingly idyllic white picket fence lifestyle isn’t satisfying him the way he feels it should. And who afterwards experience a slightly different sort of ennui because his socially mandated role as provider and family guardian has been undermined by his wife joining a cult. It’s particularly problematic because, at the very end, after all his vision quest stuff, after his father and the woman he abducts and the voices in his head tell him that he has this great purpose and this unique insight into the Disappearance, his conclusion is that it happened because we didn’t appreciate our families enough. Which is not only is an utterly anodyne lesson to take away from such an event but also seems to imply that a hundred million people worldwide vanished just to teach one guy from small-town America to be less of a self-absorbed prick. Which is ironic when you think about it. Hell, there’s even a bit in about episode 7 where Patty, the woman that Kevin abducts and who kills herself in front of him, and then speaks to him in visions after she’s killed herself in front of him, specifically praises for him for realising it’s not all about him.

No. No, it is all about him. You don’t get to stage elaborate vision sequences in which a man talks to the ghosts a woman who committed suicide just to prove a point to him and then try to claim that it’s not about him. That is the definition of protesting too much. That is the central irony that has made “who is You’re so Vain about” one of the most compelling questions in popular music.

One of the other things that put me off watching The Leftovers for a while was that the image that Amazon uses for the first series is a black and white picture of a man with his shirt off, punching the wall in intense manpain. And I was really impressed for the first six episodes that it didn’t seem to be especially about intense manpain so much as about human pain in general. Then the last few episodes seemed to decide to make up for lost time and we get two to three episodes of Kevin being sad, reminding us what he’s sad about, being told that his sad is the key to the universe, and ultimately resolving his sad by reconstructing the family that he has, at last, learned to appreciate (and if he’s learned that, then clearly those millions of disappearances were worth it).

My understanding is that the second two series of The Leftovers were much more critically acclaimed than the first. My hope is that they’ll double down on either the low-key personal storytelling or (and I think this is more likely) on the Book of Revelation stuff.  And, actually, I think I’d probably enjoy a story that was explicitly “how do the people in this small town deal with the actual Biblical apocalypse, given that one of them seems to be the Messiah” if that’s what they decide they’re doing. It’s just that I don’t feel they’d fully made that decision in the first series.

I sort of feel I should have a better conclusion than this, but I don’t really. I did genuinely like the first series of The Leftovers. I found it compelling enough that I watched it over a long weekend. And I am going to watch the second series to see where it goes from here. I would recommend it to people who are interested in that kind of HBO drama, I just felt it was sometimes pulling in slightly contradictory directions. Still fully worth checking out.

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You might have noticed that I’ve revisited two games quite a lot on this blog, one being Arkham Horror in its various guises, and the other being T.I.M.E. Stories. You might recall that in my initial review of Arkham Horror: the Card Game, that I said my preferences between T.I.M.E. Stories, Eldrich Horror and Arkham Horror were to some extent intransitive, in that depending on the context I would prefer Eldrich to Arkham, Arkham to T.I.M.E., T.I.M.E. to Eldrich (it might have been the other way around).

The thing is, I’ve now played rather more of both Arkham Horror: the Card Game and T.I.M.E. Stories, and one of those games is looking a lot better and the other a lot worse by comparison. Spoiler – Arkham Horror: the Card Game is looking a lot better, T.I.M.E. Stories is looking a lot worse.

In this post I’m going to be talking about the most recent module in the T.I.M.E. Stories sequence, Lumen Fidei, about what the game seems to be doing, and how that stacks up against what Arkham Horror: the Card Game seems to be doing. Which I hope some of you might find at least a bit interesting.

Spoilers for Lumen Fidei, obviously.

Lumen Fidei – A Vague Standalone Review

First off, I should probably give a quick summary of Lumen Fidei. Actually, first off, I should probably stress that different people react to this whole game series very differently from the way I react to it, and it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that the bits of Lumen Fidei that make me seriously wonder if the series is in the process of jumping the shark have made other people think that it’s the best scenario ever. But I’ll cover that more when I get into my issues with Lumen Fidei, and start making comparisons to the Arkham LCG.

Anyway, as you might expect from the name, Lumen Fidei is a medieval-set story with a strong emphasis on religion. More specifically, it’s set in 1419 during the Reconquista. And the setting was one of the things I really liked about the game – I’m a fan of slightly weird medieval church stuff, and I like that they’re going to less obvious settings than they did in the first few scenarios. Although the – for want of a better term – time of knights and swords and horses is a fairly common setting for historical adventure games there’s an interesting specificity to the setting, it’s actually very late in the medieval era and focuses on a conflict that doesn’t much get talked about. Annoyingly, people whose reviews I’ve looked at online seem to keep claiming that this scenario is set during the Crusades which it, well, isn’t. The Crusades were basically over a couple of hundred years before the year in which the game is set.

The players are – well this cuts to the basic thematic issue with T.I.M.E. Stories in general – cast in the role of time travellers possessing the bodies of people from the past, who are then themselves cast in the roles of the entourage of a papal legate who is, well, this gets a bit unclear. The legate is on a mission to speak to somebody who is under some kind of vow of silence and who has some kind of information about some kind of magic stone. And the players’ mission is to – again it’s a bit unclear – to escort the legate? To get the magic stone? As always there’s an extent to which the goal of the scenario is just to get to the last location and find the card that tells you to read the Mission Successful briefing.

There’s an interesting mechanic in which the whole party has a Faith score that varies depending on the party’s characters and actions. Each character (“receptacle” in the language of T.I.M.E. Stories, remember the premise is that the players are controlling disembodied time-travellers who take over people’s bodies) is assigned a religious identity as either “Christian” or “impious” (all the receptacles are from Christian backgrounds, which makes the religious conflict in this Reconquista-era scenario mostly to do with Christians vs Occultists which, honestly, is probably the right call). There are game mechanical bonuses associated with maxing out your Faith score one way or the other, with Christians getting an advantage for high Faith and impious characters getting an advantage for low Faith.

It might be worth taking a moment to talk about the way the game handles religion. Which I will naturally be doing via the medium of a huge digression about a 1990s TV show.

Back in the 1990s there was a beloved but tragically short-lived (tragically because lead actor died unexpectedly in 1998) sitcom called Father Ted. It was a whimsical and surreal piece about three Catholic priests who served a tiny parish on a small island off the Irish coast and who rattle from absurd situation to absurd situation driven partly by circumstance and partly by their own egregious personality flaws. So your classic British sitcom, basically. Owing to its subject matter, Father Ted drew a certain amount of criticism for its handling of religious issues, but the showrunners always said that they felt they were getting the balance about right as long as they got as many complaints from people who thought the show was too pro-Catholic as from people who thought it was too anti-Catholic. I’ll admit that this line of reasoning doesn’t necessarily stand up to close scrutiny, but I think it’s a decent rule of thumb to apply to Lumen Fidei.

Some gamers, particularly Christian gamers have, as I understand it, been a little bit bothered by the fact that a significant fraction of the Christian religious figures you interact with are raging psychopaths or violent assholes with a sideline in abduction and implied sex trafficking. And I kind of get that, especially since the vast majority of the Muslims you encounter are at the very least harmless if not actively serene and noble (there’s one scene in which you encounter some people in Granada beating up an old man for being a “filthy Christian” but that’s as far as it goes). I think this is partly a consequence of the fact that most of the Christians you encounter are members of actual military orders and, while these matters are morally and pragmatically complex, large groups of armed men with no real oversight or accountability do have a tendency do horrible things. It’s probably also a consequence of the fact that “spooky corrupt occult Church” is a way more interesting backdrop for a gaming scenario than “basically well-meaning Church that engages in a number of activities that look bad from a modern perspective but which should really be seen in their historical context and without which one can make a strong case that there would have been even less check on the ambitions and violence of the crowned heads of medieval Europe.”

And while I can understand why some Christian gamers might be put off by the “all witch-burning and warmongering” vibe that you sometimes get from the Christian elements in Lumen Fidei, I can also see more sensitive non-Christians being a little bit bothered by the way that – outside of the specific abductions and murders – the game tends to just thoughtlessly equate Christianity with moral goodness. Your characters lose Faith for stealing, cheating, and generally being dodgy, while they gain it for helping others. Perhaps most interestingly, in one of the reviews I listened to in preparation for writing this post, the reviewer described his first attempt at the game as a “straightforward good” playthrough, which is to say they took the Christian characters, sided with the Papal Legate, and avoided the Faith-reducing options. Weirdly, he seemed to identify this as the “good” playthrough despite also fully accepting that the Christian faction is not actually in the right in the story.

There’s a whole weird mess of cultural baggage attached to this that it would take way more than this article to unpick, but centuries of Christian cultural influence has left us with a language in which “Christian” is almost literally a synonym for “moral”, which makes it very hard for the game mechanical representation of Christianity in this game not to code as “good” despite the actual behaviour of the Christian characters. All sorts of little features of the presentation of the Faith mechanics reinforce this coding. The “Christian” side of the Faith scale is the top half rather than the bottom, it’s represented in a friendly blue colour rather than a scary red colour, is symbolised by a weirdly non-denominational cross (it’s not a crucifix, it’s almost a Celtic cross) while the “impious” side is an explicitly Satanic inverted pentagram. So there’s this odd situation in which all of the stylistic choices present the Christian side of the conflict as the good guys, while all of the narrative choices present them as the bad guys (this is basically the Father Ted balance). This makes it especially difficult for the players to make choices and take sides when called to.

Which brings me to the next part.

Taking Sides

Lumen Fidei is centred around a conflict. Or possibly two conflicts. Or three conflicts. Or four conflicts. And they’re all sort of unhelpfully conflated, and not necessarily well articulated. On its most basic level, the game is centred on the conflict between Christian and Muslim rulers in southern Spain in the 15th century, but this conflict is actually barely touched upon by the scenario. There’s also kind of a general conflict between “good” and “bad” – the villains seem to be honest-to-shit vampires after all. The more pertinent conflict is the one about the magic green stone that you are possibly sort of being sent back to retrieve, and which the papal legate your characters initially escort is supposed to be looking for. But the conflict that gets the most playtime in the scenario is actually the conflict between the T.I.M.E. Agency, their rivals the Syaans, and a new faction called the Elois.

This is the aspect of the scenario over which I most strongly disagree with most of the reviewers I’ve looked into. Pretty much everybody whose responses I’ve read or listened to is really pleased that the game is getting deeper into this kind of metaplot. I am … not.

The framing device of T.I.M.E. Stories is that players work for an organisation called the “T.I.M.E. Agency” which sends people back through history to do … stuff? To do various missions that are mostly RPG scenarios, basically. In about scenario three (Prophecy of Dragons), you learn that the T.I.M.E. Agency is opposed to another organisation called the Syaans. Who are bad, possibly? Although since you don’t know anything about the T.I.M.E. Agency or what they stand for or what their goals are, and they don’t tell you anything about what the Syaans are doing either, or why you might want to side with the T.I.M.E. Agency over the Syaans, or the Syaans over the T.I.M.E. Agency it’s sort of hard to say. At the end of that scenario, you confront a Syaan who tells you that the T.I.M.E. Agency is secretly the bad guys and that they are secretly the good guys. Although he doesn’t particularly tell you anything about what either side actually stands for, and you don’t get any opportunity to act on the little information he does give you.

The Syaans crop up every so often in other scenarios, frequently with hints that the Syaans are really the good guys and the T.I.M.E. Agency are really the bad guys. But you never get anything specific. People say vague, handwavey things like “oh but how much do you really know about the people you work for” to which you really want to say “absolutely nothing – the people I work for are little better than a lightly-sketched framing device and I have no real interest in them or their agenda, I just want to play this scenario as a stand-alone story.” This isn’t helped by the restrictions of the medium – every significant interaction with an NPC has to be handled with a card, each card can have maybe a hundred to two hundred words on it at the absolute maximum. There really isn’t room for a detailed exegesis on the goals, agenda, and methods of time-spanning possibly-supernatural conspiracies, which means that all we ever get is innuendo and foreshadowing.

I think that the reason so many reviewers are pleased that Lumen Fidei places a greater emphasis on the metaplot stuff than the previous scenarios is that the game has spent so long teasing these things that it feels kind of cool to get something that feels even slightly like a resolution on it. In Lumen Fidei you finally get the chance to actually engage with this plotline, and that’s great. At least it’s great in theory.

Although Lumen Fidei says on the box that you are “undertaking a diplomatic mission on behalf of the papacy”, you’re really engaging with a somewhat loosely explained conflict between three NPCs: Michel d’Ailly, the papal legate; Yasmina, the djinn (who is also apparently a Syaan and who claims that Michel d’Ailly is also a time-travelling agent of some kind, although he possibly, doesn’t remember), and Saul Kalhula, the evil vampire wizard guy with the magic green stone. Each of these characters seems to be at the same time a historical figure (a papal legate, a courtesan, the leader of a mysterious army of black-clad warriors), a supernatural being (an angel, a djinn, and a vampire) and the representative of a time-travelling conspiracy (the Agency, the Syaans, and an as-yet-unmentioned group called the Elois). Depending on the choices the players make, you get the option to side with any one of these factions at the end of the game, which very slightly changes the ending that you get.

Again, this should be amazing. And some people clearly do find it amazing, and honestly more power to them. But the thing is that, from where I’m sitting, being asked to take sides between three different factions of time travellers when you functionally know nothing about any of them, including the one you ostensibly work for is perilously close to meaningless. Saul Kalhula is clearly evil and also randomly a vampire, and siding with him is basically a failure state. That leaves your choice as between Yasmina and Michel. Yasmina tells you very explicitly that she is a Syaan (and also a djinn, which is kind of unclear – the framing device of the game is explicitly SF and all the really specifically supernatural stuff kind of comes out of nowhere) but promises to tell you more about the organisation you work for if you will help her to subvert it. She also tells you that Michel d’Ailly is a T.I.M.E. agent, but that he has forgotten it. Michel himself tells you nothing of the sort, and just acts like he really is a papal legate investigating a magical stone. Which makes it a bit pointless to pick his side. And it gets even weirder if you do side with him, and he turns out to be the actual Archangel Michael (again, this is really odd for a game that is supposedly science-fiction based).

Whoever you side with, you get very little actual information about what the hell is going on, or who any of the factions actually are. Ironically the group you wind up with the most information about is the Elois, who at least tell you straight up that they’re about chaos and personal power, which isn’t much, but is a heck of a lot more than you’re told about the Syaans or the T.I.M.E. Agency. You do get a QR code attached to the Item card that leads you to your ending, which comes with the portentous warning that the game developers will record every time one of the codes is scanned, and that their records may affect future games, so you shouldn’t just scan every code to see what happens. The code takes you to a website that gives you an extra debriefing sequence which (at least in the version we played) amounts to little but yet more vague foreshadowing and a code that apparently allows you to access yet another part of their website, but which I was unable to actually find. So it’s possible that I did, in fact, get access to the information about my employers that Yasmina promised me, but I shouldn’t have to pack up the game, scan a QR code, get a different code, go to a different website, and type in that code, just to get some basic information relating to the decisions that I am already being asked to make.

Aaaand now I’ve employed a bit more google-fu, and I’ve managed to find the bit of the website that you have to key the code into and it’s … completely unrelated flash fiction about the first scenario, Asylum.

Just what? What the actual what?

The thing that’s getting to me here is that this is very much not what I thought I was signing on for. And to be fair, perhaps this is my fault for going in with the wrong expectations, but back when I was at my most enthusiastic about T.I.M.E. Stories what I liked about it was that each scenario provided a unique experience. And this seemed to be a feature that the game actively pushed – every scenario has its own rules, its own art style, its own story that is usually wholly unconnected to the wider arc about the T.I.M.E. Agency and the Syaans and whatever. I can accept there being Cthulhu in one scenario and zombies in another and wizards in another while yet another has no mystical or hypertech elements at all (apart from the time travel) as long as I accept that the whole mechanism of time travel and possession is just a framing device. The more I am expected to pay attention to that framing device, the more I’m going to be bothered by the fact that it doesn’t make a lick of sense. I signed on for a different adventure every time, not for a different chapter in a single overarching, incoherent story about twenty-fifth-century time-travellers trapped in an eternal conflict with mysterious magical time travellers and also actual vampires and also maybe angels are real.

And the thing is, had I gone in with a different mindset, I could see “time travellers vs wizards vs vampires” as a great setting for a game. Just not for one that sells itself so much on variety. If the emphasis of the scenarios from now on is going to be the gonzo meta-setting, then that’s the genre from now on. I believe that the next scenario is going to be about pirates and I was quite looking forward to it because pirates are great. But post Lumen Fidei it can’t really be about “pirates” any more. With the shift of emphasis towards the meta-narrative, the new scenario is going to have to seriously blow my socks off with its piratical theme if it isn’t going to feel like it’s fundamentally about “a conflict between several different factions of time travellers one of which, let us not forget, appears to be actual vampires, against a backdrop of pirates.” And I’m way less interested in that.

Basically it feels like Lumen Fidei, instead of trying to make me care about the fifteenth-century religious conflict between two real-world factions the scenario was built around, was expecting me to already care about the time-spanning conflict between three made-up factions that the series thus far had done far too little to set up. And partly this is just a quirk of my attitude to this particular kind of storytelling – I am extremely hostile to vague hints, hate to feel that I’m being strung along, and get especially angry when a story is filled with foreshadowing that doesn’t foreshadow anything except more foreshadowing.

Perhaps the best indication of how little I or anybody I played with cared about the broader meta-story of Lumen Fidei is how we reacted to the two sequences in the game in which Yasmina asks us to side with her rather than the T.I.M.E. Agency. By this point we have been working for the T.I.M.E. Agency for something like six scenarios, and have been explicitly working against the Syaans for at least half of those. All Yasmina really says when you encounter her (and I’m paraphrasing here, but not by much) is “hi, I work for the deadly enemies of the organisation you work for, want to team up?” All she says at the end when she asks you to betray the T.I.M.E. Agency for her is “will you betray the T.I.M.E. Agency for me?”

Basically, Yasmina offers you no good reason to turn against the T.I.M.E. Agency. But we sided with her without a second thought. Because the game had really never given us a reason to support the T.I.M.E. Agency either. Basically every scenario begins with our being berated by a guy called “Bob” for failing to do our job properly in ways we never had the opportunity to do differently (this maddening habit reaching its nadir in Lumen Fidei, in which he berates you for being late to a briefing to which he himself is late), briefed in a manner that that leaves us utterly unprepared for the mission we are about to undertake, and then launched into a scenario in which we muddle through a new and unfamiliar world in which we (almost inevitably) wind up in a final room where we confront a big villain and lots of monsters.

To put it another way, we jumped at the chance to side with a faction about whom we knew absolutely nothing, because we were sick of working for a faction about whom we knew nothing except that they were dicks. That isn’t investment. It’s pretty much the opposite of investment.

Basically we came away from Lumen Fidei not really knowing what elements of the game Space Cowboys were expecting us to invest in, or how we were supposed to interact with the game going forward. We chose, at the end of the game, to hand the powerful mystical artefact over to the eternal enemy of our employers, but while the instructions told us that the designers would be sure to remember which QR code we scanned, we were given no such instructions. Now that we’ve betrayed the T.I.M.E. Agency, what next? We’re clearly still working for Bob-the-jerk next scenario. And while the game did instruct that we should keep the green slime card from Expedition Endurance for “all future adventures”, we weren’t told to keep any items from Lumen Fidei. I mean maybe next time we’ll be asked if we let Yasmina fiddle with the emerald, but it’s not like these expansions come out regularly. If it weren’t for looking back at my own reviews (which I should stress I do mostly in an effort to keep these posts consistent with one another and only very slightly out of narcissism) I would be able to remember hardly any of the details of the games we’ve played previously because we play them three to six months apart, and I have better things to do than to diligently recall arbitrary pieces of information just in case they become important in a board game expansion that may not even have been written yet.

To put it yet another way, the whole thing just feels poorly thought through. Are these standalone scenarios in which the aim is to provide a variety of experiences, or a continuing storyline in which the metaplot is what truly matters? Is my character supposed to be consistent between the games? Is the me who controlled the wizard in Prophecy of Dragons supposed to be the same me as the me who controlled the feisty nun in Lumen Fidei? The card that says I get a bonus on a particular dice roll if I have played Prophecy seems to suggest that I am (it is?). But then what if I play this game with a different group of people? If my friends and I decide to play Lumen Fidei again to see what happens if you side with Michel d’Ailly instead of Yasmina, which version is canon in the next game we play? What about those “beacons” you’re supposed to get if you do well enough on a particular scenario? Can I take them with me to somebody else’s house if I get invited to play T.I.M.E. Stories with them as well?

And obviously part of this is hypothetical, although perhaps less hypothetical than you might imagine. Quite a lot of people play board games at clubs, events, and drop-ins, and since T.I.M.E. Stories scenarios are designed to be played exactly once, there’s an extent to which it makes a lot of sense as an investment for a games club, where more people can get use out of it. But mostly what bugs me about these sorts of questions is that it feels like Space Cowboys plain and simple haven’t thought about these things. And that bothers me for two reasons. Firstly, it bothers me because – as the Shut up and Sit Down review puts it, everything about the game screams “trust me”. The price of the core set an expansions have come down a bit since launch, but it’s still a fairly high price of entry for a game that can only be played once with expansions that can also only be played once. It’s a premium product, it’s packaged and sold as a premium product, and if you buy it you have the right to expect a certain level of quality and a certain level of consistency. T.I.M.E. Stories invites you on a journey, and there comes a point where it is reasonable to ask where that journey is going. And it is of course also reasonable for the designers to say that they can’t tell you where the journey is going, but that you can rely on them to take you somewhere great. But then ultimately it is just as  reasonable to reach the point where you say “I’m sorry, but I don’t believe you.”

The second reason it bothers me is because I’ve been playing a lot of Arkham Horror: the Card Game recently, and Arkham Horror: the Card Game has answers to every single one of the questions I have about T.I.M.E. Stories, and has thought absolutely all of them through.

The Arkham Comparison

I think the thing that appeals to a lot of people about the metaplot in T.I.M.E. Stories is the sense that things you do in Scenario A can come back in unexpected ways in Scenario B. The problem is that these unexpected consequences in T.I.M.E. Stories give the impression of being as unexpected to the designers as to the players. Scenarios are released piecemeal with very little sense of forethought or planning, and while some things seem to be setup for a later payoff (like the weird bits of glowing cube that you find in the first couple of scenarios) they often, well, don’t get any (the bits of cube, for example have yet to be referenced at all, although they do seem to appear in flash fiction on the website which, yet again, makes me concerned about the direction the game is taking).

Arkham Horror: the Card Game provides the same experience, but way, way, way better.

I really don’t like to use “professional” as a term of approbation or “amateurish” as a term of disapproval. Plenty of people are bad at things they do for money, and plenty of people are good at things they do for free. But the way that T.I.M.E. Stories handles this kind of long-form storytelling really is the bad kind of amateurish. They just seem to be throwing a lot at the wall and seeing what sticks, randomly dropping things that look like they might become important later to be picked up whenever they get around to it. By contrast, the way Arkham Horror: the Card Game handles these things is consummately professional, everything has a purpose, all the revelations are clearly set up and the storytelling is neatly embedded in the game mechanics.

In the FAQ for Arkham Horror: the Card Game, the game clarifies the difference between two different keywords or phrases: remember and record in your campaign log. It clarifies specifically that being asked to “remember” something means that this thing will come back by the end of the scenario you are playing, that you do not need to remember it verbatim, and that if it hasn’t come up by the end of the game, it isn’t going to come up at all. Conversely, recording something in your campaign log means that you write it down in, well, your campaign log. And the campaign log sticks around to the end of the campaign. And again, you know in advance how long the campaign is going to last, and you know in advance what the expectations are for game elements recurring.

I’ve listened to a couple of podcasts about Arkham Horror: the Card Game, because that’s the sort of thing my crazy rock-and-roll lifestyle entails, and one of the ones I listened to recently involved an interview with the lead designer, and went into a lot of depth about the design of both cards and scenarios. They talked in particular about two things that I thought were interesting.

The first was the card Strange Solution, which I think I mentioned in my initial post about the game. Arkham Horror: the Card Game is a customisable card game, in which players build decks from cards of their choice (within various restrictions based on the character they choose to play). Strange Solution is a card that doesn’t do a whole lot – it lets you draw some other cards, but you have to pass a difficult test to do it and the effect really isn’t worth the investment. But the card also has the intriguing text record in your campaign log that you have identified the strange solution and when the card was released nobody knew what that did. Which is fascinating. And the designers thought very carefully about how long they should wait before revealing what the Strange Solution actually does, they thought carefully about what kind of effect it should have. They considered the potential negative consequences of dragging things on too long, leaving people with a useless card and unanswered questions. They also considered the potential negative consequences of the Strange Solution card if it were to be referenced too far down the line,  if there was an encounter in the third or fourth expansion cycle that referenced the Strange Solution card that was released in the first expansion, and which a newcomer to the game might not have, or indeed might never have heard of. The designers made the clear and well-reasoned decision to have the Strange Solution card unlock other player cards rather than interact specifically with the scenario, thus keeping the card at once relevant to all future expansions and also not required to enjoy future expansions fully. They, and I am aware I am saying this a lot, thought it through.

The second feature I found interesting was an in-scenario interaction. In one of the adventures in the Dunwich Legacy cycle you are escaping a train that is being devoured by a rift into another dimension (you can make a side argument about whether this is the kind of thing that really happens in Lovecraftian scenarios). In the sleeper car of the train, you get the option to steal a passenger’s luggage, which gives you resources that will help you succeed in the scenario, but which comes with the ominous instruction remember that you stole a passenger’s luggage. This does absolutely nothing. And of course it does nothing. You’re on a train being attacked by extradimensional monstrosities and being sucked into another universe. Most of the passengers are already dead. Whether you stole somebody’s luggage is a million miles away from being anything anybody needs to be concerned about. But the foreboding implicit in the remember keyword means you get a massive amount of tension around that one choice despite its being, when you think about it, a complete no-brainer. Hell, most of the reactions I’ve seen from people who played that scenario (in podcasts I’ve listened to and reviews I’ve read) actually seem to suggest that people chose not to rob the luggage despite there being no clear downside.

Again, compare this to the speed with which my friends and I were willing to side with Yasmina and the Syaans over Michel d’Ailly and the T.I.M.E. Agency. In Arkham, we genuinely struggled with the question of whether to steal imaginary luggage from an imaginary stranger despite our real and present need for the resources that luggage represented. In T.I.M.E. Stories, we gave no thought at all to the question of whether to betray the organisation our characters have been working for since the beginning. The difference, fundamentally, was that in Arkham we had real investment in our situation, and we had a genuine expectation that the consequences would matter, while in T.I.M.E. Stories we had no such assurances. By the time we got to Lumen Fidei we’d picked up dozens of things that said they would be referenced later, and literally none of them had. When we got to the end of that Arkham scenario, and realised that no, of course stealing the luggage of somebody who has probably already been sucked into another universe in order to stop everybody else being sucked into another universe doesn’t come back to bite you, how could it? We were able to be amused and impressed with how well the game designers had faked us out, because we had confidence that they hadn’t just forgotten and weren’t just making it up as they went along.

Basically the designers of Arkham Horror: the Card Game have thought in detail about things that the designers of T.I.M.E. Stories seem to have assumed (incorrectly) will just all come out in the wash. This even stretches down to the level of what you do and do not take between games. Where T.I.M.E. Stories assumes you’ll work out for yourself what it means to “secretly keep this card for your future adventures” (what if it’s from somebody else’s set? Am I supposed to steal it?) Arkham makes it crystal clear. A campaign is a self-contained entity consisting of a set number of scenarios, into which side scenarios can be inserted, it is defined by a campaign log. If you’re writing in the same campaign log, you’re playing the same campaign. Players take the control of investigators represented by specific decks of cards. If you wish to take an investigator from one campaign to another, you can. The investigator is the deck. The campaign is the campaign log. You could theoretically combine two campaigns into one by running the campaign logs together, but I can be reasonably confident that no future Arkham campaign will reference events from previous campaigns, because the designers have a clear sense of a campaign as a standalone entity. If I take my deck from home to somebody else’s game, the campaign is whatever is written in that person’s campaign log, my character is whatever is in my deck.

It’s clear, it makes sense and I know and trust that the designers have planned to deliver on the things they set up in a timely fasion.

And the thing is, I feel bad. Because part of me wants to point out that Arkham is still way more expensive than T.I.M.E. Stories (although this comparison is tricky because they’re designed to be played in different ways, and it’s hard to know how to compare two similar-but-not-identical products with wildly different release schedules) and has a much bigger production company behind it, so you’d really expect it to be slicker and more polished. But what the Arkham LCG has over T.I.M.E. Stories isn’t just that it has better production values (and it doesn’t entirely, the art in TS is often beautiful) but that it has a genuinely higher production quality. It isn’t just shinier, it’s sturdier, more flexible, more reliable and has better technical support. (As an aside, we didn’t come across it in our playthrough but according to some reviews, Lumen Fidei includes a misprint that can actually make it impossible for the game to progress, and the only way to find out about that misprint seems to be through a third-party FAQ on Boardgamegeek, not from the actual publisher).

 The thing is, I didn’t actually hate playing Lumen Fidei. In fact I quite enjoyed quite a lot of it. It’s more linear than some of the other scenarios, but it’s well paced, well structured and has good puzzles. It’s just that Space Cowboys seem to be doubling down on the least interesting element of the franchise. Or at least, on the element that’s least interesting to me.

 If you did pick up T.I.M.E. Stories, and you’ve liked the other scenarios, then this one is ultimately as worthy of your $25 as any of the others. And if you really like the metaplot stuff, you’ll probably genuinely love it, so it should be an auto-purchase (if this review filled with spoilers hasn’t ruined it for you).

 For me, it was just … fine. And I’m hoping for a bit more than fine from my board games these days, especially from games with reputations as strong as T.I.M.E. Stories.

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Liking the 1990s Disney Beauty & the Beast is about as controversial an opinion as liking bacon or puppies. But, well, I like the 1990s Disney Beauty & the Beast. And also bacon. And also puppies. Because I’ve kind of got to the stage in my life where movies are out on DVD/streaming services before I’ve really noticed before they’ve stopped being in the cinemas I didn’t get around to watching the new live action re-make (is it really a re-make if it’s effectively in a different medium, and to what extent is live action cinema a different medium from animation? I have the answer to none of these questions) until comparatively recently.

I wasn’t sure entirely sure what to make of it at first. The problem with the current wave of Disney re-inventions is that they sort of start with the assumption that you’re familiar with the original (I mean, I’m sure there are legitimate small children who went to see the live action Beauty & the Beast without having seen the cartoon first but I’m sure they were also surrounded by 30-somethings, and indeed 40-somethings, and 50-somethings watching the film with a keen awareness of how it stacked up against their memories of 1991). This makes it a bit hard to evaluate them as entities in their own right, which his difficult because I really don’t like using “fidelity to original” as a yardstick for any adaptation.

I think the thing that most struck me was what a difference it makes to be looking at real people instead of cartoon characters. Well, inasmuch as you are. After all, one of the defining features of the story is that most of the significant characters are under an enchantment that requires them to be rendered using various levels of motion capture and CGI. But it does mean that there are things that you can sort of gloss over in the cartoon that you can’t so much when you’re dealing with live actors. Like how utterly messed it up it is that the people worst affected by the Enchantress’s curse were the Beast’s servants and their families, despite their being in no way responsible for, or indeed able to control or challenge, his actions.

Film very much isn’t my medium. But I think it’s fairly safe to suggest that when you covert from a cartoon to traditional cinematography you need to, as it were, paint with a smaller brush. You can still lean to some extent on tropes, expectations and assumptions but you can’t rely on montages and Angela Lansbury to sell your whole relationship. And perhaps it’s the romance novelist in me but my first thought after watching the film was how strange it was that they put more effort into selling the romance between Belle and the Beast, but that it nevertheless came across as less convincing. And I should stress that this is no criticism of the writers, actors, director or, well, anyone else. It’s just that you’re faced with turning story based on fairytale archetypes, in which it’s natural to assume that the male lead and female led will fall in love just because, and in which love itself is a very abstract concept, into a proper film with an emotional arc.

But, in retrospecti, I think a big part of it is simply that the Disney Beauty & the Beast isn’t actually especially interested in its love story. And, to an extent, Disney movies never are. They’re usually about the protagonist going on some kind of journey (literally in the case of Moana) and the Prince or Prince-analogue is primarily a symbol or an unlockable bonus.  Actually, check that. I think it might be better to say that there are some relatively identifiable eras in Disney.

Your really classic films (your Snow Whites and Cinderellas) are, and I’m trying to think of a way to express this without sounding disparaging, not really interested in being much more than beat-by-beat retellings of traditional fairytales. And that’s not a bad thing, and there’s a lot of interesting stuff going on in those films—the animation is often beautiful, the stories are very well captured, well imagined and well realised, but, say, Sleeping Beauty isn’t trying to be anything except Sleeping Beauty. It is, I think, quite telling that the breakout character from that movie is Maleficent because Aurora is just a fairytale princess and Philip is just a fairytale prince, and the film doesn’t seem to have been made with any sense that those characters could be about anything except the archetypes they embody. Everything they do they do because that’s the sort of thing that sort of character does in that sort of story—up to and including falling in love with each other.

Then you get to what you’d your second golden age films. This basically starts with The Little Mermaid and, weirdly, doesn’t include that many actual princess movies. The really big names of 90s Disney canon are Aladdin, The Lion King, Beauty & the Beast, and The Little Mermaid. Pretty much all of these films (and, all the other 90s Disney movies that aren’t quite as famous or as good) are about a young person who is in some way discontent with the life they are living who goes out, has an adventure, learns a moral lesson, and eventually settles down into a life that is better than the one they had, but probably not quite the one they thought they wanted. Thinking about it, The Lion King is a slight exception in that Simba starts off perfectly happy being heir to the Pridelands and gets actively chased away by his wicked Uncle.

The third era of Disney (by my own personal canon, I’m not like a proper Disney scholar or anything, I’m sure proper Disney scholars exist) roughly coincides with the rise of Pixar and can almost be characterised as post-Disney. The films get much more self-aware, not only of the social context in which they exist but also of the wider meta-text of the Disney brand. Hell, there’s a line in Moana where Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson explicitly says “If you wear a dress and have an animal side-kick you’re a princess.” They still have most of the beats that you’d associate with a 90s-era Disney film but will tend to be more interested in what they can do within that framework and will often deliberately challenge or subvert your expectations. I spent the whole of Frozen nebulously concerned that this story, which so clearly and consistently centralised a relationship between two sisters, was going to end with one or other them getting rescued by the misunderstood romantic interest. I was really pleased when it didn’t.

Anyway, post-90s Disney isn’t really my concern here because I’m talking about Beauty & the Beast, and especially about why I think it doesn’t especially work as a love story, and doesn’t especially have to. When you get right down to it most 90s Disney movies (and pretty much all post-90s Disney movies) are coming-of-age stories. Which, well, of course they are. They’re pitched at an audience for whom that is the most relevant sort of narrative. But it does mean that when romance features in a Disney film it is rightly and necessarily subservient to personal growth. So, Ariel winds up married to Prince Eric but it’s not really about him, it’s about her desire to make her own choices about who she’s going to be. Aladdin winds up with Jasmine, but only as a side-effect of his realising that he doesn’t need magic or bling to be valued as a human being.   Simba gets together with Nala but only as part of a wider story about homecoming. And, in (very retro) retrospect what’s interesting about the love story in Beauty & the Beast is that it doesn’t really reflect Belle’s personal growth, it reflects the Beast’s.

I said earlier on that first era Disney movies were pretty much beat-by-beat re-tellings of the original fairytale, right down to the bits that make no sense, and occasionally shonky morals (apparently the stated moral of the original Sleeping Beauty is “lucky people are lucky even when they are asleep” and, honestly, it’s a bit harder to take any lesson apart from that away from the Disney version). Of course, Beauty & the Beast (fairystory version) has a really simple moral: you shouldn’t judge people by their appearances, because someone who looks like a hideous monster could actually turn out to be a member of the hereditary aristocratic and, therefore, innately superior to you and above reproach in all regards (seriously, when you think about it, it is fundamentally problematic that we use the phrase ‘a prince’ to mean a uniquely kind, generous and charitable person. We have real princes in my country. They’re just guys. Sometimes they cheat on their wives or go to parties dressed as Nazis). And one of the things that’s interesting about the 1991 Beauty & is that people tend to watch it assuming it has the same moral as the fairytale, even though, on a moment’s reflection, it absolutely does not.

Yes, when Belle first meets the Beast she’s frightened of him. But then she’s in a legitimately frightening situation and he’s behaving in a legitimately frightening way. Although she is quite hostile to the Beast when they first meet that’s because he behaves like a total arsehole. And at no point does she really object to anything except his behaviour. I mean, okay, there’s slightly ambiguous line when she refuses come to dinner because “he’s a monster” but, in context, it seems fairly clear that she means “because he abducted my father, forced me to exchange myself for him, and is now holding me captive against my will” not “because he has horns and a cute fuzzy beard.” Similarly, she is completely uninterested in Gaston right from the word go. He’s a dick, and she knows he’s a dick, and she hates him. And the fact that he’s the size of a barge and has a swell cleft in his chin in no way endears him to her. “Don’t judge people by their appearances” isn’t a lesson Belle learns because she never shows any sign of having to learn it.  In fact, she doesn’t really learn anything. She’s basically great at the start of the movie and she’s still great at the end of it. The character who gets the arc in Beauty & the Beast is the Beast. In a very real sense, the moral of the 1991 Disney version of Beauty & the Beast isn’t “don’t judge people by their appearance” it’s “don’t be a colossal dick to everybody.”

Which, after a mere one thousand, seven hundred and ninety six words, brings me to the actual topic I wanted to talk about: the recent live action remake and its, perhaps slightly surprising, themes. Because live action cinema is an inherently more nuanced medium than, and here I’m a bit stuck for a name for a genre. I don’t want to say ‘animation’ because while classic 2D animated Disney movies tend to be slightly broad strokes I’m not sure you can say the same about all animated movies ever. What about the Ghost in the Shell? What about Belleville Rendezvous? In fact I’ll just have to stick with that. So “because live action cinema is an inherently more nuanced medium than classic 2D animated Disney movies” the film’s exploration of its central “don’t be a dick” theme is itself more interesting and nuanced than the exploration of that same theme in the 1991 original.

To put it another way, for a Disney princess movie, the film says a remarkable amount of subtle and challenging things about cultural attitudes to masculinity.

I should stress that I am in no way suggesting that my reading of the live action Beauty & the Beast is the one that the actors, screenwriters, directors or CGI animation crew intended. Or that it’s any more valid than any other interpretation. But the lens through which I think about the movie makes sense of some choices that the movie made, by which I was initially puzzled. Those choices being the weird dead mothers thing, the bit with the library, and what the heck was up with Gaston?

Belle and the Beast both get more backstory in the live action film than they did in the original. In particular, it’s made explicit in the film, where it was sort of implicit in the animation, that their mothers both died when they were young, leaving them to be raised by their fathers. This is partly, I think, presented as a point of similarity between the characters as a way of suggesting to the audience that they have things in common over which they could bond, and through which they could develop a deeper understanding of each other.

In the Beast’s case, however, it also serves to explain why he’s, well, such a dick. Not, I should stress, that it suggests that everyone whose mother dies grows up to be a dickhead. But in the sense that is very specifically stated that after the Beast’s mother died his cruel and emotionally distant father raised him within a very specific model of masculinity, in which there was no room for grief or, indeed, any particular emotion except pride or anger. When we first encounter the Beast, he’s dressed in the height of 18th century fashion, complete with powdered wig, white make-up and gold brocade frockcoat. And, again, I don’t want to read too much into what might just be an aesthetic choice for the opening shot of the movie, but I couldn’t help but notice that the way the Beast presents himself in his original human form involves nothing authentic. Every inch of his body is concealed, covered up or painted over. And he seems to be throwing this almost cartoonishly decadent party, as if he’s trying to cut himself off completely from anything that is not under his control or part of his creation.

Then, of course, the Enchantress shows up. And, let’s be clear, the Enchantress is a dick. You don’t curse a castle full of people just because the guy they work for was mean to you.

The film is a bit unclear about what the Beast actually does in the intervening, um, well the live action film doesn’t specify. But the cartoon says ten years. Of course, the cartoon also says that the curse must be broken before the Beast turns twenty-one, which means that the cartoon version of the Enchantress put the whole castle under a punishing and genuinely dangerous spell because of the actions of a nine-year-old. And, also, by the way, made a condition of that spell that this nine-year-old persuade somebody to fall in love with them. That is so messed up on so many levels.

Anyway, the film is silent on what the Beast does in the intervening time, but given the state of the castle it seems pretty clear that he spends most of it raging and smashing shit (he may also have taken some time out to commission some new gargoyles but I think we can assume they were the consequence of magical transformation, rather than the Beast’s keen eye for neo-gothic architecture). By the time Belle arrives he is seven kinds of fucked up because he has spent the past hopefully not a decade expressing the only emotions he’s ever been taught were acceptable. Those being anger and nothing else (given that pride kind of went out the window when he got turned into a buffalo monster in a cape). His relationship with Belle, then, becomes less about his learning to love in the generic Disney sense that he learns to love in the 1991 animation and more about his learning that it’s okay to feel shit and shit.

This is where the bit with the library comes in. One of the differences between live action Beauty & the Beast and animation Beauty & the Beast that most puzzled me on initial viewing was the different context in which the Beast takes Belle to the library. In the cartoon, it’s your textbook big romantic gesture. It’s the first time he makes an effort to win Belle’s affections, which is important in two ways, firstly because it shows that he has paid attention to who she is and what she wants, but also that he has started to care enough about the other characters in the castle to actually have a real go at breaking the curse for their sakes as much as for his own.  Not only that but in the animation it seems quite explicit that the Beast can’t read (slightly surprising for somebody who would have access to an aristocrat’s education but, as we’ve established, cartoon Beast was already living alone and in charge of the castle when he got turned into a giant slavering monster at the age of nine) and Belle teaches him to read as part of the falling in love with each other montage that encapsulates their whole relationship.

In the film, the Beast is a highly literate man. Because of course he is. He’s a fucking aristocrat—although he apparently has little Greek. Honestly, call yourself classically educated? He takes Belle to the library because they have a conversation about Shakespeare in which it becomes apparent that her access to literature has been somewhat limited by the fact that she’s, y’know, a peasant in 18th century France. An interesting detail is that, whereas in the cartoon the village library is implausibly overstocked (although Belle has still read everything in it), the library in the live action film is a shelf in a church. In the cartoon the library is a gift that the Beast gives to Belle. But in the live action film it’s something he shares with her almost casually. And, in a strange way, that’s a lot more moving.

To put it another way, in the cartoon, the Beast gives Belle the library knowing she’ll think it’s brilliant and then feels validated because she thinks it’s brilliant. In the live action film, he takes her to the library because it’s there and then is surprised and touched by her delight in it. It’s the first time in the movie that the Beast recognises both his own privilege and his own limitation. Not only does Belle take delight in something that he has clearly always taken for granted, but she also responds to something in a way that has never himself been able to. In essence, it’s his first inkling that his worldview is damaging. It’s a nice counterpoint to Belle’s opening number. She starts the film lamenting the fact that her circumstances mean that she has to live a life that is less than what her imagination can encompass. While the Beast, it becomes apparent, has limitless resources but remains caged within the masculine role defined for him by his father and the society he lives in (and also, y’know, by the magic castle with a spell on it, but I think that’s what we call a metaphor).

Similarly, on first viewing I wasn’t sure how I felt about the fact that Belle no longer teaches the Beast to read. I initially was concerned that it took some of the reciprocality out of their relationship but, in hindsight, I’m not totally convinced that the cartoon’s setup of “you save me from wolves, I save you from illiteracy” is a particularly strong basis for a marriage. Also, there’s something quite problematically gendered about the way in which he physically rescues her from wolves by fighting, and then she emotionally or metaphorically rescues him by doing something nurturing. And so, actually, despite the fact that making the Beast the more literate of the two would seem to take power away from Belle and give it to the Beast it instead makes their relationship feel more balanced (Belle is also much less helpless against the wolf attack in the live action version).

What we get in place of the teaching the Beast to read Romeo & Juliet sequence (sidebar: I am really annoyed that movies always treat Romeo and Juliet like it’s a romance when it definitely isn’t) is a scene in which Belle’s reading a poem on a bridge and the words combine with the landscape to show the Beast the beauty of his world as he has never been capable of seeing it before. And this starts a sequence of events that lead to the Beast taking Belle to Paris (and also possibly back in time?) through a magic book (I’d say it made more sense in context, but it doesn’t entirely) which allows her to experience some closure about the death of her mother and which, in turn, allows the Beast finally accept his own grief at the death of his. Thus we arrive at a Beast who we can see as a complete human being, no longer constrained by his father’s expectations.

Of course, in the live action film, as in the animation, the Beast is contrasted against Gaston. And, in some ways, real-person Gaston is less successful than cartoon Gaston because he’s more nuanced and, therefore, less coherent. Cartoon Gaston is basically just an embodiment of the provincial attitudes that Belle seeks to leave behind. He uses antlers in all of his decorating, and envisions a future of Belle rubbing his feet in a rustic hunting lodge, surrounded by their six or seven strapping boys.  He works well as a foil but he’s almost impossible to take seriously as a threat. It’s quite hard to be frightened of somebody once they’ve had a pig on their head.

Gaston, in the live action movie, is at once more sympathetic and more threatening. There’s this whole thing where he’s fairly explicitly a war veteran and it’s sort of played for laughs (Lefou will often remind Gaston of all the war and the blood and the killing as a way of making him calm down and go to his happy place) but there’s also this weird PTSD undercurrent. He veers between uncontrollable rage and deep depression. He sometimes seems to genuinely scare Lefou, who often seems to think that Gaston is not thinking rationally or is spiralling out of control. At the risk of a comparison that the text can’t quite bear, he’s almost like Coriolanus: a warrior who finds himself returning to a society that no longer quite needs warriors.

Perhaps the strangest Gaston sequence in the live action film is his interaction with Maurice. In the cartoon, this is very straight forward. Maurice comes into the inn, talking about a Beast, Gaston finds it hilarious and dismisses him, then evolves his plan to blackmail Belle into marriage by having her father committed to an asylum. Having a father is a real liability in Disney movies. In particular, though, cartoon Gaston’s plan relies on the fact that, because he is literally the embodiment of his society, he can basically say anything and people will go along with it. There’s never any indication that he might lack the power to have Maurice locked up. Or, having had him locked up, to have released.

In the live action film, things go very differently. When Maurice talks about the Beast, Gaston seems to genuinely take him seriously. You could reasonably interpret this as him attempting to humour the old man in an effort to win his favour as part of the whole woo and marry Belle extravaganza he’s got going on. But, to me, it feels more like he either believes him or wants to believe him. Again, maybe I’m over-analysing or over-reaching but the impression I got was that live action Gaston has spent his whole life fighting and jumps at the chance to turn his current problem into something he can shoot at with a gun. Almost tragically, it seems like he seriously wants to rescue Belle from the Beast because that is the narrative that he will clearly have been raised to believe in. This is his role as a man in his society. And, ironically, also kind of his role as the young attractive guy in a Disney movie.

When Maurice is unable to find his way back to the Beast’s castle and starts to sound more like he’s delusional and less like he saw a real monster (specifically the point where he starts claiming that a tree that is now perfectly fine had previously been struck by lightning), Gaston legitimately flips out and tries to kill him. And Lefou reacts to this not the way a comedy Disney sidekick would react to it but the way you might react if your best mate who you were also kind of in love with flipped out and tried to kill an old man. Or, even more interestingly, the way you might react if your best mate who you were also kind of in love with flipped out and tried to kill an old man, and you’d been lowkey suspecting for quite a while this might be the sort of thing he’d try to do. He’s not shocked. He’s clearly got a strategy for calming Gaston down. But the impression is very much that Gaston has been seriously emotionally damaged by his experiences and that Lefou is, to some extent, fighting to save the man he used to know. Again, I might be reading more into it than is actually there.

In the end, Gaston leaves Maurice tied to a tree for the wolves, which Lefou is not super happy about. When they get back to the village (because the focus is mostly on Belle and the Beast, we have quite a lot of time away from Gaston between the tree-tying and the return) it turns out that Maurice has been rescued and the villagers are genuinely upset that Gaston tried to kill him. There’s a moment when it seems that the village might actually side with Maurice and put Gaston in jail (or the nebulously historical French peasant village equivalent) for attempted murder. It’s only when Gaston persuades Lefou to lie for him (which Lefou really doesn’t want to do) that they’re able to sell the “crazy old Maurice” story, which, in the cartoon, everyone accepts without question.

In the cartoon, Gaston embodies cultural norms that, in different ways, reject both Belle and the Beast. In the live action film Gaston feels much more like—and I’m really sorry to use this language—the Beast’s dark reflection. They’re both ultimately men who come from positions of privilege who have been raised to accept a very specific and narrow definition of masculinity that expresses itself entirely through anger, violence and cruelty, and that has no mechanism for responding to defiance, disempowerment or disappointment. They both go through a crisis in which they realise that they can’t have Belle because she has other priorities and is a real person with agency. And they both articulate their reaction to this crisis through song. The Beast’s song is ‘Evermore’. Gaston’s song is ‘Kill The Beast’.

Evermore‘ is a really interesting song because it’s not a song that male characters usually get in musicals. It has far more in common with numbers like ‘Green Finch and Linnet Bird‘, ‘On my Own‘ or ‘As Long As He Needs‘ me (songs in which women sing about how they will wait for, remain true to, or otherwise put up with men who either mistreat them, aren’t interested in them or haven’t got around to rescuing them yet) than songs like ‘Maria’, ‘Joanna’ or ‘I Won’t Send Roses‘ (songs where men sing about how they going to get with girls despite the fact that they are forbidden to, uninterested in or bad for them). Essentially the Beast is coming to terms with his own powerlessness, and committing to wait passively for Belle to choose him if she so desires.

Gaston, meanwhile, sings about burning everything the shit down. And, ultimately, he falls down a big hole to his death because, even at the final moment, he refuses to accept a narrative in which he is not the hero and violence is not the solution. He basically pulls a Javert, putting himself in a situation where he’s definitely going to die, because the alternative is to live in a world that needs mercy and kindness more than it needs an unbending servant of the law or a man who is especially good at expectorating.

And I should probably acknowledge that it is kinda problematic to have written a 4780 word essay arguing that a Disney princess movie starring a modern feminist icon is primarily about the dudes. But, well, I think it’s an interesting way of looking at the film. And I guess I do find something weirdly subversive about a Disney princess coming-of-age story in which the Disney princess is fine and in which it is the job of her society and the men around her to adapt to her standards rather than the other way around.

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