To paraphase a line from a 1990s sketch comedy series that I suspect most of readers will never have seen: this week I’ve been mostly playing FMV games.

For the uninitiated, which again is quite likely to be most of you, an FMV is a style of videogame where much or all of the plot unfolds through full motion video. That is to say proper live action TV/movie style video with actors saying lines in costume, rather than through computer generated cutscenes where actors record their lines in a little booth. It’s one of those odd quirks of technology that it actually requires much less computing power to store and render pre-recorded video segments than it does to produce graphics of an equivalent quality.  And, obviously, back in the day FMV segments were extremely expensive to produce and most FMV games had to come on a million CDs. But the quality of footage you can get was still way beyond anything that you could generate in a game engine.

I mean, don’t get me wrong, they were still mostly shit, partly because most things are mostly shit (I believe it’s called Sturgeon’s Law) but also because integrating TV-style film segments with late-90s / early 2000s computer graphics is just really fucking jarring. Also, with the best will in the world,  and meaning no disrespect to the many fine artists who have lent their talents to gaming over the years, the quality of the acting, production and writing could be quite variable.  Well, I say variable. A lot of the time it was just uniformly poor. I don’t think it helped that, at the time, people were mostly using it to work around the graphical limitations of the medium, meaning they didn’t seem to have given much thought to what sort of gaming experience FMV best suited. The most well-known example of the genre was probably 7th Guest, which managed to combine infuriating 90s adventure game puzzles with a tacky 90s horror aesthetic all held together with incredibly shonky 90s FMVs. Thinking about it, maybe FMVs weren’t the problem. Maybe the 90s were.

Anyway. Wind things forward to 2017 and the high priests of Kickstarter have realised that you can generate pretty much limitless money by making anything that looks at all like something a 38 year old vaguely remembers from their childhood. Thus, the FMV renaissance.

Now in some ways FMV is the retro-genre that least benefits from modern technology. It is, after all, not like the information revolution has caused actors to double in efficiency every 18 months. What it has done, however, is made contacting actors, hiring actors, filming actors, converting whatever footage one winds up with into a fully realised game experience and distributing that game experience worldwide well within the reach of a modestly funded team of enthusiastic amateurs. Which is nice. (Which is also, now I think about it, another allusion to that 1990s sketch comedy show I was talking about earlier).

This week, H and Ducky and I played through two games from the recent FMV revival, those games being The Infectious Madness of Doctor Dekker and Contradiction. We played them in that order but I think might review in the opposite order because an actor with a fairly major role in Contradiction has a cameo in Doctor Dekker and it’ll make more sense if I’ve told you about the bigger role first. For I get onto anything else, though, I will say that I think FMV games are best enjoyed in company. This is partly because the ones I’ve played so far have quite strong puzzle (and by puzzle I often mean ‘guess what the parser wants or guess which things you have to click on’ elements) and those are way way way, way way way, way way way less frustrating if you can talk them over with somebody you can bear being around. And it’s partly because having company makes it a lot easier to convince yourself that you’re having fun, rather than slightly wasting your time watching a cast who range from very minor celebrities to somebody’s mates from university delivering dialogue that is often functional at best, while holding some very silly props and occasionally telling you that they’ve never heard of the thing you’re talking about when what you’re talking about is their own name.

I should add that the discussion of Contradiction is basically safe (the investigation does centre around a suicide but I go into no detail).  The discussion of The Infectious Madness of Doctor Dekker alights briefly on issues relating to mental health, especially the portrayal of mental health in fiction, and rape. Also I spoil the fuck out of both games because that’s how I roll.

So let’s start with Contradiction.

Contradiction: The Clue Is In The Name

Basically my favourite things in the world are things that know exactly what they’re doing and do the thing that they’re doing in the doing-that-thingiest way they do that thing. Contradiction is a game in which you play (or at least guide the actions of) a curiously expressive detective by the name Jenks as he investigates (with distracting and seemingly inappropriate cheerfulness) the apparent suicide of a young woman. He does this against a somewhat arbitrary midnight deadline. Insert joke about Tory police cuts here. Or, for the sake balance, a joke about Diane Abbott thinking you can train a policeman or thirty quid. Actually, I’ll be honest, I think if you spent thirty quid on Inspector Jenks you’d’ have enough change for a Snickers bar.

Anyway, Contradiction, right, is called Contradiction and its entire gameplay manic is spotting contradictions. The thing I like about this is that it’s all laid out in advance. The thing I dislike about it, is that it sometimes feels really, really artificial. Basically in order to the advance the plot you have to ask people about things and then uncover contradictions in what they say by highlighting details of their responses in Jenks’ notebook. There are some quite specific and quite arbitrary rules attached to this, which are as follows:

  • You will have to uncover the correct contradictions to advance the plot
  • Contradictions are always between two statements made by the same person
  • Contradictions are always between statement made about different pieces of evidence

An example of this working well is when one of the suspects tells you that the narcotics she is randomly keeping in the restaurant section of her pub (don’t ask) are painkillers that she has been prescribed by a doctor and you are able to link that back to a previous conversation in which she had told you that she never touched drugs and never even took any medication. Examples of it working less well are when you know someone has said something that isn’t true and you have ample evidence of that thing not being true but are not able to confront the person with it because either they haven’t specifically contradicted themselves or it’s not clear which statement the game thinks is the contradictory statement.

For example, there’s a bit towards the end of the game where you need to get one of the high ranking members of the dubious and slightly cultish Randian business coaching thingy around which the investigating is based to admit that his organisation uses particular techniques. At this point you have many, many examples of those techniques definitely being used and definitely being practised—including a guy literally stabbing his own hand in the woods—but you’re only allowed to confront him with things he’s previously said, not with things you’ve personally witnessed. And I suppose, to a degree, it does make sense because if the suspect says “my sinister organisation doesn’t do x” and you say “but I’ve seen members of your sinister organising doing x” he can always come back with “well, those members weren’t acting with the knowledge of my sinister organisation.”  Whereas if he says, “my sinister organisation doesn’t do x” and you say “but you said that your sinister organisation does do x” then you’ve got him pretty much bang to rights. I think what makes it frustrating is that often there are several things you could mention that incontrovertible examples of the organisation doing x but only some of which are recognised in the game as contradictions.

And, although I’ve complained about this a lot, it’s basically fine. The game frames itself in such a gamey way that you don’t really have to worry about how patently unrealistic Jenks’ investigative techniques are. Especially since a lot of the time the only way for him to make progress in the investigation is to walk down a particular road at a particular time of night, thereby witnessing a cutscene during which a vital piece of evidence will be dropped. And, just to go back to complaining for a second, I’d also mention that because of the whole “contradiction” framework the very concept of what constitutes evidence is extremely different in this game from what you’d expect it to be in anything remotely resembling a police investigation.

Basically, because advancing the plot involves specifically catching people saying contradictory things a lot of the time making progress means asking somebody about something about which they have no useful information but, in talking about which, they reveal an entirely extraneous detail that will later contradict something else they’ve said. There’s a particularly, well I would say egregious but, again, this is just how the game works and the game is so upfront about how it works that I have no problem with it, so I’ll just say illustrative example about three quarters of the way in. You pop in on one of the suspects (a man named Simon) and when you approach is door you see him drop a business card and part of a keyring. The business card does actually have a useful clue on it.  But the keyring is not at all relevant to the crime. It is relevant to progressing the plot because it starts a chain of conversations that go something like this:

Jenks: Do you recognise this keyring?

Simon: Yes, it’s from my car.

Jenks: I thought you said (contradiction powers!) that your bike was the only way you had of getting to work.

Simon: Oh well I can’t actually drive because I haven’t passed my test yet. But I had an insurance pay out from the time my laptop was stolen at Atlas and decided to invest it in something sensible and long-term.

This then leads to you investigating the theft from Atlas, which leads to you getting another hint about the storeroom where the laptop was left not being very secure which allows you flag up a contradiction (contradiction powers!) in a later conversation when one of the characters tells you that he keeps his bad drugs in a store cupboard, which means that they are therefore safe.

Which is fine as a puzzle in a game. But when you look at it from the point of view of a police investigation it is patently absurd. You are only capable of getting the life coach/cult leader to reveal where he keeps his morphine (something he doesn’t really have any special reason to lie to you about) if you first ask him about a completely unrelated theft that you, again, only find out about if ask Simon about the keyring he happened to drop by accident in front of his house. Again, there’s no reason for him to conceal that theft from you and there’s no reason that you couldn’t at some point during your interview with him have asked if anything suspicious had happened while he was at Atlas, at which point it would seem natural for him to volunteer the story about the theft of his laptop. Rather than his holding it back until it came up as a consequence of a purely incidental conversation about an item of key adornment that he accidentally dropped.

This is probably coming across as unfairly harsh to Contradiction. And, actually, I do agree with the choices it made. One of the things I really value in any kind of game, be it board, video or roleplaying, is making you feel like the thing you’re supposed to be. And within its own framework Contradiction does an admirable job of feeling like a detective. Now it’s true that at no point do you feel like the things you are detectiving are actual clues in a murder case, rather it feels like you are detectiving the games internal structures. But, hey, detectiving is detectiving and it’s genuinely satisfying when you work something out. We had several really cool Ah hah! moments, where we put something together and basically went “but he said this, and he also said this, and that’s … that’s … a contradiction! Which is literally the name of the game!” In a sense it’s a lot like Cluedo (of course, because I’m trendy, indie eurogaming snob I should point that Cluedo is by no means the best mystery game on the market and you should look into Mystery of the Abbey, Mystery Express or Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective if you like that sort of thing) in that Cluedo (or Clue for my American readers) makes you like a detective because you really are working something out by a process of deduction. And the fact that the thing you’re working out is “which cards are in the little envelope” rather than “who could reasonably have killed Mr Black” really makes no difference.

And, actually, there’s a lot I found really charming about Contradiction. Much as I’ve joked about the wobbly dialogue and ropey acting, the cast are all at the very least fine, and at best genuinely really good. I did find the portrayal of Jenks a little bit distracting, possibly because I’m used to detective characters being very taciturn and detached, whereas Jenks, um, kind of pulls faces and gesticulates. And I got very fond of him, but mainly I think because I kept mugging along with him as he delivered his lines. And, to be fair, he had a lot to carry because about 80% of his dialogue is “so what do you know about this piece of evidence” and he’s obviously trying to make that interesting and engaging, but possibly goes a bit too far. It’s especially difficult in the context of this quite tragic scenario. Because, basically, it’s a story about the death of a promising and talented young man, and Jenks hops around like he’s on CBeebies (for my American readers, CBeebies is the bit of the BBC aimed at very young children).

Paul Darrow is excellent as the super-objectivist, scheming and amoral Paul Rand, but then again you’d expect him to be because, dude, he’s Avon from Blake’s 7. And, actually, the whole of his dialogue and the material you see from Atlas, its students and its employees is strangely plausible. And this is partly because it’s, well, essentially very straight forward Ayn Rand bullshit (the clue is literally in the names – the organisation is named Atlas, after Atlas Shrugged, they are called Paul and Ryan, quite possibly after the notoriously Randian Speaker of the House of Representatives, and of course their surname is actually Rand) but it is well-observed, convincingly articulated and effectively delivered. And while subtlety is not a big strength of the game the relationship between Paul and Ryan, the father and son behind the Atlas organisation, has a surprising amount of nuance.

It’s also super English: everyone has slightly crooked teeth, it’s set in a tiny village that looks like every tiny village you drive through in any part of the country that ends in -shire and it’s ultimately it’s far more in the tradition of Hercule Poirot or Midsomer Murders than Sam Spade or CSI. And, yet again, I realise that I’ve written nearly three thousand words and I’ve just finished about the first of the two things I want to talk about in this post. I suck at this.

The Infectious Madness of Doctor Dekker: Notthulhu

The Infectious Madness of Doctor Dekker manages to be quite similar to Contradiction while also being absolutely nothing like it. I should also say at the beginning that because it’s self-consciously Lovecraftian and if you haven’t already worked out from the fact it is called The Infectious Madness of Doctor Dekker the game takes a very, very literary view of mental illness. Which is to say, a completely unrealistic one. There are some people for whom that will be a deal-breaker. There are others for whom it’s an accepted convention of the Lovecraftian genre.

For what it’s worth, my personal take is that the game is so embedded in the assumptions and conventions of gothic / Lovecraftian literature that I barely see any connection between the real life concept of mental illness and the purely literary construct that the game calls “madness” or “insanity.” Which makes it mostly fairly easy for me to accept the game on its own terms. The only bits I found genuinely problematic were the ones in which its mythologised notion of insanity brushed up against real world issues about culpability and credibility. Several of your patients have been quite specifically referred to you because they want you to declare them insane so they can be found not guilty of particular crimes which, I think, genuinely reinforces some quite unhelpful stereotypes about both criminality and mental illness. And, thinking about it, the central premise of the game, which is that a psychiatrist has been murdered, almost certainly by one of his patients, and all of them are suspects because crazy people be crazy and be killing people, is kind of not okay either.

There’s also, as I mentioned in the trigger warnings at the start, a really difficult sequence in which one of your patients essentially tells you (in quite a lot of detail) that you are raping her. And the game is quite ambiguous about whether this is all in her head or not. It’s especially uncomfortable because the protagonist in Doctor Dekker is much more “you” than the Detective in Contradiction.  And there’s sort of no way of interpreting that sequence that isn’t horrible, and not in a challenging or creepy way. Just in a probably the wrong artistic choice way. Either the person is question is right, in which case, dude, you’ve suddenly (and, ironically, non-consensually) turned my character into a rapist. I’m not sure how I’m supposed to that. Or she’s delusional in which case that brushes way too close to “abuse claims are usually false” (which is a real and harmful myth). Or, worst of all, she’s deliberately lying in order to blackmail you which is whole different level of real and harmful myth.

Anyway. The premise of The Infectious Madness of Doctor Dekker is that Dr Dekker was a psychiatrist (in gothic Lovecraftian sense of unpredictable, occult-obsessed mercurial tyrant) who was recently murdered and you are his replacement, but also (for reasons that aren’t entirely clear) trying to work out who killed him. Because apparently that’s your job now.  Presumably the police are too busy pulling silly faces at objectivists. Unlike Contradiction, which his strictly point and click, Doctor Dekker is parser-based. A parser, for the uninitiated, being a means of interacting with a game (or, I suppose, another piece of software) by typing words into a box. Basically, it’s a text adventure with pictures and actors.   Over the course of the game, you will converse with and ultimately come to know several of Dr Dekker’s patients, and gradually discover that all of them have, or believe themselves to have, some manner of supernatural ability. As well as tracking your progress through the plot, the game also keeps track of your character’s state of mind. The more you talk to the patients about and especially validate or indulge their supernatural ideas the more you lose your grip on reality and the more explicitly weird stuff you’ll perceive and encounter.

There’s an awful lot I like about Doctor Dekker. The characters are all meticulously well-articulated, from how they speak, to what they wear, to the way they move in the dream-like resting animations, in which they fade into and out of view on your sofa while you’re deciding what to say to them next. Bryce the gravedigger, who believes that for him time stops for an hour at midnight, allowing him go about the world and do as he wishes (with all that entails) has a twitchy manic intensity, leaning forward and staring directly at you, then glancing away and hiding his face when he doesn’t feel you’re understanding him. Claire, the socialite who murdered, and it later transpires re-animated her husband, remains uniformly cold and imperious, except for one brief resting animation in which it looks just for a second it looks like she’s coming towards you with a knife (yes, I lost my shit).

Then there’s Marianna, difficult, difficult Marianna, who is basically a siren, or possibly a deep one. Pretty much the first thing she says to you is that she keeps waking up on the beach … naked, and she expresses it in a very breathy, very femme-fataley way that’s a really confusing mess of enticing and exploitative. I honestly couldn’t tell at the time if I found it uncomfortable in a good way or a bad way, although on reflection (given the really awful rape stuff) I’ve come down on bad. Anyway, leaving aside the problematic sex stuff, it becomes increasingly clear that Marianna has this profound and super-Cthulhuey connection to the sea and that she’s almost certainly luring people to their deaths siren-stylee. And everything about the way she moves and dresses and stands and speaks has this indefinable wateriness to it that is intensely compelling. Which, again, gets really really troubling (and, I think, not in a challenging way) when she starts talking about how you’re raping her. And I should probably say that the actress, who goes by the fabulous name of Aislinn De’ath, does a fantastic job in the role. It’s just that the role intersects with some concepts that need to be handled with more sensitivity than the game manages.

The other thing I like (or think I liked, since I’ve only played it once so far) is the way the game seems to re-interpret itself according to your playstyle.  We played very cautiously, partly out of impatience to progress the plot, partly out of frustration with the sometimes opaque parser, and partly out a genuine desire not to fuck these imaginary people all the way up. As a result, my viewpoint character was essentially a very straight forward psychiatrist whose primary goal was to help his patients and not reinforce their belief in supernatural powers. By the end of the game, it seemed fairly clear that my patients did indeed not have supernatural abilities and that several of them, in fact, did not even believe themselves to have supernatural abilities but were feigning madness to avoid murder charges (once again this is not unproblematic). For what I’ve seen of other people’s endings, if I’d embraced the spooky stuff more strongly, or been less nervous of dicking with my patients’ heads) I could have turned out to be possessed by the spirit of Dr Dekker, been murdered myself or, if I’d gone full Lovecraft protagonist, ultimately been revealed to be patient myself, with all of the other patients to whom I’d been speaking merely facets of my own fractured personality.

I genuinely think that this is one of the biggest strengths of interactive media. So often when I read a book or watch a TV show I will get to the end and be disappointed because the book I thought I was reading or show I thought I was watching is not, in fact, the book or show I was reading or watching. (I had pretty much this experience a couple of weeks ago with 13 Reasons Why). The capacity of well-constructed interactive fiction to become the story you believe it to be is endlessly fascinating. And, yes, you could argue that this makes it harder for the story to surprise you but if the surprise that I’m being denied is that of discovering that the thing I thought was good is actually not good is a surprise I’m well willing to do without. And, obviously, there are limitations and parameters. Doctor Dekker is never going to be a love story or an action movie but, within its genre, you can make it into pretty much anything you might want that sort of story to deliver. You can be the rational sceptic who, like the Scooby gang from Scooby Doo, reveal that the ghost is just a man in a mask. You can be the stalwart investigator who, like the Scooby gang from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, confronts evil and overcomes it. You can be the doomed altruist who is drawn into events far beyond his control and ultimately utterly corrupted by them. You can be the victim of the story you’re already telling. Or the villain of it.

Before I wrap up with the things that bugged me about the game, I do want to quickly how much I liked the way it handled its Cthulhu elements. A lot of Lovecraftian media, particularly gaming media, relies on name-dropping particular elements of Lovecraft’s mythos. So you will specifically have Deep Ones or Shub Niggurath or Nyarlathotep, but the story itself won’t necessarily feel like a Lovecraft story. Doctor Dekker very explicitly goes in the other direction. The supernatural phenomena that the patients describe owe more to science fiction, classical mythology and, in one case, Groundhog Day than they do any given Lovecraft story. But in this blending of quasi-scientific, quasi-mythological and just plain weird inspirations the story the game tells winds up being far closer in spirit to Lovecraftian writing than most things that get a Cthulhu label. To go briefly back to Marianna, in some ways her story is the most explicitly Cthulhoid in that she believes she is feeding people to a monster under the sea (and she has a necklace with an actual tentacle monster on it) but all of the imagery she uses is very un-Cthulhu. She describes the monster a being of light. She herself is a lot more like a mermaid than a Deep One. The way the monster eats people isn’t anything like Cthulhu snatches 1D6 investigators a round into his flabby claws. And the creature’s undersea lair is nothing like R’yleh. But it creates that same primal, haunting sense of otherness that makes the bits of Lovecraft that work, well, work. Basically, it’s the kind of thing I wish I saw more of in Lovecraft games.

Oh, also I should mention that as well the central patients there are a few optional one-offs, one of whom is played by the same actor who plays Ryan in Contradiction. Ryan is gloriously scenery chewing in that game. And the actor does not disappoint in the role of weird quantum physicist in The Infectious Madness of Doctor Dekker. Also, again I’d like to give a shout out to the writers for including a quantum physics story because the weird science element of Lovecraftian fiction often gets overlooked in favour of the most straightforwardly occult elements.

I did have some have problem with the game, most of which are, I discovered afterwards, fixable.  Because of the game is parser based about half the things you type will get no reaction but there are little characterful clips in which the patience to whom  you’re currently tells you that they don’t have a reaction to the thing you just said. These help immersion for about the first 80 seconds and then become at best intrusive and at worst actively distracting. Because the patients are often evasive in their answers it can sometimes be a little bit difficult to tell when you’re getting a canned “I don’t know about that” response and when they’re starting a legitimate answer with “I don’t know but.” And, obviously, it was partly my own fault for clicking through too fast but once you’ve heard “I don’t know anything about that” forty times it’s comprehensively lost its charm.

It’s particularly tricky because there are some topics that characters will stonewall you on early in the game and be forthcoming about later. But their early stonewalling responses sound so much like the “I don’t know about that” default that it’s easy to think that those topics are just a red herring.  There are also times when it’s just immersion, like when you ask them about something they’ve literally just mentioned but you haven’t phrased it quite right. Which means you can conversations where the patient says “It’s like I have my very own midnight hour” and you say “What happens at midnight?” (or just “midnight” if you’ve got lazy) and they say “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

In any case, I got to the end of the game and then I realised you could turn them off. And I really wish I had done.

The other thing you can turn of is the hint cooldown. The game has a built-in hint system whereby you type hint and it gives you a hint (it’s not rocket science). By default hints are on a medium length cool down – I’m not exactly sure how long it is but it feels like a couple of minutes. Now I understand why the cool down is there because just mashing hint every time you get stuck does take a lot of the challenge and interest out of the game. It also sometimes pushes you into choices you wouldn’t necessarily want to make – one of the first hints I got when talking to *sigh* Marianna was “Is she flirting with me?” And because I was stuck, I asked if she was flirting with me, and immediately wished I hadn’t. But the thing is, one of the major functions of a hint system in this kind of game is to stop you getting caught up on fiddly issues of syntax. To go back to the previous example, the reason that Bryce blanks you if you ask him about midnight is that, for technical reason, the parser is only set up to respond to the phrase “midnight hour”. And it genuinely did not occur to me that “midnight hour” would work if “midnight” didn’t. So I got stuck not because I’d run out of lines of enquiry but because I didn’t know how to make my in-game avatar ask the question I wanted to ask. Which is the unfun kind of detectiving.

Again, at the end of the game I discovered there was an option to turn the hint cooldown off almost completely. And I absolutely would have taken it. Because while I might have over-used it without the cooldown, I honestly don’t think I would have. And it was annoying to have to sit there twiddling your thumbs for 40 seconds so you could work what precise combination of words would let you ask somebody about Dr Dekker’s drinking habits (mini-rant here: this problem was particularly annoying because some characters specifically respond to “did you see Dr Dekker drink” and not “was Dr Dekker an alcoholic” whereas specifically respond to “was Dr Dekker an alcoholic” and not “did you see Dr Dekker drink”).

For what it’s worth, I would say that if you do want to play The Infectious Madness of Doctor Dekker or, indeed, any game based around a text parser one of the most important to know going in is that however much it feels like you’re having a conversation with a person (and, when the game really works, it does genuinely feel like that—which is super exciting) you do have to remember that you’re ultimately dealing with a machine. Navigating the intricacies of the parser is part of the challenge of this game of kind and you have to accept it on its own terms. There were moment’s playing the game when I caught myself getting frustrated that the patients weren’t responding to me like a real person would and I had to take a step back and recognise that, no, actually this is a text adventure with voice acting and the puzzle I’m solving isn’t really “how do I find out who murdered Dr Dekker” it’s “how do I unlock the next piece of the narrative by understanding the expectations of the game.”

I’d also add that one of the clever things about Doctor Dekker is that it does, like Contradiction, make a virtue of its limitations (at least to some extent). Because the game is supposed to be a Lovecraftian descent into madness and because the deeper you get into the game the harder it becomes to manage the different pieces of information you’re getting from your different patients you do find yourself having these quite garbled, almost dreamlike conversations where you will sometimes flit between patients as one of them makes a comment that you feel another can elaborate on. And it’s only when your assistant Jaya calls you out on this that you realise how much like a Lovecraftian psychoanalyst descending slowly into insanity your in-game behaviour has become. When I first started playing the game, I would sit down with each other patient, and work through their problems until I thought I’d done everything I could do to help. By the end, I was switching patients mid-session, asking arbitrary non-sequiturs about death threats and where bodies were buried. In one session I saw a flame appear in a patient’ s hand spent a good couple of minutes trying desperately to articulate this to him only to be met with utter confusion. In another, I came to believe that a patient had been programmed with a trigger word by Dr Dekker and decided to immediately test all of my other patients by randomly shouting the names of planets at them and then leaving immediately. Epic psychiatry fail.

The final thing I should say about Doctor Dekker, especially as compared to Contradiction, is that it’s actually a mystery. In Contradiction, Jenks solves the crime if you finish the game. I did, as it happens, work out who the killer was about midway through but the experience of playing the game was much like the experience of reading a detective novel. Jenks was always going to get the right person, even if it came as a complete surprise to me. By contrast, The Infectious Madness of Doctor Dekker actually makes you pick your own suspect at the end. And, to be fair, you do get multiple guesses (I’m not sure to what extent guessing wrong impacts your insanity score or to what extent guessing correctly could endanger you) but you are invited to actually try to solve the mystery yourself. It’s also worth pointing out that, while Contradiction has one story with one killer, Doctor Dekker selects its killer randomly at the start of every new game. So just because it was Elin in my game, doesn’t mean it won’t be Bryce in yours. This, along with the insanity mechanic, gives the game a lot more replayability – not that I’ve actually replayed it yet.

The final final thing I should say about Doctor Dekker is that a lot of the things that are strong about it rely very heavily on its framing device. This is a segue but bear with me. Every couple of years, there’ll be big news in the media about a computer programme passing the Turing Test, which—for those of you who aren’t aware—is the test that Alan Turing proposed for determining whether you had achieve “real” artificial intelligence (the way he phrased it was, for showing a computer could think). The Turing Test is basically for a human user to have two conversations with two partners, one of whom is a real human being and the other of whom is chatbot. The Turing Test is deemed to have been passed if the user cannot distinguish the computer from the human. What’s interesting is that people have been claiming that bots have passed the Turing Test for pretty much decades now. The reason this is pertinent to The Infectious Madness of Doctor Dekker is that the first computer programme ever to claim that it passed the Turing Test was called Parry and was specifically designed to simulate the speech of people suffering from clinical paranoia. It did this well enough that most people, even experts, couldn’t tell the difference between things actual paranoid people have said and things Parry had said in imitation of things actual paranoid had said. Which is to say that a certain sort of very stylised “madness” covers a lot of the limitations of AI, chatbots and parser-based, non-linear gaming.

While it is cool that The Infectious Madness of Doctor Dekker has multiple endings, one of the reasons that the multiple endings are sustainable is that since all bar one of the suspects is a depiction of gothic, Lovecraftian “insanity” it is completely expected that they will occasionally do very random or out of character things, and (and, again, this is problematic) it is ultimately always plausible for any of them to be a murderer. I did work out who the killer was in my play through but I did also see what I’m pretty sure were holdovers from other potential plotlines in which the killer was somebody else. And I think I’d have been less forgiving of those if the framing device hadn’t led me to expect, well, the unexpected.

In conclusion

It says a lot about my writing style that I’m looking at word count and going “oh, it’s only six thousand words, that’s much better than usual.” I genuinely think that both Contradiction and The Infectious Madness of Doctor Dekker are well-constructed, enjoyable games and worth looking at. I slightly preferred Doctor Dekker, in that I found it genuinely quite haunting and affecting in a way that Contradiction wasn’t (although, to be fair, also didn’t intend to be). I would say that if you are all bothered by problematic portrayals of mental illness and/or the dubious rape stuff you should probably stay clear.

I’m not completely sure that FMV games are something worth getting into big time but if you have six to eight pounds and five to seven hours spend, and you have someone to play them with, you could do a lot worse. But I’d recommend making generous use of the hint systems in both games.

games of the video variety
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Now that I’ve finished this post I realise that it clocks in at about sixteen thousand words. That’s, um, quite long. And it’s certainly more than it’s really comfortable to read in a blog post.  However, well, I’ve written it now and I thought breaking it up would actually be even more awkward so … here it is.

In an effort to help it be more manageable here’s a content list of the various sections:

I have this tendency to look at controversial things and then feel like a sucker because most controversial things are only controversial because they want to get you to look at them. And so once I’ve spent the requisite three weeks saying “No, I’m not going to look at this because I’m pretty sure I know exactly what it’s going to be like and what it’s going to be like is something that profoundly annoys me” and having people come back with “no, you can’t say that, you’ve got to watch/read/listen to/play/eat it or else you won’t understand” I feel I have to watch/read/listen to/play/eat the damn thing. At which point I almost inevitably conclude that it is, in fact, precisely what I thought it was going to be at the outset. And then I come back to the people who said I had to watch/read/listen to/play/eat it and say “okay, I watched/read/listened to/played/ate this and I still think what I thought before” and they reply “ahhhh, but you watched/read/listened to/played/ate it, didn’t you”. And then I say “well, yes, I did, because you wouldn’t let me talk about the issues it raised until I had done” and then they say “ahhhh, so it’s made you think about those issues.” And then I just want to stab myself in the face for being stupid enough to engage with the whole thing in the first place. Because, seriously, fool me once, shame on you. Fool me every. single. fucking. time, shame on me.

Which is to say, I’ve just finished watching 13 Reasons Why. As you might gather from my opening rant, I didn’t especially rate it. I’m now going to discuss my thoughts about it in slightly unstructured, slightly rambly way (like I always do). I’ll be using subheadings (like I always do). There will be thirteen of them because, honestly, did you expect me to pass that one up?

I should quickly mention that 13 Reasons Why is based on a novel which I haven’t read and that my comments here relate only to the TV show. There’s a bit later on where I talk about how I feel about the fact that some school districts are taking the book off their shelves and my comments on that are based not on the contents of the book (about which I know nothing) but on my more general (and very non expert) feelings about how these issues should be approached.

Before I get into this there are a whole massive bunch of warnings I want to add to the start of this post. Firstly, as I mentioned in the header, this is really fucking long. Secondly, this is really fucking full of spoilers. Thirdly, this goes into quite a lot of detail about some very complicated issues about which I am in no way an expert. If at any point I give the impression I’m speaking from a position of authority, please remember that I’m not. I have some personal experience of the issues that this post is about and have done a genuinely cursory amount of research and reading. Despite being sixteen thousand words long it is very likely that this post oversimplifies its profoundly difficult subject matter in a number of ways.

As you are probably already aware the show this post is about deals with teenage suicide and I’m going to be talking about that in some details. I do want to make a quick point about the vocabulary I’ve tried to use and the ways in which I am conscious I might not be using it completely correctly. Generally speaking, I’ve tried to avoid using the phrase  “to commit suicide” because the literature I’ve read suggests that the term “commit” has problematic  implications and has its roots in the era when suicide was actually treated as a crime. I also try to avoid using the word “successful” when talking about suicide attempts that result in death because, again, the literature suggests that it’s not a good idea to suggest that death is a desirable outcome. Because I’ve been quite careful with this language, I’ve sometimes been less careful than I should have been in distinguishing between failed suicide attempts and completed suicide attempts, especially in the bit about halfway down when I go on a long digression about data. Again, I’m aware that this is an oversimplification.

In short: trigger warnings for quite detailed discussion of suicide, rape and sexual assault.

And, in fact, let’s start there.

Tape 1 Side A: Trigger Warnings

The version of 13 Reasons Why I watched was on Netflix UK. It has specific trigger warnings on episodes 9, 11 and 13. It’s probably worth my pointing out that, because these episodes are late in the series, I was already very, very angry with 13 Reasons Why by the time they came up. One of the things that made me most angry about it is that I honestly felt its portrayal of its core issues (those issues being suicide and rape and, incidentally, the fact that it arguably conflates those things is something else that bothers me about it) was profoundly exploitative to the point that at times I almost found it pornographic.

And, again, this is a point where some people will say “oh, d’you see, you were supposed to experience that discomfort because this is a serious issue, you should take it seriously” but, again, I wasn’t uncomfortable because the show was presenting rape and suicide in an unflinching or hard hitting way. I was uncomfortable because I felt it was presenting rape and suicide in a tantalising, occasionally even titillating way. And, again, I’m sure some people think the show had enough self-awareness that even that was part of its wider social commentary. I really don’t. I should probably take this opportunity to say (and I will be saying this a lot) that I am very aware that these are my personal and quite emotional responses, and that I know that other people feel very differently.

Pretty much every episode of 13 Reasons Why has the same structure. Hannah starts off in a seemingly hopeful or optimistic place, she darkly hints that something terrible is about to happen, you spend the whole episode excitedly waiting to see what it is and who it involves, it comes out, she hints that something worse is going to happen in the next episode, and you queue it up immediately because this is a show made for binge watching.

Now, I am not saying that there is only one way to write about serious issues. But I am given serious pause by a show about the abuse, rape and suicide of a teenage girl being so unashamedly and unabashedly watchable. And, yes, you can argue that it’s making a point about our complicity in exploitation. But … well … it isn’t, is it? It’s trying to sell us Netflix subscriptions.

When I started watching the show, I assumed that I would have to take breaks between episodes because I honestly expected that it would be traumatic to watch. I’ve recently watched Please Like Me which is another show that has a strong suicide theme and which I would occasionally have to just stop watching for a while because it had given me so many feels or so much to think about that I really needed time to process. But I never got that with13 Reasons Why. It was like playing a Sid Meier videogame or watching Lost or Heroes: a steady drip feed of pleasurable revelations, with the constant promise of something even better if you just click the ‘next’ button. And there’s nothing wrong with that sort of storytelling but I don’t feel that it’s compatible with (and I’m sorry if I’m overusing this word) an unflinching look at a terrible social evil. I’d argue that it’s not even compatible with a compassionate look. 13 Reasons Why feels to me like popcorn television about a sensationalist topic and that pushed a lot of my buttons.

Long-time blog readers won’t be surprised at how off-topic I’ve got here but it is coming back to something I promise. In the context of those feelings that I had about the show and that were firmly entrenched in me by the time I reached episode 9, the trigger warnings just felt cynical. Because while I’m sure, on one level, they did genuinely want to warn potentially vulnerable viewers that the episode contained something they would find triggering I can’t quite shake the notion that the warnings doubled as foreshadowing.  It just feels like the showrunner is leading over to you conspiratorially and saying, “hey guys, someone totally gets raped in this episode!” Which is not something I want to feel that the showrunner is doing.

And obviously I haven’t looked in great depth at best practice in this kind of situation but I sort of feel that if I was going to put trigger warnings on a TV show, especially one with such linear over-arching narrative, I’d put them at the beginning. I mean, if you put trigger warnings on a book, you put them on the cover, you don’t just stick them randomly at the start of the chapter with the distressing scene. Because of its structure, the show is quite compelling so by the time you’ve got to that episode, you really want to see what happens next. And by putting the trigger warning where it is, you’re forcing people to choose between watching something that might trigger them or bailing on something they’ve already invested eight hours in.  Trigger warnings are there to allow people to make informed choices. Surely the informed choice you should be making in this case is “do you want to watch the show?” not “do you want to watch episode 9?”

And I’ve just realised I’ve committed to doing thirteen of these so this is going to get long.

But, hey, I’m really quite angry.

Tape 1 Side B:  Taking a Step Back

I’ve had a few conversations about this show and because we naturally gravitate towards those who share our opinions I’ve mostly spoken to folks who agree with me. But I have met a couple of people who found the show profoundly moving, profoundly meaningful and either reflective of their own experience or offering them something they feel is an insight into the experience of others who they care about.

I absolutely do not want to erase, elide, dismiss or devalue this. We all respond to things in different ways and just because this show offends the crap out of me that won’t stop it being something truly important to somebody else. I think, in general, conversations on the interwebs, especially about issues relating to social justice or issues that are otherwise sensitive, naturally get very factional because it’s very hard to recognise that somebody like you could feel empowered by something by which you feel damaged. It’s difficult to accept that something you feel insults the memory of your dead friend makes someone else feel closer to theirs.

I’m not going to make much of an effort to be balanced in this post. I do think there were some positive things about the show. For me, the negative things outweighed them so massively that it isn’t even funny. I do want to stress that everything I’ve saying here is my own personal experience and I’m saying it primarily for the benefit of people who may either feel similarly and be glad to know that they aren’t alone or those who are interested and might not have considered the position I’m expressing.

Tape 2 Side A: The Werther Effect

A big part of the reason that the TV show, and the book that it’s based on, have been so controversial is that a lot of people feel they glamorise suicide. I am not really sure I know how to parse this criticism. I mean ‘glamorise’ is a really loaded term and what seems glamorising to one person is starting an important dialogue to another. What I do want to talk about at the start (and when I say start I actually mean in about the first 1600 words) of this article is the actual evidence for imitative suicide. (Insert ‘I am not an expert’ disclaimer here.)

Basically a lot of people are saying that the show is dangerous is because a vulnerable young person could watch it, emphasise with Hannah and decide that, like her, their only solution is to kill themselves. On one level, this feels like a moral panic. On another, it’s actually quite a well-documented phenomenon in suicide research. And I will say that I’ve not read that many papers on this but essentially it is a real thing. It’s called The Werther Effect after Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, which was associated with an alleged rash of imitative suicides in the 1770s. It isn’t completely uncontroversial because nothing is uncontroversial in social science research. Because it’s not like you can do a double blind randomised controlled trial for things like the impact of popular fiction on suicide rates.

From what I understand, given my very cursory research, there do tend to be upticks in the suicide rate within about one-to-three months of widely publicised suicides. The strongest effects have been seen with real celebrities who are prestigious and whose deaths are widely reported. There are smaller, or zero, effects reported from works of fiction. The research I’ve looked at is hard to draw concrete conclusions from because there are always alternative explanations for things. For example, some researchers suggest that all the Werther Effect does is cause the suicides of people who would probably kill themselves anyway to cluster around the deaths of celebrities. Others say that this isn’t compatible with the data since, if this was the case, you’d expect a concomitant drop in the suicide rate a few months after the triggering event, and you don’t (or don’t seem to).

I can sort of see both sides of this one and part of it depends on how much you value additional years of life. If the suicide rate goes up 10% for three months after a high profile celebrity death that doesn’t necessarily mean it will go down by 10% for the next three months, even if those additional suicides came from people who would probably have killed themselves anyway. Some of them may have gone on for many months or years before their deaths and you then have to ask unanswerable questions about the value or otherwise of three months, ten months or five years of extra life for a person highly at risk of suicide.

The other thing I’ve noticed in the research is that it doesn’t seem to compare the effect of celebrity suicides on suicide rates with the effect of similarly high profile non-suicide celebrity deaths. Anecdotally I seem to recall that there were a fair number of suicides associated with, say, the Kennedy assassination as well. So if you’re trying to find evidence for actual imitation as a factor in a suicide it’s not immediately clear how you compensate for the effect of other forms of emotional shock that might come as a result of the high profile death of a famous individual.

One of the top news stories if you Google for 13 Reasons Why talks about some school districts taking the book the show is based on off shelves because they’re concerned about it triggering suicidal behaviour in adolescents.  This is one of those things where I think people are taking something that might be factual but misapplying it quite strongly. My personal reading of the data is that the Werther Effect is a real thing (although primarily associated with factual rather than fictional stories) but that doesn’t mean that I think it should part of the suicide prevention policies of schools or school districts. And I admit this is partly because I’m a whiny liberal and I’m always against banning books. But it’s also because I quite strongly feel that there is a different between (and I will stress that this not technical language, this is language I am using off my own back because I can’t think of a better way to put it) macroscopic and microscopic dangers.

The Werther Effect is a macroscopic effect: that is to say, it’s large scale. Assuming—and I think it’s fair to assume this—that the effect is real it is appropriate for publishers, news outlets and media personnel in general to consider the possibility that their reporting on suicide-related stories could trigger imitative suicides in vulnerable people if a sufficiently large number of people are exposed and the story is sufficiently irresponsible.  Several organisations, including The Samaritans and the World Health Organisation, publish media guides for exactly this purpose. I would say that a lot about 13 Reasons Why contravenes the advice in the WHO and Samaritan media guides and I do think this is low-key irresponsible of both the author and Netflix.

But that isn’t the same as believing that the Werther Effect is a significant factor in suicides at a microscopic level. That is to say, if I am a school governor or a headmaster and I am concerned about my students engaging in suicidal behaviour taking 13 Reasons Why off the shelves (or warning students against watching it on Netflix) should not be a high priority for me. This is because, while on a macro-level the question you should ask is “what effect will this story I’m writing have on people at risk of suicide” on a micro-level the question you should be asking is “how do I best work to prevent suicides amongst the people in my care.” Those are very different questions.

To take a hopefully not offensively spurious analogy, smoke detectors contain an alpha-emitting radioactive source (I believe it’s Americium 241). If I was a company that made smoke detectors I would want to be very sure that the radioactive source in the devices I sold was well-sealed so that it didn’t leak out into the air where people could inhale bits of radioactive dust and get cancer. That would be an important part of my duty to my customers if I was selling them something that contained a radioisotope. But if I was running a school, it would be absurd for me to spend any of my time or resources worrying about the risk of students getting cancer from the smoke detectors in my building. Not only would my cancer-prevention efforts be far better directed getting my students to stop smoking or eat more green vegetables, but if I were to remove all the smoke detectors out of a misguided attempt to minimise my students’ exposure to carcinogens I would (and this is where the analogy gets almost embarrassingly bang on) be getting rid of something that could provide a valuable warning of impending catastrophe.

Which is to say, the way to stop schoolkids reading or watching 13 Reasons Why and then killing themselves is to have suicide prevention strategies that aren’t shit. This is, I admit, easier said than done. But literally anything you could do would be more effective than just taking a book off the shelves. Indeed (and this is where that bang on analogy comes into play) if you tell your students that you’ve taken away all the copies of 13 Reasons Why because you don’t think it’s appropriate for them to be reading a book about suicide, you are sending the message that suicide is not something you are comfortable for them to talk about. This is the exact opposite of an effective suicide prevention strategy.

Tape 2 Side B: The Worst Counsellor In The World

I’m doing this fourth (it’s actually quite hard for me to keep track of the numbers because I’ve been even more glib than I normally am and have labelled all of these bullet points the same way they label the episodes in the TV show. Sorry, I really am a dick) when, in the series, it’s the thirteenth episode. I’m doing it now because I’ve just been talking about suicide prevention in schools and I want to talk a bit about Tape 13 and how it, on the one hand, possibly highlights some ways in which support structures in schools can be flawed but, on the other, does so in ways that I feel are massively unhelpful.

So, the premise of 13 Reasons Why is that Hannah Baker makes thirteen tapes, each dedicated to one of the people who she feels are responsible for her death. The last tape is for the last person who (and this is itself a problematic way to look at it) had the opportunity to save her: her school counsellor. Her last tape is actually a recording of her meeting with him and the episode cuts between the events of that meeting and the events of the confrontation between Clay The White Knight (of whom more later) and The Worst Counsellor In The World. Basically, everything about Hannah’s meeting with The Worst Counsellor In The World is wrong. And I think, on some level, you’re supposed to realise that it’s wrong, but I think the wrongness I see in it isn’t the wrongness the show sees in it.

The criticism levelled against 13 Reasons Why is that it glamorises suicide, and the defence that’s made of it is that it promotes discussion about suicide. I tend to feel that neither the criticism nor the defence are entirely correct. And I suppose it’s a bit hypocritical of me to say that the show doesn’t promote discussion when I’m here discussing it but, again, upsetting somebody so much that they loudly tell you you’re wrong isn’t a helpful way to advance the debate. If it anything, it derails it.

The issue I have with the way that 13 Reasons Why portrays suicide is not that it portrays it as glamorous (although there obviously glamorous things about Hannah and I’ll get into those later) it’s that for a show that seems to want us to confront a complex issue it feels curiously unwilling to demystify its subject matter. Again, I should stress that this is very much a question of interpretation but I feel like 13 Reasons Why much tries to have its cake and eat it on the, well, the “reasons why” front. On the one hand, its entire premise is that Hannah is telling us why she killed herself. On the other hand, all of the factors that contribute to her suicide (and, let’s be clear, this is the way suicide researchers and people whose job it is support suicidal people think about these issues: it’s about risk factors, not reasons) get presented as things which either nobody could have foreseen or of which nobody could have foreseen the impact. It’s a bit like Donald Trump standing up and saying, “who’d have thought healthcare could have been so complicated?” The show seems, to me, to genuinely think that suicide is so vast and mysterious that you can’t distinguish good suicide prevention from bad.

One of the overarching plot arcs in the show is Hannah’s parents’ suing the school for negligence and the school fighting back against it.  During one scene towards the end of the series, the school offers a settlement which includes some financial compensation and a commitment to have a better suicide prevention policy. Hannah’s parents are actively scornful of this idea. They ask why such a policy wasn’t in place and the lawyer representing the school (who is also, randomly, the mother of Clay The White Knight because getting one of your kid’s mothers to represent you in no way represents a conflict of interest) says there was but that the new policy will be better. Nothing in the text invites us to believe us that this is true (which is fine, the school is clearly evil) but what’s worrying is that nothing in the text invites us to believe it would be possible for it to be true.

And this feels, to me, genuinely dangerous because it seems to take as read that schools can’t do anything to prevent teen suicide. And that any policy will simply be a meaningless piece of paper.

Let’s come back to The Worst Counsellor In The World. In the last episode, Clay The White Knight confronts The Worst Counsellor In The World with how badly he failed in his duty to protect Hannah. On one level, this is fine because  The Worst Counsellor In The World is the worst counsellor in the world. But what frustrates me about the episode is the nature of Clay’s accusations and the way in which The Worst Counsellor In The World defends himself. Clay’s accusations are that The Worst Counsellor In The World should have “seen” what Hannah was going through. He should have “known” that there was more wrong with her than she was letting on. That he should have “done something”. The Worst Counsellor In The World replies by repeating that same old lines about how vast and incomprehensible suicide is. And maybe he’s self-justifying and I suppose it isn’t really fair for me to expect Clay to have a clear insight into the quite specific craft required to have effective support conversations with vulnerable people (although, given how much heavy-handed mansplaining the guy does I wouldn’t have been surprised). But the show seems to be saying “yes he let Hannah down, but so did everybody else” whereas , from my perspective, it should have been saying “yes, he let Hannah down because he did these specific, technical things wrong and they are all things he should have been trained to do right and you can train people to do those things right and doing those things right will actually save lives.”

Let’s be more specific. And I’m not just going to talk about The Worst Counsellor In The World here, I’m going to talk about suicide prevention at Liberty High in general. Every time a teacher at Liberty High catches a whiff of the notion that a student might be suicidal they handle it really badly. And at the start of the show I thought this quite interesting because I thought it was deliberately highlighting the way in which small carelessnesses can be harmful. Towards the end, I felt that it was more like the show didn’t realise or care that some ways are dealing with these issues are more effective than others. To give some edited highlights (I started doing the full list but there was just too much crap):

  • In the first episode, the teacher in the communications studies class (is this a real thing, do they do this in America, is it like what we call PSHE?) gives a very perfunctory ‘if anyone has been affected by these issues, there are people you can talk to’ speech to her class. Clearly none of them give a shit. To be fair, this one’s hard to do better because it’s a statuary requirement but she could have spoken about it in a way that didn’t give the impression she was bored out of her wick. She could have also indicated they could to talk, say, her. One of the really difficult things about providing support to vulnerable people is that telling somebody they have options and making them feel they have options are two very different things. Rambling off a rote memorised list of websites tells your students that you want them to take their problems to somebody else.
  • In a later communication studies class, the teacher is reading out questions from an anonymous topics bag. Presumably the whole point of this bag is to allow people to ask things that they don’t feel comfortable asking about publicly but which they would, nevertheless, like to get an answer on. Firstly, the teacher reads out questions from the bag in a way that shows she clearly hasn’t looked at them in advance. This is terrible practice, especially when the whole point of this exercise is to allow people to ask you about dark shit. She’s also incredibly bad at not sounding shocked when she reads Hannah’s note about believing that the only way to stop feeling awful is to feel nothing forever. She then throws the question open to debate in a way that very quickly degenerates into speculations about the person who wrote the note, rather than discussion of the actual question being asked. I appreciate that it’s hard to improv a lesson on suicidal ideation because it’s a sensitive topic. That’s why you read the fucking questions before the last eight minutes of your class. Although if you do have to improv something like that what you want to improv is the clear signal that whoever wrote that note is supported, and cared for, and not judged. And, again, I know teenagers are dicks but you are the adult in the room. You are in a position of authority. When somebody responds to another student’s note about feeling suicidal by saying that they think suicide is cowardly you immediately say “that is a harmful myth” and brook no response. There are some things you do not debate and things that get people killed are one of them.
  • Fast forwarding to the The Worst Counsellor In The World. His phone keeps going off in his meeting with Hannah. If she’d just dropped in, it would be fine for that to happen once. He should then have put it on silent or set it to do not answer in order to clearly signal to her that he has no other priorities. Since she had an actually made an appointment to see him, he should have turned the fucking thing off in advance.
  • When she tells him she doesn’t have any friends he names people he thinks are her friends instead of trying to asking her why she feels he doesn’t have any friends. This is listening skills 1-0-fucking-1.
  • This is minor but the box of tissue is in the wrong goddamn place. If you’re a professional counsellor you don’t keep your tissues somewhere that you have to pointedly offer them to someone if they’re crying. They should already be in easy reach so the person you are counselling can take one if they want one and it’s not big thing.
  • When she tells him something bad happened to her at a party, his first reaction is to name a bunch of emotions he thinks she should be feeling. Do not fucking do that. You are here to find out what this girl feels, not get her to confirm that she feels what you think she feels.
  • When it comes become clear that she might have been raped, the first thing he asks is “did you have sex with a boy and then regret it?” What the actual fuck? Only when he’s ruled that out does he ask her if she’s been raped and when she says yes, his response boils down “are you sure? really? like raped raped or just a bit raped?” For fuck’s sake, he actually asks her if she said no. He doesn’t quite ask what she was wearing but I suspect only because she manages to leave before he gets the opportunity. Again, maybe it’s different in America but if you are working in support surely when somebody tells you they’ve been raped your job shouldn’t be to try and convince them that they’re wrong.

And I get that some of this is probably a disgustingly real reflection of how things are in some schools. But the show at no point acknowledges that things could be different or done better. It presents the mistakes that the entire teaching staff makes in failing to support Hannah as endemic rather than systematic. That is to say, as an unavoidable feature of the society and culture in which Hannah lives, rather than a specific failure of policy, which could be corrected by some fairly basic teacher training.

Again, I don’t think that 13 Reasons Why is dangerous on a micro-level if schools handle it correctly. But if there is one dangerous thing about it (and, as we’ll see later, I actually think there are two or three dangerous things about it) it’s that it accepts unquestioningly the notion that a suicidal person will not be able to find support from within the formal structures of an educational establishment.

And, taking another step back, I should probably admit that I’m not applying the principle of charity here. You could argue that all of the many, many, many things The Worst Counsellor In The World and the incompetent communications teacher do wrong are well-observed criticisms of structural flaws in the suicide prevention policies of large institutions. Except these flaws are never called out. I mean, okay, Clay The White Knight talks about how the school failed Hannah and how nobody did anything to help her but it’s all these vague exhortations to do better and to be better. Not a specific criticism of people who have failed to do basic aspects of their job. Again, my issue with the way 13 Reasons Why portrays suicide isn’t that the show glamorises it; it’s that the show mystifies it. Because, yes, you can never know what another person is feeling and, yes, you can never know what drives a human being to take their own life. But you can adopt strategies that recognise that you don’t know what another person is feeling and allow you, therefore, to minimise the harm you do in the event that you misread their emotions.

Tape 3 Side A: The Curate’s Egg

This is probably a British idiom so I’ll explain that first. The curate’s egg is an allusion to an imagined encounter over tea between a curate (a low ranking member of the Church of England for people who aren’t up on this kind of thing) and one of their parishioners. “How is your egg,” asks the parishioner. Presumably he or she has cooked the curate an egg. Look, we do weird things in Britain. And the curate diplomatically replies, “good in parts.” The joke, if you can call it that, being that an egg is such a simple and ultimately homogenous dish that even if there are good things in it, probably it is not very competently cooked.  So, yes, I am more than happy to say that 13 Reasons Why is good in parts.

This is tricky because the small number of things I liked about the show are very subtle things that mostly happen off camera. My overall feeling (and, as always, this is just my feeling) is that the show is crass, vulgar and exploitative. So I suspect (though, again, I may be being uncharitable here) that the parts I felt were subtle and nuanced are as much my projections as the showrunners’ creation.

In particular, I liked the relationships that Hannah clearly had that we never see because they aren’t on the tapes. And I liked the way in which we sometimes see things in the tapes that contradict the way in which Hannah characterised the events described in previous tapes.

An example of the first type of element is her relationship with Tony The Magic Latino who, we soon learn, is the guy responsible for executing Hannah’s final wishes and for guarding the second copy of the tapes which is being held as blackmail in order to force the people to whom the tapes are sent to listen to the tapes that are sent to them.  And to continue the damning with the faint praise theme of this section I’d say that there’s as much that’s problematic about this as there is that’s interesting. I like the fact that we learn from Tony that he had quite a close relationship with Hannah, but that we never especially see him interacting with her because we only get her story from the tapes, and the tapes are her talking about events in her life that she found harmful, and her relationship with Tony  The Magic Latino was unambiguously supportive. Although, apparently, not so unambiguously supportive that it helped her with her suicidal feelings, which is obviously fine in one sense—it’s not like you can’t have a friend and still kill yourself—but is problematic in others because it feels like Tony The Magic Latino is very much erased from the narrative, which makes him feel like more a plot device than a person. Which is why I tend to refer to him as Tony The Magic Latino (and we’ll come back to him later).

In a similarly ambivalent vein, in many ways I really liked that Hannah’s relationship with her parents, and especially her parents’ on-going financial worries, were clearly a contributing factor in her suicidal ideation. But that, despite this, there isn’t a tape directed at her parents. At its best, it feels like the show is acknowledging that Hannah herself is not able to fully understand or articulate the reasons for her own feelings or decisions, and that is genuinely subtle and interesting and nuanced. I also think it says something quite profound and sad about Hannah’s relationship with her parents in that she clearly can’t bring herself to directly blame them for her situation, even though you can make a strong case that they are at least as responsible for her feelings as, say, Jessica.

Unfortunately because it’s the way I respond to texts (and we’ll get to more of this later as well) I also can’t quite shake the awareness  that Hannah’s circulating the tapes to everybody except her parents is also just a literary conceit designed to support a problematic framing device. It feels particularly difficult in the show because you see how distraught her parents are and how desperate they are for answers, yet the structure of the series requires that neither Hannah nor anyone else involved makes the decision to share the tapes with her parents until the very final episode.

The other relationship I found worked weirdly well in the series was the one between Hannah and Jessica, the girl who she is quite close friends with at the start of the year/series but drifts away from for a variety of perfectly understandable, slightly teenage reasons. What I found interesting about this relationship is that every time the two of them interact after the tape in which Hannah describes her reasons for feeling Jessica is responsible for her suicide, they behave towards one another as if they are genuinely friends. Perhaps not friends who are as close as they once were, but Hannah clearly still looks out for Jessica and feels a need to protect her.

Perhaps the most subtle thing in the show, and again I feel the show mostly has the subtlety of Miley Cyrus riding a wrecking ball, is that when you get to the end and you get the full context of how the tapes were created it seems pretty clear that they were all put together in quite a short space of time after Hannah is raped by Bryce The Rapist . Which means that everything she describes in the tapes, she’s describing from her perspective after that experience. Again, this is frustrating to me because it feels like something that could be a real strength of the show but which I don’t think the show really brings out properly. The image of Hannah we get through the tapes is of someone who was on a clear downward spiral into suicide but the reality is that those tapes are her descriptions of events that she is now seeing in the immediate aftermath of an extremely traumatic experience.

And, obviously, I am not intending to minimise the impact of the experiences she goes through prior to Tape 12 and, again, one of the things I think is good about the show (again, more later) is that it has a fairly sensitive understanding of pressures affecting girls in high schools, and the ways in which even nice well-meaning guys can be oblivious to those pressures. But if you view the whole series as Hannah re-defining her previous experiences in light of a set of very dark feelings that are actually quite short-lived, the rest of the story becomes at once more tragic and more understandable. It’s more tragic because it demonstrates that what happens to Hannah in Tape 12 affects her so much that it actually makes her life worse retroactively. It’s more understandable because it implies a reality in which Hannah was actually fine most of the time (or, at least, as fine as anyone can be if they’re at high school and have been through some quite horrible shit).

One of the reasons we don’t understand why people didn’t see how much Hannah was suffering is that we see a very condensed version of a story that was actually spread out over a whole year, perhaps slightly more.  Whenever we see her engage socially with her classmates outside of the specific tape addressed at a specific person, they’re actually quite welcoming and even kind to her. Obviously that doesn’t mean she’s wrong to feel lonely, and alienated, and gossiped about but it does highlight quite an important truth about, well, life at that age but also about life in general, which is that how you feel about anything (well, not anything, Hannah experiences a lot of things you could never feel good about) varies intensely depending on context.

And just to undo my brief moment of saying something positive about 13 Reasons Why (and I should probably acknowledge that when I say something positive, I mean something that suggests it’s more like the thing I think it should have been, which is not necessarily the best way to judge a text) I should add that I’m not totally certain the “Hannah is re-interpreting events in the light of trauma” reading is all that well supported when you get right down to it. The experiences she goes through have a smooth and undeniable escalation to them and by the time she’s witnessing rapes and getting her friends killed in car accidents it’s a bit hard to claim unreliable narration.

Tape 3 Side B: An Inspector Calls

When I first heard about the controversies around 13 Reasons Why and especially the slightly odd responses people were having to it (like taking the book out of high school libraries and suggesting it should be banned from Netflix) my immediate reaction was “hang on, isn’t it just An Inspector Calls?” And having watched it: yeah, it’s pretty much just An Inspector Calls.

I should stress that this is very much not a criticism. There is value is re-telling stories, there is value in re-using structures. And the thing that  13 Reasons Why does that I think is most useful is function as broad social commentary about the importance of understanding the impact that seemingly small cruelties or neglects can have on other human beings. It’s primarily the show’s (arguably secondary) function as a commentary on the causes and consequences of adolescent suicide that I find problematic.

The reason I am ultimately fine with An Inspector Calls and am ultimately so un-fine with 13 Reasons Why is, well, I admit part of it is status quo bias. An Inspector Calls has existed for more than a hundred years now and so I judge it by the standards of the early 20th century, not the 21st. Because when you get right down it, it is exactly as problematic to exploit the rape and suicide of a young factory girl to make a slightly trite point about the evils of capitalism as it is to exploit the rape and suicide of a teenage girl to make a slightly trite point about whatever it is that 13 Reasons Why is making a point about (and, again, I have some thoughts about that, and again, I find some of those thoughts troubling, and, again, notice how I’m essentially copying the narrative structure of the show by darkly hinting at things I’m going to say in future instalments).

I think if I had to pick a single concrete thing about the two texts that makes me more okay with AIC than 13RW it would be that AIC is very squarely situated in the space of metaphor. The inspector literally isn’t real. There’s even an implication that the girl might be a composite of many people rather than one person. To put it another way, the target audience of AIC is very clearly people like the Birlings and it is very explicitly aimed at convincing members of the bourgeoisie to feel bad about the impact their actions have on the lower classes. 13RW is more ambiguous in both its presentation and intent. Hannah exists in this really difficult space between real person and plot device. And, again, I should stress I’ve spoken to people who very much see her as a real person and find her story authentic, compelling and sensitively told. But, for me, if she’s a real person, then, I want to know why we’re spending so much time focusing on Clay The White Knight when Hannah’s the one who’s supposed to really matter. If she’s an archetype or a metaphor, then you’ve got a situation whereby, in a story about how society objectifies and de-humanises young women, a young woman man is objectified and de-humanised by the very story she is supposed to be telling herself.

And, again, I’m sure for some people even that interpretation is poignant and affecting. But I personally have no time for it.

Tape 4 Side A: Other Possible Positives

Sticking with the An Inspector Calls theme, I do think that 13RW could (and I’m going to do the teasing future darkness thing here, because I say “could” when I actually mean, “could but not given the other things I’m going to talk about in the next section”) be valuable as a narrative about, well, pretty much what I said it was about at the end of the last bit: the objectification and dehumanisation of young women in American high schools. I personally found a lot of the show’s dialogue and plot points to be very heavy-handed. I mean, yes, I’m very much aware that a disquieting number of young women get date raped at parties, but in the vast majority of situations there is nobody hiding in a cupboard while it happens. Equally, knocking over a stop sign is dangerous and I can see why if you’d just witnessed a rape you’d react especially strongly to someone refusing to face the consequences of their actions but, again, it seems wildly improbable that if you knocked over a stop sign there would be a fatal car accident in involving one of your friends in the ten minute window between your deciding to call it in and your finding a phone.  Oh wait, sorry, this was meant to be a positive section.

Having said all that, while I think the show could have been subtler, it is at least pretty much politically on point.  I don’t like the fact that there’s basically one designated rapist in it, but I do (and please don’t take this out of context) like the way the character carries himself. There’s a particularly chilling and effective bit in one of the later episodes where Justin The Jock confronts Bryce The Rapist and finally admits to Jessica that Bryce The Rapist raped her at a party, partially with his (Justin’s) consent. That’s not the chilling bit. The chilling bit is that later in the same episode, when Jessica is crying in bed and Bryce The Rapist texts her to ask if she’s okay. I thought it was a well-observed and genuinely devastating depiction of the way in which a man could be so entitled and empowered by rape culture that he thinks nothing of sending a sincerely supportive text message to a girl he actually raped.

Similarly Justin’s belief that by initially refusing to admit to Jessica that she was raped he was protecting her is frighteningly plausible in its abusiveness. And even in the early episodes the show is very good at demonstrating how the boys can exploit, objectify and shame the girls around them while genuinely not believing that they’re doing any harm. I actually felt quite positive about the show in the first three or four episodes because I’d hoped that the nuance which accompanied those interactions would be followed through in the rest of it, and it really wasn’t.

And, actually, to give credit where it’s due, I think the depiction of the jocks in general is really strong. They come across as believable, realistic and sympathetic human beings (even, to some extent, Bryce The Rapist, at least until the end when he comes up against Clay The White Knight and devolves into caricature) while also clearly behaving in a way that damages not only Hannah but pretty much every girl they come into contact with. And, again, I think it’s important to recognise the value in depicting that kind of character, especially for people who might recognise themselves in that depiction. Anything that encourages young men to look in the mirror and say “wait a minute, am I rapist?” is worthwhile. I’d almost resist the temptation to make a glib point about the fact that the most interesting and nuanced and successful characters in this story about the death of a teenage girl are bunch of men who treat women badly if it wasn’t for one thing: please turn your cassette over.

Tape 4 Side B: Nice Men and Rapists

This is the thing that made me go from feeling ambivalent about this show to actively, vehemently hating it.

Although 13 Reasons Why is ostensibly (and, let me be fair, according to several people I’ve spoken to, authentically and legitimately) the story of Hannah Baker, its central viewpoint is that of Clay The White Knight.  Clay is the shy, nerdy boy who works with Hannah at her job at the cinema and who has what he thinks is an unrequited crush on her, although it later becomes clear through the tapes that she was also in love with him.

I know “I just threw up a little bit in my mouth” is a cliché but I actually did just throw up a little bit in my mouth.

Clay is, to use a loaded term, a nice guy. He is quiet and geeky and bad at sports and not good with girls and blah blah blah. From the first episode, he is terrified by the thought that he might have accidentally hurt Hannah—not unreasonably considering the whole point of the tapes is that everybody who receives them somehow hurt Hannah. His distress over this escalates throughout the first eleven episodes until he reaches his tape and discovers why he’s on the list.

I’ll explain why he’s on the list in a second. But first I’m going to explain quite how wrong I was about this show and perhaps why I responded quite so negatively to it.

Three things are very clear from the beginning. It’s very clear that the show is dealing in some depth with difficult gender issues and especially with rape culture. It is pretty darn obvious right from the first episode that Hannah is going to get raped at some point. It is also pretty darn obvious right from the get go that Clay has no idea what he’s doing on the tapes, has no idea what he’s done to hurt Hannah and is terrified by the thought that he could have.

You remember how impressed I was by the way Bryce The Rapist sent Jessica a text in this way that suggested he had no idea he’d done anything wrong?

For the first three episodes I really, honestly thought that it was going to turn out that Clay, the nice shy boy, who is bad with girls and would never hurt anyone or ever say anything sexist ever, was going to have raped Hannah. And I don’t like playing the “it would have been better if” game and I don’t like judging something harshly just because it didn’t match my expectations for where it was going to go but I really, really, really hoped that 13 Reasons Why, as part of its exploration of the many ways in which a misogynistic society normalises the abuse of women, would have recognised that it’s possible for a skinny guy who is bad at sports and not especially confident with girls to be a rapist. I think that would have been incredibly powerful. I think, not to put too fine a point on it, that it could actually have prevented rapes by making nerdy guys think about the way they treat women.

So, anyway, I was pretty disappointed when it became clear around about Episode 9 that this wasn’t what the show was doing. I was incandescently furious when I got to Tape 6 Side A (Episode 11) and I found out what Clay had actually done.

Spoiler: the answer was nothing. Or, worse, the answer was specifically “be too nice.” Or, even worse, the answer was specifically “respected Hannah’s non-consent.”

Oh boy. This takes some unpacking.

Obviously, I am very conscious of getting all mansplainy here. And I really don’t want to lecture my (primarily female) audience on rape culture because, well, that’s hella offensive. But if there’s one thing I do feel have standing to talk about it’s how rape culture manifests from the perspective of guys like Clay. Because let’s be very clear here: I am nerdy and neurotic and was very under-confident growing up and still am to some extent, and my social circle is composed almost entirely of people who are the same way.

So in episode 11, we learn what happened between Clay and Hannah at Jessica’s party, the same party where later in the evening Hannah hides in closet and watches Jessica getting raped, right before running into stop sign and causing a fatal car accident. What happens is this:

Hannah realises she’s into Clay and has probably always been into Clay. Incidentally, pretty much every girl in the show is into Clay which I find a bit weird. Again, I was a lot like Clay in secondary school and there are many adjectives I would use to describe myself at that time in my life but none of them are compound nouns ending in the word “magnet.” They both find out independently about Jessica’s party and Clay says he’s going and Hannah says she isn’t, but decides to go anyway because she hopes to run into Clay because Clay is wonderful, y’all. There are some hijinks in which Clay is comically under-confident and is persuaded to go for it with Hannah by his friend/mentor, Dead Jeff (who will shortly earn his moniker by expiring in a car accident). They start, as I believe you Americans call it, making out in one of the bedrooms but then Hannah freaks out because she reminded of all the terrible ways in which boys have treated her. She explicitly tells us, and Clay, in her narration that:

  • Even though she was telling him to stop, she wanted him to carry on doing what he was doing (which, let’s be clear, was touching her sexually)
  • Even though she told him to go away because she needed some space, she really wanted him to stay with her
  • That the real reason he was on the tape was that she had been so badly damaged by other guys that she couldn’t be with someone as wonderful as Clay and she needed him to hear that he wasn’t like other guys and that he was the only person who didn’t deserve to be on the tapes (which, by the way, is pretty fucking harsh to Tony The Magic Latino to whom Hannah was apparently so close that she entrusted him with the success of this whole endeavour).

Clay proceeds to make this even more all about him than Hannah just has by declaring to Tony The Magic Latino that he is responsible for Hannah’s death because he should have stayed with her when she explicitly told him not to stay with her. Tony The Magic Latino agrees.

There are so many things wrong with this that I would need a half dozen cassette tapes to record all of them.

I hope we can all agree that it is a bad idea for TV shows, especially TV shows ostensibly from the point of view of young women, to reinforce the idea that “no means yes”. 13 Reasons Why seems to be completely okay with the idea it’s wrong to think no means yes if you’re Bryce The Rapist while also explicitly telling Clay The White Knight that no really does mean yes if you’re him. Where everybody else learns that they contributed to Hannah’s death because they were cruel or thoughtless or literally raped her, Clay learns that he contributed to Hannah’s death because, and I am directly quoting the way he articulates this in a later episode, he was “afraid to love her.”

There are not enough palms in the world for my face right now.

Suppose for a moment that, in An Inspector Calls, the Birlings had an additional son who, uniquely among the family, had not had any role in the death of Eva Smith. Or whose role in the death of Eva Smith was that he stopped groping her when she told him to stop groping her. And the Inspector (and/or God, depending on your interpretation) patted him on the shoulder and told him he was great because he was “not like other Edwardians.”

This was the point at which the only adjective I became able to associate with 13 Reasons Why was “crass.” I had just seen a girl driven to such depths of despair that she took her own life dedicate one thirteenth of her actual suicide note to telling a guy how great he is.

And, once again, stepping back, taking some distance I should recognise that other people react to this very differently from me. But, speaking very, very personally, this was the point at which I could no longer think of this as Hannah’s story. I could no longer find any space of empathy or emotional plausibility in the idea that she, in her final desperation to be heard, used her last few breaths to—in wrestling parlance—put Clay over.

Other people parse it differently but, to me, in that moment the message of the show went from “society is harmful to women because it creates and normalises conditions in which men believe they have the right to sexually abuse them” to “society is harmful for women because it creates and normalises conditions in which guys who are good at sport are more popular then guys who like Star Wars.”

It is literally and (as much as anything can be undeniable in a work of fiction) undeniably the case that if Hannah had just got with Clay earlier on she would still be alive. She even essentially says this in her first fucking tape. She says that everything started because she had terrible taste in men, and the show repeatedly validates her self-blame.

I’m going a bit off track here, and one of the things I just said I was keen to avoid doing was lecturing a bunch of women on rape culture, and one of the ways I said I’d avoid doing that was by grounding it in my personal experience of being a skinny, nerdy, under-confident guy who hangs out with other, skinny, nerdy under-confident guys. I haven’t really framed it that way so far and I’m sorry if that’s made this last bit kind of mansplainy.

The thing is, this isn’t just a political or an aesthetic problem. This is genuinely dangerous and genuinely part of the culture that the show seems to think it’s critiquing. Basically, and there’s no nice or easy way to express this, the thing about guys like Clay or the guys I’ve known who are like Clay is that they are way less different from Bryce The Rapist than they think they are. Perhaps the best way to describe my experience of being and hanging out with guys like Clay is that we would be very, very upset if one of our friends described a girl as bangable or said she was DTF. We would also, quite often, put our hand on a girl’s thigh at a party even after she’d already taken it off three times. The scene in which Hannah praises Clay (effusively and, and I know I’ve said this before, with her actual fucking dying breaths) tells men like Clay that they are special and different in exactly the same way that the high school culture 13RW criticises tells Bryce The Rapist he is special and different. And it has exactly the same consequences.

A bald solid fact of life is that a guy like Clay is just as likely to rape a girl as a guy like Bryce. And he’s just as likely afterwards to send her a supportive text message completely failing to acknowledge that there was anything wrong with what he did. Bryce feels entitled to rape women because he believes that everyone must want to be with the Captain of the football team (and that they’re only saying no because that’s how girls are). A guy like Clay feels entitled to rape women because he’s not like guys like Bryce.  He really does believe the thing that Hannah explicitly tells Clay in the show: that girls only says no to him because they’ve been too damaged by the Justins and Bryces of this world to realise that he’s “not like other guys”. Again, I’m very conscious that it’s not my place to hold forth on this but while there is value in the way the show challenges some aspects of rape culture, I think it’s really important to acknowledge that the character of Clay, the way Hannah talks about Clay, and the way the show repeatedly affirms the things Hannah says about Clay, actively reinforce another, more insidious aspect of rape culture.

And I should stress that I know people who really like the series. I know people who don’t read it the same way I do. And, obviously, it’s not that I actively wanted Clay to be a rapist. But, towards the end, the show makes him out to be a saint, despite the fact that its entire premise is about the ways we all harm each other by our thoughtlessness or casual misogyny.

Afraid to love her, my arse. Sorry. I’m still really upset about this.

Tape 5 Side A: This Device Is Getting Hard To Sustain

So I’ve reached a point in the article where I’ve written 9,950 words. Fuck me, I am verbose. And, obviously, I sort of nailed my colours to the “doing 13 things for a cheap structural gimmick” mast at the beginning and am now starting to realise that it might have been a mistake.

Which, ironically, brings me to my next point about the show.

Hi, my name’s Alexis. I’m really fucking meta.

When I started watching the first episode, I Googled the book it was originally based on because I sort of assumed that it was written in the 90s. Because, y’know, tapes.  In fact, it was written in 2007 (although I admit I didn’t look at a detailed enough summary to know if that’s when it was set) which left me with no real explanation for why it was framed around this manifestly implausible device of seven magnetic cassette tapes in 2017. And I know Hannah gives you a whole bunch of explanations as to why it’s on cassette. Explanations about not wanting it to be easy and having given up on writing things down after Gay Ryan non-consensually published her poem. But it requires a lot of lamp-shading and suspension of disbelief for what appears to be quite dubious benefit.

One of the things that really shakes me out of a story is when I start to feel that characters’ actions only make sense if you assume that they were motivated by the conscious desire to create the kind of story that they are in. And, obviously, there’s tropes and there’s black moments and big misunderstandings, and there are plenty of unrealistic events in all kinds of fiction (including my own). But everything about Hannah’s death apart from, well, the actual death bit (although even that’s a bit odd) feels like it’s contrived around the desire to create a thirteen episode TV show.

One of the criticisms that the more official suicide research and prevention bodies have made of 13 Reasons Why is that it perpetuates the myth that suicide is about anything apart from, well, wanting to be dead. And, obviously, people can want to be dead for lots of different reasons but, genuinely, for most people it isn’t about sending a message or being heard. My understanding from the literature I’ve read (and, at the risk of this getting too personal, from the friends I’ve had who’ve actually killed themselves) people who attempt suicide have generally gone beyond feeling that they can say anything meaningful to anyone. It’s really fucking sad but it’s never a moral lesson or a social commentary. And I understand why 13 Reasons Why  presents itself the way it does because, when someone does kill themselves, people want to know why it happened and usually aren’t satisfied with “well, for a lot of complicated reasons, many of which they probably couldn’t even have articulated to themselves.” And it’s not like people haven’t killed themselves and left behind artistic works (4.48 Psychosis is a classic example) but they’ve rarely taken the form of tautly plotted, binge-watchable television.

And I should stress that I don’t begrudge the show its framing device, although, again, I am concerned that it feels exploitative and I am concerned that it erases Hannah from her own story, making her a convenient vessel for whatever lesson about whatever teen issue a particular episode centres around.  And, again, I do think the show has value (although its valorisation of Clay The White Knight massively undercuts a lot of that value) but I feel that it’s very important to recognise that its value does not lie in the way it deals with the specific issue of teenage suicide.

Tape 5 Side B: Actual Data

As ever, I am not an expert. I don’t even play one on TV. And I do understand the choices that the showrunners made in writing and casting 13 Reasons Why. I think if you ask most people to imagine the kind of person who would attempt suicide in high school they would imagine somebody very much like Hannah Baker. If you asked them to imagine somebody about whose suicide you could construct a TV show that people would tune in to watch they would imagine somebody exactly like Hannah Baker. She is young, female, pretty, strangely non-specific in a lot of ways, lacking any particular interests or beliefs that might make it harder for an audience member to, well, I was going to say empathise  with her but, actually, I think a better phrase might be “want to find out what horrible thing happened to her next and ultimately why she killed herself.”

What’s interesting is, if you look at the numbers, the sort of person who attempts suicide isn’t really like Hannah Baker at all. Obviously, I say look at the numbers, but my evidence base here is minimal (although non-zero).  I’ve looked at a variety of data sources here because I happened to read a news article about global adolescent mortality rates and I thought it highlighted some interesting things. And I should stress, and I know I say “I should stress” a lot but that’s because there’s a lot of things I should stress, that I don’t specifically mind that the death of Hannah Baker in 13 Reasons Why is, as far as I can tell, statistically aberrant by the standards of suicide. But since one of the things that people think is important about the show (and which I think is actually important about the show, and I hope that people feel I’m doing my part to contribute to that important thing) is that it opens up a wider debate about suicide, I think it’s necessary to recognise that our cultural ideas about suicide and what people at risk of suicide look like are very unreflective of reality.

So the report I saw recently was on Leading Causes Of Death for males and females aged 10-19 globally. It’s worth pointing out that global statistics are not great for talking about individual people (it’s that macroscopic / microscopic thing again) but I think there are some interesting things to draw out of the data that challenge the way we think about suicide.

Let’s start off with gender. And, obviously, part of the reason Hannah is a girl is that the show is making some quite important points about sexual violence in high schools and the suicide is really a framing device allowing that story to be told. I do think it behoves us to ask ourselves why we find that story more compelling if it is told about a girl who is pretty, who was a virgin prior to the assault, and who is dead, but I’ll come back to that later. The thing is, I suspect another part of the reason that the (and I would say protagonist, but Clay is kind of the protagonist) focal figure of 13 Reasons Why is a girl is that we do tend to think of girls as being more at risk of suicide. And, at first glance, the numbers seem to bear that out.

The top two causes of death for males aged 10-19 globally are road traffic injury and personal violence, while the two top causes of death for females aged 10-19 globally are lower respiratory infections and self-harm. But what’s interesting is when you look at the numbers more closely you get a very different picture. Road traffic accidents are the number 1 cause of death for males aged 10-19 because 88,590 males in that age group died in road traffic accidents in 2015. The number of females in that age group who died from their highest cause of death (lower respiratory infections) is only 36, 637. Going down to number 2, deaths from self-harm amongst girls numbered 32,499 whereas deaths from self-harm among boys (the 5th highest cause of death) were 34,650. Essentially it turns out that there’s three things that kill boys and not girls that kill loads of boys globally, but the actual number of young people who die from lower respiratory infections and self-harm worldwide are about the same for both sexes.

What’s interesting, however, is that the gender-divide in death by self-harm is quite culturally specific. So going by the WHO’s 2012 data, although it seems like deaths by self-harm are about equally common in both sexes, the effects are actually strongly skewed by regional differences. The only regions in which females are more likely to die by self-harm than males are SE Asia and the Eastern Mediterranean. In the Americas, males within the age group were about 58% more likely to die by self-harm than females. In the UK, the difference is even more jarring with males of all ages about three times more likely to die by suicide than females.

And, obviously, there’s nothing wrong with writing a story or making a TV show in which a teenage girl kills herself but I can think of quite a lot of texts where teenage girls kill themselves (going right the way back to Ophelia), and very few where teenage boys do. And, again, this isn’t wrong. It isn’t evil. And if you view Hannah’s death as being primarily a form of social commentary (like Eva Smith’s) it’s completely fine. But if you see the show as trying to start a meaningful conversation about how suicide among teenagers works and who is at risk from it, then maybe a show that encourages people to watch out for the mental health of pretty, quirky, seventeen-year-old girls while completely ignoring their male (or, for that matter, less attractive) classmates could be potentially harmful.

Again, this very much isn’t 13 Reasons Why’s problem. There’s a lot of really weird gendered stuff about the way we discuss, report and think about suicide. I remember reading an article by (I think) Polly Toynbee about a decade ago in which she highlighted the weird disparity in the ways we talk about male and female celebrities who kill themselves. When somebody like Robin Williams or Heath Ledger dies, we say “oh my God, it was such a tragedy because he was such a great genius but he was so tormented and now the world will be denied the wonderful things he would have done had he lived longer”. When we talk about someone like (to take a classic example) Marilyn Monroe, what we say is “oh it’s such a tragedy, she was somebody’s little girl and look what fame did to her.” (When you think about it, it’s kind of fucked up that Candle In the Wind, the song Elton John wrote about Marilyn Monroe, and later re-purposed for Princess Diana makes basically no mention of the fact that she was a talented actress with a successful career.)

I guess what I’m basically saying here is that if you see this show as trying to start a meaningful dialogue about suicide, it feels a bit like the dialogue it’s trying to start comes from about 1983. And this isn’t really me bashing the series. Well, okay, maybe it’s me bashing the series a bit. But mostly it’s me trying to, in more or less good faith, do what the series purports to be doing which is to have a conversation about suicide and our attitudes to it. The picture gets even more interesting if you move on from gender and, for example, put age into the equation. I’m mostly going by UK statistics here because they’re easier for me to get hold of than US statistics but, in my country at least, not only are men much more likely to kill themselves than women, but adults are significantly more likely to kill themselves than teenagers.  Where I come from, people between the ages of 10 and 29 are the age group with the lowest suicide risk while the most at risk are males between 49 and 59. Not only that but since (again, from various bits of data I’ve been doing research on recently) one of the most common precipitating factors in suicide is unemployment or financial difficulty it is, I think, interesting to realise that the person in 13 Reasons Why who is most statistically at risk of suicide is probably Hannah’s dad.

I should probably add that I’m really not trying to be all “what about the menz” here. I absolutely don’t think there’s anything wrong with telling the story of a girl who kills herself. But I do think there is something worrying (for both men and women) about our tendency to automatically cast those kinds of vulnerable roles as female.

Tape 6 Side A: No Right Way, Many Wrong Ways

I know I’ve quoted a lot of statistics here and I’m conscious that I’m probably talking like more of an authority than I am (it’s a personality flaw, and one I’m aware of). I think the problem with portraying something difficult like, well suicide is that different people have very different experiences of it and what reads as identifiable to one person may be deeply implausible to another. Part of the reason I tend to go to statistics is that I think it is useful to have a relatively objective idea of what things broadly look like on average. Although (and this comes back to the macro versus micro thing again) “on average” isn’t particularly useful for an individual story.

There is obviously no right way to write about suicide. But, and this is a bit of a cliché, I feel like there are a number of wrong ways. Or, at least, there are number of ways that might be wrong, depending on what you are trying to achieve.

I think one of the things that troubles me so much about 13 Reasons Why is that I’m basically bothered by pretty much all reactions to it. Again, this comes back to the news stories about school districts taking the book out of libraries. I do feel that the way in which suicide is portrayed in 13 Reasons Why is problematically unrepresentative of what you might call the median suicide attempter. Or more precisely I feel that its unrepresentativeness is problematic if you assume that addressing the issue of teenage suicide is a significant goal of the show. Which, given that it is attached to an actual documentary about real teenage suicides, I feel it kind of is.

Again, this comes back to personal preference and personal approach. I do honestly see the value in starting a dialogue. And I do even see that the most effective way to start a dialogue might be to do something attention-grabbing, like putting together a deliberately controversial TV show that ends with a fantastically graphic suicide scene in order to encourage people to talk about something they wouldn’t otherwise talk about. And, again, that’s part of what I’m trying to engage with here.

I do personally feel that the show might have been more productive in generating debate had it presented as its central figure somebody who did not so perfectly fit our idea of what a teenage suicide looks like. Because, again, when you think of a teenage suicide you think of a pretty young girl slitting her wrists in the bath, even though (and I’m on the statistics again) cutting the wrists is actually a very rare form of suicide. (Americans, and I suspect this will come as a surprise to no-one, tend to just shoot themselves. Slightly more surprisingly, we British tend to hang ourselves). And, again, I find it hard to reconcile the desire to have an authentic conversation about a real world issue with a narrative choice that so profoundly centralises an iconic but misleading image.

When I think about the choices that the showrunners of 13 Reasons Why made with Hannah I think what I find most upsetting isn’t really anything to do with them, it’s to do with their audience, and by their audience I include me. Because I think I do have to ask myself whether I would still have watched the show if they’d changed anything.

Would I have watched it if Hannah had been a guy on the football team?

Would I have watched it if she’d been, not to put too fine a point on it, unattractive?

Would I have watched it if it had told exactly the same story about her life and her experiences but she hadn’t killed herself? If I hadn’t, on some level, known that it was all building up to a pretty young innocent lying in a bath full of blood.

I mean, maybe I would. But, honestly, I only really watched the show because everyone was talking about it. And, say what you like, but pretty dead girls do get people talking.

And, again, I’m not sure how intentional it is but that’s the social value I do find in the show’s existence (if not it’s actual content). Although what I find tricky is that because Hannah so strongly reinforces all of our cultural preconceptions about what suicides, especially teenage suicides, look like, I don’t know how much these questions will play into the discussion the show clearly seeks to engender.

The media guidelines from the WHO and the Samaritans tend to warn against  presenting suicide as an effective means of communicating a message. And I can see why they say this because if you tell people that killing yourself gets you heard they’re more likely to kill themselves. But I can’t shake the nagging feeling that a more socially responsible story about a girl who experiences traumatic events, attempts suicide, develops functional coping mechanisms and ultimately survives would get a lot less attention.

Which sort of implies that we’re only interested in girls who die.

Which is sort of fucked up.

Tape 6 Side B: Out of Context Problem

Oh look, I’m being meta again. Because this kind of a segue and I wasn’t entirely certain where I was going to put it. Throughout the show, Hannah is sort of weirdly represented by this gay Hispanic boy who I’ve been referring to throughout this piece as Tony the Magic Latino. I think I mentioned earlier on that I liked the way in which the viewer was required to infer that Tony and Hannah had a quite meaningful relationship but that because their relationship was not destructive to her it was not included in the tapes and, therefore, the viewer does not have access to it. This is really quite significantly undermined by the fact that Hannah’s relationship with Clay is also (from her perspective) non-destructive but she gives him a tape anyway, suggesting that Tony wasn’t so much a supportive presence in her life whose very absence from the narrative indicates that he meant more to Hannah than any of the people whose stories we are told explicitly as that he was, well, a magic Latino.

Basically Tony’s role is to show up, say wise shit, magically know what Hannah was thinking, validate Clay The White Knight, then disappear the moment he’s no longer needed. He gets one scene where he talks to his boyfriend and is sad, and questions his role in the whole process which, really, he should have done a long time ago. But, like Hannah herself, Tony falls into this awkward space between person and plot device, a dichotomy that becomes more problematic as Clay takes a more active role in pursuit of, well, whatever it is he’s pursuing.

Again, I should stress that I reacted quite strongly to 13 Reasons Why (though I fundamentally reject the notion that anything that provokes a strong reaction must be good –this is what the WWE says about Roman Reigns, and it’s nonsense there too). I don’t want to disrespect the responses of people who found the show powerful and affecting, but I will say that it did not strongly affect me because it confronted me with difficult truths I found hard to bear.  It strongly affected me because it made a number of narrative choices that I perceived to be, at best, crass and, at worst, dangerous.

By the end of the show I really, really did feel like it was all about Clay. And that feeling made me very, very uncomfortable.  It seems like everything in the series is distorting itself to make Clay’s failure to bone Hannah the ultimate tragedy and his role in her life the most significant. This is really problematic when Hannah’s entire narrative arc is that she feels that everything has either been taken away from her or is unobtainable, and Tony’s entire role is to be the person that Hannah trusted so much that she knew without a doubt, despite being in the kind of mental state where you are doubting everything, that he would carry through on her desire to have the tapes distributed in the way she wanted them to be distributed.

And, actually, in retrospect the fact you barely see Tony and Hannah interact isn’t subtle, it’s craven. It means that they never have to show Hannah interacting with the one person whose existence contradicts the entire premise of the show’s narrative. And, obviously, it is important to recognise that suicidal people do not always characterise their lives as other people would characterise them. But in Tony’s place I would be as mad as hell. Not because Hannah chose to die but because she seems to have completely cut him out of the story of her life. The story, let’s be clear, that she was relying on him to tell. She trusted him enough to give him the tapes to distribute after she killed herself, but not enough to tell him she was considering killing herself. And, yes, there’s that bit where he says that he saw her come to the house on the day she dropped the tapes off but didn’t go outside because he didn’t want to deal with her drama that day and he feels bad. But, again, that isn’t an explanation or a justification. It’s just the show lamp-shading its flaws. And it makes it abundantly clear that neither Tony or Hannah are real people, they’re just entities that exist to serve this (and I’m sorry I’m going to be using extreme language here) vulgar story about what an awesome dude Clay is.

On which subject…

Tape 7 Side A: Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story

For possibly the last time I’m going to re-iterate that I know people who felt profoundly moved by 13 Reasons Why. I know people who strongly feel that it is Hannah’s story that Hannah told about Hannah’s life in Hannah’s voice. I know people who strongly and specifically believe that Hannah is the protagonist of the show. And I in no way want to diminish the value those people find in the series because these are complex issues and we all work through them in our own way.

That is very much not how I read it. And, weirdly, this is one of those difficult “no right way, many wrong ways” things because both readings are problematic for different reasons. If you do read 13 Reasons Why as Hannah’s authentic story told in Hannah’s voice and in no way subverted to feed the ego of a skinny nerdboy then that, unfortunately, really does glamorise suicide in exactly the way that some organisations are criticising it for. The show makes it abundantly clear that there is no other way Hannah’s story could have been told except for her to make some tapes, dump them on Tony’s porch and then slit her wrists in the bath. And, again, I don’t think stopping people watching a TV show is an effective means of suicide prevention but I do think that, all else being equal, somebody who feels lost and alone and isolated and unable to make themselves heard is more likely to attempt suicide if they have watched and identified with a show in which somebody who feels lost and alone and isolated and unable to make themselves heard finally achieves the voice they have been denied by ending their life. And that is a real, if statistically small, problem.

Again, let me just make that clear: by statistically small, what I mean to say is that I would be far, far more concerned about the suicide risk posed by, for example, attending a school where The Worst Counsellor In The World was actually a counsellor than about the suicide risk posed by identifying with Hannah Baker. But that doesn’t mean I don’t think the risk is there.

And looking at it from the other perspective, if you don’t think that 13 Reasons Why meaningfully tells Hannah’s story it could be seen as the final tragedy, as not only did everyone in her life fail her utterly but, at the final hurdle, somehow her dying message got garbled and appropriated by this narcissistic beta male cock into a parable how men who like Star Wars are better than men who like football.

And there are some elements of the text that almost support the “final tragedy” reading. Throughout the series, you’ll get these moments where Hannah is super despairing and then she’ll suddenly express an optimistic thought and you’ll see her looking at Clay—she explicitly refers to him as a ray of light at one point—and I would love to think that this is unreliable narration. That what’s happening here is Clay literally imagining that when Hannah talks about things that make her feel better she’s talking about him. Because, after all, it isn’t very clear in the TV show what we’re actually seeing.

This has been a problem with epistolary fiction since it’s existed and it’s even worse in a visual medium. When there’s actors on screen doing acting, are we supposed to interpret that as Hannah verbally describing those scenes? Are we supposed to interpret it as Clay imagining those scenes? Obviously sometimes Clay is literally remembering them. And sometimes we actually hear Hannah’s narration. But there’s never a consistent point of view. There’s never any real indication of whether we’re seeing what really happened, or what Hannah said happened, or what Clay thinks Hannah said happened, or what Clay wants to think Hannah said happened. And it gets especially confusing because there are sometimes (but very rarely) deliberate inconsistencies, like when Hannah is describing her encounter in the park with Justin The Jock, or when Hannah thinks Zack The Other Jock threw away her note when he really didn’t, or when Clay has wild flights of fancy about staying behind with Hannah at the party instead of respecting her explicitly stated wishes. And spelling it all out like this it seems complicated and multi-layered but …I just don’t think it is.

One of my many personality flaws is that I think too much in dichotomies and I have tendency to say things like “well, it’s got to be either x or y and they’re both shit”. Within this framework, 13RW is either a genuinely harmful but quite straightforward story about a girl who achieves by killing herself what she can’t achieve while alive or an unbelievably subtle and sophisticated work of over-lapping narratives and embedded uncertainties that leads us to an ironic and tragic conclusion in which Hannah’s life is finally defined for her after her death by a douchebag who had a crush on her.

The thing is, both of these are probably wrong. Because I’m afraid the showrunners are, as the CEO of Coka-Cola said about the whole new coke fiasco, “not that dumb and not that smart.” Although I have repeatedly used words like crass and vulgar (which to an Englishman are the ultimate insults) to describe the series I don’t think the people behind it are quite crass or vulgar enough to uncomplicatedly make a show which so explicitly advocates suicide as means to achieve your goals.  On the other hand, I also don’t believe that they have the delicacy of touch and self-awareness required to write the second story in which Hannah’s erasure is finally completed by the very boy who thinks he loves and could have saved her. I mean this is, after all, a show where we watch a date rape from a cupboard. A show where, while they clearly acknowledge that it is wrong for The Worst Counsellor In The World to ask Hannah if she said no in response to her disclosing that she had been raped, they also make really certain to include at least one shot of the girl explicitly saying no in both their rape scenes, so that you know it was definitely a rape scene.

Unfortunately I think Occam’s razor suggests that they’re telling the story it seems like they’re telling. That Hannah Baker’s death is ultimately a framing device for a story that isn’t really about suicide as much as it’s about the challenges facing girls in American high schools. And, even more unfortunately, the show seems to have uncritically accepted the idea that the primary challenge facing girls in American high schools is they are encouraged to date the wrong sorts of boys. Hannah establishes this herself in her narration on the first tape where she suggests that her downfall was a terrible taste in men and reinforces it in Clay’s episode when she tells him, half weeping, how sorry she was that her life experiences had ruined her for him. And it is finally re-affirmed by her friend, Kat, who places the blame squarely at the foot of jock culture.

And, to be fair, you can make a reasonable case that what Kat’s summary at the end is saying is that if you create a culture in which a particular class of person can do whatever they want to whoever they want that is going to lead to some fucked up places. But, in the context of the skeevy valorisation of Clay, it’s hard to escape the implication that the problem with jock culture isn’t that it gives unlimited power to a small group of men but that gives unlimited power to a small group of the wrong men.

And it doesn’t help that Clay so thoroughly takes over Hannah’s story in the last half of the show. There’s a transition point actually fairly early on where he goes from listening to the tapes, and to Hannah, to actively taking revenge against, or righting the wrongs of, the other people the tapes are about. And what bothers me about this is that nothing in the show remotely indicates that it might not be his place to do that.  And so suddenly the story stops being about Hannah’s choice to end her life and starts being about Clay’s response to Hannah’s choice to end her life. Which becomes utterly validated when Clay finally listens to tape 11 and learns that it was all about him anyway.

And it is completely fine to write a story about a teenage boy who is sad because the girl he fancied committed suicide. Although, while I say “it’s completely fine” there is also a level of skeeviness to that fantasy because, well. Again I’m talking very much as someone who knows what it was like to be a nerdy, insecure teenager and has spent most of his life surrounded by other people who were once nerdy, insecure teenagers, there is something weirdly appealing about the narrative arc of “I liked this girl and she died and now I’m telling her story.” Mainly because you don’t have to deal with the reality of the girl.  It’s basically the JM Barrie’s brother of girlfriends. You’re never going to have a better relationship than the one you have with the girl who killed herself after you kissed once. She’s never going to get pissed off at the way you leave your toenail clippings in the living room. She’s never going to fart in bed. She’s never going to call you on your bullshit. Because she’s, y’know, a corpse.

It really does go back to Ophelia.

What seems to me to be the final insult in 13 Reasons Why ties into one of my really petty niggling problems with the structure of the framing device and its method of delivery. Again, I’m okay with suspending my disbelief and I didn’t entirely mind that Hannah picked exactly thirteen recordings in which to tell her story because, yes, it’s a cheap sensationalist number to use but then sometimes teenagers are cheap and sensationalist. But it did bug me that she chose to make an odd number of recordings given that she’d also chosen to make them on magnetic cassette tape, a famously double-sided medium. Maybe it’s just the way my mind works but the moment I read about the premise of the show, literally my first question was “why the fuck would you leave one side blank.”

Of course, in the final episode we discover the answer. She had to leave the B-side of the seventh tape blank so that Clay The White Knight could use the blank side of that cassette tape to record Bryce The Rapist ambiguously confessing to raping Hannah.

The boy who she sort of worked with, who had crush on her that he never had the guts to act on, who she basically kissed once at a party literally got to write the final chapter of her story. And he got to do this by literally fighting another man for her virtue. I honestly do not think I could sit down and invent a more regressive ending for that narrative. I appreciate that this is loaded language but the way in which Clay The White Knight takes the tape that was Hannah’s last created thing in her life and forces Bryce The Rapist’s confession onto it as a coda, actually writing the number 14 on the tape in the same shade of nail varnish that Hannah used for her tapes is, well, super rapey.

At the Roman Baths in Bath there are some ruins dating back at least two thousand years to the time of the Roman occupation and on top of those ruins there are statues of famous figures from Roman history. Those statues go back about 150 years because the Victorians put them in. And I’ve always felt that those statutes typified the attitude of the Victorian imperialist. You see something ancient and wonderful and inaccessible and your first thought is to change it to make more like you think it’s supposed to be. Bryce’s confession on the end of Hannah’s seventh tape is the statue in the Roman Baths. It’s the hand of the empire reaching out and saying what you left behind isn’t good enough and I’m going to fix it.

Again, if I thought it was deliberate it would be haunting. But I don’t. So it just pisses me off.

Tape 7 Side B: Conclusions

D’you see the way I said there were going to be thirteen of these but now there’s fourteen to reflect the way Clay added a fourteenth side to Hannah’s tapes.

So, yeah, the problem with stuff that’s really controversial is that you basically can’t have any kind of opinion of it without validating its existence, even if you think that existence shouldn’t really be validated. Nor can you really do it without de-legitimising or erasing people who find value in the controversial thing that you don’t personally find.

I will say that I, personally, don’t think you should watch 13 Reasons Why. I don’t think it should be banned. I don’t think we need to be particularly worried about vulnerable schoolchildren watching it on Netflix. I think we need to be worried about vulnerable schoolchildren getting systematically bullied for five years or sexually assaulted by their classmates.  And, y’know, we need to worry about that whether they kill themselves or not. I will say that there are ways of watching and engaging with the show that are probably less horrible than the way I watched and engaged with it. I just think if you’ve given even ten seconds thought to suicide as an issue you already have had every thought that this show could provoke in you.

If you’re not as explicitly triggered by the Nice Guy versus Rapist stuff as I am it’s actually pretty decent, watchable TV. And, in a way, that’s the most damning thing I can say about a show that’s supposed to be dealing with a subject that should be borderline unthinkable to engage with.

musing
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So, at the start of this year, I cast myself across my TBR in what will inevitably be a doomed attempt to clear it or at least reduce it. Here’s the latest update on my old shit.

And for the record, my TBR is now down to 68. I think that is not so bad.

The Ballroom by Anna Hope

So this is One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, except with more kissing. Okay, that’s slightly glib of me. I picked this up largely because the fictional asylum where the book is set is based on High Royds Hospital (previously Menston Asylum, previously the West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum) – where I have actually been. Err, not as a patient I hasten to add. I’m just kind of into … places you’re not supposed to go, I guess. And derelict asylums are, well, they’re one of my favourites.

Quite a lot of Menston has been demolished and turned into other stuff, but what was still semi-extant when I was there in mid-2000s was a couple of wards and the admin block, which is so gloriously fucking gothic I can’t even. It’s all chimneys and this clocktower and the slate-gray Yorkshire sky. Like Sharston (the fictional asylum in the book) it was designed to be a self-sufficient community – so it had huge grounds for farming and kitchens and laundries and a dairy and even its own motherfucking railway line. Not much of this is left— there’s just these amazing vaulted corridors, full of endless archways and beautiful mosaic floors, ornately moulded ceilings, the occasional still-vivid stained glass window, the clocktower, which felt super steampunk, and … of course… the ballroom.  There’s just something so wildly incongruous about its very existence. I can still remember how strange it felt standing there: this huge, decaying room, with its high yellow ceiling and the watery wash of light from high set windows.

Picture randomly hoiked from Google. Sorry if it’s yours.

So, anyway, actual book. I felt the atmosphere very keenly indeed, though it was hard to separate that out from my memories of Menston itself. But basically I think I liked everything that wasn’t the actual, um, like plot? You get three viewpoint characters: Ella who has been sent to Sharston for breaking a window in the factory where she works, John who is depressed following the death of his wife and child, and Charles Fuller, a doctor in flight from the expectations of his family. The parallels between them are pretty marked—they’re all, in their own way, struggling against the roles that have been forced upon them, and the way gender, sexuality and class simultaneously restrain and liberate all three of them is genuinely fascinating. Also it’s hard not to be drawn into the love story between John and Ella because, well, I’m a total sap. And it’s genuinely good-feeling inducing to see something hopeful and beautiful flourish somewhere that would seem, on the surface, to be utterly devoid of both.

I should probably mention at this point that I was somewhat relieved Sharston itself was portrayed in a fairly balanced way: it’s unpleasant and dehumanising and restrictive on account of being, y’know, an Edwardian loony bin, but not—at least until the end—ever consciously malignant.  A lot of power, I think, came not from cruelty versus kindness so much as the complexities surrounding the care of people who are deemed unable to take care of themselves, especially in times of social flux. The book is set at the height of a big Eugenics debate about sterilisation of the “feeble-minded”.

Of course, all stories that involve mental asylums are required by cultural mandate to have a doctor go off the deep-end and commit, or attempt to commit, acts of terrible inhumanity. And The Ballroom does not disappoint. Sigh. The third POV character, Dr Charles Fuller, undertakes this role and I honestly felt pretty meh about it. Clearly the dude is a mess (which of these three people is really the mad one, oh d’you see) but … I dunno. While I got that he was driven by a need to make something out of his life to spite his father, I wasn’t entirely convinced that this would outta-nowhere manifest in trying to non-consensually sterilise another dude. It didn’t help that part of Fuller’s messed-upness is related to his homosexuality so essentially we have a book in which a heterosexual couple find the beauty of love in a dark place and a deranged gay in a position of authority gets upset about it and tries to de-dick the dude. And I mean obviously being gay in 1911 was probably rubbish. But so was being a working class man. Or a woman. I guess I just think a lot of things got tangled up in problematic ways in Fuller—I understand why you might go for tormentedly queer character while exploring themes of social alienation, but once you combine that with eugenicist the optics, well, they’re not great are they? Villainous gays who are jealous of heterosexual penises is a pretty damn tired stereotype.

But I still romped through the book, mostly appreciatively.

The Patrick Melrose Novels by Edward St Aubyn

This is five books, by the way. FIVE. Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, Mother’s Milk, At Last. And they are so magnificently awful that I actually took a break from reading altogether after I finished the fifth one.

So: Edward St Aubyn is a rich-ish, upper-class English bloke whose father raped him when he was five-years-old. His fictional alter-ego, Patrick Melrose, shares this history and the five novels cover Patrick’s life from the time of his father’s abuse to the death of his mother. What prevents them being a five-volume misery memoir (although I’m pretty sure they’re that too) is the thin layer of fictionalisation St Aubyn has spread gently over the top. While the novels are about Patrick, who is a barely bearable tangle of extreme privilege and extreme suffering, they are just as much as about his world, and the other (let’s be honest here: awful) people in it. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever been quite so thankful to have been born working class.

The books are bleak and hilarious, and offer titillating glimpses of a decadent, fading, entirely inaccessible social class.  Which is to say: they’re absolutely irresistible, if you like that sort of thing. Obviously the overriding but mostly unspoken theme across the whole series is the abuse Patrick suffers at his parents’ hands (his father, of course, is obviously a sadist but over time he slowly comes to understand his mother’s complicity in that sadism): the ways it has shaped and irreparably damaged him, and to what degree he can ever really come to terms with it or recover from it. The thing I … liked is not the correct word in this context … but what I appreciated about the way the abuse, and its affects, are treated across the series is that its literal unspeakableness is fundamental to its presence. It is rarely addressed directly but its reality is absolute and ever-present, a shadow from under whose darkness it is impossible to step.

Which is not to say it’s completely hopeless. While conventional sources of both solace and destruction consistently prove to be either inadequate or otherwise inapplicable, I felt the final book left Patrick in about as good a place as he could reasonably expect to be. I think the way St Aubyn termed it in an interview with him that I read somewhere or other: not consoled, but not inconsolable either.

Obviously, there’s stuff I could criticise. Pacing is sometimes a little off. The second half of the second book is mainly Patrick wandering around New York trying to acquire heroin. And then using the heroin. And I’ve read a lot of books about young men wander around New York trying to acquire drugs and then use them. Patrick’s kids, who star in the final two books, are unbelievably wise and charming—which strikes an odd note in a series that otherwise recoils in upper-class horror from anything approaching sentiment. But equally I could see why, if you were St Aubyn and writing a book series that explicitly references Larkin’s This Be The Verse, you might be enthralled and bewitched by the innocence of your own, as yet unfucked up children.

I find it really difficult to do anything as banal as recommending these books. I found reading them to be profoundly moving and terrible.

What Belongs To You by Garth Greenwell

I read this out of a vague sense of obligation because it seemed like everyone in the world was raving about it. Although I am a seriously non-ideal audience because my tolerance for dreary queer lit has hit a lifetime low. And, honestly, I nearly checked out on the first page when I ran face-first into ‘coterminous’. I mean, I know I have precisely zero grounds to complain about excessive use of inkehorne terms but … coterminous. Seriously. This is what we’re doing now?

Anyway. I didn’t actually hate this.

It’s relatively slim little thing, divided into three parts. In the first, our narrator—a teacher—is obsessed with a Bulgarian prostitute called Mikto he meets in the toilets of the National Palace of Culture. So far so dreary queer lit, although the stripped-down style intrigued me. There was something so deliberately alienating about it, despite fairly tedious material. In the second part, he receives a letter informing him his father is probably dying, which propels the narrative into something else entirely: a fragmented, rage-filled meditation on growing up in America surrounded by implicit and explicit homophobia. In the third part, his father is dead, the narrator is in a relationship, and then, of course, Mikto comes back into his life, essentially tangling the various themes of the previous sections—love and desire and language and identity and shame and the transactional nature of all of these—into a painful and unresolvable knot.

I had many sad feelings. And, coterminous aside, genuinely loved the writing.

In a strange sort of way of it reminded me of Cucumber: an exploration of unspoken historical shame within a context of presumed liberation.

Blue Days, Black Nights: A Memoir by Ron Nyswaner

This was a slightly unfortunate phase of reading in which everything I seemed to pick up was about a gay man falling in love with a hustler. So, uh, yes. This is a memoir. About that.

It’s fine. I mean, grim and honest and darkly funny.  And, yeah, fine.

I’m glad I read it. That probably sounds like the faintest of faint praise but I’d already read three other books on this exact same subject.

But in general I prefer fiction—or at least fictionalisations—because life is random and fiction is subject to rules. It is genuinely to Nyswaner’s credit that he manages to weave a meaningful narrative out of this particular part of his life, and also to his credit that he resists turning it into a story. But the downside of things-that-have-happened-to-you is that, when you get right down to it, they are just things that have happened to you.  And taking a lot of drugs is a relentlessly dull thing to be happening to you.

I am glad Ron Nyswaner is okay now.

Doc by Mary Doria Russell

This is beyond amazing. The end.

Well. I guess I could probably say a bit more.

Basically, I admire the fuck out of MDR. She just inhabits genre and character and language with such utter conviction. If I could write like anyone it would be her – except I never will because she is monstrously good at what she does. And I am me. In general, I try not approach books in a writerly mode. I do what I do and I’m fine with it. Other people do what they do and I value that. But MDR makes me painfully aware of the unfathomable distance between people. I can’t even aspire to be like her, because I have no idea where to begin.

Anyway. So Doc is about Doc Holliday. A book about Doc Holliday written by Mary Doria Russell. There is not enough yes in the universe for this. It’s set in Dodge, before the (in)famous events in Tombstone, which brings a freshness to familiar stories. And, interestingly, it is the relationship between Doc and Morgan Earp (rather than Wyatt) that takes centre stage—making his untimely death even more of … well … a bummer.

God, I don’t know. I’m having a really hard time talking about this because I’m so full of feels my brain won’t work and the only thing that’s coming out of my mouth is a passionate burble. I loved this book so fucking much. It is so full of things: life and death and ugliness and beauty and love and despair. And the characters have such depth and realness, such vulnerability and strength. And then there’s atmosphere and the language and the way the book inhabits its genre so completely.

I felt I was there. Like I knew these people. Maybe that I was them.

God. I’m embarrassed by my own vulgar sincerity here … but sometimes reading is fucking magic, y’know? Sometimes it is living.

And that is how I feel about Doc.

I recommend it, is what I’m saying. It is my favourite.

*stamps it with a kiss*

my old shit
46 Comments

So. A book that I have written is available to buy with money from shops, well, not shops, e-shops. It’s available to buy from the internet.

I’m never really sure what to write on these launch day posts. For one reason or another, I’m a bit phobic of writing about writing, and especially of writing about my own books. Basically, I’m big on death of the author and very much feel that what my books are is for my readers to decide for themselves, not for me state in a blog post.

And I appreciate that some people like to have insight from authors or creators into ambiguities in texts and, hell, sometimes I even like that myself but at the same time I find it weirdly problematic that they exist – the insights I mean, not the ambiguities. For example, I was profoundly confused by the ending of the Starz Treasure Island prequel Black Sails, in which it’s unclear whether Captain Flint has, like your childhood pet, gone off to live on a  big farm in the countryside where he can be happy. Or if, like your childhood pet, he’s just lying dead in a wood somewhere because your parents/John Silver had got sick of feeding/being led into certain death by him. And I did actually Google to see what people were saying and I did, actually, look at the response from the show runners because a lot of people felt that the ending was deliberately ambiguous (there’s a lot of stuff in that show about stories and mythologies and whatnot and we only get the Big Farm In The Country narrative from Silver, who has every reason to shoot his friend in the head, then lie about it).

The response from the show runners seems to be that they didn’t particularly intend it to be ambiguous, and Flint apparently really is living in soft focus on a big farm with all the other gays, but they were happy for viewers to interpret it as ambiguous if they wanted to. Now this is about the best way you can respond to this situation (way better than ‘no, they’re wrong and stupid’) and, obviously, it was my choice to read what the show runners said but I do feel that having that information makes the ending less interesting than it otherwise would have been. Because, now, instead of having an ending that’s ambiguous as to whether a particular character is alive or dead you have an ending that’s meta-ambiguous as to whether a character is alive, or ambiguously alive or dead. And, much as I like meta stuff, that’s probably a shade too meta even for me.

All of which is to say that, from what I’ve seen, there are some readers who are interpreting How To Bang A Billionaire very much the way I interpret it, and there are others who are interpreting it quite differently. And all of those interpretations are equally valid. Part of what I was trying to do with the book was to engage with a very well established set of tropes within the genre. And so my take on my book is my take on my take on my take on those tropes. Where another person’s response to the book is their take on my take on their take on my take on those tropes. Isn’t this fun? Attempting to walk the line between providing insight into my thought process, for the people who want that kind of thing, and steering well clear of interpretation for the people who don’t, I think it’s fairly safe to say that I was basically aiming to address a lot of the questions I usually address in my more trope-driven stories. Questions like: but what would happen next, but how would that actually work, or but how that manifest differently in an LGBTQ+ relationship.

With that out the way, there are a couple of practical questions I can also address for those who are concerned / interested. I’ll try to keep this spoiler-light but I’m a big fan of readers being able to make informed decisions about books. Because nobody benefits from a disappointed reader. So here’s a mini FAQ based on the sort of the Qs I’ve F been Aed.

What sort of series is this?

It’s specifically a fully contained trilogy, following one couple. This isn’t to say I won’t ever write other books set in the same world or about the same people. But, for now, it’s three books about Caspian and Arden, with an HEA ending.

Do I have to have read, um, any other specific works in the genre to get this book?

Short answer: no.

Long answer: ultimately this is my take on the bildom romance and I’ve read a lot of bildom romances, partly just for fun and partly as part of the process of working on the book. So it’s hard for me to know how much familiarity with the sub-genre will influence a person’s reading. Although, I suppose, thinking about it it’s hard for me to know how not being the person who wrote the book influences your reading either. I mean, basically it’s my take on billionaire romances. If you like billionaire romances, you should like because, while I’ve played around with it, I feel like I’ve remained true to the spirit of the genre (spoiler: Arden doesn’t ditch Caspian for a gardener at the end or anything). If you’re not particularly into billionaires but still like my writing, then hopefully you’ll like this because I still wrote it.

Are there are any cliff-hangers I need to worry about?

Depends what you mean by cliff-hanger really. You obviously don’t get the HEA until book three (because, then, seriously what the other books be about). I will say that this series breaks the normal tradition of the subgenre in that (mild spoiler) Caspian and Arden don’t break up at the end of book one. Obviously, there will come a point when they do break up because … well … that’s the story arc but you can read book one without worrying about a downer ending.

What’s the heat and kink level?

Um…mild to moderate? Which I appreciate is a bit of an odd thing to say about a BDSM series. The thing is, this subgenre really does run the gamut from a little light spanking to you are literally my slave now. And the book is very much pitched towards the lighter end of the spectrum. There is on page sex. I hope it’s sexy. But a lot of the kink is psychological rather physical, and that will likely continue into the rest of the series.

Are there any trigger warnings?

Abuse references, mostly glancing. But likely to become more detailed as the series progresses. Attempted sexual assault by a really posh bloke. Also suicidal ideation and self-harm, restricted to supporting characters. And drug use.

When is book two out?

The second book—which I’m happy to report will be called How To Blow It With A Billionaire—should be out in November.

When is book three out?

I don’t know. I’m too disorganised!

Obviously if you have any other questions, please free to ask them below and I’ll do my best to answer.

Otherwise, hope you enjoy the book. And Happy Easter if that is a thing that is a thing in your culture or where you come from.

newsery
41 Comments

my review of string railway by ducky

string railway is a game where you use string to make railways. you can make the railways in the shape of ducks but not very easily. string railway is a good game because i won at it.

love ducky

Ducky winning at String Railway

Every so often you come across a game that genuinely challenges your preconceptions about how games work. String Railway is basically 28 bits of string in a box and that’s almost it. You play railway tycoons in a somewhat abstract geographical area that we can vaguely assume is Japan (on account of it being a Japanese game, as actually made in Japan by Japanese people, rather than a game with a strong Japanese theme made by a French bloke). Your aim is to score more points than anyone else. You score points by connecting stations to your railway network. The stations are represented by cards. Your railway network is represented by string. The board is also represented by string. There is a mountain in the middle of the board, represented by string. There is a river. It is also represented by string.

String Railway: the clue is very much in the name.

What kind of blew me away about String Railway is that, while I own an awful lot of games, they all fundamentally rely on a very limited pool of mechanics. Roll these dice, draw these cards, move these pieces around this board. Games that do have a strong spatial or area control component (which String Railway does) tend to be the kinds of games that you play on a hex map with tiles and little plastic soldiers. They tend not to be games where the primary determinant of victory is your ability to judge the answer to the question ‘how long is a piece of string’.

Is that even a saying in other countries? Apologies if it isn’t.

String Railway is a game for 2-5 players and each player gets five bits of string and a starting station. One of your bits of string is long. On your turn you draw a station from the pile of stations and connect it to your rail network by laying a new piece of string. Astute readers will have noticed that this means the game can only ever last exactly five turns. You score points for connecting stations to your network, some stations have special properties so you get extra points for when you connect to them or when other people connect to them, sometimes you lose points if another player connects to one of your stations, and sometimes you don’t.

That’s basically the whole game.

The first time you sit down to play String Railway there’s a sort of overwhelming blankness to it. It’s the sort of overwhelming blankness that could be quite intimidating and which, because it’s a Japanese game, it’s really tempting to imagine says something significant about Japanese culture or zen or something. But which I suspect mostly just says something about string. For your first turn, you will have no idea what you’re doing. You’ll draw a station, you’ll connect it to your starting station with string, you might put it in a mountain or vaguely in the direction of another player and that’s it. By your second or third turn this square of table with some squiggles on it will have suddenly transformed into a rich and detailed map of Fake String Japan. And you’ll be making really complex tactical decisions about whether it’s worth paying to run a railway bridge over your opponent’s track so that you can get into the mountains to pick up the points from the scenic station en route to the depot. Sometimes someone will do something that cuts you off and it will be very tempting to respond by building a line right into the middle of their network in order to mess up their plans and steal their points. For a game that’s basically about playing with string, it can get surprisingly cut-throat.

Part of the reason I chose to review String Railway apart from the fact that Ducky wanted to review it because she won is that a lot of the games I’ve looked at recently haven’t been especially family-friendly. Okay, check that. A lot of the games I’ve reviewed recently haven’t been especially friendly to anyone who isn’t specifically interested in saving Arkham or the world from the horrors of the Cthulhu mythos by collecting clue tokens in a game published by Fantasy Flight. What can I say? I know what I like.

There is a lot about String Railway that I think would really work for families. The rules are simple, it’s tactile, there’s a strange sense of magic in seeing this little train world just appear on your dining room table. Also it’s quick. Also I should mention, I don’t have children so my perception of what kids like basically comes from books and TV shows. I’m not quite sure where I got the impression that they’re just really into string. It’s possible I’ve got them mixed up with kittens.

The thing that String Railway does not have that I usually look for in a family game is a co-op mode. It is ultimately a game about trying to get the most points and part of me wonders if, like Takenoko, it isn’t one of those games where half the players will be messing around trying to have fun with string/pandas while the other will be trying to ruthless optimise something that amounts to a complicated piece of graph theory. Which could lead to unsatisfying outcomes depending on the sorts of kids you have in your family and, for that matter, the sorts of adults you have (there’s always one, isn’t there, who will play to win against a ten year old because they’ve got to learn).  But, honestly, as long as people make relatively sensible choices it tends not to have that thing where one person has definitely lost on turn three and even if they have there’s only two turns left and laying string is still just kind of fun so … fair enough.

I will say that we played it in a very friendly way. If someone was a couple of millimetres away from being able to connect to a station, we’d usually let them move the station on the basis that whoever put that station down probably hadn’t been laying it with millimetre level precision in the first place. I suspect if we knew the game better and were more competitive and more ruthless we might have been more inclined to deliberately deploy those kinds of strategies (“I”m going to put this where I can juuuuuuust reach this and where you juuuuuuust can’t, haha suck it”). We also played with friends (and Ducky) so I don’t have a good insight what it’s like with two players. Honestly, I suspect it would be very different, as you’d necessarily have to be more cut-throat if you didn’t want the game to just come down to whoever drew the highest value stations. I think you might also get less of a sense of map. And the sense of map is a big part of the fun.

And that’s that really. A board game review in less than two thousand words. What’s happened to me? I can absolutely confidently say that String Railway is the best game about building railways in Japan thought medium of string that I have ever played. I’d say it was the best one I’m ever likely to play but, for all I know, this a whole subgenre of which this one instance has come to my attention. Maybe there are hardcore string gamers out there reading this review and saying “oh yeah, String Railway, it’s the kind of the tourist string game, like there’s no real benefit from thread huffing or double knotting, it’s very beginner friendly.”

So. Yeah. String Railway. I’d recommend it to anyone who thinks it might be fun to play with bits of coloured string.

people & cardboard
19 Comments

Today I’m going to continue my habitual practice of blogging about things that have nothing to do with writing or romance. Today’s topic, at least, have the slight saving grace of being about half-naked, muscular men covered in baby oil, making it slightly more audience-appropriate than my recent post about the sequel to a videogame that most of my readers have probably never heard of.

So, yes, today I’m talking about professional wrestling. I do occasionally mention this on Twitter and, as a result, I periodically get bemused comments who can’t quite square my fondness for flowers, purple hippos and lapsang souchong with an interest in watching grown men bodyslam each other through tables. Since this weekend is Wrestlemania weekend and we are on the countdown to the event that WWE (for those that don’t keep up, that’s World Wrestling Entertainment, the organisation that used to be called the WWF until they lost a lawsuit for the acronym against the World Wide Fund For Nature) assure us will be “the ultimate thill ride” I thought it would be a good time to explain exactly what was up with that.

And, actually, if you do want to reconcile my status as tea-drinking, top-hat wearing, smallsword-fencing dandy with a love of piledrivers and clothelines I think that phrase “ultimate thrill ride” is a pretty good place to start. Not, I should stress, because I think it’s a remotely accurate way to describe the largest and most prestigious of the WWE’s regular pay-per-views but because it’s so sincere-yet-tacky that it speaks to me of an entertainment tradition going back through carnivale and vaudeville into the music halls of the 19th century. And, frankly, that’s somewhere I’m very comfortable.

Before I say anything I should add that there is a metric craptonne of stuff wrong with professional wrestling. I don’t normally like the phrase ‘guilty pleasure’ because, to me, it usually means “thing that I like but am too intellectually insecure to admit to liking for the fear it will make me look stupid or common”. Basically, I normally feel that if you like something you shouldn’t feel guilty about it and if you feel guilty about something you probably shouldn’t like it. But I do sometimes feel guilty about liking wrestling because, frankly, it’s a problematic industry. It has a history of misogyny, homophobia and racism that is very slowly getting better but hasn’t entirely gone away. It’s arguably quite exploitative to its performers. And people do get really, seriously badly hurt doing it. I am completely onside with people for whom some, most or all of these things are massive deal-breakers, and I’m in no way going to try to argue people out of being deal-broken.

Having just outlined all the reasons I probably shouldn’t like wrestling, here are the reasons I still do.

The Five Types of Martial Art

There’s sort of a meme in the amateur punching community that there are five reasons to study a martial art. You can do it for fitness, you can do it for self-defence, you can do it for cultural reasons, you can do it for competition or you can do it for display. People have a tendency to over-emphasise the self-defence and competition functions (and to an extent to conflate them) while ignoring the other perfectly valid reasons for training in this particular kind of physical activity.

We’re going to come back to the “wrestling is fake” thing a lot because it’s pretty much what everyone tells you when they find out you’re into wrestling, as if you somehow hadn’t noticed. I mean, seriously, twelve-year-olds know this. We don’t have to be told. One of the responses you can give to this criticism of pro-wrestling as a martial art is that it’s not “fake”, it’s just not focusing on the competition or self-defence aspects of martial arts training.

I often feel that there’s a bit of a double standard applied to wrestling in this context. You don’t see it so much these days but you used to quite often get bands of Shaolin monks going to theatres and performance venues all over the world putting on displays of Kung-fu. By and large, nobody said this was fake, even though most of the stuff you see in those performances was almost certainly choreographed and would get you killed in an actual street fight. Pro-wrestling is simply a martial that emphasises the display and performance aspects and, as someone who is interested in martial arts, I enjoy watching it from that perspective. And, yes, sometimes there are bits that annoy me because, like the Shaolin monks you see in theatres, pro-wrestlers quite often do things that would get you torn apart in an actual fight or use moves that are obviously less effective than simpler, faster, less complicated techniques (there’s a real excellent wrestler in the WWE called Cesaro whose signature move is a running uppercut and surely if there is one punch that does not benefit from a run-up it’s an uppercut). But, basically, it’s people doing recognisable martial arts techniques in a way that makes them more fun to watch than if they were legitimately competing.

I think part of it is that there’s a tiny, hyper-rational part of my brain that dislikes anything which tries to do too many things at once, and which therefore sees spectator sports as a fundamentally inefficient mode of entertainment. Nine times out of ten, the most effective to beat another person in an athletic competition is to do something that is shit boring for an audience to watch. I obviously have profound respect for MMA fighters and wouldn’t to get into a fight with any of them but actual MMA bouts tend to be very fast and not look especially impressive. And I get that if you have a detailed appreciation for that style of fighting then you can get a lot more out of it but that’s a level of homework I really don’t want to do for my entertainment. By contrast, seeing somebody hit a Phoenix Splash from the top rope is impressive, even if you know nothing about wrestling.

Basically, if I’m watching athletes for entertainment, I want those athletes to be using their athletic abilities to entertain me not to outdo somebody else at a wholly arbitrary test of skill.

Stories Told Through the Medium of Punching

Despite the fact that this is my official, professional author blog I really hate using the phrase “as a writer”. But, um, as a writer I’m obviously quite interested in storytelling. Perhaps, more generally, as a writer and reader, and gamer, and pop culture junkie and all round nerd, I’m interested in storytelling across a variety of media. In particular, I’m always fascinated by stories that can only be told in the medium they’re told in. This comes up a lot with videogames because if you’re telling a story using text and images it’s very easy for your primary storytelling mechanism to be reading and looking at stuff, rather than interacting with a virtual environment and this, I think,  genuinely holds back the storytelling in some games. Much as I love Bioware, a lot of their later games basically feel like movies interspersed with shooting.

The stories you get in wrestling are profoundly simple. They’re mostly about rivalries of one sort or another and because wrestling is grounded in a Vaudeville tradition that is often quite silly those rivalries (“feuds” in the parlance) can centre around championships, romance interests, personal betrayal or pot plants, shampoo commercials and, of course, clipboards. Wrestling is ridiculous.

And, actually, when I talk about storytelling in wrestling I think I’m much less interested in narrative (“I want to beat you in our next match because you beat me in our last match”) than I am in character. I’m fascinated by the way really good pro-wrestlers will establish who their character is and what their character’s relationship is with their opponent through everything from dialogue, to facial expression, to just the way they do their moves. At its most basic level, there are two types of wrestling character: the “face” (the good guys we’re supposed to cheer for) and the “heel” (the bad guys we’re supposed to boo). But a skilled performer can build a remarkable amount of nuance into the fundamentally simple archetype of “I want to win fights and am nasty.”

The moments that sum up the narrative power of wrestling for me are those occasional spots (“spot” is industry slang for the individual moments that make up a match) where somebody makes a damaging mistake that, on the face of it makes no sense, but is completely in-keeping with the personality that they have established for their character. Like when two bitter rivals sacrifice an opportunity to win a six-man ladder match because they get too distracted beating the hell out of each other. Or when somebody is so arrogant that they under-estimate their opponent or so aggressive that they get themselves disqualified. And, yes, this isn’t how real professional sports work—it’s not like Andy Murray will be defending his championship at Wimbledon and then suddenly Novak Djokovic runs onto the court and he’s so overcome with emotion that he turns away from the net and gets a tennis ball to the back of the head. But, admit it, wouldn’t that be so much cooler?

Basically, what I appreciate about pro-wrestling is that as well the matches being individually cool to watch they are genuinely building towards a larger story (I mean, except when they’re not – I have no idea what’s going on with Dolph Ziggler right now). It means that you’re not just invested in who wins, you’re invested in how they win and what else happens around the match. You’re interested in who slaps who in the face, who slams whose hands into the definitely solid steel steps, who has scouted whose finisher and knows how to avoid it. When you watch most sporting competitions you’re just watching two (or more) people who are very good at doing something doing it in order to see who does it marginally better. With a wrestling match, when it works, you’re seeing two fully developed semi-fictional characters fighting about something and you know who they are and why they care and why you should care.

Kayfabe

If you’ve read any of my books or any of my blog posts or anything I’ve ever said on Twitter, you’ll probably have realised that I am one meta son of a bitch. Perhaps for this reason, one of the things I find most fascinating about wrestling is that, for a large part of its audience, the appeal seems to be that you pretend it’s real even though you know it isn’t. It’s sort of a bit like stage magic in that regard. I mean, yes, you know that Dynamo can’t really walk on water and that David Copperfield can’t really fly but if you don’t, at least, pretend a little bit that you believe they can then you’re left with a fundamentally boring demonstration of mediocre special effects.

“Kayfabe” is the industry-insider term for the pretence that the scripted events that occur in pro-wrestling are, in fact, real. Again, the part of me that is really into that kind of thing, just loves the fact that there is a word specifically for “pretending that fake things are real”. It wasn’t that long ago that this was a completely industry-only concept and that the appeal of wrestling really did rest on the audience members (or “marks” in the beautifully unapologetic slang of the industry) taking absolutely everything at face value. But since the 1980s at least it’s been fairly well accepted by the vast majority of wrestling fans (or “smart marks” or “smarks” in the, again, beautifully unapologetic slang of the industry) that, yes, it’s all made up and, no, we don’t particularly care. And while some people mourn what they see as the death of kayfabe and miss the idea of kids going along to wrestling shows thinking that Big Daddy really was trying to beat up Giant Haystacks I personally really like the necessary double-think involved in being a “smart” wrestling fan. I honestly think I wouldn’t like wrestling anywhere near as much if I thought it was real. But then I also wouldn’t like it anywhere near as much if I didn’t, on some level, pretend that I do.

This whole dynamic makes the interaction between performers and the crowd unique and peculiar because wrestlers need to commit 100% to the idea that they are competing in a legitimate (non pre-scripted) athletic competition while also working a crowd that knows full well that they aren’t. This dichotomy reaches its zenith in the “you deserve it” chant. It’s very common, especially in the WWE which has quite strong preferences about who should win championships, for more athletic or technically proficient wrestlers to be passed over in favour of performers who have “look” that appeals to Management. This means that when a fan-favourite wrestler who is perceived as lacking company backing wins something the crowd will often break out into “you deserve it” in recognition of the fact that this performer has been putting on entertaining matches for a long time but has, until now, not received the formal recognition of their employer.

This makes no sense if you pretend, even for a second, that it’s an actual sport. You don’t need to tell Andy Murray (sorry to use Andy Murray as an example again, he’s literally the only professional sports person that I’ve heard of) that he deserved to win Wimbledon. He obviously deserved to win because he won. And in conventional sporting competitions the winner deserves to win by definition unless there’s been actual cheating. Ironically, in professional wrestling it’s often the opposite in that people who win by cheating tend to be people who the audience like more than the Management.

For example, in the middle of last year, Kevin Owens (a popular wrestler, with a strong following from his work on the Indie scene) was in a match for the recently vacated Universal Championship against three other wrestlers, at least two of whom they fans were well-aware had the full support of company Management (one of them was Roman Reigns, who I honestly think is better than people say he is, but who is very much resented by the fans because he’s very much a darling of the company and he keeps beating people he probably doesn’t deserve to beat). The matched ended with the actual COO of the Company (wrestling companies tend to be owned by wrestlers these day) coming in and ambushing the last Owens’ last surviving opponent and literally handing Owens the championship.

The crowd went nuts with “you deserve it” chants. Because they never, in a million years, expected that the WWE which far prefers people who look like this

to people who look like this

and which has a history of resenting and burying performers who have made names for themselves outside the history would ever put their main championship belt on a guy like Kevin Owens.

That is both weird and beautiful.

And I like things that are weird and beautiful.

absurdity
7 Comments

So, taking a brief break from blogging about games in various media to deploy some updates.

I guess the major piece of news is that Pansies has been nominated for a RITA this year in the contemporary romance (long) category. Obviously I’m super honoured and overjoyed about this, and I’m extending my congratulations to everybody else who has been nominated.  I’m also really delighted that Lorelie Brown’s Far From Home has been nominated in contemporary romance (short). Last time I kinda fucked this up but I’m pretty sure it’s the first time an f/f book has made the short list. I feel this is a really big deal because it challenges the conventional wisdom that romance readers aren’t interested in f/f and suggests that the broad spectrum LGBTQ+ stories are being taken more seriously. So yay!

While I’m very pleased about the increase in LGBTQ+ representation, it would be remiss of me to ignore the fact that other marginalised groups are doing less well. This really isn’t something it’s my place to talk about for a million and five reasons but this post on Romance Novels for Feminists has a good summary of the situation. I do believe that the RWA has made a sincere commitment to address diversity issues but change takes time and it only happens at all if people keeping pushing for it.

As always, it’s genuinely not clear how best to address this kind of thing, especially since I suspect (and I’m working on the basis on no real evidence here) that the poor representation of POC characters and authors is more likely to be a consequence of unconscious bias, rather than overt racism. A predominantly white community of judges are less likely to identify with and therefore respond positively to stories that aren’t about white people, but wouldn’t think of themselves as “marking down” books with POC protagonists.  And that’s a borderline insoluble problem because it involves getting a large number of essentially anonymous people to admit the existence of a problem that many of them will be unable to see and then to do something about it in a way that quite a lot of those people will instinctively feel constitutes “special treatment”.

And I know I said I wasn’t going to talk about this and I’ve now talked about this for a couple paragraphs but I think it’s important to ask the question: what can I, as an individual, do? And, obviously, this will be very different depending on who you are but I think basically what you can do is this:

  • Recognise that no matter who you are, you have unconscious biases. This doesn’t make you a bad person, but it can affect your behaviour if you’re not aware of it.
  • If you happen to be a RITA judge, be aware that these biases might be affecting your scores and seriously consider whether you should be giving higher marks to books that you may have responded less strongly to simply because they happen not to be about a person in whom you recognise yourself.

In other news, the first book in my new bildom trilogy, How To Bang A Billionaire will be out in April. Like most of my things, it’s quite different from most of the rest of my things. It was basically my attempt to do the kinky billionaire thing. I had a lot of fun with it and I hope you do too.

Finally, an update on Spires. People have been asking me what’s coming next for the series for a while now, especially since the RITA nomination. After some careful consideration and a long discussion with my fabulous agent, I’ve decided to go down the self-publication route for Spires (and probably, also, for Kate Kane when the rights revert to me). I’ll be continuing to publish by more conventional means as well, but this seems like the best way forward for Spires specifically.

Sarah Lyons has agreed to stay on as editor so from a reader’s perspective there should be literally no change. From my perspective, it’s about having slightly more control over the project and slightly more freedom to write across a diverse spectrum. I have a number of other publishing deadlines coming up so I’m looking at timescale in the region of sometime 2018 (maybe late 2017 if I really get my act together) for this. My apologies to people who are keenly awaiting the next book, but I’m intending to produce Spires books more consistently from then on. The book I’m writing currently is the story of Dom the Dom (from For Real) – provisionally titled Rough Ride. After that I’ve got plans for some, all, or in the event of extremely unexpected circumstances none of the following:

  • Angel’s book – provisionally titled The Shenanigans Project
  • Niall’s book – provisionally  titled Fool’s Gold (ahh, d’you see)
  • A book about a character you haven’t met yet – provisionally titled As Yet Untitled(ahhh, d’you see again)

I also have outlines for books about Jasper, Marius, Grace and at least two other characters not yet introduced. So Spires should be going strong for a good while yet, as will many, many other projects, including the next two bildom books, and my Regency trilogy.

If you would like a sneak peak at some of an early draft of Rough Ride do sign up for my newsletter. Which is a thing I have. That you might not know about. Because I never talk about it.

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If you’ve read my unapologetically specific nerdmance, Looking for Group, you might remember that there’s quite a big chunk in the middle where Drew and Kit play a game called Planescape Torment. Honestly, they’re actually the wrong generation to be playing it, but I subtly fudged this issue by having someone of approximately my generation insist they had to.

Basically this scene is in there for two reasons. Firstly, it’s there because, in my experience, a lot of relationships between nerds (both romantic and friendly) are based primarily around a shared passion for something most other people aren’t interested in (actually, that’s sort of pretty much a potted definition of nerd culture as a whole). And so I thought it was important for my nerdy couple of share a nerdy thing together.

The second reason is simpler: I just really love Planescape Torment. And I’m aware that’s not an especially original statement. Pretty much everyone who played PC roleplaying games in the late 90s loved Planescape Torment, which is why when a large chunk of the original team got together a few years ago and Kickstarted a “spiritual successor” it raised approximately ten bazillion dollars.

Like most Kickstarted projects it had its fair share of teething problems. It was supposed to drop in 2014 and didn’t actually get here until, well, now. And there were a bunch of things promised which didn’t materialise (although I understand they’re patching some of these in later). The last time I checked, the top reviews on Steam were pretty much all backers freaking out because they didn’t get the underwater city they’d been expecting or because they felt it was completely betraying the spirit of the original that the new game uses turn based combat instead of real time with pause.

Anyway, I downloaded my Kickstarted copy of Torment: Tides of Numenera (this being the somewhat unwieldy name of the spiritual sequel) and my partner and I sat down together and, to steal a phrase from the sadly defunct Some Other Podcast, poopsocked it. I should stress that, beautiful as that visual metaphor is, it is most definitely a metaphor. No socks were harmed during our play through of T:ToN.

My reaction to  Torment: Tides of Numenera can be summed up as roughly like this: oh this going to be shit isn’t it, crap this going to be shit, look at this intro, it’s going to be shit, oh that was shit, WOW LOOK AT THE AMAZING FANTASY CITY, OMG THIS IS JUST LIKE TORMENT, actually this is genuinely turning out to be quite good, hey check out these really well structured things, FUCK YOU COMBAT SYSTEM, hey that’s a cool bit of world-building, oh my God that’s gross and awesome, ALL THE FEELS, we should really go to bed now but I’m pretty sure we’re nearly finished, OMG SO EXCITING, FUCK YOU COMBAT SYSTEM, zomg, wow that was really cool, hang on I’m pretty sure half of that made no sense.

With reviews like that, I should work for PC Fucking Gamer.

I know it sounds like my experience with Torment: Tides of Numenera was bookended by rubbish but it really wasn’t. I was very, very timorous in the beginning but I thought the ending was actually really good (not flawless, but satisfying) and it’s only in retrospect that little details like what the villain’s motivation was, how the plot fit together, or whether the central premise of the game made any sense at all started to matter to me. And, to be honest, they still don’t really. My partner and I kicked off our relationship playing Torment together (in a very different context to one that occurs in Looking For Group) and here we, however many years later, still playing Torment together. And that’s genuinely special to me.

Although, I admit, not necessarily a reason to recommend a game to another person.

And, actually, this is pretty much the problem with reviewing (insofar this is a review) Torment: Tides of Numenera. It’s basically impossible for me to judge how it works as a game. I mean, I can try (FUCK YOU COMBAT SYSTEM) but I have no way of disentangling my experience of playing this game now from my experience of playing its predecessor the best part of twenty years ago and my experience of playing it with again with H when we were first going out. Fuck, I’m getting old.

To put it another way, Torment: Tides of Numenera really had to do two jobs. Okay, maybe three jobs. Firstly, it had to be a good game in its own right. Secondly, it had to be good as a successor to Torment. And thirdly it had to remind people who played Torment in 1999 of playing Torment in 1999 without feeling too much like it’s just saying “hey, remember that other game you liked.” It mostly succeeds. I do think some of the game’s biggest weaknesses seem to be in the area where it is doing things Torment did just because Torment did them and not because they’re necessarily the right things for this game to be doing. This is generally fine, although I would point out that one of the things that the game seems to have done the way Torment did it because Torment did it that way is, well, quite a large part of the premise. And that makes some bits of the game feel a bit wobbly.

This is going to get detailed and spoilery. If you’ve read more than two of my blog posts that shouldn’t surprise you in the least.

oh this going to be shit isn’t it

I’m always very wary of Kickstarted nostalgia projects. I think they have a very strong tendency to focus entirely on giving the most hardcore fans what they think they want instead of just making the best product they can. There are so many things that can go wrong with a Kickstarted game, from intrusive backer rewards (see Pillars of Eternity) to writers and developers losing all self-discipline once free of editorial control (see Pillars of Eternity) to just not being very good (see Pillars of Eternity).

Torment: Tides of Numenera opens with your character falling from the sky to a slightly gravelly voice-over by either the guy from the Baldur’s Gate series or someone doing a reasonable impression of the guy from the Baldur’s Gate series. It’s, um, kind of quite over-written, long on similes, short on clarity (and I am aware that I am the last person who should be levelling that as a criticism against anyone else’s writing). I’m not sure if the quality of the writing actually improves over the course of the game or if I just settled into the patterns of it. The original Torment had a style that, honestly, would have got you chucked out of most creative writing classes but it worked for what it was. And, actually, thinking about it I suspect the introduction suffers a lot from being fully voiced. Harrison Ford famously once told George Lucas that “you can write this shit but you can’t say it” and I think the self-consciously flowery, Vance-meets-Dunsany-meets-Lovecraft-meets-Bulwer-Lytton prose works when you look at it. Not when some poor schmuck has to try and read it out loud in a portentous voice.

It doesn’t help that Torment: Tides of Numenera has quite an unusual setting and where the original Torment was perfectly content to let the player wander around for a couple of hours with no fricking clue what was going on (or maybe just to assume that everybody who played the game also played D&D) T:ToN tries to at least fill the player in on some of what they can expect from the game’s setting (somewhat confusingly called The Ninth World). Unfortunately this turns about the first twenty minutes of the game into an info-dump from two bickering characters, who you have no particular reason to care about and neither of whom are especially engagingly written.

The first major decision the game presents you with involves these two characters having a sudden and unexpected falling out (it’s suggested later on that this is a psychic consequence of your character’s awakening, but this doesn’t really help the situation) requiring you to decide which of them you’ll continue to travel with. Since you know nothing about either party and I’m profoundly allergic to arbitrary pseudo-meaningful choices, I promptly told them both that they could fuck off.

It is to the game’s credit that I never suffered for this. Although slightly to its detriment that I didn’t regret it either, given that these two characters represent fully one third of the recruitable NPCs in the game.

WOW LOOK AT THE AMAZING FANTASY CITY

Things pick up a lot when you get to the city of Sagus Cliffs which, let’s be clear, happens very early in the game. I should probably point out at this stage that Torment: Tides of Numenera is based on a tabletop roleplaying game called Monte Cook’s Numenera, which was written by a man named, well, Monte Cook (he was one of the big driving forces behind third edition D&D and is something of a legend in the industry).

I did actually pick up a copy of Monte Cook’s Numenera around the time that the Kickstarter for Torment: Tides of Numenera launched. And I never really got to grips with it. There was a lot about the game I wanted to like: it’s set in an impossibly far future (literally impossibly far future, owing to Monte’s shonky grasp of astrophysics the game is set on an Earth that should, technically, already have been swallowed by the sun’s evolution into a red giant) and is based around that overused Arthur C Clark quote about sufficiently advanced technology being indistinguishable from the industry-leading collectible card game. The world is full of invisible nano-machines and weird ancient technologies called Numenera. These things are basically magic and let people do magic.

Now I’m a big fan of things that mash up science fiction and fantasy and will occasionally ramble on about how the modern notion that they should be completely separate genres is pretty much a post-Tolkein invention. But, honestly, I had a lot of trouble getting into the setting of Monte Cook’s Numenera because, while the art was lovely, and there was really quite a lot of specific detail about locations and settings, I didn’t feel that the book gave me a really strong sense of what being in that world felt like.

Walking into Sagus Cliffs in Torment: Tides of Numenera gave me a really strong sense of what being in that world felt like.

Within two minutes of entering the city, you meet a merchant who is (quite contentedly) turning into an insect, two scholars who have captured super-intelligent, sentient squid that they fully intend to release and which they only captured in order to test a machine they later intend to use to trap a malevolent god that is plaguing their home city, and a guy who is being executed for treason by a method that involves his own words being wound out of his mouth and wrapped around his body, a process which is being overseen by a member of a quasi-legal death cult who are tolerated by the city on the grounds that their capacity to consume the memories of the dead is useful in the investigation of crimes and which is guarded by purple-armoured constructs called levies—which, you quickly learn, are created from the life force of the city’s citizens, each of whom give up a year of their lives to create a levy as a form of national service.

What’s really remarkable about all this is that (in contrast to a lot of what you get told at the start of the game) none of this feels like an info dump. You encounter something weird, a fundamental assumption of the setting is that weirdness is local and therefore people are used to explaining their local weirdness to outsiders, and the weird person or entity explains the weird thing in a matter-of-fact characterful way that (and I’m looking at you here, Pillars of Eternity) doesn’t require you to read three screens of text or segue into a discussion of events that happened three hundred years ago.

To put it another way, every one you encounter is a fascinating but, crucially, optional weird fantasy vignette. We basically talked to every single NPC who wasn’t just called “commoner” or “merchant” and okay this was partly from years of cRPG training but it was mostly because they were all genuinely interesting. And, obviously, there’s an extent to which it’s easier to make “lady who is turning into an insect” or “alien who studies the reproduction habits of earth species because his people reproduce by cutting off their limbs and he’s surprised that other people don’t” interesting than it is “relatively ordinary inhabitant of lowkey Medieval fantasy setting” interesting. But it meant that every single NPC we encountered made an impression.

There’s a bit in Looking For Group where Kit wakes up in the middle of the night, prods Drew awake, and says something like “why don’t we take the black-barbed seed to Mourns-For-Trees”. Again, that bit is in the book because when this type of game works that’s how it works. There’s side-quest quite early in the Sagus Cliffs where you encounter a woman called Loss-of-Self who, it seems, is slowly having her personality transformed into the personality of another woman. You later discover that this is happening to lots of other women throughout the city and are tasked by the ghostly manifestation of the woman all these other women are being turned into with tracking them down. And, one day last week, my partner and I were walking home and, out of nowhere, I found myself saying “I bet the girl with girl with the flute is one of them because she said that thing about seeing ghosts.”

You can’t buy that kind of experience. I mean, obviously you can. You can buy it for £34.99 on Steam. But metaphorically you can’t buy it.

Also: the art design is just lovely. Genuinely squicky in places (I honestly think I read the word sphincter more often in the third act of this game than I have in any other work of fiction I have encountered) but lovely.

OMG THIS IS JUST LIKE TORMENT

Games like this have to walk a very fine line between being their own thing and being a successor to the thing they’re supposed to be a successor to. The way I took to articulating this to myself while playing Torment: Tides of Numenera was that I felt the game was at its worst when it was trying to remind me of Torment and at its best when it was just good in the same way that Torment was good.

And, don’t get me wrong, I liked all of the little shout-outs. You learn quite quickly that the immortal being who once inhabited your body used the name Adahn, which is a random pseudonym the character in the original Torment can give people if they ask him for a name and if you do this enough the raw power of your assertion conjures this Adahn into being. There’s a weird entity in the pub of psychics called O who, it is strongly implied, is the same weird entity called O who appears in the inn in the original game. Early on you pick up a quality of life item that allows you to summon party members and it takes the form of a dull, bronze sphere which I’m pretty sure is a reference to the highly plot significant dull bronze sphere the original Torment made no attempt to stop you from selling to the nearest vendor for a few copper pieces.

Torment: Tides of Numenera, like the original Planescape Torment, is at its best when it is evoking something larger, stranger and more wondrous than the thing you are actually encountering. For example, Sagus Cliffs is ruled by powerful families known as the Slave Families for reasons that don’t particularly become apparent and aren’t particular relevant, but the fact that they have that unusual name stands out. The government is also based in something that is fairly explicitly a crashed space ship and there are obviously high-level political things going on in Sagus Cliffs that your character simply does not interact with. The entire third act of the game takes place in a settlement inside a gigantic malevolent, dimension-spanning organism that slowly devours the people inside it. And this is just sort of where you are. You get to interact briefly with the entity but you don’t particularly change anything or do anything about it. Well, okay, you do get the option to try and stop its heart but I didn’t take it because I was, frankly, far too scared.

Basically you never go more than five or ten minutes (unless you’re stuck in a long combat sequence or back-tracking to solve a question) without encountering something that is both weird and cool.

Where the similarity to Torment is less successful is where it’s more explicit. And it occurs to me that I’ve got nearly three thousand words into this review and haven’t really told you what the premise of the game is or, for that matter, what the premise of the original Torment was. And since I’m now going to talk about the similarity between these two things I should probably fill you in.

So long story short.

Original Planescape Torment: you are an immortal being called The Nameless One who wakes up in a mortuary with no idea who you are, why you’re immortal or why you are being pursued by scary tentactular beings of shadow. Over the course of the game you learn about things you have done, how you came to be the way you are and what controls the scary tentacular beings (spoilers for a twenty-year-old video game: in a very real sense it’s you).

In Torment: Tides of Numenera you are an immortal being called The Last Castoff (this is a terrible name. It’s like the world’s worst slang term for your penis) and you wake up atop the smashed remains of a crystal coffin where you’re confronted immediately two scholars who explain exactly who you are (you’re The Last Castoff) and why you’re immortal (you were created as a host body for a powerful techno-sorcerer called The Changing God who builds his bodies to be well-near indestructible but nevertheless periodically abandons them, causing them to be awakened to their own consciousness when he does so) but who can’t explain why scary tentactular shadowy things are chasing you. Over the course of the game, you find out more about things The Changing God has done and are able to access his memories. And you are also find out what’s sending the weird tentactly shadowy things although the answer seems to boil down: it’s the thing that controls the weird tentactly shadowy things.

I initially had quite a lot of misgivings about this setup (see “this is going to be shit isn’t it” above). I felt quite strongly that the difference between a story where you find out about things your amnesiac character has done in the past and a story where you find out about things that somebody who is cooler and more powerful than you did in the past while inhabiting your body or other bodies now inhabited by other NPCs you may meet later was significant in a point-missy way. A massive occupational hazard of this kind of spiritual successor is that every fan has their own idea of what “the whole point” of the original was and any change between the original and the successor will outrage somebody (like that one person on Steam who seems to have felt that what made Torment was its real time with pause combat system).

And, thinking about it, I’m not sure why I mellowed on the premise because I do think that this distinction between, for want of a less glib way of putting it, a story about who you used to be and a story about someone who used to be you is important, and I do think the former is more interesting and more personal. But I suppose once I’d settled into the game I realised that you couldn’t really do that twice. And I think I came to the conclusion that Torment: Tides of Numenera had found a good way to tell a story in which immortality, memory and philosophical questions about the nature of being and the indelible shadows of the past were important without it having literally having all the same story beats.

And thinking about it more detail, I think what’s quite clever about the way in which the story of Torment: Tides of Numenera echoes and evokes the story of Planescape Torment is that The Last Castoff (from T:ToN) is almost nothing like The Nameless One (from P:T) but The Changing God (from T:ToN) is actually an awful lot like The Nameless One (from P:T). So you still have that ever-changing, slightly ambiguous immortal fucker as a central character. But you interact with that character in a very different way. Which is actually pretty cool.

hey check out these really well structured things

We’re straying deeper into spoiler territory here but there are lots of things about both the gameplay (not including the combat system, fuck the combat system) and narrative structure of Torment: Tides of Numenera that fit together really well. That, in fact, fit together much better than their equivalents in the original game (it’s almost like there’s been nearly two decades of progress in the games industry).

The level design is fabulous. The individual maps are small enough that you can’t get lost or bored on them, but they pack in a bewildering amount of stuff. Everywhere you go feels like a real place with real things going on and you never feel like you don’t know what to do next or like you’re pointlessly wasting your time looking for lost cats or abandoned vials of endless water. It does have, I’ll admit, a bit of what I’d call a nested quest problem whereby you find yourself doing a lot of going to x to get y for z so they’ll tell you about p who knows about q which you can use can to find r who can help you with f, which is the thing that you were supposed to be trying to do this whole time.

There were a couple of times when we were playing when H would be like “great, now we can be do this thing” and I’d be like “why do we want to do that thing” and H would be like “that thing is literally the whole reason we were here” and I’d be like “oh yeah, that thing.”

Mostly, however, I was incredibly impressed with the way that that the main plot, the side quests and the incidental details of the world interwove with one another. It’s a really minor detail but, apart from utility items like healing potions (sorry “spray flesh”) and money (sorry “shins”) pretty much every other item you find in the game is unique, even the vendor trash. Glossary note for none gamers: vendor trash is useless items you find in a video game that serve no purpose other than to be sold to in-game merchants for money. Which itself serves no purpose because, in most games, you find better stuff on the floor than anyone will ever sell you. It’s just so much nicer to be lining your pockets by selling on that magical singing fish you plucked out of the fountain or the weird parasitic worm that was too icky to be worth the combat bonuses than just to be flogging 23 wolf pelts. And, in fact, some of the vendor trash items were so well articulated that we kept them with us for the whole game, not because we thought they’d ever be useful because they were so cool or personal that we wanted to hang onto them.

Most tragically, we helped a mad ancient robot give birth at the cost of its own life (it wanted to do this, I should stress, I wasn’t just going around force-breeding automata) and one of the baby robots was stillborn. So I carried around a dead baby robot for the whole damn game. I just couldn’t bring myself to sell it.

The robot-death-reproduction side quest brings me neatly to another interesting structural point, which is the game’s big central question. This gets a bit a complex and was actually quite controversial during development so I’m going to need to do some explaining and you’re going to have to bear with me.

In the original Planescape Torment the reason your character was immortal is that, in order to escape the Blood War (the eternal conflict between demons and devils that at once devastates the D&D cosmos but also protects it by keeping the forces of evil fighting amongst themselves), your character went to a nighthag named Ravel Puzzlewell and asked her to make you immortal. Which she did. One of Ravel’s peculiar personality traits is that she liked to aske people “what can change the nature of a man?” This question, usually voiced in Ravel’s creepy witch voice, became something of a refrain throughout the game, cropping up at key moments and framing and contextualising the choices that your character makes. Also most of your NPC companions in Planescape Torment have had their natures changed in one ways or another, often by you. Oh, d’you see?

Now I didn’t pay that much attention to the backer-developer interaction during the early days of Torment: Tides of Numenera (I tend to stay out of that kind of thing, I tend to feel it’s developers’ job to make games, and my job to play them, and then go on about them at length on the internet) but my understanding is that the developers explicitly asked the backers if they felt that Torment: Tides of Numenera should have a central question that would be to T:ToN what “what can change the nature of a man” was to P:T. From what I’ve heard, people had quite strong opinions about in this in both directions. See my earlier comments about how everyone has a different idea of what’s fundamental to something. In one corner, you had people who felt that a strong central question was an axiomatic part of the Torment series and if Torment: Tides of Numenera did not have a clearly articulated central question it wouldn’t be a Torment game. In the other corner you had people who strongly felt that “what can change the nature of a man” was an aspect of Ravel’s character that had become an emergent property of the game. And that trying to build a question into Torment: Tides of Numenera would feel shit and forced and, of course, mean it could never call itself a Torment game.

In the end, they pro-question faction won and Torment: Tides of Numenera was shipped with the tagline “what does one life matter?” As a sort of uneasy compromise, it’s not literally on the splash screen but it is all over the promotional material. Having played the game, I kind of feel that both sides were right. That is, I feel designing the game around a clearly articulated central question really strengthened it but, whenever it is explicitly articulated, it feels really shit and forced.

In particular, an awful lot of the quests you do in Torment: Tides of Numenera (both the side quests and the main quest) very specifically address the question “what does one life matter” (and the more I say it, the more annoying and hackneyed it sounds, which is unfair because it actually serves the game pretty well) and they address it in a lot of different ways from a lot of different perspectives. Which makes the game thematically coherent on a level that a lot of RPGs aren’t. Most RPG side quests are a bit random, fetch a lost item here, assassinate a business rival there, defend a sculptor from brigands over there. The slightly forced central question of Torment: Tides of Numenera allows its quests to feel part of a larger whole. There’s a clear sense of connection between “do I allow this robot to sacrifice its life for its children” and “do I allow this slaver to sacrifice this child to protect her men” and “do I let my companion murder this guy in revenge for his lover” and “do I stop this man trying to resurrect his dead daughter at the cost of other people’s lives”. It even impacts on your choices of companion. Do I take this lost child with me on my dangerous journey? Having done so, and kitted her out so she’s actually quite effective, do I send her through a portal in the hope that she will find her parents? Do I look for a way to save my companion from the nano-demons who are tormenting him but also making him a fantastic warrior?

I do really wish they’d left it as a subtext. There’s a least one, possibly two situations, where an NPC randomly asks you “what does one life matter?” and it comes completely out of nowhere and makes no sense. And, worse, you have to pick between one of about seven options, none of which really reflect what you want your character to say. Asking seemingly meaningless questions to random people is something that a witch in a fairytale can do. It feels a lot of more jarring coming from the immortal administrator of a militarised sanctuary in a science fiction universe.

FUCK YOU COMBAT SYSTEM

I feel really ambivalent about this one, not least because I’m aware of That One Guy On Steam who was disproportionately upset that the combat system was turn based. And, actually, I quite like turn based combat if it’s implemented well.

This is not implemented well.

If I was feeling snide, I might suggest that having a shit combat system is, in fact, very much in-keeping with the Torment legacy. The original game had quite a lot of combat bits and they were just tedious because the designers were clearly in no way interested in designing interesting action sequences.

The combat in Torment: Tides of Numenera is three steps forward and about eight million steps back. To give the designers their due, they have way scaled back on the amount of combat in the game and most of it is actually avoidable. I think we had about five-to-ten fights (or “crises”) in the whole game. And, on the one hand, because they were all set pieces the designers had put a lot of effort into giving them stakes and alternative strategies and uses for a variety of skills. On the other hand, they base combat was so awful and clunky that all of the things that were included to make fights more interesting just wound up making them more frustrating.

I feel kind of bad about this, especially because part of the reason I was so frustrated by the fights I couldn’t avoid was that were so many I could.  Since I’d got about halfway through the game without ever having to swing a sword or shoot a slug thrower in anger, I really hadn’t optimised my party for combat which meant the moment a fight kicked off I was very close to being hosed. I eventually found a system that worked: get my small child to hide and lob grenades (come to think of it, I was a terrible influence on her), while I stand at the back buffing, and my two vaguely competent characters try to kill the enemy. But it was never anything resembling fun.

And, actually, there were quite a lot of combat abilities that you could spec into—by the time we were approaching end game we were so good at everything that we had actually started buying combat abilities because we didn’t need anything else. But they all seemed really hard to actually use in a fight. And because they were so few fights and they were all so high stakes you never really got much chance to experiment with them. Basically what would happen was, a fight would start and I’d think “ooh, let’s use that cool new power we got at our last level up” only to discover that it did 3 damage and had a 20% chance of succeeding. So I instead I’d just park in a corner and skip turn or pop off the odd shot with my rifle.

I think part of the issues here come from the fact that the game is based on a tabletop RPG with a very streamlined combat system. And that’s fine in a tabletop game where players can improvise around the framework of the system but it’s just dull in a game where you have to click to move and attack with each character separately, then wait and watch while up to a dozen enemies and perhaps allies laboriously act one after the other.

The very bare bones combat system also makes a lot of the potentially interesting combat options much less interesting. At least one “crisis” I encountered actually wound up not being a fight at all. The deal was that the people I was talking to would start fighting after a few rounds but I got the option to say some things to them first, which I had to say in actual combat time. Which meant I had to say them in initiative order. Which was really annoying because, obviously, my fastest moving characters were not my characters who were best at talking. And while I understand that the realities of a fast paced combat situation don’t always line up in a way that is convenient for the combatants turn based action is a purely game mechanical construct. There is no reason at all that my guy-who-is-good-at-smashing-things has to sit on his arse this turn just because the smashing has to happen after the mystical lore stuff and he has happens to have a higher initiative score  than my character-who-is-good-at-mystical-shit.

While I’m talking about the game mechanics, I should add that the non-combat skill system is a bit burned on the outside, raw in the middle. Again, it’s based on tabletop Numenera in which your character has a pool of points for each of Might, Speed and Intellect, and may spend points from this pool as Effort to make tasks easier. As you level up you gain “edge” in these pools which reduces the number of points you have to spend to get any given bonus and you also increase your static skills that increase the bonuses you get on common tasks. What this all means is that at the start of the game you will tend to have a 20% chance of success at something and have to spend half your pool to up that chance to 50% or greater. Later in the game, you will get a 100% chance of success at most things you’re specialised in (and with the party system it’s easy to have at least one character who is specialised in everything) for free. Neither of these situations are interesting, although there is at least a pleasing sense of power in having 100% chance to mind control a transdimensional alien.

The early high-cost, high-failure stage of the game, however, is just awful for so many reasons.  Firstly, it seems deeply counter-productive to have a system whereby you spend points from a finite pool to increase you chance of success on a task that you could simply re-try by saving and re-loading the game. We did this for quite a lot of the early game because our pools were so small and we would otherwise have blown through them so quickly.  Secondly, you quite often have no idea what you’ll actually get from a roll until you succeed at it. Particularly early in the game, this means that you can end up spending points from a pool in order to succeed at a roll that gives you a reward that is less valuable than the points you spend. This is nonsense.

I can see the value of a system like this in tabletop because you have a human GM and so the player spending points on a roll isn’t just about improving their chance of success, it’s about signalling to the GM that this is something they (the player) care about. And the GM can react accordingly. Any halfway decent Numenera GM will make damn certain that if you spend Effort on a roll, you get something worth having if you succeed. Also in a tabletop game, if you’re low on points and it’s getting dull, you can pretty much always rest to replenish your pools. Whereas finding rest locations in Torment: Tides of Numenera is fiddly and expensive. And, obviously, there’s an extent to which that was a deliberate extent to balance the Effort system (otherwise you could just put maximum Effort into everything and rest every three minutes) but it never felt like a meaningful decision.

ALL THE FEELS

In the third act of Torment: Tides of Numenera I was genuinely blindsided by how much I’d come to care for my NPCs. Like, an “I actually cried” level of blindsided. Everything I’ve read about the game suggested that the recruitable characters were a little bit half-baked, possibly because they’re nowhere near as outlandish as the ones you pick up in the original Torment. None of them are flying burning corpses or animated suits of armour or celibate succubi. What they are, however, is lightly but compassionately drawn people who are embedded in the world and feel real insofar as videogame characters can.

When I sent my small child home, I sincerely missed her. When I learned why the apparently comedic paladin-esque character behaved the way he did I was heartbroken for him. When my dashing rogue discovered (spoiler) that he was directly responsible (and in a really, petty, shitty, cowardly way) for the death of the only man he’d ever loved I had to stop and have cuddles.

I think part of the reason I reacted more strongly to the characters in Torment: Tides of Numenera than the characters in the original Torment is that the NPCs in the original game revolved around the player character to an almost embarrassing extent. You’ve got the guy you turned into an embodiment of flame, the guy whose religion you invented, the two women who are randomly in love with you in one way or another, the skull you pulled out of hell … pretty much the only NPC you didn’t actively create in Planescape Torrment is the comedy robot voiced by Homer Simpson. There’s this slightly awkward bit at the end of P:T that explains that you are like the embodiment of torment or something and you draw tormented souls to you. But, actually, these tormented souls are just people you’ve personally dicked over.

By comparison, the NPCs in Torment: Tides of Numenera are all ultimately responsible for their own misfortune (as, arguably, is The Changing God). Ironically, in T:ToN game you’re pretty much the only person who is genuinely innocent (since you were literally born yesterday). This makes the characters much more sympathetic because while, yes, I can feel bad for the evil wizard who’s only evil because my past self kept holding his hands in fire until he went mad that’s sufficiently outlandish that it’s hard to identify with. By comparison, the child who lost her parents but blames herself because she ran away over a silly argument or the shepherd who let his curiosity get the better of him or the man who ruined his relationship out of selfishness and fear … well … I can relate to all of those.

And even if you do have a positive effect on their life and do what you feel is best for them it still feels very much like their stories are about them, not about you. You can’t bring the rogue’s dead lover back, you can’t offer the shepherd a middle ground between nothingness and self-destructive vainglory, and while you can get the lost child home you can only take her so far and she has to find the rest of the way herself.

The NPCs are really good is what I’m saying.

hang on I’m pretty sure half of that made no sense.

Okay, so this is the awkward bit. I genuinely loved 90% of Torment: Tides of Numenera. It’s just that the 10% I didn’t love includes most of the bits with the main plot.  And I should stress that isn’t because the main plot is bad, or at least it’s not bad while you’re playing the game. It’s just a bit … nothingy.

So you are The Last Castoff. The Castoffs are immortal beings created when the Changing God abandons his old body for a new body. They are caught in an eternal battle called The Eternal Battle (and I really, really feel that this only here because of the Blood War) between those who are loyal The Changing God (despite the fact he is obviously a fucker) and those who are loyal to the First Castoff (despite the fact that she is obviously a fucker, and has supposedly been dead for centuries). Castoffs are sustained by and draw power these things called the Tides. Were I feeling cynical, I might suggest that the Tides as an in-setting concept were invented after Tides of Numenera was suggested as a subtitle. Because, honestly, they don’t entirely make sense or fit with the rest of the game’s themes.

The reason that the First Castoff and The Changing God are locked in their eternal conflict is that The Changing God wants to sacrifice all of the Castoffs in order to stop a being called The Sorrow. This is the tentacly, shadowy thing that is hunting you at the start of the game. And, which again, feels a bit like it’s only in the game as a callback to the tentacly shadowy things that were after you in the original Planescape: Torment.

Now, in Planescape: Torment it turns out that the reason there are shadows chasing you is that when Ravel made you immortal a condition of your immortality is that every time her magic saves you from death, somebody else dies in your place and their spirit becomes a shadow that hunts you down and tries to kill you. As you’ve spend the whole game cheerfully throwing yourself onto spikes, down pits and through razorblades, knowing that death doesn’t harm you, this is a genuine gutpunch. The sudden realisation of the sheer number of deaths your characters has caused is nasty as fuck, marred only slightly by the fact that, since it’s a 1990s cRPG, your character has probably also killed hundreds of largely innocent humans in hand-to-hand combat just because they happened to want to stop you getting somewhere you wanted to go. It is further revealed that the strange, malevolent entity controlling the shadows from a fortress built of regrets in the negative material plane is, in fact, your own mortality separated from you by Ravel when you first came to her. This is awesome and spooky and ties everything together really nicely.

In Torment: Tides of Numenera it is revealed that The Sorrow is … um … just a thing that exists in the world and is called The Sorrow for … um … no particular reason. And it’s killing Castoffs because they fuck with the Tides (even the ones who don’t ever do anything with the Tides) and it was created specifically to protect the Tides and prevent them from being abused. Which … um … falls quite flat. Not least because the Tides themselves are never especially well articulated.

It doesn’t help that one of the main pieces of evidence that The Sorrow cites in the final confrontation (when it suddenly starts talking to you like a reasonable person, having been an unstoppable and implacable killing machine for the rest of the game) is the tremendous suffering caused by the Eternal Battle. Except, of course, the Eternal Battle only exists in the first place because The Changing God and the First Castoff are fighting over the best way to deal with The Sorrow. So essentially it’s trying to wipe everybody out in order to deal with a problem of which it is itself the primary cause.

It also goes on to outline all the ways in which your character has brought harm upon other people throughout the course of the game, presumably for an “aaah d’you see” moment. But, unfortunately, if you do the standard lawful good play through (which I always do because I’m a goody goody and it’s how these games are always set up anyway) then it hasn’t really got much to confront you with. The only thing it had on us during our play through was that we’d persuaded a drunken, washed up mercenary captain to do something that was probably a bit dangerous but that, for all we knew, wouldn’t especially hurt him (we’d done the same thing and been fine, as had loads of other people) and he’d got killed. I mean, okay we could have taken care of him better but it wasn’t exactly a “be sure, your sins will find you out” moment.

And all of this would have been fine if you were allowed to call The Sorrow out on how irrational it was being—ideally causing it to explode in a puff of logic—but the game seemed to expect you to take everything it said at face value.

What’s really odd about the whole ending is that there’s a completely different and much more interesting story going on at the same time. Towards the end of the game, it becomes very clear that the random side quest you did right at the start with Loss-of-Self and the women who are slowly having their personalities replaced is, in fact, the origin story of The Changing God. He first started working with the Tides and Consciousness Transfer in an effort to save his dying daughter, who, in another slightly confusing, quirk of storytelling died of some incurable disease at roundabout the same time as an implacable army of merciless conquerors was sweeping across The Changing God’s homeland. And maybe the idea was for there to be a central irony in this—“I could destroy the invaders and save my people, but I could not save the one person I cared about”—but that’s never really articulated. So it just looks like The Changing God gets two personal tragedies for the price of one.

Basically, I spent most of the game expecting The Sorrow to be in some way connected to The Changing God’s reasons for doing what he did, rather than the mechanics of how he achieved it. I assumed that it was going to be the remains of his original self or an embodiment of his daughter’s anguish at having been non-consensually kept in stasis and then forcibly and imperfectly resurrected again and again over the course of centuries. Or, possibly even, in some way connected to his relationship with the First Castoff, who, again, I expected to have more nuance to her. In the end her relationship to The Changing God is very poorly explored, although to be fair we may have missed something. For it to turn out that The Sorrow is, essentially, an automated defence system grossly undercuts the thematic resonance of that whole story arc.

The history of The Changing God represents one complex and somewhat twisted answer to the game’s central question. Confronted with the death of his daughter, The Changing God asks himself—wait for it—what is one life worth and over the centuries demonstrated that, to him, it was worth both everything and nothing. Everything because he wrought wonders and horrors in pursuit of his daughter’s resurrection. Nothing because his actions were ultimately vain and self-serving and he clearly had no regard for his daughter’s wishes, individuality or, indeed, life.

The giant squoogly space monster doesn’t really bring anything to this narrative. Although, unfortunately, without it the player character has far less motivation to do, well, anything.

And, um, those are my thoughts on Torment: Tides of Numenera. If you’ve got this far, well done. I’ve kind of spoiled the game completely but if you are interested in playing it, I have a spare Steam key which I would be delighted to give to anyone still alive at this point. Just leave me a comment and tell me why you’d like it and it’s yours. If more than one person asks for it, I’ll stick them in a hat or something. I’ll also throw in a hard copy of LFG as well if that’s the sort of thing that appeals to you. Although, obviously, you can just have the game without the random book.

indulgence, musing
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Sometimes, I worry that my tastes are narrowing in my old age. The last few games I’ve reviewed on this blog have been a cooperative Lovecraft themed board game, a cooperative game in which you use customised decks of cards to explore a series of unusual scenarios, and a cooperative horror game which had as one of its most interesting features a set of custom decks of cards that characterised the player characters’ strengths and weaknesses.

Today I’m going to review a customisable Lovecraft-themed cooperative card game in which you control characters represented by decks of cards and explore locations and scenarios represented by other decks of cards. The game in question is Fantasy Flight Games’ new LCG (Living Card Game) Arkham Horror: the Card Game, and it’s kind of Arkham Horror meets T.I.M.E. Stories meets London Dread meets the LCG format (of which more below).

I should say that part of me feels a bit like a sucker for picking up AH:tCG. I’ve now bought at least the base set for every Cthulhu-themed game that Fantasy Flight Games have put out (except Elder Sign, the dice game – that one passed me by for some reason). I suspect I’m not alone in this – Lovecraftian stuff is so popular that at least one game I’ve seen (Smash Up, I believe) has an expansion just called The Obligatory Cthulhu Expansion. Honestly I suspect that Arkham Horror and its spin-offs (which I’ve just learned are collectively known as the Arkham Files games) sell so reliably well that the whole IP is a bit of a license to print money. Although since both expandable board games and (especially) customisable card games are also notorious money sinks it might even be more like a license to issue licenses to print money. (I mean, by niche board gaming standards, it’s not like we’re talking billions here).

Anyway, Arkham Horror: the Card Game is the latest in FFG’s “you’re all one of these recurring Cthulhu characters who show up in all of our games and you’re trying to stop bad things happening somehow” line. This one’s an LCG. What’s an LCG? I’m glad you asked.

I mean, perhaps you didn’t ask. But I’m going to tell you anyway.

Living Card Games

Once Upon a Time, back in the strange era known today as the “early nineties” a man by the unlikely name of Richard Garfield came up with a new and genuinely industry-redefining idea for a card game. (Again, industry redefining by niche board game standards, run with me on this one). The concept was for a card game in which players would be able to customise their own decks, using a collection of cards that they would put together piecemeal from randomised packs. The game was called Magic: the Gathering and it was wildly popular. It spawned a whole genre of games (Collectible Card Games – CCGs for short) and was so successful that some people actually genuinely play it professionally. Seriously, google it.

Anyway, a decade or so after Magic appeared on the scene (along with a veritable tidal wave of imitators, successors and clones), some people became a little disillusioned with the CCG monetisation model. Because CCG cards are sold randomly, you have to pump an awful lot of money into the game to get the (often relatively few) cards you need to actually make a competitive deck. It essentially adds an element of gambling to the process of collecting that some people like and others find really, really offputting.

Enter the LCG.

Like CCGs, LCGs are designed to be played with customised decks of cards put together by the player from a collection that they have built up over time. Unlike CCGs, LCGs are not randomised. When you buy a set of LCG cards, you get all the cards in that set. When an expansion comes out, you get all the cards in that expansion. Now in one way this is really good, because it means that players no longer have to waste money buying dozens of copies of cards they don’t need in order to find the two or three they do (or pay extortionate amounts for single cards, some magic cards sell for literally thousands of dollars – although admittedly this is as much as collector’s items as anything else). In another way, though, it is scarcely an improvement at all, since all LCG cards are released in fixed expansions, you still have to buy more or less every expansion that comes out just so that you can get the one or two cards in each expansion that are important for making the decks you want. LCGs also tend to have much more aggressive release schedules. Since you can’t sell people useless copies of cards they already own, you have to make new cards at a faster rate. This makes keeping up with an LCG really challenging.

It’s one of those steps forward, steps back situations. How many there are in each direction depends very much on your tolerance for randomness and desire for completeness.

Anyway, Arkham Horror: the Card Game is an LCG. The players take on the role of investigators in Arkham (each investigator represented by a custom deck). To give you some idea of how intense an LCG release schedule is, the base game came out towards the end of 2016, and it already has two stand-alone scenarios, one deluxe expansion containing 156 cards, and a smaller expansion containing 26 player cards, plus a new scenario, with three more expansions scheduled for release imminently.

So this is one of those situations where one of the biggest take-homes actually comes before the review proper. If you really want to get into this game, you’re more-or-less committing to spending $15 on new cards every 1-2 months. You can just buy and play the base game (I just bought it and just played it), but it feels a bit … thin. Like you’re missing out on half of what the game is about. And I at least couldn’t shake the idea that this was deliberate, that the core set is almost a taster more than a sincere attempt to sell me a complete gaming experience.

Then again, maybe I only feel that because I know it’s an LCG, and I like deck-customising games. Either way, I have to start this review off with a bit of  buyer beware. This game follows a very specific business model and if you want to get the most out of it, you’re going to be making a non-trivial commitment of both time and money.

The Game Itself

 There are some mild spoilers in this bit, be warned.

 If you’ve played, or read my reviews of, Arkham Horror or Eldrich Horror then you’ll already know a certain amount about how Arkham Horror: the Card Game works. You play characters who investigate Cthulhoid mysteries through a mixture of two-fisted action that certain purists consider incompatible with true Lovecraftian horror (I’d argue that these purists are wrong, Lovecraft can be pretty pulpy at times) and bookish investigation. If you’ve played, or read my reviews of, Arkham Horror or Eldrich Horror you will be in no way surprised to discover that the core mechanics of the game involve collecting Clue Tokens and using them in a sort of abstract way to advance your understanding of a mystery (the mysteries here represented by “Act” cards) while racing against a time limit set by an ever-rising stack of Doom Tokens (which here accumulate on sinister “Agenda Cards”). Nor will you be surprised that the game frequently and randomly screws you over. This is pretty much how these games always work.

It’s a bit hard to talk about the game specifically without spoilers, and because it’s a customisable card game, how it plays will vary radically depending on which characters you pick, what cards are in your deck, and (perhaps most importantly and possibly most problematically) what cards you happen to draw. I’ll talk more about the card drawing issue later, first off I should probably fill in a bit more about the basic gameplay loop.

A round of Arkham Horror: the Card Game proceeds very much like a round of Arkham Horror: the Board Game. The players take it in turns to take a number of actions (three, in the case of AH:tCG) and then they draw a number of Mythos Cards (one each, which allows the game to scale fairly straightforwardly with multiple players) which control what terrible things happen to you. Sometimes characters will be called upon to make tests, which they will make by drawing tokens from a bag. This essentially works like rolling a (roughly) sixteen-sided die, but has the great strength that the dice can be customised depending on how hard you want the game to be, or in order to give a different flavour to different scenarios.

The test resolution mechanic was one of the first snags I hit with the game. The bag o’ tokens (the “chaos bag” as it is called by the game) contains 16 tokens on easy or standard difficulty, ten of them numbered, six of them with special symbols that have a different effects in different scenarios. The way the mechanic works is that you add the number on the token (or the number on the symbol reference card) to your character’s stat. Your character’s stats range from 1 to 4, and the numbers on the counters range from plus 1 to minus 4. Now I am very aware that there is no mathematical difference between a range of +1 to -4 and a range of 0 to +5, but it’s very psychologically different. And this is good in some ways because it makes the game feel more horrific – penalties make you feel helpless while bonuses make you feel powerful even if the final result is the same – but it’s bad in others because having the random element of the game expressed in negative terms just feels unfun if you aren’t prepared for it.

The game comes with three scenarios that link together to form a campaign. Each one can be played through in about 45 minutes to an hour, and we played through the entire thing in an evening. We played the first scenario on Easy difficulty (for some unfathomable reason the “initial game” setup in the cheerily-entitled “Learn to Play” booklet instructs you to set up the Chaos Bag for Standard difficulty even though you have no idea what you’re doing) and the next two scenarios on Standard. Frustratingly, we found Easy difficulty slightly too easy and Standard difficulty slightly too difficult. Part of this might have been to do with bad luck, part of it might have been to do with misaligned expectations, but I rather felt that on Standard difficulty we were often completely unprepared for the challenges the game put us up against.

To get numbersy for a bit, your characters’ starting stats are actually pretty okay. Characters seem to get at least one 4 (sometimes 2) and no more than one 1 (sometimes 0), so they can succeed relatively reliably at tasks of Difficulty 2 or less. Thing is, there aren’t that many tasks of difficulty 2 or less. Of the sixteen tokens in the bag on Standard difficulty, one is an automatic failure, one is a -4, one a -3, two -2, three -1, two 0 and one +1. This means that to stand a reasonable chance of succeeding at a task you really have to beat its difficulty by 2 points or more (the special symbols usually have at least a -1 modifier). But in the second and third scenarios, the average challenge seems to be Difficulty 4, making it difficult for any character to reliably succeed on it without discarding cards. A character can always discard cards from their hand to boost their stats for a particular roll, but the cards discarded have to show icons matching the challenge in question, and it’s very easy to wind up with a situation where you need to make an Agility test and aren’t holding any Agility cards, and even if you are holding Agility cards, it’s not easy to know whether it’s best to spend those cards now or hold onto them in case there’s a more important Agility test coming up.

To some extent, we got especially unlucky in our playthrough of the final scenario. One of our characters got hit with a Frozen In Fear condition, making all of his Actions (at least all of his actions of the types you’d most commonly want to use – movement being the especially important one) take two Actions rather than one. Since the game is basically all about action economy and achieving your goals against a set time limit, this was genuinely incapacitating (especially in the final scenario, in which movement between locations is rather awkward). And getting rid of the card required a Willpower Test against Difficulty 3. The character only had a Willpower of 3, and wasn’t holding any Willpower-Boosting cards. This meant that his only hope of success was to draw either the +1 or one of the 0s from the Chaos Bag at the end of his turn. And he never did. Which made the whole game very, very frustrating.

It doesn’t help that the game seems to have a bit of a built-in death spiral. Failing at tests causes you to lose resources or take penalties, which in turn make it more likely that you will fail at future tests and lose more resources or take more penalties, and so on and so forth. The game has an interesting setup whereby you technically can’t lose any of the scenarios (although you can get a less desirable ending), but the way that this works in practice is that doing badly on one scenario puts you at a disadvantage in the next, which puts you at a disadvantage in the next, and so on. The second scenario in the introductory campaign requires your characters (spoilers) to track down and eliminate six cultists. Despite playing as efficiently as we could and (we felt) actually getting pretty lucky with our draws, we only managed to catch five of the cultists, the sixth getting away. I originally felt that this was fair enough: when we finished the scenario, it seemed that the goal had simply been to catch as many cultists as possible and that the difference between catching five and catching all six was much the same as the difference between catching four and catching five.

Then it turned out that you had to discard two of your five starting cards in scenario 3 if you didn’t catch all the cultists in scenario 2. This is a big deal. Now true, you could spend two of your three actions on the first turn to draw back up to five, but then you’ve wasted almost an entire turn, and that’s potentially a major setback given that these games are very much run on a time limit. (Although actually having poked around the internets a bit more, it seems we missed a trick in that we caught five of the six cultists with two turns in hand and knew we couldn’t catch the sixth in time, and looking back at the scenario we could have gone back to the starting location and taken the Resign option, meaning we’d give up on the sixth cultist but that our time wouldn’t have run out, and we’d have been spared the card penalty. Then again we had no real way of knowing this at the time).

Basically my experience of Arkham Horror: the Card Game was that I thought the first scenario was too easy (although admittedly we played it on Easy), the second scenario was about right (it felt tight, we nearly did it, but I do think we got lucky in that we both managed to get some very powerful cards in our starting hands) and the last scenario was a complete disaster. I should probably stress that this is very much an issue of perspective – and from a certain point of view having the final mission be a doomed scrabble against insurmountable odds is actually pretty thematic. I think I might have preferred that those odds come from something a bit less anti-fun than one of the characters getting hit with an essentially unremovable debuff right out the gate, and if it had felt a bit more like we were failing because of our poor choices rather than blind luck and bad draws, but I can see how some people like the idea that you sometimes just can’t beat the Old Gods.

In retrospect I think the draw dependency was particularly upsetting. We played with the recommended starting decks and characters – Roland Banks the Fed and Wendy Adams the Urchin. Roland’s deck is a mixture of “Guardian” (combat with a vaguely police theme) and “Seeker” (research and clues with a vaguely librarian theme) cards. But that meant in scenario 2 he wound up with a hand full of combat cards, making him quite ineffective in investigative situations while in scenario 3 he had a hand full of research cards, making him pretty useless in combat. Wendy, meanwhile, has a powerful item in her deck called Wendy’s Amulet, which allows her to play the top card of her discard pile as if it was in her hand. In scenario 2, we managed to arrange things to that Wendy was able to indefinitely replay a particular card that gave her +2 to basically everything, which meant she kicked ass. Then in scenario 3 she didn’t draw the amulet, which made her pretty close to useless for much of the game.

The thing is, card games are inherently random for hopefully obvious reasons, but part of the skill of deckbuilding is managing that randomness. Unfortunately LCG starter sets tend to be a little bit – and I appreciate this is a loaded term – stingy with the amount of material they give you to start off with. You usually have enough cards to make one okay-ish deck for every character/faction/whatever in the game, but you usually can’t make more than two decks at once (since most decks will share cards) and your decks won’t be very optimised. In particular, one of the best ways to minimise the randomness  involved in a customisable card game is to always run the minimum deck size (this is normally easy to achieve, since it involves having a smaller collection rather than a larger one) and to include the maximum number of copies of any card you want to be able to reliably draw. In Arkham Horror: the Card Game you are entitled to include up to two copies of any card in your deck (except for the unique signature cards that each investigator gets for flavour) but the core set only includes one copy of most of the best cards. This makes the starter decks wildly suboptimal. And perhaps more annoyingly, it strongly limits the game’s customisability unless you buy two starter sets. And that’s a big enough point that I think I’m going to put it in its own section.

The Heart of the Cards

 Arkham Horror: the Card Game is, in many ways, several different games mashed up together. And they’re games I like. The Encounter, Agenda, Act and Location cards in the game all function exactly like their counterparts in the other Arkham Files games. You draw them, they do stuff that screws you over. The cards I want to talk about now are the other cards. The ones that you draw from in order to actually do stuff in the game. These are the cards that you actually collect in this collectible (sorry: “living”) card game. In any given scenario, you will always have the same locations (with a few slight variations), the same encounters, the same Acts and Agendas. But you might well be playing with completely different characters or, even if you’re running the same characters, completely different decks. For me, this is a big part of the appeal of this kind of the game. Being able to swap cards into and out of your deck and see how they work with each other is really good fun.

 Except you can’t really do that in Arkham Horror: the Card Game. At least not with one copy of the base set.

 The base set of AH:tCG contains 103 unique player cards. Of these five are investigators (your actual character, which doesn’t go into your deck) and ten are the unique assets and weaknesses that go with those characters (these do go into your deck, but can’t be changed). A further eight are “basic weaknesses”. Each character is required to add a randomly selected basic weakness to their deck as well as their signature weakness. Ten more are neutral cards, usable by any character (although two of these cards are advanced cards that can only be purchased with experience points, of which more overanalysis later).

 The remaining 70 cards are divided between the game’s five classes: Guardian,  Seeker, Rogue, Mystic and Survivor. There are 14 cards per class, of which 10 are basic and 4 are advanced cards that you have to buy with experience points. The basic set includes duplicates (2 or 4 copies, usually two) of the neutral cards, but only one copy of each class card.

 Constructing a deck for a character requires 30 cards, plus your signatures and a random basic weakness. If I want to construct a starting deck for any given character, I have to build a 30-card deck out of twenty class cards and sixteen neutral cards (since you have the option to include two copies of each). This means that there are only 36 cards (not even unique cards, just cards) I can possibly put in a starting deck, which starkly limits my choices, and if I want to play two-player I’m even more strictly limited, because most neutral cards come as a pair rather than a set of four, so if I choose to – say – put two Manual Dexterity cards into my deck, you can’t put them into yours. After we assembled our recommended starting decks for our initial playthrough, there were exactly two zero-cost neutral cards left in the box, everything else cost XP or was was for other classes.

This puts an incredible number of restrictions on your choices in the base game. Not only is the level of customisation available to you restricted to six cards out of thirty (less if playing two player), but there are also a fair few characters who simply can’t team up on the same investigation. Remember there are five characters, each with access to two classes (each class gets used twice, and no combination appears more than once). For example Wendy the Urchin gets Survivor and Rogue cards, while “Skids” O’Toole the Ex-Con gets Rogue and Guardian cards. But if I wanted to play a game where … um … where an ex-con teams up with a small orphan girl (actually that could be adorable rather than skeevy if you framed it right) I’d have to build two thirty card decks using only Survivor, Rogue, Guardian and Neutral cards. I need sixty cards in total, but there are only forty-six (thirty class, sixteen neutral) meaning I’d fall well short.

The first expansion (the Dunwich Legacy) helps a bit. It adds three unique zero-cost cards for each class (plus one card with an experience cost) and, perhaps more importantly, it includes duplicates of each. But this still leaves the customisation options pretty slim when you look at it. Since the base characters have access to two classes, they effectively have twelve new cards to play with, which is almost enough to make it feel like you get a real choice. But things are much more constrained if you still want to play Wendy and Skids’ Grand Adventure. Adding six cards to each class deck takes the number of cards they have between them to sixty-four. So basically all but four of the cards in the game (including neutral cards, remember) have to be in one or other of their decks.

And the expansion gets even weirder because it introduces five new characters, all of whom have access to only one class, but have the option to include up to five cards (in total) from any other classes. This is cool and increases your flexibility, but also means that these characters need to build a twenty-five card deck using only one set of class cards, plus neutrals. So that’s a twenty-five card deck to be built using only the sixteen cards in the character’s main class and the sixteen neutral cards. That’s not terrible, although I’d point out that if you want to play a game with two of these new characters, that means you need to put together two twenty-five card decks (fifty cards total) out of two sixteen-card class decks plus the sixteen-card neutral deck, which is 48 cards. And in fairness I should add that there’s actually one (count it, one) new neutral card in the first expansion as well, so that does just about make a game with two new characters possible, but you have to use literally all the cards you have. (Okay, you actually get four each of torches and flashlights, so you might have one or two left over, but still).

All of which brings me back to the conclusion that if you want to seriously engage with the customisation element of the game (and this is a really big part of what appeals to me about it), you actually do need to buy two core sets (especially if you’re ever intending to play with more than two players, which I’m pretty sure is genuinely impossible even with the expansion).

I’ve literally just this second finished running the numbers on this one, and I’m still trying to work through my feelings. I’ve seen it argued in some places that since to really get involved with this kind of game you need to commit to spending about $10-$20 a month on cards and expansions, actually springing for a second copy of the base game isn’t a big deal. The hyper-rational part of me that enjoys arguing in favour of letting pandas become extinct (seriously, we could save dozens of less cute animals with what we’re spending on pandas) quite respects this argument (and after all, I’ve bought an awful lot of expansions for Eldrich). Another part of me, however, really objects to being sold a product that I can only use to its fullest potential if I buy it twice. Especially since half the cards in the game (all of the scenario cards, basically) would then be completely wasted. I mean the big advantage that LCGs were supposed to have over CCGs is that you don’t have to waste money on duplicates you don’t want.

If I’m honest, I think part of the reason I’m so angry about this is that I know there’s at least a 40% chance that I’ll buy a second set. Because I am exactly the kind of person this sort of thing works on. Fuck you, Fantasy Flight Games.

Something Approaching a Conclusion

 I don’t know how I feel about Arkham Horror: the Card Game. Because it’s such a strange hybrid, I find it hard to think about it without comparing it to the other games to which it’s similar. And peculiarly, I think it might wind up being one of those strange intransitive preferences, where it somehow becomes possible to think yourself into a corner where you like A better than B, like B better than C, and like C better than A.

 To be more specific, the games with which I feel Arkham Horror: the Card Game most closely compares are T.I.M.E. Stories and Eldrich Horror. I could compare it to other card games like Netrunner, but since I have such a massive bias in favour of co-operative games these days, I actually think the comparison is less useful for me than it might be for some other people (although I’ll add a footnote about how I feel AH:tCG stacks up against other LCGs specifically later on).

 Comparing AH:tCG to Eldrich Horror, I tend to feel that Eldrich is a more complete experience out of the box, gives you more customisability straight away, and feels like it dicks you about less. So I guess I prefer Eldrich Horror to Arkham Horror: the Card Game.

 Comparing Eldrich Horror to T.I.M.E. Stories, I feel like T.I.M.E. Stories has a kind of strange magic to it that Eldrich just misses out on. It’s an event game rather than just a big game, and I feel like for what I want to use it for, T.I.M.E. Stories beats out Eldrich. So I guess I prefer T.I.M.E. Stories to Eldrich.

 Comparing T.I.M.E. Stories to Arkham Horror: the Card Game, I almost think AH:tCG has T.I.M.E. Stories beaten. It plays faster, comes with three scenarios in the core box rather than one, is more replayable while still retaining that joy of discovery, has a less frustrating and opaque release schedule, and actually (I think) achieves just as much storytelling as T.I.M.E. Stories with even less card text (being able to inherit assumptions from all the other games and the original source material helps here, of course). Also, it has actual gameplay where T.I.M.E. Stories has more guesswork and dice-rolling. So I guess I prefer AH:tCG to T.I.M.E. Stories.

 Which is helpful. (And actually a bit untrue, the truth is that T.I.M.E. Stories does do what it does so well that it will always be my go-to game for that thing, it’s just that that thing is very specific).

 To be serious for a moment, I think that like T.I.M.E. Stories or Eldrich I could get super into Arkham Horror: the Card Game. It contains all sorts of things that I really, really like. But I also think that the game will only properly come into its own with quite a lot of investment of time, energy, and money.

 Of the three games, I would hands-down recommend Eldrich Horror over either T.I.M.E. Stories or Arkham Horror: the Card Game if you want a game that plays well out of the box, and which you can enjoy for a good long time without ever spending another penny on supporting material. I would hands-down recommend T.I.M.E. Stories if you want a real event game. Something you get your friends around to play once every three months, and spend as much time talking about afterwards as you spent playing it in the first place (or perhaps that’s only me).

 As for AH:tCG. I’m not sure I’d hands-down recommend it for anybody. Although I think I would make a qualified recommendation for a fair few different people.

 If you aren’t interested in the deckbuilding and customisation elements of the game, but still want to check out the core box, it’s worth a look (well, it’s worth a look if you think £30 is a reasonable amount of money to spend just to take a look at something). I wouldn’t recommend it as highly as Eldrich, but then it’s half the price, and I actually would recommend out-the-box AH:tCG more highly than I would recommend out-the-box T.I.M.E. Stories (did I mention how much I hated Asylum?). My one big recommendation for anybody wanting to play core-only Arkham Horror: the Card Game is that it is probably a very good idea to play on Easy. The manual does this really wanky thing with the difficulty settings where it tries to imply that only the highest difficulty is really worth playing (it uses the same trick Deus Ex used where each difficulty setting is tagged with “I want X” and the lowest level is “I want a story” while the highest level is “I want [Name of the Actual Game I Fucking Paid Money For]” as if any setting but the most pointlessly brutal is somehow an invalid gaming experience). I say this mostly because, when you think about it, playing with a lot of cards that allow you to build a consistent, powerful deck that can effectively overcome challenges actually makes the game way easier. Sticking with the limited decks that you can build using the core box is actually a challenge in itself, easily equivalent to the (perhaps rather less interesting) challenge of putting extra minus-numbers into the Chaos Bag.

 If you are interested in the deckbuilding and customisation elements of the game, I’m afraid you’re going to have to stick with me just a little bit longer.

 Arkham vs Other Customisable Card Games

 Wow this has been long. I mean, honestly, if you came here expecting brevity you probably haven’t read any of my other blog posts.

 Anyway, I quickly want to sum up the reasons that Arkham Horror: the Card Game might finally be the game to actually get me into customisable card gaming when titles like Netrunner haven’t.

 And actually it’s a pretty short summary: it’s co-op. I seriously prefer co-op games these days. Perhaps I’m just a namby-pamby tree-hugger, but I much prefer working with my friends to overcome a challenge than working against my friends to chase some arbitrary goal.

 I don’t really know the genre well enough to be able to say if AH:tCG is the first fully co-op LCG (I think the Lord of the Rings game might have had co-operative elements as well) but it’s the one I’ve noticed, and I’m weirdly excited by it.

 The first big thing here is that this kind of game relies heavily on having people to play it with, and on having people to play it with who are at least as into it as you are. Since I probably like this sort of game slightly more than most of my friends, this made getting into Netrunner or the equivalent a little bit pointless. Because even though I could always buy the cards and then lend them to people so they could play against me, there’d be this uncomfortable sense that it was like challenging your Dad to a game of Mortal Kombat or Fifa. “Come on, play against me at this thing I’m way more invested in and better at than you, it’ll be fun!”

 Fundamentally, it’s a bit churlish to keep inviting your friends over so you can beat them at things you care more about than they do.

 Making the game co-operative fixes that problem. It doesn’t matter if I know the game inside out while you’re only passingly familiar with it because we’re working together, and while quarterbacking (one player telling the other players what to do) is always a danger, it’s a bit harder to do in a game where everybody is controlling a unique character with unique abilities.

 I’m also weirdly interested in the unusual structure of AH:tCG and how it intersects with the customisable card game format. The game is designed to be played in campaigns, with each actual scenario being relatively short, but each campaign taking the best part of a day. Your ability to modify your deck between scenarios is limited by experience points, which means that there’s this whole extra layer of gameplay that takes place in the downtime between scenarios, which I think could be genuinely interesting. And FFG seem to have noticed this so, for example, one of the upcoming expansions includes cards that have effects between scenarios rather than during scenarios. But these cards will be dead draws in an actual game. So you’re balancing the meta-game against the game in-the-moment. There are even cards which do something completely mysterious if you use them, and you won’t find out what they are until you do (for example, one card is called Mysterious Solution: Unidentified and when you use the card successfully you record in your log that you have identified the mysterious solution). It could all be totally awesome.

 Or crap. It could wind up being crap.

 I’m also really keen to see how well the deck-building and customisation elements work when taken co-operatively. I actually think that once I’ve got a few more cards it will be really interesting to sit around with my friends and actually design decks together that complement each other. It’s all the fun of deckbuilding, but you get to do it with your friends. And doing things with your friends is best. Because friends are cool. Yay friends.

 The final thing I’m excited about with AH:tCG is that it’s weirdly low pressure compared to other LCGs. The problem with most Living Card Games (and Collectible Card Games, for that matter) is that the longer they go on, the harder they are to get into. There are so many new cards out that you’ll never be able to compete against strangers because they’ll have literally years worth of expansions backing them up, and you won’t. You could play against friends with your own collection, but that’s the play-your-dad-at-Fifa problem again. This isn’t an issue in a co-op game. Getting into Arkham Horror: the Card Game two years from now will be like playing a two year old single-player video game. Okay, you’ll be a bit behind the curve, and you won’t be playing through the content the cool kids are talking about, but it won’t really matter. That’s very different from trying to get into a very well established competitive game, where you really do have to do a crapload of catching up.

 Oh, I should probably add that while there isn’t much pressure to keep up with the metaphorical Joneses, there is a bit more pressure to buy complete expansion cycles, because every cycle tells one story, and if you don’t buy every pack in an expansion cycle you will miss out on bits of the narrative. How much of a problem you think this is will depend a lot on why you feel you play this sort of game.

 So yes, I’m weirdly fascinated by AH:tCG. If you are also weirdly fascinated, give it a look. But do be warned that you will probably end up having to buy two core sets. Because FFG are canny bastards.

people & cardboard
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So, as I mentioned in my last post, I’ve embarked upon a probably ill-fated project to finish my old shit before buying any new shit.

I’m actually quite enjoying it so far. But then I’m also being careful not to turn the whole affair into a self-beating stick – I mean, if I super, super want something, I’m going to get it and if I hate something, I’m not going to force myself through it. But I’ve called a halt to general acquisitions.

And, some ways, it’s actually relaxing. There’s just so much … culture out there available for consumption that it often feels simultaneously over and underwhelming. Basically I have this problem, except with books:

But having my choices gently curtailed means I spend time less filled with existential dread over the fact I’ll definitely die before I’ve read everything I want to read. And more time actually reading.

So, here is an update on, um, my shit.

The Lessons by Naomi Alderman

I think I picked this up because it was an Oxford book, and I have a weakness for Oxford books. It’s sort of half The Secret History half Brideshead Revisited, while not being nearly as good as either. It’s readable enough, I guess, and the intricacies and insularities of Oxford are well-depicted but it all felt very been-there-done-that to me. The narrator is ye typical ‘normal’ outsider person who gets drawn into a circle of fabulous Bohemians, led by a damaged homosexual. The problem is, this sort of book turns on that character being as fascinating to the reader as they are to the narrator. And despite Mark Winters having all the designated attributes—beauty, money, promiscuity, Catholic guilt—I kind of failed spectacularly to give any fucks about him. And the rest of the cast is similarly un-fuck inspiring.

I think part of the problem was a lacklustre dismantling. These novels have a particular trajectory: The Normal comes to university, full of hopes and dreams, is initially disappointed to discover the place isn’t what they imagined. Then they find their low door in the wall and are for a little while blessed, dazzled, enraptured, believing they have what they didn’t originally realise they were searching for. Then it all goes horribly wrong. In The Secret History it’s because they literally murder someone. In Brideshead Revisited Sebastian’s descent into ruin mirrors the destruction caused by the coming war. In The Lessons … it’s more just kind of an eh. Things are a bit depressing. People make ill-advised choices and are sad. Oh, the narrator is gay outta nowhere. That must have been one hell of a handjob.

There’s some really well-articulated stuff about Oxford itself though:

What is Oxford? It is like a magician, dazzling viewers with bustle and glitter, misdirecting our attention. What was it for me? Indifferent tuition, uncomfortable accommodation, uninterested pastoral care. It has style: the gowns, cobbled streets, domed libraries and sixteenth-century portraits. It is old and it is beautiful and it is grand. And it is unfair and it is narrow and it is cold. Walking in Oxford, one catches a glimpse through each college doorway, a flash of tended green lawn and ancient courtyards. But the doorways are guarded and the guardians are suspicious and hostile.

And I appreciated the shout-out to the St Giles toilets.

I Am Not Myself These Days by Josh Kilmer Purcell

Wow, this was awful. Awfully sad and awfully funny. And I liked it awfully. Like The Lessons above it’s a familiar story—this time the subgenre ‘being fucked up with another fuck up’—but, to my mind, it was a lot more successful. Because while “I’m messed up and I’m in love with someone messed up and no matter how hard we try we keep messing each other up” is familiar ground for a memoir, especially a queer memoir, the devil is in the details.

Set in New York in the 90s, Kilmer Purcell works as an advertising executive by day. By night, he performs as his alter-ego Aquadisiac. Though, mainly he drinks. Then he meets an escort called Jack, who keeps a penthouse apartment and helps Josh bring his life fleetingly into some kind of order. And, of course, it unravels with Jack spiralling into drug addiction, and then both of them falling apart together.

Despite the fact that the narrative has one direction, and the direction is down, I still found this really readable: it’s defiant and cynical and unsentimental and charming. I sometimes struggle with memoirs that want to wring a structure from the chaos of being alive. To me, it can feel too neat, too much like fiction. Not everything has meaning, a lesson to learn, a conclusion to find. IANMTD, by contrast, is very much about a particular time and a particular place—the legacy of something real, half-revealed and half-concealed by the artifice surrounding it. If it is “about” anything, I’d say it’s about love. Not in the sweeping romance, HEA way. But love as a thing that happens to you. The ways it changes you and the ways it doesn’t. All the ghosts we leave behind us of the people we were when we were in love.

The last chapter, in particular… eeesh. Left me full of unexpected feels.

This Charming Man by Ajax Bell

Hurrah! I enjoyed this very much. I don’t want to make sweeping generalisations about the genre (genrelisations?) but if we accept m/m is a complicated spectrum of voices and agendas and presumed/preferred audiences … this felt consciously queer to me. And, yes, I’m aware this is an arbitrary and entirely subjective judgement.

It’s a coming-of-age story set in … um … somewhere in America … um … Seattle in the 90s? Omg, I’m rubbish. We follow our hero Steven as he grows from aimless party boy to a young man who has decided the sort of life he wants to live. As you can probably tell from my attempt to summarise the plot, most of the action is internal and emotional, but it broadly works. I mean, I could have done with slightly less “Steven talking to everyone about the same things over and over again” but I was sufficiently invested in him as a character that the occasional pace-slowing conversation didn’t trouble me too much.

Steven’s two main relationships are with John, an older man he has as crush on, and Adrian, his fabulous but bad-for-him best friend. Adrian is, well, we’ve all met this character, a few times in life, repeatedly in fiction: beautiful, stylish, shallow, promiscuous, cruel, wounded. Steven starts the book entangled with him, entranced and frustrated, at least half in love with him, while knowing deep down that Adrian will never be with him the way he wants. I feel kind of ambivalent about Adrian. I found him a more successful depiction of someone I was supposed to be attracted to than Mark Winters in The Lessons but I never felt as if I had any direct access to whatever it was that drew Steven to him beyond the generic appeal of someone who is like that. Basically it was like Steven was responding to a fictional archetype he understood to be tempting rather than something specific about Adrian. I mean, possibly that was the point but, in my experience, when we do get tangled up with someone bewitching but destructive it’s highly personal. Otherwise we’d get out of there much more quickly.

I was braced for Adriaan to die horribly at some point because characters like Aidan always die … but (spoiler) he didn’t! In fact, I found the novel generally balanced in its portrayal of queer life and choices.  Drug-taking and partying and having casual sex is bad for Steven in the long-term because it interferes with what he wants to with his life and stops making him happy, but I never got the sense that was part of a broader commentary on the lifestyle. It wasn’t that buckling down, getting a degree and going steady with John was better per se. More that, as Steven figured out his life, it became what he wanted.

In fact, Steven has quite a lot of casual sex and, while sex with someone you love is portrayed as demonstrably different to sex with someone you don’t, I liked that casual sex had a place in the book. And while it wasn’t always completely healthy (like when Steven fucks Adrian in the first chapter) it never crossed the line into bad, abusive or wrong. There’s even some fulfilling friendsex in the middle that is good for both parties. This is actually pretty rare in romance and while it may cross the NOPE line for some readers … I appreciated it very much. Sex is many things. Can be about many things. I personally don’t like the idea that the only valid sex is love-of-life-HEA-sex.

As for the romance … it was … fine. It was nice. Gently kinky, which was a touch surprising since Steven-is-a-bit-of-a-sub kind of emerges slightly untethered towards the middle of the book. But the romance isn’t really the focus here. And mostly that’s okay—except John is a very distant figure sometimes. Their ‘big misunderstanding’ such as it is involves John not phoning Steven because of some shit he’s got going on in his head about not being ready for a potentially complicated relationship with a younger man. And this leads to them spending literally months apart and only gets explained via direct dialogue—which was both understandable, as a natural consequence of limited third person narration, and emotionally unsatisfying to me.

A Charming Man is a bit ragged in places—I wish the pacing was tighter, I’d have liked more emotional depth to Adrian and more access to John. But I loved the sense of place and time—I was teeny-tiny when this book is set, and I’ve never been to Seattle, so I have no idea if it’s authentic or not. But it felt like it had been written with love. Much like the book as a whole: queer and compassionate and unique in many ways.

PS – isn’t this cover pretty? Also A+ Smiths reference.

Alphabet of Thorn by Patricia A McKillip

Note of shallowness: I am sad I do not have this with the original cover which is super ornate and gorgeous.

I burned out on fantasy quite a few years ago, but there was a lot I enjoyed about this. The fact it wasn’t eighty thousand gazillion pages long, for example, and it’s not the first book of a trilogy, which ends on a cliff-hanger, and book two of which is due for release in 2046. Also there are women in it, which fantasy as a genre is still working on—a variety of women and they get to do cool stuff. It’s a multi-viewpoint thing, bringing together a young scribe, left orphaned outside the library, a trainee wizard, a young queen, and a terrifying sorcerer from beyond space and time.

It took me a while to get into this because you don’t really figure out what’s happening until about halfway through. The stories feel disconnected and the characters a little distant (Bourne, in particular, the trainee wizard remains an attractive cipher throughout) … but once the pieces snap into place, it’s fucking awesome. It’s got all the usual fantasy type tropes in here—magic, war, politics!—but in the end they fall away to tell a very personal story about love and language, and the power of both to control people and save them and tear them apart.

I also loved the depth of the world-building here. While the book never bogs down in detailed explanation—there’s a floating school for magicians, a vast library built into a cliff, a warrior-king sleeping in a cave—there’s an intense sense of place, history and myth. This is very much my personal preference because I know some fantasy readers want six thousand years of timeline and a map. But, me, I want a fantasy author to make me believe they know how the magic works, and what happened 543 years ago, without necessarily feeling obliged to tell me about it.

And the writing, oh the writing is incredibly pretty. So this one was a win for me.

Every moment is like a wheel with a hundred spokes in it. We ride always at the hub of the wheel and go forward as it turns. We ignore the array of other moments constantly turning around us. We are surrounded by doorways; we never open them

And – well, that’s my shit. Come back some other time for some more shit.

Oh, I forgot disclosure and stuff: I know none of these people either personally or on social media.

my old shit
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