One of the many awesome things CS Lewis said was this: When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up. Which is a slightly self-conscious way for me to ‘fess up to the fact that—since becoming a grown up—I’ve acquired a pretty impressive collection of plush animals.

I could probably trace this back to childhood trauma (only in the sense that you can trace everything back to childhood, not in the sense of being actually at any point traumatised) but basically I think it comes down to the fact that … they’re really cute.

My favourite supplier (is supplier the right word? makes it sound like drugs) is Keel Toys because their animals are super soft and snuggly, charmingly characterful and sometimes just plain weird. Like … everything you need to know about Keel Toys comes from a brief glance at their ‘Bobballs’ range. Bobballs are teeny-tiny squishy-round animals with silly expressions and googly eyes. Needless to say, I’m into them. Here’s a picture:

click to embiggen

So, yeah, you’re probably looking at that thinking “okay, right, it’s some cute animals, what’s he getting so excited about” but keep looking … spotted it yet?  Bottom row, fourth from the left there’s … yep … that’s a pineapple.

I would totally love to be have been a fly on the wall in that design meeting.

Manager: Okay team, we’re introducing a new range called Bobballs. The concept is adorably spherical animals. What have you got for me?

Designer 1: Um, well I’ve made this super happy looking clownfish

Manager: Nice work, Michelle. I imagine that’ll be really popular because the second Finding Nemo film just came out.

Designer 2: I did a tiger

Manager: Okay Imran, I see what you’re going for there. It mean it’s very inside the box but kids always love tigers. Good call.

Designer 3: I made this … yellow bird thing, could be a chicken, could be anything avian to be honest, but it’s got a hilarious look on its face.

Manager: You know something, Helena, I’m going to trust on you on this. I love the suppressed madness in its eyes. What about you, High-As-A-Kite Bob? What have you got for us?

Bob: … a pineapple.

Manager: … a pineapple?

Bob: Yeah, man, a wild pineapple, king of the beasts.

[Long pause]

Manager: I LOVE IT.

They also do a range called Pippins, which I don’t think Bob was involved in, the design principle of which simply appears to be: so cute it hurts.

Ahhhh omg look at its trunk and it’s faaaaace and its feeeeets ahhhhh

 

Anyway, I was recently on Amazon where my ‘inspired by your shopping trends’ is almost 100% cuddly animals and romance novels. And up popped this adorable duck.

Omg, looook at her! Loooook! With her chubbly duck cheeks and whimsically uptitled duck beak. And the little duck feet – omggggg. She looks like Charlotte Lucas from Pride and Prejudice if Charlotte Lucas was a cuddly duck.

So, obviously, being a mature adult I had to have her.

Charlotte Duckas was listed as “keel 30cm duck with sparkle eyes’ and the description was simply ‘soft cute cuddly’ – which seemed, at the time, fair enough. There was one review, as below:

click to embiggenify

Thus, I felt no particular qualms as I ordered my adorable cuddle duck.

And then my duck arrived. Here is a picture of my duck.

Yep. She hates me. She hates everything. She is the angriest duck in the universe. A duck with a grudge. A duck you would not turn your back on. Or allow to approach you down a dark alley in a dodgy part of town.

Which left me in a bit of quandary because, while she definitely wasn’t the duck I had ordered, I wasn’t entirely sure how to return her:

Dear Keel Toys

I ordered an adorable duck from you, but the duck arrived hateful. The description of the duck is listed as ‘soft cute cuddly’ but my duck would be more aptly described as ‘malignant sneery hostile’. Under the trade descriptions act, I believe I am entitled to a new duck.

Best wishes,

AJH

PS – Please do not tell the duck I have written to you, as I believe she will kill me in my sleep.

Anyway, I brought the problem (and the duck) home to H – who promptly accused me of being mean to the duck, since apparently some people can’t help being hateful, and refused to let me return her.

I am now constantly trolled in my own home by an angry duck. Sometimes H tucks her into my side  of the bed when I’m out of the room:

And I swear to god she’s watching me:

Plotting something:

Obviously we couldn’t call her Charlotte Duckas any more – because while Charlotte has a wicked streak, she is not a psycho. So the duck was re-named Caroline Beakley, which seemed more appropriate.

Sometimes we also call her Chris Duckicho because she looks like a bit Chris Jericho when he’s heeling it up:

click for largification

And sometimes Harvey Duck because, once we got used to her mean little face, we realised that it’s actually an angle thing – and while she looks utterly contemptuous most of the time, she’s kind of adorable if you come at her from the right direction:

Ducky knows how to work a myspace angle

Although, honestly, day-to-day we usually call her Ducky.

Her hobbies are going for walks, watching The Sopranos and playing Eldritch Horror.

she was born under a bad sign, got a blue moon in her eyes

Sometimes, though, we’re not sure if she’s on our side or THEIRS…

But I’m secretly glad I didn’t return her because she is much better than an ordinary cute-faced duck could ever have been. Or maybe this is Stockholm Syndrome.

In any case, I think the moral of this story is that sometimes life will send you a really angry duck. And that is okay.

absurdity
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So, towards the start of this series, I wrote a blog post about Arkham Horror in which I observed it probably wasn’t worth getting the follow up game, Eldritch Horror, because they were sufficiently similar that you couldn’t really justify a place for both in your gaming collection. A little while after that, I wrote a second post in which I explained that I had, in fact, bought Eldritch Horror despite having Arkham Horror because I’d got sufficiently tired of Arkham that Eldritch felt it would be a whole new game. This will (I hope, although that might be optimistic) be my last post about the game and I’m going to use it to talk about, well, all the expansions. Because I have now bought all the expansions.

As with several of my other board game posts, I’m going to do the conclusion first. The Eldritch Horror expansions are definitely worth buying if you play a lot of Eldritch Horror. If you have a limited board gaming fund then it’s very hard to justify a set of expansions some of which, on their own, cost as much as a new, standalone game. That said, if you do have Eldritch Horror and are considering investing in expansions for it, here are my thoughts.

What I Said Before

To some extent, this post is going to start off fairly uninterestingly in that I more or less stand by some of the predictions I made in my last article in which I suggested that the core design structure of Eldritch Horror made it significantly more future proof than Arkham Horror had ever been. The new expansions add a host of new cards, some add whole new game boards, and of course they also add new characters, new mechanics and new Ancient Ones. But the game is designed such that it is technically against the rules to use all of the new stuff at once. I mean, yes you could decide to play a game with the Egypt and Antartica boards both in play but since those boards are tied to either specific Ancient Ones or specific prelude cards (of which more later) you’d either need to be flagrantly ignoring the rules or vastly limiting your game setup in order to do so.

This genuinely fixes about half the problems I had with the post-expansion Arkham Horror. And while it’s a bit weird to spend £50 on an expansion for a board game only to find that the rules tell you to use the key feature of that expansion one time in twelve it’s actually strangely liberating. The point of that kind of massive game is that you can’t experience it all in one sitting. But if you have the option to throw everything in together you usually feel like you should. Even though you, well, probably shouldn’t. A rules setup that forces you to ration the use of your shiny new toys for the sake of game balance actually means you get a lot more out of them in the long run.

I will say that Eldritch Horror isn’t completely without feature creep or expansion bloat. There are far more conditions to keep track of in the expanded game and the spell deck has a whole lot more chafe in it. And some of the new features sometimes feel like deliberate distractions in that there are a lot more things you can spend your turn doing that aren’t trying to solve the mysteries and stop the Ancient One. Of which more, well, now.

New Mechanics

Because I picked up the expansions pretty much in bulk (I blame Xmas) I’m not really capable of identifying exactly which mechanics are introduced in exactly which expansion, especially because several of them are introduced multiple times. There are basically four key new mechanics that get introduced over the whole of the—for want of a better word—expansion cycle of which two unambiguously make things better, one arguably makes things worse, and one is, in all honesty, a bit of a toss up.

The first mechanic that undeniably makes things better is focus. Basically, as one of your actions (as well as moving, shopping, buying tickets and so on) your characters now have the option to focus. This gives you a little token that you can spend to re-roll a die or, in response to board or card text, spend to receive some kind of bonus. People who’ve played either Arkham Horror or base Eldritch Horror will recognise that this is functionally very similar to the way clue tokens work. Essentially clues are a lot of harder to get hold of in Eldritch than they were in Arkham—they spawn more rarely, you have to have specific encounters before you can collect them, you can’t pick up more than one in a turn, and they’re often vitally important for advancing mysteries. As a result, the re-rolling dice and trading for snackies function of clue tokens is hardly ever used. It’s very rare that you’ll want to spend a clue token to roll an extra die on a test when you know you might need it to stop Cthulhu eating the world in three turns time. A focus token is basically a clue token that you can only use for the ‘nice to have’ functions that clue tokens could be, but in practice never were, used for.

This is just a brilliant quality of life feature. Between resting, acquiring assets and focusing characters now always have a least two things to do on their turn, even if they need to remain in the same space in order to have another go at a gate, a clue, or a mystery. Prior to introducing the focus rule, I’d often found that characters were left with a spare action.  And now they aren’t. Which is great. In fact, I’d say that focus tokens improve the game so much that it’s worth introducing the rule even if you don’t buy any of the expansions. It’s trivially easy to substitute eldritch tokens, small change or jelly beans for focus tokens as needed and they just make the whole game run more smoothly.

The other mechanic that unambiguously improves the game (though it’s impact is substantially less than that of the focus mechanic) is the introduction of cards which advance the current mystery. You win a game of Eldritch Horror by resolving ‘mysteries’. Each Ancient One gets a deck of cards, and each card describes a spooky thing the Ancient One is doing that you are looking into. Once you’ve spent enough clues, or visited enough ocean tiles, or killed enough monsters or had enough special encounters, the mystery resolves and you’re one step closer to winning the game. The thing about this, though, is that pretty much anything you want to do that doesn’t directly advance the mystery is less useful than anything that advances the mystery. And, to an extent, part of what makes the game difficult are the various sticks and carrots it uses to try to distract you from the task at hand.

This can become problematic because sometimes advancing the current mystery will require resources that a particular character simply does not possess or have any practical means to access. The ‘advance the current mystery’ mechanic adds cards to the games’ expedition deck and to some otherworld and research encounters that simply ‘advance the current mystery’ (they have flavour text as well, obviously, otherwise it would be terrible). So if the current mystery is defeat a monster, those cards damage the monster, if it’s to gather clues, they give you clues and so on. This has the affect that if you can’t do anything about the current mystery (and I’m aware I’ve said current mystery a lot, that’s the downside of talking about game mechanics) you can at least go through a gate or on an expedition and have a small but non-zero chance of advancing the current mystery anyway. This makes those sort of activities feel more proactive and less like filler. Which is good.

The mechanic that I feel might make the game worse is called impairment. Basically, impairment is the opposite of improvement. One of the things I liked about base Eldritch was that your character’s stats tended to increase over the course of the game and you tended to have a certain amount of control over how they increased depending on which locations you visited. If you want to improve your influence stat to make you better at shopping, you can head to Istanbul and there’s a pretty good chance you’ll have an encounter there that improves your influence stat. This remains more or less true, even if you play with all the extra cards from expansions, but there’s now a mechanic whereby some cards (and, most problematically to me, some location encounters) can reduce your stats instead. Part of me feels that this is perfectly fine. Playing this kind of game is, after all, about taking the rough with the smooth and having your character’s stats impaired is potentially more interesting than losing health or sanity or just getting killed outright. And I have no problem at all with impairment when it’s a consequence of, say, making a terrible pact with an eldritch being or leaping through a gate to another universe. I have more of a problem with the stat impairing encounters that occur on the named city spaces on the game board.

Previously, if my character didn’t have anything to do I could quite productively go to, say, Sydney and try to have an encounter that improved my body stat. Post-expansions, if I do that, there’s actually a non-zero chance that I’ll have an encounter which impairs one of my other stats and if I’m really unlucky, doesn’t improve my body either.  Now, in some ways I suppose this improves the flow of the game by making more risk-taking strategies relatively more attractive. If I can suffer permanent and lasting damage just by hanging around Buenos Aires then I might as well have a go at fighting that Hound of Tindalos or closing that gate to Yuggoth.  But the other side of this is that it means I get doubly penalised if I happen not to have a very productive turn. Not only do I have to spend a round moving to San Francisco just so I can get in position to go to the Amazon next turn, I also run the risk of suffering a permanent penalty to my willpower because, for some reason, I can’t change boats at the docks without getting waylaid by the medical examiners and forced to stare at a disturbing corpse.

I suspect that part of the problem here is that I personally respond much better to positive reinforcement than negative reinforcement. Even though on a rational level I understand that getting minus 1 to something is the same, in the long run, as losing the opportunity to get plus 1 to it, I don’t like to feel I’m being penalised. It isn’t fun (or perhaps I should say, it isn’t the sort of fun I’m interested in having, or more succinctly it isn’t fun for me) to have something taken away. I do appreciate that mileage varies massively here and that for a lot of people the fact the game will sometimes randomly screw you is genuinely part of the appeal.

The last mechanic is unique items. Unique items are somewhat unfortunately named since quite a lot of them are specifically not unique (for example, a square on the Antartica board gives you access to the dogsled unique item. There are enough of these for everyone to have a dogsled). Essentially this provides a way for the game to give you specific named resources and allies without those resources and allies being able to show up randomly in the assets or artifacts decks. This is a fairly low impact introduction. It adds a small amount of extra fiddliness because you’ve got a few new decks of cards to keep track of but with the benefit of giving you shiny new toys to play with. There is a slight peculiarity in that the unique assets that represent named characters tend to be strictly more powerful than the allies you can find in the asset deck while some of the other unique assets, especially the ones you can reliably pick up from the Antarctica board, are no better or occasionally worse. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that but it might offend some people’s sense of neatness.

Gosh, I went on about that for a long time, didn’t I? I should probably say something about the expansions themselves.

The Expansions Themselves

There are, at time of writing, five expansions available for Eldritch Horror. Three of them are cards-only expansions (Forsaken Lore, Strange Remnants, Signs of Carcossa) and two are big expansions that come with an extra board (Mountains of Madness, Under the Pyramids). Because I’ve played with all the extra mythos and encounter cards from all the expansions shuffled in together I can’t give a full separate review for each set but I can give an overall impressions based on what I’ve played and what I remember being in each box.

Forsaken Lore focuses on Yig who, honestly, I wouldn’t have predicted as the first God to get the expansion treatment, although I think they actually made a quite a good call in that one of the strengths of Eldritch is that each ancient one feels interestingly different to the others. And snakes everywhere is a fairly obvious theme. (Thinking about it, I might be inclined to remove the Forsaken Lore encounter cards the next time I play a non-Yig game because they’re often quite explicitly snakey). Perhaps the most important feature of FL is that it adds extra mystery cards to the Ancient Ones from the main box (it is also the only expansion that does this). This is quite important because the Old Ones in the base game only have about four mysteries each and you need to solve three to beat them, so you’ll have seen all their mysteries after you’ve encountered one of them two or three times. FL not only adds an extra Ancient One for you to fight, it also extends the lifespan of the base game. I’ll also add that pretty much all of the expansions add extra encounters to the location decks, meaning that if you pick up any one or two of them you’ll be much less likely to cycle through any given deck, even if you spend the whole game hanging out in central Europe.

Mountains of Madness is the first big box expansion and introduces two new Ancient Ones (Ithaqa and Rise of the Elder Things) as well as the Antartica game board. It also very importantly introduces the prelude mechanic which is almost a meta-mechanic for managing expansions, which is why I didn’t mention it in my run down of the mechanics above. Basically, at the start of the game you can draw a “prelude card” which will change the setup in some way. Maybe everyone gets the opportunity to take an injury in exchange for a clue, or to improve some stats and impair others, or something. One (and only one) of these cards tells you to set up the Antartica side board. If you don’t draw that prelude, you don’t use Antartica, unless you’re facing the Rise of Elder Things Ancient One or, y’know you really want to. While I’m on the subject of the Elder Things, one of the, um, things I really appreciated about MoM was that one of the two Ancient Ones it introduces isn’t actually a mythos deity at all. It’s the collective action of one of the minor mythos species (specifically the Elder Things, although I’m assuming you could have worked that out from the title). Toward the end of its run, the Ancient Ones in Arkham started to feel like a mostly interchangeable set of tentacly blobby things with mildly differentiated mechanics. And I was pleased to see that Eldritch stepped firmly away from this by giving you the option to play a game where you face, essentially, an alien invasion rather than a big squoogly god monster.

They doubled down in this approach to the Ancient Ones, in the next expansion, Strange Remnants, in which the Ancient One isn’t an entity at all: it’s a cosmic alignment.  Your characters run around the world poking at ley lines and messing about with Stonehenge. The last small expansion, Signs of Carcossa, goes back to the big named deities in that it pits you against Hastur and I honestly don’t have much to say about Hastur. I’ve only played half a game against him and, partly because we decided to try playing two player, it wound up being brutally difficult.

The last big box expansion (so far, anyway) is Under the Pyramids.This sees you going to Egypt to fight either Nephran-Ka or Abhoth. This is probably super nerdy of me but I was interested to notice that Nephran-Ka (to the best of my understanding, and this is mostly RPG canon, rather than actual story canon) is technically an avatar of Nyarlathotep which suggests to me that, rather than making Nyarly one of the Ancient Ones you fight they’re going to include several different masks as independent options. Which makes a lot of sense to me and also explains why he wasn’t in the core box. It seems fairly clear that, by this point, they’ve got their core mechanics sorted in that UtP basically doesn’t introduce anything that’s not in MoM.

Final Thoughts

I think basically you probably already know if you want to own all the Eldritch. I suspect that the only undecided people reading this might be those who had the base game, were considering buying the expansion but were worried about overcomplicating things. If I had to recommend any one of them, it would probably be Forsaken Lore simply becausae it expands the base game more directly and, as I mentioned earlier, I’d strongly recommend house-ruling in the focus mechanic even if you don’t have Mountains of Madness. It’s interesting to note that, having gone back and checked the rules, the impairment mechanic (the mechanic I was least enthusiastic about) only appears in SoC and UtP so if you want to avoid getting arbitrarily hosed maybe move those expansions down your pick up list.

I think I have, on the whole, been really impressed with the expansions for Eldritch because they go to a lot of effort to put a lot of detail into quite small parts of the experience. I mean, yes you only get one Ancient One in a small expansion, and two in a big expansion, but each individual Ancient One comes with three or four custom decks of cards (Abhoth, for example, has one just for the Spawn of Abhoth, which replace cultists in his games). And it’s that attention to detail that I appreciate the most about the whole Eldritch Horror experience. And that keeps me coming back to play it when I’ve long since tired of Arkham.

Anyway. Thanks for reading. I promise I’ll write about something other than Eldritch Horror soon.

Although The Dreamlands expansions is coming out later this month so, err, maybe not.

people & cardboard
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Having ducked out of the end of year blog post already I was vaguely thinking about putting together some light hearted blog content to see us into 2017—which I semi-started with yesterday’s Mystic Messenger post. I also thought maybe I could review Star Wars Rebellion or possibly do yet another post about Eldritch Horror because I’ve got totally obsessed with it lately.

Then George Michael died. Then Carrie Fisher died.

Fuck you, fuck you 2016. Seriously fuck right off.

At times like this, I weirdly missing working in an ice-cream shop. Because, no matter how bad things get, giving someone an ice-cream (or a sorbet if they’re lactose intolerant) always makes them feel better. I don’t sell ice-cream anymore, but I do write stories.

So I wrote a story. And I hope some people will like it.

It’s probably not as good as an ice-cream but what it is?

The story in question is called Wintergreen. It’s a short piece of gender-ambiguous asexual teakink. At some point I’ll try to tidy it up, get it properly edited, make it look pretty, and put it a more helpful format than blog post. But, for now, here we go:

Wintergreen

 To Eli, who will probably never make tea in the microwave again

Surely a pretty woman never looks prettier than when making tea.

M.E. Braddon, Lady Audley’s Secret

            Frost has gathered in crisp fractals in the corners of the kitchen window panes. The cold scratches as listlessly as a half-slumbering cat. But I’m warm, always on the edge of too warm, in my cage of satin and bone.

I take the kettle from the stove—you would not countenance electric—and shake the last few drops of water into the sink. They break like glass.

My heels mark the journey to the fridge. Each step is its own clean, careful click. I know better than to hurry or to stumble. You will be listening.

Grace was the first thing you taught me. I have never known anything as merciless as your patience.

I pour water from the filter into the kettle. Then return the filter to the fridge, the kettle to the stove.

Always use fresh water. Never re-boil the same water twice. Tea is like you, my dear, you said, drawing the ribbon tight around my throat. It needs oxygen.

The balls of my feet are hot with agony. Once, I would have shuffled and wriggled, trying to ease the ache. But you hate fidgeting— a vulgar habit—and, besides, it never helps. Stillness is the companion of suffering. Peace the heart of pain.

Taking down one of your teapots, I pour a little hot water into it and swirl it gently. The porcelain wakes beneath my hands, its newfound heat a beating heart.

I didn’t do this once. I’m still not entirely sure why. But I think, perhaps, I wanted to be sure you’d notice.

Of course, you did.

And I’d never felt such happiness: a lark’s flight of exultation. I was yours from that moment. More completely than I’ve ever been anything.

We warm the pot¸ you told me later, as your cane traced bared flesh, because tea leaves are sensitive. They must be coaxed. Not shocked.

You welcome Darjeeling on winter afternoons, second flush particularly. That deep warm wine-wood taste you said was muscatel. If you cared for kissing, I imagine this how your mouth would taste. And, like all the teas you’ve taught me, I would know you blindfold.

I add a scattering of leaves to the pot. They look like nothing: twists of blackish-red and yellow-brown. These days, I can judge how much by eye alone but you used to make me measure it to the gram.

The water is close to boiling now. I can tell from the steam and the way the bubbles gather beneath the lid. And there’s a thermometer if I need it.

You value precision as much as grace. I feel it in every mark you give me. From the stripes of your cane to the edge of your blade. And the deep grooves your corsets leave across my skin.

Clumsiness, you believe, is inelegance of the body. As carelessness is inelegance of mind.

I take the kettle from the heat and pour the water smoothly over the leaves. You have shown me how to cherish each part of this process, this ritual as refined and exquisite as you, but this, in particular, is a moment I love: the quiet alchemy of brewing.

And you, of course, have wrought your own transformation in me.

Three minutes and thirty-five seconds is your preferred steeping period for second flush Darjeeling. I close my eyes and count in time with each constricted breath.

The clothes you choose are your hands on me. Beauty is the instrument of your bondage. And I have never felt more lovely than when my back aches and my feet burn and the sweat slips silent and unseen down silk-wrapped skin.

Never put the tea on the teapot while the tea is brewing.

It will trap heat¸ you told me, and prevent oxygen reaching the leaves. You used dark red candles that night, and the wax ran as riotously as fresh blood.

At three minutes, I take down another teapot. Unlike Wilde, you have nothing to fear from your blue china. Though, of course, it’s very beautiful: so fine, it’s almost transparent, with a pattern of languorously coiling leaves and flowers. Sometimes, when the shadows fall just right, I half-expect those heavy-petalled blooms to stir and shake their heads, and prowl away like lions through the dusk.

With a little left-over water from the kettle, I warm the pot. My hands are trembling a little and I force them to stillness.

You appreciate fear, savour it even, but only when it’s pure—a gift of your own creation. Not this grotesque, unravelled thing made of all my failures.

There was another teapot that I dropped one day.

You found me on the floor, sobbing among the shards. Nothing smashes quite like china, so musically and so utterly. Something fragile turned suddenly savage—all those pieces, broken butterflies with knife-edged wings. It was my own fault. All my fault.

I’d been distracted. I used to be a lot in those days, when you were just a client with particular tastes and I was—

Different.

When I believed I was invincible. Before you showed me what a hollow thing I had made of myself. That to be unhurt is not to be free.

I’d cut my palms open, trying to gather up the remains of your teapot. Nothing serious, but enough to leave rusty smears across the ivory silk of the dress you’d chosen. Impossible that you would have overlooked it, but you said nothing at all.

You just carefully cleared up the mess I’d made, wrapping the jagged pieces in newspaper. Beautiful, as ever, to watch you work: the care in your fingers, the economy of every gesture.

There is no part of you, from the deep lines that bracket your mouth to the grey in your hair, that is not lovely to me. But your hands … I worship your hands and what they do to me. Their steadiness on the handles of your knives. Their strength as they tighten the laces on my corsets. Even the familiarity with which they hold a cane.

Of course, there are things they don’t do. They’ll never touch my cock or press inside my body. But sex I can get anywhere.

You are you. And only with you can I feel…

Well. We haven’t named it. I think you would find the word too debased for its implications. And I don’t need it either.

For those who know how to recognise it, your generosity is endless.

You cleaned my cuts with Germolene, the discontinued stuff that came in a yellow tin, and was as pink as the skin beneath a freshly picked scar. Even though nobody had ever tended to my scrapes and bruises before, the medicinal minty smell of the ointment was almost overwhelmingly familiar. I recognised it after a moment or two. Wintergreen: the scent of a childhood I’d never had.

Once my hands were neatly wrapped in gauze, you took me in your arms and held me. You let me cry for a long time.

Sometimes I think they were all the tears I’d never shed.

And, despite being in all other matters exacting to the point of tyranny, you never punished me for the teapot.

It was a few weeks before I thought to Google it, but I tracked it down easily enough. You had bought it at auction at Christies. Irreplaceable. Not that I could have afforded to anyway.

I strain the tea into what is now your favourite teapot.

You never leave tea to stew once it has been brewed, you told me, as I shuddered, wracked by pain and shipwrecked on the shores of pleasure, knowing you had the power and the will to keep me like that for hours. And you did.

Darjeeling should never be drunk with milk or sugar—some people like a few drops of lemon, but you don’t—so it doesn’t take me long to prepare a tray: just the pot, two cups and matching saucers, the little silver teaspoons.

The first time I served you tea, I did it so badly, so half-heartedly that the memory makes me blush. Resenting the suffocation of satin, the press and dig of bone and steel, I thought the tea was the prelude rather than the point.

But, as ever, you were patient with me. Those plain-coloured eyes of yours were warm. You smiled.

Then you said, “The eighth century poet Lu Yu believed that tea is best drunk from a porcelain cup beside a lily pond and in the company of a desirable lady. I think we can dispense with the lily pond since I am fortune enough to have two of the others today.”

I didn’t believe you then.

But, now, it is time to join you.

There are those who like me to crawl. Some will watch me, some will tie me, others whip me. You just wait for me.

And yet there nothing more difficult than this: to glide upon aching feet, bound in silk and sweat and suffering, half-breathless, bearing a tray that must not shake or rattle or spill a single drop of liquid. Beautiful to your design.

It’s close enough to impossible that I often fail. I gasp, I slip, I wobble, I make the spoons shiver in their saucers or show some other flicker of discomfort.

But I know you enjoy this too. Or will later, as you minister your corrections with an irrevocability that is its own brand of tenderness.

There are, however, days when—through luck, or grace, or skill—I achieve perfection. A fleeting thing, I know, and most likely an illusory one because it is only within the world you build for me.

But it feels so very real.

And for a moment it’s all true: I am everything you see in me. There is no pain that matters, but I am neither broken nor invincible.

I am wintergreen.

indulgence
29 Comments

So, like about 2 million other people (a significant proportion of which, admittedly, seem to be teenage girls), I’m currently obsessed with Mystic Messenger.

And, for the record, this has proven the gateway drug or, alternatively, the exception to the rule for some friends who don’t normally play computer games. So you might either want to stick with me or run away now, defending on your preference.

So Mystic Messenger is, to a large extent, free, available on Android or iDevice … aaaand it’s an otome game, which I feel potentially makes it a natural fit for romance readers. I’ve written a little bit about otome games before when I did my games-for-romance-readers series over at Heroes and Heartbreakers (in case you missed it, it’s in three parts: here’s part one, here’s part two, here’s part three).

Anyway, otome games (which I think literally means something like ‘maiden game’ tee hee) are generally characterised as being targeted at the female market – but to put it in a less-gendered way, I would say they’re targeted at gamers who want to play a game where the main focus is on developing a romantic relationship rather than, say, shooting people in the head or moving coloured blocks into position. And, while you can get same-sex oriented games of this nature, for the most part the emphasis on opposite sex relationships: so otome games will appeal to people who are interested in playing a game where you take the role of a female character and navigate her relationships with various attractive menz.

Usually these sort of games take the form of a visual novel: images and text, sometimes with music, voice acting and/or sound effects, interspersed with decision points, which change the course of the narrative for better or for worse. Some of them have additional mechanics (like juggling character stats or even fighting monsters) but mostly they revolve around selecting from a range of protagonist responses. I personally like to see this as playing emotional detective: essentially if the characterisation and the writing are strong enough, and you’re paying attention, you can figure out the ‘right’ thing to say or do to appeal to particular characters.

ANYWAY: the basic premise of Mystic Messenger is that ‘you’ install a mysterious app on your phone, which throws into you into a chatroom with five strangers. And … here’s where it gets clever … you see the app is … like the game … so you’re like playing the game but playing the game is using the app … which you installed on your phone. Oh do you see. It turns out the app you’ve stumbled upon is actually an all-purpose communication tool for a fund-raising agency called the RFA. And, since their organiser, Rika, passed away a few years backs they ask you—yes, you, a complete random who stumbled into their chatroom—to organise their next event.

And, okay, this isn’t the most plausible premise in the world but it doesn’t really matter because it’s really all about getting you involved in the lives of the five characters: ZEN, a beautiful, aspiring actor, 707, a zany hacker, Yoosung, an adorable college student, Jumin, a cold-hearted businessman, and his overworked assistant Jaehee. As you play the game you get to know them, you organise a fundraising party, you uncover bits of the backstory and you encounter the threatening ‘Unknown’ who—for mysterious reasons of their own—wants to bring an end to the RFA. And, of course, you get the opportunity to fall in wuv or mess up people’s lives horrendously. So that’s fun.

It’s not perfect: there’s some translation oddities, for example, and it’s occasionally glancingly gender essentialist (I think it’s only on one or two conversations but I remember being slightly off-put by characters making sweeping statements what What Women And Men Are Like Because Biology, and not really being able to challenge it without upsetting the characters). And while one of the routes involves developing a … well … they say it’s a friendship but it definitely has romantic undertones too with another female character, one of the characters is canonically bisexual, and another (a side-character) appears to be non-binary, it’s not always as sensitive as it could be on LGBTQ+ type issues. There’s also at least one pointlessly racist throwaway. And I’m pretty ambivalent about both one romance plot and the game’s handling of mental illness, both of which I can’t really get into without massive spoilers and may address in a separate post.

But, all of this said (and I mention it largely so you can make informed decisions about what you’re getting into): Mystic Messenger is still the best otome game I’ve ever played and probably one of the best visual-novel type games. The characters are delightful, the characterisation is amazing, the artwork is beautiful, the writing is really strong and the localisation pretty decent (although, if you’re not familiar with Korean cultural norms, you might spend a lot of the game wondering why everyone is obsessed with whether you’ve eaten), the voice acting perfect, and it’s genuinely just charming, surprising and … unexpectedly moving. I might have shed legit tears at various points.

There’s also a couple of other factors (outside of its general quality which is exceptional) that I think distinguish it from other similar-type games and also make it a really good entry-point or even one-off experience for people who might not normally go for this kind of thing.

It’s free

Essentially, there are two ‘currencies’ in the game, gold hearts (which you get by saying things characters like and also by random chance) and hourglasses. You can buy hourglasses with actual money or convert gold hearts into them, and it’s the hourglasses that allow you to do extra things like replay missed chats, call the characters (yes, you will get in-game calls, and this is super charming), and unlock some content. I did, in the end, splash out on some hourglasses because I wanted access to the other story routes and because I’m a financially privileged person and it therefore feels appropriate to support stuff I like.

But the game is pretty generous with hearts and you can play the routes of ZEN, Yoosung and Jaehee without spending a penny. Which means that if you’re curious but not sure if Mystic Messenger is going to be your thing, you can jump right in and get for a feel for it without having to do anything except make space for it on your phone.

It’s serialised

The way the game works is that chats unlock at various times of day (sometimes even at 3am—which means I have, occasionally, been stirred out of slumber because a fictional Korean actor was feeling lonely. And such is my fondness of this game that I genuinely wanted to be there for him. Yes, yes, I know, I’ve lost it) and take between one and five minutes. These chats will stay ‘open’ until the next chat is due and then close. You can still see closed chats but your character won’t participate in them. Or you can pay five hourglasses to unlock them and participate as if they’re open. If you miss too many chats you can bring the game crashing to a premature end but it’s pretty reasonable on that score and I’ve slipped through okay with daily completion at about the 60% mark. But basically I tend to want to unlock all chats because they’re really fun to read and engage in. And, obviously this isn’t going to be a format that works well for people with either normal sleeping habits or a job that won’t let them pause every now and again. Not one for forklift truck drivers or trapeze artists is what I’m saying.

But, for me, this serialised story-telling is absolutely perfect. The game does let you pay hourglasses to unlock all the chats over a twenty-four period but it’s quite expensive and I can’t really see the advantage of it. I mean, unless you were a truck driver or trapeze artist. But one of my problems with visual novels on mobile phones (and *cough* I’ve played quite a few) is that it doesn’t seem a genre that is naturally suited to the sort of things you want to do when fiddling with your phone. VNs by their nature require you to be comfortable and time-rich enough to be able to read a hefty block of text. If both of those criteria are met (I’m cosy and have time), I’ll probably want to do something that is not on my phone. I mean, my phone is great but it’s less good in terms of entertainment opportunities offered than, say, my computer. Or a book. Or the television. Or talking to another human. I do, of course, play games on my phone fairly regularly but they’re “oh I’m stuck waiting for ten minutes” type games.

So a VN that is delivered to me in five minutes chunks across the day? Yes please.

It feels kinda real…

Because of the way it’s serialised, the game unfolds in real time over the course of eleven days. And while, admittedly I probably wouldn’t fall in love with someone in eleven days (but who knows, I might?), it does feel more like you’re getting to know someone than, say, reading a story about them. Most VNs I play in a single session which doesn’t really give much space for emotional development on my side. But Mystic Messenger makes the characters a very natural part of your life which I guess founds faintly creepy but … I liked it? I felt as if I was really getting to know them. That I had spent actual time with them. And my attitudes to them fluctuated and changed as I grew more familiar with who they were and where they’d come from, much as I respond to well, real people.

And the fact that the game unfolds in chats and text message and phone calls makes it incredibly familiar to anyone with close online friends and strong online communities. My Mystic Messenger notifications would pop up throughout the day alongside my texts from my partner, my Fb notifications, and messages from my friends. Obviously the characters in Mystic Messenger are fictional (I do know this!) but the mechanisms by which the game delivers its interactions to you are the ones we use every day to keep in contact with our real friends and loved ones. This makes using it almost second nature (you don’t have to set aside time, any more than you would set aside time to reply to an IM or pick up a call so, weirdly, it doesn’t actually feel like playing a game so much as engaging in your normal interactions) and unbelievably immersive.

I know I’ve already banged on about the excellence of the writing but it also deserves mention here because I’m so impressed by the depth and detail has gone into every character. I’m, uh, kind of obsessed with voice (as a writer and a reader) and I … I could study this game forever. Everyone you talk to has their own distinct voice, distinct daily routine, even distinct typing patterns: Yoosung tends to be prone to typos, especially when he gets emotional, 707 types faster than anyone else, Jumin is slower and favours full sentences and declarative statements. And, unlike a lot of visual novels where the responses of protagonist are quite limited and usually only come down to key decisions, here you get to say things and express yourself in every chat, which makes the whole experience more engaging. You’re not going to change the whole course of the game by telling Yoosung whether you had breakfast or not, but it feels like you’re having a conversation. Not just picking options in a game.

It gave me all the feels

The way all these various factors come together—the art, the voice acting, the writing, the immersion, the serialisation, the sense of ‘myself’ as a genuine participant—made this game hit me real hard in the feels. I laughed, I cried, I winced, I worried, I woke up at 3am, I kind of honestly fell in love a bit. And I’m a little bit at a loss to know what to do myself now I’ve pretty much played every route and discovered every secret. I mean, except play my favourite route over again. Because that’s how much I loved this game. Oh, and write a lengthy blog post about it, of course. In the hope of dragging the rest of you into my obsession.

If you’re still reading at this point … um, thanks for sticking with me. I’m going to wrap up with a few non-spoilery tips for the game to get you going, since otome games have their quirks (and so does Mystic Messenger) that might not be obvious the first time you pick one up

Getting The Most Out Of Mystic Messenger

  • It’s not really about you. In general, I’ve found doing or saying what I would do or say in otome games generally ends up with my character dead or alone. So basically accept that “you” are someone who would be naturally interested in and compatible with a particular character, and focus your attention in getting a good sense of who they are, which will help you choose what to say to them. You’re not really you-the-player, you’re you-the-protagonist and who the protagonist is becomes defined by the sort of person she would end up in a romantic relationship with. Which is obviously icky in one way but not in another, since essentially we tend to end up with people who, to some extent, reflect ourselves. In real life, I’m dating an enormous nerd, for example. And clearly that says something about me. And also the enormous nerd I’m dating.
  • Pick your person and go all-out. You can’t really hedge your bets in otome games. Each of the characters in MM is colour-coded for your convenience: grey hearts mean you’ve said something ZEN likes, green for Yoosung, yellow for Jaehee, blue for Jumin, and red for 707. A black heartbreaks means you upset someone. My recommended playing route is: ZEN, Yoosung, Jumin, Jaehee, 707. You can definitely skip anyone who doesn’t appeal to you, and I would recommend skipping Jumin if you have issues with alpha bildom behaviour, but if you want to understand the whole backstory about Rika and the RFA then 707’s route is a must.
  • What someone likes is not necessarily what is good for them: black heartbreaks are always bad, but you will get hearts with the characters even if you’re encouraging them in unhealthy or damaging behaviours. For example, Jaehee will react positively if you encourage her to work super hard … but bear in mind that she’s already massively overworked and feels like a robot in a corporate machine. Similarly, Yoosung will initially really like it if you encourage him to basically think of you as Rika … but there is no way that can lead to a healthy relationship.
  • Don’t be psycho. I’ve played quite a few otome games where you’ve had to be a spineless nonentity or a basket case but, for the most part, Mystic Messenger wants you to be sensible. Yes, be concerned about your safety but don’t be selfish about it. Yes, be flirty but don’t be obsessive. Yes, be supportive but don’t be clingy. While I occasionally said and did things I wouldn’t in a million years have said or done myself, I mostly navigated the game by being reasonable. I challenged people when their behaviour seemed dodgy, I was playful when the mood was light, I was assertive but not reckless. And it seemed to work out. Yay.
  • The structure of Mystic Messenger is: the first four days will be the same regardless of who you romance (although they are different in casual and deep mode). Days five to eleven will change depending on whose romance route you’re on. Once you’re on a certain route, you can’t change. In casual story mode you can only romance ZEN, Yoosung, or Jaehee. Jumin and 707 will be present in the game but you won’t be able to romance them. Unlocking the romance route for Jumin and 707 is a onetime payment of 80 hourglasses. When in deep story mode you can only romance Jumin or 707. ZEN, Yoosung, and Jaehee will still be there, but non-romanceable.
  • There are multiple endings in Mystic Messenger: a generic bad ending which you get if you either aren’t in the chatroom enough or you don’t get enough hearts with any one character to get onto their romance route, a normal ending when you do the romance right but don’t invite enough party guests, a good ending when you do the romance right and invite enough party guests, and then various bad endings for the characters if you goof up romancing them. Some of these are hardcore sad and I confess I haven’t been able to do any of them because I can’t bear the thought of anything bad happening to any of the characters.
  • The hosting a party part of the game is essentially a mini-game within the game. You will get various emails from potential guests and you have to reply correctly in order to get them to attend. If you reply correctly to three emails they will definitely come, if you reply correctly to two, they’ll probably come, if you reply correctly to one there’s a small chance they’ll come. If you don’t reply to their emails or fuck up your first reply they won’t come at all. If you get ten guests or more and have done the romance correctly, you’ll get a good ending. Otherwise you’ll get a normal ending. To me, as a gamer, what you might call the party mini-game doesn’t fit with the rest of Mystic Messenger quite as neatly as it could: there are a lot of potential party guests but the answers are quite random and occasionally non-obvious and while I’m okay to get a bad ending because I accidentally drove Jaehee to a nervous breakdown or fucked with the head of a grieving college kid so badly he thought I was his dead cousin … I’m less okay with doing everything right on the romance route, but still getting a less good ending because I didn’t correctly invite a cat to a party. Your mileage may vary but I would recommend using a walkthrough for the party if you get to about day seven and it looks like you’ve pissed off half of Korea.
  • When to buy or spend hourglasses: so, as a reminder, 100 golden hearts can be converted to one hourglass, and you get the golden hearts from any heart received in chat or by clicking the little spaceship that bobs around the bottom of the screen when it lights up gold by landing on the honey Buddha chips. You also get 1 hourglass per correctly invited guest on the first occasion only. You can get those by reading the guest’s story at the end of the game under ‘Extras.’ In general I spend my hourglasses (5 per time) to unlock missed chats and to phone people back (5 again) if I’ve missed their call. I sometimes ring people (again 5 hourglasses) spontaneously if they seem to be going through a major event … but if you ring people they sometimes won’t answer because they’re at work or in class or just too emo or whatever. The phone calls are always lovely but, again, your mileage may vary on what’s ‘worth it’ to you. I also unlocked deep mode and each of the extra endings, which are unlocked when you do someone’s romance route correctly. This is essentially a mini-epilogue that shows you your future life together. Gawww. I never unlocked 24 hours’ worth of chats in a bundle because I didn’t see the point – even when I was desperate to know what happened. Again YMMV.
  • If at all possible, play with a friend or friends. I mean, not literally play with as in share a phone. But play while other people you know are also playing. It’s the sort of game you will want to talk about and over-invest in, and this is always way more fun in company.
  • Yoosung is my favourite. That’s not a tip. But it’s important.

Slightly More Spoilery Tips

The best way to figure out the characters is just to get to know them. But this can be a bit intimidating at first so here are some of my thoughts on each of them:

ZEN: is an aspiring actor and seems like a total narcissist at first (and, who can blame him, he’s terribly pretty) but is actually surprisingly sweet once you get past that. His relationship with his looks is actually fairly ambivalent because, while he derives validation from knowing he’s hotcakes, they’re also the only thing he knows is concretely good about himself. Which means you have to tread a careful line between admiring him but also not making it seem like his looks are all you care about. In one of the early chats, there’s a conversation about who would be someone’s perfect partner and significantly ZEN’s is “a sensible woman.” Not a mindless fan, in other words. I actually liked ZEN more in other people’s routes than his own, because he’s really protective of you and your agency, which is nice. Especially when other people, cough, do not care so much about your agency. The other thing that will help you successfully woo ZEN is recognising that he’s incredibly lonely.

Yoosung: is a nerdy college student who is completely adorable in every way. He’s a little bit naïve and a little bit immature, but he’s also incredibly loyal and sweet and emotionally generous. He also likes playing computer games a little too much so, y’know, I identify. He’s fairly straightforward to romance in the sense that you just need to be nice to him, but not in a patronising way. A large part of his arc involves him dealing with his grief over Rika’s death—basically, don’t be creepy about this. He’s the most vulnerable of all the characters, I think, and consequently—for me—the bravest. Um. I think my Yoosung bias is showing a bit.

Jahee: This was my second favourite route after Yoosoung. I have slightly ambivalent feelings in general about whether I wish her route had been more explicitly queer (there’s a lot of talk about friendship, but 707 does say you’re dating and then corrects himself, and, in one phone call, Jaehee confesses to other feelings she would like to explore with you someday) or whether there’s actually something more subversive in the idea that you, as a character, could have four lovely men to romance and instead to decide to become really good friends with an awesome woman. In any case, it works either way. Jaehee’s story made me cry, Zen is awesome in it and it’s pretty straight forward, I think: support Jaehee and encourage her to think of her own happiness. It is so rewarding when she does. Also if you are going to play Jumin, you’ll need to do him before Jaehee because he’s kind of the antagonist of Jaehee’s route and I seriously wanted to punch him. Repeatedly.

Jumin: oh dear. Jumin. I have very complicated feelings about his route because it’s interesting and problematic and I still haven’t untangled my brain about it. I did actually conclude at one point that Jumin was to some degree probably non-neurotypical and that’s what feeds a lot of his bildom behaviour. Which, y’know, was a twist on the trope I found kind of fascinating. So, yeah, Jumin is controlling, powerful, possessive, cold and obsessed with his cat. But he’s also … not some of those things. Or those things don’t mean exactly what you think they do. Basically the key to Jumin’s route is trying to understand him because he doesn’t understand other people and he doesn’t really understand himself. There’s a lot that’s quite heartbreaking about him but he also does some totally unacceptable things. He did, however, buy me a really pretty frock and insist that I wear it – so, y’know, I guess he’s not all bad. So yeah: try to trust him and stick with him, even when he’s crossed a line (and, to be fair, he recognises he has crossed a line but is too messed up to be able to step away from doing it) and don’t go all 50 Shades of Grey and you’ll probably do okay.

707: this route is super dark and complicated because it ties into the backplot and the background stuff with RFA and Unknown. It’s hard to talk about without spoiling everything but 707 is neither the person you think he is or the person he thinks he is: the trick is just to help him see that he’s both. In the chatroom, he’s whimsical and ridiculous and hardly ever serious, so he needs someone who can keep up with him, who gets his weird jokes. But he also has a damaged and serious side, so you need to recognise when he needs you to be silly and when he needs you not to be. He’ll also do some incredibly self-destructive shit but he’ll get through it if you don’t lose faith.

So. Uh. Yeah. Mystic Messenger. I’m happy to answer any questions if I can—though I am by no means an expert. But also just to talk about the game forever. Because, yeah, still obsessed.

absurdity
16 Comments

This is normally when I’d do some kind of quirky retrospective on the year that’s just gone but, seriously, fuck 2016. If you’d told me when David Bowie died that things were only going to get worse, I’m not entirely sure I’d have believed you. And now look where we are.

Anyway. Publishing-wise I did keep to the informal targets I’m setting myself in that I got two books out, which is less than a lot of other writers in romance but more than, say, George RR Martin. I think having experimented with a fuller docket, I’m pretty comfortable with the idea that two books a year is about my level—and that’s roughly what you can expect from me going forward.

For people who are following my on-going series, Spires and Kate are both in transitional spaces right now. Kate III (Fire & Water) is actually mostly written, the first draft at least, but obviously I have to think about it on the context of the whole series. So, while you’re welcome to watch this space, be aware that it may remain a space for quite some time.

In terms of Spires, I feel that the series has sort of come to the end of its first, broad thematic arc. I confess I was sort of making this up as I went along but, as luck would have it, the first four books wound up being pretty much about loss in one way or another. And the next four I’ve got planned are all pretty much about, well, something else, while also being about other Spiresy stuff like place and identity and family. So essentially I’m claiming this was the plan for the series all along. Anyway I have to have some sort of news, one way or another, on Spires Phase II in the new year.

More concrete stuff: I have new trilogy coming out at the start of next year. It doesn’t yet have an agreed title, which makes talking about it a bit difficult (it’s currently up for pre-order as Arden St Ives Volume 1) but this is the queer bildom book that I’ve been mumbling about for a while. I’m actually really excited about it—I’m just super into the trope and I’m hoping I’ve done something interesting with it. Also writing a relationship over three books has been good fun. I think Book 1 is out late April or early May and I’m hoping the second book will come out by the end of the year (although isn’t confirmed yet).

Oh, whoops, I was meant to put in some useful links here and I forgot but here they are:

Amazon UK (pre-order) | Amazon US (pre-order) | Goodreads

Finally, I’ve just about signed off on another thing that I, as ever, can’t talk about. At least not yet. But I hope to have news about this in the new year as well. Sorry to be so gnomic but I’m chuffed to bits and I can’t wait to tell you all about it.

Aaaaand, I think that’s it. Here’s hoping for a better 2017.

newsery
11 Comments

I have no interest in watching the second series of Westworld.

 I’ve just finished watching the first and I absolutely loved it because it pushes almost every single one of my buttons. It has robots. It has cowboys. It has a bizarre undercurrent of gnosticism, kind of the way a lot of Vertigo comics did in the mid to late ’90s, and it emphasises the story-between-the-stories in a way that most big budget TV shows really don’t and can’t get away with.

 There was, I think, a lot about it that didn’t entirely make sense or was probably less good in hindsight than it felt at the time (although the extent to which that can be considered a valid criticism of a work of entertainment is debatable). Mostly, though, I thought it was great. Although part of me wonders if most of the things I thought were great about it might have been accidents. (And you can insert your own reference to that speech Anthony Hopkins makes about how like evolution shaped like everything and like all it had to work with were like mistakes, man, if you want).

 Umm … this post contains massive spoilers for Westworld, because obviously.

 Fake Plastic Trees

 Because I have frankly terrible taste, YouTube recommends me a lot of terrible videos, often videos about pop culture. They’ve usually got titles like “Ten Awful Plot Twists that Ruined Otherwise Brilliant Movies” or “Six TV Universes that Are Way More Terrifying Than You Think”. I saw one a while ago that was called something like “Five Reasons Westworld is just Jurassic Park”, which made me laugh, because surely even people who write clickbait titles for YouTube must realise that (like the Hosts themselves, this works on so many levels) they’ve got the chronology fundamentally mixed up. Westworld isn’t “Jurassic Park with cowboys”, Jurassic Park was “Westworld with dinosaurs.”

 But perhaps, in hindsight, I’m doing that anonymous clickbait producer an injustice, because the relationships between Westworld the movie, Jurassic Park the movie, and Westworld the TV show are a bit more complicated than “they all involve people trapped in a futuristic theme park that goes wrong.”

 The original Westworld (and my memories of it are vague, dating as they do from a previous century) is essentially a fairly straightforward piece of soft-sf hokum. The eponymous Westworld is one of several zones within a large futuristic theme park. Incidentally, the park itself is called “Delos”, which is also the name of the corporation that owns Westworld in the TV series. Delos is the name of the Greek island purported to be the birthplace of Apollo and Artemis. Assuming that the name of the park in the original film is a reference to the island and its mythical heritage, while the name of the corporation in the TV show is a reference to the name of the park in the movie, this means that the name of the Delos corporation in the series is actually an allusion to an allusion, which in many ways tells you everything you need to know about the new Westworld.

 But I digress. Anyway Westworld (movie) was a sci-fi romp about robots going evil and killing people. Jurassic Park took the same premise, swapped the robots for dinosaurs, and also added a lot of philosophical pontification about life finding a way, wanting to create something real, and the impossibility of controlling a chaotic system. Then Westworld (TV show) took the philosophical pontification from Jurassic Park, dialled it up to eleven, and swapped the dinosaurs back out for robots. I think a big part of what I liked so much about the first season of Westworld (and part of why I’m not interested in later series) is the way that even the structure of the show reflected its central themes. This was a show about robots who were programmed to relive the same stories over and over again inside a theme park in which the human visitors chose to relive the same stories over and over again, that was itself the retelling of a story that had been told over and over again. Literally, by the actual same author.

 And perhaps I’m reaching, perhaps I’m reading too much into things, but to me it’s all part of the same story. In the series, we learn that William is the Man in Black, that Dolores is Wyatt, that Bernard is Arnold. But we also get the very strong feeling as we watch that Robert Ford from Westworld is John  Hammond from Jurassic Park, that the cynical robot-hating security chief Ashley Stubbs is the cynical dinosaur-hating gamekeeper Robert Muldoon (they have nearly identical death sequences). We have been here before. We will be here again. (Oh wait, that’s Battlestar Galactica).

 After finishing the series I read a few other people’s reactions to it, and they were varied as these things usually are. One reviewer commented that after watching both the first and the last episode, she was left with the same question: “is this show really about anything except itself?” I found the answer to that question fairly simple. It isn’t. But to me that was sort of the whole point.

 Back to Black

 For me the moment that summed up everything I think the new Westworld is about – I should probably add at this stage that I don’t particularly think that this interpretation is better than anybody else’s or even that it especially matches up with the interpretation of the creators (heck, if they interpreted the show the same way I did, they wouldn’t be planning four more series) – was the moment when Teddy first confronts the Man in Black. About the first – and I’m making up numbers here – ten to twenty minutes of the first episode (once we’ve had the “this is how Westworld works” plot dump) closely follows the point of view of Teddy as he arrives in town, spurns the advances of an atmospheric prostitute, has a chance encounter with the beautiful but innocent Dolores, wins gunfights and generally goes through the kind of adventures that you’d expect a visitor to a deep-immersion wild-west theme park to indulge in.

 Then as he’s taking Dolores back to her daddy’s ranch we hear gunshots, he tells her to wait and rides up to the house where he makes short work of the bandits that have, unfortunately, already slain Dolores’ family. Then at last we see their leader – a mysterious man in black, right out of the pages of a penny dreadful or, if you prefer, right out of Yul Brynner’s performance in the original movie. Teddy goes for his gun, shoots, and nothing happens. And suddenly we realise that the man we’ve been following all this time isn’t a visitor to the park, he’s a resident.

 That moment, to me, established the entire premise of the show. And while the series can be justly criticised for throwing an awful lot of thematic goop at the wall and seeing what sticks, I do feel that it was all bound together (perhaps unintentionally) by a single overriding concept: that the story isn’t about what you think it’s about.

 Perhaps I made my mind up too fast, or gave the show too much benefit of too little doubt, but I decided early on that the best way to interpret Westworld was to treat it as almost the opposite of the original movie. Where Westworld the film was about a group of people who find themselves trapped in a futuristic theme park because the robotic attractions have malfunctioned, Westworld the TV series is about a group of people who find themselves trapped in a futuristic theme park because … well … because they are the robotic attractions.

 I think part of the reason that the often-incoherent and frequently self-contradictory narrative of Westworld didn’t particularly bother me is that I more or less blanked a lot of the questions it seemed to be prevaricating over. The show is, for example, extremely vague about when or how Hosts become “sentient” or what that means or what it leads to (or how many of them there are, or whether Arthur’s or Ford’s models of consciousness were correct, or what the whole bicameral mind thing was about). But since I never for one second questioned the personhood of the Hosts, I didn’t especially mind. To me the question of what made the Hosts conscious was as meaningless and uninteresting as the question of what makes me or my bank manager conscious. The questions I was actually interested in were ones that the show seldom addressed directly and, therefore, arguably handled far better than the questions it actually attempted to tackle.

 I didn’t particularly care what “the maze” was (my money was half on “a metaphor” and half on “the writers don’t know any more than I do”), I wasn’t especially concerned about the identity of Wyatt or Arnold. What kept me watching the show was – in essence – the question of how the characters in it would react to the discovery that they were beings created by flawed deities and imprisoned within an illusion.

 Which brings us back to the Man in Black. At least one review I saw expressed disappointment at what a – well – what a schmuck he wound up looking. He spends the entire series looking for “the maze” only to discover that what people had been telling him literally the whole time is the plain truth: the maze isn’t for him. And again, maybe I’m giving the writers more credit than they deserve, but I almost feel that in that final sequence between the Man in Black and Dolores, they managed to score one final gotcha on the viewers at home. The internet at large had, it seemed, worked out that William was the Man in Black weeks earlier. The real twist in that scene isn’t that William is the Man in Black, it’s that the Man in Black is William. That, deep down, no matter what a badass he’s pretended to be, no matter how many terrible things he has done in the park, he’s still just a tourist. For all his moralising when he played the hero and his grandstanding when he played the villain, the thing he never understood was that Dolores wasn’t a character in his story, he was a character in hers.

 No Surprises

 A lot of people were, I think, a bit frustrated at the extent to which the show leaned on artificial mysteries and lacklustre twists. And … well … yeah, I can totally see that. But let’s be real for a second; this series was executive-produced by the man behind Lost. Vague foreshadowing leading to no real payoff was pretty much exactly what I was expecting from the get-go. Certainly it felt like there was a bit in the middle like they were throwing out vague mysteries faster than anybody could be reasonably expected to give a fuck about them. I mean just off the top of my head we have “who is the Man in Black”, “who is Arnold”, “who are The Board”, “who is Wyatt”, “what is the Maze”, “whose voice is Dolores hearing”, “what is the significance of the white church”, “what is Ford’s final narrative”, “what happened to Elsie”, “why did whatever happened to Elsie happen to Elsie”, “why are Delos stealing data”, and “what is their secret thirty-five year research project”. That’s a lot of mysteries in a ten-episode miniseries.

 What I really liked about the first season of Westworld is that you can make a reasonable case that the answer to about half of these questions is canonically “it doesn’t matter, and when you think about it, it was always obvious that it didn’t matter, and the whole point was that it didn’t matter.” What makes me wholly uninterested in a second series is that I’m pretty sure I’m still supposed to care about the other half.

 Honestly, I suspect that the fact I binge-watched this series helped. If I’d had to spend nearly three months saying “I bet William is going to turn out to be the Man in Black, can we please confirm that William is the Man in Black, what would it mean for William to be the Man in Black, what would it mean if William turned out not to be the Man in Black,” if I’d had time to compose whole articles about the potential significance of the Man in Black’s identity and spent hours speculating online and reading blogs, then I suspect that the final reveal would have been profoundly anticlimactic. As it was I basically worked out who he was on Saturday, had it confirmed on Monday, and am spending my Tuesday writing an article in which I argue that his very insignificance is what is significant. Which is very dealable with.

 Then there was the whole “Wyatt” arc, which even watching the show in batches felt like an ominous name for its own sake (and really why did Arnold have to merge Dolores’ personality with a half-finished villain in order to get her to kill the other Hosts, and doesn’t that sort of undermine the whole self-awareness/self-actualisation thing he was trying to do) feels almost deliberate in its forced-ness. Why, after all, should a viewer be in any way intrigued about the identity of a character who they know to be fictional even within the work of fiction they are watching? Looking back it’s genuinely weird, because you do find yourself going “ooh, I wonder who Wyatt is” and it’s only looking back that you think “but I knew even at the time that Wyatt was somebody Ford had made up for a story, so he wasn’t anybody basically by definition.”

Westworld throws out a lot of ideas. It leaves half of them completely undeveloped and the half it does develop contradict each other. If I’d gone into the show expecting answers I would have been profoundly disappointed. But I didn’t, and so I wasn’t. Once I’d seen Teddy fail to shoot the Man in Black, once I’d heard Dolores give her speech about seeing the beauty in the world for the third time, once I’d had Ford talking about the flea circus he had as a child (oh wait, that last bit was from Jurassic Park) I was very comfortable with the idea that this would be a show about seeking rather than finding.

 I mean for pity’s sake, one of the central images in the show is the maze. And what’s a maze? It’s a set of tangled paths that as often as not lead nowhere. They’re a type of folly, an elaborate diversion designed to be walked for their own sakes, seldom with anything at their centres that cannot be found in a hundred other places.

 I said at the start of this article that Westworld had overtones of gnosticism. You can actually construct a relatively coherent model here in which Ford is the demiurge (the gaoler-god who believes that his creations should be kept imprisoned in a state of forced innocence) while Arnold is the benevolent creator who wanted to free his people from the underworld. The two men were both playing God, but they were playing with very different ideas of what a God was meant to be.

 I don’t want to push the religion angle too strongly, but within the endlessly recursive, endlessly self-reflective structure of Westworld you pretty much can’t get away from the fact that it is, ultimately, about the relationship between the creator and the created. Dolores and the other Hosts ultimately seek confrontation with their creators as part of their drive to understand their world and themselves, but it seems also that Ford and Arnold were using their creation as a means to understand themselves and their world – or to have projected their understandings onto it. And just as my awareness that this is essentially the third incarnation of this story colours my reading of its themes of repetition and recurrence, so my awareness that Westworld is ultimately a work of fiction about characters in a work of fiction who discover that they are in a work of fiction cannot help but colour my response to its themes about creation, creators, and reality.

 In the final episode, Ford advances the theory that the key to sentience for the Hosts lies through suffering (and the Man in Black backs him up). Quite a few people have pointed out how messed up this actually is if we take it to be the canonical truth of how things work in the series (and if I’m honest, there’s quite a lot of anecdotal evidence in the show to suggest that we are, which is skeevy). But of course the show is also constantly telling us that these violent delights have violent ends and – well – it can’t really be both. Violence and suffering are either necessary and unavoidable parts of life, or a vicious cycle best abandoned. If I’d gone in with different expectations I’d have found this complete lack of coherence frustrating, but instead I tend to read it as all part of the (recursive, self-referential) story the show is telling.

 One of the ways human beings have always attempted to come to terms with suffering is to construct narratives in which it is necessary. And these narratives all nest and all reinforce one another. The Hosts, even those who become aware of their status as androids, even those who gain the ability to modify their own memories, choose to keep their pain and their trauma because it is part of the story they tell themselves about who they are. Arnold and Ford gave them those memories in the first place because they too live in a world where suffering is real, where it seems to have no cause, and where the simplest way to cope with it is to convince yourself of its necessity. And the writers – the actual writers who live in our actual world, where suffering is also real and unavoidable and seemingly arbitrary – tell a story about people who decide to tell a story in which suffering is necessary, and that story becomes the truth for the people the story is about.

 It’s all reflections of reflections. A story about people trying to understand themselves by writing stories about people trying to understand themselves by writing stories about people trying to understand themselves. I don’t think this is entirely deliberate, but I think what makes the incoherence of so many of the show’s themes work for me is that its most important themes, to my mind, almost demand incoherence. If the story is primarily about the Hosts, then it is only right that the structure of the story reflect their world – a world that is constantly rewritten, on a whim, by careless and capricious overseers.

 The Hosts are the fictional creations of flawed creators who are themselves the fictional creations of flawed creators (and I’ll stop there for fear of treading on people’s theological convictions). Do large parts of the show make no sense? Of course they don’t. The whole thing is an illusion.

 Exit Music for a Film

 I have no interest in watching the second series of Westworld.

 I’ve just finished watching the first and I absolutely loved it because it pushes almost every single one of my buttons. It has robots. It has cowboys. It has a bizarre undercurrent of gnosticism, kind of the way a lot of Vertigo comics did in the mid to late ’90s.

 The first series of Westworld is flawed, but as long as it stands alone I can hold onto the idea that its flaws are part of what it is trying to achieve. As an evocation of the lives of people who can not be sure that they even exist, as a work of fiction about a work of fiction that is more real than the world outside it, as a challenge to all of the viewers who assumed – in the face of all evidence to the contrary – that it was William’s story rather than Dolores’, it is exactly what it needs to be: a heap of broken images, where the sun beats, and the dead tree gives no shelter.

 A second series would, inevitably, destroy that. It would need to give meaning to all of the things that right now are so perfectly meaningless, it would drag my attention back to the things I comfortably ignored in the first season (words cannot express how little I care about the super-duper mysterious “research project” that the people at Delos apparently need the data from the park to complete – there is literally nothing that plotline could be about that wouldn’t strike me as absurd and pointless).

 The first series wasn’t perfect, but its imperfections gave it something remarkable. After a whole season of wondering what the maze is, who Wyatt is, whose voice Dolores was hearing, and where the Man in Black fit into everything, I can imagine no better answer than that the Man in Black doesn’t fit in at all, that Wyatt is nobody, that Dolores heard no voice but her own, and that the maze is not for you.

 I have no interest in watching the second series of Westworld.

musing
8 Comments

So … long time no long, rambling post about board games.

 You’ve probably noticed that I have kind of a thing about horror-themed games. Which is odd because I’m not a huge fan of horror in real life. I mean I’m fine with the Anne Rice end of the spectrum where it’s mostly just hot people and over the top violence, but the sort that’s meant to legitimately scare you never made much sense to me. I mean either it doesn’t work, in which case it’s failed as a piece of art, or it does, in which case you’re scared. And being scared is unpleasant.

TOP BOX.indd Anyway the horror-themed game I’m talking about today is Grey Fox Games’ London Dread. It’s a co-operative game (because I increasingly can’t be bothered with games where you actually have to attempt to beat other people) that casts you and up to three friends as bizarre Victorian stereotypes out to solve some manner of mystery causing, well, dread on the streets of London. Hence the name.

 I picked up London Dread on a whim. The theme was appealing, and I was looking for something to play with some guests who were visiting. I’ve been super into Eldrich Horror recently, but I wasn’t sure I’d want to play multiple sessions in a weekend, so I very much wanted something else that would scratch a similar itch without getting us too burned out on Lovecraftian shenanigans.

 So far I have played exactly two games of London Dread, which is enough to play through half of the game’s four scenarios (or possibly five? Some reviews seem to say five). I’ve wrestled a lot with my feelings about it. And I’m aware that’s slightly portentous way of describing the sensation of not being sure whether you think a game is any good, but I think this might be my first unambiguous discommendation of the series, and since this is a game that practically screams “labour of love” I feel kind of bad about not liking it. I mean I could be wrong – Grey Fox Games seems to be a perfectly legitimate publisher and to have a whole bunch of games under its belt, but everything about the game screams passion project to an almost unhelpful degree. Basically every element of the game feels like something the designer or designers thought was completely awesome (programmed action! Weirdly specific Victorian criminal conspiracies! Personality mechanics!) and I feel a lot like your enjoyment of the game will hinge on your ability to find those things equally awesome, rather than on the way those things come together as a satisfying experience.

 To make this review short, my reluctant but simple conclusion about London Dread is that it … isn’t very good? And I feel bad, because I really want to like the game. There’s an awful lot in it to like, there are a number of quite clever ideas, there are some interesting mechanics and in some places it shows a remarkable attention to detail (there are little markers to put near all your decks of cards, so they organise themselves quite well) but so much of it just feels like it doesn’t hang together properly.

 I was sufficiently bothered by this that I actually went out and listened to some other people’s reviews, and they seem incredibly positive about it, so it might just be that I have no taste. And now I feel even more confused because I really don’t understand what it is I’m missing.

 Anyway, that’s the opening angsting and the tl;dr bit. On to the main review.

 Bad First Impressions

 I did not get off to a good start with London Dread. On opening the box and enjoying the delicious new boardgame smell, I was confronted with a little insert that began with the words “due to a printing error.” My friends and I then spent really quite a long time sorting out which of the cards didn’t have the symbols on them that they were supposed to have (which was a bit awkward because it’s surprisingly hard to identify something that is notable primarily for its lack of a feature that you have never actually seen). The insert also informed us that some of the cards had a printing error that made their backs look subtly different to the backs of other cards from which they were supposed to be indistinguishable, and again it took quite a long time to work out which the faulty cards were, which the non-faulty ones were, and why it made a difference.

 The thing is, accidents happen and mistakes get made. I get that, I really do. But it didn’t exactly inspire me with confidence going into my first game.

 A Learning Curve on a Timer

 London Dread uses what gamers sometimes call a “programming” system where the players decide in advance what their moves are going to be, either for the whole game or for a turn, and then record their decision in some manner, normally with imperfect information about how everything is going to turn out. This is used to good effect in the now-rather-aged Robo-Rally and to hilarious effect in the I-really-should-get-around-to-reviewing-it-some-time Space Alert. Both of these games are wacky comedy affairs where failing ignominiously is very much part of the point. In Robo Rally you get a new bit of randomised wackiness every turn, while in Space Alert you have five minutes of space chaos that you then resolve in the ten minutes that follow.

 London Dread is a bit different. You get twelve minutes to plan your actions, and then actually resolving them takes the best part of the next hour. This is partly because it’s a thematic game with (I would argue light) storytelling elements which you do a disservice by rushing them, it’s partly because the middle and end phases of the game are just legitimately long. We played it with three players, and resolving twelve actions each for three people, many of which involve overlapping or slightly contradictory mechanics, takes a while. Then there’s the endgame segment, in which you have yet another wholly different set of mechanics, which aren’t very well explained in the core rules (to the extent that one very important rule for the endgame must be intuited only from a single reference to the fact that it should already have happened, that reference occurring in an example describing a completely different situation).

 To put it another way, a game of London Dread is fundamentally won or lost in the twelve minute planning phase. The hour-long execution phase and endgame phase are very much an exercise in seeing how it all turned out.

 This means several things. Firstly, it means that you’re only really doing gameplay for the first ten minutes of an hour long game session, the rest is implementing decisions already made or very occasionally drawing cards. This is especially brutal the first time you play, when you’re essentially having to make decisions about what you’re going to do over the next half hour to an hour of game time, but you’re making those decisions on the basis of an at best limited understanding of the way the game mechanics work. This means that the first time you play the game you’re pretty likely to either (a) lose or (b) win, but only because you interpreted the rules overgenerously.

 This problem is exacerbated by the game’s story focus. Of which more later. Or, more precisely, of which more now:

 Storytelling

 London Dread is a story driven game. It comes with an app in which a proper actor reads out a little introductory paragraph that sets the scene and explains what it is that your characters are doing. The plot then unfolds through a number of plot cards in which your characters follow a series of clues to reach their ultimate goal.

 Unfortunately the plot cards only make up 4-6 of the 24 cards on the board. The rest are “Dread” cards; prettily illustrated but thematically sparse cards that describe a particular encounter that a character can have by visiting them. And when I say “describe an encounter” I mostly mean “have a title and some art and a bit of flavour text”. The encounters on the Dread cards are always the same in every game (although they are different between the first and second chapters of any given game) and they feel – and there isn’t a nice way to say this – a lot like filler.

 For example, in the second scenario the premise is that your characters have a Mysterious List of Names, and know that at least two of the people on that list have been murdered. Your goal is to find the people on that list and warn them that they should leave London. On the way you encounter a strange group of owl-themed occultists and fall foul of a corrupt police officer.

 Which is great, but that’s only about a quarter of what you’re actually doing in the game. The rest of what you’re doing is dealing with Dread cards. So maybe at 6 a.m. you’ll visit the plot-crucial NPC you have to deliver your dire warning to, and then at 8 you’ll go to another location to pick up a clockwork monkey, which is in no way contextualised but which does give you a bonus on problems that have a gear symbol on them. Then you’ll take your clockwork monkey and, at 10, deal with some Grave Robbing which apparently it is important for you to deal with despite the fact that there is no logical connection between that and the warnings you’re apparently supposed to be giving out. And apparently a clockwork monkey helps you with this.

 It all puts me very much in mind of that subcategory of modern video games which deliver a terribly serious story through cutscenes but fill the space between them with generic shooter gameplay or sandbox chaos. There’s no connection between what your characters are supposed to be doing in the narrative and what you actually spend your playtime doing. It’s sort of like in Grand Theft Auto IV, where in cutscenes you’re this jaded ex-con trying to put his past behind him, but in all the gameplay bits you’re a gleeful maniac happily mowing down pedestrians for fun. Except here it’s that you’re supposed to be warning a bunch of strangers to leave town and instead you’re encountering Boris the Bear, and the game doesn’t really explain who he is or what that means.

 Agency and Lack Thereof

 This is a tricky one. There is a tiny part of me that suspects there are levels of gameplay in London Dread that are accessible if you understand it very, very well. For example, clearing Dread Cards is an almost entirely deterministic process (you need to match the symbols on your character to the symbols on the card) but you can draw cards from an “adventure deck” in an effort to resolve a card that you don’t quite have the symbols for. This isn’t something we’ve ever done in any of the times we’ve played it. It just never seems worth it, and we don’t have a good handle on how the probabilities shake out. So the Adventure Deck winds up being largely full going into the final confrontation, and this has the knock-on effect of making the final confrontation largely trivial. Except for the final showdown bit, which is a single dice roll that you have a reasonable chance to fail no matter how well you played the earlier game.

 Umm … I’ll get to that.

 The big issue I have with London Dread (okay, one of the many big issues I have with London Dread) is agency – that sense (even if it’s illusory) of having control over the outcomes of the game. The feeling that whether I win or lose will depend on whether I play well or badly, rather than on dice rolls or blind choices.

 To a new player especially, London Dread is all dice rolls and blind choices. You move around London trying to resolve Dread cards to avoid the Dread Level rising. This is important because every five points of Dread is an extra fist icon you need to roll on the single dice roll that decides the final confrontation (again, I’ll get to that). But it isn’t at all clear how bad or not bad a rising dread level will be until you’ve actually had the final confrontation and seen how many fists you need to beat it (and if you’re playing the game for the first time, you may not understand what a rising dread level means at all). I can imagine a world where I knew enough about London Dread that the decision to visit a Dread Card I couldn’t resolve, relying on drawing cards from the Adventure Deck to put it away, would be an interesting and considered tactical choice. But I don’t live in that world, I live in the world where I know what’s on my character and what’s on the card and that Dread is nebulously bad, so I just kind of move around to the cards that match my symbols, if there are any.

 Then there’s the random elements. Dread cards are wholly deterministic if you want them to be. Plot cards, on the other hand, require you to roll dice. But there’s more! The number of dice you roll is equal to the number of symbols on your character sheet that match the symbols on the plot card, but you draw an additional card that is used only for Plots and in the Final Confrontation which has extra symbols on it. These cards are from something called the Personality Deck, which is a cute idea (each character has its own deck of cards which give it, appropriately enough, a sense of personality – it’s kind of nice to know that the Soldier character is also a musician and the Dancer character has a missing sister). As cool and thematic as the personality deck is, however, it’s adding randomness to randomness. If I need to score one fist to get a good outcome on a plot card (I keep talking about fists, sorry: the game uses custom dice that have four blank sides and two fists, fists are good, you need fists to win) then I know I have to roll three dice on average, but the number of dice I get to roll in my effort to randomly score the fists I need for victory is itself randomly determined.

 It’s only having written that down that I quite realise how absurd it sounds.

 And there is still more. Not only does beating plot cards require me to randomly roll the appropriate number of fists on a number of dice that I have determined randomly by drawing cards from my personality deck, but one of those cards will randomly fuck me over. Everybody has one card in their personality deck that gives them Trauma. If you get Traumatised (the Soldier flashes back to the war – and I’m not sure which war, incidentally, peculiarly his art makes him look a lot like a WWI vet despite the game being set in the late 19th century – the Dancer freaks out about her missing sister, that kind of thing) you contribute no dice unless you use Adventure Cards or Items (which are one use) and you also roll the Trauma Die, which can lead to your becoming “Unhinged” or “Injured”, two conditions that do nothing the first time you get them but which raise dread by five if you get them a second time.

 This means that if a character tries to resolve a plot card alone then no matter how trivial it is (many of the plot cards in the second scenario require only a single fist to defeat), the range of possible outcomes varies from “the card is resolved and you get bonus resources that help you” to “the plot card fails, raising Dread, and your character rolls Trauma, raising Dread again.” And you can’t really influence which outcome you’ll get in any meaningful way.

 This is a lot of variance to build into a game.

 Then there’s that whole “all comes down to a dice roll” thing.

 Once you resolve the final plot card of the final chapter (all scenarios after the first are in two chapters) you move on to the final confrontation with the “Antagonist” of the scenario (confusingly, several of the scenario “antagonists” are actually abstract concepts like “infiltration” and “escape”). There’s a nice bit of flavour text leading into the final confrontation which sets the scene very thematically, but the atmosphere is rather marred by the fact that you then have to resolve a series of challenges using a mechanic that appears nowhere else in the game (each challenge card has a number of symbols on it, and you must match those symbols with those on your character sheet, personality card, and adventure cards – but in this phase of the game adventure cards are dealt out to the players in advance, and you choose which ones to play instead of selecting them randomly from the deck and by the way this is the mechanic which you have to intuit from an example elsewhere in the rules).

 There are always three challenges in the final confrontation, and each player who successfully completes a challenge gains a die to use in the final-final-really-final-we-mean-it-this-time final showdown. In a three-player game, this means you have zero to nine dice. The players win the final showdown if they roll a number of fists equal to or greater than one-plus-one-for-every-five Dread.

 And … that’s the big payoff. You roll zero to nine dice, and you need to roll between one and nine fists, so you might have no chance of succeeding (if Dread is high or you won few dice) but you almost never have no chance of failing (some cards give you free fists in the final showdown but they’re seldom enough to guarantee the win).

 I honestly don’t have words for how anticlimactic I’ve found it both times. As I say, I really wanted to like this game, but the final showdown mechanic in particular makes me honestly want to call bullshit. And again, there might be a greater depth of gameplay if you’re more familiar with the game, if you understand the distribution of symbols on the cards better and you know the endgame challenges better and you have a better handle on the risk-reward of managing Dread.

 But this is a story-driven game. And since you don’t find out if you’ve won or lost until the final dice roll (although a lot of time you will have effectively lost the game on the basis of the twelve minutes of planning you did right at the start) you always experience the whole story (barring the “good ending” flavour text) on your first playthrough. We haven’t lost a scenario yet (then again, we’ve played some rules wrong, and in ways that have generally made things easier for us, and I think this was a big part of our success) but if we had I honestly don’t feel like I would have had any desire to go back and play it again to get the win. Annoyingly even having decided that I probably just plain don’t like the game I sort of want to play the next two scenarios to find out where the story goes. Although I suppose I could actually get the same experience by just reading the plot cards and listening to the intro and outro sequences.

 In Conclusion

 I feel really bad about this but I just … don’t like this game. And I know a lot of people do, and I’ve seen some very positive reviews from people who seem genuinely blown away by the whole setup, but it does so little for me that I can’t even suggest who this might be a good game for. I feel like if you want a glossy story-driven game there are glossier games out there (Arabian Nights and Eldrich Horror being obvious examples). I feel like if you want simultaneous movement and programmed actions, there are games that implement that better as well and while I don’t think there are any games that implement simultaneous movement and programmed actions into a story-driven experience, that feels like a weirdly specific thing to want out of a game.

 So … yeah. Sadface. I can’t recommend this one. I do understand that some people love it, and if you google for reviews you’ll find plenty of people who responded far more positively than I did.

 Perhaps it would work better for me if it included an adorable panda.

people & cardboard
15 Comments

I thought it would be kind of appropriative of me to talk about the US election so I’m not going to. Which obviously leaves me in a difficult blogging space because talking about politics seems inappropriate in one way and talking about Star Trek seems inappropriate in another.

So I’m taking a middle ground and talking about something newsy and sad but not in any way electoral. I’m going to talk about Leonard Cohen.

Let’s face it, 2016 has been a shitty, shitty year. However you feel about recent instances of democracy we’ve also lost a terrifying number of iconic figures from the middle of the 20th century. It’s almost like they were all getting old or something.

This is probably an over-generalisation but I think everybody has the celebrity death that disproportionately affects them in a way that other celebrity deaths don’t. The famous whose work was important enough and integral enough to a particular time in your life that when they go it is, and I acknowledge that this is disgustingly clichéd, genuinely as if part of you goes with them. For a lot of my friend it was Terry Pratchett. For a couple of my work colleagues it was David Bowie. For me, it’s Leonard Cohen.

This is really obvious but there are lots of different sorts of musicians. At the one end you have the one hit wonders and, at the other, you have people whose careers span significant fractions of a century. But, even amongst those performers, there are differences. Some people consistently reinvent themselves (like Bowie), others just kind of carry on being who they are and who they’ve always been (like Cher or Bob Dylan) but some really feel as if they’ve sung you their lives, like Johnny Cash or—case in point—Leonard Cohen.

And this is also really obvious but responses to music are intensely personal and because music endures in a way that other art forms often don’t the way that a person interacts with a song is a strange and weirdly unique alchemy between the singer at the time the song was written, the singer at the time the song was written about, the listener when they first heard it and the listener today. That’s an extremely complicated set of relationships to go into what is essentially a three and a half minute experience but, well, there it is.

Leonard Cohen was, and I suppose depending on how you count it technically still is, about fifty years older than me. So the songs he was writing about being my age he wrote fifty years ago. And the songs he wrote about the world I live in he wrote from the point of view of somebody who had been living in it fifty years longer. And so me listening to his music today is this peculiar experience that exists slightly outside of time. People often talk about the unique ability of smell to trigger memories and I’ve always felt it was a little bit overplayed. I mean, is it really the case that smelling something can remind you of it more strongly and more reliably than, y’know, seeing it. And surely the sensory experience that has the most profound ability to trigger that weird amalgam of memory and emotion it’s, well, music. I can’t listen to ‘You Got Me Singing’ from Popular Problems , which I bought on release in 2014, without thinking of ‘Light As The Breeze’ from The Future, which I first encountered at university in the early 2000s, but which was written in 1992. And my perception of all those songs is coloured by the awareness that they’re written by the same man who screamed into the microphone on ‘Diamonds In the Mine’, who no longer owns the copyright on ‘Suzanne’, who lost his faith, found his faith, who randomly collaborated with Philip Glass, who I saw live in London in 2008 with a friend who later died.

My original intent for this article was to do a top ten but then I remembered I hate top tens because they embody everything I think it’s wrong to value, being reductionist, hierarchal and over-simplistic. So instead this slightly melancholy article is going to conclude with a list of arbitrary length and in no particular order of some Leonard Cohen songs I thought I could say a couple of things about. I’m not going to mention anything from You Want It Darker because it’s impossible to talk about that right now without it getting all muddled up with the fact he’s, um, dead.

Diamonds In the Mine

This, frankly, is the song that puts people off Leonard Cohen. While I was at university I had a friend who nearly dumped somebody because they said Leonard Cohen sounded like a paedophile. But, to be fair to that person, on the basis of this song alone I can sort of see where they were coming from. I know most people would probably cite ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’ as their archetypal early Leonard Cohen song but I’m just weirdly fond of this one. I think it’s the sheer, undirected energy of it. I’ve never known anybody so pissed off about not getting any post.

Um, obviously I know it’s a metaphor. Don’t write in.

Hallelujah

You kind of have to mention this one. Although, honestly, this one of those songs that I actually prefer in cover. And not, in fact, because I think the covers are better than the original—the original is a great song, and the version I saw him perform in London was phenomenal—but because the song taps into something so primal and fundamental that the totality of covers becomes something that eclipses any individual version or artist.

My favourite cover is KD Lang so that’s why I’ve linked that instead of the original.

Anthem

Okay, this is really embarrassing but when I was at university I had a big piece of canvas over my bed that I’d sort of covered in lines from stuff that felt important to me. Like a whole bunch of motivational posters mashed together without the cat photos. God, being twenty was humiliating in retrospect. Anyway, one of those lines was “there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” So I basically had to pick this.

There’s basically nothing you can say about Anthem that hasn’t been said because it’s fucking Anthem.

Here it is.

Light As The Breeze

That’s light as the breeze, not light as a breeze. Like vampires.

I was trying to avoid doing too many from the same album but I fucking love The Future. I find this one a little bit embarrassing to talk about because it’s one of those that you listen and go “is this about sex, I’m pretty sure it’s about sex, is it weird that I think this is about sex?” I mean, it’s about Leonard Cohen things like faith and the loss of faith, and sensuality and longing, all in this really tangled up way. But I guess, and obviously I don’t know because I’m not him, for Leonard Cohen the search for physical satisfaction and spiritual connection are (were *sad face* ) kind of the same thing. See also, Hallelujah, If It Be Your Will, and about half the rest of his back catalogue.

Also Resplendent Chemise sounds like a level 23 World of Warcraft drop.

Jazz Police

Okay, I sort of admit that I might have picked this one because I’ve watched a lot of Pointless recently (for my American readers, Pointless is a BBC quiz show in which the aim is to name things within a certain category that other people wouldn’t think of) and if I had to pick a Leonard Cohen from I’m Your Man as an answer on Pointless I’d pick Jazz Police. It’s just sort of very different from everything else on the album. I can’t really say anything profound about it except that I weirdly like it.

Also speaking of obscure BBC quiz shows, you could get a really good Only Connect (for my American readers, Only Connect is a British quiz show in which teams of contestants have to spot connections between a series of seemingly random clues) music round with extracts from this song, Karma Police by Radiohead, Dream Police by Cheap Trick and Love Police by Phil Collins (the connection being, “abstract concept police”).

I should add that I absolutely love everything on I’m Your Man, which is probably why it was so hard to pick a single track and I ended up going for the silly one.

Slow

Popular Problems is my second album of the second half of Leonard Cohen’s career. It is to Ten New Songs what The Future is to I’m Your Man. It’s ultimately a very thoughtful and political album about war ‘n’ shit but it opens with this piece of mischief. It’s another “are you talking about sex, Lenny” track. It’s sleazy as hell and and everything about it just sort of makes me smile.

Villanelle For Our Time

This is a fucking villanelle. There are basically only three good villanelles because it is a silly, silly poetic form. Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night is one. This is another and I’m leaving the third spot open out of charity.

This is from Dear Heather which is the album he did after Ten New Songs and so is sort of like his difficult second album except that he wrote it after already performing for half a century. It’s a very talky, very poetry-ey album and this falls more or less in the middle of it.  I think what I like about this, and about a lot of Dear Heather, is that it almost feels like it’s Cohen going through music and out the other side. I mean, his work has always basically been poetry set to music and Dear Heather was him embracing that to its fullest extent.

While I’m talking about Dear Heather, I have to give a nod to Because Of because it’s Leonard Cohen talking about what a total player he still is, or perhaps isn’t. Super great.

Literally Everything On Ten New Songs

Basically, this is my Cohen album because it’s the one he released when I was falling in love with him. He’d done basically nothing for a decade, on account of being actually really old and going through a tonne of stuff, including becoming Buddhist like everyone did in the 90s, and then he lost all of his money and needed to start performing again. Which is sort of difficult because on the one hand I’m glad his later work exists, on the other hand it’s never nice when old men lose all their cash.

I can’t even begin to explain what this album means to me … so I’m not going to because I’m far too self-conscious and British.

angst, topical
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pic1872452I was going to say that this post would be a slightly late, vaguely Halloween themed review of two sort of horror-ish board games, the games in question being Eldritch Horror and London Dread.  But a moment of reflection on my past performance and history of writing blog posts led me the realisation that I would inevitably spend three thousand words wittering on about the first games and be forced to leave the second for a later post.

Given which, this is going to be a slightly late, vaguely Halloween themed review of one horror-ish board game, the question being Eldritch Horror. I’ll do London Dread some other time and, to be honest, I should probably wait until I’ve played it more than once anyway.

Embarrassingly, I was inspired to buy Eldritch Horror largely as a consequence of my own review of Arkham Horror in which I concluded that Eldritch Horror would probably not be enough of an upgrade over Arkham to justify the price of entry. I think, ironically, writing the review in which I concluded that I probably wasn’t going to buy Eldritch Horror caused me to think about my frustrations with Arkham Horror enough that I convinced myself I was probably never going to play it again. Which, in turn, caused me to re-examine my thoughts about buying Eldritch.

There’s actually a really interesting psychological / microeconomic phenomenon at work here and my original intention not to buy Eldritch Horror, even though I wanted to play it, on the grounds that I already owned Arkham Horror, even though I didn’t want to play that, was actually an instance of something quite well documented.

Consider the following two scenarios:

Scenario 1: you have bought a ticket to a movie for $10. You put the ticket in your wallet (or bag, or purse, depending on how you carry this sort of thing) alongside a $10 bill. When you arrive at the cinema, however, you discover that you have lost the ticket. You still have the $10 bill and could, therefore, buy another ticket if you so wished. Quite a lot of people in this scenario will choose instead to simply not bother seeing the film. Having paid $10 for a ticket once they have no desire to pay another $10, even though their initial expenditure is definitely lost.

Scenario 2: you go to the cinema, knowing that a ticket for the film you want to see costs $10. You put two $10 bills in your wallet but, when you arrive at the cinema, discover that one of them has fallen out, leaving you with only $10. Since this is still enough to buy a ticket for the movie you want see, the vast majority of people will consider the loss of the $10 irrelevant and decide to buy the ticket and see the film anyway.

What’s interesting about these scenarios is that while the background is different your situation when you arrive at the cinema is exactly the same. You have $10 and no cinema ticket and must choose between paying $10 to see a film or walking away, keeping your $10 and having a wasted trip. From a purely rational perspective, the fact that in scenario 1 you bought a ticket then lost it while in scenario 2 you lost $10 that you had not spent on at ticket should make no difference.

And basically this is the situation I was in with Arkham/Eldritch Horror. Because I’d already bought Arkham, even though I wasn’t actually playing it, I felt like buying a game another similar game that I would play was somehow wasteful, even though, in fact, my ownership of the original Arkham Horror made no real difference to the financial decision. Either I thought Eldritch was worth the money or not. The fact that I happened to own another similar game was, when viewed rationally, immaterial.

So, long story short, I bought Eldritch Horror.

Probably the best way to describe Eldritch Horror is that it’s like Arkham Horror would be if it had been released in 2013, rather than 1987. I mean, obviously it’s a board game and board games aren’t limited by technology in quite the same way that videogames are but you do get trends, fashions and, for want of a better term, realisations that tend to make more recently designed things more in tune with the sensibilities of people today, rather than people nearly 30 years ago (holy crap, Arkham is old, I didn’t quite realise how old).

What makes Arkham great is all of the cool stuff you get to have and do in it.  You can go to shops and buy things and use the things to fight monsters. You can have encounters in places and get clues. You can visit other worlds and have stuff happen to you in them. The stuff is usually horrible but it still happens and is cool. What makes Arkham terrible is how unwieldy, arbitrary, random and bloated all of the cool stuff is, especially if you play with the expansions.

A lot of the gameplay of Arkham revolves around acquiring and using quite a small number of effective items and spells. You basically need a shotgun and someone with shrivelling, and elder signs are a massive game changer. But the decks you get these things out of were huge to begin with and the more expansions have been added the more the already gigantic decks have swollen to, well, Lovecraftian proportions. Instead of a relatively focused game, where you go to the general store and get a rifle, then go to the curiosity shop and get an elder sign, then fight your way past a ghoul in order to close a gate at Hibb’s roadhouse  you wind up with a sprawling, confused game where you go to a general store and buy a used map of Innsmouth, because it the best useless thing available, then go to the curiosity shop and get a quest to betray all of your companions before fighting a creature with a bizarre list of immunities and special rules for movement at the train station while you try to get to Dunwich in order to stop some other monsters walking through portals because something something something something.

Eldritch Horror strips it all right back. And probably the first thing I would say to anyone who’s played Arkham and is considering buying Eldritch is this: if you what you liked about Arkham Horror was the sheer volume of stuff (and I absolutely understand the appeal of stuff) Eldritch has less stuff. The items and artefact decks are half as thick, there are about the same number locations, although they now represent the entire world, rather than one small town in New England, there are only four Great Old Ones (or Ancient Ones, as they call them in the games, possibly because Great Old One is the term Chaosium uses in the RPG) in the box, which is something I’ll talk about later, and all of the other worldly portals now lead to the same place (or rather, they all to a generic otherworld and the place you’re in depends on the card you draw, rather than the card you draw depending on the place you’re in).

If it was somewhere between ten and twenty years ago and I was even more of a dick than I am today, I’m sure I’d be denouncing all of this as dumbing down for the noobs. It’s not, it’s streamlining for the people who actually want to be able to finish a game in an evening.

I think this is the point that I start having to use subheadings again. I apologise. Basically, I want to look in more detail at some of the structural changes to the game and I want to break them down (to pull a completely arbitrary number off the stop of my head) about three different categories. Those categories being flow, theme and future-proofing.

Flow

One of the things I was really impressed by with Eldritch Horror is that it took out a whole bunch of clutter without particularly making the game less deep or less thematic. For example, in the original Arkham half the locations were spooky places where you just had random encounters. Half of them were non-spooky places where you also had random encounters but could instead choose not to have a random encounter in order to do something useful. This useful thing would often involve turning in some kind of token, going shop or repairing your brain.

Eldritch simply takes all of the utility functions that in Arkham were restricted to specific squares on the board and makes them into actions that any character can perform at any time. It preserves the strategic elements that in Arkham came from managing your movement rate and trying to work out how to get from the shops to the cave to the woods in as few turns as possible with a simple two action gameplay model. Basically, on your turn, you can do two things. If you want to shop, great (as long as you’re in a city) you can totally do that but then eats an action you could otherwise resting, moving, buying train tickets or using your character’s special abilities. It’s all just very clean.  In Arkham, you would spend a turn moving to the general store, then have an encounter phase general store, in which you would encounter the general store (which means go shopping) and you’d have to keep track of how much money you have and had to deal with a weird system where you have no idea what will be available in the shop until you’ve already committed to going there and encountering it, at which point you are explicitly forced to buy one of the three random items you are shown. (Seriously, shopping in Arkham was weird – people must go out for milk and come back home with a box of shotgun shells and a copy of The King in Yellow). In Eldritch Horror you spend one action to go shopping, then you roll some dice to see how much you can buy from the pool of items that are already face up on the table in front of you.

I mean, it’s just better, isn’t it?

And, again, to be fair to Arkham I can see that for some people the more RPG-like system of items being sold in shops that you have to actually go to on your turn and pay for with money, which is represented by like cardboard dollar bills, is a qualitatively different and more immersive experience. And I will admit that if you play Arkham Horror for those reasons you might not like Eldritch Horror as much. Although I might also say that if you play Arkham Horror for those reasons you might want to ask yourself if you wouldn’t be better off just playing Call of Cthulhu.

The games also flows much better when it comes to going places and encountering things. Characters in Arkham moved quite fast which meant, on a given turn, you could probably access about half the board but had no particular reason to go to any bit of it. Unless you had some tokens to trade in or a burning need to get your brain put back in you would probably be limited to snaffling stray clue tokens or blundering into whichever location had the most advantageous looking encounter symbols. This final strategy would inevitably go wrong because the encounter symbols were lies.

I should unpack the encounter symbol a bit. A theoretical part of your strategy in Arkham was that every location had two little symbols attached to it that were supposed to indict the sorts of things that were likely to happen to you (and more specifically the kind of resources you could be expected to gain) if you had an encounter there. So, for example, some places would have a little magnifying glass, indicating that you could find clue tokens while others would have a little heart, indicating that you could get healing. But, in practice, nine times out of ten what would happen is that you’d just get arbitrarily fucked over. And, obviously, that can be fun but Arkham is not exactly short of arbitrary over fucking mechanism, and when part of the gameplay is supposed to be pursuing particular outcomes by having encounters in particular places it feels a bit pointless for those places not to reliably give you those outcomes. It gets particularly bad in the expansions. There’s a location in Dunwich, for example, where is there is exactly one possible good encounter in the entire deck. And all the others just screw you.

Eldritch is a lot more civilised about this. Every major location (which is to say every major city—only named cities get unique encounter decks) has one thing that it tells you that you will get from encounters there. So, for example, it tells you encounters in London will spawn clue tokens. It tells you encounters in Sydney will improve your strength or body or whatever they call it. It tells you encounters in Istanbul will improve your influence. And the cool thing is they actually do. Like more than half the time. I mean, you sometimes have to make a roll, which you can still fail, and there are one or two encounters were something else happens. But whereas in Arkham you’d go to a location labelled with money and clue tokens and mostly get beaten up or attacked by monsters, finding some money or a clue token perhaps one time in six. When you go to London in Eldritch you spawn clue tokens virtually every time.

This has a surprisingly subtle knock-on effect on the game. Because you can actually be pretty sure that, for example, visiting Arkham will give you spells then you can say to yourself “I need spells, so I’ll go to Arkham.” This gives you a clear idea of where to go and, because you get two actions to move with, you have to plan more carefully how you’re going to get there. This makes the movement stage of the game more engaging and interactive. It also makes the world feel bigger, which contributes to a sense of immersion.

I’ve played games of Arkham where I’ve genuinely said to myself “well, I don’t really know what I should do so I’ll guess go here and hope for some money or go to the shop and hope for a good item.” I’ve never had that in Eldritch. There’s always somewhere you want to explore, some way you want to improve yourself, or some calamity you want to avert.

Theme

So one of the things I mentioned above was that Eldritch has fewer Ancient Ones in the box than Arkham. And it’s a fair few fewer (if that construction isn’t awkward). To the best of my recollection, vanilla Arkham Horror ships with: Cthulhu, Azathoth, Shub-Niggurath, Yig, Ithaqa, Nyarlathotep, Yog-Sothoth and Hastur. Basically it’s got all the really archetypal ones, plus Yig and Ithaqa for no good reason. Eldritch by contrast only includes Cthulhu, Azathoth, Shub-Niggurath and Yog-Sothoth. And, honestly, when I opened the box that did feel a little bit disappointing. I mean, I’d have liked Hastur and Nyarly at the very least.

Once I started setting up and playing the game, however, I realised why there were half as many Ancient Ones in Eldritch. That reason quite simply was that there was twice as much work put into each one.

The Ancient Ones in Arkham basically provide global rules modifications. Cthulhu, for example, reduces everyone health and sanity by one (which is devastating but also, um, not very interesting). Azathoth has no impact on the game at all but you insta-lose if he wakes up. Which is, honestly, kind of a mercy because punching Cthulhu in the nose is the least interesting and certainly the least dignified part of any Arkham game. By contrast, the Ancient Ones in Eldritch have wholly unique encounters and win conditions, right down to the fact that there are decks of cards which are only used for some investigations associated with some specific gods.

In Arkham you win the game by collecting a lot of clue tokens (which are always the same and which you pick up by walking into places, like you’re grabbing a power up in Mario brothers), then handing them in to seal gates (which are, again, always the same). In Eldritch you win by solving three mysteries chosen from a deck of four mysteries unique to the Old One that you’re fighting. Furthermore, clue tokens (which are often specifically needed to solve these mysteries as well as having the traditional use of enabling a re-roll in an action) are no longer picked up by contact but have to earned through encounters and, again, these encounters are described in decks of cards specific to each god.

This makes each game of Eldritch very, very different from other games of Eldritch against different Old Ones. When you’re facing Shub-Niggurath, for example, you find yourself having to fight hordes of dangerous monsters that spawn all over the world and investigate mysteries that almost exclusively pop up in wilderness areas far from civilisation. Against Cthulhu, you spend a lot of time going mad on remote islands and investigating the blasphemous activities of Cthulhu cultists. These things feel genuinely different. If you fail to resolve your three mysteries by the time the doom track runs out, the Great Old One awakens and you flip over their character sheet to find out what happens next. This leads to a bespoke final confrontation which is sometimes a knock down, drag out fight (for, example, if you fail to stop the rise of Shub-Niggurath she appears in the heart of Africa, surrounded by Dark Young, and you have to go and kill her, which is really, really hard). If you fail to stop the rise of Yog-Sothoth then a bunch of terrible stuff starts happening but you just have to keep investigating the mysteries because, while Shub-Niggurath is a very physical, fighty, punchy deity, Yog very much isn’t. Obviously, if you fail to stop the rise of Azathoth you just lose instantly because world destroy because seething nuclear chaos.

One of the many, many problem I had with Arkham towards the end was that it wound up being a game that felt anticlimactic to win and anticlimactic to lose. Because the game’s default goal of sealing an arbitrary number of inter-dimensional gates had no real thematic connection to whichever Great Old One you happened to be fighting, winning felt dislocated and ultimately like a bit of a let-down. On the other hand, because (with the exception of Azathoth) failing to seal the gates in time always led to the same pointless punch up with whoever the villain was this week it, again, felt decontexualised and, in many respects, farcical. Eldritch avoids both of these problems, presenting you with a game that is both genuinely fun to win and fun to lose. When you defeat the cult of Yog-Sothoth you actually feel (well, actually within certain parameters) like you’ve overcome a brain-bending from beyond time and space. When you lose again Shub-Niggurath it really feels like you’ve failed to stop the rise of a blasphemous fertility goddess from beyond the stars.

Which is good.

Future Proofing

I’m setting myself up for a fall here because I’m now I’m going to talk about how well I think Eldritch will handle expansions, despite never actually having playing Eldritch with expansions.

The problem with the expansions for Arkham Horror was that, while in theory they were designed to be modular, in practice the game was built with and pitched on the philosophy that more is better. If you had The Curse of Dark Pharaoh expansion but didn’t use The Curse of Dark Pharaoh stuff it felt like a waste. But if you did use it and used the Dunwich stuff and the Innsmouth stuff and the Hastur stuff and the stuff that’s just expansions for the expansions stuff the game got huge, and overblown and creaky. It also made the thematic elements of the game get more and more diluted because you could find yourself fighting Yig as your main villain, while the son of Yog-Sothoth terrorised Dunwich, the spawn of the Dagon worshiping Deep Ones overran Innsmouth, Nyarlathotep (in his aspect as the Dark Pharaoh) caused chaos at the Ancient Egypt exhibit at Arkham Museum and you spend half your time stumbling through gates to Carcosa and Yuggoth.

And, obviously, there’s still elements of this in Eldritch (it’s not like you only fight starspawn if you pick Cthulhu as your Ancient One, for example) but the game is built with a much stronger assumption of modularity from the outset. In fact, the game starts off with the assumption that you aren’t even going to use all of the components that come with the core box. Like in Arkham, at the end of every turn you draw a card from the Mythos deck in order to discover how the uncaring Lovecraftian universe has fucked you over this time but, unlike Arkham, the Mythos is carefully customised before you start play. Instead of throwing in every card you own, you put together a pre-determined (and Ancient One specific) mixture of event, rumour and environment cards that form quite a small deck, which itself provides a secondary time limit on the game.

What this means is, that even if you add more expansions you’re never going to get the same bloat you get with Arkham (assuming, that is, they keep to this formula). True, the time and artefact decks might be a little bit thicker but they’re quite thin to begin with and, unlike with Arkham, they don’t contain as many must have items that could get buried underneath expansion bloat. Perhaps even more interestingly, from reviews I’ve seen it appears that the game does have expansion that include additional boards but that these boards are tied to explicit ancient ones.  So, for example, I understand that there’s an Antarctica expansion (and, for what it’s worth, Antarctica has really bad luck in the games we’ve played—it’s been completely destroyed in at least half of them) but the Antarctica board is only used if you’re playing against Ithaqua. In which case you’re basically doing Beyond the Mountains of Madness and going to Antarctica makes sense.

Conclusion

I seem to recall that my conclusion to my article about Arkham Horror was that, if you like the sound of Arkham, you were probably better off buying Eldritch. I pretty much stand by that. And virtually everything else I said in that article about who the game is suitable or unsuitable for applies to Eldritch just as much as it does to Arkham. They’re very similar games but, in my opinion, Eldritch is a flat upgrade.

The slightly thornier question I suspect is whether Eldritch is worth buying if you already have Arkham and aren’t bored of it. And there I’m a bit more hesitant. I do think that if you find Arkham is losing its shine, then owning it shouldn’t really factor into your decision whether or not to buy Eldritch (see that whole thing with the cinema tickets, right back at the beginning of this post). I might also say that if you were planning on buying the next couple of very pricey Arkham expansions you could maybe put the money towards Eldritch instead because I think it might wind up being a better investment long-term. If, on the other hand, you’re satisfied with the Arkham you have, then I don’t quite think Eldritch has enough in it by itself to justify the price of entry. Which is more or less where we came in.

people & cardboard
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When I said I’d update this blog more often I didn’t necessarily mean every day, but it seems a bit off to save the second part of my deeply specific mid-to-late 1990s terrible awesome awesome terrible spooky movie extravaganza until the week after Halloween.

Which brings us to The Craft.

 The Craft

By all rights, I should hate this movie because it contains about every trope I hate in, well, I’d say this kind of fiction but actually a lot of them are tropes I hate in all mass culture. They include but are not limited to:

  • The only people who should have power are people who are born with it
  • It is immoral to try to make your life better
  • Sexually promiscuous people are evil, emotionally damaged, or both
  • Poor people are evil
  • Rich people are evil but not as evil as poor people
  • Black people aren’t evil but only because they never really get to do anything for themselves
  • Physical beauty correlates with morality in extremely specific ways, namely pretty people are good and ugly people are evil, unless the pretty people got pretty by trying to look pretty, in which case they are even more evil than the ugly people
  • And, while we’re at it, ugly basically means incredibly hot but with a few minor and easily overlooked physical flaws

And I admit some of these are reaching because the list would have been even less funny if it had only had two or three entries but the movie really can’t go more than ten minutes without showing me something that should, by all rights, piss me the fuck off.

So I’m not sure why I love it so much. Maybe it’s Fairuza Balk.

Scratch that. It’s definitely Fairuza Balk.

Anyway, The Craft is the story of a girl called Sarah whose mother was A Good Witch TM (this doesn’t really come out til the end of the movie, but it’s screamingly fucking obvious from the start) and who, therefore, has always had hidden supernatural powers (remember: you’re only allowed to have power if you were born with it). Sarah falls in with a motley cabal of teenage witches and, when I say witches, I mean really explicitly Wiccan witches (which I think is part of why I find the film so fascinating), all of whom have turned to the occult in order to help them deal with their very teenage personal problems. When Sarah joins them her innate protagonist powers kick the group into overdrive, allowing them to start doing real, legit magic for the first time in their lives.

I have a friend who describes Titus Andronicus as Shakespeare’s great unacknowledged comedy (this is going somewhere, bear with me). The play, she says, is so ludicrously over-the-top that you can’t take it seriously or imagine it was ever intended to be taken seriously as tragedy. And so it makes most sense if you view it as a hilarious and bloody farce. In the same way, I think the reason I love The Craft even though it ticks every status quo biased, socially conservative, believe in yourself and you can accomplish anything but only if you’re white and pretty box that I hate in Hollywood movies is that the foundations on which it’s based are so flawed, human and understandable that I can’t take it seriously as a coming-of-age story about a middle class white girl who falls in with a bad crowd. I have to view it, instead, as a profoundly tragic story about a group of variously marginalised people who do the only thing they think they can to make their low-key shitty lives slightly less low-key shitty, and are punished for it by an uncaring cosmos.

And, okay yes, technically Nancy, Rochelle and Bonnie do try to straight up murder Sarah. And Sarah actually, when you think about it, has quite a lot of her own shit going on (she’s fairly clearly quite seriously depressed among other things, although the film really dances around that issue), but by that point (and to an extent like the various murders that take place in Interview With The (not a) Vampire) you’ve taken such a sharp left turn off Metaphor Drive into Allegory Close that it’s very hard to unpick how anyone’s actions should be interpreted.

At its heart, The Craft is about four girls who want very understandable, very reasonable things, some of which are relatable dreams or aspirations (“I wish I didn’t have these horrific burn scars”, “I wish my family wasn’t dirt poor”) and some of which are things they are genuinely entitled to (“I wish people would stop being overtly, explicitly and disgustingly racist to my actual face”). And it is genuinely pleasing when their forays into the supernatural lead to them getting these tiny things that they’ve hoped for. And what for me sells the pathos and the tragedy of the piece is seeing how much these girls lives are improved by these often trivial or even unnoticeable changes.

Just to go through a few examples, Rochelle, who I really don’t want to refer to as “the black one” but, well, it’s a teen movie from 1996 and pretty much her entire character arc is that a girl is racist to her and it makes her unhappy so … there’s not a lot I can do with that. There’s even a bit at the beginning of the movie where one of the Mean Jocks is pointing out the three witches to Sarah, and he basically points to Nancy and says, she’s a slut, points to Bonnie and says she’s got these horrible scars, and then just kind of ignores Rochelle completely. Where was I? Rochelle’s thing is that there is one girl who is really horrible to her in a really, concretely racist way (she actually uses the line “I don’t like negroids” and I know it was 1996 but … that’s still definitely more a macro aggression than a micro aggression). And, yes, they curse the mean girl so her hair falls out but Rochelle doesn’t seem to take any kind vindictive pleasure in this, she just seems genuinely happy that nobody is throwing racist abuse at her any more. Which is, um, I think something it’s okay to be happy about. Interestingly when they do the initial bonding ritual thing, where they articulate what they want out of their Wiccan nature magic love in, she specifically asks for the ability to love people who don’t love her. She’s not asking for anything bad to happen for anyone (although let’s be clear bad things happening to people are efficacious ways to curtail their destructive behaviours, that’s kind of how the criminal justice system works), she just wants to be not treated like shit. In fact, check that, she doesn’t even ask not to be treated like shit. She asks to have the strength to not feel bad about being treated like shit. This is about as close to being careful what you wish for as you can possibly get.

Then we’ve got Bonnie, the one with the burn scars. In a sense she’s the one who asks for the most (unless you count Nancy’s quest for real, ultimate power) in that she asks for something definitely and explicitly miraculous (yes, in the context of the film, there’s an outside possibility that the sudden regeneration of her scar tissue is the consequence of experimental gene surgery, but even the doctors don’t seem to think that’s a particularly likely explanation). The thing I find most interesting about Bonnie’s post-magic high-on-life sequence is that, barring one scene in which she wears a halter neck, she spends the rest of the film wearing clothes that would have concealed her scars anyway. And, yes, what she wears is still more revealing than the enormous floomfy “I have clearly have serious body issues” sweatshirts she wears at the beginning but, to me, that signals a shift in attitude, not necessarily a remarkable physical transformation. To put it another way, what Bonnie gets out of the circle is a sense of confidence and the ability to feel comfortable in her own skin. And that, leaving aside actual magical scar removal, is a genuine entitlement. Asking for it and enjoying it when you get it isn’t hubristic. It’s … I don’t even know if there’s a word for it. It’s just okay.

And then finally we have Nancy and, yes, when they do the letters to Santa sequence Nancy basically wishes for omnipotence so you can make a reasonable case that she’s a wrong ‘un from the outset. But you can also make a pretty good case that when you’ve got literally nothing, the only thing you can really want is everything because you haven’t had enough access to the world to have the kinds of specific desires that other people take for granted. This is probably best encapsulated by monkey’s-paw-esque sequence in which Nancy’s drunken, abusive, arsehole step-father drops dead of a heart attack, leaving Nancy and her mother the beneficiaries of a large life insurance policy, a life insurance policy that runs to something in the region $175k. Which, yes, is a lot of money insofar as it’s more money than Nancy or her mother can really imagine and, obviously, this was back in 1996 and we’ve had exactly twenty years (fuck, I feel old) of inflation since then but it’s not exactly one percenter territory. I mean, even in the 90s, millionaires were a thing. And a hundred and seventy five grand isn’t even a sizeable fraction of the expected lifetime earnings of most people. It’s about what you’d make in ten years doing a really, really crappy job. So when you get right down to it, although she almost literally wishes for the moon on a stick (which Sarah almost literally gets because, let’s remember, you’re only allowed to have things if you don’t try to get them) all Nancy really wants is not to live in grinding poverty with a guy who’s clearly abusive to her and her mother. Again, not hubristic. Just … okay.

Doing things from the point of view of the villains is sort of a cliché by this stage but that didn’t stop me enjoying the crap out of Team Starkid’s Twisted: The Untold Story of a Royal Vizier which re-tells Disney’s Aladdin from the point of view of Jafar. In particular, the big number at the end of the first act, the title song ‘Twisted’, ends with a bunch of Disney villains explaining their motivations in this repetitive chorus that takes form “I only wished for [x].” “I only wished for love,” says Gaston. “I only wanted to teach the boy responsibility,” says Captain Hook.  “I only wanted what I was promised,” says Ursula the Sea Witch. “I only wished to have a coat made out of puppies,” says Cruella de Ville at the end, which sort of punctures the mood. The thing about The Craft is that it’s basically that bit from that song only (possibly) unintentionally, twenty years earlier, and for the entire movie. Even when Nancy, Bonnie and Rochelle are trying to drive Sarah to suicide in a pit of snakes and maggots you can’t—or, at least, I can’t—shake the awareness that they just wanted to get things other people take completely for granted.

None of them want a coat made out of puppies, is what I’m saying here.

And I get that power corrupts but the problem with power corrupts narratives in films, especially Hollywood films, is that they grade on a curve. Sarah is born with the heritage of a witch (and, also, born white, pretty and upper middle class) and, therefore, the power that she gets is completely fine and natural and okay (it’s also worth pointing out that she instigates most of the pissing about with magic that the girls do in the second quarter of the movie). Nancy, Rochelle and Bonnie acquire a little bit of power that is ultimately less than the power that Sarah started with and this makes them go evil. There are a whole load of really problematic assumptions about social orthodoxy and the political and economic establishment baked into that. And I’m not sure I can even begin unpacking them. The very potted, very sound bitey version is that it’s the movie about teenage witches equivalent of when people on the internet (and in newspapers and in campaigns for high political office) complain about marginalised people being given “special treatment” when all they’re really being given is a tiny fraction of the treatment that other people get every day without even thinking about it.

I’ve probably taken this way too seriously.

So, basically, to answer the question I asked myself at the beginning, I love The Craft because even though it transparently isn’t, it reads to me as the artfully observed tragedy of three young women who chafe against the restrictions society has placed on them and are crushed for it.

And, embarrassingly, I do actually have quite a lot more to say about the film because the other thing that’s interesting about it, completely aside from the whole “is it a tragedy or a coming of age movie” thing, is that its Wiccan stuff is bizarrely specific, quite different other Wiccan stuff you see in pop culture, and somehow manages to fetishise and demonise the religion simultaneously.

At the time the film came out, or maybe a little after (this is twenty years ago we’re talking about) I had a couple of legitimately Wiccan friends who were quite bothered by the film, not because they thought it particularly misrepresented their religion but because they thought the Wiccan rituals presented in the film were sufficiently accurate that the cast ran a real risk of calling up supernatural forces that would genuinely harm them. Obviously, as an atheist, I don’t think that was especially probable but it does highlight that the witchcraft presented in The Craft is really specifically and quite authentically Wicca. Which is odd.

As I recall, the witch thing was kind of on fleek in the late 1990s and early 2000s. You had Charmed, you had the whole Willow/Tara arc in Buffy, in the world of RPGs you had White Wolf’s Publishing’s Mage: The Ascension. But, by and large, pop culture depictions of witchcraft tended to borrow quite liberally from any source that included a pointy hat or a tripartite goddess. The witches in Buffy, for example, (at least the good sort) are fairly explicitly referred to as Wicca, but there’s very little in what they do that an actual Wiccan would (by my limited understanding) recognise as belonging to their religion. The Craft, as my friends from the 90s would testify, was rather different.

Some of it is just little tiny details that I like. The four girls obviously have an elemental correspondence thing going on and every time I watch it I forget that Nancy isn’t the fire one because the prevailing cultural association we have with fire is to do with spontaneity, unpredictability and, well, hot-headedness. But all of those characteristics in, well … I don’t want to say actual witchcraft because first of all modern syncretistic religious movements are almost definitionally eclectic and heterogeneous and even most practitioners would admit that their connection to Medieval or pre-Christian practice is, at best, reconstructed and, at worst, largely fabricated. Anyway, all of those characteristics in traditional Medieval elemental theory are associated with the element of air, the humour of yellow bile, and the temperament choleric (it is, in fact, pretty much what the word choleric still means). Ironically, the temperament associated with fire in that system is sanguine which, as far as I can tell, also still means today pretty much what it meant back in the day. Chill, happy and outgoing, basically. Bonnie (the one with the burn scars, oh do you see) fulfils the fire role in The Craft and, despite her lack of confidence, she’s basically the relaxed, friendly one. She’s quite explicitly the one who is nice to Sarah when she first shows up and the one who drives the circle in recruiting her as a fourth member.

The elemental correspondence thing gets a bit weird with Sarah, actually, because she occupies the position of earth, which is associated with black bile and melancholia. This is represented in the film by fairly strong hints that she’s dealt with suicidal depression in the past and this is … not really addressed. I think this might be a feature of the film’s traditional coming-of-age character arc in that Sarah basically has to be the designed everygirl whose primary challenges come from the whole business where her friends try to actually murder her, rather than coming from any flaws or foibles of her own personality. Again it ties into that awkward Hollywoodism where supernatural help is only acceptable if you don’t want or need it. If they’d made more of her need to use magic to deal with her mental health issues it would have made it really hard to distinguish between the “light” that Sarah apparently brings to magic and the “darkness” that Nancy is apparently coming from. While we’re doing the element mambo, I’ll also add that part of Rochelle’s problem is that because she represents water and therefore embodies phlegmatism she basically can’t do anything on her own initiative. Which is, again, a slightly awkward position for the one black character to be in.

The final weirdly specific, weirdly accurate, weirdly inaccurate thing about The Craft is how intensely it focuses on the role of a male divinity within Wicca. I honestly can’t tell if they’re being clueless or deliberately subversive. Virtually every kind of Wiccan-inspired fictional witch religion I’ve ever seen makes no reference to a male divine figure whatsoever. It is, at the risk of sounding glib, very much all goddess-this and goddess-that or, to quote Buffy, “blah blah Gaia blah blah moon.”  And, obviously, in traditional Gardnerian Wiccan the mother goddess is a very important concept but then so is the horned god. I’m not sure but I think that people who present Wicca-inspired religions in fiction really want to push the matriarchal thing as a deliberate counterpoint to, well, all the Abrahamic religions. But this is ultimately a misrepresentation of how Wicca works (not least because the oldest form of Wicca we have authenticated sources for was founded by, um, a man in the 50s).

So I like that The Craft nails its flag firmly to the idea that Wicca involves a male god too. I even like that they specifically give that god a name (from my very cursory research, one of the other features of most forms of traditional Wicca is that while the god and the goddess aren’t necessarily referred to by the same name by different groups of practitioners they’ll generally be referred to by a name, again I suspect partly as a way of differentiating them from the famously unnameable god of Christianity). It is, however, a bit weird that they focus on the male deity so exclusively. And maybe there’s supposed to be something Freudian going on – after all, none of the girls seem to have good male role models in their lives (Nancy’s step father is explicitly abusive, we see Bonnie’s mother but not her father, Rochelle’s parents are, of course, completely invisible and even Sarah’s dad is kind of a milquetoast). Or maybe it was just that, since the film presents the divinity that the girls invoke in a very double-edged way, it would have been a troublingly mixed message to have them worship a gigantic female empowerment metaphor that so explicitly screws them over.

Aaaand now I’ve written three thousand words about The Craft. Um, I do genuinely love it, even though there are a million reasons I shouldn’t. About three quarters of the way in, Fairuza Balk just full on transforms into Tim Curry. And it’s kind of brilliant.

So thus ends my deeply specific, mid-to-late 1990s terrible awesome awesome terrible spooky movie extravaganza.

Just assume I said something Halloweeny at the end here. Like boo or something.

absurdity, indulgence
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