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

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

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

Spoilers for Lumen Fidei, obviously.

Lumen Fidei – A Vague Standalone Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which brings me to the next part.

Taking Sides

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just what? What the actual what?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Arkham Comparison

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

people & cardboard
5 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

musing
25 Comments

It suddenly occurs to me that I haven’t said anything about, well, writing for a while. Not that I talk about it much anyway but I understand people like to be told about shit. The thing about writing and publishing is that everything happens on quite a long timescale so what how it normally goes down is that you announce something and then eighteen months later you release and in the middle you talk about board games. Or maybe that’s just me.

So the first piece of housekeeping is that I’m on holiday for the next week or so. And Mary’s off as well because I’m not a Victorian industrialist, despite my taste in hats. This means my social media presence will be even more sporadic than it normally is: Mary says she’ll be picking up emails so if there’s anything urgent (although I’m not really sure what could be) you can reach her at maryatquicunquevultdotcom.

Bookswise, I’m currently editing Arden 2, which is now officially known as How to Blow It with a Billionaire. It even has a cover and everything, which is as close to makin’ it real that unreleased books can be. That will definitely will be coming out before the end of the year. I don’t think a release date has been confirmed but it’ll be around Decemberish.

DVD Special Feature: here’s a really tiny deleted scene from the second book between Arden and Ellery. It deserved its cut but I kind of liked it:

I reached for the controller and was about to suggest another round of shooting people in the head, when she said: “Will you paint my toenails?”

“What?”

Another shrug.

“I mean, I guess? I’m not very good.”

Shrug again.

Well, it was kind of an olive branch? If I squinted. “Okay. Let me get my stuff.”

By the time I got back with my foot beautification paraphernalia, Ellery was de-booted and peeling off her tights. Her legs were pale and skinny and sort of vulnerable, and her feet were…

“Holy shit,” I gasped, “are you a hobbit?”

I walk around barefoot a lot.”

These aren’t feet. They’re…Kevlar.”

She grinned for the first time since we’d stopped playing games. “Thanks.”

“Did you have something in mind?”

“Can you make it look like my toes have been half-eaten by piranhas and are rotting slowly away?”

“No.”

“Do whatever then.”

I knelt on the sofa and drew her feet into my lap.

“Just no hearts,” she added, “or rainbow bullshit.”

Which was, honestly, a bit discouraging because I basically specialised in hearts and rainbow bullshit. In the end, I went with a design of angry yellow eyes against a black background, so it was like her toenails were glaring.

It was hard to tell with Ellery but I think she liked them.

Folk may or may not remember but about a million years ago I announced three Regency queer m/f novels that had been signed by Avon. These have relatively official titles now which are: A Lord For Whenever, A Makeover for a Marquess, and A Husband for the Hell Of It. I’m really happy with these titles because they’re slightly ridiculous, as are the books. I think they also flag up that … how can I put this … faithful evocation of a specific historical era was a lower priority than, well, fun. They’re romps is what I’m saying. Although I did do quite a lot of research about frocks and farming.

DVD Special Feature: rejected titles included In Flagrante Dewidow, A Harlotta Love, and The Time of your Wife. These also really make me really happy because I really enjoy silly puns but they do not make good names for the books.

I’ve also been at the short stories again. Newsletter subscribers will already be familiar with my slightly erratic approach to freebies. For those who aren’t, subscribe to my newsletter: sometimes you’ll get free short stories, sometimes you won’t. I kind of see Sand & Ruin & Gold, Draconitas, and Wintergreen as belonging to the same universe, which I sometimes call the Ruinverse, but in my head these diffuse anthology I’m putting together one random freebie at a time is called & Other Monsters. The two stories coming out are called Glass and My Last Husband. The first is kind of about a robot and the second was an attempt to do horror despite the fact I’m pretty sure I can’t write horror. I’m relatively happy with how turned out.

So keep an eye out for those if those are the sorts of things you like to keep an eye out for. If I’m organised enough I might save MLH for a Halloween treat. Of course this probably means I’ll forget and publish it next February. Here’s a sneak peak of the opening to My Last Husband.

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

Also editing Ardy 2 has thrown up a couple of scenes that don’t really have a place in the overall narrative but are kinda cute if you enjoy deleted scenes. So I’ll be newslettering those as well.

Finally, just to wish everyone a lovely time at RWA. And once again extend my congratulations to all RITA finalists. I already wrote a blog post about this but I’m super pleased that LGBTQ+ representation remains strong. I’m crossing my fingers for everybody.

newsery
27 Comments

 So some time in February I reviewed Fantasy Flight Games’ LCG (Living Card Game) Arkham Horror: the Card Game.

I said at the time that my second biggest complaint with the game was that you only really got half a set of cards, which made the experience of playing the base game super frustrating, and impossible with more than two players. My biggest complaint was that I was definitely going to buy a second set of the base game and resent the hell out of it.

I bought a second set of the base game and resented the hell out of it. Although what I especially resent is the fact that having bought a second copy of the base game, I am now really enjoying myself.

This, then, is something along the lines of a re-review of Arkham Horror: the Card Game, both of the base game with two sets, and of the first expansion The Dunwich Legacy. And I should probably add that this expansion is already pretty old now by LCG standards (I talked about the intense release schedule of LCGs in the original review) and some parts of the expansion cycle (of which more later) are out of stock, making them a bit hard to get hold of.

To do the tl;dr thing I’ve taken to doing with a lot of my recent game reviews, playing the core game with two sets is far more satisfying than playing it with one set, but not necessarily “buy a game you’ve bought once already” levels of satisfying unless you’re really into card games or the Cthulhu Mythos. The scenarios in the first expansion are surprisingly excellent and showcase the flexibility of the core systems, and have convinced me to at least commit to playing through the whole of the first expansion cycle.

On which subject, I should also say right now that expansions in Arkham Horror: the Card Game are released in “cycles” that only tell a complete story once you’ve played all of them, so while I thought the scenarios in The Dunwich Legacy were great, they were also just the beginning of a long-term story that unfolds over another six expansions. Each sold separately. For fifteen dollars apiece. This means that playing through the entire story of The Dunwich Legacy will set you back a full $120. Which is quite a lot for part of a card game. Although I suppose another way to look at it is that since the entire expansion cycle lasts about six months, it’s about a quarter of what you might spend in Starbucks over the same period of time.

Anyway, these are my more detailed thoughts on the game, now I’ve delved (very slightly) more deeply into it.

The Second Set Experience

I’ve now played the first mini-campaign about three times, with both two and three players. I’ve not played it solo, although from my usual poking around the internets, it seems like a lot of people actually really enjoy the solo experience (although it’s probably impossible to build a solo-capable deck without two base sets). My experience is that the game is very slightly easier with more players. It scales fairly well – a lot of enemies get health bonuses based on the number of players in the game, and since most of the stuff that messes you up comes from cards that every player draws every turn, the obstacles you face naturally scale with the number of players. But ultimately it’s almost impossible to make a game scale perfectly with player numbers, because party effectiveness doesn’t increase linearly with size. Adding a third character to the game doesn’t just mean that you get an extra three actions a turn to do generic “things”, it also means that you have access to a whole new set of specialisations – so where in a two player game you might have somebody who is really good at investigating stuff, and somebody who is really good at killing monsters, adding a third player means you might also get a character who is really good at exploring new locations, or facing supernatural horrors, or manipulating the Mythos deck – basically you not only get 50% more resources, you also get to distribute those resources more efficiently.

And I suppose ironically you could draw an interesting parallel between the way adding a third player makes your party more than 50% more effective and the way that adding a second base set makes the core game more than twice as good (from a certain point of view – again I’m absolutely not recommending you buy two base sets if you aren’t intending to invest in the game further). With one core set, Arkham Horror: the Card Game is a decent game for exactly two players. With two core sets it’s not only a much better game, but a much better game for one to four players.

Arkham Horror: the Card Game is a deckbuilding game at its core, and with two sets you can actually deckbuild – creating a genuinely customised character that feels genuinely yours, rather than just running a pregenerated character with no flexibility. But more than that, it’s a co-operative deckbuilding game, and with two core sets you can actually co-operatively deckbuild.

As you might recall, Arkham Horror: the Card Game includes five character “classes” – Guardian, Seeker, Rogue, Mystic and Survivor. Each of the characters in the base game is effectively dual-class, being able to mix-and-match cards from two of the classes, but having greater access to cards of their primary class. Because of the limited card pool, it was impossible for a character in the base game to team up with another character with whom they shared a class. So, for example, Roland Banks, the Fed (whose classes were Guardian and Seeker)couldn’t team up with either Daisy Walker, the Librarian (Seeker/Mystic) or Skids O’Toole, the Ex-Con (Rogue/Guardian). So in the base game not only was there little choice on how to build your character, there was also little choice on which characters could team up.

This was especially restrictive because although I’ve been impressed with the diversity of the scenarios so far, you can all but guarantee that winning an Arkham Horror: the Card Game scenario will require you to (a) collect clues and (b) fight monsters. The characters who are best at collecting clues are Seekers, and the characters who are best at fighting monsters are Guardians, which means that if you want to build a team with the best chance of responding positively to an unseen scenario, the most obvious pairing in the base game is Roland/Daisy. A combination that is mechanically impossible under the base game.

With two base sets, you can really co-ordinate your characters. You can say “okay, well if you’re taking character X, I’ll take character Y, and that way we’ve got a lot of bases covered, and I won’t need to use this card if you take that card.” And with a third player you get to have somebody in a flex slot, playing as one of the more versatile classes like Survivor or Mystic, allowing you to respond to unexpected turns of events.

Basically it’s a lot better with two core sets, is what I’m saying.

The Dunwich Legacy

This is a bit of an odd one, because I’ve only played three out of the eight scenarios in this campaign (two that come in the Dunwich Legacy box, plus the Miskatonic Museum). I’m probably going to see about getting hold of the remaining scenarios because, well, otherwise I’ve just played the first three parts of a story and won’t actually get to see it finished.

The way that expansions for Arkham Horror: the Card Game work (or at least, seem to be working so far) is that each “cycle” consists of a large boxed expansion, which adds five new Investigators, a bunch of new investigator cards, and two scenarios, followed by six smaller expansions, which add no new investigators, a smaller number of investigator cards, and one scenario each.

The nature of any kind of expandable card game (CCGs or LCGs) is that they have a kind of sigmoid quality curve, which is to say that you notice a very rapid increase in the quality of your experience when you first start playing, and then things begin to plateau. Basically because every new card you add is compatible with every card that has been released previously, each expansion dramatically increases the options available for deckbuilding, and so everything gets cooler and more flexible and just more fun. Right now I’m alt-tabbing between this document and the card lists for the new expansions, and I keep thinking “Wow! That would be so cool in this deck! OMG that would completely change the way that class plays! Wow that’s awesome!”. But obviously this rate of improvement isn’t entirely sustainable – eventually you’ve got so much stuff that new cards are just more of the same, so they’re still cool but they’re no longer quite so mind blowing because your mind has already been pretty comprehensively blown. And I’m actually pretty confident about Arkham Horror: the Card Game’s ability to sustain the quality of their new releases (because Fantasy Flight Games are really, really experienced at cranking out expansions for Cthulhu-themed games) but diminishing returns are an unavoidable part of the genre.

All of which is to say that right now I’m very much at the this is awesome stage of getting into a new expandable card game where it’s all novelty and possibility, and so please be aware that this review is a little coloured by that.

Oh, also, spoilers. Because obvs.

The first thing that struck me about the scenarios in The Dunwich Legacy is that they had a far clearer sense of theme and purpose than the Night of the Zealot campaign that comes with the base game. The problem with base games and introductory scenarios (and, thinking about it, of the first books in series and the pilots of TV shows) is that they have a lot of heavy lifting to do. There was basically no way that the introductory campaign of Arkham Horror: the Card Game wasn’t going to include every experience you could possibly want from a Cthulhu game, crammed into a three scenarios. So you start off in a haunted house full of ghouls (that is also weirdly your own house in a way that makes very little sense) and then you hunt down cultists in Arkham while fighting Hunting Horrors, and then you go into Spooky Woods where you face an Actual Great Old One while tangling with the servants of a randomly selected completely different Great Old One.

The scenarios in The Dunwich Legacy are more ambitious, and manage to be at once more diverse and more coherent. You are asked by Professor Armitage to look for one of his professors (last seen in his offices at Miskatonic University) and are also told that a different professor (last seen at a speakeasy called the Clover Club) might know where he is. Each of these leads will take you to a different scenario and, while you have to play both to progress the campaign, you can play them in either order, and which location you go to first makes a difference to the outcome of each.

Each scenario has a very different feel to it. The university-based scenario (Extra-Curricular Activities) sees you running around campus desperately trying to get access to locked rooms, while dealing with the consequences of the forbidden experiments that somebody has been carrying out in the Science Building. More interestingly to me as a fan of card games, the Mythos Deck for this scenario is constructed with what feels like an actual gameplan. Many of the events in the deck cause your character to discard cards from their deck, and one of the events hits your character with a condition meaning that they will take a massive amount of damage when they run out of cards. So it feels like the Mythos deck is really playing against you, rather than just spitting out random events. Extra-Curricular Activities also ends with a genuinely interesting decision which feels immersive, dramatic, and non-obvious (and which, contrary to my normal practice, I won’t spoiler).

There was some effort to include a Big Final Choice in the first scenario of Night of the Zealot as well, but that choice was “let a stranger burn down your house, or don’t”. Which was a bit less contextualised.

The second scenario (The House Always Wins) sees you infiltrating a dingy speakeasy, and most of the enemies you encounter are mobsters. But these mobsters don’t attack you until it becomes clear that you’re doing things you shouldn’t be doing. The scenario also breaks from the usual way of generating clues – instead of just picking them up from locations by taking a generic “investigate” action, you have to actually buy drinks in a shady bar (which gives you clues but also provides the ominous instruction “remember that you have had a drink”) or gamble in the card room.

The third scenario (sold separately) sends you to Miskatonic Museum, where you creep around amongst silent exhibits looking for a copy of the Necronomicon. The Mythos deck for this scenario contains exactly one monster, but that monster is pulled from the deck early, and every time you kill it, it comes back stronger. So for this scenario you have a much spookier feeling of exploring an empty building while being stalked by a single unbeatable enemy. The scenario also gives you an ally that you have to take with you, and who you are horribly penalised for getting killed. Which is actually quite hard to avoid.

The other comment I should make about the scenarios in The Dunwich Legacy as opposed to Night of the Zealot is that they’ve felt somewhat easier. This might just be due to the fact that I first played NotZ with a single core set, and the starting decks are massively weaker than custom decks. It might be due to the fact that we’re just better at the game. But my strong suspicion is that the scenarios are genuinely tuned to be a little bit less punishing, and where the base game scenarios seemed to derive their replayability primarily from being hard to complete (or to complete optimally), the scenarios in the expansion seem to rely instead on being open-ended. I wonder if they also aren’t a little easier simply because failing hard in the last scenario of a three-scenario mini-campaign is annoying, but failing hard in the sixth scenario of an eight-scenario epic is infuriating. Basically the expansion campaigns have more time and space to play around in, which means they can take things slower, and rely less on jump scares and brick walls and more on atmosphere and surprising choices.

So, yeah. The Dunwich Legacy. I enjoyed the first three scenarios enough that I’m almost certainly going to spend far more money than is sensible on this game. I’m looking forward to completing the campaign but, perhaps more importantly, I’m looking forward to playing it again once we’ve finished, only with more players or different characters.

Conclusion

I was listening to a review of Android: Netrunner (another LCG from FFG) recently, and the advice that review ended with was “go core or go mad”. That is to say, recognise that you’re either going to  buy only the core game, and have an okay time with what’s in the box, or that you’re going to buy absolutely everything that comes out.

Perhaps the best way to think about Arkham Horror: the Card Game (and about LCGs in general) is that unlike the other games I’ve reviewed on this blog, they aren’t really games in the sense of being a single stand-alone product that you buy and put on your gaming shelf to play when you feel like it. Rather they’re better understood as hobbies. Getting into a customisable card game means committing to investing time, energy, and (let’s not forget) about $240 a year in keeping up with something that is just going to grow and grow and run and run and get bigger and deeper and more complicated as you go. I suppose in a way, the Cthulhu mythos is quite an apposite theme for a game like that, because like a Lovecraft protagonist, an LCG player basically dedicates quite a large chunk of their time and resources to an obsessive chase that will inevitably lead them spiralling down a path with no clear idea of what darkness lies at the end of it.

I made some recommendations at the end of my initial review about the sort of people who might like this game, and they haven’t really changed but I think they bear repeating.

I absolutely would not recommend that you buy this game as a stand-alone experience. The base game is fine, but it’s not more than fine, and the $40 it will set you back would be better spent on other games. The only reason I would recommend that you buy the base game is as a taster to see if you want to buy into the full experience. If it turns out you don’t like it, no harm no foul and you’ve still got a perfectly playable two-player card game (it’s just not as good as other two-player card games you could get) but if you don’t sign up for the full experience, you’re not really playing the game as it is intended to be played.

To put it another way, in terms of investments to make in this game, you should ideally be looking to spend $0 or $200 – you either want to not bother with the game and spend your hard-earned cash on something else instead, or else commit to buying two copies of the base game and the full expansion cycle. If that feels like too much time, money, and effort to pour into one card game, then it’s best to steer clear of it entirely.

Personally, I’m probably in for the long haul. Damn you, Fantasy Flight Games, you got me again.

people & cardboard
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I have a slightly funny relationship with Lord of the Rings. I’m kind of a massive nerd so I’m sort of morally obliged to love it, but I never really got into the book. I think it’s all the walking. And maybe the singing. I mean, for pity’s sake, there’s an extended version of ‘Hey Diddle Diddle The Cat And The Fiddle’ in, like, the third chapter.

But, weirdly, I do like the surrounding mythology. Not so much that I’ve actually bothered to read The Silmarillion, but you can’t really be into fantasy as a genre without at least having respect for the sheer amount of detailed-as-fuck world-building.

(Extended parenthetical: Because I’m what wrestling fans would call a smark, I should say that while I have enormous respect for Tolkein’s influence on the fantasy genre, in both traditional fiction and in gaming, I do think it’s worth pointing out that the genre does pre-date him and that his influence on D&D in particular is actually very much overstated. I mean, yes, Gygax and Arneson put elves and dwarves in their game, but their real literary influences were the likes of Leiber, Howard and Lovecraft)

I was even quite into early 2000s movies. Yes, Peter Jackson seems to have been completely incapable of understanding how metaphors work and it offends me on a primal level that he made Theoden, the ruler of an Anglo-Saxon inspired patriarchal warrior culture deliver the line: “No parent should have to bury their child.” Why is this man, whose kingdom follows patrilineal succession, assiduously avoiding the use of gendered pronouns? Why is this guy from a war-ravaged society with an 8th century level of medical technology seemingly shocked by the idea of parents outliving their children when it must surely happen every day? Why is this man who is last in a line of kings more concerned about his personal grief than the loss of everything his forebears fought to defend for generations? It’s even weirder because he goes from this extremely formal elegy to the loss of his way of life (“that I should live to see the last days of my house” and all that) to this utterly twentieth-century gush of sentiment.

Gah. No. Just no. Sorry, this bothers me disproportionately.

What I do like about the LotR movies is that I think they help me experience some of what I think other people experience when they read the books. There’s that sense of grandeur and, for want of a less made-up-sounding word, epicness. There’s a real feeling that you’re seeing a small part of something massive. Of course, it turned out the something massive was a series of six movies, three of which absolutely did not have to be made. But we’ll not go there.

Having said all of this, in a post-Peter Jackson world, I am particularly attracted to Lord of the Rings themed stuff that isn’t film-branded. Which is why I spent in the region of seventy quid on a massive, massive board game in which you essentially play Gandalf’s DPhil students.

So Middle Earth Quest. And, looking back, I realise I’ve probably hit a new low here in that I’ve got nearly 500 words into a post about a board and I’ve just talked about books and movies. Middle Earth Quest is weird. It is brilliant in many ways and flawed in many others. I really, really like it but I’m not totally certain I particularly enjoy playing it. To do the conclusion at the start thing that I sometimes do, I think what I’d say about Middle Earth Quest is that it goes on my long, long list of games that I feel would be a lot more enjoyable if I played them a lot more. It has many moving parts and it takes a long time to work out how things interact and I suspect that if I and the people I play it with were more familiar with the game it would run more smoothly and be easier to engage with. The thing the game does spectacularly well is make you feel like you are doing the thing you’re supposed to be doing in it, and that’s a quality I love in games. It’s just that sometimes the thing you’re doing is engaging in a futile struggle against an all-pervasive and insidious darkness. And that, well, that’s often not super fun.

It’s time for subheadings isn’t it?

The Premise

One of the major problems with Lord of the Rings themed games is that, well, the Lord of the Rings kind of has a plot and canonically the only really important thing that happens in it is the destruction of the ring. Everything else is just distractions allowing that thing to happen. Games tend to engage with this in one of two ways. Either your story focuses on some aspect of the conflict that isn’t especially affected by the whole ring thing happening elsewhere. Or else you get awkwardly crowbarred into the story of the Fellowship, popping up in Moria and at Helm’s Deep with a slightly self-conscious “hi, I’m important enough to be useful here but not important enough to ever get mentioned in any retelling of this story that might get written down in a big red book later on.”

Middle Earth Quest applies a slightly unusual variant of the first option. The game takes place in the humongous chunk of downtime in-between Bilbo’s birthday party and Frodo’s departure from The Shire. Because, seriously, in the book there’s, like, a twelve year gap. I mean, you can see why I had trouble with the pacing of this when I was trying to read Lord of the Rings as a kid. So, basically, during these twelve years Gandalf was bodding around, vaguely monitoring events and doing research into the Ring of Power. And the player characters are a bunch of random Middle Earthians who have been roped in to help him, hence the “Gandalf’s DPhil students” characterisation. Because, you know, you do a bunch of unglamorous legwork and quietly collapse in the corner from the stress, anxiety and rising darkness, then he swoops in at the end and takes all the credit.

Again, I really like Lord of the Rings themed stuff that evokes the book rather than the film (and I’m going to come back this theme a lot). And Middle Earth Quest nails its colours to that mast so hard that it breaks the hammer.  Where most Tolkein-themed gaming is about fighting loads of orcs or poking Sauron in the eye, Middle Earth Quest sees you doing the sorts of things Gandalf does for most the book (off-page and on). You’re going to obscure places where you encounter a sense of foreboding dread, you’re currying favour with influential figures in Middle Earth, you might occasionally fight one monster, but most of the time Sauron is invisible and you are just working to beat back his pernicious influence on the world. This is a very different characterisation of the battle for Middle Earth than the one that Peter Jackson gave us. The one with a lighthouse of doom and the surfboarding elves.

The Gameplay

Middle Earth Quest is an asymmetric game in which one player controls Sauron and the other players control individual characters working against him. This one versus many setup is fairly common for this kind of game, although often in that type of game the role of the “evil” player is almost like the role of the dungeon master in Dungeons & Dragons: somebody who is there to challenge the players, not necessarily to defeat them (I’d add that there are disagreements in the community about whether that sort of game should be played in that sort of way, but I’ll come back to this debate when I finally get around to reviewing Descent). Middle Earth Quest, isn’t like that. It’s definitely competitive. Sauron is definitely trying to win. There are score trackers and victory conditions and everything.

Sauron has no physical presence on the board. He manifests instead through a variety of tokens, cards and markers.  On his turn, Sauron can place monsters, activate his powerful named minions (like the Mouth of Sauron or the Ringwraiths), spread his dark influence (represented by little round counters), advance sinister plots, allowing him move closer to victory and play up to one event card that allows him to completely throw the players for six. This is, honestly, really fun, although as might be able to tell from the list, also quite fiddly. The important thing is that it really makes you feel like a dark lord reaching out from his dark throne trying to bring them all and in the darkness bind them. And, from the heroes’ perspective, it’s very hard to keep track of what Sauron is doing because he has so many different options and seems to be doing so many different things at once. So playing against Sauron really feels like you’re fighting a shadowy enemy who you can never fully comprehend.

Playing as a hero is much simpler, although if there was ever an example of the difference between “simple” and “easy” this would be it. I really like the design of the heroes in Middle Earth Quest. The way they work is that you get a deck of cards. Every turn you draw a number of cards equal to your character’s stamina score. You can play these cards to move around the board (cards have little symbols on them, representing different terrain types, and each hero has a different spread of symbols, so the dwarf tends to have an easier time with mountain, the elf with woods and so on). When you play cards to move or discard them to avoid bad things happening, they go into a pool called the rest pool. One of the actions a character can take on their turn is to rest, meaning they shuffle their rest pool back into their deck but the delay allows Sauron to advance one of his plots. If your character is injured in combat or by an event, you also discard cards from your hand or deck, but they go into a separate pool called the damage pool. But these cards are not reshuffled even if you rest, unless you’re specifically at a location which allows healing. If you run out of cards in your hand and deck, you are defeated. Being defeated is bad (although not game-ending).

There are a number of fabulous things about this system. It means that one deck of cards does the job of tracking hitpoints, resolving combat (I won’t go into detail about the combat in this post, just because of time constraints), and controlling movement. One of the aspects of the Lord of the Rings that I didn’t especially enjoy when reading the book but do feel is iconic and often underrepresented in modern fantasy, especially modern fantasy gaming, is the emphasis on travel as challenge. Huge chunks of Lord of the Rings are just about the difficulties of getting across large areas of terrain on foot. We sort of forget in the 21st century how hard it actually is to get somewhere if you don’t have cars, trains, or airplanes. And part of the reality of Middle Earth is created by these extended journey sequences that I, admittedly, didn’t actually particularly enjoy reading. Most games (probably for perfectly valid pacing reasons) assume that the travel part is boring and that all the interesting stuff happens in the dungeon. If you like, it cuts straight to Moria without all of that pissing about on Caradhras. Through the card mechanic Middle Earth Quest manages to genuinely have its cake and eat it. Because the cards you spend to move are also the cards you use you fight monsters or resolve encounters the question of how you get somewhere becomes super important. Since Lord of the Rings isn’t a magic-heavy setting there aren’t very many equipment cards for player characters (it’s not like you can get a +1 sword) but I don’t think it’s an accident that one of the best upgrades in the game is basically “horse.”

The experience of playing a hero in Middle Earth Quest is one of uncertainty. And in some ways, it’s a very cool, very thematic uncertainty. It’s the uncertainty of fighting a mysterious, seemingly unstoppable enemy. Of being unsure where Sauron will strike next or how you can prepare yourself or what can be done to stop him. Sometimes, especially if you’re an inexperienced player (and because this a long, complicated game that works best with at least three or four people you’re going to be an inexperienced player for quite some time) it’s more the uncertainty of just not really being sure what you’re supposed to do next or how you’re supposed to do it.

Winning & Losing

In some areas of the board game community games are loosely divided into Eurogames and (and I appreciate this is a slightly problematic and somewhat loaded term) Ameritrash. Eurogames are often quite abstract, often focused around trading, building and resource allocation, and tend to be very leery of direct conflict between players. The sorts of games where you control at least three different kinds of wooden triangle. Ameritrash, by contrast, is the term used to describe a particular kind of lavish, expensive game that is big on theme, big on production values, and often doesn’t quite work. I should probably stress that although both these terms have the names of continents in them not all European games are “Eurogames” and not all American games are “Ameritrash” (and, for that matter, not all Eurogames are produced in Europe, and not all Ameritrash games are produced in America).

Shut up and Sit Down hold up Fantasy Flight’s Games’ Mansions of Madness as the archetypal Ameritrash game. In that it’s this exuberant bundle of thematic bits that don’t really come together into a satisfying whole. I bought a copy almost entirely on the strength of its toy shoggoths and have played it about three times. That’s not a great investment in terms of dollars per hours of entertainment and an even worse investment in terms of dollars per toy shoggoth. But I don’t entirely regret the purchase.

Although Middle Earth Quest is nowhere near as extreme as Mansions of Madness it (like, if I’m honest, a lot of FFG’s output) has some very Ameritrashy qualities. The board is gorgeous, the mechanics are beautiful, it evokes its theme wonderfully but, as a competitive game to be played by people who care about more about the game feeling fair, fun and balanced than about how well it evokes its source material, it has some quite significant flaws.

Victory or loss in Middle Earth Quest is determined by three factors (one of which only comes into play as a tie breaker). The first of these factors is “dominance”. The game uses a score tracker on which there are four counters. One counter represents progress that the forces of goodness are making towards, um, not a lot really. After all, Lord of the Rings is a classic example of status quo fantasy. I suppose you could argue that it’s a countdown to Gandalf finding out about the ring and Frodo leaving The Shire, but it’s not super clear. The other three counters represent Sauron’s progress on each of three different fronts (again, I really like the fact that the game keeps the heroes guessing about what Sauron is actually up to). Those fronts, briefly, are shadowy intrigues (black), building up armies (red), and looking for the ring (yellow)—though, in practice, this is just a matter of flavour text. At any given point in a game of Middle Earth Quest one or other party will be “dominant” – the dominant party is that which is closest to the end of the score track. Actually, it’s a bit more complicated than that because halfway down the track is a square called The Shadow Falls. And so Sauron’s score track related goals are either to get one token to the end of the track, or all three tokens to halfway down the track. Dominance then depends on whether the players are closer to the end of the track than Sauron is to either getting one token to the end or all three tokens to halfway. Sorry I’ve explained that in a really confusing way. It’s actually quite simple in play but is fiddly to put in writing.

The second factor is missions. Both Sauron and the heroes have a secret mission, selected at random from a pool of five. Sauron’s missions mostly relate directly to the score track. He will be aiming to get either the red, black or yellow tokens to the end of the track (which he’ll do by playing plot cards, which I haven’t really explained but do basically what they say on the tin) or else to get all three tokens to the halfway point. Or, as final wild card, to get the Ringwraiths or a certain amount of influence to The Shire. For bonus thematicness points each of these missions has a name borrowed from the One Ring To Rule Them All bit at the start of the book. The heroes, by contrast, have a slightly random assortment of missions. They might have to keep the board clear of monsters or kill all but two of Sauron’s minions or complete all their personal quests or avoid taking corruption cards (again, I’ve not told you what these are, they’re what they sound like) or collect a certain number of favour tokens.

If one party has both achieved its mission and is dominant, that party wins outright. This is fairly likely to happen for Sauron because if, for example, Sauron’s goal is to get the black token the end of the track and he gets to the black token to the end of the track, thereby ending the game, he is definitionally dominant and has therefore definitionally won. It is somewhat less likely to happen for the heroes because killing monsters or gathering influence or avoiding taking corruption cards doesn’t actually advance the score track directly. So while Sauron usually has quite a clear goal (even if that goal is opaque to the heroes) the hero players have to juggle quite a lot of competing demands on their attention and resources none of which really contribute directly to their winning the game.

If neither party is dominant, the game is resolved in a single final battle between one hero and the Ringwraiths. The hero in this conflict is immediately fully healed and draws an entirely fresh hand of cards, meaning that should the game come down to a final battle, much of what has happened to that hero on previous turns is meaningless. The dominant player does get a bonus in the final battle (I believe the Ringwraiths gain or lose health depending on how dominant Sauron or the heroes are) but it feels quite strongly like this scenario makes the entire game come down to a coin flip. And, yes, it’s a weighted coin flip and it’s a coin flip that is framed as epic final battle between the dwarf (it’s always the dwarf, the dwarf is best at fighting) and the Ringwraiths but it can still feel oddly anti-climactic. It’s just so disconnected from what everyone, especially Sauron, has been doing for the rest of the game. Sauron acts so indirectly during the bulk of gameplay that it’s really weird for him to win by having the Ringwraiths beat one dude. And because the Ringwraiths are on the board from about a third of a way into the game and because they have a unique rule which means they respawn if killed it’s quite possible that the players have already killed the Ringwraiths two or three times. So even if you do beat them in a final battle, it feels a bit jarring for this to be the time that counts.

A more problematic issue with the endgame, however, is that at least two of the heroes’ missions can be rendered literally unbeatable by a Sauron player who chooses to play cautiously. The most problematic mission is ‘Against The Shadow’ in which the heroes win if there are no more than two monster tokens in play. The problem with this mission is that players cannot choose to fight monsters. Rather, monsters ambush players at the start of their turn. Now, normally this doesn’t make much of a difference because the ambush step is mandatory. If a player is in a location with a monster, the monster will ambush the player and Sauron doesn’t get a choice about it. The problem arises because some locations (either innately or because of Sauron’s influence) are considered perilous. If a hero is in perilous location, then during the ambush step they will either encounter a monster, or a peril card but not both. Further, some locations are permanently perilous. This means that a monster token placed in a permanently perilous location is never required to ambush the players and that, therefore, by placing three monster tokens in permanently perilous locations, Sauron can render the ‘Against The Shadow’ mission unwinnable. And, yes, this requires an investment of resources on Sauron’s part. Sauron gets a limited number of actions on his turn, placing monsters is one of them and wasting actions placing monsters you never intend to use is not necessarily the best use of Sauron’s time. On the other hand, placing three monster tokens isn’t that difficult. Sauron quite often as actions in hand and a one in five chance of rendering your opponents unable to achieve their objective is a very good return on investment.

There’s a similar problem with the mission ‘Minas Morgul Kept At Bay’, which the heroes win if there are no more than two minions in play. This mission can be defeated by using the same strategy, although since minions are substantially more powerful than monsters the sacrifice involved in hiding a minion in a permanently perilous location is concomitantly greater. The flip side of this, however, is that there are only five minions in the game. They are all individually powerful and dangerous to fight and the Ringwraiths respawn if killed. Now, the players can always take out the Ringwraiths on the last turn but this is the definition of time critical, especially because the heroes are limited to a single physical location represented by their hero marker, whereas Sauron is omnipresent. The heroes do move faster than Sauron’s minions, who only go one to two spaces a turn, whereas hero movement is only limited by cards in hand but the logistics of hunting down and eliminating three out of Sauron’s five minions, either excluding the Ringwraiths or only hitting the Ringwraiths on the final turn of the game, is likely to be beyond most groups of players. At least in my experience.

The Worst Part of the Story

I’ve already mentioned twice how much I enjoy the way Middle Earth Quest captures things about the Lord of the Rings books that aren’t in the Lord of the Rings films. There’s bit in both the books and the movies where Sam and Frodo are halfway through Mordor and Frodo, because of the (metaphorical) weight of the ring and the terrible burden that has been placed upon him, is tempted to give up on his quest and let Sauron win. And Sam makes a speech about how the heroes of the old stories went through a whole bunch of really terrible shit but didn’t give up. The books, in particular, because they’re grounded within the framework of a mythology, talk an awful lot about stories and songs and legends, and the role of the events of the books within the wider history of Middle Earth.

What’s interesting about this speech in the book and the film is that there’s a subtle difference in tone. Tolkein was a devout Catholic and, without wanting to make too many generalisations about other peoples’ religions, his worldview was profoundly unheroic. Middle Earth is a fallen world, irrevocably tainted by evil in which all victories are necessarily fleeting and true redemption can be found only in the afterlife. Peter Jackson, well, I don’t know anything about his religious beliefs, but he’s a Hollywood film maker so his worldview is one in which there is no problem that cannot be solved by believing in yourself or getting a rugged white guy to punch somebody. The speech from which this section takes its heading ends in both cases with Sam talking about how, right now, they’re at the worst place in the story, but that the heroes of the old stories fought on to the end. In the film, he goes on say something like “because they were fighting for something, Mr Frodo, something something goodness and puppies and freedom and apple pie.” In the book, he says “And not always to a good end, mind you.” The point of Sam’s speech in the movie is the point of every speech in every Hollywood film ever made: believe in yourself and everything will magically turn out okay. The point of Sam’s speech in the book is that you don’t know if you’re in a heroic tale or a tragedy until you come to the end of it, and that you can’t know, and there’s a really good chance you’re just doomed and everything is going to be crap but you’ve got to push through anyway because what else is there?

Playing Middle Earth Quest as the heroes often feels like that bit in the book. Pretty much every turn you are sitting there at the worst place in the story, holding two mountains a plain, needing to get across a river to fight an enemy you in no way have the resources to defeat but knowing it’s your only hope of victory. It’s an amazingly faithful recreation of the experience of being a heroic figure in Middle Earth as Tolkein wrote about it.

It’s also often profoundly frustrating if you prefer your fantasies to involve a sense of achievement, rather than of forestalling your inevitable defeat. Although I’ve expressed this in a slightly sarcastic way, I do genuinely intend that as a meaningful distinction. In a way, Middle Earth Quest reminds me a lot of the tabletop roleplaying game Call of Cthulhu (which is ironic given that I started this post suggesting that Lovecraft was a bigger influence on D&D than Tolkein).  A lot of Call of Cthulhu players really love to feel doomed. As far as they’re concerned, part of the experience is knowing that whatever you do will be futile and the only thing that can prevent you from eventually being eaten by a shoggoth is being eaten by something else. Personally, that’s not to my taste. But I do see why other people like it and why they would value something that creates that.

Conclusion

Middle Earth Quest is a really great game in a lot of ways. It is hands-down the Lord of the Ringsiest Lord of the Rings game I have ever played. I normally say a bit in these conclusions about whether games are good for families but, well, I kind of don’t think I need to here. Basically, if your imaginary ten year-old-year really likes the idea of a probably doomed struggle in which even victory will do nothing but buy the world a few more moments in which it can struggle again against darkness then by all means give it a go. If they don’t, maybe give it a miss. And the same goes for your friends.

So. Yeah. Middle Earth Quest.

tl;dr version: I like it a lot more than I enjoy it.

people & cardboard
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I’m still working on my TBR. Here’s what I’ve been reading.

 The Amber Fury by Natalie Haynes

This is kind of … meant to be a thriller, I think? It’s got a very portentous / titillating “oh bad things have happened and more bad things will happen and if only I had known” tone to it that I felt promised more than it actually delivered. The basic premise is that the grief-stricken narrator (we learn fairly early on her fiancé has been killed—in the sense of stabbed in the street, rather than this being any kind of mystery, although the details of it come out slowly) who used to be a promising theatre director but has moved to Edinburgh in order to take up a post at a semi-gothic though well-intentioned pupil referral centre. This is position she is no way qualified for but she gets due to the intervention / kindness / nepotism of an old university tutor. She apparently teaches more than one class, but the only one we’re invited to care about her is most troubling: five notably difficult students that she manages to partially engage by making them read Greek tragedy. Naturally they spend a lot of time talking about big themes like revenge and redemption and fate and self-sacrifice.

It’s kind of obvious where this as all going – the book opens by coyly promising a monstrous act – so the questions that remain are who and how and why. It’s quite a cheap device, but a compelling one, and I pretty much read the book in one sitting. I don’t have enough Ancient Greek points (not having received that kind of education) to be fully aware of the extent to which the book uses the devices of the plays it references to tell its own story, but there’s definitely an air of inevitable doom that felt all Greek tragedy to me.

But, in general, I found the whole thing a bit incoherent and ultimately tepid. The narrator’s sections are interspersed with excerpts from the diary of one of her students and I found these especially unconvincing—for me, the voice didn’t ring true, but I’m aware that’s a vague and wildly subjective comment to make. Similarly, I found this character pretty woolly—she was more a collection of traits around which a thriller could be built (obsessive! clever! alienated! potentially inclined to violence! maybe a lesbian!) than a fully put-together portrait of an actual person.

I was also kind of … expecting more twist, somehow. The narrator is this slightly grief-deadened, distant figure (even when she’s directly telling you stuff) so I was constantly assuming a degree of unreliability that may or may not have been there. And maybe that was the point but unreliable unreliability is one step too meta, even for someone who loves their meta as much as I do. The book consistently presents us with evidence that not only is the narrator’s judgement impaired (she tells us so repeatedly) but that her self-perception is distorted. She’s constantly insisting she’s doing a crap job and other people are constantly telling her she isn’t – I mean, to a degree that’s borderline annoying, because there’s nothing more frustrating than secondary characters who exist solely to insist on things about a protagonist that you yourself don’t ever witness. Also, having some experience of the issues involved around pupil referral units, I was inclined to feel she was, in fact, doing a crap job. So anyway, the upshot of all this unreliable unreliability was that I genuinely thought the narrator was going to have actively manipulated a vulnerable teenager into the “monstrous” act. And the narration itself was a further act of manipulation of the reader.

Except … no? This did genuinely seem to be the story of a grief-stricken woman who is the inadvertent recipient of a Grecian act of retributive violence enacted on her behalf by a teenager she has inspired by her teachin’.

Also in a mid-Brexit world I am not comfortable with portrayals of Eastern Europeans as wife-abusing thugs who murder nice white lawyers in the street.

 Development Hell: The NXT Story by Michael Sidgwick

So, um. Cementing my status as a huge dork, this is a book about the, err, development of the WWE’s developmental division, NXT. You probably know right now whether this book is of any interest to you at all, and the answer for probably 98% of my readers is ‘uh no’ so I’ll keep my comments brief: if you’re interested in the development of the WWE’s developmental division, this is quite good. It’s smoothly written, engaging, knowledgeable and passionate about its subject. I would say, it’s more about the creation of NXT as a brand, than about NXT itself, if that distinction makes sense. While it does focus on some of the most significant NXT milestones (the emergence of a credible women’s division among them) I was honestly expecting a bit more about NXT itself, and bit less about the wrestling landscape that created the need for it. But, y’know, I was still interested. In short: if this book is the sort of thing that seems like the sort of thing you’d like then … it probably is the sort of thing that you’d like.

 Lily by Patricia Gaffney

I’d also like to express my discontent that my copy of Lily does not have this cover.

Oh. My. God.

This is on so much crack I cannot even. It’s pure, unadulterated, ridiculous melodrama. Which I kind of simultaneously enjoyed and was made uncomfortable by. So I guess how much pleasure you’re likely to derive from Lily is directly connected to what you find problematic, and the degree to which you can put aside problematic things in the name of balls-to-the-wall exuberance.

So, where to start? The book opens with Lily Cinderella-ing for her wicked uncle and her wicked uncle’s horrible son. Said wicked uncle wants her to marry said horrible son for reasons he doesn’t quite articulate – but, of course, it later turns out she has an inheritance he wants to snaffle. She’s sufficiently reluctant to marry … I think the dude’s name is Lewis, Lewis Soames. Which, y’know, I would not want to marry a man named Lewis Soames either. Anyway, in order to avoid this miserable future, she ends up pokering her uncle in the head and running away with basically nothing. Because she’s a heroine. And that’s what heroines do.

While hiding at an inn, convinced she’s murdered her uncle and is going to be arrested and hanged, she overhears The Worst Woman In The Universe (who also has a horrible son, by the way) lamenting the fact she can’t get any servants to work for her. Not surprisingly considering she is blatantly The Worst Woman In The Universe and she works at a place called Darkstone Manor. Needless to say, Lily forges her references, fakes a terrible Irish accent and manages to secure a position working The Worst Woman In The Universe at Gothicarama Hall. On arriving at Murderdeath Grange, in the dark and the pouring rain, the first thing she witnesses is the master of the house, who emerges drunkenly from a room, with his shirt undone, and shoots a chandelier in paroxysm of overwhelming manpain. This is Devon Darkwell (yes, this is actually his name) and it is the best thing he does in the whole book.

And this is like page 50. From there, Lily reels from misfortune to misfortune, mostly at the hands of Dark McDark of Darkness Hall, who was married to a Bad Woman who did Bad Things to him, and consequently acts like he has a cosmic mandate to be a total prick.  To some degree this was interesting because Lily is working as a servant and he treats her like a servant and basically has no interest in her life or the well-being of other servants under his employ. It takes a very, very long time for him to consider her as any sort of real person at all. And I felt was kind of grittily realistic, except I was frustrated because it didn’t feel like the book offered much challenge to Devon’s sense of his own unquestionable right to Lily: as a master over a subordinate, a social better over a social inferior, and as a man over a woman.

Partly, I think, this is because the book is so packed with melodramatic incident (fires! interrupted weddings! smugglers! wreckers!)  that there’s very little room for emotional growth or change. Essentially Devon never really responds to Lily herself so much as the terrible, awful, dreadful things that constantly happen to her. As for Lily, she reminded me of de Sade’s Justine more anything: she is person who suffers and is not, really, affected by that suffering. She just sort of continues to endure it. Obviously there’s no question that she’s an incredibly resilient person (and I liked her a hell of a lot more than Dark McDark) but her role is incredibly—though also perhaps necessarily—passive. She flees, she suffers, she flees, she suffers ad infinitum. It doesn’t help that her virtue (in the broad sense, not just virginity sense) is presented as actively contrary to her well-being. And, obviously, that’s probably a deliberate comment on the role of women in an oppressive society but from a purely reader-perspective it gets very wearying as Lily will never ever do anything to help or protect herself.

I’ve seen Lily compared to Jane Eyre here and there, and it certainly has Jane Eyre-ish aspects, especially when it came to atmosphere and the relationship between a socially-powerful gentleman and the woman with nothing at all. And both Jane and Lily, at one, point run out onto a moor and nearly die. But a significant point of difference for me was that Jane is Rochester’s moral and spiritual superior and this is something he himself is very aware of, so actually the power balance between them shifts in Jane’s favour very quickly. And Jane’s virtue, her goodness, and her strength are never bad for her. They get her out of trouble (for example when Rochester tries to seduce her into being his mistress after the truth of his marriage comes out) not into it. For Lily it’s the exact opposite.

For example, there’s a bit, where Dark deflowers her (with her non-enthusiastic semi-consent) by making her believe he actually likes her. But, no, he is just being a Romance Hero and immediately afterwards hands her quite a lot of money and dismisses her. Now, instead of taking the money and getting the hell outta dodge like any sensible person, she instead sticks around, working as a drudge at Doomngloom Towers and doing some extra suffering. And I understand she felt she gave herself to him in good faith and if she takes his money she’ll be a whore … but, for God’s sake, at that point the only reason to stick around, cleaning for a pittance the fireplaces of a man who treated you with such absolute contempt is because you know you’re a romance heroine and he’s going to be very sorry and marry you later.

I’m not sure whether I’d recommend Lily or not. It’s definitely a rollercoaster and the chandelier shooting is A+. For me, I found it most interesting as the precursor to To Have & To Hold, which is a book I find troubling and fascinating and return to time and time again. They have many themes and elements and even scenes in common (for example, they both contain a sequence in which the hero attempts to force the heroine’s body to respond passionately to him, and is utterly defeated), and at their heart they both concern a man without goodness and a woman without power. But, unlike THATH, I don’t think Lily quite manages to get to grips with one of its central conceits: how does a man who has no reason to care about anyone or anything—who lives in a world that actively rewards him for not doing so—change.

An Unseen Attraction by KJ Charles

I was saving this for when I needed a pick up – and, surely, it delivered. I mean there’s no way I can talk sensibly about any book by KJ Charles and I need to issue a thousand and eighty-seven disclaimers because not only do we share an agent but I independently think she’s the bees knees. Anyway, this is a really intriguing start to a new series. It’s a warm cup of a tea of a book, and I loved the dynamic between the Clem and Rowley. It’s very tender, respectful and gentle: essentially what we have here is a love story between two people who genuinely really like each other, which is weirdly rare in romance, and is especially effective here because it contrasts wonderfully against the gothic mystery plot that I assume is going to develop over the next two books. I cannot wait.

The Artificial Silk Girl by Irmgard Keun

Wow, this book was completely fascinating. It made me laugh and moved me greatly, and I feel awkwardly ignorant to have not been aware of it before now, especially because Isherwood is kind of who we talk about when it comes to accounts of Weimar Berlin. Anyway, as far as I understand it, The Artificial Silk Girl was originally published in Germany in 1933, and then banned by the Nazis. And is now available in a very modern-sounding translation that seems to fit the subject matter—which is a kind of peculiar blend of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and The Berlin Stories—perfectly.

The book takes the form of a diary, almost a stream of consciousness really, written by the main character, a young woman called Doris who, having been fired from her job and stolen a fur coat, flees to Berlin in search of love and stardom.

Doris herself is delightful: silly and naive and charming and vulnerable and simultaneously self-deluding and self-aware. There’s something oddly subversive in spending time with a heroine who is allowed such liberty to be promiscuous, shallow and apolitical, especially given when and where the book is set. I honestly ended up adoring her, largely because she seems so unconcerned with being likeable.  At least in her diary. The rest of the time she very, very conscious of status as sexual commodity and very comfortable with using the power it gives her. There’s very refreshing about her sexual frankness—the way she treats it as both transaction and as pleasure, and is equally unashamed of both.

Tilli says: “Men are nothing but sensual and they only want one thing.”  But I say: “Tilli, sometimes women too are sensual and want only one thing.”  And there’s no difference.  Because sometimes I only want to wake up with someone in the morning, all messed up from kissing and half dead and without any energy to think, but wonderfully tires and rested at the same time.  But you don’t have to give a hoot otherwise.  And there’s nothing wrong with it, because both have the same feeling and want the same thing from the other.

It seems unlikely, at least on the surface, that Doris could be seen as any sort of feminist heroine (she hates, for example, the idea of working for a living and is at her happiest when keeping house for a man) but, while I definitely not claiming to be any authority on identifying feminist heroines, I felt very keenly how she was caught between the values of the 19th and 20th centuries – wanting above all, I think freedom to choose, even if what she chooses is a commitment to ultimately quite 19th century ideas about the roles of men and women. The important thing for Doris, I think, is not whether it’s right or wrong to work for your living or spend your life taking care of a man but the capacity to live for your own happiness, and to be able to seek it without judgement, rejection or restriction. This is what Doris’s journey really comes down to: she ends the book with a much better understanding of herself and what she wants, though it’s bittersweet at the same time because growing up is simultaneously victory and defeat. And, also, WWII is about to kick off so … yeah … that’s a thing.

One of the highlights of the book for me is a section in the middle where Doris has a love affair of sorts with a blind, married veteran of the previous war. She describes Berlin to him for about ten Joycean pages and I was absolutely entranced:

I see myself — mirrored in windows and when I do, I like the way I look and then I look at men that look back at me — and black coats and dark blue and a lot of disdain in their faces — that’s so important — and I see — there’s the Memorial Church with turrets that look like oyster shells — I know how to eat oysters, very elegant — the sky is a pink gold when it’s foggy out — it’s pushing me toward it — but you can’t get near it because of the cars — and in the middle of all this, there’s a red carpet, because there was one of those dumb weddings this afternoon — the Gloria Palast is shimmering — it’s a castle, a castle — but really it’s a movie theater and a café and Berlin W — the church is surrounded by black iron chains — and across the street from it is the Romanisches Café with long-haired men! And one night, I passed an evening there with the intellectual elite, which means ‘selection,’ as every educated individuality knows from doing crossword puzzles. And we all form a circle. But really the Romanisches Café is unacceptable. And they all say: ‘My God, that dive with those degenerate literary types. We should stop going there.’ And then they all go there after all.

Anyway:  highly engaging, highly recommended. And, in case it isn’t obvious, I am very in love with Doris. I would buy her all the fur coats she wants.

Bitter Waters by Chaz Brenchley

I’m not very good at reading short story collections because a good short-story is such a perfectly enclosed little, err, thing that it feels like a massive emotional effort to move onto the next. Bitter Waters, however, is sufficiently theme-y and well-organised (despite encompassing several time periods and genres) that I managed to move relatively easily through the book.  It also helped that while some of the stories were more gripping to me than others, there wasn’t one I didn’t respond to. And the writing, God, the writing is stunning, moving with effortless control from cheesy gothic to melancholy ghost story to darker contemporary tales.

Unfortunately my incapability with regards to short stories extends to writing about them so I’m floundering a bit here. I would say the collection is breaks roughly into three parts: the first grouping of stories concerns of mentorship: relationships between older and younger men, sometimes with romantic elements. The second grouping of stories concerns illness and death. The third centre on Sailor Martin, an immortal adventurer, who moves between both historical, fantastical and modern settings, uniting the themes of the previous two mini-collections—for example, ‘Keep the Aspidochelone Floating’ concerns his relationship with a young boy. And, of course, all the stories are connected by the bitter, uh, fluids of the title: seawater and blood and tears and … y’know … semen. Because gay male desire is also a recurring theme, and woven very naturally into the general tapestry of the stories, along with grief and love and occasionally horror.

As with any collection, there are some stories I liked less than others, and some I really loved. The opening story, I think, is the bleakest which could potentially be a little bit off-putting. I think my favourites included ‘In the Night Street Baths’ (a bit of unabashed high fantasy about the relationship between two eunuchs, one a younger boy, and the other an older man of restricted growth) ‘The Insolence of Candles Against The Night’s Dying’ (a man caring for his dying lover has to deal with is dead Uncle’s tragic past) and ‘Tis A Pity He’s Ashore’ because I’m a sucker for a terrible pun. But, favourites aside, I found the collection in its wholeness deeply satisfying. I loved the way the different stories fit together, sometimes illuminating and sometimes pulling against each other.

I’ve thought about this book a lot since I’ve read it. I anticipate returning to it a lot. Please don’t be put off by my rubbishness in writing about it: it’s haunting, fascinating, moving and beautifully written. I recommend it so hard.

my old shit
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Oh yes, social media. Should do some of that. It seems I haven’t actually blogged since the start of the month, which is about two hundred years in Internet time. And, thinking about it, the very fact I consider blogging to be an effective form of social media engagement does suggest that in terms of an on-the-pulse understanding of maintaining a platform in a post Web 2.0 era I’m about as up-to-date as Benjamin Disraeli. But, anyway, blogging is happening. And because nothing has especially leapt out to excite, intrigue or annoy me lately blogging about board games is happening. And because we are only four and a half months from Halloween and I am bad at themes blogging about zombie-related board games is happening. I mean, actually, obviously Halloween has nothing to do with it. But somebody mentioned on Twitter that they’d picked up Dead of Winter and so I thought I’d talk about that. And since I have at least once other board game in which zombies feature heavily I thought I’d talk about that as well.

For what it’s worth, zombies and Cthulhu are basically fighting this weird shadow war for complete control over all board games ever. Like it’s genuinely quite hard to find a board game franchise that doesn’t include either a zombie variant or a Cthulhu variant or a zombie-Cthulhu variant (my personal favourite example of this phenomena being the card game Smash Up which has a Cthulhu-themed expansion called The Obligatory Cthulhu Set). As it happens, while I’m not sure who’s winning the larger war in board games as a whole, Cthulhu is definitely winning in my personal collection. Possibly I’m just less bored of Cthulhu than I am of zombies.

Anyway in this blog post I’m going to be comparing and contrasting two zombie-survival themed games which have essentially the same premise (there has a been a zombie apocalypse and you control the survivors in a co-operative scenario) but diametrically opposed playstyles.  These games are Zombicide and Dead of Winter. I should probably mention that both these games are getting on a bit now. Zombicide has approximately sixteen million expansions, of which I own zero. While Dead of Winter has recently been updated with what I think the video games’ industry calls an “expandalone” – that is to say an expansion that can either be played on its own or be combined with the original game. I don’t own this either. Although I seem to recall Shut Up and Sit Down saying that the expansion to Dead of Winter (which I think is called The Long Night) is basically the same game but slightly better so you should probably prioritise buying that over buying the base game if you’re inclined to buy either.

Normally when I do blog posts about multiple board games I just do a bit about the first one, then a bit about the second one but because DoW and ZC are so similar and so different if feels more practical to me to do something more side-by-sidey. Let’s start with who you are.

Who You Are

You are the survivors of a zombie apocalypse. In Zombicide you are a ragtag band of … I’m not quite sure the best way to put this … possibly B-movie stereotypes. You’re an irate office worker with a brace of Uzis or a roller-skating waitress with a chainsaw.  In Dead of Winter you are just random people like a school teacher or a soccer mom or, slightly more bizarrely, a mall santa or a dog. Everyone loves playing the dog. It is pretty much mandatory to make the dog your party leader if at all possible. In addition to casting you as rather more down-to-earth characters, DoW differs from ZC in that each player represents a small band of survivors rather than one. You start off with two and acquire more as you progress through the game or, alternatively, you acquire less as everyone dies of frostbite or of being bitten by a zombie or of being shot because they might have been bitten by a zombie.

As might already be apparent (and, to be honest, as was probably already apparent from the names) ZC is a cheesy, schlocky shoot/slash/burn-em-up in which the aim is to rack up as a high a zombie kill? re-kill de-unkill count as possible, while pursuing whatever objective your scenario gives you. DoW, by contrast, is a srs business game about running away and being scared of zombies which are more of a looming menace or an environmental hazard than an enemy. To put it another way, DoW is the kind of game where you can say with a straight face that the real enemy is human greed. I mean, mostly with a straight face.

Since I’m talking about who players play in these two games now is probably a good time to talk about the slightly weird space the player occupies in a game of DoW. In ZC it’s very straight forward: if you are playing Josh the Hoodie you are Josh the Hoodie. You decide what Josh the Hoodie does, you carry the stuff that Josh the Hoodie carries and if Josh the Hoodie dies you are out of the game. And, actually, when we play it at home (especially if we’re playing with Ducky) we play with two characters each so that you don’t have the problem of being stuck with bad character (Ned the Survivalist is especially rubbish) or of getting eliminated early and having to watch your friends have fun with zombies without you.

DoW is a bit different. You are assigned two characters who form a band of survivors and you select one to be the leader of your band of survivors. But these characters can all get killed and you can carry on playing the game. It’s sort of like Game of Thrones where pretty much everyone you’re paying attention to when you start off is dead or missing by the time you get about halfway through and they’ve been replaced by a bunch of other randoms. What’s weird about this is that the game is never quite clear who you (the player) are. A lot of the time it seems like you are supposed to identify with your party leader and some of the personal missions you can have specifically require your party leader to have certain items or be in a particular state. But since this character can die without your mission changing the player occupies this weird limbo position where they’re simultaneously an accountant, a dog, a fire-fighter, and none of the above. Almost as if you’re some kind of perverse possessing spirit that leaps from host-to-host as they die, maniacally forcing them to acquire petrochemicals and books in pursuit of some otherworldly motive that remains largely mysterious even to yourself.

It’s probably testimony to how well-structured a lot of DoW is that this quite significant issue of identification doesn’t get in the way of the immersion more than it does. When you’re actually playing the game you really do get swept up with thinking “oh my gosh, I’ve got to find two more cans of food and a handgun, then somehow contrive to get all my followers killed” without getting hung up on the details of who “I” means in this context.

Conversely, ZC, although it makes you identify with one character, doesn’t really give you much space to put yourself in that character’s shoes. Playing Wanda the Chainsaw Waitress never feels like being Wanda the Chainsaw Waitress. It feels like, at best, controlling Wanda the Chainsaw Waitress in a slightly cheesy videogame.

What You Do

Because the zombie survival genre is so narrow (and it’s quite bizarrely over-represented for something as narrow as it is, I actually own another zombie-survival game just called Zombies! which I’m not discussing here because I haven’t played it in over a decade) the things you do in zombie survival game are always the same. You scavenge for resources, you fight or run from zombies, and you engage or not with the weirdly specific noise mechanics that these games always have.

One of the things I find interesting in comparing these two games is that because of their very different takes on their very similar genre one will  tend to be detailed where the other is abstract and vice versa. In ZC everything plays out like (and this is going to involve me listing a bunch of games and game genres that you may well not be familiar with so please bear with me) the old Hero Quest or the more recent Descent or the kind of tabletop Dungeons & Dragon that you play on a battle map with grid-based movement. Your characters have stats for how far they can go and how good they are at fighting zombies. You move grid-by-grid or room-by-room, you track things like range and line of sight, and every single turn you track where every single zombie is going and who it’s trying to eat. DoW, by contrast, abstracts these things out massively. The board is divided up into a number of locations, each represented by a deck of cards and you move between these locations by a simple “move” action, during which you roll a die to see if you get wounded or, worse, bitten by a zombie (or, indeed, by the biting cold of the never entirely pinned down bit of the world in which you find yourself). The game takes on, and again this hard to say with an entirely straight face for a narrative form constructed entirely from bits of coloured card, an almost dreamlike quality. The policeman goes to the library and is bitten by a zombie. The pilot goes to the school and finds a can of beans. The dog goes to the police station and has a surprisingly detailed conversation with an NPC.

But there are other areas in which DoW is very specific while Zombicide is quite vague. Each location in DoW is a defined place. You go to the police station to look for guns and survivors. You go to the hospital to look for medical supplies and, well, survivors. You go to the school for food and books (books are kind of a thing in the game and are possibly slightly OP). When you search a location in DoW you are searching a custom deck of cards that evokes the feeling of that specific place, right down to the fact that if a character gets killed at a location in DoW, all of their equipment gets shuffled into that deck. So you can find things that belonged to your fallen comrades but you have to actually find them, rather than just picking them up like you’ve done a corpse run in World of Warcraft. In ZC, on the other hand, you can just search anywhere that’s not an empty street and you search from one deck that’s got the same stuff in it and virtually all the stuff you find is either weapons, stuff that buffs weapons, zombie ambushes or supplies that are only used in some scenarios. You can find food supplies in Zombicide but they never do anything. They’re at worst dead cards and at best plot tokens. Food in Dead of Winter is a real thing. You need it to feed your colony of survivors and, as you rescue more and more people, that becomes more and more important. So important that you might find yourself asking difficult questions about whose survival is really necessary for the good of the colony.

I suppose another way to put it is that DoW very specifically evokes survival horror, right down to a surprisingly not boring focus on logistics and micromanagement (genuinely one of the most important actions a character can take in the game is to tidy up the colony because if you let things get too trashed people start to lose morale and that’s when the zombies win). Zombicide, as the name suggests, is unabashedly splatterpunk. It’s grab your chainsaw and see how many zombies you can carve up before you go down.

What Happens To You

This is sort of part two of “one game is specific and the other is abstract”. In Zombicide one thing happens to you and it’s zombies. You spawn new zombies every round, there are different types of zombies, sometimes they come up through the sewers, sometimes they jump on  you while you’re trying to find a gun in a sofa, and there’s a megazombie that you can only kill with a Molotov cocktail. They pay a lot of attention to what’s going on zombie-wise is what I’m saying. The zombies of DoW, on the other hand, never even attack you. They just gather outside places in increasingly large numbers or manifest through the roll of the movement die when you check to see if something bites or wound you as you try to go from the petrol station to the hospital. Ironically this lack of focus on zombies makes the zombies a lot more threatening. Because instead of thinking “how are we going to deal with those six zombies at that T-junction and can we use your Uzi and my katana’ you’re thinking “oh my God, they’re coming.”

Where DoW does get specific is with everything else. You have to keep track of food, you have to keep track of waste, every turn you get a crisis you have to resolve which requires everybody to pull together and share resources in different ways, and every turn you (or rather the player to your right) draws a card from the Crossroads deck which represents one of about bajillion specific narrative encounters that could be triggered by some event that might take place on your turn. These triggers might be something very general “if there is a survivor at the colony” or something incredibly specific like “if the soccer mom is at the school.” They can be something completely random like “if someone at the table yawns.” These cards are mini choose your own adventures.  You get given a scenario complete with flavour text and, in some cases, dialogue, then have to choose between one of two options, often horrible options. These scenarios are sometimes haunting (“your character finds her zombified child at the school, do you respond by burning the whole place to the ground, rendering it inaccessible for the rest of the game, or do you remove her from the game to represent her moving into the school and defending it with her dying breath”), sometimes logistically interesting (“do we agree to help protect the police station, trading resources now for a more difficult victory condition later”), and sometimes just a bit too self-consciously edgy (“do we kill and eat this fat guy”). And maybe it’s just me but whenever a game tries to get me to do something morally reprehensible in order to provoke a cheap emotional reaction or an artificial moral quandary I tend to respond by enthusiastically doing the most horrible thing possible.

I should probably add that I’m genuinely not sure whether my reaction to the edgier Crossroads cards is the result of a flaw with this game’s writing, all games’ writing, or my personality. Basically I just react really, really badly to anything I perceive as self-consciously edgy or trying to blow my tiny mind. For what it’s worth, the “do you eat a fan man” thing especially pissed me off because it combined a number of quirks of this kind of thing that I really hate. The choice is specifically “add a helpless survivor to the colony” (helpless survivors are always bad, they’re just a drain on resources) or “add five food to the colony” (food is always good). So mechanically it’s not an interesting choice. The only reason to choose the mechanically worse option is because you have genuinely engaged morally with the cheap, shonky, really problematically fat-shaming scenario that this (I will admit uncharacteristically) hackily written game card has put in front of you. And I really, deeply resent that. In the real world (or, even, for that matter in a tabletop roleplaying game where I had more than those two absurd options) I would not choose to randomly eat a fat man under pretty much any circumstances. But then, in the real world (or in a tabletop roleplaying game that wasn’t being run by a complete jerk) I would assume that just because somebody was fat that did not make them so fundamentally worthless that their only possible contribution to our society was as a food supply. So, in those kind of situations, I choose the game mechanically optimal solution in order to clearly signal to the game developer who I have never met, will never meet and has no way of knowing what choice I made (or, if they did, would not necessarily interpret it as I intend them to) that I have refused to engage with their bullshit.

ZC doesn’t really have anything equivalent to either the crisis cards or Crossroads cards in DoW. It does have scenarios which differ from game-to-game which give you a different map and different things to do on it but it’s still basically run around, find the chainsaw, kill the zombies.

How You Win

Both games provide you with a variety of different scenarios. In Zombicide these scenarios change the structure of the map quite fundamentally. You might be trying to get from one end to another, trying to hold out against a wave of zombies in a fixed location, trying to rescue survivors, obtain resources, or just kill ‘em all and let zombie god sort them out. An interesting feature of ZC scenarios is that they’re not all designed for the same number of players. Quite a common problem with multi-player games, especially multi-player co-operative games, is that it’s basically impossible to design a game that is equally challenging with any number of players. ZC addresses this by genuinely having completely different boards and objectives when they are two of you compared to when there are six of you. Even better, although the scenarios have a recommended number of players, there’s nothing whatsoever stopping you from playing with more or fewer characters than are recommended if you want to make the game easier or harder.

Scenarios in DoW are less impactful in some ways. They essentially provide you with a victory condition you must achieve before you run out of time or morale. This can be acquiring a certain amount of a particular type of resource, killing a certain number of zombies, building a certain number of barricades and so on. It gets more complicated, however, because as well this central scenario every player has their own personal agenda, meaning that DoW is actually a semi-co-op game rather than full co-op game.

This is the point that I realise that I should have explained this concept much earlier on.

So if you’ve read a lot of these posts, you’ll know I really like co-op games. I am not fundamentally a competitive person. It’s not that I think everyone should get a trophy or taking part, it’s just that I don’t really give a shit about trophies. As a result of this, I play and therefore have reviewed quite a lot of co-op games so hopefully you’re all familiar with that concept by now.

Semi-coop games are, well, there’s two ways to think about it. You could think of them as midway between cooperative and competitive, but I actually don’t think that’s quite right. I tend to think of semi-co-operative games as being a step past co-operative games rather than a step before. Perhaps it is just my personal experience of explaining the whole concept of co-operative game to quite competitive people but I’ve found a surprising number of prospective players have quite a lot of difficult getting their head around the idea of a game that nobody wins. And I think semi-co-op games are a conceptual leap further. They’re a genre of game where (at least in the case of DoW although there are other ways to do this) you can’t win on your own but you can lose on your own.

Essentially every player in DoW has a hidden agenda, as in they have a card that is called their agenda and it is hidden. If you don’t complete your agenda by the end of the game, you lose even if everyone else wins. Now if you are a colossal dick this means that you deliberately hold the game to ransom until you get what you want. If you’re not a colossal dick then usually this means that you still hold the game to ransom until you get what you want but it’s an emergent property of your split focus. The whole gameplay loop of DoW is balancing the quite complicated needs of the colony against your personal agenda. For example, your agenda might require you to be holding three food cards but at the same time the colony needs food and, indeed, might even have a food-related crisis going on. So you suddenly have to ask yourself “am I willing to risk all of us losing the game in order to make sure I have the food I personally need or am I willing to risk losing on my own in order to help achieve a collective goal that other people might not be as committed to as I am.” Which, when you put it like that, does make it sound a lot like life.

The cool thing about this mechanic is that it feels very thematic.  The kind of zombie story it’s emulating is driven by tension between characters with differing motivations. I mean, I know all stories are driven by tension between characters with different motivations but it’s specifically the kind of horror scenario where the cop and the lawyer getting into an argument about whether to shoot the guy who might have been bitten by a zombie is a more important plot point than the zombie attack that precipitated it. Basically the personal agenda makes you behave selfishly in a way that fits the genre.

Which leads us to the story of how I completely tanked a game of Dead of Winter.

Again, I should say that I know people who would deliberately wreck the colony if they thought they weren’t going to make their personal agenda. The game does actually have a hidden traitor mechanic which I’m personally not a fan of – basically it is possible for one player to be actively working against the colony, so where most people’s victory condition is “get these resources and have the colony survive”, one person might have the victory condition “get these resources and have the colony destroyed.” I have to be in quite a specific mood to play a hidden traitor game and I especially dislike hidden traitors in otherwise co-operative games that are already quite difficult. I think what particularly bothers me is that because (as we’ll see from the anecdote that I’m currently failing to get around to sharing with you) it’s fairly easy to lose the game by accident it means that the traitor doesn’t really have to do anything except not pull their weight. I’ve often found that the most effective strategy as the hidden traitor in that kind of game is to just kind of tune out and not give a shit which isn’t massively satisfying.

And, to continue this digression within a digression within a digression, I should say that I do understand why the traitor mechanic is in DoW. And admittedly I’m sure part of the reason it’s in DoW is that some people just like traitor mechanics. But I think a bigger reason it’s in there is that it reinforces the hidden agenda mechanic by making sure that people have an incentive to be cagey about what their agendas are. I suspect the whole challenge of balancing the colony’s needs against your own would be way easier if everyone could just be open and upfront about what their needs actually were. If you could say “I’m absolutely happy to help with this crisis but I need to hoard some food so I’m not going to put in as much as I could, but I’ve got fuel that we might need later that I can use to help out Steve who has told us that he needs fuel and books” then you’d be able to make more efficient use of your resources, be a whole lot less paranoid and bring things to a mutually satisfying conclusion much more effectively. But if you introduce the possibility that somebody actively wants the colony to fail then suddenly Steve’s request for three cans of petrol and a shotgun for his own personal use gets a whole lot more suspicious.

Sorry that got off topic. The point I was making was that I personally feel it is out of the spirit of the game for anyone bar the traitor to deliberately tank the colony even if they know they aren’t going to make their personal agenda. And, again, I’d add that I know people who would play differently and whose attitude would be “well, if I’m not winning, no-one is”. I no longer play board games with those people. However, if you do play in the spirit of the game, you sometimes accidentally do exactly the thing I just said you shouldn’t do deliberately.

In one particular game, we’d made that deal with the police station to keep it clear of zombies in exchange for some guns early on (a deal that had been deftly negotiated by the stunt dog because that sort of thing sometimes happens). My personal agenda required me to have a gun of my own, but as we’d been divvying up the weapons I’d found it very hard to make a case for giving a rifle to my lily-livered accountant rather than, say, the solider, the ninja or even the bloody dog. This meant that in the final turn of the game everyone was feeling pretty positive because we’d met our group objectives, kept the board basically clear of zombies and colony morale was pretty high. Everyone was positive except for me. Because I was freaking out because I didn’t have a gun. I kept asking people for guns and they kept saying “why do you need a gun, you’re an accountant, and anyway we can shoot the zombies from the top of the school.”

It’s all right, I thought, I know there’s loads of guns at the police station. I’ll just go there and find one. Now the game has a rule which means that when you search at a location you can draw pretty much as many cards as you like but every card after the first generates a noise token and each noise token has a 50% chance of attracting a zombie. So off to the police station goes the accountant, who begins rummaging around looking for guns. He finds handcuffs, he finds the tinned food that apparently everyone in this town lives on. Finally he finds a firearm. It’s fine, I think, yes I’ve made some noise but it probably won’t attract too many zombies and, anyway, we’ve already beaten this scenario so everything’s fine. Then I realise I’m getting some quite odd looks from the other players. Then I realise that I’ve been making a load of noise at the police station and that because of that deal we made earlier if we don’t keep the police station completely free of zombies we lose the game. We had, in fact, quite scrupulously killed all the zombies at the police station on a previous turn and had (which I had forgotten) been quite carefully not going there in order to avoid attracting any more zombies to it.

We—or rather I—attracted more zombies to it. We did not win.

To this day, I feel quite ambivalent about this anecdote. It’s so contrary to the way I normally play games that I’m actually quite embarrassed. My embarrassment is somewhat ameliorated by the fact that several of my fellow players actually thought it was a pretty cool and thematic ending: just as the plucky band of survivors think they’ve driven off the last zombie, the accountant, who has been getting more and more freaked out, finally snaps, having quite heavily foreshadowed the fact he won’t feel safe unless he’s got a gun, runs off to the police station and, in his moment of triumph, pulling a pistol from out of a locker that he’s noisily crowbarred open, attracts the attention of a fresh wave of zombies with which the beleaguered encampment is unequipped to deal.  Fade to black. Roll credits. Fin. And from a game design perspective what I really liked was how well the game had drawn me into its fiction. It had made me behave like I was a character in a zombie movie irrationally pursuing a personal agenda to the extent I lost sight of the wider problem. But I can also see how that kind of ending could have been really annoying if my fellow players had been in a different sort of mood or had different priorities. Basically I think it was okay in that case because I really had just forgotten that my going for the gun could actually make us lose the game. In a different session, with a different group of people, in a different context I could have just been making a rational choice to put the game from a state in which everybody would definitely win except me to a state in which everybody including me had about a 75% of losing and a 25% of winning.

To put it another way, I can see that there’s a fine line between “genre appropriate response to thematic game mechanics” and “dick move.”

In Summary

I’m aware I’ve talked more about DoW than I’ve talked about ZC and that’s because Zombicide is a simpler game. I will say that I’ve actually played ZC more often that DoW for roughly the same reason that I’ve watched Carry on Cleo more than often than I’ve watched The Seventh Seal. Zombicide is a straight forwardly fun, light-hearted co-operative game that I will quite often pull down if I’m not sure what else I want to play. The conversation usually goes “do we fancy killing some zombies” “yeah go on then.” I think ZC might also be slightly more robust to variable player numbers, partly because it’s so bubblegum, meaning it’s fairly easy to pick an appropriate scenario, run floating characters if you want to, and have a laugh chainsawing zombies whether there’s two of you, or six of you. Also Ducky can control a character in Zombicide, whereas she finds it quite hard to keep track of her hidden agenda in DoW.

For what’s it worth, I’m a little bit hesitant of recommending either game to a casual audience. Zombicide is straight forward and fun and beer and pretzelsy but it’s also seventy quid on account of all the models it comes with, and is quite strongly pitched at an audience which invests in tactical movement, levelling up and racking up sweet kills. And I suspect part of the reason our group finds it quite light is that we’ve all played it enough that we’re used to its idiosyncrasies because actually the game involves quite a lot of moving parts. You need to move every zombie at the end of every turn in the right order, keeping track of line of sight, sound and zombie type. There’s a whole non-especially-necessary level up system. It’s not exactly a gamer’s game but it is, I think, very much a nerd’s game. Basically I think you have to really like zombies to really like Zombicide. But I guess, as I’ve said several times, the clue is really in the name.

Dead of Winter very much is a gamer’s game. It’s very intense and quite … it feels patronising to use the word sophisticated … but sophisticated is the only word I can think of that’s appropriate. It’s not that it’s especially mature or dark or nuanced, it’s just that the mechanics intersect in sufficiently opaque ways and involve what I tend to think of as quite high end gaming concepts. I really do think semi-co-opt is an especially acquired taste and, actually, I know a lot of people who like DoW much more in theory than in practice.  People who like co-op games are likely to find the hidden agendas (and especially the traitor) unappealing, people who like competition are likely to either be annoyed by the cooperative elements or to actively undermine them. Don’t get me wrong, the game is really, really good at being what it is but what it is, is a game that very strongly captures the feeling of being in a very specific zombie survival scenario. Out of all the game I own, DoW is the one with which I’ve had the most variable experiences. If people are into it, it can be a really good, really intense gaming experience. If people aren’t into it, or are just having a bad day, it can be a frustrating nightmare.

So yes. Get Zombicide if you want to spend the best part of a hundred pounds on a slightly fiddly but quite enjoyable game where you kill loads of zombies. Get Dead of Winter if you think your gaming group will like the kind of thing it’s doing. But, as I mentioned at the beginning, most people recommend getting The Long Night before the base game.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So let’s start with Contradiction.

Contradiction: The Clue Is In The Name

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jenks: Do you recognise this keyring?

Simon: Yes, it’s from my car.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Infectious Madness of Doctor Dekker: Notthulhu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And, in fact, let’s start there.

Tape 1 Side A: Trigger Warnings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But, hey, I’m really quite angry.

Tape 1 Side B:  Taking a Step Back

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

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

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

Tape 2 Side A: The Werther Effect

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tape 2 Side B: The Worst Counsellor In The World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tape 3 Side A: The Curate’s Egg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tape 3 Side B: An Inspector Calls

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

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

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

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

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

Tape 4 Side A: Other Possible Positives

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

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

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

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

Tape 4 Side B: Nice Men and Rapists

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh boy. This takes some unpacking.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tape 5 Side B: Actual Data

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which is sort of fucked up.

Tape 6 Side B: Out of Context Problem

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

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

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

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

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

On which subject…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It really does go back to Ophelia.

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

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

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

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

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

Tape 7 Side B: Conclusions

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ballroom by Anna Hope

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I still romped through the book, mostly appreciatively.

The Patrick Melrose Novels by Edward St Aubyn

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Belongs To You by Garth Greenwell

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

Anyway. I didn’t actually hate this.

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

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

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

Blue Days, Black Nights: A Memoir by Ron Nyswaner

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

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

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

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

I am glad Ron Nyswaner is okay now.

Doc by Mary Doria Russell

This is beyond amazing. The end.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that is how I feel about Doc.

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

*stamps it with a kiss*

my old shit
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