You know what I haven’t talked about in a really long time? Okay, lots of things—Hugh Grant movies, Star Trek, FFG’s Arkham Files franchise. But the thing I haven’t talked about in a really long time that I’m going to talk about right now is board games. Specifically “Legacy” board games.

 For those of you who don’t remember this deeply obscure bit of boardgaming lore that I haven’t really looped back to since talking about Pandemic: Legacy more than a year ago, a “Legacy” game is a board game where as you play it you make permanent changes to the board, cards and rules, so that the game is fundamentally different every time. Or at least the first 10-15 times. They naturally cap out after a while as you see all the cards and fill in all the tables and tick all the boxes. But then really how many big board games do you own that you’ve played more than fifteen times?

 The first Legacy game was Risk: Legacy, which was kind of mind-blowing when it first came out because the sheer adrenaline rush of opening little boxes, tearing up cards and discovering that there was a little envelope taped to the bottom of the box labelled DO NOT OPEN UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES was amazing. Buuuut it suffered from the core problem that it was based around Risk, and Risk is actually turning sixty this year. It’s quite a traditional game and has quite a lot of traditional game problems, most of which boil down to its being … just not very good. There are some fun variants that have come out over its very very long life (I enjoyed the 2004 Risk: Godstorm and I admit to being weirdly curious about 2018s Risk: Rick and Morty) but Legacy starts as basic Risk, which is a bit dull, and yes if you play it long enough it eventually evolves into a more interesting version of Risk but … you could just play one of the more interesting versions straight off.

 As a result, the boardgames community’s mind was even more blown with the release of Pandemic: Legacy (which I spoke about at some length on this blog). As my personal favourite gaming review site put it, it had all the cool stuff that made you excited for Risk: Legacy, with the added advantage that the base game was actually good. Pandemic was a hugely enjoyable and classic game, one of the few titles I think you could unironically describe as “beloved”. And the Legacy version added a huge amount of nuance and complication to the game in well-timed increments that kept the level of challenge up for more experienced players. The second “season” of Pandemic: Legacy didn’t quite live up to the first, because it essentially took the opposite approach—instead of starting with base pandemic and building up, it started with a game that was kind of less good than Pandemic and slowly built up to a game that was … more complicated but still less good than Pandemic.

 Once the “Legacy” concept became more baked into boardgame culture, you also started seeing games that were built from the ground up to be a Legacy game. The first of these was Seafall, which came out in 2016 and which I didn’t pick up because the reviews I’d looked at suggested it shared a similar issue to Risk: Legacy—the appeal was mostly in the novelty of discovery and the legacy features, not in the innate playability of the underlying game, which apparently took a while (and in Legacy game terms, a while means multiple full play sessions) to get going and wasn’t hugely satisfying even when it did. Then there was Gloomhaven, which I did pick up, because the reviews I read suggested that it was a stonkingly good dungeoncrawler out the gate.

 That pretty much became my rule for Legacy games: only play it if you’d also play it if it wasn’t a Legacy game. Expecting Legacy elements to fix what you don’t like a board game is a bit like expecting marriage to fix what you don’t like about your relationship. It very seldom works and instead ties you into a long-term and likely quite expensive commitment you’ll probably regret.

 Which brings me, after a mere seven-hundred-and-thirty-odd words, to the actual game I wanted to talk about today, which is Betrayal: Legacy.

 The base game of Betrayal: Legacy is Betrayal at House on the Hill (which feels like it’s missing an article somewhere). And Betrayal at House on the Hill is … inconsistent. It’s not a bad game. It’s often actually quite a fun game. But it’s equally often a frustrating and pointless game. The basic premise of original Betrayal is that you are … kind of in a 70s horror movie? Or a spooky campfire tale? A group of you go up to this weird old hous house, and scary stuff happens to you, and then suddenly there is BETRAYAL and you’re pitched into one of fifty different scenarios (called “Haunts”), in most of which it turns out that one player was a bad guy all along.

 Because it relies so much on randomness—a random house that you move around having random things happening to you which will randomly lead to a random endgame—and because keeping consistent quality over fifty unique stories-slash-minigames is a huge ask, it’s fairly common to get to the end of a game of Betrayal and think is that it? To put it another way, the saving grace of original Betrayal is that it’s short and low-impact, which is kind of faint praise. And I was trepidatious to say the least about investing £70 (about $90-$100 US depending on exchange rate) on a long-term investment in the Legacy version of a game when often the best thing you could say about the base game is often that it’s over quickly.

 It turns out I shouldn’t have worried, because this seems to be the one in a million time when marrying a game really does fix your relationship with it.

 Okay, the marriage analogy might be a bit weird. A better comparison might be with playing rock, paper, scissors. Which I appreciate is probably still a bit weird and in need of unpacking.

 Played once, rock, paper, scissors is an essentially random game, or near enough to it. You don’t know what your opponent is going to do and while there are little things you can do to try to influence them (apparently a common tactic in what the pros call “street RPS” is to flash one of the signs while you’re clarifying that you throw after three not on three, and then throw the counter to that sign) but those marginal advantages only become apparent over a very large number of games. I suppose thinking about it professional poker might be an even better analogy. Contrary to the way it works in the movies, being an excellent poker player doesn’t mean you’ll always definitely win every hand (or even the crucial hand that matters when you’ve just bet your life savings or the nuclear codes), it means that—in the words of Kenny Rogers—you know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold ‘em, which leads to a net profit over many games.

 Playing one game of Betrayal at House on the Hill (seriously why isn’t there an extra the in there somewhere) is like playing one game of rock paper scissors, or one hand of poker. Great if it goes well, entirely pointless if it goes badly. Of course because Betrayal is quite a thematic game, going well doesn’t necessarily mean winning. Some of the most satisfying games of BaHotH (and incidentally I’ve just noticed how fitting it is that Bahoth sounds like the name of a demon in a cheesy ‘80s movie in its own right) I’ve played have been ones where I’ve lost but it’s felt really appropriate, like when one of the characters turned out to be possessed by the ghost of a serial killer and tracked us all down one by one, or when as the traitor I’ve been defeated in an nailbiting final struggle against the one surviving player. The worst games are the ones where it either ends too quickly or too slowly. Where either the traitor got really badly beaten up wandering around the house and then died instantly the moment the turned evil, or where it was obvious really early on that the good guys couldn’t actually do the thing they needed to do because it was too long-winded and complicated or the scenario was just poorly balanced.

 Betrayal: Legacy doesn’t strictly solve the problem of the game sometimes whiffing. You can still fairly often wind up just not really achieving much before your inevitable doom, but where in the standalone game that feels like you’ve just kind of wasted forty to ninety minutes, in the Legacy game even the most ignominious of endings and disappointing of outcomes become part of a more interesting wider story.

 The core campaign of Betrayal: Legacy unfolds over thirteen sessions beginning in the sixteenth century and ending in the present day, with the house growing and filling up with spooky objects, strange rooms and peculiar inhabitants, many of which you name yourself. Each player takes control of a family that interacts with the house down the years, and every game you record your character’s name, age, and eventual fate. It’s deliberately set up so that if you’re a child in one game (and you often are if you base your character’s age on the model that represents them) and you survive you can plausibly come back as an adult in the next game, creating a real sense of continuity. In the base game the various items and events that pop up over the course of play can just feel a bit arbitrary and disconnected—why is there a mystical chalice in this room, a pair of glasses in this room, and a shotgun on the balcony? How exactly does the spooky apparition in this room relate to the bloody handprints in this room to the mysterious bright light in the basement?

 Convert the game to a Legacy game and you get to build the house slowly over centuries. You know exactly what that random crossbow is—it’s the crossbow that you shot your friends with in the opening scenario. That ghostly apparition is specifically the spirit of the Viking berserker who possessed you in the second scenario when you found the strange object under the hanging tree. The marrow spoon that rewards you for eating dead people … yeah that’s still a bit random.

 Without giving too much away, the game does a really good job of building on the silly, campy fun of Betrayal in a bunch of cool ways. It adds neutral characters to the house who can die and die permanently (which is anticlimactic if they snuff it in the scenario where they show up, but ah well), it introduces mysterious Hammer-Horror-level quasi-occult signs and artefacts. There are the usual boxes to open and envelopes to unseal, and they’re all presented in this knowing, slightly cheesy way that nicely marries the innate excitement of opening new bits of a legacy game with the spooooky hidden mysteries vibe of its particular flavour of pulpy horror. I mean it even calls the space underneath the box insert where you store dead and destroyed characters and objects “the tomb”.

 Prior to Betrayal, my experience with Legacy mechanics was that they worked when they took an already excellent game and added depth and complexity to it, accentuating the positive like the song says. Betrayal: Legacy is the first Legacy game I’ve seen that successfully uses Legacy elements to do the opposite and eliminate the negative. It’s true that the first couple of times you play it, the game you’re playing is effectively a stripped down version of base BaHotH, but unlike—for example—Seafall or Pandemic Legacy Season Two where it feels like you have to play about halfway through the campaign before the game is even really feature-complete, Betrayal: Legacy’s early game is effectively a distillation of everything that makes the game actually fun to play, with all the other stuff that can get in the way stuffed into legacy decks and sealed boxes for later. In the first scenario, the “house” on the hill is quite specifically a colonial-era homestead and contains barely a dozen rooms. Which means yes, you don’t get as much of the “wandering around finding weird things and having weird encounters” part of the game as you normally would, but it also means that you get to jump very quickly to the Haunt, which is the part of the game that’s actually unique and fun.

 Basically it’s exactly as enjoyable as the original game, with the two significant advantages that the Legacy bells and whistles are fun in their own right, and that building into an overarching haunted house story makes even individually disappointing play experiences satisfying long term as you realise that the character who turned evil and murdered all his friends in the previous game died bathetically at the hands of a bad horse in this one.

 As always I should wrap up with the “is it good for couples or children” questions. The first is easy: this game does not work at all with two players—it’s based on the premise that one player unexpectedly turns on the rest and while there’s some effort made to balance the game around 3, 4 or 5 players, it’s generally not possible for one player on their own to beat a player-turned-traitor with monsters backing them up. Also, some scenarios have a hidden traitor, and that mechanic goes out the window with two. Three is a hard minimum and it’s best with four to five.

 The question of playing with children is … a tricky one. It wasn’t until I was typing up this review that I quite realised how odd it is that Betrayal (both the original and the legacy version) is a game in which you regularly play small children and those small children regularly die horribly. Perhaps the best way to think about it is in terms of traditional spooky campfire stories—when you think about it, for all we worry about children being exposed to violent content from modern sources (online, in video games, on TV), the kinds of stories we habitually tell children in certain contexts (like fairytales and traditional ghost stories) are crazy bloody. Heck, the Lizzie Borden song is a children’s rhyme and it’s literally about a girl who murders her parents with an axe, and is based on a real crime. I should probably clarify that the game isn’t actually that explicit about its violence or its horror aspect, and it steers very heavily into straightforward horror and haunted house tropes. It’s just that those tropes do include things like “axe murderers” and “dismembered body parts” as well as “vampires and mummies.” As always, mileage varies and different people will draw their lines in different places so. Yeah. Is what it is, y’know.

 In a lot of ways I think my final thought on Betrayal Legacy is a lot like my final thought on T.I.M.E. Stories (yes, I know I’ve now just compared the game to a completely different game that I haven’t mentioned at any point in the last 2,500 words, sorry I am terrible at structure) in that I think whether you should buy it depends a lot on whether you have the kinds of gaming friends it works with, and those types of friends might wind up being quite specific. The base game skews casual—it’s a low-investment game with a short playtime that’s sometimes disappointing but usually a decent way to pass a smallish chunk of your afternoon, so it’s a nice option to have on your shelf for if people fancy it and doesn’t require your friends to be super into boardgaming. But Legacy games are kind of the opposite—you’re committing to playing one game with one group of people, semi-regularly, for at least thirteen sessions.

 I think if I had to sum up the friend-group you need to get the most out of this game, it would be a group of people who really like board games but don’t mind not taking them super seriously. People who won’t look at you funny when you start saying “hey, let’s play this game that might take us the best part of a year to finish and which also requires you to put stickers all over the board and tear up the cards” but who also won’t get hacked off playing a game that doesn’t really involve any kind of strategy, often turns on an extremely swingy dice system, and is likely to be more silly than scary most of the time.

 One sentence summary: Like the original but better. Worth a look either as a straight upgrade over base Betrayal, or as a fairly low-impact introduction to Legacy games in general.

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Hello, this is slightly late. I have no particular excuses, I just suck at scheduling my time. Anyway, hopefully this will not be one long thing on a videogame none of you are going to play.

Harlots

Season 2 of this has finally become available in England – courtesy of the Starz channel on Amazon Prime, which is about the most obvious alliance I can possibly think of. It’s the company that does all the digital distribution teaming up with the a channel that digitally distributes slightly campy TV full of boobs and stabbing, and a TV show that is pretty much mandated to be full of boobs and stabbing.

Actually, that’s a little bit unfair to Starz because what I really like about them is that a lot of their shows seem to use the “boobs and stabbing” stuff to draw you in (because who doesn’t love boobs and stabbing – I appreciate the answer to that is ‘quite a lot of people’) and then by episode three you’re suddenly like “hey, where’s all the boobs and stabbing gone, what’s this surprisingly sophisticated exploration of intersecting marginalisations and the injustices inherent in entrenched power structures.” And, actually, even that is a bit unfair to Harlots, which isn’t actually by Starz, and which for a show about prostitution in the 18th century is resolutely uninterested in being titillating.

In broad strokes what I like about Harlots is that it’s a character-driven drama that manages to veer wildly between high camp and genuine nuance. There’s something fundamentally appealing and faintly absurd about the premise of the show, which is that it’s a battle to death between two aging brothel owners, played by Samantha Morton and Lesley Manville who are clearly having the best time sweeping defiantly into each other’s houses in amazing frocks and chewing up the scenery. But as the series progresses it becomes increasingly apparent that what’s going on here is that you have two women who hate and want to destroy each other pretty much because their lives have been made shit by social forces so vast and complex that they can barely perceive them let alone fight them. And don’t get me wrong, Lydia Quigley (Lesley Manville’s character) is a horrible person who abducts virgins for gangs of rich men who want to murder them but it’s genuinely a bit heart-breaking to see the way all the other characters direct their very justifiable outrage at her specifically, rather than the men who hire her or the demonstrably corrupt institutions that essentially force her to exist.

It’s fairly explicitly a show about power from the point of view of people who don’t have any, and it does a good job (I mean, insofar as I’m any judge, not being myself an 18th century prostitute) of portraying a range of people from a range of different backgrounds, all of whom have their own shit going on that is sufficiently intense that it stops them from being able to understand other people’s shit, and presenting them all with a (mostly) equal degree of sympathy. Obviously this doesn’t make it the easiest show to watch, because, well, stuff about powerless people making terrible decisions isn’t exactly light viewing, but it’s also got a lot of warmth. And when its characters find moments of connection, however fleeting they sometimes are, it’s genuinely moving.

Also Nancy Birch is amazing.

This Garrus Vakarian Body Pillow

Because Garrus is bae.

Parts of Umbrella Academy

By ‘parts’ I mostly mean ‘Ellen Page’. And, in fact, I mostly mean Ellen Page playing a violin in a white suit while the world explodes. Spoilers.

This is honestly a difficult one because the experience I had with Umbrella Academy was the experience I get surprisingly often with Netflix shows, where about three episodes in I find myself kind of not liking them but determined to keep going in the irrational belief that this will change.

I think the thing about Umbrella Academy is that it’s a bunch of things I individually liked packaged in a way that really didn’t work for me. Also it’s based on a comic from about 2007 and perhaps my awareness of this was colouring my perception but I kept being painfully of quite how much has changed socially in the last twelve years (oh my God, 2007 was twelve years ago). Because, and I appreciate I’m a bit out my lane here, it felt really jarring to me that the entire premise was that it was about a family of seven superheroes, of whom only two were women, of whom has no powers at the beginning and the other has no powers at the end. Also the gay character was this confused, spindly amoral drug addict, whose boyfriend he both meets and loses tragically in a time-travel related incident that occurs between two episodes. That’s not even Bury Your Queers, that’s Try To Give Your Character The Bury Your Queers Emotional Arc Without Evening Bothering To Bury Your Queers.

On other hand, Ellen Page is awesome and I would watch her play a violin in a white suit forever.

Megaquarium

This is a gentle sim game, I mean in the sense a game that is simulating something, rather than a game that is part of the increasingly sprawling Sims franchise, about running an aquarium.

It turns out, fish have surprisingly complex needs. Sometimes they like to be housed with other similar fish, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they want to eat green pellets, sometimes they want to eat orange pellets. Sometimes they like their water very warm, sometimes like their water very cold. Sometimes they like rocks to hide in, sometimes they like plants. And sometimes they grow unexpectedly large and eat each other. The sub-aquatic bastards.

Basically, like all simulation games, it’s a series of interlocking puzzles, where you have to balance various resources (money, fish happiness, visitor enjoyment, pellets) in order to satisfy the arbitrary and taxing criteria of the Sim Gods. I think the part of me that enjoys reading traditional English mysteries (there is disorder, then an upper middle class person shows up and re-aligns the universe) finds these kind of games quietly reassuring.

Because I get to impose order and harmony on my small fishy universe.

Also you can zoom right in and see your fish swimming about in the tanks you’ve built for them.

Vampire: the Masquerade – 5th Edition

I mean, don’t get me wrong, Vampire is kind of terrible, but in a brilliant, brilliant way. And, basically, everybody hates the new edition because it steers into one set of things that were brilliant and terrible about the game (back in about 1992) as opposed the slightly more popular set of things that were brilliant and terrible about the game (in about 1999).

For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about Vampire: the Masquerade is a tabletop roleplaying game (for those of you who still have no idea what I’m talking about, I really don’t have time to explain that) in which you are all vampires. It was kind of a massive deal in the 90s because while it wasn’t the first RPG in which you played something other than a generic adventurer with a sword who goes into a dungeon and kills goblins for loot, it pretended it was and, if I’m honest, for a lot of people it might as well have been. It famously billed itself as “A Storytelling Game of Personal Horror” and if you listen to any Actual Play on the internet or talk to anyone who played the game at pretty much any point during its life cycle it was blatantly “A Storytelling Game of Doing Missions for People Who Are More Powerful Than You: Also You Probably Have A Gun.”

I’m not going to lie. I fucking love it.

The latest edition tries to dial back on some of the weirder stuff that accrued to the game over its first decade of life (or, I suppose, unlife). And by weirder stuff, I mean … oh God, where to start? Three-eyed healer vampires? A mystery and shadowy cult that lives in the Underworld and was canonically blown up by the ghost of the nukes they dropped in the Second World War? Vampires whose shapeshifting powers are alien parasites? And, probably my personal favourite, vampires who have the innate ability to do time travel.

And while I can absolutely see why some people are disappointed that they’ve swept all the completely bonkers stuff under the rug I just think it’s kind of nice to go back to a game where you play, like, y’know regular vampires? Doing regular vampire stuff. That is, ignoring the fact you’re an immortal creature of the night and doing missions for people who are more powerful than you that probably involve shooting someone.

Bonus vampire related thing: Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines 2.

And wow colon abuse in that sentence is terrible. Vampire: the Masquerade – Bloodlines is a iconically flawed videogame related to the iconically flawed tabletop game mentioned above. I played it at just the right to have my mind blown by its edgy maturity.

Pretty much everything you need to know about the game can be summed up by the following factoid. If you take the seduction skill on a male character, you can have sex with about three of the women in the game, and nobody else. If you take the seduction skill on a female character, you can have sex with those three women, a bunch of other women, and a fair few men too. I’m embarrassed for my teenage self, I really am.

And, for obvious reasons, I haven’t dared go back to the game since. However, I have deep, deep love for it and I’m unbelievably excited that they’re finally doing a sequel. Although also kind of … dubious. Because I feel like if it’s got all the problematic shit of the original it won’t be very fun. And if it hasn’t got all the problematic shit of the original, it won’t be very fun.

Aaaand I think that’s it from me. As ever, please do tell me what you’re enjoying in the comments – or, um, don’t.

silliness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Company (at the Gielgud)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Musical Drinkingware Game

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

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

Here are some of our favourites:

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

Do feel free to play in the comments.

Dragon Quest XI

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

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

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

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

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

The Hbomberguy Donkey Kong Stream Thing

This was honestly just the nicest way to start 2019.

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

It wound up raising $340,000.

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

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

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

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And finally…

I just really enjoyed this.

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

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

Anyway, here’s stuff I liked in December.

The Holiday Period

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

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

My Planner

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

An Article by Heather Alexandra

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

Ferrero Rocher

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

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

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

Sarah Phelps’ Agatha Christies for the BBC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

silliness

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

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

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

And then I bought a planner.

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

Except.

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

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

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

And bought a damn planner.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Total War: Warhammer II – Curse of the Vampire Coast

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

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

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

Boston Legal

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

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

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

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

This Kirby Pillow

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

Diamond Painting

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

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

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

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

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

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

The New She-Ra Thing

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

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

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

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

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

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

silliness

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

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

Noah Caldwell-Gervais

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Strictly Come Dancing

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

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

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

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

Historical Belle Cosplay

Look at this. Isn’t it amazing?

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

Detectorists

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christmas Foods

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

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

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

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

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

Wait, one more: Party Rings … Of Deaaaaaaath.

silliness

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

Spoilers, as always.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guess it’s time for another board games post!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I mean everything. Specifically:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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