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

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

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

triggered

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

so easily

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

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

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

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

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

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

non con stuff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is going somewhere, I promise.

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

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

in conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s about 9/11 isn’t it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spoilers for Lumen Fidei, obviously.

Lumen Fidei – A Vague Standalone Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which brings me to the next part.

Taking Sides

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just what? What the actual what?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Arkham Comparison

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?”

Another shrug.

“I mean, I guess? I’m not very good.”

Shrug again.

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

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

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

I walk around barefoot a lot.”

These aren’t feet. They’re…Kevlar.”

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

“Did you have something in mind?”

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

“No.”

“Do whatever then.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Second Set Experience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dunwich Legacy

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

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

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

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

Oh, also, spoilers. Because obvs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s time for subheadings isn’t it?

The Premise

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

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

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

The Gameplay

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

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

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

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

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

Winning & Losing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Worst Part of the Story

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

So. Yeah. Middle Earth Quest.

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

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

 The Amber Fury by Natalie Haynes

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Development Hell: The NXT Story by Michael Sidgwick

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

 Lily by Patricia Gaffney

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

Oh. My. God.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Unseen Attraction by KJ Charles

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

The Artificial Silk Girl by Irmgard Keun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bitter Waters by Chaz Brenchley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who You Are

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

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

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

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

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

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

What You Do

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

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

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

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

What Happens To You

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

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

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

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

How You Win

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Summary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So let’s start with Contradiction.

Contradiction: The Clue Is In The Name

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jenks: Do you recognise this keyring?

Simon: Yes, it’s from my car.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Infectious Madness of Doctor Dekker: Notthulhu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In conclusion

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

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

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