video games

A short list of things I enjoyed in 2023

A Murder at the End of the World — I’ve written before about how much I appreciate Brit Marling’s work, so I was excited to learn she had a new miniseries coming out, and it didn’t disappointment. Emma Corrin (young Princess Di from The Crown) plays Darby Hart, a hacker/amateur sleuth who gets invited to a tech billionaire’s retreat that quickly turns into an Agatha Christie murder mystery. As with Marling’s previous series, The OA, I’d advise you to avoid spoilers and just dive in; the opening is a masterclass in how to grab an audience’s attention, so you’ll know in the first five minutes whether it’s your kind of story. A Murder is currently streaming on Hulu.

The Fall of the House of Usher — The latest Netflix miniseries from Mike Flanagan (Oculus, The Haunting of Hill House) is a sort of Edgar Allen Poe’s greatest hits: Each of its eight episodes is inspired by a different Poe classic, which together tell the tale of the final reckoning of the wicked Usher clan. Great cast, great story.

The critical response to Starfield Starfield is an open-world science-fiction roleplaying video game from Bethesda Game Studios. It debuted in September, three days before my birthday, and as a longtime fan of Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls series, I of course had to check it out. Long story short, I ultimately found Starfield to be mediocre—but as often happens when something I expected to like doesn’t work for me, I then started thinking about why it didn’t work, which led me to YouTube and its many, many videos dissecting Starfield’s flaws. A lot of these are unhinged rants (which can be entertaining), but there are also some really thoughtful critiques that get into the weeds of game design and storytelling, like this one and this one.

No Man’s Sky — Another open-world sci-fi game that clearly inspired some of Starfield’s mechanics. I bought No Man’s Sky on sale back in 2020, but only got around to playing it a few weeks ago after I got tired of Starfield, and despite the similarities, I’m enjoying it a lot more. I’m still mulling over exactly why that is, but to borrow a point from one of the critique videos I linked to above, No Man’s Sky is a more focused game with a much clearer sense of what it wants to be.

Reacher — This Prime Video series, based on Lee Child’s novels, follows the adventures of an itinerant ex-military policeman who wanders America with nothing but the clothes on his back, dispensing justice to bad guys who are unlucky enough to cross paths with him. I decided to check the show out after one of my Twitter follows described Reacher as “an autistic savant in the body of a silverback gorilla.” I’m really digging it, and surprisingly, so is my wife, who ordinarily wouldn’t be into this sort of thing.

Hell House LLC Origins: The Carmichael Manor — And finally… I’ll have more to say about this in a future Lovecraft binge-watch post, but if you want to end the year with something good and creepy, this latest installment in the Hell House LLC series should do nicely.

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Things I enjoyed reading, watching, and playing in 2013

An end-of-the-year list for anyone wanting suggestions on how to spend your leftover holiday money/spare time:

Reading

I didn’t read much new fiction this year. Long-form TV has taken up a lot of the time I used to spend on novels, and when I’m focused on a new novel of my own, as I am right now, most of the reading I do tends to be either research or revisiting old favorites (tops on my repeat list this year: The Haunting of Hill House, No Country for Old Men, and William Gibson’s Bigend trilogy). Still, there were a few good new things:

Layman’s Report, by Eugene Marten — This fictionalized account of the life of Fred Leuchter (aka “Mr. Death”) was my favorite novel of the year.

Langston Hughes’s newspaper column, circa 1954 — As part of my background reading for Lovecraft Country, I’ve been going through old issues of the Chicago Defender, and Hughes’s weekly column is consistently my favorite part of the paper. Some pieces describe Hughes’s experiences traveling around the Jim Crow-era U.S.; others take the form of dialogues between Hughes and his imaginary sidekick Jesse B. Semple (“Simple”). The latter are collected in The Best of Simple.

Fractures, by Lamar Herrin — Though technically I read it in 2012, this was the only book I blurbed this year (“A moving and beautifully crafted family drama, with characters who are more than the usual suspects”), and I wanted to give it another shout-out here. As is often the case with moving and beautifully crafted family dramas, Fractures lacks the sort of high-concept plot elements — e.g., Holocaust-denying electric-chair designers — that make for an easy sales pitch, but just to give you a sense of what I dug about it, here’s a short excerpt from the opening chapter describing how the protagonist once slit his wrist, not because he was suicidal, but because he was trying to figure out if he was suicidal:

[H]e wanted to see if, when the blood appeared, he was willing to let it flow… he’d read that the veins running down his wrist would yield, if cut, a dark blood, which would only ooze out, and that gauze pressed down beneath an Ace bandage would be sufficient to stop it. Flanking the veins and deeper set were the radial and ulnar arteries, and these would yield a bright red blood in a pulsating flow, which would take a tourniquet, in addition to the gauze and bandage, to stop. The arteries brought blood from the heart, oxygenated to that brighter red as it passed through the lungs; after its long, wearying trip through the body, the veins brought the blood back.

He’d intended to cut to the deeper and thicker-walled arteries, so that he would know, know for sure, but had in fact cut only to the depth of the veins… Of course, he accused himself of cowardice… but he also commended himself for not wasting time. He didn’t need the brighter, more youthful blood to tell him what the darker, more traveled blood had already made clear. He wanted to live.

Like I say, not the usual suspects. Check it out.

Watching

Upstream Color The second feature film by Shane Carruth, the writer/director of 2004’s Primer. I started watching this with no real notion of what the story was about (other than that it was vaguely science-fictional) and recommend that you do the same if you can. Best, most interesting film I’ve seen all year.

Orange is the New Black Though binge-watching the entirety of Breaking Bad was my favorite TV experience of the year, this was a very close second.

Cloud Atlas I wish the economics of film allowed for more ambitious failures like this one. Though the story ultimately doesn’t quite work, boy was it interesting.

Boardwalk Empire Not your typical Jersey gangster series. Watching the first three seasons, Lisa and I kept remarking to each other how they were doing things with the characters that we hadn’t seen before. And the women’s roles are as compelling as the men’s. Steve Buscemi, Kelly Macdonald, Michael K. Williams, and Gretchen Mol are all great in this, though my favorite character is the disfigured World War I vet played by Jack Huston.

The Heat Melissa McCarthy, where have you been all my life? The forgettable plot (they fight crime, yadda yadda) is just a pretext for gal to misbehave for ninety minutes, with Sandra Bullock gamely playing the straight woman. This left me wanting to see a version of Gravity with McCarthy in the George Clooney role.

Playing

Hearthstone Blizzard’s upcoming World of Warcraft-themed online collectible card game. As of this writing it’s still in beta test, but I got an invitation and it’s my favorite new game of the year.

The game is very similar to Magic: the Gathering, but Blizzard has come up with a much smoother and more user-friendly interface than the current M:tG computer game, so I find it a lot more fun to play. Also, it’s free: You get a limited number of cards to start out, and buy booster packs using gold that you earn by completing quests or winning matches. (There’s also an option to buy booster packs with real money, which is how Blizzard will make a profit, but the game is well-balanced enough, and gold easy enough to win, that you really won’t need to spend money to be competitive.)

Marvel Puzzle Quest: Dark Reign An addictive Bejeweled-style match-three combat game with a Marvel superhero theme. Free to play, with an option to purchase extra resources. (One quick play-tip, if you don’t want to spend money: Use all your hero points to acquire extra roster slots, so you’ll have room to recruit new heroes as they become available.) Available on both tablet and PC.

Gone Home A cool piece of interactive fiction that casts you as a young woman just back from trekking across Europe. You arrive at your family’s new house late on a stormy night and find that no one is home. There’s a note on the door from your little sister saying she’s run away and a frantic message from your mother on the answering machine. Rather than wait for Mom to call back so you can ask her what’s going on, you decide to treat the house like a crime scene and conduct a thorough, room-by-room search, without regard for anybody’s privacy. As one does.

The story that unfolds is a good one, worth encountering unspoilered. There are a few locked doors and cabinets to contend with, but these are less puzzles than means of channeling your progress so you come across the pieces of the narrative in the right order. The key to making it to the end is to examine everything: open every container, read every scrap of paper. And use the map—the one time I got stuck, briefly, I realized I’d somehow skipped a room.

Things I am looking forward to in 2014

Reading: Porochista Khakpour’s The Last Illusion, Nicola Griffith’s Hild, Wilton Barnhardt’s Lookaway, Lookaway, the finished manuscript of Lovecraft Country. Watching: Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, the Wachowskis’ Jupiter Ascending. Playing: More Hearthstone.

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CLANG Kickstart update

My friends at the secret clubhouse are already more than halfway to their goal of $500,000 to fund a virtual sword-fighting game, and they’ve released another video to help draw in more investors. This one features a capitalist in a giant hamster wheel:

More info about CLANG can be found on the Kickstarter page, here.

In other Neal Stephenson related news, Joe Cornish, the director of Attack the Block, has been hired by Paramount to do a film adaptation of Snow Crash. Woot!

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In which my friends try to Kickstart a swordfighting video game

When I’m not in total writer introvert mode, I occasionally hang out with this Western martial arts group whose members gather in a secret location to (a) hit one another with blunt objects and (b) hack up innocent pop bottles with sharpened versions of those same objects.

Although hitting one another remains the group’s core mission, over the years there have been spinoff projects, such as The Mongoliad. One of the group’s long-term goals has been the creation of an accurate (and fun) Western martial arts simulator, aka a swordfighting video game that doesn’t suck. As group founder Neal Stephenson explains above, they’re finally ready to get to work on that, so they’re doing a Kickstarter campaign to raise $500,000 in funding.

The game’s working title is CLANG. You’ll find more details on the CLANG Kickstarter page, here. The funding period runs through July 9, and as of this posting they’re already more than a fifth of the way towards the half-million-dollar goal.

(N.B. As was the case with The Mongoliad, I’m not directly involved in the project. At least, not yet. But you can be sure I’ll be dropping by the clubhouse to help playtest the game prototype.)

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