I don’t hate Mass Effect: Andromeda

Yes, I am very late to have a Hot Take on this game. I actually bought the Deluxe Edition for a meager $16 when I finally indulged in my long-awaited next-gen this spring, but was in no hurry to see why so many people had told me that ME:A would make me fall out of love with the Mass Effect series. But one blisteringly hot day this July, I rewatched The Last Jedi and got nostalgic for space drama. I started a new game and named my Ryder Rose.

This much I can agree with: ME:A suffers in comparison to the trilogy in almost every way. You have a brand new set of companions, and many of their interactions are opaque and forced. You’ve got a whole galaxy of loot but only your own gear to upgrade, by way of a needlessly detailed and customizable system. And of course it’s tough to top the big reveal of the true villain in the first Mass Effect, and the increasingly heightened stakes of the next two games.

But ME:A does one thing well that the original game didn’t really offer: discovery. Despite the number of planets and lifeforms in the ME universe, any given region was a small map at most, usually a defined path with a handful of dead ends for loot. Only in the original Mass Effect could you drive your clunker of a space car around a larger area, but the rewards were scant. Conversely, the entire premise of ME:A is exploration, opening up new or lost worlds, homesteading. The planets offer big, detailed maps that you can comb like the regions of Skyrim. You are rewarded for looking closely as you uncover resources to collect or study. You rewarded for looking into the distance by dramatic views and a glimpse of the little hamlets that could be a welcoming settlement or enemy camp. There are paths, but you don’t have to follow them. Like Skyrim, you can scout a location from a high point in the landscape and then go to that location and interact with it.

As it happens, Skyrim is another game I love deeply, and its physical beauty and sense of discovery are the main reasons why. I’ve been an Elder Scrolls fan since Morrowind, but I can’t say much complimentary about the series’ notoriously stilted dialogue, non-sequitur quests, or short-scripted courtships you can have with its unappealing denizens. In comparison with Skyrim, then, ME:A is an improvement. Characters seem a little hastily drawn? At least the members of a species don’t all use the same voice actor. Romance feels rushed? Well, at least it’s more complex than bringing a guy some smithing materials while wearing a blessed necklace. Antagonists uncompelling? I don’t care, I just spent twenty minutes trying to bring down a Remnant Architect and then I launched it into space, and it looked awesome.

So perhaps that’s the reason why I’ve spent so many hours in this galaxy already, coasting along the tops of snow-covered mountains and the banks of acidic pools on my way to solve crimes or mediate property disputes like a cheerful Space Bureaucrat. All I need to reach Peak Elder Scrolls is for all of my stabilized colonies to elect me mayor.

I came to this realization early in gameplay but thought I should keep it to myself until I finished the main quest. Goodness knows when that will happen–I plan to colonize a hostile planet and clear out a few dungeons first–so I post now in honor of the friend I lost last fall, whose birthday is today.

This friend is the only other person I know who did not hate Andromeda. Like me, he was a devotee of the original series to the point that he was considering a replay of the whole trilogy in order to make choices that would allow him to save one character’s life. He named his kitten Tali’Zorah. (I’ve always thought that if I ever got a dog, I’d adopt a shepherd breed and name her Commander.) But he liked ME:A fine and thought I might too. One night last summer when we were making dinner at his house, he suggested I start a new character on his console and see how I liked the game. I did not love it, although I now know that this is partly due to the settings on his controller, which I managed badly. He patiently offered direction while I jump-jetted into canyons and spun the camera around wildly in search of quest markers. The opening sequence is interminable and I don’t think I made it all the way through before I suggested we go back to watching War & Peace instead.

I wish I could share my Skyrim analogy with him. I would have liked to know who he romanced in the game, if anyone, and whether he bothered returning to settled planets or left them to their own devices. It feels sad to think about, but I don’t hate that either. It feels appropriate: there is a pervasive melancholy to ME:A, even when it is hopeful. Everyone in the Andromeda galaxy has left something behind. In particular, the settlers migrated from the Milky Way and traveled in cryo for 600 years; even if they could communicate with their homeworlds, everyone they once knew is dead. It’s staggering to think about, and some of the characters are troubled by the enormous space between the present and the irretrievable past.

Tempted to make a space pun there, but I’ll leave it to your imagination.

Perhaps there will be a follow-up post when I have finished the main quest. Meanwhile, I really appreciated this Kotaku take: Andromeda as a management sim.

Advertisements

Reading Roundup: May/June 2018

I’ve been thinking about moving to a new apartment at the end of the summer, and I dread packing up my books.

There is probably not a greater volume of books now than the last time I moved five years ago, when I had recently weeded out the books required by my qualifying exams but was still in the midst of dissertation research and writing. How did I do it then? I’m sure I used some perfect book-sized boxes I brought home from my academic press job, but I also remember piling up books into the deep, wide Rubbermaid containers I’ve lived with since I moved to Philadelphia. Which is worse: boxes of a manageable weight that must be carried one by one, or a heavy tub of books that must be moved by two people but has handles? Advice welcome.

As I consider these options, I feel admonished by a dozen or so books on my kitchen table which I opened but did not finish during the month of being dissatisfied that every book was not written by Elena Ferrante. I still have not read them. May is a month of birthday gift cards, and I acquired some real page-turners this spring.

Recently Read

Lincoln at the Bardo by George Saunders. I think that George Saunders is the most hyped male author among my peers (by which I mean: my mostly female friends; my mostly female cohort at the library; the mostly female writers whose social media feeds I follow). I was in no hurry to catch up, but now I’ve done it; I finally read a George Saunders book, and I liked it. This particular book is experimental and surreal, qualities that predispose me to admire a book if not enjoy it. I did enjoy, though, and felt moved by his sonorously sad Abraham Lincoln and all the petty, confused souls that linger in the cemetery. Some of the more fantastical details made me wonder if Saunders read much fantasy fiction (it turns out that he does). Some of the more prosaic details made me wonder if there were any women of color on his publishing team or even in his life, because I was deeply troubled by a few narrative choices regarding black female characters. I am surprised there is not more overlap between the Saunders lovers in my life and the Joyce lovers in my life–but then I suppose I consider myself marginally a Saunders fan and not at all a Joyce fan, so there’s that.

Red Clocks by Leni Zumas. Comparisons have been made to The Handmaid’s Tale, which I wish to dispel up front. Yes, they both take place in a speculative near-future where certain socially conservative politics are taken to their logical extension. In Red Clocks, that future is practically today: the personhood of embryos is not currently written in federal law, but the effects of such a law (desperate measures to end unwanted pregnancies, troubling limitations on the options of women seeking medical assistance to have children, and severe punishments for organizations and individuals who provide reproductive services) are currently widespread in many regions where scarce resources and misinformation make it difficult for women to choose when and when not to be pregnant. That makes for a different reading–in fact I am not sure what it would be like to read it today as opposed to a mere month ago, before the prospect of an open Supreme Court seat raised great concerns about landmark decisions like Roe v. Wade –but they also differ greatly in the style that delivers that message. Atwood’s early-career prose is spare and dry, which I think is partly what made Handmaid an enduring classic. Zumas goes all in for womanly witchiness (the three narrators are almost literally maiden, matron, and crone) and the fuzzy, squishy details of the body, which is admittedly a lot of fun.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. I downloaded this book after the sample absorbed my attention with its lush detail and keenly observed family dynamics. I had no idea what a heartbreaking journey I signed up for. I don’t even want to tell you about it, because you may well want to read this Oprah-approved novel* and I don’t want to spoil you for challenges faced by the titular American marriage. Suffice it to say that the book takes cliches about love and family and sacrifice and makes you look hard at the emotional realities behind them. I cried more than once, and thought to myself “this is impossible, there is no way to solve this problem” more than once, and yet the characters had no choice but to trudge on. Although I felt a little uncertain about how the novel deployed certain controversial issues, I still wanted to read more after the abrupt end.

*Oprah will never steer you wrong when it comes to black women’s fiction. Authors like Toni Morrison, Natalie Baszile, and Edwidge Danticat deserve all the accolades.

Who Fears Death, by Nnedi Okorafor. I read this sample literal years ago, when I started to get into Okorafor’s fiction. I was immediately taken in by the storytelling, but not sure I was prepared for it to carry me through a narrative of genocide, mass rape, clitoridectomies, and other horrors. I’m glad I finally read it, particularly since there will eventually be an HBO adaptation. This novel depicts some of the most distinctive and visually compelling magic I’ve seen in fantasy literature, and I can’t wait to see what “the wilderness” and the magical Nsibidi writing look like onscreen. At the same time, I am so worried to see what HBO does with some of the graphic violence depicted on the page. If you’ve not read any of Okorafor’s fantasy fiction, I recommend you start with the Binti or Akata Witch series and save this one for when your heart and stomach are strong.

Social Creature, by Tara Isabella Burton. I need you to understand the way I devoured this novel. I started the free sample on my commute on a Tuesday. I downloaded the rest as I exited the subway. When I got home that evening I read at home for several hours. I would have done it again Wednesday if I didn’t have plans. I finished it Thursday night. It was surprising, suspenseful, packed full of fashionable and literary brain candy, and so fun to read.

I’m pretty consistently on board with Vox’s book coverage, and Constance Grady’s interview with the author is the reason I downloaded the sample. Interestingly, I found myself reflecting more than once on Grady’s assertion that the New York glamour depicted in this book is an authentic representation of the author’s life and style. It’s cool to know that, sure, and I recognized some of the places described therein (like the hidden speakeasy you access via telephone booth); I also saw my own early-20s self in the dramatic costume aesthetic. But I didn’t need this book to be authentic any more than I needed Ocean’s 8 to be realistic: I am here for the fashionable, fantastic, epic audacity of it all. Some of the details I most appreciated were places where the narrative spirals into fanciful riffs: the menagerie of imaginary emoji texted by Mimi, the increasingly unlikely combinations of flavors in Lavinia’s teas. The narrative voice of this novel is something really interesting: it is omniscient, which gives the plot a sense of inevitability and the perspective a sort of distance from its main character, Louise, even though it is only Louise’s perspective we get firsthand. I would also call the prose unapologetically feminine, both in the narrative attention to the clothes, cosmetics, and scents that captivate Louise and in its strategic use of conversational intimacy and intensifiers (“Louise is so, so good at this” we’re told more than once). It is both judgmentally detached–nothing is more damning of this social circle than the itemized lists of things Louise sees and does at parties–and sympathetic, giving us little glimpses of complexity or vulnerability in almost all of its characters. There is not a single likable character in this book, but Lavinia’s crowd all shimmer with a sort of enviable glamour on the surface, so you find yourself rooting for their petty ambitions and understanding why Louise would tie herself in knots to remain among them. Somehow the arch, gossipy narrator struck me as distinctive rather than precious, and I drank this book up like Lavinia does champagne.

Currently reading

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry, which is dense enough that I won’t finish it until well into next month, but I’m enjoying it so much that it deserves a shout-out here. I think many of my friends who enjoyed Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell will also like this book, although instead of the dry footnotes of early 19th-century “theoretical magicians” there are feverish speculations of late 19th-century naturalists, and in place of the wonder and whimsy of magic there is a lot of mud and bog and teeming wildlife.

 

I don’t know what to title this

[Content warning: suicide]

I have had a blog post draft that I have been avoiding since last fall. I remember opening and closing it a few times back then, trying to put into words how I felt after losing a friend in mid-October. It is not the first or only time in recent memory that I have grieved a lost friend, but it was the first time someone close to me took their own life. I wanted to write about my friendship with this man, the ways in which I miss him, things I wish I could share with him. I wanted to write an open letter to all of my loved ones, to plead a case for you all to live and stay in my life. Nothing I put into words seemed sufficient. Eventually, I gave up. Whenever I opened my drafts to add text to one of my running tallies of the books I’ve been reading, there the abandoned draft remained, a quiet monument to the fruitlessness of this effort.

Today all of my social media feeds are mourning Anthony Bourdain. I can close those tabs, but not the murmurs that drift over our cubicle walls as my colleagues talk about his life and work. So today I thought, maybe it’s time to revisit those thoughts I couldn’t finish in October. Maybe I can add something to this cultural moment we’re having. So I opened the draft called “I don’t know what to title this,” last edited October 30, 2017 at 11 a.m.

It was empty.

A blank space. What’s a better metaphor to describe loss?

But just so you know–you, a reader, a friend, a person who exists in the world and has touched lives whether you acknowledge it or not–grief feels nothing like an empty space. If you, my reader, have imagined that the world might not be moved or wounded by your absence, let me assure you that missing someone is painfully heavy and crowded with feelings.

Grief can manifest physically. In the first few weeks after I learned about my friend’s death, I wanted to walk. I walked long distances, I trudged to Center City and back, usually carrying on rambling conversations on the phone or with friends I convinced to walk with me. Often on these walks, my guts would seize up and send me running for the nearest coffee shop. I bought a lot of apology coffees in those early weeks. I didn’t like to eat.

Every afternoon like clockwork for the first couple of months, my heart would start pounding, my throat would close, and I would struggle to breathe. It felt like a panic attack, but became as familiar as a heartbeat, so instead of panicking I would make myself tea and wait for the hot liquid to release the tightness in my chest. I relied on work to keep me focused and calm, but my mind wandered, my brain clouded like it does when my hypothyroidism isn’t adequately medicated. I often found my cheeks wet without realizing I was crying.

Then there is the emotional chaos of grief. Sadness, sure. Also guilt, obviously: even when you know objectively that you could not have prevented a death, a quiet insistent voice will keep asking: what if you could, though? Horror: at the suffering my friend must have endured, at the suffering his family and friends still endure, at the fragility and fruitless brevity of our lives, including mine. Regret. Nausea. Anger.

In the months before my friend took his life, I saw him almost every week. I should be careful here; I think it’s common for those of us grieving a suicide to inflate our importance in the life of the deceased, to cope with our personal feelings of loss and horror by magnifying the points of contact in our lives. But these are the facts: for years I spent time with my friend every few months or so, usually for theater or music or parties, the good stuff, the fun stuff. After he attempted suicide and spent some time in a clinic last summer, I spent time with him about once a week. He lived nearby, we both enjoyed cooking and television adaptations of classic literature, so once a week we’d meet at his place or mine and have dinner and watch costume dramas. Sometimes we talked about the steps he was taking toward recovery; I believed him to be in recovery, and perhaps I chose not to see evidence to the contrary. Mostly, though, we talked about books and television and my cats, one of whom would lay belly-up next to him on the couch and snore mightily while he petted her. We talked about him adopting a cat of his own.

Two weeks before he took his life, I said goodnight to him on my stoop and told him it would be two weeks before I could schedule another dinner. I would be out of town for a wedding for a few days, and when I returned, my workplace would be opening a new exhibition and I had obligations every weeknight leading up to it. I told him I looked forward to seeing him again after the opening so that we could finish watching the BBC adaptation of War & Peace and start on something new.

I don’t need to spell it out for you. I never saw him again. We will not be starting anything new. And I am furious and sad and remorseful all over again whenever I think about it, which is often.

Smarter people than myself have written more meaningful words than I ever could about the lies depression tells you, the contradictory loops of illogic with which it argues that you don’t matter and that you are exceptional and isolated in this not-mattering, other people matter but you don’t, other people think you matter but they are wrong. I would like to fight your depression about this but I am scared that it would pull the loops tighter, like an anaconda or an abusive partner.

So consider this entirely separate premise that is unrelated to your personal worth as a human being. A life lost to depression or addiction is an inherently violent death. A violent death does not leave a blank space. It unleashes a force, like a violent storm or an explosion. It is dangerous and unpredictable. It will cause pain and trauma. The person who unleashes this force doesn’t control it and has no way to predict or control who will be hurt by it or how much. There will be collateral damage.

And if you have any doubts about that at all, see me, tearful again, unable to focus on my work again, sitting under a tree outside of my office and typing into my phone about a man I’ve never met and a friend I will never meet again.

Reading Roundup: March/April 2018

In March, my gentleman showed me a photo that his friend posted to Instagram: a pile of Elena Ferrante books, with the comment “In a committed relationship.” Suddenly, something clicked. This must be the same reason I found myself unable to get into any new books in March. I had a stack of books in my to-read pile–used books and ARCs that I’d gotten excited about after a quick skim–but every time I’d pick one up, I’d read a chapter or two before returning it to my tote with a sigh and opening Twitter instead.  Twitter is a delightful way to spend a commute, but I was starting to feel beleaguered by reader’s block. It appears that the problem was that I was “it’s complicated” with the translations of Elena Ferrante’s novels, and it was difficult to transition to normal books after spending the end of February with such dense, intricate, captivating prose.

The cure, surprisingly, was a book that I thought was going to be terrible but wasn’t. Before I even finished that palate cleanser, I’d started a novella on my Kindle (strictly before-bed reading) and bought three more novels when I only intended to acquire a nice notebook at Barnes & Noble. I’m back in business. Let’s proceed.

Meaty, by Samantha Irby. This is a re-release of the bitches gotta eat blogger’s collection of personal essays. I follow many fans of the blog and had long been meaning to pick up this collection, which is every bit as hilarious and heart-breaking as I’d been told. Content note, though. This book really drives home that the human body is not a temple but a gross and leaky meatsack. The body-conscious sections of the book are very funny, and quite probably cathartic for some readers; for me in my current state of mind, they led to a whirl on the self-hatred spiral.

The Objects of her Affection, by Sonya Cobb. I picked up this novel at a used bookstore because its back cover name-checked the Philadelphia Museum of Art (although, perplexingly, the museum is thinly veiled as the Pennsylvania Museum of Art throughout the book). The first few pages sounded…. unpromising, but I’d read worse writing for my previous side hustle (see last fall’s blind items) and figured I could power through for the museum insider lulz.

I did not have to power through. This book is a delight. The prose is simple, direct, and effectively gets you from point A (web developer/devoted wife with young children) to point B (silver thief?!). I enjoyed the protagonist’s ambles through Fairmount and the secret back tunnels of the art museum; having been there, I could see it. And I always do love an art heist (c.f. Unbecoming). I’m really hoping some of my former PMA coworkers give this book a try; the book includes a lengthy disclaimer that a theft like this would never happen, and I’d love to see a registrar’s take.

The Changeling, by Victor LaValle. I love recommending LaValle’s writing to fans of horror and fantasy. Literally just last weekend at a party–I’m real fun at parties–I explained to some lit-bros who teach Lovecraft why they should instead teach The Ballad of Black Tom (previously listed in Books I Love). Like Ballad, The Changeling revisits an old tale of horror–or in this case, an amalgamation of old tales that feature monstrous mothers and children–but introduces those primal fears to our contemporary urban fears. Apollo and Emma grapple with the supernatural and cryptozoological, and these scenes are suspenseful and as scary as I personally can handle. But almost as frightening are the horrors of a young marriage strained by the eldritch demands of a newborn and the creeping intrusions of social and digital technology. One detail I keep thinking about is the image (repeated a few times) of late night text messages: a phone blinking on like an eye in the darkness while you sleep.

This recommendation is in no way influenced by the really nice interaction I had with the author on Twitter recently.

The Trespasser by Tana French. At lunch with some coworkers, I tried to explain why I love the Dublin Murder Squad books so much: they’re gritty, detailed, and really smart. “Are they gory?” asked one colleague hesitantly; she’s more of a cozy mysteries girl. But they really aren’t. In fact, there’s usually only one murder, it usually isn’t very bloody, and the rest of the book is mainly forensic analysis with a heaping helping of the first-person narrator dealing with their own psychological garbage. I think that sums it up: reading these books is like watching a really good TV procedural with a brilliant but flawed detective, like The Fall, but with exponentially more internal monologue. My jam.

Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik. I loved Novik’s Uprooted. She’s written other books but I am shy about starting new series, so I was happy to see another standalone novel on the ARC table. It took me a little longer to get into this one, perhaps because it begins by alternating irregularly between two narrators and it took me some time to get to know them. The book gradually adds four more narrators to the mix, but by that time I was reading at a steady clip and had no trouble following along, not to mention caring. It’s a light, accessible read, and particularly fun during those last frosty gasps in April (one major conflict of the story is a mysteriously ongoing winter). Like Uprooted, this novel is crammed full of vivid, magical, vaguely Eastern European imagery–actually, less vague in Spinning Silver, as the capital city’s Jewish ghetto plays an important role.

The Merry Spinster by Mallory Ortberg. A confession: except for a few memorable revisions of stories I loved as a child, like The Velveteen Rabbit and The Adventures of Frog and Toad, I skipped over most of the Children’s Stories Made Horrific published on the-toast.net. I think I found them not so much deliciously chilling as plain horrifying. Perhaps more so when they don’t divert much from the source material, as was the case for Frog and Toad–I simply didn’t remember the horrifying dynamic between the two “friends,” but it’s all there, so now I have to question everything about my childhood. Still, I am a Toast stan, and I’ve been in the mood for fantasy fiction, and the paperback is a thing of beauty with deckled edges, so here we are.

Much of the early press for this collection has been tied to the author coming out post-publication as Daniel Mallory Ortberg, leading interviewers to focus on the gender dynamics in the stories. And this is interesting, but while the stories thwart fairytale norms for who gets to be a daughter or husband or princess, gender doesn’t drive the conflict in most of them. Relationships do–specifically, horrifying relationships like Frog and Toad, whose unhappy friendship doesn’t headline its own tale but is recognizably adapted into new stories that draw on multiple sources. In these “Tales of Everyday Horror,” the villains are self-proclaimed caring friends and relatives whose love takes the form of pain, control, imprisonment, and icy detachment. Again: not deliciously chilling, but certainly horrifying. The book sent me into a sullen reflection on my own friendships for a few days; that passed, but weeks later I still replay some of the stories in my mind.

The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante. Yes, at the end of the month I returned to my true love–the way the main character Elena keeps returning to the Neapolitan neighborhood where she grew up, which is both a deep wound and a deep well for her literary creativity. Every novel in this series is astonishing in its detail and human observation, but The Story of the Lost Child is on another level: if you’ve followed Elena and Lila since their childhood, it’s cruel but cathartic to watch them mature and evolve and yet remain completely themselves. Elena in particular comes to regret or reconsider many the choices she made in past novels, and yet somehow falls on the same swords and tells herself the same stories, though I believe her less. I wonder if I will feel the same way when I reach Elena’s age at the end of the novel; I think, like Middlemarch, that this is “a book for grown-up people” and that my own response to it may be subject to change (or cycles, maybe, as it is a book about people going in circles).

I tried to explain the appeal of this series to my gentleman when he mentioned his friend’s literary relationship status. Before I read them, I assumed these books were going to be soft and feminine: they have perfectly awful covers rendered in dreamy pastels, and reviews often focus on their powerful depiction of female friendship. But the friendship is brutal. It includes long periods of silence or neglect which come as a relief because Lila and Elena can be very cruel to one another; yet when they reconnect it is also a relief because their need for one another is so deep. Their neighborhood is brutal. Cold War Italy is brutal. The treatment of women, whether in Elena’s rough childhood home or among the moneyed intelligentsia she marries into, is brutal. Perhaps less brutal, but heart-piercing at my current age, are timeless domestic troubles such as the pain of caring for an aging and dying parent; the banality of love; the stress of a gifted child becoming a struggling adult, always competing with her past successes, both elevated by and disappointing to her hometown.

Anyway, this book was a gripping end to a series I’ve loved, but happily I’m at no risk of further writers’ block. I left my library-adjacent job and took with me a handful of ARCs as well as some books that were the gift of my former supervisor; there is a toppling pile on my kitchen table waiting to accompany me on commutes and weekend trips this summer.

Gaming roundup: Is it spring or what?

Winter is hard. That’s my explanation for my recent obsession with mobile games.

Usually, mobile games are out of the question for me–my smartphone, now almost two years old, was a freebie and barely has enough memory for the apps I use for my job. Nonetheless, for about six months I squeezed in Heroes of Dragon Age, which gave me a way to revisit some of the characters I loved from the series, and to upgrade them and collect armor for them like a good completionist. To battle and level up, you spend points that regenerate over time, so I had a habit of playing a few rounds when I woke up and when I got home from work. I deleted it abruptly in October, unhappy with the time I was investing into it. (Besides, I wanted the space back; I could have HoDA or Lyft but not both.) But then December came, and I loaded up my Kindle with the following apps.

Sims Free Play. I didn’t keep this very long; even more so than HoDA, the gameplay is most satisfying when you log in often, add more Sims, and cultivate their respective professions and hobbies. Too tempting.

Monument Valley. A beautiful, beautiful puzzle game that delighted me with tactile and unexpected interactions. Take, for example, the Jewel Box level. You are presented with decorative cube. You can open the lid to the left, and a set of doors and stairs emerges as from a pop-up book . Close the lid, and open it to the right, and a different set of doors and stairs is revealed. Close that lid, then shimmy the body of the cube up so an entire castle is revealed inside, plus your tiny princess avatar. You direct her to exit through one of the dark doors, and she disappears. Spin the cube; each spin reveals a delicately hued interior, until you find the one where your princess waits for further direction. The game has the barest hint of a plot–all it needs, really–and all too few levels. I wish there were a hundred more of them.

The Room 1, 2, and 3. Although they are very different in aesthetics, I loved The Room for many of the same reasons I loved Monument Valley. In the first The Room, you are simply given an ornate box. By exploring its edges and panels for clever little switches, puzzles, and secrets, you can open up more and more of the box. In The Room 2, the puzzle is expanded to a whole room, but the charm of solving a clever locked box puzzle more or less remains. The Room 3 expands the puzzle to a whole puzzle tower…. which is too many rooms, The Room. But all three games are delightfully tactile like Monument Valley–not just tapping, but spinning and dragging and exploring–and the puzzles are pleasantly steampunk in aesthetic. If ever a bit of technology trended a hundred years ago–zootropes, phonographs, etc.–it’s in one of these games.

I Love Hue and 2046 are both timewasters of different stripes, but I love them both. It’s very satisfying to swipe cubes together in 2048, although the highest cube I’ve accumulated is two 1024s. (They were so far apart!) I Love Hue gives you a rainbow gradient jumbled up, and you slide the cubes around to find their correct position in the gradient. I am fairly good at it, so the game keeps praising me lavishly like Leslie Knope complimenting Ann Perkins: You beautiful rainbow! You beat the world average! Ideal for keeping the real world from pressing swiftly in during your Hulu commercial breaks.

Meanwhile, on the console I reverted mainly to comfort classics. My neighbor and I triumphantly finished Mass Effect 3, yelling when we saw our beloved Dante Shepherd possibly take a breath at the end. We returned to my neighbor’s old game of Dragon Age Inquisition, mainly cleaning up remaining tombs and wiping out the dragon population of Thedas until there was nothing to do but defeat Corypheus. We continued to collaborate on my replay of Life is Strange; we made some very different choices than my first playthrough, and as a result have had some completely different and wonderful scenes open up. We were very sad to see that one end!

I acquired some Xbox gift cards for the holidays, and while I’m mainly saving these for my future next gen console, I did indulge in a couple of fantasy games.

Faery. This game was a dollar, and totally worth it. You’re a fairy, obviously; you have to check out some different regions to fix disruptions in magical oak trees or whatever. All the quintessential RPG functions are there in at least a vestigial form: your party fights bad guys for loot; you level up and collect magical armor; you chat with townspeople and run their errands. You fly across landscapes that are quite lovely, and the music reminded me of Fable. It’s a peaceful game.

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. This game was vaunted as the collaboration between the wildly successful creators behind two bestselling games and a series of bestselling novels. I paid $5 for it, which in comparison to Faery is still a steal: there is easily ten or twenty times as much gameplay, loot, and NPC questing to do, and it is a very pretty game with some cool combat effects. Absolutely worth the investment, in terms of hours I spent thinking about my character build rather than my life. But while it’s a pretty good game, it’s not a great game, and it’s hard to pinpoint why. There is a sprawling map of ecologically varied regions, all beautifully and interestingly drawn, although lacking the sort of breathtaking views that made Skyrim special. These regions are populated with a host of NPCs with problems and plans that need your help, so there’s plenty to do, although not much to gain from doing them–becoming the leader of every single guild in the land nets you some permanent character bonuses, but no amazing loot or unique NPC interactions. The NPCs remind me a little of Fable’s citizens of Albion–cute and cookiecutter–but without the sass. Also like Fable, you can shape your skill tree to suit your gameplay rather than committing to a type at the beginning–the whole plot of the game is that your character’s destiny is wide open, and you can be or do whatever you want. But perhaps in gaming, as in writing, limitations would have inspired more engaging play. Except for an awkward phase toward the beginning, when my detection skills weren’t yet high enough to avoid traps and my HP not yet high enough to take the hit*, I was so powerful that I simply mowed my way through dungeon after dungeon. On a few occasions I even nodded off with the controller in hand.

When I beat the main quest, I tried to learn more about the game and its makers, and…. wow, is it ever a tragic story of bankruptcy and ruin. I am sorry to hear it. I would have liked to play another evolution of this game if it had a little more something.

*In one trap-laden temple, I died often enough to get concern trolled by a pop-up asking if I’d like to change the game’s difficulty to a lower level.

 

What now?

Last summer, I committed to playing the Xbox 360 games I’d acquired for free or cheap because I wanted to pay off my credit card debt before springing for a next gen console. Now I have the financial means to move on, and I’m still hesitating. We’ve spent a lot of time together; it’s hard to let go.

 

Initial report

Borderlands 2
Tales from the Borderlands, episode 1

Interim report

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed 1 and 2
Dance Central 3
Elder Scrolls: Oblivion

Winter Update

Lego Star Wars: TCS
Tomb Raider (2013)
Borderlands
Sims 3
Life is Strange

 

Reading Roundup: January/February 2018

The Night Masquerade by Nnedi Okorafor. The final novella in the Okorafor’s Binti series (mentioned previously here and here). I was very excited to find out what happened to Binti and her jellyfishlike classmate Okwu, and I would have been thrilled even if the novella didn’t take some very unexpected and extraordinary turns. This series is so wonderfully imaginative and moving! I’ve seen some tweets suggesting that readers who loved the new Black Panther movie will love the Binti series: both depict a diverse, colorful, technologically advanced Africa that at the same time celebrates traditional garb and customs. (In the film, one of the Wakandan leaders appears to have her locs coated in the red pigment used by the Himba people of Namibia; this otjize paste is of vital importance to the plot of Binti.) But sci fi and fantasy readers should enjoy Okorafor’s prolific writing anyway: like Octavia Butler, her prose is accessible and vividly descriptive; like your favorite fantasy series, the characters appear to be sought out by strange forces that they master by seeking out communities of teachers and allies.

The Odyssey, translated by Emily Wilson. This much-celebrated new translation was on sale for $3 on New Year’s Day, so I snapped it up. I cannot lie to you; I just reread The Odyssey last year when I was gearing up to read Ulysses by James Joyce, and in neither case did I find this epic poem an absorbing or unputdownable read.  However, what I do find endlessly fascinating is Wilson’s lengthy introduction explaining some of her choices in translation. On Twitter, she’ll go into a bit more detail comparing her translation to past translations; in this thread, for example, she is critical of the way past translators have characterized the Cyclops Polyphemos as a beast or savage, when the original word used for him is ander or man, same as the word used for Odysseus in the opening line (Wilson’s translation: “Tell me about a complicated man”). Reading about the translation process did help me appreciate, if not enjoy, the casual violence throughout this tale and the absolutely gruesome bloodbath when Odysseus returns to Ithaca.

I’d recommend a physical copy over an ebook; there are copious footnotes which I did not discover until the end.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. Ng’s earlier book Everything I Never Told You is one of my favorite reads of the last few years, but it took me a little longer to warm up to this one. While Everything unfolds from the perspective of a family who feels visibly and culturally Other in a small town, Fires takes you into two intertwined homes: one of outsiders as well as one of the well-to-do and aggressively normal families in one neighborhood, and the latter seems a little too broadly characterized at first. But at some point, the switch flipped for me: I was reading on a train, and then I arrived at my destination, and then I couldn’t wait to go to bed so I could finish the book under the covers in the wee hours of the morning.

The Likeness by Tana French. As is always the case with French’s murder mysteries, I devoured the book in two days and had related nightmares the following night.  My recent haiku still applies:
Give me a murder,
a troubled cop, a bent rule–
that’s a good story.

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville. The last meeting of my Herman Melville class was mid-February, and one of my classmates brought brownies with little white powdered-sugar whales on them. I’m sorry the class is over, because I really enjoyed the journey: loved the humor, loved the descriptions of sailing and whaling, actually really enjoyed the cetology chapters. This is a book I will certainly re-read someday, and if it weren’t for the daunting pile of unread books on my table, I’d start again immediately.

The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante. I read the first of the famous Neapolitan novels a year or two ago and, as I said then, they do live up to the hype. I knew I’d want to read on, but the opportunity didn’t seem to present itself until I was browsing my favorite used bookstore in Pittsburgh and found the next two novels in the series (plus The Likeness, noted above). I briefly considered revisiting the first novel to catch up to the cliffhanger ending, but decided to trust that the novel would get me up to speed as needed. (It did.) I started reading this 400+ page book over President’s Day weekend and finished it by Thursday; with Elena and Lila a little older and the stakes of their nonconformity much higher, I didn’t want to put the book down. Fortunately, I had the third close by.

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante. I’m actually not finished with this novel yet, but I’m so close and it’s so much a continuation of the previous book that I can’t wait until the next post to talk about it. In addition to the very fine translation of what must be incredibly dense prose, this series offers a complex portrait of a friendship between two women, and it also feels urgently contemporary and relevant despite its setting in Naples in the mid-twentieth century. In this volume, the narrator’s roller coaster of feelings about her education, her writing, and her relationships is complicated by student protests and violent clashes with Fascists, and I’m turning the pages with fear and hunger to find out what happens to Elena and her unpredictable friend Lila in these tumultuous times.