A monster in a monstrous world

What follows is a long and spoilerful post about “The Last of Us.” If you haven’t played it yet and you plan to, you may want to skip this one.

I hadn’t really been excited to play “The Last of Us,” Naughty Dog, Inc.’s critical darling of last year, mostly because I’m about done with zombies for the time being. But it has received massive critical attention and praise (by people such as Tom Bissell), so Ben and I played it together. It’s not an ideal game for playing in a pair – too much shooting and sneaking, which can be frustrating for the non-controller-holding person. It does have an interesting story. But for all the moments that were close to great, and all the potential, I found myself frustrated by it, in the end, because of some failures in the way the gameplay intersects with the narrative.


The game follows the story of Joel, a man who has lost his humanity during his struggles to survive in the post-zombie world. (Sidenote – these zombies aren’t reanimated corpses but are instead infected by a mind-controlling parasitic fungus. Kind of awesome, but also kind of irrelevant, in the end.) Joel lost his daughter in the first days of the zombie outbreak, and we catch up with him 20 years later as a gun-runner, smuggling weapons and other supplies into the military-controlled Quarantine Zone in Boston. Joel somehow finds himself tasked with a mission: to bring a teenage girl named Ellie halfway across the country by whatever means necessary and deliver her to the scientific outpost of a group of idealists and revolutionaries, the Fireflies. The Fireflies are an organization which struggles to restore democracy and civil liberties to the survivors of the zombie apocalypse, but they also are the only remaining organization with the ability to conduct scientific research into the fungal infection that causes zombiedom. Ellie was bit by a zombie months ago, but instead of turning, she is now immune to the fungus. If Joel can deliver her to the Fireflies, a cure may be possible – humanity might be saved. Joel and Ellie journey across the ruins of the country by car, horseback, and quite a lot of the time, by foot. They encounter many adversaries and kill a lot of zombies and evil people, and by the time they finally reach the Fireflies, they have come to love, trust, and depend on each other.

The relationship between Joel and Ellie has garnered a lot of attention and praise. Ellie is a compelling and engaging NPC (non-player character…but sometimes you do play as Ellie for short periods), and we see her change and develop over time. Joel changes as well, opening up more and more, facing his past, coming to put Ellie before anything else. But although this story was compelling, I feel that it was marred by some storytelling and gameplay choices that are, I can think of no better word for it, cowardly.

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Why I love Animal Crossing

Okay, so here’s the thing, I’m just gonna come out and say it: I love Animal Crossing. I love going to my little town filled with animal people. I love to move all the flowers around. I love to dig up all the fossils for the day, and run pointless errands for my animal friends, and shake the trees. Oh, God, do I love to shake all the trees. It is strangely embarrassing to love something that is so silly.

Me, in my bug hat, with my friend Hopper, just chillin'.

Me, in my bug hat, with my friend Hopper, just chillin’.

For those of you who haven’t encountered it, Animal Crossing: New Leaf is pure pablum, a smooth, conflict-free concoction of sweetness, wrapped in bright colors and tied up in a pretty little box with a ribbon and a balloon. It’s the vanilla wafer of the game world. There is absolutely nothing here that represents a challenge, not narratively, not emotionally, not physically. You play the mayor of a small village populated by talking humanoid animals. Gameplay consists of futzing around town, doing a little fishing, catching a few insects, tending to the local plants. You can talk to the denizens of your town, do some shopping, arrange the interior of your house. Your mayoral duties consist of ordering and personally paying for public works projects, but they are completely opt-in — your town gets built at whatever pace you like. If life gets too stressful in town, you can take an island vacation with a flirtatious turtle who will sing you a ridiculous song. This game was clearly designed for 4-year-olds. It is as soothing an experience as I could possibly imagine. As a 27-year-old woman, I am ashamed at how much I love it.

But why? Why do I love it so? I’ve never been very interested in this sort of completely open-ended goal-free unwinnable game before. The Sims never really managed to hold my attention, and I have no interest at all in Second Life. I like story in my games, or at least concrete and achievable goals. Animal Crossing has no story to speak of. The year progresses along in real time – each day of Animal Crossing takes an actual day to pass. People may move in or out of town. You might build a new room on your house, or put up a new streetlight, or renovate the local museum. But there’s no plot, just an accumulation of more stuff.

And, oh, the stuff! I’m not sure if I should be troubled by all the stuff. The game certainly seems to have an intensely materialistic undertone. After all, most of your time is spent getting money to buy more stuff, and also acquiring other stuff which you sell for money to pay off your mortgage so you can take out another loan so you can build another room so you can have more space to put all the stuff that you get, and then getting more money to pay for the stuff to fill your new room, and ahhh!


My room, with a selection of my stuff.

The accumulation of things, particularly matching things, is so completely contrary to the way I actually live my life. The game does put a very mild pressure on you to fill your house with matching objects. Your house is scored for its interior design (by a beaver named Lyle), and having a complete set of matching furniture scores very highly. That couch in the middle of my living room in the picture above – the one with the blue ruffles – that’s an awesome couch. But if I wanted to satisfy the obnoxious little interior design beaver, I would have to have 5 or 6 things that matched that blue couch. I had a bunch at one point, but I couldn’t stand having them up. It felt too soulless.

That said, I won't apologize for my bonzai collection.

That said, I won’t apologize for my bonzai collection.

If you like that sort of thing, more power to you, but I find it too factory fresh. I like my stuff to feel more like I actually accumulated it over a period of time, not like I ran out and bought it in a single batch. But still, the drive to find or purchase more stuff…that’s a powerful motivating factor in the game, even for someone who doesn’t really want to want more stuff in real life.

But the thing is…a lot of that stuff is really awesome and surprising and fun. You can have a rocket in your house! In fact, you can have a whole room full of space things.



Or someone might just hand you a harpsichord for some reason, maybe because you brought them a pear or something. “Thanks for the fruit. Here’s a Baroque instrument!” It’s delightful! And random delightful things happening…that’s the core of Animal Crossing. A few weeks ago I turned it on and found feathers and confetti floating down from the sky while everyone danced around wearing feathered hats, because it was Carnival…I mean, Festivale! And a dancing peacock named Pavè gave me that blue ruffled couch. It was the best day ever! Except for Christmas… and New Year’s…and my birthday…and Valentine’s Day, when someone gave me pink roses but never answered my beautifully worded love letter and then moved out of town. Those were all scheduled events that I knew were going to happen, but I keep checking in, almost every day, to see if some other, smaller, lovely thing is going to happen to me. Maybe today I will find that last darn fossil for the museum. Maybe today they’ll be selling more space stuff at the store. Maybe today I’ll catch a new bug, or a new fish, or a different color of flower will appear. And even if it is a totally ordinary day, there’s a very high probability that someone will say something nice to me. And we all need a little more of that.


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“The Time Traveler’s Wife”

I recently finished reading Audrey Niffenegger’s debut novel “The Time Traveler’s Wife.” This is one that I genuinely expected to like. I remember vaguely hearing good things about it, the premise is good, and I like sci-fi that’s well grounded in reality. But this book – it just had so many problems.

A basic plot synopsis: Henry has a condition which causes him to spontaneously time travel, particularly at moments of high stress, to various moments in the past and sometimes future that have particular emotional significance to him. He materializes nude and sticks around for some minutes/hours/days, then returns to his normal life. His life becomes all entangled with his one true love Clare (good name choice!), and they try to work around his disability to live a normal life, with the stable job and the children and the house in the suburbs.

This all sounds very interesting, but it actually isn’t, really. The thing about time travel stories is that they are laced through with questions about free will, cause and effect, our ability to change our own lives. The book is aware of this, and its universe is constructed along the following lines: things happen in a certain way and can’t be changed. If there is anything resembling free will, it is largely an illusion. No one is forcing you to make the choices that you do, but they are inevitable – you will make them because that is how the course of your life has directed you. This is a totally valid direction for a time travel story to take. After all, from a physicist’s point of view, time is a double-headed arrow. Maybe the structure of time is set – it is the way it is and it can’t be changed. Ted Chiang has explored this concept in various ways at least three times – all of them, even the shortest, are more interesting than this novel. However, I think it is a concept that bears grappling with.

I can buy that Henry, with his double memories from both sides of conversations with himself, might simply accept that the way things happen is the way they happen – he can’t hope to do anything other than what he will do. There is one scene where Henry explicitly addresses his inability to change the future – he was physically unable to say the words to stop his father from walking in on him at an embarrassing moment, and it is mentioned that he was physically unable to say the words that would have saved some random girl’s life when she dies in an accident. This scene occurs when he was fifteen, and nothing remotely like it ever happens again. He is never unable to say or do something differently than how it happened the first time he experienced it, and he never even tries.

But why should Clare accept all this so easily? She learns as a child that she will marry Henry in the future, and she never questions that this is true. (Also, Clare learns that Henry will be her husband not because he tells her, but because of a magical Ouija board. It is never mentioned again.) Even when she doesn’t seem to like young Henry (an earlier version of the man who will later visit her in her past), she loves him because she knows she will love him in the future. She never questions the fact that her destiny is set in stone. She’s never upset about it, never tries to act against it just to prove that she has free will. She must have thoughts about all this, but we never see them. Clare and Henry discuss free will all of once, when Clare is 13 and Henry 35. This scene is from Henry’s POV. He has just asked Clare what she believes in (God, an absolutely determined universe, or meaningless chaos).

A year ago she would have said God without hesitation. In ten years she will vote for determinism, and ten years after that Clare will believe that the universe is arbitrary, that if God exists he does not hear our prayers, that cause and effect are inescapable and brutal but meaningless. And after that? I don’t know.

But we never see Clare develop these thoughts! She never even seems to think about it again. This passage sounds like she becomes a nihilist, but, no, that doesn’t happen. She is frustrated and despairing at 33, but not because of a perceived or real lack of free will. She despairs because she can’t carry Henry’s baby to term – which doesn’t have anything to do with the central fact in her life that she is unable to affect her own destiny.

This passage also highlights another issue I had: at 35, Henry has never yet talked to Clare when she is older than he is. And he never does. Clare is 8 years younger than Henry in real time, but it’s established that he can travel 50 years in either direction. But he never runs across her when he’s 33 and she’s 52. Why? Why doesn’t he? Because it would be weird if the age gap ran the other way? Because Clare must always be young and perfectly beautiful whenever she and Henry meet?

Clare is 20 and Henry 28 when they meet (from his perspective). Clare has known and loved Henry for most of his life. But as for Henry, he has spent the first decade of adulthood partying, sleeping with many women, drinking, doing drugs, breaking hearts. He also somehow gets an incongruous degree in library science while he’s at it. He’s maybe not abusive towards any of the women he dates, but it doesn’t sound like he is caring or courteous or goes out of his way to be a decent human being either. Then, just when he’s at the end of his twenties, might want to think about settling down, this abnormally beautiful 20 year old appears and throws herself at him, ready to be a devoted and faithful spouse for the rest of her life. Clare, from her perspective, last saw Henry when he took her virginity at 18 and has been heroically faithful to him this entire time, waiting to meet this cad who will eventually turn into the comparatively gentlemanly fellow that she knows. Okay, I guess she’s not entirely faithful – she sleeps with one guy one time, and all that did was teach her the lesson that sex with anyone other than her one true love is bad sex.

I want to be clear on something: I do in fact believe in love and romance. I even believe in young love – and in first loves being lasting. How can I not? I recently married my first and only love – we met when we were 18 and married after staying together for 8 years. But I don’t believe we were fated to be together. We had to learn how to be good together. We had to figure out what we each wanted from life and how to make our separate needs line up. It didn’t just happen, and it didn’t have to happen that way. And if I was transported back in time and got to be with my husband when he was 18 again, I would be a little sad because he wouldn’t be the man who built a life with me. Henry looks at Clare in exactly the same way whether she’s 33 and just suffered from her sixth miscarriage or whether she’s 18 and about to start her adult life. Nothing that she accomplishes, nothing that they share together in their married life matters – she’s just a thing to be loved, not a person to evolve together with.

Besides these large issues, the book is riddled with many small flaws. I don’t usually write notes in the margins, but I did this time, just to point out all the ridiculous problems to someone other than my husband. But you probably don’t really need me to innumerate these points – Goodreads reviews have got it covered there. I’ll just leave you with what must be among the worst analogies in fiction. Is it possible to take a book seriously when it contains the following passage:

Clare smiles a tiny wicked smile and thrusts her hips back and forth a couple of times. I now have an erection that is probably tall enough to ride some of the scarier rides at Great America without a parent.

It just…it brings some absurd and not sexy images to mind, doesn’t it?

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Misery, Misery, Misery

I generally don’t find that movie adaptations “ruin” books for me, but it is true that they can aggressively interfere with the reading experience. I sometimes find that the images and tone of a film can push their way in uninvited when I am reading, and it can be hard to re-find the imaginative space to let the story breathe on its own. The closer an adaptation is to its source, the worse the problem is. I have no great desire to watch “Game of Thrones,” because that world has already been so elaborately constructed in my head that it seems likely to be badly shaken by the introduction of other images. It is largely for this reason that I prefer film adaptations that do not slavishly adhere to the details of their source material, but instead try to find a new interpretation. But it usually doesn’t bother me too much, in the end, to read a book after watching a movie version. Usually, the words drown out the remembered images.

But sometimes…sometimes the images that I remember from a movie are just better than those that the text itself conjures up. This was my experience reading Stephen King’s “Misery” during a plane ride to Portland for Thanksgiving.


I first remember watching “Misery” with my brother and cousins at my aunt’s house. I must have been quite young, because I remember them telling me to leave the room for a couple of scenes (it was infuriating being the youngest cousin)…not that that really protected me, as I listened from the hallway to the sounds of screams and bones breaking. If you somehow haven’t heard a thing about it, quit reading now and go watch the film, as I imagine that it is best to see it unspoiled. However, if you want a quick plot recap: Paul Sheldon is a writer of a cheesy but insanely popular series of romance novels staring the adventures of a 19th century beauty named Misery Chastain. Following a car crash on a remote mountain road that shatters his legs, he is taken in by a former nurse named Annie Wilkes, who declares herself to be his number one fan. Upon reading his most recent book, in which he kills off Misery and ends the series, Annie grows increasingly unstable, forcing Paul to write a new Misery book and acting out in various unpredictable, violent, and frightening ways. Continue reading

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Suspend your disbelief

[There are spoilers in the last two paragraphs for “Beyond: Two Souls.”]

My husband and I just finished another game last weekend. “Beyond: Two Souls” is the new release by Quantum Dream, a French game studio headed by David Cage. “B:TS” is a sort of game-movie hybrid. It stars Ellen Page as Jodie, a girl who has been linked since birth to an invisible, intangible entity named Aiden who has various powers, like talking to the dead, and breaking shit. Her story is told non-linearly, from her childhood raised by scientists in a government facility, to her time in the CIA, to a life on the run wanted for treason. The game has a two-player co-op mode, which worked very well for us. I played as Jodie, walking around, choosing conversation options, and sometimes fighting. My husband took over Aiden, flying around and messing with things psychokinetically. The controls are very simple, even more streamlined than Quantum Dream’s previous project “Heavy Rain.” The highest-adrenaline sections come when Jodie is in combat – you direct her actions by flicking the joystick in the direction of her momentum, and sometimes by furiously shaking the controller up and down. It is a fairly ambitious game, meant to be more cinematic and “adult” than other big-budget mainstream games out there, with the intention of showing that gaming can be a serious art form worthy of critical consideration outside the gamer community. This has led to some blowback and criticism from gamers.


In the spirit of building things up rather than tearing them down, I’d like to talk about what I really liked about “B:TS.” In short, the main character, Jodie, is, to the best of my knowledge, unique in mainstream gaming. While female leads are becoming more prevalent, there is almost always a sense of distance between the character and the audience. Female characters, particularly in action-y games, tend to be defined as more-or-less sexy, kickass ciphers. Whatever is happening internally is not generally explored very closely. But while Jodie certainly can whoop some ass when she needs to, far more time is spent detailing her interior life, her past, and her unique situation in the world. This is probably the only game I’ve ever played that holds the camera on multiple extended close up shots of a character’s face, and the animation is sufficiently subtle to capture the nuance of expression necessary to allow access to her thoughts. Continue reading

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Successful and unsuccessful parody

“She had the kind of face that made you want to say hey, look at your face.”

— Clara Weinstein

The above sentence was an honorable mention in the 2012 Little Lytton contest. If you haven’t heard of it, Little Lytton was created by Adam Cadre to come up with the best worst first line for a novel. The explicit goal is to create intentionally unintentional humor – something deliberately crafted to look like the product of a bad writer attempting to be serious and coming across as absurd.

Another internet personality, Lindsay Ellis (aka. the Nostalgia Chick) and some of her buddies recently embarked on a project that takes the idea of Little Lytton to its natural extreme. Instead of creating just the first sentence to an intentionally unintentionally funny novel, they created the whole damn thing. The 50 Shades of Green project aimed to crowdsource a parody of a supernatural romance novel of the type made obnoxiously popular by “Twilight.” They took suggestions from fans for the plot and characters, and engaged a team of eight writers to produce the beast in a shockingly short period of time.

Although I sort of missed the project as it was unfolding, I did watch through the video series after the launch party, and found myself wanting to read the book. The supernatural romance is a genre that deserves the large amount of criticism it has received. The gender politics tend to range from icky to abhorrent, and from what I gather, the quality of writing is often no better than the low standard set by Stephanie Meyer. The genre experienced an explosion in popularity for a while, exploiting every supernatural niche it could find. Vampires, angels, demons, fairies – nearly every mythological creature is apparently more than capable of falling in love with your average high-school girl. At first I was critical of the premise selected by the 50 Shades of Green project. They based their romance off of the Lovecraftian universe: a romance between a hot, teenaged Cthulu and the girl he decides to not destroy the universe for. But I quickly realized that it was a genius premise for a parody. The clash between the Elder Gods – immortal and uninterested in the unimportant flecks that constitute humanity – and the sappy, sentimental, beauty-obsessed romance genre could not be more absurd. So I invested $5 and bought “Awoken” for the Kindle.

awoken cover

Of the submitted cover designs, this was not my favorite.

“Awoken” succeeds at one aspect of parody – accurate identification of tropes and trends in its genre. The protagonist, Andromeda Slate, is appropriately boring, personality-less, and willing to destroy herself rather than lose the dude she’s dated for two weeks. Teen Cthulu’s sexiness is exhaustively chronicled, and his personality is sufficiently creepy, controlling, demeaning, and emotionally opaque. Near sexual assault is used as a plot point to draw the romantic leads closer together, and the victim is quite efficiently blamed. “Awoken” is clearly aware of the literary and sociological issues with teen romance novels, and points them all out very competently, without being pedagogical about it. Continue reading

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The stories told by the things we own.

A few years ago, I became very intrigued by a type of game called “text adventures” or “interactive fiction” (IF). Text-based games were popular before computers could support a graphical interface. The game gives you a paragraph or two of text, and you type in what you want to do, like “examine the fish” or “hang the bathrobe on the hook”, and the game gives you some more text. For a while, companies like Infocom made a fair number of text games, and they sold well. You might expect that this sort of game would have completely disappeared once computers gained enough processing power to create decent images. But IF has not vanished at all. It has a smallish, but still devoted following. Not only are there people interested in playing the old games, but new games are constantly being produced. IF provides a good introduction to game design – instead of requiring a team of programmers and a game engine and a number of graphic artists, a single author can have a crack at creating a game and bringing their own interactive ideas to life.

I’ve been dabbling in fiction writing all my life, and back when I was involved in playing IF, I thought I would give writing my own a shot. I worked on it for a good while, and wound up submitting it to the annual IF Competition. I’m not going to link to my game, because it wound up kind of broken*. However, I found writing the game to be very interesting. Not only were there they usual challenges of storycrafting and the brand-new intellectual challenge of getting the code to do what I wanted it to do, but I ran across a problem that was originally unanticipated. The problem of setting, in an interactive environment, is vastly different than the problem of setting on the page. Often times, when you play certain IF games, the descriptions of place are sparse, even bare bones, with every apparently empty room occupied only by the items that you need. It can be frustrating, not to mention boring, to read over and over that “That isn’t important,” when you want to look more closely at the bookshelves. Worse yet, when standing in a kitchen, it is maddening to be told that “There is no stove here” or “You don’t see any refrigerator”. What sort of kitchen is this? This barrenness can be avoided by creating more stylistic text or by causing the narrator/player character to have an altered perception – the surreal alternate world and the drunk or bitchy main character are popular. But if you have a sober and clear-sighted narrator navigating through a familiar world, trying to make that world seem fully realized can require every object to be described, or at least accounted for. My temptation as a player is to look at every little object, in the hopes of an interesting description, and my response as a writer was to try to code the main character’s house as thoroughly as possible. To give him not only a couch in the living room and a sink in the bathroom, but to also populate the house with all the little objects that people have that reflect their personalities and their lives – the magazines and photographs, the mundane things and the meaningful items, all jumbled together. The problem for me was that creating a fully immersive environment was not condusive to creating a plot that moves forward with decent pacing.

Enter “Gone Home,” the remarkable new indie game from the Fullbright Company. In “Gone Home,” you play Kaitlin Greenbriar, a young woman returning home after a year abroad. While you were away, your parents and younger sister, Sam, moved to a large house in the country they inherited from your father’s uncle. You arrive in the middle of the night to an empty house, and the rest of the game consists of nosing around through your families drawers and bookshelves. Every detail of the house is lovingly created, from the pens and cups scattered about, to boxes of your father’s unsold book cluttering the closets. But unlike my attempt at characterizing a person by detailing the contents of his house, this game truly works. The story, and “Gone Home” has a clear and relatively linearly presented story, is compelling, even gripping. Kaitlin’s parents, Sam, and Sam’s friend Lonnie, have left traces of themselves that map out their psyches in everyday objects. Notes, letters, photographs, and cassette tapes make up the bulk of the narrative. From time to time, you trigger an audio recording – Sam’s audio diary that more explicitly details her inner state and the exact timeline of the narrative. But even without the audio narrative, the story is clear and compelling. There are few real puzzles in this game, mostly involving remembering a combination to a lock for the thirty seconds it takes to go open it. But putting together the Greenbriar’s interlocking stories from the pieces of themselves they have left scattered about is an intellectually satisfying and emotionally engaging experience.

“Gone Home” is a game that is strongly rooted in a particular time and place. The game takes place on one night in June 1995. The nineties have a powerful nostalgic pull for both young developers and for their intended audience. I was eight in 1995, and although I remember the cultural touchstones of the era, I was a little young for some of the more important ones in the game. The Riot Grrrl movement was not something I was really aware of, for example, and I never listened to much punk rock then or now. However, one important part of the game that I realized rang very true for me is not so much the particular cultural touchstones, but the format of the ephemera of teenagerdom. Many of the most important parts of the story, the insights into Sam and Lonnie’s relationship, come in the form of torn scraps of notepaper, written on by one or both girls. For years, I haven’t thought about it, but my middle- and high-school friendships were in large part defined by these back and forth paper conversations. There were the short notes, passed under the desk. There were the hours spent relieving boredom by co-engaging with a single sheet of notepaper – hangman, the dots-and-squares game, cowritten fiction, the origami fortune teller. And there were the longer missives, when your young emotions were surging and you needed a friend to understand where you were coming from when you cried in the hallway, or when they made you so angry joking about that thing, or you needed to explain why something was so important to you, and you couldn’t trust yourself not to stumble or stutter or cry, so you wrote it all down and handed it off. I wonder if this game is set in the 90s not only because of the emotional draw of that era, but because for the modern teenager, this ephemera no longer takes physical form. Instead of scraps of paper filling our desks and backpacks and pockets, we have texts and emails and facebook games.

Small scale indie game projects have been gaining traction in the last few years. It is heartening that it is now not so difficult to create a graphical game of the detail and depth of “Gone Home” that small companies cannot do it. I hope these small games continue to gain the support they need to allow games to continue to evolve as a means of personal expression.


* They tell you and tell you to beta test as much as possible, but even though I knew it would be a problem, and I knew I had school-related conflicts at the time of the deadline, I still didn’t have enough time to polish it.

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