Personal Update & Various Reviews #3

Okay, I’ll tell you this up-front: I expect this one is gonna be fairly light on what’s been happening in my life (mostly I’ll be discussing what I’ve been playing/reading). Not because it’s been an uneventful stretch though. Quite the opposite in fact. There’s been some fucking intense, emotionally trying shit going down: holding my lover’s hand and maintaining umbilical eye-contact and trying to keep up a steady stream of sweet, distracting babble as a very long needle infiltrates her spine, riding in an ambulance for the first time in my life, and so on. But, interesting though they (and all distressing experiences) are, I don’t know that they’re really my stories to tell.

And, anyhow, I’m probably still too caught up in subconsciously processing it all to have any chance of articulating it halfway well. There are some things which one ought to await a certain amount of emotional and temporal distance from, before one dares to put pen to paper with them in mind. Otherwise, you’re probably going to just be unwittingly writing about the side-effects of shock, which tend to cloud everything else for their duration. And – alas! – the longer one is willing to wait, the better. Three-months hindsight is a magnifying glass; three-years hindsight is a microscope. (I am rarely so patient as to avail myself of the latter, however.) Definitively past-tensing it is the price of genuinely figuring out how it affected you, what your thoughts on it are. A price worth paying, I’d say. That is, if one hopes to avoid cramming these moments into a meat-grinder of fractured, incipient understanding and doing them little justice. Which is a prospect I find… unpalatable. To flippantly bungle conveying the gravity of grave things seems, to my mind, somehow disrespectful.

And, to get back to the point at hand, my brevity – I mean, relatively speaking; I’m still me, after all – of navel-gazing is also not because I don’t have me-things to ramble about. ‘Cause I always have me-things to ramble about, as befits/necessitates this type of post. (The narcissist’s quiver is never quite empty, rest assured.) I just happen to find myself, in this moment, with only enough… whatever the fuck… energy or willpower or capacity to stomach my own rambling… to touch on one or two of them. Lucky you, huh?


I am presently in the middle of accruing a series of elective-traumas at the dentist. Bleh. Bleeeeeh. And I say again, bleh!

Like most (sane) people, I hate/fear going to the dentist. I hate/fear sitting in that reclining chair under those dazzling lights which I’m pretty sure are bright enough to kill – like a UV lamp does with bacteria – those tiny, protean squigglies which float placidly and companionably at the edge of your vision sometimes. A loss one can’t help but mourn; they’re like microscopic pets living right there in your eyeball-slime. I hate/fear the prospect of someone messing with my teeth. Especially when they have some medicalized version of a torturer’s toolkit splayed out on the tray besides them. I hate/fear the sound of metal instruments tapping on or scraping against teeth. I really, absolutely cannot stand that. It hurts me inside of the inside of my insides. (Even writing that description just made me shudder. I think I must have a pretty extreme sensitivity to it, if it can affect me even abstractly. Anyway, I was really glad that my current dentist – gotta say, he’s a very nice guy – had no problem with me listening to loud music with earphones to drown out the noise as he did his thing. I recommend that tactic if you’re similarly afflicted with dentistry-misophonia. It’s a big help.) I hate/fear exposing myself to the possibility of some irrevocable pronouncement. Something which once learned, once allowed to pierce your bubble of blissful ignorance, cannot be unlearned or forgotten or ignored. Something whose recommended course of treatment entails strapping you into a roller-coaster you may be deeply, deeeeeply loath to ride. (Although that is, to be fair, always a danger when going to any kind of doctor.) I’m not terribly fond of the words ‘dental’ or ‘drill’ even when considered separately, but when you put them together… well, I’m liable to ask Siri if she happens to have a user-euthanasia function hidden in her suite of abilities.

Now, as I say, that’s all fairly par for the course. No-one likes going to the dentist, give or take some masochistic or curiously-wired outliers. But I have unfortunately come to far surpass just disliking it, have come to surpass even merely dreading it in the garden-variety way.

There are, it has become clear to me, some obsessive fears which sit in your mind like ferocious stomach-ulcers. As someone without decades of training in psychoanalysis, it’s difficult to say how or when they originate. But they’re there, all the same. Pestering you. Unsettling you. Cowing you. Making your pulse jerkily kick into high-gear at certain thoughts. And they’re only getting worse and worse. That’s what they do. That’s their primary function. They are engaged in a gradual, almost imperceptible snowballing of terrible power over you. You turn a blind eye to it. Because it’s easier. Because you feel baffled and helpless trying to think of a way to stop them. This continues until one day you realize that the tendrils of their influence – their cruel, haughty influence – have wrapped around the very sinews of who you are. And you have now become the prisoner/plaything of fears you hate and hatreds you fear.

Thus came my deep-seated phobia of going to the motherfucking dentist’s office.

Here’s something experience has taught me: there are hard-limits to one’s ability to be brave. And one of the things written on that demarcation line is ‘severe phobia’. (Another one, I can’t help but note, is ‘anxiety disorder’. A fabulous little millstone around your neck which makes almost everything way harder than it needs to be. But, oh boy, that’s a blog post/whinefest for a different day.) There are times when no matter how motivated you are, no matter how much fortitude you scrounge up from between the couch-cushions of your soul, no matter how much gung-ho fucking-bring-it-on defiance is blazing inside of you, you’re still screwed. Your body will betray you. Your biology will mutiny. It’s simply out of your control.

As it happens, I already knew this limitation very well, because I’ve had arachnophobia pretty bad since I was a kid. (Kinda funny it’s just spiders. Other insects don’t really bother me. Nor rats or frogs or snakes or any of that other obvious shit. Plus, it’s only the type of spiders you find in your house or backyard which freak me out. I once held a tarantula with – I like to think – a notable absence of hyperventilating or fainting or fear-induced cerebral aneurysm. A triumph which I still, as you can see, crow about to this day.)

I’m quite sure I inherited that from my mom. A woman who – just to acquaint you with the severity of what she bequeathed to this unhappy recipient – once had to screech her car to a halt by the side of the road and seek a random passerby’s assistance because there was an intolerably large eight-legged stowaway which had all of a sudden made its presence known intolerably close to her face. (I do not believe in miracles. But I do believe that that incident somehow not resulting in a car crash must at least be credited as evidence for them.) And – just to acquaint you with the substantial interest her bequeathment has accrued – I’d consider that an inconceivably mild under-reaction. I would have set the car on fire. And then shot it into outer space, ideally far beyond the heliosphere just to be safe. And then, after the experience had gnawed at me for a few days, said “fuck it” and shut down this entire simulated-universe and self-substantiated a new copy, albeit devoid of spiderkind, to finally begin a life where I can be at peace.

I stress all this only so that you’ll understand that I’m not kidding when I say that my body and mind completely and irresistibly freeze-up when I see a spider dart across the floor in the corner of my eye. It doesn’t matter if you dangled a ten-grand cheque in front of me or even if a Greek Chorus of all my celebrity crushes was standing right there, each with an arched eyebrow and hand on hip, waiting to see whether I’d rise to the occasion. I’m not doing jack-shit. ‘Cause I can’t do jack-shit. A very primitive part of my brain has just activated and temporarily assumed total control of me. And the only things it’ll permit me to do are sweat profusely, stare dumbly and mouth agape at the intruder, feel blackest-panic, and… should my position be assailed… vanish in a ball of kicked-up dust and leave a Ryan shaped hole in the wall or window or ceiling or door or floor. Such are the boundaries of my entire sphere-of-action in that moment. And, sure, maybe once enough time has passed, and my fear level has subsided a bit, other options will open up to me. Maybe I’ll be able to go fetch the vacuum cleaner and use it to suck the spider up into a little see-through prison and then duct-tape the end of the hose shut, in case… y’know… it should try to escape and wreak horrible vengeance on me. (“Better safe than sorry/spider-vengeance’d”, as my mama used to whisper to me when tucking me into bed.) But that’s about it. Even still, it’s an act which is perforce gonna be carried out in a most unmanful and cowering way.

And, in turn, the really fun thing about also having a phobia of going to the dentist is that it’s like stepping into a closet full of spiders made furiously unshy and hyperactive by aerosolized PCP, whilst paying handsomely – sums one cannot easily summon – for the privilege. That’s pretty hilarious really. Well, I mean, not to me. But it’s maybe, probably, hilarious if you’re someone other than me. Or if you hate me. A lot.

Anyway, the point I’m trying to get to is that although I cannot force/trick myself into feeling brave in that moment, I can still just make myself go-do-the-thing, even though I’m gonna be scared whilst I’m there. A more subtle form of bravery perhaps…

So that’s what I’ve been doing. I’m showing the fuck up each time, and discovering that the anticipation is indeed worse than the anticipated-event, and bit by bit clawing back some power from my stupid phobic aversion. I didn’t even know I had it in me. So damn right I’m patting myself on the back. Repeatedly and enthusiastically, in fact; to try and give myself some much-needed positive reinforcement. Seriously, it feels like E. Honda is giving me a scapula-massage with his Hundred Hand Slap move.

(Look at that motherfucker go! Not just indefatigable, but so very committed to nailing the perfect technique with those long-range stiff-armings that… wait… ZOOM!ENHANCE!… yep… just as I suspected… he appears to either have cultivated radical elasticity in his arms or to be forcing them to snap at the elbow, thereby flinging his severed (and ever-replenishing?) forearms at his opponent. Whichever one it is, you’ve gotta admit that’s some fearsome dedication. Some fighters get face-tattoos or filed-fangs to seem intimidating; that glorified game of dress-up ain’t a patch on this shit right here.

Also, *psst*, I just found out that his full first name is Edmond. No joke! Talk about shattering someone’s aura of mystery and coolness in a hot second. Granted, Edmond isn’t quite on the dorkiness-level of, say, a Cecil or a Bartholomew or even a Gerald, but it’s definitely in the same zip-code. They’re all trying to get their kids into the same Really Good School, you know what I’m saying? And, I mean, I can see why he might have wanted to hide that name when entering an illegal, international street-fighting tournament. Like, adopting the enigmatic initial does ratchet up the bad-ass quotient a bit. Or at least relatively speaking. ‘Cause name-wise the poor dude really had nowhere to go but up.)

And I’ll say one more thing, to wrap this part up. There’s always a sense of relief when a dentist does several examinations of your teeth and does x-rays and all that crap, and then tells you that you’re fine, you don’t need any fillings, you don’t need to have any unforeseen scary procedures done, which is… for those couple seconds when you hear it… about as euphoric as it gets. It feels like a quasi-magical stroke of luck. I got to experience that feeling again the other day and, damn, if I was the type of person who’s able to crack a smile when the tiny specks of blood on my palms, from stress-clenching my fists so tightly that my nails dug into the skin there, aren’t even dry yet, I imagine I totally would have. A big-ass grin, y’know? Ah, well, I was smiling on the inside at any rate.


I recently wrote another long free-verse poem. It was an… interesting experience. And, as I’m sure you know, “interesting” – when used as a laconic euphemism – generally doesn’t mean “oh yeah, unequivocally fucking great!”

The first thing I’ll say about it is that, jeez, trying to write under the yolk of hovering background-fears is not easy. In fact, it’s super distracting and annoying.

Whenever I’m dealing with some drawn-out process (e.g. a few somewhat spaced out dentist visits) which I’m so anxious about it’s like someone has taken a wire-stripper to my nerves and left them exposed and crackling and raw, it becomes hard not to just reflexively think about it often. I am kind of subtly living my life in its shadow for as long as it’s going on. Or to render the tension plainly: how the fuck can I properly focus on other stuff when I’m obsessing over how much I’m dreading that ominous 10:30am appointment next Tuesday?

This split-mindedness is especially problematic when it comes to writing poetry. Because one must be able to bring to bear the undivided concentration which is indispensable in transmogrifying babble into something with at least the passing glimmer of art. Lest one’ll merely be piling high – remarkably high, even – the babble only to discover it is infuriatingly, inexplicably sans any sort of glimmer. (An experience which I expect just about every writer can recall having been dispirited by. My god it’s a real bummer.) Likewise, I have found that crafting poetry, more so than any other form of writing I’ve ever tried my hand at, demands a deep sense of felt-connection. It demands that you be able to vividly tune into the emotional valence of whatever it is you’re striving to express. This is already taxing at the best of times. But when everything inside yourself is being smothered by the fire-retardant foam of worry and unease, there’s the added layer of difficulty of having to break through that first.

Still, when I was able to get lost in the actual writing-of-it, I did enjoy it. I find something very cathartic about getting to be hyperbolic and florid and melodramatic in my poetry. It’s self-indulgent to the max, but, shit, it makes me feel better. And you know your boy can’t afford therapy. So I’ve gotta make do with whatever outlets I can get my hands on.

There’s also an intellectual intensity to creating poetry which, although draining, can be very gratifying. Some people can dash off a poem in a half-hour and consider it fully formed and be totally happy with how it came out. I respect that. And have been fond of many poems which were clearly written like that. But I do not work that way. I personally think of poetry not as an unfiltered flowing-forth, but as a hyper-distillation of amorphous vastnesses of hazy emotion into something small and dense and solid and more easily fathomable. A whole galaxy sifted and compressed down into a shiny cube of neutronium. Something you can hold in your hands and brush your fingers over. Something you can feel the heft of and look at closely. Something which one cannot even handle without partaking of its effect.

In other words, a perfectly-formed artifact of human experience. Both exquisite and potent. It intuitively slips into some ingress of the reader’s mind the way that objects will always effortlessly, unstoppably pass through a hole of their exact same shape. (And the mind is porous with many, many such holes. Each one shaped very differently. Each one tied to a particular minute facet of what it is to be alive and sentient.)

Well, that’s the goal anyway. And perusing it comes at a high price, as you’d imagine. Take the amount of time and thought I put into writing (and going back to mould and finesse and re-finesse) a single sentence for something non-fiction like this blog post; that’s doubled or maybe even tripled when it comes to writing fiction; yet it’s probably subject to a quintuple multiplier when it comes to poetry. When you’re investing that much effort (however visible it may end up being) into each and every line, it’s a slower process and therefore requires both more patience and also a more deeply deliberative cadence of thinking. I only write poetry now and then, so I find that to be a nice change of pace.

However, as for the finished poem itself, I’m not sure I’m super proud of how this one turned out. Or maybe I’m just conflicted about it. It comes down to one thing most of all. Basically, I created this poem by expanding upon a fragment – a few threadbare stanzas; really just the germ of an idea – which I wrote and tucked away at least several years back. And because that was the origin, I kind of inadvertently ended up writing it the way I used to write poetry way back when. It… lured me back to certain youthful, inelegant poetry-writing habits I thought I had outgrew, had transcended. A regression which I did not enjoy and rather resented having blithely traipsed into.

Yeah, what can I say? I think this one just kinda got away from me.

I have a lot of similar old inchoate chunks of poetry, also little more than seedlings for potential poems, which I nurse vague ambitions about going back and bringing to full fruition someday. I’m hoping that this experience isn’t going to deter me from doing so, because I would like to see them turned into something. I’m hoping that when I try this again, I’ll be able to avoid the temptation to regress, and simply hold fast to my current notions about how I ought to be writing poetry.

Hmm. “Were it so easy.”

(Sidenote! That might seem like I’m quoting from, say, Shakespeare. But it’s actually a line from the opening cut-scene of ‘Halo 3’. I’ll be damned if that doesn’t kinda weirdly, perfectly sum me up as a person. Also, remember how the much maligned – and, in my opinion, excessively so – ‘Gravemind’ character inconspicuously spoke in trochaic heptameter verse? How fucking rad is that? I don’t know, it just sprang to mind…)

What have I been playing/watching/reading:

Actually, now that I think about it, I guess I should probably point out that these are never exhaustive lists of what I’ve been consuming. They’re just the ones which I feel I have something to say about. It’s an odd thing, whether something stirs in you the need to comment on it. Hard to figure out why this thing does but that thing doesn’t.

For instance, my girlfriend and I have been watching the shit out of HBO’s ‘Succession’. It’s fucking fantastic! The writing and acting are just a total tour de force. Yeah, it really bowled us over. I only wish there were more episodes per season because we wolfed them down real quick. (And, holy cow, it makes you look back at something like ‘Billions’, which we very much enjoyed at the beginning but have become lukewarm on as the show grows a bit long in the tooth and has started resorting to half-hearted, well-we-gotta-reignite-the-strife-somehow storylines, and very clearly see the stark disparity in quality between two same-genre shows.) But, for whatever reason, I can’t really think of anything… specific… I feel super compelled to go into about it. It just doesn’t seem to invite me to analyse or dissect it in the way that other things do.

Or, to dip into the video-game space, take a game like ‘Remnant: From the Ashes’. (Please tell me I’m not the only one who gets exasperated by both the awful genericness and formulaicness of how games are named nowadays, and also the optimistic ‘hey, just in case this takes off and becomes a franchise’ mandatory-subtitle.) It’s nothing spectacular. But I like it, it’s a very competently made game. Sure, the story and world-lore, such as they are, frictionlessly go in one ear and out the other. Yet it’s passable enough as window-dressing for what actually matters. And, indeed, gameplay-wise it does what it does well. Nevertheless, I just have no real desire to talk about it in more detail. In short, ¯\_(ツ)_/¯, y’know?

Gosh, enough blathering about what I don’t care to speak about, and onto blathering about all that I do care to! Post-haste!

(You might now be wearily thinking to yourself “fuck, can’t we just dispense with blather altogether?…” To which I say, listen, don’t go to a steakhouse and complain when they bring you a big hunk o’ sirloin. I can be accused of a lot of things, but not false-advertising.)

PLAYING

Greedfall

I freely admit that I didn’t get suuuuper far into this game, but, believe me, I gave it a fair shake. Really stuck it out as long as I could. And the time I did spend with it was more than enough to get a feel for what it’s bringing to the table.

I have to tell you, I found it to be an unlovable, aggravating experience overall.

As I was playing it, I was literally thinking to myself: “wow, this really makes you retrospectively appreciate – even more! – what an unbelievable masterwork a game like ‘The Witcher 3’ is.” Although I played that quite a while ago now, I believe this is the first full-fledged fantasy western-RPG I’ve tried since then. And the comparison, even with all the time which has elapsed in between, is both unavoidable and… damning.

‘Greedfall’ just feels clunky in basically every single area. It feels, in a way which is more intuitive than explainable, like a game that came out around the launch of the current gen consoles, rather than one which emerged six years into their lifespans. Like, it doesn’t do anything horrifically badly, but it also doesn’t do anything well. The gameplay is unrefined and unfluid, the dialogue is wooden, the world is uninspired and boring. It’s all just functional, serviceable. As long as you aren’t looking to be immersed or fascinated or… well… to indulge in that quaint, antique vice called “fun”.

In particular, the combat really pissed me off. The game generally pits you against multiple enemies in each encounter. And I noticed – though perhaps this was down to me being so early on – that your AI companions tend to get their asses kicked very quickly. Which ensures that you end up facing a bunch of enemies more or less alone. The aforementioned stiffness of the combat mechanics meant that as soon as they encircled me I had no chance of fending off their attacks for long. It’s just a matter of time before you get swarmed and overwhelmed. You keep back-stepping and parrying as they bum-rush you with leaping attacks, and then eventually you find yourself backed up against a wall and they just mercilessly, omni-directionally bukkake you with a flurry of sword blows. Right up until you wilt like a flimsy cardboard cutout drenched with semen subjected to a few dozen slice-y boo-boos from meanies. (I should also point out that the quick-pause feature is a half-measure which doesn’t seem to have any redemptive utility in those situations.)

Basically, I found the game to be reminiscent of (relatively) old-school RPGs in all the ways which make you remember why old-school RPGs could be such a pain in the ass sometimes. I think there was a time where I was willing to be much more patient and forgiving about those myriad frustrations, but not anymore. I just can’t do it. Like I said, there’s just a clunkiness at the very heart of the game. It shouldn’t be a surprise why, when you’re being asked to invest hundreds of hours into something, that’s fatal.

Although I will say, I’ve noticed that there’s sometimes a loophole when it comes to mediocre RPGs where one is better able to put up with their shortcomings and annoyances if the actual game-world itself is just so compelling or interesting or charming enough, but in ‘Greedfall’ it sadly feels so unoriginal and lame. Maybe I’m wrong, but it sure seems like merely a flavorless salad of ideas and aesthetics which have been sourced secondhand from a whole bunch of games from the last 10-15 years. And, boy, they sure won me over much more back when they actually had an enjoyable experience built around them…

Control

Let me get this out of the way first. I’m a big fan of this developer, Remedy. Like, a whole lot. I think they’ve proven themselves to be among the best AAA storytelling outfits in the video-game industry.

I loooooved ‘Alan Wake’, it’s fucking awesome. I was really smitten with it at the time. And although it is considered somewhat of a cult classic – I guess you could say – I’d argue that it still doesn’t get enough lasting credit for just how well-made it was and also how many games have straight-up aped various aspects of it. (‘Alan Wake’s American Nightmare’, however, was a misguided and forgettable spin-off. It attempted some interesting things tonally, but I came away thinking it just really wasn’t very good.)

And then ‘Quantum Break’, though making nowhere near the same impact on me, was also great. It didn’t exactly reinvent the wheel when it comes to time-travel sci-fi but its spin on it was nicely done and hit all the right notes. The TV show episodes part of it – a.k.a. live-action cut-scenes to us simple-minded folk stuck in the past – were a bit gimmicky, but decent enough once you get past that. (Plus, one can certainly understand why they were so tempted to make them, given the caliber of actors they’d got for the project. If that was me, and I had assembled a cast which included several ‘The Wire’ alums, I probably would’ve wanted to find some way to get them out of the motion-capture stage/VO booth and in front of a camera too. Seems almost like a waste not to.) All in all, I really enjoyed that game. And it kinda saddens me that it doesn’t seem to have caught on enough with players to receive a sequel.

But now… enter ‘Control’.

Oh, “what’s that sound?”, you ask? Yeah, uh, sorry about that. You’ll just have to excuse my heavy-hearted sighing…

Is it possible to really like a game but still, in some crucial sense, be really quite disappointed with it too? After playing this one, I’m inclined to think so. I’m so very fond of the feel and spirit of what they were attempting – its perturbing, vaguely Lynchian strangeness, if you will – but there’s a few issues elsewhere which sadly just hold it back.

My ambivalence is perhaps even a little lopsided, actually. Because, let me be clear, the positives do outweigh the negatives. In fact, I’ll even start by outlining them.

The actual gameplay, both combat and exploration, is undoubtedly good. Seriously, I really cannot pick any fault with ‘Control’ from a mechanics standpoint. The gunplay-and-powers combo is done really well. It’s very snappy and very sharp. We are of course talking about relatively standard fare for this type of game but it’s plenty satisfying nonetheless, and remained so from start to finish. That’s no mean feat. It requires things to be very well-tuned indeed, with enough depth/variation to keep you engaged throughout.

(I will admit that although the leveling-up system is fine, because it’s so conventional, the way the weapon/personal mods are handled is… um… just kinda dumb. It’s over-complexified, and for no good reason beyond crudely boosting end-game replayability. The mods being randomly-generated just ends up feeling like a hassle. It creates habitual and pointless inventory-management busywork for the player. I can’t tell you how fun it is to try to sort through fifteen copies of the same mod, each one with only a slightly different percentage of effect…)

Additionally, you somehow feel both powerful and fragile at the same time during combat. And that’s how they maintain a tantalizing sense of challenge which makes you eager to try again when you die. Even when it’s a squadron of those pesky levitating tied-to-an-office-chair fuckers – i.e. the recipients of my most fervent hatred – who have just pelted you to death with a blizzard of concrete slivers.

Ah, before I forget: I also loved the destructible-environments aspect. It’s both so impressive and so understated. They don’t obnoxiously shove it in your face – for example, with a million stupid puzzles which use it – or even make a big deal out of it. You just organically notice it as you’re fighting. There’s something very classy about that. Weird as that word is to use when talking about a gameplay system….

Furthermore, it must be said that stylistically/artistically the game is nothing short of brilliant. It really is quite accomplished in that area. I mean, good lord! There’s a gorgeous, refined minimalism to the game’s look (from the enemies’ simple designs to the Service Weapon’s self-reconfiguring function to the characters’ crisp dress-senses to the brutalist architecture of the Bureau) which I pretty much just drooled over the whole time. It’s kind of hard to put into words, but there is an utter self-confidence in the ostentatiousness of their restraint which I admire a great deal. I cannot remember the last time I played something where its visual component was not only so striking, but also so perfectly executed. It all just comes together so well. Let’s just say that if someone gifted me a glossy coffee-table book of concept art from this game, I’d be happy to have it.

(I would be remiss if I didn’t randomly shoehorn in a nod to the actor who plays Dr. Darling in the *cough* very ‘Lost’-esque *cough* explanatory videos which are sprinkled throughout. His performance was a real high point of the game for me. Especially in those sort of confessional/diary videos which spring up towards the end. He just has such an interesting charisma to him. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise really: he was stellar as the eponymous role in ‘Alan Wake’ and he’s stellar in this.)

Lastly, the writing itself is not bad. At least, in that sometimes-fun ‘who the fuck knows exactly what any of this means, but golly if it isn’t some pretty, intriguing vagueness’ way. This tactic tends to be employed in the typical fashion, where characters are cryptically referring to cryptic things. But, elsewhere, it is also kind of heightened to the most extreme form possible, because there’s a stream of palilalia-gibberish which you’re frequently bombarded with. (The floating bodies with their mumbled, slightly out-of-sync chants are such a neat mainstay throughout the game. It really kicks the creepy atmosphere up a notch.) And, sure enough, that gibberish manages to be just poetic enough to still be compelling when subjected to endless repetition. Not a lot of gibberish can claim that, it should be said. Believe me, I’ve checked the record books. I’ve sifted through the transcripts from insane asylums. I’ve gone to the library and examined the microfiche. And I’m telling you: there’s no doubt about it. This is some high-quality fucking gibberish.

But then we have to get to the not-so-positive stuff…

‘Control’ is actually a fundamentally abstract/symbolic game. That’s somewhat disguised or perhaps slow-played, though. You don’t really realize it – or, at least, the full extent of it – until you’ve finished the game and you know that no answers are forthcoming. Whilst you’re playing it, it seems to be about striving-to-understand certain mysterious things – the true nature and origin of the ‘Oldest House’, of the ‘Astral Plane’, of the ‘Hiss’, of Prime Candidates’ powers, of the ‘Projector’, of ‘Hedron Resonance’, of ‘the Board’… to name just a few – and so you really focus on them, trying to piece together the scraps of information in the hope that an explanation will coalesce. (Talking of which, the stupendous number of documents and recordings you come across seem kinda cool at first. But then, entertaining though they can be, you realize that only about 5% of them have any salient revelatory details on them. And also, to not pull any punches here, the all-the-crucial-words-are-redacted thing is only funny or thought-provoking the first ten or fifteen times you encounter its many, many variations. Then it just becomes tiresome, and a little irritating.)

But in retrospect you realize that when the game purports to be granting you some juicy nugget of new info, it’s almost always just adding another thing into the mix or outlining how certain already-known things are connected to one another, rather than dishing the deets about what they really are. Thus, it becomes clear that the things themselves are merely being employed as one-dimensional props, as relational constructs used to make some larger, subtextual point. It’s kind of like Potemkin world-building. “The Hiss is just destructive, mindless evil incarnate.” “But how does the Hiss function? And what does it want?” “Nah, that doesn’t matter. It’s just an antagonist for the noble heroism of Jessie.” You know what I mean? It works well enough as long as you’re willing to purely take it at face-value. If you don’t try to slip behind the facades and search for something deeper, everything slots together in a very pleasingly seamless way. Like a 25-piece jigsaw you could complete in the time it takes your toaster to pop up. And you end up with a nice, simple picture once you’re done.

‘Cause Jessie is just a reluctant but inherently righteous knight, Dylan is just a tragic-figure-cum-brainwashed-hostage, the Bureau is just a status-quo bulwark against otherworldly forces, Polaris is just a kindly protector, AWEs/OOPs are just extra-dimensional chaotic magic seeping through the cracks, a Director is just a guardian against encroaching evil, the Oceanview Motel is just a wormhole routing-station, the Janitor is just an eccentric resident-ghost and dispenser of hints, Dr. Darling is just a scientist whose unrestrained curiosity entices everyone’s doom, et cetera, et cetera. I hope the description of those roles suffices for you, because you generally ain’t gonna be getting any answers beyond that.

One could argue that this approach is clever, in that it imbues the game with the feel of being like some kind of… grand, dream-like fable. And that’s not an easy thing to pull off. It of course requires a fair amount of talent, deftness, craft. But the end-result is just not all that satisfying ultimately. It’s maybe a love-it-or-hate-it type of thing, I suppose, and I found myself coming away feeling distinctly ill-served by the world-lore’s infuriating cul-de-sac. Some people might not be bothered by that variety of closed-loop, self-justifying storytelling, but it has always bugged me, I have to admit.

Moving on. The protagonist, Jessie, is… okay, let me frame it like this: her voice-acting and motion-capture is all top-notch (as is also the case with the other people you encounter) but the character itself is sinfully boring. I’m talking, D-U-L-L… A-S… D-I-S-H-W-A-T-E-R. I know that’s not very nice to say, but it’s the unvarnished truth. She’s eerily devoid of any personality whatsoever. You almost find yourself wondering whether she’s gonna turn out to be some Hiss-impostor or something nuts like that. In part, this impression may be due to the fact that she’s too cautious, too guarded to let what she’s really like as a person shine through. Perhaps. If we’re being charitable. But either way, if I’m going to spend dozens of hours playing as someone, I want them to at least have… something… interesting or engaging about them. Just, like, to some noticeable degree. I mean, please. I’m willing to meet you halfway, just help me out a little bit here.

That actually kind of ties into my next point. This is quite a lonely game. Very purposefully so, in point of fact. And you can understand why they’re engineering that feeling in the player. It’s integral to the whole conceit of the game. As Jessie, you’re shouldering an awesome, isolating responsibly as the Director: you are the only person capable of battling the Hiss and reclaiming these conquered spaces. That’s your burden. That’s your mantle. That’s your trial. You’re not just all alone in this strange place, whose internal-logic is baffling and mercurial. You’re also pitted against brutal, powerful foes you do not understand. (There are also more tangible design elements which go into perpetuating this feeling. Obviously, you’re often running through large rooms with lots and lots of empty space.) All of this combines to make you feel very solitary.

However, there are ways in which the downsides/dampening effects of this loneliness could – and really should – have been ameliorated, to keep it from becoming stale and excessive. One such way is the music. But, alas, most of the time you’re roaming in near-silence. And even when the music does kick in, it is fairly sparse, fairly subdued. Another way would have been to make Jessie more vocal. So many times during my playthrough, I found myself wishing Jessie would say something to herself. The benefits being threefold. 1) To break the tension, 2) to deepen my understanding of her personality, 3) to remind me – the player – that she is a person being continually affected by the bat-shit crazy stuff happening all around her, not just a hollow avatar I simply lead around and use to fling bullets and telekinetic blasts where I’d like them to go. These reactions on her part don’t have to be anything elaborate either. It needn’t be any more than some little quip or comment or exclamation or whatever (à la Nathan Drake in ‘Uncharted’, who really is an exemplar of this.) To be fair, these do occur once in a while, but I think it should have been peppered in there way, way more liberally.

Alright, just a couple final things to note.

The ending is crummy. It’s an unenjoyable and abrupt rush-job. This is made even more disappointing because the game’s plot is such a slow build, which makes you feel like it’s really building up to this big reveal, this big climax at the end. Something exciting. Something explosive. But instead, in the last hour of the game, you’re whipped disorientatingly-fast through a sequence of important events and then you complete a lame quasi-boss-fight and then it’s suddenly over. To me, this felt like the type of thing which couldn’t possibly have just been an unwise design-choice. I have a suspicion that they ran out of time or some parts had to be cut (maybe to be finished and re-purposed for the DLC packs) or… hell, I don’t know, something exculpatory like that. That’s just what my gut tells me. Call me naive, but I find it hard to believe that a very experienced development studio like Remedy would genuinely think they stuck the landing here. They usually create terrific endings for their games, so they know what it is to ace it, and this… plainly isn’t that. It’s not a blunder which sullies the entire game – of course not – but it does suck when you leave an otherwise good game on such a sour note.

And now to make somewhat of a meta point: I was quite surprised by how they seemed to concretely tie the ‘Alan Wake’ universe into this one. It’s an interesting move.

I’ve no idea how much they’re planning to do with this connection. Is it mostly going to be contained to yet more easter eggs in that tantalizing second DLC pack? Or is there also an actual team-up crossover game planned for the future? I know it’s just born from pure speculation but, goddamn, that latter move would feel – just ever so slightly, mind you – like a a slap in the face. Because us hardcore ‘Alan Wake’ fans have been passionately clamoring for a true sequel for years now. (Talking of which… lord have mercy, seeing that leaked prototype footage that came out not too long ago was so bittersweet. Oh what could have been!) And I’m not sure that bland-ass Jessie dropping by Bright Falls to help bring the fight to the spookies is quite it. I mean, at the risk of stating the obvious, there’s not much left for poor old Alan to do when he’s just a pretty-brave literary dude with a gun and a flashlight and a few little tricks up his sleeves, and she’s nothing short of an uber-super-powered one-(wo)man-army. I guess maybe he could just hang out on the sidelines and dramatically narrate whatever she’s doing, like a bard singing tales of valor. Gotta make a living somehow, you know?

Regardless of how this connection plays out, I have to say I’m not hugely enthusiastic about it, because I think it really didn’t need to happen. But I guess I don’t hate it either. And I will freely admit that if the lore of two different games was ever more apt to be interwoven and overlapped than these two, I haven’t seen it. It really is, if nothing else, a perfect fit. I don’t know whether that was just a happy accident or whether they planned that synchronicity from the start, but let’s just say that the ‘Alan Wake’ universe seems poised to slot into this one (a little like Russian nesting dolls) very slickly and seamlessly. What exactly that’s going to look like, or how good it’ll be, is something I guess we’ll just have to wait and see about. I’ll try to keep an open mind when it arrives.

Borderlands 3

I was a real latecomer to the Borderlands series. Funnily enough, I recall that back-in-the-day I tried to play ‘Borderlands 2’ on… Xbox 360, I think it was… because I had no idea what it was like and I wanted to see what all the hype was about. And I just couldn’t get into it. I gave it an hour or two and then jumped ship. I can’t really articulate the intricacies of why I didn’t jive with it, but I think largely it was probably a case of me not fully grasping the easy-breezy mentality you’re invited to play to game with (that is, if you wanna have fun.) I didn’t get that you’re supposed to be constantly jumping between trying out each of the zillions of guns, instead of trying to find a few long-term favorites you can stick with and get attached to. You’re supposed to be fickle: experimenting with them for ten minutes before switching them out for something new, and just all around bathing in an ocean of novelty. And I also didn’t get that the throngs of enemies are kinda supposed to be meaningless fodder (quite MMO-esque, in fact) you’re meant to just mow down endlessly. They don’t exhibit much AI because the game is about the guns, and giving you PLENTY of right-there-in-your-face opportunity to try them out, not how smart or memorable or challenging or complex the enemies are.

I know these seem like elementary points – especially in hindsight – but, yeah, I just didn’t get it at the time. And my scanty playtime before quitting wasn’t enough to teach it me. So I just came away thinking that the game was bad at what I mistook it for trying to be, instead of realizing that it was actually good at what it was in fact trying to be. A silly error in judgement.

I only finally jumped in for real when the ‘Handsome Jack Collection’ was released for PS4. And, having figured out the aforementioned, I had a blast with it. I played both games on it and really enjoyed them.

I should point out here that I think of a certain type of game as being perfect to play whilst listening to a podcast. (And I need a pretty steady supply of them ’cause I listen to a lot of podcasts. I’m talking, whatever volume of podcast intake you’re imagining in your pretty little head, TRIPLE it. Wait, no, now half that. And then take a fifth of it and multiply it by three-and-a-third. And finally add on another forty-nine percent. Yeah. That’s it. Don’t mean to boast, but that’s what I’m working with. My need for the false intimacy of pseudo-eavesdropping on other people’s conversations is nothing short of voracious. Like, uhh, jealous much?) The ‘Handsome Jack Collection’ fell into that category and, naturally, so does ‘Borderlands 3’.

I also ought to add that I don’t make that designation as any kind of knock against a game. Far from it, really. The gameplay has to be independently fucking great – in a real pick-up-and-play, laid back, instant-fun way – if I’m still going to feel compelled to play it even though I don’t care about the story or whatever.

And the Borderlands series constitutes some of the best ‘podcast-games’ I’ve ever come across. I consider that to be a high compliment. They’re very well put-together. Especially at this point, this many games in, they’ve fine-tuned the gameplay something fierce, and all those tiny little accumulated calibrations and improvements really pay off. ‘Borderlands 3’ feels like a perfected version of what Borderlands has always been trying to be in its best moments. The hedonic-treadmill of the looter-shooter is, of course, very much transparent, but I’ll tell you this right now: when it’s done this well, I’ll happily stay on that bad-boy as long as I can. For real, it’s some top-tier mindless fun. And, again, I say ‘mindless’ with absolutely no negative connotations. I have a lot of affection for games where generally speaking the only strategy you have to worry about is “avoid damage whilst shooting at the enemies until they fall down.” Like, yes, give that to me, I’m fully in.

I really only have a handful of minor quibbles:

  • Obviously I could not even begin to tell you what the fuck the plot is about. I really have no idea. So I can’t possibly comment on it qualitatively. All I’ll say – and, yes, I know this is a very specialized complaint – is that I wish the developers had made it easier to whiz through the story and/or mission setting-up stuff. I’m not talking about just like ‘Hold X to Skip’ on the cut-scenes; that’s a standard, bare minimum thing. I’m instead referring to all the times you have to wait around ‘listening’ to NPCs talk to you and/or others. Especially in a game like this, there should be a way to either skip or severely fast-forward through that stuff, so I don’t have to put the controller down and fuck around on my phone for five minutes every time I start a new mission. I get that a lot of people aren’t just here for the gameplay like me, but that’s why you make the in-between stuff skippable instead of mandatory, so they can still sit around and pay attention to all of that if they so choose. If you can’t get enough of the Borderlands universe, hey, go right ahead pal. (Personally, the repetitively one-note and over-excited wacky humor is just not really for me. For example, I simply find Claptrap to be grating, and not in a funny ironic way. But, y’know, different strokes and whatnot.)
  • I’ve always thought that the Borderlands vehicle combat is a bit surplus-to-requirements, and that hasn’t changed. They need to add some depth or spice it up somehow, ’cause it’s the least satisfying part of the game.
  • I wish the end-game content was more solo-friendly. I liked the ‘Proving Grounds’ and replayed them quite a bit, but once I clicked things up to Mayhem Mode – a neat feature that otherwise deserves its own little golf-clap – level two, they became impossible for me to complete because of the stupid time-limit. Same with the ‘Circles of Slaughter’ (which I really, really wanted to be awesome, because this game could have been infinitely replayable with a good horde-mode). And that was even with the MM difficulty multiplier on level one. I wouldn’t even be that many waves in, and I’d find myself just getting absolutely creamed – heh, callback! – by the huge surplus of enemies swirling around me.

The Sinking City

At the risk of comical understatement, I’ll just say that I’m an… easy mark… when it comes to pretty much anything Lovecraftian.

And even the very idea of a fully open-world detective/exploration game in that vein threatens me with… *ahem*… what can only be described as a truly prodigious and perilous case of priapism. Yep, you heard me. The sort of weeks-long ordeal which is gonna require an old-timey doctor wearing one of those weird reflective metal disks (of totally unguessable function, am I right?) on a headband and, more importantly, wielding an over-sized syringe. I’m talking about those giant, old-fashioned syringes which look like you could use them to suck every drop of juice out of a watermelon with but a single plunger-pull. That’s what I’m gonna need, if those mis-allocated pints of blood are going to be drained in time to avoid permanent damage.

However, all that being said, this game just wasn’t for me. I really wanted to like it, and I really gave it a chance, but… aye, it just wasn’t for me. I gave up a few hours in.

Bizarrely enough, I often find that things which claim to be inspired by Lovecraft (or which are even trying to adapt a specific work) quite conspicuously do not seem to understand what made his fiction so incredible and enthralling in the first place. This confuses me, because it’s so simple. It was his ability to unfold a disquieting story with exquisitely finessed slowness. Build-up. Anticipation. Speculation. Ambiguity. Misdirects. All that good shit. Delivering a drip-feed of clues and near-misses and heightening, so that when you get to the end and the Horrible Truth™ or Unspeakable Creature™ is finally revealed in a shotgun-blast of full, vivid detail, it’s an electrifying climatic moment. Blam!

So when I play a game where, five minutes in, I’m already using physic powers (and what else, but that predictable ol’ detective-game cliche: psychometry and retrocognition) and shooting weird scuttling monstrous-critters and conversing with fish-face men, I’m just not down for that. I mean, I’m only being mildly facetious when I say that, ideally, I don’t want to be getting that first thing until I’m 1/5th through the game, don’t want to be doing the second thing until 2/3rds of the way through, and don’t wan’t to be encountering the third thing until just about the denouement. Now listen, I obviously don’t think games should be created using strict formulas like that, but I’m sure you can see what I’m getting at here. What I crave most is a slow-going, moody opening where you’re barely given anything beyond some hints that some… unknown variety… of… weird shit… is going down… uh, somewhere. Then dribble out all the other stuff gradually, and, hell, with a little dramatic panache s’il vous plaît.

Not saying that the everything-up-front approach is inherently bad, or can’t possibly work out. It’s just not for me. It’s not what I’m looking for. I’m a die-hard traditionalist at heart, I suppose you could say.

And that’s all I can really say about ‘The Sinking City’. I simply didn’t even get far enough in to be able to comment on what it’s like as a game. I mean, that whole traversing-the-flooded-streets-by-boat thing seems like a damn cool idea, but I just couldn’t tell you whether it’s any good in practice. ’tis a shame.

(Whilst I’m here, I’ll add that I did really quite enjoy the other big story-driven Lovecraft game, ‘Call of Cthulhu’, which came out last year. It was inarguably a little rough around the edges and there were a few moments where it was a tad too pulpy for its own good. And I certainly found myself thinking “ah, I fucking wish the studio that made this had had much more money and resources to play around with.” But overall I thought it really nailed, both tonally and pace-wise, what a Lovecraftian game should be. It was such a glorious slow-burn. Like, a Cthulhu game where you practically never even see Cthulhu? Sign me the fuck up! That’s exactly what I want! That’s my goddamn jam! Seriously, I really tip my hat to them for having the balls to do it.

I will admit that the very end of the game wasn’t… perfect, to be fair. Things kind of fall apart a bit. Though I do applaud what they were aiming for all the same.)

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare

I don’t know why in the world I let myself get suckered in by the hype surrounding this game’s renewed focus on the single-player story mode.

But I did.

I’ve definitely never been a COD ‘fan’ per se. I especially have no patience for the twitchy, fast-paced, nano-second time-to-kill multiplayer (and as my reflexes degrade year by year, I increasingly couldn’t even hope to hang with it either.) Nevertheless, they are unquestionably solid games. I, myself, have never loved the shooting mechanics in COD, but the gameplay is indeed decent enough for what it is. And so I did moderately enjoy, even just as a throwaway rental experience, the single-player offerings up until about ‘Call of Duty: Ghosts’ I wanna say. At which point that aspect of the games began to really suffer. It came to feel like a perfunctory afterthought. They just seemed to be half-assing it, and they sure seemed to be out of ideas or even any drive to conjure new ones. As clear cut a case of coasting-on-one’s-success as you’ll ever find.

That doubly-sucks because in the earlier years of the series, they were actually doing some bold things with the plots – especially for an allegedly “dumb” FPS – and I couldn’t help but admire that. It now seems weird to say, but there are a handful of moments from that stretch of games which were quite emotionally powerful, moments I’m not likely to forget. If you’ve played them, you’ll likely know which ones I’m referring to. (This is all relatively speaking, of course. When compared to something like, say, ‘The Last of Us’, even at its very best COD has all the storytelling deftness and nuance of ‘Pong’. But still. Gotta look at it for what it is.) It’s really kind of wild to think that the actual story in COD games used to be highly-anticipated and would truly make waves for the oh-shit! moments they’d take a swing at pulling off.

And it was because I’d heard that ‘Call of Duty: Modern Warfare’ (look, I’m not even going to get into how dumb the reused/atavistic game-title is; it speaks for itself) was supposed to be a whole-hearted return-to-form in this sense that I was intrigued enough to try it. Keep in mind, this is after having written the series off in the last few years.

Unfortunately, this new game just confirms that that legacy of compelling single-player modes has been irreversibly consigned to the rear-view mirror. I finished the story in a single sitting. And, no, I’m not kidding. What’s even worse: I came away thinking “jesus, that was it?…” As much as I wanted to believe that the credits rolling before my eyes were just a fake-out false-ending (as, oh boy, sure is in vogue right now) and that the game still had some ace-in-the-hole it was yet to whip out, it was not to be.

If this was supposed to be the resounding recapturing-of-past-greatness for the series, I really don’t know what to say.

I mean, the game is not… awful. It’s okay. It’s passable. A step up from the drek of the past few years, at least, but nothing special in its own right.

There are two clear standouts. The first is Captain Price himself. There’s just something so undeniably dashing and likable about his character. (The change in actor paid off, that’s for sure.) Moreover, there’s an anachronistic quality to him which I can’t quite put my finger on: he sort of feels like a steely but charming swashbuckler-of-yore, albeit wearing body-armor and lobbing grenades and moralizing about realpolitik, in some weird way. It’s peculiar, but I dug it. I only wish he appeared in the game more. And the second standout is the frenetic, disturbing London terrorist-attack level. It had an added emotional impact for me because I used to live there, and I walked past Piccadilly Circus very regularly.

But the rest was just so goddamn forgettable. The story itself is paint-by-numbers and predictable and not very interesting. Many of its flaws are obscured by the untold millions of dollars – I’m talking about like a good few dragon-caves chock-full of gold and jewels – dumped into making the presentation/production values sky-high, but as soon as you see through the superb cut-scene CGI, they are assuredly still there. And as for what you’re actually doing gameplay-wise, it largely feels like a mere greatest-hits playlist of fan-favourite levels from previous games in the series. To which you might, quite understandably, retort “well, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. True enough. Usually. But here there’s a sort of stultifying self-consciousness and clumsiness which trips up the attempts at self-homage, and it keeps things from being all that much fun the second time around. It’s like they were trying so hard to evoke those previous high-points that they neglected to make everything else feel fresh and engaging.

Look, I didn’t hate the game. I just hated that it was billed as something it shamelessly did not live up to. It really was just – once again for the COD series – blockbuster-esque cheap thrills entertainment at its most disposable, mentally and otherwise. Enjoyable in the way that gobbling an entire pack of Oreos is. But that’s it. And once the sugar rush wears off, you feel all lethargic and you sense a stomach-ache creeping in and you think “eurgh, what was the point?”

As an endnote: holy fuck, I’ve got to say something about this trend of colossal day-one patches, which COD has recently been one of the most conspicuous flag-bearers for.

It is so aggravating and deflating to get a new game you’re excited to play, throw the disc in your console, sit down on the couch, wait a good long while for the game to install, and then see that there’s a FIFTY FIVE GIGABYTE! download you need before you can play it. I have pretty fast fibre-internet now – god, I earned it after a lifetime of atrocious connection speeds/reliability – but that thing still took like half the day to download. I shudder to think of the wait-times which greeted any poor bastards who’ve still got snail broadband. (Out of fairness, I should point out that the download was presumably uniquely slowed by the ridiculous amount of people also vying to get it on release-day.)

There’s slightly obnoxious, moderately obnoxious, very obnoxious, very very obnoxious, and then nineteen levels above that there’s whatever the fuck this bullshit is. It needs to stop. If some AAA games can come out with a titchy little 500MB day-one patch – or even rarely, *gasp*, without one at all – there should be no leniency for franchises which consistently require one which is more than 100x the size of that. For real, what the hell is that about? How has that become normalized? It’s lazy and stupid. Hey developers, call me a naive layman if you like, but how about you dare to dream the impossible dream and just don’t ‘go gold’ until you’ve truly finished making your game?

And, in the meanwhile, there’s an easy stopgap measure which would at least alleviate the frustration a bit. I know you can obviously pre-install (patch and all, I believe) a digitally-bought copy of a game in anticipation of its release, but Sony and Microsoft should also implement some option to preemptively download just the day-one patch for a given game. That way, even if you’re going out to a store and picking up the actual disc-based version, you can come home and jump straight in without a buzzkill wait-time which is only fractionally shorter than applying for U.S. citizenship. It’s a total no-brainer. What’s the downside? It’s just the patch you’re letting people download upon request, not the game itself. Forget about trying to incentivize digital purchases – purely due to the larger profits associated with them, of course – and focus on improving quality-of-life stuff for your user-base. Something stops being just a minor annoyance when you keep on encountering it. And, in case you haven’t heard, time is precious. I’d even venture to say that watching the download-progress crawl along is not a good use of that finite resource. So if you have the power to spare people such tedium, act accordingly.

READING

Fight Club (novel)

I’ll get the obvious question out of the way first. I do very much enjoy the David Fincher film adaption. (Hmm, dude stole my surname – given he’s more than twice my age, that means he must’ve mastered non-linear time! – and transformed ‘Finch’ into some kind of occupational noun. Which is… rude. But, due to the craven toothlessness of the criminal justice system, nonetheless legal.) I wouldn’t say it’s one of my favourite movies or anything, but it is definitely excellent.

Wait, before I get off this point, let me insert an addendum to that. I’ve noticed that there’s some rank snobbishness when it comes to this film. More specifically, a form of talking down to people who have the audacity to mention that they like it, that it got them to delve deeper into film as a medium. And the culprits? Well, that’s a funny one, as it happens.

You’d think it’d be the people who very loudly and self-importantly and gratingly identify as ‘serious cinephiles’ – look, I don’t know why that term, said in that tone of voice, makes one throw up in one’s mouth a little bit, but it surely does – and that’s a fair assumption. But it’s not the case. They’re too busy duking it out on reddit in those purist-offs which become impossibly heated. Y’know, exchanging seething novel-length replies about why you’re a “dick-face cretin” if you think that this 6-minute black-and-white Czechoslovakian student-film from 1979 which used real-life farmers and newborn livestock as actors and rifle-shots for dialogue and symbolizes the plight of the working-class and was only ever referenced in a single film-focused little magazine from the same year is better than that silent 914-minute Sealandian arthouse movie from 2018 which is solely footage of tiny drones costumed as planets circling above the ocean waves and symbolizes the inconceivability of the future and can only be found via a single invite-only password-protected Whatsapp group-chat and even then is hardcoded so that it can only be viewed on an Apple Watch.

No, I’ve found it’s actually usually another group entirely. These are people who wouldn’t dare label themselves cinephiles, because they claim that’s silly, but a thousand times more so because they know they do not have anywhere near the amount of knowledge or passion or breadth of film-watching to do so. They instead just have some kind of bizarre, unearned sense of superiority. Maybe one time they very purposefully chose not to go see an IMAX screening of ‘Transformers: Age of Extinction’ even though they’d been given a free ticket, and have pretty much just been coasting off the resulting sense of principled elitism ever since. That type of thing. And so, yeah, they like to play at being snobs – like a child putting on their father’s driving gloves and laughing at the car you drive – by mocking films which have become known as gateway drugs that inspire the uneducated everyman to start watching more interesting films or start thinking about film-making on a deeper level. If you’ve ever heard the prattle I’m referring to, you’ll know it’s viscerally insufferable.

“I bet he only watched the ‘Three Colours’ trilogy because… *snigger*… ‘Fight Club’ quote-unquote ‘really got him into film’ right?!”

“Shit, man, have you ever seen the ‘Three Colours’ trilogy?”

“Oh… well, no. I’m not really into, like, slow movies or… movies with a lot of talking or…. any movies with subtitles I guess. But, whatever, I’ll probably get to it eventually. Gotta finish up my yearly marathon of ironically watching every single Steven Seagal movie first.”

As always, the sneering, baseless put-down arises from a compulsion to mask their own insecurity. To which I say, just get the fuck over yourself and stop being a jerk-off.

Anyhow, onto the novel itself…

I think it’s fair to point out, as a sort of upfront disclaimer, that when you read the book a film was based on, that book’s ability to affect you or win you over is of course going to be lessened. Not just because you already know how everything is gonna unfold, but also due to the inevitable tendency to just judge every character and scene against its on-screen counterpart instead of simply appraising them on their own merits.

And yet, even accounting for that, this novel was largely limp and underwhelming.

You can really tell, even if you didn’t know this trivia beforehand, that it started out its life as a short story but was then retrofitted and expanded into a novel-length work. The only way I can think of to describe this impression is that it’s like a hose was jabbed into that short story and inflated it with hot air until it was roughly the right size.

That sense of there being a fair amount of filler is, for a 200 page book, frankly quite unpardonable. The prime upside of smaller novels is that they should be lean and punchy and absolutely stuffed to the gills with concentrated awesomeness. But one finds quite the opposite approach in evidence here.

There’s something else which also gnaws at you as you’re reading. The book feels like it’s a first draft. Story-wise, it comes across like a choppy sequence of thinly-drawn vignettes, and you find yourself longing for something, anything, to have been bestowed greater authorial attention. To be more fleshed-out or even just dissected at length. And in terms of the writing itself, there’s undoubtedly some sections of well-turned prose to be found, but everywhere else there’s just a slight… laxness… one can perceive. For example, there’s just too much seemingly-unintentional – a key distinction – repetition in the language, in the way things are phrased. Almost as if a different editor handled each chapter of the novel, so they had no knowledge of what had already been overused beforehand.

As goes without saying, I do not know how long it took to write this book. All I can tell you is that I came away with the distinctive gut-feeling that it was written quickly and served as-is. And that is something which, when it proves to be a liability for a novel rather than an asset, I suppose I have a particular distaste for as a reader.

Look, I wouldn’t presume to lecture someone who has written more novels than I’ve had hot dinners – including arguably one of the most influential late-twentieth-century novels – on how to write. I might be an asshole, but I’m not that much of an asshole. Still, I do have something to say just based on my own limited experience. I’m a firm believer that there’s a stupendous benefit to really sitting with any long piece of work and living with it for a while. So that you can progressively understand it better, by reexamining it and rediscovering it and expanding it and making it all that it can be. This has its limits, of course. You don’t want to let something stew in your creative juices for too long, else it’ll become over-saturated to the point of soggifying and falling apart from its internal surfeit. You merely want it to marinate and soak in enough extra notes of flavor to the point where when you pull it out and present it, it’s got many layers of pleasing depth to it. This isn’t an easy balance to strike. And, in turn, I don’t blame anyone who fails at striking it.

Nor, for that matter, do I disregard the very valid reasons why this isn’t an ideal shared by everyone. Take the beatniks, for instance. With their infamously manic stream-of-consciousness word-vomit – a description I don’t at all employ derogatorily – which seems totally unedited. It was spewed out, then it was published. Straight from mind to page to bookstore. And there is considerable value in this approach. I see and appreciate what they were trying to achieve. There’s an undeniable beauty and power to the art of capturing something ephemeral, something felt or thought just in the moment. But doing so requires quick, autonomic brushstrokes and a relinquishing of perfectionism to the fullest degree.

Yet I do not think the aspects of sloppiness in ‘Fight Club’ are purposeful. They don’t seem like a creative choice, they just kinda seem like laziness. Furthermore, there’s nothing really gained by its hastily-written-ness. But I can’t help but suspect there would have been quite a lot gained by it being granted way more time and care.

Alright, I’m gonna switch gears now and discuss the actual plot itself.

Many of the story-ideas featured in this book are, when considered in a vacuum, honestly pretty brilliant. It’s easy to have become very desensitized to this because of the film and because much of it has been copy-cat’d and just generally diffused into popular culture. But, yeah, there’s some sublime stuff in there. The Tyler Durden duality and the fight clubs themselves are the main/obvious crown-jewels, and so really speak for themselves. They are, after all, culturally iconic for a reason. But there’s also the selling rich people liposuction-fat ‘artisanal soap’ thing, the falsely attending illness support-groups to leech an emotional outlet thing, the boot-camp cult of Project Mayhem thing, the seared kisses on the back of the hand thing, etc. These too are super interesting and captivating and inventive. No doubt about it. You can tell that Palahniuk has a really great mind for cooking that kind of outlandish stuff up. It’s a rare talent, and he puts it on full display.

(Yet there are a few misses too. A few things which just seem to be thrown into the mix because they were also potentially-good ideas rattling around Palahniuk’s skull, and he wanted to finally find a home for them. Pissing on the ‘Blarney Stone’ for example. It’s a funny little anecdote. But it’s just shoehorned-in in quite a blatant way. And, worse, having engaged in drunken, dangerous, illegal, antisocial revelry in Ireland – of all fucking places – just does not seem to fit at all with the protagonist’s personality pre-Durden. So it ends up sticking out and feeling jarringly odd, like a narrative-anomaly. I feel I have an eye for spotting this proclivity to try and somehow utilize one’s miscellaneous backlog of promising what-if-someone notions, even if they don’t slot into a given piece smoothly, because for a long time I too suffered from it, and have had to work hard to tamp it down.)

The inescapable problem at the heart of ‘Fight Club’ is that these cool ideas are, for the most part, not developed fully. Nowhere even close, actually. They are just seeds which have been presented bare and solitary, which have not had enough soil heaped around them so that they can grow into something substantial. Given how good some of these ideas truly are, this squandered potential becomes really quite disheartening and frustrating. You find yourself absentmindedly envisioning the fully-realized book this could have been, really just as a respite from the inadequacies of the one you are reading.

Which leads me, neatly, into this next point.

The duo of perennial criticisms one hears about Palahniuk are:

[I] – He tries way too hard to be cheaply ‘transgressive’ with his subject matter above all else, lowering himself to the level of a mere shock or gross-out merchant.
[II] – The issue with a lot of his stories is that they’re born from a really clever, fascinating, one-sentence-elevator-pitch idea but then the actual fiction-writing knitted around it is just somewhat thin and underdeveloped.

I have no idea whether these hold true in a larger sense: I haven’t read any of his other novels. And, besides, it has often been my experience that gripes which the book-reviewer literati have sprouted for so long that they’ve solidified into permanent-record reputational baggage for the author in question turn out to be dead wrong. Merely the jaded gotta-get-those-clickthroughs carping one has sadly come to expect from that quarter. But… to be gun-to-my-head honest, I felt like I could see aspects of both writerly peccadilloes in this, his first and most seminal work. That blows. I mean, one always hates to vindicate the groupthink if one can help it.

That’s about all I have to say about the novel itself. I realize I do have a couple more things to say about the movie/novel relationship though.

I won’t mince words here: the film is much better. I’m not going to get into the nitty-gritty of why, or do a point-by-point comparison. I’m sure I’ve already bored you enough. (It has also been a while since I last watched it. So I can’t say it’s all incredibly fresh in my mind.) Suffice it to say that the film’s simply a better, more streamlined realization of what the ‘Fight Club’ story is trying to do, trying to be. In just about every single relevant way. It’s actually quite stunning when you think about it like that. But it’s true nonetheless. (Oh, and I greatly prefer the film’s ending to the book’s. Talking of the film weirdly seeming to just get it more, I think its ending fits far better with many of the key themes which the story explores.)

Now, in a sense it’s maybe slightly unfair to pit the two against one another because this was Palahniuk’s first (published) novel and yet Fincher was already an established, experienced director. And he managed to assemble a once-in-a-blue-moon cast of absurdly talented/committed actors at the height of their powers. And the film came out at the eerily exact right time to have maximum cultural impact. And blah blah blah. You’ve heard all this stuff before, I’m sure.

As far as I’m concerned, there’s a much more foundational factor at play. The inherent nature of the story just suits film better. I mean, I can totally see someone, back when it was first published, reading the novel and thinking that it was just begging to be filmed. It’s a screenplay which doesn’t even know it’s a screenplay.

I often think about how different mediums have very different strengths and limitations. Well, one of film’s unique possibilities is what makes it perfect for ‘Fight Club’. I’m referring to the fact that you can sort of hide things on screen, even though they’re ostensibly in plain sight. E.g. nestling some small easter egg in the corner of the frame perhaps, which the viewer might well not even see. Whereas with a book, because everything has to actually be stated and the reader of course reads every word on the page, it’s not feasible to hide something right there in front of them in the same way. One may well argue there’s a vaguely similar possibility if the author employs coded or cryptic language, but that’s really not the same thing when it comes down to it. That’s subtext. It’s beneath/behind the words, not the words themselves. In film, you can show a viewer something they literally won’t see, but in literature you cannot write something the reader will not read. That’s a mighty fucking difference. And it means that you can put all the evidence one could need that Tyler Durden isn’t real right there on the screen, simply trusting that the viewer won’t be looking out for signs of something they haven’t yet come to suspect. (This is thematically congruent too. What with the story’s insistent focus on the ease, as one’s life falls apart, of missing what’s right in front of one’s nose.) That’s why the film is so much more satisfying then the novel. Palahniuk writes about Durden and has to – very, very noticeably, I found – bend over backwards to actively try and conceal his imaginary nature with how he writes about him; Fincher just puts Brad Pitt on screen and doesn’t have to worry about it. Then he can sprinkle in some cool little visual hints which 99% of viewers won’t be able to pick up on until their first or second rewatch, when they’ll just seem endearingly impish, a sort of wink to those who now know the twist. That’s a massive, massive advantage. In a story like this, it’s the whole ballgame, really.

That leads on to something else I ponder on occasion: what must it be like to write a novel, then see it turned into a movie which is not only a finer artistic achievement than the source material, but also completely overshadows it forever. Talk about a devil’s bargain. The big-screen adaptation puts you on the map, exposes you to a mainstream audience and really kick-starts your career with a bang. But, at the same time, your baby is kinda permanently thrown aside. Not just bested, but made obsolete. Man… I don’t envy being put in that position. I really don’t.

I’m sure the fuckton of money makes it a bit easier to sleep at night though. I mean, I’m just postulating here. But it does seem like a safe bet.

Fight Club 2 (graphic novel)

Let me put it like this: my girlfriend asked me what I thought about this graphic novel once I’d finished it, and I simply told her that with something this bad, I don’t even want to waste the time needed to properly criticize it at length. ‘Cause it’s all right there, on the surface. No deeper analysis required. Merely open your eyes, read the pages, and you will share in my displeasure.

Besides which, it would just feel cruel. Like maliciously kicking a stray dog which only has three – ehh, actually, that mutt would still be ambulatory – two, one – nope, neither of those even work; it could at least drag itself along – well then, I guess… no legs whatsoever. And even missing its tail to boot. And with gymnastic fleas tauntingly trapezing around its whiskers.

Long story short: ‘Fight Club 2’ is a disaster. I regret the time I spent reading it.

It’s just a complete and utter mess. And not a noble well-you-were-shooting-high-and-so-of-course-the-corresponding-failure-was-spectacular type of mess. Just a goddamn-you-really-didn’t-know-what-the-fuck-you-were-doing-did-you? type of mess. It’s a story which gives you no reason why it should even exist at all. If that sounds harsh, just know that that’s genuinely about the most polite way to say it.

Tonally it’s so flat-out, blaringly opposite to the novel I can barely even put it into words. It’s a mismatch which bugs you from cover to cover. It just has this wacky, comic-book-y vibe which feels so very wrong. In hindsight, I realize that it actually almost seems like a piece of… fan fiction… which very conspicuously doesn’t understand what the original work was about or trying to achieve. (And given that it was written by/the brainchild of the author himself, that’s kind of equally tragic and inexplicable, really.)

Case in point: it brings back random minor characters from the novel just to try and concoct some cheap “hey, remember them?!” jolt. I actually laughed out loud in disbelief at the absurdity of some of the reveals. Although one in particular, the identity of Marla’s… friend… let’s just say, was just so fucking beyond-the-pale stupid that, I mean, truly, it wasn’t even a laughing matter. It kinda just made me a little sad. To be willing to retroactively obliterate the considerable emotional power of a moment in your first work by rendering it silly and tawdry in the next one is a form of creative-prostitution which really bums me out. You have to have really lost track of what’s important to pull some shit like that for the sake of a lame shock-reveal.

Next to the pointlessness of the story itself, the most aggravatingly bad aspect of the book is how its attempts at metaness feel so forced and end up falling flat. It’s almost like you can palpably sense you’re expected to be surprised/thrilled by them. But it’s only ever meta in a way that’s been popping up with regularity for quite a long time now. It’s just not novel anymore. I bet you’ve seen the irreverent author-cameoing-as-god trope done a bunch of times before, and much more artfully to boot. So one can’t just throw it in there and expect that this tired form of metaness alone will be compelling. You have to actually do something cool, something innovative with it. You have to have a well thought out purpose for it. Otherwise showing yourself in a writer’s group hashing out what you’re gonna do in this book is immersion breaking for the sake of being immersion breaking. And that just feels like you’re trying to preemptively distance yourself from this work, to wash your hands of it a little bit. As if you’re implying that this is merely a sort of tongue in cheek IF-I-did-Fight-Club-2-this-is-what-it-might-look-like-but-lol-not-really. And I think that’s a disingenuous covering your ass gambit. That’s not why the story feels so half-baked and implausible and off-base. It’s just not.

Frankly, there was a fulsome fucking cornucopia of reasons I disliked this book, but this is the one which tipped me over the edge into actual scorn. The meta stuff is truly employed in such a cynical way. It’s just an attempt to excuse the obvious failings of the book with a sort of ‘of course this and this and this sucks and doesn’t make sense, but I’m beating you to the punch in pointing it out, so what else you got, wise-ass?’ defense. This is transparent and abject and just does not work at all. There’s even an add-on final chapter where Palahniuk throws his hands in the air and has a meta-narrative tantrum. He fully demolishes the forth wall and proclaims “I know the ‘fans’ will hate the preceding ending (Ed note: an ending which is, in point of fact, an unmitigated dumpster-fire), but so what? They probably only saw the movie version of ‘Fight Club’ anyway. They’re not real fans. They just like to shit on whatever they can. Fuck ’em. And, at any rate, they don’t even know what they want. If it were left up to these simple-minded consumers, it’d be a schmaltzy happy-ending where everything is tied up in a neat little bow and they’re given closure.” To literally weave this petulant defensiveness into one’s art is a bit like watching someone have a performative mental breakdown. The arrogance and ego and bitterness involved is just staggering. Breathtaking even. Can it really be true that no-one stepped in and pointed this out to him?… Or did he just not care? To call this crying-before-you’re-hurt a toxic relationship to one’s fans would be putting it mildly.

God… out of perhaps misplaced pity, I’m now trying to think if there was anything which was even remotely redeeming in this book…

I guess just about the only thing I liked about it was the concept of what Tyler Durden is as a biological phenomenon. It was certainly… out-there, and verging on a slight retcon, but also pretty intriguing and it seemed like something which had promise. Alas, there’s really nothing much done with it. It’s kind of just thrown out there like a momentary shiny-thing to distract you from how off-the-rails/over-the-top the plot becomes towards the end. (Also, hmm, a great idea which doesn’t have much of substance built on top of it?… Now where have I heard that before?…)

The artwork itself is… pretty run-of-the-mill. There’s nothing at all distinctive about the style, you’ve seen it elsewhere a million times before. It’s not quite good, not quite bad: just unambitiously, inoffensively okay. I mean, fine, there are perhaps one or two standout moments artistically, but they come and go in the blink of an eye and they’re still really nothing to write home about.

(Though can you imagine what that would entail?

“Dear Mother,

I hope this missive finds you and the family in excellent health. And I hope father is keeping the manor in good repair. Especially those drafty windows on the east side of the third floor. I know the winters there are hard, and poor Aunt Tabitha’s bones always ache awfully in the pitiless cold, so I would hate for her sufferings to be avoidably intensified. I trust father feels the same way.

Ah, but I shall get to the point: I’m writing because the fourth frame on page 42 and the whole-page frame on page 105 in the otherwise dismal and ill-advised graphic novel ‘Fight Club 2’ are quite remarkable. I found their kinetic chaos and unconventional use of color to be striking.

That is all. I just thought you should know. Please pass this letter around the rest of the family, so they too may be thus informed. If little Arthur is still too young to read, I ask that it be read aloud to him. Everyone must know my tidings.

With love,

Your son, Ryaniald the Third.”)

‘Kay. That’s about all I’ve got to say about this damn graphic novel.

It seems obvious that Palahniuk was, in some sense, trying to reclaim ownership over Fight Club as a cultural entity. But, wow, this was not the way to do it. If anything, it just serves as a useful cautionary tale. A warning about the importance of knowing when to let something go. If your most famous book wasn’t written with the intention of having a sequel or even being the opening to a series, it’s probably a really bad idea to come back 20 years later and try to force that on it.

(Just FYI, Palahniuk has also released ‘Fight Club 3’ since. Which tells you how hard some lessons are to learn…)

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