Sunday, March 27, 2022

Non-Fiction: Review of The Man Without a Face by Masha Gessen

Like many people, I watched the Russian army line up around Ukrainian borders in 2021 and into 2022. They are not going to attack, I said. Putin is posturing. There is no way he will take on the West. He doesn't have the economy to drive this. He has shown himself to be more of a businessman, right? And isn't Russia part of the West? And hasn't the West, as of the beginning of the 21st century, figured out that massive wars are not good for economy? I was wrong, badly wrong. And every bomb or missile that lands in Ukraine, killing people, reminds me. Where did I go wrong? Seeing an honest, realistic interview with Masha Gessen, I looked a little deeper into her background, and found what I may have been looking for: a Putin biography, The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin (2012).

The publication date of The Man Without A Face is important. 2012 is after Russia's war in Georgia, i.e. the brutal crushing of Georgian people by Russian military means. It was written after the start of the Syrian Civil War, an event that Russia played an active and vehement role in (razing civilian areas, chemical weapons, and the list goes on). And 2012 is, of course, before Russia's current involvement in Ukraine, starting with the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Console Corner: Review of Lost Words: Beyond the Page

I'm the parent of seven and five-year olds—at least as of the writing of this post. And we sometimes game together. We've played and recommend Never Alone, Far: Lone Sails, Figment, and The Unfinished Swan. (These are games that I recommend for small children, games that require them to use their brains in interesting ways). When I saw Sketchbook's Lost Words: Beyond the Page, I could feel it was a game to add to that list. We've since played it, and yes, the instinct was real.

First and foremost, Lost Words: Beyond the Page is a game designed for children somewhere in the 5-9 age range—the age when they are learning to read. It is not a game for adults. I repeat, it is not a game for adults. (I repeat because I have seen at least two reviews which criticize the game for being simple.) When boiled to a skeleton, Lost Words is a single-player puzzle platformer which most often uses words to solve puzzles.

Tuesday, March 15, 2022

Review of When the Sparrow Falls by Neil Sharpson

One of the most recommendable aspects of China Mieville's brilliant The City & the City is the manner in which he evokes a neo-Soviet setting. The secret-secret police, the gray skies, the government institutions shrouded in uncertainty, the Spartan, concrete lives of people on the street—he captures it well. While taking the scene in a different thematic direction, Neil Sharpson's When the Sparrow Falls (2021) also captures a neo-Soviet feel extremely well.

In the novel When the Sparrow Falls , the Singularity has occurred and humanity's last mortal bastion is a communist nation called the Caspian Republic. Defying the rest of the world, the CR eschews consciousness technology and the people who have uploaded themselves into the virtual world, thus foregoing the physical world. In the CR government apparatus sits Nikolai Scout, a low-ranking state security official who obeys the letter of the law but does not engage the spirit. His personal problems are simply too heavy. Relationships and poverty foremost in his mind, he grinds through his job, no more. But when a famous Caspian poet dies, Scout finds he has a new assignment, that of tour guide to the man's widow. The spin, however, is that the widow is from the non-physical human world beyond.

Console Corner: Review of Innocence: A Plague Tale

Look at the games Naughty Dog has released the past decade and their formula for success is clear: single-player, linear, action/story-based experiences with streamlined rpg elements. Make sure the story is good, channel it via a quality number of set pieces, give players simple but tasty options for interacting with the world, and voila, a success waiting to happen. Recognizing the formula for the potential it has, Asobo Studio created Innocence: A Plague Tale (2019).

But where Naughty Dog have gone down the road of post-apocalypse zombies and Indiana Jones-style action movies, Asobo goes Medieval. Set in Middle Ages France, players take on the role of Amicia, a teenage girl, and her younger brother Hugo as they try to survive the plague, the Inquisition, and something... else that is crashing across the land, wrecking havoc on towns and people. Villagers lock their doors to one another from the plague while the Inquisition's soldiers kill people randomly trying to find Hugo. The siblings journey takes them far from their home and into the company of people they never thought they would meet, all while the world seems to crash down around them.

Monday, March 14, 2022

2021 – Starcraft 2 Year in Review

IEM Katowice has finished, which means another look back at Starcraft II in the prior 12 months. How was the competition? How has the game evolved? What changes have happened on the player scene? Which players shone the brightest? Which matches rocked our world? Let's take a look.

Despite the overall lack of offline tournaments in 2021, the scene remained relatively healthy, and viewers were treated, like every year it seems, to tip-top quality matches. Looking at SCII's business macro, things looked normal, which can generally be seen as good. It's still the most sophisticated, exciting 1v1 esport to watch.

What we didn't see in 2021 does not bode well for the Starcraft II scene. But it must be noted. First is something brewing before 2021: the lack of fresh blood. 2020 did not see an influx of young talent, and neither did 2021. And if anything, only more of the old guard retired or faded from the scene. Sure, a few familiar names returned from the military, and a couple of names which lingered in mediocrity in Europe poked their noses a little higher. But (and it's a big 'but') there are simply extremely few new names coming in and showing strong promise. Where the player scene was in constant evolution the first ten years, the past couple of years, and especially the past year saw evident stagnation.

Wednesday, March 9, 2022

The Bubble Bursts: The Golden Age of Culture in Response to Ukraine

Note: the following article regards Western culture and media in the context of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.  But in no way should it be taken as a means of focusing attention beyond the mortal situation on the ground.  What’s happening in Ukraine today is real, and should remain the focus.  Take the following, as with everything on this blog, as spurious to real-world concerns.


For the past several years, the question has often crossed my mind: when will the bubble of culture the West is currently experiencing, burst?  When will the tidal wave of films, books, restaurants and fusion foods, tv series, foreign products, video games, travel and vacation, comics, board games begin to fade?  I now have my answer: when Russia attacks the West.

For those not paying attention, the past 15-20 years will be looked back upon as a Golden Age of Western culture, and to some degree global culture.  With the world at relative peace, the ways in which Westerners spent their excess time and money exploded with options.  Where it was possible 40-50 years ago to read almost all science fiction books released in one year, in 2022 it’s no longer possible, not even close.  A person would need to devote their existence to its consumption, and still not get to the dozens and dozens of other books released.  And that is only science fiction.  All other genres have also exploded, as well as the myriad means of combining and synergizing them.  And this trend only scales larger when looking at all the other ways in which people experience culture and entertainment—tv series, video games, board games, etc.  The quantity of choice overwhelming, and the quality of choice filling the spectrum, it’s indeed a Golden Age. 

Sunday, March 6, 2022

Review of Beyond the Hallowed Sky by Ken Macleod

My Ken Macleod needle pings only two points on the spectrum of literature: vanilla or interestingly innovative. And it is truly a coin flip which you'll get whenever a new book is released. The Fall Revolution tetralogy, Intrusion, and Execution Channel are examples of sharply-edged books which make a person excited to discover something new, whereas books like Cosmonaut Keep, Dissidence, and Learning the World have been flat, too easily forgettable experiences. Another way of putting this is: Macleod will always be on my radar as a potentially good read, but it's far from certain how the potential manifests itself. What then does 2021's Beyond the Hallowed Sky, first in a trilogy, do with the needle?

Beyond the Hallowed Sky is set in a future not too distant from our own. Solar system exploration has been pushed forward, and humanity has set up a station in an asteroid above Venus. The impetus for the novel is a strange letter Lakshmi Novak receives one day, inviting her to participate in perhaps the most interesting human project of all time: Faster Than Light travel. What makes the letter truly interesting is that it appears to be from her future self. With a small number of other characters folded into the mix, the narrative takes off, leading the reader across the Earth, through the atmosphere, and to the solar system.

Console Corner: Review of It Takes Two

I still recall being twelve years old, my best friend sitting beside me, and Contra in the Nintendo as we made run after run trying to beat the game together. Two controllers, a two-player game, and two times the fun. These days, however, that local cooperative video game experience of blasting baddies or solving puzzles is a minority. Perhaps indirect commentary on the state of society, I don’t’ know, but I do know that when I see titles like Hazelight’s It Takes Two (2021) pop up on my radar, I snap them up immediately.

Everything in the title, It Takes Two is an offline (or online) cooperative game for two players. A nice balance of puzzle platformer and action, players take on the role of a husband and wife who must work together to get back into their real bodies. Something like Honey I Shrunk the Kids, the parents find themselves in a variety of surreal places, needing to use their brains and twitchy fingers to jump, grab, and swing their way to victory. Unlike Contra, however, which was possible to be played single and two-player, It Takes Two can only be played two-player.

Wednesday, March 2, 2022

Review of Agents of Dreamland by Caitlin Kiernan

Almost overwhelmingly, novellas offer middle-of-the-road genre consumables for the mass market. But there are exceptions—some sweet, tasty little nuggets to encounter in their catalog. Caitlin Kiernan’s Agents of Dreamland (2017), despite its far-reaching milieu of magic-realism, Lovecraftian horror, satanic cults, and outright fantastika is one such nugget. It remains genre, but is genre taken about as far as it can be taken in terms of sophistication and depth.

Like a film chopped up and edited on the cutting room floor, so too does Agents of Dreamland present its story. Told through the eyes of three characters in a variety of places and times, the steady unravel of scenes slowly reveals a man, called the Signalman, trying to put 2 and X together in the hope of understanding strange events occurring in the American southwest. A second, mysterious agent named Immacolota Sexton also enters the scene, providing useful information, but appears to know more than she should about one particular gruesome killing they discover in Arizona. It’s the third character, a cult member named Chloe, whose viewpoint enters the novella to offer cohesion—of a sorts. From cosmic communications to tarot cards, fungus ants to black-and-white film from the early 20th century, the novella covers a lot of ground getting to the bottom of the mystery the Signalman and Immacolota are trying to solve.

Cardboard Corner: Review of 7 Ronin

Based on what I see on Youtube, I am far-far from a board game nerd. Closer to casual gamer, our house does not have massive shelves packed to the gills with hundreds of games. Zero offence to others, but our extra-curricular activities are more varied—to each their own. It will thus be a long time before I ever feel comfortable comprising a list of “Underrated Boardgames”. Such a list implying I’ve played the majority of games and am thus able to distinguish under-the-radar from on-the-radar, it’s going to be an epoch before I consider myself such an expert. But there is one thing I do know: if/when that list is made, 7 Ronin (2013) will likely be on it <wink>.

A 2-player only, area control game, 7 Ronin focuses on a small Japanese village in Kurosawa style. Banditry afoot, the village sees a large group of ninja descending upon it and a small group of ronin rising up to defend it. An asymmetrical game, one side controls the seven ronin, while the other controls the band of ninja. Each turn, players deploy forces behind a screen on their own board, then simultaneously reveal. The deployment choices are then resolved on the main village board. Each of the ronin having a special power, and each of the village areas granting the ninja special abilities, players use their knowledge of the game state to bluff, outwit, and outguess their opponent. Such as it goes for eight rounds. At the end, if all seven ronin are killed, or if certain area-control conditions are met, the ninja win. If all ninja are defeated, or at least one ronin survives to the end of the eighth round, the ronin win.