Politics

Crisis 2020: What Our Next President Needs to Acknowledge

We’re over a year away from the first primaries and almost two years away from election day, but with five high-profile politicians announcing their candidacy as America’s next president in the past week alone — it’s clear we’re full-swing into the 2020 election cycle. This isn’t going to be a fun election. It’ll be as grueling of an exorcism on our country’s values as the last one. It will feel like torture, but it will be necessary torture. There are big questions we have to resolve about our country’s future. Along the way it will become very easy to get lost in the day-to-day horror show, so I wanted to outline my personal beliefs and what I’ll be looking for in our next president.

I want to stress that this election is the second part of a once-in-a-lifetime event. As The Atlantic’s David Frum said: America’s politics were frozen from 1990 to 2015, evident by the fact that the main issues on opposite sides of the era were exactly the same: health care, wars in the middle east, Russia, taxes on the rich and ultra-partisanship. If we learned anything from 2016, it’s that the public was desperate to shatter the ice. We’re still picking up the pieces from that decision. It’s clear the majority of people are not happy with our current state of affairs but it is just as true that many people do not want to go back to the past. We all want to go somewhere different. Where that destination may be lies in the candidates for this election. This isn’t simply the rejection of our current president, it’s deciding the future of our political parties for the next generation.

Below are some musings about what I think are the two most important things facing our country.

picture of Warren and Clinton
Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren became popular as the progressive darling of the party, but many other politicians have risen alongside her.

The Economy and a post-work society

Let’s talk about robots. Everyone knows that automation is coming. We see it at McDonalds’ self-serve kiosks or read about it when Amazon announces they’re investing in drone technology to handle deliveries. Automation will be a great thing for many reasons. The jobs that are getting automated are careers no one wants. No one’s life purpose is discovered making change as a cashier or troubleshooting tech support over the phone. We’re happy to give these jobs over to robots, but the problem with automation comes from how our system is designed. America was founded on the prospect of receiving the fruits of one’s labor — but what does the world look like when you don’t have to work?

Right now, we only know what happens if you can’t work and it doesn’t look good.

In traditional capitalist market economy, they say when one market goes defunct, another one will take its place. Where there is a void in the market, a smart entrepreneur can cater to the market’s needs and make a living out of it. This is true for individuals as well. If your job is no longer viable, you’re motivated to get a new one. Many skills can be retrained and reapplied to different industries and we all have an intrinsic desire to survive. This is what many economists say will happen with the automation revolution. Unfortunately for anyone paying attention, we know this is not the case, because we already have a test case for what happens when an industry disappears.

Between 2000 and 2009, America lost five million manufacturing jobs. There is a dispute on whether these jobs were sent overseas or automated by robots, but the fact remains that these jobs are never coming back. In the wake of their disappearance, our country now had five million unemployed workers with relatively dexterous skills and decades of experience. Market economists would tell you these workers had a good chance of retraining for another job, but that is not what happened. The majority of displaced manufacturing workers were unemployed for over a year and then eventually stopped looking, leaving the workforce. Some applied to work retraining programs which proved to have an effectiveness of zero to 33 percent.

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Entrepreneur Andrew Yang is a long-shot candidate running on the platform of Universal Basic Income to compensate for shifts automation will make to the American economy.

What are all those workers doing if they’re not paying for their cost of living? The government is paying for it. Starting in 2000, more Americans started filing for disability insurance. The increase in disability benefits focused in states hit hardest by manufacturing losses, such as Michigan. Of course, disability wasn’t meant to act as a replacement for work and it wasn’t meant to balloon in size over a short amount of time (the number of Americans on disability doubled between 1980 and 2005). This isn’t to say that these workers “gave up” on finding a job and now belong in an underclass of Americans who rely on entitlements. They spent years looking for a job, but couldn’t find one. When desperation finally hit, they turned to government assistance. Who can blame them?  

Disability saved many manufacturing workers from financial ruin, but that option will not be available for the other industries that get displaced. America’s disability insurance was predicted to run out by 2028, due to the massive increase of recipients. The fund was merged with social security to prolong its financial sustainability. Social security is having its own fiscal problems though — that fund is expected to run out by 2034.

Manufacturing was one industry, but in the next decade we will see many more disappear from the market. AI experts say that any job that’s considered “routine” can be automated. Regardless of complexity, if a task is performed the same way every time, a computer can learn how to do it. The Federal Reserve has classified around 58 million jobs as “routine,” and therefore at risk of being automated. This includes the industries of retail, food service, call center support and trucking driving. These also happen to be the four most popular industries in the United States.

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Former Vice President Joe Biden is known as a policy-hound, and could provide some insight on how to resolve America’s economic problems.

Truck driving illuminates how dire this situation will become. The average truck driver is a 49-year-old male, with a high school diploma and no significant family. There are roughly 3 million truck drivers in the United States. It’s the most popular profession in 29 states. What’s going to happen to these truck drivers when they can’t get a job? What do you think millions of 49-year-old single men would do if pushed to desperation? The alternatives to disability insurance are not fun to consider.

While all this is going on, we have companies like Amazon and Apple announcing trillion-dollar valuations and market experts claiming the United States’ economy is better now than ever before. There is clearly a disconnect between these two Americas that cannot be ignored. We’re in the middle of redefining our country’s relationship with work and there are few suggestions to how we’ll navigate this reality. One thing is certain: our current system will collapse. It will begin to collapse during the next recession (which is forecasted any day now). Our country needs a leader who understands the breadth of this issue and has an ambitious solution for it.

When it comes to viable presidential candidates, this issue eliminates anyone who appears tone deaf to the extent of our economic crisis. This is a bigger problem than a $15 minimum wage or tax cuts for the rich can solve. We need big ideas because we can’t afford anything less. I’m more willing to consider a zany idea that appears to have the reach we need, over a more mainstream idea that clearly will not work.

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New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand is known for being a skilled politician and effective policymaker, but her call for Senator Al Franken to step down rubbed some Wall Street campaign financers the wrong way — potentially crippling her financial position in a crowded field.

Education and the American purpose

It’s often debated whether school is meant to prepare students for a career or for life but it’s clear that the American education system does neither. A High School diploma has become so ubiquitous and devalued by programs like No Child Left Behind that it’s led to the necessity for post-secondary private education for students to stay competitive in the job market. Of course, private higher education has become just as meaningless as a High School diploma, all the while burdening students with oppressive debt that prevents them from entering the workforce sooner and suppresses entrepreneurial endeavors that are necessary to maintain a free marketplace.

We have a lot of economic reasons to fix our education system (and I’m intrigued by ideas such as bailing out student debt, or at least making loan payments interest free) but I believe our schools can resolve a different issue. Americans, and the western world, are facing an existential crisis of purpose. In the same way that our economy is being massively overhauled into a post-work society, our cultural identity has also massively shifted. The question of “what should I be doing with my life?” once had a few answers. Religious texts gave followers a path to leading a good life; American families stressed the importance of leaving a legacy and making the world better for the next generation; and some found their career to be worth dedicating to during the era of prosperous free-market capitalism. These options are not available to younger generations. American religiosity has plummeted (which has many good side effects, but this particular one could be marked as a negative), our country has a declining birth rate that’s barely equalized by mass immigration, and few have the option to pursue a career that’s guaranteed to employ them for their entire life.

Unsurprisingly, our country has become massively depressed and turned to destructive tendencies to fill the void. We’re in the midst of the biggest opioid epidemic in history. In 2015, drug overdoses took over car accidents as the most common form of death and has continued to reign number one ever since. Drug use is a way of ignoring our problems, but our solutions are just as damaging. I believe our political polarization is fueled by individuals desire to define their purpose with ideology. In many ways, politics has overtaken religion as our generation’s existential identity. This is why phrases like “everything is political” have become mainstream. Politics is the only lens people can view the world in a way that makes them care about it, so they inject it into everything, even where it does not belong.

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California Senator Kamala Harris has been an establishment candidate since her Senate race in 2016 where she was endorsed by Vice President Biden and President Barack Obama, despite running against another Democrat.

Last year’s The Coddling of the American Mind outlined how modern trends of polarization and increased anxiety could be addressed by restricting kids’ access to smartphones (two hours a day) and teaching them the basic tenants of cognitive behavioral therapy (a method of addressing cognitive distortions that lead to depression and anxiety — it doesn’t require medication or professional help and is hugely successful). I believe we can redesign our education to address the most important fact of reality: existence can be incredibly draining and you have to teach yourself to find enjoyment in life. There are small modifications that can be made to prevent catastrophe (such as CBT) but we also have to give students the means to discover their own purpose in life. Whether that’s creating a structure that contributes to society (business management, entrepreneurial pursuits, law), pursuing art (music, writing, visuals) or becoming a pillar of a community (parenthood, journalism, religious or volunteer work).

Giving students the resources to navigate the world is more important than frontloading them with entry-level information they might need. I’m sure any person can figure out the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell if they need that information to achieve their goal. That’s not the main concern for young people today. Most are totally lost. They either have no direction, or they’re so dejected by early failures they’re uncertain they can apply themselves to anything meaningful. This type of educational overhaul may not have many-short term gains, but it’ll address a generational issue that if we continue to ignore will lead to monumental problems in a decade or two.

I believe one of the biggest issues facing our generation is finding an answer to nihilism. It may be a stretch to call this section “education,” since the issue I’m describing exists far outside of standardized testing and the achievement gap, but this is the only institution in our society I believe can help with this goal. Nihilism is no longer the harmless, cringey, pop-philosophy name dropped in movies and metal albums. It has overtaken many Americans as their defining ideology. Anyone paying attention can see this. When one of the president’s biggest factions is a group of trolls who refer to a mythical “kekistan” where everything is a big joke; when you have a huge increase in mass shooters, all one-upping each other on who can cause the most devastation to reality; and when you have record breaking drug addiction and depression diagnoses, you’re dealing with a populace that doesn’t believe life matters. That belief has a consequential effect on the rest of us. Our country needs a leader who’s attuned to this existential problem and believes they can do something about it.

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Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg considered a run in 2016 but decided against it.

Closing thoughts

These two issues may seem to exist on such a macro-level that it’d be impossible for any politician to fulfill them. That may be true. I can’t imagine a dream candidate will descend from the heavens and resolve two of the biggest problems in our country within one term. However, this criterion serves the purpose of identifying who will not be helpful for our country’s future.

With these issues in mind, any politician campaigning on restoring our country to pre-2015 is dead on arrival. This is why I am totally unenthusiastic about the prospect of Joe Biden running for president. This is equally true for any establishment Republicans like Jeff Flake, Bob Corker or Mitt Romney. I’m unconvinced any of them truly understand the crisis our generation sees and they’ll want to talk about the same old ideas we’ve heard for decades. The ideas from the past will not lead us into the future.

My focus on redefining our American purpose toward something productive outlines my total zero tolerance toward any politician willing to play the identity politics game. Our generation has a massive over-reliance on deriving purpose from politics. That reliance has devastated our public discourse, ruined friendships, polarized our nation and hampered all mechanisms to resolve these issues. Maybe this would be ok if it resulted in a better world or healthier people — but there is no indication of that. We have increasing numbers of depression and anxiety, and various polls say Americans believe the world is getting worse — not better — despite overwhelming statistical evidence proving we’re in the best point in history. Politics works best when people angrily demand change. This incentive to stay in a perpetual state of anger is what is making us miserable. I see any politician exploiting this existential insecurity as an opportunist who’s leading their followers down a destructive path of self-immolation.

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Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders hasn’t ruled out running for President, but has suggested he’s deciding if there’s another candidate who could make a more viable run on the same platform.

Unfortunately, these two criterions knock out over half of the suspected democratic field. While I’m sure people like Kirsten Gillibrand or Cory Booker have the best of intentions with the tactics they utilize to bring about change, I believe some of those tactics directly contribute to the bigger issues looming over everything else. At the same time, although I may loathe their candidacy throughout the democratic primaries, if my only other option is the guy who’s systematically destroyed our country’s institutions, the choice makes itself.

I’ve been talking about these two issues for the past few months with some friends and the overwhelming response is a common criticism. “Every generation thinks they’re at the brink of global catastrophe!” Before our current moment there was nuclear war in Russia, before that we had a corrupt President who was shooting anti-war protestors on campus, before that we had an assassinated president and racists preventing civil rights, before than we had a world war, which came just after a great depression which was preceded by the first world war. With all these moments in our past and the story of our perseverance over each of them, how could we remain so cynical about the future? Each generation thought this was the end, but it wasn’t. That’s true, but I believe it is because they believed it was the end that they got through it.

Our current political moment may not be the tipping point before devastation, but it sure feels that way, and if we want to prove that feeling is wrong, we should take it seriously and elect a leader who can add the problems of today to the history of adversities we’ve overcome.

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Movies

Top Films of 2018

This year of film had a lot of incredible originality. I’ve never been more optimistic for the future of movies than right now. Here are some movies that show movies are still one of the best ways to tell stories and dissect the human experience:

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10. A Quiet Place

It’s pretty crazy that a movie like A Quiet Place was billed as a mainstream blockbuster. It wasn’t so long ago that filmmakers had preconceptions of what audiences would accept. At the top of that list has always been the necessity for dialogue. People believed audiences were too stupid to understand a plot through pictures. Those long sequences of no-talking were for artsy films by Stanley Kubrick or Paul Thomas Anderson. A Quiet Place has proven audiences are up for a lot more than Hollywood may have expected. The film has a plot explanation for the lack of exposition and it commits to its own rule without circumventing it by having soundproofed rooms or an abundance of subtitled sign language [Bird Box call out goes here].

The bravery of A Quiet Place to commit to its own idea is enough for me to commend the film, but it helps that it’s actually a thrilling nail-biter as well. The sound design has an obvious contribution to the tension, but just as important is John Krasinki’s direction and decision to show the monsters sparingly (although we do get that paid off eventually). It’s also a film that takes narrative risks. The opening scene shows the lethality of the world and proves to the audience that this story could go anywhere — and indeed it does. A Quiet Place is more than an exciting thriller with an intriguing pitch, it’s a sign of how far mainstream audiences have come and how far filmmakers are now allowed to go.

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9. The Front Runner

I could probably write ten thousand words about my thoughts on The Front Runner, but most of them would be focused on politics and not the movie itself. To put it simply, the story of Gary Hart is essential to modern day America. It’s a tragic tale of an upstanding politician whose presidential aspirations are torched by shoddy reporting and a societal shift toward denying privacy to public figures. Hugh Jackman plays the lead role of Senator Gary Hart and he perfectly captures the mixture of anger and disgust Hart embodied when he was asked personal questions or suggestions he had been unfaithful to his wife. He was a reasonable man who reacted appropriately to inappropriate inquiries, but it wasn’t the reaction the public wanted and we all suffered as a result.

One of the reasons this story is so important — although it is never addressed in the film — is Hart has since been exonerated for this so-called “scandal.” A Republican strategist admitted on his deathbed that Gary Hart’s scandal was a set-up. How could such a shoe-string trick tank an otherwise popular politician? Well, that’s where the 10,000 words come in. In short, The Front Runner will force you to address how you view the purpose of the press, how we consume media, and what’s relevant to report — without getting confused by the craziness of our current president. It seems we’re living in the day Hart predicted “when we get the kind of leaders we deserve.”

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8. Spider-Man into the Spider-Verse

It’s hard to believe this is the fourth time Spider-Man’s origin story has been committed to film, but Spider-Verse’s greatest accomplishment is how new it feels despite that fact. This is a superhero film with a purpose. It has a narrative it wants to tell that exists outside of maximizing audience likability to launch a franchise of films. As a result, Spider-Verse is the most refreshing superhero film in a long time. I really loved its total embrace of the animated art style and Spider-Verse concept. The presence of multiple universes isn’t a generic roadblock for the [hero] to overcome, it’s interwoven into every aspect of the film. The multiple Spider-Mans and alternative versions of well-known villains made this particular story standout in the sea of copy-paste superhero films out today. Spider-Verse holds on its own and shows there’s more creative energy in this genre that’s starting to feel tired.

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7. Searching

You’ll often find people who claim every style of film has already been explored and all that’s left are gimmicks. I’d challenge those people to watch Searching. The film is shot entirely from the perspective of a computer screen while a father searches for his missing daughter. You might wonder, why restrict that story to a computer screen? Wouldn’t it work better if you could pull away and see the main character react to information? Well 1) you do see him react in other ways and 2) there’s an immersion quality to the main character’s search that wouldn’t be possible if you weren’t glued to the screen in the same way he is. It’s an inventive filming technique that truly utilizes its form to fortify the narrative. Searching has incredible pacing and some great twists, making it easily one of the most enjoyable film experiences this year.

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6. First Reformed

This is a strange entry on this list because First Reformed went from 0 to 100 very quickly for me. The film stars Ethan Hawke as a priest in a congregation that’s getting more irrelevant in modern times. He’s asked to help a woman’s husband, who has become nihilistic due to global warming and the fear of raising a child in a dying world. Hawke’s character goes on his own journey, but I’ll be honest and say a lot of the messaging in this film was eye-roll inducing. It’s a movie that seemed like it was going the absolute wrong way for so many bad reasons, but it all changes at the very end. Its final shot delivers a blow to pessimistic scare-mongering, and it wasn’t until that final shot that I decided I loved this movie. If nothing else, First Reformed is worth a watch for the interesting musings about what we should be doing in the face of a potential global catastrophe.

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5. A Star Is Born

It might not be surprising the fourth remake of A Star Is Born is good, but it is surprising just how good it is. This isn’t just a retelling of an old story, it’s about the realities of fame, the loneliness of popularity, how hard it is to remain authentic, and the difficulty of supporting a relationship in the spotlight. It’s a film with huge scope, but feels like a passion project. A lot of that passion comes from Lady Gaga’s performance. Her musical performances sing for themselves, but her acting matches the caliber of skill found in the array of actors she’s surrounded by.

In the review I gave earlier this year, I had some criticisms for individual scenes or how the second act loses its tight direction, but many of those critiques disappear given the full breadth of the film. A Star is Born succeeds at humanizing celebrities and getting the audience to see how the struggles of stardom are not so different from ordinary life. There may be some faults along the way, but it feels like a cultural event that deserves to be seen.

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4. Hereditary

I don’t like horror movies. I want my movies to have some value beyond jumping my nervous system so I feel alive for a few hours. I want something to think about. Hereditary gives you something to think about and maybe some mild PTSD to overcome for the rest of your life. If there’s one thing I can say to convince fellow non-horror film fans, it’s the fact that Hereditary has no jump scares. It plays it straight from beginning to end, and it doesn’t detract from the terror it inflicts. Although Hereditary inevitably becomes a supernatural hellscape in its final minutes, the majority of the film is a family drama depicting the ways people cope with death. It was the dramatic moments of the film that have stuck with me. The ants, the scream, the rear-view mirror — they still give me chills. Hereditary taps into the true fears of the human condition and sets an example all horror films should aspire to.

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3. Eighth Grade

We don’t deserve Bo Burnham. In an era where everyone is focused on the Logan Pauls of the world, Burnham understands that the majority of experiences with the internet is intense loneliness manifested in personal vlogs. For a man who benefited early from “going viral,” Burnham shows a remarkable amount of empathy for the type of person who gravitates toward web content. Eighth Grade follows a young girl with no following of any kind, and shows how her web presence contrasts with her dull life. While this alone might have been good enough to be a great film, Eighth Grade enters another echelon with the infamous truth or dare scene. In one of the most uncomfortable versions of a well-known party game, Burnham shows the complicated relationship between our desire for human connection and our frequent disappointment with other people. It’s a brave film that leaves its audience with a new sense of empathy and understanding for the oddballs attempting to navigate this strangely interconnected world we live in.

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2. The Hate U Give

When I tell people I like The Hate U Give, the number one response I receive is “Really? I thought you’d hate that movie.” Maybe that’s a low-level insult about me, or maybe I can’t blame people for that reaction since I haven’t liked Sorry To Bother You, Moonlight, Blackkklansman or countless other movies about the black experience in America. But maybe my enjoyment of The Hate U Give proves the effectiveness of its message. Regardless of your political views, it’s clear America’s relationship with black Americans and police officers is something that needs to be examined. While many pieces of art have attempted to present their worldview as the definitive solution to these complicated problems, The Hate U Give knows when it can give an answer and when it can’t. Instead of pretending to possess oracle wisdom from the future, the film anchors its conflict to how it affects its family of characters.

The family of The Hate U Give is based on a book that came out two years ago (which received similar level of praise) and the movie really feels like it’s derived from dense source material. The world feels rich with life and backstory. Numerous side characters pop in and out, all with their own history that contributes to the narrative and how it affects the main character. Starr isn’t a perfect person — and she makes many mistakes throughout the film — but all her choices are understandable given the context of her situation. She’s an immensely likable character who’s attempting to navigate difficult issues in good faith. Much of Starr’s wisdom comes from her father, Maverick, who acts as a source of stability throughout the family’s turbulent journey. I couldn’t help but wonder how many black families could have had a Maverick figure in their life, but were robbed of such an individual due to the realities of our era.

From a filmic view, The Hate U Give doesn’t have any standout production elements. It’s not a movie that’s praised for its artistic direction. Instead it’s a movie that addresses difficult issues and allows productive conversations as a result. It’s for that reason, I consider it the most vital film from this year.

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1. Annihilation

My first viewing of Annihilation was defined by awe. My initial review praised the movie for accomplishing incredibly tense minute-to-minute set pieces, but also found time for lofty big ideas to think about. There was enough left unexplained to allow for a conspiracy theory-level of obsession. I saw Annihilation twice in the theater. I bought it the first day it was available for download and I’ve since seen it a total of six times, each time with a new group of friends so we could uncover the mystery of Annihilation. In these viewings and conversations, I haven’t “solved” Annihilation — in fact some people would say movies are not meant to be solved — instead I’ve found a wealth of interpretations, all of which have their own merit. Annihilation is dense with ideas and as a result it can be about so many things.

Even if it weren’t high-concept and otherworldly, Annihilation is one of the more memorable journeys into the unknown. The film is classified as science fiction, but it’s closer to a horror film. The crew’s experiences in the shimmer run the gambit of every type of dread you can experience. Jump scares, body horror, extreme violence and gore, existential horror and psychological unease. Who can forget the alligator, the video tape, the bear or the lighthouse? They’re permanently implanted in your brain not only because of the terror they inflict, but because of the strangeness you never completely understand. How do these traumatic experiences affect who we become?

I’ve seen this movie a bunch of times and I’m still in awe. Annihilation is an unbelievable achievement. It’s the most inventive science fiction film in a decade, an unforgettable experience and easily the greatest film from this year — perhaps one of the greatest of all-time.

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Books

Log: Entering the Witcherverse with The Last Wish

This post is part of a log I keep on things I finish. Read here for why I keep this log.

Why did I read it?

Earlier this year I finished Baptism of Fire, the third novel in the Witcher franchise, but the fifth book in the series (the first two books are a collection of short stories). The story of Baptism of Fire is largely self-contained. The main hero — Geralt — goes on a very linear adventure looking for his pseudo-adoptive daughter — Ciri. Geralt goes to one place, then another, then another, and another. He meets many people and these characters and their relationships get a good deal of progression, but at the end of the book the narrative pulls back reminds the reader of the macro-scale politics that are going on in the world while Geralt was galavanting in the forest. It was in these final few pages of the book that I realized I had no idea what the hell was going on.

If I’m being honest, the feeling of confusion has been the most defining attribute of the Witcher book series for me. It seems as if it was written for an audience that would read, and re-read, every entry to pick away at the world — something I have no interest in doing. I’ve consumed most of my understanding of the Witcherverse through the games which I hoped would catch me up to speed enough to understand the books. But when it comes to these grand feuding political entities and their individual motivations, I get totally lost. It also doesn’t help that there are plenty of characters who have hidden motivations or mistaken motivations and many of those characters don’t appear in the games at all. One example that comes to mind is Vilgefortz, who’s referenced in Witcher 2 as a type of guy you can envision being a main antagonist. Vilgefortz appears in the second novel — Time of Contempt — and his introduction is such that it becomes very obvious he’s a significant character worth remembering. In Baptism of Fire, Vilgefortz does not appear at all, and if it wasn’t for Witcher 2’s mention of him I would’ve forgotten about him entirely — the same way I forgot many other characters.

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One of the strengths of the Witcher games is it knows to anchor your interest in the world with characters Geralt has a direct relationship with.

If any other book series had done this to me, I would’ve given up on it. I’m a bit of a completionist when it comes to individual books (I almost never give up on a book, I force myself to finish it even if it takes years of chipping away at it), but for a book series I’ll easily abandon it if one book loses my interest. I did this with The Magicians series where the second book handled a heroine character so catastrophically I swore off the whole thing. At this point, The Witcher has committed a similar grave error. I read books to enjoy them and if I have to take notes just to know what’s going on that’s not conducive to an enjoyable experience. It makes reading feel like work. Suddenly reading this series becomes a literal chore and I don’t want to have that experience.

But I also feel an obligation to The Witcher. I loved Witcher 3 so much. I like the characters Geralt, Ciri, and Yennefer. I like Sapkowski’s interest in politics and the allegories he creates for the modern day. I also truly enjoyed the short story collections The Last Wish and Sword of Destiny. I even remember really liking Time of Contempt. So where did it all go wrong? Maybe I took too long to read the individual books, or maybe I wasn’t paying close enough attention. There’s enough doubt in my own ability to compel a re-reading before I swear off another series that I really have every reason to like. So, I started re-reading The Witcher franchise, starting with the first short story collection. This time with a more critical eye: What is it about the series that turned me off? Where does it all go wrong?

How was it?

Unsurprisingly, The Last Wish remains one of my favorite fantasy books. This was my impression when I first read it a few years ago and its quality holds up today. In a way, re-reading this book was the first true reading I’d done of it. When I first began the Witcher books I got confused on which book came first so I actually started with Sword of Destiny. I didn’t notice the error until I started The Last Wish, where it becomes very obvious that I had consumed the story out of sequence (Yennefer is introduced in Last Wish whereas she’s a prominent character throughout Sword of Destiny). This time around, I got to read The Last Wish as a true introduction to the Witcherverse. Every story told was an indication of what Sapkowski thought was vital about the world he was creating. It was a revealing re-read and I want to share some thoughts from each individual story:

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The Witcher games pitch Geralt’s profession as supernatural detective work, but the book is far more politically focused.

The Voice of Reason

I should mention up front that The Last Wish is framed with the backdrop of an overarching story called “The Voice of Reason.” The Last Wish has six self-contained short stories, but each one is broken up by a few pages dedicated to The Voice of Reason which typically sets up the next story.

There’s probably a good reason Voice of Reason exists but it’s easily the worst part of the book. It’s disjointed delivery and shallow scope offers nothing but confusion to the reader. Maybe Sapkowski wanted to give The Last Wish a sense of “conclusion” that it didn’t have otherwise if it ended on a random short story, but Voice of Reason is a poor substitute. Its problems get worse as the book goes on. By the final installment, Geralt has a “climactic” fight with a character who was introduced several chapters ago. Which means you have to read two self-contained stories plus a chapter of Voice of Reason without this character, so I can’t fault anyone for forgetting the identity of this character or why they’re upset with Geralt

Voice of Reason is a shape of things to come from Sapkowski’s storytelling. My experience with the Witcher novels is reading about characters as if I should know who they are, but it’s been several hundred pages — or sometimes multiple books — since I last ran into them.

The Witcher

The introduction to Geralt and the Witcherverse is basically perfect. You get everything you need to know about this world in a single story — specifically how it subverts genre tropes. I’ve always heard that the Witcher series is known for subverting tropes, but it’s been a funny experience for me. I am a Polish American, and although I won’t say I totally understand Polish culture, I have some understanding of Polish people (specifically older Polish men) and their tendencies. I’ve always considered Polish people to have a streak of contrarianism. There’s probably a good historical reason for this. I imagine the concept of “general wisdom” has always been a term dominated by Western societies that have no interest or understanding of Polish culture and customs. So to Polish people, the “general wisdom” is simply the thoughts of westerners that don’t know anything about their life or values. But since Polish culture is a minority, it comes across as being combative and contrarian. This is a half-baked theory that probably deserves more research before I make such bold claims, but that’s the unedited version of my thesis at this point in time.

The reason I mention this streak of contrarianism is because The Witcher seems conceived from a place of contradicting the current fantasy norms. Mages are not intelligent scholars but self-interested rejects who can’t be trusted; Elves are not mystical environmentalists but ruthless rebels with no interest in diplomacy; Geralt is not a knight in shining armor but a mercenary who kills monsters for money, and etc. Even the details of the plot have slight deviations that give The Witcher a grittier feel. Geralt is tasked with saving a King’s daughter, but not from a monster, she is the monster — a striga. And why is she a monster? Well because the King had an incestuous affair with his sister. Some might say the Witcherverse exists in shades of gray but it’s closer to shades of black. Pretty much everyone in the universe is an asshole, which is not unlike our collective experience in life.

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Nothing is ever simple for Geralt. Every bit of information affects various parties and their attitudes toward him.

But then there’s Geralt. Who’s portrayed as a politically neutral actor focused on his job and that’s it. It’s interesting to hear that Geralt — and by extension Sapkowski — has become a right-wing hero to some readers because of the values he puts forth. For example, in the introduction story, Geralt is focused on his work and nothing else. He believes he has a trade and his purpose in life is to excel at the responsibilities and duties of that trade. There’s definitely a conservative value in that approach that some readers may see as admirable. However, I feel this is a shallow reading of Geralt’s motivations.

As interesting as the genre-defying window dressing may be, this story — and the Witcherverse itself — really comes into its own when Geralt is given a counter-offer to the King’s predicament. Rather than cure his daughter, a loyalist asks Geralt to kill the monster. The loyalist offers more money, but Geralt doesn’t believe the sum will be paid and even if it were, he can cure her, so why kill her? If that wasn’t an interesting dynamic enough, another political actor asks Geralt to leave the town. Don’t cure the daughter, don’t kill the striga, leave things as is. Geralt intuitively sees this political actor wants to oust the King, and it’d be easier to do so if the striga ran rampant.

This added plot point is what dumps the reader into the world of the Witcher. Even a neutrality-focused mercenary finds himself entrenched in politics. Sure, witchers have a “code,” but even Geralt admits it’s used as a convenient reason to decline contracts that seem more trouble than they’re worth. This is where the modern-day allegories become obvious. It seems we’ve been thrown into a world where every action is political and no one can remain totally neutral. This is a concept that’s developed more fully throughout the novels. It’s the idea that made Sapkowski’s books so successful and what makes the series unique. It’s evident in the very first story and it’s what makes this particular introduction so rewarding to read.

In the end, Geralt satisfies the wishes of the King and it seems as if all the bad guys have been defeated and the good prevails, but we’re left with this world that’s buried in unfairness. Geralt is mistreated throughout the entire story. His morality has no benefit. In fact, he probably lost money by adhering to it. So what is the fate of this character in this world? The Witcher is a great self-contained story but its greatest accomplishment is piquing interest in where things could go next.

A Grain of Truth

The Witcher eventually becomes a fascinating political world, but A Grain of Truth is the first deviation to traditional fantasy elements that have never been Sapkowski’s strength. This story is meant to be a redux on Beauty and the Beast where the beast is kind of an awkward jerk and the beauty is a monster he’s fallen in love with. From a lore perspective, this story sets up the monster side of the world. Not only are there various factions and political entities in the Witcherverse, there are also monsters who can co-exist with some humans or resolve their own problems with one another. Not every monster needs to be killed. In fact, a horrifically cursed man can fall in love with a nice creature of the woods.

While that sounds nice, reading this story is a bit of a chore. Sapkowski seems to enjoy describing scenes with a thesaurus on hand. One passage on page 50 uses the words mottled, festooned and plinth, which you wouldn’t think are enough to completely devalue an entire section but no matter how many times I read it my eyes glaze over and no image is imparted onto my imagination.

There are other lore concepts that are introduced in this chapter but it’s all very forgettable. None of these off-handed references add depth to the world, other than mentioning there’s various types of monsters and magic. Sapkowski has never seemed interested in explaining the fantastical elements of his stories so when a narrative focuses on those aspects, it’s not very engaging.

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Lesser Evil shows the Witchverse for what it is: grim and full of death.

The Lesser Evil

Lesser Evil is one of the more iconic stories from The Witcher, and potentially the best short story of both books. The central conflict in this story is an excellent synthesis of the world of The Witcher, but even before we get to that this story introduces some other realities in the universe.

The color of Lesser Evil fills in the grim thanklessness of Geralt’s work. At the beginning of this story he kills a monster but finds out there’s no contract listed in town — resulting in no pay. When Geralt meets with a sorcerer later, he makes a quip about witchers killing off the last of endangered species. These two encounters show how Geralt’s profession ensures he gains no fans from experts in monsterology, and it’s also rare for the common folk to show him any gratitude. He finds himself between the two worlds, serving a role that neither really cherishes, even if they do benefit from safer country roads due to witchers pruning monsters from the path. This isn’t a world of honor and prestige, it’s about individualism and people only acting in their best interests in the worst of ways. For example, there’s this passage from Geralt that shows what the world is like outside the stories told:

“One sees all sorts of things when one travels. Two peasants kill each other over a field which, the following day, will be trampled flat by two counts and their retinues trying to kill each other off. Men hang from trees at the roadside; brigands slash merchants’ throats. At every step in town you trip over corpses in the gutters. In palaces they stab each other with daggers, and somebody falls under the table at a banquet every minute, blue from poisoning. I’m used to it.”

More so than the prior stories, Lesser Evil shows the Witcherverse isn’t a fun fantasy world. It’s a dark place. This isn’t one of those worlds where you wish you could visit and stay for a while. These details do a nice job for filling in the world but also prepare the reader for the content of Lesser Evil’s plot.

Geralt runs into a sorcerer named Stregobor, who says he’s being hunted by a woman named Renfri. She’s coming to town to kill him. Stregobor hires Geralt to protect him, but to be extra safe, he stays locked up in his tower. Geralt seems confident he can resolve whatever murderous dispute exists between the two, but Stregobor says it’s not so simple.

He explains that Renfri bares the Curse of the Black Sun — being born during an eclipse. The curse is known to cause tendencies of insanity and pushes people to cruelty. The curse is well-known and as such, Renfri has been treated as a potential serial killer her whole life. Her step-mother attempted to have her killed. Stregobor was assigned the task of putting the girl out of this world but his plan went wrong and she escaped.

Given that background, it’s easy to sympathize with Renfri. She’s been mistreated her entire life. Even her own family wants her dead. It seems obvious that anyone who is treated as evil their entire life will develop a chip on their shoulder and may feel the desire to exact revenge on their terrorizers, but that’s not the result of a curse — it’s an understandable response from someone who’s been abused their whole life.

At the same time, Renfri doesn’t do a very good job at convincing Geralt — or anyone else — that she’s not a demented lunatic. The plot finds its own conclusion, but it’s difficult to see the resolution as anything but a tragedy.

Renfri’s story, and Geralt’s predicament, can act as allegories for other political issues. In any issue, there are abusers and the abused. It’s easy to imagine sympathizing with the abused, but there are instances where the abusers have their hands tied or are the results of other actions they may have mishandled (If you find it difficult to consider the thought that some people “deserve” the abuse they receive, consider this op-ed from a Silicon Valley billionaire who argued rich people are more mistreated than German Jews in the 1930s). While it may be true one side’s anger is more deserved, or maybe both sides are equally delusional, the reality of politics remains the same. Sympathizing with either side necessarily earns you an enemy of the other. There is no resolution in these types of conflicts, there is only tragedy. Especially when one side tries to radicalize their actions, hoping it will bring the result they desire.

It’s an excellent point, deliver perfectly by Sapkowski’s writing that doesn’t play favorites with either side’s depiction. Reading the story feels like being between a rock and a hard place, a location that Geralt will occupy many times over across all the Witcher stories.

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A Question of Price

So begins the unending tale of Cintra and its royal class. This story is the first mention of Calanthe, the grandmother of Ciri, and the country Cintra. Cintra has quite a significant place in the geopolitics of The Witcher and much of it stems from the royal bloodline and alliances made or broken in an attempt to preserve that bloodline. While this plotline’s first mention in A Question of Price isn’t so egregious, I have a hard time enjoying this short story since it represents everything I’ve come to loathe about The Witcher series.

For one thing, it introduces an immense amount of characters and expects you to remember them. Anyone who’s played the games knows about the culture of Skellige Islanders, and if you’re a devoted fan you may know that Mousesack is the same character as Ermion (he was renamed for obvious reasons), but if you didn’t have those reference points then this story is a bit of a slog. There’s a lot of banter between warrior buddies as they drink around a huge table trying to court Calanthe’s approval to marry her daughter.

Thematically, this story introduces the concept of destiny, and explains the law of surprise — a tradition in the Witchverse where someone chooses their reward to be “what you find at home but don’t expect,” often a child. This is a key development for Geralt’s relationship with Ciri, which is explained in Sword of Destiny.

It’s neat that this short story carries its significance across the Witcher novels, but it’s not a particularly interesting story. It’s a bunch of lords arguing with a stranger about his rights as a peasant with some random magic thrown in as well. Some of the dialogue is engaging, but this story is mostly all the types of politics people hate with none of the morality predicaments that makes things interesting. Even worse is this short story is likely the most essential for understanding the background of many of the events that take place throughout the novels, which makes its slow pace all the more agonizing.

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Edge of the World

This story is likely The Witcher at its most “fun.” You’ve got Dandelion, a talking monster, some pretty ridiculous superstitions and a run-in with the vicious elves. I’ve already mentioned how The Witcher or Lesser Evil set up the tone of the Witcherverse — grim, pessimistic and politically infused — but Edge of the World is a sample of how those elements get interwoven into a world that isn’t always so serious. There are a lot of silly elements in Edge of the World. It’s easy to see how Geralt’s job can go from dangerous to ridiculous, to dangerous again — which is pretty much the arc of this short story.

From a lore standpoint, this is the first introduction to the elves and forest mysticism which is relatively unknown outside of elder races that live outside of society. You also get a sense of where the world “ends.” There isn’t a flat earth with dragons off the side, but if you get far enough from the main civilizations, you’re in elf territory and bound to get your throat slit.

I remember not liking this story so much on my first read-through. Looking at my notes, it seems my younger self got very confused by two characters: Torque and Torviel, being introduced in the same passage (technically Torque is established way before, but his name isn’t mentioned until he’s in the presence of Torviel). Maybe I’m the dumb one here, or maybe it’s a good reminder for conventional storytelling wisdom: don’t have two characters whose names begin with the same letter — especially don’t have two characters begin with the same three letters.

Other than that minor misstep, this is a low-stakes story that shows what Geralt’s day-to-day is like, and it’s a refreshing change from the intense drama seen in the other stories.

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#TeamTriss

The Last Wish

Sapkowski ends The Last Wish by introducing one of his most iconic characters: Yennefer of Vengeberg. I’ve read that Sapkowski created the character specifically to write a female heroine that defied genre tropes. While it’s true that Yennefer’s aggressive attitude, more-than-competent magical ability, and dark fashion sense differed from what was in-vogue for fantasy during the 1990s — Yennefer still falls into some tropes that authors are frequently criticized for. Sure, Yennefer punishes Geralt for sexualizing her, and uses her sex appeal against many men to make them literal zombies to do her bidding, but at the end of the story she’s still a damsel-in-distress saved by our hero, Geralt. And of course, his reward is sex.

This is one of those instances where Witcher 3 has truly left its mark. Whereas the book Yennefer seems inconsistent, the video game adaptation seemed more fully-formed. In the game, Geralt is practically bossed around by Yennefer and the only reason he can hold his ground is because she does truly care about him and his feelings (although he denies having at all). It’s an interesting dynamic, almost the complete flip of conventional love interests in fantasy writing, but in the books that dynamic isn’t as clear. It doesn’t help that the magical bond that ties Yennefer and Geralt romantically seems a bit more vital in their book relationship, whereas in the game its understated. Of course, the follow-up short story collection would expand on their relationship in many ways.

All of this is to say, while Yennefer has become a well-known beloved character in the franchise, her introduction story is merely ok.

Final thoughts

This “short log” is nearing 4,000 words, so I’m completely betraying the goal I had with this log.

I’m glad I re-read The Witcher’s introductory short story collection. Even with a more critical eye, it’s still about as good as I remember. If anything, this process has only revealed to me what I already knew on a subconscious level. There are kernals of greatness in the storytelling that propels me to keep reading just in case there’s another nugget worth reading, but among those good moments are an abundance of dreary politics, ineffective descriptive text, and way too many characters to keep track of. Knowing this could enhance my reading experience moving forward, since I’ll know when I’m entering one of those slog sections that it’s a known weakpoint of the series. I hope this awareness will make the good moments that much more significant.

 

4/5

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LOG: God of War is not a good video game

This post is part of a log I keep on things I finish. Read here for why I keep this log.

Early in my opinion-having life, I discovered my thoughts were usually out of sync with everyone else. Some might say there’s something wrong with me. For whatever reason, you can reliably assume that out of the handful of universally acclaimed games or movies that come out, maybe half of those won’t jive with me at all. Consider it an inability to think outside of my own perspective or maybe I have an inherent desire to be a contrarian dick, but I don’t think either are true. Communicating your opinion is very difficult to do and if you haven’t practiced that skill it’s easier to rely on what other people have said. Sometimes this leads to you agreeing with things you don’t actually believe.

Imagine you play a game and hear a critic call it “the best game in years.” You hear that comment and you feel like you agree. The reason you agree is because that particular game did something you hadn’t seen in a long time and you really liked it. You feel the critic’s words accurately describe your general enjoyment of the game and specifically how it accomplished something that hasn’t been done in a game for years. You use the phrase “the best game in years” to explain how you feel because you can’t quite nail the specifics of your own thoughts. But in that phrase comes many other statements that you may not necessarily agree with. Is it truly the “best game in years?” Wasn’t there another game earlier this year you liked even better? Weren’t there several games you liked better? To the average person, this distinction doesn’t matter because the overall message they wanted to get across remains intact. They liked the game and it did something that hadn’t been done in years. This choice of words might dilute their opinion on other topics, but most people don’t dedicate a lot of time attempting to maintain critical consistency (which is totally ok).

In the reception I’ve read for God of War, many reviewers and commenters explain their enjoyment of the game by parroting empty phrases. Their assessment often lacks specifics and relies on vague language or plain descriptions without any real judgement of their merit. Consider IGN’s review that 1) refers to an “engrossing whole” made up of individual elements and 2) spends several paragraphs explaining what’s in the game without really commenting on why it’s any good. It’s easy to see why some people take this approach. God of War is a dense game with a lot of mechanics and many things going on at once. If you’re enjoying the game, it may be difficult to narrow down where your enjoyment is coming from, but that experience can be very different for other players who don’t like the game. See, I know exactly how I feel about God of War because despite dumping 30+ hours of my life into it, I didn’t have any fun.

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God of War is easily one of the prettiest games this year, but it’s successes end there.

Why did I play it?

This is a good question because I’ve never liked God of War. It’s always been a game that values spectacle over substance. This is the series that pioneered quick time events and large-scale boss battles. Sure, it looked cool, but the player interaction with the world was lackluster. I remember comparing the original 2005 God of War to Dynasty Warriors since it was a more stylish button masher, but that comparison never convinced many people.

So, I’m going to write some words to pin point all the ways God of War isn’t “an engrossing whole,” it’s actually a mess of a game that seems loosely tied together. It absolutely nails the spectacle thrills the series is known for, but that doesn’t make it fun.

How was it?

God of War’s remix on its old formula is transitioning the series to an open-world role playing game. The player can now traverse a large world at their own pace and Kratos has a progression system that unlocks new skills and higher stats. In addition to player progression, the open world gives players side quests and small-scale puzzles that reward success with loot that can increase Kratos’ lethality even further. This all sounds like a great deviation from the series’ formula. God of War was known for being a tightly guided experience. In the original trilogy, players couldn’t even move the camera since the developer thought it was essential to guide their attention to the action. If there was any risk for this team to take, it’s relinquishing that control and embracing the open world antics.

Unfortunately, the open world is the most obvious flaw of God of War because the level design was clearly crafted with the intent of directing the player’s experience which is antithetical to the appeal of an open world. In a typical location, the landscape may feel “open” either through its vastness or various crates nestled in the corners of the room but there’s almost always two directions: forward and back the way you came. Once you arrive at the specific destination you were intended to reach, the trail stops and there is nothing further. This can be frustrating for new players because open world games don’t typically feel as restricted as God of War. In any open world game, you can anticipate branching paths, little secrets in nooks and corners and a sense of freedom that you could go wherever you want but maybe you don’t want to just yet. God of War masks the rails of its experience by creating large environments the player can run around, but most of the deviations from the path end in nothing. If you’re like me, and you want to seek out those additional paths, the game can feel frustrating. There are many environments where it seems like you should be able to go somewhere new but that feeling never bares out to be true.

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As much as the game pretends to be “open world” deviating from the intended path is rarely rewarding — instead it reveals the game’s deepest flaws.

Even as a guided experience, God of War can feel inadequate in its directions. Kratos has a variety of ways to traverse the terrain, but most of these traversals result in looking for button prompts in unnatural locations. Consider a game like Uncharted or Prince of Persia where there is a lot of climbing and swinging around, but the player always knows where they’re going. It can feel a little limiting at times since there’s obviously only one path forward, but the player still feels like they’re Nathan Drake or The Prince traversing the world. God of War never feels natural. There’s no visual theme to express where Kratos can climb and where he can’t. Often times you have to search for the large “X” prompt on screen, and if you didn’t have that as a guide you’d be completely lost. It doesn’t help that this prompt is often located off-screen from Kratos’ view. There’s no better way to take a player out of an experience than have them searching for a button prompt, but that routinely happens in God of War.

Even if you’re managing to get to your destination on track, the game has a habit of throwing in unreachable destinations or unsolvable puzzles without explaining that Kratos isn’t equipped to tackle these paths just yet. For example, Kratos eventually gains the ability to break branches by lighting them on fire. Before unlocking that ability, Kratos comes across a series of branches he can’t pass. This might seem like an obvious design choice to anyone who’s played a Metroidvania, clearly the developer wants to pique the player’s interest and once they gain the necessary ability they’ll remember this roadblock and eagerly pass it for more content. Except, God of War only has two or three of these mechanics and they are all introduced very late into the game. There’s no indication in the early game that you will unlock some item later one. Which means every time you pass a pile of branches in the first 10 or 15 hours of the game, it feels like you missed something. There’s not even a “I can’t do that right now” voice over prompt from Kratos or his companion. As a result, you spend a lot of the game lacking confidence that you’re where you should be.

Nothing encapsulates the lost feeling core to God of War’s experience like the introduction of side quests. The first side quests hit a few hours into the game and they’re both strangely designed. My first quest had me seek out a mystical storeroom. I arrived at the location and fought a few enemies that seemed little more difficult than the main story. I eventually got to a hugely difficult enemy with a massive amount of health that killed me in two or three hits. I decided this quest was meant to be completed later — although I wondered why such a guided experience would give me a quest I can’t complete? Many hours later, I returned to the quest several levels higher and with new gear and found the same enemy was still incredibly lethal and had a lot of health. I managed to beat him and completed the quest but the experience was mystifying. Why would they frontload the first quest with such a difficult enemy? Why would the game give me prompts telling me some enemies may be “above my level” when the enemy stayed just-as-difficult even after I gained additional levels? It’s one of the moments where you’re forced to reconsider your impression of the game. A studio like Sony Santa Monica has such a huge budget, clearly it must be well-designed, but this seemed like the sloppy execution found in eastern-bloc soviet games from the mid 2000s.

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God of War presents itself as an action game with solid mechanics comparable to Dark Souls or a character action game, but at its heart its still a button masher.

Perhaps the most revealing fact about God of War’s development is the implementation of the nine realms. Early in the game Kratos comes across a cloud of black smog that impedes his progress. He speaks to a witch who takes you aside and says “Ok, so here’s these nine realms…” In any other game, you’d assume this would be the framing device for the entire game. Clearly, we have to go to each of the nine realms. Maybe a bit excessive for a little black smog, but this is a video game after all so let’s do it. Sure enough the first realm you go to has a complex backstory and a “dungeon” with puzzles that lead up to a final boss encounter. It feels like a Zelda game, or maybe closer to Darksiders. But this one realm (Alfheim) is the only realm that has this much development. It turns out you only go to four of the nine realms, one of which is the realm you start in (Midgard) and another only has a small environment for story purposes (Jotunheim). Even with this in mind, a huge portion of the story is about your ability to traverse the various realms but you rarely interact with these realms in a direct sense. In any other game, the realms would be the centerpiece for the entire experience, but the majority of God of War’s exists entirely separated from these realms. You’re mainly in Midgard. It feels like the game was either meant to be guided through the various realms but creative direction changed, or God of War’s scope was so massive they were forced to cut it down due to resource constraints. All of this is to say, it isn’t really clear why God of War is open world in the first place. It doesn’t embrace any open-world mechanics and appears to prefer guiding the player to specific places and specific times. Even a loose open world like the ones found in Legend of Zelda or Darksiders is ignored in favor of a strictly controlled narrative.

This problem plagues the combat as well. Kratos has his own progression system where he can unlock new abilities by expending “XP” (experience is treated like a currency rather than a metric of progress). He also has several attributes that can be increased with gear. Strength and defense can increase Kratos’ damage or resistance to damage while others like “runic” increase his abilities and “luck” increases the chance of finding more gear. But none of these systems actually matter. Regardless of whatever items or attributes you possess, it always feels like you’re doing the same exact amount of damage to enemies. There may be some minor alterations, but the progression is so slow and so gradual that you never feel like you’re progressing at all. I have to imagine this problem stems from the developers’ desire to control the experience. You never get an overpowered weapon that deals an immense amount of damage, or some random loot with ridiculous stats. Everything is very minimal and gradual. You get new loot primarily from the game’s NPC blacksmiths who unlock new equipment with story milestones. Much of the gear from sidequests is lackluster at best, or in service to collecting the parts needed to create gear unlocked by main quest milestones. You never feel an incentive to take on these sidequests or look for more loot because it’s all so inconsequential. I often forgot to level up Kratos for many hours because it seemed insignificant.

It doesn’t help that the combat lacks the fidelity of other action games. The best way I can describe my problem with God of War’s feel for combat is how it treats dodging. In a game like Dark Souls, or any character action game, if an enemy is swinging their sword at you but you run away from their reach, you can see them whiff in the air and hit nothing. In God of War, enemies will close the distance by gliding toward you and land their attack unless you hit the dodge button at the exact moment the prompt flashes on screen. This seems like an incredibly stupid design decision, especially consider many enemies can attack you and you can only press the doge button at the “right” moment once. Other games like the Arkham Asylum or Assassin’s Creed series have shown how dodging can be done right even with lock-on enemies, but God of War lacks the fidelity of those games. As a result, the combat lacks the feeling of grace found in other melee combats pioneered in the past five years. Instead it feels like a very pretty, nicely stylized, button masher.

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Kratos’ relationship with Atreus is unique, but even that relationship has spots of hamfisted dialogue emblematic of the entire game’s lazy storytelling.

Which brings me to my last point which is whatever God of War does “right” is totally separated from its ability to be a decent game. A lot of reviewers marveled at the one-shot camera gimmick or the presentation of the game, but to me these are totally inconsequential. I have to imagine creating a continuous shot across the entire 30-hour game proved to be a logistical nightmare at times, but that creative decision provides no value to the player. So why did they spend so much time perfecting it?

Some have said the story of God of War is what makes it worth playing and I have to wholeheartedly disagree. It is true that the dynamic between Kratos and his son Atreus is an interesting relationship that games haven’t explored before, but whatever good comes out of their frank conversations about responsibility and purpose is greatly overshadowed by the boring snoozefest of the overall plot. In fact, I’d call God of War a narrative without a story. The characters float from one location to the next while the player is inundated with Norse mythological lore that no one actually cares about. It feels like the writers got lost in world-building without thinking about how to anchor the player’s interest in this fictional world they created. Kratos and Atreus have their own personal motivation that begins their journey, but that motivation is often left by the wayside to explain petty feuds between gods that only exist off-screen. Consider that Thor, Odin and Tyr are talked about for the majority of the game and the player never meets any of them. Most of this information is conveyed through a talking head lecturing about their history. I often found myself mindlessly wandering from McGuffin to roadblock, mystified what my objective was meant to accomplish other than extend the length of the game. It’s fitting that the game ends with two “twists” that basically amount to “Look! MORE LORE!” It’s a game that doesn’t know what motivates players to connect with a story and instead offers mass information dumps.

Final Thoughts

I’ve never liked God of War, so maybe this game is hitting a note I can’t hear, but its fundamentals look deeply flawed to me. It’s one of those games where its faults are so obvious I wonder if people see them and don’t care or if it’s a case of valuing parts of a game I have no interest in. It’s true that God of War looks really pretty. The environments are gorgeous and some of the large-scale boss fights look incredible. To some, it may be enough to play a game where they can experience that sense of scale. They can get lost in the spectacle and feel a fictional world come to life in that way. Maybe that’s why people like God of War. For me, I need mechanics to hook my interest. A video game world is only as interesting as my interaction with it. In that regard, God of War is a sterile controlled experience. It wants you to do specific things at specific times and never deviate from its vision. Unfortunately for me, and I suspect many others, its vision is fragmented. It’s an open-world game that doesn’t feel open. It’s a progression system with no sense of progress. It’s a plot without a story. It’s a game with limited interaction. I commend the developers for trying something new, but the developer’s attempt to translate their formula into the language of a new genre reads as a jumbled mess.

1/5

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LOG: Spider-Man does what only Spider-Man can

This post is part of a log I keep on things I finish. Read here for why I keep this log.

Video games are the best medium to convey what it feels like to be another person. Other storytelling forums can make narratives more engaging to follow, but video games immerse a player completely into a fictional world. This amazing feature of the interactivity can result in wildly different experiences across games, but in practice most video games play identical to one another. This is especially true for open world games, which tend to adhere to unstated presumptions about what players can expect to do in their game. There’s always a large map, towers to reveal more of the map, an upgrade system that uses collectibles as currency, half-baked side missions — often with some form of “timed” element — and the game generally throws boatloads of content that you don’t have to engage with at all. This repetition across games in the same genre is a common criticism of open world games, but I’ve never minded familiar concepts. For me, I’m much more bummed when the concepts are haphazardly inserted into a game without translating them into the reality of the character we’re playing. After all, the ability to feel like the hero you’re playing as is one of the essential strengths of video games as a medium.

Spider-Man has been shrugged off as “just another open world game,” and although the familiar mechanics may make some players remember similar games in the genre, the game’s greatest success is providing the undeniable feeling that you are Spider-Man. No matter the task, whether you’re climbing towers or rounding up collectibles, it always feels like you’re playing as Spider-Man. You solve problems like Spider-Man, you move like Spider-Man, and you live the life of Spider-Man. It’s an accomplishment most games don’t even consider and it’s what makes Spider-Man unique.

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Traversing New York City stays fun throughout the entirety of the game

Why did I play it?

I have no love for Spider-Man 2 on the PlayStation 2. I only owned a GameCube at that point in time so the hype for Spider-Man passed my notice (although I do have a distinct memory of seeing Spider-Man 1, 2 and 3 in the theaters). Which is to say I wasn’t very excited for Insomniac’s take on Spider-Man. I got access to the game on a whim and decided to give it a whirl with very low expectations.

How was it?

My descent into the Spideyverse was slow but I ended up really loving this game. The beginning of the game doles out introductions at a steady pace. The game begins with you in a main story mission that’s more than a glorified tutorial, it’s closer to an actual mission with some quick lessons taught along the way. As such, it takes a little bit longer than you might expect to complete but it doesn’t feel like a mandatory tutorial. By the time you beat the first boss you have a good handle of all the mechanics and you’re unleashed into the world. The game wastes no time introducing an oppressive number of collectibles that you can choose to start picking up right away or save for later. Of course, being the crazy person that I am, I almost always immediately went to collect every single one of these optional completionist goals once they were available. There are a lot of them. Backpacks you can pick up, towers to unlock, photography landmarks, combat challenges, web-slinging challenges, a plethora of “research stations” — which could be anything — and many more.

The reason it’s so easy to fall into doing these collectibles is 1) web-slinging around the city never gets old 2) the challenges are likely more difficult than the main story which is by-and-large, stupid easy. I played the game on hard and had some difficulty with the boss of the introduction level, but otherwise I breezed through the game rarely dying at any point. This isn’t a game about challenging your ability, it’s about being your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.

All of the content in the game reinforces the fact you’re playing as Spider-Man. Many open world games tend to rely on genre conventions for mission design. It doesn’t matter if you’re a ghost in Shadow of Mordor or an assassin in Assassin’s Creed, these games almost always end up playing the same way. There’s a stealth functionality that you typically open with but once you fail stealth you fight guards for 35 minutes by parrying them endlessly. Spider-Man has its own stealth, combat and parrying, but it has a Spider-Man edge. For starters, it’s always a viable option to utilize the openness of the world and web-sling far away from your opponents. Attacking a base and screwed up a stealth takedown? Zip down a few floors and chill out for a minute, then come back and try again. In combat and need a breather? Put some distance between you and the bad guys by zipping away several hundred yards.  In addition to web slinging, Spider-Man has access to an impressive number of gadgets you can upgrade. Web shots, spider-bots, electricity surges, concussive force and levitators are some of the abilities available to you. All of them utilize strategies that realistically seem like how Spider-Man would fight and move around.

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Many enemies require an awareness of environmental opportunities that can’t be ignored

The satisfaction of the side missions is shared in the main storyline. Pretty much everything about the game is designed with Spider-Man in mind. Consider the concept of a “heavy” enemy that’s very popular in games. These are bruisers with more health that dish out immense amount of damage. Pretty much every game in existence handles these enemies in the same way. For the “heavy” enemy, you use the “heavy” attack button. Press it a few times and that big guy is no longer a problem. Spider-Man has no such button because it doesn’t make any sense for Spider-Man to have a heavy attack. Instead, bruisers are dispatched by outmaneuvering them, or webshotting them until they’re incapacitated. It’s a solution that only Spider-Man could perform and it not only makes sense, it’s a lot more fun. The best example of this design choice is when Spider-Man faces off against enemies with jetpacks. These encounters often end with the two combatants hitting each other in the air, chaining combos, for a decent amount of time. Juggling enemies in the air feels unique, like it’s something games haven’t done before.

While the combat is easily the main draw of the game, the story is surprisingly well-written. The main antagonist seems to have an explainable motivation and seems more like a tragic tale of revenge rather than a moustache-twirling villain who basks in the misery of others. Spider-Man’s voice actor is great at selling the charismatic jokester personality of the character, and he also portrays the empathetic earnestness of Peter Parker. There are only a handful of characters, but each of them have a distinct personality and purpose for being part of the story. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the game’s plot is how it handles law enforcement. Spider-Man has a congenial relationship with the police, since they’re both committed to keeping the city safe. This — of course — is wildly different than the depiction of police in modern day America. The police officer characters feel like they’re out of time from another era, like a post-9/11 view where all police were valiant heroes. I don’t have a political view on if this depiction is “correct” or “problematic,” but it certainly stands out.

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There’s probably an interesting read on Spider-Man plot based on its creative decision to depict police officers as unadulterated good guys and prisoners as objective bad guys

Final Thoughts

I ended up 100 percent completing Spider-Man, which is unusual for me. I like open world games a lot but there are usually a handful of activities that are too annoying to put up with. Spider-Man didn’t have any of those annoying side missions or brutally difficult challenge rooms, so it makes it very easy to consume everything completely. The relative ease of the game shows how far developers have come since the mid-2000s when plenty of games had notoriously difficult sections that turned players away. We’ve reached the point where you can simply enjoy a game for the experience and not get bogged down by random spikes in difficulty.

I originally viewed Spider-Man as a “good” game, a solid four out of five. It’s better than most, but misses the “wow” element that I usually need to give full marks. Since that initial assessment, I’ve spent some time considering other games from this year and I’ve realized how quickly we’re departing from straight-up fun in favor of other ambitions. Games like Horizon Zero Dawn or God of War want to pretend to be cinematic epic tales, with gimmicks like continuous camera shots or misguided mechanics in service of “immersion.” I’ve always hated games that lack the confidence to be good games first, then try other things. A game like Mass Effect 2 is an incredibly engaging RPG, that also uses black bars and camera angles to look like a space opera. That’s the example I think of for how games should be, but instead we get games like Red Dead Redemption 2 where you don’t do anything for the first five hours other than watch cut scenes and long animations.

Spider-Man might not swing of the stars, but it doesn’t have to. That “wow” element I was looking for is a misnomer. As it stands, Spider-Man is the most fun I’ve had with a game this year. It actualizes the world of Spider-Man and it accomplishes design choices that are unique to the genre. It’s a testament to how good games have become and the skill of developers who can provide a reliably balanced experience. It’s a huge accomplishment and worthy of praise on its own, it doesn’t need to be anything else.

5/5

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Books

Log (Book): One Day — What’s left when you’re alone

This post is part of a log I keep on things I finish. Read here for why I keep this log.

It may be due to my age but it seems like there’s an enormous number of stories about your teenage “coming of age” years, followed by a huge drop-off until you’re old enough to be the gray-haired mentor in another coming of age story. I’m 26 and suddenly becoming more aware of how rare it is to read a story about where I am in life right now. Anytime I come across a story with a 30-year-old — and I mean a real 30-year-old, not some character who’s written like a wise-cracking 21-year-old but they got Robert Downey Jr. to play the role so now the character is older — I realize how novel it is to gain any perspective on this period of life. Usually it’s mentioned on the side, in service to the story of someone else. Think of Ethan Hawke’s or Patricia Arquette’s characters in Boyhood, their story has just as many developments as the main character but they’re treated as secondary. It seems like a quiet concession from the storytelling world that if you don’t find purpose when you’re growing up, you’re relegated to the status of a minor role in the great tale of life.

It doesn’t seem like it at first, but One Day is about those years stumbling around without much guidance or sense of what to do. Most people know One Day for its gimmicky premise, but I was surprised the book became more than a romantic fantasy about the one who got away. It’s not a story that ends happily ever after, but it’s also not one that throws in a twist ending just to shock the reader. It doesn’t deal in the conventions of popular romance fiction. It feels like the life of two people, bonded by simple attraction and a series of events that reveals their fondness for one another. It’s not a story that’s spoiled by knowing the two of them eventually get together, because it’s not actually about the relationship that’s so prominently displayed on the cover. It’s about the aimlessness of life, the mistakes we make and how they form who we become, and the unavoidable loneliness that defines the decade following the “best years of your life.”

Why did I read it?

I was seeing a girl in college who forced One Day’s film adaptation onto me. I went into it bitter and cynical. It seemed like a stupid premise teenage girls fall in love with because it gives them an excuse not to act on their feelings when they’re younger. Clearly, if “it’s meant to be,” fate will force us to collide again and again until things work out when we’re ready. The childishness of such a fantasy isn’t exclusive to girls. On the other side of things, the story seemed to perpetuate this unrealistic male fantasy that any of the women in their life could easily become their future soulmate if they took interest in them and committed. Neither of these fantasies seem like they deserve consideration.

Despite my grouchiness, I really enjoyed the movie. I liked the characters and there was a mood to the film that matched my experience. I was also a huge fan of the set design (or potentially the directory of photography) because of their use of color in each scene. I may have liked the film but it was reviewed quite negatively for a lot of dumb reasons and a few good ones. I remember reading the main complaint was Anne Hathaway’s accent wasn’t very good. To an idiotic American like myself, that doesn’t really mean much to me. The more worthwhile criticisms complained the movie didn’t convey the spirit of the book and much of it felt too on-the-nose.

It took me five years, but I finally decided to read the book based on my interest in the movie many years ago. In addition to this inherent interest, I wanted to do some research into how to write character points of view and how an omnipresent narrator doles out information to a reader. There are many books that do this, but I also wanted to read some junk novel I could chew through to add to my 12 books a year challenge (which I have never completed successfully).

How was it?

I really loved this book. I would attribute its quality to two decisions.

The book’s framing shows a single day in the lives of Emma and Dexter, every year, for twenty years. It begins with the first day they met and continues until the story finds a conclusion even if the characters’ lives go on. This framing is the book’s essential genius. It allows for the reader to spend a lot of time with the characters and see how they develop over the years. Not every year has a climactic event. Many chapters depict mundane realities of each character’s life that emblemize where they are at that moment. For example, an early chapter shows Dexter vacationing in India, bankrolled by his parents’ money and refusing to commit to any type of career; while Emma slaves away at a minimum wage restaurant job concerned she’s going nowhere in life. This method of storytelling makes the book read like a series of vignettes. It never feels like things are slowing down to address necessary plot developments that occurred off screen. The pace moves quickly and your attachment to the characters goes along in tow.

As important as the framing is, I’d say the second and more important decision was the choice to extend the themes of the book to every person surrounding Dexter and Emma’s lives. Whether they’re plot-pertinent characters or a sideshow that only appears for a few paragraphs, the book treats each character as evidence to its thesis that your late-20s and early-30s are defined by aimlessness and unexpected circumstances. For example, early on in Emma’s storyline she gets offered a promotion at the restaurant job she’s working at. The promotion is something Emma fears more than she desires and that point is made by the description of the current manager. He’s described as a 39-years-old and his life “was never meant to be this way.” Many of the characters embody this feeling of frustration with where they are but unsure what they should be doing. While I related to Emma’s anxious desire to achieve and Dexter’s diminishing returns on “living in the moment,” I found myself relating even more to the various minor characters.

That isn’t to say the Dexter and Emma relationship takes a backseat. One Day accomplishes the rare feat of focusing on a romance and its actually explained why the two lovebirds like each other. Emma sees Dexter exert the confidence she wish she could pull off. She admires his willingness to say what he thinks, as well as his genuine interest in people’s passions and what things inspire that passion. She sees that he’s trying to achieve something meaningful with the skillset he possesses and knows he’s disappointed when his career path forces him to become inauthentic. For Dexter, he admires Emma’s thoughtfulness and intelligence, frequently noting she’s smarter than him, and feels like if he lives a life that satisfies her he knows he’s living a good life. He’s inherited a sense that he needs to perform for a matriarch-figure from his mother and likes that Emma finds him funny and entertaining, even if he can’t keep up with her book-smarts. He’s satisfied that he’s attracted the fondness of someone like Emma, it feels like an accomplishment on its own. Their relationship as friends, and later as romantic interests, feels genuine. It shows the practical reasons why they like each other but also the unexplainable love they feel toward each other that propels them to interact in the first place.

The characters come to life thanks to David Nicholls effective writing style. There are a lot of different standards for what makes “good writing,” and despite reading and writing for most of my life I’m not very tuned into what those metrics might be. I liked Nicholls writing style because it doesn’t waste your time. Every sentence has a purpose and each line serves the greater point of every paragraph and by extension the various chapters that comprise the book itself. In other popular fiction, I sometimes find myself skipping large sections of descriptive text that serves no purpose other than to attempt to force-feed a visual image by riddling the reader with every word the author could find in a thesaurus. Nicholls doesn’t do that. It’s one of the few books where I felt every  sentence was one I wanted to read. I was invested in the characters and the story but it was the writing that kept me going. It seemed like every few pages there was a line that resonated very well.

Final Thoughts

One Day might be a great book or it might have expertly revealed my sentimentality toward the passage of time and empathy toward characters who feel just as lost as I am. It’s entirely possible this book’s sentimentality is eye-roll-inducing and feels corny instead of authentic, but I can’t deny my fondness for it. I’ll admit there are passages from novelty POVs that seem overtly manipulative or cliché, but they’re rare and don’t detract from what makes the book great. I’m not sure if I would’ve liked this book as much if I had read it when I was still in college, or even earlier than that. I’m not even sure if I’d continue to enjoy the book when I pass this stage of my life. What I can say is if you feel lost and disappointed with where your life is in your late-20s, this is an essential book to bring you peace of mind and some sense of hope that things will work out — even if it’s not how you expect.

5/5

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Video Games

Log: Cultist Simulator – The dissatisfaction of unanswered questions

This post is part of a log I keep on things I finish. Read here for why I keep this log.

Is solving a mystery inherently rewarding or is it a trick to catch your attention? That’s the question I asked myself while playing through Cultist Simulator. A game shrouded in mystery, where the rewards are doled out by your ability to uncover what the game has to offer. There was a point in my life where pursuing mysteries was rewarding for me. It wasn’t while playing Cultist Simulator or another game like it. It was when I was a kid and full of wonder. I’d feel a sense of discovery while traveling to new places or when I was confined to my room I’d delve into the large worlds found in games like Grand Theft Auto or Elder Scrolls. I’d be amazed by what I found and questioned where else I could go. Asking those questions was rewarding because it didn’t take long to answer them. In a game like Elder Scrolls, I’d wonder “what’s in that house?” and with some lock picking or looking around I’d manage to get inside and find out. Or I’d drive down the San Andreas highway and ask “can I get on top of that mountain?” and with a small time commitment I would find out I could. As a kid I was followed my curiosity on my own terms and frequently saw my efforts rewarded. Cultist Simulator is not like those other games. It’s a game with a rigid structure, where success is clearly defined by the game but vaguely conveyed to the player. You have to work persistently to uncover how you’re supposed to play the game, and invest even more time to figure out why anyone would enjoy this experience.  Unless you’re a masochist or driven by mysteries, the more likely result is total exhaustion in the face of confusing mechanics and frustrating failures that feel unpreventable.

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Your table begins relatively sparse, but Cards and Verbs stack up very quickly.

Why did I play it?

Cultist Simulator was gifted to me. To be frank, if it hadn’t been a gift, I likely would never have given it a shot. The description of the game didn’t sound like something I would enjoy and the first impressions didn’t hook me. The idea of the game is you’re a ordinary person who delves into the world of the occult. Initially studying strange texts and having odd dreams, you eventually start your own cult and lead followers to go out on missions and  expand your influence while anti-cult detectives — known as the “suppression bureau” — seek out your demise.

The mechanics of the game are represented as a series of cards played on a table. Many of the cards represent concepts such as “health” or “money” or “dread,” and these cards are fed into “verbs” such as “work” or “study” or “sleep.” Combining the conceptual cards with the verb cards leads to your main interaction with the game. For example, one of my playthroughs started me as a physician at a hospital. I had a “hospital” card, which when I fed into the “work” verb, which would result in two “money” cards. It doesn’t require much of an imagination to figure out what that interaction represented. Other cards combinations are not as clear. Such as feeding an occult card into “speak,” which leads to your character delivering a sermon on a street corner about a particular cult subject to whoever will listen. The game has some UI tips that suggest what cards can be fed into verbs, but much of the game is discovering what can go where and the subsequent effects. Experimentation and discovery are a core component of the game, to the extent that there is no tutorial or any function that leads the player into the world of the mechanics, it’s all experimentation from the start.

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Organizing your table is an ongoing annoyance. Temporary cards cannot be stacked and the game has a habit of spitting new cards at you without any consistency of where they’ll show up. Examples: the “Fascination” card in the center is plopped on top of another card or the various “Mystique” cards are never placed near one another.

How was it?

Like any  human being, I was intrigued by the mystery of Cultist Simulator. We’re all driven by curiosity, so the presence of a mystery is inherently interesting. I played around with cards for a while and found I was making quick progress to starting my own cult.

Where Cultist Simulator falls apart is when you hit a hard wall once you get close to discovering the main appeal of the game. Just as you’re getting familiar with cult machinations, the game throws a series of obstacles at you, none of which give a lot of feedback on how to avoid them. Your character can fail in a number of ways. You can run out of money, get sick, be discovered by the suppression bureau, or accrue too much “dread.” That last one was the most common form of failure I faced and despite playing over a dozen characters across 10 hours, I never found a reliable defense against my dreadful fate. Let’s walk through how that might happen.

A “dread” failure means you have generated three dread cards that have been fed into a verb called “bleak thoughts.” Once you’ve fed that verb three dread cards, you have a limited amount of time to feed it a “contentment” card or else the playthrough is over. However, dread is one of the most common cards in the game. Reading about the occult, having a bad dream, some types of work and countless other random events all produce dread. Since dread exists everywhere in the game, you can’t adopt a strategy of “avoid dread,” because it’s inherent to the game. The secondary strategy might be “produce contentment whenever you can.” As far as I can tell, there is one reliable source of contentment with zero drawbacks, which is feeding the “health” card into the “sleep” verb. This can produce a good night’s rest and you feel content. However, there are four possible outcomes to feeding “health” into “sleep.” You can have a nightmare, you can have a decent night’s rest (no “contentment” card), or you can have a vision of the occult. Which means if you feed the health card into the sleep verb continuously the entire game, you’re only pulling contentment 25 percent of the time, which isn’t enough to combat dread whenever it appears. You can also obtain contentment by using “money” on sleep, which pays for a therapist or results in drug use. This is a more reliable function for combating dread but it also inherently leads to other fail states such as going broke or getting sick.

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This particular book was written in Greek and requires translation, but acquiring the necessary dictionaries isn’t straightforward.

The issue with the failure states of Cultist Simulator is there’s little feedback on how to prevent these untimely demises and in a game about stacking successive knowledge over a long period of time it’s incredibly deflating to have all your progress wiped by a mechanic you don’t understand. Each playthrough is framed as a new character taking their own dive into the world of cults. Which means any progress you made in a previous playthrough isn’t carried over into the new one. Which means if you spent some time buying books that teach you Latin or Arabic, that ability isn’t available to your next character. You’ll become very well acquainted with the starting moves of the game because you’ll have to do it every single time you start a new character.

The game gets around this repetition by making many of the actions keyed off of randomness. For example, a core component of Cultist Simulator is your character going to a bookstore with strange books that act as a window to the occult (in other playthroughs you bid on books by attending an auction). You can buy an unlimited number of books, but you never get to choose what book you’re buying. So in one playthrough you may get a book that teaches you Latin, and a series of books written in Latin, and in another you’ll get a bunch of books in Greek without ever stumbling across the primer that teaches you how to translate them. In addition to the core randomness, each playthrough gives the opportunity for you to play as a different character. For example, after failing as a physician, I had the opportunity to play as a police investigator who was assigned to the case looking into my physician character’s occult practices. This is a bit of fun storytelling through mechanics where you can see the story of your cult continuing across multiple characters. In this instance, a police investigator gets so wrapped up in his work that he abandons his job and starts a cult of his own. From a mechanics perspective the randomness of each character succeeds at making every playthrough different and reduces the fatigue of repetition, but it actually makes the game more frustrating because you can’t always use your prior failures to ensure success in new playthroughs.

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Dread cards are a source of frustration and frequently lead to your demise.

Pacing in the game is dictated by a constant state of time that passes continuously unless the player hits pause, but you can also speed up the game if you want things to move by more quickly. Most of the verb functions take 60 seconds to complete, so the amount of time it takes to run through the opening moves isn’t an immense amount of time, but it’s still a lot of time dedicated to doing the same thing over and over. Additionally, the limited time window allowed for verbs to complete can create frustrating situations. Some occult rituals require certain cards like “glimmering” or “erudition” to be played into them. When these requirements appear, you’re often given 30 seconds or less to feed those cards into the ritual or else the moment has passed. Of course, obtaining “glimmering” or “erudition” requires feeding “passion” or “reason” cards into the “study” verb — an action that takes a full 60 seconds which is obviously less time than the 30 seconds you’re allowed. If you’re thinking “study the cards before the ritual then you’ll have them ready.” Well guess what? “Glimmering” and “erudition” only last 180 seconds. There’s no way to know if the ritual you’re doing will require them, so unless you want to take up an essential verb with repeatedly studying “passion” and “reason” — when that verb has a billion other necessary functions — it’s likely you’ll miss out on some ritual requirements.

I eventually got to the point where I opened an Excel document every time I played Cultist Simulator and created hundreds of “If X then Y” statements to help me get through the game. I found some reliable ways to gain cards I needed frequently and I managed to write down descriptions for cards that seemed to evade my understanding. This document assisted my playthrough of the game but after assembling this document over a few hours I realized that nothing about this process was rewarding. I was actively wasting my time by trying to salvage some modicum of enjoyment from a game that had effectively given me a series of errands to do.

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With persistence you can uncover strange occult interactions with the game, which can be rewarding, but often times how you got there isn’t clear and what to do next is even more vague.

Final Thoughts

Mysteries can be a powerful tool for hooking a viewer’s attention, but they can’t act as the main attraction. Unless you’re a magician, you need something else going on to please the audience. My motivation to dig into games like Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, Grand Theft Auto or Fez may be based in a desire to solve a mystery, but my enjoyment of those games are the other mechanics. Elder Scrolls’ deep RPG mechanics and storytelling, Grand Theft Auto’s inventive open-ended mission design and Fez’s tightly constructed puzzles. All of those games have a series of reward systems that keep you interested in playing them. Cultist Simulator is a game that dumps thousands of questions on you from the start and requires hours of commitment to answer any of them. The few answers you do find are supplanted by even more questions. I’m sure there are some people out there who love this type of structure, and they’re probably a huge fan of the later seasons of Lost, but I don’t find mysteries to be inherently rewarding. They can be powerful for catching your interest, but there needs to be something else going on. My question to Cultist Simulator was “what reason do I have to care about this game?” and I never found an answer.

2/5

Time: 10 hours played

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