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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Movies

A qualified case for watching Deep Space Nine

I watched Star Trek for the first time in 2016. Following Max Temkin’s guide for The Next Generation’s essential episodes, I fell in love with the series and ended up going back to watching most of the episodes. The experience became an important part of my life. I had never seen a show like The Next Generation before and I’m pretty certain no other show like it exists. When I reached the end of the series I wanted to keep the Star Trek train rolling so I sought out the other series. I found Temkin’s follow-up list, a passionate case for why Deep Space Nine is worth watching, and I gave it a shot.

For those who haven’t been in a room with Star Trek fans before, Deep Space Nine is sort of the ugly duckling of the franchise. In my experience, there are three types of Star Trek fans, each defined by the first series they saw. The Original Series veterans who loved its goofiness and big ideas; The Next Generation fans who followed the franchise’s revival in the late 80s/early 90s and make up the bulk of the fandom; and the Voyager fans who are the youngest and latched onto the more modern approach to Star Trek. In my experience, these are the three camps I run into when talking about Star Trek. I’ve never met a fan of Deep Space Nine who didn’t give a huge amount of qualifiers before stating their enjoyment of the series.

So — I come to you now — a Next Generation fan, who actually likes Deep Space Nine a lot, but I have many qualifiers. I recommend reading Temkin’s guide, but below I’ve added some additional thoughts that I think are necessary when considering Deep Space Nine in a modern context. For Temkin and other fans, Deep Space Nine may have been their first exposure — or most memorable exposure — to long-form storytelling with gritty realism and plot twists, but to compare the show to Breaking Bad, or Game of Thrones is setting up expectations the show cannot possibly live up to. That said, there is something valuable in Deep Space Nine’s storytelling but I want to qualify what that value is.

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Gul Dukat, one of the more complicated characters in Deep Space Nine.

How it’s different from Next Generation

As Temkin says in his thoughts, Deep Space Nine has fundamental differences that separate it from other Star Trek shows. For starters, there’s no ship. Deep Space Nine is the name of a space station that sits outside a stabilized wormhole that connects the Alpha Quadrant and Gamma Quadrant of the Milky Way galaxy. Additionally, this wormhole is located near the planet Bajor — a planet that only recently gained its independence after multiple decades of military occupation from another race known as Cardassians. The Federation has been installed on Deep Space Nine to keep the peace between Bajorans and Cardassians, as well as oversee expeditions to and from the Gamma quadrant. Whereas most Star Trek shows can be serialized as a variety of different missions given to their respective captains and crew, Deep Space Nine stays in one place. Whatever conflict occurred last week, or last season, continues in the future episodes. This also means the show tends to deal with political debacles rather than scientific ones.

These conflicts often exist outside of the politically neutral Federation, which leads to the other significant departure from other shows: most of the cast is not affiliated with the Federation and by extension most of the stories are about life outside the Federation. The crew is helmed by Benjamin Sisko, and he’s assisted by chief science officer Jadzia Dax, chief engineer Miles O’Brien (returning from Next Generation), and chief medical officer Julian Bashir — but the majority of the senior staff and reoccurring characters have their own backgrounds and storylines. First officer Kira Nerys is a Bajoran officer who fought Cardassians during the occupation of Bajor; chief of security Odo is a shapeshifter who operated under Cardassian rule but views himself as purely committed to justice; Quark is a Ferengi and the only bartender on the station; and Garak is a Cardassian tailor who seems to have an intriguing former life. In addition to these reoccurring characters, Deep Space Nine quickly adds more characters into the mix. Benjamin Sisko’s son, Jake Sisko, and Quark’s nephew, Nog, form a friendship early in the series and that relationship develops more than you might expect. There are many side characters including Gul Dukat, Martok, the Grand Nagus, Winn Adami, Rom, Leeta, Shakaar and of course Morn.

Why so many characters? Next Generation showed through its storylines about Worf that the show could achieve more meaningful depth if its intergalactic conflicts were tied to a crew member who had a personal connection to the issue at hand. Worf’s tumultuous family history and his identity as Klingon warrior versus human security officer were persistent storylines throughout the entirety of the Next Generation — many of which are the greatest episodes of the series. Deep Space Nine expands that approach by enveloping multiple races and tying them to specific characters. This allowed the show to tell more stories and fill in the universe of Star Trek that made it feel real. In Deep Space Nine, you get a deep view on the culture, identity, aspirations and problems of the various races that wasn’t possible in Next Generation.

With that in mind, the biggest departure from previous Star Trek shows is Deep Space Nine lacks the optimism that made the series iconic. Star Trek had always been about existing in a utopia and combating the problems of the next millennia. There were no material wants that left people hungry or sick. It was a society of abundance that left people to pursue their deepest desires for the betterment of mankind. In line with this utopian vision of the future, the writing team of Next Generation wasn’t allowed to have the characters be in conflict with each other. If you watch episodes such as Measure of the Man or The First Duty, you’ll see how episodes with obvious interpersonal conflicts are resolved respectfully. Since Deep Space Nine exists outside of the ideals of the Federation, all of that is thrown out the window. Characters yell at each other a lot and many of the solutions don’t follow Federation regulations.

So to review: a Star Trek show with no ship, deeper character backgrounds, more world-building and moral ambiguity. Sounds pretty interesting, right? It is. But there’s some things I have to prepare any viewer for:

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Deep Space Nine has way more goofy episodes compared to other Star Trek series, such as this episode where the station plays baseball against Vulcans, luckily most of these comedic episodes are quite good.

Some qualifiers to keep in mind.

There is a lot of mysticism.

In the first episode of Deep Space Nine it becomes apparent that some type of lifeform exists within the wormhole. The crew attempts to communicate with this being but its messages are bizarre and ambiguous. Any fan of Next Generation will remember plenty of episodes where a strange lifeform appears to have supernatural ability (crystalline entity in season 5, for example). While Next Generation was committed to treating these entities as unknown beings that could be studied, a lot of Deep Space Nine deals in prophecies, belief and faith. Specifically, the Bajorans see the wormhole entities as “prophets,” and refer to them as such. There are a few episodes where Bajoran leaders have religious experiences with “the prophets.” In some ways, this approach of recontextualizing what religion and faith can be is fascinating. However, the show isn’t always consistent with how it treats religion and folklore. Could you imagine an episode of The Next Generation ending with two spiritual deities firing red and blue lasers at each other to prevent the apocalypse from occurring? Well, that exact scene happens in an episode of Deep Space Nine. If you’re someone who’s big into the SCIENCE part of Star Trek’s science fiction, these episodes can induce some eye rolls. There are a lot of them.

It is very inconsistent.

Temkin says in his write-up that if you’re enjoying the show by season 3 or 4, it’s a good point to start watching the episodes sequentially. I have to strongly disagree. Deep Space Nine has multiple massive step ups in quality in season 4, season 6 and season 7 — but I wouldn’t say the show is “good” until season 6. If I were to compare it to another show, it reminds me a lot of Angel, a spinoff series of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Angel was a decent show for four seasons, but it received a big reboot in its fifth season that radically changed its format and quality for the better (it was then promptly canceled). Deep Space Nine follows a similar trajectory. The majority of the show has good ideas, but the whole thing doesn’t come together until season 6 or maybe season 7. I knew when the show got good because all of its attempts became successes. The humor was funny, the character motivations mattered, the drama was heartfelt and I cared about the stakes. A lot of the early seasons are sloppy executions of good ideas, but when Deep Space Nine works it really works.

On the topic of inconsistency it’s worth noting many of the characters of Deep Space Nine can either be well-rounded complex characters or loathsome clichés. I find it difficult to rank my “favorite” characters from the show. Part of me wants to make a passionate defense for Odo’s character and his arc, but there are plenty of episodes where he’s written like a sitcom grandfather who yells at kids to get off his lawn. Some of the characterizations of Odo in earlier seasons hang over the character’s development later in the show which makes it difficult to accept some pivotal events. On the flipside of that problem, many characters who start off as empty husks get an immense amount of development by the end of the show. Jake Sisko and Nog start off as comedic relief, but each character has a hugely significant arc in the show. All of this is to say, there will be moments where you love Deep Space Nine and there will be moments where you want to give up.

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Some characters, such as Doctor Julian Bashir, don’t receive any significant development until the later seasons.

Some of the world-building doesn’t make a lot of sense.

We live in an era where massively complicated worlds such as A Song of Ice and Fire, The Witcher or Westworld exist for mega fans to devour. They have multilayered storytelling, with fictionalized economies and cultures that are detailed in textbooks and other supplemental writings. The description of Deep Space Nine may suggest that this is Star Trek’s biggest foray into explaining the universe that had only been hinted at by the serialized format. Unfortunately, the results don’t always hold up.

The biggest standout is the Ferengi race, a culture built on absolute free market capitalism. Every Ferengi commits to memory a long list of “rules of acquisition.” These rules can sometimes be sound advice (“Greed is eternal,” or “Good customers are as rare as latinum. Treasure them.”) but they usually serve as comedic relief (“Never place friendship above profit,” or “Never have sex with the boss’ sister”). You get the sense that the rules of acquisition are mostly used as a gag rather than a mechanism to fill-in how Ferengi society operates.

Many overarching racial attributes for the various backgrounds in Deep Space Nine seem to be decided in a writer’s room for one specific episode, only for them to struggle to write around it in later episodes. For example, at one point in the show it’s revealed that Bajorans lived in a caste system not too long ago. This becomes very relevant for exactly one episode, but then the caste system — and its legion of supporters — are never mentioned again. In the context of a serialized show like Next Generation, this short-term memory loss about fundamental foundations of how a society exists could be forgiven. In the context of Deep Space Nine’s continuous storytelling, the forgetfulness can seem overly convenient and detracts from the reality of the world. You never get a sense of what matters and what doesn’t.

Baby’s first morally ambiguous hero.

Deep Space Nine is often pitched as a “darker” Star Trek. That’s probably true on paper, but when the franchise is defined by its ethos of optimism, going darker than that isn’t very difficult. Deep Space Nine tackles many grim storylines such as genocide, slavery, war wives, futile resistance, biological warfare, torture, post-traumatic stress disorder, racism, mental breaks and much more — but it’s all in the context of being a Star Trek show. There are moments where the bad guys do something truly horrific, and other times where they come off as Disney villains who have safety bumpers on their malice (because what the character would actually do doesn’t fit Star Trek’s tone). When Deep Space Nine commits to its purpose, it nails it. More often than not, it feels like a corny Nickelodeon show trying to feign villainy.

With all those qualifiers it’s easy to get down on the show, so here’s some good things about it:

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Often times the best episodes exist outside the Federation, such as this Ferengi episodes that’s modeled after The Magnificent Seven.

Why Deep Space Nine is worth watching.

Season 1’s Duet encapsulates Deep Space Nine’s potential.

Temkin notes in his guide that it’s difficult to recommend a single episode for new viewers since the continuous storytelling requires context for every episode. While this is true, the closest estimation of Deep Space Nine’s identity comes from its Season 1 episode Duet. You need a bit of context, but if you watched Next Generation and can answer: “Who are the Cardassians? Who are the Bajorans? What is their conflict?” You can follow the story of Duet.

In Duet, a traveler docks at Deep Space Nine reporting they have a terminal illness that needs treatment. First officer Kira Nerys recognizes the name of the illness as the side effect of a biological weapon that was used in a labor camp during the Cardassian occupation of Bajor. This implicates the traveler as someone who was either a Bajoran laborer or a Cardassian war criminal. The story combines Kira’s past with the universe’s sentiments toward Cardassians and Bajorans. It’s one of the best episodes of the series and acts as a sneak peek to what the show will eventually become.

Some of the world-building is incredible.

With so many characters, there are a lot of options for Deep Space Nine to dive into various races and cultures to liven things up. Typically these are done with the appropriate cast member delving into their own society. For example, Quark has to deal with a trade or commerce dispute on Ferenginar or Worf goes on an expedition with Klingons to achieve glory in battle. As I mentioned above, the lore around these stories can seem a bit silly, but the storylines themselves offer an amazing opportunity for characters to exist outside of the traditions of Star Trek. Some standout episodes include: Tribunal, O’Brien is put on trial through the Cardassian justice system; Prophet Motive, Quark learns that the Rules of Acquisition have been rewritten; Indiscretion, Kira looks into a missing Cardassian prison ship; Rules of Engagement, Worf is put on trial through the Klingon justice system; The Quickening, Bashir studies the effects of biological warfare against a planet in the Gamma Quadrant — and many more. These episodes standout because they would have never existed if it wasn’t for Deep Space Nine’s interest in exploring stories outside of the Federation.

An optimist’s approach to pessimism.

Often in anti-hero stories, there’s a strange fetishism with “being bad.” A series like The Punisher will focus on a protagonist who is supposedly a good person, but they use excessive violence against their enemies. You can see a similar dynamic in modern shows such as Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad. Everyone will talk about Walter White’s descent into villainy, but the audience still cheers when he blows up a hospital or runs over a gangster. There’s something weird going on in when characters are written this way. What are we really celebrating? The hero’s good intentions or their revelry in evil? The “heroes” who perform these actions don’t see a contradiction in what they do and how they do it. They don’t question their goodness despite many actions that could suggest the contrary.

Deep Space Nine has moral ambiguity, but it doesn’t celebrate it. More often than not, the tough decisions are agonized over by characters and their decisions have consequences via their fellow crew members who draw a hard line between good and evil. There are obvious examples where these relationships can be complicated — such as Kira’s past as a resistance fighter, or Odo’s role as a source of order during wartime — but some of the more surprising examples are when it comes from characters you don’t expect. One of my favorite episodes follows Jake Sisko as he tries war reporting. He begins the assignment with ambitions of being a brave correspondent who gets the gritty story, but he walks away from the experience scared and ashamed of his glorification of war. Many of the characters in Deep Space Nine struggle with these problems and the show handles all of these cases with grace.

Far Beyond the Stars.

When I tell people why I like Star Trek, I tell them to check out The Next Generation episode The Inner Light. It’s an episode that explains the importance of Star Trek. Deep Space Nine has its own version of that idea, although its execution is radically different. Far Beyond the Stars is the best episode of Deep Space Nine. It’s practically a standalone episode, but the episode requires the show’s context to understand its significance. It’s an episode about the importance of stories and how Star Trek isn’t a series of whacky hypotheticals about the future, it’s a collection of insight to understanding our current moment. For anyone who’s had a story change their life, or anyone who’s a writer that wants to believe their work is important, Far Beyond the Stars speaks directly to you. It’s powerful.

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This blog may have been more convincing for reasons not to watch the show than to give a chance, but I hope it gave insight into the strengths of Deep Space Nine. I’d recommend following Temkin’s list and liberally skipping episodes if they don’t interest you by the teaser. I personally wasn’t a huge fan of the Bajoran conflict storylines. They felt overly complicated for no real purpose. I also wasn’t a huge fan of Garak’s storylines because they were too corny. But even with those general guidelines, there were exceptions and I eventually found myself watching almost every episode rather than skipping most of them. By the later seasons, I found myself investing time in every episode just in case there was something worthwhile hidden away. That’s Deep Space Nine in a nutshell. There’s a lot of digging, but when you find something good it’s worth the effort.

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Video Games

Log: Valkyria Chronicles – A sleeper hit with more potential than substance

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

There’s a mission in Valkyria Chronicles, a turn-based strategy game released in 2008 that has since developed a cult following, that encapsulates my feelings on the game. Main characters Welkin and Alicia, are lost in a forest. Alicia is injured in a cut scene which translates into gameplay with her receiving reduced movement speed. Welkin suggests he scouts ahead since he is more equipped to deal with problems, then Alicia can follow behind him after he’s cleared a path. Along the way, Welkin discovers special blue plants he can use to heal Alicia’s wounds. However, the player is only given three moves per turn. Meaning the player can move Alicia twice and Welkin once, or Welkin twice and Alicia once. The mechanics around the blue plant require Alicia — the injured character — to find the plant first. Then Welkin can use the plant on her. This means it benefits the player most to move Alicia twice and Welkin once. Which also means that the only way the player can progress in the level without wasting turns is for Alicia to limp ahead, scout the area and kill all the enemies then have Welkin follow behind her. Once you understand the reality of the mechanics, success is easy, but the rules around Valkyria Chronicles and its various challenges are neither intuitive nor rewarding to solve.

Why did I play it?

I remember purchasing Valkyria Chronicles the week it came out back in 2008. It was pitched as a strategy game, similar to grid-based tactics games popularized in the 1990s but without the grid. It was a modern take on a beloved genre that had gotten stale over the years. I liked the idea of the game but found myself bouncing off of it consistently. I never finished it, but remembered in fondly without really knowing why I liked it or why I stopped playing it. Since Valkyria Chronicles 4 is coming out later this year — and because Valkyria Chronicles 1 was re-released on Steam last year — I decided to finally complete my time with the original game.

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A typical level in Valkyria Chronicles has your squad attempting to capture base camps while navigating terrain and enemy positioning

How was it?

Valkyria Chronicles makes an excellent first impression. It’s design is slick and intuitive, the characters are original and full of life and the context of the game’s events are uniquely thought out for a video game setting. The game takes place in a stand-in for Europe, known as “Europa.” The continent suffered a world war a few years prior to the game’s events and now the continent is at the precipice of a second Europa War. The allegories to World War II are obvious, but the similarities stop there. The player takes command of Squad 7, a militia squad serving the country of Gallia’s military. Gallia is a smaller country getting dwarfed by an aggressor empire hoping to secure their resources. The political motivations of these countries are complicated. Gallia has access to a rare resource that can be used to build stronger weapons, but they’re typically a neutral nation with plentiful farmlands. They stayed out of the first Europan War while the Imperial Alliance in the east fought with the Atlantic Alliance in the west. Of course, now that they’re thrusted into conflict, the Gallian government is split between allowing the nation to be enveloped into the Empire or maintaining a hopeless struggle against an enemy with superior force.

Internally, Gallia has its own problems. The country is home to Darcsens, an ethnic group identified by their dark hair color, who are treated as second-class citizens. The country maintains ancient lore that suggests Darcsens are responsible for a century-old calamity that brought deserts to Gallia’s otherwise green and prosperous lands. With all this in mind, the characters of Squad 7 aren’t your typical Disney-inspired regular Joes fighting for a good cause. They’re a collection of misfits who know their country can’t realistically win the war, and many of them hold resentment for their fellow countrymen as the cause of their current misfortune.

The politics of Valkyria Chronicles makes the world feel real. It has a level of sophistication and thought that most video game stories neglect. Other than the main characters, Welkin and Alicia, most of the characters are not painted as true-blooded heroes. One of the central fights of Squad 7 is a bartender named Rosie. She’s easily the most capable fighter and loyal to the Gallian cause, but she holds deep resentment for Darcsens. Valkyria Chronicles imbues these personality traits into the gameplay through a system referred to as “potential.”

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Many of the “good guys” on the Gallian side are unlikable opportunists, while some of the “bad guys” on the empire have personal motivations that are easy to empathize with.

One of the best snipers I had on my squad had the attribute “Darcsen Hater,” which meant that their stats would decrease whenever I put them on a mission with a Darcsen squad member. This character had voice over quips about their prejudice, and they generally acted like an asshole the entire game, but the reality was they were one of the most vital assets to my strategies. That character, and others like him, made me reflect on the historical books I’ve read about presidents looking the other way when their generals were dismal moral deviants because their skill was necessary to win the war. Playing as the captain of a squad of misfits, you may find yourself making the same tough decisions between choosing morale allies or effective ones. Much of Valkyria Chronicles narrative story (told through cut scenes) and emergent story (told through gameplay) reflect the reality of armed conflicts in the modern era.

As much as I enjoyed the setting of Valkyria Chronicles, the strategy behind the game was repeatedly unintuitive for bizarre reasons. The game was designed by SEGA, a japanese studio that took obvious influence from anime story telling that directly impacts the gameplay. There is a big focus on throwing curve balls at the player. While one might suspect a traditional curve ball in a military-style game would be an ambush, or reduced supplies, or a pincer attack — Valkyria Chronicles deals in anime tropes. One of the earlier missions had my enemy assisted by a bloodline goddess who could shoot blue lasers out of a spear from across the map. This character could not be killed or damaged, it was something I had to deal with by avoiding her. Sure enough, my first playthrough of that mission resulted in failure. Once I knew to expect the curve ball and plan around it, the second playthrough became very simple. The entire game has these types of out of left field nonsense.

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Some tactics have inconsistent results, such as this plume of smoke that failed to prevent a Heavy Tank Gun from shooting with perfect accuracy.

These curve balls have become a bit of trope for many Japanese games, where the odds are stacked unfairly against the player and their best recourse for success is to adopt an even more unfair playstyle (consider a series like Dark Souls where cheesing bosses is part of the game). I quickly learned that viewing Valkyria Chronicles as a captain in charge of a realistic tactical battle was a fool’s errand. Rather than clearing out battles slowly and safely, it benefited me more to run past enemies and capture their camp — ending the mission successfully within one or two turns. I learned this lesson best from the enemy AI, who would frequently run past my troops to my empty camp and force my failure. Additionally, the game ranks each mission performance with a letter grade. The only metric for success is completing the mission in the fewest turns possible, regardless of if your characters were horrifically murdered along the way or if half the enemy force remains after you complete your objective.

Final Thoughts

Valkyria Chronicles is one of those games where the more you know about it, the less you like it. It’s a game with a lot of promise and intriguing concepts, but it’s lackluster design gets revealed with the smallest amount of scrutiny. The setting of Gallia and the complicated character motivations held my interest, but as someone who’s not a fan of anime, the narrative went in a whacky direction I felt betrayed the intelligence of its premise. Silly anime tropes could have been made up for with higher quality design, but as I got more adept at gaming the systems, I enjoyed the game less and less even though I found success more and more.

Even with my complaints it’s easy to see how Valkyria Chronicles developed a following. It offered something unique and rejuvenated turn-based tactics in a way that held promise for the future of the franchise. Unfortunately, the series has been plagued by poor management decisions since the first game was released ten years ago. A forgettable portable sequel and a low-budget follow-up were largely ignored by the press and public for valid reasons. Luckily, Valkyria Chronicles 4 will be released later this year, which looks like a proper full-budget sequel. I was happy to refresh my memory on the series and remind myself of the potential it possesses, even if its first entry wasn’t all it could have been. As it stands, Valkyria Chronicles is an interesting game to remember and exciting series to follow, but the original game might not live up to your expectations for it.

3/5

Time: 40 hours played

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Musings

How I spend my time

Earlier this year I had a life-altering revelation: my time is limited. It seems obvious. You may already be mindful of how you spend your time, but doing the numbers for myself revealed the value of how I spend my time. There are 52 weeks in a year, each with 168 hours to allot your time. Ideally, 70 of those hours you should be sleeping (although it’s probably closer to 60). If you have a full-time job than another 40 hours go to your job. On top of that you have to commute there and back which optimistically is another hour every day but for many people it’s closer to 2 or 3 hours daily. Off that alone you have maybe 45 hours left of your week to do other things but you also have to eat and do mundane things like put some clothes on before you go out into the world. Maybe you forgot to do laundry for a while and now you have to deviate your time to that task as well. In fact you usually find time sinking into miscellaneous tasks you didn’t plan. You meet up with a coworker, or you go on a date, maybe you see a movie or attend an event in your neighborhood. These don’t have set schedules but they happen frequently enough you have to account for another 10 hours a week doing other things. Which means you’ve got 35 hours or fewer in a week to do other things. Maybe you’re really busy and it’s more like 10 or 20.  Let’s go with 30 hours. Over a year, those 30 weekly hours would amount to 1,560 hours in a year. This is where I would usually say “1,500 hours? That’s plenty of time to do everything I want in a year.”

A few years ago I got big into The Witcher 3 and I ended up playing over 200 hours of it in a single year. I love the idea of delving into something for the long-haul and squeezing everything there is to get out of that commitment. I remember playing through The Witcher 3 and feeling compelled to finish every side quest, see every plot of land and talk to every character. It was an incredible world and every second spent exploring it felt like it benefited my time. I’ve also dove deep into historical nonfiction books. I took several months reading a 900 page biography about Dwight Eisenhower, much to the groans and moans of my friends who discovered I could plant a fun fact about our former President in pretty much any conversation. These commitments were a huge time sink but they’ve had a noticeable effect on my life. I have a deeper appreciation for how fictional worlds are created from playing Witcher 3 and I have an immense amount of knowledge about one of the more relevant presidents in our nation’s history. This is the ideal of how to spend your time. The process is engaging and you get something out of it. Keeping this ideal in mind — 100 to 200 hours of commitment to truly understand something — 1,500 hours start to look a lot shorter. 

Fear of wasting time has kept me from committing to this ideal for most of my life. I’m sure many can relate to the feeling of restlessness. Not interested in any particular hobby and dissatisfied with whichever one you end up settling on. I’ve ping-ponged between interests and ended up dumping more time into doing nothing than applying that time to something useful. That’s how I end up playing three hours of a dozen different games and never finish any of them or how I’m 100 pages into seven different books and have forgotten about them for so long I’d have to start over if I wanted to finish them. You’re always second guessing your initial interest. Is this really what I want to be doing right now? Is this the best use of my time? It’s easy to say no to those questions and do something else, only for the same concerns to plague you again. It’s not productive or rewarding. 

Well now, I say no more.

I’ve started to guide my time with more direction. I’ve decided to commit myself to pairs of interests. Two books, two games, two television shows and two alternative hobbies (I’ve been ‘learning to play the piano’ for over a decade and can’t play anything other than Where is My Mind). With this format, I can reasonably expect to finish each of these two things within a month’s worth of time. Not many games are over 30 hours, not many books take longer than 100 hours to read and television shows are easy to chip away at gradually. Rather than idly stare at my options and fuss about what I’d be most satisfied with, I’m committing to things. There are days where I want to do something more or less than usual, and my think with pairing off each media group is if I’m not feeling one thing I have another option in the same field. Even with that second option available, the commitment keeps me vigilant when I’d otherwise give up.

I came across this concept of time allotment from my dad of all people. My dad started playing video games a few years ago and he plays games in a way I thought was bizarre. He plays one game, continuously, over and over, until he is completely done with it. Then he puts it down and never thinks about it again. He understands its entirety and it is now dead. It seemed like a great way to burn out on something and not have any fun but I see now that he may have been onto something with that approach.

There’s immense satisfaction knowing you have truly completed something. Not in a way where you’re flipping through the pages just to get to the end, but you actually understand the content of a creation and everything about its existence is known to you. It’s a deeper relationship and more meaningful than a flurry of half-remembered experiences.

Most importantly, as a writer, I feel it’s necessary to have some sort of log of my commitments. I’ve already dabbled with this a bit with my 52 Albums in 52 Weeks experiment back in 2016. I’m going to resurrect the concept of that approach with this new philosophy. I’ll be posting short reflections on the things I do and complete, mostly for myself, but you may find them worth reading as well. I’ll be taking a more informal approach to these log entries. I tend to get hung up on writing something truly terrific, something that flows and has importance. This is how this website has less than five entries over the past year. My standards ensure I never write anything. The logs will be less ambitious, less formal and more frequent.

I hope these logs explain my thoughts more effectively and allow for some good recommendations or critiques on how I spend my time. Maybe now I will finally finish Blood Meridian.

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Politics

Democrats’ rhetoric on immigration reveals lack of policy alternatives

Reports of children being separated from their parents, placed in cages and drugged have convinced the majority of Americans that the Trump administration’s approach to immigration isn’t exactly something they support. FiveThirtyEight reported that an average of 64 percent of Americans oppose “separating families crossing the border” and “holding children and parents in different facilities while they await trial.” Separated by party, the numbers show a familiar story where Democrats overwhelming oppose the Trump administration’s policies (87 percent) and Republicans are split on support and opposition (45 percent favor the policies, 35 percent oppose). Glancing at right-leaning commentators reveals that many Republicans generally support the concept of enforcing a border but are dismayed by the Trump administrations inhumane approach to the issue. Even with those concerns, the message from Republicans is clear: enforcing the border is important but how this administration is doing it is morally wrong.

As the party of #TheResistance, Democrats are eager to criticize the Trump administration’s immigration policies, but the issue begs the question: what is the Democratic platform on immigration? Democrat leaders have criticized immigration policies both inside and outside the party, which suggests the reason Democrats don’t have a clear policy position is because their base isn’t necessarily convinced borders should exist, let alone be enforced.

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With their unending quest to frame themselves as the all-encompassing “resistance” to Trump, Democrats hope they’ll attract support from anyone who disagrees with any of the administration’s unpopular policies. The latest Trump-fueled outrage of families being separated by ICE agents is one of the many failures by this administration Democrats hope to point to during elections. One of the problems with defining a political party as the opposition to an administration is it becomes difficult to forge what the party actually believes in. At their best, Democrats’ tie their strategy to an actual policy, such as Democrats defense for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) which was rolled back by the Trump administration despite maintaining overwhelming support from the public, but other objections that are not tied to policy have created adversarial rhetoric that leads to unsustainable policies for the party of the resistance.

For example, Trump’s executive order limiting travel from seven countries with Muslim-majorities was rightly criticized as poor policy from both sides of the aisle. Many pointed out the obvious inconsistencies of mysteriously leaving out Saudi Arabia or Pakistan from the list of countries (both of which have direct links to Islamic extremism and also a tendency to make generous donations to the US) or the impracticality of indiscriminately banning an entire country of people. Even with these criticisms available to them, Democrats focused on portraying the order as “un-American” and “Islamophobic.” Democrats are skillfully focusing on these criticisms that attack the moral character of the administration to effectively portray the entire administration as racist or un-American. This criticism is again being leveled against the administration following the latest inhumane scandal, but now Democrats have cornered themselves by routinely calling any enforcement of the border as “un-American.” When an entire category of policy is labeled antithetical to America, it’s difficult to suggest alternatives within that category.

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This rhetoric is part of an ongoing trend of Democrats unable to agree if immigration is something that should be limited. Following Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ decision to rollback asylum status for people who cited domestic abuse as reason to flee their country, NPR wrote an article criticizing the decision, as if domestic abuse was an issue that the United States alone was burdened with solving. The language surrounding immigration issues has been morphed to suggest “illegal immigration” isn’t a crime such as when California Senator and speculated 2020 Presidential Candidate Kamala Harris tweeted “An undocumented immigrant is not a criminal.” Even the most popular politician in America, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, can’t escape criticism on the issue. Sanders caught flak from Vox during his presidential candidacy when he suggested open borders would only serve right-wing billionaires interested in depressing wages.

As Dan Pfeiffer of Pod Save America observed, “Democrats are afraid of this issue.” The reason being that the policy with the most support may not be politically viable. Collating all the criticism directed both outside and inside the party, it would seem the most popular position would be no immigration policy at all. The thinking behind this view would be logically consistent with progressives’ interest in inclusiveness and appealing to lofty ideals that expand human rights. Unfortunately for the idealists of the party, enforcing borders is a popular policy position. Democrats love to appeal to lofty ideas, even when there are practical arguments against them, but whereas some tentpole policies such as universal health care or minimum wage increases survive criticism by citing public support, a radically progressive approach to immigration may renew a long-time criticism of Democrats’ impetus to embrace unpopular and unsustainable positions that makes the party lose elections.

For now, Democrats are content with directing the attention to Trump’s unpopular policy rather than formulating their own. Nearly all Americans are unified under the belief of “not this” but Democrats haven’t had a coherent immigration policy for nearly a decade. If they want to make a more compelling appeal for why their ideas would work better they’ll have to start defining them in terms that separate them from their political adversary.

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Musings

Depression and the movie of my life

It’s 1 p.m. on a Tuesday. I’m at my job where I work as a reporter. I’ve just finished filing a breaking news story. My editor commends me for building relationships with sources and getting a scoop on information before anyone else. I share my story on social media and it immediately rakes in good numbers, becoming the most-read story on our website. This is the fifth story of mine in the past five days that has been the most-read on our website. I’m doing well at this job. My boss said I have the most potential out of our team. He said he envisions me taking on a leadership role in the near future. This is the first real job where I felt I made a living wage doing what I love: writing, learning and talking to interesting people. Objectively, these are the best days of my life so far, but that’s not what I’m thinking about.

I’m thinking about all the ways I am a failure. I’m thinking about how this job, which I came into four years after finishing school, is paid about $10,000 less than the average college graduate’s first job. I’m thinking about how my student loans are so high I have to ask my parents for financial assistance. I’m thinking about how it’s been five years since I graduated college and I’m still reliant on my parents. I’m thinking about the dreams I’ve already given up on like writing a screenplay or producing an original short film. I’m thinking about how my father lived under an oppressive government where people were scared to say what they thought and how he convinced his girlfriend to leave everything she’s ever known to marry him on a bus to Rome so they can be sent to the United States together. I’m thinking about how the Augustyn lineage began hundreds of years ago, surviving natural disasters, world wars and the loss of independence of my ancestral homeland, Poland, only to end with me because I can’t convince someone to put up with me for longer than five months. I’m thinking about how the last girl I dated said I was so negative all the time she came to resent me. I’m thinking about when I had an argument with a family member in High School and they whispered to me “You’re an asshole, everyone knows you’re an asshole, that’s why you’re a loser.” I’m thinking I am a loser. I’m thinking about how it’s now 5 p.m., I haven’t done anything at my job for four hours and I’m certainly going to get fired.

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This is what I’ve come to understand is my depression. I don’t remember when it started but I can’t remember not having it. It comes in waves that ebb and flow. Sometimes for a few hours, sometimes for a few days. Last year it lasted months. I think when I was in High School it lasted years but I don’t remember much about those days. I know when it’s around because I can feel its fog cloud my perception. The fog is for my protection from the vicious criticism I inflict on myself. I’m typically cognizant of my surroundings, maybe a bit too much. When the wave hits I detach from myself and everything else. I become a passive observer to the movie of my life, where I’m the main character, but I’m not participating in the flashing pictures before my eyes. I float from one room to the next, my eyes gaze at one sight then another, but nothing registers. I instinctively open a web browser and a flurry of tweets scroll by, an insatiable number of red notifications are marked read and pages of articles or books pass through me without my notice. I can hold a conversation but I can’t tell you what I just said. I’ll drive my car to a restaurant and hate-eat way too much food. The stuffed feeling in my stomach will anchor me to reality because I can actually feel something. I’ll find myself in the driver seat of my car and question if I can drive because I feel so disassociated with reality I’m not confident I can navigate the roads. I’ll make it back to my apartment and realize it’s dark outside. What did I do all day? What day is it? When did I wake up? How long have I been watching this movie about my life? What am I doing with my life? What’s the point?

That last question turns a mundane day to a moment of crisis. What is the point? Maybe there is no point. Maybe my life is pointless. It’s less than pointless. By being here I am inflicting harm onto others. I have so much debt weighing down on me. I criticize people so much I hurt their feelings. I try to explain myself and I make it worse. I can see their faces contorting in disgust as their subjected to a conversation with me. I have so few friends. Sometimes I think the friends I think I have don’t know how to get rid of me and our relationship is running on inertia – like if I told them “it’s ok, we can stop now,” they’d breathe a sigh of relief and leave me. I can’t imagine this not being true. I have no real value to anyone. I have no real purpose. Maybe my purpose is to show everyone that I don’t have a purpose. I’m depressed. I’ve been depressed. I think I’ve been depressed for months but I don’t remember when I started being depressed. I realize if nothing has changed in the past few months, why would it change tomorrow? Do I have anything to do tomorrow? I don’t have anything to do tomorrow. Would anyone need me tomorrow? What about a month from now? What about a year from now? I don’t think so. What about later today? No one needs me later today. I don’t need to be here later today. If I’m not here, then I won’t be depressed. That sounds nice. Why later? What am I waiting for? Why not right now? Why should I be alive right now?

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A common mistake people make about depression is that it’s based in some rational thought. The depressed person has convinced themselves of a reality but if they’re shown the error of their judgement then they’ll understand things are not so bad. Depression has no logic. Only one absolute rule: you will be depressed whether it’s earned or not. It seems that the only people who truly understand what it’s like to be depressed are people who have been depressed. It can be frustrating to throw out questions about the purpose of life to anyone who will listen and only feel disappointed with their answers. The frustration is felt for both parties. “You’re being too negative” is a common endpoint for these conversations. But no one can answer these questions for you.

It doesn’t help that seeking answers will net a collection of mixed answers sending mixed signals. As a white male, I’m simultaneously advised to be more expressive with my feelings and to stop complaining because statistically I’m doing better off than most people. I don’t think this phenomena is unique to my identity. I’ve lost track of the number of women I know who pursue careers only to be judged by their lacking personal life, while married women with plans for children are mocked just as frequently. In this age of information, our varying worldviews collide with every lifestyle vulnerable to criticism. For many people it seems there’s a thousand ways to do things wrong and nothing you can do right. It’s no wonder that the millennial generation has accepted nihilistic humor with open arms, a type of comedy that celebrates the futility of trying to find a purpose in life. These jokes glorify psychological issues in the same way that a Hollywood movie gets audiences to root for the underdog, except there’s no antagonist to overcome, only a self-destructive worldview to embrace. Many rising comics frequently use mental health problems as the set up to a funny joke. I can’t say I’m above this trend. Existential dread is kind of the ace of spades for guilt tripping. It’s like: don’t worry about trying to get people to hate me, I already hate myself.

Since depression has become a punch line, it’s not always so clear who is truly suffering or to what extent. My generation faces two unique phenomena that feed into this crisis of unhappiness: an unusual amount of systematic failures and internet connectivity that ensures everyone knows when bad things happen. Have other generations faced global recessions, constant mass shootings, ballooning personal debt and dwindling career prospects in the face of new technology? Sure. But they didn’t have an IV drip of every catastrophic event delivered to them via a device they keep with them at all times. It’s no surprise that many have adopted nihilistic humor as a coping mechanism to weather the barrage of bad news. When depression is co-opted as a type of humor, how can you tell if someone feels truly depressed or if they’re contributing to our cultural discussion about the future of our generation? A friend posting “I wish I was dead” to social media might be an obvious red flag, but if a similar message is conveyed by Nihilist Arby’s or Melissa Broder, it’s not clear what type of response is appropriate. The rise of this type of humor normalizes depression and makes it difficult to broach the topic when actual worries arise.

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I think another fault is people view depression as something you overcome. It plagues you for the dark moments of your life but you get better eventually, right? In reality, depression is closer to a cancer diagnosis. There’s treatment, it can go into remission, but there’s no guarantee it won’t come back. Sometimes it comes back when it doesn’t make sense. The deaths of Chris Cornell and Chester Bennington prove that. Two phenomenally talented artists with thousands of fans and an extensive loving family. These titans of success and support structures accomplished more than most people in history but the tolls of depression came to collect all the same.

It’s hard not to say the depression landscape seems hopeless. A person can fuel their own self-destructive fires of depression, the world provides heavy criticism but few answers and our internet culture makes it difficult to identify when someone is truly struggling. What can a person possibly do to combat these forces?

An outsider observing a friend’s fall to depression might feel helpless but in these instances, as cliché as it might sound, the best antidote to the world’s darkness is genuine positivity. Not to be confused with empty platitudes or childish rejection of negative emotion. Refusing to acknowledge sadness is just another form of repression and you’d have to be a fool to think an impersonal slogan like “look on the bright side” has ever helped anyone. It’s a simple fact that people don’t express their appreciation for one another as much as they feel it. For whatever reason, many people feel awkward taking compliments which discourages genuine expressions of appreciation. In pursuit of avoiding awkwardness, our friendships are devoid of the acknowledgment for why we maintain these relationships in the first place. The presence of positive reinforcement makes a difference, but that’s not all that’s needed.

It’s true that no great person became great on their own, but on some level the individual has to choose their own destiny. You may not be able to will yourself out of depression, but you have to find your own reasons for wanting to stick around in this world simply because no one else is going to do it for you. In my experience, many people who are the most depressed are the ones holding themselves to an impossible standard. They’ll look at the lives of their heroes and feel ashamed they haven’t accomplished as much as quickly. There is no universal blueprint for success and there is no guide to happiness. The only meaningful comparison is who you were yesterday to who you are today. Define your goals and reflect on the progress you have made instead of the dreams you haven’t accomplished yet. By that metric, you may surprise yourself.

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When I began writing this piece, I had that job on a Tuesday and everything was going well. Of course, a few weeks later, I was fired. Not because I did anything wrong, but because that’s sometimes what happens in corporate America. This was eerily similar to where I was a year ago. Freshly out of a job with plenty of doubts about my future. My latest dismissal could have been more evidence to the self-fulfilling prophecy: Of course I was fired, I am valueless trash and they’ve finally caught onto my act. But that’s not what happened. Instead I received an outpouring of support from colleagues, sources and readers who were bewildered by my dismissal and shared commendations of my work while offering ways to support my continued success. These suggestions could have been struck down by a more bitter and resentful person, but I made the choice to believe that their kind words were genuine. This was very different from where I was a year ago, where I still had a support structure helping me, but nowhere near its current size and passion. This support structure wasn’t handed to me, I created it by being the person I am. I chose to define myself by my ability to succeed, not my occasional setback.

I may never escape depression, but it does not define me. I am already a defined person. I am the person who found a job I love and put my passion over compensation. I have a family that will support me if I need help. I am the person that didn’t let anything stop me from pursuing my dreams but found others I care about more. I am the son of phenomenally brave and ambitious parents. I am the beginning of the Augustyn lineage in North America. I am the person who doesn’t settle for convenience over happiness. I am me and I accept that who I am includes some bad with the good, but I don’t let temporary moments of doubt redefine who I am. Neither should you.

Images edited by Kaleigh Kessler

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Movies

Annihilation delivers big ideas and nightmare fuel

Sometimes science fiction is like reading conspiracy theories. A big idea catches your interest and before you know it you’ve consumed a Wikipedia page’s worth of information. Some of it sticks, some of it doesn’t but you’re holding out to see if the big picture comes together. Many times, it falls apart long before you get to the end. You realize the people behind this theory are out of their minds and it’s not worth thinking about. Other times everything you’ve examined seems rational enough, but you’re missing the smoking gun – the piece that brings it all together. Every now and then you come across a theory that’s devoid of insanity or ulterior motives, something that makes you really think about it for a few moments or maybe weeks. Do we exist inside a simulation (The Matrix)? What would happen to earth if we were all infertile (Children of Men)? How does memory affect our decisions and who we love (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind)? Films capable of posing these thoughtful questions are few and far between in an industry filled with pretentiousness and half-baked ideas. When you finally come across a film with depth to its ideas it’s unmistakable. You can’t get it out of your head. Annihilation is the latest movie I can’t get out of my head. It’s a gripping film that balances tension-filled moments with lofty big ideas. Accomplishing either of these goals would make it worth of recommendation. The combination of the two solidifies it as one of the best films in the genre.

Before stepping foot in the theater, the origin of Annihilation triggered some of my personal red flags. This is the second film from Alex Garland, the screenwriter/director who proved his sci-fi chops with Ex Machina (one of my favorites from 2015) previously wrote other worthwhile entries in the genre such as 28 Days Later or Sunshine, but unlike those films, Annihilation wasn’t conceived by Garland. Annihilation is based on the first book of a trilogy written by Jeff VanderMeer. Garland began adapting the book before the sequels were released and when they eventually came out he chose not to read them. Additionally, a common criticism of VanderMeer’s material was its lack of direction with some Amazon reviews using words like “undercooked” or “gibberish” to describe its bigger ideas. Everyone has their breaking point for when highfalutin ideas prove unsatisfying and I can recognize that my personal threshold is significantly lower than others. In other words, Annihilation looked to be going the way of some science fiction that uses dazzling spectacle and mystery boxes to hide shallow substance.

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Paramount Pictures and Skydance

Contrary to my concerns, Annihilation is one of the more grounded stories in science fiction. The story is anchored around Lena (Natalie Portman), a biologist in mourning due to the unexplained disappearance of her husband Kane after he accepted a secret mission for the military. Lena is surprised to find her husband return home unannounced, but something inside him has changed. He’s distant, barely recognizes Lena, and soon begins coughing blood and falls into multiple organ failure. Kane’s declining condition drives Lena to discover what happened to her husband. It’s quickly revealed that Kane was sent to investigate an area known as “the shimmer,” a growing anomaly that appeared on earth three years earlier. Lena volunteers to enter the shimmer, along with four other specialists, to uncover the shimmer’s purpose and what happened to Kane.

Annihilation doesn’t waste the audience’s time with misdirection or loose ends. The film is presented as Lena’s retelling of events in the shimmer after she has returned from the expedition. This framing enables the story to skip to the good parts and allows for infrequent exposition when additional information is needed without slowing down the pace. Lena’s retelling allows the film to distinguish between mysteries that require the audience’s attention from typical story beats that reach their own conclusion. For example, the beginning of the film has Lena quickly explain the fate of her fellow crew members. With each character’s conclusion established, the audience doesn’t have to spend time speculating on the ends of each character. Each character is given a definitive conclusion that doesn’t require any amount of speculation. Instead the audience can focus on how each person’s fate provides context and understanding to the bigger question: what is the shimmer?

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Paramount Pictures and Skydance

It is worth noting that if you are not one who enjoys crafting theories for high concept films, Annihilation has strong fundamentals anyone can enjoy. Lena is a strong character on her own, supported by Portman’s realistic portrayal of a highly intelligent, physically competent woman, who makes mistakes like any other ordinary person. The other crew members have their own personalities and backgrounds that explain why they’re on a suicide mission and what they contribute to the expedition. In today’s era, a main cast headlined by five women could be seen as a novelty, but the film treats its cast’s identity indifferently. There’s no reference to how women are more or less equipped to handle the dangers of the shimmer and the personalities are as varied as can be, ranging from aggressively insecure to quietly confident.

If you don’t make a connection with the characters, the film’s expertly crafted moments are enough to keep your attention. Annihilation may be classified as science fiction but many encounters with the strangeness of the shimmer establish fear so effectively it’d be easy to label it a horror film. The terrors of the expedition occupy the entire spectrum of dread, from violent tension and body gore to extensional dread and nihilism. While many science fiction films may see mystery and discovery as a fun adventure, Annihilation depicts the debilitating fear of the unknown more effectively than any other film in recent memory.

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Paramount Pictures and Skydance

The mysteries may hold a traditional audience’s attention but the true achievement of Annihilation is its third act that goes all-in on the inexplicable but still crafts a coherent conclusion. Which isn’t to say that the ending is straight-forward. The final encounter has a bevy of mind-blowing nightmare fuel, but the film treats its audience with respect by cluing them into what characters know and being upfront with what they don’t know. Lena’s final encounter is presented uninterrupted through traditional film techniques (no 10 minute light show sequence accompanied with operatic vocals as seen in 2001: A Space Odyssey), and we even get her interpretation of the encounter. But the answer to the question of the shimmer is found through studying the film’s themes rather than directly addressed by the narrative. These themes include the nature of cell reproduction, biology’s disposition for reproduction and self-destruction and the reoccurring visual of the infinity symbol. I won’t say I have a confident grasp of the nature of the shimmer, but I felt the film gave me enough clues to piece together a satisfying interpretation.

Of course, if Annihilation is anything like Garland’s previous work, there may be an endless number of interpretations. I’ve personally had multiple heated arguments over what Ex Machina is “really about,” and I anticipate similar conversation about Annihilation. Unlike many other vague high-concept tales, the discussion surrounding Annihilation is motivated by the film’s complexity and the density of ideas worth reflecting on. The tragedy of each character’s fate, the scientific possibility of the shimmer’s hellscape creations or the purpose of the shimmer’s existence. Whether the conversations around Annihilation are limited to guttural reactions or expand to dozens of conspiracy-ridden Wikipedia article entries, it’s a movie going experience that you won’t be able to get out of your head, and one of the finest in the genre.

5/5

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