Books

LOG: You Know You Want This reveals more than it intends

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?

Much like the rest of the world, I was fascinated by Roupenian’s Cat Person when it appeared in the New Yorker. Although I was immensely frustrated by the story and the actions of the main character, I felt Roupenian had tapped into a cultural moment better than anyone else who had tried. It seemed she had something to say and it would be worth it to hear her message. This short story collection shows the promise Roupenian has to craft a compelling message about the darkness of our own desires, but largely I found these stories to be a mix of adolescent drama and egomania mental illness.

How was it?

Let’s start with the good. The last batch of stories in this collection show Roupenian at her most promising. Unsurprisingly, these stories are also the ones that are highlighted by reviews and the jacket cover. These stories give life to the mental disturbances in our own mind by manifesting them as real life terrors, more frequently of the body-horror variety.

  • Scarred is a short tale about a woman summoning a naked man who acts as a cadaver as she cuts him for blood and other ingredients as she betters herself with more black magic.
  • The Matchbox Sign follows a couple where the woman develops strange “insect bites” that spread across her body, while doctors suggest they’re self-inflicted.
  • Death Wish is a first-person recount of a strange sexual fetish.
  • Biter tells the story of Ellie and her desire to bite people for gratification.
Death Wish

There are obvious themes across these four stories. Our desires — specifically sexual fetishes — can corrupt the world around us. They can be a source of self-fulfillment and gratification, while degrading our so-called loved ones. Each of these stories has a different take on how we may respond to being targeted as the supplier of our sick fantasies. Some of us can’t handle it and stay forever disturbed (Death Wish) while others may accept our demented side (Matchbox Sign). Roupenian has tapped into the vulnerability our culture feels when discussing our sexuality and how it exists in the #MeToo era. Although these are the most promising stores in the collection, they often end short of their potential. Quickly wrapping up anticlimactically when it feels like it was just getting good. These later stories show Roupenian is close to synthesizing her ideas into something really quite novel.

However, the rest of the book could convincingly make the case that Roupenian needs to address her own demented desires before further plunging herself into fiction writing. I am a strong believer of separating art from the artist, but virtually every character — their motivations and worldview — appear to be see-through stand-ins for Roupenian herself. Specifically, the thoughts and desires of someone who suffers from intense narcissism. This is evident by the fact that all of her stories maintain this revolting obsession with reputation sabotage, sadism and egomania. Let’s look at some of these stories:

Bad Boy — where a couple discovers their fetish for teasing their friend and using him for sex.

“It became the kernel of a fantasy we shared, picturing him out there with his ear pressed to the wall, all churned up by jealousy and arousal and shame.” (pg. 4)

“As soon as he was gone, though, we got so bored we could barely stand it. We white-knuckled it through two days, but without him around to watch us, we felt so dull and pointless it was almost as though we didn’t exist.” (pg. 8)

Look at Your Game, Girl — a young girl recalls the time when a strange beach-bum’s attention to her could’ve turned her into a nationally recognized name.

“After she went away to college, Jessica came to believe that this early impulse to link her own experience to Polly’s had arisen from a childish self-absorption, the impulse to see herself as the center point around which the rest of the universe revolved.” (pg. 25)

Scarred

The Night Runner — an earnest Peace Corps teacher is pushed to desperation due to a class of girls terrorizing him.

“She was propositioning him, and the joke of her offer to take him back behind the classroom and suck him off in return for a higher mark left him red-faced and stunned, she while strolled back to her desk amidst cheers.” (pg. 46)

The Mirror, the Bucket, and the Old Thigh Bone — a princess seeking suitors decides a mirror that reflects her image, a bucket that echoes her voice, and a thigh bone that replicates her touch, is the “mate” she chooses to spend her life with.

“You love what you love, the king said. If that means you are selfish, or arrogant, or spoiled, then so be it. I love you, and your children love you, and the people of the kingdom love you, and we don’t want to see you suffer any longer.” (pg. 71)

Cat Person — a young woman has a complicated relationship with a man, but ultimately finds herself most attracted to him when he makes her life herself.

“…from the way he was gazing at her; in his eyes, she could see how pretty she looked, smiling through her tears in the chalky glow of the streetlight, with a few flakes of snow coming down.” (pg. 83)

“She was starting to think that she understood him — how sensitive he was, how easily he could be wounded — and that made her feel closer to him.” (pg. 85)

“She pushed her body against his, feeling tiny beside him, and he let out a great shuddering sigh, as if she were something too bright and painful to look at, and that was sexy, too, being made feel like a kind of irresistible temptation.” (pg. 86)

“As they kissed, she found herself carried away by a fantasy of such pure ego that she could hardly admit even to herself that she was having it. Look at this beautiful girl, she imagined him thinking. She’s so perfect, her body is perfect, everything about her is perfect, she’s only twenty years old, her skin is flawless, I want her so badly, I want her more than I’ve ever wanted anyone else, I want her so bad I might die.” (pg. 89)

Once again, I believe in separating art from the artist. A writer’s ability to create a viciously immoral character does not imply they themselves are viciously immoral, but these disturbing views are not exclusive to one character, or one story, they exist across all of the stories. Roupenian herself has said that reading her stories is a window into her worldview:

Here’s the catch: when you read a story I’ve written, you’re not thinking about me—you’re thinking as me. I’ve wormed my way inside your head (hi!) and briefly taken over your mind. You’re forced to reckon with my full complexity—or, at least, whatever fraction of that complexity I’ve managed to get down on the page.

Kristen Roupenian, New Yorker

With this in mind, it’s obvious Roupenian has a sustained interest in the concept of extreme idolization, to the point where a person is willing to self-harm to please the target of their affection. This theme is present in virtually every character across the many stories within the collection. On its own, this fascination with a dismal personality flaw might be interesting enough to dedicate a dozen short stories to, but what makes You Know You Want This so loathsome to read is how it celebrates the narcissism of its protagonists.

Bad Boy’s protagonists are the tormentors. Look At Your Game, Girl reads like a missed-connections tragedy. The Night Runner routinely emasculates and degrades a person who’s shown to be earnest. The queen/princess of Mirror/Bucket/Thigh Bone is relished for her selfishness. Cat Person’s Margot is hailed as a survivor of toxic masculinity despite being the author of the story’s emotional terrorism.

The Good Guy

These characterizations of immoral, awful people prevailing in their own terribleness is infuriating to read. As if they were the modern-era equivalent of a teenage boy writing about a muscular anti-hero manipulating women into sex. The majority of You Know You Want This reads like a childish power fantasy. One where Roupenian and her subjects acknowledge their immorality and get rewarded for it.

My only hope is that Roupenian is playing a different role than the one she’s been assigned. Viewed as a voice for women in #MeToo, Roupenian seems more interested in examining the extent of awfulness humans are allowed. In what situations do we forgive our tormentors? What becomes our breaking point when we’ve already submitted ourselves to abuse? These are fascinating questions that seem to be on Roupenian’s mind. Most notable in in Biter, where the protagonist’s desire to bite a man is portrayed as deranged, but circumstances arise so that she’s seen as a hero. It’s an interesting conclusion that made me reconsider the rest of the book’s themes.

Final thoughts

I have no idea how this short story collection came about. These very well could be stories Roupenian wrote over a decade ago, before she crafted her style, or understood the target of her obsessions. Maybe she even realized her earlier stories were devoid of morals and has learned to tune them to a wider audience. Maybe that is why the last batch of stories are significant improvements from the ones that precede them. This is all I can hope for.

I won’t diminish Roupenian’s potential. There clearly is some talent behind her writing. However, as a standalone work, You Know You Want This reads like the immature journal doodlings of an egomaniacal prom queen.

1/5

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Books

LOG: Sapkowski finds the Witcherverse’s potential with Sword of Destiny

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?

As mentioned in a previous log, I’m in the middle of rereading the entirety of The Witcher books after I lost track of the plot in the third novel — Baptism of Fire.

Sword of Destiny is the second short-story compilation before the true story of The Witcher series begins. While technically these short stories are “separate” from the larger storyline that begins with Blood of Elves, the information from these short stories are utilized in the novels in meaningful ways. For example, Geralt is introduced to Ciri — a future main character — in one of the latter stories of Sword of Destiny. This introduction may not be vital to understanding their relationship but it certainly helps. Considering I dropped off the novels because I felt lost by the revolving-door of characters and conflicts, I wanted to reread these short stories more diligently. Refreshing my memory of what has happened could better prepare me for what events were coming up.

How was it?

I remember really enjoying Sword of Destiny, far more than I anticipated, and even more so than The Last Wish. The author — Andrzej Sapkowski — has clearly set-up what journey he wants his characters to take and as a result the stories in Sword of Destiny feel cohesive with one another. Whereas The Last Wish was a string of subverting fantasy tropes, Sword of Destiny feels like it’s about something. Specifically, Geralt’s philosophy on where he lies in the world’s conflicts, his relationship with Yennefer, and his views on fate.

The Bounds of Reason

The Bounds of Reason is the first story in this collection and may very well be one of the tightest introductions in a short-story compilation. A side character named Threejacks is introduced and frames the reader’s interpretation of the Witcherverse by asking Geralt if he sides more with the forever-conflicting concepts of chaos and order. Threejacks suggests Geralt is one the side of order, because monsters are on the side of chaos, and Geralt kills monsters professionally. However, Geralt counters that a dragon is most certainly on the side of chaos, but witchers don’t kill dragons. This conversation becomes far more complex as the events of the Bounds of Reason unfold and we learn more about Threejacks, as well as what Geralt is thinking at this point in time.  

Bounds of Reason introduces a slew of side characters in the form of various mercenaries, all vying for reward money for a particular contract. These characters allow Sapkowski to reintroduce various parts of the world — the ruthlessly violent professionals, the impractical idealists, the snooty bourgeois, the chaotic monsters, and the common man who’s crushed by each of those groups. The interplay between these groups dumps the reader into the Witcherverse’s shades of gray, while anchoring it all to Geralt’s story and his various friends. In this case, Dandelion and Yennefer. Every one of these characters serves a plot purpose and there is a string of payoffs in the final chapter that provide an immensely satisfying conclusion. It’s practically a perfect story.

A Shard of Ice

Bounds of Reason is followed-up by A Shard of Ice, a story that focuses on Geralt’s relationship with Yennefer and establishes Sword of Destiny’s willingness to tell tales outside of traditional fantasy quests. A Shard of Ice reveals Geralt and Yennefer have been engaged in an on-again-off-again complicated relationship and in that time Yennefer has reconnected with a former lover — a sorcerer named Istredd. Geralt and Istredd become aware of one another and Yennefer’s desire to reduce her number of lovers, pitting them against each other.

A Shard of Ice proves to be a surprisingly modern story, considering it was written in the mid 90s. The dynamic between the three characters is easily relatable to anyone entrenched in the hellscape of modern dating where there is a silent agreement every romantic engagement is deemed “casual,” unless commitment is explicitly stated. A familiar dynamic emerges where all parties believe they were fine with the noncommittal nature of a relationship, but the presence of competition makes them realize they care about it more than they realized, forcing them to rush for a resolution while stomaching emotional pain. This is a good pitch for a story, but a lot of Sapkowski’s writing devolves into this infuriating vagueness in pursuit of being “deep” that can get very frustrating. Specifically, Yennefer tells of a story of an “ice queen” as a metaphor for herself. It starts off coherent enough, but as Geralt throws in his own metaphor and the two intermingle, it becomes less clear what each character is trying to say — or what Sapkowski is trying to convey.

Still, this story is one of the only insights we get into Geralt and Yennefer’s feelings for one another. It’s also one of the few stories that lacks any physical combat or battle of some sort. It’s entirely focused on the characters and their conflict. It shows that their personalities are strong enough to hold the reader’s interest, and the diversity of Sapkowski’s writing ability. It shows where the Witcher stories could go, and sets up the theme of the rest of the book.

Eternal Flame

Eternal Flame is likely the most unique story in the collection simply because it barely follows Geralt at all. Centered around a dwarf named Dainty Biberveldt who’s had his identity stolen by a doppler, this story builds the world of the Witcherverse’s greater economy and various institutions. We get introduced to the city of Novigard — the only worthwhile metropolis mentioned in the entire series — as well as the religious cult of the Eternal Flame, the legal system of local cities, the dwarves’ guild, bankers’ guild and how a market economy is affected by the constant waring of feudal states.

This is one of those stories where fans can reread endlessly to infer additional lore details about the Witcherverse. We get exposed to many elements and sects of life that otherwise exist as background to the tales of Geralt, Ciri and Yennefer. It’s a story that feels remarkably different from the other stories in the collection and solidifies Sword of Destiny’s point of proving the versatility of stories told in the Witcherverse.

A Little Sacrifice

A Little Sacrifice is a low-key, low-stakes, story for Geralt, but it may be my favorite story in the entire series. Geralt takes on a contract to assist a local lord woo a mermaid into marriage, and while doing so he spends time with Dandelion and his longtime friend/fellow musician, Essi “Little Eye” Daven. Geralt and Essi get engaged in the equivalent of a “summer fling,” which forces Geralt to confront his feelings for Yennefer. There’s an obvious theme between Geralt’s fling, and his mission to force an unnatural relationship into success, but they’re surprisingly understated.

A Little Sacrifice feels like a novelty episode of your favorite TV show. There’s no real conflict in the story; it’s pitched as a string of summer days with friends spending time with one another. It’s maybe the only story where you feel a sense of peace and joy in its events. This tone, combined with the subject material of love and regret, creates an immensely melancholy atmosphere. You can feel the impermanence of happiness existing in the story’s pages. Even though this is one of the longer stories in the Witcherverse, I personally felt like I didn’t want it to end. Essi is an incredibly likable character and we see Geralt at his most vulnerable. The final paragraphs of A Little Sacrifice are heart-crushing, and easily one of Sapkowski’s finest moments.

Sword of Destiny

Sword of Destiny’s title-story is significant for its introduction of Cirilla “Ciri” Fiona to the series, but otherwise is the most insignificant story. Geralt ventures through the forest and comes across Elven territory where he finds a mousy young Ciri. He attempts to aid her through the forest, but we’re introduced to the “dryads” of the forest. Psuedo-elves who were human children, straying too far into the forest, and are subsequently captured and indoctrinated into dryad life. Ciri is one such child. Though Geralt tries to intervene with her fate, it becomes clear that he must leave her behind. There are many macro-plot lines introduced in this chapter, such as Nilfgaard’s war, elder blood, elven prophecies, magic and the relationship between various realms like Cintra and neighboring nations, but the drama of this story is lackluster. Sapkowski relies heavily on vague metaphors about a “sword of destiny” that “cuts two ways,” but it’s not clear what this comparison is meant to convey. It also doesn’t help that Sword of Destiny ends anticlimactically, leading directly into the next story.

Geralt shooting fire

Something More

Something More, is the final short story for the collection and launches Geralt onto the journey that will be told for the remaining six novels. After assisting a tradesman on the side of the road, Geralt suffers a near-fatal injury, causing him to drift in and out of consciousness as he recalls previous memories. Primarily, his promise made in The Last Wish’s Matter of Price, where he said he would return in six years to collect on his law of surprise — a barter where witchers offer help, in exchange for “something at home that you don’t suspect,” often a child. In this instance, Geralt goes to the country of Cintra to collect on this law of surprise, but after philosophizing with Queen Calanthe for a bit he decides it isn’t worth the trouble. Leaving Cintra empty-handed, Geralt decides to help the tradesman referenced in the beginning of the story.

Along with the memory of his time in Cintra, Geralt recalls one of his prior meetings with Yennefer, and partly hallucinates an interaction with his biological mother. These both provide a tied knot for two dangling threads left by the series so far: What’s Geralt’s backstory? And where is his relationship with Yennefer going? The former is explicitly concluded and the latter is framed as a never-ending conflict in Geralt’s life. While it’s nice for Sapkowski to clearly reiterate his intentions for the main character, these interactions feel a little stale. I’ve never desired an answer to Geralt’s lineage, so the mother scene feels out-of-place. Additionally, Yennefer has been a constant presence within the book so far, so to emphasize her importance once again seems repetitive.

Finally, the crux of this story is centered around the vaguely fatalist “law of surprise” and the complicated lineage politics of Cintra — a lesser-nation in the context of the world’s greater geopolitics. It’s easy to get lost in the needlessly confusing threads spewed across this story. The multiple flashbacks and reintroduction of old characters makes it difficult to know where the story is going, what it’s trying to accomplish, or what we should be paying attention to. All of these thoughts swirl together until it abruptly reveals Geralt’s reward for the law of surprise: Ciri, effectively binding each other by fate, or as the book states — something more.

Final Thoughts

Taken as a whole Sword of Destiny leaves a powerful impact. The first four stories are so phenomenally told and wonderfully unique, it creates a lot of excitement for the prospect of a full-fledged novel in the Witchverse. However, the final two chapters show how Sapkowski can sometimes get lost in the various themes and characters interacting with one another to disappointing results. Sword of Destiny simultaneously shows how the characters are strong enough to support a story on their own, while also reminding readers of Sapkowski’s flawed desire to keep adding more ingredients to a formula that’s fine on its own.

Although it may end on an indication of things to come, Sword of Destiny is still one of the best books I’ve read. It’s surprisingly modern and dense with interpretations. It’s the book I remember whenever the novels slow in pace, because I know the slog will be worth it if Sapkowski can recapture what he accomplished in this series of stories.

5/5

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Books, Politics

Log: The Coddling of the American Mind

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?

In 2015, I read Greg Lukianoff’s Unlearning Liberty. At the time, it seemed like our country was at the height of on-campus hysteria and reading that book gave me an enormous peace of mind. For starters, it looked like the bulk of these problems were originating from the left — the portion of the spectrum I had identified with my entire life. If I disagreed with what was happening on the left, did that mean I belonged somewhere else? This thought led me to researching conservative ideologies which I quickly deduced were not representative of my views at all. I felt out of place. There was nowhere in this new dynamic where I was represented, but then I read Lukianoff’s book.

Lukianoff is a self-described lifelong Democrat who cherishes free-speech and other liberal ideals. These were views I aligned with. I consider myself a free speech absolutist, but at the time it was difficult to find anyone who agreed with view that wasn’t a right-wing lunatic. Lukianoff’s take was refreshing and gave me the insight I needed to make sense of the crazy world we were descending into. From Lukianoff, I was introduced to many other public intellectuals. Jonathan Haidt, co-author of Coddling and a researcher who did studies on political tribalism; Sam Harris, who I had cursory knowledge of but didn’t look into many of his views; Steven Pinker — and eventually more uniquely political-defined characters such as Mark Lilla, Andrew Sullivan, David Frum, Jordan Peterson and Brett / Eric Weinstein. Reading Lukianoff’s book set me on a path to finding the voices I now consider the most valuable in our current moment.

Of course, 2015 was not the peak year of campus hysteria or whatever we want to call this strange time we’re living in. It’s not clear we’ve reached the peak. You could argue 2018 was the worst year yet, but 2019 has already started with a viral scandal about the media’s portrayal of MAGA hat-wearing teenagers and if they didn’t anything wrong or not. We’re clearly still in a time we don’t quite understand. The Coddling of the American Mind is a book that attempts to resolve some of the mysteries of how we got here.

Greg Lukianoff

How was it?

It’s interesting to read a book by two authors because you can pretty much tell when one section is written by one or the other. Lukianoff is an effective writer and makes every sentence meaningful. I tend to highlight key sentences or phrases that impact me and I had to stop myself from highlighting entire pages of this book. Of course, other sections are far more sparse of quality one-liners and take a bit to get to the point (my analysis is these sections were written by Haidt). In terms of pure readability, this is an engaging book on a topic that could’ve come across as dull. Although I have to say the introduction chapter has one of the dumbest framing gimmicks I’ve read in nonfiction.

In terms of information, I was a bit surprised the book’s thesis relied so heavily on other authors. Specifically, Nassim Taleb’s theory on anti-fragility is front and center for most of the book. Other authors and written works are pulled from Lenore Skenazy’s Free-Range Kids and Jean Twenge’s iGen. I suppose it’s worth saving the time by not rehashing what other experts have already concluded, but at times it felt in the dark on the full-scope of an explanation because I wasn’t well-read on the other sources of information the authors repeatedly pulled from.

Jonathan Haidt

Of course the book has a fair amount of its own analysis, especially in the “How Did We Get Here?” portion of the book. It makes a compelling case for how the issues born on campus actually came from a variety of sources that intermingled for this very specific catastrophe of free society. This isn’t a book that gives a simple answer for a complicated problem, there are many layers to the issue and each one is extracted and examined. The book doesn’t suggest the finger can be pointed at any one event or individual, this is an issue that came to life due to many influences and all of them must be addressed.

The end of the book concludes with ways to potentially address the problems and I thought this was one of the stronger sections of the book. For one, it helps to end a grim book on a point of optimism. It also helps that the solutions range from small-scope to large-scale and are all backed by data. Something as small as restricting kids’ time on smartphones is an easy life change to make, but others like incentivizing students to take a gap year after high school by altering college admissions to favor that behavior, show how institutional change could affect these outcomes as well. You finish the book feeling like there is a way out of this hole we’ve dug into.

Final Thoughts

I’ve followed the issue of campus hysteria pretty closely for five years, so a lot of this book was a rehash. It felt slow at times; mainly when I was in a section about an experience I still have fresh in my memory. Even with the repetitiveness, this book has macro-level analysis that isn’t always possible in the news cycle of individual events. The third and fourth parts of this book offer the reader an opportunity to step back and see the extent of the situation we find ourselves in as a country. These parts of the book are what made the reading experience worth it.

I can only imagine how much more rewarding this book would be in the hands of someone who had no knowledge of this issue, or maybe only heard about it on their periphery. This book acts as a great introduction for the unfamiliar and adds important insight to a problem others may be well aware of.

4/5

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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.

20180907141407_1

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.

20180907140120_1

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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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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