Trash(y) Fantasy

fqtragz4bz4bud7yu9y0It’s sort of part of the package, really. Punk rock, comic books, science fiction and horror movies, and fantasy novels/games. It’s the stuff that gets thrown into the soup that creates guys like me. At least that’s how I see it, that weird wishlist of things from the backs of comic books put into human form with black t-shirts and too many thoughts about owning a sword.

Still, despite the fact that I really love the genre and definitely consider it a huge part of my web of influences, I didn’t actually read that much fantasy as a kid, when I think back on it.

I read Tolkien, but I didn’t really like it, too caught up in the language. I read and enjoyed C. S. Lewis, weirdly, I don’t know why, but I had all of his “Narnia” books, reading and re-reading them religiously (pun intended). Of course there were comic books, an inherited stack of Marvel’s Conan The Barbarian and The Savage Sword Of Conan from the 70’s that blended the no-man’s land nihilist fantasy of Howard’s creation with pulp insanity. I read King Arthur stories in a ratty Penguin Classics paperback a lot (I had a bunch of those, but that’s another story). I read a lot of Raymond E. Feist, who I randomly stumbled upon in an English-languae bookstore in a foreign country randomly (I still consider him a master and constantly go back to his work for comfort reads.) Through Feist, I found Janny Wurts and a few other people, but for the most part I didn’t fall as crazy into so much of the genre (which is vast, wide, and deep with both great stuff as well as a lot of shit) as I feel like a lot of others who are avowed fans of the genre did. I never read “Dragonlance” stuff, I never read any “Shannara” or “Wheel Of Time” books (gasp! I know, I know), and I never heard of any of the “A Song Of Ice And Fire” books until the TV show (I’ve since read them and they’re alright, but the TV show actually works better).

It’s weird to think of fantasy novels as intrinsically a huge part of me because of that, like I’m a poser in a weird subculture for a subgenre that catered to people who forever felt like posers. Still, they kinda are, and I think it’s because I think back on how some of the first forays I took into reading work that pushed me away from just male authors and cliched stuff was in fantasy, in particular the work of Robin Hobb, Jeanne Kalogridis, and Jacqueline Carey. Those three (Hobb and Carey in particular) were instrumental during my late teens/20’s as fantasy writers, authors I searched for.

Hobb’s “Farseer” trilogy was amazing, a perfect turn on conventional fantasy tropes in an arguably better take that Martin does (in particular the whole “bastard of nobility” thing). I vaguely remember seeing ads for the first book, Assassin’s Apprentice, in the back of other books I had, and reading her books about Fitz and his world, a complex world that led to dumb broken messy endings and broken people who don’t mend, who suffer and have to live with consequences, something that fantasy (and fiction) at that time, in my experience, hadn’t really exposed me to in that type of escapist writing, the kind of stuff I craved to help calm down my brain. Fiction was always about wrapping up loose ends for a story to finish in a grandiose fashion, and leaving those ragged ends frayed and unable to be incorporated into an ending acts leaves a heavy impression on someone who is constantly used to those types of complete endings. I loved, and still love, that there are no heroes in Hobb’s books about her character Fitz. The heroes are other people’s stories, hers are about the others, the people at the fringes with messy lives and no grand plans or huge endings. They’re about real people, as real as they can feel in a world with dragons and magic telepathy.

Then for some godforsaken reason I ended up in a B&N browsing the “fantasy” section and, fucking Satan forgive me, I stumbled upon the work of Jacqueline Carey, a frankly bizarre alternative medieval Europe that delves heavily into espionage, queer-themed BDSM,  and anathema Christian theology. To this day I don’t know what possessed me to buy those first two books of Carey’s first trilogy of work, “Kushiel’s Legacy”, because I was probably mortified the clerk would look at me weird for buying what I felt was basically smut.

It kind of is, to be honest, like my exposure to Kalogridis’ work, which I felt was horror but looking back, is basically early vampiric smut that I threw myself into one summer when it was all I had to read (along with a dog-eared copy of Puzo’s The Godfather, which I found…weird, but that’s another story).

How the fuck did I read all this stuff, which borrows liberally from a long history of bodice-rippers and before 50 Shades of Gray introduced housewives to what BDSM actually meant?

Don’t answer that, the answers are a little to obvious and I don’t wanna admit that right now.

Anyway, going back to those books, these bodice-rippers, smut wrapped up in battles between Viking stand-in cultures and some sort of analogs for what I think are Lutheran warrior-priests, they’re…kind of groundbreaking, actually. Carey’s research kung-fu shows in a lot of the work, not letting what bogged down a lot of detail-rich fantasy happen where story suffers. Also, despite basically being softcore porn with swords and magic, there’s an interesting point to observe in her work, in that the offshoot of Judaism that replaced the rise of Christianity in her alternative-history world is a notably queer and socially progressive one, with a lot of thought (at least in my mind at the time) put into creating a faith that somehow put “have sex with whoever” at the top of “how we show our version of God we love him” list. And when I say “whoever,” I mean “whoever,” with same-sex relationships being a norm of her work, and you know what?

That’s probably the first time I saw that in genre work. It was in Carey’s trashy romance fiction that I saw it normalized, stripped of the “queer villain” or “foppish side character” tropes that fantasy fiction conventionally depended on. Interestingly enough there were also elements of queer nontraditional romances in Hobb’s work between the protagonist Fitz and another character (so not just some side characters), and while the world she created wasn’t the all-accepting fantasy land of Carey’s, it did deal with the fallout of that kind of “nontraditional” relationship and how others might see it, explain it, and care or not care about it.

Those two (three if you count Kalogridis and her “Diaries of the Family Dracul” series) were probably the last “straight fantasy” (no pun) authors I discovered just randomly pulling at titles on the shelves of a bookstore, a practice I don’t really do much anymore. They’re not even “old pulp” trashy as books, they’re just kinda trashy, and Cary and Kalogridis skirting dangerously close to the line “out” of the genre (something that actually helps those works stand out by not being bogged down by genre expectations). Well, Robin Hobb isn’t trashy like Carey’s “fifteen different words for bodices” trashy, but once you get beyond the stuff she does to advance and challenge her genre it’s still a whole bunch of other fantasy tropes, with fantastic stretches of magic and battles between grim swordsmen and plucky boys with wolf sidekicks.

Fuck it, I still love ’em. I love my trashy fantasy novels, the ones that, like so many other pieces of media, helped carry me through some weird times, a lonely childhood, and continue to be something I can go back to for a quick nostalgic fix, a form that I can slide into again like a sword into a scabbard.

I brought that original trilogy of Carey’s books from my parents’ house to our apartment recently, re-reading sections of it in bits and pieces. I re-taped the cover of one of the three books back together, the spine of the paperback long-disintegrated. Know what? It still holds up, in all it’s faux-porny romance goodness, complete with cliches about sword-fighting warrior priests and everyone wearing doublets, an article of clothing I constantly have to re-look up because I never remember what it is.

 

No Maps For These Obituaries

 

I wrote this essay for something, but it never went anywhere and because it was like five, almost six months ago, I’m gonna put it up here. I really liked finishing this, and it was the culmination of something I’d been trying to get out for a while.

~

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About five years ago my brother told me that someone we’d gone to school with, years and years ago, had died. He and his girlfriend (the older sister of another schoolmate) had overdosed on heroin (I thought about it recently and counted how many people I knew who had through the years descended into serious drug abuse and it sorta shocked me, but that’s another story.)

It was a lifetime ago, knowing those people, when the guy and his friends alternated between picking on me and being friendly with my circle of friends, who were a few years younger. Sometimes thinking back on that period of my life, my childhood basically, it feels like the movie on the childhood of someone completely unlike me.

I’ve thought about that random conversation a lot since then, especially throughout working on the Internet, writing and publishing on the Internet, and communicating with people on the Internet. I’ve thought about it a lot as well as I’ve periodically had nothing to do and decided to see if old friends I’ve lost track of were out there, throwing names into search engines and social networking platforms. It’s not an obsession or anything, because honestly half the time I’ve forgotten people’s last names through the years, forgotten how to spell the names I did remember, and constantly tell myself that just because I have a bizarrely-obsessive hoarding mind that keeps memories like old user manuals in junk drawers, others don’t do that. I managed to track down my 3rd-grade “best friend” recently because his complete name came to me as I sat at work, and it was a surreal thing to see his face on the computer screen, older and yet, familiar enough that I could remember us at his house, playing in his room while our moms chatted, mine offering her a friendly ear as his parents divorced. At least that’s what I remember, and who knows if that’s even a true memory at this point?

Am I a memory that randomly comes up in their minds too? Did he ever think about me? Did any of them? Or have I completely faded from the collective memory of some people, no matter how hard we might try?

One friend I’ve actively looked up a few times online I’ve never been able to find, and I’ve probably been stuck on it because not only does he have the same name as someone relatively-famous, but also because I have a possible way to actively do it, but don’t want to intrude on it. I’m “friends” on the internet with his younger sister, a peer-mate of my younger brother.

I hesitate though, mostly because of basic civility, feeling like it’d be weirdly crass to just ask. Should I actively reach out to her to ask whatever happened to her brother? I’ve tried to look her brother up because, for lack of a nicer or more multi-depth way of saying it, he changed my life. He was the one who introduced us all to punk rock in the eighth and ninth grade, the beginning of a series of transformative waves in my life that made me the man I am today. It’s strange to look at someone like that, a peer who may not even remember who I am.

And like the ones who OD’ed, what if they died? Do I want to be the asshole who ends up reminding someone about a family member that’s no longer with us?

Writer and former cartoonist Ed Brubaker, probably best-known these days as one of the writers on the HBO series Westworld and the comics Kill Or Be Killed and The Fade-Out (both with artist Sean Philips), once said something in an interview that, though I paraphrase it and butcher it constantly in re-telling it, always sticks with me. When asked if he’d ever revisit or re-release his own early work, the comic Lowlife, he said sometimes things should remain in the past. Old work is old work for a reason, because you move on and improve from it.

It stuck with me. It’s the twenty-first century and nostalgia is in full, almost downward effect at this point as we obsessively archive, re-release, and redo (like the aforementioned Westworld, which I’ll admit to loving, or the big Hulu.com news to have the complete run of The Golden Girls, which I’m intensely excited about), we have a hard time letting go. We don’t even want all this stuff we save and revisit at times, but because we can, because post-World War 2 when the ability to archive and look back with nostalgia, we do it because we can, because now that things can be saved, they’re treasured, and things that are treasured are treated as archives of better times, times where we forget the bad and fetishize the good. Nostalgia, right?

There are, arguably, some times when it’s not necessarily “bad” and can even be healthy mentally, socially, and spiritually even. My grandparents, like a lot of Greeks, were refugees fleeing their home villages during World War 2 to avoid the Italian occupation, the Nazis, and impending famine, leaving almost everything. In the case of my paternal family, they went to Turkey, Egypt, and finally Ethiopia to wait out the war, briefly returning before coming to the US. Old property, old homes, old farmsteads and friends were left behind to create new lives here in New York City. First, in a mostly-Greek community in downtown Manhattan before moving to Queens, where, over time, a lot of those old friends from the old country came and also bought homes. Years later though, can you blame my grandparents for being nostalgic? For wanting to go back and find those old fragments of a former life, the life before they came to the US? The old properties, old family photos and toys and mementos, were left to literally rot, in some cases, before being rescued.

It’s not nostalgia here with blind and non-critical fondness, because if I asked my grandmother about what life was like then, in an area of Eastern Europe that still had dirt-floor homes and wells for water, she’d definitely point to her kitchen and indoor bathroom and TV. It’d be more like trying to maybe maintain a connection that was broken too soon, broken unwillingly. It’s probably not even nostalgia in the strictest sense, but an attempt at repairing a part of life that was tragic, sad, and taken away against their will. Still, when I sit down and hear her talk about old times, when she or other older Greeks who came to this country go back and refurbish old homes and properties and put the old photos in new frames up on the walls, there’s a level of fondness attached to it all, even if they know deep down it maybe wasn’t all that great. Youth can be a hell of a drug.

That desire for keeping what came before and bringing it around again every so often even influenced us, collectively, in a professional way. I’m a writer and teacher, and one of the ways that I promote my writing and shop it around is by making sure I can point to an archive of work, a backlog of stuff both old and new. When I just wrote for a living, I was regularly making sure that archive was accessible, that old work, old stuff, representations of older lives in some cases, were out there, easy to find. It didn’t matter, in a way, that some of it wasn’t as good as the newer stuff (it really wasn’t, I’ve come to realize. Woof, that old stuff is bad).

I gave up. I think it’s time to recognize that sometimes, old friends are the past, especially after over twenty years at this point. Human memory is a chemically-insecure and awful and almost tragically-flawed archiving tool, making us romanticize even the worst of times for us. While some friendships can last that long, and while some stuff from our pasts is worth revisiting, be it work or relationships or even the structure of how our life worked, just because it existed in a moment of space and time, doesn’t mean it needs to remain. In the end, as cliché as it might sound, I’m going to give up on trying to find out what happened to that one friend, the guy who basically changed my life and set it on the path that it is today, and let that mystery rest.

It’s better this way.

 

Weird Comfort

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I have a stack of video games waiting to be played right now.

There’s the metaphorical stack, the ones waiting in the digital library of our PlayStation account, weird cool-looking indie games, some horror stuff, some puzzle-oriented stuff. Then there’s the physical stuff, in particular the copy of Horizon: Zero Dawn I dreamed about for ages ever since I saw the trailer for that game (never mind how terrible I know I’ll be at it). Oh, and don’t forget the replay of Firewatch that I keep wanting to do. Oh, and the semi-retro point-and-click The Last Door needs to get finished too.

Since I got back into playing video games I’ve been immersing myself into the wonders of all these different ways to tell stories, to It’s a good thing that my teaching schedule through the summer has given me a lot more free time, even with all the paper grading, errands, and writing I want to get done.

Yeah, about all that…

I was thinking recently, about why every time it seems like I want to unwind and play video games I go back to just replaying DOOM?

The reason I got back into playing video games is my fiancee. Chontel is far better at them, and has been playing them far longer than I have. I flirted with PC gaming in middle and high school, as well as briefly thought about Magic cards, tabletop RPGs, and figurine stuff, reading endlessly through ratty third-hand issues of PC GAMER and PC MASTER. I endlessly played on my Gameboy on family trips, annoying my mother to no end.

But what really captivated me, a young punk rock guy full of frustration and fascination with weird and dangerous stuff, stuff I saw on TV as being a Certified Real Threat? The PC games DOOM and DOOM 2, which I don’t remember how I got or how I convinced my parents to let me play our our home computer. After all, we had Star Wars games and SIM CITY, why would I need stuff like this? But somehow I did, somehow I got it, and somehow I got completely immersed. I replayed those games multiple times, I got the magic codes for immortality, for all the ammo, for all the ammo and magic keys, I was one hundred-percent immersed in that game. It was a comforting routine to get to play it during my allotted computer time, shooting and smashing demons and monsters on that Martian base. I went back a bit and played some Wolfenstein 3D, and I briefly played some Quake as well (both from id Software, the home of DOOM), but they weren’t the same. I also very briefly considered a foray into other PC gaming like Myst (don’t ask), but similarly, not what I liked or could handle. Then, when I discovered punk rock, video games to me just weren’t as cool for some reason, and then I moved to live with my grandparents, and they were entirely forgotten.

So, video games fell off the radar, apart from occasional forays into SIM CITY, my old Game Boy, and Internet-based flash games (you know, the kind hosted on websites where you click around a map/online world to earn points to buy stuff or just amuse yourself). I briefly tried to get into the first HALO game at a cousin’s house, but I told myself they weren’t for me really, I didn’t have the coordination to play, it was all Monster energy drinks and dudebros. I concerned myself with beer and girls and punk rock, with college and writing and horror movies and comic books instead (I know, I know).

When Chontel and I got together and she re-introduced me to the joy of playing games and to the plethora of SO MUCH DIFFERENT STUFF that’s out there, I was immediately sucked in. I’ve written about games a bunch of times since then, and my decision to try to get into shooting/FPS (First-Person Shooter) games that involved some level of coordination of course would draw me to a brand-new version of that old childhood favorite, DOOM.

We’ve played a bunch of games together, bought some together too, some of which I suggested because they seemed interesting to me (Virginia comes to mind). Any time I get a minute to myself though where I feel like playing some games, I throw DOOM on. I’ve even restarted all my saved campaigns from scratch in there a few times just to go back to the beginning and start over.

I relish the game, and in particular, I’ve come to realize I relish the way that the 2016 version of the game includes some throwbacks to the earlier version I immersed myself into as a kid. It’s not so much about the mechanics or the visuals really, but more the attitude and atmosphere that DOOM creates and embraces, a stripped-down and almost minimalist experience where you can work entirely at your own pace. Sure, that’s a thing that can be applied to a lot of other video games, but arguably DOOM did it first, using the stripped-of-identity-and-thus-agency nameless 1st-person view as a modern means of self-insertion.

On a more practical level though? I’m a big fan of repeat comfort entertainment, so of course finding a way to once again get that repeat comfort entertainment now in my new stage of video game life, with a direct thread back to one of my early favorites. I can’t really speak to the motives of anyone else who plays the game or who plays games in general, and overall the broad range of motives on why we play video games is a kind of fascinating topic (this on the motives behind soldiers and former soldiers that I read recently is interesting), but I know that I always think of my own motives as being less about winning, more about just detaching my brain for a while. I’m not thinking about work, I’m not obsessively worrying over things I have no control over, and I’m not letting things like current events make me uncontrollably mad and frustrated and sad. It’s a purposely-isolating thing where my complete concentration is required, enough to take me out of whatever I don’t want to be thinking about and into something else where I have (arguably) way more control. The nameless “Doomguy” space marine is less a hero than an outfit I can put on an play around for a while at a pace I control, which in the end is what comfort things are all about.

I make no bones about the fact that I’m very easily-distracted and entertained through stuff I already have and have already experienced, because to me there’s nothing wrong in re-indulging in repeat watchings when I can’t think of anything new to do. I’m a curmudgeonly old man and sometimes I’d really rather just rewatch something because I know that, deep inside my skull and odd semi-rotten soul, it helps my brain slow down. DOOM, basically, does the same thing.

Payments Due

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I think a lot about dumb decisions.

There’s the decisions to do things, the ones to not do anything. The ones that I still make as a grown adult, and the ones I made as a younger person. Who doesn’t look back and think about everything, especially when they hit their mid-thirties and wonder how they got here when they assumed life would have been so weirdly but undeterminably different somehow by now?

Not that life has been bad, by any stretch of the imagination. But between childhood and now I made some stupid decisions that forever altered the course of my life in negative ways, ways that can’t really be “fixed” per se in how I and other people were permanently affected by them. I impulsively broke off years-long friendships to get engaged and move to the Midwest with no work waiting for me and nowhere near the emotional maturity to help maintain a (in hindsight, obviously) straining-to-break relationship. I lost a lot during those years in the Rust belt and in the dumb scramble to get back to New York two years later, and the decisions that I made in that story affected not just me but also a bunch of other people. I can’t really say how they’ve been affected, because some won’t really expand on it, while others just won’t talk to me anymore.

I wonder sometimes what happened to them, and how they were affected by the things we said and did.

So…

There’s this adage about how fiction is really only two stories, both of which are arguably two sides of the same coin; A stranger comes to town, or a hero goes on a journey. Each of those two involve a choice, a conscious decision to go somewhere new, or do something when confronted with someone new, right? So, once that decision is made, the story moves forward, with characters acting, things happening as a result of those decisions and actions, and so on, and so on, and so on. It’s a spiral, a domino effect leading into other domino effects. Basic storytelling mechanics, really.

What can make excellent fiction stand out is when the flow of action-to-consequence-to-action factors in the fact that in real life, that the consequences don’t ever really make sense. It’s what makes the decisions that start these narratives dumb. We never think about what’s going on beyond one or two steps, the steps that only directly impact or affect us. Crime fiction is an excellent example of this, because so many of those stories are all about the unintended consequences of dumb decisions around either A) strangers or B) going somewhere strange.

I recently finished Silverfish, a graphic novel by crime/noir cartoonist David Lapham. Lapham is probably (at least in my circles) best known as the creator of STRAY BULLETS, a crime comic that captures tragic noir stories through the late 1970s, 80s, and 90s. Silverfish arguably is a spiritual cousin to STRAY BULLETS, disconnected through only the thinnest of storytelling twists really. Silverfish is a crime story where bored teenagers do what they do best..make a bad decision without thinking about the consequences outside of themselves. It boils over into a desperate night of standoffs, blood, and a crazy unfulfilled but scary glimpse into the lives of people intersecting the wrong way.

A group of teenagers decide to jokingly push the limits of “investigating” someone’s stepmom’s past by rooting through her things and trying to reach out to names in her address book. It’s petty, it’s completely not-thought through, and in doing so it unleashes mania and a lunatic with blood on his hands and (he thinks) a head full of brain-eating tiny fish). Lapham overall captures dumb decisions best, the unforeseen consequences of bad decisions being made by dumb people against bad people who react to them in ways that honestly, some of us just don’t expect. We don’t expect because we assume that since our dumb decisions are logical to us (they sure are at the time), the responses will be logical as well. We don’t expect someone to respond to a prank call with sociopathic murder, we don’t expect the step-parent we don’t like to secretly be hiding a fortune in stolen money and a decade-old murder weapon, & we don’t expect to end up running for our lives.

Claustrophobia and feeling trapped, be it in literal small space or just by circumstances (ones brought on by your or others’ shitty decisions) are a bit part of this comic, despite taking place in a couple of houses, a couple of other buildings, and even the boardwalk. It feels heavy at times, the weight of guilt from having done something wrong but not knowing just how wrong, which adds to the tension and ratchets it up intensely. That suffocating feeling we’re used to immediately popping up, a solid fuel for anxiety, is pervasive through Lapham’s work.

That lack of understanding of the wide range of possible responses we can get to a shitty dumb decision is how we get the conclusion without the resolution, the nourish atmosphere of a story’s end where no one comes out a winner. No one even really comes out of it having fully learned anything sometimes, because learning a lesson implies you were able to emerge from a situation unscathed and objective enough to understand not just what you did, but how it extended outward as a series of ripples that no one can possibly control. Silverfish ends “well” relatively speaking for a crime/noir story, but it’s still an ending mired in violence and hurt and death, and like most of Lapham’s work, we’ll never really get to see the long-term effects of it on relationships or individuals. STRAY BULLETS is rife with this as well. We just know that it’s never going to be good, because the awful things that happen because of those actions, because of those decisions, leave lasting scars, the remnants of someone paying for their actions in a way they never thought they’d have to.

I got bitter after I left the Midwest, and I didn’t stop making terrible decisions that affected others in my own story when I got back to New York. I don’t now, as much, and I’m more in control of my own narrative for the better (he writes in his apartment after work one day listening to heavy metal, with a loving partner on the couch across the room playing video games, a soft fat cat floating around somewhere), but still, fuck…the decisions in this story that led me here led to a lot of hanging ends I lost track of.

But I don’t think that matters to me, or ultimately to any good story. A brief view, a look through a window at someone scrambling desperately to deal with consequences? That’s a good story, it just depends on the moment that you chose to look through the window.

Heavy Homes

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(Lotta spoilers, so proceed with caution)

Death is dumb.

All death is dumb, it feels pointless and heartless, like somehow in some fashion life has gone out of its way to fuck you in the ass. Even when we expect it, when we know it’s coming, or what we logically and rationally know that it can’t be helped, that it might even be a good thing in the long run, it just feels like shit. My grandfather died a few years ago about this time of year and even though he lived a year over the time the doctors gave him, the last few months were torturous for him and I knew that when he finally did die, it was in a way an alleviation of the pain that I knew was racking his body along with the cancer and the constant discomfort of pissing himself and always having to lay in a hospice bed we had in the house.

It was still dumb and it still makes me sad and mad to think about it.

How people deal with death is another matter, in that coping varies so much we never really know how well people are feeling or if they can even figure out how to move on from something so shitty. The idea of coping, and the myriad of ways in which it can both help and harm someone, is the root of the video game What Remains of Edith Finch.

What Remains of Edith Finch (from developers Giant Sparrow) has been a game we’ve been anticipating for a while in this little household, so when it was available to preorder we jumped on it. A walking/exploring game (which is pretty popular these days for better or worse) where the titular character explores her weird old family house discovering the secrets of various family members, we see that the Finch house is rooted in sadness and denial and tragedy that has led varying members of the family to think they’re “cursed.” You’d think it’s true based on just how messed up the family appears, and by how many of them ended up meeting tragic ends. One poisons herself by accident as a child, while another witnesses his sister’s savage assault and murder, retreating to live in a bunker underneath the house unknown to other family members for years…for starters.

The title’s ultimately the biggest giveaway, because of the dual definitions of “remains”, in being a verb as well as a noun. As a noun, remains are a term for what’s left behind from a death. As a verb, it means to leave behind. Edith’s both left her remains somewhere (because she’s dead, as revealed at the end of the game) but also is looking at literally what she left behind in that house throughout the game via the extended flashback that is the gameplay.

Reliving the very history of your own lineage and seeing not horror, but depressing tragedy, in those stories as Edith does throughout the game gives you a real sense of why the family might think they’re cursed, and how it could feel tragic enough to actually influence people into putting a supernatural spin on it. The way that Edith actually experiences these moments throughout the book intersperses supernatural elements with reality, creating a difficult thing to interpret, with the implication of heavy subjective experiences. What really did happen? What really did cause it, and what does it mean that we don’t fully understand and get more clues and implications?

There’s a lot here in the game’s story that is left undiscovered and unsaid, employing a lot of what we’ve seen in other exploratory walking/narrative games to fill in background and story that we’re not allowed to fully know. What are the entirety of the secrets of the Finch house? What was the great-grandmother trying to tell young Edith the night they left? What’s the full story of the family’s need to identify themselves as “cursed,” which is a self-fulfilling prophecy but also a convenient excuse when it comes to not wanting to discuss uncomfortable family things like mental illness, unspoken feuds, and bottled-up feelings/aggression. While this can definitely be frustrating, at the same time it’s arguably more realistic in trying to mimic the fallibility of memory, of family memory, and of the limitations of someone’s personal patience, personal feelings, and (importantly, though another big dangling thread in this story) the limitations of being able to help someone who is suffering from mental health issues and you don’t understand why.

As I’ve mentioned before when talking about games like this, leaving some of that unspoken creates a definitely stronger line between short stories/novellas and these kinds of games and further emphasizing a game like Edith Finch’s primary role as an interactive story as opposed to a competition.

Sometimes, we don’t get over it. We just can’t. We’re scarred by death, scarred by our pasts, scarred by the burdens placed on us by other people that we’re unable to shake. We don’t always really acknowledge it, but sometimes, death wins in ways beyond just simply taking someone away. Sometimes it breaks, cracks, leaving nothing but remains. You can’t always put something back together from remains, no matter how hard you try. Edith Finch tried, and it didn’t work for her, thought it does make an interesting experience to play.

Sometimes unanswered questions are OK.

Mothers

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So, I powered through Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel in a day. It was a slow work day, and I haven’t gone through a book like that in a while.

I didn’t know what to think going into it, mostly because despite the fact that I loved her previous memoir comic work Fun Home, that one’s a weird book that’s basically a critical and thematic literary analysis of not only her relationship with her father and his death, but also her own sexuality, lesbianism, and her father’s sexuality. This one was a lot of the same, but also different, in that the relationship Bechdel has/had with her mother (who died in 2013) wasn’t the entirely abstract thing that the one with her dad was.

A lot of the book deals with the history of psychoanalysis, the application of psychoanalysis and the great minds involved in it, as well as interweaving Virginia Woolf in there as well. But when you boil it down, the really important (or at least impactful to me, but more on that in a second)  elements are the ones where her intensely sloppy but passionate relationship with her mother is examined. It’s really clear that Bechdel, in trying to accurately depict her relationship with her mother, does the same thing that she did when describing what she had with her father;

Something complicated.

Still, and for reasons I haven’t fully gotten through and been able to articulate, the story of her and her mother didn’t have the same impact on me that the one with her father did. I feel, in a way, that the form in which she writes and draws about it is why, drawing as she does on a lot of psychotherapy and psychoanalysis. Her intertwining her own growth (or at least mental unwinding) during therapy felt, at times, kind of draining. While I understand that in a narrative sense, her own mental well-being was tied into the growing and reinforcing of a positive relationship (as much as it could be) with her mom, I personally couldn’t really find any connection to that. However, that’s also in synch with the fact that her mother is alive through the story of this book and that Bechdel actively struggles to make a connection to her mother in a conventional child-mother way, a conventional daughter-mother way. While not all of her issues (and there are a lot of issues, many of which I can’t really understand) dealt with through the book and through her therapy relate to her mother, a lot of them seem to orbit around her, at the very least.

This of course makes me immediately jump to the conclusion that because it’s a book about therapy (in a stripped-down oversimplification), I don’t like it because therapy is boring. After all, it’s just people talking to each other back and forth,* and on a comic book page. Why would anyone want to read that?

That doesn’t mean, like I said, that it’s a bad book, because there are amazing elements that are right up there with Fun Home, which I really adore. The ending of the book has the same impact that the first did, a concise moment capturing an adult realization against a childhood visual, which creates an effective stamp of an ending, something literature in general can struggle with. It’s hard to stick a landing.

What I do think though is, what does it say about me that the elements of a book dedicated to relationships and interaction which talk about the roots of how those relationships work is what I like the least? Part of me wants to admit some anti-snobbery brutalist attitude, but at the same time, I know that’s not entirely true. Part of me also wants to express it as some kind of denial thing, like I dislike the psychoanalysis because I need it or connect to it more than I care to. Again though, not something I think is actually true.

The older I’ve gotten, the less self-introspective I’ve gotten, feeling more and more self-aware of knowing who I am, what I am, and how my brain and psyche probably work. Yeah, part of it is because I’m a simple kind of person (read: boring), but part of it is also in growing more and more certain with my own sense of self. On the other hand, in the book, Bechdel isn’t sure of herself, of her own identity (constantly feeling a need to not only be there for other people but also to push herself to the limits in terms of self-introspection and self-harm, metaphorically through self-criticism).

I am aware though, that in the end this isn’t a book meant for me. I mean, it is, it’s out there, and it’s not like it’s labeled “NOT FOR COSTA FUCK THAT GUY” on the cover. However, I’m a heterosexual white male who has a set of alligator-luggage privilege for getting through life and for building my sense of self, nevermind a relationship with my family that’s drastically different with what Bechdel has/had with hers in her work. It’s inevitable that my own lens will be skewed when reading this work and when I strain to make a connection, because my brain, so used to automatically and easily finding connections to art, is floundering here, making me work for what few tenuous connections I can find.

Basically, in this book I see the shadow of who I was and who I could have been, rather than the kind of person I feel like am now. Now, at 33, I’m more confident in my self, in my role in the world, in my own power, and in my own voice, which makes me appreciate Bechdel’s work, but not connect with it. I connect with Fun Home because it’s about coming to terms with self, in the end, as opposed to Are You My Mother‘s battle between an evolving sense of self and how that strains the limits of a difficult relationship. It’s a relationship, and a book, that I’m going to come back to over and over, that I know, but it’ll probably be a slow-going process to fully be able to empathize with it, if I ever do. And I’m OK with that.

*)Cheap shot, I know.

All These Variable States

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So, everyone likes Twin Peaks, right? Well, not everyone, because I know how weird and how strange it can be, melding a lot of stuff that was either too insane to be true what what was kind of groundbreaking, especially for TV.

A lot of entertainment since then, from TV like The X-Files (which you could probably consider a spiritual successor to Twin Peaks in a way) to the current wave of weird fiction podcasts, like Tanis (from production company PNW, aka “Pacific North West”, get it?) that all happen to take place in the Pacific Northwest, all have some root tracing itself back to that show, which basically helped establish that modern concept in fiction of weird towns in remote locations full of forests, full of secrets, and full of strangeness that crosses lines between the supernatural and the sci-fi, the humane and the inhuman.

The real problem with a lot of this tends to be my primary criticism with most of the world drawing influence from earlier works, which is that the wrong things are being drawn from influence-wise. If you’re going to be influenced by say, The X-Files, then the thing that really should be the impact and influence on you is not just internal government conspiracies revolving around aliens, but also about growing relationships and trust while encountering the unexplainable of the wide world, especially parts of the world that don’t usually get seen or are passed off as too mundane. The X-Files is as much weird horror as sci-fi in that sense, which a lot of “inspired-by” work fails to capture, in my mind.

Twin Peaks is the same, in that the idea of small-town weirdness in an imposing setting is a surface inspiration that often gets used as a fairly cheap-and-easy “spooky” look and vibe. However, the other elements of soap opera-drama, intense personal relationships that can damage and crack at larger things like plans and investigations, as well as the overall larger concept that you CAN’T explain or fully explore these supernatural things…all that seems to be lost in the translation of “inspiration” onto more current work.

~

We played the first-person narrative game Virginia, from Variable State and 505 Games recently. I like weird video games, I like first-person exploring narrative-types, and claiming obvious references (mentioned above) is a cheap way to get me to check it out. The X-Files and Twin Peaks (rookie agent and disgraced veteran partner, small town surrounded by forests and a military base, supernatural elements, a missing child, secrets) are all over this game from the get-go, as you (the new agent) end up looking for a missing boy in Freedom, VA. The game’s minimalist to a T, almost to a fault, though not quite, which in a way is supposed to be part of its charm of nostalgia, being set in the 1992 as well. Hell, it works and sells, so why not? A lot of other video games these days in this vein seem to be on the same wavelength of near-past settings, which establish not only a plugging of story holes that a cell phone and interview could solve, but also establishing a visual aesthetic that is meant to deliberately evoke feelings and connections to other media (like TV and film) set in that area, albeit an evoking that only works so well with the minimal art style of the game.

I do like that you can actually see yourself in the mirror, though.

I guess if we’re talking about comparing to other similar games, Virginia is probably closest to Everyone’s Gone To The Rapture, where you literally move through the game simply to advance the literary narrative, with little to no actual “work” involved. It just plays out for you, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing (though Rapture was a game that I found boring and dragging personally) though it does require you to have something involved to make it stand out. Gone Home and Firewatch, the standards in this kind of game as far as I’m concerned, require a little bit of actual work on your part to figure out the narrative, solve some level of puzzles, and most importantly, they help you along in figuring out that narrative.

Virginia‘s main standout element, being entirely wordless with only minimal text, isn’t that big a deal for a video game, because ideally a video game is something where you interact and figure out through playing. You don’t need a lot of literary exposition, because the actions and interactions give that to you. However, Virginia‘s claim that there’s not much if any vocal/text communication but then still have some level of reading involved is where the flaws start to pile up.

There are a couple of mysteries within the overall story of the game, and the big problem is that with no one talking, you have to snatch at bits of text when they appear and devour them as soon and as quickly as you can. Because the game sometimes makes jumps on its own (even though you’re being prompted to act to move forward) you can’t read what’s available, and not catching every little thing all of a sudden creates massive gaps in your understanding. I spent a good 1/3 of the game assuming a character’s mother was in fact her wife/life partner, because I wasn’t allowed to look at a text document (provided for information) long enough to read it, and I couldn’t go back once the scene moved on. Didn’t see the dates related to the related character, lost the narrative thread. The screen changes, I’m forced to close the file folder, or the character looks away and the scene changes.

Oops.

That this happened a few times, all at what I later on realized were fairly crucial moments in the story (in terms of actually learning what’s going on) was probably my major complaint here. Things just moved on with little to no space to understand, to learn, to even move on your own. So much of the criticism of these types of video games is that they’re basically short stories or movies that you’re just along for the ride, and that criticism actually feels pretty apt when applied to Virginia.

If you’re going to include elements in your storytelling that require some level of independent thought and analysis, you still need to include some level of “jump-starting” to fill in the blanks that would start the reader/player down that road, and ultimately if you can’t take the minute or two it requires to grab that information you need to be able to continue forward with a story and then make your decisions and interpretations of the story, then what’s the point of giving someone that interpretative freedom?

When I teach literature, I semi-jokingly tell my students that in literary studies there are “no wrong answers,” which is a really simple way to introduce them to the idea of informed subjective analysis of material. Too often students are scared to give their own opinions when they start out doing this kind of reading and writing (college-level lit classes) so I encourage them to just throw interpretations out there, see what sticks. However, as the class eventually moves on, I introduce more basic concepts to help round out the “but”‘s of “there are no wrong answers,” which include the concept of context.

Context is king. Context is key.

Without even basic context of a story, or the story’s background, you can have all sorts of great connections and some real deep influences going on connecting your work to other works, and you have have a setting that’s rich with emotional punches, but it can feel like it’s too scattered across the board, which is what kind of happens to this game.

~

I don’t hate Virginia. The more I think about it, the more I kinda like it quite a bit, especially in certain areas. I think the concept is really bold honestly, and mechanics-wise this could have been really great if a few things were fixed, because those few things really skewed (not ruined, not quite) the game away from being really great. Also, as I mentioned a bit when I wrote about my frustrations with prestige TV’s obsession with attaching homework as a level of even basic understanding of the story, having to almost immediately jump into external reading and analysis to not just understand the thematic elements but the very basic linear narrative of a work, then I start to feel like maybe we as creators have kind of forgotten the point of there being different storytelling mediums. Yes, good stories are universal, and Virginia is, when you put the work in, a really good story. However, is it best told as a game like this? I don’t know. It could work well in a bunch of other settings (which I sort of suspected might have been the origin here, but that’s another story for another time) and it’s not a bad game, but it’s not what it could be.

Ultimately it left me more frustrated than satisfied, though that frustration is a little tempered knowing that I can go back and try to re-understand better with another play-through. I guess it just depends if I feel like the work is worth it whenever I get around to it. I don’t know, it might be.

Style

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I’m watching Too Late on Netflix as I write this, January 29th in the year of our Lord, 2017. I started writing about 4pm, EST.

It’s highly-stylized, it’s intensely-dialogue-driven, it’s very much a passion project-looking work, right at the edge of ostentatious and focused/personal. The movie’s a series of long single-shot scenes with little-to-no cuts/edits, told in a non-linear order. I came up with the idea to start writing this as I watch the second of the vignettes, figuring whatever comes to me will go into the keyboard.

~

I’m on vignette 3 of this film now, and I’m getting the sense of what’s going on here. This is, in a literary sense, a modern novella in film, nonlinear, framework but not that much flesh, just a hint of the things that could be. John Hawkes is a great actor, seeing him in this film creates a really great sense of someone who’s there when he’s active, unnoticed when he’s not active. I think you know what I mean, a character who rolls in, who’s invisible until he’s active, but not in a way that implies some level of superhuman blending-in. He’s not Jason Bourne, but maybe more like a sensitive version of The Continental Op and Mike Hammer, which could possible make a connection to Marlowe, though Marlow is a character that’s hard to try to reach towards.

Hawkes is playing the guitar in this scene, and now, we’re at a classic movie theater. Man, this is definitely one of those “spirit of (a particular place in) LA” movies, which isn’t necessarily that bad. It’s something I think of as a shadow of Chinatown, not the movies and the glamor, but not necessarily the “working-class” element either, at least not a surface-honest one either. It’s a barely-above-the-surface hustler class, which can make for interesting work to appreciate and really are in.

~

I’m starting to get the full scope of the narrative, but at this point, I kind of like it enough to not really need it, and just appreciate the film itself. The whole one-long-shot-per-scene thing is growing on me.

~

That’s a good twist. I’ll admit, I didn’t see that coming, but I can be dense like that, I guess.

~

This is the bit that I write after I watched the movie.

I mentioned this above, and it’s a comparison that I don’t really like to do in any serious sense because A) books and movies are two completely separate forms of art and B) in this case, I feel like not enough people know what a novella actually is these days for the comparison to be actually workable in a consistent setting, but I liked the novella atmosphere of this film. It reminded me, in particular, of a less-focused and less-linear version of Comfort To The Enemy and Other Carl Webster Stories, an Elmore Leonard book (who I mention almost pathologically when talking about noir/crime/mystery in film) that combines a short novella, the titular one, with some short stories within that “universe” of the character.

Fun fact, I basically tried to rip off Leonard and Comfort… when I wrote Running The Train…and Other Stories, which is basically the same thing (one longer short story and a few short minis, flash fiction almost, in the same world). I even did the same thing of making the longer work in the collection the title of the book, “Running The Train.”

Sorry, digression.

It fits though, because novellas, with their micro-version of full novels that push beyond the simplicity of the short story but don’t entirely flesh out a narrative, which focus more on building something out of clever scenes (if they’re good), and which work best when they can loosely tie a collection of work together into something that might be a narrative, are good. Even if it doesn’t become a fuller narrative though, it’s OK, because modern literature works just as well in what it started from, the idea that we can simply write about life, and all the out-of-order nonsense that we encounter ever single day. The day is snippets, it your to-do-list done out of order, it’s incomplete and the resolution at the end is just getting things done, getting to the end without a reward.

Maybe a cold beer is your reward at the end of the day, or maybe making things better for someone else, even yourself.

Some days you can’t make anything better though, you can make things right. Which, ultimately, seems to be the goal of Too Late. It might be too late, but maybe, just maybe, you can make it right, even if it doesn’t make sense to anyone else.

It’s probably the most noir of noir sentiments and I appreciate an honesty about that. Noir is harsh, crime and mystery stories are hard and cruel, because they reflect a world where cruelty and hardness happen in random fits and bursts. It’s also full of unfulfilling moments, where we try to get something in, one last hit, even though it’s futile. That last hit though, it can feel good for a second, a second that sometimes human beings need.

~

This is the end of the essay but it was written before I get to the rest of the scenes, written because the idea for the end has come before I finish watching the movie itself. Not done writing the whole essay before I got this ending in, either. I don’t know if I liked this, because I don’t know what to make of work that has large and non-satisfying but ultimately, nourish endings almost immediately at the beginning. Not RIGHT at the beginning though, which somewhat lessons that ending’s impact.

In terms of stylized noir, nu-noir, non-nu noir in that weird area of between the years of 1980 and 2012 though, Too Late captures a weird crossover sub-sect of America, not the noir of Chandler, which is tragic, ultimately. It’s the noir of Leonard, which I appreciate in its daily-life patter.

I think sometimes, appreciation of a thing is a lot better than outright loving something.

Stranger In Fiction

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We tried. I really tried, I did.

While I’m sure the Netflix series The OA appeals to some, a weird mixture of science fiction, fantasy, and some kind of semi-spiritual journey, after three episodes, I have to admit I lost interest. It’s spacey, it’s sparse, it’s highly-reliant on mood and atmosphere and what I’m guessing is supposed to me dramatic pauses and dramatic interludes in general that just draws a lot of it out.

I don’t really like it, and I feel that not liking it (or feeling particularly interested in the vast majority of “Netflix Originals” or “Amazon Prime Original Series”) has a lot to do with some kind of TV burnout.

Overall, TV these days feels burdensome, to be honest, though when we finished watching WESTWORLD, I’d felt like I’d been exposed to something really amazing. That was a great show, an interesting ride I went on, just letting the story happen and seeing some great acting and great visuals. I really enjoyed WESTWORLD a lot more than I thought I would, in an inversely-proportional way that I didn’t care for The OA as much as I thought I might.

I remember when Netflix first launched. It was such a weird idea, an online version of Blockbuster’s, where I spent a lot of time as a teenager. At first, they had almost nothing, lots of shitty movies, Japanese anime, no real TV shows. It was early on in releasing TV for home media at the rate that it comes out these days. Because no one knew who the hell Netflix was, or what it was, no one gave them the time of day. The stuff they had the rights to rent was insanely bad, b-movies, foreign stuff, things like that. It coincided with an uptick in my taste in film, right as the local video store that sold the good stuff was closing down. The idea of a movie rental service being some kind of place for critically-acclaimed TV shows to exist on (or the great potential that I don’t think Netflix is capitalizing on as much as Hulu does in my experience, having troves of B-movies), was ridiculous and non-existent.

I loved the access, suddenly, to this trove of weird stuff, stuff that I’d never been able to find, much less conceive. It was early on in my exposure to regular cable TV (which meant I mostly just watched horror movies and scifi shows), so the idea of stuff like obscure channels and corners of public access on basic cable for old movies, weirdo documentaries and special, or bad cult stuff to watch for kicks wasn’t fully fermented in my head just yet.

We talk a lot about the “golden age of TV” (hell, even I have) in a post-BREAKING BAD, post-THE SOPRANOS world, where television is getting treated like somehow it’s this magic new and strangely-legitimate venue for artistic work. Which isn’t to say that it used to not be, but it was also very much a thing that for a long time wasn’t respected as good (even when it was very, very good). A huge part of this “golden age of TV” too is the ability for TV shows that want to be serious, dramatic, and “deep” now to have a wide range of possible outlets to be seen on. Regular TV, cable TV, HBO, streaming services like Netflix and Hulu and Amazon Prime, not to mention web-based TV channels that are on the far-left (edge of the dial) end of the cable channel options, popping up available on specific providers or through devices like a Roku or Amazon Fire or whatever Google decides to do to get in the game, which you know they will. Semi-related, I’m a little surprised that there’s no Apple TV network of shows, though Apple’s desire to stay in the hardware game is a much better cash flow, so…yeah, that probably answers my own question.

The issue here though is that, in the same way that you can’t pre-emptively create a true “cult” hit (which defeats the purpose of it being cult), you can’t expect something to be considered “serious” and dramatic if you try to aim for those as targets to hit rather than as after-effects of something that’s simply good.

And that’s the thing. Not a lot of what’s out there, what’s pushed at us, is actually good. But the desire to try to get the next actually-good thing kills what made me initially like and actively use a service like Hulu or Netflix (weirdly enough, I also remember when Hulu initially sold itself as a place JUST to watch broadcast TV online to catch up).

I’d rather watch movies, to be honest. I’d rather be able to watch a couple of movies a week instead of “marathoning” a TV series (being one of those young modern households that watches TV through the Internet rather than broadcast or cable), one of the dozens that seem to pop up weekly ,half of which are just knock-offs of other shows, or just suck, or are just repackaged British and Norwegian or whatever TV, not an original new show just for that outlet as they claim half the time. It can be an overwhelming selection, and getting burned over and over again looking for good storytelling fucking sucks. Movies are, to me, a better option for trying this out because even thought you might fall into something shitty, the investment of time, something I find myself much more conservative with wasting these days, is less. Sure, I can lose two hours or so, but better that compared to eight to twelve hours that I have to slug through over two to three nights to get to the goddamn point.

The TV I like to consistently watch (on repeat, in the background) is so far from what would actually be considered popular or modern (science cooking shows and old true-life mystery and crime stuff like old episodes of Mythbusters or Forensic Files, or the latest season of Top Chef and episodes of Chopped), stuff I can watch and not pay too much attention to, something that doesn’t present itself as a puzzle to be solved, just entertainment to be enjoyed. TV shouldn’t be a fight, it shouldn’t be a chore (no entertainment should, ultimately, be a chore, but that’s a broader thing). It should be some dumb mindless downtime to unwind you at the end of the day, it should be some background noise while you putter around the house and can’t find something good on the radio or in your music collection.

Maybe I’m just hard to please, but less and less, I don’t care about TV. I don’t care about TV we all claim to love, or adaptations of other medium, or TV on some new interesting platform. I just want something actually good and interesting that speaks to me, that entertains me, not something that demands respect or fucking homework.

Olly Olly

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One of the games I really liked playing last year was OXENFREE, from Night School Studio. A group of kids gathering to have an all-night party/hangout on an old semi-abandoned island off the coast of their town, exploring a place that has a lot of weird mysterious history. The story continues to grow from the simple relationship interactions of the start to a much more in-depth mystery/horror/sci-fi thread that I ended up loving a lot for a variety of reasons. It was probably one of my favorite video games of 2016 (of the few I played admittedly) and is one I look forward to going back and playing again, something you can do thanks to the multiple paths and potential endings.

The mystery and story of the game unfolded really well and I ended up loving it because, like any good story, it starts small and builds. That whole idea of not starting with vast big concepts, but building layer upon layer is a difficult one in storytelling, honestly, because I see it screwed up in storytelling a lot. I think part of it has roots in childhood and teenage imaginations, when you think about it. Basic small concepts that build into larger things are the roots of most childhood play. We’re explorers. OK, what are we exploring? Uhh, this old house, because it’s got something in it we want…and so on, and so on.

Anyway, like a lot of first-person/POV games that exploded last year, it’s both travel-driven (walking through the environment to specific locations) and dialogue-driven (depending on how you respond to speech prompts, the story alters), but it looks more like a side-scrolling/traveling/whatever game, so it’s a little more old-fashioned in traveling around the world of the story, videogame-wise. It’s described as having a “2.5D perspective”, which is a good way of describing it.

The game’s major flaws is the weird viewpoints that can make looking at the action on screen, the movement, and the dialogue bubbles/boxes difficult at times. The background art is so beautiful in the usage of pastels and shadows, and the light or lack thereof works really well naturally  (as time progresses from dusk to dawn), that it sorta sucks to feel it’s all wasted pushed far back into a zoomed-out background. The story of trying to unravel the mystery of the odd signals that seem to be saturating the very air around the island, which was a research facility for odd radio wave-related technology in WW2. There’s something that may or may not be an extradimensional alien force that seems supernatural driving the weirdness of the island, tied to a horrific tragedy

What I really thought about when this game was on the TV in front of me, honestly, was the basic idea that it’s a group of kids left alone to explore the remnants of war, paranoia, and Cold War infrastructure, as they wander the island in search of their friends and answers. It struck a weird chord with me, not just in the nostalgia factor (in that a lot of the game relies on the usage of radios) but in the exploration factor.

As a kid, I’d be left alone a lot when shipped off to visit family in Greece, out on the island(s) alone for hours at a time. My Greek was pretty poor, I couldn’t sit inside and read all day unfortunately, I’d get restless and want to go out. The valley villages and beachfront towns I stayed in with relatives were nothing like I’d ever see before, places where abandoned  but seemingly-new houses stood alongside near-wrecks that people still lived in. Construction would sit dormant for years, paths cut across fields and all over the sun beats down, mercilessly.

Mostly, I just walked around.

I walked through people’s yards, never knowing if they were inside napping in the daytime heat or if the house was abandoned. I have a memory of fleeing in terror from someone’s weird front yard I was exploring because the house had some strange 80’s semi-“Golden Girls” look to it and I was fascinated, thinking the levels of dirt everywhere was a sign the inhabitants weren’t there. They were, and when I heard the door unlocking from the inside I ran in a blind stupid panic down to the beach, in full view of whoever came out.

A lot of the houses had been abandoned either before or during WW2, when Greeks fled en masse and became refugees in Asia Minor, in Egypt, in Ethiopia (like my grandparents). When the war was over, some only came back to the islands to gather what they could and contact relatives in Canada, America, and the UK to go live there, the country ravaged by famine and occupation. After that, those empty houses would be reused and repurposed by whoever was left in those villages in the 70s. Houses and taverns now turned into what I assumed was storage for church stuff. The old abandoned school that only went to 10th grade. The building made out of cinder blocks in the early 1990’s that’s become the mini-market, walls and shelves stocked to the ceiling with stuff now, constantly humming from the three freezers in there. I’d walk all over and marvel and old and semi-abandoned places, thinking about adventures that could be happening there, about who lived in these buildings and what was going to happen to these half-built and half-abandoned structures littering these tiny villages.

OXENFREE feels like that, in a way, listening in on weird half-forgotten stations in the airwaves and wandering through the ruins of former lives and former inhabitants, from the spookiness of the old mines and military bases to the empty storefront windows of the waterfront “tourist” part of town. The things that your brain does when places are abandoned is kind of fascinating, the leaps that it can make, be they correct or incorrect, are so cool. I thought that construction sites were abandoned military posts because I knew there were supposedly some old forts and stuff around, someone told me someone had told them. When I was really young and out there left to my own devices (those nostalgia-tinged halcyon days of being left alone all day during summers as a kid regardless of where you were), I’d play alone in these ruins, pretending I was a gunslinger or a pilot of an explorer or whatever, only the goats and the lizards and the half-done cinderblock walls hearing me.

In a similar vein, the radio kind of tied into this as well for me then (just as the radios carried by characters in the game), especially in such a weird isolated place. I had no idea what I was hearing, stuff that’d never come back after the first time I’d find it, odd signals and sounds that came from who knows what (maybe military stuff nearby? The many boats that traveled the waters of the Aegean?), snippets of Western pop music both old and new, voices in languages (Turkish mostly, as well as heavily-accented Greek beyond my ability to translate) that I didn’t understand. I’d turn the dials on AM and FM back and forth every night sometimes, or during quiet afternoons when it was too hot to be out, just trying to see who was out there talking, and what it would be like to intercept some kind of secret message, a crude understanding of numbers stations somehow half-forming in my brain.

It was, in hindsight, kind of dangerous. Not the radio stuff, that just fueled my overactive imagination. The exploring, I mean. I admitted about some of my exploratory ventures from those summers to my mom once and she basically said she’d beat exploration out of me, mostly because the older abandoned houses we’d go into in those desolate corners of those villages were full of rotted walls and floors, with half-hidden wells and septic tanks underneath them, traps waiting to catch and drown us like they actually had quite a lot of people through the years. There’s even a ghost story from those little Greek villages of naiads luring drunk single young men off the roads at night from the tavern, out into the fields to lay in the grass with them. You step off the well-worn road, into the grass, following this ghostly beautiful young woman, and step over a half-covered old well, falling in and breaking your neck.

Oh well.

That sense of exploratory uncertainty is probably the best part of the whole thing, moreso than the story, which is still excellent. I liked the blurring of the lines between the horror and the science fiction elements, something I don’t see a lot of (at least not well), it ties a lot into an idea of embracing the uncertainty of unknown enemies and not worrying too much about “explaining” them. Unknown voices and time glitches/reality manipulations that come from some weird tear in the world around us? Enough explanation for me.

There’s a bunch of criticisms of OXENFREE that I completely understand, from the dialogue (everyone’s sorta relaxed considering the danger they claim to find themselves in) and puzzle-wise it’s sorta light, though as something coming out in the visual/walk-through narrative “era” of video games that seems to be happening nowadays, it fits. I’m kinda excited to see what else Night School do.

I’m curious what other buttons from my weird exploratory childhoods they’ll end up pushing, because when done well, it’s less cashing in on nostalgic experiences or mining them for material, and more expanding on the origins of imaginations that began during periods of time we tend to look at nostalgically.