Here’s a Book Thing: Madeline Miller’s Greek Myth novels

I wept when I finished Circe earlier today.

Crying isn’t uncommon for me. I’ve always been a bit of a sentimentalist, but something changed in me when my father passed away, a decade past; the tears flow more now, brought on by concern or relief or love or drama. I recently brought this up with my mother, in passing, and she mentioned that she, too, noticed this change in herself, the ease with which emotion can well up within us.

And Circe is about emotion: love and hate, anger and resolve. It is about a woman who is sidelined by capital-F Fate and the uncaring gods and who refuses to succumb to that lowercase-f fate, to be nothing more than a footnote in history, lost to time and dust. She is a witch, yes, but most importantly she is a person, with agency and purpose and desires and dreams and fears.

This strikes at something that I have always found frustrating in ancient mythology. The gods are capricious, of course, horrible and random and merciless, but the explanation there is in their nature: they are without, not within, and not bound to the strictures of sensibility with which us mere mortals wish to bind our tales. First this, then that. This because of that, so obviously the other. But mortals, too, fall prey in the telling of ancient tales to whim and irrationality, betraying what we believe their true selves because the story demands the mad stroke, the ironic twist, the glorious death.

When Aphrodite spirits Paris away to the safety of Troy right as Menelaus is about to land that killing blow, we shrug: deus ex machina, the immortal saving the favored on a whim, what can we flesh and blood do but accept that breaking of the rules? But when Patroclus, calm compatriot of Achilles, tries to scale the walls of Troy in his lover’s armor, we blink and ask: why?

(Yes, I know that both of those bits come from the Iliad, not the Odyssey. We’ll get there.)

The glib answer is that it makes for an interesting story, characters acting mad when the tale needs a twist, a shock delivered to the audience huddled around a campfire or in a dining hall, to elicit that unbidden gasp, the lean forward that says: pray, dear poet, tell us more! The smarmy answer is that it’s lazy storytelling, forcing round pegs into square holes so that the outcome, the Moral of the Tale, can be reached even when the personalities involved begin to run in another direction altogether.

The sharper answer: perhaps the motivation was there all along, just waiting to be uncovered.

Madeline Miller has published two books so far. The first is The Song of Achilles, a telling of Achilles’ upbringing, rise to become the Best of the Greeks, and downfall at the hands of Paris and Apollo as told in the Iliad. Instead of telling that tale from the viewpoint of the hero, though, the book takes a much more interesting approach; we hear the tale from the mouth of Patroclus, a noble cast out from his family by an over-proud father, who comes to live with Achilles and eventually becomes his boon companion.

And lover. That their relationship is more than mere friendship is subtext-and-then-some in the Iliad, and Miller makes a smart choice here of going all in on the romance. It acts as the key to understanding much of Achilles’ behavior over the course of the story, indeed the structure of the myth itself. Why do the Greeks lay siege to the Trojans for ten years, an honestly ludicrous amount of time? Well, Achilles wants to spend more time with his lover, to spend more time living, because he knows what fate has in store for him. And when the worm turns and that love turns to ash, his madness and grief are his downfall in a way that is real and poetic and utterly devastating. I wept at the end of The Song of Achilles, too, and my heart aches just thinking about it now.

Circe does something that in some ways is even more interesting: it takes a character who exists on the edge of many myths, key to the Odyssey, of course, but also the Metamorphoses and other ancient tales, and provides her a true grounding. Rather than being an agent of Fate–which, in myth, is the same as being an agent of the storyteller–it contextualizes her existence as a woman in ancient Greece, thought of as lesser because of her nature and her meager powers but also because she committed that crime of simply being not male. Odysseus shows up, as he must, but their relationship in Circe is much more one of individuals who understand who they are and what what they should and shouldn’t do–and then do it anyway–than the necessary plot shenanigans to prepare our Stalwart Hero for the next set of horrible events that the storyteller planned to throw in his path.

And, vitally, the story is not just about Circe’s relationships with men, her intersections with those ur-myths that underlie modern Western civilizations. She is a mother, a lover, a witch, a minor goddess, and all of these are important to the tale. But she is a person, with failings and hopes and all the rest, even as the gods try to push her around on the draughts board of life. That is a part that most Greek tales reserved for men and men alone, and Miller reclaims it here.

I’ve never been able to make it all the way through either the Iliad or the Odyssey, but one of the advantages of being brought up in this modern Western era is that it’s hardly necessary. Reading this pair of books will bring you to many moments of almost forehead-slapping ah, yes, of course! obviousness when a tale ties back to a thing you knew and half forgot. The Minotaur and Daedalus and his son Icarus. Helen of Troy and Odysseus and Ariadne and Athena. The Golden Fleece, Scylla and Charybdis, the Sirens, Jason and Medea. If the characters and references spark remembrance, then good; if not, fear not, because the tales are told well enough that it doesn’t matter. You don’t need to be a Classics major to enjoy these tales about the fundamentals of what it means to be human.

And it spoils nothing to say: love, of course. Not lust, like Zeus for every beautiful thing on the planet, but love, that of a mother for their child or a young man for his best friend and lover. And that is what these tales remind us of, filled with tragedy though they are: love is what makes us who we are, and it is what endures.

And it is love–of people, of words, of the world–that makes us weep.

Footnote: I wanted, somewhere in here, to draw a parallel between these books and Tim Powers’ “hidden histories,” in that Miller’s novels act as–if you’ll forgive the punning–hidden mythstories, wrapping the somewhat ludicrous tales of the ancient gods and heroes in the format of a modern novel that makes it all feel a lot more sensible. But the write-up turned to a more lyrical and less literal bent, and it felt too jarring to throw that comparison in there. So I cheat, and hide it here at the bottom. I’m no Alexander, and this no Gordian knot, but I know a good conceit when I see it. And thus: the point made, the flow unmarred. So the story flows.

Here’s a book thing: The Eternal Sky series by Elizabeth Bear

I find most fantasy novels tiresome. They rely on a well-worn set of tropes: the plucky village kid that’s secretly the savior of the world, the mysterious wizards making use of ill-explained magic to worm the author out of whatever poorly-written corner they get stuck in, the portents and prophecies and projections of way-too-stable fallen empires that somehow come perfectly true at just the right moment.

And yet.

I think a lot of that exhaustion comes from the repeated returns to an over-dipped well, that of traditional Western Europe. There’s only so many times that you can read about another not-quite-Arthur or almost-Jeanne d’Arc before it all becomes something of a blur. There’s quite literally a whole world of mythopoeia out there, and yet the vast majority of the stuff available in the English language leans on a tiny subset of story and culture.

In many ways, Elizabeth Bear’s Eternal Sky series is very traditional fantasy. The first book, Range of Ghosts, starts with a young man surviving a battle he should not have survived, and if you don’t think that he’s destined to become a key figure in the battles to come you definitely haven’t read (or watched) very many things. The villain of the work all but strokes his mustache in his very first scene. And there is magic galore, dragons and rings and ancient battlefields and dark portals to lands unknown.

And yet.

Part of the series’ appeal, at least to me, is its mining of a completely different vein of mythic substrate. Ra Temur comes from a culture based on the Mongols, not the English or the French, and his obsessions are those that make sense for a child of the steppe: horses, bows, travel, clans. Other characters hail from analogues of Tibet, China, and a fascinating alternate-universe Middle East that I wish had been afforded even more detail over the relatively slim1 trilogy.

The worldbuilding is strong, evocative, and detailed in the right ways; it leaves you wanting more but mostly satisfied with the glimpses you get of this other world 2. The metaphysics is quirky–there’s a thing going on with the skies of the various nations that, honestly, turned me away from the books the first time I tried to read them, several years ago–but impressively consistent, in a manner that makes one thing of science fiction or the more rigorous works of Sanderson than the traditional high fantasy “anything goes” style.

Also appealing is the fact that these books are decidedly modern, even if the characters within are often constrained by the cultures and customs in which they find themselves trapped. It has characters and tropes that almost certainly would bring accusations of “virtue signalling” and “social justice” out the mouths of a particular class of reader… if that class of reader’s worldview could handle well-conceived stories written by gasp a woman in the first place. It also manages to swerve aggressively around several weary genre standards, even as parts of it come off as nothing but traditional; I particularly like its treatment of a One Ring-like plot device, and appreciated the pointed jabs at just how convenient it is to talk shit about empires from the enlightened distance of our egalitarian, there-are-no-problems-with-modern-democracy future.

Plus, you know, they were just flat-out solid reads, with interesting characters, complex (but not too complex) politics, and a deep sense of the right amount of mystery to both reveal and conceal. Upon finishing the third book, I was both glad of the end and left wanting more. And in this world of crappy endings, what more can you ask for?

[If you’d like a peek into the world, Strange Horizons has a short story available, set (and written) slightly earlier than the novels themselves; you can read “Love among the Talus” here.]

Here’s a videogame thing: Destiny of an Emperor

Badness is worse when it’s surrounded by quality.

There are many terrible videogames. Most of them let you know they’re bad within the opening moments; they control poorly, play worse, and you immediately know, “yeah, this isn’t good.” If you soldier on, you do so with the knowledge of what you’re getting into. Hell, there’s a whole culture on YouTube and Twitch around playing bad games for the schadenfreude of it all: this person is doing this dumb thing, and we get to enjoy it, so doesn’t that make it–in a twisted way–good somehow1?

What I find much worse is slow-reveal awful. You’re enjoying a thing, be it a book or game or whatever, and slowly but surely it becomes more and more terrible. Characters make less sense, the game designers appear to have gone on vacation, and all the previous hours of pleasure are retroactively ruined by the sudden onset of suck. With literature, this often takes place across a long-running series, and so knowing when to get out while the getting’s good is important. (For example, I deny the existence of any Dune books past the second one, and sometimes even that one too. No, you can’t change my mind.) And that happens with videogame series as well… but it also tends to happen in individual games, due to a fundamental problem with how videogames are made. Namely: on a schedule, whether the game’s ready to be released or not.

Dragon Warrior II2 is notorious for having an absolutely relentless endgame, one that basically amounts to “is the pseudo-random number generator in this NES cartridge smiling upon me today?” in terms of how much control you the player have over its success. It sours an otherwise solid game, one that improves on the original along basically every axis, other than this one brutal misstep that pretty much pisses away all the goodwill the game built beforehand. And the folks who worked on the game later acknowledged the real source of the problem: they were in a rush, and the entire endgame went basically untested by any mortals before it was shipped out on carts to the world at large.

Well, Destiny of an Emperor is clearly inspired heavily by the Dragon Quest/Warrior series, from its menus down to many of its core mechanics, and apparently it took a little too much inspiration from Dragon Warrior II. I liked it at first, loved it for most of the midgame, and then right at the end the whole thing came tumbling down in a series of fights that basically amounted to, well, “is the pseudo-random number generator in this NES cartridge smiling upon me today?” Ugh.

For those of you unfamiliar with the game itself–which, I imagine, is most of you, as it’s definitely on the obscure end of the NES’ library–Destiny of an Emperor (hereafter DoaE) is a retelling of the extremely famous Romance of the Three Kingdoms, one of the formative pieces of Chinese literature. It’s a historical novel about the end of the Han dynasty, and it has been adapted mercilessly for film, television, and in videogames. Boy howdy has it been adapted for videogames. There is an entire series of strategy games that just steal the name outright, and the Dynasty Warriors hack-and-slash kill-’em-ups are all re-tellings of Romance. DoaE is a classic Japanese RPG rather than a strategy or action game, but otherwise fits in a very comfortable lineage of “things adapted from an old novel that is seminal to an entire culture.”

And, while DoaE is clearly, ah, let’s be polite and say heavily inspired by the Dragon Quest series, it also does some genuinely clever new things on its own. You control Liu Bei’s army, by way of leading a party of up to seven generals; each of those generals has some number of troops under his3 command which act like hit points in a more traditional JRPG. Weirdly, resting at an inn “heals” your dead soldiers, and by the end of the game you’re traversing caves with armies of a quarter million men or more, so it’s best not to think too much about that abstraction… but the game does some neat tricks with army size. Basically, each digit of troops you have active doubles your attack power, so you really want to hit 1,000 soldiers and keep over that number. By the end of the game you control generals with upwards of 30,000 troops apiece, and the scale of the battles feels genuinely significant.

The generals are handed in a very clever way as well. The army “levels up,” as in traditional RPGs, but that only affects a limited number of the generals’ troop sizes. Instead, you spend much of the game recruiting other generals–a procedure anyone who has played a Dynasty Warriors game will feel very familiar with–and popping them into and out of your party based on your needs. Some hit hard, some are good with tactics (the game’s equivalent of spells), and most have a fixed number of troops following them, so they can either immediately dramatically increase your armies’ survivability or are fodder for the recruitment office. The game only allows you to keep 64 generals back at the office–and just where are their massive armies?–and I had to clear out a bunch of dead weight at least once in the game to make room for more, higher-level generals.

The battles are also considerably more engaging than most JRPG combat of the time. You can have up to five generals in combat at a time, and they can pick their targets individually or use the aforementioned tactics to help themselves or hinder your enemies. Success is dependent on their strength for fighting or intelligence for tactics, and there’s quite a variety in what you can do to make tough fights easier. For the trivial ones, the game has an auto-battle feature where the two sides duke it out as quickly as the game engine allows, making the (too-frequent) random battles little more than a nuisance. Auto-battle? In a JRPG from the ’80s? Is this real life?

The game has a number of small-to-middling issues, unsurprising given its vintage. The tactics are untranslated from Chinese, other than being Romanized, so prepare to refer a lot to an instruction book or FAQ until you learn the names of the abilities and what they do. You should also take notes as to the locations of various towns and people, as you sometimes have to do non-trivial amounts of backtracking to similarly-named locations to find the next point to progress. And there are a couple of “dumb mechanics involving the fact that you’re playing a videogame” bits that probably felt clever at the time but now feel like unnecessary and obtuse fourth-wall breaking nonsense.

But those are all tolerable issues. No, the reason that Destiny of an Emperor soured hard on me is that the last series of plot-related battles all involve high-level enemy strategists. And those strategists use some pretty stupid abilities, which can:

  • cause your generals to literally not be able to attack for the next 1 to… I don’t know how many rounds, but I know at least one enemy use of it lasted ten turns… or
  • instantly heal the enemy general of all the “damage” (i.e. dead troops: are they zombies?) you’ve dealt them, potentially setting you back eight or more rounds of battle… or
  • decapitate one of your generals, causing all of their soldiers to instantly die. (Are they routed? Are they all decapitated too? Don’t think too much about this…)

Of course, rather than any of those patently ridiculous options, they can just choose to attack for a small amount of damage–they’re strategists, after all, weak on strength–while you wreck them in the face.

Which result will you get? Who knows! Only the PRNG can decide.

If I were still in the business of giving review scores to things4, I’d give the first ninety percent or so of Destiny of an Emperor a solid four stars out of five. It’s a little rough, sure, but the game came out in 1989 and is still quite captivating. (It also has an amazing soundtrack, and some really impressive spritework that I didn’t have time to get into, given how overly long this article already is.) But the last ten percent is a flat-out one-star experience. And it drags the whole thing down with it.

Is it still a good game? Yeah… sure… I guess. But it’s not great, and it could have been. It was so close. And that hurts a lot more than if it were just terrible from the start. What a shame.

The sequel’s supposed to be better, and despite being a Japanese-only release on the Famicom, it has a fan translation. I look forward to playing it… but not immediately. I need some distance from this particular take on the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Right now, revisiting this world doesn’t seem very romantic at all.

Here’s a videogame thing: Horizon: Zero Dawn

At a little past 3am this morning, I finished my second playthrough of Horizon: Zero Dawn. It was a New Game+ (“Plus”) run on Ultra Hard difficulty. I didn’t enjoy it very much, but, you know, achievements. And then I promptly deleted the game.

So far, so Ezio, am I right?

Thankfully, HZD1 is a much better game than Assassin’s Creed II and its two immediate sequels. It’s a better story, too, at least in the core “what is going on over the course of the game” bits… not that that’s exactly a high bar, given the ancient alien nonsense of the AC universe.

Don’t be fooled, though: it’s basically Assassin’s Creed in the hills and mountains of post-apocalyptic Colorado, although it has a considerably greater emphasis on combat than those games do. There are viewpoints across the map used to uncover the world (although just walking around defogs the area immediately around you, so you never have to trigger them), boatloads of side-quests and optional challenges that reward you with experience, resources, and skills, and a surprisingly tight main storyline; I beat the NG+ run in less than ten hours, and just watched a speedrun of it done in just a bit over two. On the other hand, my nearly-completionist first run clocked in at a hair over sixty hours, which included about ten spent doing the excellent DLC side-area.

Well, with one notable exception: robotic dinosaurs. (And other animals too, but c’mon: dinosaurs.)

Just like the AC games are gorgeous, HZD is absolutely breathtaking. When the snowy winds ripple across the open fields and you watch the grass wave, the glowing blue eyes of robots winking in the forest at the distance, you really feel like you’re looking at another, far stranger world. The central city of the game is rendered with a level of detail that is honestly pretty stupendous for how little time you actually need to spend there, and each section of the map feels distinct and unique and beautiful in its own, usually austere way.

As for the story, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I only figured out about fifty percent of the core plot twist. One chunk of it is pretty painfully obvious to anyone who has ever read, like, any science fiction at all, but the central mystery–just what the hell happened?–has a considerably more interesting resolution than I was expecting. It’s pretty rare that a videogame plot surprises me at all nowadays; while games have come a long way from “save the princess in the castle,” they’re generally not exactly high literature when it comes to plotting or surprises or characterization. It’s nice to be shocked once in a while.

Aloy, the main character, is considerably more of a cipher than Ezio. She’s a strong, independent woman, which I like, but the combination of her sheltered upbringing and the lack of much interaction that isn’t about some major world-shaking crisis or another means that her actual depths as a person aren’t really very well explored over the course of the game. I know not everyone can be Mr. Auditore, of course, but I have to admit that I was disappointed that we don’t really get to see a whole lot of who she is rather than what she does. That’s despite the fact that, several times over the course of the game, you can make a choice between doing something via “brains,” “brawn,” or “heart.” The differences are generally very minor and still don’t really shine a lot of light on what it means to be a young woman in such a world, a pariah turned savior.

On the other hand, maybe I’m asking too much about a game where you shoot arrows into robotic dinosaurs.

I will say that the combat controls are way better than early- and mid-era Assassin’s Creed, but the movement is–somehow–terrifyingly worse. And that’s saying a lot, given how janky AC games can be.

The voice acting in the game is mostly solid, although they cast Lance Reddick of The Wire, Fringe, and Lost fame as, uh, himself, which is honestly always more than a little bit distracting in a video game. The dialog is pretty well-written, although the facial animations in the game tend towards the creepy Mass Effect: Andromeda end of the scale, which is unfortunate given how good it looks otherwise. I found myself skipping through the dialog as fast as I could read the subtitles by a couple of hours into the game, mostly to avoid the creepy facial expressions.

All of that said, am I glad I played Horizon: Zero Dawn? The once, absolutely; the second time, not so much. Stupid achievements. If you do play the game–it’s a PS4 exclusive–take my advice and play the game through on Normal rather than Story or Easy, which make the combat a little too trivial, and avoid Ultra Hard, which is ridiculous even with an over-leveled character. And make sure to snag The Frozen Wilds, one of the rare DLC expansions that genuinely adds a whole bunch of interesting stuff to the core game.

Here’s a videogame thing: The Ezio Trilogy

This weekend, I finally got the last trophy in Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, the third game in the Ezio Trilogy. I promptly deleted the collection off of my PS4, and sincerely hope to never play them again; it was my second time through the three games, having played them on the PS3 before.

As the above paragraph might imply, I have very mixed feelings about the games. Not so mixed that I didn’t sink the ~100 hours into playing them all over again, mind–although some non-trivial part of that was platinum chasing, given that the second and third games were basically impossible to plat by the time I played them, thanks to online-only trophies–but they are deeply, deeply flawed games, and playing them again on the PS4 only heightened those issues for me.

So let’s talk about the good stuff first. For those of you not familiar with the Assassin’s Creed games, they’re third-person open-world adventure games, with the core content set at some time period in the past; you’re experiencing that past through some hokey “DNA memory” machine that we’ll talk about in the “bad stuff” section, but basically it’s an excuse to run around in Ye Olde Times and do cool stuff.

The Ezio Trilogy consists of three games: Assassin’s Creed II, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, and Assassin’s Creed: Revelations. All three games star Ezio Auditore de Firenze, a Florentine from a wealthy family who gets pushed into the stealth-stabby lifestyle due to a series of unfortunate events that occur to his family. One thing this trilogy does that is, I think, unique: you play Ezio over a long period of time, from his late teens until his fifties. During that time, he grows as a person (and an Assassin) in ways that are interesting and genuine. The voice acting is uniformly excellent across all three games, and it’s hard as hell not to empathize–and sympathize–with Ezio as three kinds of hell break out around him and he struggles to do the best with the situation. In terms of game protagonists, he ranks in the highest of tiers, fascinating and nuanced.

The settings of the three games are also fantastic. ACII mostly takes place in Florence and Venice, with a couple of smaller towns as well, and they all look and feel fantastic. AC:B ups the stakes by shrinking the core locations down to a single one… but making it Rome, and doing a really, really good job of making you feel like you’re in Rome, with crumbling monuments and creepy crypts everywhere. AC:B‘s Rome is one of the few videogame worlds I’ve spent hours just running around in, looking at stuff (and I look forward to doing the same eventually in Origins’ Egypt and Odyssey‘s Greece). AC:R is also (mostly) singly-homed, and that home–Istanbul–is almost as fascinating as Rome, and a welcome change from the aggressively Italian locations of the previous two games. There’s nothing like perching on top of the Hagia Sophia and looking out across all of Konstantiniyye in terms of feeling the scope of what almost feels like a living, breathing city.

And, when the action works, Ezio really does feel like an amazing bad-ass. He leaps across roofs, jumps down from high perches to stab the evil Templars in the back with his hidden blades, and disappears in a cloud of smoke to live to fight another day. It’s easy to see how the AC games set the tenor for Rocksteady’s Batman games, because in many ways you feel like a Renaissance Dark Avenger: hiding in the shadows (or amongst groups of civilians), waiting for the perfect moment to strike unsuspecting foes.


All three of these games’ controls could politely be described as “cantankerous” and impolitely described as “intermittently controller-throwing terrible.” Ezio will take flying leaps off of buildings in the wrong direction in the middle of long chase scenes, he’ll fail to assassinate people even when the text is RIGHT THERE ON THE SCREEN OH GOD, and your right thumb will be just as sore as your left over the course of a long play session thanks to having to adjust the camera all the time. Many failures in the game will not feel like your fault at all, but just the game randomly deciding, “nope, you’re not gonna make that jump this time; sorry, bub.” And that feels bad.

The designers also got the terrible idea for the second and third games for each mission to have an “optional” (read: required, if you want the trophies) additional goal. Sometimes they’re trivial, but both games have several levels where those “full synchronization” goals are basically going to force you to replay the mission ten to twenty times until a combination of luck and skill let you succeed. That’s not good design; that’s torture.

Also torture: the hot mess that is the framing story. You’re not actually Ezio Auditore in these games; you’re Desmond Miles, a dude in the modern day (well, 2012) who is experiencing Ezio’s life thanks to a machine called the Animus and, uh, DNA race memory? Also there are ancient aliens, everything major that ever happened in history is part of a secret war between the Templars and the Assassins (yes, even that), and the Apple of Eden is an actual artifact in the game. It’s all awful pseudoscience claptrap, impossible to take even the least bit seriously, even in the context of “it’s just a videogame.” (Thankfully the Desmond stuff is closed out with the next game, Assassin’s Creed III, although the secret-war and ancient-alien crap is too baked into the series for them to ever remove it.)

(As a side note, apparently someone looked at the janky mess that is the engine these games use and went “you know, we should make a puzzle-platformer out of this.” That shows up as an extensive set of side-content in Revelations, and it is awful to the max.)

Lastly, other than the setting and story, these three games are essentially the same game, all using the same engine. I ha-ha-only-seriously refer to them as Assassin’s Creed 2, 2.1, and 2.2, because they really do feel like nothing more than expansion packs to the original game. Huge expansion packs, mind you, but mere iterations rather than anything seriously new.

(I could also rant about some terrible trophies that all three games have–particularly Revelations–but I think I’ve said enough about why trophies are bad here in the past.)

Looking back up, it sure seems like I have a lot more to say on the negative side than the positive. That’s a bit of a shame, because I really did enjoy playing through the games again… about 70% of the time, and not counting the last N hours of stupid trophy hunting. If you play them completely casually, ignoring all of the dumb things you have to do to get 100% synchronization, I think they’re solid, charming experiences with janky controls; in particular, I think just about everyone should give Assassin’s Creed II a spin, as it’s both the easiest and the most plot-driven of the three, and Ezio really is one of the best characters in videogame history.

But I’m glad I’m done.

Now to replay Assassin’s Creed III next month… sigh.

Here’s a television thing: “The Americans”

Sometimes it takes a little while for a show (or a series of books, or games) to find their footing.  I’ve recommended Parks & Recreation to many people over the years, with the proviso that they just sort of have to suffer through the blessedly short first season to get to the good stuff.

The Americans starts out strong, gets even better in the second season, and has a final hour that I’d put in the top five or so I’ve ever seen in my life.

That’s not to say the show didn’t change over time.  When you watch the first episode, you immediately get some strong impressions: intense ’80s spy theatrics–complete with amazing musical cues–and the sort of interpersonal drama that no modern prestige television show can go without.  Sweet wigs and Mission: Impossible gadgets.  And, of course, ridiculously attractive leads.


The first big thing is the least surprising if you know anything about the show: the main characters are, very definitely, not The Good Guys.  Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys play deep-cover Soviet agents who, when the first episode begins, have been in the US long enough to have had two children together.  Their marriage is all part of the cover… except, as becomes painfully obvious almost immediately, that’s not really the case for Philip, Matthew Rhys’ character.

One of The Good Guys then moves in across the street: Stan Beeman (played by the always-awesome Noah Emmerich), a man who happens to work for the counter-intelligence branch of the FBI, trying to root out the very people who live across the street.  This is the sort of Dramatic Tension you expect in a drama such as The Americans.  Except: Philip and Stan become best friends.  Not, like, fake-y bullshit side-eye buddies, but genuine compadres.

And then things get more and more complicated from there.

After the first season, the show begins to concentrate more on the relationship between Philip and Keri Russell’s Elizabeth, although the spy stuff is still a major part of the plot and often drives entire episodes.  Elizabeth in particular is perhaps one of the best studies in contrast when it comes to character motivations: on the surface, she’s Felicity all grown up, a suburban businesswoman and mom who loves her kids.  Under the surface?  Hard as nails and Red as can be.  Russell plays brilliantly on the expectations of viewers who remember her ingenue turn in that first big WB hit series, somehow simultaneously evoking her previous big role while aggressively subverting it.  And Matthew Rhys knocks it out of the ballpark as the saddest man on television.

Like Game of Thrones, there are young cast members–the Jennings’ kids–who could easily make or break an entire aspect of the show.  And like Game of Thrones, the casting department lucked the hell out with the most important one.  Holly Taylor plays Paige, the older daughter, as someone who is both aware that something weird is going on and aggressively trying to believe her parents are just Normal American Parental Units.

I don’t want to say too much more about what happens in the show, because the plots are fascinating to watch unfold.  You get to see some multi-year train-wrecks unfold on the screen.  And lots and lots of fantastic wigs.  Not to mention the best robot on TV since… well, I don’t know when there was any robot more awesome than Mail Robot.

Just… watch it.  It’s one of the best television shows I’ve ever seen, it asks a lot of serious questions about purpose and truth and family, and somehow it managed to use “With or Without You” as a music cue in a way that, once it’s over, you’ll realize it never could have been any other song.  If that isn’t a miracle, I don’t know what is.

[The show is currently available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video, and is available for purchase digitally basically everywhere.]

Here’s a videogame thing: Let It Die

After months of putting it off, I finally beat Let It Die late Sunday afternoon while a friend of mine watched through the magic of Sony’s “Share Play.”  Monday morning, I uninstalled the game, likely never to play it again.

Total time spent in game: upwards of 560 hours.  That’s a bit of a lie; there’s at least twenty or so hours there that were just the PS4 idling, for Reasons.  But only a bit of one.  I most certainly actively played the game for upwards of five hundred hours.  The only thing I’ve ever played even close to that much is probably the MUD I ran back in the mid-to-late ’90s, sadly defunct now.

So, an important question comes to mind: was Let It Die any good?

I… think so.  I’m not certain.  It’s free-to-play, and while it has without a doubt the least scummy F2P mechanics of any game I’ve played–it actually hands out the premium currency often enough that you never need to spend a penny on the game–I’m also aware that the gacha/slot machine mechanics that underlie basically every F2P game have a nasty way of short-cutting people’s critical faculties.

I’ll talk about the bits I am confident of, though.  Let It Die is an action RPG roguelike… thing, with a distinct sensibility in style and sound design that pretty much had to come from Grasshopper Manufacture, the company that Suda51 (of No More Heroes and Killer7 fame) started.  It has, without a doubt, the best damn soundtrack of any videogame since Katamari Damacy. (The fact that you can’t buy the OST is frickin’ criminal.)  And the combat in the game is extremely satisfying, in a Dark Souls-esque way; you learn how to handle just about everything with careful consideration (and the occasional death).  Most of the enemies in the game amount to AI-controlled versions of your own characters, which at first seems a bit lame–where’s the variety?–but it ends up being a strength, not a weakness, as it gives you a sense of how each weapon works from both sides.

The ending, which I won’t spoil, was something of a disappointment, in that there was a fairly obvious “twist” I was expecting that didn’t actually happen.  And the ending is actually no ending at all, nowadays; the game is fairly crammed with “post-game” content (and only now do I realize just how ridiculous that particular term is… how can anything in a game be, you know, post-game?), but after sinking the amount of time I did into the title I had no interest in pursuing those particular slogs.

It has crafting mechanisms, which are the main place that the gacha/lottery elements come into play, but other than a couple of particular grinds–expect to see a lot of a particular 21-22-23F run–it doesn’t actually feel that onerous.  It has kinda-sorta-not really permadeath, but careful play (and judicious use of the freemium currency) can work around that too.  And the asynchronous multiplayer PVP is an interesting design effort that I wish more single-player games would take a very hard look at copying.

Yes, there are a couple of really nasty difficulty spikes in the game, but they’re nothing that can’t be overcome with good equipment and deilberate care.  Above all, I feel like its design is scrupulously fair, which is basically something that is never ever true for free-to-play games.

This is all very disjointed, so let’s circle back around to the question.  Is Let It Die any good?  Yes.  Yes it is.  But I uninstalled it.

That said, I uninstalled all the other free-to-play games the night before, right after I beat Let It Die, with no sense of loss.  And right now I’m glancing at my PS4 controller, wondering whether I should install LID again and make another run at the Tower of Barbs.

I shouldn’t.

But will I?

[Let It Die is also available on Steam nowadays, for those of you who don’t have a PS4 and want to check it out.  It’s free there too.  But don’t say I didn’t warn you as to how much time it may absorb.]

Here’s a book thing: “The Orphan Master’s Son” by Adam Johnson

I had never heard of Adam Johnson before.  The local library had a display of short story collections, as part of their year-long reading challenge that I somehow missed signing up for; I had already grabbed Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman, but something about the cover of Fortune Smiles appealed to me.  It seemed pop-art-y, for some reason evoking my memory of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay even though they don’t look very similar at all.

I liked Fortune Smiles

From that, I learned that the book that put Adam Johnson on the map was all about North Korea.  I put it on hold and added it to the enormous pile of library books that are currently sitting on my couch; I’m tearing through them as quickly as possible in anticipation of NaNo, knocking out all the novels before I dive into the dauntingly-huge short story collections that remain.

Come Sunday evening, it was The Orphan Master’s Son

The book is dark, depressing, haunting.  It paints a vision of the DPRK that is unrelentingly awful.  My understanding is that it was painstakingly researched, that life there is really just as terrible as the book shows, and even if it’s only a tenth as bad as the book makes it out to be, the North Korean regime’s iron grip on its populace is one of the greatest tragedies of our time.  This is something I knew in the abstract, of course, but reading about it–even in fictional form–makes it much more visceral, much more real despite the irreality of a story.

And, more than anything else, this is a book about stories.  The DPRK is a place where everyone lies as a matter of course, from morning until night when the power goes out, because to tell the truth is to implicate yourself in doings which officially never happen, even though they absolutely do.  The ability to lie on demand, to concoct a tale that cloaks events in such a way as to satisfy your interrogators, is just as critical a survival tactic as knowing which flowers are edible, or how to set a snare to capture a swallow and eat it.  (Both of these acts are illegal, of course.  Everything is, other than worship of the Dear Leader.)

The Orphan Master’s Son questions the meaning of identity, both personal and national, when survival requires that identity to be made of lies.  It does not look away from horror, from the everyday evils of a brutal despotic regime that starves an entire nation to death while convincing them that their demise is righteous and just.  It had passages that actually forced me to look away from the book for a bit, utterly defeated by the hopelessness and depravity.  And it also finds hope buried deep within that unblinking despair.

Like the stories that the characters have to tell in order to survive another day, the story of The Orphan Master’s Son has holes, problems, issues.  And like those stories, it is not about being true, it is about being convincing.

I am not sure I have ever been so convinced.

Here’s a videogame thing: Planetside 2

I’ve had more “oh, damn, it’s 6am and I haven’t gone to bed yet” nights in the last week than I’ve had in total since I retired, and it’s all because of Planetside 2.

For those of you unfamiliar with the game, Planetside 2 is a massively multiplayer online first-person strategic shooter.  That’s a whole lot of adjectives; put simply, you run around going “pew pew” with laser guns, there’s a lot of people playing at the same time, and there are goals and objectives beyond “pew pew a bunch of them before you get pew pewed back.”

In many ways, the game is a more complicated version of a game mode I was obsessed with many years ago, Unreal Tournament 2004‘s Onslaught mode.  At the depths of my addiction to that particular mode, I would come home from working at LSU at 1700 or so and not stop until 0200 or 0300, night after night, for weeks on end.  I stopped because it was utterly wrecking my wrists; as a keyboard-and-mouse game, I was doing a lot of repetitive strain on my right wrist in particular as I played.

Planetside 2 is basically Onslaught scaled up 64x or so.  There are three teams/factions; the goal is to be the team with the most territory.  You can’t just drop deep into your opponent’s land and capture there, because the only vulnerable territory is that connected to your own by the “Lattice,” which is generally (but not always) the stuff that’s right next to it on the map.  What this means in practice is that the “front” of the fight is constantly shifting but almost never crazily distant, as your faction either successfully claims a bit of territory and pushes further in, or loses territory and is pushed back.

Now, I’m playing on the PS4, which makes it a bit of a double whammy of a mess: I’m already not exactly good at first-person shooters, having lost my high level of coordination as I’ve gotten older, and using a controller rather than keyboard and mouse just makes it worse.  But that’s actually mostly okay, because the game has a bunch of “support” work that you can do.  I spend most of my time as an engineer, repairing vehicles and other things around the bases, and the game rewards me for doing so.

That said, the game has some major issues.  It’s free-to-play, and while its monetization strategy is only mostly scummy, the real problem is that it’s a free-to-play game… on a console… in the dead of summer… where you shoot people.  If you don’t already know what that means, let me tell you: it is absolutely overrun with twelve year old boys who think cursing is the Coolest Thing Ever and constantly kill their own teammates because it’s funny.  There are moments of utter brilliance, when you get in with an organized group and manage to fend off a nasty assault or execute one of your own… and there are moments of utter frustration when the person whose vehicle you were keeping alive turns the turret and shoots you for no good reason.

And while the monetization is only mostly scummy, it is scummy.  The rate at which you get experience (“certifications”) in the game is low, so it strongly encourages you to drop real money on the game to unlock stuff.

But there are some clever things too.  For one, most of the weapons are “sidegrades;” better at some things but worse at others.  You actually really don’t ever need to buy a new weapon for most of the classes, and if you do it can come much later.  That’s surprisingly respectful for a F2P game, where often the person with the most money gets super-awesome ultra better versions of the standard weapons.

Now, I know that I’m not supposed to play massively multiplayer online games, because I know what a time-sink they can be.  But I suspect that I’m going to run Planetside 2 dry in a week or two; it’s fun, but ultimately pretty same-y, and unless I can convince some friends to play with me–it’d sure be nice to team up with actual adults rather than prepubescents–it’s going to end up too lonely to sustain.  But for the time being I’m having fun, and given that I haven’t paid a penny for the game (and don’t plan to), why not?

(If you’re interested in teaming up, drop me a note.  I know no one will, but I feel like I’ve gotta try.)

In conclusion: Planetside 2 is pretty neat.  It’s given me sleepless nights.  Would play again.

Here’s a book thing: The Bill Hodges trilogy by Stephen King

As mentioned in my first Stephen King review, it became clear to me while reading The Outsider that one of the characters was from a previous work.  That work turned out to be an entire trilogy of gritty crime novels.  I snagged them from the library last week, and have spent much of the intervening time reading them.

Conclusion: they’re good.  Also, large print books are awesome for my aging, failing eyes, and I’ll be on the lookout for large print editions when possible in the future.

The first two novels in the series, Mr. Mercedes and Finders Keepers, are straight-up mystery/crime books with no supernatural elements.  Mr. Mercedes is the better book, I think, but that’s at least partly because Finders Keepers involves a J.D. Salinger-type writer and I am really tired of Stephen King having stories revolve around writers.  You’re a writer, bub.  I get it.  We all get it.  We got it in The Dark Half, and Bag of Bones, and Duma Key, and… yeah.  We get it.  I actually stopped reading King for a while because he seemed to be in a rut where every main character was a middle-aged writer.  I mean, sure, write what you know, but… c’mon.

Fortunately, the writer is offed in the opening.  This is a crime novel, after all.

By the end of the second book, there are a whole lot of pointers to the fact that the third one (End of Watch) is going to be more supernatural in nature, even if you weren’t already aware of that due to mentions in The Outsider.  And that turns out to, indeed, be the case; what was impressive was that the book still managed to be a solid mystery/crime novel despite the supernatural elements.

That said, I feel that the series had a pretty linear decline in quality.  They were all good, but Mr. Mercedes was the best, with the most captivating villain and the best “oh, if only!” moments.  That’s actually kinda nice, to be honest; if you only have time for one of them, you can read the first and be pretty content.

Are they better than The Outsider, you ask?  I think I enjoyed that book more, because the back half of it was a more traditional King novel, with the dreamlike logic those books contain.  But that book is also a very, well, King-ian work, with weird horrible magical things happening and massive confusion reigning.  I like that sort of thing, but totally understand why some people don’t.

On the other hand, Mr. Mercedes presents a perfectly human villain that does things almost as awful.  Isn’t that worse, really?