Day by Day Armageddon: Beyond Exile

A very long time ago, I read an already out of print self-published book about a military guy’s shortly pre- and mostly post-zombie apocalypse diary. It was, you know, fine? I said then and have been vindicated now that it needed a little more copyediting than it got, but otherwise.

Beyond Exile begins immediately where the previous book left off. Our intrepid military hero and a handful of other survivors have found safety in one of those old nuclear silos you might want to buy as a home, only in this case it’s abandoned because of current events instead of just being decommissioned like usual. Much like last time, the book starts with lots of logistics. Let’s use radios to find other people. Let’s fly this plane we have to nearby (to southeast Texas) airfields and look for supplies and other survivors. Perfectly fine diary fodder, but as a book, not much is going on.

Not that there aren’t pieces of worldbuilding along the way, and not that the, er, day by day trials and tribulations are not in themselves interesting. The real flaw here is that the narrator’s affect is so flat and journalistic that it’s difficult at any point to get truly invested in his life, much less the lives of anyone else around him. Once he ends up in a situation that qualifies as beyond exile, the narrative picks up a little; but even then, this is the kind of book where, instead of being engrossed by his situation, I was constantly pulling up Google Maps to follow his progress and see how close to realism he was getting.

I do not have the third book (there’s more than a third book in this series now!), and despite it being once again fine, I had no particular interest in reading more. Until the last five pages had a plot hook so tempting that I really want to see where the worldbuilding goes now. It would be a mistake, I know this in my heart. But still.

Assassin’s Creed

Assassin’s Creed was a game with an incredible premise. Using an sfnal device called The Animus, you could connect yourself to display monitors and relive the genetic memories of your ancestors, with an audience of observers along for the ride. This was a tool to tell the story of a war down through the ages between the Knights Templar (on the side of order, thoroughly lawful evil) and the Assassins (on the side of freedom, thoroughly chaotic neutral) to determine the fate of humankind. See, there’s this differently sfnal device called the Apple of Eden which nobody seems to exactly know how it works or what it does, but which everyone agrees will allow their side to win once and for all.

It was, unfortunately, an incredibly flawed game in execution, but both the basic premise and the underlying modern and historical parallel stories that premise enabled were not among the problems the game faced. In the meantime, that series has blossomed into some dozen or so games now, the first third of which I’ve played.

Enter last month, in which a movie based on that series was released. Which makes sense! You have a pre-built plot that contains lots of lavish historical sets and an interesting conflict, not to mention all kinds of cool parkour and medieval weapons combat. What’s not to like? Only… I mean, it wasn’t bad. Those things I said about how rich the premise and conflict are, they are true and cannot just be erased unless you made a movie that was actually unrelated to anything the games had done. And they did not, this is definitely an Assassin’s Creed movie.

At the same time, the plot fell apart to such a drastic degree in the final act that I don’t actually know what character decisions were made or how I should feel about them, even though up until then I had liked the two main characters (the Assassin descendant and the Templar scientist) and their developed relationship. Plus, the lush historical settings? Were instead consistently crowded with so much dust and smoke that you couldn’t really sit back and enjoy them. I did not expect anything so immersive as a 60 hour game can provide, but, talk about missing the point. Especially since the historical setting and timeline (1490s Spain) are both unaddressed by the games.

I guess what I expect is that any potential sequel will fix all of the niggling flaws and turn into something brilliant, just like the second game did. The parallels are just too strong to ignore!

Life Is Strange: Chrysalis

I’m in a weird position here, in that I’ve never played an episodic game before. The chapters are not terribly long, but they’re long enough that the full game seems like it will turn out to be incredibly long, plus also I’m so bad at reviewing partial games anyway. Not to say I expect to stop playing Life Is Strange! But things happen sometimes, and the part where I opted to take a break between chapters is, if not telling, at least cautionary.

So, anyway, this is one of the new wave of exploratory, talky, thoughtful games that are mostly devoid of shooting wave after wave of nameless enemies who are (if not alien invaders or zombies) nevertheless human, thereby raising questions of morality. You may recall that I played Gone Home, about an older sister arriving unexpectedly from college to find that her entire family had been upturned in the meantime, via exploration of the empty house. Life Is Strange’s first chapter, Chrysalis, is certainly more “interactive character” / less “detached observer” than that was, which is a good thing. It was a lot easier to get immersed in Max’s problems, because she actually had a personality and a physical form, instead of being a set of silent eyeballs floating through a silent house. (Irony: I did like Gone Home, but its flaws are apparent now that I’ve played literally any other game in the same new genre of play.)

Here’s the deal as gleaned in the first five minutes of play. Max Caulfield is a new transfer student to a prestigious high school academy on the Oregon coast, returning to her hometown from Seattle after 3 years away because it is the best place to pursue her love of photography. She’s an out of place loner who has not reached out to her former best friend because of a fear of rejection, she’s learning to navigate the many cliques (especially the Vortex Club, for hyper-popular people) in her new environment, she’s barely aware of the geek who is desperately hitting on her at every turn, she keeps avoiding a submission to a photography contest that the teacher she idolizes is pressuring her to enter (also fear of rejection), her earbuds are full of the latest alternative music you’ve never heard of, she finds herself thinking a lot about the preponderance of flyers about a girl who went missing last spring… it’s a high school story. Cool. Been here, done this.

Then, by way of a massive spoiler in the 5-10 minute range, it takes a sharp turn into inexplicable sci-fi territory, and the game is off to the races. I’ll probably talk more about how in future chapters when it would be less of a spoiler than it is in this one, but I am both impressed and a little dismayed by what is a paradigm-shift to RPG elements of games (if not to strategy elements; I’d link what game I’m thinking of, but the same spoiler problem applies) combined with a healthy middle finger raised straight at me. But[1] in a good way!

Long story short: The Steam Machine was a good purchase, if the new genre are all as good as the two I’ve played so far.

[1] Apparently, since I loved it and want to play more.

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End

First completed video game in ages! Moving and getting married are hard, distracting work. Anyway, knowledge of this game’s release was exciting, because I’ve played the rest of the series in part as a bonding experience with my father. Then it took long enough post-release for me to get him to my house[1] that I probably should not have pre-ordered after all? Whatever, the price is only like $20 less even now.

Last Nathan Drake game, I said the series needed some kind of plot shake-up to avoid the trap of “these are all the same game”. Because, I mean, they are. You climb around on walls, you shoot people who are guaranteed to shoot at you if you don’t (and probably even if you do), and you seek a really big treasure of some kind. It is known.

My point is this: A Thief’s End provided the shake-up I wanted. Good job, game designers of the previous future / current past! See, it starts with a flashback to an unguessed at childhood, then proceeds through some things that I would definitely consider spoilers, resulting in yet another treasure hurt, of course, but in a way that pre-empts at least some amount of the currently in vogue backlash against how Nathan Drake and so many other video game avatars are “murder hobos”, willing to slaughter dozens or hundreds of foes standing in the way of said treasure. And then the epilogue provides a whole new kind of shake-up, to boot!

The title indicates that this is the last game in the series. If it is, I think it went out on a really good note. If it isn’t, I’ll get the next one, because how could I not? I definitely liked it, which is not a shock considering my previous reviews on the series. But most of all, I appreciated the new depth to, well, every part of the game.

Huh. No. That’s not true. The depth of the fighting and climbing is basically identical. But there were some new and improved aspects of how to move around the map and solve the puzzles, and mostly I meant the plot. Which you probably already knew. Jerk.

[1] I have a PS4, he does not. His possession of a PS3 is why the other series entries were played at the Ranch, you see.

Dexter Is Delicious

Apparently, the last Dexter book I read was over five years ago, when Dexter Is Delicious had only been out for a year. I could have caught up, belike! In the nonce, the series has concluded entirely, which is kind of weird for a popular mystery novel character. Usually those get milked for decades.

I have a lot of jumbled, unrelated things to talk about. Like: the show. I have seen all of the show, and I have not read all of the books. But I think that the show is better than any of the books at its very best, while being not nearly as good as the books are on average. So, if you liked the show for a while, an only seven book series is probably a good investment.

And: Dexter’s narration. I can’t tell if I was so dazzled by the show that I missed it in earlier books, or if it subtly changed over time. But I’ve read lots of versions of unreliable narrator, and usually they’re lying to the reader to protect something, maybe a secret, maybe some part of themselves they don’t think belongs to you? But this is the only one I can think of that is just self-deluded, and certainly the only one where that fact is played primarily for comedic effect. It’s not that Dexter is dumb; he’s very successful, both professionally and in his personal life, and he has to be both smart and careful to achieve either. But he’s also not a god walking amongst men, and the only thing funnier than seeing the mistaken belief in action is seeing when he, very occasionally, has the belief shaken by outside events.

Lastly: the series’ end. I haven’t said much about the book itself. It’s about what you’d think from the title plus cover: Dexter vs. cannibal. And there are twists along the way, like the infant daughter that he wants to be a better man for, and other expansions of his extended family besides. One of those twists has longer term implications, though. The thing that’s weird is, as a standalone book, it felt like a combination of an unwanted and unnecessary plot development and a cheap gimmick; but as the fifth book of only seven total, it instead feels like an indication of the end’s beginning.

I of course have no idea if this was true when the book was written, nor if it will turn out to be true when I finish the series. This is why I hate meta-spoilers, though; it’s basically impossible to avoid them.

Passengers (2016)

It is functionally impossible to really talk about this movie without massive spoilers, because what the movie is actually about requires knowledge of character actions and motivations. This is… problematic, since spoilers suck. So, I’ll fill in the next paragraph with some kind of thumbnail thing, and put in a cut (that doesn’t work everywhere), and after that, you should probably have watched it first to go any further. Or, if you don’t care, that’s your lookout.

Passengers is, at the broadest level, the story of a colony ship headed outbound from Earth to new frontiers. At the next focus inward, it’s a story about hell and impossible choices. The next focus inward will have to go behind the cut.
Continue reading

The Unwritten: The Wound

To actually review this, I need to go back and read my last review and see where I thought things were left. But in the unlikely event that it changes nothing, I’m giving it a go now. Don’t be surprised if none of this text actually makes it into the final version, though!

What bothers me about The Wound is that the War of Words felt like a turning point at the time. (Unless I’m wrong and it did not, see first paragraph above.[0]) Whereas, after having read its sequel, it now feels like it was instead an ending, yet now Carey is writing more books regardless. Don’t get me wrong, he has a lot of leeway with me[1], so I’ll keep going for a while yet.

So, the specifics. A year has passed since the big climax, and the world is… weird. Tommy cults, contagious schizophrenia, a quest to save fiction[2], not to mention the general “world going down the toilet” pre-apocalyptic events you’d expect in a good story / over the course of the next couple of years of real life, before things get legitimately awful. Plus also, the world of Fiction, which I had forgotten is a real thing that really exists and to which an assassin had been sent several books ago, is under the same threat. Because despite having won the war last book, Tommy’s world is still in a lot of trouble and he still needs to save it.

And don’t misunderstand me, all of that is fine! Unless it’s an open-ended plot with no planned ending, solely designed to sell more comics. Because those eventually fall apart, and even though this one isn’t yet, I’m so suspicious that it would ruin it for me even before it becomes bad. Which maybe it wouldn’t anyway? Because of how Carey really is pretty reliable. I mean, did you read Lucifer?

[0] So, weird thing: I was actually exactly right and did not need to retcon the review at all. Which means the sausage got made in full view.
[1] …and even if he didn’t, look at how many times I’ve wanted to kick The Walking Dead without ever quite doing it.
[2] Okay, that one is pretty much par for the course, as it’s what the whole series is about. But the quest being out in the open is new.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

This is weird. First of all, yes, I saw Rogue One over the weekend. Of course I did! And I liked it. Yet, I have been avoiding this review like the dickens, and I don’t know exactly why. My best guess is, I liked it better than it probably deserves. The first act was scattered, and the second act was solid enough[1], but the third act was 100% predictable due to its inevitability. It’s hard to drum up much care about characters whose arcs you already know when you sit down in the theater, you know?

Nevertheless, I did care about them. I cared about all of the new characters[2] and I cared about watching the journey, and I didn’t mind the CGI faces very much, and basically everything that happened was good. Hell, even the music! Not composed by John Williams, and it still felt like a Star Wars score. Which is good, 2016 being the way it has been.

Anyway, that’s my point. It was part hot mess, part incapable of surprising plot twist, and could easily be accused of leveraging nostalgia for everything left that was any good. But screw it, it felt like a Star Wars movie, and a thing that feels like a Star Wars movie is going to be unavoidably good. Hell, it was better than The Phantom Menace or Attack of the Clones. Also: I feel like they earned the title, and I was not confident I would feel that way.

[1] albeit with a missed plot hole that you could drive a Star Destroyer through[3]
[2] except maybe the insane terrorist guy on Jehda? I gather that maybe he’s in the Rebels cartoon that I haven’t watched any of, and maybe it would be easier to care about him if I had? But I did not, at all.
[3] Plot hole in comments, due to spoilers.

Choices of One

It’s the day after a big Star Wars release, so naturally I have a Star Wars review, about a story set in the early days surrounding the original movie, just like you’d expect me to have. Oh, wait, haha no, I haven’t actually gone to see any movie yet. Probably later this weekend? But my schedule, my wife’s schedule, and sellouts to places that have assigned seats conspired to keep me away last night. Even less likely than that, I wasn’t really thinking about this being release weekend when I picked up Choices of One to read last week.

This Zahn novel is set between A New Hope and the Empire Strikes Back, and stars the big four plus also Mara Jade, Thrawn, and Pellaeon (and, oddly, no droids). The rebels are looking for a new base (which is commonly understood to be the only thing they did between those movies), Jade is looking for traitors, and Thrawn is looking for, um, I dunno. This is clearly a book introducing some long term Unknown Regions / Thrawn plot that will never reach fruition under the Star Wars Legends label, despite the foreshadowing provided here.  Anyway, they all intersect out near the edge of known space, when plot involving air battles, gun battles, laser sword battles, and familiar stormtroopers occurs.

I know I’m being glib here, as a way to avoid spoilers. So, in all seriousness: it is no surprise that Zahn still knows how to write Star Wars, and I look forward to some decades distant day when Will and Zeynep go through this book in far more depth than I have or could do.

Fables: Witches

Moving: awesome for getting to live in a place you like better than the previous place you lived, but terrible for not falling way way behind on book series that you are reading. Case in point: The new Fables collection picks up right after they banded together to save all of creation that had been threatened by developments from the side series about Jack Horner, and that is not a record of what had actually been going on in the main continuity, which means they are resuming a plotline I last read about three years ago. Awesome.

I mean, I guess it’s not that bad? I remembered the two main plot points addressed in Witches, both of which are of course themselves massive, massive spoilers since by the time you’re fourteen books into a series, any notable development gives away lots about things that would be spoilers for previous books. So, without getting into those specifics, I can say these things:

1) Frau Totenkinder, who you will recognize better as the witch from Hansel and Gretel, is just as cool as she always has been within these pages. (Most of the other titular witches are entirely worth reading about, but she’s the one with the highest badass factor, is what I’m saying.)
2) The winged monkey that has always been a bit player in the series as the magical archives librarian, at least I think that’s more or less what he is, turns out to be very cool, in a reader insertion kind of way.
3) Not that he’s the only game in town, but the new bad guy is pretty dang cool. I think I hope he lasts longer than I expect him to.

I’d say I’ll do better at keeping caught up with this, but who would I be fooling?