A score or more scores for…er…video games

In this post, I review the following games:

Child of Light – 2/5
STARWHAL – 4/5
Valiant Hearts – 1/5
LIMBO – 3/5
Gone Home – 1/5
Super Puzzle Platformer Deluxe – 4/5
Depression Quest – 2/5
Gravitation – 3/5
Passage – 3/5
Krypteia – 3/5
The Banner Saga – 1/5
To the Moon – 1/5
Minecraft – 5/5
Patterns – 1/5
Long Live the Queen – 1/5
The Binding of Isaac – 3/5
Gunpoint – 4/5
Assassin’s Creed – 1/5
Papers, Please – 2/5
400 Years – 4/5
Dys4ia – 1/5
Nothing to Hide – 1/5
Machinarium – 3/5
Heroes of Sokoban – 4/5
Braid – 5/5
Starseed Pilgrim – 3/5 Continue reading

Book review: Enough Magic in the World [2/5]

[Note: I like to write reviews as a way of unpacking how I respond to art, but I don’t presume to have any aesthetic authority. Since this book was written by a personal friend who holds my opinion in high regard, it seems worth reiterating that I’m doing nothing different here. Anyone looking for considered guidance to editing is much better off consulting an editor.]

I.

A few months ago, I attended an “open studios” event in my community, where local artists open their homes or work spaces to the public. There was a little bit of everything you’d expect, and a few things you wouldn’t. The artists were all happy to talk about their work or more casual topics, enthusiasm about local art was everywhere, and I saw parts of my city that I never bothered going to before. It was a lot of fun.

The thing that most stood out to me, though, was how unmoved I was by the majority of the work. My sense of artistic quality is calibrated primarily by museums, so what I’m used to judging has been refined and vetted and often valued at millions of dollars. While there was art on display for Open Studios that I enjoyed, none of it impacted me as much as my favorite piece at any famous museum, and most pieces hardly made an impression on me at all. It’s easy to forget how extraordinarily good museum pieces are when one only views pieces in museums.

This was a bit how I felt reading Enough Magic in the World, a coming-of-age novel about a young woman named Alice who graduates from college and subsequently discovers that she has untapped magical abilities. She is enrolled in an academic institute for magic, a bit behind many of her peers but able to catch up after a while. Through some fault of her own and a great deal of random happenstance, she and her friends become entangled in critically important political machinations. To say the least, this seems unlikely. To say the most, I will use Bayes’ theorem in the next section.

There were some things in the book that I liked, even if they weren’t represented with the density that I’ve come to expect from the novels that I read. For example, I love this paragraph:

Sida considered this for a few seconds, tilting her head to the side so her hair fell onto her thin shoulder. She was dressed almost as simply as I was, yet somehow better, as if she held jeans and t-shirts in high regard and felt everyone else should do the same.

Even though everything in this description is nominally pretty ordinary, there’s a touch of perception that reveals something unique and intimate. That touch is superficially nonsensical, but immediately opens up into an impression that we know exactly what is meant. Because it is slightly bizarre, it resists any familiar pattern of cliché, lending itself credibility.

I’m honestly not sure whether I’ve ever written a sentence of prose that I like as much as the second one above. If a book consisted entirely of paragraphs like that, then it would have a good shot of being a great novel. I would hope to see EMitW move toward a denser population of passages like this as it evolves. Continue reading

Book review: The Book of Imaginary Beings [4/5]

The Book of Imaginary Beings is a medieval-style bestiary written in a self-consciously inconsistent style, encyclopedic at times and humorous at others. Some entries evidently report the facts about their subjects, while some cast explicit doubt about not only their own veracity but even about the possibility that anyone could have believed in such creatures. This initially seemed like strange territory for Jorge Luis Borges, if anything can qualify for that description, but by the end that impression had vanished: it’s imaginative, far-reaching, observant of the human psyche, and serious about its own absurdity, consistent with Borges’ vision that I’d become familiar with elsewhere. However, one gets the feeling that unlike his more challenging work, he wrote this book simply for the fun and freedom of it. Continue reading

Book review: The Thirty-Six Lessons of Vivec [5/5]

Everything in life is about metaphysics except metaphysics. Metaphysics is about power.

I.

“These ideals are not going to change in nature, even though they may change in representation.” -Sermon Eighteen

My favorite book right now is an ancient eastern religious legend. It’s full of striking imagery, engaging narrative, and complex metaphysics. Unwrapping its layered meanings requires several passes and an openness to associative—arguably even loose—judgment. Unsurprisingly, its full significance can only be understood with a context that is not contained entirely within the text, and I don’t have the background or time to make all of the connections that would have been more apparent to its original, intended audience. On each new read-through, however, I learn a little more. The story is divided into sermons collectively known as The Thirty-Six Lessons of Vivec, the eponymous character being the god whose legend lies at the center of the narrative thread and who allegedly passed the text down to his people, the Velothi.

Of all religious books, it’s hard to say why this one in particular has drawn me in. The translation I’ve been reading by Michael Kirkbride is mostly in prose, but T.S. Eliot’s aphorism that “genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood” seems to still apply. The mystical style and overtly-contradictory content suggest a depth that, on closer inspection, rarely turns out to be specious. Even the few sermons that first appear straight-forward reveal themselves to be subversively didactic.

It’s also relevant that no one currently practices the religion, so it’s easier for me to read the text as literature or allegory rather than a collection of preposterous claims that actual people believe to be true. While trusting in the underlying truth of scripture motivates religious practitioners to hunt down and absorb the significance of canonical texts, as an atheist, knowing that no one else takes a particular doctrine seriously enables me to evaluate it on its own terms.

However, there are many other extinct religious mythologies, and I’ve never been so engaged by any of them. Ovid’s Metamorphoses, for example, struck me as remarkably stale, with the same basic templates repeated ad boredom. The Lessons, on the other hand—whatever they might be—are never uncreative. Continue reading

Television review: Doctor Who, Series 8 [2/5]

He Only Hurts Me Because He Loves Me Edition

I.

Most shows are sometimes flat. Many are sometimes good and occasionally great. Doctor Who is all of these things in a totally unique way. Even the cheesy episodes radiate an unqualified enthusiasm and philanthropy that touches on some precious feeling, maybe only the tiny remains left over from childhood, that there is a right way to do things and that obstacles can be overcome in the end if you are the best version of yourself and dare to trust good people. Those episodes are sweet in a way that I don’t see anywhere else. On all but my grouchiest days, that seems to be worth something.

The good episodes, on the other hand, can be as brilliant as the Doctor himself. All of those worlds with their people, their dangers, their struggles; all of those bubble universes and rewritten time lines; the larger-than-life characters and long traditions; a world where literally anything is possible—how could great stories fail to emerge?

In a show whose central theme, if there is one, is the magnificence and power of being human, the Doctor’s two hearts symbolize his status as something even more than that. The series itself, however, has for some time now lost its heart. The increasing reliance on zany spectacle instead of genuine emotional investment has been much criticized, as well the insistence that every conflict have higher stakes than the last. The most beloved episodes of Doctor Who, by contrast, are small stories: Blink, which focuses on a young woman who has suddenly discovered the danger hidden in her ordinary life; Dalek, which interweaves Rose’s compassion with the Doctor’s hatred; and my personal favorite, The Doctor’s Wife, which is a beautiful story about the search for community and the ability to find it in unexpected places.

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Video game review: Brothers, A Tale of Two Sons [3/5]

Brothers is a recent installment in the burgeoning genre best described as “feelsy indie games,” though mainstream critics might use a more dignified-sounding term like “art games” or sometimes the uselessly undescriptive “indie games.” (An alternative I particularly like, due to Jonathon Blow, is “arty games.”) After discovering Braid, I made a respectable effort to explore this genre, only to be consistently disappointed. Brothers gives me renewed hope for its future without giving me confidence that its hopeful future has arrived.

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Book review: Gaming the Vote by William Poundstone [3/5]

Gaming the Vote is a book so ambitious it has a title, subtitle, and sub-subtitle. In full, it appears on my cover like this:

GAMING
THE VOTE

Why Elections Aren’t Fair

(and What We Can Do About It)

 

Social choice theory—the field of mathematics that asks how to best fit a single “social choice” or “social preference” to a collection of conflicting individual preferences, usually in the form of an election—is a hobby horse of mine. After reading a lot of online articles and a handful of math papers about it, I was hoping to find a more cohesive introduction without having to wade through hundreds of pages of mathematical theorems. With Gaming the Vote, I was not entirely disappointed.

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58-page review: Quantum Computing Since Democritus by Scott Aaronson [2/5]

I intend to write book reviews here sometimes, and perhaps it’s appropriate that I start small, with a book that I have only read 58 pages into: Quantum Computing Since Democritus. It goes without saying that all general statements about the book should be taken with a grain of salt the size of Scott Aaronson’s ego.

Quantum Computing Since Democritus is a remarkable book in part for feeling even more undisciplined than its title suggests. Aaronson tries very hard, and sometimes succeeds, at being entertaining. As a hilarious way of setting the tone, the preface begins as follows:

A CRITICAL REVIEW OF SCOTT AARONSON’S QUANTUM COMPUTING SINCE DEMOCRITUS
by Scott Aaronson

To give another example of his stylistic flavor, Aaronson writes in the opening paragraph of the actual book, “[Democritus] was a disciple of Leucippus, according to my source, which is Wikipedia.” I enjoy this kind of banter, and Aaronson is pretty good at it, but it doesn’t make my time feel well spent when reading his book or help to teach me anything. At best, the conversational tone allows him to get in some good, quick jokes; at worst, it obscures the distinction between throwaway asides and the deeper points made in the book. On the whole, the balance of this trade-off is negative.

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