Inventing the Enemy

41d6ylx31zl-_sx324_bo1204203200_

Umberto Eco, who passed away last year, was one of a rare breed: a man of letters in the classical sense, a semiotician, essayist, literary critic and author, most famously, of The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum.

In this collection of essays, Eco demonstrates his wide-ranging breadth of interests and intellectual pursuits. Meditations on Wikileaks accompany long exigeses on Victor Hugo’s works. Semiotic forays into the myriad meanings of fire rub shoulders with a satirical account of a society whose laws are overly-literal readings of traditional proverbs.

The two essays that start and end this collection are probably the most accessible to a contemporary audience. The titular essay Inventing the Enemy seems at first your standard-issue tract about the human propensity to view the world through a Manichean lens and makes enemies of the Other, but rather than decry this tendency, Eco suggests that perhaps we shouldn’t fight the urge and instead go find appropriate enemies to channel our opprobrium at – preferably non-human threats like global warming. Outrage, rightly channeled, can be a wonderfully productive force.

Thoughts on Wikileaks is an assortment of observations about that famed incident, ending with Eco pointing out the irony of technological progress – that as we go forward, the future starts to look awfully nostalgic – for, in an age where technology makes things more transparent than ever before, the bread and butter of international espionage will have to go back to its Cold War-era, cloak-and-dagger roots of dead drops and furtive encounters in dark alleyways.

Not everything is on the same level of accessibility or interest to the general reader of his works. One essay, a vitriolic critique of James Joyce entirely pieced together from the reviews of several Fascist tracts directed against it after its publication, left me nonplussed; it is scarcely more understandable even when you realise from some research that Eco was known as a seminal scholar of Joyce. Another essays deals in some length with a fellow named Camporesi, who Eco (understandably) assumes the reader is familiar with.

Unlike some other essay collections I could name (cf Wallace), though, Eco does not attempt to drown you in a deluge of facts and verbiage as a testament to his own erudition. His essay on Victor Hugo is a case in point – as long as you know him as the man who penned Les Miserables, you should be able to follow and be entertained by Eco’s surprisingly engaging essay on how Hugo made use of the literary device called bombast to make his works immortal.

Eco also professes an almost endearing fascination with fictitious worlds, whether astronomical or geological. His essays on fictitious cosmologies and lost islands inspire a fascination with the earnest falsities of the past, of those who struggled to fit capricious reality into their own wistful image.

I suspect that, with Eco, there is that pedagogical instinct present in his writing, or perhaps just a writerly good habit – Eco never fails to educate even if his subject matter exists just outside the skein of one’s lived experience. He writes like an avuncular, chain-smoking professor that knows he’s a bit out of your depth, but with a twinkle in his eye, pulls you in anyway.

I give this collection: 4 out of 5 insula perditas

Obduction

2610116-1394802403-deskt

Obduction is the rare puzzle game that manages to make its narrative a vital part of its core puzzle-solving experience.

The puzzle game genre is an expansive one, and contains all sorts of mechanics, but the unifying principle that makes a puzzle game is the application of deductive logic to manipulating game mechanics, in order to accomplish objectives in the game.

In The Witness, there was only one mechanic – drawing lines that connect two points in a maze, repeated in various forms across the entire span of the game. In The Talos Principle, there were a few well defined ones – lasers, boxes and disruptors – that interacted with each other to create complex puzzles, often requiring emergent thinking. Both games were sterling examples of the craft, but their mechanics were decidedly synthetic – they were orthogonal to environment and plot. Swap the island of The Witness for another environment, or the Greco-Egyptian setpieces of The Talos Principle for Medieval castlery, and the games would fundamentally be the same, because their mechanics are the same.

In Obduction, by contrast, the mechanics are part of the environment and the narrative of the game space. The puzzles and conundrums in Obduction are diegetic – they require you to observe how the world is laid out and understand how things in the world affect each other. A diesel engine lies dormant and there are switches and dials and a long snaking cable that extends to something that vaguely looks like a gas station. It’s up to you to figure out the logic of starting the engine with the visual and environmental clues laid out before you. While the inventory of actions that you can undertake is limited – pushing buttons, pulling levers – the challenge is to operate those buttons and levers in ways that make mechanical sense, and to find clues and context while exploring that enable you to piece together the required constituents to find a solution.

That’s what makes Obduction stand out as a puzzler – its gameplay is inextricable from its setting. And in turn, its setting is inextricable from its narrative. And the act of piecing together its narrative from the clues is the crowning meta-puzzle of the game. Swap out the environments for other ones, and you swap out the puzzles and the narrative, and you end up with another game – a spiritual cousin, but not the same.

And the narrative is brilliant – once you make sense of it all. As you start the game and get past its enigmatic opening sequence, and first stumble into an inexplicable world – an Arizona ghost town seemingly scooped out of the earth and plonked in the middle of a vast, purple alien landscape – you would be forgiven for being utterly nonplussed. The game’s only clues are environmental in nature – old recordings from vanished people, paper signs posted on walls, and the idea is to begin to look around, read the clues, and understand what on earth is going on in this fantastic landscape.

Solving each puzzle in the world gets you another narrative clue – and slowly, you piece the pieces together. Despite its seemingly nonsensical premise, Obduction is undergirded by an intriguing, utterly original science fiction premise – which I won’t go into because explaining it would ruin the experience of going into this game blind, as the protagonist does, and experiencing that sense of initial confusion that blends into a greater surety of purpose as you feel your way around the world.

The narrative isn’t perfect, by any means – there is still a bit of ludonarrative dissonance. Everything is just cryptic enough to be challenging to decipher, and yet clear enough that the clues are all there. The one or two actual speaking humans that tell you to do stuff are almost irritatingly stingy with giving clarifications to their enigmatic statements. Of course, if they were to tell you how to do everything step-by-karffin’-step, that’d be no fun at all, would it. And so it goes.

The beauty of Obduction is in how it gives the act of puzzle-solving a narrative significance. In The Witness, there was no narrative to speak of, only the inherent appeal of puzzle-solving to get you through the game. In The Talos Principle, the overarching narrative existed on a different plane than the puzzle-solving. In Obduction, the story is the puzzle – and to figure out its many moving pieces to form a coherent and satisfying storyline is the chief pleasure of the game, and possibly the most challenging – and high-stakes – puzzle of all.

I give this game: 4.5 out of 5 batteries

2016 Round-Ups

2016 was a sad year for my consumptive ambitions. Various factors (including a far shorter commute for six months of the year) caused me to read far less than I did in 2015 – although, to be fair, that round-up had a bit of 2014 in it too.

Somewhat embarrassingly, I found that I’d only read 4 non-fiction books in the entire year – an egregious lapse in personal improvement.

In everything else, it seems like I kept up the watching and playing to 2015 rates. So much for reading as the mainstay of consumptive self-betterment.

Here are the numbers:

Fiction books read: 26

TV shows watched: 2

Non-fiction books read: 4

Films watched: 25

Video games played: 13

That amounts to 1 book every 12 days, 1 film every 15 days, and 1 video game every 28 days.

Some Highlights

Books

There is no separate fiction and non-fiction section because I didn’t read any sufficiently impactful non-fiction in 2016. Sad but true.

Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang (5/5 stars): For years I ignored the advice of my peers and forwent this impeccable collection of short stories; each a curiously complex array of ideas and characters, unspooling plotwise like a toymaker’s wondrous creation. Well, mass media attention has helped rectify that.

What Ho! by P.G. Wodehouse (5/5 stars): After all that, it’s really about the classics. Wodehouse may write about farcical, trivial shindigs, but he is a consummate master at writing about farcical, trivial shindigs. And his prose is the standard against which the entire canon of British humour should be measured.

The Rhesus Chart by Charles Stross (4.5/5 stars): The most original of Stross’ Laundry Files novels; this novel opens up a new way for the franchise and introduces a whole host of new characters that break the threatening monotony of Bob-this Bob-that. Although more of that is still welcome.

Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami (4.5/5 stars): A more grounded Murakami, but Murakami nonetheless. His stories are dreams – colourless yet vivid, and flit about just barely beyond the sphere of waking logic – and fade from your mind once over. Yet the memory of what it felt like persists beyond the pages of the book.

Film

The Big Short (4.5/5 stars): An angrily hilarious send-up of an industry that brought the world to its knees – aimed at both the bombastic douche-yuppies and the stolid, relatable short-selling quants, both of whom come out of the affair smelling of something distinctly less nice than roses. Ryan Gosling gets a gold star with his scene-stealing turn as the stir-crazy Jared Vennett, a walking personification of keyed-up Wall Street executive.

Spotlight (4.5/5 stars): Pretty much the opposite of The Big ShortSpotlight tells the story of the Boston Globe’s Spotlight investigative team and how they uncovered the Catholic Church’s cover-up of horrific cases of child abuse promulgated by their priests. Sober, sensitive cinema of the highest caliber.

The Nice Guys (4.5/5 stars): The most criminally underrated action-comedy film of the year. The Nice Guys is a buddy comedy that combines a whip-smart script with high-octane action in a period package that made me laugh so hard I cried. I still think back fondly on the ankle holster joke, a sterling example of a Chekhov’s Gun set-up for comedic effect.

Your Name (4.5/5 stars): Shinkai in top form. Riddled with plot holes and anime-style narrative curlicues as it is, it still manages to establish itself as one of the most moving, exuberant, and affecting romances in anime history. Also, it’s gorgeous in that celestial, watercolored Shinkai way.

Rogue One (4.5/5 stars): When I’d thought there’d never be another good Star Wars movie, this one comes along and does everything right. While it may be a bit overstuffed with characters and a bit short on their development, it hearkens back to the Star Wars we all know and love – and adds new dimensions to them. Also, the sight of Imperial Star Destroyers facing off with bulbous Mon Calamari star cruisers is pure high-octane nostalgia.

Video Games

Her Story (4/5 stars): A short but taut and innovative game that requires listening and piecing together the pieces of a narrative puzzle in order to “win”. While not fun in the traditional ludic sense, it is still a wonderful case in point of the sheer potential of the medium to create compelling, narratively-driven experiences.

The Talos Principle: Road to Gehenna (4/5 stars): Just as great and thought-provoking as the original game, Road to Gehenna brings back the complex but satisfying puzzles, and also brings back the philosophy-laden environmental storytelling that made the original game so much more than just a puzzler.

The Witness (4.5/5 stars): The consummate puzzle game, elegant in how it teaches the player to play it, enigmatic in its entire premise. What does the island mean? What is the player doing there? And why are all the puzzles about connecting dots? The questions matter less than the experience of playing it amidst the verdant, color-splashed environs, almost like a meditative space for the questing mind.

Homeworld Remastered Collection (4/5 stars): Stately and elegiac in its storytelling, this space opera remains a classic of the genre due to the herculean efforts of Gearbox Software in remastering the two games. Dated as its AI and core mechanics might feel at times, commanding huge space fleets and employing RPS tactics to crush your enemies amidst the sweeping epic of a generations-long cosmic saga is the stuff of dreams for space opera fans.

Titanfall 2

titanfall-2-cover

Titanfall 2’s kinetic verticality and the variety of mechanics afforded by its Titan-Pilot dynamics make this an FPS of rare innovativeness and charm.

Titanfall 2 is Respawn Entertainment’s sophomore effort in fulfilling every gamer’s power fantasy of putting on giant mechanical exosuits and duking it out with other giant mechanical exosuits. But it’s a lot more than that. Titanfall 2 makes you spend a lot of time out of that suit, but the resulting gameplay is anything but unsatisfying. As a Pilot, you double-jump and wall-run your way around the environments, flanking your hapless enemies and employing an arsenal of creative weapon concepts. Titanfall 2 is a floaty FPS in terms of movement, but a satisfyingly meaty one when it comes to shooting, and while it’s not nearly as gritty and realistic in its combat, movement, and animations as Battlefield One, it nevertheless feels like it’s really nailed satisfying gunplay. And then you get into the Titan and the game just changes into a floaty affair into a high-octane bullet-hell sort of a affair, which brings with it its own primal appeal.

I got into Titanfall 2 because of the single player campaign, which I’d heard was an absolute blast. Some reviewers compared it favorably to the Half Life 2 campaign in terms of sheer inventiveness. While I still think the HL2 campaign is unbeaten in terms of its seminal influence over video game storytelling, I have to admit that the campaign does exceed all expectations I had going into it (even with the hyperbolic praise heaped onto it), at least for a game that seems to have been built up as a multiplayer shooter first and a narrative experience second.

The plot itself is generic cookie-cutter military sf, but it’s not really what sets the campaign apart. It’s an impeccably choreographed theme park romp through the game’s beautifully crafted environments, full of visually interesting setpieces that serve to put the game’s various mechanics through its paces. Other than the usual wall-running, double jumping shenanigans and the titan brawl boss battles, the game has a couple of other plot-related mechanics up its sleeve, which, if not quite Portal‘s portals or HL2’s gravity gun, are at least in a similar spirit (coincidentally, Titanfall 2 runs off a very heavily modified Source engine). The Titan loadouts are fun too, and the player gets to try them over the course of the game, with different loadouts more well-suited to tackle different types of enemies.

The campaign’s chief virtue is that it gives the player a sense of empowerment amidst challenge. There are your usual challenging boss battles, locked-room fights, and frantic gauntlets to double-jump out of, but there are also those sequences where you’re in a Titan and mowing down the hapless bad guys with lock-on missiles. Many games think that the level of challenge needs to be uniform, but Titanfall 2 shows that single player campaigns can always benefit from a bit of a break from unrelenting difficulty, as long as the diversionary activity can leverage on deep mechanics to be engaging and fun (in other words, not QTEs).

It’s just too bad that the campaign’s a little short, but Respawn’s success with its campaign gives me hope that its incoming Star Wars game will also deliver that vaunted Star Wars narrative videogame experience I’ve craved since KOTOR 2.

I give this game 4 out of 5 Arks