Dishonored 2

p1_2222335_ffa1b871

In the trifecta of virtues that all story-driven video games should possess, Dishonored 2 achieves a solid 2 out of 3.

Much like its predecessor, Dishonored 2 has a simple conceit – sneak, slink, or fight your way (with or without creepy magical powers) through non-linear environments to dispatch the enemies that have taken everything from you in a variety of ways, from merciful to cruel.

Gameplay is the first virtue in which the game excels. Dishonored 2 presents the player with a painstakingly crafted environment that allows them ample opportunities to play however they want. The game affords you with a multitude of powers which you can combine to dispatch enemies in a myriad of creative ways. Within the confines of the level, you are given the chance to use environments to your advantage, find nooks and crannies to gain an advantage over enemies, and search for runes that afford you more powers.

The game succeeds in making exploration enjoyable, because it rewards it richly, with runes and bonecharms that augment your abilities. Dishonored 2 understands that exploration shouldn’t just be about terrain traversal. The pleasures of exploration in Dishonored 2 lie in the fact that it is a cognitive puzzle to be solved, and the richest rewards lie in the application of game systems to reach a hard-to-locate place.

It doesn’t hurt that the game’s environment, setting and art direction are top-notch. Karnaca, a city wracked by the neglect of its ruler, swarming with bloodflies, and yet peeking through with shards of its former elegance, is a worthy successor to the brooding Dunwall of the first game. The world of Dishonored is one of the more interesting settings I’ve come across in fantasy, an original blend of gothic and steampunk vibes, a world with deep history and mystique. Soaring, impossible mountains shepard gale-force winds that howl through the city’s Dust district, blinding the player with occassion in a torrent of sand. Whales roam the vast ocean, harvested for their blubber that serves as the fuel that powers the entire civilisation, and have a mysterious connection to a place called the Void, where strange and powerful gods lurk.

That said, one aspect in which the game doesn’t do so well is in giving the cities life through populating them with human inhabitants. The grand environmental drapery is all well and good, but Dishonored 2 seems to have neglected in its character department. All around the levels the same character models and canned dialogue are reused. The guards all look identical – blue-suited, troglodyte-like with brutish faces and huge hands, either reciting bawdy verse or talking about their families in a transparent attempt to get the player to realise that they’re not faceless gooks, which loses its lustre after the 100th time some random guard spits out the same story. Characters provide some dressing to the gorgeous environments, but most of the time the city feels empty except for the guards, making levels feel like what they are – game levels with a flaking coat of verisimilitudinous paint.

And guess where that leads us? Dishonored 2’s most glaring flaw is in its insipid narrative, flat characters, and terrible writing. It is in the writing that Dishonored 2 reveals its setting and story as nothing but a convenient vehicle for its gameplay intentions. In a sense, it’s hard to fault the writing for being so – convenient, for want of a word. True to the point of the game, the story needs to always contrive a way for the protagonist to make a merciful choice or to make the straightforward, violent one. But the scenarios that the writers have come up with border on the fantastical in how convenient they seem – there is always some badly-hidden clue that leads to your enemy’s downfall somewhere, some achilles’ heel that will lead to their downfall. There is no added challenge in being “good”, making your choices just about your “playstyle” – and there is no uncertainty in deciding to play good guy or bad because the payoffs are so straightforward and predictable. The actions that contribute to either outcome are clear as crystal. The Witcher, this game is not. Although I think that to make your choices meaningful, it is usually a bad idea for the impact of your actions to be telegraphed to you so obviously.

And the game keeps doing that – it keeps shoving morality in your face, despite not making you think about how to be moral. All the characters keep questioning if you will do the easy thing or the good thing. It’s grating because it is not a question of morality but playstyle – to play a certain way – there is no connection to the character that makes the player want to inhabit that character’s headspace and choose how they would have chosen under the consequences. Instead, it’s all about playing the “low chaos” route. The characters – Corvo, Emily, etc – have no interiority. They are just platitude spouting engines of either justice or revenge.

And the game doesn’t respond to your actions – the bad guys never regroup, never learn –  even as you kill or dispatch them one by one, the ringleaders of the conspiracy never take any action, and every guard is still as chill as ever as you slowly take out section after section. The world is static – it exists only for player utility. It is a gamespace more than a lived-in place, a set dressing decorated handsomely but ultimately falling somewhat flat in its evocative powers.

In the end, Dishonored 2 is a game that depends on its great atmosphere but thin story to give it a thin raison d’etre for its great gameplay. It doesn’t have anything much to say about anything, its characters are not relatable, and its narrative beats are metronomic – you plod through missions to the inevitable, predictable finish. But heck if it isn’t satisfying to link three goons together and fell them all with a single sleep dart.

I give this game: 4 out of 5 black bonecharms

Advertisements

The Sisters Brothers

f6ee4c4cc486df6045f221f26bed72fe

Strange, hilarious at times, mournful at others, fatalistic, laced with violence and peppered with symbolism, The Sisters Brothers is a taut picaresque Western that reads like the script of a Coen brothers movie.

It’s about two brothers, hired killers Eli and Charlie Sisters, and the tale of their travels in Gold-Rush era California to find and end the life of a man, upon orders of their boss. But amidst this, Eli Sisters, who has long questioned if he is of the right temperament for this life, starts to try to dig himself and his brother out of the rut of hired killing that has been their lifeblood for years.

Eli is a great narrative figure – comical but somewhat relatable in his childlike earnestness, even as we remain aware that he is, after everything is said and done, still a killer. The gentler counterweight to his psychotic, trigger-happy brother, Eli spins his tale with what can only be described as a kind of endearing honesty, detailing his somewhat faltering and pathetic attempts at self-improvement while being stymied by the ides of fate, the judging eye of society, and the actions of his boorish, more violent brother. Eli’s earnestness provides the novel with its comic sensibility – his attempts at finding a love interest, his short-lived determination to lose weight, his wonderment at discovering the restorative properties of regular toothbrushing – all told in that incongruously formal, polite prose that for some reason characterizes the dialogue of the heroes and villains of every Hollywood-era Western.

But the comedy is tightly intertwined with the casual violence and thuggery that characterizes DeWitt’s vision of the Wild, Wild West – more akin to the pop-culture pastiches of the time, all dusty towns and pistol duels and testy barmaids, with its cavalier attitude to life and death out in the open road – than to sober historical portrayals. For all his attempts at self-improvement, Eli is always the tag-along to his brother, having little choice but to play supporting character to his brother as he intimidates, robs and shoots his way across the landscape in fulfillment of his baser inclinations.

This comes to a head when the brothers finally track down their quarry – a pioneering, industrious man with a ridiculous life story named Herman Kermit Warm, who has recently discovered a chemical that can easily reveal the location of the bountiful gold in Californian riverbeds. Eli thinks of this as a prime opportunity to abandon their life of killing, and, with much difficulty, convinces his brother to band together with Warm instead of killing him on the orders of their master. But, fittingly with the theme of dashed hopes of gold prospectors in the Western frontier, their plan doesn’t work out quite as they imagined, and Eli’s aspirations evaporate in much the same way as they started – in the violence that seems almost like the fate to which they are consigned.

The story ends on a cathartic note even as its climax is consummated in violence, a synthesis of Eli’s desire to abandon violence even as he searches for a better life. He is an almost quixotic character, an optimist who somehow retains his earnestness even as he is dealt blow after blow in life, sometimes through no fault of his own. Funnily enough, he seems to be his own Sancho Panza – he has enough self-awareness to be aware, to some degree, of his lot in life.

The Sisters Brothers offers Eli no riches for his deeds, but somewhat karmically, gives him the essence of what he claims to desire – a life outside of violence – although not exactly on the terms he had been so assiduously working for. In that sense, The Sisters Brothers can be viewed, albeit in a very twisted way, as a sort of karmic morality tale, one edged in a cinematic, almost stylised Tarantino-esque violence, tipped with the hard-edged justice of the Wild West.

I give this book: 4 out of 5 notebooks

Hide Me Among the Graves

hide-me-among-the-graves

Hide Me Among the Graves is an intriguing, original and slightly anachronistic take on the Victorian vampire novel. 

It takes something special to rise up above the sea of sameness that is the contemporary vampire novel subgenre. Tim Powers, in Graves, has come up with a compelling mythology of vampirism that both feels fresh while staying somewhat true to the thematic power of the vampire trope – that sanguinary union of love and victimization that is the bloodsucker’s relationship with its thrall.

Vampires in Graves are the muses of their hosts, making them great poets and writers, but they are jealous entities and will kill or at least gravely injure anyone related to them. And the London of the setting is a gothic subterranean conurbation in the tradition of other fantastic depictions of city in its Victorian days, haunted by ghosts in the Thames, slowly drifting out to sea to dissipate into oblivion. It is as compelling a conceit as any I have seen in this subgenre, and Powers lays it out, for the most part, in a calibrated manner that slowly reveals the aspects of his mythos without resorting to expository dumps – the bane of many works of fantasy. 

Graves also features one of Tim Powers’ signature plot elements – the melding of reality and fiction through having his characters be fictionalized versions of middling-famous historical figures. Indeed, almost every character in Graves – save for the protagonist and his daughter – is based on a real denizen of Victorian England. In particular, members of the Rossetti family – a reasonably well-known family of poets and writers – are prominent characters in the book.

Also, Graves is a sequel to a previous novel of his, The Stress of Her Regard, which details the events, only hinted at in Graves, that led to the present condition of its characters, and also features a bevy of historical figures, from Byron to Keats.

Somewhat embarrassingly, I was unaware of both of these facts throughout the entire course of my reading of the book – although there is something to be said about the fact that this did not detract too much from its inherent qualities – though it’d be a bit hard to really appreciate the historical references without being some sort of Victorian-era poetry geek.

The irreality of the book’s faux-historical veneer is complemented by an abiding sense of anachronism. The characters don’t seem to think or talk like Victorians – they’re portrayed as being apart from the rest of society, branded by the knowledge of the deeper occult world, and strangely cavalier about ghosts, dessicated undead children, ouija rituals and carrying songbirds in one’s coat pockets. And there always seems to be a hansom cab about whenever the characters need one, a state of affairs that strikes me as very modern expectation. The bottom-line is that this, while set in a fixed historical moment, feels contemporary in outlook.

All in all, Graves is as good as any Victorian gothic horror novel I’ve seen – with a premise that it at once original but hews to the essence of the classic vampire novel.

I give it: 4 out of 5 hansom cabs

It

51meixuanql-_sx326_bo1204203200_

Rambling, hoary and florid, IT is a dense jungle of a book that could use a round of editing, but nevertheless leaves a searing imprint of unease on the psyche.

IT is the quintessential Stephen King classic, the manifestation of what it means to be American horror. The town with a dark secret, a cast of sympathetic misfits, the cosmic horror beyond space and time – you can draw a straight and unbroken line from here to Stranger Things. It’s a funny thing indeed when I watch Stranger Things and it all feels so familiar – and then when I read IT, it all becomes clear from where that feeling stems. IT‘s tropes that have wormed their way into our collective cultural subconscious.

It’s a long and wandering book, repository of multiple storylines, recountings, historical anecdotes, and small character studies, flitting from viewpoint to viewpoint, jumping space and time, a veritable forest of prose. It draws the reader in with its dark complexity, painting, in multifaceted, intricate shades, a picture of Derry – a town steeped in its own twisted history, its citizens pawns in an unending cycle of violence stretching back to the earliest ages of man.

At the centre of it all is the horror that goes by many names: Pennywise, Bob Gray, It – an entity much more than the sum of its depictions in derivative media – a grotesque icon that ignites our most primal fears. A clown, his face covered in paint, holding a red balloon – is an entity profoundly out of place with it surroundings, out of sync with the natural order, a rictus of evil behind a merry, painted facade. Pennywise is an inspired creation of a writer who knows intimately the things that humans fear, down to our lizard brains.

But It is more than just a horror fest – it is also about the humanity that shines out against evil, of both the cosmic and mundane variety, of the tight bonds formed between friends, of the power of innocence and the imagination. In its own way, It is also a celebration of youth, of its wildness and creative power, and the ability of play to serve as a bulwark against the darkness of sober adulthood.

That said, however, It does have its fair share of flaws, some of which are more than a little disturbing. For one, the ending of the book feels somewhat like it’s straining for a neat resolution. Having cast It into a cosmic horror, King seems to have no good way for the villain to be defeated in any satisfying way, so the last few chapters of the book fall into a kind of contrived mysticism that uses a whole lot of arcane plot hijinks to MacGuyver its way towards a conclusion.

Also, It‘s treatment of Beverly Marsh, the one girl in the circle of protagonists, is a bit…problematic. Beverly Marsh is the one character who doesn’t seem to have an independent existence – she is always characterised in respect to some male figure in her life. There is an air of tokenism in terms of her inclusion into the Loser’s club – almost as if she is there to spark the boys’ adolescent development. Throughout, the narrative voice takes an abiding interest in Bev’s adolescent physical traits, and describes her central character tension as a simultaneous love-hate relationship with her loving but violent father, and although part of that is meant to generate unease, it feels like some editorial control might have helped in getting King to rein in some of his more…troubling authorial impulses, such as the infamous scene near the end of the book featuring an utterly out-of-place depiction of adolescent sexuality that makes very little sense in context and seems to have been added there just because.

It is a testament It’s hoary and multifarious power, however, that these problems, while very real, are strands in a tapestry of narrative threads that collectively form a masterpiece of the genre, seething with formless dread, grandiose in its evocation of evil, but strangely comforting in its exaltation of childhood, friendship, and innocence.

I give this book: 4 out of 5 inhalers

Archer (Season #1)

archer_xlg

 

Archer’s got the sharp writing and comedic chops, but its nihilism makes watching it a bit of a psychological strain.

Archer is billed as a kind of James Bond meets Arrested Development – a sitcom about highly dysfunctional people inside of an organisation – a private intelligence outfit called ISIS – to whose nature they are uniquely ill-suited.

There’s Sterling Archer, the titular superspy whose natural talents at secret agent-ing are often stymied by his amorality, casual bigotry and mother issues. Equally bad is the boss of ISIS and Archer’s mother, Malory, who is essentially a facsimile of Lucille Bluth of Arrested Development infamy, except that here, her callous haughtiness and unhealthily controlling attitude towards her offspring are amped up to even more absurd heights.

The cast is rounded up by a bunch of other characters with their own odd quirks – Cyril, the seemingly staid ISIS comptroller and closet nymphomaniac, Cheryl, a useless secretary with some seriously weird sexual kinks, Pam, the HR director, whose sole purpose in the show seems to be a foil for a deluge of off-color jokes about her weight, and Lana, probably the most put-together of the bunch, an ISIS superspy who often serves as a foil to Archer’s idiocy.

When you put this many people and their dysfunctions in an office environment, especially if their professions happen to involve lots of high-tech gadgetry and lethal weaponry, utter bedlam ensues, and the jokes almost write themselves. The characters of Archer get themselves into every sort of unethical situation possible, through their venality, arrogance, incompetence, pomposity, or any combination of those traits. But it seems to happen in a world where such actions carry no consequences, either in an overarching plotline, or to the reputation of ISIS as an intelligence contractor. Indeed, the world itself is a bit ill-defined – a bag of historical and technological anachronisms – CRT monitors with cellphones, where the KGB still exists and the great superpower rival is still Russia.

But the thing about Archer is that after a while, with each successive episode being the same collection of sociopathic hijinks, without much in the way of character growth or development beyond their stock places in the comedic pantheon, the series starts to get a little tiresome. Archer may be compared to Arrested Development, but at least in the latter, the Bluth family, while plagued with their own issues, were still human and still sympathetic – and they truly cared for each other as a family. In Archer, the titular character is utterly and incorrigibly a twat, without any redeeming qualities whatsoever. An inveterate boorish womaniser, spendthrift, cavalier over human life, callous towards his peers, cruel to his servants, selfish to a fault, and plagued with a host of mommy issues – a walking bag of the worst superspy stereotypes, and then some. It’s hard to feel any sort of sympathy for anybody in Archer, since nobody in Archer seems to care about anything in particular except for their self-serving ends.

A show can only go so far on its endless variations of comedic dysfunctional hijinks involving its typecast characters, before it starts to get tiresome. And with Archer, because the jokes depend so much on the self-serving venality of its characters, the show verges into nihilism, but without anything substantive to say beyond its jokes.

I hope Archer grows a soul in later seasons – I won’t spoil myself by checking, but from the looks of the first few episodes of Season 2, I doubt it’ll do so for a while yet.

I give this show: 3/5 out of 5 whiskey glasses