The Screwtape Letters by C S Lewis

6 July 2015

stllewisMost book reviews are pretty simple things to write. All you need to do is talk about the plot for a while. You describe the characters and their interactions. You mention the style in which the book is written. You intersperse your review with quotes designed to back up your points and generally pepper your writing with a feeling that yes, indeed you have read this book and yes, your opinion should be trusted.

Occasionally, however, a book comes along that refuses to kowtow to the rules of other reviews. It has no plot, so you can’t describe that. It has only one character so there are no interactions to speak of. The style is like no novel you’ve ever read before and any quote you pull from it is just going to sound like academic discourse rather than a work of fiction.

Like this:

“Prosperity knits a man to the world. He feels that he is finding his place in it, while really it is finding its place in him.”

Or this:

“Gratitude looks to the Past and love to the Present; fear, avarice, lust, and ambition look ahead.”

C S Lewis’s seminal classic the Screwtape Letters is just such a book. Published in 1942, the novel takes the form of a series of letters written from a senior demon named Screwtape to his nephew Wormwood. Wormwood is on Earth tempting a man into damnation. Screwtape is in hell watching the situation from afar and providing his inept nephew with advice as well as admonishing him for his incompetence. We only ever read Screwtape’s half of the correspondence.

That’s where the philosophical discourse I mentioned comes in. Screwtape writes like a university lecturer speaking to a hall of students. His language is learned, his discourse is frank and laced with bitterness. Like Casey Cep writes in The New Yorker, it’s like theology in reverse and it’s like nothing else you’ll ever read.

Over the course of thirty-one letters, Screwtape lectures his nephew on the various ways to undermine faith and promote sin in humans. This is interspersed with observations on human nature and Christian doctrine in general. He makes a lot of interesting points.

“Whatever their bodies do affects their souls. It is funny how mortals always picture us as putting things into their minds: in reality our best work is done by keeping things out…”

But there is no ‘plot’ here as such. Sure, things happen. We learn that the human which Wormwood is tempting converts to Christianity. We learn that the human falls in love, that he worries about the war raging throughout Europe, that he has a strained relationship with his mother. But it’s all very theoretical and distant to us. Screwtape writes about these things like a doctor talking about a patient and there’s little opportunity to relate.

A stage depiction of Screwtape

A stage portrayal of Screwtape

 

Easier to relate to is Screwtape himself. His depiction of hell, for instance, and the way it is structured is a real highlight of the book and one of the more interesting examples of damnation I’ve come across in my reading. There’s no fire and brimstone here: Lewis’s hell is a dull, bureaucratic place stripped of any sort of fun. The sins which 99% of its inhabitants have committed are paltry things and Screwtape delights in the fact that most of them seem surprised to learn they ever sinned at all.

“It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one–the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”

The way that C S Lewis is able to get inside the head of a demon and make it feel both believable and (shockingly) relatable is nothing short of genius. Screwtape feels like a living, breathing character. It’s true that he undergoes no character development over the course of the book but what else can we expect – he’s a demon? Likewise, nothing really happens to Screwtape. All the ‘plot’ happens to nephew and the human he is tempting. Even so, I found myself gaining a fondness for the titular demon. He is both extremely clever and yet very foolish at the same time. This is no more obvious than when he talks about his enemy (God):

“All His talk about Love must be a disguise for something else – He must have some real motive for creating [the humans] and taking so much trouble about them. The reason one comes to talk as if He really had this impossible Love is our utter failure to out that real motive. What does He stand to make out of them? That is the insoluble question.”

However, I’m not sure if I can honestly say that I enjoyed this book overall. One of the things I’ve always found most admirable about Lewis’s writing is the way he is able to distil extremely complicated philosophical issues into simple-to-grasp analogies and moments of character. Screwtape and Wormwood seem like they would have a lot of chemistry together on page. They both apparently hate each other. They both believe they are better at their job than the other. They are both held back from hurting each other by the convoluted hierarchies of hell. But we never get to see this first hand. Just like the book’s plot, it’s only ever inferred.

In comparison with Lewis’s other books, this absence is all too obvious. In Out of the Silent Planet, for example, we follow the main character as he interacts with all sorts of strange creatures in a search which ultimately culminates in him discovering who he himself is. In Perelandra we see an Eve analogy being tempted by the devil and how the main character’s attempts to keep her from sinning only in turn lead her to sin in other ways. In my favourite book of all times, Til We Have Faces, we learn how easily someone can use love as an excuse for selfishness without even realizing it.

C S Lewis: a very good writer

C S Lewis: a very good writer

These things teach us something about ourselves and human nature in general. We don’t need to be told them: we see them through character interaction and dialogue. In the Screwtape Letters, however, we would need to be told them – lectured them as of a teacher from the front of a classroom. That, for me, is where this book fell down. Philosophical discourse has its place in writing certainly, but given a choice between being shown something and lectured it, I would choose the showing every time.

Overall I liked the Screwtape letters but it left me feeling conflicted. If I wanted to read a book of Lewis’s philosophy I’d have read Mere Christianity or one of his other non-fiction books. The Screwtape Letters, however, fills an odd niche in writing: not quite a work of fiction yet not quite a book of philosophy either. It’s a curiosity, hard to review, even harder to sit through and ultimately not one which I would recommend in comparison with Lewis’s other works.

“Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.”


The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut

25 May 2015

“I was a victim of a series of accidents, as are we all.”

Try to summarise The Sirens of Titan with any sort of brevity and it always sounds like you’re writing a mad lib.

Here, try it for yourself:

A _____ (adjective) man went to _____ (place) with his _____ (noun) and on the way he _____ (verb) into a _____ (noun).

If you entered the words “rich”, “Mars”, “dog”, “crashed” and “chrono-synclastic infundibulum” into the spaces above then congratulations, you’ve either read this book already or you’re just as bonkers as Vonnegut.

The rich man from the above mad lib is Winston Niles Rumfoord, a well-educated New England gentleman whose collision with the space anomaly known as a chrono-synclastic infundibulum has left him scattered across time and space. To all intents and purposes, he is now immortal and borderline omniscient.

Once a month, when the anomaly lines up with the Earth, he materialises in his old home for one hour. There he brings predictions of the future as well as dire warnings that will, in time, lead to the seeds of a whole new religion.  Predictably, he is a huge celebrity.

“The crowd, having been promised nothing, felt cheated, having received nothing.”

“The crowd, having been promised nothing, felt cheated, having received nothing.”

During one of his visits, Rumfoord asks to speak with Malachi Constant, the richest man in the world. Constant is the exact antithesis of Rumfoord. He is arrogant, lazy, utterly without talent. His father amassed his fortune almost entirely by accident and since his death Constant has done nothing to further his lot in life. Constant is therefore shocked to hear Rumfoord’s prediction that one day not only will he travel to Mars, Mercury and Titan in turn but that he will fall in love with and have a child by Rumfoord’s very own wife before becoming the head of his very own religion.

As you might expect, Constant is horrified by this prediction of the future and so he immediately embarks on a mission to do everything in his power to make sure these predictions don’t come to pass. Naturally, this only serves to guarantee that they do.

Thus begins a whirlwind mad lib of a tale that takes Malachi Constant half way across the solar system. On Mars he is recruited into an army that is planning to invade the Earth. His identity is stripped away from him, he loses his memories and he has an antenna planted in his head that rids him of independent thought. Just as he is starting to rediscover who he is, Mars goes to war with the Earth. Constant travels with the invasion fleet only for his ship to malfunction along the way.

“The only controls available to those on board were two push-buttons on the center post of the cabin -- one labeled on and one labeled off. The on button simply started a flight from Mars. The off button connected to nothing. It was installed at the insistence of the Martian mental-health experts, who said that human beings were always happier with machinery they thought they could turn off.”

“The only controls available to those on board were two push-buttons on the center post of the cabin — one labeled on and one labeled off. The on button simply started a flight from Mars. The off button connected to nothing. It was installed at the insistence of the Martian mental-health experts, who said that human beings were always happier with machinery they thought they could turn off.”

He ends up marooned on Mercury. In the midst of all of this he has (non-consensual) sex with Mrs. Rumfoord and impregnates her. Then he returns to Earth only to find himself the central focus of an entirely new religion built in reaction to his life of hedonism and excess… And on and on it goes for 300 pages.

Quite honestly, trying to explain all of the things that happen in this book in any sort of concise manner is exhausting. It feels like Vonnegut just vomited a bunch of ideas onto the page and then joined the dots between them in a way that vaguely made sense*.

“A purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.”

The crazy thing, however, is that the book isn’t really about any of those things. Sure, a lot of stuff happens: a war between Mars and Earth; a new religion popping up based on how much God doesn’t care about us; a redemption arc as a man with no memory of who he is tries to reconnect with a family he has never met just to prove his humanity; but the further the book goes, the more unimportant these events seem in the grand scheme of things.

Just like how a mad lib isn’t really about the wacky stories you create but rather the fun you can have coming up with the most nonsensical sentences possible, so the Sirens of Titan isn’t about the events that happen but rather the underlying point of it all. Which is no point. Vonnegut’s universe is a godless one, devoid of meaning and ruled by nothing but anarchy. It’s a typical hallmark of a Vonnegut novel.

That said, the Sirens of Titan lacks the same focus of some of Vonnegut’s more famous works. You don’t find the same personal angle here that you do when reading something like Slaughterhouse 5. Likewise, there isn’t the same ironic humour you get in something like Cat’s Cradle, as of someone recognising how stupid the universe is and just having a good old laugh at its expense. Instead this book hovers somewhere between, like a meandering treaty of Vonnegut’s personal philosophy interjected with moments of gallows humour. It’s fun while you’re reading it but for me personally, it didn’t have the same long-term impact as some of his other classics.

the-hitchhikers-guide-to-the-galaxy-505742c4e0b71

“Every passing hour brings the Solar System forty three thousand miles closer to Globular Cluster M13 in Hercules — and still there are some misfits who insist that there is no such thing as progress.”

I’ve read a lot of reviews from people who say this book helped inspire Douglas Adams to write the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (one of my favourite books of all time). They say you can really tell this is the case due to the random nature of the plot and the high propensity for funny happenings in both books.

Although I can see where these reviewers are coming from I have to admit I never had this impression while reading it myself. Despite the fact that Douglas Adams was every bit the atheist that Vonnegut was, his books always struck me as approaching the issue from the opposite end. His stories are filled with a sense of childish awe at the universe around him. The crazy events happening to his characters serve as a kind of celebration for how beautifully unpredictable life the universe and everything can be.

Vonnegut, on the other hand, writes to the other extreme. Empty, pointless, depressed, anarchic: The Sirens of Titan feels like a book written by someone who is desperately trying to understand the things he sees around himself and instead finds nothing but white noise and nonsense. He laughs at this fact and points out its absurdity but behind the witty lines is a man whose heart is breaking.

The Sirens of Titan was Vonnegut’s second book and it shows. As much as I wanted to love it, I have to admit I’ve never felt so depressed reading the great man’s work as I did when reading this book. The futility of war, the absence of God, the pointlessness of religion: these are all themes Vonnegut will revisit in other books far more successfully than he does here.

Just like a mad lib that doesn’t quite work, I think Vonnegut needs to go back to the drawing board and have another attempt at filling in those blanks.

MadLibs-cropped

*And, weirdly enough, that’s exactly that he did. According to Vonnegut’s friend, Harvard Crimson, Vonnegut “put together the whole of The Sirens of Titan […] in one night […] He was at a party where someone told him he ought to write another novel. So they went into the next room where he just verbally pieced together this book from the things that were around in his mind.”


Game review: Captain Toad Treasure Tracker

8 May 2015

captain_toad_european_box_artSpin offs: they are everywhere these days.

On TV, you have hugely popular shows like Breaking Bad spinning off into Better Call Saul, or award-winning shows like Battlestar Galactica spinning off into the woefully awful and instantly cancelled Caprica. In literature, A Song of Ice and Fire begot the the less popular though equally good Dunk and Egg short stories, while the Harry Potter series has spun off into multiple side books such as Quidditch Through the Ages and Fantastic Creatures and Where to Find Them. In Movies, Star Wars has had so many spin offs by this point it’s hard to keep track of them all.

Almost without exception* these spins offs are rarely anywhere near as popular or iconic as the media that spawned them.

And so, too, is this the case with video games.

Captain Toad Treasure Tracker is a spin off from the extremely popular and award winning Super Mario 3D World. It’s essentially an entire game made up of the small Captain Toad levels found within its parent game. Each of the games 70 worlds is a compact maze-like structure which has you using your brain to track down hidden gems and collect the power star at the end.

The levels in Captain Toad are very small and compact

The levels in Captain Toad are very small and compact

Unlike uncle Mario, Captain Toad is unable to jump meaning he must rely on his puzzle solving wits to get through each level. This change, while sounding relatively minor on paper, has a huge impact on the way the game is structured and its levels designed. Gone are the time limits of the mainline Mario games. Gone are the hub worlds and sweeping 3D vistas. Instead the game focuses on very compact, localized challenges, each of which is over very quickly. It is not designed for long play sessions.

Even if this type of slow puzzle platforming isn’t your cup of tea, you can’t help but be impressed by the sheer quality of level design on display here. This is a very well put together game. The way you manipulate the height of platforms or transform the stage in order to move around reminds me of something out of a Zelda game, only played out on a smaller and more easily manipulated scale. This is definitely a good thing.

The pink blocks in this level can be moved around using the Game pad's touch screen. This adds an extra level of interactivity not usually associated with a Mario game

The pink blocks in this level can be moved around using the Game pad’s touch screen. This adds an extra level of interactivity not usually associated with a Mario game

Not to mention it’s gorgeous. It’s like playing a Pixar movie.

Of particular joy for me is the complete freedom you have over the in-game camera. Gone are the forced camera angles or over-the-shoulder perspectives of other 3D platformers. In this game, the camera points exactly where you want it, whenever you want it, which is a huge help in tracking down some of the trickier gem stones. However, one thing to note is that for some inexplicable reason Nintendo decided to map the camera controls to the game pad’s internal gyroscope, a feature which sadly can’t be deactivated. This can lead to unfortunate moments mid-game where you suddenly die simply because you shifted your grip on the controller slightly and the game interpreted this as you wanting to move the camera.

To say it’s frustrating when this happens is an understatement.

Some of the levels are extremely creative: like this one based on a pinball machine

Some of the levels are extremely creative: like this one based on the inside of a pinball machine

The levels are a bit on the short side, however there is a strong incentive to replay them. Not only are there three hidden gems located inside each level, but there is also an extra bonus challenge which only becomes visible once you’ve play through a level once (although it can still be completed prior to this point). For added challenge, the game is compatible with the Toad Amiibo from the Mario Party line. Tapping the Toad Amiibo to the game pad unlocks a special mode which tasks you with tracking down an 8-bit Toad hidden within each level. For those who enjoy replaying their games, this one certainly gives you a reason to come back for more.

Some of my favourite levels are the ones where you need to toss turnips at enemies from the back of an out of control mine kart

Some of my favourite levels are the ones where you need to toss turnips at enemies from the back of an out of control mine kart

Just like in any good Mario spin off, Captain Toad Treasure Tracker is packed full of items and power ups to help you in your quest. Returning from 3D World is the double cherry, which allows Toad to split off into multiple copies of himself. Also returning from Super Mario Bros. 2 are turnips, which can be plucked from the ground and thrown at enemies to kill them. There are also pick axes, complete with Donkey Kong arcade sound effects, which allow you to smash through blocks standing in your way to access other parts of the level. It’s a lot of fun.

Captain Toad for Smash!

Captain Toad for Smash!

On the other side of the coin, however, is the elephant in the room. The game is very short. Don’t let the glowing praise above fool you: this is a budget title and a spin off and it plays exactly like one would expect from both of these. A dedicated gamer could complete this game in less than 10 hours. There are only two bosses in the whole game and most of the post-game content, although plentiful, is made up of remixed versions of levels found within the main game. Couple this with the rehashed music and assets liberally stolen from Super Mario 3D World and you can see why the game was so stealthily launched by Nintendo over Christmas without any sort of fanfare and one of the softest launch dates I’ve ever seen for a mainline retail release.

Overall – C

cIt’s no secret by now that the Wii U is a struggling console. Nintendo lacks the third party support needed for regular game releases and this has lead to  droughts in the console’s software lineup over the last 2 years. Nintendo has clearly found it hard to make up for that software shortage on its own and so games like Captain Toad Treasure Tracker are developed: cheap and easy to produce budget titles that artificially plump out the release schedule during the vital Christmas months.

It’s not that the game feels rushed exactly (this is Nintendo we are talking about, after all, and there’s a reason they are so renowned in the industry for the polish they put into their games) but it does feel uninspired.

Like I said at the beginning of this review, this game is a spin off and it feels like one. Playing this game for longer than a few minutes just makes me wish I were playing Super Mario 3D World instead. After all, that game is clearly the superior one. And hey, it has Captain Toad levels included in it for free!

If you haven’t bought Super Mario 3D World yet, go get it now. Afterwards, if you are still hungry for more, then – and only then – consider giving Captain Toad a whirl. He might be “Ready for adventure!” but ready for Nintendo AAA treatment he is not.

* That exception being the hit comedy Frazier which was a far better written and more impactful series than its parent show Cheers ever was.


Game reviews: Lego City Undercover

24 April 2015

lego_city_undercover_boxartLego games are everywhere these days. It seems as though not a single movie release has gone by in recent memory without the talented folks over at TT games immediately parodying it in brick form. There are yearly releases on everything from Star Wars to Harry Potter, There’s even a new Toys to Life concept due out this year which looks to further cash in on the seemingly inexhaustible well of popularity that is the whole Skylanders / Disney Infinity thing.

Believe it or not but by the third anniversary of the Wii U’s launch (November this year) there will be 9 distinct Lego games available for the system. That’s a bigger chunk of the console’s library than there are games with Mario in the title (7). Hell it single handedly accounts for most of the third party software coming to the Wii U this year (a fact which says more about the death of games coming to the Wii U than it does about the quality of Lego games I feel).

Whichever way you chose to cut it, suffice to say that TT games have a winning formula on their hands with this Lego series. And they know it.

A game so formulaic it practicly builds itself

A game so formulaic it practically builds itself?

So here we have Lego City Undercover: an exclusive game made for a console which is crying out for original third party content. A big, well crafted 40+ hour game on a console derided for how much shovelware and minigame collections it has. A game that uses the Wii U game pad to its full, when so many games are lambasted for failing to do so. It’s like grand theft auto for kids, the marketing spiel goes so I though why the hell not? I’ve never played a GTA game before, let’s see what this entry-level version of one has to offer.

To be honest, I was pleasantly surprised.

At its core, the game play of Lego City Undercover can be summed up thusly. You are a cop who, in his whimsical and occasionally absurd hunt to track down arch-nemesis Rex Fury, must go undercover within the dark criminal underbelly of Lego City. Along the way, he collects new costumes which in turn grant him specific abilities he can use on the fly. The fireman costume, for example, allows you to break down doors, put out fires (duh) and rescue cats with help of a pocket-sized fish. The farmer costume allows you to make plants sprout into climbable platforms, glide slowly through the air suspended from a chicken and fire pigs out of cannons (no really). And so on. There are 8 costumes in total and you will need to use them all in various combination in order to progress through the game.

Because it's not

Because it’s not based on just one movie franchise like some of the other Lego games, Lego City Undercover has license to reference everything from Mission Impossible to Shawshank Redemption. The game is packed full of amusing one-liners and movie in jokes. Like Barry Smith (pictured here): 24 hour plumber and kung fu guru, who is clearly a send up of Morpheus from the Matrix

The Wii U game pad is used mainly as a map, but at certain points during your investigation you will be asked to hold it up in front of the TV and use it as a scanner to locate hidden items and spot criminals. It’s the perfect sort of game pad implementation: simple but effective. It serves a useful function but if you chose to ignore it the game can still be easily beaten without it.

The game pad is well used in this game

The game pad is used well in this game

Now it should be stressed that Lego City itself is huge. There is so much to see and do in the open world section of the game, it’s almost overwhelming. The bulk of your time playing, however, will be spent working through the game’s story missions on the hunt for Rex Fury. There are 15 missions in total, none of which are particularly difficult but all of which present you with simple puzzles to solve. There is combat and death, yes, but for the most part the challenge arrises from puzzling out where to go next and how best to use the abilities you’ve earned to gain to the next area.

Playing through just the main story missions will take you around 20 hours. However, once you finish the game you’ll be surprised to see that your completion percentage is barely more than 20%. That’s because there is an insane amount of content in this game. Every inch of the gigantic city is littered with secrets and collectables. There are so many hidden characters and items dotted around the city waiting for you to stumble upon them that you will easily spend upwards of 100 hours finding them all if 100% completion is your thing.

There are hundreds of characters and vehicles to unlock in this game. It’s slightly overwhelming

However, if I can level one complaint against the game it’s this: a lot of the item hunting feels like busy work. Yes there are a lot of things to do in this game but there’s relatively little impetus to do those things. It’s true that you can have fun just wondering around the city, just like in any open world game, but the fun of exploration soon wears off into a dull frustration that you’ve been exploring the same city district for two hours and you’ve only got a single hidden character to show for it. The same handful of missions repeat over and over again. Arrest a gang of hoodlums, stop a stolen vehicle, steal a vehicle yourself, race a vehicle, capture an alien and so on… Over and over again.

Its a minor nitpick, sure. After all, I would rather a game have too much content than too little but for people who are keen on 100% completing the games they play, like myself, you’ll quickly find that the humour and sheer fun of the first few hours of play quickly gives way to boredom.

It's child-friendly puzzle solving. Challenging, but never frustrating

It’s child-friendly puzzle solving. Challenging, but never frustrating

Also an issue are the insanely long loading times in this game. As previously mentioned, Lego City is a big place and this shows when booting the game up. One minute load screens are common in this game, which is both extremely frustrating and also unacceptable in this day and age.

Minor niggles asside, however, Lego City Undercover is a good game. The game is challenging, but by no means hard. The music is simple but appropriate. The presentation clean and colourful. It’s nothing to wow you but then again what more can you expect from a game based around Lego bricks? There are a few glitches here and there, like falling out of bounds or getting stuck somewhere I shouldn’t be but that’s pretty normal for any open world game and at least this one has the decency to be charming about it when it happens.

You will have a lot of fun trying to collect everything in the game

The game takes you to some pretty unusual locations

Overall: B

bOverall Lego City Undercover is exactly the sort of game that it needs to be: a giant open world sandbox that you can play any way you want to. The story is fun, its gameplay is simple and overall it does everything with a lot of style and aplomb.

I don’t know if this sort of experience is typical of a Lego game, but if it is I can see why this formula has become such a successful one for TT games. Its as well constructed as the bricks of its namesake. If you’re looking for a funny, enjoyable distraction you can’t go far wrong.


The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin

9 March 2015

“The end justifies the means. But what if there never is an end? All we have is means.” — Ursula K. Le Guin, The Lathe of Heaven

lathe-of-heaven‘What if?’ It’s a question that lies at the heart of almost all SF.

‘What if’ the world’s population were spiraling out of control? ‘What if’ there was no racial division or war? ‘What if’ hostile aliens landed on the moon? ‘What if’ a sleeping man had the power to change the world with his dreams? The genre of science fiction has made a name for itself by taking such impossible concepts and running with their implications. It highlights aspects of the human condition that might otherwise remain hidden. It helps us explore issues that are often too large or complex to examine through any other means.

The Lathe of Heaven, Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1971 Hugo-nominated SF classic, is unique however, in that it doesn’t just present us with one ‘what if’ scenario to chew over but a veritable smorgasbord of them with the very concept of the ‘what if’ itself being put under the microscope.

At its core, the Lathe of Heaven is a retelling of that classic fantasy trope of someone wishing for a thing only to discover that it isn’t as good as expected.

In this case, the tool for that wishing is George Orr, a seemingly ordinary man who has somehow gained the ability to alter reality with his dreams. Sometimes these changes are small, such as changing a picture on a wall from a photograph of a mountain into one of a horse. Other times they are world changing. No matter the change, however, George Orr is always the only person aware of the changes once he wakes up. As far as everyone else is concerned, things have always been this way and George is a madman for thinking otherwise. It leads to some interesting philosophical questions on the nature of reality and our place within it.

“If [you were to tell me] under hypnosis to dream that there was a pink dog in the room, I’d do it; but the dog couldn’t be there so long as pink dogs aren’t in the order of nature. […] What would happen is, either I’d get a white poodle dyed pink, and some plausible reason for its being there, or, if [you] insisted that it be a genuine pink dog, then my dream would have to change the order of nature to include pink dogs. Everywhere. Since the Pleistocene or whenever dogs first appeared. They would always have come black, brown, yellow, white, and pink. And one of the pink ones would have wandered in from the hall, or would be [your] collie, or [your] receptionist’s Pekinese, or something. Nothing miraculous. Nothing unnatural. Each dream covers its tracks completely.”

As you might expect, these abilities to change the world on such a fundamental level have left George Orr terrified of his powers and doubting the truth of the world he is living in

To be fair: I'd be terrified if I kept dreaming of these things too

To be fair, I’d be terrified if I dreamt this was natural too

In an attempt to curb his abilities, Orr volunteers for therapy with Dr. Haber, a dream psychologist who has developed a machine that can monitor and control brain waves. At first, Dr. Haber is understandably dubious of Orr’s claims to be able to alter reality but pretty soon he not only believes his patient but actively starts using his powers to change reality for the better. At first his manipulations are small, consisting of little more than promotions for himself and changes in living quarters. But later, he sets his sights on much bigger prizes.

So, as an example, at first the world is over-populated*. So Dr. Haber asks George Orr to dream that there is no longer an issue with overpopulation.

Instantly, most of humanity gets wiped out by a global plague which sets the economy into downfall and sparks off a series of brutal wars. Overpopulation is no longer an issue, but it has come at a terrible cost.

So then Dr. Haber asks George Orr to dream about humanity being at peace with itself.

Instantly George Orr dreams of hostile aliens arriving and landing on the moon. The human race unites together against this external threat. World peace is gained but, again, at a terrible cost.

So then Orr is asked to dream that the aliens are gone from the moon… and they leave, only to head straight for the Earth…

Each ‘what if’ leads inexorably to another, worse one. It isn’t long before what starts out as a plausible but hellish world for our heroes to live in turns into a nightmarish dystopian world of multiple ‘what ifs’ piled on top of each other that only becomes dream-like and transient as the novel goes on.

 

“You’re trying to reach progressive, humanitarian goals with a tool that isn’t suited to the job. Who has humanitarian dreams?”

A little confession here, I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of parallel universes and alternate histories. The reason I started reading this book in the first place is because I was hoping for a little mental titillation along these lines. I love reading about reality being changed on a fundamental level and then watching the fall-out from these changes. It’s one of the reasons why I loved the show Sliders as a kid. It’s one of the reasons why the Star Trek: TNG episode ‘Parallels’ has always been one of my favourites.

Man I loved this show. They should so bring it back

Sliders. Man I loved this show. They should so bring it back

I was hoping for more of the same here. But what struck me while reading was how quickly these ‘what if’ scenarios fall into the background of the novel. These are hugely unsettling dystopians that Le Guin is creating for us here, each one of which is fuel for multiple novels in its own right, and yet the book never lingers on its changes. As the book continues and these fundamental changes such as pink dogs and grey people, aliens attacking and global plague pile up on top of each other, they somehow start to fall into the background, becoming almost inconsequential to the novel. Both main characters know that the world they are living in is subject to change and is therefore only temporary and so the central conceit of the novel shifts from being about the changes themselves to the very reason for the changing.

This is where the book finds its voice.

The crux of the novel hangs on the psychological struggle between the characters of George Orr and Dr. Haber. The book is surprisingly stingy when it comes to giving us characters. We are only ever presented with three distinct personalities and one of those, the lawyer and love interest Heather, only exists to highlight the changes happening in the world as well as act as a motivating factor for Orr. With so few characters to focus on, this book turns into what can only be described as a work of theatre. Long, dialogue-heavy chapters are the order of the day with the focus on characterization and philosophy rather than action. Small wonder then that this book is said to be the only one of Le Guin’s works to ever successfully transition to the big screen.

I haven't actually seen the movie adaptation of this book but I've heard good things about it

I haven’t actually seen the movie adaptation of this book but I’ve heard good things about it

On one side of this philosophical struggle, we have Orr. Orr is an idealist. Literally a dreamer.

“Orr had a tendency to assume that people knew what they were doing, perhaps because he generally assumed that he did not.”

“He arrived at ideas the slow way, never skating over the clear, hard ice of logic, nor soaring on the slipstreams of imagination, but slogging, plodding along on the heavy ground of existence. He did not see the connections, which is said to be the hallmark of intellect. He felt connections – like a plumber.”

Haber, on the other hand, is a stern pragmatist. He wants to change the world for the better and in Orr he has found the perfect means to do it.

“When things don’t change any longer, that’s the end result of entropy, the heat-death of the universe. The more things go on moving, interrelating, conflicting, changing, the less balance there is—and the more life. I’m pro-life, George. Life itself is a huge gamble against the odds, against all odds! […] What you’re afraid to accept, here, is that we’re engaged in a really great experiment, you and I. We’re on the brink of discovering and controlling, for the good of all mankind, a whole new force, an entire new field of antientropic energy, of the life-force, of the will to act, to do, to change!”

Some of the best moments of this book come when the two main characters are debating the morality of their actions with each other. Both come out with valid reasons for their position and while we are of course led to side with Orr (since he is our POV character), neither is essentially right on the issue. Both characters are believable and likeable in their own way.

Overall the Lathe of Heaven is a fascinating read and while things do get a little convoluted and bogged down by their own conceits towards the end (the climax in particular came way too far out of the left field for my liking), it’s a book that’s well worth your attention despite how laughable some of its ‘what ifs’ might seem to modern eyes.

I’ll leave with one final quote from the novel, perhaps the most famous quote in the book. It is a beautiful piece of writing and poignant too, both of which are words I would use to describe the Lathe of Heaven as a whole. Not perfect by any means but worthy of your time. A sweet, dream-like book which wears its ‘what ifs’ firmly on its sleeve and yet for the most part chooses to ignore them in favour of much larger goals.

“Love doesn’t just sit there, like a stone, it has to be made, like bread; remade all the time, made new.”

_____________________________

* Six billion people if you can believe such an impossibly over-inflated number, with America suffering from extreme malnutrition, the destruction of almost all forest and parkland and the extinction of every large mammal, including the horse. I love how wrong SF writers can be sometimes when they are imagining the future. This is practically Jules Verne all over again with people walking to the centre of the Earth by foot and astronauts being fired into space out of a giant gun. Well okay, perhaps not that bad.


Game reviews: Mario Kart 8

23 February 2015

mario_kart_8_box_artHere’s a question for you: what is the best-selling Nintendo franchise of all time?

Most likely your first thought was Mario. Who, after all, doesn’t remember the impact made by games like Mario Bros. 3 or Mario 64 when they first launched on an unsuspecting industry? They changed game design on a fundamental level, serving as a textbook for how create platformers for years to come.

Or perhaps your first thought was the Legend of Zelda. You remembered that almost every game in that series has been critically acclaimed, and that the Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask frequently appear in the top 10 games of all time. Any series with so many plaudits must have sold by the bucket, right?

What if I were to tell you that the correct answer is none of the above? The last three home console Mario games – Super Mario Galaxy (12.22m), Super Mario Galaxy 2 (7.41m), and Super Mario 3D World (3.79m) – sold well but hardly well enough to shock the industry. The last three Legend of Zelda games – Twilight Princess (8.58m), Skyward Sword (3.67m) and Windwaker HD (1.22m) – faired even worse .

In fact, you might be surprised to hear that the most recent Mario Kart game, Mario Kart Wii, sold almost as many copies as all of the above games combined. A staggering 35.11m units worldwide and the game wasn’t even considered that good.

Chart reproduced from Polygon.com

Chart reproduced from Polygon.com

When you look at things like this, you can see there are few priorities higher for Nintendo than Mario Kart. It is their golden goose. It’s that fun party game everyone knows about even if they’ve never play a game in their life. Its launch on the 3DS is partially credited with saving that system from an early death. The series appears six times in the Guinness Book of Records, with the original Super Mario Kart number 1 on the list of top 50 console games based on initial impact and lasting legacy. Simply put, see the words “Mario Kart” written on a game and you know that Nintendo have brought their A-game.

Mario Kart 8 is no exception.

From the moment you pop this game into your Wii U, you know exactly what you’ll be getting. This is a Mario Kart game plain and simple, and it comes with all the crazy mayhem and item throwing shenanigans we’ve come to expect from the franchise. Race around 32 fun, impossible courses as popular Nintendo mascots. Use crazy powerups to gain the upper hand. Try to come in first place. You can race alone or with friends both locally and online. There’s a single player time-trial mode to improve your scores and a Mario Kart TV mode where you can view other people’s races from all over the world. Throw in a battle mode and a bunch of DLC and you have yourself a winning formula for success.

As always, it’s a masterclass of game design.

Graphically there is nothing that can compete with this game on the Wii U

Graphically there is nothing that can compete with this game on the Wii U

Graphically there is almost nothing on the Wii U that compares with this game. 720p, 60 frames per second (actually 59 with the 60th frame being a duplicate of the 59th, but who really cares about a single frame?), which doesn’t drop even even while playing online. The game is slick and responsive with tight controls and fluid mechanics. It’s a real feat of programming and an absolute blast to play.

And THAT MUSIC!!! My God. Best OST ever.

The new anti-gravity mechanic leads to some very creative course design

The new anti-gravity mechanic leads to some very creative course design

Like many  Mario Karts, this one has a new gimmick to go along with all the shiny new visuals and in this case that gimmick is anti-gravity. For the first time in Mario Kart history, you can race your karts up walls and along ceilings. Tracks twist and turn in the most unbelievable ways. At various points in the game you’ll find yourself driving vertically up a waterfall, or on the underside of a giant mobius strip. You’ll find yourself driving along the ceiling of a haunted house or down through the twisting tunnels of a sewer. Simply put, nothing is off limits, leading to some of the most imaginative and fun course designs yet seen in a Mario Kart. Personal course highlights include Mute City, a homage to the F-Zero franchise, and Wario Mountain, a rare one-track race that has you racing from the very top to the very bottom of a slalom-style ski course.

Also unique to this version of Mario Kart is its heavy emphasis on DLC and integration with the new Amiibo range of toys. The DLC is fairly priced with $11.99 netting you 16 new courses and 6 new characters, essentially boosting the size of the game by 50% for less than one third of its price. This is in addition to other regular updates, more controller options than you can count and fully integrated off TV play. As I said before, Nintendo always brings their A-game with Mario Kart and if there’s a box that can be ticked on a list of Wii U features, you can be sure this game will be doing its best to tick it.

With Mario Kart 8 and Hyrule Warriors, Nintendo is proving they know how to do DLC right

With Mario Kart 8 and Hyrule Warriors, Nintendo is proving they know how to do DLC right

Of course there are always going to be downsides to any game and Mario Kart 8 is no exception.

The AI in this game is bad. No, worse than bad. It’s broken. Mario Kart has always been known for its cheap rubber banding but Mario Kart 8 takes it to ridiculous levels. No matter how well you are racing, no matter what short cuts you take or exploits you pull off, you will always find the number two racer breathing down your neck while the rest of the pack follow just a couple of seconds behind. Conversely, if you happen to race badly you’re only ever a couple of stars or a rocket power up away from being back in the race. I get the idea: Nintendo want to make sure this game is accessible to everyone, newcomers and old hands alike, but there comes a point when it’s too much.

And that's not to even mention how broken some of the power ups in this game are

And that’s without even mentioning how broken some of the power ups in this game are

The hallmark of a challenging game is one that’s hard but fair. Fail and you know it was your fault. Succeed and you know it was because of you mastering the game’s mechanics. It’s like with Hyrule Warriors which I reviewed last week. The more you practice, the better you get at that game and that simple fact encourages you to keep coming back for more.

Unfortunately, this is not the case with Mario Kart 8. The challenge is high, yes, but it’s been made artificially so. Random items. Random events. Rubber banding. Cheating AI. Unfair item distribution. If you’re in last place, the game does its best to put you back into the race. If you’re in first place, the game does its utmost to drop you back into the pack. Apparently Nintendo thinks this makes for a better game. It doesn’t.

I can’t tell you how many times I was cruising to victory in first place, driving perfectly, taking each corner with boosted perfection and using all the shortcuts I knew. I should have been cruising to victory. Instead I end up being hit by a lightning bolt on the final lap. Then a blooper and two red shells in the space of five seconds. You end up coming 7th because the RNG gods decided to gift a rocket to the guy who finished 6th. It’s complete BS and it leads to nothing but frustration.

Some moments in this game are controller-breakingly frustrating. Friendships will be lost and your living room may be in danger. You have been warned

Some moments in this game are controller-breakingly frustrating. Friendships will be lost. Your very living room may be in danger. You have been warned

The great thing about Mario Kart has always been how accessible it is. A complete novice can pick the game up, race and have fun in just a couple of minutes. However, this accessibility is a double-edged sword that limits Mario Kart as a competitive racer. There’s a reason no fanatical community has ever built up around Mario Kart like it has around Smash Bros. The game wants experienced racers to fail just as much as it wants novices to succeed. In this way everyone becomes average and the winning or losing of the game falls entirely down to the will of an RNG.

That’s not fun. It’s dice rolling.

RNG: the game

He’s 12th now but don’t worry he’ll get a rocket soon

And that’s not even to mention my biggest gripe with this game. For all its mastery and beauty, the game is simply too safe. Mario Kart’s formula is so tried and tested by this point it’s creaking at the edges. It’s such a cash cow for Nintendo that it’s almost as though they’re afraid to tinker with the formula for fear of breaking it.

Remember Diddy Kong racing? Remember its story line and boss battles? Remember Crack Nitro Kart with its track editor? Remember ModNation Racer with its customizable vehicles and characters? Playing Mario Kart these days feels like listening to a symphony by Mozart. You know that it’s beautiful and that it couldn’t have been better constructed, and yet you can’t help but get bored by it. It’s years behind the times.

Mario Kart’s formula is so ingrained in our minds by this point the games practically program themselves. But familiarity breads contempt and Nintendo really needs to try mixing up the formula soon or I doubt I will be buying the next Mario Kart as eagerly as I did this one (even though it did come with a free game. Another A-game publicity stunt from Nintendo).

Overall – B

bI so wanted to love this game. I don’t think I’ve ever been so hyped for a Mario Kart as I was for this one. Sad to say the end result is not what I was hoping for. ‘Limited’ is the word I would use for this, along with ‘safe’ and ‘frustrating’. I honestly think I had more fun with Mario Kart Wii than 8 and that’s a sad thing to say considering how hated Wii is by the community.

Fortunately, there’s just enough that’s good in this game for me to give it a recommendation. Great track layouts, fun anti-gravity mechanic, beautiful visuals and a frankly phenominal soundtrack combine to make this a good game to wile away a few hours with friends. It’s a fun game – it’s a Mario Kart game – and you’ll have a lot of fun playing it.

I’m just not sure how long you’ll be playing it for.


Game review: Hyrule Warriors

16 February 2015

the_legend_of_zelda_hyrule_warriors_5_rawReviewing a game is always a delicate matter. On the one hand you strive to review things objectively. You analyze why a game is or isn’t good in relation to the rest of the industry. You look at the game in terms of graphical fidelity and smooth frame rates, the quality of its textures and the realism of its AI. When a game gets these things right, you praise it even if you don’t particularly like it.

It’s in this way that I find myself able to heap praise on a game like Bayonetta 2 or Super Smash Bros, even though I don’t actually enjoy playing either very much. I can recognize that they are well made examples of their genre and I’m sure a lot of people will get hours of fun out of them.

This is what being a reviewer means.

Bayonetta 2: a phenominal game, but not for me

Bayonetta 2: a phenomenal game, but not for me

But then there is the other extreme: games which you find yourself enjoying despite all their flaws.

These games are glitchy, buggy messes of hasty coding and poor optimization. These games have frame rates that dip more often than nachos at a house party and load times less reliable than most bus schedules. These games freeze on you or downright crash your system. Your inner critic looks at these things and despairs: “These aren’t Serious Games! This is generic shlock; the Michael Bay of video games! Give it a mediocre score and let’s move on…”

And yet, whenever you find yourself with a few hours free, it’s this later example that your find yourself returning to time after time.

Tell me: as a reviewer, which of the above scenarios deserves the higher score? Is it the game you can appreciate like a fine wine? Or the one you guzzle down like cheap lager?

It’s a question I never really considered until playing Hyrule Warriors.

Hyrule Warriors is something of a break-out experiment from Nintendo. As a fusion between Nintendo’s Legend of Zelda franchise and Koei Tecmo’s Dynasty Warriors series, the game has you thrown into large-scale battles in which you are a one-man army pitted against a literally endless hoard of enemies. The aim of the game is to capture keeps (areas of enemy territory) which once under your control will spawn more allies for your side. Once you’ve got a certain percentage of the field under your control, the enemy HQ will open up allowing you to take on the enemy commander for the mission in one-on-one combat.

The boss fights are some of the best moments in the game, although they do get repetitive after a while

The boss fights are some of the best moments in the game, although they do get repetitive after a while

This style of game is nothing new. Koei Tecmo has been churning out games just like this one for well over a decade now, and Hyrule Warriors (apparently) is just an average example of that series reskinned with Zelda characters. Critics of the game will tell you that it’s a mindless button masher. They will say that the missions are extremely repetitive, that there’s a lot of grinding and very bad AI. They will point out the stuttering frame rates and the graphical glitches and they will give it a mediocre score of 7 out of 10.

Like this.

Which is just further evidence as to why you should never buy a game based solely on its review score.

You can accuse this game of being a reskinned Dynasty Warriors game all you like, but Link and co have never looked better than they do in this game

You can accuse this game of being a re-skinned Dynasty Warriors game all you like, but Link and co have never looked better than they do in this game

Confession time: I love Hyrule Warriors. I can’t stop playing it. I’ve been playing it since it came out in September and I’m still nowhere near done with it. I’ve sunk over 100 hours into the game so far, played it at the expense of much higher-profile game releases like Super Smash Bros. (for which I’ve only played 10 hours) and Captain Toad Treasure Tracker (which I’ve yet to play at all). I’ve bought all the DLC for it. I’ve purchased the strategy guide. I’ve made Excel files with lists of the objectives I still need to complete and the order of how I will do it. I even bought a Link Amiibo just so I could unlock one of the game’s weapons.

There is so much DLC in this game it borders on the absurd

There is so much DLC in this game it borders on the absurd (in a good way, of course)

In fact, I’m so addicted to this game that when my hard drive recently corrupted on me and wiped out my save file containing over 100 hours of progress, even that didn’t stop me playing. I was devastated, sure. But then I remembered how much of those 100 hours I had wasted getting to grips with the game’s mechanics. I was much better at the game now, I knew. It would only take me perhaps half that time to regain all that progress…

And so the next thing I knew, I was re-downloading the DLC once again (this time directly onto my Wii U to avoid any future hard drive issues) and starting it all again from scratch. 100 hours of progress lost… and I continued to play the game.

That, right there, is something I can honestly say I have never done in my entire history of gaming. Sure, there are games that I’ve done multiple playthroughs for but they always tend to be smaller and more episodic in scope like Super Mario 3D World, in which a new playthrough just involves revisiting your favourite levels again as if they were new. To lose so much progress from such a monster of a game and yet refuse to give up made me realize something very important:

Despite all of this game’s many flaws, it is, without a shadow of a doubt, my favourite game on the Wii U.

Game of the year. I'm not even ashamed to admit it

Game of the year. I’m not even ashamed to admit it

So what is it that keeps me coming back to this game? The content. There is a ridiculous amount of content in this game. It took The Completionist over 200 hours to get everything in just the base game alone and since then there have been three extra download packs which have more than tripled the game’s content overall.

Because of this staggering amount of content you are literally never without something to do. You are constantly working towards something, be it unlocking a new weapon or grinding out an achievement. It’s this constant feeling of incremental progress that keeps you coming back for more and keeps you pushing on for just one more level, just one more map square until the next thing you know it’s 3.00am and you have work the next day…

Unlocking all the game's weapons and content is one of the best things about it

Unlocking all the weapons and content is one of the best things about the game

At its core, the game is very simple. All moves in the game are controlled with the use of just two buttons — a normal attack and a strong attack — in varying combinations. As a result it’s an extremely easy game to pick up and learn the basics for but like all good game systems there is a lot of depth to master.

The game is frantic too. Not in the same way as Super Smash Bros., which is a game that just loves throwing as much as it can at the screen in the hopes that you’ll interpret the ensuring chaos as ‘fun’, but in a far more controlled way. You are continually bombarded throughout the missions with new objectives and messages from your allies. You find yourself constantly re-prioritizing your objectives. Do you push on and take that keep or hold back and defend your own? Do you head over to the other side of the map to rescue your ally, or just ignore him in the hopes that pushing on will indirectly save him?

It’s frenetic. It’s intense. And most importantly, it’s fun.

This is the first time Zelda fans have been able to play as some classic characters such as Darunia here. And it's great

This is the first time Zelda fans have been able to play as some classic characters such as Darunia here and it’s just as awesome as you almost imagined it would be

If this is what all the Dynasty Warriors games are like then I can’t believe I’ve missed out on them for so long. Damn the critics for not appreciating this sort of game more and damn me for listening to them.

Overall – A

aThe critics are right in everything they’ve said about this game. It is mediocre in a lot of ways. It lacks online play, its frame rate is questionable and glitches (like the one I mentioned above in which my entire save data for the game was wiped out) are not unheard of. And it’s true that the Wii U isn’t exactly short of this sort of combo-heavy hack’n’slash adventure style game right now. There’s the aforementioned Bayonetta 2 (and its prequel, launched at the same time), Darksiders II, and the Wonderful 101 released by Platinum last year. All of those games do many things which are better than Hyrule Warriors. All of them push their respective genres in new, interesting directions. Any reviewer worth their salt would give them all higher scores than Hyrule Warriors…

And yet not one of those games is sitting inside my Wii U right now. Not one of those games has had me playing it for over 150 hours. Not one of them excites me inside my gamer soul like this one does. Better on paper they might be but in my heart there is only Hyrule Warriors.

AND THAT MUSIC! My God it’s incredible.

If the point of a game is to give you a good time, to provide some mindless entertainment and wile away a couple of hours then Hyrule Warriors is without a doubt my game of the year and biggest surprise of 2014. It gets an A on sheer effort, fan service and content alone.

If, however, the point of a game is to be well made and interesting, like a sterile tech demo designed to please PC elitists, then this game is mediocre at best and should probably be avoided.

Now if you’ll excuse me, my Wii U is calling to me…