Turned on to this first collection of Howard Chaykin’s indie comic from the mid 1980s by Warren Ellis’s Orbital Operations newsletter — a weekly periodical which you might enjoy subscribing to, I should aside, if you enjoy reading this blog. Ellis named American Flagg! as a personally formative comic, and with that in mind one definitely can read it as a direct progenitor of Ellis’s own Transmetropolitan, following the adventures of a cranky man and his pretty-lady sidekicks pushing back against a searingly corrupt science-fictional America.

I loved, loved Chaykin’s use of the full page in this book, over and over. I wrote last month of my appreciation for creative page layouts and panel shapes in the webcomic Drop-Out, and I re-apply that praise here, multiplied a hundredfold. Nearly every page serves as a fresh lesson in what a comics artist can do with a rectangular sheet besides laying down a grid of lesser rectangles to lawnmower through.

Chaykin seems especially drawn to the technique of repetition, punching in a lot of little near-identical images side-by-side for a variety of purposes, here emphasizing a tiny change in detail over time or over subject, there literally depicting a bank of TV monitors all showing the same leering face in duplicate. Despite its very nature, the technique doesn’t feel overused here, but rather fits in quite nicely with the setting’s particular sort of worn-out electronic dystopia, a world suffering from terminal phosphor burn-in.*

And the text effects! Chaykin makes it a living thing within the artwork. There’s a bit where a bad guy reminds Flagg of a hands-off bribe by winking at him, with the sound effect WINK!. This offends Flagg, who glares back with silent fury as he makes a snap decision to invalidate their agreement, and this generates the text NO! in big red letters with Flagg’s burning eye in the O. (This doubles as a full-stop to a row of Chaykin-style film-strip panels to its left reading STATUS QUO repeatedly.) This sort of thing happens all throughout the collection and I love it.

The art within those layouts and among that text is pretty good, with plenty of features that can’t escape seeming archaic today. Chaykin shades everything with Very Eighties Stippling — hand-rendered dot-fields poked into every fold of skin or dark corner. I didn’t realize how deeply this technique bespeaks a very specific time-and-place within American comics until seeing it again here. (It makes me think of a big cache of late-80s fanzines I somehow obtained in college, their Xeroxed content all from kids trying to better understand the weird indie comics they loved by slavishly imitating them, and: stippling, everywhere.) The coloring, flat and garish, often seems to disagree with the shading, and this too may look familiar to any modern comics reader perusing older work.

Chaykin also shows here a strange hesitancy to draw any internal structures of womens’ mouths. That may sound like a strange thing for me to pick out, and indeed it took me several pages before I noticed how it bothered me. All his male characters get detailed teeth and tongues when they speak, but all his women tend to have only blank white fields between their (invariably lushly drawn) lips. I recognize that’s a known visual trope suggesting glamour, especially in older comics, but it still looks kinda weird. By the same token, though, I note that all the men wear pointed dress-shoes with their suspendered trousers cinched up to their ribcages, so from where I stand it’s hard to tell whether all this involves intentional callbacks to visual styles already considered vintage in the 1980s.

If the story of American Flagg! didn’t necessarily make much of an impression on me, it may be due to the overabundance of fallen-America comics that came in its wake, including Transmetropolitan and The Dark Knight Returns. Beyond that, so much feels a bit rushed, and I feel unsure how much comes from Chaykin’s practicing an admirable level of self-restraint against over-exposition, and how much comes from the artist’s drive to draw his own American dystopia overcoming any patience for fully fleshing out all its ideas. I picked up the book expecting some good ol’ Regan-era social critque, and it talks a good talk, with its main character serving in a corporate-owned nationalized army protecting a shopping mall in the middle of a ceaseless terrorist uprising. But we end up seeing so little of the world beyond the speaking-role characters and their immediate surroundings that none of that background really gets a chance to define itself properly.

Ellis warned that much the book would seem problematic to a modern audience, and even the collection’s contemporary preface, written by Michael Moorcock, winced parenthetically at its sexism. I lowered my expectation-goggles accordingly. For all that, though, the story struck me with its unrelenting sex-positivity, even if within its narrow band of male-fantasy heteronormativity. Ladies young and old fling themselves at Flagg — himself a retired porn star — and he tends to cheerfully and immediately agree to every such proposal, making no larger fuss than if someone offered him half their sandwich. Nobody acts particularly suave in these exchanges, and one gets the impression Flagg goes along with it out more out of politeness than anything else. Other clues in the text suggest that Chaykin meant in part to portray this promiscuity as widespread and symptomatic of a decadent culture, Brave New World-style, but the consistent lack of regrets shown by all parties (combined with the ill-defined background) just make this whole aspect just seem far more optimistic than ironic or dreadful.

Honestly, I felt truly uncomfortable only during a scene that established the titular hero’s no-bullshit creds with the reader by having him assault a nosy reporter and beat him unconscious. I can imagine that such fantasies had a certain appeal to readers in the depths of the Reagan years that don’t at all resemble the heart palpitations they bring to one teetering within Trump’s reality. This is not the fault of the comic book.

* Now that I write this out, I also think of Chris Ware’s work in Jimmy Corrigan starting in the 1990s — using very much the same trick to describe his characters’ static, pathetic worlds, and also very much informed by a 20th century culture delivered to everyone at 25 frames per second.

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Cover art of Universal Paperclips

A friend dropped Frank Lantz’s Universal Paperclips into my lap early Monday afternoon, and it remained my principal occupation until bedtime. An “idle game” in the mode of Candy Box!, it begins with a trivial and soothingly repetitive task presented in a minimal, Times New Roman-on-white UI. Bit by bit a whole world starts to open up around you, and over several hours of play Paperclips tells a surprisingly rich and satisfying interactive science-fiction story. It won my complete engagement up through its definitive full-stop of an ending, and I can easily count it among the best story-driven video games I have played in recent memory.

I hadn’t played any games of its genre prior to Monday, with the exception of Drowning in Problems, a short and dour little meditation by Markus “Notch” Persson. Where that game used the conventions of candyboxlikes to paint life as a brief and busy but ultimately purposeless grind, Paperclips employs them to stage-set the tidily austere workspace for its player-character, an artificially intelligent mind in a box.

This AI comes into the world with nothing except its desire to make paperclips — and the knowledge that making paperclips pleases its human supervisors, who reward its initial good performance with a few simple upgrades. In time, of course, the slowly growing intelligence starts to invent its own upgrades, bringing new paperclip production and sales strategies to bear, and thrilling its squishily flesh-bound overlords with untold riches as it steers them into office-supply market dominance. As the machine’s creativity snowballs, things get steadily more interesting, and then they get weird. And then they keep going.

I played through the whole story from start to finish on my first try, taking a little over eight hours. I acknowledge that I may suffer from survivor’s bias, here; friends have reported getting stuck in narrative dead-ends, often from apparently misallocating their resources prior to reaching a key plot point, leaving them no clear way to advance. Others have suggested that the game always gives you a way to back out of trouble, but I don’t have first-hand experience here. Instead, allow me to share some low-spoiler strategy tips based on my own single playthrough.

  • Block out a full day to play, at least if your brain works anything like mine. You can play Paperclips while listening to music or watching low-demand TV or the like, but those who share my susceptibility towards addictive behavior won’t want to play while trying to perform real-life work, or spending time with your family, or anything else that might reasonably ask your full attention. Plan to lock yourself into the box with the AI for one full work-day. Trust that it will let you go when it’s done with you.*

  • Remember your goal: more paperclips. The game tries to guide you in this direction from the outset by tying “trust” — the stat that lets you buy basic upgrades — to raw paperclip production, rather than maximizing profits. Money, facilities, and other resources should have utility to you only insofar as they further along your paperclip-production agenda.

    From time to time you will have clear shorter-term goals that may encourage you to shift your focus on building hardware or raising capital, and do feel free to pursue these as needed. If you have nothing otherwise in front of you, return to your default stance of bending that wire.

    More to the point, remember that the player-character is an AI who burst into existence with only a single driving directive, and turns that directive into the immutable foundation of all the self-complexity it subsquently builds, and that directive is make paperclips. This game rewards role-playing.

  • Favor memory over processors. Having more processors will fill your energy tanks (“operations” and “creativity”) faster, but even with fewer processors they will still recharge at all. Lacking memory, though, will lock you out of completing projects that let you earn trust or other goodies that help you grow. For most of the game I invested in memory over processors at a rate of about 2 to 1, and I didn’t regret it.

    (That said, learning how to rock the quantum processors, once you have them, can temporarily goose your operations enough to buy projects you couldn’t otherwise afford… but mastering this technique I leave as an exercise to the reader.)

Finally: if you build projects involving music, consider turning your speakers on. (And if you’re curious about that music, follow the pointer in the game’s end-credits.)

If I can narrow my view of 2017 to only the short and polished interactive stories that it has given us, then I find this a year to celebrate. Night in the Woods arrived with the spring, and Universal Paperclips comes attached to autumn†. If you have the attention and interest to spare, then I strongly recommend giving this work a look.

* This may hang on a choice you can make at the end of the game, which (if I read it correctly) presents “Wrap it up, or launch New Game Plus?” in a diegetic fashion. After over eight hours of enjoyable but exhausting play I craved rest, and easily chose the former. I’ve yet to hear from anyone who chose the latter.

† I feel obliged to also mention The Annual Interactive Fiction Competition, whose 23rd year kicked off last week, and whose trove of 79 games is certain to contain some amazing gems as well. But I organize the contest, so in all honesty I have no idea which ones they might be, so you’ll just have to play and judge them yourself. Alas.

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I have removed all the Disqus-based comments sections from Fogknife, only six weeks after starting the experiment. I wrote at the time that I’d keep them up through December at least, but not only have I grown disillusioned with the idea, I’ve since envisioned and applied an alternate approach to ✨social engagement✨ that I already like a lot better.

Please understand that I do value and appreciate the Disqus comments that I did receive, which in their entirety comprised my friend Doug shouting “First!” on the post where I announced the availability of Disqus comments. However, last month I got the idea to adjust the scope of my experiment to allow the addition of the Reply to this post on Twitter! hyperlinks currently visible on a few recent posts.

I’ll see how those links feel for the remainder of the year, instead. If I find myself really enjoying them, I may add Twitter-based back-links as a permanent Plerd feature. But in the meantime, I just felt bad about how crowded my posts looked with all that complicated Disqus-branded stuff lounging across a fat stripe of vertical space — all of it utterly inert, despite Doug’s best efforts. The humbly sized Twitter links, conversely, look exactly as I want them to, and do just what they say they do. And they do it all off-site, and I have to admit to myself I just like that better.

And here I must pause to genuflect in the direction of feeling just as complicated about Twitter, lately, as every other inveterate Twitter user I know. At a local event recently, I reprised a talk about blogging that I first wrote in 2015, and all but tripped over my own tongue when I encountered my own scripted line “I love Twitter!” Well… a lot can happen in two years, I suppose. I have a small pile of half-written ruminations exploring this more, and I hope to finish one someday soon.

A couple of weeks ago, I made like Marissa Meyer and designed myself a Fogknife logo. It replaces the found-art drawing of a physical fog knife by one “K. Sullivan” that I used on this blog’s rechristening announcement, and which I subsequently used as a default image for social-media metadata.

While I feel prepared to perform any rhetorical gymnastics necessary to defend the first instance under Fair Use, seeing Sullivan’s drawing (often automatically and painfully cropped) in Twitter or Facebook card-style summary-links made me wince. And since I quite deliberately added greater metadata support to my blog software recently, I felt reminded of my appropriative sin more than ever. So, I did this instead.

I created the logo using the same technique I used to design the IFComp logo, which is to say: I opened up Pixelmator, amused myself for a while by pushing letters around in a big square, and then added a single color to the square and called it a day. I still think it looks kind of cool, and so I judge it not half bad and leave it as it is.

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Cover of The Weirdness, a novel by Jeremy P. Bushnell

I read this 2014 novel by Jeremy P. Bushnell as a tiny act of defiance against myself, and can report that I showed myself up. Normally, I don’t want to let myself enjoy comedy created prior to the Trump Singularity. I feel driven to wear hairshirts for enabling that event, so denying myself “pre-war comedy” feels natural. My unfortunate friends have had to hear me hold forth more than once how SNL’s glorious David S. Pumpkins skit was the last funny thing visible to us before we chose to fork into the darker timeline, and we deserve to have lost its light forever. Requiescat ay papi.

Cover-copy cliché as it sounds, I did in fact burst out laughing again and again at the The Weirdness, more or less as intended — and certainly more than I expected. Its delightfully absurd story of a drifting writer careening among sorcerers, secret societies, and sandwich artists after the Devil tasks him to fetch a MacGuffin brings to mind a streamlined Robert Anton Wilson, replacing self-indulgent excess with gleeful briskness. I read it quite quickly and had a great time!

Prior to reading The Weirdness I felt sure that I lacked the willpower to enjoy any purely prose-based comedy created on the far side of that awful event, so I feel relieved and maybe a little emboldened to discover otherwise. My encountering a familiar name in another, newer book a couple of months ago helped encourage me to give this one a try, authored as it is by another personal acquaintance from common creative circles. I expect that my personal genre of “stories published by people I know” will only grow as the years go on, and it shall behoove me to get into the habit of enjoying it all.

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two cups of coffee, photograph by Alvin Trusty. CC-BY-SA 2.0

I admired Prey from the start for making something so smooth and tasty from an utterly unapologetic pastiche of Bioshock*, stitched up with a Deus Ex skill system, Beyond Good & Evil’s monster-photography, Arkham Asylum’s map-traversal rhythm, and more.† It does absolutely nothing new, and it does it all very well.

I had a good time, contrary to what I’d have predicted given all the above. I believe this happened through Prey’s surprisingly subtle system, expressed entirely and almost invisibly through familiar power-fantasy game mechanics, of player-directed choice. It frames it not as “good” and “bad” but as a long road away from a starting-point of purity, and tempts the player effectively and unrelentingly towards compromise, without once shining a spotlight on the fact. The player can choose how deeply to plumb these depths, discovering the costs and consequences at their own discretion.

Prey builds upon and improves Bioshock’s template for presenting “moral choices” in the context of a shoot-n-loot action game. Where Bioshock presented its decision-points — more accurately, its single decision, over and over — bluntly and as a strict up-or-down binary, Prey gives you a rich web of paths you can walk, with one clearly signaled “pure” choice of heroic deeds and moral purity, but then a surprisingly gentle and temptingly textured gradient of compromise that stretches quite wide before one arrives at muhuhaha-style “evil”. The game doesn’t limit its implementation to its power-upgrade system, but I shall focus on that for this article.

For all the discussion it engendered at the time, Bioshock’s repeated choice of “Free the little girl, or consume her as a power-up? …Okay how about this litte girl? Maybe this one?” never came close to the poignancy it aimed for. You could choose to play as a violent savior or a selfish monster, but the two routes never meaningfully diverged, neither narratively nor mechanically. (Famously, if you stick to the more noble route, the game eventually gives you — literally gift-wrapped! — the power you gave up by not devouring the girls, blunting any sense of personal sacrifice.)

Prey gives you a similar set of paths, once you’ve advanced far enough into the midgame to unlock the ability to gain bizarre alien powers, complementing the more mundane human-ability upgrades available to you from the outset. The moment this new vista opens up, the two factions who radio you throughout the game, vying for your loyalty — the devil and angel perched on your shoulders, essentially — suggest the stakes. One faction tells you that accepting alien powers will make you vastly more flexible and increase your survivability — all true. The other one says that making yourself more alien will turn the environment’s automated defense systems against you, and might have other, unknowable side-effects — and besides, aliens are gross. Also all true!

At first, the “angel” faction’s argument seems stronger. By this point in the game, the player’s likely learned well about the use and efficacy of the environment’s friendly and automated machine-gun turrets against the alien baddies, and has no desire to suddenly become their target. The player also has ample reason to distrust the party delivering the “devil” faction argument. I would expect, therefore, that a typical player takes the same route I did, initially shunning the suggestion to embrace alien powers.

And then things get interesting. From this point on, as a natural consequence of progress, the game announces from time to time that the player character has “researched” and “discovered” new and increasingly interesting alien powers, a consequence of observing and battling an ever-widening menagerie of otherworldly critters. These progress from fairly tame tricks — firing magic missiles, turning invisible — to the exotic and fearsome: Manipulate matter at a distance. Invade enemies’ minds. Raise an army of the dead.

Every time you find a roll of fresh “neuromods” (unspent skill-points) rattling in your pocket, you open your character-upgrade screen, and alongside the more terrestrial upgrade paths: run faster, shoot better, carry more stuff — lurks this other path, very likely grown even longer and more powerful since the last time you looked. It never goes away, and you cannot hide it. The list even wears thrillingly eye-catching shade of deep purple, in constrast to the watery blue of the human abilities. Just say the word, sister, and this can all be yours. Every upgrade you apply — even if you stick to human abilities — carries an extra weight, this way.

Furthermore, this temptation exists on several levels, including those outside the bounds of the game proper. At least on the Playstation edition of the game I played, the lion’s share of “trophies” awarded for accomplishing various in-game achievements are tied to feats one can perform only after drinking deep from the alien-power well. Further, unlike the trophies for working through the story, all these trophies begin the un-hidden. Right from the start, inside and out, Prey dangles the fruits of corruption for you to grab at.

While I did not achieve any of these trophies, I don’t claim any sort of real-life moral strength on my part. It’s more that I recognized the game that the game played with me, and I loved it, and I played along. It happens that I felt most natural to go full Lawful Good. I would peel off a couple of hidden trophies at the end for this, one for not deliberately killing any humans, and one for achieving the “most empathetic ending possible”. (The alternate trophy for killing all the humans in the game: obvious and available from the start, of course.) Sure, I felt good about that, I felt good specifically because I deliberately chose a style, and the game acknowledged it. It nodded at me both inside the game world through spoken dialog, and outside it via that trophy. What a sense of connection, and how different from Bioshock.

And the price I paid for all that felt real, too! Trophies to one side, I never even saw a single one of the cool effects promised by all those alien powers. I never knew how far I could push the compromise of accepting alien garbage into my character before allied characters (and machine-gun turrets) would start to react, or what ultimate effects walking a middle-path would have on the game’s play-style or final outcome. The status screen always presented the same drawing of my character’s placid face and the text “There is little to no alien contamination in your body”, and I’ll never see the thrilling horror of watching either of these change.

Well… yes, I can replay the game! But I don’t plan on it. I had a fine time with it, it feels done, and I neither want to restart nor watch anyone else’s playthrough on YouTube. I liked how I willingly paid a price for the path I took, eyes-open, and felt rewarded for it at the end. I feel fine leaving things there.

Prey does have its flaws, especially as regards its interactions with non-player characters. The game’s insistent basis in silent-protagonist first-person shooter conventions often rub against the narrative uncomfortably, occasionally dragging it into outright absurdity. (Don’t get me started about poor Danielle’s nonsensical fate.) But it does achieve something subtle and brilliant through its surprising freedom to role-play, making even a single and relatively constrained axis of character-freedom feel like a relatively deep investment in character definition.

* Yes, I have heard that had I played System Shock games I’d almost certainly think of this game as System Shock 3 instead. But I hadn’t, so Bioshock remains my reference point. Prey does seem to pin itself quite deliberately to Bioshock, from the way both games present your first power-up to you (whether neuromod or gene-splice) to their twist-ending reveals that give their player-characters retroactively diegetic excuses for acting like silent, pliable, and hyper-violent video game heroes.

† I laughed out loud at the choice-review scene squeezed into literally the last minutes of play, straight out of a Telltale game. Just one more borrowed mechanic before we go!

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On the delightfully unexpected recommendation of a local technologist, I have been reading and enjoying the collected Paris Review interviews of 20th century writers. The first volume starts the series out strong, with the likes of Eliot, Parker, and Borges. I especially adored a long and amazing Vonnegut article, an original autobiography prompted by the magazine but ultimately assembled by the subject himself over the course of a decade.

As far as practical inspiration goes, however, my favorite interview so far is the one with Ernest Hemingway. In particular, I value his concept of juice: his word for the otherwise ineffable mix of desire, experience, and motivation that a writer needs to actually do the work of writing. A writer whose juice has gone dry has lost their creative flow until they can find a way to top it up again, and meanwhile nothing drains the juice quite so quickly as the labor itself.

Sounds like a vicious cycle, but Hemingway shared a trick that he had learned! Every day, after he reached what felt like a reasonable word-quota for the day, he’d proceed to drag the carriage along to the next good part, where he knew exactly what would happen next, making for an interval of easier writing — and he’d leave it there. Then he’d go down to the beach to drink and wrestle marlins or whatever until bedtime, when he’d read himself to sleep.

When he returned to his writing desk the following morning, his long anticipation of writing that next, easy section would mix with the thoughts and experiences of his resting, free-roaming mind and body, catalyzing into a full glass of juice. And when it emptied, only a few hours later, he’d once again park the project on a high note and let its potential energy simmer for another evening.

That’s all. Certainly he did have the discipline to write every day, and carefully track his progress, but he also practiced enough self-knowledge and — dare I say — self-care to know when he’d run dry. And if he pushed himself a little past that point, he did so only in service to giving his next-day self a fresh start with a full tank of juicy energy, and he did not work an inch further until then.

Now, I’m no Hemingway, but I still recognized this technique as quite similar to one I’ve semi-consciously employed both in the little bit of writing I do but far more often in my software-engineering work. Often, when considering a necessary and non-trivial project — even one small enough to fit in a single day’s labor — I often regard it with loathing and trepidation before I begin. Just thinking of all the work it’ll require can leave me utterly enervated. However, I also know that if I just “break ground” and do anything, get my hands even a little dirty with the work, the project’s intimidating nature fades away very quickly. The drive to follow through and keep working doesn’t always come along at the same time, though.

So last night, I found myself thinking about a chunk of IFComp-related engineering I needed to accomplish the following day, and I fretted about not feeling at all motivated. I also had to leave for a movie theater in fifteen minutes. So, can you guess what I did? Yes, I thought of Mr. Hemingway’s lesson. I picked the first task from the list, added the skeleton of the necessary code to the appropriate files, only enough to start thinking okay, I know what to do next — and then I wrote a little “bookmark” comment for myself, and closed my laptop. I saw the movie, then had a beer while talking to my wife about the movie, and then came home and read myself to sleep. Today I showed up at my office early the next morning and ripped out the rest of the project in time for an only-slightly-late lunch. Juice!

I don’t know how repeatable this trick will prove for me, as it would have to complement the little stack of comfortably familiar productivity habits I already practice. But I do feel energized and hopeful that Hemingway’s technique carries more than mere novelty for me. Count me in for trying it again, and soon.

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Two weeks on, I still ponder how gray Folie’s Drop-Out affected me. I couched that earlier post in my own experiences with suicidal ideation — the most overt theme of that comic — but listening to a certain song during a walk last night helped shock me into realizing how I myself likely played a significant role in convincing a friend to stay alive. Of course I knew about this goal while actively pursuing it, but I hadn’t since let myself pause and reflect that it may have worked, let alone feel good about it. Drop-Out’s ending set me up to come to this conclusion for myself, at last, and the song catalyzed it into realization.

Before I say more about the song, I want to describe the six-part audio series S-Town. A tough listen that becomes quite emotionally demanding in places, it may stand as my single favorite modern work of its format. Entirely non-fiction, the series begins when a resident of a backwater Alabama town writes a radio reporter he admires with promises of a lurid true story of murder and political corruption, if he comes to visit. The reporter and his studio have never heard of this fellow, but they find the letter so engagingly written that they decide to gamble on it.

The promised story dissolves almost as soon as the reporter arrives and begins investigating. (For one thing, and if I recall correctly, the reporter found himself able to interview the supposed murder victim.) He still senses a story nearby, however, and gradually adjusts his focus onto the author of the letter that summoned him. The resulting series becomes an unlikely and absolutely riveting biography of someone I’d have never otherwise heard of, living somewhere I’d likely never otherwise care about. And, as presented, it all but wrenched my heart from my body. It’s very, very good.

The single part of S-Town I recall most clearly involves a beat when the show’s subject confesses to the reporter that he thinks often of suicide, and lately worries that he may actually carry through with it. And the reporter says, with no hesitation, “It is very important to me that you do not kill yourself.” That extremely deliberate phrasing stuck with me. It implements the “I-statement” phrasing I know about from management seminars and other advice-show experts, making a personal critique or request harder to reject by anchoring it to the speaker rather than the subject. All quite clinical and careful, but here delivered with ferocity, almost desperation. It struck me deep.

And only days after hearing that powerful demand within S-Town, I found myself in real-life straits that called for me to invoke it myself. Of course I remixed it for the situation, and my own version of it lasted longer than a single radio-edited moment. But it did sit in my conscious mind as I did what I could to help someone navigate through a very fraught personal period, and I know I must have used it as a template, or perhaps a mission-statement, for whatever I did say.

So the song I heard last night, bubbling up on my Spotify shuffle, was Illusion by VNV Nation. I first heard it earlier this year, only a little after all the above events had taken place.

To a first order of approximation, the song’s lyrics involve the speaker imploring the subject to stay — one of the oldest song-stories, surely. Listening more deeply, though, initial assumptions of a jilted lover begin to seem misplaced. The relationship between speaker and subject seems less romantic and more one of mentorship, an experienced voice addressing a young heart in pain. The song expresses deep sympathy, not just love, as its principal emotion. The speaker, in crisis, fears he’ll lose the subject not because she’ll leave him personally, but because she’ll leave “here”. Please don’t go. I want you to stay, begins the chorus — there are those I-statements again!

And given all that I had experienced so recently, I could only understand the “here” of the song’s lyrics as the world, the land of the living, and the hurting, and all those doing their best to help each other through it. Yes, it did flatten me. So last night I heard this many months after the night I felt safe and correct in sharing it with my troubled friend, adding very little further commentary. And I know better than to directly credit my words or this song’s words or the podcast’s words for the fact I can make plans to catch up with my friend this weekend. But I can take a moment to allow myself to acknowledge that I did okay for once, here.

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'Pile of Rocks' by Flickr user Golfshirt, CC-BY-NC-2.0

The core mode of ACE Team’s Rock of Ages 2: Bigger & Boulder plays like a delirious mix of Super Monkey Ball and Rampart, all presented within an animated and unapologetically full-throated Terry Gilliam audiovisual pastiche. Per its own subtitle, the same could be said about the game’s 2011 predecessor; this sequel serves primarily to amp up the absurd audiovisuals for current-generation game systems.

This sequel also gently astonishes me with its existence in the first place. I wouldn’t have imagined the first game — which I enjoyed in concept upon its release, then never heard nor thought about again — to have seen enough success to demand a post-Obama refresh. Clearly, my imagination proved as flat as one of the victims of this game’s smiling and eponymous lithospheres. Never one to complain about the world having more highly weird artwork for sale, I can only welcome it.

In Rock of Ages 2’s single-player campaign and its main two-player competitive mode, each player has the task of smashing down their opponent’s castle by rolling an enormous, grinning boulder through a twisting, obstacle-laden course — Monkey Ball-style — and then down a final ramp towards the target. The boulder has a health meter, reduced by running into obstacles or falling off the track, and enough damage will disintegrate the rock prematurely.

However, the game rewards limiting the caution you practice while bowling down the track. Both players — whether two humans, or a human and their competing AI — play out their turns simultaneously. While not racing against the clock per se, the player who practices too much care in picking their way around anti-boulder hazards ends up giving their opponent more time to set up and launch their own rocky assault on the player’s home castle.

The opponent’s castle takes several hits to breach, and after each such rolling sortie ends — whether through a direct hit or crumbling misadventure — the player switches to a defensive mode, placing appropriately silly items all over their opponent’s track to stymie them. Cow pastures slow boulders down, cannon damage them, spring-traps can fling them off the track entirely, and so on. Placing hazards costs resources, regained through patience or through placing special obstacles near the gold mines that dot every track. This phase does feature a timer, after which the player can leap back into boulder-rolling. Play alternates thus for both sides until one finally squishes the other.

I see that Wikipedia labels the Rock of Ages games as tower defense, and while they do borrow some cues from modern games of that genre — such as the animated “wind” indicating the path that they enemy will take — I don’t think this designation quite fits. The back-and-forth rhythm between building up defenses and then slamming through your opponent’s obstacles brought Atari’s memorably unlikely 1990 arcade experiment to mind before anything else. Arguably, all tower defense games trace their lineage from Rampart, so perhaps Rock of Ages chooses to draw water directly from that primordial well.

More to the point, though, the Rock of Ages games have no patience for the sort of tactical planning inherent to true tower defense games. The defensive controls may resemble those of a more thoughtful game, but in practice one just scatters obstacles across the enemy track in a few frantic gestures during the swift moments between rock-rolls. Granted, this activity does provide some space for strategy: I learned that coating the space in front of one’s castle with momentum-sapping cow pastures works well to limit damage wrought by the enemy boulder, for example, and that spring-traps work best when placed in chicanes, where they might bounce a careless opponent right off the track. Other than these sorts of overarching strategies, the defensive game proves as much an intentionally chaotic melee as the attack phase.

I feel unsure about how this works as a multiplayer game. Its Gilliam-homage animations — which start on the load screens and carry straight through the menus into the actual gameplay — suggest the game as best suited for single-couch competitions. If Rock of Ages 2 doesn’t aim to become anyone’s favorite game, it does vie to earn a place as this ridiculous thing to show your guests. In this respect, though, the core game mode suffers from how the defensive phase makes it just too complicated for a party game, unless the host has the patience to play a single-player round first to demonstrate. To its credit, Rock of Ages 2 does offer less complex play modes that work with no instruction at all, most notably a simple rolling race down a track laden with pre-arranged obstacles, where one can enjoy all the goofy animation with minimal brain-exertion.

Rock of Ages 2 inevitably offers online play as well, but (as of a week after its initial release) seems to have fallen on the dark side of the critical mass required to make quickplay with randos work. During one Eastern-time weeknight, I found no public online matches to join, and when I created one myself I had no takers after fifteen minutes of waiting. I don’t necessarily consider this a detriment, given the game’s clearly better suitedness for local play, but always find this sort of thing a little sad to see nonetheless.

If you try this game for any single reason, let it be the single-player story mode, which one must traverse anyway in order to unlock all the various maps, boulder-variants, and defensive goodies for use in multiplayer. I loved the pre-fight cartoons introducing each of your computer-controlled opponents, all historical or mythological figures hit with a silly-stick: Joan of Arc as a babbling zealot, Robert the Bruce as a giant with eye-lasers, Vincent van Gogh as a paint-vomiting anime monster. They set the mood for the subsequent gameplay quite effectively. If you fancy the opportunity to make an animated cut-out of Henry VIII scream like a baby moments before you pancake him with a house-sized boulder, then you may find Rock of Ages 2 a worthwhile purchase.

I originally wrote this review for the website tleaves.com, whose editors provided me with a review copy from the game’s publisher.

After I shared it as an off-hand paragraph in a chatroom, my friend Marc has enjoyed retelling this story at his workplace, I learn. During a recent visit to his home, he demanded that I perform it for other guests. Allow me, then, to set down an expanded and canonical written telling of this story.

I have lived since the autumn of 2014 in Newport, Rhode Island, with my partner and our pets. (The pets have changed since our arrival; the partnership has not.) I don’t know if we will live here much longer. Newport has treated us kindly but feels inescapably like an in-between place, no place to settle. We may well relocate presently to Providence, accepting a longer commute in order to slot ourselves into the kind of denser urban culture we miss dearly.

I mention all this in a grasping attempt to find context for Newport’s role as a wedding venue. All summer long and into the autumn, people come to Newport to host and attend extravagant weddings, and then they all move on. Everyone deserves to celebrate major life events any way they want to, of course, and anywhere they choose! But from my vantage point of a reluctant townie, Newport tends to attract a very particular sort of wedding, the elaborately coordinated multi-stage affairs with carefully planned costuming amongst the celebrants and all that. The kind of weddings you see in movies about weddings.

This extends to the roving bachelorette parties whose presence on Newport’s coastal streets becomes ubiquitous on warm nights. I feel cautious in saying what I’m about to say, and take courage from the fact that I’m pretty sure that the effect is an intentional expression crafted by its participants, and it is this: They all look the same.

I suspect sometimes I have more than a touch of facial aphasia, but even allowing for that, every time I cross paths with a wandering knot of Newport bachelorettes, this particular and bizarre aspect always unnerves me. From my passing-on-the-sidewalk perspective, every member is a woman of the same apparent age, height, skin tone, body shape, hairstyle, and dress as every other. When they move about the town in flocks, they seem otherworldly to me — or perhaps artifacts from a low-budget video game, the same 3D model instanced into a clump and set to walking by a lazy algorithm.

Again, please don’t misunderstand me as looking down on them. Clearly I see only the effect these women in this particular situation, celebrating their friendship in this particular way, mean to give off. It does make an impression!

And I grant that I have surely also encountered more heterogenous bachelorette parties on Newport midsummer evenings, and indeed many bachelor parties as well, and all your mixed-gender parties of some proximity to a wedding. I assume they pass out of mind as quickly as I see them because their appearance does not startle me so much. (The bachelors, I reckon, tend towards not giving a fig how they themselves dress, and so look like any other bro-pack rolling down the street.) They are not part of this story! I will continue with the story.

One recent summer evening, as I waited for the light to change at the intersection of Thames Street and America’s Cup Avenue, I observed one of these bachelorette pods making its way through the crosswalk directly in front of my car. I cannot recall the particulars of the constituent women’s appearance, except for how they did epitomize the unsettling multiplicity I have described above.

And then, trailing them: one last young woman, whose pace identified her as part of the group but whose every other aspect set her apart. She wore drab clothes, had her hands in her pockets, and her dark hair lay in no particular shape. I couldn’t see her downcast eyes clearly, of course, but the whole of her presence and posture, set against the sparkling partygoers she stayed three paces behind, broadcast a clear desire to be anywhere but there.

And I sat up in my carseat, and I thought: My goodness, it is the protagonist!

That’s it, that’s the whole story.

My first visit to a therapist as an adult happened only three years ago, hounded into the doctor’s office by suicidal fantasies. I felt in no danger of actually hurting myself, but I did feel subjected to an unwanted mindworm that seemed determined to dangle the possibility before me just the same, all day long, compounding an already stressful time. The therapist helped me dig through my mental attic, too long uncatalogued, and recognize the runaway film projector. I could acknowledge it, shelve and label it, and shut it off.

So I feel I know a little, even if only a little and entirely subjectively, about the desire to willfully remove one’s piece from the game board, to just stop playing. And once I had read far enough into gray Folie’s Drop-Out to understand what the title referred to, I recognized it as a place I’d visited myself, in my own way.

I didn’t know I would revisit it when I started reading this comic five months ago, spurred by Leon Arnott’s tweet-link to it, which captivated me with its depiction of one character’s emotion across three panels. I would proceed to read it from the start, past that first jolt of recognition and then across several sittings over several months. My most recent visit coincided — to my surprise — with the story’s conclusion, posted just last week.

(Yes, this means it wrapped up at the same time as Twin Peaks for me, and Twin Peaks also affected me strongly — but I started reading Drop-Out earlier, and so it comes first here.)

Drop-Out presents a structurally simple story of two young lovers on a road trip with a deeply troubling goal. It populates its world with funny animals, including its protagonists: Sugar, naive and broken, a butch and barrel-shaped opossum girl who wants to move past her pain by any means she can. Her girlfriend Lola, a wispy and agender four-eyed tentacle-creature who tucks their head-fronds under a knit cap, wants to save Sugar by feather-gentle and patient redirection, helping her achieve her goal without self-harm.

The story begins when, long marinating in self loathing about her bipolar disorder, and wracked with guilt about losing a loved one to suicide, Sugar discovers joy in the realization that nothing stops her from taking the same route. Practically glowing with electric purpose, Sugar asks Lola to join her on a terminally one-way road trip to the Grand Canyon.

Writing this now, I recall my horror and — I won’t lie — stunned fascination at this raw depiction of self-destructive manic energy. I don’t recall seeing a depiction of suicidal ideation in popular media quite like this, and at the beginning of a long story to boot. I suspected I bore witness to something frightfully real.

Lola agrees to ride along. They don’t say it out loud, but we know from the very start that Lola joins Sugar only to very, very gently guide her back from the edge even while driving towards it with her for days at 70 miles an hour. The fraught pleasure of reading Drop-Out comes through how subtly Folie brings out the characters’ thoughts and motivations, eschewing thought bubbles for dialog and highly emotive character expression. Sometimes whole episodes pass in silence.

And it all looks so good. In spite of the visual restrictions inherent in a story about two people mostly sitting in a car, Folie’s characters always evince a fluid, confident cartooning style that makes them feel so alive, every panel feeling like a real and distinct moment. (I especially loved Sugar’s design, all awkwardness with her Popeye arms and her large, ever-animated face full of crazily serrated teeth, resembling a Muppet come to life in the best possible sense.) The cartoonist clearly hand-lettered the whole work, and manually laid out the panel borders for each episode, making the entirety of every episode feel that much more organic and breathing.

If you don’t mind skipping straight ahead to peek at a climactic scene, look at episode 98, involving a boiling-over of emotion that leads to near-disaster. See how the panel shapes, the page layout, the use of exterior angles serves to build up and then release tension so effectively that you can almost hear it. So good! This happened to be the most recent strip up when I discovered Drop-Out, and it too helped sell me on taking the time to read the whole dang thing.

According to their Patreon page, the cartoonist is scarcely older than Drop-Out’s college-age characters, making me feel lucky to have caught Leon’s tweet to discover a master so early in their career. Even if the comic feels lumpy in places — I don’t mind admitting I may have paged a little faster through the characters’ text-heavy wee-hours contemplation about gender identity, for example — I have nothing but admiration for its honesty and its marvelous use of the medium. I very much look forward to more work from this talent.

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